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Friday, December 26, 2014

2014 Top 30

Finally finished, slightly ahead of schedule: my top 30 albums of 2014! (And some from previous years that I enjoyed this year) Now with 50% more YouTube links!

2014 Albums

30. Melting Sun - Lantlôs (Post/Shoegaze metal; Germany)
The latest release from Lantlôs, one of the major players on the European shoegaze metal scene (also home to French stars like Alcest and Les Discrets), is an absolute treat to listen to. Melting Sun mixes the classic French sound with a dose of Explosions in the Sky, and the result is otherworldly. Their songs don't so much weave a narrative as they do create a sprawling, gorgeous musical landscape for you to lose yourself in. On "Melting Sun I: Azure Chimes", ethereal guitar melodies soar through waves of crashing chords and cymbals in a way that ends up being surprisingly relaxing. The rolling, repetitive, reverb-y riffs and drumming, and minimalistic, dreamlike vocals of "Melting Sun III: Aquamarine Towers" evoke a sense of drifting away to sea. "Melting Sun: VI" is even more minimalistic and pretty much sounds like the album cover looks, like peacefully dissolving into waves of multicolored light. These Germans are doing some seriously beautiful things with their guitars!

29. Elements of the Infinite - Allegaeon (Technical melodic death metal; United States)
Allegaeon does better than most bands I know of making technical death metal exciting as well as a show of metal virtuosity, like Scar Symmetry at their most baroque. They lean more towards the technical/brutal side of things than their cleaner-sounding Swedish comrades, but have a similar kind of appeal for those who love metal as mathematically precise as it is heavy and accessible. Elements of the Infinite is rife with intricate, heavily riff-based songs as well as melodic sensibilities and a flair for the dramatic which is especially on display on the epic opening songs, "Threshold of Perception" and "Tyrants of the Terrestrial Exodus" and the very impressive closing epic "Genocide for Praise – Vals for the Vitruvian Man". The album has a lot of depth to explore, though the songs do end up sounding a bit more homogenous than Scar Symmetry's. As you may suspect, this is an extremely lyrically nerdy album, with later songs covering the golden ratio, the circumstellar habitable ("Goldilocks") zone, and relativistic time dilation, which is a bonus for me.

28. The Joy of Motion - Animals as Leaders (Instrumental technical metal/Djent; United States)
The Joy of Motion, the third album by eccentric (to say the least) instrumentalists Animals as Leaders, again sounds something like technical metal, post metal, and a liberal amount of jazz thrown into a blender set to liquefy. True to its name, this album feels very fluid, and experimental in the best possible way. Melody, tempo, texture, and volume are all subject to rapid artistic variation; the band plays on them almost like instruments. Opening song "Ka$cade" is a great introduction to their style, showing off their engaging, vocal-free songwriting capabilities and virtuosic musicianship; see also "The Woven Web". Others like "Another Year" or "The Future That Awaited Me" are more relaxing and conventional, though still with a distinctively futuristic tinge.


27. Space Police - Defenders of the Crown - Edguy (Power metal; Germany)
I am kind of partial to Edguy's 2008 album Tinnitus Sanctus, but the general opinion of fans is that it and their next release represent a decline into watered-down territory bearing more of a resemblance to hard rock than metal. Happily, this trajectory has been mostly reversed on Space Police, which includes some excellent material, though with tinges of hard rock remaining. The first three songs, anthemic and heavy "Sabre and Torch" and the two title tracks (slower "Space Police" and faster "Defenders of the Crown") are all quite well-written and enjoyable, much more on the power metal side of things. (I like the stylistic sci-fi/fantasy division between the latter two) "The Realms of Baba Yaga" is also a very nice song with good double bass action somewhat recalling one of my favorites from Hellfire Club, "Mysteria" (though less bombastic). "Love Tyger" is ultra-melodic hard rock bordering on glam/pop metal, but it's so catchy it's hard to see it as a step backward for zany-as-always Edguy. The second half of the album is a bit weaker; I just can't bring myself to enjoy the cover of "Rock Me Amadeus"' pseudo-rapped German vocals, the whole premise of "Do Me Like a Caveman" is questionable, and the final song, "The Eternal Wayfarer", unfortunately falls a little flat of my expectations for a nine-minute epic, being fairly drawn-out and predictable. This is an overall decent German power metal album with some promising tracks, especially "Sabre and Torch", "Defenders of the Crown", and "The Realms of Baba Yaga".

26. Ótta - Sólstafir (Progressive/Post rock; Iceland)
Ótta is another of those albums that is extremely well-represented by its cover. The lyrics are all in Icelandic, and the bleak guitar melodies feel worn smooth as if by the sea. Consequently, the aspect of the music that is most striking to me is the mood: melancholy, reflective, and introspective. The meandering, gradually-evolving songs feel like music to forget yourself in; easily listenable, but vaguely unsettling. The opening song "Lágnætti" is pretty exemplary, with a very quiet intro, more uptempo midsection, and a slower ending; the evolving, unfolding song structure is reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky, though with a more muted emotional range. The title track has a laid-back guitar melody that sounds strikingly like a piano, and a slow bassline that puts me in mind of waves crashing softly on shore. Even the shorter, (relatively) more intense song "Rismál" sounds longer than it is. Even more traditional rock songs like "Dagmál" or "Miðdegi" feel somehow distant and relaxed; the mood takes precedence over the immediacy of the instrumentation. Ótta isn't nearly as immediate or engaging as lots of the albums on this list; rather, it's a finely nuanced, artful album that approaches rock music almost like classical music. Very intriguing.

25. Citadel - Ne Obliviscaris (Progressive death/black metal; Australia)
After their jaw-droppingly intricate and eclectic debut album two years ago, it's safe to say that I had virtually no expectations for Ne Obliviscaris' new release. They remain one of two extreme metal bands with a dedicated violinist that I know of (the other being Unexpect), and they again use this instrumental touch to nice effect. Citadel consists of three epic songs and three shorter instrumental interludes. It's short compared to Portal of I, but brilliant nonetheless. "Painters of the Tempest (Part II): Triptych Lux" is possibly the band's most interesting song yet, a sixteen-minute voyage with more musical ideas than many a full-length album; multiple solos, multiple violin interludes, and more riffs than you can shake a bow at. It further cements NeO's status as a renaissance man of extreme metal, in a way the heir to Opeth's metallic side. "Pyrhhic" and "Devour Me, Colossus (Part I): Blackholes", the other two epics, are nearly as impressive, though honestly the album tends to blend together into one epic song. The shorter length is a shame, but this is still a great prog metal album.

24. Dawn of the Brave - van Canto (Power metal/A capella; Germany)
By Van Canto's fifth album, it's safe to say that most of the novelty of a metal band with five vocalists and a drummer has worn off. The band seems to have realized this, and Dawn of the Brave sees them trying (and partially succeeding) at moving beyond a "hero metal a capella" version of regular metal to a new style all their own. I see this in opening songs "Fight for Your Life" and "To the Mountains", where at times it's hard to see how the "guitarists" are imitating electric guitars at all. In songs like these, this move away from an a capella-ized version of classic metal works well; in others like "Steel Breaker" the results are more mixed. "Badaboom" is more traditional, with the "guitars" interacting with the explosive drumming in some interesting ways; "The Awakening" is also a fairly standard, but enjoyable, rendition of power metal. "The Other Ones" is a quieter song like "Last Night of the Kings" or "Spelled in Waters", but falls short of the bar set by them.

