Posts Tagged ‘ Classic Rock ’

Album of the Week 04-2020: Rush – A Farewell To Kings


Late seventies Rush has always had a great reputation among fans of progressive rock and metal. And not without reason. Rush managed to inject all the clever twists and melodic touches that the likes of Genesis and Jethro Tull had into their music without ever losing the heavy, Led Zeppelin-esque force that so many progressive bands sacrificed in the process of making their music less immediate. To me, ‘A Farewell To Kings’ is the Canadian trio’s crowning achievement, because it manages to strike a balance between all the elements that make them the band they are unlike any other of their albums.

After a bunch of great short, punchy songs, but underdeveloped and meandering epics on ‘Caress Of Steel’ and possibly the best side-long song of the seventies followed by a handful of largely unremarkable shorter tracks on ‘2112’, ‘A Farewell To Kings’ finally gets everything right. The long songs are a bit shorter this time around, though there are still two that pass the 10 minute mark, which causes the band to sound a tad more focused than before. Where in the past, the band’s amazing performances pushed some of the less remarkable passages over the edge, ‘A Farewell To Kings’ is tight and powerful all the way through.

On the shorter side of the spectrum, ‘Closer To The Heart’ is probably the first truly radio-friendly song the band ever recorded. It is done on their own terms, however. Built upon twelve string acoustic strumming by Alex Lifeson and containing several changes in dynamics, it is barely believable that the track is under three minutes long. So is ‘Madrigal’, which is more folky in approach and brings to mind ‘A Trick Of The Tail’ era Genesis. ‘Cinderella Man’ is a more typical Rush song somewhat in line with ‘Lakeside Park’ from ‘Caress Of Steel’.

The powerful opening track is the middle ground on ‘A Farewell To Kings’. It is not as concise as the aforementioned songs, but it also is not a big, sweeping epic. There are some powerful riffs in the track and some of Geddy Lee’s most impressive vocal work to date: it’s still high-pitched, but full of passion. One of my favorite Rush songs. The same can be said about the following ‘Xanadu’, which tells the tale of an immortal man descending into madness both musically and lyrically in a highly dynamic 11-minute track. The other long song, closer ‘Cygnus X-1’, is slightly more fragmented, but such a masterpiece of progrock musicianship and massive riffs, that it is easy to forgive the band.

In hindsight, ‘A Farewell To Kings’ can be seen as a transitional effort between Rush’s more proggy early days and their more accessible work that started with ‘Permanent Waves’. But of course, it is not that black and white, if only because ‘Hemispheres’ was released in the intervening years. I do have the feeling that it often gets overlooked due to being sandwiched between ‘2112’ and ‘Hemispheres’, both of which have huge, sprawling epics, but in fact, it is my favorite Rush album. Sadly, Neil Peart’s death three weeks ago means that they will never top it.

Recommended tracks: ‘A Farewell To Kings’, ‘Xanadu’, ‘Cygnus X-1’

Interview Ningen Isu: “We want to play outside Japan more often”


Ningen Isu has been doing well lately. International recognition for the trio from Aomori, Japan has increased significantly. In late Febuary, the band will even come to Europe for the first time, performing two shows in Germany and one in England. Meanwhile, the band’s debut album celebrates its thirtieth anniverary this year. These are the perfect circumstances to talk to singer/guitarist Shinji Wajima, with contributions from singer/bassist Kenichi Suzuki and singer/drummer Nobu Nakajima.

The international attention Ningen Isu has gotten has not remained unnoticed. Recently, the band added English captions to many of their YouTube videos. Not much later, the first European concerts are a fact. “We realized we were a very Japanese band for overseas audiences“, Wajima states. “Since we sing in Japanese exclusively, have traditional Japanese elements in our sound and our visual approach is quite Japanese as well. We have always hoped for recognition overseas, however.

Our next goal was to perform overseas. Since the reactions to the ‘Mujo No Scat’ video were so positive, we were finally able to get acquainted with an overseas coordinator. When we appeared at Ozzfest Japan in 2013 and 2015, we already had the idea that our recognition abroad would incease. Recently, we noticed that the number of foreigners who listened to our music online increased as well. That is why we added the English translations to YouTube as well. We have been busier than ever lately.

New youth

Not unimportant is the quality of Ningen Isu’s recently released twenty-first album ‘Shin Seinen’. The title translates to “new youth” and that is exactly how the band sounds on the album. “This album marks our thirtieth anniversary and we needed a title that clearly represents the image of the band“, Wajima explains. “Our band name Ningen Isu (‘The Human Chair’) is the title of a story by Edogawa Ranpo. Ranpo debuted in a magazine called ‘Shin Seinen’. We got a lot of ideas from that particular story (‘Ni-Sen Doka’ or ‘The Two-Sen Copper Coin’). For an anniversary album, I think this was the only possible title. In other words: we still had the same feelings as when we made our debut album. And we wanted to continue making weird songs like the story Ranpo wrote for ‘Shin Seinen’.

