[Content advisory: The following article contains an in-depth and intimate account of the loss of a loved one. If you believe the reading could be traumatizing, you may wish to forgo it.]
A handful of days before my mom passed away, we found ourselves sitting on the edge of her bed together and looking out onto the open field leading to the woods, just as we did most every day leading up to that pivotal afternoon. It was late January, and like many cities along the Great Lakes that time of year, it was cold and especially grey. The morning felt endlessly heavy, but out there in the thick of everything perched a very bright cardinal amidst the spidery and rawboned branches of a dormant Sequoia tree, its radiance roaring in opposition to the numbness of the season and situation. There was about a foot and a half of powdery snow on the ground, and it was snowing that very moment—big, wide flakes whose gentle plummet cast an even stronger sense of slow motion on an event already hindered by the cruel and leisurely step of sadness. I remember turning to look at my mom, overwhelmed with weariness as her familiar hand rested in mine, and she looked at me with the smallest of smiles that ripped through my barriers like a fire through wheat. She understood her fight was over, and she was happy to have me on one side and her husband of 52 years on the other.
That glimpse of awareness and appreciation from my little mom was significant, as the relentless persistence of dementia had largely robbed her and our family of both in those last few years. Dementia had found a way to become a familiar denizen in the house, constantly sloughing off our spirit and composure, but we routinely invented ways to lessen its grip. In truth, we didn’t even call it by its proper name for years, likely out of fear that doing so would somehow add to its strength. Ghosts can just be ghosts, but once you concede to their presence, you got yourself a haunting, my friend. And with that haunting comes a heavy palpability.
Dementia took my mom’s mother, too—first realized one afternoon as my father took my grandmother for a walk around the block during one of her rare visits from overseas when I was a teenager. “I don’t know who you are, young man, but this has been a very nice walk,” she casually remarked in German to my pop, suddenly freezing him in his step with the burden of breaking that grim news to the rest of us. My mom didn’t admit it very often, but I know she lived in fear of eventually surrendering to a similar fate, and although she eventually did, I like to think she gave that dirty devil of a disease the fight of its miserable life.
I was living in the Bay Area when my pop got his first dose of reality regarding my mom’s early signs at the outset. A close friend of the family mustered up the courage to talk to him on the phone about what they guessed was happening, and the hope was to offer comfort by making my dad aware of how much help there was outside our small family. Years later, my dad admitted to being angry about that call, which I believe to be a very natural reaction. He didn’t burden me with the news for quite some time, but I noticed things whenever I’d come home to visit. Coffee cups stowed away in strange places, and my mom repeating statements she’d made just minutes before. Still, it was all very manageable for what felt like a really long time, no doubt braced by the sheer strength of my mom’s will. She was a relentless fighter in most every scrap she chose to fight, my mother, and the only thing more potent than her tenacity was her capacity to love, which I like to think added to her resistance in some wonderfully karmic kind of way.
Over time, the weight of the disease of course intensified, so I decided to take on a much more active role, which was honestly one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made. The effort was often very strenuous, and it quickly began overshadowing my regular work, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made when you opt to keep things in-house rather than relying on the help of outsiders. What’s amazing to me as I think back on it is the fact that as difficult as the caretaking became—not a single day off in the last three years—there were still so many defining moments of victory and plenty of joy in those long days and nights. The periodic moments when my mom would just suddenly blurt out my name and tell me how nice I looked, or that she loved her dinner: Those were welcome bolts of light shot straight into my heart. Or when the visiting doctors would remark how sturdy her resilience was: “Whatever you guys are doing, keep doing it.”
In the end, I can say with confidence that the decision to face this disease at home added a number of positive years to my mom’s life, even if she couldn’t outwardly confirm that in words. Suffice to say, it was clear that a comfortable and rigorously routine home environment did wonders amidst dementia, and my mom still gave plenty of signs that she was still very much there—little mannerisms and her familiar (and abrupt) one-liners that could just level you out of nowhere. It’s said that dementia robs people of their identity, but no doctor on this earth can tell you for certain that the person you love who’s stricken with this disease isn’t still in there fighting to find little ways to let you know they love you fiercely right back.
Of course there was anger as well. Gallons of anger related to the situation and the endless frustrations that find limitless ways to walk hand-in-hand with dementia. But in a strange sort of way, I found an even more boundless well of love and appreciation for the mother who now depended on me to take care of her. Of all the wonderful teachers I’ve had in my years, my mom was always responsible for teaching me life’s most crucial lessons, and even amidst dementia she taught me everything there was to know about patience, unconditional love, the indomitable strength of trust, and the resolve of the human form when given the right environment.
There is an end to every road, though, and on the morning of January 25th, 2022, I sat at my mother’s side as she quietly blinked away from a good and long life. The sun was out like lion, pressing its determined strength through winter’s remorseless grey and igniting the pristine snow like a field of diamonds. I did one last crossword with my mom just before she died, and I held her little hand in mine. It was an extraordinary experience in so many ways that are difficult to express, imbued with those inexplicable moments that fight rational explanation with greatsword’s edge. My epic, longtime defender had taken her last breath, and in doing so with such grace and serenity, she taught me one more vital lesson: Death is not my enemy.
