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The HMO Top Albums of 2017

Twelve whole months of your human time have passed. An entire year of metal releases that have all been building up to one thing: The HMO Top Albums of 2017!

And what a year it was. I reckon the overall standard in this year’s list is the highest since I started doing these, with albums in the lower reaches that would have ranked higher in a less competitive year. Consequently, there was also a bunch of very deserving albums that just missed the cut:

Formicarius – Black Mass Ritual, Contaminated – Final Man, Power Trip – Nightmare Logic, Full Of Hell – Trumpeting Ecstasy, Vampire – With Primeval Force, Demon Head – Thunder In The Fields, Spectral Voice – Eroded Corridors of Unbeing

All of these were favourites of mine that would very likely have made the list any other year and I’d heartily recommend all of them. But there can be only ten…

NUMBER TEN: Satyricon – Deep Calleth Upon Deep

The black metal duo returned with this powerful and deceptively simple set of cold, bleak, groovy and progressive black metal hymns. Following frontman Satyr’s recovery from illness, the album was heralded as “day one of a new chapter”.  But it’s no reinvention, just the sound of a band knuckling down with fresh dedication and commitment.

NUMBER NINE: The Obsessed – Sacred

Doom icon Wino returns with a new lineup of his old band The Obsessed and an album that lives up to their classics of old. Hefty biker doom riffs with ace songwriting, soulful maturity and vintage musicianship. Wino’s voice and guitar slinging are as badass as ever. He sings “I was born with my heart on my sleeve” and, 56 years later, he’s still wearing it well.

NUMBER EIGHT: Artificial Brain – Infrared Horizon

No AOTY list would be complete without some death metal in space and this year’s guttural cosmic travellers are Long Island’s Artificial Brain. Post-humanity, cyborgs ponder life and their predecessors and the wonderfully ambient blend of tech death, beautiful dissonance and filthy vocals suits the theme perfectly. Also… might be the only album in my collection that features the word “urinals”.

NUMBER SEVEN: The King Is Blind – We Are The Parasite, We Are The Cancer

The King Is Blind make the HMO Top Ten for the second year in a row. No mean feat. This sequel to their debut album Our Father, brings that album’s biblical tale into the modern day with harrowing results. The UK headbangers bash out an intelligent, raging and monolithic slab of metal that fuses a whole bunch of styles into a crushing, grooving whole that grows in stature with each listen.

NUMBER SIX: Immolation – Atonement

No big back-story, concept or narrative to talk about here. Just straight-up quality death metal from a veteran act that’s still hungry. As with other releases this year, it’s definitely got a whiff of the end-times about it. But instead of dishing out the political rage, Immolation deal out a restrained, ominous and dark indictment of our times. Crushing, twisted, authoritative and destructive from beginning to end.

NUMBER FIVE: Midnight – Sweet Death And Ecstasy

Hooded demon Athenar returns with his third full-length album of black thrash hooliganism. No zeitgeist-y vibes here: just Satan, shagging and Venom-worship. But there’s a lot of creativity crammed into this album’s short running time and its bookended by two epics that push the band’s stylistic (long)boat out: swashbuckling, scything mid-tempo metal that invokes the legends of old… the legends of Ye Olde Bathory and Manowar. It’s that good.

NUMBER FOUR: Cradle Of Filth – Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness Of Decay

The loved-or-loathed British institution continues a late-career renaissance that finds them tipping the balance firmly in the loved direction. Themed around the Victorian obsession with death, Cryptoriana… is a darkly fabulous romp of hard-hitting gothic metal delivered with expertise and passion. It’s atmospheric, cinematic, galloptastic and just tons of fun with a vocal turn from Dani Filth that cements his place as the veritable metal legend that he is.

