I love end of year lists, whether it’s Mark Kermode’s Top 10 movies of the decade (or the much funnier Worst 10 of the decade); John Linneman’s nuanced games of the year for Digital Foundry; whatever The Guardian have posted this year that makes me feel out of touch. Or maybe it’s the children who are wrong?
Lists get a bad rap as low-effort, Buzzfeed-esque thought aggregators, but I love the mental flux when the ranking starts. What moved me? What kind of art do I value, and why? And of course, the most important question: what’s the riff of the year?
Disclaimer: this list is right today and wrong tomorrow. Also, if you don’t understand the difference between facts and opinions, you have come to the wrong place. New for 2018: listen along to my favourite tracks of the year with this Apple Music playlist! (whitelist us with your ad-blocker if you can’t see it; we don’t show ads).
10. Luca Brasi – Stay
There are two kinds of punk rock bands: those who grow out of it, and those who never grow up. I saw The Offspring at Good Things Festival a couple of weeks ago, and they fell into the latter category.
Songs like Self Esteem, All I Want and Pretty Fly (for a White Guy) are an awkward kind of classic: fine when they’re crystallised in the 90s, embarrassing when performed live in 2018 by geriatric rockers. Don’t get me wrong – The Offspring are still fun! – but when you listen to albums like Splinter and Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace, you feel sorry for their attempts to stay relevant, tragically expressed through yesterday’s sentiments.
Luca Brasi’s Stay is an album about growing up and growing old, a further evolution of the melancholic thought cloud that hung over If This Is All We’re Going To Be. On first listen, there’s a lack of punk rock bangers – although you can still find them in ‘Time Flew’, ‘Clothes I Slept In’, and ‘Bastard’ – but on further reflection this an album about transitions, about wanting to move forward while still clinging onto the past, “all the love and the bullshit highs and lows, and the in-between”.
9. Kalmah – Palo
Finnish swamp-metallers Kalmah return with their first album since 2013’s Seventh Swamphony (yes, really). I’ve always had a soft spot for their take on melodeath, and Palo doesn’t do anything to mix things up. But wow, is this thing ever fun!
From the opener ‘Blood Ran Cold’, Palo takes your breath away: it’s tight and focused, but it knows not to take itself too seriously. The best example of this is ‘Take Me Away’, arranged around a world-beating riff: they nail it technically, then add little flairs like the silly lyrics and piano harmonies to elevate it to something much more interesting.
If you think you can only stomach one track, check out ‘Waiting in the Wings’: metal served ice cold through a wind tunnel, music that gets your head banging and fists pumping, but with a swagger and silliness that’s so much better than the po-faced metalcore chugging that passes for music these days.
8. Rise to Fall – Into Zero
If you’re a lapsed In Flames fan lamenting how they’ve regressed from Gothenburg’s finest export to a band whose sound grows less metallic and ever more questionable with each new album, then you really need to check out Rise to Fall. They pick up where the In Flames sound faded out and run with it, and their previous album End vs Beginning remains invigorating years after its release.
Into Zero follows the well-worth path of bands like Soilwork and Disarmonia Mundi: songs that hit heavy before rising to anthemic choruses and flighty, intricate guitar work. Rise to Fall add just enough of their unique flavour through Spanish-accented vocals and soaring riffs to stand apart in a not-that-crowded landscape. The Gothenburg sound may be out of fashion; Into Zero suggests it may have found a new home in Bilbao.
7. Skyharbor – Sunshine Dust
I’ve been following India’s best (only?) metal band Skyharbor since their 2012 debut Blinding White Noise: Illusion & Chaos featuring Daniel Tompkins of Tesseract on the first disc and some sublime guest solos from Megadeth’s Marty Friedman.
Sunshine Dust replaces Tompkins with Eric Emery and they sound, unsurprisingly, a lot less like Tesseract. Emery has an impressive upper range reminiscent of Kyo on tracks like ‘Blind Side’: he gives the band the character they need to evolve their sound into something with more diversity and edge. Much of the album plays it enjoyably safe, and the front half is better than the latter half, but ‘Dim’ is an outstanding opener. Monuments’ Phronesis was another album on my longlist this year, but Sunshine Dust pips it to the post for the best djenty album of the year.
6. Kingcrow – The Persistence
Do you ever find yourself listening to something, unsure of how you discovered it? This year’s “where did that come from?” album is Kingcrow’s The Persistence, which I can only assume was an Apple Music recommendation that became the soundtrack to a stormy Wednesday working from home.
