Tuesday, 5 December 2017

My Favourite Albums of 2017

Hey... it's been a super long time since I made a post. Considering that I left shortly before all the bullshit with Trump started, that might have been for the best, but I'll make an update on what has gone on in my life sometime soon... because damn it has been quite a year.

But anyway, I was thinking back on the music I've been listening to this year and it caused me to realize just how many albums I've checked out since January. Then, before I knew it, I suddenly had half an IC2S list hashed out and knew that I had to finally get back into the blogging game. So, here I present to you, the albums I listened to in 2017, ranked from worst to best. Naturally, I'll note that music is super subjective, my list is nowhere near comprehensive, and I'd be shocked if you had listened to more than a couple of the albums on it. Just consider this some random loser on the Internet's list of albums he listened to this year, if nothing else.


13) Tear the Roots, Kaleida
After the very promising Think EP and its mesmerizing title track, I was very intrigued to see what Kaleida would come up with in their debut album. The results are, unfortunately, very mediocre. "Think" reappears completely unchanged and is the one shot of adrenaline in the whole album, which doesn't speak well to the new material. Tear the Roots is a competent release, but very mediocre and forgettable. I can't ever see myself listening to it in full again, which should be about all you need to know about it really.


12) Pretzel Champions, Countless Thousands
As the album's Bandcamp description states, Pretzel Champions was "written and recorded in the eye of a storm in only 24 hours. We like to tempt fate." That more-or-less should give you an idea of what you're in for, featuring 4 lean songs with questionable recording quality. It doesn't hold a candle to the rest of Countless Thousands' catalogue, although the obviously experimental nature and time-crunch that birthed it makes it certainly intriguing. "An Umbrella for the Golden Shower" and "Sunday Best" are really solid songs which I would love to hear in a bit more refined form sometime in the future. It's not exactly a bad album, but the poor audio quality definitely holds it back.


11) Gone, Red
Red and I have a bit of a troubled history. End of Silence was a great debut and Innocence & Instinct was a great follow-up. However, cracks began to show with the forgettable Until We Have Faces, but it wasn't until the bland, chart-seeking Release the Panic that I decided that I was sick of Red. However, the band seemed to realize that they had screwed up and made amends in fantastic fashion with, in my opinion their best album, of Beauty and Rage. So, going into Gone I was left wondering which direction Red was going to head - were they going to try to recapture that quality again? Or were they going to try to aim for that blander rock sound again? The answer is... well, a little bit of everything. In terms of sound, Gone feels like something of an amalgamation of all of Red's albums thus far, for better or worse. The album's at its best when it's hewing towards those first 2 albums ("Step Inside, The Violence" "Still Alive", "Chasing Your Echo") or of Beauty and Rage ("A.I."). However, it's also gets questionable when it hews towards Release the Panic's electronic synthesizers and radio-rock sound. The title track is a good example of this - it's a serviceable radio rock track, but then at the height of the chorus, it will suddenly switch into this electronic music which literally sounds like a generic top 40 backing track, and I don't like how this gels together. On the other hand, "Unstoppable" is just awkward - it feels like Red want an anthemic crowd-pleasing rock track, but the chorus in particular feels half-baked and I'd feel really silly screaming that at a concert with any sort of sincerity. The closing track, "Singularity", is the one track that feels quite different from what they've done and maybe points towards the future, with some eerie sampling and slow build-up towards its heavy ending. I have a feeling that Red has a diverse fanbase at this point, and in trying to give everyone something to enjoy, they can't help but alienate others in the process. Gone isn't bad, but it didn't really reignite my passion for this band like I was hoping it would.


10) Humanz, Gorillaz
I would maintain that Demon Days is one of the best soundtracks to the post-9/11 and early War on Terror era, so I was really hoping that Humanz would be the Trump-era equivalent. While Humanz seems to have the aspirations to hit that lofty goal (further suggested by the various album covers which are reminiscent of the iconic Demon Days art), the results are unlikely to stand the test of time. Humanz is, simply put, a bit of a mess. There are some standout tracks, such as "Saturnz Barz", "Busted and Blue" and "Halleujah Money", but there are so many strange and sometimes forgettable tracks which just feels like they took absolutely everything from the studio and then threw it at the wall to see what would stick. Damon Albarn also takes a backseat on most of the tracks, which just further makes this feel like a mixtape rather than a cohesive album. It gets more enjoyable the more you listen to it, but it's hard to shake the feeling that this might be less "self titled debut" and more "The Fall".


9) Cold Dark Place EP, Mastodon
The surprise second release by Mastodon in 2017, Cold Dark Place attempts to harken back to the band's sludgier roots which they have left behind since 2009's Crack the Skye, at which point the band moved more towards progressive metal. That's not to say that Cold Dark Place is particularly heavy - it's reminiscent of the slower parts of Blood Mountain (think "Pendulous Skin") or The Hunter perhaps. The 4 songs here have a melodic and melancholic feed to them, making the album's title and art actually quite effective for describing the feel you get listening to it. There are only 4 tracks, but they're all solid and reasonably lengthy, so it lasts longer than you might otherwise expect. At this point, I'm just curious to see if this is just an experiment from Mastodon, or a sign of things to come going forward. I guess we'll see in a couple years time.


