I know Eden already made this comment in his Missive into, but…seriously? July already? Maybe it’s because 2020 felt like a time void and the universe is playing catch up (or something like that). As is our tradition around these parts, we’ve taken a collective look back at our favorite releases from the year thus far, many of which will make our proper “Best of 2021” post. Before we dive in, a few thoughts:
1. This is one of our most diverse lists to date. A combination of factors have led us here — officially dropping our “metal only” policy several years ago, recruiting a more diverse group of writers/listeners, our established staff growing their tastes, etc. There’s still plenty of metal on here, of course, but just look at some of the variety: an ensemble album that blends progressive electronic, spiritual jazz, and modern classical; an up and coming experimental rock group adding a dash of klezmer into their brand of art punk; an emcee bending the boundaries of hip-hop with elements of horrorcore, trap, industrial, and metal. That’s a pretty impressive array.
2. The “silver lining” of 2020’s musical output continues. We all repeated this line a million times to one another — 2020 was an abysmal year, but the crop of new releases was among the strongest in recent memory. That might have been a trend instead of an aberration, because this list is absolutely STACKED. Our staff converges to nominate a list of candidates when we form our mid-year list, and this year’s selections has both quality and quantity to an insane degree. We can only wonder what the second half of 2021 will have to offer if this trend continues.
3. A number of these releases won’t even make it on our final list. This is something that always hits me after we finalize the post and hit schedule. All of these releases deserve to contend for a spot on our official year-end list, yet it’s more likely than not that a huge chunk will be left off in favor of albums from the second half of the year. It goes to show why we do a mid-year list at all. Taking the time to pause and recap where we stand each year is a great way to prepare for our final lists, and more importantly, it gives us the chance to catch up on any highlights we might have missed.
On that note, take a dive below into our 25 favorite releases of the year thus far. Whatever genres you prefer, I guarantee there’s something below the fold that will pique your interest.
The Armed – ULTRAPOP
The Armed have become something of a genre-eating machine over the last six or so years, feeding post-hardcore, noise rock, math rock, and punk together into the business end of a mulcher and documenting the blurry, static-washed spray of humus that emerges. ULTRAPOP meets the Detroit collective at what seems to be a pensive and less overtly aggressive moment in their mindset, with the result being an album that leans a little harder on the traditional merits of songcraft than its predecessors. As the title suggests, what The Armed deliver here is a pop record in some form, but with everything cranked so hard into the extremes that the sound itself starts to collapse under its own weight.
Although ULTRAPOP plays a little less experimentally, structurally speaking, than Untitled or Only Love, outside the specific context of the band’s oeuvre this means very little. This is a crunchy, noisy, and energetic album, full of skull-smacking drum beats, multiple vocalists yelling their lungs out, and bombastic melodies all vying for your attention simultaneously. Adding to the slipshod chaos, the record’s production is completely brickwalled, turning each track into a blurry, dripping smear of gorgeous technicolor audio.
Despite the name and what may at first appear a more traditionally organized album than previous outings, ULTRAPOP is no less angry, no less furious, and certainly no less punk than The Armed’s past output. Instead of shaping sonic knives as they have before, here we see the group weaponizing saccharine sweetness. ULTRAPOP is The Armed sneering, beating the blunted edge of traditionally upbeat music into a caustic deluge of overwhelming brightness and energy. It’s raucous, loud, and intentionally without grace, but once you open yourself up to the acidic sarcasm driving this album, it’s pretty hard to put this one back down.
Dvne – Etemen Ænka
“Wow, Eden, you’re going to write about Etemen Ænka yet again?” Yes I fucking am, thank you very much, and you’ll like it. Jokes aside, I’ve probably written about this album more than I have written about anything else this year, album or otherwise. Hell, I’ve probably written more about it than most other albums this decade, with the exception of a few recent behemoths. This deluge of words is pretty easy to explain: first, it’s me. That’s sort of my thing, you know? But secondly, as I have written elsewhere, this is a result of a promise fulfilled, a potential lived up to.
I loved Asheran but it still felt just shy of greatness to me. Etemen Ænka is shy about absolutely nothing. It feels like Dvne coming into their own, spreading their wings extremely wide and soaring upon their sound. It feels wholly theirs where Asheran felt too concerned with paying homage and referencing the greats of the “progressive post-metal” genre that emerged in the beginning of the previous decade. Instead, Etemen Ænka is one of those greats, building upon the foundations of the genre to take it farther and further than it has ever gone before. OK, screw it, those are enough words; you don’t need 10K more. Just go and listen to this album, OK? Even if you don’t like post-metal, it has sci-fi, and sick riffs, and plenty of incredible lore to dig into. It kicks ass.
Yautja – The Lurch
Relapse is a legacy label for me personally. In my early days of exploring the various levels of extreme music, all roads lead back to them. When I heard they were going to handle the new Yautja, I knew it was not going to disappoint. On top of that, I knew that it would be universally loved by our staff. Top three for the mid year list? I would say so!
On paper, the album checks all the boxes that we all love. Noise, metal, punk, grind and sludge all rolled into one. If you were to put Burnt By Sun, Pig Destroyer, Dillinger Escape Plan and older Mastodon into a blender, you wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this chaotic, dissonant and dizzying record. For a three piece they are incredible and have the ability to create a wall of sound that just pummels you from the second you hit play. Yeah, it’s slow at times but don’t mistake that for melody. It is pure sludge in it’s finest form. The rhythm section just makes you feel like you are wading through the bog of eternal stench with no hope of ever reaching dry land. On their bandcamp page one of the descriptors is “heavy metal thunder” and that is a great way to describe it: one of the craziest thunderstorms you have ever encountered in your life.
