Via YourLastRites : "First and foremost, welcome to List Season—that time of year when people with obsessive compulsive tendencies labor over ranking the year’s albums to the point of utter and complete brain collapse. As an aside, I hope all participants realize that leaving that one particular release just out of your top 20 could have deadly ramifications leading to future generations of your personal lineage looking back on this moment as a karmic trigger that sparked multiple lifetimes of unfailing hardship and squalor. BEWARE.
As is customary, we kick off Last Rites’ List Season with a comprehensive look back at the year’s best power and prog / power releases. We do it this way because an angel of mercy bade us to do so by means of a series of golden tablets revealed unto me upon completion of a lengthy and difficult spiritual sojourn in the wilderness*. * I got drunk at a Blind Guardian show, slept it off in a ditch, then woke up to an angry squirrel barking in my ear. Once again, it’s worth noting that this is a personal list, and not one cobbled together with the help of my fellow Last Riters. The handful of others on staff who dig power metal mostly, ahem, “cheered me on” from the sidelines while basting in the sun on the annual two-week Last Rites company excursion to Bali. I, on the other hand, spent the better part of the last month or so in a fairly constant “review, revise and trim” mode in order to get a preposterous list of 110 contenders down to a tidy 20. The things we do for love…
Something that quickly became clear during my lengthy overhaul of applicants: power metal and its relations had another good year in 2019. A number of big name bands dropped big albums deserving of praise, but it was the lesser-known or newer acts that once again did the thing that most needed to be done in order to wriggle through and into the top 20.
If forced to highlight one key trend that dominated the overall direction of the strongest releases in the scene this year, it would be the same trend that seemed to push ALL of metal’s top releases in 2019: a strong presence of prog / progression / progressive [subgenre]. It’s very truly never been a better time to be a prog nerd, and as has been the case since day one, progressive elements fit into the power equation seamlessly and splendidly, particularly when it comes to bands with a prevailing symphonic element. Right, enough with the bush-beating. Thanks for staying with us for another year, and keep your eyes peeled for more heavy list action as the week continues, including favorite art, top EPs & demos, and the collective staff list THIS FRIDAY. Individual staffer lists will begin in precisely seven days.
20. Holy Tide – Aquila
You gotta love it when a new band drops into the game from seemingly out of nowhere and delivers a debut with the strength to grab you right from the jump. Aquila features great flow, interesting use of progressive and symphonic elements (love that trumpet in “Curse and Ecstasy”), and it fittingly spotlights a polished vocalist who sounds a bit like the distant cousin of Nicholas Leptos (Warlord, Arrayan Path, Astronomicon). The biggest drawback is that the record is just too damn long (over an hour) and sometimes feels like it needs a kick in the pants. Quibbles aside, most any fan of epic, engaging power that’s unafraid to dip into progressive and symphonic elements should find plenty to love inside Holy Tide’s debut. Endnote: Aquila features the drumming talent of Magic Kingdom’s Michael Brush. Also, epic frigging eagle alert.
19. Lord – Fallen Idols
Lord Tim (Tim Ian Grose) has been around. If the name ain’t familiar, you probably aren’t aware of his previous bands Ilium or the very consistent Dungeon, which isn’t terribly surprising, as both were underground power metal acts surviving during a time when power metal was a hundred miles away from being the flavor of the month. In the years since, His Lordship has been fronting the incredibly aptly titled Lord, and Fallen Idols, full-length number six, is the first brand new material the band has dropped since 2013’s Digital Lies. And hey, what better way to catch people’s attention after a lengthy pause than hitting them in the face with an incredible album cover. A four-eyed fire beast annihilating everything from an Oscar to the Holy Grail begs entrance here, thanks to the artistic touch of Felipe Machado (Blind Guardian, Brainstorm, Iced Earth, Iron Savior, and countless other covers). Once inside, the listener will be rewarded with an hour’s worth of crunchy, aggressive power metal that throws deliberate nods to hard rock and AOR.
