Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Year in Review: The Metal Advisor's Songs of 2014

"Dancing on Your Grave" just narrowly missed the list. Darn.
What surprised me most about this list was how tough it was to limit myself to 20 songs. The sheer amount of music that comes across my plate each year is ridiculous--and most of it is wasted time because it isn't worth more than one listen. But once a gem of an album or song reveals itself, that wasted time is quickly forgotten, especially when one has a selection as good as this.

From Babymetal to Lvcifyre, we'll hit a selection of the high points from this year. Without further ado, let's dig into The Metal Advisor's songs of 2014 (in no particular order, of course!).

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1. Babymetal - "紅月-アカツキ" (taken from Babymetal)

If you follow my activity on Twitter, you'll likely remember my rant about Babymetal, and how much I dislike their music. Not unlike glam rock, metalcore, and deathcore, they represent metal in a watered-down state that makes the music easy to consume and quickly digest--which there's nothing inherently wrong with, but it gives those not familiar with the genre the wrong impression of the music.

Fortunately, though, that type of music can act as a gateway to bigger and better things. That's not to say I'm expecting Babymetal's rabid fan base to one day cross the bridge and start spinning Vader's latest record, but for those that do, the trio of adolsecent girls suddenly doesn't seem as ridiculous as once thought.

But to get to the point: if you're familiar with the Japanese power metal scene, you'll know that one of the premiere groups, Versailles, sadly called it quits a few years ago. And although the members pursued other musical endeavors (Jupiter and Kamijo, respectively), neither have accurately captured Versailles' magic. Babymetal, on the other hand, does a fine job of mimicking Versailles with "紅月-アカツキ," and the song has been in rotation more than I care to admit. But I'd be lying if I said it weren't a compositional masterpiece--it's distinctly Versailles in how it progresses from the bombastic opening to the melodious midsection to the fanfare-like ending.



2. Horrendous - "The Stranger" (taken from Ecdysis)

Moody, dark, and brooding, "The Stranger" was the first song of 2014 to send a chill up my spine. Quietly underneath my breath, I muttered, "Who is this band? What are they about? How did they achieve this level of polish on only their second release?" It was just that something so good, in an age where OSDM has grown decidedly cliché, seemed impossible.

I'll admit that, today, genuinely impressing me is tough cookies. Sure, there are plenty of albums I adore and think are excellent (which is evident from reviews on TMA), but to genuinely impress me is hard work and a feeling I rarely enjoy after consuming so much metal over the years. I've more or less heard it all which, depending on how you look at it, is either a good or bad thing.

However--and I place emphasis on however--the hype surrounding Horrendous is very real because the band pushes the envelope with every note they play. "The Stranger" is their most enjoyable attempt at breaking down boundaries to date--it's just special in the way that it softly opens, growing more menacing with each passing second until it explodes into a fury of brazen instrumental prowess and maniacal vocals.



3. Accept - "Dark Side of My Heart" (taken from Blind Rage)

2014 saw Accept make yet another comeback after two critically acclaimed records that reintroduced them to the spotlight. The difference here, however, is that Blind Rage is the best of the trio, focusing on concise songwriting with impressive hooks that debunk the belief that even a small amount of accessibility is a death blow to metal.

Across Accept's far-reaching discography, Blind Rage reminds of mid-eighties rocker Metal Heart, which apparently wasn't well received at the time. But what a difference 30 years can make: Blind Rage reworks the formula, maximizes the heaviness, and puts Accept back on the map--and "Dark Side of My Heart" is a terrific representation of that hard work. Don't be taken aback if the song shows surprisingly similarity to "Up to the Limit."



4. Sabaton - "No Bullets Fly" (taken from Heroes)

As a history buff since an early age who later majored in the subject in college, I eagerly dug into Heroes, blinded by the sheer breadth of the content and stories within. Conceptually, the album is an interesting one, focusing on tales of wartime heroism and generosity, which would otherwise be forgotten in history books. My mistake, though, was that I focused too much on the concept itself and ignored what mattered most--the music.