Beyond these small steps, what makes the album worth checking out are, of course, the covers, of which there are four. Van Canto's version of "The Final Countdown" is exactly as awesome as you'd expect; not many surprises there. "Holding Out for a Hero" (which I mostly know as that song from Shrek 2) likewise transfers well to their style. The cover of "Paranoid" features some of the best of Van Canto's "classic" guitar imitation and a pretty nice Ozzy impression. Finally, the cover of "Into the West" (the credits song from The Return of the King) is gorgeous and one of the most interesting tracks on the album, with the "instrumentalists" and drums expanding their horizons much like Frodo. Dawn of the Brave is hardly Van Canto's best album, but it does contain some trailheads for breakthroughs to come; I'm interested to see where they will lead on their next album.

23. The Serpent & the Sphere - Agalloch (Progressive/Post/Black metal; United States)
Up till now, most of Agalloch's repertoire has been folk-inspired by some degree, with nature sounds, acoustic guitars, and even a deer skull helping to situate you in a soundscape which powerfully evokes a deep forest. The Serpent & the Sphere is also nature-inspired, but more cosmic than terrestrial, and much softer/post-metal than Marrow of the Spirit was. The ten-minute opener "Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation" is powerfully expansive with a structure that seems to slowly unfold before you, much like the interstellar cloud it refers to. "Dark Matter Gods" is a more up-tempo song kind of like a less-organic, more-spacey "Falling Snow", and could almost be poppy for Agalloch if it weren't deceptively intricate and eight and a half minutes long. The grandiose twelve-minute instrumental voyage "Plateau of the Ages" is the most decisive step the album takes into this new style, but it still doesn't quite wow like The Mantle and Ashes Against the Grain did on multiple occasions. Still a nice album by any means, one that is still growing on me, but one can only hope that growing pains were all that kept it from living up to Agalloch's near-legendary repertoire.

22. The Here and Now - Segue (Electronic/Ambient; United States)
Segue's 2013 album Pacifica was a gem of what I would call "chill music", a lush collage of layered beats and synth-generated textures that pretty much sounded exactly like its cover looked. This year, The Here and Now comes as an able successor. Like its predecessor, it is at least as much textural as it is melodic, evoking a particular "feel" through the timbre of the sounds being looped, which are complimented by minimal synth melodies. Compared to Pacifica, it is more noticeably electronic in its sound and less natural, though this hardly makes it any less pleasant. Compositionally, the album takes more cues from ambient music, with gradually-evolving songs that rarely surprise you; this album is meant to draw you into the background with it rather than launch itself at your attention. By design, it's hard to label individual tracks as standouts—the focus is much more on losing yourself in the experience of the album as a whole—but "Turning Patterns", "All At Once", and the lengthy "Settle Down" are all fairly exemplary of The Here and Now's appeal.

21. Empire of the Undead - Gamma Ray (Power metal; Germany)
Admittedly, my interest in Gamma Ray had been declining for the past several years, but Empire of the Undead has solidly recaptured it. This is an excellent German power metal album by one of the pioneers of the genre, with a delightfully, refreshingly classic sound that reminds us of their status as such. Strong, memorable songs abound, beginning with the fantastic (literally) nine-minute epic "Avalon", which is the very definition of a musical journey and channels at least a bit of Blind Guardian. "Hellbent" is raucous and intense, the best headbanger of the album, with the seven-minute "I Will Return" a close second. But while these are some of Gamma Ray's best "modern"-sounding songs to date, much of the album looks back to the days of classic German power metal. "Master of Confusion" is the most noteworthy example of this, as well as "Born to Fly" and "Empire of the Undead". Far from sounding tired, these songs sound more like they've drunk deep from the headwaters of Gamma Ray's sound, resulting in something wonderfully (and unexpectedly) original.

20. Wonders - The Piano Guys (Classical crossover; United States)
2014 has pretty much been the year of (discovering) The Piano Guys, for me. Apparently you've probably already heard them on YouTube. This album, like their previous ones, is a mix of piano-and-cello covers of pop songs, movie/TV soundtracks, and classical music, along with a few original compositions. It is, on the whole, gorgeous, interesting, and highly listenable. Their epic rendition of "Let It Go" is an unsurprising standout; "Batman Evolution" (a medley of various Batman theme songs) is also highly entertaining. "Story of My Life", the latest One Direction cover, is beautiful, with waves of layered piano and cello melodies that flow like a river (this from someone who hasn't heard the original). More on the classical side, "Ants Marching/Ode to Joy" is a delightful and offbeat piece that blends several musical ideas in interesting ways, feeling much longer than it actually is. "Pictures at an Exhibition" is one of my favorite classical pieces, and the Piano Guys transfer it to their style pretty faithfully. Of course Wonders sounds like a collection of YouTube hits, but this is less a testament to any lack of creativity than to The Piano Guys' knack for writing extremely listenable songs.

19. The Singularity (Phase I: Neohumanity) - Scar Symmetry (Progressive melodic death metal; Sweden)
Scar Symmetry's new album is the first in a planned concept trilogy exploring the theme of transhumanism. After the relatively brief taste offered by this album (the short length is the biggest downside), I'm pretty excited to hear the rest. The lyrics are quintessentially Scar Symmetry, eruditely covering cyborg implants, cryonics, and other themes surrounding a hypothesized technological singularity based on artificial augmentation of human potential. The insightful songwriting juxtaposes the singularity's high promises of "digital immortality" and godlike mastery over the processes of nature with the tyranny and madness that ensue from human augmentation. In drummer/lyricist Henrik Ohlsson's imaginings, "neohumanity" is chillingly inhumane.

The band's usual combination of melodic and brutal sounds helps accentuate these contrasts. Musically, the album is distinctly more progressive than the previous two post-Älvestam releases, beginning and ending with lengthy melodeath epics. "Neohuman" is nine minutes of furious intensity combined with Baroque complexity, with a heavy, but fairly catchy basic structure and several exceptional solos and instrumental sections interspersed between bridges. Besides the short instrumental "Children of the Integrated Circuit", the midsection of the album consists of four more straightforward songs. Lead single "Limits to Infinity" is alternately catchy and raucous, an audible enhancement of the balance they have struck in previous albums. "Cryonic Harvest" is darker and smoother, with the keyboard providing strong melodic undertones. "Spiral Timeshift" is virtuosis, riff-heavy, and probably the most "retro" song on the album. The closing epic, "Technocalyptic Cybergeddon" (amazing name), is arguably the heir to the title track of Holographic Universe, colossal in sound and duration. It's a fitting conclusion to the start of Scar Symmetry's most ambitious work yet.

