Written by Swatty
I’m sure I can speak for a lot of people when I say that 2021 felt like a diluted and uninspired sequel to 2020. Everyone was excitedly making proclamations that 2021 post-pandemic would be like the roaring 20’s all over again with everyone having sex with everyone else and indulging in every decadent temptation with willful exuberance. The issue however is that we still haven’t reached the “post” part of the pandemic. Many folks are avoiding the widely available vaccine and that combined with pandemic fatigue is making this goddamned contagion a permanently evolving neighbor to daily life. Despite the stains of sameness from the year prior, 2021 has also been a force for change. Whether it’s people leaving their jobs in droves (the Great Resignation of 2021 – count myself in that crowd) or Texas slowly but assuredly increasing its stride to turn itself into Gilead, change has been transformative on a pretty massive scale for better or (mostly) worse.
Even with the continued trauma of an omnipresent disease and the many tragic and rage-inducing events that continue to rip and tear at our legitimacy as a country or worse, our collective sense of empathy (continued school shootings, a fascist vigilante murderer evading prosecution and getting praised as a hero, Roe vs Wade looking more vulnerable than ever, etc.), 2021 still found a way to allow small cracks of light to penetrate the obsidian darkness that is our current existence. Concerts have returned, sportsball attendance is packing stadiums and artists are still unleashing a barrage of quality music for those starving for new art. In particular the revivalism of OSDM has reached a fever pitch with the sheer volume of releases in that genre giving the early 90s a run for its money. And even though so many of these backward-looking releases found their way into my collection, not many actually made the final cut. Sure, you’ll see a few obvious and expected placements but as my list began to materialize the focus unexpectedly leaned toward the avant-garde, the melancholy and the intrepid. So without further ado, it is my pleasure to present to you what I feel are the finest pieces of music to grace these aging ears in two-oh-two-one.
20. Vomit Ritual – Callous (Pulverised Records)
I love death metal – always have. That’s why it’s exciting for me to see so many bands jumping on that style that revolutionized the way I thought about metal as an impressionable teenager. However, as is to be expected much of the new (old) school is simply playing a style whose only precept is to stay in true approbation to the original masters. Not that there is anything wrong with that but it’s much more exciting when a band creates riffs in the process that maim, humiliate and destroy everything in their path. That’s where Vomit Ritual comes in and with Callous they have crafted a machine with deadly persuasion and riffs so dangerous the album should have “caution” tape wrapped around it. Check out “Lower Vibrational Entities” and be sure to have a fresh pair of drawers nearby – you’re gonna need ‘em.
19. Erdve – Savigaila (Season of Mist)
Post-hardcore releases are certainly far and few between these days, so when one comes up to my face and slaps me with a computer’s motherboard, you bet I’m gonna pay attention. Erdve are a Lithuanian post-hardcore/black metal/ industrial/ambient/post-everything hybrid that’s as caustic as it is beautiful. Overall the entire package is a relentless destructive force of dissonance and controlled chaos. However on the same token Erdve also create infectious groove and beautiful melody such as on “Smala” or “Pragulos”. There are a few moments of incongruity that is symptomatic of so much genre patchwork, but the band is incredibly young and I cannot wait to see how they evolve their sound from here.
18. Cerebral Rot – Excretion of Mortality (20 Buck Spin)
It takes a special talent to compellingly create an audial equivalent of the sound of odoriferous, moist and viscous biological decay. Prior to hearing Excretion of Mortality I felt that Undergang were the undisputed masters of gag-response death metal. Cerebral Rot have effortlessly taken that crown, disemboweled it and the hung it upside down on the album cover. It’s uncanny how disgusting the entire package is – the drums sound like they’re weighted down with pieces of intestine, the guitars sound like there’s blood and pieces of meat stuck on the strings and the vocals are captured through sound bubbles escaping a cauldron of bubbling offal. Don’t be surprised if you feel an urge to shower after hearing this.
