Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Best Of 2013

The Best Of 2013

Much like the last five years, 2013 was one of those years where the real stand out releases stood head and shoulders above those that didn’t. In other words, any sort of middle ground was non-existent for the most part.

But it’s not the middle we’re worried about here (Or those particular releases that completely failed on every level). No, all we’re interested in here is the best of what 2013 had to offer up.

And so here it is - The best of 2013 (Albeit in no particular order, and compiled from my own personal perspective on what’s cool).

Top Ten Albums For 2013

1. Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) (Kscope/Snapper Music)

After a couple of somewhat self indulgent avant-garde stylised solo releases (Which were great nonetheless), Wilson renewed his focus on his true song writing strengths and released one of his strongest solo releases to date. Balancing progressive elements, subtle shades of jazz and a huge helping of melody, ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)’ is a dark and mystifying masterpiece that rivals anything that Wilson produced with Porcupine Tree at their peak (1999 through to 2007).

2. Tom Keifer - The Way Life Goes (Merovee Records)

After close to ten years between studio visits, Cinderella front man Tom Keifer finally emerged with his long awaited debut solo album ‘The Way Life Goes’ this year. And it was well worth the wait. Part country, part rock and part blues rock, ‘The Way Life Goes’ is a diverse and eclectic release, but everything you would expect from one of the ‘80’s truly underrated singer/songwriters.

3. Clutch - Earth Rocker (Weathermaker Music)

After a trio of releases that saw the cult underground Germantown (Maryland, U.S.) outfit bring their blues influences to the fore, Clutch return to true heavy rock splendour on their latest effort ‘Earth Rocker’. And while their last few releases were good, ‘Earth Rocker’ is easily the band’s strongest release since 2004’s incredible ‘Blast Tyrant’. This album is all about the riffs, and having a good time. In other words, it’s everything you’d expect from Clutch, and then some.

4. Leprous – Coal (Inside Out Music/Century Media Records/E.M.I. Music Australia)

Norwegian outfit Leprous really are an acquired taste. But for those with an ear in tune with what the band offer within the progressive rock genre, Leprous really are something altogether different – And in a good way. While ‘Coal’ doesn’t quite eclipse the brilliance of their last full-length effort (2011’s ‘Bilateral’), it still manages to stand out as one of this year’s most forward thinking pieces of progressive art by a long shot. Odd, yet catchy, technical and yet decidedly stripped back in so many ways, ‘Coal’ really is something unique.
5. Voivod - Target Earth (Century Media Records/E.M.I. Music Australia)

When founder, guitarist, principal song writer and the driving force Denis ‘Piggy’ D’Amour sadly passed away in 2005, you could be forgiven for thinking that it would signal an end to Voivod. Even the band themselves seemed unsure of what the future held for them. But lo and behold, Daniel ‘Chewy’ Mongrain joined the fold for touring purposes, which eventually led to the release of ‘Target Earth’. Simply put, while Voivod’s new album pays tribute to the band’s past for the most part, it does bode well for the band’s continued existence beyond being a nostalgia act.

6. Alice In Chains – The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (Capital Records)

O.K., so this is hardly the most groundbreaking release for Alice In Chains, but it is a great album. What the Seattle four piece lack in new ground, they sure make up for in quality songs that stick in the mind well and truly after they’re finished. Jerry Cantrell seems content to remain with the boundaries laid down by the band’s acclaimed past, but as long as he’s churning out killer riffs like the ones heard throughout the new album, and conjuring up haunting melodies that are as catchy as they are darkened in tone, reinvention for the sake of it isn’t necessary here whatsoever.

