A couple of years ago I gathered up my pile of ticket stubs, most of which I had saved from the beginning of my gig-going career, and began to organize them. The physical stubs are in an ever-expanding catalogue, and dates, bands, and venues are recorded in a document. It’s a long and interesting history, although there is a large gap in the middle, but all that is probably a topic for another post. What is relevant here is the second gap: The Year of No Gigs, the enforced global pause.
I have two shows listed under 2020: The Musical Box in January, and then the Katatonia live stream that happened in May. I decided to list it because I paid for a ticket to watch it, and it was better than many gigs I’ve seen in person, not just by Katatonia themselves, but other bands as well…once you got past the eerie silence at the end of each song.
Everything else has been cancelled, or postponed. There were some shreds of hope in the early days of the lockdown, that maybe by June there would be a return to normalcy or something close to it, but as the weeks went by it became depressingly clear that no such thing was going to happen. Tours were cancelled, postponed gigs were jettisoned, and even the gigs shifted from March to August are looking unlikely. It is probably safe to say that concerts, at least in any meaningful sense, are going to be the last things to return.
An ambitious project, to be sure, and there is every chance that if I look back on it, say, in three years, I’ll probably disagree with myself, but at the moment, this is my list.
The albums I considered were the ones that I had already chosen in my yearly lists — most of them, anyway. Occasionally an album came along after the fact that I realized should have been included had I heard it at the right time. The chore was to figure out which of them were good enough to make The Final List. I began with about 45 albums, gleaned from my listening over the years — I had no set number I was aiming for, I just went year-by-year and chose what I considered to be the standouts from my list for that year. In the end, I narrowed it down to fifteen albums: some years were simply better for great music than others, and I see no reason to ignore that fact.
Of course, there is the obvious question: What makes an album good enough to be an album of the decade?? It is a question that is harder to answer than I anticipated, since I have to have criteria that includes perhaps some … unexpected entries.
It comes down to a couple of essential qualities. The first, naturally enough, is sheer staying power. It has to be an album that can stand up to repeat visits and retain the power and appeal that made it a favourite in the first place. There are lots of albums that grab me and make me play them a lot, but eventually I drift away, and whatever it was that drew me to them has gone.
The best albums continue to be able to hit all those same triggers that snagged me in the first place: that ineluctable rush of joy, the goosebumpy thrill, forcing me to pay attention. They manifest the transcendence of the best music to me, whatever idiosyncratic stimuli I require in order to consider an album something of lasting value. It’s difficult to explain why I feel that particular set of responses for any record, given the variety of genres these albums represent — obviously the oriental-folk syncretism of Lunatic Soul is very different from the pounding hard-rock of Pretty Maids — but albums from both those outfits are capable of transporting me.
I guess it comes down to this: whatever the music is, it must feel authentic. I am not attracted for very long to stuff that sounds forced, or derivative, or self-absorbed, or that emulates something else even with the best of intentions. The best music should feel natural, unselfconscious, emanating, as it were, from a place deep in the soul of the creators.
In terms of the artists who made the cut: certainly there are The Usual Suspects, the ones I tend to find consistently satisfying, but I am always prepared to be surprised, and I surely have been over the years. There are albums on this list that literally came out of nowhere. There are candidates from bands that I have found unlistenable at times; there are albums that are not consistently great — that have a few tracks I don’t play very much — but the overall impact of the album as a whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I hope at least you will find the list interesting.
Back in July, I observed that the music of 2019 consisted largely of music I missed from 2018; and that continued through the rest of the year. However, new music also continued to appear, and most (but not all) of the expected releases finally materialized (exceptions: the new Body Count, and the oft-delayed new Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster, theoretically due early in 2020).
Overall, I find the musical year has been a bit lacking — almost all of the albums range from definitely listenable to very good, but none of them strayed into Great territory. Even the best album of the year has a handful of songs that could have been left off. Out of the 10 in the final list (and a shorter list this year than has been the case lately), I can listen to only 4 others in their entirety without my attention drifting; the rest are either solidly competent without being outstanding in any way, or have some excellent tracks among general indifference. This may be the first year where this has happened.
At any rate, on to the list, from 10 to 1.