17. Malignant Altar – Realms of Exquisite Morbidity (Dark Descent)
So this one captured my attention right at the end of the new release window to make the cut for the list you are now reading. These Texas boys know how to take OSDM and make it sound delicious and malicious. The riffing is very chunky, pissed off and Morbid Angel-esque (doomy MA, not speedy MA) and the drums are violently propulsive and move with an impressive elegance in their unexpected technicality. Realms takes the prize for Most Moments of Total Stankface Per Capita in 2021.
16. Noctambulist – Noctambulist I: Elegieën (Northern Silence Productions)
Post-black metal continues to make great progress in stout and unabashedly euphonious lines. The Netherlands’ Noctambulist display this tonal quality perfectly in their debut album Noctambulist I: Elegieën. There is such an impressive gracefulness to the songcraft here that it is very easy to get lost in their world of vibrant color and vulnerable emotion. Tracks like “De Leegte Wenkt” show a confidence and adroitness that belie the fact this is only the debut of this promising and nascent band. Noctambulist are an act to keep a close eye on.
15. Worm – Foreverglade (20 Buck Spin)
Death-doom with Jeff Loomis-esque guitar pyrotechnics? Yeah that’s an easy buy for me. Florida’s Worm have developed one of the most unique takes on death-doom my making it idiosyncratic with the environs of their home. Here the riffs are slow and haunting, but rather than taking the usual tropes of the genre such as mausoleums and graveyards they present their sound filtered through the dense swamps of the Everglades. Here the terror is suffocating and humid as chunky riffs float by like dead fish in the unforgiving low oxygen waters of the dead swamp. There is also a variety of unique tones going for the rich guitar lines and the solos are some of the best you’ll hear this year.
14. Nemorous – Nemorous (Bindrune Recordings)
Wodensthrone broke up way too early leaving only two albums and a split showcasing their unique interpretation of epic folky black metal. Fortunately a few of the core members have carried on the spirit of that sound albeit in a much more subdued form through this new act called Nemorous. In the process they have created a rustic atmospheric black metal album that is one of the warmest of the year. Here there are gentle and meandering riffs that beckon you into the misty forest haunted by spectres of the past. The closest comparison to make is mid-period Fen and if that kind of comforting pastoral style excites you, you will find much to love here.
13. Autokrator – Persecution
Blackened death metal is supposed to sound evil. Religious references aside it is the sound of a furnace running at 150% power in the lowest level of hell. It is no surprise then that France’s Autokrator have gifted their flock with another fiery sermon that revels in this subgenre’s orthodoxy. The guitars preach free fall riffs that seem disconnected from any perceivable reality, the drums hit with a force that could split atoms and the vocals bellow sermons glorifying the might of Satan’s providence. The energy and purpose here is vantablack and full of palpable vitriol. Autokrator have masterfully created one of the most unapologetically evil sounding albums of the year.
12. 1000 Bone Cylinder Explosion – Bind (self-released)
What a wonderfully bizarre name right? Well trust me, the music itself aptly represents that moniker most auspiciously. 1000 Bone Cylinder Explosion is Lör mainman Peter Hraur’s side project, and the focus is on creating black/thrash in the vein of Vhöl but in a much more progressive and experimental manner. Avant-garde tendencies coexist alongside riffs that are a firebrand of infectious quality. The ease with which he creates an earworm that is so instantly memorable is astounding here. Each song has this playful quality that doesn’t take itself too seriously but is certainly artistic enough to warrant deep exploration. You will not find a collection of songs better suited to air guitar to this year than what you’ll hear on Bind. This is a fantastic example of smile-metal.
