Friday, 1 January 2016

Music of 2015 - Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote a blog that talked about some great albums that I had not had chance to review throughout the year. This was all in aid of building up to this post, my Top 10 albums of 2015! Every music blogger feels obliged to try and rank some of the best music that they have heard over the past year, and I am no different. I enjoy trying to decide which albums I have enjoyed the most, but it is never easy. Ask me in a week's time and this list could be quite different I imagine but I think, objectively, these are the albums I have been playing the most throughout 2015. Metal has been particularly strong this year, and it features in abundance. As usual, only studio albums of new material count; so compilations, live albums, and EPs do not count for the purposes of this list. For more information on each of the albums featured here, click on the album's title to see my original review of it. Without any further ado, here they are:

10) Sylosis - Dormant Heart
This is the first album that I reviewed this year, and it has stuck with me throughout 2015 and I return to it often. Reading's premier metal outfit have outdone themselves on their fourth album, reigning in the progressive arrangements slightly to make way for stronger songwriting that leaves an instant impression. It is crushingly heavy throughout, but there is still plenty of melody in Josh Middleton's stellar lead guitar sections, and tonnes of groove in the riffs. While Sylosis have not yet reached the level of acclaim that they deserve, this album will probably go someway in seeing them achieve that goal.
Listen to: Dormant Heart, To Build a Tomb & Leech

9) W.A.S.P. - Golgotha
While W.A.S.P. peaked a long time ago, and are well past their commercial prime, they have been remarkably consistent throughout their career. Their fifteenth album Golgotha is no different, and sees Blackie Lawless doing what he does best, and that is writing anthemic metal songs, with some aching ballads thrown in for good measure. Lead guitarist Doug Blair often steals the show though, and many of the songs here feature many extended guitar solo sections that just ooze perfectly from the speakers. W.A.S.P. are not about to shock you with a huge departure from their established sound, but Golgotha shows us that they are as potent as ever, and still a force to be reckoned with.
Listen to: Scream, Last Runaway & Slaves of the New World Order

8) Blind Guardian - Beyond the Red Mirror
This is another album that was released early on in the year, and another that I keep coming back to fairly often. After a five year gap between albums, Blind Guardian impressed us all again with Beyond the Red Mirror, an album that saw their unique brand of power metal fused even further with epic orchestral arrangements. While I feel the production is a little weak compared to the band's last album, the ambitious songwriting and overall scope makes it worthy of this spot. Many of the songs are long and progressive, with lots of intricate sections that take many listens to fully appreciate. This is an extremely impressive piece of work, and one that shows that Blind Guardian are one of the best bands in their genre.
Listen to: The Ninth Wave, Prophecies & The Throne

7) Symphony X - Underworld
Symphony X had been fairly quiet over the past couple of years as the band members all worked on their own projects, but July saw the release of their ninth album Underworld, and it was worth the wait! Returning to their fantasy-inspired lryics once again, the band seemed to be filled with new fire and have written some of their catchiest songs ever for this album. While not as complex and progressive as some past albums, Underworld is a heavy, melodic, and beautiful album that showcases the band at their best. It also proves that they have probably the best vocalist in the progressive metal world in Russell Allen, who uses his impressive range to convey many different emotions throughout the album.
Listen to: Kiss of Fire, Charon & To Hell and Back

6) Amorphis - Under the Red Cloud
Finland's multifaceted metal masters Amorphis have returned this year with one of the best albums of their career. Since frontman Tomi Joutsen joined the band in 2005, the band have gone from strength to strength and this album seems to be a culmination of all that has come before, with a greater influence on the folk side of their songwriting. Extended guitar leads, organic keyboards, and Joutsen's dynamic vocals mix together well to create a varied album that mixes folk, gothic, and progressive metal together; with the emphasis being on melody and solid songwriting. There is even a real death/doom number that comes at you out of left field, but it sounds so right at the same time.
Listen to: Bad Blood, Sacrifice & White Night

5) Karnataka - Secrets of Angels
Five years after their last album, and after the second major line-up overhaul of their career, Karnataka return with Secrets of Angels. This is much more streamlined, rockier album than anything the band have done before, and it packs quite an unexpected punch. New frontwoman Hayley Griffiths has already formed an excellent songwriting partnership with founding member Ian Jones, and the result is stellar. While some people might be disappointed that the Celtic, atmospheric part of the band's sound has taken more of a backseat here, but this is made up for in spades with big guitar and keyboard epics that showcase Griffiths' powerful vocals. The twenty minute title track is something to behold too!
Listen to: Forbidden Dreams, Fairytale Lies & Secrets of Angels