There is a reason this record is so high up on the list. It is just so damn good and I am glad I was given the opportunity to write this one up (surprisingly my other album falls at the very tail end of the list but is still incredible). This band has been at it for over 10 years and I believe this is their finest work to date. I am very confident this will end up on my EOTY list when we get there and hopefully for some of the other writers as well. At 46 minutes and because of how dense it is, it will take multiple playthroughs to really soak in, but that’s okay because it is so good!
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises
I’ve spent the last year or so talking about albums that came at you as a flash versus albums that slowly grow on you. I’m a bit tired from writing about it but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, seeing as Promises is basically designed to be an album which grows on you. Everything, from the composition, to the tones, to the overall structures of the album, hints at the album’s cover art, layers underneath layers, hiding beneath the surface for you to discover. This means that it took some time for Promises to arrest me. Was this a classical music album? Was it jazz? Was it electronics? The answer slowly dawned on me and that it was all of those things and then some, conjoined by some miracle into an extremely moving album, once you decode its language.
Let’s take a step back here and look at the components which make up the composite that is Promises. First, you have Floating Points; he’s an extremely well known UK-based producer and electronic artist. Then, you have Pharoah Sanders; he’s an extremely underrated saxophone player (at least outside of jazz circles), who played with the likes of John Coltrane and led many, many, many of his own projects throughout his decades long career. And finally, we have The London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) the oldest and among the most well respected of London’s orchestras, celebrated across the world for their sound.
When you look at that pedigree, it seems obvious that the album would be a success. But I wasn’t even sure what success might sound like for an album like this and I sure didn’t know it would sound like this. Promises feels like walking through a busy city, constantly being introduced to new people, little corners of the street, buildings, events, and snippets of conversation. It uses the classical sound of the LSO to create the foundations, the cobblestones, the street corners, upon which the entire project lies. The recurring leitmotif of the album, around which the entire thing revolves, is performed by the LSO, as well as soaring strings which give the album its muscle.
Sanders’ saxophone is the language, the people you meet, intersections of jazz-y tone and improvisational style suddenly “invading” your personal space, appearing and disappearing to articulate different emotions you might encounter on your journey through this imaginary city. And Floating Points’ electronics are the clouds soaring through the air, the shop windows, the cars whizzing by, the ever present and entrancing details of the city around you. They’re the street itself, the bends in it, the unique walls and graffiti, the details which make the city vibrant and rich.
OK, I’m out of words to describe this album, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. Just listen to “Movement 6”. Or, better yet, listen to this album how it was meant to be consumed: in one, continuous sitting.
Pupil Slicer – Mirrors
In the post-Dillinger Escape Plan mathcore scene, there’s been a pretty large vacuum just waiting to be filled, and London’s Pupil Slicer is perhaps the best contender we’ve gotten so far in filling that void. If you’ve not been hip to the group’s debut album Mirrors at this point, then you’ve been living under a rock, and this is clearly your first time reading this website. Welcome!
Lead by guitarist and vocalist Katie Davies, this mathgrind outfit does indeed wear their influences on their sleeves: Dillinger’s stuttering and jagged riff exchanges, Converge’s hardcore ferocity, and Pig Destroyer’s love of grinding groove metal come into play at some point across Mirrors. To this end, “Husk” is one highlight that demonstrates some of the band’s breadth of sound, and includes a particularly unhinged vocal performance from Davies. She’s an absolute riff machine, and the support of the rhythmic powerhouses in bassist Luke Fabian and drummer Josh Andrews elevates Pupil Slicer to iconic levels so remarkably early in their career as a band.
For such an initial offering, it’s shocking how much Mirrors’ sound feels perfectly realized. There’s style and substance plenty; the panic chords and piercing wails are felt with the emotional weight they deserve, as Davies pens lyrics about serious mental health issues. Just look at the track list for some clues. An artist shouldn’t have to suffer for their art to be worthwhile, but Mirrors certainly reflects the cost of its creation. It also just so happens to be incredible, as it is engaging, inspired, exhilarating, and absolutely batshit
BRUIT ≤ – The Machine is burning and now everyone knows it could happen again
The lush halcyon days of modern post-rock are long behind us at this point, distant times when tales of awe-inspiring, emotionally overwhelming Explosions in the Sky performances still existed as whispers in the crowd, and future legends like Caspian, This Will Destroy You, Russian Circles, and Red Sparowes were still in their infancy. I was there and it was awesome, an exciting era where the music we were familiar with was being rethought, repurposed, and played back to us with enchanting passion and an exhilarating sense of purpose. Nearly two decades later the mystique has eroded considerably, and new artists need to put in some serious work to separate themselves from the pack.
In this pursuit France’s BRUIT ≤ has shone brighter than most in 2021 with this masterful 4-track LP. If I’m putting it in more eloquent terms, The Machine is burning and now everyone knows it could happen again expertly paints a broad canvas with a seamless blend of jaw-dropping dramatics, thoughtful soundscapes, skittering electronics, soaring crescendos, and heartbreaking melodies, all with a deft compositional hand that knows exactly when to transition from one to another. It’s as much a swirling maelstrom as it is a gentle embrace, and not many bands strike that balance as well as BRUIT ≤ does. If I’m talking straight from my guts I’ll just say that BRUIT ≤ explores much of what has made Godspeed You! Black Emperor living legends while omitting most of the droning, artsy horseshit that sometimes makes GY!BE difficult to enjoy (apologies to Godspeed, their new one is also on this list and is probably their best record since their return from hiatus, but c’mon, sometimes you need to try and remember that you have an audience).
