Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2021

Surprise, surprise, the first half of 2021 was much like 2020 with lockdowns and social restrictions making listening to music at home an escape from the hell of anti-vaxxers screaming incoherently outside our doors. The second half of 2021 has been more lively, but somehow infinitely more depressing due to the people obsessed with their freedumbs making this pandemic draw out longer and more deadlier than it needs to be. Through it all there has been music and thank God for that, because I know I needed the escape and emotional release. As is tradition now, let’s look back at the good and the bad new music that I listened to in 2021…

Dishonourable Mention: Volume IV, September Mourning

In early 2021 September Mourning announced that Volume IV would be coming out this year, much to my excitement. However, we’re rapidly approaching year-end with no release date in sight. It happens, especially in a wild year like 2021, but that brings us to why this is getting a dishonourable mention: frontwoman Emily Lazar is a crypto nut and has spent the year going all-in on NFT bullshit. September Mourning has always been a multimedia project, but she’s riding the NFT grift hard, selling bargain-basement animated gifs and her own line of incredibly ugly generative artwork. Considering that earlier in the year she said Volume IV would be out this year, it sounds like the only reason we don’t have Volume IV yet is because she’s tying it into her NFT metaverse bullshit, which is incredibly disappointing and his basically torpedoed any interest I had in supporting this band going forward.

28) Soft Songs for the Quarantined Mind, Smile Empty Soul

Every time I think that I’m done with Smile Empty Soul forever, they find a way to pull me back in through sheer morbid curiosity. 2020 was one of the most unpleasant releases I put myself through last year (only surpassed by the unprecedented awfulness of Trapt) and I did not intend to listen to any new music from this band ever again… but when they released their newest EP on the 12th of January my jaw dropped, knowing that I was looking at a front-runner for “Shittiest Album of 2021” already. That EP’s title? Soft Songs for the Quarantined Mind. Sounds innocent enough, but remember, this is a grunge band who looked at all the political turmoil in America in 2020 and decided that the most important statement they could make is that Instagram and Facebook are making “kids these days” self-absorbed. Also consider that I had serious concerns that Smile Empty Soul were pushing an anti-vax message in 2020, but was giving them the benefit of the doubt due to ambiguity. Well wonder no more because Smile Empty Soul have gone mask-off (literally) with Soft Songs for the Quarantined Mind.

I initially thought that the “Soft Songs” part of the title was going to be a sarcastic dig at people who apparently are too fearful to deal with “real” music, but it’s actually pretty apt – this is a soft, toned-down, mostly-acoustic EP. Even more to my surprise, it starts out fairly well with “Follow”, a strong grunge song which is easily one of the best tracks I’ve heard from the band. The rest of the album feels like a step down in comparison, going a bit too far on the “soft songs” idea and sapping so much energy that they feel downright lethargic. That said, this format does show off frontman Sean Danielsen’s strong vocals, so even though I found the rest of the album to be dull at best, his singing was at least a treat.

All that said, Soft Songs for the Quarantined Mind is absolutely torpedoed by the inclusion of “The Good Boy”. Right off the bat, the song is abrasively anti-mask:

Close those eyes, so scared again/Take the fear and drink it in/Put that mask over your face/You worthless piece of shit/Looking down and giving in/Cover up that ugly skin/Be the slave that everybody/Knows you’ve always been

Fuck you too, Sean. The fucking idiot says “You can’t look in my eyes/Pretend you don’t hear these lies”, because he thinks that no one can believe what public health officials across the world are saying. In Sean’s mind, this is all just an attempt to take away our freedoms so he’s gonna be a big man and not wear a mask, stick a Gadsden Flag and cop Punisher logo on his guitar, post a picture of Bill Gates using Anthony Fauci as a dancing monkey to promote conspiracy theories and go on tour in the middle of a pandemic. For context, this EP and tour announcement are coming out in January of 2021, right as America surpasses 400,000 deaths from COVID-19, where so many people are dying that the air in Los Angeles is being polluted due to the number of cremations that are being performed, and where even in Canada cities are running out of space in their morgues and having to use cold storage instead… and this chuckle-fuck thinks that the real problem here is that the government might step in to keep assholes from killing people in the name of “muh freedumbs”!? I said it last year, you’re supposed to be a punk Sean, but you’re just a fucking tool. Politics-aside, Soft Songs for the Quarantined Mind is a meh EP, but factor in the COVIDIOT political bent and this is total shit. Seriously, fuck this band, I’m not even going to bother covering the other album they put out this year, Black Pilled, even though its title is potentially an alt-right dogwhistle and therefore ripe for the IC2S treatment. No, fuck that, you’re not even worth my time, Sean. Go hang out in IC2S music hell with Trapt.

27) Exile, The Raven Age

The Raven Age intrigued me for two reasons. One, they were one of those bands which I checked out because they had a cool album cover on Spotify. Two, their lead guitarist is the son of Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a big fan of their sophomore effort, Conspiracy, but I decided to give them a second chance with Exile. Little did I realize that this was a terrible idea because Exile isn’t a proper, new studio album, it’s actually an acoustic/compilation album. In other words, as someone who was unimpressed by The Raven Age, I was diving into an album explicitly made for existing fans. I am keenly aware that I am not the target audience for this album, but I’m still rather underwhelmed by what the stripped-down songs they deliver here. Sure, there are some highlights, such as the guitar solo towards the end of “Fireflies” and the four live tracks which have been randomly bolted onto the end of the album, but overall this is a forgettable soft rock album that may have torpedoed any lingering interest I had in The Raven Age.

26) Songs of Death and Resurrection, Demon Hunter

Long-time Demon Hunter fans have been accusing the band of softening their sound since at least 2012’s True Defiance, but it has become blatantly obvious in the last few years that the band just doesn’t want to put out more of their signature brand of energetic, aggressive metal. If Outlive didn’t make that obvious then Peace sure did, ditching their sound entirely for stripped-back ballads. That brings us to this year’s Songs of Death and Resurrection, which once again sees Demon Hunter delving into their softer side, this time with an acoustic cover album. Scott Fryberger at Jesus Freak Hideout may have put it best: “It’s the same issue I had with 2019’s Peace, which is just that I don’t listen to Demon Hunter for the ballads. […] Their best work isn’t found in their rock songs, but in their loud, abrasive, pummeling metal.” Look, I tend to enjoy it when a rock/metal band puts out an acoustic album, because it offers a new spin on their usual sound. However, when your band which is traditionally known for their aggressive metalcore puts out three stripped-back albums in a row, an acoustic cover album isn’t a nice diversion, it’s reinforcing the new status quo. Even worse, the tracks chosen for the album were already the band’s stripped back ballads, some of which were already acoustic, such as “Dead Flowers”. So how do they choose to adapt these songs here? Why, by slowing the tempo down to a lethargic crawl, naturally! Granted, on “Dead Flowers” they do do some interesting stuff to change the feel of the track, making it sound like a military funeral song. Most of the other tracks don’t get the same sort of transformative treatment – tracks like “My Throat is an Open Grave” and “Heart of a Graveyard” feel like their original renditions, but with no electronic elements and less energy. The sole new track, “Praise the Void”, is one of the few highlights, perhaps because it was built from the ground-up to be an acoustic track. All-in-all, Songs of Death and Resurrection is another disappointing release from Demon Hunter. If they want to keep putting out these soft rock tracks in their twilight years then more power to them, but I really miss the days of The Triptych when they could make me headbang through the whole album.

25) Mӕre, Harakiri for the Sky

Surprise, surprise, we’ve got one of those “I saw a badass cover on Spotify and listened to it” picks that happens every year. Mӕre‘s cover reminded me of The Company of Wolves, which has the gnarliest werewolf transformation scene ever put to film, wherein a guy tears his own skin off piece by piece. As for Harakiri for the Sky? Never heard of them before this, so it made for a fresh experience. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like Mӕre particularly stands out. Their music is quick and heavy, with very harsh, shouted, incomprehensible vocals. Overall they’re very reminiscent of black metal, but a bit less heavy and gloomy… so, like, dark grey metal…? Harakiri in the Sky aren’t doing anything bad, but their music just didn’t stick with me. It also doesn’t help that Mӕre is nearly an hour and a half long with only ten tracks! Holy crap! Every song is anywhere from 7 to 11 minutes long, so even though the tracks are all well-written and performed, the overall package begins to fatigue as it goes along. Like I said, this is certainly not a bad album, but it wasn’t really doing it for me. That said, if you’re curious, I’d recommend checking out “Sing for the Damage We’ve Done” and then decide if you want to go further from there.

24) Visions of Another Hell, Blood Youth

There’s a dude on Allmusic called Simone Appollini who is notorious among metalheads who frequent the site. The guy listens to like 30 albums a day and leaves ratings and reviews for every single one, so his name shows up on nearly any metal album you can think of on the site. What really makes the guy notorious though is that the vast majority of his reviews are a one (or, if he’s feeling generous, two) stars out of five and his reviews are almost always “this album is a carbon-copy of the band/another band’s previous work”. I’ve actually been mulling over doing a whole article on the guy, because he’s clearly well-versed in music but to a point where he can’t even enjoy it anymore because it’s all so familiar-sounding, like he’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of acquiring too much knowledge. Anyway, the reason I bring him up is because, on occasion, there really are bands whose music does feel like a carbon copy of another band’s… which brings me to Blood Youth and Visions of Another Hell. From the moment this album started it was obvious that Blood Youth’s sound is heavily-indebted to Slipknot, with their heavy, aggressive music, angsty lyrics and screamed vocals sounding just like Iowa or .5: The Gray Chapter-era Slipknot. I am, clearly, a Slipknot fan so this makes Visions of Another Hell at least an enjoyable listen, but as it keeps going it becomes distressingly clear that Blood Youth are only interested in ripping off Slipknot wholesale rather than bringing their own twist to this style. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s ultimately to Blood Youth’s detriment that they don’t deviate more – Slipknot is a nine-piece band, so Blood Youth’s sound is small in comparison and their refusal to break their own ground makes their songs feel insincere, like they’re just trying to fit the formula. To be fair, Blood Youth do very occasionally show glimmers of mixing some metalcore into this sound which would have been enough to make them feel like they were doing their own thing (such as on “Open Window” or “Human Blur”), but these are few and far between. It’s too bad, I do think this is an enjoyable-enough album but the lack of originality really soured me on Visions of Another Hell.

23) Vicissitude, Monochromatic Black

If you know anything about my taste in music (and artwork) then you know why I gave Vicissitude a shot. That album cover is badass. Other than knowing that Monochromatic Black were a deathcore band, I went in blind. What did I think? Well, Vicissitude feels like a scattershot album. Most of the album is punishing deathcore, verging on noise at times, although the band also has a female secondary vocalist who, when she’s allowed to shine, will suddenly turn songs into melodic metal out of nowhere. This is most clear on “Cerulean” and “Disillusioned”, which sound really out of place among the relentless screams and death metal that permeates the rest of the album. All-in-all, Vicissitude just didn’t gel with me, it was an okay experience but if I’m being honest I don’t think I’ll ever listen to it again. That said, you may enjoy it more than I did – you can pick the album up on Bandcamp for $10 if you’re interested.

22) The Fire Itself, Phinehas

The Fire Itself made me nostalgic for the days when Weathered Steel was still in operation and I could get a curated look at the Christian metal scene (coupled with a good rage-laugh at every buck-wild fundamentalist advertisement that would play between songs). Phinehas were a staple on the station back then, so I was already somewhat familiar with their aggressive metalcore style and sound before going into The Fire Itself. If you’re into metalcore then The Fire Itself is certainly enjoyable – Phinehas are full of energy and aggression here which is exactly what you’d expect from this kind of music. That said, the album reminds me why, when I listened to Weathered Steel, I gravitated to bands like A Feast for Kings and Impending Doom rather than Phinehas: they just don’t feel all that distinct. That’s not really meant to be a knock against Phinehas, I think they’re talented and this is a fairly good album, but the Christian metalcore subgenre is quite expansive and this album exemplifies what I would think of if I was to picture typical Christian metalcore. It’s not like I dislike this kind of sound either, but metalcore bands like Bleed From Within, Bad Omens or The Wise Man’s Fear resonate with me far more because they feel far more distinct. I feel like The Fire Itself is worth giving a shot if you are into aggressive metalcore, but if your tastes are like mind then you may find that it fails to carve a place for itself in a crowded subgenre.

Oh, fun bonus fact, Phinehas have had so many lineup changes over the years that there are zero founding members still with the band to this day!

21) Haeretica Ecclesia, Apostolica

As I’ve said in the past, religious fanatics are one of my favourite types of characters, so when I saw Apostolica and Haeretica Ecclesia I knew that I had to give them a shot. That said, I’m also a big Powerwolf fan, who already have made a considerable name for themselves the “dark, religious aesthetic” metal market, so I was curious to see how they would stand out. The answer to that is… they don’t really. Right off the bat Apostolica gives off Powerwolf-wannabe vibes with their latin chants, choirs, use of organs… hell, even their riffs sound the same at times and the fact that both bands are using the same themes of being dark, religious heretics makes Apostolica feel like even more of an imitation. It also doesn’t help that Powerwolf is fronted by Attila Dorn’s soaring, operatic vocal style, and Ezekiel* struggles to live up to that. The main ways that Apostolica try to differentiate themselves are by cutting out the “creatures of the night” and the tongue-in-cheek humour of Powerwolf in favour of playing the heretical religious themes straight. What we get as a result is basically just standard power metal with some Catholic flavour thrown in. Haeretica Ecclesia is an inconsistent mess in many ways. “Sanctus Spiritus” feels like discount Powerwolf off the bat, but then we get strong efforts like “The Sword of Sorrow” and “Thanatos” which stand out on their own merits. Unfortunately, the entire back half of the album feels half-assed and mediocre. That said, “The Sword of Sorrow” and “Thanatos” were great enough that I have some optimism that the band may be able to pull off a great, more-distinct sophomore effort, but as it stands Haeretica Ecclesia is a rough debut for the band.

*Playing up the theatricality of the band, its members are all unknown, going by single-name aliases (Jonas, Malachia, Isaia and Ezekiel) and wearing masks at all times. Their label claims that they are “some of the finest musicians of the international heavy metal scene”, whatever that actually means.

20) School of Thought, DED

DED’s debut album, Mis•an•thrope, was basically a modern-day version of early 2000s nu metal with its heavy, aggressive sound and overflowing with blistering, uncontrolled rage. The band’s long-awaited sophomore effort, School of Thought, consciously dials back some of that angst towards the world and aims to be more introspective at times. Blind rage is replaced with sullen brooding, such as on the opening track “Ghost”, which feels like a Breaking Benjamin track and is clearly aiming to be a radio-friendly hard rock song, while “Kill Beautiful Things” feels like a sequel to Mis•an•thrope‘s one introspective track, “Beautiful”. That’s not to say that DED don’t cut loose and bring the aggression though, far from it. “A Mannequin Idol” is a blistering track and feels like old-school Korn at times, while the anger in “Parasite” feels totally justified and “Persona”‘s plea to “Stop making stupid people famous” is sobering. That said, DED’s cover of “Love Song” featuring Maria Brink (who is dating DED frontman Joe Cotela) doesn’t work for me at all. It’s got an industrial sound to it that gives it this eerie vibe, but the lyrics don’t make a lot of sense when put to this music in my opinion and comes across more like trying to be creepy than actually creepy. Overall, School of Thought is a fine evolution for DED. It doesn’t hit nearly as hard as Mis•an•thrope, but there’s some clear growth going on here which make me curious to see where DED are going to go in the future.

19) Dear Monsters, Bad Wolves

Bad Wolves have been one of my favourite bands of the last few years, with their first two albums being in perennial rotation for me. However, my interest in the band was soured in 2020 when it came out that lead singer Tommy Vext was a die-hard, Trump-loving Republican, which only became worse and worse as he spoke out against Black Lives Matter (in case you’re unaware, this is made all the worse by the fact that he is a black celebrity) and started spouting Qanon conspiracy theories. It all came to a head when Vext quit the band (or possibly was pressured to do so) and was replaced by Daniel “DL” Laskiewicz. Vext alleged that this was due to him being censored for being a conservative, whereas the band tastefully kept quiet until Vext’s loud mouth caused them to reveal that he was kicked out for being verbally and physically abusive. Vext didn’t help matters by becoming more and more deranged, to the point where he went on tour as “Tommy Vext and The B@d W8lv3s”. Suffice to say, there has been some serious drama surrounding the release of Dear Monsters and given the circumstances I was really hoping that the transition from Vext to Laskiewicz would go smoothly – after all, Vext is clearly the asshole in this situation and I’d hate to see the guy getting more ammunition to disparage the band with.

