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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IC2S Playlist Update 27/04/2016

In case you haven’t been paying attention, we are now just past the IC2S Playlist’s 1 year anniversary. At 9 1/2 hours and 104 songs long, I find it quite enjoyable to throw on shuffle when I’m at work. I’m going to continue to update it irregularly from here on, but I don’t think I’ll write up big update posts like this anymore, mainly because I felt like they spammed the blog with useless posts that people didn’t care about, and the effort I put into writing them was taking up potential effort that could have been going towards the backlog of topics that I actually had some interest in writing about. That’s more-or-less why I started making the playlist updates into more “regular” blog posts a couple months ago, but it’ll be nice not to have weekly updates hanging over my head from here on out.

Anyway, we’re gonna close out the year with 2 songs I wanted to add for months now. First is “Dear John Piper” by Showbread. I had been debating picking this song for a while because it’s a very IC2S-type song (it’s about the destructive theology of Calvinism/predestination… which, again, is totally something I’m into). I kind of wish that the whole song wasn’t being yelled out, but after a few listens it works pretty well, and contrasts well with the furious preaching towards the latter-half of the song. I quite enjoy it, it’s my kind of deliciously angry.

Secondly we have “Empire of the Clouds” by Iron Maiden, which closes us out with the longest song on the entire playlist. It’s also worth pointing out that this epic was written and performed by a group of nearly 60 year old men, which is just insane for an 80s rock/metal band in this day and age. Very few artists can remain relevant for a decade, let alone the 35+ years that Iron Maiden has been rocking our faces (although they did start to slip into irrelevance through the 90s, releasing their 4 indisputably worst albums back-to-back, but have been putting out high quality stuff again since 2000). I mean, just think about how irrelevant The Rolling Stones have been for years, or even other bands with mini-comebacks like Aerosmith have long since slipped back into obscurity (even Black Sabbath/Ozzy Osbourne to some degree). Even better, they seem to be edging back towards my preferred era of Iron Maiden, the Powerslave/Seventh Son of a Seventh Son sound with its heavy concepts, sweeping epics and technical virtuosity. I maintain that Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is my favourite Maiden album, and it’s too bad that they ditched that sound in favour of the mediocrity they chased throughout the 90s. Now that we have The Book of Souls, who knows what limits Maiden still has within them?

Also, coincidentally, I have put together a small one-off playlist which just happened to coincide with this 1 year anniversary. Basically, I was listening to Sabaton’s “The Rise of Evil” the other day, which got me wondering whether it could be considered part of a “musical trilogy”. “The Rise of Evil” would be part 1, followed by “The Final Solution” as part 2 and then finishing with… well, I wasn’t sure if they had a third song that could fit in well enough. The result of this is a playlist I titled “Sabaton – The Rise and Fall of Evil”, which basically is a recounting of the history of Nazi Germany in WWII. I personally think that the compilation gels together very well and tells a rather compelling story: a madman rising to power, the Nazis’ early victories, the Holocaust, the Allies uniting and turning the tide, and then the German people coming to grips with the evil they had been fighting in the name of for almost 6 years. I definitely recommend checking it out, either search it on Spotify or go to the IC2S Playlist sidebar and then click on my username.

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IC2S Playlist Update 06/01/2016

First up this week we have “Blind” by Korn from their self-titled debut. I have a bit of an odd history with Korn: I saw them live in 2011 when they were double-headlining a concert with Disturbed, but didn’t really care for much of their music. However, I grew to really like the band’s (former, at the time) guitarist, Brian “Head” Welch, his conversion story and fantastic side-projects The Whosoevers, Save Me From Myself (the book and the album) and Love & Death, which make significantly better music than Korn proper. Through Head, I have retroactively been finding more interest in the band, and actually can appreciate a few of their earlier albums now. Their first, self-titled album is arguably their best though, and so I figured it was appropriate to put their first big hit, “Blind”, on the playlist as it exemplifies the best of their sound.

I was pretty torn between a couple other songs though. I had been seriously considering “Ball Tongue”, although deferred from it because I only really like the first 40 seconds of it. I was also really mulling over “Daddy”, but decided against it for a couple reasons. First of all, it’s excessively vulgar. More importantly though, it’s a rather strange song with some really sloppy craftwork. However, it makes up for this by being extremely passionate. By the time that “mother” is singing softly while Jonathan Davis literally bawls like a baby, you can tell that this is a really special moment and that Jonathan is working some major issues out in front of us. For that reason I rather like it, but it just wouldn’t work particularly well on its own in a playlist.

…so, uh, yeah I picked “Blind” this week.

