By Andrew Bansal
2014 has come to its halfway point, and it’s that time of the year when we look back at its first six months and spotlight some of the best music to have come out during this period. As always, I’ve given a thorough listen to every single album released between January 1st and June 30th, and have excluded EPs, live albums, split albums and reissues from consideration. There’s already been a ton of great offerings across all sub-genres of hard rock and heavy metal this year, and as expected, it was tough to shorten the list and then rank the ones chosen. Without further ado, here’s my list of the 14 best albums of the year so far.
14. Diamond Lane – Terrorizer: Los Angeles-based hard rock band Diamond Lane’s second full-length effort Terrorizer comes across as a refreshing dose of pristine, no-bullshit heavy music that’s focused on clean old-fashioned rock singing, catchy riffs, ripping solos, delicious harmonies and a lively rhythm section. Production-wise, the 40-minute album sounds clean but not overdone, and successfully captures the energy exuded by the quintet. The last time a new(ish) band generated this much excitement in me was Holy Grail in late 2009/early 2010, and it’s safe to say that Diamond Lane are the Holy Grail of 2014. Pick up ‘Terrorizer’ and look out for this band to carry the flag for Los Angeles and American hard rock/heavy metal in the years to come.
13. Wings Denied – Mirrors For A Prince: Hailing from Washington DC, progressive metal outfit Wings Denied have made noticeable strides as a band ever since they started out in 2012, sharing the stage with like-minded groups and writing compelling music all the while. This debut full-length of theirs instantly appeals to prog fans, and its standout feature is the unmistakable balance it strikes between showcasing musicianship of the skill level that befits the genre and injecting the amount of catchiness any kind of music requires to be remembered and be deemed worthy of several repeated listens. The opening track ‘Generation Y’ gets the listener hooked instantly, songs like ‘In Search Of Sunrise’, ‘Maiden’ and ‘Clockwork’ are winners in every sense, and the album ends with the excellently composed and arranged 11-minute epic ‘Six Years And A Day’. Wings Denied’s ‘Mirrors For A Prince’ is hands down the prog album of the year so far.
12. Black Anvil – Hail Death: Proud representatives of New York black metal for the past seven years, Black Anvil have come out with their third studio effort ‘Hail Death’ this year, and undoubtedly their strongest yet. Clocking in at 60-plus minutes, ‘Hail Death’ is certainly lengthy by extreme metal standards but its extended duration lets the darkness flow and truly makes it a beast of a record. Starting with the 9-minute opener ‘Still Reborn’, which is all-encompassing by itself, the album goes from strength to strength, and following the punishing and very aptly titled ‘Next Level Black’, it closes out with a great take on KISS’ ‘Under The Rose’, showcasing the importance of retaining the rock ‘n roll even in extreme music. Black Anvil’s ‘Hail Death’ captures the essence of black metal better than any other record so far this year.
11. Trap Them – Blissfucker: In their 12-year career so far, hardcore/crust punk quartet Trap Them haven’t failed to deliver, whether it be their live performances or studio efforts. Their fourth full-length ‘Blissfucker’ aptly encapsulates everything they’ve stood for over these years and makes quite a powerful statement. The four members of the band have combined their musical expression to absolutely devastating effect on this 46-minute rager, and aside from the tremendous monstrosity of the music itself, Kurt Ballou’s production is simply the best I’ve ever come across on a hardcore album, doing equal justice to the clean and dirty facets of Trap Them’s musicality in the best possible manner. ‘Blissfucker’ destroys everything in its path.