NUMBER THREE: Memoriam – For The Fallen

Featuring ex-members of Bolt Thrower and Benediction, Memoriam were formed as a tribute to Bolt Thrower’s late drummer Martin ‘Kiddie’ Kearns and what a tribute it is: crusty, primitive old-school death metal with a sense of tragedy and loss. But it’s not a total downer, there’s enough carnage here to please Bolt Thrower fans. Vocalist Karl Willetts performs with charisma and heart while the band unleashes the kind of filthy, strafing riffage that’s guaranteed to have you running for cover.

NUMBER TWO: Paradise Lost – Medusa

2015’s The Plague Within was a welcome return to growlier death/doom fare but I don’t think anyone could have expected Paradise Lost to dredge the depths of misery like they have with this near-flawless album of gothic gloom. Anthemic hooks, crusty riffing, mournful harmonies and a fearless vocal performance from Nick Holmes put Medusa right up there with the band’s best work. No small feat, considering the number of innovative and essential albums that make up this legendary band’s discography.

NUMBER ONE: Akercocke – Renaissance In Extremis

The great comeback of 2017 was the return of these much-missed British Satanists with their most progressive, personal and accessible album to date. But the blackened malevolence of old remains and the fact that this album could well lure fans of more classic fare into a more extreme musical realm suggests these suave Londoners are still doing the devil’s work. The eclectic variety, complex structures and dreamy introspection make for a fascinating, rewarding listen and the intense, dynamic, neck-snapping skill of the band’s performance is the stuff of metal gods.

HMO TOP ALBUMS BY YEAR

2017: Akercocke – Renaissance In Extremis

2016: Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder

2015: My Dying Bride – Feel the Misery

2014: Voices – London

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Cradle Of Filth – Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness Of Decay (Review)

Cradle Of Filth are a British institution, one of the most recognisable and successful extreme acts to come from these shores. But, while they are loved and loathed by many, they’ve never made a huge impression on me either way. I’ve bought and enjoyed a fair few albums of theirs over the years but I’ve never had that phase where I’ve obsessed over them, where they were my band. Until now.

Although I was late getting to it, I was thoroughly impressed with 2015’s Hammer Of The Witches, and the band’s latest album continues in that vein. Themed around the Victorian obsession with death, Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness Of Decay is a darkly fabulous romp of hard-hitting gothic metal, delivered with expertise and passion. The overall approach is still the band’s patented blackened Hammer Horror style but there’s a whole wealth of approaches employed. Heartbreak And Seance’s romantic melodrama, thrash fury on Wester Vespertine, You Will Know The Lion By Its Claw’s pitch-black savagery and there are wonderful trad metal gallops and harmonies throughout (most thrillingly in The Seductiveness Of Decay). Best of all, vocalist Dani Filth puts each song over and then some: a spirited and veteran performance of considerable taste, breadth and character.

Hammer Of The Witches reached some peaks of excitement that aren’t quite reached here but its a nano-gripe about a near-flawless album. And, on the flip-side, the latest album has none of the excess that detracted from its predecessor. For all its expansive grandeur, Cryptoriana… is tight and direct. The pedal is to the metal at all times and the band’s cinematic flourishes are weaved and layered skilfully throughout the songs with no boring intros or interludes to be found. The style is familiar but the album is fresh and stakes its own unique place in their canon. An utterly wonderful release from a veteran band at the top of their game. My band.

HMO Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Akercocke – Renaissance In Extremis (Review)

It’s been ten long years since Akercocke’s reign of progressive death metal terror reached a thrilling and diabolical climax with Antichrist. Although the band has lain dormant for much of the intervening decade, a vibrant scene has grown in their wake: superb “ex-Akercocke” bands like Voices, The Antichrist Imperium and Shrines forming a growing family tree that has been the source of much of my favourite music of recent years. But despite my huge love of the related bands, I’ve had a growing longing for an Ak comeback and here they are with their new album Renaissance In Extremis, the most highly-anticipated and exciting release of 2017.

