Posts Tagged ‘ end-of-year list ’

Best of 2018: The Albums

In terms of music releases, 2018 was one of the strangest years in recent history. Save for a few notable peaks – in June and September most notably – there have not really been extended periods with lots of great releases. In fact, some of the trusted names have released quite disappointing albums. Record companies seem to slowly shift their focus towards reissues and live releases, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I would have been happy if there was some more previously unheard material that blew me away during the year.

Nevertheless, there were two amazing albums this year that make an equal claim to the number one spot, both of them Japanese. In the end, I literally flipped a coin to decide the order of the first two records. Not unlike other recent years, many of the western artists in the lists are either relatively new bands that took me by considerable surprise or long-running bands that suddenly released a career highlight. That should be enough to still remain hopeful about the future of international heavy metal.

1. Onmyo-za – Hado Myoo

Despite all of Onmyo-za’s albums being of excellent quality, nothing could have prepared me for ‘Hado Myoo’. The album was darker and heavier than anyone could have expected – especially after the relatively lightweight single ‘Oka Ninpocho’ – but it still features the trademark melodic elegance that Onmyo-za is known for. During the album’s best moments, the contrast between Matatabi’s forceful sections and Kuroneko’s melancholic introspection really brings out the best of all sides of the band. Onmyo-za is one of the very few contemporary metal bands that scores 10/10 on riffs, melodies, structure, memorability and vocals simultaneously and ‘Hado Myoo’ is one of the brightest examples of that.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shimobe’, ‘Hao’, ‘Haja No Fuin’

2. Saber Tiger – Obscure Diversity

Since around 2011, Saber Tiger has truly been on a roll. Their current line-up is probably the strongest they have ever had and their song material is nothing short of excellence, combining the powerful melodies and overall feel of eighties heavy metal with the impressive intricacy of contemporary progressive metal. With these elements, Saber Tiger has crafted a sound that is completely unique and ‘Obscure Diversity’ expands on that by being more complex and more accessible at the same time. There’s a perfect balance between aggression, musical craftsmanship and memorability on the album. While many modern metal albums sound clinical and soulless, Saber Tiger retains the passion that is so important to the genre.

Recommended tracks: ‘Distant Signals’, ‘Beat Of The War Drums’, ‘The Worst Enemy’

3. Witherfall – A Prelude To Sorrow

Despite being familiar with Jake Dreyer through Iced Earth and White Wizzard, his own band Witherfall really blew me away from out of nowhere. ‘A Prelude To Sorrow’ was the most pleasant surprise of the year. Dark, but not self-pitying. Complex, but not impenetrable. Melodic, but not powerless. Witherfall does just about everything right here. Joseph Michael’s vocal performance is the cherry on the cake. He has the subtle rasp of a young Halford, the drama of Bruce Dickinson and a higher register eerily similar to Crimson Glory’s Midnight. There’s so much to this album that I can see myself listening to it for many years to come. In a way, Witherfall fills the void left after the definitive end of Nevermore with their expertly composed, dark progressive metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘We Are Nothing’, ‘Moment Of Silence’, ‘Vintage’

4. The Magpie Salute – High Water I

Although The Black Crowes have always impressed me with their engaging combination of typically American music styles, the country influences got a little too prominent on their last few albums for my taste. Apparently guitarist and main songwriter Rich Robinson also thought so, because while the rootsy sounds are still there on ‘High Water I’, the debut studio album of his new band The Magpie Salute, the songs are mainly rooted in bluesy hardrock, while the acoustic songs are more folky in nature. Singer John Hogg is a revelation. His passionate voice is what really lifts the album above the level of its already impressive songwriting. The melodies and atmospheres are captivating. At this point, I honestly hope the rise of The Magpie Salute will not be stopped by a Crowes reunion.

Recommended tracks: ‘High Water’, ‘Open Up’, ‘For The Wind’

5. Warrel Dane – Shadow Work

Sure, Warrel Dane was in my top three favorite metal singers of all time, so it should not be too surprising that ‘Shadow Work’ is so good. But given the fact that he died during the recordings, it is remarkable how accomplished and well-arranged it sounds. It is essentially an unfinished record, but hardly does it ever sound like one. There’s a few moments where Warrel’s vocal lines are a little rough around the edges, but they give the album character rather than being distracting. The songs sound really good; they mainly display an even darker take on Nevermore’s formula. And one can hear that this has become a true labor of love for Dane’s Brazilian backing band. They play their hearts out below what is unfortunately Dane’s final farewell. It is a powerful one though!

Recommended tracks: ‘Madame Satan’, ‘Shadow Work’, ‘Mother Is The Word For God’

6. Voivod – The Wake

For years, the late Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour was deemed irreplacable. Martyr’s Daniel ‘Chewy’ Mongrain proved that nothing is impossible on the fantastic ‘Target Earth’ (2013) and now, ‘The Wake’ proves that was not just a fluke. The album steers slightly away from the technical thrash of ‘Killing Technology’ (1987) and more towards the futuristic, surprisingly relaxed progressive metal of ‘Nothingface’ (1989). ‘The Wake’ is an adventurous record that is likely to please any fan of mid-period Voivod, but is not simply copying the formula of those years. The songwriting on the album is simply too inventive and spontaneous for that. Many sections on the album even sound like improvised jams, which is highly unusual for a metal band. Then again, highly unusual is Voivod’s bread and butter!

Recommended tracks: ‘Always Moving’, ‘Sonic Mycelium’, ‘Spherical Perspective’

7. Asagi – Madara

While D is easily one of the better bands in the visual kei scene, I was not too sure if a solo album of their frontman Asagi was what I was waiting for. It turns out that he took the elements from what I consider D’s best songs – the ones that are more Asian folk-oriented – and turned that into the style for his full album. On a majority of the album, traditional instruments like the shamisen, the koto and several percussion instruments are enhanced by the distorted guitars rather than the overused other way around, resulting in an album that may be even better than D’s already consistently great discography. In addition, it is admirable how Asagi managed to make ‘Madara’ sound like a uniformous album despite the numerous contributions of high profile guest musicians.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hakumenkonmo Kyubi No Kitsune Hidama’, ‘Komo Sakura’, ‘Ooyama Inudake ~Tsukuyo Ni Hoeyu~’

8. Aria – Proklyatiye Morey

‘Gonka Za Slavoy’ is the single greatest song released last year. The rest of ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is really good as well. In fact, ever since current (and best) singer Mikhail Zhitnyakov joined the band, Aria has been experiencing a bit of a rebirth. ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is the third installment in a series of studio albums that is easily their best since their late eighties and early nineties heyday. In fact, ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ even finds the band branching out by treading their most progressive waters yet. Unlike some of the recent albums of their prime influence Iron Maiden, Aria manages to sound fresh and energetic throughout the album, however. The short, punchy songs are as good as the longer, proggy ones. If highly melodic old school heavy metal is your thing, ‘Proklyatiye Morey’ is an album you cannot afford to miss.

Recommended tracks: ‘Gonka Za Slavoy’, ‘Ot Zakata Do Rassveta’, ‘Zhivoy’, ‘Era Lucifera’

9. Angra – Ømni

Angra continues to release amazing records. And in true Angra fashion, ‘Ømni’ is different than anything they have ever done before. It is probably the album with the most pronounced Afro-Brazilian influences since their classic ‘Holy Land’ album. The best aspect about ‘Ømni’ is its versatility though. It is a progressive metal album with many different shades and faces. In fact, this is one of the few albums where I think “world metal” is a pretty good genre tag for it. Power metal is slightly less prominent than on ‘Secret Garden’ (2015), but that is hardly an issue here. Also, it is admirable how little of a difference the loss of long-time guitarist Kiko Loureiro makes. Marcelo Barbosa is an excellent replacement. I am fairly confident about Angra’s future at this point.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ømni – Silence Inside’, ‘Bottom Of My Soul’, ‘War Horns’

10. Alice In Chains – Rainier Fog

‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ (2013) made me fear that Alice In Chains had gotten too comfortable with its own sound, but fortunately, ‘Rainier Fog’ proved me wrong. Sure, the twisted anguish of ‘Dirt’ (1992) has gone, although traces of it can still be heard occasionally. Naturally, the elements that make Alice In Chains the band people know and love are featured prominently on ‘Rainier Fog’. The dual lead vocal harmonies, the crushingly heavy riffs, the haunting minor key melodies and the melancholic ballads are all there. There is just a more spontaneous “let’s throw this against the wall and see if it sticks” vibe than before. Ultimately, what makes ‘Rainier Fog’ an above average Alice In Chains album is that the album contains some of the most memorable songs the Seattleites have written in a long time.

Recommended tracks: ‘All I Am’, ‘Rainier Fog’, ‘Deaf Ears Blind Eyes’, ‘Red Giant’

11. Myles Kennedy – Year Of The Tiger

Easily the greatest rock singer of his generation, the sound of Myles Kennedy’s solo album was surprising, to say the least. ‘Year Of The Tiger’ is an album rooted in acoustic guitars, but not in the pretentious singer-songwriter way of most rock singers. Instead, a large portion of the album has been written on resonator guitars, adding a sort of a country blues flavor to many of the songs. Of course, there is still the folky stuff such an acoustic approach tends to result in, but there is even some more powerful stuff here that would have been hardrock if the instrumentation had been different. The interaction between acoustic and electric instruments accounts for an album that is much more dynamic than one would expect. One of the surprise winners of 2018.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Great Beyond’, ‘Nothing But A Name’, ‘Blind Faith’

12. Amorphis – Queen Of Time

Without wanting to sound too petty in my clean vocal fundamentalism, ‘Queen Of Time’ may have been higher on my list if it didn’t feature so much grunting from Tomi Joutsen. Musically, ‘Queen Of Time’ is probably the most interesting, layered album Amorphis has released so far. The songs aren’t radically different from what they did before, but the songs are significantly enhanced by the use of several traditional instruments, which gives the songs a depth beyond the quality we have come to expect from the Finns. Some of the choruses just beg for Joutsen’s excellent clean vocals and get his – admittedly good – grunts instead. If that does not bother you, you could do a lot worse than the equally progressive and melodic as heavy and brutal stuff on ‘Queen Of Time’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Daughter Of Hate’, ‘Heart Of The Giant’, ‘The Golden Elk’

13. Lovebites – Clockwork Immortality

‘Awakening From Abyss’ was one of the two albums in last year’s coin toss. ‘Clockwork Immortality’ did not impress me quite as much upon first spin. After some time, the album sunk in though. I still think it lacks something the debut did have, but there are too many good songs on the album to dismiss it easily. Overall, ‘Clockwork Immortality’ is slightly more streamlined than the previous Lovebites releases, but there is still an abundance of excellent guitar work by Midori and Miyako and singer Asami is still one of the best female rock singers in Japan. After some spins, my idea is that better sequencing could have improved ‘Clockwork Immortality’, but that doesn’t take away the fact that there are some excellent power metal and hardrock songs on the record.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Final Collision’, ‘Addicted’, ‘M.D.O.’, ‘Pledge Of The Savior’

14. Navarone – Salvo

After the carefully arranged ‘Oscillation’, ‘Salvo’ finds Navarone aiming for the live energy that made them so good in the first place again. Stylistically, ‘Salvo’ combines some of the best rock music from the seventies and nineties, ending up sounding not too dissimilar to what Slash does with Myles Kennedy. Fresh, punchy songs with catchy choruses that don’t overstay their respective welcomes are all over ‘Salvo’. As always, the album proves that Navarone excels in writing smartly arranged rock songs that don’t sound like they have been labored over and the fantastic voice of Merijn van Haren ties it all together. Anyone who has once said that rock music is not what it used to be should certainly give ‘Salvo’ a spin. Unless you don’t like to be proven wrong of course.

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

15. White Wizzard – Infernal Overdrive

Another one of those albums I was not expecting to like so much. To me, White Wizzard was always one of those retro bands that rightfully had to settle for opening act status. Occasionally fun, but ultimately lacking in the songwriting department. ‘Infernal Overdrive’ prove me wrong. Gone are the days of blindly aping influences – though closing track ‘The Illusion’s Tears’ has its moments – and in its place, we have a bunch of excellent contemporary heavy metal songs with some delicious guitar work. Even singer Wyatt Anderson has improved significantly. Most of the longer songs feature a ton of engaging stuff as well. I had hoped for this to be the start of a bright future, but unfortunately, White Wizzard called it quits a few months after the album’s release.

Recommended tracks: ‘Metamorphosis’, ‘Pretty May’, ‘Chasing Dragons’


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’

Best of 2016: The Albums

No album of the week this week, because new year’s day is coincidentally on a Sunday. Also, I suspect you might be tired of my ramblings after reading all of this. When talking about 2016 in music, people tend to focus too much on the popular musicians that have died and as a result, call it a bad year. And sure, I have been a big fan of Prince for ages, but let’s keep in mind that most of the great musicians from the sixties, seventies and eighties aren’t getting any younger, so there’s a chance worse years are ahead in that matter.

When focusing on the actual music that has been released, I would say 2016 has been the year of heavily overrated western releases. Metallica released a record with a couple of good songs and one great one (‘Spit Out The Bone’, while two minutes too long, is amazing), Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is definitely not better than ‘I Am… Sasha Fierce’ and I feel that a lot of records by deceased musicians have done better simply because of their deaths. There will be one of those in the list though. With all this in mind, you probably won’t be surprised that my number one is not from Europe or North America and still very much alive.

1. Myrath – Legacy

With ‘Legacy’, the English translation of their band name, Myrath is finally showing its full potential, which in all honesty I thought they were already showing on ‘Tales Of The Sands’ five years earlier. The basic progressive power metal sound of their previous albums is still there, as are the beautiful string arrangements that are heavily inspired by the mal’uf music of ther native Tunisia, but the songs are more streamlined and melodic Zaher Zorgati’s voice -which was already amazing – has made tremendous progress. Every song has a strong identity of its own and yet, the record has a very nice flow. That sounds like everything about the album is very close to perfect and honestly, that describes my feelingsa bout this one perfectly; ‘Legacy’ is a masterpiece of fine songwriting and excellent musicianship and therefore, my album of the year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Nobody’s Lives’, ‘Through Your Eyes’, ‘Get Your Freedom Back’

2. The Answer – Solas

After their amazing ‘Revival’ album in 2011, I sort of lost track of The Answer. The following albums were good, but missing the magic of ‘Revival’. The Northern Irish band must have realized that as well, because they have radically changed direction on this monumental record. The bigger emphasis on the band’s Celtic roots is often highlighted in reviews and while that is true, the albums as a whole is an exciting, atmospheric rock record with very diverse influences. Interestingly, it takes until the eighth track ‘Left Me Standing’ until you get something resmbling a “typical” The Answer song. The Led Zeppelin influence is still there, but think ‘Houses Of The Holy’ and ‘Physical Graffiti’ instead of the first two records this time around. The band has seriously outdone itself on this record and every fan of good rock music should have this one in his collection.

Recommended tracks: ‘Beautiful World’, ‘Solas’, ‘Untrue Colour’

3. Gargoyle – Taburakashi

Vicious as ever? No. More vicious than ever! Honestly, I don’t know where the members of Gargoyle – the youngest of which is in his mid-forties – get this unbridled, hungry energy from, but it has resulted in yet another mindblowing record – their third in this decade alone. It does seem like they’re exploring the extremes of their sound more and more; the hyper-aggressive thrash metal riffing starts this album with what is probably the most intense succession of five tracks ever on a Gargoyle record, but Kentaro’s classy guitar melodies – often dual harmonies – give the band a classic heavy metal or even power metal edge. Of course, with this being Gargoyle, there’s some crazy experimentation going on during the second half of the record, but it all stays pretty heavy. Gargoyle is about to hit their 30th anniversary this year and it sounds like there’s no slowing them down.

Recommended tracks: ‘Crumbling Roar’, ‘Ichi’, ‘Yaban Kairo’

4. Saber Tiger – Bystander Effect

Though released as a Tower Records exclusive in late 2015, Saber Tiger’s new record was released publicly this year and it’s almost as good as their recent masterpiece ‘Decisive’. Their perfect blend of classic heavy metal melodicism and contemporary progressive influences makes them more relevant than ever and that in itself is an impressive feat for a band that’s been around since the early eighties. The direction on ‘Bystander Effect’ is slightly more melodic than on the previous record and that makes the songs highly memorable. But fear not: all the rhythmic intensity and guitar solo euphoria is still there and Takenori Shimoyama’s raw, passionate vocal work is the icing on the cake. ‘Bystander Effect’ is proof that dwelling on nostalgia isn’t necessary as an eighties metal band; if your songwriting and musicianship is as good as it is here, there’s no need to do so.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sin Eater’, ‘RinNe’, ‘What I Used To Be’

5. Yossi Sassi Band – Roots And Roads

Since Yossi Sassi left Orphaned Land, he suddenly could use his heavy material alongside his more world fusion oriented stuff in his own solo band. As a result, ‘Roots And Roads’ is heavier and contains more lead vocals than the two albums that preceded it. That doesn’t mean Sassi has gone full oriental metal on this album though. In fact, it just means that his brand of world fusion – the term he has chosen himself is oriental rock – has gotten broader. And that’s really what Sassi’s music is about: exploring different styles from different regions and simply denying the fact that boundaries exist. In the hands of more pretentious musicians, the result could have become an incoherent mess, but as good as Sassi is on any of the struing instruments he plays here, he is a songwriter first and foremost. This makes ‘Roots And Roads’ both musically interesting and highly listenable.

Recommended tracks: ‘Palm Dance’, ‘Winter’, ‘Root Out’

6. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

Esperanza Spalding is a musician I had been following for a while, because she is a brilliant bassist and she always seemed to have interesting ideas on how to fuse jazz with somewhat more contemporary music. However, nothing could have prepared me for ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’. A fusion masterpiece if there ever was one. But if that gives you the impression that this record is full of self-indulgent soling, think again. The album is full of unconventional, but also concise and memorable songs. Spalding’s vocal performance is her best yet and Matthew Stevens’ “what if Hendrix played in a jazz band” approach gives the album something irresistible for me. The strong and rhythmically dense, but swinging interplay between the surprisingly limited number of musicians is simply excellent. Also, the part jazz concert, part performance art performance of this album at North Sea Jazz is probably the best concert I’ve seen this year.

Recommended tracks: ‘Funk The Fear’, ‘Good Lava’, ‘Judas’

7. Epica – The Holographic Principle

From a surprisingly limited number of musicians to a huge amount of them. Epica was never devoid of bombastic arrangements, but ‘The Holographic Principle’ sounds simply huge and somehow, that hasn’t occurred at the cost of the band’s heaviness. In fact, I don’t think my attention was ever drawn towards Epica’s riffing as much as I was here. I would almost say that the riffs are even more memorable than the choruses. And that’s why the album is a bigger masterpiece than I expected it to be. I love symphonic metal, but often, it’s too much of either to be very interesting. ‘The Holographic Principle’ manages to be Epica’s most symphonic and most metal record thus far and it just works. It doesn’t fight each other, it complements each other. And for that, they deserve all the praise they can get. Due to a couple of big interviews, this is one of the albums I’ve had to listen to most all year, but I can’t say it’s been an ordeal in any way.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ascension -Dream State Armaggeddon-‘, ‘Tear Down Your Walls’, ‘Edge Of The Blade’

8. King Of The World – Cincinatti

Just when I thought that it’s been a while since the last King Of The World album, the press release of ‘Cincinatti’ reached me. What makes this band stand out from the rest of the blues scene is that they’re not just excellent musicians, they’re amazing songwriters as well. And that’s why their records have a deal of variation and memorability that’s quite uncommon in the scene. ‘Cincinatti’ is no exception. In fact, adding horns to the mix makes the album the next step in the evolution of King Of The World. I’d like to give a special mention to the amazing ‘World On Fire’, which doesn’t really sound like anything the band has ever done before, but still feels trusted. Still labelled a supergroup due to the band members’ previous involvement in some prestigious acts, King Of The World has proven these last few years that they are much, much more than just the sum of their parts.

Recommended tracks: ‘World On Fire’, ‘Voodoo’, ‘No Way Out’

9. Gackt – Last Moon

Gackt is probably the biggest rock star in Japan and although I’ve always appreciated him as a singer and songwriter, ‘Last Moon’ is probably the first of his records that I can listen to start to finish. Most importantly because he’s largely let go of his bombastic intro-soft verse-big chorus approach, which really got on my nerves after a while. Ironically, his diminished focus on those dynamics has made ‘Last Moon’ his most dynamic set of songs thus far. In addition, ‘Last Moon’ is still a highly polished product, as we’ve come to expect from Gackt, but it feels more organic and that’s largely due to his interaction with his fantastic backing band. One could wonder if it was a good decision to close the album with two ballads, but since they’re both excellent, I’ll give Gackt the benefit of the doubt. Possibly the best J-rock album released since Luna Sea’s last album.

Recommended tracks: ‘Zan’, ‘One More Kiss’, ‘Returner ~Yami No Shuen~’

10. Insomnium – Winter’s Gate

Insomnium’s typically Finnish blend of melodic death metal and doom metal was something I always sort of liked, but lost track of due to my fading lack of interest in extreme metal. The idea of a one-track forty minute album did sort of attract my interest and I don’t regret checking it out. The lyrics tell the story of a group of vikings’ travel to an Irish island in a particularly severe winter and like any good concept album, the atmosphere of the music changes along what happens in the story. This makes ‘Winter’s Gate’ quite an immersive experience and also the most dynamic thing that Insomnium has recorded thus far. What makes this record so good is that no single element within the music overpowers the overall picture, though I do think that the lead guitars and the subtle keyboards work wonders for the atmosphere. ‘Winter’s Gate’ was a surprising highlight of 2016 for me.

Recommended tracks: ‘Winter’s Gate’ (there aren’t any others, after all)

11. Beth Hart – Fire On The Floor

‘Better Than Home’ was a good record, but a little too subdued for my taste. ‘Fire On The Floor’ luckily shows Beth Hart exploring all of her registers again, both musically and vocally. Honestly, Beth Hart is the best female rock singer alive today, so it would be a waste of her talent not to hear her rock out a little. She also puts many a blues man to shame with her slow blues performances and started experimenting with some show jazz-like tendencies remarkably successfully in recent years. All of this and much more can be heard on ‘Fire On The Floor’. In addition, Hart’s backing band for the sessions consists of giants like Michael Landau, Rick Marotta, Waddy Wachtel, Dean Parks and Ivan Neville. Again, I’m not sure if closing the record with three ballads was the right decision, which is also why I think it falls just a tiny bit short of the incredible ‘Bang Bang Boom Boom’, but it’s a great album nonetheless.

Recommended tracks: ‘Love Is A Lie’, ‘Baby Shot Me Down’, ‘Fire On The Floor’

12. Ningen Isu – Kaidan Shoshite Shi To Eros

Although Ningen Isu has been recording some fine material on the intersection where doom metal, psychedelic rock and progressive hardrock come together for the last thirty years, they just keep on getting better. For me, the increasing heaviness – quite clearly influenced by Black Sabbath and Budgie – has given their recent material a consistency that earlier material lacked and therefore, their brand new ‘Kaidan Shoshite Shi To Eros’ turned out to be their best album yet. The heavy, Sabbath-ish riffing is front and center here, but there’s sparse folky elements, strange chants and other stylistic detours that still make the material unmistakably Ningen Isu. And despite this weird combination of styles, the album has a very pleasant flow. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Exploring Ningen Isu’s discography may be a bit intimidating because of all the Japanese titles, but it’s a very rewarding quest as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Chounouryoku Ga Attanara’, ‘Madame Edwarda’, ‘Ookami No Tasogare’

13. Marillion – F.E.A.R.

The acronym in the title is a little more crude than their subtle and intelligent music warrants, but luckily that’s the only problem I have with Marillion’s new album. Musically, it’s easily their best record since ‘Marbles’ twelve years prior. It shows the band all over the place: from folky to abstract and from highly accessible to almost impenetrably progressive. Because, in deed, after a decade of getting closer and closer to alternative rock – almost dangerously so at times – Marillion is first and foremost a progressive rock band on ‘F.E.A.R.’. It’s a 21st century take on the genre, but it’s highly progressive nonetheless. The band’s greatest assets – Steve Hogarth’s expressive vocals and Steve Rothery’s sparse, highly tasteful lead guitar work – are in full effect here and with three long, dynamic suites, there’s a lot to immerse yourself in here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Russia’s Locked Doors’, ‘Why Is Nothing Ever True?’, ‘Wake Up In Music’

14. DeWolff – Roux-Ga-Roux

Despite still not being particularly old, the three members of DeWolff have overcome the stigma of being “those three very young kids” in their early career remarkable well. Continuing to reinvent themselves musically has contributed to that as well. Where they sounded like British bands on their debut – Deep Purple and Pink Floyd quite prominently – their sound has gradually become more American, whilst still always sounding like DeWolff. On ‘Roux-Ga-Roux’, there is a strong New Orleans influence, if the title didn’t make that clear yet. The bigger emphasis on groove has considerably improved the band’s sound and while there are still a few inspired, semi-psychedelic jams, the more concise songwriting gives the record a somewhat more timeless edge, in addition to making it a very pleasant for those who aren’t as familiar with exercises in psychedelia. I’m very curious to see what they’ll do next.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sugar Moon’, ‘Stick It To The Man’, ‘Tired Of Loving You’

15. Vektor – Terminal Redux

Out of the whole retro thrash scene, Vektor was always one of the very few bands that could offer more than just nostalgia. They’ve always been labelled Voivod clones because of their sci-fi themes and use of dissonant chords, but that’s really where the comparison stops. Vektor plays hyperspeed progressive thrash metal that often borders on extreme metal, not in the last place due to David DiSanto’s screeching vocals. ‘Terminal Redux’ ups the ante in terms of the progressive side of the band, because almost all of the songs are very long, but because a lot happens within them, you’ll hardly notice. But no matter how intricate or complex it gets, Vektor seems to prioritize proper headbanging over a display of their dazzling capabilities. ‘Collapse’ isn’t just the Pink Floyd-ish highlight of the record, but also what happened to their line-up last week. DiSanto promised there’ll be more of this though.

