Top 10 hard rock/metal albums of 2018

Unholy cardinals, power vocals, raging battle cries, sludgy doom, and even the type of rock that requires being draped in multiple bohemian scarves: this list has it all, in no particular order, proving that, at least in 2018, rock music was far from dead.

Khemmis: Desolation
It shows a lot of optimism that Steel Druhm’s review of Desolation for Angry Metal Guy considers Khemmis “early in their career” when so many bands release a couple of albums and an EP and disappear. But it’s hard not to share that optimism about Khemmis: both of their previous albums found their way on to many year-end lists, showing off an enviable career trajectory that shows no signs of dipping. The band keeps it tight with six tracks, most stretching out anywhere from 6 to 9 minutes of oozing doom metal, like wet silt in slow motion. Moments of stereotypical cookie-monster growls can retard the album’s momentum (“Maw of Time“) but the album never loses its grounding in Ben Hutcherson’s soaring vocals. In Decibel Magazine, he attributes the band’s success to the healthy competition that ignites proverbial fires underneath simmering inspiration, separating the hobbyists from the die-hards. With this pattern of hard work, reflected in both the members’ personal and professional lives, it’s easy to get swept up in the hopes that this really is just the beginning, in the possibility that there could be work comparable to, or even surpassing, Hunted and this year’s Desolation; I trust the far-more knowledgeable Angry Metal Guys and look forward to hearing more great things from this band in the years to come.

Atreyu: In Our Wake
There’s only one reason to return to a band you had already written off as dead years ago, and that’s in the hopes that they are still capable of resurrecting the same passion they conjured at the beginning of their career. But Atreyu aren’t interested in nostalgia, and you have to respect their determination to move forward, rather than re-live glory days. In Our Wake sounds nothing like Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses or The Curse; it sounds, instead, like sonic alchemy, the perfect combination of Avenged Sevenfold (who make a brief appearance here) and old Killswitch Engage, an aggression mixed with melodic highs never short on a couple of trademark screams. Post-hardcore might seem like a sub genre with limits — those limits having been hunted in the mid 00s to extinction — but the most ambitious bands no longer scrape the barrels of stand-bys, instead incorporating the spiraling rise and falls of slick, Mutt Lange-era metal with intense riffs (and here an unfortunate caveat: the terrible lyrics to go with it). It’s probably too mainstream to gain any wider recognition in the world of hard rock, but Lange had no shortage of haters in the 80s either.

Ghost: Prequelle
The revelation of the identities of the erudite lead singer and former Not-So-Nameless Ghouls of Ghost through the latter’s legal dispute seems to have freed something in Tobias Forge, the mastermind behind “Circe” and “Square Hammer.” The stage is opulent, the costumes razor-sharp, and the music particularly laser-focused. While previous albums mostly relied on the Satanic shtick to conceal very universal human conditions (as James Poniewozik noted, “Religion makes great material for horror stories”), Prequelle has a very personal resonance masquerading under the larger umbrella-concept of The Black Plague. This concept can be read as the story of Forge’s betrayal by those in whom he placed a lot of trust, from the album’s lead single “Rats,” (disease-carrying, and human-variety) to “Faith” (not specifically ecumenical trust), all the way down to “Pro Memoria”‘s promise of otherworldly vengeance, an ashes-to-ashes promise that comes for us all. Along the way, we get catchy hooks and giant choruses that evoke everything from disco (“Dance Macabre“) to jazzy saxophones (“Miasma”), wrapped in the band’s signature riffs and guitar solos. It’s their poppiest, most accomplished album to date, one that pays close attention to visuals and storytelling, and rewards repeated listens. The genius of Ghost was never the secrecy, though it did parallel a certain sensual mystery to a religion historically obsessed with such opulence, but the very real man behind the music who is finally reaching the full glory of his potential, and the recognition that comes with it.

Caravane: Supernova
Ever since Kent, Sweden’s greatest band, announced they were breaking up, there’s been a hole where all the best moody, electronic-influenced rock music used to reside. Judging by their last couple of albums, nobody would have guessed that Canadian rockers Caravane were capable of carrying the torch, but Supernova proves that the band is still on a quest to find their perfect sound. Unlike the more sedate Fuego or Chien Noir, Supernova is as big as its name implies: for the first time Caravane releases all the drama and passion absent on their earlier efforts. Huge, sublime numbers like “Karma,” capture rage without sacrificing the kind of cool that makes it all seem effortless, while the near-perfect “Hong Kong” blends it all with the melancholy sheen of the album’s slower moments. Discovery is around any corner, and Caravane sound like they finally stumbled upon the most important one they’ve been looking for: purpose.

