How many times can you possibly listen to the same album over and over again?
2018 was an amazing year for new music. My three most favourite bands released new music, I basically had no choice but to put them in the top 3 spots on the list. But even apart from those, there were so many great releases, many of them would certainly have been in my top 5 in other years but didn’t even make it onto the list for 2018 because there was so much competition. And yeah, there were several albums I got so addicted to I couldn’t stop listening for days… weeks… months.
So as hard as it was to choose, here are my nine favourite albums of the last year. The selection might look completely random and weird to some people, but it actually happens to be a good representation of what I listen to… Apparently my taste is a triangle between pop, prog and death metal. Okay?
Side note: Considering I feel like I never check out any new bands (actually I actively try to avoid it because I don’t have space for more bands in my life… 😀), it’s nice to see there are no less than three debut albums in there!
So here’s why these albums are my favourite releases of 2018:
1. Ghost – Prequelle
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that Ghost are at the top of my list. But looking back to the time of the album release, I was very afraid I might not even like it so much. All the reviews were writing so much about a “classic rock” sound… and I don’t like classic rock. The first singles were released, Rats and Dance Macabre – oh yes, classic rock indeed. But still, both songs grew very fast on me, and when I finally listened to Prequelle for the first time, I loved it from the very first try. The songwriting on this record is exceptional, perfect melodies, perfect in every detail down to the choir vocals and the instrumentations, with many different bits and layers of sounds adding to the whole, and the synths (not to forget about the the super strong piano parts!) very often being on equal terms with the guitars. Each song grows until its very last note. You might have heard the verse and the chorus twice and think you know the song, but then there’s still something new, and then again something else… Discovering these songs, every second is a moment of awe. And even if it’s a huge step away from the heavier sound of the previous albums, there’s many a moment – even if it’s just a little thing like a drum fill – that you’ll recognize as typically Ghost.
There are quite a few ballads, which is a dangerous thing for a metal/rock band (as you can see below for Kamelot), but on Prequelle they are done so tastefully and mature, and so deep and beautiful in the arrangements, I personally would never think of them as cheesy or boring. Songs like Pro Memoria and Life Eternal have their big balladesque choir moments, but at the same time they are so fragile and delicate you feel like you have to protect them by immediately listening to them again, otherwise they might just fade away and disappear from your record.
This is certainly an album that has to be listened to in full rather than just listening to some songs individually. Not just because otherwise you might miss the little links that are hidden here and there (like the chorus of Life Eternal appearing much earlier already on the intro to See The Light, the chorus of Pro Memoria getting a reprise in Helvetesfönster, or even the outro of Rats actually being a heavy riff version of Spöksonat from the previous album Meliora), but also because some of the songs come across much differently in the context of the album than as a standalone. Best example might be Dance Macabre which seemed like a simple pop song as a single but plays a valid role in the storyline of the album.
If you had thought Ghost are mostly about a big show, funny masks and blunt devil worship – take your time, lean back, close your eyes and listen to Prequelle. It might change your mind…
2. Kamelot – The Shadow Theory
With all the different features that undeniably make Kamelot a great band, the one thing that makes me so addicted to them as to (almost) no other band in the world, is the atmosphere they create with their music. Throughout different songs, different albums with different sounds, even different singers, there’s always this special mood, a certain vibe that can merely be described as the perfect marriage of beauty and darkness, of harmony and torment.
That given, my approach to a new Kamelot release is primarily driven by my emotions, and only secondarily by analyzing songwriting or sounds or anything like that. Getting into The Shadow Theory, I simply started searching for the Kamelot feels.. and I have to admit I had a hard time. There were some songs I immediately fell deeply in love with, like the single Phantom Divine which culminates into this incredibly powerful outro with the core lyrics of the album – “I am the empire!”. Or the final peak of the album, The Proud And The Broken, which is a mindblowing masterpiece in regards of songwriting, structure, performance, everything. There were songs where I loved some parts (the verses of Burns To Embrace for example are bursting with Kamelot feels), but didn’t feel other parts so much. And then there were some songs that didn’t do anything for me at all, and those were not only, but mostly, the soft ballads. There’s three of them on the album, and while Kamelot have of course always had a tendency to be very romantic, I felt like in this case it was too much, because they’re slowing down the flow of the album and inhibit the force of the faster songs, especially because I don’t think any of these ballads, as pretty as they may be, are as outstanding as some of the legendary Kamelot ballads of the past (which should give you an idea of what kind of high level I’m complaining on here).
