I know, I know, it is probably two weeks too early, but I’m in the middle of moving home and working 65 hours a week on top of that, so may as well get it in while I have the chance. It’s the tenth year of this blog, and I’d hate to miss out on what is now a yearly tradition.
Last week in part 1, I wrote a round-up of what I’d been buying and listening to this year, and links to reviews of the concerts I had been to prior to lockdown.
Here are my most-listened-to artists of the past 12 months according to LastFM:
Quite a mix there; Classic Metal, Classic Rock, Metalcore, Thrash, Prog, Hair, Power, Groove, Death, even a bit of indie. Old favourites, new discoveries. Nicely balanced, didn’t even mean to.
And finally; since it is December now, here is the Metal-Nerd Blog Album Of The Year List, 2020:
Honourable Mention: Salem – S/T EP. – Creeper went from being a fun pop-punk band with some Halloweeny lyrics to a ‘90s Britrock band tapping into older American sounds. Afterwards, their singer has a side project basically making a fun pop-punk band with Halloweeny lyrics. Highly recommended to fans of early Creeper (or Alkaline Trio).
07. Creeper – Sex, Death & The Infinite Void – Review here.
06. Haken – Virus – (Rhymes with Bacon, not Kraken) British prog metal wizards release a captivating sequel to their previous album and continue to escape comparisons to other bands and forge their own identity. Might have even been higher, but I came to it late and haven’t even fully unpacked all its hidden glories yet.
Call it Speed Metal, Thrash Metal, US Power Metal or just plain old Heavy Metal; Agent Steel’s 1985 combat records debut album Skeptic’s Apocalypse is a frentic, buzzsaw of an album that pounds along with an almighty force.
This album is the pure flawless distillation on Metal at the time. No wonder it caused a stir back then. It rocks all the way through, from the (excluding a brief intro) meaty opening track; “Agents Of Steel,” which sounds like if someone took an early Venom song, produced it well, and then inserted insane falsetto shrieks and impressive virtuoso lead guitar work, to the catchy album closer “Back To Reign” – that mixes Iron Maiden’s gallop with some of that Show No Mercy-era Slayer tinny bounce and Feel The Fire-era Overkill vocal power,
Singer John Cryiis is incredibly diverse; sounding by turns like Katon W. De Pena of Hirax, Bobby Blitz Ellsworth of Overkill, Geoff Tate of Queensryche and strangely Philly Byrne of Gama Bomb (check out “Evil Eye/Evil Minds”). His ultra-high moments even give King Diamond a run for his money at times.
In terms of the instrumentalists; Guitarists Juan Garcia (also of Evildead) and Kurt Kilfelt are both an absolute master of the instrument, coming up with lots of memorable lead lines and solos. Drummer Chuck Profus puts in a really solid performance behind the drum kit. The production really leans into the ride cymbal and toms (almost as if the fills were recorded separately afterwards) and makes the drumming really stand out. The bass guitar, courtesy of George Robb can unfortunately be a little inaudible on some songs (or conversely almost too audible in other songs, for example the Queen Of The Reich copyist “Guilty As Charged” has quite loud bass).
Highlights include the speedy/thrashy “Bleed For The Gods” and the more dynamic and versatile “Children Of The Sun” which has a sort of Warning-Era Queensryche feel meets the vibe of Metal Church’s debut (a Seattle-sound if you will – but not in the flannel shirt meaning of that phrase!) and the slightly darker “144,000 Gone” which sounds like a mixture of Anvil and Iron Maiden but more depressing.
If you like Iron Saviour or Gamma Ray’s sci-fi lyrics with Judas Priest influences this is worth checking out, or if you like the production, music and vocals on debut albums by Anthrax, Exciter or Armoured Saint this is really worth checking out. If you want something Thrashy but clean, familiar but distinct, well-produced for the time but still charming and unmistakably 80s, then this is the perfect meeting point. It also helps that its just 30 minutes with absolutely no filler, so it doesn’t get old or outstay its welcome. Don’t overlook it for too long, I can’t believe I never tried this when I was younger.
Toxik’s 1987 Roadrunner Records debut, World Circus is a lot less technical or progressive than their sophomore album, Think This, and much more in keeping with a traditional Thrash sound. That being said they are rather adventurous, dynamic and technically proficient a that sound.
Some bands sound raw, rough and nasty, but this is utter professionalism, precise and dynamic from start to finish. More for fans of Heathen than Hirax if you know what I mean. The production is clean and the playing is flashy in an effortless sounding way. I also has one of my all time favourite Thrash tunes on it. There’s some nice melodic falsetto (almost Power Metal) vocals, some very impressive virtuosic lead guitar wizardry with all sorts of fancy sweeping and trickery, and of course, oodles and oodles of speed.
Why isn’t it a bigger album then? If I had to guess, the two biggest flaws with the album, are firstly that some of the material can be a bit forgettable after the record has stopped playing, and secondly that the opening track, “Heart Attack” is an absolutely brilliant, catchy, unbelievably fun gem and nothing on the rest of the album can live up to that level or entertainment. If someone asked me “what is Thrash Metal?” its one of the first songs I would play them. Its just a shame the rest of the record doesn’t live up to that unfairly high standard.
That being said, it is not a one hit wonder situation. Anti-drug track “Pain And Misery” has a memorable staccato opening and is one of the most rhythmic Thrash songs released before the 90s. I guess the album is probably most famous for the Title Track having a Thrash recreation of the circus theme tune (do-do, doodoo do do, doo doo) but make no mistake, this is not gimmick band. They are deadly serious, with excellent musicianship and thoughtful lyrics (Eg. “Count Your Blessings” covers the topic of homelessness and not taking what you have for granted).
I love the Ed Repka cover art too. Soooooo Thrash. This is the kinds of thing modern bands like Haydes, Municipal Waste and Havok worship.
Overall; Not the most even record in the world, but definitely worth a look for Thrash fans.
I am a bit sad I missed out on the Helloween, WASP & Rammstein concerts I had booked, but I’ll live. Its still been a good year for music. I don’t have much to add to the internet noise about this year in terms of news/health/politics. Work has obviously gone crazy this year and free time is limited due to the bundle of joy, so there hasn’t been as much blogging as usual this year. I’ve just spent most of it head down working and parenting, with a killer soundtrack. I’ve decided today while I have some downtime to condense all the blogging I probably WOULD HAVE done into one digest. The following is a round up of what I’ve been buying/gifted/generally listening to since last Xmas:
Def Leppard – Pyromania, Hysteria, Adrenalize, Retro-active, Slang, Euphoria. – I’ve had the band’s heavier first two albums for years, and got Pyromania and Hysteria for Christmas 2019. I’ve been really getting into the since then, getting Adrenalize for my birthday and expanding to the other albums slowly since then. I have to say I’ve enjoyed them all so far. Maybe too many ballads, but the same can be said of lots of bands I love, like Helloween.
Sepultura – Quadra, Machine Messiah & A-Lex. – You only need to check out my reviews to know how much I’ve been gushing about the band’s recent output. I was really taken aback by how much the band have improved, evolved and hit-it-out-of-the-park in recent years. Its surprising they’ve taken such a proggy turn in recent years, but its great they haven’t forgotten to Thrash out and groove when needed.
Testament – Ritual, Low, Demonic, The Gathering, Titans Of Creation – Headliners of aforementioned concert; their first 4 albums have been staples of my listening since I was old enough to need to shave, and I’ve been lapping up new releases since I was old enough to vote, but I’d been sleeping on the intervening period and it was time to fill in the gaps. I already knew ritual back to front from borrowing, but its nice to finally own my own copy thanks to a gift from my brother, and I then looked into the less popular post-grunge years which I’d not given a chance before, turns out there’s a lot of good material there too! …and of course I had to pick up the new album when it dropped. (Which slays as usual, they haven’t made a bad one since I’ve been a fan)
Exodus – Force Of Habit. – The best band at aforementioned concert, I already owned basically all their output so there wasn’t much left to get. I bought myself Force Of Habit one day this Summer and was surprised that it was a lot better than its reputation.