In short, I hastily proclaimed Heroes as one of my favorite records of the year, only to watch it slide downward until the music did little, if anything, for me. I still maintain that the lineup is the best group of musicians that Sabaton has ever had, but the material is unfortunately lacking in a few key areas; namely drive and creativity. No longer is this the Sabaton who released the involving music of yesteryear. But one track called "No Bullets Fly" still pulls at the heartstrings with a tale of a German aircraft escorting a crippled American bomber back to safe territory. Did I mention that the music is pretty darn good, too?



5. Riot - "Metal Warrior" (taken from Unleash the Fire)

How Riot would function without Mark Reale was a concern for me, as he was always the group's backbone, savior, and creative genius. For over three decades, he guided the band as if it were his child, making pertinent decisions that would affect its well being, and how it developed as a musical institution. Like Dio's passing, Reale's death was a tough one for me to cope with because Riot was--and still is--a favorite of mine and an important band in my development as a music lover.

Much to my initial dismay, Riot pushed forward with a new record without Reale. I cursed the remaining members--Moore and Jarzombek left out of what I can only assume is respect--and feared the worst for the album and the contents held within. Would it actually meet the standards that Reale labored to establish 30+ years ago? Needless to say, I wasn't optimistic about it.

Well, I'm happy to report that I was wrong and very wrong at that, because Unleash the Fire even rivals its predecessor and shows no signs of the band throwing in the towel any time soon. While any song from the record would suffice for this list, I feel "Metal Warrior" is the most appropriate choice because it bridges the gap between older and newer Riot material. And, you know, because it's just wonderful in its own right.




6. Havukruunu - "Jumalten Nimeen" (taken from Usvakuningas)

Although I don't listen to it much, black metal with folk/pagan influences is something I hold in high regard because it adds another dimension to the music. Havukruunu's "Jumalten Nimeen" is no exception, either, because it's unusually accessible for what it is, thanks to a combination of tempo changes and melodic guitar playing.



7. Gargoyle - "Gordian Knot" (taken from  解識 ~Geshiki~)

Enjoyed only in cult circles outside of Japan, Gargoyle is a band that relishes a small, but loyal, following. Their music is often so odd that it defies classification, but what the metal community has settled on--for now, at least--is a tag that does a decent job of pigeonholing their music: progressive thrash metal.

Taken from Gargoyle's 17th studio record, "Gordian Knot" is surprisingly straightforward for the band--it's streamlined in the way that it moves along and discards the many of the idiosyncrasies that have characterized Gargoyle in the past. But is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. I, for one, would love to see the band create an even balance between straightforward and eccentric numbers on future efforts, and "Gordian Knot," in all its speedy glory, is a good indication that they're moving in that direction.




8. Dawnbringer - "Hands of Death" (taken from Night of the Hammer)

While "The Burning of Home" and "One-Eyed Sister" were originally my top picks from Night of the Hammer, "Hands of Death" unexpectedly won out. The song's austere atmosphere and affection for placing dark lyrics into a not-so-dark package is likely what drew me to the music, not to mention the persistent songwriting that makes a plodding formula, well, interesting.

I realize that "Hands of Death" won't be a popular choice, given the amount of ground the rest of Night of the Hammer covers. As I mentioned, one of the opening numbers or "One-Eyed Sister" will be more sensible picks because they're a bit more representative of older Dawnbringer, while "Hands of Death" carves its own niche. Know, however, that Night of the Hammer's bad moments are few, far, and between and, as far as I'm concerned, "Hands of Death" is one of the better ones.



9. Emeth - "Aethyr" (taken from Aethyr)

Emeth came to me in an promo email, which normally gives me pause, as I have no idea what to expect. But I'm happy to say that one of my favorite tracks of the year, "Aethyr," came from that little message in cyberspace and proves yet again why I think the internet is such a valuable resource for promoting music. What I find myself enjoying about the song is the distinctive sound that still holds a technical edge. That can't be said of many brutal death metal bands these days, now can it?