10. Queensrÿche: The Verdict
My first Queensrÿche album; I have avoided them largely for the same reason I do not listen to Iron Maiden: I cannot stand operatic metal vocals. However, Halford’s voice here has dropped into tolerable registers, and the tracks are solid, listenable, professional hard rock, the sort of album you can play when something is needed that isn’t quite aural wallpaper but also doesn’t demand a lot of attention. Satisfyingly heavy and melodic.
9. Torche: Admission
If you like it short, no pretensions, sludgy and heavy, these guys deliver. They can certainly settle into a groove when needed, but most of the songs here are brief and to the point.
8. Front Line Assembly: Wake Up the Coma
The return of the Canadian industrial stalwarts, first new material for a few years, and a few guests included. I still don’t think FLA is as good as Noise Unit (another Bill Leeb project) at its best, but they are legends.
7. 3Teeth: Metawar
The third album from the guys on the front lines of industrial metal, presenting their dark vision of the state of the world today. It is a hard, polished album, perhaps less gritty and fierce than their last one (<shutdown.exe>) and honestly I think it suffers for that.
6. Pelican: Nighttime Stories
It’s hard to believe these guys have been around for almost 20 years, but they are indisputably one of the best known instrumental post-metal outfits in the world, and this new album just reaffirms why.
5. The Tea Party: Black River EP
This year marks 30 years of existence (more or less — there was a hiatus for a few years) for this Canadian trio, although they have not been very active lately. A new album in 2014, few shows here and there, a Canadian tour in 2016, but little else. Late in 2018 they played a few gigs (I caught them in Toronto) in support of a new EP called Black River, and this was released at the end of November.
Generally I like songs here and there across their discography but nothing like an entire album, but this EP — six tracks over about 20 minutes — is surprisingly good. Very strong bluesy rock, rather less pretentious than is often the case with Jeff Martin; there really are no weak songs at all. I’m almost tempted to move this EP up a slot in the ratings, but for sentimentality’s sake I will leave it here.
4. Pretty Maids: Undress Your Madness
The fourth album of all new material since 2010, the year of their resurrection; it is safe to say that this past decade has been one of the strongest in their career, which says something considering that career spans damn near 40 years. I discovered them in 2016 with their album Kingmaker, (review here) and it was a revelation.
The Pretty Maids formula remains untouched: intersperse killer hard-rock stompers with monster metal face-melters, toss in the occasional hard rock ballad (which these guys do so well), keep melody to the forefront, and feature the work of Ken Hammer, probably one of the best and most entirely-overlooked guitarists in all of hard rock/metal. Overall, however, I think this album lacks some fundamental grittiness and drive that is present in Pandemonium (2010) and Motherland (2013), and to some extent Kingmaker. It seems a bit smoother, maybe looking back to an earlier era. It starts out with a huge bang, but it is hard for the rest of the album to live up to those three opening tracks. It is a very good album, but not the best they’ve done these past 10 years (that title track, though…!!). One does hope for the best of course, given that Ronnie Atkins was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2019.
3. Russian Circles: Blood Year
In the July post, I observed that I had only heard the new Russian Circles once, but it certainly held a lot of promise; I think it is safe to say (seeing where the album landed in the top 10) that it has lived up to that promise. Blood Year consolidates the band’s reputation as maybe the best out there at what they do, uncompromising instrumental post-metal, delivered with all the professionalism and passion the guys are capable of. I’m not about to argue whether it is their best album, but there is very little wrong with it. And the accompanying tour may well be one of the best I’ve seen from them.
2. Klone: Le Grand Voyage
The Frenchmen have surely delivered this year. Back in 2015 they released Here Comes the Sun, which marked a rather new prog-driven sound for them, and gained them a whole new following. Le Grand Voyage continues even farther down that road; they have left most traces of their metal past behind and have thoroughly embraced the lush, orchestral sound of the last album while completely avoiding the self-referential prog tropes that mar the presentations of so many current “prog” outfits. Le Grand Voyage is gloriously melodic, cinematic in scope, with some very immersive tracks (“Yonder”, and “Breach” particularly); alas it is not completely consistent in quality but definitely one of the best albums of the year in any genre.
