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Featured covers, from top left clockwise: Bullet for My Valentine’s Deluxe Version of Venom, Lamb of God’s VII: Sturm Und Drang, Bring Me the Horizon’s That’s the Spirit, and Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

Top 10 Metal Highlights: 2015

As 2015 has closed, we look back on the year and see just how many awesome releases we’ve been gifted with, and some of the failures that we’re trying hard to forget. All the changes that some groups have gone through, whether drastic (metalcore embracing modern nu metal) or subtle (making doom metal capable of winning a Grammy Award) have been great in number this past year. By what I’ve listened to, most of these releases came in the summer and early fall, but there are plenty more to talk about. As a rock and metal enthusiast, I’m going to review the year and all of the best heavy moments in 2015.

Oh, and before we get started – don’t be scared of the words “heavy metal.” Everything that people have told you about metal being entirely screamed or growled is false, unless you’re talking about the more extreme subgenres, such as black metal or death metal. Even most metalcore doesn’t scream entirely through their songs. Some types of metal don’t use screams or growls at all!


 

No. 10 – Ghost – Meliora

Unlike some of the other albums in this list, I didn’t end up enjoying this one (Satanist music bothers me) but I’m pretty sure enough people enjoyed it that it belongs here anyway.

A Satanist band that used to be censored in even the most liberal stores in America has now become a mainstream band and heavy metal Grammy-winner with its single “Cirice” (Old English for “Church”). This is certainly an interesting listen in terms of how, according to one of their instrumentalists, Ghost seem to “mix death metal and pop.” It ends up sounding like a ‘70s progressive rock sound with a little more grit thrown in. But isn’t this special — when is the last time you heard doom metal gaining radio attention?Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 12.36.53 PM

According to Hidden Jams Music blog, the whole album sounds like it came out of an old record store, in the same display as Black Sabbath or Deep Purple; the track “Majesty” would be definite evidence of this.

If this isn’t enough to intrigue you, their call to fame is that nobody except Ghost’s managers knows their names. Officially known as Nameless Ghouls, their instrumentalists use alchemical symbols to differentiate themselves, and the three different frontmen they’ve had have all been named Papa Emeritus. I’m pretty sure nobody who knows the band has seen their faces without a lot of corpse paint on it, so they’re even hard to recognize.

This band is certainly thought-provoking, even if you don’t enjoy their music. This isn’t as much a change in the band as it is in the whole music industry: Occult-themed bands and songs are now permitted on the radio.


 

No. 9 – Disturbed – Immortalized

Immortalized had its ugly parts, but it was good to see the metallers from Chicago back with some more stuff to headbang to. Lyrical matters haven’t always been their strength — they only sound good they they come up with monsters, violence, horror or apocalyptic themes.

At the same time, the music is so incredibly catchy. It’ll get old quickly to most people, but just as soon as that happens, you start to miss it.

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 12.37.07 PMAnd miss it we have indeed; we’ve waited for five years for a new studio effort from the band, who has been on break since 2011. All of a sudden, they shout “new single!” and the hype over the band’s return was enormous.

Speaking of that new single, “The Vengeful One,” it was one of the biggest highlights on the album. It’s something you’d hope Disturbed would finally make if you had been listening to them for a long time. Its theatrical music video follows a version of Earth that has become corrupted and controlled by tyrants, and a really scary-looking guy riding a motorcycle out of space (supposedly the “Dark Messiah” mentioned in the chorus) comes and kills the people in control to give the lives back to the civilians.

There’s also a sharp stylistic change in some of the album’s songs; the band took a soft gothic rock route when it recorded a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s 1964 hit “The Sound of Silence.”

Wait, what? Disturbed is gothic? I’m not joking. This sounds like ‘90s gothic metal for    70 percent of the song, only a little softer. The first thing that would come to mind would be the Norwegian band Theatre of Tragedy. The only thing missing is the guitars for the start of the song; rather, it’s driven by strings and a piano.

The album’s second single, “The Light,” seems to have a mood deeply rooted in positive energy and hope, although its production was a bit heavy. Vocalist David Draiman didn’t even get all gritty on us in this one, like he does in most every other song the band makes. Instead, he uses a powerful, clean voice that I never knew he had. (Maybe he doesn’t have it. It could easily be auto-tuned. It’s hard for me to tell.)

