Chuck Schuldiner Project

Monday, January 12, 2015

Dan's Top 10 of 2014

The roast beast has been eaten, the who-hash has been smoked, and the time for end of the year lists is finally upon us! To say 2014 was an above average year for heavy metal seems like kind of an understatement. Such an overwhelming number of good releases poured out that even as I look back upon my final selections I know there are some great artists I've left out, Including some releases which didn't make the cut simply on grounds of being EP's (Trepalium's spectacular and hilarious "Voodoo Moonshine"), not being quite metal enough to justify a place on the list (The Birthday Massacre's fantastic new release "Superstition") or barely missing the cut like Equilibrium, Eluveitie, and Arkona, all of whom had great releases this year. But alas, as Highlander taught us, there can only be one, so here it is, my top ten metal albums of 2014! 

10. The Contortionist - Language , Intervals - A Voice Within, Monuments -The Amanuensis
Yes the list starts with a tie, yes I know that's sort of cheating, I told you, this was a hard top ten to pick! The Djent scene has been the source of endless criticism over the past few years since its explosion and popularity, and in part with good reason. There’s been a lot of unimaginative derivative stuff released since the genre’s explosion, as happens with any genre after it gets popular, but my god has the good music to come out of the scene been good. For the first entry on this list, I decided to tie three of this year's great Djent releases, each adding something slightly different and new to the style's ever expanding sound. Firstly there’s “Language," the latest offering from Indiana’s The Contortionist. The band's sound has continued to become more clearly defined and seems to have reached its full potential with this latest release, with their combination of spacy, strange, atmospheric prog with balls-to-the-walls, intense, heavy riffage as effective as it's ever been.  Next we have “A Voice Within,” the debut full-length album from Toronto’s exceptionally talented prog metallers Intervals. In addition to being one of the tightest playing live bands I've had the pleasure of seeing, the sheer technical skill of these musicians helps them stand out from their peers. With the addition of former HAARP Machine vocalist Mike Semesky, this is the first album from Intervals to feature vocals, and it certainly adds another dimension to their sound. Semsky delivers, providing powerful emotional cleans throughout the album. Though the addition of more harsh vocals could help the band round out their sound a bit more, “A Voice Within” is an excellent first venture into full-lengths for the band. Lastly there is England’s Monuments with their second full-length album “The Amuensis,” and all I can say is oh my god you guys the riffs. The singing is perfectly adequate and does help to avoid the potential monotony of a fully instrumental release, but what really shines on this album is the extremely technical and thoroughly well-written instrumental material, particularly that of guitarists Olly Steele and Adam Swan. If you're an aspiring guitar player and looking for more killer guitar licks to learn, this is a good one for you, and the band's crushing tone is sure to satisfy anyone in search of bassy djent goodness.

9. Agalloch - The Serpent and The Sphere
It’s a testament to how great a year 2014 was for heavy metal that this album only made it to number nine on this list. Agalloch have been arguably one of the most important bands in the U.S. metal scene since their creation, redefining both black metal and folk metal with their primal, atmospheric, grim, and wondrous sound that they have carefully crafted over the years. While the magic found on “The Mantle” may be impossible to recapture, the band has yet to release an album which is less than superb, and “The Serpent and The Sphere" is no exception. The heartbreaking melodies, calming folky acoustic guitars, magnificent songwriting, harsh reptilian growls, and immersive atmospheres that have defined their sound continue to place them ahead of the competition. Ever the perfect companion for a nature walk, Agalloch continue to capture something primordial and ageless in their music which seems to be drawn from the very heart of the earth, and much like another band further down on this list, they seem inexorably tied to their native landscape. One can barely listen to songs like “Dark Matter Gods” and “Plateau of Ages” without feeling  the rocks, streams, mountains, and dense forests of Oregon all around you.  Though perhaps not quite as groundbreaking as their previous output, “The Serpent and The Sphere” is a must-have for any fan of black metal, folk metal, or progressive metal, and has rightfully continued the band's monumental legacy.