1. New Model Army: From Here
NMA: another of those outfits that has existed for more than 3 decades, with a solid and dedicated following; this time however I wasn’t completely oblivious to their existence since a good friend happens to be a fan, and had recommended them before this, but somehow the appeal passed me by. But again, Spotify to the rescue: a song from their 2016 album appeared in my recommendations, and playing that led me to try the new album.
Which intrigued me enough to play it again, and then I noticed the lyrics.
At this point (due to space constraints) I’ll just observe that I tend to be fairly critical of lyrics and with few exceptions I don’t spend much time with them. But I am happy to be surprised by the exceptions.
Justin Sullivan is a master lyricist. I am extremely impressed, enormously captivated by his narrative power, his irony, his acute ability to grasp and illustrate relationships with a few well-placed words. The full review of this album will follow, and I could probably just write the whole thing with quotes from the songs. But of course, they are songs, and one cannot neglect the music: the album is almost entirely bass-and-drum driven, with acoustic guitar laid over that foundation. On this spare core are layered plenty of orchestral effects, heavy guitar, lots of density where needed … and entwined throughout are those words, telling us things about ourselves that we often don’t want to think about.
It is not a perfect album; there are a few tracks that could easily have been left off to the overall benefit of the album — they just are not up to the quality of the rest and end up as distractions.
I’ll leave you with “The Weather”. I’ll let you cogitate on it yourself, but if there is any song out there that is a song for our current times, this is it.
When I wrote the March State of the Music, the first few months of 2019 seemed to consist mostly of albums from 2018 that I missed, with most of 2019’s offerings still to come.
At this point, many of those albums have been released, and the discovery of the older stuff continues apace. I’d like to pretty much erase last year’s Albums of 2018 posts and start again, but oh well. It’s what I had at the time, and there are a few keepers in there.
Back in March there were three albums that had early releases: While She Sleeps — SO WHAT?, Queensrÿche — The Verdict, and Front Line Assembly — Wake Up the Coma. You can read those reviews here. It will become clearer as the year moves on how they will stack up against the rest of the offerings, but so far they are managing to hang in.
So: on to what has appeared this year since March, a look forward to the few remaining releases (barring any surprises), and a summary of the old stuff that you should check out if you haven’t already (in a separate post since this one got long). The albums are in no particular order as yet, but it is fairly obvious which ones I like more than others.
Here is a rundown of the the Albums of 2019, which are so far mostly the Albums of 2018 I should have found last year. Well, I suppose better late than never and all that. Interestingly, most of these finds have popped up in my weekly Spotify Discovery list, so I must be tweaking it right. Yes, the platform comes in for a lot of grief from some of my acquaintances for its pathetically low payouts to artists, and if streaming is your primary listening source then you need a good kick in the ass. However, it has done a pretty good job at turning up music that has led me to buy albums. Some of its suggestions are entirely unexpected given that it is an algorithm, and it is nice to have an alternative source of new music, because quite honestly I think I have exhausted the musical possibilities of most of my FB friends; I can often predict whether their recommendations will work or not, and there is not a lot of convergence any more between their tastes and mine, with one or two exceptions.
As well, I will do a quick run-down of the anticipated releases for this year. If even some of these albums live up to the potential of the last ones the bands released, it could be a pretty mighty year for new music.
So … starting with what came out in 2018 that I didn’t find:
Illusion is a post-punk/grunge metal quartet from Gdańsk, Poland, founded in 1992 and with a rather on-again off-again career; Anhedonia came out early in 2018 and is their sixth album. It is a brief album, a shade over 30 minutes long. The songs are short, straight-up grunge rockers, nice and heavy but still quite melodic; these guys get right to the point without too many frills. This is not intellectual music by any means, but I find myself playing the album quite a bit. I have to say, the vocalist is excellent — some serious chops lurk beneath that gritty grunge style.
Author and Punisher: Beastland
When this one turned up in my Spotify Discovery list, I was a bit surprised. I happen to love drone metal, but admittedly I don’t search it out much in Spotify and as far as I know there is none in my playlists. But for some reason, Spotify suggested a little ditty called “The Speaker is Systematically Blown”… and, well, “brutal” is one of the milder descriptors for what came blasting out of my headphones.