Recommended tracks: ‘Collapse’, ‘Ultimate Artificer’, ‘Psychotropia’

16. Prince – Hit n Run Phase Two

Believe it or not, but this release was already planned before the completely unexpected death of Prince. In fact, members of his fan club already had this release for a while. The first “phase” was released about half a year earlier and a little too electronic for me, but this is Prince as I like him best. It may not be very remarkable in terms of songwriting – despite the baroque ‘Baltimore’ being the best pop song of the year – but these are highly organic jams where Prince and his band audibly feed off each other and basically just let the music be what it wants to be. That results in a handful of jazzy pop tracks and light, shimmering funk grooves. Sometimes surprisingly bare bones, at other times lushly arranged. It probably wouldn’t have sold as much as it did if Prince hadn’t died about two weeks prior, but this is one of the cases where it definitely should have.

Recommended tracks: ‘Baltimore’, ‘2 Y. 2 D.’, ‘Stare’

17. Textures – Phenotype

Textures has a great reputation worldwide because of their contribution to the genre that is apparently now known as djent. They have always been able to write a good song or two (or nine, in this case) though and having a downright amazing vocalist may have made that particular job a little easier. Seriously, I thought Daniël de Jongh got the job down admirably on ‘Dualism’, but hearing him on a track like ‘New Horizons’ really shows how good he is in many different registers. The balance between heavy, choppy riffs and beautiful, atmospheric sections is better than ever on ‘Phenotype’ and the production of former guitarist Jochem Jacobs is remarkably organic for a contemporary heavy band. It’s surprising how a band can make such a refreshing album by simply improving upon what they have always done, but ‘Phenotype’ is one of such cases. I’m very curious to hear ‘Genotype’, the second part of this diptych.

Recommended tracks: ‘New Horizons’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Illuminate The Trail’

18. Santana – IV

Working for a guitar mag, you can probably imagine that the news of Carlos Santana reuiniting with Neal Schon and most of the other musicians that played on his untitled third album creates quite a stir. Luckily, the music backed up the hype. Most of ‘IV’ displays the almost reckless blend of psychedelic rock, blues and latin that the original Santana band was known for and seems to have evolved from jam sessions. Especially the instrumental tracks have spontaneity to them that isn’t very common on mainstream rock albums anymore. The only complaint I have about the album is that the clean, modern production is a little too glossy for some of the material, but luckily, not so much that it ruins your listening pleasure. With Schon and Santana jamming together, there’s enough spectacular guitar work for the magazine, but if you’re more of a rhythm junky, there’s more than enough to enjoy for you here as well.

Recommended tracks: ‘Yambu’, ‘Echizo’, ‘Filmore East’

19. Mary’s Blood – Fate

Highly anticipated for me, because I consider its predecessor ‘Bloody Palace’ a near-masterpiece. It doesn’t quite reach that level, but ‘Fate’ is once again a strong heavy metal, bordeline power metal record. Saki’s stellar guitar work will always be a point of interest for people who are into Mary’s Blood, but what really set this collective apart from all the other all-female bands that are currently conquering Japan – apart from their music having more power than many of their contemporaries, male or female – is the powerful, slightly raw voice of Eye. She is once again in excellent shape here. Some of the more experimental moments on the album are a subject of debate, but the record is full of driving rhythms, energetic riff work, catchy melodies and of course amazing vocals. There’s only so much hype a band can create; I strongly believe Mary’s Blood has a bright future due to having the musical value to back it up.

Recommended tracks: ‘Change The Fate’, ‘Queen Of The Night’, ‘Counter Strike’

20. Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust

Another one-track album. This time a 33 minute one with lyrics about the rise and the ultimate destruction of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Gorguts has taken that story and accompanied it with their trade-mark avant-garde death metal sound. While that style normally isn’t for me, Luc Lemay’s compositions full of guitar and bass lines that crawl and circle around each other have always intrigued me. This time, it’s no different. Even in the very subdued, tranquil and abstract middle section, there’s this tension that keeps me hanging on to the song. Very skillfully crafted and very powerfully performed. The production is surprisingly good as well; Patrice Hamelin’s drums actually sound like drums instead of computerized signals and it isn’t quite as “all loud all the time” as many modern death metal albums are. A very interesting piece of art with an interesting narrative to boot.

Recommended tracks: ‘Pleiades’ Dust’ (again, there aren’t any others)

Best of 2015: The Albums

Halfway through 2015, I suddenly realized the new profit model of record labels is more in effect than ever. Not unlike last year, most of the releases I was looking forward to were either live records or re-releases, while less and less effort is put into giving promising young artists a chance. Of course, there’s still labels that offer opportunities for artists that are potentially less attractive commercially, but that’s more common in genres where independent labels get a little room to manoeuver; progressive Rock and Hip Hop come to mind.

That doesn’t mean there was nothing to enjoy this year, it just means that I’ve had less of a hard time compiling this list than two years ago, when I struggled on the last few titles quite some time. In fact, most of the titles I predicted would be “end of year list material” ended up here, while quite a lot of surprises popped up in previous years. The inclusions are based on their European physical release dates, so that closes the discussion on two of these, including the number one. These albums are definitely obligated listens for fans of the genre. I may request some open-mindedness for a few, but more on that later…

Trivial, but interesting enough to mention: with this album of the year, Asia and Australia are the only continents left to provide an album of the year, though Asia has had a DVD of the year.

1. Angra – Secret Garden

No one knew what to expect from Angra’s first record with Fabio Lione on vocals. I sure as hell didn’t expect anything this good. ‘Secret Garden’ is almost as good as ‘Rebirth’ and ‘Aurora Consurgens’ and the slightly more progressive sound has a pleasantly dark vibe. Also, the surprisingly large number of appearances by guitarist Rafael Bittencourt as a singer – an amazing one to boot! – makes the transition to a different frontman somewhat more fluent. New drummer Bruno Valverde is good enough to forget about his predecessors and I love his big, more natural drum sound. Every fan of both Power- and progressive Metal should own ‘Secret Garden’, it’s very well worth your time.

Recommended tracks: ‘Storm Of Emotions’, ‘Perfect Symmetry’, ‘Newborn Me’

2. Thunder – Wonder Days

Talk about an amazing comeback… Shortly after Thunder called it quits with ‘Bang!’, they were already gigging again. That wasn’t the first time in their career, so a new album was only a matter of time. But that it’s their best since ‘Behind Closed Doors’ was a very pleasant surprise. All the Thunder elements are firmly in place here: Bluesy Hardrock riffs, beefy drums, big and catchy choruses, strong melodies and Danny Bowes’ vocals are still as clean and powerful as they were on ‘Backstreet Symphony’. Luke Morley is one of the best songwriters in Rock history and ‘Wonder Days’ is another chapter in his Great British Songbook. Also, ‘The Thing I Want’ is probably my favorite song of the year.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Thing I Want’, ‘When The Music Played’, ‘Serpentine’

3. Jupiter – The History Of Genesis

Although Jupiter’s second record isn’t as consistent as its brilliant debut ‘Classical Element’, which totally reawakened my love for symphonic Power Metal, it is once again a thoroughly enjoyable record. It does show the band branching out a little more by incorporating more aggressive elements – ‘Darkness’ is technically Melodeath – and Zin streches his voice a little more, but the J-Rock aspect is a little stronger on a few songs as well. Hizaki and Teru deliver some delicious guitar work both in the riff and the solo department. Versailles, the former band of every band member except Zin, recently booked a reunion gig and I hope that will be a one-off thing, because Jupiter is a better band. Much better.

Recommended tracks: ‘Zetsubou Labyrinth’, ‘Red Carnation’, ‘Last Moment’

4. Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Today’s progressive Rock hero is without any doubt the Brit Steven Wilson and there’s a good reason for that: he’s one of the few contemporary progressive musicians who writes great songs. Having said that, I wasn’t too fond of his solo work, until recently, when he started combining his obvious early Genesis influences with a pop sensibility that Genesis themselves didn’t discover until they weren’t all that Prog anymore. Also, Wilson has gathered a fantastic bunch of musicians around him, with guitarist Guthrie Govan and drummer Marco Minnemann especially shining here. ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’ is a brilliant progressive Rock record that “regular” Rock fans with more patience than average should at least give a chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘Regret #9’, ‘Ancestral’, ‘3 Years Older’

5. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Hip Hop seems to be the only genre in popular music that shows any progress these last years. Even with that in mind, Kendrick Lamar is a revelation. Conceptually, Lamar is miles ahead of anyone in any genre, including people much older than his 28 years. ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ takes all the rebellion of old school Hip Hop and elevates it to an art form with a background of Jazz and Funk with extensive spoken word sections. The results offer a great deal of variation and although I prefer Lamar at his most angry and militant, his clever observations and productional choices are worthwhile throughout the record. This is a logical progression from what Prince and D’Angelo do, just with a smarter, broader world view than either of them.

Recommended: ‘King Kunta’, ‘The Blacker The Berry’, ‘u’

6. Queensrÿche – Condition Hüman

Sometimes losing a legendary frontman is a blessing. Case in point: Queensrÿche. Geoff Tate was recently replaced by Todd LaTorre, who captures the classic Tate vibe better than the man himself does these days. Musically as well, ‘Condition Hüman’ is the best Queensrÿche record since the criminally underrated ‘Promised Land’. Michael Wilton injects a lot of traditional Heavy Metal into the band’s sound again and the combination of that and contemporary progressive Rock makes the album sound like the most old school record the band has made since the legendary ‘Operation: Mindcrime’. It’s not quite as good, but it’s much, much closer than you’d expect it to be at this point in their career.

Recommended tracks: ‘All There Was’, ‘Toxic Remedy’, ‘Hourglass’

7. Stryper – Fallen

Two years ago, I praised ‘No More Hell To Pay’ for toning Stryper’s christian message down a little. ‘Fallen’ is less subtle in that matter, but it is the better album of the two. In fact, I might like this even more than the band’s classic material from the eighties, because there’s just a little more variation at play here and the ballad isn’t quite as syrupy as…let’s say ‘Honestly’. There’s simply not much to not like on this album: the guitars are everywhere, Michael Sweet’s voice is still one of the best in the business and it’s got the best production job on a Stryper album yet. There’s nothing as good as the perfect melodic Rocker ‘Sympathy’ here, but that doesn’t make this record any less of a triumph in Rock and Metal songwriting.

Recommended tracks: ‘Pride’, ‘Till I Get What I Need’, ‘Yahweh’

8. Gary Clark Jr. – The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim

Often portrayed as a Blues musician, Gary Clark Jr. rather combines all his influences into a rich, contemporary blend of Blues, Rock and especially large amounts of R&B. Where I considered predecessor ‘Blak And Blu’ a messy, incoherent affair with – admittedly – some great guitar work, ‘The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim’ is a more consistent effort. In fact, it’s an excellent R&B record with Clark playing most of the instruments, including a lot of fiery, passionate lead guitar work. While I must admit that I prefer his chest voice to his frequently appearing head voice, I grew rapidly and unexpectedly fond of this album and I think it should be heard by anyone who appreciates the likes of Lenny Kravitz,  D’Angelo and Prince.

Recommended tracks: ‘Grinder’, ‘The Healing’, ‘Stay’

9. Iron Maiden – The Book Of Souls

Let’s focus on the negative first: ‘The Book Of Souls’ should have been two songs shorter, so that it could fit on one disc. Having said that, this is a surprisingly fresh and energetic latter day Iron Maiden record. ‘If Eternity Should Fail’ is the band’s best opening track since ‘Moonchild’, Bruce Dickinson’s voice is better than it should be in his late fifties and ironically, the 18-minute ‘Empire Of The Clouds’ sounds nowhere near as overlong and bloated as some of the other recent “epics”. The presence of Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith is felt stronger than before and that is part of what makes ‘The Book Of Souls’ a pleasant surprise. If this turns out to be the band’s last record, it would end their career on a relatively high note.

