So yet another year passes by. When I look back at 2018, there have been so many great releases that it is hard to reduce it to just 10 albums.
Being sort of a “reissue specialist” for Decibel Geek, 2018 was a very good year with great archive releases from Canada´s own Gypsy Rose (Shattered Affair and Rosary of Tears) and British NWOBHM´stars Briar (Reach out) among the top flight.
This list is however about new music and not reissues or old music being available for the first time. There have been quite a few of those releases too.
So here are my top 10 picks for the year that just passed us by. Starting from 10 and moving upwards:
My Top Ten of 2018
#10. Fifth Angel – Third Secret
This is one of those bands I grew up listening two and the two classic 80´s albums are still on regular rotation in my CD player (self-titled debut 1986 and Time Will Tell) in 1989. The first you notice when you lay your hands on this disc is that two important parts of the band are missing. The original guitarist Ed Archer and lead vocalist Ted Pilot. Third Secret is a surprise to me given that these important parts of the band are now gone. It is a heavy rockin album and I had no idea John Macko could sing like this or even that the band could put out a new album sounding like this given the fact they had been reduced to a trio. With Ed in the band and Ted on vocals this might have been THE album for 2018. I know Ted has precious little time working as a practicing paradonthologist but I miss his vocals and that is not taking anything away from John.
One of the classic bands hailing from Seattle (how many are they??) delivers a new smoking album worth checking out and one of the best releases in the melodic metal genre of 2018 or it shouldn´t have been on this list!
#09. Treat – Tunguska
My fellow Swedes are back with another slab of melodic hard rock true to their past. Still, like on the predecessor Ghost of Graceland, the guitars have been tuned down a notch making the album slightly more “modern” sounding. I am not sure that is an entirely good thing. Christened after the legendary meteorite hit in Siberia (along the river Tunguska in 1908) it has got all the classic features that a Treat album should have; big choruses, tasty guitar work from Anders “Gary” Wikström and the distinct lead vocals of Robert Ernlund. The guitar work by “Gary” is excellent and I would say he clearly outshines the more reputable John Norum in Europe. This is easily the best album coming out of Scandinavia in 2018 and if you lay your hands on the Japanese version you get a fantastic acoustic version of the ballad “Tomorrow Never Dies”. Although not reaching the high levels of the 2010 year´s Coup de Grace, this is a fine effort indeed.
#08. Salem – Attrition
These British gentlemen were originally a part of the NWOBHM movement in the early 1980s. After being on hiatus from 1984 to 2008 they have hit back hard with a trilogy of albums in the 2010s and Attrition being the third in the row. With my Decibel Geek buddy Rich “The Meister” Dillon I had the opportunity to catch them in action at Brofest in 2017 and even met guitarist Paul Macnamara in person (see lengthy interview here). Before this album was released early in 2018 the band had already split in two. Still, this is an album filled with the classic British hard rock sound that only bands off this Island seem to be able to produce. Simon Saxby has got that natural and bluesy voice that only David Coverdale can measure up to. The riffing from Paul Macnamara and Mark Allison is contagious and the heavy basslines of Ade Jenkinson cannot be mistaken for anything else. What seems to be the swansong of the band as we have come to know them, it easily deserves its spot on this list. Hat´s off for an excellent album that will stay in the CD-player for some time. Best British release of 2018.
#07. Primal Fear – Apocalypse
These German power metallers need no introduction to most fans. Sporting Ralph Scheepers on lead vocals (Gamma Ray) he was once considered for the vacant spot in Judas Priest after a leaving Rob Halford. Listening to this album you can easily hear why that is. With the tirelessly working multi-instrumentalist Mat Sinner (a.k.a. Mathias Lasch) on bass (also in Sinner, Voodoo Circle, Level 10, Silent Force). The guitar is handled by Alex Beyrodt (Voodoo Circle, Level 10 and Silent Force) and Tom Nauman (Sinner). The band is a kind of a “supergroup” although I don´t like that term. Primal Fear in this form has been active since 1997 making them scarred veterans of the genre. I have a sort of a love/hate relationship with them being a huge fan of their heavier and epic numbers and not so much of the “simple double bass drumming Judas Priest clone” type of songs. Apocalypse is a step forward from the last couple of albums and with songs like “Eye of the Storm”, “King of Madness”, “Supernova” and “Fight Against All Evil” you cannot go wrong. A very strong effort indeed.
#06. Axxis – Monster Hero
When I first got my hands on this album I was really disappointed reading the recording credits noticing everything was recorded by lead vocalist Bernhard Weiss and keyboard player Harry Oellers exclusively. That includes bass and guitars (!!). Bass player Rob Schoemaker was not even allowed to lay down the bass tracks which sounded like a cheap (saving money effort?) and not a very clever idea – having in mind the disgraceful cover album called reDISCOvered the duo produced in 2011. A terrible album filled with disco covers. That album should be erased from history in my opinion. Still, I was very surprised listening to the content of this new Axxis disc. Being a fan since the first album in 1989, I have been through many ups and downs with Axxis. Since hitting rock bottom with 2009 power metal wannabe type of album called Utopia and the aforementioned cover disc, Axxis has clawed their way slowly back into the cream of the melodic hard rock genre. Monster Hero contains a batch of really strong songs with a strong nod to their early years such as “Love is Gonna get you Killed”, “We are Seven” and “Give me Good Times“. Monster Hero is up there with the black and white albums they released a couple of years ago and a notch above previous effort Retrolution.
