I’d originally written more than a thousand words for this space. I’d begun with “Somebody asked me early in 2022 how I define happiness,” and spent a great deal of words and energy then describing how I’d come to my answer. Turns out, though, that happiness is kind of complicated! It tends to vary by person and circumstance and I’d tried to address all the variables fairly and, it ended up, in vain. I mean, of course. And also I’m not the expert the world needs.
But I‘d had the idea to begin with that discussion because I think it’s an eminently relatable question and a really important one to how I experienced music this year, which is what this space is supposed to be about. I’ll spare you the amateur philosophical treatise and just say that 2022 must have been a pretty decent year, at least by late standards, because I was able to think about how to be happy, as opposed to wondering when it might happen.
Happiness, of course, depends on some basic necessities, including shelter, sustenance, and safety, and anybody taking those for granted is speaking from a place of profound privilege, historically speaking. I acknowledge that. With that established, I think I finally hit on how to know when I’m happy when I realized that, by and large and the odd shitstorm notwithstanding, I feel good about going to work and I feel good about coming home. I mean, in modern times, that’s it, isn’t it? Roughly two thirds of your life right there. That happiness is about fulfillment and meaning, for sure, but I think it’s even more about who I’m spending that time with. Surrounding myself with people who share my values and my passions and my joys, not to mention all the bad and sad shit (seriously, let’s not mention it for now).
But all that is just the fixins that add just a little more to those basics. The real key, the special sauce, at least for me, is music. Music isn’t all there is, of course; I share interests in lots of various things with lots of various people. But here’s the scoop: I don’t have a single meaningful relationship in my life that doesn’t involve music in one way or another and 2022 finally provided more opportunity for sharing and connecting in that regard than any of us had seen in a few years.
I stayed connected with my Last Rites pals and even got to raise fists and glasses with them on multiple occasions, including Maryland Deathfest and the Columbus, Ohio, stop on Iron Maiden’s Legacy Of The Beast World Tour (which, as an instance of fate’s cruel hand, was my first time ever! despite being a fan since I was 12). I even hoodwinked my good pal Andrew into seeing Dream Theater with me, a secret fantasy he’d be loath to admit aloud. I introduced friends and coworkers to countless heavy metal and prog rock bands and albums and discovered an endless well of amazing jazz and soul/R&B and alt-country in return. At home, I discovered the wonderful world of Japanese guitarist Kitaro through music discussions with my daughter and introduced her to the joys of classic jazz piano trios. My wife and I enjoyed 80s pop bands together on a level I’d never experienced in my life, because I’d been too narrow-minded to let them in.
But the single most important music-related development of my 2022 was my son’s discovery of his love for power metal. He’d already been drawn to Helloween through last year’s amazing reunion album, and he’d grown accustomed to Iron Maiden and a smattering of various power metal bands (but especially classic Helloween), but late this year, when the promo for the new Stratovarius dropped, I binged the back catalog and he heard a whole lot of that band in concentrated doses and I’ll be damned if he didn’t fall head over heels. All good dads want to be able to relate to something with their kids, but when the somethings include a thing that Dad already loves entirely? Holy shit what a feeling. Pure joy. It’s been everything I can do to temper myself so I don’t overdo it and make it more about me than him, but I have paid close attention to what he really likes and he’ll be getting Helloween – Keeper of the Seven Keys 1 & 2 tapes, a Stratovarius shirt, and an Induction CD and shirt for Christmas. Aaaaaaand, I’ve already purchased tickets for next year’s Helloween American tour.
So here I am at 700+ words, approaching where I was before I restarted, but I think this time I’ve managed to stay within my scope. A huge part of my happiness in 2022 comes down to music. Even my happiness at home and work are tightly bound to music – it’s a critical part of my commutes and there just aren’t very many minutes that I’m not listening while I’m at work and at home and music manages to find its way into so many of the sustaining interpersonal interactions of my everyday life that I can’t even imagine a day that wouldn’t involve it somehow. Hell, not too long ago, an old friend reached out via text from far away just to share that she’d listened to an album I’d introduced her to more than a decade ago and that still means the world to her today (I know you’re curious so it’s The Lone Descent by Of the Wand and the Moon). And looking up, there is an awful lot of I’s on this page, but I promise you that each of them reflects the light of a good person that reminds me my life is good, so this is all about them.