18. Heroes - Sabaton (Power metal; Sweden)
After the glorious Swedish history lesson that was Carolus Rex, Sabaton returns to its standard fare of twentieth-century war stories on Heroes. It continues to broaden Sabaton's musical horizons; "Inmate 4859" is ploddingly slow and downright creepy, "To Hell and Back" incorporates some western flourishes befitting its Texan subject, or the unashamedly sentimental "The Ballad of Bull". For the most part, though, there just aren't as many standout songs as on previous albums. Maybe it's my fault, but Heroes just doesn't capture my attention and imagination as did The Art of War or Coat of Arms. "The Ballad of Bull" is no match for "A Lifetime of War", and the overall shorter song lengths feel somewhat constraining compared to past semi-epics like "Unbreakable" or "The Carolean's Prayer". The two major exceptions are the explosive opening song "Night Witches" (which very much feels like the successor to "Ghost Division") as well as "Resist and Bite". The two bonus songs, "7734" and "Man of War" (the usual metal tribute song, this time chock-full of Manowar references) are quite enjoyable as well. On the lyrical side, at least, the backstories to the songs are more interesting than ever, covering everything from female Soviet bomber pilots to Germans fighting to surrender to the western Allies to Lauri Törni, the "soldier of 3 armies". and you should totally read them.

17. Ecliptica - Revisited - Sonata Arctica (Power metal; Finland)
For its 15th anniversary, Sonata Arctica decided to rerecord their debut album during breaks from the Pariah's Child world tour. The result is a rare and interesting glimpse into the evolution of one of Finland's premier power metal bands. None of the songs have been substantially changed from their original versions, so the result is something very much like the classic power metal album, yet subtly different, trading youthful vitality for mature, practiced skill. Everyone in SA's original lineup except Tony Kakko and drummer Tommy Portimo has changed in the past 15 years, but the new guitarists and keyboardist do an admirable job playing the old material. The bigger change is with Tony himself; his reduced vocal range (and accent) but massively increased experience is evident throughout, through the key reductions and added vocal flourishes which more than make up for them. The other big difference is the production which is much more focused on the vocals than the original; consequently, it sounds noticeably less "metal" (but also much clearer) than the original mix, fitting better with SA's cleaner, more produced modern sound. Overall, it's hard to classify Ecliptica - Revisited as better or worse than its source material; it's just different, a milestone for the band's considerable evolution over the years.

16. Extremist - Demon Hunter (Alternative metal/metalcore; United States)
Demon Hunter's new release refines the melodic blend of metal they demonstrated on True Defiance. After the creepy chanting and plodding verses of the quasi-introductory song "Death", "Artificial Light" is raucous, surging, and yet almost catchy, beginning with a nice minute-long instrumental section and setting the pattern for the rest of the album with pummeling verses and a more accessible chorus. "The Last One Alive", "One Last Song", and "In Time" continue this direction to mixed effect. Ryan Clark's deep vocals are as strong as ever, effortlessly shifting between throaty screams and soulful clean singing. Fans longing for a return to Demon Hunter's less polished early days will be disappointed (maybe not by "Cross to Bear"), but this isn't always a bad thing. The last song, "Heart of a Graveyard", is really interesting, with a cleaner, almost rock-and-roll (but still vaguely unsettling and not exactly poppy) sound and mid-range tempo that set it apart from the rest of the album. Overall an improvement over True Defiance, even if it's a little soft for my liking.

15. Distant Satellites - Anathema (Progressive rock; United Kingdom)
After the unforgettably gorgeous album Weather Systems in 2012, I had a feeling Anathema was going to take this sound in another direction. And here we are. There is evident continuity; Distant Satellites is still soft, highly melodic progressive rock like Weather Systems was. But whether Weather Systems was smaller, lighter, and personal, Distant Satellites feels overall grander, more mixed in mood, and more adventurous. It is also somewhat less organic in sound; there are fewer acoustic guitars overall (though plenty of piano and orchestration) and more artificial sounds, especially on the electronica-esque epic title track or the concluding song, "Take Shelter". The album's trademark of sorts, which it rides perhaps a little too far, is a slow buildup of electric guitars from a relatively quiet beginning to a crashing climax, as in "The Lost Song - Part 1", "Anathema", or "You're Not Alone". Meanwhile softer songs like "The Last Song - Part 2" and "Ariel" establish some continuity with the previous album. Though it feels a little more repetitive than Weather Systems, Distant Satellites is still a pretty nice step forward for Anathema and quite a rewarding listen.

14. The Hunting Party - Linkin Park (Alternative metal/punk; United States)
Considering Linkin Park's propensity to try a new genre for each album that took them into experimental rock territory with A Thousand Suns and alternative/electronic rock on Living Things, The Hunting Party is simultaneously a bold step forward (into full-on punk territory) and back (to their rap metal roots). Songs like "Keys to the Kingdom", "Guilty All the Same", and (to a lesser extent) "All For Nothing" are among the band's most aggressive, but with more metal/punk elements than anything on Hybrid Theory or Meteora; the rap generally serves as a bridge or instrumental break rather than the bread-and-butter of the song. The new approach works quite well; this is definitely the most raw, "natural"-sounding of LP's albums. The rest of the album branches out more from this style; "War" is straight-up hardcore punk, "Until It's Gone" and "Final Masquerade" recpaitulate the smoother sound of Minutes to Midnight (though it comes off more as using dynamic range effectively rather than just poppy), and "Rebellion" masterfully juxtaposes smooth vocals with chugging buzz-saw guitars; it's one of the strongest songs on the album. The final song, "A Line in the Sand", may be LP's most epic song ever, with a structure approaching that of a progressive rock composition and a crashing build-up from the quiet intro to the resounding conclusion. The Hunting Party is a very promising new sound for Linkin Park, but knowing them, it probably won't last.

13. High Hopes - Bruce Springsteen (Heartland rock; United States)
The Boss is back! And he's playing with Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) on this album! High Hopes is an eclectic collection of rerecorded B-sides, covers, and other rare songs. As a result, it feels simultaneously old-fashioned and experimental, and is quite interesting. Tom Morello's guitar wizardry is evident from the first song, "High Hopes", and mostly gets better from there. Besides the title track, the cover "Just Like Fire Would", "Frankie Fell In Love", and "Hunter of Invisible Game" are all quite good and incredibly diverse. Few artists could make such a varied album feel so cohesive, but Springsteen pulls it off somehow. Certainly the high points of the album are the two seven-plus-minute extended versions of previous hits. "The Ghost of Tom Joad" sounds amazing, dark and brooding and rousing all at the same time, and has an absolutely epic guitar solo by Morello. "American Skin (41 Shots)" is even better; it had previously only been available on a live album and gets a heartrendingly beautiful rendition here. The lyrics are really powerful, about a police shooting of an unarmed black man in 1999 (in which the eponymous 41 shots were fired), and couldn't be more timely right now, although the album came out early this year before the Michael Brown shooting. Not all of the songs are nearly this good, but there is plenty on this semi-studio album, semi-compilation to commend it.

12. Pariah's Child - Sonata Arctica (Power metal; Finland)
After the decidedly mixed bag that was Stones Grow Her Name, it was clear that a return to roots was in order for Sonata Arctica. The return of the band's old logo on the cover of Pariah's Child is a subtle hint of this. This album is also something of a mixed bag, though in this case this mixture is between the SA's "classic", more power-metal sound and the best parts of their more contemporary one. Right off the bat, "The Wolves Die Young" gets nostalgic in all the best ways, with faster pacing and some guitar/keyboard teamwork that indeed hearken back to the band's early days. "Blood", except for a brief and rather odd spoken part towards the beginning, is also a very strong number that represents a successful improvement on their earlier style.