Ethereal prog rock in the vein of Leprous or Soen, yet with its own unique quirks like the unusual vocal delivery and song progression, The Persistence is my pleasant surprise of the year. ‘Closer’ and ‘Folding Paper Dreams’ are early highlights but the best track is probably ‘Father’, which starts out haunting and ends up rocking as hard as anything I’ve heard this year. Not bad for a band that don’t even have a Wikipedia page!
5. Amorphis – Queen of Time
It wouldn’t be an Alan’s Favourite Music roundup without the new Amorphis album, since they’ve been predictably excellent for well over a decade now, but any suspicions of predictability melt away from the opening riff of ‘Daughter of Hate’ and are blown away by the delicious saxophone solo. Maybe I could have been a rock star after all…
Queen of Time doesn’t deviate from the winning Amorphis formula of earworm hooks, machine-gun riffing and big choruses that remains relentlessly enjoyable, but is now polished to perfection. Although I do wonder if, similar to Mastodon, the almost radio-friendliness of Queen of Time comes at the expense of the interesting rough edges from albums like Skyforger. Still, there’s no doubting the quality of ‘The Golden Elk’, ‘Wrong Direction’, and ‘Amongst Stars’. Another outstanding Amorphis album for your next rockin’ road trip.
4. Omnium Gatherum – The Burning Cold
I saw Omnium Gatherum live a couple of years back with the other ‘Three Ums’, Ensiferum and Insomnium. They put on a decent show, but as with their studio albums, it was hard to escape the feeling that they hadn’t yet reached their prime. Tracks like ‘Frontiers’ from Grey Heavens were agonisingly close to greatness, but not quite there. What a delight to listen to The Burning Cold and realise that they’ve finally nailed it.
‘Gods Go First’ is my kind of heaven from the opening riff to the face-melting solo, and will be the mainstay of my running playlists long into 2019. The Burning Cold is consistently blistering throughout with ‘Over the Battlefield’ and ‘Driven by Conflict’, but my personal favourite is probably ‘The Fearless Entity’ – a downright beautiful song that I didn’t know Omnium Gatherum had in ‘um.
3. Alkaline Trio – Is This Thing Cursed?
Alkaline Trio? In 2018? I’m as surprised as you are – they haven’t really grabbed my attention since 2003’s Good Mourning. When I saw them in Oxford a few years back, unfamiliar with their recent releases, the songs felt a bit tired and predictable. They had the sharpness but lacked the flavour, like swapping vinegar for sulphuric acid.
Is This Thing Cursed? falls somewhere between a nice surprise and a fucking miracle. It has the riffs! It has the sardonic, pitch-black lyrics you know and love! It has songs about love, drugs, and loving drugs! It’s got it all, folks!
Aside from the obvious choices for top tracks – ‘Blackbird’ conjures up old ‘Private Eye’ memories, ‘Demon and Division’ is a great rock song anyone could enjoy – I love ‘Sweet Vampires’, which captures the classic Trio sound and macabre wordplay, and ‘Goodbye Fire Island’, a subtly angry track with fat riffs straight out of a 2004 Millencolin album.
Is This Thing Cursed? is a real treat. Not quite a blast from the past, it’s got a fresh feeling as exhilarating as when I first listened to Alkaline Trio back in 2001. Sounds like the curse has lifted.
2. The Ocean – Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic
If you lined up every metal band on an intellectual continuum, you’d have boneheads like Disturbed and Five Finger Death Punch floating on the surface shouting about fighting people, and The Ocean deep in the hadopelagic, singing about… well, the hadopelagic.
Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic, as the title suggests, isn’t exactly easy listening. This is music on the scale of epochs: songs with power, intensity and depth that tell stories other genres don’t attempt. Sure, there’s a place for meatheaded moshing and silliness in metal, but there’s also room for something more, something worth savouring.
Palaeozoic has five real (and really long) songs: ‘Cambrian II’ is an epic opener, probably the heaviest on the album, but with little glimpses of levity that keep it from feeling oppressive. After it, ‘Ordovicium’ is practically a light interlude. ‘Silurian: Age of Sea Scorpions’, aside from having the best name of any song in 2018, reminds me of an Mastodon track with its sludgy riffs and technical drum breakdowns.