I write these words with a clear understanding that my experience comes from a place of privilege. Privilege not only in that I was lucky enough to have known my mother and experienced her positive imprint for so much of my life, regardless of distance, but also in the way my family was fortunate enough to endure, and in many ways succeed, from the comfort of home. Without question, this was the most challenging commitment of my life, and I will carry the lessons I’ve learned in the core of my heart for the remainder of my days, with the hope they will somehow serve me for the many challenges yet to come. As cliché as I know it sounds, the spirit of my mum will be there for me through all life’s wins and losses, and even though this battle has left me sorrowful and weary, I still consider it a victory.
Why am I doing this here. What good could possibly come from paying tribute to someone inside a list of favorite albums on a relatively obscure website dedicated to heavy metal? I really don’t have a solid answer for that question. I’m sure part of the reason relates to the fact that I’ve managed to keep so much of this experience bottled up and private, even amidst my closest friends, so finally being very open about it feels therapeutic. I did it for me, largely, which feels a bit selfish.
In truth, though, the whole experience absolutely does connect to the music I’ve listened to the most in 2022, because music’s emotional impact is of paramount importance to me, as it is to you, and nothing could be more emotional than the loss of a loved one. Accordingly, I’ve leaned on music’s demonstrative strength to help distract, sort, and comfort my brain more in 2022 than I have in quite some time. However, what I didn’t expect was the particularly timely arrival of two records that matched the emotional tornados pretty much note for note: Serpentent’s Ancient Tomes, Volume I: Mother of Light, the most consoling, insightful, unwitting friend a fellow could ever hope to find, and Cult of Luna’s The Long Road North, a largely unfamiliar companion that leveled me with its depth of understanding and commitment. I’m very comfortable stating those are my two favorite records of the year, and what follows is my attempt to put their impact into words.
SERPENTENT – ANCIENT TOMES, VOLUME I: MOTHER OF LIGHT
I would need to dial back the hands of time quite a ways before finding a record that landed with as much force as did Mother of Light. I knew nothing of the project, but there was an immediate draw before ever hitting play due to my fondness for the label—Svart Records, known for their adventurous spirit—and because the name behind Serpentent, Anne K. O’Neill, was familiar to me through a mutual Bay Area acquaintance.
Mother of Light lured me in right from the jump, as Serpentent largely focuses on a notably meditative form of unbound dark folk not too far removed from equally blanketing ventures such as Finland’s Tenhi, Germany’s Neun Welten, or even modern Empyrium, all of which have hit the target dead center for me over the years. Basically, it’s all Prophecy Productions-styled music, which is ideally suited for those of us who often prefer the company of none when it comes time to get down with records. Other influences are afoot here as well: the experimental post-industrial works of Current 93, the dark wave elegance of Dead Can Dance, and the similarly doomy / gloomy stance of a band such as Worm Ouroboros, all which made initial Mother of Light run-throughs particularly satisfying as a first impression.
The further I got into Mother of Light, however, the more it started to feel as if our meeting was somehow predestined. Death is the principal motif here, which served as an obstacle at first, as I wasn’t sure I was ready to bare any more of its weight, no matter the perspective. O’Neill’s voice underscores sentiments of calm comfort and understanding, though, and everything is woven together with a grace and elegance that makes the material exceptionally captivating right off the bat. “This is the heartache that I’ve known; it is the silent burden’s home,” she intones early into “Ancient Tomes,” speaking directly to the grief holed up in the pith of my bones, and setting the stage for the visceral journey yet to come.
Full disclosure: I tried and failed to express the leveling power of Mother of Light earlier this year. What can I say, I was in a difficult headspace, and a self-imposed deadline loomed that I’d hoped would net a little extra attention for the album before its release in May. Some records are directly digestible, and that’s wonderful, but… such is not the case here. Now, with the benefit of eight months of assimilation, I can confirm that one of the most potent gifts Mother of Light has given me—beyond its strength of solace and fellowship—is a wholly different perspective of Death. Capital “D” Death, it should be noted, as my experience with my mom was responsible for revising my thoughts on death.
As odd and embarrassing as it is to admit, Death has always maintained a masculine personification in my mind, no doubt fueled by countless years of seeing skeletal grim reapers connected to burly biker gangs, grim iron-ons, or breaking through stained-glass windows atop motorcycles on the cover of Fear No Evil. And yes, perhaps even on a more subconscious level because I’ve always feared Death like the Devil. In truth, it’s probably smarter to think of Death in a more fluid sense, taking any form it sees fit for a limitless amount of scenarios, but I think for now I prefer to perceive it in a more feminine light, if only to counterbalance the years spent reflecting otherwise. Mother of Light validates this by virtue of O’Neill bestowing the role of Death to the mother of light, who happens to be facing death herself. This opens an abundance of avenues for serious reflection, all of which is conveyed beautifully through the music’s deeply melancholic yet comforting design. So, death is light, and Death herself certainly retains many of the favorable traits we often attach to the cherished mother responsible for bringing us life in the first place. The ever-winding ouroboros.
