Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2019

It's that time of year once again, when I look back on all of the random-ass, new music I've listened to in 2019! I've been slowly curating this article all year as there have been plenty of new albums by my favourite bands, which has given me plenty of time to parse my feelings on them. Also, if you're curious about last year's picks, you can read that list here.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let's get to the rankings!


23) Jesus Is King, Kanye West
If you've checked out any of my previous annual album rankings then you'll probably know that I skew towards rock and metal rather than rap or RNB, so perhaps it wouldn't be all that surprising that my white, heathen ass would rank a Kanye West album so lowly. However, I did enjoy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and some of my all-time favourite albums are pure gospel music (Worship and Worship Again by Michael W. Smith are just inspiring to listen to back-to-back), so suffice to say I was pretty intrigued by the hype surrounding the release of Kanye West's big Christian music debut. It's undeniable that Kanye West is an asshole, but the guy has a way of crafting really interesting music so I was very curious to see what he could come up as an outsider in the Christian music scene. However, the results are pretty disappointing. With 11 tracks and clocking in at only 27 minutes long, this album just feels half-baked, like Kanye put out a bunch of demos instead of taking the time to actually craft something satisfying. Only 3 tracks manage to get over the 3 minute mark, "God Is", "Hands On" and "Use This Gospel", and these are clearly the most enjoyable and well-crafted tracks on the whole album. There are some potentially interesting aspects to "Selah" and "Follow God" as well, but these tracks are so brief and incomplete that they leave you very unsatisfied. I also got a bit of a kick out of the gospel choir opener "Every Hour", although it is little more than an enthusiastic mood-setter. Most of the tracks are just lacking in substance. All this said, the only track on this album that I actually liked and would listen to on its own is "God Is", a fantastic gospel choir and RNB fusion which is helped immensely by Kanye West's sincere singing and declarations of faith and praise to God. It's actually moving, has something to say and is easily the best track of the bunch. However, this is just one well-crafted song on an entire album and it's not enough to justify how scattershot, incomplete and uninteresting the rest of Jesus Is King is. Now, if Kanye would gimme a whole album of gospel tracks similar to "God Is"? I'd be all over that, but as it stands Jesus is King just feels like Kanye is dumping his half-completed homework on us.


22) The Change, Awake At Last
I did a post several months ago about bands who had followed me on social media, one of which was Awake At Last. I didn't really have much to say about them though - their debut EP was distinct with theatrical, enthusiastic hard rock, but it didn't make much of an impression on me. I figured it was worth giving them another shot with their first full-length album, The Change, but this album ultimately just told me that Awake At Last aren't for me. Awake At Last certainly have their own style, especially because of lead singer Vincent Torres' theatrical (perhaps even overwrought at times) vocals. It's not like they're playing the same music over and over again either, they sprinkle their hard rock with electronics and vocal effects, although they don't tend to get too heavy. When it comes down to whether or not I enjoy their music though, I really can't bring myself to care about it too much. Usually when I listen through an album for the first time for these countdowns, I'll write some notes about each song and put down any first impressions I have about whether I like it. For The Change, I did this for about the first five songs but just stopped because I wasn't really into it at all. In fact, my notes ended up being just me trying to figure out which bands Awake At Last reminded me of, and I realized that they most remind me of Papa Roach... so take that how you will. I dunno if it's just because this is positive hard rock (I like to wallow in my misery, thank you very much!), but it just didn't work for me at all. I'd still recommend checking them out if you're into bands like Shinedown, Saliva or Papa Roach, but for me at least I don't imagine I'll be checking back for their next album.


21) Armageddon, Art of Dying
I saw Art of Dying opening for Disturbed years ago... oh God, I was still in high school, it must have been around 2008 or 2009. Anyway, I was pretty impressed with their self-titled debut album, it was a solid post-grunge which gave me a lot of promise for the band going forward. Their follow-up, Vices and Virtues, was decent as well, but clearly not as good as their debut. I felt like they were drifting towards more of a mediocre radio-rock sound and so I kind of stopped paying attention to them. Since then Art of Dying has put out three more albums so I figured that I might as well check out their latest release and see if I've been missing anything in the meantime. I have to say that, if their other albums are anything like Armageddon, then I haven't really missed much. The uneasiness which drove me away from Art of Dying in the first place has definitely manifested to reality, because the band is very clearly chasing radio trends here. That's not to say that radio-friendly music is bad by any means, but there's a difference between putting out music that you want people to hear and putting out music which is supposed to get mass-appeal radio play. Art of Dying are talented enough that Armageddon isn't exactly "bad", but at least in terms of the songwriting it feels like a band that's several albums deep going through the motions and trying to pay the bills.

The album opens in irritating fashion right off the bat with the title track which is clearly ripping off the pop-rock sound of Imagine Dragons. While your mileage is certainly going to vary, I find Imagine Dragons' sound annoying, especially because their popularity has led to several other bands mimicking it (spoiler alert: this is far from the only band on this list which has been riffing on Imagine Dragons). Taste-aside, frontman Johnny Hetherington's vocals sound really strained on this track for some inexplicable reason. The guy has a pretty good voice so I'm not sure why he's stretching himself so far here. The lyrics here are also typical of the whole album, in that they're generic and uninspired. Even reasonably decent songs like "Cut It All Away", "Rearview Mirror" or "Shatterproof" are let down by the lyrics, which is especially unfortunate when it deflates the impact of the enjoyable guitar solos in tracks like "Rearview Mirror" and "I Believe". This culminates in a real disaster with "Unoriginal". Look, if you're a band like Art of Dying and you decide to put a song on your album called "Unoriginal", you need to make sure that that song is amazing or you're just setting yourself up to get pilloried. So what do Art of Dying do? They basically come right out and admit that they're just going through the motions. I mean, check out these lyrics:

"I'm so fucking bored / Keep coming back for more / It's all been done before yeah"
"It's just the same old / Is this really where we're at right now / Are we so, are we so unoriginal"
"I'm so sick and tired / Of being uninspired / Nothing ever changes"

Wow... I wouldn't have expected the band to just come out and say that they just don't give a shit, but there you have it. Sure, they probably aren't actually intending for the song to be taken as a serious declaration, but in the context of such a limp album it's hard to interpret it any other way.


