“But I know I’m in your calendar”
I don’t know what the UK Christmas Number One was last year but mine was Avatarium’s Death, Where Is Your Sting. Taken from the album of the same name, Death, Where Is Your Sting is one of the Swedish band’s most affecting and memorable songs: dark, sumptuous pop with a doomy bottom end and a stirring vocal performance from Jennie-Ann Smith. I treated myself to the album in December and listened to it tons over the holidays. Mostly because it’s tremendous but also because its lush Scandi-mood made it the perfect soundtrack for 2022’s other festive obsession: playing the Ticket To Ride: Nordic Countries boardgame! Crisps, dips, Appletiser, losing because I forgot to finish my train line to Lieksa, and Avatarium. Now that’s what I call Christmas!
“The mornin’ sun is risin'”
You never know what the new day will bring. I’ve been listening pretty solidly to death metal this week (Akercocke, Bloodbath, Gorguts) then I woke up this morning and my brain was playing Wheel In The Sky by Journey. Bit of a change of pace, but a fine suggestion, brain! Taken from my favourite Journey album Infinity, Wheel In The Sky is a standout song from the album and from the band’s whole career. It’s in D-minor, the saddest of all keys, but its bouncy rhythm, suvvern twang and Steve Perry’s blissful singing give it a strident, hopeful quality. Throw in an iconic guitar intro and a rich, warm production and you’ve got an absolute rock classic that never fails to put a spring in my step. Now let’s see what my brain’s got lined up for tomorrow… back to the good old zombie infernos I’ll bet.
“Crunch a number, grinds your gears”
A song about the dehumanisation and exploitation of workers should probably sound a bit angry so the topic is in safe hands with Brummie grind gods Napalm Death. In recent years they’ve been making some of their best ever music and Smash A Single Digit from 2015’s Apex Predator – Easy Meat is a masterclass in furious extremity. It’s dissonant and explosive with a superbly thrashy climax and an intense, vital performance from vocalist Barney Greenway. Napalm Death have been making excoriating noise for decades now and show no signs of taking a break.
“Nothing here can hurt you”
Holidays In Eden is a rare instance where an album’s title track is also its weakest. But in this case, it’s not that the namesake track is terrible. It’s just that, where the rest of the album veers between lovely pop and moody storytelling, Holidays In Eden is just polite, straightforward rock that doesn’t play to the band’s strengths. The verses have a nice carefree feel and the bridge adds a bit of edge but, in particular, the chorus always struck me as a bit weak. And, if the interviews on the recent reissue box set are anything to go by, Marillion never seemed to be particularly enamoured with it either. A song they say themselves should have been “wilder” and “better than it was”. Can’t argue with that.
“Ride out in midnight”
Tyrant were like lightning: they only struck once. Like so many other New Wave Of British Heavy Metal hopefuls, the Gloucestershire band only released a solitary 7″ single in 1983 before riding off into obscurity. It’s a shame the band never did more because the A-Side track Hold Back The Lightning is totally righteous: galloping power metal with anthemic, folky vocals that are a larynx-shredding mix of High ‘N’ Dry Joe Elliott and Trouble’s Eric Wagner. This was the first song I listened to in 2023 because I wanted to start my year off in suitably heroic and chest-beating fashion. Mission accomplished.
“A map to a constellation out in space”
As Xmas and New Year approach I’ve managed to drag myself away from my usual festive fare (KISS, Magnum, Steeleye Span) and revisit some of my favourite albums of the 2022. Artificial Brain’s self-titled album has been the most-played of the bunch in December and is definitely a front-runner for the year’s top spot. Here’s one of its best tracks, Celestial Cyst. It’s turbulent and rumbling death metal with relentless blastbeats and subterranean vocals but topped with spacey layers of guitars and keyboards that give it a tranquil, melancholic mood more associated with black metal. It’s a brutal and enthralling combo. Artificial Brain is the third album in the band’s stellar career (and the last in a dystopian sci-fi trilogy) and they are at their absolute peak. Metal fans in search of strange new worlds should get onboard.
“At the party of astrologers, the Christmas tide was due.”
Albert Bouchard’s Re-Imaginos is not a Christmas album but I listened to it obsessively in the run up to Christmas of 2020 (when it was released) so it’s become a festive fave. It does have a Christmas song on it though… kind of. I say “kind of” because I have no idea what Girl That Love Made Blind is really about. It’s a reworked track from Bouchard’s days in Blue Öyster Cult and it’s the kind of mysterious, cryptic stuff that fans have been picking over for decades. What does “the Christmas of my life” mean? Is it a beginning, an ending, or is it a reference to Cliff House (the San Francisco building featured on the cover and once burned down on Christmas Day of 1894)? Who knows. But it is a lovely and memorable track that has all the quirks, charm and cosy warmth that has made Re-Imaginos my favourite album of the decade so far.
“Got a whole new direction”
Brian may have been through a tough time with the breakup of his marriage and the deaths of both his father and Freddie Mercury but in 1993 he was back. And sounding rejuvenated on the soaring Resurrection, raising an erection with awesome guitar and the pounding drums of Cozy F. Powell – who was also back after being crushed by a horse in the early 90s! They both sound like they’re having the best time, May playing heavy and flashy but with a loose exuberance, driven on by an absolute arse-kicking from Powell that sends Resurrection into Sabbath Tyr territory. Fuck yes. Two rock legends, back with a bang.
“Past the point of no return”
Bolt Thrower scored a good deal of buzz and a record deal from their 1988 Peel Session. When you listen to the radio session’s opening track Forgotten Existence, you can hear why. This is thrashier than the lumbering tank-tread riffing the Brummies would become known for but it’s crusty and hefty stuff and, like a lot of the BBC recordings, sounds incredible. The riffs are very Slayer-inspired, which is a very good thing, and original vocalist Alan West has a punkier voice that reminds me of the early Kreator stuff that Ventor sang. This is also a very good thing. Throw in the band’s perennial “tragedy of war” theme and you’ve got one hugely promising banger. Forgotten Existence is a great start to one of extreme metal’s most memorable careers.
“Can’t scare you if you can’t be scared”
Abbath’s Dread Reaver failed to make my day with its frustrating lack of oomph. But on the album’s bonus track, a cover of Motörhead’s Make My Day, the band give it some extra welly and conjure up the kind of excitement that’s missing on the main album. The chorus is anthemic enough to poke through the band’s wallop of noise and Abbath does a good karaoke Lemmy. Normally, he sounds like the kinda guy that does battle with mountain lions but here he sounds more like he makes love to them. If he can start capturing some of this swagger in his own material then he might be on to something.