2022 was a strange year for many reasons, as I’m sure most year end lists are noting. Personally, a large source of weirdness is how many of my most anticipated albums are not making an appearance on this list. Blind Guardian is back in my good books after that disastrous orchestra business, but “The God Machine,” while enjoyable (this is Blind Guardian after all), failed to hold my attention. Similarly, I love all the sounds on Septicflesh’s “Modern Primitive” but the album doesn’t grab me or really add anything new. Rammstein’s offering was a disappointing step down from 2019’s self-titled tour de force. I know I listened to “Zeit” but so little of it stuck with me I can hardly comment. I’m a Ghost apologist in general but was underwhelmed by “Impera.” Amon Amarth sounds like they’re back to making an effort, but still not doing their best work. If you already like any of these bands you should still check out the albums, perhaps you will disagree with me, but I tend to expect a little more from big names if they want to earn a place in the top ten.
With so many heavy hitters falling short, you’d think that would make it a grim year, but the silver lining is that more attention is falling on lesser known bands, and up-and-comers who are injecting excitement and innovation into their subgenres. There were also a couple of pleasant surprises, so while I listened to far fewer albums than I wanted to this year (thanks, long-covid brain-fog), I still found many fun and interesting things to recommend. I also look forward to reading everyone else’s year end lists to find out which gems I missed!
Before we get going, I want to give Honourable Mentions to Planeswalker, Lords of the Trident, Battle Beast, and Visions of Atlantis for four very different flavours of fun. Optimistic power metal that doesn’t take itself overly seriously is exactly the energy I needed to get through the tougher parts of this year.
Anyhow, on to the countdown!
10. Stratuz – Osculum Pacis
This Venezuelan melodic death metal outfit was a new one to me, which surprised me until I learned it has been 22 years since their last full length album (and 16 since their last demo). They are definitely for fans of Septicflesh, but more melodic and not as heavy. Stratuz incorporates a lot of gothic-style clean singing which is not usually my favourite, but they make it work well and keep things interesting with a variety of instrumentation.
Standout Tracks: “Morning Star,” “Holy Grail,” “Caelibatus”
- Riverwood – Shadows and Flames
Riverwood’s Jan 7th release was my first exciting listen of the year and has had staying power in my rotation. The Egyptian progressive folk metal band’s second full length release would honestly be higher up my list if they had not made the bewildering choice to open their album with a cover of “The Dragonborn Comes.” It is enjoyable, but also has been covered to death and would fit much better as a bonus track or b-side. That said, once the album itself starts in earnest, there is a lot to recommend and it builds in excellence as it goes. I am a sucker for strings and those are here in abundance, along with satisfyingly rumbly drums, spidery bass, engaging solos, and rich vocals. Check this out if you enjoy Orphaned Land, Ignea, or epic symphonic melodic folky things in general.
Standout Tracks: “Sands of Time,” “Lustful Temptation,” “Rise of the Fallen,” and also “The Flame” even though it’s just an interlude.
- Verikalpa – Tunturihauta
Verikalpa is one of those bands that is exactly what it says on the tin. In this case the tin says Finnish Folk Metal. This is not a bad thing, however. Their sound may be easy to describe but they do it very, very well. This is for fans of Korpiklaani and Ensiferum, not just because those are the biggest Finnish folk names, but because they are on a level with both and their sound is somewhere between the two. This album is for people who wish Korpiklaani was a little heavier or wish Ensiferum was a little rougher or folkier. I love both aspects, so this balance is excellent and very fun. I look forward to more from them and would not be surprised if they become one of the big names of the genre.
Standout Tracks: “Raivokansa,” “Jotunimmalja,” “Taisto”
- Bloodywood – Rakshak
I struggled a little with this release at first. I first heard of Bloodywood 4 years ago when their “Indian Street Metal” cover of “Ari Ari” took certain corners of the internet by storm. Though it was sent to me about 347 times, I couldn’t get tired of the sheer excitement they ignited in people with both their concept and catchyness. When they followed it up with “Jee Veerey,” an original song dealing with mental health, I think we collectively realised something very cool was forming.
In the intervening years several more singles were released, and those form the bulk of this album. Not counting “Dana-Dan,” released the same day as the album, six of the tentracks were songs I had listened to countless times previously. This made it a little tricky to approach the album as a whole and not just a compilation of songs, but having let it sit a little before revisiting it with fresh ears, I’ve decided I’m impressed.
“Rakshak” flows well as an album and showcases the variety of Bloodywood’s style – from the fury of “Dana-Dan” to the tenderness of “Yaad”. Whether you want to rage at the system, reflect on life’s struggles, or just headbang while dancing to bhangra, there’s something here for you. Bloodywood is also not shy about subject matter dealing with political or social issues at home and abroad, which I think is a major aspect of their wide reaching appeal. Their unconventional path to success also highlights that the expected order of operations in a band’s career is not carved in stone. Playing Wacken Open Air before releasing a full length album is, as far as I’m aware, a first.
Whatever your feelings about their nu metal influences, there’s no denying these lads are shaking things up in several interesting ways. Definitely, as cliche as it sounds, a band to watch.
Standout Tracks: “Aaj,” “Machi Bhasad,” “Jee Veerey”
- Gothminister – Pandemonium
Gothminister came straight out of left field with high energy, heavy, gothic industrial metal. Established in 1999 and with a name like Gothminister, I was expecting something a lot cheesier than I got from this Norwegian project. Tinged with electronic influence as industrial often is, there is still a full range of heavy elements. “Pandemonium” features headbang-worthy drums, crunchy riffs, and vocals that alternate deep and clear vs. ominous and grumbly.
