If you’re reading these words, you have managed to survive eleven months of 2020. That detail alone is worthy of commendation, given the fact that nothing short of an intense and conquering alien offensive could possibly make this year any more harrowing than it’s already been. But hey, we still have about a month left, no? Plenty of time to be forced into alien labor camps or herded as consumables for some bloodthirsty invaders from 55 million miles away.
While it’s never a bad idea to push optimistic thinking, it’s also patently absurd to expect some magical switch to get thrown at midnight December 31st that will somehow allow us to awaken to a fresh, shining Shangri-la come January 1st, 2021. We all know this, and we also understand the unfortunate reality that this planet is probably far from done wallowing around at the bottom of the barrel. Bitter truth: Before we can expect to make global strides that eventually shift things back in a positive direction, every individual needs to make a habit of taking a great many small positive steps.
This relates to what we’re doing here in a fairly clear way: Power metal is our genre’s most optimistic off-shoot, and oddly enough, this remains one of the principal reasons why many metal fans don’t really care for the style today. Metal was forged in the fires of negativity precisely fifty years ago, and one of its most powerful properties relates to how it helps us either vent or shepherd negativity through nihilism / brutality / coldness / speed / etcetera. For many, metal is a familiar, somber friend when circumstances refuse to let negativity release its iron grip. We’ve become so accustomed to the this that our brains quickly reject anything inside our sphere that dares to dip into snappier / happier / more theatrical realms. Or, from another angle, we farm more cheerful music from a different forest entirely.
Every year around August I start thinking about We Have the Power and whether or not it makes sense to continue it. I do my best to stay on top of what gets released from one year to the next, but even for me—an old-hand, proud power metal enthusiast who was there when we didn’t even call it power metal—the sheer amount of contenders and the prospect of committing endless hours away from the comforts of more savage listening looms like the smiliest thunderhead ever imagined. But an interesting upshot inevitably occurs: I commit to the dive and spend the better part of 12+ weeks cramming massive amounts of Euro, US, progressive, epic and symphonic power into my ears from literally every corner of the globe, and the magic of all that seemingly infeasible brightness eventually settles in and I become…happier. Or, at a minimum, more open to becoming happier, and better equipped to deal, because those terrifically ostentatious choruses and all that bright melody has a wonderful way of popping up at the most opportune times. Positive steps, baby.
Lesson 1: Honestly devote time to something positive, even if it’s happening in the background, and it will find a way to facilitate positivity.
Lesson 2: Power metal and its relatives are a balm for the severe burn that is survival in the modern age.
So, what’s new in power metal circa 2020? Trends? Shifts? Earth-shaking developments? Nothing terrifically drastic, as one might expect. By and large, power metal gonna power. The AOR trend continues to infiltrate a fair amount of material (and particularly relating to a number of long-time players), and sugary pop certainly finds its way into the formula for those hoping to net a wider audience that includes people who’ve previously never considered metal as an option. Additionally, both the US version of power that predates its European cousin and the proggier end of the power spectrum maintain their upward (and very gratifying) swing, and a number of big scores come through at the hands of symphonic bands that sound as if they waltzed right into your headphones / speakers from some form of theater performance.As usual, the biggest difficulty going into this piece—beyond plowing through the sheer volume of contenders—is juggling where lines need to be drawn; the process of determining which albums lean too far into traditional or progressive terrain, or any of the other outliers that power typically loves to splash around in, is far from an exact science. Mostly, it’s a gut reaction, and that gut reaction is based on a healthy blend of experience and a desire to draw attention to as many worthy challengers as possible without straying too far from camp. Know this going in: With an impressive 173 contenders (the full list can be found waaaaayyyyyy down there at the end), it’s a pretty good bet that most anything that falls close to the target was considered, and if we differ on genre lines… Well, ain’t life a wild rollie coaster.
Two more quick matters to mention before diving in: 1) Anubis Gate’s Covered in Colours was nixed because it’s solely comprised of cover songs. It’s a very good album of cover songs, but keeping things pointed toward original material seems like a good boundary to set.
2) With 173 contenders pared down to a relatively slim 25, I am comfortable stating that every one of the albums that managed to land a position were thoroughly enjoyed and stand worthy of attention, regardless of where they happened to land amidst the 25. These records were the soundtrack to my sanity in 2020, and I am extremely thankful for their continued company.
Oh, and welcome to Last Rites’ List Season.
THE TOP 3 EP’S
3. Anubis – Anubis
Los Angeles, CA’s Anubis hasn’t been in action very long (this is their second EP in two years of existence), but they’re making the early years count by delivering a tasty and polished form of aggressive power / thrash that should appeal to those into bands such as Iced Earth, Iron Savior and of course the Painkiller variation of Judas Priest. They don’t exactly bring anything new to the table, but with a member of Hatchet and a scattering of melodic death metal personnel in the ranks, these 11 minutes will go a long way if you love precise power that packs a significant punch.
