Ok. So. Usually at the beginning of these things it’s customary to say a few words about the past year to pad the runtime. Seeming as how this year was 2020 though I don’t think anyone wants that. Like, can we please just get it over with? With that crap out of the way, the following list shows the highlights to any year is the music; 2020 did deliver in that part at the least. These songs are the best songs of the year, as experienced by a fan of mainly power metal, prog, progpower, heavy and various melodic styles. If you don’t find your favorite in the list, toss me a comment and let me know how big an idiot I am.
Serenity - The Last Knight
I’ve reluctantly grown fonder of this track the more I’ve listened to it throughout the year. Not even mentioned among the highlights in my review of Serenity’s latest full length The Last Knight, Souls and Sins manages that great feat of being deliciously melancholic, yet also bombastic and epic. Though it could have done well with some of those old school Serenity prog elements (no, I’ll never let that go) it’s nevertheless a great song, even though it doesn’t really push the boundaries. Georg Neuhauser’s great vocals lift the chorus, while the soloing and the riffing from Chris Hermsdörfer do magic on their own. The type of song that proves that while Serenity aren’t super special, they kind of sometimes are.
Paralydium - Worlds Beyond
Paralydium’s full length debut is the kind of debut I probably should have liked more than I ultimately did - it’s good, not great - but its opener (not counting the intro) Within the Sphere is a great example of progpower done exactly right. Proving a burst of energy, it takes some symphonic elements to set events in motions as the piece wastes no time getting weighty, balls grabbing and powerful with flashy melodics set on fresh riffing and a progressive backdrop. The riffs are great, the sound airy yet pushing its weight in the right departments; Jonathan Olsson’s bass lines thrifty and driving underneath John Berg’s riffs and the sweeping keyboards of Mikael Blanc. A perfect example of melding the accessibility of power metal and blending it with the complex nature of the prog elements, without letting either side take over.
Skeletoon - Nemesis
I mean. Right from Tomi Fooler’s opening shout you know exactly what’s coming; super flashy, high speed power metal as heavy on the melodis as it is in the cheese. A sci fi romper that hearkens to the greats of the genre, paying homage to the band’s own heroes, Brighter Than 1000 Suns never lets up on the speedy cheese fest. Fooler’s high pitched screams take the cake in the Kiske imitation department (in a good way) while Andrea Cappellari and Davide Piletto’s super catchy solos and leads smatter the piece with all the right kinds of delicious space gravy. It’s all just power metal goodness, and sometimes that’s exactly all you need.
Vanishing Point - Dead Elysium
Not a likely mention on anyone else’s highlight roll, The Fall is a mid album track on Australian prog metal outfit Vanishing Point’s sixth full length Dead Elysium. Others might have rather picked the title track or Free for their great performances and songwriting, but - and it’s a big but - The Fall just has something a little special going for it. The songwriting is a bit more straightforward, the build a little more simple, but The Fall doesn’t suffer for it. Silvio Massaro’s delicate yet powerful vocal performance stands out as a marking factor, but the incredible riffing and especially the lead work of Chris Porcianko and James Maier is just as important to get the feel just right. Melodic, catchy, accessible, it’s definitely not Vanishing Point’s greatest feat of progressive metal songwriting, but there’s something really special about this little tune right here that keeps me coming back.
Iternia - Between Good and Evil
Admittedly more of a guilty pleasure than a feat of great musicianship; I doubt any other list maker would go near this track, the closer from Costa Rican power metal outfit Iternia’s debut. Titled after the band itself it’s an exercise in taking the cheese all too seriously and still making it work like never before. The mix isn’t great, but the heart is there. The production lacks, but the execution nails it. Juan Carlos Garcia tosses some sweet leads our way throughout the eight minute runtime, but the climax is what really seals the deal; soloing galore with vocalist Edgar Lopez laying the rules in the background, all for an end product that is ridiculous and shouldn’t work, but… does. Still ridiculous though; I love it.
Manticora - To Live to Kill to Live
Never was the biggest Manticora fan, but always had to give it to them; the Danes could pen a dark narrative and set it some crushing ass prog metal like no one else. The Moths and the Dragonflies/Katana - Mud opens their 2020 album To Live to Kill to Live and in so doing sets a precedent the band itself has never lived up to. It’s a fourteen minute behemoth of crushing riffage, punishing blast beats, theatric layered vocals and an interesting storyline as told through Lars F. Larsen’s massive effort. There’s serious weight to this beast, both in the rhythm section and the flesh tearing riffing of Kristian H. Larsen and Stefan Johansson. The solos sprinkled throughout keep the ear hooked and the time changes and progressive build that never ceases its incessant work makes sure there’s always something interesting happening. The title might be a tad too long though, just putting that out there.
Falconer - From a Dying Ember
Probably only Falconer could make a song sound so entirely Falconer, while also sounding so entirely different. The climax of their final album (until the inevitable reunion anyway) From a Dying Ember, Rapture is an amalgam of the folk elements that made their claim to fame and the extreme metal outliers that were the founders origins. The riffs border on black metal, while the leads maintain that classic medieval folk sound. Mathias Bladh’s grounded vocal delivery is what keeps it sounding Falconer, his unflappable presence telling the narrative of a man reaching the end; Rapture isn’t just a story of a Viking’s last moments, but of the band itself. It’s not the joyous thrill ride some of their earlier highlights are, but it is likely their greatest song yet (time will tell), and a crowning achievement on a long, illustrious career.
Adamantis - Far Flung Realm
Adamantis’ first full length Far Flung Realm was a love letter to all things traditionally powerful and adventurous, and nowhere does this come across as strongly as on highlight The Oracle’s Prophecy. Positively European in style, the Americans invite for a duet between Jeff Stark and the iconic Elisa C. Martins joining in a guest spot as the titular oracle. The two bounce off each other naturally to the speedy beats of Evgeny Gromovoy’s catchy double bass beats, the traditional gallop riffage of Jeff Taft and Javier Estrada complete with very Harris inspired - and prominent - bass lines from Cody Pelchat. The solo dueling hearkens to the olden days of Judas Priest, with the riffing taking no prisoners and the entire song just drenched in love for the craft, dipped in heavy doses of fun and charismatic vocal deliveries.
Project Aegis - And the Rest is Mystery
Matt Smith of Theocracy can craft a gripping tale bound in skillfully melodic power metal and epic prog like few others. Project Aegis is a charity side project (as in, all proceeds go to charities, that’s nice) where he gets friends and guests to come and help out in Avantasia like creations; And the Rest is Mystery is the third single thus far. Nine minutes in length it evolves much like a Theocracy epic, beginning in soft, melodic balladry, sweet guitars slowly trilling away, before it grows into an absolute beast made of melodic power goodness. Guest vocalist Daniel Heiman of Lost Horizon fame is the star of the song, gracing it with his supremely aged pipes (Dimhav anyone?), while Smith himself lends some fantastic guitar work as well as vocals of his own. Taking the best of several worlds, And the Rest is Mystery is another example of the Smith’s stellar songwriting.
Persuader - Necromancy
So from something fun to the other end of the spectrum; The Curse Unbound is a tale of evil, steeped in darkness and insane riffing galore. The opening track from Persuader’s return to form, it is a monster in six minutes. The chorus is something of a beast in and of itself, dark and menacing, yet catchy and gripping. Perhaps the best things about this unit is the flesh tearing riffage and the rhythm section crushing everything in its path; Efraim Juntunen’s drum lines slaying everything in their path, with Emil Norberg’s bass laying thick like mist drenching the unholy necromantic rites in the crypts. Add the lead guitars and Jens Carlsson’s vocals atop and the necromantic reality that is The Curse Unbound becomes a delicious, malevolent reality; as heavy in atmosphere as it is in talent, coming through in both songwriting and musicianship.
Eternal Champion - Ravening Iron
The titular track from Eternal Champion’s 2020 full length Ravening Iron describes in five minutes exactly what’s so very special with the band, currently all the rage in traditional heavy metal circles. Adventurous, energetic and at times even frenzied, it’s a love affair with all things rifflicious, taking lessons from both the NWOBHM movement and the American style of epic heavy/power metal. The keyboards add that layer of fantasy to the tapestry woven in thick riffage, Blake Ibanez and Nujon Powers clashing mightily as the axes collide in riff dueling galore. Add the utterly devastating performance on the drums by Arthur Rizk and Jason Tarpey’s to be iconic vocals and some monumental, if absolutely cheesy, lyrics about swords and battle and you’ve got a recipe for utter success and ravening iron.
Damnation Angels - Fiber of Our Being
Remnants of a Dying Star is the surprisingly deep and intelligent 13 minute epic and penultimate track gracing Damnation Angels’ third full length. Having shed Pellek and gained Ignacio Rodríguez to the fold, the British outfit hold nothing back here. Symphonic and massive its production value is through the roof as the cinematic passages blend into each other, smoothly transitioning from one to the next. Will Graney’s guitars and orchestrations come to a climax at the zenith, his riffing and the thickly layered keyboards slowly evolving throughout the runtime. Meanwhile Rodríguez proves a force to be reckoned with throughout, as he lets his register go from the raspier lows to the epic high notes of the chorus. Handling the origins and future of the human race, and our place in the cosmos, the song unveils in epic proportions much like a power metal anthem needs to and shows the quality musicianship and songwriting that went into the entire album; more than the sum of its parts.