Black Country, New Road – For the first time
The reception of debut albums is always a fickle beast. Sometimes they can be given some leniency due to it being the band’s first foray together, and there’s often that daunting fear that they’re the cumulation of a lifetime of ideas that have now been exhausted. But they can also set a precedent for everything that band will do afterwards. And my goodness, Black Country, New Road have set the bar very high for themselves. An ode to early post-rock acts such as Slint, combined with the ambitious experimental rock and post-punk of black midi and shame, For the first time is not only one of the best debuts of the year, but one of the best rock albums of the year. Kicking off with a bluntly titled opener, “Instrumental” is a bizarre and at times dizzying array of instrumental upbeat art punk and noisy saxophone. I hope this track is to this album what this album is to their career, one that sets the tone and piques interest, but doesn’t quite give away the artistic depth up their sleeves.
At times it feels like this is what it would sound like if Daughters wrote a post-rock album (something I’d also LOVE to hear) with the howling unsettledness of their compositions, use of dissonant atmospheric tones and vocalist Isaac Wood’s manic, monologuing near spoken word delivery. The vocals, while noticeably not for everyone are a large part of what is so entrancing about this album. His distraught accented timbre, and poetic nonchalance towards what’s enfolding around him is oddly comforting. “Athens, France” ups the post-rockiness with rising climaxes and the typical building through repetition motif. The violin-sax-guitar combo used for this is reminiscent of the underrated progressive post-rock group The Samuel Jackson Five. The single “Sunglasses” released way back in 2019 pumps some fun horn-accompanied grooves that will get your head bobbing, while gradually descending into an existential crisis – something of a microcosm of the entire album. For the first time is an unexpected artistic triumph and I can’t wait to hear what else they have in store for us.
Dreamwell – Modern Grotesque
It’s somewhat rare that a post-hardcore album, especially one so overtly steeped in emo/skramz influence, makes its way to the top of these lists. That’s exactly why I’m so thrilled Dreamwell’s sophomore album Modern Grotesque made such an impact on the Heavy Blog staff that we get to include it! The Providence-based band’s acquisition of vocalist Keziah Staska (The Navidson Record) was the cherry on top of an already extremely talented outfit, and Modern Grotesque is all the richer for it. Their animated delivery is visceral and engaging, an outstretched hand to the listener, beckoning us to bathe in the grit and glory of Dreamwell’s heartrending soundscapes.
Premier single “Sayaka” relishes in the hypnotic, melancholy push-and-pull of artists like Underoath, delivering both pensive, melodic grooves and panic-chord driven breakdowns ripped right from the mid-aughts metalcore banger playbook. The rest of the album can be compared most closely to acts like Pianos Become The Teeth, all bittersweet clean leads and crunchy rhythms dipped in delay, pained shouts and lamentations, and driving post-punk drums. Reducing Modern Grotesque to its parts truly cannot describe what Dreamwell does with them, however, as all comparisons fall short of what their sum total creates. I said it before when I reviewed the album and I stand by it now: Dreamwell have firmly stamped their name in the book of skramz greats with this release, having written the best genre album since PBTT’s 2014 record Keep You. It’s thoughtful, heartbreaking, and tastefully aggressive, with an enormous replayability factor that keeps you coming back for more. I truly believe Dreamwell has not yet hit their ceiling, and with a third full-length already well under way, I’ll be waiting anxiously to see how well they progress from here.
Panopticon – …And Again Into the Light
My personal “albums of the year” list is currently full of either new bands or longstanding cult artists that I’ve never got into before. Panopticon fall into the latter category. I’ve been aware of the atmospheric Americana folk black metal band since when I couldn’t understand why everyone was raving about Kentucky back in 2012 and, given that none of the project’s various genre descriptors are usually used to describe anything I enjoy listening to, I hastily filed it under the “not for me category” and more or less forgot it existed. Sometimes though there’s just something about a record that inexplicably pulls me toward it and demands I listen to it. Often these records end up becoming some of my favourite albums of all time. This happened to me with The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Ire Works (2007) and Bring Me the Horizon’s Suicide Season (2008), and it’s happened again with …Once More into the Light.
From the moment I put this album on I was absolutely flawed. “Transfixed” is an overused word within music criticism, but that’s exactly how I feel each and every time I listen to this record. There’s a palpable vulnerability and emotion to Austin Lunn’s vocals on this record that I can’t ignore, and which is both reflected and accentuated in the instrumentation. Even without reading its revealing linear notes, you can feel the emotion coming through the speakers on this record. …Once More into the Light is affecting in a way that I can only compare to mid-period Neurosis. This added layer of emotion is perhaps why my affections haven’t yet transferred over to Panopticon’s previous work. Yet, equally, it could be because they’re just not as good. There might be less experimentation and “progression” here for long-time fans of both genre and artist but, from an outsider’s perspective, this is the most complete and impactful atmospheric black metal/folk metal record I’ve ever heard.
Too often this style of music gives way to predictable crescendos and indulgent waffling, but every single note on …Once More into the Light is expertly placed and executed. Just when the album’s elongated intro has me at an emotional breaking point the black metal barrage of “Dead Loons” comes cascading down, dragging me rapidly and oh so willingly along with along with it. Although the album is characterised by its sullen, acoustic reflections, it’s more aggressive and electrified moments are equally sublime. It’s hardest hitting number, “Moth Eaten Soul” is genuinely apocalyptic, it’s climactic bells tolling an end to all competitors and creation itself. This is true catharsis, and once …Once More into the Light has you in its clutches it doesn’t let go.
Atvm – Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless
I’ve written a lot about Atvm‘s incredible debut death metal opus Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless. I’m going to write some more about it here, because an album this good keeps growing into something more special with each subsequent listen. In case it isn’t already apparent, I’m thoroughly enthralled by Famine, as are many on staff here at Heavy Blog. There hasn’t been a metal record this year that took me this off-guard or has provided the sheer amount of joyous headbanging that this has, and I’m nowhere close to tired of it.