Recommended tracks: ‘If Eternity Should Fail’, ‘Tears Of A Clown’, ‘Empire Of The Clouds’

10. The Gentle Storm – The Diary

Prog wizard Arjen Lucassen and Holland’s finest singer Anneke van Giersbergen had worked together before, but this full collaboration still caught me by surprise. It’s a very Dutch project too, given the maritime theme of the lyrics. The album offers the same songs twice: one disc of folky, largely acoustic versions (‘Gentle’) and one disc of full blown symphonic Progmetal interpretations of the songs (‘Storm’). I have to admit that I generally play the ‘Storm’ disc, not in the last place due to the supreme orchestration. Van Giersbergen is amazing – as per usual – and though there are plenty of Lucassen-isms in the compositions, it does sound different enough from his other projects to warrant a different name.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shores Of India’, ‘The Storm’, ‘Heart Of Amsterdam’

11. Walter Trout – Battle Scars

If the cliché that suffering brings forth great Blues music is true, ‘Battle Scars’ is the epitome of that statement. Two years ago, Walter Trout was nearly dead, only barely saved by a liver transplant and now, he has channeled all of this misery into his best album yet. It’s not just that his suffering has brought forth great, passionate Blues, it’s that his songwriting is better than it ever was. So is his voice, by the way. ‘Battle Scars’ is a musical diary of a man who has looked death in the eye on a daily basis, but delivered so joyously, that it hardly ever gets too dark. Also, there’s a nice variation of electric Blues, Rock, ballads and an excellent Country Blues finale. This album belongs in any Blues and Bluesrock collection.

Recommended tracks: ‘Omaha’, ‘Haunted By The Night’, ‘Playin’ Hideaway’

12. Leprous – The Congregation

Norway’s Leprous was already one of the more interesting progressive Metal bands these days with 2011’s manic ‘Bilateral’ album, but the more spacious sound on ‘The Congregation’ really puts them into a league of their own. I really can’t think of any other band that quite sounds like their unique and bizarre mixture of twisted, jazzy chords, Electro-influenced synths and Einar Solberg’s hyper-theatrical vocals. ‘The Congregation’ definitely transcends the Metal tag, making way for something that is at times more unsettling than what the average Norwegian Black Metal band does, but it’s truly beautiful. Also, I somehow really, really like Jens Bogren’s production job for this record.

Recommended tracks: ‘Slave’, ‘The Flood’, ‘Triumphant’

13. Killing Joke – Pylon

Initially, I approached ‘Pylon’ with caution, because its predecessor ‘MMXII’ was a bit of a letdown. I shouldn’t have: ‘Pylon’ is a fantastic album that offers everything one could be looking for in a Killing Joke record. The major improvement in Geordie Walker’s guitar sound is part of the great first impression, but the song material is really strong as well. Once again, the song that is something of a departure is my favorite (‘European Super State’ on ‘Absolute Dissent’, ‘Euphoria’ this time around), but almost all the songs show Killing Joke what they do best: gradually building upon a simple riff and slowly turning up the rhythmic intensity. ‘Pylon’ is a bleak effort, but that’s exactly how Killing Joke should sound.

Recommended tracks: ‘Euphoria’, ‘New Jerusalem’, ‘Into The Unknown’, ‘War On Freedom’

14. Kenn Nardi – Dancing With The Past

Essentially Anacrusis’ fifth studio, because Kenn Nardi was definitely planning to use this material for the band. It sounds a lot like the band’s progressive Metal sound with Thrash Metal and New Wave flourishes, although Nardi’s typical voice has some influence on that as well. He’s not technically a great singer in the sense that he doesn’t have a wide range, but he is able to wring so much emotion out of it, that it’s an absorbing listen. And with 28 good songs, Nardi could have easily spread this out over two, maybe even three albums, but somehow the sequencing and flow makes a lot of sense here. Obligated for anyone who likes Anacrusis, but also for anyone who agrees with me that Thrash Metal is getting a little rusty lately.

Recommended tracks: ‘Submerged’, ‘Creve Coeur’, ‘The Scarlet Letter’

15. Galneryus – Under The Force Of Courage

Allegedly, ‘Under The Force Of Courage’ is Galneryus’ first concept album. It does explain the large doses of theatricality, but I’m not complaining about that at all. It does take Galneryus back to the sound of ‘Angel Of Salvation’, though it falls short of that amazing record. Ironically, the tracks that sound least like that album – the darker sounding ‘Rain Of Tears’ and especially ‘Reward For Betrayal’ – are among the better moments of the album. As for the rest, it’s anything a Galneryus fan can wish for: high tempos, blazing solos by both Syu (guitars) and Yuhki (keyboards), passionate vocals by Masatoshi Ono and highly catchy choruses. Better than most European Power Metal, slightly above average for Galneryus.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Force Of Courage’, ‘Reward For Betrayal’, ‘Soul Of The Field’

16. Enslaved – In Times

Seriously, I would have loved this band so much if it wasn’t for Grutle Kjellson’s guttural rasp. Enslaved have taken their Black Metal roots and mixed them up with an increasing amount of progressive Rock influences since the beginning of this century, which luckily also means that the absolutely beautiful clean voice of keyboard player Herbrand Larsen gets a bigger role with each album. ‘In Times’ contains six songs with a combined running time of 53 minutes and shows the band at their most free and adventurous. This leads to occasional pleasantly surprising musical choices and interestingly constructed songs. Hell, in ‘Building With Fire’, even Kjellson’s growl sounds good. Also, I just realized that both Norwegian bands in this list don’t sound like anyone else.

Recommended tracks: ‘Building With Fire’, ‘In Times’, ‘One Thousand Years Of Rain’

17. Dew-Scented – Intermination

Ever since Dew-Scented became more Dutch than German, things have been looking better for them. In fact, the band now has three amazing songwriters who all contribute something different to the band: guitarist Marvin Vriesde contributes the more in-your-face material, his fellow axeman Rory Hansen brings some modern Death Metal influences to the table and bassist Joost van der Graaf’s takes care of an amazingly dark atmosphere. It all still sounds like Dew-Scented though and Jensen’s trademark Thrash bark isn’t the only factor in that. ‘Intermination’ just shows the band stretching the boundaries of what is possible within the Dew-Scented framework. And the result is a more than admirable job.

Recommended tracks: ‘Ode To Extinction’, ‘Means To An End’, ‘On A Collision Course’

18. Mother’s Finest – Goody 2 Shoes & The Filthy Beasts

More than a decade after ‘Meta-Funk’n Physical’, there’s finally a new Mother’s Finest album. And it rocks quite hard! Some of the modern production techniques equipped on its predecessor have remained, but ‘Goody 2 Shoes & The Filthy Beasts’ is heavier and more energetic than you’d expect from a band made up largely of members in their late sixties. It’s always been all about the guitars and the grooves for Mother’s Finest and it’s no different here. In a couple of Funky Hard Rock tracks, the band proves why they’re still relevant and I’m surprised how much power Joyce Kennedy still has in her voice. And they still blow everyone off the stage. Another album like their inimitable debut is off the table, but this is as close as it gets.

Recommended tracks: ‘All Of My Life’, ‘Another Day’, ‘She Ready’

19. Mojo Man – Mojo Man

Sometimes I get something new on my desk for the review section in Gitarist and it completely blows me away. That’s what Mojo Man’s self titled debut did. First of all: how is it possible to resist a band that has “Balls & Horns” as its motto? That means they’re playing nice beefy Bluesrock riffs with the proper brass backing to give it a soulful edge. And if that wasn’t all, the catchy songs are very well written and Theo van Niel Jr. lays down some fantastic lead guitar work. Imagine The Rolling Stones around ‘Exile On Main Street’, Aerosmith in the late seventies and early The Black Crowes and you’ll get close to the sound on the album, although Mojo Man has a slightly more traditional Blues approach. If that’s your thing, you shouldn’t miss out on this.

Recommended tracks: ‘It’s A Crime’, ‘Searching Man’, ‘The Ship Is Sinking’

20. Faith No More – Sol Invictus

As far as reunions go, ‘Sol Invictus’ is just fine. Faith No More once again are their quirky, obstinate selves. Which means that this album contains traces of Pop, Rock, Metal, Funk, Western, faux-Jazz and even Hip Hop. The songs are generally really good, much better even than on their 1997 effort ‘Album Of The Year’, which was recorded with the same lineup. The songs just don’t flow quite as well as they should have, especially during the first half of the album. It’s a risk of Faith No More’s genre-hopping approach. By themselves, most of the songs are awesome though. And while voice artist Mike Patton doesn’t quite reach as high as in the past, his lows are ominous and sometimes downright scary.

Recommended tracks: ‘Separation Anxiety’, ‘Rise Of The Fall’, ‘Superhero’

Best of 2014: The Albums

Yes, it’s that time of year again. And let me start out by saying that 2014 was a slight disappointment in terms of new releases. Sure, one of the best Dutch Rock albums in ages was released (look for it at number one) and that wasn’t the only impressive release this year, but in all honesty, most of the releases I anticipated were live documents and reissues. Some surprisingly strong comebacks and a few new bands that blew me away did compensate for the initial disappointment though.

Make no mistake though: each and every one of these albums is worthy of your time and attention. This year’s number one is one of the albums I played most throughout the year and restored my faith in the fact that the Rock scene hadn’t drowned in its own self-importance or hit song obsession.

1. Navarone – Vim And Vigor

Oh, how I love this record! Navarone already was one of Holland’s most promising bands, but with ‘Vim And Vigor’, they made one of my favorite records in recent years. While the song durations may hint at a more compact direction, the album is surprisingly adventurous. It shows Navarone exploring all the corners of their versatile Rock sound. There are loads of seventies Hardrock riffs, but also a few songs consisting of a more rhythmical contemporary approach, Southern Rock-style ballads and psychedelic passages, all tied together by concise songwriting, massive choruses and Merijn van Haren’s fantastic, powerful voice. ‘Vim And Vigor’ is obligatory for every Rock fan of any kind. And good luck trying to play it more than I have.

Recommended tracks: ‘Time’, ‘Wander’, ‘Indigo Blue’

2. D’Angelo – Black Messiah

Now where did that album suddenly come from? D’Angelo had been working on ‘Black Messiah’ for over fourteen years and we have been told it was nearly done since 2011. It was worth the wait though; ‘Black Messiah’ is almost as good as ‘Voodoo’. But where ‘Voodoo’ was seductive, ‘Black Messiah’ is militant. Or at least socially conscious. It’s a grower for sure, in the sense that the album slowly reveals its secrets over repeated spins, in all of their grooving, riotous and at times psychedelic glory. This is ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ for the 21st century. Very much so, in fact. Even though D’Angelo sticks to his story that he rushed through the final phase of the album – once again: I chuckled – it’s obvious he worked hard at once again creating a unique work of art. He succeeded.

Recommended tracks: ‘Betray My Heart’, ‘The Charade’, ‘1000 Deaths’

3. Sanctuary – The Year The Sun Died

With Nevermore, a band I loved intensely, gone – or, if you will, on hiatus – this reunion of Warrel Dane’s and Jim Sheppard’s former band is the second best thing I can wish for. Then again, because of the modern production and Dane’s current vocal range, it does sound a lot like Nevermore. While the song patterns don’t vary greatly throughout the record, the riffs call for headbanging, the choruses are catchy and recognizable and the soaring guitar leads are just fantastic. This may not be the falsetto screams and old style Power Metal riff festival that ‘Refuge Denied’ was, but this is a clever contemporary Metal record with all the elements that make Heavy Metal so amazing in the first place firmly in tact.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Year The Sun Died’, ‘Frozen’, ‘Question Existence Fading’

4. OverKill – White Devil Armory

It’s not unusual for me to anticipate an OverKill album. They’ve been my favorite band – alongside Led Zeppelin – for ages. But it doesn’t happen very often that my blood gets boiling as quickly as it did upon first listening to ‘White Devil Armory’. This is OverKill’s East Coast Thrash Metal in all its aggressive, violent and full speed glory. It’s interesting that Dave Linsk’s lead guitar work infuses some of the songs with an almost triumphant old school Heavy Metal feel, most particularly in the amazing closing track ‘In The Name’, one of OverKill’s carreer highlights. ‘White Devil Armory’ should send all these young Retro Thrashing kids back to rehearsal in shame. And they’re only allowed when they come back when they have at least half the energy that Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth has today. Incredible.

Recommended tracks: ‘In The Name’, ‘Pig’, ‘Where There’s Smoke…’

5. King Of The World – KOTW

Almost exactly a year after their brilliant first album, there was a brilliant second album. As if it takes them no effort whatsoever. ‘KOTW’ confirms King Of The World’s status as the best Blues band in the Netherlands. Possibly in Europe. While the first album was one of the most versatile Blues records I had heard in a while, this one shows the band branching out even outside the borders of what is traditionally considered Blues by combining it with flourishes of Soul, Funk grooves and even some Rock riffs. And all of it with similar conviction and audible enthusiasm. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, let me tell you that King Of The World is one of the very few Blues bands that can translate their live excitement to their records. ‘KOTW’ is proof.

Recommended tracks: ‘Beating Like A Drum’, ‘Living With The Ghost Of The Past’, ‘Hurricane’

6. No Sinner – Boo Hoo Hoo

Not only was No Sinner’s press day one of the most fun I have ever had – singer Colleen Rennison is awesome and their entire entourage is incredibly friendly – but the debut album of the Vancouver based band was one of the first albums I’ve loved this year. Rennison seems to love sixties Rock ‘n’ Soul as much as I do, possibly even more, and as a result, ‘Boo Hoo Hoo’ is a fantastic record that brings back memories of the best Janis Joplin, Big Mama Thornton and Ike & Tina Turner recordings. Eric Campbell’s guitar work does keep the songs firmly within the realms of Rock music though. It does sound like I have to see them in a smokey bar – are there still any of those left anyway? – for the full experience, but this album is as good as it gets if you need your fill on rootsy Rock music.

