Thursday, January 3, 2019

Best of 2018: Judas Priest, Machine Head, Burning Witches, Dark Hound, White Wizzard, Amorphis, more

I’ve seen many in the metal community praise last year as one of the best in recent memory. I’m not going to go that far, but it was pretty solid. My personal best of 2018 list features great records from old favorites, a few awesome new discoveries, and even a good record here and there from bands that I haven’t been a huge fan of in the past.

Then there’s that one mammoth record that made the whole year worth it, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Let’s start with the notable records of the year that didn’t crack the Top 10 …

BEST OF 2018 HONORABLE MENTIONS


JUNGLE ROT – JUNGLE ROT: That moment when you realize that you’ve misjudged a band for years because of their name. They categorize themselves as death metal, and with a name like that … well, I knew what I was getting. Or did I? About a month or so ago, the video for “A Burning Cinder” played as a YouTube ad, and instead of going on to the video I wanted to watch, I played it again. And a third time. More thrash than death metal to my ears, this album spent some time in the lower portion of my top 10 before getting pushed out on a tough last-minute decision.

WITHERFALL – A PRELUDE TO SORROW: Witherfall is one of two bands on his Best of 2018 list that I wish I’d discovered with their first releases in a miserable musical 2017. Shadows of Nevermore, King Diamond and something more proggy make this band very interesting, and top-notch technical skills certainly don’t hurt. I don’t think A Prelude to Sorrow is quite as good as their 2017 release Nocturnes and Requiems, which would have easily made my Top 5 if I’d discovered it in time, but it’s still an outstanding record and a tough cut to keep out of the top 10. If I took the two non-metal albums out of my list, both this and Jungle Rot would have been in.

BROTHERS OF METAL – PROPHECY OF RAGNAROK: The barbarian get-ups that this band wears are a bit silly, and the Viking theme a bit overdone in metal. That said, take a hook like the chorus of “Yggdrasil” and just try to get it out of your head. The record is a little campy, but it’s a lot of fun.

CORROSION OF CONFORMITY – NO CROSS NO CROWN: I was happy to see Pepper Keenan back in the fold. I make no bones that the Southern and sludgy version of CoC with Pepper is my favorite. This Best of 2018 entry is solid and enjoyable, but not among their best.

DIMMU BORGIR – EONIAN: I don’t think a lot of Dimmu fans dug this record, but I’ve always preferred the more symphonic stuff. “Progenies of the Great Apocalypse” is my favorite Dimmu Borgir song, so it stands to reason I’d like the material on Eonian more. Not everyday listening for me, but some good atmospheric stuff for the right mood.

And now, on to my Best of 2018 Top 10 …


10. CYPRESS HILL – ELEPHANTS ON ACID: This record didn’t quite deliver on the promise made by its first single, the hard-hitting “Band of Gypsies,” but it still had some great moments. The concept of an hour-long acid trip worked better in theory than in practice, but there are plenty of fun and interesting songs in the mix.


9. FROZEN CROWN – THE FALLEN KING: Once upon a time, I wrote for a site where I was pretty much the guy for power and prog metal. After being bombarded with it constantly for a few years, with the exception of a few select bands, I got nauseous even at the thought of it. Years later, I’m still very picky about it, but occasionally I find something I like. This year, it was Frozen Crown. I stumbled on the song “I Am the Tyrant” and really liked it. The melody was interesting, and I’ve always been a big fan of beauty-and-the-beast vocals, which the band flirts with occasionally. I picked up the record and was pleasantly surprised. It’s not groundbreaking (power metal rarely is), but it’s very well done.


8. SHOOTER JENNINGS – SHOOTER: Putting aside the experimentation and Southern rock that he’s done in recent years, Shooter gets back to his roots on this record of 1980s-inspired honky tonk tunes. Is it the best work that he’s ever done? No. Some of the songs are a bit shallow, and it’s really an unabashed tribute to Hank Williams Jr., but this Best of 2018 honoree is fun, the songs are good, and it’s great to hear Shooter back where he belongs.


7. DEAD DAISIES – BURN IT DOWN: I’ve really dug the last couple of albums by this all-star band. I was a huge fan of the John Corabi-fronted Motley Crue album, and he’s really found a home here with Doug Aldrich, Marco Mendoza and Deen Castronovo. They dabble with some more bluesy sounds in places here, but for the most part, it’s exactly what you expect – unapologetic, take-no-prisoners hard rock ‘n’ roll.


6. AMORPHIS – QUEEN OF TIME: I don’t think Amorphis is capable of disappointing me. Queen of Time doesn’t match their last release Under a Red Cloud, which was my favorite since 2007’s Skyforger, but it’s still awesome. Essentially, Amorphis do what they do: great melodies, memorable hooks, folk sounds and instruments and great compositions. They do it best, and no one can mimic them.


5. WHITE WIZZARD – INFERNAL OVERDRIVE: Thus ends the tumultuous story of a once-promising band. It’s a shame, too, because this is probably the best record they’ve done since 2010’s Over the Top. Bandleader Jon Leon brought vocalist Wyatt Anderson and guitarist James J. LaRue back into the fold to record the album that really got back to what I loved about them in the early days. White Wizzard has been riddled with lineup changes and plagued by issues and rumors over the course of its existence, and Leon decided this was the right note to go out on. If it has to end, it might as well end on a really good record.


4. DARK HOUND – DAWNING: This self-released Nashville band was one of my favorite discoveries of the year. Mixing some of my favorite sounds of late 1980s and early 1990s hard rock with thrash and prog influences, this Best of 2018 entry created a perfect musical storm for me. Dawning was an early favorite and remained in my playlist for most of the year.


3. BURNING WITCHES – HEXENHAMMER: To be honest, I like Burning Witches’ debut, which I also discovered this year, better than their sophomore outing, but there’s nothing remotely bad about either one of them. I stumbled across the Painkiller-era Priest influenced “Executed” on YouTube and immediately picked up both records. I’ve seen them described as Judas Priestess, and I can’t really argue with that assessment. They deliver pure, uncompromising classic metal, and they do it well.


2. MACHINE HEAD – CATHARSIS: Here’s another band that imploded this year with key members leaving to explore other projects. I’m not the biggest of Machine Head fans and don’t really agree with much of frontman Rob Flynn’s worldview, but there was something about this record that really connected with me. The songs here, even when they turn political, often deliver solid messages and encouragement that, with a bit of a filter, almost anyone can get behind. And they’re just good songs.


1. JUDAS PRIEST – FIREPOWER: It should come as no surprise to anyone that this was the mammoth record I talked about earlier. But damn, what an album. I admit that I loved their last outing Redeemer of Souls, but Firepower blows it completely out of the water. My Best of 2018 selection for hard rock and metal sounds like they went into the studio and said, “We’re Judas Fucking Priest, and that’s what we’re going to be. No BS, no experimentation, no concepts. We’re going to make the best damned Judas Priest album that we can.” That’s exactly what they did. There are blazing numbers like “Lightning Strikes,” soaring pieces like personal favorite “The Spectre” and even uplifting messages like “No Surrender,” which the band has turned into an anthem for guitarist Glenn Tipton’s battle with Parkinson’s Disease. This is, far and away, the band’s best release since Painkiller, and far and away the best thing that I heard this year. The other nine albums on this list, while great, are a very distant 2-10. Firepower encapsulates everything that is heavy metal, and if it doesn’t get your blood pumping and your head banging, maybe it’s time to move on to something a little more easy listening.

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