As 2019 and the decade is coming to a close it’s time not only to have a look back at the past year, but the past ten and really go back to the albums that created the decade. These albums might not have been instant classics or initially reviewed as favorably as they grew to become; they might not have stood out immediately but has since proved the most durable works of passion, combined with the masterful musical chops required to make a deep, lasting impression.
Maybe it’s a giveaway, but no 2019 albums have made the list, perhaps because this year’s best albums have been late hitters; Noveria’s Aequilibrium and Dimhav’s masterful The Boreal Flame were both November releases and still need to sink in entirely. Then you read plenty of lists that go out of their way to be as crappy as possible, by for instance putting whatever Metallica called their latest "album" on a top 20 spot or something - laughable. So now that you skipped that rant, this is Mr. Torture's picks for the ten best albums of the decade, as seen from a fan of mainly prog, power, heavy and progpower and various melodic styles. And when you don't find your favorite album on here, make sure to drop a comment and tell me how big an idiot I am.
My review - MA average: 86%
Blaze Bayley has been through a lot, both the man himself and the band that bears his name. They’ve released no less than five albums this decade, under different lineups and all with their distinct sound. But it was 2016’s Infinite Entanglement that came to define the modern Blaze Bayley. Spirited, alive and yearning for freedom, it tells the first part of Bayley’s own liberation saga of the redemption of William Black. The musicianship is great and though the style is fairly simple, it just oozes with all the joy and love for the trade, with callbacks to Bayley’s Maiden days and fresh takes on classic tropes.
An airy, lofty opening half gives way to darker, grittier territories of space, stage set by great guitar playing from Chris Appleton, always with ultra catchy leads like in A Thousand Years or that glorious middle section in Independence. But perhaps most notable is Bayley himself who gives career best after career best, to delicate softness in the spine chilling acoustic What Will Come where he makes all the magic come through alongside Thomas Zwijsen (acoustic guitar) and Anne Bakker (violin) all in a strive for independence.
My review - MA average: 91%
You know it because the follow up was complete garbage, devoid of any semblance of the power, passion or virtuosity the two Norwegians bestowed upon the world in 2015. Dracula: Swing of Death is the cooperative work of vocalist Jørn Lande and guitarist Trond Holter. From atypical opener Hands of Your God that lumbers on in darkness and from then it’s clear that this album will be a burst of the unexpected, all the while delivering the goods in a classic fashion. It’s a melodramatic and over the top album for sure, but it also chucks talent and quality like nobody’s business at you to back all that cheese up, as it alternates between hymnal power metal, neoclassical flourishing, old school theatric hard rock, always with the symphonic backdrops that make all the difference.
The riff work is as crisp and clear as it is evil and menacing, and the Holter signature guitar wankery comes to complete fruition in fantastic solos like in Walking on Water or the magnificent close of highlight Queen of the Dead. Lande himself gives some of his best performances ever (when not under Sammet’s employ…), and all that darkness he’s holding is let out in full swing while he also gets to be as silly and heartfelt as his own heroes as you please. History proves that neither Lande or Holter is expendable; they’re both integral parts of the project, proving that the true treasure here was friendship all along.
My review - MA average: 78%
You can’t reasonably expect Maiden not to be on a list like this. The Book of Souls has all that signature Maiden sound and instant classics abound as they put out an onslaught of their longest songs ever. Though some tracks could have been cut, the entirety is one of epic proportions, set with Maiden masterpiece after Maiden masterpiece, and some of their most ambitious work to date. What the album does so well is take the old influences and mix them with the modern, long winding Maiden style; guitar antics aplenty in the Harris epic The Red and the Black while the modern melodic twists come to better play in melancholy The Man of Sorrows and Tears of a Clown.
Folksy elements hit wherever Janick Gers go, especially in the title track, while melodramatic epicness strike where Bruce Dickinson hits, like opener If Eternity Should Fail (probably Maiden’s darkest song since The X Factor) or that massive Empire of the Clouds that closes the album. Throughout, the trademark introspective side is blended with Dickinson’s dark poetry. A heavier keyboard presence like that on Dance of Death (2003) might have yielded an even deeper experience, but there is a rawness to the production that comes across great in the triple guitar attack from Murray, Smith and Gers in superb tracks like the title track or Shadows of the Valley, easily some of Maiden’s most impressive epics, which is perhaps the simplest word to sum up Maiden’s sixteenth full length; epic.