18. Great Master – Skull and Bones – Tales from Over the Seas
If you’re like me—and I hope you’re not, because I am absolutely terrible—then the only things currently keeping you from a life of piracy on the open sea include, 1) unbridled seasickness that paints everything within 20 feet in resplendent hurl, and 2) the fact that pirates in the modern age don’t appear to lead as romantic a life as they did in the 1700s. Luckily, we can still dream the Dread Pirate Laurence de Longparrot’s dreams through the glory of power metal, which is clearly what’s on tap with album number four from Italy’s Great Master. The music here is fairly stripped and of course emphasizes the typical sing-song swill-swinging you’d expect from pirate metal, but the leads are quite fun and vocalist Stefano “Stex” Sbringnadello has the sort of absurdly soaring and dramatic voice that makes it seem possible that he’s in character 24/7. Sure, it’s a little on the nose and awkward at times with lyrics like “Long John Silver, fearless / He will kill with only one leg” blaring from your speakers, but no one will even notice because you inadvertently put on your pirate blouse backwards.
17. The Ferrymen – A New Evil
The three members responsible for The Ferrymen count an astounding 49 bands on their collective resume. Drummer Mike Terrana made a name for himself in Rage, Axel Rudi Pell and Masterplan, and he currently shares time with the long-running Vision Divine; guitarist (bassist and keyboardist) Magnus Karlsson is best known for shredding in Primal Fear; and vocalist Ronnie Romero—who sounds like a raspier Jorn Lande—made his biggest headline by landing the job as the current voice for (gasp) Rainbow. That sort of pedigree demands attention, and this sophomore effort thankfully does precisely what a second album is intended to do: improve on the debut, and do it well enough to land some acclaim. A New Evil is straightforward, punchy power metal that’s heavy on elegant / frequently blistering leads, and Ronnie Romero hands in his customarily excellent vocal performance. Even the ballads manage to pack a punch.
16. Narnia – From Darkness to Light
First of all, shut up. That’s for anyone out there who feels the need to laugh about seeing a band totally enamored with Jesus land in the ranks. People love Jesus, people love the Devil, people love pickle ice cream—big whoop. However, if you’re the type who’d rather lose a finger than be caught cranking lyrics dealing with the armor of God, now’s the time to scoot on to the next entry. Unfortunately for you, you’ll be missing out on one of the catchiest power metal entries of the year in From Darkness to Light, album number eight from Sweden’s abiding Narnia. New records are fewer and further between these days for Christ’s most melodic defenders, but over two decades of experience generally means you’ll likely get something that’ll inspire hallelujahs once they finally land, and that’s certainly the case here. If an impossibly infectious song like “MNFST” doesn’t have you singing “I believe in the Holy Father / who gave his only son” while picking through produce at the market in your Deicide shirt, it may already be too late for you. Oddly enough, your eternal damnation might turn out to be Christian power metal 24/7. Better brush up.
15. NorthTale – Welcome to Paradise
NorthTale is a product of the modern age: a collection of fairly well known names that, thanks to the internet’s infallible capacity to connect, somehow managed to find a functioning intersection between Sweden, Brazil and the U.S. Would it be appropriate to drop the term “supergroup” here? Probably, if you’re a fan of power metal (duh) and the harder rocking side of things. NorthTale consists of Bill Hudson on guitar (Circle II Circle, ex-Cellador, ex-Power Quest, ex-Jon Olivia’s Pain), Patrick Johansson on drums (ex-Yngwie), Jimmy Pitts on keys (Eternity’s End, Equipoise, The Fractured Dimension), Christian Eriksson on vocals (ex-Twilight Force), and a guy they might’ve found pounding lagers in the parking lot at the Cirkel K on bass, Mikael Planefeldt. The result is a really fun, infectious, sometimes too candy-coated slice of bright Euro power that occasionally drifts into radio territory.
14. Freternia – The Gathering
From my June review of The Gathering: “Put simply, Freternia is in the business of making toughened power metal. They don’t make a ton of it—this is only their third long player in over two decades of “activity”—but when they do, it’s of a quality that’s worthy of attention. The band utilizes a heavy riffing style that pushes a mostly mid-paced, rugged gallop, and they prefer gang-shouted choruses that support a vocalist who’s more gritty Kai Hansen than he is soaring Michael Kiske. So, for reference sake, think more along the lines of Persuader colliding with modern Grave Digger, but still unafraid to use the sort of tinkling keys (yes, I said tinkling) that a band like Lost Horizon also used to color the edges.”
