2015: A Year In Metal - The Critics' Poll Albums 5-1

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Merlin Alderslade, Jason Arnopp, Oliver Badin, Joe Daly, Malcolm Dome, Eleanor Goodman, Stephen Hill, Dom Lawson, Dave Ling, Edwin McFee, Morat, Luke Morton, Tom O’Boyle, Dayal Patterson, Adam Rees, Natasha Scharf, Jonathan Selzer, Holly Wright

5. Paradise Lost

THE PLAGUE WITHIN

CENTURY MEDIA

There are few experiences more satisfying than witnessing a legendary metal band return to their very best form. Having taken a fair few stylistic detours in their past, Paradise Lost have been churning out great records for ages now, but The Plague Within still took everyone by surprise. Heavier, doomier and more resolutely grim than anything the British veterans have released since their early days, this was a reaffirmation of values, vitality and prowess. With vocalist Nick Holmes in a peerless, guttural mode no doubt reignited by his addition to the ranks of death metal supergroup Bloodbath, he and his bandmates delivered a career-best tour de force of balls-out heaviness, stately sufferance and epic grandeur. From the brooding No Hope In Sight to the devastating denouement that was Return To The Sun, Paradise Lost’s 14th opus was simply this unhappy clan’s greatest album to date.

4. Ghost

MELIORA

LOMA VISTA

Sweden’s favourite ghouls returned with their third album, proving once again there’s more to this band than theatrical gimmicks and the questionable truth about their ever-changing frontman. More subtle in its execution than the bells-and-whistles, kitchen sink approach of Infestissumam, Meliora not only delivered another collection of creepy-yet-catchy odes destined to be hits onstage, but their guitar-focused steer threw up an extra treat in the form of classic riffs and thumping, rousing sermons. From the opening eerie strains of Spirit to the closing, haunting, choral-inflected goodbye of Deus In Absentia, Meliora perfectly balanced Ghost’s uncanny and unholy knack for a sense of foreboding with a stained-glass sense of optimism. Whatever you may think about Ghost’s gimmick, one thing rings true yet again: they know how to write a damn good song, and Meliora has them to spare.

3. Clutch

PSYCHIC WARFARE

WEATHERMAKER MUSIC

From the gasoline-soaked roar of X-Ray Visions through to paint-peeling belters such as Firebirds and Noble Savage, Psychic Warfare saw the Maryland rockers notch a blistering return to the boogie-powered brawling of their early days. Leaner and sleazier than 2013’s Earth Rocker, the band’s 11th album conjured a ridiculously infectious backdrop of barrelhouse grooves and spiritualised, shoutout choruses for Neil Fallon’s paranoia-drenched alternate reality of outcasts, witches, mythological beasts and even the ghost of Ronald Reagan. Clutch reached deep into the heart of the American consciousness by roaming amongst its lost highways and the surreal inhabitants populating its psychic cul-de-sacs. Steeped in a siege of locomotive-force tempos and wall-trembling riffs, Psychic Warfare proved that if there’s a mightier rock band in the universe, it sure as shit ain’t on this planet.

2. Faith No More

SOL INVICTUS

RECLAMATION/IPECAC

The alt-metal legends’ almost militant attention to
a) doing things their own way and b) maintaining critical respect at all costs in the process meant that no one really expected Faith No More to reform, let alone record new material. So, that Sol Invictus exists at all would be seen as a glorious thing by many, while the fact that they returned in such triumphant fashion is testament to the thirst for evolution that Mike Patton and co have always represented. From the funk punk call and response of Superhero to the doomy, sombre grandiosity of Matador, every moment of Sol Invictus is laced with the unobtainable oddness that made FNM so beloved the first time around. Against all odds, they crafted a return that was befitting of their incredible legacy while sounding as vibrant and relevant to the scene around them as ever. Good god, how we’ve all missed them.

1. IRON MAIDEN

THE BOOK OF SOULS

PARLOPHONE

If anyone had ever doubted the life-affirming power of heavy metal, the story of Iron Maiden’s 16th studio album made it an undeniable reality. Five years on from The Final Frontier – the longest-ever gap between Maiden albums – the UK’s kings of just about everything would have conquered 2015 regardless of circumstances, but when the shocking news about Bruce Dickinson’s terrifying tussle with throat cancer broke, the arrival of a new Maiden album suddenly became even more vital and reassuring for the band’s vast fanbase. Now firmly in recovery, Bruce brought a very human, vulnerable and inspiring edge to The Book Of Souls’ sumptuous 92 minutes. But even without such a dramatic and emotionally affecting backdrop, this album would have easily trounced all-comers.

In keeping with their steady but persistent evolution over the last 15 years, The Book Of Souls added yet more colour and atmosphere to the classic Maiden sound. Everything from succinct, pummelling anthems like Speed Of Light and Death Or Glory, through to towering epics such as the imperious title track and Steve Harris’s quintessentially bombastic The Red And The Black, sounded like freshly minted classics. A more collaborative effort than in recent times, The Book Of Souls enabled all six members of Maiden to flourish and shine – Dave Murray’s stunning The Man Of Sorrows being a case in point – but there is no denying that Bruce was always destined to be the album’s focal point, not least because he penned two of its most extraordinary songs.

Opening soul-stirrer If Eternity Should Fail is arguably the heaviest thing Maiden have ever recorded; a subtly psychedelic existential exploration with lashings of dark drama and a chorus of soaring, soulful enormity. But it was the closing Empire Of The Clouds that got everybody talking: an 18-minute sprawl of tinkled ivories and orchestral bluster dedicated to the 1930 R101 airship disaster. It was ingenious, opulent and preposterous in equal measure, with Bruce’s creative euphoria conjuring something truly unique and, more importantly, very, very Maiden. It’s hard to imagine any other band attempting such a thing, let alone getting away with it. And that’s The Book Of Souls in a nutshell: the greatest metal band of all time on blistering form, with plenty still to say and countless thrilling new ways to say it. A world without them is unthinkable for most metalheads, but on this evidence Iron Maiden are a long way from done.