Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Devin Townsend - Z2 (2014)
Sky Blue: Side 1 of the immense Z2 is the spiritual successor to "Epicloud." But don't think of this as simply a continuation of that fantastic album (as much as I wouldn't mind an "Epicloud Pt.2"). Rather, it subtly blends elements from "Ocean Machine," "Ki," "Accelerated Evolution," "Terria," and even "Ghost." The result is a more subdued and moody affair compared to the exuberance and reckless abandon of "Epicloud."

Nevertheless, the album starts off with a bang on "Rejoice." Anneke von Giersbergen's ethereal, wordless melody is layered on top of a massive, driving groove. Devy's singing style vaguely reminds me of Chuck Billy from Testament.

The album starts a streak of amazing songs with "Fallout" and "Midnight Sun," the latter strongly reminding me of "Where We Belong" on "Epicloud."

The next song, "A New Reign" is one of the darkest, most melancholic songs Devy's written yet. For some reason the chorus reminds me of The Cure, at least vibe-wise. And the overall atmosphere of the song makes it an intense, emotional thrill-ride. It's a truly brilliant song and possibly my favorite on "Sky Blue."

Skip ahead to "Silent Militia" and you see another side of Devy that hearkens back to his SYL days. It has an infectious, industrial groove that wouldn't sound too out of place on a Rammstein record.

After this, things slow down considerably and we're treated to a very "Terria"-esque treat with "Rain City." It's a very subdued and beautiful track that winds down into a lengthy ambient passage, transitioning seamlessly into the "Ghost"-esque ballad "Forever." Side 1 of Z2 gives us one last rocker with "Before We Die." This track makes excellent use of the Universal Choir with an instantly memorable, anthemic chorus. Like "Rain City," it fades into ambience but not before Anneke delivers some downright unearthly vocals to send you off into the haunting "The Ones Who Love."

"Sky Blue" is possibly Devy's most mature and diverse metal album. It continues in the tradition of "Epicloud" and "Addicted" while refining it and taking it in some new directions. As opposed to the narrative fiction of "Dark Matters," this side gives us insight into Devy's personality and experiences. It's definitely my favorite part of Z2 and, if it were to be counted as a separate album (which it arguably could), is in my top 5 list of Devy albums.


Dark Matters: As the follow-up to "Ziltoid the Omniscient," "Dark Matters" showcases Devy's epic, over-the-top style while continuing the Ziltoid narrative.

To start off, I've honestly never been a big fan of Z1 other than a few tracks. Most of it is tedious, unmemorable, and too wedded to the story to really stand out.

7 years later, Devy has made a record worthy of the Ziltoid name, one whose music shines with or without the narrative (hence the bonus disc).

The serene, Anneke-driven "From Sleep Awake" segues into the "Deconstruction"-esque "Ziltoidian Empire" which sets the tone for the album with wacky choir vocals and an intricate prog section near the end.

And now we get to what I consider to be the most epic song on the album: "War Princess." Featuring the theatrical, sinister vocals of Dominique Lenore Persi from Stolen Babies, this is a bombastic behemoth of a tune that will you have you headbanging like there's no tomorrow. There's not a single second of this track I didn't love. It's probably my favorite on Z2.

"March of the Poozers" is another heavily "Decon"-influenced, circusy song with an infectious, zany chorus. It doesn't quite stick out like "War Princess" but it's quite fun and should translate well in a live setting.

The mostly spoken-word "Wandering Eye" is kind of a filler track that Devy should have either scrapped or incorporated that part of the story into a more musically-oriented track. There is a pretty good riff about a minute in but the potential is wasted as the narrative takes over.

Things pick back up with "Earth" which features one of the catchiest lines on Z2, sung by the incredibly talented Ms. Persi. It does feel a bit too long, but it's still quite enjoyable.

And things REALLY pick back up on "Ziltoid Goes Home" which sounds like a lost SYL track. The verses are very aggressive and thrashy, with Devy's vicious snarls being as powerful as they were back in the early days of his career. The chorus, however, is set in the "Sky Blue"/"Epicloud" style, making for a fascinating contrast.

"Dimension Z" and the Universal Choir round out Z2 with a lighters-in-the-air metal anthem. I won't tell you exactly how the track, and hence the entire album, ends but suffice it to say it'll leave you surprised and smiling.

As I said before, I like "Sky Blue" a lot more than "Dark Matters" but I think a lot of that is due to the narrative. The story is great of course, but it also interrupts the flow of the music in some places, at least for me. That said, I can't wait to listen to the bonus disc.

But as it stands, "Dark Matters" is everything that Z1 and, for that matter, "Deconstruction" should have been. The songs are intricately composed with a lot of moving parts, but are nevertheless highly accessible and engaging.


Overall: This is easily one of Devy's most ambitious, most diverse, and most accomplished albums to date. No matter which Devy album sits closest to your heart (unless it's "The Hummer"), you're gonna find something you enjoy. It's incredible to think that after so many albums, Devy still has so much creativity and so many new musical avenues to explore. While it's not a perfect album, Z2 is still phenomenal, containing many songs that I already consider to be some of the best in Devy's extensive repertoire. I can only imagine how all this will sound live...

Overall score: 9.5/10


Monday, October 6, 2014

Threshold - For the Journey (2014)
Easily one of my most anticipated albums of the year, prog metal band Threshold's new release "For the Journey" has managed to hit it out of the park once again.

2012's "March of Progress" was a resounding success for the band after the death of their previous vocalist and the return of original vocalist Damian Wilson. The album showcased their unparalleled knack for writing fun, heavy, catchy songs that still retain a distinct prog edge (mainly in the form of the keyboards).

"March of Progress" ended up being one of my top releases of 2012 and "For the Journey" nearly matches it. The new album is a bit more varied than MoP though I mean that in the sense that there's more emotionality and moodiness, not an actual change in musical style.

This change in lyrics and atmosphere from the political and social of MoP to the personal and introspective on FtJ can be seen in such dark numbers as "Unforgiven" and "Autumn Red." Similar emotionally charged moments include the gripping chorus to "Siren Sky," the poignant verses of "Lost in Your Memory" and the soaring guitar work of "The Box."

In particular, "The Box" is probably my favorite piece on the album.The solos are incredible and the song manages to be technical, showing off some of the band's most accomplished songwriting to date, yet it's also very accessible.

The only song that drags the album down a bit is "The Mystery Show." It's not bad per se, just rather average and a bit less memorable than the other stellar tracks on "For the Journey."

Overall, this is a excellent follow-up to the band's chef d'-oeuvre "March of Progress," even if it falls a tad short of matching the latter's brilliance. Given all the excellent riffs, sing-along choruses, and tight songwriting, it's unlikely that Threshold fans will feel disappointed.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

While Heaven Wept - Suspended at Aphelion (2014)
While Heaven Wept are undoubtedly one of doom metal's best kept secrets. I first became attracted to their epic doom sound with the riveting "Vast Oceans Lachrymose." While Heaven Wept are known for their beautiful, melancholic atmosphere, heavy riffs, and mournful vocals.

