Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2023

Welcome back to my annual music countdown! Last year I went overboard with more than fifty album reviews, and the process made listening to new music into more of a chore than I’d like. Thankfully, I did indeed tone it down this year, keeping at a far more manageable 19 new albums this time. I didn’t listen to a whole lot of new bands this year, instead spending the first third of the year obsessively listening to Mechina, and then spent most of the rest of 2023 catching up on 90s and 2000s bands I missed out on at the time. I expect that 2024’s countdown will likely have more entries than this year. Still plenty to get through though, so let’s get to the rankings!

19) Lighting Up the Sky, Godsmack

When Legends Rise was one of the biggest surprises of 2018 for me, being the first Godsmack album to be anything more than a guilty pleasure. It had me excited to see where the band would go in future, but Sully Erna and company had another surprise in store for me when it was announced that Lighting Up the Sky would be their final album release. I had hoped they’d pull out all the stops for this big send-off, but Lighting Up the Sky is a painfully mediocre, wet fart of a finale. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the worst album they’ve ever put out – I used to give Faceless that dubious honour, but for all its dreariness, at least it has some good songs and sticks to the winning Godsmack formula. Lighting Up the Sky, in comparison, doesn’t have any tracks that resonated with me at all. In fact, as a non-American, I’m kind of annoyed by “Red White & Blue”, which takes an idiot centrist position on all issues and says “Yeah but all that matters is that I have freedom of speech and that I support America no matter what!” Wow, such a brave and intelligent stance, Sully… I swear I didn’t rank this album so lowly because of that song, but nearly every track doesn’t get any sort of reaction out of me. “Truth” is the one good song on here, but it’s not nearly enough to save the album as a whole, not to mention that even the worst Godsmack albums tend to have more than just one good song. Godsmack are still going to be touring for the indefinite future, but I just can’t see any of these tracks getting crowds excited (other than, y’know, “Red White & Blue” for a certain audience). It’s too bad, I was really hoping for a great send-off for a band which could never quite “get there”, but I’m still thankful for all the work they put in over the years.

18) 72 Seasons, Metallica

There’s a solid idea at the core of 72 Seasons, with each song telling the story of a boy’s journey from birth to adulthood (18 years being the titular 72 seasons). Conceptually, there’s a lot to be mined from this idea, but in execution this is an absolute slog of an album. Metallica always over-deliver when it comes to an album’s runtime, which is great when they put out good material, but when they don’t… well, we get 72 Seasons. This is such a baffling album, it’s like Metallica have completely forgotten how to make songs that sound distinct from each other or have any sort of interesting sound to them. I’m not even a latter-day Metallica-hater either, I enjoy Death Magnetic and I think Hardwired… To Self-Destruct is the best original studio album they’ve put out since The Black Album, but 72 Seasons is just plain dull.

17) World on Fire, Sovereign Council (Bandcamp)

It has been a long time since we saw Sovereign Council on IC2S, a local band whose guitarist was a neighbour of mine and whose vocalist, Alex, went to school with me. However, in the intervening eight years, they’ve gone through yet another major lineup change, losing Alex in the process. This was an intriguing change: on the one hand, one of Sovereign Council’s biggest assets was the contrast between Alex and Lisa’s vocals, but on the other hand, Lisa’s a great vocalist, so seeing how she can front the band solo is an interesting prospect. Right out the gate, you can really feel how all the changes have really shifted the feel and tone of Sovereign Council. Their first couple albums had an epic sound to them, and I’m realizing that was partly due to the layering of multiple guitarists, vocalists, etc. World on Fire‘s line-up has been stripped back to basics and this makes Sovereign Council’s sound feel smaller in comparison. One thing which hasn’t shrank though are Lisa’s vocals, which are better than ever here. “Of The Ashes” is probably the closest they come to recapturing that epic feel, and hopefully that’s the sort of feel that Sovereign Council can harness going forward.

16) Rated R, RED

Declaration was easily my favourite album of 2020 and I’d still expect it to end up in my eventual “Best Albums of the 2020s” list in 7 years or so. Knowing this, it should probably go without saying that I was excited to see what RED were going to cook up next. However, my excitement was somewhat tempered, because RED have a bad habit of swinging wildly in quality between albums – their first 2 albums were great, then their next 2 were very mediocre. Then of Beauty and Rage came out and ended up being their best album ever, only to be followed up by the very mediocre and forgettable Gone. Then Declaration came along and was another incredible album. And, as much as I hate to say it, Rated R keeps up the tradition, being another painfully mediocre follow-up to a masterpiece. There’s not a whole lot to say about the tracks here: musically, they harken back to their sound on Innocence & Instinct, but the songwriting feels uninspired and the tracks aren’t given enough time to breathe (the album itself is 10 tracks and barely gets over the 30 minute mark, so that should give you a good idea of just how brief these songs are). That said, the second half of the album is a bit better than the first, with tracks “The Suffering” and “Still Bleeding” injecting the album with a bit of soul and energy, although it isn’t quite enough to save the album as a whole. Well, if nothing else, I guess this means that the next time RED releases an album it’s going to be amazing… right?

15) Crypt of Ancestral Knowledge, Wolves in the Throne Room (Bandcamp)

Primordial Arcana was, for most of 2021, my favourite album of the year until Moonflowers and God is Partying snuck in and took the crown from it. Crypt of Ancestral Knowledge acts as a sort of stop-gap epilogue to that album, giving us a handful of tracks which mostly stick to the atmospheric black folk metal sound Wolves in the Throne Room had established on Primordial Arcana. It can go a bit beyond just sticking to the same sound though; “Twin Mouthed Spring” lift riffs directly from Primordial Arcana and they even have an instrumental reinterpretation of “Spirit of Lightning” (renamed “Initiates of the White Hart”), which strips out the black metal and instead becomes a clash between folk and industrial music. It’s interesting, but it’s also kind of indicative of Crypt as a whole – there’s certainly some ideas here, but I wouldn’t have been left wanting if they had just waited until they had a full album ready. As-is, Crypt of Ancestral Knowledge kind of feels like a Primordial Arcana b-sides EP and doesn’t do much to provoke interest on its own merits and lacks the meticulous craftsmanship that Wolves in the Throne Room usually bring.

14) Volume IV, September Mourning

Holy shit, now that the NFT fad has cratered, September Mourning finally decided to get around to releasing Volume IV two years late. I hope that the NFT bullshit was worth it for them*, because now that it’s here, Volume IV is a bit underwhelming for me. It’s basically more September Mourning: uncomplicated pop-metal with little in the way of evolution since they established their modern sound on Volume II back in 2016. Fans will enjoy it no doubt, but September Mourning’s sound is so simple that it might be downright unimpressive to those unfamiliar with them. For my part, the music here is fine, but it doesn’t have the same sort of impact that Volume II did for me back when I first heard it. I dunno if that’s due to disillusionment after all the NFT bullshit, but I do not think so. For what it’s worth, there are a couple songs which do stand out, “Empty” and “Kill This Love” easily my favourite tracks of the bunch; if you haven’t listened to September Mourning before, maybe check these out.

*Seems to have been, a few months after putting out Volume IV, they released a single to promote some other NFT project

13) Interludium, Powerwolf

God forbid Powerwolf go a year without finding a way to milk more money out of their rabid fanbase, this year’s annual release is a bit of a strange beast. Featuring six original tracks, three re-released B-sides, and a French version of “Beast of Gévaudan”, I’m tempted to call it an over-glorified EP masquerading as a full album. Powerwolf are really good at making music, so the new tracks achieve that baseline quality you’d expect from them. However, when you’ve already heard two tracks on this album years ago and they happen to be the highlights of the album, it’s fair to feel a bit underwhelmed.

It wouldn’t be a new Powerwolf album without meaty bonus discs, including an orchestral version of each track from the main album, and the real feast, Communio Lupatum II. I’m always super interested in these Powerwolf cover albums, because while most of the songs do not work when taken out of Powerwolf’s signature style, there always end up being a couple diamonds in the rough. Luckily, Communio Lupatum II happens to be the best Powerwolf bonus disc since Metallum Nostrum way back in 2015, with several solid covers, including “Reverent of Rats”, “Stossgebet” and “Night of the Werewolves”. Particular highlights are “Dancing With the Dead” and “Venom of Venus”, which both transform the original work in interesting ways and easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Powerwolf originals. All-in-all, Communio Lupatum II is a more interesting album than the actual album it’s a bonus to and it’s a nice change of pace that there are more hits here than misses for once.

12) Last Days EP, Impending Doom (Bandcamp; note that this EP is not on their Bandcamp page for some reason)

Last Days is an extremely slight release from Impending Doom, clocking in at barely over 10 minutes. Consequently, it probably doesn’t help that the three tracks here are just more of their signature deathcore sound with basically no innovation or particularly interesting hooks. That’s not to say that Last Days is bad, it’s perfectly enjoyable, it’s just uninteresting. Given that the band’s last release was also an EP, you could maybe mash this and Hellbent together for a longer listen. Oh and the band has still managed to not go on an anti-woke tirade in their lyrics, so I consider that a win as well.

11) Obliterate Me EP, Coping Method (Bandcamp; note that the EP is here, but as a series of separate singles rather than a single collection)

Coping Method came up in one of my random mixes on Spotify so I thought I’d check them out. They’re primarily a metalcore band, although there is some electronic/EDM fusion here, especially evident in “Hypomania” (which is probably the highlight track of the EP). For the most part though, their sound is solid but not enough to put them over the top for me into really enjoyable. Definitely worth a listen, especially “Hypomania”, but not one that will likely stick with me over a long period of time.

