Mike’s Top 12 Metal Albums of 2012

2012 has come and gone, and what a year it was! Last year saw a resurgence of absolutely amazing new music for me. What was most surprising was the number of older bands that came back with a vengeance and proved to the world that they can still make great music! Bands like Testament, Blind Guardian, My Dying Bride, and Paradise Lost all released brand new discs and each of their discs challenges anything each of those bands have previously released.

MRCIt’s been a long time since I’ve done any metal reviews. As a matter of fact, other than Josh, I doubt anyone reading this will ever remember the old metalreviewcentre.com! Sadly, I don’t have any of those original files anymore, but thanks to web.archive.org, I was able to grab this image! Aaah memories.

Anyway, back to this post. Rather than post new reviews as I get them (I know I won’t keep up with it), I thought I would summarize the year and make a Top 10 list for 2012. So I started compiling my list, and boy, was it hard! So much good stuff! I had it narrowed down to 12, and decided, hey, this is my site, Im gonna make it a Top 12 list! So here goes, Mikes Top 12 Metal Albums of 2012. These may not be the BEST albums, and everyone is going to have their own opinion, but these are my favorites right now!

 

12. Aeternam – Moongod

Aeternam MoongodCanada’s Aeternam is a pretty obscure band, even for me, and the fact that its even on this list means it pushed other great albums by more established bands like Blind Guardian and Paradise Lost off the list.

Frankly, I can’t remember how I even found this album, but I am glad I did. Aeternam is a triumphant and symphonic power metal band with middle eastern influences, crunchy and heavy guitars and a combination of mostly melodic death vocals, sprinkled with some straight up quality melodic clean singing. They’re kinda like a cross between Orphaned Land, Symphony X, and any number of melodic death bands. Is that enough adjectives to catch your curiosity? Well, it surely got mine. From the albums first track, “Moongod”, to the very last “Hubal, Profaner of Light”, this album rocks from start to finish. I think the thing that really drew me to this album was how unique it is. I tend to like music that’s different, and doesn’t sound like other things out there, and that describes this album perfectly.

If you’re looking for an album that won’t sound like much else in your collection, I strongly recommend you get this.

11. Wintersun – Time I

Wintersun TimeIBefore hearing about this album, I had never heard of Wintersun. They are a side project from one of the members of Ensiferum out of Finland and released one album in 2004. This album was 8 years in the making, and for those poor souls who actually had to wait those 8 years, I am sure it was worth it! Thankfully for me, I was able to hear this as I discovered the band and I really hope that we don’t have to wait another 8 years for another album (Wikipedia says there will be a sequel, Time II coming in 2013).

At first listen, this is a quality progressive/power metal album, but after a couple of additional listens, the genius behind this album becomes more and more apparent. Imagine the best parts of Rhapsody (of Fire) meets the best parts of Kamelot, but add in some folk elements, and sprinkle that with some death screams and you have an idea of what this album is like.

So much progressive power metal is basically glorified musical masturbation, and in my early years, I was turned off of the genre. It was hard to find anything new and interesting, so that really makes me appreciate this album even more. This is one of those albums that flows from one song to the rest, so its difficult for me to pick out one or two songs that I like best. The whole album is great from start to finish. The whole album has 11 songs that last the greater part of 84 minutes from start to finish, so you’ll want to devote a little bit of time to hear this album in its entirety which is how I recommend it!

10. My Dying Bride – A Map of All Our Failures

MDB MapDOOOOOM!!!!! My Dying Bride was one of the very first doom/death bands I was turned onto. I remember the first time I listened to “The Angel and the Dark River” sometime in 1996-97. I was immediately hooked and loved their slow, prodding drums, and beautifully growly vocals. Without a doubt, my favorite part of their sound was the solo violins of violinist, Martin Powell. Martin’s violins defined their sound, and after his departure after the release of “Like Gods of the Sun”, I really lost interest in the band. Over the years, I was told to check out some of their new stuff, and I’ll admit, there were moments where I thought their new stuff was alright, but it didn’t really interest me. Until 2012.

“A Map of All Our Failures” is definitely one of the biggest surprises of this year. Everything about this album is a return to form for My Dying Bride. The entire album bleeds doomy goodness. Aaron Stainthorpe’s vocals are as great and emotion-filled as ever. He mostly sings in a talking/clean style, but brings back occasional death growls that only add to the beautiful music. This whole album is wonderful, but the song “A Tapestry Scorned” is my favorite. The band wisely brings some violin work back into their sound (although not Martin Powell), and the violin work is used sparingly compared to older albums, but when it is played, it is extremely effective.