Lyrics are an important part of Ningen Isu songs. “Lyrcis bring the song to life“, says Wajima. “Just the music makes the song an empty shell. The lyrics create meaning to what was once meaningless. The vocal melody of the song is also quite important. Silence can be essential as well. I think Japanese people are good at expressing loneliness and silence, so I consciously try to incorporate them in our music.

Teenager

A remarkable feature in Ningen Isu’s music is the interaction between the traditional-sounding Japanese lyrics and the highly British-sounding hardrock sound of the trio. “When I was a young boy, there was a lot of rock music on the radio and in the record stores“, Wajima says. “Most boys and girls listened to Japanese pop, but there were a few kids who thought rock was the coolest music in the world. Suzuki and I were such boys. We became classmates in high school and we formed a band. When I play with Suzuki today, I still get the fresh feeling I had as a teenager.

Our concept from the very beginning was to put Japanese lyrics to the seventies British hardrock sound that we liked.  There our some Japanese artists who inspired us lyrically, mostly folk singers, but our sound is almost entirely influenced by western hardrock. Also, we decided to make our stage clothing Japanese instead of the so-called heavy metal, which I thought was not suitable for us physically. These ideas have basically been unchanged from the very beginning.

Unusual

The traditional Japanese clothing has become a trademark of the band. “That is all part of the band’s concept“, Wajima confirms. “I chose to wear the most traditional and common kimono. But of course, in today’s Japan, people don’t wear kimonos in their daily lives, so it still looks very unusual.” Suzuki can be brief about his stage appearance: “An evil monk. A monstrous monk.

“I’m wearing a Koikuchi shirt and dobo pants as they were worn by Japanese carpenters during Japanese festivals“, Nakajima explains. “By wearing a design that is exclusively Japanese, I imagine a stylish man you would encounter at such festivals. And a Regent haircut with appropriate sunglasses are simply my favorite style.

Appreciation

Impressively, Ningen Isu’s line-up has changed very little in the last thirty years. Wajima and Suzuki have even been there since the very beginning. “Suzuki and I know each other very will“, Wajima nods. “Nobu joined us about 15 years ago. He was almost the same age at us and listened to similar music. At one time, all three of us even lived in the same neighborhood. In other words, the three personalities are different, but our roots are the same. By playing in a band together, we can feel like our youth continutes all the time.

It has not always been easy, however. Hailing from the relatively remote prefecture of Aomori, it wasn’t always easy to find a connection with the rest of the Japanese music industry. “Aomori is one of Japan’s most rural areas“, says Wajima. “We never tried to hide the fact that we are from there. In fact, we actively incorporated it into our music. I think that’s what causes the nostalgic feeling of old Japan in our songs. That gave us a very strong, unique personality, but that didn’t mean our albums sold explosively.

The hardest time was from the late nineties to around 2010. Mostly from an economic viewpoint. Album sales were really poor for about a decade, so we needed to work part-time jobs. On the other hand, that helped us appreciate the appreciation from our fans and the joy of making music even more.

Method

All three members of Ningen Isu sing. Wajima states the explanation for this is quite simple: “Whoever comes up with the main idea of the song will sing it. Since every song comes from the heart of the composer, the most natural choice is to have them sing it as well. Every band member comes up with ideas for songs. Usually, Suzuki and I are in charge of that.

Generally, the music comes first. But I also write songs with a certain image in mind. For example, I will write a song after I decided a certain Lovecraft novel will be the theme of the song. This helps me build a song from a certain feeling. Rather than riffs alone, I often bring a simple flow of a composition. Suzuki’s technique is to always carefully select his riffs, so the starting point of the song is a bunch of cool riffs.

Whoever writes the songs, our method is usually the same. As soon as the composition is done, we add a melody to it and after that, we add lyrics that match the notes.

Satisfied

I really like Gibson SG’s“, Wajima says. “The sound of those guitars is really nice, with a slight lack of high and low and its focus on the attack. I think it sounds very emotional, close to how the human voice sounds. My main guitars are a 1993 Gibson SG Standard for songs in standard tuning and a 2012 Gibson SG Standard for downtuned songs. Other guitars I often use live and on stage include a double neck Gibson EDS-1275 and a Martin D-28 acoustic guitar. My amplifiers are a Marshall 1987 head and a Marshall 1960TV cabinet. In addition, I use combinations of effects that I made myself to create my sounds.

For most Japanese bands, travelling abroad greatly limits the equipment you can bring along. “Aside from my instruments, all I really need is a Marshall amplifier“, Wajima states. “Preferably a 1987, a 1959 or a JCM-800.” The rest of the band is similarly undemanding. “I have no particular requests“, says Suzuki. “As long as I can use a microphone in front of my amplifier rather than a DI.” Nakajima is similarly relaxed about it: “I would be satisfied with any simple drum set. I would be happy if it had two seperate bass drums though.

