Angry Metal Guy’s Top 10(ish) of 2014

Angry Metal-FiThe Year of Our Angry Overlord 2014 has been a crazy ride. One year ago this week I was finishing up one of the most stressful terms of my entire life, and this year has been a rush of teaching prep, reading, researching, and “OMFG.” You have certainly noticed that has been pretty short one Angry Metal Guy in 2014, and that’s been tough for everyone involved I’m sure. A lot of things that I had hoped to review went unreviewed or were reviewed by someone else with an OK, but not nearly as correct, opinion as my own. And many of the records I intended to listen to simply went unheard. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed anything this year, and as you’ve likely noticed, I stepped up most frequently when I had heaps of praise to dump on unsuspecting bands. All of this means that I have, to a certain extent, been absent from doing the hard work of reviewing music that sucks in order to keep up my reputation as being a “cheap bastard” when it comes to rating records1.

In my stead, with cool heads and iron fists, Steel Druhm and Madam X have come through mightily at not only keeping the day-to-day going around here (thus freeing me up to do what little writing I do), but also at enlisting a stable of young (and only slightly opinion-challenged) bucks who have helped us to produce more reviews of a broader variety of bands, and still keep the quality of reviews up. They’ve also brought a wonderful community of awesome new people to talk with, joke around with, and I think the website has taken on a playful tone that has been almost entirely been driven by interactions among writers.  The development of this community of writers has been mirrored by a community of readers who are among the best commenters on the Internet, in my opinion. We have been so extremely lucky to have such an engaged, smart, and level-headed readership. All y’all make this website worth all the hard work.

And as a site? As a consequence of this hard work we continue to grow. We’ve been breaking our own records for monthly views and visitors, and we continue to grow into our 6th year as a metal blog, despite being more frequently given the cold shoulder by big labels when it comes to promotional material. Even in the face of this adversity 2014 has been an extremely exciting and cool year for this blog as an institution. Of course, I would be foolish not to note that the reason we keep growing isn’t just because I’m so stylish and attractive, but also because all you new and old readers keep on coming back. We’re going to continue doing cool and exciting stuff into 2015 unless there is mutiny (always possible when you’re a disengaged and distant despot), or Steel Druhm actually reviews the new Jørn Dracula opera record (at which point I am shutting this shit down).

As a year for metal, however, I think 2014 has been poorer than I’d hoped. On paper there were a number of releases that should have blown my mind, but in practice, the number of albums that did so this year was limited. So what you’re about to read here is a mix of ten(ish) records that really convinced me this year, and either I’m getting old and I am therefore hard to impress, or this has been a pretty off year for metal2. I’m going with the latter. Regardless, don’t let that stand in the way of knowing that this list is made up of top tier records that likely could have been on this list in any other year, too. That there hasn’t been a broad swath of awesome metal that I’ve really enjoyed doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been good material released. That doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t exist, as there are certain things that have been left off this list because they haven’t had the longevity of play necessary in order to be included (Dead Congregation and Archspire, to name two). Still, that in December I’ve been dredging the deep waters of things I never got a chance to listen to in order to see if I’d made any major misses should say something about how I feel about the year as a whole. And on that sour, bitter note: here’s my Top 10(ish) of 2014. Since people are already whining about it before I even posted it, I suspect I’m just as predictable as Druhm. Enjoy!

troldhaugen#(ish-1): Troldhaugen // Obzkure Anekdotez for Maniakal Massez Kronos summed this up best when he said that Troldhaugen is what would happen if Diablo Swing OrchestraUnexpect and Finntroll dropped acid together. This record is an absolutely wild ride of unexpectedly fun and funny music that really just hits the “obscure, avant garde, ridiculous, and awesome” sweet spot that I have found in the aforementioned Scandinavians/Canadians (+Sigh) over the last few years. Troldhaugen came really, really, really, really, really late in the year after talking to Angry Metal Wife’s Dad and he turned me on to them. I thought the best way to handle it was to give them a very special “second #(ish)” spot on this list. In spite of the stupid spelling and the fact that they started off as an Australian band making Scandinavian folk metal, Obzkure Anekdotez for Maniakal Massez gets a special nod for being a special record.

