2018 Top 100 Albums Part 5
Apparently you can get a t-shirt that simply reads 'Female Fronted Metal is Not a Genre' and equally Svalbard vocalist and lyricist Serna Cherry argues she is not a female artist, she is simply an artist. ‘It’s Hard To Hope’ is an angry but ultimately uplifting record. It channels the bands rage and the indignity against the sexism inherent within the system but for all the despair at the lack of parity, there is hope here. The music is almost euphoric in its swirling storm of up-tempo guitars and whilst the subject matter is serious and often depressing, this is not a dark or bleak album. The music is full of resilience and crescendo after crescendo of searing guitars. This is the sound of fighting the system rather than be downtrodden by it, a battle cry rather than a scream of anger and in the end it is that feeling of stringent defiance that you are left with.
Our final “old guard make staggering record” entry and staggering is the word here. Best Judas Priest album in decades and probably up there with their best ever work. This is heavy metal in its purest undiluted form and I cannot stress enough how strong, confident and vital this sounds. This may be the work of (mostly) seventy year old men, but it has such a fire in its belly and such energy and conviction in its material. They are not doing anything particularly different, they are just doing it with renewed passion and conviction. Everything is on top form from the songwriting through to Rob Halford's dazzling vocals to the awe inspiring dual guitar work, it is just such a well-crafted record. If Judas Priest needed to reassert themselves as one of the most important bands in our world they have certainly done so here.
When I was in Sixth-Form in the late eighties, we used to brag that our band Garrett Lane played Goth Metal, which to be honest went about as far as us performing both Faster Pussycat and Sisters Of Mercy covers. But we were certainly ahead of our time (well in concept rather than delivery) as in the decades since Goth metal as not just become a thing but its own living breathing counter-culture with countless constituent sub-genres. Tribulation are Goth Melo-Death, think Amon Amarth if they exchanged their Viking fixation for a vampire one. They look like they have all stepped out of a Rocky Horror convention and they probably don't do much sunbathing (or looking in mirrors) but boy is this good. ‘Down Below’ is rich, dense and wonderfully melodic. It's heavy but also has an ethereal and atmospheric quality to it and the duel guitar work is superb and just oozes quality. Whilst this is de-facto extreme metal it isn't brutal or guttural. This is actually a fragile and beautiful record that wears it's (jet black) heart on its sleeve. Excellent.
Right Black-gaze is the utterly incredible melding of eighties shoe-gaze with Black Metal. Also known as transcendental or euphoric Black Metal, it is essentially what happens when you up-tune your guitars and then play them blisteringly fast. I love it, but was concerned that the glean was wearing off, especially since DeafHeaven have abandoned the scene for pastures new (more on them later....spoilers). But this is an utterly incredible record, powerful and full of venom but also utterly beautifully constructed. It is wave after wave of soft fragile instrumentation ripped from an early Cocteau Twins album and then it builds and builds and builds and then the noise hits. It's heavy and claustrophobic and chaotic but always tuneful and mesmerizing. It is just compelling the way that the sound rises and falls and the caustic vocals surrounds gorgeous musical pieces. I love this because it is emotive and stirring and when you reach the end you feel you have been immersed in a masterpiece of sonic power and just want to dive back in. Astonishingly good.
Another record doing stunningly different things with the template of Black Metal, but even though this is using the same musical template as MØL it couldn't be further in sound. This is Black Prog or Black Classic Rock and I would go as far as throwing Black Easy-Listening into the mix. Ihsahn was/is the creative force behind black metal legends Emperor (they are the Black Metal The Beatles), since their split and between their numerous reunions he has produced seven utterly incredible solo albums stretching the walls of Black Metal and even Metal itself. Think of him as our genre's Peter Gabriel, a man unafraid to mix influences and continually confound expectations. ‘Amr’ is as ever wonderful. It is about as Classic Rock as you can go but still have harsh vocals, but it also manages to be both haunting and anthemic. Tracks like 'Where You Are Lost And I Belong' just make the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end with its wrought emotion and feel like the best thing U2 never did. The fact that an album this deep, passionate and intricate exists in the same world as other Metal bands I could name, I find astonishing and for those who feel Black Metal is barbaric, you will not find more heart and soul in any other record on this list.
