Top Ten albums:
o Mayhem – Grand Declaration of War
The world’s most notorious black metal band has historically also been the most overhyped, since their musical output has never been as big of a draw as their non-musical affairs. Apparently Mayhem was sick of this situation, so they decided to do the impossible: create an album that would instantly make everyone forget about their past and say “Holy crap, these guys can play!” It’s still black metal, but taken in an entirely new direction (quite a difficult task in today’s crowded post-black metal scene). Production is perfectly clear and powerful, but still cold and grim. Riffs and rhythms are insanely complex and precise, but still create a feeling of chaos. Drums are incessantly creative and intricate, but still blast away with blackened fury. Vocals are sung and spoken, but still the tortured screams remain. Lyrics are intelligent and even form a concept, but still present black metal ideals. Simply one of the most progressive (in both senses of the word) and surprising releases this year. Too bad not enough people understood this achievement.
o Iron Maiden – Brave New World
Even through the much-maligned Blaze years (which produced some of my favorite Maiden material), Iron Maiden always knew how to write songs that would catch my interest. Things are no different with this one. Not every song is pure genius, but it never is with a Maiden album, and it doesn’t have to be. The return of Bruce and Adrian was fairly inconsequential for me from a musical standpoint; they’re plenty good but I don’t feel anything was lacking without them. This is still Steve Harris’s band, and he’s still doing things the way he wants them done. “The Thin Line Between Love and Hate” is easily my favorite song of the year.
o Einherjer – Norwegian Native Art
Many Einherjer fans didn’t much like their second album “Odin Owns Ye All” (which I loved) because it was “too happy” or not heavy enough. Well, Einherjer must have listened, since they made their most aggressive and in-your-face album yet. It’s still epic Viking metal at the core; the biggest changes are more due to the production than the songwriting. The drums are heavier, faster, and more complex. The guitars have much more bite, but are also now playing some pretty proggy riffs. Vocals are also darker, and a range of styles is present, from black rasps to clean singing; however, the majority of the vocals are halfway between the two. The keyboards are pretty unique and play an important role in creating melodies. The cover features the band looking all wet, dirty, and really pissed, and that sets the tone for the album perfectly. Unfortunately this didn’t see wide distribution, so not nearly enough people have heard it.
o Primordial – Spirit the Earth Aflame
I didn’t much like the last Primordial album (“A Journey’s End”), as it was a bit too dreary and depressing for my tastes. Apparently Primordial didn’t like it all that much either, since they returned with a mighty and epic slab of burning and smoldering metal. Everything about this album suggests “power”, and when listening to it it’s hard not to become suffused with that power. I don’t mean the kind of power that makes you want to jump around; rather, it’s a power that makes you stand and raise your arms spread wide in a defiant challenge to anyone who may oppose you (like your mother telling you to turn your stereo down, for example). I’ve always found this band somewhat similar to Borknagar, with the pseudo-black riffing style, mix of vocal styles, and their ability to give a slight folk-ish flavor to things without going overboard or using non-standard instruments. On this album, all that exists, but these Irishmen have also managed to capture a glowing fire that’s quite a contrast to the iciness of their Scandinavian counterparts.
o Ayreon – The Dream Sequencer
In my estimation, people I know (especially those into more extreme metal) have greatly preferred this half of the “Universal Migrator” 2-CD set. That was a bit unexpected as it’s the other one that’s supposed to be “metal”, and “metal” is what’s supposed to be good. Well, this proves that a lot of people find songs more important than musical style and big names, which is pretty nice to know. Anyway, there are just some fantastic songs on here. “My House on Mars” with Johan Edlund is the highlight for me, but there’s plenty of other great ones (“One Small Step”, “Dragon on the Sea”, “And the Druids Turn to Stone”) to keep my interest high for the whole thing. In contrast to the “metal” CD, I think the songs here just have a lot more room to breathe, and thus to show off their melodies as well as the skill and character of their vocalists. And while the lyrics/story may be cheesy as all hell, listening to the songs makes me want to read the lyrics, which is very rare for me these days.