Words cannot really describe the mood that oozes out of your speakers when you listen to this album. Like any great doom metal, this album deserves to be played late at night in a melancholic state of mind. This album is great, but its biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. This album exudes so much emotion and sorrow, that its not something you can pick up at any time and immediately enjoy. This is definitive mood music and for that, it absolutely deserves a place in the Top 10, but unlike most albums on this list, its not something you can just randomly listen to at any time.

9. Anathema – Weather Systems

Weather SystemsWow, you mean to tell me that 2012 brought us great albums by both My Dying Bride AND Anathema?! You betcha! Yes, England’s Anathema is back with a rather interesting, but no less amazing album in Weather Systems. Unlike most of the bands on this list, Anathema’s music shares little resemblance to their original selves, and amazingly, that’s not a bad thing. By itself, this album doesn’t even belong on a “best of” metal list. Long time fans of Anathema know that their music has been evolving over the past 15 years. Sometimes it got a little off track, but with Weather Systems, the band has brought their music to a brilliant crescendo.

For those who say this isn’t metal, well, you’re kinda right. The typical sounds and instrumentation of metal isn’t on this album, but the things that make for a great metal album are here in spades. Musical progression, wonderful rhythms, amazing lyrics, and an all out well put together album that sounds like nothing else out there. Picture Pink Floyd, meets Porcupine Tree, meets the alternative band Muse.

This is my favorite Anathema album since “Judgement”. The Cavanaugh brothers are at the peak of their game and the album starts off great with the first track, “Untouchable Part 1″. An upbeat, mostly acoustic sound with some orchestration that slowly progresses into an all out raucous jam, it contains a signature lyrical sound that has existed ever since “The Silent Enigma”. Long time fans of the band should love this first track, and even though other tracks on this album aren’t quite as Anathema-ish, they will grow on you. The second song starts off with a hauntingly beautiful piano medley that brings you back to “Parisienne Moonlight” off Judgement or “Hope” off Eternity. So beautiful.

Weather Systems is the least metal album on this list, but the great thing about metal is that it grows and changes. As I’ve gotten older, my musical tastes have grown. Yeah, I still like the old stuff, but its good to see some of my favorite bands still making some great music and showing us that their musical tastes have grown too. Weather Systems is a prime example of everything that I love about metal….as soon as you think you’ve heard it all, this comes along!

8. Woods of Ypres – Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light

WoodsofYpresWoods of Ypres is the second Canadian band on this list, and one that I recently discovered. Sadly, this will be the bands last album as lead singer and primary song writer David Gold died before the albums release.

This band has a really unique sound that’s a little bit Evergrey with vocals that range from melodic death all the way to a pseudo Peter Steele from Type O Negative croon. This is upbeat catchy gothic doom metal, I guess.

The album starts out with Lightning and Snow which is a great intro to the whole album as it has samples of all the different sounds you’ll hear on the album. My favorite song on the album is Track 9, “Kiss My Ashes Goodbye”. The song alternates between slow doom and back to upbeat heavy drumming, then a slow passage with orchestration, then back to upbeat music again.

Track 4, “Traveling Alone” has what sounds to be a clarinet in it. I’m trying to remember Jr High music class, but I think that’s what it is…and its awesome! I have well over 1000 albums in my collection and can probably count on one hand how many feature woodwinds!

Perhaps the weakest song on the album is “Career Suicide is Not Real Suicide”, but hey, not every album can be perfect!

I’m having a hard time coming up with all of the adjectives to accurately describe what is great about this album, but I assure you, its heavy, its doomy, and its catchy! You will have several of the choruses of this album stuck in your head well after you stop listening to it!

7. Katatonia – Dead End Kings

Katatonia-Dead-End-KingsSweden’s Katatonia has taken a career path similar to many other extreme metal bands. They start out with fast, intense death metal, and slowly add more and more melody and mood to their music, eventually ditching growls altogether and eventually settling on a beautiful hybrid of melodic metal and progressive rock. I was really into Katatonia back in the late 90s and eventually lost interest in them around the time “Tonight’s Decision” came out. I can’t explain why, I just stopped listening to them, so it was a huge surprise when I heard their latest album.

Lead vocalist Jonas Renske has never sounded better. His voice is distinctly Katatonia and really pleasant to listen to. Their music occasionally reminds me of Opeth, but without sounding like Opeth. Its hard to explain other than to say that this is grade A Katatonia.

