Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 25

Welcome to day 6 of what is my most comprehensive and mammoth end of year countdown ever. 2015 has been such a ludicrously strong year that I felt I had to extend the content from 20 to 30. With two small children, Christmas around the corner and a house-move still a very vivid nightmare, some might call me crazy. Well, they’d be right as I am crazy…about this great music that artists from around the globe have created for our listening pleasure. The least I can do in return is to write a little bit about the very best albums that have been released.

If you are interested in those releases that featured between 30-26, please check out the links at the end of this post.

As always, comment, criticism and general interaction is greatly encouraged – let’s hear what you all think! But the time has now come to reveal number 25:

Number 25

gs coverThe Gentle Storm
‘The Diary’
Inside Out Records

There are two primary reasons why this release features in my Top 30 list this year. Firstly, the compositional and song writing brilliance of Mr Arjen Lucassen. The second is the vocals of ex-The Gathering’s Anneke van Giersbergen. Put these two together and it is a recipe destined for magical things. And, as appetising at it sounded on paper ahead of the release, the result is wonderful, the musical equivalent of a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant if you’ll forgive the continuation of my food-based theme.

Arjen Lucassen is the reclusive workaholic genius behind the Ayreon, Star One and Guilt Machine monikers and so this album should be on the radar of anyone who enjoys any of the aforementioned projects. From a musical perspective, there are many familiar ingredients that instantly marks it out as a Lucassen effort; the song structures, the melodies, the instrumental tones, a whole range of different things.

Courtesy of: Tim Tronckoe photography
Courtesy of: Tim Tronckoe photography

And yet, The Gentle Storm, being a collaborative affair with Anneke van Giersbergen, is quite a different venture indeed. My full review can be read here, but to quote a small passage:

‘The Gentle Storm is, to put it mildly, an intelligent and multi-faceted beast. It’s a double album that features eleven tracks recorded twice in two different guises. Disc one features ‘calm’ versions of the eleven compositions whilst disc two revisits the songs and in the process dials up the metal. No suprise then that disc two is referred to as the ‘storm’ disc. I find the whole idea thoroughly fascinating.’

Folk-inspired melodies, Middle-Eastern influences and authentic instrumentation, coupled with the inclusion of a number of guest musicians throughout make this lyrical and musical concept album a really fresh and invigorating listen. The ‘gentle’ disc is subtle and beautiful throughout, enhanced by the truly angelic vocals of Anneke van Giersbergen, a singer that I could listen to all day; this is most definitely one of her very best performances committed to disc, I am convinced of this.

However, I would be lying if I didn’t say that the ‘storm’ disc is my personal favourite. We’re not dealing with anything approaching extreme metal and indeed, much of the heavier material remains subtle enough to let the heart of the compositions shine. However, I do enjoy the beefier guitar tones and the added sense of drama that the ‘storm’ versions create.

I loved this album upon its release earlier in the year and now at year’s end, I can say that my love has not waned. I frequently dip in and out of the release and every single time, I find something new to like or I change my mind about which is my favourite track. Importantly therefore, I’m still engaged with it and in truth, I suspect I will be for the foreseeable future.

To conclude, as I stated in my full review, ‘one day, Arjen Lucassen will be involved with a less-than-stellar album, but it isn’t now. The partnership between Arjen and his leading lady, Anneke van Giersbergen has proved to be an inspiring one, one that has delivered a double album which is epic and ambitious but ultimately a magnificent triumph. It might not all be to everyone’s taste, but I love it. Absolutely superb.’

Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 26
Album Of The Year 2015 – Number 27
Album of the Year 2015 – Number 28
Album of the Year 2015 – Number 29
Album of the Year 2015 – Number 30

And from previous years:

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

Heavy Metal Is Not Just ‘Shouty’ Music – Part 2 – The Female Voices

I received some great feedback to my original post entitled ‘Heavy metal is not just ‘shouty’ music’ but a few people criticised it for one important reason: my post only featured male vocalists. This was in no way deliberate and, to underline this point, I have decided to write a second post that puts some of the best female vocalists in rock and metal under the spotlight.

Putting this blog post together was more difficult than I thought it would be for a number of reasons. Firstly, when I sat down to write this article, I realised that that there are a lot more female vocalists in heavy metal than I thought. Secondly, I realised that I don’t listen to nearly enough music with female vocalists as I should. Shame on me.

The result is a very personal list that mentions those artists who have impressed me over time and more recently; the singers that genuinely stand out to me and offer something different.

Naturally, there will be those of you reading this that are greater aficionados of female-fronted heavy music (if you can even pigeon-hole it all into such a tidy niche) that will vehemently disagree with my choices. But hey, that’s good – tell me who I’ve missed and why…maybe I could then write a supplementary blog once I’ve fully explored your suggestions.

Anyway, enough of my ramblings, here’s my list of current favourite female vocalists in heavy music…

Lee Douglas

Caroline Traitler Photography
Caroline Traitler Photography

Anathema are in no way a female-fronted band; however they are a band that has within their ranks of late, a female vocalist in the form of Lee Douglas who is very special indeed. Mind you, that’s a bit of an understatement borne out of the fact that I find it hard to put into words how deeply Lee’s vocals affect me. I’m not sure that there’s another voice out there in any genre who can convey such emotion and touch me so deeply. Lee’s voice is elegant, graceful, beautiful, fragile, angelic and timeless.

Cristina Scabbia

Lacuna Coil - Christina Scabbia & Andrea Ferro

Ms Scabbia had to feature in this list because I’ve been a fan of hers and of Lacuna Coil from just about the very beginning. To be entirely accurate, Lacuna Coil feature dual vocalists and the interplay between them is what makes the band so interesting. That said, Cristina’s voice never ceases to impress me. It is full of power and attitude when required but it possesses a silky-smooth quality with an unmistakable Mediterranean flavour that frequently sends chills down my spine.

Tarja Turunen

Tarja Turunen 2013 1

One of the original and best, Tarja Turunen is a rare talent. Bursting into the conscious of metal fans the world over with Nightwish, Tarja’s classically-trained operatic delivery forced just about everyone to stop and listen. Note perfect, emotionally charged and possessing a deceptive strength, Tarja’s voice remains instantly recognisable. Not content to tread water, Tarja, as a solo artist primarily, continues to push her vocal talents to new, ever impressive heights.

Anneke van Giersbergen

Picture by: Bullet-Ray
Picture by: Bullet-Ray

I remember discovering Anneke van Giersbergen via the seminal The Gathering album, ‘Mandylion’ and, since then, I have been thoroughly smitten whether as a solo artist or more recently in conjunction with Devin Townsend or Arjen Lucassen. Anneke’s range is impressive and is capable of enhancing just about any kind of composition, from genres as diverse as Gothic metal, prog rock or even folk. Anneke’s delivery sounds so effortless and has a beautifully delicate, haunting quality to it that I adore.

Floor Jansen

Photo: Tim Tronckoe photography
Photo: Tim Tronckoe photography

The sheer power of Floor Jansen’s voice is frightening. However, more frightening is her versatility as she is able to deliver a classical soprano one minute and then revert to an out-and-out rock voice the next. Whatever the style, Floor is note perfect, confident and completely convincing, to the point that whilst I was never a huge fan of After Forever or ReVamp, I listened because of Floor. She may also be the much-needed saviour of Nightwish, although time will tell on that score.

Agnete M. Kirkevaag

agnete madder

The delivery of Madder Mortem vocalist Agnete M. Kirkevaag won’t be to everyone’s taste and neither will their music either. Nevertheless, if there’s one female vocalist that has the ability to surprise, delight and confound in equal measure, in my opinion it has to be Agnete. Blessed with an impressive range and the guts to try anything, the result occasionally borders on the discordant and uncomfortable. However, this is juxtaposed almost schizophrenically with some really subtly beautiful quiet melodic passages when required.

Julie Kiss

Photo: Gothicman
Photo: Gothicman

It takes a special vocalist to enhance and bring a certain amount of immediacy to a complex and technical form of jazz-influenced progressive metal. However, that’s exactly what Julie Kiss succeeds in doing. Her soothing and serene tone for the most part is coupled with a knack of creating unusual yet thoroughly engaging melodies to the point that the listener becomes enthralled and mesmerised by the end result.

Elize Ryd

Photo Andreas Amberg
Photo Andreas Amberg

Not content with two male vocalists, Amaranthe also boast within their armoury one of my favourite female vocalists, Elize Ryd. Frankly, most pop singers could learn a thing or two from Ms Ryd given that she clearly understands how to consistently deliver addictive hooks and melodies via a potent voice. What’s more impressive is that her seductive tone has the range to be believable both atop catchy pop-like choruses or as a direct counterpoint to a full-on metal assault.

Krissie Kirby


Full of power and attitude, Triaxis’ vocalist Krissie Kirby is a force to be reckoned with and, as such, is without doubt one of my favourite female vocalists in heavy metal. It’s rare for a thrash metal band to be spearheaded by a female voice, but Krissie sounds perfect in the role, matching the scything riffs and heavy rhythm section blow for blow. And on several occasions, thanks to a great blend of melody and brute force, the impressive-lunged Krissie helps to take an already excellent Triaxis to a whole new level.

Simone Simons

Epica - Simone Simons & Mark Jansen

What I like most about Epica’s Simone Simons is the variety and versatility in her vocal delivery. On the one hand, Simone is happy to project her rich, classical, operatic voice but then with little or no apparent effort, can switch to a more straight-up rock approach. And when the tempo slows, the softness and delicacy of Simone’s voice comes to the fore, in stark contrast to the growled male vocals with which she frequently duets. The fact that she is still so young means she can only get even better; what a wonderful thought.

The Gentle Storm – The Diary – Album Review

gs cover

Artist: The Gentle Storm

Album Title: The Diary

Label: Inside Out Music

Year of Release: 2015

‘The Gentle Storm’…if you stop and think about it and let the words mull over in your mind for a time, it suddenly hits you what a really nice, clever and simple name it is. A contradiction in terms it may be but it’s one that beautifully sums up what this album is all about. But more about that in a moment; first, some context.

The Gentle Storm is the latest release from the intense workaholic that’s Arjen Lucassen, the Dutch multi-instrumentalist that is occasionally – and rightfully in my opinion – referred to as a musical genius. Arjen has been a part of the rock/metal music scene for over 30 years and in that time, has recorded some of the most highly regarded music within the progressive genre. With The Gentle Storm, normal service has been resumed and this project stands shoulder to shoulder with Lucassen’s previous work under his several various guises, be it Ayreon, Guilt Machine or Star One to name a few.

To be entirely accurate though, The Perfect Storm is more of a joint collaboration between Arjen and his compatriot, Anneke van Giersbergen, better known for supplying her angelic vocals to The Gathering and more latterly, in collaboration with Devin Townsend but also as a revered solo artist in her own right.

Courtesy of: Tim Tronckoe photography
Courtesy of: Tim Tronckoe photography

The fiendishly talented Lucassen handles the majority of the standard instruments on the album. However, a plethora of guests join him and Anneke on the record including a choir and over 40 authentic, exotic instruments making it an ambitious project to say the least. But Arjen is no stranger to handling such huge logistical efforts as he proves once again.

There’s even a live band for when The Gentle Storm goes onto the stage. Yes, you heard that right, the reclusive Arjen is going to perform live. For this momentous occasion, Anneke and Arjen are to be joined by an all-Dutch crew comprised of guitarists Merel Bechtold (Purest of Pain, MaYaN) and Ferry Duijsens (Anneke van Giersbergen, ex-Dreadlock Pussy), drummer Ed Warby (Hail Of Bullets, Ayreon, ex-Gorefest), bassist Johan van Stratum (Stream of Passion) and keyboardist Joost van den Broek (ex-After Forever).

But what’s the music like that fans will be treated to?

The Gentle Storm is, to put it mildly, an intelligent and multi-faceted beast. It’s a double album that features eleven tracks recorded twice in two different guises. Disc one features ‘calm’ versions of the eleven compositions whilst disc two revisits the songs and in the process dials up the metal. No suprise then that disc two is referred to as the ‘storm’ disc. I find the whole idea thoroughly fascinating.

But that’s not all. ‘The Diary’ is a concept album lyrically as well. In celebration of their Dutch heritage, the concept centres around the Dutch Golden Age from the 17th Century, a time that encompasses the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer for example as well as new discoveries and advancements in many of the important areas we now take for granted. The story is then brought to life and given a real human element via the creation of two central characters. A sailor and his wife are kept apart for two years and their only means of communication is via letters, the content of which are explored throughout the album. It’s both am enlightening and touching story that only serves to add to the drama and richness of the album.

Disc one, the ‘gentle’ disc is stunning in its beauty. To say it is simple would be grossly unfair but so expertly crafted is it that the music gives off the illusion of simplicity; the melodies are hook-laden and breezy, the compositions feel light and airy and the almost ethereal vocals of Anneke sound effortless. The entire disc has a demonstrable folk feel to it; acoustic guitars, woodwind, strings, French horn, pianos and the myriad of aforementioned authentic instruments all play a part in creating an end product which is really rather special. Lucassen’s compositional skills are well-known and widely lauded but here, he has pulled out all the stops. In interviews, he readily admits that he wrote the music to allow Anneke’s voice to shine and he has achieved his aim with aplomb. The music is instantly recognisable as Arjen’s work but he has allowed his melodic sensibilities to come to the fore and has created some of his strongest material to date, allowing Anneke to shine like a diamond throughout. Frankly, so beautiful is Anneke’s voice that I could genuinely listen to her singing the contents of a tax return all day long.

I must admit that I wasn’t immediately put under a spell by the ‘gentle’ disc but I cannot deny that the more I listen, the more I want to return for more. The chorus within ‘New Horizons’ for example is gorgeous and captivating, the subtleties within ‘Endless Sea’ or ‘Heart of Amsterdam’ are remarkable and the almost cheeky instrumental interplay within tracks like ‘Eyes of Michiel’ is a real joy to behold.

However, I am the Man of Much Metal and for all the copious strengths of the ‘gentle’ disc, it is on the ‘storm’ disc where I unsurprisingly derive the most enjoyment. Others will no doubt disagree, but to my mind, the whole thing comes fully alive on the second disc.

Picture by: Bullet-Ray
Picture by: Bullet-Ray

We’re not talking extreme metal here and, in all honesty, the metal excesses and fripperies could have been further embellished had the mood taken the duo. However, in spite of this laudable restraint, the ante is nevertheless upped significantly. On opener ‘Endless Sea’, the guitars and dramatic symphonics are brought more to the fore to wonderful effect. The choir sounds magnificent and Anneke’s vocal delivery is captivating, reminding me more of her output on The Gathering’s seminal release ‘Mandylion’ than anything else she has put her name and considerable talents to since.

‘Heart of Amsterdam’ benefits second time around from a surprisingly chunky and heavy guitar tone that I adore and the whole thing has a grandiose majesty and beauty that cannot be ignored.

One of many highlights however must be the delightful ‘Shores of India’ with its Middle Eastern melodies and tangible exotic flavour. Coupled with a really superb rhythm guitar tone, big choir-led crescendo and another brilliant vocal delivery from Anneke, it’s a real head-turner and one of the strongest compositions on this record.

One day, Arjen Lucassen will be involved with a less-than-stellar album, but it isn’t now. The partnership between Arjen and his leading lady, Anneke van Giersbergen has proved to be an inspiring one, one that has delivered a double album which is epic and ambitious but ultimately a magnificent triumph. It might not all be to everyone’s taste, but I love it. Absolutely superb.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.25

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

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

Unknown & Underrated – Part 4

In the fourth instalment of my ‘Unknown & Underrated’ series, I look at three very different bands, covering a wide range of genres. It is arguable that these bands are less unknown or underrated than others within the series but, from my perspective as a metal head in the UK, they are still in need of a lot more attention that they currently enjoy.

Oh, and if you missed the previous instalments, you can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Moonspell – Irreligious

It depends where in the world you live as to whether Moonspell are considered ‘underrated’ or underground. In the UK, Moonspell are definitely in need of some more exposure and more love, hence their entry into this blog post.

This album was released in 1996 and has been in my collection for the vast majority of that time. On one of my early trips to MetalHeadz in Camden, I took a punt on a live compilation CD entitled ‘Out Of The Dark’ (check this out too by the way!). On that disc were two live tracks from a variety of artists including Sentenced, Rotting Christ, The Gathering and Moonspell. I have since taken most of these bands to my heart and based on the content of this disc, I was keen to get some Moonspell in my life. A trip to the flagship HMV store on Oxford Street provided me with the opportunity to purchase ‘Irreligious’ which drew my attention thanks to a rich and vibrant front cover.

Almost every single track on this disc is a Gothic metal anthem in my opinion. ‘Opium’ kicks things off in fine upbeat style, but then it never lets up, with ‘Awake’, ‘For A Taste Of Eternity’ and several other brilliant tracks to enjoy. And the whole thing culminates in one of the biggest metal anthems that I own – the marvellous ‘Full Moon Madness’. So melodic and so decadent all at the same time, it always features in playlists made up of my favourite tracks.

