DEMONSPELLS SONGS TO WATCH A YEAR IN REVIEW issue 70 One year from now, will I be strong Written January 12-14, 2003 Coming up next (est. within the next month): A Trip Through The Swano Vaults Summary reviews of Into Eternity, My Dying Bride, and Amaran Introduction: What follows is a list of what I feel are the best and/or most notable metal and related releases of the year 2003 (full length albums only), listed in alphabetical order in order to avoid the futile and ultimately pointless task of ranking them against each other. Nonetheless, as some decisions of quality must be made in order to preserve legitimacy, albums that I consider to be top ten material are italicized. (note: the bold has no significance, it just came out that way) Throughout I will offer opinions, including rebukes to critics, and list the standout tracks on each release, as well as the occasional bizarre development, in the style of the year of Ultimate Metal special I did a year and a half ago. Enjoy, and dont complain too loudly if your favorite release of 2003 isnt included, it will prevent me from giving it a fair/second chance if I havent heard it or had a negative opinion of it. Alchemist Austral Alien The second Relapse release from this Australian act found them moving further away but entirely abandoning their thrash origins, arriving at a sound that presents them in a futurist aspect (with a pronounced 80s influence), and the melodic and aggressive sides are balanced very well. It isnt always successful, but when the reverberating guitar lines and insistent drumming work, they hit hard. Best songs: Letter From The Future, Solarburn, Backward Journey Anathema A Natural Disaster Along with Train Of Thought (which I will not mention here as I feel I covered its discrepancies well enough in my review), this was one of the more widely debated albums of the year. It was a far more isolated affair than usual, which caused some to bemoan the apparent lack of dramatic intensity, and the diversity of the songs and reduced emphasis on Vincents vocals suggested a lack of focus. I disagree, as I find this to be an adventurous and often sublimely beautiful release, and some of the best moments are the atypical ones (the tense computer-assisted drone of Closer and the multipart instrumental Violence). Best songs not already mentioned: Are You There?, Flying, Pulled Under Andromeda II=I Derided by many in the progressive metal community, and admittedly not without flaws (particularly the badly translated lyrics and occasionally awkward tempo changes), I found this to be a more rewarding album than their highly acclaimed debut. Guitarist Johan Reinholdz and keyboardist Martin Hedin get to display their technical skills in more varied fashion, and avoid wanking most of the time, and most of the songs are very strong melodically. The title track contains a masterful buildup, and I dont mind the much-maligned vocalist (Lawrence was only doing session work, remember ) Best songs not already mentioned: Mirages, This Fragile Surface Anekdoten Gravity The mellotron may still be omnipresent, but the fourth album by these Swedish proggers finds them shedding the obvious Crimson influence of their early work for the most part and moving into a more modern sound. The musicianship is stellar throughout, and while the dissonance is largely absent, they still rock out more than occasionally, especially on the opening track. A particular standout is the hazy reverie of the Porcupine Tree-ish SW4 (those initials surely cannot be coincidence). Best songs not already mentioned: Ricochet, What Should But Did Not Die Antimatter Lights Out I strongly suspect that the use of multiple vocalists and the ethereal yet detached atmosphere (captured perfectly by the minimalist cover art) throughout had some influence in shaping the Anathema album discussed above. Of course, this album more than stands out on its own, ranging from laid back acoustics to dark trip-hop influenced songs. Michele Richfields voice suits the compositions she appears on very well, and the closing instrumental ends things on an unsettling note. Best songs: Everything You Know Is Wrong, Dream, Lights Out Dead Soul Tribe A Murder Of Crows While the debut established a separate identity for Devon Graves from Psychotic Waltz, this album is more fully actualized and developed, and I feel it is by far his strongest work to date. While every song here stands out individually to some extent (especially a run of great ones in tracks five through nine), it is also a very unified work and many of the songs manage to feel threatening without resorting to excessive noise. While Devon dominates the proceedings and his voice is in top form, drummer Abel Moustafa contributes excellent work thoughout. Best songs: The stretch mentioned above, plus the opening and closing tracks. Devin Townsend Band