Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2020

So… 2020 has been a year. However, if there has been one positive for me, it’s that working from home makes it even easier to listen to music all day. While I was initially worried that COVID-19 was going to see bands pushing back their albums until they can tour again, the latter-half of the year saw a number of high-profile and much-anticipated releases. Beyond that, coping with quarantine led to several cooped-up bands being able to sit down and put out new music or livestream concerts across the globe. With lockdowns and no end in sight of restrictions, there’s still plenty of time for you to experience fresh music, so why not check out the new albums I listened to this year and see if anything tickles your fancy?

Oh and one other thing – I usually do a countdown of the best movie posters of the year as well around this time. Obviously, due to COVID, most movies have had their releases pushed back so I decided to forego the rankings this year as the selection of posters is just too little to work with.

Honourable Mention: Somebody That I Used to Know EP, Three Days Grace
So this one is a really weird case. Normally I don’t bother to cover singles and I usually only include EPs on this list if there are at least two tracks (hence why “Stairway to Nick John” made the list last year, despite having only a live and a studio version of the same song). Three Days Grace’s Somebody That I Used to Know EP is really weird though because it’s just a new cover track and then three songs lifted wholesale from their last album. It would be one thing if they reimagined these songs, but they’re literally the same recordings. What makes it even weirder for me is that these three songs are all pretty damn good, certainly far better than the “meh” Gotye cover that this EP is named after. It’s obvious that these three tracks were just put on here to lure in new fans or old fans who stopped paying attention after Adam Gontier left the band. As a result, I can’t really justify putting this in the rankings, nor would I really know where to put it for that matter.

Honourable Mention: We Are The Lost Ones, Tear Us Apart and More To Living Than Being Alive, Anberlin

I’ve made it clear before that Anberlin are one of my all-time favourite bands so seeing them reunite in 2020 has been a real treat. They’ve been doing a series of livestreamed shows where they perform each of their albums in its entirety and they’ve been great. At the time of this writing, We Are The Lost Ones (the live recording of their first album, BlueprintsForTheBlackMarket) is the only one which has been released, but there are two more live recordings in the wings and at least four more shows coming over the next year. As a result, I’m going to refrain from ranking each of these albums individually in order to avoid swamping the countdown with Anberlin live albums in 2020 and 2021. Suffice to say they’re great, seeing Cities performed live was a truly magical evening that I’ll never forget, even if it would have been nice to be in the same room as them.

Anyway, with that out of the way let’s get to the rankings, starting with a real, steaming turd…

24) Shadow Work, Trapt
Like most people my age, my only experience with Trapt was their angsty one-hit wonder, “Headstrong” waaaaay back in 2002. It probably would have stayed that way too, except while doing research on a band with some shady political leanings (don’t worry, we’ll get to that band shortly) Trapt’s name came up as being a contemporary with awful politics. I’ve looked into it and, holy shit, they are seriously the biggest assholes in the music industry, getting into fights with everyone and bragging about how much money they make (and yet they can’t seem to pay the guy who did their album art, imagine that). Like, how bad do you have to be to get your own Wikipedia section about all the awful shit you’ve said on Twitter? Anyway, after going into this rabbit hole I discovered that Trapt had put out a new album this year and… well, I couldn’t resist the temptation.

I’m not sure what sort of music I was expecting to get going into Shadow Work, but it sure as hell wasn’t an ass-load of toothless pop-rock. Like, say what you will about “Headstrong”, but at least that song had some energy to it. The music in Shadow Work sounds like limp Backstreet Boys, stripped of any talent. For a band who is only known for one song, you’d think that there’d be at least one obligatory bro-metal, pump up song, something with some energy. From what I’ve heard, the band normally has more of a nu metal flavour, but they tried to sell out even harder on this album by watering down their sound and going for what’s hot in radio rock right now, meaning that Shadow Work doesn’t even please the people who normally like Trapt’s music.

In case you’re wondering, Trapt avoid bringing their shitty politics into their music (suggesting to me that it’s more of a social media grift to get attention). You could say that it’s wise that Trapt don’t bring their political leanings into their music, but it would have been nice if they had brought anything at all into it. Every song on this album is the sort of shit that killed radio rock – false sincerity, vapid songwriting, and every single track is about love or relationships… it all blends together into a boring sludge meant to be enjoyed listened to by the widest possible audience. And good God the songwriting is just embarrassing at times, to the point where I feel like I owe Five Finger Death Punch an apology. Like, check out these lyrical highlights:

“I’m going to make it/Going to make it/Going to make it out alive/I’m going to make it/Going to make it/Going to make it out alive/Make it out alive/Make it out alive/Make it out alive”

“I want to want what I want/I don’t want to have to have a need/I want to want what I want/I just want to be set free/I want to want what I want/I don’t want to have to have these needs/I want to want what I want/I just want to be set free/I want to want what I want/I want to want what I want”

“Tell me how you really feel/Tell me how you feel/If you really want to make it real/Then tell me how to/Tell me how you feel/Tell me how you feel”

“Looking for love in so many places/I think I took a wrong turn back there somewhere/So many pictures, so many faces/There’s not a soul that I know that well to tell/Looking for answers by going within/It’s getting harder to know where I’ve been/Crashing and burning before I begin/I don’t want it withheld/I want to hold and be held”

These look like the sorts of lyrics I tried to write back when I was in high schooler and I sucked at songwriting. Even the titles of the songs are lazy and cliched – like, the fifth track is “Far Enough Away” but then the ninth is “Too Far Away”. Any competent artist would use this sort of mirroring to make some sort of statement, but here it’s just a coincidence to wring out some sort of emotion based on the sentiment of the titles. Tracks that would be filler on any other album, like “Far Enough Away” and “Trying Too Hard” end up being highlights because at least they meet the level of bog standard. The best track though is “Save Your Soul”, a Jewel cover. It’s not amazing, but it feels like some actual effort was put into it, which is more than I can say about everything else on Shadow Work. That’s really the main issue here – even if you leave the band’s shitty politics out of the equation, Shadow Work is fucking boring and lazy, low-effort trash with no artistic merit to it.

I feel bad about making these annual rankings sometimes. I call it “Ranking The Albums I Listened To” for a reason – I’m generally not seeking out stuff that I won’t enjoy, so even the bottom-rung albums on the list aren’t necessarily awful in any given year, they just may be middling. Not so in this case though – Shadow Work is easily one of the worst albums I’ve listened through and has set a new standard for me for how shitty a band can be at everything they do. Oh and congrats on selling a grand total of 600 copies of this album in the first week, Trapt, it’s more than it deserved!

(Post-script: A week before posting this Trapt finally got banned from Twitter for defending a statutory rape. Classy!)

(POST-post-script: Mere hours before this article went live there were rumours circulating that Chris Taylor-Brown had been fired from Trapt, complete with a profanity-laden Parler meltdown. Unfortunately, as funny as this would have been, it appears that this is fake news.)

23) 2020 EP, Smile Empty Soul
I know I said back in 2018 that I didn’t have a lot of interest in Smile Empty Soul after being underwhelmed by their album Oblivion… but then a new EP called “2020” showed up in my “new releases” on Spotify and I knew I had to at least see what Smile Empty Soul think are the pressing issues in the turbulent times we’re living in. After all, 2020 is such a loaded, meaningful title for an album, you can’t really avoid tackling serious subjects, right? Well… Smile Empty Soul have some things to complain about, but holy shit are their priorities out of place. The album opens with “Entitled”, which spends its entire runtime whining about the kids these days with their Instagram and opinions. It’s seriously the sort of rant I’ve heard on more than one occasion from my aunt and it immediately put me in a sour mood with this EP. Like, you think that this is the biggest issue in 2020, to the point where you put it first on your album? You’re the dude who makes your money putting your opinions out there in music, if you don’t like it then stop caring about what they think. I mean, musically it’s an alright song but the lyrics completely ruin it for me, nothing more than out of touch whining.

