This Swiss band’s second release, Ungfell’s black/folk metal blend is raw and unfiltered. With a ripping bass lines and fearful screams, this album comes out to be one of the better black metal albums I’ve heard this year. While moments may seem chaotic, the band does feature peaceful – if not even tranquil, melodic moments – which made for an album that really stands out.
Legends. When Judas Priest released Redeemer of Souls in 2014, I considered it to be their best album since Painkiller. While Firepower cannot be compared to it, it is one helluva beastly album. The riffs are crisp, songwriting strong, and Halford just rips it. Their song Flame Thrower stands out as one of the neatest songs on the album – giving me throwbacks to Sad Wings of Destiny days (I know, right?) While the album may not be the strongest in the Priest catalog, it certainly is a powerhouse not to be reckoned with against other albums in 2018.
See the music video to “Spectre”:
13. Amorphis – Queen of Time
Amorphis rarely can do any wrong. With Queen of Time, the band shows yet again that they are one of the greatest modern metal bands. Queen of Time is actually a great representation of where the band has gone over the past decade. If anything, it showcases how strong the band is with their storytelling without making it feel like the same song after song, album after album (lookin’ at you, Amon Amarth). Queen of Time is quite simply a testament to the ever-evolving Amorphis musicianship.
Check out the video to “Amongst Stars” here:
12. Torture Rack – Malefic Humiliation
I can hear Anakin Skywalker saying, “Now THIS is death metal!” The brutality from this American band reminds me of recent releases from newer death metal bands such as Rude and Outre-Tombe. Given that this is only the second album from Torture Rack, it feels like they’re seasoned veterans of the genre. With pounding songs like “Mace Face” and annihilating riffs like in “Lurking in the Undercroft,” this album makes me excited to hear what else this band has to offer.
New Wave of British Heavy Metal at its finest. Their third album since their return in 2013, Cruel Magic just crushes. Never missing a beat or sounding tired. Vocalist Brian Ross dominates and arguably is the highlight of the album with his very powerful range. Right off the bat, the first track, “Into the Mouth of Eternity” sets the pace for the rest of the unrelenting album, making Cruel Magic’s release one of the highlights of this year.
Whenever The Tangent releases something, you have to stop and give it a listen because there’s always something musically going on that’ll stick with you. Leader Andy Tillison groups together like-minded musicians for a blissful mix of different genres: blending and fusing into one another seamlessly. From jazz fusion, prog rock, funk, alternative, and much more, each song stands out on its own yet still ties together on the album. It’s dramatic, powerful, and makes for one incredible audio experience.
Watch the lyric video for “The Adulthood Lie” here:
9. Sear Bliss – Letters from the Edge
Experimental would be an understatement. After a six year hiatus, the Hungarian black metal outfit return with yet another strange, yet familiar album. It’s grand in its scope and feels triumphant throughout. It’s hard to really put a pin on why I really enjoy this album because there’s a lot offered. I’d recommend you give it a listen for yourself.
The third band on my list with their second album! Outre-Tombe from Quebec arguably outdid themselves after their 2015 debut (which surely would’ve made my Top 15 had I heard it in time). Nécrovortex is classic death metal that’s fast, demanding, pounding, and brilliantly crafted. While the production is a lot cleaner than traditional death metal usually sounds, it doesn’t take away from the overall feel of the album – making for one of the best sounding traditional death metal albums this year.
Yet another second release, these Canadian metal heads offer an exquisite and sometimes gut-wrenching take on blackened doom metal. With parts often feeling greatly inspired by the late David Gold and Woods of Ypres, Altars of Grief come at you with eight well-thought out and crushing songs that really make me miss the halcyon days of their Canadian counterpart. I can’t get enough of this album.
Guys, it’s Ihsahn. Since I’ve started doing my Top 15s, he’s always been mentioned. While Arktis was a bit of a letdown, Ámr comes back and wipes the slate clean. Boldly starting the album with electric-sounding keyboards, the album unfolds into constrained progressive chaos. It’s haunting and powerful. Unlike previous albums, however, Ámr is probably one of Ihsahn’s most “straight-forward” sounding albums with songs not ever veering into too far extremes. It sounds like a safe, but in reality, it’s anything but.
Watch the music video for “Arcana Imperii” here:
5. Panopticon – The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness (I and II)
This is a beautiful album. At just under two hours, this double-album features some of the most natural and inspiring music I have ever heard. Crossing multiple genres: country, black metal, bluegrass, folk rock, and more, Panopticon’s release is nothing short of incredible. There’s so much to offer on this album that I really struggle to find a favourite moment or song. Everything is just that good. Broken up into two larger movements, the music obviously contrasts one another – yet it all flows seamlessly together.
Damn, this is a dirty album. Right from the first track “Obsolith,” you can just feel the mud spill from the opening bass lines as it slowly trudges you into the droning chorus. The Polish outfit Spaceslug delivers one of the best sludgy doom/stoner metal albums I’ve heard in a while. While sometimes melodic, the band ebbs and flows with the groove: weighing heavier down and gradually building back up. It’s easy to become immersed with the infectious tone and groove. In fact, think I’ve got a bit of the spaceslug in me.
I never would have picked up the bass guitar if it wasn’t for Stone Temple Pilots. This band essentially started me on the musical journey I’m on today. Bias aside, I can’t believe the band put out this album. Much like Amorphis’ release, I feel like STP’s newest is a culmination of everything the band has ever done into one album. I feel hints of No. 4 with “Roll Me Under,” the simplistic beauty of Tiny Music with “Thought She’d Be Mine,” and serenity from Shangri-La Dee Da in “The Art of Letting Go.” But the songs are so much more than “throwbacks” of the past. With new singer, Jeff Gutt, there’s a new breath of fresh air in this band and I can’t wait to see where it takes them.
Listen to the single “Meadow”:
2. Khôrada – Salt
After the demise of Agalloch and Giant Squid comes Khôrada: bone-chillingly powerful music, and as their Bandcamp states, “At once atmospheric, aggressive and apocalyptic, the album’s emotion is driven by the band members’ view of today’s world.” And holy moly, does it ever. From the incredible layered textures from vocalist Aaron John Gregory and the emotional ferocity of Don Anderson’s guitar, this album, in my eyes, opened me up to new standards not only in song writing, but in album production as well. It’s well worth your listen as I can almost guarantee you’ve never heard anything like this before.
Listen to the haunting song “Ossify” here:
1. YOB – Our Raw Heart
Upon first listen, I had a gut feeling that this was going to be my Album of the Year. And yet after months since its release, the album’s still unsurpassed. The American doom metal band’s eighth studio album, Our Raw Heart, wins me over with the most emotional roller coaster ride of the year. Much like my top album from last year, YOB’s album was also inspired by a health issue – this time from lead guitarist/singer/songwriter Mike Scheidt.
Ironically, this may be one of the most uplifting doom metal albums I have ever heard. Each track builds and releases in powerful ways that are vastly different from one another. Yet all of that doesn’t matter as the album both feels and flows as one cohesive piece.
The first track “Ablaze” pulls the listener into a trance which slowly builds up and releases into the emotional chorus. Feeding into the next song, “The Screen” – heavy chugging riffing with growls which subtly reveal the pain behind.
Additional highlights come from the 16-minute “Beauty in Falling Leaves” where you can just hear the raw agony in Scheidt’s voice. It’s absolutely stunning. In the same subject, the guitar tones on this album are simply outstanding and compliment the vocals in some of the most powerful ways. For case-in-point, the title track wraps up the album with a slow burn of inspiration, beauty, and elevation.
Our Raw Heart seems to showcase the chaos in the world, yet it still manages to stop you; telling you to take a breath, and to really see the beauty in falling leaves. With that juxtaposition, Our Raw Heart easily takes the top spot as my Album of the Year.
Listen to my Album of Year:
Ulthar – Cosmovore
The Sea Within – The Sea Within
Riverside – Vale of Tears
Kamelot – The Shadow Theory
Pig Destroyer – Head Cage
Chris Caffery – The Jester’s Court
Ails – The Unraveling
Sleep – The Sciences
Augury – Illusive Golden Age
Vreid – Lifehunger
Summoning – With Doom We Come
Portal – Ion
Questions? Comments? Agree? Disagree? What have you?
2016 saw the release of The Astonishing, Dream Theater’s very ambitious concept album with a dystopian future and movie-like soundtrack. However, while appreciated by critics, the album was divisive by fans. The Astonishing was a mix of rock, progressive, folk, metal, and classical. It featured everything one would expect from Dream Theater – yet some fans of the band struggled to wrap their head around the double-disc, two-plus hour extravaganza of an album, with guitarist John Petrucci stating,
I understand that stylistically, it might not be every Dream Theater fan’s cup of tea.
Some people think it’s one of our greatest works, and some people, it’s not something that they’re into. As a standalone album, it’s a soundtrack to a larger piece – to a live show, a novel, a movie, whatever – and sometimes, that’s hard to absorb in that big of a chunk, given there’s over two hours of music.
I felt the same way. I disliked the album and obviously everyone is allowed to have their own opinion about it. Yet once the announcement of their newest album struck, I couldn’t help but think what was Dream Theater’s last great album? I reflected on the concerts I’ve been to and the albums they’ve released and stopped at what I felt was the logical answer: 2003’s Train of Thought. And here’s why:
Disclaimer: I am a huge Dream Theater fan. I have met the band on a few occasions, I own all of their albums, was registered to the Voices UK fanclub for a short while, own some rare releases, and have seen them perform live twelve times. I have covered the band’s songs with my own (now extinct) bands, and have just about followed every single side project each of the members have been involved in. I also like to think I have a relatively broad selection of musical tastes, from progressive bands like Anathema to extreme metal bands like Triptykon and regular rock bands like Stone Temple Pilots. While obviously everything I’ll be saying is all my bias opinion, I feel like I have some credence to what I have to say based on all of the things above. So here we go!
Favourite track: Honor Thy Father
Least favourite track: Endless Sacrifice
After their incredible run of releases (yes, even including Falling Into Infinity), I feel that Dream Theater’s peak in terms of song writing was Train of Thought. It’s definitely a bold statement to say, but I’ll try to back myself up here: each song had a purpose and a flow within the album. It was (mostly) to-the-point and showcased the band’s first real foray back into heavy metal since their 1994 album Awake. Obviously they’ve had some pretty heavy songs since 1994, but nothing was as straight-forward and massive in its progressive metal scope as Train of Thought was.
The single, As I Am, was the least-progressive song on the album yet still packed an incredible punch. It was catchy, easy to sing along to, and featured one of Petrucci’s meltingly fast solos. The next two songs, This Dying Soul and Endless Sacrifice, were even more heavier than As I Am, setting the tone for the remainder of the album.
This Dying Soul begins with drummer Mike Portnoy blitzing through some double kicks that walloped over the listeners head – something no Dream Theater song had done up until that point. Even at its more melodic points, such as the chorus, the song has a purpose. James LaBrie essentially sings through the whole song, save for the first and last two minutes. Everything else in the song was part of the song and not really filler or padding – which is super important to note – as it will be an ongoing point I’ll be making when I begin to tackle the rest of the albums.
Endless Sacrifice is my least favourite song as it really strikes me as Dream Theater trying to grasp with a metalcore influence – which is not who the band is. The chorus features pinched harmonics, a slower tempo, and a that damn guitar tone. Yeesh. It sounds like its geared towards a younger audience. And from 4:50 on, it’s just mediocre filler – instrumentation that does nothing to help the song as a whole. At 10 minutes, we hear LaBrie singing the chorus again and it’s super-yawn filled. The chorus is catchy, but I feel it’s the worst song on the album – which isn’t a bad thing because they do end up writing what I think to be their worst songs on later later albums. And I know I’m in the minority when it comes to Endless Sacrifice anyway, so don’t get too upset.
