Best Of 2021 – Zach Duvall: Rank And Tear Until It Is Done
Uh-oh. Hello. Hello again. I’ve never had as tough a time putting together a snapshot list of heavy metal albums as I did in 2021. Part of that is because I generally spend a lower percentage of my total music listening time on metal than I did a few years ago while still trying to digest countless heavy releases. Another reason is because nothing really stood out to me as a true album of the year (instead I had about six almost-albums-of-the-year), which threw my thinking off for the rest. Anyway, none of that matters really, so I just gave the top spot to something ludicrously fun and ran with it.
With that out of the way, time to get to the 2021 Heavy Metal Superlatives! Behold, the awards for…
Most Notes Played: First Fragment
So, so, so many notes, but in great songs! More below!
Biggest Internal Debate: Old Real Carcass versus Young Ripoff Carcass?
I didn’t really go nuts for Torn Arteries, which I found too mid-paced, too long, and too devoid of new riffs (even if the recycled riffs were still quite good), but I’m still down for what bands like Pharmacist (more below!) and Septage are providing. Is this fair? Does Carcass going through the motions deserve extra credit just because they created the style(s)? To me, no, but to others, the answer is obviously yes.
Best Band Fighting the Good Fight: Mystras
Empires Vanquished and Dismantled is Ayloss’s second collection of gorgeous and medieval anti-authoritarian/antifascist black metal in two years, and his actions always back up his notes and words. More below!
Least Expected Environmentalists: …Cradle of Filth?
Yes, Cradle of Filth! The penultimate song on Cradle’s beastly new record Existence is Futile, “Suffer Our Dominion,” scathingly criticizes mankind’s unsustainable resource consumption, unchecked pollution, deforestation, and basically every other way that we’ve trashed the planet. It’s less a call to arms than an outright damnation (it’s Cradle of Filth, after all), but it’s still probably the most real world thing the band has ever penned. It also happens to be a killer song on a record I already regret not having on my list.
Artist Most Rapidly Making Me Run Out of Words: Thy Catafalque
Tamás Kátai released another spellbinding gem. The sky’s still blue. More below!
Most Likely List Omission to Cause Me Guilt: Atvm – Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless
I got to this one late and simply didn’t have time to fully digest it, but based on just a few spins it feels like something that is going to be in the rotation for a good while. Melodic, technical, and thrashing death metal that isn’t really melodeath, tech-death, or death/thrash, just awesome.
Best Evolution of French (and Dutch) Black Metal: Plebeian Grandstand – Rien ne suffit
The latest from this Toulouse band pulls plenty from countrymen Deathspell Omega (particularly the techier, more abstract material on releases like Paracletus and Drought) and Blut Aus Nord (the more industrial nightmare moments), plus groups like The Netherlands’ Dodecahedron. It’s mind-bending stuff, and like each of those influences, is also pretty terrifying, even if sometimes you get the urge to move your bootie.
Best Touches of Weirdness: Old Norwegian Dudes
The new EPs from Gaahls Wyrd and Enslaved both show the bands embracing or re-embracing some oddball tendencies (more below!), while the latest Darkthrone is most successful when adding in some (gasp) keyboards. Hopefully Fenriz and Ted go even further down that path next time, because much of Eternal Hails……………………………………………………………. left me feeling a little flat.
Most Honorable Concept Album Research: Kanonenfieber – Menschenmühle
The album’s lyrics were formed from the letters and stories of World War I’s survivors and family members of its victims, with the intent to honor the countless lost during that conflict. The cover art is from an anti-war poster by Mihaly Biro. Oh, and the music is pretty good to boot.
Best Corpsegrinder Moment: “EVERYTHING MUST GO”
As if death metal’s #1 dad is out there working at the outlet mall of human organs or something. What a guy.
And now onto the rankings.
Because 20 albums just isn’t enough, here’s the rest of the top 50:
TOP 20: THE BOTTOM PART
20. Incinerate – Back to Reality
From my Missing Pieces blurb: “Their pummeling death/thrash formula draws on some equally pit-friendly influences, key among them a whole bunch of Demolition Hammer and Beneath/Arise-era Sepultura with bits of heftier thrash like Sacrifice and Forbidden (minus the vocals of the latter). But they make it their own with extremely tight and efficient songs (9 in 35 minutes) and some very beastly performances. From the moment the album’s title is first barked in isolation in the opener, this record is nonstop kickassery.”