Horrendous Ecdysis 01#(ish-2): Horrendous // Ecdysis — I thought The Chills was pretty good. I never anticipated a follow-up of such excellent quality. I’m fairly certain that I’ll be looking back at this list and laughing that Ecdysis isn’t higher up on the list, but it’s getting a spot as an #ish because it’s hard to deny that it is elite death metal but I’ve only had it for a short time, which makes it tough to rank. Still: ten tracks, 42 minutes, and some of the coolest riffing and best production I’ve heard on a death metal record in a long time. This record evokes the best death metal has to offer and does it stylishly. Already in heavy rotation, I suspect Ecdysis will stay in heavy rotation Casa de Angry Metal Guy. Bonus points for having the (2nd) best art of the year.

Elvenking - The Pagan Manifesto#10: Elvenking // The Pagan Manifesto — In some ways The Pagan Manifesto has continued to be my biggest surprise of 2014. I suspect that this will be one of my more maligned picks, given the status of power metal in the heavy metal scene, but The Pagan Manifesto demonstrates how power metal can be so good when executed with vision and conviction. The record is riddled with addictive melodies, engaging songwriting, and an excitement and passion that I haven’t heard on a power metal record in a long time. In some ways, it’s a testament to the character of the band that they chose to start their newest record with a 13 minute epic, and that sense of confidence and strident self-awareness creates an X factor that makes for one of the most enjoyable listening experiences of the year. Yeah, this record has its flaws, but this is as good as europower got in 2014. “A manifesto, indeed.”

Mors Principium Est - Dawn of the 5th Era 01#9: Mors Principium Est // The 5th Era — Put 2014 in your “Book o’ Memories <3” as the year that Finnish Mors Principium Est put out the year’s best Gothenburg death metal record. The 5th Era is chock full of Björriffs, acrobatic guitar work, hooky melodies, and a blasty take on melodeath that keeps me getting out of bed in the morning. Dawn of the 5th Era is littered with some of the best melodic death metal writing I’ve heard in a really long time, blending a feel reminiscent with early Children of Bodom with more Gothenburg fare and avoiding all the excesses of the modern melodeath scene. All of that makes Dawn of the 5th Era a statement album: melodeath can still be exciting, interesting, fun, and—most of all—drive the listener to come back to push play again. This record pops with energy, great songs and doesn’t overstay its welcome; I’ll be coming back to it for a long time.

Hannes Grossmann - The Radical Covenant#8: Hannes Grossmann // The Radial Covenant — There was quite a bit of pretty good technical death metal this year, but The Radial Covenant stands out for me. A sweet blend of fretless-bass driven technical death metal, with a desire to broaden the feel of an Obscura-style sound and vision, The Radial Covenant breaks out into melancholic and novel conceptual pieces. Despite having completely whiffed on this record when it actually was released, it hooked me immediately when I finally did get to it. A beautiful combination of meaty and fun riffs, brutal drive, and even the investigation of gruff clean vocals convinced me that what I was listening to was for real. The Radial Covenant is all about vision, and I think I share a lot more with Hannes Grossmann’s vision that I previously would have imagined. This work might not be the most hip or tr00 of all the death metal coming out this year, but it filled a little techy hole in my soul. Can’t wait for what 2015 brings from Grossmann and co.

Voices London#7: Voices // London — I unfortunately can’t take credit for having discovered this one myself. Instead, I am indebted to Jean-Luc Ricard for picking this one up and compensating for our blog’s collective ignorance. London is masterfully uncomfortable; the perfect blend of Akercocke’s unique cleans and grindy moments, with a Dodecahedron/Blut Aus Nord dissonance that makes the material feel brutal, nasty, and extreme. There’s an utter darkness and desperation to London and a balance of these different strands that feels new and exciting. I love the rawness of emotion and the arthouse approach to London that gives it a feel unlike anything else. While Dodecahedron makes me squirm, Voices makes me rage. Hitting the sweet spot between the cerebral and the emotional, like so many of my favorite records this year, is what makes London standout. On a closing note: I’m fairly certain that London is the first metal record with spoken word that I have ever enjoyed.

