Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Albums of the Year: 2014

2014: Year of the Horse, my Eastern astrological sign!

How time flies...another year comes to a close, while yet another is just upon the horizon. Seems like only moments ago that I was posting my favorite albums of 2013 and talking about all the possibilities that the upcoming year had to offer. 2014 was not without its big news stories, its celebrity scandals, or its ridiculous trends; but most certainly it was not without new music. Whatever genre you are into, 2014 had something to offer for everyone. As I wrote in last year's Albums of the Year entry, I am one to mark each year gone by in terms of the music that I listened to over the past 12 months; and for me, 2014 proved to be just as abundant as 2013 had been. Case in point: last year I had 22 albums on my list, and it appears that I once again have the same amount this year! This was completely unintended, I assure you; although 2014 was no slouch in the music department, not everything I listened to made this list and there are still other releases that I haven't gotten to just yet. Several of my favorite bands put out new releases this year, and I discovered some new gems along the way as well. So while other sites or blogs are rushing to put together the fashions or pop culture that defined 2014 to them, I am content to put on all the good music that came out over the past 52 weeks, and turn it up!

Winter 2014 (January-March)

Within Temptation: Hydra

The Dutch symphonic/gothic metal legends return with their 6th full-length studio album; and for some fans, a drastic change in sound to a more pop/rock-oriented style, but no less lacking in symphonic elements and never straying too far from their metal roots. Named for the mythological two-headed dragon, Hydra features some impressive guest stars to duet alongside Sharon den Adel. The band tries their hand at merging symphonic metal with hip-hop on the song “And we Run”, featuring rapper Xzibit; which, upon first hearing about, I was not so sure would work, and I'm sure many other fans shared the same sentiment. However, WT has this uncanny knack for experimenting with styles and soundscapes that seem silly or gimmicky when other bands try it, but they come through it sounding better than ever. “And we Run” turned out not only to be pretty bad-ass, but also one of my favorite tracks on the album. Some other guest stars on Hydra include former Killswitch Engage frontman Howard Jones, '90s grunge-rock Soul Asylum vocalist Dave Pirner, and a duet that many fans (including myself) have been dreaming about for nearly 2 decades: a duet with original Nightwish vocalist Tarja Turunen on the track “Paradise (What About Us?)”, a merger between the two most iconic female voices on the symphonic metal scene. I had waited 12 years to hear these two sing together, and it was well worth the wait.

Beck: Morning Phase

Much as I love metal, I also enjoy many other types of music, and Beck has been one of my favorite artists for the past 20 years. The thing I love most about Beck is that his music reflects his own varied musical tastes. You literally cannot pin him down to one genre. For the most part, he has been labeled as “alternative”, but that just sells him so short and doesn't come remotely close to defining all he can do. Just when you think you've got him figured out, he turns around and gives you something completely new. He can go from alternative rock to techno to rap and then on to whatever other musical genre he cares to explore, and completely makes it his own. Each album is different than the one before, and Morning Phase is no exception. Although this album is considered a sonic follow-up to his 2002 album Sea Change, that is not to say that Morning Phase is a rehash or repeat of those sounds. This is one of those mellow, acoustic albums that you might want to listen to in a certain kind of headspace. This is not something to throw on as background noise, nor is it the upbeat, feel-good music that the more mainstream side of Beck is typically known for. In short, this is some serious shit. It's one of those albums to listen to when you've had a bad day and need a good, long cry. It's one of those albums to listen to when you've come home from a stress-filled work week and need to unwind. It's one of those albums that requires—and deserves—your undivided attention.

Macbeth: Neo-Gothic Propaganda

One of my favorite bands on the femme-metal scene, the gothic rockers from Milan return after a 7-year hiatus with an album that picks right back up where they left off with 2007's Superangelic Hate Bringers. Continuing their heavier, rock-based musical direction while still maintaining their dark gothic elements, Macbeth sounds better than ever with tracks like the first single, “Scent of Winter”, “The Archetype”, and “Last Night in Shanghai”. The band has declared this their best album to date, and while it's hard for anything to knock Vanitas off the top spot for my favorite Macbeth album, I'm inclined to agree that this is their most mature work. It's definite proof that the long absence has refined their sound, not taken away from it. Macbeth has found their stride, and they have finally reconciled the two halves of their musical history to make a perfect blend of gothic darkness coupled with modern rock bombast.