13. Darkwater – Human
I discovered Sweden’s Darkwater via my homie Lone Watie and his return to The Proglodyte’s Bonepile earlier this year. In that piece, Lone described Human as “heavily indebted to Dream Theater,” but set apart by “emphasizing melody over showmanship.” Fittingly, that’s precisely why I enjoy this record so much. Some might argue this strays a little too far into straight-up progressive metal territory to be allowed on a list like this, but the band’s insistence on oft-times straightforward melody and a big vocal hook keeps it close enough to power that it would seem negligent to leave it in the dust.
12. Vanden Plas – The Ghost Xperiment – The Awakening
Germany’s Vanden Plas is one of the best active progressive metal bands on the planet. The collective is responsible for zero bad records in 24 years of existence, and even more remarkably, they’ve featured the very same line-up since day flippin’ one. When was the last time you jumped on Metal-Archives and read “1986-present” next to every single name associated with a band and no link to past members? Very rare. That sort of fellowship has a tendency to translate into an unmistakable familiarity from release to release, but it also equates to incredibly smooth interplay, which album number nine happens to stack to the rafters. Similar to Darkwater, it could be argued that these guys are a little too directly progressive for this list, but power metal fans will love the sweeping melody (those leads!) and the endless vocal hooks. Endnote: The Ghost Xperiment is the first of a two-part story written by vocalist Andy Kuntz, with part two landing at some point in 2020.
11. Majestica – Above the Sky
When the air starts getting stale and fun hitches a ride to the next town over, it’s best to pull the plug and reevaluate your current trajectory. Such was the case for Sweden’s ReinXeed, who ultimately opted to shutter the windows in 2013 and allow time and distance to decide whether or not the trio should eventually reconnect. Luckily, fortune reentered the picture, a new moniker was born, and the earliest result, Above the Sky, is stronger than anything these dudes have produced prior to 2019. Majestica is unadulterated Helloween worship—speedy, melodic as hell, and with enough flash and hook to give the songs serious repeat value. Current Sabaton guitarist and long-time power shredder Tommy “ReinXeed” Johansson (guitars, vocals and keyboards) leads the show, and he sounds absolutely reinvigorated. Joining him once again is Alex Oriz on rhythm guitar, Chris David on bass, and ex-Helloween drummer Uli Kusch (!!!) behind the kit. One caveat: best to shelve any concerns with corny / bad lyrics—”Night Call Girl” is nope, Nope, NOPE.
10. Myrath – Shehili
One of metal’s greatest virtues includes its ability to call humans into service from virtually every corner of the globe. Wherever there are people with fire in their hearts and a plug in the wall, there will eventually be spirited riffing and belting vocals. And with the force of the internet in so many people’s back pocket, there’s little reason any band with genuine knack can’t eventually fall into the ears of someone living 5,000 miles away.
Tunisia! I’ve never had the pleasure, but my mind conjures images of dry, hot dessert life in the south and a more crowded, more expensive, more temperate existence in the north that stretches to pristine beaches along the Mediterranean. Obviously there’s a hell of a lot more to the region than just that, but the closest I’ve come to experiencing this part of our planet has mostly been painted by Hollywood. Taking this into account, Tunisia’s Myrath is about as perfect a metal representation of the images conjured in my mind as I could hope for: dramatic, epic, engaging and, most welcoming of all, folky—a style of traditional folk indebted to life in North Africa that makes the band’s overall sound highly unique. Stripped to the most basic building blocks, envision an Arabic version of Symphony X and you’re (perhaps a little more than) halfway there.
Earlier works stressed the progressive element more, but with album number five, Myrath simplify the heavier elements without sacrificing the melody or hook, and they allow their folkier face an opportunity to stretch a bit more. Some of the material here feels damn-near radio-friendly, but there’s still a very strong connection to the more modern side of Symphony X. Plus, the traditional North African folk elements blend in incredibly well. It won’t take long for this record to sink into your marrow.