Darkest Era_Severance#6: Darkest Era // Severance As was demonstrated with the previous entry, one of the best things about running this blog with a lot of different writers is how much territory we’re able to cover. When Steel Druhm caught Darkest Era’s newest record Severance and began advocating its excellence, I took note. What I found when I broke into it for the first time was one of the coolest blends of traditional, ’80s metal with a black metal feel, and a vocalist who reminds me of Primordial’s Nemtheanga’s absolute best vocal performances. There’s something that is both nostalgic and distinctly modern about Severance, which almost makes it the perfect representation of heavy metal in 2014. At once looking back towards an era when metal bands wrote great songs, Severance sounds thick, heavy and driven, using drumming styles and guitar techniques bands from the era didn’t use. In an era when slick songwriting is a rarity and extremity is everything, Darkest Era counter with a vision that makes them stand out.

Dreamgrave - Presentiment#5: Dreamgrave // Presentiment — Progressive metal with a gothic taste and an underlying thrust of progressive metal ranging between Dream Theater and Symphony X, wasn’t high on my list of expectations for “defining records of 2014,” honestly. And yet here I sit to write a blurb about Hungary’s finest independent band: Dreamgrave. Or, given their position on this list, one of the best bands I heard this year at all. These guys have it in spades: expansive songs, enchanting ideas, beautiful contrasts, and an excitement and hunger that often defines the early work of excellent bands. I expect great things from Dreamgrave in the future, but if this is the only record they ever produce, I’d still be absolutely pleased with their unique contribution to metal. Presentiment is excellent, and you should have no doubt about it.

Behemoth - The Satanist#4: Behemoth // The Satanist — I have never been the biggest Behemoth fan, but The Satanist is a monumentally good record from a band that has been anything but monumental in its recent output. Two things make this record extremely effective: first, the black metal moodiness on this album introduces a twist that makes it both emotional and dynamic; and secondly, the songs are easily the most nuanced and well-crafted the band has ever written. The use of horn and angelic/satanic imagery, as well as the introduction of dynamic counter melody and harmony in the guitar work, lifts The Satanist to a different echelon of recordings compared to their historical output. A lot of people are calling The Satanist a return to form, but I think it’s the best record Behemoth has ever written.

Gazpacho - Demon#3: Gazpacho // Demon — This may be the most difficult choice of 2014 for me. Demon is a truly magical listening experience. It’s a record that is well-balanced, marked by artistically brilliant writing, and a production job so good that it alone is genuinely an enjoyable listening experience. Demon is quiet, reflective and gorgeous, while balancing in moments of thick, heavy desperation. Demon gets under my skin; I’ve listened to it dozens of times, being one of the few records that I just want to lay on back and listen to in headphones. I love the subtle harmonies, the fat bass, and the way these crazy Norwegians build their sound from the barest of whispers to a torrent of impressions and melodies. The dour moodiness is strong in this one, and in a tough year, Demon has been a bright light and a fantastic outlet. This could have been #2 or even #1, so consider it a bit of a tie.

Soen - Tellurian -- art by José Luis López Galván#2: Soen // Tellurian — I expected to enjoy Tellurian, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I do. While arguably the most flawed record on the top end of this list—in that the mix and mastering job will always be a thorn in the side of this release—Soen released what is easily one of the best progressive metal records I’ve heard in the last couple of years. Landing themselves in excellent company with LeprousHaken, and RiversideSoen has developed a distinctly modern progressive sound that benefits from beautiful vocals, a unique musical vision, and an understated intensity. Tellurian isn’t just a great record, it’s a record with staying power because it balances the heavy and the cognitive with the emotional and the delicate. And because of its flaws, we haven’t even seen Soen’s brilliance unbridled.

#1: Opeth // Pale Communion Pale Communion is a triumph. From the opening noodling of “Eternal Rains Will Come” to the closing orchestral strains of “Faith in Others,” Pale Communion is a testament to the vision of Opeth and the band’s unique voice and style. Successfully balancing the progressive feel of the 1970s with the hard rock and metal influences that once were the foundation of Opeth’s work was not an easy task, and yet Pale Communion sounds effortless; a perfect synthesis. Pale Communion sounds like Opeth, maybe not the Opeth that produced Morningrise or Blackwater Park, but the sound is unmistakable. All of these different threads make Pale Communion a beautiful balance, a striking statement, with well-crafted songs and landmark production (if one considers that it’s coming from Roadrunner Records in 2014).

In a year when I was underwhelmed by a metal scene that had good moments, but nothing that I saw as defining, Pale Communion feels like the perfect choice for Record o’ the Year. It, like the metal scene, is the product of a band searching for a new identity while looking backwards. However, unlike much of the metal scene, Pale Communion differentiates itself with its amazing production and leads by not giving into the demands of an industry that is slowly cannibalizing itself. There were still metal records that really excited me this year, but Pale Communion is the perfect record for our zeitgeist.

Opeth - Pale Communion

Honorable Mentions: 

  • Dead Congregation // Promulgation of the Fall — Having not been a huge fan of Graves of the Archangels, I gave Promulgation of the Fall a skip earlier in the year. That, it seems, was a mistake. This record is a pummeling wall of crushing death metal. Time will tell if this belonged higher up, but I’m enjoying the hell out of it.
  • Myrkur // Myrkur — For me, I’m less caught up in the hype around who is making the music and/or her metal cred, and more caught up on the way that this EP reminds me of the melodic side of the early Norwegian black metal scene. Particularly the vocal harmonies and pseudo-medieval folk puts me in a distinctly Ulver mood, and the black metal stuff reminds me Kampfar’s earliest material. Executing a sound that’s “so done” this successfully in 2014, while making it feel novel, is impressive. The combination of lush vocal harmonies and a Scandinavian melancholy encapsulates the subtexts of the early Norwegian scene perfectly without sounding like a retro clone. I love this record, I ordered it on vinyl, and I want more.
  • Cormorant // Earth Diver — I feel a little bad that Cormorant has become a bit of an afterthought on this blog for two records in a row. I purchased this album earlier in the year and have spent some time listening to it. I love the sound and there are excellent songs here. The band still feels like “thinking person’s metal,” and Earth Diver contains two or three of my favorite riffs of the year.
  • Origin // Omnipresent — This record is totally brutal and great. It easily could have swapped places with anything on the bottom half of my list, but I really spent a lot more time listening to other records in the same genre this year, so I thought it deserved one of these mentions instead. Still, a powerful and awesome record.
  • Archspire // The Lucid Collective — Better than the new Beyond Creation? I know, right? But yeah, this album is frantic and exciting even if it’s mushed to an audial paste from a mastering perspective. Say what you want, though, this is some pretty goddamned driven and enjoyable tech death.
  • St. Vincent // St. Vincent — Yeah, this is my “non-metal” Record o’ the Year, which means basically nothing since I listen primarily to metal and don’t have a deep insight into other genres. I love St. Vincent’s pop, it has inflections of the most experimental and interesting mainstream music, owing heavily to David Bowie, Prince and The Talking Heads. Her sound has changed a lot since she wrote “Paris Is Burning,” but she continues to be one of the most interesting musicians in non-metal music.

Biggest Disappointments: 

  • At The Gates // At War with Reality — I sat down to write a review of At War with Reality a half dozen times during the course of the year. I can’t. It’s not because it’s terrible: it’s not. There’s just something so sad about listening to a new At The Gates record and thinking “Man, I’ve heard this before.” And it’s not because the sound can’t be differentiated from their own previous work—they did an admirable job of not trying to re-write SotS—it’s because everybody under the goddamned sun sounded like ATG for a decade and a half after they released Slaughter of the Soul. So listening to At War with Reality just makes me depressed. Sure there are some decent songs. Yeah fine, there are moments. But this album is nearly two decades late and is pretty inconsistent as a whole.
  • Cynic // Kindly Bent to Free Us — Sleepy music from cynical dudes. I thought from the early release tracks that this sounded good, but this record sounded like a boring and uninspired Muse. Honestly, Kindly Bent to Free Us is just disheartening. But you gotta give them credit for really playing the long game, though. I was definitely fooled. I’m happy for them, though, that Æon Spoke is finally producing records people are buying.
  • Amaranthe // Massive Addictive — Meh. I couldn’t work up the intensity to hate this hard enough to write something. Sure, it sucks. Yeah, it’s soulless. And their strategy of avoiding promo distro to me in order to avoid my review shouldn’t go unpunished or uncommented. But life is too short to spend so much time talking about what a terrible band these guys are. They obviously know what I think by now, so: meh.

Top Five(ish) Best Songs: 

#(ish): Intimate Music from Final Fantasy – “Rebel Army Theme” — If there is a single piece of music that I love more than any other in the world in the moment when I’m writing this, I’m not sure what it is. Final Fantasy II’s magical “Rebel Army Theme” has never before received such an excellent rendition as it received here. The intimate feel and the gorgeous melodies absolutely hit home for me everytime. This is my ring signal on my phone, it is my alarm clock, and it is simply one of the best melodies I can think of.

#5: Hannes Grossmann – “Aeon Illuminate” — Everything about this song is awesome. It’s an amazing opening track for an excellent album, and it balances great, catchy riffage with Maiden worthy guitar melodies and fretless bass gymnastics. Headbangy goodness from front-to-back, “Aeon Illuminate” is an illuminating experience.

#4: Sonata Arctica – “What Did You Do in the War, Dad?” — Tony Kakko cheeses right into my soul. He has a way of hitting sour notes that resonate for me, and “What Did You Do in the War, Dad?” is pretty high on my list of Sonata Arctica’s Awkward and Unintentional Successes™ (see also: “The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Real Puppet,” “Letter to Dana,” and “Shy”). In fact, are there any other bands that you can even say that about? Regardless, “What Did You Do in the War, Dad?” is a surprisingly poignant (if awkwardly executed) look at a guy with PTSD from the perspective of his kid. It’s majestically cheesy and weirdly catchy and I absolutely love it. Tony Kakko strikes again. Never change, Tony. Never change.

#3: Opeth – “The River” — In some ways, this is the song that made it hit home just how far removed from “classic” Opeth Pale Communion really is. And yet this is precisely the song that really hit me on my first listen and has stuck with me through each previous listen. “The River” sounds nostalgic, calling up the spirits of southern rock, bell bottoms and bad mustaches (no, not the ’90s, the ’70s!). And yet, as the song develops, I can’t get enough of the gorgeous harmonies, the frantic keys, and the fat, old-fashioned sound. And as the perfect twist on an otherwise brilliant Wishbone Ash song, the last two minutes of the track trot out the Åkerfeldt’s finest åkerriffs and Axe’s double kick. This just a magical song, and even if it weren’t smack dab in the middle of an amazing album, it would be a real standout from the year.

#2: Behemoth – “O Father O Satan O Sun!” — While the lyrics aren’t exactly going to hit you in the feelz unless you’re an orthodox Satanist or something, this track differentiated itself as very special when the clean vocals broke into the verse. Uncharacteristically slow for Behemoth, this track seethes with majesty and brilliance. It is the perfect ending to one of the best albums of the year, and the first time I heard it I knew it was special.

#1: Soen – “The Words” — Autumn is hard in Sweden. There are times when we’re losing as much as 7 minutes of sunlight a day. For those of us who are transplants, it’s generally accepted that this time of year is just mentally hard. I try to do things to keep my mood up and to stay productive, but there is a certain melancholy inherent to autumn. I discovered “The Words” out on a long walk in late fall. Walking through the early evening darkness over fields filled with the remnants of the year’s harvest, this song hit me like a ton of bricks. I fell completely in love with it because it made my heart ache. When the heart wrenching and beautiful video for this song was released, it just confirmed for me what I knew the first time I heard it: “The Words” is the best song I heard in 2014 and one of my favorite songs ever.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. This was a Facebook comment under Soen’s shared link of my Tellurian review: “4,5 rate? This must be a masterpiece, angrymetalguy is a cheap bstard with album rates.”
  2. It likely doesn’t help, now that I’m reflecting on it, that one of the most explosive genres in metal right now is doom. I have far too short an attention span for most of that stuff.
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