Master Sword - The Final Door
Apparently taking a classic metal approach, adding sprinkles of power metal magic and big doses of The Legend of Zelda is a winning concept. Master Sword have been running with it for a while now, growing stronger with each release. Hero of Time is the highlight of their latest release The Final Door and it’s one for the highlight roll. Crushingly heavy in the riff department it’s a tour de force of pure heavy metal, while also not shying away from some catchy leads from Kojo Kamya (and that solo is goddam delicious), while Matt Farkas’ rhythm guitar and bass add that rich goodness in the rhythm department. The story is given life furthermore by Lily Hoy’s insane performance; she belts it out like she’s been in the business for twenty years, her powerful pipes evoking the sense of might and power like the biggest names you can think of from the eighties. They’ve crafted something special here, a real smasher.
Born in Exile - Transcendence
The eerie, suspenseful atmosphere is tangible as Spanish prog metal outfit unveil the pièce de résistance on their 2020 full length. The Lighthouse of the Haunted Keeper evolves slowly over its seven minute runtime, the rhythm section like a poltergeist haunting the walls as dusk sets in, lead guitars licking like the flames in the fireplace. Haunting with a symphonic flair and an enchanting presence is Kris Vega, whose vocal delivery is every bit as perfect as the rest of the musicianship. The musicianship is top tier as is the progressive, yet immediately catchy songwriting; Lucas Comuñas adds bass lines thick and murky as Carlos Castillo’s riffing and haunting melodic pieces take twists and turns. But the real star is the dark atmosphere which is hard to get right; from the crackling intro to the gleaming soloing, every moment here is touched by the haunting presence of the one walking in flames.
Koronus - Eye of the Monolith
The opening track of American progressive/djent-ish duo Koronus’s debut is packed with mystery, intrigue and promises of unnamable horrors. Telling the tale of a Native American who comes across a mysterious monolith, Discovery is a masterpiece in its own right. It opens up on folk elements and chants, and slowly develops turn into a crushing, melodic feast throughout its eight minute runtime. Vocalist and multi instrumentalist Kyle McGinley slays it entirely in the guitars department, his riffing intriguing and catchy while the lead work is laid back and adds to the mysterious feeling. The atmospheric keyboards just add even more depth, especially in that lengthy intro. Vishnu Vijayan’s bass lines meanwhile bring thunder to strike from already deepened skies, for an experience that is way deeper and more enthralling than it has any right to be as the man in the narrative finds his way inside the monolith to experience the evil inside.
Unleash the Archers - Abyss
It’s not like Unleash the Archers aren’t getting acclaim aplenty - some, I feel, somewhat unwarranted - but with the masterpiece that is the title track of their 2020 full length, there’s absolutely no stopping them. From the rhythmic gut punch that is the intro, to that utterly insane scream around the one minute mark, to the riveting chorus, Abyss has all things going for it and every bit of it is close to perfection. The guitars are equally insane, crunching the rifflicious groundwork and tossing fleshy leads throughout the seven minute runtime. The real star is Brittney Hayes though; she completely owns every moment of the song - the aforementioned one minute mark scream proving her pwnage. Complete gut punch of a goddam song.
Veonity - Sorrows
2020’s Sorrows proved a new direction for Veonity. Never more so than on its opening track, the haunting and epic in equal measure Graced or Damned. Set in motion by a solemn piano intro, the track is the tale of a man faced with his own mortality, and his life choices. Surprisingly introspective and intellectual, Veonity fully embrace the new touch; a darker intonation to a sound very much Veonity, there is plenty of the power to the sound, while the production brings depth and feeling to the entire being. It’s every bit as catchy as their previous efforts, but it also demands an open mind of the listener. Musically it’s damn near perfection, those guitars clashing together in the riff department, the solo chucking thunder and lightning; I can’t stress this enough, Samuel Lundström might just be one of the finest lead guitarists in the genre right now. Graced or Damned proves a crowning achievement for a band whose only path is forward, upward, ever onward.
The Spectre Beneath - The New Identity of Sidney Stone
Riveting and speedy, the final chapter (or is it?) of the story of the criminal whose name was once Sidney Stone details his exhumation, as the title pretty much gives away. Pete ‘Paz’ Worrall herein tosses his full arsenal into the mix with blistering guitar work, fiery bass lines and the ever present looming darkness that permeates the entire being that is The Spectre Beneath. Consta Taylor’s phenomenal drums lay the groundwork, precise and calculated, while L Lockser’s perfect vocal delivery details the man who was Sidney Stone’s final words in his grave. The solos are electrifying, the riffing gripping and striking and the entire being just oozing with atmosphere. The Exhumation is the mark of what has become one of the strongest and most darkly captivating, yet maddeningly unknown, prog metal bands on the planet at the moment.
Demons & Wizards - III
Children of Cain is a striking feature on the album on which it resides. Demons & Wizards’ return to the scene wasn’t without its problems, but the closing epic seemed to hit every note right; the right levels of Jon Schaffer sensibilities coupled with his trademark riffing and weight, as well as Hansi Kürsch’s heartfelt yet incredibly powerful vocals. Obviously trying to recapture some of the glory that was their timeless classic Fiddler on the Green, Children of Cain alternates between acoustic and yearning melodic pieces from lead guitarist Jake Dreyer, while building on progressive leanings and trying the waters for the unexpected, yet comfortable. (Schaffer’s mandolin outro.) At ten minutes length, the song isn’t asking permission to do its thing, but it’s still eerily captivating, the melodic hooks and great musicianship leaving little to be desired.
Judicator - Let There Be Nothing
Complete with the compelling narrative turns we’ve come to expect from the boys, Let There Be Nothing is all the influences coming to a head in something entirely unique yet comfortably familiar. The sound they’ve been turning their own climaxing in an epic, yet sensitive nine minute beast of soaring vocals, riffs yearning for the skies and melodics hearkening to the days of olden, like a Maiden epic. The beefy riffs and thunderous sound of Tony Cordisco’s torching rhythm guitars assures he’ll be missed in the band, his work alongside bassist and lead guitarist Michael Sanchez a standout feature of this megalodon of a song. If songs were sharks, that is. Meanwhile John Yelland’s voice has never dealt out epic lines or held the torch of the ancestors so high, “ever marching on - I feel”. Judicator are quickly taking the world of power metal and traditional metal by storm, and Let There Be Nothing manages with complex and catchy songwriting to show exactly why. It’s a great, epic tune, but let’s just call it a megalodon, because that sounds badass.
Pyramaze - Epitaph
The Time Traveller closes off Danish progpower outfit Pyramaze’s sixth full length Epitaph in spectacular fashion. Band founder Michael Kammeyer has been welcomed back to the fold to help out with the songwriting and the world building, but that’s all just icing on the cake. An incredible, twelve minute behemoth of rifflicious magic, The Time Traveller is a progressive beast to behold. Morten Gade Sørensen lays down the law with furious drum lines while guitarist and bassist Jacob Hansen takes no prisoners in his thrifty riff work. The three vocalists - current front man Terje Harøy and former singers Lance King and (the inimitable, unflappable) Matt Barlow - dueling off each other and tossing back and forth with perfect chemistry get things smashing just right as the narrative takes main vocalist Harøy on voyages through time itself. Evolving massively and enveloping in a thick atmosphere, The Time Traveller is a glimmering diamond in an increasingly awesome discography; we need more of this. (Get Kammeyer back full time guys.)
Darktribe - Voici l'homme
Having stuck around all year and still growing with each listen, Voici l’homme is a deeply emotional take on the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Title track from their third full length, it’s the French power metal quintet’s moment of glory and passion. Driven by the melodic riffing and enthralling leads of Loïc Manuello, it evolves at face value like a traditional power metal anthem, but proves so much more by the end. It’s first and foremost incredibly catchy, hooks abound at every corner; the chorus is catchy as all hell to begin with but when Anthony Agnello bursts into his native French for the second half there’s no denying how incredibly powerful that moment is; he claims no holiness but the passion is there for all to see. Then we come to the instrumental sections, lengthy for your average power metal song, Julien Agnello tossing insane double bass drums at you while Manuello flashes that magnificent lead guitar for the closing section. It all comes together in a way that seems almost accidental, but it still manages to pull at the heartstrings while being technically sound, the soundscape the Frenchmen have created landing just utterly fucking perfect. Pardon my French.
Joviac - Here and Now
Fade into the Light is the closing track from Joviac’s great sophomore album Here and Now, which has defied my attempts at review. The entire album is worth a listen or ten, but it all comes together in the beautifully composed closer Fade into the Light. A heart wrenching narrative told in instrumentals, lined with silver and a short vocal narrative of coming to terms. Soft sounding on the border of balladry, its second half pushes a boost of light energy through the rhythm section taking off and Viljami Jupiter Wenttola’s delicious leads and flourishing solos melding with the here and now. While definitely heavier on the emotional pulling of the heartstrings side, Fade into the Light also showcases the technical abilities of the trio and some stellar songwriting that focuses less on catchiness or the vocals and all the more on the pull of said musicianship and the weight thrown behind it. It’s one of those where you can’t just listen; you have to feel it.
Helion Prime - Question Everything
Blending the Helion Prime sound with a positively Mindmaze-ian style and build, Reawakening is a work of art that begins as a soft serving ballad to close a great album... but proves to be so much more. Chad Anderson and Jason Ashcraft deliver sweet riffing as the verses progress into climactic choruses that pump life into old and beaten veins, given yearning and hunger for life by the absolutely devastating performance from Mary Zimmer, heart shattering and frail yet triumphant and epic. It’s a very emotional track, won’t work for every occasion, but the craftsmanship is undeniable and the musicianship is god tier; the solo trading in the middle section a chance for Anderson and Ashcraft to be absolute guitar deities, Alex Bosson’s drums like the racing heartbeat during Zimmer’s “Leaving you to finally feel alive”; there’s just no part that isn’t crafted to perfection. And every time I actually listen to this song I think, “why is this not number one?”
Sacred Outcry - Damned for All Time
“…because Damned for all Time goddam exists.” And Sacred Outcry prove this more and more with each listen; those behemoth ass riffs that crawl through the skin and etch themselves stuck, those flesh cutting bass lines and that insane vocal delivery. This absolute unit didn’t give itself away all at once. It took several listens to open itself up and reveal its many intricate layers and be fully appreciated. It is the epitome of epic; the story of Strombringer coming to an end with dramatic revelation and the epic rage of furious thunder.
An epic tragedy, it paints a vast, vivid soundscape with broad brushes and mighty performances. Let’s just start with Dimitris Perros and his colossal ass riffing. The riffs are ever evolving, flawlessly leading the sections into each other, tossing in George Apalodimas ball slapping bass licks to join in the fray. Giannis Skalkotos adds orchestral keyboards to offset the gritty guitars, adding cathedral like depth and movement to the instrumentals.
For fifteen minutes Damned For All Time continues to slay as it evolves from an evocative beginning through a battle like middle section filled with Perros’s mightiest riffing to date, to the climactic ending where Yannis Papadopoulos proves one of the greatest of our time; the flesh tearing anger and sorrow coming through in his perfect performance, complete with bone chilling screams that would make Eric Adams blush; then coming around again at the end to the pumping riffing that started it off. A chilling tale of the lord of doom, given majestic, powerful life by the insane performances and stellar songwriting; the story of the great white demon is bound to leave no soul unstolen. Gripping, thunderous, goddam epic.
It was released just a couple of days ago so no time to actually process it, but Ashes of Ares and their mighty Throne of Iniquity (you know I had to go there). Nils Patrik Johansson in his self titled outfit delivered heavy metal power in The Agitator whilst British Lion had some live feel and charisma to Last Chance. Also special mention must go to Biff Byford, the man who just won't quit; The Pit and the Pendulum is dark and awesome in Saxon-esque (duh) stature. Dyscordia's Silent Tears is darn good, but ultimately too alike (and a paler shadow of) its predecessor, going here unnamed. Last shoutouts go to Temperance's colorful and vibrant hymn to life, Nanook, as well as Brothers of Metal's (no, seriously) so very anthemic To the Skies and Beyond (the album still sucked balls though).
Disappointment of the year
I guess disappointment is all about expectations, and with a year this shitty the expectations have all been really low so as to be surpassed mostly, though it did come creeping as the months rolled by (and especially really taking off around October). I guess Alestorm could have tried harder, but probably Nightwish's suckstorm of an album Hvman. :||: Natvre, overbloated and pseudo intelligent, is the biggest letdown of the year.
Comeback of the year
Called it last year. Demons & Wizards. Ok, so lead single Diabolic promised a return to the sound of the first album which definitely wasn't delivered on in full on the album, which could have benefited from a darker touch and letting Jake Dreyer be Jake Dreyer some more, but an hour of Schaffer/Kürsch goodness? I'm not complaining.
Expectations for next year
Looks like pumpkin season is coming closer as Helloween are making good on that reunion a few years ago with new music coming next year, and obviously the British lockdown has been good for something since The Spectre Beneath is full steam ahead on #3. Blind Guardian supposedly returning to roots in late 2021 as well which is peachy. In confirmed news, Wizard will keep flying the metal banner while everyone's favorite Bayley - Blaze Bayley - will be back in to battle the war within in April. And on the note of letting Jake Dreyer be Jake Dreyer, Witherfall...