Sorry if I sound a little exasperated these days — I am. I live right up the road from our latest local superspreader event slash biggest fest of the year, FYA in Tampa. With our governor’s devil-may-care attitude towards COVID, tourists seeking freedom from oppression (read: masks) flock to our state to enjoy its many amenities and add their germs to the ever-stewing humid, hanging air. When the Met Gala of hardcore requires no masks, or proof of vaccination, or really any semblance of giving a fuck about the safety of its staff, performers, or attendees (who later gloat about terrorizing service industry workers, by the way) I tend to lose what little faith I have left in the scene. In 2022, I challenge everyone in the hardcore community to do better. There won’t be any more FYA Fests if everyone involved is sick or dead. And shame on the promoters for allowing it to go on in the middle of the literal worst surge of a life-threatening illness in recorded human history. Criminal fucking negligence at best.
But hey, we’re not here to listen to me on my soapbox asking people not to usher along the apocalypse when we all know it’s really the failure of federal policy and American exceptionalism — we’re here to celebrate our favorite releases of 2021! Yaaaaay!!! Cue fanfare! We did it! We made it through the year completely worse for wear but with a hell of an array of vicious, cathartic tunes to bedroom mosh to. Last year we compiled an aggregated list of our favorite records, but with our contributors’ tastes continuing to vary across the greater core spectrum, we felt it would be a lot easier (and allow more room for unique picks) to just cover our personal top 5’s. There were some generally agreed-upon albums among the staff (looking at you, Dreamwell) but for the most part, I think we did a hell of a job covering everyone’s tastes, from knuckle-dragging pit warriors to the most refined djentlemen among us.
This was our first full year back as an ongoing, revamped column, and you lot have shown nothing but love and made Rotten to the Core one of our most-read features. I cannot begin to properly express my gratitude, but on behalf of myself and this entire pool of talented writers: thank you, truly. From our Patrons to Facebook groupies, Discord lurkers, and everyone else who reads silently but regularly, you make us feel seen, heard, and appreciated. When the world has its death grip around our throats and everyday life feels overwhelming, coming back here to shed all that weight and shoot the shit about the weirdo music that means everything to us is a much needed respite — and we hope it is for you, too. May our takes continue to inform your taste well into the bleeding future. Love you, mean it. Be good to each other — we’re all we have left.
1. Every Time I Die – Radical
I speculated that it might be the case when I first wrote this record up, but now I am fully ready to commit: Radical is the best Every Time I Die record. Other ETID albums may have taken elements of their sound to further extremes, but they’ve never produced an album as cohesive and consistent as this before, which is a pretty amazing feat to pull off nine albums and two decades into a virtually flawless career. The added thrash elements and experiments with vocal melody introduced on Low Teens (2016) are perfected here, along with every other element they’ve introduced throughout their illustrious discography. Every member of the band is at the absolute top of their game here, running rings around younger artists and contemporaries alike.
The fallout going on between iconic vocalist Keith Buckley and the rest of the band at the moment is made even more of a shame by just how good a record Radical really is. Should it be their last they can go out confident that it’s their crowning achievement, but hopefully they can sort everything out and keep on charging ahead. They’ve never shown any signs of slowing down before and Radical only proves that the best might even be yet to come.
2. Employed to Serve – Conquering
I’ve written about this album so much at this point that I’m running out of things to say. If you want a longer write-up, go check our 2021 Superlatives post. For now, I’ll just give you the CliffsNotes version:
· “Universal Chokehold” kicks ass,
· So do all the other songs,
· ETS’s best, most varied and comprehensive album yet,
· Riffs are huge,
· Crowbar influence is real,
· Modern classic that’s set the standard for hulking, riff-driven modern metal(core).
Sorry if it feels like I’m selling you short here, but you don’t need me to tell you about this album anymore, given how much people are going to be talking about it for years to come.
3. Frontierer – Oxidized
The sheer ridiculousness and intensity of Oxidized has me doubled over in stitches every time I listen to it. This is the definition of extreme music. As much as I adored Orange Mathematics (2015), I have to admit it’s more broadly acclaimed successor, Unloved (2018) left me pretty cold. Sure, the brutality was jacked up, but that album always seemed to lack focus for me, as if Frontierer were simply trying to be as destructive as possible, without giving much consideration to where their devastation was directed. Oxidized, on the other hand feels laser focused – especially come the end of “Corrosive Wash,” which might just be the most insane, over the top, extreme, musical moment of the year. If Unloved felt like it was constantly pushing me away due to its sheer concussive force, then Oxidized feels like it’s sucking me into a vortex and holding me in place while its chaotic maelstrom has its way with me, only to spit me out when it’s done. That’s a good thing. …I think. Maybe I’m a masochist but I find this record utterly exhilarating to experience and its genuinely impressive how Frontierer have once again managed to set a new bar for sonic extremity.
4. Brand of Sacrifice – Lifeblood
Deathcore has been having a real moment recently. Between outstanding and innovative releases from the likes of Lorna Shore and Whitechapel this year, to further fantastic records from Fit For An Autopsy and Shadow of Intent that are just around the corner, the genre is arguably in a healthier place than it’s ever been. Brand of Sacrifice have been a big part of the “deathcore revival” narrative, having gone from underground buzz band to bona fide genre leaders in the space of only a few years. With Lifeblood, the North American outfit have proven they’re more than worthy of their position as deathcore titans, taking the genre to heretofore unreached epic heights while also accentuating the ignorant brutality that made it so appealing in the first place. This album is already being looked upon as a landmark release within the genre and I suspect we’re only beginning to see what Brand of Sacrifice are capable of.
5. Vorvañ – Awakening
Fucked Up and Converge are two hardcore-adjacent releases that made my AOTY list (extremely high up in the case of the former), however I chose to omit them from this list since, whatever hardcore heritage those two bands have, neither Bloodmoon: I or Year of the Horse really have anything to do with hardcore themselves. Awakening is another album I was on the fence about including. Upon revisiting the record, I feel like it might have more in common with stoner metal than hardcore, drawing frequent comparisons to bands like High on Fire, Mastodon, Baroness and Kvelertak. The other obvious influence, however, is definitely Converge (whose Kurt Ballou once again absolutely kills it on the production side of things). Even though I have issues with referring to Converge as a hardcore band, especially these days, those elements absent from Bloodmoon: I which have otherwise kept them anchored to the hardcore scene are on full display here, especially during the album’s early half, so I wanted to give the album another shout out as something those Converge fans who were left cold by Bloodmoon should definitely check out and also just as one of the most criminally overlooked and underrated albums of 2021.
Vorvañ’s 2016 debut Once Love Was Lost was a rock solid slab of the gnarly, Ballou-produced crust-core in vogue at the time but Awakening is on a whole different level, standing apart as its own thing and, quite frankly, puts all of its closest competitors to complete shame. I said it before when I first wrote up this record for Rotten to the Core, but “if this was the new Converge album, people would be losing their goddamn minds.” Despite its crusty attire, Awakening is a deceptively varied and often progressive record, in keeping with Converge’s recent trajectory, but without losing sight of their more aggressive hardcore roots.
Honorable Mentions: Kaonashi – Dear Lemon House, You Ruined Me: Senior Year; Gatecreeper – An Unexpected Reality; Whitechapel – Kin; Wristmeetrazor – Replica of a Strange Love; Lorna Shore – …And I Return to Nothingness
1. Dreamwell – Modern Grotesque
I think I can speak for most of us in the Rotten to the Core clan (and among wider Heavy Blog writers) when I say that Dreamwell’s astonishing Modern Grotesque has been a pretty dominant constant throughout 2021. For me personally, my love of screamo and post-hardcore felt like it reached somewhat of a terminal point this past year, becoming two of my favourite genres. One of the bands I’ve grown particularly fond of as of late is La Dispute and their pointed, poetic brand of storytelling amidst a backdrop of cascading post-hardcore instrumentation. La Dispute’s distinct style gave me a reference point from which to enjoy the approach Dreamwell were taking on Modern Grotesque.