After “Entitled” put me off right out the gate, “Excommunicated” at least takes a break from the bullshit. It seems to be about the breaking up of a friendship rather than a political song, all-in-all it’s fine. “Land of the Lost” put me back into hesitant territory though. The song itself seems innocuous enough, but “Entitled” put me off so badly that I started second guessing Smile Empty Soul’s intentions everywhere. Like, look at the album cover – a barcode on the forehead, a mask on and a needle killing you… is Smile Empty Soul anti-vax..? I honestly don’t know, but these lyrics calling out “smart people” who can’t think for themselves and let the government trample over our freedom don’t make me any less suspicious:

When you tell yourself you’re the smartest kind/But you’ve never thought your own way out/Of the box, land of the lost/I hope you’re ready this time/You’ve been away for so long/You fell asleep in another lie/The one that buries us all/ […] Nothing’s ever gonna save you now/Go tell your children that they aren’t free

Now, to be charitable, these lyrics are ambiguous enough that this song could also be about people who sit idly by as fascists take over, which would be quite fitting for an album with a loaded title like 2020. I get the sense that that’s not the case though, the lack of specificity just makes it come across like so many mealy mouthed, commercial “protest” songs that sell themselves on the language of protest but don’t actually stand for anything.

On the more positive side, “Go Broke” does seem to be pretty clear about how screwed up a society where everyone’s in debt to someone is, making it probably the only appropriately “2020” track on the EP. The album then closes out with “Same World”, which is just dull song on its own merits before you even look at the message which boils down to “I don’t understand the world anymore”. Again, you’re not helping my case that you’re just out of touch, dude.

2020 is a meh EP on its own, but is title really doesn’t do it any favours. It doesn’t even make any sort of relevant statement about the times we’re living in for that matter – seriously, replace the Instagram references in “Entitled” with Facebook references and this whole EP could have easily been released a decade ago. It just feels like out of touch bullshit… which put me down the much more enjoyable rabbit hole of trying to figure out what sort of political inclinations Smile Empty Soul have and see if my anti-vaxxer suspicions were correct. While I couldn’t find any evidence of that, it’s pretty clear that the band (which is really just one guy, Sean Danielsen) don’t like the government at all. To promote their shows they post a lot of imagery of Guy Fawkes and guns (oh Jesus Christ, they had an Austin, TX show with a gun poster that says “Come and take it”). There’s nothing wrong with any of these by themselves, but it gives me the distinct impression that Sean Danielsen is a conservative libertarian, which would make the toothlessness of his opinions in 2020 make a lot more sense. This also isn’t helped by the explicitly political post the band made where he liked when someone said he sounded like a conservative and then called someone else a social justice warrior because they pointed out that black people didn’t have it so good 125 years ago… like, dude, you’re supposed to be a punk. You tell me that you look out the window and look at what’s going on in the world and you think that the real problem is that the government tells you what to do too much? Worrying about government overreach is a legitimate concern and both political parties in the US do suck, but are you telling me that you can’t think of something to say about all the corruption, blatant authoritarianism, mass death from incompetence and rise in hate groups that are 100% specific to Donald Trump’s presidency? You are, after all, the guy whining about people who have opinions that don’t matter. Ugh, fuck 2020, this EP sucks.

22) Like A House On Fire, Asking Alexandria
I’ve never really had any interest in checking out Asking Alexandria before, but one day their newest single showed up in my Spotify recommendations with a, uh, interesting title: “Antisocialist”. Luckily for Asking Alexandria, “Antisocialist” is a misnomer whereas “anti-social” would be more accurate, because otherwise I would have gone right off on this band. However, I was interested enough that I decided to check their new album, Like A House On Fire, just out of curiosity. Unfortunately, the music here doesn’t really warrant any of that curiosity because it’s largely “meh”. Like, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say that any song on here is “bad”, but none of them are interesting either, just a lot of commercial hard rock looking for radio airplay. Vocalist Danny Worsnop doesn’t really help either, when he isn’t yelling he sounds like a whiny, hard rock Callum Scott. Normally I take notes on every track while going through albums for this ranking, but Like A House On Fire lost me about halfway through its bloated 52 minute playtime. On “All Due Respect” Danny sings “I can fly, and you’re gonna fall face down while/I inspire greatness/As long as I’m alive, I’ll fight, and you’ll be stuck in the shadows of/The heights of my greatness”. All I can say to that is… got a pretty high opinion of yourself, bro?

21) Supernatural Miracle, Stillwell
I saw Stillwell live back in 2010 or 2011 when they opened for Korn and Disturbed. It was actually a big deal for me because Wuv, the drummer for P.O.D., is the drummer for Stillwell so it was the closest I had ever been to my childhood favourite band at the time. Even better, I actually got to meet him after the show and get a picture together, which was easily one of the most exciting moments of my life and the only time that I was ever truly starstruck. Maybe I should have been more excited that freaking Fieldy from Korn was there too but at the time I was just too tongue-tied to think straight. Anyway, as you can expect I was on a high when I bought a copy of the band’s debut album, Dirtbag, and got Fieldy, Wuv and Q-unique to sign it, but as soon as I popped it into the CD player I knew I had made a mistake. The band put on a great show and there are a couple tracks which are straight fire, but Dirtbag was… rough to say the least. With each subsequent listen I was basically just listening to “Street Metal” and ignoring the rest. Due to this distaste, I never really bothered to check in again on Stillwell – in fact, they managed to put out a whole second album without me noticing. However, when the band put out their third album, Supernatural Miracle, this year and it popped up in my Spotify recommendations I grit my teeth and decided to take the plunge. I mean, I’ve already listened to goddamn Trapt this year, how bad can Stillwell be?

If I’m being honest, I actually expected Supernatural Miracle to be really bad, maybe even second worst album of the year bad, but I was pleasantly surprised when “You Don’t Wanna Know” started up. Gone were the rap and lite-metal proceedings of Dirtbag and instead in their place they gave us a pretty solid and polished rock track. I was even more surprised then when “Gasoline” kicked in and had me legitimately rocking along and having a good time. Even the most outright-Christian song on the album, “A Come to Jesus Moment”, was much better than I would have expected, bringing some hard-rockin’ swagger to the proceedings. By the time “Could’ve Sworn” rolled around my expectations had already been blown well past, but this also marks the point in the album where Supernatural Miracle starts getting really mediocre. The next six tracks are all “fine” at best, largely let down by their mediocre, shallow and uninspiring lyrics, although the closing track “Contagious” picks the energy back up a bit.  The album is also short at only 32 minutes and definitely feels like it, it’s quick, breezy and inoffensive. Like I said, I was not expecting much out of Supernatural Miracle, but the album easily surpassed these expectations. It’s a big step up from Dirtbag and while it’s unfortunate that more than half of the album is pretty meh, there are a few tracks here that are well worth listening to!

20) Curse of the Crystal Coconut, Alestorm
Alestorm have a long career of keeping the delicate balance between being fun and comedic but still taking themselves seriously on their past outings. However, Curse of the Crystal Coconut definitely crosses that line and just keeps going, resulting in an album which alternates between uproarious laughter and mind-numbingly stupid in equal measure. On the positive side of things we have fun tracks like “Treasure Chest Party Quest”, “Fannybaws” and “Pirate’s Scorn” (a freaking Donkey Kong Country cover of all things and also where the album’s title comes from!), which I can see myself sitting in a tavern singing along to with my mates. Leaning on the more “serious” side for Alestorm we get two fantastic tracks, “Chomp Chomp” and “Henry Martin”. Then there’s the epic “Wooden Leg Pt. 2 (The Woodening)”, which threads the needle brilliantly between deathly serious and laugh out loud funny.

Unfortunately, Curse of the Crystal Coconut is filled to the brim with embarrassing joke tracks, the first of which is “Tortuga”, this weird pop-rock track that turns into Run DMC-style rap-rock when Captain Yarrface steps in. It’s such a staggeringly stupid track that you need to hear it to believe it. You might even end up appreciating the audacity of it, but on repeat listens I’ve just found myself growing more and more tired. “Shit Boat (No Fans)” and “Pirate Metal Drinking Crew” are just dismal. “Shit Boat (No Fans)” sounds like it was written verbatim from an angry internet commenter, whereas “Pirate Metal Drinking Crew” is just vulgar for the sake of vulgarity (because “Fucked With an Anchor” was so popular last time, got to just do the same thing again right guys?). Meanwhile, “Zombies Ate My Pirate Ship” and “Call of the Waves” are just “meh”, but clock in over ten minutes between the two of them, almost a quarter of the total album length. As a result, half the album is practically unlistenable, especially on replays. Alestorm have really gone too far with turning themselves into a one-note joke this time, to the point where several of the tracks just feel half-assed. It’s too bad, there’s some tracks here which are great, but Alestorm may have finally scraped right through that barrel and out the other side.

Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, less-stingy critics seem to think it’s a blast so what do I know.

