Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Best Of 2018

The Best Of 2018

Compared to the last couple of years, 2018 was a pretty good year in general. Yes, it had its fair share of ups and downs, but compared to the last couple of years, the ups seemed to outweigh the downs.

But as the year comes to a close, it was time for me to turn towards the list of releases I kept that came out in 2018. And much like the year was for me on a personal level, 2018 was to my ears, a far stronger year for releases than last year.

So with that said, I present to you my favourite releases of 2018. As per usual, the selections chosen here are based on my own personal tastes, and are not in any particular order of preference.

Amorphis – Queen Of Time (Nuclear Blast Records)

It would be fair to say that Amorphis haven’t deviated much the winning formula showcased on 2015’s ‘Under The Red Cloud’ on their latest release. And while that proposition doesn’t do that much for me (I like to hear progression rather than repetition), I can overlook that this time around given how enjoyable the songs are on offer this time around. The weaving ‘Message In The Amber’, the lengthy experimentation within ‘Daughter Of Hate’, the multi-layered ‘Amongst Stars’ (That boasts a guest appearance from vocalise release of their latest release ‘The Wake’. Decidedly a lot less thrashier sounding than what was initially expected, ‘The Wake’ is instead a showcase of what the band have done best in the years since their breakthrough release ‘Nothingface’ (1989). And that sound is experimental, lyrically sci-fi based and most certainly progressive. The album is best experienced as a whole with the themes played out from start to finish, but tracks such as the bass heavy groove of ‘Orb Confusion’, the faster paced/odd feel of ‘Always Moving’ and the epic mashed-up closer ‘Sonic Mycelium’ are favourites. This is without question one of Voïvod’s stellar efforts.

Voïvod – The Wake (Century Media Records)

Following on from their excellent ‘Post Society’ E.P. from 2016, Voïvod once again manage to retain their winning form with the release of their latest release ‘The Wake’. Decidedly a lot less thrashier sounding than what was initially expected, ‘The Wake’ is instead a showcase of what the band have done best in the years since their breakthrough release ‘Nothingface’ (1989). And that sound is experimental, lyrically sci-fi based and most certainly progressive. The album is best experienced as a whole with the themes played out from start to finish, but tracks such as the bass heavy groove of ‘Orb Confusion’, the faster paced/odd feel of ‘Always Moving’ and the epic mashed-up closer ‘Sonic Mycelium’ are favourites. This is without question one of Voïvod’s stellar efforts.

Stone Temple Pilots – Stone Temple Pilots (Rhino Records)

Given Stone Temple Pilots’ track record without Scott Weiland out front (Talk Show, Army Of Anyone and the Bennington fronted E.P.), I was unsure what to expect from the band’s latest album. But if there’s an album this year that has blown away all my expectations, then it’s this album. Vocalist Jeff Gutt is a perfect fit for the band with his ability to provide the band with something new, while keeping enough of the past sound to please diehard fans. The band sounds inspired once again on hard hitting efforts like ‘Middle Of Nowhere, ‘Guilty’, ‘Six Eight’ and ‘Never Enough’, while Gutt’s presence on ‘Meadow’, ‘Thought She'd Be Mine’, ‘Finest Hour’ and ‘Reds & Blues’ is incredible. This is easily the strongest body of work the band hasreleased in near twenty years.

Ghost - Prequelle (Loma Vista Recordings)

Ghost almost didn’t make it into my top ten this year, despite their latest release hosting some truly amazing tracks. And the reason is that while Ghost hit the mark on most of the album, when they miss, they miss the mark by a mile. But as I mentioned, Ghost really are on fire for most of the album, with tracks such as the heavy rocking ‘Rats’, the metallic ‘Faith’ and ‘Witch Image’ great examples of Ghost in full flight. But what really impresses me is when the band blurs the lines between late ‘80’s hard rock, pop and subliminal messaging. Prime examples can be found in ‘See The Light’, ‘Dance Macabre’ and the Alice Cooper influenced ‘Pro Memoria’. The album might slip during the instrumentals, interludes and covers, but overall Ghost continues to impress me with the new album.

The Night Flight Orchestra – Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough (Nuclear Blast Australia)

When a particular group I like releases a couple of great albums in a row, then there’s always the potential that they latest effort will possibly disappoint, and signal the end of a winning streak. That’s not the case here, with ‘Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough’ competing a trio of solid gold albums. Fusing classic rock and 80’s hard rock, but with a distinctly modern sheen, tracks such as ‘Turn To Miami’, the funky ‘Paralyzed’, the slick ‘Moments Of Thunder’, ‘Can’t Be That Bad’ and ‘Winged And Serpentine’ have received some pretty heavy rotation on my stereo this year. I may not have this list in any particular order, but this is certainly one of my favourite releases from 2018.

Alice In Chains – Rainier Fog (BMG)

When Alice In Chains returned to the scene with their 2009 release, I was impressed with their ability to retain their core sound, while pushing forward. Three albums into their comeback, and the band continue to deliver the goods. Sounding more consistent and alive than their former release, ‘Rainer Fog’ boasts the classic Alice In Chains, without sounding like the band are repeating themselves. The band offer a bit of everything, with ‘Red Giant’, ‘So Far Under’ and ‘All I Am’ sounding slow, grinding and heavy, while ‘Fly’ and ‘Maybe’ lighter the tone to keep the whole album varied and engaging.

Myles Kennedy – Year Of The Tiger (Napalm Records)

I was really looking forward to this album, and while it wasn’t what I was expecting from the Alter Bridge/Slash vocalist’s debut sole outing, it has grown on me over time. Acoustic based and deeply rooted in that Americana sound, ‘Year Of The Tiger’ is quite a stripped back and personal album, and one that offers fans a wide array of sounds and styles. ‘Devil On The Way’, ‘Mother’, ‘Songbird’ and the title track represent the stronger uptempo numbers, while the more downbeat ‘Haunted By Design’, ‘Ghost Of Shangri La’ and the huge sounding ‘The Great Beyond’ only showcase what a talented artist Kennedy really is both as a singer and a songwriter.

Judas Priest – Firepower (Sony Music)

As big a fan as I am of Judas Priest, I really haven’t been blown away with anything the veteran act has released since the return of Halford out front. So I wasn’t expecting anything from this release. But lo and behold, Judas Priest has finally released an album worthy of their legendary status. The production duo of Tom Allom and Andy Sneap ensure that the sound is great, but its Halford’s inspired performance and the quality of the songs here that win me over. Listening to the likes of the title track, the serpentine slink of ‘Flame Thrower’, the driving ‘Traitor’s Gate’, the melodic sensibilities of ‘No Surrender’ and ‘Evil Never Dies’, it’s clear that Judas Priest still have plenty to offer fans.

The Eternal – Waiting For The Endless Dawn (Sombre Light Productions)

I’ve been waiting for this album for some time, and the wait was well worth it. In a lot of ways, The Eternal revised their past with this album boasting a darker and heavier sound than their last couple of albums. And to these ears, it sounds perfect. The epic opener ‘The Wound’ is a perfect example of what the album has instore with its lush melodies, heavy guitar and memorable vocal passages, while ‘Rise From Agony’ boasts some great guitar work from front man Mark Kelson. I could list every track on this album as a highlight, but the violin enhanced ‘I Lie In Wait’, the band’s unique take on Icehouse’s ‘Don’t Believe Anymore’ and ‘In The Lilac Dusk’ (Featuring guest vocalist Mikko Kotamäki from Swallow The Sun) are tracks to keep an ear out for. This album is a personal favourite of mine of for 2018.

Michael Romeo - War Of The Worlds - Pt. 1 (Music Theories Recordings)

Given how much I like Symphony X, there was never going to be any doubt that guitarist Michael Romeo new solo album was going to feature somewhere in my top list this year. ‘War Of The Worlds - Pt. 1’ is almost like a new Symphony X album, but does have enough differing elements to make it stand alone. And one of those big differences is vocalist Rick Castellano, who sounds like a smoother/less operatic version of Russell Allen (Pre-2007’s ‘Paradise Lost’), and someone who really stands out here on the album alongside Romeo’s impressive guitar work. Picking out highlights on the album is quite a challenge given the strength of the album overall, but ‘Fear The Unknown’, ‘Black’, ‘Djinn’ and ‘Oblivion’ are tracks that should be earmarked for a definite listen to. Here’s hoping there’s more Romeo solo efforts to fill the gaps between Symphony X releases in the future.

Top Ten Songs For 2018

There are those great sounding, memorable and strong albums that naturally make their way into your top ten list at the end of the year. The rest flow onto the list featured below. Basically these are albums that have some great songs, but aren’t consistent enough to stand out as album’s that begging for repeated listens for the rest of eternity (Or at least something like that). They’re still worth checking out however.

Tantric – Letting Go (From ‘Mercury Retrograde’)

Since 2008, Tantric have been a bit inconsistent, and mostly because of the uneven production values on their albums, and their constant revolving door of members within their ranks. And their latest album suffers once again for these very reasons. But despite its disappointments, the band’s latest does feature ‘Letting Go’, which is a rerecorded track from the original line-up’s unreleased ‘Tantic III’ album from 2007. Vocalist Hugo Ferreira is in top form here with the melodies, the lyrics are solid, and the mix of acoustic and electric guitars is trademark Tantric of old from a production point of view. It’s just a shame they can’t pull this thing off on every track on the new album.

Corrosion Of Conformity – Cast The First Stone (From ‘No Cross No Crown’)

I was really looking forward to Corrosion Of Conformity getting back together with Pepper Keenan on their new album, and while I enjoy the album, it’s not an album I love. I think the production has a bit to do with it, but listening to the album as a whole, it’s pretty clear that there’s a fair bit of filler on it, and it’s a bit gruelling to get through because of that. But a definite high point on the album appears within ‘Cast The First Stone’. Chunky riffs, musical attitude and Keenan on vocals with his familiar bite is a great mix for the band, and once that reminds me a bit of the band’s glory days around ‘Deliverance’ (1994).

Andrew W.K. – ‘Party Mindset’ (From ‘You’re Not Alone’)

Why is this track on here? I can’t say for sure. I’m not a huge fan of Andrew W.K., but I do have a few of his albums. I picked this album up as a gamble, and I really did enjoy quite a few tracks off the album. Of all of them, I did like ‘Party Mindset’ the most. Part of the appeal is the message, another part is the instrumentation. But I have to admit the melody is infectious too. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m not what you’d call an avid follower of Andrew W.K.’s stuff, but I do appreciate his vibrant/overtly positive musical output from time to time.

The Sea Within – They Know My Name (From ‘The Sea Within’)

This album almost appeared in my top ten list of the year, and the only reason it hasn’t is because I’m still trying to fully absorb the album. This project is spearheaded by Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings) and Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain Of Salvation), and is every bit as good as the line-up suggests. The album covers a wide variety of styles and directions, but my favourite is the rather dark and beautiful ‘The Know My Name’. Gildenlöw’s passionate vocals mesh perfectly with the subdued musical framework, and create a track that lingers in the mind well after finishing.

The Dead Daisies – Judgement Day (From ‘Burn It Up’)

The Dead Daises seem to be moving at a relentless pace with a new album every year. On their fourth studio album, the band maintains their high standard brand of hard rock for the most part, barring a few average sounding numbers. One of the album’s big highlights comes in ‘Judgement Day’. Fusing together the tried and true acoustic verses and heavy duty choruses, ‘Judgement Day’ is a great example of the guitarist’s ability to conjure up a rock solid riff and tasteful solo, and John Corabi’s incredible vocals. The Dead Daisies have yet to produce a certified classic album, but with this album, they weren’t far off the mark.

Tesseract – King (From ‘Sonder’)

‘Sonder’ isn’t one of my favourite Tesseract albums, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad album either. Instead, it sits somewhere in the middle, with the song writing sounding more refined, but a little forgettable sound wise overall. But while some songs can drift by, ‘King’ always stands out, and that’s in no small part due to Daniel Tompkins’ contrast between screamed vocals and lush melodies against the sonic wall of noise from the rest of the band. ‘King’ is an exceptional song on a solid album.

Ty Tabor – So Here’s To You (From ‘Alien Beans’)

Picking a song from Tabor’s latest release was a bit tough, because there’s three really great tracks (The rest are no slouches either!), but I’ve gone with ‘So Here’s To You’ primarily because I keep coming back to it, and it really does showcase what Tabor does best in the song writing sense. The use of acoustics in the track is quite effective, and while Tabor’s voice can get a little much at times, it works wonders on this track. Here’s hoping that next year a new King’s X album makes my top ten list!

ASG – God Knows We (From ‘Survive Sunrise’)

Given the number of years that ASG has been around for (Sixteen if one wasn’t sure), it’s safe to say that the band know what they do best. And while that works a good part of the time, it does mean that sometimes the band’s output can sound a bit overly familiar. And that’s what plagues ‘Survive Sunrise’. It’s a good album, but it’s only the second half of the album where the band stretch beyond their know strengths and strive for greatness. There’s a ton of great material featured in the latter half of the album, but ‘God Knows We’ hits where it should in terms of delivering a highly infectious performance, grooving riffs and strong melodies.

Spock’s Beard – Somebody’s Home (From ‘Noise Floor’)

Three albums into the third incarnation of Spock’s Beard, and the band are still producing some great results. But if there’s a negative surrounding ‘Noise Floor’, it’s that the band are playing to their strengths, and not really challenging their audience. Don’t get me wrong, the progressive rock band’s latest album is really solid, but I can’t help but feel that the band aren’t stretching themselves to break new ground. The album will take a lot more time before it really starts to gel with me, but the first single ‘Somebody’s Home’ grabbed me right from the start. It’s a more melodic approach from the band than what’s usually expected (As is the rest of the album), and the progressive flourishes are certainly toned down, but it’s a damn likeable track.

Living Colour – Program (From ‘Shade’)

I never know what to expect from Living Colour over the course of a full length album, and the band live up to that in a big way on ‘Shade’. Seemingly crossing from one style to the next, Living Colour can be hard to pin down. ‘Shade’ is a good album, with every song ticking the box for me. The only real problem is that as a whole, the album isn’t as strong as some of their other releases to my ears. But like I mention before, there isn’t a bad track, and ‘Program’ is a firm favourite. Riff heavy, full of attitude on the vocal front (Both in the rapped and sung sections) and funky in typically Living Colour fashion, ‘Program’ is a political statement in musical form and signature Living Colour sounding as we’ve come to expect from the band.

Biggest Disappointment Of 2018

Machine Head - Catharsis (Nuclear Blast Entertainment)

You could never accuse Machine Head of making the same album over and over again. If history has proven anything, it’s that there have been times when that’s been a really good thing (The transition from 2001’s ‘Supercharger’ to 2003’s ‘Through The Ashes Of Empires’), and times when it’s been a huge letdown (2011’s ‘Unto The Locust’ and its follow up 2014’s ‘Bloodstone & Diamonds’). Cue Machine Head’s ninth studio release ‘Catharsis’. ‘Catharsis’ does have its moments, but not complete songs. There’s snippets where the band are doing some cool things, but that can’t seem to focus on those good ideas and build quality songs from them. Instead the songs feel like their thrown together haphazardly, giving the album a very scattered feel. And even some of the likeable tracks on the album (Notably ‘Psychotic’, ‘California Bleeding’ and ‘Volatile’) sound like the band are on autopilot. And at fifteen tracks/seventy-five minutes, the album also drags. In the end, ‘Catharsis’ fails to grab me like I’d hoped it would, and will no doubt rarely be thrown on the stereo for a spin. This album doesn’t signal the end of Machine Head, because the band has a knack for bouncing back from the brink of disaster. But of all the albums released this year, this is one I just can’t enjoy as much as I had hoped I would.

The Best Book Of 2018

K.K. Downing With Mark Eglinton – Heavy Duty: Days And Nights In Judas Priest (Constable)

I’ve amassed quite a few biographies over the years, and it’s getting easier to recognise the good ones from the bad. Obviously being a Judas Priest fan, I had to pick up Downing’s effort, and in doing so had hoped that it might shed some insight into the band’s lengthy and highly influential four decade long story. Well, on that front, the book does disappoint. But on a more personal level, the book work surprisingly well. Downing’s book comes across as honest and straight forward telling of his side of the story, with a large proportion of the book focusing on his personal life outside of Judas Priest. Starting, predicably, with the details surrounding his (Hard) early life, the book does take its time getting around to the formation of the band. But there’s a very good reason for that, and that’s because his early life had such a huge influence on how he handled his personal/professional life from there on. Given the mystery surrounding Judas Priest’s inner workings, this book is a first of its kind, and quite revealing. But Downing does hold back on a lot of the dirt in an effort to retain some respect he has with his former band members. A lot of the finer details surrounding the making of the music is brushed over (Or missing in some cases), and Downing’s memory lapses regarding some important details can be disappointing and make little sense at times, but overall the book succeeds more than it fails.

Biggest Surprise Of 2018

Unlike cassette tapes and vinyl, which disappeared rather quickly with the introduction of C.D.’s (Well it took time, but did seem to happen quickly at the time), C.D.’s are dying a slow and agonising death with the growing use of digital music. And while none of this is news to music collectors, the effect of this slow transition still manages to surprise me on a number of different levels. A prime example of this is the release of most albums these days in standard and deluxe formats. While it was once relegated to a small percentage of releases, it now seems common place. But that’s something I kind of expected to become more common place as time moved on. I guess what’s really taken me by surprise is the deluxe format album’s have taken on the reissue front. Gone are the days where a long out of print album will get a reissue that’s the same in almost every aspect apart from the label and the barcode. No, now it’s remixed/remastered, filled with bonus tracks, packaged with vinyl/books/trinkets and all wrapped in some lavish packaging. Again, while none of this is a real surprise, the extent that some albums have been repackaged is quite mind blowing and surprising. The expansion of the deluxe reissue really has been taken to a whole new level with the likes of Pink Floyd’s Immersion box set version of ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, Metallica’s ‘...And Justice For All’ and Guns N’ Roses ‘Appetite For Destruction’. These deluxe sets cater to the absolute diehard fan, and with those who have money. I’m sure I’ll be amazed (And horrified sometimes) with what will emerge in 2019 and beyond in terms of music presentation, but 2018 certainly opened my mind to the possibilities and pitfalls of a collector whose fond of the C.D. format, and what they have to contend with in the coming years.

Best Concert Of 2018

Europe – Palais Theatre – 19th May 2018

I didn’t get to a lot of shows this year, but of the few I did see, Europe was one of my favourites. Although I was never one of their biggest fans in the early days, I have become one since their return to the scene in 2004. Each and every release since their reformation has been great, and I (And my partner) leapt at the chance to see them live. And it didn’t disappoint one bit. Joey Tempest hasn’t lost anything on the vocal front, and the band sounded great. This kind of show could have easily slipped into reliving past glories for the band, but instead they kept the set list geared primarily on the most recent efforts, while acknowledging their past to keep everyone pleased. There were plenty of highlights (Particularly when the band snuck in a brief snippet of AC/DC’s ‘Whole Lot Of Rosie’ and Whitesnake’s ‘Here I Go Again’ into a couple of their songs), but hearing both ‘Firebox’ and ‘Walk The Earth’ was worth the price of admission alone. For a first visit to Australian shores, Europe conquered with ease, and left a huge impression on all.

Most Anticipated Album Of 2019

I always get stuck on this one, because what I’ve put here in the past generally doesn’t come out until two years later! Anyway, I’m looking forward to a lot of releases this year, but one I know that’s being released in 2019 is the debut effort from The End Machine. Featuring “classic era” Dokken members George Lynch (Guitar), Jeff Pilson (Bass) and Mick Brown (Drums), The End Machine sees the trio team up with ex-Lynch Mob/Warrant vocalist Robert Mason for what so far appears to be something a little more modern sounding than what I’d expected. Although the concept didn’t sound all that enticing on paper (Is anyone excited by the idea of rehashed Dokken classics?), T&N’s debut effort from 2012 was a cracking release, and a real showcase of the talent with the three guys on the new material. So with that in mind, I’m really looking forward to seeing what the guys would come up with next. O.K., I was hoping for that second T&N album, but this will do in the meantime.