This is yet another album that is not defined by one single track. The whole album walks a line of harmonic beauty and elegance. The members of this band are less musicians and more like craftsmen. Take some particle board panels from IKEA and anyone can put together a dresser, but a true craftsman can carve a beautiful piece of furniture out of a large piece of wood. This album is an ornate and solid wooden dresser, as opposed to cheap, dorm room run of the mill furniture.

Every sound, every instrument, every lyric is purposeful. The album weaves a soundscape that takes you on a musical journey from start to finish. As I mentioned before, you don’t just listen to one song on this album, you have to enjoy it in its entirety, and enjoy the journey along the way!

6. The Devin Townsend Project – Epicloud

epicloudI was first exposed to Devin Townsend back in the early Strapping Young Lad days…and I did not like it. A couple of years later, I heard something else he did, and I did not like it. Then a couple of years after that, I heard some of the early Devin Townsend Project albums and I still didn’t like it. So when I heard that he had a new album and it was getting stellar reviews, I was not at all intrigued. It took an absolute glowing review of this album by this guy on Youtube that intrigued me enough to listen to this album.

Where do I begin? Epicloud literally takes every possible style of music known to man and successfully intertwines into one single 50 minute album. Think I’m kidding? Just listen to the first two tracks. Track 1 “Effervescent!” is pretty much an intro track that is entirely sung by a Gospel choir. Track 2 “True North” starts off with a J-pop/video game sounding female repeatedly telling you that she loves you. Then around 30 seconds into the track, the drums, guitars, and male vocals kick in. Track 3 is literally about Animals….and they’re lucky. This song is crazy catchy and will have you singing the lyrics in your head over, and over and over again.

The whole album pretty much goes on like that jumping around from one musical genre to the next. Its almost like putting several different people’s entire music libraries on random. There’s elements of metal, disco, pop, and any number of other genres here.

Track 6, “Save Our Now” is sort of a remake of some new wave song by someone called Pendulum. Its like a hard rock Abba/Depeche Mode sounding mix of music that is recognizable the first time you hear it. This song is one of the highlights of this whole album and would do just as well on a hard rock radio station as it would do on a Top 40 pop station.

For those of you who require a little bit of metal, Track 7 “Kingdom” is a heavy metal laced song with as powerful of lyrics as the music. I guess this is a remake of an older Devin Townsend song which I am not familiar with, but no matter, this version is great and despite being the most “metal” song on the whole album, it is no less beautiful and catchy.

The brilliance of this whole album is that no matter what the style, every single song works well. I don’t know how Devin was able to change SO much and consistently be great about it. This album is probably the hardest for me to recommend as it requires a listener with a very open mind, but if you’re willing to give it a chance, you will be rewarded with an amazing musical experience that contains elements of music you never thought would work well on the same 5 inch disc.

5. Sabaton – Carolus Rex

CarolusrexPower metal as a subgenre of metal is one of the most popular and accessible forms of metal. Its easy to get into as the songs are usually relatively simpler, are often catchy, and sound closest to bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest who are immensely popular. Some of my earliest memories of listening to underground metal were listening to Manowar and Hammerfall.

The problem with power metal is that because of its popularity and accessibility, it has been copied over and over again. The music turned formulaic and very rarely would any band or album really sound original. Even bands like Manowar and Hammerfall began repeating themselves.

So it was with great pleasure when I discovered Sabaton. I still feel safe calling these guys power metal, but their vocalist Joakim Broden has a very unique, lower register voice, and lacks the typical higher pitched falsetto vocals that many power metal singers have. Musically, Sabaton has all of of the same characteristics of a typical power metal band, but lyrically, their concepts are war themed. Their last album, “Coat of Arms” told the story of World War II. Their newest album, Carolus Rex tells a story unfamiliar to people outside of Sweden. I don’t pretend to be a history expert, but back in the early 1600s there was a war known as the Thirty Years War, and most of the concepts on this album tell those tales. From an educational perspective, its not often listening to a heavy metal record causes you to read up on a war from 400 years ago.

As a metal album, this album renews my faith that power metal can be original and fresh. From start to finish, this album is both familiar to fans of power metal, yet all new. If you’ve never heard of Sabaton, this album is as good as any to get you into them. Highlight songs on the album for me are the title track, “A Lifetime of War”, “Long Live the King”, “1648″, and the ballad “The Carolean’s Prayer”.