10) Die About It, Bad Wolves

I feel bad for Bad Wolves: they showed a ton of promise on their first two albums, being one of the most exciting bands in hard rock/metal at the time. But after their extremely bitter breakup with former frontman Tommy Vext, and their subsequent album, Dear Monsters, being rather mediocre, that excitement has been completely dampened. Understandably, I went into Die About It with a lot of caution. What I got wasn’t quite what I expected. Dear Monsters really played it safe, with lots of radio-friendly hard rock. Die About It doesn’t shy away from that kind of music, but it’s also extremely scatter-shot in terms of sound and musical variety, akin to the shotgun-blast approach that defined their debut album, Disobey. We’ve got full-on metal tracks like “Bad Friend”, rap-metal on the title track, heart-felt ballads like “It’s You (2 Months)”, a full-on moody sax solo in “NDA”… like I said, they’re all over the place on this album. I’m not even sure I particularly liked a lot of the tracks on the album, but they go in so many directions that it’s at least constantly interesting and a step up from Dear Monsters. I’m still nowhere near the enthusiasm I had for Bad Wolves before 2020, but Die About It at least charts a more intriguing future direction for the band going forward.

9) Cenotaph, Mechina (Bandcamp)

Venator was one of my favourite albums of 2022, and a big reason why I listened to way less albums this year is because I spent about half of the year listening to Mechina’s entire discography on repeat. They are powerhouses, putting out a new album nearly every year, all telling one epic sci-fi tale of war and revenge. Their music has also undergone some major changes over the years, starting as full-on death metal and slowly getting to the more melodic, industrial metal sound they demonstrated on Venator. Going into Cenotaph, our heroes have declared war on the tyrant Enyo and the first battle is to be waged… and, somewhat unfortunately, Cenotaph doesn’t really live up to how exciting that premise is. Cenotaph has far less energy to it than Venator did, and now that I’ve seen how heavy Mechina used to be, it makes Cenotaph stick out even more. That’s not to say that it’s a bad album by any means, in fact it’s far more musically-diverse than Venator, but its slower, softer tone is a bit disappointing. It helps that this album was released on the first day of the year, because it has given me some time to come to appreciate it more – if it had released much later in the year, I probably would have ranked it much lower.

That said, a special mention has to go to a massive single Mechina released halfway through the year, “Blessings Upon the Field Where Blades Will Flood”. It’s not really in contention for its own entry since it is just a single, despite being 18 minutes long (!!!), but this is exactly what I was hoping to get out of Cenotaph, musically. It’s far heavier and has a faster tempo, with some actual roared vocals to complement and contrast Melrose’s angelic voice. This track caps off that chapter of the story well and leads into the future, promising a massive showdown to come. I’m hoping it’s also a sign that Mechina are aware of some of their fans’ criticisms about their musical direction, so with any luck the next album will sound a bit more like this. I know I’m crossing my fingers excitedly.

8) Godmode, In This Moment

In This Moment have been one of my favourite bands for nearly a decade now and I would say that they haven’t had a bad album in all that time… Godmode really tested that devotion though. When I first listened to it, I really did not like it. As I was listening to it I kept feeling that it was uninspired (probably doesn’t help that some songs, like “Skyburner”, are straight-up rehashing lyrics and themes from prior albums wholesale). However, after a few listens, Godmode really grew on me. The main evolution here is that In This Moment are steadily working more electronic elements into their sound that we’ve been hearing since Mother and Blood 1983. On the plus side, they’ve at least restored some of the heaviness that was missing in those two albums, but it took me a few listens to really appreciate tracks like “Army of Me”, “The Purge”, and “Sacrifice”. All that said, I instantly loved “Damaged”, featuring Ice Nine Kills’ Spencer Charnas. Like all of In This Moments’ duet tracks, “Damaged” is awesome, bringing a sudden shot of adrenaline to the whole album. I’d still put this as my second least favourite In This Moment album overall, but I’m glad I gave Godmode a few chances, because I’m legitimately enjoying it now and I think it stands well amongst the rest of their discography, even if it isn’t the most distinct album they’ve put out by any means.

7) NA​̈​E’BLISS, Red Cain (Bandcamp)

I really enjoyed Red Cain’s Kindred duology, so I was excited when news of a full-length follow-up came out. NA​̈​E’BLISS iterates on Red Cain’s epic dark fantasy metal sound, but for the most part this is a somewhat heavier version of what they were doing in Kindred. That is far from a bad thing though, as every track on this album stands out and feels like a piece of a greater whole. They have said that this album is inspired by The Wheel of Time; I haven’t read the series myself, but this lack of context didn’t negatively impact my enjoyment of NA​̈​E’BLISS. Really, my biggest complaint is that the album art is either AI-generated, or it’s so surreal that it’s indistinguishable from AI… I haven’t been able to get a straight answer, but it’s a pretty bad look for up-and-coming creatives to be utilizing these sorts of tools (especially since Kindred‘s art was so good). There’s a basis here for some rather evocative imagery, but knowing that it’s probably AI-generated makes it orders of magnitude less interesting.

6) Delain, Dark Water (Bandcamp)

I got really excited as soon as I saw the cover for this album – I mean, just look at it! I need more good, non-Alestorm pirate metal in my life and Dark Waters delivers. Calling it “pirate metal” is kind of a misnomer though, this is firmly a symphonic metal album with pirate-themed lyrics, and it sounds just like what you’d expect from a symphonic metal band – operatic female vocals, not too heavy, etc. That said, there are some really good tracks on here, like “The Quest and the Curse”, “Invictus” and “Underland”. Dark Waters is not treading any new ground, but it’s well-made and happened to find me at a time when I was looking for something exactly like this, so it gets some extra points for that.

5) OMNI: Part 1, Project 86

I spent half of my review of Project 86’s prior album, Sheep Among Wolves, trying to make excuses for Andrew Schwab’s transphobia in album-closer “Metempsychosis”. Project 86 had been one of my favourite bands for a decade at that point, so it was hard for me to admit that they had done something shitty. Well, I came to terms with it very shortly after publishing that review and, honestly, the realization has completely soured my relationship with this band, to the point where even the announcement of their farewell album left my bitter heart with nothing more than hope that they wouldn’t tarnish their legacy even more. However, through the development of this final album, Andrew Schwab continued shitting the bed with an email implying that they wanted to get into NFTs and then platforming reactionaries with “just asking questions” bullshit on his podcast. All of this was said to tie into the final album’s themes, so you can expect that my anticipation for OMNI: Part 1 was at absolute rock-bottom through this entire year.

However, you can see that OMNI: Part 1 is not at, or near, the bottom of this list, which should be an indication that I give a fair shake, even to projects that I am strongly biased against going in. Honestly, Andrew Schwab’s problematic politics don’t really shine through in OMNI, which is more concerned with how social media is ushering us into a corporate autocracy (best exemplified with “Virtual Signal”… which, yes, is a bit too analogous to “virtue signal” for me to not side-eye it). Oh, and also some weird, apocalyptic Antichrist shit.

In spite of all the baggage, Andrew Schwab is still a fantastic lyricist and this is easily the heaviest Project 86 album of all time, pushing into full-on metalcore territory at times. This was a very pleasant surprise as my own tastes have gotten heavier over time, so it’s not even as jarring as it may otherwise have been (for that matter, an old friend of mine who really likes Project 86 did not get on with this album very well because it was harder than they would like). It’s not really an album where individual tracks stand out to you, it’s more about the overall listening experience, and in that regard OMNI: Part 1 delivers much better than I expected. However, it does suffer somewhat from the litany of extended interlude tracks, especially towards the second half of the album, where we get interludes longer than some of the actual songs. These do help set the dark tone, but the sheer number of them make the listening experience drag eventually. All that said, while my relationship with Project 86 is irrevocably soured at this point, but I’m glad to see the band go out with their dignity intact. Part 2 comes out next spring, so I’ll be sure to cover it as well in 2024.

4) The Forgotten EP, Orbit Culture (Bandcamp)

Orbit Culture have had quite a year. They already released a full-length album in 2023 and then, surprisingly, four months later put out an EP as well. Based on the title and release window, I assumed that The Forgotten was just a series of b-sides, carved off and sold to fans for an extra dollar. While $1 for some b-sides would actually be a decent (if unremarkable) deal, The Forgotten does not feel like an after-thought. Rather, it feels like a proper release in its own right and easily stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its full-length sibling.

First-off, The Forgotten is a meaty EP, clocking in over 18 minutes long across three tracks (which is no mean feat, considering that the album which came out four months earlier was nearly 50 minutes long in its own right, and Orbit Culture’s music is fast and aggressive, so filling out time is harder for them than some other bands). That wouldn’t mean much if the music wasn’t good, but there are some really solid tracks here. “While We Serve” is deliciously heavy and demonstrates how Orbit Culture love to build up tension across the track’s runtime before changing tempo and becoming even more heavy as they change up the track’s sound. I was headbanging the entire time, it was great.

Meanwhile, “The Upheaval” starts out strangely, spending the first minute or so with a heavy sound, but an intentionally-delayed tempo, before letting loose and going back to their usual fast and aggressive tempo. It’s relatively short at four and a half minutes, but each minute takes you on a journey to a new soundscape.

Unfortunately, the closer, “Sound of the Bell”, is pretty disappointing. As Orbit Culture’s longest song, I was hoping for something akin to “A Sailor’s Tale” off of their previous Shaman EP, but the track takes about six and a half minutes to really get going, and then when it finally does get going, it doesn’t escalate any further and instead just peters out. It’s not an awful track by any means, but it is a limp way to end an otherwise stellar EP. If “Sound of the Bell” was a bit better, this could have actually been my album of the year, but alas.

Overall, The Forgotten is a bite-sized distillation of Orbit Culture’s sound and the elements which make them such an enjoyable band. They’re not doing anything different or revolutionary with their sound here, but considering the turn-around time and the price you’d pay for this album, not to mention the actual quality of most of the music here, it’s another fantastic release in a banner year for Orbit Culture.

3) Convinced, Anberlin (Bandcamp)

After waiting eight years for new music from Anberlin, I wasn’t really expecting more new music from them quite so soon, but I am not going to complain either! For the most part, this is just more Anberlin. That would be fine on its own, but the whole package is elevated significantly by “Banshee”, a fantastic track which stands strong amongst the best songs Anberlin have ever put out. Once again, Convinced is another rather slight collection that leaves you wanting more, but Silverline is still recent enough that it makes for a good double-feature, almost like a full album released in two parts over a year.

2) Dethalbum IV, Dethklok

After 10 long years, Metalocalypse fans finally got the finale we’ve long been waiting for in 2023 and, frankly, never thought we’d receive. Even more surprising is that Army of the Doomstar is about as strong of a finale as fans could have reasonably hoped for, especially considering how inconsistent the series’ quality can be. As a cherry on top of all this, we’ve also gotten Dethalbum IV, which I’m also shocked and pleased to find is far better than I was expecting. So many albums from my favourite bands this year have been disappointing and it’s left me wondering if I’m just getting grumpy and old, but as soon as Dethalbum IV got underway I was flooded with excitement. This album is classic Dethklok through-and-through: energetic, epic, hilariously over-the-top death metal that you can’t help but crank the volume up on and headbang along to. Like any good Dethklok album, the music stands on its own and can be enjoyed even if you don’t watch or like Metalocalypse. Every song on here is solid, but I really loved “Gardener of Vengeance” and (unsurprisingly) “Murmaider III” is probably the most epic of them all.

1) Descent, Orbit Culture (Bandcamp)

Orbit Culture screamed their way into my heart with 2021’s Shaman, with their mixture of heavy, aggressive death metal instantly winning them a devoted fan. Descent has been probably my most anticipated album of the year and Orbit Culture did not disappoint. If you’ve listened to Orbit Culture before, then you’re not really going to be surprised (and if you haven’t listened to Orbit Culture, then do it, goddammit!). This is very much the same sound they have been refining for years now, but why reinvent the wheel when it’s still working? On Descent, Orbit Culture are still delivering great, catchy tracks like “From the Inside”, “Vultures of the North” and “Undercity” that make you want to scream and headbang along. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s quality, and sometimes that is more than enough.

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.

10 Worst Movies of the 2010s

As you can probably tell if you’ve frequented this blog, you’ll know that I have a thing for bad movies. There’s a special sort of film-going experience that you can only get from a crap-tacular film, be that stunned disbelief or pure rage. Then there’s the true bottom of the barrel. Most of the films on this list are so bad that I would never want to subject myself to them again, and even several years removed from watching them they still leave an awful taste in my mouth. So let’s go down memory lane and exhume some of the worst movies of the entire decade and show off their rotting putridity for all to see?

Honourable Mentions

Birdemic: Shock and Terror (February 27, 2010)
You would be remiss to mention bad movies of the 2010s and leave out Birdemic, a rip-off of The Birds that’s so legendarily incompetent that it became a meme. Director James Nguyen really wanted to make a positive film about environmentalism and pacifism, all wrapped up in an epic love story, but good God he failed spectacularly. For the most part, the film is just boring, but then suddenly the clip art GIF-quality birds attack and it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I swear to God I laughed for at least a minute straight when they started dive bombing and literally exploding. Even with everything else wrong with this film, that alone made it at least hilarious and so-bad-it’s-good enough that it’s more enjoyable than any of the movies that made this list. Still, for the sheer ineptitude on display, this film deserves at least a mention on this list.

Dogman (November 6, 2012)
I’ve always been highly intrigued by the legend of the Michigan Dogman, so when I found out that someone made a movie about this creature I was excited to see what they would come up with. I even saw a Blu-ray copy of the film on sale and even though it was going for freaking $35 I was tempted. However, I ultimately decided that I’d better find out if it was good or not before dropping that much on it… and thank God I did, because I dodged a freaking bullet. Dogman is clearly a no-budget film and what we do get on screen is just boring. I can’t really remember much more about it than being extremely disappointed that nothing happens, so I can’t really justify putting it on the list proper (and like hell I’m rewatching it).

The Predator (Septemer 14, 2018)
The Predator isn’t *quite* bad enough to actually make this list, but it is easily one of my most hated films of the decade. I don’t often advocate for films to be written out of continuity, but the Predator franchise is absolutely dead in the water if this film is allowed to dictate the franchise’s future. And why did they feel the need to reboot the franchise anyway? Predators was awesome and went over most of the ideas this film tries to pass off as new anyway.

So with those dishonourable mentions out of the way, let’s get on to the list…

10) Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who Is John Galt? (September 14, 2014)
If you read my Atlas Shrugged retrospective series, you might have expected to see this film on here. Atlas Shrugged Part III fails on so many levels that it’s frankly impressive. Even setting aside the shitty philosophy and morality at this film’s rotten core, the filmmaking is distractingly bad. Like, almost every scene has something distracting – from terrible editing, to bad lighting, to bargain-basement props, to time wasting stock footage, one can’t help but feel like the filmmakers just didn’t give a shit anymore after losing more than $45 million on this franchise. Oh and the acting is the worst in the franchise, which is even funnier when you realize everyone was recast in all three parts. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this movie is on a level of filmmaking incompetence that rivals The Room. I saw a copy of this movie on DVD at a store once and I was sorely tempted to buy it, I had that much fun at its expense (the only reason I didn’t buy it is because like hell I’m going to financially support the bastards in the Randian community). Literally the only reason I didn’t rank this movie lower was because it was such a hoot to watch, but it is unquestionably one of the worst movies of the decade.

9) Pompeii (February 21, 2014)
I could say that this movie was a bigger disaster than the real-life eruption of Vesuvius which the film is based on, but that would just be insensitive, stupid and uninspired… coincidentally, all of those words could be used to describe Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii adequately though. Pompeii is a disaster-romance in the same sort of vein as Pearl Harbour, where far too much time is dedicated to a dull romance and the disaster is just dumb spectacle. Kit Harrington is here at his absolute blandest and poor Emily Browning is saddled with a lifeless damsel in distress role. About the only notable thing about this movie is Kiefer Sutherland who seems to be having an absolute blast hamming it up as a cartoonishly evil Roman senator. I personally thought that he was the one entertaining bit in this film, but I can see others thinking that his acting is just plain bad so who knows – you might think that this film’s even worse than I did. Really though, there’s so much potential for a great film about the eruption of Vesuvius, even from the dramatic accounts that still survive to this day. Unfortunately, Pompeii struggles to even survive in the DVD bargain bin in 2019.

8) I, Frankenstein (January 24, 2014)
Some movies are so bad that you wonder how they even managed to get greenlit, let alone released. I, Frankenstein is just that kind of film. Who in their right mind thought that a 65 million dollar film about a monster-hunting Frankenstein’s monster would be a success? Turns out that that would be the production company and co-creator of the Underworld franchise, which should be incredibly obvious to anyone who has actually seen this film because it feels like a cheap knock-off of Underworld (which is, in itself, a cheap knockoff of White Wolf’s RPGs), only years after people stopped giving a shit about the franchise. Okay, fine, the idea is shit, but how did they then manage to rope Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovski, Miranda Otto and even Jai Courtney into this!?! Even then, there could be some campy enjoyment if the film was at least in on the joke, but the film is embarrassingly self-serious, full of mythologizing about angels and demons and the status of Frankenstein’s soul… it’s just bad, everyone who’s even heard of the film knows it, I’m not sure what else there is to say.

7) Osombie (May 5, 2012)
Okay, I remember being moderately excited for this movie back when it came out due to the bonkers premise alone, but my memory is a bit hazy at this point (and like hell I’ll watch it again). I do remember being incredibly disappointed by the film though, which just plays out like all of the other  lazy zombie movies which were infesting video shelves at the time. The zombie Osama bin Laden gimmick isn’t even that well utilized either – instead of having him as this Dead Snow-like monster, I distinctly remember that he kind of just shows up every once in a while and is ultimately pretty inconsequential, not to mention that the film isn’t really all that interested in having a campy or over-the-top laugh. The film’s characters are also incredibly stupid, with its “special forces” cast being clearly modelled from someone’s Call of Duty expertise. Oh, and in case it wasn’t obvious, it’s also pretty goddamn insensitive to make a movie like this when Afghanistan was (and still is) a warzone at the time. Osombie is one of those films whose premise should have just been a dumb laugh between a group of friends and then been allowed to fade into the night instead of something that everyone involved is going to have to explain to their grandchildren one day.

6) The Cloverfield Paradox (February 4, 2018)
The Cloverfield Paradox has to be one of the most deflating films of all time. After 10 Cloverfield Lane there was legitimate hype for Cloverfield as a franchise and then The Cloverfield Paradox gets surprise announced and released in the middle of the Super Bowl? Holy shit! But good God were we ever duped because this film sucks ass. Seriously, there are few films which I have hated with such vitriol more than The Cloverfield Paradox. To put it simply, in The Cloverfield Paradox, shit just happens for no reason. Early on it seems like they’re setting up a mystery with all the weird things happening, but no, it’s just happening because that’s what the writers want to happen. There are absolutely no rules to ground everything and it just makes the film frustrating to watch. Oh and don’t even get me started on that damn ending, which just makes for a cocktease since it reveals that we’re missing everything that we actually wanted to see. Ugh, fuck this film.

5) God’s Not Dead 2 (April 1, 2016)
Oh hey, another terrible film we covered in a retrospectives series! God’s Not Dead 2 is truly one of the most deluded and cloying films I’ve ever seen. Any attempt at nuance from the previous film is discarded entirely as atheists are outright portrayed as body snatcher-like monsters, all working to destroy Christianity in America, while the Christians are all portrayed as poor, innocent nobodies who never did anything to deserve such scorn. It’s just plain offensive and gets to the point of being conspiratorial. Even the evangelicals this film is directed at should feel dirty for getting their dicks sucked so hard by this film. That’s really the issue – you cannot separate this film’s politics from its story. It bashes you over the head with the message so much and demonizes everyone outside of its target audience that you either hate it or feel validated by it. There’s really no middle-ground and no other purpose to the film (other than, y’know, to sell bullshit Christian merch).

4) Project X (March 2, 2012)
I wrote a review about this film 6 years ago (!!!), and to this day I can still remember how much I hated it. A found footage teen sex comedy doesn’t sound like that bad of a premise (like… it sounds like shit, but not unbearably so, right?), but the main problem is that the characters in this film are all loathsome. I struggle to think of a character I hate more than Costa, a selfish jackass whose only concern is literally getting laid, everyone else be damned (even his “friends”). The unbearable characters are enough to tank this movie by themselves, but it also doesn’t help that this film is just plain offensive. Every female character exists only to be oogled by the camera, we get all sorts of mean-spirited gay and fat jokes, and there’s even a little person who only exists to get thrown into an oven while the teens just laugh about it. Wow. Did I mention that everyone in this movie sucks and I wish they all overdosed on the stolen ecstasy in the film? That would have probably earned a single laugh out of me in this deeply unfunny “comedy”.

3) Game Over, Man! (March 23, 2018)
Is anyone surprised that Neflix originals nabbed 2 of the 10 worst films of the decade? Game Over, Man! is easily the worst one that I’ve seen, which is especially criminal considering the fantastic premise – basically, it’s a comedic Die Hard knock-off where the “heroes” are a bunch of slacker hotel housekeepers. How can you screw that up? Well, by making a comedy which attempts to be so outrageously over-the-top that it’s just deeply unfunny. Like, let me paint the picture for you – the bad guys are closing in on our heroes. They need to do something to slip past them and Adam Devine announces he has a plan. Cue the bad guys finding him with his dick out in the closet, pretending he died of auto-erotic asphyxiation. I thought that he was going to use this surprising moment to get the drop on them, but no, they just think that auto-erotic asphyxiation is funny on its own merits, plus they get to have Adam Devine run around on screen for about 5 minutes straight with his dick flopping about everywhere. Oh, and then the bad guys start trying to make out, because oh my God guys, did you know that there are gay men who like other men! Yeah, there’s a shitload of gay jokes in this film and they’re all incredibly lazy. About the only funny part is when the bad guy tries to punish a dickhead celebrity by forcing him to eat out another hostage’s ass, but is then surprised and flustered when it turns out that they’re both into it. There, I’ve told you the one good part in this film, you don’t have to see it now, you can leave a thankful comment to me down below.

2) Noobz (January 25, 2013)
Noobz is kind of lucky that it came out in 2013, because in a post-GamerGate world, this already-painfully unfunny movie has aged worse than Bubsy 3D. Imagine a movie that takes the worst stereotypes about gamers – they’re all basement-dwelling nerds, they’re racist, they’re homophobic, they hate women and can’t believe that they play video games, etc. Now imagine that the movie plays this all straight and expects us to find it endearing. Bad news, Noobz, you suck and everyone in this movie sucks (except for poor Zelda Williams who finds herself in a hapless role as the personalityless, token object of affection for the douchebag “hero”). Like Game Over, Man!, Noobz thinks that there’s nothing funnier than a closeted gay character and the movie mines this one “joke” over and over to the point of insanity. Somehow, it even manages to one-up Game Over, Man! by also including a kid with severe asthma who almost dies several times when his breathing apparatus gets damaged (which is somehow less-offensive than how every aspect of his personality revolves around his disability). Everything in this film is just lazy, from the tired road-trip structure to the awful jokes. It doesn’t even have the decency to end in a satisfying manner, instead having the heroes all get a sponsorship from Mountain Dew… and then reveal 2 seconds later that the guy who signed them gets arrested for impersonating a Mountain Dew executive. It’s like an extra big middle finger to you, as if you didn’t already waste almost two hours of your life watching this movie to begin with.

1) Scary Movie 5 (April 12, 2013)
As you have probably noticed by now, there’s not much worse than a terrible comedy, hence why they’ve captured the top 4 spots on this countdown. Scary Movie 5 might just be the worst comedy I’ve ever seen, let alone one of the most unenjoyable films I’ve ever subjected myself to. Don’t get me wrong, all of the other Scary Movie films were already REALLY shitty, but they at least had the occasional laugh and the comedic talents of Anna Faris, Regina Hall and Leslie Nielson to at least keep things somewhat respectable. Scary Movie 5 has none of that, and the results are just pathetic to watch. The jokes are tired, stupid, predictable and just plain unfunny. There was no good reason for this franchise to come back to life after a 7 year hiatus and we are well and truly fucked if David Zucker decides to trot out the franchise again in 2020. Literally the only good thing that I can say about this movie is that, for once in this franchise, at least it doesn’t lean into mean-spirited homophobia, transphobia and making fun of people with disabilities… but, like, that’s not something I should have to congratulate the film for.

Game of Thrones, Miguel Sapochnik and the Devolution of Battle Strategy

Last week Game of Thrones fans were finally treated to the battle which the series had been building towards since the very first episode, the biggest battle put to film, the most important battle in Westerosi history: “The Long Night”… and it was, um, something. The battle itself is undeniably a visual spectacle, with incredibly tense moments as our heroes get put in danger and an overwhelmingly bleak tone as all of their efforts to stop the horde of the dead are met with failure after failure. However, if you give the episode any sort of critical thought, the whole facade begins to quickly crumble, assuming that you could even see what was happening (for my part, I watched it on a 10″ tablet with max brightness and could see well enough, but can still acknowledge that the lighting was too dark and lacked necessary contrast to be able to tell what’s going on). The way that this battle was directed and written just makes absolutely no sense from the characters’ perspectives and was obviously designed solely to elicit the reactions that the showrunners wanted at any particular moment. This kind of writing wouldn’t be an issue if it was done well, in such a way that you won’t notice and can justify it easily. “The Long Night” is not that kind of episode, unfortunately, and it really got me thinking about how Game of Thrones‘ battle sequences have nosedived since Season 6.

There are a couple elements which are key to the drop in quality of the writing and direction of Game of Thrones‘ battle sequences. First, and most obviously, the show caught up to and overtook the books in Season 5, meaning that showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff have been having to make up the rest of the story themselves ever since. Secondly, the directing duties on the show’s big battles have been passed on from Neil Marshall, who helmed “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall”, to Miguel Sapochnik, who helmed “Hardhome”, “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Long Night” (among other, smaller episodes).

With this in mind, I want to take a look back at Sapochnik’s battles, analyze the writing, the strategies of the characters and then compare them to Marshall’s battles. Oh, and I really shouldn’t have to specify this, but in case you’ve gotten this far without realizing, this article is going to contain SPOILERS!

Hardhome
I’m actually going to start this article off on a positive note by opening with “Hardhome”, the episode which put Sapochnik’s name on the map and probably earned him the job of directing all of the big battles on Game of Thrones going forward. Season 5 of Game of Thrones was a dreary slog, with such highlights as Dany being ineffectual in Meereen, Sansa’s storyline of “who’s going to try to rape her this season!!!” coming to a satisfying conclusion with her getting brutally raped by Ramsay Snow*, and the Dornish subplot that everyone loves! Then, out of nowhere, comes “Hardhome”, which was so good that it’s straight-up my favourite episode of the show. The surprise factor was probably the biggest thing about it – traditionally, Game of Thrones saved its big moments for the ninth episode of the season, and this was only the eighth episode. Plus, the episode was already going on its way for about 30 minutes before it cuts to Jon, Tormund and Edd all taking a trip to Hardhome to try to rescue the tens of thousands of wildlings camped there.

Sapochnik and the writers then spend the 10 minutes before the battle very wisely. For one thing, they introduce us to some great new characters. Most notable is Karsi, a fierce wildling woman who makes a massive impact considering she only has a few scenes in the episode. We also meet a Thenn called Loboda who, despite being a meathead, is a pretty fun character and effective for what they’re going for. Sapochnik also using establishing shots to subtly show off where the action will be taking place – a confined area just off the beach with a cliff to the side, a wall closing off the rest of Hardhome and a hut where Jon and company debate with the wildlings. I also like that, in this set-up, Jon Snow is set-up as a leader who really knows what must be done – the army of the dead are coming and the enmity between the Night’s Watch and wildlings has to be set aside or they will all die. Jon’s taking a great personal risk coming to Hardhome, not only because the wildlings could just kill him, but also because he’s disenfranchising the Night’s Watch back home. After 10 minutes of debate, Jon manages to convince 5000 of the wildlings to come with him, because he knows that the army of the dead is the more important issue than the squabbling of the Nights Watch and the free folk. However, there are still tens of thousands of wildlings who don’t trust him and who refuse to leave. It’s a strained situation, but it seems like everything it working out about as well as can be expected.