Power Trip – Nightmare Logic. – Speaking of Thrash albums not from the 80s… I had been planning to buy this album for ages as my favourite podcast gives it such warm praise on a very regular basis, and they were going to be supporting Kreator when they toured near me, but when their singer passed away I figured its time to pull my thumb out and stop waiting. I figure you’ve probably read enough praise of it already recently that I won’t add my voice to the echo chamber, except to say, if like me you were looking forward to that Kreator tour, then pick yourself up a copy of this if you haven’t already.
Riverside – Out Of Myself, Love Fear & The Time Machine, Eye Of The Soundscape, Wasteland. – I’ve had these Polish progster’s 2nd-5th albums (and several EPs) for years, and decided recently it was time to fill out the missing albums in my collection. Turns out they have never made a bad record. Utterly fantastic band.
Haken – Visions, Affinity, L1ve. – My bestie set me up with the British equivalent of Riverside’s Live DVD for my birthday and I then expanded to some studio albums off the back of that. They’re a lot more eclectic than some prog bands, coming across as a mixture between Anathema, Distorted Harmony and Dream Thetater but with strange diversions into 80s pop and Gentle Giant worship. I’ll need to listen a lot more until I full absorb it, but I’m positive on it so far.
Opeth – Heritage, Pale Communion, Sorceress, In Cauda Veennum. – I’ve been trying on and off for about a decade to get into this band. You may remember some of my posts from years ago about it. I’ve definitely gone full tilt on them in the last year and a half. I can’t remember exactly when I started buying them up and if it counts for 2020, but I’ll include half the albums I bought in here just in case.
Hammer Fall – Crimson Thunder, Threshold. – Another example of fleshing out an existing collection. You know I like Hammerfall if you read my reviews. These are some key albums I was missing. Surprising really, I didn’t own the one with “Hearts On Fire” on it? Well, mistake rectified now.
Iced Earth – Burnt Offerings, Plague Of Babylon, Incorruptible. – I was looking at my patch jacket one day, and was wondering if all the bands featured on there were still worthy of inclusion, and I noticed that I hadn’t been keeping up enough with Iced Earth in recent years, and hadn’t gone back enough. My collection started with a gift of their seminal Something Wicked album many years ago, but I never had their first album with the classic line up, and hadn’t been picking up the new releases since then. Time to expand my collection.
Cannibal Corpse – The Bleeding. – Speaking of patch jacket guilt purchases, I have had most of Cannibal Corpses output for a while yet, I stopped collecting the newest albums after a few years, but I still like the band and feel fondly of them. I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to first-four albums by Morbid Angel, Deicide, Obituary & Death and I felt weird that I had never got a copy of Cannibal Corpse’s fourth album. Now when doing a first four DM playlist, The Bleeding isn’t missing.
Orange Fucking Goblin Baby – Rough Read Live & Loud, The Wolf Bites Back, Back From The Abyss, A Eulogy For The Damned, Healing Through Fire, Thieving From The House Of God, Coup De Grace. – I saw them live with Down once many years ago and was lukewarm on them, but I caught them live with Corrosion Of Conformity about 1.5-2 years ago and was totally captivated and converted. I’ve been working my way back through there catalogue at each Birthday/Christmas since. Not discovered a bad record yet. They’re like 90s Clutch without the humour, mixed with a sweaty Motorhead vibe.
Ozzy Osbourne – Ordinary Man, Live & Loud. – Ozzy’s new album does not live up to the hype, but is better than you would expect too (if that makes sense). I also figured that only owning the Randy Rhodes era live album wasn’t enough for me and wanted to try out one with material from No More Tears & No Rest For The Wicked on it, and hey, if its got a live version of the songs “Bark At The Moon” and “Shot In The Dark” on it, well all the better for me to relive that surprisingly good performance at Download Festival 2018 that reminded me why I like Ozzy so much. I also like how differently Zakk plays the older songs from Randy, making it worth owning two different albums. I mean Randy is obviously better, I’m not an animal, but its nice to hear his tunes reinterpreted rather than just badly imitated.
Motorhead – Aftershock, Motorizer, Overnight Sensation, No Sleep At All – Speaking of Lemmy and the boys. Well, you can never have too much motorhead, can you? One day I’ll have it all. Just slowly building up my collection, having time to absorb it. I was looking through my old concert tickets, and I’m still gutted that Motorhead concert I was going to see in Manchester got cancelled, and then they never came back before Lemmy passed. I did luckily get to see Phil Campbell and Fast Eddie Clarke play motorhead songs live at solo gigs, but never the real deal.
Type O Negative – The Roadrunner Years Boxset. – I’ve also spent a lot of this weird depressing unpredictable year listening to Pete Steel and co’s weird, depressing, unpredictable music. The band can go from 70s Black Sabbath doom, to 80’s New Wave romanticism, to 60s Psychedelia and snotty late 80s hardcore punk irreverence and back within the same album (and sometimes the same song!). A truly unique band. I don’t love everything they do, but when they do line up with my tastes, its truly magical. When you have a bad day, its quite fun to just turn up “Life Is Killing Me” and pretend to be driving a garbage truck around New York with a dead pet as your co-pilot, letting the misery wash over you. Your day can’t be that bad if the music is this good and you haven’t lost your marbles like Pete.
Danzig –1-4 and the Thrall EP. – Speaking of unique bands, I don’t know why I had never heard Danzig before, I remember reading about them in Marilyn Manson’s biography, and seeing their logo and artwork a lot, but I had never heard a second of their music until last year. Once I got that debut as a gift, I knew I needed more. Some kind of bizarre, Elvis/Jim Morrison crooning with punky ethos, and stoner rock-esque 70s-worship with 90s production. “Tired Of Being Alive” sounds like Heart’s “Sing Child” through a Kyuss filter, then add in the one and only Glenn Danzig’s incomparable vocal style and you have a pretty interesting rock album. The only problem I’ve encountered so far is that the song “Sadistikill” on the fourth album is intolerably boring (and that’s coming from a prog fan) but the majority of what I’ve heard to far has been great.
The Misfits – The Static Age, Walk Among Us, Earth AD/Wolfsblood. – After reading a metallica biography, getting into Danzig, and checking out HMO’s reviews, I thought I’d dip my toe in the Misfit’s waters too. They have some real killer songs, it’s a shame I knew so many already from covers from the likes of Metallica, Volbeat, Orange Goblin, Cradle Of Filth and more, as I like the cover’s better for most of them. Its awesome when you find one that hasn’t been covered that you like and can just revel in the glory without prior knowledge. “All Hell Breaks Loose” and “Texas Is The Reason” are highlights so far. I have a lot of 80s Hardcore Punk and borderline/debatable Hardcore Punk albums, and rarely are any such bands as catchy as the Misfits.
Man, I didn’t realise how much music I’d been consuming this year until I started this blog. I don’t have all day here! In terms of 80s thrash: I’ve picked up several missing pieces from my collection. More output from Sodom, Destruction, Xentrix, Atrophy, Sacred Reich & DRI. I’ve also gotten into Hirax, Coroner, Exhumer, Whiplash & Acid Reign. Not quite thrash, but I’ve expanded my Armored Saint collection too. They can deliver.
In terms of new releases: I’ve also picked up Parkway Drive’s live album, Trivium’s newest album, Lamb Of God’s newest album, Protest The Hero’s newest album & Five Finger Death Punch’s new album. I also got King Diamond’s latest live dvd. But of course I’ve reviewed them in detail recently already. You can see what I think of those by clicking on the links or scrolling down.