19. Thy Catafalque – Vadak
Tamás Kátai releases his beautiful smattering of sounds so often that I’ve long taken it for granted. Every time a new album is announced I feel that there’s no way it could live up to the records I already love or even find a place within his rapidly growing oeuvre, but here we are. Vadak is another brilliant set of wonderfully emotional escapism that will likely still be revealing fresh delights years down the line.
18. Reveal! – Doppelherz
If the old Norwegian fellers mentioned above applied a little weirdness, then the guys in Sweden’s Reveal! provided the freak buffet. Not that anything they’re doing on Doppelherz is in any way abstract – much of it is conventionally structured, unabashedly rockin’ psych-black metal played by four guys with obvious chops – but it truly seems like the product of oddballs, like a completely drunk version of early Oranssi Pazuzu standing a mite too close to you at a party. But you can’t smell it through your ears (right?), so all the bouncy bombast, touch-of-belligerence vocals, deft bass lines, and a variety of leads (some are smooth, one sounds like a harmonica) just result in one thing: a strange and infectiously great time.
17. Mystras – Empires Vanquished and Dismantled
As mentioned, Empires Vanquished and Dismantled is the second Mystras album in two years, which is why it might not have received quite as much play time as the debut despite easily being of that same magical quality. This project sees Spectral Lore mainman Ayloss take his sweeping, melodic black metal into medieval times, even cutting the main tracks with traditional tunes played on instruments such as the santoor, Turkish ney, and violin. It’s all incredibly beautiful, with Ayloss’s uniquely spiraling and entrancing lead style being a perfect contrast to the softer moments.
Of course, the instrumental side is only half the story with this project, as Ayloss’s goal with his lyrics is to highlight historical events of anticolonialism, antifascism, and anti-authoritarianism from the Middle Ages so that we can see parallels between those events and our many current struggles. Ayloss backs up his words with actions as well, regularly donating sales from Mystras and his other projects to charities aiding refugees in the Mediterranean, fighting hunger, and more. Buy great tunes. Support great causes.
16. Warrior Path – The Mad King
I’m good for a couple power-ish metal records burrowing into my gray matter each year, and the inclusion of the unstoppable Daniel Heiman definitely helped the case for the sophomore Warrior Path record. The Mad King is a little deceptively straightforward in its early tracks before expanding the scope and inviting in some proggier complexity and epic vibes as the tale progresses. And despite being power/trad metal with Daniel Heiman on vocals, the record is almost restrained at times, leaving the peaks for when the story arc demands it. And did I mention Daniel Heiman?
15. Vaelmyst – Secrypts of the Egochasm
Vaelmyst plays melodeath suitable of the genre portmanteau, with all the sleek melodies and catchy leads and types of riffs that would make Edward Van Halen smile, but doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of heft or drench it all in keyboards. And they’re really, REALLY good at it. Secrypts of the Egochasm is a bounty of wicked riffs, proggy flashes, and overall just a nonstop blast. With some touches of tech and prog (particularly in the bass play), it’s a glorious stew of early Arch Enemy, Edge of Sanity, and even Opeth at times. These cats are technically from LA, but their hearts are in Sweden.
14. Stormkeep – Tales of Othertime
Some folks on the LR team think Tales of Othertime has been a bit overhyped, and it’s definitely interesting why this record connected so much with bigger blogs and zines than several other melodic black metal records of recent time, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less awesome. Stormkeep’s sound is basically three parts Dissection and one part Summoning (or more accurately, Caladan Brood), as ice cold and savage as it is majestic and dignified. Wicked great stuff. Now someone go edit the “dungeon synth” tag out of their genre descriptor at Metal-Archives already.
13. Steel Bearing Hand – Slay in Hell
From my review: “The band takes a mix of death, thrash, speed, and even doom and delivers everything with such skill, such aplomb, and such absolute zest for the material that you’d think they’re discovering their love of heavy metal anew every time they play a song. Countless bands aim to do justice to their heroes, of course, but Steel Bearing Hand has that extra special touch. They would not dare dishonor their influences with a lackluster effort, half baked songs, or coming up short in an area like personality (which, as always, goes a long way).”