…and then there’s a thunder in the distance and things suddenly go to shit. No one was expecting a battle, not the wildlings or the Night’s Watch, so the fact that everyone is caught off guard and overwhelmed is very much justified. Jon and the other fighters are scrambling to mount any sort of defence, keeping them from breaking through the ramshackle walls while the Night’s Watch evacuates the 5000 wildlings by boat. The battle sequence is visceral and chaotic, but thanks to the establishing shots we got earlier and a very cool long-take in the middle of the battle, it’s easy to tell where everything is happening during the fighting. Then there’s just tons of cool moments, from the horror tone of the wight attacks, to Wun Wun tearing through wights with his bare hands. Then there are two of my favourite moments in the whole series: the fight between Jon and a White Walker (which ends with the Walker looking legitimately surprised) and Jon and the Night King staring each other down as the overwhelming threat of the dead finally becomes clear.

Tactically, the battle makes a lot of sense. The defenders were caught off-guard and have to scramble to mount any sort of defence. Jon’s objectives during the battle also make sense – buy time for the wildlings to retreat to the boats and secure the dragonglass since it’s the only weapon they know of that can defeat White Walkers. The White Walkers’ battleplan seems to make sense as well – their only real objective is to kill as many wildlings as possible in order to bolster their ranks, and considering that they have gotten probably 50,000-80,000 wildlings by the end of the massacre, they’ve clearly achieved their goal. In addition, the White Walkers keep themselves on cliffs high above the battle where they can observe and be safe from any danger and, when the defenders put up more resistance than expected, they send an army of wights off the cliff to outflank and overwhelm the remaining living.

All-in-all, Hardhome’s a great battle. Compared to Neil Marshall’s battle sequences, it has a lot more visual flair. However, it balances spectacle with good writing, making for a battle sequence that is thrilling to watch without having to turn your brain off. Some of this comes down to the fact that it breaks the series’ usual conventions where, instead of having some last-minute outside force come and save the heroes from certain death, instead the whole battle is a desperate and unexpected retreat, meaning that tactical acumen gets a bit of a free pass (spoiler alert: even then, the characters still make better judgments than they do in Sapochnik’s next two battles). Hardhome is especially impressive when you remember that it came during the first truly dreary season of the show as well, providing the one stand-out episode of season 5.

Battle of the Bastards
Then we come to Sapochnik’s sophomore battle sequence, “Battle of the Bastards”. Considering how good “Hardhome” was, I was expecting the best battle in the entire series up to this point. However, even the first time I saw this episode and people were raving about how it was the best episode of television ever, something rang truly hollow and disappointing about it. It quickly became evident than, unlike the previous battles on Game of Thrones, “Battle of the Bastards” prioritizes spectacle over sensible character actions, victory is won through sheer luck and contrivance rather than strategy and heroism, and the show’s attempts to make us think that characters could die at any time are cast aside completely. The writing also takes a nosedive, setting plot beats that the showrunners think will be particularly effective, but failing to string them together in a way that is satisfying or makes sense. Season 6 was, overall, an improvement on season 5, but “Battle of the Bastards” was the moment where it became obvious that this show had completely changed (a fact that many others would not recognize until the idiocy of season 7, but the seeds of episodes such as “Beyond the Wall” were very much planted here).

Season 6 builds up the coming conflict between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton, having Jon try (with little success) to gather bannermen to take back Winterfell for the Starks. Irritatingly, he ignores good counsel from Sansa for basically no good reason other than to create conflict between the two of them. “Know your enemy” is just a sound tactical foundation and surely Jon is not stupid enough to believe he would learn nothing from Sansa. It’s literally just there to create conflict, but it’s unearned and it makes the series’ hero suddenly seem like a total idiot. I really want to reiterate this, because people seem to have forgotten such a simple fact: Jon was not stupid before Season 6, nor was he a bad commander – hell, in Neil Marshall’s second battle for Game of Thrones, “The Watchers on the Wall”, Jon’s intelligence gathering, heroic escape from the wildlings and assumption of command are instrumental to the Night Watch’s victory against overwhelming odds. He is also the only character smart enough to realize the bigger picture, that the politics of Westeros are unimportant and are only going to cause the army of the dead to kill everyone when winter comes. Jon Snow is only stupid when the writers need him to be – in this case, to make Sansa look smarter, rather than, oh I don’t know, making Sansa actually do something smart.

Anyway, so Jon at least justifies why they’re staging the attack now, despite being badly outnumbered: with winter rapidly approaching and their supplies dwindling, their window of opportunity is shrinking and they don’t expect to get any more reinforcements soon. So, while the odds aren’t great, this is their one best shot, which is a fair enough explanation (see, show writers, it’s that simple!). He does seem to have some sort of strategy to draw out Ramsay’s forces and limit their advantages, but we don’t really see much of it, nor does it really matter in the end regardless.

The next morning, the battlelines are drawn and they’re set up fairly well, initially – Sapochnik shows off the wide-open battlefield and the sizes of the forces. He also uses a traditional film trick here which shows up in similar battle sequences, where each side in the battle is oriented to face one side of the camera (Jon’s forces facing right, Ramsay’s facing left, as seen in the image above). This is a technique used in battle sequences such as The Two Towers to help keep the viewer aware of what side they’re seeing at any given moment and to keep the action understandable, no matter how chaotic it gets.

However, things start to break when Ramsay brings out Rickon Stark and forces him to run across the battlefield to escape his arrows. Look… I get that Rickon’s in a panic, he’s going to try to run as fast as he can and he’s not going to think to dodge the arrows coming at him. And I get that Jon is going to try to save his brother… but holy shit, no one tries to yell at him to stop? They all just stand there, mouths agape, no one tries to help? It gets even worse though: Rickon gets shot to death and then instead of going back to his forces, Jon fucking charges at Ramsay single-handedly. Inexplicably, he survives multiple volleys of arrows landing all around him and a cavalry charge completely alone. This is just unforgivably stupid. It makes Jon look like a goddamn idiot who single-handedly screwed up the entire plan and who gets tons of his own men killed because of it. Like I said – I can understand him getting emotional about saving his brother and screwing up the plan because of that. If that was the only dumb part about this episode, it would irritate me, but it would be something I could overlook… but no, we’re just getting started…

The big, spectacular moment of the battle comes when the cavalry from both sides meet and Jon is caught in between them in a brutal, visceral and admittedly insanely well-crafted long-take that shows off the insane chaos of the battle. It’s clearly ridiculous that Jon Snow makes it out of all of this completely unscathed due to pure luck (and impregnable plot armour), but that’s so obvious that I’m not going to nitpick about it too much. Then we have Ramsay firing arrows at his own troops on the off-chance he hits one of Jon’s men, a move which shows off the character’s ruthlessness, but also should have caused his men to rebel against him. It’s not like the Bolton men are staunchly loyal to Ramsay, and even if they are, are they really going to be fine with killing their own friends and allies for no good reason?

In my opinion, the point where this battle truly goes off the rails and becomes stupid is when a mountain of bodies just appears out of nowhere and causes Jon and all of his forces to become encircled. Sure, Sapochnik tries to set up that there are mounds of bodies starting to pile up during the fighting but… why? Are people just scrambling to be king of the hill on writhing and screaming terrain? And how the hell are you going to justify that these enormous piles of bodies just so happen to form a crescent shape which corners Jon’s entire army when a unit of Bolton men with shields suddenly and miraculously encircles them without contest? It’s just so stupid and the writers’ intention is transparent – we need Jon and his men to look like they’re all going to die! Just make it happen, dammit!

By this point, the battle has well and truly become a clusterfuck. After several minutes of fighting, the wildlings just show up and get surrounded by a shield wall that came out of nowhere. We don’t even ever find out if Davos and his men were caught up in this – at one point we see them rushing into the battle, but were they caught inside the shield wall? Who knows! If not, why didn’t they try to help break Jon’s men out? Who knows! Also, the “sides” camera trick has been well-and-truly abandoned by the time the shield wall shows up and it becomes hard to tell which side of the battle anyone is even on now. Hell, we don’t know which direction this mountain of bodies is in for several minutes.

But then, the tide turns in the manner basically everyone knew was going to happen – Littlefinger shows up with the knights of the Vale and saves the day. Despite being obvious to anyone who had been watching the show, this “twist” was just plain stupid writing, in my opinion, mainly because Sansa withheld the information of their arrival from Jon for no other reason than to build dramatic tension. Seriously, Sophie Turner confirmed as much herself.

Emotionally the payoff relies on Sansa withholding critical information purely to get a smirk when her plan (???) pays off and it’s like the writers started from that moment and wrote backwards to get there.https://t.co/RzyFhcrtGC
— Dan Olson (@FoldableHuman) May 3, 2019

Again, this is just the writers making Jon look like an idiot purely to make Sansa look smart, without bothering to make her do something that was actually intelligent. Instead, we get a scene that makes her look like she’s making a very petty power play that results in the deaths of hundreds of people for little more reason than to stoke her ego. She really couldn’t let Jon know that there were reinforcements coming that would change their entire battle plan?