Most surprising of all though, is Creeper’s new album, which has gone from absolute hatred/disappointment to one of my most listened-to albums of the year. I put that think on almost every work day lunch, and I listened to it every single day in the first month and a half after its release. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but damn did I end up entertained by it. Luckily for me, their singer has been busy recently, and made a side-project called Salem basically putting out what I did expect from Creeper. The first single ‘Destroy Me’ is a catchy, energetic blast of pop-punky fun and the debut EP is just about to drop in a few days. I’m looking forward to more of the same hopefully.
On a personal level its been a weird year. If anyone knows me personally, I work in a job I can’t talk about because of various social media policies, but suffice to say I spent most of the last decade sticking tablets, tube and needles in various sick people’s mouths, veins and other body cavities. If this epidemic had happened a bit earlier it would’ve been me on the frontline. Recently, to accommodate for having a child I’ve moved to a cushy computer based job. Now I’m basically caught in a vortex of survivor’s guilt and parental protectiveness and don’t know whether to stick or twist career wise. Its come at the same time as an expensive relocation, which makes it even more difficult to know what to do. Wasn’t it great in February when all you had to worry about was whether you could get enough time off work to see Sepultura live so close to the other concerts you had booked?
Due to the planned house move, I’ve made some very non-me decisions regarding music. I’ve first of all sold off a lot of my collection. Secondly, of the things I’m keeping, I have been recycling the boxes and just keeping the booklets and discs in storage boxes, and the same with concert DVDs into DVD wallets. My music collection once took up a whole man cave, but could soon fit into the corner of a home office. Not something I would have contemplated as a teenager, but times change. I’ve also decided to mainly buy digital from now on, unless it isn’t available digitally (Why does no one sell mp3s of Motorhead’s Bastards album? Its got “Born To Raise Hell” on it for goodness sake!). I’ve been a staunch cd dinosaur and defender for years, but its getting to the point I could build a house out of them, and with the move, the baby and the pandemic, I finally have the mental window of opportunity to let go (or partially let go, as the case may be). I’ve also been using Spotify a lot more this year. I’ve adopted a bit of a try-before-you-buy approach to albums I’m 50/50 on getting. I wouldn’t go full streaming as the artists don’t get paid enough and there’s no sense of curatorship and collection, but using it as a research tool is a new development for me.
That’s a lot of new music this year. I’ve also had to make a lot of time to listen to some of my favourite bands, like C.O.C, Slipknot, Queensryche, Helloween, Pantera, Machine Head and I’ve also been taking out time to listen to ’70s prog bands in the morning with breakfast. Its important not to forget the stuff you already like.
What’s planned next music wise? Probably mop up more albums by bands like Alice Cooper, Aerosmith and ZZ Top that I’ve been concentrating on last year, and collect more missing prog and thrash albums that I haven’t gotten around to. Often I just get the first 4-5 albums (or failing that specific eras; like in the case of Black Sabbath – I only have Ozzy, Dio and Gillian albums, but none with other singers), but I may round out some of the smaller collections a bit more going forward.
As well as music, I’ve also been getting my way through lots of band / musician’s audiobook biographies and good old fashion paperbacks. Rick Wakeman’s is quite funny. Rob Halford’s is illuminating due to the LGBT rights angles. KK Downing’s is great for your basic band story. A few fictional books too. See, I can do some things that aren’t music (not very many, but it does happen from time to time). I have a bit of a book backlogue, but I’ll soon be coming up to Rock And Roll Children, by WordPress’s own 80s Metal Man, very much looking forward to that as well.
That’s my mind dump for the moment. Have a good weekend, readers!
Canada’s Young Punk-Turned-Mature Prog act, Protest The Hero return in 2020 with their fifth full-length studio album, Palimpsest. It follow’s the creatively marketed and disturbed Pacific Myth EP from four years earlier, and is their first proper length album since 2013’s superb Volition(remember, the crowdfunded one with Chirs Adler from Lamb Of God on drums?).
PTH have been one of my favourite bands for years and years now. Their ridiculously-good debut album Kezia could well be in my top 10 albums by any band ever. I’ve seen them live a few times and utterly loved it. They haven’t released a record yet that I haven’t liked. So, you’ll have to forgive me if this review is a little biased, ok?
If you don’t know the band; they are a very techy, slightly complex, musically ambitious band focused on baffling guitar lines, awkward drum patterns, but anchored by a really emotive and varied singer who delivers their really insightful and creative lyrics with such power and personality thatI it gels into this really powerful whole that somehow seems catchy and fun despite how difficult it would be to actually play or hum along to otherwise. There’s also a sort of maturity and balance to it. It isn’t jarring mixes of styles, its all very cohesive.
As they’re such a varied band, its hard to know who to recommend them to fans of? Megadeth due to the guitar wizardry? Periphery due to the techy nature? Letlive due to the really powerful vocals and lyrics? Dream Theater due to the ambition? Killswitch Engage, as if you are the kind of person who hates anything ‘core then major aspects of the band’s sound might scare you off? All or none of the above? I don’t know.
This fifth album is both a mix of various areas they’ve tried before on other releases, and in some cases trying new things and breaking new ground.
A lot of the reviews I’ve read about this album focus on how guitar and drum parts are sort of reminiscent of the band’s first two albums, Kezia, and the ever-popular Fortress (I guess them recently touring doing Fortress in its entirety live might’ve affected their song writing – ‘Soliloquy’ and ‘Gardenias’ in particular stand out as being Fortress-like). But equally, I can hear a lot of the touches from their more recent album and EP, some of the orchestral touches like the end of ‘From The Sky’ & ‘Little Snakes’ are reminiscent of things they’ve tried on tracks like ‘Caravan’ a few years ago, and shimmering guitars from the break in ‘The Fireside’ could be on one of the deep cuts from Voltion. Most of all, some of the newer vocal styles that developed over the years wouldn’t be heard on those first two albums. There’s also parts that don’t sound anything like they’ve done before, such as the grand sweeping opening to the first track. This album is definitely more of a culmination of a whole career rather than a rehashing of the past.
My only minor flaw with the album is that it would probably be better if track eight was the closer, it has the perfect endeding with the nice little piano outro there.
Lyrically; this is a very interesting album, covering topics from the Hindenburg disaster, the plight of the Native Americans, female aeroplane pioneer Amelia Earhart and even the Make America Great Again movement from the perspective of outsiders. As always, its not even so much the topics but the balanced, intelligent and interesting ways in which they are discussed and the clever ways they’re turned into catchy lines you just want to shout out at a concert.
Highlights include the speedy ‘All Hands,’ the heavy ‘Soliloquy,’ the ambitious ‘Little Snakes’ and perhaps most of all, the feminist themed single ‘The Canary’ which is boundlessly catchy and sticks in my head for hours after every listen, (the pre-chorus is as good as the best chorus on most albums, the part where it says “7,000 miles of ocean stand between me and my destiny/Somewhere beyond it or inside it” puts chills down my spine).
Even after being out a few months, its still hard to know where to place this album ranked in the band’s discography, they’re the kind of band like Tool or Opeth that give more and more on every listen and everything they do is a grower that you don’t fully get all the nuances of on first listen, but my first impressions so far are that while it doesn’t dethrone my number one spot, it is definitely a damn fine album and in the upper half of the discography. If you aren’t a fan yet, it should be a great entry point, and if you are a fan already there’s no way you could be disappointed.
Hate list features? Feel free to skip this article and others in this series.
Here I’ll be ranking the albums by certain bands in order from Best (actually my subjective favourite) to worst/least good (subjectively, in my opinion). Number 1 is obviously the best. The lowest number is my least favourite.
DAY 4 – LAMB OF GOD:
01. Wrath (2009) – Ok, ok, I know I should be subjective, but its hard to because I love this album so much. It was my first LoG album which may well have something to do with it, but I reckon its more than that. There’s just so many memorable songs. There’s so little filler. There’s shedloads of personality. Its full of character and non-stop entertaining throughout. From the guitar hero opener to the moody album closer, and all the way betwixt the two via the great run of distinct songs that don’t really sound like each other or the band’s back catalogue.
