beaTwenty-fifteen has been a hell of a ride. It’s been one of my favorite years for music in quite a long time, and I’ve been struggling to prune this list down to 10(ish) records that I really love. But in some ways, the top 5 has never been easier for me to choose. What I find most fascinating about this list is how completely out of step I feel with what I see as being touted as the coolest parts of the underground. I seem to be pretty far afield while everyone else seems to be fawning over the latest ’70s retro doom phenomenon, hope drones, or the latest example of black metal kids missing that intensity not 15 minute songs was the cool part of black metal. This is what it feels like to have been left behind by a scene; to have lived long enough to be that old guy shaking his fist at new trends in metal.
Not that I haven’t enjoyed the hell out of 2015, though! There have been some excellent releases and this has been a meaningful year in the life of AngryMetalGuy.com. While I have been MiA more than I had hoped at the beginning of the year—and my how this year has flown by—the website has continued to flourish with the ongoing and excellent work of Steel Druhm and Madam X. I also need to thank the contributors who continue to keep this publication afloat with their thoughtful work. For all the threats of firing, this blog would be nothing without you guys. We’ve far surpassed our previous years in terms of total site views, while our community of readers continues to thrive and grow. We got a forum, we have the best comment fields on the Internet, and I’ve never been prouder to have accidentally spawned this Internet fiefdom of above average writing, above average metal taste, and above average crankiness.
The thing that makes me the proudest to be Angry Metal Guy in 2015, though, is The Angry Metal Bump™. It turns out that when we recommend records, there is a discernible bump in people heading over and supporting the bands we love. I knew that Dreamgrave experienced a similar thing in 2014, but it turns out that they were not an isolated incident. Of all the things that I’ve experienced in my years as Angry Metal Guy, this is the coolest. There is something so satisfying about helping bands and knowing that this kind of exposure really matters.
Thank you, readers of Angry Metal Guy, for visiting us frequently and for supporting independent artists. Thank you for supporting an industry that we sometimes clash with, but that we still love and that is filled with amazing artists and creative people who care about and love metal. Thanks for reading this Humble Blog that Could and making it a global publication. I can only imagine that 2016 will extend our reign of terror. I’m looking forward to it.
#(ish-2): Cattle Decapitation // The Anthropocene Extinction — I must admit that I got to The Anthropocene Extinction late in the year, so it’s tough to put it any higher than this. This album is absolutely destructive and engaging. The riffs are addictive while the sound balances grindy intensity with infectious groove. Had this record had more time on my playlist to percolate it could easily have landed higher. Intense and impressive.
#(ish-1): Blind Guardian // Beyond the Red Mirror [Digibook] — Beyond the Red Mirror is a difficult album and I am not alone in this experience. Very few people—and not just at this blog—have listed the record in their End of Year lists. But I keep on coming back around to it thanks, surprisingly, to the double CD Digibook release. Yes, I am aware of the irony, but simply put: Beyond the Red Mirror is a more complete album with the extra tracks. If an album is a whole, it means that cohesion and flow are key in successfully writing a good one, and the Digibook edition does this in a way that the stock release does not. Once again Blind Guardian unexpectedly sneaks its way in the back door on my list.
#10: Angra // Secret Garden — Of everything I heard in 2015, Secret Garden might be the most surprising of the albums to end up on this list. I had previously written Angra off entirely. Everything I had heard from the band earlier in their career had simply slid past me. Early on in January someone mentioned that Secret Garden was a great album and that I should check it out. I took a shot and was floored. Not only is the album chock full of excellent songs, but I have simply continued to come back to it as the year has continued on. This record shares a lot in common with its modern power kin in sound and approach, but what differentiates it is the slick songwriting and its staying power. I did not forget. Secret Garden belongs on this list without question.
#9: Nechochwen // Heart of Akamon — Nechochwen is an uncommon and uncommonly good black metal band. Heart of Akamon is a creative and diverse album, which blends folk music based on Native American traditions and excellent melodic black metal riffing. While it definitely bears a resemblance to the best of ’90s meloblack that I love, not a second feels derivative. I have come back to Heart of Akamon repeatedly and started to understand its ebbs and flows, its subtle genius and its beauty. We live in a time when we have unprecedented access to underground bands, with Bandcamp and cheap recording making music more accessible than ever. Heart of Akamon—with its excellent composition and important historical themes—differentiates Nechochwen from the herd and has made an album that I’ll be celebrating for years.
#8: The Gentle Storm // The Diary — The Diary is a bold and beautiful album. Arjen Lucassen is the only guy I’d trust with a project like this and he managed it with alacrity. The story on The Diary is heart-wrenching and Anneke’s vocal performances are dynamic and intense. Combined with the two separate approaches—the Storm and Gentle discs, both of which show off different sides of the same songs in a way that impresses—it’s hard to imagine the album being better. Ironically, however, it is the beauty and depth of the Gentle disc which somewhat undermines the album as a whole. I have listened to The Diary often, but I tend to gravitate toward the more dynamic and lush production on the acoustic album. Not because I don’t like the sound on Storm, but rather because the sound on Gentle is so extremely well-produced and fun to listen to. Still, it’s hard to count this album as anything but among the best things I heard in 2015. My bromance with Mr. Lucassen continues to bloom. Now excuse me while I do a jig to “Heart of Amsterdam.”
#7: Gloryhammer // Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards — For anyone who thought that my love of Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards was just a prolonged troll job of Steel Druhm, think again. Gloryhammer‘s second record has continued to call me back, becoming an album that I revisit weekly if not daily. I’m starting to know the lyrics by heart and I can say in all seriousness that Space 1992 was the best [Luca Turilli’s] Rhapsody [of Fire] record released in 2014/2015: and there were two others to choose from. You can bluster and you can protest, but I have trouble understanding how you deny the immense sound and performances that Gloryhammer have delivered. This album is a powerful, if comical, statement that orchestral power metal can be as entertaining, invigorating, brilliant, and cheesy as ever in 2015 and that, yes, fun and heavy metal coexist mightily. Space 1992 is an excellent album from a band that hit the ground running and from whom I hope to hear a lot more going forward.
#6: Steven Wilson // Hand. Cannot. Erase — As much as I longed to put this album #1 just to hear people whine about my taste in wimpy prog and how the pink background shamed them while they were surfing AngryMetalGuy.com in public, I couldn’t do it. But it does not mean that Hand. Cannot. Erase. is not an album as brilliant as I thought it was back in March. Steven Wilson‘s foray into storytelling on Hand. Cannot. Erase. is among the finest conceptual pieces released in recent memory and his songwriting and production are better than ever. What keeps me coming back to this album, though, isn’t skill; everyone knows that Wilson is a good producer. No, what keeps me coming back is the feel. H.C.E. succeeds where so many other records fail by drawing the listener in and making them feel the story. The emotional engagement that Wilson and co. are able to evoke in me is precisely what makes this album more than the sum of its parts. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a masterpiece and it will be hard for Wilson to top.
#5: Crimson Swan // Unlit — The best doom metal record I heard this year was Crimson Swan‘s Unlit. Why? I’ve thought about that a lot because it’s a record that I would never have predicted could land on my Top 10(ish) when I posted the review. I was pretty convinced Unlit would get its re-visitations and possibly an honorable mention nod, but the album continued to climb its way up my list. There are two things I love in doom: melody and feel. Unlit does both of these very well. The band’s sound reminds me so much of a mix of early My Dying Bride and Theatre of Tragedy that while I would never have described them as “gothic” it might be the best way to communicate the feel they evoke. There’s something addictive about the songs they build, slow crescendos which are paid off by epic peaks and gorgeous harmonies. And while the band isn’t the slickest yet and there are rough edges showing throughout this album, Crimson Swan still knocks out timeless death doom with a gothic flair. It’s a testament to Crimson Swan that Unlit is deep enough that I was able to give it a good score but that it managed to actually get better with time rather than fading into the background. It’s the growers that are the keepers and Unlit belongs in that category.
#4: Beaten to Death // Unplugged — Unplugged is one of the finest heavy metal records that I heard this year. It has everything I like in heavy metal: epic songwriting; great vocals; techy guitar work which makes you look cool in front of the hip kids; fantastic lyrics; it’s vaguely offensive; and it makes my mom concerned about my well-being. Not only that, these bespectacled and tightly bepantsed heavy metallers are from Norway, which means that they’re undoubtedly as fucking kvlt as it gets. I’m not sure that they’ve killed anyone or burned any timeless cultural heritage to the ground, but their catchy and brutal grind makes me think about at least building small stave-church-like structures out of Popsicle sticks and setting them ablaze. And while Unplugged is a pretty misleading name (it’s not, in fact, unplugged), the writing contained within is nothing but good, honest heavy metal. Beaten to Death‘s melodic and idiosyncratic approach to grindful heavy metal is something that I have longed for without even realizing it. Unplugged is a cathartic listening experience and I feel like a new convert every time I listen to it. There’s something genuinely satisfying about breaking Unplugged out, turning it way the fuck up and letting 21 minutes of blistering, intelligent, and slick composition piss my neighbors right off.
#3: Barren Earth // On Lonely Towers — When I reviewed On Lonely Towers I liked it a lot. I was really impressed with new vocalist Jón Aldará—the only man aside from myself who I would accept as the new singer in Barren Earth—and I really loved the songs. However, On Lonely Towers lost me in the middle due, largely, to ear fatigue. I still actually have the song set to be automatically skipped on the promo copy I received from Century Media. However, I got the LP mix from the band, who were ever so gracious after discovering that they had slighted me—me!—in the search for their new vocalist. Listening to this mix, On Lonely Towers clicked. Since then, I’ve been listening to the vinyl mix of On Lonely Towers and it is a juggernaut. The spacier master eased up on the fatigue and I regularly set the album up and bellow along. This album is a triumph of melodic death metal and doom, merging these sounds into the confines of addictive tracks. Aldará’s vocal performance is epic and On Lonely Towers is a record that is brilliant in its execution, composition and riffication.
#2: Trials // This Ruined World — Zeitgeist is a concept that’s overused, but is meant to point to a commonality that seems to exist independent of individuals; a spirit of the times. However, mainstreams—zeitgeists—definitionally imply outliers. Me and Trials? We’re both on the outside of the Spirit of our Times in 2015. This Ruined World features tight songs in an environment marked by onanistic self-indulgence in recordings. Trials makes a brand of thrash metal that is anything but nostalgic, foregoing the tight jeans and 1986-chic to make serious music that stands on its own. This Ruined World is filled with grindy guitar tone and trashy cymbals, but it hardly fulfills the trend-setters’ desire for one-take vocal tracks, crusty repetition or bloated, slow songs. Nothing about This Ruined World is trendy. And This Ruined World attempts no pretense. Appreciate what you’ve got while it’s still in reach, because Trials is a national treasure and This Ruined World is a thrashterpiece.
#1: Wilderun // Sleep at the Edge of the Earth — Sleep at the Edge of the Earth is a special album. In scope, this record is reminiscent of Orphaned Land‘s ORwarriOR; it plays like a film score. The songs are littered with exceptional riffs, gorgeous orchestrations, and inspired melodies that crept under my skin. This album is complete, the very image of what the album as a single unit—an art form—should sound like. Every note is well-placed and the songwriting manages to be epic, emotive, and gorgeous without ever feeling overwrought or cheesy. Wilderun combines all the things I love about metal—the orchestrations, the folk music, the melodic death and black strains with excellent clean vocals—into a perfect package.
The true test of an album, of course, is that it grows with time. When I first heard Sleep at the Edge of the Earth, I liked it. Then I set it aside and moved on with my life and when I pulled it out again I loved it. This record has continued to reveal facets and wrinkles I did not notice the first time through as only the best albums ever do. It belongs in the pantheon of truly masterful albums that I own and have had the honor to have featured here at Angry Metal Guy.
- Vhöl // Deeper than Sky — A consequence of not having heard this album earlier than I did is that it ended up here rather than higher up. Vhöl is so good at what they do, and I couldn’t help but fall for their idiosyncratic, but weirdly nostalgic brand of metal. Brilliant.
- Symphony X // Underworld — I’m apparently the only person alive who still likes this band, but I gotta say that I still enjoy the hell out of this record. It sure isn’t Symphony X‘s finest moment, but it’s definitely an enjoyable record that shows just how good these guys still are after all these years. Even the weak moments here are pretty good.
- Sulphur Aeon // Gateway to the Antisphere — This album not only featured the best Nile and Morbid Angel riffs of 2015, but I began to go completely mad as I stared into the endless depths of its brilliant cover art. If I hadn’t been so busy posing to Gloryhammer and listening to wimpy prog, maybe I’d’ve made more time to listen to this. Still, I loved this record and it deserves consideration among the best material released this year.
- Sylosis // Dormant Heart — I know, right? Everyone seems to have forgotten about this album; myself included. And that sucks, because Dormant Heart is a good melodic death metal record from a band that finally has started to differentiate itself from the pack.
Iron Maiden // The Book of Souls — It is not possible that an album can be more disappointing than The Book of Souls was for me. All the while I was putting together my retrospective on their epic discography, I was listening to The Book of Souls and getting more depressed. Iron Maiden is representative of our current no-edit zeitgeist and I find it shocking. Like many of you, I pre-ordered the album (and unlike many of you I pre-ordered it in two formats). Like many of you I eagerly awaited its release. But unlike some of you, I cannot find the good that makes people want to revisit it. After all this time Maiden has finally let me down.
Nightwish // Endless Forms Most Beautiful — I was psyched for the release of Endless Forms Most Beautiful. I think that Floor Jansen is the most talented vocalist in metal (hands down—not by gender) after seeing her performance with Nightwish at Wacken. Her ability to navigate all the different vocal styles required of her, and to be such an engaging and dynamic performer, made me expect EFMB to be something truly iconic. Unfortunately, it’s anything but. The record has good songs, but Floor sounds like she was kept on a leash. Her performance is—unfathomably—almost anonymous. How can Nightwish go out and hire the strongest vocalist in metal and then tie her down? I have my theories. But it doesn’t matter why it happened, all that matters is that the result was a true disappointment.
Top 10(ish) Songs of the Year:
#(ish): “Neito Pohjolan” – Ensiferum // One Man Army — Uh, yeah. So, I’m not really sure how to say this, but I’m pretty sure that I really like my very first Finnish tango song. The completely surreal combination of the old fashioned “steam engine” drum rhythm, the steel guitar, the accordion and Netta Skog’s beautiful voice has enraptured me more than I’d like to admit. Take a listen and feel slightly confused. But also sort of happy? But also kind of depressed. It’s so weird.
#10: “The Desolate Damned” – Vhöl // Deeper than Sky — They had me at the …and Justice for All intro, but they kept me around with ridiculously addictive thrash riffs and idiosyncratic vocals. This song is simultaneously nostalgic and counterintuitive (like the whole album, honestly), and I can’t stop listening to it.
#9: “Kult of the Orthodox” – De Profundis // Kingdom of the Blind — This record got missed earlier in the year and while I enjoyed it I never really got back around to reviewing it. But one song that has popped up time and again on my playlists is “Kult of the Orthodox,” which manages to not only fulfill my lust for Björriffs and driving death metal, but also features some very cool fretless work (from the sounds of it). These guys don’t get much love—and I’m not helping that by shitting out on reviewing their newest album—but they’re worth checking out, and I love this track.
#8: “Afloat” – Riverside // Love, Fear and the Time Machine — Riverside has started to show that they are at their best when they leave the rock behind and give in to their soft side. “Afloat” is hardly even a song, it’s almost like a doodle in a notebook. It has a feeling of being unfinished, and yet it’s achingly beautiful. Like “We Got Used to Us” from this album’s predecessor, “Afloat” needs to be heard again and I come back to it frequently. This record didn’t quite work for me like their previous material has, but when these guys hit that bittersweet note like they do on “Afloat,” I can’t help but hit play again.
#7: “Lionheart” – Battle Beast // Unholy Savior — Some people felt like Battle Beast‘s 2015 record was pretty tepid. They missed the old vocalist, felt like it was too ’80s cheese rock, and too damn catchy. And that’s why “Lionheart” is on this fucking list. Just listen to that goddamned bridge and chorus! Noora Louhimo has that German thrash voice down, and she rocks out epic choruses with the absolute best of them. You don’t have to like the whole album—which, admittedly, I do—but when a record can make you pump your first in your living room, a band is doing something right. I’ve often talked complained about retro bands, but “Lionheart” captures the feel of Rage without sounding old. Epic.
#6: “Människotankens vägglösa rum” – Shining // IX: Everyone, Everything, Everywhere Dies — There’s a simplistic black metal style that can groove its way right under my skin. Shining had that for ages. Records like Halmstad were filled with groove riffs, even if they were just girding under the Kvalforth’s manic wails. You came for the riffs, and stayed for the utter life-draining depression. “Människotankens vägglösa rum” is of that caliber. Reminiscent of Ofermod or older Shining, this song is the brilliance that we all know is under the surface for a band that isn’t at the top of its game these days.
#5: “Don’t You Dare to Call Us Heavy Metal” – Beaten to Death // Unplugged — Whatcha gonna do? Write a bitchy song about it? No one thinks that guys from Scandinavian welfare states are scary, guys. Honestly. “Oh, I learned to play guitar because of socialism! I’m so scaaaary!”
#4: “Marigold” – Caligula’s Horse // Bloom — Bloom might not have been one of the best records I heard in 2015, but “Marigold” had me at DAT RIFF. Add in the drop at about 12 seconds and I was ready to start calling myself a djentleman. This track has everything that Caligula’s Horse does well wrapped up with a little bow on top. The vocals are powerful, with slick songwriting and a crunch that got me right in the metal bone (my Angry Metal Hip Replacement™). I promptly played this song for everyone who would sit down and shut up for long enough for me to force it on them. Sit down. Shut up. Press play.
#3: “Ancestral” – Steven Wilson // Hand. Cannot. Erase — The legacy of Pink Floyd‘s very best material got channeled through the most likely medium imaginable in 2015. Hand. Cannot. Erase is hardly a derivative album, but Wilson’s genius is in his understanding of sound, quotes, and feel and “Ancestral” incorporates the ethereal sounds and feel of Floyd‘s most moody material. This song is rangey and heavy, it’s also intoxicating and subtle. The guitar solo evokes Gilmour, while the whole song shows off Wilson’s songwriting at its absolute best; adventurous and interesting without ever taking away from the song’s dark feel. “Ancestral” is a musical highlight any fan of even remotely progressive music should not miss.
#2: “Crushing Room” – Angra // Secret Garden — “Crushing Room” is a duet between legendary metal maven Doro Pesch and Rafael Bittencourt and is an example of rock songwriting at its finest. With a skillful interplay between their voices, Pesch and Bittencourt lace a crunchy, modern sound with their interchanging baritones. They build with drama into a soaring chorus that features both power and melodic style, before ebbing back into the verses. There’s a sultry groove to this track that I adore, and the mechanical guitar tone works to complement the two singers as they give a clinic on drama and performance that Eurovision performers could learn from. Is this song cheesy? Yeah, I guess so. Is it perfect? Yeah, I think it is. When it merges into the last minute and they set Doro loose over the bridge before merging into the final chorus there ain’t much that’s better.
#1: “Truth Defiled” – Trials // This Ruined World — If I had to point someone to This Ruined World with only one song in hand, I’d be living in an impossible universe to navigate and filled with despair. But given that scenario, I’d point them to the album’s opener “Truth Defiled.” This burner showcases everything good about the album: the awesome build, the slick riffs, and the unique approach to the thrash sound. My personal favorite moment in the whole song are the guitar solos—dubbed “Tango and Thrash” in the liner notes—but one need not make it that far into the song to be convinced that this is the real deal. There isn’t a bad song on this record—not a bad moment, in my opinion—so “Truth Defiled” is but one piece in an amazing whole. But it’s an amazing, addictive piece.