Thursday, December 31, 2015

Albums of the Year: 2015

 2015: The Year of the Goat!

Here we are's that time of year when we take a look back at the last 12 months and try to put a cap on it, and give some kind of meaning as to what those 52 weeks represented. As any music review writer would do, I choose to look back on the music that shaped 2015 for me. The past several years have experienced a boom of exceptionally good music, and 2015 hasn't lacked in its share of worthy albums to write about at year's end. For me, 2015 was filled with new discoveries: finding bands that I had not previously heard about, or had been meaning to check out for some time, and getting a chance to hear more of the talent that was out there. There were so many albums that I couldn't possibly get to them all! However, as you will see, there is a healthy amount of material on this list, so while I couldn't possibly have heard everything out there, this year I had a whopping 35 albums on this list! I think that is a record for me; at least for the few years of this blog's existence, in any case! It goes without saying that 2015 produced its share of stellar material from both seasoned artists and upstarts alike.

Winter 2015 (January-March)

Tattermask: Carpe Noctem

Hailing from Charlotte, North Carolina; this gothic/alternative quintet fronted by the vocally versatile Amanda Tattermask, this EP, the band's second offering, was chock-full of good rockin' tunes from start to finish. In an era where the term “radio-friendly” is almost synonymous with poison, Tattermask's hooky grooves and memorable choruses remind the listener of a time when good music could get played on the radio, and not compromise a band's artistic integrity. Case in point: their stellar cover of Seal's classic “Kiss From a Rose”. Opening up for some respected names on the scene such as Lacuna Coil and Flyleaf, Tattermask was earning the respect of their peers and showing that they could hold their own alongside them. For a band that started with such promise at the beginning of 2015, it's a shame to say that Carpe Noctem ended up being Tattermask's swan song. By year's end, Tattermask would disband; leaving one last single as a farewell to their fans, and a final gig when Charlotte's legendary Tremont venue closed its doors for their last curtain call in mid-December. However, few bands could ask to end on such a high note, and Tattermask has a lot to be proud of in their short-lived career. Carpe Noctem is a strong piece of work, and a bittersweet testament to all that might have been.

Sensorium: The Art of Living

The female-fronted symphonic metal scene shows no signs of slowing down, and while the scene in Europe has been well-established for a long time, there is still a great deal of talent to be found in other parts of the world. Israel's Sensorium is coming out the gates with all guns blazing: reminiscent of early Nightwish, Ksenia Glonty's soaring operatic vocals coupled with the sweeping bombast of dark, gloomy keyboards and majestic guitar riffs, Sensorium is making their presence known and showing that they've got what it takes to move to the front of the line when representing the future of symphonic metal. Listening to this debut album, it's almost easy to forget that it's their first effort: they sound so polished that you would think they had been together for years! If this is what they've got up their sleeve on their first time out, then their second album only promises to be even better.

Melphomene: Destructive Crescendo

Speaking of bands around the world who are making great strides to represent their country on the symphonic metal world map, México City's Melphomene has the potential to become the flagship band for México the way that their influences have become musical ambassadors to their countries. Formed by a well-traveled opera singer and a music school teacher, Melphomene already had an impressive résumé before this debut was even released. Where many of the older bands on the scene have started to incorporate more diverse singing styles into their music, Esthabalíz is already a well-rounded vocalist who can shatter glass with her operatic notes, bring you to tears with her softer vocals, or rip you to pieces with her no-nonsense rock voice. Put that together with Mario Del Rio Escobedo's virtuostic guitar style, and Melphomene has all the right ingredients to become a band to be talked about for many more years to come.

Odin's Court: Turtles All the Way Down

American progressive metal at its finest, Maryland's Odin's Court has been around for over a decade, producing prog-metal that would make Dream Theater proud. Again, if you are one of those people who has lost hope that there are any good metal bands from the U.S., or feel as though “there's not any good new music anymore”, Odin's Court is one of those bands that you owe it to yourself to check out; especially if you are a fan of early Dream Theater or King's X. The band's seventh full-length album is filled with all the complexity and virtuosity that is sure to please any die-hard progressive metal fan. If you're still not convinced, listen to the instrumental jam “The Depths of Reason”, the melodic-yet-heavy “Death of a Sun”, or the album's final track, the 17-minute opus “Box of Dice (Does God Play?)”.