Through all of this, Ramsay has actually been a pretty smart battle commander (firing on his own men aside). He figured out Jon’s weak point and lured him into a trap, then encircled his forces and nearly killed them all. However, when the knights of the Vale show up, he knows that he’s beaten and makes the smart call to retreat into Winterfell. Jon had said as much earlier, if Ramsay was smart he would have just holed up in Winterfell to begin with, but he wanted to toy with Jon and made the critical error. Still, based on Jon’s existing forces, he would have won the battle if not for help from an unexpected quarter and a whole lot of pure luck on Jon’s side. It’s pretty bad when you write your villain as being the only one using any sort of tactics, the one who deserves to win the battle, and yet they still lose regardless. Personally, I think it would have been way more interesting to have Ramsay’s bannermen turn on him. This was set-up earlier in the episode when Ramsay refuses to duel Jon and Jon says that he wouldn’t stick his neck out for his men, and when Ramsay orders his men to fire at his own troops. It also would have called back to a really cool sequence from A Dance With Dragons where Stark-loyal bannermen are turning on Ramsay within the walls of Winterfell. Hell, we can even have Sansa be the one coordinating with them if we want to have her do something truly clever without having to knock someone else down a peg to make her look good. All-in-all, “The Battle of the Bastards” is such a wasted opportunity and is emblematic of the way that Game of Thrones‘ writing quality has nosedived. It only really cares about spectacle and “big moments” and sloppily moves between these with poor justification for it. The fact that it turns the heroes into morons for plot convenience is just the icing on the cake.

The Long Night
Miguel Sapochnik’s latest battle came just last week with the much-anticipated “The Long Night”, one of the longest and most epic battles ever put to film. However, the reaction has been much more negative than I was expecting, being the second-lowest scoring Game of Thrones episode on Rotten Tomatoes and inspiring numerous critical thought-pieces on everything from the poor lighting to the nonsensical battle plans… oh wait, that’s what this is, isn’t it? Seriously though, all of the critiques of Jon and Dany’s battle plans are totally valid, because they really, really suck. I’ll give some credit where it’s due – unlike “Battle of the Bastards”, I actually like this episode. It is truly epic, visually stunning and there is some major tension throughout about who will die and whether any of our heroes will make it out by the end. However, all of this is undermined by the fact that I just can’t ignore how unjustifiably bad the army of the living’s defensive strategy is. If you can, then sure, you’ll probably love this episode whole-heartedly. I just can’t get past it though because, once again, it’s very clearly done to artificially maximize the drama while making our heroes look completely incompetent.

First of all, the entire plan is flawed from the beginning. Sure, they know that they need to kill the Night King in order to defeat the entire enemy force in one blow, that’s a solid objective. Hinging the entire plan on luring him to Bran is… questionable. For all they know, the Night King might not even show up, or he might just send a horde of undead to kill Bran indirectly. Still, I won’t nitpick this too much either, because in the grand scheme of things it’s not that important to the episode’s issues. What rackles me is that they don’t seem to have any sort of idea about the enemy that they’re going to be fighting. Are you trying to convince me that Jon, Dany and whoever else came up with this defensive “strategy” didn’t gather all the people with experience fighting wights and White Walkers, or read history books about fighting them before coming up with their defensive strategy? They have Tyrion on location, a man who led the defence of King’s Landing and won through clever tactics, are you telling me that they’re not going to leverage his talents and figure out the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, or the vulnerabilities they might exploit? I actually thought that the whole “bad things are going to happen in the crypt” foreshadowing was going to be a misdirect because… c’mon guys, Jon isn’t about to forget the time he saw the Night King resurrect tens of thousands of people right in front of him. Are you seriously telling me that no one, no one thought that maybe the crypts would become a problem if the bodies inside weren’t burned or removed? Apparently not, because the writers wanted that dramatic moment, therefore everyone has to be stupid… and that’s just the dumb shit in the planning phase.

As for the battle itself, Jon and Dany line up their forces… outside the walls… in front of a spiked trench with a single choke point to retreat to… with catapults set up outside of Winterfell and basically no one manning the walls. Bloody hell… As if that wasn’t dumb enough, the Dothraki are then sent to charge into the darkness with the goal of… uhh… winning the battle single-handedly? Dothraki are shock-and-awe light cavalry, they’re obviously going to be ineffective against a literal wall of dead who give no thought to their own self-preservation. This becomes even funnier when you realize that Melisandre showed up unexpectedly and lit all their weapons on fire moments before their charge, meaning that the original plan was apparently to charge in the dark with no way of seeing what was going on and with weapons that would be ineffective against their foe! Predictably, they nearly all get wiped out in moments during an admittedly really eerie shot as the rest of the army of the living sees their fire lights burning out one by one. The scene continues the series’ questionable portrayal of non-white races in how casually it dispatches the Dothraki, but hey the writers got their big, epic spectacle so I bet they’re happy about killing off a race of people uneventfully.

Then when the dead come for the rest of Jon and Dany’s forces, they are predictably overwhelmed and need to fall back into Winterfell. This shows off exactly why being outside of the walls of the castle in the first place was stupid – they’re vastly outnumbered and can barely see their foe, why not leverage their advantages and fight from a position of strength? That’s before you take the trench into account, which is designed in such a way that the defenders are forced through one narrow choke point to retreat. Not only does this mean that the defenders could gore themselves if they are pushed back, but it also necessitates the Unsullied to be nearly wiped out in order to allow as many troops as possible to escape. Again, would they not have been better served holding a narrow choke point where they could maximize damage instead of being overwhelmed and wiped out? Apparently not, because the writers needed a dramatic last stand for them!

Anyway, the dragons then engage in the battle and, predictably, give the defenders a small reprieve with the major damage they can inflict on the dead (although it is a drop in the bucket compared to the size of their entire force). The dragons could have been the key to the defence, but the Night King actually makes a pretty smart move by summoning a blizzard to severely limit their visibility and neutralize their effectiveness. I’ll also give Jon and Dany some credit here – they couldn’t really foresee this happening and so I can’t blame them for not having a plan to counter it. However, relying on Drogon to light the trench was probably not the best idea, but luckily Melisandre manages to set it ablaze and buy the defenders another short reprieve. And what do they do during this reprieve? Fuck all, basically. Apparently no one was manning the walls until the wights start throwing themselves at the flaming trench to create bridges of corpses across it. This one doesn’t even make sense to me… like, why? Did the writers think it was more dramatic to have no one on the walls, as if we’d think the battle was over and won? Why are they not just there shooting at the dead regardless? Even then, when the dead start swarming up the sides of the walls, there are absolutely no defences to stop them – no rocks, no burning oil, nothing. This is especially egregious when you go back to Neil Marshall’s previous battles, “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Walls”, which have the defenders explicitly dropping rocks and explosives down on the attackers to keep them from getting up, because that’s just smart.

At this point, the battle starts turning into a clusterfuck of chaos. For one thing, the geography of Winterfell is very unclear. I don’t know if Sapochnik thought that we were well aware of the layout of Winterfell after several seasons here, but… fuck man, I could barely keep track of the characters when I started watching this show, like hell I know the actual layout of Winterfell. At one point, we have a dragon smashing through a courtyard, while cutting back and forth to Sam, Brienne and Jaime who are all surrounded by wights and fighting in… another courtyard, I guess? The proximity of these two areas is not clear at all.

Furthermore, the editing does not help matters any. Characters will be surrounded and overwhelmed when we last see them, disappear for what seems like ages, and then when they reappear, somehow they’re still fighting? At the rate that we see the wights flooding into Winterfell, the whole castle should be swamped with dead very quickly, but there’s still plenty of time for Arya to get into a stealth sequence inside of the keep that lasts several very quiet minutes. And, as much as I love him, how the hell does Davos survive this battle? At one point we see him on the wall by Arya, who is getting swarmed by wights and only escapes because she’s rolling high on her acrobatics and stealth checks. Then, he disappears until the very end of the battle when he pops out and basically says “hey, I’m alive still and was still on the wall the whole time!” This swarming also makes the whole plan with Bran even more questionable, as Theon and the Ironborn should have been quickly overwhelmed trying to defend Bran from the horde of undead that bear down on them.

After getting knocked off his dragon, the Night King nearly seals the deal by resurrecting all the dead from the battle, surrounding Jon before he can deal a killing blow, overwhelming the already-overwhelmed defenders and unleashing chaos in the crypts. It’s clearly another effective move by the Night King, and Jon only makes it out when Dany arrives on Drogon and burns a path for him. Then, because the writers need Daenerys off of her dragon for a dramatic finale, they cause her and Drogon to stand around like utter idiots on the ground so that dozens of wights can swarm the dragon, knocking her off and forcing Jorah Mormont to come to her rescue. This is another moment that’s just so obviously contrived to get the characters into a position that the writers want them in, since it makes Dany look like a total moron for forgetting that there’s still an army of the undead right behind her. Bloody hell, Game of Thrones

And then we get to the ending. There’s another tense sequence as we see all the characters getting overwhelmed and Jon struggles to try to get into the Godswood to rescue Bran, a zombie dragon blocking his path and preventing him from doing so (it sure would have been nice to know if the Godswood was just on the otherwise of that dragon though, that would have make the scene even more tense). The Night King, all of the White Walkers and hundreds of wights pile into the Godswood, kill Theon and the Ironborn and then the Night King moves to kill Bran personally. In contrast to everything else he’s done so far, this was just dumb on the Night King’s part to expose himself and proves to be the critical error… however, the manner in which it happens is just baffling. Literally out of nowhere, Arya apparently runs through the horde of the undead without any of the wights or White Walkers noticing and then jumps at the Night King to stab him! He catches her, but she does a fancy trick with her Valyrian steel dagger and stabs him to death, killing him and instantly killing all of the White Walkers and wights in one blow… Wow, the dues ex machina weakness of the White Walkers was bad enough, but since that was established in season 7, I won’t belabour it here. Really though, there is no justifiable reason for how Arya could get through that crowd unnoticed and attack the Night King. I’ve seen people saying that she was hiding in the tree above, but if you watch the episode again, that’s clearly not the case. They don’t show us how she does it, we just see the wind past a White Walker’s head, heavily implying that she literally just ran and went for it and, once again, bails our heroes out through sheer dumb luck. It’s a really disappointing end for a threat that the show has been hyping up since literally the first minute of the first episode, and when the show has been hammering home to us that the politicking and squabbling has never actually mattered compared to the threat posed by the dead. Once again, the defenders’ plan was so bad that I was actually hoping that the showrunners would have the balls to just let the dead win and spend the last three episodes with Cersei struggling to stay alive against the Night King.

