Hello, all! My name is Clayton, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to have my AOTY list published on Noob Heavy’s website! I am @cow_sweeney on Twitter and Sweeney Cow on most other social media sites. I apologize for the last-minute submission, but there were so many great late year releases that tickled my fancy that it necessitated a total last-minute overhaul. Fortunately, I was able to narrow it down to a top 15 with a few honorable mentions, so without any further ado…let’s begin.
15. Sigh – Shiki
Sigh’s latest album leads me to draw more parallels to its most recent predecessor than anything. While they have always been more on the experimental side even in their days signed to Deathlike Silence, their utilization of prog and trad metal elements has been a relatively recent development. While I, cheeky bastard that I am, prefer Heir to Despair’s proggy playfulness overall, even I have to admit that the more serious put-togetherness of Shiki delivers some ecstatic highs as well. Everything is meticulously composed and performed and while at times you miss the virtuosity from their last few albums, when it delivers, such as the chorus of “Satsui – Geshi no Ato,” it is more than worth it.
14. Hath – All That Was Promised
I can’t believe I was so late to discovering Hath, having barely heard of them when this album dropped. However, let’s just say that its inclusion on so many AOTY lists is well deserved. I don’t know if it is more a function of the composition or the production (or a combination of both), but I find this album is best described as a heterogenous, primordial soup, moving between different moods and intensities seamlessly. To me, All That Was Promised is best listened to as a single track album consisting of nine movements than as nine distinct tracks, the fantastic refrain of “Kenosis” notwithstanding. An album any musician should be proud of.
13. High Command – Eclipse of the Dual Moons
Is epic thrash a thing? Can we make a thing now? I must confess that, barring some very noteworthy exceptions, I prefer my thrash metal extremely primal and stripped to its bare essentials. To me, it’s THE metal subgenre that should be all about being balls to the wall 100% of the time in one way or another, and having crisp production tends to almost pathologize that energy. It’s a complaint that I have against a lot of High Command’s earlier output, but with Eclipse of the Dual Moons, they showed me that even thrash can benefit from a healthy dose of ambition. And ambitious is exactly how I would describe this album. Epic songs that are supported by excellent songwriting, production, and even orchestration at parts, this is something you would expect out of Eternal Champion if they decided to be a bit meaner.
12. Dream Unending – Song of Salvation
Solidifying one’s sound as a band is a bit of a double edged sword. Sometimes a better sense of direction comes at the cost of everyone firing on all cylinders, trying to see what works and what doesn’t. And, compared to Tide Turns Eternal, Dream Unending’s debut from last year, there is a bit of a dearth when it comes to memorable moments. However, a sophomore slump this album is not. With more of an emphasis on long-form songwriting, the lush clean guitars that were the best part of their debut, and fantastic usage of clean vocals and spoken word passages, Song of Salvation is the product of an already unique doom metal band becoming even more confident in their own skin.
11. Wiegedood – There’s Always Blood at the End of the Road
Ironically, I think that this album dropping right at the start of the year to some degree precluded me from having much to say about it. I guess I decided I needed more energy to spend on later releases or something. What I will say, however, is that this album makes me think of that hackneyed meme about all black metal being recorded in a shed in the woods on a Fisher-Price voice recorder. Not in the way that you think, though. In fact, this is a standard black metal record that is actually improved by the crisp production. Hearing everything that’s going on gives the listener a better chance to appreciate the raw moments, the moments calling for more atmosphere, and even the times when it eases back.
10. Devil Master – Ecstasies of Never Ending Night
Trad metal and black metal have always been one of my favorite genre combinations, but one that is rarely done. Fortunately, we have Devil Master to scratch that itch when it crops up. And on Ecstasies of Never Ending Night, they seem to have taken the synthesis to its limit and beyond. I truly have not ever heard riffs like this, and where you can trace their inspiration from putting second wave black metal and Randy Rhoads riffs in a particle collider, the result is something altogether new, powerful, exciting. It’s like being in the audience as the first caveman discovered how to make fire. The guitar tone fucks, too.
9. Clarent Blade – Return into Forever
I’m reminded of a clip from an interview that the late Mark Shelton of Manilla Road gave near the end of his life talking about the somewhat elusively defined subgenre he helped pioneer called epic metal, wherein he describes it as an amalgam of pretty much every genr e of Western popular music to some degree here. Clarent Blade‘s debut album reminds me of that soundbite owing to its influence not just from blues, proto metal, and power metal, but also from more extreme genres of metal, but given that it’s the new side project from Ayloss of Spectral Lore renown, that’s hardly surprising. The range of influences comes here beautifully, at times sounding like early Manilla Road, at others like bare bones Spectral Lore, and at others like other Greek power metal bands. The vocals especially remind me of Wrathblade, a Greek epic metal band who were formed and sound very much from the 2000’s and 2010’s, which, along with the sometimes very thrashy riffs, sound cool paired with the overall late 70’s-early 80’s sound of the album
8. Sonja – Loud Arriver
Another album that is rightfully on so many others’ lists. It’s hard to think of what to say about this record that hasn’t already been said, other than that Melissa has some serious pipes. Seriously, when she really gets going on “When the Candle Burns Low”… that’s the good shit right there. I also love how unapologetically horny the whole thing is.