Dire Peril: Through Time and Space

One of my latest musical discoveries, I first heard of Dire Peril late last year when I saw them live, opening for A Sound of Thunder in L.A. It was at this show where I first met Dire Peril frontman Norman Skinner, “the metal chameleon”. I was impressed by their live performance and Norman's vocal ability to effortlessly transition from high, melodic vocals, to rough, aggressive growls. Even though this is only a 4-song EP, Through Time and Space deserves a mention if only because Dire Peril manages to pack a wallop in those 4 songs. Whether it's the title track, clocking in at nearly 19 minutes, or the band's rockin' cover of the Transformers theme, Dire Peril is changing the definition of “power metal”, touching on themes rooted more in science fiction than in fantasy, as most of their contemporaries in the genre are apt to do. However, this would be the band's last offering with Norman, as he has gone on to form the band Niviane (as well as several other side-projects!). The guest vocalist on the EP's title track, John Yelland, has been chosen to fill Norman's shoes. A single with Yelland was released in July, and a remakes album of older tunes is available on the Dire Peril Bandcamp page; but it's only the beginning, and only time will tell what the band has in store for us next.

Nightwish: Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Just when you thought this list was going to be nothing but independent bands, the winter of 2015 lived up to the proverbial saying in reverse: with Endless Forms Most Beautiful, the month of March went out like a lion, with the roar of Floor Jansen's vocals. Joining at last with the premier band on the symphonic metal scene, Floor's merger with Nightwish was something that many fans had waited on for years, and Endless Forms Most Beautiful was their first chance to hear just what would happen when her powerful vocals brought Tuomas Holopainen's emotional lyrics to life. Not only was the album a major shift musically, but lyrically as well: always known for his lyrics pertaining to fantasy, imagination, and childhood nostalgia, Tuomas did a complete 180-degree turn by writing about nature, the universe, and evolution. Yet only Tuomas Holopainen could tackle such heavy subjects and still maintain that air of innocent wonder that fans love so much about his lyrics. Where the previous album, Imaginaerum, had been a celebration of make-believe, whimsy, and escapism; Endless Forms Most Beautiful was a tribute to logic, reason, science, and purpose. Considering that the addition of both Floor Jansen and Troy Donockley, “the master of the Uilleann pipes” was a huge step in the band's evolution, it only made sense that the theme of the album would match this chapter in the band's musical progression. In an unexpected twist of life imitating art, evolution does not always go as expected, and so it was that during the making of the album, the band's dynamic experienced a turn that no one could have predicted, with the abrupt departure of core founding member Jukka Nevalainen; stepping down from the drum kit due to health issues, and passing the figurative baton to Wintersun drummer Kai Hahto. However, the band didn't miss a beat (pun intended), and Kai took to his role as new Nightwish drummer with ease. Musically, Endless Forms Most Beautiful is probably their most solid work since Century Child, in that the band has finally learned how to reconcile the overpowering sound of the orchestra and put it back in its place as an accompaniment to the music of Nightwish. Vocally, many fans expected Floor to take up where original vocalist Tarja Turunen left off, and “bring the operatic vocals back to Nightwish”. While her vocal performance on Endless Forms Most Beautiful may not have been entirely what many fans were expecting, Floor did not disappoint when it came to showing off her dynamic range and vocal versatility. From her commanding rock-style vocals on “Weak Fantasy” and “Shudder Before the Beautiful”; to her heart-wrenchingly soft voice on “Our Decades in the Sun”, her fierce growls on “Yours is an Empty Hope”, to her majestic operatic vocals on the epic final track “The Greatest Show on Earth”: Endless Forms Most Beautiful perfectly introduced Floor Jansen to Nightwish and the world, showing how and why she is the best thing to have happened to this band since that fateful night in 2005 when Tarja's fate was sealed in an open letter. Without a doubt, Endless Forms Most Beautiful vies for supremacy as my favorite album of the year...but it has a strong contender for first place, as you will see as you read on.

Spring 2015 (April-June)