“Okay, but… the salad?”
The thing about microwaving your salad is that, when things are otherwise copacetic, it’s a thing you can take in stride. “Ah, wilted greens and hot tomatoes. Haute cuisine it is.” That attitude for some is natural and the envy of most of the rest of us who have to work at it. I guess this year has shown me more clearly than ever that keeping good people close and sharing the things that mark real value in your life just makes that work a little less difficult.
Here is a necessarily incomplete list of the music that made it a little easier to take things in stride this year.
Best Heavy Metal
20. Bríi – Corpos Transparentes
Bríi is basically one mysterious person in Brazil, serafim, whose Corpos Transparentes is weird and beautiful and akin in spirit to Thy Catafalque. A black metal scaffolding is latticed with an assortment of other type sounds that are both orthogonal on paper and complementary as executed: dance beats, ambient tones, (synthesized) chamber strings and jazz piano come together to create a wonderfully spooky and frequently cozy musical ghost story.
19. Stygian Ruin – Stygia I: Slumrende i hjertets mørke
Stygian Ruin, another one-person project (this one by way of Oslo), takes a different approach to the intersection of black metal and ambient music, drawing from Robert E. Howard’s Conan lore to make epic songs filtered through a lo-fi production that suggests a patina as old as the legends themselves.
18. Humanotone – A Flourishing Fall in a Grain of Sand
Yet another one-person project, this time based in Chile. Jorge Cisternas makes stoner metal that draws deeply from the same progressive pools as Elder. He hasn’t yet reached Elder’s level of craftsmanship and expertise but he seems to be less concerned with their greatness than realizing his own anyway.
17. Tómarúm – Ash in Realms of Stone Icons
Ash in Realms of Stone Icons would surely be several positions higher than this if voting were to happen today. Tómarúm’s second LP is a remarkable amalgam of metals as heedless of boundaries as it is aware of them. It’s a thoughtful existential meditation, dark and sullen and bright and beautiful and brutal and sophisticated and relatable and run through with contradictions, and whose emotional sincerity is as relatable as it is palpable.
16. Karcius – Grey White Silver Yellow and Gold
Montreal’s Karcius started out as a primarily instrumental jazz fusion band about 20 years ago. Since then they’ve added a singer and developed into a heavy progressive metal band that creates complex songs from just about every kind of progness imaginable and with a fondness still for the looseness of jazz, which can be a monumental task when the goal is listenable songs and they absolutely nail it on Grey White Silver Yellow and Gold.
15. Inanna – Void of Unending Depths
I listen to plenty of death metal, but I’m pretty picky about the death metal I return to very often and I think what brings me back to Void of Unending Depths is its allegiance to the basic tenets of death metal at the same time it imbues them with the free spirit of classic prog’s most intrepid explorers, like some chimeric creature of disparate origins that is also somehow Inanna’s unique instance of pure Death Metal.
14. Iron Griffin – Storm of Magic
I grew up in the 70s and 80s. Those decades were full of wonderful fantasy movies, including live action fantasy like the Conan the Barbarian, Dragonslayer, and Clash of the Titans, but also and especially those amazing animated films like Wizards, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Fire and Ice, and Heavy Metal. Listening to Storm of Magic now makes me feel like I felt then when I watched those movies.
13. Phantom Spell – Immortal’s Requiem
Immortal’s Requiem is a heavy metal nerd’s paean to the nerdiest music to have inspired the genre over the decades. Main influences are Kansas, Camel, and Wishbone Ash but the homage is clearly to the era more than any band and, most critically, these songs feel of that era, creations of a fan perhaps born too late yet bonded in spirit. This is another one that would rank significantly higher if the votes were cast today.
