2014 kicked arse when it came to solid, genre-bending metal releases. This is probably a relatively predictable list this year, as I don’t feel as if I’ve really been grabbed by anything super-underground recently, and most of these albums I’ve raved about already. Most of these albums are pretty high up on other top album lists by other writers, but that’s because they’re all awesome.
Interestingly, 2014 was also a year when 70s themes abounded and sludge ruled the blogs and top-selling lists. I’m interested to see what 2015 brings us eager metalheads. \m/
Without further ado, the list!
1. Opeth – Pale Communion
Only a metal album by faint association (you can’t talk about Opeth as anything other than a metal band, even though they have stripped a huge part of what made them “metal” from their music), Opeth return with an album that combines the 70s seeped, jazz-inspired passages of brilliance in Heritage with … well, more 70s-seeped, jazz-inspired brilliant passages, and none of the crap that stuck Heritage together. My favourite track, “Voice of Treason” is awash with symphonic strings and triumphant, beautiful vocal lines. One of the best albums Opeth have released in years, and that is really saying something.
2. Cynic – Kindly Bent to Free Us
A bit of a polarising choice, I know. Cynic’s third album has divided critics this year; you either love it, or you find it a cosmic disappointment. I am in the former camp. An intricate and mesmerising album, Kindly Bent to Free Us shows Cynic following a similar path to Opeth and ditching a lot of the “metal” elements of their music, in favour of the prog. The result is a deliciously abstract, otherworldly romp through strange textures and jazz-infused progressive soundscapes. It’s quite beautiful, even though … yes, I kind of miss the metal. My favourite tracks are “Moon Heart Sun Head”, “Endlessly Bountiful” and “Kindly Bent to Free Us”.
I’ve only really become a huge fan of Alestorm in album form (they have always, always, kicked arse live) since their third album, Back Through Time. On this, their forth studio release, Sunset on the Golden Age, it seems these ridiculous pirate metallers are finally running short on pirate themes. It’s not a bad thing at all. No longer unrestrained by history or the bounds of reality, frontman Christopher Bowes gets to unleash his madcap sense of humour onto the world. We end up with some profoundly silly songs, like “Mead from Hell” about a quest for a colony of underwater bees. Then there’s some more classic drinking music – I like to pair “Drink” and “Hangover” together to remind me of both sides of the coin. Hoping we might get to see more live shenanigans from these boys in 2015.
4. Septicflesh – Titan
I’m relatively new to worshipping at the altar of these Greek heathen gods, but I’m now a devout convert. To me, it sounds almost like a second-half to the Great Mass, which is no way meant as an insult. From the Mozart-laden juggernaut, “Order of Dracul” to the strange, disocciative vocals in “Burn”, Septicflesh prove once again that layering their unique brand of Rotting Christ-esque death metal with heavy, dark symphonic elements makes for a winning formula. There’s no iOcrchestra or simulated effects – the Prague Philharmonic lend their bombastic sound to fill out this incredible album, and a children’s choir on Prototype add an extra element to the already heavy choir usage. If there’s one criticism, it’s that when you strip away the orchestral and choir elements and focus on the pure metal qualities of the songs, what you get isn’t really anything new – Septicflesh have done it all before. I think that’s just fine, but I’d love to see some more experimentation, and pushing the boundaries of their style, on the following record.
5. Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen
Because pagan metal is totally becoming a thing. This makes me very happy, as long as the “genre” keeps spitting out albums of this level of quality. Hailing from Ireland, Primordial clearly have their roots in that second wave of black metal, but none of their previous releases (many of which are great) have really achieved much acclaim. With Where Greater Men Have Fallen, Primordial have dismantled their black metal lineage, focusing instead on producing a profoundly heavy album that incorporates traditional Irish folk music, whether that’s through actual instrumentation or through guitar sections that mirror a folk style. Lyrically, this album is quite stunning – there’s a kind of poetry to the profane lyrics, that make the themes more poignant, and don’t reduce them to hammy horror. I love “Wield Lightning to Split the Sun” and “Come the Flood.”
6. Agalloch – the Serpent & the Sphere
How long have Agalloch fans been waiting for this album? How much has it been hyped and reviewed and discussion and torn to pieces? How much is it still amazing beyond compare? The Serpent & the Sphere sees many of Agalloch’s folk-influences turning from the woods to the heavens, there’s much more a sense of a wider world, a realm of celestial spirit. From the instrumental beauty of “Plateau of the Ages” to the sombre, almost pensive album opener, “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation,” this album is another piece of dramatic, dynamic wonder from the band that constantly pushes the boundaries of metal.