12. Iron Maiden – Senjutsu
Senjutsu is not a perfect album, but its cracks – most notably some fat that could have / probably should have been trimmed like every other re-Bruce record – are greatly outweighed by the absolute feels on display. With songs like “The Writing on the Wall,” “Darkest Hour,” and “Hell on Earth,” Iron Maiden turned the usual epic and historical topics into the most heartfelt collection of music of their career. This band might feel immortal, but Senjutsu is often the sound of a band aging far more gracefully than ever should have been expected.
11. Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined
While Cannibal Corpse has basically been incapable of true surprises for about two decades, that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of sounding fresh. The addition of Erik Rutan and his particularly muscular riff style helped Violence Unimagined to be the best Corpse record since at least Torture. Of course, all of those other albums are great too, but there’s something extra about Violence, as if Corpse didn’t so much reclaim their crown (because they never lost it), but added some gory jewels for the first time in a while.
TOP 20: THE TOP PART
10. WORM – FOREVERGLADE
Worm’s 2019 record Gloomlord was a beast of funereal doom/death made all the better by an appealing rawness and some killer, narrative soloing. Foreverglade eclipses it. Whether or not the foreverhilariousalbumtitle has anything to do with that is up for debate, but the unforgiving swamp of the band’s home state certainly plays a role in their tunes. Worm has all the utter bleakness and slothly crawl of funeral doom but knows how to get down in a nasty trudge to make sure you’re still banging your head no matter how much dread is being communicated. They found the tiny space that exists between diSEMBOWELMENT and Skepticism, moved in with their friends Paradise Lost from back in 1991, and made things very, very dank.
Oh but you weren’t expecting the shred and the sweep picking and harmonized soloing? And you weren’t expecting the leads to fit so perfectly in with this soundtrack to walking through waist-high muck in a flooded cemetery where you’re pretty sure some prehistoric apex predators are still looking for a chewy snack? Worm and Foreverglade would be very good without their penchant for killer, scene stealing leads, but they knew there were greater heights to be found further down in the mire.
9. REPLICANT – MALIGNANT REALITY
From my review: “And it’s that contrast that ought to sell Malignant Reality to a certain subset of skronknorant (TM), smart-idiot death metal fans. Replicant likes their dissonance, particularly the Obscura-era Gorguts brand, but never does the record get as obviously antagonistic as parts of that classic… At the other end of the spectrum is the band’s penchant for a sleazy, nasty groove. Replicant eschews the near-nu death groove of something like World Demise and more typical brutal slams in favor of something that could most accurately be called Two-Thirds Speed Demilich… Replicant finds great balance both between and within the dissonant and catchy/groovy sides of death metal, and anyone that has ever found themselves wondering about a hypothetical New Jersey offspring of Gorguts and Demilich ought to find a ton to love with Malignant Reality.”
As much as I stand by my take of the record, no review nailed it as well as that at Toilet Ov Hell. “The dumbest smart album you will ever listen to… Those grooves are almost offensively ignorant.” And offensively fun.
8. VAURUVÃ – MANSO QUEIMOR DACORDADO
One of Ryan’s always-excellent Black, Raw, and Bleeding columns put Manso Queimor Dacordado on my radar, and I was immediately struck by the feeling that Krallice’s progressive black metal influence had stretched all the way down to Rio. And while that first association is still a big reason for the appeal, the more I listened, the more the layers of the onion unpeeled. Just within a single song Vauruvã will do a lot of the almost free form, exploratory tremolo onslaughts that Krallice used so often on their earlier records, but then they’ll widen things with an exceptional melodic sensibility, splashy drumming bombast, some folk-tinged moments, and a general embrace of mood. The vocals generally operate within a throaty roar, adding to the record’s emotional depth, and there’s a solid arc to the record as well, which ends with a 12-minute closer that, by lowering the technicality and upping the introspection, serves as both a reflection of the previous songs and a completely effective finale.
So while it’s tempting (and not entirely inaccurate) to describe this record as a combination of such albums as Years Past Matter and bits of Negură Bunget’s landmark Om, Vauruvã’s interpretation of their influences gives their music a mood and mindset all its own. Manso Queimor Dacordado is an adventurous gem rich in musical and emotional complexity, and it took me completely by surprise.
7. AUTARKH – FORM IN MOTION
From my review: “…it is simultaneously a progression of what Nienhuis and Bonis were doing in Dodecahedron while easing back on some of the truly progressive or adventurous aspects of the compositions. Its weirdness is closer to the surface, while Dodecahedron was built upon a foundation of strangeness and artistic exploration… Everything manages to enhance the overt catchiness of the record while also making it that much more alien and destructive sounding, all while never really giving into danceability; you’ll find no oooonce-oooonce here, merely a malevolent AI taking over the Warp Records catalog… The most important thing is that Autarkh managed to continue parts of the Dodecahedron sound while venturing into a new, still wildly cool and largely unique direction.”
By comparing Form in Motion so much to Dodecahedron, I may have slightly undersold it in my review. While the comparison is inescapable for obvious reasons, Autarkh presents something different: a maniacal, mechanical party. This record is a rollicking, magnificent blast that also happens to be thoroughly demented and one of the most unique albums of the year. Wicked cool.
6. DREAM THEATER – A VIEW FROM THE TOP OF THE WORLD
While it takes time to really determine such things, early returns on A View from the Top of the World is that it might be Dream Theater’s best record in nearly two decades. It’s that good, which really wasn’t what I was expecting given their inconsistent track record during many of those years. While so many of Dream Theater’s later records – even the good ones – seem intent on being flashy and uber technical and then writing the songs around those parts, every part of A View from the Top of the World was clearly written from the ground up before applying 10,000 notes. The result is a pretty unforgettable set of songs, from the extra metal thunder of opener “The Alien” and unabashed Rushness of “Transcending Time” to the monstrous, 20-minute title track. The latter manages to avoid the pitfalls of latter day feature length Dream Theater music like “Illumination Theory” or whatever the heck you’d call The Astonishing, instead finding itself in the same class as tunes like “A Change of Seasons” and the full “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” suite. Any long-time fan will tell you such a compliment is as great a signifier of the album’s quality as anything else.
5. FIRST FRAGMENT – GLOIRE ÉTERNELLE
Of all the new records I heard this year, Gloire Éternelle was the one that most felt special after my first spin. Yes, it is an absolutely bonkers album, combining the Necrophagist form of technical death metal with neoclassical and flamenco music and making sure no one had ever achieved a higher notes-per-second rate in the history of rock. But it’s also an undeniable outpouring of joy from everyone involved. You simply do not practice to the extent that it takes to play this kind of music without loving what you’re doing. This record is beautiful, exhaustive, ensorcelling, and yes, totally ludicrous. The fact that the First Fragment boys write melodies and solos and noodling lines that are as infectious as they are technically stout is the most impressive thing about this record; Gloire Éternelle would still be damn fun if that notes-per-second rate was cut in half, three-quarters, whatever. The core songs are so good, catchy, and irresistible on their own. But why go to the Waffle House of technical metal if you’re going to get your hash browns plain? First Fragment’s hash browns aren’t just smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, topped, and country, they’ve been to the future and back to see how The World of Tomorrow enhances their shredded potato heavy metal dishes. As mere modern humans, we aren’t ready for their culinary mastery.
4. CODE – FLYBLOWN PRINCE
From my review: “…it’s best when that searching leads to a great discovery, and thankfully that’s exactly what happened on the long-awaited Flyblown Prince. It’s the first Code album that really feels designed as a whole, not just a set of songs that sound awesome together because they’re all awesome songs. The sequencing is impeccable, taking dramatic shifts across Code’s various stylings to give the album a clear beginning, middle, and (stunning) end… Flyblown Prince is the best Code album since their wicked first couple and essential listening for all fans of progressive and theatrical black(ened) metal. It breathes new life into a career that ‒ while fully astray seems a bit harsh ‒ certainly wasn’t totally on the rails for a few years. Both long-time fans (hello again) and new ears ought to be absolutely thrilled by the chilling and beautiful music contained within.”
I feel even stronger about this now than I did in May. No one delivered a comeback in 2021 like Code, who rediscovered their utterly unique sound while also expanding upon it. True progression.
3. FLUISTERAARS – GEGREPEN DOOR DE GEEST DER ZIELSONTLUIKING
Speaking of progression, perhaps no one leveled up in 2021 like Fluisteraars, who were already coming from a perch of pretty high quality (and having delivered another gem just last year in Bloem). Despite the music on Gegrepen door de Geest der Zielsontluiking being largely what Fluisteraars has played throughout their career – a moderately atmospheric take on black metal that emphasizes (great) riff repetition and (deeply) moving chord progressions over vitriol – there’s a lightning-in-a-bottle, once-or-twice-a-career feeling to this record. It’s the type of session that probably involved a lot of grinning in the studio.