Turns out that Author and Punisher is one Tristan Shone, who has been around for a while, a former mechanical engineer who has designed and made his own industrial musical “instruments”; Beastland was released in October of 2018. It is hard to describe exactly what we have here, except to say … imagine what a dozen drill presses might sound like wired up to a vocoder and run through a MIDI controller, turned up to eleven. Which isn’t to say that it is just noise. It’s not: it is industrial metal, and it sounds exactly like it should — a massive wall of rhythm and melody and a LOT of weighty drone. I love it.
The Return of the Instrumental (and Poland Rising)
This was not one of my better years for musical discoveries. However, the past few years have been so good that I suppose the odds were against another, and it did not arrive. I only managed to come up with maybe 25 albums I wanted to listen to more than once, and some of those didn’t make it to a third play.
So: this year I have 15 albums in the list, like in other years, but I’ve decided to rank only the first five. The rest are in alphabetical order. Each of the final ten has its strong points, each its weaknesses, and any order I put them in would be largely arbitrary. Of the top five: I have to say only the first 2 albums are truly stellar, the third is definitely better than the rest, and 4 and 5 are strong enough to rank. You will find My Best Albums of the Year below the fold.
I would be remiss if I did not point out the fact that the three best albums (to my ears) for 2018 are all from Polish outfits. I’m pretty sure this is the first country sweep I’ve had. See more below….
As noted in the Introduction (which I hope you read first, link here), I have not actually ranked these albums, they are listed in alphabetical order. They do not differ from each other enough for a ranking to even make sense. They are albums that I play reasonably often, and/or have qualities that make them interesting, enough that others might find them worth pursuing (in fact some already have — some of these albums rank pretty high in other people’s lists). And fully seven of the ten here are instrumental.
Dead Letter Circus: Dead Letter Circus
This Aussie post-punk/indie bunch burst onto the scene in 2010 with a powerful first album, which contained some thoughtful, heavy tracks and a lot of promise. Alas, they never really seemed to be able to live up to that promise. Their second album, The Catalyst Fire, quite frankly was a mess, while the third, Aethesis, was about halfway listenable.
This, their fourth, finds them converging towards shorter pieces that are focused on their strengths: intense melodic rock, nicely-constructed, very consistent, even if the tracks begin to sound a bit the same towards the end. If they continue in this direction they may finally come up with the album they are capable of making.
I might not have had much luck finding interesting stuff this year, but that doesn’t mean other people had the same problem.
“Hm,” said one friend in a review. “I keep coming back to this album. Except I don’t like the singer much.”
Okay, thought I, let me check it out.
I keep coming back to the album again and again as well. And again. And I like the singer just fine.
I had been vaguely aware of the name “Osada Vida” for some time, but I had no idea who or what the entity was, or where they hailed from, let alone what they sounded like. Just one of the many references to musicians that pass through my newsfeed on a daily basis, too many to really be able to pursue. As it turns out Osada Vida is a Polish outfit who have been around for over 20 years, with a handful of albums and various changes of personnel; the current lineup includes a new singer/lyricist, Marcel Lisiak. I will confess to not yet having checked out the back catalogue, so I don’t know how he compares to the last guy — or how Variomatic compares to anything else they’ve done.
What I can say is this: whoever they are, they bring a ton of songwriting and musicianship chops to the table. The album is essentially keyboard-and guitar-heavy prog, but it also showcases a variety of other influences: a bit of folk, a bit of jazz-rock, a bit of classical — all intertwined with consummate skill. A showcase track for this is “The Line”, which over its 6 minutes moves from heavy to a smooth instrumental break, ramps it up again, and finally finishes with a little funky fusion. This is a marvellous piece, and essentially is a microcosm of the whole album. Lots of ideas swirl around but they are assembled and presented with confidence and care; melody is honoured. Lisiak’s light, accentless tenor (he sings in English) does fit well with the songs. I don’t know how it would come across live, but it works in the studio.
Variomatic is an album of immense sophistication and nuance, impeccably executed, as smooth as the smoothest single-malt, accomplished and as smart as hell, and a joy to listen to every time I put it on. It just makes me feel good to hear it. That being said, I suspect this album will not get anywhere near the attention it deserves. It is an outstanding offering, and is likely to see a lot of future play from me. If I am going to listen to prog, this is what I want to hear: something that sounds fresh and new and doesn’t rehash the well-worn tropes that so many modern prog bands seem to think is necessary. I hope I can convince some other folks to give this album a try.