…unfortunately, while Dear Monsters is definitely still Bad Wolves, it feels like the band is at a crossroads. Laskiewicz sounds quite similar to Vext, but brings his own distinct style. It doesn’t feel like he’s just aping the previous vocalist. Meanwhile, the rest of the band sounds as solid as ever, so I don’t think that it’s an issue where Vext was the key creative spark. However, the music here is just less interesting and feels less inspired than the best tracks on the band’s last two albums. Whereas Disobey felt like it was throwing every musical style at the wall to see what would stick, Dear Monsters is very focused on radio-ready rock, with just a dash of metal remaining. We do get some heavy-hitters such as the delightfully energetic “On the Case”, but the heavy stuff is outnumbered by softer rock tracks such as the clearly-designed-to-be-the-hit-single “Lifeline”. For the most part, these tracks are decent enough (except for “Comatose”, whose opening lines/chorus lead-in make me cringe every time), but they lack the energy and bite of their previous work. On the other hand, there’s only a single break-up song on this album, whereas there were like 5 on N.A.T.I.O.N., so at least the band is spreading their wings even if the results don’t resonate with me that much. Hopefully this is just a transition period for Bad Wolves, because if their next album underwhelms as well I think it would deflate any interest I have left in the band.

18) Bullet for My Valentine, Bullet for My Valentine

Bullet For My Valentine are one of those bands that I’m familiar with because they were in every game soundtrack in the mid-2000s to the early-2010s. However, I didn’t really get into them til the last couple years where I found their brand of angsty and energetic metalcore infectious. The band really hit a peak in 2010 with Fever and then immediately plummeted off a cliff with Temper Temper. Since then, every subsequent album has been a bit better than the last but they’re still nowhere near the quality of their heyday… which brings us to their 2021 self-titled album (and, just to be extra confusing, their debut EP was also self-titled). Bullet for My Valentine continues the band’s trajectory of putting out solid metalcore, but it’s still a shadow of the band’s best efforts. The main differentiators here are that Matt Tuck’s vocals have gotten harsher with a lot more growling and yelling than in previous albums. There are a couple really good tracks here, particularly “Knives”, “Can’t Escape the Waves” and “Shatter”, if you’re interested then I’d recommend checking these ones out and deciding if you want to give the rest of the album a shot. For what it’s worth, Bullet for My Valentine is fine but I don’t expect that I’ll be an album I come back to much (if ever) in the future.

17) The Bitter Truth, Evanescence

Considering how huge Evanescence were back in the early 2000s, it’s wild to me that they don’t have more albums – The Bitter Truth is only their fourth original studio album and their first new album in 10 years. For my own part, I had a very brief Evanescence phase in the early 2010s, but fell out of them pretty quickly. There’s a reason this band has become a meme – their lyrics tend to get so angsty that’s hard to take them seriously. That said, they do have some catchy songs and Amy Lee’s soaring, operatic vocals have carved the band their own place within the hard rock/alt metal landscape. I had no idea what to expect from The Bitter Truth, only that I felt like I had to give it a fair shake.

Ultimately, I’m kind of torn on The Bitter Truth. On the one hand, fans are going to love it – I can see tracks like “Broken Pieces Shine”, “Wasted on You” and “Use My Voice” slotting into the band’s live setlists seamlessly and becoming new staples going forward. Then there’s tracks that tread totally new ground for the band, particularly “Yeah Right” which sees Evanescence drawing on jazz and swing influences. I was even rather impressed that Evanescence are still dedicated to their nu-metal influences, as The Bitter Truth is no less heavy than their previous albums. All that said, The Bitter Truth isn’t going to convert any skeptics – I went into the album pretty meh about Evanescence and I came out able to acknowledge that it’s a decent rock album, but not really one that I cared all that much about. I’m probably being a bit hard on it to be honest, as it did review fairly well, but I’m sorry, it just didn’t resonate with me. I’m sure there’s an audience out there that’s going to love this thing, but unfortunately I’m just not among that number.

16) Kindred: Act II, Red Cain

True to its name, Kindred: Act II picks up right where last year’s Act I left off, providing us with more epic fantasy power metal to enjoy. Also appropriately, Act II feels like the darker middle chapter compared to its predecessor and sees Red Cain being a bit more experimental with their sound. Sure, tracks like “Kindred” and “Baltic Fleet” are straight out of their usual playbook, but then there’s “Precipice of Man” which is slowed down and almost ballad-like for the first minute before becoming one of the heaviest tracks in the band’s catalogue. Then there’s “Varyag and the Shrike”, which feels like an evolution of Red Cain’s “Snakebouquet” and is the highlight of the album in my opinion. As I more-or-less expected, it’s more Kindred, and considering that it was one of my favourite albums of last year that’s not a bad thing.

15) Inner Universe II, Words of Farewell

I got an email alert that Words of Farewell had put out a new EP and almost immediately jumped at it. Funnily enough, I was actually the first person on Bandcamp to get Inner Universe II. As the title would imply, this is basically more of the same from Words of Farewell (which shouldn’t be surprising because they’ve been mining the same soundscapes for nearly a decade now). However, I quite enjoy their music so that’s not really an issue for me. If you’re into fast, aggressive melodic death metal (or progressive metalcore, which I still feel is a more apt descriptor for Words of Farewell’s sound), then you’ll probably enjoy Inner Universe II… and every other song Words of Farewell have put out for that matter.

14) LIVE, Bad Omens

The problem with these annual countdowns is that I always, without fail, discover a band who released some of my favourite music of the year after I’ve already published my list. Bad Omens are one of those bands. 2019’s Finding God Before God Finds Me would have easily taken a top 3 spot on that list. Its polished and surprisingly-commercial metalcore sound really resonated with me and its themes of religious rebellion and soul-searching have kept me hooked on it through the very end of 2020 and into 2021. LIVE is their first album that’s come out since then and, as its name implies, it is a live performance of some of the band’s bigger tracks. Right off the bat, the band came swinging with “Glass Houses” which, while not as polished as the studio release, still works well due to the band’s energy. Unfortunately, Bad Omens then spend most of the album on softer, quieter rock songs. While I like songs like “The Worst in Me” or “Never Know”, by the time they got to their third soft song in a row I was itching for some actual metalcore. It also doesn’t help that frontman Noah Sebastian’s vocals can sound really strained at times on these tracks. However, Bad Omens entirely redeem themselves with the finishing one-two punch of “Dethrone” and “Mercy”. “Dethrone” is a brutal track, which builds in tension and then just explodes with a death growled “YEAHHHH!” The song is just as good, if not better, live and brings back the energy which was sorely missed all this time. The album then ends on “Mercy”, my favourite Bad Omens song, and easily their best fusion of their quieter and heavy sides. It’s a fantastic close to the album, but you’re definitely left wanting more after these two tracks. The album itself is only about half an hour long, which I can only imagine is because Bad Omens aren’t really headlining any live shows yet, so they’re going to have very limited setlists. LIVE makes for an interesting sampler for fans and newcomers, but honestly I feel like the best way to experience this band would be to listen to their two studio albums. Maybe consider checking out the last two tracks here though to get yourself hyped up.

13) 20 Years of Gloom, Beauty and Despair – Live in Helsinki, Swallow the Sun

Remember how I said Bad Omens’ Finding God Before God Finds Me would have been a top 3 pick for 2019 albums? Well, if I had listened to it in 2019 then Swallow the Sun’s When a Shadow is Forced into the Light would likely have taken my #1 spot. I am enthralled by that album’s melancholic beauty, it’s one of those albums that needs to be experienced from start to finish in one sitting. Like Bad Omens, Swallow the Sun have also put out a live album, this one in celebration of their twenty year anniversary as a band, where they put on a mammoth, two-hour show. The first half of the show was a full performance of “Beauty”, the acoustic, second disc from their 2015 triple-album Songs From the North I, II & III, whereas the setlist for the second half of the show was voted by fans.

“Beauty” kicks off the live album in a low-key, sombre and atmospheric fashion. Given that the songs in this half of the show were already very stripped-back, they translate very well to a live setting, although Mikko Kotamäki’s clean vocals aren’t quite up to task at times (they get particularly strained on “Away” and “Autumn Fire”). It makes this half of the show a bit of a mixed bag, and it also doesn’t help that “Beauty” worked as well as it did in Songs From the North because it was interspersed between the melodic doom metal of part one and the brutal, funeral doom metal of part three; when it has to hold everything up on its own it can start to drag. Certainly not bad, but not what I’m looking for from a Swallow the Sun live album.

However, when the fan-voted setlist starts, that’s when 20 Years of Gloom, Beauty and Despair really kicks off. “Lost & Catatonic” sets the mood right away, with the transition to harsher vocals happening seamlessly, with no vocal straining to be heard and with the heavier tone bringing far more energy. From there it goes into “Empires of Loneliness” which was one of the most intriguing tracks for me in this live album. As one of the funeral doom tracks on Songs From the North III I didn’t really care for it before, but hearing it live gives it a whole different perspective that I appreciated far more. In a live setting it feels far more epic and brutal, while bringing that haunting and melancholic feel which the best Swallow the Sun songs embody. “Empires of Loneliness” was an unexpected pick, but this fan-voted set has some truly esoteric choices which really surprised me (usually when you hear a “fan-voted” setlist for any other band you’d expect to hear a bunch of fan-wank tracks). Most surprising to me was freaking “Plague of Butterflies, Pt. II” from their 2008 EP of the same name which was written for an extreme metal ballet that never got off the ground. There’s some great variety here across Swallow the Sun’s entire career and running the gamut from epic, moody, quieter tracks to the brutal and depressing. This disc fires on all cylinders and it really makes me wish that Swallow the Sun had struck a little more tonal balance in the first half of the show. Ahh well, regardless 20 Years of Gloom, Beauty and Despair is well-worth a listen for fans of Swallow the Sun, people who are curious about their music and fans of extreme metal and is a worthy celebration of the band’s career thus far.

12) Hellbent, Impending Doom

As much as I love their brand of crushingly-heavy and energetic deathcore, Impending Doom have become something of a problematic favourite of mine. In case you’re unaware, they are unabashedly Christian, and I’d put them up there as one of the best Christian metal bands. However, considering how many of their songs complain about the evil in culture and their at times ugly worldview, I can’t help but feel like any day they could come out with an awful song or statement which could tank all my interest in the band. Thankfully that day hasn’t come yet, because Hellbent is another really solid and catchy release.

The one somewhat problematic track here is the opener, “Satanic Panic” (which, apparently, is also the name on the album art…?). Given that the Satanic Panic was a moral panic caused by hysterical Christians which ruined several innocent lives, it seems like a pretty tone-deaf move for a Christian band to go around slinging that term but meaning it in full sincerity. Again, I’d half expect Impending Doom to start slinging Qanon talking points, but thankfully I didn’t get any of that here. Thankfully the rest of the album didn’t get my hackles up as much and every track on here is Impending Doom’s signature brand of brutal metal. The band has always been really good at making their tracks catchy and make you want to scream along and Hellbent is no exception. “New World Horror” and the title track in particular are highlights. The band isn’t doing anything particularly new, but they’re doing it well which is what’s most important.

11) …and the Triumph of Justice, Countless Thousands

Countless Thousands have been cooking up a triumphant, anti-fascist punk rock opera for years now and it’s a stroke of luck that it came out when it did. In the wake of the fascist riot at Capitol Hill and the Biden inauguration, not to mention after four turbulent years of Trump, we were starved for something triumphant and that’s just what Countless Thousands deliver with …and the Triumph of Justice. Countless Thousands take their signature brand of enthusiastic, nerdy punk rock and infuse it with a timely political message which makes the album feel relevant. The political aspirations of the album are clear right from the outset as the opening title track is anthemic and clearly pays homage to “The Star Spangled Banner” before launching into “Game Change”, which opines about how little meaningful difference there is in Americans’ political choices, “The Rat”, which is blatantly about Michael Cohen, and “Fat Cat”, which is about how the rich will fuck over everyone for another dollar. For all the complaining I do about bands being wishy-washy with their political messages, it’s refreshing to see a band making an unapologetic stand. That said, Countless Thousands aren’t above using politics as a springboard for a joke, such as the hilarious “Space Nazis Must Die!” which recounts the tale of Countless Thousands travelling to the moon to kill Astro-Hitler or “Lazar Wolf” which, as far as I can tell, is about a goddamn LAZAAAAAAAR WOOOOLF! There’s also an adorable running storyline about frontman Danger van Gorder’s daughter and how she will one day inherit the world, giving the album a surprisingly poignant justification for its political leanings.

Of course, politics can only take an album so far, but luckily Countless Thousands have put together some real bangers on …and the Triumph of Justice. Every track feels unique: the aforementioned “Space Nazis Must Die!” is an epic, humourous treat, “Solidarity Forever” is a fantastic, surprisingly-patriotic socialist gospel track that pays homage to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “Fat Cat” sounds like a swingin’ Disney villain song, and “Can’t Quit (An Orchestra on the March)” slowly builds up into a triumphant anthem for our generation – life sucks but we have to keep working away to make it better for those who come after. The whole album works really well and even on some of the weirder tracks (like “Murder Assassins from the Future”), Countless Thousands’ humour and energy is infectious. I’m also happy to say that the production quality on this album is great, which I wasn’t really expecting after the lackluster quality on Pretzel Champions and the fact that this album was recorded in the bandmembers’ kitchens! All-in-all, …and the Triumph of Justice is another winner for Countless Thousands.

10) Senjutsu, Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden are, without a doubt, one of the biggest names in metal and every new release of theirs is an event worth paying attention to. Even if they undoubtedly peaked in the 80s, they’ve still had moments where they’ve recaptured their glory days, such as Brave New World, have continued putting out solid albums throughout the 2000s and 2010s, and even their most forgettable works tend to have a few gems that stand out. With that said, Senjutsu fits into the trail Iron Maiden have been blazing for the past two decades – good metal, more of the same we’ve been getting for the past forty years, but not as good as their classic albums, so it feels a bit unmemorable as a result. Don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing really wrong with Senjutsu – I found myself enjoying tracks like “Stratego”, “Lost in a Lost World” and the title track, but I just wasn’t excited by it. You can tell this is an album made by professionals who are extremely comfortable with their craft and know what they’re doing, but after the novelty wears off Senjutsu is going to be like The Book of Souls or Dance of Death – a Maiden album that’s going to constantly get passed up in favour of another spin of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son or Powerslave. Again, that shouldn’t take away from how well-made Senjutsu really is but it’s hard for me to even talk about this album without deflating my enthusiasm about it. Even listening to it in one sitting can be a slog because this is another double album clocking in at nearly an hour and a half. Hell, at this point, I’m not even sure that this album has a track like “Empire of the Clouds” or “Fear of the Dark” that I’ll happily come back to even if I don’t want to listen to their respective albums in their entirety. Look, I definitely think you should give this album a fair shake, maybe you’ll enjoy it with less caveats than I did.

9) Call of the Wild, Powerwolf

We last saw Powerwolf in our 2018 album ranking where I mentioned that Powerwolf have dutifully trodden the same formula laid down in 2007’s Lupus Dei over and over again throughout the years. 2018’s The Sacrament of Sin was a very tepid step into breaking up the formula and Call of the Wild continues that very cautious step forward. What you get here is unmistakably Powerwolf, but with a couple of twists. On the fresher side of things, we get “Beast of Gévaudan” which reminds me of Sabaton’s style with its retelling of the titular beasts that ravaged France in 1764-1767. The track is also quite different for Powerwolf, featuring fast, staccado, machine-gun-like beats which make it stand out. “Blood for Blood (Faoladh)” is also quite different for Powerwolf, opening with a bagpipe solo (!) which instantly makes the track feel unlike anything in Powerwolf’s gothic power metal catalogue. That said, there are plenty of familiar tracks here for fans to sink their teeth into. “Faster Than the Flame” starts things off strong, “Varcolac” feels like “Werewolfs of Armenia” while being different enough to not feel like a ripoff and the title track feels like it was made to be sung in front of a packed arena. And, of course, there’s the now-obligatory horny track, carrying in the tradition that “Resurrection by Erection”, “Coleus Sanctus” and “Demons Are a Girl’s Best Friend” trail-blazed. This time we get our nun fetish-bait in “Undress to Confess” and oh my God it is the horniest Powerwolf track ever. Seriously, check out these lyrical excerpts:

For any sin you confide we take a cloth off your breast […]
From the lord she will get her kicks / Dressed to hide the dark and obsessed to ride him hard on the crucifix […]
Reveal yourself to the pastor, brings forgiveness at best / For any fabric on skin corrupts your mind like the pest […]
Naked skies see her go down at night, when on the cross she licks

All-in-all, Call of the Wild is more Powerwolf. It’s more of the really solid power metal we’ve come to expect from them and while they do take a few steps towards breaking the formula, the band is still clearly well within their comfort zone.

Like The Sacrament of Sin and Blessed and Possessed, one of the most exciting aspects of Call of the Wild is its deluxe edition. This features a whole bonus disc called Missa Cantorem, featuring vocal covers of Powerwolf songs. While I wasn’t too keen on the offering in The Sacrament of Sin, Blessed and Possessed‘s bonus disc was so good that I liked it more than the actual main album so I was interested to see what Missa Cantorem would be like. It was… about what I expected to be honest. Calling this a vocal cover isn’t an exaggeration, the band got a bunch of guest artists in to sing over Powerwolf’s own master recordings of hits that weren’t covered on the last bonus disc. It almost feels like a karaoke album in that regard and while it makes it feel kind of cheap, I can’t help but think that the pandemic made anything more than this too difficult to coordinate. That said, Missa Cantorem actually does have two really good vocal covers on it. First is Alissa White-Gluz’s gender-bent take on “Demons Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and I honestly like this version even more than the already-stellar original. Alissa’s gutteral vocals are extremely impressive and work surprisingly well with this song, lending it an entirely different feel to the original. Similarly, Johan Hegg (of Amon Amarth) brings his death metal vocals to “Nightside of Siberia” and it sounds awesome, once again working because it brings an entirely different feel to the song. Other songs don’t do quite as well, such as Doro Pesch’s admirable attempt at “Where the Wild Wolves Have Gone” or the inspired decision to have Christopher Bowes’ (of Alestorm) take on “Resurrection By Erection” – neither live up to the originals. Still, it’s worthwhile enough to upgrade to the deluxe edition if only for the two great tracks we get here.