20) Live From Alexandria Palace, London, UK, Disturbed
Oh look, Disturbed are once again bringing up the low end of the album rankings this year, although I can say that at least this live EP is better than Evolution. The main reason this ranks so low is that I really don't understand why they decided to put out a bite-sized live EP at all. The band put out their full live album, Live at Red Rocks, only a couple years ago and 3 of the 5 tracks on this EP appeared there in essentially the same form (and, in my humble opinion, their live recordings don't sound as good as their studio recordings). That leaves us with only two new live tracks from Evolution. Luckily, "A Reason to Fight" is far more effective when sang live than it is in studio. While the studio recording just came across as melodramatic, the live version really gets to show off how well David Draiman can sing. It doesn't solve the issue that the lyrics are uninspired, but it is definitely the superior way to experience this song. It also helps that David then goes into a speech for almost 5 minutes about not falling prey to addiction, depression and suicide, which is honestly more raw and moving than the song itself. Cutting from this sombre moment into "Inside the Fire" is a pretty inspired move in my opinion, but the rest of the tracklist is strangely erratic. "Inside the Fire" was clearly the last song on the setlist when this was recorded, and all subsequent tracks on the EP are just faded into and out of haphazardly. The lowlight is, in my opinion, the second song from Evolution, "No More". I already didn't like this song, but it's not improved any in a live setting. It's just the same sort of protest song about greed, government and war that we've already heard more effectively thousands of times, not only from other bands, but Disturbed themselves too. Other than that, tracks like "Inside the Fire" and "Ten Thousand Fists" which sound fantastic in studio and great in a live setting are robbed of much of their effectiveness when they're recorded live, since David Draiman has to sing at a higher pitch to avoid ruining his voice. The best track on the EP though is the closer, "The Game", which manages to make the live transition without losing any of its energy. I've always enjoyed this song, although the message certainly makes me uncomfortable. I like to assume that there's an unreliable narrator thing going on and that this song is actually about how much men suck, although I seriously doubt that that was the intent. Anyway, like I said at the outset, this is a pretty limp EP which doesn't really have much to offer to anyone. Even bigger Disturbed fans than me will probably be disappointed that there's only 2 newer songs on here and I wouldn't say that either of them make it worth a purchase or more than a cursory listen.


19) Victorious, Skillet
Throughout this past decade if you asked a mainstream rock music fan if there were any good Christian bands, odds are the most common answer you'd get would be "Skillet". While their fame has always bothered me, I can kind of understand why it happened. After experimenting with weird industrial/electronic rock and straight-up worship albums, Skillet finally hit their stride with Collide and Comatose, a one-two punch of hard rock albums that really resonated with me back in 2006. The thing is though, I was an angsty high schooler at the time and have grown up since then. Meanwhile, Skillet have released 4 albums in the last 10 years and each one is clearly just trying to rehash Comatose. Like... John Cooper is 44 years old. Hearing him angst about parents who don't understand and girls not paying attention to him was contrived enough when he was 31 years old (and married to one of his bandmates, I may add), but at 44 it's hard to imagine that he really has much connection to "kids these days". At least Victorious has shifted lyrically from angst to encouragement for its teenage target audience, although as I said on The Change that doesn't tend to be my cup of tea either.

Anyway, Skillet come swinging right out of the gates with "Legendary", clearly intended to be their big radio single. What does it sound like? FUCKING IMAGINE DRAGONS, UGH. I get that they're going for a completely different audience than me, but holy shit there are so many bands aping this same sound right now because it's popular (and shows up on several songs on the album). Guys, trendsetters don't follow, they lead... As I've said for a lot of these bands so far on this list, the songwriting on this album is just so rote and uninspired (sidenote, I came across this image from the lyric video for "Legendary" and it made me laugh). Unlike some of the other albums on the list up to this point though, Skillet are at least talented enough that they can serve up some decent songs every once in a while. The title track is appropriately triumphant and inspiring, "Terrify the Dark" has a fantastical air about it and "Anchor" is like a straight-up worship track. Fans of the band's past few albums will probably dig Victorious regardless, but Skillet clearly aren't making their music for me anymore and I can only really speak to my own feelings on the album.


18) Breathe in Colours, Forever Still
Like Awake at Last, Forever Still were on the list of bands that followed me on social media. However, Forever Still's debut album, Tied Down, had actually impressed me and so I was excited to see what their 2019 album would be like. Unfortunately, their sophomore album Breathe in Colours didn't impress me nearly as much as their debut. The band's greatest asset remains lead vocalist Maja Shining's vocals (also, holy shit, what a name!!!), which are able to range from screams to operatic melodies. I made this comparison in the social media bands post, but she definitely reminds me of Sleeping Romance's Frederica Lanna, although Forever Still hew more towards "vanilla" metal than symphonic metal (although there are a few songs which dabble with symphonic elements). The main issue with Breathe in Colours is that, other than Maja's voice, nothing really stands out. The music is fine, but it's treading firmly in typical metal/symphonic territory and is nothing special. The songwriting is also just fine, only a few tracks really stood out to me, such as the title track and "Pieces". Perhaps the best track though is the acoustic version of "Is It Gone?", which strips back Forever Still's weaker elements and puts everything down on Maja Shining's vocal talents. It makes the song far more enjoyable in my opinion. Hopefully Breathe in Colours is just a sophomore slump which will help Forever Still to figure out where to take their music in the future, because I believe they still have the talent to really stand out as a female-fronted metal band.