o Source of Tide – Ruins of Beauty
This one is hard to describe. Since it comes from Norway and has some instances of grim vocals, I tend to associate it with black metal, but it’s really not. It’s basically symphonic heavy metal, with a lot of creative songwriting and originality to it. I originally called it “gay beauty and the beast metal”, since it’s somewhat similar to a band like Tristania, but uses theatrical, operatic male vocals to carry the majority of the melodies instead of the now-expected female vocalist. Anyway, the point is, it’s good enough to be in my top 10 of 2000, and it would make a good starting point for someone starting to get into more extreme and darker music.
o In the Woods… – Three Times Seven on a Pilgrimage
This is a strange CD to have in a top 10 list since it’s not an album of new material. It’s a collection of ITW…’s three 7-inches (3×7, get it?), which were recorded over the course of their soon-to-be-ended career. “Omnio”, their second release, remains their masterpiece, but since this release culls material from all portions of their history, it has plenty of moments of brilliance on its own. Three of the songs are covers, but I wouldn’t know it if I didn’t read the liner notes, since everything fits so well together as an album. At this point, I suppose they pretty much play psychadelic prog-rock, but given their black metal background, I always hear it as something more than that.
o Borknagar – Quintessence
Once promoted as a black metal “supergroup”, Borknagar has proven over the course of four albums that they’re much more than just a flash-in-the-pan thrown together by a greedy record company. Of course, they’re still a supergroup of sorts (not really black metal), although the members are almost completely different. This is their finest release yet. The characteristic Borknagar guitar sound still exists, but by now they’ve completely abandoned the folky influences of “The Olden Domain”, and have gone for a more dense and somewhat futuristic vibe. The impassable wall of guitars on this CD may take some getting used to, but in the meantime you can focus on the amazingly creative multi-multi-tracked (clean and grim) vocals of ICS Vortex, and the Solefald-ian keyboards brought in by Lazare.
o Enslaved – Mardraum
I’ve never been able to develop an interest in Enslaved before this album, mostly due to their frequent use of extended blast beats. On this album they toned the blast beats down a bit, but in all other respects, unleashed a monster. This is more death or heavy metal than it is black metal, although it’s still quite epic, and contains a lot of excellent clean vocal passages. There is also a lot of psychadelic guitar noodling and soloing effortlessly interspersed with jackhammer riffs. In a day when a lot of metal songwriting consists more of rearranging old riffs than creating new ones, there are a surprising number of times on this album where I say “where’d they come up with THAT?!?” This one could easily move up in the list, but I’ve only gotten it recently so I don’t want to rate it too high just yet.
o Nightingale – I
Dan Swano’s dark rock project returns once again with an album significantly different than the previous one. The songs here are much more direct and focused than they were on the darker “The Closing Chronicles”. In some ways, that’s a disappointment, but some of the songs are so good that the disappointment is easily forgotten. Excellent vocals throughout, and excellent melodies. And that’s about all there is to say about an album like this.
Ok, that’s my top ten, and although any of the next several albums could easily make it into that list on a different day, I’ll write shorter things for all the rest of the 2000 releases I got this year. (still pretty much ranked from best to least-best)
o Demons & Wizards – Demons & Wizards
Many loved this, but it was a disappointment to some who expected to hear more Blind Guardian in it. I knew how it was being created, so I didn’t expect that, and was quite pleased to hear an Iced Earth-ish record with Hansi on vocals.
o Dark Tranquillity – Haven
For the first time DT released an album that wasn’t better than their previous one. Not that that’s much of a complaint, as Projector was pretty hard to top. The electronics are new, but otherwise this is a logical follow-up to The Mind’s I, and probably better than it, and that’s quite an album in itself.
o The Black League – Ichor
Tanli Jarva finally returns, and as expected, brings a rather “Amok”-like album with him. The difference is that this one has a LOT more variety between the songs. Very well crafted, and it’s grown slowly but steadily on me.
o Havayoth – His Creation Reversed
Goth rock, which would normally bore me to tears, but Vintersorg’s amazing vocals, the stellar production, and catchy but dark melodies make this a great album.
o Avalon – Eurasia
It’s no “Holy Land”, but it’s still quite good in its own way. A nice change of pace/mood for me.
o Immortal – Damned in Black
Epic black/death/heavy metal, although slightly less epic than their previous album. Killer production. Still too new to really know where it fits, so I just stuck it here.
