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.
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?
To-the-point and still a whole lot of fun. As the title suggests, this album is a testament to what heavy metal is. True to its roots, 3IoB’s album is a classic throw back to early Judas Priest or Manowar, with hella-cheesey lyrics that leave you questioning what you’re even singing along to. It’s hilarious, it’s great, it’s heavy, and it’s fun! For anyone looking to have a good time, please call 3 Inches of Blood – Long Live Heavy Metal
14. Vintersorg – Orkan
Swedish band Vintersorg (which is technically just two guys), produced a straight-forward, avant-garde folk album. If that last statement wasn’t paradoxical enough for you, listen to Orkan to understand. While still following traditional musical stylings, Vintersorg ups-the-ante by incorporating different chord changes, unconventional song styles, vocal techniques, and performances on the lute! The kicker is that it does all sound-straight forward. While you don’t expect to hear a chorus when listening to this music, it flows naturally, making it a great album to listen to for “something different.” Oh, and the lyrics aren’t in English.
13. Overkill – The Electric Age
This album is too much fun. You’ll be head banging for a solid fifty minutes. What a rush.
12. Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth
Get through the first track (and the single) Tattoo, and you’ll be loving the rest of the album. While starting off sloppy, Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth picks up and over-exceeds in all ways possible. Solid hard rock from this album kicks your butt and keeps rocking all the way until the end. Singer David Lee Roth still has what it takes to make music fun – not being the traditional singer – he adds so much more atmosphere to the music. This “better late than never” album really lives up to expectations.
11. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Who hasn’t heard “Hold On” yet? Alabama Shakes made an impressive impact in popular music this year with this album. Beyond expectations, the band stays true to soul music and southern rock while taking advantage of recording technology to this day. A really, really solid album comes from this band – especially with their singer, Brittany Howard, who has one of the most incredible voices in music today. If you haven’t heard this album yet, get on top of that!
10. Devin Townsend – Epiclouder
While Devin Townsend released his album Epicloud earlier this year, if you got the Special Edition copy, you would’ve received the “demos” album titled Epiclouder. To be honest, I prefer the demos. Although they are not “completed” by Devin’s standards, the music is even more beautiful and chilling than the actual album Devin released. While it doesn’t fit Devin’s concept of Epicloud (as he says in the linear notes), Epiclouder tells many more stories, and goes down many more musical paths which would not have worked in the regular album. Most of all: it’s really refreshing and happy.
9. Kreator – Phantom Antichrist
Don’t take the title literally. It’s actually an interesting fantasy concept which runs through most of the album. It sings about a post-apocalyptic life and the battles to fight oppression. As always, Kreator manages to mix both aggression musically along with the music they perform. However, a few tracks sneak inside the album to change up the flow of music. All tasteful, I found that Kreator’s album is really neat story and a great way to wind down the day.
8. Ihsahn – Eremita
This album is so all-over-the-place, it’s fantastic. Ihsahn, you may remember from the black metal band, Emperor. However, outside of Emperor, he does progressive metal. I’m putting that lightly. Eremita is jazz fusion mixed with metal, mixed with darkness, mixed with orchestrations, fright, bewilderment, and awe. What it does well though, is give a focus to saxophone, and really puts an imprint on how underutilized the instrument is used in popular music today. (Albeit, me saying that Ihsahn is “popular” is just silly).
7. Threshold – March of Progress
After their 2007 release, Dead Reckoning, no one has heard anything from Threshold. We can see why (well that, and their singer passed away in 2011; bringing back their original vocalist from pre-2008 albums). March of Progress is a really powerful album from start-to-end. It sucks you in with haunting keyboards and keeps you grounded until the album concludes. It’s a great album just to rock out and play along in the background with whatever it is you’re doing. It’s a guaranteed enjoyment.
6. Kamelot – Silverthorn
Let’s not lie to ourselves. Kamelot’s 2006 album, The Black Halo, is hands-down their best album. Then came Silverthorn. Featuring new vocalist, Tommy Karevik (Seventh Wonder), and quite a few guest musicians and singers, Silverthron stomps The Black Halo out of the competition. Heavy, pretty, and down-right awesome, Silverthron is a new beginning for Kamelot. I highly recommend you give it a try too.