12. Darkthrone – Astral Fortress
Darkthrone has long been a curiosity for me; icon status in extreme music, clever and endearing main characters in Nocturno Culto and Fenriz, a unique sound and brave music-making spirit that has earned them a reputation as a vanguard force. They just never clicked hard enough to compel obsessive listening. This year’s offering, though, flipped a switch. Not sure yet what’s different about it exactly or if it’s somehow down to me, but Astral Fortress is weird and wonderful and I love it and that’s all I need to know for now.
11. Vórtize – ¡Tienes Que Luchar!
Good lord, ¡Tienes Que Luchar! is about as perfect a throwback you could ask for to the speedy fist pumping headbanging days at the height of the NWOBHM. Garage band production, anthemic melodies, and a searing twin ax attack, it’s all there. Javier Ortiz remembers the spirit best, though, as these songs rip and tear and soar throughout, conveying a strength that could only be born of the era of heavy metal most distinctly defined by reckless abandon.
Best of the Best Heavy Metal
10. Artificial Brain – Artificial Brain
It takes a good look to parse Artificial Brain’s death metal from their black metal, but that might just be because we’re a bunch of dumb idiot humans. By the time the robots overtake the Earth and relegate all the dumb idiot humans to the ash pile, it’ll likely be because all the dumb idiot humans won’t be able to tell themselves from the bots. And, judging from the gnarly cybernetic neural warfare on display here, they’ll probably be killing us with Artificial Brain the way the US Army blasted Manuel Noriega with AC/DC and Judas Priest and Twisted Sister until he and every other poor soul in Panama lost their damn minds.
9. Sigh – Shiki
Sigh has always been so cool. Weird and scary and brave and all the best kinds of wackadoodly avant-garde shenanigans delivered with the frenzied voracity of the vampire having lost his staid countenance to bloodlust. I don’t know how to describe the music that Sigh makes beyond the sort of boilerplate that follows them around the internet: black metal with avant-garde songwriting and the weirdness mentioned above. Thing is, they’re that but barely because they’re so much more, especially when you submit yourself, that they’ve become a thing unto themselves (see Dan’s review, linked below, for a wonderful discussion). What I know for sure is that they’re heavier’n shit these days and Shiki is so good as to render moot the little parade of descriptors that dog them; it’s not just what they do but who they are.
8. Voivod – Synchro Anarchy
Voivod is a Last Rites BFF. They’re one of the greatest bands in the history of heavy metal, after all, and we spent all of Valentine’s Day week expressing our undying love for them. I predicted in my review way back then that Synchro Anarchy would withstand and (big surprise), I was right. From my review: “In the modern context, Synchro Anarchy isn’t what too many metalheads would call groundbreaking but, heck, that might just be because most of the ground’s already been broken by now anyway (a lot of it by Voivod). It’s an amazing album, nonetheless, for what Voivod has done yet again with pieces that nobody else has ever figured out how to fit together, much less make art from. Drawing from early but earnest impressions, Synchro Anarchy feels like it’s going to settle at the bottom of the top shelf of Voivod’s best work, making it a great album by definition. Such quality artistic output at this stage would be an amazing feat for any artist who’s lived for so long at the vanguard. For Voivod? Pretty much same ol’ same ol’.”
7. OU – One
I caught up to OU a little late, but here’s some of my reaction from our Missing Pieces feature in July: “One is the debut album from Beijing’s OU, a prog metal band founded by NYC native and current expatriate, Anthony Vanacore. One is strange and diverse and dynamic and absolutely fantastic, a modern prog metal album that eschews the stereotypes and expected tropes associated with that label, even while capitalizing on its strengths. The musicianship is extraordinarily strong, sharp, and tight. The songwriting is superb. Ranging from pure prog metal to ambient experimentation, as those references suggest, the experience ultimately strikes a satisfying balance between structure and creative elaboration, the kinds of songs that tickle the artistic intellect without overtaxing it and adds up to everything a fan of modern prog metal could want.
