As we approach the halfway mark in 2015, these six months have been incredibly memorable. Before I get to the music itself, there is the issue of where we are, or more specifically, where I am. The beginning of this year marked my departure, after three years, from Bloody Good Horror. That has led to this site, which has continued the same work, but with more freedom to follow my creative wanderlust wherever it might end up. It has been an interesting turn of events, and one that I didn't see coming. While I may not have the audience I once did, what I have now is the ability to do exactly what I want as a music journalist. That level of freedom has been welcome, and has already led to some finds I would not have otherwise been able to cover. So there is much to appreciate about this situation, and more still to figure out as I develop the vision for this site.
Musically, this year has also been interesting. Coming off of what I considered the best year since I became a music fan, 2015 had a high bar to reach, and it has done an admirable job of continuing the trend towards there being more and more great music to listen to. Already, in these six months, I have encountered a plethora of records that have impressed me with their ambition and execution, that have made an impact on me by staying fresh long after I first hit the play button. For the sake of brevity, I won't write about all of them, but the list of quality albums includes the likes of Sleater-Kinney, Orden Ogan, Revolution Saints, Ascendia, Dendera, Vermillion Road, and more.
It's too early to compare the strengths of this year's top albums to those from last year, but if the second half of the year continues at this pace, there is plenty of reason to believe that we are looking at another fantastic year, and a year-end list filled with plenty of agonizing choices.
Let's get on with it.
Halestorm - Into The Wild Life
Halestorm's previous album shared the crown for Album Of The Year in 2012, so my expectations were quite high for this one. It's not that "Into The Wild Life" is a bad record, but what it does is highlight the weakest aspects of Halestorm, at the expense of what made them special. The pop overtones that let them cross over is gone, replaced with harder rocking songs that highlight how dull their instrumental play is. With less hooks, and more times where Lzzy's vocals are buried, Halestorm is playing the part of a generic rock band, when they were previously a band that could fuse rock and pop to perfection.
Steven Wilson - Hand.Cannot.Erase
This album is being roundly hailed as a masterpiece, but I can't agree with the sentiment. It is an ambitious piece of work, and the package is meticulously put together. But what the album is lacking is heart. The story is one of human disconnection, and that comes through too strongly in the music, to the point where it seems to lack any humanity at all. It's too perfect, too mechanical, and ultimately feels too much like a piece of art.
Neal Morse Band - The Grand Experiment
I am a huge Neal Morse fan, including giving him the top two spots on last year's year-end list. This new album, however, is not hitting me the same way. It's a good record, for sure, but the band approach has taken away large chunks of Neal's personality, which is why I listen to his music. No offense to the other members of the band, who are talented, but every time their voices take over the lead vocals (and the copious amounts of effects try to make them sound better), I can't stop thinking it would have been better had Neal done it all himself, like usual. This album just doesn't stick with me, which is something I haven't said about a Neal Morse album before.
Blues Traveler - Blow Up The Moon
I never know quite what to expect from a Blues Traveler album, and they surprised me again. This time, they have made a pure modern pop album, in concert with a group of collaborators who appear on every track. It's an interesting concept, and there are songs where the pairings work incredibly well, giving the tracks dimensions that Blues Traveler would not have achieved on their own. On the other hand, the more guest singers there are, the greater the chances that you won't like one of several of them, not to mention that the album is incapable of cohesion. It's interesting, and has a couple fantastic singles, but I'm not sure what to think of it as an album.
Art Of Anarchy - S/T
An album with Scott Weiland at this point in his career, and the guitarist who replaced Buckethead in Guns N' Roses, has no right being any good. And yet, listening to Art Or Anarchy's debut album, I can't help but get sucked in. Weiland's charisma comes through more here than anytime since his Stone Temple Pilots days, and the music itself has just enough simple groove to drill down into your head. It's not great art, but it's a far better record than I ever would have expected from names that I don't look to for entertainment. And if I didn't think it fit this category, it would easily be placed in the following one.
The Great Albums:
Nightingale - Retribution
Coming out of the gate, the first record I heard this year was a great one. Nightingale is about as uncool as a rock band can be, but they make some of the most addictive melodic rock around. Just when I thought they had hit their peak with their previous record, they come back from a long hiatus with one that blows everything they've ever done out of the water. This record is practically flawless, and features some of the best vocals in the business. Bonus; the special edition of the record comes with a dynamic mix, which is absolutely INCREDIBLE. It changes how you hear music, it's that good.
