In general, 2014 was the year of power metal. Not only did nearly a large number of major power metal bands put out new records, but many of them put out their finest albums in years. Bands who were releasing several mediocre records in a row finally realized it was time to go back to their roots, and did so with a lot of success. In the thrash world, things have definitely slowed down. Very few of the big names put out new albums this year, and even many of the stronger new acts aren't releasing albums all that quickly anymore. Of course, their are numerous bands from Europe (Italy especially) who are popping out of nowhere, but few of these bands really have the staying power to compete with the bands on this list. Similarly, the wave of traditional heavy metal/speed metal is also slowing, though it isn't dying as quickly as thrash. In fact, there are still numerous great releases from that sound, and quite a few on this list. Death metal has had another strong year, though admittedly I did not enjoy many of the more popular underground death metal albums this year (Swallowed, Teitanblood, etc.).
Nevertheless, this list has a good mix of the subgenres listed above, but many other styles of metal (black, folk, etc.) are not represented on this list. As a reminder, don't forget that full reviews for all 30 of these albums are available elsewhere on the 'zine!
30. Paranorm - The Edge of Existence (Sweden, thrash metal)
This 4 track EP is an awesome exercise in technical thrash metal. Paranorm does things quite a bit different from most thrash bands around these days. In addition to riffs that are complex, the band shows homage to the great Yngwie Malmsteen with their shredding solos. Despite this, Paranorm remembers that songs come first, and so most of the tracks on this EP are incredibly catchy. "Second Assault" has the best staying power, but the EP as a whole is worth hearing.
29. Midnight Malice - Proving Grounds (Canada, traditional heavy metal)
"Proving Grounds" is the debut full-length from Toronto band Midnight Malice. Though these guys can't quite compare with the giants of the scene, they still offer up 8 incredibly catchy tracks. Most of these songs are pretty standard, but they occasionally go in a slight glam direction. While this is by no means some of the more intelligent music ever made, it rocks quite hard and is a lot of fun. The enthusiasm is there, and that's what makes this album work. Unsurprisingly, these guys are even better live than on record, but until you get a chance to see them, pick up "Proving Grounds".
28. Midnight - No Mercy For Mayhem (USA, speed metal)
Midnight plays a really cool rock 'n roll Venom-worship sound. Fans of Motorhead will also likely enjoy Midnight's style. This album is filled with all sorts of interesting and unique tracks. Even though there is a lot of speed, my favourite track is actually "Woman of Flame", where the band slows it down and lets the lead guitars charge to the front. Ultimately, however, every song on here is pretty devastating. One look at the song titles will instantly bring each chorus to your head, and that's always a great thing.
27. Overcharge - Accelerate (Italy, speed metal)
This album comes courtesy of the best new label around: Unspeakable Axe Records, which is a sub-label of Dark Descent. Surprisingly, however, it is one of just two appearances from that label on this list. Overcharge is exactly what they sound like: a combination of Overkill, Motorhead, and Discharge. It's fast, punky rock and roll with some venomous vocal. Solos are both plentiful and in extremely great taste. While the album is a bit simplistic, that is its charm. Much like with Midnight, the Venom/Motorhead crowd will appreciate this album.
26. Sonata Arctica - Pariah's Child (Finland, power metal)
This is definitely one of the most frustratingly divisive, yet awesome records I've ever come across. It isn't bad enough that they have songs where they do incredibly dumb things, they also include really catchy passages in the exact same song, making it impossible to skip any track. With that said, there's enough good on here that it's worth listening to. In fact, if it weren't for the bad sections, this could potentially be a top 15 or top 10 record. Perhaps the best thing to come out of this album is that Sonata Arctica is moving in the right direction again. Granted, they'll never reach the heights of "Ecliptica" again, but this is definitely a positive move from the band.
25. Tormenter - Prophetic Deceiver (USA, thrash metal)
Hearing this record was like the first time I heard Gama Bomb, Bonded By Blood, or Warbringer. That might not be the most enticing review, but for someone whose music tastes were defined by the retro thrash, it's the ultimate compliment. This album is filled with brutal riffs, crushing vocals, and great drumming. Just listen to the double bass in the chorus of "Snakes in the Throne Room" as one example. This album takes me back to 2008, and I wish there were more bands doing this kind of thing at this level because this is the type of record that could get people excited about thrash again.
24. Overkill - White Devil Armory (USA, thrash metal)
I was a bit let down after "The Electric Age", but this album clicked a lot faster for me. I actually haven't listened to it in a while, but it's hard to deny Overkill's greatness. This is more of the same from the last couple of records with no real new twists or turns. The best song on here is "Pig", but the entire first half is killer. It's incredible how good Blitz still sounds, and D.D. never stops pounding away on bass. "White Devil Armory" is sonically crushing as well. Overkill have hit their stride right now, and this album is a strong example of this sound.
