By Justin Smulison
There are many year-ending heavy metal top ten lists and the idea of pitting one style against another would be unfair and a bit unwise. Additionally, just rehashing published reviews from throughout the year is something to be avoided. With that said, here is a list of ten standouts from the past year, each in a specific music subgenre.
In an effort to empower musicians and fans, especially artists not typically covered by the mainstream, the accompanying list aims to provide a fitting recognition. Each italicized album title is hyperlinked in an effort to support the musicians. Here is hoping the music brings joy and sore necks in the New Year.
Long Island natives Born on High came out swinging in November with the band’s hard hitting, five-song EP. There is a continuous mesh of groove, thrash and punk giving each song an individual personality. Check out the variances on “Born On High/Subterranean” as a prime example. This effort is proof that clean vocals can be equally loud and rowdy alongside crushing riffs. Singer Scot Trollan has a raspy voice which conveys a streetwise sensibility best described as a combination of Neil Fallon, from Clutch and Biohazard’s Evan Seinfeld.
The Barlow Files marks a powerful debut. If Born On High can assemble another batch of songs equaling this collection, then fans likely will see the group tour with big names in hardcore, metal and thrash. Download the EP for free on Bandcamp, or even opt to spend a couple of dollars to keep these local musicians active. Look for a full interview with Born On High in 2020.
The full length debut from Dialith is a genuine happening. Extinction Six features high level writing and playing from all five band members, which include the dynamic range of the incredibly gifted singer Krista Sion, haunting orchestral arrangements and seamless time signature changes. Following the speed power frenzy, “Libra” strips down for an equally entrancing acoustic middle section. The fierce theme of “Break The Chains” features intense shredding, while each band member gets a solo during “Where Fire Dwells.”
And just when enthusiasts might think Dialith is out of surprises, the tremendous 17 minute title track about a collapsing civilization, hits every tempo and note, leaving listeners breathless. The album is mixed and mastered by Grammy-nominated producer Jacob Hansen, from Judas Priest and a further testament to this promising yet still unsigned band’s prestige.
Melodic Hard Rock/Metal
Listeners who appreciated the theatrical productions of “Rock of Ages” will want to check out Stargazer’s sophomore effort. The band has undergone some lineup changes but found strength in keeping the spirit of glam metal alive, further evidenced with recording personnel that includes the rhythm section from TNT’s classic 1989 album, Intuition.
On the Mighty Music label, Stargazer’s title track is a great example of a band seeking to harness energy from its lineup and simultaneously inspire listeners. The admirable range of vocalist and guitarist Tore André Helgemo carries many of the 13 power-chord heavy songs while exploring personal strength, relationships and societal ills. Ultimately, The Sky Is The Limit succeeds in being a fun, 66 minute homage to a genre characterized by big riffs, solos, choruses and hair.
On El Puerto Records, Envenomed is a quartet of thrashers from Down Under who have been rising through the Australian metal scene. The group’s second full length album, The Walking Shred, proves this is not just another run-of-the-mill speed band only playing fast and indistinguishable songs. Taking a cue from Death Angel, Envenomed exemplifies how melody and ferocity can co-exist.
Drummer John Price plays with control and precision, not just blast beating the hell out of every song. Vocalist and guitar player Anthony Mavrikis has a strong, clear voice which leads straight-ahead rockers like “Abandon Hope” and the haunting chorus of the more traditional, Metallica-influenced “Fate Closes The Door.” The gang vocals in “Rebellion” and the stellar guitar soloing elevates the song to a nearly six minute war cry which never feels forced or tedious. Envenomed seemingly has the strategy and musicianship to fuel a long career and possibly become the torchbearers of the genre.
With the band’s 13th release, Opeth enhances the group’s reputation for producing dynamic and grandiose prog-rock albums. Recorded in Swedish and English, In Cauda Venenum, Latin for “poison in the tail,” is not a concept album, per se, though the music explores themes of loneliness and individuality. “Heart in Hand” is an eight-and-a-half minute opus, keeping a relentless pace until about the six-minute mark, when the cut gives way to a serene acoustic passage with David Gilmour-esque vocals continuing to the end. Much of the album is equally adventurous and requires repeated listening.
