Growing up as I did on a diet of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, I’ve always had a love for classical music, and the power of the orchestra. From the modest chamber orchestras of Vivaldi’s era to the sprawling orchestrations of Mahler’s monumental symphonies, for a very long time I believed the most powerful sound on earth was that of a hundred instruments blasting out at full volume, tuba players red in the cheeks and sweat dripping down the conductor’s brow.
Then I discovered heavy metal.
At first glance, the two genres couldn’t be further from each other. Classical music is dominated by large dynamic ranges, often slow passages, and is usually seen as the intellectual’s music. Heavy metal is fast, loud, and – particularly in the 70s and 80s – somewhat ‘low-brow’. (This isn’t true at all, but there’s no accounting for some people’s judgements.) Classical music is sophisticated and charming; metal is brutish and off-putting. One is sipping sherry by a fire on winter’s night; the other is a college frat-party chugathon.
In truth, heavy metal owes an enormous amount to the classical eras of music, and is one of the most diverse genres to grace the music world, with everything from Black Sabbath to Behemoth bringing elements of classical music into the fray. In Van Halen’s virtuosic track Eruption, parts of the song are lifted directly from a Paganini piece for solo violin. In the middle eight of Stratovarius’s Will the Sun Rise, we are treated to a double-time rendition of a Bach violin concerto. Orchestras were used even before heavy metal to enhance, back and fill out big bands and crooners, and it was only a matter of time before the lush instrumentations bled over into rock and metal.
Now of course, not all attempts to marry rock and classical music have worked to great success; Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra, for example, is just awful. But in the late 80s and early 90s, the arrival of synthesizers and sampled instruments allowed heavy metal bands to incorporate orchestral sounds without the need of an actual live, expensive orchestra. Many underground and some mainstream bands started using strings, bells, and even horn sounds in their music to emphasize certain passages, or compliment the rawness of the distorted guitars, leading to a new sub genre: symphonic metal.
And in the late 90s, one band arose above many others as the true champion of this style, and that was Finland’s Nightwish. Incorporating strings and flutes as early as their first album, and combined with their original vocalist’s operatic training, nothing said ‘symphonic’ like their blend of synthetic orchestras and power metal. In fact, unlike many other bands at the time, the orchestral elements (keyboards and synths to start with) would often take center stage, putting the guitars and even drums in the background.
Then, in 2002, Nightwish released their fourth album, Century Child, and this time, they replaced the synths and samples with a real live orchestra. From the massive string chords of the opening Bless the Child to the massive 10-minute closer, Beauty of the Beast, the orchestra is prominent throughout, and there’s something about the authenticity of the real instruments that stands head and shoulders above anything they’d done before.
Whilst it wasn’t clear at the time if this was a one-time thing for Nightwish or a new direction, it soon became evident that working with a live orchestra was a strong suit for the band with the release of 2004’s Once, and even when they changed vocalists for 2007’s Dark Passion Play, the massive orchestras were clearly here to stay. And their most recent release, Human :II: Nature, includes a second disc which is quite literally a 30-minute orchestral symphony, with no guitars or metal in it at all.
There are many other bands working in this area now, of course, from Dimmu Borgir to Cradle of Filth, but there is no band that does it better than Nightwish.
Those of you who know me will know that music is a deeply integral part of my life, from listening to performing to composing. Even as a child, I knew there was a magic in music, something that spoke deeply to my soul and lifted me up, even out of the deepest depressions.
As my musical tastes evolved from classical to rock and metal, I’ve never stopped enjoying everything that I’ve ever liked, and what’s wonderful about this is that I have only an ever-expanding list of music that truly bring me joy. And the best of that music, the songs, works and albums that stand head and shoulders above the rest, are those I would take with me truly to a desert island – they are those I could not live my life without.
There has been a great deal of incredible music released over the past ten years, and I feel that the beginning of 2020 is an apt time to look back on the last decade, sift through the hundreds of albums I’ve amassed in my library, and see which ones spoke to me deeply, truly, and with heartfelt passion. It was no easy task, but I was finally able to whittle it down to ten albums that, for me, are the essential highlights of the 2010s.
