Thursday, December 31, 2015

Skull Fracturing Metal's Top 30 of 2015

For the first year in a long time, 2015 wasn't better than the year that preceded it. Although there were a lot of really good records that came out this year, nothing was all that mindblowing. The quality was much more spread out this year, meaning that the gap between album 30 and album 10 on this list isn't as big as it would have been in other years. For a while, 2015 was looking bland. In August and September, however, a number of bands released records that quickly made an impact on my year-end list.

As with last year, power metal dominated in 2015. My tastes have continued to gravitate that way, but modern bands make it easy, as thrash continues to dwindle. Death and black metal are usually reliable, and 2015 is no different, but few of these bands were able to captivate me this year. As always, traditional heavy metal and speed metal had a fantastic mix between young and old bands pumping out great releases. The result is a year that is well-balanced and varied, but concentrated in power metal at the top.

Fortunately, 2015 did not have many disappointments. The new Cattle Decapitation record was hyped into oblivion, as was Satan's newest release, but neither was able to captivate as the preceding release did. Similarly, the self-titled album from Hollywood Vampires (featuring Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp, and others) was a letdown. Looking past those, most bands were able to deliver. Even when they couldn't live up to their previous work (Rocka Rollas, Helloween, Stratovarius), many bands still put out records with numerous good songs. With that in mind, here are my top 30 albums of 2015!

30. Sadistic Ritual - Edge of the Knife (USA, thrash metal)

It's no secret that Unspeakable Axe Records is my favourite label going in metal right now. This is why I was so surprised that one of their releases completely eluded me for weeks! Sadistic Ritual's "Edge of the Knife" EP is a record that will punch you in the face repeatedly. It features riff after riff of pummelling rhythms, and is one of the best possible outlets for releasing aggression. This EP is essential for all thrash fans!

29. The Revenge Project - Figment Paradise (Bulgaria, death metal)

Somewhere along the way, death metal bands forgot to write songs. The Revenge Project didn't, and that's why their new album crushes most of the band's contemporaries. The production is insanely thick, and makes the riffs much heavier. The use of groove is on point, and forces you to bang your head incredibly hard. Sure, there are more brutal death metal bands, but there aren't many better.

28. Powerwolf - Blessed and Possessed (Germany, power metal)

Powerwolf is the definition of reliable. Not unlike groups such as Sabaton or Motorhead, you know what you're going to get with Powerwolf. That's not a bad thing though. The German band's 6th album was another offering of melodic hymns centered around religion. Whether it is the high-speed assault of "Higher Than Heaven", or the soothing melodic sounds of "Let There Be Night", "Blessed and Possessed" covers the admittedly limited spectrum of Powerwolf's sound. Though this isn't their best effort, it is another good one.

27. Nightwish - Endless Forms Most Beautiful (Finland, power metal)

With new singer Floor Jansen at the helm, Nightwish sounds revitalized on "Endless Forms Most Beautiful". Every song on this album is absurdly catchy, and there are a lot of really cool, unique things happening instrumentally. The only two flaws with this record are that is feels like Floor is holding back; it's clear she's a very capable vocalist, but the range of her abilities are not well-displayed on this record. The other problem is that the album is just too long. If the band cut the fat and brought it down to about 50 minutes, this album would be near the top 10 simply because of how memorable it is.

26. Armored Saint - Win Hands Down (USA, traditional heavy metal)

Armored Saint is another band that sounds like they have a new burst of energy. From start to finish, "Win Hands Down" is an album that shows the band's ability to craft really interesting songs. There are a couple of tracks where the guitarists go insane with their solos, and are certainly the highlight of the album. The title track is up there with anything the band has ever done. The only slight flaw of this album is that the lyrics aren't really the best at times, but it's nothing that can't be easily ignored.

