Best Of 2021 – Top 10 EPs & Demos
While I’m sure professional maniac chefs like Gordon Ramsey have a VERY strict definition of what constitutes an appetizer, the average restaurant seems to have missed the memo. Look no further than the succulent burning glory of the buffalo wing as an example. You can have a whole establishment dedicated to the little devils where the consumer of chicken flesh determines how many wings constitute a meal or you can land at a place that serves 12 as an appetizer. Is it the quantity that determines meal vs appetizer? Is it the intent to share vs solo consumption? Is it the type of restaurant? I have no damn clue how a menu designer comes to that decision, and quite frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn because I’m going to enjoy that pile of gut napalm either way.
The definition of an EP or demo is equally nebulous. Our list has releases that range from 18 minutes all the way up to nearly 40. Hell, one of those little 18-minute gems is from a band whose previous full-length was a whopping 27 minutes. Are nine minutes enough to downgrade from a full-length album to an EP? Grindcore bands would surely have something to say about that. Maybe it’s an EP when it’s a one-off release by a band being distributed to satiate fans between an extended-release cycle. Well, one mighty group of Japanese medical gore fiends on this list has released three singles, six splits, two EPs and a full-length since 2020. Go ahead and throw that definition out the window.
In summary, I don’t know what the fuck the definition of an EP or demo truly is, and just like what constitutes an appetizer, I’ll leave it to the people making it to tell me. [Editor’s note: we make the divide between full length and EP/demo purely by the band’s definition of the release.] What really matters is being able to shove as many extra morsels of delectable metal goodies into our ear gullets as bands are willing to dish out. What you’ll find below is a glorious paella of a debut demo from a new band, juicy cuts from veteran bands that have been killing it for 30-plus years, and everything in between.
Whether you need a quick cut to soundtrack some chores around the house or an all-encompassing listen that warrants a dark room and good headphones, our favorite EPs and demos of 2021 have you covered.
We would also appreciate you telling us which small dishes we overlooked. We’re hungry, goddammit. [SPENCER HOTZ]
10. PHARMACIST – CARNAL POLLUTION
Ukrainian / Japanese death / grinders Pharmacist seemingly came out of nowhere last year with a flurry of quality releases. But then again, really they came out of about 1989 with those, harking back to the gory days of Symphonies Of Sickness, an album that it was all-but-impossible not to namecheck when discussing Pharmacist’s own Forensic Pathology Jurisprudence or Medical Renditions of Grinding Decomposition. Matching last year’s prolific pace in terms of number of releases (although no full-lengths in 2021), Pharmacist spit out a spate of splits and singles and this EP, which shows them updating their Carcass love to a more Necroticism-esque death metal. The production is cleaner; the riffs are sharper, and yet every bit as destructive; the growls more snarled and less guttural, and still raw and vicious. And even with my outspoken affinity for Symphonies Of Sickness and early Carcass over that band’s admittedly still world-class mid to later era, the same cleaned-up update that worked for Carcass c. 1991 also works for Pharmacist thirty years later. Witness the killer crush of “Obsequial Orchestration” or the title track, with the former featuring a typically kick-ass solo from guest guitarist Andrew Lee (Houkago Grind Time, Ripped To Shreds). If you’re feeling sickly from a lack of sickness, then Pharmacist always has the cure for what ails you. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
9. ABHORRATION – AFTER WINTER COMES WAR
A reasonable person might ask why the Norwegian upstarts in Abhorration felt the need to start yet another band, given that the three members at the time of this demo recording had already played in such similar-minded bands as Condor, Black Magic, Mion’s Hill, and Black Viper, but thankfully that reasonable person would be immediately shouted down by a chorus of “Fuck you, square” from anyone else within earshot. Abhorration’s After Winter Comes War is a raucous, seething, vicious 21-minute attack on good manners and decorum, so of course you need it in your life.
Careening ever so slightly more to the death side of the equation than many of the death/black/thrashing bands with whom they’re associated, Abhorration tips their presumably filthy caps in the direction of early Bathory, Slayer, Morbid Angel, Sepultura, Kreator, Aura Noir, Holy Terror, and Dark Angel, but with that particular hypercharged regressivism that makes this Norwegian scene such a goddamned delight.
These four songs shuffle, blast, thrash, speed, veer, and clatter their way through whatever mean-spirited grooves come to mind, and although the whipcrack dancing riffs are the main draw, the real star of the show is Øyvind Kvam’s drumming. His absurdly aggressive style nevertheless maintains a real finesse, and his kit sounds like a meth-addicted octopus with a serious grudge against an entire kitchen full of Tupperware. The supremely rude transition into pit-stirring death/thrash at 2:15 of the opening track is the stuff wet metal dreams are made of, but in truth, there’s not a single wasted minute on this tantalizing first salvo, and the fact that they have recently been joined by Arild from Nekromantheon and Obliteration only whets the appetite further for whatever future rudeness these dirtbags have in store. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
8. HAVUKRUUNU – KUU ERKYLÄN YLLÄ
If you take a little journey back to this time last year, you’ll discover that Havukruunu’s Uinuos Syömein Sota was named Last Rite’s seventh best album of 2020. It’s no surprise then that a (re)fresh(ed) 35 minutes of vibrant black metal from these beloved Finns have made it to number eight on our EP list this year. Kuu erkylän yllä fires off five tracks that blister and blaze for almost the entire runtime. Sure there are still the typical folksy clean vocals and some ambient portions, but this EP spends the majority of its time set on fire and blasting black bravado into your ears. If you’re unfamiliar with anything from this band’s 14-year career, this is a great place to start as it offers a mix of re-recorded demo tracks and compositions as fresh as snowfall in January. [SPENCER HOTZ]
7. ENSLAVED – CARAVANS TO THE OUTER WORLDS
“This is a band that has always been at its best when inviting some experimentation and idiosyncrasies into their world, and while there were signs on Utgard that they were ready to spread their wings again (new blood in the lineup no doubt helps), this EP finds them in a searching mode that we haven’t seen in years. Searching, and of course, downright aggressive on that title track. Hopefully this breadth of sounds and approaches bleeds into their next full album session and wasn’t just used for a one-off EP. Fingers crossed very tightly.” [ZACH DUVALL]
6. WITCH VOMIT – ABHORRENT RAPTURE
Though I boarded the Witch Vomit train late on Buried Deep in a Bottomless Grave, I was a quick fan. Thick slabs of meat as riffs. Gooey gurgles. Grooves. And tight songwriting. What’s not to like? And it didn’t hurt that 2019 was, as noted in this very site’s review of Buried, a down year for death metal in the States. Buried was a gem, “a true standout in the scene.” So when Abhorrent Rapture was somewhat surprise announced almost two years later, I was… almost disappointed. Four songs seemed far too short. And it still does. But only because these four songs do what EPs are intended to—leave you wanting more.