From Nuclear Blast Records, In Cauda Venenum is a sonic experience and homage to late 1970s prog, fueled by heavy rock organ, impassioned guitar solos and melodic vocal melodies, including lots of musical left turns. Catch Opeth on the band’s 2020 tour of North America.
Armored Saint and DC4 axe man Jeff Duncan casually told musicinterviewmagazine.com in 2018 that the musician was preparing a solo instrumental album. Cut to one year later and Wanderlust was worth the wait. Duncan shreds with a melody first approach and the 11-song electric guitar fest, rooted in hard rock and metal, also draws from various other genres. Check out “Evel Knievel” for some heavily reverbed rockabilly while “Montana Street” is straightforward metal. “Mr. Allen” packs a dose of funk. Guest players include Armored Saint bassist Joey Vera.
Noveria’s third outing is a dynamic contribution to progressive heavy metal. There are no dull moments on any of the 11 tracks from Aequilibrium, which features a stellar combination of speed, soaring vocal melodies and virtuoso guitar solos. The single “Broken” is a prime example and demonstrates the breadth of Noveria’s musicianship and storytelling abilities.
On Scarlet Records, each track has monstrous and complex drumming, leading the way for time signature changes which complement the emotions detailed during songs and lyrics. Topics range from dark and introspective to uplifting and socio-environmentally aware. The lead track, “Waves” even may induce panic as the cut puts listeners in the middle of a massive earthquake while navigating tumultuous waters. Fans of Dream Theater, Redemption and recent Ivory Tower will find these Italian metal favorites as new fixtures to current playlists.
Avatarium‘s latest album is a special doom rock offering comprised of nine gothic tracks, exploring the connection between darkness, romance and the supernatural. Singer Jennie-Ann Smith undoubtedly is the standout. Smith’s voice has the unique ability to soulfully convey tales of forlornness, ecstasy, comfort and fear without getting too theatrical for typical metal fans. The vocal delivery is similar to baritone extraordinaire Mark Lanegan, while staying within a register that complements the downtuned guitars. Any higher and it would either be a distraction or a bad sonic pairing.
On the Nuclear Blast label, there are all sorts of entrancing goodies, including the danceable single “Rubicon” and “Porcelain Skull,” which picks up the pace during the chorus. Fans of Lanegan, early Black Sabbath and The Doors should warm themselves beside Avatarium’s Fire.
Screamer is a great throwback to the new wave of British heavy metal. What the group may lack as far as originality surely is made up for in musicianship and execution. There are no drawn out or dramatic songs in the direction of latter day Iron Maiden, just uptempo pacing, serious shredding and banshee-like vocals. Only the closer, “Caught In Lies” reaches the five minute mark.
While Highway of Heroes is a tribute in many ways, the polished production value has a subtle, modern touch. Topics range from battles and journeys to death and inner conflict. From The Sign Records, these 35 raucous minutes will make listeners want to grab the denim and leather vests and keep the horns raised high.
Power Metal (Concept)
The album They Never Say Die must be approached with a sense of humor because the collection is, after all, a speed and power metal tribute to the action adventure comedy, The Goonies. But Skeletoon successfully captures the essence of the beloved 1985 film with the band’s brand of nerd metal. From the victorious tones during “The Truffle Shuffle Army” and the high-pitched wailing featured on “I Have The Key” to a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough,” Skeletoon manages to faithfully retell an entertaining story about pre-pubescent outcasts journeying toward legendary pirate booty.
They Never Say Die also includes 11 special guest appearances by Michele Luppi, from Whitesnake; Rhapsody Of Fire’s Giacomo Voli; Trick Or Treat’s Alessandro Conti; and others. Fans of 1980s cult action comedies Dragon Force and Gamma Ray’s Somewhere Out In Space will be playing air guitars and drums to this fun speed metal concept album.
Justin Smulison is a professional content writer and producer whose first love is music. Smulison’s digital and print copywriting experience spans music, law, true crime, advertising and real estate, among other subjects. You can often find JS in Long Beach, New York, either running on the boardwalk or in the sand with his family.