Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Best of 2023, Part 2: In Flames, Avatar, Metallica, Nita Strauss, Overkill

Continuing my list of top 20 albums of 2023:

No. 10. NITA STRAUSS – THE CALL OF THE VOID: The long-time Alice Cooper guitar slinger delivers her second solo album, this time shaking things up with a whole host of guest artists (including the boss), as well as some incredible instrumental pieces. The songs with guest stars do tend to take on the flavor of the guest’s band, but that’s honestly not a problem at all as it brings great variety from the melodic death metal influence of “The Wolf You Feed,” featuring Arch Enemy vocalist Alissa White-Gluz, to the quirky nu metal of “Dead Inside,” featuring David Draiman of Disturbed, to the all-out hard rock of “Victorious,” featuring Dorothy. But it’s not just guest vocalists that Strauss brings on as we get a shredder's dream collab with Marty Friedman on “Surfacing,” to close the record. Call of the Void is a solid album that should appeal not only to guitar fans, but fans of great rock songs.

Standout songs: “Summer Storm,” “The Wolf You Feed,” “Victorious,” “Winner Takes All,” “Kintsugi,” “Surfacing”

No. 9. AYRON JONES – CHRONICLES OF THE KID: I’d heard Ayron Jones a number of times before this record, but the songs I’d heard always struck me as kind of generic blues rock – not bad, but not something that grabbed me. Then I heard lead single “Filthy” from Chronicles of the Kid. There was something different in there, bringing in some hip-hop influence and what struck me as much more of Jones’ personality injected than I’d heard before. Then he rolled out “Blood in the Water,” and I was completely sold. It’s a very emotional and incredibly well-written track that easily was one of my Top 5 most listened songs of the year. There are moments of sheer triumph, moments of sadness, and moments of questioning, particularly on “My America,” which manages to be both critical and patriotic at the same time. I think I need to explore a little more of Ayron Jones’ back catalog and see if I missed more songs like those on Chronicles of the Kid.

Standout songs: “Blood in the Water,” “The Title,” “My America,” “Filthy,” “Get High,” “On Two Feet I Stand”

No. 8. ARCHON ANGEL – II: Some of the best news that I heard in 2023 was that we were likely getting a new Savatage record in 2024. Some of the worst was that, due to a back injury for founder Jon Oliva, we probably weren’t getting it. But at least we have the next best thing in former vocalist Zakk Stevens’ Archon Angel. While this album features a little less of the Savatage sound than their 2020 debut Fallen, there’s still enough here to satisfy me. “Wake of Emptiness” is an epic powerhouse, another favorite song of the year, and they give me some awesome counterpoint vocals on a couple of tunes, which is a must for any Savatage-related project in my mind. In a world where I can’t have Savatage, long live Archon Angel.

Standout songs: “Wake of Emptiness,” “Avenging the Dragon,” “Fortress,” “Quicksand,” “Afterburn,” “Lake of Fire”

No. 7. DELAIN – DARK WATERS: When I heard a version of Delain was getting back together, I thought it was a bad idea. I didn’t think they’d ever be able to replace former vocalist Charlotte Wessels, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t. New singer Diana Leah has every bit of the power and personality, and Dark Waters may have been the surprise of the year for me for that reason. The band picks up right where they left off, bashing out super heavy tunes like “The Quest and the Curse,” alongside some 1980s pop-inspired vocal lines like the choruses of “Mirror of Night” and “Moth to a Flame.” It’s probably a more consistently heavy record than 2020’s Apocalypse and Chill, and I’m always up for a guest appearance from Marko Hietala, which we get here on “Invictus.”

Standout songs: “The Quest and the Curse,” “Beneath,” “Mirror of Night,” “The Cold,” “Moth to a Flame,” “Invictus”

No. 6. WINGER – SEVEN: If Delain wasn’t the surprise of the year, this one certainly was. Winger is probably one of the most maligned bands to come out of the late 1980s. Due in no small part to MTV’s “Beavis and Butthead,” they became one of the bands often held up as an example of what was wrong with the era, despite the fact that they’re a group of talented guys. That said, I really hadn’t paid that much attention to them since 1993’s Pull and had no idea they had seven albums. Then I clicked on the first single “Proud Desperado” and was impressed by a sound that was a little grittier than I remembered. That follows through much of this record on songs like the slinky “Voodoo Fire” or the hard-hitting “Stick the Knife in and Twist.” There are times when they slip back into the more clean cut sound that I remember from the late ‘80s, even in the songs that do have the grittier sound, but overall this is a Winger that I like much better. And honestly, if there were nothing else of note on the album, the emotional “Tears of Blood” would make it worth the price.

Standout songs: “Proud Desperado,” “Heaven’s Falling,” “Tears of Blood,” “Voodoo Fire,” “Stick the Knife in and Twist,” “One Light to Burn”

No. 5. AD INFINITUM – CHAPTER III – DOWNFALL: Here’s Melissa Bonny’s second appearance on my list. She’s been a regular for a few years, but she’s an outstanding talent, and the projects she gets involved with just all seem to be top notch. This third album from the symphonic metal outfit Ad Infinitum delivers exactly what we came to expect with the first two. It’s a perfect blend of often djent-like heaviness with beautiful melodic passages. And Bonny’s vocals are on point as always, whether she’s performing the part of the beauty or the beast. From the bouncy pop flavor of “Upside Down” to the dark and mysterious hooks of “Seth” and “Ravenous,” Chapter III contains some of their best work to date.