Most of the rest of the album is a refined version of their more recent style from The Days of Grays or Stones. "Running Lights" reminds me of the more grandiose moments of The Days, especially the beautiful chorus; it's also one of the happier songs of the album. "Cloud Factory" is more mid-tempo and rather eccentric, but strangely fun to listen to; I love the mental image of puffy clouds being manufactured in a humdrum, soul-crushing factory. "Half a Marathon Man" begins and ends with a quiet, serene, quasi-ambient acoustic guitar passage, with an energetic (though again rather silly) power metal number in the middle. "What Did You Do in the War, Dad?" is very interesting and more progressive, with an almost nightmarish sound and evolving structure interspersed with instrumental passages, like delving into a veteran's haunted mind. Unfortunately, the rougher parts of Stones still shine through when the album becomes too bizarre for its own good, as on "X Marks the Spot" (which has an extremely prominent, recurring voiceover part parodying charismatic television preachers) and the epic "Larger than Life", which is somewhat good but kind of feels like everything and the kitchen sink (musically speaking) with little to tie it together into something really compelling. Overall, Pariah's Child is a pleasant enough listen, but it has a long way to go if SA is trying to fully reclaim the sound that their old logo evokes. (Fortunately, we have Ecliptica - Revisited for that)

11. The Quantum Enigma - Epica (Symphonic metal; Netherlands)
The Dutch symphonic metal stars of Epica aptly live up to their name on their latest release, which is truly colossal in every sense of the word. The Quantum Enigma is a seventy-minute tour de force of symphonic metal grandeur and my favorite album yet from them. Maybe I'm just a sucker for the combination of guitars, choral vocals, and symphonic orchestration (okay, I definitely am), but songs like "The Second Stone", "The Essence of Silence", or "Victims of Contingency" just take my breath away; this is epic metal brilliantly written and executed. This goes double for the awesome twelve-minute title track. The fifteen-voice choir and string ensemble definitely help with this, giving the band an audible advantage over symphonic metal acts that rely on a keyboard alone. They do make the songs sound rather similar, though. Unlike their contemporaries Within Temptation, who tend more towards a Gothic sound, Epica incorporates elements of progressive, power, and even death metal (they are pioneers of the "beauty and the beast" approach of melodic female and harsh male vocals). Songs like "The Second Stone" and "Victims of Contingency" have rapid double-bass drumming that I consider unusual for symphonic metal per se, and the prog-esque song lengths and structures make for a very satisfying metal album indeed.

10. Delivering the Black - Primal Fear (Power metal; Germany)
Primal Fear is is one of those power metal bands that takes pride in never changing its style—so much that the title track of their latest album can boast "Twenty years later/And nothing has changed". If Delivering the Black is any indication, this doesn't mean stagnation but ever-increasing metallic awesomeness. It's my favorite PF album since New Religion, maybe even Seven Seals. Their aggressive, guitar-heavy brand of German power metal works like a fine-tuned, well-oiled machine in songs like the album-opening one-two punch of "King for a Day" and "Rebel Faction", as well as the title track and the rapid-fire finisher "Inseminoid". There isn't much variety on the album (again, this isn't a bad thing), but there is the interestingly mid-tempo "Alive and on Fire", which has more of a hard/arena-rock feel a la AC/DC. "Born With a Broken Heart" is way up there among the best power metal ballads I've heard, slowing down and showing a good deal more emotion than I'm used to from PF without breaking up the tough-guy feel of the rest of the album with sentimental kitsch. The nine-minute epic "One Night in December" is also noteworthy, arguably stronger than "Where Angels Die" on the Unbreakable, though the midsection does tend to drag.

9. Hydra - Within Temptation (Symphonic metal; Netherlands)
Within Temptation's last album was something of a turn from their heavily symphonic style to something a more rock-like, guitar-driven, radio-friendly style. While I very much enjoyed The Unforgiving, this album is a welcome turn not simply to a sound more like The Heart of Everything but a new, closer fusion of WT's twin musical aspirations of metallic might and symphonic grandeur. While it has relatively few outright orchestrations or choral parts, Hydra still manages to feel like a real Within Temptation album by combining keyboard sounds with metal in subtler ways. The balance feels about as close to perfect as I have ever heard. The reverberant guitars, understated strings, and multitracked vocals on midtempo opener "Let Us Burn" may not be close to The Heart of Everything's full orchestra and choir, but they still manage to do the same thing, convey a grandiose immensity to the song (especially on the chorus), albeit in a tighter, more restrained way. "Edge of the World" is another strong song, notable for its steady build from a tenderly minimal keyboard-and-vocal duet to an epic, thundering send-off with pounding guitar and bass drumming. "Silver Moonlight" is the most intense, guitar-centric song on the album, channeling quite a bit of The Unforgiving, but again retaining the usual symphonic bombast despite this; it's another example of the balancing act WT pulls off here with its disparate musical elements. The next track, "Covered By Roses", turns the intensity down but manages a similar feat. This is a superb, well-tuned offering by Within Temptation that is continuing to grow on me as of mid-year.

...and that is without mentioning the most obvious headline of this album: the guest vocalists. Four of them, to be precise, from very different musical backgrounds. Sharon den Adel sings an excellent duet with Howard Jones (ex-Killswitch Engage) on "Dangerous", whose driving tempo and action-packed guitar-and-double-bass instrumentation complement the lyrics about daredevils. Admittedly, the last three songs of the album do get a little tired, including "Whole World is Watching" featuring alternative rock vocalist Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum). It's a much lighter, laid-back ballad that does a pretty good job of capping off the album, but is hardly the strongest song. "Paradise (What About Us?)" features Tarja (ex-Nightwish), who is (unsurprisingly) so perfect for Within Temptation that you wonder why they don't just keep two vocalists. Even without her and Sharon perfectly complementing each other, musically it is definitely one of the strongest songs on the album, exemplifying the subtler style of symphonic awesomeness I mentioned above. And finally..."And We Run" features Xzibit (yes, that Xzibit), one of the last people you would expect to appear on a Within Temptation album. And yet, somehow, the song works, if a bit bizarrely. It is one of the more symphonic songs on the album, with a guitar-light (but, of course, still epic) chorus, followed by a brief rapped section by Xzibit, who provides an excellent vocal contrast with den Adel. The bridge, performed and apparently composed by Xzibit, is especially surprisingly good.

8. The Pagan Manifesto - Elvenking (Folk/power metal; Italy)
As the title, artwork, and song titles suggest (or make as blatantly obvious as possible), Elvenking is seriously trying to return to their pagan-metal roots on The Pagan Manifesto, reversing the trend of increasingly radio-friendly metal that has characterized their last two albums. While they don't totally accomplish this, it's still a very nice back-to-basics album with a markedly improved sound and some real gems. The intro song "The Manifesto" starts with an earthy-sounding acoustic melody and leads up to the first real song, "King of the Elves". This thirteen-minute epic, the longest and most progressive in Elvenking's history (longer than Wyrd's "A Poem for the Firmament"), is an extremely pleasant surprise; the first few minutes are an alternation between metal and some softer acoustic sections that put me in mind of the band's earlier days. On their own, they would be a solid song, but they constitute less than half of the whole thing, which transitions through some excellent instrumental sections and solos to something altogether nightmarish that puts me in mind of The Scythe (only better). I can't even capture all the complexity of the song (which approaches that of a Dream Theater epic) here. Overall, it's a very impressive song which gets across the point that (in its own words) "The king of the elves is back!"

