Well, it’s finally over! 2016 – an interesting year of ups and downs , but I think we can all agree it was another fantastic year for traditional metal. Here is my own humble offering of my five favourite albums of the year.
Wytch Hazel – Prelude, Bad Omen Records
Bad Omen, I doff my cap to thee, for putting out two of the most respectable records of the year – the brilliant release from the blokes across the pond in Spell (there is a constant inner voice berating me for not including it in this list), and this fine debut from the young Lancastrians, Wytch Hazel.
They first appeared at the very periphery of my radar when there was some talk around their split with Borrowed Time, featuring the eponymous track from their EP, The Truth. And then not really a right lot, until I heard that they were playing just across the Pennines around this time last year. I trotted over (not solely to see them), and despite the fact that my eyes had rolled way back into my head at the sight of their fruity outfits, and that they were down a man and playing an acoustic set, and that I was pissed as a fart, there was something special about them.
Without wanting to sound to feverishly patriotic, I do have to say that I love how quintessentially British sounding this record is – very ’70-’72 Wishbone Ash, with just a hint of medieval minstrel. The lyrics are a little… Jesus-y, for want of a better term, but honestly, I just don’t give a sh*t. Charming, folksy lines woven into simple riffs, and modest vocals that are sparingly augmented with the odd harmony – a beautiful return to basics.
Dark Forest – Beyond the Veil, Cruz del Sur
I can’t think of the last time a British band made my top five, and somehow here we are, two British albums from two bands so closely related and yet so divergent in their releases this year. Together, they are putting Britain firmly back on the heavy metal map.
Any band that was in such lofty company as Atlantean Kodex (supporting them both in Glasgow and at their incredible home gig in Bavaria), was surely worth a listen. And yet, my first encounters with them were far from earth-shattering. Their self-titled debut, for me, verges on unlistenable, mainly due to the vocals, and, whilst 2014’s ‘The Awakening’ was infinitely better, it was still somewhat lacklustre.
‘Beyond the Veil’ took me entirely by surprise. Spanning an incredible seventy minutes, I can only imagine the sense of accomplishment upon completion of this behemoth. It is a testament to the quality of the music that I almost never skip anything (although I often jump back to ‘Earthbound’ – so epic!) – and I have the attention span of a gnat.
Lets face it, this record couldn’t be more English if it was drinking tea and waving a scone in the air. Powerful riffs, with beatufiully intertwined guitar harmonies, the magnificent vocals of Josh Winnard (ex- Wytch Hazel) that have come on leaps and bounds since their last release, and elegant, old-world lyrics paint a stunning picture of the British landscape – they even manage to make East Anglia sound magical!
All in all, strong, solid power metal that makes you want to close your eyes, clasp your sword, and think of King and country.
Eternal Champion – The Armor of Ire, No Remorse Records
Why am I always late to the party? Well. I am my own worst enemy.
That they were opening the biggest underground heavy metal festival in the world should have been my first clue that perhaps, just maybe, I ought to check them out. And poor O.W.K nagged and nagged, and sent me links to ‘I am the Hammer’ in virtually every conversation we had, which I ceremoniously ignored. Until I finally conceded, and got an old-school ass-kicking of epic proportions.
Rather than the sophisticated, elegant metal that one has come to expect from the newer breed of heavy metal bands, this does exactly what it says on the tin (and by ‘tin’ I mean the entirely fitting Manowar-worship album cover, complete with loincloth and token bikini-clad virgin) – some bloke in Texas making unpretentious, unapologetic, pure heavy metal. Oh and by the way – he’s a blacksmith. That’s right – he makes swords. Top that.
The album, as far as I understand, is inspired by the Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series, but all that flies right over my head (I think being the owner of ovaries makes that sort of thing especially difficult to decipher). The warmongering, bloodthirsty lyrics however, have pretty universal appeal. And although I get the feeling that these guys don’t take themselves particularly seriously, the music is tight as nails. Very Manilla Road, and I don’t throw that comparison around lightly.
Santa didn’t pre-order me the vinyl, so I’ll have to add that onto my rather unwieldy to-do list for the new year, which should keep me nicely occupied until Keep it True!
Fates Warning – Theories of Flight, Inside Out
I think I’ve made it pretty obvious just how much I adore Fates Warning, in all their incarnations, so I had pretty high expectations for this record – and honestly, I could just weep for how absolutely stunning it is. The grit of ‘No Exit’, the heartwrenching beauty of ‘Perfect Symmetry’, and the emotional journey that was ‘Parallels’ all blend into this amalgam of everything intrinsically Fates Warning.
The overarching presence of Jim Matheos is palpable in every second of this album – effortlessly progressive, from the mind of the maestro himself. Ray Alder’s voice has matured into something far removed from what it once was, taking on a different dimension of depth and warmth, whilst remaining captivating as ever in its clarity, though he may perhaps no longer command the range he once could. And with veterans Joey Vera on bass and Bobby Jarzombek manning the skins, I hardly noticed the absence of Frank Aresti.
It’s too difficult to pick a favourite, but songs like ‘The Light and Shade of Things’ and ‘The Ghosts of Home’ brought the prickle of tears to my eyes. As always, the haunting lyrics, and the feeling with which they are delivered are deeply moving.
All in all – simply a spectacular return to form.
Quicksand Dream – Beheading Tyrants, Cruz del Sur
And why the bloody hell not?
Last winter was spent in rage, mood swings and unprecendented weight gain as I revised for my life-changing, career-altering examination to become a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. In the run up to the exam, I attended a cramming course in London, and in the evenings, I avoided the other doctors like the plague, because I couldn’t bear another second of revision chat. On the last evening, my lovely friend Al rescued me from a night of staring at four walls, whisked me off for a cheeky Nandos, and, because neither of us could resist, a little nose in the local record shop.
Eagle-eyed Al pulled out a record with a pretty, dreamy looking lighthouse on it, nothing else, and strongly advised that I buy it. Of course I did, and then it basically didn’t leave my record player for a month, because ‘Aelin – A Story About Destiny’ has become one of my go-to epic metal albums.
Beheading Tyrants is not perfect. It is far too short, for a start. It is coarse, and somewhat minimalist in its production, lacking the finesse that perhaps a larger budget might have afforded. It is at times plaintive, and then all at once, confusingly tumultuous. And still I fell in love. I felt that rush of blood to the head, the excitement, the discovery of something new with every spin. When I wasn’t listening to it, I was thinking about it, and, more than once, startled my poor doggies by spontaneously bursting into ‘Daughters of Eve, reach for your swords!’.
Just wonderful, raw, epic metal, one that I will be listening to well into the new year.
Other bits and bobs that I simply cannot ignore –
Best EP: Watchtower – Concepts of Math: Book One
Best re-release: Sage Meridien – Whispered Tales (PS: vinyl is anticipated soon!)
Most anticipated in 2017:
Cirith Ungol at Keep it True (OMG!)
High Spirits at Brofest
Lunar Shadow – Far From Light (I have heard enough to know that this will be breathtaking)
And now, for a swift nightcap and bedtime cuddles with the big black dog, because she’s terrified of fireworks, and some of us are celebrating the new year by working a thirteen hour shift in a busy major trauma centre – hurrah!