FFO: Guitar-Driven, Assorted Categories
By Justin Smulison
One unforeseen benefit of having to shelter-in-place is being able to delve into great new music released during the first half of 2020. It would be a disservice to recognize these albums first in December, especially when music artists need support. In an effort to empower musicians and fans, here are some of 2020’s standout releases. EACH BOLDED AND ITALICIZED ALBUM TITLE IS LINKED TO MORE MUSIC AND INFORMATION. Have a happy, head banging Fourth of July!
The latest album from Georgia rockers Asphalt Valentine is a 10-track rock and roll journey. A quintet with only a few albums under their belt, the band has been active for 15 years. This strong outing clearly demonstrates how life experience has influenced and improved songwriting abilities. The group has graduated from songs about sex, drugs and other vices to tunes about lasting relationships and mortality, all without sacrificing heaviness.
Melody is a major driver on Twisted Road, as evidenced by the hard-charging title track. Even as the band dabs their collective toe into other styles, the sense of melody prevails, from the power ballad, “Saving,” to the thumping blues-inspired, “As The Crow Flies.” On the latter, vocalist Joe Flynt pushes the reach of his upper register to great success, while the solo sections keep its variances.
Fans of Black Crowes, Ron Keel and The Answer will enjoy a trip on this Twisted Road.
Rock / Metal
Frontiers Records s.r.l.
The debut from Smackbound is like sonically-synthesized adrenaline. The Finnish hard rock/metal band features past and present members of Stratovarius, among others and is fronted by classically trained singer and actress, Netta Laurenne. The singer truly is the standout of the album featuring the artist’s theatrical abilities seamlessly shifting between melodic and raw, edgy vocals on nearly every song.
“Run” has an undeniable groove and the track’s vocal lines characteristically pick up the pace at the pre-chorus. Heavy rockers like “Drive It Like You Stole It” and “Wall of Silence” ooze with attitude, appropriately demonstrating elements of angst and danger.
There are some sentimental points, too. The closer, “Wind and Water,” is a ballad which details a relationship and someone who may have passed on to another plain. “The Game” is a slowed-down, synth-heavy tune which explores man’s universal longing for love. Overall, 20/20 delivers hooks, swagger and powerful choruses, which is exactly what you want in hard rock songs.
The third LP from Shrapnel is pure candy for metal heads losing their minds while in quarantine. Palace For The Insane is an all-out assault on the senses, with blistering guitar work, high velocity drumming and comprehensible, guttural vocal work.
Gang choruses are a genre staple among the cacophony of distortion, as we hear on a tune like “Bury Me Alive,” which should appease fans of icons like Death Angel, Exodus and new-school thrashers Envenomed. Nearly every song has an array of tempos and succeeds at being able to do more than just rely on 16th-note drum work and screaming lyrics to keep up with the speed. The group eventually changes pace. “Begin Again” features a slower tempo, drifting into doom territory but has riffs that are just as crushing as the relentless head banging tunes.
With regard to its sonic quality, Palace is what Metallica’s …And Justice For All could have sounded like with the bass better represented in the mix. That alone should be music to metal fans’ ears. Through 12 songs spanning 55 minutes, Shrapnel provides the perfect backdrop for lyrics that rage against corrupt political and economic systems, as well those that explore inner strife and strength.
The charm of The Order is that the band hits so many right notes, musically and lyrically, on Supreme Hypocrisy. Melodic hard rock and metal can leave little to the imagination. But this group of rockers from Switzerland knows how to temper the positive with the negative without sounding tired or rehashing riffs.
On the group’s sixth album, the band has crafted uplifting music which often aims to expose political and religious leaders who are acting out of self-interest. The middle of the album has perhaps its strongest moments, as “Save Yourself,” an inspiring tale of tapping into an inner strength, is followed by “No Messiah,” which warns against blind obedience.
Singer Gianni Pontillo has a captivating voice, reminiscent of the late Chris Cornell. Pontillo also can emote while tapping into his powerful upper register without going over the top as to be rendered a self-parody. The overall sense of wonder, challenge and a hint of fun is what make Supreme Hypocrisy a top rock release in 2020.
Lunaris is the sophomore album from Moonlight Haze, an Italian band with plenty of heat behind it. They are fronted by Chiara Tricarico, whose stunning soprano voice takes a few left turns on the album as she explores slightly bleaker vocal territory this time around.
The first single, “The Rabbit of the Moon,” based on an Eastern folk tale, is appropriately catchy and haunting. “The Dangerous Art of Overthinking” is a dark, operatic power metal tune and something of a sequel to “A Restless Mind,” off the De Rerum Natura debut. Here, Tricarico and company employ the harsh vocals to heighten the drama and offset her remarkable range.
Moonlight Haze features members and ex-members of Temperance and Elvenking, among others. And that they produced such high-level music just one year after a brilliant debut exemplifies why listeners should be cranking Lunaris at high volume.
Frontiers Music s.r.l.
On their sophomore effort, One Desire arrives in 2020 as if the band stepped out of a time-traveling DeLorean. The arrival delivers a solid mesh of new wave-influenced, pop and progressive rock that is simultaneously danceable and haunting.
Midnight Empire has a bit of variety but its backbone is characterized by mid-tempo, synth-heavy tunes. “Heroes” has all the hallmarks of what a song you could swear was used during a training montage in “Karate Kid,” while “Down and Dirty” is a dark tale of passion and intimacy. Singer André Linman tends to hit some falsetto notes in a range comparable to Steve Perry’s wile belting out simple, yet powerful melodic rock choruses.
The debut of Lost Symphony is like a classical-metal variety show featuring high-level guest collaborators and exciting musical curveballs. Founded by multi-instrumentalist and producer Benny Goodman and powered by established musicians on bass, drums, guitar and violin, the group runs the gamut of symphonic and power metal via a shred-fest.
Guest collaborators include the late Oli Herbert (All That Remains), Bumblefoot (Guns N’ Roses, Sons of Apollo), and Jeff Loomis (Nevermore) and Dave Ellefson (Megadeth).
Expanding on the template laid out by other cinematic and operatic metal groups, each song reveals its own identity and character. One of the standouts, “This Life Moves Too Fast” is an exciting uptempo tale with wailing guitar leads and backing keyboard flourishes. “Cotard Delusion” is fueled by high-velocity drumming and enchanting melodies which would fit a Tim Burton film perfectly. Chapter I has follow-ups in queue for 2020 and beyond which are expected to further broaden the crossroads of classical and metal.
League of Corruption
Black Doomba Records
The official debut of Canada’s League Of Corruption features six songs born from a love of southern groove, doom and booze. The nods to Down, Corrosion of Conformity and Black Label Society are omnipresent, from the guitar tuning and gear to the from-the-gut vocal delivery.
The pummeling title track shows how a band can repeat a doom-metal riff without it sounding repetitive; singer Chris Barlow’s voice bellows the entire time. “Leave Me Be” features a thumping, downtuned groove and easily-digestible lyrics warning an instigator not to poke the proverbial bear.
The most captivating song is also the most affecting. Led by a bass and drum jam that gives way to blues-inspired guitar soloing, “Want Me Gone” tells the story of a relationship that has soured. “So now your free ride’s all over, you’re homeless and you are shamed/Self-inflicted you suffer, no I won’t take the blame.” Barlow does a fine job of breaking past the anger to convey a hint of sadness as someone who had been a master manipulator has been cast out.
Though its sound is familiar, the League’s delivery remains authentic, honoring the trailblazers of southern metal, which is why Something In The Water successfully wades its way through doom metal’s depths.
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.