Monday, January 1, 2024

Best of 2023, Part 1: Icon of Sin, Extreme, Texas Hippie Coalition, Burning Witches, Gloryhammer, Angus McSix

This was another surprisingly good music year for me. Perhaps not as strong as 2022, but still solid enough to produce a Best of 2023 list that includes a lot of very familiar faces and a few newcomers:

No. 20. GRYMHEART – HELLISH HUNT: There were several albums competing for this last spot on my list, including solid new efforts from Prong and Spirit Adrift. In the end, though, Grymheart’s debut album was just too much fun to deny. From the first time I stumbled across “Ignis Fatuus,” I knew this was my kind of band – a blend of folk metal, power metal, and extreme metal with some super addictive melodies. The lyrics are, at times, pretty awful, but since the only Hungarian words I know I learned from Alestorm, I really can’t knock them for their English lyrics.

Standout songs: “Ignis Fatuus,” “My Hellish Hunt,” “Fenrir’s Sons,” “Monsters Among Us”

No. 19. CODY PARKS AND THE DIRTY SOUTH – SMOTHERED AND COVERED: If you’ve ever thought you needed a mashup of Pantera’s “Cowboys from Hell” and John Michael Montgomery’s “Grundy County Auction” in your life – and who hasn’t? – this is the collection for you. Honestly, I find Parks’ original stuff a little too much on the bro-country side of things lyrically, but he does very interesting covers. His version of John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind” from 2019 is phenomenal. The star of this collection is “Thunder Cash ’69,” a blending of White Zombie’s “Thunder Kiss ‘65” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” which works way better than it should. He also delivers a solid version of Charlie Daniels’ “Long Haired Country Boy,” though the Every Mother’s Nightmare version is still my favorite hard-rock take on the song. Completing the album is a fairly straight version of Alice In Chains’ “Nutshell” and everyone’s go-to “outlaw” cover, “Ain’t Living Long Like This.” Parks does have an annoying tendency to change lyrics unnecessarily for what seems like cheap shock value (that’s not really shocking these days), but otherwise they’re solid.

Standout songs: “Grundy County Cowboys,” “Thunder Cash ’69,” “Long Haired Country Boy”

No. 18. BURNING WITCHES –THE DARK TOWER: I’ve been a huge fan of Burning Witches since first hearing them five or six years ago. Their throwback ‘80s traditional metal style just hits perfectly for me, and I’ve often jokingly called them Judas Priestess. They might take that just a little far on this record with “World on Fire,” which might as well be Priest’s “Judas Rising,” but it’s still fun. They don’t really shake things up here, but instead do what they do best and deliver a solid collection of throwback metal songs, along with the expected covers – this time Ozzy Osbourne’s “Shot in the Dark” and W.A.S.P.’s “I Wanna Be Somebody.”

Standout songs: “The Dark Tower,” “Renegade,” “World on Fire,” “Arrow of Time,” “Doomed to Die”

No. 17. DARK SIDE OF THE MOON – METAMORPHOSIS: Here’s the first of two entries for vocalist Melissa Bonny on my Best of 2023 list. Her latest project focuses on metal covers of songs from movies, TV, and video games, and some of them are fantastic. “Double Trouble/Lumos! (Hedwig’s Theme),” a blending of music from the Harry Potter movies and the lines of Shakespeare’s famous witches, got a lot of play time for me this year. There’s also a couple of great Tolkien-related covers in “Misty Mountains” from “The Hobbit” and “May It Be” from the Lord of the Rings movies. I wish they had been able to wrangle Marko Hietala to do a verse on “Misty Mountains,” as that would have been incredible, but they did get Charlotte Wessels for “May It Be.” Granted much of this album is mood music, not everyday listening, but it’s interesting and awesome.

Standout songs: “Misty Mountains,” “Double Trouble/Lumos! (Hedwig’s Theme),” “May It Be,” “The Hanging Tree,” “Jenny of Oldstones”

No. 16. ANGUS McSIX – ANGUS McSIX AND THE SWORD OF POWER: The petty is strong with this one. Thomas Winkler changes from the green leather of Angus McFife to the golden armor of Angus McSix and fires a few shots along the way, particularly on lead single “Master of the Universe,” which tells of Angus “drowning in the fire” (the McFife version sacrificed himself in a volcano at the end of Gloryhammer’s last outing) and being reborn “one better.” Drama aside, it’s fun, catchy and feels a little like his old band. 

Winkler also hits a home run with the disco metal tune “Laser Shooting Dinosaur,” about his steed that not coincidentally devours unicorns (the unofficial Gloryhammer mascot). It’s utterly ridiculous in every way, and I just couldn’t get enough of it this year. 

In other areas, though, this album feels a little too much on the generic power metal side musically. It did grow on me quite a bit as the year went on, but I’d still like a little more interesting flavor from what is, essentially, an all-star power metal band. And I do appreciate the small nod to one of my favorite power metal songs ever, Blind Guardian’s “Bright Eyes,” in the bonus track.