Immortalized had quite a few strong tracks, but there’s one in particular that really bothered me: “Fire It Up.” The song apparently describes how good it feels to be making music when they’re high. A month before the album’s release, David Draiman admitted that he enjoyed smoking marijuana before writing songs. Coincidence? I think not! Sorry, guys, but being baked doesn’t flow well with your style. You’re better off with the monsters and horror stories.

Overall, a pretty strong album – a perfect example of how metal had some interesting changes in 2015, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the change was good. This album had it going in both directions.


No. 8 – Sevendust – Kill the Flaw

Sevendust was a really heavy nu metal band when they began in 1994, but since their 2008 album, Chapter VII: Hope & Sorrow, the band (to a degree) lost their heaviness and appeal, and faded out of mainstream view. But this is a reinvention.

Think of Hope & Sorrow and the three albums that followed it as the calm before the storm (especially in the case of Time Travelers and Bonfires, an acoustic album, coming out in 2014). In Kill the Flaw the storm has arrived, and boy, did this one come as one heck of a surprise.Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 12.38.10 PM

“Thank You,” another song nominated for best Metal Performance at the Grammys, sounded promising from the beginning, given how dirty and down-tuned the guitars were, suggesting impending doom.

The lyrics, however, contrast the sound. The band is thanking someone for giving a reality check. They’re realizing that they need a new beginning – start over. Maybe the band also came to the conclusion that they were losing their edge. But now, that edge has been put to the grinding stone.

Another enjoyable track from the album is “Cease and Desist.” It starts with an electronic intro, and the vocals are light and relaxed in the beginning, but just as you think this is a soft song that entirely contradicts this review, the song explodes into a powerful, anarchic chorus. The sucker punch that comes right there is what really gets you into it. The third verse mentions a guilty man, therefore calling out a guilty man. A song that calls out a criminal is a totally likeable song, am I right?

I’m excited for what other successes this album is going to spawn. This is certainly somewhat of a comeback for them.


No. 7 – Atreyu – Long Live

Atreyu have finally returned after a three-year hiatus (and six-year album gap), and they returned to their mixed audience with an album that spans through alternative metal, hard rock, metalcore, and hardcore punk. Some of these, the title track especially, sounds reminiscent of their second album The Curse from way back in 2004.

On the other hand, “Brass Balls” has a mainstream rock instrumentation with hardcore screams through the verses, and an attitude through the roof toward someone who just can’t stop talking trash. In addition, the band’s non-stop fun metalcore is always full of absolutely impeccable solos from Dan Jacobs.Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 12.38.30 PM

“Brass Balls” is my personal pick for the best song off this one, but there’s more! Brandon Saller exhibits his prowess being both the drummer and lead singer on “Reckless,” with some of the most complicated drumming structure, and providing vocals at the same time. That’s incredibly hard to do, and I think of him being one of the closest thing we have to Avenged Sevenfold’s Jimmy “Rev” Sullivan in 2016.

“Do You Know Who You Are” is an absolute game-changer, and is definitely up there in terms of the biggest changes in metal recently. You can hardly call the guitar players busy – it involves a whole lot of resting. They used a brand-new formula, consisting of strumming maybe three different power chords and just letting them reverberate over a slow-paced 25-second chorus, and they’re not used in most of the rest of the song. It kinda sounds like a metal church sermon with powerful, uplifting lyrics. It quickly became the band’s most popular song on iTunes, and many reviewers believed it to be the the best part of the album. If you like a good mix of punk, metal, and rock, this is absolutely the best album in the list for you.


 

No. 6 – All that Remains – The Order of Things

While many people have grown tired of All that Remains’ radio-friendly alternative metalcore (me being one of them), there were several songs on this album that pitched this style for a heavier one, even if just for a moment.

The first single, “No Knock” blew me away. It is aggressive until the end the song vocals are exclusively screamed, slamming your ears with force comparable to getting hit by a truck. The lyrics portray an anthem a bunch of metalhead soldiers would rock out to when storming a terrorist compound. This suddenly reawakened my interest in the band.

There are several other very strong, appealing tracks on the album. “Tru-Kvlt-Metal” (pronounced “true cult metal”) is another absolutely golden track on this album, with the singing and growling perfectly balanced all while getting the message across flawlessly. According to the band’s vocalist, Phil Labonte, the song is about the band’s sarcastic and unapologetic attitude towards the band’s haters.Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 12.38.44 PM

Some fans want them to go back to their older style, but other fans want something new, and the band finds them impossible to please.

