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AOTY Frontrunners

It’s about halfway through the year, and you know what that means – we’ve only got half a year left to get new album of the year candidates. There have been some surprises so far this year, both good and bad. We saw a return to form by a few bands, and a fall from grace from others. Here are the five best albums at the halfway point of the year:

Rhapsody the Frozen Tears of Angels

First up, Rhapsody of Fire with The Frozen Tears of Angels. Known as a band who always puts out solid symphonic power metal albums, it’s hard to really step your game up beyond “really good” after seven albums, but somehow Rhapsody of Fire have found a way to do so. In somewhat stereotypical fashion, the album starts off with an ominously narrated intro track, but then Luca Turilli’s fingers catch fire, and he plays the most furious and blistering guitar riffs I’ve ever heard from Rhapsody of Fire. The rest of the band follow suit, delivering what is easily the band’s best performance since Dawn of Victory.

High on Fire Snakes for the Divine

Next is the latest gem from Matt Pike, High on Fire‘s Snakes for the Divine. A bit of a change from the band’s last release, Death is This Communion, the band has delivered yet another record very much their own style and very obviously a solid record. All of the instruments, including Matt Pike’s voice, are as grimey as ever – but at least now it doesn’t sound like they were recorded in a garage. The problem about the production is that it’s a very acquired, but fitting, taste for the music. The whole album sounds very dense, and there isn’t much breathing room between instruments. Snakes for the Divine definitely shows more of Matt Pike’s influence from his days in Sleep, most notably in the slower sludge sections of “Bastard Samurai.”

Overkill Ironbound

Third we have an album that is a godsend in the modern thrash times, a return to form of one of the oldest thrash bands still around, Overkill‘s Ironbound. In recent years, Overkill had put out a number of mediocre thrash albums, and many fans were ready to put them out to pasture. Overkill have definitely quieted the critics with what is their best album in nearly two decades. Finally back to being a real thrash band and playing what they know best, Ironbound is a loud, fast, angry, and pure thrash album that is best listened to at ear-splitting volumes while giving yourself voluntary whiplash from headbanging.

White Wizzard Over The Top

There’s a lot to be said about our next album, but most importantly, you should know that it isn’t actually from the 1980’s. White Wizzard‘s Over the Top is often criticized for its obvious Judas Priest and Iron Maiden influences, something that detracts from the talent of the band. It’s not as if White Wizzard are a crappy cover band, they’re just a band that really loves New Wave of British Heavy Metal and do it well, even if they are a couple decades late to the party. How can you argue with a band that writes lyrics like: “You’re gonna make it, you’ve got the fire, flames of your destiny, burning with desire. You’ve got the dreams, you’re burning higher. On wings wings of steel you fly to heights that will inspire!” (taken from “Over The Top”)?

Fear Factory Mechanize

The fifth album on this list is from a band I thought had thrown in the towel a few years ago, but have returned to deliver the best album of their entire career. Perhaps it’s just the “Gene Hoglan gene” that makes any band with him on drums sound awesome, but either way, it sure is nice to know that Fear Factory‘s Mechanize is a killer album. It takes the old school aggressive and raw sound of Fear Factory combined with the newer sound from albums like Archetype with big drawn-out clean vocal sections. If you ever heard Fear Factory and though “Hey, this isn’t too bad” you will most likely love Mechanize, as it takes everything Fear Factory ever did right, and steps it up a notch.

Surprisingly, there were some great metal bands that put out unenthusiastic and sub-par albums this year, including Arsis, Gamma Ray, and Heaven Shall Burn. The second half of 2010 looks quite promising with new albums from Blind Guardian, Whitechapel, The Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza, Iron Maiden, and many more all on the horozon.

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Metallica – Master of Puppets [Retrospective]

Master of Puppets, Metallica. Just thinking of this album is metal. Master of Puppets is arguably the most famous and influential metal albums of the 80’s (and all time). Sure, there was Reign in Blood, Number of the Beast, Operation: Mindcrime and others, but none of those albums were comprised entirely of iconic songs, nor are they as easily heard throughout modern metal music.

Metallica Master of Puppets album cover

When you think of the big four in Thrash metal, each band really has their magnum opus, all of which are legendary in the metal community. For those uneducated in the lore of metal, the big four in thrash are/were: Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer, and Metallica. Among The Living, Rust in Peace, Reign in Blood, and Master of Puppets are the bands’ best albums (respectively). All undeniably great albums, but none with quite as much clout and following as Master of Puppets. None of the other albums are as complete, either. Longer songs, bigger solos, more memorable hooks and riffs, better production, and just as pissed off.

