So I figured that with November just about to slip away and our Spotify Wrapped already cluttering social media and Discords everywhere, that I’d take a bit to write up my own 2022 Wrapped feature as it were. The reality is that there were a large handful of albums that I just didn’t get to review properly on the blog this year for reasons related to real life busyness, and the very real factor that the metal release calendar was back-loaded this year. From highly anticipated power metal albums to intriguing new melodic death metal artists I’d never heard of before, the latter half of 2022 has been just a nonstop flurry of intriguing releases to check out one after another, and honestly its been a challenge to keep up. So rather than stress myself out scrambling to review them all here before the yearly best of lists have to go up, I figure I’d just do this a little more casually and talk about the stuff that’s really stood out these past few weeks and maybe what has continued to linger over the past year or resurface.
Stuff I didn’t get around to reviewing:
The first thing that immediately comes to mind as an album that got lost in the shuffle these past few months was Queensryche’s newest Digital Noise Alliance, which aside from the ridiculous word salad album title is genuinely the best album the band has made with Todd LaTorre, even better than their inspired but undercooked self-titled 2013 debut with him. They did a few smart things here: First off, they backed off the metallic approach they were hitting hard on 2019’s The Verdict; secondly, they once again embraced the accessible prog-metal elements that defined their sound to the ears of many fans, that being crisp, clean guitar tones, dynamic songwriting, tight melodies, and bright vocal harmonies to tie it all together. There were moments on 2015’s Condition Human where I felt like they were overthinking their prog sound a little too much, an over compensation for the drifting away from that territory in the latter Geoff Tate years. But here, songs like “Hold On”, and “Lost In Sorrow” ring with the same sort of charming, insurgent energy that ran through Empire, and Wilton’s leads sound kinda inspired even. LaTorre delivers, which to his credit is one of those unsurprising details now, his voice just made for the band’s songs past and present. I dunno… its not a perfect album for sure, there are some meh moments, but overall I found myself pleasantly surprised at how much bite this thing had in it. It was also cool to hear Casey Grillo’s drumming on an album again.
On the purely power metal front, I know a lot of time has gone by since the release of Dragonland’s The Power of the Nightstar practically two damn months ago, but you should know that I’ve jammed it a lot. Like alot alot. And I’ve gone through cycles with this thing, being entirely enthralled the first few times I listened to it just by the sheer virtue of having the band back, and being aided by there being some seriously great choruses in these songs (“The Scattering of Darkness” and the title track are magnificent), to finding myself giving it a more grounded appraisal after sitting with it for awhile. So its not as utterly spectacular as Under the Grey Banner, and I don’t think many of us expected it to be, but this is a strong power metal record, definitely a bit glossier than we’re used to Dragonland sounding, but with Olof Morck’s industry success with Amaranthe likely came a bigger budget for this project (to that point, Jacob Hansen engineered the recording). I will say that lyrically, this album suffers from what I’ll politely phrase here as Ayreon-itis, that being it’s insistence on detailing a plot to such a degree that the lyrics suffer from having to deliver a straightforward narrative instead of painting a picture with poetic phrases. It’s one of those things that negatively can hamper a power metal album’s ability to get you to sing along enthusiastically.
Continuing on the recent power metal front, France’s Galderia are finally back with their newest, Endless Horizon, and it’s a worthy follow up to 2017’s immaculate Return of the Cosmic Men (you’ll likely know “Shining Unity” from that album, which was one of the best power metal singles of the last decade). I think the consensus on Endless Horizon is that it’s a strong record, though of a bit of a grower in comparison to their previous two. I suspect that one of the reasons why is that the songwriting is a bit more contemplative than anthemic here, which I’m entirely onboard with. It’s expanding the band’s sound in a subtle but satisfying way — and that’s not to say there aren’t great anthemic power metal explosions here (“Striking the Earth” for starters), but I was equally as enamored by “Twenty One”, a jangly acoustic built introspective piece with warm melodies and Sebastien Chabot’s slightly sandpapery vocals reminding me of Steve Lee era Gotthard. All in all it was a quality release from one of the more overlooked Euro-power bands to have landed on the scene in the past decade. I think they’d have more momentum globally if they could just deliver albums faster than their current five year at a time clip, but maybe that’s just not possible for whatever reason.