o Haggard – Awaking the Centuries
I prefer it to the first one mainly because of the production. Great low end! Otherwise, a wonderful, full sound that only a band with this many musicians could create.
o Blaze – Silicon Messiah
A pleasant surprise, not because of Blaze’s vocals (which I’ve always liked), but because the music is quite good too.
o Garden of Shadows – Oracle Moon
Very heavy and intricate American melodic death metal (much less happy than the Gothenburg variety). All the songs being 8-minutes might be a bit much, but that’s a minor complaint.
o Nevermore – Dead Heart in a Dead World
I like it more than DNB, but it still doesn’t have the melodies of “In Memory” or the arse-kicking of “Politics”, so I’ll still go back to those more often.
o The Project Hate MCMXCIX – Cybersonic Superchrist: Dan Swano-produced death metal with Dan Swano-clone vocals. Think Moontower, except heavier and with the electronics coming from the current industrial world rather than the ’70s world. Plus cool female vocals.
o Kamelot – The Fourth Legacy: Power metal done with some class. I like the Conception songs they snuck in at the end. The fast songs rock, but I think I still prefer the mid-tempo days of “Dominion”.
o Thirdmoon – Bloodforsaken: A unique style of melodic death metal, some very heavy rhythms mixed with acoustic stuff. Somehow similar to Iced Earth. A great album on its own, but pretty similar to their previous one.
o Extol – Undeceived: This blew me away at first but it’s faded a bit, mostly due to the clean singing that surfaces later in the album. Otherwise it’s really heavy, almost technical (Meshuggah-like) melodic death metal.
o Aghora – Aghora: Interesting and unique stuff, I like the more jamming second half better, especially when they really cut loose.
o Night In Gales – Nailwork: A melodic death metal band that continues to evolve, perhaps a bit more thrashy this time. Some great songs, but I still prefer Thunderbeast (one of my favorite melodic death CDs)
o Rakoth – Planeshift: Interesting Russian black metal with flute. Get a real drummer next time and they might have something.
o Spiral Architect – A Skeptic’s Universe: I hear nothing but better-produced Watchtower when I listen to this, with a slightly less annoying singer. I like it more than I would have expected.
o Symphony X – V: Good CD, but I can’t find a single thing that’s “great” about it. Unlike their other albums, none of the parts have much identity, which may have been the point. TDWoT is still at the top, but this still may grow on me some more.
o Jag Panzer – Thane to the Throne: I like a lot of the riffing, but nothing jumps at me from this CD. I haven’t been inspired to spend any time with the story, that would probably help.
o The Gathering – if_then_else: More focused than the last one, but not necessarily better. Some good tracks, but if I’m going to listen to the Gathering I’ll still take Mandylion.
o Ayreon – Flight of the Migrator: Reasonably generic prog/power metal, nothing stands out to me. Miles away from the other disc of this set
o Fleurety – Department of Apocolyptic Affairs: Not nearly as good as all the famous guest musicians might lead you to believe. Some good songs but it doesn’t click overall.
o Fall of the Leafe – August Wernicke: Super-melodic but dense blackish-folky metal from Finland. Needs more spins, but it’s a bit same-y.
o Rajna – Yahili: Non-metal Tibetan traditional music on Holy Records. Cool for what it is, but I was hoping for something darker or more mixed with “weird” stuff.
o Soilwork – The Chainheart Machine: I don’t know if I’m just sick of this style or what. But there’s no hooks!
o User Ne – Nibelum Das Uhort: I just haven’t been drawn to this for some reason. Would probably be higher if I listened to it more.
Finally, as I think I should really wait until December 2001 to make a Best-of-2000 list, I’ll use this space to list some of the older CDs I got this year which would have made it into my top 10 or 20 if released this year:
Betray My Secrets – S/T (1999)
Forgotten Silence – Senyaan (1998)
Hollenthon – Domus Mundi (1999)
Maudlin of the Well – my Fruit PsychoBells… a seed combustible (1999)
Obtained Enslavement – The Shepherd and the Hounds of Hell (1999)
On Thorns I Lay – Orama (1997)
Root – The Book (1999)
Yearning – Plaintive Scenes (1998)
Oh yeah, and one of the few non-metal CDs I got this year, Dr Dre’s “2001”, would have probably made it into the top 10, but I didn’t want to scare people off at the beginning of this message!