5. Anneke van Giersbergen – Everything is Changing
Ex-The Gathering singer, Anneke van Giersbergen release this hauntingly beautiful album at the beginning of 2012. I find myself still returning to it as it really sticks. Anneke’s voice, happy lyrics, and rocking music, is guaranteed to make you feeling pretty good about yourself once the trip is over.
4. Flying Colors – Flying Colors
A super group of musicians would naturally make a super album. Flying Colors self-titled debut showed how much fun it is to rock out. Piecing together various musical styles, the album grabs you right of the get-go and refuses to let you leave until you soak in all of the greatness it offers.
3. Woods of Ypres – Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light
David Gold’s final album – Woods 5 represents everything that is beautiful and dark in this world. From poetic lyrics to gut-wrenching music, Woods 5 hits all of the right spots and sometimes kind of close to home.
2. The Flower Kings – Banks of Eden
Blues and jazz melded together to make wonderfully crafted progressive rock and one heckuva pretty album. It is an absolutely stunning album, front-to-back, from a band no one really knows about. The Flower Kings have really topped themselves with Banks of Eden. It’s gorgeous, it’s happy, it’s The Flower Kings. The album offers so much for listeners, it’s impossible to tell you everything about it. You’d be doing yourself if a favour if you gave this at least one spin. Just a warning though: you won’t put this down.
1. Anathema – Weather Systems
What can you say about an album this beautiful? Pushing the envelope with new ground, Anathema’s Weather System’s sets the standard to what music could – and should be. Emotional, uplifting, and so much more, there’s a reason why this album is my number one. Do yourself a favour and find out why.
Rush – Clockwork Angels
Testament – Dark Roots of Earth
Storm Corrosion – Storm Corrosion
Torche – Harmonicraft
Devin Townsend – Epicloud
Questions? Comments? Agree? Disagree? What have you?
This is sludge at its finest. Bass pounding with beats, distorted guitars, and a rally cry with the drums. This debut album by this relatively unknown band deserves the recognition it gets here. (FYI, Yautja is the name of the alien species the Predator is).
Evergrey returns to their pre-2001 days with this powerful new album. While the band seems to slowly depart from their gloomier lyrics, the music is still-ever emotional and also driven by a refreshing new sound with their old song-writing style.
Although Devin Townsend released three friggen’ albums this year, Casualties of Cool is the only one on my list. This country rock album experiments with a little bit of everything he’s done in the past. There’s a little bit of his “mediation” album Ghost, his rock album Ki, and his dark ambient/noise album, Devlab. A concept album, Casualties of Cool is really something that stands out amongst not only his discography, but in the general sphere of “music.”
The last arguably “good” Judas Priest album was 1990’s Painkiller. After a few flubs, Redeemer of Souls truly is a redemption for the band. While it doesn’t showcase anything new, it shows that Judas Priest still has everything they did back when they started: powerful song writing, great lyrics, and offering awesome, head-banging momments all throughout the album.
If you’re a fan of well-constructed riffage, this is what you need to listen to. Incredible song writing skills, and of course, epic vocals from Mathias Blad, this hits the sweet spot of finely-crafted power metal.
Cooking With Pagans is one of the best rock albums I’ve heard in a long time. For the uninitiated: a similar style of Motorhead with jazz, metal, and pop music, Freak Kitchen shows off impressive songs with silly lyrics and catchy choruses, making you to grow a smile across your face. Their music video below, Freak of the Week, was also given a $100,000 budget. They opted to hire cartoonists to make it happen.
7. Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry
There’s some real, damn good black metal here. The guitars are really what make this album an outstanding piece of work. Rich with emotions, it pained me to put this album in seventh place. Alas, you’ll soon learn why.
This band is always pushing the boundaries to what “rock music” is. The album offers a wide encompassing amount of different styles – often in the same song (see below). There is no real way to describe Sólstafir’s sound. They’re a forever-evolving band, which is really great for people who like to hear something they never have before.
Out of all of the albums I’m putting on my list, this is the one I feel most people wouldn’t enjoy. Gridlink is a grindcore band at heart. However, their newest release “Longhena” is truly the most beautiful grindcore I’ve heard. In its glorious chaos, the songs are ripe with emotion and complicated orchestration. While the album barely clocks over twenty minutes, it’s incredible how much wonder was put in it.
These American folk/black metallers release, yet again, another gorgeous album. A completely different shift from the other two black metal albums on my list, Agalloch is more based within folkore and slower paced songs. While the momentum shifts throughout the album, their music is certainly breathtaking, if not awe-inspiring in its allure.
Much like Sólstafir, Anathema is constantly pushing the boundaries to what rock is. While they lean more on the progressive rock side of things, this album showcases yet more incredible song writing by the band. Wonderful vocal harmonies, symphonic atmospheres, technical moments. . . this album is absolutely beautiful. Words cannot explain.
This album took me by surprise. Cynic was a technical death metal band. They featured harsh vocals and technical know-how with their instruments. With “Kindly Bent to Free Us,” they dropped their old selves – and death metal vocals – and turned into a progressive rock band. What they still keep is the incredible instrumentation, complexity in their songs, and the immense strength they have as a band through showcasing their talents. Being a band with only three musicians, you would feel as if there is more to the band than what you hear. The album is overwhelmingly complicated, but careful with how it lets the listener focus on particular parts. Nothing is actually overwhelming, but the song ideas as a whole are. It’s a great, great album.
Between this album and Cynic, I had the hardest time deciding which would be number one. However, Triptykon’s “Melana Chasmata” takes the top spot.
Only in their second album, Triptykon’s lead singer, Tom G. Warrior, continues with his thought-provoking song writing and emotional output through this raw, energy-filled album. Triptykon is not only distorted with their song writing, but their sounds as well. In fact, the sound which the band produces is on another level of musical standards.
From the crushing bass of Vanja Slajh, to the echoed despair of Norman Lonhard’s snare; the rhythmic pounding from Santura’s guitar, and the melting intensity of Warrior’s guitar and vocals – “Melana Chasmata” is an album which will stick with me for a long time. I don’t think a week went by since its release in April where I hadn’t listened to it.
One of the best things to take away from the album is how the band is not afraid to do whatever they want. Case-in-point with the two music videos below. Getting variety like this on an album is only one of the many reasons to why “Melana Chasmata” takes the top spot on my list.
I have been doing this annually since 2005, but I rarely mention it publically. I usually post these things on Facebook for friends, but I had a few people tell me they wish to see this on my website. So here we go!
15. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls
With the band’s first double album, The Book of Souls explores many progressive concepts that really seem to harken back to 1984’s Powerslave. With three songs over ten minutes, the album expands on Maiden’s already great musicianship shows off their compositions. Save for the single, the rest of the album has a lot more technical prowess to it.
Folk black metal band Himinbjorg have always been rather absent from the music scene. Featuring the somewhat lackluster albums in the past, their newest release, Wyrd, steps up their songwriting and production game to a new level. With a vast array of song styles within the rather moody album, I have to say I was super impressed of the band’s change.
Breaking new ground with 2002’s release, The Odyssey, the band now had to live up to certain expectations. With 2007’s Paradise Lost, they really pushed it to the limit. 2011’s Iconoclast fell flat. Now in 2015, Underworld brings them back up – not to previous standards, but pushing different standards and setting a new precedent for themselves. Unlike traditional SX fashion, the first few songs – while impressive – are not nearly as good as the last half of the album. Underworld mixes with new sounds and shows the listener that the old progressive metal band they once were is gone. With Underworld, we hear SX aren’t afraid to try something new and experiment again.
Even though he passed away in 1993, he had enough music recorded to be released up until now. Dance Me This, both Zappa’s 100th and final album, features Frank predominately performing with a Synclavier – a digital sampling device – along with Siberian throat singers. While the album is definitely an acquired taste, I can honestly say that even twenty-plus years after his death, Frank is still pushing the musical envelope with this album – making me hear things I’ve never heard before. This rings especially true with the final track, Calculus.
