Around this time of year everyone and his grandma compiles lists of the previous twelve months worth of heavy metal music. Usually with some kind of pseudo insightful rant you have to sit through (read: skip) before getting to the list part - which you in turn just skim through to come to the conclusion that the author is an idiot for not including your favorite. At least that's my favorite pastime.
And usually, those lists are pretty homogenous, featuring mainly the same entries in slightly different rankings. Moreover, these lists often ignore and exclude the power metal genre entirely, or sport some token entry (this year Loudwire proudly presented one Visigoth song! Yay!), and while 2018 has not been power metal's strongest year, there have undeinably been a plethora of great songs from within that genre and genres closer to it than the standard lists which usually pick from various death, doom and stoner offerings, often venturing away from actual metal by picking nu metal and various cores. That's cheating and it makes your list bad, null and void.
So now that you skipped that rant, this is Mr. Torture's picks for the 20 best songs of 2018, as seen from a fan of mainly prog, power, heavy and progpower and various melodic styles. And when you don't find your favorite song on here, I'll gladly be your Idiot of the Year.
Visigoth - Conqueror's Oath
Okay, so Loudwire wasn’t all wrong, because Visigoth did some things just right on their sophomore album, Conqueror’s Oath, the best of which being vengeful joyride Traitor’s Gate that’ll just as soon have you banging your head as it will have you picking up an axe to hunt down that traitor and bring him to justice. You know the one. The song, being just as much an ode to the glory of metal is also about giving tribute to the giants of old, with riffing as fleshy as it is fleshy, lengthy instrumental parts and solo dueling. It’s all fun and games!
Judicator - The Last Emperor
Folksy and melodic, Spiritual Treason is right at home in the medieval middle eastern setting, akin to Blind Guardian’s Precious Jerusalem, but with a fleshier feel thanks to the heavy riffing. The vocal melodies are obviously in focus, being as how vocalist John Yelland share the duties with none other than Hansi Kürsch, adding another layer of awesome to Yelland’s already impressive effort hereupon. The riff parts following the choruses are low key glorious, and there’s plenty of guitar hooks and trilling to sate the need for melodic lead guitars in the slightly symphonic, guitar driven power metal genre, such as the bridge or the melodic solo.
Judas Priest - Firepower
Metal gods strike again, a few years after their back to form album, with this year’s Firepower which has taken everyone by storm, and while it didn’t have a Halls of Valhalla type situation going on, it still had some fleshy tracks just like this one. Not your typical Priest single while being exactly your typical Priest single, Lightning Strike is likely the most hard hitting track they’ve done since Painkiller; mighty riffing from Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkner, and Metal God himself Rob Halford shows no signs of weakening as the guys deliver this anthem full of firepower, going strong and waiting for lightning to strike!
Mike LePond's Silent Assassins - Pawn And Prophecy
This colossal 21 minute epic is a magnificent retelling of Shakespeare’s MacBeth. The Symphony X feel is strong here, but there is obviously also old celtic folk elements weaved in. Not so much that it takes the upper hand, as the main part is still the phenomenal musicianship from bassist Mike LePond and guitarist Michael Romeo who makes a guest appearance on this song. Lengthy instrumental passages that flourish in that epic progpower sentiment, while Alan Tecchio divines the epic tale alongside some guest vocal appearances. It’s just an epic piece of work that remembers the Symphony X days that by now seem behind us, and that’s just a great day for everyone. I’d even venture to say it beats Shakespeare’s version; that one had no guitar solos.
A Sound of Thunder - It Was Metal
Maybe you’d count this among cover songs, or some such, but however you want to look at it, Els Segadors (The Reapers) from A Sound of Thunder’s latest full length is just a kickass ride from start to finish, glowing with the hymnal melodics while also striking hard with accessible guitars and triumphant solos. All politics aside, A Sound of Thunder really make the national anthem of Catalonia their own. This song is big sounding, while being fairly simple in its structure, as befits a national anthem, with Nina Osegueda shining bright in both English and Catalan, delivering the chorus like she fucking means it. You probably don’t know anything about Catalonia, but by the end of these glorious four minutes, you’ll be raising your scythe to defend the land.
