“To support Christians creating art within the metal and hard rock genres”, the quoted Angelic Warlord mission statement as referenced in its Home and Contact pages. Yes, it has been a ‘long, strange journey’ since launching Angelic Warlord ten years ago (June 20, 2006 to be exact), but I have stuck to said mission even if to a fault.
Like many, I was a disgruntled music fan the better part of the nineties, a period in which the hard music scene took a ‘grungy turn for the worse’. Yes, mainstays such as Bride and Deliverance continued to make music and exciting new bands in Veni Domine and Narnia emerged, but otherwise it was also a decade in which many (myself included) like to refer to as the ‘musical dark ages’.
Things did not begin to change until following the turn of the century, when the scene started to pick up- even if slightly: Rob Rock launched his solo career, new bands emerged in Jacobs Dream and Antithesis while Shining Star helped jumpstart the Christian metal movement in Brazil. Of equal importance was the work of believers within the mainstream scene, noting Jamie Rowe fronted AdrianGale, the various projects of Lance King and work of Rob Rock in Warrior. All this, however, proved a literal drop in the bucket in comparison to what was to follow.
Nothing proved more inspirational behind my decision to start Angelic Warlord than 2003, a year in which I consider a turning point as far as the Christian metal and hard rock scenes are concerned. Consider how (in my opinion) Rob Rock (Eyes Of Eternity) and Narnia (The Great Fall) put out potential career defining albums, while debut albums from exciting new bands Theocracy (self-titled) and Harmony (Dreaming Awake) also saw release. Of equally importance was the reformation of Stryper, whom toured for the first time since the early nineties in celebration of its twentieth anniversary. Finally, re-issue mania was in full swing in that Retroactive Records re-released on CD one of my favorite albums from the eighties, Daniel Band’s Run From The Darkness (as a two-for-one with Straight Ahead).
I subsequently began work on Angelic Warlord in January of 2004, and throughout the painstaking two and a half year research, writing and design process I was elated to see the Christian hard music scene expand exponentially. I am not speaking just as a site administrator but also as a fan in that the growth of the scene proved - at least in my eyes - the need for sites such as Angelic Warlord and others to support it. I do not think it is coincidental, for instance, that Dutch based site The Metal Resource saw launch at around the same time as Angelic Warlord.
What amounts a revival of Christian hard music artists from the time started to make an impact literally worldwide. Europe saw vocalist Christian Liljegren branch out from Narnia with new projects in Audiovision, Divinefire and Flagship, while the region was host to exciting new groups in Wingdom and Majestic Vanguard. Stalwarts such as Stairway, Veni Domine and Seventh Avenue continued to make relevant music.
Brazil maintained its penchant for quality, as can be found in albums from Shining Star (Enter Eternity), Destra (Joe’s Rhapsody), Dynasty (Motus Perpetuus), Menahem (Angels & Shadows) and Eterna (The Gate & Terra Nova).
While the United States generally lags behind much of the world in terms of making a metal and hard rock statement, it was also not without its share of choice moments. Letter 7 garnered a large following as a top-notch independent act - also noting other worthy independent bands Visual Cliff, Septer and Orphan Project - and Rivera Bomma put out what in my opinion is its best album in I Am God. Saint reformed with its first full-length album in 15 years entitled In The Battle.
Retroactive Records continued to set a high standard with re-issues of classic albums from Emotion, Servant, Armageddon, Deliverance, Rosanna’s Raiders and others. Also attributed to Retroactive were new albums from Bride (Skin For Skin) and Deliverance (As Above, So Below) in addition to the various projects of guitarist Bill Menchen, including The Seventh Power, Menchen and Titanic.
Equally notable are contributions from Ulterium Records (with new releases from Audiovision, Theocracy and Harmony among others) and Roxx Records (re-releasing material from Crystavox and Crossforce in addition to putting out a Deliverance tribute album).
In terms of the mainstream scene, Neal Morse launched his progressive rock solo career and Kerry Livgren formed his new progressive to classic rock band Proto-Kaw. Threshold released several highly regarded albums with prose from keyboardist Richard West. Other notable acts include Shadow Gallery, Sir Lord Baltimore, Stride and Place Of Skulls.
Now, imagine this momentum maintaining itself (if not accelerating) over the subsequent ten years and one can understand how I have not had much in the way of ‘down time’. More often than not, my desk has been stacked with CD’s awaiting review and press release after press release in need of formatting for the sites news section. In looking ahead, I anticipate the scene to continue to expand and keep me every bit busy as I remain true to that ‘to support Christians creating art within the metal and hard rock genres’ mission in question.
To help celebrate the sites first decade of existence, I thought it would be a good ideal to outline what in my opinion are the ten best albums released the past ten years. Please note that the list is alphabetical in that I would find it problematic ranking in order albums that received close to perfect if not perfect scores.
Before moving on to said list I would first like to thank both the Angelic Warlord readers in addition all the labels, distributors, bands and artists all of which without whose support the past decade the site would not have achieved the lasting success that it has.
Affector - Harmagedon
Affector 2012 debut Harmagedon stands out in a Christian progressive metal scene that has not exactly gained reputation for its productivity over the years- outside of Revelation Project, Pursuit and Timesword there is not a lot of options in which to choose. Yes, the previously referenced are good, but Affector, a group combining Biblical text with heavy progressive based music, takes things to the next level in bringing the licks and chops that would allow it to compete with the Dream Theater’s of the world. Talent plays a crucial role in this regard as an international project based around German guitarist Daniel Fries, who recruited US based vocalist Ted Leonard (Enchant) and bassist Mike LePond (Symphony X) in addition to Dutch drummer Collin Leijenaar (Neal Morse).
Of note is how Harmageddon is one of only two albums at Angelic Warlord to receive a perfect 100% score, with Kerry Livgren’s 1980 solo album Seeds Of Change the other. I hesitate to give out perfect scores in that I do not wish to gain reputation as the ‘Monty Hall’ of the music review world, but I also feel that Harmageddon proved such a groundbreaking release within Christian progressive metal circles that the deserves the accolades and then some.
Driver - Sons of Thunder
Driver dates to the late eighties in representing a project between vocalist Rob Rock and guitarist Roy Z, whom originally recorded a six-song demo in 1990 only to disband without a label deal in the face of the changing musical climate of the time. It is a shame (actually crime of the century) Driver never signed with a label in that it produced some of the finest melodic metal you will hear from the period or at the very least is a bit more mature than much of the ‘hair metal’ of the time. Fast forward to 2008, and Rob Rock and Roy Z have re-joined forces to re-record the original Driver demo tracks along with several new songs and older cuts never recorded back in the day and released them under the title Sons Of Thunder.
In looking back over the past eight years, I find myself continuing to revisit Sons Of Thunder due to the quality of its songwriting, not to mention it is a pleasure to hear the original demo tracks redone with much more current and up to date production. The 95% Angelic Warlord review sums things up best: “My overall feeling is that Sons Of Thunder ranks with Eyes Of Eternity and Impellitteri’s Answer To The Master as the finest projects I have heard from Rob Rock. From songwriting, to performance, to packaging and production, everything is done in a first class manner.”
Halcyon Way - Building The Towers
Perhaps the finest combination of melody and heaviness I have heard, Halcyon Way specializes in blending multifarious forms of metal ranging from power to melodic to thrash to extreme to progressive to all things in between. The groups 2010 release Building The Towers is all that and more with its use of “instantly catchy melodies, precise vocal harmonies, incendiary guitar work (and) intricate yet pounding drums” (with) “vocals that carry both melody and aggression” (as referenced in its press material). It comes down to songwriting from how Halcyon Way proves masterful in emphasizing such a wide array of styles while giving rise to melody and heaviness in just the appropriate portions.
Also, Building The Towers is not conceptually based but rather is politically themed from (again, noting the groups press material) “how we as a society are trying to rebuild the Tower Of Babel, and how our country has really strayed from what it was founded upon. There’s such an entitlement mentality these days, and it’s destroying us.” Halcyon Way might not be a Christian band in this regard, but it does include former members of Final Judgement (lyricist and guitarist Jon Bodan) and Siloam (vocalist Steve Braun) in its line up.
Harmony - Theatre Of Redemption
2014 Angelic Warlord album of the year follows on the heals of Harmony debut Dreaming Awake (2003) and sophomore effort Chapter II: Aftermath, former a Massacre Records release and latter coming out on Ulterium Records. Whereas Dreaming Awake featured lengthier songs and intricate arrangements, and Aftermath a heavier and more melodic affinity, Theatre Of Redemption draws upon the elements of both to create a darker and moodier Harmony with textured and richly woven compositions inherit to a light progressiveness. Also of note is how renowned front man Daniel Heiman (Lost Horizon) takes on vocal duties for the departed Henrik Båth.
Harmony is also home to guitarist Markus Sigfridsson, who in my opinion is one of the more underrated players within the power and progressive metal segments. Yes, Harmony is my favorite band from the artist, but do not overlook his other projects, including Darkwater, upholding the more progressive basis, and 7 Days, encompassing material that does not fit the Harmony or Darkwater frameworks.