On this album the band decided to make a concept album and from a lyrical and aesthetic standpoint they succeed. Musically though, "Suspended at Aphelion" leaves a bit to be desired.

It starts off well enough with the gorgeous classical piece "Introspectus" which sets the tone for the whole album. Then we come to my favorite track "Icarus and I" which doesn't have any doom to speak of, but is nonetheless epic and grandiose. The last few minutes of the song make you feel as if you're soaring through the heavens just as Icarus did.

Things slow down after that with "Ardor" which repeats the last few minutes of "Icarus and I." Reprises are a common musical device, but using one right after its parent track, rather than at the end, and not making it acoustic are not very good ideas. 

The next moment of excitement comes with track 5 "Indifference Turned Paralysis" which shows the band's proficiency with translating classical musical structures into metal. A power metal band could have easily written this piece (and that's not a bad thing at all considering I'm a fan of power metal).

The album's second truly great track is "Reminiscence of Strangers" which is a beautiful ballad which builds up into the kind of epic doom melody I was hoping to hear on this album.

There are three tracks under 2 minutes on this album and that is a pet peeve of mine. Unless it's punk or grindcore, I'd prefer albums have songs at least 2 minutes long. The band would have been much better off combining the time used for those three tracks into something better.

The long and short of it is that the truly epic moments I was hoping for are few and far between. Much of this album is repetitive and not all that interesting. While Heaven Wept are clearly a talented band and I'm a big fan of theirs. However, it seems like this time they couldn't focus that talent into something really cohesive and memorable like "Vast Oceans Lachrymose." Concept albums are fine as long as each song can shine on its own. Most of the songs here, unfortunately, cannot. That said, this is still a good album and it contains creative songwriting and a couple of really good tracks that make it worth coming back to.


(Special thanks to Nuclear Blast to providing me a promo copy.)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scar Symmetry - The Singularity (Phase I - Neohumanity) (2014)
Like a lot of Scar Symmetry fans, I was massively disappointed when Christian Alvestam left after the monumental "Holographic Universe" album in 2007 (still my all-time favorite melodeath album). His growls and clean vocals are simply some of the best I've ever heard and I doubted the band could be any good after that or, indeed, that it could even continue. The next two releases, "Dark Matter Dimensions" and "The Unseen Empire," somewhat reassured me of the band's vitality by featuring choice cuts such as "Sculptor Void" and "The Anomaly." However, up until this album, the first three albums with Alvestam were still my go-to Scar Symmetry albums.

"Neohumanity" is undoubtedly the band's best release since "Holographic Universe." The songwriting is superb and the songs are all catchy and exciting. This is arguably the band's most "progressive" album with two songs that reach past the 8-minute mark. The lyrical content is really interesting (I've always loved the bands sci-fi/philosophical themes) and the album is simply more memorable as a whole than the previous two. The growls are actually better than Alvestam's and make a fantastic contrast with the improved clean vocals. The cleans are still not quite as good as Alvestam's perfect, polished crooning, but they're more than good enough to get the job done and don't detract from the songs' catchiness at all.

If I had to pick a favorite song it would probably be "Neohuman." It's ambitious, bold, and holds my attention throughout. The riffs, solos, and keyboards are all fantastic, especially the Haken-esque circus bit. It's just a fantastic piece overall.

The award for best chorus though would probably go to "Neuromancers." Something about the melody just makes it really stick out.

The album ends with the supremely epic "Technocalyptic Cybergeddon" which sounds like it could have fit on "Holographic Universe." The calm ending of the song is the perfect way to close out the album. 

Overall, I am extremely pleased with this record. I have a feeling that fans like myself who were lukewarm about the last two albums will really get into this one. I absolutely can't wait for Phases II and III. 

(Special thanks to Nuclear Blast Records for providing me an advanced copy.)


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Oath - The Oath (2014)
As I mentioned in my Blues Pills review retro/stoner rock isn't exactly fashionable or original nowadays, but then there are some bands that manage to stand out. The Oath is just such a band. It's not hard to see why either.

Like Blues Pills, the most unique thing about The Oath is the vocals. Johanna Sadonis' bewitching vocals are the centerpiece of the album. They're confident, passionate and fit the lyrics quite well.

Musically, The Oath fit perfectly into Rise Above Records' roster of bands, joining such doom heavyweights as Blood Ceremony, Angel Witch, and Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats. They basic style could be said to be 60's/70's garage rock meets doom but it's obvious that they are incorporating a wide range of influences. Just some of the identifiable influences include Black Sabbath, King Diamond, Blue Cheer, Saxon, Motorhead, and Iron Maiden.

Yet, don't be fooled into thinking that this is merely a thrown-together hodgepodge of disparate influences. Rather, it's a focused, musically adept project that sounds great from start to finish. Songs such as the immediately catchy "Night Child" and the somber, psychedelic "Psalm 9" are evidence of this duo's success in cultivating their own musical identity, thus enabling them to stand out from the crowd in an over-saturated metal market.

Overall, even if it's not particularly ground-breaking, "The Oath" is a creative and thrilling album to listen to. There are plenty of killer riffs and instantly memorable choruses to keep you busy for quite a while. 

Pallbearer - Foundations of Burden (2014)
Pallbearer's debut album "Extinction of Sorrow" made waves throughout the metal world when it released in 2012. Critics praised the band for its innovative songwriting and the emotionality of its music.

"Foundations of Burden" takes Pallbearer's brand of melodic doom a step further with better production, better vocals, and overall better songs. This is an album brimming with atmosphere and emotion, yet at the same time it's absolutely crushing. Some negative reviews I've come across of this album deem the music "doom-lite," a claim I don't find any merit in.

Right from the get-go on the first track "Worlds Apart" Pallbearer are channeling such venerated doom bands as Katatonia, Warning, Paradise Lost, and Candlemass. The riffs are monstrous and thick, and the melodies are mournful and utterly captivating.

That said, it can be hard to connect with the songs as a whole given their length, relative sameyness complexity. The only real moment of diversity on the album is the gorgeous piano-driven interlude "Ashes." But diversity isn't something Pallbearer is, or necessarily should be, interested in. It's clear they want to tell a musical story in their own distinctive style without conforming to outside pressure. Therefore, those hoping for a significant change from the debut album will be disappointed. All they've really done here is to improve their already excellent craft.

"Foundations of Burden" takes you on a journey through vast, exotic landscapes but it's fairly easy to get lost along the way if you're not patient in dealing with the twists and turns. In other words, this is an album that requires multiple listens to gain a "bigger picture" view. Nevertheless, I'm very pleased with this record and consider it one of the year's best in the doom department.

Blues Pills - Blues Pills (2014)
Retro-stoner rock bands imitating 60's and 70's psychedelic music seem to be a dime-a-dozen these days with many bands simply failing to add anything distinctive or original to the mix. Blues Pills, on the other hand, are the clear exception to the rule. Rather than simply pay homage to the greats (Led Zep, Cream, Hendrix) etc., they channel these influences into something grandiose, elegant, and positively captivating.

It's not only the singer's incredible Janis Joplin-esque voice or the infectious grooves that make this album so enjoyable. Above all, it's the band's unbridled musical enthusiasm and passion that seeps through every song. This is a band that is unafraid to push limits and challenge themselves; in fact they enjoy doing it.