As for Arya being the one who got the killing blow… well, I think it was a really badass moment, but the more I think about it, the more unsatisfying it is to me. For one thing, it makes the whole Jon vs Night King set-up that the show has been pushing since season 5 kind of pointless. Sure, there was some minor set-up for Arya to do it – she performed her knife trick on Brienne in season 7 and Melisandre mentions a prophecy that Arya will close “blue eyes” (a prophecy that was retconned afterwards to fit this episode, by the way). However, this is basically nothing compared to the seasons of prophecy about Azor Ahai, the legendary warrior who will defeat the darkness and who, based on the criteria for the prophecy, really could only be Jon Snow or Daenerys. I guess the show just decided to drop the whole prophecy it had been building towards for several seasons? It’s not like Game of Thrones is a series where prophecy doesn’t come true either, especially not prophecies from R’hllor the Lord of Light. Sure, Melisandre may get the details wrong, such as when she believed that Stannis was Azor Ahai reborn, but a whole prophecy is never wrong like that. Personally, I think that they just should have gone with the obvious choice and have Jon kill the Night King. It has been his struggle for several seasons now and it’s only obvious because it has been set-up to happen. It just feels like a more satisfying payoff to me than having Arya kill him, considering that there have been basically no stakes built up between the two. It would be like having Jon kill Cersei in the big finale – he barely even knows her, why make him be the one to do it? Honestly, I would have much preferred Arya to get the killing blow on Cersei rather than the Night King. That would have been much more satisfying and deserved, but considering that they had her kill the Night King, I doubt that we’re going to see that happen now.

As you can see, “The Long Night” is a tactical mess which continues to show off the series’ emphasis on spectacle over sense that it had gained since season 6. Going back to Neil Marshall’s battles, “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall”, it’s striking to see the difference. Sure, Marshall doesn’t inject quite as much visual flair into his battles as Sapochnik, but they do a much better job of conveying the action to the viewer in a coherent manner, both battles are won by the heroes for outsmarting the opposing side rather than by dumb luck, and they still manage to work in an impressive amount of spectacle and character moments. There’s still one Miguel Sapochnik battle to come on Game of Thrones, but considering what we’ve gotten these past two seasons, I’m not holding out much hope that it will be any better than what’s come before.

*I’m being sarcastic of course, but I know someone will take this seriously so I need to specify that. The first 5 seasons of Game of Thrones completely wasted Sansa to an infuriating degree.

Animals in Bands

I was listening to a podcast the other day and someone mentioned off-hand that there was a metal band fronted by dogs. Naturally, this revelation caused me to instantly shoot up in my seat and try to find this band, because it sounded so intriguing. It turns out that there are actually a few bands fronted by animals and the results are certainly… interesting.

Honourable Mention: No Grave But the Sea For Dogs, Alestorm
This one definitely doesn’t count, but it was my original touch-point for animal-fronted music. Basically, it’s Alestorm’s No Grave But the Sea, but with all the vocals replaced by a barking dog sound effect. It’s pretty funny if you’re familiar with the songs and the dog barking is done in the same rhythm as the actual vocal tracks, but it’s not like they had a dog in the studio just barking constantly over each track. Check out the track “Alestorm” here.

Caninus

Kicking this list off with the band which inspired it, we have Caninus, a deathgrind band headed by two pit bulls, Basil and Budgie. The band was the side project of Most Precious Blood guitarist Justin Brannan, which lent the group some musical chops to go along with the vocal gimmick. The band was actually signed to a record label, War Torn records, and had three releases – two split EPs and a full album with the absolutely amazing title of Now the Animals Have Voices. Sadly, the band is now defunct, as Basil had a brain tumour and was euthanized in 2011 and Budgie died in 2016.

As for the music itself, I’m very mixed on it. Like I said, the sound and production are quite polished and coherent than some of the other bands on this list. However, I’m not a fan of the music itself – the songs range from 30 seconds to maybe 3 minutes at most, meaning that Now the Animals Have Voices is over very quickly. I know that this is the whole point, but the music is literally just lots of snarling, growling and some barking set to music. The vocals are appropriate for the heaviness of the music, but it doesn’t amount to something that I’d actually want to listen to. They’re on Spotify though, so feel free to give them a listen for yourself.

Highlights: “Fear of Dog (Religious Myths)”, “New Yorkie Crew (Loyal Like A Stone)”

Hatebeak

After Caninus, Hatebeak is probably the second biggest animal-fronted band out there, based on the research I found for this post. Hatebeak are a death/grindcore metal band fronted by a grey parrot named Waldo. The band is signed to Reptilian Records and is still active today, having released three split EPs (including one with Caninus) and a full-length album in 2015 called The Number of the Beak. Hatebeak really pride themselves on their bird-pun titles, which are equal parts cringe and chuckle-worthy. If nothing else, I’d recommend you at least check out the titles of their songs. I mean, just look at the album art for The Number of the Beak. Hatebeak takes itself much less seriously than Caninus, really leaning into the whole joke of its premise.

Musically, Hatebeak are a mixed bag. The production on The Number of the Beak is very bad, almost demo-quality. For some of their songs, I’d say it would be appropriate to label Hatebeak “noise”, as their music is largely just distorted guitars with some squacks overlaid on it. On such tracks, the parrot vocalist feels like a gimmick. However, there are some tracks where Waldo’s vocals actually resemble grindcore “bree-brees”, such as “Beak of Putrefaction”, “God of Empty Nest” and “Seeds of Destruction”, which isn’t a musical style I’m into, but it’s familiar enough to bring a smile to my face and I can definitely see how someone could be into these tracks. “Roost in Peace” is also a pretty solid death metal track. All-in-all, I actually enjoyed bits of Hatebeak more than Caninus, even if the production is total ass and the first half of the album makes the parrot vocals feel like a gimmick. However, when Hatebeak works, it works pretty well, although it’s pretty clear that the band put more effort into their song titles than they did in the music itself. The Number of the Beak is on Spotify, I’d recommend that you give it a listen.

Highlights: “Roost in Peace”, “Seven Perches”

The Thai Elephant Orchestra

The previous two entries were bands fronted by animals, whereas The Thai Elephant Orchestra are a band made up of animals, performing their own music. The elephants are actually signed to Mulatta Records, which prides itself as “purveyors of the unique and bizarre”, where they have released 4 albums: a self-titled album, Elephonic Rhapsodies, Water Music and Smash Hits. The band’s page on Mulatta Records proudly states that the band is comprised of “Elephants in the Thai jungle playing specially designed musical instruments. The elephants improvise the music themselves. The Thai Elephant Orchestra was co-founded by Richard Lair of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang and performer/composer Dave Soldier”.

As you would probably expect from music improvised and performed entirely by animals, The Thai Elephant Orchestra’s music is mostly just noise. There isn’t really much artistry or cohesion to it, although in this case the gimmick of having music created by animals doesn’t diminish the product itself. Elephonic Rhapsodies is on Spotify, so if you’re interested then you might want to check it out.

The Rock Cats

Aaaand here’s where we get more into the gimmicky stuff, if you can believe that after Caninus and Hatebeak. The Rock Cats are an off-shoot of The Acro-Cats, which is essentially a cat circus. Each show ends with a performance by The Rock Cats, which is dubbed “the only cat band in existence”. The sarcastic reviews on the band’s Wikipedia page are incredible:

-“An unpredictable assortment of instrument clanging, and rarely does it sound like the cats are playing the same song, let alone an actual, fully realized piece of music.”
-“Really, really fun way to spend an afternoon”
-A reviewer of a 2013 show in New Orleans was critical of the band’s musicality, and complained that the advertised “seasonal carol selections such as ‘A Cat in a Manger’ and ‘Catnip Roasting on an Open Fire'” never materialized.”
-“What they lacked in technical skill, they certainly made up for in rock ‘n’ roll catitude”.

The band also has a website which is pure 90s Geocities cheese and which apparently isn’t updated with any regularity because it has a listing of the band members, but the front-cat, Tuna, has been dead for a year now (and this despite having a listing for a show that happened a couple days ago as of this writing). The site also has a music video of the cats (and a rooster, and a gopher) playing music which seems to be 100% legit, although edited heavily to make it listenable if the band’s reviews are anything to go by. Unlike the other entries on this list, they do not have any music up on Spotify.

The Jingle Cats

…and of course there’s an entire Christmas-themed band of cats out there. Unlike The Rock Cats, The Jingle Cats merely meow over humans playing Christmas carols in a similar manner to No Grave But the Sea for Dogs. They released three albums, Meowy Christmas, Here Comes Santa Claws and a non-Christmas album, Rhythm and Mews, all three of which are available on Spotify. They also have a website which is somehow even worse than The Rock Cats’ was.

Christmas albums tend to be gimmicky enough as it is, but having cats as the vocalists just adds a whole new dimension of gimmickry to the proceedings. The music itself is very generic holiday fare, almost like something from a karaoke version of the songs, and the cat vocals grow tiresome very quickly, especially when they are arranged in a very high pitch. Also, for some reason, there’s a dog on lots of these songs as well, despite this being a supposedly cat-based band. As painful as the Christmas albums are, Rhythm and Mews is a special kind of insane, featuring cat-based covers of “Secret Agent Man“, “Home on the Range” and the freaking “The Star Spangled Banner“.

I… I’m not sure what else to say beyond that. Maybe we should just stop with these animal bands, or at least the cat-based ones, okay?

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.

IC2S Playlist Update 23/09/2015

(Whoops, published this a day early!)

First up this week, we have “Alive” by XXI, from their debut album Inside Out. If you’re a regular reader of the blog*, then you’ll know that I’ve been following the rather tragic transition of A Feast for Kings to their current status as XXI. The Hell on Earth EP was fantastic, and their tribute to fallen singer Eric Gentry was fantastic, so I was hoping for great things with Inside Out. Unfortunately, the final product has left me a little underwhelmed. Now, to be fair, I have only listened to it twice now, and normally it takes me a few listen-throughs to really form a solid opinion on an album, but I do feel that I’m already getting a good grip on it. Overall, Inside Out is a technically proficient album, but it fails to live up to the promise that the band members set with their debut EP. Part of the reason for this is that very few of the songs really stand out (“Alive” and “Say It Again” being the two best imho) – most sound like typical teen angst/Christian hard rock and don’t seem to go beyond the basics of this sound. It also kind of stings that they toned down their sound slightly, but this isn’t a major complaint – they could have swapped to rhythmic bongo dance music for all I care as long as the music was good. This feeling was made even worse when I went right back to Hell on Earth immediately after finishing the album, and the difference in quality between the two products was night and day. I don’t regret purchasing Inside Out by any means (it is a decent album after all), but I can’t help but be disappointed that XXI seems to have taken a musical step down following the “Memories” single. Hopefully they learn from this and step back up for their sophomore effort.

Secondly, we have “American Dream” by Casting Crowns from their self-titled debut album. I would argue that, for their first 3 albums at least, Casting Crowns was one of the best bands to ever out of the contemporary Christian music (CCM) market. While they did their standard CCM duties and put out some really heartfelt, quality worship music, they also had a strong desire to call out the church and society where they saw things were problematic (hell, their first two songs on their very first album call out the church for not doing its duties, and they have a whole album dedicated to the inaction and judgmentalism of Christians). “American Dream” is a good examplar of this, and is actually subtle enough that a non-Christian could actually conceivably enjoy it.

However, by the time they released their fourth album, Until the Whole World Hears, something had gone amiss. Did they get too much power and influence within the evangelical church? Did they feel like they couldn’t bite the hands which fed them anymore? Did they end up in bed with American right-wing social politics? Did they believe that they had to neuter themselves to sell more records? Whatever the case, their music began to sound more generic and toned down, while also being far less critical (not that they were breaking ground anyway, but they were proficient and clearly sincere before). Until the Whole World Hears is basically just a generic CCM/worship album with only a couple good songs and no critical asides to show that they actually care about the health of the church. Their fifth album, Come to the Well is a little better, but it actually does do some milder social critiquing at least. However, it also has a distinctly, uncomfortably American-political vibe to it at times which makes me wonder what the nature of their criticism is coming from – issues within the church itself, or perceived political issues that require a religious voting bloc? Their most recent album, Thrive, is arguably their weakest effort yet, with generic, toothless worship music and a lack of conviction.**

Anyway, I guess that’s the theme for this week: disappointment, squandering of talent, failing to grasp your potential, etc. I hadn’t really intended for this to be the case, but it’s what we’ve gotten. So… uh… enjoy the music.

*And if you are then, holy shit, make a comment below because I’m under the impression that no one reads this thing…

**I actually had a bit of an increasingly depressing day because of this. I decided to listen to Casting Crowns’ discography from start to finish to ensure that my recollection of their music was accurate. If anything, post-The Altar and the Door Casting Crowns was actually worse than I remember. Their music just gets so much worse as you go on and shows a really pronounced difference between their good-bad split… especially with the incredibly dull Thrive thrown into the mix (I had not listened to it before this), which makes the weakest bits of The Altar and the Door sound absolutely inspired.

Quick Fix: 2013 in Film (aka Bitching About This Year’s Movies)

I’m back! For those who didn’t know, I spent the last week on vacation in Cincinnati and Atlanta and so getting out that last Apes retrospective entry was a bit of an ordeal… that said, I’m back in Canada and good to get back down to business on the blog! Before we get into the rambling meat of this entry, I want to mention that the open beta for Battlefield 4 has been up for almost two weeks now. If you haven’t checked it out yet, then do so ASAP (it’s free)! I’m only able to play it on the PS3 right now (which is extremely inferior compared to the PC beta), but I’m looking forward to playing on PS4 as soon as it launches.

2013 might be the best year for gaming ever. The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite would both be effortlessly Game of the Year winners if they hadn’t come out in the same year as GTA 5 (although I’m still rooting for The Last of Us). However, the same cannot be said for Hollywood, as it seems to me that 2013 is one of the most disappointing years in popular film in recent memory. Now to be clear, I’m talking about “major” films in the public conscience – there’s always good festival fare and indie darlings, but these usually fly under the radar of the general public. It should also be mentioned that we’re just getting into Oscar season, so the big Best Picture candidates are going to be making their way into cinemas quite soon, if they aren’t there already.

Here’s your Big Five winner right here.

Anyway, as you can probably tell I’m a bit of a film buff. Certainly not as much as some people, but I’ll usually see 15-20 new movies each year (not counting the films I then catch up on in the next year, at which point I’ll be closer to 35-45 movies released in any one year). That said, 2013 has been extremely disappointing for me – I’ll usually see any movie which interests me, but it’s now October and I’ve only seen 8 2013 films (Evil Dead, The Purge, Kick-Ass 2, World War Z, Iron Man 3, Oz the Great and Powerful, This Is the End, Red 2 and Gravity). Of these, I’d only say half were in any way decent, with Gravity being the only one which I thought was actually good (seriously, FREAKING SEE IT!!!). Sure I’m missing some high-profile films, but looking through the general consensus of what was “good” this year, I’m basically just missing Star Trek Into Darkness, Side Effects, The Conjuring, The World’s End and Rush. Unfortunately, these are disproportionately outweighed by the disappointing, mediocre or bad films released this year. Among the major disappointments were Gangster Squad (I seriously was predicting Best Picture when I saw the trailer), The Purge (how the hell did they screw it up so badly!?!) and Man of Steel. Legendarily bad films have all seemed to converge on 2013 like a plague: Movie 43, InAPPropriate ComedyA Good Day to Die Hard, The Host and Scary Movie 5 to name a few. Then there’s the just plain uninspired which was the rule rather than exception during the summer movie season: Jack the Giant Slayer, Olympus Has Fallen, The Hangover Part III, The Lone Ranger. Hell, even high-profile indie films weren’t spared as Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling both destroyed their reputations with Only God Forgives. Sure, there’s always more bad than good films in a year, but this year it seems to me like the good stuff is in much lower supply than normal, and the disappointments were far more high-profile.

I don’t have all the answers for why 2013 has been such a disappointing year in film. However, it has gotten me thinking about one particular issue in Hollywood which I’d like to address (and which is a factor in some of this year’s releases). As usual, Hollywood is concerned with making money, but this year they seem to be taking more of a stranglehold on it and compromising their productions in the process. One of these trends which has reemerged recently is taking an R-rated film and editing it down to PG-13, because PG-13 films have the widest prospective audience. Now obviously this is hardly why 2013 has been a bad year for cinema, but it is a contributor in the downfall of at least one high-profile example. World War Z was totally neutered by its forced PG-13 rating. Now I’m not one of those ratings snobs who believes that every movie would be improved with an R-rating and gratuitous violence and nudity (hell, I agree that Robocop wouldn’t be all that much worse if they cut it to PG-13), but some subjects don’t lend themselves to a family-friendly audience. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I don’t think that a movie about mass human extinction, cannibalism and visceral violence really would be best served by being PG-13. As a result, then entire film feels compromised, an issue which doesn’t even get fixed by the Unrated cut (the zombies seem to just jump on people, bite them, and then run away). This is a Hollywood trend which has been annoyingly pervasive since at least 2004, with such examples as AVP, Live Free or Die Hard, Terminator Salvation, Priest, Taken and Taken 2. Of course, the upcoming Robocop remake is coming out with a PG-13, which is going to further create backlash against this trend (even if it isn’t as abysmal as everyone is predicting it will be). As someone who loves good movies, I wish that studios would have a bit more faith in their audiences and give their filmmakers a bit more freedom… but that’ll be the day.

On an unrelated note, here’s a picture of some fat cats…

UPDATE: Since posting this I’ve also watched Gangster Squad and Machete Kills, both of which were rather average, held back by disappointing elements (this seems to be the trend with 2013 releases… I’m curious to see what I think about Man of Steel when it comes out on DVD).