I’d like to preface this entire article by saying, I can’t wait to get beaten down for some of these titles. I’ve never been one to run from unpopular opinions, but I know all too well how passionately despised some of these bands and albums are by many of my colleagues in the scene. However, even the “truest” of metalheads in Buffalo are bound to find a few diamonds in the rough, down in the list below. So, without further ado, here are my personal top 10 metal albums with clean singing!
In no particular order:
1. Sonata Arctica- Ecliptica
See the symbol on the cover, partly embedded in rock at the bottom of the ocean or whatever? I have that tattooed on my left forearm, so I’m at least a little serious about Sonata Arctica! I’ve talked about quite a few Finnish bands since I started the blog here and yep, here’s another one! They don’t quite sound like this anymore (not since the 4th album, Reckoning Night), but once upon a time, SA was full on power metal magic. This album has it all- fast riffs and solos, fast keytars, fast drums, and of course, AMAZING power vocals, courtesy of Tony Kakko. WOW, what a range on that guy! It makes you wonder how SA could go from songs like “Blank File” and “Full Moon” to those on albums like Pariah’s Child or Stones Grow Her Name. But I digress, because I’m only upsetting myself at this point. “Blank File”, “Destruction Preventer” and of course, “Full Moon” are my top songs for this record, but the whole thing is magical. I guess I have to throw “My Land” in there, because it’s just too damn infectious.
“She could not lock the open door! Run away! Run away! Run away! Full moon is on the sky and he’s not a man anymore!”
2. Lacuna Coil- In a Reverie
Put your pitchforks, or fire tipped arrows, or claymore swords away folks, ’cause we’re just getting started! I’m in no way ashamed to admit that I love the first 3 Lacuna Coil albums. In a Reverie (aside from the 1st EP) is the best example of cut and dry, melancholic, raw mixed Lacuna Coil, warts and all! Sure, the guitar work is simple, the clean channels get a ton of play and Christina Scabbia fronts the band with all the “ethereal trimmings” she’s mistaken for, but these songs crush if you give them a chance. And going back to what I said about Scabbia, she’s one of the best non-classically trained female leads I’ve ever heard in metal. Her lyrics, range and sheer emotion are uncanny and decimate the competition every time. I’ve also seen them live twice, so I know it’s not studio bullshit. My top tracks are “Circle” for its chorus, “Stately Lover” for its masterfully layered clean guitars, “My Wings” for the dynamic between Scabbia and Andrea Ferro (male lead vocals/some harsh), and “Cold” for its structure and lead guitar work.
3. Iron Maiden- Somewhere in Time
I always see lots of debating over Maiden’s best album. This is it for me, but I’m pretty dead locked on anything Brave New World or prior. As for current stuff, I appreciated Book of Souls, but wasn’t entirely sold on it for some reason. There’s something about ’80s/”90s Maiden that just always “gets it done” for me. Maybe it’s because at the time, they hadn’t gotten far enough into their discography to start recycling ideas yet, or maybe part of their “charm” is recycling the same formula over and over and it just hadn’t gotten stale yet. Anyways, Somewhere in Time is awesome, from “Caught Somewhere in Time” to “Stranger in a Strange Land”, and then to my personal favorite, “Wasted Years”. What’s that? It’s way too commonplace to name “Wasted Years” as your favorite track from this album? Well, there’s a reason it’s one of the most commonly referred to Maiden songs and one of the most typically covered- it’s fucking awesome. Do I even need to talk about the musicianship, not to mention Bruce Dickinson’s range? Probably not, because it’s IRON MAIDEN.
4. Iced Earth- Something Wicked This Way Comes
If you’ve never checked out an early Iced Earth album, trust me, there’s more to them than just sweet Todd McFarlane (“Spawn”, “Batman: Year Two”) artwork. So, don’t let those hellhounds distract you. This album is 61 minutes of awesome! Jon Schaffer is one of those important metal guitarists that you don’t hear many people discuss. Not to mention that vocalist, Matt Barlow has one of the more underrated ranges for this kind of singing in metal. I’m not saying he’s on par with what Dickinson has done- maybe just one peg below, but he can certainly hang with the best in the heavy metal/power metal game. Each early Iced Earth album is an epic story from start to finish, which I feel is most adequately conveyed on Something Wicked This Way Comes. My top tracks are “Melancholy (Holy Martyr)”, “Disciples of the Lie”, the AMAZING “1776” instrumental and “Coming Curse”! But for you “Spawn” fans, I’d recommend Iced Earth’s “Spawn” concept album, The Dark Saga as a mandatory listen. And for fans of Tim “Ripper” Owens (Beyond Fear, Judas Priest), he kills it on lead vocals for Iced Earth, especially on the American Revolution themed album, The Glorious Burden.
