Tom Morgan’s Top Albums of 2022
It’s funny, I’ve personally had a pretty great 2022, however several of my favorite metal albums of this year are pained, intense expressions of misery, horror and jet-black misanthropy. Not all metal expresses these sorts of emotions, of course, however in a world that’s currently coming apart at the seams, these kinds of shadow explorations of human failure seem to function as a thrilling (and possibly vital) form of catharsis.
It’s fun revisiting albums when making an end-of-year list. I listen to so much music of every genre that I’d half-forgotten about some amazing metal albums from the last eleven-and-a-half months. Given that I only had twenty places available here I had to leave out some releases I loved by the likes of Author & Punisher, Helpless, Doldrum, Malevolence, The Wind In The Trees, Mizmor & Thou, Foreseen, Cloud Rat, Labyrinth Of Stars, Drudkh, Kurokuma, Black Magnet and many others. So much music - so little (relative) time.
I also realized that this year I hadn’t checked out enough black metal, which is something I’m going to make up for in 2023. It’s always good to be disciplined in cultural consumption, no matter how voracious you are. If there’s any suggestion I could make to a reader making their own literal or mental lists of 2022 albums - look for the gaps, the spaces in between. Use your list as a building block. No matter how much music you listen to, there’s always more to discover.
20. Heriot – Profound Morality (Church Road Records, UK)
19. Daeva – Through Sheer Will and Black Magic (20 Buck Spin, USA)
18. Ground – Habitual Self Abuse (Self-Released, USA)
17. Conjurer – Páthos (Nuclear Blast, UK)
16. Blut Aus Nord – Disharmonium - Undreamable Abysses (Debemur Morti, France)
15. Tuskar – Matriarch (Church Road Records, UK)
14. Wormrot – Hiss (Earache, Singapore)
13. Conan – Evidence of Immortality (Napalm Records, UK)
12. 156/Silence – Narrative (SharpTone, USA)
11. Cult of Luna – The Long Road North (Metal Blade, Sweden)
I called Fenice “universe-scaled” in my review of it back in May, and in that time the album’s scale seems to have only expanded. Ufomammut have always been masters of using textures and patience to open up the space of their music, like a rupture carving open the space-time continuum. Album highlights like “PSYCHOSTASIA” and “PYRAMID” develop musical motifs and ideas according to their own temporo-spatial logic, journeying nowhere fast but taking in some mind-blowing vistas in the process. Once again, Ufomammut make for a set of expert and endlessly-curious guides on this grand voyage.
I’ll be honest - I haven’t heard a ton of split releases this year. Cult Leader / END’s Gather & Mourn, however, grabbed me by the collar and smashed my head repeatedly against the wall. It’s like the two bands are playing a game of who can create the most intense, whiplash-inducing beatdown of a track. On the basis of the results, I’d say END’s two ragers probably just outdo Cult Leader’s pair in terms of pure, dense aggression. “Eden Will Drown” is an absolute face-melter, full of endless great riffs and an intuitive, unpredictable structure, while “The Host Will Soon Decay” is a dark, muscular slab of atmospheric misery. Cult Leader’s tracks are nothing to be sniffed at, but for me it’s END’s two that really make Gather & Mourn a highlight of the year.
Similar in its savage, misanthropic outlook to my previous inclusion is KEN Mode’s NULL. Over the last decade or so, the Canadian trio have quietly become a cult force to be reckoned with and their latest full-length cements their place as one of the world’s leading purveyors of noise-rock-infused sludge metal. The tone of NULL seems to mirror its artwork - in spite of all the confrontational ugliness, a thin smile often breaks through. There’s a sense of perverse glee at play here, particularly on the more audacious cuts like the sardonic “A Love Letter”. Make no mistake, though, NULL’s angular brutality will rip your face from its flesh, then plaster it atop its own rictus grin.
Completing my personal ‘2022 nihilism trilogy’ is 16’s Into Dust. 16 are one of those lifer bands you can’t believe are still going. In previous years the deeply-felt pain of the L.A. band manifested as ferocious, almost skate punk-leaning sludge metal, however Into Dust sees the band take a step further, both conceptually and musically. There’s a sophistication to these twelve tracks - a sense of fully-realized confidence and pathos that the band have been building towards across their previous few, perennially-underrated releases. Beneath the fluid riffs and intuitive structures of Into Dust the band’s true essence can be glimpsed clearer than ever - the pained, melodious howl of the blues.