Standout songs: “Master of the Universe,” “Sixcalibur,” “Laser Shooting Dinosaur,” “Starlord of the Sixtus Stellar System,” “The Key to Eternity,” “Fireflies of Doom,” “Just a Fool Will Play Tricks on Angus McSix”

No. 15. GLORYHAMMER – RETURN OF THE KINGDOM OF FIFE: These two bands are probably not going to like me connecting them like this, but they’ve meant more to me than a silly band that sings about space wizards probably should, and I’m having trouble separating them. Either one can feel free to smite a fat, ugly goblin named Fred in a future song. Overall, I think Chris Bowes’ songwriting is still strong, but I’m admittedly struggling a little with new vocalist Sozos Michael. I just don’t think he embodies the character as well, and even in the storyline of Return to the Kingdom of Fife, Angus McFife II seems, at times, to be a background character in his own story. There’s a little bit of letdown story-wise in the deus ex machina Star Lords who come down at the end and kill everyone except Angus, who they promote to Star Lord for some reason. (I’m guessing the representative from the Sixtus Solar System didn’t get a vote.) It’s a far cry from the big endings of the last two records that involved destroying the earth and our hero sacrificing himself.

Musically, while still good, it’s probably the least interesting of their records for me. I guess “Sword Lord of the Goblin Horde” really highlights the frustration that kept this record out of my Top 10. It has an outstanding chorus, but when we move the verse, we veer into a less interesting and more generic power metal sound. That said, there are songs that still go very hard on this album. “Brothers of Crail” will stand up with any of their previous albums, “Wasteland Warrior Hoots Patrol” provides an interesting hard rock edge (and a sax solo), and “Holy Flaming Hammer of Unholy Cosmic Frost” is a winner both title-wise and musically. At the end of the day, though, I’m much more likely to pick up Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards or Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex when I need my space wizard fix.

Standout songs: “Holy Flaming Hammer of Unholy Cosmic Frost,” “Wasteland Warrior Hoots Patrol,” “Brothers of Crail,” “Keeper of the Celestial Flame of Abernethy”

No. 14. GHOST HOUNDS – FIRST LAST TIME: When it comes to Southern rock laced with Stevie Ray Vaughan-style blues, Ghost Hounds really don’t do anything that much differently than a lot of other bands, but man do they do it well. When I heard “Last Train to Nowhere” for the first time, I was immediately hooked. It has a fantastic groove, it’s soulful, and I just feel it. Vocalist TrĂ© Nation reminds me a lot of Chris Stapleton in the emotion that he puts into his voice, and the band bounces back and forth from blues to country to near hard rock (and even the odd cover of John Denver’s “Country Roads”) over the course of the 10 songs here, and they do it seamlessly.

Standout songs: “Last Train to Nowhere,” “Dirty Angel,” “Make it Shake,” “Here No More”

No. 13. TEXAS HIPPIE COALITION – THE NAME LIVES ON: This one is probably my favorite album from Texas Hippie Coalition since 2012’s Peacemaker. It really digs back into the Texas and Southern rock origins of the band (not that those ever went away, but they were muted on some efforts). The Name Lives On is entertaining from front to back with some great grooves and swagger. But there are also some standout performances, most notably “I Teach Angels How to Fly,” which finds braggadocious frontman Big Dad Ritch delivering some almost introspective and reflective lyrics – well, at least as close as he’ll probably ever get. Elsewhere on the album, Ritch is his normal cocky self as he tells us to keep his name out of our mouths or that we picked the wrong one to try to push around. This is what I want from Texas Hippie Coalition.

Standout songs: “Hell Hounds,” “I Come from the Dirt,” “License to Kill,” “Keep My Name Out of Your Mouth,” “I Teach Angels How to Fly,” “The Name Lives On”

No. 12. EXTREME – SIX: This album was another grower for me after some initial disappointment. Basically, I thought the album didn’t keep the promise of the incredible first three singles – “Rise,” “#Rebel,” and “Banshee.” Those were all hard-rocking, heavy grooving songs that got me super excited for this release. The rest of the album is a mixed bag, heavy on ballads and with a little experimentation. There’s even one song, “Beautiful Girls,” that I listened to once and never need to hear again in life. (It’s not a Van Halen cover, but rather something that sounds like background music from a T-Mobile commercial.) While those first three songs remain far and away my favorites on the record (“Banshee,” a better Aerosmith song than Tyler and Perry have recorded in ages, being at the top), there’s some good stuff in the latter half of the album, too, including a couple of the ballads. I may gripe that it’s not exactly what I wanted or expected, but I’ll never complain about new music from Extreme.

Standout songs: “Rise,” “#Rebel,” “Banshee,” “The Mask,” “Save Me,” “Hurricane,” “Here’s to the Losers”

No. 11. ICON OF SIN – LEGENDS: Vocalist Raphael Mendes first caught my attention with his spot-on covers of Bruce Dickinson-era Iron Maiden on YouTube. He sounds uncannily like the legendary frontman, so it’s no surprise that his band sounds a lot like a blending of Iron Maiden and Dickinson’s solo work. Normally, the sound-alike nature of it would be a turn off for me, but Icon of Sin really scratches an itch for me that most modern-day Maiden doesn’t. Listening to Legends, I sometimes forget that it’s not Bruce Dickinson belting out these big vocal lines, and musically the gallop is there on some tracks, the heaviness on some, and the big dramatics, too. It’s hard to not like the heavy early Queensryche-meets-Iron Maiden sound of “Night Force” or the epic feel of my current personal favorite “Black Sails and Dark Waters.” Though I suspect Dickinson will deliver something closer to what I’m looking for on his solo album next year, this may be the closest thing we have to the classic Maiden sound right now.

Standout songs: “Cimmerian,” “Night Force,” “In the Mouth of Madness,” “Heart of the Wolf,” “Black Sails and Dark Waters”

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