Up first is the Swedish pop/metal act Amaranthe's fourth album Maximalism which is, on the surface at least, more of the same from the genre-bending band. The mix of razor-sharp metal guitar riffs, poppy synths, and the vocal talents of three distinct vocalists is back in force, but the songwriting overall just feels much cleverer and more interesting; and the album seems to be a step up from 2014's Massive Addictive which definitely felt somewhat stale compared to the band's other two albums. More focus here seems to be given to frontwomen Elize Ryd, who has taken a greater part in the writing of both the music and the lyrics for the vast majority of the songs here. The closing ballad Endlessly seems like it is to become her signature tune. Elsewhere, the pop/rock strut of That Song shows that the band should be troubling singles charts the world over, and the Gothenburg-esque thrash of Fury sees the band at their heaviest yet. Intriguing and instantly memorable, Maximalism is an album that sees Amaranthe fully back on track.
Despite their 1980s heyday being well and truly over, Bon Jovi are still one of the biggest bands in the world. 2013's What About Now was easily the band's weakest effort to date, and a period of turmoil followed with co-founding lead guitarist and key songwriter Richie Sambora leaving to pursue a solo career which left Jon Bon Jovi free to pursue his own vision. Guitarist Phil X, who has previously played with Triumph and Alice Cooper, was brought in and the result is This House is not for Sale. A huge step up from What About Now, and arguably 2009's The Circle, This House is not for Sale has a similar vibe to 2005's Have a Nice Day with organic rock arrangements and an excellent vocal display from the man himself. The hard-rocking title track is as anthemic as the band have sounded for a while and the songs like Scars on This Guitar and Come On Up to Our House are packed with genuine Springsteen-esque emotions that have been lacking from the more sterile recent works. While this is more of a Jon Bon Jovi solo album than a true band effort, producer John Shanks played much of the album's guitar and co-wrote most of the songs, this sees the band sounding fresher and more real than they have for a good few years.
When prog rockers Touchstone split three ways there was always the potential for lots of great music to come from this particular parting of the waves. Two out of three camps (former singer Kim Sevior is yet to show her hand) have laid out their stalls, and the band's founder and keyboardist Rob Cottingham was the first do to so with his new band Cairo and their debut album Say. Comparisons can clearly be drawn to Touchstone's early sound, particularly their 2007 debut album Discordant Dreams, and Cottingham's solo work but Cairo are a much riffier and more progressive outfit. While I think the album tries a little too hard to be progressive at times (there are preludes, reprises, and 'part 1's galore) which leaves the album feeling somewhat disjoined, the core songwriting is strong and is classic Cottingham. He has brought his vocals back to the forefront too, duetting with Rachel Hill (who sounds remarkably like Sevior!), and his keyboards are unsurprisingly the dominant instrument. While not perfect, Say shows that Cottingham has lots of great new ideas and I look forward to seeing where Cairo will go from here.
While British retro-style psychedelic rockers Purson have sadly ended 2016 by announcing what seems to be an indefinite hiatus (see their 'Thank you and goodnight.' post on Facebook), it was certainly a good year for the band which saw extensive touring and release of their second album Desire's Magic Theatre. While not as strong as their 2013 debut album The Circle and the Blue Door for me, Desire's Magic Theatre has more of an upbeat vaudeville circus sound with more prominent guitar riffs and a greater 'rock' feel. Bandleader Rosalie Cunningham played the vast majority of the instruments herself, so this is more of a solo album than a true band effort, but her vision and mindset has always driven Purson since day one. Electric Landlady, clearly a tribute to Jimi Hendrix rocks hard, while the playful Mr. Howard shows the band at their playful best. I was late to the Purson party, but I got to see the band twice this year and have enjoyed both their albums immensely. If this is to be the end of the band, then I am glad I got to share some good times with them and I will look forward to Cunningham's next adventure.
As mentioned earlier, last year British prog rockers Touchstone endured a three-way split. Guitarist Adam Hodgson, bassist Moo, and drummer Henry Rogers elected to carry on the Touchstone name and have recruited Polish singer Aggie, along with keyboardist Liam Holmes, to usher in a new era of the band. The result is a four-track EP, Lights from the Sky, that caries on the streamlined approach of 2013's Oceans of Time but with vastly superior songwriting. Aggie proves to be a much more diverse singer than Sevior, which allows the band to try a few new things, and Hodgson cuts loose on the guitar in a greater way than previously. He seems to now be the driving force behind the band's songwriting, with heavier riffs and flashier solos than ever before. Despite only being an EP, Lights from the Sky is a taster of what is to come for Touchstone, and I look forward to hearing their fifth album once it has been written.
As I have also done for the last few years, I also like to highlight a live release that I have been enjoying this year. There have been many great ones this year, but Nightwish's mammoth release Vehicle of Spirit is easily my favourite. My gig of the year last year was Nightwish's spectacular sold out show at London's Wembley Arena, and that show is presented in full in this package, along with another full show from Tampere in Finland and a whole other concert clips filmed around the world. Nightwish are at their most powerful at the moment, and current album Endless Forms Most Beautiful could well be considered their greatest achievement in years to come. The vast majority of that album is presented throughout both of the full concerts, along with plenty of excellent songs from the band's diverse and majestic back catalogue. This is the defining Nightwish live collection yet, and portrays a band that are one of the best live acts on the planet and untouchable within their genre.
As great as 2016 has been in terms of new music, of course there have also been lots of tragic deaths in the rock and metal world. It was Eagles co-founder and songwriter Glenn Frey's death that hit me the hardest back in January, but unfortunately I fear this will be the norm from now on. The hard-hitting lives our favourite musicians have led are now starting to catch up with them, along with age, and I think that 2017 will sadly bring even more tragic passings of our favourite musicians. At least there is a lot more great music to look forward to, with a few albums scheduled for January and February already that sound great. I am really looking forward to Firewind's return with Immortals, as the couple of songs they have released so far sound fantastic, and my all-time-favourite band Mostly Autumn will be back at some point with their next opus Sight of Day. I am sure this will just be the tip of the iceberg, so here is to 2017 and lots of great new musical experiences. My top albums and gig lists will be published here tomorrow!