Accelerated Evolution Regarded by some as a disappointment, and certainly not as ambitious or wide ranging musically as Terria or some of his other conceptual works. But since Devin intended this to be a less complex work, I cant hold that against him, and like all of his solo albums this added a new wrinkle, namely an all-new band. And none of the nine songs here I can really consider bad, just below his standards which is certainly not true of songs like the impassioned lament Deadhead, sarcastic stomper Random Analysis, or its biggest highpoint in Suicide. Cant talk about Devin without saying: the SYL comeback was panned by many, and Ive always preferred his solo work, but it had its highlights, particularly the monstrous riff on Aftermath and the primal scream workout Bring On The Young. Bizarre development: The tour with Symphony X, which predictably polarized their fans. Dysrythmia Pretest After two excellent self-released albums, the instrumental power trio made the big jump to Relapse in 2003. While not being as overtly proggy as before, the combination of raw, manic energy and technicality produces great results throughout, especially on the albums ultimate highlight, the two-part Annihilation, divided into a punishing dirge and a savage rocker. The album also gets off to a great start with the explosive Bastard. Bizarre development: Relapse, believing that there is a market for this type of stuff, priced the album at $9.99 in most stores. Enslaved Below The Lights The former Viking metallers have long had a habit of changing significantly from album to album, and number seven, their first for The End, was no exception. Elements of their Viking past still glowed brightly on Havenless and the epic The Crossing, but an ongoing flirtation with progressive elements remained the order of the day, along with the expected mastery of the riff, nowhere more evident on The Dead Stare with its spectacular cosmic feedback jam in its last two minutes. It also converted me from admirer to devoted fan. Best songs not already mentioned: As Fire Swept Clean The Earth, Queen Of Night Ephel Duath - The Painter's Palette There was already significant buzz by the time I received my promo (by winning a contest), but nothing could prepare me for what I was about to hear. Along with Kayo Dot (more on that later), this is undoubtedly the most progressive in the true sense of the word release of 2003. An inspired combination of the intensity of metalcore with virtually none of its flaws and the uneven sophistication of jazz fusion (great use of saxophone), with a dark undercurrent throughout, this album leaves very little breathing room and is extremely imaginative. Best songs: hard to pick, but The Unpoetic Circle, Praha, and The Others Touch among others all stand out for different reasons. Evergrey Recreation Day Ill concede that it wasnt as consistent as the masterful In Search Of Truth, but I think everyone who was calling it a letdown was insane. Evergrey again demonstrates their unique mastery of forging progressive metal with traditional and gothic (in the classical sense) influences, and for once the prerelease hype about the album being heavier was 100% true and didnt hurt things one bit. New member Rickard Zander fit in perfectly, the riffs were extremely sharp throughout, and Tom was in top form. Best songs: End Of Your Days, Visions, Your Darkest Hour with its superb Floyd-inspired solo spot from Carina. Bizarre development: The video for Blinded somehow snuck onto Headbangers Ball. Farmakon A Warm Glimpse One of the first, and hopefully not the last, success stories involving members of this sites forums and one of the best debuts of 2003. Just about every reviewer felt the need to point out the obvious Opeth influences, and while they are there the band is more eclectic in incorporating elements of a different genres within a melodic death framework, one listen to the opening track should prove that there is a uniqueness here and this band should continue to grow. Best songs: Stretching Into Me, Pearl Of My Suffering, Loosely Of Amoebas Forest Stream Tears Of Mortal Solitude One of the first signings to the Elitist label, and this early 03 release proved to be one of its best debuts. This Russian act quickly positioned themselves as a band to watch with an album of expansive and highly emotional doom compositions. The best tracks here gradually develop over their long running times and feature excellent use of keyboards. Best songs: The Winter Solstice, Melkor, Black Swans The Gathering Souvenirs This album gets the elite status for one good reason: Its high quality forced me to reevaluate a band I had largely ignored in the past. The appeal of their earlier trip-rock efforts still elude me to an extent, but this one is far more consistent IMO, and its best tracks (anything on the excellent first half) have