I struggled with this album and I had to form a virtual working group of those I consider my musical peers to help me consider its merits. It is by far the hardest album to get on with in this list and very much the furthest from the shallow waters of the mainstream, and as this countdown is awash with Death and Black Metal that is certainly saying something. But for all its impenetrable nature, this is a deeply affecting record. It is hard listening but it is also equally hypnotic and engaging. You get drawn in by its raw exposed emotion and whilst it is an incredibly powerful record, it is also subtle and nuanced and in places low-key. Very much uneasy listening, but also compelling in the way that it unfurls. I am now convinced this one of the most important records of the year if not the decade but don't expect to get it first time.
I must be coming across as a right barrel of laughs, as this is yet another emotionally wrought entry dealing with the pain and anguish of loss. You should all know the drill with the Architects, one of the UK's finest young bands they were on the verge of finally breaking into the big time when in 2016 Tom Searle, their guitarist and chief songwriter, lost his three year battle with skin cancer. The band were within touching distance of finally claiming the crown that Bullet For My Valentine had cast aside, but still they considered calling it a day. However instead they have channeled their emotional turmoil into "Holy Hell" a gaping wound of an album that is a brutally honest account of the heartbreak of the last two years. This is an incredibly angry album, raging at the unfairness of the whole situation and it is also raw and untamed in the way that it describes the maelstrom of feelings that the band have been through. Another not easy listen, but it is an incredibly powerful testament to the apocalyptic after-shocks of loss.
Deafheaven were the architects or at least the main producers of Blackgaze. ‘Sunbather’ and ‘New Bermuda’ are both high-water marks in the evolution of this most special and frankly niche of genres. However ‘Ordinary Corrupt Human Love’ sees them completely abandon the sound they single handily cultivated and instead shift towards a much more cinematic and fragile side. Musically they have become subtle, beautiful and enigmatic and frankly what they have created had much more in common with Nordic Giants and Explosions In The Sky than it does with any Black Metal. What keeps it tethered to our world and also what makes it such a fantastic album is that George Clarke's harsh Goblinesque vocals are still there. It is such a startling juxtapose, gorgeous lush sweeping instrumentation with this guttural primal screeching laid over it. As my good lady wife would say it's the sound of someone being tortured to a Mogwai album, but god does it work. Once again Deafheaven have defied the odds and melded together opposing styles to create something utterly wondrous. Just, just brilliant.
A bit of a Finnish double header for the next two entries (ohh spoilers) and first out of the traps is progressive Death band Barren Earth with their fourth record and they have created a minor masterpiece that marries the sweeping grander of Prog with the brutal power of Death Metal. But whereas say Opeth would have the two styles operating in an alternating linear fashion juxtaposing each other, here Barren Earth blend them to a create a wonderfully rich but dominant sound. This is a wonderfully textured album with layers upon layers of warm decadent folk flourishes but it is expertly pulled together by an overcoat of precision deployed caustic death metal. The other thing that makes this album so special is Jón Aldará absolutely incredible vocals. They share this astonishing vocal delivery with Faroese metal band Hamferð and this is his second record with Barren Earth, but his first as a full creative collaborator. His range is astonishing as he moves effortlessly from death growls to soaring operatic and this perpetually changing delivery so well matches the shifting instrumentation. Just such a wondrous record.
The second part of our Finnish take over are fellow Progressive Death band Amorphis, now they may be given the same label as Barren Earth but this sounds completely different. This is a far more up-tempo, anthemic and keyboard drenched form of Progressive Death. It has much more of a bombastic symphonic feeling whereas Barren Earth was much more fragile and nuanced. Amorphis are veritable veterans, having done this for twenty-eight years and this is their thirteenth album. Almost out of sight they have produced a string of fantastic albums this decade and “Queen of Time” is the greatest thing they have ever produced, quite a feat. for a band with this much history and this far into their career. Put simply “Queen of Time” doesn't let up for its entire 57 minute running time, it is big, over-blown and sumptuous from beginning to end. It is like being in the middle of an aural firework display as it just encases you in such a huge cacophony of euphoric sound. But this is not noise for noise sake, this is melodic, tuneful and the songs take up squatters rights in your head. Brilliant, just brilliant.
