Every year it’s the same damn thing: the year is over, proclaim the magazines and the blogs! Time to summarize! Time to rank! Time to make order and sense of this thing called music, an art form that, while relying heavily on patterns, attempts to break out of their boundaries and communicate with us. Meanwhile, the month of November personified looks on and shrugs its shoulders, continuing to spill album after album from out of its bag of tricks, showering us with a prolific and diverse amount of albums. No, I said diverse. More diverse than that! OK, you know what, just scroll below a bit and see how diverse I actually mean.
Right?! First of all, there’s whatever the hell sort of miracle Frosting is, where Bent Knee have decided to just let all sense-making fall to the curbside and burst from it like some auto-tuned butterfly. Then you have the smooth crooning of Silk Sonic and their quiet storm wonder, an album that’s all silk, warm fires, and delicious beats. You thought we were done perhaps with the ankle-breaking genre shifts but then Dream Unending and Irreversible Entanglements arrive and chuck all concept of genre out the window, the one shifting death metal and doom together in ways not often heard and the other diving deep into the spaces between free jazz experimentation and poetry. And there’s more! There’s nu-jazz and big ol’ groovy riffs and melodic black metal!
And let me you in on a secret: true enlightened Heavy Blog readers also check out the Further Listening section where all the albums we wanted to include in the main section but were simply unable to do so because of arbitrary restrictions reside. There are a dozen gems hiding in there, all scintillating in variegated colors, tempting you with numerous more ideas and sounds. Therefore, let me declare the year very much alive yet and there’s more to come. But if this is the last Editors’ Picks of the year, as indeed it is by the constraints of time and how it works, then what as way to go out! Not with a whimper but with a series of decidedly unique sounding bangs!
Bent Knee – Frosting (art rock, prog rock)
To say I was surprised by Bent Knee’s Frosting would be both an understatement and an overstatement. After all, I was used to the band’s mercurial penchant for innovation, weirdness, silliness, and absolute refusal to compromise their sound. But I wasn’t quite ready for this, a completely experimental take on pop, indie, and alternative rock. I mean, Frosting opens with “Invest in Breakfast”, a track filled with heavily auto-tuned vocals, thumping, digital, pop-infused kick drums and lyrical content which feels both silly and profound at the same time. But then tracks like “The Upward Spiral” have not only a punk feeling to them but also the first (?) use of proper screams on a Bent Knee track; it’s a track which feels downright sinister and decidedly more pissed off than the band have ever sounded in the past.
It took me a few listens to wrap my mind around Frosting and even now it feels more like I only have a map which broadly draws the borders of the work rather than any sort of definitive document which will help me make sense of it properly. But, perhaps, in an Escher-like move, in that conundrum lies understanding itself? Perhaps Frosting is Bent Knee, recently released from their contract with industry giants InsideOut, truly letting go of all constraints of tradition, genre, and expected sound in order to create the most truly “Bent Knee” album of them all? Perhaps the energy which runs Frosting is what ran tracks like “In God We Trust”, “Eve” or “Bone Rage” from their previous albums? And this energy, in the past constrained and harnessed to create what became the “Bent Knee sound”, has now been fully unleashed? Is this even Bent Knee’s final form?
Perhaps the point of Frosting is that there is no Bent Knee final form. Perhaps the point of the band, made up of people who are extremely talented in their own right, was always to channel whatever energy came this group’s way into their music. Perhaps the point is that whether Bent Knee are singing electronic, saccharine pop, deep-felt, morose indie, hauntingly chopped up violin melodies, rage-filled triades against gender and memory, or whatever else they choose to do, they are Bent Knee. And what is that thing called Bent Knee? Who knows. But you might listen to Frosting, really listen to it and try to come to terms with it, for an answer. Or two. Or fifteen, as the album beautifully oscillates between the myriad styles it contains. Or maybe not and that’s all wrong and Bent Knee just wanted to have some fucking fun and make weird music?
Ah fuck it. Just listen to this album and figure out what it is by yourself.
Bruno Mars & Anderson .Paak – An Evening With Silk Sonic (R&B, soul)
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in funk and soul. Then again, you don’t really need to be when Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak (along with guests like the legendary Bootsy Collins and Thundercat) are at the helm. An Evening With Silk Sonic is a bombastic blockbuster of talent and nostalgia brought to life by some of the biggest names in R&B past and present, and completely lives up to the massive hype it’s garnered. Mars and .Paak’s superduo is an outrageous, high-definition revival of contemporary R&B’s roots from the ‘60s and ‘70s, fusing funk, jazz, soul, disco, pop, and rap into an inspired, authentic throwback sound with the touches of modern production. With everything going for them, Silk Sonic is truly–can I say it?– funkadelic in every way possible.