And then there’s the wild card: vocalist Lynn Wu. OU’s musicians and their songs are top notch, and Lynn still stands out as the clear defining strength. She runs a fantastic range of tone and power, painting every song with an array of mesmerizing light textures, gossamer to vigorous and radiant. Lynn takes great songs and elevates them to the upper echelon.”
6. Threshold – Dividing Lines
Threshold is an all-time favorite of mine and they’ve earned it as one of the most reliably fantastic bands in prog metal. From my review: “As always, the songwriting on Dividing Lines is excellent. Guitarist Karl Groom and keyboardist Richard West have essentially perfected their formula, building structure that optimizes the pacing and maximizes the impact of the ear candy – the melodies and harmonies and leads and solos – and all of it in service of the larger song. Formula, of course, is all but anathema in light of the progressive genre’s spirit, but it also doesn’t have to equate to a formulaic outcome. The strategy at work here adds up to songs that feel both fresh and familiar and that breeze by even when they approach epic proportions. In fact, the longest songs on Dividing Lines, “The Domino Effect” and “Defence Condition,” are proof positive of the math, as each exceeds ten minutes while maintaining its vibrancy and allure throughout. At a runtime of over an hour, any formula’s going to be taxed to its limits but on Dividing Lines (again: as usual for Threshold) this one proves robust, keeping things interesting and engaging across all ten songs. This comes down to Threshold’s tripartite technique of songcraft: riff, dynamic tension, and hook.”
5. The Chasm – The Scars of a Lost Reflective Shadow
The Chasm is another of the Last Rites crew’s all-time favorites and a band that has delivered unparalleled death metal for nearly thirty years now. The Scars of a Lost Reflective Shadow is The Chasm through and through but feels like a fresh turn after 2017’s instrumental A Conscious Creation from the Isolated Domain – Phase I. Scars’ songs are shorter and the component pieces are more focused, sharper, more immediately deadly than usual, even as they conjure the same cosmic fire as ever. In fact, as fresh as it sounds, a great deal of its strength is rooted in what has been tried and found to be true. Man, when you can stick to doing what you’ve always done and still create something so vital and vigorous, you must be Daniel Corchado.
4. Ashenspire – Hostile Architecture
I had absolutely no idea what was smacking me in my face at the same time it fucked my mind when I first heard Hostile Architecture. And that was even after reading my friend zach’s excellent review of it, which is what made me want to hear it in the first place. Grounded in a severe black metal-industrial aesthetic, Ashenspire’s second record refers to the use of urban engineering to stay and ultimately grind down the most vulnerable and, thus, loathsome city dwellers. What really sets this record apart is its appeal to humanity within the bleakness. The vocals are in the sprechgesang style, lyrics screamed at averted eyes, and the discordant melodies are made with thrice gauzed guitars and horns in the avant/RIO style of fuck your comfort. I can’t imagine an album that conveys its subject matter better than this one. Hostile Architecture is without doubt one of the smartest and most compelling albums I’ve ever heard.
3. Loudness – Sunburst
I’ve definitely loved Loudness since a very long time ago. Akira Takasaki’s guitar has been leading Japan’s most iconic heavy metal export for more than forty goddamn years and has yet to show a sign of letting up. But let’s be honest: things turned south after his lineup was shaken up for a decade or so when their American fire died in the early 90s. And even since nearly the entire original members got back together close to two decades ago, this has been a hit or miss band. That’s really important because Sunburst sounds very much like an album only the best most authoritative Loudness could make. Sunburst is the equivalent of two full albums, where (very loosely) the first is a strong statement of modern relevance, whereas the second (again: loosely) is a wistful call back to the earliest of the band’s glory days. Throughout, however, the familiar listener will hear nods to all eras of Loudness and all of it equally awesome, because the mainstay of Sunburst is an earnest enthusiasm that transcends style and era. What an unexpected joy.