10. Exmortus – Slave To The Sword: One of the most tirelessly hardworking bands on the planet, Los Angeles’ heavy metal warriors Exmortus have finally been able to justify the potential they’ve shown through the past few years, with the release of their new album and Prosthetic Records debut ‘Slave To The Sword’. Filled to the brim with scorching shred metal at its finest, the record does not let its guard down at any point and there isn’t a dull moment to be found anywhere on it. Building up beautifully with opening tune ‘Rising’ and the title track, the album unleashes fast-paced guitar-oriented compositions such as ‘Immortality Made Flesh’, ‘From The Abyss’ and ‘Moonlight Sonata’ all of which carry a strong neoclassical vibe, but at the same time there’s fist-pumping, singable tunes like ‘Foe Hammer’, ‘Warriors Of The Night’, ‘Battle Born’ and ‘Metal is King’ which make it a complete metal record high on musical wizardry and wholesome cheesiness. ‘Slave To The Sword’ delivers on all fronts and puts Exmortus on the world map.
09. The Shrine – Bless Off: Venice fuzz-worshipping, skateboard-riding trio The Shrine presented their sophomore full-length offering ‘Bless Off’ earlier this year, emphatically outdoing their debut album and putting forth a highly enjoyable slab of their own brand of psychedelic violence. It’s without doubt a more dynamic outburst of the trio’s musical expression, as both the Black Sabbath and Black Flag inspirations shine through to a greater degree and with indelible impact. From the rip-roaring ‘Destroyers’ to the slow delight of ‘The Duke’ and the laid back roll ‘n roll of ‘Napalm’, the record has more than plenty for the old-school rock fan to dig into, and is best consumed at loud volumes with PBRs and joints on the side.
08. Moab – Billow: Los Angeles stoner rock trio Moab released their second album ‘Billow’ via Scion A/V, arguably the trippiest record of the year so far, as is proven by the exotic mysticism of its opening track ‘Said It Would’ which transcends listeners to a planet afar and keeps them there with what follows. The 38-minute album stays true to representing this genre with its heaviness and three-pronged organic musicianship but stands out amongst the efforts of the overwhelmingly large number of stoner bands out there today as it also showcases dark pop sensibilities, invented and immortalized by the likes of The Beatles and Alice Cooper. Moab’s ‘Billow’ is the surprise package of the year so far, and even if it weren’t available entirely free of cost thanks to Scion, it’d be every bit worth the money.
07. Boris – Noise: Throughout a career that has now spanned more than two decades, Japanese experimental rockers Boris have dabbled in a multitude of musical styles and genres, and as a consequence have never put out the same album twice. Their latest release ‘Noise’, 19th overall, keeps the pattern intact as it presents yet another different interpretation of Boris, another varied blend of the band members’ individual and collective musical influences, capturing elements of heavy rock, prog, doom, psychedelia, sludge, punk, dream pop and certain other things that aren’t apparent on a superficial observation but become more evident upon thorough listen. Boris’ live show is one of the most mesmerizing experiences anyone could ever have, and the influx of these new tunes is going to take it to further extremes. Boris’ newest offering is anything but ‘noise’.
06. Fu Manchu – Gigantoid: After a long five-year gap since their previous studio effort, Southern California rifflords Fu Manchu have rolled out a new album ‘Gigantoid’, treating the listener with 10 tracks of unadulterated stoner rock righteousness. Scott Hill and Bob Balch team up to deliver delightfully heavy, crisp riffs while Brad David on bass and Scott Reeder on drums hold the low-end to perfection, and Hill’s vocals come through with great conviction on top of it all. Fu Manchu’s ‘Gigantoid’ is an amazing example of the sheer impact a group of musicians can achieve by just doing the simple things right, and for any and every fan of heavy music, this album is instantaneously easy to appreciate.
05. Kobra And The Lotus – High Priestess: Building upon last year’s ultra-impressive self-titled effort, Canadian female-fronted heavy metal force Kobra And The Lotus have come up trumps for the second year in a row with their new album ‘High Priestess’. The 10-track LP comes across as a fantastic slab of pure heavy metal dominated once again by Kobra Paige’s soaring clean vocals but this time instrumentally offering a larger, more dynamic range of tempos and expressions to go with it. It’s impossible to pick out a favorite track on this one as it certainly compels a complete listen from start to finish every time the listener presses ‘play’ on the perfectly chosen all-guns-blazing opening tune ‘Warhorse’. Kobra And The Lotus solider on their journey to erase the negativity associated with female-fronted metal, one album at a time.