The next song, the head-banging anthem "Elvenlegions", is at least as autobiographical with the rallying call in its chorus that seems to sum up the album's approach: "We are the Pagan Legions, sons of Mother Earth/Back to pagan roots". Later on the album, the song "Twilight of Magic" (my other favorite, for the powerful sense of nostalgia for an age of magic that never was that it evokes for me) reiterates this theme in case it wasn't obvious enough. It's a bit heavy-handed, but a welcome change in direction for Elvenking, plus these are three of the strongest songs on the album.

Happily, the rest of the album largely keeps up "King of the Elves"' blend of old and new sounds, though never quite rising to its mark. "The Druid Ritual of Oak"is lighter and less posturing, allowing the non-metal instrumentation to shine through that much brighter. "Moonbeam Stone Circle" is more grandiose and power metallic, somewhat a progression on the epic sound of earlier songs like "Runereader" or "Chronicle of a Frozen Era". "The Solitaire" is more melodic, sounding like the poppy side of Red Silent Tides; it still isn't too bad. "Pagan Revolution" (have you noticed the theme yet!?) is half folk music, half punk-ish, with a rousingly anthemic chorus. Also notable is the final song, "Witches Gather", another epic in its own right at almost nine minutes that ends the album on an excellent note. The Pagan Manifesto is a promising and welcome change of direction for Elvenking and gives reason to hope that it's only the prelude to something even better.

7. Origins - Eluveitie (Melodic death/folk metal; Switzerland)
Musically, Eluveitie's new release, Origins, innovates little over its predecessor, Helvetios. At every turn it seems to take cues from Helvetios' playbook, from the album structure (a concept-ish album with a large number of songs, beginning and ending with storytelling by Alexander Morton and a few brief spoken interludes interspersed) to the minimalistic, monochromatic album artwork to individual song tropes. There is the booming, epic, high-energy opener ("The Nameless"), the mid-tempo song with extensive passages in Gaulish ("Celtos"), an assortment of other heavy, high-intensity tracks ("King", "The Day of Strife"), an ultra-melodic, female-fronted song ("The Call of the Mountains"), a less catchy but still-melodic female-fronted song ("Vianna"), and an epic conclusion before the closing narration ("Carry the Torch"). Stylistically, Origins might lean a little more towards the folk side of Eluveitie's sound compared to before, but it's hard to be sure. None of this is to say that it's a bad album, but if you were hoping for a change from Helvetios (unlike me) you will likely be disappointed.

Lyrically, the album is more innovative; whereas Helvetios was largely historical, tragically detailing the Roman conquest of Gaul, Origins is more mythological or even theological, expounding on the deities and stories of the Celtic pantheon. Along the way it makes numerous biblical allusions: Matthew 11:15 and John 1 in the intro, the Lord's prayer and Revelation 4:8 in "The Nameless", Psalm 23 in "Sucellos", John 12:24 in "From Darkness", Matthew 7:20 in "King", and even a reference to Justin Martyr's divine Logos in "Day of Strife". This works to very interesting effect given the pagan subject matter. "Inception" has a narrated passage which I think accurately describes the Orthodox vision of salvation:
They teach that the soul does not descend to the silent land of Erebus and the sunless realm of Dis below, but that the same breath still governs the limbs in a different world. If their tale be true, death is but a point in the midst of perpetual life.
Origins is by no means a bad Eluveitie album, but it does somewhat disappointingly fail to move far beyond the territory marked out by Helvetios. Recommended for fans of the band, but Helvetios or Slania are better ideas for introducing someone to them.

6. Erdentempel - Equilibrium (Symphonic/Epic/Folk black metal; Germany)
Considering how Equilibrium is one of my favorite "epic metal" bands, I'm happy and slightly disappointed at the same time to see them further branching out from their ultra-bombastic sound on Sagas. Don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of songs evoking epic battles between vikings and wizards or what-have-you, utilizing their trademark keyboard-and-choir sound with a guitar backing to great effect. "Waldschrein", the lead track from their 2013 EP of the same name, is a very strong song with a particularly epic, crashing chorus. "Apokalypse" achieves a very nice balance of guitar-driven verses and grandiose, colossal-sounding choruses; "Aufbruch" is a fairly satisfying 11-minute epic, though it's only a bonus track for some reason. Equilibrium has not gone soft by any means.

But many of the songs on Erdentempel adopt a much slower, more laid-back approach which works pretty well, though it is admittedly less thrilling. "Freiflug" and "Heavy Chill" are both heavily melodic songs that still achieve a semi-appropriate sense of scale through the heavily layered guitars, keyboards, and choral vocals. "The Unknown Episode" is similarly melodic and, notably, the first Equilibrium song with English lyrics and the closest thing to a ballad Equilibrium has recorded. "Karawane" is a lumbering but highly melodic chugfest of a song surprisingly intense for its slow tempo, which has been growing on me. However, the two most audacious songs on the album have turned out to be the ones that I remember the best. "Uns'rer Flöten Klang" goes off the folksky end of Equilibrium's spectrum; it is a bouncy, happy song that sounds more suited to a night of beer-soaked merriment than an epic battle. "Wirtshaus Gaudi" is even more bizarre, with a fast, absurdly upbeat chorus melody that sounds like the theme music for a Saturday morning cartoon. As entertaining as twists like these are, they are so mostly because of their sheer audacity (especially "Wirtshaus Gaudi"), and I hope Equilibrium doesn't make their newfound silliness too central to the sound of future albums.

5. Last of Us - Arion (Symphonic power metal; Finland)
This is the debut album of a band of Finnish kids that sounds like the latest chart-topping release by a multimillion-dollar symphonic power metal band. This is due in large part to the jaw-droppingly awesome production and full choir and orchestra they somehow procured. The result is colossal-sounding metal I would normally only expect from the likes of Rhapsody of Fire or Nightwish. The opening song, "Out of the Ashes", is a marching-speed anthem with an incredibly powerful chorus and thrilling instrumental/solo section; it effectively establishes Arion's epic metal credibility. "Seven" and "Last of Us" display the same kind of grandiosity that I can never seem to get enough of. The ballad "You're My Melody" is incredibly cheesy, but in an almost Disney-esque way that lets me love it anyway, albeit with a bit of irony. (And it still builds to an epic, orchestrated wall of sound by the end) "I Am the Storm" is the most metallic song, with some RoF-esque shredding. The two seven-minute epics, "Burn Your Ship" and "Watching You Fall", are also standouts, with the former especially rivaling even Equilibrium in sheer power and majesty (it even has an orchestral interlude!). Overall, this is an incredibly good SPM album by any standards, and is all the more impressive for being by such a young band (years of existence and the ages of its members). On the minus side, the lyrics do strike me as somewhat immature ("You're My Melody" or "I Am the Storm") or almost emo ("Shadows"), disappointing compared to the awesome songwriting and production. Still, this is probably the best debut album of the year. Or, at least, it would be, if not for...
EDIT: I didn't listen to it at first, but the booming, titanic-sounding bonus track "New Dawn" is possibly my favorite on the album.

