Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Music of 2013 - Part 1

2013 has been another excellent year for new music. With each passing year, my musical palette widens slightly and I find myself buying more and more new albums. Since I have started reviewing albums on this blog, I have taken more care when listening to new music and I think this has benefited my overall listening experience. I have enjoyed writing these reviews and, from the modest viewing figures my blog gets, it seems that a few people out there also enjoy reading them. The figures are never huge, but they are enough to keep me writing them. My Top 10 albums of the year will be posted tomorrow, but this year I thought it might be nice to do a more general post first that sums up 2013's music a little bit and gives me a chance to talk about some albums I never had time to review. When deciding whether or not to review an album there are a few things I take into account. How long the album has been out is a major factor. If an album came out in March and I finally got around to buying it in September, I will not review it as it has been out too long for my review to really mean anything. Also, some albums I just do not really have anything to say about them. Albums that fall into this category are usually pretty average releases with nothing either very good or very bad about them. Those kind of albums are very hard to review and it is easier just not to bother as they will only end up being either: very short; or pointless waffling about nothing in particular. However, there are some albums that I never got a chance to review, for whatever reason, and would like to briefly talk about here. They will not be proper reviews, but little tasters of the albums and why I like them. There are five I am going to talk about and they will be done in alphabetical order by band name.

Amorphis' eleventh studio album Circle is the first of these albums. Since frontman Tomi Joutsen joined the band in 2005, Amorphis have really found their sound and Circle is a culmination of everything that has been great about the Joutsen era so far. Their mix of progressive, folk and melodic death metal is extremely unique and is showcased well on this album. As always Esa Holopainen's guitar leads are the focus of the music, and they are the main source of melody in what can sometimes be a dense and heavy sound. Amorphis always use light and shade well and on Circle this is no exception. Anthemic, melodic moments like The Wanderer mix well with the heavy Nightbird's Song to create an album with plenty of depth and variety. Their use of traditional folk instruments, particularly flutes, in places just adds an edge of authenticity to their sound that some similar bands lack. This is an excellent album that any prog fan is sure to love, as well as any serious metalhead.

Moving to much more traditional hard rock territory, Burning Rain's third album Epic Obession is a real throwback to the 1980s when rock ruled the world. The songwriting team of frontman Keith St. John and guitar legend Doug Aldrich (Lion; Hurricane; Bad Moon Rising; Dio; Whitesnake) has produced a solid rock album of memorable riffs, big choruses and fluid guitar solos. While it does not live up to Aldrich's last couple of albums with Whitesnake there is still plenty to enjoy here. St. John's bluesy voice is perfectly suited to ballads like Heaven Gets Me By and Aldrich's slightly sleazy riffs make Ride the Monkey and My Lust Your Fate some of the best pure hard rock songs to be written outside of a major band in years. It suffers from being slightly overlong but the production and general performance is excellent. Anyone who likes good, old-fashioned hard rock should check this out, as well as those who are a fan of Aldrich's guitar playing.

It is the turn of symphonic metal now and ReVamp's second studio album Wild Card. This was released around the time that frontwoman Floor Jansen (After Forever; Nightwish) was annouced as the full-time replacement for Anette Olzon in Nightwish so there was a fair bit of interest surrounding this release. The self-titled release from 2010 felt more like Jansen's solo album but this one has a real band feel with good contributions from guitarist Jord Otto and keyboardist Ruben Wijga in particular. It is heavier than your average symphonic metal release, focusing on big guitar riffs and furious drumming. Jansen's massive vocal range is used well here, and sees her even delivering some excellent harsh vocals on occation. Well placed guest vocals from Mark Jansen (After Forever; Epica; MaYaN) and Devin Townsend (Strapping Young Lad; Devin Townsend Project) mix things up nicely and songs like the Anatomy of a Nervous Breakdown suite and the bombastic Precibus show that Jansen is an excellent songwriter as well as an excellent vocalist!

Melodic death metal is as popular as ever and Soilwork have always been one of the leading and most accessible bands in the genre. In 2013 they released their ninth album The Living Infinite which was advertised as the first double album in melodic death metal history. New guitarist David Andersson filled the songwriting shoes of Peter Wichers perfectly and has created a monster of an album along with frontman Björn 'Speed' Strid and the rest of the band. For a double album, it is extremely consistent with very little filler to be found. As usual, the songs are full of massive, anthemic choruses that are made to be heard live. Songs like Spectrum of Eternity and This Momentary Bliss are classic Soilwork but there are a few more experimental moments such as the haunting closing track Owls Predict, Oracles Stand Guard and a few little instrumental interludes break up the pace slightly.

The final album I am going to talk about is the traditional heavy metal stylings of White Wizzard. 2013's The Devils Cut is their third album and probably their best up to this point. Frontman Joseph Michael's powerful voice and the twin lead guitar attack of Will Wallner and Jake Dreyer evoke everything that was great about the NWOBHM movement while bassist Jon Leon's songwriting was tight and melodic. Lightning in my Hands and Kings of the Highway are the best of the bunch while songs like Strike the Iron are solidly enjoyable. It is just a shame that, yet again, the band spectacularly imploded while on tour here in the UK leaving only founding member Leon still left as a member of the band. However, without dwelling on the ins and outs of what was a very ugly and vitriolic split, this remains a great piece of retro metal for the 21st Century.

And now, as a little bonus, I would like to give a shout out to my favourite live release of the year. I do not normally talk about live albums/DVDs but I think it would be nice to mention this in my round up of 2013's music. The release I am talking about is Iced Earth's Live in Ancient Kourion which is 2CD/DVD release that is also avaliable on Blu Ray. This documents a mammoth two and a half hour set performed in Cyprus on the band's world tour promoting 2011's Dystopia. The band were on fire that night and fronman Stu Block shows us exactly why he is the band's current singer by effortlessly making the band's extensive back catalogue his own. The songs from Dystopia stand up strong against their classics from the past and sees a few rarer songs pulled out of the vaults like oldie When the Night Falls and the 16 minute epic Dante's Inferno. This an excellent document of an excellent tour and shows that new blood really can make a band raise it's game!

Talking of Iced Earth, this is a perfect moment to briefly talk about what albums I am looking forward to in 2014. This will round off the first part of this blog, with the Top 10 albums of 2013 coming tomorrow. Plagues of Babylon, Iced Earth's eleventh studio album is due next week and I am very excited to hear it. At the moment, I would say that it is my most anticipated album of 2014 and hearing clips of it have only reinforced this opinion. Another album I have pre-ordered is Bruce Springsteen's High Hopes. Springsteen is always hugely consistent so I expect this album will be as enjoyable as all his others. It is interesting in the fact that he is going back and revisiting old tracks that he never properly recorded or were only ever b-sides so it'll be nice to finally hear these songs properly. Grand Magus' Triumph and Power is also promising to be very good. The Swedish heavy metal titans have been on a great run of form recently so I expect their new album to be unashamedly heavy. Panic Room are also releasing their fourth album Incarnate which I am sure will be excellent. Having not seen the band since June, I have not heard any of the new songs live so will be going into the album totally blind. I am sure it will be very enjoyable and varied as always though! At the moment, these are my most anticipated albums of 2014, but there are plenty more on my radar and plenty more I am sure to be announced during the course of the year. Thank you for reading my reviews this year and come back tomorrow for my Top 10 albums of the year!

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