Matt Bower Best-of 2017

Monday, 18th December 2017

As much as I enjoy the full album listening experience, it’s not always easy to find the time to do so, especially with albums that go deeper than just banging your head and raising your fist. For those moments, however, a single song can offer such satisfaction.

With so much music being released each year, it can be easy to miss hidden gems. The 10 songs below, for the most part, provide an opportunity to shine a light on some lesser-known, though no less deserving, bands. Hopefully you discover something new to explore further.

10. Beast in Black – “Beast in Black” (from Beast in Black)
What happens when Battle Beast main songwriter Anton Kabanen exits the band and forms a new one? More bombastic, ’80s synth-infused symphonic power goodness.

9. Satan’s Hallow – “Beyond the Bells” (from Satan’s Hallow)
The quick-hitting riffs, twin leads and melodic solos throughout the self-titled debut from Chicago’s Satan’s Hallow provide plenty of opportunity for headbanging and air guitaring, especially the album closer.

8. Ensiferum – “Don’t You Say” (from Two Paths)
With its bouncy rhythms and sing-along chorus, this playful number evokes images of folk dancing by the fire in a forest following a feast of merriment and good times. Let the jigs begin!

7. Air Raid – “Hold the Flame” (from Across the Line)
This high-octane burner leads off an album filled with fiery solos, biting riffs and sharp melodies, and does so in full-speed-ahead glory.

6. Evil Invaders – “Raising Hell” (from Feed Me Violence)
When the metal heart desires all-out speed, like a bullet train running off the rails, this Belgian quartet answers the call with ferocity and unrelenting fury.

5. Savage Master – “Burning” Leather (from Creature of the Flames)
Harken back to the days of NWOBHM glory, with galloping rhythms, tight drumming, stick-in-your-head melodies, ripping solos, and fist-raising choruses.

4. Striker – “Born to Lose” (from Striker)
No one blends speedy tempos, ‘80s hard rock melodies, searing solo/lead work, and catchy-as-hell harmonizing gang vocals quite like these Canadians.

3. Aether Realm – “Death” (from Tarot)
Melodic-death melodies, steady double-bass drumming, growled vocals, clean-sung choruses, and keyboard refrains can all be found within this gem of a song.

2. Iced Earth – “Clear the Way (December 13, 1862)” (from Incorruptible)
An epic tale of the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia during the Civil War, featuring thundering drums, pounding riffs, ominous atmosphere and sorrowful bagpipes.

1. Helloween – Pumpkins United (from Pumpkins United)
Kiske and Hansen return to join Weikath, Graskopf, Deris, Gerstner and Loble, composing a new song in the vein of the classic Helloween mold, nods and callbacks to the band’s discography throughout, both musically and lyrically.

Best Newcomer: Vulture
Hailing back to the mid-‘80s heyday of the Bay Area, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s Vulture are one of the fresher acts to enter the speed/thrash realm. White-hot solos and razor-sharp, knifing leads swirling among a vortex of crushing riffs and reverb-laden banshee wails, this is not merely speed for speed’s sake. There are enough creative twists and turns throughout the band’s full-length debut, The Guillotine, to keep listeners coming back for more. Drawing on a template laid down by forbears such as Exciter, Agent Steel and Exodus (Paul Baloff-era), Vulture are ones to keep an eye on as they hone their craft and gain further exposure.

Biggest Surprise: Decapitated – Anticult
As you can clearly see, my preferences lie with the speed, thrash, power and traditional metal genres, so it’s not often that something from the brutal death metal camp comes along and grabs my attention from start to finish, but Decapitated’s latest album did just that. This pulverizing slab of DM from the Poles nearly made my top 12.

Biggest Disappointment: The death of Paul O’Neill
Of all the tragic passings in the world of metal this year, the one that hit me the most was the loss of Savatage producer and TSO founder and mastermind Paul O’Neill. He had a penchant for telling heartfelt stories and a grand vision that redefined what a rock opera could be. I’ve made it a point to see TSO every year since first seeing them in 2003 and while the group always outdoes themselves, it will never be the same without O’Neill’s gentle, forward-thinking touch.

Best Cover Art: Ensiferum – Two Paths
The first thing that caught my eye from Gyula Havancsak’s handiwork was the rich colors of blue and green of the aurora borealis overhead, but a closer look reveals a richness in the detail as well, such as the people, the wolves, the entire nature setting and the two paths of a wooded trail over the hills and a stairway of stone winding through the mountains. There’s a lot to take in and admire here.
See larger image HERE

Best Concert: Manilla Road – October 22, Jewel Nightclub, Manchester, NH
This was a tough pick to narrow down, but I never thought I would get the chance to see the U.S. traditional metal/power legends live, never mind in such an up close and personal manner. The crowd, the venue and the career-spanning setlist, which included the majority of the classic Crystal Logic album as well as some extra songs that hadn’t been played elsewhere on their 40th anniversary tour, made the memorable performance all the more special.

Most Anticipated 2018 Album: Skull Fist
Toronto’s Skull Fist specializes in writing speedy, catchy, traditional heavy metal rockers, bolstered by ear-pleasing Dokken melodies, shredding solos, upper-register falsetto screams and choruses you can’t help but sing along to. Since releasing Chasing the Dream in 2014, vocalist/guitarist/founder Zach Slaughter left and rejoined the band, then required vocal surgery, which has delayed the recording of the follow-up, only furthering the anticipation for the new album.

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