Also, like No Grave But the Sea before it, Curse of the Crystal Coconut comes with a gimmicky bonus disc on the deluxe edition. Whereas No Grave But the Sea had a funny but unlistenable version of the album with all the vocals replaced with dogs barking, Curse of the Crystal Coconut‘s bonus disc is a little more interesting, taking the songs on the album and running them through a 16-bit compression filter. The result is that each song sounds like it’s being run off a SNES, which would make it kind of cool to listen to while playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! or something like that. It’s not really worth paying extra for but when the album dropped it was actually cheaper to buy the deluxe edition so I snagged it.

19) F8, Five Finger Death Punch
I’ve made it clear in the past that I really don’t like Five Finger Death Punch. Musically they’re right in my wheelhouse, but lyrically they are just awful. However, I knew going in that F8 (it’s their eighth album, get it?) was the first album coming off Ivan Moody and Zoltan Bathory both getting sober, so maybe the band would find it in themselves to do some introspection. Also worth noting was that this album had no covers on it, which would normally be great news, except that FFDP are so bad at writing lyrics that their covers are almost always their only good songs on a new album. Still, I was curious and willing to give F8 a shot… and honestly, this is probably the band’s best album since American Capitalist.

After the tone-setting, title track instrumental the album goes right into the single-baits “Inside Out”, “Full Circle” and “Living the Dream” which immediately demonstrate that lyrics are still FFDP’s achilles heel. These songs all sound catchy, but their lyrics let them down as usual (“Living the Dream” in particular has trendy/cringy references to superheroes and then alludes to Ghost in the Shell… which makes me wonder if the band think that the Major is a superhero too). That said, at least “Living the Dream” has something to say, actively criticizing the American Dream as a ploy that doesn’t benefit us. While it could be articulated better, it makes for a more interesting song than FFDP’s usual oeuvre.

Then they go into “A Little Bit Off”, which I initially thought was a joke interlude – Ivan Moody puts on an air of intentionally-false optimism over an acoustic rock track. But no, you soon realize that this is a legitimate effort on FFDP’s part, so much so that it’s actually the album’s second single (and, what the hell, actually did really well for them)!? Once again, it’s nice to see the band trying to branch out, and the writing is deeper than they usually go (coping with the difficulties of mental health), but I can’t get over the fact that this sounds like a joke track. Maybe it’s just the way FFDP present the song, but it doesn’t work for me.

Luckily “Bottom of the Top” comes up next and is explosive, its drums sounding like gunshots in the chorus as FFDP rage back at the chinstrokers who say they aren’t “real metal”. It’s definitely one of the best tracks on the album, although the best has to be “Darkness Settles In”. In my opinion, “Darkness Settles In” is what “A Little Bit Off” should have been, a slowed-down, introspective and somber track which provides a stark look at recovery from alcoholism.

The rest of the album putters along, with a couple more decent tracks like “Brighter Side of Grey” and “To Be Alone”, but most of the rest are unremarkable (although “This Is War” is “classic” FFDP in all the wrong ways, as are the two bonus tracks on the deluxe edition). F8 ends up in a bit of an awkward place as a result. FFDP are clearly trying to expand their sound and are far less pissed off than they usually are. The lyrics are also better than they usually are, but are still far short from adequate. It’s enough to give me some hope for the future of the band, but I’m not exactly holding my breath, especially if they pull a Disturbed and decide that “A Little Bit Off” represents the band’s future.

18) Odyssey, Kaleida
After the fantastic Think EP, I really wanted to like Tear the Roots, but the album just didn’t work for me at all. Three years later, Kaleida are back with their sophomore effort, Odyssey. Going in, I was expecting this to be largely the same as Tear the Roots – chill vibes, echoed voices and a sparse soundscape, but just too lethargic for its own good. Luckily, Odyssey is quick to demonstrate that it is not just more of the same. I mean, their distinctive style is still there, but they’ve just built on it by bringing in some new influences from pop, electronic and jazz. In the songs where they do try to experiment a bit more with their distinctive sound, like “Other Side”, “Feed Us Some” and “No Computer”, Kaleida gain a lot more energy to their music. The title track and “Josephine” also take the Kaleida sound and do something different and enjoyable with it, with “Josephine” building up a defiant tension throughout its playtime (although I wish they had capitalized on this and really set it loose). Unfortunately, there’s still a bunch of tracks which have the same sort of energy as background music at a mall, but they’re outweighed by the more interesting stuff here. I think Kaleida still have a ways go to before they really knock it out of the park, but Odyssey is a promising next step in their evolution and I can only hope that their next album sees them venturing out even further.

17) S&M2, Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
S&M2, clocking in at nearly two and a half hours in length, is a roller coaster to parse through with soaring highs and crushing lows. Part celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the original S&M (which is, in my opinion, one of the best live albums ever), part celebration of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and part true sequel, S&M2 is a far less focused experience than its predecessor. I have to give Metallica some props for clearly trying to do something a bit different, but part of me wishes that they had just stuck to the formula of the original S&M instead. S&M worked so well because it was wall-to-wall bombast, giving lesser-known Metallica tracks just as much time to shine as the heavy-hitters like “One” and “Enter Sandman”. S&M2 opens nearly identically to its predecessor for over ten minutes, going through “The Ecstasy of Gold” and then into “The Call of Ktulu” before moving to “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. From there, the rest of disc 1 focuses a lot on latter-day Metallica tracks, which gives a new lease on life to some unappreciated bangers, with particular highlights being Death Magnetic‘s “The Day That Never Comes” and Hardwired… to Self-Destruct‘s “Halo on Fire”. Unfortunately, this part of the album is threaded with several tracks from the original S&M, meaning that we only actually get four brand new orchestral tracks before moving onto the second disc.

While familiar at least these returning tracks are good (particularly the fantastic “No Leaf Clover”). The same can’t be said when disc two opens with a five minute history lesson before going into two tracks which put the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra front and center. It’s undoubtedly a nice gesture to give the orchestra more attention here and let them choose their own songs to play, but it grinds the momentum of the album to a standstill for a full fifteen minutes. Like I said before, S&M worked so well because of the relentless bombast of it all. This part of the album makes for a decent curiosity on a single listen, but I can guarantee you that this part of the album is going to be skipped over every single time on future replays. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of S&M2‘s woes, because when the Metallica tracks start up again, we get very low-key renditions of “The Unforgiven III” and “All Within My Hands”, which do very little to get the energy going again. Instrumental track “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth” also gets treated with what I believe is a full-on cello solo. It is at least an interesting curiosity compared to the original track, but this also takes a long time to get going. The album finally gets back on track with the final five tracks, but these are a double-edged sword as well – they’re the band’s major hits, but they were all on the original S&M, and of these only “One” sounds noticeably different (improved, even!).

So, if you break it all down, we’ve got 11/22 tracks which are repeated from the original S&M, only one of which is noticeably different and improved. Then, of the new tracks, four are history lessons and full orchestra arrangements, while only four or five of the truly new tracks are worthwhile. It’s really too bad, this album is at its absolute best when it is giving the orchestral treatment to Metallica tracks we haven’t heard from them before and there isn’t anywhere near enough of that here. Meanwhile, the repeated tracks are enjoyable but they’re nothing I couldn’t have gotten on the original S&M. S&M2 just tries to be too much and fails to capitalize on what it does right. Drop the symphony-focused bits, swap out a couple of the repeated tracks for maybe five or six new tracks (I would have died if they played “Dreaming No More” after “The Call of Ktulu”) and then this could have easily been on-par with the original S&M. As it is, I’m probably just going to take a few tracks from it and bolt them onto the original album to make one even more epic concert experience.

16) Medium Rarities, Mastodon
I’ve stated in the past that Mastodon tend to operate on a two year album cycle, but here we are three years out from Emperor of Sand with no follow-up in sight. Instead, Mastodon are choosing to whet our appetites with Medium Rarities, a compilation of B-sides, live recordings and assorted oddities, clocking in at over an hour and ten minutes. Listeners looking for the band’s next great epic will probably be disappointed, but for fans Medium Rarities is a bizarre, scatter-shot treasure trove of curiosities. The tracklist is made up of four instrumentals, five live recordings, four covers, two B-sides and one new track. Of these, the covers, B-sides and new track were by far the most exciting content for me. While the new track “Fallen Torches” is heavy, sounding like classic, Leviathan-era Mastodon, the covers are all very different from the band’s usual sound in exciting ways. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” was particularly enjoyable and surprising and Bran Dailor’s vocals are perfect for the song. It sounds exactly like The Flaming Lips’ original before turning into something heavier as it goes along. The other covers are similarly interesting, although “Atlanta” might be just a bit too weird and distorted for its own good. The B-sides are similarly diverse. “Cut You Up With a Linoleum Knife” was written for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie as a pre-movie “warning” to the audience, so you can probably guess what to expect from that. I found myself laughing at the lyrics (which include such gems as “If I see you videotaping this movie/Satan will rain down your throat with hot acid/And dissolve your testicle/And turn your guts into snakes”), but it’s not the sort of song I’d listen to on its own merits. On the other side of the coin is “White Walker”, which was written for Game of Thrones. It’s a very solemn, haunting track, sounding more neolithic or medieval than metal, but it’s one of my favourites on this compilation.