Newcomers

And now, Ningen Isu will come to Europe for the first time since their 1987 genesis. “It was a matter of timing“, Wajima says. “We didn’t just want to perform abroad for one show. Our aim is to continue to perform overseas more often. We realize that we are newcomers there. This is will be our first time in Europe, so we want to play the best shows we possibly can. We will carefully select the songs we will play and perform those as well as possible. And since our musical roots are in western rock, I want to honor those roots with gratitude.

If you like hardrock from the seventies, we would like you to come to our shows“, Suzuki adds. “But I also hope you will enjoy our Japanese sounds. We promise you an experience like you never had before.

Almost all Ningen Isu albums are available on Spotify and iTunes. We asked the band which they consider the best work for newcomer to check out. “In mid-December, our new compilation ‘Ningen Isu Meisaku Sen Sanju Shunen Kinen Best Ban’ will be released“, says Wajima. “We hope all our overseas fans will listen to that. The CD booklet will contain English translations of the lyrics. Also, our latest original album ‘Shin Seinen’, of course. I think we succeeded at capturing the youthful, dark atmosphere of our debut on that album. ‘Kaidan Soshite Shi To Eros’ (2016) is a solid concept album focused on scary music. And our debut album ‘Ningen Shikkaku’ (1989), as it is a clear indication of what we want to do.

Tour dates: Lido Club, Berlin (Feb. 19), Zeche, Bochum (Feb. 20), Camden Underword, London (Feb. 21)

Originally published in Dutch at The Sushi Times.

Album of the Week 48-2019: Avatarium – The Fire I Long For


For a long time, Avatarium was just another Leif Edling project for me. Avatarium stood out due to the charismatic vocals of Jennie-Ann Smith, but a majority of their material still sounded like Candlemass with female vocals. Smith and her husband, veteran guitarist Marcus Jidell, started contributing to the songwriting on the band’s third album ‘Hurricanes And Halos’. ‘The Fire I Long For’ is the first album with a majority of songs written by Smith and Jidell, which turns out to be a big step forward. The album is less doom metal and more dark rock, but undeniably impressive.

Despite all the changes, the overall sound of Avatarium has not changed all that much on ‘The Fire I Long For’. Sure, it’s less upbeat than ‘Hurricanes And Halos’ and certainly less doomy as a whole, but the main ingredients are similar: thick, fuzzy guitar riffs that are generally relatively slow, an organic seventies feel and Smith’s emotional vocals. Unlike many female rock singers, Smith skillfully avoids the pitfalls of oversinging. Likewise, Jidell is perfectly capable of playing neoclassical speed exercises, but instead focuses on bluesy soul. Lars Sköld is one of the most serviceable drummers in heavy rock as well.

Atmosphere is an important part of what makes ‘The Fire I Long For’ the great album it is. Most of the album has a dark, desperate atmosphere, the only true exception being the excellent uptempo rocker ‘Shake That Demon’. First single ‘Rubicon’ has a somewhat hopeful vibe as well. It is a nice slower midtempo rocker with great melodies and an excellent guitar and Hammond arrangement. Truth be told, that track was what made me check out the album at all. The band also made a wise choice easing anyone who already loved the band into their new sound by opening with the relatively doomy ‘Voices’.

What may be most impressive about ‘The Fire I Long For’ is how it explores all the possibilities of Avatarium’s sound without ever sounding like a disjointed mess. The title track and closer ‘Stars They Move’ are heartfelt ballads, the latter being particularly low-key, ‘Great Beyond’ is a climactic, atmospheric monster of a track, while ‘Porcelain Skull’ and particularly ‘Epitaph Of Heroes’ are the doomiest tracks on the album. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Edling wrote those doomsters. The most pleasant surprise is ‘Lay Me Down’, which feels like Nick Cave exploring southern blues and has a mindblowing vocal arrangement. Truly a work of art.

‘The Fire I Long For’ impresses me much more than I expected it would. Jidell and Smith writing most of the songs apparently is exactly what the band needed to develop their own dark and moody rock sound. The band’s influences are quite obvious: Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and The Doors’ darker material – the Uriah Heep-isms of ‘Hurricanes And Halos’ only linger in the background – and yet, Avatarium sounds fresh and unique here. It helps that Smith is not another Janis Joplin clone, but there is a sincerity to the music on ‘The Fire I Long For’ that many contemporary bands lack.

Recommended tracks: ‘Rubicon’, ‘Lay Me Down’, ‘Great Beyond’, ‘Stars They Move’

Album of the Week 43-2019: Ningen Isu – Ogon No Yoake


‘Ogon No Yoake’ is the album on which Ningen Isu matured. That may be a dirty word for some rock bands, but Ningen Isu finally realizes its full potential here. Their debut EP and first two albums contained plenty of excellent songs, but also showed that the band wasn’t quite sure what their strengths were. By contrast, Ningen Isu sounds confident and powerful throughout the full running time of ‘Ogon No Yoake’. It might just still be their best-produced album to date, which helps them sound more professional, while the increased bottom end increases the impact of their riffs and rhythms.