a warm and intoxicating atmosphere, which more than occasionally crosses into noirish territory. Annekes voice soars throughout, and the electronics almost always are in the right place. Best songs: see above, plus the closing track with a strange but appropriate cameo from Garm. Gordian Knot Emergent For his second project under this alias, Sean Malone assembled a stellar cast of Steve Hackett, Bill Bruford, Jim Matheos (his acoustic solo on Fischers Gambit is a standout), and the remainder of the Cynic lineup. While a bit short in running time and lacking in the chaotic side of the first album, this was still among the best instrumental albums of the year, and it is a more disciplined work and the best pieces (particularly the nine minute Singing Deep Mountain) sound enormous. Green Carnation A Blessing In Disguise In the immortal words of someone Im failing to remember, Screw you, I liked this album! Digital Metal among others lambasted it for substituting the epic orchestrations of Light Of Day for a more song-oriented and supposedly generic approach. While it seldom reaches the previous albums dramatic highpoints, it does succeed in making each of the nine songs sound different. And Tchort handles both the energetic tracks and the slower, proggier ones effectively. Best songs: Lullaby In Winter, Into Deep, Two Seconds In Life Bizarre development: The albums odd anti-metal packaging, with the cover picture of Tchorts son against a plain white background and a colon preceding the band name for no apparent reason. Katatonia Viva Emptiness One comment that about this band that has stuck with me is that they always sound depressing no matter what style they play. That is certainly true of their latest effort, which initially left me in confusion but grew on me like nothing else this year, now Im firmly convinced that those who called it a nu-metal concession must have been listening with head inserted in rectum. The band use of contrast here is genius, whether pairing their trademark melodies with dissonance or following the calm Omerta with the creepy Inside The City Of Glass to end things. And few bands capture the themes of their lyrics as perfectly as Katatonia, this album has a great paranoid and suspenseful atmosphere throughout, and Jonass performance is among his best. Best songs: Burn The Remembrance, Evidence, Criminals, among others Bizarre development: A sudden cancellation of a festival date that resulted in persistent breakup rumors. Kayo Dot Choirs Of The Eye This album was the subject of my most exhaustive review to date, so it will be difficult to state why it belongs in the upper half of the list without redundancy. What I can say is that I consider it to be the most daringly experimental release of the year, and an altogether successful attempt at fusing elements of metal, post-rock, and classical composition, a path few bands would even think to tread. The contrast between moments of lucid, surreal beauty and gut-wrenching intensity will leave any open minded listener in awe. Best songs: The Antique, The Manifold Curiosity, Wayfarer Bizarre development: Forget the speculation over their name change and the bands desire to escape being pigeonholed in the metal market. Why is their forum still listed under Maudlin of the Well? King Crimson The Power To Believe If you have been paying any attention to my columns and/or postings, you probably know I am a diehard Crimson fan. The Power To Believe is the best statement by this incarnation (possibly the final one given Fripps thoughts of retirement), the musicianship is as technical and idiosyncratic as ever, and as fitting of the bands refusal to entertain even the slightest nostalgic impulses, is strikingly modern. The instrumentals are the best displays of the bands potency, but we also get a classic Belew song and an uproarious parody of nu-metal. As much as it pains me not to give this album the highest mark, Im forced to deny it solely on a technicality: much of it was previously released in some form. Best songs: the instrumentals, plus Power To Believe II and Eyes Wide Open. Bizarre development: Trey Gunns sudden departure and Tony Levins quick reinstatement. Moonsorrow Kivenkantaja These Finns had already made a name for themselves with two excellent albums, but Stonebearer had fans of Viking metal mesmerized and won over many others. Already known for crafting epic and folkloric compositions, they took it a step further on this release, as nearly every song sounded positively huge, and was full of sonic detail and intricate arrangements, even including some proggy touches (especially evident on the opening track). Best songs: Rauniolla, Jumalten Kaupunki, Kivenkantaja Negura Bunget N Crugu Bradului Exploration of ones origins has become a common theme in metal, but few bands are as committed to building a musical identity