Whether it's the over-the-top quality of "Devil Man" or the haunting ballad "River"the band operate very much as a tight unit, with the rhythm section perfectly complementing Elin Larsson's soulful vocals. As for guitarist Dorian Sorriaux, he absolutely excels on this album, conjuring the ghost of Hendrix letting it drive him to make stomping riffs and fiery solos.

Some songs could be a bit more differentiated, but overall there is a very good deal of diversity and at no point during my numerous listens did I feel bored with this incredibly talented band's stellar debut album. Simply put, this album is one of the finest in the blues rock/psychedelic/stoner/call-it-what-you-want genre. This band can safely be added into Sweden's vast pantheon of exceptionally talented artists.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Mastodon - Once More Round the Sun (2014)
Mastodon, one of metal's most loved bands, created quite a stir with 2011's "The Hunter" which saw the band turn away from the technical songwriting and harsh vocals present on their previous four albums in favor of a catchy, almost traditional metal sound. On their latest offering, "Once More Round the Sun," Mastodon creates a sort of compromise between these two extremes. Each song is catchy, yet intricately arranged and visceral. Based around the band members' life experiences, this album is one that only Mastodon could have made. It retains their core psychedelic, progressive sound while maintaining a high degree of accessibility that is sure to rope in countless new acolytes.

Cuts such as "High Road" and "The Motherload" are as bombastic as one would expect from the band that made the epic "Crack the Skye." But while they are bombastic, the band's fundamental approach to songwriting has changed since their early days. Rather than write from a structural perspective, they let the songs flow naturally and stick closer to their 70's roots (i.e. Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy etc.) For example, "High Road" assaults you with a Godzilla-esque riff while "The Motherload" works its way into your brain with its infectious (to put it mildly) chorus. "Halloween" is the technical tour-de-force of the album yet the overall vibe is much more lighthearted than the fiery aggressiveness of, say, "Remission"-era Mastodon. Perhaps the weakest point of the album is "Diamond in the Witch House" which, before I listened to it, had me excited to hear Scott Kelly's latest collaboration with the band, but left me disappointed. It's certainly not a bad track; it simply lacks the focus and precision of the album's other songs.

That minor criticism aside, "Once More Round the Sun" is the album that is sure to unite long-time fans and new fans alike (though fans who exclusively prefer "Remission" and "Leviathan"-era Mastodon are sure to be put-off.) It clearly proves that a band can sound more "commercial" while not sacrificing its core identity. Admittedly, I felt nervous that the Mastodon sound would be even more watered down after "The Hunter" which was enjoyable but nevertheless didn't sit quite right with me. However, my fears have been allayed and this album now stands just behind "Crack the Skye" as my favorite Mastodon album. If you're new to the band then this is the perfect album to get yourself acquainted with them and if you're already a fan who wasn't too keen on "The Hunter" then this will be a pleasant surprise. I for one couldn't have asked for any more.

Accept - Blind Rage (2014)
First off: Lunar Caverns is back in business! (Hopefully for good this time.)

Secondly: "Blind Rage" is undoubtedly a top 10 album of 2014. I have a huge soft spot for mighty riffs, soaring solos, and gritty vocals - all of which this album has in spades. Since reforming the band with singer Mark Tornillo, Accept have risen to the top of the metal scene, far surpassing their 80's material (at least in my opinion). Their first two post-reunion albums "Blood of the Nations" and "Stalingrad" saw the band approach true greatness with such headbangers as "Teutonic Terror,"  "Pandemic," and "Stalingrad's" title track. However, I could never connect with the either album all the way through. Moments of greatness were interspersed with moments of "Well this could have been a bit more memorable."

But where "Stalingrad" and "Blood of the Nations" lacked pizzazz, "Blind Rage" is Accept at their most focused and memorable. It combines their 80's melodic, AC/DC-esque style with the technical, thrashy side seen on the past two albums. Each song feels completely unique and every single riff, solo, and chorus is immensely catchy. This is an album that is so memorable you'll be able to recall the chorus of each song simply by looking at its name. From the jaw-dropping solo on "Stampede" to the mournful, ballad-esque "The Curse" to the shout-along anthem "Final Journey" this is an album that will hopefully grip you from beginning to end. For those who thought traditional metal is nothing more than an 80's relic, "Blind Rage" will restore your faith in this underrated genre and prove that there are still loads more awesome riffs yet to be heard.

The future for Accept looks very bright indeed. For a 60-year old, Mark Tornillo is at the top of his game and Wolf Hoffman proves himself to be one of metal's best and most underrated guitarists. If you're looking for that one album that'll prove traditional metal's relevancy and vitality, I can think of none better than "Blind Rage."


Friday, June 13, 2014

Saor - Aura (2014)
Saor (formerly Arsaidh) may not be a household name in black metal, but this album might just change that. Featuring breathtaking atmospherics, soaring folk melodies, and unearthly roars from the vocalist, this is a epic album in every sense of the word. The band being from Scotland, it's easy to see why they chose to make an album like this since it evokes the incredible beauty of that land so well. One can easily imagine standing on a mountain in the Highlands peering over the fog and just being in awe of your surroundings. The album can demonstrate immense power one moment and emotional fragility the very next. It's those kinds of powerful emotions and imagery that are the album's appeal to me and doubtless many other fans. Every one of the five tracks flows extremely well and tells its own story making for a highly cohesive album. And what's truly unique about this album is that despite its beauty and grandeur, it's still sounds raw and intense with the with the frenetic, intense drumming being a particular highlight for me. Where this album suffers though is mainly on the production. Admittedly, I really don't know anything about production from a technical aspect but from an aesthetic aspect, it somehow feels awkward on this album. Perhaps if it were a bit more polished like on the last Summoning record it would have been even stronger. Another, more minor beef I have is that there are a few too many similarities between the songs. An acoustic interlude or two might have been nice too. Despite those issues, this is an amazing record that, like last year's new Summoning and the Caladan Brood debut album, will probably go down as one of black metal's most unique and awe-inspiring.

(Special thanks to Northern Silence Productions for a sending me a promo copy.)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Anathema - Distant Satellites (2014)
Since Anathema's return to the music world with 2010's "We're Here Because We're Here" and 2012's stunning "Weather Systems," the band have carved out a well-defined sound that, while similar to that of their older albums, marks a distinct chapter in the band's history. On "Distant Satellites" this sound has been altered slightly to evoke a darker, more brooding mood but the changes are certainly less subtle than one would expect simply based on the beautifully dark album cover. Things are a bit more stripped down on this album with an emphasis on simplicity, catchiness, and directness. This is most apparent on songs like "The Lost Song Pt. 1" and "The Lost Song Pt. 3," both of which are structurally straightforward with a constantly repeating drum beat and crescendo at the end. Yet even though this album is more minimalistic than the band's past releases there's still a whole lot of variety, perhaps more so than in the past. Take the difference between "You're Not Alone," for example, with its repetitive, almost garage rock sound and the ethereal, Radiohead-esque "Take Shelter." Here we see a band that's a little less restrained than before in terms of reaching into other genres while still retaining their trademark sound. While others may disagree, to me the way the album transitions into electronic territory on the last three songs is a brilliant move. One could think of the first portion of the album as signifying one's relations with people whereas the last part of the album takes a more introspective turn and examines our own consciousness and psyche. In any case though, the last three songs certainly give the album breathing space and allow it to end gracefully. If I had to pick some highlights from "Distant Satellites," mine would be "The Lost Song Pt. 2" and "Ariel." These two tracks are to me some of Anathema's greatest artistic achievements even if they sound like they could easily been on the previous two albums. In all, this is an album that's focused on trimming whatever fat was present on "Weather Systems" and further perfecting the band's atmospheric sound. The lyrics may be pretty cheesy but that's they've almost always been for Anathema and since they're coming from a genuine place it's hard to fault the band for that. I'll close by saying that "Distant Satellites" is another fantastic release from one of my favorite bands and it can stand tall in Anathema's discography.