Setting individual songs aside, there are some aspects of The Shadow Theory that are extremely strong, like Tommy Karevik’s incredible vocals that involve some of his best performances ever (and thereby single-handedly justify the existence of every ballad here), or Thomas Youngblood’s concise guitars that sometimes make me think he has his strongest moments exactly in those parts where other guitarists would be lazy, like a simple verse where nobody would pay attention to the guitar anyway. Because if anything, Thomas is never lazy! But there are also a few more (very small) issues about the album: most notably, Kamelot are sadly not in the fortunate position to be able to work with a real orchestra but have to fall back on samples – reasonable enough most of the time, but opening and closing the album with a full orchestral track, as beautiful as these compositions are, might not be the best idea if these sound as cheap as the technical solution they rely.
They say the best albums are not those you fall for immediately, but those that grow on you over time. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this many times. So even if I was only partly feeling positive about The Shadow Theory in the beginning, I was totally willing to give the album every chance in the world to grow on me. Although when nothing had changed about my opinion after two or three weeks of binge listening, I thought, well – maybe it’s not going to happen. I was close to giving up on this record.. but the record hadn’t given up on me yet. Just like a bad habit, I couldn’t stop myself from listening to it again and again, and at some point, I came to love every moment of it. Hearing some of the songs live helped a lot too, it was only after the gigs that I was able to embrace Amnesiac as a Kamelot song for example. About Burns To Embrace – over time I came to love this song so much I honestly cried with happiness when they finally started playing it live in September.
The Shadow Theory has taken its time, but it has grown very close to my heart by now, and the famous Kamelot vibe is definitely very present now when I listen to it. It might never become my favourite Kamelot album, although it certainly holds some of my favourite Kamelot songs. It still feels a bit inconsistent to me, meaning I simply love some songs a lot more than others, and it’s one of the rare albums where (as opposed to what I said about Prequelle for example) I do not feel the need always to listen to the album in full (instead I sometimes use the opportunities of the double vinyl to change the order of the four sides, to approach the songs from a different direction). But overall still a strong effort from Kamelot and a well-deserved second place on my list!
3. Muse – Simulation Theory
(From The Shadow Theory to the Simulation Theory…)
First of all: the main reason why Muse are on this list is because they’re Muse. End of story. I’ve been listening to and loving this band for much, much! longer than any of the others here, and a new Muse release will always be a remarkable event for me, no matter what.
I have to admit though the last album Drones had felt a bit uninspired and half-hearted to me (and please, be aware of the Muse measures – by ‘uninspired and half-hearted’ we’re talking about an album packed with a dystopian, conspirational concept, a history lesson of guitar riffs, the kind of ballads Mr. Andrew Lloyd Webber would die for and last but not least a new interpretation of an ancient Palestrina piece). So the question was – do they still got it?
They do. You can legitly argue what it even is they still got, but they still got it. They couldn’t have moved further away from the prog rock sound they played in the early 2000s (in comparison, Prequelle is totally the second Opus Eponymous some Ghost fans are still waiting for..), but at the same time this album is probably more Muse than they have been in a long time. It’s just not about how “heavy” or “rock” they are. If you still expect them to do songs like Stockholm Syndrome or Knights of Cydonia – it’s not gonna happen. And it’s not like we hadn’t been warned, since four of the songs on Simulation Theory had been released as singles over the course of one and a half years before the album release already!