Kamelot: Haven

Their second album with Tommy Karevik, it seems like Kamelot is finally finding their groove with him. While many fans cited the previous album, Silverthorn, to be a masterpiece, I personally did not have that passionate love for it that many people did. While I like the album a lot and think it's great, I also felt that the full potential of Kamelot with Tommy Karevik had not been realized yet, and that in many respects it felt as though the huge shadow of iconic former frontman Roy Khan was still looming over them, and much of the album seemed to try and fit Tommy into that niche that Roy filled. This time around, it's apparent that the band is utilizing more of Tommy's own vocal talents and not trying so much to rely on those things that are similar to his predecessor. If you have ever heard Tommy's other band, Seventh Wonder, you will understand what I mean. It's a pleasure to hear on Haven that Tommy's “Seventh Wonder voice” is used a lot more here, and it feels less like an album to try and appease the fans of Roy Khan; the band has proven their success without him, and I think that takes a huge load off of them songwriting-wise, and can start to construct songs that are more befitting the singer they have now. Haven feels a lot more like an effort between an actual band, not a band and their hired singer. Tommy has earned his place in Kamelot and Haven is his rightful “coming out party”, so to speak. Silverthorn was just a sample of what Tommy could do: Haven is the full scope of his capability to be the frontman that Kamelot deserves. The opening track, “Fallen Star” and the tracks “Here's to the Fall” and “Revolution” almost sound like they could have been Seventh Wonder tunes. However, this does not mean to imply that Kamelot has changed horses in mid-stream: while Haven is obviously an updated Kamelot for a new era, there is so much there that shows the band's roots: “Insomnia” sounds like it could have been on The Black Halo, “Citizen Zero” could have been the saving grace of Poetry for the Poisoned (my least-favorite Kamelot album), “Veil of Elysium” could have easily been a track from Epica, and “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)” is like a perfect blending of Ghost Opera and Silverthorn. But when Tommy joins his voice with Delain vocalist Charlotte Wessels on “Under Grey Skies”, it is nothing short of perfection. Kamelot is on a roll with Tommy at the helm; the only downside to this is that it seems that will push back a new Seventh Wonder album even further, but hey, you've got to strike the iron while it's hot, and Kamelot is positively smokin'!

Sirenia: The Seventh Life Path

When it comes to gothic metal, Morten Veland is the mastermind, and he has been the driving force behind Sirenia for over a decade; coupled with the enchanting voice of Ailyn, he composes morose, ethereal melodies that define the genre like no other. Sirenia sort of lost their way for a few albums, but 2013's Perils of the Deep Blue marked a return to the band's roots, and The Seventh Life Path continues to take Sirenia in this direction. The music is everything that fans expect: heavy riffs, dueling beauty-and-the-beast vocals, symphonic influences, and lyrics speaking of death, sorrow, and the overall futility of life (as so perfectly expressed on the track “Concealed Disdain”)...all wrapped up in the beautifully tragic style that is Morten Veland's trademark.

Cain's Offering: Stormcrow

The Finnish power metal supergroup consisting of Stratovarius vocalist Timo Kotipelto and Sonata Arctica guitarist Jani Liimatainen returns after a 6-year hiatus. Combining their mighty talents to form the ultimate power metal outlet, Cain's Offering kicks it up a notch by recruiting fellow Stratovarius bandmate and legendary keyboardist Jens Johansson to make this a musical force to be reckoned with. The title track is power metal bombast at its finest, “Too Tired to Run” is a gorgeous ballad that showcases Timo Kotipelto's stunning vocal ability, and tracks like “I Will Build You a Rome”, “I am Legion”, and “Constellation of Tears” are melodic metal masterpieces that remind us why no one does power metal better than the Finns.

Armored Saint: Win Hands Down

Not to be outdone by the young upstarts, the older metal bands have still “got it”, and L.A.'s legendary Armored Saint kicks as much ass now in 2015 as they did in the '80s. John Bush has still got amazing pipes, and has not lost any of his vocal potency over the years. This album comes charging out the gate with the fist-pumping title track, and doesn't let up for the entirety of the album. Songs like “Mess”, “An Exercise in Debauchery”, the tongue-in-cheek references to trying to stay relevant in current times on the track “That Was Then, Way Back When”, and the album's closer “Up Yours”, are classic Armored Saint for the modern day. If you are one of those metalheads are convinced that all the bands you rocked out to back in the day no longer have anything to give and that all their best albums are far behind them, crank up the new Armored Saint album and feel your faith in old-school metal being restored with each track.

Master Sword: Epoch

A power metal band that writes songs based on The Legend of Zelda video game series? Sign me up! As I wrote in my review of this album a few months ago, Master Sword not only brings the world of Hyrule to life, but they enlist the help of the finest musicians in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area, including former Aries vocalist Rob Bradley and A Sound of Thunder's Nina Osegueda. Whether it's songs about the all-female Gerudo tribe or traces of boss battle themes interlaced in their guitar solos, Master Sword plays with all the confidence of those who know the source material well. The band is currently working on a full-length follow-up in 2016, so there will be many more trips to Hyrule and many more stories to tell!