There are several reasons for my continued enthusiasm. One of the primary ones is that Atvm are incredibly gifted songwriters. There are an absolute wealth of influences contained in each of these tracks, from acid jazz to psychedelic rock to thrash to brutal death metal. It’s all over the place, and I’ll be honest I’ve heard many bands attempt to meld these types of sounds before and far more than half of the time they sound like total garbage. Atvm bypass the chaotic shitshow that so often plagues these types of releases by constructing songs that flow with a level of symmetry and precision that we rarely see in this type of death metal. “Sanguinary Floating Orb” is a perfect example of this skill, marrying all of these elements together in a cohesive track that feels both unpredictable and deeply structured, making for a headspinning experience that keeps you hooked from start to finish.
But all the great songwriting in the world can’t mask poor musicianship or tacky production. You need talented folks to bring this robust a vision to life. Thankfully, both of these elements serve as two of Atvm’s greatest strengths. The instrumental and vocal performances here are absolutely fantastic, with each member of the band taking their moments to shine and maximizing them while avoiding the death metal pitfall of overshadowing other band members or instruments. This is avoided through some magical production work by Colin Marston and Jake Saunders, who bring out a crisp, clear sound that serves to both further highlight the madness while clarifying its intent. It’s one of the more essential production jobs I’ve heard since Defeated Sanity and Afterbirth blew my mind last year, and take a guess what all three of these albums have in common? You guessed it! Marston is well on his way to production god status, and in my mind he’s already there.
I could go on and on about this record, but I’ll stop here and just strongly encourage you to give it a listen. Like, now. It’s a rare treat when a band comes screaming out of the gate with something this utterly spellbinding and insanely fun, and I cannot wait to hear where Atvm take us next. But that’s in the future. Here and now, we have one of the best death metal albums of the year, and frankly one of my absolute favorites in any genre in that time span. Give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.
Blindfolded and Led Into the Woods – Nightmare Withdrawals
New Zealand’s deathgrind purveyors Blindfolded and Led To The Woods have been active for a little over a decade now, but their latest project Nightmare Withdrawals is proving to be a bit of a watershed moment for the outfit. Their third LP, released back in March, had a bit of a ripple effect that lead to much of us on the staff doubling back in full attention after former War From A Harlots Mouth and current Nightmarer bandleader Simon Haweman oversaw its North American re-release on his Total Dissonance Worship label in June. Not long after, the band announced their signing to Prosthetic Records, so get in on the action now, because stock in these kiwis keeps going up!
Nightmare Withdrawals feels like a rejuvenated take on mid 2000’s deathgrind from the likes of The Red Chord and Cephalic Carnage recontextualized in the contemporary dissonant death metal sound championed by Ulcerate and Gorguts. Skipping through the record, we get highlights like “Black Air,” which makes good use of creeping, arpeggiating riffs and precarious low-end that feels as if the song is collapsing in on itself. Just one song later “…And You Will Try To Speak” makes a break for an irreverent genre-bending post-rock instrumental section. “Atop The Wings Of A Magpie” is an absolute monstrosity of pulverizing rhythms and dissonant atmospheric guitar work that also features Nile’s Karl Sanders on vocals. “Rorschach and Delirium” is a favorite, seeing the band at their best with wonky angular guitar lines paired with the odd slam or two and cascading tempo changes finalizing in a low-key fusion solo. Yeah.
Really, Nightmare Withdrawals is everything you could want out of this corner of extreme music. The record is both forward-thinking and nostalgic in equal measure, with some of the more thrilling riffs you’ll hear all year. It also helps that the cover also features some of the best artwork we’ve seen in 2021 thus far and did its job as a headturner. Fortunately, the music rises to the occasion and is fast putting Blindfolded And Led To The Woods on the map.
The Flight of Sleipnir – Eventide
Sometimes, I think we all get a little too focused on the stereotypes of doom metal. A certain image gets built up over time that involves marijuana, psychedelia, and blues-based ideas. I know I’ve contributed to that myself, but that isn’t the whole story of what doom can be. While doom metal is the closest thing we have to the original heavy metal sound, it has evolved a lot over time. Soon after that origin story, it evolved to down-tuned fuzz riffs accompanied by stories of dragons, knights, or monsters in the bog. Modern doom can feel so far removed from that with their focus on an oppressive atmosphere and instilling emotion in their audience. The Flight of Sleipnir have a history of this kind of effort, and Eventide shows that off.
Atmosphere is really the name of the game here to me, and there’s a great reason for that. I felt loss, mourning, isolation, and the weight of inevitability all through the Flight of Sleipnir’s music alone. And when I say music, I mean the instrumentation. Like a lot of bands on the blacker side of things, they haven’t published their lyrics. I have a hard time understanding lyrics through harsh vocal styles, so everything I felt came from the songwriting, minus the lyrics, alone. That isn’t a harsh criticism. That’s huge praise. Few artists can tell stories and relate ideas simply through the rise and fall of music, so it’s an impressive achievement that the band could do something like that. That’s truly incredible to me.
Beyond that, you can plainly see that the band is telling you a story. There is a gravitas to every song that permeates the record and holds all the songs together. The six tracks of Eventide had to be together on this one album and in this order. Otherwise, it would just seem like a collection of songs. Even after my tenth playthrough of it, I can’t find the words to tell you what that connective tissue is but I know it’s there. This album is a single work that only makes sense in this format, and that alone makes it impressive. But it’s also the songwriting, the atmosphere, the production, the mixing, and the list can go on and on. In such a small space, it is difficult to narrow down to a single idea or even a group. It is one of the most complete and perfect records I’ve heard so far this year, and I would be utterly shocked to find it surpassed by anything else.