Post Endless Sacrifice, comes my favourite track, Honor Thy Father, which is not only what I think is the heaviest song on the album, but their strongest lyrically. I could gush for hours over this song. The intensity of the music completely match the emotion of the lyrics and what both LaBrie and Portnoy want to convey. It’s an honest song and I believe the band gives it the attention it deserved when creating it.
The mournful Vacant, instrumental Stream of Consciousness, and climactic In the Name of God, all feature strong song-writing ability, including Portnoy’s clever use of Morse Code in the last song.
Each song on Train of Thought is written with a story and a purpose (save for whatever the hell is wrong with Endless Sacrifice). The band took what metal influences they had in previous albums and went gung-ho with this album. There is no excessive noodling with instrumentals in songs. In fact, the band seemed to control their restraint of showcasing technicality and getting lost in what’s “cool”. There’s little padding (which I’ll get into later) and the songs, I feel, are more impactful because of it. Train of Thought was Dream Theater’s best selling album since 1997s Falling Into Infinity. Train of Thought was concise, powerful, and could be considered as one of their stronger releases from progressive rock fans. It was a bold decision for the band to take on, and one which – in my opinion – they’ve struggled to do since. And I don’t mean that they have struggled to make a metal album – I’m saying the band hasn’t released an album that has been as impacting or has made as big of a statement as Train of Thought has. The song writing choices, track listing, and creativity, in my opinion have yet to be replicated.
Favourite track: Panic Attack
Least favourite track: I Walk Beside You
Octavarium or 8VM for you DT fans out there, was an exciting release. It featured their first 15+ minute-long song since 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and 1995’s A Change of Seasons. Following the dramatic change and success from Train of Thought, I felt a certain kind of heavy expectation from the band. It’s kind of natural to have those expectations from bands anyway – even from forever changing ones like Dream Theater. I’m sure when Scenes From a Memory was released, some expected a little bit of Falling Into Infinity. Either way, the album began very promising. The Root of All Evil opens the album and continues Mike Portnoy’s twelve step suite. It’s heavy, in your face, and is a natural extension of what the previous album presented.
Then bam! The Answer Lies Within, These Walls, and I Walk Beside you are the next three songs. They’re pretty straight-forward rock songs, but they’re short on the progressive and even shorter on metal. In fact, I Walk Beside You could easily have been a U2 B-side that the label said was too lame for the band. The three songs not only were unimpressive, but completely shattered the incredible power they had built up with Train of Thought. If you were a heavy metal fan who got into Dream Theater with Train of Thought, I could only imagine your disappointment with Octavarium so far.
Fortunately, Panic Attack was a welcome relief to hear. Not only was it a strong, heavy song, it also didn’t feature broad instrumentals that pull the listener away from the song – meaning the instrumental choices made sense within the song. No crazy key changes or slow mellow moments. It started in-your-face and stayed that way throughout. The instrumentation remained intact with the intensity the music and never really came off as too proggy; staying within the songs confines making for a quick, albeit seven-minute track that was pounding. It flowed very nicely into the intensity of the Muse-esque song Never Enough. But like the songs before Panic Attack, Never Enough never really broke any standard structure. It was a hard rock song from a progressive metal band.
The second-to-last track, Sacrificed Sons was a slow build into a great proggy jam. The interesting thing, however, is how the lyrics do not follow the music at all – almost as if one or the other was an afterthought. It’s a dramatic song, but really gets lost in what it’s trying to say. Lyrically is sad, but the music from the bass breakdown in the bridge to the end of the song suggest something else entirely.
Speaking of seeming lost, the title track, Octavarium was the 24 minute epic everyone was excited for. And while it was exciting to hear a continuum for the first time, in hindsight, the first four minutes of the song is time I’ll never get back. But you know, the rest of the song holds itself together. It starts slow yet has this natural build to it all the way until the horns at the end. It’s melodic, metal, folk, and really, everything you’d expect from Dream Theater.
Unlike Train of Thought though, Octavarium (the song) is a commitment. And save for the first few minutes of the song, it’s not really what Train of Thought had. It’s playful in its lyrics and instrumentals, but still doesn’t have the kind of brute force the previous album had throughout. Unfortunately, because of the success of this long song, the following two Dream Theater albums continue the pattern of musical filler (AKA padding) which, in my opinion, plagued the band for a while.
Octavarium in my opinion, failed to be an impactful album. It’s sort of all-over the place when it comes to song stylings. Music feels out of place and the two strongest songs (Panic Attack, Octavarium) unfortunately do not hold the album together as a whole. While it was a clever album – especially on how chalked-full of easter eggs it was for musicians – the album was not nearly as definitive as I had wanted. It was literally a hodge-podge of songs strung together by a concept of octaves.
Favourite track: The Dark Eternal Night
Least favourite track: Forsaken
Off of the back of Octavarium, Dream Theater were done with Atlantic Records – a label that had no idea how to promote the band – moving on to a label that did: Roadrunner Records. Featuring a gigantic boost in sales that the band hadn’t seen since 1994, they knew with Roadrunner they had to do something special.
Not only did the band decide to go back to heavier roots with its new label, Dream Theater decided to break up their 25+ minute song, In the Presence of Enemies, to bookend the album. Yikes.
Part one of the song started off with a bang – in your face and nine minutes long. Unfortunately, in my eyes, this is where Dream Theater started to really show signs of confusion. For the first five minutes of the song, the music begins to present themes and do-dads which are barely revisited in part two. Essentially it’s multiple new songs that are strung together with awkward pauses where I’m left saying, “Now the song HAS to start now.” See 2:10, 3:06, and 4:06. When it finally starts, we’re already beyond the halfway point of the song. And shortly after the eight minute mark, the song goes into noodling and wankery that doesn’t help the song. If anything, it starts to begin a transition into a song I’m struggling to commit to. Except, nope. They give me one of the lamest songs in their history, Forsaken.
Outside of its blandness, it’s clearly a song for the masses. I don’t blame the band for creating it. With a new label, it’s understandable to create something like that. Unfortunately, the song is so cliché, I can only skip it every time it comes on. The dramatic change from the first song to the second one was not only disappointing but failed to hold my attention.
Their original single for the album is the third track, Constant Motion. And if you’ve heard Metallica before, you’ve heard this song. And y’know, it’s not a bad song. It’s generic radio-Metallica-like music that, unlike As I Am, really misses some edge. It’s metal, for sure, but it feels safe. It’s a song that doesn’t really expand the bands catalog in terms of “heavy” songs. I’d even go as far as to pair it with the same intensity of Never Enough. It’s a song that’s simply “there.”
The next song song is my favourite only because I feel like I need to have one on this album. The Dark Eternal Night is one helluva metal song. The guitar riff crushes and the drums are intense. This song was definitely something that could’ve sat on Train of Thought. Upon first listen, I wondered if Dream Theater was just holding back on us. When I saw it live the first time during their 2007 tour, I was blown away with how fast bassist John Myung’s fingers were moving during the bridge from the six minute mark-onwards. It’s a powerful song, don’t get me wrong, but between the 3:30-6:00 time frame, there’s a lot of lame musical choices going on. The music is so ho-hum, the band even created a cartoon that plays along with it in order to save the audience. I feel the song, while heavier than Endless Sacrifice, fell into the same footsteps as it. A lot of flash and padding, but no real substance.
Speaking of no substance: what do you call a ten minute track featuring guest speakers? If you said “Repentance,” you’re correct! While The Root of All Evil had some substance to it for the twelve step suite, Repentance, I feel kind of sucked the life from the series. After The Dark Eternal Night, the last thing I want is to be dragged down. It made me wonder, especially when going from track one to track two: who decided the song order on this album? Like Octavarium, the flow seemed lost – and you know – it didn’t get any better.
Prophets of War follows Never Enough’s pattern and continued the strange Muse-style influence from the band. The music doesn’t do anything for me. It builds, descends, builds, descends, and really that’s it. Like the song before it: no substance. And the song after it. . .
Until I started to make this list, I totally forgot The Ministry of Lost Souls existed. I’ve skipped it so many times. At 14 minutes, the song does nothing for the first seven. It eventually goes into some technical wankery, then hits the reset button at 11:19. Like Sacrificed Sons, it’s as if two separate songs were written, thrown together, then slapped on the album. It goes from being a ballad to being metal, then back to being a ballad. Singing only exists during the ballad parts.
And unfortunately, I had to get to this song here to make my bigger point about padding: Much like an author or director, the album needed to have an editor – to cut the fat from the song and to tighten it up. Movies can use establishing shots or dwell on a scene for too long to pad the length of the movie. An editor may catch and fix that. Authors would do it when describing things in great detail that have nothing to do with the overall story of book. You may even remember doing it when trying to make an essay word count go up. Editors would remove that jargon and strengthen the work. What it seems is Dream Theater does it in some of their songs.
And that’s not to say instrumentation or instrumentals in songs are a bad thing. Let’s take a quick look at Trial of Tears from their 1997 release, Falling Into Infinity. The song opens slow and melodic. It goes verse/chorus/verse/chorus, takes an extended bridge, then concludes. One may argue that the intro and bridge is padding. I’d disagree.
Unlike The Ministry of Lost Souls, parts of Octavarium, In the Presence of Enemies (and other songs I’ll get into later), Trial of Tears music makes sense for what the song is. The song starts slow and continues to keep that pattern more-or-less throughout. The first minute establishes the tone, followed by the guitar lead which also establishes the guitar tone. The verse/chorus pattern begins until 5:03 where the bridge begins. The song gets heavy for a brief moment as the song naturally was building up to the release we get at 6:12. The bass groove/guitar solo builds again but keeps within the confines of the song. It’s already established itself as a slow jam from the beginning and continues to do so. By 8:09, the song releases again, changes tempo and its bass groove. Derek Sherinian’s keyboard solo builds up the song again to a third release at 9:53. The song concludes with the chorus and includes tidbits from the intro of the song. Trial of Tears combines its parts naturally. All of the pieces come together to feel like one song. This kind of consistency in their song writing is rarely replicated again and most definitely doesn’t require an editor.
I’ll still revisit padding later.
When we finally hit the final track – a continuation from the first one – it’s slow-paced. Nothing happens for the first two and a half minutes. But fortunately, unlike the previous song, it builds properly and builds reasoning to its madness. The lyrics follow the music and vice-versa. Everything’s good until 13:25 where we see the same ending in the song Octavarium – the epic pause where an instrument is singled out and there’s a slow burn until the song ends. Despite that, it’s a relief to have In The Presence of Enemies Part 2 as it really is a strong conclusion to the album. Unfortunately it’s literally too little too late as the rest of the album suffers from strange song placement and writing choices. While it may have been one of Dream Theater’s most commercially successful albums, it struggles to actually impress me – as a Dream Theater fan and as a music listener – when it comes to strange extensions to songs and other writing decisions that personally do not make sense for me. Unlike Train of Thought, Systematic Chaos misses the mark on strong writing ability and memorable songs.
Favourite track: A Nightmare to Remember
Least favourite track: Wither or The Best of Times
An album that starts off right: Black Clouds & Silver Linings was another album that showed a lot of excitement: another 19+ minute long song and the conclusion of Mike Portnoy’s twelve step suite. How was it all going to piece together? This was also the final album to feature founder and drummer Mike Portnoy.
