2018 Top 100 Albums Part 3
Welcome to part three of our mega countdown of the years greatest records (according to Stewart Lucas). In this edition he reaches and passes the halfway mark and starts getting to the really good stuff, the albums that had a real impact on him this year (even for a few hours). So strap in and fire up the Spotify playlist, get reading and listening for numbers 60 to 41.
My beloved Dimmu Borgir's first album in eight years and whilst it is good and is the stirring cinematic Black Metal that we expect from Dimmu it sadly lacks that majestic touch that I adore in their material. It is a great record but Dimmu don't do great, they do outstanding and this falls short of that accolade. The reason is that as well structured and enjoyable the stuff on here is (and it is good) it is missing a stand out anthem such as 'Allegiance' or 'Gateways’. You may well criticise me for berating a perfectly good record for simply not being as good as its stunning predecessors, but if you set the bar high....
Myles Kennedy makes his second appearance with his other extra circular activity, namely being Slash's wing man on his solo endeavours. As I said before I’ve never previously bought into Slash the solo artist and I have released this because this isn't about Slash on his tod. What makes this album great is the chemistry between him and Myles, as they just bounce and feed of each other and bring out the best that each can give. Slash's guitar hero antics on here are refined and measured which works brilliantly as when he does explode out into his trademark solos they come across as exciting and unexpected. Myles vocals are also excellent and really play off Slash’s funky and chunky riffs. Overall it feels like a tight knit band doing this for kicks as opposed to the vanity project of two rock and roll egos.
Very little Power Metal this year but this sort of makes up for it. ‘The Sacrament Of Sin’ is something I would play to anyone who innocently asked what Power Metal is as it seems to encapsulate all the absurdities and flourishes of this most wonderful of genres. It's got the catchy hooks, the booming vocal delivery, the soaring keyboards, the fantastical lyrics and choruses that claim squatters rights in your cranial. It's all here and all done so so well. Over blown and lacking in any subtlety it may be, but this is just pure and simply a brilliantly fun album.
Really intriguing one, this comes under the heading of post-metal but I think that is because they don't know where else to put it. It manages to be both tight and claustrophobic in its delivery, but also sprawling and almost grandiose in its vision. This is Metal but it has been turned ninety degrees and it feels simultaneously familiar, new and challenging. It has pulsating guitars but they are down-tuned and create a brooding sound and they then give way to slower sections which almost have the feeling of coming up for air. As you can tell there is so much in this album and my clumsy description is only touching the surface, just go listen.
OK! History lesson time, Tristana are Norway's answer to the mighty Nightwish (every Nordic country has to have a set quota of symphonic metal bands with opera trained female vocalists, it's a EU directive). Amid one of the many fallings out that seems to happen within European metal bands, Tristana’s founder, guitarist and 'Harsh' (known as beast) vocalist Morten Veland flounced off and within two weeks had formed Sirenia who strangely enough were also a symphonic metal band with a female soprano on vocals, who would have thought it!. Since then they have released nine albums, had four female vocalists (one bizarrely the winner of the Spanish X-factor) and, as this is very much Morten's project, a whole host of session musicians.
Currently the band consist of the aforementioned Morten and French opera singer Emmanuelle Zoldan and who ever happens to be in the studio at the time, so to produce something as good as ‘Arcane Astral Aeons’ seems like a minor miracle. This is a lush and rather euphoric collection of high tempo symphonic metal. What wins it extra points in this crowded market is Emmanuelle's vocals which are fantastic and full of emotion and power. Because the album is drenched in strings and choral sections as much as it is in guitar, it feels like the big stirring soundtrack of an unmade film. Bombastic but brill.
Last year outspoken but charismatic Hatebreed frontman Jamey Jasta had Dee Snider as a guest on his popular and irreverent podcast. He challenged Dee to make a full pelt proper metal album and lo and behold Dee took up that Challenge as ‘For the Love of Metal’ is the result. Now for the unitiated, Dee is the larger than life Sarah Jessica Parker look alike that fronted now defunct eighties glam metal phenomenon Twisted Sister. He is known as be willing to turn his hand to anything to pay the bill and has done Broadway, big band and reality TV.
He has now turned his attention to metal (Twisted Sister were always more heavy glam rock than metal) and managed to produce a Five Finger Death Punch album that is better than anything Five Finger Death Punch put its name to (I await the death threats from the Five Finger Death Punch massive). Dee chews the scenery, the lyrics, the mic and anything else he can get his hands on, in what is an utterly blistering vocal performance, especially when you consider he is in his mid sixty. The stuff on here may not be original but it is delivered with such power and conviction that you forgive the obvious lifts from Disturbed, Killswitch Engage and early Godsmack. This is a big bold and proud album that wears it's heart on its sleeve and is just so much better than a record made to win a wager should be.
