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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)

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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’

Kevy Metal complains: Female fronted Metal


No, this isn’t going to be a manifest against women in Metal. In fact, I have no problem with women in Metal bands, as long as it’s actually good what they are doing. Just like with men. And that’s a part of what annoys me; the term “female fronted Metal” is used these days as if its still some sort of oddity, conjuring up the idea that it’s still inferior to…let’s say “male fronted Metal”. Seriously, I have no idea why I should care about the gender, ethnic background, religion, language, sexual preference, political orientation or whatever of the musicians I’m listening to. Okay, I’ll admit that I chuckle at a funny accent every now and then, but that’s it. I love accents.

Of course, some bands are bound to draw some attraction because there are people involved of a certain gender, skin color or country that are not commonly associated with the genre. In the case of Metal, that would mean anyone who isn’t a white man from the US, England, Germany or Scandinavia. And a Latino in the American Thrash Metal scene – the west coast in particular – isn’t all that uncommon either. I just thought that three decades after Doro Pesch and Sabina Classen, we’d all be a little less surprised by the presence of women in the scene.

The term was once coined to describe the Goth scene that was blooming in the late nineties. The kind of bands with the classically schooled sopranos fronting generally atmospheric, keyboard-laden Metal. Today, it seems to be a marketing stunt to give every band with a woman fronting that label. But let’s be frank: what do Lacuna Coil, Arch Enemy, Nightwish, Triosphere, The Gathering, Girlschool and early Heart really have in common musically that they don’t have in common with other bands in their genre?

Another problem I have with the term “female fronted Metal” is how it’s used as a marketing tool by many labels – “dude, check this out, there’s a chick between all these ugly dudes!” – these days without any regard of the music that is actually on the records. It already puzzles me that some record stores in Holland have sections dedicated to music in the Dutch language, capturing vastly different bands under the same category, but dividing music based on the gender of the one who sings the song is just ridiculous.

Can’t we just drop the “female fronted” affix and just call the music out by its actual genre? Using it still suggests that the music is inferior to its male counterparts. As if Warlock’s classic ‘Triumph And Agony’ and ‘Hellbound’, Crystal Viper’s fantastic debut album, Holy Moses’ ‘The New Machine Of Liechtenstein’ and – somewhat more recent – A Sound Of Thunder’s brilliant ‘Time’s Arrow’ aren’t “regular” Metal classics in their own right. I don’t know if it’s the promo departments of the record labels or the scene itself that has done this to Metal – I have an idea though – but looking at this matter: isn’t it just time to grow up?

In Memoriam Paco de Lucía 1947-2014


When I was deliberately forcing flamenco onto myself, it didn’t take long until I ended up with Paco de Lucía’s music. Although the passion common in the genre and his mindblowing dexterity make him the rightful household name within the flamenco nuevo movement, his position as such wasn’t always undisputed. Traditionalist flamenco fans were put off by the fact that he incorporated alien genres into his music, jazz first and foremost. His ‘Siroco’ album, however, is arguably one of the most popular flamenco records of all time. One of the best too. Sadly, De Lucía passed away last week at age 66.

De Lucía’s guitar playing sounds from my speakers quite frequently; one of my all time favorite records is ‘Friday Night In San Francisco’, on which he cooperated with jazz guitar legends Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin. The record popularized acoustic guitar music for a while and the chemistry between the three is instantly audible. Both McLaughlin and Di Meola play wonderfully on that record, however, De Lucía’s instinctive fingerwork truly makes him the star of the friday night in question.

But that’s not the only enjoyable record in the extended oeuvre of De Lucía. He will always be remembered in his home country of Spain for his legendary work with singer Camarón de la Isla. However, as a fan of instrumental flamenco guitar music, I urge everyone with the same curiosity I had for the genre a couple of years ago to check out his brilliant solo records ‘Solo Quiero Caminar’, the aforementioned ‘Siroco’ and the fantastic live record of his sextet, ‘Live…One Summer Night’. Spanish passion hardly gets any better than that.

In Paco de Lucía, the world didn’t only lose one of its greatest guitarists, we lost a composer of inhuman brilliance, a fearless innovator and someone who broke down boundaries. He will be sorely missed. Please let me share this brilliant performance of one of the ‘Friday Night In San Francisco’ highlights with you. It’s Al Di Meola’s ‘Mediterranean Sundance’, but De Lucía gets all the room to shine here.