17) Stairway to Nick John, Mastodon
As I said in my 2017 album rankings, Mastodon have a pretty reliable album cycle, putting out a new one approximately every 2-3 years. Knowing this, I expected that we might get a Mastodon release in 2018, but imagine my surprise when I open up Spotify and see that the band has put out a surprise cover of "Stairway to Heaven". It was a weird turn of events for me, but when you look into the story behind it, it's actually quite poignant - Mastodon's longtime manager, Nick John, died and as a tribute the band played an emotional cover of "Stairway to Heaven" at his funeral. Unexpectedly, someone recorded the performance on their phone at the time and so the band decided to re-record it in studio as a record store day release.

So, with that bit of background out of the way, how is Stairway to Nick John? It's... fine. If you're looking for a very straightforward cover of "Stairway to Heaven", then Mastodon has a studio and a live recording just for you. Mastodon's Brann Dailor usually has very questionable vocals in a live setting (as anyone who has heard their Live From the Aragon record can attest), but he does a fantastic job on "Stairway to Heaven" in both of the recordings. His vocals here are unlike any other work they have done, to the point where it's kind of unfortunate that we haven't heard this side of him before. There aren't really any frills going on here, the vocal melody and the music hew closely to Led Zeppelin's original composition, with some very light hints of Mastodon's flavour worked in. This is no Johnny Cash's "Hurt" or Disturbed's "The Sound of Silence", where they aim to recreate the song their own way, it's just straightforward cover. It's also worth reiterating that the live version of the song was recorded on a phone, so the audio is a tad rough, clearly being picked up from far away in an echoey hall. It's impressive just how well it turned out, but it's worth knowing that it's not really captured in professional quality, if that bothers you. All-in-all, Stairway to Nick John is fine, although the story behind it is far more compelling than the release itself. It's not the 2019 Mastodon release I was expecting, but a bit of a creative break is probably better for the band overall.


16) This Is Not the End, Manafest
Growing up as a small town church kid, Manafest was considered the cool Christian rapper in our youth group. At the time I was mainly into Christian hard rock/metal, so his rap-rock fusion worked well for me. It also didn't hurt that his two albums, Epiphany and Glory, were both really solid releases. However, with each subsequent release, Manafest just lost more and more lustre to me. Each new album was just nowhere near as good as Glory was - they all retread the same sounds and themes, while being weaker and less inspired (although there were usually at least a couple good songs). This all came to head around the time Manafest crowdfunded his seventh album, The Moment and promised big things. At this point I said "Fine, this is your last chance to impress me"... and, lo and behold, it was probably my least-favourite album of his to date. Suffice to say, that was it for me. However, here were are now 5 years later and the guy has pumped out another 3 albums, so I was curious to see if he had improved any since 2014...

...but if This Is Not the End is anything to go by, he hasn't really. I mean, he has diversified his sound somewhat: the title track shows off electronic elements that he has incorporated into the rap-rock fusion, while "Kamikaze" demonstrates a different style of rapping than he ever did on previous tracks. That said, he's still just putting out the same sorts of music meant to appeal to white Christian teens despite the fact that the guy is now 40 years old, although there is a surprising amount of cheekiness, such as faking out F-bombs on the title track (as innocent as this sounds, it's a move which is sure to piss off parents and Christian music reviewers alike). The track "Kamikaze" also has a really awkward chorus which features Manafest saying "I love the way you suck my... energy"... it definitely does not sound like he wants to say "energy" though, unless that's the nickname has has for his dick.

But then there's "Plan For Me". When this started playing with its piano opening my initial thought was "oh, this is this EP's 'Mockingbird'", which was actually pretty spot-on in some ways. However, then he starts singing to an unborn baby who's been dead for 5 years and who they even had names picked out for before Manafest's real-life wife starts singing the chorus and I was truly surprised. Shit, when I walked away from his music, did Manafest and his wife have a miscarriage and here they are airing their continued grief? It was pretty heartfelt, and then he goes into the second verse as the child, telling their parents that it's okay, they don't have to feel guilty anymore, they can move on because this child they never knew will still love them and see them in heaven someday. By this point, I was actually getting emotional - my son was born just over a year ago and my fiance and I both thought that we were going to lose him on two separate occasions, so the fear of losing a child welled up raw emotions in me. I was actually impressed - a Christian rap song about a real experience of struggle with guilt and pain, learning to move past it and accepting that even loss like this is in God's hands? Even if it wasn't a true story, it speaks true to so many real-life experiences. I listened to it three times in a row.

...and then I realized it was an anti-abortion song and my enthusiasm was deflated so quickly. Like... goddammit. It makes less sense as an anti-abortion song! Why are they picking out names if they're not planning on keeping the baby? If he was so keen on having a baby and so cut up about it now, why did they even go through with it? The only reasons we're given is that the parents were young and not ready, which are fine reasons actually, but it's like Manafest can't imagine why someone would really feel that an abortion is justified. Like, did the relationship fall apart because of the abortion and now he regrets that? We don't even get the mother's perspective at all during this, which is frustrating - it's entirely from a man's perspective, including having him extrapolate that perspective to an imagined unborn child. It's just another reason why it's so deflating that this is an anti-abortion song instead of a song about experiencing a miscarriage, it just perpetuates so many frustrating pro-life tropes (often from a male's perspective). Instead of being some real, lived experience, the song is like a youth pastor's anti-abortion skit - a moralizing, melodramatic, theoretical scenario of someone regretting their abortion and being unable to move past it, robbed of the nuance of most peoples' real experiences. I know people who have gone through abortions and, looking back, they know that they made the right decision, but most of the guilt then comes from religious family members calling them "baby murderer" or other people making them feel like they should be ashamed about it. I'll give the song some credit, it does at least suggest that the abortion was part of "God's plan" all along and therefore not some abomination. It also tries to be as loving to the parents as possible, but it's unavoidable that a song with half of its verses from the perspective of an unborn baby in heaven is going to try to guilt you into birthing that little bastard next time. Like, despite effectively saying it was God's plan to have things go this way, it's still very judgy about the parents' decision and that the unborn child's potential is never realized.