What I personally want from a new Muse album is weird, crazy, insanely over-the-top, the feeling of “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON HERE??” … and Matt Bellamy’s wonderful voice that is so warm and soft you wanna crawl into the speakers, or shrieking in a glass-shattering falsetto. All of this I definitely get from Simulation Theory. Guitars? Piano? They do exist… you just have to pay a bit more attention to find them. Mostly, the sound is dominated by electronics, even Dominic Howard is more of a programmer than a drummer nowadays, but all the core Muse elements are there. Once you get over the synths that open the first song Algorithm, Matt welcomes you with a couple piano arpeggios and a beautiful vocal line that builds up to the dramatic hook: “This – means – war – with your creator…” Every Muse fan will feel at home here. In general, it’s more than anything else Matt’s voice that holds this album together while the songs chase through a whole bunch of different styles and genres. Just take Propaganda – one song moving from dubstep to western acoustic twang guitars within a heartbeat, followed by the funky Break It To Me in a similar manner. Right, there are also some songs that are nothing but nice electro pop tunes, a bit of stadium rock, and actually two or three songs I can’t help but find rather cringy, as much as I try to open my mind. But then there’s Blockades to even it all out towards the end of the album, a song that almost sounds as if it might have been recorded by the band Muse was ten years ago (MK Ultra comes to mind!) And these kinds of little flashbacks to Muse albums past happen on many of the songs on Simulation Theory. Very subtle, very hidden, you won’t notice them every time you listen – but sometimes, all it takes is a certain synth arpeggio or the way a melody is conducted, and suddenly you feel all Absolution.
The crucial thing about this album for me is to discover that despite the fame, the sold-out stadiums and the Hollywood partys, Muse still got it. They still have this intrinsic joy and curiosity to create music, to try new things and to be experimental. Matt Bellamy is a guy who fills his past time playing bass in an all-star Beatles cover band and rejoices like a little boy in a toy shop when he finds a way to make his guitar sound like an 8 bit synthesizer (there might be more guitar on Simulation Theory than you would think…). That’s why no Muse album will ever sound like the previous ones, it would simply be too boring and not challenging enough for him and his two partners in crime. We all should embrace that.
4. Phantom Elite – Wasteland
This newcomer band from the Netherlands (however fronted by a brazilian lady) is my favourite coincidence of the year. They appeared as support act for Kamelot when the tour stopped in Munich in September, and completely unexpectedly, I fell for them.
In the past, there was a time when I was massively into female fronted (symphonic) metal, but at some point I lost interest. New bands came sprouting from every corner, too few of them were actually good and none of them brought anything particularly new to the tableau, so I preferred to let myself get cast away exploring other metal subgenres. When Phantom Elite showed up on the bill in Munich between the two regular support acts who did the whole tour with Kamelot, I admit I expected nothing except having to battle aching feet for 45 minutes longer than usual. Boy, I was wrong! Besides the strong voice of Marina La Torraca, it was mostly the guitars that grasped me with their edgy progressive riffing and incredible solos. I swore to myself to check this band out as soon as I’d get home… but after the gig, my mind was of course (once more) filled with love for Kamelot, then I got occupied with other things, then I forgot. Finally remembering Phantom Elite a few weeks later and checking out their debut album Wasteland was like a new awakening – I was blown away by every single song. This album is simply everything. Like I noticed at the gig already, it’s dominated by some incredible guitar work defining the music as a heavier kind of progressive metal, including complex song structures without ever losing the essence of a song. Symphonic elements come into the game on some of the songs, mostly in form of epic choirs, and Phantom Elite even take their time to go all quiet with acoustic guitars several times – moments that will cover you in goosebumps for sure. And then there are the astonishing vocals: the melodies have a slight tendency to create harmonical friction with the instruments here and there, but that’s just a welcome difference to hearing the common harmony schemes over and over again, and something that will keep your suspense and attention high and close to the songs. Moreover, Marina’s musical theatre -trained voice knows how to master every register and atmosphere and has the ability to move you to tears with the big as well as the soft moments.
