Posts Tagged ‘ Progressive Rock ’

In Memoriam Chris Cornell 1964-2017


Now this one came as a shock. Last week, I even reviewed the best album Chris Cornell was ever a part of and now, he is dead. Despite making a few dubious artistic choices throughout his career, Cornell had one colossal voice and has written a bunch of downright fantastic songs. His death is still shrouded in mystery at the moment, but it occurred only hours after a sold out Soundgarden show in Detroit. It’s hard to say anything useful at the moment, but let me at least pay a little tribute to – by far – the best male singer from the Seattle rock scene.

Despite ultimately being one of the biggest bands of the Seattle scene of the early nineties, Soundgarden started as early as 1984. Kim Thayil is often credited for the unique guitar tapestries of the band, but Cornell was quite the guitar player himself and their interaction was an essential part of the heavy, yet melodic and deliberately awkward sound of the band. Cornell either wrote or co-wrote a significant portion of the band’s output. Soundgarden had some of the most natural sounding odd time measures in the music business and a bunch of riffs that within Seattle were only rivaled by Alice In Chains in terms of heaviness.

Soundgarden was one of the more interesting rock bands that Seattle had in the eighties, but it wasn’t until 1991 that Cornell found his voice. Both litterally and in terms of songwriting. That’s the year when Temple Of The Dog released its sole album in April and Soundgarden released their massive ‘Badmotorfinger’ in October. Two monumental records with Cornell’s voice on them. ‘Temple Of The Dog’ was a strong tribute to the late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood which also featured the recording debut of one Eddie Vedder and ‘Badmotorfinger’ showed Cornell almost litterally outdoing himself with songs like ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’, ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Outshined’.

While it meant Soundgarden’s breakthrough and artistic highlight, the band didn’t reach its peak in popularity with 1994’s ‘Superunknown’. Five successful singles were released from that album, the most popular of which – the monster hit ‘Black Hole Sun’ – won two Grammy Awards. Personally, I always preferred the gloomy ‘Fell On Black Days’. After one more album in 1996 – ‘Down On The Upside’ – Soundgarden split up and Cornell focused on his own projects. Always an experimental guy, he tried out several genres and while I don’t agree with every decision he made – the R&B record ‘Scream’ that he made with producer Timbaland is borderline embarrassing – he deserves a lot of respect for trying.

In the meantime, Cornell also formed Audioslave with all members of Rage Against The Machine except for singer Zack de la Rocha. They had a couple of hits, but eventually the former bands of all members involved would reunite. That included Soundgarden, whose 2012 release ‘King Animal’ battle’s Alice In Chains’ ‘Black Gives Way To Blue’ for the title of best comeback album ever made by a rock band. Thayil, Cornell, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron seemed to be very serious about reuniting for good, but while on tour, Cornell passed away.

Besides the songs, we would have to remember Cornell for having a sense of humor that didn’t ruin his music. How else would you explain the hilarious glam rock and hair metal parody that is ‘Big Dumb Sex’? Sadly, there is very little that fans of his voice can laugh about today, but we are luckily still left with recordings of his amazing voice and I suggest we play it as loud as we can. I’ll start.

Album of the Week 18-2017: Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger


Along with Alice In Chains, Soundgarden is one of the very few bands from the early nineties Seattle scene that is actually appreciated among heavy metal audiences. The band’s third album ‘Badmotorfinger’ clearly shows why. The noisy punk leanings or mainstream ambitions that many of the band’s peers did have are absent here. Instead, ‘Badmotorfinger’ is full of heavy riff work reminiscent of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and odd time signatures with ditto rhythms. And while the songs did streamline the band’s sound, it does so without sacrificing even the slightest bit of the Seattlites’ unique character and approach.

Compared to the album’s direct predecessor ‘Louder Than Love’, ‘Badmotorfinger’ sounds significantly more focused. The songs are harder-edged and while there is still a great deal of variation to be found on the record, the quartet doesn’t need quite as much time to get to the point here. However, the biggest improvement to be heard on ‘Badmotorfinger’ is in Chris Cornell’s voice. With this album and Temple Of The Dog’s sole release, 1991 prove to be the year that he transformed from a promising rock singer to a powerhouse vocalist with a massive range. Hardly anyone has come close since.

Ultimately, any of these improvements would be meaningless if the songs weren’t any good. Luckily, ‘Badmotorfinger’ is the most consistent set of songs Soundgarden has yet released. The band found a way to combine their love for odd measures with memorable melodies without having to alternate between those extremes. ‘Outshined’, for instance, feels like a catchy rock song despite its 7/4 meter and heavy riff and ‘Room A Thousand Years Wide’ is such a pleasant listen, that you hardly realize that the 6/4 rhythm that it’s built upon is quite unconventional. ‘Badmotorfinger’ is filled with such moments. It’s always a good thing when a band isn’t trying to be too clever with these things.

‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ is the ultimate proof of just how heavy Soundgarden could get: Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell pump out some crushing riffs, while the latter belts his heart out in the chorus. ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ has Matt Cameron’s incredible rhythms and the propulsive riff work pounding relentlessly underneath yet another amazing Cornell performance and opening track ‘Rusty Cage’ manages to be heavy and hypnotizing at the same time. ‘Holy Water’ is somewhat reminiscent of Alice In Chains and some songs are weirdly, but successfully decorated with horns. New bassist Ben Shepherd’s love for punk shines through the wonderfully aggressive ‘Face Pollution’.

Before ‘Badmotorfinger’, Soundgarden was a decent band that occasionally lost their way halfway through meandering songs. The increased focus did help the band a great deal, because ‘Badmotorfinger’ is easily one of the best records of its era. Terry Date’s production, which gave the band’s bottom end a not so subtle punch without damaging the clear highs, is another important factor in why the album sounds so good. And while its follow-up ‘Superunknown’ would definitively propel the band into stardom, ‘Badmotorfinger’ still stands as the bands ultimate artistic statement. One on which rock, metal, punk and pop melt into one irresistible whole.

Recommended tracks: ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, ‘Rusty Cage’, ‘Jesus Christ Pose’

Renewed Noise: Voivod


When BMG Rights Entertainment secured the rights to the legendary German heavy metal label Noise Records, it was celebrated by a bunch of entertaining compilations. “Amazing” would be one step too far, because they contained nothing new for those who followed the label during their glory days – roughly from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties – but good enough to remind us why it was such a good thing that they put bands like Skyclad, Running Wild and Kreator in the market. A compilation of Canada’s immensely creative Voivod made came later, which is now followed by full reissues of their three Noise releases.

Contrary to the compilation albums, the reissues of ‘Rrröööaaarrr’ (I’m not making this up), ‘Killing Technology’ and ‘Dimension Hatröss’ do contain a wealth of bonus material that was previously either not or very limitedly available. All three releases consist of 2 cd’s and one dvd. This often means that the band or label has cleaned the vaults and just threw every poor quality recording they could find on there. While that is true for a majority of the video footage on the dvd’s, the bonus cd’s all feature soundboard recorded concerts with a surprisingly good sound quality.

Most of these live tracks are from demos and fan club releases that the band has released throughout the years and that might explain why they sound so good. Sure, they’re a little rough around the edges – the ‘No Speed Limit Week-End’ live show that comes with ‘Rrröööaarrr’ is almost too raw – but they’re release-worthy. In fact, the live cd that comes with ‘Dimension Hatröss’ – entitled ‘A Flawed Structure?’ – is more or less on par with the official 2011 live album ‘Warriors Of Ice’. Not only is every instrument loud and clear; the mix is quite balanced, though it does favor the late Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour’s guitars. But then again: who doesn’t?

So should you be getting these re-releases? I would say that ‘Dimension Hatröss’ is indispensable. Though my favorite is still ‘Nothingface’, ‘Dimension Hatröss’ is the essential Voivod album. It’s where they first stretched their sound well beyond the boundaries of thrash metal, creating a progressive sci-fi metal sound that made them a truly unique band. And the bonus live recordings are a very worthy addition to any metal collection. The live footage on the bonus dvd isn’t as good, but at least the entire album is on it in demo form, as well as some of drummer Michel ‘Away’ Langevin’s cool artworks.

As for the other two: ‘Killing Technology’ is a brilliant progressive thrash record and its bonus live cd ‘Spectrum ’87’ is raw, but very listenable. By all means, get it if it’s not in your collection already, because it’s one of the best thrash albums of its time. That leaves ‘Rrröööarrr’. A record I have to be in the mood for, as it’s basically all fast, all loud, all heavy, all the damn time. It’s good that the album is easily available again, but don’t let it be your introduction to Voivod. If it is, you may not understand what all the praise is really about.

These reissues all come with fairly extensive booklets with essays by UK music journalist Malcolm Dome, decorated with quotes from interviews with all four original members. And while it is a bit awkward to see D’Amour quoted as if he is still alive – he died in 2005 – the booklets do offer a bit of interesting information about the recordings of the albums and the circumstances Voivod found itself in during those years. The band is allegedly planning to record its fourteenth album later this year and if it will be anywhere near as good as their last two releases, that is really good news. Until then, this is a very pleasant way to rediscover the sonic evolution they went through in the mid to late eighties.

