After Forever - Self-Titled
As a big Epica fan, the idea that a band could get better after Mark Jansen’s departure seems almost absurd, but on their final album, After Forever pulled it off. I could point out that the orchestration is sincerely epic and the death vocals don’t feel gimmicky like they do on too many symphonic metal albums, but really, this record is about one thing. Floor Jansen has the most powerful pipes in symphonic metal, which she’d later use to put two consecutive Nightwish singers to shame. But it’s here that her voice is at top form, showing off a range and passion that make nearly every song impossibly catchy.
Agalloch - Ashes Against the Grain
I’ve heard Agalloch described as the Opeth of black metal, and it’s not too far from the truth. The appeal of their unique blend of blackened folk metal can be summed up in one word: atmosphere. The band comes from Portland, yet the “dark woods in the heart of a Norwegian winter” vibe feels authentic. At an hour long split between seven songs and one interlude, it’s an album that meanders but never feels slow or loses focus. Ashes Against the Grain is a record to turn off the lights and just think to, but it never feels soft or sentimental. The vocals and guitar both sound ethereal, and not in a modern, overproduced way. And even if nothing I just said sounds the least bit appealing to you, check out Not Unlike the Waves all the same.
Iced Earth - Something Wicked This Way Comes
This album represents everything a metal purist might dismiss as entry level, from the familiar thrash meets power metal riffing to the formulaic pacing (thrasher, power ballad, repeat until bombastic closer) and straightforward lyrics. Yet Something Wicked this Way comes makes this list for one simple reason: it’s the perfect reminder of why that formula works in the first place. The riffs hit hard, the power ballads are drenched with raw emotion, the closing Something Wicked trilogy feels sincerely epic, and Matt Barlow’s voice is the perfect compromise of melody and aggression. This album is the ultimate testament to a simple idea executed with conviction.
Opeth - Blackwater Park
Blackwater Park sees Opeth at both their own creative peak and the beginning of their collaboration with Steven Wilson (so it goes without saying that the production is immaculate). This album came out on the heels of two other amazing albums where the band explored and solidified their sound, and it sees their classic lineup at top form. Countless bands can throw an acoustic interlude into a death metal track or add some growls to a prog rock song, but few can artfully blend all those elements into a single coherent sound and maintain the same haunting atmosphere over several long tracks.
Blind Guardian - Somewhere Far Beyond
In a subgenre obsessed with Tolkien and DnD cliches, Blind Guardian stands out as one of the few power metal bands that sounds like they really grasp what the best fantasy is about. The band’s fourth album was the closest call of this whole list, considering a career full of strong contenders in every decade. But if there’s one thing that sets Somewhere Far Beyond above the competition, it’s the artful mix of their signature bardic style, the straightforward shred of their early years, and the melodic complexity of their later work without going overboard in any one direction. There’s not a moment of filler on this album as it flows from immersive storytelling to soaring choruses to relentless solos and the most touching ballad of their career. And if you’re lucky enough to have a deluxe edition of Somewhere Far Beyond, their cover of Satan’s Trial by Fire is a quintessential lesson on how to take an already great song and make it your own.
Satan - Court in the Act
Speaking of Satan, their full-length debut album is a sadly overlooked gem of the 80s NWOBHM scene. Court in the Act is an album with an absurdly simple appeal: no frills, no surprises, just classic heavy metal riffing end to end. This is the album to wake up the aspiring guitarist in all of us.
Dark Tranquillity - The Gallery
I would have loved to be a death metal fan in the early 90s just to have my jaw drop when this album came out. The Gallery is one of those rare influential albums that barely feels dated despite setting the standard for so many genre archetypes. The guitar work is heavy with Maiden worship but never short on blisteringly fast riffing. Mikael Stanne’s voice would get better with age, but even here it’s astounding how much he can emote and articulate with a growl. And it would shame any other way, because the lyrics are pure poetry. “If I had wings, would I be forgiving? If I had horns, would there be flames to shy my smile?” still stands as my single favorite lyric.
Seventh Wonder - Mercy Falls
Seventh Wonder walk a tightrope over countless prog metal pitfalls with no signs of strain over the balancing act. They’re catchy without simplifying their sound, technical without a hint of self-indulgence, and on Mercy Falls they deliver an original concept without feeling cheesy or insincere. Singer Tommy Karevik has range and power that most prog metal singers would kill for, yet he can deliver a hook to make any pop star jealous. If you’re a fan of Ayreon’s Human Equation, you owe it to yourself to check out Mercy Falls and hear an original spin on a similar idea.
Iron Maiden - A Matter of Life and Death
Maiden’s 14th is an album light on hit singles but heavy on lyricism and atmosphere and might just be their most consistent effort as a whole. With a partial war concept running through the album, the dark, reflective tone of AMOLAD perfects what Maiden attempted in the Blaze years with mixed results. The songwriting is some of Steve Harris’ strongest as Bruce Dickinson delivers thoughtful verse after anthemic chorus with passionate delivery from start to finish. And to top it all off, the minimalist production gives us our best glimpse yet into how absurdly tight the musicianship is. Three decades of flawless rapport have never been more evident.
Kamelot - The Black Halo
It should be no surprise by now that I’m a complete sucker for concept albums. And Kamelot’s seventh album, following some formidable releases in their own right like Karma and Epica, sounds like it was made specifically for my ear. The second half of Kamelot’s retelling of Faust takes the band in a darker, more symphonic direction than its predecessor and saves the best parts of the story for last. As much as I could talk volumes about any single element, there are two that set The Black Halo above the rest. First is Thomas Youngblood’s songwriting, which takes the best of the band’s past efforts and gives us their most immersive, emotional story yet, full of addictive vocal melodies and haunting leitmotifs. Second is Roy Khan’s one of a kind voice that flawlessly sells all the intensity and emotion of Youngblood’s songwriting.