On the extreme metal front, there’s been a lot worth listening to, particularly in the progressive death realm, but also with a few recent black metal surprises worth crowing about too. To talk about the latter first, I need to bring up this Stormruler album Sacred Rites & Black Magick, introduced to me via longtime follower of the blog Rob (@GodofMetal69 on Twitter). I’ve been lowkey addicted to this album ever since he recommended it a few weeks ago and I think it’s one of the most satisfying melodic black metal records I’ve heard in awhile. Stormruler are a duo from the blackened lands of St. Louis (I’m guessing they took the Rams move to L.A. pretty hard) and this is their second album in the span of under two years, their debut coming last May. They’re also signed to Napalm Records, which is an eye opener for sure, because you typically don’t associate modern Napalm signees with black metal of this kind, but I think the label is onto something with these guys. I love the Dissection influences going on here, it brings a heavy nostalgic element to this sound, and they do incorporate enough dynamic elements into the songwriting to keep these songs creatively shifting and morphing and never feeling repetitive. The album is an ambitious hour plus, but about eight minutes of that are these scattered instrumental interludes that are like segue pieces between the songs, in a style that I can only describe as maybe dungeon synth? As a complete listening experience, it oddly works, though I can see how some might find them annoying. It’s an incredible effort overall though and black metal fans should at least give this a look.
Right, the new Behemoth album, which I listened to initially on release day and yet didn’t get back to it until a few weeks later. So 2018’s I Loved You At Your Darkest got criticized quite a bit for what many felt was the band stepping out of their defined sonic territory… and while I wasn’t that fond of the album overall I didn’t think it was quite the disaster that some were accusing it of being. I actually liked some of the less aggressive, atmospheric explorations on that album, what I saw as continuations of the bands exploration of empty space and texture on The Satanist. On Opvs Contra Natvram, it seems like they’ve naturally readjusted a bit to incorporate a little more dense riff sequences, the album ultimately sounding like the merging of those previous two albums. The best song here is “The Deathless Sun” with its grandiose “I am nothing! I am no one” chanting serving as a vocal hook motif, but I also enjoyed the heck out of “Once Upon a Pale Horse”, with its Metallica-esque Hetfield-ian rhythmic strut. I didn’t have any of this enthusiasm for the Darkthrone’s newest album Astral Fortress however, a continuation of Fenriz and Nocturno Culto’s recent exploration into laborious repetition and slow sonic drudgery. I know opinions were split on this and some folks are really enjoying it… fair enough, but I sat through this record wondering what happened to the Darkthrone that rocked me silly on Circle the Wagons and The Underground Resistance.
I did finally listen to the new Bloodbath album, Survival of the Sickest, after sleeping on it for a few months. It’s as vicious as you’d hope and I enjoyed thoroughly while driving all over Houston in the pissing rain on Thanksgiving day (because what else would you listen to on a holiday?). It sounds crisply recorded but still loaded with enough grime and grit that you’d want an old school Swedish death metal record to have, which is about all you can hope for really. I enjoyed listening to this, I do think its a tad stronger than The Arrow of Satan Is Drawn… it feels, this is a weird thing to say, but “breezier” than that album? I guess I’m feeling like it’s just a quicker, looser feeling collection of material in comparison, but that could just be recency bias speaking. Oh and on the melodic death front, we played this band on a recent episode of MSRcast, but I’ll shout them out again here, that being In the Woods… who released Diversum only a week or so ago. It’s a really strong album that fans of Novembers Doom and Green Carnation will likely get into, a merging of progressive death metal musicality with incredibly strong clean vocals courtesy of Bernt Fjellestad (he had a brief stint in Susperia a few years back). Also I want to direct attention to Finland’s melodic death metallers Horizon Ignited who released Toward the Dying Lands earlier this summer on Nuclear Blast. They remind me of classic Gothenburg melodeath put through a Pantera filter (it sounds weird, but you’ll hear what I’m talking about), their music having a no-frills, straight to the gut quality that I surprisingly enjoyed.