The best (and perhaps most ironic) part about Master of Puppets is that the three best songs on the album were co-written Cliff Burton. This is unsurprising if you know about Burton’s history, and how he helped James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett how to theorize and harmonize. As Hetfield says, “without Cliff, we wouldn’t be where we are today.” Beyond the songs co-written by Burton, each songs brings a lot of technical prowess and songwriting ability to the album. One of Metallica’s most popular songs, “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” perhaps is a prime example of this. “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” has a unique song structure, beautiful (and skillful) solos, and among the greatest metal guitar tones ever used. The thing is, every song has most of these elements, showcasing them in a different manner every time – making for an extremely fresh and interesting listen no matter how many times you do so.

A must-have for every good metal collection, and a must-hear for anyone who wants to like metal, Master of Puppets is nothing short of iconic. It is Thrash metal, and then so much more. Unlike the the other bands in the big four, Metallica (and this album especially) have the ability to appeal to metalheads of every type and age.

Track picks: All of them, fool.

Overall score: 11/10 devil horns

HammerFall – No Sacrifice, No Victory [Review]

No Sacrifice, No Victory is the seventh studio full-length from Swedish heavy metal band HammerFall. Set to be released February 20, 2009 on Nuclear Blast records.

hammerfall no sacrifice no victory cd album cover art

This album is another one I have been waiting on for quite some time, with high hopes that it would be another great release from HammerFall. Sadly, it did not live up to expectations. No Sacrifice, No Victory, huh? Well, maybe they should not have followed that mantra and parted ways with their old lead guitarist. That’s the only thing that the band has changed since their last album, but have somehow fallen very far into the depths of mediocrity that are modern heavy/power metal.

While the album is technically good, and has great productions values, the songwriting is not there — nor is the fire, passion and attitude that heavy metal needs to bring to the table. The first three tracks on the album (“Any Means Necessary”, “Life is Now”, and “Punish and Enslave” respectively) are an utter bore-fest. The songwriting is bland, the guitar solos are routine, and there seems to be no passion in the vocals. With moderate tempos and simple songwriting, the spot you absolutely need to excel in would be the sheer power of your sound, which HammerFall simply missed the memo for on this album. The first track with any balls at all is “Legion” – and even then the song is not all that great.

The first part of the album where I found myself interested was the organ piece in the beginning of “Between Two Worlds” – then as soon as the guitar chimed in I was instantly turned off. It sounds as though the guitar was recorded in a tin can, and is difficult to listen to. All the other elements to the song are over loaded with reverb and echo, and as a whole the song is a production mess.

“Hallowed Be My Name” (no, not a Maiden rip-off, though I wish it was) is yet another boring song, that happens to have a really nice solo in it. Usually, in slow heavy metal songs, a great solo can save you — not this time. The first good song on the album is “Something for the Ages” which, sadly, appears seven songs into the album. Oddly, this song has the least vocal presence of all the songs on the album (none, to be exact). Do I sense a trend here? Of course. Simply put, the vocals really hurt this album a lot. They are dry, boring, and without power or attitude. For a heavy metal album, this simply cannot do. If all the songs on the album had vocals like the title track, “No Sacrifice, No Victory” this might not be a problem.

The last three songs on the album are actually excellent, in almost all respects (this does not include the Knack cover, “My Sharona”). Sadly, the first 3/4 of the album was such a bore-fest, it doesn’t matter what the last songs were, they could not make this album good.

As I said before, most of this album is boring, dry, and uninspiring. While not difficult to listen to, I might not ever feel the need to put this album on — other HammerFall albums will quench your heavy metal thirst in a much better way. Now, before you all start yelling and screaming, I’m not saying the vocals are bad at any point, they just aren’t big, ass-kicking, and awesome as HammerFall (and heavy metal) vocals should be. After a couple listens, it grew on me, but still is nothing spectacular.

Track picks: “Something for the Ages”, and “Bring the Hammer Down”

Overall score: 6 out of 10 devil horns

In case you were wondering, they did to a pretty awesome rendition of “My Sharona” — why exactly is way beyond me…