It's just frustrating to me that Manafest wrote the song this way. When I mistakenly thought it was a song about a miscarriage it was so good... Sigh. While it deflated my enthusiasm for the song significantly, I still have to say that it's a really good sounding song, easily one of Manafest's best, so I've got to give him some credit for making one banger on this EP... even if it really, really sucks that it's an anti-abortion song and which will totally invalidate it in other, more unforgiving, peoples' eyes.


15) Patterns of Mythology, Falls of Rauros
I've been dabbling in the black metal subgenre over the last few years, and while I enjoy bands like Winterfylleth, I find that a lot of this kind of music blends together indistinctly. That said, when I was trolling Spotify one day and saw a black metal band named "Falls of Rauros" (named after the place where Boromir meets his end in The Lord of the Rings) had a new album out in 2019 I knew I had to give them a look. Patterns of Mythology is unmistakably a black metal album (the screamed/growled vocals should make that immediately obvious), although it is at a much slower tempo than, say, Winterfylleth. That said, Falls of Rauros change up the tempo multiple times throughout each song - one minute a song could be slow, moody and contemplative and then it can suddenly ramp up into a punishing wall of metal. That said, while they clearly have their own flavour, there really wasn't much here to really make Falls of Rauros stand out enough to me. Like all the other black metal I listen to, none of the songs really stand out on their own for me and I can't see myself playing this album as anything other than background music. It's fine, don't get me wrong, but it isn't something I'd come back to repeatedly.


14) Peace, Demon Hunter
Demon Hunter tend to put out solid music. I actually backed their last album, Outlive, on PledgeMusic (and got the big, beautiful deluxe box set!) and enjoyed it quite a bit, although the aggressive, hard edge to their music typified best by The Triptych has long since been eroded away. However, when it was announced that their double album would be titled War and Peace, I was tentatively excited. Based on the titles, it was pretty clear that they were going to give us the best of both worlds: War would be the heavy album, whereas Peace would be on the lighter side, a theory which turned out to be true when the albums dropped.

Peace is certainly lighter than any previous Demon Hunter album, but that actually makes it feel a bit fresher than if they had just watered-down their normal sound. Demon Hunter actually get a chance to experiment and do things we've never heard from them before, such as the western-inspired "When the Devil Come" or the full-on piano ballad, "Fear is Not My Guide". We also get some solid, melodic tracks which show off Ryan Clark's singing voice, particularly "More Than Bones" and "Recuse Myself" (which I'd definitely say is the track which has stuck with me most on this album). Unfortunately, Peace starts to drag very quickly. The lighter tone isn't the issue at all, if anything it's the tempo that's the issue - it feels like most of the songs have been slowed down in order to facilitate the lighter tone, which ends up making most of the tracks feel sluggish. This sluggishness means that most of the tracks drag, lack any energy and become instantly forgettable. The lyrics throughout the album aren't great either, particularly on the title track, although even tracks I like, like "More Than Bones", are very simple and repetitive. Most of the tracks are sub-par, very few stick out to me at all, and even the best tracks are only around the baseline of quality I'd expect from Demon Hunter anyway. Again, Peace gave Demon Hunter a great opportunity to try something fresh, but I just don't think that they succeeded at all. In fact, mainly due to how forgettable it is, I'd argue that Peace is probably their worst album ever, which is just unfortunate.


13) War, Demon Hunter
Man... Demon Hunter really didn't do it for me this year. I had heard good things about War around its release, but I was left a bit underwhelmed. I was kind of expecting them to move their sound in a heavier direction on War. While it's certainly heavier than Peace, it's far from a return to the aggressive edge of old-school Demon Hunter, coming across more like a next step from Outlive, where lighter tracks outweigh the heavier tracks (and even the heavy tracks will have lighter bits interspersed, such as the choruses for "Cut to Fit" and "On My Side"). I enjoy songs like "Cut to Fit", "On My Side" and "Grey Matter", but they're interspersed with mediocre tracks like "The Negative", "Unbound" and "No Place for You Here". The only truly great track is the album closer "Lesser Gods", a really heavy, epic track unlike anything Demon Hunter have put out before. It's the sort of shot in the arm that makes you wish that the band had done more like this on War, but having it as the closer just hammers home how mediocre most of the album is. On the other hand, the only particularly bad track on the album is "Ash", which has this really weirdly-pronounced chant of the title which makes it sound like they're saying "ASS!" each time. Suffice to say, it ruins the song and makes it impossible to take seriously when all you can hear is "Suffer the ASS!"

All-in-all, War and Peace just did not work for me. About half of War is mediocre and brings down the overall quality of the album. I really think that Demon Hunter would have been better off taking the best tracks from these two albums and putting them on one album, with the rest as harmless B-sides on a deluxe edition. It may not have made for their best release ever, but it certainly would have felt more satisfying and on par with their usual level of quality. For what it's worth, War has a bit more energy to it which helps it come out on top, but both albums are just mediocre releases from a band which usually does much better.


12) Kiss of the Cobra King, Powerwolf
It was pretty surprising when Powerwolf announced a new version of "Kiss of the Cobra King", one of their favourite tracks from their debut album. I expected to just get a cleaner version of the song, but Powerwolf have actually gone and rewritten the song from the ground up, only retaining the iconic chorus from the original song. The resulting song is immediately more epic, showing off the polished production quality you can expect from a Powerwolf track in 2019, akin to something from The Sacrament of Sin. It was a nice surprise to hear and I'd say that this new version of the song is easily as good as the original, if not better.

Instead of just releasing this by itself though, Powerwolf also threw a live version of "Army of the Night" onto the release. This feels like a bit of a pointless move to me though, because we've already gotten a live version of the song on The Metal Mass a couple years ago and it hasn't changed much in the interim. Still, it can be looked at as a bonus track, because most people are just going to be interested in the solid "Kiss of the Cobra King" anyway.