There were a lot more records that I could’ve covered here that eh, look we’re just running out of time and space for. New Stratovarius (was pretty solid, but all their recent albums have been); new Lacrimas Profundere (not quite the gothic metal masterpiece I was hoping for but it had some great songs on it); the new Avatarium is their best album yet and totally worth the time if you’re into that kind of doom tinged smokey hard rock sung by a fantastic lady singer; oh and I listened to this new album called Woe by a band called An Abstract Illusion more than a handful of times and it’s one of those weird ones where I think I’m into it, and other times I wasn’t quite so sure (I think the mystery there was why I kept coming back).
Stuff that was interesting (to me anyway):
No doubt we’ve all heard the new Metallica single “Lux Æterna” by now — you know it’s not bad in that bare bones Metallica kind of way, reminding me of bits of “Fuel” (I know I know) and just the Load album in general in a wild way. After the overtly old school claw back feel of Hardwired, you’d figure the last thing the band would want to do is recall hints of their mid-90s outrage makers but here we are. Am I the only one hearing that sound? I saw the cover art for the album by the way… and I’ll echo Revolver Magazine’s tweet:
For real… how can a band with so many cool t-shirt designs over the years consistently release terrible album covers/concepts again and again? You’d figure that at some point they’d look at one of those Pushead designs they likely have stashes of and think “why don’t we just use one of these for the album?”. And look I get the concept here, 72 Seasons, the years 1-18 that are formative for all of our individual yada yada yadas, and I appreciate Metallica always aiming to be relatively original. But originality doesn’t necessarily equate to something that’s good, or a design that one would want to sport on a shirt or poster on their wall. Heck of a color choice there too, I believe it’s French’s Yellow Mustard? Of course the contrarians on Twitter all came to it’s defense. No. You’re all wrong, it’s terrible, and you’re all wrong.
On a more delightful note, Judas Priest making the Hall of Fame was worth it if only for the clip of Halford getting to sing with Dolly Parton. Much has been made of this online I’m sure, but there is something inherently charming about this duo and Parton’s own bemused reaction to it. That Priest got in on a category specific award of some kind rather than just the general voting seems to have been a sore spot for many (Halford included), but I think at this point going forward, folks will just remember that they got in and articles will reference them as having done such, and that’s kind of all that matters for an award that’s all about perception anyway. There is still a big part of me that is all in the “who cares?” camp regarding Rock Hall nominations, but there’s another part of me that can admit that it’s nice to see a foundational metal band get something like this, for the guys in Priest to look at their place in a pantheon with musical heroes of theirs that they idolized growing up (even if most of us don’t give a damn about The Beatles).
And in other good news, the Pantera “tribute” that everyone was deriding and saying was going to be disrespectful actually had a great start at the Heaven and Hell Fest in Mexico. Footage from the shows back that up, the setlist is fantastic, Zakk reigned in the pinch harmonics a tad, and even Phil sounded like Pantera era Phil was supposed to sound (no Vince Neil-ing it here!). I called it months back on the podcast, but I had a feeling these guys would be able to pull this off, it wasn’t exactly attempting to recreate a progressive rock masterpiece on stage — these are Pantera songs. Charlie can pull off the odd Vinnie Paul groove based time signatures, Rex is Rex and Zakk would be faithful to Dimebag’s exact riffage. People are excited to hear these songs live again and man… when there’s so much crap out there to get us down, let’s collectively celebrate something that should be making us happy. I know it’s a nostalgia trip, but as a metalhead growing up in Texas, Pantera brings back good memories. I know that’s a weird thing to say. And let’s call it a wrap on 2022… I’m sure there’s stuff I’m forgetting to mention but I’ll probably address anything else on the upcoming episodes of MSRcast (subscribe! We’re on Spotify too!).