Westin is a soon-to-be-graduated college student who has been listening to metal and punk for almost 15 years. They’ve been writing “professionally” for 5 years on various topics, and you can find them on Twitter regularly complaining about music, capitalism and video games.
2021 has been an unbelievable year for heavy music – there have been so many releases, and so many of them are so good, that it feels like we have a landmark year for a bunch of genres and bands. It’s hard to believe, and yet here we are, trying very hard to narrow it down as much as possible. This list started with around thirty releases, and over time I just kept whittling it down until I ended up with the ones I connected with most this year. That means that incredible albums from artists like Carcass, King Woman and Under the Pier just didn’t quite make the cut, but I still really love them, and it’s so hard to kill your children. So without any further ado, here are my personal favourite records of 2021, and I really hope you find something you enjoy here.
11. Flesh of Morning – Here in Heaven (Blind Rage Records)
The least heavy album on my list is this very synth-y, dreamy darkwave album from duo Flesh of Morning. Faiza Kracheni’s ephemeral voice feels liminal and distant, almost as if it’s drifting in between the spaces between night clubs – even though the music could imaginably fit in any number of goth dance halls, the songs almost seem to be pushing for the street, for the movement between places as life, more than any amalgamation of faceless clubbers. Here in Heaven has a very great early 80s post-punk feel to it, sonically and thematically, and while the rhythms are strong and certainly danceable (don’t get me wrong, this is still synthwave we are talking about), there is a slightly dark and goth romance to Flesh of Morning, temporary and flirtatious, that almost functions as a meta-textual acknowledgement of the impermanence of the thought-spaces the music evokes. I’m not trying to pretend this album is some incredible philosophical meditation on relations and spaces, but it’s nice that the music feels like it has a sort of depth alongside the plethora of groovy banger tracks that just fill this album. I don’t collect vinyl but I bought this LP as soon as I heard it because it’s just that good, and the album cover is great.
10. Unto Others – Strength (Roadrunner Records)
These last few years have really been highlighting the influence of goth rock on metal in a very modern context. Gothic metal is obviously nothing new, but we’re now getting more overt 80’s post-punk flair as the flavor of the times. Unto Others’ Strength is a highlight of this, perfectly capturing that subdued, almost amateur feel of a lot of the early post-punk scene while enhancing it with some very modern and tight production. I’m sure everyone’s sick of this comparison but it’s impossible to ignore the Sisters of Mercy influence on this band and that’s great, because Sisters of Mercy made great music. There’s an incredible catchiness to this album, perfectly blending an almost commercial sense of hook writing and honest, sad heaviness, and I find myself singing along a lot. Clearly, Unto Others know how to enjoy themselves – between music videos where they wear sunglasses at night and the album’s featured cover of Pat Benatar’s “Hell is For Children” (which actually rocks, they picked the perfect cheesy song), they demonstrate a love of danceable and enjoyable rock music that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
9. Frozen Soul – Crypt of Ice (Century Media)
12,000 years ago, during the pre-history of humanity and the ending of the last Ice Age, a small group of cavemen abandoned their homey cave in desperate search of some kind of food, and became trapped in ice and snow, buried and forgotten. Millennia later, thanks to the effects of global warming brought on by the onset of global climate catastrophe, this band of early homo sapiens were freed from their chilly prison, preserved in frost through primitive cave magic, and set about exploring their newfound territory of Texas. Eventually these hunters learned English through the power of absorptive osmosis, and accidentally discovered a new religious icon, forged in the fires of war and really, really large ballistae. In their efforts to properly worship and appease their new god, the cave people got jobs and bought electric guitars, and probably an ugly van, and now, if you’re lucky, you can watch them perform religious ceremonies at your local dive bar/elephant meat shack.
8. Dreamwell – Modern Grotesque
This one is gut-wrenching. If you’re talking modern screamo/post-hardcore, whatever you want to call this, it feels impossible to leave out Dreamwell. There is a very palpable pain here and it is hideous, it’s hard to listen to and look at. The lyrics are the standout of Modern Grotesque, fraught and beautiful, like the confessional “You can’t hurt a person if their body is empty/ I’m a porcelain doll, I am fragile but lifeless” from Sayaka, vocalist and lyricist Keziah showcases an intimately vulnerable poetic sensibility that sucks you in and swirls you around with their nasally, heartfelt voice before sucker-punching you with some harsh vox followed by sharp, fuzzy guitars. There’s a great use of space and tone in this album, switching between classic skramz, shoegaze, post-hardcore and more, I feel like I’m drifting on an internal river that threatens to drown me and smash me against the rocks as often as it lovingly carries me along. When Dreamwell kick it up, the energy really carries throughout the entire instrumental and vocal delivery – there’s beauty here, but there’s also just some good punk music, and this record really feels like a lovely, ugly landmark.