Given that they reached peak Satan-worship on Antichrist, it is unsurprising that the ever-evolving British band has taken up new themes. This is a more personal and emotional Akercocke that combines topics of depression, grief and suicide with rampaging positivity and self-improvement. Complex structures and varied moods evoke the subject matter. The shimmering and colourful guitar textures would make Queensrÿche and Rush proud and it’s all given an energetic kick up the arse with an array of wonderful tech thrash riffing in tracks like Disappear and Insentience. And tracks like Unbound By Sin and First To Leave The Funeral find the band’s black/death malevolence of old is still intact.

Band photos by Tina Korhonen © 2017, all rights reserved.

The whole band performs with distinction, sounding sophisticated and polished but also raw and live. The riffs and guitar solos are sublime throughout: the guitar duo of Jason Mendonça and Paul Scanlan combine old and new metal styles with wonderful flair. It’s also especially good to hear Mendonça’s uniquely charismatic and varied vocals again. A couple of wobbly-pitched moments only add to the crazed, natural feel and Jason leads from the front like few extreme metal frontmen can.

There’s very little to quibble about here and this is a superb comeback album overflowing with originality and creativity. Progressive in the proper sense of the word, Akercocke have created another unique album to add to their discography. And one that has enough variety and maturity that many fans of classic metal fare may find it a gateway into a more extreme musical world. For those of us that already reside in that world, Akercocke’s Renaissance In Extremis is a joyous and welcome return, wholly deserving of the most diabolical and infernal praise.

HMO Rating – 4.5 out of 5

Scorpions – In Trance (Review)

Original cover image – with boob!

In Trance was the Scorpions’ third album, their first of many with producer Dieter Dierks and their first proper hard rocker. But we’re still back in the Uli Roth years here so there’s a strange mix of styles and moods. There are real driving, hard-hitters like Dark Lady and Top Of The Bill but there are also many songs like Life’s Like A River and Living And Dying that are mystical, almost-psychedelic and loaded with melancholy. Two different kinds of heavy, basically. Scorpions’ circa 1975 show off a complex mix of styles and influences: Uli Roth’s post-Hendrix, pre-Malmsteen guitar mastery; the mellow wistfulness of UFO’s Phenomenon; the epic scope, bludgeon and layered vocal harmonies of Uriah Heep and Queen and a distinctly European/power metal vibe. The combination of Rudolf Schenker’s granite riffs and Uli Roth’s scorching leads create real sparks and edge that never appeared in other incarnations of the band. There’s so just so much to love here and tracks like the bombastic pomp-rocker In Trance and the bonkers cyber-metaller Robot Man just never get old. The Scorpions would score big later with a simpler, streamlined metal style so this strange and formative early effort isn’t in the hallmark Scorps style but it is one of their best and the album, and era, I return to the most. By a long way. And that’s why it’s the first of the Germans’ albums to make it into the HMO Hall Of Fame.

HMO Rating: 4.5 out of 5

[Scorpions – Robot Man]

My copy – paired with the also-incredible Virgin Killer

Rainbow – Live at Glasgow Hydro 2017

I finally made the sacred pilgrimage to see The World’s Greatest Guitarist®. My expectations had been lowered after seeing the enjoyable but sluggish Memories In Rock footage and then hearing the banal single released a few weeks back but… Ritchie F. Blackmore! It was incredibly exciting to know I was finally going to, not just see him play live, but see him play rock.

The band’s recent recording of Land Of Hope And Glory played over the PA before the “we must be over the rainbow” sample heralded the band’s arrival on stage. Opening with HMO fave Spotlight Kid rather than Highway Star was a good move. Blackmore played tentatively and awkwardly but come the closing outro of the next song I Surrender he was warming up. He was taking some shortcuts in his lead and rhythm playing throughout the night but given his age (and arthritis?) it’s unfair to expect the intensity of his youth. He still played well and had that mercurial, unique quality. It was great to hear his instantly recognisable guitar voice in person.

Sorry, didn’t take any photos but this YouTube still from the O2 show is similar to the view I had.