The Rue: The Rue

While it wasn't exactly what I was hoping for when I wrote this list of musicians I would love to hear from again, my wish was still granted in 2015 when former Queensrÿche guitarist Chris DeGarmo made a return to composing songs with his daughter! Over the last few years, Chris and his oldest daughter, Rylie, have been performing together in and around the Seattle area as The Rue, and in-between Rylie's college studies, they released a 6-song EP of original material this year. However, if you are expecting something more in the vein of progressive metal, let me save you a lot of trouble right now by telling you that it's nothing like that. That being said, if you are a Queensrÿche fan that knows the band's material well, you will know that DeGarmo was just as proficient on the acoustic guitar as he was on the electric, and The Rue is more along those lines, but still far from being anything that could be categorized as rock or metal. Then there is the other half of this unique father/daughter songwriting team: it goes without saying that musically, Rylie has inherited her dad's talent, and she's one hell of a vocalist! More of a blues and jazz fan than a metalhead, Rylie sounds very mature for her 22 years, and her youthful energy brings something new to the trademark DeGarmo guitar sound that fans have known for years. His recognizable acoustic melodies are ever-present here, but on this collaborative effort, it seems he is more content to let Rylie have the spotlight (as any proud dad would do, I suppose!). These two complement each other wonderfully: her lively voice and vibrant spirit gives a modern edge to his guitar sound, and his years of experience lends maturity to her musical vision as well. I would like to hear more between the two of them, but if this is merely a springboard for Rylie to ultimately make a transition to solo artist, I look forward to hearing more from her either way. If I had any complaints at all about this EP, it's that the track “Hey There Shadow” was not included, but maybe that will be included on a full-length release? One can only hope!

Summer 2015 (July-September)

Veronica “The V” Freeman: Now or Never

The powerful vocalist of Benedictum has temporarily struck out on her own for a solo album that is more of a hard rock sensibility than the aggressive metal style that her fans are used to, but it is still Veronica, which means it's still gonna rock your ass off! V. shows off the diversity of her voice on this solo project: anyone who thought that all she could do was just roar like a fuckin' beast (which she can!), they are going to be stunned into silence when they can hear all she can do. Whether it's teaming up with Leather Leone on the track “Kiss my Lips”, dueting with former Black Sabbath vocalist Tony Martin for the album closer “King for a Day”, or catchy melodies like the chorus of “L.O.V.E.”, Veronica is taking no prisoners and leaving the doubters in shreds. Now or Never takes all the components that made ’80s hard rock and heavy metal fun and exciting, leaves out all the silly fluff and excess, brings it up to date, and presents us with a straight-up rock album that is perfect for those long car drives, spring-cleaning excursions, workouts, or any other activity that requires a kick in the ass to get you moving!

Cradle of Filth: Hammer of the Witches

I have to admit, I was never much of a Cradle of Filth fan, but when your friend becomes a bandmember, you want to be supportive, so you start listening to the music, and you find that it isn't so bad after all. This was the case when my friend Lindsay Schoolcraft became the newest member of Cradle of Filth, so yes, I admit that I was anxious to hear her first offering with the band. Musically, I love their dark gothic melodies and over-the-top symphonic influences...but the extreme vocal styling of Dani Filth is definitely an acquired taste, that's for sure! That being said, Cradle of Filth is a great band, and if you can get past the harsh vocals, there is a lot here to enjoy. Lindsay's vocal style is soothing and calming against Dani's howling screams, so there is that nice contrast between the two. You can hear this on songs like “Yours Immortally” and “Blackest Magick in Practice” (which is probably my favorite on the album). Lindz's keyboard work on this album is both lovely and haunting at the same time. I would like to hear more of her vocally, though...guess I will just have to wait for the next Schoolcraft album for that!

MindMaze: Dreamwalker

An EP of cover tunes and reworkings of earlier material, MindMaze is giving fans something to tide them over until the band can get back into the studio to make their 3rd full-length album. Whether it's the acoustic rendition of “Remember”, or the band's cover of Pat Benatar's “Promises in the Dark”, Sarah Teets proves why she is one of the most powerhouse female voices on the American prog-metal scene today.

Disturbed: Immortalized

Disturbed returns after a 5-year sabbatical, and picks right back up where they left off. The chugging riffs and staccato vocals of David Draiman are all there, but it's also clear that the long break has done wonders for them musically. For fear of going into musical stagnation, Disturbed took a long break until they felt they were ready to return, and the bandmembers all worked on their own side-projects or in other bands during the last several years. All of this has appeared to do them some good, because while there is so much there that is familiar and unmistakably Disturbed, they also sound renewed. Thematically, the band still touches on political issues, but this time is a little more straightfoward about certain issues, such as their ode to cannabis legalization on the track “Fire it Up”. Also known for their unique choices of cover songs, Disturbed pays homage to Simon & Garfunkel's classic “The Sound of Silence”; showcasing Disturbed's ability not just to rock out, but to also remind the listener that music is supposed to be meaningful as well. While this isn't a huge change in sound for the band, they know what their fans want to hear from them, and they deliver it well.

