Monday, 1 January 2018

Music of 2017 - Part 2

As promised yesterday, when I started my round of the 2017 musical year, today I will detail my favourite albums that have been released this year. Nearly every music blog attempts to do something like this each year, and it is a good way to look back at all the great music I have enjoyed over the past year. As always, writing this list has not been easy. 2017, each year before it, has been packed full of great new albums and there are plenty of albums that could have easily been included here but just missed the cut. Ask me on another day and this list might look different, but I feel I have picked the ten albums that have most defined my intake of new music throughout 2017. As always, only studio albums of new original material are eligible to be included. EPs, live albums, compilations, covers albums etc. are not in contention here so the below ten albums contain some of my very favourite new music of the year.

10) Aaron Buchanan and the Cult Classics - The Man With Stars on his Knees
Former Heaven's Basement frontman Aaron Buchanan returned to the rock world after a fairly quiet couple of years with a new backing band, which includes his guitar-wielding sister Laurie, and a new album packed full of new anthems. While some of the songs are similar to the sound he helped forge on Heaven's Basement's excellent 2013 release Filthy Empire, there are plenty of other flavours here too including plenty of early 1990s grunge and even some theatrical pomp. This is a hard-hitting album that is tied together by Buchanan's excellent and expressive vocal performance.
Listen to: Dancin' Down Below, The Devil That Needs You & Morals?

9) Firewind - Immortals
Firewind returned in January with their first album in five years and their first effort with German powerhouse vocalist Henning Basse. Founding member and guitarist Gus G.'s time away from the band focusing on his solo career clearly gave him new drive when writing the songs for this album, and the result is a heavy, yet melodic, collection of songs that could well the band's best effort yet. Firewind's brand of power metal has always been tougher than that of their peers', and this is clear here as each song is driven by one of G.'s knockout riffs and backed up by an earth-shaking vocal performance. While G. has done plenty of good work outside of Firewind over the years, the Greek power metal band is his true home and it is where he has always demonstrated his talents the clearest.
Listen to: Ode to Leonidas, Back on the Throne & Lady of 1000 Sorrows

8) Black Star Riders - Heavy Fire
Another album from the early part of the year, Heavy Fire sees Black Star Riders further establish themselves as one of the very best classic rock revival bands of recent years. This is another collection of no-nonsense hard rock with few frills, and similar in style to their previous two releases, but I feel this is the album which has finally allowed them to step out from the shadow of their previous band Thin Lizzy and stand up firmly on their own. From the air raid siren that accompanies the title track's muscular riff, past the twin-guitar laid back groove of Dancing with the Wrong Girl, to the soulful blues stomp of Ticket to Ride, this is an album which oozes classic rock class from start to finish.
Listen to: Dancing with the Wrong Girl, Testify or Say Goodbye & Ticket to Ride

7) Iced Earth - Incorruptible
Iced Earth are an extremely consistent band, so it should be no surprise that their latest effort Incorruptible is included here. Jon Schaffer is one of the best rhythm guitarists and riff writers in the world, and his distinct guitar style has dominated the band since their late 1980s genesis. There are plenty more great riffs to be found here, and frontman Stu Block - on his third album with the band - turns in a dynamic and powerful vocal performance throughout which helps to bring Schaffer's compositions to life. New lead guitarist Jake Dreyer also impresses throughout, and has contributed many of the band's most memorable leads and solos in recent years to the songs here. This is an album that continues to the band's impressive run of albums and reaffirms their place in the metal world.
Listen to: Black Flag, Seven Headed Whore & Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862)

6) Anathema - The Optimist
The Optimist feels like the album that the Liverpudlian six-piece Anathema have been working towards since their rebirth in 2010 with the critically acclaimed We're Here Because We're Here. The band's usual mix of trippy rockers and atmospheric ballads has been merged with a distinct experimental electronic vibe in places which has been used to great effect throughout. The vocal interplay of Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas is still what makes Anathema such a captivating listen, but the subtle musical additions throughout have made this a stand-out album in their discography and feels like the culmination of their recent sound evolution.
Listen to: Leaving it Behind, Springfield & Back to the Start