As for the instrumentals and the live recordings, these mostly feel like filler. The instrumentals in particular feel like little more than curiosities, given that they are literally just the studio recordings of the songs without the vocal track. None of them are bad by any means (in fact, it’s really cool hearing “Jaguar God” as an instrumental track), but they’re probably the least exciting content on this release. That said, I got into Mastodon in the first place after hearing instrumental versions of “Crack the Skye” and “Oblivion” in Brutal Legend, so maybe these will draw more people in, who knows? As for the live tracks, I wasn’t particularly interested because Mastodon’s vocals aren’t great live and because we already got live recordings of “Circle of Cysquatch” and “Blood & Thunder” on Live at the Aragon. However, when I realized that at least some of these live tracks were recordings made before their respective albums were released I sat bolt upright. That is how you make a live filler track interesting, give it some historical importance! It also helps that the band’s live vocals are better here than they usually are.

All-in-all, Medium Rarities sets expectations well – it’s half-baked and it’s not going to suit all tastes. There’s maybe a bit too much filler and it can get a bit too weird for its own good at times, but there’s a plenty here to be enjoyed. I just hope that Mastodon are enjoying their extended break and using it to get their creative juices flowing once again. If “Fallen Torches” is anything to go off of, then Mastodon may just be preparing us for the main course.

15) Re-Stitch These Wounds, Black Veil Brides
So apparently Re-Stitch These Wounds is a re-recording of Black Veil Brides’ debut album We Stitch These Wounds. Having never listened to the debut before, I can’t tell you whether this is wildly divergence from the original or just a re-recorded version with better production, so just be aware that I’m judging Re-Stitch on its own merits. I’ve heard a few Black Veil Brides’ tracks previously and they seem to be all over the place, musically. Like, they have an emo/metal aesthetic, but the pompously-titled Wretched and Divine: The Story of the Wild Ones sounds like freaking Nickelback of all things. Thankfully Re-Stitch These Wounds is closer to what I expected of Black Veil Brides, sounding strikingly similar to heyday-Bullet For My Valentine but without the overwhelming emo angst. Most of the music sounds good, being enjoyable heavy rock that you can happily headbang to, but there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about it. The one big sore spot is the overblown “The Mortician’s Daughter (Overture III)”, which brings the album’s momentum to a grinding halt right in the middle and which goes on for an agonizing three and a half minutes. I thought it was a joke intro at first, but then it just kept going and going. It’s actually bad enough that it soured my experience with the album as a whole. All-in-all, Re-Stitch These Wounds is fine, but it wasn’t enough to make me rush out to hear the rest of Black Veil Brides’ music.

14) Brand New Vision, Point North
We all have that one friend who we share new music recommendations with on the reg. Well, one day they recommended me this album and said it was a R&B/rock fusion. It wasn’t really the sort of thing I’m into, but I decided to check it out anyway (plus, y’know, that album cover is dope). As I kind of expected, Brand New Vision isn’t really the sort of thing I would choose to listen to, but it’s fairly solid. It definitely leans closer to R&B than it does to rock, although tracks like “Heartbeat” feel like they could be on rock radio. The other nice thing about Brand New Vision is that Point North are doing there own thing to fuse the two genres together instead of just replicating the sound of Imagine Dragons like most commercial rock bands struggling for relevance seem to do these days. If I was more of a pop fan then I might have liked Brand New Vision more, but as is it was a nice little diversion from my usual barrage of depressing metal.

13) Inner Universe EP, Words of Farewell
I say this a lot but I often find new music by browsing Spotify, seeing what it recommends to me, and then leaning towards music with striking album art. Well, the Inner Universe EP is by far the coolest goddamn album art of the year and instantly had me rushing to check Words of Farewell out. Like… look at that damn thing, it’s gorgeous and evocative! It’s also obviously in my wheelhouse because the artist has definitely been playing a lot of FromSoftware games. Beyond the general aesthetic, the woman is the spitting image of the Fire Keeper from Dark Souls 3, while the skeletal figure’s massive sword hilt has the mark of sacrifice from Berserk, the obvious inspiration for the Hunter rune from Bloodborne.

So obviously the band’s visual art is on-point, but how’s the music? Well, I’d say that Words of Farewell are pretty good. They aren’t doing anything particularly revolutionary or different, but they do it solidly. The Internet tells me that they’re a melodic death metal band but I’d say they’re closer to progressive metalcore with some light death metal elements. Opening track “Chronotopos” is probably the heaviest track on offer with a very fast tempo. The other three tracks operate at a far slower pace, but offer plenty of heaviness and up the use of electronic synthesizer elements… again, nothing I haven’t heard before, but the band executes it well enough that it’s an enjoyable listen. That said, Inner Universe is a sparse 18 minutes, is over far too quickly and leaves me feeling hungry for more. Hopefully it’s just the prelude to something more substantial because I can guarantee that I’ll be keeping my eyes on Words of Farewell.

12) The Sinner, Kill the Lights
Yet another Spotify recommendation that caught my interest, Kill the Lights further intrigued me because the band is a supergroup featuring the current drummer for Bullet For My Valentine, a band which I’ve been on a nostalgic kick for this past year. Plus, just look at that album cover – it’s no Words of Farewell, but it’s still freaking awesome. I’ve seen Kill the Lights be described as a metalcore act and I’d agree that that’s part of their sound, but I’d argue that they lean closer to a progressive metal sound (tracks like “The Faceless” sound like heavier versions of classic Judas Priest or Iron Maiden). The tracks here tend to be high energy and very heavy, with tracks such as “Watch You Fall” and “Plagues” instantly managing to get my head banging. Kill the Lights also dabble with slowed-down tracks, interspersed evenly throughout the tracklist. Of these tracks, “Rest” is by far the best, reminiscent of Bullet For My Valentine’s more introspective tracks and is just begging for radio airplay. That said, while I enjoyed The Sinner and would say that it’s worth a listen, there’s nothing about it that particularly stands out (other than “Rest”, that track is great). Kill the Lights are clearly industry veterans with a lot of talent to back them up, but I just feel like they need a bit more time to hone their craft before they’re really going to blow my socks off.

11) Kindred: Act I, Red Cain
Red Cain know how to pique my interest – the album art for their singles is incredible (especially for “Kindred”, holy shit that looks like something out of Bloodborne). That’s all well-and-good, but how do Red Cain sound? Well, I’d say that the best way to describe their sound is “epic fantasy power metal”. The band’s vocals are exaggerated and theatrical, similar to power metal bands like Powerwolf or Manowar and the fast and packed full of guitar solos. It makes for an enjoyable mixture, but whether you’ll enjoy Red Cain will come down to your taste for power metal. Opening track “Guillotine” kicks the album off in bombastic style, but it’s arguably too excessive – I feel like the mix is so much that it feels like you’re getting blasted with a wall of sounds all at once. It also doesn’t help that this track has electronic effects on it which get close to shrill at times. Luckily, this is an isolated issue because the rest of Kindred: Act I is much more enjoyable, albeit conventional, power metal. “Wing of the Crow” is a particular highlight though, with the band’s soaring vocals harmonizing beautifully with guest singer Kobra Paige. All-in-all, Kindred: Act I is enjoyable and fans of power metal should definitely give it a listen.