LEAH - Kings & Queens
Kings & Queens, also an album of the year winner but from 2015, highlights the abilities of Vancouver, British Columbia songstress Leah McHenry. LEAH, as she is better known, draws upon the symphonic metal influences of Nightwish, Epica and Within Temptation while mixing elements of Celtic, World and Medieval folk music to create a sound that is, well, uniquely LEAH. Heaviness to Kings & Queens is understated, as are the progressive aspects, all richly woven together with the artist’s celestial and ethereal vocal abilities. Lyrics steeped in Biblical imagery round out the picture.
The true value to Kings & Queens resides in how I find myself being drawn back to it time and again due to the quality of its songwriting. One of the main criteria I use for valuing an album long term (and for ultimate inclusion on this list) is if I still wish to listen to it subsequent to writing the review, and Kings & Queens succeeds laudably in this capacity! The 95% Angelic Warlord review best summarizes by reinforcing how “(LEAH has the) ability to compose a great song, with a good measure of the Kings & Queens success owing to her choice compositional skills”.
Menchen - Red Rock
With a musical history that dates to the eighties, veteran guitarist Bill Menchen has been involved in projects literally too numerous to mention, but it is his 2008 Menchen solo release Red Rock whose star I find to shine the brightest. This directly correlates to how it is an ‘all star’ project from also featuring the talents of drummer Robert Sweet (Stryper), bassist Tony Franklin (Whitesnake, Blue Murder) and the lower register Tate-ish vocals of Ken Redding (His Witness). Musically, while it might be tempting to label Red Rock metal and hard rock, that would only be telling part of the story in that you will also encounter elements of blues, funk, jazz and even the progressive inherent to a work inclusive to some of the artists finest compositions to date.
Also note that there is not exactly a lack of quality albums from Bill Menchen’s back catalog, with third Titanic offering Full Steam Ahead (2007) a heavy hitter, not that the first two Titanic albums Maiden Voyage (1996) and Screaming In Silence (2002) deserve to be overlooked. His at times melodic and others doom-like The Seventh Power project also deserves note, particularly its first two albums The Seventh Power (2006) and Dominion & Power (2008.) Artist shines equally on his instrumental Blues Metal Trance release under the title 1.5 (2015).
Neal Morse - Sola Scriptura
It would be fitting to describe Neal Morse as the king of progressive rock, at least in light of his background in Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic and as a solo artist. Morse has gained equal repute for composing the mega epic, an extremely lengthy composition potentially in excess of 20 minutes that breaks down between multiple ‘sub parts’ that combine to form a complementary whole. Consider how his 2007 solo release Sola Scriptura features just 4 songs but over 75 minutes of music. It is also my favorite Neal Morse solo outing due to being the heaviest, which attributes to the presence of talented guest guitarist Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big, Racer X).
As its title suggests, Sola Scriptura is also a concept album that focuses on the life of the reformer Martin Luther, whom gained renown for nailing his 95 Thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg. The albums message focuses on how “Sola Scriptura, the assertion that scripture alone is the primary and absolute source of authority and how the Bible is infallible, is a foundational and doctrinal principal of the Protestant Reformation upheld by Luther”.
It can also be suggested that Morse is also the king of the concept album, at least in light of how his 2005 solo release One details man’s separation from God and how, through the salvation experience, man can become “One” with God again. Question Mark (2006) centers around the Tabernacle that Moses and the Israelites built in the wilderness and that was later built by Solomon based on the same design that came directly from God. Testimony (2003) and Testimony 2 (2011) make the artists life and ultimate spiritual transformation the focal point.
Saint - The Revelation
I like to think of 2011 release The Revelation as the quintessential Saint album. The fourth full length offering from the Salem, Oregon traditional metal act, The Revelation includes three of the four members of the classic Saint line-up that recorded Too Late For Living from 1989: vocalist Josh Kramer, guitarist Dee Harrington and bassist Richard Lynch. Such continuity helps lead to what in my opinion is not only the best Saint comeback album (since reforming in 2004) but also (again, my opinion) the best Saint album to date. Perhaps it is due to being concept related (title gives it away in terms of the subject at hand), but The Revelation is a true full length offering that features 12 equally good tracks as opposed to how many of the albums released by Saint since reforming include on average only 9.
I am potentially stepping outside the boundaries of this article from including The Revelation in that Saint initially released it independently under the title The Mark in May of 2006, a full month prior to the launch of Angelic Warlord. The album was later re-mastered and re-issued - with great attention to detail I might add - by Retroactive Records in 2011 as part of a high quality 6-panel digi-pak with upgraded cover art and lyrics, turning it into a classic as a result.