As unlikely as it might sound I have a real thing for female singer songwriters and especially love those who pour out the contents of their fragile and breaking heart onto vinyl. I love Cat Power (her new album was number 101), Joanna Newsom and anyone else that is able to make honest and emotionally charged music out of their disastrous personnel lives.
This is very very old skool minimalistic straight forward Death Metal and you would expect nothing else from the band that emerged from the ashes of the legendary Bolthrower. Last year's debut ‘For the Fallen’ made no 4 in that year’s list and whilst ‘The Silent Vigil’ sounds like they just left the tape running and bashed out another nine tunes, it does suffer from diminishing returns in that I love this style of Death Metal but it has lost the shock and the novelty of the new. It's simply another set of nine songs that sound like the late lamented Bolthrower and whilst they are all good tracks, that is no longer enough to get beyond number 53.
Now if Dimmu a few entries back are the acceptable symphonic and accessible face of Black Metal then Watain are the impermeable claustrophobic real deal. ‘Trident Wolf Eclipse’ is a cauldron of searing white noise that is down-tuned, thick and unrelenting. It it's harsh, brittle, takes no prisoners and is really rather wonderful.
And our final record in the top half of our countdown is a big dollop of anthemic Irish Black Folk. Dublin's Primordial have been at this for thirty years with a pretty much stable line up (their last new recruit signed up eighteen years ago). They will never headline festivals or graduate beyond clubs and small halls but they are very much a cult phenomenon and command a select but dedicated group of followers.
What thirty years of treading metal’s least trodden paths has given them is the time and space to hone an incredibly individual sound. Primordial sound like Primordial and no other band. This is album number nine and once again they have crafted a highly emotive selection of tracks that use Black Metal sense of grandeur and scale but replace the gnarly distorted guitar work with a clean melodic sound that wouldn't sound out of place on an Iron Maiden album. Add to that flourishes of atmospherics from the use of traditional Irish instrumentation and Nemtheanga's powerful but emotionally wrought vocals and you have something that sounds quite unique. ‘Exile Amongst The Ruin’s won't get Primordial the wider recognition they so richly deserve but will once again confirm to those already in the know that this is indeed a really special band.
Let's dive into the final fifty with a slice of home-grown psychedelic doom. Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats are suave and sophisticated and ‘Wasteland’ is their third collection of authentic sounding 70's tinged occult rock. All eight tracks here could easily have fallen through time from a mid-seventies edition of old grey whistle test as they are drenched in Hammond organ and distorted bluesy riffs. But what saves it all from being just a nostalgia fest is the richness of the song-writing as each track comes across as captivating and excellent. Overall ‘Wasteland’ is a vintage sound reinvented rather regurgitated.
Bloodbath is a super group made up of members of Katatonia, Opeth and Paradise Lost who come together to celebrate their mutual love of early nineties Swedish Death Metal. They are reverential and deeply passionate about their subject matter and (bizarre as it may sound for a Death Metal album) The Arrow of Satan is Drawn is produced with a huge amount of love and respect for its subject matter. The bottom line is whilst this may well be a distraction during various bands’ down times, it is actually some of the finest Death Metal out there.
The only way I can find to describe this is to say it's Corey Glover of Living Colour fronting The Architects. This is warm bouncy funk driven headlong into cold structured jittery modern metal. It groves and moves but also can be heavy and relentless. In fact it is madly eclectic and seems to wander off in about five different directions per song. It's, though really good, really really really good.
It's now traditional that this list features at least one heritage act who are releasing their best material for decades. Last year it was Deep Purple, the year before that Marillionand the year before that the mighty Scorpions. And this year? Well this year there are not just one legendary act rediscovering their ability to make decent stuff, there are three.
And let's start with Saxon. Yes Saxon. A band that even as far back as 1988, when I first started listening to Metal, was deemed to be culturally bankrupt. Well, forty years in, they are playing to the biggest crowds they have ever attracted and in ‘Thunderbolt’ they have produced their best album since the mid-eighties. This is still big dumb Metal with preposterous subject matters and chunky choruses but this time around they have actually taken the time and effort to craft really good songs. Every single track manages the unenviable task of holding its own against Saxon’s highly impressive back catalogue. Saxon seem finally entirely comfortable with what makes a great Saxon track, have bottled that formula and, as this album shows, are now bating them out the ball park.