Lydia's Libido: Kiss the Frog

The Texas-based supergroup returns with their second album, and this time they have a new voice on the mic: Olivia Price, who brings a little more of that southern/country swagger to the music. The songs are still firmly based in their rock roots, only now a little grittier (such as on the band's first single, “All my Fault”), a little more playful (such as on the Monkees-inspired “I Can Hear You Knockin`”), and a little more soulful (like on the final track, the moving ballad “Material Lies”). Although there's a new gal up front, the music has not taken too much of a change in direction; Gary McGrath and Dean Minnerly are still penning some rockin' tunes that fulfill the promise of the first album, but with a little less naughty or cheeky and a lot more fun and lighthearted.

Von Smith: On to Something

Too often, we hear all about what's wrong with modern-day pop music: too much auto-tune, too much emphasis on selling artists as an image or a brand, and not enough focus on actual artistic talent. What happened to the good old days when pop music was not a curse word, and when people could actually write a catchy tune that also had substance? Isn't there anyone out there who is creating good pop music? The answer to this is yes, and his name is Von Smith. Bringing back the sounds of classic R&B, soul, and '50s doo-wop, coupled with the energetic spirit of Broadway musicals and the youthful energy of modern pop music; Von takes all these amazing sounds and spins them all together to create a fresh sound that is new and exciting yet also timeless and classic at the same time. From the opening track, “Carnival of Life”, Von's passionate vocals capture your attention and hold it there through all 6 songs of this EP. One stellar example of Von's ability to sound both old-school and modern at the same time is on my personal favorite track on the album, “Pilot Light”. If this song doesn't make you want to get up and do things with your life, you were probably already dead! This album's title says it all: Von Smith is “On to Something”, and it's something very good!

Spring 2014 (April-June)

Lacuna Coil: Broken Crown Halo

One of my top 3 favorite bands on the femme-metal scene, the darkwave goths from Milan return with their 7th full-length album. The dueling male-female vocals between Andrea Ferro and Cristina Scabbia continue to be a centerpiece to the music, and they still know how to rock it out as much as they ever did. This album is their “swan song” with longtime members Cristiano “Criz” Mozzati (drums) and Cristiano Migliore (guitars), but they went out on a high note with an album chock-full of the high-energy, headbang-inducing, straight-up rock that Lacuna Coil has done so well for nearly 2 decades. From the upbeat opening track “Nothing Stands in Our Way”, to the closing track that heralds a return to the band's gothic roots, “One Cold Day”; Lacuna Coil continues to pack a heavy punch. You can say whatever you like about the direction their music has taken since their early days, but there's no denying that Cristina is still one of the most powerful female voices on the metal scene today, and the band still sounds tighter than ever and shows no signs of wear and tear.

Tuomas Holopainen: The Life and Times of Scrooge

At this point in the game, whether you are a fan of Nightwish or not, it pretty much goes without saying that Tuomas Holopainen has emerged as one of the premier songwriters on the metal scene. So when it was announced that he was writing a solo album, that wasn't the surprising part. What might have come as a surprise to many was that the project was to be a concept album based on...Scrooge McDuck?! Perhaps to longtime Nightwish fans who are aware of Tuomas' love of Disney, this wasn't too much a stretch of the imagination; but even among the most hardcore fans, there was some curiosity as to how Tuomas would pull this off. After all, not a lot of metal artists go around writing concept albums based on minor Disney characters (or major ones, for that matter!). But listeners need not fear, because Tuomas is and always has been a mastermind when executing his creative plans. The album was every bit the grand, sweeping soundtrack that you've come to expect from his music; only now the metal elements are completely stripped away, and it's only Tuomas' songwriting coupled with the orchestra of Pip Williams, and it's absolutely stunning. The music takes you on a journey from the moment Troy Donockley's Uilleann pipes open up the first song, “Glasgow 1877”. For a predominantly instrumental album, Tuomas manages to unfurl a vision before your eyes through the music he writes. Through the emotion of the music, you follow Scrooge through turbulent storms, barren deserts, and freezing mountains in search of his never-ending quest for gold. Along with guest vocalists Tony Kakko of Sonata Arctica, and Finnish singer Johanna Kurkela, they fill in the finer details of Scrooge's story. With each song, we enter a new adventure with Scrooge, to where by the time we reach the final track, “Go Slowly Now, Sands of Time”, we feel the same reluctance as Scrooge to end the “lifetime of adventure”, and the journey he has taken us on throughout the last 10 songs. If anyone had any doubts as to whether Tuomas Holopainen could make an epic soundtrack to the Don Rosa comics, that skepticism will be completely obliterated by the time this masterpiece came to a close. I don't think I need to emphasize that this was my favorite album of 2014.