Brainstorm: Midnight Ghost
Normally, a band that’s been around for eighteen years won’t have many rabbits left in their hat, but every once in a while, that axiom gets blown to pieces. While Brainstorm’s twelfth album Midnight Ghost doesn’t break any new ground, this German metal band gamely sing for their supper in a concise crash course in Metal, blazing through big tracks as reliable as they are heavy. Album standout “Jeanne Boulet (1764)” captures the essence of this band at their best: storytellers with a penchant for those Iron Maiden tales, funneling something novel into what would otherwise be nothing more than rote homage. It doesn’t get any more classic than this.

Visigoth: Conqeuror’s Oath
Power metal now has such a long, storied history, that it seems almost impossible to wring anything new out of the genre. But all of the clashing swords and medieval castles are just window-dressing on Visigoth’s new album Conqueror’s Oath. A true power metal album preoccupied with sorcery and adventure, the album’s opener “Steel and Silver” sets the tone with brisk guitar licks and dynamic vocals gliding over drum beats marching you straight to war. It’s the geekiest album on this list, but its dedication to capturing the authentic spirit of what Steel Druhm at Angry Metal Guy calls “olde timey metal magic” is unequal. Not bad for a band that hails not from the frosty, medieval hills of Eastern Europe, but a little town nicknamed The Beehive State.

Michael Romeo: War of the Worlds, Pt. 1
All things in moderation is sound advice, up to a point, but if Romeo had taken those words to heart, we never would have gotten War of the Worlds, Pt. 1, this year’s finest melding of metal and symphony. The album is the incendiary follow-up to 1994’s The Dark Chapter, and is propelled by Romeo’s singular brand of excess; heavy, fast, and perpetually accelerating, the album exploits every instrument in its arsenal, not the least of which is its orchestral elements ripped from the heads of stated influences John Williams and Bernard Hermann, and guitar solos that rip through songs with the speed and choreography of a big-budget action flick. The follow up, War of the Worlds Pt. 2, is already long-awaited and if even half as good, is expected to blow out eardrums in a set of headphones near you.

The Amity Affliction: Misery
Over time, some genres end up sounding more dated than others. Post-hardcore/metalcore can be one of those genres, perhaps because it still lives in enough embarrassing collective memories of the years your bangs covered half your face and wearing a button-down with the collar popped out beneath a T-shirt was a great look. The Amity Affliction doesn’t have time to wait long enough for these memories to become wistful, rather than cringe-worthy, and so they soldier on, unleashing their inner Hawthorne Heights like they did from the very beginning. And despite all of the odds, it works beautifully. The band really excels at teasing out all of the genre’s strongest elements, from the exclamation point of chugging growls to the quiet declarative verses, like “Burn Alive,” or the album’s title track “Misery,” which bounces expertly back and forth between the two. It’s like 2007 all over again, but it feels so good.

Thundermother: Thundermother
With Greta Van Fleet causing a commotion in the world of classic rock, it’s easy to overlook Sweden’s bumper crop of classic-rock revivalists. The country has been hard at work churning out a roster of Thin Lizzy/AC/DC sound-alikes to the tune of Honeymoon Disease, Travelin Jack, Hallas, and Spiders. But the best of these this year is Thundermother’s self-titled album, a brash, energetic distillation of this updated sound. The group sounds less like a parody than a band enjoying the heck out of their favorite type of music. There’s no shortage of this type of sound (really, there’s no shortage of any type of sound anymore, if you look hard enough), but Thundermother make themselves easy to spot among the long-haired, vest-wearing, scarf-trailing stadium crowd.

Greta Van Fleet: Anthem of the Peaceful Army
No rock debut has been as divisive this year as Greta Van Fleet’s Anthem of the Peaceful Army. Pitchfork opens its review with this damning lead: “Greta Van Fleet sound like they did weed exactly once, called the cops, and tried to record a Led Zeppelin album before they arrested themselves.” Rolling Stone acknowledges the band’s shortcomings (though they seem to save the most pointed vitriol for the members’ ages), but admits that “there’s also a charm to their guileless, retro-fetishist conviction. And dudes have chops,” in the very definition of a back-handed compliment. While RS’s review wants to be more forgiving, both illustrate the problem with the gate-keeping impulse of “true” music fans, the kind who have forgotten how to enjoy anything remotely commercial and not oozing authenticity. It’s not surprising, but it’s disappointing. Mostly, I think people hate Greta Van Fleet because they look like they’re trying a little too hard in the wardrobe department, as if the only thing Led Zeppelin ever cared about was the music, man. It’s a shame because this album is a fun tribute, with fiery vocals and propulsive drive, and if it all feels just a little too derivative, well, it’s not like the band is pretending otherwise. That’s more than anyone can say for publications trafficking in a deluge of tobacco and pop star-endorsing ads while claiming to hold the higher ground.

