Dan & Arno’s 2011 In Recap: Best Albums

January 28, 2012 in Top Lists by Arno Callens

Right, this is the list that most of us have been waiting for. This one actually IS (mostly) ranked in terms of quality, though it should be noted that every album on this list is extremely good and has contributed considerably to the power metal genre in its own way. This list was a combined effort, drawing and combining Arno and Dan’s favorite power metal works of the year. We’ve only got a few flesh wounds to show for it too, though Arno’s neck cast will ensure that he can’t headbang for a few months. He’s kind of peeved about that.

Right, enough horsing around, here is, open to debate, the list of 2011’s finest power metal work. You can find links to each review in the title of each album listed here.

15. Iron Mask – Black As Death

Arno: I don’t take an awful amount of pride in being Belgian, but Iron Mask makes it a lot easier to pretend every now and then. Black As Death saw them branch out from their neoclassicism into a more diverse range of styles, from grim epics like the title track, “God Punishes, I Kill” and “Nosferatu” to nostalgic anthems like “Rebel Kid”, “The Absence” and “When All Braves Fall”. And of course guitar mastermind Dushan Petrossi gets to shred the place up on classic Iron Mask scorchers such as “Feel The Fire” and “Blizzard Of Doom”. While Iron Mask may not have much of a foot in the ground in their power metal-allergic home country, this should see them break through internationally.

 14. Power Quest – Blood Alliance

Dan: Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a fervent Power Quest fan. I was excited that Steve Williams and company continued with Blood Alliance on much the same path as before, but with (I feel) stronger guitar work. Sure it’s not as contemplative as Master Of Illusion, which will likely remain my favorite effort by the band, but Chity is a great boon to the musical setting on Blood Alliance. Thus proving to the world that even without the stratospheric tenor of Alessio Garavello, the British melodic power outfit has what it takes to pump out great tunes.

13. Arrayan Path – Ira Imperium

Arno: Another band worthy of a breakout, Arrayan Path combines the cultural eclecticism of Therion with the progressive intensity of Symphony X and ends up sounding like neither of those bands. The third album from these Cypriotes once again excels in variety, going from ominous to adventurous, smoldering to scorching in a matter of seconds. Each song packs its own story and punch except for the diptych “Lost Ithaca/I Sail The Seven Seas” which still manages to unite two very different songs. A prime example of surprisingly innovative progressive power metal transporting you to vast landscapes under a foreign sun.

12. ReinXeed – 1912

Dan: I feel like I’m always talking about this album, so I’ll say the same thing I have in the past. Tommy and his boys (almost literally) just keep getting better as time goes on, and despite tossing out an album every year, they’re not getting old. In fact, the material here is as fresh and mature as ever. ReinXeed is the only power metal band to rank on my top list for two years running now, and you can bet good money on them being there next year as well.

11. Morton – Come Read The Words Forbidden

Arno: As far as outstanding debuts go, Morton only lost out to Lorenguard this year and there is absolutely no shame in that. Ukrainian producer Max Morton decided to take to the recording room himself and came up with a sparkling set of power metal songs both honoring the canon and adding elements of his own. Whether you dig classic genre material such as “Calling For The Storm”, “Eaglemark” and “Brotherhood Of Light” or border-pushing stuff like the theatrical “Grimoire”, the snarling “Werewolf Hunt”, or the powerful dirge “Weeping Bell”, any power metal fan should finding something to like here, if not the whole thing. Definitely a band to keep a firm eye on, since they already released a new track “Foreteller” this year, which proves Come Read The Words Forbidden was not a fluke.

10. Merging Flare – Reverence

Dan: I pawned this album off on Dagg earlier this year because I didn’t have time for it. To my amazement, it has turned out to be one of the most consistently spun albums of late 2012 (I didn’t even try it in earnest until November), and a shoe-in for my favorites of last year. The blend of German and Finnish influences is effortless, and while Kai Hansen makes considerable use of his guest appearances, it sounds little like Gamma Ray to me. Original and powerful enough to deserve the attention of any junkie of melodic metal, hats off to these rookies!

9. Edguy – Age Of The Joker

Arno: Edguy has been catching flak ever since they stopped playing typical German power metal and started to include more elements of hard rock and heavy metal into their sound. Age Of The Joker bridges the gap between both sides of the fan spectrum and gives us a record remembering the old and celebrating the new. “Breathe” and “The Arcane Guild” are classic power metal Edguy while “Faces In The Darkness” and “Behind The Gates To Midnight World” belong to the modern Avantasia-era. Jester-in-command Tobias Sammet also experimented with folk in the shimmering “Rock Of Cashel”, and blues in album highlight “Pandora’s Box”. A testament to past and future glory, Age Of The Joker is the perfect summation of  everything Edguy.

8. Sequester – Shaping Life And Soul

Dan: This is a very different sort of power metal. One man Canadian project Sequester has placed before us a mid-tempo, gritty, and brutally honest sample of somewhat progressive power metal that is determined to defy easy comparison or classification. Drawing influences from human issues as well as various fiction topics (A Song Of Ice And Fire and computer RPG Baldur’s Gate amongst them), Sequester is similarly inspired, but delivers a sound like no one else. The subtle melodies found throughout the twisting voyage of Shaping Life And Soul ensure a certain subcutaneous hook that has had me returning to the album monthly since I first heard it.