25. Omery Rising - The Rising (USA, traditional heavy metal)

If you live near Los Angeles and are looking for a singer, White Wizzard will probably have one available for you eventually. All kidding aside, Omery Rising is a band that is very similar to White Wizzard in their approach: fantastic loud bass playing, combined with Iron Maiden-inspired harmonies, and a banshee of a vocalist (Joseph Michael, in this case). The result is an album that is a ton of fun to throw on. It is by no means overly complex, but it goes back to the roots of heavy metal and accomplishes what bands like Judas Priest set out to do.

24. Ensiferum - One Man Army (Finland, folk/melodic death metal)

While it's true that Ensiferum's music has had a slight dip in quality in recent years, "One Man Army" still has a lot of energy. Both the title track and "Axe of Judgement" are high-speed raging tracks that will fire up any pit, while "Heathen Horde" is the band's predictably awesome mid-paced headbanger. There is some experimentation on this album (particularly on the second half), and usually it works out pretty well ("Two of Spades" comes to mind). This album might not be as good as a classic like "From Afar", but it is a worthy addition to the band's catalogue.

23. High Heeler - Force and Finesse (Austria, traditional heavy metal)

This is a record that is all about great songwriting. It doesn't do a ton to separate itself from the pack in terms of traditional heavy metal, but that's because it doesn't need to. Every song on this album is easy to sing along to, and features impressive guitar work as well. The band tends to take more influence from the NWOBHM than some of their peers, as is evidenced by the somewhat simplistic (yet effective) approach. Overall, "Force and Finesse" is just a stellar heavy metal record. There's not much to say about it because it rules so much.

22. Motorhead - Bad Magic (UK, traditional heavy metal/speed metal)

At the time of its release, "Bad Magic" was a bit of a surprise just in the sense that it's amazing that Lemmy continued to deliver absolutely killer records with not a hint of compromise or filler. Given the unfortunate news of Lemmy's passing, "Bad Magic" looks even better in hindsight. Being a Motorhead record means that "Bad Magic" likely isn't bringing anything new to the table, but that's never a problem because Motorhead is one of the best and most unique entities in all of metal.

A few words on Lemmy: the rock and metal community has never seen a better individual, nor will it ever do so again. Lemmy lived life exactly as he wanted to, and the result was creating a legacy unlike any other. No band has transcended the rock, punk, and metal community the way that Motorhead did, and they were largely responsible for the crossover between the genres. While to some extent it's true that most Motorhead albums are extremely similar, the more you listen to them, the more you begin to appreciate their differences. It is only the more recent albums that sound nearly identical to one another, but even those have their differences. Ultimately, Lemmy is the very definition of metal, and the world is a much, much better place because of his impact on it. RIP Lemmy!

21. Ultra-Violence - Deflect The Flow (Italy, thrash metal)

Italy's Ultra-Violence took a major step forward in 2015 with the release of their second album, "Deflect The Flow". The band put together a slightly more succinct, and much more well-written album than their debut, with a number of songs that thrash incredibly hard. They managed to forge their own identity on this album, and also pulled off an awesome cover of Venom's "Don't Burn The Witch".

20. Thulcandra - Ascension Lost (Germany, melodic black metal)

This album was my introduction to Thulcandra, and it could not have been more perfect. I've always preferred the Swedish melodic black metal bands like Dissection and Sacramentum to the rest of the subgenre. The riffs are freezing cold and create an unparalleled atmosphere. Thulcandra were able to replicate this sound to perfection, and even improved it by having better production. The best song is the pounding anthem "Throne of Will", but this album rages from start to finish.

19. Huntress - Static (USA, traditional heavy metal)

One more album into their career, Huntress has improved yet again. As with the last record, they took a distinct step forward in two areas: the quality of the songwriting, and Jill Janus' singing. Both sounds are much more mature than in the past, and work in unison to create a really enjoyable record. The first half of the album in particular has unique tracks like the lengthy "Mania", or the stalkerish "Brian". As long as Huntress keeps improving, they're poised to be one of the best metal bands around.