9. Paladin – Ascension
I first learned of Paladin from Last Rites’ own Ryan “Is It Fridee Yet” Tysinger, who confessed in his review of Ascension that he has “little patience for power metal.” Poor life decisions aside, it was Ryan’s words and his repeated Paladin posts in our snuggly Last Rites Discord Headquarters that finally lead me to earmark these Georgians for future investigation, and by God, the payoff has been flippin’ big. I am nothing if not a traditionalist, so I normally drag myself kicking and screaming into “power metal that features tastes of melodeath and thrash,” but Paladin pull off the trick with enough panache that one would genuinely miss that offsetting toughness if they eventually opted to leave it behind.
Ascension is bright, exhilarating, fiery as hell and infectious as the plague, and anyone whose pizzles get tickled by the idea of a more power-focused interpretation of classic 3 Inches of Blood should jump on it immediately.
8. Diviner – Realms of Time
Let’s just go ahead and put a quick pin on Diviner’s most notable advantage: vocalist Yiannis Papanikolaou sounds a lot like Ronnie James Dio. Eerily so at times. It’s not quite to the point where he’d be considered a Xerox (not possible), but it’s significant enough that Realms of Time, album number two from Diviner, sounds as close to an RJD-fronted power metal record as we’re likely to get, and that’s probably enough for a number of folks to add it to a cart right off the bat. Smart move, adventurer! Added bonus: the rest of the band is skilled enough to take care of themselves in a scrap, too.
Diviner is in the business of aggressive power metal, so fans of Persuader and Iced Earth will stand to benefit the most, and you’ll feel confident recommending Realms of Time to outliers who normally steer clear of power because of tired “it’s too fluffy” / “it’s too corny” tropes. Despite this fairly straight-forward punch-to-the-chops approach, there’s still enough melody in all the leads and in the way Yiannis delivers catchy chorus after catchy chorus to consider the record, um, “pretty” at times, and at a relatively compact (at least by 2019’s standards) 45-minutes, it’s also the sort of endeavor that’s easy to crank from the windows during a work commute.
Bottom line: if you’re looking for a little more straight-forward power that packs a hell of a punch and features a really great vocalist, Diviner has the tiger for you to ride.
7. Tanagra – Meridiem
If the nimrods behind Last Rites ever allowed the public a peek into our super secret HQ, one of the first things to be noticed would be the fact that some of us—four of us, to be exact—have what would be considered an unhealthy obsession with all things Star Trek. Consequently, a band named after a “fictional” place in the greatest Next Generation episode ever automatically gets attention and a heavy check in the Pros column. And strangely enough, very much like Star Trek: The Next Generation itself, the Portlanders behind Tanagra find engaging ways to incorporate truly great elements and a few peculiar moments into an overall journey that’s really rewarding, unique and worthy of steady revisitation.
Here’s what our very own Manny-O-War had to say earlier this year about Meridiem: “While relying heavily on progressive, symphonic and traditional composition, Tanagra creates something uniquely their own. Through a myriad of vocal deliveries, some lackadaisical and others gut-wrenchingly urgent, Tim Socia weaves tales of anciently futuristic dreamlands—mystical lands that combine and intertwine the past with the future. Melodic guitar lines interweave and create a sense of profound loss—a mourning for the lost ruins of the ancient past and a life more intimately connected to nature.”
Pretty spot-on. Take a song like “Silent Chamber,” for example. The way the vocals enter the track feels a few degrees shy of awkward at first blush, but by the time the song opens up and eventually drifts into that splendid centerpiece flecked with mellow strings and a perfect chorus, you’re fully assimilated.
In the end, it’s often the albums that aren’t afraid to hang some confidence on quirks amidst an absurd level of goodness that end up having the strongest legs.