10) Firelink, Firelink
The Dark Souls-inspired black metal band Firelink are back on ICS2 already, with their sophomore effort releasing just over a year after their enjoyable first album, The Inveterate Fire. This self-titled album largely follows the template set by The Inveterate Fire, giving us more punishing, atmospheric and technically accomplished black metal. However, the main thing that sets Firelink apart is that the album tells a story this time, covering the second half of Dark Souls‘ plot. It opens with the epic and moody “Cerulean Athenaeum”, which is just a fancy way of saying “blue library”, aka the Duke’s Archives. From there it moves into the haunting “Where Demons Bore”, an obvious reference to the realm of the demons, lost Izalith. “Cloak of Marrow” (another obvious reference, this time to the Tomb of Giants and Gravelord Nito’s literal bone cloak) then pushes the album into a more direct, heavy and punishing black metal sound. “Kingseeker” brings back the haunting atmosphere, which is appropriate because while the title is a reference to Kingseeker Frampt, the lyrics make it clear that this song is about the ghost-infested New Londo and the Four Kings. Finally, the album closes on “End of Piety”, which opens on a reflective tone before going into the typical black metal sound, flitting between heavy and sombre as it goes. The lyrics here reflect the choice the player is given when they defeat Gwyn – link the fire or become the ruler of the darkness? It makes for a fitting end for the album and it’s nice to see the album telling a story to tie it all together. You don’t even have to be a fan of the games to appreciate the music or the story, although obviously it helps. Musically, it’s still more of the same quality black metal, so while I do find the genre itself to be a bit too indistinct for its own good, I do find myself enjoying Firelink’s albums when the mood strikes me.

9) Aurora, Breaking Benjamin
Breaking Benjamin are notorious for just putting out the exact same music over and over again (that said, the “one song” they keep putting out is so damn good), so when it was announced that their newest album would be an acoustic reimagining of past hits I couldn’t help but laugh. Naturally, there’s also one brand new track so that completionists can’t just sit this one out. Luckily, Aurora doesn’t feels like a half-assed release meant to squeeze a few more dollars out of fans. Featuring a bevy of guest appearances from the likes of Red’s Michael Barnes, Three Day’s Grace’s Adam Gontier, Flyleaf’s Lacey Sturm, Underoath’s Spencer Chamberlain and Cold’s Scooter Ward, Aurora is a real treat for fans to appreciate old favourites in a new way. Tracks that I already thought were fantastic, such as “Failure”, “Angels Fall” and “Red Cold River” are given new dimensions by their arrangements. “Red Cold River” in particular sounds quite nice without the obvious auto-tuning which was present on the original recording. Other tracks, like “So Cold”, “Never Again” and “Torn In Two” are functionally similar to their original arrangements, but with electronic elements swapped out for acoustic ones in a way that just makes it feel like a slightly different, toned-down version of the original. The real highlights of the album though are the two big inspirational anthems, the reimagined “Dear Agony” and the new track “Far Away”. “Dear Agony” was already basically an acoustic track, but Lacey Sturm’s vocals compliment Benjamin Burley’s so well that it sends an already great song to even greater heights. Meanwhile, “Far Away” also makes the most of its guest collaborator, playing Scooter Ward’s baritone vocals against Benjamin Burley’s soaring singing. It’s easily one of my favourite tracks of the year, a song that just begs to be sung along to. The album is enjoyable in whole, but these two songs in particular propel it beyond a curiosity to a must-own for fans of the band.

8) Fracture, Bleed From Within
Like most new music I find, Fracture showed up in my Spotify recommendations and the album art was so cool that I had to give it a shot. What I got was fast tempo, high-intensity metalcore in the vein of As I Lay Dying, with primarily screamed vocals. If you’re into this kind of heavy music, then Fracture will likely be very enjoyable. I love to headbang along to tracks like “The End of All We Know” and scream “This is not a war it’s a victory!” along to “Into Nothing”. The only real issue is that Bleed From Within never let up the intensity, which causes the tracks to bleed together after a while. Still makes for a great album to rage or get pumped up to (or, in my case, do menial office work to), but a little bit more variety might have pushed Fracture that much higher.

7) Under a Godless Veil, Draconian
I checked out Draconian on a bored whim during lockdown this year and was instantly impressed by what I heard. As I’ve said in the past, I’ve been looking for a band to scratch the itch that Agalloch left me in their dissolution and Draconian are the closest I’ve come to recapturing that atmospheric doom metal feeling, while also crafting their own unique style. Draconian put out moody, atmospheric, gothic doom metal which really stands out due to the interplay between its two vocalists – the death growling Anders Jacobsson and the operatic female vocals of Heike Langhans (I have heard this dynamic referred to, hilariously, as an angel vs the cookie monster). It’s a great dynamic and Draconian make it work fantastically.

Anyway, after listening through all of Draconian’s music I found out that they had a new album slated for 2020 and so I eagerly awaited it. Under a Godless Veil is another solid effort from the band but it doesn’t really shake up their sound all that much, emphasizing melancholic, atmospheric soundscapes over a more traditionally heavy metal sound. That can make the album feel sluggish at times, but that’s not to say that Under a Godless Veil doesn’t have its heavy moments – “The Sethian” should get your head banging during the chorus and “Lustrous Heart” is a rock-solid doom metal track, easily my favourite on the album. Under a Godless Veil is good, but whether you’ll enjoy it will largely depend on your taste in metal. I don’t think I’d say it’s among Draconian’s best, but it’s a quality effort and worth listening to if you’ve never experienced the band’s sound before.

6) The Sun and the Cold, Oceans
The Sun and the Cold might just be the biggest surprise of the year for me – and remember, this is coming in a year where I had some praise for the newest Five Finger Death Punch album. This album showed up in my recommended list on Spotify and I decided to give it a shot, despite the fact that “Oceans” sounded like the sort of band name that a pop or soft-rock outfit would have. Imagine my surprise then when I am immediately met with a very interesting mixture of grunge, industrial and various styles of metal (on various tracks you can hear influences from doom metal, death metal, sludge metal and metalcore, among others). It also helps that the production is spot-on, every track sounds fantastic and there are some really great songs on here – in fact, The Sun and the Cold is probably the album I most replayed on this list. “We Are the Storm” is easily one of my favourite tracks of the year, it makes you want to sing along and headbang at the same time, while “Dark” turns things in a relentlessly heavy direction and the title track makes for a solid opener. There’s even a bluesy track, “Water Rising”, which I didn’t appreciate at first but on repeat listens has become on of the highlights of the album. I also found it interesting that there’s a thematic throughline in the album relating to water and the dark unknown of the depths, lending the band’s name some unexpected significance. All-in-all, I like “The Sun and the Cold” quite a bit, it’s a really enjoyable album. I went in with zero expectations when it showed up in my Spotify recommendations and found myself pleasantly surprised, to the point that I bought a copy the next day. I’m more than happy with what’s on display here and am excited to see where Oceans go in the future.

5) The Reckoning Dawn, Winterfylleth
After putting out the unconventional The Hallowing of Heirdom back in 2018, Winterfylleth are back to their usual tricks with The Reckoning Dawn. Winterfylleth have a history of putting out punishing but indistinct black metal. I hoped that Winterfylleth would expand on the territory they covered in 2016’s The Dark Hereafter, where they changed up their sound by adding more epic, atmospheric and contemplative sounds which gave each song its own distinct identity. The Reckoning Dawn draws a little bit from this template, but unfortunately it goes back to Winterfylleth as usual, only with some choir parts and better production quality. While it’s disappointing that the band decides to settle back into their comfort zone, they still manage to put out some high-quality, atmospheric black metal here and it’s hard to deny the craftsmanship on display. That said, you have to be in the mood for black metal to really get the most out of it – it’s an album you need to listen to in one sitting to really appreciate. While I admire just how good it sounds, it isn’t one that I’m going to put on very often.

4) Valley of Kings, The Wise Man’s Fear
The Wise Man’s Fear return to the IC2S albums ranking, closing out their “Codex trilogy” with another round of fantasy-inspired metalcore. Given how good Castle in the Clouds and The Lost City were, this was easily one of my most hyped albums of the year. While I was expecting Valley of Kings to be good, I wasn’t expecting The Wise Man’s Fear to be nearly as ambitious or experimental as they are on this album.