Stryper - No More Hell To Pay & Fallen
How many bands from the eighties currently still together have not only retained its original members but are arguably making the best music of their career? Only one obvious answer presents itself, Stryper! Yes, the ‘yellow and black attack’ of vocalist/guitarist Michal Sweet, drummer Robert Sweet, bassist Tim Gaines and guitarist Oz Fox released what in my opinion are its two strongest artistic statements to date in No More Hell To Pay (2013) and Fallen (2015). Previous Stryper albums such as Soldiers Under Command (1985) and To Hell With The Devil (1986) deserve the accolades - and rightly so! - but NMHTP and Fallen tops either in terms of consistency, continuity and musical maturity (again, my opinion).
But which of the two in which to choose? On one hand, NMHTP presents with the more melodic and overall polished sound; on the other, Fallen gives rise to a heavier and all around weightier vibe. What the two share are strong production values, eye catching cover art and the solid musicianship the Stryper members bring to the table. Since you cannot go wrong either way, my advice would be to take them both!
Theocracy - As The World Bleeds
Athens, Georgia based Theocracy introduced its unique ‘’epic melodic power metal with progressive overtones’ based sound on its 2003 self-titled debut full length and sophomore outing Mirror Of Souls released five years later. While the two are excellent albums that would represent worthy additions to any metal fans music collection, 2011 release As The World Bleeds takes things to the next level with its near perfect combination of production, musicianship and consistent songwriting. Yes, the trademark Theocracy catchy melodies are present (and then some!), but As The World Bleeds stands out as a true band effort in that Theocracy was more of a one man band project, while the group had not solidified its final line up on Mirror Of Souls.
Of equal note is the motive of vocalist and founding member Matt Smith to form Theocracy, which is to “Put out Christian music that I liked, that I would like to listen to and that hopefully stood up, quality-wise to a lot of the other bands out there. And (that) didn’t worry with trends and with trying to fit in and this and that. So hopefully, we’ve succeeded on that front”. I cannot help but think that he has laudably exceeded all expectations in this regard!
Thieves & Liars - When Dreams Become Reality
What is it about concept albums that bring out the best in metal and hard rock artists? Perhaps it is added motivation that comes when a band knows it has the opportunity to not only influence its environment musically but to make a relevant lyrical statement as well. Third represented concept album, 2008 release When Dreams Become Reality from Thieves & Liars, might be the best of the bunch in terms of how it combines the best of both sides of the (musical and lyrical) fence.
Lyrically, the album chronologically traces the life of the Old Testament figure Joseph, but rather than providing a biographical book report-like sketch of Joseph, it conveys his experiences from a first person narrative instead. The gist is a portrayal of the grief and hardships that Joseph faced, with an overall theme of how faith and hope prove significant in helping us get through the most difficult and trying times of life.
Musically, the album delivers a seventies based throwback sound that draws upon the influences of Deep Purple, Judas Priest, Kiss, Uriah Heep, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and others to create a work that runs the gamut from hard rock to metal to the blues to even some progressive moments. Of equal note is how the album utilizes recording techniques from the late 60’s to early 70’s to create what I like to refer to as a natural and warm sound that perfectly lends itself to vinyl.
Five Honorable Mentions
Darkwater - Where Stories End
If any album best embodies a choice combination of the melodic and progressive, it is Where Stories End. The second Darkwater album (from 2010) backs away from the lengthy songwriting and jam based tendencies of 2007 debut Calling The Earth To Witness to create the more accessible and immediately recognizable sound.
Jacobs Dream - Beneath The Shadows
Jacobs Dream released in 2009 its fifth and best album to date in Beneath The Shadows, another conceptual work that details in individual who falls into addiction and loses everything he loves in the process, but in the end finds redemption. The Columbus, Ohio five piece continues to trend classic US power metal territory with a strong melodic basis.
Letter 7 - Follow The Light
Follow The Light represents the highly regarded 2008 eighties influenced melodic metal and hard rock sophomore album of Phoenix, Arizona independent act Letter 7. Guitarist and founding member JD Evans is one of the underrated shredders within either genre.
Joshua Perahia - Resurrection
Veteran guitarist Joshua Perahia delivers a special album in Resurrection made up of AOR and commercial hard rock hooks, metal edged guitars and bluesy sensibilities. The artist also aptly demonstrates that his reputation as ‘the world’s fastest guitarist’ is well deserved.
Warlord - The Holy Empire
2013 album of the year runner up The Holy Empire finds Warlord founding member and guitarist William J. Tsamis joining forces with drummer Mark Zonder (Fates Warning) to create a work characterized by epic metal song structuring and deep melodies. Richard Anderson, who originally worked with Warlord in the mid-eighties, returns to front the album with his earthy vocal flavorings.