7. Stormkeep – Tales of Othertime (Ván Records)
I certainly don’t listen to enough black metal to be the kind of expert necessary to say “this is the best black metal album of 2021”, but if someone else wants to suggest that, I don’t think I’ll argue with them. Stormkeep are one of the most surprisingly good bands I’ve heard all year – they’re incredibly fresh but sound like they’ve been making their particular brand of black metal for a decade. Their EP last year was a bit of a sleeper hit (with unnecessarily amazing cover art), and this is just more good Stormkeep, finally on a full scale. Their use of melody and light symphonic elements really helps elevate the music to a more epic scale, very fitting with their fantasy themes. I don’t know if there’s some sort of story or concept behind Tales but it’s black metal about wizards, why do I need to ask? They also, surprisingly enough, are good song writers, with a really strong grasp of riffwork. The guitars shine on this album, and it’s not all just endless “wall of sound” tremolo, which there’s nothing wrong with, but it’s high time someone reminded somebody that black metal bands could write good riffs y’all, especially because when Stormkeep do go full on traditional black metal it hits that much harder for having been absent and flirted with. Shoutout to the drummer, the kit work is a highlight, because it’s often relatively simple and more evocative of classic metal, which really gives the music a sense of rhythm and movement. I’m looking forward to Stormkeep’s future.
6. Worm – Foreverglade (20 Buck Spin)
Worm has released an incredibly listenable and heavy death/doom LP with Foreverglade. It’s not difficult to imagine a disgustingly putrid demon dragging corpses through the album artwork, a confusing miasma of off-colour swirls and broken shapes, almost familiar in their Escherian quality. That visceral visual element is strongly echoed in the music. The guitar tone feels like the riffs are being dragged through muck, and the leadwork is incredibly tasteful and hits the perfect spot in the music. The vocals shift well between perfectly straightforward death/doom gutturals and more black metal shrieks, which really gives a nice variety and different texture to various passages. Coupled with some surprisingly effective uses of sometimes choral, almost chanting background vocals and various explorations of atmospherics with very pulled back acoustic sections, (that are gorgeous) Worm highlight an incredible amount of maturity and depth, knowing when to give us room to breathe before they go back to drowning us in filth. The music here is buried under mud, pus and decay, and digging it out is totally worth it.
5. Pupil Slicer – Mirrors (Prosthetic Records)
Rolo Tomassi aren’t releasing their new album until next year, so I have to look elsewhere for good mathcore. And boy do Pupil Slicer deliver – their blend of mathcore/grindcore is hitting exactly the spot I want it to. There are spurts of chaos and hyper-activity with strange time changes and musical shifts but there’s also tons of rhythmic groove and musicality behind the songs that make them incredibly punchy, carrying tons of energy and propelling the listening forward at supersonic speeds, but they can also stop and turn on a dime in a way that feels more reminiscent of industrial and tech bands. The way Pupil Slicer also manage to take noise and sound effect and interrupt your listening experience in ways that initially feel like production mistakes or errors in the recording, only for you to realize the intentional musical process behind these strange slides and backsteps, is really engaging. Something is constantly moving in Mirrors, and even on tracks like L’Appel Du Vide, which ends on a very cosmic droning sequence that is very consciously drifting, the momentum is maintained into the following song. This is a remarkable debut album, and it’s short enough that the band doesn’t overstay their welcome while also making you wish there was more, and I do want more.