4. BABYMETAL - Babymetal (Melodic death metal/J-Pop; Japan)
Say hello to the strangest album I have heard this year, or possibly ever. The best comparison I can come up with to describe Babymetal is something like Morning Musume meets Blood Stain Child. The album is an ungodly combination of adorable J-pop idols and a death metal backing band: sugary-sweet vocals about (I think) foxes, chocolate, and getting up in the morning combined with dissonant guitars, blast beats, and screams. It's like Japan's characteristically insane answer to Europe's "beauty and the beast" style of dual vocalists. Allmusic's review perfectly sums up their style: "Not only does the album create a totally new genre, it defines it and also ends it at the same time." It is indeed hard to imagine Babymetal following this album up with anything comparable, since novelty is one of its great strengths. Tracks like "Iine!", "Doki Doki Morning", "Onedari Daisakusen", and "4 No Uta" illustrate the bizarre combination well. Yet they don't just come across as jokes, like you might expect. The songs are legitimately well-written and undeniably catchy; you could argue they combine the best of both musical worlds. Still, I find myself more enjoying the slightly less-ridiculous songs more, the ones that come across more as legitimate extreme metal songs with J-pop influences, such as the trio of "Uki Uki Midnight", "Catch Me If You Can", and "Akumu no Rinbukyoku" later in the album. The second track, "Megitsune", is actually epic and deserves special mention for its powerful vocals and fusion of synthesizers and guitar riffs, channeling Blood Stain Child more than most of the album; it's easily the standout track of BABYMETAL. If you are curious to explore bizarre new kinds of metal or just tired of "business as usual", this album is definitely worth a listen or two.

3. Horizons - Anubis Gate (Progressive power metal; Denmark)
In my opinion, at least, following the departure of vocalist Jacob Hansen Anubis Gate's 2011 self-titled album faltered just a bit from the previous albums The Detached and Andromeda Unchained, both classics of progressive power metal. After numerous listens, though, I think Horizons makes up most, if not all, of the musical ground lost on the previous album. Though it doesn't demonstrate as perfect a fusion of the band's stylistic influences as The Detached (still one of my favorite albums of all time), Horizons is still a strong album with several gems. Melodic songs like "Never Like This (A Dream)" or "Breach of Faith" demonstrate well how metal can be both extremely catchy and extremely heady at the same time; the piano interlude in "Breach of Faith" is a great touch to break up a song that might only be remembered by its chorus (not because of any weakness of the rest of the song, just because the chorus is such an earworm). It's a testament to Anubis Gate's songwriting how accessible and enjoyable this album is despite (or because of?) its average song length of six and a half minutes. Most songs (except the haunting acoustic outro, "Erasure") occupy various positions on the progressive-power axis; "Destined to Remember", "Airways", and especially the 14-minute epic "A Dream Within a Dream" lean more towards prog metal, while "Hear My Call!" and "Revolution Come Undone" go the other way; all are strong songs. The title track, coming just before the epic, does the best job of tying all of Anubis Gate's component styles together into one tightly-paced, exciting bombshell of a song; I consider it the strongest on the album. The semi-epic "Airways" and the actual-epic "A Dream Within a Dream" also come with high recommendations.

2. The Life and Times of Scrooge - Tuomas Holopainen (Symphonic/Folk/Cinematic music; Finland)
When I first heard that Tuomas Holopainen (the keyboardist and composer of Nightwish) was making a solo album about Scrooge McDuck, I scoffed, thinking it was a bad joke. But make the album he did, and I'm really glad I finally decided to check it out. Yes, this is a concept album about the adventures of a comic book duck. It is also amazing and wonderful on multiple levels. It basically resembles a Nightwish album without the metal elements and with an extra helping of the symphonic/folk dimension of their sound; the inclusion of Troy Donockley (the piper on Dark Passion Play and Imaginaerum) and the London Philharmonic and Metro Voices (the orchestra and choir from all of Nightwish's albums since Once) adds to this continuity. Add to this several other great guest vocalists (including Tony Kakko of Sonata Arctica!) and musicians and you have the makings of a great album. Tuomas' usual compositional brilliance is on full display here, heavily inspired by cinematic music, and without having to manage the balance between symphony and metal he's free to follow his imagination wherever it may lead.

So, what about the actual songs? You know, the ones about the world's richest duck? This is a concept album based on a graphic novel series by Don Rosa telling Scrooge's life story, which Tuomas has apparently been in love with for a long time. There is narration, with vocalists portraying several of the characters, but it is not cartoonish at all; you can only tell the album is based on a cartoon from the story the lyrics tell. "Glasgow 1877" tells of Scrooge's childhood, visiting his family's ancestral home on Dismal Downs, Scotland. The opening narration is underscored by some beautiful uillean pipes (close enough to Scottish bagpipes, I suppose) and followed by vocals in (presumably) Scottish and extensive instrumental sections of strings and pianos; it's simultaneously joyful, reflective, and mournful, and it compellingly draws you into Scrooge's world. "Into the West" makes interesting use of a banjo and harmonica, like the soundtrack to some epic western.

The instrumental "Duel & Cloudscapes" switches genres again, sounding like some epic Christmas music with its trumpets and sleigh bells. With its multisegmented structure and no vocals, it could almost be classical music, albeit of an extremely eclectic kind. "Dreamtime" is another instrumental, but much more minimalistic and repetitive, built around a percussion rhythm and (of all things) a recurring didgeridoo. It somehow manages to be tense while simultaneously lulling you to sleep. Then the midsection of the album is the strongest: "Cold Heart of the Klondike" is a nearly seven-minute epic with nearly as much orchestral/choral bombast as "Ghost Love Score" at the end of the song's steady growth in intensity, and vocals by Tony Kakko to boot! The last three or so minutes are an instrumental build to one last rendition of the chorus. As someone who has an irrational love for everything to do with the frozen north, I can't find the words to express how much I love this song. Yet the next song, "The Last Sled", in which Scrooge bittersweetly says goodbye to his life as a Klondike prospector, is even better. I can't do it justice by explanation; you should probably just listen to it.

The rest of the album helps me come down from the emotional and musical high of those two songs. The third instrumental, "Goodbye, Papa", utilizes a swirling arrangement of tender piano and string-backed choral vocals to great, melancholy effect. "A Lifetime of Adventure", the album's lead single, is possibly the most conventionally-structured, switching between very slowly-sung verses and the distinctive rhythm of the chorus. It's a great wrap-up to this beautiful, intricate, and immersive album, probably the biggest surprise of the year. Honestly, the album's biggest issue is that the original graphic novel on which it is based is long out of print and fantastically expensive. Maybe this album will lead to a reissue!

1. Maximum Overload - DragonForce (Power metal; United Kingdom)
Even if you don't miss ZP Theart as much as I do, you have to admit that The Power Within was, by DragonForce standards, rather tame. The songs were almost normal-length instead of 7+ minutes, the musicianship wasn't so off-the-wall insane as to draw accusations of the band speeding up their playing in the studio, and the lyrics (some of them, anyway) actually made sense and were about relatively pedestrian subjects rather than epic, fantastical battles for the fate of the universe. In short, though it did contain some glimpses of their former glory ("Fallen World", "Wings of Liberty"), DragonForce sounded, for the first time...mortal.