No matter how hard I try, I can't shake "Aethyr" off. It's a song that comes around once in a blue moon, blows you away, and keeps you coming back for seconds, thirds, fourths, and beyond. The vocals; the guitars; the drums--it's all done so well that it would be rude to ask for any more. And really; why would you need to?




10. Chronosphere - "Brutal Decay" (taken from Embracing Oblivion)

Although Embracing Oblivion is too political for my tastes, I have to hand it to Chronosphere--their music opens new doors for thrash metal and injects much needed creativity into the stagnating style of music. Like many Vektor tracks, "Brutal Decay" explores uncharted territory and exhibits precise attention to detail. The seamless mashup of guitar riffs and mad man-like drumming are two, among many, of the song's distinctive qualities.



11. Delain - "Army of Dolls" (taken from The Human Contradiction)

Although "Stardust" inevitably racked up the most plays this year--it is, after all, the sugariest piece of heavy music released in ages--"Army of Dolls" ultimately took the cake by coupling thought-provoking lyrics with a myriad of extraordinary melodic hooks. What's eye opening about the song are the lyrics, which seem to hint at having trouble fitting in due to aesthetic "imperfections." But, then, it challenges one to take a careful look in the mirror--being a sheep and failing to distinguish oneself is very sad, indeed. Never, ever let someone tell you how you should or shouldn't look. What a life lesson!

Of course, the music is excellent, too. Pop with a heavy edge is something that has always been appealing to me, and Delain mates the two flawlessly. In all likelihood, picking a favorite from The Human Contradiction gave me a gray hair or two, so give "Army of Dolls" a close listen, if you haven't already.



12. Galneryus - "The Judgement Day" (taken from Vetelgyus)

There's no arguing that guitar player Syu made Galneryus famous, but without an arsenal of trusty, skilled musicians at his side, the band wouldn't enjoy the level of popularity they do today. In particular, the way in which they perform in unison with each other is impressive, but even more remarkable is that fact that they show no signs of slowing down with Vetelgyus.

Like Delain, I had a hard time choosing a favorite from the track listing--Vetelgyus is majestic and soaring, just as the model power album should be. But, in the end, I went with my gut: "The Judgement Day" was the first song I latched onto from the album, and the emotion the music conveys, from the vivid orchestrated opening to the drum fill which summons the guitar, is a dazzling display of compositional dexterity.




13. Cyntia - "Night Flight" (taken from Limit Break)

Tucked away in an island country called Japan, Cyntia was perhaps one of the biggest surprises of 2014, being comprised of a bunch of glitter girls who can, amazingly, hang with the best of them. I made a bold statement back in July, noting that Cyntia was reinventing the wheel and crafting flawless release after flawless release. And you know what? Months later, I still stand by that statement as Limit Break has held up extremely well to repeated listens.

"Night Flight" is one song that I will never tire of--it's essentially the perfect power metal rocker filled with all sorts of glistening synth lines, flashy guitar solos, and high reaching vocals, particularly in the chorus. Fierce competition from the album's title track made this a tough choice, but "Night Flight" won out in the end--it may very well be my favorite metal song released this year.




14. Benighted - "Slaughter / Suicide" (taken from Carnivore Sublime)

Once you get past the polarizing cover art--regular or special edition--Benighted's Carnivore Sublime is an album packed with exciting songwriting and an assortment of hooks not often seen this side of death metal. Perhaps the neatest aspect of it is its ability to run blindingly fast tempos up against slower, groovier ones, which is exactly what "Slaughter / Suicide" excels at.

To be honest, the struggle between choosing a favorite from Carnivore Sublime proved harder than first thought. "X2Y" and "Slaughter / Suicide" are two of the most entertaining tracks on the record, but the latter eventually emerged victorious, doing more of what I touched on above. The heaviness, hookiness, and varied nature of it is just so rare in death metal--and something we likely won't see again until Benighted's next record.