Secondly, we have “Hearts of Iron” by Sabaton from their most recent album, Heroes. The album recounts the accomplishments of exceptional individuals during wars, from archetypal war heroes (Audie Murphy), to brave medics (Leslie “Bull” Allan), to the lesser-known efforts of units who fought back in spite of overwhelming odds (“Night Witches”, “Resist and Bite”). “Hearts of Iron” is an interesting choice in all of this as it recounts the heroism of the German 9th and 12th armies, who fought through the Soviet army to allow German refugees to surrender to the West. I like that Sabaton acknowledges that, even if you’re on the losing side of a conflict and have been in support of a horrifically evil regime, you can still be a hero by doing good and saving innocent people. Not only did this action allow these refugees to get on the nicer side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, but this also allowed these innocents to avoid the Rape of Berlin, an action which I would put up amongst the most despicable actions of the entire war. Considering that we have mythologized the Second World War as being a “good” conflict and placed ourselves upon the moral pedestal, it’s absolutely despicable that these sorts of atrocities have been swept under the rug of history for not fitting into our narrative. War, even one that is justified, is still a source of great evil and should be avoided at all costs.

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IC2S Playlist Update 14/10/2015

EDIT: I’ve been working on a little update for the blog, going through past, current and upcoming posts to tag them with their subject matter. If you’re interested in what I’m talking about in any blog post, click one of the labels at the bottom of the post and it’ll link you to all of my posts on the subject! Considering that I’m often calling back to previous topics, this should hopefully be quite handy for everyone, myself included!

So it looks like we’re going for an anti-war theme this week (or at the very least, songs which explore the human cost of war). This wasn’t entirly intentional, but as soon as I made my selections the theme clicked and I quite like how it all worked out. First up this week, we have “One” by Metallica from their album …And Justice For All. I decided to pick this song this week after a particularly epic air-drumming session that spontaneously commenced when this song came on the radio at the end of a late-night road trip. Like many people, I first got exposed to this song by Guitar Hero 3, and it really ignited a love for early Metallica music. “One” is just a natural fit for me – as you might have noticed from some of my earlier selections, I really love longer songs with a slow build-up which supports the epic musicianship/lyrics later and just makes them stronger overall. “One” is pretty much a text-book example of this.

I also like the story that the song tells: losing all of your senses but only being able to feel pain seems like it would indeed be the very definition of hell on earth. For the longest time I thought that the song was based on a real person, but thankfully not. It seems to be based on an anti-war novel and film called Johnny Got His Gun (or, at the very least, was based on the same concept).

Secondly, we have “The Price of a Mile” by Sabaton from the album The Art of War. The Art of War is, in my opinion, the first good Sabaton album, and “The Price of a Mile” is a good example of why. I’d argue that it’s one of their all-time best songs and stretches their usual formula of singing about great historical victories, this time singing about a horrific, senseless waste of life. It is especially resonant for me as a Canadian, since we are all brought up being told about the thousands of Canadian soldiers who died in the Battle of Passchendaele to win a few measly miles which were soon lost again. It’s a really sombre, and yet bad ass, song which really hammers home the meaningless nature that war can take on, and questions the costs that are associated with victory at all costs.

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IC2S Playlist Update 03/06/2015

I have to apologize for the reduced blogging output this past week – I have been temporarily transferred to a different department at work so it has been cutting down on my thinking and writing. I should be done this in a week or two with any luck though, so I will hopefully be putting out stuff other than Playlist updates and Quick Fixes soon enough.

First up this week is “Devil’s Cave” by Sleeping Romance, from their debut album, Enlighten. I believe that a couple months ago I called Sleeping Romance “Evanescence, but slightly more metal and significantly less angsty”, which has to be the most accurate description of the band that there is. They’re a really young symphonic metal band, having only released Enlighten and a single since 2013, but their sound is already shaping up to be quite promising. “Devil’s Cave” is probably their most “metal” song, but it is easily their best as far as I’m concerned, and I hope that they continue to explore this side of their sound more in the future. That wicked guitar solo near the latter-half of the song is particularly noteworthy.

Secondly, we have “Rise of Evil” by Sabaton, from their album Attero Dominatus. As a power metal band, Sabaton is simultaneously silly and epic, and is one of my favourite bands. For the most part, their songs are all based on historical wars (their best album, Carolus Rex, taught me more about the rise and fall of the Swedish empire and European politics than any other educational source before or since). I wasn’t a big fan of them until The Art of War, at which point their musical quality shot up significantly with each successive album. However, I recently decided to go back into their first three albums and found some old gems that I missed the first time I went through. Perhaps the best of these old gems is “Rise of Evil”, a rather disturbing track about the rise of the Nazi government and the days leading up to the second World War. Sabaton have been accused of being neo-Nazis many times in the past, and I kind of wonder if this song has something to do with that… despite the song itself simply stating the facts really obviously condemning Nazism in the title. There is actually an even more tragic companion piece to this song dealing exclusively with the evils of the Holocaust, called “The Final Solution” (from the album Coat of Arms), which I recommend checking out as well if your day was looking just a little too positive.

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2012 in Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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