11. Carcass – Torn Arteries (Nuclear Blast)
Carcass are one of those few bands that are pretty much guaranteed to deliver every time (yes, even Swansong – I don’t care, it rules) so I think expectations were pretty high surrounding the release of Torn Arteries. Well I am happy to report that not only were those expectations met, they were subsequently smashed and laughed at. Torn Arteries is a collection of huge riffs, ripping solos and (unsurprisingly) fun and witty lyrics full of tongue-in-cheek humor. One of the most impressive aspects of this album is how well it represents the complete Carcass arc up to this point. You have everything from the early grind days of the first two albums, the groove of Necroticism, the brazen melodicism of Heartwork and even the 70’s rock vibe of Swansong. In Torn Arteries all those disparate elements are put together in a commanding display of cohesion and flow. The teachers have once again put on a damn clinic. Don’t believe me? Listen to “Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited” and be prepared to take a lot of notes.
10. Trna – Istok (Candlelight)
Post-metal is by its very nature an incredibly polarizing genre. However, as time has gone by since the genre’s inception it has become increasingly clear how compatible it is when merged with other subgenres and in particular, black metal. Trna have chosen to stay more firmly on the post side of that particular style and in the process have created one of the most beautiful albums of the year. These guys have such a penchant for crafting melodic lines that indelibly burn their way into your memory. However they astound in equal measure through the skill and natural feeling in which the members play their instruments. The use of pedal boards here borders on the superlative as the little melodies morph and contort through so many filters to create a sound that is as huge as it is clement while the drums are dexterous and dynamic, providing a technical aspect that is simply staggering. The music is instrumental but Gaerea’s vocalist (the group is anonymous so no name can be given) does add some tasty phrasing to “Shining.” Get those heartstrings tuned because they’re about to get played by Istok.
9. Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined (Metal Blade)
When it was announced that Erik Rutan would be joining the band to help fill the void left by guitarist Pat O’Brien, the collective metal world gasped in excitement. As it turns out this feeling was warranted because Violence Unimagined isn’t just the sound of a band revitalized, it is also one of the best albums they have ever recorded. Apparently the injection of Rutan into the mix was the shot of adrenaline they needed to write an album full of renewed malice and unholy yet magnetic riffery. Webster unsurprisingly shows off his skill set in another mind-blowing chapter, drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz continues his trend of improving on every album, Corpsegrinder is still in top form but most impactful is the guitarwork of both Rutan and Barrett. There is such a sense of urgency and malevolence to these bloody nuggets that headbanging to them isn’t optional, it’s compulsory. The riffwork is evil smiles from top to bottom – just listen to that nasty serpentine descending riff in “Slowly Sawn” and try not to slowly headbang as you grin with the most evil resolve. This one is a stunner and I’m grateful that we still have Cannibal Corpse around giving us banger after banger.
8. The Ruins of Beverast – The Thule Grimoires (Ván)
Alexander von Meilenwald has been on quite a weird path w/ The Ruins of Beverast since the very beginning. His bizarre interpretation of blackened doomy death metal had been captivating on those first three albums, culminating in the masterstroke that is Foulest Semen of A Sheltered Elite. Blood Vaults and Exuvia however seemed like retreads with a few stunning highlights rather than a collection full of them. That has been rectified emphatically on The Thule Grimoire. This arcane aural document just drips with esoteric knowledge and darkened purpose. What I found most impressive though is the refinement of his writing style. His motifs have long been characterized by a consistently shifting tonality that leans into major key territory more often than other bands practicing this style. But on The Thule Grimoires it seems more fully realized with all melodies getting just the right amount of focus and development that sounds more congenial. I’ve said this before about von Meilenwald: no one can make a major key sound more wrong, and on this sonic codex of forbidden knowledge he has finally mastered the compositional process itself.