A Nightmare to Remember, in my opinion, was Dream Theater’s best song since Honor Thy Father. Not only were the lyrics smart (if not corny at times), but the music actually reflected what was being said. At sixteen minutes in length, it was surprising to find a song that finally reflected the songwriting abilities of the band from 2003. Portnoy taking over some vocal duties in the bridge added a nice layer of depth to the song, if not a bit of cringe with one particular “roar.”
The single, A Rite of Passage, much like Constant Motion, felt like another Metallica clone. The bridge felt out of place and thrown into the song just to give it some spice. Unfortunately the spice didn’t stick for either of the albums singles.
The third song and the album’s second single, Wither, will now always have a special meaning for me as my brother demanded it be used as an encore during The Astonishing tour. “I’d take any song as an encore. Even Wither.” It’s slow, drab, and quite frankly, doesn’t match what the rest of the album had to offer.
The Shattered Fortress was the conclusion of a song series Mike Portnoy began with 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence in The Glass Prison. Coming together, The Shatter Fortress featured moments from all of the previous twelve step suite songs. Listening to how the band crafted bits of the previous songs together for one final piece actually made for something really creative. For a follower of the band, it was something exciting to finally get some closure with (as I’m sure it was for Portnoy as well). However, as a fan, that’s what it’s for. If this was your first Dream Theater album, you’d be damned to understand what was going on in the song. However, the band took the best parts of each song and glued them together to make a really interesting piece of music. While A Nightmare to Remember was my favourite song on the album, The Shattered Fortress is the BEST song on the album – the one with the most work put into it – and it shows. Unfortunately, I cannot say the rest of the album followed along. (Then again, one could argue they hadn’t written anything really “new” for The Shattered Fortress at all).
While The Best of Times was an ode to Portnoy’s late father, the music, to me, feels lacking in any real emotion save for the lyrics. The first three and a half minutes drag and also feel like a high school student just learned arpeggios for the first time. The song continues pretty strongly until the seven minute mark where it dies down and fails to pick itself back up in any really meaningful way. The solo is graceful and epic, but feels terribly detached from the lyrics and the rest of the song.
“Now just wait a minute man!” I hear you shout at me.
The Count of Tuscany continues the band’s terrible trip through making long songs without any real impact outside of saying to fans who don’t know prog, “Dream Theater regularly writes long songs.” To break down The Count of Tuscany is simple: it’s verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, outro. Counting James LaBrie’s “parts” during this 19:17 long song, he sings for roughly six minutes. The rest is filler. For sure, the ending is beautiful and the verse/chorus bits are intense and really progressive metal. But they’re sandwiched in-between slow melodramatic moments and quiet acoustic bits that really don’t add anything to the story or the song. While it’s nice to extend parts of the song with keyboards or synth for that screechy slow guitar solo, the song isn’t by Pink Floyd and it certainly isn’t Trial of Tears. Slower guitar solo moments like the one in the middle of this song are out of place and arguably unnecessary. An editor to the song would have axed the padding and slow bits. Once again, I found myself wondering what Dream Theater were doing in the song writing process.
With only six songs to show, in my opinion, only two were really powerful and really could stand out – the rest was filler. Showing signs of brilliance, however, is one of the reasons why I stick with Dream Theater. And with the conclusion of Black Clouds & Silver Linings (and a short tour with Iron Maiden), drummer Mike Portnoy announced his departure from the band.
Part of me was saddened by the news. Obviously a pillar to the band, losing Portnoy, I thought, would be a blow to not only their song writing abilities, but their stage presence. With Portnoy’s departure also went the face of the band.
However, the band said they were going to persevere and continue without him. Hiring the legendary drummer Mike Mangini, the band scheduled their next album to be released in 2011.
Favourite track: Breaking All Illusions (sometimes)
Least favourite track: Outcry
Much like Yes had with The Ladder in 1999, I felt that Dream Theater had reached a renaissance period with A Dramatic Turn of Events. When the album was released, I was a bit nervous with what direction it was going to take. My favourite band had a slew of relatively bland albums and one of the band’s primary song writers were gone. The single, On The Backs of Angels, I felt, droned on for far too long and had little zest. What was the rest of the album going to be like?
It actually turned out to be alright. Outside of Outcry, the album was pretty solid. Lost Not Forgotten was probably the second weakest song on the album as, for me, it wasn’t that memorable. The chugging riffs in the verse weren’t anything to write home about and sort of continued the bland theme for the rest of the song. By all means, it’s a song that could have easily been placed on Train of Thought, but it simply didn’t excite me.
However, songs like This is the Life, Far From Heaven, and Beneath the Surface, were all slower, melodic songs that go against anything really “metal” that the band has put out. While I knocked other albums for featuring slower songs, the balance between where these songs are on the album actually make sense. If you consider how Far From Heaven ends and the next song begins, the impact from the riff of Breaking All Illusions will immediately excite. As Breaking All Illusions ends, Beneath the Surface solemnly closes out the album in a way which the band hadn’t done since Space-Dye Vest on Awake.
As for the rest of the songs, Bridges in the Sky is catchy and quite dramatic, however, it follows down the same formula as The Dark Eternal Night. I enjoy the song greatly, but as a song it seems to get lost in the grandiose of itself.
Outcry is the worst song for me because it’s lyrically juvenile and as a song, both its chorus and bridge bother me. There are the odd times Dream Theater blends into Power Metal, and yeah, they do that with this chorus and it feels weird for the band. In fact, it feels rudimentary for them. I know they’re better than this. When the bridge kicks in, all hell breaks loose and the song goes all over the place. It’s strange. Even the song’s conclusion makes little sense. Why the sinister sounding chords?
With Breaking All Illusions, I both love and hate the song. I love it because it reminds me a lot of Learning to Live off of Images & Words. Being written by John Myung may also have something to do with that. However, the song feels like early Dream Theater. Unlike Learning to Live though, Breaking All Illusions suffers a bit from a really extended bridge and – in my opinion – a very uninspiring guitar solo from Petrucci. While uninspired solos aren’t necessarily a bad thing, the solo is a good chunk of the bridge. If the song featured a solo similar to Trial of Tears or at least if the song continued with the same tempo throughout, I’d be tooting a different horn. I feel if the song lost the slow solo and tightened itself up, we’d be set. Alas, it’s still a good song. There’s just times I lose interest from it’s melodic tendencies as its technical triumphs completely overshadow it.
While the album isn’t similar to Train of Thought, given the songs on the album – and how well they’re ordered track by track – I feel the album is similar to the first disc of Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. The songs are definitely stronger than previous albums, but are nothing really outstanding (save for the instrumental/choral parts on Breaking All Illusions). While it’s not at all like Train of Thought, I found myself listening to this album more than any previous Dream Theater album. It was more accessible and didn’t force an extremely long song down my throat. I was glad the band broke the long song mold and hoped going forward they’d. . . ah, nevermind.
Favourite track: The Looking Glass
Least favourite track: Illumination Theory
Surprisingly, it’s the first Dream Theater album where I enjoyed the single the most. This album also had a couple of other firsts: the bands first instrumental since Train of Thought, and the first Dream Theater album where I hated the “epic” song the most. I can already hear some of the fans cursing me out. Alas.
The first two tracks, False Awakening Suite and The Enemy Inside flow pretty well together. The Enemy Inside was the first single from the album and I hated it. When it was released I didn’t care for it at all. When it came together on the album as a whole, it took on a different meaning and I began to appreciate it more. Much like Far From Heaven into Breaking All Illusions, False Awakening Suite into The Enemy Inside helped each other out – like how a good album is supposed to.
To put it bluntly, The Enigma Machine: Dream Theater’s first instrumental since Train of Thought failed to impress me. Unlike instrumentals before it, Hell’s Kitchen, Stream of Consciousness, Ytse Jam, Erotomania, and The Dance of Eternity, I felt this one lost some flair. And unlike the other songs, The Enigma Machine is a regular song with a verse/chorus/bridge structure but with soloing over top of it. if you replace the solos with vocals, you’d have a regular song. I’ve heard the band do solos before – hundreds of them. Why couldn’t the instrumental give me something different? Where’s the crazy structures? Where’s the intense time signature changes?It was a disappointment.
The Bigger Picture and Behind the Veil are both songs which I enjoyed initially but felt haven’t aged well. In fact, Behind the Veil was my favourite song when the album first dropped. Especially since The Astonishing was released, The Bigger Picture doesn’t stands out at all and has lost any semblance of originality it had. Behind the Veil’s opening is great, but kind of gets lost in its blandness. The chorus slows the song’s initial excitement down and in hindsight, there wasn’t anything that is very memorable about it.
Surrender to Reason was another song I forgot existed. Lyrically it’s great, but there’s not much else to say about it. It just shows very little variation in song writing.
Along For the Ride is a nice power ballad that makes me wonder if Dream Theater could ever go the Devin Townsend route and release something as bold as Ghost or Casualties of Cool under a different moniker with softer songs. I’d buy it (of course).
But as for a song that shouldn’t be on any album: it would be Illumination Theory. I have no idea what the band was thinking when they wrote this song. It starts off promising. It’s epic, bold, big, and badass. We get James LaBrie singing with broken phrasing – borderline rapping. The song is powerful and intense. Then just after seven minutes, it dies off. We get soundscapes and an orchestra. It’s something that’s pretty but also something that wasn’t expected to be in the song. It’s transitioning is poor and to be honest, the slower parts don’t make a lot of sense in the song.
“Are all songs supposed to have meaning?” the short answer is no, but in a world of progressive music, we applaud the musicians for creating something that takes time to piece together. Something that has meaning or at least sounds good. It’s not that the middle of the song sounds bad – it just sounds out of place. It’s shoe-horned into the song not because of a smooth transition, but because it seems like the band wrote a nice middle part and wanted to put it in somewhere. So why not a long song? Like The Ministry of Lost Souls, having a long song seems cool. But when you remove the padding, it shrinks considerably. And if the padding is removed and the song is still good, you’re set. One learns to do that with experience. Yet Dream Theater is the twelfth studio album by a band that has been around since 1985. What the hell, guys?
After the eleven minute mark of Illumination Theory, we hear some heavy bass, some screaming from LaBrie, then crazy wankery which pads out the song and sounds more detached from the whole picture. In fact, I’d be fine if they cut all of “The Embracing Circle” and “The Pursuit of Truth” parts. The song concludes similar to how Octavarium and The Count of Tuscany did, leaving me yet again uninspired by the song. Structurally, they begin to blend together: long intros, long bridges, epic endings. I know that’s over-simplifying, but you can see a pattern there. For a progressive band, the structure is stale and even at times predictable.
When all is said and done, Dream Theater terribly missed the mark as a strong album. The few stronger songs are unfortunately outweighed by the bloat of the rest. When looking for an impactful album like Train of Thought, I feel as if this one missed the mark. After the surprising A Dramatic Turn of Events I felt let-down by the band. But surely they’d turn it around for the next album!
Favourite track: Our New World
Least favourite track: I literally wouldn’t know where to begin
Don’t worry! I’m not going to go through every track on this album!
We bought it up and were excited. The Gift of Music was a promising track. The concept was intriguing. The challenge the band posed for themselves was huge! While I knocked Illumination Theory for being too stale, the promise of The Astonishing wiped away those fears. Dream Theater were about to release something big and incredible. Thirty-four songs. Over two hours of music. The progressive metal pioneers surely must be channeling their inner Scenes From a Memory – the last concept album they wrote back in 1999 that currently sits at #47 – between Frank Zappa ‘s The Grand Wazoo and Images & Words – as one of the greatest prog albums of all-time.
Then it was released.
Some fans loved it, some fans hated it. As previously mentioned, I didn’t care for it at all. The long ballads, clichéd storytelling, slow instrumentation, and overall unexciting plot, left a lot to be desired. The Gift of Music felt like we had been mislead. Then again, it was really only one of a handful of songs that were actual songs on the album. Everything else felt like a segue or orchestration.
Ultimately the album was like a soundtrack to a movie – not something you’d put on in the background – but something you’d have to commit to. And over two hours of an uninteresting story turned me off big time. Look, I enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000. But this? No way. If want to talk about uninspiring storytelling, look no further than the villain named Daryus Nafaryus, second to Lord Nafaryus.
Much like In the Presence of Enemies, the two good songs, The Gift of Music and Our New World, are the bookends to the otherwise bland album. Was it like Train of Thought? Absolutely not. Not even close. However, could be seen as a turning point for the band if they decide to stay on this route. Like Falling into Infinity, I doubt the band will keep on the same track.
But will the new album be something different? Something that stands out like Train of Thought? Off the back of touring Images & Words in its entirety, John Petrucci says,
I think everyone’s on the same page with the type of record this is gonna be. I mean, so far the music is heavy, it’s progressive, it’s melodic, it’s shredding, and it’s also epic. So it has all those elements.
Is there a chance we’ll have something different? I mean, all of those elements listed above could easily be used to describe one of my least favourite songs, Illumination Theory.
Ultimately, however, I’m a Dream Theater fan. I’m going to buy the next album. I’m going to go see them for the thirteenth time in concert. I’m going to continue to critique their music and absorb what they have to offer. It’s what I do and what I enjoy. While no, I don’t feel that the band hasn’t released anything as impactful as 2003’s Train of Thought, I still have hope and desire that they do. While I feel their last great album was from 2003, I’ve seen enough glimmers of hope to get excited again. Will they pull it off, or should we expect to see more padding and technical wankery that doesn’t help the songs at all?
What do YOU think? Was Dream Theater’s last great album Train of Thought or are you more die-hard than me and think it was Awake? Or are you in the boat that The Astonishing was great? Am I wrong with saying things like the band pads out their songs, or that they noodle around too much? Or am I spot-on with my analysis? I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on the matter! Whether you’re a fan of the band or not, you’re clearly a fan of music to have read this much. Let’s continue the discussion!
Until next time, keep on Space Truckin’!
UPDATE: April 17th, 2019
Lots have happened since my last post! I have posted this in the Dream Theater forums and have had great discussions over everything. Before I go into Dream Theater’s newest album, I feel I should address my comments above about The Astonishing which I have said on the message boards.
Because of this thread I’ve re-listened to The Astonishing based on the suggestions on what to listen to here.
While I’m not going to go whole-hog about the album, I will concede the point that the album does not really feel like a movie score as so much a theatrical production. While I still dislike the story, I think the reasoning to why I felt it was a score was because … it struggles to be a theatrical production.
I listened to the album on Thursday giving me a few days to think about this. My main idea is that, unlike say, a theatrical play (or let’s take Pain of Salvation’s BE since we’ve brought it up before), there’s little variation in emotion or story from LaBrie. It’s not that he did a bad job at singing – but unlike a production playing out or being performed, I feel like The Astonishing is more narrated. There’s little hints of emotion and conveying of the story through LaBrie and as such, takes me out of the “theatrical production” mindset.
And I’m not ragging on LaBrie. I KNOW he can convey emotion and storytelling properly. See: The Human Equation album, Vacant, Beneath the Surface, A Nightmare to Remember, et al. Either his direction or the material wasn’t good enough for him to tell it properly.
That being said, thematically, the album works. I hear the music less like a soundtrack and more like a production. I still don’t think it’s a great job at it, but if I had given The Astonishing a 3/10, I’d bump it now to a 5/10 (I really haven’t thought about ranking the album out of 10. I’m just giving you folks an idea to what listening to an album again with open ears can do).
Since that’s out of the way, let’s get into the new album:
Favourite track: Pale Blue Dot
Least favourite track: Paralyzed
It’s been a couple months since February’s release of Distance Over Time. I purposefully wanted to give myself a bit of time, as well as seeing the band in concert for the thirteenth time – to really get a grasp on the album; to see that what I was feeling upon my first few spins were still felt months later. Unlike my other reviews above, I’ve had literal years to think about those albums. It wouldn’t have been fair to go with a gut reaction with Distance Over Time – and I’m glad I did.
I can safely say, without hesitation, that while Distance Over Time is not the best Dream Theater album, it is now the last greatest Dream Theater album – triumphing over Train of Thought.
Wild, ain’t it? Let’s discuss!
Initial reactions – and something I still feel – is that the first four songs on the album, Untethered Angel, Paralyzed, Fall Into The Light, and Barstool Warrior, are throwaways. They’re the weakest songs and are, in my opinion, Dream Theater fluff pieces.
I can already hear the moaning begin from some of you as I rip into the singles, but unfortunately, that’s how they feel – like singles. Like Forsaken, Wither, I Walk Beside You – sure Untethered Angel is harder and faster – but it adds nothing to the Dream Theater repertoire. If anything, around the 3:28 mark, I felt a flashback to In The Name of God off of Train of Thought. The song gets a mediocre unison instrumental after the solo (mediocre for DT’s standards) and a slow burn to the end of the song. The chorus tries to be catchy, but ultimately bores the heck out of me.
The album continues to bore with the following track, almost as bad as Forsaken, with Paralyzed. The album reminds me of a cross between Forsaken and the emotions of The Ministry of Lost Souls – both off of 2007’s Systematic Chaos. Was this a B-side that was never released or something? It may not be, yet why do I feel like it is? Or is it just because I’m unbearably bored with the song. It’s a progressive metal ballad with a dreary hook as the chorus. “I’m paralyzed” is sung with mixed emotions that don’t contrast well with the verses. It’s strange.
Speaking of mixed emotions, Fall Into the Light is just that. The opening riff, Mangini’s snare roll, and chugging is rocking. It’s hefty, and right into the chorus, is nothing but powerful. After the chorus, the song deflates and seemingly floats off onto a strange land. It seems like two song ideas pasted together. The transitions are necessarily great and the acoustic bit screams rock ballad. It really should’ve gone into Paralyzed. We have Mangini’s snare pick up as the transition, cue the song starting over with a keyboard solo, and end with Liquid Tension Experiment’s Universal Mind. BAM, that’s the song in a nutshell – and in my opinion – it’s not good enough. It feels safe and bland. Catchy chorus, but LaBrie’s mix is off-putting.
Barstool Warrior reminds me so much of The Looking Glass, it hurts. But I really liked The Looking Glass. Barstool Warrior? Even the name sounds lame. I was hoping when I heard the song live I’d gain a new appreciate for the song. Alas, I still feel like it’s aiming for “waiving hands” moments with the chorus, but it still fails to uplift me – which I feel fairly confident the band was trying to aim for. It’s one big epic outro as one song. It’s not bad, per se, but simply doesn’t have any oomph to really take off.
However, when we finally get into the meat and potatoes of the album, it doesn’t stop it’s greatness, so much so that it surpasses anything else they’ve done since Train of Thought.
Don’t get me wrong, the lyrics to Room 137 are absolutely cringe-worthy – but I feel like the band really begins to get its stride with this song. The pumping drums, the descending guitar riffs, and instrumentals between the chorus and verse – they’re powerful, dirty, and feel like heavy metal. The “fluff” so-to-speak, from the first four tracks are gone (albeit Fall into the Light had moments) and we finally get something powerful. That being said, the second chorus before the guitar solo totally reminds me of The Beatles’ song, Across The Universe. Petrucci’s solo is short and tasteful. It fits in the “theme” of the song and the song’s conclusion hits with just enough punch to transition into my second favourite song of the album.
S2N is friggen great. It’s fast, progressive, metal, and really shows how much the band has tightened up their form. The chorus is epic and features LaBrie showing off some decent vocal techniques. The songs verses aren’t carbon copies of one another and the instrumentation flows naturally throughout the whole song. While the song could be argued as being too “noodley,” I can’t help but disagree. It’s broken up nicely with the choruses and offers enough variation to make a great song. And folks, let’s talk about that bass tone. Some solid stuff in this song.
With At Wit’s End, the song sounds like how it’s titled. It opens with a roaring guitar riff and gets painfully mournful in the chorus – literally at wit’s end. LaBrie’s cries during “Don’t leave me now,” absolutely hits the nail on the head on how to convey emotion. Even as the song transitions into the slower movement in its latter half, his reprising cries of “Don’t leave me now” are absolutely brilliant – especially over that fade out solo which I’d say is my favourite since Take the Time. For a song that slows down for its remaining half, the band seemed to focus more on the feel rather than the technical – and it is absolutely refreshing to hear.
And like A Dramatic Turn of Events, we have a slow song before the epic finale. Out of Reach, like Far From Heaven, Vacant, or Wait for Sleep, becomes with great transitional song into the final bit of the album. It also is yet another showcase of LaBrie’s performance. I hate to keep saying it, but his cries at the end are just wonderful. The song is ripe with emotion and again, another pleasant track on the album.
As final tracks go, and as you may have read above, Dream Theater seems to go into technical wankery – or trail off into silliness with their “atmosphere.” Fortunately Pale Blue Dot takes all of their epic ideas and condenses them. In fact, Pale Blue Dot feels like a huge song from the band, but is under nine minutes! It harkens back to In the Presence of Enemies (which may be why it was on the tour this year?) and keeps the bridge within the thematic elements of the song. What I mean is, while the song is Chorus-Bridge-Chorus, the bridge actually doesn’t trail off into a new song or come out with new themes. Everything performed in the bridge stays within the confides of the song and ultimately makes it stronger. There’s lots of ideas happening within the song and they all seem to get their proper attention. It’s a killer conclusion to the album. I mean, unless you got the bonus edition. . .
Guys, Viper King doesn’t fit on the album, but holy smokes. It’s easily one of the best songs the band has written in over a decade. Because it’s a “bonus track,” I won’t get into it, but hot damn. What a great track.
Like A Dramatic Turn of Events, Distance Over Time is easily accessible and forced the band to tighten up their song lengths. With every song under ten minutes, it is incredible to have such variety in the album. Some minor squabbles with the album include the lack of bass guitar in the mix, and LaBrie’s mix at certain points with huge, unexpected reverb. While I didn’t care for the first four tracks of the album, they were still better than a lot of their late-2000s output. They’re just boring songs (for me), not necessarily bad ones. But like I said, by track five, we’re totally cruising with incredible works. Less wankery and tighter musicianship makes Distance Over Time one of the best albums the band has done.
Currently sharing around on Facebook is this status: “Ten albums, ten days. Ten albums that made an impact, that still make your toes curl, that are still on rotation. No explanations needed, in no particular order.”
Well, what I want to give an explanation?
To be clear, not all of these albums would be in my “Top albums of all time” list: they really are albums that make go “Wow” every time I hear them.
And here we go!
This near-40 minute album consists of three songs: Close to the Edge, And You and I, and Siberian Khatru – all three are different in their own right, but still making the album feel like a whole. Along with Genesis’ Selling England by the Pound and Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, Close to the Edge is renowned as one of the greatest progressive rock albums of all-time. For me, CttE surprises me with its sonic ups and downs. The title song is crafted in tremendously beautiful ways with recurring themes and patterns. And You and I is, in my eyes, the pinnacle of romantic music and storytelling. Siberian Khatru not only bookends the album with great musicianship, it also reveals restraint of the band as song writers. As a musician, I listen to this album and feel inspired to write my own songs and words.