8) Hushed and Grim, Mastodon

When Emperor of Sand came out back in 2017, I said it felt like it was a throwback to Mastodon’s greatest hits. As much as I liked it, I had hoped that Mastodon would continue to evolve going forward instead of giving us something safe, comfortable and familiar. Well, I’m happy to say that Hushed and Grim is a brand new chapter for Mastodon, unlike any previous album they’ve released. Their closest analog would have to be the Cold Dark Place EP, but even that doesn’t paint a proper picture of what to expect of Hushed and Grim. Coming off of the death of the band’s long-time manager Nick John and Brann Dailor’s divorce, Mastodon are clearly dealing with some serious grief on this album which gives Hushed and Grim a palpable air of melancholy. Lyrically, this could be a doom metal album, but musically it’s clearly Mastodon’s sound, reminding me of their Blood Mountain and The Hunter albums. And, true to their name, Hushed and Grim is a mammoth double album at nearly an hour and a half in length. The result is a sprawling album with tons to chew over. While I definitely do like Hushed and Grim, it does have a couple issues for me. The first is that it’s so long that, to date, I haven’t managed to get through it all in one sitting. Secondly, the length causes the album to feel like it drags at times; I feel like Mastodon could have trimmed this album down quite a bit without losing its impact in the process. That said, this is an album that has so much going on with it that it is going to take me a very long time to fully appreciate, but I’m already starting to get drawn into the rawness of tracks like “Dagger” and the epic sludge metal in “Gobblers of Dregs” stands amongst Mastodon’s best work. I definitely recommend experiencing this album, I know that it’s getting a somewhat mixed reception among fans, but I do think it will be looked back upon as another classic in time.

7) Infernum in Terra, A Pale Horse Named Death

While I wasn’t a huge fan of 2019’s When the World Becomes Undone, A Pale Horse Named Death managed to make a big impression on me due to their grunge-like sound and hopeless lyrics which really do wonders when you’re going through a depressive episode. Well, Sal Abruscato is back with another round of despair and I have to say it is quite welcome. Infernum in Terra doesn’t do much to change my perceptions of A Pale Horse Named Death, but there is some very incremental evolution here: the production is a bit better, the music is a bit more heavy and interesting and the songwriting is definitely stronger which makes for an infectious listen. Also worth noting is that, unlike their previous albums, Sal Abruscato’s singing doesn’t feel lethargic here, the album doesn’t feel like it drags on (I mean, it’s still slowly-paced due to the whole dour tone, but it feels more deliberately curated this time). Particular highlights include “Shards of Glass”, “Lucifier’s Sun”, “Slave to the Master” and “Reflections of the Dead”, all of which I’ll find myself singing at random times, which just makes me want to listen to the album all over again. If you’re like me and like to channel your emotions into music then Infernum in Terra is a great album and is going to do wonders for your depression.

6) Servant of the Mind, Volbeat

Silly me, I was ready to hit publish on this article when suddenly I was caught completely unawares by a brand new album by one of my favourite bands of the last decade. I knew there was no way I was going to let a new Volbeat album pass me by on the year’s best-of list, even if their last effort, Rewind, Replay, Rebound was easily one of their weakest albums.

Thankfully, Servant of the Mind is a return to form and evolution in one, a fact which is clear as soon as the opening track, “Temple of Ekur” starts up. Volbeat are often considered a metal band, which is a label I’ve never really agreed with, but they really are heavy on this album. This is easily the heaviest they’ve been since their first two albums, if not heavier, which is a really refreshing twist after their last couple albums made the shift towards commercial arena-ready rock. That’s not to say that this album isn’t familiar (it certainly is) or that it doesn’t have commercial appeal – tracks like “Wait a Minute My Girl” and “Dagen Før” are made for radio and are both incredibly catchy in their own right, standing tall beside the heavier tracks like “Shotgun Blues” and “The Sacred Stones”. In addition to their usual rockabilly influences, Volbeat also brings some surf rock guitar onto this album, most obviously on “The Devil Rages On” and “Step Into Light”. I’m glad to see that Volbeat are still delivering surprises and aren’t content to put out the same album over and over again. While I’m going to look forward to their next album, in the meantime I can tell you that I will be listening to Servant of the Mind on repeat for quite a while.

Oh, also worth noting, Volbeat love their deluxe editions and Servant of the Mind is no different in this regard. Whereas Rewind, Replay, Rebound‘s offerings were very slim (basically just some demos that were barely different from the released track), Servant of the Mind‘s deluxe edition is worth the extra couple bucks in my opinion. Bonus tracks “Return to None” and “Domino” stand out quite a bit from the rest of the album’s offerings and the alternate versions of “Shotgun Blues” and ” Dagen Før” are transformative enough to be worth a look.

5) Shaman, Orbit Culture

I’m a simple man – I see a metal album with a badass cover and I listen to it. By that measure, Shaman is one of the most darkly evocative covers I’ve seen all year, thanks to the incredible work by Bahrull Marta, whose art style is best described as the stuff of nightmares. A cool cover is all well and good, but what about the music? Orbit Culture are described as a combination of groove metal and melodic death metal, which is a pretty accurate categorization – their music is heavy and aggressive, but more focused on the rhythm rather than speed like you might expect from a death metal band. Their vocals are not so much screamed, growled or yelled as they are roared, akin to Impending Doom, while the backing vocalist (who features in every track) sounds like James Hetfield of all people.

While I found “Mast of the World” and “Flight of the Fireflies” interesting and enjoyable, I initially was thinking that Shaman would probably be in the middle of the pack for 2021 until “Carvings” started and made me sit up and take notice for real. “Carvings” is where Orbit Culture’s brand of groove/melodic death metal really started to stand out and had me literally headbanging along to the beat. This continued into “Strangler” but it was “A Sailor’s Tale” that truly blew the lid off of this album for me. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the title, this track is pirate death metal and holy shit is it amazing. It builds up in momentum until it gets to the incredibly heavy end section where I literally just want to headbang and put my devil horns in the sky, it’s easily one of my favourite tracks of the year. It was so good that I played it the first time and then immediately played it a second time (and would have done a third time if I didn’t have to be elsewhere right then). All this for two freaking dollars on Bandcamp!!! Suffice to say, I was quite happily surprised by Shaman and will definitely be checking out all of Orbit Culture’s music as a result!

4) Perfectly Preserved, Love and Death

Holy crap has it really been eight years since Between Here & Lost? To be fair, at the time Love and Death was Brian “Head” Welch’s side-project and he went back to Korn around the same time so he was a bit too busy to get the band back together. As a result, half the band has been replaced for Perfectly Preserved, but it seems to be for the best because Love and Death are forging their own identity with this release. No longer are they just “Head’s side project”, Love and Death actually feels like it’s the product of a full band’s collaboration. The most obvious evidence of this is that band co-founder JR Bareis shares equal vocal duties with Head on this album, lending a more melodic and soft tone in contrast to Head’s harsh, aggressive, shouted singing. When the two work together on a track it adds new layers to what’s possible for Love and Death. That alone would lend Perfectly Preserved a new feel for the band, but then there’s the addition of Jasen Rauch on bass – that may not sound like it would make much of a difference, but his influence is all over this album. Rauch is perhaps better known as the former lead guitarist for Red and current lead guitarist for Breaking Benjamin, and has also produced albums by Breaking Benjamin and Love and Death. You can feel all these influences colliding because Perfectly Preserved very much feels like Korn meets Breaking Benjamin and it’s a mix I really dig.

The album kicks off strong with “Tragedy” before moving to “Down”, a moody and introspective track which is up there among the best tracks of Head’s solo career. Then Love and Death pull off a coup with perhaps the most surprising track of the year. What, you thought Head’s Devo cover on Between Here & Lost was cute? Well pull over because “Let Me Love You”, a goddamn DJ Snake and Justin Bieber cover, is fucking fantastic. Lacey Sturm is on guest vocals here and everyone gives this 110% to knock it out of the park, easily one of my favourite tracks of the whole year. This album came out in February and I’m still shocked that this Bieber track is as good as it turned out to be. Perfectly Preserved would already be up there among the best of the year for me at this point, but the band keeps the strong tracks coming, from the duelling vocals of “Slow Fire”, to the melancholy of “Lo Lamento”, to the raw “Affliction” and closing on the aggressive and energetic breakdowns of “White Flag”. Perfectly Preserved is fantastic and a very welcome return for Love and Death. I just hope that we don’t have to wait too long for their next evolution, because Perfectly Preserved shows that Love and Death are every bit as good as their members’ main acts. Let this be a reflection of just how good 2021 has been for music – Perfectly Preserved was, for a while, my favourite album of the year and a top contender for the year-end accolade.

3) Primordial Arcana, Wolves in the Throne Room

I’ve mentioned in the past that I had been searching for a band to fill the void Agalloch left with their disbandment and Wolves in the Throne Room seemed to be the band most often recommended. At the time I wasn’t really a big fan of what I heard, but in 2021 I’ve found myself coming back to their 2017 album Thrice Woven with fondness for its take on atmospheric black metal. As I was getting back into that album, Primordial Arcana dropped and I was curious to listen to their newest LP. All I’ll say is holy crap did I ever pick a good time to get back into Wolves in the Throne Room because Primordial Arcana has got to be by far the best black metal album I’ve ever listened to (again, this is coming from someone who has complained several times in the past that most black metal bleeds into an undifferentiated mass for me).

Primordial Arcana takes you on a musical journey, each song capturing a different tone and conjuring a new mental landscape, from the ethereal and sinister “Mountain Magick”, to the East-Asian strings of “Spirit of Lightning”, to the marching beat that unites “Primal Chasm (Gift of Fire)”, “Underworld Aurora” and “Masters of Rain and Storm”, to the atmospheric and spooky feel of “Skyclad Passage”. “Masters of Rain and Storm” bears special mention, as it can be best described as the black metal “Jesus of Suburbia”. Seriously, this song goes places, seamlessly transitioning from one style to another, almost like a full album crammed into one incredible eleven-minute song.

It’s also quite clear that Wolves in the Throne Room brought a ton of craft and talent to this album – it doesn’t feel like a bunch of 30 year olds jamming for fifteen minutes with no plan, every minute has been laid out to produce a specific feel. In addition, the production quality is fantastic – again, some black metal bands think that they have to record on a potato to get a “raw” feel, but Wolves in the Throne Room prove here that good music speaks for itself. Primordial Arcana is best experienced as a journey from start to finish (which, at only 50 minutes if you include the bonus track, isn’t bad), but if you’re going to experience a single track from this album, make it “Masters of Rain and Storm”. This album is fantastic from start to finish and at only $10 USD on Bandcamp it’s an absolute steal.

2) Moonflowers, Swallow the Sun

What a year for Swallow the Sun. For most bands, a massive live album like 20 Years of Gloom, Beauty and Despair would have been enough, but then Swallow the Sun had to surprise us with a whole new studio album to boot. Like I said earlier, Swallow the Sun have a way of making misery beautiful and Moonflowers may be the best example of this in action. Coming off of the death of songwriter Juha Raivio’s partner, Aleah Stanbridge, to cancer in 2016, When a Shadow is Forced Into the Light felt like a monument to grief. Moonflowers, in contrast, feels like an extended lament at the lingering feelings of loss. While this could be oppressive in its dourness (see: A Pale Horse Named Death’s discography), Moonflowers is finds the beauty in the sorrow which makes it very easy to listen to. Swallow the Sun hit a strong balance between softer and heavier tracks, all in their signature doom metal sound. Moonflowers doesn’t reinvent Swallow the Sun’s sound – the only real musical evolution is the inclusion of more backing strings, which give songs such as “Enemy” and “Woven Into Sorrow” a bigger, more epic feel and which make the album’s strong emotions hit harder. My favourite track may have to be “All Hallows’ Grieve” though, which features the delicate guest vocals of Cammie Gilbert and best exemplifies the beautiful melancholy that Swallow the Sun strives for. However, the album does start to drag a bit in the latter-half with “The Void” and “The Fight of Your Life”, which ditch the backing strings and losing some of the energy of the first half of the album. That’s basically the only reason why Moonflowers isn’t my album of the year, I had to debate long and hard between this and my #1 pick, but a couple of weaker tracks here were ultimately the difference-maker.

Moonflowers also features a bonus disc where every single song on the album has been redone as classical string music. It’s an interesting take on the material, but one that I quickly grew bored of. For my tastes, I’d much rather experience this album the way it was intended, especially because these string versions lack the vocals of the main album. It doesn’t really hurt anything, but I would have liked if this disc was something I’d find myself going back to.

1) God is Partying, Andrew W.K.

As I’ve said many times in the past, Andrew W.K. was introduced to me as “life metal” (as opposed to death metal), best exemplified by his wall of sound style and enthusiastic lyrics that are obsessed with having a good time. His first two albums, I Get Wet and The Wolf are classics and nothing else he’s put out has come close to matching that quality. 2018’s You’re Not Alone was a return to form, but it felt very safe, like a conscious effort to recapture Andrew W.K.’s glory days rather than doing anything different. So, with all this in mind, if you’d told me that God is Partying was going to be a departure from Andrew W.K.‘s classic mold (including his harsh, shouted vocals I like so much) and his darkest album ever, I would have likely expected this to flop since it goes against everything I know that I love about this artist. Thankfully, this is why artists shouldn’t give fans what they want, because God is Partying is every bit as good as Andrew W.K.’s two classic albums, if not better.

One element from You’re Not Alone which carries over to God is Partying is the spiritual, pseudo-religious themes, but they’ve taken on a more ominous and dark turn here. “Everybody Sins” demonstrates this with epic grandiosity, at times feeling like a gospel track while also being one of the heaviest songs in Andrew W.K.’s entire discography. In fact, there’s two other tracks on here which are easily among Andrew W.K.’s heaviest songs, including “Babalon” and “I’m in Heaven”. Pretty much every track has some sort of experimentation going on, from “Everybody Sins”‘ backing organs, to “Babalon” incorporating electronics and synthesizers, to the sinister tone and incoherent screams backing “I’m in Heaven”, to “Remember Your Oath”‘s ballad-like feel, to “I Made It”‘s energetic, piano-led melody which makes it feel like a Michael W. Smith worship track.

Oh and it’s also worth noting that Andrew W.K. has dropped his signature harsh vocals on this album that I like so much. I hated his mid-2000s albums because they did this, but man does the new, soaring vocal style ever work here, especially on the epic, eye-watering “No One to Know”. Meanwhile, Andrew W.K. is mining much more personal and dark territory than ever before (I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even say “party” once in this whole album), most clearly evidenced with the nasty breakup song “My Tower”, which is downright vicious for an Andrew W.K. song.

God is Partying is Andrew W.K. at his most diverse, mature and assured. I figured I’d enjoy this album, but it was way better than I was expecting. It’s impressive enough as it is, but when you factor in just how off-brand Andrew W.K. is on this album it makes it even more impressive that I’m this blown away by it. If that’s not album of the year material, I don’t know what is.

Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2019

It’s that time of year once again, when I look back on all of the random-ass, new music I’ve listened to in 2019! I’ve been slowly curating this article all year as there have been plenty of new albums by my favourite bands, which has given me plenty of time to parse my feelings on them. Also, if you’re curious about last year’s picks, you can read that list here.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s get to the rankings!

23) Jesus Is King, Kanye West
If you’ve checked out any of my previous annual album rankings then you’ll probably know that I skew towards rock and metal rather than rap or RNB, so perhaps it wouldn’t be all that surprising that my white, heathen ass would rank a Kanye West album so lowly. However, I did enjoy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and some of my all-time favourite albums are pure gospel music (Worship and Worship Again by Michael W. Smith are just inspiring to listen to back-to-back), so suffice to say I was pretty intrigued by the hype surrounding the release of Kanye West’s big Christian music debut. It’s undeniable that Kanye West is an asshole, but the guy has a way of crafting really interesting music so I was very curious to see what he could come up as an outsider in the Christian music scene. However, the results are pretty disappointing. With 11 tracks and clocking in at only 27 minutes long, this album just feels half-baked, like Kanye put out a bunch of demos instead of taking the time to actually craft something satisfying. Only 3 tracks manage to get over the 3 minute mark, “God Is”, “Hands On” and “Use This Gospel”, and these are clearly the most enjoyable and well-crafted tracks on the whole album. There are some potentially interesting aspects to “Selah” and “Follow God” as well, but these tracks are so brief and incomplete that they leave you very unsatisfied. I also got a bit of a kick out of the gospel choir opener “Every Hour”, although it is little more than an enthusiastic mood-setter. Most of the tracks are just lacking in substance. All this said, the only track on this album that I actually liked and would listen to on its own is “God Is”, a fantastic gospel choir and RNB fusion which is helped immensely by Kanye West’s sincere singing and declarations of faith and praise to God. It’s actually moving, has something to say and is easily the best track of the bunch. However, this is just one well-crafted song on an entire album and it’s not enough to justify how scattershot, incomplete and uninteresting the rest of Jesus Is King is. Now, if Kanye would gimme a whole album of gospel tracks similar to “God Is”? I’d be all over that, but as it stands Jesus is King just feels like Kanye is dumping his half-completed homework on us.