Recommended tracks: ‘September Moon’, ‘That’d Be The Day’, ‘Love Is A Madness’

7. Dir En Grey – Arche

It’s good to hear Dir En Grey try their hand at something more melodic after the more brutal approach of the last few records. The contemporary progressive leanings are retained though, resulting in – once again – a truly unique record. For me, the fact that Kyo equips his clean vocals more often is one of the album’s redeeming factors, but the songwriting is top notch once again. Where some passages of ‘Dum Spiro Spero’ were a bit of an aural blur, the songs on ‘Arche’ all have a face of their own and those faces may not be pretty (except for maybe ‘Kuukoku No Kyouon’), but they definitely all are worth interacting with. Because of the album’s layered nature, some of the album’s shining moments won’t immediately be at the surface. One of them, though – Shinya’s best drumming so far – is right where you can hear it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Un Deux’, Chain Repulsion’, ‘Kuukoku No Kyouon’

8. Joanne Shaw Taylor – The Dirty Truth

Okay, so I’ve never made a secret of my love for what Joanne Shaw Taylor does, but then again: her huge guitar work, her raw and heartfelt voice and her versatile songwriting leave very little to be desired anyway. After the wildly eclectic ‘Almost Always Never’, ‘The Dirty Truth’ is a more concise set of American Roots music. All the more impressive, given that Taylor is British. The Soul influences were always at the surface, but it seems like Taylor increasingly embraces funky grooves. And she’s got Memphis legend Steve Potts on drums here, so why not? The simple fact is that ‘The Dirty Truth’ is full of amazing Blues, Soul, Rock and Americana tunes played passionately by one of the biggest talents in the contemporary Blues scene.

Recommended tracks: ‘Wicked Soul’, ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘The Dirty Truth’

9. Robert Plant – Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar

Robert Plant could easily just sit back and enjoy the benefits of once being the legendary frontman of the world’s ultimate Rock band, but his hunger to discover Folk music from all over the world is seemingly endless. That much is clear when you put on ‘Lullaby And… The Ceaseless Roar’; he moves from Americana to the Middle East and even has a Gambian griot in his backing band. Speaking of which: the Sensational Space Shifters brings back several members of Plant’s best backing band the Strange Sensation and even though the music isn’t quite as exuberant as on ‘Mighty Rearranger’ – the lullaby drowns out the ceaseless roar – the influence from African Rock and Blues is more than obvious. The results are often hypnotizing and haunting. It’s not an easy album to get into, but then again: regardless of your taste, Plant hasn’t ever released anything less than impressive.

Recommended tracks: ‘Embrace Another Fall’, ‘Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby)’, ‘A Stolen Kiss’

10. Triggerfinger – By Absence Of The Sun

For a minute, the mainstream Pop success of their cover of ‘I Follow Rivers’ – a decent cover of a terrible song – made me afraid of Triggerfinger’s future. I know I shouldn’t have; the Belgian trio has always done what they wanted and nothing else. As a result, ‘By Absence Of The Sun’ is yet another manifestatation of what makes Triggerfinger so good in the first place. It’s a record of very little subtlety. It’s raw, it’s powerful, it’s primal and has a few warts that make it all the more attractive. Also, it seems like someone finally succeeded in translating the sweaty energy of the band’s intense live performances to a studio record. Predecessor ‘All This Dancin’ Around’ was a collection of good songs, but ‘By Absence Of The Sun’ has been put just that little extra effort into to make it the hard working band’s ultimate mission statement.

Recommended tracks: ‘Halfway There’, ‘There Isn’t Time’, ‘And There She Was Lying In Wait’

11. The Tea Party – The Ocean At The End

Where the live documents from 2012 proved that The Tea Party was perfectly able to capture the spirit of their classic material, ‘The Ocean At The End’ is the proof that they’re still coming up with material that can easily stand the comparison with it. In fact, the band sounds more free and relieved than ever, giving ‘The Ocean At The End’ sort of a jam feel instead of the tightly composed productions that were ‘Transmission’ and ‘Triptych’. The Canadian power trio is obviously not afraid to experiment and although sometimes the Led Zeppelin influences are slightly too obvious – opening track ‘The L.O.C.’ sounds a ridiculous amount like ‘The Song Remains The Same’ at some points – the results are stunning. The title track is Jeff Martin’s crowning achievement as a guitarist; that guitar solo cuts right through your soul.

Recommended tracks: ‘The Ocean At The End’, ‘Cypher’, ‘The Black Sea’

12. The Backcorner Boogie Band – Faico Faico

Hailing from a part of the Netherlands that is litterally translated to “The Backcorner”, this is definitely the most aptly named band in this year’s list. Also, their music is just amazing. The lineup of the band is massive, but they’re all devoted to comibining Blues, Rock, Soul and even hints of Americana and Gospel into an irresistable cocktail. The results sound a little similar to The Black Crowes and The Rolling Stones and fans of those bands should know that this band can absolutely compare itself favorably to them. There’s a swinging rhythm section, a bunch of amazing singers, bombastic horns, killer guitar work and a rumbling Hammond organ and no one is trying to upstage or outshine anyone. This makes ‘Faico Faico’ the ultimate jam record released in the Benelux this past year and should be heard by anyone.

Recommended tracks: ‘Angels’, ‘When The Day Is Done’, ‘Lost My Job To A Chinaman’

13. Anthem – Absolute World

Because of bassist and band leader Naoto Shibata’s illness, Anthem was shortly on hold. When they returned, it wasn’t Eizo Sakamoto, but Yukio Morikawa who fronted the band. And while he hasn’t stood the test of time as good as his two-time predecessor, his spirit and passion are part of what make ‘Absolute World’ such a good Heavy Metal record. The songs courtesy of Shibata and guitarist Akio Shimizu are important as well; ‘Absolute World’ is Anthem’s most riff-driven album in a while and Shimizu seasons the album with a number of mindblowing guitar solos. This is quite obviously a band that is very heartfelt about old school Heavy and Power Metal and they succeed at getting that across even three and a half decades into their carreer. Well worth the import price that may be steep.

Recommended tracks: ‘In The Chaos’, ‘Sailing’, ‘Destroy The Boredom’

14. De Dijk – Allemansplein

Predecessor ‘Scherp De Zeis’ already saw De Dijk moving away from the French chanson influences that characterized part of their recent output and ‘Allemansplein’ is once again an almost fully Blues and Soul infused record. Because make no mistake: for a band whose lyrics are entirely in Dutch, De Dijk sounds remarkably American musically. The title track is one of the most sparse tracks in the history of the band and has this wonderful tension hanging in the air, making it reminiscent of their masterpiece ‘Recht In De Ogen’ in terms of atmosphere. As for the rest, there are the swinging riffs and horns that make every De Dijk album good, there’s just more emphasis on them than before. Another work that proves that De Dijk is much better than some Dutch people may think.

Recommended tracks: ‘Allemansplein (Wat Het Nooit Was)’, ‘Steen’, ‘Zelfs De Regen’

15. Umphrey’s McGee – Similar Skin

This one almost went by unnoticed in the stream of new releases I got to review. Am I glad I gave this one a chance anyway, because ‘Similar Skin’ is a sensational record. It’s hard to describe Umphrey’s McGee; they came from the nineties jam band scene, but they have more in common with Progrock in terms of style, despite several recognizable songs, guitar passages reminiscent of The Police’s later work, Funk grooves, Metal riffs and Jazzy instrumental prowess. There aren’t many bands that have a distinct sound and albums on which every song sounds different, but Umphrey’s McGee succeeds there. The only thing that could make the band better is a powerful lead singer; though all four singers in the band do quite well, none of them are lead singers. Don’t let that keep you from enjoying this highly surprising and versatile record.

Recommended tracks: ‘Hourglass’, ‘Bridgeless’, ‘Cut The Cable’

16. Triptykon – Melana Chasmata

Thomas Gabriel Fischer wanted to build upon the pitch black sound of ‘Monotheist’ some more after the demise of Celtic Frost and I’m happy he did; that record was a masterpiece and so was Triptykon’s debut ‘Eparistera Daimones’. And ‘Melana Chasmata’. Enormous monoliths of pitch black riffs and dirge-like tempos paint a bleak atmosphere that is impossible to escape as a humble, helpless listener. While this melancholic sound still rings through most of ‘Melana Chasmata’, it also contains some of the band’s most aggressive and defiant material so far. It’s remarkable how easily the band makes this transition from dreary Doom Metal to angry, Death Metal-like Thrash passages, but one thing is for sure: nobody does it like they do!

Recommended tracks: ‘Breathing’, ‘Tree Of Suffocating Souls’, ‘Waiting’

17. While Heaven Wept – Suspended At Aphelion

Those who still consider While Heaven Wept as a Doom Metal band will probably be disappointed upon hearing ‘Suspended At Aphelion’. This is definitely not Doom Metal anymore; this is huge, epic Power Metal driven by massive riffs, fantastic vocals courtesy of Rain Irving and a desolate, overwhelming atsmosphere. There are piano interludes and purely classical pieces, ballad segments, instrumental Progmetal violence and epic Metal chapters in a 40 minute journey that is designed to listen to in one go. For me, that was easy, because the album is so expertly written and well performed. Mainman Tom Phillips already deserved all the praise he can get for his ambition and the sheer scope of the record, but the quality of ‘Suspended At Aphelion’ more than justifies it. Interesting sidenote: the session musicians are remarkably significant for some of the pieces here.

Recommended tracks: ‘Indifference Turned Paralysis’, ‘Souls In Permafrost’, ‘Introspectus’

18. VandenBerg’s MoonKings – MoonKings

A couple of years ago, no one would have expected Adrian VandenBerg ever releasing a new album again; he had a wrist injury and spent his entire professional life painting. However, he apparently feels good enough to record another album and tour again. And the album is good! With a strong, young rhythm section, Vandenberg and singer Jan Hoving – who tries to sound like David Coverdale a little too hard at some points, but does fit the music really well – recorded a collection of energetic, Bluesy Rock ‘n’ Roll songs that just scream for the live environment. This isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia; the songs sound fresh and I applaud Vandenberg for not taking the road of least resistance by gathering a bunch of big names here. Let’s just hope that this is the first chapter in the new book of Vandenberg’s musical carreer.

Recommended tracks: ‘Line Of Fire’, ‘Close To You’, ‘Leave This Town’

19. Prince & 3rdEyeGirl – PlectrumElectrum

Since he stubbornly refuses to do anything the way anyone else does – and that’s his strongest feat – Prince released two albums simultaneously. ‘Art Official Age’ was a bit too modern and digital for me, but ‘PlectrumElectrum’ has Prince and his all-female backing band 3rdEyeGirl exploring the two things he’s best at anyway: guitars and grooves. The ladies – in particular bassist Ida Nielsen: holy shit! – do a fantastic job backing Prince on his most consistent set of songs since ‘Musicology’. Of course, the Funk and Soul influences are right there, but the songs rock surprisingly hard at some points as well. Maybe the purple one should consider releasing a live album with these ladies… And this material of course!

Recommended tracks: ‘AnotherLove’, ‘FixUrLifeUp’, ‘PlectrumElectrum’

20. Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun

While the psychedelic masterpiece of ‘Crack The Skye’ will be hard to equal for Mastodon, they will always find new ways to challenge themselves and expand upon their existing sound and that alone would be a reason why each album of the Atlanta-based band is enjoyable at the very least. ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’ is a more melodic record than ‘The Hunter’, though the basic sound is similar. As a result, most of the songs have a triumphant and – despite the band’s inaccessible nature – almost catchy vibe to them. If those are words that scare you as a Mastodon fan; don’t worry. Opposite material like the amazingly memorable ‘The Motherload’, there’s still stuff like the dark monster that is closing track ‘Diamond In The Witch House’. All worth your time!

Recommended tracks: ‘The Motherload’, ‘Tread Lightly’, ‘Once More ‘Round The Sun’

Best of 2013: The Albums

Well, that was it. We’ve been through a weird year musically. Especially in the Metal scene, the household names released subpar or even downright terrible albums – Megadeth’s ‘Super Collider’ is one disappointment I never got over – while the less familiar names sometimes came forward with surprisingly good albums. Examples will follow. Luckily, the Benelux Rock scene surprised us with an explosion of interesting releases, many of which following in my Best of 2013 list, but Ayreon and Arrow-Haze also deserve honorable mentions.

For those of you who wonder: the two titles leading this list have never been listed as a Kevy Metal Album of the Week. There’s a reason for that. First of all, I don’t want to publish any reviews here that might end up in Gitarist for the simple reason that they pay me, so they deserve the premiere. Also, both of these albums had reached me as promos long before the release date and received many a spin before their release. By the time they got released – and therefore the time justified for their reviews – I had other albums were regularly featured in that week. Both albums returned to my cd player amazingly often though!