7. Diamanda Galás – Broken Gargoyles
The only non-metal album on this list, and one from one of my all time favorite artists. Galás has had a very diverse discography over the years, and her genre-hopping has taken her back to her Litanies of Satan/Plague Mass roots, with all the screeching, guttural German, ecstatic chanting it entails. It might be less heavy on the activist side of her music that works for her in a way that it does few others, but there’s nothing wrong with this balls to the wall Gothic hellscape either.
6. Autonoesis – Moon of Foul Magics
As mentioned in my write-up of the new High Command, I like my thrash primitive. So do most people who play black/thrash. This usually goes for the taste in black metal for musicians in this hybrid genre, with most of these projects sounding like a mashup of Destruction and Venom. Autonoesis, however, opt for the more polished elements in both genres, with the final project sounding like a delectable mixture of Moonlight Sorcery and later Kreator. The end result is a broader range of aggression, technicality, and just songwriting than a band like Aura Noir would be capable of. I won’t lie, I didn’t think I’d like this at first, but now I can’t get enough. There should be more black/thrash like this!
5. Exhumed – To the Dead
The OSDM revival has gotten a lot of not entirely unjustified vitriol sent its way as of late for being a bit derivative and unimaginative. Of course, most of the newer bands are doing a conscious throwback to the days when the genre was still developing, unformed, not developed enough to really hone in on its strengths and weaknesses. Appropriate, then, that the best OSDM record of the year comes from an older band that never felt the need to make drastic changes to their sound but never was content to rest on their laurels and release the same album every 5 to 10 years. While lacking the youthful spunk they had when making Gore Metal, Exhumed undeniably have grown exponentially as musicians. Everything is in service to making good, old fashioned death metal without an obnoxious sly wink to their audience. To the Dead has melodic sensibility without becoming melodeath, crisp production without being oversaturated, and following the old recipe without becoming stale. Wish all older bands were able to stick to their guns without getting lazy!
4. Wormrot – Hiss
One great thing about grindcore: the shortness of the average track necessitates a lot to be written and recorded to comprise even an EP, let alone a full album. In the right hands, this means an album will be a collection of short, diverse mood pieces. This might not be the appeal of the genre to some, liking short, hectic explosions that have no need or desire to overstay their welcome, but with Hiss, there is great diversity even with the conventional grindcore tracks. Compare, for example, the driving backing vocals of “When Talking Fails, It’s Time for Violence!” to the epic intro riff of “Your Dystopian Hell.” It didn’t need cello-lead instrumentals like “Grieve” to show that Wormrot had reached a whole nother level as musicians. It’s a fitting final album if, as the news from their camp is suggesting, the project might not continue for much longer
3. Darkthrone – Astral Fortress
A dark secret of mine is that I’m not a big fan of Transilvanian Hunger. To me, what always made Darkthrone great was a deep connection to their roots in the underground metal of the 80’s. Transilvanian Hunger feels a bit bandwagony and disingenuous in a way that this does not. This is a band who have not forgotten their beginnings as a death metal band, definitely have not forgotten what made them successful as a black metal band, but most importantly, have not forgotten the trad and epic doom from the decade that shaped their musical sensibilities. Astral Fortress takes the sound Darkthrone started exploring on last year’s Eternal Hails…… and improves upon it tenfold. What sometimes comes off as a bit of a gimmick in its predecessor is folded into a no-nonsense metal album with the expertise and conviction as if they’ve been playing this kind of metal their whole career.
2. Hammers of Misfortune – Overtaker
Despite their great commercial and critical success, I am still left with the impression that Hammers of Misfortune have not gotten the recognition they so deserve. Such a great, idiosyncratic band in a just world should be mentioned in the same breath as other prog metal titans such as Dream Theater, Opeth, etc. Unfortunately, I don’t make the rules. Fortunately, I have the joy of reporting that Hammers have dropped yet another banger. However, uncharacteristic for their more recent albums shining in their more pensive moments, Overtaker is probably the most furious they’ve ever sounded, including even their early days as a proggy black/death metal band under the name Unholy Cadaver. It’s the kind of fury that doesn’t get old, either. It somehow stays fresh with every listen.
1. Spell – Tragic Magic
I’ve been a huge fan of Spell ever since I stumbled upon their second album For None and All back in 2017 and haven’t looked back since. Although that album when compared to 2020’s Opulent Decay and especially this album seems a bit clumsy and even immature with what it was trying to accomplish, it was more than enough to get me hooked. Overpowering synths, effect-laden guitars, Cam Mesmer’s hypnotic, nasally vocals…imagine creating such a special album and improving upon it in every way in every subsequent recording. Tragic Magic shows Mesmer and drummer Al Lester in full control of their powers. The entire record is a beautiful and profoundly sad journey laden with Wishbone Ash-style guitar harmonies when the guitar is not bleeding into the keyboards in the best way possible with the chorus and flangers seemingly on overdrive. The vocals are spectacularly written, with each song providing a great pop album’s worth in both hooks and lyrics.. It truly is a psychedelic experience, but despite Spell wearing their 70’s heavy rock influences proudly on their sleeves, Tragic Magic is not dropping acid and freaking out watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a truly religious experience that commands respect from the listener.