Honorable Mentions

Rising: Sword and Scythe
Satan: Cruel Magic
Crying Steel: Stay Steel
Spiders: Killer Machine
Amorphis: Queen of Time

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Some luck, but mostly effort: The anomaly and allure of BABYMETAL

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Marty Friedman was both right and wrong: J-pop idols are pretty amazing, and he emphasized this point when he enthused that “all the stuff I introduced to you from Japan is going to make it outside of Japan, and soon. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. I’m talking this year, or next year something is going to explode because this stuff is too good.” Four years later, we’re seeing a tiny, almost barely-perceptible fissure in the musical landscape. Perfume is successfully touring Europe and North America, adding major cities to their stops over time, while metal idols BABYMETAL are catering to both the LOLJapan crowd, and prurient hipsters, ever on the prowl for the new and different. The latter is nowhere more telling then their appearance in the entertainment issue of this week’s New Yorker, buried in the back in the teenage tastemakers article, Teenage Dream, by Matthew Trammell.

“Teen-agers with their serial rebellions, romantic infatuations, and unabashed experimentalism, have proved to be adept at reworking pop’s core provocations. Technology, meanwhile, has made it easy for teens to inject their aesthetics into the mainstream, with or without the guiding hand of managers and record labels.” (70)

newyorkerappThat last point is a stretch, and none of the artists briefly profiled could be considered to have gained “mainstream” success (Rappers Novelist and Kodak Black, piano prodigy Joey Alexander, popster Låpsley, etc.), but the New Yorker wouldn’t be the New Yorker if it didn’t purport to being on the absolute up-and-up. As in TIME‘s special Fall 2001 issue, which featured Hikaru Utada, (notably, she was working on her American debut with Foxy Brown and the Neptunes and planning to retire very young, around 28, probably to become a neuroscientist), articles like these tend to be peak Western exposure for said artists, rather than the beginning of a phenomenon, though BABYMETAL does get relatively considerable space. Writes Trammell,

“Though the songs are addictive, Babymetal’s sharpest asset is its singular combination of J-pop’s theatrical pageantry and metal’s primal sprint. Adherents of each genre are becoming fans: Babymetal has enjoyed huge success in Japan, and its fame is growing in the United States and in London. […] Babymetal’s act, like much of the best pop, is at once recognizable and profoundly new.” (78)

This is a singularly Western explanation; in fact, for fans of J-pop, young teenage girls dancing and singing in a genre they never heard of, or downright dislike, is nothing new, and has been done, often, if not, arguably, better, by Japanese idol groups before them. The “profoundly new” angle is only new to American pop, where metal remains the domain of a largely male demographic. This, too, was true in Japan, until a meeting of the minds pinpointed a great way to sell idols units to otaku male audiences (the, ahem, most important, ones) and their skeptical friends even quicker: by making young female idols the mouthpieces of a traditionally “masculine” genre, they created the jarring allure and unexplored juxtaposition of teenage girls belting out aggressive metal songs, and lured fans’ wallets with something they could enthuse about publicly. This opened the idol business to even more mainstream revenue: suddenly it was just a little less unseemly for young and older men alike to collect posters and photo cards, attend handshake events, and attend concerts to see their idols because the music wasn’t soft rock or bubblegum pop: it was heavy and authentic and respectable and composed by real virtuosos of the genre with immeasurable skill and talent. While the genre (here, idol pop as an all-encompassing umbrella term) has always had both male and female fans, the female fans tend to be outliers: female idols, especially those who are front women for increasingly edgier hard rock or metal music, are first and foremost catered to a male audience, most especially an older male audience, who has the buying power to keep up with the sale of related merchandise. Female fans are the superfluous extra perks, a welcome byproduct, but hardly the target, which is why you get a lot of lyrical content that is usually either a) specific to men’s interests, especially, as the market saturates, super-niche interests — see Momoiro Clover Z — or b) specific to what boys and men think girls think, talk, and daydream about.