Altogether, this album feels both fresh and familiar, nostalgia for my young goth-metalhead days meets my current love for well-combined, diverse influences. This is a full album of straight bops for fans of Samael, Rammstein, Deathstars, and even Powerwolf in some places.
Standout tracks: “Demons,” “Run Faster,” “Mastodon”
5. Firtan – Marter
Firtan continues to solidify their place as one of my favourite black metal bands by combining ragged vocals with atmospheric vibes and complex, catchy riffs. “Marter” shows them really honing their craft, though also leaning further into their post-black-metal influences. While this is a plus to many, it prevents them from being higher up this list as I think it makes their sound a little less unique. However, that point off for personal preference is the only criticism I have, as this is still a gorgeous and many-layered album. Dealing with philosophical matters and human struggles, the emotional honesty is palpable in both tender and tumultuous moments. “Marter” is a journey on both musical and conceptual levels, and it would not be an article by me if I didn’t complement the lovely violin work of recent addition Klara Bachmair.
Standout tracks: “Amor Fati,” “Parhelia,” “Menetekel”
- Ereb Altor – Vartigmman
Writing folk-tinged black metal about mythology, fantasy, nature, and feelings is a pretty good way to get on my list. That said, while I was already looking forward to this album, I got much more than I bargained for. I’m confident saying this is Ereb Altor’s best work to date, with more variety to their sound while still presenting a coherent album that ebbs and flows like a narrative. It is more melodic than their previous work, and they experiment with a variety of vocal styles which all come together into a truly epic sound. All the instrumental work is also richer in tone and complexity, and this improvement makes “Vartigmman” more engaging overall. This album takes Ereb Altor from “very good” to “great”.
I would also like to extend condolences to the band for the recent passing of bassist Kristofer “Mikael” Elemyr. I hope there is some comfort in his last album with the band being a great one.
Standout Tracks: “I Have the Sky,” “Alvablot,” “Ner i Mörkret”
- Sabaton – The War to End All Wars
A second, but very different, group of Swedish nerds from Ereb Altor. Sabaton frankly had me a little bit concerned when they announced their second WWI-focused album in a row, but my doubts were not realised and all expectations were surpassed. Sabaton pushed themselves with some new songwriting elements, which is always a pleasure to see from a band that has such an established sound. While this album does still have a couple of the bangers we are used to from Sabaton, it is also their most thoughtful work, with sound matching subject matter better than ever before on most tracks. The regular version and history version both have different strengths; the regular version is more fit for casual listening, and the history version is much more poignant and features extra opening and closing tracks that really book-end the concept and message of “The War To End All Wars”.
Standout Tracks: “Dreadnought,” “Lady of the Dark,” “Christmas Truce”
- Zeal & Ardor – Zeal & Ardor
Zeal & Ardor’s self titled masterpiece is only not #1 for reasons of personal taste. It is probably the most interesting and exciting metal album of the year, and an important one for anyone to check out whether they’re familiar with the band or not. Zeal & Ardor has graduated from an intriguing concept to a cohesive and unique signature sound that incorporates many more influences than their initial experiments. From heavier black metal tracks to electronic noodlings they are solidifying their place as one of the more refreshing bands working in metal these days. This album is an ideal entry point for new fans, and a welcome maturation for established ones.
Standout Tracks: “Emersion,” “Götterdämmerung,” “Erase” 1. Heilung – Drif
Self-described as “amplified history,” Heilung lacks conventional metal instrumentation, yet has found a place in the hearts of many metalheads. Textured soundscapes, interesting recording practices, and their general intensity resonate with fans of atmospheric and experimental genres, while their historical inspirations in both subject matter and instrumentation endear them to folk and pagan metal fans.
“Drif” is not only a step up in relation to Heilung’s earlier work, it is a standout album of the year by many metrics.
Conceptually Heilung has achieved exactly what they set out to do. “Drif” means “gathering,” and this album gathers from Iceland to Mesopotamia, and from the Bronze Age to the Early Medieval era. Diverse influences from archaeology and legend alike come together seamlessly to highlight our shared humanity and the interconnected web of cultures in the ancient world.
Musically, “Drif” is much more engaging than previous releases, while the songwriting is complex and deeply tied to the subject matter. “Tenet” structurally emulates a sator square, “Anoana” interprets inscriptions from migration-era amulets, and “Nikkal,” as the name suggests, references the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal, oft cited as the oldest known recorded melody, inscribed on clay tablets dating back over 3,000 years.
The last metric is more intangible and subjective, and that’s enjoyment. This album is an exceedingly enjoyable experience, ranging from ethereal and meditative to intense and combative to catchy and danceable. A must-listen for fans of all genres.
Standout tracks: “Anoana,” “Tenet,” “Buslas Bann”
Altogether, it was not such a bad year afterall, and I think metal is in a very exciting place moving forward. The phrase “make heavy metal about something again” has been pinging around in my brain for a few months now, and I think several releases this year reflect that in spirit. As much as I still adore many bands who stand around in the woods growling about snow, the truly innovative metal acts today are those who bring fresh sounds and perspectives to the community. Folk influences from a greater range of sources, not acting too cool for certain genres or influences, experiments in recording methods or career trajectories, and actually having something to say are the major takeaways from the releases that made an impression this year.