8. Sabaton - Heroes
It’s official at this point, Joakim Brodén can do no wrong. With the possible exception of “Metalizer,” (and let’s be real, who counts "Metalizer"?) each album Sabaton has released has managed to deliver the same powerful, anthemic, militaristic sound the band has become known and loved for, while improving on the old theme time and time again. The band’s 2012 magnum opus “Carolus Rex” is a hard album to follow, but Sabaton proved themselves up to the task this year with the release of the exceptional “Heroes." The album is a tribute to various individuals who committed remarkable acts of heroism over the course of the World War II and has songs praising the heroes of a number of different nations and forces over the course of the album. These include Audie Murphy, the author of “To Hell and Back” and one of the most decorated soldiers of the entire war, and Lauri Törni, a Finnish soldier who served both as a Finnish Army captain, as a Hauptsturmführer in the Waffen S.S., and as a Green Beret in the U.S. Special Forces. From the fist pumpingly anthemic “Soldier of Three Armies," to the relentlessly thunderous “Night Witches," to the slow and melancholic “Inmate 4859,”  the album proves that Sabaton remains at the top of their game, and that new guitarists Chris Rörland and Thobbe Englund are more than up to the task of filling their predecessors' enormous shoes. For anyone in 2014 craving pulse-pounding power metal written for the military history nerd in every metalhead, “Heroes” was the perfect fix.

7. Alestorm - Sunset on The Golden Age
Three words: “Surf Squid Warfare.”  I don't care if it makes me un-kvlt, I love Alestorm from the bottom of my metal heart, and “Sunset on The Golden Age” is no exception. How pirate metal’s favourite drunkards have managed to stay fun and fresh for four albums of silly songs about piracy, wenches, sea-monsters and booze is beyond me, but they've done it, and for that I am incredibly thankful. The effectively titled “Drink,” the epic “Mead From Hell," and the fucking amazing cover of Taio Cruz’s “Hangover” add themselves to the increasingly long list of spectacular drinking songs the band has released, and any folk metaller worth their salt spent at least one night this August drunkenly singing along to these tracks with a glass full of mead.  Much of the album is also unsurprisingly hilarious, which really kind of goes without saying with Alestorm by this point, but these sorts of songs remain utterly delightful, and I promise you that you will be replaying “Surf Squid Warfare,” “Quest for Ships,” and “Wooden Leg” til your now-antique iPod breaks. The band also saves some room for the more-serious tracks with “Magnetic North” and the title track “Sunset on The Golden Age,” both piratey symphonic epics and thoroughly well done, as well as my personal favourite from this album “1741 (The Battle Of Cartagena)." The track tells a fictionalised account of The Battle of Cartagena, the most historic battle of The War of Jenkins' Ear. The songs chiptune intro, instantly memorable pennywhistle melody, sing-along chorus, and incredibly heavy bridge all combine with the enthralling story to make up a uniquely awesome offering from the band. If you hate Alestorm already, this album probably won’t turn you around on them, but for fans of the band “Sunset on The Golden Age” definitely delivers exactly what you were hoping for in a fourth Alestorm album.

6. Witch Mountain - Mobile of Angels
The past decade has seen the dawn of a new and brilliant form of Doom Metal in the form of the psychedelic/occult doom metal oeuvre, with Jex Thoth, Uncle Acid and The Deadbeats, In Solitude, Jess and The Ancient Ones, Mount Salem, Blood Ceremony, and Witch Mountain all making their own unique mark on the genre. With the release of their most recent album “Mobile of Angels,” however, Witch Mountain seem to have finally reached their zenith. Their previous albums have been exceptionally good, but with “Mobile of Angels” the band has cemented their place as one of the greats of the current metal scene in the U.S. With just the first track, “Psycho Animundi", the band shows how far they have come, and how much more they have to show us, combining elements of Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and other psychedelic rock with heavy metal as they have done before, but this time in the perfect proportions with a truly spectacular result. The instrumentals have become more dynamic, with more clean guitar and bass breaks and dreamy light sections to balance out the plodding, heavy doom riffs one expects from the band. As per usual, all is brought together by the magnificent voice of the band's now ex-frontwoman Uta Plotkin which shines through as the focal point, with a vocal quality both enigmatic, powerful, vulnerable, soulful, and thoroughly her own. Specific tracks do stand out, as with the aforementioned “Psycho Animundi,” the trippy and ominous Hammond Organ-filled title track “Mobile of Angels,” and the melancholy and  thoroughly beautiful “The Shape Truth Takes," but the album should definitely be experienced from beginning to end, as the masterpiece that it is. If you haven't picked it up already, do yourself a favor and prepare for something new, familiar, and brilliant.

