El Cuervo’s and GardensTale’s Top Ten(ish) of 2022


El Cuervo

How fared this over-dramatic but devilishly handsome raven in the year 2022? Relatively well overall. The relationship with my partner moves from strength to strength, and I’ve taken the overdue decision to move to a job that has allowed me to reclaim some work/life balance. While the latter of these came too late in the year to impact 2022’s writing productivity, I hope it will result in greater consistency in 2023.

But most importantly, 2022 saw me exploring two transcendentally-awesome albums which would comfortably top any Album o’ the Year list from the last few years. Each pushes genre boundaries in their coalescence of extreme metal and orchestral music, without suffering from the lame songwriting and production decisions that ordinary encumber symphonic metal. I’ve already written at length about both across this list and their respective articles, so go read those and dedicate at least the next twelve months to both.

The remainder of my list features a distressing blend of “stuff I’d ordinarily like” and “stuff I’d ordinarily hate.” The former camp is oriented around all things progressive, sitting astride that line of light and heavy, and leading me through contrasting songwriting and detailed compositions1. The latter covers genre territory in which I’m ordinarily uncomfortable, including jazz fusion and Americana—fortunately not at the same time. On reflection, each camp represents my preference for dynamism and experimentation, for which it’s been an exceptional year. Here’s hoping for more in the next twelve months.


#10. Sumerlands // Dreamkiller – Fuck the haters; the long-overdue return of Sumerlands rocks as much as I wanted it to. While the debut struck gold through its stripped-back songwriting, Dreamkiller finds success through writing which references ’80s radio rock as much as classic metal, leveraging synths and catchier vocal hooks to sit alongside the razor-sharp guitar leads. It’s nonetheless just as focused and tightly written by covering just 35 minutes of territory over eight tracks, throwing an abbatoir’s worth of hooks into one tidy package. It’s just damn good fun and therefore exactly what a throwback metal band should aspire to be—bundling well-paced, kickass songs into a contagious whole. Come settle down next to me and give yourself over to the Dreamkiller.

#9. Kardashev // Liminal Rite – Though it may not quite be the equal of the incredible The Baring of Shadows, Kardashev’s first full-length in seven years still stands above almost all 2022 releases. Liminal Rite targets emotional devastation and gets mighty close to this mark, channeling the loss and loneliness of a (hopefully fictional) old man trapped in his own mind. The music has a shimmering, silky texture, sanding off the harsher edges of the core death and black metal elements with post and progressive rock. It adroitly dances around the line of light and heavy, producing a sound that has a compelling, floating quality. Liminal Rite also succeeds through its cohesion, proceeding more like a continuous novel than a mere collection of songs. While I may struggle to pull apart the tracks, I’m left thoroughly enjoying the whole experience.

#8. Disillusion // Ayam – Ayam is the archetypal “grower.” Disillusion’s melodies don’t immediately stand out, and the extremely adventurous songwriting lacked consistency and cohesion at first. I initially opined that it was an intriguing mess. But over time and repetition, the melodic motifs pierced through the bedlam. The progressive structures became sensible, as I began to piece together Ayam’s overall trajectory. Much like my favorite progressive bands, each song is a self-contained journey. But pulling back from each reveals the map of the entire album. All of this wouldn’t be interesting at all if the songs lacked memorability, but they’re pleasingly jam-packed with sharp leads, diverse vocals, dramatic transitions, and excellent solos. It’s an immensely detailed record, one that takes pride in layers and textures that the band evidently scrutinized. It’s this attention to detail that has me returning again and again.

#7. Lathe // Tongue of Silver – It says a lot that playing one of my favorite songs of the year (the first Lathe song I heard, “Vinegar”) always results in listening straight through the entirety of Tongue of Silver. Lathe has no business making it onto my list of 2022’s best records considering that it forges a weird but compelling fusion of Americana, stoner metal, and drone—none of which I typically enjoy. But its surprising variety, from dreamy lilting tracks to driving rockers, holds my attention from front to back. It isn’t an album commanding its listener through outrageous hooks or dominant riffs. Rather, it holds me close with its warm waves of distortion and purring folksy melodies. All this results in a shockingly sticky record which demonstrates exactly why bands pushing genre boundaries deserve credit for doing so. Tongue of Silver just clicks.