Another year and unsurprisingly another Amorphis album makes my list. Can this band do no wrong? They have a formula and they stick to it. However, unlike previous albums, Under the Red Cloud plays around with more musical themes outside of their traditional Finnish roots. Always impressing and improving on their sound, there’s no wonder why this band still dominates in the music world.
Where did this come from? Never did I expect to see new Venom in a top fifteen list of mine, and yet here we are! While credited as one of the originators of the black metal genre, Venom has grown far away from that to the point. Fom the Very Depths sounds like a cross between bands like Testament, Overkill, and Motörhead. Pulse-pounding and relentlessly heavy, this new release breathes fresh air in the band and excites me for their next release.
As expected, this Japanese band gives the listener more than they could ever expect. From the far-extreme to the slow-mellow, Sigh have always gone with the strange, purposeful “under produced” sound with incredible quality in their music. Graveward never ceases to impress throughout the entire album.
This American tech-death band features a return-to-form after the disappointing 2012 release, At the Gate of Sethu. With crushing riffs and pulse-pounding drum beats, Nile’s newest release is perfect for the listener who’s looking to be blown away from the intensity the album provides. As usual, expect lengthy write ups about each song’s meaning in the linear notes.
The debut full-length album from this English duo is nothing short of impressive. Almost as if each song is a soundtrack from a movie, it is difficult to explain what Nordic Giants are. With each song different from the other, featuring keys, trumpets, drums, guitar, operatic vocals – they are a rock band but with unconventional instruments. An absolutely breathtaking album. I’m confident it will impress.
After 2012’s lovely Harmonicraft, Restarter ups the ante and gets heavier, dirtier, and sludgier (new word) with overdriven bass, pounding kicks, and gruff vocals. Still keeping true to their song-writing roots, Torche simply makes the same music they always have, but they made it heavier. While that defaults as a bonus in my books, the band does so naturally without losing who they are. That alone speaks volumes to both the quality of the band and of this album.
As a band known for helping change the sound of black metal, some would say their newest, Arcturian, is far from it. And you know, it certainly doesn’t sound like it would be considered black metal – yet it still is. Always different and never boring, Arcturian is the band’s first album in ten years and still sounds as if they never stopped being themselves along the way.
As expected with a band name like this, My Dying Bride pushes your chest in and holds you there as you experience the sheer brutal sorrow of this album. From the gothic, poetic lyrics and dark sounds, Feel the Misery absorbs you into it and refuses to let go. Hands-down, one of the band’s – if not the band’s – best release.
Another first double album for a band in this list, the instrumental band Ozric Tentacles, release their fifteenth album in spectacular fashion. As a band that always seems to do something stranger than the last, Technicians of the Sacred still manages to pull some punches with the hefty variety of music it brings. Spoiler alert: I’m a big Ozric fan. I can say that this is their best album since 1993’s Jurassic Shift.
What Steven Wilson does for music is like what the sun does to plants for Earth. His newest release, Hand. Cannot. Erase., is bold, touching, emotional, driven, brilliant, moody, intense, beautiful, and oh-so much more. Blending both pop music and progressive rock, the album still features a concept, unlike most pop albums: and the concept of the album is remarkable, if not a bit depressing. Guest vocalist, Ninet Tayeb, provides a balanced contrast and freshness to both the album and Wilson’s production.
After the release of 2005’s Second Life Syndrome, the Polish band, Riverside (much like Symphony X), seemed to lose themselves in a couple of stale albums. Love, Fear, and the Time Machine changes everything and puts the band up on a pedestal that surpasses everything they’ve done.
Never slowing down, but hardly ever breaking the precedent set by the first track, Riverside finds their stride with the opening notes and continues through to the end. LF&tTM keeps a constant sublime and melancholic feeling throughout the album – right up until the final note is played. The album is calming, yet still intricate enough to satisfy the listener with the layers of beauty within each song.
Often upbeat, despite the rather relaxed mix and mastering of the album, LF&tTM features a variety of tunes that all share familiarity to each other while still being completely different in structure and theme.
For these reasons, and because it’s my most listened to album this year, does Riverside take the top spot on my list.