Album of the Year 2019 – The Top 10

For the first time in several years, 2019 will not see your inboxes and social media timelines spammed by my epic and rather foolhardy top 20 or top 30 countdown series. I’ve simply not listened to, or reviewed, anywhere near enough music this year to make this a viable possibility.

Long-term readers of will know that 2019 has been notable for my absence. I’ve written openly and candidly elsewhere about the reasons for this, so I won’t do that again here. But suffice to say that there’s a big yawning gap between the end of January and the beginning of October, where there was nothing. No album reviews, no live reviews, no commentary. Nothing.

During this period, I did still listen to music and I bought a few albums along the way. But the promos that bombarded my inbox largely remained untouched; I couldn’t in all good conscience download them and listen for free, knowing full well that I’d not publish a review. I have ethics and morals after all.

So, whilst I have spent the last couple of months doing my best to catch up on the cream of the crop, reviewing as much as I have been able, a Top 30 of 2019 is way out of reach. Instead, I bring you this: a single post containing a brief overview of my favourite ten albums of the year.

I hope you enjoy it!

Number 10 =


Insomnium – ‘Heart Like A Grave’

I tried to keep my top 10 to ten choices, I really did. However, in the past couple of days, whilst penning most recent review for, something clicked. And it was the realisation of just how much I now like ‘Heart Like A Grave’, the new opus from Finland’s Insimnium.

Despite purchasing the expensive mediabook version (it is a thing of beauty after all), it has been something of a slow burner for me. I immediately liked the music on the record, because who doesn’t enjoy a bit of epic Finnish melodeath? Especially at wintertime when the nights are long and cold. But it took until the last week or so to ascend that cliff and stand proudly at the summit. Eventually, the energy, the sense of the epic and the melodies become too damn good to ignore and the music really gets under your skin. A worthy addition to the list, even if their inclusion did lead to a bending of the rules!

To quote my review:

“There can be no argument…that the material on this album is of a very high standard, with professionalism oozing from every corner of the band. 

The longer you listen, the better ‘Heart Like A Grave’ gets, to the point where it is impossible not to get swept up in its grandiosity and brutal, bitter beauty. Insomnium have, right here, produced the best album of their career as far as I’m concerned. If you’re a fan of melodic death metal done the right way, ensure that you find a space in your collection for ‘Heart Like A Grave’. You’ll not regret it.”

Check out the full review here.

Number 10 =

Avatarium - The Fire I Long For - Artwork

Avatarium – ‘The Fire I Long For’

This was one of the biggest surprises for me this year, in a year full of big surprises. I wasn’t shocked at the quality of the music on offer from Avatarium because, being familiar with their past output, I knew that these guys could write and perform quality music. However, I wasn’t expecting to like ‘The Fire I Long For’ quite as much as I did, because of all the talk about a lessening of the heaviness, less in the way of thunderous riffs, and a greater 70s rock influence. For my tastes, this was all bad news.

But I was wrong. I put off listening to it for as long as I could but when I eventually caved, I realised my reticence was a big mistake. It has been a constant companion over the past couple of weeks, with new things coming to the fore with each listen. It was at this point where I realised I had to find a place in this list for such a strong and engaging record.

To quote my review:

“Greatness and class will always shine through. And if ever there was an example of this, it’s Avatarium.

… the songwriting is incredibly strong. Whatever guise the compositions take, be it heavier or softer and more subtly nuanced, they just work.

…if quality music is what you crave, then make Avatarium’s ‘The Fire I long For’ the next addition to your collection. Immediately.”

Check out the full review here.

Number 9


Mother Of Millions – ‘Artifacts’

An unknown entity prior to arriving at this record, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And, had it not been for the announcement that this Greek band would be gracing the ProgPower Europe stage in 2020, I’d probably still be blissfully unaware of their existence. But ‘blissfully’ is the wrong word because where Mother Of Millions are concerned, ignorance is definitely not bliss. On the evidence of ‘Artifacts’, this band deserves much more exposure and success than they currently enjoy.

Unusually for a progressive band, I was impressed from the very first listen. It was one of those experiences where I knew that I’d like it and like it more as time went by. The subtlety I knew, would eventually reveal itself and open up before me and by heavens was I right. And now, after further listens, it is unequivocally one of the best and most mature releases of 2019.

Note: since writing the review, I have found out that keyboardist Makis Tsamkosoglou  has tragically passed away. A fitting tribute then, that his final recorded performance should be on such a fantastic album. He will live on through his music for decades to come. RIP.

To quote my review:

“It is quite tricky to liken Mother Of Millions to their contemporaries, but certainly the likes of Leprous and Karnivool are useful reference points, but I do also hear whispers of other influences throughout. What I’d rather tell you is that this record is big on atmosphere, emotion, melody and it has a huge cinematic feel to it.

There is also a wonderful flow to the record, meaning that it feels smooth and enjoyable to listen to despite the darkness, sorrow, depth and subtle complexities that lie within the forty-odd minute run-time. 