2. Fellowship – Fellowship
A band like Fellowship begets a form of playful, medieval power metal that apparently inspires dopes like me to use the word “beget,” but it also calls to mind something you might expect to hear created by a squad that got together after bonding over Freedom Call in High School Drama Club. That’s an advantage, in case you decide to walk away from this thinking I have some sort of problem with Freedom Call or HS Drama Clubs. Is the Fellowship EP a little squirrelly? Yeah, maybe a bit. But it’s okay to be squirrelly in power metal if your songcrafting skill eclipses the squirrelly element, and that is precisely the case with Fellowship.
1. Lör – Edge of Eternity
If Lör had decided to call Edge of Eternity a full-length (fairly reasonable, considering its 30-minute run time), it would have made an extremely difficult choice for the top 5 full-lengths of 2020 even trickier. In that regard, I am relieved it’s considered an EP. Here’s what I had to say in a review back in May:
“What has three years and surviving amidst a pandemic done for the explorers behind Lör? Edge of Eternity is a very logical progression from In Forgotten Sleep, with a sharper focus that compresses the song lengths (relatively speaking—these aren’t exactly “short” jingles) without sacrificing an ounce of the band’s sense of adventure. So, while the 10-minute (plus) runs from the previous full-length are now gone, this EP still manages to feel just as epic. A little less of the proggy face in favor of the folk and power elements, perhaps, but it’s still very clearly the product of the very same band.”
THE TOP 25 FULL-LENGTHS OF 2020
25. Primal Fear – Metal Commando
[Cover artwork: Stephan Lohrmann]
Primal Fear has been playing the same game long enough that the images conjured upon learning of a new release will likely have a match rate that hovers around 100% once the veil finally lifts. The cover artwork and album / song titles are essentially stock at this point, and we know each release will represent a very bright, straight-forward form of catchy power metal torn from the Painkiller playbook + lyrics that will likely make some squinch here and there. This sort of “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” approach has worked for endless bands over the years, but it rarely bodes well when it comes time for Best Of The Year talk. Right on schedule, Metal Commando does each and everything we expect from Primal Fear at this point, but it’s simply more effective amidst a year where even handshakes were taken off the table. Plus, the record really nails that stretched epic (“Infinity” [13:12]) for a triumphant closer.
24. Ilium – Carcinogeist
[Cover artwork: Uncredited]
Ilium’s 2005 release, Permian Dusk, was the second review I hacked out when I first started writing about the heavy metals 15 years ago under the Metal Review banner. The review itself was a bit too shite to drag over to Last Rites, but I recall being rather taken by the band’s brand of galloping, melodic power that avoided the more sugary elements prevalent in much of the Euro scene. I completely lost track of Ilium in the subsequent years, but seeing the name Lord Tim tacked to a release once again in the vocal department piqued my interest enough to jump aboard. Carcinogeist sounds exactly as I’d hoped: dazzling, speedy power that goes hard for hook and melody without ever spooning too much sugar over the top. Lord Tim (the voice that never ages) sounds terrific, and the prettiness of the melody is suitably offset by plenty of punch.
23. Judicator – Let there Be Nothing
[Cover artwork: Mitchell Nolte]
More than a few of us Last Riters found ourselves converted to the ways of Judicator with 2015’s excellent At the Expense of Humanity and the subsequent The Last Emperor in 2018, so seeing full-length number five not crack the top ten might be a bit of a jolt to some. Firstly, you ain’t making it to the top 25 out of 173 without delivering the goods—and make no mistake, Let there Be Nothing is quite good—but it’s also a more difficult nut to crack compared to previous efforts. Those won over by the band’s enthusiasm for bright, aggressive melody are greeted by a surprisingly meaty production that favors the bottom end in lieu of crisp radiance, and heft probably ain’t the proper objective here. With a better mix, Let there Be Nothing might jump up the ranks, and it’s still delivered by one of the shining beacons of the US power scene, so it’s clearly worthy of attention and support.
22. Greyhawk – Keepers of the Flame
[Cover artwork: Uncredited]
Greyhawk: “Here, have a Star Frontiers adventure that features a more modern version of Thundarr the Barbarian galavanting about with Firestar that sounds as if Manowar, Riot and Vinnie Vincent Invasion had a threesome right on the table at a Magic the Gathering tournament. And let’s throw one song into the mix that sounds like Sisters of Mercy decided to slip out of their leather pantaloons and into the debauchery just to keep everyone guessing.”
The world: “Sign me up.”
Seattle City’s Greyhawk understands that while it’s clearly important that life allow ample time for crushing your enemies and seeing them driven before you, sometimes what’s truly best is to hear the lamentation of the 99-pack of Pabst you and your crew are about to destroy while listening to a record like Keepers of the Flame on repeat.
21. Dakesis – Fractures
[Cover artwork: Seventh Sky Media]
One of the things I love the most about metal in the modern age is that relatively obscure bands can swoop in from out of the blue and drop an album that sounds as big and gloriously showy as what gets produced by veterans with major label backing and multiple decades under their belts. Birmingham, England’s Dakesis isn’t exactly new—Fractures is their third full-length in 12 years—but chances are pretty good that they ain’t exactly a household name if you’re not obsessive about the underground. It’s probably about time the attention starts shifting their direction, though, as Fractures offers up some really tasty (moderately) symphonic progressive power metal that blurs the lines between ren faire and science fiction. Vocalist / keyboardist Gemma Lawler has a terrific voice, the bass play and walloping drumming bring serious weight, and guitarist Matt Jones puts on a clinic for aggressive riffing (paggressive metal?) and stellar lead play.