When Death visited my house on the morning of January 25th, she was quiet and calm, and her presence was mighty and magnificent enough to silence even the tiniest of particles in that already quiet room. I didn’t get the sense that she took a dear life that day as much as it felt as if she arrived as a protective guide. There was no fear in that room. No struggle. No darkness. There was light, and there was an overwhelming sense of serenity and reassurance. It was a brief and extraordinarily potent moment whose lingering effect remains just as powerful today as it did for me back then. I am filled with grief when I think of that morning and of the loss of my mother, but it was a transformative event I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world, because even in death, my mother taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: Death is not my enemy.
“Ashes fall from on high, weighted gray and tired. Laying down in fields, waiting now to be sown. To prove, to prove the cycles turn and life is death and death is life. To lose then bloom is life. Before the dawn can rise we must enter night.” — “The Fountainhead of Fire”
CULT OF LUNA – THE LONG ROAD NORTH
I’ve spoken of this relatively recently, but I didn’t fully discover Cult of Luna until 2021. I knew of them, of course, but I was the guy who stood at port eating a hot dog as seemingly everyone else boarded the S.S. Atmospheric Sludge 20-plus years back, so I missed out on CoL, Isis, Mouth of the Architect, and probably about 20 other bands loads of people and websites did flips over for the better part of 8 to 10 years. I don’t really have a good reason for skipping out, I just wasn’t… particularly interested. I’m guessing I was being a dickhead about the vocals. “Keep hardcore vocals in hardcore,” I probably said, “and make sure that hardcore is, you know, proper hardcore.” I am not always my best self.
Then The Raging River EP hit my radar last year, landing a decisive blow across the ol’ chin and prompting a full dive, replete with additional haymakers thrown by 2019’s A Dawn to Fear and 2004’s Salvation in particular. The atmospheric sludge binge pretty much ended there, though, and fairly quickly, as I came to realize that particular mood happens to be rather specific. Maybe, though, just maybe, that modest 2021 binge was prepping me for the arrival of The Long Road North.
This was a very unexpected infatuation. And on reflection, perhaps it was that unfamiliarity that served as the initial allure: I was leveled by grief, I was accustomed to music as therapy, and I felt like I needed a relatively unfamiliar therapist who wasn’t already aware of all the nooks and crannies of my brain. I needed a new perspective outside of the familiar understanding of, say, nostalgic tradition metal.
Still, The Long Road North didn’t appear to be a likely candidate because my sudden encounter with Cult of Luna in 2021 resulted in an impression that they were and remain, by and large, a dark, punishing, ponderously heavy band. Make no mistake, I appreciate a good heavy metal drubbing as much as the next guy, but a notably grim and relentless drag through the guts of misery wasn’t exactly on the top of my list of things to experience in 2022’s musical offerings.
Now, it’s worth mentioning straight away that The Long Road North is indeed absolutely dark, ponderously heavy, and punishing. It is all those things to the Nth degree, and it is also BIG and prolonged and hugely dramatic from its very first moment to the very last note. But friend, there is a warmth in all that hugeness, and an overriding sense of leaden consolation that comes across like a weighted anxiety blanket, or maybe one of those ThunderShirts for dogs. That welcoming warmth arrives early, in the very first track, once the initial klaxon of “Cold Burn” opens up around 3:15 and subsequently transforms into something that feels much more sympathetic, despite the persistently belting vocals. It all feels very gothic / post-punk / darkwave—largely keyboard-driven in the opener and the succeeding “The Silver Arc,” which also flaunts an endless supply of post-punked bass-lines, and then later in more of a western sprawl that’s not too far removed from Fields of the Nephilim: “Into the Night,” “Full Moon,” and “Blood Upon Stone.” Yes, I recognize this is hardly new territory for Cult of Luna, but I do think The Long Road North realizes this face of the band more effectively than they’ve ever managed before.
Burdened with grief and loss, I also wanted to feel small again. Not necessarily hidden, but just… out of reach, and with nothing but miles and miles of unfamiliar openness all around me, like suddenly slipping into one of Steven Erikson’s strange and protective warrens. (Hello, Malazan nerd here.) By good fortune, the sprawl of this record is truly impressive—big enough to remind you just how modest a footstep on this Earth actually is—and the unfeigned beauty of the overall design is that it’s not terribly concerned with fully letting grief go. Grief is there for a reason, and it absolutely should not be hustled into dark recesses to eventually moulder into some unmanageable beast further down the line. Grief must be addressed, accepted, and expelled, and The Long Road North is an exceedingly strong companion in that regard: consolatory in many ways, but it’s also quite adept at firing grief into the heavens where it can be weakened by the relentless pound of brutally angry thunder. When the listener hits the 10:50 mark of “An Offering to the Wild”—likely the heaviest moment of 2022—they will by God find their grief hammered against the mountainside, and that is a very liberating sentiment.