Stortregn – Impermanence
I think it’s time for me to confess that I like technical death metal. I mean, I haven’t been going around saying that I don’t like it, it’s just not one of those genres that I’d rank at the top of my list. Nevertheless, there appears to be at least one technical death metal album that I absolutely love almost every year, and often that number goes well above one. I think it’s true that I don’t like technical death metal in the sense that I don’t love the basic tropes of the genre, the way in which its promises and ideas are usually played. But inherently I do love what the genre is trying to do and where it comes from. When those goals are manifested in interesting and non-obvious, that’s when I start listening.
Stortregn’s Impermanence is an excellent example of this. The Swiss band’s thing is to take the basic technical death metal underpinnings that make up their sound and blend them with plenty of black metal. Sounds awesome? It is! First, you can hear this influence on the way more interesting vocals, going well beyond what the sub-genre usually dishes out. You have the deep gutturals you’d expect but also higher, more shrill and abrasive vocals. These are accentuated even more by some of the riffs, which toy with the higher pitched and “colder” sounds of black metal. Together, these two sounds make Impermanence sound like no other technical death metal album, affecting it at the deepest levels of how it works and sounds.
Finally, there are the numerous “folk” passages, drawing on acoustic guitars to create the somber atmosphere we’d associate with black metal. Actually, if you listen closely, you’d hear those acoustic guitars being used elsewhere on the album, alongside the louder and flashier main guitars, a fact which amplifies the unique and “wooden” sound of the band’s music even further. “Ghosts of the Past”, the opening track, is a great example: listen closely to the acoustic guitars which run throughout the track and give it that penchant, the extra natural kick that goes a long way to change up the timbre.
Long story short, this is one of the more arresting and unique technical death metal albums of the last year. The blackened elements do a lot to alleviate the repetitiveness that the sub-genre can sometimes fall into, especially when you take into consideration production and tone, which tend to run the same through much of it. Even as its own work, without considerations of genre and uniqueness brought to bear, Impermanence is simply a deeply satisfying and engaging album.
Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon
When they announced their hiatus in 2010, New York cybergrind innovators Genghis Tron were critical darlings coming off the album cycle for their sophomore LP Board Up The House, which is now widely considered an experimental metal classic. It mixed the abrasive and chaotic stylings of grind and mathcore with dual keyboards and elastic programmed drums, and did so with a sense of focus and depth of purpose that is rarely seen in a genre known for its sheer irreverence. This wasn’t a record of bored suburban kids hopping genres for the sake of jarring juxtapositions, it was a melding of disparate ideas to create an album that was truly in a league of its own, and featured some incredible songwriting with heart and dynamic. The decision for the band to go out on top was shocking at the time, and it’s been a long ten years since then, with a void left open in the world of experimental metal.
With their reformation a decade later with a new lineup featuring members of Sumac and The Armed, Genghis Tron have delivered Dream Weapon, which is a spiritual and thematic sequel of sorts to Board Up The House, but there’s not a whole lot here which resembles that landmark album. Dream Weapon leans into warm and evolving post-rock atmospherics and psychedelic meditations on oddly-timed live drum loops and arpeggiating synthesizers. Guitar strings reverberate with sleek leads or crescendo-core ambiance, and very rarely, a sludgy, palm-muted riff. Voices seldom rise above a whisper or a subtle croon. It’s a far cry from the Genghis Tron we used to know, and it took some getting used to, but as we sit halfway through the year, nearly four months after release, I think it’s safe to say that Dream Weapon holds up.
Perhaps this is where Genghis Tron would have wound up if they’d remained active through the years, and we were robbed of some incredible transition records as Genghis Tron shed their grindy carapace. What if instead, that slow transition and lack of time off and decade of self-reflection would have left the band uninspired and their listeners disinterested? Regardless of the what-ifs, we’re here in 2021 and the Genghis Tron we know and love performs meditative synth-lead post-metal now, and it’s somehow still one of the best records of the year.
Steel Bearing Hand – Slay In Hell
Crusty thrash mingles well with death metal, but Steel Bearing Hand have forged them together into a weapon of total fucking destruction on Slay In Hell. An old-school ferocity propels each of these six rippers through white-hot solo flurries, thrashy gallops, and thunderous grooves that are consistently (and almost ridiculously so) on point. Pacing is spot-on throughout the album’s 39 minutes; the opening duo is about as no-nonsense as it gets and nicely sets up the deliciously evil first half of “Tombspawn,” a doomified highlight that hints at the mammoth closer. No doubt, these Texans have an appetite for killer riffs and speed, flaunting their chops as they chew through ‘em and unflinchingly peel off leads along the way, but they’re also hip to when to smash the brake to grind in the trad and sludgy bits, too. Steel Bearing Hand are obviously well-versed in everything extreme, obsessively packing and stacking each track with all the little things that make a metalhead’s heart flutter.
There’s a lot of Slayer and Bolt Thrower in Steel Bearing Hand’s repertoire, and the production isn’t shy about making this known. This being said, Slay In Hell is easily one of the best-sounding albums I’ve heard in quite some time, absolutely nailing the thrash/death balance, honing a classic feel with a modern edge. The bass is a prominent keystone flanked by a roarsome duo of guitars, vibrant, dynamic drumming, and museum-quality leads. The chaotic hellscape that adorns the cover couldn’t possibly better represent the contents within, a smorgasbord of ripping metal that can satisfy a wide variety of tastes. Tracks like “Per Tenebras Ad Lucem” and “‘Til Death and Beyond” cover a lot of ground including everything from technical speed metal to gang-vocal thrash to punky d-beat and chunky OSDM, though “Ensanguined” is the rangiest offering and a truly memorable closer. There’s really no album easier to recommend in 2021: it has crazy potential for old metalheads and new alike, it’s both exciting and deceptively sophisticated, but ultimately Slay In Hell just totally rips faces.