7. The Crown – Royal Destroyer (Metal Blade)
I’ve been riding The Crown train since 1999’s Hell is Here. By the time that Deathrace King and Crowned In Terror came out I was a rabid fanboy. Their style of blackened thrash/speed is facile in its ability to simply enjoy being alive and also praising Satan in the process. So it was with great disappointment that the next couple of albums fell flat, wholly lacking in that infernal energy that defined them up to that point. But on this latest chapter those Crown boys have found that joy again, and boy oh boy you aren’t going to find a collection of songs more suited for cheap beer and general hellraising than this barnburner. The opening moments are a salvo of beer-swilling violence and it only gets more fun from there. There are highlights all over this beast, but one that stands out in particular to me is the ode to vehicular violence “Motordeath.” You can smell the smoke of burning rubber and brimstone through the turbocharged riffing and Johan Lindstrand’s evocative snarl. This album may be number 7 on the list, but it’s number 1 for simply having an unashamed hedonistic fun time. Nobody does Satan with a smile better than these guys.
6. Mare Cognitum – Solar Paroxysm (I, Voidhanger)
I was completely unfamiliar with this band prior to this year. After seeing it blow up online with near universal praise over the course of several months, I checked them out and was instantly floored. Solar Paroxysm deftly understands the deep emotional connection behind the creation of epic and regal melody and it wields that knowledge with poise and finesse. From the opening track the riffs come crashing across the night sky like a comet whose course was altered by Earth’s gravity, forcing it to burn in an uncaring atmosphere. And speaking of atmosphere it is here in spades through the melancholy wash of the guitars and the unrelenting blasting of drums acting as a form of compelling impetus pushing the album into the sun. Mainman Jacob Buczarski is a master of all instruments here but he shines the brightest through his white hot guitar wizardry. He even lets the occasional solo fly out like a solar flare, flash burning anything within earshot of it. 2021 was a very good year for black metal, and Solar Paroxysm is one of the most astonishingly epic examples.
5. Fluisteraars – Gegrepen Door de Geest der Zielsontluiking
The Haeresis Noviomagi continue to flex their muscle in the arena of black metal. While there is some more traditional raw black metal in that collective (and collective-adjacent), the majority tends to veer towards more experimental pastures. Fluisteraars (whisperers in English) are firmly on the more psychedelic and folky side and with GDDGDZ they have fabricated the strongest statement of their discography. It’s certainly one of their more aggressive works thus far with plenty of resolute blasting, but their strength lies in their more spirited and lysergic meter and airy themes. This album is the sound of an ancient Germanic tribe paying homage to gods long forgotten and is filtered through the oranges and browns of an autumn harvest. I’ve always had a soft spot for off kilter chords and tempi and Fluisteraars continue to build their core identity over those tenets. GDDGDZ is a powerful statement from the new school of Dutch forward thinking black metal.
4. Jari Lindholm – Trajectories
Melancholy melodic death-doom is the base interfacing frequency of my very soul. I have been in unconditional love with the subgenre since the early days when October Tide blasted it into metal’s collective consciousness and established the blueprint which all subsequent acts have followed to varying degrees of success. Jari Lindholm has used this design to materialize his own interpretation which is eminently more consonant while pushing the despondent pathos even further. He already has a collection of powerful statements through his other acts Slumber, Enshined and Exgenesis. With Trajectories however he has made his first solo foray into a more venturesome and proggier slant on the beloved style. The entire album is instrumental, and while that may cause trepidation for some readers you can be rest assured that the plot is deftly told through the narrative of his riffs. His style is very idiosyncratic and can be best described as a limping saccharine waltz. Every line is so loving fabricated and moves with the ebb and flow of wonder, loss, resignation and peace. I can’t recommend a better starting point for exploring his inviting and crestfallen world.
3. Iskandr – Vergezicht
Yup, that’s two Haeresis Noviomagi albums in my top ten. If you throw some huge jangly chords with a constantly shifting and enveloping atmosphere, chances are I’m gonna love it and Iskandr do it here with grace and aplomb. The overall arching feeling is that of regal dispiritedness as some of the chord progressions sound very much in the realm of Nusquama. The execution is much more progressive however and contains the best choral sections of any metal album I’ve heard all year. There is also a certain exotic aura to the overall vibe making it feel like it exists just outside of our timeline when civilization was just beginning and about to take a much more earth-centric evolution where the word industry never even makes it into the lexicon. It should also be noted that the building of emotion in each track is so subtle and natural that when the big payoff comes the result is paralyzing catharsis. Just listen to the climax in “Verbod” at 9:01 and try not to get goosebumps.