Sad songs are Anathema’s forté. They’re real and concrete, yet presented very poetically in their music. If there’s an album that “gets you” emotionally, it would probably be this one: opening up with “As the pressure grows,” and closing off with my favourite track, Temporary Peace, singing calmly, “There’s a drift in and out…,” A Fine Day to Exit is exemplary in showing one going through the motions of stress, anxiety, and depression. Musically, the album blends brilliantly with the lyrics to create a rather sad, yet relatable album.
In The Nightside Eclipse was groundbreaking for its time: being one of the first black metal albums to really go all-out with keyboards. Yet it’s the production of this album that really draws me to it. Raw, unpronounced guitar riffs compounded with exploding drums and shrilling keyboards not only create something that the casual listener would draw ire from, but something that is actually quite emotionally detailed in its epic scope.
My favourite song, Cosmic Keys to My Creations & Times, features my favourite guitar riff on the album at 30 seconds in, and in my opinion, really showcases what the album has to offer.
If there was one album on this list I would aspire to create, it would be Red. Each song reeks of complexity by their own right, making the listener wonder how one band could create five very different songs yet still “feel” the same. While the opening title track is an instrumental, it begs to be understood. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times and still feel like I learn something new about it. However, it’s the final track, Starless, that really steals the show. This hauntingly beautiful piece of music comes at you with different movements and one of the greatest, impacting codas I’ve ever heard. Mixed in with John Wetton’s (RIP) incredible 13/8 bass groove, it was a joy to see it performed live a few years ago.
At just over one hour, Green Carnation’s Light of Day, Day of Darkness stands out as an achievement in avant-garde music. While the album is one of my favourites, I still go back and listen to it regularly to try and understand the processes of the band: how it was written, why certain parts were placed the way they were, why did the band decide to do X, and so on. While I understand that it is not the greatest song ever-written, I still am in awe by the scope of the song and how fluid it comes together – not to mention the great risks taken to aim for such an achievement in song-writing.
Explaining the entire story of how this album came to be is something I’ll let Wikipedia explain. However, this albums impact and scope is so broad that it still boggles my mind that Zappa & the Mothers would have even agreed to do it. In a nutshell, it was them performing crazy, complex songs live to release it all as an album. That’s right: none of the songs recorded on Roxy & Elsewhere were recorded in studio, just live at the Roxy Theatre. The end result is some of the most incredibly-talented and chilling music I’ve ever encountered. The concert was finally released on Blu-Ray in 2015. I still watch it regularly to be in awe of the musicians on stage.
There’s only a handful of albums that have made me cry. Terria is definitely one of them. Much like the songs itself, I go through the motions listening to it. I refuse to listen to Terria as background noise. I’m all-in with this album. I don’t want to say too much about it, other than it’s my all-time favourite album.
The newest album on my list, Gorguts’ Pleiades Dust is a technical accomplishment. Not only is the album lyrically historical, but it also incorporates some of the best sounding production I’ve encountered. While most hear death metal and group it with unsavoury sounds and production, Pleiades Dust, while still sounding unsavoury to those who do not like death metal, creates a crisp yet intense 33-minute epic that goes through the motions of extreme and subtlety. Mixed, produced, and mastered by their bass player, Colin Marston. Because of his work, the song still makes my hair stand on end.
My real first foray into a “darker world” of music, Carcass’ Heartwork (and album cover by the late H.R. Giger), changed my life. It blended my love for complex, progressive music into something much more sinister to my ears at the time. The blend of beautiful melodies mixed with the sound of anger absolutely stunned me when I first heard it. Not only was the album something I was new to experiencing, it eventually helped me branch into other genres and heavier music. While I always consider bands like Tool and Metallica “gateway” metal bands to heavier music, Carcass was my gateway band into something bigger than I had realized. Every song on this album still gets me excited – not only as a fan of music, but as a musician too. Heartwork was something else.
Whereas Yes, Genesis, and Pink Floyd were the “big three” of progressive music out of England, Camel somehow slipped by. Their second album, Mirage, however, didn’t pass me. I’ve always said to people who haven’t heard Camel before, they’re the band that Yes, Roxy Music, and The Doors would’ve had if bands could conceive with one-another – just listen to their song Earthrise for example. Each song still sounding different from the last, both in production and song writing, Mirage still excites me as a musician with how one band can create something so powerful and filled with wonder – yet there is a strong likelihood that very few people would ever have heard of them.
I love me some bad movies. I can watch a film like The Room or Birdemic: Shock and Terror with ease. Give me a bad, campy movie and I’ll eat it right up.
Give me a movie that’s supposed to be good but ends up bad; I’ll struggle to watch it again.
Herein lies my problem with The Last Jedi: a movie that’s supposed to be good (currently sitting with a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes) but ends up being bad. Why is that? Let me count the ways.
I feel the need to express my thoughts over this film because most people I’ve talked to are shocked I disliked the movie. As both a lover of film (especially Rian Johnsons’s Looper) and an even bigger lover of Star Wars (R.I.P. Expanded Universe), I have a strange case of wanting to love this movie. However. . . I didn’t. Obviously, spoilers are ahead.
Little Miss Muffet–introduce the character. Sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey–establish the status quo. Along came a spider–introduce the disruptive element. Sat down beside her–build suspense. Scared poor Miss Muffet–climax. Away–resolution. Now you know the basic building block of entertainment. Is that all you need? No. Little Miss Muffet is a story, it fits the basic building block, it is however a lousy story. You don’t know anything about this girl, you don’t know anything about the spider. It gets old pretty quick. But we can make it better.
Now let’s look at The Last Jedi: At the beginning of the film, Rey has the Force and she’s learning to use it. We also have The Resistance defeated by the First Order. We also have Kylo Ren who’s the big baddie and is angry all of the time.
By the end of The Last Jedi, we have Rey who is learning to use her Force powers, The Resistance is defeated, and Kylo Ren who as the big baddie and is angry all of the time. The rest of the movie is filler. Without a status quo change, arguably the movie really didn’t need to happen, did it? Let’s go deeper:
At the end of The Force Awakens, Rey learns she has the Force. She goes to Luke to learn how to use the Force. She syncs up with Kylo Ren a handful of times to add some mystery to the story. She even dabbles with the dark side, according to Luke. She then leaves Luke and meets up with Kylo Ren. Snoke dies and she refuses to join Kylo. She re-joins the Resistance, despite being not that much further ahead in her training than she was before. Sure, she’s learned to control her Force powers a bit better, but essentially, that’s Rey’s arc. She went from learning how to use the Force to still learning how to use the Force. Yes, it’s filled with her arguing between Kylo and Snoke – refusing the dark side and all that fun stuff – but ultimately, she’s left unchanged in the film. We kinda sorta don’t learn her history regarding her parents either, so her motives are still somewhat unchanged. She’s really not that much better off than what we started with. The audience knew she was a good person because it was established in the first film. Even as she spoke with Luke, we saw her still fighting for good, despite temptations. Ultimately, Rey’s status quo didn’t change at all.
Looking at The Resistance, they didn’t change much at all. If anything, they just got smaller. We know they are the good guys who got beat down (which they definitely did in this film), but they were already the underdogs. They went from being underdogs to staying underdogs. They lost Admiral Ackbar, Admiral Holdo, Rose’s sister Paige at the beginning of the film (they’re all heroes, don’t cha know?), and hundreds more. And so? They weren’t relevant to the film anyway. Their loss didn’t change anything, actually. The status quo of the Resistance didn’t change.
Then we have Kylo Ren – an angry defeated boy at the end of The Force Awakens who turns against his master in The Last Jedi. And that’s about it. Like I said earlier, he goes from being angry to staying angry. He was technically second-in-command of the First Order anyway so the “shift” in his character really wasn’t all that dramatic. Sure, he saved Rey from Snoke showing he has some light in him, but shortly after he wanted to kill her. Mood swing. The status quo for Ren changed in the film but was ultimately reset back to the beginning of the movie when The Last Jedi ended. That’s pretty lame.
Finn and Rose we’re something irrelevant. You could literally rip their storyline straight out of the movie and nothing would change outside of Captain Phasma still being alive (but she was irrelevant anyway). To recap: Finn wakes up, runs into Rose (who got over her sister’s death pretty quickly) and they take off to the Casino to pad out the movie. They find the Slicer DJ, end up getting caught by Phasma, getting saved by BB-8, go to the planet Crait, get both of their speeders wrecked, they both escape, and then the movie ends. They literally did nothing in the film and as such, their existence in the The Last Jedi was irrelevant.
Lesser characters, Poe, General Hux, Captain Phasma, Luke, and Leia, ultimately didn’t have much effect on the film either. Their storyline could’ve all been left out.
Poe went from being a rebellious jerk to being a rebellious jerk. General Hux didn’t change at all. Captain Phasma goes from being completely irrelevant in the first film to being completely irrelevant in the second. It was if neither director knew what to do with her. We learn Luke’s story over the past forty years, but ultimately we go from not having Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens to not having Luke Skywalker by the end of The Last Jedi. Leia was the voice and leader of the Resistance and continued to be so. She was left unchanged.
Looking back at Little Miss Muffet with The Last Jedi – we have our characters on their tuffet and a status quo of their curds and whey. The First Order is the disruptive element and well. . . that’s as far as we get. We’re back to everyone on their tuffets eating their curds and whey.
So my biggest problem with The Last Jedi? In 152 minutes, our characters physically fly from Point A to Point B. The rest is filler. No ones character evolved in the movie and as such, the status quo did not change.
Snoke dies. Luke dies. Rey lives. Kylo Ren lives.
Why didn’t I care what happened to these characters, living or dead? The answer is motives. The audience isn’t given any – and if they are – they’re not strong enough to care about.
Let’s take a look at Snoke: what’s his motive? How did he create the First Order? Did he create it? We have no back story to him, despite his few moments of spewing out exposition when talking to Rey. We really don’t know what his character is about outside of him being big and bad. That’s it. He dies and that’s the end for him. Not only was he a lame character, but without a back story, we’re unfortunately victims to lazy screen writing and character development. R.I.P. Snoke, we hardly knew ye.
Luke’s death, while a bit of a surprise, upset me for the wrong reasons. He didn’t need to die (let alone however he died which I’ll get into below). But his motives still weren’t entirely clear. He trained Rey out of guilt, I guess. But it wasn’t much training at all. By the time we learn his back story, Rey’s already buggered off and we’re left with Luke’s final moments straining to delay Kylo Ren from killing the rest of The Resistance. Did Luke get closure because of this? Rey and Leia confirmed Luke felt “at peace” but did he really? The characters had to tell us that in the film because I certainly didn’t understand or feel it.
With Rey, we have her wanting to learn her origin but we’re still left ambiguous about it. Kylo Ren tells her something about her parents, but hey – he could be lying! We’re given vague answers to her throughout the whole movie – what her power set is, where’s she’s from, and most importantly – why we should care about her. She only became “the last Jedi” by the end of the film. Her status quo didn’t change outside of a title, so my care for her is the same as it was at the end of The Force Awakens: I really don’t know how to feel.
And with Kylo Ren, he’s still a moody, angry teenager. He killed his master, which was probably the most development we received about him in the film, but that’s about it. He lives to fight on and kill the Resistance, but I mean, how’s that any different than what he was in the first movie? It’s really not.
I’ll try to keep these to bullet points as I’ve already whined too much:
– Rey goes to Ahch-To to find Luke. Given the night and day cycles, we can assume she’s there for at least a week. We also know that the Resistance only has a little amoutn of fuel left from the start of the movie (we’re told around eighteen hours then down to six hours). By the end of the film, Rey and the Resistance meet up at the same time. Nice. The only explanation is if Ahch-To has significantly shorter day cycles, which obviously isn’t discussed.