There is a strong sense of relentlessness very intentionally welded to The Long Road North. Relentless in the way it delivers blow after blow after blow for over an hour each time. This is not really the sort of record you throw on for a song or two before heading out the door to get new tires on your Subaru. You put it on with the express purpose of weathering the full storm—the whipping winds, booming thunder, weeping rains, and occasional splashes of calm beauty. It’s a cathartic experience, and it mirrors life in a very similar way. Life is relentless. It doesn’t look at your situation and say, “You know, you’ve had a tough go of it recently. Have a couple years stretched out in a hammock, free of charge.” Things just don’t work that way. But if there’s a lesson to be learned inside The Long Road North, it’s the reminder that though the road may be long—and you are indeed fortunate if it is—that long road portions burden and blessing with equal intent. In fact, one requires the other in order to exist, and learning to appreciate that truth will help make the desperate times more manageable.
Every field and lake you see
Will forever be a part of me
Birch trees on each side
and the beat of my heart as a guide
The wind whispers my name, always
I let it lead me to where it ends
Memories cling on as I walk the long road north
Life’s capacity for indiscriminately lofting obstacles and opportunities in an attempt to stimulate reflection and growth is one of its deepest endowments, and I will learn that lesson time and again until I, too, eventually blink away. We are, all of us, constant works in progress. If it seems overly strange or unnecessary to see someone use a forum such as this as a springboard for this sort of thing, just know that I get it. You are here for the discussion and dissection of music, not of someone’s psyche. Understand that I didn’t actually set out with the intention of spilling my guts. It just sort of… started pouring out, and then I couldn’t imagine wiping the slate and going back to the business of a typical year-end list.
I can say with a fair amount of confidence that the lists to follow from my fellow Last Riters will be much more in line with what you probably hope to encounter: insightful discourse with an emphasis on, you know, heavy metal. As I said, what I committed to above is likely most helpful to me, but even if there’s an off chance that it will help one other person who finds themselves lost in a relatable situation, it’ll be worth hanging it all out in public.
It goes without saying that there were a great many albums that filled the long hours between frequent spins of Mother of Light and The Long Road North, all of which played their own crucial roles in engaging, diverting, and healing. In an effort to not stray too far from tradition, I will share them below.
As always, thanks for reading. I wish you and yours an overwhelmingly great 2023.
And mum, infinite thanks and love for always being a formidable protector and positive force in my life. I love you, and I will protect your memory and all the lessons you’ve imparted with a champion’s heart.
20 Other Excellent Heavy Metal Albums I Recommend You Get To Know On An Intimate Level:
20. EPITAPHE – II
For fans of: Death metal that knows we all judge a book by its cover, so “similar to the stunning artwork, we get a little bit of everything nature has to offer in Epitaphe’s brand of death metal: II is thick, it’s spaced-out, it’s lush, it’s… weirdly minerally, and it’ll remind you of scores of other odd death metal bands that likewise challenge instagram’s 30 hashtag boundary.”
19. QUEENSRŸCHE – DIGITAL NOISE ALLIANCE
For fans of: Well, Queensrÿche. The good Queensrÿche, not the Queensrÿche that made American Soldier and attempted to trick us into whatever the hell Operation: Mindcrime II was. Digital Noise Alliance is warm, infectious, and it finds a way to recall high points across the band’s full career. Point of fact: Todd La Torre is the best thing to happen to these guys in ages.
18. PHANTOM SPELL – IMMORTAL’S REQUIEM
For fans of: Well, Seven Sisters, for one, thanks to the presence of Kyle McNeill. But this is a much proggier adventure that’s clearly more indebted to all manner of intrepid 70’s prog / kraut rock bands. McNeill is in charge of everything here, and I’m starting to wonder if there’s any musical venture he couldn’t slam dunk to win the championship in the final seconds of the very last game of the season.
17. BEYOND MORTAL DREAMS – ABOMINATION OF THE FLAMES
For fans of: Smoldering, gigantic death metal that slowly pounds as often as it quickly guts. Abomination of the Flames pretty much sounds exactly as the album cover looks: red, hellish, hopeless, detrimental, and… well, fucking awesome. Also, who could’ve guessed that vocoder works really well in death metal this gruesome?
16. ASSUMPTION – HADEAN TIDES
For fans of: The band that immediately springs to mind when you see that familiar dot and curve in the Assumption logo… Aka Disembowelment. So, yeah, for fans of heavy music that reminds you just how great it feels to get mowed over by progressive death / doom with a strong funereal edge. Worth mentioning that Hadean Tides does manage to up the ante in terms of the progressiveness compared to their primary influence, so a simple Xerox this certainly is not.
15. SIGH – SHIKI
For fans of: Dramatic, unpredictable black metal tailor-made for those who might wear a Nuclear Assault Survive shirt on Monday, a King Diamond Conspiracy shirt on Tuesday, a Melvins Lysol shirt on Wednesday, a Nile Nephren-Ka shirt on Thursday, and Mr. Bungle knee-high socks on Friday. Weekends, on the other hand, are for wearing matching Sigh shirts with your shnookums while getting delicious dumplings. Bonus: the drumming on this record is mind-bendingly good.