11) Secrets, Written By Wolves
I was going through my Daily Mix on Spotify when I decided to check out a song called "Let It Burn" by Written By Wolves... and holy crap, it was awesome! It was a really solid metalcore track, energetic, well-written and with just the right amount of angst. Suffice to say, it caused me to track down the rest of Written By Wolves' material and, lo and behold, it turns out that they had just put out their debut album, Secrets. "Let It Burn" was the opener and it really got me hyped for the rest of what Written By Wolves had to offer.

...and, uh, well let's just say that "Let It Burn" is NOT indicative of what Written By Wolves' sound is like. Hell, I'm not entirely sure that they even have a distinct sound, based on what we've gotten from Secrets anyway. Like, immediately after the heavy, metalcore sound of "Let It Burn", we get a couple indie/alternative tracks, then we get EDM on the title track and "Demons", then "Something to Save" mixes in some gospel of all things, then a heartfelt ballad in "Lucky Stars"... the band is all over the place, throwing everything they can at the wall and seeing what sticks. It's impressive, but also exhausting to experience and especially disappointing because they never really return to the heavy sound that sold me on the band in the first place. That said, Written By Wolves have some clear talent on display and, unlike many of the bands on this list, they're clearly giving it their all and not just going through the motions. There's so much variety here that odds are you're going to like at least one track, but you're also just as likely to not care for half of the songs on here. It's a bit of a crapshoot in that regard but I have to give Written By Wolves some credit for going for it regardless, I just hope that they can focus themselves a bit more in the future.


10) The Inveterate Fire, Firelink
Several months ago I stumbled across an article about a band producing Dark Souls-inspired metal. As a pretty big fan of the franchise and of metal in general, I knew that I had to check this band out for myself as the Souls franchise is just so rich for artistic adaptation (and they're not even the first Souls-inspired metal band I've come across). The album cover and the song titles were all getting me to geek out and there's even an audio sample from Dark Souls III of (I believe) Prince Lothric on one of the tracks. However, you don't necessarily have to be a big fan of the series to enjoy Firelink, because the music they've crafted is interesting in its own right. In some ways they remind me of Winterfylleth, with metal that can be slow, ambient and introspective, and then suddenly rev up into fast, punishing black metal with howled vocals (although, regrettably perhaps, these vocals do make it hard to appreciate the lyrics, which is another reason why you don't necessarily have to be a fan of the franchise to enjoy the band).

"Vessel of the Primordial Serpent" kicks things off in brutal fashion, with very fast and aggressive black metal. "Kindled" opens a little closer to the traditional soundscape of Dark Souls, with a strong bassline and plucked, echoing guitar giving the song a more moody, thoughtful and lonely tone. Just as it's starting to drag, it kicks into the punishing metal sound which typifies this album (one could say that the song is kindled itself, much like the bonfires in the game). Interestingly enough, Firelink sound almost like Dragonforce at times, they have the same sort of wailing-guitar sound which isn't so common in the bleaker tone of black metal. The album pinnacles with "Manus", which shows off some of that very impressive Dragonforce-style guitar work. It's easily one of the most distinct and enjoyable black metal tracks I've ever heard. Unfortunately, "Beckoning Sun" then feels scattershot, like the band recorded themselves improvising an ambient tune - it doesn't feel like there's any sort of intentional craft behind this track and it makes it feel super forgettable. The album then closes on "The First Sin", which just continues more of the heavy and fast black metal we've already gotten to this point. All-in-all, The Inveterate Fire is worth checking out for fans of black metal, the Dark Souls links are fun but the music certainly stands on its own.


9) When the World Becomes Undone, A Pale Horse Named Death
My God, just look at that album cover. Just look at that title. Just look at that band's name! Yeah, I was sold on this album the moment I saw it, it's clearly My Shit™. I've seen A Pale Horse Named Death being classified as "doom metal" and "gothic metal", but at least based on this album I would have to say that they also have a distinctly grunge sound, very reminiscent of Alice in Chains (y'know, if Alice in Chains' music was all about despair and the death of the world). This actually gives When the World Becomes Undone a shocking amount of potential crossover appeal, as tracks like "Love the Ones You Hate" and "Fell in My Hole" are solid enough that I could potentially see them getting radio airplay. That said, as much as I enjoyed this album, there are a couple glaring weaknesses. First of all, vocalist Sal Abruscato's singing is not great, it sounds like he's putting on an affectation and mumbling the lyrics half the time. Listening to him, I can't help but imagine how much better these songs would sound if they were sung by Alice in Chains' Layne Staley or William DuVall, or even if they were screamed or growled. The second big weakness with this album is that there isn't much diversity to the songs. When you consider that the album is over an hour long, it really starts to drag as it goes on. Still, I really liked what I heard here and will definitely be checking out A Pale Horse Named Death's back catalogue.


8) Rewind, Replay, Rebound, Volbeat
Volbeat are one of my favourite bands and usually they can be depended on to put out really good albums, especially since they have a longer release cycle than many bands. They have a very distinct sound that you don't really get anywhere else in popular music (I call it "hard rockabilly") and Michael Poulsen's wonderfully illegible vocals which make nearly every release feel special. They also rarely rest on their laurels, usually going for a different "feel" on each album (eg, Guitar Gangsters & Cadillac Blood feels like turn of the century saloon tunes, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies has a country-western theme, etc). Suffice to say, I was expecting good things from Rewind, Replay, Rebound.

The album starts out at its highest point with "Last Day Under the Sun", an infectious (if slightly repetitive) rock tune which has gone down as one of my favourite and most memorable tracks of the year. The only other other track that comes anywhere close to that level of quality is "Rewind the Exit", although that's not to say that the rest are bad. In fact, the first half of the album is pretty enjoyable, especially the Elvis-like swagger of "Pelvis on Fire" and the surging energy of "Die to Live", but there are two big issues with Rewind, Replay, Rebound. First of all, the album feels very bloated. I like that Volbeat put out hour-long albums, but the music has to be consistently high-quality for it to work. Normally, I'd say that Volbeat manage to clear that barrier easily, with maybe one or two tracks at most that don't really stand out, but in this case at least half of the tracks feel pretty mediocre by Volbeat's standard. This is especially the case in the second half of the album, where a lot of the songs are so indistinct that they just start to blend together. This is especially egregious in the case of the closing track "7:24", just comes and goes so uneventfully that you go "oh wait, that's the end of the album?" It's too bad too because the earlier track "Maybe I Believe" felt like a more natural and satisfying closer.