22) The Change, Awake At Last
I did a post several months ago about bands who had followed me on social media, one of which was Awake At Last. I didn’t really have much to say about them though – their debut EP was distinct with theatrical, enthusiastic hard rock, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. I figured it was worth giving them another shot with their first full-length album, The Change, but this album ultimately just told me that Awake At Last aren’t for me. Awake At Last certainly have their own style, especially because of lead singer Vincent Torres’ theatrical (perhaps even overwrought at times) vocals. It’s not like they’re playing the same music over and over again either, they sprinkle their hard rock with electronics and vocal effects, although they don’t tend to get too heavy. When it comes down to whether or not I enjoy their music though, I really can’t bring myself to care about it too much. Usually when I listen through an album for the first time for these countdowns, I’ll write some notes about each song and put down any first impressions I have about whether I like it. For The Change, I did this for about the first five songs but just stopped because I wasn’t really into it at all. In fact, my notes ended up being just me trying to figure out which bands Awake At Last reminded me of, and I realized that they most remind me of Papa Roach… so take that how you will. I dunno if it’s just because this is positive hard rock (I like to wallow in my misery, thank you very much!), but it just didn’t work for me at all. I’d still recommend checking them out if you’re into bands like Shinedown, Saliva or Papa Roach, but for me at least I don’t imagine I’ll be checking back for their next album.

21) Armageddon, Art of Dying
I saw Art of Dying opening for Disturbed years ago… oh God, I was still in high school, it must have been around 2008 or 2009. Anyway, I was pretty impressed with their self-titled debut album, it was a solid post-grunge which gave me a lot of promise for the band going forward. Their follow-up, Vices and Virtues, was decent as well, but clearly not as good as their debut. I felt like they were drifting towards more of a mediocre radio-rock sound and so I kind of stopped paying attention to them. Since then Art of Dying has put out three more albums so I figured that I might as well check out their latest release and see if I’ve been missing anything in the meantime. I have to say that, if their other albums are anything like Armageddon, then I haven’t really missed much. The uneasiness which drove me away from Art of Dying in the first place has definitely manifested to reality, because the band is very clearly chasing radio trends here. That’s not to say that radio-friendly music is bad by any means, but there’s a difference between putting out music that you want people to hear and putting out music which is supposed to get mass-appeal radio play. Art of Dying are talented enough that Armageddon isn’t exactly “bad”, but at least in terms of the songwriting it feels like a band that’s several albums deep going through the motions and trying to pay the bills.

The album opens in irritating fashion right off the bat with the title track which is clearly ripping off the pop-rock sound of Imagine Dragons. While your mileage is certainly going to vary, I find Imagine Dragons’ sound annoying, especially because their popularity has led to several other bands mimicking it (spoiler alert: this is far from the only band on this list which has been riffing on Imagine Dragons). Taste-aside, frontman Johnny Hetherington’s vocals sound really strained on this track for some inexplicable reason. The guy has a pretty good voice so I’m not sure why he’s stretching himself so far here. The lyrics here are also typical of the whole album, in that they’re generic and uninspired. Even reasonably decent songs like “Cut It All Away”, “Rearview Mirror” or “Shatterproof” are let down by the lyrics, which is especially unfortunate when it deflates the impact of the enjoyable guitar solos in tracks like “Rearview Mirror” and “I Believe”. This culminates in a real disaster with “Unoriginal”. Look, if you’re a band like Art of Dying and you decide to put a song on your album called “Unoriginal”, you need to make sure that that song is amazing or you’re just setting yourself up to get pilloried. So what do Art of Dying do? They basically come right out and admit that they’re just going through the motions. I mean, check out these lyrics:

“I’m so fucking bored / Keep coming back for more / It’s all been done before yeah”
“It’s just the same old / Is this really where we’re at right now / Are we so, are we so unoriginal”
“I’m so sick and tired / Of being uninspired / Nothing ever changes”

Wow… I wouldn’t have expected the band to just come out and say that they just don’t give a shit, but there you have it. Sure, they probably aren’t actually intending for the song to be taken as a serious declaration, but in the context of such a limp album it’s hard to interpret it any other way.

20) Live From Alexandria Palace, London, UK, Disturbed
Oh look, Disturbed are once again bringing up the low end of the album rankings this year, although I can say that at least this live EP is better than Evolution. The main reason this ranks so low is that I really don’t understand why they decided to put out a bite-sized live EP at all. The band put out their full live album, Live at Red Rocks, only a couple years ago and 3 of the 5 tracks on this EP appeared there in essentially the same form (and, in my humble opinion, their live recordings don’t sound as good as their studio recordings). That leaves us with only two new live tracks from Evolution. Luckily, “A Reason to Fight” is far more effective when sang live than it is in studio. While the studio recording just came across as melodramatic, the live version really gets to show off how well David Draiman can sing. It doesn’t solve the issue that the lyrics are uninspired, but it is definitely the superior way to experience this song. It also helps that David then goes into a speech for almost 5 minutes about not falling prey to addiction, depression and suicide, which is honestly more raw and moving than the song itself. Cutting from this sombre moment into “Inside the Fire” is a pretty inspired move in my opinion, but the rest of the tracklist is strangely erratic. “Inside the Fire” was clearly the last song on the setlist when this was recorded, and all subsequent tracks on the EP are just faded into and out of haphazardly. The lowlight is, in my opinion, the second song from Evolution, “No More”. I already didn’t like this song, but it’s not improved any in a live setting. It’s just the same sort of protest song about greed, government and war that we’ve already heard more effectively thousands of times, not only from other bands, but Disturbed themselves too. Other than that, tracks like “Inside the Fire” and “Ten Thousand Fists” which sound fantastic in studio and great in a live setting are robbed of much of their effectiveness when they’re recorded live, since David Draiman has to sing at a higher pitch to avoid ruining his voice. The best track on the EP though is the closer, “The Game”, which manages to make the live transition without losing any of its energy. I’ve always enjoyed this song, although the message certainly makes me uncomfortable. I like to assume that there’s an unreliable narrator thing going on and that this song is actually about how much men suck, although I seriously doubt that that was the intent. Anyway, like I said at the outset, this is a pretty limp EP which doesn’t really have much to offer to anyone. Even bigger Disturbed fans than me will probably be disappointed that there’s only 2 newer songs on here and I wouldn’t say that either of them make it worth a purchase or more than a cursory listen.

19) Victorious, Skillet
Throughout this past decade if you asked a mainstream rock music fan if there were any good Christian bands, odds are the most common answer you’d get would be “Skillet”. While their fame has always bothered me, I can kind of understand why it happened. After experimenting with weird industrial/electronic rock and straight-up worship albums, Skillet finally hit their stride with Collide and Comatose, a one-two punch of hard rock albums that really resonated with me back in 2006. The thing is though, I was an angsty high schooler at the time and have grown up since then. Meanwhile, Skillet have released 4 albums in the last 10 years and each one is clearly just trying to rehash Comatose. Like… John Cooper is 44 years old. Hearing him angst about parents who don’t understand and girls not paying attention to him was contrived enough when he was 31 years old (and married to one of his bandmates, I may add), but at 44 it’s hard to imagine that he really has much connection to “kids these days”. At least Victorious has shifted lyrically from angst to encouragement for its teenage target audience, although as I said on The Change that doesn’t tend to be my cup of tea either.

Anyway, Skillet come swinging right out of the gates with “Legendary”, clearly intended to be their big radio single. What does it sound like? FUCKING IMAGINE DRAGONS, UGH. I get that they’re going for a completely different audience than me, but holy shit there are so many bands aping this same sound right now because it’s popular (and shows up on several songs on the album). Guys, trendsetters don’t follow, they lead… As I’ve said for a lot of these bands so far on this list, the songwriting on this album is just so rote and uninspired (sidenote, I came across this image from the lyric video for “Legendary” and it made me laugh). Unlike some of the other albums on the list up to this point though, Skillet are at least talented enough that they can serve up some decent songs every once in a while. The title track is appropriately triumphant and inspiring, “Terrify the Dark” has a fantastical air about it and “Anchor” is like a straight-up worship track. Fans of the band’s past few albums will probably dig Victorious regardless, but Skillet clearly aren’t making their music for me anymore and I can only really speak to my own feelings on the album.

18) Breathe in Colours, Forever Still
Like Awake at Last, Forever Still were on the list of bands that followed me on social media. However, Forever Still’s debut album, Tied Down, had actually impressed me and so I was excited to see what their 2019 album would be like. Unfortunately, their sophomore album Breathe in Colours didn’t impress me nearly as much as their debut. The band’s greatest asset remains lead vocalist Maja Shining’s vocals (also, holy shit, what a name!!!), which are able to range from screams to operatic melodies. I made this comparison in the social media bands post, but she definitely reminds me of Sleeping Romance’s Frederica Lanna, although Forever Still hew more towards “vanilla” metal than symphonic metal (although there are a few songs which dabble with symphonic elements). The main issue with Breathe in Colours is that, other than Maja’s voice, nothing really stands out. The music is fine, but it’s treading firmly in typical metal/symphonic territory and is nothing special. The songwriting is also just fine, only a few tracks really stood out to me, such as the title track and “Pieces”. Perhaps the best track though is the acoustic version of “Is It Gone?”, which strips back Forever Still’s weaker elements and puts everything down on Maja Shining’s vocal talents. It makes the song far more enjoyable in my opinion. Hopefully Breathe in Colours is just a sophomore slump which will help Forever Still to figure out where to take their music in the future, because I believe they still have the talent to really stand out as a female-fronted metal band.

17) Stairway to Nick John, Mastodon
As I said in my 2017 album rankings, Mastodon have a pretty reliable album cycle, putting out a new one approximately every 2-3 years. Knowing this, I expected that we might get a Mastodon release in 2018, but imagine my surprise when I open up Spotify and see that the band has put out a surprise cover of “Stairway to Heaven”. It was a weird turn of events for me, but when you look into the story behind it, it’s actually quite poignant – Mastodon’s longtime manager, Nick John, died and as a tribute the band played an emotional cover of “Stairway to Heaven” at his funeral. Unexpectedly, someone recorded the performance on their phone at the time and so the band decided to re-record it in studio as a record store day release.

So, with that bit of background out of the way, how is Stairway to Nick John? It’s… fine. If you’re looking for a very straightforward cover of “Stairway to Heaven”, then Mastodon has a studio and a live recording just for you. Mastodon’s Brann Dailor usually has very questionable vocals in a live setting (as anyone who has heard their Live From the Aragon record can attest), but he does a fantastic job on “Stairway to Heaven” in both of the recordings. His vocals here are unlike any other work they have done, to the point where it’s kind of unfortunate that we haven’t heard this side of him before. There aren’t really any frills going on here, the vocal melody and the music hew closely to Led Zeppelin’s original composition, with some very light hints of Mastodon’s flavour worked in. This is no Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” or Disturbed’s “The Sound of Silence”, where they aim to recreate the song their own way, it’s just straightforward cover. It’s also worth reiterating that the live version of the song was recorded on a phone, so the audio is a tad rough, clearly being picked up from far away in an echoey hall. It’s impressive just how well it turned out, but it’s worth knowing that it’s not really captured in professional quality, if that bothers you. All-in-all, Stairway to Nick John is fine, although the story behind it is far more compelling than the release itself. It’s not the 2019 Mastodon release I was expecting, but a bit of a creative break is probably better for the band overall.

16) This Is Not the End, Manafest

Growing up as a small town church kid, Manafest was considered the cool Christian rapper in our youth group. At the time I was mainly into Christian hard rock/metal, so his rap-rock fusion worked well for me. It also didn’t hurt that his two albums, Epiphany and Glory, were both really solid releases. However, with each subsequent release, Manafest just lost more and more lustre to me. Each new album was just nowhere near as good as Glory was – they all retread the same sounds and themes, while being weaker and less inspired (although there were usually at least a couple good songs). This all came to head around the time Manafest crowdfunded his seventh album, The Moment and promised big things. At this point I said “Fine, this is your last chance to impress me”… and, lo and behold, it was probably my least-favourite album of his to date. Suffice to say, that was it for me. However, here were are now 5 years later and the guy has pumped out another 3 albums, so I was curious to see if he had improved any since 2014…
…but if This Is Not the End is anything to go by, he hasn’t really. I mean, he has diversified his sound somewhat: the title track shows off electronic elements that he has incorporated into the rap-rock fusion, while “Kamikaze” demonstrates a different style of rapping than he ever did on previous tracks. That said, he’s still just putting out the same sorts of music meant to appeal to white Christian teens despite the fact that the guy is now 40 years old, although there is a surprising amount of cheekiness, such as faking out F-bombs on the title track (as innocent as this sounds, it’s a move which is sure to piss off parents and Christian music reviewers alike). The track “Kamikaze” also has a really awkward chorus which features Manafest saying “I love the way you suck my… energy”… it definitely does not sound like he wants to say “energy” though, unless that’s the nickname has has for his dick.
But then there’s “Plan For Me”. When this started playing with its piano opening my initial thought was “oh, this is this EP’s ‘Mockingbird'”, which was actually pretty spot-on in some ways. However, then he starts singing to an unborn baby who’s been dead for 5 years and who they even had names picked out for before Manafest’s real-life wife starts singing the chorus and I was truly surprised. Shit, when I walked away from his music, did Manafest and his wife have a miscarriage and here they are airing their continued grief? It was pretty heartfelt, and then he goes into the second verse as the child, telling their parents that it’s okay, they don’t have to feel guilty anymore, they can move on because this child they never knew will still love them and see them in heaven someday. By this point, I was actually getting emotional – my son was born just over a year ago and my fiance and I both thought that we were going to lose him on two separate occasions, so the fear of losing a child welled up raw emotions in me. I was actually impressed – a Christian rap song about a real experience of struggle with guilt and pain, learning to move past it and accepting that even loss like this is in God’s hands? Even if it wasn’t a true story, it speaks true to so many real-life experiences. I listened to it three times in a row.
…and then I realized it was an anti-abortion song and my enthusiasm was deflated so quickly. Like… goddammit. It makes less sense as an anti-abortion song! Why are they picking out names if they’re not planning on keeping the baby? If he was so keen on having a baby and so cut up about it now, why did they even go through with it? The only reasons we’re given is that the parents were young and not ready, which are fine reasons actually, but it’s like Manafest can’t imagine why someone would really feel that an abortion is justified. Like, did the relationship fall apart because of the abortion and now he regrets that? We don’t even get the mother’s perspective at all during this, which is frustrating – it’s entirely from a man’s perspective, including having him extrapolate that perspective to an imagined unborn child. It’s just another reason why it’s so deflating that this is an anti-abortion song instead of a song about experiencing a miscarriage, it just perpetuates so many frustrating pro-life tropes (often from a male’s perspective). Instead of being some real, lived experience, the song is like a youth pastor’s anti-abortion skit – a moralizing, melodramatic, theoretical scenario of someone regretting their abortion and being unable to move past it, robbed of the nuance of most peoples’ real experiences. I know people who have gone through abortions and, looking back, they know that they made the right decision, but most of the guilt then comes from religious family members calling them “baby murderer” or other people making them feel like they should be ashamed about it. I’ll give the song some credit, it does at least suggest that the abortion was part of “God’s plan” all along and therefore not some abomination. It also tries to be as loving to the parents as possible, but it’s unavoidable that a song with half of its verses from the perspective of an unborn baby in heaven is going to try to guilt you into birthing that little bastard next time. Like, despite effectively saying it was God’s plan to have things go this way, it’s still very judgy about the parents’ decision and that the unborn child’s potential is never realized.
It’s just frustrating to me that Manafest wrote the song this way. When I mistakenly thought it was a song about a miscarriage it was so good… Sigh. While it deflated my enthusiasm for the song significantly, I still have to say that it’s a really good sounding song, easily one of Manafest’s best, so I’ve got to give him some credit for making one banger on this EP… even if it really, really sucks that it’s an anti-abortion song and which will totally invalidate it in other, more unforgiving, peoples’ eyes.

15) Patterns of Mythology, Falls of Rauros
I’ve been dabbling in the black metal subgenre over the last few years, and while I enjoy bands like Winterfylleth, I find that a lot of this kind of music blends together indistinctly. That said, when I was trolling Spotify one day and saw a black metal band named “Falls of Rauros” (named after the place where Boromir meets his end in The Lord of the Rings) had a new album out in 2019 I knew I had to give them a look. Patterns of Mythology is unmistakably a black metal album (the screamed/growled vocals should make that immediately obvious), although it is at a much slower tempo than, say, Winterfylleth. That said, Falls of Rauros change up the tempo multiple times throughout each song – one minute a song could be slow, moody and contemplative and then it can suddenly ramp up into a punishing wall of metal. That said, while they clearly have their own flavour, there really wasn’t much here to really make Falls of Rauros stand out enough to me. Like all the other black metal I listen to, none of the songs really stand out on their own for me and I can’t see myself playing this album as anything other than background music. It’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t something I’d come back to repeatedly.