18. Unleash The Archers - Time Stands Still (Canada, power metal) 

Unleash The Archers is a band that I unfairly ignored for a long time. Upon seeing the killer artwork for their new album, I gave it a listen and was pleasantly surprised. The key theme on this record is diversity. The title track is one of the most epic songs in existence, while "Test Your Metal" is a fantastic ode to the music we all worship. "Tonight We Ride" is admittedly all over the place, but it seems to work. Possibly my favourite song, however, is the poppy "No More Heroes". I've heard some rumours that the band doesn't want to play this song live, which is unfortunate because it is excellent. Regardless, each song on this album stands alone as a great track, which is why "Time Stands Still" is a very worthwhile record.

17. Breitenhold - The Inn of Sorrowing Souls (Sweden, speed metal)

What would my annual year-end list be without an appearance (or three) by a project from Cederick Forsberg, the leading maniac in producing speed metal. Breitenhold's second album is not all that different from their first, though there is a clear focus on moving towards a Blind Guardian-influenced sound, whereas the first album was more straight ahead speed metal. Though this particular record doesn't beat its predecessor, it is still filled with really good songs like the title track, "Haunted Dreams", and "Halls of Steel".

16. Rocka Rollas - Pagan Ritual (Sweden, speed metal)

I've always felt Rocka Rollas was Ced's best work. For the first year, that isn't quite true. Nevertheless, "Pagan Ritual" is an interesting record because it shows the band taking a slightly different direction, with greater emphasis on writing really epic songs (though it comes at the expense of less straight-ahead shredding). It's unfair to criticize a band that still wipes the floor with most speed metal groups out there, but Rocka Rollas had set such a high precedent for themselves that one can't help but feel this album is a bit of a disappointment. In any case, it is still an essential purchase for your speed metal collection.

15. Visigoth - The Revenant King (USA, US power metal)

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of 2015 is Visigoth's "The Revenant King". This album has received a ton of buzz, and rightfully so. It is filled to the brim with powerful anthems, each seemingly more epic than the last. The riffs are the very definition of power metal, as they'll make you want to head into battle yourself. "Dungeon Master" is of course the best song on the album, and really gets the blood flowing. The sole problem this album has is that each song feels about 2 minutes too long. The band probably could have cut out quite a bit of material with minimal negative effect. Still, this album is too good to ignore, and is likely one that will be remembered as a true classic several decades from now.

14. Horrendous - Anareta (USA, death metal)

One of the few modern sounding death metal bands I still really enjoy is Horrendous. The coolest thing about them is that nobody really sounds anything like them. They have their own brand of death metal that is melodic but not melodic death metal. "Anareta" is the second such album in this style, and while it is probably a tad weaker than "Ecdysis", it is another strong effort. Strangely, both albums' best songs are the instrumentals, but Horrendous still manages to make a pretty twisted sounding death metal record.

13. Slayer - Repentless (USA, thrash metal)

The first Slayer album without Jeff Hanneman undoubtedly is worthy of extra scrutiny. Kerry King is obviously the most visible and vocal character in the band, and knows how to rile up people who don't really like the band's new direction. Ignoring all of that, this is a good thrash album. Ok, it's not quite as fast as you'd like out of Slayer, but to say it's devoid of good riffs or songs would just be incorrect. The title track is pure old-school Slayer (though with a few more obscenities), while songs like "Cast The First Stone" and "When The Stillness Comes" bring back memories of the great mid-paced songs the band has done in the past. Ignore the fact that this is a Slayer album and judge it as a thrash record, and you'll see that it stands tall in a relatively depleted subgenre. 

