Friday, January 10, 2020

Best of 2019: Gloryhammer, Soilwork, Beast in Black, Tom Keifer, Sturgill Simpson and more

There’s a contingent of metal fans who think the music should always be uber-serious and without any trace of humor. I don’t agree with those folks, and really never have, but I do get it. Many of us were drawn to metal from places of anger, pain or isolation, and we found solace in knowing that there were others feeling the same things.

As I’ve gotten older, I have gained a much greater appreciation for things that just make me happy. There’s enough going on in the world to validate my anger and sadness these days, and more often than not when I turn to music, I want to get away from that.

When Kirk Hammett and Rob Trujillo were getting bashed mercilessly by some fans this year for taking a couple of minutes of each Metallica show to have some goofy fun by performing absolutely awful covers of songs that had some significance to the town they were playing, I was watching the YouTube videos and laughing along with them. I was happy to see them having fun and not taking things too seriously.

For the same reason, Nanowar of Steel’s completely ridiculous IKEA-ad Christmas tune “Valhallelujah” sits right next to Parkway Drive’s “Wishing Wells,” a violent and raging tale of coping with grief, on my list of Best of 2019 list. (And, yes, I know the Parkway Drive song wasn’t actually released in 2019, but more on that later).

So, if there’s a theme to my list of favorite albums of the past year, you’ll see that it’s not necessarily complex and serious musicianship that won me over in 2019, but rather the ability to make me smile and take me to another place for a few minutes.


PARKWAY DRIVE – REVERENCE: I was a fan of the early wave of metalcore in the late ’90s and early ‘00s with bands like Shadows Fall and God Forbid, but the style quickly got stale for me. These days, I tend to discount most anything tagged with the label automatically, so Parkway Drive was not on my radar until late January. We were listening to Sirius/XM on our four-hour drive back from a concert in Dallas that had been my son’s Christmas gift when I heard “The Void” on Octane (his channel of choice). I thought it was kind of cool with a Metallica vibe. A couple of hours later, they played “Wishing Wells” on Liquid Metal, and the song just punched me in the gut. When I got home, I grabbed Reverence, and it remained a staple of my listening all year. It has the perfect balance of raging heaviness mixed with memorable melodies and riffs that just does it for me. It’s one of my most listened records this year, and if I had heard it when it was released in 2018, it would have easily been a Top 5 pick.

Now on to things actually released in 2019 …

10. SPIRITS OF FIRE – SPIRITS OF FIRE: I honestly thought this album would end up higher on my Best of 2019 list. I’ve always been a fan of Tim Owens, and Savatage is one of my favorite bands of all time, so it was going to be hard for a project with Owens on vocals and Chris Caffery on guitar to miss. Lead single “Light Speed Marching,” a Judas Priest-influenced banger got me pumped for the album. The finished product, while solid, would have benefited from a more dynamic and lively mix. While it didn’t meet the admittedly high bar that I had set in my mind, it’s still a very good album that, as I expected, mixed elements of Savatage with Owens-era Priest. I sincerely hope this project continues because I want to hear more.

9. WIND ROSE – WINTERSAGA: I’ve had only a marginal interest in Wind Rose on past albums. I’d thought they were kind of interesting, but they never grabbed my attention. The gimmick, in case you don’t know, is dwarven metal – like beards, axes and mines Tolkien dwarves. Their cover of YouTube/Minecraft song “Diggy Diggy Hole” really set the tone for this outing. Its undeniably infectious melodies wouldn’t let go. Admittedly, I’m still not huge on a couple of the more epic numbers on the record, but more light-hearted and catchy tracks like “Drunken Dwaves,” and “Mine Mine Mine!” are just too much fun to deny.

8. IN FLAMES – I, THE MASK: It’s been a long time since I had any interest at all in In Flames. That was, until they released the single “I Am Above,” which was the best thing I’d heard from them in years. With the exception of the absolutely dreadful “(This is Our) House,” the songs that followed leading up to the release of the album were also intriguing. Granted, I only like about half of I, The Mask, with the other half being more inline with their more mainstream sound of recent years. But I really, really like that half of the album. Songs like the title track, “Burn” and “Deep Inside” hit the right balance between their melodic death past and their later sound.