“Trve” and “Kvlt” are mocking plays off of the words “true” and “cult,” which are both used by metal elitists to refer to super-underground extreme metal, and the title of the song is supposed to insult these people.

“Victory Lap” sounds like it’d be excellent to use in a NASCAR video game’s soundtrack – it makes you feel like you’re just giving the bird to anyone who doubted you before.

The first radio-friendly track, “This Probably Won’t End Well,” didn’t really do it for me, but I’m sure many of you enjoyed it, given its chart success.

If I had any complaints for the album, it’s that the singing on this album has been tampered with. The pitch has been electronically corrected in Phil Labonte’s voice. It’s not what you would call completely auto-tuned, though. He just loses his singing edge.

Even though the band doesn’t like some of their “fans” very much, I love how they tried to appeal to some of them by going heavy again on some parts, which is what they’ve been asking for since The Fall of Ideals.


No. 5 – Parkway Drive – Ire

Metalcore underwent some astounding changes last year, and Parkway Drive’s new album, Ire, is definitely up there in terms of new levels. The metalcore band is usually known to have only growling and no singing. They are undergoing a style change to make them slightly more commercial-friendly.

There’s still no actual singing from the lead vocalist, Winston McCall, but he adds some more shouty and less roaring vocals as well as some rap influence, especially in the second single “Crushed.” James Shotwell of Under the Gun called the seventh track, Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 12.39.03 PM“Bottom Feeder,” both the most catchy and heavy song on the album, which is true. According to McCall, “Bottom Feeder” itself is a song that shames a person who makes profit by taking advantage of people in desperate need.

Like many of the songs on the album, its lyrical style is new to the band. Rather than broken worlds and torn-up relationships, Ire focuses more on themes about politics, global economics, and social issues.  

The lead single “Vice Grip” is also a highlight of the album, and its accompanying music video was simple but extremely enjoyable. The song, like several others on the album, incorporates standard heavy metal influences into their instrumentation and song structure. The song’s lyrics remind us all that you’ve only got one life, and if you give it your all, you can do anything. In the video, the band shows us an excellent example by filming themselves skydiving during the song. Quite a simple motif, really, but it’s one that you could never get tired of.


No. 4 – Bullet for My Valentine – Venom (standard edition to left, deluxe to right)

Bullet for My Valentine, our good friends from Wales, have delivered unto us something slightly different from their typical melodic metalcore. On their new album, Venom, the band takes a return to a thrash metal sound that, like their second album Scream Aim Fire, sounds like they’ve combined their typical sound with classic Slayer or Exodus. They combine these classic thrash styles with basic song structures and a vocal style similar to that of the band’s early albums.

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 12.39.35 PMWhile the songs aren’t very catchy, they’re incredibly addictive. Bradley Zorgdrager of Exclaim! Magazine wrote, “While their heaviest output won’t win over any elitists, fans will also have trouble finding something here to sing along to.” I agree with Zorgdrager’s negative statement towards the album, but not in the same way he does: this isn’t a problem, it’s just a given fact. Elitists? What elitists? Since when do elitists care about Bullet for My Valentine, and since when was gaining their appreciation the band’s goal? In my opinion, “metal elitists” were those who worship classic metal but also praise modern members of the most nasty, extreme, underground heavy metal subgenres out there (aka “kvltists,” like All That Remains’ case), and that’s never been Bullet’s goal. And second, do you need to sing along to it to enjoy it or be a fan of it? No! Of course not!

The second official single from the album, “You Want a Battle? (Here’s a War),” is undoubtedly the heaviest thing they’ve done since their first album, The Poison.** Though there is a lapse of screaming in the first verse, the barely-kept-calmness is short-lived. Anger and rebellion swells into Matt Tuck’s singing voice as he proclaims “hear me roar” before the song erupts into chorus. The song’s lyrics talk about defeating oppressors, and in the music video, it tells the story of an abusive, alcoholic father. It goes to a rather morbid measure to solve the problem, but it is a great example of what some people have to go through every day. It’s an overused topic as of late, but they made a good video.