Wasteland plays on an unbelievably high level for a debut album. I see only two options from here: either this was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement and the next album will be a huge disappointment – or Phantom Elite will eventually become one of the best bands ever. No pressure, guys… 😉
(One last thing, a confession: I can’t stand the very first line of the opening track. I like neither the melody nor the sound of Marina’s voice here, it makes me shiver. But that’s just the first line of the album. Everything that comes after is amazing, so I guess its all fine…)
5. Follow The Cipher – Follow The Cipher
The name Follow The Cipher kept popping up here and there in different contexts over spring of the year. Most notably I remember a little Metal Hammer article that recommended the Swedish newcomers “for fans of Nightwish and Epica”. Oh hey, that’s me, I thought, and checked out some songs. I got furious at this Metal Hammer writer (and to be honest I still am…), because I absolutely fail to see where this comparison comes from. For your information, having a female singer (and maaaybe a slight tendency towards epicness) doesn’t make two bands automatically sound similar. (But what did I expect – there are still people out there who put even Amaranthe into the symphonic metal category, which is just WRONG. One of my biggest pet peeves. It’s like all those smart metal geeks don’t know how to handle music anymore as soon as the singer has boobs. Maybe Arch Enemy is symphonic metal too?). Back to Follow The Cipher though – I was absolutely not in the mood for their catchy synth-y sound, dismissed it as stupid pop music, and forgot about them.
…until a few months later, in autumn, for a while my mood was as grey as the weather outside. I woke up particularly frustrated one morning, and suddenly remembered this stupid pop metal band with the freaky midi sounds – it might just be the right thing to cheer me up for the day? Spotify on, Follow The Cipher go. What can I say – it worked! And I got soaked into the world of the cipher. My down phase passed away after a few days, my obsession with Follow The Cipher didn’t – I think I’ve played this album so many times it’s not fun anymore. Yeah, they are clearly not Epica or Nightwish, they are rather the perfect love child of Amaranthe and Battle Beast, with a Sabaton uncle somewhere in the family: roaming somewhere between electro pop metal and battle anthems; even the voice of Linda Toni Grahn combines the girlish sweetness of Elize Ryd with the power pipes of Noora Louhimo. (The Sabaton uncle is actually represented for real by various personnel and a cover of Carolus Rex as closing song.) To this mix, Follow The Cipher add their own amount of enchanting drama and their trademark flirring high-pitched synth sound which forms an addictive red thread throughout the album. I quickly realized I had been a bit unfair in labeling them stupid pop metal – of course they write sugar-sweet pop melodies and fist-pumping metal anthems, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong and foremost nothing stupid about that because they’re actually very good at what they do. Despite the catchiness of the songs they make sure to keep things interesting by throwing the one or the other odd harmony into the game here and there, and especially on the second half of the album there’s even a tendency to lose themselves in a jungle of almost psychedelic trance synths that go to war alongside furious modern metal guitars.
Conclusion: forget about your metal elitism and follow the Cipher!
6. At The Gates – To Drink From The Night Itself
I think it was this one moment, 40 seconds into the title track. The moment when the intruments drop into a break and Tompa Lindberg’s iconic voice punches the line “As we drink from the night itself!!” into your ears. In this second – not at the first listen, but maybe at the third or fifth – it suddenly clicked and I realized I love At The Gates. Because it’s not like I hadn’t listened to them before, but it had never been more than casually playing this or that album a few times without getting particularly interested. And they certainly haven’t reinvented themselves or their sound with this album, but to me it feels like it’s finally all falling into it’s place. The aggressively screaming vocals (which stand out so much between the growling of most other melodic death metal bands), the dim guitars that are perfectly balancing driving staccato riffs and ethereal legato melodies. The sound, the pacing. The very very subtle occasional use of strings. Everything is consistent, cohaerent, everything fits, everything is on point. There’s absolutely nothing At The Gates have done wrong with this album, and since I love the Gothenburg melodeath sound anyway, this became another one of those albums I’ve played again and again this year.
7. Letters From The Colony – Vignette
When you read a review describing a band as a mix of Gojira and Meshuggah (later I saw some other reviews bringing up the name Opeth too..) …what kind of idiot would you have to be not to check them out? I mean – this certainly sounds almost too good to be true?