If you are looking for an album that provides intelligence, subtlety, emotion and power, ‘Artifacts’ from Mother Of Millions is the record that you need. Right now.”

Check out the full review here.

Number 8


Big Big Train – ‘Grand Tour’

This is the only album that features in my Top 10 that I have not reviewed this year. I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy and I really wanted this to be the album that released me from my writing block. So I listened to it time and again, enjoying it more and more with each spin. However, every time I came to write my thoughts down on paper, I drew a blank. I hope to review it in the fullness of time, but the fact that it features in my Top 10 should persuade you that this is an album out of the top drawer. Not that this is any real surprise because Big Big Train are incapable of creating anything less than excellent.

Their pastoral progressive rock blueprint remains largely untouched but the talented group of musicians seem able to create something new and exciting each and every time. I adore the upbeat positivity of ‘Alive’, a message that I needed this year and duly took on board. It’s a vibrant and gorgeous track that sets the tone for another superb record.

However, it is the two epics towards the end of the album that remain my favourites to this day and are the songs that elevate ‘Grand Tour’ into my top 10 for 2019. The sea shanty intro to ‘Ariel’ is ominous and captivating, whilst the final few minutes is pure theatre, as it drives with inexorable force to a stunning crescendo. ‘Voyager’ on the other hand contains the kind of central ‘chorus’ melody that rivals the best of the Big Big Train discography – this is a stunning track from start to finish and it gets more and more moving and powerful as time goes on.

Without doubt, this truly inspired record deserved a place in the top 10 and I just hope I get the time to give it the proper review it so richly deserves before too long. Big Big Train are easily my favourite progressive rock band around at the current time, they are truly that good.

Number 7


Our Destiny – ‘Awakening’

What happens when you combine one of the best pianists I’ve ever heard with a beautiful voice? You get Our Destiny, a duo comprised of Vikram Shankar (Redemption, Silent Skies) and his significant other, Lauren Nolen. This isn’t metal, it isn’t even rock and so its appearance in my Top 10 should not have happened. And yet, it has and I’m delighted that it has because it demonstrates that I can appreciate music that doesn’t just bludgeon the listener to death.

There is a beauty in the simplicity of the material, allowing real depth of emotion and sincerity to shine through, as well as an all-too-obvious vulnerability and fragility. It is this latter quality that captivates me so much if I’m honest. There’s an incredible bravery from both Shankar and Nolan that puts most of us to shame as they lay themselves open for the world to hear. And yet, I adore the way in which there’s a sense of positivity and hope to the music that ultimately leaves me feeling uplifted and energised. If you’ve not already, take a listen and prepare to be as impressed as I am.

To quote my review:

“What it is, is a beautiful collection of songs that are part acoustic, part pop, part ambient, but completely seductive.

What I love about ‘Awakening’ is the purity of it. Every note is carefully thought-out yet organic-sounding at the same time. The rich melodies both wash over you and burrow deep within your soul to never let go. The atmosphere is bitter-sweet in that the music feels uplifting and warm, yet strangely poignant, almost melancholy in places.

When all around me is frenetic, full-throttle and largely fake, ‘Awakening’ is the soundtrack to keep me calm, grounded and focused on those things that matter most: human contact, relationships and pure, unadulterated love.”

Check out the full review here.

Number 6


Odd Logic – ‘Last Watch Of The Nightingale’

The release of new Odd Logic material is always a cause for excitement in the Mansion of Much Metal. How on earth they can be so criminally overlooked remains a mystery, because over the course of the past three albums at least, the American outfit, spearheaded by Sean Thompson, has delivered some of the best and most refreshing progressive metal I’ve heard.

The brand of progressive metal that Odd Logic serve up is both familiar and original, with many unique embellishments and influences blending with a kind of ‘classic’ prog metal core. It is also properly heavy, with some chunky riffs, nice lead guitar work and some thunderous drumming at times. A worthy addition to my top 10 and all the sweeter because they deserve greater success.

To quote my review:

“It’s likely that Odd Logic will never take over the world, but regardless, they continue to make the music that they want. It’s a labour of love and I love this philosophy.

In simple terms, based on the quality of music on offer here, Odd Logic remain criminally unknown and underrated. Despite all of the considerable challenges they have had to hurdle, Thompson and Hanson have produced an album every bit as good as ‘Effigy’ or ‘Penny For Your Thoughts’. As previously stated, if I had to put my neck on the block, I’d say that this is their best release yet. And the even better news is that ‘Last Watch of the Nightingale’ is available on CD. I shall therefore be ordering mine…if you’re a progressive metal fan with any kind of taste at all, you’ll be doing the same. This is quite brilliant stuff!”

Check out the full review here.

Number 5


Klone – ‘Le Grand Voyage’ 

The emotion and the authenticity of this release saw it sail into my top 10 for 2019. I’d liked previous efforts by the French outfit, but the sheer power and strength of ‘Le Grand Voyage’ very nearly floored me. The more I listen to it, and believe me, I’ve listened to it a lot, the more I fall for its abundant charms.