4) Toto - XIV
Despite seemingly only reforming for a short tour five years ago, Toto have just kept going and that short reunion has turned into a new era for the band, capped off nicely by new album XIV. Joseph Williams returns to the fold and it is as if he has never been away, and joined forces well with Steve Lukather and David Paich to write some new AOR anthems. The album is very varied, fusing rock, blues, jazz-like sections, and progressive rock together seamlessly to create something that is classy, memorable, and packed full of soaring melodies. While XIV might not be as overtly catchy as their 1980s output, it is a very mature piece of work that impresses just as much but on slightly different levels. Melodic rock needs Toto to kick it up the backside every so often, and that is what they have done here.
Listen to: Burn, Holy War & Chinatown

3) Kamelot - Haven
On their second album with current frontman Tommy Karevik, we find Kamelot rejuvenated. The best sounds and styles from Kamelot albums past are present here, and this is one of those albums that only gets better each time you hear it. Thomas Youngblood and Oliver Palotai have really hit their songwriting stride again here, and there is not a song on here that is not memorable or catchy in some way. There is also huge variation in the material found here: from the most delicate and reflective they have ever sounded, to the heaviest and most angry. This is an album I can listen to anytime, and one that has been a big success for the band.
Listen to: Insomnia, Beautiful Apocalypse & Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)

2) Nightwish - Endless Forms Most Beautiful
With Dutch vocal giant Floor Jansen now in tow, Finland's biggest musical export Nightwish have really pushed themselves on Endless Forms Most Beautiful and have created one of the biggest-sounding albums of all time. It took me quite a while to fully appreciate it, and I think it has only been in the last couple of months that some songs have really hit home for me. This is quite a heavy album that makes use of Jansen's gritter vocal style, but the enormous orchestral arrangements and delicate piano sections are still here in abundance too. The 24 minute closing number The Greatest Show on Earth the easily the most epic and ambitious song written and produced all year, and it rounds out the album perfectly.
Listen to: Weak Fantasy, Alpenglow & The Greatest Show on Earth

1) Queensrÿche - Condition Hüman
This was probably inevitable for anyone who knows me well! While the previous two albums here are probably superior in some respects, the smile on my face while hearing one of my favourite bands rock hard again says it all. The 2013 self-titled album was good, but this one blows it out the water and contains some excellent songs by the band that put progressive metal on the map in the first place. It is not as technical as older albums, instead focusing on the metal end of the band's sound and creating something that hits you hard and fills your head with melody. I am not sure that there has ever been a band rejuvination on the scale of Queensrÿche since Todd La Torre's introduction, and I really hope it carries on long into the future!
Listen to: Guardian, Toxic Remedy & Eye9

There you go, my list for this year! I doubt that many of these albums will come as a surprise for those that follow this blog or know my music tastes, but it is still great to get it down on paper. As I said before though, ask me again in a week's time and things could be different! It is always hard to whittle the list down to 10, and I hate having to leave some albums out. Some honourable mentions this year are Black Star Riders' sophomore album The Killer Instinct which rocked, Europe's bluesy War of Kings which showed their continual development and reinvention, and Pyramaze's classy power metal outing Disciples of the Sun which is an album I never thought I would hear. 2015 has been another great year for music, and I am already looking forward to what 2016 will bring!

Top 3 gigs of 2015:

3) Toto, Hammersmith Apollo, 26/05/2015
After releasing the excellent XIV, Toto were on a high and came to London to impress. The long, career-spanning show was hugely memorable, and featured a good portion of the new album plus classics and lesser-played songs from the band's back catalogue. Joseph Williams is probably the best frontman the band have ever had, and it was great to finally see guitarist Steve Lukather live, and he played many an impressive solo throughout the evening. They were one of the bands I had been wanting to see live for ages, and they did not disappoint.

2) Mostly Autumn, The Assembly, 13/12/2015
I have seen Mostly Autumn plenty of times, but they still know how to pull all of the stops out every so often and really impress. The show featured the best live rendition of the album Dressed in Voices I have seen, plus rarely-played epics and a set of excellent Pink Floyd covers which were expertly performed by the band and a collection of special guests, including violinist Anna Phoebe who added a lot to the band's sound. It was a really long night of music, but it flew by and the Christmas-themed encore was hugely fun for everyone in the room, including all the musicians on stage.

1) Nightwish, Wembley Arena, 19/12/2015
I have seen Nightwish live three times now, and this was easily the best of the bunch. The band's current line-up is the best the band have ever been, and it showed throughout this epic and ambitious night of live music. A lot of material from the latest album was played, as well as choice cuts from the band's back catalogue. Floor Jansen stole the show with her commanding vocal display, and showed why she is the best choice to front the band. The show has been recorded too, so I hope to be able to relive this on DVD one day!

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