While most Japanese hardrock and metal bands stand out due to spotless songwriting, the musical interaction is what truly elevates Ningen Isu’s songs beyond their compositorical greatness. Ningen Isu is obviously influenced by the heavier end of seventies progressive rock and gladly injects the jam-heavy nature of the likes of Rush into their Sabbathian grooves. Guitarist Shinji Wajima, bassist Kenichi Suzuki and drummer Noriyoshi Kamidate are on fire when they need to be – just listen to the busy rhythms of ‘Wa, Gan De Nebega’ – but also are more than willing to show restraint when the music asks for it.

Ningen Isu is often classified as a doom metal band and while that classification is not unjustified, it fails to properly cover the amount of variation heard on ‘Ogon No Yoake’. There’s short, swift rockers like ‘Dokushaisa Saigo No Yume’ and the relatively accessible ‘Kyofuku No Neji’ and long tracks with extended jams, such as ‘Mugon Denwa’ and ‘Mandragora No Hana’, the latter of which even borrows from Black Sabbath’s namesake song in its middle section. There is even a short acoustic instrumental (‘Subarashiki Nichiyobi’) that works perfectly as a breather right after the middle of the record.

Closing track ‘Kyoku Sanmyaku’ is probably pointed to as the album’s highlight by most of the band’s fans. And for a good reason, as it is a dark, monstrous doom metal track capable of capturing the mood of the Lovecraft story it is based on (‘At The Mountains Of Madness’). It is hardly the only peak on ‘Ogon No Yoake’, however. ‘Shinpan No Hi’ is a surprisingly laid-back and melodic rocker with a thick, driving bottom end and a highly memorable chorus. The opening title track needed some time to make sense to me, but is easily one of the better songs. It builds up slowly, but steadily into a powerful heavy metal epic. I particularly love the semi-gallop underneath Wajima’s guitar solos.

Some hardrock and heavy metal is expertly written, but lifelessly recorded. Ningen Isu’s music always breathes and moves. It is remarkable that the increased focus on streamlining and production on ‘Ogon No Yoake’ has not ironed that out at all. In fact, it made the music all the more powerful and the spirited jams come across even better than on the previous releases. Today, Ningen Isu is still recording fantastic albums. One could even say they entered a new youth, which is what the title of their latest album ‘Shin Seinen’ translates to. Those who don’t know the band would be well off starting with ‘Ogon No Yoake’ or its more compact follow-up ‘Rashomon’ though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ogon No Yoake’, ‘Shinpan No Hi’, ‘Kyoku Sanmyaku’, ‘Kyofuku No Neji’

Album of the Week 47-2018: Navarone – Salvo


Despite working with pretty much the same team as on its predecessor ‘Oscillation’, Navarone’s fourth album ‘Salvo’ is a completely different beast. Instead of releasing another carefully arranged production full of subtle intricacies that slowly reveal themselves over repeated spins, the quintet opts to focus on their live energy. Understandable, because that has certainly been one of the band’s biggest strengths throughout the last decade. The result is a record that may not have as many surprises as ‘Oscillation’ did, but with the set of powerful rock songs the band came up with this time, that should hardly be a problem.

With ‘Salvo’ being the kind of “live in the studio” record that many seventies hardrock bands excelled at, Navarone is more focused stylistically as well. That does not mean that all the songs sound similar – giving every song its own character is a specialty of the band – but it does mean the majority of what you will hear consists of uncomplicated, riff-driven hardrock with strong choruses that are memorable without exception. There aren’t even any ballads. The dark, minimalistic southern blues of ‘Fire’ – one of the album’s most experimental tracks – is probably the thing that comes closest to one.

Occasionally, ‘Salvo’ is reminiscent of the better work that Slash did with Myles Kennedy in recent years. Not just because Merijn van Haren en Kennedy are among the very few excellent rock singers of this era or because of the massive Gibson sound of Kees Lewiszong and Roman Huijbreghs, but also because of the fact that the songwriting has similar sensibilities. ‘The Strong Survive’ has that typical energetic feelgood vibe that the opener on a powerful rock record should have, while the grinding, moore moody ‘Waste’ is one of those deep cuts that could just develop into a classic over time.

Navarone was never about blindly copying their influences though. ‘Another Way’ has a fairly unique approach in its combination of classic and contemporary rock styles, not to mention an awesome build towards its chorus. It’s the one song that would have made sense on ‘Oscillation’ as well. The fairly accessible ‘SøReal’ sounds like a nineties rock radio hit without directly sounding like any of the songs that actually were, while the crushing riff work of ‘Mind’s Eye’ is borderline metallic in nature. Sure, the Black Sabbath kind of metal and the overtones are more contemporary rock than anything esle, but that only contributes to the unique nature of that excellent track.