10. Ritual – In This Moment
In This Moment are a band I’ve kept a close eye on ever since I heard the title song from their album, Beautiful Tragedy. There was something raw and powerful about Maria Brink’s angst-ridden vocals, and although there were issues with her tone and pitching, I knew this was a band that could truly come to the forefront of the alt-metal scene with a bit of practice.
The good news is, Brink has definitely been practicing. Album after album her vocals improved, as did the songwriting, and slowly a mix of genres begin to find their way into the scream-ridden despair of their music. 2014’s Black Widow was a masterpiece of bleak, gothic metal, dripping with rage and fear, but it was with Ritual, in 2017, that I felt they’d truly come into their own. With influences as wide-ranging as blues and pop, and a cameo appearance by Judas Priest’s very own Rob Halford, it sounds nothing so much as if Adele were tortured, nailed to an upside-down cross, and force-fed to a wild pack of wolves – and I love it. Ritual is, so far, their crowning masterpiece, and for me one of the best alt-metal albums of the decade.
9. Black Labyrinth – Jonathan Davis
Ever a fan of Korn’s low-tuned nu metal antics, I was curious to see what frontman Jonathan Davis’ first solo album would be like. Would it be a Korn 2.0? Would it be 80s alternative? Would it just be a rip-off of whatever bands came before Korn?
The answer, oddly, is a bit of all of that. More personal than Korn, and indeed at times darker (imagine that!), Black Labyrinth is a journey through the mind of a deeply hurt, guilt-ridden and exhausted person – someone who’s been through all the shit the world could throw at him, and still keeps coming back for more. Nowhere is this more evident than on tracks such as Happiness and Your God, with Davis cursing the vile minds surrounding him for stripping him of joy, faith, and humanity. Musically, the style is reminiscent of Korn, but if Korn had started in the early 80s rather than the 90s, and the influence of his childhood music is evident here. The opening to Underneath My Skin sounds like it could have been taken straight from an early Sisters of Mercy track, and the deep bass riff of What You Believe could have been a Michael Jackson bass line, distorted and on speed.
More than this, though, this album connected deeply with me emotionally, the lyrics relatable and meaningful to someone who also struggles with mental illness, addiction, and finding self-worth. Davis truly poured himself into this album, and it shows.
8. Hammer of the Witches – Cradle of Filth
Ever since their seminal debut, Cradle of Filth have set the bar for melodic black metal, and whilst they’ve had their ups and downs in the quality of their output over the years, there are a few albums that stand out as true masterpieces of the genre, blending gothic style, brutal riffs, searing vocals and orchestral flourishes into something straight out of hell.
Hammer of the Witches is one of these. Opening as they so often do with an orchestral prelude, we’re thrown to the beast immediately with the first true track, Yours Immortally …, and while the following tracks are excellent examples of Cradle of Filth’s mix of horror and the gothic, when we get to Blackest Magick in Practice we’re treated to a truly gorgeous riff – something straight out of Iron Maiden’s back catalogue, leading relentlessly onward over the course of nearly seven minutes to a flourishing finish, laden with razor-sharp solos and soaring female vocals.
The rest of the album is equally enjoyable, and for its 57-minute run time it never feels dull or drawn-out. Every song is unique, yet instantly identifiable, and is unreservedly their best album of the past ten years.
7. The Ninth Hour – Sonata Arctica
Over the years, Sonata Arctica have stayed in the running for one of my favorite bands of all time. When they’re bad they’re good, and when they’re good they’re nothing short of musical perfection.
That being said, they’ve suffered in recent years from a series of lackluster albums, experimenting with various compositional aspects, failing as often as they succeeded. Ever since 2009’s The Days of Grays (to this day my favorite album of theirs), they followed with Stones Grow Her Name, with some odd songs and odder production, and Pariah’s Child, which frankly had some very silly stuff on it.
After two albums of, I hate to say, disappointment, I really didn’t have high expectations for The Ninth Hour. Perhaps that was a good thing, because it blew me away. Whilst they remain far from the best lyricists in the world, the sensitivity and delicate treatment of their quieter moments, juxtaposed with the fast-paced, juggernaut power metal they built their reputation on, made for an astonishingly good album. Even at 62 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the middle of the album – typically reserved for a band’s weakest songs – are supported by the deeply sad Til Death Do Us Part and the ever-so-delicate Among the Shooting Stars. Even the 10-minute sequel to White Pearl, Black Oceans feels natural and thought-out, and the gentle, almost tragic subtlety of On the Faultline (Closure to an Animal), borrowing from the lyrical and musical themes of the opening track, is an absolutely perfect end to a nearly perfect album.