(Special thanks to Kscope for the promo copy.)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Devin Townsend - Casualties of Cool (2014)
After the bombastic, poppy heaviness of Epicloud, the ever-eccentric Hevy Devy decided to pull another 180 and deliver something quiet, emotional, and entirely heartfelt. Casualties of Cool is in many ways the spiritual successor to the awe-inspiring Ghost, albeit with an interesting twist. Devy has experimented with a wide range of genres throughout his career, but his love of country was something previously unknown to many fans and hardly anyone expected him to incorporate it so extensively as he does here. Yet in true Devy style he amalgamates the soulfulness of Johnny Cash-type country music with spacey ambient explorations similar to those found on Ghost. To top it off he brought in Che Dorval (previously the backup vocalist on the Ki album) and she does an absolutely stellar job throughout. Her vocals are at once engaging, as if she's beckoning the listener to embark on a journey into the depths of the human soul, and distant, as if struggling to come to terms with the human condition and therefore ambiguous. While Anneke von Giersbergen, Devin's more well-known female collaborator, has helped contribute to some of his most legendary songs, I think that her more pop-oriented vocals would not have fit the introspective tone of this album as compared with Che's soulful, emotionally fragile singing. Song-wise Casualties has some truly sublime tunes like the Pink Floyd-ish "Moon" which is essentially a gradual build-up into aural bliss with a soaring saxophone complemented by Che's wordless vocalizing (a la "Great Gig in the Sky") and Devy's characteristic half-whispered crooning. Another highlight is the arresting "Flight" where Che is absolutely hypnotizing. "Mountaintop" takes things into a more upbeat, catchy area with an excellent video to accompany it. Finally, there's the sublime ballad "Bones" where Che once again shines like a star. Production-wise, this album features the same engrossing wall-of-sound we're used to and, as always, it makes the music stand out all the more Casualties of Cool is a beautiful, engrossing journey but it's not without its speed-bumps. . Some of the interludes like "Hejda" and "Pier" feel out of place and detract from the album's cohesiveness. Then there are other songs like "The Code" and "Deathscope" which are merely good but pale in comparison with the highlights. So while Che may have given Devy some of his best songs here, the album as a whole suffers a bit from inconsistency unlike the superb Ghost which I fully enjoyed all the way through. Nevertheless, Casualties is still an excellent achievement in Devy's storied career and something he should be very proud of.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Arch Enemy - War Eternal (2014)
One of extreme metal's biggest names, Arch Enemy are back with a new album and a new singer. Following 2011's fairly disappointing "Khaos Legions," "War Eternal" marks the return of AE's classic, sophisticated melodeath sound. While I do miss Angela Gossow's evil screams, new singer Alissa White-Gluz is a solid choice to replace her even though her vocals are a bit bland at times. There's nothing in the way of experimentation on this album which is probably a good thing since the more simplistic songs on the last album fell a bit flat. "War Eternal" offers some choice cuts such as the immediately catchy title track, the classically influenced "Avalanche," and the highly impressive riffage of "Time is Black." Arch Enemy aren't looking to reinvent the wheel, nor is this album on the level of "Wages of Sin" or "Rise of the Tyrant." Rather, it's simply another great addition to their discography and one that won't let the fans down even despite the vocalist change.

(Special thanks to Century Media for providing me a promo copy.)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Agalloch - The Serpent and the Sphere (2014)
When I heard Agalloch were trying out a space theme rather than their traditional nature/winter theme, I was very excited. "Marrow of the Spirit" was great but it showed signs of a band aging and starting to run out of ideas. A change was indeed in order. Unfortunately though, it seems Agalloch's musical abilities were not up to par for this change. Much of this album feels tedious, repetitive, and downright boring. Take the opener "Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation" for example. It's probably the first time they've Agalloch have attempted a straight-up doom metal song and I have to applaud them for that but it could have been so much stronger by either cutting it in half or adding more variation. The song kinda plods along and I find it difficult to emotionally connect with it in any way. The same goes for "Plateau of the Ages." It's 12.5 minute long metal instrumental whose most interesting feature is perhaps the cool drum beat. Every time I listen to it I think about Agalloch's other metal instrumental, "The Hawthorne Passage,"and how much better it is. Then take "Dark Matter Gods." That song has so much potential but it far too repetitive and unnecessarily long to stand anywhere near Agalloch's best songs. On the plus side, you have "Vales Beyond Dimensions" which features an excellent dark, doomy lead melody that fits the space theme perfectly. Then there's the lead single "Celestial Effigy" which is the most dynamic, progressive track on the album. It's the kind of song that keeps your attention throughout. "Astral Dialogue" is not only one of the most aggressive songs Agalloch have penned, but it's also my favorite song on the album. It's a perfect blend of doom and black metal, and it features the unique songwriting the band are famous for, something sorely lacking elsewhere on "The Serpent and the Sphere." Another positive feature is the lyrics which are fantastic as ever. As for the acoustic interludes, they unfortunately all sound basically the same and are very stale and uninteresting. There is absolutely no comparison between them and the songs on "The White" EP or the glorious "Odal" on "The Mantle." Simply put, this is Agalloch's weakest album but it certainly does have a number of redeeming factors that make it worth listening to. You can hear the seeds of better songs throughout, but those better songs never materialize. If you're expecting something on the level of the first three albums then prepare to be disappointed. I suspect though that this one's a grower so my opinion might very well change later on.
Coldplay - Ghost Stories (2014)
After the glitzy, overproduced pop stylings of "Mylo Xyloto" which left many long-time Coldplay fans such as myself disappointed, the band decided to move back, at least partially, towards their original sound. Nowhere is this move more apparent than on the two sublime ballads "Oceans" and "O." These two tracks alone are possibly some of the best material Coldplay have created. Elsewhere on the album we see Coldplay experimenting around, especially on the ethereal, stripped-down "Midnight" which sounds like it could have been ripped from an M83 or Tycho album. Another highlight is "True Love" which is a fantastic synthesis between their new and old styles and is a truly gorgeous track. Then you have "Always in My Head" which seems to draw influence from U2. The album falls a bit flat on tracks such as "Ink" and "Another's Arms." Overall though "Ghost Stories" manages to be highly consistent in both its themes and overall mood despite having a lot of stylistic diversity. It might not be on the same level as "Viva La Vida" or "A Rush of Blood to the Head" but it's quite enjoyable nonetheless and I'm satisfied that the band are moving back on the right track.