2. Autarkh – Form In Motion
What. An. Album. I seriously had no doubt this would take the top spot for me this year as it is such an awe-inspiring statement of innovation with a true left-of-center approach to melody, tempo and execution. So to say I was surprised that another album took that spot is a drastic understatement. I wrote a review on this album earlier this year on you-phoria so there isn’t much more I can say about it. I will however quote a couple of sections from that article because I’m lazy and I don’t think I could word it any better:
“Instead of the usual technical and dissonant black metal backdrop to some philosophical esoterica, we are presented with a hybridized bastard born of cosmic technology and infernal spirit on the new group’s debut, Form In Motion. In practical terms, this means completely atonal counterpoint between down-tuned guitars, thick and jittery bass, waves of synthesizers performed by a T-1000, and most shockingly of all, synthetic beats in place of drums. This may send a lot of organic black metal purists running to the hills but trust me, this synergy is most copacetic.”
“This is not memorable music, at least not in the orthodox sense. You are not going to wake up and start humming the opening chromatic line from “Cyclic Terror” while you’re taking a shower and planning the rest of your day in your head. Form In Motion is not meant to be experienced in that way; rather, it is an entire organism that needs to attach to you symbiotically until all the songs have been spent. Once the disorientation wears off, you think about the little moments of clarity you had while suffocating in the aural blur, and it is that gained insight which keeps you going back for more.”
1 . Voices – Breaking The Trauma Bond (Church Road Records)
Voices continue to amaze. When London came out back in 2014 it absolutely floored me and very easily became my top release that year. It was a concept album about some anonymous person’s descent into madness whilst traveling through the shadiest areas of the city which the album is named after. When Frightened came out a few years later, I was seriously disappointed. Their style had evolved and changed so quickly that the energy it exuded was completely unknowable to me. In fact, it wasn’t until hearing Breaking The Trauma Bond that I was able to go back and listen to that album and finally understand it and appreciate it for the beautiful statement it was and how it was a critical step for them in order to evolve to the level they are at now. This is the unfuckwithable power that Voices’ latest album wields. The aggression has returned to the forefront albeit buttressed with some lovely gothic and post-punk sections. Arguably, it is those songs reveling in that style that shine the brightest here. “Methods of Madness” is one of the strongest tracks and it sounds like something straight out of Killing Joke’s playbook right down to the angular chords and tinny guitar tone.
Speaking of tone, the production on this thing is MASSIVE. Every instrument is heard in perfect clarity and all carry a very strong punch to their sound. David Gray’s drums in particular are a wonder to behold. Not only do they sound incredible, but they very acutely place a spotlight on his incomprehensible precision. Between his fills and blasts the man is a human metronome and combine that with his ability to shift between so many genre styles in the same song is a testament to his versatility.
Most stirring of all is the melodic rendering and extraordinary beauty of the motifs each song so ardently displays. There are still harrowing moments of dissonance that recall moments from the band’s past (and Akercocke for that matter) but it’s the consonant moments that dig deepest into the most erogenous zones of our dark hearts. I’ve heard this album probably 30 times now and I am still continually stunned by how plugged in this British collective is into such a distressing mood. This is the kind of album that will never be too far out of reach of my playlists and will persist in stoking discussion, debate and awe. I say this with no hyperbole: this is not only 2021’s best album for me, but one of the best and most unique albums I have ever heard. You will be hard pressed to find a better homage to self-discovery and trauma itself than you will with Breaking The Trauma Bond.