2008 - The Year of Guitar Heroism
What does a warrior do when the ways of his creed are lost to imitators? Like a dejected ronin, standing alone with wooden, steel-stringed axe in hand, where does he turn for solace in a world awash with pale, multi-colored plastic imitations of his craft? When hordes of his followers believe him to be a relic of a day gone by, he starts to feed his burning passion for precision, pomp and power; to shred beyond his capability, to transcend his contemporaries and reclaim his pride and place in the premier pantheon of true guitar heroes; not the simulations that we have been distracted by for so long.
While many have decried the Guitar Hero phenomenon as a poison that corrodes the foundations of our beloved genre, I believe it has had the opposite effect; motivating bands and players to play at their best - to show the self-proclaimed YouTube crowd pleasing "experts" who the masters of the art truly are.
Although traditionally Power Metal was the sole domain of self-indulgent guitar wankery with all its cheesy trappings, it barely garnered any traction - only four releases came across my desk worthy of attention with only one Top 10 contender among them. Even the natural tendency for Progressive Metal to align itself with Power Metal has wavered enough for the stellar progressive releases of the year found rooted in Death Metal instead.
So, what of 2008? It seems to me it was a year of great releases from newcomers and established players alike; but nothing really to warrant the awarding of "instant classic" or "breakthrough" to any particular album. Having that said, there was more than enough meat on the metal bone for an enjoyable and satisfying year personally for both studio releases and big name tours - Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Carcass to name a few - until the reality of economic decline catches up to my beloved land down under.
First up, the Honorable Mentions:
Mercenary - Architect of Lies (Gold Award)
Cynic - Traced In Air (Silver Award)
Amon Amarth - Twilight of the Thunder God (Bronze Award)
Evergrey - Torn
Enslaved - Vertebrae
Neaera - Armamentarium
Cult of Luna - Eternal Kingdom
Opeth - Watershed
Motorhead - Motorizer
Ayreon - 01011001
And secondly, the Independent Release of 2008:
Zero Degrees Freedom - The Calm... Before the Silence
While their Tasmanian contemporaries Psycroptic garner all the glory and the glutton's share of acclaim, ZDF remain largely unknown. Their approach to doom-laden death metal may be oblique but is to be thoroughly commended. Ambitious, forward thinking and engrossing, The Calm...Before the Silence, if treated with the cash and care that Psycroptic receive, this record could very well eclipse their friendly rivals.
Runner Up: Storm the Castle! - The History of Doomed Expeditions, Vol. 1
Thirdly, some Disappointments:
Children of Bodom - Blooddrunk
This record leads me to believe that Alexi and co. were a group akin to the Monkees - their minders wrote hits for them until the band, in their arrogance believed they could do better. They've now declined so miserably they were shunned; and rightly so, as this mélange of mediocrity deserves nothing less than fan and press scorn and a ticket for a trip to the bottom of the bargain bin.
Into Eternity - The Incurable Tragedy
What happened? Into Eternity proved themselves almost unconquerable after The Scattering of Ashes, their point-locked riffs and soloing making them the envy of all progressive death metal bands of their ilk. Suddenly their heart wrenching ode to brothers who had succumbed to cancer falls flat; in creativity, production and musicianship. It's by no means horrible, but it certainly doesn't live up to their stellar reputation.
Dragonforce - Ultra Beatdown
Does it count if you didn't have high expectations in the first place? It was just more of the same, less of what's exciting with riff-recycling abundant. This comes from the man who went out of his way to get the first copy of Valley of the Damned in Melbourne, Australia: Herman and co.: The joke's old now. Please, no more.
Without further interruption, I present The Top Ten from Down Under 2008!
10. In Flames - A Sense of Purpose
In no way their finest output, A Sense of Purpose does have an uncanny knack for finding its way into my CD player - the cuts are measured, melodious and more often than not, all absorbing. It ain't quite melodic death as we know it, but it packs a wollop leaving knuckles bleeding and sore.
9. Edguy - Tinnitus Sanctus
Interviewing Jens Ludwig earlier this year, he told me that Edguy always try to make the next album better than the last. Impossible as it sounds, its just what they've done; this could very well be the benchmark that Edguy will be measured by in the future. Lovingly polished and inspired by their musical heroes, Goofballs they may be; lousy songwriters, they definitely are not. Blues, NWOBHM, LA hard rock cheese - you name it, they take it on with aplomb and come out on top.
8. Seventh Wonder - Mercy Falls
Up until the third quarter of this year, I figured that power metal was a write off. I just figured that the power metallers took a year off to regroup and try again next year. But as I was truly mistaken; enter Mercy Falls, a disc full of vivid and intense melody, top class musicianship and most awe inspiring best gang choruses since, well, the heady days of the 80s. Sure, it oozes with cheese and cliché, but it's done so well you just forget about it and enjoy the ride.
7. Arsis - We Are the Nightmare
The new kings of technical death metal that seemingly don't have a penchant for making its audience lose its lunch via vomit-inducing fuzz or similarly overused gore formula, they cut with lines and lines of melodic madness, layered beneath inventive riffery and a hail of brutal double kicking. They never fail to impress, and have lived up to their acclaim once again.
6. Daylight Dies - Lost to the Living
Daylight Dies know how to craft records. They're men with plans, and it shows; their depressing miasmas and walls of meticulously crafted doom metal have stepped up to the mantle, shoved Opeth off from their gilded perch, having seemingly beaten them at their own game. Lost to the Living is the soundtrack for those melancholy few who enjoy the mood of winter oozing from their speakers.
5. Martriden - The Unsettling Dark
What's this, another American disc in the Aussie top 10? My United States brethren certainly are no slouches this year; barren, desolate and brooding, Martriden seam together the finest traditions of black metal and melodic death metal on The Unsettling Dark, making colossal keyboard soundscapes and finely crafted arrangements their trademark - they brew hellish storms and leave listeners shattered in its gentle yet gloomy wake.
4. Scar Symmetry - Holographic Universe
Confident in its concept and execution, Scar Symmetry dominate the melodic death metal scene, writing a colorful array of cosmic anthems in Holographic Universe, all replete with breathtaking vocals that run the gamut from heavenly to the demonic, all surrounded by pristine and ear-bending guitar heroics; a sonically tantalizing record to the nth degree.
3. Eluveitie - Slania
Celtic metal from Switzerland? Now that's a definition of globalization if I ever saw it. Aggressive, even violent at times, Eluveitie prove that they can rock as well as roll with awe-inspiring flute, hurdy-gurdy and flowing traditional melodies plucked from the Highlands of ancient Wales itself while offering the best riffs of the Swedish scene - all the while putting their contemporaries to shame.
2. Machinae Supremacy - Overworld
The future of heavy metal starts here! Fusing SID chip chaos, punk-rock attitude and a take-no-prisoners approach to wily benchmark setting fretwork, Machinae Supremacy stand atop the world as the torchbearers of the modern 21st Century wave of heavy metal. Some kids are content to play games based on music, but Machinae Supremacy make music, playing to win the ultimate game of all. Prepare yourself for the Machinae Supremacy or be devoured in the onslaught!
1. Gojira - The Way of All Flesh
Taking the listener to the fringes of consciousness and beyond, The Way of All Flesh excels creatively, conceptually and musically in an age where risk taking is usually frowned upon. They prove to the metal scene that conceptual pieces can run the gamut of emotion and artistry and never succumb to self-indulgence or cliché. Seductive and chilling while visceral, varied and artful in its deliberateness, Flesh reminds us how frail we as humans all really are and how good metal can sound once care and a passion for brilliance is reawakened. A Sight to Behold? Completely haunting.
Economic crises or not, 2009 should bring, well...the most hotly anticipated albums of 2008 - Wintersun and Orphaned Land. Rock on!