Well. Here we are again. Another year ends and the insatiable urge within us to look back and to summarize kicks in. But, like last year, we have chosen to resist this urge somewhat by doing away with having a ranked list the centerpiece of our end of year content. Oh, we certainly have one this year but it’s by no means, at least in my eyes and the eyes of most of the editors, the important part of our retrospective on 2021. The important part is this post right here, what we’re now dubbing “The Superlative List”. That’s not because it’s the best (it is) but because it is fueled, like last year’s list, by categories which tend to the exaggerated, flamboyant, and grandiose. We are, after all, a blog primarily about what metal and what adjectives more fit the genre than those three?
Also like last year, this format allows us to include way more music. Even if we ran a Top 50 list as our main content-piece (a ridiculous number which leaves you with questions like what is the difference between the 37th and 28th album of the year?), we’d still have less albums than this list. Because it literally has 90 albums on it! And because they’re not ranked, there’s no need to obsess about which is better or which is worse and we can, instead, focus on matters the most: celebrating, and discovering, fantastic music. That’s where the categories, and the genre descriptors, come in, helping you zero in on the music that’s most relevant to you from out of this truly monolithic list.
Of course, alongside that, we added some of our words. We tried to keep it brief but, you know, there are ninety albums on this list and we sometimes run long when we’re writing about something we’re passionate about. Which definitely includes music. So, sit back, relax, turn on your headphones/speakers/whatever, and dive into what we think are some of the best albums released this year. Albums to make you happy, angry, sad, radical, albums to send you wandering, crying, screaming, and headbanging. Some god damn good albums, OK?
And, as always, thank you for reading. We love you.
Take Me Somewhere, Literally Anywhere, As Long As It’s Not Here
Long Hallways – I Still Believe In Us (post-rock)
From the moment I first read the album’s name to the moment the first note played, I knew I was hooked by Long Hallways’s I Still Believe In Us. There is something so effortless in how Long Hallways are able to conjure the wonder and melancholy so often present in post-rock and present them as something positive, a forward motion into the world. The themes of the album, from its name, through its tones, and all the way across to its grandiose compositions, is all about embracing the more morose sides of our perceptions and looking at the world through them, earnestly; despair nor vapid hope fit into this perception, but rather a dogged insistence that things are bad but there is much to fight for.
Sonically, this manifests in a more dynamic and “flowing” sensation to Long Hallways’ post-rock than on previous albums. It’s not exactly that the crescendos are “higher” or that the quieter parts of the album are more quiet, but that the band are able to utilize a very pleasing sort of balance between them that reminds me of the heyday of Mono. One only needs to turn on the first track, with its somber brass instruments and slowly rising main guitar lead to hear the power of this balance for themselves. This is what makes I Still Believe In Us not only an enjoyable album but an expressive one as well.
Panopticon – …And Again into the Light (atmospheric black metal)
There are a lot of categories this year that I could have picked multiple entries for (and I’ve done my best to throw in honourable mentions where I can), but you start throwing around words like transportative and vibaceous and Panopticon’s the only possible answer. I honestly don’t think I can communicate in words just how much of an effect this album has on me. Every single time I’ve put it on I am literally stopped in my tracks and just have to sit there and give it my full attention until it’s over.
“Hypnotic” and “transfixing” are words that get overused in music criticism (the former more so than the latter), but I can’t think of more appropriate words to describe …And Again into the Light. “Intricate” and “intimate” maybe. There’s something about Austin Lunn’s soft-spoken vocal delivery that draws me in like only Scott Kelly and Neurosis have ever managed before, so that when the heavy parts hit I’m utterly swept away by them. Panopticon’s previous, and often acclaimed material, has never moved me at all but (try as Karlo might) …And Again into the Light is simply the undeniable sound of a genre master and pioneer operating at the peak of his power.
Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon (progressive metal)
Prior to Dream Weapon, Genghis Tron wouldn’t have been a group I would’ve suggested for relaxing or meditative escapism. Their latest, though, excels in precisely those ways. Dream Weapon is surprisingly atmospheric and engrossing, a place where auditory world building occurs and lingers on after the synths fade away on closer “Great Mother.” It becomes something that feels truly alive and in an independent existence, a place that’s strangely comforting despite its futuristic and alien tone. Though the vibrancy of feral energy, blastbeats, and erratic arrangements have been largely forgone in favor of cooler, calmer means of songwriting, Genghis Tron are nonetheless captivating. Synth and guitar textures are varied and dazzling, locking in with Nick Yacyshyn’s (Baptists, Sumac) impressive drumming to create something both familiar and fresh. Similarly, vocalist Tony Wolski (The Armed) glides about with an omniscient, often soothing presence that feels very distant and detached, but also expressive and tangible.
Something so otherworldly is often stripped of its emotion or ability to connect with listeners in that “human” way, yet this journey provides a getaway that’s still grounded and heartfelt. It’s an experience that feels as futuristic as it is organic, enthusiastically taking on extended, immersive instrumental passages that fade in and out with a dreamlike ease. The technical approach of the group has been tactfully reined in, making Dream Weapon a relatively easier listen than their predecessors, but the songwriting finds plenty of ways to keep things interesting and evolving. Whether it’s with Zombi-like krautrockin’ synth prog, geometrically agnostic desert rock, or cinematic space rock, Genghis Tron are as purposeful as they are capable, wasting not a second of Dream Weapon’s runtime to craft something truly refreshing, something worthy of album-length consumption, repeat listening, and ultimately, something to awaken a new mindset.
Lantlôs – Wildhund (shoegaze)
Before Wildhund, Lantlôs already had a firm grasp on creating and developing dreamy atmosphere through their music. Their start as a decidedly post-black or blackgaze project rode on their ability to draw contrast between the raw “ugliness” that black metal can bring and more ethereal moods that post-rock and metal excel in. 2014’s Melting Sun merely solidified that by taking out most of the heavier elements and doubling down on long-form soundscapes. And while that album probably did a better job in the whole “transportive sound” department, their grand return in Wildhund as a more straightforward shoegaze band certainly isn’t lacking in chances to escape musically.
The true beauty in Wildhund is picking out the moments in each track that build their own little musical worlds. There’s the warm kaleidoscopic uplift of “Magnolia” and “Cocoon Tree House,” in which Markus Siegenhort’s smooth vocal harmonies and bright chords and riffs wrap you up in a warm blanket and take you on a panoramic trip across the skies. Standout track “The Bubble” evokes basking on the beach watching a sunset dip below the horizon and appreciating every hue that appears in the fading light. “Planetarium” rises to a celestial level and propels you on a trip of infinite stars and possibilities. Wildhund is still a heavy album, but it’s so expertly blended with positive energy and vibes that it winds up serving as one of the most uplifting albums of the year, one that can carry you to wherever you need to be to get through the day.
Albums Most Likely To Get Me To Grab My Guillotine and Start a Revolution to Overthrow the White Supremacist Capitalist Hegemony
BRUIT ≤ – The Machine is burning and now everyone knows it could happen again (post-rock)
It’s impossible not to appreciate an artist that stands strong behind their stated ethics. I’d say “puts their money where their mouth is,” but where Spotify is involved it’s probably best not to mention artists’ money. Eschewing the potential for expanded exposure, this French post-rock band has eliminated Spotify from their streaming platforms since day one, opting instead to focus their efforts on building word of mouth through thoughtfully staged live performance videos. They received some notice for their debut EP Monolith, which was released in 2018 on the fantastic boutique post-rock/post-metal label Elusive Sound, but it has been The Machine is burning… that has gotten their name spreading around wider circles. They’ve certainly been the darling of the post-rock world in 2021, garnering almost universal acclaim for their first full-length effort, but I’ve seen them showing up here and there in publications with much wider scopes.
I’ve previously said that they’re reminiscent of a more approachable Godspeed You! Black Emperor, unburdened by all the droning, experimental noodling, and I still stand by that as a pretty damn accurate description. BRUIT ≤ deliver tense, dramatic, politically-charged instrumental sermons soaked in soul-stirring strings and nervously skittering electronics, and while their track lengths still run fairly long they manage to accomplish everything they set out for without straying too far from the path. What really struck me about this record, though, is the song “Renaissance,” where finger-picked acoustic guitar and restrained accompaniments demonstrate a gentler and more poignant side of themselves that is deeply engaging, achingly beautiful and instantly memorable. It shifts gears for a second half that builds and swells with the best of them without ever becoming overwrought. The track brings an essential elegance to the record that counters the more strident, steely-eyed material that surrounds it. I’m going to go ahead and proclaim that it’s the best post-rock song released in 2021. If you’ve found yourself wary of the post-rock tag due to concerns of sameishness, this is a great album to explore in an effort to become fondly reacquainted with the genre. Just make sure to do so through their Bandcamp page.
Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future (jazz)
Listen, I’m gonna state right up front that as an undeniably capital W H I T E man in America, there is a limit to my understanding of the Black experience. However, if you are a person of any race, gender, sexuality, and creed and are not so utterly beyond fed up with the white supremacist machinery that weaves together modern existence through its tools of capitalism, law enforcement, capital punishment, and more, 1) you might want to stop reading right here, and 2) you need to wake the fuck up and see through the layers of bullshit and struggle that powerful entities put us through to control us and view each other as enemies. There has been no shortage of music that has successfully channeled this rage, sorrow, and rebellious joy in the face of violence in the age of Black Lives Matter. But I don’t think there has been much music out there that has so succinctly crystalized all that is beautiful about Black culture, history, and music while serving as a rallying cry against all that threatens it on a daily basis as that of Sons of Kemet. And on Black to the Future, that joy and anger have never been sharper.
Though it may be categorized loosely as “jazz,” the beauty of Sons of Kemet’s music is that it is jazz inasmuch as pan-African music traditions are responsible for the development of jazz. Simply put, it is music meant for dancing, for communing, for crying, and for screaming. It is a melting pot of just about all that distinguishes Blackness in music and art. Honestly, just listen to closing track “Black,” read the lyrics, then consider it all while grooving the fuck out to everything else.
Mystras – Empires Vanquished and Dismantled (black metal)
Any struggle which does not situate itself within the material context of the history of struggles that came before it is a struggle doomed to fail. On the other hand, any struggle that looks blindly backwards towards that history and merely tries to replicate what worked before, or elsewhere, is likewise doomed to fail. What is required of us to resolve our current state of crisis is exactly one of the most difficult and mercurial tasks of all: how do we synthesize the lessons of the past with our own existing material conditions to create something new and powerful?
Mystras, Ayloss of Spectral Lore’s project, provides us with an aesthetic beginning to an answer to this question. Blending in past struggles with his own political vision, and fusing them with raw black metal, diverse non-Western instruments and musical techniques (namely ones from the Mediterranean and Iran, among others), Ayloss has brought forth a powerful, evocative, and downright incandescent album of political fury. Empires Vanquished and Dismantled is a cry for struggle if it’s anything else and, at the same time, a brilliant step forward in Mystras’ vision for black metal.
Dreamwell – Modern Grotesque (skramz)
What makes Dreamwell’s Modern Grotesque stand out for me from the hosts of skramz being made today (well, not hosts really, but you get the idea) is the sheer range of emotions which it can convey. It would be a mistake to categorize it as a protest album per se for that reason, as it also channels feeling of despondency, personal achievement and quest for identity, alongside a fair bit of rage. But that’s the beauty of Modern Grotesque exactly as a protest album; after all, the idea that the political, the personal, and the emotional are separate is one which serves the hegemony. Those of us that want to resist must understand that resistance, and revolution, should occur at all levels of our lives, the personal included.
Skramz, and the specific type of skramz which this album generates and radiates, is a perfect vessel for these ideas. Modern Grotesque is an album that’s just as likely to make you cry as make you scream, as it channels frustration, anxiety, and desire into a catharsis that is liable to hit you hard when you least expect it. Add in flawless production, some of the most meatiest-yet-intelligent bass lines I’ve heard this year, and powerful vocals, and you have everything you might want. If you want to “simply” scream a “fuck you” to “the normal” and to the hegemony, this album will do. But if you also want to dive deeper and explore the many resistances possible to us in our day to day, to scream who you are into the world and dare it to disagree, this album will match you, scream for scream
Backxwash – I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES (noise/rap)
Speaking as a cis, white guy who’s scared of drugs and bi-curious at best, I really have no point of reference for the lyrical themes on I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES. What is absolutely palpable about the record, however, is the white hot rage and determination with which each and every word is delivered. This is without doubt the darkest, heaviest and most aggressive album of the year. Yes, I’ve heard Sermon of Flames and the Knocked Loose EP or whatever, and none of them even come close.
I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES is an intensely personal record which sees rising crossover hip-hop/extreme metal star Backxwash raging at every form of systematic oppression you can name, and probably many more, as well as seemingly every single person who has ever personally irked her, including and especially herself. Yet, while much of the Québécoise rapper’s aggression is directed inward, all of it ends up being channelled outward so that it becomes purely destructive rather than simply self-destructive. All of it is also overwhelmingly palpable, so that you don’t have to understand it to feel it – such is the power of music and that of Backxwash’s in particular.
Don’t Talk To Me Today, I’m Depressed As Fuck, and Music is the Only Thing That Will Get Me Through It
HAAST – Made of Light (progressive rock/metal)
It’s common knowledge, at least for those of you who have been following the blog for a while now, that Anathema’s Weather Systems is one of my all time favorite albums. There are a lot of reasons for that but chief amongst them is the album’s ability to channel the type of loss, longing, and hope that I am assaulted with from time to time. And maybe that’s why, beyond “just” the musical similarities which the band assure me are incidental, I immediately associated HAAST’s Made of Light with it. It has that same ineffable quality to it, even when it revolves around matters far from personal like reincarnation, myth, memory, and more. Perhaps that quality is contained in the music itself, which is both epic (drawing on the band’s doom background) and intensely melodic and intimate (drawing from post-rock, post-punk, and more).
At the end of the day, it’s the juxtaposition of these styles that makes Made of Light so appealing, together with the intensely powerful vocal performances. These create an album that manages to be grand and majestic, attempting to touch and to portray feelings and themes which are bigger than any one of us, while still hitting on the emotional level. This emotional level is mainly borne through those aforementioned vocals; it’s hard to overstate how much I love the singing, by all vocalists involved, on this album. They add so much intimacy and power of delivery to the music, nailing its smaller and more meaningful aspects home.
And hey, when you put all of that together, didn’t I just describe Weather Systems as well? It’s interesting to think on the fact that HAAST have told me they haven’t even heard that album; perhaps they’ve met Anathema during another life or it’s simply the shared musical background (both are from the UK, both started as doom bands) that brings them together. Regardless, Made of Light is one of my favorite discoveries of 2021 and an album that I know will be with me over the next few years and, hopefully, beyond that.
Don Broco – Amazing Things (rock)
When I’m feeling depressed, music is usually the last thing I want to listen to and depressing music even more so. By the same token, music is also usually the cure. It’s amazing how often a good Bon Jovi or Crashdïet sesh will pull me out of a funk and the feel-good album of the year for me has to be Don Broco’s Amazing Things. There were so many mornings this year where I was feeling out of it and the simple act of throwing on this record got me instantly hyped and ready to face the day.
Then again, for all the welcome distraction from the woes of the world Amazing Things provides, it’s also deceptively appropriate for this category. After all, the album (in its inferior, original sequencing)* opens with the refrain of “I put my gumshield in, [to] protect me from myself”, and one of its most striking choruses is the defiant repletion that “It’s ok that we’re not enough” (“One True Prince”). Elsewhere the album contains ruminations on when “Mr. and Mrs. Perfect” stopped “believing” (“Swimwear Season”) the tolerance of casual racism and sexism (“Uber”) and a song that straight up asks the listener “How are You Done With Existing?” while reminding them not to give up. As with all things Don Broco, Amazing Things is deceptively dark, yet it always focuses on elevation rather than wallowing in its sorrows.
*Suggested resequenced order: “Manchester Super Reds No. 1 Fan”, “Gumshield”, “Swimwear Season”, “Endorphins”, “One True Prince”, “Revenge Body”, “How Are You done With Existing”, “Uber”, “Bad 4 Ur Health”, “Easter Sunday”, “Anaheim”, “Bruce Willis”.
Der Weg einer Freiheit – Noktvrn (black metal)
Black metal is a fairly emotive genre (if you count stomping through the forest and howling at the wind “emoting”), but it holds no greater group of existentially malaised practitioners than Germany’s Der Weg einer Freiheit. From the opening notes of their first record the band set themselves apart from the genre crowd through deeply melodic and unabashedly emotional songwriting that lifted their music from standard post-black trappings to something borderline transcendent. 2017’s Finisterre presented what I thought had to be the band’s apex of emotion, but Noktvrn turned that opinion on its head fairly quickly.
In a year that felt somehow even more doldrum-adjacent than 2020, Noktvrn presents a collection of songs that feel incredibly apt for the moment. Opener “Finisterre II” gives listeners just about everything they need to know about the tone and tenor of the journey to come, and the rest of the album expands and explodes around that central melodic motif. It’s the melodies that truly close the deal on what Der Weg einer Freiheit are selling, and here they’re abundant and uniformly affecting. Fall days out on the porch, watching nature slowly and beautifully die to this record were deeply memorable, and it’s hard to ask for more from a black metal record. Queue this one up as a soundtrack to the cold isolation, and you’ll find for yourself a willing and equally sad dance partner.
Sonhos tomam conta – Hypnagogia (post-black)
Did you have Brazilian bedroom solo artist blackgaze/post-rock/dreampop on your Best Albums of 2021 bingo card? Well, if you did, congratulations, that makes one of you. This enigmatic release from a completely unknown artist that unloads a brutally raw confessional text on its Bandcamp page has landed at just about the top of my most-revisited records of the year. It’s cacophonous and gorgeous in the same moments, dreamy yet desperate, swirling yet focused, wide-ranging yet confidently cohesive. I’m typically not a huge fan of programmed percussion, but in this instance it actually works to more effectively establish the maelstrom of sound that gives hypnagogia its thick atmospheric quality.
Sometimes when artists aim for the kinds of moody overtones heard here there is a tendency to lean too far into the ambient side of things, but I really appreciate sonhas tomam conta’s commitment to keeping things moving at an approachable clip. As chaotic as this record appears to be on its surface, once you’ve made it all the way through there’s a palpable sensation that everything is in its right place. That’s no easy tightrope to walk, making this all the more impressive considering it’s coming to us from an obscure artist who also appears to be very young. Listen to it all, but check out the track “lonely people in neon cities” if you want a solid summation of what to expect.
Albums Best Screamed From the Top of a Cliff, In Defiance of Gods Both Old and New
The Armed – Ultrapop (post-hardcore/mathcore)
There wasn’t an album that stuck with me more throughout the year than The Armed‘s ULTRAPOP. It screams in defiance of honestly, most things people look for in modern music, yet has the rare ability to hook itself into your cortex and not let go. Something this loud, noisy and uncomfortable shouldn’t be this catchy. – especially tracks like “AN ITERATION” and “BAD SELECTION”. It’s like channeling pure, uninged energy through a pop band without a care for unsuspecting listeners’ well-being. Once described as The Dillinger Escape Plan meets My Bloody Valentine meets Bloc Party, it’s pretty hard to nail down, genre-wise. Is this mathcore? Post-hardcore? Noise pop? The answer is somewhere in between those, as this album, and the genius behind it is perhaps as ambiguous as their ever-changing mysterious roster lineup.
This is definitely an album where it likely either clicks for you, or it doesn’t. If you want a shortcut to “getting it”, I would recommend starting nowhere else but their recent Live at Adult Swim Festival performance, as this not only captures most of the strongest tracks from Ultrapop, but also is probably the best representation of the over-the-top, evocative nature of their music. A dimly lit nightclub with strobe lights, strange masks, sweaty shirtless men, smoke-machines, a confusing amount of people on stage… basically the perfect encapsulation of the euphoric brilliance of this album that ended up topping my AOTY list.
Fierce Deity – Power, Wisdom, Courage (power/doom metal)
Some of these categories had me thinking. I needed a few minutes to decide which entry I’d submit to each one, as there has been no shortage of good albums this year, and in many different styles. However, for this category I had no such need to gather my thoughts; Fierce Deity’s powerful release is the only choice for me here as I’ve literally shouted at out loud at multiple points, albeit not from the top of a cliff and not in defiance of any specific deity.
But when riding my bicycle or walking home from a long day at work, only one album in 2021 gave me the boost of energy, defiance, and personal belief that I needed to truly feel the explosive emotions that metal is so good at evoking. Power, Wisdom, Courage is loosely based on several video games and what it takes from those games is the emphasis on what a person can do when they not only trust themselves, but when they also challenge themselves to face their demons and grow stronger from it. Couple that with the some of the biggest riffs of 2021, amazing synths, catchy choruses, and an immaculately pulled off theme, and you get one of the strongest, thickest, most metal releases of the year.
Stormkeep – Tales of Other Time (symphonic black metal)
Nothing shouts amazing journey through the darkness of magic like melodic black metal. Blessed be Stormkeep among all other black metal bands for providing Tales of Othertime this year. This is the exact kind of black metal record I want to listen to, possibly because of the fact that the first lyrics on the record are “A WIZARD, WANDERER” shouted in the perfect black metal vocal stylings. I think that should tell you about everything you need to know about Tales of Othertime, but I would be very remiss to leave it at that. It would neglect to bring up the incredible album art that goes along with the record, which I think is absolutely necessary for your experience of the album. That would also not mention the atmosphere each track creates which is equally essential for enjoying Tales.
None of that even touches on the fact that this band is loaded with incredible musical talent. Not only are they very talented musicians, but they’re equally blessed songwriters and constructors. The band has a clear knack for putting songs and the album together in a way that creates a true musical journey for the listener. It is indeed a collection of tales from another time and place, and I felt that journey each time I listened to Tales. The long progressive tracks are the exposition you need while the shorter instrumental and acoustic tracks are excellent window dressing that establishes atmosphere to put your mind in the place it needs to be throughout the album. Tales from Othertime is one I’ll be coming back to again and again just for that reason.
Humanity’s Last Breath – Välde (atmospheric death metal)
It’s functionally impossible for a Buster Odeholm project to NOT be everything this category touts. Extravagant, over the top, defiant, evocative; these seem like mere outlines, the tent poles propping up a tapestry of oppressive, galactically heavy death metal birthed by malevolent ritual in some cosmic forge located deep in… uh, Sweden, of course. Välde is one of the latest additions to the LMU (Lewandowski Musical Universe) and by far its most brutal, usurping 2019’s The Grand Descent by Fuming Mouth. And I hate to be that person, but truly, this album has been criminally slept on by the metal community at large, though I understand why. You can’t expect the death metal community to suddenly embrace a “djent” band. I mean, that would be social suicide. How will you ever live down the jokes that you sold your HM-2 collection for a Neural DSP?
Välde has everything the underground loved this year, from high-falutin’ tech-death wankery to the most punishing dissonant grinding and an ominous, suffocating atmosphere that never lets up for the album’s entire runtime. Its main driving mechanic is Odeholm’s classic mid-tempo devastation cranked up to 11, a constant push and pull dragging the listener through wall after concrete wall of angular downtuned breakdown riffs and blistering nuclear blasts, all arranged around eerie jump-scare pick scrapes and discordant harmonics. And if we’re talking about screaming from a mountaintop, try (maybe my favorite track of the whole year) “Descent”, a sprawling, nihilistically exaltant anthem inspired by Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. The chilling wall of orchestral death metal lambasting the mass-like scream-sung “SACRIFICE THE NATURAL WORLD FOR ARTIFICIALITY” hasn’t left the folds of my brain all year.
Brand of Sacrifice – Lifeblood (deathcore)
I almost forgot about this one, but I defy you to name a more iconic duo than Lifeblood and “screaming from the top of a cliff in defiance of gods both old and new.” I’m not going to wait either, rather using the moment of your distraction to bisect you with my weapon, which is less a sword than a slab of iron. That’s what happens in Berserk (1989–21) right? I gave up after slogging through eighteen volumes of tedious, slow-moving and excessively sexist and rapey melodrama, and two extremely boring and terribly animated anime series. There’s no denying the series’ cultural influence, however, and I honestly think Lifeblood has the potential to usher in the same sort of seismic shift within the deathcore genre.
Echoes of Lifeblood’s impact are already being felt on things like the new Lorna Shore EP and Shadow of Intent record. Brand of Sacrifice might not be the first deathcore band to add symphonics and a pervading sense of epicenes to their sound but, so far, they’ve been the best ones at it and this latest record has defied the odds and established them as forerunners and potential rejuvenators of a genre long ago left for dead by the God Hand.
It’s Black Metal Jim, But Not As We Know It
So Hideous – None But a Pure Heart Can Sing (progressive black metal)
Praise be to So Hideous for having given us such a bounty of outstanding music at this, the twilight of 2021. Delivering this late in the year also makes a strong case for publications waiting to put out their year-end lists until the year is actually over. The addition of The Number Twelve Looks Like You’s rhythm section on None But a Pure Heart Can Sing serves two functions: firstly, giving all us elder millennials an opportunity to wax nostalgic about our rough and tumble younger years, and, more importantly, it brings a seething, tight-lipped quality to the performance that always feels like it could devolve into glorious chaos at any moment. But then, behold! Is that a saxophone? Yes, please. What I really appreciate about this record is the band’s ability to experiment with the boundaries of the black metal genre while still delivering all the down and dirty goods that fans expect.
I have to admit, I’m one of those people who actually much prefers offshoots and interpretations of black metal more than I do actual black metal. While there are examples of traditional BM that I enjoy, my overall takeaway is that it’s a bit too nihilistic for me, and there’s also a higher-than-average possibility that if I do even a cursory amount of digging into the people behind the music, I might not like what I find. That said, I really do like some of the core ideas, and I love it when bands warp the formula into something that embraces, but also expands, the concept. “The Emerald Pearl” is a perfect example, undoubtedly one of the best songs I heard in 2021,featuring strikingly dramatic strings, as well as the aforementioned sax, which brings an unexpected and thoroughly-welcome sultry quality to a style of music that typically has no business being described as such. If you’re in the market for something that’s punishingly heavy, but also crisp, smart, and inventive, So Hideous provides that in spades.
Kaatayra – Inpariquipê (experimental black metal)
In 2019 and 2020, solo Brazilian black metal musician Caio Lemos hit the scene like a bolt from the blue: 4 albums in 2 years of astonishingly well-realized progressive and atmospheric black metal in the lineage of Krallice, especially Dimensional Bleedthrough and Years Past Matter. This year, amidst releases from Lemos’ other projects Bríi and Vauruvã, we didn’t see much from Kaatayra until Inpariquipê came out at the end of November.
The extra time was clearly important, as even the most cursory of listens makes clear: Kaatayra’s defining feature compared to Lemos’ other projects is the integration of música popular brasileira (MPB), which comes through as acoustic guitars, jangling chimes, semi-chanted vocals and hypnotic, rhythmic percussion. Inpariquipê takes this influence to its logical conclusion, fully submerging any semblance of black metal into a lush, gorgeous, and warm set of soundscapes composed almost entirely of acoustic instrumentation and clean singing, something akin to a South American version of Botanist.
The only obvious structure left to point to Kaatayra’s past is the percussion; aggressive drums full of double bass and blast beats anchor the various etherealisms and tether Lemos back to the genre. On first read, the harsh vocals and blast beats seem like vestigial organs, but it quickly becomes apparent that they’re a tactful, important choice. It forces the audience to read Inpariquipê as black metal and brings Lemos’ biggest message yet to bear: look past the distortion, look past the chaos and fire, and remember that black metal has a right and responsibility to embody primal invocations of the natural world.