14) Peace, Demon Hunter
Demon Hunter tend to put out solid music. I actually backed their last album, Outlive, on PledgeMusic (and got the big, beautiful deluxe box set!) and enjoyed it quite a bit, although the aggressive, hard edge to their music typified best by The Triptych has long since been eroded away. However, when it was announced that their double album would be titled War and Peace, I was tentatively excited. Based on the titles, it was pretty clear that they were going to give us the best of both worlds: War would be the heavy album, whereas Peace would be on the lighter side, a theory which turned out to be true when the albums dropped.

Peace is certainly lighter than any previous Demon Hunter album, but that actually makes it feel a bit fresher than if they had just watered-down their normal sound. Demon Hunter actually get a chance to experiment and do things we’ve never heard from them before, such as the western-inspired “When the Devil Come” or the full-on piano ballad, “Fear is Not My Guide”. We also get some solid, melodic tracks which show off Ryan Clark’s singing voice, particularly “More Than Bones” and “Recuse Myself” (which I’d definitely say is the track which has stuck with me most on this album). Unfortunately, Peace starts to drag very quickly. The lighter tone isn’t the issue at all, if anything it’s the tempo that’s the issue – it feels like most of the songs have been slowed down in order to facilitate the lighter tone, which ends up making most of the tracks feel sluggish. This sluggishness means that most of the tracks drag, lack any energy and become instantly forgettable. The lyrics throughout the album aren’t great either, particularly on the title track, although even tracks I like, like “More Than Bones”, are very simple and repetitive. Most of the tracks are sub-par, very few stick out to me at all, and even the best tracks are only around the baseline of quality I’d expect from Demon Hunter anyway. Again, Peace gave Demon Hunter a great opportunity to try something fresh, but I just don’t think that they succeeded at all. In fact, mainly due to how forgettable it is, I’d argue that Peace is probably their worst album ever, which is just unfortunate.

13) War, Demon Hunter
Man… Demon Hunter really didn’t do it for me this year. I had heard good things about War around its release, but I was left a bit underwhelmed. I was kind of expecting them to move their sound in a heavier direction on War. While it’s certainly heavier than Peace, it’s far from a return to the aggressive edge of old-school Demon Hunter, coming across more like a next step from Outlive, where lighter tracks outweigh the heavier tracks (and even the heavy tracks will have lighter bits interspersed, such as the choruses for “Cut to Fit” and “On My Side”). I enjoy songs like “Cut to Fit”, “On My Side” and “Grey Matter”, but they’re interspersed with mediocre tracks like “The Negative”, “Unbound” and “No Place for You Here”. The only truly great track is the album closer “Lesser Gods”, a really heavy, epic track unlike anything Demon Hunter have put out before. It’s the sort of shot in the arm that makes you wish that the band had done more like this on War, but having it as the closer just hammers home how mediocre most of the album is. On the other hand, the only particularly bad track on the album is “Ash”, which has this really weirdly-pronounced chant of the title which makes it sound like they’re saying “ASS!” each time. Suffice to say, it ruins the song and makes it impossible to take seriously when all you can hear is “Suffer the ASS!”

All-in-all, War and Peace just did not work for me. About half of War is mediocre and brings down the overall quality of the album. I really think that Demon Hunter would have been better off taking the best tracks from these two albums and putting them on one album, with the rest as harmless B-sides on a deluxe edition. It may not have made for their best release ever, but it certainly would have felt more satisfying and on par with their usual level of quality. For what it’s worth, War has a bit more energy to it which helps it come out on top, but both albums are just mediocre releases from a band which usually does much better.

12) Kiss of the Cobra King, Powerwolf
It was pretty surprising when Powerwolf announced a new version of “Kiss of the Cobra King”, one of their favourite tracks from their debut album. I expected to just get a cleaner version of the song, but Powerwolf have actually gone and rewritten the song from the ground up, only retaining the iconic chorus from the original song. The resulting song is immediately more epic, showing off the polished production quality you can expect from a Powerwolf track in 2019, akin to something from The Sacrament of Sin. It was a nice surprise to hear and I’d say that this new version of the song is easily as good as the original, if not better.

Instead of just releasing this by itself though, Powerwolf also threw a live version of “Army of the Night” onto the release. This feels like a bit of a pointless move to me though, because we’ve already gotten a live version of the song on The Metal Mass a couple years ago and it hasn’t changed much in the interim. Still, it can be looked at as a bonus track, because most people are just going to be interested in the solid “Kiss of the Cobra King” anyway.

11) Secrets, Written By Wolves
I was going through my Daily Mix on Spotify when I decided to check out a song called “Let It Burn” by Written By Wolves… and holy crap, it was awesome! It was a really solid metalcore track, energetic, well-written and with just the right amount of angst. Suffice to say, it caused me to track down the rest of Written By Wolves’ material and, lo and behold, it turns out that they had just put out their debut album, Secrets. “Let It Burn” was the opener and it really got me hyped for the rest of what Written By Wolves had to offer.

…and, uh, well let’s just say that “Let It Burn” is NOT indicative of what Written By Wolves’ sound is like. Hell, I’m not entirely sure that they even have a distinct sound, based on what we’ve gotten from Secrets anyway. Like, immediately after the heavy, metalcore sound of “Let It Burn”, we get a couple indie/alternative tracks, then we get EDM on the title track and “Demons”, then “Something to Save” mixes in some gospel of all things, then a heartfelt ballad in “Lucky Stars”… the band is all over the place, throwing everything they can at the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s impressive, but also exhausting to experience and especially disappointing because they never really return to the heavy sound that sold me on the band in the first place. That said, Written By Wolves have some clear talent on display and, unlike many of the bands on this list, they’re clearly giving it their all and not just going through the motions. There’s so much variety here that odds are you’re going to like at least one track, but you’re also just as likely to not care for half of the songs on here. It’s a bit of a crapshoot in that regard but I have to give Written By Wolves some credit for going for it regardless, I just hope that they can focus themselves a bit more in the future.

10) The Inveterate Fire, Firelink
Several months ago I stumbled across an article about a band producing Dark Souls-inspired metal. As a pretty big fan of the franchise and of metal in general, I knew that I had to check this band out for myself as the Souls franchise is just so rich for artistic adaptation (and they’re not even the first Souls-inspired metal band I’ve come across). The album cover and the song titles were all getting me to geek out and there’s even an audio sample from Dark Souls III of (I believe) Prince Lothric on one of the tracks. However, you don’t necessarily have to be a big fan of the series to enjoy Firelink, because the music they’ve crafted is interesting in its own right. In some ways they remind me of Winterfylleth, with metal that can be slow, ambient and introspective, and then suddenly rev up into fast, punishing black metal with howled vocals (although, regrettably perhaps, these vocals do make it hard to appreciate the lyrics, which is another reason why you don’t necessarily have to be a fan of the franchise to enjoy the band).

“Vessel of the Primordial Serpent” kicks things off in brutal fashion, with very fast and aggressive black metal. “Kindled” opens a little closer to the traditional soundscape of Dark Souls, with a strong bassline and plucked, echoing guitar giving the song a more moody, thoughtful and lonely tone. Just as it’s starting to drag, it kicks into the punishing metal sound which typifies this album (one could say that the song is kindled itself, much like the bonfires in the game). Interestingly enough, Firelink sound almost like Dragonforce at times, they have the same sort of wailing-guitar sound which isn’t so common in the bleaker tone of black metal. The album pinnacles with “Manus”, which shows off some of that very impressive Dragonforce-style guitar work. It’s easily one of the most distinct and enjoyable black metal tracks I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, “Beckoning Sun” then feels scattershot, like the band recorded themselves improvising an ambient tune – it doesn’t feel like there’s any sort of intentional craft behind this track and it makes it feel super forgettable. The album then closes on “The First Sin”, which just continues more of the heavy and fast black metal we’ve already gotten to this point. All-in-all, The Inveterate Fire is worth checking out for fans of black metal, the Dark Souls links are fun but the music certainly stands on its own.

9) When the World Becomes Undone, A Pale Horse Named Death
My God, just look at that album cover. Just look at that title. Just look at that band’s name! Yeah, I was sold on this album the moment I saw it, it’s clearly My Shit™. I’ve seen A Pale Horse Named Death being classified as “doom metal” and “gothic metal”, but at least based on this album I would have to say that they also have a distinctly grunge sound, very reminiscent of Alice in Chains (y’know, if Alice in Chains’ music was all about despair and the death of the world). This actually gives When the World Becomes Undone a shocking amount of potential crossover appeal, as tracks like “Love the Ones You Hate” and “Fell in My Hole” are solid enough that I could potentially see them getting radio airplay. That said, as much as I enjoyed this album, there are a couple glaring weaknesses. First of all, vocalist Sal Abruscato’s singing is not great, it sounds like he’s putting on an affectation and mumbling the lyrics half the time. Listening to him, I can’t help but imagine how much better these songs would sound if they were sung by Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley or William DuVall, or even if they were screamed or growled. The second big weakness with this album is that there isn’t much diversity to the songs. When you consider that the album is over an hour long, it really starts to drag as it goes on. Still, I really liked what I heard here and will definitely be checking out A Pale Horse Named Death’s back catalogue.

8) Rewind, Replay, Rebound, Volbeat
Volbeat are one of my favourite bands and usually they can be depended on to put out really good albums, especially since they have a longer release cycle than many bands. They have a very distinct sound that you don’t really get anywhere else in popular music (I call it “hard rockabilly”) and Michael Poulsen’s wonderfully illegible vocals which make nearly every release feel special. They also rarely rest on their laurels, usually going for a different “feel” on each album (eg, Guitar Gangsters & Cadillac Blood feels like turn of the century saloon tunes, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies has a country-western theme, etc). Suffice to say, I was expecting good things from Rewind, Replay, Rebound.

The album starts out at its highest point with “Last Day Under the Sun”, an infectious (if slightly repetitive) rock tune which has gone down as one of my favourite and most memorable tracks of the year. The only other other track that comes anywhere close to that level of quality is “Rewind the Exit”, although that’s not to say that the rest are bad. In fact, the first half of the album is pretty enjoyable, especially the Elvis-like swagger of “Pelvis on Fire” and the surging energy of “Die to Live”, but there are two big issues with Rewind, Replay, Rebound. First of all, the album feels very bloated. I like that Volbeat put out hour-long albums, but the music has to be consistently high-quality for it to work. Normally, I’d say that Volbeat manage to clear that barrier easily, with maybe one or two tracks at most that don’t really stand out, but in this case at least half of the tracks feel pretty mediocre by Volbeat’s standard. This is especially the case in the second half of the album, where a lot of the songs are so indistinct that they just start to blend together. This is especially egregious in the case of the closing track “7:24”, just comes and goes so uneventfully that you go “oh wait, that’s the end of the album?” It’s too bad too because the earlier track “Maybe I Believe” felt like a more natural and satisfying closer.

The second big issue is that the album feels very familiar. It starts at just the second track on the album, “Pelvis on Fire”. I like the song quite a bit, but the song is unmistakably ripping whole sections off from an earlier Volbeat song, “Sad Man’s Tongue” (they also name-drop the song in the lyrics, so obviously this wasn’t unintentional). Hell, even the lyrics in both songs match up at times and as someone who is familiar with Volbeat’s catalogue I just can’t not hear this, it always takes me out of the song at least a bit. Then only two songs later we have “Die to Live”, which would almost certainly be named “Let It Burn”, except that Volbeat already named a song that on their last album. Obviously, that’s less of an issue, but it continues the feel that Volbeat are just recycling the same ideas. This still wouldn’t be much of an issue if not for yet another obvious recycled song, this time on the track “Cheapside Sloggers” which not only sounds similar to “We” on the verses, but very clearly rips off the opening guitar riff from “Hallelujah Goat” and a bit of “Pool of Booze, Booze, Booza” for good measure. Again, these are just the instances which are unmissable if you’re familiar with Volbeat’s work. There are a few other tracks which have a niggling air of familiarity to them, but I wouldn’t even care if there weren’t so many obvious instances already of them plundering their back catalogue here. It would be one thing if it was a theme for the album overall, but instead it just feels like they’re trying to reintroduce elements from deep cuts to new audiences who haven’t heard the rest of their music. Maybe there’s some merit to that idea, but it takes me out of the album with how obvious it is.

There’s also a Deluxe Edition release with 2 B-sides, an alternate version of “Die to Live” without guest vocals, and a bunch of demos. The B-sides are solid and basically all that makes the deluxe edition worthwhile, since the demos sound virtually indistinguishable from their slightly more polished versions and the alternate version of “Die to Live” is basically a less-interesting version of the standard track. All-in-all, if you like Volbeat already then the Deluxe Edition is basically a no-brainer anyway, but considering that 6 of the 8 tracks on it are basically more filler on an album which feels bloated with filler already, it doesn’t exactly help the overall feeling about the album. I enjoyed Rewind, Replay, Rebound well enough, but it’s very clearly on the lower end of Volbeat’s catalogue. I’m sure I’ll continue to give it listen-throughs into the future, but I can already tell that it’s not going to get nearly as much replays as their past classics. I just hope that the band doesn’t rest on their laurels when the next album cycle rolls around.

7) The Evening Hate EP, Red
I went over a bit of my history with Red in my 2017 album rankings – suffice to say, we’ve had a rough relationship. I’ve gone from loving Red, to being sick of them, to loving them again and then back to trepidation, all due to the inconsistent quality of their releases and balancing between different parts of their fanbase. So you can understand if I was a bit cautious going into The Evening Hate EP, but luckily for me the band was firing on all cylinders with this release. This is classic Red – the music is heavy (especially “From the Ashes”), the backing strings are beautiful and the electronic elements that permeated Release the Panic are almost entirely absent. The fight between using electronic elements versus strings seem to have been dogging Red for years, but I’m hoping that The Evening Hate EP is showing us a glimpse of the future, because everything on here sounds great. The title track has some unique elements for a Red song, while also managing to sound epic like something from their best album, of Beauty and Rage. It’s a great way to start the album. The next track, “From the Ashes”, is a very heavy and solid track, and while it is more typical Red fare than “The Evening Hate”, it doesn’t really hurt it any. “Hemorrhage” slows things down significantly and has wildly different vocals than anything Red has ever done, but this is in part due to it being a cover of a Fuel song. It’s very different for this band and I like the vocal style they used here. The album then closes out with an alternate version of “The Evening Hate” and an acoustic version of “From the Ashes”. The acoustic version of “From the Ashes” isn’t really anything special, but the alternate version of the title track is awesome. It slows the song down, making it more ethereal and puts more emphasis on the backing strings. It completely changes the song, to the point where both versions easily stand on their own. It even starts to build when the chorus kicks in, keeping it from stagnating like so many slowed-down, alternate versions of songs do. All-in-all, The Evening Hate makes for a very solid EP, to the point where it would be nice if it wasn’t so bite-sized! I just hope that this is a glimpse of where the band is heading because I definitely like this direction.

6) N.A.T.I.O.N., Bad Wolves
Bad Wolves’ Disobey was one of my favourite albums of 2018, but I was surprised when I found out that they were following it up with another full album just over a year later. I was also pretty surprised when I saw the album cover for it – an underwear-clad and tattoo-covered model was a pretty far cry from the imposing riot cop that adorned Disobey and perhaps signified a shift towards Five Finger Death Punch’s brand of bro metal. However, I’ve kind of turned around on this album art since my first impression – I actually like how deeply contrasted the colour of the model’s underwear is to her skin and tattoos, it looks striking. I’ve seen people say that the fact that there’s a woman in underwear here at all is “tasteless”, but I don’t feel like it’s overly-sexualized, especially considering that they’re intentionally covering up the model’s underboob.

Enough about the album art though, what about the music? Well, I can’t say that I like it nearly as much as Disobey, but N.A.T.I.O.N. is a solid-enough follow-up, especially considering that it was pumped out only a year later (and is 42 minutes long at that, some bands can barely manage 30 minutes in 3 years). There are some delightfully heavy and aggressive tracks on here, particularly “I’ll Be There”, “L.A. Song” and the brutal “The Consumerist”. When Bad Wolves are unleashed like this they’re at their absolute best, but they can still restrain themselves somewhat and put out a solid, radio-friendly rock tune. “Killing Me Slowly” is a great example of this, managing to be clearly written as a single while also being one of the best tracks on the album. Unfortunately, there are also several songs which were clearly written to be singles which just suck in comparison to the rest of the album because they make Bad Wolves sound so defanged. “Better Off This Way” is the first sign of this, a slowed-down, heartfelt breakup song right in the middle of an album full of blistering metal. It feels more like the cliche, emotional album closer rather than the start of the middle of the album. It’s a masterpiece though compared to “Sober”. Here I was hoping for a Tool cover, but what I got instead was another breakup song (this time with addiction added in!) that sounds exactly like an Imagine Dragons song, complete with claps and the layered vocal harmonies. It sucks and is clearly intended to get more of that radio airplay after the success of “Zombie” on their last album. Personally, I hope it bombs because I do not want Bad Wolves carrying on in this direction in the future. That’s the thing though – when they’re sticking with the heavy, aggressive stuff Bad Wolves sound fantastic. It’s these transparent attempts at radio friendliness which suck a lot of the life out of this album though – up until “Better Off This Way”, this album was shaping up to be in my top 3 of the year, but the quality of the tracks becomes extremely inconsistent from that point onward. As a result, I can’t say that it’s a step up from Disobey, but it’s a good enough release that I’m certainly going to be listening to it into the future many more times.


5) Fear Inoculum, Tool
Holy shit, it’s finally here! It’s been over 13 years, but the long-awaited Tool album finally saw release in 2019. For what it’s worth, Fear Inoculum sounds like Tool haven’t skipped a beat in the last 13 years, with the only real change in their sound being that frontman James Maynard Keenan sounds more like he did on last year’s A Perfect Circle album, Eat the Elephant, than he normally does on Tool tracks (which works for me, his voice sounds better this way in my opinion). However, the music landscape has changed drastically since 2006 and having such a blatantly esoteric, technically-ambitious and non-commercial album come out is, somewhat ironically, a major selling-point. While this gives Fear Inoculum a definite novelty factor, it’s hard to argue that it was worth the 13 year wait. Previous Tool albums always had their own distinct flavour, but Fear Inoculum sounds very much like their psychedelic, mystical tour de force, Lateralus. The problem with this though is that, while you can appreciate the craftsmanship and commitment to just being simply weird, the songs here aren’t as enjoyable as the ones on Lateralus. That’s not to say that there aren’t enjoyable tracks – the title track and “Descending” are really solid, but there’s nothing quite as impactful as Lateralus‘ “Schism” or “The Grudge”. Luckily, the latter half of the album starts shedding some of the trappings of Lateralus and we get interesting tracks like “Chocolate Chip Trip” (which sounds like something Iron Butterfly might craft) and the absolutely epic “7empest” (easily the best and most easily-enjoyable track on the album, even if it is almost 16 minutes long).

Oh and like The Great War, there are two versions of this album you can get, the physical edition and digital edition, which actually comes with 3 additional instrumental tracks. Normally I’d say to go for the additional songs… but man, I thought that all three of these bonus tracks were by far the worst music on the whole album. They’re just weird interludes for the sake of being weird and just get in the way of enjoying the actual good tracks in my opinion. Worst of all is “Mockingbeat”, which channels some of that old trolling energy the band used to display on Ænima and gives us a bunch of unbearable screeching for 2 minutes. I get it, ha ha, you’re literally mocking us Tool, but no one is going to want to listen to that shit. Just do yourself a favour, buy the album on CD or vinyl, you’re not missing out on anything good in doing so.

4) The Great War, Sabaton
Since finding their sound after a few rough, early albums, Sabaton have been one of the most consistently reliable bands in heavy metal. Their music doesn’t change very much from album to album, but they are always of a high quality, reinvented just enough that it doesn’t feel like they’re doing the bare minimum each time. If you’ve never heard Sabaton before, their music is all about war history, with their last three albums all having a central theme (the Swedish Empire in Carolus Rex, war heroes in Heroes and final stands in The Last Stand). With their newest release, Sabaton look to World War I with The Great War, which sees them putting more emphasis on the history of their subject than ever. In fact, they’re so dedicated to education that this time they’ve released a special edition of the album called the “History Edition”, which has short voice overs before each track. I actually bought this version of the album and while it does provide some very interesting context for each song I’m not sure I’d say it’s the recommended version to buy. Having to listen to the same introductions to each song every time is kind of annoying and some of them aren’t that informative anyway (eg, Verdun’s intro is about 5 seconds long). It’s worth a listen at least once, but I kind of wish that I had just gone with the standard edition, since you can glean the history from the lyrics anyway.

In the past, Sabaton have towed a fine line between glorifying war versus honouring the soldiers who fight in it, but The Great War probably strikes the most clear position on it. As is appropriate for an album about World War I, several songs decry the brutality and pointlessness of the war and there is a sombre tone to the whole affair, such as the doom-laced title track or “The End of the War to End All Wars”. This sombre tone is most clearly seen in the closing track with a choir rendition of “In Flander’s Fields”, which sees Sabaton dropping their entire sound in favour of a sober reflection to show how serious a tragedy WWI was.

Of course, it’s not all melancholy and seriousness; Sabaton have some awesome tracks which pump you up. Right out of the gate, “The Future of Warfare” is a killer opening track with an energetic chorus which makes you want to shout along with it, while also hammering home the idea that World War I was a conflict which changed the world. Other than the anti-war tracks, the rest of the tracks could have easily made their way onto Heroes, as Sabaton recounts various heroic soldiers’ actions during the war. All of the tracks are very solid, but they’re also just “more of the same”. If you’re into Sabaton already, this will certainly be fine, but it’s not likely to change any minds. The Great War is another solid album from Sabaton, but it’s a little unfortunate that they can’t evolve their sound much. The injection of sombreness at least gives The Great War a slightly different tone than previous releases, but at this point I just expect the band to rest on their laurels whenever a new album comes out.

3) Volume III, September Mourning
This list was supposed to come out about a week ago, I had it all ready to publish, when September Mourning dropped the news that their newest EP was coming out December 13. September Mourning are easily the best band I’ve discovered in this past year, so the opportunity to give them some more exposure was one that I wasn’t going to pass up. Even if their music wasn’t great (and it is), and even if frontwoman Emily Lazar wasn’t gorgeous (she seriously is), September Mourning are also a Gorillaz-style transmedia project. This means that every song is advancing a this deliciously-nerdy story about a half-human half-reaper character who tries to give people a second chance, played up by Emily Lazar’s elaborate costumes in live shows, along with a whole graphic novel line if you want to really dig into the lore. I love the whole project and Volume III was easily one of the releases I was most looking forward to this year.

Volume III features four songs, all of which have their own kind of flavour. “Unholy” strikes a rather sultry tone with the way Emily Lazar sings, very reminiscent of Maria Brink of In This Moment. Of course, I love In This Moment, so this works well for me although that’s not to say that September Mourning are just a clone of a more successful band – on the contrary, they have their own flavour. Most female-fronted metal bands, such as Evanescence, Sleeping Romance or the aforementioned Forever Still will end up in the symphonic or operatic metal subgenre, but September Mourning end up somewhere in between those are more “traditional” metal. “Hiding From Heaven” was released as a single earlier this year and is a fantastic demonstration of the band’s entire shtick, with their nerdy subject matter, empowering vocals and excellent songwriting. It’s a catchy song that will stick with you long after you hear it. The latter-half of the EP gets a bit heavier too, with “Madness” and “Overdose” being some of the heaviest music that September Mourning has produced thus far. That said, “Overdose” gets a bit repetitive on the chorus and may be the weakest track on the EP because of that… not that that’s a huge criticism though, because everything on here is solid. Easily the most frustrating part of Volume III is that it is just so bite-sized, it’s less than 15 minutes long in total! That’s way too short to be satisfying, but considering how good everything on here is I really can’t hold it against them. I love September Mourning and I really hope that I get a chance to see them live sometime in 2020!

2) The Nothing, Korn
Few bands have been through the wringer quite as badly as Korn. After helping to establish a whole subgenre with “nu-metal” and several successful albums in the 90s, the band became a punch line and put out terrible album after terrible album for the better part of a decade. It wasn’t until 2013 when original guitarist Brian “Head” Welch returned to the band that there were glimmers of a resurgence with The Paradigm Shift. 3 years later, The Serenity of Suffering was easily their best album since their heyday and this year’s The Nothing is unquestionably one of the band’s best albums ever, putting the band back at the forefront of the metal scene in tragic fashion. There’s a rawness to The Nothing that this band hasn’t seen in quite some time and this obviously is a result of the death of frontman Jonathan Davis’ wife to an accidental overdose. You can hear the pain and guilt in Davis’ words and voice, most explictly on album closer “Surrender to Failure”. It’s some of the darkest material the band has ever put out, but the band has gained a maturity over their 25 year career that keeps it from becoming too overwhelming. Songwriting was always a weakness of Korn in their heyday, with the band relying on emotion to carry them through rather than the lyrics, but the writing here has matured significantly. Tracks like “H@rd3r”, “This Loss”, “You’ll Never Find Me” and even the extremely dark “The Seduction of Indulgence” are really solidly-written and don’t come across as insincere or undeservedly angsty. I’m particularly impressed that this album remains rock solid throughout – I often complain that an album dips halfway through (or vice-versa), but The Nothing retains a consistently-high quality from start to finish. I’m happy to see that Korn have definitely gotten themselves back on track and are putting out the best music of their entire career now, it’s just unfortunate that it had to come from such pain. Here’s hoping that the future holds some joy for Jonathan Davis and company.

1) We Are Not Your Kind, Slipknot
Who would have thought even 15 years ago that the icons of nu-metal would be putting out some of the biggest and best rock albums in 2019? That said, Slipknot have always been viewed as the critical darlings of the subgenre but they don’t always get the respect they deserve, perhaps because they are such a brutal band. I like how CagyCylinder describes Slipknot’s place in the metal scene: “the heavier parts are still more brutal than anything any other ‘mainstream’ metal band will ever serve up”. I like this description – there are certainly heavier bands, but among the bands in the mainstream, they’re almost certainly the most brutal, almost approaching death metal levels of brutality at times. Coming off of The Gray Chapter, which synthesized the heaviest parts of early-Slipknot with the more mainstream-minded work of their third and fourth albums, we now get We Are Not Your Kind which picks up from their and sees the band experimenting with their sound more than ever. Hell, no two songs on this album feel quite the same and the band has clearly worked to make every track on this album stand out on its own. This is particularly impressive since, while there are individual songs on previous Slipknot albums that I like more than some of the songs here, as an overall package this is the first Slipknot album I’ll happily listen to from start to finish every time without skipping over anything.

The first half of the album sounds like classic Slipknot, with all the aggression and heaviness you’d expect, but things really start getting interesting with “Spiders”, a piano-led track that sounds kind of like the Halloween theme. It gives it an air of creepiness which is appropriately-Slipknot despite sounding unlike anything they’ve ever done before. Even more unusual is “My Pain”, which is equally-creepy and has an incredibly sparse and unusual soundscape to it. Like… the music in this track makes me think of the sound of a grandfather clock at night when you’re lying alone in your bed. Somehow I don’t think that that’s an accident that it brings back those same sorts of childhood anxieties. We also get a bit of a return to the norm with “Orphan” (one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album), but the last two tracks, “Not Long for This World” and “Solway Firth”, fuse a bit more of this experimentation with Slipknot’s usual sound, closing out the album on something familiar yet different. The experimentation in the latter-half of the album works and clearly comes from a desire to try new things rather than get more mass appeal.

The songwriting is also on-point and matured in this album. It’s basically just a lot of facing personal demons and battling depression, but that resonates with me. I complained about bands with positive hard rock earlier and that’s partly because, as someone who goes through anxiety and bouts of depression, those sorts of music don’t make me feel any better, stuff like this does. I can channel the emotion of “Unsainted” and use that to express what I’m feeling in a cathartic manner. It’s also nice to note that, unlike say Five Finger Death Punch, Slipknot’s aggression isn’t directed at random nobodies who piss them off or women who dare break up with them, it’s more introspective and, consequently, justified. We Are Not Your Kind is probably the most consistently-even Slipknot album they’ve ever put out and there is very little fault I can find with it, hence why it landed on the top of the rankings this year.

Listening to Bands That Followed Me on Social Media

I love to follow my favourite bands on Twitter and Instagram, it’s such a convenient way for me to stay in the loop on new music, nearby concerts and other goings-on in the band members’ lives. However, I have also noticed a side effect to this: every time I follow a major band, I will get followed back by a couple other, smaller bands trying to make a name for themselves. It’s a pretty clever strategy I must say – it’s free advertising, it immediately gets them into your good graces and it lets you know that they’re making music similar to the stuff you already love, so why not check them out? As a show of good faith and because I like to support independent artists, I keep a list of all the bands who have followed me and check them out when I get a chance. I’ve gotten enough piled up now that I thought that I would do a list of the bands that have followed me, listed from my least favourite to favourite. This is, of course, super subjective so I would recommend checking out all of the bands here regardless rather than just taking my word as final for how good any of their music is. Oh, and if more bands follow me in the future then I’ll probably do a follow up article, so I hope that happens!

Honourable Mention: Brian “Head” Welch of Korn and Love & Death followed me at one point and even slid into my DMs with a message of encouragement (very much on-brand for him based on what I’ve read about the man). He has since unfollowed me, but that’s probably because I have a real potty-mouth on Twitter since that’s where I post my most passionate political opinions. Anyway, I don’t really count him since he followed me in response to me following him rather than because he was trying to market himself, but I thought that it was worth a mention at the very least.

7) September Sky
Genre: Metal
Followed Me Because I Liked: Breaking Benjamin on Instagram
Favourite Track: “Fallacy”

Of all the bands that have followed me, September Sky have the biggest catalogue (2 EPs and 1 album) and longest history, having released their first EP back in 2011. They also have a pretty strong marketing push for the band, having followed me twice (!!) on Instagram in order to make sure I definitely noticed them and very promoter-friendly bios on their website and Spotify which make such claims as “In a sea of mediocre alternative metal, September Sky stands out not only with their magnetic twist of alternative grunge rock and thrash metal influences, but also their well-known empowering and inspiring vocals and refreshing guitar solos.” They also claim that fans describe their sound as “Disturbed meets Tool and Alice In Chains”. If that sounds like a strange mixture, well, September Sky doesn’t really live up to it. Their first EP, Bright Sides to Dark Days, sounds very much like Tool but without the same level of craft and refinement. Tracks like “Ted” sound very much like “Aenima” or “Eulogy”, to the point where it feels like their sound might be just a little too derivative. The only song which breaks out of the Tool mould is “Freakshow”, a non-conformity song which is probably their only track which reminded me of Disturbed… and not in a good way at all. I really disliked “Freakshow”, it felt like a black mark on an otherwise decent debut. Bright Sides to Dark Days might feel a little too familiar, but I was really digging tracks like “Disappearing Friend”. There was some promise here and with time and maturity September Sky could carve out their own niche.

Oddly enough though, their second EP, Letter to Fear, totally ditches the Tool influences and takes on a much more bog-standard metal sound. The heaviness of it all was constantly reminding me of Faceless-era Godsmack with maybe a hint of Breaking Benjamin on “My Ending”. I was also starting to hear the Alice in Chains influences (especially in the layered vocals and grungy instrumentation on the title track and “Fallacy”). All-in-all though, while Letter to Fear is much different than Bright Sides to Dark Days, it feels like September Sky were still trying to figure out what exactly their sound is. I was hoping that they would refine the Tool-inspired sound and make it their own, but instead Letter to Fear is another starting point, and not for the better in my opinion.

Then there’s The Dying Season, the only September Sky release classified as an “album”… although it’s only 31 minutes long, so basically just another EP. The Dying Season starting bringing in those guitar solos that they bragged about in their bio on tracks such as “Pieces”. However, they’re easily the best part of “Pieces”, because I could not stand the sluggish instrumentation and strange vocals on this track. It’s like vocalist Scott Bernhardt is going for an Eddie Vedder impersonation, but it doesn’t sound natural. He also does this weird, snivelling, echoey voice on “House of Shadows” which I couldn’t stand. Bernhardt’s voice is fine when he’s just in his natural range, but when he tries to shake it up like this, I really can’t stand it. Most of this album just didn’t stand out to me at all, but I will give some credit to “Eye of the Beast”, I thought that this track was legitimately good and interesting. Unfortunately, I just don’t really like September Sky’s music. Only a couple of tracks grab me in any way, but even those are a far cry away from something I would listen to on a regular basis. I’ve got no ill-will towards September Sky and I wish them the best, but they’re just not for me. Still, I have to give them props once again for their marketing, because holy crap am I ever awful at marketing myself. Even though I didn’t like their music, they still managed to get their opportunity to spread their band to the thousands of people who visit IC2S every month. I’ll give September Sky a tip of my hat and I sincerely hope that one day they release an album that I do like.

6) Awake At Last
Genre: Hard Rock
Followed Me Because I Liked: …Breaking Benjamin? Demon Hunter, maybe? I can’t even remember when or where they followed me because they aren’t following me on Instagram or Twitter anymore… thanks guys!
Favourite Track: “Constellations”

As of the time writing this, Awake at Last had one EP on Spotify: Life / Death / Rebirth, a pretty trippy-looking album that was making me think of Tool or Mastodon right out of the gate. The music I actually got was… well, I wasn’t really expecting theatrical hard rock. That’s not to say that it was bad, but it was much less interesting than what I was hoping for. The opening track, “Purgatorium”, very much reminds me of “Ladies and Gentlemen” by Saliva. Much of their music also makes me think of Shinedown, although with a less-distinct vocalist. And… uh… that’s basically all that I have to say about their music. It’s a pretty short EP, but it didn’t leave an impression on me at all. They do have a new album recorded and apparently it will be releasing in 2019, so I will probably be checking that out – expect to see it at the end of the year in the annual albums round-up.

