I feel like I say this at the end of every year, but this time, I mean it: 2022 was the strongest, deepest year for metal in recent memory. For each of the albums included below, there were 10 more that easily could have taken their place. Narrowing this list to a manageable length was a brutal task, and I lost sleep over all the great records that I couldn’t find room for. I finally did manage to get it down to a dozen, which are presented below, alphabetically by artist. Happy headbanging.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
There’s nothing academic about Ashenspire’s Hostile Architecture. The second album by the Scottish avant-garde black metal troupe is a leftist rallying cry aimed at the gut and the heart, performed so viscerally it practically demands action. Beginning with its title, defined by bandleader Alasdair Dunn on “The Law of Asbestos” as “another set of fucking homeless spikes outside another empty shop,” Hostile Architecture is as close as art gets to praxis. Dunn is angry, but he’s also inspired by the power of what he calls “the great many,” whether that’s workers standing in solidarity for a living wage or the enormous team of musical collaborators who helped him bring the album to life. His pummeling drums and frenzied, Devil Doll-inspired vocals propel songs like “Tragic Heroin” and “Beton Brut” forward, but it’s the heaving mass of the collective, all its churning guitars and violins, and saxophones, that make Hostile Architecture the anarchic masterpiece that it is.
The God Machine
Coming on the heels of 2019’s completely guitar-free Legacy of the Dark Lands, The God Machine may seem at first like a hard reset for Blind Guardian. Indeed, it’s the heaviest, most direct album the German power metal stalwarts have made in years. Yet it’s still subtly informed by everything they learned in their epic, orchestral years. Lead guitarist and primary songwriter André Olbrich sounds like he’s having a blast playing speed metal again, but he’s also become a brilliant arranger, and the canny detail work on highlights like “Secrets of the American Gods” and “Life Beyond the Spheres” helps make The God Machine much more than a back-to-basics nostalgia trip. Instead, it’s the culmination of their 35 years as a band, a modern classic they could only have made at this point in their career.
2 x Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), T-Shirt/Shirt, Sweater/Hoodie
The most potent weapon at Hath’s disposal on All That Was Promised is the album’s mix. The New Jersey death metal band builds moments so densely layered that they’re almost suffocating. Just when the claustrophobia threatens to overwhelm the song, the band pulls back, revealing the beating heart of a growled vocal line or a jagged guitar riff. Hath’s use of density as a lever gives All That Was Promised a dynamism that feels thrillingly physical, like a roller coaster that withholds its moments of relief until the terror is almost unbearable. They couldn’t achieve that effect without sharp songwriting and exceptional chops, and they deliver both in spades. Guitarists Frank Albanese and Pete Brown strike a balance between proggy exhibitionism and earwormy replay value throughout the album. The crown jewel is “Kenosis,” an aural illusion of a track that either feels like a strangely catchy prog-death song or a deceptively complex pop-metal banger depending on the light. Like the rest of the record, it rewards obsessive re-listening.
Acts of God
The Yonkers natives in Immolation have the reputation of being the nicest guys in death metal. You wouldn’t know it by listening to Acts of God, their 11th full-length suite of pitch-black blasphemies. The only thing that matches their kindness to fans and tourmates is their antipathy toward organized Christianity, and they articulate their sacrilege vividly here, with tightly wound hymns like “Noose of Thorns” and “When Halos Burn.” Founding members Ross Dolan and Robert Vigna haven’t changed up their approach much in their 30 years leading Immolation; Acts of God is as relentlessly dark and dissonant as 1991’s classic Dawn of Possession. It’s also very nearly as good. That makes them something like death metal’s AC/DC or Motörhead—a decades-long institution that continues to wring excellent material out of slight variations on a truly killer theme.
2 x Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
There’s a palpable warmth to Close, the third album by self-styled “scarlet doom” practitioners Messa. It’s there in the analog hum of Rhodes piano and the snarl of the saxophone, both introduced on the Italian band’s previous album Feast for Water, as well as in the oud and duduk passages that transport Close to a sun-dappled Middle East. More than that, the warmth comes from the closeness of the musicians, who waited out multiple COVID-19 lockdowns until they could record together in person. Close is nothing less than their shared energy, captured on tape. Songs unfold patiently, seemingly in real-time, as multi-instrumentalist Alberto Piccolo leads his bandmates through labyrinths of moody proto-doom and Bohren & der Club of Gore-style dark jazz. (It’s not all slow-going; the 45-second “Leffotrak” is a cold-water shock of gnarly hardcore.) Frontwoman Sara Bianchin completes the effect with a career-best vocal performance, her full-toned mezzo-soprano serving as an emotional beacon to guide the songs to the listener’s heart.
Ruins of the Moonlight Temple
Raw black metal, a genre now defined as much by the corner of the internet it occupies as the aesthetic properties of the music, is an overcrowded scene. Every week sees a new deluge of bedroom-recorded, provocatively underproduced albums with black-and-white covers and songs about vampires. Maybe five percent of them are any good. I don’t like to sound jaded; hearing new music is still the most exciting feeling in the world to me. But it’s become a bit much. That’s why I thank the universe every day for the existence of Nansarunai, the anonymous Indonesian project whose raw black metal represents the pinnacle of what this sound has to offer. Their debut album, last year’s Ultimul Rege, was a moving tone poem depicting the rise and fall of Borneo’s indigenous Dayak people, whose once-proud kingdom lent Nansarunai its name. Sophomore LP Ruins of the Moonlight Temple sees them expand on their vision. The album doubles down on Nansarunai’s now-signature blend of martial vigor and melancholic pensiveness. Musically, it sees the project’s lone member more confidently experimenting with melody and arrangements, adding complexity without sacrificing any emotional heft. It’s powerful stuff.
Nechochwen’s Aaron Carey has devoted his musical life to the history of his native West Virginia, especially the chapters involving its indigenous peoples. His Shawnee and Lenape heritage has guided the band since their largely acoustic debut, 2008’s Algonkian Mythos, and it remains a central influence on the blazing black metal of Kanawha Black. The title refers to a type of flint that local tribes used in crafting arrowheads, but Carey also uses it as an allegory for the black cloud that stalks West Virginia’s bloody past and uncertain future. That makes for a heavy listen, but no one is better equipped to bring this music to life than Carey and his longtime collaborator Andrew D’Cagna. With sinewy, melodic black metal riffs, blistering leads, forays into classical and folk guitar, and impassioned vocals both clean and shrieked, Nechochwen tell the story of Kanawha Black as only they can.
2 x Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
It’s impossible to talk about the Otolith without first talking about SubRosa, the Salt Lake City doom band who broke up in 2019 after a string of four striking, singular albums. Four of the five members of the Otolith were also in that group, including violinists/vocalists Sarah Pendleton and Kim Cordray. Their preternatural chemistry lives at the very center of Folium Limina, the Otolith’s stunning debut LP. Their violins weave in and out of one another’s paths, and their singing voices frequently meet in exquisite harmony. The rest of the band is every bit as critical to epic-length crushers like “Sing No Coda” and “Dispirit,” but it’s the pleasure of hearing Pendleton and Cordray playing together again that makes Folium Limina so essential.
Vinyl LP, Cassette, T-Shirt/Shirt
My favorite guitar album of the year is 劇變 (Jubian), the third LP by San Jose’s Ripped to Shreds. Its eight songs are home to, conservatively, two trillion perfect death metal riffs and a billion perfect leads. Founding frontman Andrew Lee is flanked by a full-band lineup for the first time in Ripped to Shreds history, which clearly helped. Without having to worry about the bass and drum parts, Lee was able to stay laser-focused on his guitar performance, and the result is jaw-dropping. His riffs are surprising and inventive while remaining firmly within the death metal tradition, and his buzzsaw tone is the genre’s platonic ideal. As a soloist, he’s even better, the brilliant phrasing of his lead work ensuring that even his shreddiest solos also function as melodic hooks. (Lee even has impeccable taste in guest spots; Churchburn’s Dave Suzuki delivers one of the finest solos on the album on “Violent Compulsion for Conquest.”) Even before considering Lee’s incisive lyrics on Chinese history and his own Asian American identity, Jubian is a scorching success.
For three decades, Sigh have been relentlessly, unapologetically themselves. Despite coming up in Tokyo in the early ’90s alongside fellow Japanese metal trailblazers like Abigail and Sabbat, the band led by Mirai Kawashima never really fit into their local scene—or any other scene, for that matter. They’ve made their home at black metal’s bleeding edge, endlessly piling alien sounds and textures onto their proggy, psychedelic songs in a fearless embrace of the avant-garde. Shiki is Sigh’s 12th album, and while it isn’t short on unusual sounds, it’s also perhaps the most emotionally direct album they’ve ever made. The title translates to “four seasons,” and Kawashima has remarked that, at 52 years old, he’s nearing winter. That gives Shiki a death-stalked feeling, even as Kawashima works through a battery of traditional heavy metal-inspired riffage and rapid-fire black metal vocal exorcisms. (The album’s eerie, glitchy electronics and doleful shakuhachi do a lot to balance the tonal ledger.) Death is inescapable, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying. Kawashima hopefully has a lot of years left, but by wrestling with his life’s coming winter in this music, he helps defang it. His generosity of spirit shines through on Shiki.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD), Cassette, T-Shirt/Shirt
Maybe it was a down year for traditional metal, or maybe Sonja’s debut was so damn good that everything else paled in comparison. Like it says right there in the title, Loud Arriver marks the, uh, loud arrival of a new force in American true metal. Fronted by ex-Absu guitarist Melissa Moore, the Philly band infuses their classic metal riffage with a healthy dose of ’80s goth swagger. That doesn’t make Loud Arriver spooky or shlocky but sexy, a quality that’s tragically rare in modern heavy metal. Moore is a natural frontwoman, and it’s her raw charisma that powers libidinous anthems like “Nylon Nights” and “Fuck, Then Die.” She’s gonna set you on fire.
Vinyl LP, Cassette, Compact Disc (CD)
There should be social media challenge where you videotape yourself trying to listen to Undeath’s It’s Time…to Rise from the Grave without a big, shit-eating grin spreading across your face. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it. For their second album, the Rochester death metal band made everything sharper and tighter and beefier than it was on 2020’s Lesions of a Different Kind. But more than any of that, they made it more fun. There are multiple songs on It’s Time about zombie cyborgs, and another where frontman Alexander Jones spells out “D-E-A-D” during the chorus like a death metal kindergarten teacher. Guitarists Kyle Beam and Jared Welch trade razor-sharp riffs and solos that have the muscularity of Corpsegrinder-era Cannibal Corpse and the pop sensibility of Judas Priest. Like those bands, Undeath have an innate understanding of the ecstatic potential of heavy music.