The second big issue is that the album feels very familiar. It starts at just the second track on the album, "Pelvis on Fire". I like the song quite a bit, but the song is unmistakably ripping whole sections off from an earlier Volbeat song, "Sad Man's Tongue" (they also name-drop the song in the lyrics, so obviously this wasn't unintentional). Hell, even the lyrics in both songs match up at times and as someone who is familiar with Volbeat's catalogue I just can't not hear this, it always takes me out of the song at least a bit. Then only two songs later we have "Die to Live", which would almost certainly be named "Let It Burn", except that Volbeat already named a song that on their last album. Obviously, that's less of an issue, but it continues the feel that Volbeat are just recycling the same ideas. This still wouldn't be much of an issue if not for yet another obvious recycled song, this time on the track "Cheapside Sloggers" which not only sounds similar to "We" on the verses, but very clearly rips off the opening guitar riff from "Hallelujah Goat" and a bit of "Pool of Booze, Booze, Booza" for good measure. Again, these are just the instances which are unmissable if you're familiar with Volbeat's work. There are a few other tracks which have a niggling air of familiarity to them, but I wouldn't even care if there weren't so many obvious instances already of them plundering their back catalogue here. It would be one thing if it was a theme for the album overall, but instead it just feels like they're trying to reintroduce elements from deep cuts to new audiences who haven't heard the rest of their music. Maybe there's some merit to that idea, but it takes me out of the album with how obvious it is.

There's also a Deluxe Edition release with 2 B-sides, an alternate version of "Die to Live" without guest vocals, and a bunch of demos. The B-sides are solid and basically all that makes the deluxe edition worthwhile, since the demos sound virtually indistinguishable from their slightly more polished versions and the alternate version of "Die to Live" is basically a less-interesting version of the standard track. All-in-all, if you like Volbeat already then the Deluxe Edition is basically a no-brainer anyway, but considering that 6 of the 8 tracks on it are basically more filler on an album which feels bloated with filler already, it doesn't exactly help the overall feeling about the album. I enjoyed Rewind, Replay, Rebound well enough, but it's very clearly on the lower end of Volbeat's catalogue. I'm sure I'll continue to give it listen-throughs into the future, but I can already tell that it's not going to get nearly as much replays as their past classics. I just hope that the band doesn't rest on their laurels when the next album cycle rolls around.


7) The Evening Hate EP, Red
I went over a bit of my history with Red in my 2017 album rankings - suffice to say, we've had a rough relationship. I've gone from loving Red, to being sick of them, to loving them again and then back to trepidation, all due to the inconsistent quality of their releases and balancing between different parts of their fanbase. So you can understand if I was a bit cautious going into The Evening Hate EP, but luckily for me the band was firing on all cylinders with this release. This is classic Red - the music is heavy (especially "From the Ashes"), the backing strings are beautiful and the electronic elements that permeated Release the Panic are almost entirely absent. The fight between using electronic elements versus strings seem to have been dogging Red for years, but I'm hoping that The Evening Hate EP is showing us a glimpse of the future, because everything on here sounds great. The title track has some unique elements for a Red song, while also managing to sound epic like something from their best album, of Beauty and Rage. It's a great way to start the album. The next track, "From the Ashes", is a very heavy and solid track, and while it is more typical Red fare than "The Evening Hate", it doesn't really hurt it any. "Hemorrhage" slows things down significantly and has wildly different vocals than anything Red has ever done, but this is in part due to it being a cover of a Fuel song. It's very different for this band and I like the vocal style they used here. The album then closes out with an alternate version of "The Evening Hate" and an acoustic version of "From the Ashes". The acoustic version of "From the Ashes" isn't really anything special, but the alternate version of the title track is awesome. It slows the song down, making it more ethereal and puts more emphasis on the backing strings. It completely changes the song, to the point where both versions easily stand on their own. It even starts to build when the chorus kicks in, keeping it from stagnating like so many slowed-down, alternate versions of songs do. All-in-all, The Evening Hate makes for a very solid EP, to the point where it would be nice if it wasn't so bite-sized! I just hope that this is a glimpse of where the band is heading because I definitely like this direction.


6) N.A.T.I.O.N., Bad Wolves
Bad Wolves' Disobey was one of my favourite albums of 2018, but I was surprised when I found out that they were following it up with another full album just over a year later. I was also pretty surprised when I saw the album cover for it - an underwear-clad and tattoo-covered model was a pretty far cry from the imposing riot cop that adorned Disobey and perhaps signified a shift towards Five Finger Death Punch's brand of bro metal. However, I've kind of turned around on this album art since my first impression - I actually like how deeply contrasted the colour of the model's underwear is to her skin and tattoos, it looks striking. I've seen people say that the fact that there's a woman in underwear here at all is "tasteless", but I don't feel like it's overly-sexualized, especially considering that they're intentionally covering up the model's underboob.