The title of their latest album is the first indication that things have improved (not to mention what may be their coolest album art ever)—not exactly a return to the nonsensical grandiosity of Inhuman Rampage, much less Valley of the Damned, but a long step in this direction so as to bestride their old and new sounds, taking some of the best parts of both. Within five seconds of the album's beginning, the explosive introduction of "The Game" assures you that things will be different on this album; with its Gothenburg-like guitar chugging and blast beats it's the most high-octane opening track on any DragonForce album since "Through the Fire and Flames", or possibly ever. It shows off the band's continuing commitment to keep stepping up their sound. "Tomorrow's Kings" is similarly paced, with Hudson's (improved) vocal delivery adding to the frantic pacing in the extremely catchy chorus. "No More" is, unfortunately, another song with personal lyrics in the vein of "Seasons", which while musically good doesn't live up to the absurd awesomeness of their usual themes.

"Three Hammers" is everything "Cry Thunder" wanted to be and more. Though not quite six minutes long and with a relatively slow pacing, it sounds truly colossal and is easily the epic of this album, with lyrics equalling any classic from Valley of the Damned and an awesome bridge/high-speed solo/instrumental section with choirs that takes up about half the song. The transition from "Fury of the Storm"-esque shredding to a booming, triumphant march of guitars to the deep choral chant is one of my favorite moments of the whole album. It goes to show that there is more to DragonForce's mastery of power metal than pure speed (though speed never hurts). "Symphony of the Night" begins with a lighthearted Rhapsody of Fire-esque harpsichord intro and is overall another very nice, fast-paced number, with perhaps more neoclassical metal than usual thrown in. "The Sun Is Dead" comes the closest to DragonForce's old inflated song lengths and puts it to good use, becoming almost prog-metal-like in its time and mood changes.

After that the second half of the album isn't quite as distinctive; DragonForce's tendency to make all their songs sound equally awesome is coming out. "Defenders" is another strong, high-speed power metal thriller; "Extraction Zone" is similarly intense and seems based on online first-person shooters (Titanfall?), all in keeping with DragonForce's style of "video game metal". "City of Gold" is a more melodic, melancholy song about show business. The exception to the minor lull in the second half comes with the final song, which is a cover of (I kid you not) Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire". When I first heard that they would be covering it I was highly skeptical, I laughed uproariously when I heard how brilliantly DragonForce had adapted it from country to power metal; it has to be heard to be believed.

And then there are the bonus tracks! "Power and Glory" is another epic mid-tempo song, a bit faster than "Three Hammers" but with a similar gigantic sound and classically nonsensical lyrics (is that an allusion to "Reasons to Live", or are they just that repetitive?). "You're Not Alone" is a slower song, the closest thing to the super-cheesy ballads that were seemingly contractually mandated on DragonForce's older albums; despite this it manages to be pretty good. "Chemical Interference" is a very strong, intense, and exciting song, with an aggressive edge reminding me a bit of Primal Fear. "Fight to Be Free" is more melodic with a gorgeous chorus, evoking all the best nostalgia of early DragonForce; it and the previous song are definitely worthy of a place on the main tracklist over some of its weaker numbers. Finally, "Galactic Astro Domination" is a short instrumental, essentially the solo of a regular song shorn of all the boring bits. Maximum Overload lives up to its name and, besides being a promising step forward for DragonForce after the departure of ZP, is just some really good power metal.

Top 10 Songs of the Year

  1. "Three Hammers"—DragonForce, Maximum Overload
  2. "Burn Your Ship"—Arion, Last of Us
  3. "Megitsune"—Babymetal, BABYMETAL
  4. "The Last Sled"—Tuomas Holopainen, The Life and Times of Scrooge
  5. "Twilight of Magic"—Elvenking, The Pagan Manifesto
  6. "Out of the Ashes"—Arion, Last of Us
  7. "Horizons"—Anubis Gate, Horizons
  8. "The Game"—DragonForce, Maximum Overload
  9. "Aufbruch"—Equilibrium, Erdentempel
  10. "Night Witches"—Sabaton, Heroes

Pre-2014 Albums I Missed (in no particular order)

21st Century Breakdown - Green Day (Rock opera; United States, 2009)
Yes, I know I hardly "discovered" this album, I only awakened slightly from my self-imposed ignorance of hit music. But anyway, Marissa introduced me to it and I enjoy it nearly as much as American Idiot. I seem to prefer Green Day's less punk, more progressive material.






Beyond - Omnium Gatherum (Progressive melodic death metal; Finland, 2013)
Omnium Gatherum (Latin for "gathering of all things") is one of my favorite bands whose back catalog I've explored this year. Their earlier material is fairly straightforward melodeath, but their latest two albums, New World Shadows and Beyond, go off in a unique direction. They are increasingly melodic, very colored by that ethereal keyboard-driven sound that characterizes other Finnish melodeath bands like Kalmah or Mors Principium Est, though this rarely sounds "poppy" or like a tacked-on concession to accessibility. Though their music is plenty heavy, it hardly sounds angry at all, but rather strangely calm and contemplative, even in the louder bits. The excellent, reverberant production helps with this goal, as do the songs' tendency toward few lyrics and lots of gorgeous instrumental transitions. The hard-edged guitar parts tend to be softened by either keyboard or guitar harmonies in a very distinctive way.

The opening songs "Luoto" and "New Dynamic" exemplify this style; the former is an instrumental intro composed largely of echoing guitar melodies that almost seem to sing; the latter features thick keyboard ambiance and beautiful instrumental sections, especially the swirling guitar melody in the bridge. "Living in Me" is possibly the most metallic and riff-heavy song of the album, but even here the keyboards can be heard putting the guitars in perspective; the solo is also excellent. The final song, the ten-minute epic "White Palace", is probably the most progressive and contemplative of the album, with minimal lyrics allowing for the development of several extremely satisfying instrumental themes. This album and its predecessor are some of the most innovative I've heard all year, having few musical parallels (probably the closest band to their sound is Be'lakor, but even this is a stretch). My main complaint is that the vocals don't have much inflection and get tiresome after a while (except when the vocalist switches to clean singing), but even that does little to tarnish this fascinating and artful album.

Beyond the Space Beyond the Time - Pathfinder (Symphonic power metal; Poland, 2010)
I'm not sure what can be said about Pathfinder, except that they resemble Rhapsody of Fire, on steroids, with more fractured English (noticeable even in the album title) minus the softer, ballad-like pieces, or DragonForce plus tons of over-the-top choirs and orchestrations. Beyond the Space Beyond the Time is one of the most maximalist, bombastic power metal albums I've ever heard (which is saying a lot), even to a fault. Even if it's hard to take seriously at times, it's a refreshingly earnest, intricately complex power metal album that lives up to its superlative title. "The Whisper of Ancient Rocks", "Pathway to the Moon", and "The Lord of Wolves" are examples of Pathfinder's cosmic-scale symphonic gold. The album's two longer songs give them even more room to do their thing; "Stardust", at eight and a half minutes, reminds me of Nightwish in its resemblence to a film score (only with much more guitar shredding); the title track is ten and a half minutes and, for all its incoherent absurdity, deserves a place in the pantheon of the most epic metal songs ever conceived. Truly Beyond the Space Beyond the Time is an album of epic ambitions and mythic proportions. That it follows through on them without becoming an overwrought, pretentious mess (at least to my ear) is impressive enough.