6. Turilli / Lione Rhapsody – Zero Gravity
Hey, guess what: Fabio Lione and Luca Turilli still play really well together. Like, put these guys in a room with a floor covered in thousands of Legos, head into the kitchen to clip your weekly coupons, and in an hour you’ll come back to an exact replica of Neuschwanstein Castle, including some chunky Bavarians. What’s (perhaps) unexpected with this record, however, is futurism. Yes, it still sounds like the sort of symphonic power metal heavy on hook and dramatics we’ve come to expect from any of the several hundred Rhapsody off-shoots, but this particular version of epicness translates into…well, pretty much what the absolutely absurd cover depicts, plus a touch of Queen. Here’s what our very own Dan “Get That Goddamned English Muffin Out of My Face” Obstkrieg had to say about Zero Gravity back in July:
“Zero Gravity pulls in layers of choristers and string players to make its case, but the core is always the bewitching interplay between the forthrightly romantic melodies of Lione’s vocals and Turilli’s melodic leads, and the hairpin-tight modernism of the drums and electronic enhancements.”
Yeah, that. The only thing Dan got wrong in his review was the mysterious hatred of the song “D.N.A.,” so I will of course include as the sample below. I wonder what ol’ Dan has against the basic building blocks of life put to an incredibly catchy melody? Maybe it’s because he’s actually a CYLON.
5. Silver Bullet – Mooncult
On the surface, Silver Bullet sounds like a pretty typical speedy Euro power band that’s indebted to the usual Helloween / Stratovarius ancestors. But there’s actually a hell of a lot more going on under the hood that serves to make Mooncult one of the more pleasant surprises of the year, particularly for those looking for straight-up power that doesn’t dabble too much in the progressive end of the pool. That’s not to say this music isn’t complex—it is—but these Finns opt to spice the classic formula with symphonic elements and flashes of speed / thrash, so there’s always enough going on to keep the listener’s attention firmly pinned to the speakers. Bands that come to mind here: the aggression of Persuader and Iron Savior, the speed and symphoniousness (IT COULD BE A WORD) of early Rhapsody, the technical speed of Midas Touch, and the gritty trad-thrash of Grinder. BOOM, roasted.
What ultimately separates Silver Bullet from the literal minefield of competitors, however, is the fact that the members are simply better at their wares compared to so many other 2019 entries fighting to jump into your ears. Vocalist Nils Nordling is an absolute champion from open to close, sounding a bit like an ideal collision between Sean Peck and Martin Walkyier, and guitarist Hannes Horma (ex-Turisas) delivers approximately 8 billion fiery leads that are flashy enough to inspire hours of heart palpitations for aspiring guitarists out there. If you’re looking for pure power that’s heavy on righteous flair, Mooncult is ready to bump your nethers.
4. Dialith – Extinction Six
Here’s something personal about me that at least 80% of you aren’t already privy to: I prefer boxer briefs. Additionally, despite being a fan of power metal since, well, basically day one, I have never owned a record by Nightwish. There’s really no awkward bias related to overly dramatic, symphonic metal at the root of this admission, I just generally prefer the operatic element to be an accompaniment rather than the star of the show. At least that’s how I USED to feel; my brain chemistry eventually shifted somewhere around Symphony of Enchanted Lands II. Point being, I now dig operatic power metal, but as a whole I still prefer the operatic vocal element to be properly offset by plenty of heavy oomph via the instruments.
2019 offered up a number of operatic power records for consumption, but none of them—and I mean none of them—managed to hit the highs as well as Extinction Six, the debut full-length from the relatively unknown Connecticut quintet Dialith. The fact that a record of this caliber can manage to hit the streets without the help of a major label offering endless big studio help is remarkable, but it’s also testament to just how far a group of musicians can take a spectacular shared vision in the modern age.
Vocalist Krista Sion offers up an ideal mix of elegance and grit, with an emphasis on the former, and guitarist Alasdair Wallace Mackie piles a caravan of infectious and surprisingly heavy riffs atop oodles of soaring leads to the point of detonation. The songs are ridiculously catchy and never feel dragged out to the point of fatigue, even the epic 17-minute closer. I would argue that “The River Runs Dry” goes a little too heavy on the soppiness, but that’s a relatively brief 4-minutes amidst another hour of virtually bullet-proof symphonic glory.
3. Galneryus – Into the Purgatory
Into the Purgatory is an overwhelming record. Apart from a single ballad that lands in the second half, the remaining 52-minutes feels a bit like driving 80mph on a freeway amidst 40mph winds: hold on to that steering wheel with the grip of a demon, or you’re flying into the median.