This list is a labour of love that I start compiling from the moment that Big Ben's chimes signal the start of a new year. It is pretty much tied in by November as I await the final stragglers and those that have made the list jockey for position. Some go up as I fall in love with an album that had initially alluded me and some fall away as I realise that they may not be all that after all. “Nanoångström” is a rarity as I had actually closed the list when it was released in late November and I was resolute that I wasn't letting anyone else in, but this so good that I couldn't overlook it, so another record was sacrificed (sorry Cat Power, not your year) and Bast got a last minute berth on a ship that had already sailed. “Nanoångström” is astonishing, it is space rock for the 21st century, Hawkwind reimagined for 2019. A sprawling epic of a record that unfurls in front of you like a portal into another astral plane. It's like someone has unearthed an unreleased alternative soundtrack to ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’. Bast have always made music that defines genre and description, but here they have excelled with a monolith of a record that is the sonic equivalent of an out of body experience. Fabulous, and that will teach me to write off November releases.
This started off in the list somewhere in the mid-eighties and then moved its way into a mid-table obscurity position. I liked it, but was still unsure of what all the fuss was about (this is Metal Hammer’s album of the year) and then it just clicked and it flew up to number nine in the closing moments of list compiling as I realised that “Prequelle” is indeed utterly wonderful. It took a while for the curtain to fall, but I must admit but I am now converted. This is Metal on Broadway, a wonderfully camp and frankly OTT soundtrack to an unwritten musical celebrating the occult. It is Sondheim does Satanism, Andrew Lloyd Webber selling his soul to the dark lord. It is just so wonderfully silly, but still manages to retain the brilliance of the songs, and they are good. Daft as a box of frogs but absolutely brilliant. This is big Stadium Metal redefined with a theatrical wink and huge dose irony but most importantly with the songs.
Best Pink Floyd album in absolute decades is not released by Pink Floyd. Shocker!. This is the album I always wanted Pink Floyd to make in that it is brim-full of bold, soulful, highly polished melodic Prog. What is so different to most other modern takes on Prog is it's feeling of self-restraint, essentially it doesn't lose itself down pointless blind avenues of senseless instrumental noodling. Instead this is a concise and small c, conservative album that has beautiful flourishes and gorgeous interludes but is very measured in how it uses them. It knows when enough is enough and everything is in its own proportion. Yes, there are long songs here, but rather than being sprawling epics that going on and on, they are actually quite reserved and minimalist in the way that they unravel and at no point do any of them outstay their welcome. This is a magical, enthralling and warm record that proves good high quality Prog is not actually about how much you've got, its about how you use what you have got.
In my Rockflesh review of their recent Manchester show, I described Black Peaks as being a band for the Spotify generation. By this I meant that their influences were so varied and diverse that that much different musical input would have only been possible due to the ‘eat as much as you like’ mentality of Spotify. This veritable free for all on every track every written ever has allowed Black Peaks to forge an album that exists within our world but possess musical tentacles that stretch out into many other spheres of influence. Their debut, “Statues”, was self-assured but this just oozes self-confidence and the arrogance of youth. I have not heard an album this aware of its own brilliance since the Stone Roses' debut, and this self-awareness is not a bad thing. This album is frothing over with passion and pride, it knows that it's good and that it's got great songs and it so desperately wants you all to hear them all. And the songs here are stunning, strong call to arms that utilise countless reference points. ‘All that Divides’ is very much a modern rock album, aware of its history but also determined to do its own thing. Fantastic, utterly fantastic.
Metal is never afraid to consume other musical forms, in fact the main reason It has survived for fifty years is the fact that it merged with other genres and brought new influences into its initially rather limiting framework. Zeal & Ardor have discovered a whole new seam of fruitful creativity by looking beyond and before Metal's first great influence, the Blues. You see, like most sixties rock, Metal was initially based on the Blues. But the Blues aren't themselves a Prime Mover, they were influenced by Gospel and Afro-Spirituals. Zeal & Ardor have taken these and combined them with Black Metal and what they have created is incredible. ‘Stranger Fruit’ is amazing, both heavy and soulful. The vocals are soaring and emotive and the use of chants makes this an a fascinating and extremely powerful record. This feels so original and exciting and makes me fall in love with Metal all over again.
Completely unexpectedly, Suede have made an album that is almost as good as their 1994 masterpiece ‘Dog Man Star’. They hinted that they had reached a creative highpoint with 2016's excellent 'Night Thoughts’, but 'The Blue Hour' is even better. The songs are excellent high-tempo glam stompers but also reverberate with the menace and fear that resonates across the record. Whilst it may seem outwardly poppy this is actually an incredibly dark and foreboding record. The threat creeps through the tracks and the changes in tempo marry the ongoing concern that something is not quite right. Overfull this is a masterful record, a fully formed story-telling backed by stunning musicianship. Wonderful, utterly wonderful.
