Written by Kep
What a goddamn year for metal, huh? It feels a bit like we’re in a golden age, with an unprecedented number of albums, increasing notoriety for the many exceptional underground acts, and an unprecedented overall level of quality. There were so many stellar records this year that the task of narrowing my favorites down to even close to a top ten was tremendously difficult. Nevertheless, though, I nailed it down, and my picks for the most impressive outings of 2021 are below. Thanks for stopping by to check them out!
Before we begin, here’s my first five albums out, in no order:
- Eos – Les corps s’entrechoquent (Mystískaos)
- Replicant – Malignant Reality (Transcending Obscurity Records)
- Worm – Foreverglade (20 Buck Spin)
- Mastiff – Leave Me the Ashes of the Earth (MNRK Heavy)
- Panopticon – …and Again into the Light (Bindrune Recordings)
And now, my top ten albums of the year:
10 Blindfolded and Led to the Woods – Nightmare Withdrawals (Independent)
Somehow this beast of an album is still sitting under the radar for much of the metalverse, and that’s simply unacceptable. No album came out of nowhere and rocked my world quite the way this did, a headlong dive into the technical and dissonant side of death metal after the band spent the earlier part of their career as purveyors of quirky deathcore. This might be the most unique death metal of the year, with its chunky grooves juxtaposed against twangy, spider-crawling dissonance and technical brutality. There’s nothing standard about Nightmare Withdrawals, and that’s what makes it so darn fantastic; the eccentric, off-the-wall approach to riffing that feels fun and uninhibited blends seamlessly into the shadows of a murky, sinister darkness and it just *works*. The production is flawless, the 39-minute runtime is spot on, and every song has its own dark charms. “Reality bit like a saw-scaled viper / In my madness I accused the sunrise”.
9 Sol Sistere – Sol Sistere (Cult of Parthenope)
By far the least well-known release in my top ten, this record is gorgeous and special and deserves to be heard. The third full-length effort from these Chileans, Sol Sistere is the kind of atmospheric black metal experience that washes over you like the embrace of the ocean, sprays of dreamy melody and rolling waves of strangely calming blast beats soothing the pain of the world by laying it bare in front of you. The struggles of life, the empty numbness from years of disappointment and heartache, the yearning for something better that may or may not even exist: it’s all here in this album, cathartic and bittersweet and healing even as it hurts. A consuming hour-long listen that flies by and beckons you to dive in again immediately, I can’t recommend it highly enough. “Aligned into a naked world / Whose images seemed so distant / Farewell… / Let’s leave behind the decaying mask of fear”.
8 Malignant Altar – Realms of Exquisite Morbidity (Dark Descent Records)
It’s not often a band’s first full-length ends up on a bunch of AOTY lists. It’s even less often that a band’s debut LP drops in December *and* makes it into a bunch of top tens, because it takes something extremely impressive to alter already solidified rankings. Realms of Exquisite Morbidity is just that good. Everything from the meaty riffs to the enormous roars to the pummeling drums is larger than life. This is monumental, bruising, devastating death metal that will cave your whole head in. It demands attention from the very first second, haunting bells ringing out like harbingers of violent doom, and it won’t let go all the way through the grooving, robust asymmetrical riff that closes the album. It’s remarkable how well everything fits perfectly together—even the ambient title track that provides a sort of intermission feels earned and placed intelligently in the runtime. This is a record I’ll be spinning regularly and often until these guys hit me with another one. “Utopia forged from suffering / Rejoice in the echo of emptiness”.
7 Devoid of Thought – Outer World Graves (Everlasting Spew Records)
The finest example of cosmic death metal this year comes from Italy, with this record that captures the very essence of interstellar horror with a dense, meaty package of punishing riffs and immaculate songwriting. Those spacey, Lovecraftian vibes that we’re all suckers for permeate every moment of the five tracks through cavernous, empty tomb production that conjures the celestial void, textures that churn and seethe like an asteroid field during a solar storm, and flailing, grasping tendrils of Cthulhuan riffs that burst and twist up from the convulsing tumult beneath. These are very tightly-composed, economical tracks, despite the fact that most of them are lengthy; the band gets a ton of mileage out of its motifs, settling into thick grooves that feel timeless and old school even as they’re punctuated by disorienting meter changes and sinister harmonies and strange outbursts. Devoid of Thought can drag me to the inky blackness of the void above any time. “A breath from the Earth / Sing my memorial / Evocation of all souls / Reborn through time”.
6 Grima – Rotten Garden (Naturmacht Productions)
This stunning specimen came out back in January, and it hasn’t left regular listening rotation for me since. Rotten Garden pulls you in, shrieks giving voice to the terrifying fury of nature while the instruments create a cold but strangely comfortable bed of driving, windswept riffs. There’s something about Grima’s soundscape that’s almost friendly, like the spirit of an ages-old forest greeting travelers with sturdy trunks and glistening pine needles, even as you’re transported to a world where that forest’s painfully wounded heart seeks to keep all of mankind out. The folksy melodies that weave through the texture, the entirely unique touches of accordion, the expansive riffs that comfort and welcome even as they scream of bitter cold and dark magic hiding within: all work together to create an album experience as memorable as anything this year. This is stellar, exemplary atmospheric black metal. “Льют слезы ручьями / Умылись дождями / Одинокие срубы / Утонули в печали”.