One big key is the freeness of it all. Most of the music similar to that described above, but the open spaces play a much bigger role than they did before, with quiet melodies, effective feedback, or improvised drumming. (Mink Koops plays every instrument in this band expertly, but his drumming on this record… hot damn.) The metal is loaded with urgency, but the band doesn’t necessarily have any urgency to get to the urgency. It’s a simple but brilliant way to expand the scope of the record while also emphasizing the mood, and it greatly enhances what would already be the band’s best set of songs even without such flourishes. Great bands getting greater is great.
2. TRIBULATION – WHERE THE GLOOM BECOMES SOUND
I really thought I was done with Tribulation. I adored The Formulas of Death but thought their turn to gothier, more accessible-but-still-kinda-proggy terrain on The Children of the Night was a swing and a miss. The vocals, instruments, and production all felt stuck between two styles but not committed to either, and Down Below felt mostly the same in that regard. I’ve softened my stance on both records since, but doubt I’ll ever truly love them.
Where the Gloom Becomes Sound, on the other hand. Yes yes yes. From the very first seconds there’s a “this is what we meant to do all along” feeling to the record. The vocals, while still somewhat harsh, blend so much better with all of the insanely catchy melody sprinkled all over, while the band’s proggy tendencies still remain in the album’s flow and instrumental passages. It’s tempting to give too much credit to a production that perfectly blends every element, but one gets the impression that even the treatment on The Children of the Night couldn’t have dulled the songwriting edge that Tribulation found here. This record has been stuck in my brain all year, and I don’t see it leaving any time soon. A modern gothic metal masterpiece.
1. CENOTAPH – PRECOGNITION TO ERADICATE
As stated in my intro, none of these spectacular albums really felt like an album of the year to me, even though after more than a decade of putting together these lists I’ve found that such a record can slide down the rankings in a matter of weeks. So I made the obvious move: fun goes up top with the rest falling in line, and the latest from Turkey’s Cenotaph (as opposed to the Cenotaph from Mexico or several other Cenotaphs) is bonkers fun.
Here’s what I said in the full crew Top 25 article:
“It would be easy enough to say that the latest album from Turkey’s long-running Cenotaph brings the kind of greasy, hyper-blasting, absurdly heavy, and unrelenting brutality that only exists in a particular corner of the death metal world, but they go even farther than that. Parts of Precognition to Eradicate exist in that extremely niche corner of the already very niche brutal death style that nearly achieves a kind of artistic abstraction. It’s so brutal it almost exists outside the world of rock music, but smartly balances that aspect with another characteristic: extreme sass. Cenotaph pummels you into a kind of hypnotized pulp before snapping you back to reality with lines cheekier than a snappy dress down from RuPaul. Really, go ahead and get to the 1:45 moment of “Anomalous Necrotic Breed” and tell me you don’t feel a little embarrassed even though you’re sitting alone in your home office right now. Or how about the pinch harmonic / bass slap combos in the title track? Cenotaph injects innately inhuman music with so much personality in the hooky moments just by ignoring all proper instrumental etiquette, and it rules.
“This smartass touch is what separates them a bit from a band like Devourment (the true kings of death metal so preposterously brutal it’s almost high art), and what really elevates Precognition to Eradicate to elite status. Even the bass playing is surly, all slappy and twing-twonging your good intentions into oblivion while the guitars, drums, and vocals do a kind of malfunctioning jackhammer routine. The record is technical but never tech and groovy and neck-wrecking but rarely full on slam; again, it’s balanced. Oh, and The Slow Parts? Rubbery and thoroughly demented. Just give “Recombinant Extraterrestrial New Form” a spin for that side of things.
“This record is 30 efficient and fatless minutes of merciless devastation and one of the best brutal death metal albums in recent memory. Treat your ears to the epitome of heavy metal rudeness.”
So yeah, there’s a reason I went with Cenotaph for my number one over the other major contenders. As my recent attempts to finish all of Doom Eternal on Nightmare difficulty show (including the DLC; if you know you really know), I’m just a sucker for extreme punishment as entertainment.