15. Teramaze - "Bodies of Betrayal" (taken from Esoteric Symbolism)

Unbeknownst to me, Teramaze is band that has quietly avoided the spotlight, which is a disservice to the complex, analytical nature of their music. How they piece together memorable verses and choruses with lengthy arrangements is an intriguing topic for another time, but any group that can make progressive metal sound like the aural equivalent of crack wins brownie points in my book.

For me, "Bodies of Betrayal" quickly became a top choice because the fusion of syncopated riffs and overly clean vocals were, against all odds, a suitable match for one another. Like MindMaze, Seven Kingdoms, and other melodic bands, Teramaze melds heavy sounds and sprawling songwriting with accessibility, which is something relatively common these days, but not on any kind of complex scale.



16. Light Bringer - "Gothel" (taken from Monument)

Sadly enough, Monument is likely Light Bringer's final chapter because, after this year, the band goes on permanent hiatus. That much is evident, too, after taking a listen to the record--the music feels devoid of direction and struggles to gain a footing as it desperately shuffles around incomplete musical ideas.

But the real kicker is that one track feels like a leftover from Scenes of Infinity's writing sessions. "Gothel" is grandiose in how it paints an animated picture with music, and the to-die-for verse melodies are the song's saving grace. Ultimately, it's the perfect example of a superb song from a piss-poor album. What a shame and a terrible way for Light Bringer to go out, if you ask me.



17. Scar Symmetry - "Neuromancers" (taken from The Singularity [Phase I: The Neohumanity])

Scar Symmetry is a band prone to turmoil. In 2008, Älvestam left the group, effectively ending their golden age, and only recently, Kjellgren announced his departure, leaving Scar Symmetry with only one guitarist.

Since Älvestam's exodus, Scar Symmetry has struggled to find an identity in music, but with The Singularity (Phase I: The Neohumanity), the band is finally back on track and determined to rival their first three records. "Neuromancers" isn't the most technical or most musically involving track on the album, but it's surely one of the catchiest. Chugged riffs, a simplistic pre-chorus, and a contrasting chorus make it my current favorite.



18. Lvcifyre - "Sun Eater" (taken from Sun Eater)

Every song list has a track that needs no introduction, and this time around, Lvcifyre is the one. "Sun Eater" is odious. Cryptic. Nefarious. Any amount of dark words could be used to describe it, but at the end of the day, hearing it and labeling are two very different things.

In other words, let the music do the talking.



19. Nervosa - "Death" (taken from Victim of Yourself)

Sloppy and amateur-like, "Death" does a wonderful job of capturing what made many classic thrash metal bands so great. Without a care in the world, the music pummels riff after riff and bludgeons with incredibly stiff, and rigid, drumming. There's a part of me that thinks Nervosa intentionally designed their music with this in mind and are just really good at putting on an entertaining show. But another part of me sees their performance as genuine because the whole album is played in the same fashion, and anyone with even half a musical brain wouldn't let "Death's" dreadful guitar solo pass through quality control.

I like "Death" because it's honest in presentation and aspires to be only what Nervosa wants it to be. There's no idol worship or unabashed imitation here; it's a breath of fresh air and a slap in the face to detractors of contemporary thrash metal.



20. Schizoid Lloyd - "Suicide Penguin" (taken from The Last Note in God's Magnum Opus)

Sounding like Queen meets Uriah Heep meets Frank Zappa (with some Tiny Tim, for good measure!), Schizoid Lloyd is truly a unique interpretation of avant-garde metal. I wouldn't say I'm completely enamored with their music, but it's different enough that I made it a point to include "Suicide Penguin" on this list. What's been done to dramatize heavy metal is positively mind blowing, and the theatric presentation makes the song enthralling in a way that can't be said of most of the genre's music.



-TMA

8 comments:

  1. Wow, interesting list for sure, so many things I'm going to have to look into. I will say, despite not having written about Babymetal and sort of politely ignoring them, their music is basically just metal-ed up jpop/kpop and that's not the worst thing in the world, certainly not deserving of the hate its getting (or the attention either).