One other interesting fact about this album is that it was released in two versions, one with all lyrics sung in English, and the other all in Swedish. Although I prefer the English very for obvious reasons, the Swedish versions are cool too. Since I don’t speak Swedish, listening to those versions force you to focus more on the music, which is excellent! So, if you already like Sabaton, there is no reason not to love this album. If you like power metal, but have never heard of Sabaton, check these guys out and definitely check out their back catalog as well. For those of you who typically don’t even care for power metal, I still recommend this album solely because of the quality of music and the fact that this album doesn’t sound like the thousands of copy cat power metal bands out there.

4. Testament – Dark Roots of Earth

TestamentIt should come as no surprise that Testament is awesome. For those of you who have an embarrassingly bad knowledge of the history of metal, Testament came out in the mid 80s during the thrash metal scene in Los Angeles. They were in the thick with bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer during each bands prime. Unlike those other bands, Testament never commercialized their sound or image. They stuck to their roots, and the only change in their sound was that they actually got more thrashy and more heavy. Testament is the only of those original 80s thrash bands that is actually kicking MORE ass than they used to.

Testament has had its share of lineup changes, but the lineup on this album, and 2008′s “The Formation of Damnation” is as close to the original lineup as they’ll probably ever get. Lead singer Chuck Billy and lead guitarist Alex Skolnick are at the peak of their game. Age has been very kind to Chuck and despite a scare with cancer, his voice is impeccable. Power exudes from his lungs like very few singers today.

I hesitate to even call this thrash metal because its so much more than that, no kiddies, this album is HEAVY METAL at its very finest. No sub genres here. If aliens invaded Earth and I was in charge of exposing them to Heavy Metal music, this would be one of the first albums I would reach for.

I am not going to even attempt to pick a favorite song off this album because they’re all great. Unlike other albums on this list where I say the whole album needs to be listened in its entirety to be appreciated, this album can be appreciated just as well in pieces as it can as a whole. Drums, bass, guitar, vocals are all amazing and prime examples of everything that is great about heavy metal music. You need to hear this album!

3. Eluveitie – Helvetios

eluveiteEluveitie is a folk metal band from Zurich, Switzerland that I had actually heard a little bit about maybe 5 or so years ago and was never that interested in. Earlier this year I read a review of this album that made me check it out.

Helvetios is actually the second album in this Top 12 list that tells the story of war from several centuries ago that is practically unknown by most Americans. This time, its the Gaelic Wars by Julius Caesar against the Helvetii people of central Europe. I actually took Western Civilization in high school and don’t remember a thing about these people, so after hearing this album, I read a little bit about it and was fascinated.

The music on this album is brilliant and very unique. The band lineup on this album is no less than 8 full time members and several guest musicians. Amongst the full time members is Anna Murphy, who not only is one of the female singers of the band, but she plays an instrument called the hurdy gurdy, which you can read about at WiIkipedia here. The hurdy gurdy kinda looks like a violin crossed with an accordion with a crank sticking out of the bottom and it sounds like a bagpipe. Oh did I say bagpipes? Yeah, this album has real Uilleann pipes as well. The vast amount of musicianship on this album is mind blowing. Each time you listen to every song on this album, you hear a little bit more. There is layer upon layer of sound in each song.

Most of the vocals are in the style of death screams, although there are some clean female vocals, most notably on the song “A Rose for Epona” (which is on the album twice, the normal version and an acoustic version which is the one I prefer). There is a lot to absorb on this album and because of this, it makes it to number 3 on my list of best albums of 2012.

I could go on and on about this album, but frankly, nothing I could say would really do it justice. The whole album is great, but standout songs for me are “Santonian Shores”, “Hope”, “Havoc”, and “A Rose for Epona”, but seriously, this whole album is great! Check it out, there isn’t much music out there like this.

2. Nightwish – Imaginaerum

nightwishOKay, so this album was technically released in November of 2011, but I’m still including it in my best of 2012 list because any album that comes out that close to the end of the year really doesn’t get appreciated until the next year, and frankly, this album has stayed in my steady rotation for the past 6 months or so.

I was first exposed to Nightwish after their very first album, “Angels Fall First”. Back then, you couldn’t order obscure metal albums on the Internet. There weren’t music discovery sites like Pandora, Last.fm, or Youtube that you could instantly find almost anything you want. Back then, you had to find a local record store that actually catered to metal, and would special order things for you. When you did order something, it took weeks, sometimes even months before your CD would come in. That’s how I got that first album and over the years, I have followed this band. I’ll admit, over the years there were times where I thought Nightwish’s sound got a little stale. After original singer Tarja Turunen left the band and was replaced by a less operatic singer, Anette Olzon, I was a bit skeptical. I actually didn’t really immediately like the first album with the new singer, “Dark Passion Play”. So, I had little excitement for Imaginaerum when it first came out.