Best songs: ‘Set To Fail,’ ‘Broken Hands’, ‘Grace’ & ‘Contractor.’
02. Sacrament (2006) – Wrath is my personal favourite, but I feel like the history books and most fans will go for Sacrament, Ashes’ or Palaces.’ Of those three, Sacrament gets my highest ranking because it is the most consistent all the way through, because of my fond memories of the Sacrament-loaded Live At Download Festival feature on their Walk With Me In Hell DVD, and because it has the single best song they’ve ever written (‘Redneck.’) It also has one of the best mixtures of Thrash and Groove in their career, I think they get the ratio just right. If you need to choose a first Lamb Of God album, I reckon this is your go-to first draft pick.
Side note: There was a good 3-4 years where I would sleep most nights in a sacrament T-shirt (I accidentally bought one way too large and it only worked as pyjamas).
Best songs: ‘Beating On Death’s Door,’ ‘More Time To Kill,’ ‘Pathetic’ and the aforementioned ‘Redneck.’
03. As The Palaces Burn (2003) – This is the album when Lamb Of God really found themselves. It has three of their best songs to date, it’s a lot more adventurous than the debut and it introduces the groove that defines so much of the band’s work. Its faster, harder, nastier and darker than the albums which would follow, but not so abrasive and unpleasant as the debut. What else is cool is there is a guest appearance here from Chris Poland who played guitar on Megadeth’s early albums, and Lamb Of God’s drummer Chris Adler later went on to play drums on the latest Megadeth album. The only real flaw with the record is the production (by Devin Townsend, who you would expect more from) but luckily there was a 10th anniversary reissue where Josh Wilbur and Brad Blackwood remixed and remastered it, and if you are coming to this album for the first time I heartily recommend you get that edition, as it sounds a hundred times better. (Like, its not just a little bit better and only an audiophile would tell the difference, it is a huge honking goose suddenly in the front room kind of difference).
Best songs: ‘Vigil,’ ‘11th Hour’ & ‘Ruin’
04. Resolution (2012) – Lamb Of God got a bit of stick in the press for this one at the time, as it was the first time they didn’t really reinvent themselves (Kind of like Tool with 10,000 Days). There’s only so much you can reinvent yourselves though, and for me, this album is giving me exactly what I want. There’s a moody closer, there’s a few tracks that sound a bit like ‘Redneck’ again, there’s some fast tracks all about attitude and there’s enough new ideas that it doesn’t just feel repetitive and by the numbers the whole way through. It’s the perfect balance of giving the fans what they want and not just repeating yourself too much (well, they repeated ‘Redneck’ a bit, but that’s a good thing, and to never explore that sound again would be utter madness!).
Best songs: ‘Desolation,’ ‘To The End,’ ‘Ghost Walking’ & ‘King Me.’
05. Ashes Of The Wake (2004) – It feels criminal having this album so low on the list, but I guess that’s just a testament to how good the albums above it are. In many circles this is considered a classic, its definitely a fan favourite and it has many of their hits on it. The production is a huge step up from the first two albums, the lyrics are very interesting, the vocals are more dynamic than the early days and the sound is less abrasive and nasty, choosing instead to be crunchy and satisfying. Its heavy, but it’s a more pleasant type of heavy. Also, just to up the Thrash credentials, on the title track there is a guest guitar solo from both Chris Poland of Megadeth and also Alex Skolnick of Testament.
Best songs: ‘Omerta,’ ‘Hourglass’ & ‘Laid To Rest.’
06. VII Strum Und Drang (2015) – At time of writing, this is their newest album (although their new self-titled album is about to drop). It is their last album to feature drummer Chris Adler who has since been replaced by Art Cruz. It has some guest vocal appearances by Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato and Deftones’ Chino Moreno, it is the first Lamb Of God album with clean singing, but the biggest thing it will be remembered for is the story prior to its release. If you don’t know, long story short their singer was accused of killing a fan in a stage diving accident and spent time behind bars while the trial was being arranged and going on, it was a real big deal in the metal news for several years, people wore ‘free Randy Blythe’ t-shirts, it was a whole thing. There is a great documentary about it called ‘As The Palaces Burn’ (not to be confused with the album of the same name) which if you live in the UK is available to stream for free on Amazon prime, or otherwise you can check it out on DVD.
Anyway much like this article, the conversation about the record is much overshadowed by those events. The album itself is ok. It’s a bit samey at times, and it doesn’t really have that many stand out tunes that can really go toe to toe with material from earlier albums. Its one of those albums were everything is fine and nothing is egretiously wrong with it, but it just doesn’t pop, it doesn’t excite, there’s no wow factor, no huge anthems and no ‘’holy shit’’ moments. I saw them live with Slayer recently, and the songs from this album were the songs I enjoyed least (although the crowd seemed to love ‘em, so its not like the album is a car crash).
Best songs: ‘Delusion Pandemic,’ ‘Overlord’ & ‘Footprints.’
07. New American Gospel (2000) – I seem to be developing a theme here, but at bottom place on the list is the pre-breakthrough debut album. The production and vocals are so much harsher and more abrasive than on their later works. The general sound is more violent and at times angular. Its probably their only record where you can see some Dillinger Escape Plan similarities (not many, but its technical and abrasive and there is a lot of hardcore in the sound). I remember the first day I heard it, I was listening to it on headphones and the kick drum production and panning literally gave me a headache. Of all their albums this one took the most amount of effort for me to get into, and I’ve listened to it the least. That all being said, it does have some great tunes. Some of which they were playing for 2-3 album cycles afterwards (one of which was their set closer for most of their career). So once again, its not without merit, and if you like things rawer, heavier and more hardcore influenced then you’ll enjoy it more, but for the average listener, don’t make this your first choice, even if it does open with a track that has been made iconic live.
Best songs: ‘The Subtle Arts of Murder & Persuasion,’ ‘Terror & Hubris In The House Of Frank Pollard’ and ‘Black Label.’
Its getting to that time of the year where normally I’d make an album of the year list. However; this year I haven’t been buying many new releases, focusing more on boxsets of older bands and filling in missing pieces in my existing music collection. That or discovering bands for the first time. For example, even though I bought one album by them each back when I lived in Manchester, I never really got into Aerosmith or Alice Cooper properly until this year. I also expanded my Thin Lizzy collection to include the seminal Live And Dangerous and all their studio albums after Black Rose which was my previous cut off point. I’ve also been toying with getting into Opeth for years and years, but this year is the year I finally bought a bunch of their albums myself and actually clicked with them.
Anyway; with not enough new releases bought or listened to, I can’t exactly make a convincing or well informed list of 2019’s best albums, so I thought I’d focus on the decade overall instead. Its been an interesting decade personally as well as musical. I started the decade as a single tram conductor in a seaside town in Northern England, and ended the decade as a husband and father in Wales with an actual career. In terms of media, I went from only owning a few comics that were gifts, to having read thousands, from never having heard a podcast to having listened to one every week for 9 years, and from thinking blogs were silly to having written this one for nearly a decade.
Another interesting thing with this decade is that I started using LastFm to track what I listen to in mid-2011, and I had a nice milestone recently, when I found out I had listened to over a quarter of a million songs since starting using LastFM. That’s a lot of music. This year has also been the year of the most listens since joining.
What follows next is a list of what I’ve been listening to, and then a list of my albums-of-the-decade…
Part 1. What I’ve Been Listening To This Decade:
Here’s a round up of my most listened to artists of this year:
Some interesting things here. Volbeat have been my in-the-car band for most of the year, but I didn’t realise just how much music I listened to in the car. Slipknot have skyrocketed back to near top position this year, with the new album and all the surrounding excitement, as have Motley Crue with their The Dirt movie coming out and renewing my interest. Then next up are bands I got boxsets from, like Annihilator, Aerosmith and Alice Cooper (and to the lesser extent, ZZ Top). The rest is a mixture of new faces and old favourites. There’s some Hair Metal, Thrash Metal, Classic Rock and even a few Death Metal and Indie bands.