Epica - The Quantum Enigma (2014)
I never thought that Epica could deliver something that rivals the great "Design Your Universe," my favorite album of theirs, but lo and behold it's happened. "The Quantum Enigma" is not only better than the album that preceded it; it marks the culmination of the band's artistic endeavors as they strive to create catchier, more concise songs. And by shifting to such a style, I don't mean to imply that they've abandoned their identity for commercial gain. Rather, they've made their message all the more direct and powerful by trimming the fat and thus delivering a more memorable product, at least compared "Requiem for the Indifferent." On this album you'll find some of the best songs Epica have crafted so far including the lead single "Essence of Silence," the grandiose "Second Stone," and the soaring "Natural Corruption." Whereas "Requiem" felt a bit stale and not all that satisfying, this album sounds fresh, vibrant, and energetic every time you hear it. Every song has something about it that will stick with you. There are no fillers or duds here and you'll undoubtedly come back to it repeatedly. With less growls and catchier choruses than ever before, "The Quantum Enigma" is bar none their most accessible album so keep that in mind if you're thinking of introducing people to the band. If there's anything wrong with this album, I'd say it's the lyrics. The themes they chose to discuss are quite intriguing, but the way Epica discusses them leaves a lot to be desired. Another slight imperfection is the repetitiveness of "Kingdom of Heaven Part II." Were it to be either cut in half or simply made more interesting it could have been as good as its predecessor. All in all though, this is a stunning accomplishment and quite a pleasant surprise for me. I expected to find them running out of ideas and circling the wagons after "Requiem" but instead it seems like they went back to basics, reevaluated their sound, found their creativity once again, and hit it out of the park. The odds of this album ending up on my top 10 list in December are quite high.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Lantlos - Melting Sun (2014)
After Neige, vocalist of Alcest, left the more black metal-oriented band Lantlos after their last album "Agape," the future of Lantlos was murky. Thankfully, it has been nicely resolved with a complete shift away from black metal and towards post-metal. This isn't the kind of dark, depressive post-metal associated with acts such as Cult of Luna, nor is it technical in any way like Russian Circles. Rather, it's beautiful, bright, expressive, and downright uplifting while being quite heavy at the same time. I like to think of this album as "Shelter's" metal brother. From the winding ambient soundscapes filled with subtle, emotion-laden melodies to the raw intensity of the riffs, this is an album that sets the listener on a journey through forgotten corners of the heart and mind. It's hard not to be completely hypnotized by the vast, immersive sounds of this album, nor is it so easy to restrain your imagination from running wherever it pleases as you're soothed by the calm sounds of, for example, "Golden Mind." Perhaps the most captivating moment on the album is the intro on "Cherry Quartz" which transitions from serene to heavy-as-lead so gracefully and effortlessly it'll likely leave your jaw on the floor. The only fault I could find on this album is the sometimes stale vocals, but it's a minor issue on an otherwise incredible achievement. I absolutely loved Lantlos' second album ".neon" with it's dark atmosphere and Neige's melancholic howls, but "Melting Sun" marks a whole new chapter for the band and I can honestly say I love it just as much. In a word, it's glorious and a unique addition to the post-metal genre.

(Special thanks to Prophecy Productions for providing me an advance copy.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Insomnium - Shadows of the Dying Sun (2014)
Finnish metal is renowned for its melancholic, melodic qualities and Insomnium are one of the best exemplars of these traits. Returning for their sixth album, these melodeath/doom masters aren't looking to re-invent the wheel, having basically settled on their sound starting with their third album, but they are making some minor tweaks. Perhaps the most noticeable tweak is the increased amount of clean vocals. Songs such as "Lose to Night" and "Promethean Song" feature some truly memorable clean choruses that might miff a few hardcore fans, but to my ears sounds like a natural progression of their sound. Another small way in which this album distinguishes itself from its predecessors is the use of black metal-esque blast-beats on "Black Heart Rebellion" and "The River," the latter of which displays an excellent tremolo-picked melody that could have been lifted right from a Woods of Desolation tune. "Ephemeral" is a bit of an odd experiment for the band as it's probably the most accessible song they've made yet, sounding like something modern In Flames might do (not that that's a bad thing by any means). One of my favorites on the album is the single "While We Sleep" which shows off some of the band's best songwriting skills with killer riffs, catchiness, and a soaring outro solo that you can't imagine the song doing without. My other favorite is "Revelation" which is probably the most 'atmospheric' track, especially given its dark, brooding, whispered vocals and beautiful melodies. Where I feel the album falls a bit flat is on "The River" and the title track which are both too long to keep my attention throughout. It also wouldn't have hurt for them to reach out into the musical universe and pull in some more influences (i.e. a folk song a la Agalloch or something doomy like Swallow the Sun) just to make for a more varied record. But those are still minor quibbles since this is probably my favorite Insomnium album since "Above the Weeping World." This album's formulaic approach can be forgiven for the facts that Insomnium are one of the most unique melodeath bands out there and, not least of all, that this is a great album. It might not hold up to the first three records, but it's something fans of the band won't be disappointed in.
(Special thanks to Century Media for providing me with an advance copy.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Triptykon - Melana Chasmata (2014)
Coming on the heels of 2010's critically acclaimed "Eparistera Daimones," Triptykon, fronted by Tom G. Warrior of Hellhammer and Celtic Frost fame, have returned with another dark, brooding monster of an album in "Melana Chasmata." The oft-repeated phrase "don't judge a book by its cover" certainly doesn't apply to this album as the sick, twisted art of H.R. Giger perfectly matches the music. And the album doesn't waste any time revealing its sinister nature to the listener. Right from the opening of "Tree of Suffocating Souls" with its heavier-than-lead thrash attack and Warrior's trademark commanding grunts through the hauntingly beautiful "Waiting", "Melana Chasmata" is truly a beast of an album that hearkens back to the old days of Celtic Frost. The real genius of the album is its ability to seamlessly weave black, doom, thrash, death, heavy, and avant-garde metal into a singular, monolithic package that almost goes beyond genre classification. In that sense, Triptykon still hold firmly to the pattern established by Celtic Frost on such albums as "Morbid Tales" and "To Mega Therion" which influenced an incredibly wide range of bands and even spawned entire genres. The difference here is that Triptykon, especially on this album, have taken the classic Frost sound and expanded it into the territory of avant-garde with a heaping dose of dissonance and drawn-out, hypnotic tracks that make me think of such nightmarish things as Inferno by Dante. Indeed, the whole album is a trip through hell. "Altar of Deceit" is perhaps the heaviest track on the album, and perhaps the most violent part of the trip through hell, and features gargantuan riffs that sound like Black Sabbath on steroids. Another highlight for me is "In the Sleep of Death" which features some truly demented, almost psychopathic vocals that just plain creep me out (in a good way though). It is also worth mentioning bassist Vanja Slajh's beautiful, siren-esque singing which complements Warrior's fierce growls perfectly. And of course let's not forget Warrior's morbid lyrics which, as usual, fit the music like a glove. While I enjoy this album more than its predecessor, it's not perfect. "Black Snow" is probably my least favorite track here as it goes on for far too long than it should. Otherwise, "Melana Chasmata" is a fantastic achievement that shows not only shows Warrior/Triptykon's relevancy in the incredibly crowded world of modern metal, but also stands out as a uniquely dark and, in a very odd way, beautiful artistic statement.