5 Hyperdontia – Hideous Entity (Dark Descent Records)
As soon as Hideous Entity was announced it jumped to the top of my list of most anticipated albums, and the final product absolutely delivered on my excitement. It’s not easy to improve on an A+ product like Nexus of Teeth, but they pulled it off with this stunner via larger-than-life riffs, picture perfect production, and a more prominent role for the bass. This album is the sound of a gargantuan bestial monstrosity, gnashing and snapping its teeth as it bares lurchingly down on you, spewing foam from its mouth as it prepares to grind you to pulp within its massive jaws. But despite the loathsome, mammoth riffs, there’s a ton of nuance lying just beneath the surface that elevates an already tremendous effort. Look at the way they integrate seamless meter and tempo shifts, or how they will take a killer riff and then morph it as the song develops rather than change it entirely. And check out those badass bass solos! This is death metal done at the highest level. “When finally it’s stomach is full / It will once again / return to slumber / In the vessel of human flesh: me”.
4 Stone Healer – Conquistador (Independent)
So here’s the thing about Stone Healer: something this eclectic and wide-ranging has no right to work as well as it does. Conquistador runs the whole damn gamut, from Blue Öyster Cult cowbell grooves to avant-garde Krallice-y black metal whirlwinds to grungy crooning in the style of Alice in Chains to beautifully flowing Opeth-esque acoustic intimacy to the finest dissoriffage this side of Gorguts and Ulcerate. There’s so much going on that it should be an indecipherable mess, but instead this record is a jaw-dropper, delivering memorable track after memorable track built on the outstanding individual performances of brothers Dave and Matt Kaminsky. Then the emotional and lyrical core—an examination of the way people take advantage of us, especially via relationships—elevates Conquistador to soaring heights. There are special moments all around, but this, sung plaintively over gorgeous acoustic guitar, is one of the best: “I wander through the memory / of the day my spirit broke / And now vividly I recall / how I poured my grief-stricken water”.
3 Kanonenfieber – Menschenmühle (Noisebringer Records)
Plenty of bands capture the ferocity and violence of war, and on that front Kanonenfieber delivers. But Menschenmühle does far more: it also gives voice to the more intimate human elements, bringing moments of melancholy, sorrow, loneliness, and hopelessness into focus amidst the savagery. It’s that understanding of pathos that elevates this project well above the other war metal acts in the scene. Noise, the sole person behind the outfit, masterfully crafted narrative lyrics using reports, letters, and other correspondence from the real humans of WWI, and every song resonates with those personal elements woven into the very fabric of the music itself. Mournful soaring tremolos, fearfully pensive meditations, terrifying gut-punch impacts that imitate shells, ferociously headlong blasting rushes through no-man’s land, heart-wrenching melodies that pierce through the storm—every moment is impactful. This record is a triumph of depicting war for what it is: cruel and somber. “Und mit der gleichen Treue / Gleicher Angst und gleicher Reue / Väter, Söhne, Ehegatten / Drüben im Feindes Graben”.
2 Defacement – Defacement (I, Voidhanger Records)
Sometimes an album’s artwork tells you more clearly what the listening experience is like than words ever could. Defacement’s unnerving cover by Dusty Ray is the quintessential example. The track-by-track experience is goddamn transcendental, with four lengthy tracks of exquisite pain and violence connected by ghostly, haunting atmospheric bridges titled “Limbo” that provide both cleansing moments of calm and anxious seconds of uneasy anticipation of the next agonizing ordeal. It’s relentless in its sonic assault of chaotic blasting riffage, and hideously ugly and murkily bewildering, like reaching and grasping desperately in the darkness for help after being brutally blinded with acid. Through it all, though, there’s a strange exquisiteness and resilience in the anguish. A journey of violence, pain, and despairing meditation, Defacement is sublime suffering.
1 Ad Nauseam – Imperative Imperceptible Impulse (Avantgarde Music)
This record blew me away back in February when it was the first album I reviewed for the site, and if anything it’s gotten more impressive with time. It’s a swirling, churning, disorienting miasma of meticulously organized chaos, full of inscrutably dissonant riffs that are woven around a firmly grounded framework. It’s the kind of thing that should feel immediately overwhelming, but the band’s precise approach and ability to structure their chaos keeps the experience accessible. Consciously seeking to push outside the boundaries of extreme metal, Ad Nauseam created a new tuning system for their guitars, a fascinating choice that removed their sound from anything traditional and raised the bar for metal’s avant-garde scene. The production is the most authentic you’ll hear this year, the songwriting is intricately layered and nuanced, and inextricable existential confusion and horror permeate every second. It’s a magnificent, utter triumph. “May Heaven exist / even if Hell is my place, / as the attribute of infernal is / unreality”.