20. Paralydium – Worlds Beyond
[Cover artwork: Gustavo Sazes]
Oh, hey, Dynazty released a brand new album in 2020. We Have the Power likes Dynazty, and The Dark Delight is a solid album that sees the band mixing in a perhaps surprising bit of gloominess into their otherwise bright power / hard rock formula. That record isn’t as good as this, though, which features two current members of Dynazty (bassist Jonathan Olsson and drummer George Egg) and an ex-Dynazty member (John Berg) on guitar. Where Paralydium differs is… Well, basically everywhere—Worlds Beyond offers up 45 minutes of very good, straightforward (but not at all plain) progressive power that should appeal to anyone into bands such as Threshold (UK) and Symphony X. Expect plenty of twists and turns, a generally sunny inclination, and loads of lead guitar and keyboard battles.
19. Legendire – Sunchasers
[Cover artwork: Andrea Tentori Montalto]
I was beginning to wonder if Russia might boycott the 2020 We Have the Power Games, but in swoops the largely unsung heroes of Legendire with this year’s SECOND Orthodox power offering, Sunchasers. (The title looks more like Skychasers, no?) This album is sneaky terrific, which may come across as a bit of a backhanded compliment, but it’s mostly intended to hint at the truth that what seems fairly straightforward at first blush is actually a rather diverse, immersive experience once you’ve stuck around for repeated listens. Yes, it follows a fairly conventional form of energetic Euro power that occasionally bends a little too far into schmaltzy, but the leads are wonderful, the riffs are adventurous and at times surprisingly heavy (“Inner Fire”), the drumming is punchy and sophisticated, and the keyboards—while a bit plinky and retro sounding at times—add a nice epic element to the corners. The vocalist is the star of the show, though. I’ve always had a penchant for unconventional vocalists, and this fellow has a gritty, fairly sharp delivery that comes across like a collision between Kai Hansen and Georgy Peichev (Runelord, ex-Blazon Stone). He even manages to save the midpoint ballad “Meteor Rain” by eventually yowling like a forsaken power metal hawk. (He does not, however, save the late ballad, “The Last Song.” Hey, every band is allowed one tumble.)
18. Lovebites – Electric Pentagram
[Cover artwork: David López Gómez / Carlos Vicente León]
I’ve never had the pleasure of going to Tokyo, but I like to imagine that the first thing one experiences upon arriving is an extremely colorful sign that reads, “Welcome! Don’t be afraid of talking hamburgers.” If you want a sugar cereal burrito, you go to Tokyo. If you want to buy your next tour van from a vending machine, you go to Tokyo. If you buy a hamburger in Tokyo, it might smile at you and say the following before you take your first bite: “HI, NEW BEST FRIEND! I HOPE YOU HAVE FUN EATING ME!” And if you take a wrong turn in Tokyo and suddenly find yourself confronted in an alley by five women dressed in stylish monochrome outfits and impressive 5-inch heels, they are either there to kill you or they are a power metal band. Thankfully, Lovebites is the latter. WHEW! Although, with as many (impressively heavy) riffs and lightning leads as Electric Pentagram delivers, you very well might be dead by the end of this (honestly, a bit too long) one hour and eleven minute roller coaster ride of power metal glory.
17. Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall – We Are the Night
[Cover artwork: Stan-W Decker]
It is impossible to be in a bad mood while listening to We Are the Night. This isn’t because the record is packed to the rafters with endless reinterpretations of “Dr. Stein,” it’s thanks to the fact that Magnus Karlsson (Primal Fear, The Ferrymen, Allen / Olzon, etc. etc. etc.) understands how to properly balance power and AOR to a point where you always sort of feel like Sylvester Stallone in a giant pair of mirrored sunglasses when the record is playing. Some songs feel like you’re just sitting on the hood of your ’69 Camaro with an unlit match quietly resting between your lips, while others have the fire necessary to finally light that match and throw it on the villain you just doused in gasoline. No matter which of the myriad of Stallone moods We Are the Night happens to strike, there are an endless amount of excellent leads AND tons of interesting guest vocal appearances (including Tony “The Cat” Martin) to keep things interesting.
16. Brothers of Metal – Emblas Saga
[Cover artwork: Péter Sallai]
Full disclosure: When I see a power metal band counts eight members in the ranks, I get a little nervous. Eight members in a power metal act quadruples the likelihood of overdoing everything, and power metal with a more sane amount of members already has the potential to overdo everything. Big surprise: Sweden’s Brothers of Metal overdoes everything. They overdo their name, they overdo their garb, they overdo the pageantry, they overdo the stock Viking framing, and they overdo the entire kitsch element to a point where I almost fell down the stairs in shock upon discovering they list their actual names instead of randomly assigning everyone lesser-known Nordic god monikers. Emblas Saga sounds like the power metal equivalent of Amon Amarth put to a Super Bowl halftime show, and by Njörðr’s wind, these rascals find a way to make it really work. The songs here stick to your brain like fresh Kanelbullar buns, and despite the (fairly unfortunate) band name, the woman they’re extremely lucky to count in the ranks (vocalist Ylva Eriksson) towers as Brothers of Metal’s most potent weapon.