Delain: The Human Contradiction

With guest musicians ranging from Marco Hietala from Nightwish and Alissa White-Gluz from Arch Enemy, the Dutch symphonic metal brainchild of Martijn Westerholt returns even heavier than before. Frontwoman Charlotte Wessels complements this heaviness with her thoughtful lyrics that encourage the listener to challenge and question societal norms; such as on the tracks “Your Body is a Battleground” and “Army of Dolls”, both of which provide different angles of the age-old issue of physical perfection, what is considered beauty in our society, and the lengths that some will go to in order to obtain it. Delain has garnered a reputation over the last couple of albums as being a band in their genre that has a message and encourages their audience to embrace their differences. They're taking it a step further this time and continuing on that theme with this album, and it's a winner.

Brother Firetribe: Diamond in the Firepit

The third album from the Finnish rock band featuring Nightwish guitarist Emppu Vuorinen, Brother Firetribe is a fun throwback to classic '80s AOR: the tunes are catchy and upbeat, the songs are anthems for raising your fist in the air and headbanging your perfect Aqua-Net mullet off. Tracks like “Far Away From Love” are reminiscent of bands like Survivor, the first single “For Better or for Worse”sounds like it could have been a radio hit back in the heyday of MTV, and the band's cover of Sammy Hagar's “Winner Takes it All” is the crowning jewel of Diamond in the Firepit. Then again, I am probably biased, considering that I am a Sammy Hagar fan, and the song is from one of my favorite '80s movies (Over the Top, with Sylvester Stallone, one of my favorite action-movie stars). So if you are a fan of feel-good, sing-along, straight-up rock music, Brother Firetribe is not only keeping the sound alive, but they're waving that flag with all the flair you'd expect from any of those bands from back in the day.

Timo Tolkki's Avalon: Angels of the Apocalypse

The second installment of Timo Tolkki's three-part metal rock-opera, Angels of the Apocalypse takes us back to the post-apocalyptic world of his previous album, The Land of New Hope. Because the story is being told in reverse (with the first album being the third part of the story), this part of the story further explains certain incidents only touched on in the previous album. While Elize Ryd makes a return for vocal duty, she is joined by some other notable names on the metal scene, such as Simone Simons from Epica, Fabio Lione from Rhapsody of Fire, and Floor Jansen from Nightwish. As the story unfolds in song, it only makes the listener anxious to hear the final installment, due for release next year; so that the beginning of the story can finally be told.

Severnica: Long Lost Longing

Finland has become a breeding ground for all types of metal music, but symphonic metal has been the country's particular specialty; so when yet another female-fronted Finnish band with symphonic influences hits the scene, they almost become lost in the mix because what more could the region possibly have to give that hasn't already been heard by their more famous counterparts? Named for the Finnish translation of “north star”, Severnica seamlessly blends gothic, classical, and symphonic; topped with the contrasting voices of Maarit Nieminen's crystal-clear siren call, and the gruff growls of guitarist/vocalist Tuomo Schwela. Whereas other bands in their genre are either more guitar-driven or rely more on incorporating an orchestra or string sections, Severnica's music is centered on the keyboards and piano work of Teemu Yolmunen. This 4-song EP is just a hint of what this band is capable of, and with any luck, Severnica will be at the helm of Finland's new era of female-fronted symphonic metal talent.

