January 13, 2009

2008: The Year in Music

Year end lists are not an easy thing to do, and generally are of little interest outside of looking at others in hopes of justifying your own likes. Still, I enjoy the task and look forward to the end of each year to once again try and come up with something to share with anyone who chooses to peek. The biggest problem I run into each year (and something I hope to change in 2009) is that I never keep close track of my new discoveries and such for each year. So, I am left to work off of my memory and take a look over what I reviewed throughout the year (and double checking their release dates). The end results for the 2008 campaign is a 22-album list spanning albums I have reviewed and a bunch I haven't.

Something I noticed while going over my listenings is that I did not stray too far into much esoteric stuff. Most of the titles that stick to my memory are pretty close to the mainstream. However, with that said, they should not be dismissed too easily as even mainstream bands can release good music too. Furthermore, I want to thank everyone who has recommended artists too me, I need to start keeping a list. Please keep them coming, I do not know when I will get to them, but I do appreciate them.

On to the albums of 2008! They are in no particular order beyond the top 5, and remember this is not intended as a "best of" and is intended for informational purposes only. Outside of that, I hope you enjoyed some of these albums as much as I did.

Warrel Dane - Praise to the War Machine. This is an album I was not expecting a lot from, but from the very first listen I knew I loved it. I have become a Nevermore fan over the years and really like Dane's voice. The material here is distinctly different from Nevermore and feels a lot more personal. Warrel Dane's voice is powerful and carries so much emotional weight that it is hard to ignore. Now, it is not only his voice that makes this album so good, but the music and lyrics as well. It really is a complete package. Favorite tracks: "When We Pray," "August," "The Day the Rats Went to War," and "Brother."

Gojira - The Way of All Flesh. Ever since I first experienced Gojira live, back in 2007, I have been in love with this French metal act. They floored me with their impeccable musicianship, songwriting, and sheer heaviness. It took me a while to get a copy of The Way of All Flesh (long story), but one listen and I knew the love affair was destined to continue. They remind me of a metal jam band, a tighter version of Mastodon perhaps. I know, not a terribly good analogy, but it works a bit. This new album shows the band improving their song writing while keeping everything heavy and brutal, even showing stronger musicianship. This is a band to definitely keep an eye on. Favorite Tracks: "Toxic Garbage Island," "Vacuity," "A Sight to Behold," and "The Art of Dying."

Testament - The Formation of Damnation. Is The Formation of Damnation good? You're damn right it is! Testament has successfully continued their legacy of creating first rate thrash metal. The music is as fresh and relevant as it has ever been. This album is filled with bone crushing, yet melodic riffs, soaring solos, driving drums, and instantly recognizable growls. In short this is every bit the album that you could have hoped it would be. It is proof positive that nine years between albums has not dampened their ability to create thrash metal that is as familiar as it is new. Plus, it gets better upon multiple listens. Favorite Tracks: "More Than Meets the Eye," "The Persecuted Won't Forget," "Henchman Ride," and "F.E.A.R."

Meshuggah - obZen. From start to finish, it is filled with some incredible songwriting, varied structures, and deliciously complex arrangements. It is just flat out heavy. obZen is a haunting experience that really grew on me upon multiple listens. I found it very easy to listen to them and not listen to them at the same time. Yes, I am aware of how odd that seems, but hear me out. When the band is in the midst of their extended rhythmic dirges, with no vocals present, I found myself nearly hypnotized by the syncopated rhythms, shifting time signatures, and discordant leads. It was to the point where I was taken away from the music on a layer of sound to a place where nothing mattered. I just floated along on the musical composition. It is hard to describe, with hypnotic being the best word. t It almost makes me wish they did some completely instrumental work. Favorite Tracks: "Electric Red," "Pineal Gland Optics," and "Dangers to a Discordant System."

Opeth - Watershed. Let me start by saying that Opeth is one of the most amazing bands you are likely to listen too. Let me also state that I have heard way too little from this band and need to do some serious digging. This is simply a phenomenal album that begs to be listened to a lot, offering many opportunities to discover something new. They bring mellow, heavy, and progressive elements under one banner, providing a unique listening experience that will leave you clamoring for more. Watershed is an album to be treasured. Favorite Tracks: "The Lotus Eater," "Burden," and "Porcelain Heart."

Polkadot Cadaver - Purgatory Dance Party. The music will draw you in and hold you in its thrall. The arrangements are quirky, the combination of polka, jazz, rock, metal, and lush acoustic melodies all blend into a musical stew that is unlike anything you are likely to find on the radio. None of the members strike me as virtuoso musicians; however, as we all know, it is not always how well you can play your instrument, but how well you collectively play your instruments together. Favorite Tracks: "Chloroform Girl," "Wolf in Jesus Skin," and "What's the Worst Thing That Could Happen."

Warbringer - War Without End. Warbringer does not really bring anything new to the table but what they do, they do well, very well. When you first hear them, you may momentarily think that this is an old school thrash band, but that is just the sound of a young group of guys throwing their heart and soul into the sound they believe in, and doing it well. And, yes you will find a lot of similarities to those other bands, but what you will not find is a copy. While they have the influences and take their cues, this band sounds fresh. Favorite Tracks: "Total War," "Combat Shock," "Dread Command," and "At the Crack of Doom."

Guns N' Roses - Chinese Democracy. I was fully expecting not to like this album. I was wrong, I really dig it, although I think I will always have trouble calling it a GNR album. Still, Axl has taken a long time to do it, but he has delivered an album that delivers the hard rocking goods. Sure, it does not reach the insane heights of Appetite for Destruction, but it has a sound that would have been well received if this had been the follow up rather than the Use Your Illusion pair. Axl sounds like Axl and there is some strong guitar work. Favorite Tracks: "Shackler's Revenge," "Street of Dreams," and "I.R.S."

Cavalera Conspiracy - Inflikted. Somehow, I almost forgot about this release when I was looking to put this list together. This is the reunion of the brothers that were a big part of the rise of Sepultura. Max Cavalera taking a break from Soulfly and Igor Cavalera leaving Sepultura allowed the dup to reunite and put this project together which is heavy and driving in a way only the Cavalera's can provide. It is raw and in your face metal that will not be ignored (nor forgotten no matter how hard you try). Favorite Tracks: "Inflikted," "Black Ark," "Ulta-Violent," and "Must Kill."

Metallica - Death Magnetic. This is sure to be a controversial inclusion (along with Chinese Democracy). The biggest problem with this album is the mix is terrible, everything is clipped to hell making the disk almost unlistenable and when Lars tells you it sounds good, he is lying through his teeth. Still, the music is solid. This is very near a perfect throwback to their old sound. While it does not near those classics from the 1980's, this would have been a very good follow up to ...And Justice for All. The riffs are heavy, there are good solos, and the songs just rock. I will say that Hetfield's voice is not all its cracked up to be and someone needs to wrestle that wah-wah pedal from Hammett's grasp, but otherwise this is some rocking stuff. Favorite Tracks: "Broken, Beaten, & Scarred," "All Nightmare Long," "Suicide & Redemption," and "My Apocalypse."

Kip Winger - From the Earth to the Sun. This strikes me as a deeply personal album for the songwriter. There is much sadness throughout, balanced with moments of hope and redemption. The music here is filled with the emotion of a man working through tough emotions, letting them all out in the recording studio. I never thought Kip had great tonal range as a singer, and that remains true here, but his passion makes up for any range issues in his music. Just listen to him sing, brimming with emotion without a tinge of sentimentality. Frankly, this may be the best music I have heard from him. Favorite Tracks: "Every Story Told," "Nothing," "Where Will You Go," and "Ghosts."

Black Tide - Light from Above. Energy is a good word to use when discussing Black Tide. This young quartet attacks their music with energy and aggression that is downright infectious and goes a long way in covering up their shortcomings. You can almost see these guys ripping into tunes during a stage show. If you like metal, there is no way you cannot enjoy these guys. Favorite Tracks: "Warriors of Time," "Give Me a Chance," "Let Me," "Enterprise," and "Live Fast Die Young."

Communic - Payment of Existence. There are some bands that when you listen to them the good songs will make themselves apparent, or there will be someone who delivers a jaw-dropping performance. Communic’s Payment of Existence does not have any of those moments. The best I can surmise is that the album is so solid across the board that everything was done at the top of their game, therefore there are no bad tunes to make others look good. Does that make sense? It is like there is no such thing as good without bad, and since this album does not have any bad material, there is no good to rise above the rest. This is an album that you will not want to miss. Favorite Tracks: "Through the Labyrinth of Years," "Raven's Cry," and "Stone Carved Eyes."

Alice Cooper - Along Came a Spider. With Along Came A Spider, it appears that Alice has gone through some sort of rejuvenation; perhaps he took a dip in the Lazarus Pit. This album sounds like old school Alice blended with a more modern production sound. It is a step up from Dirty Diamonds, which, while good, sounds more like an album that would come out at the tail end of a career, whereas Along Came A Spider sounds like it came from an artist with a lot more left to give. Alice Cooper has done it again, delivering a strong album that should not be overlooked. He has crafted a loose tale of murder, dismemberment, and evil with a soundtrack that is deceptively upbeat. He even ties it in with an older release, mentioning Steven of Welcome to My Nightmare fame. Favorite Tracks: "Vengeance is Mine," "Wake the Dead," "Killed by Love," "Salvation."

Kingdom of Sorrow - s/t. I don't know what it is about Kingdom of Sorrow, but I like this album. I really like this album. For the life of me, I cannot quite put my finger on it. By all accounts, it should not be good. There really isn't anything on here that stands out as new, unique, or original. I have heard similar riffs and vocals on countless other albums, both better and worse, but I still feel drawn to this collection of sludgecore (yes, I made that up, I think) tunes ever since I got it just this past week. It is heavy, it is crunchy, it is catchy, and it is infectious, all great attributes if you want an album that has replayability. Favorite Tracks: "Piece it All Back Together," "Demon Eyes (Demonized)," "Screaming into the Sky," and "Buried in Black."

Ascension of the Watchers - Numinosum. The Ascension of the Watchers project is a huge departure from the heavy styles of Burton C. Bell's other band, Fear Factory. There are no jackhammer riffs, no skull crushing drums, no vocals that make your throat bleed. This is not a metal album, pure and simple. This is Burton expanding his horizons, stepping away from his metal roots and displaying another side of himself. This album is fascinating in the way it grows on you. My first listen was a little awkward as I tried to work around what Bell is presenting. The music is atmospheric, swirling, mellow, introspective, personal, mature, and distinctly not metal. Lyrically, the album has a fiercely personal edge. It is like Burton is letting himself pour out over the music, exorcising himself of deeply felt pain, love, something, anything. A desire to get these trapped thoughts and feelings out into the open. It may take a few listens, but it is all rather beautiful. Favorite Tracks: "Evading," "Canon for My Beloved," "Mars Becoming," and "Violent Morning."

Apocalyptica - Worlds Collide. This album has a distinctly commercial oriented sound, yet there is enough heavy fringe flavor to keep me satisfied. It seems as if they could be making a play for a mainstream audience, which I would certainly not begrudge them. Even with the commercial tinges they remain an exciting voice for originality. This is a high quality release that deserves as much attention as they can garner. Favorite Tracks: "Grace," "I'm Not Jesus," "Last Hope," and "Helden."

Genghis Tron - Board Up the House. This is an excellent album, although it is the instrumentation that drew me in and held my attention. The vocals really did not do much for me as they consisted of your generic screaming mixed with a little melodic singing. His voice did not stand out to me, but fortunately it did not detract too much from the musical journey that they took me on. These three were able to create an amazingly expansive, dare I say even epic, sound. The variety of sounds they brought together in any number of layers was quite striking. Favorite Tracks: "Board Up the House" and "Things Don't Look Good."

Whitechapel - This is Exile. This album came out of nowhere and, frankly, I have no idea where I first picked up on them, but this album is grinding, brutal, and just kicks you in the face. If that doesn't get your attention I don't know what will. There are probably better deathcore bands out there, but you know that every once in a while one will jump out at you for very non-specific reasons. This is one of them. I love the in your face attitude, heavy guitars, bloody throated growls and the way it never lets up. Favorite Tracks: "Father of Lies," "Possession," "Exalt," and "Death Becomes Him."

Dark Lotus - The Opaque Brotherhood. The Lotus is back, this time as a five piece consisting of Violent J, Shaggy 2 Dope, Monoxide, Madrox, and Blaze. This was made during the time following ABK's departure from Psychopathic and prior to his return, whether or not he will rejoin Dark Lotus is yet to be seen. I am not sure if this is their best album, but there are a lot of good tunes here, including one that seriously creeped me out. For that fact alone it is worthy of being on this list. The song is called "Witch Trapped in this Song," try listening to it in a dark room with low volume as you try to sleep. The album is highlighted by strong beats and good raps by all involved. Favorite Tracks: "Black Sand," "Can You Keep a Secret," "Keep Up," "Witch Trapped in this Song," and "Hot Poison."

Disturbed - Indestructible. To be completely honest, I never expected to love another album from Disturbed. They came out strong with The Sickness but have been sliding ever since. I don't know what it is, but they are back on track and stronger than ever. This is not quite metal, but very strong hard rock. Indestructible is filled with great riffs, driving rhythms, and strong vocals. This is an album that does not break any new ground for the genre, but does everything right within the standards of the rock standard. This is music designed to be played loud, so put it in, turn up the volume, and rock! Favorite Tracks: "Into the Fire," "The Night," "Haunted," and "Divide."

Iced Earth - The Crucible of Man (Something Wicked Pt. 2). Let's begin by saying that this is a homecoming I have been wanting ever since he left some years ago. Vocalist Matthew Barlow is back where he belongs, as the definitive voice for the long running band Iced Earth. It is amazing how often this band changes line ups, but it is easy to see the best ones include Barlow on the mic. This album is the second part of a long running concept that began with album Something Wicked This Way Comes and picked up in earnest with Framing Armadgeddon(featuring Ripper Owens on vocals). There is something about the way everything fits together on this sequence of albums, like a long form rock opera. Filled with pure power metal, riffs, solos, and high drama. It is not to be missed. Favorite Tracks: "Crown of the Fallen," "I Walk Alone," "Harbinger of Hate," and "Come What May."

As an addendum to this list, 2008 was also a pretty good year for live music. Here are a few of the top acts I had the good fortune to see live:

Iron Maiden. I never thought I would see this band live, in 2008 I was able to see them twice. In March I saw them in the Meadowlands and in July I saw them again at Madison Square Garden. I went to both shows with friends and had an absolute blast. I daresay this may be the best band I have ever seen live.

Audible Thought. Sure, these guys are friends, but they are still a good band and on the rise now that they seem to have a stable line up. They are strong live performers and have a lot of potential.

Testament. These guys came through in support of the great release The Formation of Damnation and proceeded to tear up the stage. Alex Skolnick is a great guitar player, pair him with Eric Peterson and it is hard to keep them down. Also, do not forget Chuck Billy's imposing stage presence and powerful voice.

War of Ages and Soilent Green. I was introduced to both of these bands during a Hatebreed show (they were great too). The former I had been interested in, while the latter is brand new to me. They left a great impression on me and the crowd, definitely work checking out.

Mushroomhead. This band stops in town on a pretty regular basis and always deliver. They have an absolutely wild sound and have a great stage show that never fails to get the crowd involved.

Overcast. The band from the early 1990's is back again. Featuring Brian Fair (Shadows Fall) and Mike D (Killswitch Engage), these guys tear it up on songs from their younger days which are new to most of us.

Misfits. The year closed out with a show featuring the Misfits (although Jerry Only is the only one left). It was the last night of the tour and everyone was having a blast. The night featured nine bands and two stages. Murphy's Law was there as were my friend's band as one of the openers. A few friends from work showed up and we all had a great time.


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