The album opens on a very heavy note with “The Relics of Nihlux”, showing off the strength of their duelling vocals, swapping between near-deathcore growls and soaring clean vocals. It’s something I’ve always loved in metalcore and The Wise Man’s Fear are masters of it. “The Relics of Nihlux” flows seamlessly into “Breath of the Wild” (what can I say, The Wise Man’s Fear have always worn their influences on their sleeve), which flows seamlessly into “The Tree of Life”, with each song shifting the tone of the album. “Breath of the Wild” brings this very epic, wide-open soundscape, while “The Tree of Life” slows things down a bit and even features a freaking pan-flute solo at one point! It only lasts for a single line (not even a whole verse), but it’s a cool bit of experimentation that I wish they had allowed a bit more time to shine because it never comes back again on the album. “The Forest of Illusions” marks the start of the album’s second act, ending the seamless transitions between songs, but keeps up the experimentation, incorporating what I believe is a mandolin into its epic soundscape. “The Cave” then moves the album into a darker place, opening with distant, echoed wailing before blasting into aggressive deathcore and sharp, synthesized strings. From there, the album takes a bit of an angsty and introspective turn with “What Went Wrong” and “The River and the Rock”, providing us with probably the most “standard” songs on the album before moving back into the heavy third act. The third act is an assault of deathcore with “The Sands of Time” and “The Door to Nowhere” really punctuating how dire the story has gotten. “Firefall” takes it to a whole new level though, this song get brutal and demands that you headbang along to it. There’s even a sword-slicing sound effect which punctuates the song’s brutality and just makes it feel that much nastier. Then, as per The Wise Man’s Fear tradition, the album takes a very sudden turn back into more standard, positive metalcore fare with the closing title track. After how dark and brutal the third act had been, it’s a bit of a tonal whiplash, but it’s a very enjoyable outro that you just want to sing along to. It even manages to be surprisingly nostalgic, ending with a distant, echoey version of the opening from Castle in the Clouds, tempting you to go back and start the trilogy all over again.

Valley of Kings is easily the most ambitious album from The Wise Man’s Fear, demonstrating that they aren’t content to just make the song music over and over again. The Wise Man’s Fear flirted with deathcore sounds on The Lost City, but Valley of Kings makes them a core part of their sound that they can carry forward with them. It’s also a testament to The Wise Man’s Fear’s compositions that I can get a good sense of the story beats of the album without having to dive into all the extended plot that they have developed for the really hardcore fans to get into. Valley of Kings takes multiple listens to really appreciate it, but it’s undeniably an extremely well-crafted album and I can’t wait to see where The Wise Man’s Fear are going to take us from here.

3) WE ARE CHAOS, Marilyn Manson
Marilyn Manson has had a very up-and-down career. Despite being more renown for their shock tactics, the band put out some legitimately good music with Antichrist SuperstarMechanical Animals and Holy-Wood, only to seemingly buy into their own hype and put out several dreary albums throughout the 2000s. It wasn’t until 2015’s The Pale Emperor that the band came surging back to prominence. While refreshing and featuring a bold new sound, I personally felt like The Pale Emperor was half of a fantastic album weighed down by a mediocre second half. It’s follow-up Heaven Upside Down was also lauded by critics, I personally found it disappointing. With all of this in mind, you can understand why I went into We Are Chaos (sorry… WE ARE CHAOS, because everything in this album is in all caps) with some trepidation.

After a fairly standard post-The Pale Emperor opening in “RED BLACK AND BLUE”, Manson pulls off a big surprise – thanks to his collaboration with co-producer Shooter Jennings, the first half of the album is loaded with acoustic guitar and piano-driven pieces. It harkens WE ARE CHAOS back to the David Bowie-inspired sounds of Mechanical Animals. This part of the album houses some of the best songs on here, including the great title track and the emotive but disturbing “PAINT YOU WITH MY LOVE”. The second half of the album then goes back into the more standard industrial metal and bluesy sounds that Marilyn Manson have made a career off of and all the tracks here are enjoyable enough. WE ARE CHAOS finishes with another acoustic track, “BROKEN NEEDLE”, a song that just keeps building on itself and makes for a really powerful way to end the album.

It also helps that, like in The Pale Emperor, Marilyn Manson dials back his bad habit of being a provocateur, instead allowing his songs to make an artistic statement on their own merits (although “KEEP MY HEAD TOGETHER” feels a bit gratuitous in its vulgarity). Probably the most important element of WE ARE CHAOS though is that Marilyn Manson really knows how to write a lyrical hook. So many times during my first listen-through I was making notes of interesting lines that Manson would repeat and get stuck in my head: “We are sick, fucked up and complicated, we are chaos” (“WE ARE CHAOS”), “Don’t chase the dead or they’ll end up chasing you” (“DON’T CHASE THE DEAD”), “You’re dead longer than you’re alive” (“INFINITE DARKNESS”) and “I’m not special, I’m just broken and I don’t want to be fixed” (“SOLVE COAGULA”). I had my reservations going into WE ARE CHAOS, but I’m happy to see that Marilyn Mansion isn’t up to his usual, tired tricks. Who would have thought that focusing on making good music instead of focusing on your reputation would pay dividends?

2) Mother, In This Moment
Going into Mother, the lead single “The In-Between” primed me to expect it to carry on the heavy sound and occult tone of Ritual. I probably should have known better though – In This Moment have always done something wildly different on every single album and while it does carry over some of the witch aesthetics those expecting another Ritual or even Blood are going to be disappointed. In fact, Mother has proven to be somewhat divisive amongst fans as it is far less heavy than previous In This Moment albums and incorporates more electronic elements into its sound, similar to Black Widow. Those who write the album off for not sounding the same as what’s come before are going to be missing out though because, as far as I’m concerned, Mother is one of the best-crafted and touching In This Moment albums ever.

The album gets the heavy stuff out of the way early, opening with a surprising but amazing cover of “Fly Like an Eagle”. Having seen In This Moment in concert, I can just imagine how much this song would slay live, it makes for a shockingly good opening track. From there we go into “The In-Between”, which I already loved when it was a pre-release single. It’s a top-tier In This Moment track, like something off Blood but with the spirituality of Ritual… it’s also the last particularly heavy track we get on the album for a long time. “Legacy” then comes in as a slower, powerful, more electronically-laden track – it’s really good! From there we get another surprising cover, particularly from a band that isn’t known for them, with “We Will Rock You”. Lzzy Hale and Taylor Momsen getting their own verses, turning this song into an overt GIRL POWER anthem. It doesn’t do much different from the Queen original, but it’s hard not to enjoy listening to the girls having the time of their life on this track, especially given the marginalized status of female vocalists in rock and metal music.

From there we move into what is, in my opinion, the best track on the album: the title track, “Mother”. Maria Brink’s powerful vocals and songwriting are on full display on this track, which serves as the thematic statement for the whole album: an appreciation of mothers. The theme runs through nearly the entire album. The inclusion of “Fly Like an Eagle” makes more sense when you realize the album’s theme, as Maria is careful to emphasize this line:

“Feed the babies/Who don’t have enough to eat/Shoe the children/With no shoes on their feet/House the people/Livin’ in the street/Oh, oh, there’s a solution”

Similarly, “The In-Between” opens with the line:

“My mother said that I was holy/My father said that I would burn/My mother said I was an angel/My father said that I would turn/So I believed these words and I turned on myself/’Cause maybe he’s right, maybe I’m worthless/Or maybe he’s wrong and my mother was right/I got a killer in me to give me purpose”

Meanwhile, the entire point of “Legacy” can be summed up in the chorus, “We are one, we run free/I am you and you are me/You sacrificed everything/I am and will always be your legacy”. The girl power of “We Will Rock You” is obvious already, but when you realize the album’s themes it just gives it that much more gravitas.

Of course, once the motherhood theme gets punctuated with the title track, the album takes a detour into entirely unrelated territory with “As Above, So Below”. It’s so out of place that it makes me wonder if In This Moment initially set out to make an album a bit more akin to Ritual, but the theme of motherhood emerged halfway and subsumed the rest of the album. The album begins to drag just a little bit at this point – while “Born in Flames”, “God is She” and “Holy Man” (the obligatory “Sure this album’s about mothers, but what about us men?” track) aren’t bad songs, they just don’t hold a candle to the strength of the first half of the album. Things start to get back on track though with “Hunting Grounds”, the last heavy song on the album. It has a weird, haunting atmosphere to it as Maria Brink and Joe Cotela of DED (Maria’s current partner) harmonize together. This also marks the point where the album drops the motherhood throughline, as “Lay Me Down” and yet another cover, “Into Dust”, close out the album sounding like something from Blood (not a bad thing at all, considering that’s their best album). I kind of wish that Mother maintained its theme throughout the entire album, it would have been nice if the second half was just a bit stronger (seriously, just drop “Holy Man” and you’ve got a tighter album right there) and maybe a little bit more heaviness wouldn’t have hurt, but these are fairly nitpicky. In This Moment clearly put out the album they wanted to and I feel like it’s one of their most thoughtful and mature releases yet.

