Welcome to Kvlt Kolvmn’s Best of 2021 bonanza. Another difficult year has drawn to a close. Let’s recap:
Everything fucking sucked.
Now that that’s out of the way, the good news: Black metal ruled last year. Where 2020 in many ways (and understandably so) felt bereft of as much memorable content as we typically see from the frostiest plane on the musical frontier, 2021 felt like a healthy rebound. Not only did we see a wide array of creativity within the genre as a whole, the general quality of these releases feels head and shoulders above what we saw in 2020. Nearly every album on this list enjoyed extensive listening time, and I can see several great records from the past year keeping their vaunted positioning on my daily rotation for many, many months to come. The year for the world may have been an incredibly dismal affair, but at least we had an appropriately bleak and banging soundtrack to usher in the apocalypse.
As is customary in these year-end posts, it’s time to get all up in my feels to say thank you to every one of you who read these posts, engaged with our content, and gave us so many wonderful suggestions and recommendations. This community is yours, and it doesn’t exist without your readership. So thank you from the bottom of our hearts. We’re so grateful for you.
Enjoy reading. Stay safe. Stay frosty. Nazi punks fuck off.
The Rise and Rise of Red and Anarchist Black Metal
If you’ve been hanging out in any sort of online black metal space, and maybe even just online metal spaces in general, you’ve probably heard the term “RABM”, which spells out “red and anarchist black metal”. The name is pretty straight forward: it connotates a political leaning that is obviously meant to be in contrast with the usual politics that are associated with black metal AKA nazis. The term is nothing new; it has been around for several years now, even more than a decade in some places. But I think it’s quite interesting that only in the last few years have we started seeing diversity of sound within this label. It’s certainly not a phenomenon limited to 2021 but I think it picked up speed during the year.
Allow me to explain: RABM affiliates bands according to politics, not according to sound. You would expect to see a variety of approaches to black metal. And yet, if you look at the early bands associated with the name you can easily identify two distinct styles that RABM seemed to operate under. Of course there were always exceptions but they were just that: exceptions. The bands that got really big, and became known for being RABM or leftist in general, were of those two groups. The first group is the punk influenced trappings of bands like Dawn Ray’d or Woe. It’s easy to see how this filtered into RABM; punk is famously a left-leaning space in general, although it too, of course, has its more conservative and fascist wings.
The second group, those of the atmospheric range of things, also “inherited” their politics from something outside of music: their geo-location. Most of those bands hailed from the (problematically) named area of the US, Cascadia, or from Appalachia. Both of those areas have a history of radical and liberal politics, contributing their history of labor struggles, ideas of personal freedom, and progressivism to the politics of the bands emerging from them. Names like Falls of Rauros or Ashbringer come to mind here. Their style of black metal was more grandiose, also influenced by the natural vistas of their homelands, as well as more influenced by post-metal, with melodies and ambience tempering the steel of their black metal.
But here’s the thing: those two groups aren’t really alone anymore. In the past two years or so, RABM has started to branch out of its sonic limitations and start to encompass more and more sounds. Now, do I think these are necessarily new sounds that RABM is creating? Not really. I think all of these artists were always out there and were, for the most part, left-leaning. But what’s expanded is the label of RABM and it is now starting to take on more of its political purpose rather than its sonic one. It’s frankly pretty useless to try and describe what a band might sound like by using the RABM moniker. It “only” tells you what the band believe in or sing about (and sometimes not even the latter) rather than what they might sound.
Now, don’t get me wrong: this is not a bad thing. This is a great thing! Political consciousness, which the left desperately needs in the “West” today, start with names, symbols, and associations. That’s how you find your compatriots, that’s how you develop your ideas, and how you energize yourself for the actions needed to manifest your politics in the real world. Nor is this consciousness, or the expansion of the RABM label, something which happens “naturally” or by accident. There are a lot of people out there working hard to grow this label and make it more real, more encompassing, and more meaningful. A good example of such people is the Youtube channel Antifascist Black Metal Network.
As their name implies, the network posts new (and not so new) black metal to Youtube where all music fits under the broad label of RABM or of leftist politics. Organized in a decentralized way (members range from Greece, the US, Israel, and more), the network works with bands to upload their music with their consent in order to increase their exposure. And they’ve been having one stellar year. Off the top of my head, some of the better releases they’ve uploaded this year have been Violet Cold, Ethereal Shroud, Kaatayra, Gonemage, Nixil, Mystras, Lowen, Yovel, Caina, Ulvesang, Underdark and honestly, many, many more.
Now, review that list please. Can you ascertain one sort of sub-genre of black metal music that’s dominant in that list? I assure you that if you go to the full list of videos on their channel, you won’t do any better. There’s post-black, black/doom, whatever type of black metal you want to call Kaatayra, I’ve given up trying to categorize them, glitch, dungeon synth, neo-folk, second wave black metal, experimental doom, and a lot more. Which is exactly the point of course.
The point is turn RABM, and leftist politics in general, into a big house, into a large community, one which accepts diversity of ideas, sounds, causes, and methods in our pursuit of a more just world and in our pursuit of the simple, yet all important, enjoyment of music. And this is just one example; we could talk about a bunch more labels doing the same work, bands expanding the RABM genre all by themselves, and way more trends which support this idea of the broadening and generalization of the genre marker itself. At the outset there’s nothing left to say but that we should all support this expansion, by opening our own minds to new sounds and approaches to RABM and by supporting the bands, labels, and channels, which make the style come alive.
Eden’s Top 10 of 2021
- The Silver- Ward of Roses
An exceptional release which manages to pull of the theatrics of the goth and avant-garde wing of black metal to an exceptional degree. Not the heaviest or the most blackened of releases, but still has much of the genre’s aesthetic gestures and mannerisms powering it at its core.
- Ferriterium – Calvaire
This is probably the most vicious release on this list and, to be honest, on all of the other lists I’m posting this year. It’s simply no holds barred, intensely muscular, aggressive, fast, and blistering black metal that plays absolutely no games in going for your jugular.
- Magogaio – Memorial
Magogaio has managed to take post-black metal, an oversaturated genre if there was one, and spin it in an interesting and personal way. There are moments of sheer brilliance on this release, when the brighter tones of the synths are utilized to perfection and the groove hits at just the right moment to create a sort of scintillating air to the black metal at hand.
- Stormkeep – Tales of Othertime
This is one of those albums where the less said, the better. Stormkeep put the “super” in “supergroup” by creating a sort of larger than life, in your face, intensely melodic black metal, unabashedly singing about storms, wizards, spells, and power. Play this one loud.
- Morke – We Are The River
We Are The River manages the impressive feat that all atmospheric black metal aspires to, which is to preserve the basic force of delivery and heaviness of black metal while injecting it with ambience and introspection. Morke manages to pull this off extremely well on this release, resulting in one of the more intimate yet moving releases from this sub-genre in recent years.
- Mystras – Empires Vanquished and Dismantled
Ayloss (Spectral Lore), one of the most powerful voices pushing black metal forward today, returns with another dose of historically, and revolutionary, inspired black metal. On Empires Vanquished and Dismantled, Ayloss has not only pushed the type of aggressive black metal Mystras is known for forward, faster, heavier, and more abrasive, but has also deepened it. He has done so by incorporating a host of non-standard string instruments, excellent vocal spots, and new compositional ideas derived from a host of traditions, including the Mediterranean he calls home. The end result is an album that can be listened to “just” for its punch but which can also be appreciated for its complexity and sheer variety.
- Fugitive Wizard – Obscuri Aeternum
By now, the fertile fields of crossover between dungeon synth and black metal have been tilled to the bone and much great harvest has come from them (yeah, I regret this metaphor already, don’t worry). But it’s safe to say that not much, if any, of the albums created over the past few years of “the dungeon synth explosion” sound anything like Fugitive Wizard’s Obscuri Aeternum. The blend of lo-fi black metal with lush and fully fleshed out synth passages is a joy to be heard, mixing the different timbres of the genres, one lurking and abrasive, the other crystal clear and evocative, into a beautiful melange.
- The Flight of Sleipnir – Eventide
Eventide is more of what has made The Flight of Sleipnir one of my favorite Denver based band for years now and that is by no means a bad thing. Eventide maintains the warm, earthy tone of The Flight of Sleipnir’s brand of doom-tinged black metal, placing more emphasis on the vocals and their presence in the mix and the composition of the album. The end result is an album that’s even more epic and engaging than previous works, presenting the most complete and mature version of the Sleipnir sound. Bottom line, if you like your black metal bottomless and ponderous, like a slow-burning fire or the mouth of a dark cave, this is the album for you in 2021.
- So Hideous – None But a Pure Heart Can Sing
OK, I sort of lied above because there was one more black metal album that made me feel like my heart was going to shatter into a million pieces and that was None But a Pure Heart Can Sing. Simply put, this tight little album (which is perhaps an EP) is a whirlwind of non-stop black metal riffs, layered with horns, strings, and the most emotional, raw, and powerful vocals I’ve heard in years.
Pure Heart represents an important way-station, if not the end, of the metamorphosis that So Hideous have been undergoing for years now and presents them feeling fresh, lean, and absolutely, painfully in tune with what makes their art tick. This is an album which sweeps you off your feet, presenting the wildest, most unrestrained version of black metal we got to hear this year.
- Christian Cosentino – Lawn
No other album, be it black metal or otherwise, quite made me feel like my heart was going to burst asunder like this album did. It appeared from out of nowhere; I can barely remember where I heard about it (I think it was sent to me via the inbox, but I’m not sure). Regardless, Lawn dares to ask the (seemingly) simple question: “what if black metal was bright instead of dark?”, like I mentioned on the Superlatives entry for this album. The genius of it is that while Chrisian Cosentino shifted the tonality of the genre, he kept the overall structure of it, maintaining the blazing aggression and speed black metal is known for.
Thus, the result is not really Sunbather 2.0 or whatever other comparison might come into your head when I say “black metal but make it bright”. Instead, we receive an incredibly progressive album, replete with folk elements, strings, soaring riffs, and abrasive vocals but painted with a different palette. This makes the album feel familiar and incredibly exciting at the same time, grounding us in a well established black metal foundation to allow us to explore the textured and varied heights of its expression. Truly, no other black metal album this year surprised me, delighted me, or intrigued me quite like Lawn this year.
Scott’s Top 10 of 2021
10. Lamp of Murmuur – Submission And Slavery (melodic black metal)
Submission and Slavery is yet another strong offering of raw, ripping black metal from Lamp of Murmuur. It’s produced just well enough to feel modern while still retaining the frigid vibes, and elements of goth and deathrock sprinkled throughout the record add a nice touch.
9. Lycopolis – The Procession (raw black metal)
I was immediately impressed by the way Lycopolis incorporate themes from their native Egypt into their raw take on ripping, Second Wave black metal. The notable bass and overall “rock” orientation of the band’s songwriting also help elevate the album with a bit of a post-punk vibe.
8. Noltem – Illusions In the Wake (atmospheric black metal)
The absolutely transfixing album art for Illusions In the Wake is one of my favorite covers of the year. More importantly, it perfectly embodies Noltem’s brand of folk-tinged, melodic atmoblack.
7. Der Weg einer Freiheit – Noktvrn (post-black metal)
On their previous album Finisterre, Der Weg Einer Freiheit demonstrated a balance of black metal’s past and future in order to further its heritage. That trend continues with their excellent new album Noktvrn, which applies that formula to a vibrant take on post-black metal.
6. Woman Is the Earth – Dust of Forever (atmospheric black metal)
Besides the excellent cover, my favorite part of Dust of Forever is the sweeping, epic black metal that has become a staple of the American take on the genre. Woman Is the Earth also offer up an equal proportion of doomy passages, unique melancholic melodies, and the types of chord progressions that inform the rock side of the post-black metal formula.
5. Vivid Illusion – Vivid Illusion (post-black metal)
There’s a reason Eden spent so much time last year recommending this record, and I’m glad I took his advice. Vivid Illusion have all the best aspects of blackgaze nailed down and elevate their take on the genre with elements of post-hardcore, post-metal, sludge, screamo, and more.
4. Dödsrit – Mortal Coil (blackened crust punk)
I’ve always had a soft spot for Dödsrit’s crusty take on the genre, and Mortal Coil continues that trend. They continue to marry the atmosphere and broad scope of black metal with the bludgeoning, driving energy of crust punk.
3. Noctule – Wretched Abyss (melodic black metal)
The fact that Serena Cherry from Svalbard wrote a black metal album about Skyrim is really all you need to know. She clearly knows her shit when it comes to melodic, traditional black metal, and I hope that Wretched Abyss is just the beginning of an excellent black metal side project.
2. Victory Over the Sun – Nowherer (microtonal black metal)
With Nowherer, Victory Over the Sun mastermind Vivian Tylinska embraces microtonality while also adding unique compositional explorations throughout. The result is one of my favorite avant-garde metal releases in recent memory, which ranges from an intense, direct assault on the title track to an epic, eclectic finale on the 20-minute “Oscines.”
1. Plebeian Grandstand – Rien ne suffit (avant-garde black metal)
Plebeian Grandstand’s latest maelstrom of black metal and mathcore is their best yet, and one of my favorite metal albums of the year regardless of subgenre. All the band’s black-math goodness has now been infused with the world of noise and power electronics, and at their core, the band are fiercer than ever.
- Belore – Artefacts (epic black metal)
- Christian Cosentino – Lawn (orchestral black metal)
- Ferriterium – Calvaire (black metal)
- Grey Aura – Zwart Vierkant (avant-garde black metal)
- Hope Drone – Husk (atmospheric black metal)
- Kataan – Kataan (post-black metal)
- Mare Cognitum – Solar Paroxysm (atmospheric black metal)
- MØL – Diorama (post-black metal)
- Plasmodium – Towers of Silence (cosmic black metal)
- Spectral Lore – Ετερόφωτος (progressive black metal)
- Sundrowned – Become Ethereal (post-black metal)
- Wolves In the Throne Room – Primordial Arcana (atmospheric black metal)
Jonathan’s Top 10 of 2021
10. Këkht Aräkh – Pale Swordsman
Pale Swordsman feels like 2021’s “I want to dream” moment in black metal. I’ve yet to meet a person who felt neutral on it. It’s a love or hate it affair, and given its inclusion on this list it should be fairly obvious where I stand. Këkht Aräkh hit it out of the park with this release, blending second wave aggression with gentle synth work that comes across melancholy, melodramatic, stately, and close to perfect. Haters abound, but I’ll rid myself of evil for these delicious riffs and melodies any day.
9. Wolves in the Throne Room – Primordial Arcana
The wizened masters of USBM return with an absolute banger. While I enjoyed Thrice Woven a great deal, I must admit that it didn’t leave much of a lasting impact on me. Primordial Arcana remedied that with some of the band’s most effectively direct songwriting to date, focusing on the power of the riff over abject atmosphere to get their point across. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of spooky mountainous atmo magic still lurking about. It’s a roaring return to form for a legendary band that I have listened to on repeat since its release.
8. Panopticon – …And Again Into the Light
If I have one knock against the latest works of Austin Lunn’s fantastic solo project Panopticon, it’s about general imbalance. Lunn is an incredible musician and songwriter, and his records are filled to the brim with beautiful musicianship and good ideas, but I’ve tended to mine those gems from individual tracks more than from a cohesive record. …And Again Into the Light changes that. This is perhaps the most balanced, cohesive, emotionally resonant and sensuous sequence of tracks Lunn has yet released. “Moth Eaten Soul” and “Dead Loons” have played on repeat for months. On emotional, technical, and primal levels, Light exceeds already lofty expectations.
7. Mare Cognitum – Solar Paroxysm
Along with Panopticon, there are few solo black metal projects that consistently release music as foundationally amazing as Mare Cognitum. The project’s collaboration with Spectral Lore was simply phenomenal, and Solar Paroxysm only continues that trend. This is a bold, expertly crafted work of atmospheric black metal that outshone almost all else in that genre space this year. The songwriting is a marked improvement over the project’s (also excellent) previous solo release, making these long and winding tracks flash by in a blur of incredible musicianship, killer riffs, and tremolo goodness. Essential listening.
6. So Hideous – None But a Pure Heart Can Sing
Landing firmly in the “can this even be called black metal?” category, post-whatever maestros So Hideous delivered to our starving ears what is without question the most unique, jarring, and unpredictable black metal-adjacent record of the year. Every track on None But a Pure Heart Can Sing blends post-rock, black metal, and symphonic elements into a roiling stew of jarring, oddly beautiful music that transcends genre to create something that sounds unlike anything else released in 2021. It feels like the kind of record that fans of Bosse de Nage, Cult of Luna, and Converge could all get behind, and that’s a feat in and of itself. Fantastic stuff.
5. Ethereal Shroud – Trisagion
This year’s number five spot belongs to a record that came out in December. More listens could move Ethereal Shroud’s transfixing Trisagion up or down this list. Only time will tell. But for now, I’m smitten. This feels like The Lord of the Rings of black metal albums in 2021. It’s mysterious, epic, multi-faceted, complex but not inaccessible, and gorgeous. No black metal album made me feel more transported last year, which is in part due to the project’s expert blending of deep atmosphere and howling, anguished black metal in a way that feels unusual for the genre. Mainly in that it comes across as… hopeful? It’s a fantastic record from start to finish.
4. Der Weg einer Freiheit – Noktvrn
There isn’t a single Der Weg einer Freiheit release that I haven’t deeply enjoyed. Noktvrn hit me differently, though. While I adored Finisterre, the emotional magnitude of Noktvrn feels even more pronounced, yet somehow also more subdued. This record feels like a musical distillation of everything the band does well, with an emotional core that is unrelenting in its bleakness and willingness to honestly plumb those depths. It’s also the band’s most sonically adventurous record, with tracks like “Immortal” sounding unlike anything the band has written or performed before. With each new record they somehow get better as musicians and more profound as songwriters. Thoroughly exceptional music.
3. Stormkeep – Tales of Othertime
My standard response to black metal is typically not to bang my head in the car so wildly that I have to sit in a parking lot to let a track end for the health and safety of everyone else on the road. But that’s the exact reaction I had to Stormkeep’s awesome debut full-length Tales of Othertime. This thing is riffy as fuck, and damn do I love it. These tracks are the very definition of epic, blasting through passage after memorable passage with a ceaseless well of enthusiasm. The performances are direct and punchy, giving the proceedings an immediate and deeply satisfying feel. But that isn’t to say that the band isn’t technical, as each new listen unpacks layered wonders that make the album very easy to come back to. It’s the most fun I had with a black metal album in 2021 and I feel confident I’ll be listening to it for years to come.
2. Aquilus – Bellum I
In both death and black metal, neo-classical elements presented themselves in unique and powerful ways. In the latter category, no album presented the effective melding of orchestral and symphonic with traditional black metal archetypes quite like Aquilus’ Bellum I. Griseus has long been considered one of the most unique and impactful black metal records of the 21st Century thus far, and Bellum I takes its place right alongside it as an appropriately indulgent, complex, absolutely stunning work of art. Aquilus has few comparisons outside itself, and it’s easy to state that nothing else in metal sounds quite like what Aquilus conjures. More intense and primal than Wilderun, more compositionally focused than Creature (both excellent bands, mind you), Bellum I is a ceaselessly interesting, deeply engaging triumph. Here’s hoping the wait for Bellum II isn’t nearly as long as what we had to endure since the release of Griseus.
1. Plebeian Grandstand – Rien ne suffit
Quality black metal formulates a multitude of emotional and intellectual responses for me during the listening experience. Sometimes dark and angry, other times contemplative, but rarely does it make me feel nothing. It’s one of the reasons it’s such a ceaselessly inventive and effective genre. The emotional, intellectual, and creative field of vision is as wide as any space in the music world, with its most skilled practitioners mining the spaces most genres dare not touch. But it’s rare, even in such a typically intense sonic space, that a record makes me feel genuinely unsettled, unnerved, and shaken. Like, “I need to take a shower, brew some tea, and watch an episode of Seinfeld to feel okay with life again” kind of vibes. Plebeian Grandstand’s fourth (and best) full-length record Rien ne suffit made me feel that way, and I haven’t been able to shake it since.
This is music that feels to its core unhinged, menacing, violent, and dangerous. It’s a middle finger to genre convention, incorporating harsh and unrelenting noise in a manner that would make Full of Hell uncomfortable. Its rhythm section is flat-out fucking unrelenting, bludgeoning and murdering your senses with an aural assault that feels physically painful. Its riffs are dissonant, angular, and unpredictable, slicing one way only to slash another with supreme control and effectiveness. The songwriting here is tortured, best exemplified by a vocal performance that is terrifying and anguished. I haven’t heard a vocalist gyrate with this level of uniform bile and misery since Andavald’s debut. It’s a harrowing listening experience.
But I keep coming back. Like an ant drawn to the kill box. Again and again I’ve let this utterly miserable experience drip its poison into my eyes, blinding me to all else but it’s ceaseless, destructive, punishing aura. It’s easily the most magnetic, painful, memorable, and soul crushing black metal record of the year, and I don’t think I’ll be able to shake it for years to come. This is Pleabeian Grandstand’s jet black masterpiece. I’m horrified to contemplate where they go from here. But here I sit regardless, eyes wide, anxiously awaiting suffering.