Iron Maiden: The Book of Souls

The kings of heavy metal return after a 5-year lapse between albums, and Maiden pulls no punches. Lyrically, the album deals with themes of death and the afterlife; such as the title track, or the song “Tears of a Clown”, written as a tribute to the late Robin Williams. Just recovering from a bout with throat cancer, Bruce Dickinson's vocals are as powerful as ever; showing that nothing can stop the Air Raid Siren. Proving that they are not to be outdone except only by themselves, Maiden has released not only their first-ever double album, but also their longest song, with the 18-minute epic “Empire of the Clouds”. While most bands of their stature or career longevity would rest on their laurels or lean on past success to keep them going, Maiden continues to produce top-quality work that can stand up against any of the iconic albums from their heyday.

Thundermother: Road Fever

This all-female quintet from Sweden is bringing back good old-fashioned rock ’n roll in the vein of bands like Girlschool or The Runaways. The opening track, “It's Just a Tease” is a catchy, upbeat tune that is sure to get you up and moving, and the rest of the album doesn't let up: 10 tracks and 30 minutes of anthemic, fist-pumping rock that fans of bands like Halestorm are sure to enjoy. If you are looking for a band that specializes in straight-up rock with no frills or fancy trappings, then Thundermother is right up your alley.

Johanna Kurkela: Ingrid

“Finland's Beautiful Wolf-Bride”, Johanna Kurkela has become more familiar to international audiences by way of her musical and personal connection to Nightwish founder Tuomas Holopainen, but this is not to say the attention she gets is undeserved: quite the opposite; Johanna's enchanting vocals captivate the listener from the start. Although she is referred to as a “pop” artist, her music is far from pop, at least by American standards: there is no auto-tuned trickery here, and lyrically, she wears her heart on her sleeve with songs that translate to English with titles like “Be Nice” (“Olkaa Kilttejä”), “Peace my Love” (“Rauha Rakkaani”), and “Don't Panic” (“Ei Panikoida”). I absolutely love Johanna's voice, and even though I cannot understand what she sings about, music is a universal language; her sincerity and passion can be understood loud and clear.

Slayer: Repentless

Their first album since the untimely passing of guitarist Jeff Hanneman (and yet another split with original drummer Dave Lombardo), Slayer secures their place among the Big 4 of thrash metal. Now a permanent bandmember, Exodus guitarist Gary Holt does an awesome job filling Hanneman's shoes, and Paul Bostaph has proven once before that he is capable of bashing the skins as well as Lombardo can, and gets the job done. It may not be the next Reign in Blood or Hell Awaits, but Slayer's trademark sound is alive and well, for all the lineup changes. From the Seasons in the Abyss-inspired opening intro, “Delusions of Savior”, followed promptly by the lightning-fast title track to the slow, sinister “When the Stillness Comes” or the incendiary “Atrocity Vendor”, all the way through to the album closer “Pride in Prejudice”; Repentless goes for the jugular with a brutal 40+-minute assault on the senses, leaving no question that this is still the band that will rock your fuckin' face off in that satisfying way that only Slayer can.

Stratovarius: Eternal

The lords of Finnish power metal return with their fifteenth album, and show no signs of slowing down. As soon as the opening notes of “My Eternal Dream” start in, the classic Stratovarius sound is more powerful than ever. The band knows what their strengths are and what their fans love about them, and deliver it in spades from start to finish; which is apparent on songs such as “Rise Above It”, “Feed the Fire”, and “Few Are Those”.  I am also a quite fond of the band's slower songs, and the beautiful “Fire in Your Eyes” is every bit the stirring, gorgeous ballad that Stratovarius does so well. But the gem of the album is the final track: the 11+-minute epic “The Lost Saga”, an ode to Vikings so throughly researched that it took Timo Kotipelto four nights of poring over material to make sure the lyrics were historically accurate! Over the last few albums, Stratovarius has incorporated more symphonic elements into the music and has even toyed around with some electronic influences, such as on the track “Shine in the Dark”; keeping their sound fresh enough to where their music is not too predictable or boring. Jens Johansson's songwriting is stronger too (as is apparent on the track “Man in the Mirror”), and Timo Kotipelto is still one of the most dynamic voices in metal. The addition of Lauri Porra, Matias Kupianen, and Rolf Pilve over the course of the last decade has only added depth and dimension to Stratovarius, and they sound just as good now as they did back in the late '90s when they were recording their most iconic albums. Stratovarius is in the top tier of my all-time favorite bands, so they do very little to disappoint musically as far as I'm concerned. If certain other bands had not released albums this year, this might have been my favorite album of the year; but as it stands, they have some stiff competition, so Eternal stands with some worthy company for the top spot.