1) Declaration, Red
I’ve said it many times in the past, but Red are a really inconsistent band. They’re just a likely to put out a “meh” album as they are to put out one of my favourite albums of the decade. It makes every new release a roulette wheel, but you can tell that there’s something different about Declaration. This is the first album where Red has gone fully independent and, as the title suggests, the band is keen to make a statement. Red gave us a sneak peak of the direction they were heading last year with The Evening Hate EP. I had said back then that I liked what I heard and hoped that it would be indicative of the quality of the band’s next album, but I was really not expecting Declaration to be this good.

Simply put, Red aren’t doing anything particularly revolutionary on Declaration – it’s very much their usual sound, if a bit heavier than usual. The difference maker is that they bring their A-game, delivering a rock-solid album of ferocious, catchy hard rock from start to finish. The rock-solid tracks from The Evening Hate EP appear here and are just as good as they were a year ago, but brand new tracks like “Infidel”, “Cauterize” and “Sever” confidently stand toe to toe with them. The only issue with Declaration is a glaring one – “Only Fight”. This track shows up near the end of the album and sticks out like a sore thumb, sounding like something from one of Red’s weaker albums and being of considerably lower quality than any other track on Declaration. It straight-up sucks and is literally the only thing holding Declaration back from being the uncontested best Red album. Seriously, listening through this album I was agonizing over whether I liked it more than of Beauty and Rage, but the second “Only Fight” started I thought “welp, well second place is still good”. That one blemish aside, Declaration is a fantastic album, enough so that I would say that it’s a strong contender for my future “Best of the 2020s” list in ten years time. If you like this sort of heavy music, you owe it to yourself to check Declaration out!

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My 10 Favourite Albums of the 2010s

Man, I really left myself a lot of work for the end of this year. Not only did I do my “Best of 2019” albums ranking, but it’s also the end of a decade, which means that it’s also the time for “Best of the 2010s” lists. We’re going to start out today with my favourite albums of the 2010s. Standard caveats apply here – music is not only incredibly subjective, but there is so much of it and my tastes are somewhat niche, so I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to declare that these are “the best” albums of the decade. That said, they’re all great and have affected me in one way or another, so I would certainly recommend checking them out if you have not!

Honourable Mentions:

Asylum, Disturbed (August 31, 2010)
I waffle between Asylum or Ten Thousand Fists being Disturbed’s best album, but it’s pretty much unquestioned that this was the last time they were such a self-assured band. Whatever your thoughts about their last couple albums are, the post-Asylum hiatus changed the band significantly and I don’t predict that we’re going to get another album from Disturbed that I’m going to like nearly as much as Asylum.

Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, Volbeat (April 5, 2013)
They say there’s nothing quite like your first… Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies was the album where I decided to give Volbeat a chance and I fell in love with their style. Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie would also have a pretty good shot at being one of my favourite albums of the decade, but they both fell just short of the top 10. Still, I love the band so much that I had to at least give them an honourable mention.

10) We’re Just Really Excited to Be Here, Countless Thousands (June 4, 2011)
Countless Thousands’ debut album is such a joy to listen to. Their brand of enthusiastic nerd rock is infectious and energetic from the outset and there is so much variety and experimentation that it never gets boring. Want a pirate rock song? Try “A Pirate’s Shanty”. Want something political? You’ll love “The Patriot”. How about a version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, but rewritten to be about bassist Davey Munch battling Satan? Try “The Devil and Davey Munch”, it’s amazing. There’s even stuff like “No Contest”, where there is no instrumentation, only vocal layering which gives the song an interesting and haunting feel. On top of all of this, the songwriting is all top-notch, with one exception – personally, I just can’t stand “The Asskickers’ Union”, a sickly-sweet love song which is just too goddamn happy for my tastes. It’s not like that’s a major blemish though on a 16 track album and there are plenty of other styles and standout tracks that it’s easily washed away.

9) of Beauty and Rage, Red (February 24, 2015)
Red were a band that I got into with their first two albums, but gave up on after their next two albums were very disappointing. Imagine my joy then when they managed to not only course correct and return to form on their fifth album, but they actually managed to put out their best album yet. of Beauty and Rage sees Red firing on all cylinders, putting out an album which is equal parts heavy, haunting, epic and beautiful in various measures. It certainly feels like a Red album, but there’s a maturity to it and everything has clearly been crafted painstakingly. At this point, I’d consider of Beauty and Rage to be Red’s magnum opus. They have set the bar very high for themselves going forward, but they’ve shown that they know what it takes to come back. If Red ever manage to put out something that can match this album I would be delightfully surprised.

8) Dark Before Dawn, Breaking Benjamin (June 23, 2015)
In my opinion, Dark Before Dawn is Breaking Benjamin’s best album. Perhaps this is because I got into the band pretty late into their career, but as far as I’m concerned it is by far their best overall. You’d be justified in saying that Breaking Benjamin just cover the same ground over and over again, but Dark Before Dawn is the best execution of this by far. All of their previous albums were uneven at best, even ones I genuinely like such as Dear Agony or Phobia. However, Dark Before Dawn is great from start to finish, with no track being weak or feeling like filler (other than the mood-setting, instrumental opening and closing tracks, but they’re harmless in my opinion). On the contrary, there are so many standout tracks here, from “Failure”, to “Angel’s Fall”, to “Close to Heaven” and “Ashes of Eden”, all of which show off Benjamin Burnley’s fantastic voice and make you want to sing along.

7) Carolus Rex, Sabaton (May 22, 2012)
While Heroes might be the point when Sabaton hit the peak of their popularity, its predecessor Carolus Rex is still the height of the band’s talents. It’s perhaps their most focused and personal work ever, detailing the rise and fall of the Swedish empire. In fact, it’s so interesting and compelling that it has taught me more about this period of time in Europe than any history class I’ve ever taken. THe songs straight into history. A particular highlight in this regard is “A Lifetime of War”, which make you feel how awful a decade-long war is, and then pulls the rug out and reveals that this war would go on for another two decades. Songs like “The Carolean’s Prayer”, “Carolus Rex” and “Ruina Imperii” all demonstrate the religious fanaticism of the time, how it was used to control men and dehumanize others. “The Carolean’s Prayer” in particular is easily one of the best songs of Sabaton’s career. Oh and I would be remiss to forget that Carolus Rex also has some amazing B-sides, most notably a cover of Amon Amarth’s “Twilight of the Thunder God”. When I was in university and this song came out, I would play it on repeat over and over again and try to death growl along. It’s so good and the fact that it’s a B-side better than what most bands can manage to put onto full albums is insane.

6) Marrow of the Spirit, Agalloch (November 23, 2010)
Most of the albums on this list are my favourite by their respective bands. With that said, I feel it’s worth emphasizing that Marrow of the Spirit is actually only my third favourite Agalloch album – seriously, if you haven’t listened to them before, do it. Agalloch tend to dabble in atmospheric doom metal with clear nature- and pagan-inspirations to each of their songs. Marrow of the Spirit is perhaps their rawest album in that regard. Having come off of two fairly polished albums, Agalloch were looking for a grittier sound and so opted to record Marrow of the Spirit on vintage analog equipment. The difference in production quality is immediately obvious when you compare Marrow of the Spirit to The Mantle or Ashes Against the Grain, but it works very well within Agalloch’s sound. The album immediately sets the tone with “They Escaped the Weight of Darkness”, a sombre mood-setter which is almost entirely composed of a cello and a recording of water running. From there, each of the remaining 5 tracks is just incredibly well-composed doom metal, equal parts sombre and epic, ranging in lengths from 9:40 to a staggering 17:34 on “Black Lake Niðstång”. “Black Lake Niðstång” is a particular highlight for me – it certainly feels like a 17 minute song, but it goes through so many changes throughout that it never stagnates. Marrow of the Spirit might not be Agalloc’s most accessible album, but it’s certainly one that gets better the more you listen to it.

5) Through Glass Eyes, At Dawn’s Edge (September 30, 2017)
Oh hey, the first pick from one of my annual album rankings! As I said back then, Through Glass Eyes is ambitious, diverse, mature and has impeccable production values, all of which are even more impressive when you consider that this is not only a debut album but also an independent release! They also don’t fit into cliches – many female-fronted, symphonic/melodic metal bands can get dismissed for sounding like Evanescence-wannabes, but At Dawn’s Edge have more maturity to their songwriting and singing which gives them their own unique flavour. It’s a fantastic debut album and I’ve been eagerly awaiting its follow-up ever since. Owing to the independent nature of this band, I would implore you to check them out if you have not yet, they’re seriously this good.