8) No Grave But the Sea, Alestorm
Alestorm jokingly declared that they were scraping the barrel with their pirate metal antics 2 albums ago, but No Grave But the Sea further goes to demonstrate that they can continue to spin gold out of a seemingly finite concept. Part of the reason for this is because Alestorm does not take themselves seriously in the slightest, so every album is a reminiscent of a rowdy and rousing bar concert (like something out of Tangled). Tracks like "Mexico", "Fucked With an Anchor" and "Man the Pumps" leave me simultaneously laughing and wanting to sing along at the same time, and that's before you even factor in the bonus CD which replaces all the lyrics with dogs barking (...no seriously, that is not a joke, that actually exists). That's not to say that there are no more serious tracks here - the title track and "To The End of the World" are quite badass and help to keep the album from going too far and becoming a total farce.


7) Outlive, Demon Hunter
Outlive has my favourite opening of the year with the badass "Trying Times" hyping you for what's to come, and then leading into the blistering "Jesus Wept". It's then a bit of a minor tragedy that Outlive peaks immediately and doesn't come close to matching that intensity again. All of the tracks are solid, but there are some forgettable stretches and only a few tracks really stand out from the pack, particularly the aforementioned opening duo and "Raining Down" (which has gone on to become a bit of an anthem for me this past year). The relative softening of Demon Hunter's signature intense metalcore sound is also slightly disappointing, but the music is good enough that this isn't too serious an issue. Outlive is a good release by Demon Hunter, maybe not as strong as their last album, Extremist, but certainly a worthy addition to their catalogue.


6) Alba, Sleeping Romance
Sleeping Romance's previous release, Enlighten, was a rather standard symphonic metal release which was buoyed by the unexpectedly heavy and intense closing track, "Devil's Cave". My worry going into Alba was that Sleeping Romance wouldn't be able to match that high point, but the album quickly put those fears to rest. The opening overture is appropriately gothic, operatic and theatrical, showing the band's greater ambition and matured musicianship before transitioning into the familiar Sleeping Romance sound (strings, piano, heavy guitars and Federica Lanna's dreamlike voice and particular Italian accent). There are also two tracks which very much rival "Devil's Cave", the first being "Forgiveness" with a very heavy opening and some fantastic solos in the latter half, and the second being the title track, which is clearly intended to harken back to "Devil's Cave" before spinning off into its own thing. The album isn't just trying to match previous beats though, as tracks like "Touch the Sun" and "Everything Behind" also stand out in ways that previous efforts never really did. In many ways, Alba could be said to be like a much more refined version of Enlighten, in that it treads similar ground, but in a much stronger package. I really wasn't sure what I was going to think of this album, but I was left pleasantly surprised by how good it ended up being.


5) The Lost City, The Wise Man's Fear
A friend of mine got me into Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicle a little over a year ago. Shortly after finishing the second book in the series, The Wise Man's Fear, I accidentally stumbled onto a fantasty-based metalcore outfit with the same name which was clearly drawing inspiration from Rothfuss. Suffice to say, I was intrigued and very quickly discovered an exciting new band that I have been listening to regularly ever since. While their previous release, Castle in the Clouds, hewed closer to Rothfuss, The Lost City sees The Wise Man's Fear branching out more into their own fantasy creations. The fantastical elements lend the band a rather unique space in the metalcore genre, where the angst and intensity is not just the band getting out their own issues, but rather they're telling the stories of a character and a world. The band's vocal and sonic diversity are also impressive and help to distinguish the tone of each song - one minute they might be singing melodically before switching over to shouts, screams and death growls... and dammit it sounds so freaking good (hell, "Bloodlust" even has doom metal-style "bree bree" vocals at certain points). Particular standouts for me include "Grey King", "What Time Brings", "Codex" and the title track, but nearly the entire damn album is fantastic.


4) Sheep Among Wolves, Project 86
For a very long time, I considered Project 86 to be my second favourite band, so hopefully that helps to illustrate how disappointed I was in their last release, Knives to the Future, that I was quite hesitant about how their newest album was going to turn out. Thankfully, Sheep Among Wolves is Project 86 back in true form. While Knives suffered from being far too light, Sheep goes in the other direction (overcompensating even) and dials the band's hardcore sound back up to 11. This album is relentlessly intense, moreso than any other Project 86 album before, and barely easing up until the final track (although it doesn't reach the level of heaviness and darkness that their first few albums did either). Andrew Schwab's songwriting has always helped Project 86 to stand out from the pack, and the lyrics here are as fantastic as ever, bringing a poetic side to seemingly straightforward headbanging hardcore rock. The album art is also really cool, probably my favourite cover of the year. If there's one hesitation I have about Sheep Among Wolves, it would be a bit of unease about the closing track "Metempsychosis". It's as good a song as any on the album, but it tackles the idea of changing one's self through surgery to try to solve deeper issues. Obviously, this is attempting to enter into to the conversation about transgender individuals, and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. I'm not sure that I agree with Schwab's assertion that there's a spiritual issue at the core of these people seeking surgery, but at the very least he comes across to me as stating his position in a respectful way. If you're dead-set on any sort of questioning of gender reassignment surgery then you're probably going to be disappointed with this song, but it's conveyed in a respectful enough manner that I at least think it deserves its place.