Master Sword - Shadow and Steel
One that stuck around for the duration of the year, Let Me Show You the Night from Master Sword’s debut full length Shadow and Steel is a work of love and devotion. Never sitting still, it brandishes great guitar work and neat riffing from Corey Garst and Matt Farkas - the former also pulling a sweet as all fuck solo - all the while Lily Hoy belts out passionate lines delivered from the heart of Hyrulean plains. How they made such a gripping tale out of Zelda, I know not, but it might have to do with the fleshy riffing inspired by old school heavy metal and ultra catchy melodies that would put power metal bands aplenty to shame.
Dire Peril - The Extraterrestrial Compendium
Like the rest of the album from whence it came, Altair 4: The Forbidden Planet is an homage to old school power metal that also sticks firmly to modern territories, hinting of both old Blind Guardian and newer acts of the same school. Here, the greatest moments of Helion Prime and Judicator comes together, as both Jason Ashcraft and John Yelland make stellar performances; Ashcraft’s riffing is on point and the layer effects on Yelland’s vocals add that spacious sci-fi feeling to complete the story told of the travel to the forbidden planet, completed by the interesting storytelling and the massive melodic work.
Amorphis - Queen of Time
While Amorphis have never been a Torture favorite, The Bee is doubtlessly a masterclass of a song, blending all of the Finns’ later progressive turns with more extreme elements and folksy touches. The riffing is heavy and melodic in equal parts thanks to great work from Esa Holopainen, and contrasted by the enchanting keyboard works of Santeri Kallio, while Tomi Juotsen blends his eerie cleans with some of the best growls ever to grace the borderline mainstream. The catchiness and the concise songwriting make it highly understandable why this song appeals to so many outside Amorphis’s range of genres.
Powerwolf - The Sacrament of Sin
No list is ever complete without Powerwolf, that’s just undeniable fact. Whereas their latest album had plenty of hit material and appropriate singles, none hits as hard and epic as the album opener, Fire And Forgive. It has all the makings of a classic Powerwolf grandstander; big sounding keyboards from Falk Maria Schlegel, great guitar dueling from the Greywolf brothers and of course Attila Dorn’s huge vocal box. It’s impossible not to love, even though it’s formulaic and by no means an innovating piece. If by the song’s end you aren’t bringing fire, singing fire, screaming fire and forgive, there’s probably something wrong with you.
Deathless Legacy - Rituals of Black Magic
Starting off slowly and mood setting with heavy guitars, the musicianship on Dominus Inferi is superb all throughout, though the real hero on Deathless Legacy’s hitherto magnum opus is the songwriting and the slow build that lets the song reach deep into the guitar revelry of Gianni Capecchi, alongside the eerie magicks of Alessio Lucatti’s keyboards - and that devilish organ solo! The riffing is slow and brooding, but slowly grows into an eerie doom chant to the lord of fire. As the climax reaches in, the guitars get into a religious frenzy as Steva Vaiana keeps chanting the chorus as the song fades, lighting its infernal pyres.
Realm of Glass - Reveries From the Haunted
Realm of Glass’s debut album may not have been particularly hard hitting, but one that sticks out is the progressively tilted titular ballad. Building slowly from a guitar line and Nicky Mattson’s soft vocals, it slowly begins to include more elements, all fitting the theme and giving more depth to the emotive setting put in motion by Mattson’s ever heart torn vocals. The guitars, care of Justin A. Hernandez and Arik Malcolm, add that particular melancholy feel, heightened by somber use of Matt Schnurer’s keyboards, though ultimately it is Mattson’s vocals that make this ode to end such an eerily captivating listen.
Kingcrow - The Persistence
There’s not a small degree of subtlety to this, the seminal masterpiece from Kingcrow’s latest full length, The Persistence. Where once they were lively, they’ve taken some hints from Riverside and ended up here. Every Broken Piece of Me speaks, like the title suggests, of a soul in shards, through Diego Marchesi’s soulful vocal work. The chorus is striking, coming seemingly out of nowhere, and the guitar work care of Diego Cafolla and Ivan Nastasi subtle yet powerful. Especially in the last few instrumental minutes, where the rhythm play is heartfelt, contrasted by keyboardist Cristian Della Polla, who adds that modern layer that makes the track stand out as one of the finest prog rock/metal tracks of the latter day.