14. ENCRYPTMENT – DÖDENS FÖDSEL
For fans of: Death metal that not only avoids cutting the crust off the sandwich, it chooses to highlight the crust that serves to house all the other super tempting and delicious deathly ingredients that happen to fall in-between those pieces of super crusty crust. In other words, it’s crusty death metal. It also happens to be meaner than a Rottweiler with a toothache.
13. AUTOPSY – MORBIDITY TRIUMPHANT
For fans of: Autopsy, dummy! And for fans of fashion shows that involve couture gowns carefully stitched together with the faces of a hundred poor souls who are subsequently doomed to hang faceless and upside down from trees afterwards. As our dear friend Tim Gunn would say: “Make it work!”
12. SONJA – LOUD ARRIVER
For fans of: Super catchy, riffy, gothy trad metal whose closest kinship might be “the last Henrik Palm record, 2020’s Poverty Metal, but swap out the stronger underscoring of beefy post-punk for the glitzy finger-gloved sleaze of early Ratt. U got it, baby.”
11. VOIVOD – SYNCHRO ANARCHY
For fans of: Um, Voivod?—a band that’s been awesome since day one, and a band whose recent revitalization beginning with 2013’s Target Earth has found them producing a very steady and amazing run of smart, weird, punky, thrashy jewels fit for most any royal crown. Side Note: Do whatever it takes to see these guys live, because at some point in the show they will sneakily plant a chip in your neck that will in turn save you from the impending doom of the Earth at the hands of a quickly approaching aggressive race of aliens that look very much like massive praying mantises.
10. RIGOROUS INSTITUTION – CAINSMARSH
For fans of: Noisy, grimy, deadly gutter punk whose end result generates “an exceedingly fiendish, sometimes slow, sometimes wildly speedy, totally smoke-choked romp that feels more fearsome than Reverend Henry Kane suddenly knocking on your basement door at 3am.”
9. HEAVING EARTH – DARKNESS OF GOD
For fans of: Warped, immolative death metal that will put the ol’ soul in serious jeopardy when it comes time to explain your record collection to Saint Peter, but that’s probably just fine because Hell has a lot better shows to stream, even if it’s all scrambled just enough to make it impossible to see all the amazing boobs.
8. MORTUOUS – UPON DESOLATION
For fans of: Death… The brutal way. And for people whose idea of “a perfect evening involves sipping formaldehyde from swanky snifters while discussing the finer points of horrifically decomposed throwback bands such as Funebrarum, Static Abyss, and any of the relatively recent Danish invaders (Phrenelith, Undergang, Chaotian, etc.)” Another one o’ them records where the sound matches the album cover artwork, which is great news if you’re ready to burn is super hot fire for the rest of your miserable life.
7. ARES KINGDOM – IN DARKNESS AT LAST
For fans of: Battle-ready thrashin’ death metal that’s powerful and combustible enough to blow the doors off a bank vault. (But I definitely do NOT recommend using the record to help you rob a bank because that is wrong and you will definitely go to jail for a very long time. P.S. Shhhhh, the album is also powerful enough to blow the doors off a jail cell, but you didn’t hear that from me.)
6. SUMERLANDS – DREAMKILLER
For fans of: Ozzy’s Ultimate Sin, plus any heartening traditional metal that’s as melodic as pool party populated by 100 Yngwie Malmsteen clones. Bonus: Said party also includes a massive screen that features a looped clip of Tawny Kitaen straddling and dancing on the hood of that Jaguar from the Whitesnake video, because Dreamkiller is similarly Jaguared and danceable in a very 80’s metal video kind of way.
5. WORMROT – HISS
For fans of: Well, everything. Very literally everything. Very literally everything in the world is crammed into a giant meat grinder and hashed into a pulp that’s subsequently molded into whatever the hell we’ve decided to call Wormrot’s brand of mincing, scooting, crushing, thrashing, flapping grindcore. Hiss is likely the most adventurous metal album of 2022. If you don’t like Hiss, it might be because your ears aren’t screwed on tight enough.
4. HAMMERS OF MISFORTUNE – OVERTAKER
For fans of: Progressive, krauty, grim hyper thrash you can use to fuel the homemade rocket ship you built in the basement when you eventually launch yourself into the stratosphere because you simply cannot stand the thought of spending another minute with the rest of these hairless apes that insist on continuing to wreck our planet. Or, yeah, just put the CD in your player and listen to it like a normal person. I’m not the boss of you.
3. ARTIFICIAL BRAIN – ARTIFICIAL BRAIN
For fans of: Squiggly, deliciously distinct death metal that sounds like it was made by aliens who have every right to take over the Earth and turn it into a hugely entertaining water park where humans are served fried and possibly on sticks from various food stands. Very sad to see vocalist Will Smith go. Not that Will Smith, you lunkhead.