In the sixties Britain invented the modern pop group with the Beatles, then the Americans spent the next forty years selling it back to us, the same is true with grindcore. We invented it back in the mid-eighties with acts like Carcass, Napalm Death and Extreme Noise Terror but since then the best grind has come from over the pond and Pig Destroyer are by far the best and truest grindcore act currently screaming angrily into a microphone. Grind is Death Metal's uglier and more raucous unrefined cousin. Whilst Death Metal may think it's dangerous and a bit of an outlaw with three points on its licence, grindcore is currently serving fifteen years for assault and battery. The riffs are also shorter more repetitive and, as the name suggests, seem to Grind.
‘Head Cage’ is Pig Destroyer’s first album in 6 years and it's a full frontal assault on the senses. These once nihilistic kids are now adults in their forties but they are still as angry and as pissed off as ever. With ‘Head Cage’ they have channeled that anger into a powerful message of isolation and dis-franchisement as this is the sound of disregarded and ignored America. Basically protest songs for the Trump generation.
The Ocean are German and are a collective rather than a band and have an evolving roll call of contributors. Given the Fall are now sadly defunct I suspect the Ocean are well on the way of surpassing the Fall's record of 66 members. This is their seventh album and is the first part of a sprawling concept album about the rise of artificial intelligence with part two to follow in 2019. This is modern Prog at its most modern and most eclectic. The riffs loop over each other and the other musical components seem at one moment to be densely packed together but then suddenly shift to become reflective and ethereal. I know I keep saying this but there is so much in here and as a listener you get lost in the textured layers and intricate time signatures. One of the cleverest albums on this list.
Last year this list was choker full of Doom, couldn't move for the stuff. This year, it’s Death Metal and here is another in the shape of swedes’ Lik. This lot were stunning at Damnation and ‘Carnage’ is equally good. This is much more open form of Death Metal and the riffs are given plenty of room to breathe and flex, there is also tons of melody in here and solos that wouldn't have felt out of place on the Saxon album. For a Death metal album this feels clean and crisp and the amount of different ideas in here makes me think that Lik could go on to be something really special.
OK obscure Nordic corner. Wallachia are the long-term labour of love of Lars Stavdal from Steinkjer in mid Norway. Since 1992 he has produced (usually by himself and usually with little acclaim) highly cinematic symphonic Black Metal. Whilst probably unknown to all but the most diligent student of true Norwegian Black Metal, the stuff he produces is extraordinarily good and also exquisitely produced. He/they are also responsible for what I consider to be the greatest of all Black Metal albums, 2009’s brilliant ‘Ceremony of Accession’, though don't try to find it on Spotify as I had to write to Lars personally to get a physical copy.
Funding all this himself Lars still fly's the flag for true Norwegian Black Metal and ‘Monumental Heresyy’ is the fourth Wallachia album in twenty six years, though the first to be recorded with an actual band. As always with Lars this is highly complex and textured Black Metal with tons of choral bits and keyboards but having other musicians around seems to have pushed him to be even more ambitious as the sound even is deeper and more orchestrated than the previous three albums. As always what Lars has managed to produce on a modest budget is simply stunning and the only down point is that this album is likely to only reach a small audience.
Those that recall the mid-noughties (and as they say if you remember the noughties please remind the rest of us as we may have dozed through it) then you will be familiar with the clutch of Joy Division sound along bands that emerged. Interpol, Editors, the Stills and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club all channelled the spirit of Ian Curtis and all tried to update ‘Unknown Pleasures’ for the iPod (remember them?) generation. My then girlfriend (and now wife) had a real thing for The Editors and therefore I saw them in many northern toilet sized venues and in numerous late morning festival slots. Even though they were never 'my' band I kept my hand in and whilst there appeal has become more selective (i.e. back to the toilet venues and early afternoon festival ) they have unfathomably continued to make excellent records. ‘Violence’ is another slice of emotive and stirring stadium rock (they have long ago got the Joy Division obsession out of their system) and it manages to retain an edge, energy and spark that is missing from so many other bands doing this stuff. It may be completely out of character but I really really like this.
Haken's previous album ‘Affinity’ was a highly authentic stab at capturing the sound of Rush's magnificent run of form in the early eighties. It was drenched in guitar synths and sounded like it had fallen through a very Prog-centric hole in the space and time continuum. ‘Vector’, for all its Hammond organs is a much more modern sounding album, though with one eye firmly on Dream Theater's extensive back catalogue. Where it works really well is the merging of angular riffs with almost dreamy Prog, whilst ‘Vector’ appropriates lots of people's sound the end result is actually rather original. The upshot is that Haken seem to have finally have craved their own musical identity rather than being the band that sounds like this or that other act.
And we have forty records left and they are forty corkers. So 40 to 21 to come next week and as ever to listen along