After 1996 was average, the following year saw some really good metal albums released. 1997 was a difficult year to select the top 10 releases. For the second time this decade Emperor topped the list, and groups like In Flames, Gamma Ray and Stratovarius made return appearances. Here are my choices for the best heavy metal albums released in 1997.
Three years after In The Nightside Eclipse topped my list, Emperor returns to the number one slot with their sophomore full-length, Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk. This album is more complex than their debut, and classical keyboards add depth and melody. The atmosphere is icy cold and bleak, and Ihsahn uses a combination of screaming, singing and spoken word vocals. Emperor improved in all aspects, from songwriting to musicianship to production, and this album is a black metal classic.
I decided to include Theli in 1997, when it was released in the U.S. instead of 1996 when it was released in Europe. Either year it would have ranked really high on my list because it is an outstanding CD. After starting as a death metal band, the Swedish group Therion moved toward symphonic/operatic metal. The songs on this album are sometimes bombastic and grand, other times darker and more subtle. There are tons of catchy hooks and melodies along with epic and atmospheric elements that make Theli one of the hallmark symphonic metal albums.
Accident Of Birth was Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson's fourth solo studio album. It also sounded the most similar to Maiden, and former Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith did some writing and plays on the album. The songs are more metal than Dickinson's previous solo work, with majestic melodies and catchy hooks. The range from intense, speed metal type tracks to power ballads. Dickinson is one of the best vocalists in the business, and he really shines on this one.
Enthrone Darkness Triumphant was Dimmu Borgir's third full-length album, and make their first appearance on my yearly best-of lists. It's symphonic black metal with a heavy emphasis on keyboards. The guitars weave in and out of the synth melodies, which works really well. It's an atmospheric and dramatic album that was Dimmu Borgir's most diverse and dynamic release to date. It also marked the first full-length album that used English lyrics, and began Dimmu Borgir's ascent to become one of the most polarizing bands in metal.
After making my 1995 list with Land Of The Free, Gamma Ray makes a return appearance with their next album, which was Somewhere Out In Space. The band had a ton of lineup changes before this album, but didn't lose a step. This is first class power metal with songs that are fast and melodic with great vocals from Kai Hansen. It's a concept album with space being the main topic. It's one of Gamma Ray's most consistent releases, with a couple of classic songs like the title track and "Beyond The Black Hole."
In 1996 The Jester Race made number 3 on my year end list, and the follow up Whoracle was also a good album, but didn't quite measure up to its predecessor. It's melodic death metal, and In Flames writes extremely catchy melodies. The guitar work is especially good on this album, and is showcased on a couple of instrumentals that are much more than interludes or filler. They also choose an unusual song to cover, Depeche Mode's "Everything Counts." In Flames' take on the new wave song is a good one.
For the second year in a row Stratovarius lands in the top 10, this time with Visions. The songs are intricate and nuanced, but still have plenty of hooks and melody. The keyboards are a little more prominent than on Episode, with a few less guitar riffs, but heavier ones. This is also one of Timo Kotipelto's best vocal performances, as he sings with power, range and emotion. Highlights are "The Kiss Of Judas" and "Black Diamond."
Throughout their career Entombed has been a prolific band, releasing a new album every year or two. However, because of label turmoil there was a 4 year break between 1993's Wolverine Blues and To Ride, Shoot Straight And Speak The Truth. Despite the long and awkward title, the songs on the album are the exact opposite: short and focused death and roll. The emphasis is on the death on this album, which is a little more brutal than their previous couple of releases.
When the Swedish band Hammerfall formed in 1993, Mikael Stanne (Dark Tranquillity) was the vocalist. But by the time they released their debut album Glory To The Brave, Joacim Cans had taken his place. Hammerfall plays straight ahead power metal with soaring melodies. Some songs on the album amp up the pace to speed metal territory, and there are a couple of ballads as well. The highlights include "Hammerfall" and the Warlord cover "Child Of The Damned."
Nighttime Birds was The Gathering's fourth full-length, and the Dutch band's second with vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen. It was heavier and more intense than 1995's Mandylion, but still has tons of melody, catchy hooks and atmosphere. Anneke's vocals range from a softer alto to a nearly operatic soprano. This is an album with a nice blend of textures, emotions and intensity.