Enough about the album art though, what about the music? Well, I can't say that I like it nearly as much as Disobey, but N.A.T.I.O.N. is a solid-enough follow-up, especially considering that it was pumped out only a year later (and is 42 minutes long at that, some bands can barely manage 30 minutes in 3 years). There are some delightfully heavy and aggressive tracks on here, particularly "I'll Be There", "L.A. Song" and the brutal "The Consumerist". When Bad Wolves are unleashed like this they're at their absolute best, but they can still restrain themselves somewhat and put out a solid, radio-friendly rock tune. "Killing Me Slowly" is a great example of this, managing to be clearly written as a single while also being one of the best tracks on the album. Unfortunately, there are also several songs which were clearly written to be singles which just suck in comparison to the rest of the album because they make Bad Wolves sound so defanged. "Better Off This Way" is the first sign of this, a slowed-down, heartfelt breakup song right in the middle of an album full of blistering metal. It feels more like the cliche, emotional album closer rather than the start of the middle of the album. It's a masterpiece though compared to "Sober". Here I was hoping for a Tool cover, but what I got instead was another breakup song (this time with addiction added in!) that sounds exactly like an Imagine Dragons song, complete with claps and the layered vocal harmonies. It sucks and is clearly intended to get more of that radio airplay after the success of "Zombie" on their last album. Personally, I hope it bombs because I do not want Bad Wolves carrying on in this direction in the future. That's the thing though - when they're sticking with the heavy, aggressive stuff Bad Wolves sound fantastic. It's these transparent attempts at radio friendliness which suck a lot of the life out of this album though - up until "Better Off This Way", this album was shaping up to be in my top 3 of the year, but the quality of the tracks becomes extremely inconsistent from that point onward. As a result, I can't say that it's a step up from Disobey, but it's a good enough release that I'm certainly going to be listening to it into the future many more times.


5) Fear Inoculum, Tool
Holy shit, it's finally here! It's been over 13 years, but the long-awaited Tool album finally saw release in 2019. For what it's worth, Fear Inoculum sounds like Tool haven't skipped a beat in the last 13 years, with the only real change in their sound being that frontman James Maynard Keenan sounds more like he did on last year's A Perfect Circle album, Eat the Elephant, than he normally does on Tool tracks (which works for me, his voice sounds better this way in my opinion). However, the music landscape has changed drastically since 2006 and having such a blatantly esoteric, technically-ambitious and non-commercial album come out is, somewhat ironically, a major selling-point. While this gives Fear Inoculum a definite novelty factor, it's hard to argue that it was worth the 13 year wait. Previous Tool albums always had their own distinct flavour, but Fear Inoculum sounds very much like their psychedelic, mystical tour de force, Lateralus. The problem with this though is that, while you can appreciate the craftsmanship and commitment to just being simply weird, the songs here aren't as enjoyable as the ones on Lateralus. That's not to say that there aren't enjoyable tracks - the title track and "Descending" are really solid, but there's nothing quite as impactful as Lateralus' "Schism" or "The Grudge". Luckily, the latter half of the album starts shedding some of the trappings of Lateralus and we get interesting tracks like "Chocolate Chip Trip" (which sounds like something Iron Butterfly might craft) and the absolutely epic "7empest" (easily the best and most easily-enjoyable track on the album, even if it is almost 16 minutes long).

Oh and like The Great War, there are two versions of this album you can get, the physical edition and digital edition, which actually comes with 3 additional instrumental tracks. Normally I'd say to go for the additional songs... but man, I thought that all three of these bonus tracks were by far the worst music on the whole album. They're just weird interludes for the sake of being weird and just get in the way of enjoying the actual good tracks in my opinion. Worst of all is "Mockingbeat", which channels some of that old trolling energy the band used to display on ├ćnima and gives us a bunch of unbearable screeching for 2 minutes. I get it, ha ha, you're literally mocking us Tool, but no one is going to want to listen to that shit. Just do yourself a favour, buy the album on CD or vinyl, you're not missing out on anything good in doing so.


4) The Great War, Sabaton
Since finding their sound after a few rough, early albums, Sabaton have been one of the most consistently reliable bands in heavy metal. Their music doesn't change very much from album to album, but they are always of a high quality, reinvented just enough that it doesn't feel like they're doing the bare minimum each time. If you've never heard Sabaton before, their music is all about war history, with their last three albums all having a central theme (the Swedish Empire in Carolus Rex, war heroes in Heroes and final stands in The Last Stand). With their newest release, Sabaton look to World War I with The Great War, which sees them putting more emphasis on the history of their subject than ever. In fact, they're so dedicated to education that this time they've released a special edition of the album called the "History Edition", which has short voice overs before each track. I actually bought this version of the album and while it does provide some very interesting context for each song I'm not sure I'd say it's the recommended version to buy. Having to listen to the same introductions to each song every time is kind of annoying and some of them aren't that informative anyway (eg, Verdun's intro is about 5 seconds long). It's worth a listen at least once, but I kind of wish that I had just gone with the standard edition, since you can glean the history from the lyrics anyway.

In the past, Sabaton have towed a fine line between glorifying war versus honouring the soldiers who fight in it, but The Great War probably strikes the most clear position on it. As is appropriate for an album about World War I, several songs decry the brutality and pointlessness of the war and there is a sombre tone to the whole affair, such as the doom-laced title track or "The End of the War to End All Wars". This sombre tone is most clearly seen in the closing track with a choir rendition of "In Flander's Fields", which sees Sabaton dropping their entire sound in favour of a sober reflection to show how serious a tragedy WWI was.

Of course, it's not all melancholy and seriousness; Sabaton have some awesome tracks which pump you up. Right out of the gate, "The Future of Warfare" is a killer opening track with an energetic chorus which makes you want to shout along with it, while also hammering home the idea that World War I was a conflict which changed the world. Other than the anti-war tracks, the rest of the tracks could have easily made their way onto Heroes, as Sabaton recounts various heroic soldiers' actions during the war. All of the tracks are very solid, but they're also just "more of the same". If you're into Sabaton already, this will certainly be fine, but it's not likely to change any minds. The Great War is another solid album from Sabaton, but it's a little unfortunate that they can't evolve their sound much. The injection of sombreness at least gives The Great War a slightly different tone than previous releases, but at this point I just expect the band to rest on their laurels whenever a new album comes out.


3) Volume III, September Mourning
This list was supposed to come out about a week ago, I had it all ready to publish, when September Mourning dropped the news that their newest EP was coming out December 13. September Mourning are easily the best band I've discovered in this past year, so the opportunity to give them some more exposure was one that I wasn't going to pass up. Even if their music wasn't great (and it is), and even if frontwoman Emily Lazar wasn't gorgeous (she seriously is), September Mourning are also a Gorillaz-style transmedia project. This means that every song is advancing a this deliciously-nerdy story about a half-human half-reaper character who tries to give people a second chance, played up by Emily Lazar's elaborate costumes in live shows, along with a whole graphic novel line if you want to really dig into the lore. I love the whole project and Volume III was easily one of the releases I was most looking forward to this year.

