After an unforgettable year of music in 2012, I had no idea what to expect from this year’s releases. It turned out to be pretty good! Even though no 2013 album came close to leaving the same impact on me as some of my favorites from last year, a number of strong albums earned heavy rotation in my iPod playlist. So, let’s get started!
NOTE: To read my review on any of these albums, click the underlined blue links.
Call MindMaze a little-known band with a huge sound. On their full-length debut album, Mask Of Lies, this female-fronted band from Allentown, Pennsylvania delivers a traditional heavy metal buffet with dashes of power and progressive metal. Add in catchy melodies, massive refrains, Sarah Teets’ theatrical vocals, and brother Jeff’s impressive composition skills, and you’ve got a lot of potential. And you have to admire MindMaze’s creativity. They know what elements are important in writing good songs, but they’re not afraid to throw in dramatic twists, crescendos, and subtle nuances and textures to maintain their grip on your attention. The band is already working on the follow-up to Mask Of Lies, and I can’t wait to see – er, hear – what they have in store for us next.
Favorite Songs: “This Holy War,” “Dark City (Dreaming This Life),” “Mask Of Lies”
Edenbridge is one of many bands I’ve been meaning to check out for years. And after diving through their extensive back catalog in June, I felt prepared to tackle the long-running Austrian symphonic metal band’s eighth studio album, The Bonding. And did I enjoy the challenge! Edenbridge scaled back on the metal this time to let the orchestral arrangements, lush soundscapes, and Sabine Edelbacher’s regal voice take center stage. The shift made sense, given the personal circumstances that inspired The Bonding’s lyrical themes of life, loss, and spirituality. Not to mention the live orchestra is what I love most about this album. Very few symphonic metal bands (except Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Stream of Passion) use live strings and wind instruments on their studio albums these days because of the expense. Hearing the real stuff on The Bonding adds a rich, film-score quality that truly makes symphonic metal, well, symphonic. This may not the heaviest or most exciting album to come out in 2013, but I found it to be ethereal, poignant, and gorgeous – and worthy of a spot on this list.
Favorite Songs: “Mystic River,” “Into A Sea of Souls,” “Death Is Not The End”
#8: Siren’s Cry – Scattered Horizons
Very few bands out there sound as though they were equally influenced by Nightwish and Within Temptation as they were by Ayreon and Pain Of Salvation. Austrian prog metallers Siren’s Cry are one of those rarities. Their debut album, Scattered Horizons, walks the fine line of virtuosity and accessibility with little effort and lots of success. Each song twists and turns through terrific melodies, razor-sharp riffs, jazz and ethnic nuances, and cinematic atmospheres. The charm and emotional delivery of frontwoman Katie Joanne draws you in even further. She may not be a powerhouse vocalist (a trend we’ve come to expect from prog metal bands), but she’s never overpowered by the music’s bombast and trickery. If you’re looking for clever, melodic metal with an adventurous side, look no further than Siren’s Cry and Scattered Horizons.
Favorite Songs: “S3v3n,” “Controversial Mind,” “Draconian Spectrum”
This is what I call a sexy metal album. Yes, you read that correctly: Sexy. But All Is Gone, the second full-length album by the Portuguese band Kandia, is not just a sleek and sassy metal wildcat. It’s actually a tornadic vortex of hard rock, nu-metal, pop, industrial, and electronic music. Even the slower tracks throb with pulverizing riffs, futuristic keyboards, and propulsive momentum. The music’s intensity must have inspired frontwoman Nya Cruz to turn All Is Gone into therapeutic release. She flexes her soulful, leathery voice to the fullest as she tackles tough topics such as relationships, social issues, and self-image. And I can’t forget one very important purpose All Is Gone served for me this past summer: my exercise soundtrack! It was the perfect way to spark and maintain my energy during power-walks.
Favorite Songs: “Bother,” “Scars,” “Our Final Day”
In my opinion, Hydria’s third (and final) album Freakshow is a huge improvement over their 2010 effort Poison Paradise. It also marks a major shift in style for the Portuguese duo. Freakshow shows Hydria shedding their symphonic metal skin for a vibrant electro-metal costume. With bold instrumentation, charismatic vocals, and layers upon layers of keyboards, it’s a true carnival of sound. Raquel Schüler’s charismatic vocals and playful yet socially conscious lyrics also inject a passion that I hadn’t heard before in Hydria’s music. It’s as though going pop-metal helped Hydria bring out the best in their songwriting and creativity. I would have loved to watch them continue to grow as artists after Freakshow – but since Hydria split up after the album’s release, I’ll have to be content with enjoying what Hydria sounded like at their peak.
Favorite Songs: “The Memory Song,” “Reality Shows,” “It Ain’t Over ‘Till It Ends”
I want to pull my hair out anytime I review an album and then disagree with my rating later on, even if it’s not a huge upgrade. The Theory Of Everything deserves a solid 9 out of 10 instead of my original 8.5. The eighth album by Arjen Lucassen’s renowned metal opera project Ayreon shows the mastermind tweaking his formula slightly, and with terrific results. A lineup of incredible guest singers including Marco Hietala (Nightwish), Tommy Karevik (Kamelot, Seventh Wonder) and Cristina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil)? As always! A fusion of progressive rock, heavy metal, electronic music, and folk instruments? Still there! Four 20-minute songs divided in a total of 42 parts as a direct reference to the album’s title? Whoa. It was a lot to absorb at first, especially since the only sensible way to listen to this album from the beginning all the way through to the end. However, Theory eventually grew on me with its recurring motifs and melody-driven monologues, conversations, and arguments. Now it’s my second-favorite Ayreon album of all-time, behind 2008’s 01011001.