– For plot convenience, I’m glad BB-8 can become an X-Wing conductor to help destroy a Dreadnought, can talk to a prisoner who fortunately happens to be a Slicer and steal a ship for our characters to escape, and can suddenly pilot a First Order walker (conveniently destroying its hull from the inside to reveal it’s him to the audience) to save his friends. BB-8 became the most convenient deus ex machina in cinematic history.
– I guess Threepio doesn’t need a red arm anymore? Between escaping the secret Resistance base and getting onto the Resistance capital ship, they swapped his arms?
– Yoda is cool with lying to Luke about the Jedi books and burning trees down (in case you missed it, the books were on the Millennium Falcon at the end of the film).
– The First Order has hundreds of TIE fighters at their disposal and can easily destroy the hull of the Republic cruiser (R.I.P. Admiral Ackbar). Why drag the movie out for two hours when a handful of TIE’s could’ve ended the film? We know TIE fighters can destroy the bridge easily so. . .
– From the previous point: so the Resistance exited hyperspace to a random place only to be followed by The First Order. Whose idea was that? Even IF it was with plans to fly to Crait all along (which conveniently showed up for the Resistance to escape to if it wasn’t), why would only Leia and Admiral Holdo know of the plans? There’s probably an argument that the rest of the people “in the know” died on the bridge, but in reality, the audience was left out of the information to add some drama to the story. It was unnecessary.
– What camera was following Maz around? That’s one helluva cool selfie stick.
– DJ was a slicer who helped Finn and Rose, then back stabbed Finn and Rose. What happens to him? Who cares.
– Where’s the rest of the Knights of Ren Luke spoke about?
– Nit-picking as a Star Wars fan, Luke’s death bothered me because of how he died. In Revenge of the Sith, we learn Qui Gon Jinn discovered the “path to immortality” which is why Obi Wan and Yoda disappear and become one with the Force after they die in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. This is also why Anakin Skywalker’s body doesn’t disappear in Vader’s suit, or why all of the Jedi in Revenge of the Sith do not disappear after their deaths. However, we see Yoda come to Luke presumably for the first time (as per his reaction) since Return of the Jedi. Unless Yoda explained Qui Gon’s discovery to Luke off-screen, I can’t see how Luke could’ve disappeared at the end of The Last Jedi without that specific knowledge that Yoda didn’t even seem to have known some-eighty years prior.
– It bothered me in The Force Awakens and it still bothers me now: WHO ARE THE RESISTANCE?! We have the Republic in The Force Awakens. They were the five planets that were destroyed by the Starkiller Base. The Republic and its fleet were wiped out.
But why did the Resistance exist to begin with? Wasn’t the Republic in control? Was there a civil war? What was going on? Why is General Leia against The Republic? Was she against the Republic? To that extent, why did the Republic only exist on five planets? More so, at the end of The Last Jedi, if the Resistance had “other friendlies” to contact, why are they such wussies and refuse to help the Resistance on Crait? Are they even relevant? To that extent (and to reinforce what I’ve said earlier), if the Empire was defeated in Return of the Jedi, who let The First Order rise to be the size that they were? How is The First Order funded? What’s Snoke’s back story? Answer: it’s lazy screen writing.
– If we assume The Last Jedi takes place right after The Force Awakens, can we also assume enormous grief is what’s going to kill General Leia off in the final installment? We can assume that in a span of maybe, twenty-four to forty-eight hours(?) she loses Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Admiral Ackbar, Admiral Holdo, most of the Resistance/her friends, and admits her son cannot be saved. That’s arguably a bigger loss than Alderaan’s destruction. However, Leia seems to handle that all in-stride. Classy.
– I’m all for jumping into lightspeed to split Star Destroyers in half, but how did it manage to destroy ALL of the Star Destroyers? Convenient.
– More of a comment: this movie isn’t Fern Gully. I can’t remember a Star Wars movie where the film goes full-stop and suggests cruelty to animals and the wealthy are bad. There’s obviously social messages in prior movies, but Star Wars was never the kind to make it so apparent. That bothered me because scenes at the Casino planet made Star Wars feel more like a Disney product than a Star Wars film.
Despite all of what I’ve said, I liked some things in The Last Jedi. Here’s what I liked:
– Leia’s use of the Force bubble is something pulled from the Expanded Universe/Legends in the book, The Courtship of Princess Leia. In there, Luke and Isolder fall from orbit safely onto a planet because Luke wraps them in a Force bubble. It was neat to see that used in the film.
– While I pointed out issues with some character development above, there was one character who had tons of back story given to her with very little screen time. Admiral Holdo’s arc and development stood out – especially when Leia and her share a scene together. We get a lot of history with Holdo with very little exposition and it completely works for the character. We have her full arc, going from a emotionally shut off Admiral to someone who had a plan unfolding all along. She has a rich history and ends up saving the Resistance due to her commitment to the cause. A true martyr. The Little Miss Muffet poem, Admiral Holdo is.
– Yoda’s cameo was great – not for nostalgic reasons, but because Yoda had some ridiculously good words of wisdom to share to Luke. While I snickered at Yoda’s CGI appearance at first (’cause he looked like a baby), they switched him over to a puppet for close-up shots and he looked fantastic.
– I loved some of the directorial artistry in the film. Some scenes I wished I could take a picture of because they were so beautiful. Those scenes are: Luke and Yoda sitting in front of the burning tree, Luke vs. Kylo Ren and their standoff on Crait, Admiral Holdo ripping through the Star Destroyers, and of course, the First Order walkers on Crait.
While I’m not petitioning to remove The Last Jedi from canon, I do feel like this’ll be the end for me and Star Wars post-Episode Nine. I’m two movies into a new trilogy and the only characters I’ve cared about died already, with Carrie Fisher unable to reprise her role in the third. I’m disappointed how the new trilogy has presented itself and have minor hopes it can turn around for Episode Nine. However, I’m cautiously optimistic and will find out in a few more years.
What do you folks think? Did you love The Last Jedi? Hate it? Was I wrong with anything I’ve said? Sound off below and let’s start a discussion.
Starting off the list is a band of which sort of dropped off the radar and really are only mentioned when discussing the their strength of progressive rock albums in the 70s. Premiata Forneria Marconi, or PFM, are an Italian prog rock band that with their new album, Emotional Tattoos, surprised me at its strength. This hefty double-disc album features a great mix of prog rock tunes which feel like they’re from the 70s but with a modern production value. It’s a refreshing album that is unfortunately held back by its song placement (it takes a good four or five songs until the album really begins to kick some butt). Despite that, it’s deserving on a top spot for 2017.
Check out the music video for “The Lesson” here:
14. Blade Runner 2049 Soundtrack
The first time I’ve ever put a soundtrack into my list. The Blade Runner 2049 movie, while visually stunning, was audibly awesome. The cyberpunk/noir feeling originally established by Vangelis back in 1982 gets tastefully expanded upon by composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The soundtrack provides a sweeping landscape of emotions and feelings which can be confusing given its sterile and mechanical sound. It’s completely worth checking out.
Intense is one way of putting it. Rip-roaring music from the second album of these German black metallers, Sarkrista’s Summoners of the Serpents Wrath is in your face with its blasting beats, screaming vocals, and shredding, ambient guitars. The album rarely lets up, giving you a solid black metal album from front to back.
Rude’s second release, Remnants…, is another great traditional death metal album. Their first album, “Soul Recall,” made my top fifteen back in 2014 and these guys have impressed yet again. The production completely sells me on this album, let alone the songs. This album pounds your ears hard and is yet another exceptional sounding death metal record from these U.S. based metal heads.
See the lyric video for “House of Dust” here:
11. Paradise Lost – Medusa
Pulse-pounding and crushing, the death/doom metallers Paradise Lost release yet another solid album off the back of 2015’s The Plague Within. While there’s nothing surprisingly in terms of riffing or production, the album just keeps its momentum and variety up long enough to be a great album.
When I think of American black metal, my first thoughts come to Agalloch. While these guys are no Agalloch, I feel the influence is there. Crisp production is one thing, but Dumal’s incredible sounding riffs create an almost nostalgic feel for me – reminding me of the first time I got into black metal (with Mayhem’s Pagan Fears). Lost Caverns is definitely the track that won me over on this album, but the rest of it is just so, so great. For their impressive debut album, I’ll definitely me following Dumal closely in the coming years.
This Icelandic black metal outfit release a torrent of cold atmosphere with their second album, Farvegir Fyrndar. Melodic riffs are eerie and define the tone of the album. Often dramatic, the album builds momentum, starting from the first track. Crushing through, listeners are given other great glimpses of brilliance through this very bleak sounding album. Easily takes the spot as the best black metal album I’ve listened to this year.
Given Anathema just released their newest album this year, I was surprised to see something released from their lead songwriter only a few months later. Daniel Cavanagh’s acoustic album, Monochrome, is brilliant, loving, sad, uplifting, and therapeutic all at the same time. While much can be said about Anathema’s music, Daniel’s own personal flare and attention to detail certainly shines something special here.
If there was one thing I wasn’t expecting from this technical death metal band, it was an incredibly dramatic science fictional album. Much like the title of my favourite track on the record, this album is Estranged from Orbit. It’s different and yet feels familiar. The music is composed to make sense – there’s nothing purposefully flashy on the album. The parts in the songs have purpose and riffs are crafted to build and explode with emphasis. It’s smart, clever, intense, and sounds absolutely different than many death metal albums out there.
Steven Wilson always does something different – not because he has to, but because he can. With this album, Wilson crosses the boundaries of pop rock and prog rock, creating an album that heavily reminds me of Peter Gabriel’s So. Featuring a handful of songs with Ninet Tayeb sharing vocal duties and incredible musicianship, the classic Steven Wilson “sound” makes To The Bone not only a strong album, but somewhat of a “gateway” album to introduce pop fans about prog. With a well-rounded album and even a subtle nod to Porcupine Tree in one of the songs, To the Bone is yet another Steven Wilson album that made my Top 15 list.
Seen the video to the astounding “Pariah” here:
5. Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper
What. A. Heavy. Album. Featuring drums, bass, vocals, and a Hammond, this near hour and a half long song, in my opinion, well-defines funeral doom metal. Dark and dreary, Bell Witch brings the dead to the listeners ears in this haunting slow burn of an album. It’s atmospheric, moody, crushing, and so many other feelings, that “Mirror Reaper” is really something needed to be experienced.
One of my favourite bands return with somewhat of a sequel to 2001’s A Fine Day to Exit with their newest release, The Optimist. Smartly crafted, the album begins where their previous album, Distant Satellites left off – with electronic music. However, the band cleverly makes the electronic to real-instrument transition within the first song and continues to put the listener through a literal journey of musical and lyrical emotions and feelings that are purposefully left ambiguous. It’s a damn pretty album. “Wildfires” is my favourite track.
Watch the video for “Springfield” here:
3. Bent Knee – Land Animal
When I first heard Bent Knee, I couldn’t get over how tight the band was. As if they’ve been playing for decades, this American prog rock outfit showcases their songwriting abilities all over this album – and they’re supremely tasteful. Often times prog rock showcases (and can sometimes celebrate) musical wankery. Bent Knee shows restraint and thought behind each note, chord, and lyric. While Land Animal is their fourth album, the band takes nothing for granted with the effort clearly put into this record. What a treat.
Watch the live video of Bent Knee performing “Holy Ghost”:
2. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar
In The Assassination of Julius Caesar, ex-black metal band Ulver create something that’s dark, experimental, and would appeal to Depeche Mode fans. Upon first listen, I felt engrossed with the production: the synth, reverb; the drama. Like the music, Ulver’s lyrics are also intelligent and deep. Music builds and slows, putting the listener through an interesting journey of sounds which engrossed me like no other album had this year. Ulver’s newest is a gorgeous electronic-feeling album with nothing but respect to its listeners.