Volume III features four songs, all of which have their own kind of flavour. "Unholy" strikes a rather sultry tone with the way Emily Lazar sings, very reminiscent of Maria Brink of In This Moment. Of course, I love In This Moment, so this works well for me although that's not to say that September Mourning are just a clone of a more successful band - on the contrary, they have their own flavour. Most female-fronted metal bands, such as Evanescence, Sleeping Romance or the aforementioned Forever Still will end up in the symphonic or operatic metal subgenre, but September Mourning end up somewhere in between those are more "traditional" metal. "Hiding From Heaven" was released as a single earlier this year and is a fantastic demonstration of the band's entire shtick, with their nerdy subject matter, empowering vocals and excellent songwriting. It's a catchy song that will stick with you long after you hear it. The latter-half of the EP gets a bit heavier too, with "Madness" and "Overdose" being some of the heaviest music that September Mourning has produced thus far. That said, "Overdose" gets a bit repetitive on the chorus and may be the weakest track on the EP because of that... not that that's a huge criticism though, because everything on here is solid. Easily the most frustrating part of Volume III is that it is just so bite-sized, it's less than 15 minutes long in total! That's way too short to be satisfying, but considering how good everything on here is I really can't hold it against them. I love September Mourning and I really hope that I get a chance to see them live sometime in 2020!


2) The Nothing, Korn
Few bands have been through the wringer quite as badly as Korn. After helping to establish a whole subgenre with "nu-metal" and several successful albums in the 90s, the band became a punch line and put out terrible album after terrible album for the better part of a decade. It wasn't until 2013 when original guitarist Brian "Head" Welch returned to the band that there were glimmers of a resurgence with The Paradigm Shift. 3 years later, The Serenity of Suffering was easily their best album since their heyday and this year's The Nothing is unquestionably one of the band's best albums ever, putting the band back at the forefront of the metal scene in tragic fashion. There's a rawness to The Nothing that this band hasn't seen in quite some time and this obviously is a result of the death of frontman Jonathan Davis' wife to an accidental overdose. You can hear the pain and guilt in Davis' words and voice, most explictly on album closer "Surrender to Failure". It's some of the darkest material the band has ever put out, but the band has gained a maturity over their 25 year career that keeps it from becoming too overwhelming. Songwriting was always a weakness of Korn in their heyday, with the band relying on emotion to carry them through rather than the lyrics, but the writing here has matured significantly. Tracks like "H@rd3r", "This Loss", "You'll Never Find Me" and even the extremely dark "The Seduction of Indulgence" are really solidly-written and don't come across as insincere or undeservedly angsty. I'm particularly impressed that this album remains rock solid throughout - I often complain that an album dips halfway through (or vice-versa), but The Nothing retains a consistently-high quality from start to finish. I'm happy to see that Korn have definitely gotten themselves back on track and are putting out the best music of their entire career now, it's just unfortunate that it had to come from such pain. Here's hoping that the future holds some joy for Jonathan Davis and company.


1) We Are Not Your Kind, Slipknot
Who would have thought even 15 years ago that the icons of nu-metal would be putting out some of the biggest and best rock albums in 2019? That said, Slipknot have always been viewed as the critical darlings of the subgenre but they don't always get the respect they deserve, perhaps because they are such a brutal band. I like how CagyCylinder describes Slipknot's place in the metal scene: "the heavier parts are still more brutal than anything any other ‘mainstream’ metal band will ever serve up". I like this description - there are certainly heavier bands, but among the bands in the mainstream, they're almost certainly the most brutal, almost approaching death metal levels of brutality at times. Coming off of The Gray Chapter, which synthesized the heaviest parts of early-Slipknot with the more mainstream-minded work of their third and fourth albums, we now get We Are Not Your Kind which picks up from their and sees the band experimenting with their sound more than ever. Hell, no two songs on this album feel quite the same and the band has clearly worked to make every track on this album stand out on its own. This is particularly impressive since, while there are individual songs on previous Slipknot albums that I like more than some of the songs here, as an overall package this is the first Slipknot album I'll happily listen to from start to finish every time without skipping over anything.

The first half of the album sounds like classic Slipknot, with all the aggression and heaviness you'd expect, but things really start getting interesting with "Spiders", a piano-led track that sounds kind of like the Halloween theme. It gives it an air of creepiness which is appropriately-Slipknot despite sounding unlike anything they've ever done before. Even more unusual is "My Pain", which is equally-creepy and has an incredibly sparse and unusual soundscape to it. Like... the music in this track makes me think of the sound of a grandfather clock at night when you're lying alone in your bed. Somehow I don't think that that's an accident that it brings back those same sorts of childhood anxieties. We also get a bit of a return to the norm with "Orphan" (one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album), but the last two tracks, "Not Long for This World" and "Solway Firth", fuse a bit more of this experimentation with Slipknot's usual sound, closing out the album on something familiar yet different. The experimentation in the latter-half of the album works and clearly comes from a desire to try new things rather than get more mass appeal.

The songwriting is also on-point and matured in this album. It's basically just a lot of facing personal demons and battling depression, but that resonates with me. I complained about bands with positive hard rock earlier and that's partly because, as someone who goes through anxiety and bouts of depression, those sorts of music don't make me feel any better, stuff like this does. I can channel the emotion of "Unsainted" and use that to express what I'm feeling in a cathartic manner. It's also nice to note that, unlike say Five Finger Death Punch, Slipknot's aggression isn't directed at random nobodies who piss them off or women who dare break up with them, it's more introspective and, consequently, justified. We Are Not Your Kind is probably the most consistently-even Slipknot album they've ever put out and there is very little fault I can find with it, hence why it landed on the top of the rankings this year.

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