The choruses are, by and large, things of enormous beauty. The vocals are magical; packed with emotion, melody and sincerity, Yann Ligner’s gravelly grunge tone strikes a surprising chord with me. I simply can’t get enough of the intensity and darkness of the record, both of which clash brilliantly with the brief moments of hope and the waves of melody that hit at just the right time to briefly expunge the despondency.

I’m also a fan of the organic-sounding production that breathes life into the songs. When I reviewed ‘Le Grand Voyage’, I knew it would be high in my end-of-year list and now that I am writing it, I have been proved correct.

To quote my review:

“Do you know the feeling you get when an album just clicks? You know, that feeling that is accompanied by goosebumps, where your hairs stand on end, where you try to take the album out of the stereo or off the record player, only to fail miserably and press play again? Well that’s how I’m currently feeling about ‘Le Grand Voyage’ by Klone.

It never ceases to excite me when a band comes out of the shadows to blow me away; it is the magic of music and the thrill of a new discovery combining to dizzying effect. And, with ‘Le Grand Voyage’, Klone have created the album of their career to date and have made a very persuasive case for featuring in many an end-of-year ‘best of’ list.”

Check out the full review here.

Number 4

Lep cover

Leprous – ‘Pitfalls’ 

Leprous are one of those bands that will find their way into an enormous amount of end-of-year ‘best of’ lists. But that’s because of one important thing: they are an exceptional band. Exceptionally talented musicians, exceptionally gifted songwriters and exceptionally brave when it comes to following their own convictions, and not giving a damn about what the outside world thinks. The proof? ‘Pitfalls’.

I’ve yet to hear a non-committal opinion of this record, as fans, critics and casual bystanders appear to be completely divided over this release. Some think it is sensational, others think it is awful. Or at least, not what they wanted to hear from a new Leprous album. I fall into the former category because I have no hesitation as I sit here now, to declare ‘Pitfalls’ easily the best record of the Norwegian prog band’s career.

I have always preferred it when Leprous allow some melody into their writing and with ‘Pitfalls’, you get plenty of melody to enjoy. Much of the album may not veer anywhere near traditional metal territory but, with vocalist/keyboardist Einer Solberg opening his heart and soul to reveal his inner mental demons, it is still an intensely heavy and dark collection of songs. I love the sincerity, the honesty and the willingness to try something new. To me, this is Leprous firing on all cylinders and I love it more with each passing day.

To quote my review:

“Challenging, heartbreaking, honest, deliberate, unique, individual, pure, anguish, mesmeric, enveloping, odd, unexpected, wonderful.

I shall declare that ‘Pitfalls’ is not a metal album. There are metal traits, accents, and there are a couple of songs that remain within the broad ‘metal’ framework. But ‘Pitfalls’ is, to my mind…different…

I’m drawn like a moth to a flame to this music; to Einar’s brutally honest subject…to the way the rest of the band are talented enough to know when to be restrained and when to unleash more flamboyance or raw power, so that the songs just work. I am certain that I will look back on ‘Pitfalls’ at a time of greater clarity and judge it to be a classic, a masterpiece.”

Check out the full review here.

Number 3

voyager cover

Voyager – ‘Colours In The Sun’ 

Ah, Voyager. There’s no-one out there quite like them is there? By now, I’d hope that every reader of would be very familiar with Voyager, seeing as how I bang on about them with scary frequency. But I have reason to. It’s because this Aussie band are fair dinkum musicians and songwriters. Ever since I heard ‘The Meaning Of I’ a few years ago, I have followed their career with interest and can safely say that they have yet to release anything short of excellent.

‘Colours In The Sun’ is no different and, although it was a little more of a slow burner for me than past albums, it is now one of my very favourites. The blend of progressive metal with 80s synth pop works incredibly well, ably assisted by some professional and astute songwriting and an all-important sense of humour. When you refer you yourselves as “epic electro progressive power pop metal”, you can’t really take life too seriously can you?

But ultimately, it is the combination of fun, melody and positive atmosphere, coupled with an undeniably high level of professionalism and passion that makes ‘Colours In The Sun’ so superb. I cannot listen to this album without jumping up with a big smile on my face and dancing around the house. Voyager make me feel happy and you can’t put a price on that.

To quote my review:

“They have proved over the course of the past six albums that they are incapable of writing substandard material and the same can be said of this, their seventh studio release…

Every time ‘Colours In The Sun’ ends, I find myself thinking ‘what? Already?’ 

Every time I listen, time seems to speed up and before I know it, the better part of 45 minutes has passed. But more importantly, it has passed in a blur of utter enjoyment, of gratification and in the company of some of the best music I have heard this year.”

Check out the full review here.

Number 2


Soen – ‘Lotus’ 

Had it not been for the release of a stupendous album from my all-time favourite band, ‘Lotus’ would have taken the album of the year title. And justifiably so, because it is a wonderfully entertaining and thoroughly professional record that delights and intrigues at almost every turn.