1. Pain of Salvation – In the Passing Light of Day
When this album came out in the middle of January, I had hoped for another album to be released later in the year that would be better than it. Not because I disliked the album, but because it was so damn good and so early on in the year, I really hoped another album could topple it. Now here we are at the number one spot on my list.
When lead singer/songwriter Daniel Gildenlow went into the hospital a few years back, he discovered he had a life-threatening disease. This album is that story and goes through the emotional trauma and thoughts running through his head while in the hospital. At times uplifting, the album can become sad when you can feel the emotions coming from Gildenlow’s voice. He’s felt the pain he’s singing about and he wants us to experience what he’s experienced.
Tracks like “Silent Gold” and “If This is the End” are both mournful and powerful. “Full Throttle Tribe” is catchy, while “Reasons,” “Meaningless,” and “On a Tuesday” are direct and in your face. However, it’s the final title track which absolutely steals the show. At fifteen minutes in length, “The Passing Light of Day” explains the fears and joys of being in love while given the listener an emotional roller coaster of music to follow suit. Songs are strongly crafted by both Gildenlow and multi-instrumentalist Ragnar Zolberg. Zolberg joined the band in 2011 and co-wrote most of the songs on this album. Now no longer in the band, I can’t help but follow where he goes next to see what he does.
I’ve been a fan of Pain of Salvation since 2002-2003. While I can say with certainty that this is my favourite album of 2017, I can also say that In the Passing Light of Day is Pain of Salvation’s best studio album to-date.
Check out the music video for “Reasons”:
See the music video for “Meaningless” here:
Barenaked Ladies – Fake Nudes
Threshold – Legends of the Shires
Bison – You Are Not The Ocean You Are The Patient
Ayreon – The Source
Aborted – Bathos EP
Kreator – Gods of Violence
All Pigs Must Die – Hostage Animal
Nordic Giants – Amplify Human Vibration
Electric Wizard – Wizard Bloody Wizard
Cannibal Corpse – Red Before Black
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sólstafir – Berdreyminn
Vuur – In This Moment we are Free – Cities
Sons of Apollo – Psychotic Symphony
Moonspell – 1775
Questions? Comments? Agree? Disagree? What have you?
Let’s talk about some comic book covers from the Uncanny X-Men series.
If it wasn’t obvious from the title of this website, the X-Men have had a pretty monumental impact on my life. I grew up reading the comics, watching the cartoon show, and harshly judging the films. More recently, I’ve even gone as far as to compile a fantasy X-Men team because this boy can dream!
While there’s plenty of X-Men books to talk about: from the Uncanny X-Men, Astonishing X-Men, Amazing X-Men, Generation X, X-Force, and so on, I wanted to sit down and discuss my all-time favourite Uncanny X-Men covers.
While the stories are ultimately what sold me on the X-Men, covers were really the selling point for people to pick up comic books. For example, Batman had to be doing something cool for someone to want to read his stories and not just think of him as some guy in a bat suit. And while there’s tons of X-Men to choose from, having the most popular X-Man, Wolverine, on the cover would be sure to drive up sales. A cover without Captain America fighting the Red Skull would be more awesome to pick up and read than one with him versus Batroc the Leaper, y’know.
Literally judging books by their covers isn’t my plan with this list however. I want to talk about the artwork and what about the cover draws me in. Colours, details, storytelling – what the cover says rather than what it’s selling. So here goes:
Some Honourable Mentions
Uncanny X-Men #525, Aug. 2010 (Cover by Adi Granov)
Six X-Men under siege by robots may seem like a typical X-cover (which we’ll see more of later), but this really gives us a sense of dread. The grey palette contrasting against Armor’s, Psylocke’s, and Cyclops’ reddish-pink weapons give a nice pop to the page. And Namor’s face though.
Uncanny X-Men #213, Jan. 1987 (Cover by Alan Davis & Paul Neary)
I considered adding this cover to my main list, but felt that the impact of this cover is actually more nostalgic feeling. I say that because at this point, nobody knew who Sabretooth was, let alone his history with Wolverine. However, the cover is action-packed and claustrophobic, especially considering how few colours are actually used on the page. It’s as if we’re in hte fight with them. One helluva great inking job too.
Uncanny X-Men #251, Nov. 1989 (Cover by Marc Silvestri & Dan Green)
I love me some Silvestri, which is why it pained me to leave this cover only as an honourable mention. In typical Silvestri style, we have lines, lines, and more lines running down the page, giving this Biblical representation of Wolverine’s crucifixion an incredibly sombre feeling. The green back-lighting against the crucifix is stunning.
Now the list:
15. Uncanny X-Men #476, Sept. 2006 (Cover by Billy Tan, Danny Miki, & Frank D’Armata)
While it’s definitely not the most action-packed cover on the list, this solo cover of Warpath stands powerful for me as it really speaks to his character. Out of the shadows, both literally and figuratively, comes Warpath with his Vibranium Knives and the head of the enemy. Figuratively speaking, he’s the little brother of the fallen X-Man, Thunderbird. Outside of Cable’s X-Force books, Warpath was a thrown away character lost and forgotten about. This cover for me represents his coming-of-age in the Uncanny X-Men – a bigger book than X-Force. With this one cover, without any dialogue, the viewer is given everything they need to know about Warpath.
14. Uncanny X-Men #205, May 1986 (Cover by Barry Windsor-Smith)
I couldn’t have a X-Men cover list without the legendary Barry Windsor-Smith on it, could I? The detail and confusion for the viewer on this cover is shared with Wolverine’s expression. The helplessness of both the viewer and Wolverine trying to figure out what is happening. The lines, wires, and colours all give a threatening feeling. It’s uncomfortable to see, let alone to understand. It’s a beautiful mess. Wolverine’s right hand – his claws extended as if they were forced out of him – add to the feeling of dread. Much like the cover, this issue is messy, violent, and mechanical.
13. X-Men #61, Oct. 1969 (Cover by Neal Adams & Sam Rosen)
The second appearance of the X-enemy Sauron lands in my top 15 list as it really encapsulates the threat of Sauron. An incredible landscape within a busy city adds to the sense that the public isn’t safe. Up in the air, Angel is alone against Sauron as the rest of the X-Men helplessly look on: they can’t fly! How can they save their friend? Sauron’s size engulfs the page and yet surprisingly his monotone green body doesn’t feel boring. What is he to the viewer? The grey city below doesn’t help with colour variety – yet the cover pops out with the bland green and grey as the dominant colours in the cover. How did Adams and Rosen pull this one off?
12. Uncanny X-Men #395, Aug. 2001 (Cover by Barry Windsor-Smith)
Fifteen years after our last entry with him, Barry Windsor-Smith still dominates the X-books with another favourite of mine as both a cover and an X-Man. Jumping over from the Generation X books, Chamber dominates with his literal explosive power taking over the cover, despite there being very little action at all on the page. His eyes scream attitude, almost as a “screw you” for his Gen. X series being cancelled. With his head slightly tilted, it’s almost as if he’s asking, “Are you talking to me?” as he makes his mark. The cover is bright, bombastic, and the lettering compliments – if not helps – the impact of the cover. A great premise behind the cover’s simplicity.
11. Uncanny X-Men #268, Sept. 1990 (Cover by Jim Lee, Scott Williams, & Tom Orzechowski)
The only Jim Lee cover on my list. It’s my favourite for a few reasons: firstly, it’s an iconic cover. Three big names in the Marvel Universe together on one cover and “together again for the first time.” Secondly, their stance and dominance on the page make the viewer forget the trio really aren’t anywhere. There’s a city in behind, a bridge, and. . . steps? The trio seem to be looking off at something – are they above it or at eye-level? It really doesn’t matter because we focal point of the cover draws us away from the background’s strangeness. The viewer is forced into seeing Captain America’s chest and shield, then Wolverine, then Black Widow. The distinct colours and inks wonderfully make your eyes circle along with the figures – only to circle back around from Black Widow’s head into Captain America’s chest and shield again. Repeat. It’s truly a great cover, if not a bit clever, cover.
10. Uncanny X-Men #290, July 1992 (Cover by Whilce Portacio)
Making a graceful cover even more wonderful is Whilce Portacio’s Uncanny X-Men #290. Here, Storm stands literally and figuratively in her element(s) as few colours are used to define the image. Heavy on the inking to define the white space and rain, the viewer is left uncertain on whether there are tears running down Storm’s face or the rain. The cover is a simple idea which is manifested into something much more grand with Storm’s body language suggesting either relief or joy. She stands in front of the X-Men logo, making sure she is the focal point for the cover. Everything else is secondary.
9. X-Men #137, Sept. 1980 (Cover by John Byrne, Terry Austin, & Jim Novak)
Blunt and to the point: Phoenix must die! With their backs against the wall on an alien planet (notice Earth in the background!), the X-Men are in for the fight of their lives to save Jean Grey. Cyclops and Jean holding on to one another while fighting off the enemy (or in this case, the Shi’ar could be considered good guys?), in a battle to the death. Words do a lot to sell this issue. “Special Double Sized” and “MUST DIE” really stand out as a selling point – to a lesser extent earning $2500 sounds great as well, but that’s besides the point. However, there’s a bit of a throwback in this cover. We have Jean back in her earlier costume, giving bright composition to the dreary background. She’s front and centre on the cover, both her and Cyclops launching weapons at an unseen foe. Lots of mystery and intrigue is given on this cover (and what happens inside the book is a doozy!)
8. Uncanny X-Men #207, July 1986 (Cover by John Romita Jr. & Dan Green)
A simple cover still reeling with incredible action. Wolverine ripping the cover he’s contained in? Talk about breaking the fourth wall. This cover is so basic, but feels like there’s a lot going on. Straggly vertical lines; little details on Wolverine’s otherwise boring costume colours; the pose. I like this cover because, to paraphrase physicist Lawrence Krauss, it makes something from nothing. What could be a ho-hum cover by Romita Jr., ends up being one of the most iconic covers featuring Wolverine.
7. X-Men #101, Oct. 1976 (Cover by Dave Cockrum & Danny Crespi)
Speaking of iconic covers: the first appearance of the Phoenix certainly is one! Cyclops drowning, Nightcrawler struggling to swim – Storm seems as if her cape is weighing her down, yet still looks over to help see Cyclops in danger – the fear the cover strikes is enormous. Given it was only a few issues earlier where X-Man Thunderbird died, there’s still a chance for any of the main members to go as well. Cockrum was so far ahead here, one can even see the fear in Cyclops’ eyes through his visor. Much like issue #137, we have another bright green Phoenix cover, contrasting against Jean’s red hair and the blue sky – lots of colour composition is happening here and the characters seem purposefully chosen to make the colours work. And not to mention the impact of Jean’s explosion out of the water. It’s just one big “wow.”
6. X-Men #133, May. 1980 (Cover by John Byrne, Terry Austin, & Gaspar Saldino)
So about those iconic Wolverine covers. . . often considered to be one of the best Uncanny X-Men covers, Wolverine taking on the Hellfire club soldiers helped define his character. Clearly out-manned, alone, and forced into melee combat against armed combatants, Wolverine simply kicks some serious ass. Keeping mostly primary colours: red, green, blue – and yellow, the individual characterization of each person on the cover really shine. The fearless shooter from a distance; the annoyed soldier behind Wolverine, the three goons getting knocked away and whose pain the viewer can actually feel because the bodies aren’t in unusual positions – this cover, “delivered” by John Byrne and Terry Austin, not only defined the X-Man, but helped define the series.