From the moment I heard the white-hot thrust and intensity of “Painting Myself a Darker Day” I was pretty much sold. Furious discordant guitars ridden by Keziah Staska’s anguished scream set the record off to an immediately devastating start, and set the flow for an exhilarating, beautiful and tragic journey to come. What the band capture so effectively throughout MG are the different shades of emotional catharsis that plague a person. I’ve already mentioned the anthemic “Painting…”, and the following “Sayaka” achieves a similar feeling with its stomping finish. The record peaks in sonic heaviness with the eviscerating metallic hardcore fury of “You Dreamt of Me. I Dreamt of a Mountain of Salt”, which makes sense for a song about queer revenge. It’s quite rare to hear such seething anger coexisting so cohesively with the achingly torturous realisation that is present on “Plague Father; Vermin Son”; one of knowing that your very essence is shaped by abuse. It’s even rarer to also hear the exhausted numbness of “Sisyphean Happiness” and the way Staska’s usual expressive tone slumps to the monotony of the final few lines: ‘If, when I die, it all should start again, I’ll pray the next time’s a smaller hell. So let the spirit cycle down, and watch a smile crack the face’.
2. Cruelty – There Is No God Where I Am
The need in metallic hardcore for rabid, crumbling savagery and pronounced disaffection with the world, its people and your faith in them, has and will always be there I believe. There’s simply too much needless distress in the world and rot at the heart of people for this not to be the case. However, the forefathers of this style, 00s heroes like Converge and Botch, retain their legendary status in this arena, and for good reason. So you might ask, what’s even the point in trying to shed new light on these themes if, after pouring your black heart out, you still sound anything but vital?
Cruelty decided to double down on their debut with Church Road Records, creating an ode to those classic bands but with an ear for expansion in the future. I will say, if you’re so accustomed to this style that it’s essentially chart music to you, then maybe give There Is… a miss, but even those who think they fit in this camp, I would still stress that this firebomb of a record is well worth their time, and might even surprise them in parts. First off, there’s Taylor Young’s wonderfully dishevelled mixing effort; the guitars sound like a rusty razor swiping at flesh, the drums just barrel forward, and Shaafi’s vocals rip and shred. Yet despite the roughness of the production, the record manages to sound intensely pointed, constantly jabbing you, sometimes from behind, sometimes between the eyes, but always quickly and without reprise. If you’re still in doubt as to Cruelty’s choice of sound, wait till you hear the sheer bile in what is one of the best closing tracks of the year. Coming to a nasty climax with post-metal fervour, it reminds you how surprisingly dynamic such a blistering record can be, and most importantly, what they could do further down the line.
3. Vexed – Culling Culture
I’ve already gone into the tingly feeling I get when spinning Vexed’s calculatedly incendiary yet bleeding-heart approach to that modern tech-metalcore sound palette we all thought went way out of style roughly a decade ago. It’s true, it may not be trendy, but when it’s done with tact, restraint and more of a focus on feeling, it can sound just as refreshing as the first time you heard Periphery in 2010.
Simply put, Culling Culture is filled to the brim with spritely, gloriously antagonistic bangers that move you in the pit and in the gut. “Narcissist” sits in the former camp, Megan spitting punishingly-fast growls that give your heart an irregular beat, bringing to mind an After The Burial approach. Yet they manage to cohesively fit djent ballads like “Purity” and “Aurora” into the mix too, that echo the best TesseracT balladry, which is mighty impressive for a band as young as Vexed. Any style, old or new, can be pumped with new life if there’s genuine conviction in its execution. I firmly believe that if more tech metal bands took the approach that Vexed take, there would be much more of interest in the genre at large. Let’s see what they can do.
4. Mastiff – Leave Me The Ashes Of The Earth
There’s a record that comes along every year to save me from my own self-destructive tendencies, and this year it was Mastiff and their brutish, utterly grim blend of sludge, doom and hardcore. I’ll get more into the details of what Mastiff do, but for now just imagine being slammed head-first into a merciless, unthinking wood chipper, and then your limp, putrid remains left out for houseflies to feed on for days on end. It’s the best of both worlds listening to LMTAOTE because I can satisfyingly purge all the stultifying negative energy I have towards myself and the government by tuning into “Fail” or “Midnight Creeper” and not actually cause myself any physical or mental harm. The music does it all for me! I’ve got to be dreaming because normally all the stuff that feels great on this sodden planet also causes your body and/or mind to suffer. Not Mastiff though. You can enjoy their blast beats, pig squeals, monstrous breakdowns and static noise without any bodily repercussions.
