I haven’t been feeling so well lately, probably because I inadvertently stopped taking my medication for a little bit, and the resulting depression has had me on something of a trip down memory lane – at least as far as feeling and emotion is concerned. It’s not that I necessarily want to feel this way, but it is bringing back to me the memories that I once could feel this way.
Let me try to explain. I have a reasonably large collection of music (not that music collections really mean much in today’s world of all-you-can-eat streaming services), and I’ve formed emotional attachments to many of these songs. They make me feel certain ways – whether it be happy, sad, boisterous, etc. – and I’ll often listen to them when I’m feeling those ways, to reinforce my own sense of emotion. I even have entire playlist simply called ‘Depression’, for when I’m at my worst.
The interesting thing about this is that whilst some of the songs in my Depression playlist would probably be universally seen as ‘sad’, many of them would almost certainly not trigger the same thoughts and feelings in others as they do in me. Memory is an enormous part of what makes me feel with music – specifically emotional memory.
Some people can remember the first time they ever heard a song, sort of like they can remember their first kiss, or where they were when they first learned some monumental truth. I can’t. In fact, I struggle to remember what I had for breakfast yesterday in most occasions, and if you were to name a song, I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to remember the first time I heard it.
What I do remember, however, is how I felt when I first heard it. Name me a song and I’ll probably gloss over it; play me a song and I’ll – in most cases – be transported back to the time when I first heard it, complete with the emotions and sensations I was going through at that time. It isn’t that the music causes the emotions – it’s that it reminds me of them.
To me this is fascinating, because it implies that music doesn’t necessarily hold inherent emotional power, but rather holds the power of emotional memory – the power to remind us of how we once were. (I’ve heard smells can do the same thing.)
Now of course, this isn’t going to true of every song, nor of every person; as far back as the history of humans, certain types of musical ideas have been associated with specific feelings; major keys are happy, while minor keys are sad; perfect chords are satisfying, while dissonance builds frustration and anger. Yet within even the history of western classical music, the thought of emotion being inherently tied to music is a relatively new concept (-ish). Moving out of the Middle Ages, where music was generally sacred, the Renaissance and Baroque periods of musical invention gave rise to composers who wrote for fun, and not just for god.
Yet even the great composers of the past such as Bach, Handel and Vivaldi aren’t particularly known for infusing deep emotion into their works. Certainly, they have ‘serious’ and ‘light’ works, but music from that era comes across often as more studious than heartfelt, with only a passing sense that a cantata in a minor key might be used for a more solemn purpose than a fugue in a major key.
Approaching the 1800s, however, there is a marked shift in musical tone and dynamic, largely led by Beethoven and his successors. Few scholars, I think, would argue that Beethoven’s majestic ninth symphony is not deeply infused with a wide range of emotions, from fear to rage to outright joy (indeed, the final movement is known as the “Ode to Joy”), and the Romantic era of music he ushered in was one in which emotion was key above all else.
The twentieth century saw a shift away from this, particularly following World War I and the desire to distance culture from the nationalism that sparked it, and the middle of the century was dominated by composers trying to reverse this trend and remove not only emotion, but themselves entirely, from their works (Schönberg, Cage, and others would often try to create composer-less music). However, as blues and jazz began to dominate the popular musical landscape, classical music faded into a background of obscurity whilst rock ‘n’ roll kept the ‘feeling’ alive.
Still, despite the concept of ASMR and the goosebumps you get from a particularly powerful passage, you really can’t argue that music contains the emotion in its entirety. The composer/songwriter may try their best, but interpretation – both from the performer and the listener – is where the connection actually happens. Let’s take a reasonably popular example that I can explain for myself: Wait and Bleed, by Slipknot. Reaching number 34 in the US charts and earning the band a grammy nomination, it’s a song that most people have at least heard of, if not expressly listened to. With its extreme distortion, dissonant chord progressions and screamed vocals, the first emotional impression one might get from this song is anger and rage (as could be argued for most of Slipknot’s output).
Yet for me, the song carries a deep weight of depression – specifically the teenage existential misery that I was going through when I first heard it. I don’t expressly remember what I was doing or where I was when I actually first heard the song, but it was part of the soundtrack to my young adulthood, and will be indelibly etched into my memory as an overwhelmingly sad song.
When I hear Wait and Bleed – or any other song that I first heard during that time of my life – I find myself reliving those feelings in my life, often tinted with a hefty dose of nostalgia. It doesn’t particularly matter if the song is meant to make the listener feel a certain way or not – it makes me feel that way. And interestingly, contemporaneous music that I didn’t listen to – such as Linkin Park – don’t have nearly the same emotional effect on me, despite the songs themselves being just as emotionally raw and powerful.
I even think that this emotional attachment to music – formed in the deepest subconscious of our minds – can be an explanation as to why, after a certain age, we stop connecting to new music as much as we do old music. (How many of us remember our parents hating our music? How many of us dislike our children’s music?) Our teenage years, developmentally, are our most raw, vulnerable and formative, and the things we experience during that time are likely to stay with us forever. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t heard a new song since I turned thirty that has been able to have even close to the emotional impact that those songs I first heard when I was fifteen did. In some ways this makes me sad, because I feel like my world of musical experience is getting smaller, but I also recognize this as a natural part of aging – we become comfortable with what we know, and our experiences jade us, obscuring the wide-eyed wonder with which we saw the world before.
Ultimately, I’m glad for music, and the emotions it can stir in me; without it, I think I would probably be an unfeeling automaton most of the time. The music I love, the music that I connect with, reminds me that I actually am able to feel, especially in those times when the world around me, the meds I’m on, and my own inherent mental health issues, conspire to hide those feelings from me.
What’s your favorite emotional music? Is it something that would be widely accepted as emotional, or does it have some special connection to you, and your life?
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.