5. Panopticon - Roads to The North
This was a truly excellent year for Black Metal, particularly if you favor the folky American variety, with the two bands most associated with the sound, Agalloch and Panopticon, both releasing new albums. While both are fantastic records in their own right, each in some way echoing the ruggedness of the wild American landscape while bringing unique outside elements to intensify and enrich their base of black metal, “Roads to The North” album which has ultimately stuck with me more of the two. Austin Lunn continues to prove himself innovative and imaginative as a songwriter and a sculptor of vibrant images and narratives through music, each track reverberating with the images, scents, and sounds of the Kentucky wilderness, its enormous mountains and deep forests coming through in each note. From the thunderous yet melancholic “The Echoes of a Disharmonic Evening,"- which also features the most impressive guitar work we've heard from Panopticon yet, with some truly impressive riffing and soloing - to the thoroughly Appalachian “The Long Road” sequence, to the soaring majestic conclusion of “Chase The Grain” with its soaring fiddle and inspiring melodies, the album is truly a journey, and one thoroughly worth taking as we witness Lunn break down even more of the walls around what “black metal,'" “folk metal," and “prog metal” mean.

4. Myrkur - Myrkur
Every time I feel like all the territory to be explored in traditional black metal has been charted, that there’s nothing fresh to be done without adding a new genre or element to the mix, I end up being surprised. Unsurprisingly, the project that proved me wrong this year hails from the shores of Scandinavia, in the form of the enigmatic, beautiful, and primordial sound of Myrkur and their eponymous debut album. The brainchild of Danish-born pop singer and model Amalie Bruun, Myrkur serves as yet another example of the increasingly common one-person black metal project, and as one of the first female-fronted ones, as well as one of the ones to best capture what made the black metal of the early to mid-nineties so staggeringly good. The album starts off deceptively light and floaty, with atmospheric vocals simultaneously reminiscent of Enya and Gregorian chant, which gradually gives way to expressive black metal riffing before the two join together. Indeed the vocals are almost entirely clean until track three, “Må du brænde i helvede,” at which point the tone of the album shifts in a very different direction. The first two tracks lull you into a sense of security, both peaceful and elegant ambient black metal tracks reminiscent of Alcest or Amesoeurs. “Må du brænde i helvede,” meanwhile, brings forth two of the other obvious main influences of the album, Darkthrone and Burzum. The drumming, while not as fast and unrelenting as the likes of Hellhammerer or Frost, shares Fenriz’s primal earthy quality and punky delivery and serves perfectly for the dramatic mid-tempo black metal Myrkur is creating. The riffs, meanwhile, are reminiscent of Varg Vikernes on his best day, each one memorable, sinister and dissonant. In addition Brunn delivers blood-curdling black metal shrieks through burzum-like distorted vocal filters which exude sheer ferocity. Myrkur manages to perfectly capture the “necro” sound, all of the unnecessary clarity stripped away in favour of raw, cold, distorted chaos. Brunn has cited the harsh, majestic landscape of her native Denmark as a key influence in her songwriting, and it is extremely evident in the type of black metal she creates. The lulling ethereal acapella chants, and the grim, relentless black metal combine to create a majestic musical landscape of both breathtaking beauty and harsh, cold bleakness. While this is Brunn’s first excursion into the black metal oeuvre, I certainly hope it won't be her last, and I will certainly be excitedly awaiting the project's future output.

3. Devin Townsend Project - Z2
Oh come on, you knew this was going to be on this list somewhere, it’s Devin Townsend for Christ's Sake! I'm beginning to think that with his current release schedule Mr. Townsend has either figured out some way to slow the progression of time or is just some sort of Music God sent to earth not unlike Ziltoid himself to be our Heavy Metal savior.  The awesomeness of “Z2 "is twofold, as is the album itself of course, being split between the first album, “Sky Blue,” and the second album “Dark Matters,” “Sky Blue” feels like the spiritual successor to both “Addicted” and “Epicloud”, and ends up eclipsing the latter if not the former.  The album features beautiful melodies and atmospheres, powerful vocals, from both Devin himself and guest vocalist Anneke Van Giersbergen who also provided her distinct euro-pop infused voice to the two previously mentioned albums, and of course Devin Townsend’s trademark lush and expressive production, which remains truly second to none. Both the  chilled out ballady tracks like and “Rain City”, and “Forever”, the rousing progressive pop-metal anthems like “Rejoice,” “Universal Flame,” “Sky Blue,” and “Before We Die” are sure to live on in the DTP cannon as classics, and easily measure up to his previously lauded material. “Dark Matters” is perhaps even more delightful if that’s possible, and while it may not have the emotional impact of “Sky Blue” it’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen, and equal parts epic and hilarious, as one would expect from the next chapter in the Ziltoid saga. The high point in my opinion comes when the character of War Princess is introduced, as voiced by Stolen Babies’ exceptionally talented frontwoman Dominique Lenore Persi, who lends her awesome voice to the tracks “War Princess,” and “March of The Poozers.” If you're looking for fun sci-fi themed prog metal look no further, “Dark Matters” is the album for you. Although perhaps not quite as groundbreaking and perfect as its predecessor “Ziltoid The Omniscient” , it’s still Devin Townsend at his most hilarious and most skilled, and it’s hard to get that wrong. All in all Devin Townsend has shown us that after his involvement in dozens of albums over the years he still isn't out of ideas, and can still crank out new classics with fresh elements we never would have expected.