5. X-Men #98, April 1976 (Cover by Dave Cockrum & Gaspar Saldino)
One could say that battling giant robots could be considered the X-Men’s forté. The giant Sentinels literally tower over the X-Men, leaving the dynamics to this cover to be in the hands of the legend, Mr. Cockrum. We only really get an idea of the scale of the Sentinels by Wolverine and Cyclops, making the fall of Colossus from the building that much more dramatic. Lots of action sprawls over the cover with every X-Man doing something relevant on the cover (which is a thing older X-books had a problem with – see my #3). The purple of the Sentinels compliments the strangely green-lit background featuring a Kirby Krackle sky. In my eyes, if there’s one cover that screams “The X-Men,” this would be it.
4. X-Men #141, Jan. 1981 (Cover by John Byrne & Terry Austin)
Everyone’s dead! In a dystopian future, we have an older Wolverine and Kitty Pryde up against a wall with their friends – and all of the characters we’ve read about – all apprehended or dead. It’s a dark, dreary cover for the X-Men which actually reflects the storyline contained within. It’s gritty and reeks of fear and anticipation. Who’s after Wolverine? Who has killed them all? How will anyone survive? Looking at this cover to this day, I still imagine what happened to the X-Men who were captured or killed. The cover gives more questions than answers and begs the reader to pick up the book.
3. X-Men #12, July 1965 (Cover by Jack Kirby, Frank Giacoia, & Sam Rosen)
I bet some of you were asking yourselves when the Kirby representation was going to appear. X-Men #12 takes the cake for me as his best X-Men cover as we witness the first appearance of the mighty Juggernaut. His explosive entrance to the cover (and the series) knock back the X-Men – save for Jean Grey which Kirby never seemed to know what to do with on his covers. But what works well for this cover is a few things: the mystery behind the Juggernaut. We see his back, a gigantic fist, huge shoulders – what sort of creature is he? The cover is bright and red; instilling fear and drama on the cover. It makes the X-Men’s yellow costumes pop out, which in-turn also adds to the dramatic feel to the cover. There’s nothing happy happening here. It’s dark, obstructing, and moody, not only making it a really strange cover for its time, but one of my favourites to go back and look at.
2. Uncanny X-Men #210, Oct. 1986 (Cover by John Romita Jr., Bob Wiacek, & Danny Crespi)
Alright, alright. I’m sure you folks are wondering why this cover is so far up on the list. The real reason is that this cover totally hits the mark of the “definitive X-Men lineup” for me. While the catch phrase on the cover is cheesy as all hell, it’s the body language the X-Men give off that really strikes me. If you were to gauge the X-Men on their covers, to this point, save for issue #141 (and its next issue), it would’ve felt like regular comics for all ages. This cover was the turning point in the books for me, featuring the Marauders and a lot of dead Morlocks. The following covers feature blood, violence, fear, and action – but all originate from the storyline in this book – based off of the attitude from these characters. I wouldn’t want to mess with any of the X-Men based on this cover. They’re fearful, they’re menacing, and most importantly, they’re the best mutants for the job. Much like issue #207, Romita keeps it simple with a plain background and some horizontal lines to give this cover the edginess it needs to really hit home.
1. Uncanny X-Men #142, Feb. 1981 (Cover by Terry Austin & Danny Crespi)
Like I said before, save for issue #141 and its next issue, the X-books felt like comics for all ages. Then comes along Uncanny X-Men #142 by Terry Austin and all hell breaks loose. A giant Sentinel obliterates Wolverine on the cover as an impaled and broken Storm looks on. In this issue, EVERYBODY DIES. It’s a gut-wrenching cover for anyone to gaze upon. The action – and Wolverine’s death – demands your attention. Eyes focus on the colourful composition of his face. Just based on colours alone, everything compliments one another – green goes with purple which goes with yellow and orange. It’s inked beautifully to mask the real gore behind Wolverine’s death. It’s like the old horror movie trope: it’s better to have the murder done off-screen to leave the gruesome details to the imagination. And Wolverine’s death being caused by a soulless, faceless machine makes the hit so much stronger. As far as Uncanny X-Men covers go, this one delivers.
So that’s it! That’s my list of my favourite Uncanny X-Men covers! I’m sure a lot of you could agree with my choices, but I’m certain a lot of you would disagree with what I’ve said or my selection.
What have you? Did I overlook a cover? Let me know below! Or you can let me know on Twitter and Instagram!
While it has only been two years since Evergrey was last featured on my Top 15 list, they knocked it out of the park with this album. What I feel to be their best album since 2004’s The Inner Circle, Evergrey takes it up a notch with The Storm Within; showcasing some of the most aggressive song writing, grand choruses, and dark lyrics.
Watch the music video for “In Orbit” featuring Floor Jansen:
14. Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder
Yet almost redefining their sound again, Darkthrone somewhat goes back on their black metal roots but now taking shape with some bits of crunchy doom metal. Coming at the listener with thundering beats and punishing riffs, Darkthrone really impresses with this surprisingly straight-forward album that, despite being their sixteenth studio album, still comes as a breath of fresh air.
Listen to the first track, “Tundra Leech”:
13. iamthemorning – Lighthouse
One part chamber pop, another part progressive rock, iamthemorning have always been a bit different. With beautifully haunting music and vocals, Lighthouse stands out as a daring take on making something complicated sound so beautiful and elegant.
As far as blackened thrash metal goes, Deströyer 666 create a solid album with gripping choruses and challenging aspects to their listeners. It’s not just your run-of-the-mill thrash album. There’s lots going on. The production is solid, the songs are great, and the riffs are crunchy. Putting this album on makes for one helluva fun ride.
Listen to the single, “Wildfire”:
11. Borknagar – Winter Thrice
Even into their tenth studio album, Borknagar still shows the skill and comfort in their songwriting capabilities as Winter Thrice can take you over a variety of genres while still being Borknagar. Thrash, black, viking, progressive – thematic elements and bombastic choruses make for a audibly exciting album that anyone could really get into. Borknagar has always been a band that delivers quality – and with Winter Thrice – they still do.
Watch the lyric video to the first track, “The Rhymes of the Mountain”:
10. Marillion – Fuck Everyone and Run (FEAR)
This was a surprise to me. Hands-down to be one of their greatest albums, Marillion’s FEAR truly harkens back to classical progressive rock times. Lyrically speaking, the album mirrors the title as it reflects upon the changes in England and people left behind; between the have and have-nots. Sometimes feeling like a gloomy, slow burn, the music is emotionally driven and if anything makes the listener realize that they are not alone with their thoughts.
Listen to “The New Kings” here:
9. Drombeg – Earthworks
I stumbled onto Drombeg by sheer luck. Listening to the first few songs of this debut album, I was sold. His publisher’s description of the album describes it best: “A soundtrack for the middle-of-nowhere, the wild landscapes of Brookes’ native Southern Ireland are littered with historic, and geological structures hardened under the relentless elements. Sinuous string melodies, and tender piano phrases reach like sunlight breaking through heavy clouds, blended with electronics and field recordings in careful balance to produce a rich cinematic sound.”
I wasn’t sure if I liked this album at first. As a biased Dev fanboy, I felt like I was simply getting another version of Epicloud. After a few spins, it hit me, and I fell in love with Transcendence. Truly showcasing how much Devin has progressed as a musician over the years, his songwriting skills have tightened and makes for an engrossing album that sonically delivers. Not to mention this is the first album that features song writing credits to the rest of the band – being Dev’s first real collaboration with them. A true treat for the ears.
Watch the music video for “Stormbending”:
7. Aborted – Retrogore
Absolutely devastating death metal, Retrogore is a feast to the ears for those into horror films and, well, gore. It’s vile to the point of hilarity, and the band is fully-aware of that. With song titles like “Whoremageddon” and “Forged for Decrepitude” (which also features classic lines from Re-Animator), Aborted makes a much improved effort from their previous release and excites me to see what will come next.
Listen to the title track here:
6. Abbath – Abbath
Immortal’s ex-frontman Abbath debuted his first album earlier this year to great success. Never would I have found black metal to be this damn catchy (which I suppose goes against the grain of what tr00 kvlt black metal is), but damn it’s catchy! Beat after beat, this album comes at you with stellar force.
Check out the video for “Winterbane”:
5. Anneke & Árstíðir – Verloren Verleden
Icelandic folk band Árstíðir teamed up with one of my favourite vocalists, Anneke van Giersbergen, to showcase a variety of traditional and classical songs. It’s a wonderfully peaceful album with great resonance naturally showcased within the albums’ production. I found myself spinning this album a surprisingly large amount of times this year. Absolutely beautiful.
Listen to the wonderful cover of “Bist Du Bei Mir”:
4. Meshuggah – The Violent Sleep of Reason
What’s not to like about Meshuggah? This band is always pushing the listener to something that rhythmically uncomfortable yet familiar. Always a great band to divulge into, if not a bit challenging to fully comprehend, The Violent Sleep of Reason is a crushingly great listen with riffs that will still have your head spinning to understand.
Check out the music video for “Clockworks”:
3. Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust
Gorguts was last seen in my Top Albums of 2013 with their full-length, Coloured Sands – reaching the number two slot on my list. While I often don’t like to count EP’s as an album, Pleiades’ Dust stands out for being such a work of art I’d hate myself for not giving it proper recognition. The album forms a historical experience about the House of Wisdom and its destruction within a thirty-three minute song that is broken up into several movements. While Gorguts still stick with their technical death metal roots, the experimentation – and the overall experience – is an absolute joy.
I first got into Moonsorrow when I first got into metal. In fact, I learned about them when they were first starting out. I dug their first three albums (I started with Kivenkantaja) and fell in love with the band. And they’ve only become better over time. With their seventh album in place, these pagan black metallers have created another success. “Mimisbrunn” may just be one of the best songs they’ve ever written.
Check out the music video for “Suden Tunti”:
1. Vektor – Terminal Redux
The gap between my second place album and this spot is gigantic. I don’t think there has been an album deserving a number one slot as much as Vektor’s Terminal Redux. I cannot say enough good things about this stunningly brilliant, progressive thrash album. I’ve been gushing over it since its release in May and am still excited listening to it.
The concept is grand, if not surprisingly ambitious for the thrash genre, but these guys make it right. While the lyrics are deep, intellectual, and well-written, the music is on a league of its own.
Lightning-fast riffs with tremendous variety makes the album refreshing to listen to on each spin; vocals representing the agony of the traveler and his yearning to learn more – as does the music want the listener to do. Nothing is stale and everything is wonderful. With the addition of female soul singers during integral parts of the story, the album begins and concludes with such choral ferocity, I still get goose bumps when I’ve fully invested myself into the album.
From the first track, “Charging the Void” to the incredible finale with “Recharging the Void,” Vektor brings the listeners on a wild journey through the far reaches of space all in the span of nine pulse-pounding songs.
Vektor’s Terminal Redux. I simply cannot say enough good things about this album. It has easily become one of my favourite albums ever to have graced my ears. It is now one of my favourite albums of all-time. An epic masterpiece worth your attention.
The incredible opening track to my album of the year, here’s “Charging the Void”:
Testament – The Brotherhood Of The Snake
Opeth – Sorceress
The Neal Morse Band – The Similitude Of A Dream
Anderson/Stolt – The Invention of Knowledge
Fates Warning – Theories of Flight
Amon Amarth – Jomsviking
Dark Funeral – Where Shadows Forever Reign
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Megadeth – Dystopia
Riverside – Eye of the Soundscape
Redemption – The Art of Loss
Dream Theater – The Astonishing
Levin, Minneman, Rudess – From the Law Offices of Levin, Minnemann, Rudess
Questions? Comments? Agree? Disagree? What have you?