7. Rhapsody Of Fire – From Chaos To Eternity

Arno: Rhapsody Of Fire hasn’t had the best of runs since their name change, but full-length The Frozen Tears Of Angels and subsequent EP The Cold Embrace Of Fear promised these Italians could still deliver a tasty slice of gorgonzola. Expectations for From Chaos To Eternity were high and the now split-up formation delivered. Rougher than we have ever heard them, even including some melodic black metal in the fantastic “Aeons Of Raging Darkness” and closing overlong epic “Heroes Of The Waterfalls’ Kingdoms”, Rhapsody Of Fire turned back to the guitar as the driving force of the music and Turilli must’ve broken five of them in half while recording this material. One can only guess how the dichotomy will work out for both Rhapsodies, but at least the alliance of Turilli, Lione and Staropoli went out with a bang.

6. Pagan’s Mind – Heavenly Ecstasy

Arno: After a slight misfire in the too idiosyncratic God’s Equation, Pagan’s Mind did some cosmic soul-searching and focused their attention on more straightforward power metal-induced songs, which is why this usually progressive act has made the list. Launching one unforgettable chorus after another with the propulsion of a laser cannon, the Norwegian astronomers employed their spacey characteristics in terms of more accessible, but no less ambitious songwriting. A brilliant change in strategy, resulting in their most easy-listening and instantly memorable album to date. Now don’t go shifting gears again.

5. Solar Fragment – In Our Hands

Dan: This was a big surprise for me early in the year. I’d never heard of the band, much less their debut, but when the first waves of the title track broke over me, I was pretty stunned. Varying from nautical themes to fantasy romps, and featuring Hansi Kürsch on a Star Wars homage to Darth Vader (tell me, is there a better combination?), Solar Fragment don’t pull any punches on their sophomore effort. In Our Hands is probably the album from 2011 that I’ve spun the most by virtue of its early release date and sheer quality. This is a new breed of melodicism blended with aggression (see mid-era Blind Guardian and Savage Circus) that isn’t to be missed!

4. Lorenguard – Eve Of Corruption: The Days Of Astasia – Part One

Dan: This was the true surprise of late 2011. Following in the wake of monsters like Theocracy and Dragonland, a little-known US symphonic, melodic, and fantasy-oriented power metal band (something truly rare around these parts) quietly released an album that we believe to be a modern landmark of the genre. Conveying a self-written chronicle of the fantasy land of Athland via varied and complex compositions, Lorenguard takes its place alongside bands like Orden Ogan, Serenity, Theocracy, and other newer members of the genre that are changing the way that we think of power metal. Lorenguard are unique amongst many power metal bands in that the music truly serves to convey a fantasy world rich in detail, whereas in most bands, the story is more of a machination to carry out the band’s musical ambitions.

3. Serenity – Death & Legacy

Arno: Coming off an impressive sophomore effort, Serenity had only the stars left to conquer to become one of power metal’s premier players. Death & Legacy widens their horizons both musically and lyrically, taking on the life of several historical figures with their usual melancholy and symphonic aplomb. Majestic and epic with enough subtlety to never go overboard, Serenity fires on all cylinders switching grand adventure for emotional pause in a matter of a heartbeat. Georg Neuhauser’s smooth voice may be to sugary for some, but his duets with several female guest vocalists are a thing of beauty for sure. If they set the bar high with Fallen Sanctuary, then this album blows that bar into outer space never to be seen again.

2. Theocracy – As The World Bleeds

Arno: Theocracy will most likely always remain an outsider in the power metal field because of their Christian inspiration. If there was ever and advert for open-mindedness it’s As The World Bleeds, which proves that not everything linked to God is automatically preachy and lame. As ever an investigation of human nature, crisis of faith and the trappings of modern society, this album talks about subjects that concern us all, while kicking your ass from here to Christmas. Simultaneously composed with the excellent predecessor Mirror Of Souls, As The World Bleeds nevertheless displays a more progressive tendency in opening epic “I AM”, the surprising “Nailed” and introvert “The Gift Of Music”. Still there is melody aplenty with “The Master Storyteller”, “Hide In The Fairytale” and “Light Of The World” competing for catchiest chorus on offer. Take a minute off from being a hip and groovy atheist or slaughtering multiple goats, broaden your horizon a little and discover a power metal album worthy of being included with the greats.

1. Dragonland – Under The Grey Banner

Arno: The long wait since Astronomy has been worth it and the fear that with a return to fantasy power metal Dragonland’s sound would become stale wasn’t. A triumph in every sense Under The Grey Banner is the metal soundtrack Lord Of The Rings always deserved and even has a pretty good story of its own. Turning every song into a chapter with its own rich history and visual palette, Dragonland tells us a fantasy story not by hammering on plot details but creating imagery unfolding before the listener’s eye, drawing on mythology, literature and cinema from every corner of the earth. Combining the lyrical inspiration from their early power metal phase with the songwriting proficiency of their progressive metal period, Under The Grey Banner is the inevitable visionary masterpiece Dragonland was bound to make and if the band is to be believed, only the beginning of a glorious saga.

Dan: If you want my full take on this album, read my review, because it does a much better job than I can here. While I find the story to be a bit vague and perhaps rushed in places, there’s no doubt that Dragonland’s musical endeavors on Under The Grey Banner are nothing short of stupendous. I have no idea how they’re going to top this, because it’s probably the best fantasy power metal album that I’ve witnessed released to date (Note that Nightfall In Middle-Earth was before I was properly involved in metal). Breathtaking.