2. Stratovarius – Survive
I’d always liked Stratovarius but never quite fallen for them. I decided to binge the catalog when the promo for Survive dropped and fell harder than Yngwie falling for Yngwie. I listened almost exclusively for a full month and bought every album and along the way my son fell in love with them, too, and well, it just doesn’t get any better than that. From my review: “Survive is a faithful instance of the Stratovarius ideal; that is, as a product of a band that has endured any number of difficult circumstances, adapted, and emerged stronger for it, looking ever upward and onward. The theme is heavy and the lyrics have a darkness about them and so, in the context of so much that seems hellbent on rocketing us back to the Dark Ages, it may seem to be a hopeless lament or, worse, an opportunistic one. But, come on, this is Stratovarius. Look a little more closely at the lyrics to notice not whimpering, but a scream, a battlecry, a reminder that “survive” is a verb and, thus, requires action; to survive is to fight. From the moment the title track leaps from the gate, Survive is classic Strat symphonic metal, splitting the clouds to unleash the sun, all power and glory, because this album celebrates the indomitable human spirit. It’s absolutely remarkable, the consistency with which Stratovarius has and continues to produce the good stuff. Survive is mature and expertly crafted, which means it’s reliable and comfortable and maybe even familiar as any of their last few albums have been. It’s also strong and dynamic and smart and fun as hell, a true sign that Stratovarius is nowhere near giving up the fight.”
1. Hammers of Misfortune – Overtaker
I’ve lost count of the times John Cobbett and Hammers of Misfortune have made me say what the fuck?! To be fair, lots of bands have done that but, to be clear, none has so consistently done it so that my confused exclamation comes with so wide a smile. From the strange doomy minstrelism of The Bastard through the completely unexpected pastoral prog of Fields/Church of Broken Glass to the loving folk and hippie homage of Dead Revolution, all of it steeped in heavy fuckin metal and offering wondrous explorations of some of the best songwriting in all of our beloved genre’s history. And this year’s Overtaker out-WTFs them all by a long shot. We got the promo in October and I’ve listened to this album at least a dozen times since then and I’m still trying to figure it out. Lots of other fans have been, too, and the word I’ve most often seen used to describe it is “bonkers.” I bet Cobbett just loves that. Look, it’s still absolutely Hammers even as it feels brand new. It’s very obviously high quality musicianship and songwriting. It’s just how the fuck are they doing all that so fast and how are they making all those crazy sounds come together so that they seem cohesive and chaotic at the same damn time?! Anyway, they do and that’s what makes it so awesome.
10. King’s X – Three Sides Of One
Three Sides Of One is warm and lush and sometimes just really fucking heavy, the latter perhaps a reflection of the trials and tribulations in the way of this album finally seeing the light, but maybe a reaction to a world that just can’t seem to get off its bullshit; “I used to say that all we needed was love / Now I’m thinking that what we need is a flood.”
9. Porcupine Tree – Closure / Continuation
Porcupine Tree’s first new album since The Incident in 2009 was a welcome surprise (in March 2021, a full 15 months pre-release). When it did finally drop, it scratched the itches and even invited comparisons not only to some of PT’s best work, but Steven Wilson’s solo work, as well. It hasn’t had the legs I’d hoped for and that’s probably because some of the album’s best songs are only available on the bonus editions. Still a very nice record that I like a lot.
8. Tears For Fears – The Tipping Point
I’d secretly enjoyed Tears For Fears since way back in the olden days when I’d pretended to hate them, but I fell in love with this band after challenging myself a few years ago to really listen to the music I thought I hated from the 80s. The Tipping Point was a big surprise in general but its overall quality was even more of one. Tears For Fears is my wife’s favorite band so I took her to see them on this tour and it was a highlight of my live music life.
7. Karfagen – Land of Green and Gold
There was a time I would have called Karfagen a guilty pleasure, but fuck all that: I love Karfagen, the symphonic art rock project of Anthony Kalugin, a Ukrainian prog rock artist who narrowly escaped his home country with his wife and young son in the early days of the invasion by the world’s biggest khuilo. Kalugin is a master of the art of feelgood music-making and Land of Green and Gold is pure feelgood.
6. The Cult – Under The Midnight Sun
Man, there’s a lot of old ass bands on my lists this year. A testament to their greatness, I say, and there aren’t many bands that rings more true for than The Cult. You probably couldn’t count the number of amazing bands that have taken cues from The Cult. Under The Midnight Sun is cool and smooth and perhaps less of The Cult than what we’re used to but the way in which they step out of their own shadow is brave and rewarding to me, especially the latter half of the album where they get big and particularly sentimental.
5. The Tangent – Songs From the Hard Shoulder
Songs From the Hard Shoulder is what might happen if Steely Dan went full-on prog (and Andy Tillson did the singing instead of Donald Fagen). The Tangent tells wonderful stories, full of cynical and frequently self-effacing anecdotes and references to societal peculiarities. This album focuses those stories on pandemic experiences, tired by now for sure but here the tongue is firmly in cheek and joy extracted from ostensibly bad circumstances. So much fun.
4. Colour Haze – Sacred
Colour Haze, renowned for their immersive, warm, and fuzzed out stoner rock, gave us Sacred this year, which is (surprise) immersive and warm and fuzzed out, but also as heavy as anything they’ve done in decades. Because they’re masters of their craft, their craft remains impeccable, just this time a little more awe inspiring in the midst of the gentle storm.
3. Motorpsycho – Ancient Astronauts
Motorpsycho has been on a veritable tear of first-rate eclectic psychedelic stoner prog for about the last twelve years. And they’ve released five great albums in that microgenre since 2017. At their core, Motorpsycho is a band of musical chameleons, shapeshifting and colorbending to suit the fashion of whatever ‘shroom-induced muse leads them on the way to this album or that. How they manage to make the resulting music sound so organic and honestly conceived is a mystery but, if you think that’s impressive, notice how they stretch carefully structured songs into double digit minutes while remaining fully dialed in throughout.
2. Returned To The Earth – Fall Of The Watcher
The skinny on Returned To The Earth is that they sound like a cross of IQ and Airbag and, as these are a couple of my favorite prog bands, it only makes sense that they’d be on my radar. How they ended up so high on the ol’ year end list, though? Gotta be the songs, right? In the end, it’s always the songs and those on Fall Of The Watcher have a few things about them that make them special: 1. They sound familiar without aping favorite bands (those above plus Marillion, Porcupine Tree, and Pet Shop Boys; 2. They spread atmosphere far and wide; 3. They build to relatable emotional heights. Add to these an impeccable production and hooks for days, you get the second best prog rock album of the year.
1. Marillion – An Hour Before It’s Dark
The best prog rock album of the year and the record I listened to the most in 2022. I’d like to say I’ve been on the Marillion train since they fired up the neo-prog engine all those years ago, but I have not. I’d recognized the importance of the band from way back but it was this record that made me a fan and, since falling for An Hour Before It’s Dark, I’ve come to love other of their albums (some that I’ve known a long time) on a whole new level. What makes this new album work for me is the subtle strain of hope running through the characteristic Marillion melancholy, a lot of it coming from Steve Rothery’s imitable lead guitar, but mostly from Steve Hogarth’s wonderfully honest lyrics and first-take vocals; so real.
10. Aaron Parks – Volumes 1 & 2
Because these are reportedly impromptu recording sessions with Matt Brewer and Eric Harland, one might expect a very loosely focused jam, and there is that feel here and there but these are explorations of established works by the piano trio’s members and of standards so that flexible but reliable structure adds enduring strength.
9. Nduduzo Makhathini – The Spirit Of Ntu
I got my first (realized) taste of South African jazz this year, including Ayanda Sikade and this guy here. What I’ve heard so far is absolutely wonderful and I can’t wait to explore further. What I love in particular about The Spirit Of Ntu is the sometimes subtle but ever-present pulse of African culture throughout the otherwise classic take on jazz, which is apparently standard for the scene.