Karnataka - Secrets Of Angels
Coming out of nowhere, Karnataka was a band whose name I heard in passing. After checking out the samples for the album, I got in touch with the band, and they sent me a giant shock of an album. "Secrets Of Angels" is the kind of orchestral, theatrical rock music that normally gets swept up as derivative of Nightwish. But having heard this right after that band's newest work, it's clear who is following and who is leading. "Secrets Of Angels" is a phenomenal record, and Hayley Griffiths sells the living hell out of these songs. There are giant hooks and melodies everywhere, giving these dramatic songs heart.
UFO - A Conspiracy Of Stars
UFO is often called the most underrated rock band of all time, which is a lie, because most of their career is nowhere near as good as people imagine it to be. They're a good band, but that's about it. This album, coming off a string of mediocre outings, changes that. There's more depth to the musical backdrop, and Phil Mogg sounds more inspired than he has since making his fantastic solo album. I didn't think UFO was capable of making great rock music anymore, but they proved me wrong by making what I would consider the best album of their career.
House Of Lords - Indestructible
One thing I have discovered this year is that I am still a sucker for softer rock, the kind that doesn't stand a chance of ever being popular again. House Of Lords is one of those bands, playing 80s style rock, but with far more passion than anything Journey has done since 1985. This album is my first exposure to the band in several cycles, but they just keep getting better. From top to bottom, they crank out a set of slick, catchy rock songs that will stick in your head after a single listen.
Europe - War Of Kings
Of all the unexpected things, how about a Europe album that sounds like a long lost Deep Purple record? That's what this is, and I have to say that it is incredibly awesome. Europe strips their sound down to their influences, slathers on a huge amount of Hammond organs, and cranks out a set of memorable songs. If all you know is "The Final Countdown", this album will shock you. If Deep Purple were to put this out tomorrow, it would be hailed as their best record since the last time Blackmore left them. Talk about a surprise.
Lunden Reign - American Stranger
This was an album I took a chance on after reading the press release, and boy am I glad I did. Coming straight out of the Heart school, the two women driving Lunden Reign know how to rock. This is a concept album, but it never gets bogged down by that fact. For a debut record, this is a refreshingly polished songwriting effort, with plenty of great guitar moments, an old-school rock spirit, and vocals you'll find yourself singing along to. It's a corker of a record.
The Leader In The Clubhouse:
Jorn Lande & Trond Holter - Dracula: Swing Of Death
At the halfway mark, the gap between this and every other record keeps growing wider. Jorn has always been a singular talent as a singer, but he has finally managed to give himself material worthy of his voice. The concept of the record is a bit ridiculous, telling the story of Dracula, and the execution is cheesier than hell, but this record is by far the most fun I've had listening to music in ages. There is something about the gusto Jorn brings to the roll, even in its most absurd moments, that is endearing. And cap that off with songs that are theatrical, dramatic, and damn near unforgettable, and you have the best album so far this year.
Don't take that as a foregone conclusion that it will reign as Album Of The Year come December. There are still records on tap for the second half of this year that have the potential to make a run at the crown. That list would include:
One of my favorite artists of all time is supposed to be back with a new album that is due to feature a selection of Jim Steinman tracks for the first time in many years. Knowing that his career is winding down, I'm hoping that Meat has it in him to craft one last classic.
One of the biggest surprises last year was Incura's debut, which was a theatrical rock album that caught me off-guard with its unique fusion of pop, rock, and Broadway. The band is due to release a new record in the fall, and I for one can't wait to see what tricks they have up their sleeves this time.
The most promising young band in progressive metal has hinted that a new full-length is coming by the end of the year. Their debut was a favorite of mine, and their EP was even better. I said when I reviewed it that if it had been a full-length, it would have likely claimed one of the top two spots on my list. That's what I'm expecting from this new record when it comes out. No one has more potential than Bad Salad.
Just announced is that Iron Maiden will be returning with a brand new album in September. I am one of those people who is an unabashed fan of the style they have taken up since the reunion, and I'm excited to hear what they come up with now. It promises to be their most epic album yet, with their longest ever track, and being their first double album. I'm a bit worried about the sheer volume of music it will be offering up, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
But the record I'm most looking forward to in the second half of the year is the just announced release from Graveyard. "Lights Out" shared the Album Of The Year title, and there's no reason to think that Graveyard can't do it again. They have been getting better with every record, and with three years to write and cull material, I'm expecting nothing short of another modern classic. If Graveyard isn't fighting for a high spot at the end of the year, I would be shocked.
And with that, let's get back to uncovering new music.