7. Cronian – Eranthems (Season Of Mist)

One could argue that with Vintersorg (Vocalist, bassist, keyboardist and programmer) and Øystein Garnes Brun (Guitarist, keyboardist and programmer) both active members of Borknagar, Cronian are hardly a project that signifies a huge departure for the duo. In a lot of ways that’s true. But then again, given how much I really enjoy latter era Borknagar, it comes as no surprise to see Cronian’s third effort getting some heavy rotation on the iPod. Cronian has always been cinematic and progressive, and this album is no different. But what really stands out is just how complete ‘Eranthems’ sounds as a body of work compared to their former efforts.
8. Ghost – Infestissumam (Republic Records/Universal Music Australia)

Some people can’t get past the gimmick Ghost has built their reputation on. But if you look past that, and listen to what the band has to offer on ‘Infestissumam’ on a musical level, it’s hard not to enjoy the band for what they are. Ghost writes some truly catchy songs, all of which are filled to the brim with plenty subliminal evil that lurks just below the surface. The fact that their classic/progressive rock sound is a deliberate throwback to a bygone era, and the fact that they manage to make it sound fresh and exciting is enough to win me over.

9. Deep Purple - Now What?! (earMusic/Shock Records Distribution)

With a career spanning some forty-five years, it’s safe to say that Deep Purple really doesn’t have anything more to prove. That was until they released ‘Rapture Of The Deep’ in 2005, which in my humble opinion was by far the strongest album the band had released in a decade. So I had high hopes for ‘Now What?!’, and for the most part, the band absolutely nailed it. In an age where some well know older acts are struggling to deliver in the studio what they can on stage, Deep Purple buck the trend and deliver on both fronts.

10. Queensrÿche - Queensrÿche (Melodisc Ltd./Century Media Records/E.M.I. Music Australia)

Ousted vocalist Geoff Tate may have been the first to claim victory against his former band with the release of ‘Frequency Unknown’ earlier in the year, but it was the newly revamped and rejuvenated Queensrÿche (With former Crimson Glory vocalist Todd La Torre taking on the front man role) that had the last laugh with their rather impressive self titled release. Despite the band keeping things safe for the most part, there’s enough classic Queensrÿche on offer to give fans hope that the band really do have enough to recapture their past glory, and run once again with it.

Top Ten Songs For 2013

I’ll be honest here and say that while the title claims these are by favourite songs of the year, they’re really just a small part of what ultimately is an album that didn’t quite make it into my top ten list for this year. Needless to say, the list is once again in no order. So without further ado, here goes...

1. Alter Bridge – Peace Is Broken (From ‘Fortress’)

Alter Bridge can’t seem to do a thing wrong at the moment. And the proof can be found on ‘Fortress’. While the album is quite diverse, on the heavy end of the spectrum there’s tracks such as ‘Peace Is Broken’ that show the band aren’t afraid to dish out some truly heavy sounding riffs, all the while keeping things catchy on the choruses. If you were a fan of the band’s former efforts, then you’ll definitely find plenty to enjoy on ‘Fortress’.

2. Bad Religion – True North (From ‘True North’)

Is there’s anything more to say about Californian punk legends Bad Religion? Probably not. But I will say that while the band’s future is nearing its end, the band is destined to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. The opening title track of their most recent album is a potent and fast paced rocker that features all the core ingredients of what make Bad Religion so great, and is definitely one of many favourites on the album.

3. Tomahawk – South Paw (From ‘Oddfellows’)

It’s been quite a few years since Tomahawk last emerged with anything new, and given the rather bad taste ‘Anonymous’ left in my mouth, I wasn’t holding out for much. But despite my low expectations, ‘Oddfellows’ took me by complete surprise, and Mike Patton’s performance on the album was a welcome return to form. But if I had to single out the one track that blew me away, I just can’t go past ‘South Paw’. The use of atmospherics, melody, churning guitars and hammering drums is nothing short of pure genius to these ears.
4. Pinkish Black - Kites And Vultures (From ‘Razed To The Ground’)

Although I don’t indulge into the avant-garde/experimental realm all the time (I’m far too conservative I’m afraid), I do from time to time. And this year, Pinkish Black caught my attention. Their latest effort ‘Razed To The Ground’ isn’t the kind of album I listen to every day, but when I’m in the mood for that something truly left of centre, it does the job. One of my favourites has to be ‘Kites And Vultures’.