5) Forfeit Thee Untrue
Genre: Christian Metalcore/Deathcore
Followed Me Because I Liked: Demon Hunter on Twitter
Favourite Track: “Sermon of a Dying Atheist” or “Lucifer’s Lullaby”

Forfeit Thee Untrue had an unfortunate first impression with me because their band’s name was eerily similar to a douchey, joke band from Metalocalypse, Get Thee Hence. Hell, Nathan Explosion even says that the band’s name sounds like a bad Christian metal group, which just makes Forfeit Thee Untrue’s name sting more. Then I saw the title of their album, Cremationem Jesus Lacrimam, and the difficulty of just pronouncing their damn title had me annoyed with this band before I even listened to the first song.

The second that “The Mirror That Hates” starts I instantly was awash with this feeling of familiarity. I used to hear this same, screaming/growling, hyper-aggressive metalcore/deathcore sound every day from countless bands on Weathered Steel (a now-defunct Christian metal internet radio station; it’s what got me into Impending Doom and A Feast For Kings, among others, since they were the best and most distinct bands on there). Forfeit Thee Untrue’s music is fine, it just isn’t something I’d want to actively listen to. Vocalist Gideon Karsten screams and growls well enough, but I didn’t really care for the sung vocals most of the time. Karsten keeps trying to sing at a lower range than is natural for him and it just sounds unpleasant, especially on tracks like “Fractured God”. That said, it seems that Forfeit Thee Untrue has had a major member shakeup so maybe the new vocalist will have more range in their next release?

It’s also worth noting that, right from the sermon in the opening track, Forfeit Thee Untree is explicitly a “Christian band” rather than a “band of Christians” (such as Demon Hunter or P.O.D., where their music can be appreciated by anyone regardless of faith). This isn’t inherently an issue, but it did make me roll my eyes at the tracks of certain songs on this album. “The Burning of the Last Bible” also hints at the evangelical persecution complex and really makes me wish that the lyrics to this album were online so I could make certain that I’m not mischaracterizing this band (that said, the title also kind of ignores that we live in a world where the Bible can be found in its entirety online in seconds). Then there’s “Sermon of a Dying Atheist” which is… well, the title kind of speaks for itself and the old “no real atheists” myth that persists throughout evangelical culture. It belies the usual lack of imagination and empathy that evangelicals have when it comes to atheists, but this is also possibly the best put-together song on the album, even featuring clean vocals from Karsten that I actually liked. It’s pretty bad when the only song on this album I thought was actually pretty good is also conceptually troublesome.

All-in-all, I can tell that Forfeit Thee Untrue are not a bad band, but they just don’t stand out for me at all. It also doesn’t help that I feel like they’re struggle to carve out their own sound. If you’re into the Christian metalcore scene then you might enjoy their music, but it’s not my thing unfortunately.

4) Red Devil Vortex
Genre: Metal
Followed Me Because I Liked: Breaking Benjamin
Favourite Track: “Undaunted”

Red Devil Vortex leave a really strong first impression: they have a great name and the artwork for their debut EP, Something Has to Die is awesome. Of all the bands on this list, Red Devil Vortex was by far the one I was most excited to check out.

And then you start their first track and realize that they’re Five Finger Death Punch.

…okay, I’m exaggerating greatly, but my first thought upon hearing the opening track, “Undaunted” was “oh God, they sound like Five Finger Death Punch, NOOOOOOO!!!” Thankfully, this fear ended up being mostly unrealized, since Red Devil Vortex are much better lyricists than Ivan Moody and company, managing to produce bro-metal without coming across like a bunch of douchebags. Not that their lyrics are all that deep (mostly standard, empowering metal), but the band fires on all cylinders and churns out some really solid music throughout. With a bit more musical maturity, I could easily see them becoming a commercially successful force in the metal scene.

…but still, I can’t shake that fear I had upon first listening to them. Red Devil Vortex had almost won me over, but at the very end of the last track on the EP they pull a colossal blunder by ending the song with a pointless declaration of “from villains to kings, BITCH!!!” It’s just… ugh, why? Just like that, they upend their non-douchey look and make me question their entire career trajectory. Maybe I’m just nitpicking this, but it seriously annoyed me that they’d put in such a pointless, tough-guy wannabe punctuation on the EP. It makes me seriously question whether Red Devil Vortex are going to evolve into a FFDP-lite, or if they’re going to seize the promise that they’ve shown here. I seriously hope they can follow the lead of Godsmack and shed the bro-metal bullshit in favour of something inspiring, because there’s some serious talent on display here.

3) Dark Moon Lilith
Genre: Alt Rock
Followed Me Because I Liked: In This Moment on Twitter
Favourite Track: “Kerosene” and “Hiding Place”

Dark Moon Lilith gets some points for being the first band on this list to follow me (after Brian “Head” Welch anyway) and for having an amazing band name (which is apparently an astrology term for “a mathematical point that’s exactly in between the earth and the moon — essentially, empty space. It represents the cosmic void, that very energy this spirit embodies” and is related to eroticism). The band’s debut EP, Occultation, surprised me a bit because I was expecting alt metal similar to In This Moment. Instead, Dark Moon Lilith produces very moody, angsty, slow tempo alt rock. Any surprise I had was quickly washed away by “Kerosene”, a really well-made track which exemplifies Dark Moon Lilith’s style, Lilith’s vocal range and is easily the best track on the EP. In fact, “Kerosene” alone was enough to sell me on Occultation and buy the digital EP, but it’s far from the only good song on here. “Blind Side”, “Shores” and especially “Hiding Place” are all very well made, moody compositions which show off Lilith’s raw talent, although they also show that her range of songwriting topics is rather limited. That said, the songs themselves are pretty well put together, and the pervasive moodiness only really start to drag a bit in the second half of the album when the tempo slows to a crawl in songs such as “World Away”. It’s unfortunate that the EP struggles to keep my interest towards the end, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that “Kerosene” and “Hiding Place” alone more than made Occultation a must-buy for me. I really liked Dark Moon Lilith and will certainly be keeping an eye on them in the future and will certainly be relistening to Occultation many times in the future.

2) Forever Still
Genre: Metal/Symphonic Metal
Followed Me Because I Liked: In This Moment on Twitter
Favourite Track: “Alone”

Forever Still are, relatively, one of the bigger bands that has followed me, as demonstrated by the fact that they’re signed to the major international metal label Nuclear Blast. Their debut album, Tied Down, did not disappoint as vocalist Maja Shining shows off her impressive vocal range, which can go from operatic heights to screams in the blink of an eye. Their music is also quite impressively diverse, going from heavy, energetic metal tracks to Sleeping Romance-esque symphonic metal. Sleeping Romance was probably the touch-point that I came back to the most while listening to Tied Down, but I was also reminded of plenty of other, smaller female-fronted bands that I like such as At Dawn’s Edge and Ilia. The album remains enjoyable throughout, but it’s not until the last three tracks that the band really finds their groove, with “Alone”, “Break the Glass” and “Tied Down” pushing the album’s energy into a new level and taking it from “good” to “I want to buy a copy of this album”.

All-in-all, Tied Down makes for a very solid, polished debut album. There’s clearly room for further refinement, but what Forever Still have crafted here is really good and worth checking out. The band also has a new album coming out in 2019 called Breathe in Colours, so you can be sure that that will be making its way on to the year-end music round-up. I’m really looking forward to seeing if Forever Still have managed to refine their sound further and put together a whole album as strong as the last few songs on their debut!

1) Fight Like Sin
Genre: Hard Rock
Followed Me Because I Liked: Breaking Benjamin
Favourite Track: “I Was Nowhere”

When I started writing this article, I listened to all of the music of the other bands on this list in one day. It started off pretty well with Dark Moon Lilith and Forever Still, but eventually I was capping off that day by feeling extremely burnt out by September Sky. I decided that Fight Like Sin was going to have to wait for the next day, since their musical output just about rivaled September Sky’s and I couldn’t take another long bout of disappointment. Luckily for me, as soon as I started up the Surrender Nothing EP, I was hooked and re-energized. I had some tepid reservations about opening track “The Black”, namely that the songwriting was just fine and that I didn’t really care for the vocalist, but the track itself was a really enjoyable slice of hard rock akin to Breaking Benjamin. However, then “I Was Nowhere” and “All On Me” really impressed me with great songwriting, smart build-up and the vocals even grew on me. These three tracks alone sold me on Fight Like Sin being my favourite band on this list, and there were still two more releases to look forward to!

The Singularity EP opens solidly with “Fire Away”, which shows off a slightly more refined sound and even features a guitar solo near the end! It immediately leaves the impression that this is a very confident band who are hungry to make it into the big-time. Fight Like Sin really remind me of Breaking Benjamin here, especially on the track “Nightmare”, which could have easily been pried from a Dark Before Dawn recording session. Fight Like Sin tend to be lyrically angsty, such as on the track “In the Dark”, but they manage to find a balance between angst and empowerment which keeps them from ending up feeling too dour. All-in-all, Singularity is another solid EP from Fight Like Sin, which manages to make each of its five tracks feel distinct despite fitting comfortably into the angsty teen lyrical mold. Singularity easily gets another high recommendation from me.

Then we get to Identity, Fight Like Sin’s debut album… although, like The Dying Season, it’s another basically-EP at 31 minutes. Thankfully, the album feels longer than it actually is and opens with a moody instrumental before an explosive lead-in to “Chasing a Lie” that grabbed me immediately with its hard-hitting, energetic sound. Fight Like Sin seem to be really gunning for wide recognition on this album, as there are songs like “Demons” which just scream “hit radio single”, but the band also manages to give all of the songs their own distinct flavour. However, there was one clear issue that was nagging me throughout this entire album which hadn’t really been an issue in their EPs – the songwriting feels uninspired. I mean, I liked “Chasing a Lie” a lot, but lyrically it’s just another non-committal resistance song of the sort that I was making fun of so much in the 2018 album round-up. Songs like “Wasteland” are enjoyable but end up feeling lesser because the lyrics aren’t really pushing any boundaries. It’s the same sort of issue I had with XXI and their debut album, Inside Out – the songs are all good and the band is clearly very talented, but their lyrics are so bog standard that it makes the entire album feel kind of throw-away. Talent can still manage to carry a band (Breaking Benjamin have been making the same album since 2002 and I kind of love them for it regardless), but I’m not quite sure that Fight Like Sin have gotten to a point where they can rely on it to pull them through. Either way, when my only real complaint is that I wish that Identity was even better than it already is, you know that it’s worth checking out.

And that’s it for now! With any luck more bands will follow me in future and I will be sure to check them out. It was fun being exposed to new music, even if some of it wasn’t really my cup of tea.

My Favourite Albums of 2017

Hey… it’s been a super long time since I made a post. Considering that I left shortly before all the bullshit with Trump started, that might have been for the best, but I’ll make an update on what has gone on in my life sometime soon… because damn it has been quite a year.

But anyway, I was thinking back on the music I’ve been listening to this year and it caused me to realize just how many albums I’ve checked out since January. Then, before I knew it, I suddenly had half an IC2S list hashed out and knew that I had to finally get back into the blogging game. So, here I present to you, the albums I listened to in 2017, ranked from worst to best. Naturally, I’ll note that music is super subjective, my list is nowhere near comprehensive, and I’d be shocked if you had listened to more than a couple of the albums on it. Just consider this some random loser on the Internet’s list of albums he listened to this year, if nothing else.

13) Tear the Roots, Kaleida
After the very promising Think EP and its mesmerizing title track, I was very intrigued to see what Kaleida would come up with in their debut album. The results are, unfortunately, very mediocre. “Think” reappears completely unchanged and is the one shot of adrenaline in the whole album, which doesn’t speak well to the new material. Tear the Roots is a competent release, but very mediocre and forgettable. I can’t ever see myself listening to it in full again, which should be about all you need to know about it really.

12) Pretzel Champions, Countless Thousands
As the album’s Bandcamp description states, Pretzel Champions was “written and recorded in the eye of a storm in only 24 hours. We like to tempt fate.” That more-or-less should give you an idea of what you’re in for, featuring 4 lean songs with questionable recording quality. It doesn’t hold a candle to the rest of Countless Thousands’ catalogue, although the obviously experimental nature and time-crunch that birthed it makes it certainly intriguing. “An Umbrella for the Golden Shower” and “Sunday Best” are really solid songs which I would love to hear in a bit more refined form sometime in the future. It’s not exactly a bad album, but the poor audio quality definitely holds it back.

11) Gone, Red
Red and I have a bit of a troubled history. End of Silence was a great debut and Innocence & Instinct was a great follow-up. However, cracks began to show with the forgettable Until We Have Faces, but it wasn’t until the bland, chart-seeking Release the Panic that I decided that I was sick of Red. However, the band seemed to realize that they had screwed up and made amends in fantastic fashion with, in my opinion their best album, of Beauty and Rage. So, going into Gone I was left wondering which direction Red was going to head – were they going to try to recapture that quality again? Or were they going to try to aim for that blander rock sound again? The answer is… well, a little bit of everything. In terms of sound, Gone feels like something of an amalgamation of all of Red’s albums thus far, for better or worse. The album’s at its best when it’s hewing towards those first 2 albums (“Step Inside, The Violence” “Still Alive”, “Chasing Your Echo”) or of Beauty and Rage (“A.I.”). However, it’s also gets questionable when it hews towards Release the Panic‘s electronic synthesizers and radio-rock sound. The title track is a good example of this – it’s a serviceable radio rock track, but then at the height of the chorus, it will suddenly switch into this electronic music which literally sounds like a generic top 40 backing track, and I don’t like how this gels together. On the other hand, “Unstoppable” is just awkward – it feels like Red want an anthemic crowd-pleasing rock track, but the chorus in particular feels half-baked and I’d feel really silly screaming that at a concert with any sort of sincerity. The closing track, “Singularity”, is the one track that feels quite different from what they’ve done and maybe points towards the future, with some eerie sampling and slow build-up towards its heavy ending. I have a feeling that Red has a diverse fanbase at this point, and in trying to give everyone something to enjoy, they can’t help but alienate others in the process. Gone isn’t bad, but it didn’t really reignite my passion for this band like I was hoping it would.

10) Humanz, Gorillaz
I would maintain that Demon Days is one of the best soundtracks to the post-9/11 and early War on Terror era, so I was really hoping that Humanz would be the Trump-era equivalent. While Humanz seems to have the aspirations to hit that lofty goal (further suggested by the various album covers which are reminiscent of the iconic Demon Days art), the results are unlikely to stand the test of time. Humanz is, simply put, a bit of a mess. There are some standout tracks, such as “Saturnz Barz”, “Busted and Blue” and “Halleujah Money”, but there are so many strange and sometimes forgettable tracks which just feels like they took absolutely everything from the studio and then threw it at the wall to see what would stick. Damon Albarn also takes a backseat on most of the tracks, which just further makes this feel like a mixtape rather than a cohesive album. It gets more enjoyable the more you listen to it, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this might be less “self titled debut” and more “The Fall“.

9) Cold Dark Place EP, Mastodon
The surprise second release by Mastodon in 2017, Cold Dark Place attempts to harken back to the band’s sludgier roots which they have left behind since 2009’s Crack the Skye, at which point the band moved more towards progressive metal. That’s not to say that Cold Dark Place is particularly heavy – it’s reminiscent of the slower parts of Blood Mountain (think “Pendulous Skin”) or The Hunter perhaps. The 4 songs here have a melodic and melancholic feed to them, making the album’s title and art actually quite effective for describing the feel you get listening to it. There are only 4 tracks, but they’re all solid and reasonably lengthy, so it lasts longer than you might otherwise expect. At this point, I’m just curious to see if this is just an experiment from Mastodon, or a sign of things to come going forward. I guess we’ll see in a couple years time.

8) No Grave But the Sea, Alestorm
Alestorm jokingly declared that they were scraping the barrel with their pirate metal antics 2 albums ago, but No Grave But the Sea further goes to demonstrate that they can continue to spin gold out of a seemingly finite concept. Part of the reason for this is because Alestorm does not take themselves seriously in the slightest, so every album is a reminiscent of a rowdy and rousing bar concert (like something out of Tangled). Tracks like “Mexico”, “Fucked With an Anchor” and “Man the Pumps” leave me simultaneously laughing and wanting to sing along at the same time, and that’s before you even factor in the bonus CD which replaces all the lyrics with dogs barking (…no seriously, that is not a joke, that actually exists). That’s not to say that there are no more serious tracks here – the title track and “To The End of the World” are quite badass and help to keep the album from going too far and becoming a total farce.

7) Outlive, Demon Hunter
Outlive has my favourite opening of the year with the badass “Trying Times” hyping you for what’s to come, and then leading into the blistering “Jesus Wept”. It’s then a bit of a minor tragedy that Outlive peaks immediately and doesn’t come close to matching that intensity again. All of the tracks are solid, but there are some forgettable stretches and only a few tracks really stand out from the pack, particularly the aforementioned opening duo and “Raining Down” (which has gone on to become a bit of an anthem for me this past year). The relative softening of Demon Hunter’s signature intense metalcore sound is also slightly disappointing, but the music is good enough that this isn’t too serious an issue. Outlive is a good release by Demon Hunter, maybe not as strong as their last album, Extremist, but certainly a worthy addition to their catalogue.