Ok, I’ll be a bit more serious now. As the band hail from East Yorkshire, I always feel as if I can detect a smattering of northern sardonicism in the way their punk side haphazardly bounces along (albeit bouncing at 260 bpm) in a way that could be underestimated. But a bar or two later and your legs are swiped from beneath you and your face hits the cold English pavement with a crunch. They’re the only band I know at the moment whose murky, industrial atmosphere conjures up a distinct image of a foul, unidentified liquid zig-zagging through the cobbles of a monochrome Northern English town; and as someone from a monochrome Northern English town who likes heavy things, that very much appeals to me.
5. LLNN – Unmaker
I’m going to let Calder wax lyrical on this one, but I do have my own thoughts. After the release of Danish sludge-dredgers LLNN’s Unmaker, I tweeted perplexingly and semi-seriously about their gargantuan binary riffs and how it was possible that they could be that simple and still prick up my ears like it had never been done before. After numerous, more studied listens, I still more-or-less feel that way.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Unmaker is the heaviest record in my top five and potentially the heaviest of the year. It begins at a 9 on the scale of heaviness, and miraculously—almost hilariously—ups this to an 11 by the closing track. But why Unmaker is so effective at what it does is only in small part due to its supernovean heaviness, and more to do with its extra-sonic accoutrements; the echoes, creaking, rumbling bass and ambient hissing that make the listening experience go from what might have been just another stupendously heavy trip, albeit a very good one, to something out and out majestic, awe-inspiring and gripping.
Honorable Mentions: For Your Health – In Spite Of; Pupil Slicer – Mirrors; God Complex – To Decay In A Deathless World; Portrayal of Guilt – We Are Always Alone & CHRISTFUCKER; Bummer – Dead Horse
1. Portrayal of Guilt – We Are Always Alone
I challenge you to find a -core release from this year more wicked and vile than Portrayal of Guilt’s We Are Always Alone. It almost makes me want to steal from Rotten Tomatoes for this column, because this is “certified rotten.” Of course their impressive second full-length they released this winter, Christfucker needs to be acknowledged, but it went for a more black metal meets sludge approach compared to the stunning blackened screamo/hardcore Portrayal of Guilt are more known for. And that’s what WAAA excelled at, bringing the truly most evil elements of black metal to more skramz-oriented heavy riffs and vocals. The way their writing conjures up this sense of dread lends to a cathartic release of every ounce of pain and hatred you can muster from inside you. Vocalist Matt King is largely responsible for this with his despair-filled delivery, but the instrumentation sets the stage so well with just some of the most straight-up sinister riffs you can dream of. PoG are the best band in the world at bridging these two sounds right now and I can’t wait to hear what they concoct for us next.
2. Orphan Donor – Unraveled
I’ve gushed about this unique screamo meets mathgrind meets post-metal album on multiple occasions, including our AOTY superlative list under the “Inflicting Psychic Wounds Upon Thine Enemies” category, but it’s probably the only of my top-5 overall that I’ve yet to see on other lists. Perhaps the overall barrage of sound approach of the album and noise influence is a bit much for some, which is fair – this album is a lot. But if you can let the hypnotic, dissonant riffs and glacial, grinding post-metal gradually sink into and consume your brainwaves, it’s a trip unlike anything else you’ll hear this year. Screamo had a powerful year in general, and this album, along with PoG and Dreamwell (covered here by Joe) lead the way for me.
3. Sentinels – Collapse By Design
As much as I love the rawness and nostalgia of all these throwback metalcore and mathcore bands exploding across the scene right now, I still have a soft spot for the very late 00’s-early 10’s, hyper-produced, and yes, djenty side of the genre. Part of what made Collapse By Design such a standout this year was in how it found a middle-ground between these two approaches. These guys have all the bouncy groove and punch of bands like Structures (insert plural noun joke) but with the dizzying laser-gun-firing technicality of mathier bands like Ion Dissonance. If you’re familiar with the super underrated 2011 release Messengers by Fall In Archaea, there’s a lot of that here. Four albums in, Sentinels have really found their stride and shown there are still interesting ideas to come from this wave of djent and tech-metalcore.
4. Knoll – Interstice
I’d be lying if I said I was well-versed or heavily experienced with the genre of grindcore. It’s something I struggled for years to get into, aside from a few of the more death metally acts. Fortunately, it seems that Knoll write grind for non-grind fans? Part of that is the noticeable Full of Hell comparisons, especially stuff like Trumpeting Ecstacy, with all their deathgrind, noise and screamo influence. But Interstice is absolutely up there with the best of FoH’s material for me, an incredible accomplishment for a debut album. A relentless, swirling fury of chaotic terror. It swarms and surrounds you with its buzzing up-tempo riffage and piercing high screams, then just pumbles you into dust with their death metal riffs and low gutturals. Fuck yeah, Knoll.
5. Fallfiftyfeet – Twisted World Perspective
I needed some more metalcore or mathcore on this list, and one of the best this year came from yet another impressive debut by West Virginian upstarts Fallfiftyfeet. Part of what I love about this album is how many places it takes you, and just how damn fun it is. There’s a bit of roughness to everything here, but they use it to their advantage in harnessing the raw energy of a house show, with the nostalgia of the myspace scene. Gang vocals, melodic clean sections, two-steps and Dillinger riffs? Sign me up.
Released through Dark Trail Records, one of the absolute best sources for new mathcore right now, Twisted World Perspective is going to be one of my go-to albums for people looking to get into mathcore from melodic metalcore and post-hardcore backgrounds. Their technical proficiency and smooth, free-flowing writing is up there with the genre’s best.
Honorable Mentions: Pupil Slicer – Mirrors; Dreamwell – Modern Grotesque; Kaonashi – Dear Lemon House, You Ruined Me: Senior Year; Death Goals – The Horrible And The Miserable; For Your Health – In Spite Of
1. Humanity’s Last Breath – Välde
This is without a doubt my most written about album this year (I think this is the fifth time covering it in some fashion?) and for very good reason – there is nothing Välde can’t offer the common fan of extreme metal and hardcore alike. Looking for cacophonous, degloving riffs from beyond the pale? Check. How about exquisitely brutal breakdowns with their own plot twists for double the carnage? Check. Bombastic songwriting that doesn’t skimp on the groove or atmosphere? Double check. There is palpable, titanic weight behind this record that moshers and horn-throwers alike can come together and be ingloriously smashed by, and let me tell you, there is nothing more beautiful and unifying than that.
Humanity’s Last Breath (and really, Buster Odeholm himself) continue to take a sledgehammer to the walls of the genre, breaking down barriers and letting the old beatdown sludgewave of early-2010s djenters bleed into the oppressive, epic, dissonant trappings of modern prog death. All styles converge here into a single monolithic slab of subatomic death that is a sight to behold. “Descent”, “Vittring”, and especially the back half of “Väldet” feature some of my favorite musical moments of the year, and if you still somehow haven’t, it’s high time you experienced the terrifying majesty of Välde for yourself.
2. LLNN – Unmaker
I’ll be honest, y’all. This one slipped right past my radar when it came out amidst a deluge of other, more “true” core releases – mostly because it isn’t billed as such, and hell, why would it be? Mea fucking culpa. LLNN have traditionally straddled that line between blackened hardcore and good, slow, sludgy goodness, but they’ve always tipped in favor of the latter. Unmaker doesn’t change that formula, not really; what it does instead is just murder you. Straight up dead. Massive blunt force trauma to the dome, case closed, everybody go home.
With a firm foundation rooted in horror and sci-fi sound design, Unmaker’s unwieldy blows come from all over despite being a fairly straightforward record. Chugs lurch and linger after bodily battering you as oppressive, metallic synths suck the very air from your lungs. Shotgun snares give way to creaky spaceship echoes with malevolent intelligence. The bass, my GOD the bass. I have never felt so threatened with actual physical violence by a recorded instrument in my life. This is cinematic brutality. Truly, nothing else (except maybe my top pick, MAYBE) was heavier than Unmaker this year. It’s gravity as sound, pulling you into the darkened abyss, crushing, violent, and chillingly finite. Hindsight being what it is and knowing how much time it took for this album to grow on me and how much I adore it, this may end up overtaking HLB with time, and I may one day look back fondly at LLNN penning my enduring favorite of 2021.
3. Spiritbox – Eternal Blue
Given my general distaste for what the majority of major alternative outlets have named as their top releases of the year, I’m loathe to admit I agree with one of the more ubiquitous ones: Eternal Blue. I’m just a sucker for this sound, and I fully admit I’m a mark for it. After five-plus years of eager, rabid hype for their debut full-length, Spiritbox dropped an album that immediately divided critics. Here’s what I think happened: people who like Spiritbox for exactly what they’ve presented themselves as loved it, and people who were on the fence with high expectations from the hype didn’t. That’s probably to be expected – it’s like waiting for the movie adaptation of a book. You already know what’s going to happen, you just hope it lives up to the insane bar you’ve set for it in your head.
Eternal Blue is a fucking killer record despite not being surprising in the slightest. I don’t deem that a bad thing at all – they promoted the shit out of it for almost a year and a half before release, with a whole handful of amazing singles to chew on. Just because the rest of the album sounds like those songs too doesn’t make it bad for not exploring more or different territory, and I feel crazy for having to type that. Maybe one day we can all bask in the drowning glory of their warm, hypnotic tones and insatiable off-time grooves as Courtney cements herself as one of the best in the business together. That day is probably soon by the way, because by 2024 every modern metal band will either sound like this or Fit For An Autopsy, so uh, deal with that however you need to.
4. Knocked Loose – A Tear in the Fabric of Life
“Is it an album or an EP?” “Yeah.”
A Tear in the Fabric of Life is vicious and beautiful in equal measure, a gothic tragedy played out over the course of twenty minutes that feels like a full-length feature film. Apocalyptic, rumbling chugs serve as the foundation of its death metal-tinged core riffs as the overwhelming energy of vocalist Bryan Garris ignites your senses, beckoning you to move against your will. The simple narrative of a car crash that takes the protagonist’s lover’s life, plus the ensuing anguish and supernatural twist that ties in themes explored on A Different Shade of Blue are killer vehicles (sorry) for Knocked Loose to explore territory untouched by modern hardcore bands.
I’ve been singing their praises since the Pop Culture EP, and still believe these dudes have the chops, the reach, and the legacy already brewing to go down as best in class. Tear might be a short trip, but it’s packed to the gills with more creativity and care than almost any other release twice its length — and it’s still twice as memorable for it.
5. Born of Osiris – Angel or Alien
I love going back and reading what I’ve written about an album before I do these little blurbs, mostly to have a little laugh at my own expense. Usually it’s to find a new take or highlight something I barely touched on before. However, in August I described this album as ‘Soilwork’s Stabbing The Drama as written by August Burns Red’ and I’m still laughing because I fuckin’ NAILED it. Going back for seconds on Angel or Alien reveals even more of those little moments of nuance that call clearly back to such influences while still retaining their own signature tone and tempo, and I love the album more for it every time.
AoA remains firmly rooted in my mind as the best Born of Osiris album in a decade, and perhaps their best work outside of The New Reign and The Discovery. It’s a gorgeous, sprawling, crunchy festival of virtuosity and exuberance. Something about this album just feels so sunny, even though it’s clearly a very serious tech-metalcore record dressed in melodeath trappings. Lee McKinney has absolutely outdone himself with endless “haha now YOU play it” riffs that leave you shaking your head as you bathe in spacey synths preparing for the inevitable from-the-top-rope pit splash. Angel or Alien is a total masterclass and welcome sigh of relief for such a talented band, especially having weathered such mediocre releases late in their career. Here’s my favorite track and new crymosh anthem to send 2021’s favorite Rotten to the Core releases out with style – “Shadowmourne”:
Honorable Mentions: Dreamwell – Modern Grotesque; Whitechapel – Kin; Mirrors – The Ego’s Weight; Ice Nine Kills – Welcome To Horrorwood: The Silver Scream 2; Sentinels – Collapse By Design