Fractal Generator – Macrocosmos
Sci-fi influenced/infused/inspired metal albums are a dime a dozen. Hell, the algorithms that be at Spotify have listed it as a microgenre. While this is fantastic for fans like me that were raised on a steady diet of Star Trek, The X-Files, and The Twilight Zone, the increasingly competitive sci-fi metal scene has made it hard for new and established bands alike to stand out.
Yet Fractal Generator has managed to stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. Their latest release, Macrocosmos, dropped on January 15th this year and has continued to hold its own with the band’s unique strain of sci-fi themed atmospheric death metal. Macrocosmos is certainly first and foremost a death metal album with the growling vocals and chunky riffs to prove it, but Fractal Generator also incorporates technical elements that build the storyline.
The premise of Macrocosmos is that a space mission in the distant future discovers evidence that our entire universe is a simulation. While the heaviness of the album complements a narrative of humanity confronting a terrifying truth about our very reality, the most impressive parts of Macrocosmos stem from the way Fractal Generator builds atmosphere with elements of tech death. The surprising, aggressive touches throughout the album keep the entire journey interesting, while never relenting on aggression and brutality. It’s the type of record that continues to reveal new details, even after listening to it on repeat.
Despite the fact that Macrocosmos is just the second full length album from Fractal Generator, the band has already established themselves as an ambitious group that manages to combine aggressive music and sci-fi themes for distinct, brutal sound.
black midi – Cavalcade
I’ll be honest — I didn’t “get” Cavalcade on first listen. It certainly had black midi’s signature zany brand of experimental rock that impressed me on Schlagenheim (2019); honestly, the band was even zanier this time around. The band’s blend of math rock, post-punk, and no wave ventures even further down the avant-prog rabbit hole on Cavalcade, taking on elements of art rock and even jazz and classical. And that’s exactly what threw me for a loop during my first pass through the album. What exactly is this supposed to be? What does black midid expect me to grab onto as I’m thrown around the sonic equivalent of the album’s cacophonous album art.
Yet, days later, I just couldn’t get the main hook on opener “John L” out of my head. So I put Cavalcade back on and really listened closely. Then I listened to it again. And again. And eventually, I realized I was listening to one of my favorite releases from the year thus far. All my initial “critiques” still stand; this is a challenging listen that will give experimental music skeptics plenty of ammunition. But if you’re willing to take the time to unpack what Cavalcade has to offer, you’ll find a masterful blend of seemingly disparate sounds from the experimental rock universe, packaged in a way only black midi could present. We’re witnessing the next great experimental band take flight; be sure to hop on for the ride.
VOLA – Witness
Of the many bands that drew inspiration from the Meshuggah school of 8 string syncopated riffs, there’s been something special about VOLA’s take on the sound that keeps drawing me back to their material. Sure, they’re not the only band to meld that tried-and-true formula with clean vocals and non-metal sensibilities — but they’re just so good at making the whole package of clean vocals, dreamy synths, and massive choruses fit neatly under that progressive metal umbrella.
Of course, even within all those disparate elements, there still remains plenty of room for experimentation and growth — which brings us to Witness. The album art alone teases a much darker sound than predecessor Applause of a Distant Crowd (2018) and indeed, we do see plenty of that: whether it’s the urgency of opener “Straight Lines” and “Stone Leader Falling Down” or the eerie atmosphere of the Shahmen-featuring “These Black Claws”
That’s not to say the experimentation is limited entirely to the heavier end of the spectrum. “Freak” is an unexpected delight, with VOLA combining lush, beautiful instrumentation with spiteful lyrics that one would be forgiven for not even noticing the sheer bitterness of the first time around. It’s a brilliant bit of musical whiplash, where vocalist Asger Mygind verbally piles on some unseen target of his distaste — except entirely with a vocal line that’s melodically sweet as honey and every bit as mellow. The cleverness of “Freak” aside, my favourite track of all might be “Head Mounted Sideways”, which combines a thundering groove with Tomas Haake-like spoken vocals before a soaring chorus, completely at odds with what precedes it, explodes through the built-up tension. There’s a bit of a wink and nudge to VOLA’s songwriting tricks on this outing, and they’re a joy to behold in their totality.
Witness is the sound of a band that continues to actively experiment with their winning formula, and strikes gold more often than not. Perhaps it may not quite be VOLA’s final form, so to speak — there is, of course plenty of ground here that they’ve teased and may well cover in greater depth. But there’s something to be said about what a pleasure it is to watch – in real time – the four-piece grow as artists and develop newer dimensions to their sound.
Meer – Playing House
Prog doesn’t hold nearly the sway it did for me as it did 5 or 6 years ago. I see my shifting away from the genre and its grandiose heights as emblematic of idealism losing its hold in my mind. Despite that, each year there are records that come along and pull me right back in and surprise me even after I think I’ve heard every wanky extended overture and wizarding keyboard solo there is, reminding me why I hold the genre so close to my heart. Norwegian indie-proggers Meer swooped in to do exactly that earlier this year filling me with exuberant but affecting visions, something that I’ve felt lacking in ever since the beginning of this wretched pandemic.