2. THE CHASM – THE SCARES OF A LOST REFLECTIVE SHADOW
For fans of: Authentic metal of death that roars from a cosmic void with the raw force of 10,000 collapsing stars. So, yeah, be careful playing it at your cousin’s quinceañera, unless you feel like dialing up the party to a point where the planet suddenly folds in on itself. You know, there’s something about the way The Chasm crafts death metal that makes it feel as if they already have knowledge of what happens to the human race once we’re finally wiped clean from the Earth.
1. BLIND GUARDIAN – THE GOD MACHINE
For fans of: Righteous and powerful power metal, righteous and powerful science fiction, righteous and powerful fantasy, righteous and powerful video games, and righteous band members who very clearly prefer to inspire their listeners to feel very powerful. It is wonderful to hear Blind Guardian getting back to ass-kicking basics. Not that they haven’t always done so, but this record reconnects them with their speedier roots in a way that doesn’t really sound like a retread.
25 WONDERFUL ALBUMS OUTSIDE OF METAL THAT WERE INSTRUMENTAL IN HELPING ME PLOW THROUGH 2022:
THE CULT – UNDER THE MIDNIGHT SUN
Not sure you’ve noticed this yet, but The Cult is back on an upswing again. 2012’s Choice of Weapon was good, 2016’s Hidden City was good, and Under the Midnight Sun is even better. In fact, after spending the better part of the last two months going fairly bananas over it, at this point I foresee Midnight Sun getting as much play as their classics. There’s a bit more of a smoky, weathered warmth to things in 2022, and certainly a stronger lean on their gothic tendencies—precisely what I prefer from The Cult moving forward.
• Genre: Gothic rock, baby
A-Z – A-Z
“The songs here are direct (each track under 6-minutes), heavy on hook, and all the players are clearly operating at peak levels. Jump back to the days when the upper end of the FM dial dominated cars and clock radios across the land—where acts such as Journey, Saga, Triumph and Asia (whose logo must have inspired A-Z) heartened rockers with anthems like ‘Just the Same Way’, ‘On the Loose’, ‘Fight the Good Fight’, and ‘Heat of the Moment’—and much of what’s found on this record could have snuck its way right onto that coveted playlist.”
• Genre: Proggish arena rock
DELVON LAMARR TRIO – COLD AS WEISS
Any record from the Delvon Lamarr Trio can be used as a mighty weapon against grief, gray days, or any general feelings of negativity that find a way to snake into your life. You will think of all the funky organ greats while spinning a record like Cold as Weiss—Lonnie Smith, Jimmie McGriff, Jimmy “Hammond” Smith—and you will absolutely walk away from the record feeling a hell of a lot lighter and better than you did 40 minutes earlier.
• Genre: Funky funken jazz
DISSOLUTION WAVE – CLOAKROOM
Something I always remember about my grandma’s house back when I was a little kid was this big deep freezer she had in a funny little hallway that lead to the bathroom my brother and I used when it was time to work the grime off in the tub. Whenever I had to wait for my brother to go first, I’d lean on the one spot on that ol’ freezer that hid the motor, and I’d marvel at how something meant to keep everything frozen could manage to have a really nice warm spot that hummmmmmmed and made the waiting something I actually enjoyed. Cloakroom is the musical equivalent of that nostalgic memory.
• Genre: Warm, hummmmmming indie rock
GIMMEK – SONIC POETRY
There’s a scene in Seinfeld where Kramer decides to pack up and head to California to pursue an acting career, and he’s driving along sklippity-blippity-sclap-skiddily-dooping to some bouncy, unspecified music and just having the time of his life before his car absolutely shits the bed. (Of course.) That scene quickly comes to mind every time I hit play on Gimmik’s Sonic Poetry. As blippity-bloop as that first song is, though, the rest of the record offers up a full gamut of moods equally ready to serve as the perfect backdrop for a long, adventurous trip across the country.
• Genre: Glitchy electro blippity-bloop
ESPEN ERIKSEN TRIO – IN THE MOUNTAINS
In the Mountains is a record that feels mostly hushed and comforting and sympathetic, which is precisely what I’ve needed the most in 2022. It’s also a live recording, which caught me off guard at first, because it takes about 25 minutes before you finally hear evidence of this. Ultimately, this is testament not only to the quality of the overall recording, but to the fluidity and skill level of the players who interact with a precision you’d normally expect to get ironed out in some fancy studio. Oh, and the record closes with a cover of “Rosemary’s Baby,” which is just… Are you kidding me?
• Genre: Wait, this is a live jazz album?
GRIVO – OMIT
If you’ve ever found yourself wishing you could track down more of the hushed, sullen 90’s shoegaze you once used as a soundtrack for moodily staring out a window on a cold, damp afternoon wondering if the person you have a crush on even knows you’re alive, Omit is absolutely your huckleberry. Grivo’s approach also underscores the shhhhhhhhh in shoegaze, so bonus points for those who like it extra blurry.
• Genre: Shhhhhhhhhhhhoegaze
KING’S X – THREE SIDES OF ONE
Three Sides of One is just the first new King’s X material in nearly 15 years, so no big deal. To be perfectly honest, though, my initial spins didn’t incite the level of flips I was desperately hoping for, as the record doesn’t emphasize the vocal talents of singer / bassist Doug Pinnick enough. That’s not meant as a slight to his bandmates, I just think Pinnick’s voice is one of the best and most underrated in music today. Over time, that unmistakable King’s X hook did indeed work the necessary sorcery to keep me reaching for the record again and again, so now I’m ready for more. Please, please don’t make us wait another 15 years.
