Thursday, January 4, 2018

Best of 2017: Alestorm, Hellbound Glory, White Light Cemetery, Bob Wayne, Savage Messiah

It was, honestly, a pretty lousy year for music to my ears. Not a lot grabbed my attention and even less held it. So, rather than puff up two or three albums that I didn't feel were all that great to round out a Top 10, I've opted to keep it to five and cut a couple that I do feel are deserving.

5. Savage Messiah, Hands of Fate. This spot was by far the toughest call on the list, and I wavered for a good long while between this one and albums from Firewind and Alice Cooper. In the end, though, Savage Messiah just spoke to me more. On previous outings, the band has leaned more toward speed metal and thrash, but Hands of Fate is the kind of fantastic, old school, straight-up heavy metal album that we don’t get much anymore. At the same time, though, it doesn’t sound like a dated imitation of bands that have come before. It’s full of awesome riffs and great hooks, and if the title track doesn’t get your head banging, it may be time to hang up the horns.

4. Bob Wayne, Bad Hombre. Since getting back to his DIY roots after a failed experiment with metal label Century Media, Wayne has been on top of his game. His last record, Back to the Camper, featured some of his best songwriting ever. This outing is a mix of everything that we love from Bob Wayne. There are the wild and outlandish tunes, like his funny look at the consequences of a bender “Hell Yeah," pot anthem “420 Bound” and just plain rowdy “Kiss My Ass, God Bless the USA.” But the songwriting from the last album is also still there in songs like the gritty “Devil’s Backbone,” the dark “Hangin’ Tree” and haunting “Fairground in the Sky,” one of my favorite Wayne tunes ever. Somewhere in between sits a song like the murder ballad “The Last Breath You Take,” with its mix of black humor and real emotion. Though he's well into his career, Wayne seems to only be improving as a songwriter. Plus, you’ve got to love a guy that can rhyme coup d’etat and yee-haw, right?

3. White Light Cemetery, Careful What You Wish For. I first ran across my fellow Louisiana natives White Light Cemetery opening for outlaw country artist Jackson Taylor, and they quickly became one of my favorite discoveries of recent years. This was easily one of my most anticipated albums of the year (of the last couple, actually, since it took a while to arrive), and it did not disappoint in the least. The band mixes heavy Sabbath-inspired riffing (to the point of making you wonder if they might owe royalties on a tune like “Looking Out (For Number One)”) with the sludge of the Louisiana swamps, some old-fashioned hard rock attitude and a little purely Southern boogie. It’s a potent combination. There’s nothing fancy in White Light Cemetery’s sound -- simple riffs, catchy melodies and honest lyrics -- but songs like “Sky River,” “On a Dime” and “Bullet to Erase” should have any red-blooded Southern metal head grooving along. Sadly, this may be the last music from WLC, as I discovered recently that the band has apparently broken up. If so, at least we got two fantastic records out of them.

2. Hellbound Glory, Pinball. The second spot on my list was another tough call. White Light Cemetery held it most of the year, but then Leroy Virgil put out, arguably, his best record with Pinball. The songs here are gritty, dark, humorous and poignant, all at the same time. Virgil’s lyrics may be rough, often profane and packed with drug references, but they're also honest and earnest. I maintain that he’s one of the true poets of country music today. He has a way of capturing the plight of the downtrodden, addicted and hopeless without making his records a depressing slog through dirges. Take songs like the badass Southern rocker “Hellbound Blues” or the almost love song “Vandalism Spree.” They’re fun songs with great melodies that will put a grin on your face, but at the same time, they leave you a little uneasy with the understanding that the subjects of the song are putting a happy face on a very real struggle. The band bounces around genres from traditional country to heavy Southern rock to even some classic early rock 'n' roll, but it all fits together in the end for something that's certainly the equal of 2010's Old Highs and New Lows, if not its better.

1. Alestorm, No Grave but the Sea. There’s really been no doubt in my mind since the day this record came out that it would eventually be my No. 1 album of the year. Christopher Bowes has yet to disappoint me, and this may be Alestorm’s best all-around effort. The pirate schtick makes for goofy, big-grin-on-your face enjoyment, but it’s backed up with some solid metal chops. While there are standout songs like the title track, the epic “Treasure Island” and the vulgar earworm “Fucked with an Anchor,” there’s really not a miss or piece of filler on this record from start to finish. It was a shining light in a fairly dark musical year for me.

A few that didn’t make the cut:
Alice Cooper, Paranormal.
Had I included a No. 6, this would have been it, if only for “Fallen in Love,” the groovy collaboration with Billy Gibbons. This is a solid record pinned in Cooper’s garage rock roots and featuring his first work with the original Alice Cooper band in decades.

Firewind, Immortals. Another deserving album that got the axe in a list of five, this one plays on the power metal band’s Greek roots with a concept that provides kind of a history and mythology lesson on the Spartans. It’s a bit more varied than some of their previous work with some great hooks.

Living Colour, Shade. There were some great songs on this album, the funky “Who’s That” being a favorite, but the record just didn’t stick with me as a whole.

Santa Cruz, Bad Blood Rising. This is a nice little blast of updated ’80s rock out of Finland, and had the entire record been like the opening track “Young Blood Rising” (basically a new-generation version of Skid Row’s “Youth Gone Wild”), it would have easily made my top five. Unfortunately, the band gets lost in too many ballads, an unhealthy fascination with River Phoenix and at least one completely out of character and out of place political injection that bring down the four or five really solid songs.

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