Tarja: Ave Maria en Plein Air

For years, fans of Finnish soprano Tarja Turunen waited for her to make that transition from opera-metal frontwoman to recording the classical album that she had always said she'd wanted to make. Once she was given her walking papers from Nightwish, many expected that classical album to be made then, but the closest her audience got was her Christmas album Henkäys Ikuisuudesta (and then another Christmas album several years later with her side-project, Harus). A decade passed, and still nothing. It got to the point where fans wondered if she would ever get around to it, or if she had abandoned that dream in favor of staying in the niche she had created as an iconic trailblazer of her genre. But then, it finally happened: Tarja returned to her classical roots, and in typical Tarja fashion, it was not in a way anyone had anticpated. Instead of doing the predictable thing and making a standard classical album full of different songs, Tarja instead focused on one song: “Ave Maria”, a song that has over 4,000 different interpretations. I admit, when I first heard about this album, I was a little disappointed, thinking to myself that all these years I waited for her to make that classical album, and all she's going to do is record the same song 12 times? But, as a longtime fan of Tarja's voice, I decided to wait and see; to let the music do the talking, and I'm glad I did. There are 11 different renditions of the timeless classic, where Tarja does her take on the versions from artists such as Paolo Totsi, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Then the final track is a new version, written by Tarja herself. Recorded in a Finnish church with nothing more than an organ, cello, harp, and her magnificent voice; only Tarja could make an album based only on one song, and make it sound as rich and diverse as any classical album spanning the genre. While it might not have been the classical album that her fans had been expecting, it's exactly what they should have expected all along.

A Sound of Thunder: Tales From the Deadside

The hardest-working band on the metal scene today, Washington, D.C.'s A Sound of Thunder is constantly looking to top themselves, and with each new album have not only met this goal, but surpassed it beyond expectation. Their latest effort, a concept album based on the Shadowman series of Valiant comic books, is no exception. A Sound of Thunder's music is a perfect backdrop to the story of Shadowman, and his tale complements A Sound of Thunder's style perfectly. The band delves into uncharted waters by incorporating new elements into their music, such as saxophone on the track  “Punk Mambo”, which is one of my favorite tunes on the album. You don't have to be a comic book expert or a fan of the Shadowman comics to understand the story or to keep up with the album's storyline; not only is there narration between songs, but the lyrics and music easily unfurl the scenery for the listener to imagine as they follow the Shadowman's journey track by track. As if writing such an ambitious concept album wasn't enough, the band also had time to release an EP of cover tunes, including a killer duet with Veronica Freeman on the Dio classic “Last in Line”, and a flip-the-script cover of Manowar's “Pleasure Slave”! I would have loved to include the covers EP on this list, but as they are cover songs (and I would prefer listing an album of original material), I think I will save that for its own review in the near future. In any case, A Sound of Thunder continues to forge ahead at full steam, and one can only guess what they have in store for us next!

Autumn 2015 (October-December)

Children of Bodom: I Worship Chaos

The Finnish melodic death metal giants are back! OK, so some of you might have noticed a bit of a discrepancy here when you see Children of Bodom on this list, when I said earlier that I was not a huge fan of the vocal stylings of Cradle of Filth. I don't know what it is; most of the “extreme” metal vocals are not really my cup of tea, but I have always liked Children of Bodom. Their songs are anthemic and still heavy as fuck. The album gets your fists pumping from the opening track, “I Hurt”, and keeps it going with tunes like “Morrigan”, the title track, and if you have the limited edition bonus tracks, their cover of Kenny Loggins' “Danger Zone” is well worth the price of admission!