15. Firewind – Firewind
[Cover artwork: Gustavo Sazes]
If you’re here, you’re probably already well aware of Firewind. If you’ve somehow managed to remain comfortable in the miserable dark, however, just know Firewind is named after the song “Firewind” on Uli Jon Roth’s Fire Wind album, which is reason enough to jump aboard. Sealing the deal is the fact that Firewind showcases the fretboard wizardry of one Konstantinos “Gus G” Karamitroudis, who brings a level of “riffs fightin’ lightnin’” shred you’d expect from a label such as Shrapnel Records and a band like, say, Chastain. The Firewind formula has bent further and further toward the power end of the spectrum over the years (and perhaps even more into hard rock, to be honest), but each record of course never forgets to showcase Gus G’s uncanny ability to riff and solo as if his very life depended on it. Oddly enough, even that can manage to become expected over time, so it’s always smart to introduce occasional surprises to keep everyone on their toes. Firewind’s treat in 2020? The introduction of new (to Firewind) vocalist, Herbie Langhans. This guy is an absolute rocker who spits just enough gravel into those infectious choruses to keep things perfectly dirty. (He also lends his talents to The Lightbringer of Sweden, but he sounds even better here.) Anywho, Gus G is of course great, but Langhans is an awesome addition and the principal reason Firewind lands on this year’s list. Even the ballad jams.
14. Fairyland – Osyrhianta
[Cover artwork: Gonzalo Ordóñez]
I escape the horrors of the real world by surrounding myself in science fiction and fantasy realms each and every day. This is a perfectly healthy activity that millions of humans do to varying degrees, but I fully understand why some with a pre-existing bias against fae folk might draw the line at bombastic symphonic power metal fantasy packaged under the name Fairyland. However, if you’ve journeyed the fertile lands created by composer / keyboardist / Fairyland mastermind Philippe Giordana before and found your interest piqued when he announced the return of co-founder / bassist Willdric Lieven and the arrival of vocalist Francesco Cavalieri of Wind Rose fame (Fairyland’s fourth vocalist in, um, four albums) for the first new album in eleven years, you no doubt grabbed a copy of Osyrhianta way back in May when it was first released. Are you ready to call it the best Fairyland album to date yet? I certainly am.
13. Hrom – Legends of Powerheart: Part II
[Cover artwork: Allison Kay]
A little voice inside my head periodically attempted to convince me to push Hrom’s Legends of the Powerheart: Part II into the top five of this year’s list. Why then choose the coward’s path? While ever edging closer with each subsequent release, the band just isn’t quite there yet. Similar to Vulture’s Vengeance in 2019, the production on this record is rather strange and archaic and smacks of The Warning, and vocalist Jan Loncik sounds like an ideal collision between classic John Cyriis (on meds) and the late, extremely great Michael Grant (Crescent Shield, Onward). For these reasons, Hrom fully wins my heart. But there are also moments here that feel a little under-baked and in need of further editing, which, interestingly enough, might actually add to the overall charm. Recruiting a couple thrashers from W.M.D. for bass and drums this time around serves the band well, and the Traveler connection continues beyond a shared guitarist (Matt Ries) to include a guest vocal spot by Jean-Pierre Abboud on “Spectral Horizon” and “Triforce Command.” I anticipate the next record will achieve full ascension.
12. Adamantis – Far Flung Realm
[Cover artwork: Piotr ‘Kaenshin’ Bednarczuk]
A record like Far Flung Realm is making sizable waves in the heavy / power metal underground this year for a number of reasons, the most important of which quite simply boils down to this: It’s clear that a tremendous amount of heart went into its production. Sure, one could (and probably should) argue that a huge amount of heart is necessary for most every release to make the grueling journey to the public’s ears, but crafting such a swirling, epic fantasy that pulls out all the stops (including those pertaining to production and artwork) without the aid of a label proves that Adamantis exists for one principal reason: the members absolutely love heavy metal and have heard the calling. The fact that their diligence resulted in something this polished as a debut is in an impressive feat, though. Yes, there’s room for development, but if the idea of a US brand of power similar to Twisted Tower Dire colliding with the speed and Swedishness of Falconer sounds like something that should ping your radar, Far Flung Realm is ready to take you on a splendid excursion.
11. Lord of Light – Morningstar
[Cover artwork: Alex Lin]
The most significant thing Sweden’s Lord of Light has going for them is uniqueness. I mean, what the hell…even is this? It’s clear that a record like Morningstar falls further on the progressive end of the prog / power spectrum, but it’s far enough away from the typical Symphony X / Dream Theater blueprint that I’d almost feel more comfortable comparing it to… Saga? Does anyone under 40 remember Saga and excellent records such as Worlds Apart and Heads or Tales? Similar to Saga, the importance of synth in the Lord of Light formula is indisputable, and those keys add a wonderful sort of “space opera” feel to much of the record. But principal architect ( / guitarist / keyboardist) Nicklas Kirkevall has a spectacular voice that’s custom-made for power hooks, and the record doesn’t forget to bring the weight, even if it’s all delivered with a crispness, purity and brilliance that would make freshly fallen snow feel dirty in its presence.