12. Blazon Stone - No Sign of Glory (Sweden, speed metal)

As was hinted above, this is the 3rd and final appearances by Ced on this list. In 2015, Blazon Stone stands tall as his best work. The band is still a Running Wild worship band, and they continue to do it better than anyone else. This album has produced the band's two best songs: "Fire The Cannons" and "A Traitor Among Us". These songs stand up against anything done by Running Wild, and will go down as some of the best speed metal tracks ever. The rest of the album is no slouch either. While not quite as consistent as the band's first record, "No Sign of Glory" is still a very enjoyable listen from start to finish.

11. Helloween - My God-Given Right (Germany, power metal)

Hot off the heels of two absolutely stunning albums, Helloween had a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, "My God-Given Right" just isn't as good as either "7 Sinners" or "Straight Out of Hell", but it still is an excellent collection of songs, which is exactly what I look for in a Helloween album. This release shows them experimenting a bit with a song like "The Swing Of A Fallen World". For the most part, however, the band continues to deliver their comedic vision of what power metal should look like with instant classics such as "Lost In America" and "Stay Crazy". If you don't have the version with the bonus track "Wicked Game", be sure to seek it out, as that song is one of the best on the album.

10. Night Demon - Curse of the Damned (USA, traditional heavy metal)

Similar to the Helloween album above, "Curse of the Damned" is just a good collection of songs. It flows well as an album, but is equally enjoyable if you just pick out any song to listen to. It's a lot more simplistic than most other traditional heavy metal is these days, with many riffs hearkening back to the sound pioneered by bands like Diamond Head or Angel Witch, but it works. The band's vocalist is by no means the most skilled in the subgenre, but his voice is appropriate for the music they're playing. 

9. Enforcer - From Beyond (Sweden, speed metal)

I might be in the minority, but I found 2013's "Death By Fire" to be a huge disappointment. It wasn't a bad record, but it couldn't match "Diamonds". By contrast, "From Beyond" can. The first 3 songs on this album are as good as anything the band has ever done. I really enjoy the super melodic chorus of the title track in particular. Even as the album goes on, it never loses steam. It will be interesting to see where Enforcer goes from here and if they can continue to put out albums this good.

8. Borealis - Purgatory (Canada, progressive metal)

This is without a doubt the biggest disappointment of the year. "World of Silence" is an album that changed my life. I don't mean to say that in an exaggerated way either. That album was practically the soundtrack to high school for me. The follow-up was insanely good as well, but it was clear the cracks had begun to show. Borealis was changing from a power metal band to a progressive metal band. I've never liked progressive metal (though this year I actually discovered a band in the subgenre I could tolerate: Voyager), but I gave this a fair shake because it was Borealis. It's still a really great album (good enough to get number 8 in a crowded year), but it also falls so far short of the band's previous work that one can't help but be disappointed. Ironically, the band's two weakest elements on the debut (the vocals and production) improve on each record. Unfortunately, the songwriting just isn't there the way it used to be. 

7. Gruesome - Savage Land (USA, death metal)

This is the best death metal album since the mid-1990s. Death has always been my favourite band in this style because they wrote really catchy anthems. Tracks like "Pull The Plug" and "Evil Dead" have never been topped by other death metal bands, so it should come as no surprise that a band that worships these early Death records is cleaning the floor with other bands in the style. Everything about this album is pure perfection in death metal form.

6. Cain's Offering - Stormcrow (Finland, power metal)

Admittedly I missed out on the first Cain's Offering album. Almost as if to chastise me for that fact, "Stormcrow" opens with one of the most enthralling moments of any record this year. Timo Kotipelto's screams of "Rising! From the ashes!" will forever be burnt into my memory simply because it's so catchy. As pretentious as this is to say, this album isn't just a collection of 11 songs, it's an experience. The use of keyboards, symphonies, orchestras, or whatever you want to call them is outstanding. I've never found a band or album that is more effective in injecting feeling into their music through the keyboard playing. Every aspect of this album shows a band comprised of veterans who know exactly what they want to do and achieve it easily.