#6. Black Midi // Hellfire – Mayhem. Insanity. Shithousery. These are just three words one could use to describe Hellfire by London’s Black Midi. Bridging progressive rock, jazz fusion, and all things avant-garde with influences from cabaret and showtunes, this record is one of the most arrogant I’ve heard. Some tracks frame themselves as sporting events, making their music the star of the show in a very literal way, while others are densely layered—not just instrumentally but also thematically. They have distinct stories and protagonists, from homophobic army captains to exploding theater actors. I feel like Hellfire is so stuffed with violently-incompatible musical matter that it’s about to split apart, but Black Midi somehow holds it together; whether that’s through the ridiculous musicianship or cleverer-than-you harmonies, counter-melodies, and dissonance. I truly have no idea. All I know is that it offers some of the most innovative, but more importantly some of the most fun, music of 2022.

#5. An Abstract Illusion // Woe – Long-time readers will know I’m a massive Opeth nerd and there is usually at least one album taking influence from that band in my list. While my top pick is the year’s best example—with the likes of Kardashev and Disillusion supporting—An Abstract Illusion and their indomitable Woe gives it a run for its money. Woe is a bleak, black examination of progressive death metal that plumbs long-form songwriting, detailed compositions, and emotional depths to create a towering release. So much on an album like this depends on strong production, pacing, and transitions to reconcile heavy and light passages, textures, and melodies. The closing mouthful of “In the Heavens Above, You Will Become a Monster” and “This Torment Has No End, Only New Beginnings” exemplifies these qualities through 24 minutes of masterful progressive music, closing proceedings on a shockingly moreish note. I’m driven towards listening over and over and haven’t put this thing down since it sunk its hooks into me.

#4. Old Solar // Quiet Prayers (Redux) – Among the heaviness of metal, the melodies of synthwave, and the outrageousness of whatever the fuck Black Midi is, Old Solar slowly but steadily marched its way up my list throughout the year. Quiet Prayer (Redux) drinks deeply from minimalism, offering a reprieve from the busyness of ordinary life and the maximalism of my usual music tastes. Old Solar advocates for the ordinary-but-ordinarily-forgotten virtues of gratitude, hope, and self-assurance, weaving brief but life-affirming tales from simple tools and simple melodies. Spacious compositions typically comprise guitar, piano, and synth strings layering patterns and textures like a rug, offering a comfortable, supportive base. The songs here settled quickly and deeply into my psyche, offering me an emotional outlet from the first time I heard them; my adoration, no doubt, aided by an extremely-repeatable 30-minute duration. In short? Post-rock perfection.

#3. The Midnight // Heroes – The Midnight have become a mighty force in synth music, transcending their retrowave roots into something more. It’s easy to hear why; their hooks are awe-inspiringly catchy, from the vocals to the synths to the guitars. But as the band’s fanbase has grown, so have their aspirations. Heroes travels the greatest distance from a prior release in their discography, clutching its love for records from the arena, indie, and alternative rock genres close to its chest. “Brooklyn. Friday. Love.” wouldn’t be out of place on the Top 40, while “Change Your Heart or Die” unashamedly apes Van Halen’s most iconic ’80s output. But balancing these markers of development are tracks closer to what came before. The Midnight has never failed with their ballads, so “Heart Worth Breaking” and “Aerostar” are unsurprisingly my favorites, while slower, breathier synths on “Golden Gate” and “Energy Never Dies, It Just Transforms” gently open and close proceedings. This band is as great as they are reliable.

#2. Aquilus // Bellum I – The sharp-eyed among you may note that Bellum I dates December 2021. One year ago, my gut was telling me that Aquilus deserved to be collecting a top award but literal days between release and finalizing my list article resulted in my tempering of its placement. As it transpired, the passage of nearly twelve months has yielded but one superior album to it. Most bands with similar songwriting aspirations self-identify as symphonic black metal, but Horace Rosenqvist2 almost transcends metal with his singular compositional prowess. Aquilus boasts arrangements that are far closer to classical in scope and execution, despite leveraging the fire and fury of black metal for their heaviest moments. While Bellum I may be superficially aligned with other symphonic metal bands, it’s much closer to a classical cinematic score, swinging between bombastic climaxes and tear-jerking delicacy. Records like this one remind their listener that music is the best form of art.