• Genre: Progressive hard rock we’ve waited way too long to get
NILS FRAHM – MUSIC FOR ANIMALS
This record is 3 hours long. Crazy, right? Yeah, it’s definitely crazy, but I’ve listened to it start to finish quite a few times since its release in September. Music for Animals is quiet, gradual, drifting, and graciously contemplative, so it’s perfectly suited for playing in the backdrop while working or just sitting around. But then… there are these moments—tons of moments, really—where something truly captivating gently floats into the picture to draw your attention more willfully, leading to these wonderfully relaxed stretches of calm reflection that do wonders for sorting an untidy mind. From Frahm himself: “Some people like watching the leaves rustle and the branches move. This record is for them.”
• Genre: How can a 3-hour ambient record sound too short?
GERALD CLAYTON – BELLS ON SAND
I love it when jazz bends and plays with classical touches to give things a very cinematic feel, which is precisely what’s on tap with the wonderfully immersive Bells On Sand. The record was naturally shaped and polished amidst the pandemic, so the overall mood is predictably solemn and reflective, but moments of bright warmth do indeed burst through, and Clayton opts for quite a number of unique refinements—vibraphone, light vocals, purring organ—that do wonders for dressing the corners.
• Genre: Cinematic, contemplative jazz
PJUST, CHIHEI HATAKEYAMA – SVABERG
Quiet, brain. Quiet. Shhhhhhh, everything’s going to be alright. Let’s just shut out all those external distractions and hardships in favor of gently drifting over the most charming landscapes imaginable. That’s it. Doesn’t the sea air feel wonderful swirling across the ol’ gray matter? Just tranquil, comforting drift, old friend.
• Genre: Ambient bliss
RAUM – DAUGHTER
Attach the name Liz Harris and Grouper to most any project and I will absolutely pay attention. She’s teamed up with fellow experimental musician Jefre Cantu-Ledesma in Raum, and with Daughter the two deliver a sorrowful and sympathetic ode to a fellow artist, film-maker Paul Clipson, who passed away amidst the creation of the record. Fittingly, Daughter conjures sharp visual elements just as strongly as it does blurry atmosphere as the tracks seamlessly and slowly drift past.
• Genre: Dreaming of eulogies
JOEY ALEXANDER – ORIGIN
When I was 19, I was trying to find ways to sneak beer into the park without getting caught. Indonesian pianist Joey Alexander, on the other hand, is cranking out jazz records that become indispensable openers to my day. This is the first time Alexander has written every tune for one of his records, and the results are nothing short of a curative balm for the weary heart, especially that four-song ode to the changing of the seasons that feels like the true nucleus of Origin. He may still be a teenager, but the music Alexander creates feels like it carries the reflectiveness and wisdom of a soul three times his age.
• Genre: Some teenagers make beautifully reflective jazz instead of staring at youtube all day
SACRED SKIN – THE DECLINE OF PLEASURE
There’s clearly no shortage of projects across all genres exploring the full spectrum of 80’s music, new wave akin to The Decline of Pleasure obviously included. What sets LA’s Sacred Skin apart, though, is their choice to underscore an extremely nostalgic and wailing guitar tone directly alongside all that tasty synth-pop. The result is something that screams “flipped collars, John Cusack films, the good years of U2 colliding with Duran Duran, and truckloads of L’Oréal mousse” all swirled together under the familiar blanket of night. Just a huge album.
• Genre: New wave 4 moussed mullets
THE SMILE – A LIGHT FOR ATTRACTING ATTENTION
I realize what I’m about to say could land me in more than a few crosshairs, but I never really connected with Radiohead before 2022. However, after having my bell properly rung by A Light for Attracting Attention, I now own the full Radiohead discography. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together? Funny thing is, I didn’t even know who was involved when I first encountered the record, but I do remember thinking, “Whoa, these guys must really like Radiohead.” Embarrassing.
• Genre: An alternative to Radiohead
RIVAL CONSOLES – NOW IS
Much of what I listen to when it comes to ambient and electronic music ends up highlighting elements that sprawl, drone and casually explore, but what I really appreciate about Now Is is how sort of structured and direct the album feels. Like, in a certain light, and with a couple little tweaks, these songs could easily transform into a full set of moody Depeche Mode songs.
• Genre: Tidy synth-pop
TEARS FOR FEARS – THE TIPPING POINT
I had a mostly secret affair with Songs from the Big Chair back in 1985. One of those relationships where the cassette was heavily featured in my Walkman, but I always told my buds I was spinning Powerslave or The Spectre Within. If you’re an old ’head, you probably get where I’m coming from. We all had our secret bands. Luckily, I quickly came to realize there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, just music you love that fits whatever mood you happen to be in, and that TfF mood is still with me almost 40 years later. Knowing this, it probably goes without saying that I was extremely excited for The Tipping Point, the first new material from the band since 2004’s Everybody Loves a Happy Ending. The even better news is that I’d be just as likely to hand this record over to a curious ear as I might any of my other TfF favorites, which is testament to its greatness.