I love Assassine(s) because every time I listen to it it feels like it’s the first time I’m hearing it. I’m not wholly sure why - it’s dense, but not oppressively so. I think it’s the fluidity of the band’s approach to genre. At times, it’s as if there’s three or four songs happening simultaneously. Is it post-metal? Black metal? Metalcore? Perhaps this is a lesson in taking genre less seriously - a difficult urge to fight as a music journalist. From the towering “Elle se répète froidement” to the indescribable instrumental “(A)”, Assassine(s) is a remarkable exercise in visceral metallic beauty. There’s little color to be found across these eight tracks, just infinite shades of light and dark.
My all-time favorite metal band is The Dillinger Escape Plan, so the latest from mathcore/post-hardcore act thoughtcrimes, featuring the unmistakable drumwork of former TDEP member Billy Rymer, was always going to be a winner in my eyes. These eleven tracks possess a palpable sense of fluidity and internal logic, a demented inherent rationale that so many other mathcore acts fail to understand, as highlighted by this year’s sluggish and overrated Callous Daoboys album. In spite of some fundamental similarities to TDEP, Altered Pasts moves according to its own unpredictable rhythm, from the carnage of “Keyhole Romance” to the textured “New Infinities” to the micro-epic “The Drowning Man”. Perhaps the most fun I’ve had with a metal album this year.
Artificial Brain’s previous full-length Infrared Horizon is one of my favorite death metal albums of recent years. I love that the band are determined to warp the genre into strange new shapes even though the prevailing current trend in death metal is to strip the genre back to its basics. Their self-titled latest continues their Gorguts-esque brand of death metal that layers complex meters atop one another in service of dense, cacophonous head-scramblers. However, Artificial Brain are musical cosmonauts, they don’t want to just create warped modernist art, they want to inject you with a heroic dose of DMT and blast you off into space. Tracks like “Celestial Cyst” and “Last Words Of The Wobbling Sun” glimmer like unknowable stars, providing Artificial Brain with a wholly singular air of intimidating majesty.
On a similarly majestic note - Empyrean is my biggest surprise of the year. Tech/progressive death metal is something I’ve always admired but struggled to connect with. Empyrean, however, clasped my soul and catapulted it deep into the cosmos. The word ‘transcendent’ gets thrown around a lot in music criticism but Fallujah’s latest genuinely feels it. It operates on a grandiose scale that reaches towards some distant realm that’s as awe-inspiring as it is overpowering. In spite of the dazzling musicianship it never feels indulgent or flashy, just remarkably elegant and fluid. The whole album but particularly “Into The Eventide” (one of my favorite tracks of 2022) floored me with its beauty.
Rolo Tomassi have been a key band in my life. Their 2008 debut Hysterics was fourteen-year old me’s gateway into the weirder and more ambitious corners of metal. Where Myth Becomes Memory reminded me of my deep-set love for these UK underground legends. It’s a relentlessly-intense study in contrasts, flicking from direct and angular to airy and impressionistic. Even at its most unsparing (the head-spinning riffs of “Drip”) it feels as emotionally-resonant as its most delicate moments (the post-rock ballad “Closer”). The moment I knew I’d fully reconnected with Rolo Tomassi was when I saw them live in support of this album. For the first time at a show in many years - I cried. Where Myth Becomes Memory has that power, an inexplicable maximalist force that slams straight into your soul.
My favorite release of 2022, in metal or any genre, is Chat Pile’s God’s Country. I was obsessed with their previous two EP’s and their debut full-length lived up to my expectations and then some. Every song offers something different, from expressionist sound collages (“I Don’t Care If I Burn”) to ice-cold post-punk (“Pamela”) to monolithic sludge metal (“grimace_smoking_weed.jpg”) Beyond the visceral grooves and thrilling narratives, the album also revealed the Oklahoma band to be far more moralistic than the darkly-humorous misanthropy of their previous work suggested. The likes of “Why” and “Anywhere” are pained howls from a broken world - “Anywhere” in particular is almost overwhelmingly-intense in its depiction of the sudden horror of gun violence. This sense of jet-black morality makes God’s Country a new favorite of mine, and the most horrifically-engrossing album of 2022.