Erik Martensson: Lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Magnus Ulfsted: drums
My Fear and My Faith
Because of Us
Walk Me Through the Fire
New Life Begins
The Final War
Rock’s Still Rolling
The Best Thing I Never Had
Back in 2016 two old pros of the nordic hard rock scene: Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids (Denmark), and Erik Martensson of Eclipse (Sweden) joined up to make the first Nordic Union album. It turned out to be a decent, listenable amalgam of the two bands, with one or two great hard-rock stompers (notably the track “Hypocrisy”). It was good enough that news of a follow-up was welcome.
Three singles were released and two of them showed some serious promise; alas the third was a slow moving and unabashedly political take-down of Donald Trump. I didn’t much like it, and it remains my least favourite track on the album.
At any rate, the album also has a lot of slower, more ballady numbers, and while Atkins has a real talent for those kinds of songs they are not my favourites, I prefer the face-melters. So I was prepared to be disappointed again, for the most part. Two or three good rocking tracks and an okay batch for the rest of the album…but somehow, I kept listening. And somehow, the whole album started to dig its way in. I realized after about a week or so that I was listening to this album – all of it – pretty relentlessly. It was also supplying way more than its share of my daily dose of earworms.
Overall Second Coming is much more consistent than the first album; I find the songwriting to be more mature and confident, which I suppose is to be expected with the experience these guys bring to the table. Even the slower tracks have a satisfying heaviness. “It Burns” is still not great, but it is easier to overlook now. Lots of melody here, lots of thick guitar, and of course Atkins’ mighty sledgehammer vocals. The standout tracks for sure are “Walk Me Through the Fire”, and “Because of Us”, both relentless hard-as-granite headbangers, and I have an inexplicable fondness for “The Final War”. Ronnie Atkins’ Christianity is not a thing I have ever heard him say a single word about, but it is clearly evident given some of the songs that make their way onto Pretty Maids albums. This track is explicitly The Book of Revelation’s End of the World with a pounding beat, and to be quite honest if we are all to die in a conflagration of good versus evil (which these days does not seem so farfetched), it may as well be to a heavy metal soundtrack.
Mariusz Duda: vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piccolo bass, banjo, guitar solo on “Lament” and “Wasteland”
Piotr Kozieradzki: drums
Michał Łapaj: keyboards and synthesizers, rhodes piano and hammond organ, theremin on “Wasteland”
Maciej Meller: guitar solo on “Acid Rain – Part 2: Dancing Ghosts”, “Guardian Angel”, “The Struggle for Survival Part II – Battle Royale’” and “River Down Below”
Michał Jelonek – violin on “The Day After”, “Lament” and “Wasteland”
Mateusz Owczarek – guitar solo on “Vale of Tears”
The Day After
Acid Rain: Part I – Where are we now?; Part II – Dancing Ghosts
Vale of Tears
Struggle for Survival: Part I – Dystopia; Part II – Battle Royale
River Down Below
The Night Before
If you have been reading reviews for Wasteland, you already know how they tend to start, so I will not repeat all that. In summary: Wasteland is probably the most fraught album in Riverside’s career, awaited with enormous anticipation, apprehension, trepidation…and so on. As fans, we all know why.
The big question is: Did the decision to continue as a trio, with no permanent replacement for the beloved Piotr Grudziński, actually work? Did they pull it off? The responses have ranged from enthusiastic “absolutely!”s to carefully worded versions of “nope”, and everything in between. The only thing we knew for sure about Wasteland was that it wasn’t going to be the same as the previous albums, but Mariusz Duda always says that. I did have a hint of the sound to come, hearing something early in the spring albeit in an unfinished form, and I liked it very much; but auditory memory being what it is (bad), I wasn’t willing to bet the farm on that few minutes of a demo heard once.
Three singles were released in the weeks before the album hit. Promotion, marketing – it is an understandable practice, but it is fair to say that for the most part, these songs caused more consternation than relief among the fanbase. I was certainly among those consternated. The first, “Vale of Tears”, despite some interesting moments, came across as a rather cliché poppy mashup of … well, everything. What on earth was that all about? There was a gradual improvement with the next two such that by the time “Lament” appeared, folks had gotten their hopes up again…but still, doubt had been sown.