5) Trivium - The Sin and the Sentence
Trivium prove that they are one of the best modern mainstream metal bands in the world with their eight album The Sin and the Sentence. With a fantastic new drummer in Alex Bent in tow, Trivium reacquainted themselves with their heavier selves here which has resulted in a technical, heavy, yet melodic, album that contains some of the band's best songs in years. Matt Heafy has never sounded better vocally. He largely sticks to clean singing throughout, but is not averse to unleashing some gut-wrenching screams when the moment calls for it. In many ways The Sin and the Sentence feels like the ultimate Trivium album, and one that contains the best elements of all their previous albums all wrapped up in a devastatingly heavy production.
Listen to: Beyond Oblivion, Betrayer & The Revanchist

4) Styx - The Mission
Each year throws up surprises, and Styx's sixteenth album The Mission was certainly one of 2017's greatest unexpected releases. A new Styx album was certainly not something I was ever expecting, with the band seemingly content to rest on past glories, but The Mission is a real return to form from one of the best pomp rock bands out there and one that recalls their late 1970s greatness. The melodic songwriting that helped make the band so popular has never sounded so fresh, all wrapped up in the glorious vocal harmonies of Tommy Shaw and Lawrence Gowan. What I really love about this album though is it feels as if it was recorded in 1978. The retro-sounding Hammond organ that appears throughout is very evocative of that era, and the spacey lyrics that fuel the album's tight concept feel like something from a bygone era.
Listen to: Hundred Million Miles from Home, Radio Silence & The Outpost

3) Brother Firetribe - Sunbound
There has been plenty of excellent AOR albums released this year, but the best of the bunch for me was Finland's Brother Firetribe and their fourth album Sunbound. While the band clearly write their songs in the style of and as a tribute to their 1980s heroes, they are so well written and produced that it does not matter that this is pure pastiche. The feel-good melodies and lyrics that made AOR such a force to be reckoned with in the 1980s. Sunbound is an album that just unashamedly wants to have a good time, and the band (for some of whom Brother Firetribe is a side project) clearly enjoy letting their hair down and remembering a simple time when a big chorus was all you needed.
Listen to: Taste of a Champion, Give me Tonight & Big City Dream

2) Mostly Autumn - Sight of Day
Regular readers of this blog will know that the York-based progressive rock band Mostly Autumn are one of my very favourite bands so it will surprise no-one that Sight of Day has been included here. While I feel that their previous effort, the dark concept album Dressed in Voices, is a better album overall; this new effort contains some absolutely stunning stand out songs that are up their with the best things they have ever one. Founding member and guitarist Bryan Josh continues to improve as a songwriter, and choice contributions from Olivia Sparnenn-Josh, Iain Jennings, and the returning Chris Johnson help to make Sight of Day an album packed full of variety and tonnes of heart. The album is worth hearing for the title track alone, which is quite possibly the band's best song to date and contains everything that has ever made Mostly Autumn great packed into a 14 minute epic that questions the very concept of life.
Listen to: Sight of Day, Changing Lives & Tomorrow Dies

1) Threshold - Legends of the Shires
The return of vocalist Glynn Morgan to the band after more than twenty years away, and the re-embracing of the band's progressive metal roots, has really rejuvenated Threshold and allowed Karl Groom and Richard West to write a soaring concept album full of the band's trademark melodies with plenty of twists and turns taking place along the way. This is a long album, but one that never gets boring and only improves over time. Morgan's vocal performance is excellent, and the soundscapes created by West's diverse keyboard textures are a perfect bed for him - and Groom's guitar solos - to lie on. While this is not as overtly catchy as the band's last few albums, I feel that this one will have more staying power going forward. This is packed with true class, and shows that Threshold should be held in as high a regard as bands like Dream Theater and Fates Warning.
Listen to: Small Dark Lines, Stars and Satellites & Lost in Translation

Well there you have it, my favourite albums of 2017! There are so many that could have been included, and there were some albums that I felt bad about having to miss out. Album's like Battle Beast's furious Bringer of Pain, DragonForce's Reaching into Infinity, and Kreator's Gods of Violence could have easily been included here, and that just goes to show what a wealth of riches 2017 has provided. Over the last few years I have also detailed my favourite gigs of the year, something which I will also do now. Last year I decided to pick my top 3 'big' and 'small' gigs of the year - as arena shows are really hard to compare against small club nights out - so this is something I have decided to do again. I have been to so many great gigs this year, so picking my favourites was just as hard as it was picking my favourite albums!