And one more request to all bands: now that 2013 is over, can we please stop calling our albums anything including the number 13 now? Thank you!

1. Tamikrest – Chatma

Despite Mali being consistently tortured by conflict last year, their musicians released fantastic music. Vieux Farka Touré’s ‘Mon Pays’ was good, but ‘Chatma’ is one of the best albums I have heard in a long time. Like their Tuareg brothers of Tinariwen, Tamikrest creates hypnotizing Desert Blues. However, Tamikrest is younger and more energetic. Desert Rock may be a more fitting term. The swinging rhythms – with actual drums and not just percussion – and spectacularly interwoven guitar lines stand out on this album, but so do the compositions. The band takes a more experimental approach this time, successfully mixing their core sound with influences of Dub and psychedelia, creating a work of art that really should be heard by anyone. Regardless of what genre you like. It seems like Tamikrest has found their niche on this mindblowing album and since it’s only their third, let’s hope they will continue this brilliance for a long time.

Recommended tracks: ‘Achaka Achail Aynaian Daghchilan’, ‘Imanin Bas Zihoun’

2. Guild Of Stags – Ode To The Emperor

Sheer seventies Rock euphoria. Even though these musicians are – despite their relatively young age – veterans of the Dutch music scene, ‘Ode To The Emperor’ took me completely by surprise. First of all: I had never heard of British singer Michael Devlin, but he’s fantastic, sounding like a mixture of Robert Plant and Bon Scott, though slightly more melodic than you might expect from such a description, and his spirited, enthusiastic delivery is part of what makes the album so great. The other part is that it just sounds great. These songs are expertly written and the amount of variation is just stunning, with the band moving from AC/DC-esque stompers to Southern Rock inspired semi-ballads through massive epics with great ease. Also – and I can’t emphasize this enough – Bram van den Berg is the best drummer in the Benelux. Bassist Joost van Haaren and chameleon-like guitarist JP Hoekstra – it’s amazing how easily adapts to every song – are no amateurs either though. This is a must for fans of seventies Hardrock. The singing and moving will follow automatically.

Recommended tracks: ‘Too Long’, ‘Hit n’ Miss’, ‘The Burning Of Scarlet Liege’

3. Orphaned Land – All Is One

Both their message of peace and harmony in the Middle-East as well as Orphaned Land’s music has never been as direct as on ‘All Is One’. This is a pleasant development though. It makes ‘All Is One’ sound powerful and fresh, yet familiar. It’s still the irresistable mix of progressive Metal and traditional Middle-Eastern music in multiple languages, yet with a slightly different take on it. The guitars of Yossi Sassi and newcomer Chen Balbus sound just a little crunchier than before and Kobi Fahri focuses almost entirely on his fantastic clean vocals rather than on grunts. As for the message: listen to ‘Let The Truce Be Known’ while reading along with the lyrics. A truly mesmerizing experience. The bombast is still here, with the fantastic Turkish orchestra and choir, and every song is moving and goosebumps inducing. It really seems like Orphaned Land keeps on getting better and words cannot express how much I continue to love this band.

Recommended tracks: ‘Let The Truce Be Known’, ‘The Simple Man’, ‘Brother’, ‘All Is One’

4. Voivod – Target Earth

Long live the return of Voivod. This is easily the best comeback record of the year. Honestly, I wouldn’t expect them to return this powerfully after the death of the unique guitarist Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour, but Martyr’s Dan Mongrain took the challenge and passed with flying colors. The twisted, jazzy chords of D’Amour are all over this record, as is the compositional brilliance of Voivod’s best albums ‘Nothingface’ and ‘Dimension Hatröss’. So this is progressive Thrash Metal with distinct Sci-Fi elements. Complex, but menacing. As if Pink Floyd is playing Metal, with the psychedelic space lyrics being replaced by a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland. Every member is in optima forma here. Jean-Yves ‘Blacky’ Thériault’s bass sound blows everything out of the water and Michel ‘Away’ Langevin’s surprisingly relaxed drumming keeps everything together. Combine that with the fact that this is easily the best material the band has written since at least ‘The Outer Limits’ and the Thrashiest since ‘Killing Technology’ and we’ve got ourselves a winner.

Recommended tracks: ‘Corps Étranger’, ‘Mechanical Mind’, ‘Kluskap O’Kom’

5. De Staat – I_Con

For those unfamiliar with the band: De Staat is a crazy band whose sound is nearly impossible to describe. Imagine a mixture of Nick Cave’s early work with the wild eclecticism and craziness of mid-period Faith No More, Vaudeville melodies and electronic overtones. Sounds impossible? It probably is if you’re not this band. ‘I_Con’ is notably more guitar oriented than its direct predecessor ‘Machinery’, but it’s no less strange. The album ranges from almost unbearably loud (the awesome ‘Witch Doctor’) to surprisingly delicate (‘I’ll Take You’, which features the fantastic Janne Schra as guest vocalist) and everything in between. This time, the band does a better job than ever fusing electronics with guitars and the results are fantastic. You have never heard anything like this in your life and the next time you will is probably De Staat’s next album. Highly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘Witch Doctor’, ‘Down Town’, ‘Make Way For The Passenger’

6. King Of The World – Can’t Go Home

Those who think that Blues is somewhat monotonous by nature should really give ‘Can’t Go Home’ a listen. This Dutch Blues supergroup featuring former Cuby + Blizzards guitarist Erwin Java and fantastic singer/bassist Ruud Weber, who worked with Snowy White, takes you on a journey through five decades of electic Blues and treats every take on it with equal class, enthusiasm and energy. ‘Can’t Go Home’ swings, cries and sweats through multiple dance halls and smokey cafés before closing with the breathtaking, goosebumps inducing tribute to the late Harry ‘Cuby’ Muskee which is the title track of the album. And then you put it on again, because every song leading to that one is of equal brilliance. I don’t know if it’s Weber’s amazing sandpaper throat, Java’s loose and wild guitar playing, Fokke de Jong’s swinging rhythms or Govert van der Kolm’s awesome Hammond, but the combination is something that you should hear, no matter what kind of Blues you like.

Recommended tracks: ‘Can’t Go Home (For “Q”)’, ‘Bluesified’, ‘Better Leave While You Can’

7. Gov’t Mule – Shout!

Finally! Gov’t Mule consistently releases fantastic spontaneous Bluesrock ‘n’ Soul records, but ‘Shout!’ is easily their best album since the death of original bassist Allen Woody. The band jams with great passion through a collection of fantastically written songs. Even though Gov’t Mule’s records remain jam-heavy, the songs are recognizable, hooky and well sung by singer/guitarist Warren Haynes. Even the Reggae song ‘Scared To Live’ is fantastic this time – I don’t like the genre – and closer ‘Bring On The Music’ is just a piece of art. ‘Shout!’ contains an entire bonus cd with different singers interpreting all the songs on the record. Some of the songs sound like they’re written for the singer in question; ‘Funny Little Tragedy’ with Elvis Costello’s vocals sounds like it could have been the B-side to ‘Oliver’s Army’ and Dr. John really turns ‘Stoop So Low’ into a dirty barroom boogie. Be sure to revel in the festive atmosphere of ‘Shout!’; it’s a Rock ‘n’ Roll party!

Recommended tracks: ‘Bring On The Music’, ‘Funny Little Tragedy’, ‘Stoop So Low’

8. Queens Of The Stone Age – …Like Clockwork

Changing drummers mid-recording and a great arsenal of guest musicians haven’t stopped ‘…Like Clockwork’ from being Queens Of The Stone Age’s best and most focused album yet. Naturally, Josh Homme’s vision is strong enough to keep it all together, although the result has never been as strong as on this record. ‘…Like Clockwork’ is a dark, gloomy, eclectic and powerful masterpiece of an album with uptempo Rockers contrasting the desperate ballads and the surprisingly sunny sound of ‘Smooth Sailing’. This isn’t by any means the band’s most accessible album, but ‘Songs For The Deaf’ – which had some downright brilliant moments, but was wildly unfocused as an album – also granted the band an enormous audience. The consistenly high quality of the song material on ‘…Like Clockwork’ should bring them at least similarly sized crowds.

Recommended tracks: ‘I Appear Missing’, ‘If I Had A Tail’, ‘My God Is The Sun’

9. Stryper – No More Hell To Pay

First things first: ‘Sympathy’ is easily the best single released this year. Such a fantastic melodic Hardrock track! And the rest of ‘No More Hell To Pay’ is surprisingly good as well. This might even be Stryper’s best album yet. Michael Sweet has written a bunch of fantastic songs with strong melodies and infectious choruses. His voice is nothing short of fantastic either, even today at age 50. In short: exactly what one would want from Stryper. Secular fans may be happy to know that their religious message is a bit more subtle this time, but it’s really the music that counts and it’s truly worth hearing. With a greater variation in tempos, the album may have been even better – there’s quite a lot of midtempo work on the album – but I’d definitely take this over ‘In God We Trust’ any day. Even the ballad – there’s only one – is very well worth hearing this time.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sympathy’, ‘Marching Into Battle’, ‘Te Amo’, ‘Saved By Love’

10. Black Bottle Riot – Soul In Exile

Believe it or not, but we have excellent Southern Rock in Holland. Black Bottle Riot’s self-titled debut album was already a revelation of fantastic seventies inspired Hardrock. That is still the case on ‘Soul In Exile’, but the Southern Rock factor has increased and the songwriting has clearly evolved. Simon Snel and Mike Sedee can compete with the best of the Southern all stars, the rhythms are simultaneously swinging and stomping and all the melodies are incredibly catchy. ‘Soul In Exile’ sounds spontaneous and powerful and the band audibly has a lot of fun doing this. Any Rock album should have this amount of inspiration, enthusiasm and energy. And we – as Dutchies – should be happy we have a band like Black Bottle Riot walking around on our soil.

Recommended tracks: ‘Trying Too Hard’, ‘The Rocky Road’, ‘Soul In Exile’

11. Amorphis – Circle

Although Amorphis’ current lineup consistently makes amazing records, they’ve really struck gold this time. Maybe it’s the choice for producer Peter Tägtgren, but the band finds itself in slightly less familiar waters – this is still instantly recognizable as Amorphis though – pushing themselves to great heights. The guitars of Tomi Koisuvaari and Esa Holopainen – one of my favorite lead guitarists – have something of an extra punch here and the album contains some of the Finns’ most brutal moments in a long time. However, when the band gets more melodic, their true brilliance shines through. Singer Tomi Joutsen covers both sides with equal power. This Amorphis lineup can hardly do anything wrong, but ‘Circle’ and 2007 masterpiece ‘Silent Waters’ stand as modern day Metal classics.

Recommended tracks: ‘Mission’, ‘Hopeless Days’, ‘Nightbird’s Song’, ‘Dead Man’s Dream’

12. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

Blixa Bargeld gone, Mick Harvey gone… Would Nick Cave still have something to offer without his two sound defining guitarist? Why did I even doubt that? ‘Push The Sky Away’ is another great record. Okay, there’s hardly any guitars here, but mad professor Warren Ellis’ wide array of instruments does the trick. Naturally, the songwriting does as well. ‘Push The Sky Away’ is a lot more moody than the exuberant ‘Dig Lazarus Dig’, but it’s not a piano ballad album like ‘The Boatman’s Call’ was. ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ is one of the best tracks Cave has ever been involved with, but every song here is worth hearing. There aren’t many albums this subtle in my collection, but Ellis and Cave are a hellishly brilliant songwriting duo and I hope they will be here to stay for a long, long time to come.

Recommended tracks: ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, ‘Push The Sky Away’, ‘Jubilee Street’

13. Dark Tranquillity – Construct

Dark Tranquillity must have realized that ‘We Are The Void’ showed them on the verge of stagnation, because the direction has been radically altered and the result is nothing short of fantastic. ‘Construct’ is influenced by Depeche Mode rather than At The Gates and as such, sounds like something of a logical follow-up to the band’s 1999 masterpiece ‘Projector’. The album is very atmospheric, the Swedes obviously haven’t lost sight of their songwriting. All the songs on here have a strong build-up and a face of their own. ‘Uniformity’ was an early favorite because of its resemblance to the classic ‘ThereIn’, but every song is worth hearing. Dark Tranquillity’s members have the unusual realization – for Metal musicians at least – that you can excel without being flashy. Not one band member outshines the actual song material: therein lies the beauty.

Recommended tracks: ‘Endtime Hearts’, ‘Uniformity’, ‘The Silence In Between’, ‘Apathetic’

14. Spiritual Beggars – Earth Blues

Now this was a pleasant surprise! With Michael Amott’s main band Arch Enemy growing increasingly stale and ‘Return To Zero’ being something of a subpar album, I wasn’t expecting ‘Earth Blues’ to be so good. Spiritual Beggars have truly reinvented themselves on this album. Especially Amott’s riffing has improved. Most of the Metal edge has been shed, really turning this thing into an organic retro record. Former Firewind singer Apollo Papathinasio sings better than ever and fits this record better than anything else he has ever done. His passionate Coverdale howl is really the piece that completes this puzzle. I have always loved Per Wiberg’s retro keyboard wizardry and the Ludwig Witt’s rhythms just swing. ‘Earth Blues’ has taken some time to grow on me, but once it did, it prove to be Spiritual Beggars’ crowning achievement. Fantastic retro Rock!

Recommended tracks: ‘Legends Collapse’, ‘One Man’s Curse’, ‘Freedom Song’, ‘Dead End Town’

15. Vista Chino – Peace

Kyuss…I mean, Vista Chino does what people would expect them to do: revive the days of Kyuss’ first two records. Okay, Josh Homme isn’t involved, but drummer Brant Bjork was always a key songwriter in those early days. ‘Peace’ is immediately recognizable as Kyuss, albeit the more straightforward Kyuss work à la ‘Green Machine’. Even the massive epic ‘Acidize…The Gambling Moose’ that closes the album is relatively simple in structure. And John Garcia simply never disappoints. If you love his voice like I do, there’s hardly any way to not enjoy ‘Peace’. The enjoyably familiar Desert Rock sound will do the rest. And for those who wonder: Belgian guitarist Bruno Fevery does a stellar job taking Josh Homme’s place. His looser approach to the band’s sound even brings in something refreshing.

Recommended tracks: ‘Planets 1&2’, ‘Dragona Dargona’, ‘Acidize…The Gambling Moose’, ‘Adara’

16. In Solitude – Sister

Another reinvention for the better. Sweden’s In Solitude always was a decent Heavy Metalband, but darkened their sound considerably for this third album with spectacular results. The Mercyful Fate influence is still there, but the Doom factor has increased quite heavily, giving the album a pitch black, almost old school Goth atmosphere. While it doesn’t necessarily sound like The Sisters Of Mercy, Fields Of The Nephilim or Christian Death, the vibe is definitely there, creating an almost frightening Horror sound close to what Black Sabbath was aiming for in their formative years. Even though there’s nothing truly original going on here, ‘Sister’ is a unique album. Combined with its simple, yet brutally effective artwork creating a little dark masterpiece that deserves to be heard by anyone except for maybe the faint of heart.

Recommended tracks: ‘Horses In The Ground’, ‘Sister’, ‘Pallid Hands’, ‘A Buried Sun’

17. Gingerpig – Hidden From View

Those of you who only know Boudewijn Bonebakker from his past with Gorefest may be surprised how well he fits the classic Rock fold. Or even moreso: what a fantastic singer he is. ‘Hidden From View’ is the second installment of his fantastic late sixties, early seventies Rock band Gingerpig and as a whole is a bit more streamlined than debut album ‘The Ways Of The Gingerpig’. That took some getting used to, but the songs ultimately reveal themselves as concise and well written. Bonebakker and rhythm section Sytse Roelevink and Maarten Poirters show themselves just as capable of more tranquil moments – such as ‘A Touch’ and ‘Oceans’ – as the harder rocking stuff. Sonically, this is a fantastic album as well. Recorded on tape, ‘Hidden From View’ has genuine sound that feels warm and trusted with a perfect place for every instrument.

Recommended tracks: ‘A Touch’, ‘Ugly Heart’, ‘Oceans’, ‘Pride’

18. Gorguts – Colored Sands

As surprising as it was that Gorguts was about to release a new album, but the true surprise is the quality of said album. ‘Colored Sands’ is the album the band should have released after ‘Obscura’. Although this album is slightly less insane than ‘Obscura’, but the complexity and atmosphere are there. The music on ‘Colored Sands’ is really dark, avantgardistic Metal with lyrics inspired by Tibetan culture and philosophy with Luc Lemay’s anguished bark and the occasional blastbeat by John Longstreth pushing this into Death Metal territory. The twisted dissonance of the chords draws vague comparisons with fellow countrymen Voivod, but ‘Colored Sands’ really displays a unique sound by an equally unique band. It’s good to have Luc Lemay and Gorguts back where they belong: in the outer orbits of Metal.

Recommended tracks: ‘Colored Sands’, ‘An Ocean Of Wisdom’, ‘Enemies Of Compassion’

19. Şebnem Ferah – Od

Despite being well-written, ‘Benim Adım Orman’ was an album I didn’t play too often. Şebnem Ferah’s voice was in fine shape as always, but I just like to hear her rock out a little more. ‘Od’ is another proof of why Ferah is Turkey’s prime Rock diva, along former Volvox mate Özlem Tekin, whose 2013 release ‘Kargalar’ was also her best release in quite some time. ‘Od’ is the better of the two though, with Ferah’s band – including Pentagram lead guitarist Metin Türkcan – being on fire (no pun intended; “od” means fire) and Ferah soaring on top of that. ‘Od’ rocks hard and even its ballads are extemely powerful. Just listen to Ferah’s spirited performance of the title track and you’ll know what I mean. It’s good to hear her voice on the riffy melodic Hardrock, borderline Metal tunes again though; that’s how I like her best. If you haven’t heard Şebnem Ferah, you don’t know what girl power is.

Recommended tracks: ‘Savaş Boyası’, ‘Ya Hep Ya Hiç’, ‘Kalbim Mezar’, ‘Girdap’

20. Bettie Serveert – Oh, Mayhem!

Bettie Serveert will Always remain legendary for their debut release ‘Palomine’, but if I’m perfectly honest, I like their later releases a lot more. ‘Oh, Mayhem!’ is another fantastic Indierock release – and I hardly ever use that adjective with that genre – with fantastic rhythms. Drummer Joppe Molenaar is a revelation, but the guitars of Peter Visser and Carol van Dijk are powerful and rock remarkably hard. Speaking of Van Dijk, her voice is every bit as awesome as it was when in the band’s early days. Those who have been with Bettie Serveert from day one may end up surprised by the lack of introspective moments – the amazingly atmospheric ‘Monogamous’ would be one of the few moments that can be categorized as such – but those with an open mind will respect ‘Oh, Mayhem!’ for what it truly is: a fantastic Rock record.

Recommended tracks: ‘Sad Dog’, ‘Receiver’, ‘Shake-Her’

Best of 2012: The Albums

Despite all the crap you’ve been hearing on the radio, 2012 actually was quite a good year musically. That’s what I want to show you in this, the only part surrounding new year’s festivities I don’t despise. Last year, I had a few difficulties scraping enough titles together to make a sizable year list. This year, the main trouble was to keep it constrained. There have been brilliant comeback albums, new carreer highlights for seasoned artists and just plain fantastic albums by musicians you can always count on. All this has impelled me to expand this year list to twenty titles, being these:

1. Rush – Clockwork Angels

While Canada’s Prog giants stubbornly refuse to put out anything bad, ‘Clockwork Angels’ is the first fantastic album they put out since ‘Counterparts’ (1993) and their best since releasing ‘Permanent Waves’ 32 years ago. This is one of those albums where everything is just right. The mighty riff has returned to its rightful place in Rush’s music and many of them make these monumental songs. But also the brilliantly constructed songs, the warm and authentic production and every one of the three musicians delivering their best effort in three decades adds to the quality of the album. Musically, Rush covers all the periods of their rich history, with a strong emphasis on their late seventies and early eighties work. The lyrical concept adds a continuity lacking from many contemporary albums and is augmented by a fantastic artwork. A flawless album. Recommended not only to Progheads, but to any fan of Rock music.

Recommended tracks: ‘Headlong Flight’, ‘The Garden’, ‘Clockwork Angels’

2. Soundgarden – King Animal

After the dubious quality of Chris Cornell’s last solo album, it’s good that he returns to the band that made him sound best anyway. Vocally, he sounds better on ‘King Animal’ than on anything he ever did after ‘Badmotorfinger’ and it’s good to have him backed by the powerful rhythms of Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd and the unconventional guitar work of Kim Thayil. Especially the latter was greatly missed prior to the Soundgarden reunion; it’s his psychedlic and imaginative layers of guitars that make most of the best moments on this record. Also, it’s fantastic to hear the band playing at least as good – in my opinion even better – than on their last two albums before splitting up. Everyone sounds re-energized and incredibly inspired. After Alice In Chains released a comeback album that exceeded every expectation I could probably have three years ago, Soundgarden does so this year. This is almost as good as the majestic ‘Badmotorfinger’.

Recommended tracks: ‘A Thousand Days Before’, ‘Blood On The Valley Floor’, ‘Rowing’

3. Slash – Apocalyptic Love

Though it took some time to grow on me, I’ve grown rather fond of ‘Apocalyptic Love’. And honestly: it was bound to do so. This is, after all, Slash with the best Rock singer since Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder. Yes, Myles Kennedy definitely puts his stamp on this record with his powerful high voice and expert songwriting. And having the same people backing Slash for the entire album – bassist and backing vocalist Todd Kerns and drummer Brent Fitz – also helps ‘Apocalyptic Love’ have a much greater deal of continuity than its untitled predecessor. These songs drip with the joy of playing, which gives the album a sort of festive Rock ‘n’ Roll atmosphere, with much more depth than is usual for such albums. And ‘Anastasia’ is simply one of the best Rock songs I have heard in a while. So there’s killer songs, amazing hooky choruses, fantastic solos (this is Slash after all!) and an enormous dose of energy. What more does a Rock record need?

Recommended tracks: ‘Anastasia’, ‘Bad Rain’, ‘One Last Thrill

4. Drive Like Maria – Drive Like Maria

Debut album ‘Elmwood’ already knocked me off my feet completely unexpectedly over three years ago, but their self-titled follow-up really soldifies them as the best Rock bands of Holland and Belgium. With Bram van den Berg added to their lineup, Bjorn Awouters can fully concentrate on guitar and his fantastic, soulful vocals, at times creating some incomparable guitar cooperations with Nitzan Hoffman’s sleazy, filthy riffing and soloing. What makes this album better than the debut is that the songs are more streamlined, as well as the greater deal of variation on this record. Musically, it’s still seventies Rock meets Stoner, but the experimentalism makes the album a lot more interesting than the bulk of the stuff that is out there. ‘Drive Like Maria’ rocks, swings, moves and impresses. And ‘Black Horses’ is the best song any Dutch band has released last year. By far.

Recommended tracks: ‘Black Horses’, ‘Bury My Heart In The Desert’, ‘The Dog Died Rough’

5. Accept – Stalingrad

“Isn’t there any Metal in your top 5?” Of course there is! And not one album screamed “METAL!” over the year as much as this one did. I still remember my first encounter with this album: as soon as ‘Hung, Drawn And Quartered’ – the best opening track of the entire year – started, my skin fell victim to goosebumps as my face fell to this euphoric grin. This album is Heavy Metal. Period. ‘Blood Of The Nations’ was a great comback record for Germany’s Accept, but ‘Stalingrad’ buries that album and pisses on its grave. There’s much more variation on ‘Stalingrad’ and also, I feel there’s been more emphasis on speed and melody this time. Especially the latter: there wouldn’t have been any place for the amazing ‘Shadow Soldiers’ on ‘Blood Of The Nations’, although it’s unmistakably Accept. I even want to go as far to say that ‘Stalingrad’ is the best Accept album yet. Which just shows that Udo isn’t all that necessary when there’s Wolf Hoffmann’s songwriting.

Recommended tracks: ‘Shadow Soldiers’, ‘Hung, Drawn And Quartered’, ‘The Galley’

6. OverKill – The Electric Age

‘Ironbound’, this album’s brilliant predecessor, was hard, if not downright impossible to beat. It contained OverKill’s most inspired songwriting in 15 years and had a better production than any recent OverKill album. Knowing that, ‘The Electric Age’ does come remarkably close at times. It’s definitely a step back production-wise – Ron Lipnicki’s natural drum sound on ‘Ironbound’ was much better – but this is another batch of exciting Thrash Metal songs with an amount of energy that many bands even half their age should take note of. Also, the continued injection of NWOBHM influences into OverKill’s music – ‘Save Yourself’ and ‘Electric Rattlesnake’ this time – accounts for some of the greatest moments in OverKill history. And for all those people criticizing Bobby ‘Blitz’ Ellsworth’s high shrieks: just try and do that for over thirty years without losing any power. Ellsworth is still every bit as good now as he was in his twenties. Come and get it!

Recommended tracks: ‘Save Yourself’, ‘Good Night’, ‘All Over But The Shouting’

7. Donald Fagen – Sunken Condos

Don’t mourn over the lack of a new Steely Dan record; really, the only difference between a Steely Dan record and a solo record by mastermind Donald Fagen is the presence or absence of Walter Becker. This sounds exactly like you’d expect a record with Fagen’s involvement to sound, save for maybe the greater emphasis on funky rhythms. Having said that, ‘Sunken Condos’ did sound better than I expected it to sound: at 64, Fagen still sings incredibly well and the inspiration heard doesn’t exactly tell anyone’s resting on his laurels. Compliments also go out to Fagen’s fantastic backing band, with a special mention to Jon Herington, who throws down a couple of amazing guitar solos, most notably on the album’s highlight ‘Weather In My Head’. Awesome artwork too! At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if it’s Steely Dan or not, as long as the music has Donald Fagen’s unmistakable autograph.

Recommended tracks: ‘Weather In My Head’, ‘Out Of The Ghetto’, ‘I’m Not The Same Without You’

8. Anneke van Giersbergen – Everything Is Changing

Not loving Anneke van Giersbergen’s impeccable voice is impossible. Give it a try… See? Told you that you couldn’t do it! Despite that, I didn’t expect ‘Everything Is Changing’ to be this good. With both preceding solo albums having a strong singer-songwriter vibe, hearing an album full of catchy Rock music with a slight electronic edge was a very pleasant and welcome surprise. Also, the amount of variation heard on the album is mind blowing. Piano ballads, Arena Rock, Pop, Electro-Goth… ‘Everything Has Changing’ has it all, expertly sung by the best singer Holland has to offer. In addition, it’s just good to hear Van Giersbergen’s vocals back within a Rock context, as the following tour has also proven. I don’t know if it’s producer Daniel Cardoso or Van Giersbergen herself, but I want to thank whoever is responsible for that. That enormous wall of sound is not too shabby either!

Recommended tracks: ‘You Want To Be Free’,  ‘1000 Miles Away From You’, ‘Stay’

9. Pentagram – MMXII

Someone has to wake up the big Metal record companies. I really don’t get why there’s so much uninspired Metalcore crap on the shelves and I have to import Pentagram’s records from their home country Turkey. ‘MMXII’ is the first album without the fantastic singer Murat İlkan, who I considered irreplacable. His replacement Gökalp Ergen is in fact a completely different singer and once I got used to that, I found out that ‘MMXII’ is another incredible Metal record. Ergen’s Metal vocals are much rawer than İlkan’s and his clean voice perfectly suits the traditional Turkish melodies, making him especially shine during the songs in the Turkish language. The guitars by Hakan Utangaç and Metin Türkcan are crunchier than ever, which makes the album the heaviest since their early Thrash Metal days and the sound somewhat like a Middle Eastern Metal Church. Metal Mosque maybe? Now, someone please release this in Europe!

Recommended tracks: ‘Doğmadan Önce’, ‘It’s Dawn Again’, ‘Ápokalips’

10. Bad Brains – Into The Future

Another album in the category “I can’t believe they release one of their best albums so late in their carreer”. After ‘Build A Nation’ showed an uninspired, almost bored H.R. on vocals, I wasn’t expecting ‘Into The Future’ to be such a fresh, inspired record. Dr. Know’s Hardcore riffs are more vigorous than they have been the last two decades, Darryl Jenifer’s underrated bass playing is all over the place and H.R. definitely sounds like he wants to be there this time. Some of the songs have a slight Metal edge to them, making these moments sound a little like the brilliant ‘Quickness’ album (1989). The album’s highlight ‘Popcorn’, with its monstrous groove, for instance. Also, the Reggae tracks have an electronic edge to them this time, making them much more interesting than most of the earlier Reggae stuff. All this adds to the best album in over twenty years released by the best ever Punk band. The fact that I don’t even like Punk should say enough about this album’s class.

Recommended tracks: ‘Popcorn’, ‘Youth Of Today’, ‘Earnest Love’

11. Graveyard – Lights Out

I love the seventies. I often refer to the decade as “the glorious seventies” on this weblog and that is purely based on the brilliance of many musical works of that era. The members of Sweden’s Graveyard probably agree with me, since ‘Lights Out’ has – both compositionally as sonically – a warm, very authentic seventies sound unrivaled by any other contemporary band (save for maybe Stone Axe). Bluesy riffs, powerful vocals – singer/guitarist Joakim Nilsson’s voice is somewhat of a mixture between Chris Cornell and David Coverdale in his youngest years – and passionate solos… What more can a fan of seventies Hard Rock ask for? Especially when it sounds so sincere as on ‘Lights Out’; nowhere does the band seem to be forcing a retro sound like so many bands do these days. A very welcome to today’s musical canon and I’m very grateful to my chief editor Mark van Schaick for acquainting me with this great band.

Recommended tracks: ‘Endless Night’, ‘Seven Seven’, ‘Goliath’

12. Dew-Scented – Icarus

Although Dew-Scented is technically a German band, I kind of see ‘Icarus’ as a Dutch triumph. From its direct predecessor ‘Invocation’, only vocalist Leif Jensen remained in the band. The rest was replaced by an entirely Dutch pack of musicians. Especially guitarist Marvin Vriesde – who has been in the band on a stand-in basis a lot (no really, a lot!) throughout the years – puts an indelible stamp on this album. Dew-Scented still has their trademark sound on ‘Icarus’ – a high-speed, brutal blend of Thrash and Death Metal led by Jensen’s trademark bark – but Vriesde’s songwriting lifts this above what is average for the band. Also, his guitar solos are injected with a little more melody than you may have come to expect if you know Dew-Scented from their ‘Impact’ heyday. When all is said and done, ‘Icarus’ is above all a fantastic Thrash Metal record, bursting with energy and aggression. Excellent.

Recommended tracks: ‘Thrown To The Lions’, ‘The Fall Of Man’, ‘Sworn To Obey’

13. Heart – Fanatic

For those of you who only know their eighties work: Heart is most definitely not a Pop band. Back in the seventies, they were the band that most closely resembled Led Zeppelin. Their recent work is a little more subdued, but still fantastic Rock music. That is the main merit about ‘Fanatic’: it shows the band around the Wilson sisters as a Hard Rock band first and foremost. As always, the Rock sounds are combined with a rootsy, American Folk sound and slightly psychedelic touches, with fantastic results. ‘Fanatic’ is an album that shows Ann and Nancy Wilson remarkably comfortable with the music they’re creating. This creates quite a laidback atmosphere and if you think that contradicts with the Hard Rock elements, just check out stuff like ’59 Crunch’ or the title track to hear that these ladies can rock. Also, it’s incredible how amazing Ann Wilson’s voice still is at 62. Now all we need is a European tour!

Recommended tracks: ‘A Million Miles’, ‘Corduroy Road’, ‘Mashallah’

14. Golden Earring – Tits ‘n  Ass

Golden Earring has always made me proud to be from The Hague. ‘Tits ‘n Ass’ (please look past that title) consolidates that. It’s the first album in almost a decade for Holland’s biggest Rock band, but it’s also their best in three decades. After all the experimenting with electronic sounds in the eighties and fully acoustic music in the nineties, this album shows the band doing what they do best: they rock! It’s immediately audible that the band had a lot of fun making this album. The fourteen songs are inspired and powerful. The vocal interplay between Barry Hay and George Kooymans works as well as it always has, the rhythm section of Rinus Gerritsen and Cesar Zuiderwijk pounds harder than it has in a long time and guests Frank Carillo (guitars) and Jan Rooymans (keyboards) add a lot of depth to the album. It’s hard to believe that a band can do something so amazing five decades into their carreer, yet it’s true. And the only possible reason is that they have a hell of a lot of fun doing it.

Recommended tracks: ‘Identical’, ‘Stratosphere’, ‘Avenue Of Broken Dreams’

15. Prong – Carved Into Stone

Respect is something I will always have for Tommy Victor. A strong guitarist, a guy who doesn’t let him be told what to do and someone who doesn’t give up easily. However, I haven’t ever been able to enjoy a Prong album start to finish. Until ‘Carved Into Stone’ came out, that is. Several years ago, Victor kicked Al Jourgenson’s teeth in with his guitar work on Ministry’s recent albums and that vigor is finally used for a Prong album. ‘Carved Into Stone’ is one intense, angry and powerful son of a bitch. There is enough variation to hold the listener’s attention throughout the album, especially by switching between fast-paced Thrash Metal passages, stomping Hardcore rhythms and melodic, anthemic choruses. Bassist Tony Campos and especially drummer Alex Rodriguez do an amazing job backing up Victor as well. ‘Carved Into Stone’ is the perfect soundtrack to frustration, aggression and eventually looking down on the ones who caused those.

Recommended tracks: ‘List Of Grievances’, ‘Revenge…Best Served Cold’, ‘Eternal Heat’

16. Baroness – Yellow & Green

Many double albums suffer from a lack of enough inspiration to actually justify its length. Baroness is such an artistically sound band, that they wouldn’t let that happen. In fact ‘Yellow & Green’ is nothing less than an impressive effort. Baroness reinvents themselves on every record they do and ‘Yellow & Green’ is no exception. It’s easily recognizable as the psychedelic mixture of Rock, Hardcore and Metal they’re known for, but there’s a much more melodic quality to this album. Some of the songs are incredibly catchy, despite their strong sense of psychedelia and as such, are somewhat reminiscent of The Beatles’ later work. The first record (‘Yellow’) is somewhat more song-oriented than the second (‘Green’), but as a whole, this is an incredibly pleasant listen. And when John Dyer Baizley and Peter Adams, both extraordinary guitarists, sing together, the most beautiful moments of the albums appear. Another work of art in the Baroness canon, playing with moods and shading so much, that admiration is the only just reaction.

Recommended tracks: ‘Take My Bones Away’, ‘Eula’, ‘Sea Lungs’, ‘Board Up The House’

17. ZZ Top – La Futura

‘La Futura’ might be a somewhat ironic title for a band that’s been around for over four decades, but then again, the album also shows that the trio is more than ready for “la futura”. Frank Beard’s typically swinging rhythms have been decorated with a contemporary, sometimes somewhat electronic sound that strangely doesn’t distract from the music. Of course, ZZ Top’s rootsy Boogie has always been quite dancable and will always be recognizable as ZZ Top when it has Billy Gibbons’ dirty, fuzz-drenched guitar licks and sandpaper voice. Having said that, ‘La Futura’ still shows Gibbons, Beard and bassist Dusty Hill playing the old-fashioned Texas blues that they are known for. The modern edge just gives the band a little more viability in the 21st century. Not that they really needed that, they just seem to be interested in laying down a good groove, a filthy riff and a swinging shuffle. And as long as they keep doing that, they’ll be viable for me.

Recommended tracks: ‘I Don’t Wanna Lose, Lose, You’, ‘Chatreuse’, ‘It’s Too Easy Mañana’

18. Picture – Warhorse

Picture was Holland’s very first Heavy Metal band and for that, they already deserve all the respect they can get. But at the time, nobody could expect that they would release their best album (yet) in 2012. All the elements are just right in place on ‘Warhorse’. The guitar riffs are undeniably old school Heavy Metal, but played with a youthful vigor and enthusiasm that is goosebumps inducing. Pete Lovell is the best singer the band has ever had (with Shmoulik Avigal being the close second) and his forceful vocals lift this record to an even higher level, as do the anthemic, shout-along choruses, all of which profits from the amazing production. But most of all, the songs on ‘Warhorse’ are just incredibly well-written. This is the album the band should have made, but was never allowed to make after ‘Eternal Dark’. The title track of that record is even reworked for this album, but it doesn’t even stand out as the best track on the album. Fantastic. Just fantastic.

Recommended tracks: ‘Killer In My Sights’, ‘Battle Plan’, ‘Edge Of Hell’

19. Enslaved – Riitiir

Not being a Black Metal fan at all, I never had a problem with Norway’s Enslaved moving increasingly further away from that genre. ‘Riitiir’ is – so far – the culmination of Enslaved moving into the realms of Progmetal, with most of the songs approaching – in one case even exceeding – the ten-minute mark and an increasing amount of effort going into unexpected twists and gradually building up songs. Also, Herbrand Larsen’s downright beautiful clean vocals and psychedelic layers of keyboards seem to receive more room than ever here and that for me the best decision the band ever could have made. In addition, the album has a warm and spacious sound enhancing the near dreamy atmosphere of many passages. Ice Dale is an incredible lead guitarist as well, as evidenced through a couple of fantastic Bluesy leads. Only Grutle Kjellson’s harsh vocals still annoy the fuck out of me, but at least they’re not all that dominant on “Riiitiir’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Roots Of The Mountain’, ‘Forsaken’, ‘Veilburner’

20. John Coffey – Bright Companions

Widely promoted as a Hardcore record, but essentially being so much more than that, ‘Bright Companions’ was one of the biggest surprises from my own country this last year. Easily combining several sub-genres of Punk with a sleazy Rock ‘n’ Roll energy and even a Stoner edge, John Coffey’s music can really only be classified as dirty, energetic and powerful. The guitars of Christoffer van Teijlingen and Alfred van Luttikhuizen get their edge from fuzz rather than distortion and the songs are full of unexpected twists and turns. As such, Refused is an obvious influence for John Coffey, but they’re not a soundalike. Instead, the band comes across as a band that just does whatever they feel like doing with little care for genre limitations and expectations. As a result, ‘Bright Companions’ is highly spontaneous and one of the best Hardcore records ever to be released by a Dutch band.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bright Companions’, ‘Oh, Oh, Calamity’, ‘Whispers’, ‘The Well’