Most amazing is the fact that Navarone brings all these elements together in a manner that does not sacrifice any of their catchy, recognizable songwriting. ‘Salvo’ has a very pleasant flow, likely more so than any of their other records. Many of the younger rock bands notably try to appeal either to old schoolers or the modern rock crowd. What Navarone proves once again on ‘Salvo’ is that it’s perfectly possible to have a multi-generational appeal if you just write and play the right songs. Highly recommended to anyone who mopes that all contemporary rock is inferior to the classic stuff.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mind’s Eye’, ‘SøReal’, ‘The Strong Survive’, ‘Another Way’

Album of the Week 41-2018: The Tea Party – The Edges Of Twilight


Curiosity about world music is natural for every rock band inspired by Led Zeppelin’s latter days. Very few make the leap of actually learning to play indigenous instruments beyond some rudimentary percussion though. This is exactly what The Tea Party did to further emphasize their – mainly – Indian and North African influences on ‘The Edges Of Twilight’. It takes the idea of incorporating these sounds further than just adding some melodies that vaguely sound like the western idea of Arabic or Indian music. And quite surprisingly, the Canadian trio manages to still sound like a powerful rock band while doing so.

Ever the ambitious band, The Tea Party created a densely layered album, but in a way that can also be played with just three people. The arrangements on ‘The Edges Of Twilight’ are securely anchored within their trio line-up, after which bassist Stuart Chatwood and singer/guitarist Jeff Martin have added touches of traditional instruments. However, the world music is in Martin’s Gibsons almost as much as it is in the indigenous instruments through extensive use of twelve string guitars and Indian and Arabic minor scales. It all accounts for an immersive listening experience that is slightly dark, but never depressive.

Since the band’s earliest shows, they have been accused of copying Led Zeppelin and borrowing a string phrase from ‘Kashmir’ in opening track ‘Fire In The Head’ probably wasn’t very beneficial to dispelling that criticism, but the fact is that there is much more to the song than that. Martin’s deep voice sets the somewhat seductive tone of the tune immediately and the riff work is extremely powerful. Even more powerful is the following ‘The Bazaar’, on which a monumental guitar riff is doubled by Chatwood’s harmonium. The song is relatively simple in construction, but still manages to move through several moods.

Highlighting the album are undoubtedly the epics ‘Sister Awake’ and ‘Walk With Me’. The former starts out as a calm, folky tune, but quickly builds from an exciting percussive middle break to a monster of a dark rocker, while ‘Walk With Me’ manages to combine the gloomy atmosphere of most of the album with a begging, almost bluesy character. ‘Silence’ and ‘Drawing Down The Moon’ have a more traditional bluesy inclination, with the latter having a truly incredible climax. ‘Correspondences’ is a gorgeous, dynamic ballad, while ‘The Badger’, ‘Shadows On The Mountainside’ and ‘Inanna’ are calmer songs that draw on folk influences from all over the world.

Ultimately, my only criticism of this album would be that ‘Turn The Lamp Down Low’ feels a little out of place on the record by being straight blues with added percussion, but the song itself is really good. As a whole, ‘The Edges Of Twilight’ is a very exciting album that takes a lot of interesting turns, despite their only being three guys. Martin and Chatwood should be happy that they can depend on a solid power hitter like Jeff Burrows, but it also helps that all the songs are extremely well-written. As for the accusations of being a Led Zeppelin copy: I’d say they took one idea Zep had and developed it further with spectacular results.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sister Awake’, ‘The Bazaar’, ‘Drawing Down The Moon’, ‘Walk With Me’

Best of 2017: The Albums

After a number of great releases in January, I thought 2017 was going to be an amazing year for rock and metal. In that respect, the year in music had been a little disappointing. There was no consistent stream of good releases, though there were a few clear peaks in the release schedule. Aside from January, March was a small peak release-wise, September a large one, with the last two months of the year having a handful of interesting albums. My top 10 more or less made itself, but I had even more trouble filling the last couple of positions than last year.

Having said that, I was overwhelmed by the number of quality releases from my own country. Being a Dutchman, I am sometimes overly critical of Dutch bands and sometimes unjustly so. Speaking as a music journalist, I would certainly say that 2017 was the year of pleasant surprises from Dutch guitar bands. There were two clear winners for me this year and neither of them is Dutch, but with four Dutch releases in the top ten and seven in the top twenty, I’d say that last year was surprisingly pleasant for a journalist of a couple of Dutch guitar magazines.

1. Firewind – Immortals

Some of the best power metal I have heard in a long, long time. I have always enjoyed Firewind, but the addition of singer extraordinaire Henning Basse to the line-up and Dennis Ward to the production and songwriting team was just the boost that the (largely) Greek power metal band needed. ‘Immortals’ is full off exuberant power metal with anthemic, yet not too cliché-ridden choruses and surprisingly aggressive riffing courtesy of Gus G. The epic feel that the concept about the Battle of Thermopylae requires is prominently present, but never at the expense of the songs, which would not lose any of their power when played “out of context”. Though the Greeks did not win the battle, Firewind did. ‘Immortals’ still makes me grin like an idiot when I play it today.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ode To Leonidas’, ‘Hands Of Time’, ‘Rise From The Ashes’