10. Falconer – From a Dying Ember
[Cover artwork: Jan Meininghaus]
Here’s a snippet from my review of From a Dying Ember earlier this year: “In the end, it’s pretty clear who this record is geared toward: the diehards who’ve been in Falconer’s corner for the better part of the last twenty years. Sure, there’s always room for new fans, and it’s not like any of the previous records are in any sort of danger of suddenly morphing into vapor. But everything about the way From a Dying Ember is presented feels wholly devoted to those who’ve been a part of the family for years and years. Fragments from all the different faces of Falconer across all eight full-lengths are pushed under the spotlight, and as indicated by Stefan Weinerhall, these elements are all maximized by design. This sort of approach is quite effective for a swansong because it almost acts as a scrapbook, but it could also impede the release from vaulting to the top of a list for someone whose biggest hope is that it would out-wallop a banger like Black Moon Rising. That’s really not the intention here, though. At least I don’t think. From a Dying Ember is meant to bid a fond farewell to the full existence of Falconer, and in that regard it succeeds in abundance.”
9. DGM – Tragic Separation
[Cover artwork: Simone Bertozzi]
My LORD does Tragic Separation ever make you feel like you’re flying. I reckon that has everything to do with the way DGM manages to blend a large amount of explosive energy with approximately five thousand thrilling leads and a powerhouse vocalist who sounds equally fit to elevate any prog / power outfit OR an arena rock band like Journey. “Exhilarating” would likely stand as the single best descriptor for what goes down throughout Tragic Separation, and if you’re the sort who likes to sit back and pick through complex riff patterns and endless broiling leads, get ready to: 1) have a blast, or 2) toss that Jackson Pro Series Dinky into the closet for a few days out of frustration. Just how talented are these guys? Guitarist Simone Mularoni and keyboardist Emanuele Casali helped Geoff Tate release the best record he’s had his name attached to since Empire—Sweet Oblivion’s eponymous 2019 debut. Yeah, they’re that good, and they’ve jumped into 2020 armed to the teeth.
8. Dark Forest – Oak, Ash & Thorn
[Cover artwork: Duncan Storr]
A snippet from the review I wrote for Oak, Ash & Thorn back in April: “Ultimately, the indispensableness of a record such as this depends on a couple key factors. First, if you can’t get enough of the sort of stouthearted, exhilarating trad (/ power) metal forged with medieval folk and Celtic melodies that’s similarly delivered by the likes of Skyclad and The Lord Weird Slough Feg, this record should be pinging your radar. And second, if you often rely on music for yet another escape from the gloom and hazards of living in an increasingly industrialized modern age, Oak, Ash & Thorn is very prepared to lift the veil and reveal a notably tempting escape to a familiar and mythical wilderness. And really, what better time than the present to take flight into the trees for a vigorous taste of reacquaintance and rebalance.”
7. Memories of Old – The Zeramin Game
[Cover artwork: Felipe Machado Franco]
If you’ve floated around all the various power metal circles for a number of years, you’re probably familiar with the name Tommy “ReinXeed” Johansson. He’s a feller who cut his teeth with umpteen Christian power metal bands a decade ago, and he now counts the notably rewarding Majestica and Sabaton as current work environments. Johansson is an excellent guitarist and vocalist, and he lends the latter (only) to this new project put together by one-time Grimgotts drummer Billy Jeffs. The Zeramin Game delivers the sort of bombastic symphonic power that’s tailor-made for those looking for a high seas adventure that’s a little more serious compared to, say, Alestorm, but still joyous enough to feel like it could possibly / eventually get converted into one Hell of a theatrical SeaWorld show in the distant future. All the stock elements you typically hope for are here, but anyone who can’t get enough of epic keyboards (and keytars—YES!) should probably move to the head of the line. More infectious than…well, let’s not go there.
6. Iron Savior – Skycrest
[Cover artwork: Felipe Machado Franco]
With bands like Helloween, Blind Guardian, Gamma Ray, Iron Savior, Primal Fear, Running Wild and Avantasia in the rank and file, one would have to concede that Germany still wears the power metal crown on this strange little planet. Just seeing those names conjures a very specific style of power that emphasizes brightness, bounce and a fairly rigorous structure that allows little(-to-no) elbow room for wild experimentation (Avantasia aside, I suppose). As mentioned earlier in relation to Primal Fear, such an approach doesn’t always bode well when it comes time to talk about what truly blows you away at the end of the year, but sometimes life gets prickly enough that comfort and strict tradition—when done really well—ends up hitting the nail on the head in an ideal way. Is Skycrest all that different compared to the twelve Iron Savior albums that landed before it? Not really. But the record is undeniably infectious, spirited and more melodic than Michael Weikath and André Olbrich stuck in a Gibson Flying V warehouse. The songs here stick to the ribs, and you will by God feel great whenever Skycrest spins.