Queensrÿche: Condition Hüman

You probably already guessed it as soon as you saw this entry, that this is the album that keeps all the others from getting a clear shot at gaining top spot for my favorite of 2015. After winning the rights to their name once and for all, Queensrÿche has taken back their legacy and has fully restored it to its former glory with Condition Hüman, the follow-up to their highly-praised 2013 eponymous album. Ever since the acquisition of vocalist Todd LaTorre, Queensrÿche has experienced a revival, and the music sounds as good as it did back in the day; in some respects many fans would argue that this was the kind of music they needed to be making nearly 2 decades ago! The band sounds rejuvenated, and show as much energy and passion now as they did in their early days. From the opening notes of “Arrow of Time” to the 7+-minute masterpiece that is the album's title track, Condition Hüman makes good on everything that the previous album had promised. The band has returned to their hard-rockin' metal roots, and now they have also brought back the progressive and symphonic elements that makes them so unique. There is not a single “filler” track to be found anywhere here: even the minute-long “The Aftermath” (which could have easily been a track on the iconic Operation: Mindcrime) is filled with all the majesty, drama, and intensity that Queensrÿche is known for. While most bands who have been around as long as they have are starting to slow down or rely on nostalgia to carry them, Queensrÿche has caught a second wind and are flying high!

W.A.S.P.: Golgotha

Their first album in 6 years, W.A.S.P.'s trademark sound is apparent from “Scream”, the opening track; “Shotgun” and “Slaves of the New World” are other tunes that remind me of earlier works. Strangely enough, the first tune from the album I heard was “Miss You”, which I didn't care for at first, but now it's ended up my favorite tune on the album. Blackie's distinct vocals are still as identifiable as ever; even if he doesn't belt it out the way he used to back in the day, he can still unleash some killer vocals. While they may not need to eat raw meat or tie up women onstage to attract an audience these days, Golgotha is a worthy throwback to classic W.A.S.P., and yet another example of bands from the glory days of metal that can still rock it out in 2015.

Mercy Isle: Storm

The 4-song debut EP from Wisconsin's Mercy Isle is symphonic metal bombast at its finest: from the opening track  “I'm Gonna Make It” to album closer “Uncaged”, the husband-and-wife team of Kassy and Chad Novell are a welcome addition to the American symphonic metal scene, and Kassy's voice is so powerful that she has earned the respect of some of the biggest names in the genre, such as Stream of Passion's Marcela Bovio. The band is currently working on their full-length debut album, and I have no doubts that they're “gonna make it”, and take the world by “Storm”!

Chastain: We Bleed Metal

The team of guitar god David Chastain and frontwoman Leather Leone return for a bad-ass metal album whose title says it all. Chastain's smokin' guitar licks and Leather's wildly aggressive vocals combine to create brutal masterworks like the title track, “All Hail the King”, and “Evolution of Terror”. Leather channels the voice of her idol Ronnie James Dio to perfection on the songs “Search Time for You”, “I am a Warrior”, and “The Last Ones Alive”. But it's the album closer, “Secrets”, that embodies the in-your-face, no-nonsense power of Chastain's music. Another band from the metal heyday of the ’80s that are still making great music, Chastain proves that when they say they bleed metal, they fuckin' mean it.

Dark Moor: Project X

Even though Spain's Dark Moor has existed on the progressive/symphonic metal scene since the late ’90s, I only discovered their music this year, and I am still baffled as to how a band like this has managed to escape my attention for so long. While I was catching up on lost time by getting acquainted with their back catalog, I heard news of this album, and knew I had to pick it up. A science fiction-inspired concept album, Project X takes you on a journey involving aliens and spaceships: normally not really my thing (I'm more of a fantasy nerd, personally), but it works well for their style of music. Songs like “Beyond the Stars”, “Bon Voyage!”, and the closing track “There's Something in the Skies” sound like an interesting cross between Kamelot and Styx, which only gives it more of that progressive-rock flavor coupled with all the drama and flair of power metal. If you are fan of concept albums and over-the-top theater rock, Project X is keeping it alive and well.

Seal: 7

Yes, I actually do listen to music besides rock and metal! Shocker, right? Well, it shouldn't be! Anyway, I love Seal's voice; it is just so warm and soulful. Makes me feel peaceful and relaxed just to listen to it, as soon as his voice comes in on the opening track, “Daylight Saving”. The single “Every Time I'm With You” is gorgeous, “Life on the Dancefloor” and “Let Yourself ”shows that Seal can groove while still maintaining that air of cool that he has, and “The Big Love Has Died” and the album-closer, “Love” are tear-jerkers.