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    1. Yes, please do! I'd love to hear your thoughts on some of this music, particularly Schizoid Lloyd. The guitar playing in the Babymetal song I chose really reminds me of Versailles, especially in the midsection.

      I'm bit surprised you haven't delved into the current Japanese power metal scene. There's so much to choose from: Versailles, Megaromania, Demetori, Crow'sClaw, Galneryus, Cyntia, Aldious, Light Bringer, Jupiter, and Art of Gradation. And I could keep going!

      P.S. Your list was a source of inspiration for mine. I've never done a song list before, only best albums of the year, so thanks!

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  2. Yeah I'm unfamiliar with the Japanese power metal scene, do many of the bands write in English or it is entirely a Japanese language affair? I'm sure I'd dig their sense of musicality. Have no idea where to start really .... alot of international scenes are like that, such as India's metal scene for example. I might have to talk to the Metal Wani people to see if they can help me there.

    Yeah I found that first year that doing only the albums list was a bit limiting and frustrating. Songs lists allow you a little more flexibility in deciding to eliminate certain albums that just don't belong in your year end best albums list even though they had that one really awesome track. Its also just fun to list stuff hah (but also double the work.)

    I feel so exhausted now having done both, it required a ton of re-listening and of course writing. I'm not sure what to write next ---- taking a couple day metal break over Christmas to recharge !

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    1. Some write in English, but most are in Japanese or an English/Japanese combo, which isn't uncommon for Japanese and South Korean bands. I would start with Galneryus. Syu is an incredible guitar player and, at this point, they have a very nice catalog of music to dig into.

      I still need to give your albums list a close look! I imagine that ours will both be very different, but I'm always happy to check out more music. Cheers!

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  3. Nice list. Lots I haven't heard. I'll definitely be checking out Gargoyle, Chronosphere, and Schizoid Lloyd.

    Glad to see Teramaze made the cut. Tough to pick just one favorite track from that album. I'd have gone with 'Parallels/Dual Reality' ;)

    Did you hear Lost Society's 'Attaxic' by any chance? Absolute ripper of a thrash song. A shame the album loses steam after the first half.

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    1. Teramaze was your recommendation of the year for me. Very enjoyable music, but I tend to agree that the album is a bit lengthy. As for Chronosphere, "Brutal Decay" isn't necessarily my favorite on Embracing Oblivion but it was a good fit for this list. Same goes for Gargoyle. Both bands put out fantastic albums.

      I've not heard Lost Society, but they're on my list. Same goes for another thrash band called Foreseen. The record they released this year is supposedly excellent.

      Cheers, Eric! Always happy to see you comment.

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  4. I always liked Nervosa's 'Death' but outside of that track most of the songs sort of didn't do it for me. I think its because a good deal of their stuff is sort of shallow or way too repetitive in the end.

    I've actually heard the entire Babymetal CD and its OK, at best I suppose. Oddly enough, the tracks where they don't deviate into rap or dubstep are the best - but it all oddly feels like it was written as fast as possible by a array of different people with different visions. Then I looked into it to find that Babymetal is actually a fabricated company assembled band - by Amuse Inc. The artists behind it had no merit or care except to create a huge stur in order to get publicity and promote sales for their WAY overpriced merchandise ($40 for the jewel-case no-frills CD and 69 for the special edition). So, as I was starting to accept them - I found another good reason to just not bother.

    I hope your New Year is great though, love the list!

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    1. Nervosa's album is fairly hit or miss, but there are a few gems here and there.

      I've also heard the Babymetal CD--for lack of a better word, it's trash. Babymetal is like some J-pop groups and many K-pop groups; meaning assembled, mass produced, and made for money. No surprise. But the one neat thing is that the musicians come from real metal bands like Blood Stain Child.

      You have a more open mind than most toward Babymetal, to be honest.

      Hope your New Year is going great as well. I'll be posting my albums list soon.

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