5. Operus – Score of Nightmares
[Cover artwork: Drake Mefestta Designs]
Operus is one of two bands in the top ten this year who bring a level of theatricality to the table that’s deserving of an entirely new offshoot called… Well, probably theatrical metal. That doesn’t quite break it down enough, though, so… Extreme symphonic theatrical power metal? Sure, why not. Score of Nightmares delivers a thrill ride of dramatic showmanship that paints its narrative in a similar way that classic King Diamond does, but this is a tad darker and angrier and has bits of Savatage and Crimson Glory painting the corners. Really, there’s enough going on from song to song here that any number of influences will likely spring to mind for each listener, which essentially imparts a level of eccentricity that helps make Operus stand out. Everyone involved comes loaded for bear, but vocalist David Michael Moote (who has literal theatrical experience) and guitarist Oscar Rangel (responsible for the bulk of the songwriting) get the special nod because blurbs can only be so long and I am an absolute monster.
4. Unleash the Archers – Abyss
[Cover artwork: Adam Burke]
Hello, I am an idiot. Perhaps you’re already aware of this, but in case you need further proof related to power metal, consider the fact that I have Unleash the Archer’s Abyss in my number four spot after saying this approximately three months ago:
I have been music obsessive for the better part of the last three decades plus, so one might hope that I’d have that whole “avoid snap judgement” thing down by now. Alas, here I sit, guilty as charged. In my defense, Abyss does take some getting used to (or a good bit of getting used to, in my case), and the pop element throughout the record is extremely persistent, which can be a little off-putting for someone who periodically views pop as a mortal enemy. I finally dipped back in after spending the better part of a few weeks binging everything involved in this year’s list, and then BOOM: Everything finally clicked. Yes, songs like “Through Stars,” “Legacy” and “Carry the Flame” all sound radio rock-ready, if radio rock actually still existed in 2020, but the catchiness of Abyss as a whole is herculean. The only complaint I have left today actually relates to roughly 3/4s of all of the power metal that rumbled down the chute this year: It could use a little more editing. In the end, it’s a good thing Unleash the Archers avoided Apex 2.0, and yep, I will do my very best to lose the snap judgement in 2021.
3. Seven Spires – Emerald Seas
[Cover artwork: Junki Sakuraba]
The second band on this year’s list to bring a substantial level of theatricality to the table is Boston’s Seven Spires. Similar to Operus, this young quartet pushes a narrative that comes across like an off-Broadway extreme musical that merges epic symphonic metal with an extraordinarily dynamic vocalist. What distinguishes Seven Spires is their further commitment to magnifying the extremes—there are times throughout Emerald Seas where the music achieves classic Dimmu Borgir levels of grimness, and that harshness is offset with long stretches where the melody is as sweet and serene as a Sunday evening spent sipping hot toddies and watching snow fall. Vocalist Adrienne Cowan is an absolute powerhouse whose range is absurd enough to tame a poisonous rasp just as easily as she does angelic elegance, and guitarist Jack Kosto’s guitar work is virtuoso without clobbering you over the head with superfluous noodlery. Of all the bands on this year’s list, Seven Spires feels like the most likely candidate for “break through” in the not-too-distant future.
Style: Symphonic / theatrical (and sometimes growly) power
Sample: Difficult to pick between “Succumb” and “Bury You”
Label: Frontiers Records
Release date: February 14th
Band website: Seven Spires
2. Goldenhall – Collide
[Cover artwork: Claudio Bergamín]
The fact that a year as dreadful as 2020 decided to provide two remarkable power metal albums equally deserving of the top spot seems every bit as fortuitous as it is unjust. THERE ARE NO TIES IN HEAVY METAL, THOUGH. Both records are considerably different, too, which is testament to the off-shoot’s breadth and depth. For their part, Rhode Island’s criminally unsung heroes Goldenhall deliver what must be considered the year’s most downright powerful epic with the amazing Collide. How a group of unknowns are able to achieve something this veteran and robust as an independently released debut escapes me, but I assume it has something to do with the fact that some forgotten wilderness near their home revealed a fabled sword in an overlooked wetland that bestowed incredible strength to each of the members.
Collide roars with the power of a god lion. Endless muscular riffs, thunder drumming and frequent BLASTS of perfectly timed brass provide a titanium-plated armor from start to finish, and that symphonic element is HEAVY—like, truly heavy enough to be considered an essential factor in the album’s overall barbarian strength. Plus, vocalist Jason Shealy has one of those heroic styles reminiscent of a more operatic version of Visigoth’s Jake Rogers, and the songs here layer his delivery perfectly to provide maximum altitude and valor. A song like “Into the Infinite” is almost impossibly grand and lionhearted, so if you need to, you know, remove a tree from your yard or scooch your house over to the left a few feet for some reason, feel free to throw this song on and get the deed done with your bare hands in about five minutes. And following that tune with a cut as moving as “Soul Division?” Wow, dudes. Wow.
While it’s easiest to highlight the bombastic element of Goldenhall, there is also no shortage of melody throughout Collide, even if it feels a little understated when stacked next to the boundless OOMPH. Additionally, there are long stretches of furious blast-beating that expand the overall toughness, and not even the slower moments lack punch, thanks to the stout bass play. Pure and simple, Collide is a spectacle of glorious heroism, and where the band goes next after something this big is just… Well, who the hell knows. The sky might be the limit?
1. Sacred Outcry – Damned for All Time
[Cover artwork: George Apalodimas]
Without question, there are an infinite amount of cases similar to what Greece’s Sacred Outcry endured regarding their debut full-length, but very few are lucky enough to have a comparable positive outcome resulting in a triumph as significant as Damned for All Time.
The story in a nutshell: A group of likeminded individuals—in this case, George Apalodimas on bass, Dimitris Perros on guitar, Vagelis Spanakis on vocals and acoustic guitar, and Stelios Darakis on drums—assemble with a distinct shared vision, and with great perseverance, that vision eventually becomes real enough to step into a studio for the first time in order to attach a tangible, marketable aspect to the dream. Then, all hell breaks loose during the recording process. Pieces and parts don’t quite fit together, the drums get re-recorded, the guitars and bass get re-recorded to fit the newly recorded drums, the studio engineer screws up the re-recorded drums and they have to be recorded AGAIN, friction emerges, one member moves away, and the band goes on indefinite hiatus.
…And they lived happily and unsated ever after.
For a large portion of similar situations, those old recordings end up collecting dust over a great many years until wonderful labels such as Shadow Kingdom or No Remorse stumble on the master tapes and decide to push the release back into the spotlight—maybe splash up the cover artwork with something fresh and daring to really stoke the flames. For Sacred Outcry, however, the collective never fully gave up the dream, so three original members (Apalodimas / bass, Perros / guitars, Darakis / drums) gathered to record again between 2015 and 2019, with Spanakis’ original acoustic guitar passages preserved in an effort to fully merge the past and present. Orchestral flourishes were eventually mingled in, and the vision became fully realized when a fortuitous break between Beast In Black tours allowed the incredible voice of Yannis Papadopoulos to step in and bring the words behind the story to explosive life. After nearly two decades, Damned for All Time at long last became a genuine reality.
And oh what an extraordinary reality this record is. The unwavering power of early Manowar, the dark intensity of records such as Warlord’s And the Cannons of Destruction Have Begun… and Queensrÿche’s The Warning, and just a touch of the misty midnight doom of Headless Cross all paint the corners here without Damned for All Time ever sounding precisely like any one of those at any given moment. The record is as epic as 2020 has been long, and even though a prevailing sense of darkness shadows any semblance of “joy” (in a Euro Power sense), there are countless moments throughout these 55 minutes where dark clouds split at the behest of conquering thunder. To put it succinctly, Damned for All Time is a tremendous triumph of towering traditional (US by way of Greece) power metal that’s 100% worthy of this year’s shining crown. Long may Sacred Outcry rule, and please don’t make us wait another two decades for the next dramatic adventure. 11/10.
Just missed the Top 25:
• Helion Prime – Question Everything
• Vhäldemar – Straight to Hell
• Manticora – To Live to Kill to Live
• Drakarium – Acte II
• The Waymaker – The Waymaker
Considered but Ultimately Nixed for Falling Too Far Outside the Lines:
• Dexter Ward – III
• Eternal Champion – Ravening Iron
• Glacier – The Passing of Time
• Grave Digger – Fields of Blood
• Vicious Rumors – Celebration Decay
Not Enough Time to Fully Assimilate:
• Cristiano Filippini’s Flames of Heaven – The Force Within
• Eternal Idol – Renaissance
• Iron Mask – Master of Masters
• Persuader – Necromancy
• Vanden Plas – The Ghost Xperiment – Illumination
2020’s Full List of 173 Competitors
(NOTE: power metal is finally discovering bandcamp (82/173), so any of the contenders with bandcamp pages will be linked below under the album title as a further service to you for further exploration):
Adamantis – Far Flung Realm
Airborn – Lizard Secrets – Part Two – Age of Wonder
Alestorm – Curse of the Crystal Coconut
Allen / Olzon – Worlds Apart
Almanac – Rush of Death
AlogiA – Semendria
Amberian Dawn – Looking for You
Angel Vengeance – Angel of Vengeance
Angelwarrior Ace – Diviner
Ani Lo. Projekt – A Time Called Forever
Anthea – Illusion
Anthenora – Mirrors and Screens
Aquaria – Alethea
Archon Angel – Fallen
Arida Vortex – Riders of Steel
Arrayan Path – The Marble Gates to Apeiron
AshBürn – You Can Not Kill What Can Never Die
Assignment – Reflections
Athlantis – 02.02.2020
Attick Demons – Daytime Stories… Nightmare Tales
Axel Rudi Pell – Sign of the Times