Motion Device: Welcome to the Rock Revolution

For those of us old fogeys who grew up with the '80s metal or who remember a time when rock music ruled the airwaves, sometimes we tend to lump all of the younger generation together as being completely clueless when it comes to knowing what good music is all about, or brushing off anyone under the age of 25 as being incapable of producing quality hard rock music. So when a band like Canada's Motion Device comes along, you're not only blown away by their sheer musicality, but it's hard to believe that the band consists mostly of teenagers still in high school, and that their singer is the ripe old age of 12! Raised on the sounds of bands like Dio, Judas Priest, and Rush (just to name a few); Motion Device is the next generation of rockers who are making the future of heavy metal right now! This 5-song EP is chock-full of kick-ass heavy tunes, proving that this band of young prodigies is the real deal. Just check out their videos for “A Piece of Rock & Roll” or “Drama Queen” and hear for yourself how these talented youths can easily hold their own among any of their contemporaries twice their age.

Summer 2014 (July-September)

Judas Priest: Redeemer of Souls

The Metal Gods return with their first album in over half a decade; their first with new guitarist Ritchie Faulkner, and they sound as good as they ever have. Sometimes it's hard to believe that these guys have been doing this for 40 years! Rob Halford sounds as vibrant and powerful as he did in the band's heyday. Filling the shoes of the legendary K.K. Downing is no easy feat, but Ritchie shows he's up to the task; as a lifelong fan, his contributions to the music are indicative that he knows the Priest sound and knows what the fans want to hear. After over 4 decades in the business, Priest shows they can not only go toe-to-toe with any of the younger bands out there, but can also leave them completely in the dust.

Porphyra: Faith, Struggle, Victory

Rising from the ashes of his former band Phoenix Reign, guitarist Billy Chrissochos enlists the talents of vocal powerhouse Chandler Mogel, and Porphyra is born. Combining the bombast of power metal, the catchy hooks of pop, the complexity of progressive rock, and the gritty edge of hard rock, Porphyra takes all their musical influences and weaves them around lyrical themes based in Greek history and science fiction. Tracks like the band's first single “Shine” or the opening track “Dreamkiller” are just some examples of why Chandler is one of the most promising new vocalists on the metal scene today. The band is currently working on bringing the theatrics of their music to life with a stage show, which is just the kind of setting that does this music justice. If you are a metalhead who loves epic tales coupled with larger-than-life imagery and heavy-hitting tunes, then Porphyra is your new favorite band.

A Sound of Thunder: The Lesser Key of Solomon

The most prolific band on the metal scene today, A Sound of Thunder releases their 5th album since first forming in 2009. Most bands are barely churning out their debut album after 5 years together, but A Sound of Thunder is already working on album #6 and an EP of cover songs! Unlike many other bands out there who consistently release albums in a short length of time, they have not become stale or predictable. In fact, it is quite the opposite; each new album is better than the one before, evolving at such a speed that you can only watch in awe as they continue to top themselves. Whether it's heavy-hitting tunes that go for the jugular like “Udoroth” or “Master of Pain”; lyrical storytelling on the tracks “Elijah” or “Blood From the Mummy's Tomb”; or gems that showcase the band's diversity such as “The Boy Who Could Fly”, The Lesser Key of Solomon runs the gamut of all the band has to offer, still with the promise of even more to give. I've made it no secret that A Sound of Thunder is one of my favorite new bands out there right now, and The Lesser Key of Solomon is just further evidence as to why I feel this band is on the verge of something huge. After finally getting my chance to see them perform live in November of this year, it's clear to see that it won't be long before they are able to play their big sound at a venue large enough to handle it.

Aries: Rise

Another band from the Baltimore/D.C. area that is making waves, Aries keeps alive all the components that made '80s hard rock awesome: soaring vocals, guitar solos, and anthemic songs. Between the blistering guitars of Sean Rhodes and the insanely powerful voice of Rob Bradley, Aries lives up to their astrological namesake by being an aggressive, straight-forward, fire-powered beast of metal bad-assery. If you can listen to songs like “The Road (One Way)”, “Beware the Gun”, or “Dogs of War” without wanting to crank up the volume full blast and unleash your inner air guitarist, then you might as well turn in your metalhead badge. Not even 4 months after the release of Rise, the band is already working on their next album, which promises to be even bigger and heavier; and while that seems a tall order to fill, I don't doubt that Aries will “rise” to the occasion!

Soulbender: Soulbender II

A perfect way to tide over Queensrÿche fans until the band returns with a new album slated for release in 2015, this side-project of Rÿche guitarist Michael Wilton showcases a different side of his musical talent. Jamming with some other local talent on the Seattle/Vancouver scene, Soulbender's bluesy, down-and-dirty style is more reminiscent of bands like Alice in Chains than of Queensrÿche's majestically skillful sound. The group's singer, Nick Pollock, sounds a great deal like Layne Staley, or like Godsmack's Sully Erna (in fact, according to the band's Wikipedia, Nick used to be a member of an early incarnation of Alice in Chains, so this probably explains his vocal similarity to Layne) . Although this album is basically a re-release of their 2010 debut album with 4 extra tracks added on, this still gets a mention on this list simply because I had not checked out Soulbender before and everything on this album sounded new to me. If you are a fan of '90s grunge or good, no-frills guitar rock and vocals that are a little rough around the edges, Soulbender is definitely worth checking out.

Fall 2014 (October-December)

Heliosaga: Towers in the Distance

While Europe has had the monopoly on symphonic metal since the genre exploded over the past decade and a half, America is starting to make a mark on the scene, and Minnesota's Heliosaga is one of the bands out there that is doing symphonic metal just as well as any of their European counterparts. Operatic vocals and progressive metal music come together to forge awesome songs like “To Heal All Wounds”, “A Tower so Tall”, and “Hideaway”. While the symphonic metal scene has yet to break big in America the way it has in Europe, Heliosaga has great potential to be one of the flagship bands on the growing scene in the United States.

Kingfisher Sky: Arms of Morpheus

Four years since their last album, the Dutch progressive/goth 7-piece is back with their ethereal, Celtic-inspired, mellow sound. While not a band who takes huge leaps and strides musically, they have established a trademark sound and are fantastic at giving the listeners what they want. From the aptly-titled opening track “Hypnos” to the first single “King of Thieves”, all the way to the final track “Maddy”; Judith's voice casts a spell and the band's music covers you in a warm blanket of melodic peace.

MindMaze: Back From the Edge

The Pennsylvania prog/power-metal band led by brother-and-sister team Jeff and Sarah Teets releases their sophomore effort, and it's further testament that the United States is not completely bereft of talented bands; nor does our metal music scene lack in bands who want to be both melodic and heavy. Good music is always out there if you are willing to look for it! Enlisting the help of some heavy-hitters on the power metal scene such as keyboard god Jens Johansson, MindMaze is not only making an impression here in the States, but across the pond to the biggest acts in the genre; probably because they can hold their own with any established power metal act out there. Sarah is not your typical operatic vocalist, nor is she a harsh or aggressive rock voice. Somewhere between the two, her voice is both melodic and powerful. With heavy tunes like “Dreamwalker” or epics like “The Machine Stops”, MindMaze is bringing female-fronted power metal to the American audiences, and it's about damn time!

Triosphere: The Heart of the Matter

It's not just in the U.S. that the game is being changed when it comes to female-fronted melodic metal; Norway's Triosphere is breaking some rules of their own and redefining what people have come to expect from a genre that has oftentimes been constrained by the very things that have made it so recognizable. First off, the band's vocalist Ida is not just a straight-up rock powerhouse, but she also plays bass! Combining the melodic sensibilities of rock vocalists like Ann Wilson and the wild aggression of metal goddesses like Leather Leone; Ida is giving a new voice to symphonic metal and Triosphere is shattering the glass ceiling in their genre.

Black Fate: Between Visions & Lies

If you are a fan of early Roy Khan-era Kamelot, then this band from Greece is just what you've been looking for! Combining the symphonic drama of Kamelot and the progressive intricacy of Dream Theater, Black Fate is a band to watch out for on the prog-metal scene. Tracks like the first single “Lines in the Sand” (not to be confused with the Dream Theater song of the same name), “Rhyme of a False Orchestra”, and “Without Saying a Word” are prime examples of Black Fate's ability to take the classic sounds of power and progressive and put their own mark on them. Although this band has been around since 1990, their discography has been rather limited, so here's to hoping that this is the start of more albums on the way!


So these were my favorite albums of the year. There were so many more out there that I wish I'd been able to hear before the year was up, and still more that I probably don't even know about! But these are the ones I enjoyed listening to throughout 2014. How about you? Did any of the albums listed here make your personal list? Got any to suggest that didn't make it on this list? I always like hearing from you, so feel free to leave your comments here and tell me what you're looking forward to in 2015!

Happy New Year!!!