As if it’s February.
I do love living in the South West. I’m never more than five minutes away from absolute
wilderness, and I have embraced country living – stomping around with the pups through woodlands and streams has become part of our daily routine. Best of all – the listening corner is back up and running!
I thought that having a few weeks off would be a nice little break before starting my new job, but between moving, acquiring a new car, and the constant cleaning that comes with two lumbering beasts that insist on following you everywhere, oh and recording a heavy metal album (stay tuned for more about that!), I’ve barely stopped. Tomorrow I go back to work, in a completely new hospital, with new people, taking up more responsibilities, and my stomach is churning at the thought.
It’s funny, I started writing this blog with the intention of achieving some great catalogue of USPM before I turned 30, and here I am, halfway to 31 and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I mean, I should really be reading the shiny new Orthopaedic textbook that Santa got me, but in typical fashion, here I am, over a month late, still wrestling with my (somewhat Scandinavia-heavy) end of year list for 2017.
So, without further ado:
Sorcerer – The Crowning of the Fire King, Metal Blade
In the Shadow of the Inverted Cross was my favourite album of 2015, and it wasn’t even a close race, so I was really looking forward to this one, and it’s a bit of a banger.
With a whopping seventy minutes of playing time, this is on the lengthier end of what my Dory-like attention span can accommodate, but lovers of traditional doom won’t be disappointed. Someone on social media heralded this record as the greatest since Nightfall, and whilst that may perhaps be a bit of an exaggeration, it is hard to listen to, at least musically, with its plunging riffs and mournful leads, without recalling Candlemass. The title track in particular is just magnificently executed.
Anders Engberg is probably one of the greatest contemporary vocalists, strongly reminiscent of Dio or Tony Martin, and that is not praise I dole out easily. Frankly, I’m horribly jealous.
My strongest criticism is that the lyrics aren’t particularly inspired, trudging through standard metal themes, and they certainly don’t move me in the way that the music does.
Oh, and the digipak doesn’t fit a standard CD shelf (the horror).
Otherwise, spot on – epic doom at its finest.
Lunar Shadow – Far From Light, Cruz del Sur Music
I’m lucky to have followed this album from when it was a collection of ideas, spawned from the mad mind of main-man Max Birbaum, to its release as one of the most lauded ‘throwback’ albums of the year. With influences derived from completely divergent styles, flip-flopping through NWOBHM, power metal, and even black/death metal, this ought to have sounded completely cacophonous, but is actually tied together quite beautifully by the generous, distinctive lead guitars.
Vocalist A. Vornam is not particularly technically gifted, and yet has managed to capture that whingey tone of years gone, and with some clever layered harmonies, he really does pull off a pretty decent ‘retro’ sound. I’m a sucker for sound samples in music, and I think Lunar Shadow really use them well – from the scraping and spilling of rocks in ‘Hadrian Carrying Stones’ to the (albeit cliched) birdsong and waves in ‘Earendil’, there is a rich, heavy atmosphere to the record.
Call me biased, but I don’t really care. I think this is one of the best traditional heavy metal albums I’ve heard in a while, and it firmly deserves a spot on this list.
Hällas – Excerpts From a Future Past, The Sign Records
This was another O.W.K. recommendation, so naturally I ignored it. It must be the sadistic little elitist in me that still wants to love one-man black metal projects that no one has heard of, and snub my nose at anything that might be vaguely friendly on the ears, but I’m jolly glad I acceded eventually, because this record is not to be missed.
I don’t often linger over covers, but this one is particularly beautiful, a creature traversing a barren path, in the shadow of a ruined tower, under nebulous, starry skies. In many ways the album is similar, essentially quite pared back instrumentally, but with attention to detail that lends it a wonderful, warm ambience. The vocals are far from being the best I’ve heard, but even in imperfection they are beautiful – hoarsely whispered mid-range melodies, to lilting harmonies really complement the simple twin leads.
If you’re looking for that next Ashbury or Winterhawk record, a sound that warms you with the melancholy of yesteryear like a slowly nursed, aged single-malt, then look no further – Hällas have arrived.
Pallbearer – Heartless, Nuclear Blast
There is a lot that irritates me about this one – the pretentious cover, nauseatingly announcing ‘Heartless – a long playing record by Pallbearer’, the pristine production that comes with big Nuclear Blast dollar, and the hype that accompanied its release.
Despite myself though, I am completely taken by this record. It listens less like a typical album and more like some sort of emotional idea that couldn’t be restrained by structure or form. Great, crashing riffs, over a full bassline that elegantly rises in and out of prominence, and verses that meander into… I don’t really know what. Musically I was so vividly reminded of Warning, and the lyrics are almost as moving. Tracks like A Plea for Understanding brought on the serious feels: Anger, fear, and regret keep the darkness at hand/ But these feelings are real/ All I ask, won’t you please understand.
A surprisingly complex, modern doom album, that makes you want to slit your wrists and climb the highest mountain all at the same time.
Oh – and the digipak fits neatly into my CD rack. Equilibrium is restored.
Horisont – About Time, Century Media Records
Yes, I realise I must be getting soft in my old age, and there are probably about twenty metal albums that could’ve topped my list, but if we’re talking albums that never left my car or my music player, that I sang along to at loud volumes without realising that some of it wasn’t even English, then it definitely has to be this little rocker.
I wanted to hate these moustachioed hipsters, but dear God, they make fantastic music, and this, their fifth album, has really achieved a perfect old-school sound. They wear their influences brazenly on their sleeves – from UFO to Judas Priest to Thin Lizzy, and yet, somehow they sound entirely unique and refreshing.
From the first song, a feisty cover of Richard Harris’ The Hive, I was transported into a world of bell bottoms, eight-tracks and luxuriant moustaches, and I liked it. It’s genuinely hard to pick favourite songs, because they all have mad catchy hooks, ridiculously chunky basslines that make you want to air-bass, and choruses that bore their way into your brain and set up camp.
Old-school, feel-good, retro, classic. All clichés. All entirely appropriate.
Other bits –
Best EP: The Swill – Master of Delusion (though it’s basically an album, right?)
Best re-issue: X-Caliber – Warriors of the Night, No Remorse Records
Most anticipated in 2018:
Cirith Ungol at Frost & Fire UK
Atlantean Kodex – Abendland
So there it is, a casual five weeks late – my wrap up of 2017. And with that hefty bit of procrastination out of the way, I suppose I ought to get myself off to bed, after all, tomorrow is the start of a whole new life (or at least a whole new job) – scary!