Album of the Week 09-2017: Onmyo-za – Fuujin Kaikou


With the genre nearing five decades of existence, finding unique sounding metal is becoming increasingly difficult. Onmyo-za somehow succeeds at doing so without attempting anything too far-fetched. Their riffs and twin melodies are generally from the traditional heavy metal and hard rock mold, but their open-minded approach to songwriting allows for a spontaneous sound that contains elements of J-rock, progrock and hints of Japanese folk. Also, singing couple Kuroneko and bass playing band leader Matatabi forsakes the “Beauty and the Beast” approach of most metallic male-female singing duos in favor of something more melodic, further emphasizing their highly original nature.

‘Fuujin Kaikou’ is the wind-themed half of a diptych with the simultaneously released – and thunder-themed – ‘Raijin Sousei’. That doesn’t mean it’s all soft and subdued though; in fact, there are plenty of riff-driven metal anthems like ‘Ichimokuren’, ‘Tsumujikaze’ and the excellent opener ‘Kamikaze’ present. However, it is the more melodic and better – by a hair – of the two. This approach leaves all the room Kuroneko needs to deliver her best vocal performance to date and often lays the guitars of Maneki and Kurakan on an atmospheric, but never overpowering symphonic bed. And even the ballads – there’s quite a few of them – are remarkably powerful.

To start with the latter category: Kuroneko’s composition ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’ is the most beautiful, goosebumps-inducing ballad the band has ever released. It’s the only song on the record where the orchestral tracks take over the guitars, but it fits the beautiful, cinematic atmosphere of the song perfectly. Both guitar solos are simply breathtaking as well. This does not disqualify the other calmer songs though; ‘Manazashi’ and ‘Hebimiko’ are somewhat more traditional, but excellent ballads and ‘Yaobikuni’ brings to mind Dio’s lighter sounding singles from the late eighties.

On the – slightly – heavier side of things, ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’ is a true highlight. With a great build-up, highly climactic lead guitar themes and a downright spectacular chorus that has Matatabi and Kuroneko duetting beautifully, the song is simply a lesson in how to write a mindblowing melodic metal song. ‘Saredo Itsuwari No Okuribi’ is somewhat more subdued, but still a great metal song with irresistible melodies. ‘Muufuu Ninpocho’ features a godly bass sound courtesy of Matatabi and is a bit more rocky, as is the – almost traditionally – upbeat closing track ‘Haru Ranman Ni Shiki No Mau Nari’. Both of those are songs that could sound horribly out of place on a metal record, but the general atmosphere makes them work here.

Exploring Onmyo-za’s discography can be a bit intimidating for a westerner, due to the fact that every song and album title is in Japanese, but ultimately, it will be a rewarding experience. Their unique sound somehow feels familiar and highly original at the same time, which was exactly what yours truly was looking for at the time he discovered them. Their status as one of the more popular Japanese metal bands is absolutely justified and listening to ‘Fuujin Kaikou’ – or really almost any of their albums – is highly recommended.

Recommended tracks: ‘Yue Ni Sono Toki Koto Kaze No Gotoku’, ‘Kumo Wa Ryuu Ni Mai, Kaze Wa Tori Ni Utau’, ‘Kamikaze’

Album of the Week 08-2017: Czesław Niemen – Niemen


Some singers are so good that you don’t have to understand the words they are singing in order to appreciate them. Case in point, Polish rock pioneer Czesław Niemen. With a voice that combines the power of a rock singer with the raw passion of blues and soul singers and a musical style that brings together elements of progressive rock, fusion, soul, folk and – later on – early electronic music, there’s no escaping the music even without understanding Polish. While its predecessor ‘Enigmatic’ is often considered the pinnacle of his work, ‘Niemen’ is the one where all elements are in perfect balance.

Alternately, the album is known as ‘Czerwony Album’ – the red album – for obvious reasons. It is also sold under the title ‘Człowiek Jam Niewdzięczny’, after its massive twenty minute opening track, which yours truly considers Niemen’s crowning achievement. The main sections are pushed forward by Janusz Zieliński’s simple, but brutally effective bass line and Niemen’s forceful, heartfelt vocals, while its middle section is lead by the fanastic improvisations of his backing band. Even Zieliński and drummer Czesław Mały-Bartkowski get extended solo spots, while guitarist Tomasz Jaśkiewicz and hammond organist Jacek Mikuła go nuts with strong, surprisingly passionate accompanied solos.