But the masterpiece of Palaeozoic is the astonishing ‘Devonian: Nascent’, featuring guest vocals from Jonas Renkse of Katatonia. This 11-minute track starts with Renkse’s soothing vocals over a crackling drum track, gradually rising and falling like the ages of the Earth, exploding around the six-minute mark, then at seven minutes dropping to a sturdy bass rhythm, like you’ve just watched a fireworks display but can still feel the reverberations. After that, it crescendos again to a crushing finish.
Then you’ve still got ‘Permian: The Great Dying’ with its haunting beauty that echoes the themes of Eternal Recurrence’. It’s wonderful. And it was almost my favourite album of the year, but something came a little earlier that I loved just a little more.
1. Haken – Vector
Every year there’s an album that redefines what heavy music means to me, something that expands the boundaries and deepens my appreciation of it. In 2014 it was Ne Obliviscaris’ Citadel; in 2015 Leprous blew me away with The Congregation; all five Cast Iron listeners will remember 2016’s Vessels by Be’Lakor; and in 2017 Caligula’s Horse released In Contact, (although I didn’t listen to it until 2018 – just as well I skipped the writeup, eh?)
This year, there was… nothing that raised the bar or revealed the illusion of the self, but still an album that has stuck with me since October – Haken’s wonderful Vector.
Haken (rhymes with ‘bacon’) have only been around since 2007 but made a big impact with 2013’s The Mountain. 2016’s Affinity was a fascinating departure from Dream Theater-esque prog metal into 80s prog rock, but it was perhaps a little too long and overwrought for its own good.
Vector has taught me that while metal can be moving, transcendent, thoughtful, complicated, technical, and mind-melting all at the same time, it can even do all of that in 45 minutes (their debut, Aquarius, runs for 72!), without trailing off in the back half. It’s surprisingly taut for a prog metal album, where ‘prog’ usually means ‘twice as long, three times the time signatures, six times as pretentious’: while Vector has its share of complex tracks in ‘Puzzle Box’ and ‘Veil’, they’re the exception rather than the rule.
A prog metal album anyone can get into? How refreshing!
Even the shorter tracks like ‘The Good Doctor’ are meaty, intricate compositions whose short length doesn’t compromise the intrinsic progginess. The 80s electric drumming of Affinity is back, dialled down to add just a little texture. Ross Jennings’ vocals are better than ever and serve to better complement the music rather than getting lost in it. Later in the album, ‘Nil by Mouth’ is one of the best instrumental tracks I’ve heard in years. ‘A Cell Divides’ sounds like a turbocharged Leprous track. There’s just so much to love in here, and don’t be fooled by the ‘short’ length – there’s a lot to digest too.
While Vector might not top The Mountain (your life is incomplete without Cockroach King) it’s easily my favourite album of the year.
Riff of the Year
Kalmah – ‘Take Me Away’, Palo. A swaggering, triumphant riff that builds in power as it goes through the chorus, bridge, and solo. Just sublime.
Han Solo’s Solo of the Year
Hi folks, Han Solo the misanthropic cat here! I love guitar solos as much as I hate humans, and that’s a whole lot!
My favourite solo of the year is Omnium Gatherum – ‘Gods Go First’, The Burning Cold. The second solo starts around 03:15 but listen to the whole song. Just purrfect!
The runner up is Kalmah with ‘Waiting in the Wings’ (02:30 onwards), Palo. This whole song is on the cusp of being ridiculous, which of course is what makes it so fun. I like to think of this song when I’m sinking my claws into the leg of a passerby. Don’t look at me like that, I got here first.
Andrew WK – You’re Not Alone, Architects – Holy Hell, Bury Tomorrow – Black Flame, Coheed and Cambria – The Unheavenly Creatures, Dir En Grey – The Insulated World, Ghost – Prequelle, Ihsahn – Ámr, Judas Priest – Firepower, Light the Torch – Revival, Monuments – Phronesis, Primordial – Exile Amongst the Ruins, Tesseract – Sonder, The Sword – Used Future, Unearth – Extinction(S), Voices From The Fuselage – Odyssey: The Founder of Dreams, We Sell the Dead – Heaven Doesn’t Want You and Hell is Full
Didn’t Listen To, Probably Should Have
Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest, Dead Letter Circus – Dead Letter Circus, Riverside – Wasteland, Wolfheart – Constellation of the Black Light