2015 was an exciting year in music, not just because of the launch of Cast Iron. As with last year’s roundup, the usual caveats apply: I generally (but not exclusively) listen to rock, metal, and punk, I didn’t listen to every album that came out this year, and this isn’t a list of the best albums of the year – just my favourites.
10: Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful
Fittingly for an album all about natural selection, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is a sensible evolution of the band’s trademark over-the-top theatrical, power metal into something a little less embarrassing. Nightwish have never sounded tighter, and even the 25 minute closer ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ somehow manages not to grate (it’s essentially three songs in one).
Floor Jansen replaces Anette Olzon and she’s the best singer they’ve ever had: powerful enough to be in command on the heavier tracks, with enough range and sweetness to subtly weave into the lighter and more ethereal songs. And there’s a great mix in here: from the heavier ‘Weak Fantasy’ to the bouncy and joyous ‘Alpenglow’, which reminds me of Live and Let Die. As with the best power metal, it’s all good silly fun, from the cheesy lyrics to the Richard Dawkins cameos. Feast on the cheese.
Makes you want to: travel to the Finnish countryside and enjoy the beauty of nature.
9: Enslaved – End Times
Norwegian black metal legends Enslaved return with an album that mixes their extreme metal heritage with their more proggy RIITIIR, making a delicious metal stew, or perhaps a raspberry metal ice cream with veins of tangy intensity. ‘One Thousand Years of Rain’ and ‘Daylight’ are standout tracks, both moving from brutality to melody without skipping a beat. It’s a complex and demanding album, but one that grows more rewarding with every listen.
Makes you want to: punch things, then hug things.
8: Wolfheart – Shadow World
Wolfheart is the latest musical project from Tuomas Saukkonen of Before the Dawn and Black Sun Aeon fame: Shadow World picks up where debut album Winterborn left off. It’s a gorgeous melodic death metal album with subtle folk and thrash influences littered throughout. It’s short enough not to outstay its welcome, but make sure you check out ‘Last of All Winters’ with its beautiful acoustic passages. You see, metal isn’t just about headbanging: sometimes it’s about quietly nodding your head as well.
Makes you want to: run with wolves.
7: Symphony X – Underworld
Underworld doesn’t quite reach the heights of Symphony X’s 2011 masterpiece Iconoclast, but it’s very close – because it’s very similar. With Underworld, Symphony X have perfected their unique take on progressive metal. Technically outstanding without being soulless – check out the duelling guitar / keyboard solos on the title track, or Russell Allen’s vocals on pretty much the whole album – Underworld isn’t going to change the way you think about music forever, but it’s a lot of fun from beginning to end and that counts for a lot.
Makes you want to: clench your fists and sing along to the music with exaggerated gestures (not that I’d ever do that, of course).
6: Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
If Soilwork stuck doggedly to their Gothenburg metal formula after The Panic Broadcast, they would have recorded an album a lot like Cold Inferno, and the world would be worse off for it. That’s not a criticism – clearly Soilwork’s Björn Strid agrees, since provides some of the backing vocals on this record – but it gets to the root of my problem with Disarmonia Mundi’s catalogue. It’s unquestionably excellent, but I wish there was a little more imagination to compliment the technical goodness. Cold Inferno does develop more of a signature sound compared to say, Mind Tricks (where Strid was the lead vocalist rather than a guest), but it doesn’t quite go far enough.
Regardless, Cold Inferno is a treat for In Flames and Soilwork fans – ‘Stormghost’ and ‘Coffin’ have been on constant rotation in my running playlists this year – and it’s all the more impressive when you realise that one man, Ettore Rigotti, recorded all of the guitars, bass, drums and clean vocals by himself. How is that even possible? At its best, this is more life metal than death metal: it is uplifting and vital.
Makes you want to: build a fire, let it burn for a while, then freeze it.
5: Amorphis – Under the Red Cloud
Amorphis are a consistently excellent and underrated band who have a decade of great albums under their belt: Eclipse, Skyforger, Circle, and now Under the Red Cloud. They stick to their formula of music that straddles the line between family-friendly hard rock and guttural, groove-packed metal. This is exemplified with the lead single ‘Sacrifice’, but my favourite track is ‘Bad Blood’, which holds the best riff of the year. I apologise in advance if you, like me, have this stuck in your head for weeks afterwards.
This is road trip metal at its best: it’s just so enjoyable and crowd-pleasing that it doesn’t need to be much more, but Amorphis are
Makes you want to: constantly headbang to the riff from ‘Bad Blood’.
4: Rise to Fall – End Vs Beginning
My brother got me a couple of Rise to Fall albums for my birthday this year: 2012’s Defying the Gods, and their new album End Vs Beginning. I’d never heard of them – what a treat! Saying they are ‘inspired by Swedish death metal’ is like saying Cities: Skylines was inspired by SimCity: it’s doubtful one would exist without the other, but new works can build on their inspirations without ripping them off entirely.