With that, pretty much all has been said about this album already. Because the reviews were not exactly wrong. Letters From The Colony, another new group from Sweden (whose vocalist has, funnily enough, also been involved in the production of no. 5 on this list..), play progressive technical death metal, write extremely complex songs based on equally complex rhythms, and add atmospheric melodies as icing on the cake. In favor of maximum precision, they keep the distortion of the guitars to a minimum, just so much to bring a brutal death metal sound across while sounding very grown up and sophisticated at the same time.
You can, of course, let this album play in the background while doing other things, and just enjoy moment after moment of craziness without even noticing where one song ends and the next one begins… but to really understand what’s going on here, you’ll have to sit down and invest some work into listening with full attention. Don’t forget to take the opportunity to admire the gorgeous artwork too! To sum it up: pretty mindblowing stuff…
8. The Pineapple Thief – Dissolution
2018 was a year of rediscovering my love for The Pineapple Thief, after I had neglected them for a few years. Even before I saw a wonderful gig of them in September, I fell in love with their new album Dissolution.
While The Pineapple Thief have been a progressive rock band in the past, they have turned a bit softer after 2012’s album All The Wars. In my opinion, Dissolution is the first time they’ve really succeeded at this softer thing. With the kind of music they’ve been playing over the last years – very stripped back guitars, often acoustic, very few riffs to give the songs a little push… – there’s a high danger of turning a bit dull. But Dissolution isn’t dull. It’s soft and dreamy, but in the alluring, captivating kind of way. With these songs, you cling to Bruce Soord’s lips with every word he sings, and to every note the band plays. You hold your breath on the most quiet moments and let yourself fall into the melodies on the choruses. This is of course thanks to the delicate arrangements that allow a thousand different nuances between quiet and very quiet. And it’s actually those most quiet moments that are the strongest of the album if you ask me. Those moments when the drum fiddling of Gavin Harrison, as skillfull as it may be, is silent for a minute and it’s just Bruce and his acoustic guitar, or Bruce and a piano as on the opening track Not Naming Any Names.
Not gonna lie, in general I love loud and heavy music. But every now and then it’s nice to have a beautiful masterpiece like this in my life to remind me there are other ways.
9. LIK – Carnage
The last spot on this list was the hardest to decide on, because there were so many albums left that would deserve to be here. Just to name a few: Avatar should be here (at least they would be high up in the list of live bands of the year if I’d do anything like that), Tribulation and of course Behemoth were valid contestors for the spot, and most of all it should have gone to the amazingly rotten The Arrow Of Satan Is Drawn by Bloodbath. Then why did I choose Bloodbath’s “little brothers” LIK instead? Maybe because as much as I acknowledge TAOSID, I can’t help but feel biased about it for a few reasons. Maybe it’s the aftertaste of the gigs I saw very recently (because while LIK were brilliant, Bloodbath’s performance unfortunately ended up being a disaster this time…). Or maybe it’s simply because Carnage is absolutely on point and therefore LIK deserve to be here, exclamation mark!
I like when death metal gets tricky and complex and technical – though that’s hardly what you’ll get from LIK. What I like even more is when death metal is not only brutal and wild and anarchic (though that’s what you’ll get a lot from LIK) but also catchy and memorable, and that’s where LIK stand out. Celebration Of The Twisted is pretty much my party anthem of the year (don’t party with me!), and many of the other songs join in there. The catchiness lies in the guitar riffs just as well as the vocals of Tomas Åkvik who surely sounds like he’s coming straight from the next grave but doesn’t have to take refuge in a lot of effects and distortion like some other vocalists, therefore his vocals are sharp and clear and especially the hooks, never using too many words, are always on point. (So it doesn’t hurt too much they forgot to print the lyrics on the inlay of the record… You get the idea anyway. Carnage. Slaughter. Death. Human flesh. Lovely stuff like that.) Within the straight and catchy backbone of the songs, LIK do their best to get as fast and chaotic as possible. Furious drums are chasing wild guitars, it’s a beautifully raw and violent pandemonium sometimes.
Even if Carnage isn’t LIK’s debut, they are another very young band on this list, as experienced as the members may be, and I hope we’ll hear a lot more from them in the future.
(copyright of all album artwork used here obviously belongs to the respective bands and their labels)