As I have said, this list takes life over many months as I travel across Greater Manchester. Albums move up and down as my relationship with them changes over the twelve months. However this record was released in the second week of 2018 and claimed a spot at the top and has just stayed there. Hamferð are from the Faeroe Islands and as you would expect make windswept widescreen atmospheric Metal. ‘Támsins Likam’ is just beautiful, a snowstorm of building waves of instrumentation that then crash into a powerful outpouring and then slowly dissipate. It is just jaw dropping in both its intricacy and also it's utter majesticism. The vocals are also amazing and you will remember the shifting tones of Jón Aldará from the Barren Earth album. This album is the nearest you will come to experiencing what it is like living on an isolated island, stirring, emotive and utterly awesome.
Until this year, A Perfect Circle were in my eyes very much Maynard's other band. I listened to them or watched them as a type of methadone to keep me going until that blessed moment Tool would deem us worthy to visit these shores or even produce a new record. ‘Eat the Elephant’ has changed everything as it is utterly stunning. It's further from Metal than Maynard ever wandered with Tool and probably fit more under the title alt-rock or even, god forbid, indie. Whatever you want to call it though, it is brilliant from start to finish, beautifully crafted rock songs that have one foot in the past but also embrace the future. It is a highly reflective album casting aspersions on societies, smart phone addiction and also lack of physical activity, but it manages to do this all with sly black humour. 'So Long and Thanks For All The Fish' for instance has brilliantly witty lyrics, as well as being a darn brilliant. Overall I have fallen head over heels with this album by realizing that it is not Tool and can never replace Tool. It's something different, equally as challenging and rewarding but built of softer cloth but still utterly wonderful.
Loads and loads, reams and reams has been written about where the next big commercially successful Metal band will come from and where is the next stadium bothering festival headlining household name from our genre. You may say Avenged Sevenfold, Bring Me the Horizon, Slipknot and (for a while) Bullet For My Valentine all filled that void but frankly they have all had to be willed and guided into that position by a media and an industry paranoid about emerging holes in their column inches, release schedules, festival bills and (most importantly) bank balances. It's been decades since a band from our end of town rose to the top purely on the back of making music that appeals to millions of people. Now I'm not about to argue that Parkway Drive have achieved this feat with ‘Reverence’, but what they have done is put down a marker that it is entirely possible that they can go on to produce angry heavy music that has massive commercial potential. What we have in the meantime is an utterly outstanding collection of accessible but uncompromising Metal. ‘Reverence’ is polished, melodic and immediate (and in many places eminently hummable) but it is also pissed off, genuine and heavy as Fuck. It may be by far, the most commercial thing they have produced, but it is by no means an easy record. It is an emotionally wrought, passionate and (at times) difficult listen but instead of using death growls and blast-beats, Parkway Drive have utilised the trappings of mainstream Metal to illustrate the heartache the band have been through (death, divorce, cancer diagnosis, its all here). It is very rare for Metal this commercial to be this genuine and (to coin a phrase) 4 real, but with ‘Reverence’ this is the lighting in the bottle that Parkway Drive have managed to capture.
Back in 2001, Andrew W.K. released ‘I Get Wet’ a pop punk glam stomp of an album that won over my heart. In subsequent years, Mr W.K. diversified into motivational speaking, politics (with the party party) and fronting a Ramones cover band with Marky Ramone. Musically he has been less prolific and when albums have appeared they have been less than inspiring to say the least. So imagine the surprise when this juggernaut of up-tempo feel good life affirming goodness hits in April. ‘You're Not Alone’ is wonderful, it is a musically diverse magical mystery tour through sonic affirmation. It is packed full of hymns to not giving in and motivational messages about embracing who you are. Musically, it is also magnificent and brings in every influences it can find from The Beach Boys to Moby. Towards the end it just become utterly euphoric with waves and waves of transcendental heart-warming lifting music. It is just utterly wonderful from start to finish and a fitting number one.
And we are done. Thank you for reading, commenting, engaging and encouraging. ROCKFLESH will continue to bring you the best of Metal, Rock and all associated sub-genres in 2019 (we are particularly on the look out for more Sexy Doom). But for now, that was 2018. If some of these albums are new to you, go listen to them and the other stuff created by the respective bands. If we have missed your favourite album of 2018 then please comment below. The whole list can now be found on Spotify
And thank you. See you next year!