5. Stratovarius - Eternal (Finland, power metal)

This album is interchangeable with the Cain's Offering record mentioned above in terms of quality (largely because it is comprised of many of the same musicians). To be fair to Stratovarius, this album does sound quite a bit different. It isn't on the same level as their previous two albums, but nobody was touching Stratovarius anyways in previous years. Songs like "Lost Without A Trace" and "Shine In The Dark" are easy contenders for being the best song of the year, and the closing epic, "The Lost Saga", is truly a masterpiece. It's actually astounding how getting rid of the band member that created the identity of your band actually improved things. It almost makes you wonder if Timo Tolkki held them back when Stratovarius was in their first "prime" in the mid 1990s.

4. Gloryhammer - Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards (Scotland, power metal)

The first Gloryhammer album was a really fun distraction from Alestorm (another great band). The second one shows them transcending into a top-tier power metal band. As silly as this record gets thematically, it is all business musically. This is easily one of the catchiest collections of songs to ever exist. Gloryhammer even manages to throw in a dance pop song ("Universe On Fire") and no one bats an eye. Words don't quite do justice how good this record is, so even if you don't like the strange and hilarious nature of the lyrics, it is worth buying.

3. Orden Ogan - Ravenhead (Germany, power metal)

Every time Orden Ogan puts out a new record, they seem to get exponentially better. Admittedly, "Ravenhead" was a bit of a grower, but now, this album seems like an absolute behemoth. The two guest spots featuring the singers of Grave Digger and HammerFall are absolutely on point, and the rest of the album is just as good. Showing a wide variety of influences from Running Wild to Blind Guardian, this album covers the gamut in terms of power metal. There's not a weak moment on here, and "Ravenhead" is truly the record that ascends Orden Ogan to the power metal elite.

2. Blind Guardian - Beyond The Red Mirror (Germany, power metal)

I'm the first to admit that Blind Guardian after "Imaginations From The Other Side" has been a huge letdown. They have a lot of good songs in that timeframe, but not really any good full albums. "Beyond The Red Mirror" is the first album to break that curse. From start to finish, this is without a doubt the most excessively over the top thing imaginable. It took several listens before I could identify the chorus of "The Ninth Wave". Now, of course, it seems insanely obvious and catchy, but this record is so dense that it took a long time to sink in. The good news is that this record improves with age. There are so many different moments that are easy to sing along to, and there's no denying "The Holy Grail" as one of the band's best songs. 

1. Iron Maiden - The Book of Souls (UK, traditional heavy metal)

Iron Maiden wins 2015 by default. That sounds like a terrible thing to say, but it's true. As noted above, 2015 was a bit of a letdown. Yes, the top 6 or so records on this list are incredible, but I'm not so sure they stand up against the best of 2013 or 2014. For that reason, the sheer fact that Iron Maiden managed to reverse their 15 year skid since "Brave New World" is beyond commendable. They took all of the elements that made their most recent albums frustrating (overly long songs, excessive repetition, and tons of quiet bass intros), and continued doing them, but finally did so in a good way. "The Book of Souls" is easily Iron Maiden's most inspired work in a really long time, and songs like the catchy "Death Or Glory", or the epic "Empire of the Clouds" makes that very clear. I'm not so sure that this is the best album of 2015, but it is certainly the most impactful. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Striker – Stand In The Fire

After a couple of releases with Napalm Records, Striker, Western Canada’s best speed metal band, has decided to go the independent route for their fourth full-length album, “Stand In The Fire”. Their previous record was another strong showing of the band’s identity, but ultimately didn’t feel quite as satisfying as “Armed To The Teeth”. The good news is that “Stand In The Fire” brings that magic back, and shows lots of emphasis on writing memorable hooks, alongside killer riffage and soloing. This is no more prominent than on the opener, “Phoenix Lights”, where the shredding will make your mind bend backwards simply due to how impressive it is. Considering the loss of longtime axeman Chris Segger, this is an important showing. The appropriately titled “Escape From Shred City” is another example of how good the band’s current guitarists are; this instrumental holds nothing back, and is likely to make your jaw drop.

The band’s last album showed them experimenting with some more melodic, almost AOR-like tendencies. These sounds again creep into their music on “Stand In The Fire”. A song like “Out For Blood” does it more subtly, as they alter the mood of the song with one line (“you know this time that it’s personal”), and instantly flip back to the speed metal ways of old. Of course, there are a couple of tracks that fully embrace this sound from start to finish: “Too Late” and “One Life”. The latter is a bit tamer, but is a perfect closer to the record, while the former is a song carefully constructed to become a classic for Striker. It has those classic feelgood harmonies that never fail to put a smile on one’s face. While this might be a marked change from the band’s more aggressive sound, it’s hard to imagine any fan of old-school metal being disappointed with these songs simply because they’re so good.   

It cannot be emphasized enough how solid this record is. The band has slightly foregone speed (and there is still plenty of that) in favour of sheer catchiness, and with tracks like “The Iron Never Lies”, “Outlaw”, and “Locked In”, as well as all of the aforementioned ones, you can’t go wrong with this record. For the time being, I’m still partial to “Armed To The Teeth”, but it would not be surprising if this record overtook it in time.

Be sure to check out and like Striker on Facebook!

"Phoenix Lights"
"Too Late"
"Escape From Shred City"
"One Life"

Final Rating
4.6/5 or 92%. 

Written by Scott

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Beorn – Time To Dare

From the surprisingly metal-rich country of Russia comes Beorn, and their debut album “Time To Dare”. Though this album is filled to the brim with power metal tropes and clich├ęs, it also takes a very different approach to the subgenre, demonstrating an eclectic set of sounds and influences. Sometimes it isn’t so much what they’re playing, as the way they’re playing it that makes Beorn sound different from everyone else. Even their fastest and most energetic songs all have a bouncy feel to them. This is particularly evident in “Riders of the Sky”, the first full-length track, which is your prototypical upbeat, catchy power metal opener. It is on this song that you’ll first notice Beorn’s unique singer. Some quick research showed that it is a guy, but to be completely honest, he sounds more like a female power metal vocalist. He certainly isn’t your average, fluffy symphonic metal vixen, instead opting for a slightly harsher tone. Nevertheless, this actually has a positive impact on the record simply because it isn’t something you hear as often.

It isn’t long after “Riders of the Sky” that the band begins to show their experimental side. “Star Ocean” is perhaps the biggest offender; a song that is again largely based in power metal, but also has extensive keyboard use in a more electronic format. Whether it’s the opening moments, the tranquil notes at the end of the bass interludes, or the full-on electronic bridge, this song embraces being different. The best part about it is that it is so well executed. This is by far the catchiest song on the album, with even the verses being something you’ll want to sing along to. This is one of two tracks where the stellar bass playing comes to light (the other being "The Beast"), which is just another element separating Beorn from the crowd. 

On “In Quest For Planet Eden”, Beorn drops the metal almost altogether. This is not uncommon for a power metal ballad, but the band’s singer causes this song to really standout. Despite being just three tracks in with lots of diversity at this point, Beorn does a better job of mixing and matching their influences for the remainder of the record. It is not uncommon for a song to go from blazing, Dragonforce-esque speeds to poppier sections in an instant. Again, it is largely the singing and the use of keyboards that allow Beorn to successfully experiment. There is still more than enough standard sounding power metal here (“The Chest of Deadman” and “Galaxy In Flames” come to mind, but anything on the second half of the record applies) to satisfy fans of the subgenre. “Time To Dare” is truly a unique release, and in a style with many clones and copycats, this individuality is appreciated.

Be sure to check out and like Beorn on Facebook!

"Riders of the Sky"
"Star Ocean"
"Galaxy In Flames"

Final Rating
4.25/5 or 85%. 

Written by Scott