#1. Wilderun // Epigone – Just like Bellum I, I first heard about the epic Epigone in December 2021. It’s been a year at the time of writing which is more than enough months to recognize the majesty of what’s achieved here. For the third record in a row, my expectations have been smashed by what must be one of the greatest bands to have picked up a guitar. My only (contemporaneous) 5.0/5.0 in over eight years of writing should speak volumes, but just in case you need extra persuasion, Epigone boasts the high-quality progressive and symphonic extreme metal that has broadly characterized the Wilderun sound since 2015. This time they lean more on ambiance and subtlety to convey calm and introspection, resulting in a spikier, dramatic songwriting style as these passages trough compared with the heavier crest. These dynamic contrasts are not just gorgeous but also completely engrossing. I feel like I couldn’t possibly demand more from Wilderun but I’m nonetheless giddy with excitement for what might come next.

Honorable Mentions

  • Marillion // An Hour Before It’s Dark – The two Marillion studio albums from the 2010s offer arguably the best progressive rock of the last decade. An Hour Before It’s Dark doesn’t match their outright emotive power, but the band’s reliable quality and surprisingly hopeful message make this release an easy recommendation for fellow prog nerds.
  • White Ward // False Light – Although it’s made an honorable mention, I can’t help but feel disappointed by False Light given that Love Exchange Failure was one of my favorite black metal albums of the last 10 years. False Light has lost some of the characteristic, bleak majesties, but White Ward remains one of the strongest and strangest bands in the scene.
  • Ghost // IMPERA – The Midnight isn’t the only group that divulged their love for ’80s hair metal in 2022. The purists’ nightmare, Ghost, returned with a predictably-enjoyable collection of catchy rockers. Had the whole record been as good as the front half, Impera would have been closer to the top of my list.

Songs o’ the Year:

  1. Wilderun – “Identifier”
  2. The Midnight – “Heart Worth Breaking”
  3. Sumerlands – “Heavens Above”
  4. Lathe – “Vinegar”
  5. Ghost – “Call Me Little Sunshine”
  6. Josh Dally – “London”
  7. PRIZM – “All the Way”
  8. An Abstract Illusion – “This Torment Has No End, Only New Beginnings”
  9. Threshold – “Let It Burn”
  10. Houkago Grind Time – “Houkago Grind Time Cares”

GardensTale

Most years, these couple of paragraphs have been the easiest thing to write all year. I waffle on about how I’ve been this year, how music’s been this year, thank A and B and C, thank you, goodnight. Not this year, though, as I find myself staring at a blank paragraph, unable to start. It’s a bit emblematic of this year. Life started back up again, I’ve been to bunches of shows and festivals and other events, made new friends, and played more Dungeons and Dragons than I ever have. But my writing output has slowed drastically, barely scratching 20 articles, less than half of any previous year. I even took a month and a half or so hiatus to recharge, though it only seemed to help momentarily and I soon found myself slipping past deadlines again more and more frequently.

I don’t really know the reason for this slump. The previous paragraph makes it sound like I’ve just been too busy, but that’s not it; I’ve had time enough, and I just chose to spend it otherwise. Nor was the musical output of the year subpar; in fact, I consider this one of the strongest years since I started writing for AMG. Not only did a lot of good music come out, but it also spread across the year somewhat, rather than clustering itself around autumn. So I can’t pinpoint an exact reason I dragged my feet throughout the year.

Maybe I don’t need to, though. It’s part of the natural cycle of life for interests to come and go. I’m hardly the only writer to slow their output or drop off entirely; as you can see, my list buddy of the last four years has been reassigned as poor Ferrous got overwhelmed with extracurricular activities this year. But we got a nice crop of young’uns to pick up the slack of us tired veterans, and it’s been a joy to have them on board. One thing you all not need to worry about though: I am not going anywhere.3 Perhaps next year I’ll restore my old pace; perhaps I’ll drop off even further (I hope not). But I won’t quit. I love this site, and I love writing for it. I love its hardworking editors, who have saved my ever-late ass from looking too terrible. I love its writers, and our monthly video chat hangs that have persisted past the lockdowns. And I love its readers. Yes, you. I love each and every one of you. Personally, deeply, and intimately. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you all next year.


#ish. Ashenspire // Hostile Architecture – Though some people put this album on blast for being too similar to A Forest of Stars, I’m not bothered by such quibbles. Mostly because I haven’t listened much to A Forest of Stars. To me, Hostile Architecture is just a damn cool album that tries and succeeds at doing something different. Who needs singing if you can have an angry Scotsman yelling into a mic about complex social issues while the entire backdrop descends into discordant cacophony threaded with withering saxophones?