7. Diocletian – Gesundrian
I try to stay on top of listening to new local releases, because we’ve got some talented folk here in Middle Zealand. This year, Diocletian’s new full-length stood out as being one of the best from our fair shores. This album is all chaos and clatter, which is exactly what you’d expect from NZ’s foremost bestial metal act. This sound is thick and barbaric, not something you listen to in the background over a cup of tea, but it’s high on my running playlist because thrashing the pavement with war metal pummelling your ears is one of the greatest joys in life. Chaotic, bloody, and visceral, you are going to want to hear Gesundian.
As an aside, the title comes from the Saxon root word that gives us the word asunder. If you wanted a single track from this album to check out, I’d choose the slower, atmospheric war-march, “Cleaved Asunder”.
8. Electric Wizard – Time to Die
It seems as if the 70s have been creeping into every metal album released so far this year. And so it would seem appropriate that 2014 would also see the return of doom legends Electric Wizard with an album rumbling with nihilism, depression and decay. After their lacklustre 2010 effort Black Mosses, I was skeptical about any new efforts. I am happy to be proved wrong.
Vocalist Jus Oborn coos and mumbles his way through a litany of tracks written in true Electric Wizard style – there are sleezy riffs, horror films, drug references galore and more drawn out, sludge-laden stoner riffage that you could possibly smoke in a single sitting. Standout tracks for me are “We Love the Dead” and the darker, more menacing, “I Am Nothing”.
9. Insomnium – Shadows of the Dying Sun
Maybe it’s the fact that my 2014 was actually quite fantastic, and I didn’t really have much to be sad about at all, but I found myself being drawn to dark, melancholy music over the year. Just in time for Insomnium’s – probably the most melancholy band on the planet right now, despite their continued success – new release. Like their earlier releases, this album represents a journey – from the first haunting notes of the opening tracks to the fading beauty of the last. “While We Sleep”, the rich, catchy single from the album, shows you what you can expect from Shadows of the Dying Sun. Quite simply, this album is a masterpiece, and this band alone are enough to cement Finland as a continued source of metal legends.
10. Elvenking – The Pagan Manifesto
I fell in love with this band and the way they combine several different vocal styles and escalating folk melodies back on their earlier albums, Heathenreel and Wyrd. Then they went a bit … well, one reviewer called them “emo” and I’m not going to disagree … and I haven’t really felt the need to pay much attention. Pagan Manifesto feels like the album that should have followed Wyrd. It brings together all the elements that made those first albums so listenable and successful, and does them better. The songs are catchy as fuck, but the composition is more sophisticated and the production is rich and warm. If you like your pagan metal fast and melodic with loud choruses you can sing along to, then check Elevenking out.
Honourable mentions go to Dragonforce, who finally put out an album I can listen to from one end to the other without having an aneurysm, Blut Aus Nord, for generally being awesome, and Ides of Gemini, whose vinyl-inspired 2-sided Old World / New Wave was one of the more imaginative releases of the year.
And, for an extra bonus, my top non-metal albums of 2014 are:
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
I actually didn’t think much of this album when I first heard it. I found it a bit boring, but after hearing several songs played live in the Cave’s December concert, I changed my tune. Push the Sky Away is probably his most cohesive album to date, and it definitely shows an evolution in Cave’s songwriting that’s been going on since Boatman’s Call. My favourite track is “Push the Sky Away”, which is almost as enchanting and mesmerising on the album as it is live.
Pink Floyd – The Endless River
The long-awaited “final” album from one of the bands that defined my childhood, The Endless River is a mostly instrumental album that encompasses everything that made Pink Floyd amazing – Gilmore’s rich, liquid guitar tone, the sonic improvisations of the extended soundscapes, the ambient haze of Wright’s synth. Wright died in 2008, of course, which means his parts are made up of snippets of sessions for The Division Bell, spun and recycled into new songs. At times the tracks seem aimless and impossibly grandiose, but the album reads like a misty-eyed memoir, a final dirge for a band that shaped the sound of modern progressive music. Some call it bloated and pompous, I call it sweet.
Lindsey Stirling – Shatter Me
Lindsey Stirling, styled the “hip hop violinist” brings her unique mix of modern and classical to her newest album, Shatter Me, which can best be described as a “symphonic celtic dupstep pop record.” There’s even a little bit of gothic metal thrown in there. My favourite track is the first single, Roundtable Rival, which has this seriously cute steampunk video to go with it, but I am digging the whole thing, although often the electronic aspects overpower the violin, which is the more interesting part of the music, and the compositions can fall a bit flat. I am psyched to have tickets to Lindsey Stirling’s February show here in Auckland.
And, lastly, I cannot get this song OUT OF MY HEAD:
What about you? What were your top albums of 2014? What upcoming releases are you excited about in 2015?
The Sunken, my dark fantasy novel, is now available on Amazon.
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