Everything we loved about Buried is present and improved in this condensed form. The grooves dig just a bit deeper (“Necrometamorphosis”). The meaty, distorted riffs hit slightly harder (“Abhorrent Rapture”). The gurgles are gooier (“Purulent Burial Mound”). And the thrashy solos and tempo changes feel smoother (“Funeral Purgation”).
Witch Vomit has always sounded deliberate in its succinctness. Yet the band sounds even punchier on Abhorrent Rapture. Whether due to the short format or something else entirely, these four songs look good on the band. Though a step or two further outside the OSDM comfort zone might have given it some additional depth, this EP may be the best thing we’ve heard from an already excellent band. [CHRIS C]
5. ANCIENT MASTERY – THE CHOSEN ONE
Erech Leleth had what you’d call a rather productive 2021. His final count for the year: debut full lengths from Ancient Mastery and Golden Blood, EPs from Carathis and Grandeur, another Ancient Mastery single, and this EP here. The Chosen One might be the jewel of the bunch, even over the excellent Ancient Mastery full length. It shows a decent amount of range over its 21 minutes, with each song offering a slightly different take on the project’s melodic and majestic black metal. The first shifts between a heavy Windir influence and even a bit of heavy metal thunder in the riffs and the second ups the atmosphere and mood with help from various keyboard sounds. The title track, meanwhile, runs the gamut, featuring some of the EP’s most chilling and memorable tremolo melodies, a very castle-y mix of piano and organ at times, and a key moment of female vocals. The Chosen One is epic in both scope and its implied heroism, feeling old enough to earn the first word in the band name and being more than killer enough to merit the second.
Oh, and that single mentioned up there? That’s pretty great too, and it’s tacked onto the CD version of The Chosen One. [ZACH DUVALL]
4. PERILAXE OCCLUSION – RAYTRACES OF DEATH
“Perilaxe Occlusion pulls from a lot of the most cherished of early European death metal, sometimes coming off like an updated version of Abhorrence and at others a bit more Swedish (there’s even a touch of the Sunlight Studios sound in the guitars), like a version of Edge of Sanity that crawled out of the Everglades.
No matter the approach, they always play it big. The instrument tones are massive and fat (this might be a “demo,” but the production is pro); the cavernous vocals are monstrous and expansive; the sassy, swingin’ balls lines are downright commodious in their swagger; the slow, molasses-lurch passages are capacious; the blasting and speed-picking sections brimming with voluminous intensity; the drumming bombast is bountiful; the pinch squeals and divebombs chock-full of charisma and personality; the heft is, well, hefty; and the whole dang 22 minutes are nothing short of jumbo. Even the song lengths — none shorter than 6:30 — are larger than usual, but the band has no problem filling the time with constantly engaging material.” [ZACH DUVALL]
3. GAAHLS WYRD – THE HUMMING MOUNTAIN
“For all the quality music he’s released in the past, Gaahls Wyrd gives the sense that the man Gaahl is more comfortable than ever spreading his wings into whatever styles seem right at the moment. Sure, none of it veers too far from his past, but the range of it all gives it a real personality all its own. The Humming Mountain continues the beautifully bewildering journey started with GastiR, and leaves the hope that this particular project is just getting started.” [ZACH DUVALL]
2. CULT OF LUNA – THE RAGING RIVER
“…The Raging River is a wonderful EP very deserving of celebration by new and old fans alike. Similar to the LP that preceded it, Cult of Luna’s long proven proficiency for underscoring intensity and elegance back and forth and hither and thither survives as the dominant force, but it’s magnified even further by the most recent development to the CoL sound: keyboards that add a significant (and significantly wonderful) new layer to the soul crushing and spirit lifting. The modern face of the band feels heavier compared to, say, the Eternal Kingdom years, but there’s still well enough somber, reflective guitar work woven into the fabric here — particularly with regard to opener “Three Bridges” and throughout “I Remember” — to pacify the fans of their more solemn face as well. And netting the incredible Mark Lanegan (ex-Screaming Trees) for a quiet interlude was certainly a spectacular achievement that pushes the overall righteousness directly over the edge.” [CAPTAIN]
1. CIRITH UNGOL – HALF PAST HUMAN
“Clearly, the Cirith Ungol rejuvenation still has an abundance of vigor pumping at its crux, and not even tromping out a handful of 40+ year-old songs penned during a period before the band established their footing can stand in the way of these guys delivering a victory that’s every bit as worthy of your attention as the gems that landed before 2021.
Half Past Human: get ready to clear little more room on that crowded shelf, because this record will definitely belong in your collection.” [CAPTAIN]