7. Shadows of the Dying Sun – Insomnium
Winter’s Gate aside, Insomnium are not a band who veer too far from their tried-and-true formula for making albums. You always get a short opening track that builds to lead directly into the second track, invariably the catchy, riff-laden single, before veering away into longer, more cerebral songs. Shadows of the Dying Sun is no exception, but the difference here is that where many of their previous albums’ later songs are somewhat interchangeable, each track on this album stands out in its own right, placed exactly where it should be, and following each other in a very natural order.
In fact, I would go as far as to say that Shadows of the Dying Sun is so far Insomnium’s best work, and make them for me one of the strongest staples of the melodic death metal scene. From the lyrical and memorable chorus of While We Sleep to the roaring fury of Black Heart Rebellion, and even the upbeat and encouraging Ephemeral, every moment of this album is crafted and tailored with care to ensure that ever song is as important as the next. There are perhaps better albums than this in the past decade, but something keeps drawing me back to this release – something honest, melancholic and yet hopeful.
5. The Book of Souls – Iron Maiden
When Bruce Dickinson returned to the fold in 2000, bringing Adrian Smith with him to complete a triple-lead guitar lineup, it was to create one of their most masterful albums ever – the seminal Brave New World. Taking inspiration from their attempts at progressive metal in the 90s, and blending it with the melodic and bouncing riffs of the 80s that put them on the map, Brave New World was a sensation, truly proving that even an aging 80s metal band could still have something important to contribute to the world of music.
The succeeding releases, however – Dance of Death, A Matter of Life and Death and The Final Frontier – were progressively less impressive, harkening back to the unfortunate days when Blaze Bailey was on vocals and nobody could take them seriously. So when Iron Maiden announced that they would be releasing a double album including an 18-minute track about a British airship disaster, I was hard-pressed to think anything good could come out of it.
I have never been so glad to be so wrong. The Book of Souls is Iron Maiden’s most cohesive, structured and ambitious release ever, and if it becomes their swansong, it would be an absolutely perfect one. From the moment the ominous drone of If Eternity Should Fail, leading to Dickinson’s operatic vocal solo, to the epic finale of Empire of the Clouds, there isn’t a dud on the album – despite its massive 93-minute runtime. The true standout track, however, is The Red and the Black; over 13 minutes long, it contains one of the longest – and best – Iron Maiden rock-outs ever, with solo after solo coming fast and furious from all three guitarists, and Nicko McBrain and Steve Harris keeping a rollicking drum and bass rhythm that only urges the song further forward. Second to Brave New World, this is hands-down one of Iron Maiden’s best albums. Ever.
4. Feel the Misery – My Dying Bride
My Dying Bride have literally never had a bad album. Even the somewhat contentious, electronic-tinged effort 34.788% … Complete in 1998 is still one of my favorites, and they’ve only matured and improved as the years have gone by.
That being said, their previous release, A Map of All Our Failures, was surprisingly brutal and heavy, even for a doom metal band, and whilst I learned to enjoy it over time, it still comes across as a little too harsh to me.
So when they released Feel the Misery in 2015, I was worried about the direction they were going in; were they returning to the more death metal roots from whence they came?
I need not have worried. Feel the Misery is quite possibly their most gloomy, melancholic album to date. It’s also one of their most concise, consisting of only eight tracks, most of which are under six minutes long. And whilst the first three, somewhat more epic tracks, flow smoothly into each other and have each their magic moments, it’s really when we get to the title track that you realize just how masterful this album truly is. Not only are A Thorn of Wisdom and I Celebrate Your Skin some of My Dying Bride’s most unique tracks ever, the penultimate song, I Almost Loved You, is on the level of 1996’s Gods of the Sun‘s closer, For My Fallen Angel. One of the saddest albums of the decade, this is truly one that will live in my hall of fame.