Top 3 'Big' Gigs of 2017:

3) Guns N' Roses, London Stadium, 17/06/2017
Axl Rose's reunion with Slash and Duff McKagan was one of the biggest musical events of the past few years, and the lengthy world tour that followed was always going to be something special. The London Stadium was the host of the band's two London shows, and I attended the second night with thousands of other people from across the country. The setlist spanned the band's entire history, and saw Rose and Slash really strutting their stuff and showing why they are such a loved duo. The show lasted for the best part of three hours, and included all of the band's best-known hits as well as a glut of deep cuts and lesser-known numbers. The actual show was one of the best I have seen, but I was quite far back from the stage which is why it has dropped down this list somewhat.

2) Kiss, Barclaycard Arena, 28/05/2017
Kiss were one of the first bands that I discovered on my own, and I had been wanting to see them for over ten years. The opportunity finally came earlier this year, and a night in Birmingham found the veteran glam band on top form as they stormed through a set that contained most of their greatest hits alongside a handful of deeper cuts. A Kiss concert is a true show however, and they had the stage show to back up their legendary reputation. There were pyrotechnics aplenty, and the moment which saw Paul Stanley fly out over the crowd to a small stage near the back to belt out a powerful rendition of the latter day Kiss classic Psycho Circus is the part of the show which really stands out

1) Marillion, Royal Albert Hall, 13/10/2017
While not as 'big' as the previous two shows in this list, the Albert Hall is still a large place and the show that Marillion put on inside the hallowed hall certainly made this a night to remember. The first part of the show included the entirety of their latest album Fuck Everyone and Run, before the second part saw the band joined by some classic musicians for a set of some of their greatest songs. The atmosphere within the sold out Albert Hall was something very special indeed, and being seated so close to the stage made everything even better. This seemed like it was a defining night for the band, often so cruelly dismissed and ridiculed by the mainstream, and this felt like vindication after so many years in the wilderness. This is one of the very best shows I have ever been to, and one that will stick in my memory for many years to come.

Top 3 'Small' Gigs of 2017:

3) Eclipse, Thekla, 23/04/2017
Sweden's Eclipse had never been a huge favourite of mine, but I am glad I took this opportunity to see them on their latest UK tour as it made me a real fan! The venue was surprisingly busy throughout the night, and the band played melodic anthem after melodic anthem that the crowd just lapped up. Erik MÃ¥rtensson is a great songwriter and frontman, and he really owned the stage all night as he belted out those soaring stadium-sized choruses. They made a new fan for life with this performance, and I cannot wait for them to come back!

2) Tyketto, Thekla, 28/01/2017
Tyketto are a special band, and a packed Thekla proved that they are still a draw here in the UK. Danny Vaughn is another excellent frontman and led the band through a lengthy career-spanning set that saw plenty of singing from the big crowd. New(ish) guitarist Chris Green often stole the show however. He played the old songs perfectly, and really cut loose when performing the songs that he co-wrote with the band for their latest album Shine. Tyketto are a band that never really got the credit and recognition that they deserve, which is sad, but there are still clearly plenty of us fans around and I am sure they will be back soon.

1) Mostly Autumn, The Assembly, 16/09/2017
A Mostly Autumn show in The Assembly in Leamington Spa has become an annual tradition now, and one that usually sees the band performing an extended set packed with fan favourites. The show this year opened with a full performance of one of my favourite new releases of the year Sight of Day, before undertaking a second set that included many of the band's best loved older numbers. This was another show that was pushing three hours, and was easily the best of the three Mostly Autumn shows that I saw in 2017. Mostly Autumn shows are always special occasions, but this one felt like of the best of theirs that I have seen, and I am already excited for the next time!

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