2. Lovebites – Awakening From Abyss

Lovebites was the only serious competition for Firewind this year. I was ready to dismiss the quintet as another hyped-up girly J-metal band, but both the EP and the album they released this year were jaw-dropping. There’s nothing cutesy about Lovebites: their music has balls. ‘Awakening From Abyss’ is chock-full of high octane riffs, mad lead guitars and excellent heavy metal songwriting. Lovebites combines the best elements of traditional metal and contemporary power metal into a catchy, delicious cocktail with a healthy dash of aggression. Singer Asami, who I had never heard of prior to the EP, is the icing on the cake. Her flexible range and immense power make this an incredible album instead of just a great one.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Hammer Of Wrath’, ‘Shadowmaker’, ‘Liar’

3. Dool – Here Now, There Then

Gloomy, dark, depressive, but always with very distinct melodies. Though ‘Here Now, There Then’ is only Dool’s first album, they already hits all the right buttons. Their immersive sound features equal parts doom metal riffing, psychedelic rock soundscapes and general post-punk nihilism. Listening to Dool is like being surrounded by huge walls of guitars that alternate between weaving intricate patterns and crushing your soul with brutally effective riffs played in unison. Though many bands playing a similar style are marred by subpar vocals, ‘Here Now, There Then’ features some of the best vocal work I have heard Ryanne van Dorst do thus far. She sounds great on her own, but the harmonies are even better. Not for the faint of heart, but an incredible experience.

Recommended tracks: ‘Vantablack’, ‘Oweynagat’, ‘The Alpha’

4. Steve Hackett – The Night Siren

In a way, it is ridiculous that an almost supernaturally talented guitarist like Steve Hackett needs to revisit his Genesis legacy to get the attention he deserves, but if it gives him the means to write and perform a record like ‘The Night Siren’, it has all been worth it. Here, Hackett explores his influences from all over the world and combines them with his own English rock, pop and blues roots. World fusion in the best possible way. The real class of ‘The Night Siren’, however, lies in the fact that Hackett blends these worldwide influences with his own music in a way that does not sound like he is trying to be clever, it just enhances the mood. Again, the atmosphere is immersive and unsurprisingly, Hackett’s playing is nothing short of stellar.

Recommended tracks: ‘Behind The Smoke’, ‘El Niño’, ‘Fifty Miles From The North Pole’

5. Adagio – Life

This was a grower for me. It took some time to do so, but once it did, it was very difficult to stop playing ‘Life’. Adagio really does something new here, which may not be too surprising, since their last album was released more than eight years ago. The tempo is considerably lower and Stéphan Forté’s downtuned rhythm guitars are sometimes reminiscent of the djent-sound, but with Kevin Codfert’s mind-blowing orchestrations and Kelly Sundown Carpenter’s mighty voice, the music has so much more to offer melodically and harmonically. The songwriting is bombastic, complex and melodically strong simultaneously and the record is full of subtleties that reveal themselves over repeated spins. I never was a big Adagio fan, but now I will certainly keep my eye on them.

Recommended tracks: ‘Subrahmanya’, ‘Torn’, ‘Life’

6. Navarone – Oscillation

On the surface, every element that made Navarone’s prior albums so great are in full force on ‘Oscillation’: the great seventies and nineties rock riffs, Merijn van Haren’s massive voice and a rather unpredictable approach to songwriting. Yet, something has changed. The songs are more concise and the band really explores the sonic opportunities of the studio here. And with that comes new possibilities. The surprisingly cinematic ending of ‘Snake’, the contemporary pop sensibilities of ‘Soon I’ll Be Home’ and the progressive splendor of ‘Chrome’ are born from this altered approach. As soon as the initial awkwardness wore off, ‘Oscillation’ turned out to be a very satisfying album by what is arguably Europe’s best rock band at the moment.

Recommended tracks: ‘Days Of Yore’, ‘Chrome’, ‘Soon I’ll Be Home’

7. Jeangu Macrooy – High On You

Before I ever even heard a note of his music, Jeangu Macrooy already impressed me with his moving, powerful voice, which has distinct traces of Bill Withers in it. His music is just about as good. ‘High And You’ is a melting pot of styles which really bring out the best in each other. Large doses of soul, of course, but also pop, jazz, folk and hints of rock and Carribean music. And while many artists who attempt something similar get lost in the maze of their own influences, Macrooy’s warm, almost spiritual voice ties the whole thing together convincingly. What truly helps is that Macrooy’s basic compositions are essentially all excellent pop songs. The profound, yet uplifting ‘Step Into The Water’ would be my choice for the single of the year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Step Into The Water’, ‘Fire Raging’, ‘Head Over Heels’

8. Galneryus – Ultimate Sacrifice

Always highly anticipated: a new Galneryus album. Especially because ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ was announced as a sequel to ‘Under The Force Of Courage’, one of their better records. ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ is a bit more consistent and really finds the band firing on all cylinders. The songwriting leans a tad more towards progressive metal than usual, but not without sacrificing – no pun intended – any of their euphroric, strongly European-tinged power metal sound. One of Galneryus’ best traits has always been their display of virtuosity: it is always there, but not before the song has been clearly outlined. Sure, it is fast and reasonably complex, but ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ is also full of accomplished melodies and it has a remarkable dynamic range for the style.