There are very few actual female idol groups marketed to girls and women, and most of them aren’t pure idols, skirting the broader definitions that prefer terms like girl group, or dance group, like E-girls or Fairies. Female fans are steered in the direction of Johnny’s idols, where young boys and men release softer, more heartfelt, treacly pop music, the type women are typically assumed to like: photoshoots present male idols as nonthreatening, cute, and cuddly, and their singles and albums reinforce this. While a crop of new K-pop-imitators like Da-iCE and Choshinsei, are struggling to redefine the preconceived notions of idol boy bands, they are still the exception, outnumbered by their best-selling rivals. Even groups like EXILE, KAT-TUN, and lately NEWS, lean toward heavy dancepop at its most aggressive; another genre traditionally undervalued in the critical world.

babymetaltrivappIn many ways this is a sign of the outrageous gender binaries that comprise the marketing and distribution of Japanese idols; for purposes of the music itself, it also reinforces the notion that genres that comprise huge male audiences (hard rock, metal) can be deemed authentic and worthy of critical attention, while those that women enjoy are considered fluff that no one would ever take seriously. Under that idea, it’s hardly surprising that a group like BABYMETAL could make it in the circles of certain American subcultures, and less so that articles in the Western media feel the need to justify their interest in the group by constantly reminding readers that their material was written by veterans of the metal genre (Nobuki Narasaki, Herman Li, Sam Totman, Takeshi Ueda, etc.), or that the girls themselves are influenced, or appreciated by, everybody from the members of Metallica to Slayer. There are few that don’t, and in many ways, these men serve to legitimize their existence. Under these caveats, it’s hard to imagine an equivalent Japanese male group/boy band (who don’t write their own music or play instruments) could make it stateside, not even if like Jimi Hendrix came back from the dead to write an album for them. Because it seems to be acceptable, if not preferable, for women to be mostly muses and good-looking faces for the music, a group like Perfume can get a lot of critical praise because of their music producer Yasutaka Nakata, but it rarely goes the other way for boy bands, who can’t seem to catch a break unless they’re more in control of their music and image, for example G-Dragon of K-pop group BIG BANG.

Setting aside the gender breakdown of the critical music sphere for a second, any writer putting together an article about BABYMETAL deserves applause, since nothing gives away their idol-ness more than an interview, where stock quips and rehearsed nothings are the order of the day. Says Moa Kikuchi, when asked about the international reach of their fans, “Everyone loves music. I think music is the common language of the world. Music is a wonderful connection for all people – it brings people together.” These are hardly the insights of seasoned performers, though it speaks to their unique perspective, both as teenagers and Japanese teens, which they are very quick to take pride in (Yui Mizuno: “BABYMETAL music is a blend of hard music and metal music with Japanese pop and sounds. If we were not from Japan, we’d be a totally different band with totally different fans”).

artravebabvy2While Marty Friedman believed that Japanese pop music would only reach an audience outside Japan “with luck” and “timing,” and other factors that couldn’t be planned, BABYMETAL, has been a slow, methodical climb to relevance, not least of which included shows in Paris, New York, and the UK, and opening for Lady Gaga’s ArtRave: The Artpop Ball tour starting back in 2014. Noisey did a brief introduction back in the same year, while Jake Cleland at Pitchfork picked “Gimme Choco!!” as one of his favorite tracks of 2010-2014. All said and done, BABYMETAL, originally conceived of as a subunit of uber-traditional idol group Sakura Gakuin, has done well for itself, and not just because of luck and timing.

In fact, idol groups like BABYMETAL flourish in Japan, many of them far superior to the group, who are getting the attention and accolades that many Japanese idols simply don’t care about, or can’t be bothered with. PASSPO☆, in particular, has some of the highest quality, and variety, of hard rock and metal on their albums, especially on the legendary One World, and last year’s Beef or Chicken? Other examples include BAND-MAID, Momoiro Clover Z, and BiSH, all bands that might be considered too niche to crossover in America (it would surely involve a lot of context and explanation).

stephenbabyappThat being said, in rare cases the music can transcend context, as BABYMETAL’s fantastic new album, METAL RESISTANCE, does. There are some truly epic and astounding risks the album takes and pulls off, particularly with lead tracks “KARATE” and the mostly-instrumental “From Dusk Till’ Dawn.” As Ryotaro Aoki points out in his review, the album has “more nods to 1980s hair metal and symphonic metal, which are perhaps more suited for mixing with J-pop than metal’s edgier subgenres” and fulfills “the crux of idol music; they know what you like, and they can convincingly make it exactly the way you like it.” It will be interesting to see how long BABYMETAL can sustain their novelty act in a country where trends come and go, Japanese pop culture is not often taken seriously, and the majority reaction is still more laugh-at-them than laugh-with-them (to be fair, homegrown girl groups aren’t having it much easier, even as they look to edgy K-pop for inspiration, but Fifth Harmony and Little Mix, bless their souls, are trying). While seeing the girls on Stephen Colbert was pretty exciting, simply appearing on late night portends nothing; just ask Girls’ Generation. The goal is always that music from other parts of the world can be appreciated and enjoyed for what it is and what it’s trying to do, rather than fit a predetermined, acceptable mold, regardless of which audience it’s attracting and why, and at least in that sense, BABYMETAL are chipping away at America’s icy heart proudly, and on their own terms.

(Photo credit.)