It’s that time again, when, along with many other people, I maunder on about some music I heard in the past year. I’m not sure how many albums I did hear altogether, definitely more than the dozen I talk about, but I don’t make notes unless for some reason the album gets my attention long enough to play it more than once. A lot of albums don’t get that far. A lot of albums I don’t manage to get all the way through even once. I’m sure there is a lot of music that I have missed — there always is, mostly due to time constraints, and mood constraints, and the inability to listen to everything that gets recommended by various friends, musicians, and algorithms, but I do try.
Anyway, what follows is the music that did catch my attention sufficiently for me to revisit it. I think there is less variety than usual: metal and post-metal dominate, but there is a surprising amount of prog considering my general disdain for the modern form of the genre, some ambient/electronica, and a bluegrass album. I’d heard of every band on the list except for one, and that one proved to be one of the best discoveries for a long time. I found a couple of albums simply because it struck me that the band had been awfully quiet lately and maybe I should check what they were up to.
In terms of ranking… I’m beginning to wonder whether I should bother: at least, for anything not in the Top 3. I did a little research, looking back on my previous lists to see what albums had actually stood the test of time. It wasn’t quite as bad as I feared: for most years, a lot of my top picks have turned out to be albums that I still play. Not all years to be sure, and not all albums, but enough for me to continue to trust my own judgment. So take the top 3 as the top 3, and the rest in more or less rough order, as in — the ones near the bottom are less interesting than the ones near the top.
Mariusz Duda: “Intervallum”
“Intervallum” is a stand-alone track, just shy of 30 minutes long, inspired by Vangelis (who died earlier this year) and his (Duda’s) love for ambient soundtracks, and composed during December in the interval between the promotion of the new Riverside album and its release in January. He is not new to long instrumental tracks and ambient electronica by any means; apart from the recent Lockdown Trilogy project (admittedly more electronica than ambient), he and Riverside have been doing this for years, culminating in 2016’s album Eye of the Soundscape that collected both old and new material of this sort.
“Intervallum” is an intense, unsettling journey, bleak and darkly atmospheric; if you are looking for relaxing ambience, this is not it. It is certainly inspired by Vangelis, but there are elements of Edgar Froese as well as Eye of the Soundscape. I think this has more meat to it than the Lockdown Spaces material, but maybe that’s just me.
This four-track EP was released in late November, and I honestly don’t know how I missed it. Jambinai have always had a unique sound, a marriage of metal-meets-tradition, not just in the music but with the instruments used. The first couple of tracks feature a vocalist, singing in Korean, and most of them tend to begin delicately, atmospheric and contemplative, but building inexorably into dense crashing metal monsters — except for the first one, which just blasts into existence from the start.
Albums of 2022:
Mariusz Duda: Let’s Meet Outside
This is the fourth (and last) album in the Lockdown Trilogy, an electronics project that was begun during the summer of 2020 during the pandemic, and during a break in the recording of Lunatic Soul’s Through Shaded Woods. It winds up that particular thematic arc, given that it was released after lockdown restrictions had eased. I’ve reviewed Claustrophobic Universe and Interior Drawings already, here and here.
Let’s Meet Outside is short, and not very substantial — one gets the impression that Duda used up most of his ideas on the first three albums of the project, and didn’t have much left to say for this one. It consists mostly of pleasant electronic sounds and lots of effects – well, more effects than almost anything else. It is certainly the least memorable except for one track: the rather jazzy “News From the World”, with its heavy bass lead and keyboards, is distinctive enough to make me wonder if it had a separate origin from the rest of the tracks on the album. I could be wrong, but it feels quite different. It’s definitely the best song on the album.
Necro Deathmort: Deep Air
I discovered this album had been released when I visited the band’s website. They had been extremely prolific over several years previous, but had fallen silent. It turned out that they had actually completed this album in 2018, but after various delays and pandemics and the world turned sideways they finally decided to release it this year.
It is typical Necro Deathmort, several brief tracks of dark and jittery synths, buzzing with anxiety-inducing electronics, doomy and sparse, more atmospheric than melodic, but if you are a fan of these guys, then you will probably like it. Interestingly, I do hear echoes of ND in the aforementioned “Intervallum”, but I have no idea if Duda has ever listened to them. Of course, the music is rather similar in approach.
Decapitated: Cancer Culture
I like Decapitated, and I was looking forward to this album, and while it is not a bad album, and I played the download quite a few times when it first came out, it doesn’t seem to have the sticking power of the previous albums. It hearkens back to their earlier technical metal days, with less obvious riffage and more relentless heaviness. It begins with the martial “From the Nothingness with Love”, and that track sets the tone for the entire album. It includes “Hello Death” featuring Jinjer, and “Iconoclast” featuring Machine Head, which may be the best track on the album.
Very much along the lines of 2015’s Under the Red Cloud, which was the album that got me into Amorphis, so that’s okay. The songs are melodic, keyboard-and-guitar heavy, with the growl/clean vocal mix that Tomi Joutsen does so well; he is one of my favourite metal vocalists. It is an album of no surprises, exactly what you expect from Amorphis. Best tracks: “On the Dark Waters” and “War”.
Porcupine Tree: Closure/Continuation
I reviewed this album earlier this year, you can read about it here. I haven’t really changed my mind about it, except that after a time away from hearing it, and a cessation of the excitement around the tour, it sounds less to me like a PT album and more like SW solo than it did before — but as I also mentioned, that is a distinction without a difference. It is Porcupine Tree because Wilson says it is, not because it has any inherent PT-ness to it. Still, it can stand on its own merits, and (in my opinion, of course…) it is better than all the solo albums except the first one.