5. Hey! Hello! – Black Valentine (From ‘Hey! Hello!’)

Self described as ‘noisy pop’, Hey! Hello!’s self-titled debut promised much, and delivered on every level. Comprising of Ginger (The Wildhearts) and New York vocalist Victoria Liedke, the project showcases just how well the two fit together vocally, and Ginger’s incredibly keen sense of melody and lyrical wit. Almost everything on the album is of a gold standard, but the opening cut ‘Black Valentine’ is the track that sets the bar for the rest to follow. Ginger is not only a rock ‘n’ roll legend, but a pop genius on the side too.

6. Sevendust – Got A Feeling (From ‘Black Out The Sun’)

Sevendust seem to be on the right track with ‘Cold Day Memory’ (2010), but they truly hit the mark on ‘Black Out The Sun’. But surprisingly enough, the track that really blew me away was ‘Got A Feeling’, which is features guitarist Clint Lowery on lead vocals. Although somewhat ballad like, it has enough dark acoustic country influences, and a touch of southern rock in places to really make it sound different. I can only hope that Lowery’s Call Me No One project from last year wasn’t just a one off.

7. Boysetsfire – Phone Call (4am) (From ‘While A Nation Sleeps…’)

O.K., so ‘While A Nation Sleeps…’ is far from Boysetsfire at their best, but it does boast some great tracks. And while my favourite happens to be a re-recording of a track that’s been doing the rounds since 2006, this song still rocks big time. I believe that if the band can keep it together, and record a new album, they might yet produce something that rivals their classic ‘The Misery Index: Notes From The Plague Years’ from 2006.

8. Bring Me The Horizon – Hospital For Souls (From ‘Sempiternal’)

In the past, Sheffield (U.K.) outfit Bring Me The Horizon have done little for me. So I wasn’t expecting much from ‘Sempiternal’ when it came across my desk. But was I wrong. This album actually shows a more experimental and progressive side to the band’s cliché metal/deathcore sound of the past. And one of the best examples of this daring new territory the band have ventured into can be found in ‘Hospital For Souls’. A powerful message over a stirring soundtrack, which is something I would have considered impossible for the band some five years ago.

9. Amorphis – Hopeless Days (From ‘Circle’)

As much as I’ve enjoyed Amorphis, I’ve always found the band a little hit and miss over the course of a full-length album. That was until ‘Circle’. The band finally seem to have found the perfect balance of aggression and melody, all the while pushing their sound a little outside their comfort zone enough to please long-time fans. The best example of those distinguishing features (Aggression, melody and progression) is found on the album’s first single ‘Hopeless Days’.

10. The Eternal - In Severance (From ‘When The Circle Of Light Begins To Fade’)

The Eternal have always been a band that’s impossible to pin down. While they do have a sound, each and every one of their albums has their own unique direction, which makes them elusive and enticing at the same time. In celebration of their tenth anniversary, the band has released an album that seems to pick a bit from everything that encompasses their sound on the one album – with stunning results. Although it’s damn near impossible to pick any one stand out cut, ‘In Severance’ is a definite personal favourite.

The Best D.V.D. Of 2013

Karnivool – Live At The Forum (Sony Music Entertainment)

I had high expectations of Karnivool’s third album ‘Asymmetry’, and was very disappointed with what the band eventually offered up. Despite some strong moments, the album is a further departure from the style of their first two records, and it's a sound that’s ill-fitting to me. But while the album itself was a letdown, the accompanying D.V.D. released with the deluxe edition is something else. Recorded while touring in support of their ‘Sound Awake’ release from 2009, the show captures Karnivool in impeccable form, and boasts a thirteen track set list that cover much of the band’s strongest material from their last couple of albums. The D.V.D. is hardly the kind of thing the band would release as a standalone product (Although if I’m not mistaken, they were seriously considering it), but as a deluxe edition bonus, it’s certainly a cut above most.

The Best Book Of 2013

James Greene, Jr. – This Music Leaves Stains – The Complete Story Of The Misfits (Scarecrow Press Inc./The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.)