Christian Cosentino – Lawn (progressive black metal)
Who says that black metal has to be dark? Apparently, no one, which is what allowed Christian Cosentino to hit me like lighting with Lawn. Simply put, this album sounds like I’ve never quite heard black metal sound before; instead of abrasive coldness, raw darkness, or unbridled aggression, Lawn sounds like an explosion of light, like all the colors of the palette slapping you fully in the face. The beauty of it is that Cosentino is completely unwilling to let go of the black metal sound even though the aesthetic is different, creating a rush of an album. The basic sounds of black metal are maintained, the speed, the directness, the overwhelming feeling of the music, just painted in a different color scheme.
This also means that Lawn is an album I can and want to listen endlessly to because there’s nothing else quite like it. And it’s also a rewarding album on top of all of this, containing multitudes of cool ideas and unique sounds in its mix, rewarding deeper dives as well as more “surface” listens, which focus on simply being whisked away by the album’s sound. If you’re looking for either, or both, look no further; Lawn is one of the most underrated albums of 2021 and you’d be sourly mistaken if you skipped it.
Bríi – Sem Propósito (experimental black metal)
Sem Propósito, the second Caio Lemos album in this section (!!), is one hell of an album. It’s two unnamed half-hour epics that vacillate between moody, languid synthesizers and jagged black metal. From my discussion of Sem Propósito in April’s Editor’s Picks: “Lemos employs a suite of dark, pulsing synthesizers with a decidedly spacier sound… The song lengths here extending so much further out means Sem Propósito can really give these elements the breathing room they deserve… The result is a heady, potent sound that manages to perfectly balance intensity and meditation, propulsion and relaxation, atmosphere and attentiveness.”
I could write pages about this composer’s inimitable brilliance, Lemos’ position as an underground luminary in a genre that is often sclerotic to the point of self-denial, the way in which Sem Propósito represents an astronomical achievement of unhurried sonic impressionism, but there’s nothing I could say that could really impart just how big of an impact this record made on me this year. Instead, I just have to implore you to find the time and give Sem Propósito your undivided attention. It’ll be one of the best hours of your year.
Gost – Rites of Love and Reverence (black metal)
Despite Gost leaning right into his black metal elements on previous album Valediction (2019), Rites of Love and Reverence is not a black metal album. However, it speaks to a broader theme within both the black metal and synthwave scene throughout 2021, which is the prevalent incorporation of ‘80s new wave and goth rock elements into extreme metal tapestries, often to the point where they come to dominate a band’s sound. Neither goth or new wave are really my thing (nor is black metal really) and the results for me have been rather redundant. For my money though, Gost’s Rites of Love and Reverence has been the most successful blending of the syles with more extreme and sythwave sounds.
Rites of Love and Reverence leans far more in the goth direction than the new wave one, almost exclusively so. It’s also more of an “electronic rock” record than a synthwave one, but what truly sets it apart is the balancing of these 80s influences with Gost’s traditionally more extreme elements. Rather than foregoing his extreme metal roots in favour of newfound retro influences, Gost uses goth rock to reinforce his blackened synthwave soundscapes and vice versa, resulting in one of the darkest, moodiest and genuinely malevolent sounding records of the year. Gost’s transition into goth rock also feels more genuine than his contemporaries. Rather than suddenly discovering Depeche mode and pumping out a subpar rehash of Paradise Lost’s already underwhelming Host (1999) (a surprise contender for the most forward-thinking, if not influential album in modern metal?), Gost’s shift from early-80s technicoloured synthwave through to later 80s goth rock, by way of extreme metal, feels entirely in keeping with the projects longstanding aesthetics and mission statement. Given current extreme/”hipster” metal trends, I’m truly baffled why more people aren’t talking about this record.
Succumb – XXI (raw black metal)
We’ve already talked a lot about XXI, the sophomore album from San Francisco-based Succumb. And understandably so, because this relentless enigma only invites more scrutiny the more you listen to it. Trying to describe Succumb easily devolves into an alphabet soup of genres and subgenres. Is it death metal? Black metal? Deathened black metal or blackened death? How about blackened death grind?
Whatever you call it, Succumb has only continued to refine and expand their bestial sound with XXI. Vocalist Cheri Musrasrik delivers a standout performance as she growls, screams, and howls with devastating ferocity. Having recently seen the band live in their hometown of San Francisco, I can confirm that she’s only more terrifying in person. The band wasted zero time on mere words during their set, saving every ounce of energy for a blistering performance. It was a Thursday night, raining was drenching the Bay Area, and for some reason, every single light in the venue was on. But after three minutes of being stared down by a growling Cheri, the crowd was fucking hyped. Nothing about Succumb’s raw approach to death metal should work, but XXI delivers on every front. With the usual trappings of death metal stripped away, Succumb’s songwriting chops and sheer talent fill the gaps for a nasty, raw album that establishes the band as a thrilling new voice in black(ish) metal.
Victory Over the Sun – Nowherer (microtonal black metal)
While the microtonal black metal movement has largely been dominated by Jute Gyte, I’ll argue that Nowherer earns Victory Over the Sun equal footing on that pedestal at a minimum. I first discovered Victory Over the Sun with A Tessitura of Transfiguration, an excellent display of avant-garde black metal that felt as reminiscent of Dodecahedron as it did Kayo Dot. With Nowherer, project mastermind Vivian Tylinska embraces microtonality while also adding unique compositional explorations throughout. This ranges from an intense, direct assault on the title track to an epic, eclectic finale on the 20-minute “Oscines.”
It really is this variety that makes Nowherer such a success. With more cerebral approaches to metal, microtonal or otherwise, the theory behind the music can sometimes dominate the compositions at the expense of the music itself. Tylinska avoids this issue completely on Nowherer. The tracks feature memorable ideas and well-written structures that just so happen to employ microtonality, which enhances rather than distracts from everything else on display. It culminated in one of my favorite avant-garde metal projects in years, and I highly recommend anyone into experimental music give it a listen.
Urban Dreams, Urban Nightmares
Portico Quartet – Monument (jazz-fusion)
Remember A Portrait of John Doe? If you don’t, it was a collaboration album between producer/composers Floex and Tom Hodge telling a futuristic, slightly dystopian story of urban malaise and mundanity. You really should listen to it. Anyway, the reason I bring that album up is because in so many ways, the latest album from jazz genre-benders Portico Quartet feels like the ideal companion piece, one that offers a much warmer and more hopeful view of urban chaos. Written supposedly with the intent of processing the brave new world of Covid, Duncan Bellamy and Jack Wyllie decided to take their frequent flirtations with EDM and house music and elevate them to the next level.
Through Monument Bellamy and Wyllie paint a picture of a rainy, light-strewn urban landscape in which life attempts to move on in spite of crisis. As usual, Wyllie’s expressive sax has a certain mournful quality to it that hangs over everything. But between Bellamy’s intricate drumming, dreamy piano, and the gauzy synths that pierce through frequently, the music itself never feels dour. There is constant energy and movement. There is a palpable warmth and, if not currently present, at least a desire for hope and optimism. In particular “A.O.E.” feels like a brief train ride out of the city into the countryside, where it’s easier to see life and nature live on fine without us and our human issues. And to return to the original analogy, “Warm Data” is the conclusive hopeful minimalist mirror to John Doe’s abject existential horror that defines its conclusion. Monument offers few answers to the calls for connection and cooperation it evokes, but it’s a bright spotlight cutting through the fog and rain of this year that reminds us that there can be more.
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises (neo-classical/jazz/ambient)
This is the entry in the list that I start in the most grandiose fashion, even though the album is probably the most intimate one I’m going to write about. What is a city? Sure, it has forceful elements to it, skyscrapers racing towards the sky and a horde of people eager to be on their way. But there are also shadowed alleyways, little snippets of quiet, human life, things kept on the sideline but nonetheless part of the urban experience. Promises, through a myriad of electronic elements, a killer leitmotif, and the contribution of one of the best voices (whether sung or channeled through the saxophone) to ever grace jazz, conjures that tapestry of moments into life.
Diving into Promises is one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll have all year, as parsing the confusingly simple intricacies of the album is the key to a deeper listening experience. Between the layers of orchestral compositions, electronic ambience, spoken word, saxophone, and the haunting leitmotif, there lie countless moments of expression, memories half-seen through the music, and stories waiting to unfold but not quite coalescing. Just like a city, then.
Also, here’s a meme I made just for you.
Abstract Void – Wishdream (post black/synthwave)
Whether you peer endlessly into that darkness or your eyes follow the light. The boundless nature sprawling into the dark. The snow is flurrying past your face. Over your windshield. A yellow tungsten light sticking off of a power line down the road. The dark road beneath the mountain gets smoother. The car grips tighter to the earth as the stars fade to a blizzarding glow. The car glides along the bend as street lights fade out and blip quickly overhead. The black of night gives way to the grey and yellow gradient of the city, casting it’s lights on the unflinching winter of night. Maybe you sit here, with the engine pumping out a faint heat. Seemingly suffocating against the elements. The edge of a city and endless forest. The freedom of the road. The warmth of your well-aged Japanese automobile. A coffee or cocoa in hand. A distant scream caked in reverb echoes over the entire night. Perturbed only by a blastbeat as cold as the weather itself.
Or maybe you venture further from the forest. Past the precipice of two worlds and into the neon city. Orange beating softly on old billboards. White lights filter out of hotels. Yellow pours out of homes and apartments in the suburbs. Plasma seeping from signs that creep in underneath bold stoplights amongst the encroaching urban sprawl. The sights of society’s manifestations reveal themselves to you. An ambitious synth pours out of the speakers in your car door. A melody pulses under an 80’s drum pad and yet, the darkness from the forest unfurls from the ever-present horizon.
Abstract Void is the quintessential crossroads of a Neon City’s synthwave and a Frost Encrusted Forest’s Black Metal. With the sophomore full-length Wishdream, this criminally underrated one man project has done the impossible once more. Blending two of the most evocative and atmospheric styles of music to an immeasurable level of precision. Despite my dragging you through a narrative about driving through a city or the perception of an unforgiving dark forest; that’s truly what Abstract Void achieves. An unmistakable level of atmosphere. A convergence of two worlds where most artists achieve only the vibe of one. While there’s no shortage of atmospheric black metal or synthwave, a cross-section such as this deserves a keener eye from both communities. Some of the finest work from either camp, we assure you.
Ascended Hypercube Tesseract From the Beyond
First Fragment – Gloire Eternelle (technical death metal)
Very rarely do I get to write up a technical death metal album. And by “get to”, I really mean “enjoy at all”. I can’t say exactly what it was that motivated me to press play on the latest from Quebec’s First Fragment, but I’m super glad I did. Gloire Eternelle is an incredible record! The unique combination of technical death metal with power metal and flamenco (of all things) makes for easily the most unique listening experience I had for all of 2021. I would be stepping too far in describing tech death as approachable to all listeners, but Gloire might be the album that gets you all into tech death much like it has me.
On paper, most listeners might find Gloire to be silly. I mean, tech death, power metal, neoclassical instrumentation, plus elements of swing and flamenco? Isn’t that all a little much? I’m here to tell you that it decidedly is not. Listening to the incredible display of musicianship at the highest levels makes any kind of music highly enjoyable. Not only that but this record is full of straight bangers. You won’t feel the need to skip a single track. Even the more “mellow” acoustic tracks have something to throw down on, and it all simply kicks a metric ton of ass. Regardless of your preferred style, you’ll need to check this one out before 2022 kicks into high gear.
Archspire – Bleed the Future (technical black metal)
It feels as if it were just yesterday that Archspire burst onto the scene, fully formed, with the hyper-speed sonic onslaught that was 2014’s The Lucid Collective. Landing a comfortable top 10 spot in our Best of 2014 list, the band’s sophomore effort felt as much a mission statement as it did a record – making clear from the outset that while the Vancouver quintet had an excellent grasp on the existing idiosyncrasies of the subgenre, they still needed things to be faster, faster, and faster.
That mission statement remains unchanged on Bleed the Future, but seven additional years of experience means that that core sound is propelled forward with a vigor and confidence befitting the band’s increasing death metal stardom. In little over half an hour, Bleed the Future sees Archspire run the gamut from filthy eight-string breakdowns to re-interpretations of Mozart pieces in a death metal context — all before a 400 (!) bpm song caps it off in unrelenting scorched earth fashion. 2017’s Relentless Mutation may have been the album that charted Archspire’s path to the top of the tech death world, but Bleed the Future definitively proves that they fully deserve their spot amongst the pantheon of modern greats.
Ophidian I – Desolate (technical black metal)
“Exuberant” isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind when describing most tech death bands, but there’s no other way to put it here: contrary to its title, Ophidian I‘s Desolate is musically one of the most colorful and vibrant tech death releases of the year. The band’s first album in nine years, Desolate wastes no time in jumping right into a ferocious intro riff with “Diamonds”, the riffage propelled forward by a thundering rhythm section and the bellow of vocalist John Olgeirsson alike. Part of what makes Desolate such a delight is the band’s clear love for the genre itself, from the Gorod-like grooves to the shred virtuosity of bands like Obscura and more recently First Fragment. Yet the melodic sensibilities of the band sometimes lean into borderline Protest the Hero-like sections (the recurring lead pattern in “Sequential Descent”, for one) weaving their way through the dense musicality otherwise on offer to make for outright catchy moments just as easily.
Ultimately, the only thing Ophidian I’s sophomore effort doesn’t do is let up on the standard of quality “Diamonds” sets at the very start, making Desolate one of the most consistently delightful tech death albums of the year. The end product is a voice that’s uniquely the band’s own, and one that’s a joy to behold. Ophidian I paint death metal soundscapes with the confidence and poise of long-time veterans, and the mind boggles trying to imagine just what the Icelandic five-piece will be able to put together next.
Frontierer – Oxidized (chaotic mathcore)
If much of the music listed in this category is ascending the tesseract, Frontierer are invading and obliterating it from the inside out. Aberrant technicality and progressive song structures come in many forms in the extreme music world, but Frontierer stand almost entirely alone in their particular brand of sonic insanity. Theirs is the sound of abject chaos, of compositions so heavy that it’s a wonder our headphones don’t collapse in on themselves. This is the type of music that black holes get created to, and it’s truly a wonder to witness. But all the hyperbole surrounding their oppressive brand of extreme metal and electronics often obscures just how skilled this group of humans is at creating technically wondrous sonic monuments that are as carefully and strategically composed as anything you’ll find in an Ulcerate or Imperial Triumphant record. It’s technicality as a vehicle of chaos, and it’s sublime.
In case Oxidized flew under your radar, it’s safe to say (in my humble estimation) that it’s the band’s most comprehensively punishing and rewarding record to date. From the opening seconds of “Heirloom” it’s clear that Frontierer are making no plans to spare your eardrums from a musical onslaught that defies proper explanation or categorization. It may take a few spins to get your bearings, but those repeat journeys are well worth the effort. As your brain becomes somewhat accustomed to the audio assault of Oxidized, the care and expert technical precision imbued in these compositions will become clearly evident. There’s a whirlwind of amazing performances throughout this record that teeter on the very edge of sanity itself, but careful listening bears out the methodical nature of this madness, especially in the rhythm department. The rhythmic complexity of Oxidized is whiplash inducing and utterly stunning, helping Frontierer create what feels like not only the next evolution of their sound, but for extreme music in general. In a multitude of ways, this record will open a portal in your brain that you may or may not be able to escape from. Best of luck, comrade. You’ll need it.
Papangu – Holoceno (progressive rock/zeuhl/sludge)
Many of the other albums in this category conjure a sort of technological and electronic sound for their channeling of the Ascended Hypercube Tesseract From the Beyond (blessed be its power). But Papangu conjures themes and sensations from the deep earth, feeling of mud, fire, vegetation, and raw, unadulterated rage and confusion. As the name might imply, Holoceno is the Brazilian band’s attempt to channel the climate disaster into music and words and, since the climate disaster is a horrible conflagration, the resulting album feels much like it as well.
It’s safe to say you’ve never heard an album quite like this. Sludge, progressive stoner, zeuhl, doom, and progressive rock all blend together to form a rolling ball of pissed off, terrified, terrifying, and rage inducing music that is very hard to pin down. It’s one of the least accessible albums released this year and, by extension, one of the most rewarding ones to eventually decipher. The way there is certainly difficult but the end result, an album that manages to articulate, at least somewhat, an ongoing tragedy we are all dealing with and will continue to deal with for the rest of our lives, is well worth the effort.
Fire-Toolz – Eternal Home (vapoerwave/experimental electronics)
I’ve pricked, poked, and pondered every facet of this 25-track, “four-disc” opus, and every time I wander its infinitely tesselating, transmogrifying corridors, I inevitably end up more lost than I was the time before. Fire-Toolz is just one of a handful of projects brought to life by the prolific one-woman multi-instrumentalist and producer Angel Marcloid, and to say Eternal Home is ambitious is a wild understatement.
The album feels as much like a choose your own adventure novel as a cohesive musical endeavor. Normally I’d say that’s a bad thing, but given the breadth and palette of sounds and concepts explored, it amounts to a tantalizing, transformative trip through the uncanny. It’s impossible to nail down a specific genre, or even grab bag of disparate ones, to compound Eternal Home’s sound. What awaits you is a hypercube of progressive vaporwave shot to shit by tribes of black metal and screamo degenerates that activates in multiple dimensions at once, presenting the listener with branching paths through a kaleidoscope of other sounds and stories.
Enjoy offerings like the eerie, industrial, ultimately vintage sound design of “(e)y(e)s w/o a %brain%” that’s less a song and more scoring to an indie sci-horror walking simulator, to perhaps one of my favorite tracks, the glittery post-black “Thick_flowy_glowy_sparkly_stingy_pain.mpeg” that begins Disc 3. Lush soundscapes and raw digital chaos alike await behind twin doors across the planar halls of Eternal Home, and I invite you to come explore them with me – if you’re ready.
Cryptosis – Bionic Swarm (thrash metal)
I don’t know if Bionic Swarm is particularly “unfathomable,” but “Ascended Hypercube Tesseract From the Beyond” certainly sounds like one of its song titles, so I’m going to use this category to talk about one of the best thrash metal albums of the year. Imagine if Revocation had kept on more of a thrash metal trajectory, following Great is Our Sin (2016) or the self-titled (2013), and you should have a pretty good idea of what Cryptosis sound like. Better yet, click on the video below and be blown away by the band’s brilliant balance of cerebral technicality and raw, guttural aggression.
Many tech-thrash bands tend to get lost among the tech side of things. Not Cryptosis though. For every technical, progressive or even blackened element they bring in, the riffs and rhythm section are always there to remind you they remain a thrash band at their core, and on a debut record, no less. Really impressive (if not entirely unfathomable) stuff.
Time Is a Construct…But Seriously, What Year Is It?
Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic (quiet storm/R&B)
I don’t have the most direct reference points for what Silk Sonic are doing on An Evening With Silk Sonic, so stick with me. Listening to the record gives me some kind of reptilian dopamine response like nothing else this year has. Bringing me right back to when and where I was when I initially heard the 70s hard rock and blues acts that would make me feel frisson for the first time and ultimately define the beginning of my journey into other styles.
My reasoning for the way this record makes me feel is that those blues and hard rock originators—Zeppelin and Purple and the like—took from early black electric blues artists, who also pioneered a few other genres, namely R&B, funk and soul, all of which are delectably blended together on AEWSS for a short and intensely sweet ride.
The pairing of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak is simply a match made in Malibu. Like all the best couples, their individual qualities wonderfully complement one another. If Silk Sonic were a Jaffa Cake, Mars would be the tangy orange jelly—the first thing you notice—sweet and instantly gratifying; Paak would be the dark chocolate skin, smooth but with that dirtiness too; and the rhythm section that backs them is the spongy base on which Mars and Paak sit. “After Last Night” is just pure sex in aural form, and yes that is quite the hyperbolic statement indeed, but that is precisely the point of this roundup so fuck you. I’m sitting here writing this, craning my neck to the slick beats and Mars’ gorgeous high notes like an utter dork. That’s just what this record does to you.
Blazon Rite – Endless Halls of Golden Totem (traditional heavy metal/proto-doom)
Saying that an album is “bringing back” the trappings of proto-doom/heavy metal is a bit of stretch, seeing as the sound is having a bit of resurgence. There’s nothing to bring back if genre greats like Cirith Ungol are still around, releasing music as they are. Regardless though, Blazon Rite have a certain quality that is very early 80’s, bringing much force and aggressiveness to their thick, stolid sort of heavy metal. Endless Halls of Golden Totem comes to do what the album’s name (and, indeed, the band’s name) hints that it might want to do: play present, epic, and in your face heavy metal.
But along the way, Endless Halls of Golden Totem also manages to achieve a feat that is far from mean: great storytelling. Whether when laying out epic tales, like in “The Night Watchmen of Starfall Tower” (one of my favorite tracks of the year) or the telling tales of sordid violence in “The Executioner’s Woe”, Blazon Rite have the rare ability to paint whole pictures with their lyrics and their music. Which is what transforms that music, taking an already great formula of thick guitars, powerful choruses, and blazing solos and elevating it into a whole new level of imagination and fancy.
Green Lung – Black Harvest (stoner metal)
When you put on a doom metal record, you’re generally looking for 2 things: big riffs and atmosphere. It also helps when things get a little witchy and spooky which really helps build up the atmosphere. I think that explains why we loved Green Lung’s first release, Woodland Rites, and it also shows why we’re so high on their sophomore release, Black Harvest. When an artist puts out a record, we all eagerly anticipate the follow-up and (sometimes unfairly) put a lot of pressure and expectations on artists to deliver. Fair or not, Green Lung truly delivered with Black Harvest. The new record builds upon what the band has already established and greatly expands what they want to do. And, boy, were we ever ready for it.
Listening to Green Lung is such a cool experience in the first place. Their music calls to mind the occult line between stoner and doom metal, acknowledging the psychedelic mystery of the former and the overwhelming atmosphere of the latter. Tracks like “Old Gods,” “Graveyard Sun,” and “Doomsayer” draw you under the band’s spell in an eerie way where you feel at ease but also know something strange and possibly wicked is on the way. Black Harvest feels like the big sequel to Woodland Rites we all wanted, so I would reject the idea that it’s “more of the same” from the band. But it follows the path laid out by the first record and shows the band really growing into what they want to do. It’s just good.
Between the Buried and Me – Colors II (progressive metal)
Colors II is an unbelievably good record – as in, every time I listen to it, I literally can’t believe a) that it’s good, and b) just how good it truly is. You can count the number of decent “sequel records” on one hand (Harvest Moon (1992), Keeper of the Seven Keys: Part II (1988), 2001 (1999); that’s about it right?) and, given the drop-off in BTBAM’s stock since The Paralax II: Future Sequence (2012) (more of a companion than a sequel record, since it and The Hypersleep Dialogues (2011) were recorded together and released in close proximity), trying to recapture the quality of what is genuinely a landmark genre record in 2007’s Colors fourteen years after the fact seemed like the most ill-advised step the band could have made when it was announced. But, by god, they pulled it off!
If Colors II had come hot on the heels of Colors or either of the albums that followed it, it would likely also be heralded as a modern classic and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t still be – if not more so – because of the delay between the two records. Listening to Colors II is to be instantly transported back to when BTBAM were at the top if their game and almost untouchable within the progressive metal sphere. Sure, each and every compositional recall hits with a wave of nostalgia and borrowed reverence, but most of the album’s transportive quality comes from the sheer, paradoxically unprecedented quality of Colors II itself. It’s an album that simultaneously recaptures the spirit of a bygone era while also proving that BTBAM have still got it, and it’s that always unexpected, yet always equally impressive, reinvigorating quality that makes Colors II my favourite album of the year.
Malignant Altar – Realms of Exquisite Morbidity (OSDM)
Death metal, perhaps more than any branch of the metal tree, has built its most recent reputation on adoration of and exposition upon the old. “OSDM” has been a buzzword in the extreme metal world for the last several years, with bands like Tomb Mold, Blood Incantation, Father Befouled, Chthe’ilist, Of Feather and Bone, and a veritable host of other bands plumbing the depths of death metal’s earliest sounds to create a musical space that both honors and expands upon the genre’s sonic foundations. Of all the death metal bands this year that traveled back to mine the riches of 1992, it would be difficult to find one more successful in execution than Malignant Altar and their brutalizing debut full-length Realms of Exquisite Morbidity. Their weapon? Insanely effective riffs. Their historic place of worship? The Church of Morbid Angel.
It’s impossible to extract Morbidity from the work of it’s obvious primary influence, but in no way is this a bad thing. Feeling like an updated, upgraded, and somehow beefier version of Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick, Malignant Altar presents a memorable showcase of literally every method that made those albums such landscape-altering successes. The riffs here are utterly filthy, stacking on top of and obliterating one another with an ease that would make Trey Azagthoth smile. It’s the type of style worship so expertly crafted and perfectly executed that it’s almost impossible not to applaud the band for both their obvious historical knowledge of what made this genre special to begin with and their uncanny ability to execute these stylistic trappings with the best of them. Ripped straight from the golden age of death metal, Realms of Exquisite Morbidity is a triumph of style and substance.
Magdalena Bay – Mercurial World (synth-pop)
With just one line in her review of Mercurial World, Katherine St. Asaph described the album perfectly: “They sound like whatever you grew up with, whenever that was.” During my first listen through Mercurial World, I also noted a cornucopia of electronic subgenres and time periods on display within Magdalena Bay’s core framework of oddball synthpop. Imagine Grimes and Charli XCX performing original music at Daft Punk’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The duo’s eclectic compositional framework brings them in some intriguing directions, from breezy synth funk to ’90s dance to retro ’80s synth revival and beyond.
Specifically, I want to highlight “Chaeri” and the cheekily titled finale, “The Beginning.” The former is the shining example of Magdalena Bay’s subtle approach to synthpop. The chorus doesn’t quite rise off the ground like you’d expect. Instead, the duo unfurl the track gradually, adding elements atop of a thumping, twisting bass line that ascends alongside building synth crescendos. On the flipside, “The Beginning” proves the duo can write a traditional pop banger. The track sounds like Discovery reimagined as a J-Pop track, complete with cutesy vocal harmonies and technicolor synths straight out of an Anime-inspired music video. If you’re not dancing at this point of the record, then you’re standing by yourself on the outskirts of the dancehall.
How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?
Mogwai – As the Love Continues (post-rock)
Perhaps it’s not really fair to include post-rock legends Mogwai in this list as they’ve had about as consistent a body of work over time as anyone in post-rock or, frankly, rock as a whole. Sure, they’ve had their minor ups and downs – their previous studio album, Every Country’s Sun, didn’t do much for me, while the soundtrack album preceding that, Atomic, is easily one of my favorites of theirs – but overall the Scots have just been steadily performing at quite a high level for two and a half decades. And yet, As the Love Continues, their tenth studio album (not counting the myriad soundtracks they’ve produced), is perhaps the first of theirs in over a decade where it feels like all of their many sides have clicked together. Rock Mogwai, pop/shoegaze Mogwai, and soundtrack Mogwai all meet together and coexist wonderfully through the album’s 11 tracks.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the dichotomy between the album’s two lead singles, the dreamy instrumental “Dry Fantasy,” and the straight-forward rocker “Ritchie Sacramento,” followed by the hard-nosed and edgy “Drive the Nail.” The band’s prowess over multiple genres and flavors is on full display here in a way that they haven’t quite been able to accomplish in the studio for quite some time, all with the same cheeky sense of humor we’ve come to expect and probably take for granted at this point. There continues to be no one out there quite like Mogwai, and we should be thankful any time they can prove that again and again.
Leprous – Aphelion (progressive metal)
Eden has explained the ‘curse’ of Leprous time and time again: the fact that the Norwegian prog metal band released not one, but two back-to-back iconic albums in Bilateral (2011) and Coal (2013) very early on. This, of course, has meant that every subsequent release has been evaluated almost entirely through the collective lens of those two records, and often a smidge unfairly at that. That said, it’s arguable that the ensuing releases did see a dip in quality: not so much because they were missing the vibrance of Bilateral or the emotional weight of Coal, but more so because Leprous arguably seemed to become increasingly complacent in their sound, having found a solid middle-ground formula that did the trick quite well but not much else.
At first, Aphelion seems to continue that trend of crisp vocal-driven prog metal that is perfectly good but not necessarily ground-breaking in ways the band have clearly shown themselves to be capable of. But initial impressions can be deceiving, and Leprous’ seventh album has lots more to offer than one might think. Einar Solberg’s memorable hooks and powerful choruses abound as always, but the instrumental side of things feels substantially further refined, notably tied together by an emotive string section (courtesy of collaborators Raphael Weinroth-Browne and Chris Baum) that intertwines with Solberg’s lines to dazzling effect. Instead of trying to recapture the magic of a past release (the album isn’t remotely trying to be Coal II – ahem) Aphelion sees Leprous doubling down on their newfound minimalist sound and finally having all the pieces click for their best and most dynamic release in years. From the pop sensibilities of highlight “Have You Ever?” to the crisp riffage forming the chorus of “The Silent Revelation”, it’s clear Leprous are still in top form, and there’s really no one doing it quite like them.
Limp Bizkit – STILL SUCKS (nu-metal)
I’m cashing in basically any and all cred I’ve built over the course of the 6 years I’ve been writing for this website to write this blurb. Look, no, this album isn’t essential, and I’m not going to write some inspired paean about how STILL SUCKS is “good, actually” or anything like that. But what I am going to say is this: fuck you, some of these songs have riffs. Wes Borland has always been an unsung hero of deceptively simple ass kicker guitar parts (seriously, listen to “Pollution” or “Trust?”), sort of a Stephen Carpenter on creatine type of deal, and he’s back with a real vengeance here. “Out of Style” and “Pill Popper” are the new apex predators of the dumbass metalcore world that Emmure have built for themselves. At its best, STILL SUCKS comes across as a fantastic moment of ouroboric reckoning, with huge chugged power chords that would make Josh Travis blush. Make no mistake, Fred Durst is still unbelievably obnoxious (although whether this is good or bad is a personal opinion), and some of these songs really, really suck. But if you can take the lows with the highs, STILL SUCKS is a fun and surprisingly fresh new album from a band whose last glory days predated the Iraq war.
Every Time I Die – Radical (hardcore)
If the Trapper Keeper cover art doesn’t scream it loud enough, our beloved Buffalo boys have been doing their homework since their 2016 gem, Low Teens. Every Time I Die is still aging like good cheese, only getting sharper as the years go on. For a genre so tied to youthful exuberance, it’s all the more impressive; but maybe it’s a motivating factor for these vets? Either way, it’s tough to make a case against Radical being one of hardcore’s finest offerings in 2021. There’s truly something for everything here, no matter what era of ETID you favor (or even if you somehow haven’t dug in on these dudes yet). It’s got it all: throwback flavor in tracks like “All This And War” (that Josh Scogin feature is worthy of the hype) and “Distress Rehearsal,” a melodic staple in “Thing with Feathers,” the Southern-fried “White Void,” and the expected heaps and heaps of the whiplashing angular shit that makes every ETID offering a joyride through riff city.
The chops are stronger than ever, and frontman Keith Buckley is once again the ace in the sleeve that takes things to the next level. Radical is handily his most varied performance vocally, adding a few new techniques to his repertoire (see “Sly,” “AWOL”), but the biggest gain, as it was on Low Teens, is once again in the lyrical department. That effort marked a shift toward more personal lyrical topics, and Radical takes that inward look a step further, connecting things to a more universal shared experience (the pandemic, the January 6 Insurrection, the general fucked up state of the world, etc.). It’s something that can be read and well as heard, cementing their status as one of the most consistent and exciting bands in hardcore — one that’s not likely to take a color-by-numbers approach to their craft.
When the Riff Hits Though
Terminus – The Silent Bell Toll (progressive stoner metal)
What are the odds that two incredible modern doom bands come out of Fayetteville, Arkansas? Terminus is just the latest example of a bass-heavy stoner doom sound coming out of the south, and The Silent Bell Toll was a complete bolt from the blue for me this year. What a refreshing treat! Not only does it have that signature bass-heavy tone like another Fayetteville, AR band has, but there’s a very dreamy and psychedelic influence to this record that the other band lacks. The Silent Bell Toll takes the original general idea and launches it into a new direction, adding a lot of layers to the sound and making it an intensely interesting this to listen to.
There’s also an undeniable upbeat feeling to The Silent Bell Toll. Each track definitely has a heavier aspect to them in terms of lyrical content, but the rhythms and grooves on the record make you tap your feet and bob your head. That engaging quality brings you closer to each track and makes you want to know what the band is talking about. I love that conflict sometimes as it really makes you think deeply about songs and records in general. The Silent Bell Toll is by far the best example I know of from this year’s releases. Even without that, you should listen to Terminus regardless of where you come from. If you’re reading this list, you should listen to The Silent Bell Toll.
Civerous – Decrepit Flesh Relic (death-doom)
“Hey Pete,” no one asked. “What was the dirtiest, filthiest thing you can think of that you loved this year?” Why, thank you for asking, non-existent person! It was definitively Civerous and their latest full-length, Decrepit Flesh Relic. The first few times I went through it, I got some heavy-duty Spectral Voice vibes, but this record goes so far beyond that. Civerous leaves behind the more gaze-y elements of Spectral Voice in favor of rhythms that grind you into the dust and riffs the hammer the nails into your coffin. Decrepit Flesh Relic is as overwhelming and inevitable as the grave itself, so get yourself a preview of inescapable doom here.
I certainly don’t mean to make light of this record (and also death), but a record like Decrepit calls for such bombasity. After listening to this record once, I challenge any of you to put it in terms other than shouting “THE FILTH” at the sky like you’re cursing gods both old and new. It calls for that kind of over-the-top descriptors because this record is nothing if not over-the-top. It’s the kind of record with a lot of meat on the bone if you catch my drift (and I think you do). You’ll want to experience every dirty nook and cranny on Decrepit Flesh Relic, and the great thing about it is that you still have parts to focus on after multiple playthroughs. Civerous is the gift that keeps on giving, and it’s why I loved this record this year.
Employed to Serve – Conquering (post-hardcore)
Few musical moments from 2021 are as exhilarating as when the main riff of “Universal Chokehold” kicks in. The long build-up into a crushingly heavy riff is an old trick but – just like everything else – Employed to Serve simply do it better than everyone else. On Conquering they also managed do everything better than even they had before. It’s by far the most varied Employed to Serve record – taking the disparate elements from their three previous records and ramming them together into a single, concise package that serves as a landmark record for both the band themselves and the wider metal(core) genre as whole.
Employed to Serve are masters of every aspect of their craft, but at the centre of it all is always the mighty riff. Whether it’s something slow and sludgy like “Sunup to Sundown”, “Stand Alone” and “Mark of the Grave”, or something more rabid like “The Mistake” or “Set in Stone” they are equally brimming with momentous aggression, so that when they drop a song called “World Ender” you know they really mean it. Employed to Serve have always been a step above and ahead of their peers, but Conquering just how far ahead they truly are, with even the closed competitors unable to stand up to the onslaught of their riffage.
Dvne – Etemen Ænka (progressive metal/post-metal)
It’s safe to say that Dvne’s Etemen Ænka was one of my most expected releases of 2021. In that sense, it was also the release that most delivered on its promise for me since the album is even better than the preceding release, Asheran. Which is saying something because I loved that album enough to dedicate a *prognotes for it, something I did for the follow up as well. Suffice it to say that both releases are different but that Etemen Ænka is an even more polished and refined version of Dvne’s progressive sort of post-metal, alos bringing their sci-fi vision to bigger fruition, painting in the line of the rich world they set out to define with Asheran.
I think what surprised me most about the album is how farther Dvne have been willing to dive into the more intricate elements of their sound. While Asheran was complicated enough, Etemen Ænka is much more so, containing not only lyrical and thematic allusions and clues but also layered, rich, technical music that really elevates Dvne’s sound to the next level. I think it’s enough to listen to “Towers”, the first “epic” on the album, to hear that. The intricate riffs, the song’s structure, the many-yet-cohesive stations that it crosses, are all a delight to hear. When multiplied to the album at large, this becomes even more ambitious and even more satisfying as a result creating a truly epic, and engaging, work of metal.
Dormant Ordeal – The Grand Scheme of Things (dissonant death metal)
Dormant Ordeal are supremely underrated. It’s a fact, and I’ll accept no alternate perspectives. Over their relatively short career the band has amassed a truly unassailable discography of dissonant, technical, unashamedly aggressive death metal that is just about peerless. Three albums in and there are few death metal bands capable of crushing heads with as much aplomb. This year’s The Grand Scheme of Things is their crowning achievement thus far. It’s got exceptional performances, mature songwriting, and most importantly to our purposes here… memorable riffs for days.
Every track here has at least two to three memorable and expertly executed riffs, but the three track sequence of “Bright Constellations”, “Here Be Dragons”, and “Letters to Mr. Smith” may be the single most destructive, riff heavy, and batshit insane stretch on any metal record released this year. It’s a powder keg of exceptional riffs, with special attention paid to the juicy, central nugget embedded in “Dragons” just before the three minute mark. Showcasing the band’s much matured melodic sensibility juxtaposed with their ability to punish relentlessly, it’s a near-perfect example of everything the band does well in regards to riff writing. If you’re looking for a record that somehow manages to simultaneously build obvious and effective melodic structures while obliterating your brain cells through the unimpeachable power of the riff, look no further. This record’s a stunner.
Moon Unit – Differences in Language and Lifestyle (progressive rock/alt-rock)
There are plenty of other albums I could have nominated for this category. Both the Mastodon and Converge records immediately jump out as bigger releases that left little impression on me upon first listen but ended up making my AOTY list, even the Don Broco record took a bit of getting used to. Yet, on top of wanting to shout out a smaller band rather than redundantly remind everyone that “Mastodon and Converge are pretty good, actually”, no album has made such a huge jump in my esteem than the truly wild debut record from little-known Croatian alt-prog rockers Moon Unit.
When I first listened to Differences in Language and Lifestyle – based on its promised combination of Faith no More, Devin Townsend, Dream Theater – I really wasn’t sure about it, especially when it started sounding like P.O.D. halfway through. As with many of the best records, however, there was something about the album that kept drawing me back in. I ended up listening to it every day for about a month and liking it that little bit more each and every time, to the point that it had wormed its way into to upper eschelons of my AOTY list, where it has stayed ever since.
It’s unsurprising it took me so long to come to grips with this record, given just how much it has is going on (it took me about twenty listens before I realised the “paging Harry Kim” refrain I had been humming all month was a reference to Star Trek: Voyager, which I was currently working through at the time, which perhaps says more about me than the band themselves…), but it quickly became one of my most listened to and enjoyed records of 2021 and I encourage anyone else intrigued by its premise to stick with it.
Morningstar Delirium – Morningstar Delirium (ambience/gothic rock)
I’ll be honest here: I listen to this album by virtue of it having Kelly Schilling (Dreadnought) and Clayton Cushman (The Flight of Sleipnir) on it. Both of those bands are some of my favorites from the illustrious Denver metal scene, so I was excited to see what they could do in tandem. To say that I got something that I wasn’t expecting would be an understatement. Morningstar Delirium is a brooding, slow-burner of an album, channeling dark ambience into a decidedly goth and dramatic experience. This makes it anything but easy to get into; there’s a lot of space that sounds “empty” and the vocal performances are not geared with ease of listening in mind.
But if you give it the time it requires, Morningstar Delirium is one of the most moving albums of 2021. To be sure, it is decidedly, sometimes unbearably, sad. Maybe “haunting” is a better adjective; there is something bottomless about Delirium’s sound, especially the instruments. The beauty of that bottomless well is the vocals, resounding around its stones like an echo from another time unspooling itself from within the murky depths. Both Schilling and Cushman are exemplary vocalists and the contrast between their timbres, Schilling’s higher, achingly forlorn and Cushman’s rumbling, warmly evocative, is a wonder to behold. These elements have made it the album that I’m glad I stuck with in 2021; I implore you to do the same.
Trophy Scars – Astral Pariah (art rock)
In this section you’ll find a lot of examples of a certain type of record. These are the records that weave together disparate elements or twist and contort a particular style to no end until it becomes a new way of seeing. The process is surely uncomfortable for the band or artist, and this is mirrored in the listener when they’re first exposed to the music; it’s a feeling of pleasant familiarity and simultaneously, striking confusion. And that’s what I was confronted with on my first listen to Trophy Scars’ majestic Astral Pariah.
Astral Pariah has that unfurling quality that I yearn for in music. At first it is a kooky, psychedelic blend of art rock and blues rock, Jerry Jones’ gravelly vocal tone is chock-full of character; his chorus roars sound like he’s choking on tumbleweed in the best way (“Mother”), while his lower register almost has a depressive post-punk vibe to it with more of a bluesy twist (“Sister”).
On further runs with the record, their sound just feels more and more “baked-in”, with hints of all sorts of styles popping up. For instance, it flows like a prog record, with warped musical and lyrical call-backs, yet it is short, hooky and accessible. There’s hints of soul-searching post-hardcore on the gorgeous mumbled crescendo of “Father (Part I)”, albeit marinated beyond belief in honeyed string flourishes.
The moral here is, don’t go into a record expecting a certain angle on a sound. I went into Astral Pariah expecting a fairly explicit amalgam of blues rock and post-hardcore and it delivered so much more.
Kaonashi – Dear Lemon House, You Ruined Me: Senior Year (experimental/post-hardcore)
The biggest grower with this album is undoubtedly the vocals, likely also the biggest make or break for many with Kaonashi in general. Peter Rono has this sort of crazed-cartoon-character-like delivery that could probably land him some voice-acting roles. But if you can embrace his energy, which is not too-unlike that of Mikee Goodman of SikTh, you might find the conceptual Dear Lemon House, You Ruined Me: Senior Year to be one of the most interesting metalcore releases of the year. It’s got the youthful playfulness of swancore, with equally strong technical-chops, but replace the glossy pop shine with the angsty rage of 00’s metalcore.
Rono voices the protagonist of a JPGR style high-school drama, and each track takes you inside the life of a struggling teenager. From the first day of school, new relationships, dealing with counselors, coping with drugs; it’s a portrayal of high-school trauma that pop-punk bands would be jealous of. You might think that given this lyrical theme the album would have an immaturity to it, yet there’s an impressive depth to the world-building and character-development here that’s mimicked by the maturity of their song-writing.
As Dear Lemon House moves from one story arc to another, their writing style flows and adapts as needed to match each mood or conflict. This gives it a buoyant, cohesive flow where tracks rarely feel repetitive or derative of one another as they find a nice contrast between their borderline-obnoxious mathcore leanings to more melancholic prog meets post-hardcore melodies and clean vocals. Throw in some bangin’ guitar solos as in “A Recipe for a Meaningful Life” and we’ve got ourselves one of the standout metalcore releases of the year.
Dust Moth – Rising // Sailing (shoegaze)
This record could have just as easily slotted into the “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?” category, seeing as one of the primary songwriters for Dust Moth is Ryan Fredericksen, who previously cut his teeth blending post-hardcore, math rock, and occasional psychadelia as the guitarist for the now-seemingly-defunct legends These Arms Are Snakes. TAAS were a pivotal act in the continued development of my musical tastes during my twenties, which I guess makes me the skateboard-toting Steve Buscemi to modern music’s bright-eyed youth. Like some of TAAs’ later works, it took me a while to warm up to Rising // Sailing, but as with the aforementioned albums, I eventually found myself returning again and again until I realized I loved them. I would thoroughly recommend that anyone with even a passing interest in spacey, ‘gazey, artsy post-hardcore dedicate some time to this record, which was released in March via A Thousand Arms.
One of Rising // Sailing’s greatest strengths is also what positions it as a delayed-gratification record. It’s written with a maturity, confidence, and capability that typically only comes as a result of years in bands, discovering what it is you do well, and what it is you enjoy doing. Artists that try to emulate the frenetic energy of their earlier days in heavy music more often than not fail to have continued creative success, coming off as pale imitations of their former selves. Dust Moth strikes me as a clear and coherent transition for Fredericksen from the end of TAAS to the present. The deliberate riffing, looped guitars, and effects-drenched atmospherics remain, except now they’re hyper-focused on building soundscapes for vocalist Irene Barber to drift dreamily in and out of, which are grounded by the power and precision of the rhythm section comprised of bassist Steve Becker and Jim Acquavella. When Fredericksen does unleash a front-and-center guitar hook, like on the single “Everything Anew,” or the fantastic closer “I’m Not Anyone,” it’s all the more impactful because of the patience and restraint shown otherwise. Add to all this the pedigree and professionalism of Matt Bayles and Chris Common on the production end, and you have an album that may take a bit of acclimation, but is very much worth your time and consideration.
Weird flex, but OK
Fucked Up – Year of the Horse (experimental rock)
Okay, so first of all, let’s get the most important question out of the way. What in the ever-living fuck is Year of the Horse? Well, it’s a rock opera split up into 4 roughly 20-minute movements that tells the story of a mythical horse on the run from an evil wizard, aided by an abusive mother and a rabid posse, and narrated primarily through the mother’s daughter (if you’re interested in details beyond that, here’s a more detailed synopsis). Oh, and it frequently cycles through musical themes and genres ranging from spaghetti western to thrash to prog metal to lounge jazz and medieval folk.
Still following? Good, because the head-spinning exterior to the Toronto hardcore veterans latest release belies the sheer listenability and enjoyment that the music itself brings. Despite having an absolute cavalcade of guest singers and musicians throughout (ranging from Chubby and the Gang’s Maegan Brooks Mills to Julien Baker and The National’s Matt Berninger), Horse represents Fucked Up’s best use of erstwhile carnival barking frontman Damian Abraham in at least a decade. Abraham is at his best when his sandblasted vocals can accompany instrumentals that sound like either the most epic of triumphs or the cataclysmic end of the world, and Horse offers up both in spades. Yes, this might very well be the absolute nerdiest hardcore/metal release of the year and then some, but it works because there is deep sincerity and radical love baked into every second of it.
Lordi – Lordiversity (glam/shock rock)
The history of heavy metal is full of stories of extravagance and excess, but a Eurovison-winning band who dress up as space zombies releasing a box set of seven simultaneously recorded albums (talked down from an original ten) under the guise of a “lost” back catalogue spanning seven different musical styles over twenty years as the follow-up to an imaginary greatest hits collection as something to do during a global pandemic has to be up there. What’s perhaps most remarkable about Lordiversity, however, is that it seems to have been relatively successful. The project (so far) hasn’t broken up or bankrupted the band, charted at number fifteen in their native Finnland and has inspired what seems like the most amount of Lordi critical and media coverage since winning Eurovision a decade and a half ago. Oh, and it’s also somehow really good actually!
You definitely have to be in on the joke, but if you have any ounce of affection for the seven styles covered on Lordiversity, then you’re in for a good time. The runaway success of the bunch is “1989” radio-rock love letter Humanimals, which is an album I’ve been returning to at least every other day since the box set’s release (unfortunately I still don’t think it’ll be released online for another month or two when this goes live), but W.A.S.P.-inflected “1984” offering Abusement Park and genuinely outstanding “1979” disco record Superfly Trap aren’t far behind. Yet, even on the lesser entrys, such as “1975” retro-rock record Skelectric Dinosaur or “1981” prog rock opera Masterbeast from the Moon, there’s a genuine appreciation and respect for the music that comes through thanks to the band’s dedication to using authentic equipment and recording spaces to capture the sounds they sought to celebrate. Lordiversity is a truly fascinating product and one which is far, far better than it has any right to be.
Boss Keloid – Family The Smiling Thrush (progressive stoner metal)
I remember first listening to Melted On the Inch, Boss Keloid’s previous release, and thinking “uuuuhhhhh excuse me?” Don’t get me wrong, Herb Your Enthusiasm was good; I even covered it for the blog (and yes, I still wear the fact that I knew about Keloid before most blogs as a badge of honor, thank you very much). But it wasn’t this. Wait, what is this? No clue. Progressive stoner? Experimental sludge? Doom rock? Fuck it, who cares. I scratched my head while absolutely loving whatever it was I was hearing; the weird vocals, the weirder synths, the off-kilter structures. It was weird but I was vibing and it was great. And then came along Family the Smiling Thrush and it was like it spat “oh you sweet Summer child” in my face.
In some ways, Thrush is less weird than Melted On the Inch. It’s certainly less sprawling and more compact. But, in other ways, that makes it almost weirder? There are sections on it which, weird timbres and tones aside, are structured like “normal” stoner songs. But then there’s a bunch of weirdly pulsating and undulating sounds underneath them? And some of the passages hark back to Melted On the Inch and are just decidedly odd? And the entire album is about a family of plants? The solos are downright mind-bending? Lots of open questions and very few answers but all of them spell out a fact that I have suspected ever since I first heard Herb; we are witnessing the unfolding of one of the more interesting careers in music right now. I mean, who the hell knows what these guys will do next? Certainly not me.
Fawn Limbs – Darwin Falls (mathgrind)
Even after a few long months with this release, its terrifying genius still feels challenging and fresh. With such a high barrier of entry to most listeners, I can understand some trepidation in diving fully into the bleak narrative and disorienting chaos of Darwin Falls, which fully blurs the lines between album and audio drama. Picking up where they left off on the Thrum EP, blog darlings Fawn Limbs continue the tale of our wandering protagonist, voiced by drummer Lee Fisher, as he starts off into the wilderness following a horrifying event. The spoken word passages, often underscored by the withering and wailing of brass, the prickling of strings, or industrial impacts, lull you into the yarn spun about the character’s transformative journey – just to be viciously ripped back into focus by abrasive salvos of gut-wrenching mathgrind at every turn.
It’s a format and style of music that is both demanding to get through, and equally rewarding for finishing and appreciating. Fawn Limbs seem to exist to push these aural boundaries, and their prolific output feels like a well nowhere near running dry. Darwin Falls is something unlike I’ve ever heard before, and as an adherent to the churches of both dissonant, brutal mathcore and original audio fiction, this one hit a sweet spot I didn’t even know existed. Hey Eeli, if you’re reading this – keep up the great work, bud. Little else has hit as hard or been as awe-inspiring as the Fawn Limbs discography in recent years, and I’m clamoring for more.
It’s my first day
Urne – Serpent & Spirit (progressive stoner metal)
2021 has been a year dominated by newer bands and smaller releases. As such, five debut albums made their way onto my personal Top 25 list, of which Urne’s Serpent & Spirit was not the highest (that would be Moon Unit’s Differences in Language and Lifestyle, which I talk about elsewhere, with releases from Cry, Trillionaire and Cryptosis rounding out the longlist). What makes Serpent & Spirit the most exciting – and arguably the “best” debut record because of it – however, is exactly that imperfection.
Serpent & Spirit is an album of monolithic ambition, blending disparate elements of thrash, prog and stoner metal into a single glorious package that still seems to be only scratching the surface of what Urne are capable of. Indeed, it took a while (and some serious resequencing) for the album to fully click with me, but there was never any denying the raw potential and ability contained on this record. It was clearly within Urne’s ability to release a phenomenal, straight-forward groove thrash album but, again, what sets them apart is that that’s not what they chose to do. Serpent & Spirit is clearly a thrash record at heart, containing obvious nods in the direction of Metallica and Pantera, but it’s equally – if not more so – infected with a stoner prog sensibility borrowed from Baroness and Mastodon, the combination of which sets them apart as leaders not followers. Serpent & Spirit is an album made all the better for its inherent challenge and, if this is what they can do on their Kill ‘em All (1983), just imagine what they can do when they get around to writing their Ride the Lightning (1985) or Master of Puppets (1986).
Obsolete – Animate // Isolate (technical death metal/thrash)
There’s one thing that I would like all debut, full length albums to be: tight, and there were few albums tighter than Obsolete’s Animate // Isolate in 2021. This is both by virtue of the sort of thrashy death metal that they play and by virtue of excellent composition, completely excising any sort of fat that might have latched on to the album while it was being written. The end result is an album whose structure channels the exact same energies that the music itself does, namely aggressive, direct, and compact metal. Technically the band have released an EP in the past, but this release is their first full length album and it feels like they’ve risen to the challenge, thinking about and configuring their music according to, what it might sound like at this level.
This makes Animate // Isolate pleasing both on the track level, with their twisting but buzz-saw powerful riffs, tight drumming, punchy bass, and guttural vocals, and on the album level. When you finish listening to Animate // Isolate, you feel as if something potent has been completed, like a martial arts kata well executed or a particularly daring athletics drill pulled off to perfection. The music itself rules but the artistry in executing it rules just as much, giving off this super impressive air of self-possession and clear intent. Oh and the production, though it might be polarizing, is great; there’s new murk to Animate // Isolate, beautifully and constantly pierced through by its immaculate snare tone, that gives it its own sound and vibe. Put all of this together and you get one of the more impressive debuts of 2021.
She Said Destroy – Succession (progressive metal/post-black)
Norwegian upstarts She Said Destroy have shown on their debut Succession that they can excel at apparently every sub-genre they try. While maybe a black metal band at their core, they flirt frequently with death metal, around generally progressive metal song-writing so well that it’s easier to just call it a prog album. Yet there’s even some metalcore influence and undenying post-rock elements. This might sound like there’s too much going on, and there’s arguably some truth to that as from track to track at times it’s hard to tell that this is even the same band. But for a debut especially, they’re ability to nail each of these distinct sounds and influences is quite an accomplishment.
In short, this album is for people who are open to each of these specific styles and don’t mind their lines being blurred. There’s post-metally blackgaze like “Eyes Go Pale” that fans of Svalbard or newer Rolo Tomassi will probably like, then the very next track is Conjurer-esque sludgy-death metal? Followed by an some borderline Dismember meets At The Gates worship? Yeah, this album goes places, and it’s refreshing to hear a new band be this daring. They close it off with a standout black metal track, making me wish they leaned into that a little more. I’d be open to them taking a more consistent approach on their follow-up, but it’s clear whatever direction they choose to go will be performed at a top notch quality.
Vexed – Culling Culture (metalcore)
I’ll start with this: I did not expect to love a djent-adjacent metalcore record as much as Culling Culture in 2021, let alone a debut djent-adjacent metalcore record. We all know that djent is old hat nowadays, but it doesn’t stop a select few from still pumping out spritely grooves like its 2011. Vexed do precisely that and a little extra.
At its core, the record is all about catchy grooves, coming primarily from the dense guitar tone, which is akin to the tonal heft of Periphery or even After the Burial; but there’s also a bite in there that is down to cutting and charismatic frontwoman, Megan Targett, giving the album the apoplexy of Ithaca. Quite simply, the quartet want liars and abusers dead, and this comes through with devastating disdain, whether that’s in the music or in Megan’s sucker punch lyrical charge. “Narcissist” is purified aggro, kicking your door in with Megan’s spitting and scatting backed by techy but tasteful lead guitars; it’s all you need to hear really to get the picture, Vexed don’t just want abusers cancelled, they want them culled. Amidst all the toxicity and bile, there’s even room for delicacy, bringing in some vital dynamics. The euphoric “Purity” and following skittering electronic piece “Drift” are the peak of this shift, dealing in scabrous self-loathing and doubt, but ultimately striving for your personal summit despite all your shortcomings. It’s a dichotomy I can certainly relate to reflecting on the turmoil of this year, and I’m damn sure it’ll have that effect on you too.
Black Country, New Road – For the First Time (post-punk)
Sometime between the release of “Sunglasses” in July 2019 and when I listened to For the first time in early February 2021 (for the first time), the indie blogosphere lost their collective shit over Black Country, New Road. From The Quietus crowning them “the best [band] in the entire world” to outspoken interviews to COVID delaying the release of their debut, the London ensemble proved polarizing yet alluring in equal measure.
For all the apparent hullabaloo surrounding the band and their anticipated debut, all you should care about is how adeptly the septet pulled together disparate genres into a sound that makes total sense. The best summation I can muster is “The National reinterpreting Slint tracks with a klezmer band.” I mean, what the actual fuck, right? The album doesn’t go full-on Masada, but it incorporates klezmer music more than any contemporary rock record I’ve heard.
The result is one of the 2021’s most notable rock records, and it clearly positions Black Country, New Road for a promising, genre-bending career. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait long, as the band will continue their genre abstraction and exploration on sophomore album Ants From Up There — one of my most anticipated albums of 2022.
Short but savage
Djinn-Ghül – Mechalith (brutal death metal)
I admit, I’m a complete sucker for anything slam and/or brutal death metal. Caveman, IQ-lowering, often formulaic slam. If it has blastbeats, pig squeals, and gutturals, I’m here for it. That said, I really love it when an album takes that formula and turns it into something utterly surprising. Experimental death metal that creates a new sound without sacrificing brutality is just *chef’s kiss.*
This short but blistering EP from American – Venezuelan death metal project Djinn-Ghül does just that. The duo have already proven themselves capable of combining the most unexpected elements – 80’s horror movie synths, sitars, and death metal riffs – into sonic landscapes that are both fascinating and jarring. Their latest EP, Mechalith, continues to cement their talent and beautifully weird sound.
The album details a dystopian world ruled by corruption and machines. And even if the extremely cool album art didn’t convey that clearly enough, the synth flourishes and blasting drums make it clear across the devastating whole of Mechalith. The entire EP clocks at slightly under 14 minutes, yet Grant Nachbur and Junior Patiño waste no time pummeling listeners with heavily downtuned guitars and growling vocals. Absurdly fast drumblasts transition seamlessly into a sea of riffs and growls, only to abruptly pull listeners into grinding synth passages. It’s the audio equivalent of whiplash, and honestly shouldn’t work, but Nachbur and Patiño have once again proven that weird death metal can be technical, heavy, and addictive. Executed any other way, the individual components would risk becoming trite, but Djinn-Ghül’s ability to create technical, yet absurdly heavy songs makes this EP one worth putting on repeat.
Gatecreeper – An Unexpected Reality (crossover thrash)
Few things in the world beat the buzz saw death metal stylings of Gatecreeper. When they dropped a new record without warning, I was in heaven. At the same time, An Unexpected Reality feels wholly different from previous releases by the band. Each track is in-and-out, quickly being introduced to wreck your shit then ending just as swiftly. It feels like the band has put out the kind of record they would want to listen to while tearing it up at the skatepark. I just have the image in my head of skateboarding tricks while this blasts, and it seems very fitting.
The last track, “Emptiness”, is where the buzz saw ends. The 11-minute final track slowly brings the EP to a close by letting the band experiment in a way they have never done before. The track builds up in a way that feels like My Dying Bride borrowed Gatecreeper’s guitar tone and vocals. When I first heard it, it felt like a fun kind of jarring. Your expectations are completely undermined in a pleasant way. If you saw this EP ended in an 11-minute long track, you’d be very confused by thinking it would be an 11-minute version of a Gatecreeper track which it obviously is not. And that’s why this is my favorite EP of the year. Bands just don’t do things like this usually, so it was a welcome surprise for me. Make sure you check it out if you haven’t already.
Structures – None of the Above (metalcore)
After a 7 year hiatus, Structures have returned. Over the course of a couple albums and a moderately well-regarded EP, Structures was the subject of widely panned acclaim and criticism at the height of their career – so much so that I don’t think many people were looking particularly forward to another Structures release. And while they have returned to the same level of fanfare as one might expect reflecting on a career with the aforementioned inconsistencies, Structures have actually managed to hit the ground running. None of the Above refers to their original 2009 EP All of the Above – a reference that should come as a relief to any fan familiar with the group. This return to form sees the band squashing any unsubstantiated notions of mediocracy with a short and pummeling six track foray into metalcore, djent and nu-metal. Gone are the weak aesthetics of Divided By and the notions of playing it safe of Life Through a Window.
None of the Above shows an energized and angry Structures dropping bars about environmental negligence, wealth disparity, clout-chasing and collective trauma. Here, they have levelled all previous criticisms, created a new narrative about the music that defines them and created a strong thematic voice that feeds into some of the most relevant issues of our time. None of the Above is everything a comeback should be. The songwriting, guest spots and riffs are massive. It feels good to listen to. It’s especially satisfying to see them level up and use their time spent away from the mic to strengthen every meaningful aspect of the music. No longer do you have to parse for meaning. Their motivations are as simple and as effective as the breakdowns and chugs ever present in their music. None of the Above is unflinching, heavy and crisp. While other metalcore acts are in their prime, the landscape is ripe for a band like Structures to return and maintain that they’re as relevant as ever.
Knocked Loose – A Tear in the Fabric of Life (hardcore)
I named this the best hardcore release of 2021 a couple months back, hot on the heels of its widespread acclaim. The community at large may disagree now (seeing how many other outlets’ lists favor Turnstile) but I’m sticking to my guns, goddamnit. This EP has the spirit of hardcore baked into a wild, relentless, metallic concept album that once again shows KL pushing the boundaries of what constitutes modern hardcore and reaching new artistic heights in the process.
A Tear in the Fabric of Life is perhaps their best work yet, dumping out their bag of now-veteran tricks for the world to enjoy. Snarling canine fuck-you riffs and eerie nu-metal tinged leads charge your sympathetic nerves as Bryan Garris’ trademark throat-ripping arf-arf howl sends shivers down your spine with some of the bleakest, most beautiful lyrics he’s ever written. I really don’t know how else to impart that this EP is heads above the rest of the sea of hardcore bands, with some of the best riffs, performances, and overall songwriting of the year in the broader -core world. If you’re one of our (I’m sure) many readers who skip Rotten to the Core and generally don’t care for that corner of the heavy music world – this is your gamechanger. Filthy death riffs are abound on this EP, and the accompanying short film by Magnus Jonsson is gorgeous. Get into it.
Eclipser – Pages (dissonant death metal)
As evidenced by our various lists, there were some standout dissonant blackened death metal releases in 2021, yet none were as potent as this 15-minute EP from Ottawa-based group Eclipser. It’s supremely tight (almost unfairly so), with most tracks wrapping up in less than three minutes, but Pages is not without the challenges, density, and creativity that’s found on longer offerings. Riffs clash and zag over blasts in a typically busy affair, but Eclipser always seem to leave room for a twist and timely resolution, dodging the overwhelming and suffocating nature of some groups in the genre. For example, “Matternaught” is like a grindy CliffsNotes version of Ulcerate, while “To Never Wake Again” works a more melodic angle, hitting a climax with a superbly satisfying solo. The start-stops in “Carry Your Burden” make it one of the catchiest songs of the year in any genre, while closer “Fathomless” showcases their knack for hooks with a more typical runtime.
It’s in this department that Eclipser really make their mark. Every track has an exceptional hook (or two), and when coupled with the abbreviated nature of their song structures, Pages becomes a real page turner of a listen despite its technicality. It’s impossible to listen once and move onto something else because the ideas presented here are precisely that catchy and just get better with every play. And while it’s weird to hear something so dissonant and abrasive come off with this level of accessibility, Eclipser make an exceptional case for shortform dissodeath. If this degree of hook-laden asswhuppery can continue, they’re certain to stick around for a while and likely to change some minds on how this kind of music can be approached.
Existem – Searching for Clarity (progressive metal)
Once upon a time, I was but a mere fresh-faced lad writing some articles about post-rock, prog, and occasionally metal for this website in the year of our lord 2014. One of the very first releases I discovered through Heavy Blog that really stuck with me was a self-released EP from a Kansas City prog metal group Existem. That EP, Phoenix, stood out for its eclectic mixture of thick sludgy grooves, proggy melodies and riffs, and occasional forays into acoustic music. Sadly, they wouldn’t return until 2018, and the full-length they came with, Mantle, didn’t inspire the same kind of magic. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise then that the band’s following release would again be an EP.
Though it’s clear the band has refined and streamlined its songwriting over time, Searching For Clarity presents the most impressive and promising version of the band to date. The EP’s 5 tracks are tight and immediately grab you with slick riffs, addicting melodies, and clever rhythmic and structural choices. Even a relatively straightforward track like “Who We Are” succeeds off the back of its shout-worthy chorus and thrilling instrumentals. The perfect example of the “short but sweet” release, Searching For Clarity is 24 minutes of brilliantly-executed modern prog metal, and certainly one of the better prog releases of the year.
Inflicting Psychic Wounds Upon Thine Enemies
Blindfolded and Led to the Woods – Nightmare Withdrawals (grind/deathcore)
Nightmare Withdrawals is one of the most exciting releases of the year – that is, if you’re either an old deathcore lifer all grown up or an adherent to the stylings of dissonant, groovy, off-kilter death metal. I happen to be both, and the third full-length from New Zealand’s Blindfolded and Led to the Woods nails that existential need to bang your head in a nonagon. Harkening back to mid-aughts, Myspace-era progenitors like The Red Chord and War From A Harlots Mouth, BALTTW have coaxed that style of weirdo grinding deathcore into something much more fluid, mature, and complex.
There is no shortage of off-time, atonal plucking over shuffling blasts that reverberate through your frontal cortex, often giving way to either grandiose, labyrinthine tremolo riffs or short, sucker-punch breakdowns. No matter the path they carve through the noise, each track is vicious and confounding without losing its inherent groove. With a North American release through Total Dissonance Worship that led to a major underground label signing, Nightmare Withdrawals feels like just the beginning of a legendary back-half catalog. Here’s hoping we get another album from these crazy kiwis very, very soon.
LLNN – Unmaker (sludge)
God. GOD. This one crept up on me, slowly separating itself from the pack as one of my favorites of the year. Unmaker feels like receiving a cinder block to the cranium and the ensuing forty-minute blackout, with the pulsing of your blood serving as the subconscious backbeat to your concussed nightmare of being stomped on over and over and over and over and over again. It’s breathlessly heavy, like the vacuum of space itself bottled and distilled. That’s by design, of course – LLNN are studied dabblers in the art of sound design, specifically influenced by sci-fi and horror thrillers in games and film. The oppressive, vacuous, cold tones rumble as if running along the length of an abandoned star cruiser, echoing into the abyss, mechanical and empty. Spine-tingling ringing emergency gadgetry, low-register piano thumps distorted into the stalking footsteps of an unknown intelligence, and pure terror incarnate await you at the furthest edges of outer space on Unmaker.
The dissonance in the guitars and synths feed your fear as the bass, somehow both fuzzed out and crystal clear in the mix, delivers relentless gut punches at a maddening mid-tempo march throughout the record. Snare hits are often chained to sub-impacts and other SFX to really drive home the massively scaled space horror fantasy. And the lyrics? Don’t get me started. This album was a hard runner-up to the ‘grab your guillotine’ category. Nothing else this year, for me at least, tops “Interloper”: ‘Labour and toil / Spend your life as an autocrat’s pawn / Not entitled to the sweat from your brow / Let the floods from your labour trickle down and drown the crown.’ Yeah, I’m rock hard and ready to fuckin’ [REDACTED], baby.
Knoll – Interstice (grindcore)
Young upstarts Knoll have taken the underground by storm this year, turning heads old and new alike with their ferocious, hackles-raising grinding assault on debut album Interstice. What happens on the album is technically nothing new or groundbreaking, but the deft precision and deranged energy with which it’s performed, not to mention the veteran songwriting, is exactly why it’s so special. Seeing such talent and inherent know-how from what look like (sorry y’all) a band of literal babies fills me with such joy to know the future of caustic, extreme metal is in very good hands.
With the majority of tracks never lurching past 2:30 in length, Knoll’s often blackened, discombobulating riffs ride a surging undercurrent of electronic noise and the incessant pounding of blast routines to euphoric heights. Taking notes from acts like WVRM and Full of Hell, their experimental approach to song structure and pacing, even in such blisteringly quick tracks, betrays that keen, killer instinct of much older bands. Interstice perfectly scratches the grind itch, only ever coming up for air to drown you in a wall of putrid sound while they crack their knuckles to continue the blinding siege. If Knoll is already this good in their first outing, we may have the beginnings of the next cult classic grind force on our hands.
Pupil Slicer – Mirrors (chaotic hardcore)
It would have been difficult to ignore the furore generated earlier this year by Pupil Slicer. Other than maybe Frontierer, it’s a task to think of a new-ish British band leading the charge in chaotic and demented metal like they are at the moment. Relatively, it’s been quite the rise for the three-piece (!), especially considering lead squawker and riff twister Kate Davies was apparently only turned on to heavy music at 19.
Look, there’s a lot of panic-chord-worshipping mathcore out there at the moment, but Pupil Slicer’s initial take on it with Mirrors, has the head-spinning grind of Dillinger, but also a penchant for delving into the unknown in painful and cathartic ways, mostly down to Davies’ channelling of neurodivergent and minority perspectives through wiry, vertebrae-jolting guitar lines and freakish screams.
The run from “Husk” through to “Wounds Upon My Skin” is some of the most boundlessly energetic yet cohesive and stable mathy goodness of the year. The band show that they’re here to stay with just this portion of the record. From the quasi-anthemic structure of “Husk” where the band really show they have the songwriting chops to draw you in, to “Worthless” which is essentially a panic attack in sonic form. The fact is they flow as one despite how challenging it all is. The band have drawn themselves some immediately compelling parameters in Mirrors from which to expand on, and I’ll wager their following releases will be anything but a scribble.
Orphan Donor – Unravelled (progressive death metal)
Screamo has a knack for bending itself towards the more discordant and jarring. Modern acts like Ostraca and for your health have brought dissonant mathcore riffs and progressive styling to the forefront of their writing, but Orphan Donor have pushed that bar even higher. In a densely noisy assault of the senses, Unraveled grabs a hold of you with a captivating grip of uncomfortable terror, drawing from the likes of Admiral Angry, to meth., to ISIS (the band). There’s an off-kilterness to it that’s not unlike the grooviness of dissonant death metal, but with the smothering reverb of shoegaze. But, wait, this is a screamo album? Yeah, this album is a lot, and within the cacophony there’s surprising depth to it’s brilliance.
While this album isn’t as breakneck-paced or hyper-technical as some of the other entries in this category, the derangement spreads over the course of the album as the unsettling, repetitive riffs expand and collapse with a post-metal spirit. It nails that gradual, spiraling descent into a void of lunacy with its entrancing rhythms and suffocatingly thick atmosphere. Capturing that essence of well, unravelling. The post-gaze influence is like a soothing blanket at times, until it folds around you like a straight-jacket. Vocalist Chris Pandalfo bears his heart out, providing a near non-stop emoviolence onslaught that matches the unhinged energy of Jared Stimpfl’s (Secret Cutter) instrumentals. The Pennsylvanian two-piece have come into formidable form on their sophomore release with their genre-blending collage of noise and fury that pushes boundaries.
Ad Nauseum – Imperative Imperceptible Impulse (technical death metal)
Perhaps ironically for a scene defined by its divestment of traditional melodic ideals, the best and most worthwhile albums in the dissonant metal realm are those which follow an internal language that inform their overall songwriting, not merely the ones that are the most dissonant, the most chaotic, the all-over-the-place. Think Jute Gyte’s clattering industrial serialism, Ved Buens Ende’s jangling hyperborean jazz chords, Pyrrhon’s engorgement on noise rock and no-wave in the same bite as brutal death metal. No amount of fireworks can supplant the need for a tempered and considered approach.
Ad Nauseam are one of the largest points in favor of this argument: Imperative Imperceptible Impulse is one of the most expertly-crafted albums to grace the field, right up there with Colored Sands and Everything Is Fire, and the band have made explicit their formative desire to develop new grammars of music. From the press release: the concepts of harmony and melody have been put into discussion… To push this method even further, a unique tuning system has been conceived, to allow a new harmonic vocabulary.”
Yes, this album’s good because it’s full of boiling-hot riffs, corrosive atonalities, and is impeccably structured, but those things only exist because Ad Nauseam are talented and hard-working musicians who think through their ideas slowly, carefully, precisely. Imperative Imperceptible Impulse is one of the best albums of 2021 not because it’s the most dissonant, the weirdest, the most chaotic – it’s one of the best because it was built with intense care and a proper mind towards the end goals of all art. Listen, and listen well.
Plebeian Grandstand – Rien ne suffit (black metal/hardcore)
I listen to a lot of new music every year, mostly while working, exercising, or doing chores around the house. It’s honestly pretty rare that an album makes me stop what I’m doing to give it my thorough, undivided attention. Ten seconds after Plebeian Grandstand’s new record started I stopped what I was doing and just stared blankly at the wall, letting what I was hearing fully envelope me. I didn’t move from that spot until the last scintillating, punishing note of Rien ne suffit faded into silence. PG’s fourth full-length record is a masterpiece, and one of the most discomfiting, aggressively dissonant records I’ve heard in quite some time. Fans of Dodecahedron need look no further for an album to fill the void in their dissonance-cratered hearts. This is your new holy grail. Praise be.
It should come as no shock to anyone reading this that this record isn’t for everyone. On top of some truly exceptional and manic songwriting choices that are as dissonant and angular as they come in the black metal space, PG have filled this record to the brim with the kind of harsh noise that should make fans of bands like Full of Hell or The Body take notice. Every aspect of this record feels intentionally designed to punish, maim, or at bare minimum seriously unsettle listeners. For its effectiveness in that realm alone Rein ne suffit gets top marks, but it’s the jagged, woozy, unpredictable songwriting that elevates the album into high art territory. There’s nary a moment where I was able to predict where the band was going next, which was made all the more effective by the fact that each place they took me was more powerful and strange than the last. If you’re looking for a record to watch the collapse of the universe in your head to, stop the search. This is it.
Frontierer – Oxidized (chaotic metalcore)
There’s something uniquely refreshing about spinning up a Frontierer record: I know full well my skull is about to be brutally ground to dust by the aural equivalent of industrial machinery, but the sheer savagery of it still catches me off guard every single time. And so Oxidized sees mathcore outfit Frontierer continue right where they left off with 2018’s excellent Unloved, with an unrelenting onslaught of ten-ton riffs and Car Bomb-like glitch effects abounding from minute one. Frontierer’s bag of tricks is still mostly unchanged from past efforts (and if it ain’t broke…) but there’s still absolutely nothing like the dopamine hit of a screeching glitchy breakdown to end a song (“Corrosive Wash”) or the extended heart-pounding second acts of highlights like “Opaque Horizon” and “/ Hope”. But I’d be remiss to not single out Chad Kapper’s vocal performance, which may well blow out your speakers from its sheer ferocity and consistent rage across the 50 straight minutes of sonic violence on offer here. Among the many excellent soundtracks to the apocalypse that 2021 had on offer, Oxidized stands almost unmatched.
Glassing – Twin Dream (post-hardcore/black metal)
I recall several years ago hearing a buzz amongst touring musicians regarding Holy Fawn, with a parade of artists singing their praises immediately after sharing stages with them and witnessing their substantial on-stage performance. I made it a point to check them out, and now they sit on the short list of my favorite modern musicians. Holy Fawn is now a name on the lips of music publications and festivals worldwide, and were it not for COVID stealing a couple years from us, it’s possible they’d be the hottest underground-adjacent band on the planet. Considering some of the tours and festival appearances they have lined up for 2022, we may still be in for the year of Holy Fawn. So, when I heard HF’s Ryan Osterman singing the praises of Austin’s Glassing – much like other insiders were clamoring for his band not long before – I knew I needed to take notice. Once again, glad I did. Glassing has already won its fair share of supporters, but 2021 represents the moment at which they transitioned into the larger conversation, so to speak.
Twin Dream continues the promise of their previous material, delivering a blend of post-hardcore, noise rock, and black metal, with a decidedly crusty outer layer that really doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve heard. What I appreciate most about Glassing is how they begin with a template that is often melodically approachable, then work to ugly it up as much as possible while still retaining a raw emotional connection with the audience. The distortion is deliberately filthy, the bass gleefully fierce, the vocals purposefully violent, the drums maintaining a permanent snarl as they treat each snare and tom hit like it’s intended to end the world as we know it. Yet, against all of the odds they’ve knowingly created, Glassing remains weirdly approachable. You want to see if they can push beauty to the brink of absolute destruction without imploding. You need to know if it’s possible. What strikes me as most important, though, is something that stood out just as prominently with Holy Fawn: NO ONE sounds like Glassing. They’ve already reached a place where you know it’s them the instant you hear them. That’s a rare and precious trait for a band to have, and it’s why Glassing can make a strong case for being counted among the most important artists in metal at the moment.
Late to the party
Karnivool – Sound Awake (progressive metal)
Look – there’s really no need for me to recap to you the many ways 2021 continued to be an unthinkably terrible year worldwide. In my case, I started this mess of a year staring down the barrel of hours upon hours of daily lab work on top of everything else that was going on, with burnout long having had set in. Amidst all this, I found myself revisiting Sound Awake, Australian progressive metal band Karnivool’s sophomore record — an album I’d given a passing listen to all the way back in 2012, but which didn’t stick with me at the time for reasons still unknown.
I’m not remotely exaggerating when I say this album carried me through the first quarter of this year. Normally, this is where I’d start babbling about the individual components of the record: perhaps something about the impeccable rhythm section? Or the pristine production? But Sound Awake is an album that forces someone like me, who usually listens to and thinks of music in a relatively analytical way, to actually step back and consider the whole for once. And the whole of Sound Awake is an emotional masterwork, at once reflective and melancholy while being just as easily defiant, angry, and bitter.
Of course, you’d perhaps rightly think that that is not the most comforting soundtrack to an already stressful year, but the thing is: amidst the themes of addiction, grieving, and loss, there’s a life to Sound Awake that permeates throughout, a call for persisting through the worst of it all, fittingly reaching its apex in the twenty minutes spanned by the final tracks, “Deadman” and “Change”. It’s that sense of life that consistently brought me back to Sound Awake more than any record this year, keeping me company through the unending emotional twists and turns that these past 12 months ceaselessly brought. I’m not sure what 2022 will hold, but I’m glad I have this record with me for whatever is to come.
Rush – A Farewell to Kings (progressive rock)
2021 was the year I became a Rush fan. I could have chosen any Rush album here really, but A Farewell to Kings is what kickstarted it for me, so here we are. I’ve been circling around this otherworldly triumvirate since at least middle school, given that three of my favorite bands when I first started developing a coherent sense of personal taste were Primus, Coheed and Cambria, and Mastodon, but it took a long, long time for me to actually sit down and listen to Rush beyond “Tom Sawyer” and “Working Man.” But then, right before the pandemic hit, Primus announced their intent to perform all of A Farewell to Kings live in concert as a tribute to their personal heroes (and in memoriam of Neil Peart, who passed away in January of 2020). I figured this was my time to hit the books, and so I did.
In all honesty, it took a while for Rush to click with me – at least a year. They aren’t as heavy or strange as bands I already knew they influenced greatly and lack the immediate “whoa” factor of some of their contemporaneous peers. But the more I listened to them, the more they opened up, and eventually their immense chemistry as a trio and their surgically sharp arrangements won me over. The run from 1975’s Fly by Night through 1984’s Grace Under Pressure is filled with some of the most understatedly impressive musicianship I’ve heard in my life, and their ability to jump between grandiose suites and sub-three-minute pieces cements them as master craftsmen in addition to dextrous musicians. These guys rock. Who knew!
Human Pyramids – Power Pose (experimental post-rock/art rock)
Honestly, I regret every single day where this album wasn’t in my life and thank Heavy Blog alum Simon Clark from the bottom of my heart for introducing me to this album. It’s like a brighter version of Adebisi Shank and if that doesn’t tell you anything, you have a lot of catching up to do. Human Pyramids is like watching a bomb of flowers, crayons, birds feathers, and dreams go off. They make super maximalist music, filled to the brim with a joy that is hard to capture because it somehow doesn’t come out as contrite.
That maybe has something to do with the sheer variety on this album. There’s electronics, wind instruments, glitch, brass, percussion of various and magnificent kinds, and so much more. No, seriously, so much more! I wasn’t joking when I said this album was maximalist and it’s not just about the sheer number of instruments but also about the different shades of joy, hope, and energy that Human Pyramids insist on infusing into every track. It’s not an album you throw on every day because the energy is just too much. But when the mood strikes, there’s nothing that comes close to the sheer range and power of emotions this album will make you feel.
Lady Gaga – Artpop (pop)
I didn’t really make any older musical discoveries this year so, since we didn’t run one of these last year, I’m going to tell you about maybe the biggest retrospective music discovery I think I’ve ever made, which happened in 2020 and more or less defined that year for me.
Boy, do I owe a lot of high school friends an apology! When Lady Gaga first emerged, just as I was finishing up highscool and moving out into the Real World™, I was actively repulsed by her, seeing her as the embodiment of everything insinscere and insubstantial about modern pop music, while being continuously baffled by respectable music critics claiming she’s a genuine auteur, all the while begrudging her legion of fans for not simply listening to Blood Duster instead. In the decade since then, my tastes have expanded significantly and my ignorant, teenage self-righteousness has severely waned (which you’d hope it would have). Which brings us to 2020 and my desperate search for pop music to distract me from the stress of finishing a PhD thesis while staring down the barrel of rampant unemployment brought about by a global pandemic, which led me to revisit Lady Gaga and, crucially, Artpop.
In my defence, I don’t think I’d actually heard any of these songs before. As ubiquitous as songs like “Pokerface”, “Born this Way” and “Bad Romance” were and are, the tracks on Artpop, outside of “Applause” – the one Lady Gaga song I maintained I always liked – were completely unknown to me and wound up being an utter revelation. While my appreciation for Gaga’s earlier material has also increased, I think there’s a distinct separation between the enjoyable if inoffensive pop-fluff of her early material and the expansive, confronting material on Artpop. It’s also a surprisingly heavy record. Both power-bottom anthem “G.U.Y.” and album highlight “Venus” contain sections that could be accurately described as breakdowns (see also: “Mary the Night” from Born this Way (2011), and there’s a genuine menace to a lot of Gaga’s delivery throughout the record, especially across its earlier section. This added edge along with the increased substance brought about by the album’s thematic and lyrical focus soon led to me spinning Artpop (with the far-superior Christina Aguilera version of “Do What you Want” in place of the R. Kelly original), along with the rest of Gaga’s discography, every day for about six months straight. I think it’s safe to say it has comfortably ousted Taylor Swift’s 1989 (2014) as my all-time favourite pop album of all time at this point and have now channelled what remains of my adolescent frustrations into being mad at myself and the broader public for sleeping on this album for so long.