The songs are drenched in synths which give the album its atmospheric, theatrical and Gothic edge. Some of the synth parts are subtle, some are not and, in spite of the fact that it could sound cheesy or overly pretentious I think it really works and wouldn’t change a thing. In fact, it is the overt grandiosity that draws me most to the record.

I love the way the guitars come and go, crushingly distorted and wailing when they do enter the fray. The melodies are memorable to the point of getting permanently burned into your psyche and the rhythm section is undeniably impressive. In fact, the drum sound is one of the most appealing factors for me as the tom fills in particular are so damn powerful.

The whole thing is topped off by the fabulously rich, low tones of Fernando Ribeiro. He has such a distinctive approach that moves from whispered spoken word, to gruff growling via a decadent melodic croon. The whole thing is brilliant and it still beggars belief how this band are not better known in the UK. This needs to change. Now.

Darkane – Expanding Senses

Darkane are a technical thrash metal band from Sweden with progressive and melodic death metal aspects to their sound. Their albums are all slightly different in their approach and it is 2002’s ‘Expanding Senses’ that strikes the biggest chord with me.

Theirs is not a name known massively in metal circles and I think that much of this is down to the fact that they got unfairly lumped in with their melodic death metal compatriots around the turn of the millennium. Whilst everyone was checking out the likes of In Flames and Soilwork et al, Darkane were being somewhat overlooked. It is a shame because there really isn’t that much in common with these bands. This is a thrash metal band first and foremost. They utilise gruff vocals and their songs feature melodic choruses but that does not make them a melodic death metal band.

‘Expanding Senses’ is, from start to finish, fantastic. It is a heavy and aggressive thrash beast with an intensity that is hard to beat. The riffing is razor sharp, the solos clinical and both are fast-paced in the main. Then there’s the musical and compositional technicality, which is often jaw-droppingly good. Believe it or not though, this is not their most technical album.

To help balance out the aggression and technicality, the Swedes have injected a great deal of dynamic groove and melody to proceedings. When the pace slows, it is either to introduce a great headbang-worthy riff or to open the song out into a melodic chorus. The choruses are further enhanced by the vocals which transform from aggressive and gruff to a cleaner and more accessible approach. These vocals really make the choruses soar, many of which send a shiver down my spine, no matter how many times I listen to them.

This is a band that, if given a listen, is likely to appeal to a large number of metal heads. Thrash fans should love it, as should those who lap up a more intelligent brand of metal. And, somewhat ironically, there is certainly enough in the compositions to entice fans of melodic death metal as well. Hell, I discovered Darkane whilst exploring the likes of Soilwork and Dark Tranquillity and it was one of the best discoveries I made. Forget what you think you know about Darkane and give them a go – the chances are, they’ll impress you.

Fair To Midland – Arrows And Anchors

If challenging, eclectic, occasionally schizophrenic and melodic music is your thing, then you need to check out Texan quintet Fair To Midland. This band and this most recent album in particular was recommended to me by a couple of fans on Twitter and it proved to be a fantastic suggestion.

Normally, the description of modern alternative rock will not immediately attract me, but with Fair To Midland, it is different. Theirs is an undeniably modern brand of alternative rock but the whole thing feels different somehow – exciting, challenging and genuinely progressive. The core of the band is well-crafted and catchy rock but there is a welcoming quirkiness to the songs that keeps me coming back time and again for repeated listens. Including ambient, thrash, prog and straight-up metal elements, the album offers a heady and exhausting listening experience. Oh, and you can even add a bit of bluegrass and folk music to that list too. At their most bonkers, arguably on ‘Rikki Tikki Tavi’, there is a resemblance to the likes of System Of A Down thanks to the seamless blending of apparently disparate musical ideas.

What I like most is that however bizarre things get, it all comes back together through a magical vocal line or immediate melodic chorus. Take ‘Golden Parachutes’ or ‘Whiskey & Ritalin’ as perfects examples of what I’m getting at, albeit so ineloquently.

Atmosphere plays an important part in the music too, as well as the vocals of Darroh Sudderth, which are extremely impressive. In the main, the approach is clean and melodic, but do flit in other directions when required, further enhancing the eclectic qualities of this album.

If anything, their previous album entitled ‘Fables From A Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times Is True’, is equally impressive, albeit slightly less heavy and crunchy overall. So, all-in-all, this is a band that requires your time and full attention. Give them that and you may just get blown away by something truly unique and exciting.

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