#10. GGGOLDDD // This Shame Should Not Be Mine – Man, this album hit differently. Sure, there’s been other albums dealing with the writers’ own trauma, even as specific as sexual assault. But GGGOLDDD kept the music relatively accessible, yet went brutally direct with the lyrics, and that combo makes for an album that keeps gnawing at the back of your mind for a long time. Seeing it performed in its entirety at Roadburn this year only deepened my respect for Ms. Eva’s colossal burden turned into deeply confrontational art.

#9. Aeternam // Heir of the Rising Sun – Aeternam is becoming such an easy win for me. Whenever I see a new album coming, I can smile and nod, knowing that another Record o’ the Month will be passing through my hands. Heir of the Rising Sun makes three for three in this regard. It may not make for an exciting upset, but it speaks volumes about the Canadians’ consistency; without getting boring or retracing their steps. Wrapping the new album in an epic historical storyline is just the cherry on the cake; even without it, the might of tunes like “Where the River Bends” would speak for itself.

#8. Feed Me to the Waves // Apart – Post-rock is what helped me appreciate instrumental albums. Explosions in the Sky was my first, but over the years I’ve cherry-picked favorites that keep popping up in regular rotation. Feed Me to the Waves is the latest addition to this collection. It’s a beautiful, expansive record, using similar structures and textures as Explosions but painting in larger strokes, resulting in billowing soundscapes and shimmering fields that are just perfect for dreaming away.

#7. 40 Watt Sun // Perfect Light – It’s funny how some artists may not necessarily be appealing on the surface, waiting for the right time and place to catapult them right into your heart. That’s what happened to me with 40 Watt Sun, which then expanded into a deep appreciation for pretty much everything Patrick Walker. Perfect Light is another beautiful record from the saddest-sounding singer in the scene. It’s still as slow and pensive as Wider than the Sky, but just a modicum richer, with more use of piano and even some female backing vocals. If the previous album contained the sadness and loneliness of losing a loved one, this one has the melancholic tilt of reflecting on memories made together, with small rays of warmth holding the deepest of shadows at bay.

#6. Fellowship // The Saberlight Chronicles – If there was ever an antithesis to 40 Watt Sun, it must be Fellowship. This is by far the most earnest and joyful album I’ve heard this year and might top such a list out of all my top 10’s so far. And despite the comment section thinking otherwise, I believe that’s a good thing. Though I don’t think it’s iconic, as I have some quibbles with the length and the vocalist, there is an incredible joie-de-vivre that’s irresistible and melts away any walls of weary annoyance. Dammit, I can’t be skeptical about anything while “Hearts Upon the Hill” is playing!

#5. Darkest Era // Wither on the VineDarkest Era was part of the first batch of bands I discovered when I just discovered AMG. It took them a while to produce a follow-up, but it’s been worth the wait. “Floodlands” alone is worth the price of admission, but there are no duds here. It’s got the grandeur of an opera, without an actual orchestra, not in the least thanks to the powerful vocal performance. It is grand, dramatic and immersive, and chock full of great hooks. It scratches the Primordial itch that Primordial has failed to scratch for years. I just hope it won’t be another eight years before the next one.

#4. Strigoi // Viscera – This was one of the last additions to my list. The name Strigoi had buzzed about the hall for a while when I first got to it, and I had no idea what to expect. What I got was the most tectonic, colossal, destructive piece of HM2 doom-death I’d heard in years. Viscera is like a steamroller slowly crushing me into a bed of glass. What really took me by surprise, though, it sometimes fires up the nitro and goes drag-racing, while I’m still stuck underneath the axle. By the end, the album title makes a lot of sense. I feel like I resemble it.

#3. Zeal & Ardor // Zeal & Ardor – It’s been a delight getting to go to festivals again, and Roadburn was the first I returned to back in April. Not everyone is aware of the history, but Zeal & Ardor wouldn’t exist without Roadburn, and in my first year I missed out on seeing their very first performance ever, due to a queue several blocks long. But I always felt like Gagneux’s project didn’t really live up to its potential, with all manner of weird electronic interludes and the metal and spirituals often trading places instead of teaming up. But not anymore. Gagneux finally perfected his bizarre, shouldn’t-work-but-does concoction of black metal and slave hymns. Wielding its multi-vocal setup like a weapon and spurred by the transgressions of history, Zeal & Ardor is catchy, dark, and utterly unique.