Once I actually gave this album a chance, holy mother Mary of all that’s awesome about metal! Over the years, Nightwish’s music has slowly evolved from purely operatic symphonic metal, to more of a musical score that you might hear in the background of a movie. This is no accident as primary songwriter Tuomas Holopainen went to school for writing scores.

The second song on this album “Storytime” is perhaps one of the most catchy metal songs EVER. I know thats a big thing to say about any song, but Im not kidding. I have had the chorus of that song stuck in my head for the past 6 months or so. I actually had the pleasure of seeing Nightwish on tour this past year, and heard this song live and was absolutely blown away.

This whole album in some respects is everything you expect from a Nightwish album, but more. When I had my doubts about Annette’s ability to pick up where Tarja left off, this album leaves no doubt (although since the release of this album, Annette has left Nightwish too). There is quite a bit of variance on this album beyond Storytime. Track 10 “The Crow, The Owl, and The Dove” is a very slow and melodic song that harks to native American themes and sounds sung beautifully by Annette. Track 6, “Scaretale” is a dark and evil sounding song that lives up to its name in that it tells a scary tale even without lyrics.

This whole album is great from start to finish. As I’ve said many times already, many albums need to be appreciated in their entirety and that is definitely true about Imaginaerum, but I’ll go one further and say you have to listen to this album over and over again to really let everything on this album sink in.

The last thing I just said about telling a story without the lyrics is one of the most amazing things about this album and why it is number 2 on my list. The music on this album is so complex, so detailed, so intricate, that it doesn’t even need lyrics to tell its story. As proof, Nightwish wisely released a 2 disc limited edition of this album where the second disc is instrumental versions of the entire disc. Listening to these songs without lyrics is just as interesting an experience as the versions with the lyrics. This in no way is meant to disrespect Annette or the lyrics, its just that music has so much going on, you almost need to listen to every song both ways.

As if thats not enough, there is an underlying story and movie-like feel to this whole album, and thats not an accident. Accompanying this album, Nightwish actually made a movie that is based of the themes of this album. As of the writing of this review, the movie has only been available in select cities in Europe, but plans are in motion to allow the rest of the world to see it. For now, check out the trailer here. I can’t wait to see the movie, but even without seeing it, this album is truly one of the greatest of the year, and Nightwish’s best album since “Once”.

1. Be’Lakor – Of Breath and Bone

BeLakorHere it is, my number 1 album of the year. This was really difficult to come to this conclusion because of the vast amount of GREAT music that came out last year. Any of these albums I talked about today could easily have been number 1 in a previous year, so it is with a lot of difficulty I come to the conclusion that this is my favorite album.

Nothing against any of the other albums on this list or anything against any of the other subgenres of metal, but melodic death is probably my favorite style of music, and this album so perfectly exemplifies that style, that I had to make it number 1.

Be’Lakor is from Australia and this is their third album. Their previous effort, “Stone’s Reach” is every bit as good as this album and would have definitely contended for the number 1 spot had I made a list like this in 2009 when it came out.

From the very first few seconds of track 1, “Abeyance”, you know you are in for a treat. These guys remind me closely of Opeth. Both in style and musicianship. The songwriting and playing on this album is as good as it gets. The music is melodic, its beautiful, it is frankly perfectly executed. I cannot find a single thing to complain about, even the goofy cover art. Whats with that dog’s eyes?

This album has everything. Dueling guitars, double kick drums, solos, amazing everything. Seriously, this is metal perfection. I honestly am just going to keep rambling and not even come close to typing how awesome this album is. So I’ll just cut this one a little short and say, this album is amazing. You could put a gun to my head and I wouldn’t be able to find a single thing wrong with it. Plus, add the fact that this album is an example of my favorite sub-genre of metal, and it gets my vote for number 1 album of the year.

Honorable Mentions

I started this article saying how great of a year 2012 was and I wasn’t kidding. Beyond this top 12 list, there were albums by Blind Guardian, Paradise List, Daylight Dies, Candlemass, Rage, Adrenaline Mob, Threshold, OSI, Epica, and many many others that I simply couldn’t find room for on this list.

This is a really great time to be into metal as there is SO MUCH GOOD stuff out there. In the rare event I get sick of all of the new music, there is literally 20+ years of quality stuff that has been released in the past that I can always fall back on.

If 2013 sees even half as many great releases as 2012 did, we are in for a treat! See ya!

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