Playing House is unashamedly, gloriously prog without hamming it up. Even with the orchestral elements not exactly keeping a low profile, these facets never run rings around the song craft or the more “rock” part of their sound, they stay in line and boost the whole into the stratosphere, particularly on highlights like “Picking Up The Pieces” with its resplendent dual rush of power chords and orchestration, and the finality of “Lay It Down”. The band know how to not overstep on the corniness factor, instead just traversing the valleys of all your favourite progressive artists, and that’s not to say they don’t have their own thing going on, they absolutely do. They masterfully execute the traditional with straight-up potent melodies on the likes of “All At Sea” and “Songs Of Us”, twin songs of sorts, bringing to mind Anathema. On top of that, it’s not past Meer to throw in some feisty ragers like “She Goes” that bring to mind the “alt” urgency of Bent Knee, or to go full tech dork and play around with Congregation-era Leprous syncopation. Combine all of these elements and I’m practically rolling over and letting them tickle my belly, the whole is that much greater than the sum of its parts.
Thinking about the future of bands like Meer and their contemporaries is what keeps me swinging the flag for prog at the moment. Playing House isn’t reinventing the wheel, it’s quite simply a wonderfully and tastefully realised alternative and progressive rock album from a band early in their career, and what’s wrong with that?
The Sonder Bombs – Clothbound
Look, I don’t want to wade into the “Olivia Rodrigo plagiarized Paramore” controversy that’s cropped up since Sour became TikTok’s summer soundtrack. Sure, the chorus on “good 4 u” sounds a whole lot like “Misery Business,” but these situations just make me want to re-post “Excursions” by A Tribe Called Quest. But the fact things go in cycles is less interesting than the underlying appeal of Rodrigo and Paramore’s signature song; the earworm collision of emo, pop, and just a dash of punk that filled high school hallways with an angsty soundtrack during the mid-2000s. It’s difficult to muster much criticism for Gen Z bringing back the soundtrack to my teen years.
I bring all this up because all these sentiments struck me during my first listen through Clothbound. Similar to “good 4 u,” The Sonder Bombs transported me back to my younger years in the best way possible, when music was simple, fun, and pretension-free. Yet, what sets the band apart from artists like Rodrigo is their ability to channel nostalgia into something new rather than simply masquerading the past. Clothbound tempers that evergreen emo-pop formula with clever songwriting and indie sensibilities, keeping all the hooks while upping the memorability and shelf-life. If you’re embarrassed to scrobble Sour or can’t find your copy of Riot!, then The Sonder Bombs are a more than worthy substitute.
Backxwash – I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and Dresses
Every year there seems to be at least one album under the hip-hop umbrella that a portion of our staff gravitates to. In recent years, clipping has carried that torch, so it’s no surprise that an album featuring a song produced by them is filling that void. I’m of course talking about emerging horrorcore/industrial hip-hop artist Backxwash, a Zambian-Canadian based out of Montreal. Backxwash was thrust into the spotlight last year, especially in Canada, as her 2020 album God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out of It was awarded the Canadian Polaris Prize, a relatively prestigious Canadian music award. This was refreshing in that not only was it awarded to an experimental hip-hop artist, but a black trans-woman. In quick turnaround, Backxwash has pushed her genre-blending rap game even further with the darker, more ambitious I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES.
The eclecticism of the guest features and producers on here is immediately noticeable. Of course the aforementioned clipping, but also Ada Rook of electro-industrial Black Dresses, darksynth artist SurgeryHead, newer glitchpop standout Lauren Bousfield, and even a sample from the one and only Godspeed! Black Emperor. But it’s Backxwash herself who’s responsible for this album going as hard as it does. She brings a ferocious energy that rivals Denzel Curry in the level of aggression, as does her flow and lyricism. The urgency and passion in her delivery can light a fire in you, like the GY!BE sampled “BURNED TO ASHES” that rings in the apocalypse with an aura of unsettling tension.
With the range of producers, samples and guest features, there’s so much diversity in the type and style of beats here, yet it still feels impressively cohesive. Like the perfect setlist at the nightclub of the underworld, it howls and screams with ominous dread while filling you with empowering adrenaline. It’s not an easy album to digest, there’s visceral desperation, heartbreaking honesty and raging anger. Ada Rook’s surprisingly vicious snarl in the title track brings an almost blackened-trap vibe that grows infectious, and Sad13’s chorus on “Song of Sinners” is perfectly haunting. A cacophony of bangers, I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES is the most powerful hip-hop album you’ll hear this year.
Humanity’s Last Breath – Valde
Usually by this point, I’ve got a handful of records vying for the all-coveted ‘favorite of the year’ — but not this time. Välde continues to stand head and shoulders above the rest of 2021’s offerings in its sheer breadth and density, an entity all its own born of nihilistic rancor and cold, galactic death. An apostle of the European school of thall, Sweden’s Humanity’s Last Breath have been a consistent pillar of the more progressive side of extreme deathcore for the past decade. Linked both directly and spiritually to acts like Vildhjarta and War From A Harlots Mouth, HLB have been pushing the envelope of dissonant, jarring, egregiously heavy and bombastically groovy downtempo death metal for quite some time. Välde, however, might just be their masterpiece.
A collection of stories depicting mankind’s fall to the forces of late capitalist decay, addiction, climate change, and of course, t h e v o i d, the album opens with anxious, siren-like tremolo and subatomic chugs that bleed into the war drums of “Glutton”. It only gets bigger, bleaker, heavier, and more claustrophobic from there. Bandleader and producer Buster Odeholm’s compositions become increasingly dense as Välde spirals on, from the life-draining symphonic ode to Faure’s Requiem in “Descent” to the exhausting death march of album closer and lead single “Vittring”. Humanity’s Last Breath have always supplied breathtakingly heavy (and I do mean that in the sense that someone’s taken a ball-peen hammer to your diaphragm) rippers, but this album is the first that’s truly reached out and gripped me. You can feel the absolute existential despair, the ultimate hopelessness, and the turning of the screws as the album progresses. It’s painfully stark and exquisitely brutal in a way that transcends genre or physiological response; Välde is a spiritual mark on the world, of warning and damnation, and it’s going to be a tall task for another album to unseat it and reign supreme on my EOTY list.