As a lifelong fan of the Misfits, I have always wanted someone to put their story in book form. Understandably, the story is damn near impossible to tell, especially given that much of the band’s history is shrouded in mystery, and the various members that have passed through the legendary New Jersey outfit remain tight lipped about anything regarding the band’s true inner mechanics. But outside of former Samhain/Danzig bassist Eerie Von's photography tome ‘Misery Obscura - The Photography Of Eerie Von (1981-2009)’ (Which was released way back in 2010), no one has dared attempted to fill in the empty void. Until now that is. While Greene, Jr.’s book doesn’t unearth much in the way of new information, it does lift the lid on the band’s rather complex history, and help bring together the definitive history of the cult outfit for those who haven’t yet managed to piece it all together. Yes, the book does have its flaws, and it is on the short side, but Greene, Jr. has managed to produce what most would have thought was impossible. This book, alongside Von’s own effort, is an absolute must have/read for all Misfits/Samhain/Danzig fans.

Biggest Surprise Of 2013

Soilwork - The Living Infinite (Nuclear Blast Records/Riot! Entertainment)

Given how much I praised ‘The Panic Broadcast’ (2010), and knowing full well what the Swedes track record of late is like (A good album, followed by a lacklustre one, and then a good one, etc...), I wasn’t holding out for a classic Soilwork release in ‘The Living Infinite’. And then when news filtered through that it was a double album (A feat that’s claimed more casualties than victories), followed by the confirmation that lead guitarist/song writer Peter Wichers had left the group for a second time. So I really was expecting a disappointment from the band. But against all odds, with ‘The Living Infinite’, Soilwork have not only managed to survive a major line-up change, but release a double album of new material that actually keeps the listener engaged throughout both discs.

Best Newcomer Of 2013

Hell Or Highwater

Alright, so technically Hell Or Highwater have been around a few years. But given that I was only introduced to the Californian outfit earlier in the year, I’ll take the liberty of calling them newcomers. And I really dig their stuff. I’m probably one of the few Atreyu fans who thought 2007’s ‘Lead Sails Paper Anchor’ was their best album, and I was really bummed out to find that the band split up after such a great album. But all was not lost, with drummer/vocalist Brandon Saller resurfacing in Hell Or Highwater, who independently released their ‘Begin Again’ album in 2011 (Which was re-released by Pavement Entertainment, Inc. in expanded form earlier this year). Their debut is a great hard rock record, and their recently released E.P. ‘The Other Side’ (Released through US Records) is a rock solid follow up. This is one highly recommended outfit for fans of latter era Atreyu.

Biggest Disappointment Of 2013

Spock's Beard - Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep (Inside Out Music/Century Media Records/E.M.I. Music Australia)

I could mention a ton of albums in this space, but none disappointed me more than Spock’s Beard’s effort from this year. I had so hoped that given how perfect ‘X’ was (2010), the band would be able to do it a second time in a row with the release of their new album. Unfortunately, they couldn’t. Understandably, a lot of that comes down to the change of vocalist (Nick D’Virgilio was replaced by Enchant vocalist Ted Leonard). Leonard is a great vocalist, but on ‘Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep’, he sounds like he’s a square trying to fit into a round hole. That’s not to say the album is a complete disaster, because there are some noteworthy tracks (Especially the opener ‘Hiding Out’, which was penned by Leonard). But as a whole, Spock’s Beard has played it relatively safe on this album, and it shows. It took D’Virgilio and Spock’s Beard four albums to find their own sound after the departure of Neal Morse. I can only hope that it doesn’t take as long for this new line-up to emerge with their own ‘X’.

Most Anticipated Album Of 2013

It’s probably a long shot, but if the reunited Saigon Kick could get into the studio and record something, I’d be a first day buyer! 1997 is the last time the band genuinely recorded something new (I refuse to include 1999’s ‘Bastards’ because it’s essentially a Jason Bieler solo album under the Saigon Kick banner, and because it’s a complete piece of shit!). Come guys! You’ve reunited. It’s high time to take things to the next level and give the true diehard fans what they really want!

© Justin Donnelly