The third single, “Army of Noise,” is just a fun one to rock out to. Its lyrics were inspired by the band’s energetic fanbase. Guitarist Michael Paget pulls an excellent solo that totally lives up to thrash metal’s name. It reminds me of something you’d hear from an early Metallica album, and while there are many more of these solos on the album, I find this one to be the pinnacle.

According to Zorgdrager, “Army of Noise,” “The Harder the Heart (The Harder It Breaks),” and “Pariah” stand as solid evidence the band can still pump their songs full of menace. The album is a great one overall, and perfectly blends instrumental ideas of thrash metal with metalcore vocal styles and classic heavy metal song structures.

 

(**Side note: See a similarity between their first album and latest album? Think it’s coincidence? I doubt it. It would be a great title if you hadn’t made one so similar already.)  


No. 3 – Lamb of God – VII: Sturm und Drang

Quite possibly the most flawless Lamb of God album since Sacrament, the vocals are only a fraction of what else this album has to offer. The songwriting is what really gets you. I think of it more as simply loud, enjoyable, excellently written audio art.

Many songs tell a really dark story. Several of the lyrics on the album’s songs are influenced by vocalist Randy Blythe’s prison stay in 2012, after accidentally causing the death of a fan in concert. The second single, “512”, was nominated for a Grammy Award for best Metal Performance, and while many of the songs had excellent writing, Blythe outdid himself on this one. Named after the number of the cell he stayed in, the song’s chorus draws several lines that draw out all the circumstances of the event, and talking about the feelings he had after he found out what he had been arrested for, using lines such as “my hands are painted red” to describe how the blood was on his hands.Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 11.36.30 AM

This frustration and depression also shows on “Still Echoes,” which was written about the guillotine the Nazis used in the same Czech prison he was imprisoned in. Blythe claims it was right down the hall from him, and he couldn’t stop thinking about how many people had been killed right next to him.

Two huge shockers on this album, however, are the fourth and sixth tracks “Embers” and “Overlord.” “Embers” has the band teaming up with an extremely unexpected guest vocalist, Deftones’ Chino Moreno. Moreno’s smooth, layered singing after the second chorus gives you a whole new metal experience, and saying much more than that would be extremely difficult to describe with words. (One does not simply describe the way Chino Moreno sings with a single sentence.) It contrasts the band’s usual sound entirely. You may forget you’re even listening to Lamb of God for a moment.

If this doesn’t totally floor you, try “Overlord”. As well as being one of the band’s longest songs timing in at nearly six minutes, Blythe sings rather than growls for half the song. He sounds like he’d be a good frontman for a Southern metal band too!

If only mainstream audiences could pay attention to rock or metal rather than focus on their poptropolis, “Overlord” would do for Lamb of God what “One” did for Metallica in 1989. While it’s not the most successful or melodic record, it’s still an excellent one.


No. 2 – Bring Me the Horizon – That’s the Spirit (CD edition to left, iTunes version to right)

This album had success that absolutely nobody saw coming. Despite the negative reputation expected from Bring Me the Horizon’s That’s the Spirit, this album got a reception from metal critics and non-metal critics alike like it’s the Metallica black album of 2015. Metacritic gave this album a weighted average of 88/100 based on ten other major reviews, indicating an enormously good reception.  

The band’s musical direction changed from their metalcore roots, but the band hasn’t left metal entirely. They’ve become a band that definitely puts the “alternative” in alternative metal. The album’s overall lyrics suggests themes of depression, negativity, sadness and anger.

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 11.37.09 AMSeveral of the songs hardly sound like metal at all, but one thing I know for sure is that the first single “Happy Song” is evidence they haven’t given up their love of heaviness. (Don’t be fooled by the title, it’s not really happy at all.) It starts off with a cheerleading squad chanting about spirit, but after they repeat it, they shout “let’s go!” and suddenly the guitars come in like a dam had just been annihilated by an earthquake, and a roaring wave burst through the wreckage.

As they enter the verse, vocalist Oliver Sykes uses a clean vocal style, but is so quiet it’s almost a whisper. Ten seconds later, an aftershock arrives for 12 seconds. The pattern repeats, and when the chorus comes, it sounds like what you’d expect from a calmer post-rock band, but with loud, heavy guitars and drums in the background. Later, the song breaks down into a slow, depressed electronic meltdown, and Sykes sings a shorter verse before screaming “a little louder!” just like he did in the material from Suicide Season (2008).