Geezër: Geezër

Who says that old folks can't rock? Because these old-timers do! Geezër is proud to be “the world's oldest band”, and in spite of their senior citizen status, they've got their finger on the pulse of what's hot on the music scene. Knowing what's cool even before the hipsters do, they've decided to surpass the whole vinyl resurgence craze, and go right to the next phase: cassettes! And Geezër hasn't stopped there: while most bands are releasing videos on YouTube or concert performances on Blu-Ray, Geezër is currently in the works of putting together their first VHS release. Always a band who thinks of their fans first, their debut album is being sold at Kmarts all across the country for the low price of $8, so their wide fanbase ranging from teenagers working at the Dairy Queen to senior citizens cutting coupons can all afford this rockin' album. With hits like “Let's go to the Beach”, “Teenage Tragedy”, and “Geezër Nation”, the Geezër revoultion is here, and you'd best take heed!

Phantasma: The Deviant Hearts

A symphonic metal supergroup formed by Everon's Oliver Phillipps, Georg Neuhauser of Serenity (another band I discovered this year) and Delain frontwoman Charlotte Wessels, Phantasma is an ambitious project with not only a novella penned by Wessels to complement the album; but the project also features a cavalcade of stars on the scene. Guest musicians from bands such as Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Evergrey, Van Canto, and the Neal Morse Band lend their talents to make this a powerhouse effort to match its larger-than-life scale. Not only are fans of these bands sure to love The Deviant Hearts, but songs like the title track, “Runaway Grey”, “Crimson Course”, and the final track “Let it Die” are certain to please any fan of progressive or symphonic metal. If that isn't enough of a selling point, then Georg and Charlotte's duet on “The Lotus and the Willow” should win over even the most critical listeners.

Rush: R40 Live

In what is said to be their last large-scale tour before drummer Neil Peart possibly goes into retirement, Rush pulls out all the stops and gives their fans the best send-off possible. Bringing back gems from the vault such as “Natural Science”, “Lakeside Park”, and “Jacob's Ladder”, Rush doesn't stop there—R40 includes the long-requested but never-performed-live “Losing It”, which many fans had hoped would be included in the setlist on their Clockwork Angels tour when the string section was added. The regular fan-favorites like “Tom Sawyer”, “The Spirit of Radio”, and “Closer to the Heart” are all here too: the setlist is nothing short of a Rush fan's dream (well, there are always those few that will complain no matter what, because with a back catalog that extensive, there are just some songs that are bound to be left out of the setlist no matter how hard you try!). Whether you are a fan who was lucky enough to catch this tour and want to relive your memories, or a fan (like myself) who was unable to attend any of the shows and want to see what you missed, it is a perfect commemoration of their 4-decade career. If R40 is indeed the band's last hurrah, then they went out at the top of their game and doing it their way, as they always have—which is a lot more than can be said of many other bands who have had just as lengthy a history as Rush.

Thrillkiller: Time

When Baltimore-based metal band Aries disbanded in mid-2015, bandmates Rob Bradley and Maxim Sobchenko promptly picked up the pieces, and started a new band called Thrillkiller. By year's end, their 4-song EP, Time, was ready to go. This project is very different from Aries—based more on pop melodies and catchy hooks than on metal aggression—and because of this, Thrillkiller showcases Rob and Maxim's diversity as musicians and as songwriters. Maxim can still produce blazing guitar riffs, and Rob can still belt out notes that would make Halford proud; but they can also write songs that pleasantly stick in your head and hearken back to the days when good music ruled the radio airwaves, and “pop” was not a shameful word equated with “auto-tuned, mindless garbage”. Thrillkiller is bringing back all the timeless components of what made ’80s pop listenable and still enjoyable to this day, the same way that Aries took all the elements of ’80s metal and updated them for a modern audience. Maxim and Rob are currrently working on a full-length album due for release in 2016, so needless to say, they've probably already earned a spot on next year's list!

Clark's Secret Identity: Clark's Secret Identity

Released right at the end of the year, Clark's Secret Identity had just enough time to make it onto this list! The debut EP from this Pennsylvanian power trio is prog-rock without all the self-indulgent overkill that can oftentimes make progressive rock its own worst enemy. Culling their influences not only from prog masters like Genesis, Rush, and Yes; CSI also finds inspiration everywhere from art rock to symphonic metal, and this 4-song EP shows a lot of potential from an up-and-coming band who has what it takes to make an impact on Pennsylvania's flourishing prog scene.


That's a wrap for 2015! Wow, what a musical journey this year has been; but I am sure that I didn't even come close to scratching the surface of all that was out there. What about all of you? Which albums here made your personal list, if any? Which ones were your favorites that you didn't see here that you would recommend? What albums are you waiting for in 2016? I'm always happy to hear from you in the comments section and I'm always glad to check out new music or get reacquainted with those bands and artists that I haven't heard from in a while.

Happy New Year!!! See you in 2016!

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