(Special thanks to Century Media records for sending me a promo copy.)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Animals as Leaders - The Joy of Motion (2014)
Instrumental progressive giants Animals as Leaders have returned with their third offering and boy does it pack a wallop. After the excellent, yet slightly unsatisfying "Weightless" in 2011, "The Joy of Motion" sees the band less willing to experiment and more focused on delivering something both powerful and memorable. With 12 songs and no filler, it's an incredibly dense album that offers enough variety amongst the stellar musicianship to keep listeners happy. Most songs here are reminiscent of the band's earlier work, but a few have brand new elements such as the stomping grooves of "Physical Education" and the Latin flavor of "Para Mexer." But regardless of whether it's new sounds the band are incorporating or if they're relying on the same basic jazz fusion/prog metal admixture that brought them to fame in the first place, this is simply a phenomenal album. While it doesn't reach the heights of the debut, at least in my book, it does come pretty close. Once again AAL have proven their worth and set the bar astronomically high for other bands and musicians. If you haven't heard this masterpiece yet then it's about time for you to go over to Sumerian Records' official channel and prepare to have your jaw hit the floor.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Crosses - Crosses (2014)
With "Koi No Yokan" in late 2012 and "Palms" last year, Chino Moreno has been quite busy as of late. Now we have "Crosses" which, similarly to his 2005 project "Team Sleep," is an experimental electronic side project. As usual, Chino sounds fantastic. His vocals perfectly fit on every song whether it's more on the dark, reflective side or more on the pop side. Though the album is a bit too long and not entirely consistent in quality, it does feature some excellent songs, "Bitches Brew" and "The Epilogue" being chief among them. Given the length I think it's more of a grower so I highly recommend giving it a good number of listens before deciding on a final score. Fans of Grimes, Chvrches, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, and, of course, Deftones should feel right at home with this album.
Kuolemanlaakso - Tulijoutsen (2014)
Featuring Miko Kotamaki of one of my favorite doom bands, Swallow the Sun, Kuolemanlaakso is death/doom band whose lyrics are entirely in Finnish and are based on the poetry of Eino Leino. Not surprisingly, the music is pretty close in style to that of StS, if not a little more stripped down, and while I do prefer StS there are some pretty interesting bits on this album that make it a worthwhile listen. There are quite a few great riffs and Kotamaki's excellent vocals, consisting of banshee-esque rasps and demonic growls, are my highlight of the album. It's pretty much standard death/doom fare except for "Glastonburyn Lehto" which is an odd folky/psychedelic number featuring clean vocals and guitars. All in all, this album is quite good and should be enough to tide StS fans over until the next release.
Woods of Desolation - As the Stars (2014)
Following their masterful 2011 release "Torn Beyond Reason," Woods of Desolation's "As the Stars" is a more than worthy successor, even if they decided to go in a different direction this time around. Whereas the former exudes darkness and melancholy, this one is much like Deafheaven's "Sunbather" in that it's emotional, joyful, and utterly captivating. The riffs, melodies, and vocals are all out to make a bold, triumphant statement about life and they all do a fantastic job of it. Unlike Alcest's most recent album which did away with metal elements (not that that's a bad thing by any means), WoD decided to blend black metal with post-rock and shoegaze in about equal proportions. It may not have the intricacy or concept-album feel that "Sunbather" has, but it does have just as much passion, intensity, and beauty. It's an extraordinary journey that is both brutal and dark as well as uplifting and utterly gorgeous. As of now, I can only see this album being rivaled by the upcoming Agalloch release in terms of best black metal albums of 2014.
Ulver/Sunn O))) - Terrestrials
Both Sunn O))) and Ulver are masters of experimental music, whether it be ambient or drone, and I was fully prepared to have my mind blown when I heard they were collaborating on an album. That didn't exactly happen, but my mind did go on quite a strange and long journey while listening to this. "Let There Be Light" starts off the album with soft, quiet droning pierced by a jazz-like background and, eventually, followed by free-flow drumming. It all goes together very well and creates a distinct sense of foreboding mixed with a certain degree of anticipation. However, once "Western Horn" comes in, that anticipation is gone and all that left is misery. It's an incredibly dark track that has me imagining the darkest scenes of the classic Apocalypse Now film. Everything about it oozes menace and doom. On "Eternal Return" we hear something much more akin to Ulver's most recent album "Messe I.X-VI.X" with strings and dark ambient noodling. The strings let up and eventually we hear the familiar sound of Garm's ethereal vocals which, in my opinion, really complete the album. "Terrestrials," while not as good as "Messe" or Sunn O)))'s most recent album "Monoliths and Dimensions," is a dark, psychedelic trip through the unknown that is sure to send a chill down the listener's spine. It represents the best of what both bands have to offer and I don't think there's much they could have done differently.
Within Temptation - Hydra (2014)
At first this album really disappointed me, but after a few listens I've grown to appreciate it. I still consider it a major step down from the phenomenal "The Unforgiving," but "Hydra" certainly has its share of memorable tunes that are some of the best in WT's catalog. The track "Paradise" featuring the one-and-only Tarja is certainly one of the band's crowning achievements and is my favorite off the album. Other tracks such as "The Whole World is Watching" and "Silver Moonlight" are highlights of WT's hard-rock/symphonic rock hybrid sound, and while they may be off-putting to fans of the band's earlier style, they are undeniably catchy and I find it's quite difficult to resist their charms. "Hydra" may not be the band at their peak, but it's a solid offering from a seasoned band that has enough power to stand on its own. If you're deciding which WT album to show to friends/family who are unfamiliar with the band, then this one is a good bet as an entry level piece.
Transatlantic - Kaleidoscope (2014)
While I haven't listened enough to prog rock supergroup Transatlantic's previous albums to do a proper comparison, I can say that "Kaleidoscope" is great in its own right. It's a catchy, upbeat album strongly influenced by Yes, Genesis, and others. Each song has a unique identity and is extremely well-written. This especially applies to the gargantuan 32 minute title track which flows smoothly and is simply an astonishing piece of musicianship. In fact, it might be one of my all-time favorite prog epics. Another excellent track on the record is "Black As the Sky" which features some truly masterful keyboard playing. The other tracks are quite good too, but there's a fairly significant quality gap between them and the former. All in all, it's a great record and probably Mike Portnoy's greatest post-DT accomplishment.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Cynic - Kindly Bent to Free Us (2014)
Cynic may be best known for their unique blend of death metal and jazz fusion as seen on their critically acclaimed albums "Focus" and "Traced in Air" but as we saw on their EP "Carbon Based Anatomy" the band have shifting their sound in new directions. This shift is even more evident on their third album "Kindly Bent to Free Us" where prog rock has taken the place of metal although there are some vaguely metallic-sounding bits. While many bands still sound great even after shifting genres and, indeed, some bands even need to do this to retain their artistic integrity, in Cynic's case I can't say the results have met my, or many other fan's, expectations as far as quality goes. Whereas the Cynic on "Traced in Air" sounds self-assured and inspired, the Cynic on this album has been reduced to a shadow of itself. Many songs simply meander aimlessly and fail to impress beyond a few interesting bits and pieces. Some of the lyrics even border on self-parody. The exceptions to this are "Infinite Shapes" and "The Lion's Roar" both of which are solid, memorable tunes. However, even those standouts pale in comparison to such legendary Cynic songs as "Integral Birth" and "Veil of Maya." That said, this is by no means a bad album. In fact, for a prog rock record "Kindly Bent to Free Us" is admirable and I think most Cynic fans should find something on here that they truly enjoy. Sean Reinert's drumming is excellent as always and Sean Malone's bass instrumentation is undoubtedly the musical highlight of the record. It's just that by Cynic standards this is a letdown. I'm not necessarily saying they should go back to their previous sound. I just hope they rediscover the same inspiration they had when making their last two full-lengths and go on to make something great again whether it's metal or not.


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Most Anticipated Albums of 2014 + more
Note NNote: I'm only counting what's been confirmed as coming out this year.

1. Opeth
2. Mastodon
3. Devin Townsend
4. Wintersun
5. Epica
6. Anathema
7. Animals as Leaders
8. Sabaton
9. Insomnium
10. Overkill
11. Testament
12. Johnny Cash
13. Ian Anderson
14. Swans
15. At the Gates
16. Steven Wilson
17. Wolves in the Throne Room
18. Panopticon
19. Nokturnal Mortum
20. Agalloch
21. Tycho
22. Scar Symmetry
23. Dimmu Borgir
24. Ne Obliviscaris
25. Textures
26. In Flames

Really hoping for:
1. Tool
2. Metallica
3. Electric Wizard
4. Threshold
5. Moonsorrow
6. Iron Maiden
7. Nightwish
8. Meshuggah
9. Stars of the Lid 
10. Enslaved
11. Baroness
12. Radiohead
13. Massive Attack
14. Portishead
15. Deftones
16. Blind Guardian

Friday, January 24, 2014

Top 25 Albums of 2013

And now without further ado (and before I forget), here's my ranked list for last year. It was a pain to rank these as 2013 was an incredible year for music, but after much mental wrestling, I somehow managed it. Enjoy!

1. Alice in Chains - The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here
2. Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused to Sing
3. Scale the Summit - The Migration
4. Dream Theater - Dream Theater
5. Amorphis - Circle
6. Deafheaven - Sunbather
7. Riverside - Shrine of New Generation Slaves
8. Chvrches - The Bones of What You Believe
9. Ghost - Infestissumam
10. Carcass - Surgical Steel
11. Summoning - Old Mornings Dawn
12. Paysage d'Hiver - Das Tor
13. Queens of the Stone Age - Like Clockwork
14. Russian Circles - Memorial
15. The Ocean - Pelagial
16. Tesseract - Altered State
17. Avatarium - Avatarium
18. Depeche Mode - Delta Machine
19. Amaranthe - The Nexus
20. James LaBrie - Impermanent Resonance
21. Haken - The Mountain
22. Alter Bridge - Fortress
23. Black Sabbath - 13
24. Soilwork - The Living Infinite
25. Ulver - Messe I.X-VI.X
Honorable Mentions:
Sigur Ros - Kveikur
Hammock - Oblivion Hymns 
Night Verses - Lift Your Existence
Revocation - Revocation
Havok - Unnatural Selection
Cult of Luna - Vertikal
Dark Tranquillity - Construct
Intronaut - Habitual Levitations
Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
Immolation - Kingdom of Conspiracy
Protest the Hero - Volition
Clutch - Earth Rocker
Germ - Grief
The Dear Hunter - Migrant
Caladan Brood - Echoes of Battle
The National - Trouble Will Find Me
Deep Purple - Now What?!
Persefone - Spiritual Migration
Shade Empire - Omega Arcane
My Bloody Valentine - mbv
Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks
Blooc Ceremony - The Eldritch Dark
Leprous - Coal
Anciients - Heart of Oak
Orphaned Land - All is One
The Reign of Kindo - Play With Fire
Pelican - Forever Becoming
Chelsea Wolfe - Pain is Beauty
Goldfrapp - Tales of Us
Kataklysm - Waiting for the End to Come
Nails - Abandon All Life
Iced Earth - Plagues of Babylon (2014)
Having regained their stride with Stu Block's entrance in the band on "Dystopia," metal legends Iced Earth's 11th album is a very worthy successor even if it doesn't quite live up to the expectations set by its predecessor. On "Plagues of Babylon," the band seem to have focused on accessibility in terms of very catchy choruses, simplified song structures, and less screaming. This results in a somewhat more generic sound, but one that eventually grew on me. There are some really strong songs on this album including the title track, "If I Could See You," "Cthulhu" and "Democide." The rest of the songs are very good even if some of them (especially "Highwayman" and "Peacemaker") feel out of place. In terms of innovation, there are guest vocals for the first time (I think) from such metal celebrities as Russell Allen and Hansi Kursch and the songs "Highwayman" and "Peacemaker" have a distinct country sound to them. Otherwise, it's the same Iced Earth sound you know and love. And I can't really fault them for that. At the end of the day, it's just a fun album with some really cool riffs and excellent choruses. I'm not gonna complain too much about that.
Alcest - Shelter (2014)
I'm just gonna come right out and say it: I'm a total Alcest fanboy. Therefore, my expectations for this album were sky high before it came out so fortunately it's every bit the gorgeous masterpiece I expected it to be. If you didn't know, Alcest started out as pure, raw black metal on their demo. Then they started with the whole blackgaze thing on their EP "Le Secret" and took a break from harsh vocals on their debut album "Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde." The next two albums reintroduced harsh vocals, but here they're gone once again along with the metal itself. What we end up with is a slice of pure shoegaze/post-rock bliss. I see it as a completely natural and logical extension of their metal sound, yet I understand the sentiment of those who are disappointed with "Shelter" and wished Alcest had stuck with their metal roots. And I admit it did take a couple more listens than normal to really "get" this album, but now I'm at the point where I feel it's fully clicked. Each song feels very unique and portrays a distinct emotion. The emotions range from the pure joy and exuberance of "Opale" to the dark melancholy of "L'Eveil des Muses" to somewhere in the middle of those two extremes with the glorious closing track "Delivrance." Alcest further mix things up by throwing in some fantastic guest vocals from Neil Halstead of Slowdive fame on the track "Away" (which has my favorite melody on the album.) Overall, though I wouldn't rank it as highly as the three albums that preceded it, I am still deeply impressed with "Shelter" and fully expect it to feature on my best of 2014 list. Simply put, this record stands heads and shoulders with the shoegaze classics of the '90's and is an absolutely incredible achievement.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Hell - Curse and Chapter (2013)
When you've got a hankering for good ol' fashioned traditional metal, then might I so humbly suggest to you this little gem of an album? Hell formed back in the 1980's but only put out their first album in 2011. Now they're back with their sophomore release and it's very tasty indeed. The riffs are simply excellent and the vocals are delightfully theatrical. While the lyrical themes are very serious, the music comes off as pure fun and catchiness. I really like "Human Remains" (their debut album) but this one is a clear improvement in my mind. It's pretty safe to say that this is my top traditional metal album of 2013.
Hammock - Oblivion Hymns (2013)
While other post-rock bands are entirely capable of creating some very beautiful music, no band does it with as much focus and success as Hammock do. Coming right on the heels of their masterpiece "Departure Songs," "Oblivion Hymns" continues in much the same direction as their previous works but also forges a unique identity for itself. For the first time, Hammock have incorporated classical instruments into their music and, being the geniuses they are (yeah I know, I'm a Hammock fanboy) ended up making yet another phenomenal record. Really, these guys can do absolutely no wrong. Their music is the perfect vehicle to send you floating off into space for eternity. While artists such as Stars of the Lid and Eluvium come close stylistically, there's really no one else that can match the ethereal beauty that is Hammock. If you're new to the band then prepare to have your jaw drop right to the floor. And while I wouldn't call this my favorite Hammock album, it's easily one of the best albums of last year and a phenomenal addition to their stellar discography.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Dead Letter Circus - The Catalyst Fire (2013)
Unfortunately, like the new Karnivool album, this album managed to disappoint me after DLC's excellent debut "This is the Warning." On this one there are definitely some good tracks like "Lodestar" and "I Am" but most of it just doesn't really do much for me. They kinda seem to just go nowhere and fall flat without much replay value or catchiness. Despite the gorgeous cover art, this one was a dud. If you really liked the album feel free to disagree and post a comment. Otherwise, I can't really recommend this one.
Chelsea Wolfe - Pain is Beauty (2013)
I'm not a huge fan of goth rock, but this album definitely manages to get my support. That said, it's much more than a mere rehash of Siouxsie and the Banshees or The Cure, though those bands were almost certainly large influences in the album's overall sound. Rather, Wolfe borrows heavily from folk, doom, drone, and perhaps shoegaze. While this is quite an eclectic mix of genres, the end product is remarkably consistent because she experiments not for the sake of experimentation, bur rather as a means of expressing her emotions and thoughts as she sees fit. And this is an incredibly emotional, beautiful album indeed. Songs like "The Warden," "Reigns," and "Lone" are so simple yet so powerful at the same time. They're absolutely hypnotic and gorgeous. Elsewhere, Wolfe's post-punk influences come in full force on songs such as "Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter" whose nihilistic title echoes well with the album title itself. Like Grouper and other experimental artists, Wolfe has a knack for establishing a truly haunting atmosphere. Her ethereal vocals linger in the background of every song like a restless spirit. "Pain is Beauty" is by far one of the most unique releases of last year and probably the best in Chelsea Wolfe's discography. For something off the beaten path, you can't do much better than this little gem.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Earthless - From the Ages (2013)
When it comes to stoner jam bands, these guys are absolutely some of the best. While I loved their previous two records, I feel that "From the Ages" is Earthless' most accomplished and accessible record to date. While an album with a 36 minute song on it may not sound that accessible, it's so easy to get lost in the psychedelic haze that the time just drifts right on by while you're listening to it. The whole album flows incredibly well and it's chock full of catchy riffs and soaring, bluesy solos. Equally top-notch are the bass playing and drumming which, of course, are key elements in stoner rock. This is just a fun record that's a great substitute for drugs (not that I've ever taken any!). If you're looking for some mind-blowing instrumental music then this should be right up your alley.
Gris - A L'ame Enflamee, L'ame Constelee (2013)
And speaking of innovative black metal releases, here we have one that truly sounds like no other I've heard. Mixing classical folk passages with emotive black metal, Quebecois band Gris have made an intriguing and highly mature record. There's no blast beats at all here; rather, there's a very doomy atmosphere with seamless transitions into some gorgeous clean passages. Indeed, Gris' approach to black metal is quite reminiscent of how Empyrium approached doom/death metal. "A L'ame..." is also quite different from Gris' previous album "Il Etait une Foret," particularly because the former has much cleaner production and balances black metal with classical folk in about equal proportions. This is clearly the sign of a band progressing their sound and making a mature statement. I can't say this album impressed me as much as, say, the new Summoning or Deafheaven records, but it is a very deep and complex album that probably wasn't meant to be as immediately accessible as those records anyways. In any case, it's one of the most unique black metal albums I've heard and I'm very interested to see what the band does next.

Germ - Grief (2013)
2013 was a banner year for black metal and this album alone provides ample proof of that. Not content to stick to the old cliches of darkness, blast beats, and intentionally bad production, "Grief" takes an experimental approach and incorporates some influences that normally thought of as completely alien to black metal. These include post-rock, shoegaze, electronica, and even indie rock. It makes for a wonderfully refreshing experience and leaves you emotionally drained, but in a very positive way. Add to that Tim Yatras' (ex-Austere, ex-Woods of Desolation) incredible shrieks and you have one hell of an album. My favorite track is probably "I Can See it in the Stars" as the melody is just so memorable and epic. Along with "Sunbather," this album is one of the most unique BM releases in recent memory. I urge you to check it out.
Kataklysm - Waiting for the End to Come (2013)
Simply put, this is Kataklysm's best record. Gone are the generic, boring filler songs from the previous two records and what we have left is awesomeness in every song. There are some downright brutal, punishing riffs on this record and, thankfully, only a very measured amount of blast beats. The songs, for the most part, are as catchy as death metal can be and leave you very satisfied. If you're looking for some no-nonsense, headbangable material then this album is a 100% safe bet.
Haken - The Mountain (2013)
As one of my most anticipated albums of 2013, "The Mountain" largely didn't disappoint. I say largely because Haken's previous album, "Visions" was so phenomenal that I just don't feel that this one lived up to it. Of course, this is still a fantastic album with some superb songwriting, riffs, and melodies. It's just that the only track that has really grabbed my attention so far is "Cockroach King." It's so wonderfully catchy and fun that it easily competes with anything off of "Visions." The rest though will take more time to grow on me. I can't quite say they knocked it out of the park, but Haken, one of the best prog metal bands around today, still made a damn solid album that is undeniably worthy of the praise it has received.
Touche Amore - Is Survived By (2013)
Punk and hardcore haven't really swayed me as much as others but I do enjoy it from time to time. This album is probably one I'll be turning to when I'm in the mood for simple hardcore that eschews the intensity of bands like Converge and Dillinger Escape Plan for something a lot closer to mainstream rock. It's far from revolutionary, but it seems to get the job done as far as accomplishing its modest goals. That said, I think some more variation could have really improved it. There are some unique, more laid-back songs such as "Non-Fiction" but there's really note enough variety to keep my interest throughout. Ditto on the vocals. They're very monotone and, as controversial as this might sound, the singer probably should have added some clean singing to spice things up. Aside from these criticisms, it's a decent album that should appeal to most fans of punk and hardcore.