04. Marty Friedman – Inferno: To say that guitarist extraordinaire Marty Friedman’s return to metal was a long-awaited one would be a massive understatement. With eager anticipation comes excessive expectation, but through ‘Inferno’, Marty Friedman succeeds in meeting and surpassing all such expectations with 12 breathtaking guitar-laden tunes, unarguably his finest work till date and an album that comprehensively represents the musicianship he has exhibited throughout his career. Several months ago in an interview I did with him, he described this as the most ‘Marty’ out of anything he’s ever done, and he’s dead-on in his self-assessment of the record because ‘Inferno’ is quintessential Marty Friedman. Besides Marty’s brilliance, incredibly talented guest musicians Rodrigo y Gabriela, Dave Davidson (Revocation), Keshav Dhar (Skyharbor), Alexi Laiho, Greg Bissonette and old ally Jason Becker have lent their respective individual touches to the album as well, and it’s quite simply unmissable for heavy metal fans and guitar enthusiasts alike.
03. Eyehategod – Eyehategod: New Orleans sludgemasters Eyehategod have endured a lot over the past decade or so, and their fifth studio album has been in the making for a long, long time. Aptly self-titled, the record has finally seen the light of day. The band’s first full-length release since 2000’s ‘Confederacy Of Ruined Lives’, ‘Eyehategod’ encompasses everything the band has stood for, musically, lyrically and otherwise, and brings out the deadliest, most pissed-off incarnation of their sound. From chaotic hardcore punk on ‘Agitation! Propaganda!’ and ‘Framed To The Wall’ to the crushing doom of tunes such as ‘Parish Motel Sickness’ and ‘Medicine Noose’ and powerfully expressive spoken-word segments in ‘Flags And Cities Bound’, Eyehategod’s self-titled LP is a punishing barrage of riffs that demonstrate ‘Bower Power’ to the fullest, along with vocalist Mike IX Williams, second guitarist Brian Patton, bassist Gary Mader and recently deceased drummer Joey LaCaze also putting their best foot forward to collectively create a colossal record.
02. Tombs – Savage Gold: New York-based quartet Tombs released their third full-length album ‘Savage Gold’ this year, delivering their darkest, most aggressive and certainly most ‘metal’ effort till date, with an incredibly masterful combination of savage brutality and atmospheric panache. Erik Rutan’s unmistakable impact as producer is clearly felt as he brings the absolute best out of frontman Mike Hill and his band mates. Right from the outset, the record forms a vice-like grip on the listener’s mind and holds it till its very last note, as this 57-minute, 10-track epic makes ears bleed and simultaneously provokes thought. ‘Savage Gold’ is not only one of the finest records of 2014, but one for the ages.
01. Grand Magus – Triumph And Power: And perched at the top of this list are Swedish old-school heavy metal trio Grand Magus with their seventh studio album and second Nuclear Blast Records release ‘Triumph And Power’. The previous effort ‘The Hunt’ was absolutely fantastic and the band faced quite a challenging task of attempting to top it, but they’ve definitely done that with their newest LP which presents the the trio of Janne ‘JB’ Christoffersson (vocals, guitar), Fox Skinner (bass) and Ludwig Witt (drums) at their creative best and comprises everything that’s great about heavy metal: the galloping riffs and rhythmic patterns, the crisp clean vocals, the soaring guitar melodies, and the epic lyrical themes. With ‘Triumph And Power’, Grand Magus appease the old-school metal lover to the maximum, and with swords drawn, they look all set to continue their victory march, carrying an album that’s more synonymous with heavy metal than anything else release this year so far.