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

Half-Way Through 2015 – The Best So Far – Part 1

So far, 2015 has been absolutely huge in terms of the sheer amount of great music that has been released. In fact, the first six months have been ridiculously strong. As such, it is very difficult to bring you my half-way round-up in the normal way – there’s just too much to fit in. And also, I have reviewed a fair number of the albums as well, so I didn’t want to repeat myself too much.

Therefore, I thought I’d celebrate by creating a more punchy couple of posts that offer a whistle-stop overview of my favourite music released between January and June 2015. In no particular order, here goes:

Audioplastik – ‘In The Head Of A Maniac’
Bad Elephant Music

00 audioplastik coverFrom the minds of members of Frost*, Threshold and Darkwater, this was never going to be anything other than brilliant and so it has proved. ‘In The Head Of A Maniac’ is best described, albeit loosely and simplistically as a combination of melodic progressive rock, metal and pop with rich cinematic overtones. If your tastes dictate that you enjoy music that is rich and varied, deep and thoughtful, beautiful and genuinely unique, look no further than ‘In The Mind Of A Maniac’ by AudioPlastik.

Read my full review here.

Keep Of Kalessin – ‘Epistemology’
Indie Recordings

Keep-of-Kalessin-EpistemologyThis is one of the albums that came out of nowhere and knocked me sideways. I had never been enamoured with Keep Of Kalessin and only gave ‘Epistemology’ a listen out of politeness and curiosity. Within a few hours, I was hooked by the really clever blend of extreme black metal, power metal and progressive undertones. The final product is an epic album of huge and majestic proportions; the combination of extremity, technicality and overblown grandiose melody and atmosphere is truly a thing of beauty and something special to behold.

Read my full review here.

The Gentle Storm ‘The Diary’
InsideOut Music

gs coverThe Gentle Storm is the moniker given to the collaboration between Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon) and Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering). A double album, the compositions on ‘The Diary’ are repeated twice, with the first disc featuring the ‘calm’, folkier versions and disc two featuring more metallic interpretations of the songs. Both versions of the songs have their charms but the melodies scream out in both guises beautifully as do the thoroughly angelic vocals of Anneke. Another hugely ambitious undertaking involving Mr Lucassen has succeeded and with real style too.

Read my full review here.

Klone ‘Here Comes The Sun’
Pelagic Records

klone cover bigDark, gloomy and melancholy are just a few of the adjectives reserved for the ironivally-titled ‘Here Comes The Sun’ from French modern progressive rock/metal band Klone. There are similarities with bands like Katatonia within the Klone sound but nevertheless, they have their on distinct style and they’ve impressed me with their songwriting, unfaltering execution and a willingness to experiment both musically and lyrically. The result is a collection of diverse, challenging and evocative soundscapes for the modern world. And in ‘Nebulous’, they have a contender for song of the year.

Read my full review here.

Big Big Train ‘Wassail’
English Electric Recordings

bbt wassail cover‘Wassail’ may only be a four-track EP but when the quality of the music is this high, who’s going to argue? With this EP, Big Big Train prove once again that they are one of the very best progressive rock bands out there. Nobody recreates that quintessentially English pastoral prog rock sound quite like Big Big Train whilst being willing and able to experiment with folk and slightly harder-edged rock influences at the same time.

Read my full review here.

Leprous ‘The Congregation’
InsideOut Music

leprous con coverIn a six months that has been ridiculously strong for progressive music of all styles, Leprous are one of the stand-out bands, thanks to album number four, ‘The Congregation’. The sickeningly talented Norwegians have never released a substandard album but this is, without doubt, their finest work to date. It is arguably more immediate and accessible, but it remains wonderfully dark, quirky and complex. At the end of the day, no-one else sounds like Leprous and that’s what makes them such an important and intriguing band.

Moonspell ‘Extinct’
Napalm Records

moonspell coverCutting to the chase quickly, this is the best Moonspell album in my opinion since they released ‘Irreligious’ back in 1996. ‘Extinct’ contains everything that you’d want from a band like Moonspell. It is heavy, melodic and full of Gothic-influenced dark and foreboding atmosphere. Many of the compositions are monstrous anthems but there’s an immediacy and sense of playfulness about the material too. It all adds up to being a rather splendid and addictive album.

And that’s it for Part 1 – watch out for more instalments in the coming days…

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

%d bloggers like this: