Brief interlude #1... Gig of the yearBefore moving on to albums, I have to mention my favourite gig of the year- Machine Head at the Studio, Auckland, on 18 June. It’s been a slightly quiet year on the gig front to this point – having missed a bunch of shows while I was overseas in Feb/March. That’s almost a good thing, because Machine Head were so unbelievably excellent, they ruined other live shows for me for a brief period. I still struggle to articulate why this gig was so good – but it was. Relentlessly ferocious, intense and evocative, an outstanding setlist comprising their greatest moments and assorted random gems, a band who have mastered their live craft throwing absolutely everything into it, and a sold out crowd of devoted fans giving it right back. Even that doesn’t capture the sheer transcendence of the show. It was one of those shows you walk out of slightly dazed, and still shaking your head the next day (and the day after that) wondering how the hell it managed to be so insanely good. I still haven’t figured that out. I have never seen a show like it before; I would be bloody lucky to see one on par with it again.
Machine Head took a big risk going solo with their “…An Evening With” tour, in smaller venues, but by all accounts it has paid off for them big time. Routinely sold-out shows, and consistently outstanding performances – in my mind there is very little disputing the fact that they are the greatest live band in the world today. We got to meet them before the show and they are all bloody good guys as well!
Brief interlude #2... 5 Favourite Songs of the year
And in another brief interlude, my 5 favourite songs of the year:
1. Metal Allegiance (feat. Mark Osegueda) – Pledge of Allegiance
2. Clutch – Firebirds
3. Armored Saint – Win Hands Down
4. Stoneghost – The Sound Remains
5. The Atomic Bitchwax – Fuckface
The Main Event: The Top XV albums of the year...
15. Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship OctaviusA record that I only discovered courtesy of a linkage to one of my favourite (ex) bands, Nevermore. Drummer Van Williams joined up with some new buddies for what is best described as heavy, progressive metal.
14. Act of Defiance – The Birth and the BurialI was disappointed to see Chris Broderick and Shawn Drover leave Megadeth – I personally considered the Mustaine/Ellefson/Broderick/Drover line-up to be one of Megadeth’s strongest. That was mitigated when they announced they were forming Act of Defiance with a couple of colleagues. Their debut record is a pretty impressive effort, which I’d describe as new-school thrash metal.
13. The Winery Dogs – Hot StreakSeriously, Mike Portnoy could be the hardest working guy in music. Does the guy ever sleep? The Winery Dogs' second album is a step up from their first, taking similar rock, soul and progressive influences and tightening up the songwriting.
12. Blackalicious – Imani, Vol. 1It’s good to have these guys back in the game, ten years after they released The Craft. Chief Xcel’s production is slicker than ever, and Gift of Gab is still well worthy of the name. A very, consistent record, with Blacka and Alpha And Omega both being instant classics.
11. Faith No More – Sol InvictusPersonally, I don’t enjoy this album as much as some of Faith No More’s older records, but I sure as hell respect it. The music world is a far better place for having bold bands like FNM making different and unusual musical statements – Sol Invictus is exactly that. I can’t claim to love every song on here – but I love what it stands for.
10. High on Fire – LuminiferousThe modus operandi this time around for High on Fire seems to be all-out savage. There’s something really primal and Motorhead when they do this and Matt Pike’s throaty roar fits the style perfectly. Raw and energising.
9. Sevendust – Kill the FlawSevendust’s consistency, longevity and dedication to their craft is something very few bands have. Time after time these guys put out solid albums and work their backsides off touring them. Kill the Flaw is a strong record, perhaps not quite their very best, but still worthy of a place in the Sevendust pantheon. What shines about this record is that, not only do they throw out the now-expected absolute crusher or two (in this case, Torched, Silly Beast and Kill the Flaw), but they also deliver some really crunching mid-tempo numbers (Death Dance, Not Today) in a way that I haven’t really heard since Home.
8. Symphony X – UnderworldFollowing up the brilliant Iconoclast was always a tough ask – an album that married Symphony X’s general propensity for epic concept records with a new-found heaviness to their previously more progressive sound. Underworld continues in the same direction – potentially further polarising fans of the band’s older sound – and it’s another very good album. Some huge epics and great melodic contrasts – and it wouldn’t be a Symphony X record without some insane guitar from Michael Romeo.
7. The Atomic Bitchwax - GravitronI’ve been acquainted with this band for a while but it wasn’t until this, their sixth album, that I actually took any real notice. It’s a gloriously swaggering hard rock album, filled with the same sort of irreverent exuberance that brought me to love Orange Goblin’s Back from the Abyss, or Rose Hill Drive’s Americana in recent times. And thank god, someone finally remembered the long lost art of the hard rock instrumental – not once, but twice in this case, on Fuckface and War Claw.