#2. Kardashev // Liminal Rite – I’ve had my eye on Kardashev for years, but never really had the full connection I was looking for. As I don’t dabble in EPs much, I slept on The Baring of Shadows, too. But Liminal Rite grabbed me by the throat from the first spin and every time thereafter. I love its balance of melody and aggression, the highly varied vocal approach, and the intelligent layering. Most of all, I love its emotional core. Some might call it melodramatic, but I disagree, as the drama feels earnest and earned, anchored by the skeleton of a story about disconnection, self-destruction, and atonement. Kardashev finally made the album I’d been waiting for.

#1. Disillusion // Ayam – Ayam is no ordinary record. It is a transporting experience, an eclectic journey through the caverns of the soul, battling wonder and fear and loneliness and longing, a challenge to let go of all doubt, step over the edge and plunge into the unknown. From the incredible suite “Am Abgrund” to the exhilarating “From the Embers,” there’s an arc of self-exploration and expression tying the themes together, the closer functioning as an effective ethereal epilogue. During the journey, we find hatred in the punishing “Tormenta,” trepidation in the face of adversity as we “Abide the Storm,” dawning hope in “Longhope.” Wrapped into a cocoon of incredible musicianship and impeccable composition, I could not give Ayam anything but my first ever 5.0/5.0, and well deserved it is. Without a shadow of a doubt, head and shoulders and navel too, the best album of 2022.

Honorable Mentions:

  • An Abstract Illusion // Woe – Though it’s hefty, Woe never bores, with lengthy compositions that still flow naturally.
  • Borealis // Illusions – Powerful, dramatic, and with solid hooks, Illusions outstrips its chief inspiration Evergrey at every front.
  • Hath // All That was Promised – A bombastic bludgeon, brilliantly battering.
  • King Buffalo // Regenerator – Uplifting and off-drifting, Regenerator is the perfect capstone to King Buffalo’s impressive trilogy.
  • Septicflesh // Modern Primitive – Stronger hooks and focus make this one of Septicflesh’s best albums yet.
  • Tómarùm // Ash in Realms of Stone Icons – An excellent blend of proggy meloblack with great hooks and a lovely signature bass.
  • White Ward // False Light – It’s kind of a lot, but that’s kind of the charm. Deep, dense post-black for the jazz club.

Non-Metal Album of the Year:

Major Parkinson // Valesa pt. 1: Velvet Prison – It’s hard for me to talk about this album. Not because it has connected to some kind of trauma, but because it is difficult for me to gauge why it’s one of my most-played albums this year. It’s also hard to describe the music in the first place. Valesa pt. 1 is a madly eclectic offering, a moving melancholic blend of art rock, prog, and synthwave, even dipping into gospel at times. But its deliberately retro stylings are undercut with the aching melancholy of Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, as it paints a vivid picture of the ’80s, its neon stockings barely covering thrashing paranoia and the fragile interim between senseless wars. Yet even this rich tapestry darkens and unspools into fraught madness as the record goes on, anachronistic J-pop influences sweating feverishly besides encroaching punk and metal guitars that briefly turn the veneer of utopia into agitated dystopia. It’s a strange, beautiful album that resists rational analysis, and yet, few metal albums this year had this much of an impact on me.

Disappointment o’ the Year:

Devin Townsend // Lightworks – I’ve caught flak for this one, but I stand by it. Devin Townsend’s Lightworks had promise, and here and there, this promise pays off, but they are exceptions in an otherwise one-note swamp of vaguely joyful somethings.

Songs o’ the Year:

  1. Major Parkinson – “Jonah”
  2. Disillusion – “Am Abgrund”
  3. Tersivel – “Moving On”
  4. Darkest Era – “Floodlands”
  5. Kardashev – “Compost Grave-Song”
  6. Septicflesh – “Coming Storm”
  7. Aeternam – “Where the River Bends”
  8. Disillusion – “From the Embers”
  9. Zeal & Ardor – “Bow”
  10. 40 Watt Sun – “A Thousand Miles”
  11. Strigoi – “King of All Terror”

 

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Both of which are also true for number 1 and number 2.
  2. Still the best name in metal.
  3. Funny you should mention that. You’re fired. – Grier
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