The year in heavy metal - The best of 2012

Van Halen, Judas Priest, High on Fire and others make our list

By Peter Lindblad
Overkill - The Electric Age
It was a bull market for heavy metal in 2012. Any bears who predicted a downturn after a very strong 2011 were quickly proven wrong when Overkill’s The Electric Age was released early this year and it served notice that the East Coast thrash-metal kingpins were back and better than ever.
And then, the new Van Halen record came out, and it didn’t suck. In fact, it stunningly good, and even if it was pieced together with leftovers from the good old days, their ability to pull it all together and make something coherent – and oh so powerful – out of all those scraps certainly made everybody stand up and applaud. Were that all to 2012, we could have suffered through the rest of it without whining about the state of heavy metal, but there was more, much more, to this year than two electrifying releases.
It was a great year for grizzled veterans like Kreator and Testament and younger acts like High on Fire, Pallbearer, The Sword and Whitechapel – all of whom unleashed hell in 2012 with stunning albums. Saxon and Ozzy Osbourne’s band received their just due with amazing DVDs; in Saxon’s case it was a captivating documentary while Ozzy came out with a thrilling concert video from the “Diary of the Madman” tour, where Brad Gillis had just replaced Randy Rhoads following Rhoads’s death. And then there was Iron Maiden, showing everybody just how it’s done onstage with an incredible world tour, supported by none other than Alice Cooper. So, with 2013 just about upon us, it was time to reveal our best of 2012 heavy metal selections.
Metal Artist of the Year/Comeback of the Year: Van Halen
Van Halen - A Different Kind of Truth 2012
Expectations couldn’t have been lower, especially after the release of that lead trial balloon known as “Tattoo.” Underwhelming in almost every possible way, from its awkward verses to choruses as glitzy and smarmy as a Las Vegas lounge lizard, the 2011 single had everyone talking – only most of that conversation revolved around how historically awful “Tattoo” was. The bar wasn’t just lowered. It had crashed through the floor. And then, A Different Kind of Truth arrived, and it was magnificent – aggressive and heavy, with Eddie Van Halen putting on an awesome fireworks display of dazzling solos and dynamic riffs. Of course, the triumphant tour that was supposed to vault them back to the top of the hard-rock heap ended rather abruptly, and Eddie’s health problems were a buzz kill, so it wasn’t the best of times for Van Halen. Still, in 2012, Van Halen redeemed itself mightily with A Different Kind of Truth, and that was no mean feat, considering how far they’d fallen.
Best Metal Album: High On Fire, De Vermis Mysteriis (Entertainment One)
High on Fire - De Vermis Mysteriis 2012
This could just as easily go to Kreator’s Phantom Antichrist or Over Kill’s The Electric Age, but the tumultuous De Vermis Mysteriis is such an intense, churning maelstrom of ragged, crazed thrash and pulverizing sludge metal that it simply boggles the mind. His throat shredded almost beyond repair, Matt Pike rages maniacally about Jesus’ cursed, time-traveling twin brother and the devastation he has wrought in an epic concept album engulfed in thundering drums, pile-driving bass and roiling guitar riffs. Mother Nature may have met her match.
Best Metal Song: Testament – “Native Blood” (Off of the album Dark Roots of Earth on Nuclear Blast Records)