Next up, a list of my most listened to artists since joining LastFM in 2011 (close enough to the whole decade that it gives a good picture):
Over the decade as a whole, the list is more what I expected, with favourite bands like Queensryche, Slipknot, Saxon and Helloween (who thank God, I’ve got concert tickets for next year, doing another United Alive set with Kai and Kiske back in the band, hell yeah!) at the top.
Volbeat are surprisingly high given that I only got into them at Download Festival 2018, so the majority of their listens are from this year alone.
C.O.C and Protest The Hero, while high enough, feel like they should be a bit higher still, given that I like them more than some of the bands that I listened to more often, but I guess they have fewer albums than the likes of Judas Priest and AC/DC.
Part 2. My ‘Albums Of The Decade’ List:
20. Saxon – Thunderbolt (2018) – To be honest I was struggling to decide whether to include either both this and Battering Ram or either this and Battering Ram and it was quite a toss up, but in the end I wanted to include 20 different bands and not just show too much bias for one band. Its difficult to put such a recent album in the list, that has to cover a whole decade, but one listen to ‘And They Played Rock And Roll’ and that thought is gone from my mind. Saxon have been too good for too long that you can use terms like comeback, but this record and the one before it are just marvelous.
19. Helloween – Seven Sinners (2010) – I only got into Helloween after this album came out, but as you can see above they have become one of my favourite bands. This is probably their best album in the 2nd half of their career, with the most metallic guitar tone, but not afraid to have a flute solo. Fun and satisfying both. There’s plenty of great material on here. Check out ‘Where The Sinners Go’ and ‘If A Mountain Could Talk.’
18. Ghost – Meliora (2015) – Before this album came out, I was a Ghost skeptic. I thought it was all gimmick, no substance. I also expected a Black Metal band given Papa’s image. After this album came out I was a convert for sure, finally understanding what the band were going for. It varies day to day whether I prefer this album, the more metallic debut, or the more ‘70s sounding Prequelle, but I feel like this one may have the best set of songs. If only ‘Square Hammer’ was on this album instead of a nearby EP. Then it would be even higher on this list.
17. Lamb Of God – Resolution (2012) – Not as good as their previous record Wrath, but still good enough to make it on my albums-of-the-decade list. There’s a great mix of Groove-focused ‘Redneck’ clones, a grand semi-progressive closer, a doomy concussive intro, and even a Sex-Pistols referencing speedster. Highlights include ‘To The End,’ ‘Ghost Walking’ and ‘Desolation.’ History hasn’t been too kind to this record, but given how much of it they still play live, I’m glad the band still believe in it.
16. Accept – Stalingrad (2012) – The album before it introduced new singer Mark Tornillo, formerly of TT Quick, but this was the album where everything gelled. Brilliant songs, brilliant production, great fired-up performance. I guess I am a bit sentimental about it as it was the first new Accept album in my time as a fan, but there’s more to it than just personal attachment. This is pure heavy metal perfection. There’s nothing flashy, no gimmicks, but you can’t argue with the quality of the material.
15. Architects – All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us (2016) – The band were on a roll with the last two albums, and then this one evolves it even further. I flip flop between favouring this album, or the previous one, Lost Together // Lost Forever, as this one has more passion and feels more like an artistic triumph, and the other has more bangers and catchier tunes (in context, for a band as techy as this, catchy is a relative term).
14. Queensryche – Queensryche (2013) – I also could have included their The Verdict album from this year, which has some higher highs, but this one is more consistent all the way through. There’s just something about these songs that really chimes with me. When Todd sings that ‘’with God as my witness’’ bit in ‘Where Dreams Go To Die’ I get chills nearly every time. I have no time for people who don’t give Toddryche a chance. I like albums like Tribe and American Soldier, but I love this album. Comeback of the decade? Quite possibly.
13. Black Country Communion – S/T (2010) – Its hard to choose a favourite BCC album as they are a very consistent band and everything they’ve done has been gold. However, this one has probably the best set of songs of the lot. Opening with ‘Black Country’ and going into ‘One Last Soul’ next is almost criminal! Leave some talent for the rest of us.
12. Mastodon – The Hunter (2012) – Mastodon’s most commercial, catchy and instantaneous album. The four albums before it are better. However that’s only because Mastodon are one of the greatest bands out there. If this was a band’s debut album, the media and fans would loose their absolute shit over this. Its not just all comerical and accessible though, it is quite an ecclectic release too. If a band can put ‘Curl Of The Burl’ ‘Black Tongue’ and ‘Creature Lives’ all on one record, you’re onto a damn special band there.
11. Rishloo – Living As Ghosts With Buildings As Teeth (2014) – Speaking of special bands; Rishloo are a truly special band. Seattle’s answer to Tool, but so much more. After they broke up, I was pretty bummed out. The reunion album was one of the better reunion albums I’ve ever heard. A perfect continuation of the band’s legacy and the introduction of some of their finest material to date. Tracks like ‘Dark Charade’ ‘Winslow’ and especially ‘Just A Ride’ are perfect examples of what make this band stand out from the crowd. There’s just something magical about this band when they really let loose. The fact that this band are not millionaires is one of the greatest crimes in music. Manowar once sand ‘’If you’re not into Metal, you are not my friend.’’ Quite often I feel like if you aren’t into Rishloo, you are not in your right mind.
10. Trivium – The Sin And The Sentence (2017) – Pure and simple, this is Trivium’s best album. The best production, the best drumming, and the best fired up, ‘’balls out, let’s just go for it’’ performance. This is the sound of a band playing the fuck out of songs they believe in. Ascendancy may be their equivalent to ‘Burn My Eyes’ but this is their ‘The Blackening.’
09. Volbeat – Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies (2013) – I haven’t been into the band for long enough to feel like I have the right to include them on this list, but damn, just look at how much Volbeat I’ve listened to this year, I’d say I am catching up quickly enough. Choosing a favourite album is tough, as I came to the band late when they have so many albums and all of them are so good and all my favourite songs are scattered across all of them. I also more often listen to the band more on shuffle than I do listen to them on an album basis, which makes it even harder. However, when I think of Volbeat, I think of standing in the Summer sun, listening to ‘’a little tale about a shady lady called Lola’’ (as track ‘Lola Montez’ was introduced live, the song that made me fall in love with the band). To top that off, this album has everything, from the groovier metal track ‘Dead But Rising,’ as well as the speedier metal track ‘Black Bart’ and the King Diamond influenced and guest-featuring track ‘Room 24’ in addition to big commercial hard rock moments in ‘Cape Of Our Hero’ and country flavoured ‘Lonesome Rider.’ There’s a bit of everything here, and some very high highlights.
08. Killswitch Engage – Disarm The Descent (2013) – So many concert favourites. Many singles. A great mixture of the heaviness and aggression of the early days, and the melody and songcraft of the Howard Jones era, arguably eclipsing any album from either previous era. A damn fine album, with some of the band’s all-time best songs on it; ‘In Due Time’ ‘The Turning Point’ ‘The New Awakening’ and ‘You Don’t Bleed For Me’ I mean, damn, that’s more 10/10 songs in one album than some bands have in a career. Along with Clutch below, the album on this list that feels the most like a greatest hits compilation.
07. Creeper – Eternity In Your Arms (2017) – Best debut album I have heard in a long time. This album is a fiendishly catchy mix of drama, melancholy and fun. Perhaps a bit too emo-laced for most of my readers to get into, but with amazing song-writing, surprising depth & complexity, and very lively performances. Astounding vocal diversity and damn catchy choruses to boot! So good I played some Creeper at my wedding! If you don’t know this band, but like any pop punk or emo, do yourself a big favour and check out ‘Suzanne’ or ‘Black Rain.’
06. Against Me – Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014) – Its hard to disentangle the music from the story behind this. The concept very much in tune with what was going on in singer/guitarist Laura Jane Grace’s real life. It feels kind of cheap to talk about bravery or try and explain what she must have been going through, but it is difficult to talk about just how superb the lyrics and vocals are without doing so.
‘Black Me Out’ for example, is one of the best vocal performances of anyone in this list, for its sheer raw emotion and pure honesty. I’ve never heard more anger and disappointment and raging against the machine in one song. Listen to the audiobook of her autobiography, especially the bits about the therapist and the blacking out of the old tattoos, then listen to this song, and you’ll be moved near to tears. It also helps that the music is 10/10 perfection. That drum fill on the title track is more fun than any Green Day album this decade.
05. Machine Head – Unto The Locust (2012) – It must have been difficult following up The Blackening, which is rightly seen as an absolute classic nowadays. That album saw such a serious turnaround in the band’s public perception, and was one of their most musically accomplished works to date. I’ve been a Machine Head fan almost as long as I’ve been a Metal fan, and The Blackening absolutely blew my mind when it was new. But The Blackening isn’t even my favourite Machine Head album, and that’s because they managed to write something even better, they managed to write Unto The Locust. ‘Darkness Within’ is such a memorable and emotive track. Album closer ‘Who We Are’ after a questionable children’s choir intro, is a Manowar-referencing red blooded heavy metal odyssey. Opener ‘I Am Hell’ manages to marry the speedy and the mid paced parts of The Blackening and congeal them into one track that covers it all. The title track is still the song I want to hear the most live out of any song in their discography. I think the album’s real success is that there are only eight tracks, all of which are necessary. There’s no fat, no filler.
04. Letlive – Fake History (2011) – Definitely one of the more unique albums on this list. I’ve heard it described as a mixture between Glassjaw, Old Dirty Bastard and Michael Jackson. I mean, I wouldn’t have used those reference points myself, but all I know as it is one of the most memorably, hooky, well constructed and explosive albums I’ve heard in recent years and there is a damn good reasons its looked upon as a modern classic. Masterpiece is an understatement.
03. Protest The Hero – Scurrilous (2011) – Sometimes Protest The Hero get a bit of a ‘the wacky band’ tag because of their on stage banter, music videos and Roddy’s personality in interviews, but when it comes to music, they are dead serious. Definitely the most progressive album on this list, no one has ever made music that sounds like this before. People have made technical metal before, people have made prog metal before, people have made metalcore before, but there is no one out there that sounds like Protest The Hero. My favourite album from these unique Canadians is the superb concept album Kezia, but that wasn’t released this decade. My next favourite album is the diverse and eclectic third album, Scurrilous. There are more ideas per song here than many bands have on the first side of an album. There isn’t one weak track here, it’s a whole album of solid gold, but highlights include the very impressive ‘Sex Tapes,’ the lyrically captivating ‘Cest La Vie’ and the powerful ‘Dunsel.’ I can’t say enough about this underrated genius of a band. Please check them out if you haven’t yet.
02. Clutch – Earth Rocker (2013) – Clutch are one of the best bands on the planet, and they have a broad and varied discography that covers a lot of musical ground, with many fingers in many musical pies. However, I always like them best when they are focused and rocking hard. Earth Rocker sees the band at their most laser beam focused, and is arguably the hardest rocking album of their whole career. What is not to love. Every song on here is a banger. This has more quality songs than most greatest hits albums. Anthemic and raw in equal measure, with so much fun and personality, and one of the best lyricists in the game. A real treasure of an album, from a real treasure of a band. If you don’t own this, fix that as soon as you can!
01. Parkway Drive – Ire (2015) – Before this album, PWD were one of the better bands in the subgenre. On this album, PWD became one of the best bands in the world. There are songs on this record that will never not be one of my favourite songs, for the rest of time. The sheer amount of all time unarguable classic tracks on this is damn near criminal. How can one band write something as brutal as ‘Crushed’ as catchy as ‘Vice Grip’ and as interesting as ‘Writings On The Wall’ on just one album? How can they come up with the venomous ‘Destroyer’ and the pounding ‘Dying To Believe’ in the same writing sessions as the heroic sounding ‘A Deathless Song’ ? How can a band with a vocalist who never sang clean before this record have such a varied vocal approach just all of a sudden? How can a band who were originally marketed to me as a decent Killswitch clone, suddenly turn in a better modern metal album than Slipknot or Machine Head did this decade?
(Honourable mentions to the new Slipknot album, which probably deserves to be here but as I’ve not had it long enough I don’t feel I can include it yet, and Fear Factory’s Genexus, which was in here before I counted properly and realised I actually had made 21 entries).
Imagine a Judas Priest show with both Tim Ripper Owens and
Rob Halford singing together. No wait… Imagine a Sepultura show with both Max
Cavelera and Derick Green singing. No wait, that’s not even it. I’ve got it…
Imagine an Iron Maiden show with Paul Dianno, Bruce Dickinson and Blaze Bailey
all singing. Well, maybe, if Dickinson had left after four albums and Blaze had
been there ever since. Ok, Now swap out the zombie mascot for some comedy
pumpkins and you’re approaching the situation here. Helloween, one of Germany’s
biggest and most important bands, one of the most iconic Power Metal bands in
history, with one of the most impressive family trees (Gamma Ray, Masterplan,
Freedom Call, Unisonic, Iron Savior etc) make one of the most anticipated
decisions in the history of the genre.
Who is your favourite Helloween singer? Is it Kai Hansen, the heaviest singer and the original? Is it Michael Kiske, the most technically accomplished and the one from their most iconic record? Or is it Andi Deris, their best frontman and the singer on the most albums? – Turns out, now you don’t have to choose. United Alive, the live video from the Pumpkins United tour sees all three join the stage together, cracking out a career spanning mixture of material from the earliest thrashiest material to the modern gems, with all the iconic genre defining masterpieces from the peerless Keepers’ era sprinkled in too.
There are over 20 tracks here (some are intros and solos, and some are medleys/combinations, but still…) that’s a lot of Helloween. All three singers take it turns to sing. Sometimes not even a song each, but rather dividing it up section by section inside each song, or all at once. It is very welcome to hear them back on some of their own tracks like ‘Heavy Metal Is The Law’ after not hearing it on the other live videos, or ‘Dr. Stein’ after having heard only Deri’s take on it previously. Conversely it is very interesting to see Kai or Kiske sing on some of the big commercial ‘90s/’00s hits like ‘Perfect Gentleman’ or ‘If I Could Fly.’
There are often 7 members on stage at the one time (or 8 if you count the keyboardist, Eddy Wrapiprou). There’s Weikath and Grosskopft on guitar and bass as always. Sascha Gerstner and Daniel Löble on guitar and drums like the last several albums. And the three aforementioned singers (with Kai also playing guitar).
There’s a mix of footage, ranging from headline shows in Madrid, Spain to festival appearances at Wacken and in Brazil. Sort of like they did already on their previous ‘Legacy World Tour 2005/2006 DVD.
Normally I really prefer a concert DVD to come from one single show, rather than complied from a series of different dates in different places with different lighting, sound and camera work, but given that the band itself is now a compilation of past and present members and some of the songs included are medleys, I don’t know why but it just works here.
The band put on a great show. There’s a lot going on. There’s video screens, a big pumpkin stage set piece around the drum kit (which has 4 kickdrums for some reason, just to add to the over-the-top feel of it all), a light show, and a few cheesy moments like members coming out dressed in a top hat and cane, or raining pumpkin balloons.
Deris, ever the consummate front man is great at revving up the crowd, and then the different members get spotlights for certain tunes and join up on others, there’s prolonged solo segments, a tribute to late drummer Ingo Schichtenberg, its all very diverse and entertaining. They even do a stripped-down bare bones version of the ballad ‘Forever And One’ straight after a super heavy Walls Of Jericho/EP medley, which pretty much shows both polar opposites of the band’s varied discography.
There’s multiple different ways you can buy it. DVD, Blu Ray, combinations thereof. Versions with CDs. The version I got it two Blu Rays. One with the concert and one with a load of extra footage. There’s a few extra songs (Including the underrated ‘Kids Of The Century’ from the oft maligned Pink Bubbles Go Ape album). There’s a bunch of behind the scenes footage looking at various aspects of the tour and production. It comes in a nice shiny digi-book with some brief liner notes and a glossy photo booklet. You know, just as if it wasn’t value for money enough already with an almost three-hour concert of a Helloween fan’s wildest fantasy line-up.
As a concept you really have to hand it to them; its quite a clever move to reuinite with past members without losing current members as some fans never got over Kiske leaving the band or only ever even tried the Keepers albums. Some fans really love the Kai era and you never get to see Helloween play much material from it anymore (you only really get the chance if he chucks one in to a Gamma Ray show some time). Its a great idea to reel them back in and show them how great the Deris era can be too. Come for ‘Halloween’ and ‘Future World’ but stay for ‘Sole Survivor’ and ‘Power’ then learn to love the Deris era if you don’t already.
Thankfully though, its not just the concept that’s good. The whole package is good. The sound, footage, editing and bonus material. Most importantly though, the performance. It doesn’t come across as a novelty cash grab, it really feels like a jubilant celebration. As they say in the opening track ‘Halloween’ ”There’s magic in the air.” This may be cheesy to say (but hey, if you like Helloween, you better be used to cheesy) but it really is a heavy metal dream come true. Buy it!
I’ve said it before, but I don’t think in my life I have
listened to any album more than Slipknot’s 1999 debut. I got into the band my
first year of high-school and for my generation they were the biggest and most
important band in the world, the way Metallica and Maiden were
for people starting school in the ‘80s, or Pantera were for people
starting school in the ‘90s, or Zeppelin
and Kiss were for people starting school in the ‘70s.
Slipknot were more than a band; they were so much more in my mind. I can’t count on two hands the number of pictures I drew of them, or discussions I had with school friends about them or magazines I bought just because they were in it. The first time I saw them live, on the Iowa cycle at Belfast Odyssey Arena, is one of the most memorable concerts I have ever been to. I don’t want to throw around terms like life-changing in my old and cynical age, but if I was to apply such an epithet to any band, Slipknot would be the one.
To some extent I like everything they have ever done. I am a bit of a lifer and so this review isn’t exactly going to be impartial or unbiased. But I am not 100% blind and unwilling to think critically either so I’d like to say you can trust what I say. I will admit All Hope Is Gone is not as good as the others. I’ll be happy to admit that there quite a few lyrics I dislike and sometimes Shawn’s video projects are a bit too arty and pretentious and that maybe a straighter take might do the band more favours. I’ll even admit that some songs I like have choruses I dislike even if the rest of the song is enjoyable. (‘Sulpher’ for example has a chorus I always seem to resent, as it represents the band going a bit too far away from what made me like them in the first place). I did get a bit sceptical when a few too many clean vocals started creeping in and what were amazing and refreshing moments of clean (‘Me Inside’) amongst the heaviness became the norm and it started to seem almost every song had to have a radio chorus.
A lot of people aren’t so keen on the band’s last two albums, All Hope Is Gone and .5 The Gray Chapter, so you can expect the reviews for this will all certainly feature some kind of ‘return to form’ or ‘best since’ line or two. Now; as I said, I like every album Slipknot have ever made (and probably every song too, its just some parts I am not keen on)… but I both can and can’t see why this ‘return to form’ thing is going to be so prevalent.
Now; I think The Gray Chapter is brilliant. I’ve been reading a lot of negative things about it online in the build up to We Are Not Your Kind’s release. I don’t agree with the narrative that it was a rushed or undercooked or too much like Corey’s other band Stone Sour. Tracks like ‘Custer,’ ‘Sarcastrophe’ and ‘The Negative One’ are rabid and savage, and even though I sort of resent them, I can’t deny the radio moments like ‘The Devil In I’ are damn catchy… However; In the same way I initially hated ‘Psychosocial’ when I first heard it for the big clean radio chorus that felt like a change in what the band was trying to be and what they represented, I can see how the cleaner moments on the Gray Chapter would put people off. I mean in isolation I like almost every one of them anyway, but I just wish on principal that on the last three albums there were a few more ‘Disasterpeice’ and ‘Metabolic’ style choruses and a few less ones like those of ‘Dead Memories’ and ‘Before I Forget.’ I reckon a lot of other older fans feel the same way.
We Are Not Your Kind seems to be blowing a lot of people’s skirts up for its heaviness and brutality. There is plenty of it on here. ‘Orphan,’ ‘Red Flag’ and ‘Nero Forte’ all connect like a haymaker to the face. Corey did say in interviews while it was being written that it reminded him of Iowa and on these songs you can sort of see why he might have thought that if they were the ones he was working on at the time.
But this album has plenty of clean moments too. Hell; the first real song (track 2) on every other Slipknot album is always one of the fastest, heaviest, most brutal ones on the record, and yet here, track two is the big single ‘Unsainted’ with its absolutely huge radio chorus and festival sing-along intro. So the public’s different reaction to ‘Gray Chapter and We Are Not Your Kind can’t just be about heavy vs. clean.
One thing that is clear is that the songs on this, their sixth official studio, album are just really good. It might be that simple. The first distorted verse to ‘Unsainted’ is fierce as honey badger and the drums throughout are really impressive and energetic. The way Jay flails sideways into the china cymbal at unexpected times reminds me of what made the band’s debut so damn exciting.
You know what else makes this album so good? (Now; I’m not saying it wasn’t there on the last two albums, but…) on this album the amount of time given over to the band’s extra members and how high they are in the mix seems to be higher on this record. Lots of Sid’s DJ scratches. Lots of additional percussion from the two extra percussionists. Lots of samples and sounds from the mysterious Craig. It feels like this album really goes out of its way to justify having all nine members and revels in what makes Slipknot unique… After the massive success of Vol. 3 and its radio singles and ballads, it felt like on the follow up, All Hope Is Gone that the band were trying to be more of a ‘normal’ band instead of celebrating their uniqueness. Here they seem to shine a spotlight on them more often.
What else is great is that the band aren’t afraid to do new things. ‘Birth Of The Cruel’ for example sees the band discover ‘90s Groove Metal, and lean into the sort of riffs and drum beats that would fit on Burn My Eyes or Chaos Ad at times, with bendy riffs, and stomping jarring rhythms. Obviously through a Slipknot filter, but still…
I think the best thing about the album though might well be the fact that Corey isn’t holding back with his vocals so much. On the first album he screamed his head off so much that we were told he wasn’t allowed to talk between shows so he could rest his voice. By the time Vol. 3 came around he had to find a way to scream without damaging his voicebox and came up with the new voices that he has been using on that and all subsequent albums. It feels at times though that on this album (and maybe ‘Custer’ off of the last album… because as I said, I don’t get the hate for that one) that Corey is back to shredding his throat to pieces like back in the glory days. Some of the vocals on ‘Red Flag’ and the start of ‘Orphan’ could be straight out of ‘People = Shit’ or ‘The Heretic Anthem’ and that is the sound I fell in love with all those years ago. That was a big part of the initial magic that hooked me in and made me such a lifer for this generation defining band. Corey howling himself hoarse is just one of the best noises in all of heavy music and its nice to hear it so much again.
The production is also good, it keeps the mix clear without losing the frenzied and chaotic feel too much on the heavier tracks. You can hear each beater on the kick drum, you can hear the bass under the vocals, but you can also tune out and just be swept away in the energy of the whole thing. It doesn’t feel like the edges have been sanded down too much.
One little minor niggle against the album is the exclusion
of the track ‘All Out Life’ (which was separately released back around Halloween
2018, but it contains the title line ‘We Are Not Your Kind’ repeatedly chanted).
Admittedly; There was one bit I didn’t like in it, where they slow down and
there is the spoken word ‘‘I will not…’’ section that was a bit similar to the
intro of ‘Pulse Of The Maggots.’ Otherwise however, that track was quite a
rager. I really love how driving the first verse is and when he sings that ‘’the
horizon is coming like a hellbent killing machine’’ you really feel this sense
of urgency and momentum. I have just added the track in as number 15 on my iTunes
and phone so I get to hear it every time I hear the album (which has been
pretty much non-stop since release). If you want it on CD though, you’d have to
buy the special Japanese bonus track edition. Bit of a shame though that
everyone doesn’t just get it as standard, because it’s a great song that I’ve
really grown to love and it fits into the album well.
I feel it’s a bit weird to leave it out, as the biggest
complaint I have about The Gray Chapter is that it needs just one more
heavy song to balance the album out. It’s a bit frustrating to see them make
the same decision again. I mean don’t get me wrong; I like ‘A Liar’s Funeral’
and ‘Not Long For This World’ and their atmospheric build ups. (Slipknot have
always been the master of that, with the likes of ‘Gently’ and ‘Skin Ticket’ in
the good old days, and ‘If Rain Is What You Want’ recently). But what
right-minded metal fan wouldn’t want the majority of a Slipknot album to be
flailing double kicks and gnarly riffs?
Now I don’t want it to be exclusively speed and power. Slipknot’s diversity is as big a draw as their ferocity. The band have always had a creepy experimental side (often driven by Shawn) to balance out Joey and Mick’s love of Deicide and Morbid Angel. All the way back to ‘Tattered And Torn,’ ‘Frail Limb Nursery’ and ‘Scissors’ from the debut and evolving into things like ‘The Virus Of Life’ and ‘Danger Keep Away (Extended Version)’ they have been balancing out the aggressive songs with nightmarish moments. They have also been experimenting with clean and subtle moments on recent albums like ‘Killpop’ and ‘Goodbye.’ So you can sort of see the legacy and evolution there and so it isn’t a total bolt out of the blue, when this album takes the cleans and mixes them with the creepy to come up with a new sound. I have read a lot of reviews of this record saying this record is dominated by experimentation. You can sort of see why. The album is full of creepy nursery rhyme-meets-experimental electronic tracks. ‘Death Because Of Death,’ ‘What’s Next,’ ‘My Pain’ and ‘Spiders’ for example come across at the same time as being both something that the band has never done before but also as a continuation in their long line of broadening the scope of their albums by adding in something more esoteric.
This album is certainly diverse; you have the four aforementioned quiet creepy ones, you have the two above-mentioned atmospheric ones, a selection of ragers as discussed prior, the huge big radio single with the surprisingly heavy verses and great drumming to open the proceedings. There’s also ‘Critical Darling’ which toes the line between radio and rager with its chorus reminiscent of Alice In Chains’ track ‘God Smack,’ and then there’s the album closer ‘Soloway Firth,’ which is a sprawling, strangely structured and winding song that goes in many different directions and which requires a good few listens to even pin down and follow what’s going on. Its not prog, but its certainly not three-chord trick, verse-chorus-verse, rock either.
All in all it is a very interesting listen (even without
adding in ‘All Out Life’ for heaviness sake). I don’t want to go and say ‘’The
best album since…’’ because I am really fond of all their albums, but it is
certainly really good. Really, really good in fact. As a bit of an over eager
fan it certainly satisfies, but objectively it is a damn fine record with a
good flow, a good balance of different directions, a good sound and fantastic
vocal performance. It not only meets my high expectations but exceeds them.
I remember when Baroness first broke out, they were quite sludgy and while not inaccessible, certainly not quite radio-friendly either. Early albums like Red Album and Blue Record mixed Thin Lizzy clean guitar with thick stoner-sludge and swampy vocals. I remember also, when they dropped their double album ‘Yellow And Green’ and they went from a band I liked a bit due to a slight Mastodon similarity, to a band I really cared about and actively followed.
To date, I still think of Yellow & Green as an utter masterpiece and that it was one of the best albums by anyone I care about to be released that year. Its when the band really stepped out of any other band’s shadows or any one subgenre’s constraints and just went everywhere they wanted all at once…. The follow up Purple was near as good, trying (and succeeding) to condense the sprawling mix of styles, tempos and timbres of the very diverse double album into one single straight-up rock record with flavours from everything the band had done before but a focus on being succinct and accessible (without sounding too far from their more metallic roots of course).
With their new album, Gold & Grey, the band are leaning a bit back more into Yellow & Green’s experimental territories. There is a focus on diversity here. Succinct is not a word I’d use to describe this. This album seems to be reveling in the freedom to do everything and anything. ‘Seasons’ for example has spidery guitar lines that wouldn’t feel out of place on a King Crimson album, mixed with a strange lo-fi noisy production job that makes it sound like some Sonic Youth style art rock piece, but then there are also blast-beats in their briefly to bring back the metal. Sometimes it goes full prog, with ‘Sevens’ sounding like mid period Camel. ‘Broken Halo’ has some lovely bridges that I can see crowds loving when this material is toured live, but goes a bit Yes during the solo.
There are also quite a few brief quiet, sombre, slow numbers across the album’s 17-track duration. ‘Blankets of Ash’ for example is a nice sounding acoustic guitar interlude over some creepy foreboding soundscape. ‘Crooked Mile’ is a jangly acoustic number that sounds more like an intro than a full blown tune of its own. ‘Assault On East Falls’ sounds like the music from a dream sequence in a Japanse videogame.
You can hear a bit more Radiohead and a bit less Red Fang in the DNA at times I guess (the intro to ‘Tourniquet’ or for example), but that being said there are still enough big fat choruses and catchy hooks to keep the sing-along feel of Purple. The album opener ‘Front Toward Enemy’ for example is just a foot down melodic rocker to get the blood pumping. The chorus to the single ‘Throw Me An Anchor’ is almost as catchy as something like ‘Take My Bones Away’ or ‘Shock Me’ from previous albums. ‘I’ll Do Anything’ sounds like it could be used to advertise the Olympics. Its like if Bon Iver took happy pills and wanted to inspire people to action.
Singer John Dyer Baizley’s rich voice really sets this band apart from the crowd, and when he really leans into the big melodies, it is proper 360 degree helicopter shots on a cliffside stuff. He has such a powerful and evocative voice that can make any line sound immensely meaningful and majestic.
Considering the line-up change between albums, it still
sounds totally like Baroness. You may not have had female backing vocals back
on Blue Record but the way John and Gina’s vocals blend and mesh
together just sound right.
The album isn’t without its flaws however. The production seems to be quite controversial based on all people I’ve seen complaining on social media. It is also a bit tough to swallow in one go, sitting somewhere between standard and double album length. (Its only an hour, but with 17 tracks there is a lot of different moods, directions and sounds to digest and so it takes up more brainpower than your typical 10-14 track album. If you just wanted an album of ‘Shock Me’ clones, something like ‘Can Oscura’ might be a bit off-putting for example). You couldn’t just slap this on in the background once and love it forever, it’s a grower that you’ve got to give a lot of attention to. That being said, these are minor flaws at the most. I didn’t really consider the production notable until it was pointed out to me by others, and usually an album being a grower at the start leads to an album you’re still loving years later rather than an album that would lose its flavour as fast as chewing gum if it popped right away.
Maybe if you were only into the band for the heaviness of
the early days, this album won’t suit you. If you liked the last two albums
though, this album is very much going to be right up your street. Its softer,
proggier and more considered than it is bludgeoning and meaty. It’s a bit more
ponderous than direct and rocking. But it is definitely worth checking out,
sticking on repeat and loosing yourself in. It’s an odyssey of new worlds to
glimpse, it’s a journey to get lost on. You might not want to head-bang, but
you’ll never be bored.