6) Alba, Sleeping Romance
Sleeping Romance’s previous release, Enlighten, was a rather standard symphonic metal release which was buoyed by the unexpectedly heavy and intense closing track, “Devil’s Cave”. My worry going into Alba was that Sleeping Romance wouldn’t be able to match that high point, but the album quickly put those fears to rest. The opening overture is appropriately gothic, operatic and theatrical, showing the band’s greater ambition and matured musicianship before transitioning into the familiar Sleeping Romance sound (strings, piano, heavy guitars and Federica Lanna’s dreamlike voice and particular Italian accent). There are also two tracks which very much rival “Devil’s Cave”, the first being “Forgiveness” with a very heavy opening and some fantastic solos in the latter half, and the second being the title track, which is clearly intended to harken back to “Devil’s Cave” before spinning off into its own thing. The album isn’t just trying to match previous beats though, as tracks like “Touch the Sun” and “Everything Behind” also stand out in ways that previous efforts never really did. In many ways, Alba could be said to be like a much more refined version of Enlighten, in that it treads similar ground, but in a much stronger package. I really wasn’t sure what I was going to think of this album, but I was left pleasantly surprised by how good it ended up being.

5) The Lost City, The Wise Man’s Fear
A friend of mine got me into Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle a little over a year ago. Shortly after finishing the second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, I accidentally stumbled onto a fantasty-based metalcore outfit with the same name which was clearly drawing inspiration from Rothfuss. Suffice to say, I was intrigued and very quickly discovered an exciting new band that I have been listening to regularly ever since. While their previous release, Castle in the Clouds, hewed closer to Rothfuss, The Lost City sees The Wise Man’s Fear branching out more into their own fantasy creations. The fantastical elements lend the band a rather unique space in the metalcore genre, where the angst and intensity is not just the band getting out their own issues, but rather they’re telling the stories of a character and a world. The band’s vocal and sonic diversity are also impressive and help to distinguish the tone of each song – one minute they might be singing melodically before switching over to shouts, screams and death growls… and dammit it sounds so freaking good (hell, “Bloodlust” even has doom metal-style “bree bree” vocals at certain points). Particular standouts for me include “Grey King”, “What Time Brings”, “Codex” and the title track, but nearly the entire damn album is fantastic.

4) Sheep Among Wolves, Project 86
For a very long time, I considered Project 86 to be my second favourite band, so hopefully that helps to illustrate how disappointed I was in their last release, Knives to the Future, that I was quite hesitant about how their newest album was going to turn out. Thankfully, Sheep Among Wolves is Project 86 back in true form. While Knives suffered from being far too light, Sheep goes in the other direction (overcompensating even) and dials the band’s hardcore sound back up to 11. This album is relentlessly intense, moreso than any other Project 86 album before, and barely easing up until the final track (although it doesn’t reach the level of heaviness and darkness that their first few albums did either). Andrew Schwab’s songwriting has always helped Project 86 to stand out from the pack, and the lyrics here are as fantastic as ever, bringing a poetic side to seemingly straightforward headbanging hardcore rock. The album art is also really cool, probably my favourite cover of the year. If there’s one hesitation I have about Sheep Among Wolves, it would be a bit of unease about the closing track “Metempsychosis”. It’s as good a song as any on the album, but it tackles the idea of changing one’s self through surgery to try to solve deeper issues. Obviously, this is attempting to enter into to the conversation about transgender individuals, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. I’m not sure that I agree with Schwab’s assertion that there’s a spiritual issue at the core of these people seeking surgery, but at the very least he comes across to me as stating his position in a respectful way. If you’re dead-set on any sort of questioning of gender reassignment surgery then you’re probably going to be disappointed with this song, but it’s conveyed in a respectful enough manner that I at least think it deserves its place.

3) Ritual, In This Moment
I was a bit hesitant going into Ritual. Similarly to Project 86, In This Moment’s last album, Black Widow, was a major departure from their usual sound, taking on more pop vibes and losing some of its edge, and it could have easily represented a complete shift in how the band would operate going forward. However, In This Moment proved me wrong in spectacular fashion. I still feel like Blood is their best album, but Ritual is solid from start to finish. It also experiments with their sound in some interesting ways. Blood and Black Widow had both played up a level of gothic, transgressive sexuality which I had quite enjoyed. Ritual quite intentionally jettisons that tone, but is none the weaker for it, proving that, contrary to some opinions on the matter, sex may sell but talent speaks for itself. Instead, Ritual plays more towards In This Moment’s stage theatrics, weaving occultic tapestries which will also make for a fantastic live show (and I sure as hell hope so, I’m planning on catching them in Detroit with P.O.D. in the new year). However, unlike say, The Wall, the tracks here are all just as listenable without a live stage show to go along with them. “Black Wedding” in particular is a hell of a song, riffing on a classic while spinning it in its own direction. I’ve listened to it multiple times in a row on more than one occasion. “Twin Flames”, “Half God Half Devil” and “Roots” are also real standouts. Ritual is, all-in-all, a great album and thankfully puts In This Moment back on track and makes me excited to see where they go in the future.

2) Emperor of Sand, Mastodon
Maybe you’re starting to notice a trend, but I was initially concerned going into Emperor of Sand, because Once More ‘Round the Sun was unquestionably Mastodon’s weakest album to date. Hell, the title even referenced the workman-like nature of it, meaning that another year will pass and therefore another album and touring cycle for the band. Ever since their initial elemental quadrilogy ended, Mastodon have been spinning their wheels a bit, trying to figure out where they will go next. However, when it became clear that Mastodon were going to be going back to a style reminiscent of Crack the Skye (my personal favourite album of theirs), I got excited. Thankfully, Emperor of Sand does not disappoint. In fact, I’d put it on par with Blood Mountain, near the upper-half of their catalogue (which, to contextualize, are popularly considered some of the best metal albums since the 2000s). The album also focuses very strongly on the inevitability of death, and this brings an appropriately sombre tone to the proceedings. There isn’t a weak track on the album, but particular highlights include “Sultan’s Curse”, “Ancient Kingdom”, “Jaguar God” and especially “Steambreather”, which is most reminiscent of their sludgier roots. Between Emperor of Sand and the Cold Dark Place EP, Mastodon has had quite the year, and I’m very curious to see how they progress going forward. Perhaps we’re looking at the start of another thematic quadrilogy? One can only hope that Mastodon continues to challenge themselves and don’t ease back into a comfortable cycle.

1) Through Glass Eyes, At Dawn’s Edge
Two years ago I saw Sovereign Council in concert for the album debut celebration for Laniakea. The opening act that night was a band called At Dawn’s Edge, whose symphonic/power metal style instantly had me intrigued. I purchased their EP, First Contact, but was disappointed that most of their setlist wasn’t actually on the EP… and so began the long wait for their debut album to drop. However, nothing prepared me for just how impressive Through Glass Eyes was going to be, and HOLY SHIT is it ever good. For a small outfit, the production values are impeccable, the songs are ambitious and diverse and the band members all display a level of talent and maturity which are frankly insane for a debut album.

My only complaint is really just a nitpick – I vastly prefer the recording of “Utter” on First Contact over the version on Through Glass Eyes. This is a sore point for me, because “Utter” was by far my favourite track on First Contact. The contrast between the vocals of Tamara Filipovic and the male vocalist really made that song work fantastically, but in Through Glass Eyes, this contrast has been replaced with Tamara Filipovic’s singing only. It doesn’t sound nearly as good in comparison to me, and kind of ruins an otherwise good song. Like, I’m honestly at a point where I’m considering swapping in the First Contact version whenever I listen to “Utter” going forward, which would only make Through Glass Eyes that much better of an album to me. Really, this is a nitpick as I said, because Through Glass Eyes is a staggeringly good debut and makes me hope that At Dawn’s Edge have a long and successful career ahead of them. I know that I’ll be there to support them in it.

2012 in Media

With 2013 just a few days away, I think it’s worth looking back on the year that was. While it may be tempting to do this from the perspective of movies, I think that this was actually a rather disappointing year overall (or, at the very least, underwhelming). I mean, we had more than our fair share of mindless cinematic drivel (Wrath of the Titans, Resident Evil: Retribution, etc), extremely disappointing films (Taken 2, The Amazing Spider-man, etc) and decent films which didn’t reach their potential (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, PrometheusLooper [the 3rd act was horrible in my opinion], The Dark Knight Rises, etc). To top it off, Dredd bombed at the box-office. That said, there were some great films, but aside from Skyfall, The Avengers and Argo, most of the good stuff seemed to be skewed towards the first couple months of the year.

Anyway, I really didn’t start writing this to mope about the year in movies. I wrote to say that 2012 was the best years in music I can remember as most of my favourite artists not only released new albums, but they were almost universally amongst the best material in their discographies. Now I’ll preface this by saying that while taste in movies tends to be more agreeable, it seems like almost everyone has their own segmented tastes in music. I mean, my tastes are focused largely on various forms of rock/hard rock/Christian rock/metal, but even in that niche then there’s a good chance my tastes don’t overlap with most people. So while I had an amazing year in music, you might have had a terrible one, or you had an amazing one for completely different reasons. In any case, let me enthusiastically take you through my epic 2012. 🙂

Beginning the year was the very odd, but nevertheless catchy, Gorillaz/James Murphy/Andre 3000 collaboration, “DoYaThing”. The song was completely bonkers, but there is an unusual charm to it that grows on you with subsequent listenings (sort of like Gorillaz’s previous Plastic Beach amendment, “Doncamatic”). It wasn’t amazing, but I’d give the song a 6.5/10.

Next up was a busy April, which had 3 releases: True Defiance by Demon Hunter, which released the same day as Fighter by Manafest, and then the Chemicals E.P. by Love & Death at the end of the month. I was never much of a fan of Demon Hunter, but one of my friends recommended that I check them out again, and I’m glad that I did. True Defiance was a good album, amongst my favourites of the year. True Defiance opens with a bang with “Crucifix”, an amazingly intense headbanger of a song. The album is just strong throughout, carrying through to the melodic closer, “Dead Flowers”. If you love metal, then this is definitely worth checking out, even if you aren’t a Christian. I’d give it an 8/10.

As for Fighter, I admittedly have been a bit more cautious of Manafest since Citizens Activ came out. He is now 3 albums removed from his amazing Glory, but hasn’t recaptured the (ahem) spirit of that epic release. Fighter doesn’t really inspire any renewed confidence that he will be doing so anytime soon, and really feels like Manafest is just coasting off of his past success. The album sounds a lot like The Chase did. While it sounds like I really didn’t like the album, this isn’t really the case. It certainly is decent to listen to and has some catchy songs, but it’s nothing new. It’s a 6.5/10 for me.

Rounding off the month of April was Love & Death’s Chemicals E.P. I first started listening to Brian “Head” Welch about a year or 2 ago, and was blown away by Save Me From Myself. Naturally, I awaited his next album with bated breath. While the Chemicals E.P. isn’t as good as his previous album, it’s a decent interlude while we see how things shape up. I give it a 6.5/10.

After the packed month of April, May was where the trifecta of awesomeness began with Sabaton’s Carolus Rex. Some friends of mine introduced me to Sabaton a couple years ago, and while I liked a few of their songs, most of their albums were very weak… well, until I listened to The Art of War and Coat of Arms anyway. Each of these albums had built upon the others and produced some legitimately good music as a result. Of course, I wondered if Sabaton would continue this evolution, or if they would fall back into formulaic war-songs again. Luckily for all of us, they unleashed Carolus Rex, easily their best album, bar none. The album features a host of amazing tracks, including “The Lion From the North”, “A Lifetime of War”, “The Carolean’s Prayer” (their best song imho), “Carolus Rex” and “Long Live the King”. Hell, even the album’s b-sides are amazing, as I constantly find myself blasting their covers of “Twilight of the Thunder God” and “Feuer Frei”. All-in-all, Carolus Rex is a freaking landmark for Sabaton, firmly establishing themselves as a legitimately awesome metal band and giving themselves a major challenge to overcome next time they release an album. A 9/10, easily.

The 2nd entry in the trifecta of awesomeness was one which I had awaited for years, P.O.D.’s Murdered Love. P.O.D. has been my favourite band for over a decade now, through ups and downs. When I heard they were going to be returning to their hard rock/rap/reggae roots, I was stoked and the end product did not disappoint. Murdered Love is the best P.O.D. album since Satellite (which happens to be my favourite album, period… questionable taste maybe, but refer back to the 2nd paragraph please). The album features some great tracks, especially “Murdered Love”, “Lost in Forever” and especially “Babylon the Murderer”, while the other tracks are mostly solid. The only two which are questionable are “Bad Boy” (which is stupid but enjoyable) and “Panic and Run” (which I found “meh”), but they hardly sink the album. Also, the album spawned a fair bit of controversy for the song “I Am”, but that’s a matter for a later date. All-in-all, Murdered Love sated my P.O.D. appetite, and hopefully is a portent of greater things in the future. I give it a totally biased 8.5/10.

Rounding off the trifecta of awesomeness was Project 86’s Kickstarter-funded album, Wait for the Siren. Project 86 are an unfortunately under-appreciated hard rock band, but they have never had a bad album in their 15+ years as a band. Wait for the Siren doesn’t disappoint in this respect, delivering a characteristically strong and very heavy war-call to the masses. P86 are also known for changing up their sound on each album, and this one sees them experimenting with unorthodox instruments (mandolin, glockenspiel, etc), in addition to flowing between different tones and degrees of heaviness. The album opens on a very strong note with “Fall, Goliath, Fall”, and doesn’t let up once. I also quite enjoy “The Crossfire Gambit” (if only because it features Brian “Head” Welch) and “Take the Hill” (my favourite on the album). Wait for the Siren just goes to show that Andrew Schwab knows what he’s doing, crafting another excellent album and cementing P86’s legacy as a force to be reckoned with. 8.5/10.

With summer nearly done, August was rounded out by tobyMac’s newest release, Eye on It. tobyMac was actually one of the first Christian artists I heard and liked, and I count myself as a fan to this day. Welcome to Diverse City is one of my favourite Christian albums, period. Almost every song on it was a hit, and Portable Sounds basically carried on the same unique sound. I was worred that tobyMac was going to become stale, but lo-and-behold, he reinvented himself with a more modern sound in Tonight, making me believe he had the future in hand. However, when I found out that he was releasing his new album, Eye on It, a mere 2 years later, I was a bit worried (he typically runs on a 3-year rotation). Furthermore, toby was now taking inspiration from… dubstep artists. Blehhhhhhh. The finished product confirmed my suspicions: tobyMac had finally screwed up. Eye on It, put simply, sucked. I can honestly say I did not like any of the songs on the album (that’s not to say they were awful, but they failed to break the level of mediocrity). This was a combination of the dubsteb editing ruining the songs, the fact that most of them feel incredibly uninspired, or just plain stupid lyrics. Formerly, stupid tracks like “Whoopsi-Daisy” were forgivable because they were insanely catchy, but somehow toby seems to have lost that magic. Even the songs which are obviously being pruned to be singles (“Me Without You” and “Eye on It”) fail to differentiate themselves. Eye on It was a massive disappointment, and (thankfully) the only album this year which I can honestly say I hated. I’d give it a 4/10.

After the disappointment that was Eye on It, I was a little more cautious about the remaining releases of 2012 (of which there were still plenty). One of these I eyed most suspiciously was Showbread’s Cancer. I like Showbread, but they have always been an odd band and I am always apprehensive of their newest release. However, I really liked Who Can Know It?, and so decided to back their Kickstarter campaign. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed by the end result: Cancer was very good, sort of like a cross-section of Showbread’s past. The message is similar to Who Can Know It?, with the instrumentation of The Fear of God and Age of Reptiles (a little bit of …No Sir, Nihilism is Not Practical too) with frequent tonal shifts, leading to a very diverse album. It tooks a couple listen-throughs to come to a final decision, but from the start I knew I enjoyed Cancer. It’s a very strong album, probably their most solid since Age of Reptiles. 7.5/10.

Rounding out 2012 was another duo of albums released on the same day, Anberlin’s Vital and Dethklok’s Dethalbum III (was there ever a more paradoxical pairing?). Anberlin have been gaining mainstream momentum the past few years and are quite prolific, putting out a ton of quality work despite quick turn-around times. The latest result of this is Vital, which certainly lives up to its name. Cities was a fantastic album (and “(*Fin)” is amongst my all-time favourite songs), and Vital stops just short of surpassing it. The songs are all strong, with particular highlights being “Self-Starter”, “Other Side” and “God, Drugs & Sex” (which is hypnotic and really kicks into overdrive when the duet begins). Vital is another feather in Anberlin’s cap without a doubt. 8/10.

Finally, Dethalbum III by Dethklok finished off 2012 in “brutal” fashion. I am a fan of Metalocalypse, and while The Dethalbum featured some fun songs, it was largely a light-hearted affair and clearly not meant to be taken to seriously. However, Dethalbum II reversed this trend, delivering an epic metal album which could easily be taken on its own merits. Dethalbum III follows in this pattern, although it’s not quite as strong as the previous album was. However, there are some very good songs on display which are instantly recognizable from the show, particularly “I Ejaculate Fire”, “Crush the Industry” and “Impeach God”. 7/10.

All-in-all, 2012 was a great year for me in music as you can see. It was almost better though, but unfortunately Love & Death’s first full-length album was delayed to January 2013! Damn… well, hopefully that’s just the start of another epic year – Love & Death and RED are both confirmed to be putting out new material, and with any luck we’ll see a new album from Disturbed (please get off hiatus!), Guns N’ Roses (lol), Art of Dying, Gorillaz and Mastodon!