Testament - Dark Roots of Earth 2012
Rightly proud of his Native American heritage, a battle-scarred Chuck Billy belts out the lyrics to “Native Blood” with the full-throated roar of a runaway freight train. Impassioned and defiant, Billy’s booming, resonant voice adds gravitas and emotional depth to a powerful song of independence and self-reliance that stirs the soul, a modern-day anthem for indigenous peoples everywhere who feel the weight of oppression upon them. And while the words that steam out of Billy’s fiery mouth carry both a political and social significance for those he’s trying to rouse to action, it’s the deliriously infectious riffs and terrific momentum “Native Blood” gathers – not to mention a blast-furnace chorus that even Metallica would kill to call its own – that make it the standout track on one of the finest albums of Testament’s glorious career.
Best New Hard Rock Band: World Fire Brigade
World Fire Brigade - Spreading My Wings 2012
World Fire Brigade is not just some reasonable facsimile of Fuel, even if its degrees of separation from those ‘90s alternative rockers are way fewer than six. See, Brett Scallions has teamed with Smile Empty Soul’s Sean Danielsen and producer Eddie Wohl on a new – well, fairly new, having actually been hatched in 2009 – project that is full-on metal … cross my heart, it is. Of course, it helps to have Wohl, who has worked as a producer for none other than Anthrax, onboard. And then there’s the presence of Anthrax’s Rob Caggiano and closet metalhead Mike McCready of Pearl Jam fame to add sonic heft to the proceedings. In interviews prior to this release, Scallions said World Fire Brigade was heavier and more metallic than Fuel, and he wasn’t kidding. Thick with dynamic, serpentine riffs, World Fire Brigade’s surprisingly powerful debut, released this past summer, is chock full of gripping hooks and compelling songs that would be commercially viable were it not for radio’s aversion to comeback stories.
Best Concert DVD: Ozzy Osbourne Speak of the Devil (Eagle Vision)
Ozzy Osbourne - Speak of the Devil 2012
On June 12, 1982, Ozzy Osbourne’s “Diary of a Madman” tour rolled into Irvine Meadows, California, having only recently buried guitarist Randy Rhoads, the man primarily responsible for reviving the career of one of metal’s greatest frontmen. With heavy hearts, and a new guitarist in Brad Gillis, Ozzy and his band put on an electrifying performance for the ages, as they plowed through a set list heavy on selections from Ozzy’s two solo records – plus a doom-laden medley of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” “Children of the Grave” and “Paranoid” to close the show. Of great historical importance, “Speak of the Devil” captures all the madness with varied camera work, their lenses focused mainly on an enthusiastic Ozzy imploring the crowd to go nuts and Gillis’s fiery fretwork. Backed by a dark, gothic castle and a huge drum riser for Tommy Aldridge, a reinvigorated Ozzy seems hell-bent on proving to everyone that Rhoads’ death will not send him into another tailspin like the one that nearly killed him after being summarily dismissed from Sabbath. This is a fantastic entry in Ozzy’s journal of rock ‘n’r roll insanity.
Best Documentary DVD: Saxon Heavy Metal Thunder – The Movie (UDR/Militia Guard/EMI)
Saxon - Heavy Metal Thunder 2012
Sex, tea and rock ‘n’ roll? Evidently, at least until bassist Steve Dawson dabbled briefly with cocaine, substance abuse wasn’t part of the equation for working-class heroes Saxon, one of the bands that spearheaded the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Abstaining from alcohol and drugs, these teetotalers preferred less powerful brews, but they did indulge in other forms of debauchery offstage – namely, doing groupies in the back of a cramped touring van, where privacy wasn’t an option. Inside the venue, they were all business, rocking as if their lives were at stake in blazing live shows that became the stuff of legend. And yet, at least in America, Saxon never really hit the big time, despite the patronage of Lars Ulrich and the respect of everybody from Motorhead to Doro. That is a damn shame. Incapable of putting on airs, Saxon pushed their records into the red more often than not. Appropriately enough, this thoroughly engrossing, warts-and-all documentary is a no-frills, completely candid oral history, with some narration from Fastway’s Toby Jepson, of the band from stem to stern – augmented by rare concert footage that confirms their reputation as one of the hottest running engines ever built by heavy metal. Here’s hoping the long arm of the law – and time – won’t ever catch up with these hard-rock veterans.
Best Live Album: U.D.O. – Live in Sofia (AFM Records)
U.D.O. - Live in Sofia 2012
The greatest live albums don’t just make you feel as if you were there, front row, experiencing the show up close. They make you suicidal over the fact that you missed it. Such is the case with U.D.O.’s Live in Sofia, a thundering, electric performance fueled by the raucous energy of a salivating crowd. Surveying material from Udo Dirkschneider’s days with Accept and his grossly underappreciated solo career, Live in Sofia is a captivating listen, with Udo growling and screaming like a caged animal and his band charging through a tantalizing set list with technical brilliance and pure adrenaline. Bulgaria’s capitol is probably still burning.  
Best Metal Reissue: Judas Priest – Screaming for Vengeance Special 30th Anniversary Edition (Columbia Legacy)
Judas Priest - Screaming for Vengeance 2012
No other metal reissue had a chance in 2012, not with the bonus DVD version of Priest’s historic 1983 US Festival concert – the one everyone’s been lusting after for years – added onto it. One of the truly great albums in heavy metal history, Screaming for Vengeance goes through a revved-up remastering that packs on the sonic muscle and makes it gleam like chrome. As with the 2001 reissue, this edition includes the Turbo outtake “Prisoner of Your Eyes” and “Devil’s Child,” but this time around, scorching live versions of “Electric Eye,” “Riding on the Wind,” “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” “Screaming for Vengeance” and “Devil’s Child” – all culled from a stirring 1982 performance in San Antonio, Texas – fill out this absolutely essential reissue. Alone, the US Festival footage would be worth its weight in gold, as Priest delivers the goods and then some with a hammer-and-tong performance that is absolutely scintillating. Packaged together, this reissue is a must-have.
Best Book: Randy Rhoads by Steven Rosen and Andrew Klein (Velocity Books)
Randy Rhoads - 2012
Yes, the price tag is a bit steep. These days, who in their right minds is going to shell out around $99 for a book? This one just might be worth it. An extravagant package, overflowing with colorful and rarely, if ever, seen photos of the late guitarist and a plethora of memorabilia, the 400-page Randy Rhoads is a work of outstanding journalism. Exhaustively researched, with the authors interviewing seemingly almost everyone who ever came in contact with Rhoads, this fully loaded, bulging biography takes readers into studio sessions with the Blizzard of Ozz band, pieces together the events leading up to Rhoads’s tragic death and the sad aftermath, and relates, in detailed fashion, Rhoads’s unusual childhood and his rigorous musical education. And that’s just a small taste of what’s inside this extraordinary biography.
Best Tour: Iron Maiden, Maiden England World Tour, 2012
Iron Maiden - Maiden England Tour 2012
Supported by shock-rock superstar Alice Cooper for a smashing double bill, Iron Maiden stampeded through North America and points abroad as if sitting atop fire-breathing steeds and whipping them into the fog of battle. Two elaborate stage shows, one the product of Cooper’s nightmarish imagination and the other an ambitious fantasy merging historical and scientific references with dazzling technology and the ever-present Eddie, gave concertgoers an unforgettable thrill, but it was Iron Maiden who stole the show. Still possessing a strong voice that climbs to places few singers can ever hope to reach, Bruce Dickinson again leads the charge through a play list reminiscent of the “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” tour, and the rest of the gang plays with vim and vigor, clearly relishing the nostalgia and warm embrace of frenzied, almost obsessive, crowds. Iron Maiden rides again.

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