Matt Bower Best-of 2015

Wednesday, 23rd December 2015

This being my first year tackling a Best of column, it was difficult enough establishing a top 10 albums list, so I took a bit of a different tact when approaching the top 10 songs list.

In an effort to shed light on a few lesser known bands I was fortunate enough to discover through reviews, I’ve included a number of songs that stood out from those releases, in addition to selections I found myself continually pressing repeat on. I also kept this list separate from my top 10 albums, so as to showcase as many bands as possible.

1. Paradise Lost – “No Hope in Sight” (from The Plague Within)
Haunting guitar lines, pulsing riffs, sorrowful melodies and Nick’s balance of deeper death growls and gothic cleans (think Peter Steele) combine to make this one stand out as one of the best compositions of 2015, and it’s catchy as hell to boot!

2. Armored Saint – “Win Hands Down” (from Win Hands Down)
If there was any doubt as to whether or not Armored Saint had anything left in the tank, it’s completely dashed by the self-titled opener to the band’s seventh studio album. Announcing itself with thundering drums and comprising rich melodies, heavy riffs and the imitable pipes of John Bush, this is a definite winner.

3. W.A.S.P. – “Miss You” (from Golgotha)
Originally written for The Crimson Idol, “Miss You” proves yet again that Blackie knows how to write emotional, epic ballads. I would put it right up there next to “The Idol,” one of my all-time favorite W.A.S.P. songs. Full of melody, it starts out slow but climbs to an exciting crescendo, highlighting Doug Blair’s excellent lead work and impressive solo chops.

4. Helloween – “Lost in America” (from My God Given Right)
This mid-tempo rocker, which tells a unique story about the band being stranded at an airport in South America due to a spontaneous flight show and then having to turn around after being airborne due to instruments not working properly, has all the requisite trademarks for a Helloween classic, including those playful (Happy, Happy Helloween) melodies, monster drumming, and plenty of metallic bombast.

5. Gama Bomb – “Ninja Untouchables/Untouchable Glory” (from Untouchable Glory)
Probably the song I listened to more than any other once it was released, this slab of ear-pleasing thrash, with its frenetic riffing and sing-along chorus, is just pure fun. Plus, who doesn’t love a song about ninjas?

6. Ranger – “Storm of Power” (from Where Evil Dwells)
Taking the raw energy of early Slayer and Running Wild and melding it with the blazing speed of Agent Steel and Exciter, these Finns found a winning formula that offers plenty of fresh excitement while paying tribute to the past. “Storm of Power” may be the shortest song on the album, but it’s bursting with energy and serves as in indicator of the double axe attack skills of Mikael and Ville Valtonen.

7. Lords of the Trident – “Winds of the Storm” (from Frostburn)
While the sword and sorcery lyrics and imagery may be delivered in an over-the-top manner akin to Gloryhammer and Powerglove, the musicianship and songwriting skills of Lords of the Trident are top notch. “Winds of the Storm” is a fast-paced, melodic rocker that will have you banging your head and raising your fist in victory.

8. Yorblind – “The Scapegoat” (from Blind But Alive)
France’s Yorblind utilize many different elements in their thrash-infused melodic death metal template. “The Scapegoat” features pounding double bass, meaty riffs, sharp melodies and gritty, intense death growls mixed with more melodic cleans to create a haunting yet punishing piece of music.

9. Sacral Rage – “Waltz in Madness” (from Illusions in Infinite Void)
Greek power thrashers Sacral Rage have burst onto the scene with a quality full length debut album. “Waltz in Madness” has plenty of rapid riff action, but where the song really shines is in the vocals of Dimitris K. Just listen to him hold out “madness” in the chorus in a King Diamond-like falsetto.

10. Nekrogoblikon – “Bring Us More” (from Heavy Meta)
“Bring Us More,” with bouncing rhythms and an oh-so catchy piano melody, sounds like it could be the bastard child of Finntroll and Dog Fashion Disco. And the raspy Goblin vocals work well with the ridiculously fun, carnival-like vibe of the song.

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Biggest Surprise: Blind Guardian & Grave Digger U.S. tour
It’s hard to believe that a band more than 30 years into its career hadn’t ever toured the United States, so it was definitely a shock to learn that Grave Digger would be accompanying Blind Guardian this fall on the North American tour. This was made all the more special when the New England tour date, at the Worcester Palladium, happened to fall on Halloween and Blind Guardian performed their entire set in full costume. BG even threw in some setlist rarities, such as “Barbara Ann.” It all made for an unforgettable night!

Distant Sun - Dark Matter
Best Newcomer: Distant Sun
This young power thrash trio from Moscow, Russia hasn’t been around long, but they released an impressive debut album in Dark Matter. What made this one stand out is that while it contains multiple reference points – everything from Orphaned Land, Dew-Scented and Annihilator to Blind Guardian, Megadeth and Running Wild – the band never loses its identity. Rather, it’s able to stand on its own with tight, focused song writing and intense, energetic musicianship. The band also wisely chooses to vary the tempos, including a ballad and even a folk anthem among the thrashier slam and stomp numbers, resulting in a diverse, competent debut.

The Sanity Days - Evil Beyond Belief
Biggest Disappointment: The Sanity Days
Being a huge fan of thrash and NWOBHM/traditional metal, I was looking forward to hearing The Sanity Days, a collaboration between ex-members of Onslaught and Steve Grimmett, of Grim Reaper. Although Evil Beyond Belief has its moments, they are too far and few between. I expected more passion and creativity from this group of seasoned veteran musicians; instead the songwriting mostly comes off as generic and uninspired. Hopefully the time spent together on the road during future tours will lead to better chemistry and improved song ideas.

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Best Cover Art: Ahab’s The Boats of the Glen Carrig
(Click here for larger image)

Although I had heard of Ahab before, I had never really looked into the band and was, thus, fairly unfamiliar with them. That is, until picking up this album, which was almost impossible not to do after viewing the album cover artwork by Sebastian Jerke. What really grabbed me is Jerke’s use of rich and varying colors to depict an underwater scene filled with all kinds of curious creatures. I also like how the red hand in the middle is either reaching or pointing toward the band logo positioned at the top.

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Best Concert of 2015 – Savatage Reunion at Wacken
Having never had the chance to see Savatage live, the band reuniting to play Wacken Open Air was one of the main reasons I decided to return to the festival for a fifth time this summer. Although I have seen Trans-Siberian Orchestra numerous times over the years, nothing could have prepared me for what Savatage and TSO had in store for the Wacken audience. Savatage kicked things off and played for about 45 minutes, before TSO took the stage for another 45 minutes or so, but then all bets were off as both bands played simultaneously on the two main stages, side by side, using the same lasers, lights and pyrotechnics and performing the same songs. Getting to hear Jon Oliva live, belting out Savatage classics in his signature booming voice was a real treat. A true chill-inducing performance all the way around!

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Most Anticipated Release of 2016 – Avantasia
There are a number of new releases I’m already looking forward to in 2016, but none more so than Avantasia. Always comprising a slew of talented guest musicians and impeccable songwriting, the super group-like, rock opera-styled brain child of Edguy front man Tobias Sammet has yet to disappoint. With Ghostlights due out at the end of January and featuring the likes of Dee Snider, Marco Hietala, Sharon Den Adel and Ronnie Atkins, among others, thankfully the wait won’t be too much longer.

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