Fear Factory – Aggression Continuum
Fear Factory, like many other bands with decades of regular output, have their peaks and valleys. Personally, I haven’t been invested in anything they’ve done since 2003’s underappreciated Archetype, so this is a nearly two decade lull – by my assessment. That’s a… long-ass time. You can go on about critically acclaimed comeback albums from Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Overkill, or Alice In Chains, but none really escaped relevancy quite like Fear Factory had (I suppose it’s nice to have that legacy act good will built upt). So it had to take something special to reignite that flame of interest amongst listeners, though I’m not sure this was how they planned it…
That spark, like it or not, might’ve been the weird Dino Cezares/Burton C. Bell legal beef that dominated Aggression Continuum’s album cycle. It’s a small miracle I gave the lead single “Disruptor” a whirl as I was more than skeptical it would parallel the public discourse – a fucking disaster. And to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t very impressed by it at first, but as time went on – and with the help of the 25th anniversary release of Demanufacture – I began to rekindle with the idiosyncrasies that made me a fan many years ago: the futuristic atmospherics, inhuman rhythms with needling riffs, choruses that foil the unquenching intensity, and loads and loads of hooks.
It’s not that Fear Factory reinvent themselves here, in fact, part of what makes Aggression Continuum so great is how they’ve recaptured and refined the hallmarks of the FF sound. But as groups like Code Orange and Vein have found traction drawing from Fear Factory’s well of inspiration, it seems as though Cezares & Co. were compelled to update their sound, too. From Meshuggah-tinged rhythms to chonky breakdowns and traces of metalcore throughout, tracks like “Collapse,” “Fuel Injected Suicide Machine,” and “Cognitive Dissonance” are as fresh as they are worthy amongst FF’s classics.
Despite getting the boot from the band, Burton actually shines on this record, navigating the melody-forward bigs (like “Purity” and “Monolith”) and ragers (like “Recode” and the title track) with a veteran’s ease. Similarly, drummer Mike Heller (who seriously slays it on this album) and Cezares are in lock, working in tons of rhythmic interplay and exchanges and shifts of direction while leaving room for those signature synths and electronics; it’s truly the Fear Factory we all know and love firing on all cylinders. Aggression Continuum is their most consistent release since ‘95’s Demanufacture, and even that, some 26 years later, is worthy of recognition. Give it a whirl, you might be surprised.
Thy Catafalque – Vadak
I would first like to point out that I picked two PRETTY LONG albums to write up! Nothing wrong with that of course but most of the albums I tend to listen barely break the 30 minute mark. Anyways, onto a record that I will be baffled by if it doesn’t sit in my top 10 by the end of the year. To those familiar with the band, this may come as no surprise because they are extremely talented. My story on the hand is much different in that I never really connected with their past releases, especially last year’s Naiv. I went in extremely apprehensive but felt that I owed it to myself to give them another shot considering how much some of the other writers love them and their previous material.
The best way to describe this record is diverse. There is so much going on through the record 62 minute run time. I think the biggest reason I connected with the record more this time around was that it relaxed on the avant-garde sound that Naiv had so much of. They really leaned into the other elements that kept my attention such as metal, folk, rock and pop. Don’t think they aren’t still seeped in avant-garde aesthetics because that is still present but it doesn’t take front and center anymore and there is actually something to latch onto.
Like any album of this length and genre, it will take multiple playthroughs to soak in but it is completely worth it. Every song is so unique and throughout the entire album there are so many different instruments utilized including saxophone, cello and bagpipe to name a few.
The mastermind behind the Hungarian based band, Tamas Katai, has recruited an army of fellow musicians to help him complete this masterpiece. Just look at the bandcamp page and you will see just how many hands helped him. What I love most about the record is that it is mostly instrumental and I can just lose myself in it. When there are vocals, they are sung in a different language but never take away from the experience. Despite this record being towards the bottom of the list, this is not a record that should be missed.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
There are few bands that have been able to come back from a decade-long hiatus with the power and vitality of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Since their re-emergence onto the post-rock scene, the band have been able to conjure some of the genre’s finest works, channeling their own special witchcraft into each new release. But despite all of their continued success upon their return, there hasn’t been a post-hiatus record that matched their early works for sheer titanic scale and execution. While all of their newer material can easily be considered “very good”, none of them have reached that vaunted level of “transcendent” that their first three records embodied. G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!, however, changes that dynamic considerably.
It’s my opinion that G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! is GY!BE’s best record since their reformation. As a matter of fact, I would say it’s not very close. From the opening moments of “Military Alphabet” and into “Job’s Lament”, it’s clear that this is GY!BE at their most vital, focused, and adventurous. The unique, otherworldly strangeness of their earliest work is present here in spades, along with a veritable greatest hits of sounds that build from strange to sparse to full-on euphoric over the course of an excellent opening 10-plus minutes. The remainder of the album doesn’t stray from this path of diversified excellence, presenting in turn more aggressive and alarming sounds like those found in “First of the Last Glaciers” and calm and gorgeous moments like “Fire at Static Valley”, each fitting into place with borderline perfection. It’s a masterclass of post-rock songwriting.
If I had to quickly summarize G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!, I would say that it sounds like a band that’s been around for 30 years doing what they do best. Which is about as high a praise as I can give for a band that has reached the peaks that GY!BE has. If you’ve ever enjoyed one of their records, I feel fully confident that you will enjoy this one. Their best since coming back, and will be a steep hill for them to top.