3) Ritual, In This Moment
I was a bit hesitant going into Ritual. Similarly to Project 86, In This Moment's last album, Black Widow, was a major departure from their usual sound, taking on more pop vibes and losing some of its edge, and it could have easily represented a complete shift in how the band would operate going forward. However, In This Moment proved me wrong in spectacular fashion. I still feel like Blood is their best album, but Ritual is solid from start to finish. It also experiments with their sound in some interesting ways. Blood and Black Widow had both played up a level of gothic, transgressive sexuality which I had quite enjoyed. Ritual quite intentionally jettisons that tone, but is none the weaker for it, proving that, contrary to some opinions on the matter, sex may sell but talent speaks for itself. Instead, Ritual plays more towards In This Moment's stage theatrics, weaving occultic tapestries which will also make for a fantastic live show (and I sure as hell hope so, I'm planning on catching them in Detroit with P.O.D. in the new year). However, unlike say, The Wall, the tracks here are all just as listenable without a live stage show to go along with them. "Black Wedding" in particular is a hell of a song, riffing on a classic while spinning it in its own direction. I've listened to it multiple times in a row on more than one occasion. "Twin Flames", "Half God Half Devil" and "Roots" are also real standouts. Ritual is, all-in-all, a great album and thankfully puts In This Moment back on track and makes me excited to see where they go in the future.


2) Emperor of Sand, Mastodon
Maybe you're starting to notice a trend, but I was initially concerned going into Emperor of Sand, because Once More 'Round the Sun was unquestionably Mastodon's weakest album to date. Hell, the title even referenced the workman-like nature of it, meaning that another year will pass and therefore another album and touring cycle for the band. Ever since their initial elemental quadrilogy ended, Mastodon have been spinning their wheels a bit, trying to figure out where they will go next. However, when it became clear that Mastodon were going to be going back to a style reminiscent of Crack the Skye (my personal favourite album of theirs), I got excited. Thankfully, Emperor of Sand does not disappoint. In fact, I'd put it on par with Blood Mountain, near the upper-half of their catalogue (which, to contextualize, are popularly considered some of the best metal albums since the 2000s). The album also focuses very strongly on the inevitability of death, and this brings an appropriately sombre tone to the proceedings. There isn't a weak track on the album, but particular highlights include "Sultan's Curse", "Ancient Kingdom", "Jaguar God" and especially "Steambreather", which is most reminiscent of their sludgier roots. Between Emperor of Sand and the Cold Dark Place EP, Mastodon has had quite the year, and I'm very curious to see how they progress going forward. Perhaps we're looking at the start of another thematic quadrilogy? One can only hope that Mastodon continues to challenge themselves and don't ease back into a comfortable cycle.


1) Through Glass Eyes, At Dawn's Edge
Two years ago I saw Sovereign Council in concert for the album debut celebration for Laniakea. The opening act that night was a band called At Dawn's Edge, whose symphonic/power metal style instantly had me intrigued. I purchased their EP, First Contact, but was disappointed that most of their setlist wasn't actually on the EP... and so began the long wait for their debut album to drop. However, nothing prepared me for just how impressive Through Glass Eyes was going to be, and HOLY SHIT is it ever good. For a small outfit, the production values are impeccable, the songs are ambitious and diverse and the band members all display a level of talent and maturity which are frankly insane for a debut album.

My only complaint is really just a nitpick - I vastly prefer the recording of "Utter" on First Contact over the version on Through Glass Eyes. This is a sore point for me, because "Utter" was by far my favourite track on First Contact. The contrast between the vocals of Tamara Filipovic and the male vocalist really made that song work fantastically, but in Through Glass Eyes, this contrast has been replaced with Tamara Filipovic's singing only. It doesn't sound nearly as good in comparison to me, and kind of ruins an otherwise good song. Like, I'm honestly at a point where I'm considering swapping in the First Contact version whenever I listen to "Utter" going forward, which would only make Through Glass Eyes that much better of an album to me. Really, this is a nitpick as I said, because Through Glass Eyes is a staggeringly good debut and makes me hope that At Dawn's Edge have a long and successful career ahead of them. I know that I'll be there to support them in it.

4 comments:

  1. Glad to see your back in the blogging world! And I'm glad you've given me some music ideas for 2018.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks dude, what's a year and a half hiatus or 2 anyway? I have at least a few posts in me, so we'll see what happens going into the new year. And glad I could offer some music recommendations. :)

      Delete
    2. I just got back into blogging this year really so I'm not much of one to talk :P I may beat my old 2013 record and top 28 posts this year!

      Looking forward to what you bring on next!

      Delete
    3. If we have a roadtrip anytime soon, I'll have to treat you to some of the music on this list.

      Delete