End Vs Beginning takes you on a journey that is both familiar and novel, comforting and exciting. Chuggy, noodly-oodly riffs bring the best of In Flames and Dark Tranquillity to mind, the vocals are very Soilwork-esque, but Rise to Fall sound novel and invigorating rather than simply repeating the tropes of metal past.
For me, this is a musical comfort blanket: something to inspire and provide solace in difficult times, a way to treat yourself after a hard day or just a hard workout. End Vs Beginning is the most pleasant surprise of the year.
Makes you want to: go on a round-the-world adventure with someone you love.
3: Soilwork – The Ride Majestic
How do you top a masterpiece like Soilwork’s The Living Infinite? Well… you don’t. If The Living Infinite was Soilwork’s Radiant Silvergun, an exercise in melodic death maximalism that throws every idea at the wall and succeeds every time, then The Ride Majestic is their Ikaruga, an album that distils those ideas into their essence.
This leads to more memorable individual tracks: the title track’s exhilarating drive gives way to a powerful chorus, ‘Alight in the Aftermath’ cleverly marries blast beats with clean vocals to incredible effect, ‘Aspire Angelic’ has warbling guitar licks that verge on haunting, before ‘Father and Son’ rounds the album off nicely and we’re done in fifty minutes. Lovely stuff.
Yet, when you’re coming off the back of one of the best modern metal albums ever recorded, it’s difficult not to be disappointed by the lack of ambition. The Ride Majestic only disappoints in the context of its predecessor, but that context exists nevertheless. It refines the Soilwork formula, but it doesn’t quite perfect it.
Makes you want to: run through a park at sunrise, thinking to yourself “life isn’t so bad after all”.
2: Lamb of God – VII: Sturm und Drang
Few albums have the opening power of Sturm und Drang. ‘Still Echoes’ is textbook Lamb of God, ‘Erase This’ has the best use of a wah-wah pedal you’ll hear all year (no, really), and ‘512′ is a masterpiece of modern metal that perfectly blends brutality with melody.
But just when it’s settling into routine, things evolve a little from the usual formula. ‘Echoes’ includes some vocal harmonies – on a Lamb of God album! – courtesy of Deftones’ Chino Moreno, before ‘Overlord’ disrupts proceedings with a slower and yet undeniably heavy groove before bursting loose in an outrageous headbanging breakdown. The guitars and drums are as outstanding as you’d expect, and Randy Blythe’s screaming is imbued with new meaning when you understand the context behind the lyrics.
Sturm und Drang is a successful evolution of Lamb of God’s signature groove metal sound that doesn’t compromise what we love about them. It’s an outstanding record that will satisfy everyone from the average headbanger to the discerning metal connoisseur.
Makes you want to: cut together a Lamb of God / Dishonored mashup video.
1: Leprous – The Congregation
I knew The Congregation would be my favourite album of the year exactly one minute and nine seconds into opening track ‘The Price’. That’s when it changes from a standard Leprous album – brooding, rhythmically detailed prog metal – into something different. Something a little trippy and otherworldly; something wonderful.
It’s no coincidence that when I gave a talk about metal for VideoBrains this summer, I used ’The Price’ in the introduction: it’s got the drive, emotion and intricate drums that I love about prog metal, but it also twists the genre in surprising ways. ‘Rewind’ is a sustained buildup of hard rocking that reaches an unusually harsh (for Leprous) conclusion, ‘The Flood’ starts with dirty synths, moves to a powerful chorus before stripping itself back to ethereal falsetto melodies over relative silence. The highlight of the album is ‘Moon’, a beautiful and haunting song that packs in so much that seven minutes seems a little short. It left me wanting more after every listen and, in preparation for this writeup, I removed the album from my phone so I’d actually listen to something else.
It seems strange to go from last year’s Citadel by Ne Obliviscaris, a brutal Australian extreme metal record recommended with the caveat that you’d probably hate it, to perhaps the lightest of all my favourite albums this year. The length and sheer musical density is the biggest hurdle to enjoyment here, but let’s be honest: you probably spend an hour pissing about on Wikipedia every day. Why not invest that time into something that might actually improve your life?
The Congregation sounds like nothing else you’ll hear this year: breathtaking and unforgettable, it’s my favourite album of 2015.
Makes you want to: you’re not quite sure yet, but it will be creative, exciting, and wonderful.
Bullet for my Valentine – Venom, Carpenter Brut – Trilogy, Children of Bodom – I Worship Chaos, Chvrches – Every Open Eye, Coheed and Cambria – The Color Before the Sun, Deafheaven – New Bermuda, Dr Dre – Compton, Elaenia – Floating Points, Ensiferum – One Man Army, Fear Factory – Genexus, Ghost – Meliora, Grimes – Art Angels, Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls, Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly, Newton Faulkner – Human Love, Paradise Lost – The Plague Within, Scale the Summit – V, Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase., Sylosis – Dormant Heart, Tesseract – Polaris, Tremonti – Cauterize
I Cannae Live Without Ma Tunes!
As previously mentioned, my friend Lewis Clark and I started a new podcast this year called Cast Iron. We tackle a classic album in every episode with the usual mix of insight, humour, and awkward disagreement. Lewis also blogs about music at UK Scumscene.