Coy, charismatic debut single “Leave The Door Open” is as earnest and infectious as you wish all good soulful slow jams to be, performed with playful, yearning restraint by Mars, .Paak, and the band. Its critical praise reeled in awards long before the album’s release, but expectations didn’t phase the group. Follow-ups “Skate” and “Smokin Out The Window” showcase their studied ear for hypnotic, vintage grooves, rolling out a glitzy disco skate anthem and compelling, pseudo-parodic scorned lover ballad with cool finesse. While every track dazzles and delights in its own delicious way, finale “Blast Off” might be my favorite – a romantic, psychedelic odyssey into hazy bliss that fades out into dreamy ascending refrains à la Jamiroquai or Frank Ocean before a final hat-tip from uncle Bootsy.
Though the modern upscaling to such a classic sound feels luxurious, and it is, what the men have captured feels remarkably organic and authentic, even next to the greats that inspired their sound like Luther Vandross. The confidence and sincerity in their craft is to be marveled at every time you find yourself tapping your toes or sparking up to the half-hour kaleidoscope that is An Evening With Silk Sonic. And maybe I’m just a cringy newlywed, but anything that gets the wife and I slow dancing in the kitchen at midnight gets a glowing review from me, so do with that what you will.
Dream Unending – Tide Turns Eternal (death-doom)
Death doom can be a hard sell, particularly for me. I get the appeal, but hard as I try, I can’t make it through Mirror Reaper in one sitting anymore. Love the aesthetic, but songs lasting over an hour long and moving at the speed of molasses are incompatible with my anxiety and attention-deficit. My fault, not yours, Bell Witch. I love you in principle and recognize your greatness.
Based on its pedigree, Dream Unending, the new project from Tomb Mold’s Derrick Vella and Innumerable Forms’ Justin DeTore, could have been a safe and stomping ground for its prolific duo, focusing on monstrously heavy and hypnotic riffs cycling through each other for over an hour while still managing to push the reaches of cavernous death metal further into the weird and thoughtful, and once again putting 20 Buck Spin in the conversation as one of the most valuable labels on the planet (they are, actually), and I might have still found it boring. Because again, my fault. But Tide Turns Eternal is so much more than that.
This record is actually a gorgeous work of art that utilizes death doom’s bleak and hazy aesthetic in the delivery of stunningly melodic and emotionally resonant music that finds as much in common with Pink Floyd and The Cure as it does with Morbid Angel. Downtempo riffs continue to trudge through tar. Justin DeTore will below some “ough”s. Draped over those broken bones are psychedelic and twinkling guitar leads and arranged with songwriting that perhaps sits closer to post-metal or classic prog than your baseline funeral doom act. Simply, Dream Unending is perhaps influenced by both early and late eras of Anathema in equal measure.
Yes, Tide Turns Eternal is heavy and raw, and is as year-defining as anything else OSDM fans will have heard this year. But this is all to say that if you typically read lists like these on this site and tend to stick to the progressive, experimental, and melodic side of things and glossing over a genre like death doom when they creep into the bigger picture, give Dream Unending the attention it deserves. Tide Turns Eternal is genuinely one of the best albums of 2021. It’s also a tight 45 minutes, objectively the perfect album length! But if you’re like me, you’ll end up spinning it twice at a time anyway.
Irreversible Entanglements – Open the Gates (avant-garde jazz poetry)
In 2017, Irreversible Entanglements erupted out of nowhere with their self-titled debut, blending politically charged spoken word from Camae Ayew (a.k.a. Moor Mother) with a fiery free jazz quartet. The group returned in 2020 with Who Sent You?, an equally effective project that felt increasingly relevant following widespread social justice protests. Both projects pale in comparison to the scope and impact of Open the Gates, the ensemble’s finest hour and one of the most ambitious jazz records of the year.
The album felt massive on paper. Irreversible Entanglements had previously hovered around the “mini album” mark, maxing out at ~40 minutes over five tracks. Open the Gates ups the ante on both counts, with over an hour of music playing out across seven tracks, most of which running for 10+ minutes. The extra runtime gives the quintet plenty of space to expand upon their already intense, eclectic style, most notably with the introduction of synths. Whereas the band’s first two records stuck closely to “jazz” and “poetry,” the electronic elements marry with an emphasis on percussion to deliver a broader musical palette. The band’s consistent undertones of fusion and spiritual jazz becomes much more pronounced, as if Gil Scott-Heron linked up with Miles Davis during his electric era.