I have had the record in my collection for over six months and without a shadow of doubt, it is better now than it has ever been. It has taken a while but everything now just clicks into place and sounds incredible. It is the kind of album that you can play over and over again without getting bored – trust me, I know!

The melodies are so unbelievably strong and resonant; the pacing and flow of the record is just about perfect; the blend of intricacy and prog metal exactness, with the more organic elements is inspired and the whole album feels stronger for these pronounced differences that are merged so smoothly into a cohesive whole. ‘Lotus’ is a cracking album and thoroughly deserves it lofty position in my end-of-year list. Very nicely done indeed.

To quote my review:

“…alongside the very intricate progressive aspects, we’re treated to a greater dose of melody throughout, as well as an even more pronounced amount of ebb and flow, light and shade, and plenty of interesting textures, many of which take many listens to either hear or fully appreciate. Put simply, ‘Lotus’ is a sophisticated beast that benefits from the influences of old but manages to blend them into a final product that demonstrates an overall increase in their own identity.

And you’d think that by now, with so many repeated listens under my belt, I’d be getting bored of the nine compositions that comprise ‘Lotus’. Well you’d be wrong; if anything, I’m more beguiled and impressed than ever. I’m not sure that this record will ever lose its magic and that, right there, is a sign that I am listening to a very special album.

Poignant, melodic, technical, sublime. There’s no other way in which to sum up such an incredible album. Listening to ‘Lotus’ is like being in the presence of musical greatness.”

Check out the full review here.

Number 1


Evergrey – ‘The Atlantic’

This has to be the worst-kept secret on the Internet as well as the most widely expected result of any competition or election this year. However, I make no apologies for this decision. There is a reason why Evergrey are my favourite band in the entire universe: they just write the kind of music that I love and I want to hear. And, when Tom Englund and Co. are on fire, they are really on fire.

With ‘The Atlantic’, they have delivered an album that is heavy, incredibly emotional, cathartic, memorable and utterly jaw-dropping. It seems like forever since it was released but I never tire of listening to it. At the time, it was the soundtrack to an intensely difficult period in my personal life and, because the subject matter echoed much of what I was going through, it really resonated with me, giving me strength when I felt like giving up.

To quote my review:

“For someone who considers ‘In Search of Truth’ the greatest album of all time, it says something when I happily declare that the opening trio of songs on this disc are three of the bands’ best ever. Truly world class, they simply leave me speechless and in awe.

You can always tell when Evergrey are firing on all cylinders, with one such indicator being the opening track to an album. In the past, we’ve had ‘The Masterplan’, ‘A Touch Of Blessing’ and ‘King Of Errors’ – all killer opening salvos. And with ‘The Atlantic’, we have the stupendous ‘The Silent Arc’.

For me though, it is the peerless ‘All I have’ that screams out to me as the very best six minutes on the album, maybe even in the entire career of Evergrey. This song is, put simply, utter genius.

…it isn’t just another Evergrey album. This is ‘The Atlantic’, arguably the very best of their career…I say this now without any fear of being proved wrong: ‘The Atlantic’ will not be beaten in 2019. It is utter, unequivocal and peerless genius.”

And, for once, I wasn’t wrong. There really was no other result possible. Ladies and Gentlemen – listen to ‘The Atlantic’, and bask in the aural delights of the best album of 2019, possibly of the decade…

Check out the full review here.

Avatarium – The Fire I Long For – Album Review

Avatarium - The Fire I Long For - Artwork

Artist: Avatarium

Album Title: The Fire I Long For

Label: Nuclear Blast

Date of Release: 22 November 2019

Greatness and class will always shine through. And if ever there was an example of this, it’s Avatarium.

Why do I say this? Because I have never really been a fan of ‘classic’ 70s doom music. And I’m not the biggest fan of organic, dare I say ‘occult’ or ‘retro rock’ either. So a marriage of these elements shouldn’t be something that I get on board with. However, in spite of this, I really like ‘The Fire I Long For’, the fourth release from Swedish quintet Avatarium.

I have followed Avatarium since the beginning, if I’m honest, because of the Marcus Jidell connection; one of the good guys in the heavy music scene and a hugely talented guitarist, I was saddened by his departure from Evergrey and was eager to find out what the future held for him. Happily, I have always enjoyed the output of his new home, Avatarium, and so when I heard that a new record was due out, I was interested to hear it.

However, comments that suggested a further toning-down of the heaviness and a more pronounced 70s vibe led me to question whether ‘The Fire I Long For’ would be as enjoyable as previous output. And that led to me stalling over taking a listen. I shouldn’t have been concerned though, because as I said before, class will always shine through. The result is yet another excellent record and, if there is any justice in this world, it should lead to even greater success for the band.

Avatarium’s original unique selling point was the fact that they were co-created by the formidable doom merchant, Leif Edling, he of Candlemass fame of course. This inevitably drew in fans from across the world but, with increased health problems, Edling’s role has diminished over time. Now relegated to assisting in the songwriting for a few compositions only, ‘The Fire I Long For’ is the album that allows the group to demonstrate what they are capable of, largely under their own steam.

The first thing to say is that the songwriting is incredibly strong. Whatever guise the compositions take, be it heavier or softer and more subtly nuanced, they just work. It helps that the execution from all corners of the band is out of the top drawer, with each musician clearly understanding their role and almost effortlessly enhancing the overall sound. This isn’t an exercise in frivolity; it’s about everyone coming together to create the best music that they can.

A doff of the cap must therefore be given to Mr Jidell who, alongside delivering some delicious guitar work, full of wonderful touch, feel and sophistication, has played arguably the most significant role in the songwriting department. As such, the album is chock full of delightful melodies that compliment the varying degrees of light and shade experienced throughout the entire record. These melodies are then enhanced by Avatarium’s not-so-secret weapon: vocalist Jennie-Ann Smith. Blessed with an incredibly rich and vibrant voice, Smith is able to add emotion, authenticity and a touch of class to the already excellent material. Her voice fits both the more metallic and the more sensitive, introspective pieces like the proverbial velvet glove and it is almost impossible not to get swept up in her performance here.



Initial reports of a reduction in the heavy doom element of Avatarium’s sound appeared greatly exaggerated initially, as opening track ‘Voices’ erupts from the speakers with an aggressive doom-laden riff, no doubt influenced by Mr Edling’s involvement. But more than that, you can immediately hear that the band have once again opted for a very natural, organic production, as the guitar struggles to be contained, a facet that only adds to the overall impact, especially when accompanied by one of the dirtiest, rumbling bass sounds I’ve heard in a while. The music feels alive; a living, breathing entity all of its own. Another tug of the forelock in the direction of Marcus Jidell, who handled the production as well.

‘Rubicon’ follows and again, the intensity, drive and energy is there for all to hear. It’s one of the catchiest, upbeat and satisfying tracks on the album, full of attitude and some memorable melodies, not to mention a dramatic and heady crescendo-like conclusion where the already thick soundscapes become even more dauntingly huge.

The first major signs of a lessening of the heaviness lurks within ‘Lay Me Down’, a genuine slow-burner that has a distinctly sad and mournful tone. I’m not a fan of country music either and yet, the subtle whispers, mainly evident in the guitar embellishments, don’t sound out of place or jarring to my ears. Mind you, my focus is mainly on Jennie-Ann’s voice, which is given the room to breathe and which subsequently beguiles the listener almost effortlessly.

The chorus within ‘Porcelain Skull’ is a beauty, a marked, melodic juxtaposition to the more plodding riffs that play out around it. And then there’s ‘Shake That Demon’, which is a dirty hard-rocking number that turns the clock back over forty years with its no-nonsense attitude.

Fittingly, ‘The Fire I Long For’ concludes in sorrowful fashion with the quiet, almost lament-like ‘Stars They Move’ which, like the aforementioned ‘Lay Me Down’ and the title track which builds sublimely to a fulfilling climax, allow Smith the time and space to fly free. And when she does, the end result is wondrous, and helps to stake her claim as one of the best vocalists in heavy music regardless of gender or subgenre.

I always try to end reviews in a poetic or interesting fashion but on this occasion, all that needs to be said is this: if quality music is what you crave, then make Avatarium’s ‘The Fire I long For’ the next addition to your collection. Immediately.

The Score of Much Metal: 90%

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others from 2019:

Mother Of Millions – Artifacts
Meshiaak – Mask Of All Misery
Strigoi – Abandon All Faith
CyHra – No Halos In Hell
Klone – Le Grand Voyage
Vanden Plas – The Ghost Xperiment: Awakening
King – Coldest of Cold
Alcest – Spiritual Instinct
Port Noir – The New Routine
Nile – Vile Nilotic Rites
Ray Alder – What The Water Wants
Borknagar – True North
Leprous – Pitfalls
Myrath – Shehili
Prehistoric Animals – Consider It A Work Of Art
Voyager – Colours In The Sun
Odd Logic – Last Watch Of The Nightingale
Avandra – Descender
Darkwater – Human
ZW Band / Zonder Wehrkamp – If It’s Real
Teramaze – Are We Soldiers
Rendezvous Point – Universal Chaos
Our Destiny – Awakening
Evergrey – The Atlantic

You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here:

2018 reviews
2017 reviews
2016 reviews
2015 reviews

Avatarium – Hurricanes And Halos – Album Review


Artist: Avatarium

Album Title: Hurricanes And Halos

Label: Nuclear Blast

Date Of Release: 26 May 2017

‘Hurricanes And Halos’ is the title given to the third studio release from Swedish doomsters Avatarium, a band that was formed in the minds of Leif Edling (Candlemass) and Marcus Jidell (ex-Evergrey, Soen) before becoming a reality in 2012. Their sophomore album, ‘The Girl With The Raven Mask’ was released in 2015 and, quite rightly, it garnered much critical acclaim. If the world was beginning to take notice of Avatarium, this record catapulted the quintet into the full glare of the heavy metal spotlight.

But much has changed in the world of Avatarium since the releae of ‘The Girl With The Raven Mask’. The band is now a sextet of sorts, but the back story is much more complicated than a simple addition to the ranks. Leif Edling has now stepped away from the bass but remains involved and can claim the song writing credits to six of the eight tracks on ‘Hurricanes And Halos’. Into the vacated bass slot therefore, comes Mats Rydström and he is joined by fellow newbie and organ player Rickard Nielsson who has replaced keyboardist Carl Westholm. The rest of the band remains the same however, with co-founder Marcus Jidell on guitars, Jennie-Anne Smith behind the microphone and Lars Sköld on the drums.

Given the comings and goings behind the scenes, it could have been easy for Avatarium to take their eye off the ball and deliver a new album that wasn’t up to the standard of their last. But to think in such a way would be a mistake and would be to do the members of Avatarium a huge disservice. When you have musicians of the calibre of Jidell, Smith and Edling, you’re almost certainly not going to get anything substandard. If anything, ‘Hurricanes And Halos’, which features a bigger song-writing contribution from the handsome couple of Jidell and Smith, is another confident step up for this band.

When I reviewed ‘The Girl With The Raven Mask’, I remarked that it generally takes a lot for me to get excited about an album that has one foot firmly planted in the realm of doom. Well, that statement remains true but Avatarium prove once again that they one of the few bands that can manage this feat. There’s something about this band that speaks to me.

This becomes even more unfathomable in many ways when I add in to the equation that Avatarium are also heavily steeped in 1970s nostalgia as well as seemingly professing an admiration for blues, classic rock and an occasional dalliance with psychedelia. If I take a look at my personal music collection, I have a hard job finding very much that fits within any of these genres. And yet, I love Avatarium. And I love ‘Hurricanes And Halos’. Go figure.


In trying to do just that and figure out why I have such a connection with this band, I have hit upon many possibilities.

Firstly, there is the raw honesty and genuine depth found within the compositions themselves. You get the distinct impression as you listen, that nothing has been left at the door with these guys – it is all or nothing. When Jennie-Anne sings, she sings with such passion and richness that you can’t help but listen, rapt as she delivers her gritty monologues with finesse and such resonance. This is most definitely Jennie-Anne Smith’s best performance so far and at times, she threatens to steal the show entirely, such as within the chorus of the opener, ‘Into The Fire – Into The Storm’ as one of many examples.

With lesser musicians behind her, that might have easily happened. But not in Avatarium. In Marcus Jidell for example, Avatarium are blessed with one of the very best guitarists that I know of. I must have said all this a hundred times over the years, so once more couldn’t hurt. His style is not to belt out lightning fast lead runs or to show off with fancy gimmicks. Instead, he has a grace and elegance that means that he can convey an emotion or a thought with one carefully crafted note or a series of well thought-out chords.

As demonstrated in the aforementioned heady opener, ‘Into The Fire – Into The Storm’, Marcus has not forgotten how to rock out either. The song begins with a strong 70s doomy riff that gets things off to a bold and striking start. The Hammond organ of the equally impressive Nielsson joins the party briefly before becoming an integral part of the grand chorus and later, offers an indulgent but entirely fitting lead solo.

‘The Starless Sleep’ is another superb track, one that underlines the doom credentials of Avatarium as well as underlining the strength of the oft-unsung rhythm section. Skold’s drumming is precise but has a loose, carefree feel to it, whilst bassist Mats Rydström delivers a really satisfying low-end rumble to inject gravitas to the music.

The stripped back and darkly textured ‘Road To Jerusalem’ is the perfect song to act as contrast to the higher-octane opening tracks. It also showcases the beautifully organic and honest production to ‘Hurricanes And Halos’. This is not an album to be smothered in clever, modern effects or polished to within an inch of its life. Instead, in keeping with the music itself, producer Marcus Jidell alongside David Castillo (mixing – Katatonia, Opeth) and Jens Bogren (mastering – Soilwork, Sepultura) have created a living, breathing, colourful beast that loses none of the music’s potency along the way.

The icing on the cake with ‘Hurricanes And Halos’ is the surprising amount of variety on offer. Already I’ve described the full-on power and the more subtle sides of Avatarium, but there’s more to uncover along the way.

‘Medusa Child’ is a thoroughly engrossing piece of music that begins in commanding and heavy fashion. The hooky chorus then comes out of nowhere, at an almost complete right-angle to the more aggressive and potent music that surrounds it. And then, at the half-way mark, it morphs again. An eerie child’s voice sings the chorus lyrics whilst underneath, the band veers into almost ambient, post-rock territory as a quiet, subtle melody begins to build into a rousing finale, almost threatening to implode as it does so.