8. Gerald Clayton – Bells On Sand
Bells On Sand is Clayton’s pandemic album and you might suspect that based only on the music and your own context. These are intimate songs by a piano trio that includes Clayton’s father, John, on bass and great mentor Charles Lloyd as a guest, and you can hear the connection among them. The feeling of being in the room with the artist is a cliche idea but one that rings as true as ever here.
7. Mario Gaiotto – Cosmopaulista
Another piano trio, this one led by Brazilian drummer Mario Gaiatto. Like the Spirit Of Ntu record, Cosmopaulista melds jazz with the sounds and textures of the artist’s home culture and spirit and here that means a beautifully diverse array of musical features reflecting the rich multicultural landscape of Sao Paulo, yielding classically rooted songs boasting super sweet and sexy swingin’ beats.
6. Enrico Rava & Fred Hersch – The Song Is You
I didn’t know anything about jazz trumpeter Enrico Rava when I first heard this album but I fell in love instantly with his warm and friendly style on The Song Is You. In fact, the melodies and improvised figures he blows on this album make me believe the sentiment expressed in its title. These songs have convinced me that the listener, to Enrico, really is of a piece with his music.
5. Roberto Occhipinti – The Next Step
Still another piano trio, this one lead by Canadian bassist Robert Occhipinti and featuring songs he created from things learned across a wide array of experiences and a desire to reflect back his most important influences. The most striking aspect of this work, perhaps unsurprisingly, is how seamlessly Occhipinti folds in his contributions on bass ranging from bubbly and bendy classic jazz styles to the scraping and sweeping sounds following him from his time making classical and contemporary music.
4. Julia Hülsmann Quartet – The Next Door
Finally, a dang quartet! Pianist Julia Hülsmann brings along tenor sax with double bass and drum, creating songs that sound made by people who know each other really well and who enjoy pushing and poking at each other once in a while. The Next Door is friendly and playful and sometimes pretty darn artsy, abstract even, giving it something like the feeling of hanging out with your super smart and talented pals who are gracious enough to keep things accessible enough but once in a while can’t help but remind you with a wink and a smile that you can’t do what they do.
3. Midnight Smoke – Harlem Night Riders
Midnight Smoke plays what the kids these days call Doom jazz (ugh) or Noir jazz (minimally better). Even the band calls it that. I don’t care for the label(s) but I find the music to be incredibly cool. Harlem Night Riders is barely jazz the way Paul Hardcastle’s synth jazz was barely jazz, which is to say, it’s jazz, shut up. I really love the austere combination of synthesized ambient atmosphere and lonely saxophone that suggests the titular urban nightscape but could just as easily be referring to the subterranean darkness of colonized Ceres.
2. Avishai Cohen – Naked Truth
Trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s minimalist improvisational Naked Truth is a thing that sounds very much like its title reads. Beyond that, I can barely begin to describe this record with anything like competence. I can tell you that it reminds me a lot of Miles at his sparsest and most honest. And that when I listen, and despite these being songs with a lot of empty space (or maybe because of that?), I find myself noticing something I missed before and wondering whether it was actually there before, almost as if each next play it’s improvised again. Naked Truth is deep and simple and beautiful and complex and somehow alive and maybe that’s all one needs to know.
1. Tyshawn Sorey – Mesmerism
I’m new enough to jazz that I can only very rarely pick out a standard from an original composition, so I’m not comparing anything to history when I listen to Tyshawn Sorey’s trio playing an assortment of jazz masters’ songs on Mesmerism. I am comparing these songs to other jazz that I like and even love this year and these come out on top every time, and that must come down to the combination of pure talent among the musicians but, more than that, their chemistry, right? And that must be what Sorey meant when he chose that title: even world class musicians can be blown away, yes by the best of the best before them, but also by the product of their combined spellcraft, generating a greater magic than any lone wizard could conjure.
Thanks for being here, buddy. You’re the best.