But while that monumental opening track is without any doubt the centerpiece of ‘Niemen’, there’s over fifty minutes of additional quality material on the album. The strong interaction between the musicians is more than apparent in the fantastic instrumental ‘Enigmatyczne Impresje’, which along the opening track is easily the most proggy moment on the record and again features amazing soloing by both Mikuła and Jaśkiewicz, while Niemen sounds like a man begging on his knees and surrendering everything he’s got in the highly soulful ‘Nie Jesteś Moja’, a surprisingly succesful European rock take on the Stax Records releases of the late sixties.

Other moments on ‘Niemen’ are significantly more accessible. ‘Wróć Jeszcze Dziś’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a seventies pop radio station if it would have had English lyrics and the same goes for ‘Zechcesz Mnie, Zechcesz’, the latter partially because of Jaśkiewicz’ notably cleaner guitar sound. ‘Italiam, Italiam’ is unsurprisingly the track that would later appear on many compilations and the main section of ‘Chwila Ciszy’ brings to mind Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’. The flute-led sections of ‘Sprzedaj Mnie Wiatrowi’ and ‘Aerumnarum Plenus’ are reminiscent of the folky, pastoral sound of early British prog bands and the stomping ‘Muzyko Moja’ closes off the album on a high, albeit somewhat abrupt note.

Following ‘Niemen’, the singer and multi-instrumentalist that gave the record its name would continue to experiment with different styles, from the more fusion driven direction on ‘Niemen Aerolit’ to the increasingly electronic sounds that would characterize his output from the late seventies onward. Always with that incredible, incomparable voice. He kept on releasing strange, but deeply sincere music almost until his death in 2004, leaving behind a legacy that transcends boundaries, musically as well as culturally. Don’t let the Polish language keep you from hearing this remarkable musician, who also happens to be one of the best singers I have ever heard.

Recommended tracks: ‘Człowiek Jam Niewdzięczny’, ‘Enigmatyczne Impresje’, ‘Muzyko Moja’

Album of the Week 04-2017: Navarone – Oscillation


When you listen to ‘Oscillation’ for the first time, you’ll immediately notice something has changed. The music is still instantly recognizable as Navarone; the big, beefy hardrock riffs are still there and Merijn van Haren’s magnificent voice hasn’t lost any of its force, but in terms of production, ‘Oscillation’ is a whole different beast than its two predecessors. As a result, the separate songs sound a little more streamlined, but the scope and variation that made Navarone’s previous records so great are also still here. And so, this fresh record proves that a rock band can expand upon its style without sacrificing its excitement and energy.

In a way, ‘Oscillation’ sounds a little more modern than what the quintet has done before. Navarone always found a nice balance between the relative complexity and riffiness of seventies rock and the directness of nineties rock. This time, some more contemporary influences have been brought to the table. The delightfully catchy ‘Soon I’ll Be Home’ has a very modern, poppy rock vibe, while opening track ‘Snake’ brings some of the stoner rock influences that were always beneath the surface front and center. The climax of the latter also sounds like nothing the band has ever done before, but it’s incredibly powerful.

On a more superficial level, ‘Oscillation’ is a typical Navarone record in the way it moves back and forth between powerful rock tracks and strong ballads with remarkable ease. The former category has the awesome ‘Step By Step’, probably the most “typical” Navarone song on the record, and the relentlessly pounding ‘Lonely Nights’, which is likely the heaviest track the band has recorded yet. ‘Free Together’, ‘Unmistakably Everything’ and closing track ‘Don’t Belong’ are all beautiful, delicate ballads with more acoustic work than the band has yet used and a more interesting approach than the well-known calm verse, big chorus contrast, which truly enhances the songs.

But most notable are the songs that don’t fit either category. The atmospheric ‘Chrome’ has an acoustic fundament, but is hardly a ballad. Progressive acoustic rock? Maybe. The song works its way through several distinctive movements that shouldn’t work together, but miraculously do. ‘Shadow’ is a little darker and has a psychedelic middle section somewhat reminiscent of ‘Sage’ from the debut album. However, the real winner here is the mindblowing ‘Days Of Yore’. From its monumental opening riff to Kees Lewiszong’s amazing blues solo, the song is a masterpiece that brings to mind Led Zeppelin’s ‘Tea For One’. The verses are very minimalistic, but serve as a perfect vehicle for Van Haren’s incredible voice. This is a song that needs to be heard to be believed.

The cliché is that when rock bands mature, their sound becomes calmer and more interesting. ‘Oscillation’ proves that this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, Navarone seems to have been exploring the extremes of their sound here, which makes the record heavier, more progressive, more melodic and more accessible all at the same time. It may need a little more time to sink in than the band’s previous two records, but once it does, you’ll realize that they have made another masterpiece. Their third in a row. And if that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is.

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

Best of 2017: 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)