Recommended tracks: ‘Rising Infuriation’, ‘Heavenly Punishment’, ‘Brutal Spiral Of Emotions’

9. Merry – M-Ology

For years, I have been wanting Merry to make an album like ‘M-Ology’. Not that I did not like their previous albums – ‘Nonsense Market’ is awesome – but the great thing about this one is the fact that the retro feel that made early albums like ‘Modern Garde’ and ‘Peep Show’ so good is finally as prominent as it should be again. Sometimes it feels like a particularly loud jazz band deciding to play a mix of alternative rock, punk, rock ‘n’ roll and traces of metal and blues. I am aware that such description sounds like a mess, but that is where Merry shines: songwriting. All these songs are based around memorable hooks and rhythms that are as energetic as they are danceable. As a result, I did not play anything else for days after ‘M-Ology’ came out.

Recommended tracks: ‘Inugata Shinsei Masochist’, ‘Kasa To Ame’, ‘M-Ology’, ‘Happy Life’

10. Robin Borneman – Folklore II: The Phantom Wail

Navarone made me aware of this great Dutch singer/songwriter. More than half of that band contributed to ‘Folklore II: The Phantom Wail’, but it is still very much Borneman’s record. One that is kind of hard to define, as it sounds cinematic and rootsy at the same time. This is the kind of stuff that takes you on a journey. Just close your eyes and it will come immediately. Sometimes it’s folky blues, but there are also times when it sounds like a spaghetti western contained in a psychedelic rock song, there are hints of country & western… The only true way to describe this is emotional, atmospheric and unpredictable music. No single instrument outshines the bigger picture and the production job is the best I have heard in a long, long time.

Recommended tracks: ‘Woebegone Blues’, ‘O Faithful World’, ‘The Reckoning / Dawn’

11. Galactic Cowboys – Long Way Back To The Moon

If you like heavy metal riffs and vocal harmonies reminiscent of The Beatles simultaneously, King’s X and Galactic Cowboys are basically the only bands you can count on. However, the former’s last studio album is almost a decade old and the latter broke up around the turn of the century. Fortunately, they are back and their new album is their best since their incredible debut. On the surface, Galactic Cowboys may be focusing on their heavy side here, but really, every part of their charm can be heard here. The harmonies, of course, but also their cross-genre approach, their loose jam feel and their ability to let the music breathe when it needs to. To show their fans that they are serious about rekindling their fire, the album even starts with Galactic Cowboys’ oldest song.

Recommended tracks: ‘Amisarewas’, ‘Drama’, ‘In The Clouds’

12. Labÿrinth – Architecture Of A God

When ‘Architecture Of A God’ was just released, I was sure it was going to make my top five. It is, after all, the Italians’ best record since career highlight ‘Return To Heaven Denied’ and almost every song on here is pure gold. Singer Roberto Tiranti is in top shape and as such, he is the perfect fit for the progressive, yet romantic power metal of the sextet. At times, new keyboard player Oleg Smirnoff even pushes the band to different terrain sonically with his unconventional keyboard sounds. And then there are Olaf Thörsen and Andrea Cantarelli, providing all the dreamy melodies and shimmering acoustic guitars you could wish for. It drags a little near the end, but with some of its fat trimmed, ‘Architecture Of A God’ would have definitely made the top five.

Recommended tracks: ‘Still Alive’, ‘A New Dream’, ‘Someone Says’, ‘Diamond’

13. Drive Like Maria – Creator Preserver Destroyer

‘Sonny’ alone is enough reason to get ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’. Seriously, that little mix of melancholic melodies and poppy rock sensibilities is one of the best songs on an album released this year. The rest of the album is equally strong though. ‘Creator Preserver Destroyer’ does sound a little different than Drive Like Maria’s earlier albums, as the beautifully soulful, but not too loud vocals of Bjorn Awouters suddenly get all the room they need to excel. Underneath them, there is enough variation to make this material, which was originally released as three EP’s, interesting for an entire album. Sexy grooves, extended seventies rock jams, monolithic stoner riffs and the occasional ballad… Whatever you need, you will probably find it here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sonny’, ‘Tiny Terror’, ‘Keeps Me Going’

14. For All We Know – Take Me Home

Within Temptation guitarist Ruud Jolie released an incredible solo album under the For All We Know moniker in 2011. That album was full of atmospheric, surprisingly emotional progressive rock and I am very glad that he got the whole band that recorded the debut back together. Especially the partnership between Jolie and singer Wudstik is pure magic. Together, they create complex, richly layered songs that are accessible at the same time. This concept is taken to the extreme on ‘Take Me Home’; the poppy aspects are catchier, the ballads are softer, the heavy riffs are heavier and the complexity is turned up at strategic moments as well. Listening to For All We Know is truly an immersive experience and though it is a pity we had to wait for it for over six years, it is a great thing that Jolie had the time to write, record and release yet another great record.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Big Wheel’, ‘They’ll Win’, ‘Fade Away’