5. Tristania- Beyond the Veil
If you’re unfamiliar, Tristania is a very “busy” band, musically. Hailing from Dalane, Norway, they really had a stranglehold on the goth/doom/death/symphonic metal market in Scandinavia! They were especially making waves (at least in my opinion), with the album above, Beyond the Veil (1999). The opening title track was my first dose of any music like this whatsoever. I believe I was 14 or 15 when I heard this stuff and I was simply blown away by the complexity of the music, fused with the band’s ability to make everything gel together seamlessly. Typically, Tristania manifests on stage as a 7-piece. In 1999, they had a male rhythm guitarist who did harsh vocals, a classically trained female clean vocalist, a male clean vocalist, a lead guitarist, keyboardist, bassist and drummer. I feel like out of all the albums on this list, this is the one most of you reading won’t be familiar with. I never hear anyone talk about this band, but trust me, it’s worth a few songs just for the experience. The harsh vocals are very black metal, as is a lot of the riffing and keys. But they also have their more gothic/melancholic moments with clean vocals, clean guitars and even acoustic stuff. It’s all perfectly woven together in a neat little package on every album, but BTV really sticks out to me because it was my Tristania cherry popping experience. I also prefer the original female vocalist, Vibeke Stene who is no longer in the band. My top tracks are “Beyond the Veil”, “Lethean River” and “Of Ruins and a Red Nightfall”.
6. Epica- Design Your Universe
I’m all about getting slack for liking Simone Simons. And like Christina Scabbia, it goes beyond looks. Simone’s classically trained cleans are the reason for the season in Epica, setting them apart from many other bands of the like. You can’t really go after Mark Jansen for much either. He’s a killer guitarist and screamer, but then again, this article is about the cleans. When taking in new albums, especially from bands I already like, I look for vibes in the songs above all else, typically. Design Your Universe just appeals to me a lot more than their other releases in that sense. With other Epica albums, I always find myself skipping tracks here and there, but whenever I spin DYU, I always play it nonstop from start to finish. As symphonic as this band can get from time to time, I always hear a bit of gritty thrash metal coming and going from Jansen’s guitars. You don’t hear a lot of that stuff weaving in and out of “symphonic metal feels” with these bands, and that’s another reason I love Epica. My top tracks are “Unleashed”, “Burn to a Cinder” and “White Waters” (feat. Tony Kakko from Sonata Arctica), which is an amazing vocal track all around. The title track also closes the album with authority and that’s another top notch tune!
7. Tool- Aenima
I know what you’re all thinking, so let’s all say it together, shall we? Ready? 1…2…3….”Tool’s not metal!” Well, I think in this case, that’s entirely subjective. I’ve heard this band referred to as rock, progressive rock, progressive metal, even stoner rock (which is hardly accurate as I understand the definition), so for me to waltz in here and attach Tool to a sub genre seems pretentious. But it’s too heavy/out there to be just “rock” (even though that’s what they’re classified as on every online platform I can find) and too “chill” to be considered metal, so where the hell do they fit? Then again, this article is about clean singing, and I just couldn’t do this top 10 without bringing up Maynard James Keenan. Say what you will about the guy. Call him overrated, pretentious, obnoxious, along with every other insult I’ve heard hurled his way, but I just can’t get over this guy’s voice. To this day, Tool remains a major influence for me and Aenima is a perfect example of musicianship, creativity and expert vocals working together to make a killer record. Not to mention, Danny Carey is one of the most creative drummers I’ve ever heard, particularly when it comes to tom work, and together, Adam Jones (guitar) and Justin Chancellor (bass) have written some of the most instantly recognizable riffs in modern “rock” history. My top tracks on Aenima are easily, “Eulogy”, “Forty-six and 2”, “Jimmy”, “Aenima” and “Third Eye”.
“Prying open my third eye!”