3. Endless Forms Most Beautiful – Nightwish
I’ve always loved Nightwish’s bombastic, symphonic power metal, but when they started recording with live orchestras in 2002 with Century Child, they really became a different beast altogether. Never looking back, Nightwish have gone from strength to strength, even through three different vocalists, and when they released the concept album Imaginaerum in 2011, I didn’t think they’d be able to top it.
I was wrong. 2015’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful, inspired by the writings of Charles Darwin, is all that Imaginaerum was, and more. Not quite a concept album, the songs are more loosely based around the magic and wonder of the natural universe, with several songs directly referencing evolution as the most wondrous thing to ever occur in the history of time.
But beyond the lyrical content, the songs themselves are perfectly balanced, the orchestra blending seamlessly into the metal to the extent that neither one would work without the other. Every song is crafted masterfully, and the closer – the 24-minute epic The Greatest Show on Earth – is perhaps the album’s highlight, featuring spoken words from Richard Dawkins, blends of whale song and lion roars, and a dark, atmospheric piano opening that builds and builds to a massive crescendo by the final third of the song.
Endless Forms Most Beautiful is not only one of the best symphonic metal albums of the decade, it is truly one of the best albums, period.
2. .5: The Gray Chapter – Slipknot
Slipknot are an unstoppable force; beyond a band, they spawned an entire culture around their music, affectionally calling their fans ‘maggots’, and taking their time between releases, ensuring that every album and song they create is nothing more than sheer perfection, a soundscape of rage and despair that echoes into the souls of millions, bringing people closer together through their shared love of this band. In recent years they’ve toured endlessly, released We Are Not Your Kind to critical acclaim, and seem stronger than they’ve ever been.
This wasn’t always the case. When original bass player Paul Gray overdosed in 2010, it seemed that Slipknot’s career might well be over. Coming only two years after the release of their fourth album, All Hope Is Gone, the band, ever a family, were thrown into despair, and it was unclear if they would ever be able to recover.
Coming on the heels of this tragedy, in 2013 Slipknot also lost their longtime (and famed) drummer, Joey Jordison. At first there was a great deal of rumor and conflict around the exact reason for his departure, and although it was later revealed that a neurodegenerative disease had been a factor, the animosity between the band’s members had never been higher.
So when it was announced that they were working on a fifth album, it wasn’t clear whether or not they’d be able to work through the pain, the grief and the rage, and come up with something that could top their previous four efforts. But of course, Slipknot delivered. And not only did they deliver, they did so in the only way they knew how: by dedicating the album to their lost companions.
.5: The Gray Chapter is a requiem to Paul Gray, and from Corey Talor’s powerful opening lines (“I don’t want to get back up / But I have to, so it might as well be today”) it was immediately clear that here was a band that not only refused to give up, but found strength in despair and courage in the face of tragedy. To me, .5: The Gray Chapter is Slipknot’s totemic masterpiece, a testament to grief, rage, loss and renewal that can – and will – never be topped.
1. Heritage – Opeth
And so we come to our number one album of the past ten years. For those of you who know me, you should know that Opeth are hands-down my favorite band of all time, so it may come as no surprise that I would cite one of their four albums this decade as my number one favorite. Yet with Heritage, Opeth took a hard left turn into uncharted musical territory, and along that path, turned into something so far removed from the Opeth of yore that it might as well be a wholly different band.
Completely abandoning the progressive death metal that has served them so well for nearly 20 years, Heritage is a look back to the 70s prog influences that had hitherto only been hinted at. Inspired by bands such as Genesis and King Crimson, the songwriting is intricate, complex, and masterful. Each song feels like a session improvisation, and yet with such meticulous attention to detail that it could only have been written and planned over months, with blood, sweat and tears poured into it.
On top of that, the production of this album is quite simply exquisite. From barely audible flutes to roaring rock organs and crunchy guitars, this isn’t an album to listen to lightly; in fact, some of it is almost unlistenable except with very good headphones, or an expensive sound system. And oh, is it worth it to listen to it like this! The sound and production is as much an art here as the notes that make the songs themselves, and despite continuing this style throughout the rest of the decade, they have simply never topped this first ‘new’ Opeth album.