15. Mastodon – Emperor Of Sand

Mastodon is quite likely the only modern metal band I am consistently interested in. Their sludgy guitar sound is offset by Brann Dailor’s busy rhythms and the overall progressive songwriting. Those who thought the band took its melodicism too far on recent albums will be in for a treat. Though ‘Emperor Of Sand’ still contains its fair share of highly melodic choruses, the riff work and the lead guitar sections are more complex than they have been for a long time. The record is full of triumphant guitar harmonies and the three lead singers (Dailor, guitarist Brent Hinds and bassist Troy Sanders) work together better than ever. On ‘Emperor Of Sand’, Mastodon proves that there is such a thing as a metal band aging gracefully without becoming a caricature of itself.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ancient Kingdom’, ‘Jaguar God’, ‘Steambreather’

16. Sven Hammond – Rapture

Notably less polished than their other recent efforts, but no less enjoyable. ‘Rapture’ finds Sven Hammond returning to the raw, almost garage-y soul sound of their earliest records – if those three instrumentals are no nod to Booker T and the M.G.’s, I don’t know what is – but this time, they combine that with their knack for writing accessible songs, as showcased on their previous records. ‘Rapture’ feels like a groovy late night jam session, during which the presence of Sven Hammond’s amazing singer Ivan Peroti requires some sense of structure. The rhythms are driving, Sven Figee’s Hammond organ is nice and dirty and Tim Eijmaal’s guitar alternates between bouncy riffs and subtle coloring. This sounds way more American than a Dutch band has any right to sound.

Recommended tracks: ‘Choosy Lover’, ‘A Right Pickle’, ‘Lazarus’

17. The Magpie Salute – The Magpie Salute

Sad as it is that The Black Crowes are no longer around, The Magpie Salute really is the next best thing. Sure, there is only one original song on this album – I’ve been told an album full of original material is coming in the new year – but what really makes this album is the musical interaction. It is more than obvious that every musician involved has a maximum of respect for the other musicians and the songs they are playing. Jam rock bands have a tendency to stick to the same groove for too long, but every second on The Magpie Salute’s self-titled debut album made me hungry for more music. The album is full of exciting musicianship and the lack of a truly charismatic lead singer like Chris Robinson is cleverly compensated for by harmonies.

Recommended tracks: ‘War Drums’, ‘Omission’, ‘Goin’ Down South’

18. Septicflesh – Codex Omega

If there is death metal in my list, it has to be something special. And it is. Septicflesh has always attracted my attention due to their sophisticated orchestrations, but their songs never appealed to me quite as much as on ‘Codex Omega’. This time around, the orchestra does not just add power to the songs, the songs themselves are already powerful, allowing the orchestra to take them to their logical extremes. There is also a lot of toying around with rhythms, which can probably be attributed to the arrival of new drummer Kerim ‘Krimh’ Lechner, whose rhythms try to find their strength in unconventional accents rather than complexity. Jens Bogren’s immense production job is incredible. Hell, I don’t even mind Seth Siro Anton’s grunts. They enhance the atmosphere.

Recommended tracks: ‘3rd Testament (Codex Omega)’, ‘Trinity’, ‘Dante’s Inferno’

19. Cloven Hoof – Who Mourns For The Mourning Star?

It would be easy to dismiss Cloven Hoof as a mere shadow of its former self on account of the ridiculous number of lineup changes they have had to endure in recent years. But ‘Who Mourns For The Mourning Star?’ is such a euphoric, energetic slab of traditional heavy metal that it is easy to forget all of that. A mix between US Power Metal and the NWOBHM scene they are often associated with, the album is treat for old schoolers. And as many credits as bassist Lee Payne deserves for writing these incredible songs, it is really singer George Call – also known as “gruff Bruce Dickinson” in my circles – who pushes these songs beyond how good they would have been otherwise. New material from an old band that does not sound like a weak rehash. Refreshing!

Recommended tracks: ‘Star Rider’, ‘Time To Burn’, ‘I Talk To The Dead’

20. Black Country Communion – BCC IV

Glenn Hughes, never a poster child for subtlety, was very bitter about Joe Bonamassa walking out of Black Country Communion. So it was all the more surprising that they recorded a comeback album together. And that it was good. Not as memorable as their first two albums, but with a songwriter as strong as Hughes, there are bound to be some winners. Most of it is pure classic rock gold, but there are some folky, bluesy and surprisingly poppy moments as well. Of course, with four musicians this good – and most of them experienced in session work – the interaction is simply excellent. As a result, the longer songs work best. I am not as big a fan of Bonamassa as most people seem to be, but in this context, his playing just works. And Hughes’ voice defies physics.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Cove’, ‘Wanderlust’, ‘Awake’