8. Nightwish- Wishmaster
For years, Nightwish was my absolute favorite band, but that all changed when Tarja Turunen was kicked out in 2004. I still listen to them to this day and I still buy their new albums the day they come out, but it’s not the same anymore. Tarja’s execution of operatic vocals in symphonic metal is unmatched and in my opinion, will forever be unmatched. You just can’t duplicate her range, melodies, vocal patterns, etc. People give her slack for singing Tuomas Holopainen’s lyrics, but Nightwish has always been his project and she knew what she signed on for. Her lyrics or not, you still can’t mess with those pipes of hers. Once upon a time, Nightwish wasn’t nearly as orchestral and the guitar work stood out a lot more, which was because they had Tarja to provide the bulk of the symphonic elements in their sound, along with Tuomas’s synth/piano arrangements. It was raw, fast, punishing, but angelic and beautiful at the same time. Sure, they had their ballads like “Two for Tragedy” and “Dead Boy’s Poem”, but songs like “She Is My Sin”, “The Kinslayer”, “Crownless” and “Fantasmic” just soar and hit home. Wishmaster is nowhere near as technical as its predecessor, Oceanborn, but I’ve always found it to be the most enjoyable listen. It’s ironic, because Holopainen considers Wishmaster to be Nightwish’s most “distant” and “least personal” album, but I can’t help but think that they needed to release a record like that. Maybe they needed to just fly through the writing process and not focus on their own passions and ultimately desired themes as much, because as far as I’m concerned, Wishmaster is a wishmasterpiece! Yes, I went there.
9. DragonForce- Inhuman Rampage
Here’s another one I’m bound to get shit on for. “Oh look, it’s that Guitar Hero band!” Dragonforce might have redundant song structures and guitar leads that stretch on forever, but at the time this album came out, they had one huge standout quality- South African power metal vocalist, ZP Theart. There’s no denying Theart’s talent. His range is stellar and he never missed a note with the band when I saw them live. Personally, I can’t stand Dragonforce’s new vocalist and I truly believe the band died when Theart left due to “creative differences” in 2010. Musically, you can’t deny Herman Li’s skills on guitar, nor Sam Totman’s. However, the keys and rhythm section never really stood out to me. I only call out Inhuman Rampage over other DragonForce albums because of certain song structures and vocal melodies that I feel stand apart from the rest of their discography. My favorite songs are “Revolution Deathsquad”, “Operation Ground and Pound” and of course, “Through the Fire and Flames”. All in all, I guess I just feel like DragonForce wouldn’t be on this list if it wasn’t for ZP Theart and those ridiculous guitar solos!
10. Kamelot- The Black Halo
Roy Khan, how I miss you. Nothing against current vocalist, Tommy Karevik, but I’m quite the loyalist when it comes to Khan’s pipes. And Kamelot’s seventh studio album, The Black Halo is tops for vocals, storytelling and musicianship during the band’s prime. Thomas Youngblood (lead guitar) is quite the composer, lyricist and storyteller, who crafted what is in my opinion, Kamelot’s best told “story” in their entire discography with this album. Featuring guest spots from Simone Simons (Epica), Shagrath (Dimmu Borgir) and Jens Johannson (Stratovarius), The Black Halo has one of the more diverse vocal and musical journeys in Kamelot’s history as well. In terms of symphonic/power metal, Kamelot has always been a hard band to compete with. You can’t help but appreciate creative minds who put just as much time into the story they are telling, as they do the music and lyrics being written and performed. Not to mention, the characters written into the lyrics and live shows keep things interesting every time. So many bands just write individual songs and mash them together to make an album, but a well thought out concept piece is always more appreciated in my book. My top tracks on this record are “March of Mephisto” (feat. Shagrath), “When the Lights are Down”, “The Haunting” (feat. Simone Simons), “The Black Halo” and the 9 minute musical masterpiece that is, “Memento Mori” (feat. Shagrath and Mari Youngblood).
This sums up my top 10, but I’d like to take a few more sentences to mention one band/vocalist I’ve neglected here. I thought about including an early Metallica album in this list, but Hetfield didn’t really do the kind of vocals I wanted to discuss in this article, during the time I really enjoyed Metallica. (Kill ‘Em All- …And Justice For All) is the era I’m talking about, and I can’t help but put Hetfield’s classic “melodic rasps?” into their own category. Other than that, there are countless others I enjoy, but these take the cake. I can only hope I got some of you into some new tunes. That’s always the goal! So, until next time…