Hundred Light Years - Lunarsea (Melodic death metal; Italy, 2013)
Lunarsea is a very nice spaced-themed melodeath band from Italy that plays in a futuristic, high-speed, technically precise style somewhat akin to MyGrain. Hundred Light Years doesn't shatter any melodeath paradigms, but it is a finely-honed, well-balanced and tightly-focused album that brilliantly succeeds at what it sets out to do. The songs are all varied and exciting enough to keep you interested in each new musical twist and turn, the balance between melody and sheer force is just right, the production and musicianship are excellent, and the lyrics are honestly pretty cool. (Though it is pretty strange to hear death growls with a pronounced Italian accent) It's an extremely solid melodeath record able to compete with the best from Scandinavia. For evidence, see the opening song "3 Pieces of Mosaic", "Next and Future" (which utilizes blast beats to great effect), and the eight-minute epic "As Seaweed".

Lindsey Stirling - Lindsey Stirling (Classical crossover; United States, 2012)
Perhaps my just discovering Lindsey Stirling is another symptom of my musical ignorance and this album (and her new one, Shatter Me) is old news. But if you haven't heard her, take a listen; she specializes in a lovely and catchy blend of classical and electronic/dubstep centering around her violin playing. There's not much more to say; describing her music is much less effective than just inviting you to listen to it: "Electric Daisy Violin", "Crystallize", "Transcendence", "Elements", "Stars Align".





The Piano Guys 2 - The Piano Guys (Classical crossover; United States, 2013)
This is the first Piano Guys album I got into, before Wonders was released. Like Wonders, it is largely a collection of covers, classical remixes, and original compositions you may have heard on YouTube, with several standouts. I thoroughly enjoyed "Begin Again" (possibly more) before I learned it was a Taylor Swift cover, which means it's probably well-done. "Rockelbel's Canon" is an excellent and fairly original rendition of what may be the most-covered song ever, taking more of an upbeat approach driven by what I assume is tapping on the body of a cello. The Lord of the Rings medley is really well done, as is "Nearer, My God to Thee". But impressively, the three original compositions are among the best tracks: "Berlin" is built around a hypnotic cello melody that sounds almost electronic, and "All of Me" and "Waterfall" are both gorgeous, lively solo piano pieces. A very nice and accessible album overall that continues to charm me.

Waldschrein - Equilibrium (Symphonic/Epic/Folk black metal; Germany, 2013)
Equilibrium's first EP is short (only 5 songs), but this is more than enough for the masters of epic metal to sufficiently thrill me. The title track (also on their 2014 album Erdentempel) is a well-paced, finely-written piece, more than a quarter of which is taken up by an excellent, multi-segmented instrumental introduction. The chorus is particularly satisfying and extremely catchy, making it one of my favorite of their songs. "Der Sturm (2013)" is a rerecording of a song from their first album, with some excellent galloping drumbeats and guitar contrasted with slower chugging segments. "Zwergenhammer" has a triumphant "march" in its midsection giving way to a nice solo/instrumental/orchestral section, an overall solid track. "Himmelsrand" ("Skyrim") is the other album standout; it is, of course, an epic metal cover of the already-epic theme music of The Elder Scrolls V and is at least as amazing as you'd expect. And finally, an acoustic version of "Waldschrein" (still surprisingly bombastic due to the choirs and orchestration) closes the EP off. "Waldschrein" aside, I can't honestly say it's a foretaste of Erdentempel, which takes things in a bit of a different direction, but at any rate it's some excellent metal for fans of Equilibrium's awesomeness.

Whitedivisiongrey - Agalloch (Neofolk/Ambient; United States, 2011)
This is technically a compilation combining two of Agalloch's previous EPs, The White and The Grey (makes sense). The White is an "unplugged" EP consisting mostly of acoustic folk songs. It feels like the distilled essence of the bleak yet beautiful, folky, earthy sound of Agalloch's first 3 albums and is absolutely gorgeous. Two special highlights are "Hollow Stone", which somehow sounds peaceful and insanely epic at the same time, and "Pantheist", a sprawling seven-minute "progressive folk" song. It's probably one of the best non-metal examples of Agalloch's musical brilliance; the droning, hurdy-gurdy-like vocals at 4:00 send chills down my spine. "Haunted Birds", a cover by Nest not from The White, is more post rock/ambient, with a single acoustic melody periodically echoing through a vast nothingness of ambience. The second disc contains The Grey, a pair of "remixes" of songs from The Mantle that that bear little resemblence to the original; they sound more like lengthy, semi-programmed post metal compositions that are quite good in their own right. It also has two remixes of something or other that are much more rock-y and uptempo, the closest to "party music" that Agalloch has come. This double EP is a very mixed bag, nearly all of it brilliant and very different both from Agalloch's prior work and anything you might consider "normal".

Winterborn - Wolfheart (Melodic death/black metal; Finland, 2013)
Wolfheart is the new solo project of Finnish multi-instrumentalist Tuomas Saukkonen, who discontinued his five(!) other active projects to work on this album. Such a backstory invites obvious comparisons with fellow Finn Jari Mäenpää and Wintersun, which are strengthened by the fact that Winterborn evokes the feeling of a deep, dark, cold winter at least as well as the similarly-titled Wintersun, maybe even better. But the similarities end there. In contrast to Wintersun's highly-produced, keyboard-heavy sound and penchant for musical epics that would be overwrought for anyone except Mäenpää, Winterborn has a raw, solitary-sounding, satisfyingly heavy, guitar-centric feel and consists mostly of shorter, tightly-composed, extremely listenable pieces of metal artistry, with two songs exceeding seven minutes. Opening song "The Hunt" is demonstrative of Saukkonen's ingenuity, beginning with a lonely acoustic guitar that gives way to a towering, double-bass-and-guitar-driven wall of sound that combines black and melodeath metal influences almost as well as In Vain. "Strength and Valour" has similarly satisfying drumming and an intoxicating combination of guitar drones and chugs. See also the slower, doom metallic "Whiteout" and the seven-minute "Routa Pt. 2". It's hard to pin down how this album evokes a deep chill in every note, but it's enough to make me ache for the winter Minnesota isn't getting at the moment. (EDIT: ten days later, I can safely say that Winterborn sounds exactly like it feels outside) Not nearly as flashy as Wintersun (much less Time I), but intriguing and very well-done metal all the same.

Ænigma - In Vain (Progressive black/death metal; Norway, 2013)
This album is a real treasure; I wish I'd discovered In Vain a long time ago. Ænigma pretty much has it all: awesome vocals (all but one of the band lineup is credited for vocals), brilliant songwriting, intelligent and creative lyrics, and top-notch musicianship. They combine their black/death metal influences in such a seamless, intuitive way that they not only make the two styles seem like they were made for each other, they also use them in such a way as to make them sound downright appealing through all their abrasiveness. Black metal screams, death metal growls, and equally good clean vocals likewise coincide in seamless harmony. The clean vocals exemplify how In Vain is constantly willing to nuance their metal sound; their songs explore a wide range, both of emotion and dynamics. Riffs inspired by both black and death metal, furious bass drum assaults, acoustic guitars, a chorus of vocals, and even (on the last song) a saxophone swirl together like elements of a symphony that transcends its individual parts and unites them into an amazing whole. It's as if In Vain has set its sights on pursuing several genres of metal to the fullest and succeeds, not just here but in their previous two albums, which are equally worth checking out. (I may like Mantra even more than Ænigma) This album would definitely have been in my top 5 had I discovered it last year. The whole album is great, but for standout tracks check out the resounding album opener "Against the Grain", "Times of Yore", "Rise Against", and "To the Core".

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