Guitarist Syu takes that explosive Akira Takasaki tone to the stratosphere in all the lightning riffing here, and his leads are so unbelievably fluid, vigorous and filled with passion that I’m fairly certain every single one of them actually comes to life after he’s finished playing them and then subsequently fire off to different parts of the globe to live independent lives. What I’d really like to know is just how Syu’s mother managed to deliver a baby that emerged from the womb carrying a 22-fret ESP Crying Star-Phoenix.
Here’s the thing, though: as much as a record like Into the Purgatory represents a playground for Syu to rule over, everyone else who joins the Galneryus fray flexes equal muscle, and they get ample opportunity to shine here as well. Taka’s bass play flies like…a tractor in flight, Fumiya’s battery could level a city, Yuhki’s keyboard leads battle Syu’s for equal airspace, and Masatoshi Ono’s voice lifts the choruses to the rafters. “Fighting of Eternity” is the year’s most infectious power metal tune. And “The Followers” just might be the best overall power metal song of the year, period.
If you ain’t yet on that Galneryus train, this is the year to do so. Oh, wait! You literally cannot own a physical copy of this record if you live outside of Japan, thanks to the MONSTERS behind Warner Music Japan. You can currently stream it, which is better than being left out in the cold in your birthday suit, but metal fans obviously prefer to have the goods in hand, so please get your head out of your gigantic ass, Warner Music Japan.
2. Eternity’s End – Unyielding
How do you feel about lasers? How do you feel about laser fire? How do you feel about being caught in the middle of laser fire? How do you feel about being caught in the middle of laser fire without a laser yourself? How do you feel about being caught in the middle of laser fire without a laser yourself, then suddenly remembering you can shred the way Unyielding shreds? How do you feel about being caught in the middle of laser fire without a laser yourself, then suddenly remembering you can shred the way Unyielding shreds, so you shred and subsequently cause any and all laser-lugging foes to instantly ignite and perish? Pretty good, no? I’m with you, homeslices. Here’s what Last Rites’ most handsome champion had to say about Unyielding back in February of this year:
“The necessity level of a record like Unyielding ultimately depends on how you feel about the prospect of cranking the bejesus out of music that’s best branded as “Aggressive Power Shred.” This record is equal parts combative, soaring and intricate, and the central storyline that involves an adaptation of our species from 900 years ago that accidentally stumbles across hugely advanced alien technology and (of course) commences to fuck everything up for the entire galaxy is delivered with superb vigor by one of the more underrated power vocalists currently in the game. So yes, this is as close to a pure 10/10 in the bombastic shred field as you can get in the present day.”
Nine months later, the record continues to satisfy at the same level, and it still manages to expose new-found tasty morsels previously obscured by brain damage caused by exposure to extremely extreme shred.
1. Dimhav – The Boreal Flame
Too much. The sudden and leveling awareness of Dimhav was just too much to keep The Boreal Flame from its proper spot at #1. This record exposes long-time fans of Daniel Heiman to a brand new level of grandeur, in addition to revealing a newfound infatuation with the brothers Lindroth. Is it still too new to be considered an outright classic? Yes and no, but who really cares when the end result is just so goddamned entertaining and skillfully delivered.
Even if this project turns out to be yet another one-and-done (please, ancient spirits of aeons past, grant Dimhav eternal light), The Boreal Flame is the sort of record progressive power fans will talk about while queued-up during the End Days. Not much else to say that wasn’t already said at great length last month:
“If Last Rites still lived in the scoring days, I would be extremely tempted to hand The Boreal Flame a 10/10. And yes, this is stated with full recognition of the fact that three days spent with an album is a very short honeymoon and one swallow does not a summer make. But I feel like I’ve been waiting for Dimhav and a power / prog record of this sort (and caliber) for over a decade, and now that it’s landed—blindsided, no less—I could not be more pleased with the result. Hell, even if this ends up being the only thing this trio manages to thrust into the aether, The Boreal Flame delivers enough ins and outs from start to finish to keep the engine purring for years to come. Sure, you’ll at least need an appreciation for progressive power metal in order to reap a similar reward, but that’s on you, not the band.”
Originally written by Captain for https://yourlastrites.com/