Bakken – This Means War
Black Fate – Ithaca
Black Knight – Road to Victory
Black Soul Horde – Land of Demise
Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga
Carnal Agony – Back from the Grave
Chaos Over Cosmos – The Ultimate Multiverse
Cloven Hoof – Age of Steel
Conception – State of Deception
CrimsonWind – Beyond the Gates
Cristiano Filippini’s Flames of Heaven – The Force Within
Crown of Glory – Ad Infinitum
Crystal Skull – Ancient Tales
Dakesis – Fractures
Damnation Angels – Fiber of Our Being
Domination Black – Judgement IV
Dangerous Project – Cosmic Vision
Dark Forest – Oak, Ash & Thorn
Dark Sarah – Grim
DarkTribe – Voici L’Homme
Death Dealer – Conquered Lands
Demons & Wizards – III
DGM – Tragic Separation
Dimitry Pavlosky’s Powersquad – Mysterizer
Divine Weep – The Omega Man
Dragonrider – Scepter of Domination
Drakarium – Acte II
Dynazty – The Dark Delight
Dyscordia – Delete / Rewrite
Eternal Idol – Renaissance
Everlore – Everlore
Exlibris – Shadowrise
Fairyland – Osyrhianta
Falconer – From a Dying Ember
Fervent – Rebirth
Firewind – Firewind
Fortress Under Siege – Atlantis
Fraise – The Fifth Sun
Fraser Edwards – The Architect
Freaks and Clowns – Justice Elite
From the Depth – Moments
Ghost Avenue – Even Angels Fail
Glory Force – The Restoration of Erathia
Goblins Blade – Of Angels and Snakes
Goldenhall – Collide
Gomorra – Divine Judgement
Grand Finale – Quantum Moment
Greyhawk – Keepers of the Flame
Helion Prime – Question Everything
Hittman – Destroy All Humans
Hrom – Legends of Powerheart: Part II
Hulkoff – Pansarfolk
Ignition – Call of the Sirens
Ignitor – The Golden Age of Black Magick
Ilium – Carcinogeist
Imperivm – Holy War
In Spades – Vivid Horizon
Invictus – Eden
Ironflame – Blood Red Victory
Iron Angel – Emerald Eyes
Iron Mask – Master of Masters
Iron Savior – Skycrest
Iternia – Between Good and Evil
Jaded Heart – Stand Your Ground
Judicator – Let there Be Nothing
Kenziner – Phoenix
Leaves Eyes – The Last Viking
Legendire – Sunchasers
The Lightbringer of Sweden – Rise of the Beast
Lonewolf – Division Hades
Lord of Light – Morningstar
Lords of Black – Alchemy of Souls, Pt. 1
Lost Legacy – In the Name of Freedom
Lovebites – Electric Pentagram
Lucid Dreaming – The Chronicles Pt. III
Lunatic Power – The Great Light
Mad Hatter – Pieces of Reality
Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall – We Are the Night
Manticora – To Live to Kill to Live
March In Arms – Pulse of the Daring
Mean Streak – Eye of the Storm
Medjay – Sandstorm
Melodius Deite – Elysium
Memories of Old – The Zeramin Game
Mentalist – Freedom of Speech
Mike Lepond’s Silent Assassins – Whore of Babylon
Moonlight Haze – Lunaris
Moravius – Wind from Silesian Land
Mystic Prophecy – Metal Division
Navighator – Navighator
Nightfear – Apocalypse
Nightmare – Aeternam
Nightwish – Human. :II: Nature.
Nils Patrick Johansson – The Great Conspiracy
Niviane – The Ruthless Divine
Oblivion Myth – In Your Arms
Operus – Score of Nightmares
Oracle – Sign of the Hourglass
Paralydium – Worlds Beyond
Parsifal – Mountain King
Perpetual Rage – Flames from Below
Persuader – Necromancy
Poltergeist – Feather of Truth
Primal Fear – Metal Commando
Pyramaze – Epitaph
Rage – Wings of Rage
Ross the Boss – Born of Fire
Sacred Outcry – Damned for All Time
Season of Dreams – My Shelter
Selenseas – The Outer Limits
Seraphic – Chrysalis
Serenity – The Last Knight
Serious Black – Suite 226
Seven Spires – Emerald Seas
Seventh Sign from Heaven – The Woman and the Dragon
Shadowkiller – Dark Awakening
Shadowquest – Gallows of Eden
Shadow Tribe – Reality Unveiled
Shining Black – Shining Black
Sinner’s Blood – The Mirror Star
Skeletoon – Nemesis
Solitary Sabred – By Fire and Brimstone
Sorcerer – Dire Prophecy
Sorceress of Sin – Mirrored Revenge
Spellmaster – Unearthed Arcana
The Spectre Beneath – The New Identity of Sidney Stone
Starblind – Black Bubbling Ooze
StarBynary – Divina Commedia: Paradiso
Stargazery – Constellation
Stormzone – Ignite the Machine
Tears of Tragedy – Trinity
Temperance – Of Jupiter and Moons
Terra Atlantica – Age of Steam
Tidal Dreams – Access Denied
Timescale – Axiom
Trick Or Treat – The Legend of the XII Saints
Tungsten – Tundra
Ultimatium – Virtuality
The Unity – Pride
Unleash the Archers – Abyss
Vanden Plas – The Ghost Experiment – Illumination
Vanishing Point – Dead Elysium
Veonity – Sorrows
Veritas – Threads of Fatality
Vhaldemar – Straight to Hell
Victorious – Rise from the Flames
Victorius – Space Ninjas from Hell
Vision of Choice – Mistress of the Gods
Warkings – Revenge
Waterland – Freedom
The Waymaker – The Waymaker
Winter Tales – The Ghost of Sirol
Winter’s Verge – The Ballad of James Tig