2. Destiny Potato - Lun
You know that feeling when you're anticipating an album release and are absolutely positive it can’t live up to your grand expectations? That’s how it was with me and Lun, the heavily delayed debut from Serbian prog-metallers Destiny Potato. A friend had played me the band’s demo and the spectacular solo albums that the band’s guitarist and main songwriter, David Maxim Micic, and I was enthralled from the first note. The unique combination of electronica, progressive metal, Eastern European melodies, djenty riffing, pop,  and Devin Townsend-esque wall of sound style production was like nothing I had heard before. I was even further drawn in upon listening to the band’s first single, “Dark Side of You” which remains one of the most unique heavy metal tracks I've had the pleasure of hearing and which I continue to listen to excessively. After about two years of waiting and hearing the album was just around the corner, last May “Lun” was finally released, and never have I been more relieved or delighted to hear exactly the album I wanted from a band. Though there are a couple of less than perfect tracks on the album, (“Take a Picture” was interesting as a novelty but didn’t serve as a solid replacement for “Dark Side of You”) the album is by and large a masterpiece. Tracks like “Indifferent,” “Blue Sun,” “Love Song,” “U.Y.M.,” and “Lunatic” absolutely exude energy and  use the bands pop influence to great effect, creating some of the most catchy, joyful, captivating metal I've heard in ages. For fans of heavier stuff there’s also “Lost Dream” and “Addict” both featuring some of David Maxim’s most spectacular riffing. I would also be remiss not to mention the strange almost avant garde delight that is “Lunatic”, sure to please fans of Diablo Swing Orchestra or any of Mike Patton’s work, as well as the chill and reflective interlude piece “Machine,” a beautiful track reminiscent of much of Devin Townsend’s lighter work.  a piece ideal for a rainy sunday afternoon. I can't recommend this album highly enough. It is one of the albums I've sun the most this year and I imagine I'll probably be doing so with some frequency in the future as well. The Serbian prog metal scene continues to be one of the most fascinating and vibrant new scenes to recently emerge and I can't wait ‘til the band’s next release.

1. Destrage - Are You Kidding Me? No.
Now I know what you're asking, “But Daniel, how could something possibly rank higher than, “Lun”? You're mad I say, MAD!”. Now first of all stop shouting, second of all what if I were to tell you that there’s an album that sounds like a weirder more melodic Dillinger Escape Plan if they were having 80% more fun and were even more virtuosic? Well my friends kindly allow me to point you in the direction of “Are You Kidding Me? No..” No one had as much fun making an album in 2014 as these guys did and it’s clear in the music. Even the dark songs on the album exude joy and passion and most noticeably energy.  The music is relentless, ever shifting, intensely heavy, but catchy, discordant but melodic, salty but sweet, both a shampoo and a conditioner! Though they've been around since the mid two-thousands Destrage are reaching a peak in their popularity, and for obvious reasons. Nothing Sounds like this album. Sure you can compare it to some of Mike Patton’s work or Dillinger Escape Plan and maybe a few others but any of those would be massively insufficient to describe the sound. Electronica, hardcore punk, groove metal, avant garde metal, prog metal, mathcore, sleazy hard rock and any number of other genres seamlessly fuse into a glorious explosion of fun and energy, like a Toys ‘R Us exploding or something. In addition Destrage have managed to write some of the most genuinely funny metal to come forth in a while, alongside lyrics containing  interesting social commentary or other topics. From “My Green Neighbor”, a song which bears listening to on repeat for hours and serves as a psychological and sociological analysis of societies obsession with zombies and the role that the zombie apocalypse theme serves in society, to “Purania” an attack on the idea of “purity” in music, and “Hosts, Rifles, and Coke” which deals with the current political landscape in Italy and the hypocrisy of it’s right wing, there’s a lot to take in. It’d be easy to write pages on each song, but at the end of the day, this is an album that everyone should experience for themselves. The combination of, some of the tightest playing of the year, creative songwriting, it’s utterly unique sound, and just how insanely fucking fun it is make this one an unquestionable shoo-in for the best metal album of 2014.

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