TOP 10 EPS & DEMOS
10. Selvans – Dark Italian Art
I have a soft spot for Selvans’ music-theater-in-ancient-woods, extremely Italian brand of gothic, atmospheric black metal. Dark Italian Art is exactly what the name says. It’s even more extremely Italian than killer albums like Lupercalia, featuring covers of Italian symphonic rock band Metamorfosi and underground metal legends Death SS, while splicing in some of their typically super dramatic originals. It’s fun. It’s weird. It’s delightfully corny in just the right dosage.
9. Pharmacist – Carnal Pollution
As I stated above, it might not be fair to Carcass that I seem to be connecting more with the younger bands they influenced than with their new music, but that’s the simple truth of it. Pharmacist followed up their fun 2020 full length debut with another 20 minutes of Symphonies– and Necroticism-worshipping goodness (not to mention several splits). Who cares if they’re an original songwriting credit away from being a tribute band? I sure don’t.
8. Mortuary Spawn – Spawned from the Mortuary
The type of swampy-but-bouncy death metal played by Mortuary Spawn always seems to appeal to me more in EP form. It might be because the short format doesn’t allow bands like this to go outside of the bounds too much, or think they need 11-minute, 2-riff songs. Whatever the reason, Spawned from the Mortuary is a supremely hefty and tastefully slick debut that ought to please more than a few ears in today’s climate of greasy grimy gopher guts death metal.
7. Eros Rot – Demo 2020
Yes, it says 2020 in the title, but this brutech demo from lone member Jacob Misko didn’t arrive for public consumption until 2021, so there ya go. And hooboy does he already show a knack for what makes the style so fun. Widdles and scrapes and slams and brutal pummels and blasts and blinding riff speed—you know there’s always room for another 10 minutes of this stuff in your life.
6. Perilaxe Occlusion – Raytraces of Death
From my review: “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…”
5. Abhorration – After Winter Comes War
Abhorration’s lineup brings a pedigree that can only be described as “intensely mean-spirited.” With dudes from groups such as Nekromantheon, Condor, Obliteration, and Deathhammer, you know that After Winter Comes War has the potential for devastation. It’s just a demo, but consider that potential realized. This is one nasty, destructive little nugget of thrashy, ever-slightly blackened death that only has one mode: attack with brutal efficiency and no sign of mercy whatsoever.
4. Ancient Mastery – The Chosen One
From my blurb for the Top EP article: “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.”
3. Enslaved – Caravans To The Outer Worlds
From my review: “…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.”
2. Gaahls Wyrd – The Humming Mountain
From my review: “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.”
1. Bat Magic – Feast of Blood
Feast of Blood is the kind of refined and advanced statement that new bands aren’t supposed to achieve on a debut EP (not to mention the kind of statement that has me wondering who exactly is behind pseudonyms such as “The Mighty Winged Necromancer” and “Vespertine Screech”). This EP is 21 diverse and meticulously crafted minutes of black metal that range from the type of synth-heavy material that might happen if Old Nick ever took themselves seriously to Katharsis-level aggression and expansive passages of glorious leads. It’s just a debut but it still leaves me with questions of exactly where they can possibly go from here. Maybe just end it now. Leave while you’re on top. That’s it for Bat Magic, folks.
Hopefully not, because man this EP is great and you know “He Who Drinks the Blood of Sleeping Babies” has more great keyboard lines ready for whatever the band does next.
I’M NOT ALWAYS BRUTAL
Listen, you aren’t going to find the eclectic choices here that Messrs. Captain and Danhammer often present in their non-metal lists, as mine is often a mix of classic rock and music conveniently accessible to metalheads, but this still is all wonderful stuff that deserves a highlight. Here are some choice nuggets I enjoyed.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Barn
As of this publication, Barn hasn’t even been out a week, but that’s enough time to realize it’s probably Neil’s best record since Psychedelic Pill. Not the highest of bars, sure, but Barn wins in both its quiet moments and grunge-fuzz songs. It’s a natural, at-ease (in spite of some apocalyptic lyrics), and completely comfortable Neil playing with his Crazy Horse rhythm section of over 50 years and recently reunited guitarist Nils Lofgren. Enough good early returns that this ultra fanboy couldn’t possibly leave it out.
Birth – Birth
After waiting nine years for prog rock lords Astra to finally follow up The Black Chord, we instead got a demo from a new band feature two key Astra members and a new rhythm section. What does Birth, well, birth? A similarly Crimsony form of prog focused on expanse, a mix of somber and bright melodies, and enough trippy keyboard lines to make Rick Wakeman take notice. When a demo was worth the wait, you know the upcoming proper releases are gonna be something.