Standout songs: “Eternal Rains,” “Upside Down,” “Seth,” “From the Ashes,” “The Underworld,” “Ravenous,” “Architect of Paradise,” “The Serpent’s Downfall”

No. 4. OVERKILL – SCORCHED: When it comes to classic thrash bands, there’s probably not one that’s been more consistent over the years than Overkill. While their contemporaries played around with genres like alternative, grunge, nu metal and industrial, Overkill kept doing Overkill things. That’s both good and bad. While it did keep them consistent, it also kept them a little flat and same-sounding at times. There’s a little of that on Scorched, but more often we get what I consider Overkill at its best – when they incorporate a little more melody and a few big hooks into what they do. I feel that here on things like the strutting verse of “Wicked Place” and the almost funky groove of “Bag o’ Bones.” Pick any random song on this album, and if you’re familiar with Overkill, you’ll instantly know who it is, but there’s also enough variety and even a few earworms to make you want to come back to it over and over.

Standout songs: “Scorched,” “Goin’ Home,” “The Surgeon,” “Twist of the Wick,” “Wicked Place," “Won’t be Comin’ Back,” “Know Her Name,” “Bag o’ Bones”

No. 3. METALLICA – 72 SEASONS: As always, a new Metallica album is a polarizing event. There’s a group of fans who loves everything they do. There’s another group of fans who hates almost everything they’ve done since 1988. Then there are those of us caught between those two groups who have accepted that the band will never return to those 1980s thrash roots but are willing to approach what they’re doing with an open mind. I’ve liked a good bit of what Metallica has put out since 2008’s Death Magnetic … and disliked a lot of it, too. I’m also on record as not hating St. Anger. But 72 Seasons, I think, is the best material they’ve released in at least 30 years. There are elements of pretty much everything they’ve done, good and bad.

No, you won’t find any straight-up ‘80s thrashers, though “Shadows Follow” comes close, and with a rawer mix, I’m confident “Lux Aeterna” would fit right in on Kill ‘Em All, but there are flashes of that thrash sound woven in, like the galloping “Motorbreath”-esque verse of “Room of Mirrors.” There’s also a heavy Sabbath influence that comes through on songs like “You Must Burn!” and “Inamorata,” and even, yes some grungy feel on “Crown of Barbed Wire.” I’ll admit that this record didn’t hold up to my initial excitement over it. Some of the songs faded a little over the year and repeated listens, but I still think it’s a great album with very few skips.

Standout songs: “72 Seasons,” “Shadows Follow,” “Screaming Suicide,” “You Must Burn!,” “Lux Aeterna,” “Crown of Barbed Wire,” “If Darkness Had a Son,” “Too Far Gone?”

No. 2. AVATAR – DANCE DEVIL DANCE: Here’s perhaps the least surprising entry on my list, only surprising perhaps in that it’s not No. 1. I’ve got nothing at all bad to say about Avatar. I love the way that they blend influences and sounds to produce some lively and unexpected songs, and they’re one of the best live acts going right now. On Dance Devil Dance, you’ve got everything from death metal to doo wop, both in the same song in at least one instance (“Train.”) There’s the slinky title track which blends heaviness with some classic ‘80s metal sounds, including a Rob Halford-like vocal delivery from Johannes Eckerstrom (the band’s definitely-not-secret weapon) on the chorus.

Then there’s “Chimp Mosh Pit,” which brings to mind a heavier version of early Jane’s Addiction. “Gotta Wanna Riot” gives subtle nods to, of all things, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ “Wooly Bully.” Then there’s the centerpiece, probably my most listened song of the last year, the disco glam rocker “The Dirt I’m Buried In.” It’s not often when the most popular song on an album is also my favorite, but this is the rare exception, an incredibly catchy earworm that just won’t go away and doesn’t get old.

Standout songs: “Dance Devil Dance,” “Chimp Mosh Pit,” “Valley of Disease,” “On the Beach,” “Do You Feel in Control?,” “Gotta Wanna Riot,” “The Dirt I’m Buried In,” “Hazmat Suit,” “Train”

No. 1. IN FLAMES – FOREGONE: I knew when this was released back in February, it would end up being high on my list. I didn’t think it would be my favorite, but it stuck with me more than any other album this year, and I just kept returning to it over and over. The band has gone through a lot of evolutions over the past 30 years, evolving from death metal to things that barely resembled metal and in no way, shape, or form death metal. Though there have been flashes here and there over the last 20 years, 2002’s Reroute to Remain was probably the last record that I’d consider really good – until this one. Is it the second coming of 2000’s Clayman? Nope. But it is the launch of an intriguing and enjoyable new chapter in the band’s sound. There are elements of their early heaviness throughout the record, but they’re blended with some of the more melodic stylings that have been the norm over the last 20 years or so. And it just works.

Almost every song on the record delivers a great heavy guitar riff, even lighter fare like “Pure Light of Mind” or “Cynosure,” (which also features an awesome bass line). They bash out a few fast and heavy tunes like “Foregone, Pt. 1” and “The Great Deceiver,” the latter of which shows some nice cheeky humor with the line “Joey was right, this is the final countdown,” a reference to Europe singer Joey Tempest and their most famous hit. But they also have some great hooks that those early records didn’t have, particularly on songs like “State of Slow Decay” and “End the Transmission.” I’m more excited about new music from In Flames right now than I’ve been in a long time, and I hope they continue in this vein.

Standout songs: “State of Slow Decay,” “Meet Your Maker,” “Foregone, Pt. 2,” “The Great Deceiver,” “In the Dark,” “A Dialogue in B Flat Minor,” “Cynosure,” “End the Transmission”

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