23. Avalon Steel - Ascension (USA, US power metal)
Remember the 80s when every band had a unique singer? Especially in USPM! Avalon Steel bring back the glory days of the 80s and is highly recommended for fans of Manilla Road or Cirith Ungol. Their music is weird, but the vocals are weirder. Though there are only three tracks on this EP, each one is great. The first song, "The Winter King", is up there with any of the USPM greats ("Necropolis", "Battle Cry", etc.). There are not many bands that play this style anymore, but Avalon Steel is easily among the best of them.
22. Cannabis Corpse - From Wisdom To Baked (USA, death metal)
This is a band that I was late to the party to hear, but I am glad to have discovered them. Their earlier efforts were good, but this album is by far their best work. Each of the songs are incredibly catchy. Even though they don't sound 100% like Cannibal Corpse, they are similar in that both bands are just superior songwriters to most of the death metal field. The bass playing on this album is really great too. It's all around just a great effort because Cannabis Corpse doesn't just get by on brutality like many other death metal bands.
21. Spell - The Full Moon Sessions (Canada, traditional heavy metal)
This album is one of the most amazingly underrated finds I've ever come across. Spell sounds like Cauldron listened to a ton of Pink Floyd and became a psychedelic band. Seriously, the songs sound like rip-offs of unreleased Cauldron demos, but are way rougher and more "out there". The only downside of this album is that it is only 27 minutes, and that is including the interludes. Nevertheless, if you skip this album, you're missing a seriously catchy record, even if you don't like Cauldron or Pink Floyd.
20. Sabbatory - Endless Asphyxiating Gloom (Canada, death metal)
It's rare that death metal other than the classics blows me away, but this album did it. It is very heavy on the punk influence, and it's crackly and strange mix adds a really unique feeling. The album isn't particularly long, but it is concise and effective. There isn't any excessive technicality, and the album feels more on the loose side of things. It's a bit surprising I haven't seen more praise for this record, as it's easily one of the best death metal albums of the year.
19. Cannibal Corpse - A Skeletal Domain (USA, death metal)
These guys are the most consistent death metal band in existence and definitely the best active death metal band. I have to admit though, this album didn't floor me. "Torture" was a masterwork of songwriting and brutality, and this album just doesn't live up to the last one. With that said, an average Cannibal Corpse record is better than 99% of death metal out there (and in this case, the second best death metal album of the year). "Kill Or Become" is without a doubt the most brutal song in existence lyrically.
18. Morbidity - Revealed From Ashes (Bangladesh, death metal)
Morbidity flat out embarrassed other death metal bands this year with how good this record is. Seriously, it takes a lot for me to really dig a death metal record, but this album nailed it. It brings back the great thrashy influence that old-school death metal was filled with, and it uses speed in the proper way (ie: to sound intense, rather than commonplace). There's a great sense of groove at times, but it never compromises the brutality of the music. I almost didn't give it a chance because I rarely find music I like from places like Bangladesh, but the cover art was too enticing. Luckily, the music is just as good!
17. Enceladus - Journey To Enlightenment (USA, power metal)
This is a very cool album. It's sort of a mix between Lost Horizon and Dragonforce. The band does a decent job of capturing that epic feel that only Lost Horizon could pull off, but they do it with excessive amounts of virtuosity and over-the-top performances. Every single track on here features absurd guitar playing. At a certain point, you can't help but feel they're doing it to mock your clearly inferior guitar playing abilities. With that said, it doesn't feel like they're doing this to show off. The guitar playing suits the energy of the music perfectly. It's hard for North America to compete with Europe when it comes to power metal, but as long as there are bands like Enceladus around, we have a shot.
16. Sabaton - Heroes (Sweden, power metal)
This is the first Sabaton album since the majority of the band left, but it's actually much better than "Carolus Rex". "Night Witches" and "Resist and Bite" are both masterpieces that show how the band has determined how to create an insanely catchy single. It's too bad they couldn't replicate this formula for every song, but nearly every track is still great. The songs are pretty short, so this definitely feels like the most concise Sabaton album to date. It's fair to say that this is the album where you can really expect nothing new from the band, but there's nothing wrong with that. Sabaton now joins the likes of Cannibal Corpse, Motorhead, and Tankard when it comes to putting out consistent new records.
15. Phantom - ...of Gods and Men (Canada, traditional heavy metal)
Phantom is one of my favourite local bands. They aren't as flashy as bands like Skull Fist or Axxion, but they write equally memorable songs. As with their prior EP, the bass playing is incredible and really takes focus. There is an interesting longer instrumental piece that shows the diversity of the band, but most of the album is focused around shorter songs (any of which could pass as singles). "Blood & Iron" is one of the most absurdly catchy songs ever written, and the band rocks out hard on tracks like "Children of the Stars" and "Too Young To Die". Overall, this album is a major testament to the strength of Toronto's traditional heavy metal scene.
14. Gamma Ray - Empire of the Undead (Germany, power metal)
Gamma Ray's prior effort was definitely their weakest in a long time. While even a mediocre Gamma Ray is better than most bands, it was frustrating because Kai and the rest of the band have written so many brilliant songs over their career that it was clear they were capable of more. "Empire of the Undead" proves that they are just as good as they were 10 years ago. "Avalon" is without a doubt one of the band's best songs ever, despite the fact that it's largely a copy of "Rebellion in Dreamland". "Master of Confusion" and "I Will Return" are also incredibly strong cuts, and the rest of the album is quite solid as well. The band occasionally deviates from their original style of power metal, but everything they do on this album is executed incredibly well.
13. Breitenhold - Secret Worlds (Sweden, speed metal)
Those who saw last year's list know my love of the work of Ced Forsberg (Rocka Rollas, Blazon Stone, etc.). Breitenhold is one of his newer projects. Upon first listen, the band is practically identical to Rocka Rollas. There's nothing wrong with that, but it seems a bit pointless. After subsequent listens, however, it becomes clear that this band is a bit more epic and majestic in their approach towards speed metal. No matter how you label it, this album is filled with great raging tracks. The solos are shredding, and Ced's voice is hilariously awesome. This is a definite must-listen of 2014 because it's one of the most enthusiastic and exciting records of the year.
12. Alestorm - Sunset On The Golden Age (Scotland, power/folk metal)
I went into this album with low expectations. Although I'm a huge Alestorm fan, one can't help but wonder when their sound will get boring. After all, even the band admits to scraping the barrel on their last release. With that said, this isn't the album where they lose their appeal. Instead, it is their finest album to date. Sure, it doesn't have the huge hits of prior records (there is no "Keelhauled" or "Over The Seas" here), but it's far more consistent. The wicked cover of "Hangover" is possibly the catchiest thing I've ever heard in my life. Overall, Alestorm completely hit the mark with this one.
11. Rocka Rollas - The Road To Destruction (Sweden, speed metal)
As if Ced hadn't already done enough with Rocka Rollas, he decided to take over on vocals (which he has since dropped). His singing, while not as good as previous singer Joe Liszt, is completely insane. This album brings back the wild, uncontrolled madness of the first Rocka Rollas record, but does so with better songwriting. I think what amazes me most about this band is that despite 3 full-length albums and an EP, each release sounds completely unique. There are commonalities between the albums, and it's clearly the same guy writing each record, but Ced has done such a great job of not making everything blend together.
10. Monument - Renegades (UK, traditional heavy metal)
This album didn't receive anywhere near the fanfare that it deserved amongst the traditional heavy metal community. Despite featuring a former White Wizzard singer (though what band doesn't at this point?), the album was largely ignored. But now that you know about it, you have to listen to it because it is an incredibly well-written record that is filled with great hooks and shredding solos. The band is able to seamlessly switch between fast thrashy songs, charging mid-paced headbangers, and ballad-esque songs as they don't lose any momentum. There are a couple of moments where you feel like you might have heard a riff or a melody before, but on the whole, this is still a great record.
9. Skull Fist - Chasing The Dream (Canada, speed metal)
I know I'm biased when it comes to Skull Fist because they're local, but this band is exactly what metal should be about. They aren't afraid to show off just how insanely good they are at guitar, yet they also don't forget that rocking out comes first ("Bad For Good"). Compared to the first album, this one is definitely more consistent, though it also doesn't quite have the same highs that the debut did. There's a lot of good variation between some more reasonably-paced material and absurdly fast songs as well. Nevertheless, it is an excellent execution of speed metal, and is levels beyond what most bands are doing in this style these days.
8. Primal Fear - Delivering The Black (Germany, power metal)
Primal Fear has to be one of the strongest bands going in the metal scene right now. They are sounding better than ever, in large part due to guitarist Magnus Karlsson. This album has a fantastic production with some of the crunchiest guitars in existence. Ralf Scheepers sounds better than ever (including sounding much, much better than when he was in Gamma Ray). This album has pretty much everything from incredibly thrashy songs ("Rebel Faction") to intense ballads ("Born With A Broken Heart"), to lengthy epics ("When Death Comes Knocking" & "One Night in December"), to fist-pumping headbangers ("Alive & On Fire", and pretty much every other song on the album). Even if you don't like what you've heard from this band on their old/"classic" albums, I'd still give this a shot as it's by far the best album I've heard of theirs.
"Shadows of the Dying Sun" is a serious sharp turn for Insomnium. Their music has always managed to be incredibly emotional, and it still is, but now there are way more clean vocals than in the past, and things feel a bit more upbeat than depressing. I actually didn't really like this album very much when I first heard it, but with an excessive number of listens, it grew on me a lot. Surprisingly, I find the lighter songs ("While We Sleep", "Lose To Night", "The Promethean Song", "Shadows of the Dying Sun") to be my favourite. In any case, this album was a huge positive surprise.
6. Twilight Force - Tales of Ancient Prophecies (Sweden, power metal)
5. Exodus - Blood In Blood Out (USA, thrash metal)
4. Crimson Shadows - Kings Among Men (Canada, power/death metal)
3. Edguy - Space Police - Defenders Of The Crown (Germany, power metal)
2. HammerFall - (r)Evolution (Sweden, power metal)
1. Dragonforce - Maximum Overload (UK, power metal)