6. Stoneghost – New Age of Old WaysThe debut effort from London-based Stoneghost caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, it hits hard, really hard – thanks to some mega-riffs and a singer who knows just when to ramp it up from ‘mildly aggressive’ to ‘absolutely f%$king nuts’. Secondly, while influences from the likes of Lamb of God and Mastodon are immediately apparent, Stoneghost have combined those with a raw – almost happy – energy that gives most of their songs a surprisingly bouncy feel. Bouncing around in a padded room, perhaps, but bouncy nevertheless. Check out The Sound Remains for a shining example.
5. Tremonti - CauterizeMark Tremonti’s first solo album was a huge surprise – a guy I only really knew as the guitarist from Alter Bridge, and formerly Creed, delivered one of the albums of 2012, with some huge riffs, amazing solos, and above all, great songs. And while Cauterize delivers the phenomenal guitar work you would expect from a guy who is arguably the best guitarist on the planet post-2000, it’s also a huge step up in the songwriting department from the first album, marrying those bruising riffs with some great melodies. Tracks like Radical Change and Another Heart have a thrashier vibe, while the harmony shines strongly on Cauterize and Providence, and Flying Monkeys is probably the highlight with its surreal stomp.
4. Iron Maiden – The Book of SoulsThere’s just something indomitable about this legendary band. Over 30 years into their career, and with absolutely nothing to prove, they release a double-CD epic featuring the two longest songs they’ve ever written, despite society’s attention span being at an all-time low. If that wasn’t enough, they announce a new world tour, with a 747-400 filling the role of Ed Force One to carry them around the world, and singer Bruce Dickinson is getting an upgraded pilot’s license to fill the thing, having recently beaten throat cancer. At this point I’m prepared to say that Maiden have gone beyond legendary status – they are absolute metal heroes.
I was sceptical that Book of Souls could turn out to be over-indulgent, but two of the album’s longer tracks (If Eternity Should Fail and The Red and the Black) are huge highlights, and the 18-minute (!) closing track Empire of the Clouds is utterly mesmerising and could well be the greatest Maiden epic of them all. There are probably a few tracks on the Book of Souls that could classify as filler, but when it hits such incredible highs, that really doesn’t matter a lot.
3. Metal Allegiance – Metal AllegianceEven the staunchest metalhead could hardly contain their excitement when the core Metal Allegiance group of Alex Skolnick (Testament), Dave Ellefson (Megadeth), Mark Menghi and Mike Portnoy announced plans for an album. When guest names like Phil Anselmo, Mark Osegueda, Phil Demmel, Charlie Benante, Chuck Billy and Randy Blythe also get thrown into the equation, followed up by a couple of absolutely blazing singles, well frankly the whole scenario becomes insane (in a very good way).
Metal Allegiance’s debut album doesn’t disappoint, with some absolutely killer tracks and fantastic playing throughout. Although the vocalists were chosen after the songs were written, they all seem to be eerily good fits for the tracks they appear on – Chuck Billy’s powerful rasp is perfect for the fist-to-the-face thrash assault of Can’t Kill the Devil, Mark Osegueda owns the vicious, hyperactive Pledge of Allegiance and it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Phil Anselmo on the explosive, Southern-flavoured Dying Song.Personally I’d love to see more of these collective efforts from the likes of Kings of Chaos, because – done well – the results are pretty stunning.
2. Armored Saint – Win Hands DownAh, the roundabout ways that one discovers bands. I have my recent Anthrax obsession to thank for the discovery of Armored Saint – that introduced me to John Bush, whose voice is sheer, unadulterated rock through and through (for the record, I like both the Bush and Joey Belladonna eras of Anthrax – they both have their merits). Next thing I know, there’s a new Armored Saint album out, with Bush at the helm, and upon investigation it turns out to be as good an expression of no gimmicks, no bullshit, old-school heavy metal as you will find in 2015. Whether it’s poking fun at social media (That Was Then, Way Back When), general irreverence (Up Yours), or just straight up shredding (Win Hands Down), this album is a sure-fire, um, winner.
1. Clutch – Psychic WarfareMost of my friends will tell you that I had decided the new Clutch album would be #1 before it was even released. But Psychic Warfare takes a similar approach to its predecessor (and Metal Hammer’s 2013 album of the year) Earth Rocker, whilst simultaneously improving almost every aspect.
There are, of course, brilliant songs, like the vibrant Firebirds, the southern groove of A Quick Death in Texas, and the out-and-out attack of Noble Savage. But probably the greatest trick Clutch pull here is a sort of stealth concept album – most of the songs operate on two levels. The first is a more immediate level relating to some of singer Neil Fallon’s personal experiences, and the second provides a hidden narrative connecting the songs, with a deluded protagonist on the run across America from mysterious unseen alien forces, before finding salvation in rock and roll. Another stunning effort.