7. JINJER – MICRO / MACRO: Yes, this is two releases, but since both were 2019, I’m going to count them as one for purposes of this Best of 2019 list. Like a whole lot of people, I discovered Jinjer from their incredible performance video of “Pisces.” While I don’t think there’s anything as strong as that song on either of these releases, they continue to impress me with their blend of heaviness, melody and quirkiness. They can djent with the best of them, but also weave in elements of jazz, hip-hop and even reggae, and vocalist Tatiana Shmaylyuk wins in all phases, whether it’s sultry cleans, fiery rock vocals or guttural roars.

6. STURGILL SIMPSON – SOUND & FURY: After Sturgill Simpson’s critically acclaimed, but somewhat strange A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, I had hoped for a bit of a return to his country roots. This album is anything but. While Sailor’s Guide was mostly a miss for me, Sound & Fury definitely is not. An homage to classic ZZ Top and general 1970s-inspired weirdness, this album is by no means any less bizarre than his previous outing, but it’s a whole lot more fun – and you’ll remember that’s the theme of my list. The album rocks from front to back, and while it’s not country by any stretch of the imagination, I’ll take it.

5. TOM KEIFER – RISE: It’s been a long wait for new music from Tom Keifer, but worth it. While his previous solo release, 2013’s The Way Life Goes, had for the most part, a hopeful outlook, Rise seems more of a darker and defiant record in many ways. That starts with opening single “The Death of Me,” a goth-tinged middle finger of a song that relies heavily on his Cinderella roots musically, but updates the sound. The record also showcases some of his best songwriting, particularly on the title track, a favorite. There are some questionable choices in production. The songs are, at times, over-drenched in effects, including Keifer’s vocals – most notably “Touching the Divine,” which I think would have been much stronger left to stand on its own as a straight rock song. Still, Keifer proves himself once again as one of the most underrated talents in rock.

4. BLOODY HAMMERS – THE SUMMONING: Here’s another act that’s been hovering around the edge of my radar for a few years but put themselves front and center in 2019. The gothic-horror rock duo’s latest outing hit all the right notes for me, playing on influences from the likes of Type O Negative, the Misfits and even Johnny Cash. The sinister-yet-oddly soothing vocals of Anders Manga are the rightful centerpiece of everything the band does. The Summoning is a dark and atmospheric record, but at the same time filled with catchy riffs and great hooks that make it a perfect record for both an introspective mood or for blasting while heading down the highway.

3. BEAST IN BLACK – FROM HELL WITH LOVE: How much fun can an old 40-something metalhead have with one album? Beast in Black answered that question for me with a collection of songs that speak directly to me in so many ways. From Hell with Love backs up a truckload of cheese from both the over-the-top power-metal genre and the 1980s pop of my childhood, and dumps it right over the top of some killer riffs and hooks. This record brightened my year and received a high number of headbangs and sing-along moments, but not quite the most on my Best of 2019 list.

2. SOILWORK – VERKLIGHETEN: I’ve always been a fan of Soilwork and the way that they have mostly been able to evolve without sacrificing their roots in heavier music. Verkligheten takes that to a new level as one of the most varied records they’ve ever done. The tracks range from very melodic mainstream rock tunes like “Stalfagel” to pummeling reminders of their melodic death metal past like “When the Universe Spoke,” and hits all points in between. Each song seems to bring its own feel and style but in the end, there’s no doubt that it’s all Soilwork. And, hey, a year-end list that includes albums by both Soilwork and an In Flames? Party like it’s 2002.

1. GLORYHAMMER – LEGENDS FROM BEYOND THE GALACTIC TERRORVORTEX: This one should come as no surprise. Can I just go ahead and reserve the top spot on my list in any year that a Christopher Bowes project releases a new album? Over the last decade or so, no one has entertained me more consistently with completely over-the-top silliness packaged in solid metal chops. It was no shock when Spotify informed me that “Hootsforce” was my most-played song of the year. It was also my most sung-at-the-top-of-my-lungs tune, followed very closely by a few others on this record. The songs from the third battle between our hero Angus McFife and the evil wizard Zargothrax never failed to put a smile on my face, even on some of the most depressing days of the past year. You can’t really put a price on a piece of music that always has the ability to bring you joy when you need it most, but you can name it my favorite album of the year. Hoots!

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