‘Hurricanes and Halos’ is as far as I can tell, as much an exercise in creating interesting and multi-faceted soundscapes as it is about crafting intelligent doom-infused rock music. This point is proven eloquently via the brooding ‘When Breath Turns To Air’ with its exquisite and melodic fragility. But it is then hammered home by the closing title track which is quite different in construction and tone, but is equally poignant and captivating.

For me, it is the perfect way to end the record, a record that has impressed and moved me in equal measure right from the off. I can think of no other band in the modern era who does this kind of thing better than Avatarium. That in itself should speak volumes about just how good it is. I doubt I’ll hear a more compelling doom-infused rock album all year.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25

If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:

2015 reviews
2016 reviews

Ayreon – The Source
Until Rain – Inure
MindMaze – Resolve
God Dethroned – The World Ablaze
Bjorn Riis – Forever Comes To An End
Voyager – Ghost Mile
Big Big Train – Grimspound
Lonely Robot – The Big Dream
Firespawn – The Reprobate
Ancient Ascendant
Pyramaze – Contingent
Shores Of Null – Black Drapes For Tomorrow
Asira – Efference
Hologram Earth – Black Cell Program
Damnations Day – A World Awakens
Memoriam – For The Fallen
Pallbearer – Heartless
Sleepmakeswaves – Made of Breath Only
Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius
Vangough – Warpaint
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day

Rikard Zander – I Can Do Without Love – Album Review


Artist: Rikard Zander

Album Title: I Can Do Without Love

Label: ZR / Border Music

Date Of Release: 11 March 2016

I never find it comfortable reviewing music by artists that I know and would refer to as friends. However, the Blog Of Much Metal is all about trying to support artists that deserve the assistance. So when I heard that Rikard Zander, keyboardist with Evergrey, had recorded his debut solo album, I had to offer my assistance.

I had heard snippets of the material via social media and knew that I was not in for Evergrey Mark II. But, with Rikard’s nervous-sounding comment of ‘it is very different to Evergrey’ ringing in my ears, I must admit I was aprehensive to press play on ‘I Can Do Without Love’. In order to retain credibility as a writer, I have to be honest. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to have to write negative things about an artist that I respect and someone who has become a friend to me. ‘Please let me like this’, I therefore whispered in mantra-fashion as I pressed play.

Fast forward more than a week and here I am writing the review. I have listened to ‘I Can Do Without Love’ a silly number of times and it is with relief and genuine pleasure that I can report that the listening experience is a largely positive one.

It is true, anyone looking for some extra Evergrey material between albums will be left very disappointed and possibly slightly confused. Despite featuring Evergrey’s bassist Johan Niemann and drummer Jonas Ekdahl as well as Avatarium and ex-Evergrey guitarist Marcus Jidell, this album is an entirely different beast to the day job. This is not a heavy metal album; in fact, at times, it’s not even a rock album, not in the classic sense. ‘I Can Do Without Love’ has as much in common with pop, country and blues music as anything else. It is the vehicle via which Rikard has been able to showcase his singing and keyboard-playing skills, not to mention his song writing abilities and on that score I have been left surprised. This surprise is partly because of the overall direction taken on the album but also because of the strength of the material.

‘I Can Do Without Love’ is an intensely personal and honest collection of songs, displaying a sensitivity and undeniable charm that snares you in and captivates, whether or not this kind of music is generally your ‘thing’. And it’s safe to say that this isn’t normally ‘my thing’.

Photo by Patric Ullaeus
Photo by Patric Ullaeus

The first thing that hits me is Rikard’s voice. It is so smooth and melodious but with a fragility to it that creates real emotion when the music requires it. I knew that Rikard occasionally engaged in some backing vocals for Evergrey but I never knew he could sing this competently.

If you’re looking for an example of Rikard’s great vocals, look no further than the opening duo of the title track and ‘Another Lonely Night’. The title track is relatively simple in its construction but aside from Zander’s voice, it benefits from a really addictive central melody and beautiful, emotional and soulful lead guitar work from Marcus Jidell, firmly in keeping with the sorrowful feel of the song.

‘Another Lonely Night’ is without doubt my favourite song on the album. The acoustic guitar and keyboard melodies, coupled with more brilliant lead guitar embellishments are beautiful and Zander’s voice oozes emotion, sounding like his voice might crack at any point. A distorted guitar enters the fray late on to add a nod towards Zander’s metal background but it remains strangely subtle and understated, merely enhancing the atmosphere of the song.

‘The World Makes Sure You’ll Die’ continues with the dark and sombre themes that loom large over this record but this time is comprised of just piano and vocals. Those familiar with Evergrey will no doubt recognise Rikard’s playing style and this is a song that, minus the vocals, could easily sit on an Evergrey album as an interlude-type piece or incorporated within a heavier track as a lead melody.

