Heavy Blog Is Heavy’s Best Of series takes musical genres and categories and highlights our staff’s personal favorites. You can read more entries from this series here.
In this installment of ‘Best of’, the Heavy Blog staff go back twenty years in time to examine some of the best albums released in 1995. As some of the most influential metal albums get through their second decade, we wanted to examine them in terms of originality, relevance, impact and the extent of their influence. Having gone through two rounds of voting and a list of more than thirty albums, including releases by bands that became household names today like Behemoth, Nevermore, Ayreon and Deicide, we finally have our top ten albums from 1995. It is worth noting that six out of the ten are European releases; four of which are Swedish. Despite the meteoric rise of black metal in next door Norway and the evolution of American death metal on the other side of the pond at that time, the Swedes were doing things the Swedish way and after twenty years, it seems like they knew what they were doing. So without further ado, here’s our list of ten timeless records which will surely thrive into their third decade.
Maybe at its time of release it was awash in a sea of like-minded Swedes emerging from the grimy underground scenes of Gothenburg and Stockholm, but At the Gates’ (then) swansong Slaughter of the Soul would eventually go on to becoming one of the most influential pieces in multiple subgenres right up until the band reformed. In less than 35 minutes, At the Gates shed away all of their more progressive and experimental roots from their earlier albums and go straight for the jugular. It’s decidedly less technical too, but is more than made up for by the fact that this album contains some of the most anthemic and memorable tracks in death metal, bar none. Whether it’s the monstrous main riff in the title track, the perfect shotgun sample that kicks off “Suicide Nation,” or the relentless Iron Maiden-meets-Dismember style of riffing throughout, there has never been nor there ever will be a better template for describing to a first time listener exactly what melodic death metal sounds like. It’s grade-a material for circle pit enthusiasts worldwide and never stops completely decimating the listener. Hell, even the interlude tracks on the album are still insanely dark and depressive! Huge American bands (that really sound nothing like At the Gates) like Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God and Unearth would undoubtedly sound completely different if it wasn’t for this absolutely essential masterpiece of the 1990s. It may be championed heavily in the underground now, but hopefully incoming decades Slaughter of the Soul will be put in the same category as Reign in Blood and Master of Puppets in terms of its sheer importance.
It is 1995 and a storm is brewing. From the still-scorching remains of the 80’s thrash scene a new voice is arising: that of power metal. Blending the breakneck speeds of the dying genre, power metal infused those sensibilities with fantasy, high-pitched vocals and a dedication to unique thematics. It can be argued that no had a larger part in facilitating this transformation that Blind Guardian. They stood with one leg planted firmly in each style, channeling the power of both, proving that the evolution was viable and desirable. As such, Imaginations From the Other Side was their watershed moment: it proved that the darker, more power metal oriented style that debuted in many ways on the previous Somewhere Far Beyond was not a fluke, a one hit wonder. This was a new sound and Blind Guardian were there to own it.
Perhaps most exemplifying of this moment in history is “Bright Eyes”. With its stupendously massive chorus ushered in by the faster than life, main riff, Hansi Kürsch powerful delivery and overall grandiose feel, it’s a track that captures the overall style Blind Guardian were starting to develop. Also worth mention is “Mordred’s Song”, accentuating the folk roots of the band. Its approach to backing guitars would color much of the band’s later career and composition. Long story short, Imaginations is perhaps THE album which enabled Blind Guardian to win the respect and power they still wield in the scene. Twenty years ago, before Nightfall in Middle Earth, they were already giants, progenitors of a new wave and sound which would echo forward in time, all the way to today.