Album of the Week 06-2014: Bruce Dickinson – The Chemical Wedding


In the late nineties, Iron Maiden was struggling to maintain their level of popularity without Bruce Dickinson fronting the band. He pursued a solo carreer, initially opting for a completely different sound, but when he reunited with Adrian Smith – another Maiden alumnus who has since returned – he came out with two albums that seemed like an unsollicited application back into the Metal realm. ‘Accident Of Birth’ was good, but ‘The Chemical Wedding’ is vastly superior in terms of songwriting and conceptual continuity. And Dickinson is in optima forma. All this contributes to one of the very best Heavy Metal albums of the nineties.

Besides Smith and Dickinson, Roy Z and two members of his Latin Hardrock band Tribe Of Gypsies – bassist Eddie Casillas and drummer David Ingraham – are an indispensable part of what makes this album so brilliant. First of all, Roy Z is responsible for the bulk of the songwriting duties. The ultra heavy guitar sound heard on this album is most likely his influence as well. Ingraham isn’t exactly your typical Metal drummer with just about no double bass work, but his rhythms are extremely powerful. Also, his drum sound is among the best I have ever heard.

While Maiden was exploring the beginnings of the quasi-Prog sound that is present on much of their recent output, ‘The Chemical Wedding’ is powerful, blazing Heavy Metal with one of the best singers of the genre on top of it. The guitars sound vicious and that isn’t just a matter of the punch in their sound, it’s also the riffs that are just killer. You’d have to listen no further than the mindblowing opener ‘King In Crimson’ to come to that conclusion. The heavy riffs make way for a supreme, goosebumps inducing build-up in the pre-chorus, followed by Dicksinson at his best in the chorus.

And despite it being one of the best tracks of Dickinson’s carreer – both solo and with Maiden – there’s plenty more to enjoy on this album. The epic ‘Book Of Thel’ contains a number of awesome riffs and bass work by Casillas, the incredibly heavy ‘Trumpets Of Jericho’ has the most stomping riffs of the album and Dickinson proving why he is “the air raid siren” in the chorus and ‘Machine Men’ is a powerful composition in the best Smith/Dickinson tradition. Ironically, the most Maiden-sounding track on the album is a Dickinson/Roy Z collaboration named ‘The Tower’. Another shining moment for Casillas. But the absolute highlight – besides ‘King In Crimson’ – is the epic semi-ballad ‘Jerusalem’, which combines William Blake’s poem ‘And Did Those Feet In Ancient Times’ with a perfect exercise in tension building.

‘The Chemical Wedding’ was the last album Bruce Dickinson cut before returning to Iron Maiden for the almost equally amazing ‘Brave New World’ album. It’s a true pity that Dickinson’s return to Maiden doesn’t allow him to work with Roy Z as much as he used to, because these two have real chemistry – no pun intended. And it’s not just the songwriting; Dickinson truly shines as a singer here. This is an album that should be heard by any Metal fan with a sane mind. Only to have it blown away later.

Recommended tracks: ‘King In Crimson’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Trumpets Of Jericho’, ‘The Tower’

Album of the Week 05-2014: Barış Manço – Yeni Bir Gün


Discovering Turkish music a couple of years ago was like unveiling a treasure trove to me. One of the first artists from that country to truly have a great appeal to me was Barış Manco. His warm voice and always surprising musical backing, combined with his awesome looks made me dig as deeply as possible to find his material. I quickly discovered that a lot of the stuff I liked was either on ‘2023’ and ‘Yeni Bir Gün’. Luckily, Guerssen Records have made both of these albums available for the western market recently, finally offering me a decent opportunity to add this fantastic album to my collection.

Backing Manço on this record is in many ways the most durable lineup of the Kurtalan Ekspres. The incomparable Ahmet Güvenç, quite possibly the best bass player I have ever heard, had already proven his value on the essential classic that is Erkin Koray’s ‘Elektronic Türküler’ and once again truly shines on ‘Yeni Bir Gün’. Also present here is the guitar work of Bahadır Akkuzu, although the guitar isn’t quite as prominent on here as it was on ‘2023’. It’s Kiliç Danışman’s typically seventies synth work that takes that place here, sometimes lending a distinct Disco flavor to the songs, together with Caner Bora’s drum work, but without the irritating elements of the genre.

Manço has written much of the material heard on this album and he obviously had a musically impressive environment as his goal. That means he doesn’t even sing on some of the best material. The two instrumentals on this album are among the best material on here. ‘Çoban Yıldızı’ can best be described as Middle-Eastern ambient and serves as a fantastic moodsetter for one of my favorite songs on the album, being ‘Bir Selam Sana Gönül Dağlarından’, with its killer Güvenç bass line and driving rhythms. The other instrumental track combines ‘2024’, a spine-chillingly beautiful piano piece by Danışman, and ‘İkinci Yolculuk’, an awesome ensemble piece with some solo spots.

Other highlights include opening track ‘Sarı Çizmeli Mehmet Ağa’, with its fantastic intro melody and powerful chorus, and the heartfelt ballad ‘Aynalı Kemer İnce Bele’, which has yet another chorus that is guaranteed to get stuck in your head. The apotheosis of ‘Yeni Bir Gün’ is arguably the titular suite that closes it. Through several movements that seem to reflect the passing of a day. Or maybe a life. Moving from more tranquil sections (‘Yeni Bir Gün Doğdu Merhaba’) to more dense instrumental work (the awesome ‘Ne Köy Olur Benden, Ne De Kasaba’) to round things off with the monumental ‘Elveda Ölüm’, this is an impressive composition for which Manço and Kurtalan Ekspres deserve all the praise they can get.

Guitar freaks may be slightly better off with ‘2023’, but both that album and ‘Yeni Bir Gün’ are impressive achievements of Manço and Kurtalan Ekspres. The songs on ‘Yeni Bir Gün’ are awesome without exception and the performances are nothing less than amazing. The Guerssen re-release does have some weird sequencing issues, putting together songs in one track that don’t necessarily belong together, but when you just listen to the album, none of that is apparent. That’s when the true genius shines through in 45 minutes of musical mastery.

Recommended tracks: ‘Bir Selam Sana Gönül Dağlarından’, ‘Aynalı Kemer İnce Bele’, ‘Çoban Yıldızı’

Album of the Week 04-2014: Navarone – A Darker Shade Of White


Earlier this week, I already professed my love for Navarone. In fact, while today is a fantastic time to keep an eye out for good Dutch Rock bands, I still think Navarone towers above many of them. Hailing from a town that has spawned many amazing Dutch bands in recent years – Nijmegen, to be exact – Navarone plays a fantastic brand of Led Zeppelin-inspired Hardrock with a distinct contemporary twist that makes them just a tad more interesting than the average retro Rock band these days. Still, it contains every element that made many of the classic Rock records; huge riffs, hooky songwriting and fantastic, soaring vocals.

My interest in Navarone was awakened by a piece of Dutch music journalist Jan Vollaard. The man is a huge fan of The Black Crowes – as any music fan should be – who compared the band to the Crowes, claiming ‘A Darker Shade Of White’ to be the best Dutch Rock album he had heard in a long time. I’ve heard that before, but these guys really live up to that label. Merijn van Haaren has the best throat I had heard in a long time and his high voice with a slight rough edge is an important part of what makes this album fantastic instead of just good.

Then there’s the guitar work. Kees Lewiszong and Roman Huijbreghs have perfectly mastered the monolithic riffing of a Led Zeppelin, but their leads are nothing short of impressive either. In the instrumental track that has a quarter rest symbol as a title and the extended psychedelic jamming of ‘Sage’, they have proven themselves more than proficient in soundscaping as well and Robin Assen has the best drum sound I have heard in a long time. Also, the band really knows how to work the dynamics in their songs, giving every section exactly the right amount of power.

Given the material at hand, ‘The Red Queen Effect’ is the perfect opener for this album. With its swinging rhythms and amazing chorus, it gives out a good impression for the album. The horns give the song a subtle soul edge not unlike the first two albums of The Black Crowes. ‘On My Knees’ is a similar kind of Rock song with a fantastic chorus. But this album’s true diamond in the rough is the perfect build-up of the moving power ballad ‘December’. That song provided one of the two goosebumps moments at Eurosonic Noorderslag last week. How this song builds from small and insecure to the heartfelt, passionate cry it become in the end is nearly unbelievable.

As I’ve said before: today is a great time to pay attention to Dutch Rock bands, but Navarone is without a doubt one of the best of them. Currently, the band is in the studio recording their second album and judging from the material heard so far, it’s going to be of similar class as ‘A Darker Shade Of White’. Until then, help yourself through this album. It’s a promising debut from a band hopefully capable of much, much more.

Recommended tracks: ‘December’, ‘The Red Queen Effect’, ‘On My Knees’

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