The band was good too. A definite improvement on the 2016 footage/recordings with a much more convincing performance from the rhythm section in particular. Ronnie Romero was in superb voice and an entertaining, personable frontman. He suits some songs more than others but he was impressive all night. He’s a huge talent and a great find.

My only quibbles were an interminably long keyboard solo and some overly shrill shrieking in Child In Time, a song I can’t be arsed with at the best of times anyway. And, although it’s good to hear Blackmore playing them, I wasn’t too fussed about hearing other Purple stuff like Black Night and Smoke On The Water either. That said, some of the sets best moments came from the Purple albums: a stunning version of Burn and a very moving Soldier Of Fortune. The Rainbow selections were similar to previous shows with the welcome addition of I Surrender, All Night Long and a hugely unexpected and wonderful Temple Of The King. But the mighty Stargazer remains the absolute standout track of the set: epic metal bliss delivered with deadly conviction by Romero. Goosebumps.

Ultimately, I went to see a guitarist whose music and playing I have obsessed over for years. And I was not disappointed. In fact, I was often thrilled and excited. That’s pretty good going. Age and arthritis be damned, Blackmore is still the man.

Luckily, my friend Jo is better at taking photos than I am

New Akercocke Album Renaissance In Extremis Due In August

The return of eccentric extremists Akercocke in 2016 had me praising Satan like nobody’s business. Their new song Inner Sanctum was wonderful and I had a great time finally catching them live in Manchester.

Now they’ve announced the details of their upcoming new album Renaissance In Extremis and revealed the song Disappear that will open the highly-anticipated comebAK album.

It’s great stuff. Not as immediate as Inner Sanctum but it’s a tantalising taster for the album and proves that the band still has the knack for twisty-turny progressive death metal madness. Better yet, the pre-orders are up at Peaceville Records and the album will be available in a 3CD deluxe 60-page hardback with two bonus discs of rare recordings, demos, live tracks, cover versions and more!

Exciting news. The album is out on 25th August and promises to be a musical highlight of 2017. Hail Lucifer!

Thus Defiled – A Return To The Shadows (Review)

I don’t normally get all that excited about covers EPs (Danzig excepted) but Thus Defiled’s A Return To The Shadows is a total riot. The release marks the UK black metallers’ 25th year in action and sadly, also their last. The quality-over-quantity band hasn’t exactly been prolific during that quarter century so the chance to hear some new recordings is hugely welcome.

The main attraction is the new track Armagedda In Rapture and it’s a scorcher. The impressive production is simultaneously clinical and savage. It’s pure riff destruction with fantastic demonic vocals and it’s easily the best black metal track I’ve heard this year so far. The kind of song that’s so awesome it just makes you laugh the first time you hear it.

The rest of A Return To The Shadows is taken up by cover versions and, interestingly, the band opted to only cover non-black metal material. It turns out to be a great call as the band are able to put their own spin on a batch of songs that less daring souls would consider unfuckwithable.

They scythe and scream their way through Death’s Evil Dead and Metallica’s Creeping Death. Impossible to top such classic tracks but they inject so much energy and spark into them that the effect is like hearing the songs for the first time. You can’t ask for more than that.

Next up is a bewitching version of Morbid Angel’s Demon Seed and as an extra bonus they’ve got Morbid Angel/Nocturnus legend Mike Browning adding superb ominous and cultish vocals to another belter of a track. The cover of W.A.S.P’s Hellion that closes is the weakest here, a shade lost under the windy howls of vocalist Paul C, but with repeat listens it starts to make more and more sense. The riffs are undeniable and a black metal band that covers W.A.S.P. deserves instant HMO bonus points.

It’s a brilliant EP. Tons of fun and if it wasn’t digital I’d have probably worn it out by now. Fans of extreme metal should not miss out on this download-only release (available here). All the band ask is that you donate anything you can spare to the Chuck Schuldiner-approved musician’s charity Sweet Relief. It’s a great gesture and, with the band deciding to call it day and slink off into the shadows, a great way for them to close out an impressive career of evil.