It’s pretty easy to argue that 1995 was the year melodic death metal as we know it was born, and Dark Tranquillity were the one to give birth to it. Combining death metal instrumentation with melancholic lead-based playing, introspective lyrics and counterpoint harmonies (which other bands imitating them mostly were not able to replicate); their sound on The Gallery was a blueprint that not only defined an entire genre, it also stands to this day as one of the best examples of it. Mikael Stanne’s vocal delivery is so emotive, so biting that you feel every pang of pain as he sings his poetic, thoughtful lines. The melodic interplay between the guitars and clearly audible bass make for some very unique moments that are still unmatched. The band had a similar sound on their debut, but the production wasn’t there yet, and the band hadn’t yet settled into their places – whereas in The Gallery we see them as already having mastered their approach to a degree that set the bar way too high for other bands trying to join the genre. The band’s mannerisms established in this album, the chords, Mikael’s rhytmic patterns, they’re still evident in the band’s sound 20 years later, which goes to show how consistently they’ve followed the quality of this album and how it still holds up. The atmoshperic elements, the clean singing from guest Eva Marie-Larsson, the slightly spacey yet intimate way everything sounds while still being perfectly clear, pretty much every aspect of this album is perfect, and still remains perfect.
It’s very hard to find one album that helped define any specific genre of music. In many cases, there are multiple albums that helped the genre evolve to what it has become today. However, there are a few albums out there that have the unique legacy of shaping an entire genre of music with one fell swoop. Symbolic is that album for death metal. The album is slower that any of its predecessors, and Chuck Schuldiner’s screams are higher pitched than ever before. The entire album combines elements heard not only in death metal, but also in groove metal, and technical death metal. This album has become a landmark in the genre along with countless other albums, but where Symbolic truly stands apart is in the musicianship. Each song is an exploration into new territory, with longer songs and more grooving, calculated riffs as opposed to simple fast rhythm guitars over blistering drums and growled vocals. The band, fronted by Chuck, really used their talent to explore some themes musically and lyrically death metal bands had never really played with extensively before, and it worked extremely well. It remains a timeless classic, containing some of the best death metal songs ever written on it. 20 years later, this album remains just that: symbolic.
A Change of Seasons is twenty years old. Twenty years since Dream Theater’s penchant for incredibly intricate, larger than life concept tracks first unfurled to its true capacity. Telling the story of a man from birth to death, this twenty five minute long masterpiece sees the early Dream Theater solidifying and magnifying their abilities to create a true story, one which lives not only through lyrical ideas but also through musical ones. Different parts play off of each other, quoting earlier or later phrases to convey the sense of progression and of roots.
Like a lot of their works, this “album” focus on emotional delivery and impact. Whether it’s the cries of the narrator for independence, his fear of death or his final acceptance, LaBrie is on top form here. His soaring vocals grant this track the aspiration and ambition which makes it truly great, driving the other instruments to match his timbre and strength. The instruments in turn answer truthfully, including some of the most interesting yet engaging progressive metal segments ever written. The unisons are plenty but most of all, the interaction between the different parts is what makes them great. The bass is prominent (a rare thing for Dream Theater) and Portnoy’s parts work perfectly with the whole thing. Finally, it’s clear on this album the extent of Sherinian’s talent, a talent we might have lost due to his abrupt departure from the band after Falling Into Infinity.
A frequently overlooked fact is that this album contains more than one track: the other tracks are cover versions to classic rock anthems. While covers usually carry little more than novelty value, this isn’t the case here. From the medley blending Pink Floyd, Queen, Kansas, Genesis and more, to the insanely engaging Elton John cover, the rest of this album might not be original but it’s damn good. These cover elements coupled with the original masterpiece leave this a pristine example of the power that great progressive metal can hold, replete with overreaching arcs, ideas and themes.
Anyone familiar with the Meshuggah discography will probably concur that the band’s 1991 debut Contradictions Collapse doesn’t really best represent the band’s unique sound. It is however much easier to argue that this unique sound, affectionately dubbed by loyal fans as ‘Meshuggah metal’, was indeed born in 1995 with the magnum opus that is Destroy Erase Improve. Legions of fans agglomerated around the band as the metal world stood transfixed by these shamans from the north of Sweden. Years later, hordes of younger bands began to copy the Meshuggah sound in half baked attempts to ride the wave; a trend that only served to emphasize the uniqueness of their sound that came to fruition on Destroy Erase Improve.