Granted, Ayew’s lyrics and the group’s musicianship is notably more experimental, which is certainly still the case on Open the Gates. Anyone with a pulse on the contemporary jazz landscape will simultaneously be at home and uneasy with the compositions that play out across the album. That spiritual fusion backbone is encircled by wisps of EAI and general free jazz bombast. And of course, Ayew has plenty of grievances to get off her chest, delivered with her signature cutting, hip-hop inspired delivery and abstract lyricism.
Open the [Flood] Gates indeed.
Khemmis – Deceiver (epic doom, heavy metal)
Denver-based doomslayers Khemmis have been on a charmed journey since they dropped their debut Absolution dropped back in 2015. Four records and just over a half-decade later, the band has become an institution in both the traditional and doom metal scenes, with each new record facilitating varying levels of hype, praise, and criticism. Their 2016 release Hunted seems to still remain their critical darling, while all of their released material from that point feels like it has rested somewhat uncomfortably in that album’s looming shadow. But I would feel very comfortable positing that Khemmis has yet to release a less-than-excellent record, and Deceiver continues that tradition with perhaps the band’s most focused, forthright songwriting lens to date.
Since the first notes of “Torn Asunder” blasted through our unsuspecting speakers, Khemmis has proven itself a band of many talents and interests from a songwriting perspective. Not content to relegate their sound to any one particular motif, Khemmis have throughout their discography struck a delicate and exceptional balance between traditional and doom metal aesthetics, joining contemporaries like Pallbearer and Spirit Adrift in concocting a blistering and immediately accessible assault of doom riffs stacked atop traditional metal solos and melodic signatures. While this elements are embedded in the DNA of who Khemmis is as a band, Deceiver finds the band focusing more intently on the doom metal elements of their sound with a renewed vigor and clarity. To my ear, Deceiver is the darkest and heaviest record of the band’s illustrious career, fitting the times in which it was written to a tee. One of the album’s more genre non-conforming tracks, opener “Avernal Gate”, welcomes fans of the band’s previous material like a spiky hug, letting us know that the band we love is still very much alive and kicking. Pendergast’s vocals only seem to grow more powerful with each new release, while Hutcherson’s guitar work is as intense and diverse as ever. But it’s from “House of Cadmus” on that the band settle into their darker, more doom-oriented songwriting direction, and it’s here where Deceiver distinguishes itself from the rest of the band’s catalog.
I may be in the minority when I say that Khemmis’ strongest and most potent work has always focused more on the doom side of their sound. Pendergast’s vocal delivery when juxtaposed with Conan-style chunky boi riffs sounds unlike anything else in the scene, and here we get to live within that dichotomy more so than in any other Khemmis release. The above-mentioned “House of Cadmus” introduces listeners to this doom-heavy approach and sets the tone for the remainder of the record, which in my estimation includes some of the band’s most intensely focused songwriting to date. The inclusion of a significant amount of clean vocals permeates tracks like “Living Pyre” and “Shroud of Lethe”, adding an elevated melodic approach to the intense riffs and melancholic acoustic passages that populate the record. It’s exactly the kind of thing that keeps me coming back to Khemmis’ music, and Deceiver is replete with such moments, all the way through jaw-dropping finale “The Astral Road”, which just straight slays from start to finish.
Fans of the darkest sides of Khemmis’ music should eat up Deceiver. I know I certainly did. While not their most sonically diverse record, the band’s intense focus on their songwriting brings forth an album that siphons the band’s best elements and condenses them into a rousing 40-minute behemoth of a record that stands tall among their already stellar discography. Hail Khemmis and their continued reign as one of metal’s finest and most articulate purveyors of doom and gloom. Long live the kings.
Portico Quartet – Monument (nu-jazz, ambient jazz)
Hi there, my name is Nick. Long-time editor, first-time writer in quite a while. I’ve been off dealing with some stuff for much of this past year now, some of which maybe I’ll elaborate on a bit more as we go onto actually wrapping up the year. In the meantime though, I haven’t stopped listening to music by any measure, though I will say that of late I’ve been feeling the pull towards more calming sounds – albums that, as the kids might say, is a vibe. All of which is to say that the latest album from the UK’s genre-bending group Portico Quartet (who are, ironically, at this point a duo and very much no longer a quartet), Monument, has been sitting me in my feels and presenting a perfect little musical bubble from which I can retreat from the chaos of the world and simply exist.
Monument is actually the second album the duo of Duncan Bellamy and Jack Wyllie have put out this year. The last one, the even more meditative and minimalism-driven suite Terrain, was also very much invested in the goal of producing more of a general “feeling” than distinct songs. I also enjoyed that album, but I really needed to be in a specific mindset to fully appreciate it and not have it simply float on by me. Monument certainly doesn’t go out of its way to force your attention towards it, but it’s far more direct and song-centric than Terrain. Like much of Portico’s music over the years, there’s a distinctly dance-like and micro-house edge to their compositions that is alluring and calming while not outright making you want to get up and bust out moves. But while songs like “Impressions,” “Ultraviolet,” and the album’s title track are as densely-composed and richly-produced as the rest of their catalog, there’s a certain immediacy to the themes and melodies explored that stand out. Their central threads, often led by the silky smooth tones of Wyllie’s sax, absolutely glide and melt into the layers of synths, electronics, and Bellamy’s air-tight drumming.
And while Monument might not be the most “challenging” or “progressive” album of the band’s career – Art in the Age of Automation and Memory Streams both have a leg up in that department – the warmth that radiates off of the album’s clockwork pieces makes it surely one of the group’s best albums to simply throw on and immerse oneself in. Sure, tracks like the bright “A.O.E” and slow-grower “Warm Data” sound like they could be playing softly through speakers in a steamy salt baths spa, but is that a bad thing? Have you seen what it’s like out there? The world is enough of a mess on its own to provide all of the fuel for rage and fear that I need much of the time. If I can get something to mellow me the fuck out for the better part of an hour I’m gonna grab onto it and not let go. Monument is that liferaft.
Aesop Rock & Blockhead – Garbology (alt hip-hop, trip-hop)
Garbology, the first collaboration between the legendary MC/producer combo since 2007’s None Shall Pass, doesn’t quite hit the same consistent heights as the work of their prime in the early to mid-2000s, but it’s more than solid and serves up enough tricks familiar and new for the album to work.
Cân Bardd – Devoured By The Oak (atmospheric black metal, folk metal)
For those of you who like your black metal covered in moss, smelling of ozone, and cowering beneath the might of the mountains, this album is for you. Rain, leaves turning to brown, the oncoming winter, and the rush of the world as it devours you.
Cynic – Ascension Codes (progressive metal)
For a band that has twice disbanded, Cynic manages to survive. Lead by Paul Masvidal, Cynic regroups from traumatic loss with a proper spiritual successor to 2010’s Traced In Air, and a genuine career highlight with Ascension Codes.
Elbow – Flying Dream 1 (art rock, chamber pop)
Flying Dream 1 is perhaps the most stripped back, intimate, and abstract album from the finest Brit rock/pop band of all time. Yeah, I said it. This one is a grower for sure but for those willing to get lost within it, you’ll find Elbow’s most heartfelt release in years. Which is saying something.
Glassing – Twin Dream (blackened post-hardcore, post-metal)
Texas outift Glassing caught my attention with 2019’s Spotted Horse, absolutely mesmerizing me through an Audiotree performance that really captures the depths of their gut-wrenching sound. Follow-up Twin Dream sees the inky, gravelly swarm form into more coherent passages of doomy sludge and blackened fervor that leave a hole in your heart. Basically, it’s good shit.
Long Hallways – I Still Believe In Us (post-rock, jazz)
Portland’s horn and string-filled post-rock enclave continue to refine and push their immaculate songwriting forward on their sweeping and emotional fourth album.
Plebian Grandstand – Rien ne suffitt (avant-garde / blackened hardcore)
French blackened mathcore act Plebeian Grandstand has made a play for the avant garde on this new full length, a 50-minute horror show with cues from industrial, noise, post-metal, and jazz. Rien ne suffit stylistically picks up where the now defunct Dodecahedron left off.
Teeth – Finite (tech death)
Teeth are a nasty band writing and performing nasty music. Their 2019 record The Curse of Entropy was an unexpected and savage shot across the bow, and their latest EP Finite continues on that trajectory. It’s filthy, violent, oppressively heavy, and an absolute blast to listen to.
Cara Neir – Pain Gel of Purification (blackened grindcore)
Converge & Chelsea Wolfe – Bloodmoon: I (hardcore, doom, post-metal)
Creature – Eloge De l’Ombre (progressive black metal)
Gold Necklace – Gold Necklace (post hardcore, prog)
Gonemage – Sudden Deluge (chiptune black metal)
Hope Drone – Husk (atmospheric black metal, post-metal)
Imperialist – Zenith (melodic black metal)
Maybeshewill –No Feeling Is Final (post-rock)
Monosphere – The Puppeteer (prog metal, post-metalcore)
Młyn – Folwark (jazz fusion, electroacoustic)
Noise Trail Immersion – Curia (mathcore, post-black metal)
Obscura – A Valediction (progressive tech death)
Outrun The Sunlight – A Vast Field of Silence (prog metal, post-metal)
Silent Planet – Iridescent (metalcore, post-hardcore)Wide Eyes – Oneironaut (prog metal, djent)
Stormkeep – Tales of Othertime (black metal)