around their geographical one as these Romanians. The album, divided into four lengthy untitled compositions, was just as provocative as the extravagant packaging, a rare example of black metal sounding primitive and expansive at the same time. Best songs: Must be listened to as a whole. Bizarre development: The leaf. No explanation necessary if you own the limited edition. Nevermore Enemies Of Reality Bitching about the alleged sabotage of their last release on Century Media reached epidemic proportions, and split opinion of this album straight down the middle. At its best, the album recaptured the dark intensity of their earlier releases, and Jeffs riffs were as ferocious as ever. However, the production greatly diminished the overall impact of some songs and the short running time suggested a lack of inspiration. But it isnt a complete failure, unlike some other band Kelly Gray was involved with Best songs: I Voyager, Seed Awakening, Enemies Of Reality No-Man Together Were Stranger In lieu of a new Porcupine Tree album, Steven Wilson did more than fill the gap by touring, reissuing their back catalogue, and putting out this often beautifully understated album by his other ongoing project. This was a collection of intensely personal songs, given life by Tim Bowness expressive vocals and the minimal and highly emotional instrumentation. Best songs: Photographs In Black and White, Together Were Stranger, The Breakup For Real Opeth Damnation No discussion of metal in 2003 would be complete without mentioning Opeth, whose fanbase grows larger with each passing day. This was one of those albums that I enjoyed and played fairly often, yet was disappointed with at the same time. On their long awaited mellow album, Mikael opted for a warm sound reminiscent of early King Crimson, Camel, and Porcupine Tree, and left many wondering what happened to the supposed out there prog direction this was supposed to take. Successful on many levels, but I feel that they didnt really challenge themselves. Best songs: To Rid The Disease, Death Whispered a Lullaby, Windowpane OSI Office Of Strategic Influence Going into 2003, the buzz on the prog-metal supergroup was not looking good, but what emerged was a sort of thoughtful antithesis to the typical Dream Theater Side Project. Kevin Moores electronics and cryptic lyrics provided an often brilliant foundation to a series of fascinating songs whose mood was reminiscent of Peter Gabriels early solo albums, and Mike Portnoy managed to give a reserved performance. Steven Wilson showed up on the albums centerpiece Shutdown, which sounded like a postmodern update of Black Sabbath (the song). Best songs not already mentioned: Head, Memory Daydreams Lapses, Hello Helicopter! Bizarre development: Fates Warning often broke into Shutdown on their summer tour, assisted by Portnoy and Nick DVirgilio. Solefald In Harmonia Universali Cornelius and Lazares reputation as two of the more provocative figures operating the outer fringes of metal increased with their fourth album, arguably their most focused and consistent to date. Each of the ten songs contained excellent keyboard work and the trademark bizarre vocal counterpoint, and the arrangements always left room for some strange left turns and occasional classical stylings, yet some songs contained some unlikely but prominent hooks. To further add to the enigmatic proceedings, the lyrics were written in four different languages. Best songs: Hard to choose, but Christiania and Dionysify are the albums peaks in grandeur and diversity respectively. Sun Caged s/t There may be little in the way of originality here, but for many progressive metal fans this was among the years most accomplished releases, and it does sound more vital than most of what the genre gave us in 2003. Marcel Coenens guitar work dominates, and is skillful without resorting to excessive shredding (usually anyways), and the rest of the band match him in strength. Again, this breaks new ground, but the fact that the musicianship here leads to memorable songs instead of empty showmanship is enough to earn it a place on the list. Best songs: Secrets Of Flight, Soil, Closing In Wolverine Cold Light Of Monday While the musicianship on here is for the most part excellent, and Stefan Zell puts on a commanding and riveting performance on vocals, where this album truly succeeds is on the level of atmosphere. The harrowing concept of this album is brought to life perfectly, and every move the band makes is clearly designed to build dramatic intensity. At times the ambitious nature of this project does lose focus, this is definitely one of the most intelligently crafted albums of the year. Best songs: New Best Friends, Carousel, The Final Redemption Bizarre development: The album was initially scheduled for release in the spring, but the band abruptly decided to rerecord it instead.