This is an album that comes loaded with an arsenal of superpowers. The most obvious of which is the band’s undeniable ability to engulf the listener’s mental faculties in a dense fog of polyrhythmic arrangements, atonal barks, spastic lead guitar lines and ceaselessly thudding drum patterns. However, the more subtle yet lethal aspect to this album is how relevant it has remained over the past twenty years, which is a long time in the metal world. Attempting to differentiate between the ten songs that make up Destroy Erase Improve is a moot point since they all share the same characteristics that make this record the tour de force that it is, and in essence, make Meshuggah the band it is today; a truly unique band of visionaries capable of creating timeless masterpieces.
<pIt’s one thing to be ambitious on a debut, and another to write an hour long record featuring sprawling tapestries of songs that average about ten minutes each. It’s also one thing to stretch out and repeat individual sequences to make for fairly long songs, and another to cram more counterpoint riffs in a single track than other bands would in entire albums. Orchid remains unprecedented in its forward-thinking synthesis of influences from jazz to folk to progressive rock and even black metal, and while Opeth have one of the most complete and stunning discographies of any metal band in the last few decades by this point in time, Orchid is still an unbelievably strong start to the legendary career the Swedish band had ahead of them.
Primus is quite a tough nut to crack for a few reasons, chief among which is their commitment to absurdity and pushing the envelope with everything they do. By the time 1995 rolled around, the trio of self-professed weirdos had developed quite a cult following on the strength of their previous three releases. Never one to rest on their laurels, however, the group came together for the brilliant, bizarre, oddball sonic adventure that is Tales From The Punch Bowl. Everything on here is the classic Primus formula cranked up to 11: Les Claypool’s signature funk basslines set the pace, sometimes with slinking lethargic steps, sometimes with a thumping gallup, as Tim Alexander’s high-octane drumwork tap dances through every bar like a crack-addled madman and Larry LaLonde (of Possessed fame as well) wrests shrieks of noise and psychedelic jam-style solos from his tormented guitar. Even today, there’s nothing quite as diverse, different, or downright weird as what this trio of virtuosic goofballs deliver on this classic album.
Some titles are just so incredibly apt. As the now-legendary Devin Townsend’s first foray into making music after a brief stint with the then-legendary Steve Vai, Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing very appropriately expressed his disillusionment with the music industry, and it was – hold your breath – really, really heavy. (Surprise!) Now, one can certainly argue that future Strapping Young Lad releases improved upon Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing in nearly every way conceivable — from a musical standpoint, at least — but there is something about the raw, furious energy of the record that makes it stick out in the band’s discography. Let us recall that this is a band whose discography’s entire appeal remains its collective fury. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming barrage of low-tuned guitars, themselves still a bit of a novelty at the time? Or the fact that Devin famously passed out in the studio whilst recording the chaotic vocal line for the mercilessly heavy “Happy Camper”? However much the man himself may dismiss it as being silly and dated — which he has done a fair bit — few can point to a more raw and intensely furious album than Devin’s debut.
If it feels to you that we’ve been talking without end about Ulver, it’s with good reason: I’ve always known how good this band but only in recent months has the full impact of their career dawned on me. Now, standing twenty years after their masterpiece, it’s safe to say that Ulver are among the most influential bands operating then or now in the metal underground scene. Bergtatt, one of their earlier releases and excursions into black metal, is a flawless thirty five minutes, blending black metal instruments and clean singing in a fashion so convincing it has rarely been seen since. It’s perhaps the overall feeling that everything knows its place that delivers this album in such a pleasing way: every part communicates with the whole but does not overbear.
This is especially impressive due to the vast amount of influences on the album: folk and black metal of all genres and sizes intermix and live together, turning Bergtatt into both a challenging and a rewarding listen. The hints are endless, the melodies are intricate and the product is as pristine today as it was then. Having launched almost single-handedly one of the most diverse and interesting careers today, it’s easy to see the importance of Bergtatt to metal in general and to black metal specifically. Perhaps it serves as one of the first meeting points between the sub-genre and the parent genre as a whole. For that and more, Ulver have earned the singular place we afford them.