Redemption - Long Night's Journey Into Day
In a year like 2018, this song is perhaps even more important. Where pessimism has taken root and grown - even among the rest of Redemption’s latest full length, Long Night’s Journey Into Day - Indulge In Color gives the antidote. While it isn’t a happy sounding song, the message, delivered through one of Tom Englund’s finest moments yet is one of bad thoughts broken. It’s built from humble beginnings and grows exponentially, into a complete heart stopper of a climax. The guitars of Nick Van Dyk mingled sweetly with Vikram Shankar’s keyboards, turning the theme of darkness to focus on the light that is always there, while the slight orchestral elements brought to the fold gives the progression that slight edge to just… burst in saturated vibrancy.
Salvation's End - The Divine Wrath of Existence
Inaccessible and harsh, in many respects unapproachable, but once that wall is breached, there’s a veritable treasury among Salvation’s End’s debut album, the top of which being Languorem, a gritty revelry in progressive stylistics. The chorus is definitely the highlight, though they never recycle the lyrics. Rob Englund sounds evil and brooding at times, and other times almost resigned to complement the gritty, pessimistic guitar flavors of TJ Richardson. Kane Bochatyn’s bass is heavy, pronounced and evocative, working with Richardson’s guitars to create the depth and brooding nature of the song, and add such an evocative darkness to the mythos.
Sirenia - Arcane Astral Aeons
Who’d have thought Sirenia’d end up here, never having released an album worth the name before their latest full length, Arcane Astral Aeons. The crème de la crème thereupon is Asphyxia, which sets the mid paced wheels in motion with great keyboard work and gritty riffing, Jan Erik Soltvedt fleshing it out greatly in the lead section as Emmanuelle Zoldan delivers harmonic passages with devastating power behind her sometimes frail voice. Asphyxia presents a marvelous blend of symphonic and power metal elements set to Sirenia's to date best melodic work and emotional impact, mainly prominent in the big, powerful chorus. The entire thing is so unexpected, and that just adds to its power. As heavy as it is melancholic, it's both approachable thanks to the simple build and catchy hooks, as it is draining and breathtaking.
Ghost Ship Octavius - Delirium
The opening act on Ghost Ship Octavius’s sophomore full length is both a harrowing and chilling experience in one, while also being an intense and colorful display of darkness. The progressive vein throughout is kept in reins by the concise runtime, with drummer Van Williams intense drum lines keeping things interesting throughout, atop dark bass lines and menacing riffing, with vocalist Adon Fanion delivering brooding line after brooding line, each chorus getting colder and more filled with despair. The guitars, almost hypnotic in shape are delivered from Fanion and Matt Wicklund with dark precision, the highlight being the dueling solo, followed by a big sounding, yet utterly devastatingly poignant chorus. An enrapturing piece of dark.
Veonity - Legend of the Starborn
With their fresh effort Veonity bring kickass power metal in the vein of Gamma Ray or Freedom Call, no more so than in album highlight and this year’s best straight up power metal song, Gates of Hell. It has all the flashy guitar work of Samuel Lundström and ultra catchy vocals and melodies, complete with banging solos, and screaming falsettos from Anders Sköld. But there’s also a somber touch to the song, mainly in the vocal melodies and the lyrics, which set it apart. While still tearing down the walls with epic stylistics, it’s also a tale of facing insurmountable odds and knowing you’re unlikely to see daylight, but also to stand proudly at the gates of Hell. Plus that solo at the end is fucking delicious.
Divine Ascension - The Uncovering
The (almost) closer to Australian symphonic progpower outfit Divine Ascension’s third full length is a story of bravery and defiance, as is the album as a whole. The rhythm section and Karl Szulik’s guitars add a dark and brooding feel to the conclusion of the story, while the lofty keys add a grandiose feel. Jennifer Borg regales with her powerful voice and asks the questions brooding throughout the album’s runtime, coming to a powerful climax on this Bittersweet Divide, decidedly telling that the end isn’t always a happy one. When a minute before the end, the beginning repeats it comes almost as a shock but still as a relief, as well as being utterly fitting; history repeats itself. There’s a sort of sadness to the song, and ultimately it has fewer answers than questions; is this the way to a better life?