5. Mad Max – 35
Germany seems to be the country for this year´s list and these German veterans are back with another great and melodic hard rock/metal album. 35 is, of course, a reference to the band´s age and still, they are rocking out with the best and showing younger bands how to do it. The main man on guitar and vocals is still of course Michael Voss (also in Casanova, BISS and Phantom V) and the great Axel Kruse (ex. Jaded heart) is still bashing those drums. For me, they are filling the void left by Bonfire and are now the premier German melodic hard rock band out there in 2018. The songs carry a strong melody throughout the songs and the choruses are memorable and seem to stick in your head for a while. Except for a couple of more bluesier numbers (“35” for example) which are a bit weaker, this album is filled with heavy and infectious melodic hard rock the way it should sound. With “Rocky Road” Mad Max must have written the Power ballad of 2018. Voss‘ voice is outstanding and the song crafting is honed to perfection. A couple of years ago I got the opportunity to see the band live at Sweden Rock Festival which respawned my interest in the band. Hope to catch them live again soon!
#04. Brainstorm – Midnight Ghost
Do you know of a band that combines the hooks and melodies of the melodic rock genre with the energy and heaviness of the thrash metal? Well, look no further than Brainstorm! Easily branded as one of the bands in the overcrowded power metal genre nothing could be further from the truth. Formed in Germany way back in 1989 it was not until 1997 the first album came out as a part of the wave of revival of 1980´s music on the European continent. With the addition of powerhouse vocalist Andy B. Franck (ex. Ivanhoe, ex Symphorce) in 2000, the band took a giant leap forward with Ambiguity. Releasing a string of great albums from 2005; Liquid Monster to Memorial Roots in 2009 it was followed by a bunch of weaker albums and the band seemed to have lost its way somehow. With Midnight Ghost, which was produced by Orden Ogan frontman Sebastian “Seeb” Levermann, it seems he put the band back on track again. The new disc is the strongest effort since Memorial Roots and brings back the heavy and epic riffing with the godlike choruses that never leave your head and forces you to sing the songs wherever you are (in the shower, in the office or whatever). The heavy riffing from axemen Thorsten Ihlenfeldt and Milan Loncaric is as heavy as ever and with the memorable hooks Brainstorm stands out from the crowd. If you haven´t checked these veterans out before now is the time. Not reaching the greatness of Downburst 2008 and Liquid Monster 2005 but it is a close call this time around.
#03. Tokyo Blade – Unbroken
Back on the British Isles again! Did I ever think that the classic line up of Tokyo Blade would record another album? – Well, the answer is no. Did I think it would sound anywhere similar to the classic debut album? – Absolutely not! Well, I was wrong and I am happy I was. This is by far the biggest surprise of 2018 according to me. Not only is Alan, Andy + Andy, Steve and John back together but they are firing all cylinders like they had never gone away. Seeing the guys play live at Brofest in 2017 should have been a hint as they completely thrashed the place at that point. The energy in the music is back, the songs are cleverly composed treading the fine line between melody and heaviness and Alan Marsh sings like he has never done anything else. Just check out the heavy rocker “Bullet Made of Stone” the memorable “Bad Blood” or the single/video “Black Water”. Every time I play this album I am miraculously transported back to 1988 and I am 17 again. It is impossible not to sing along or play air guitar with Unbroken blasting from the speakers. Just don´t mess it up again boys! I need another shot!
#02. Powerwolf – The Sacrament of Sin
So we are closing in on the very top of this little chart of mine. In the second spot we have this German/Romanian collaboration playing infectious metal while preaching the lore of lycanthropia. Werewolves, vampires, and crosses take up a central part of their lyricism. I guess these guys do not seem too attractive by the Christian believer without a sense of humor. Their new disc The Sacrament of Sin is just a killer and there is simply not a weak song on this album. Their image and lyrics are kinda funny to read and attending one of the gigs in my area (Sabaton Open Air) in August of 2018 I was made aware of just how big these guys are getting. Very few bands can compete with a crowd as big as Sabaton on their home turf but I would say Powerwolf really did. Getting your album signed just became impossible when you arrive just a little late – the line went around the festival area! What they deliver on the new disc is classic power metal a la Helloween crossed with classical church music (organs, big choirs and so on). There is no more denying them and with the new disc, I surrender and hoist the white flag. Never understanding the hype before and laughing at fans wearing the “wolf make-up” at festivals I now raise my glass and my fist and shout “halleluliahh” with the rest of the crowd. “Deamons are a Girls Best Friend” is a good choice as a first single/video and really says it all. See you at Sweden Rock Festival guys!
#01. Crystal Ball – Crystalizer
And the winner is………. Crystal Ball. These Swiss blokes have been on my list previous years but never this high! Released in April of 2018 I immediately started spinning this CD in my car and it has literally not left the rotation yet. This is melodic hard rock perfected to perfection. Where Gotthard left a big hole when Steve Lee tragically passed away in 2010 Crystal Ball just blew past a struggling band and in my mind is the premier band to come out of Switzerland along with Shakra. They were (Shakra) second on my list last year. With songs like “Crystalizer”, Gentleman´s Agreement“, the epic slow rocker “Let Her Go” every song on this album gives me goosebumps and I just wanna play it over and over again much to the rest of my family´s loud protests. The guitar work by Scott Leach and Tony Castell is like cut from gold and the heavy rhythm section of Marcel Sardella and Chris Stone drives every song forward with a heavy pulsating beat. On top, you get the scratchy type of vocals of Stephen Mageney with a large dose of personal touch.
Being a band I have never caught live one of my most important tasks in the future is to catch Crystal Ball live in action to see if they can transform these heavily melodic and pandemic songs into a live setting. Being veterans on the scene and active since the late 1990´s it is nothing but impressing to put out a disc that reeks of ambition, frustration, bred with fine-tuned melodies. Just like a sports car in the right hands. I look into my Crystal Ball and I see a band on the verge of a larger breakthrough. I bow my head for Crystal Ball – -2018 is yours.
Mikael “The Lionsheart” Svensson