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.” Po