My review - MA average: 78%
Everything Tobias Sammet is and more is crammed into this spritely little album. He’s gathered all his little friends many times, but nowhere does he do them as much justice as on 2016’s Ghostlights. The album is kind of all over the place stylistically, but that plays only to its strengths as Sammet has penned some of his best songs ever. All that melodramatic, meat loafy love he has for the ‘70s and the magical world of theater shines through in career best performances from most everyone herein recruited, all the while knowing his own roots and his audience. Hard rock anthems like opener Mystery of a Blood Red Rose trade off for gothic rock in Draconian Love to dramatic Magnum-esque rock in closer A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies.
It’s bombastic as all heck; true to itself, true to its origins and driven by flawless performances from Sammet and his guests. Bruce Kulick lends great guitar antics to tracks like Babylon Vampyres, and Sascha Paeth himself is nothing short of godlike in the title track. Said title track also boasts Michael Kiske’s best studio performance to date, while dark, melodic Lucifer presents the most spine chilling, heartfelt delivery ever from Jørn Lande. Every single song here sticks out in all the good ways, and none is really expendable (not even Seduction of Decay), as all the catchy power metal goodness keeps slapping you in the face for 70 minutes while it shines its light into the darkness.
My review - MA average: 88%
When Pyramaze made their comeback in 2015 the style was reinvigorated and modernized, while keeping the core intact. Flash forward to 2017 and the best, most complete album the Danish progpower outfit has released to date. Fleshy, powerful and packed to the rim with maxed out power metal, the album has it all and it presents it with attitude befitting the modern progpower band they’ve become. Just about every cut on the album could be presented as a single or a highlight, thanks to the incredibly tight and catchy songwriting that focuses just as much on the melodic twists as it does on the punch packing guitars and Morten Gade Sørensen’s drums.
The melodic pieces are every bit as catching as the furious weight of opening track Land of Information thanks to the permeating presence of metal’s most unique keyboardist Jonah Weingarten adding the atmospheric backdrop to complete the sound. Without him the album would be great, but with him it’s phenomenal. Vocalist Terje Harøy is a god damn titan on the album as well, from the absolute colossus that is opener Land of Information to melodic performances in Star Men and A World Divided, to the heartfelt delivery in The Tides That Won’t Change, the man reveals himself as one of metal’s best voices today. The guitars are powerful and crunchy and prone to some great solos and fantastic leads. The focal point of the guitars however is obviously the massive riff work, where Jacob Hansen and Toke Skjønnemand prove to be a strong duo. The cheese kept to a minimum, and it’s all backed up by incredible performances from the entire ensemble; song after song just delivering power metal goodness at its absolute finest.
My review - MA average: 91%
I believe it’s impossible to listen to this album and not be touched by it.Few albums have been so full of emotional devastation and brutal, anxiety laden honesty as Renascence. Originally “just” the British prog outfit’s comeback album after a decent debut, the album goes deep to prove that it’s a lot more than that. What Lost in Thought did with their sophomore album is weigh it with their collective souls worth of darkness, fear and love, to create a masterful piece of art that remains as affectionate and gripping as it was unexpected when it was first released in November 2018 - to way too little fanfare. Delving deep into human emotion, every piece here has moments of striking beauty; perhaps none more than highlight Save Me, with its massively gripping chorus and emotionally gripping melodic play.
The album keeps speeding up and slowing down, going from calmer parts to devastating melodic heights all accentuated by emphatic guitars from David Grey, and some of the most soul tearingly passionate vocals ever recorded from Deane Lazenby. The instrumentals are incredibly well written throughout, always aiming for the greater good with little room for showing off, while still giving each component plenty of room to shine in its own right. Diego Zapatero adds keyboards to the mix with some incredible feel to them, never taking away from or competing with the lead work from Grey’s guitars. It’s all very complete; total synergy. While most of the album is set with a heavy, melancholy atmosphere it’s not all doom and gloom either; there are glimpses of light and hope, especially in closer Absolution, making the story come full circle in the end. The sun begins to shine.
My review - MA average: 62%
Wow. Where to even. This near masterpiece gets basically all the flak; it’s not what anyone wanted or expected, and still managed to be derivative of their earlier work. But those things are actually really its strengths because it all culminates here. Iced Earth have never been this dark or evil, and that darkness suits their modern era like nobody’s business. Plagues of Babylon is also heavily atmospheric, thanks to Troy Seele’s lead guitar that manages to pull some of the best leads in Iced Earth history, thanks to the tight production by main man Jon Schaffer. Not only is it a massively tightly knit album, unified by a complete wall of sound in the classic Iced Earth fashion bringing new tastes of darkness, it also shoves hit after hit your way - plus a nonsensically fun cover version of classic country song Highwayman.
The tight, daemoniac sound does let up for a few moments here and there, perhaps most notably in mid album semi ballad If I Could See You, which features one of vocalist Stu Block’s most heartfelt performances ever as he mourns the loss of a loved one over the classic Schaffer melodic guitar poetry, and Peacemaker which is A) trite propaganda and B) rollicking western gunslinger fun. The dark sound is however entirely essential to the success of the album, as it permeates the brooding feeling in otherwise simplistic songs and makes them stand out that much more, take Resistance or The End? for example. Then there’s the absolute fucking evil of Among the Living Dead with guitars fit for any black metal album, and the weight of Cthulhu. Schaffer’s riffs have probably never been this inspired, and Block getting to add his own quirks to the songwriting, as well as Seele’s sweet leads tossed in like sprinkles over the living dead; holy dang martyr, this is what Iced Earth should be. And some people deign to dislike this masterpiece. I quit.
My review - MA average: 99%
You know, Persefone gets lots of love lately, but rarely do you take time to experience their music the way it’s intended. Spiritual Migration was released in 2013 and it is 70 minutes of pure transcendence that once the final moments fade into an echo will have you go, simply “woh”. The masterpiece is a weighty, emotional experience that defies definition in many senses. Brutal and harsh as the void of death at times, free and hopeful like the joy of life at others. Exceptionally well composed, the album has a flow like none other with not just seamless transitions between the songs but a progression in the riff work and melodic play that works to continually evolve the sound along with the theme.
Musically, Persefone has created a work of art bordering on flawlessness; guitar leads that melt your face, riffage that breaks your fingers and an overall phenomenal work by Carlos Lozano and Jordi Gorgues on the guitars. Marc Martins Pia's soul soaring growls mix with clean vocals perfectly. The songwriting lets loose in full the entire human range of emotions, from darkness and death accentuated by Martins Pia’s positively brutal harsh vocals in massive songs like The Great Reality and The Majestic of Gaia, to an ethereal release and the appreciation of existence in the meditative intermissions - Opethian, heavy, progressive, melodic perfection; everything in between to love for any fan of progressive or death metal. And how all this manages to blend together is fucking beautiful. Spiritual Migration is a musical journey through brutality and beauty, death and release, and all the grey dimensions in between. And it boasts a whopping 99% average on the Metal Archives and it is entirely justified.
My review - MA average: 89%
Witherfall’s sophomore full length has all that doom, gloom, darkly ignited passion and shredtastic musicianship the world was sorely lacking before their inception, all the while being a heartfelt, beautiful farewell to founding drummer Adam Sagan. It’s full of soulful darkness, ominous sounding at times, always with an undertone of the mourning process that permeates the record thanks to Joseph Michael’s magical delivery. Potent striking solos, massive rhythms, fleshy riffing, utter darkness like a cloud of ink in water; heavy passages mingle with furious lead work from Jake Dreyer, atmospheric keyboards add the final touches while Michael croon with darkness, delivering his full range, delving into the abyss of his soul and to the transcendent reaches of inner peace. Slow passages are broken by merciless, unmentionable weight and completely devastating vocal performances from Michael, recurring throughout the runtime.
Starting off heavier than anything with an eleven minute behemoth - We Are Nothing - the album moves through the mourning process in shades of atmospheric darkness. Dreyer delivers some of the most potent shreds and furious riffing on the planet, backed up by Anthony Crawford’s fretless bass delivering solid goods and a thunderous style to fill out drummer Steve Bolognese’s thick sound. Softer sides are seen in the prelude, epilogue and mid album track Maridian’s Visitation, adding that ominous Mercyful Fate feel to an already dark sound. Vintage closes the album like a thunderstorm of emotions; the eleven minute masterpiece accentuates all the beautiful parts of the album in one masterful reverence to a lost friend. Utterly devastating, monumentally thrilling and goosebump inducing all throughout thanks to flawless deliveries from the guys pouring their entire souls (and more than a few bottles of wine) into the music, A Prelude to Sorrow is the album to end any and all doubts as to whether Witherfall is the greatest band on the planet at this moment.
My review - MA average: 93%
An utterly moving experience that encompasses the whole range of technical ability, musical mastery and emotional storytelling, The Old Man and the Spirit is to date the only album released by Peter Degenfeld-Schonburg’s project Beyond the Bridge. Calculated and technical mastery is mixed with emotional depth and great philosophical questions which at the end remain unanswered, but opened like the soul of the Old Man. One of Simon Oberender’s last albums, it’s got all that technical proficiency blended with an emotional depth in his flawless keyboard work, which goes along so well with the crisp, clear tone of Degenfeld-Schonburg’s guitars.
The duet vocals of Herbie Langhans and Milenya Dar complete each other like nothing before. Langhans brings his whole range, from anger to wonder, to contemplation to sadness, while Dar is the voice in his ear asking the questions, telling him the whys and the buts, all manages to come together to create a chemistry between never before put on record. The two ballads are flawless renditions of beauty and a sort of grief; 'World Of Wonders' is Mar’s moment of glory, as she divines with a heavenly voice of the beauty to be found in the world, while 'Where The Earth And Sky Meet', which is likely the finest moment in Langhans' career yet, with its weighty tone and feels-laden guitars.
If possible, Degenfeld-Schonburg shows just as much emotive and dynamic range in his guitars, as Langhans and Mar show off in their duets. From the aggressive pull and furious soloing, found in tracks like 'Doorway To Salvation' and opener 'The Call', to the slow, hauntingly beautiful melodics of the aforementioned 'World Of Wonders' or the gritty riff parts going hand in hand with Oberender’s keys that are strewn like progressive sprinkles all across the runtime of the album. Choral arrangements back up the biggest elements and choruses, while the vocalists get their solo time in some songs to amplify a feeling of solitude and solemnity that adds weight to the entire production. The Old Man and the Spirit is criminally underrated, a masterpiece, and a treasure unparalleled; it touches upon the meaning of life, what it means to be human and to feel, but ultimately gives no clear answers because that’s never the point. How can a single drop perceive the whole surrounding sea?
Obviously, this year's harvest in the form of albums by Dimhav, Noveria and The Spectre Beneath need their mentions, but also total underdogs like Wizard's ...Of Wariwulfs and Bluotwarves (2011) (which I'm basically all alone in my appreciation of) and Mindmaze's near flawless Resolve (2017) and A Fair Dream Gone Mad (2013) by unknown atmospheric prog outfit In the Silence. In other power metal albums, Secrets Of The Magick Grimoire (2017) and Carolus Rex (2012) by Elvenking and Sabaton respectivelly need their mentions, as well as the magnificent power metal opera Souldance (2017) by unknown Peruvian outfit Ancestral Dawn.
In prog metal, honorable mentions must go to Anthropia for Non-Euclidean Spaces (2015) and Nightingale for their sweet as all fuck Retribution (2014). Then there are the categories I never really could get into, but need their mentions because the music is undeniably great (although I may have reviewed some of them otherwise); Gojira's L’enfant Sauvage (2012), Ne Oblivscaris's Urn (2017), Rivers of Nihil's Where Owls Know My Name (2018) and I feel Kreator's God of Violence (2017) deserves a mention as well.
Basically, the decade's been a hell of a ride whichever camp you call home. Here's to another ten tortulicious years of heavy dang metal.