The melancholic Danes are back with their melancholic, depressive take on life, with an album that seems a bit less substantial and more sedate than the last one (2017’s Goliath); at least, there seems to be less variety in the mix of tracks. It is lush and orchestral, and Sebastian Wolff’s thick voice does capture the angst and desolation of their songs perfectly. It just doesn’t hit quite as hard as before — there is a lack of anger and heaviness. All the songs are good, none are really great.
However, I caught a recent concert on YouTube, Live at Vega, filmed in October of 2022, and holy crap this band is utterly insane live! They look like a bunch of insurance-company middle managers (well, not the bass player… the bass player looks like he got lost on the way to ballet rehearsal, and he hold his bass like nobody I have ever seen before), but they sure don’t play like it. Clearly they have reserved all their energy for the stage, because they just tore the place up. Wolff wanders on stage in a shirt and jacket, but he throws his bulk (and his guitar, and his mic) around like it’s his last day on earth. The rest of the guys are just as incandescent. I would see them in a heartbeat if the opportunity ever presented itself.
Useful Jenkins: Fool’s Gold
Useful Jenkins is an American bluegrass band (is that redundant?), with strong pop leanings. This was another outfit whose website I visited out of curiosity, to find that they had indeed released a new album this year. I’m not entirely sure how I discovered them a few years back (bluegrass not being among my usual go-to genres), but I was hooked by several of their songs from different albums: they seem to have a penchant for writing acute, sometimes sobering observations of the world, generally set to cheerful and upbeat music. Fool’s Gold is the strongest album from them, even though it is not completely consistent, the first and last tracks being the least memorable. However, there are three monster tracks right in the middle that make the whole album worthwhile. If more bluegrass sounded like this I’d probably listen to more of it.
Marillion: An Hour Before It’s Dark
It finally happened. I played and enjoyed a Marillion album. It did surprise me, because up to this point I had managed to muster pretty much zero interest in any Marillion, of any era, with any singer. I consistently failed to be moved or even intrigued by anything from these guys that I had heard, and given the utter devotion some of my friends have for them, I tried a lot of their stuff.
Maybe, since I am not a fan, I am not hearing this album the way that the true fans hear it. All I know is that I like it, it flows nicely, it does not rely on prog tropes or try to pull any prog tricks, it does its job with minimal fuss, it is competent and professional and very pleasant to listen to. I can’t see anything wrong with that. I’m not a huge fan of Hogarth’s voice, but then I’m not a huge fan of Fish’s voice either, so I have no dog in that fight, but the album gets it right — he might sing a lot but somehow he doesn’t intrude. It’s a fine album.
Shearwater: The Great Awakening
Shearwater’s 2016 offering Jet Pane and Ox Bow was an incandescently angry album, being released just after a deeply divisive and mystifying episode in American political history; but five years later (going by its completion date rather than release date) that rage has dissipated. The Great Awakening is much more sedate, pastoral and contemplative, hearkening back to earlier albums. There are hints of Animal Joy, hints of Rook. There are a few heavy moments but it is fundamentally an acoustic, orchestral album. It is hard to know what the album, or even individual songs, are about, given the obscurity of lyrics and titles, but that’s okay: Meiburg is crooning words, and the songs ebb and flow and are sometimes quite beautiful. It is a very different album from the last one and requires a different mindset.
The Top Three
3. Oceans of Slumber: Starlight and Ash
This was the one outfit I had never heard of before this year, although apparently they have been around for a while. They are variously described as heavy metal, prog-metal, doom metal, goth metal — none of which adequately prepared me for what I heard from these guys.
The first track I heard was the single “The Lighthouse”, and the astonishing, soulful, bluesy, achingly beautiful voice of Cammie Beverly. Metal of whatever description never sounded like this. The rest of the album follows suit: lush southern gothic heavy prog, forming the backdrop for Beverly’s magnificent vocals. I do wish it was a bit more consistent; there are four or five monster tracks of almost overwhelming emotional power, but they are front-loaded, so the rest of the album sags a bit in quality.
2. Heart Attack: Negative Sun
Heart Attack is a thrash metal band out of France, who have been around for about a decade, and Negative Sun is their third album. I reviewed this album earlier; you can read about it here. This is an absolute killer of a headbanger album, smart and compelling, and melodic as hell. For most of the year it looked like it was going to be Number 1, and the final decision was a very difficult one.
1. Russian Circles: Gnosis
Russian Circles have finally put out the album I have been waiting for. Every time they release one I find that I don’t play it as much as I thought I would. They make thoughtful and sophisticated post rock, and they can be as heavy as fuck, but it strikes me that sometimes they think too hard about it — they can get too contemplative for their own good. Also, once you see these guys live you realize that it colours how you hear their studio work. They really are a live band, and that is where their material comes to life, not to mention that they tend to stick to the heavier end of their discography.
Gnosis was an album recorded during lockdown, with the guys at a distance from each other, and they decided to focus on solid, heavy, head-banging tracks. It kicks into high gear with the first track “Tupilak” (named for a Greenland Inuit shamanic avenging monster, and it is indeed a monster of a track) and never really lets up: the acoustic “Ó Braonáin” is just brief enough to draw a breath before we are hit with the last two tracks. The outstanding song on the album is “Gnosis”, an implacable and inexorable behemoth of a piece, but the whole album is Russian Circles at their very best.