Whilst ‘I Can Do Without Love’ deals heavily with sorrow and regret, the music on the album isn’t always low-key and tracks like ‘Work Things Out’ and ‘Believe In Yourself’ are great examples of the brighter and breezier side of Zander’s song writing. The former has more of an up-beat bluesy country rock-inspired flavour, whilst ‘Believe In Yourself’ features some positive lyrics atop the kind of soft-rock song that could easily find its way onto mainstream commercial radio. Then there’s ‘Why Don’t You Leave Me’ which, in spite the lyrical content features a nice driving rhythm.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also room for a really excellent stripped-down cover version of ‘Disarm’, pretty much the only Smashing Pumpkins song that I like.

If I had one main criticism, it would be that the album is simply too short. In the time it takes to make a coffee, let it cool and drink it, ‘I Can Do Without Love’ is over and done. The songs themselves are quite short, generally around the three-minute mark and occasionally I find myself wishing that a few of the songs were a touch longer. But maybe that’s just the prog-head in me talking and anyway, this criticism could easily be turned into a positive: if I hated the music, I’d want it to end, not complain that it is too short. And isn’t there a saying about leaving the crowd wanting more?

Overall, I’ve been left mightily impressed with Rikard Zander’s debut solo outing, a conclusion that’s a relief but more so, is a delight to report.

The Score Of Much Metal: 8.0

If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:

Redemption – The Art Of Loss
Headspace – All That You Fear Is Gone
Chris Quirarte – Mending Broken Bridges
Sunburst – Fragments Of Creation
Inglorious – Inglorious
Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens
Structural Disorder – Distance
Votum – Ktonik
Fleshgod Apocalypse – King
Rikard Sjoblom – The Unbendable Sleep
Textures – Phenotype
Serenity – Codex Atlanticus
Borknagar – Winter Thrice
The Mute Gods – Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
Brainstorm – Scary Creatures
Arcade Messiah – II
Phantasma – The Deviant Hearts
Rendezvous Point – Solar Storm
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II
Antimatter – The Judas Table
Bauda – Sporelights
Waken Eyes – Exodus
Earthside – A Dream In Static
Caligula’s Horse – Bloom
Teramaze – Her Halo
Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud
Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle
Agent Fresco – Destrier
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld

Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 28

Can you believe that it’s already day three of my 2015 ‘Album of the Year’ countdown? I hope you’re enjoying my series and although it is early days, perhaps you’ve discovered something new or I’ve managed to change your mind about an album. Who knows, but what I do know is that, as intense and hard work as this series is every year, I’m really enjoying myself. I just love talking about music and I love giving plaudits to music that deserves it. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than giving space on my blog to artists that have, in some way, made a positive impression on me.

A reminder that 30-16 are only loosely and rather arbitrarily numbered. They are all extremely good and worthy of attention, hence the increase from a top 20 to a top 30 – it was too strong a year to only pick 20!

If you’ve missed the previous two instalments, you can read them here:

Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 30
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 29

Number 28

avatarium coverAvatarium
‘The Girl In The Raven Mask’
Nuclear Blast Records

Those that know me and my music tastes will know that I’m not the biggest fan of doom per se. I love the symphonic melodic death/doom but when it comes to classic, down and dirty classic doom rock/metal, I’m not always so keen. Today’s pick is, therefore, another early surprise in this year’s list.

Avatarium could be referred to as a ‘supergroup’ of sorts given that the band is comprised of bassist Leif Edling (Candlemass), guitarist Marcus Jidell (ex-Royal Hunt/ex-Evergrey) and drummer Lars Sköld (Tiamat) as well as vocalist Jennie-Ann Smith and keyboardist Carl Westholm. It’s a mouth-watering line-up for sure and they have well and truly delivered the goods with their sophomore release, ‘The Girl In The Raven Mask’.

The core of the Avatarium sound is very much doom rock/metal with a rich and organic 70s vibe, where the synths and keyboards pay homage to a bygone era of music. But not content to leave things there, the quintet have added their own stamp to the eight compositions on the record. The result is something that feels both familiar and unique. Progressive flourishes blend in with dash of psychedelia and a harsher edge at times to create drama, whilst a soulful edge is injected via both Smith’s charismatic vocals and Marcus Jidell’s guitar playing.

The title track is a heady opening to the album, featuring some great riffs and a tempo that’s utterly infectious. It’s Avatarium in full flow and the result is truly glorious. Other favourites include the more ominously ponderous and sprawling ‘The Master Thief’ which features some beautifully subtle lead guitar work, full of expression. Then there’s ‘January Sea’ with its melodic chorus and great vocals, whilst ‘Run Killer Run’ is a groovy beast that lodges itself instantly into my brain and won’t let go.

As classic-inspired doom goes, there’s nothing to match Avatarium in 2015. ‘The Girl In The Raven Mask’ is, as far as I’m concerned, the absolute pinnacle of this style of music and has to be heard by as wide an audience as possible.

Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 30
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 29

And from previous years:

Album of the Year 2014
Album of the Year 2013
Album of the Year 2012

%d bloggers like this: