Best Of 2021 – Ryan Tysinger: Stand By For Exciter, Or The Whole Glory Of 2021
For the longest time, metal was an unexplored desire. It was kept closeted away by fifteen-year old Ryan. Swept up in 80s hardcore punk at the time, I had little time or patience for anything aside from three fast chords and a direct, immediate, in-your-face, real-world message. “No time for solos! No patience for allegory!” was the motto of my younger self. My earliest exposures to the genre of heavy metal were admittedly sparse–even so, the bands I did know and enjoy occupied a dark corner of my listening. I didn’t have many friends into metal proper, so in my foolish adolescence, I treated it like a dirty secret. Metal became a proverbial truck stop restroom; it was a space where I could sneak away to fulfill what I would much later find to be my primal calling and natural desire. At the time, however, there was a thrill behind it. It was something exciting I could explore on my own, I got a dirty little surge of adrenaline out of sticking my fingers through into the Heavy Metal’s stall and seeing what slipped back through from the other side.
After a while, however, the thrill of tapping one’s toe beneath the adjoining stall to listen to Reign In Blood loses its luster. Not to say I don’t still love it, it’s an indisputable classic that still ignites sparks with the strike of its hellish flint and steel. Over time, I just began to realize that it wasn’t the thrill of seeking out something forbidden and taboo alone that ignited something deep within my loins. I actually liked it the more I grew to understand both the music and myself. Instead of occasionally stealing away, I began openly seeking out heavy metal wherever I could find it. I was out, baby, and it felt so good.
Still, and perhaps from my earlier experiences, I felt an inherent thirst to seek the adrenaline rush of exploring how deep the glory hole goes (so to speak). My greatest weakness as a critic is discovery: That feeling of unknown, forbidden excitement. A completely unattached connection between myself as a listener and the music. No pretext. This kink admittedly leads to an inherent bias towards things I feel that sort of connection to. It’s a bias I’m well aware of and consciously try to keep in check.
Then again, I’ve never been that great at restraining my natural urges.
Who is this man?
Where is he from?
You’ll never see him
But you will taste the fire upon your tongue
I: TAKE ON THE WORLD
As this list began to take form, certain patterns emerged. It felt more fitting to (lightly) eschew the typical Last Rites format of two tiers of 20-11, 10-1 and opt for four tiers this year. The best explanation being, of course, that it made sense at the time.
20. Auld Ridge – Consanguineous Tales Of Bloodshed And Treachery
Ancient black metal calling upon the folk music of olde, Auld Ridge feel haunted by the ghosts of the past on Consanguineous Tales Of Bloodshed And Treachery. Come for the epic riffs and raw grit and stay for the epic folk compositions. Fans of the material that French label Les Acteurs De L’ombre Productions typically releases (Véhémence, Darkenhöld, Aorlhac, etc) should run, not walk to this one.
19. Moral Collapse – Moral Collapse
Bangalore, India’s Moral Collapse are bringing the proverbial sauce with their self-titled debut. Recruiting studio heavyweights Hannes Grossmann and Bobby Koelble to assist in bringing their vision to life, the duo rip and tear through a little-t technical and little-p progressive stint (neither of which impede upon the glorious display of songwriting) into the realms of death and emerge with a list-worthy product that throws enough twists and turns to reward plenty of repeated plays.
18. Universally Estranged – Reared Up In Spectral Predation
Almost surprising how impressive as it sounds with every subsequent listen for an initial effort, Universally Estranged’s debut hits that sweet spot between punishing brutality and big-brained cosmic death metal. The songs feel alive, breathing and evolving rapidly as they spiral into the swallowing maw of the black hole production as the riffs shift on a dime. The guitar darts and ducks between the shooting stars, glimmering space dust, and glistening gaseous formations of the laser-synths. It’s alien, but still rots organically–Reared Up In Spectral Predation is the putrid stench of extraterrestrial death.
17. Ancient Mastery – Chapter One: Across The Mountains Of The Drämmarskol
From the moment the trumpets usher in the full power of Austria’s Ancient Mastery on the opening track of “To Valdura,” it’s clear the band is packing a little something special. Everything on Chapter One sounds larger than life, and yet the true form is only seen through the gray, ethereal fog of black metal. It feels as much like a dream as it does an epic fantasy, tugging on heartstrings of nostalgia for a time that never was. The story weaves though climactic passages of the four songs, across the mountains of Drämmarskol and into the continually growing world of Ancient Mastery.
16. Warrior Path – The Mad King
What better way to kick things off than with some adventurous epic metal with the promise of “a land far away, where magic rules.” Athens, Greece’s sons in Warrior Path swept me off my feet early in the year with their sophomore follow-up, The Mad King. A whirlwind tale delivered with the utmost clarity of voice (in both the music and the storytelling itself), the album dodges the pitfalls of overly-corny power metal to deliver a heartfelt tale that inspires honor and bravery amidst its mighty riffs and commanding leads.
“For all the pressure that’s been building up, for all the years it bore the load. The cracks appear, the frame starts to distort. It’s ready to explode.”
15. Fuego Eterno – El Arte De Lo Oculto
Full disclosure: There’s a bit of a personal attachment here. It’d feel dishonest not to mention, but on the other hand, I believed in El Arte De Lo Oculto so much I risked Total Credit Annihilation to assure I could obtain a licensed physical copy. There’s not too much more I can say about it outside of how much I’ve talked about it this year between my initial review and subsequent mention in La Fragua Del Fin Del Mundo. It’s thrashy, melodic metal of death with a rock and roll psychedelic twist that feels as familiar as it is new, and as a fan I can’t wait to hear what they have in store next.
14. Mystic Storm – Из хаоса древних времен
What a hell of a year for thrash. Across the globe, seasoned vets and younger cats alike had some sort of fire lit under their collective asses–so much so that I half-jokingly referred to 2021 as The Thrashening. St. Petersburg, Russia’s Mystic Storm conjured up something a little extra special, however, on their debut (which translates to “From Ancient Chaos“).
The best way to describe Mystic Storm is to equate them to carrying an Ironton® Heavy-Duty Demolition Breaker Hammer (available from our friends at Northern Tool + Equipment) with Mjölnir attached to the business end into battle. All the Robert E. Howard-esque might of the U.S. and Greek styles of power metal powered by way of a 15 Amp, 110V thrash-powered motor. Анна’s vocals drip with attitude and spittle and barbaric rage; It’s the perfect cherry on top of a rip-roaring thrasher of a record.
13. Gabestok – Én Gang Rådden, Altid Rådden
Gabestok take home the coveted Spirit Of The Elder Evil Trophy for 2021. The Copenhagen band’s second full length is a soundtrack for graveyard partying. Én Gang Rådden, Altid Rådden is a bizarre concoction of primitive first wave black metal, hard rockin’ heavy metal, and vicious black ‘n’ roll, all hammered into a crude twist on the dramaticisms of Mercyful Fate on the album’s brilliant opener. What follows is the taste of gravedirt delivered in a chalice of some heavy-as-fuck distorted guitar and fuming, barbaric percussion. The beer tastes much more bitter and hits twice as hard when it’s consumed from a freshly unearthed skull, does it not?
12. 夢遊病者 – Noč Na Krayu Sveta
I do not believe I’ve ever been able to describe the music of 夢遊病者 without using the word “dream,” which is odd–I rarely remember my dreams. When I do, they’re often terrifyingly traumatic. Yet, when I awaken, I find myself wanting to hit the snooze button twice as much as I usually do, if only to return to a few more moments of escape from the Real World. This is how I feel when I listen to Noč Na Krayu Sveta–that same desire to return to the comforts of nightmarish subconsciousness lurks within the music.
11. Herzel – Le Dernier Rempart
From the very first notes of Le Dernier Rempart, it’s clear every moment spent waiting for the follow-up to the promise of 2015’s Unis Dans La Gloire was worth it. However, the French heavy metallers not only deliver with flying colors, but throw an extra dash of magic to the mix in bursts of inspiration, such as the inclusion of the double-reeded bombard. Its first inclusion on the self-titled track is a wonderful “What the hell is THAT?!” moment. Exotic instrumentation aside, Herzel wield the steel with power and–perhaps most importantly–noble grace. In true French fashion, Herzel know the dance of the swordplay, darting about with some fancy lead work and a galloping, powerhouse steed of a rhythm department.
III: ONE SHOT AT GLORY
It’s still within the Last Rites format if the bigger covers start now, yes?
10. IRON MAIDEN – SENJUTSU
Was there a more polarizing album in the greater heavy metal spectrum this year than Senjutsu? And while I can understand the disappointment from fans wanting another Powerslave or even another Brave New World, I can’t grasp why any fan of Candlemass or Solitude Aeturnus or Atlantean Kodex could give an honest listen and genuinely dislike the music in this record. While it doesn’t feel scaled back in the slightest, for the first time in over two decades it feels like the band justify their exaggerated album lengths, fitting into the album’s intimidating hour and a half runtime like a well-crafted suit of armor.
Senjutsu is undoubtedly one of the best epics in heavy metal this year. It simply flows with majesty and power, wizened grace and brute strength as it traverses gradually increasing climaxes until it arrives at the fiery conclusion of “Hell On Earth.” There is so much soul in Senjustsu hidden behind the skeptical length and more moderate tempos. It is the defining example of “listening to something for what it is as opposed to what you thought you wanted” in 2021.
9. EXANIMATVM – SOLLVM IPSA MOR
As haunting as it is hellish, the sophomore album from Chile’s Exanimatvm is a study in death metal orchestration. A hideous cacophony of down-tuned death metal brimming with sinister tension, Sollvm Ipsa Mor is a twisted journey to the depths of Death Metal Hell powered by an iron-clad rhythm section that keeps the sinster flame burning. A molten, searing nightmare that grabs the attention and holds it, sinking anyone within earshot further into it’s murky depths.
8. GRIMA – ROTTEN GARDEN
Ever look at a painting and feel yourself drawn in by the choice of color as much as the technique? The Russian pagan atmospheric black metal band Grima similarly takes as much care in their selection of sounds as they do with their composition, coloring their music with lush, dynamic tones. The moment the pipe organ breathes like a rolling wind, the emotive accordion passages, the screech of the bird of prey in the album’s opener all make for a massive soundscape on Rotten Garden. The band’s fourth album flows with natural force, the music shimmering against the nocturnal heavens as though enchanted with strange, ancient magics in the melancholic solitude of the mountains surrounding their home of Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.
7. WORM – FOREVERGLADE
I do so wish that whomsteverst’ve gave this a 0% review on Metal Archives gets the absolute worst case of swamp-ass next summer.
6. ATVM – FAMINE, PUTRID AND FUCKING ENDLESS
Perhaps the greatest strength of the debut from London’s Atvm is its cohesiveness. No matter how far the album reaches into the putrid, the slamming, the progressive, the grotesque, the unnerving, or the technical, Famine, Putrid And Fucking Endless never loses its gravitational center of metal of death. The album, beefed up with a few modern updates, touches on that genuine Schuldiner flow. It’s got its stops and it’s got its turns, but each segment feeds off the prior–there is, at no point in the album, a loss of momentum. The thrash heart still beats beneath the technical shell, touches of Sadus come to mind (particularly in the bass department). No matter how many terms or comparisons are thrown at it, Famine stands as familiar yet wholly indescribable, and crowning achievement of death metal in 2021.
We’re in the top five. What, you were expecting some artsy-fartsy bullshit? Super technical flashy whirly-doos? Nah, we are here to rock, baby. Give me something in the old way, but with the balls to say “fuck you, it’s MY way.” We’re in the moments of climax, it is all in the feeling from this point out, baby. The albums that brought the ultimate release in the grungy bathroom stall of 2021:
5. OPHICVS – EL TETRAPUTAS
Yeah, it’s got hard rockin’ heavy metal riffs. Sure, it’s got retro-futuristic laser-synths. Of course the songs are bizarrely catchy. But what drives Ophicvs over the skulls of so many other would-be year-end list contenders was the full-throttle attitude of El Tetraputas. It sounds like a satanic hotrod should, with parts flying off in its dust every which way as it haphazardly drives on the edge of a deathly canyon. El Tetraputas is all engine, baby, and Ophicvs is slamming the gas to reveal some serious muscle under the hood.
4. BAAZLVAAT – THE HIGHER POWER
The real beauty in The Higher Power, the third full release from Flint, Michagin’s Baazlvaat, is in how effortlessly the band transition from a raw outpouring of talent found on their self-titled and Guitar Exotic albums to a more focused work. The overarching Celtic melodies ensorcell the record, uniting the band around a central theme to explore–and what an adventure it turns out to be!
Pulling influence from not only a more folksy, traditional musical school of thought but also the likes of late 70’s rock and prog (see Wishbone Ash, Thin Lizzy, etc.), Baazlvaat are a testament to the possibilities of just how far the necrotic metals black can go when it comes to reinvigorating the past into something fresh, alive, and new, all while making it seem effortless. A truly inspired work.
3. ANGUIS DEI – ANGEIST
Japan’s Anguis Dei took their time crafting the long-awaited follow-up to 2017’s extremely promising EP, Ad Portas Serpentum. Anguis emerged early this year, and I jumped at the chance to include it in the little Black, Raw, And Bleeding column that’s taken shape over the last few years. No less than three albums from the February edition of the column made my final top twenty this year and two others (Ferriterium and Fathomage) in serious contention, but Anguis Dei’s debut full-length stole my ears throughout the duration of the year, worming its way beneath the skin. The self-proclaimed Satanik Hellharmonik Orchestra earn their infernal title, composing a symphony that blurs the lines between regal majesty and primal, animalistic release. Adeptus U.:È.:Œ.: delivers the extreme vocal performance of the year, displaying an uncanny, inhuman range in his larynx while the music constructs a looming, black cathedral to both worship and imprison the demons that haunt the very souls of the Anguis Dei collective.
2. ANTEDILUVIAN – THE DIVINE PUNISHMENT
As punishing as it is perverse, Antediluvian’s long-awaited third album is a commitment to partake in. It demands sacrifices of sanity, time, and bodily fluids, yet time and again revealed itself to be a ritual well worth experiencing from beginning to end. As I stated earlier in the year: “Antediluvian are channeling the essence of divine chaos, and it’s a mind-bending, sacrilegious, and perverted journey that is somehow reverent and masterfully crafted at the same time. It holds nothing sacred–not even itself–in its attempt to mock the entirety of creation and beyond.”
Perhaps what is truly terrifying about The Divine Punishment is how easy it is to slip into its depths, and how difficult it is to pull away from the maw of chaos to be found within.
1. EISENHAND – FIRES WITHIN
There is something to be said for removing one’s armor and facing the trials of the world head on, which is precisely the emotional center of Eisenhand’s aptly titled debut, Fires Within. The Austrians combine the youthful recklessness and brash strut of punk with the uplifting bravado and infectious melodic tendencies of early 80’s heavy metal. While comparisons could be made to everything from the likes of Stiff Little Fingers or The Boys to Holocaust or Heavy Load to Maninnya Blade or Acid, none of it quite nails down what Eisenhand are working with. Sure, there are plenty of bands attempting to relive the salad days of the late 70s and early 80s these days, but it feels as though our heroes here have merely found their voice in the language of the past. As they say themselves on the albums opener, it rises out of time. The result is nothing short of empowering: The bards of the Iron Hand have a powerful command of the Inspire Courage ability; it’s a power that cannot be understated in an age where both hope and serotonin are becoming more and more of a scare commodity.
Fires Within is stripped of all armor, down to the bare essence until all that remains is a heart ablaze with fiery passion, brash audacity, and an untarnished, youthful arrogance in regards to freedom. It’s pure angelic spirit; it is an album that was made to be felt. This may seem like an exaggeration or hyperbole, and I swear on Halford’s lungs that it is neither: I have spent more than a few nights shedding tears to this album over the past months. Something about the glare in its seraphic steel just connects, something deeper than words. It’s more than soul, it is pure, unadulterated spirit. Even as I type this out, I feel my eyes dampening as “Dizzying Heights” plays out one more time:
Hear the trumpets die away as you carry off the torch
into the unknown
Tune in to your inmost songs, keep on searching the horizon
No matter how far you have flown.
Realize the power streaming from the bottom of your heart,
fueling your desire
Feel it rushing through your veins, an untamed force
raises you higher!
In this moment I feel like there is nothing in this world that can defeat me.
V: RAPID FIRE
Quick, discreet encounters.
10. The Watcher – Your Turn To Die
Hard rockin’, epic heavy metal with a stoner doom reverence to tone and weight. Need I say much more?
• A Deafening And Dreadful Sound
9. World Eaters – Grinding Advance
Those whom might write off so-called “bedroom projects” would kindly be reminded that the finest works of Bathory were the result of some dude banging out some metal in his garage. Not that World Eaters are changing the metal landscape in the way that Bathory did–the band is, fairly apparently, a Bolt Thrower worship project. Loud-as-fuck, overly distorted riffs over a tank-tred kick drum groove? Check. Bestial aggression and a fog-of-war production? Check. Warhammer 40K references? Check and mate. What sets World Eaters apart from so many other Bolt Thrower clones is not only their understanding of the style, but their willingness to experiment. While the opener of “Armoured Spearhead (Hellhammer)” may seem like an (albeit well-executed) wholesale Bolt Thrower number, the following two tracks add an epic expanse to the sound. The bass clarinet and slower, atmospheric passages add surprisingly fresh musical depth to a tried-and-true formula. There are plenty of acts filling the void left by the legendary act, but so few have the balls of World Eaters to take it outside the familiar, tank-trodden trenches of the original thing.
• Escape From The Underdark
8. Gaahls Wyrd – The Humming Mountain
There’s often debate about what constitutes an extended play. Hell, The Humming Mountain clocks in a full second of time past the runtime of the fairly universally agreed upon full-length of Reign In Blood. Still, listening to how a band classifies their work can add context. The second work of Gaahl’s latest project feels like a more focused and singular, briefer work than an album of songs. The slow burn of the opener paints a portrayal of a mountain at peace before its volcanic tendencies take hold. The mid-era Enslaved vibe, as well as the progressive nature around the music, get an added dynamic from Gaahl’s ever increasing desire to hone the instrument of his voice. It may be a slow burn, but the anticipation is everything–and the eruption pays off in full.
7. Abhorration – After Winter Comes War
Norway continues to be a hotbed of intermingled thrash projects. Case in point being the After Winter Comes War demo from Oslo. Featuring members of Nekromantheon (whomst also released one of those killer thrash records this year), Condor, Black Viper, and Deathhammer, to name but a few, Abhorration play abhorrent death metal just outside its thrashened womb. Packed to the teeth with evil riffs and unholy warfare that takes no prisoners.
• After Bandcamp Comes War
6. Acid Blade – Demo 2021
In the time following their eponymous first demo, Germany’s Angel Blade underwent a small lineup change, a slight stylistic shift, and took up the fresh moniker of Acid Blade. Klay Mensana’s distinctive vocals are the dead-ringer: he’s got an extremely recognizable voice and a bit of a signature delivery that carries over from the original Angel Blade demo. While Angel Blade had a bit more of a cruder, pub-rock ’81 sound, Acid Blade nail a fuller, more realized ’83 heavy metal sound. However, as with Eisenhand, the band seem to have found their own voice amongst the styles of the past. One for late nights and city lights.
5. Perilaxe Occlusion – Raytraces Of Death
Thick-as-molasses death grooves, even when the Ontario death metal outfit Perilaxe Occlusion are blasting their asses off. The band’s energy stands out in an admittedly oversaturated market, and their follow-up to last year’s Exponential Decay shows a band only beginning to get warmed up. A band to keep an eye on in the coming years.
4. Havukruunu – Kuu Erkylän Yllä
Interesting that Havukruunu are not the last of this list to re-examine their old material and pull it off, but more on that in a minute. As someone who hopped on with the band’s sophomore album, Kelle Strut Soi, seeing how smoothly the reworkings of a handful of tracks from their 2008 self-titled EP smattered amongst a couple of new numbers serve to solidify the fact that Havukruunu have had their goals in mind since day one. Despite the time gap in the writing of the songs for Kuu Erkylän Yllä, the EP still translates as a singular, coherent work. For those fiending for a heroic dose of the epic black metal stylings of Havukruunu, this is a perfect fix.
3. Sugar Wounds – Calico Dreams
A saccharine-coated, ADHD-addled rush through a blender of grindcore and post-hardcore that results in something that hits a chord between the violent and cathartic, the sophomore effort from Sugar Wounds packs a lot of punch in a tighter focus for the band from their more stylistically sprawling debut. The band is chock full of idiosyncrasies, but perhaps none are as striking as the explosion of loneliness and isolation against a brilliantly illuminated and otherwise inviting boardwalk.
Perhaps it’s the lifeless promise, just outside the grasp of joy and excitement that the night holds that makes it feel so alive.
2. Cirith Ungol – Half Past Human
If last year’s Forever Black proved that the Cirith Ungol tale is far from over and nowhere near a half-assed attempt at a return, then Half Past Human serves as the punctuation mark to the statement. As Captain pointed out in his (linked below) review, classic bands on the return looking to record leftover material from their heyday can quickly turn the flag of victory into one of red, yet again Cirith Ungol skirt around the trope with an EP that continues the power and conviction of Forever Black regardless of the era in which the songs were penned. The band feel genuinely excited to be playing again, and it shows.
1. Shadows – Into The Nightmare
Take the sinister shuffle of Mercyful Fate and blend it with the chain-link street-tuff grit of Nasty Savage and you’d be somewhere in the neighborhood of the sound on Shadows’ debut EP, Into The Nightmare. A side project of John Shades of Chile’s Apostasy (one of those aforementioned thrash bands that released some top-notch material this year), Shadows strike a sweet spot between campy and straight-laced terror: As sacrilegious as it may seem, this is what Mercyful Fate might sound if King stripped the faceprint and performed in his aviator sunglasses alone. What’s more, Into The Nightmare pulls it off. If the EP is any indication, Shadows are a band worth getting excited over.
Dedicated, as always, to the Last Rites staff both past and present for creating and maintaining not only this site, but the community that transpires around it. It’s strange how the end of the year does bring about not only self-reflection, but self-assessment, and I can honestly say I would not be the person I am today without these people in my life. For better or for worse, you know who you know who you are.
An additional thanks, of course, to those who read what we write and trust us with your ears. I think I can speak for the crew when I say that we don’t take such trust lightly. Hope to see you all again in January, and remember: “What’s the point in living, unless you’re living wild.”