• Genre: Big sweatercore
JOEL ROSS – THE PARABLE OF THE POET
The Parable of the Poet is just such a curatively soulful and beautifully encouraging record, one can’t help but walk away from these 50 minutes feeling a whole lot better about… Well, everything. Ross’s splashy vibraphone provides the golden foundation, but the people he surrounds himself with here play such a crucial role in the record’s overall sense of spontaneous intimacy that the project should probably be called Joel Ross & Friends.
• Genre: Jazz that has so much love to give
OPUS 5 – SWING ON THIS
Swing On This is the sort of record that understands just how necessary it is to have a few arrows in the quiver that offer up a bright, buoyant hard bop that’s capable of bouncing the listener out of bed when the winter frost and doldrums strongly suggest otherwise. It’s not exactly exhaustive energy 100% of the time—“Moonbay” and “Sight Vision” are tempered for night—but no matter the pace, the mood here always feels splendidly optimistic.
• Genre: Get your ass out of bed jazz
KIT DOWNES, PETTER ELDH, JAMES MADDREN – VERMILLION
Vermillion is the sort of record I like listening to early in the morning as I watch the chickadees, juncos, and sparrows bump around from branch to branch. It’s quiet, playful and gracefully sparse, and it paints the sort of picturesque landscapes that remind the listener that busy city life ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
• Genre: Tufted Titmouse jazz
VELDUNE – VELDUNE
Everything about the look and feel of Veldune pegs it as something that’s perhaps intended to remind us of living in the ‘80s and loving art rock and the earliest rendering of MTV’s 120 Minutes. I mean, maybe? But it actually doesn’t, as nothing about this record feels dusty or done before. Still, anyone with a deep appreciation for bands such as Lush and Cocteau Twins will certainly find plenty to love here, and the fact that the band is helmed by Jamie Myers (Hammers of Misfortune, ex-Sabbath Assembly) and Kevin Hufnagel (Gorguts, Dysrhythmia, Vaura, ex-Sabbath Assembly) makes it all the more intriguing.
• Genre: Modern progressive dream pop. Maybe?
KOKOROKO – COULD WE BE MORE
London jazz fusion collective Kokoroko produce the sort of lavish, sometimes funky, occasionally trippy, decidedly ‘70s-throwback cinematic scores that feel custom-built for anyone who prefers the general mood of the day to remain highly positive and… well, pretty high. You know the scenes from Enter the Dragon where Bruce Lee and Williams are too busy being tremendously cool and smooth to fight? That is Could We Be More in a nutshell. Feel free to supersede that film with any of your preferred ‘70s-inspired trips to obscure islands, as long as it’s built on a foundation that’s as deadly-smooth and untouchable as a king cobra draped over Idris Muhammad’s shoulders.
• Genre: Nothin’ can mess with my vibe jazz fusion
TRISH CLOWES – A VIEW WITH A ROOM
Improvisational jazz ain’t always the most easily digestible form of music, but anyone who thinks it’s only about skittering cat yowling needs to shove a record like A View with a Room into their ears to help understand the results can be very charming, organic, and even tidy. Of course it helps that the record isn’t fully improvisational—saxophonist Trish Clowes wrote the music for a series of lock-down streaming events—but there’s plenty of room allowed for coloring outside the lines by Clowes and her gifted bandmates: guitarist Chris Montague, pianist Ross Stanley, and drummer James Maddren.
• Genre: Clean improv jazz
ALVVAYS – BLUE REV
Everything about Blue Rev reminds me of Merge or Caroline Records circa 1993, as both labels would’ve absolutely killed to have a record like this on their roster back then. That’s my way of saying if you count the likes of Codeine, Walt Mink and Drop Nineteens as nostalgic must-haves, Alvvays and Blue Rev need to find a way into your life. Hell, even if those band names mean nothing to you, Blue Rev needs to ping your radar if you like the idea of supplementing a breezy mood with jangly alt-pop with enough hook to stick to your brain for days on end.
• Genre: Jangly 90’s alt-pop
TYSHAWN SOREY TRIO – MESMERISM
My first introduction to Tyshawn Sorey was through the walloping one-two punch of 2016’s Verisimilitude and 2017’s The Inner Spectrum of Variables, both of which throw down an incredibly dense, dramatic, and cinematic style of jazz / classical that feels formidably fit for something out of a Stanley Kubrick trip. By contrast, Mesmerism is a much more straightforward and quiet affair by design, finding Sorey and his partners—Aaron Diehl (piano) and Matt Brewer (a particularly spongy bass)—offering up stylish interpretations of classics from Ellington, Horace Silver, Bill Evans, fellow drummer Paul Motian, and Muhal Richard Abrams. The results are extraordinarily narcotic and, for lack of a better word, cool.
• Genre: The more straightforward face of Tyshawn Sorey