Favorite Songs: “The Lighthouse,” “Collision,” “Magnetism,” “Love and Envy, “The Breakthrough,” “Alive!”
#4: Eklipse – A Night In Strings (North American Edition)
I’d heard of the German string quartet Eklipse last year but never formally checked out their music until they opened for Kamelot in Worcester this past September. Within minutes I fell in love with their beautifully arranged cover songs and became a fan. Since then, I’ve bought both of Eklipse’s albums. Out of the two, A Night In Strings (released last year in Europe but until this past June in North America) has left a stronger impact on me. The selection of songs on Night and the girls’ chemistry and expressive arrangements guide the listener on a journey through whimsy, mystery, melancholy, sensuality, and even the indescribably powerful. (Confession: I often well up during their rendition of Snow Patrol’s “Run.”) Each member of Eklipse is also highly skilled with her instrument, and their overall technique flutters through in different ways on each track. If you enjoy or have an appreciation for classical music, consider adding A Night In Strings to your music collection. Their most recent release, Electric Air, is also very good.
Favorite Songs: “Run,” “Clocks” (Coldplay), “In The End” (Linkin Park), “Wonderful Life” (Hurts)
What happens when an established pop singer auditions for a hard rock band? Would you expect a huge-sounding, female-fronted metal band for an answer? Maybe not, but that’s the case here. And Rise Of A New Day, the debut album by Misth of Sweden, is a massive tour de force of classic and modern sounds. Hard rock and heavy metal collide with progressive influences and retro elements like massive refrains buoyed by a male “choir” under Maria Rådsten’s leads. And if you haven’t heard Maria sing before – hang on tight! Her gravity-defying octave range, effortless control, and the sheer power of her voice put her in the same league as Floor Jansen (without going into operatic territory). Hands down, Maria is my favorite singer discovery of 2013, and one of several reasons why Rise Of A New Day is such a treat to listen to.
Favorite Songs: “Sending Down An Angel,” “Rise Of A New Day,” “Into The Void”
I doubt I would have discovered Japanese newcomers Early Cross had I not been on their record label’s (Lion Music) press list. Their stunning debut album Pathfinder is, in my opinion, the shimmering gem of 2013’s mine of female-fronted rock and metal. With this album, Early Cross marries elements from the gothic, folk, progressive, and atmospheric realms to create a heavy, evocative rock style with carefully crafted songs and entrancing vocals. And like its title implies, Pathfinder takes you on quite a journey. Early Cross explores so many moods and contrasts on this album – gritty, ethereal, foreboding, rousing – that it’s impossible to label as any particular kind of rock or metal. Labeling, however, matters less to me than feeling, and there’s so much feeling in Pathfinder that certain songs inspire me to write. Any album that can move me to that extent is a special one indeed. If you like Anathema, Autumn, Porcupine Tree, or old-school The Gathering or Lacuna Coil, you’re bound to like Early Cross too.
Favorite Songs: “The Fog,” “Hymn for the Fallen,” “Cry Havoc”
#1: Anathema – Universal CD / DVD
I know. Anathema’s Weather Systems was my #1 album of 2012. But Universal deserves to be here at the top, especially since it’s nothing short of magical. This CD / DVD combo features Anathema’s 2 1/2 hour concert at the Philippopolis in Plovdiv, Bulgaria with the Plodiv Philharmonic Orchestra. The set focuses mostly on Anathema’s past two studio albums (Weather Systems and 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here) but also includes healthy servings of older material. Every aesthetic about this package is of stellar quality: crisp sound quality that allows nuances and details to pour through, the breathtaking cover art, brilliant cinematography, and the band’s overall performance… Honestly, Anathema is one of the most engaging, moving, and enjoyable live bands I’ve ever seen, and Universal reminds me of this. In fact, listening to the CD or watching the DVD transports me back to the Anathema show I attended in September – and has made me fall even more in love with the band’s music. It’s also a great introduction to Anathema’s back catalog and a way to discover new favorite songs by them. Either Universal or Early Cross’s Pathfinder could have been my pick for #1. But since the former lifts me into euphoric bliss every time, the choice was easy.
Favorite Songs: “Closer,” “Thin Air,” “A Simple Mistake,” “Lightning Song” (DVD only), “Internal Landscapes” (DVD only)
- Rainover – Transcending The Blue and Drifting Into Rebirth
- The Mariana Hollow – Scars, Not Wounds EP
- Agharti – Change
- Amberian Dawn – Re-Evolution
- Josh Groban – All That Echoes
Coming Soon: My final review at Sonic Cathedral for 2013 should be online soon! It’s on Baliset’s new EP, Exordium. I also plan to work on my novel extensively during the next couple holidays, so maybe a new installment of “Chronicling The Craft” will be online around or after the start of the new year. Until then – Happy Holidays to all of you! I wish you much peace, love, happiness, and good health for 2014.