Fractal Cypher - Prelude to an Impending Outcome
The highlight from Fractal Cypher's four track EP takes us beyond Orion and the known bounds of space; an eight minute showmanship in superb prog metal titled From the Above and to the Stars. The song is both technical and atmospheric in setting; the riffing is gritty while the atmosphere set by the melodies and vocal parts set the tone for a voyage into uncharted territories. The chorus is repeated twice in the first four minutes, and the latter half consists of solos, rhythmic passages and great guitar work throughout, while the atmospheric setting by the keyboards delivers further into the explorative setting, the music feeling just as experimental as the theme, and then the entire thing closes out with a whispered repetition of the chorus to hammer the message in; we’re beyond the known limits of space, from here it’s all a mystery.
Tomorrow's Outlook - A Voice Unheard
One of those cookers that’s been a mainstay throughout the year, and you know it’s been meant for greatness. Tomorrow’s Outlook knew it, which is why they had it open their second album, A Voice Unheard, even though it kind of doesn’t fit the storyline. Telling the tale of a man who’s prophesied the end times, it shows just how Ralf Scheepers (guest here, but usually of Primal Fear) has matured and gotten stronger with every passing year, as his powerful voice carries the song through hell and high waters - especially that damn chorus, you’ll be swearing the end of the world is at hand by the end, I promise you that. The guitars, care of Øystein K. Hanssen are equally strong, flashy and melodic, but the greatest point of all is how it all comes together; it’s a heavy, melodic piece, flashy and cheesy alike, but with darkness looming on the horizon.
Ashes of Ares - Well of Souls
This is almost a given, you knew it (cuz I’m an Iced Earth/Barlow fan boy) and Ashes of Ares damn well knew it. First of all, this semi ballad completely in the vein of what Iced Earth would do fits well with the spirit of the time, as the lyrics can be interpreted in many ways, not the least of which being the ravaging of mother Earth. Second, it’s an emotively powerful ballad that brings memories of the likes of Melancholy (Holy Martyr), being as how it’s slow, melodic and beautiful, while also being melodramatic and cheesy when you analyze it.
It works in its favor that the structure is unexpected, no verse-verse-chorus outlay to be found, but most of all it just hits all the marks that’s been missing since Ashes of Ares hit us with This is My Hell five years ago. Freddie Vidales’s guitar play is commendable as well, because the riffing here is among the best of the year, as well as the melodic pieces that intersect Matt Barlow’s soulful verses. The only slight thing lacking would be that powerful lead section at the end.
Blaze Bayley - The Redemption of William Black
The conclusion to Blaze Bayley’s story of William Black, the first man to live for a thousand years on a mission to another planet, light years away, Eagle Spirit is first and foremost an epic in its own right. Befitting the style of Bayley’s latter day style however, it’s decidedly scaled back, branding only the essentials. It starts with a slow piece set to a dark, narrated part, to set the story in motion for William Black’s final moments, and then Chris Appleton definitely takes over, flowing beautifully with melodic pieces and heavy riffing along the following seven minutes. The build-up is decidedly Maiden-esque, but how it’s handled is Bayley through and through.
Obviously Bayley himself is the vital part. His performance here is not just set in the life of William Black, but there is a deeper, darker perspective felt. He does the soulful intro utter justice, while also delivering the chorus with all the dignity befitting the metal giant he rightly is. Eagle Spirit is a fitting conclusion to the narrative, while also being a powerful story in its own right. However, what hits hardest is when you realize the last words in the story, “Dreams I will always hold as dear as the life that I lost”, are not about William Black at all, but about Bayley himself. We don’t deserve Blaze Bayley.
Thaurorod - Coast of Gold
From the first listen, it’s obvious that 24601 is something special. The song starts off with a keyboard and slow, melodic guitars which progressively builds into something that grows with every passing segment. When the chorus hits, with the rumbling rhythm section beneath it and the flowing guitars from Emil Pohjalainen and Lasse Nyman it’s awe striking. Andi Kravljača makes the performance of a lifetime as inmate number 24601, sweetly handling the softer parts with grace while bursting with power and charisma in the epic choruses.
The rhythm section - especially Pasi Tanskanen’s distinct, heavy bass lines - grow throughout the near seven minute song, bristling comfortably alongside the heavy riffing from Pohjalainen and Nyman, but never just following along. The guitars, ever melodic, fast and playful in turn dance with Harri Koskela’s sweet keys. What makes this song so great is how all of the great musicianship comes together in something that’s emotive and epic both, while also being vibrant and just as vivid as the source material for the lyrics would demand.
Lost in Thought - Renascence
From Lost in Thought’s second full length album - already a modern classic - Save Me has a slightly poppy sound, a decidedly modern touch on the progressive stylistics. This song is felt all throughout; every piece of it is intentionally placed where it is to drive message of increasing solitude home. The chorus is repeated twice fairly early, and the song succumbs to an instrumental part, with Diego Zapatero's keyboards leading through a downtrodden path, before Deane Lazenby once more takes up the powerful vocal section. Lazenby's gripping performance is not just highly emotive, it's also entirely fitting, carrying no trace of irony, but a complete immersion into the life on display. He also manages the big sounding chorus with no small amount of power to build up the increasing devastation and mental fatigue.
David Grey's guitars here are flawless, always melodic and flowing from one passage to the next, trading lead duties with Zapatero's keys, also laid down to perfection alongside the great songwriting. The guitar solo near the end is a piece of beauty; a lengthy, soulful piece and played with emotive accuracy to build into the final chorus. That chorus then, slightly reworded, delivers the final part; “call my name so I don’t die here”, and it’s devastatingly powerful.
Witherfall - A Prelude to Sorrow
At eleven minutes, this complete masterpiece is a display of the darkest reaches of the human soul, and those of Joseph Michael and Jake Dreyer. Vintage, the seminal masterpiece on their second full length, A Prelude to Sorrow, is the tale of the night former drummer Adam Sagan was diagnosed with cancer, to which he ultimately succumbed in December of 2016. And as such it’s appropriately dark and packed with emotion, as well as some of the best musicianship ever heard in the genre.
A progressive piece from start to finish, it starts off with a slow guitar tune from Jake Dreyer, alongside Anthony Crawford's dark bass, setting the tone for the rest of the song. Divided into three segments, each of which flawlessly give way to each other through the masterful songwriting and precise weaving of Jake Dreyer’s melodic lead guitar and heavy rhythm play - gloomy and groovy alike - as well as Gergo Borlai's tight drumming and the progressive patterns, helped along by the rhythm guitars, heavy riffing from Dreyer and Fili Bibiano.
Joseph Michael puts a voice to the process, starting off in a dark and brooding state, going through despair, anger and fear as the song progresses, but always remaining as strong and vibrant; it’s obvious here that the man’s shaping into one of the greats, as he remains in total control even through the wavering emotions. The climax comes in the last few minutes, as Michael sings mournfully, “travel on my friend” and Dreyer’s guitar weeps in a blistering solo. It keeps growing, as the intensity in their respective performance becomes more filled with tears; Michael’s flawless high notes piercing the melodic flow of Dreyer’s guitar, as they say their final farewell to Adam Sagan.
Cheeky little things like Miasma from Ghost's otherwise mediocre Prequelle just missed the mark, as did atmospheric prog masterpiece Ghost of You from Hillsphere's debut Florescence. Likewise it was hard not to extend the list to include ultra cheesy Still I Rise by Aonia and featuring Blaze Bayley for maximum power to drive the message home, as well as something from Borealis's fourth and so far only worthwhile album, The Offering.
Outings by prog icons Riverside and Poem should both also be mentioned, helping with great effort to color the bleak landscape of 2018. The one that just missed the cut (and for a moment actually did make it) is Vault of Acanthus's slow cooker Timeflower; symphonic prog rock/metal with flowery vocal melodies and great musicianship that... is it too late to change my mind?
Disappointment of the year
While 2018 has been mostly a fairly cohesive year with good releases being released on a regular basis, there's no denying there's been some parts that have been not so glorious. The most obvious of which being that 2018 took its sweet ass time to really get the high quality releases out; six of the top ten songs were released in November!
Obviously, aside from my griping there's also been a release or two during the year that missed the marks on what they could have been, like Manticora's return, which ended up an anonymous heap (Awakening the Lunacy was pretty sweet though) and obviously the recent giant misstep that was Holter's second album Vlad the Impaler.
Number one disappointment however is by far Marius Danielsen's Legend of Valley Doom; gathering all the vocalists for maximum nostalgia value but wasting them on vapid ballads, uninteresting songwriting and little to no cohesion for his so called story - even Olaf Hayer couldn't save that stinker.
Comeback of the year
Lost in Thought with Renascence. Next question.
Expectations for next year
None. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. But hopefully something awesome; a Happy New Year and a Tortulicious 2019 for all.