Giant Sky – Giant Sky
A couple of the other LR dudes had been spinning this one like crazy for half the year, so I finally decided to take a hint and give it a try (about a year after I took the same dudes’ advice about associated band Soup). Giant Sky is the type of record that will transport you to some of your favorite memories while making them seem just a bit alien. It utilizes whatever vocalist, instrument, or keyboard trick necessary to keep you in a peaceful but captivated waking dream of fuzzy prog, aughties alternative, serene folk, pulsating pop rock, and the type of trippiness that requires no association with drugs.
Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen – Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen
Okay sure, this album has growls, on one song, but the majority sees the Amorphis guitarist spreading his wings into sometimes softer and sometimes more arena prog territory where his effortlessly comforting style can really breathe. With an impeccable collection of vocalists – can we get full albums between Holopainen and both Jonas Renkse and Anneke van Giersbergen, please? – Silver Lake is almost impossibly smooth. Add in some synths, some flutes, some big melodies, some small melodies, and a galactic mass of heart, and you get a beautiful branch of the Amorphis life tree.
5. Musk Ox – Inheritance
Musk Ox understands why you are sad. They are here to help you through all phases of that sadness. Their neo-folk/chamber music hybrid is the shoulder upon which to weep, the therapist to help you understand, and the rich, luxurious Dutch dark chocolate you require for that insta-pep. Filled to the brim with cascading and organic cello, violin, and guitar lines, Inheritance is an instantly accessible but deep and complex album of aching, exquisite beauty. As escapist and relaxing at certain times as it is gripping and profound at others, suitable for matters both deeply personal and universal, whatever is required.
Low – HEY WHAT
HEY WHAT makes this list almost by default as Low was probably my most listened to band in 2021. I dove headfirst into a large part of their expansive catalog and so far have adored every second of what I’ve heard. HEY WHAT continues the post rock and fuzzier studio enhancements to the band’s ultimately slow, preposterously beautiful melodic sensibility and folk touches, and I basically haven’t been able to get “Days Like These” or 100 other Low melodies out of my head all year. Sometimes it’s the (really, really) late discoveries that dig deepest.
Armand Hammer & The Alchemist – Haram
I wasn’t as late to Armand Hammer as I was to Low, but the moment a friend introduced me to the scathing but impossibly cool hip-hop of Billy Woods, Elucid, and the rest of the Backwoodz Studioz output, I was hooked. The Alchemist provides a diverse backdrop of laidback, sometimes-trippy-sometimes-soulful beats so that the words of Woods and Elucid ring through as boldly and strongly as they demand. I’m not smart enough to decipher some of the lessons they’re laying down, but the intentions of more straightforward lines like “My new name colonizers can’t pronounce” and “Fuck Puff, survivor’s remorse should keep him fucked up” are pretty impossible to ignore.
Anneke Van Giersbergen – The Darkest Skies Are The Brightest
Anneke has been a key musical voice to so many eras of my life. Her work with The Gathering is among my favorite rock music ever recorded, and while most of her career since hasn’t quite reached that level, that’s more due to her heights with her former band than her solo output. But her latest? The Darkest Skies Are The Brightest is the finest thing she has recorded as a solo artist, full stop. Instead of the pop approach she took on her last couple albums, Darkest Skies originated as just her and her acoustic guitar before the songs were fleshed out more with a band. It’s beautiful, gut-wrenchingly sad, uplifting, deeply personal, playful, and as full of unforgettable tunes as anything else in this article.
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – CARNAGE
In retrospect, Nick Cave probably should have dropped the Bad Seeds name starting with Push the Sky Away, as his modern period of sparser, ambient avant-garde rock really is a two-way collaboration with Warren Ellis. CARNAGE continues this era in spectacular fashion. It’s an undoubtedly angrier album than was the monumental Ghosteen, staring COVID-era isolation and existential dread right in the face against a backdrop of gorgeous, haunting music. It might not quite achieve the heights of its immediate predecessor (few things in Cave’s 40-plus year musical history do), but it’s still a remarkable record that further solidifies the greatness of this new, most recent shift for Cave.
Thanks for reading, folks. Stay safe and try to surround yourself with loved ones this holiday season.