The second single, “Throne,” is an electronic-driven alternative metal shocker that was extremely successful not only in the band’s native United Kingdom, but also hit No. 1 in the U.S. rock charts. The song’s lyrics were written from the point of view of an abused and/or abandoned person calling out to his abuser. In the second verse, the fact that the subject forgives his oppressor may be confusing, but that person probably doesn’t want forgiveness. It’s really a tongue-in-cheek, backhanded insult to the person. It really makes you think about it quite a bit before you understand it, but it makes perfect sense. The electronics blend perfectly with the guitars in this track, and it was a perfect single choice.

Some of the songs, however, were too poppy for the band. The fifth track, “Follow You,” seems nice, moody, and dark, yet still poppy and emo with a slight hint of electronics. I feel uncomfortable knowing that it’s Bring Me the Horizon who made this song. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t delete it from my playlist, but something about this band’s relationship to it bothers me. They went too far from their metal roots on this one.

The same feeling shows up with the first track, “Doomed,” which I find extremely similar to “Follow You” in many ways. Electronic, melancholy pop, but eventually, it shows that it has that perfect scream-sing combo we saw on “Go to Hell, For Heaven’s Sake” from Sempiternal (2013). Both songs remain likable.

The best non-single on the album is definitely the ninth track “Blasphemy.” The song is more angry than depressed, and it’s also gritty and attitude-filled. That’s what really gets me.

That’s the Spirit might not be as metal as you wish, but if alternative metal is defined as “hard alternative,” then that’s what subgenre of metal this album is, and it’s doing great at drawing in new listeners. This would serve as an excellent gateway album to metal.


No. 1 – Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful

“Nightwish? Who’s Nightwish?” That’s something many Americans said not so long ago. The band’s record label recognize them as “masters of symphonic metal,” one metal subgenre that isn’t scream or growl reliant. Heaviness and symphonics have never seemed to convene successfully in American groups as well as it does in European ones, as the music taste of the American metalhead is generally heavier. I’d like to at least help that change here, however, because this band is just too perfect to be ignored.Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 11.26.18 AM

Floor Jansen, the band’s new lead vocalist, is definitely the best of the three they’ve had, and she has helped Nightwish craft another absolute masterpiece. The album was well thought out, this band knows how to keep you entranced with non-stop adventure. There is an excellent story being told through the lyrics of a song that you won’t want to end. Even though this album’s lyrical themes are more based around science and reason, rather than fantasy, the lyrical imagery provided in Endless Forms Most Beautiful is truly flawless.

The band is heavily influenced by the writings of Charles Darwin and Richard Hawkins when writing the album. In the title track’s second verse, several animals are mentioned, painting a scene in your mind of early Earth – the kind you’d see in a nature documentary, or what you’d read out of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species. (Incidentally, a line from the book inspired the album title.) Essentially, the song revels in the beauty of our Earth.

The first single, “Élan,” is a lot more like their old material. It’s a story, an adventure. Imagine searching for an answer to a riddle and going on an epic quest, but there isn’t as much fantasy involved as their older material. “The cliffs unjumped, cold waters untouched / The elsewhere creatures yet unseen,” the song’s first verse is a perfect example of this. It’s like Skyrim minus all the fictional animals and weapons. As well as following the typical symphonic metal formula the band has always known, the song sounds reminiscent of folk metal, with more noticeable contributions from special instrumentalist Troy Donockley.

There’s also one more thing on this album that makes Nightwish’s albums unique: most have a song written in a true symphonic form and in several different movements. The “symphony” on Endless Forms Most Beautiful is titled “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and it is 24 minutes long — symphonic metal indeed! The band considered naming the album after this song, so maybe it’s worth checking out.

The eighth track, “Edema Ruh,” was originally planned to be the first single, but was replaced by “Élan” at the suggestion of bassist and male vocalist Marco Hietala. Its musical structure makes the song sound like it was designed to be a European rock radio hit.

Nonetheless, the album is endlessly beautiful! I wonder how those pesky Fins and Dutch manage to do albums like this, but Americans can’t get one to the mainstream. I thought this was the absolute greatest triumph of the year for metal. The reason behind that statement is that I’m sure people who normally don’t even like metal would agree that this is something enjoyable.

About Daniel Sanford

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