4) Blood, In This Moment (August 14, 2012)
In This Moment are unquestionably one of my favourite bands right now. Every album they put out has its own unique flavour, but in my opinion Blood is clearly their best overall. It maintains the band’s metalcore edge while dipping into more experimentation to make the album feel a bit more unique than its more standard-metal predecessor, A Star-Crossed Wasteland. Of course, experimentation doesn’t mean much if the music isn’t great, but luckily Blood has so many good songs that it’s practically a greatest hits album. “Blood”, “Adrenalize” and “Whore” are all top-notch and kick the album into high gear right out of the gate. They’re not the only highlights though, there’s also the fantastic “Burn” which shows off Maria Brink’s ability to go from melodic vocals to blistering screams. Tracks like “Beast Within”, “The Blood Legion” and the haunting “11:11” also bear mentioning and, like Carolus Rex, the B-side cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer” is also an absolute treat. My fiance loves it… and I’ll let you fill in the blanks from there. Blood is also notable for “sexing up” In This Moment (to the point where they would feel the need to address it on their next album in the song “Sex Metal Barbie”). The album deals with themes of abuse and manipulation, but it always reclaims sex and turns it into something empowering. It gives this album a bit of a sultry, even kinky, edge that I really enjoy and gives it a much different vibe than any other metal band I listen to.

3) Wait for the Siren, Project 86 (August 21, 2012)
Wait for the Siren came out at a time when it looked like Project 86 were about to implode – after 7 very solid albums, their guitarist, drummer and bassist all quit the band, only leaving frontman Andrew Schwab to continue on. Luckily for us, Andrew Schwab was always the primary, most dominant creative force in the band, so the loss of the other band members didn’t completely sink Project 86 (that said, Schwab’s overbearing control might actually have been why the other band members quit, they wanted to experiment more and he wouldn’t let them, or so the rumours say). Having also quit Tooth and Nail Records in favour of crowdfunding, Schwab was free to rebuild the band in whatever way he saw fit, and Wait for the Siren is a fantastic mixture of old and new. Right off the bat, the band shows off some of this new creative expression with “Fall, Goliath, Fall”, which features such distinctive instruments as uillean pipes, mandolin and hammer dulcimer. That said, these additions to Project 86’s sound are just that – additions. The band is still as heavy as they ever were, as shown off in tracks such as “The Crossfire Gambit”. Songwriting has always been Project 86’s greatest strength and Wait for the Siren is no exception, with every track being diverse and interesting in their own regard. My personal favourite track on the album is the rousing “Take the Hill”, easily one of the best tracks in Project 86’s history. While Drawing Black Lines will probably always be my favourite Project 86 album, Wait for the Siren is easily my second favourite, which is pretty incredible considering that they haven’t had a bad album in their lengthy career.

2) Eat the Elephant, A Perfect Circle (April 20, 2018)
Oh hey, another pick from my annual album rankings! Eat the Elephant really impressed me last year. Nearly every track is expertly crafted and has something to say, from the hopeful title track, to political and social commentary in tracks such as “The Contrarian”, “The Doomed” and “TalkTalk”. The particular highlight though is “So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish” a song which is apocalyptic and beautiful at the same time (to the point where it’s probably going to end up getting played at my wedding… seriously). While the second half of the album is weaker than the first half, the fact that this album still managed to take the spot of my 2nd favourite album of the decade should go to show that that doesn’t lower it in my estimation too much. The stuff that’s here is just too damn good to pass up.

1) Devotion, Anberlin (October 15, 2013)
I love Anberlin. When they released their 6th album, Vital, I thought that it was almost as good as the band’s fan favourite, Cities. However, just over a year later, the band reissued the album as Devotion, adding 3 new tracks and 4 B-sides to the original album and retooling the tracklist somewhat. This was, in my opinion, enough to put Devotion over the top to be the clear best album in the band’s history. Vital already boasted some great music, such as the aptly-titled opener “Self-Starter”, “Other Side”, “Orpheum” and the absolutely fantastic “God, Drugs & Sex”. You’d think that throwing a bunch of new songs and B-sides into an already-completed album might mess with the flow of the music, but the new additions are all solid and more than good enough to stand side-by-side with the existing tracks, although the best is definitely “IJSW”. Devotion was by far my favourite album of the 2010s, I knew for sure going into this list that it was going to be my #1.

And that’s it for my favourite albums of the 2010s. Tune in soon when I go through the best movies of the 2010s!

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Listening to Bands That Followed Me on Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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IC2S Playlist Update 24/02/2016

Seeing how we’re just under 1 month away from the IC2S Playlist’s first anniversary, I think I’m going to switch up the format of the update since they’re basically the same boring stuff every week and, as a result, it can be pretty challenging to actually come up with anything meaningful to say. I’m going to try out a little more of an informal, blog-like structure which might actually be interesting to somebody to read, whether they’re actually going to listen to the playlist or not.

So the Dairy Queen recently reopened for the season here in my home town, which prompted a couple co-workers and I to play a visit on our lunch break. One of the co-workers was trying to annoy the other and asked me to put on some of my “weird” music (read: not country or pop). She wanted me to put on some Brian “Head” Welch which would have been pretty funny for me, but I knew that that probably be too much, so I figured I’d go for something a little more low-key… and by that I mean Andrew W.K., because I am horrible at gauging an audience when it comes to music…

Anyway, that’s how I discovered that some people apparently consider Andrew W.K. to be “screamo” music just because he yells on I Get Wet and The Wolf (never mind that his music is about partying and positivity, not angst and pessimism). I know that music taste is super-subjective, but I find it kind of incredible that someone around my age can be so musically-sheltered that they find Andrew-freaking-W.K. too extreme-sounding (let alone that he’s on the listener-friendly end of my musical spectrum, far away from Impending Doom or Book of Black Earth). Then again, they probably think I’m crazy for not listening to country music, so what do I know?

In honour of this, enjoy some more of my “weird screamo” music, in the form of “Burn” (In This Moment, Blood) and “Through the Fire and the Flames” (DragonForce, Inhuman Rampage). I get the feeling that, if you listen to the playlist already, then these should be basically lullabies compared to some of the stuff I’ve put on there.

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IC2S Playlist Update 02/12/2015

Good news: the Metal Gear retrospective is proceeding very smoothly. I have only 4 games left to go in the series to play and review (although one of those 4 is Ground Zeroes, which should take only a fraction of the time that the others will). As a result, I figure that the retrospective series should likely be finished and ready to go by the start of the new year. I’m getting really excited for this, I have put in a ton of work on each of these entries and hope that people enjoy them!

First up this week is “Jesus of Suburbia” by Greenday from their landmark album American Idiot. Back when I was starting high school, American Idiot made Greenday HUGE amongst my peers. As a result, I got bombarded with their music, which turned me against them out of sheer annoyance. However, the one song that I couldn’t help but love was the song which has gone on to be recognized as arguably the best from the album: “Jesus of Suburbia”. It was a bit of a formative song for me, back when my taste in music was just starting to move beyond “what my parents listen to”. It helped set my love for really long songs, especially ones which evolve quite a bit over the course of the song. As someone who grew up in a rather dogmatic household, this was also one of my first “transgressive” songs. After all, in my mind at the time, this was a “taboo” song due to its references to drugs, swearing and that it seemed to be belittling Jesus. Also, y’know, it’s just a really great song.

Secondly this week we have “Whore” by In This Moment from their album Blood. I have been getting into In This Moment recently, which has stemmed from two sources. First of all, Metal Rock Radio plays a fair bit of their music. Secondly, Maria Brink appears on “Criminal Conversations” from P.O.D.’s The Awakening, which can make a strong case for being the best song on the whole record. These two sources have made me really start to like the band. For one thing, a female-fronted hard rock/metal band is really unusual outside of symphonic metal, which already makes them stand out. Supplementing this is the fact that Maria Brink has a really distinctive singing style. In a way, it kind of makes me think of a heavy-metal version of Caro Emerald – she has a very great singing voice which she can use to effect to make herself sound extremely sultry… before immediately breaking out into a scream. “Whore” demonstrates these dimensions quite well and just makes for a very enjoyable song.

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