4 . As Everything Unfolds – Within Each Lies the Other (Long Branch Records)
Back in the fall of 2020, I accidentally happened to read about As Everything Unfolds on some music website, and their new music video for “Hiding From Myself” was at the end. I really enjoyed it, and eagerly awaited more. A few more MV’s later, and they were finally releasing their first album in spring of 2021. I could not be more hype, this was my most anticipated album of 2021 by a mile (partly because I try not to anticipate, most of the time). When the record finally dropped it hit me hard – yes, this band has room for growth, yes they are young and probably have their best record ahead of them, but my god it’s hard to not fall in love with As Everything Unfolds. Singer Charlie Rolfe’s voice is gorgeous, her cleans are emotive and her screams are punchy, the guitars/drums are also punchy and have a great mix of metalcore and post-hardcore vibes, the whole band really toes the line on where they’re leaning heavier in a punk or a metal direction, and it’s a good blend, I love the production and sound of this album. The lyrics are also great, like closing track “Wither”; “In death, we resurrect / Bring ourselves to life when we wither and die / I feel I don’t deserve this life / How could I come to expect this?”, and other songs dealing with emotional turmoil, depression, mental health, abuse and relationships and all of these elements together just make for some really awesome, memorable songs that just encapsulate the breadth and appeal of this vein of -core. Between “On the Inside”, “Take Me There”, “Greyscale”, “Hiding From Myself” and “Wither”, AEU have also showcased a great repertoire of songwriting ability that will keep me and many other fans coming back. Maybe this album won’t be on many people’s year end lists, but it’s on mine; it reminds me so much, in a positive way, of the tumultuous, awkward, confusing and painful experiences of my youth, and because of that I’ve genuinely fallen in love with this band and album, and I really feel a connection with the music in an emotional and cerebral way. Thank you, As Everything Unfolds.
3 . Tribulation – Where the Gloom Becomes Sound (Century Media)
I think that current Tribulation may have peaked here with Gloom. They’ve been around now for two decades and somehow they just keep getting better – they have found the perfect mixture of gothic metal and melodic death metal that works for them and Gloom encapsulates it magically. I must have subconsciously been leaning towards very dance-y music this year because there is undeniable groove here just like many of my other choices, and the guitar leads feel tasty and thoughtful. I also have to comment on just how many good songs they’ve written this time around – “In Rememberance”, “Leviathans”, “Lethe”, “Daughter of the Djinn”, “Elementals”, “Funeral Pyre”, and those are just my personal choices. You could argue most any song here is one of the best of the whole year, and they have an album full of them. Tribulation must be in contact with some sort of Swedish music spirit or god or whatever, because it honestly feels like they’re cheating – how fair is it for other bands in this vein to release music when they have to compete with Tribulation? I love this album, and I’ve been listening to it all year.
2 . Tower – Shock to the System (Cruz del Sur Music)
This is my second favourite album of the year, but I have to apologize to the readers for this one, because clearly I am cheating on this entry. This is a 2021 album of the year list, yet obviously this album was recorded 40 years ago and kept sealed in a vault until it could be unleashed in the future to wreak havoc on the time-space continuum. The album art also looks like it was commissioned in 1978 but wasn’t finished until 1977. I really can’t emphasize enough how vocalist Sarabeth Linden is the star of the show, absolutely belting her (extremely powerful and probably Klingon) heart out track after track, carrying so much weight for an also incredible band. The guitars are driving, the drums are bouncy and rocking, this is peak rock n roll in metal form. They’ve somehow flawlessly captured the sound of the late 70s and early 80’s that so much of the ‘New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal’ is trying so desperately to harken back to, but they do so in a totally natural and delicious way – while they certainly flirt with hints of New Wave of British Heavy Metal at times, they’re a predominantly an American sound, but honestly they do not feel like imitators, they really do feel like a lost gem of the time period. “Blood Moon”, “Lay Down the Law” and “In Dreams” are standout tracks to me – Blood Moon is a barn-burner of an opener, Lay Down the Law has an incredible “80s female rockstar a’la Pat Benatar meets almost cliche sexual Judas Priest-adjacent BDSM-adjacent romance” vibe that I really, really dig, and In Dreams highlights the bands ability to slow down and write some more drawn out material that shows they have some variety to them. Finally, can we talk about how Cruz del Sur somehow keeps digging up these treasures of bands? Where do they keep finding them, do they have heavy metal detectors? I’m now, as of this year, of the opinion that Cruz is winning the “NWOTHM” arms race, and this time they’ve finally pulled out time travel to beat the clock. Absolutely superb stuff.
1 . Illudium – Ash of the Womb (Prophecy Productions)
The first time I heard Ash of the Womb, I knew immediately it was going to be one of my favourite albums of 2021. The more I listened to it, the better it got, and it wasn’t long until I knew exactly where this belonged for me this year. This post-rock/post-metal/shoe/dreamgaze album is a reflection on the trauma of the 2020 California wildfires, and all of that trauma, all of that grief and pain and shock is layered the music. Ash of the Womb is baked in charcoal and the dark, moody acoustic guitars that ring in the incredibly spacious and lush soundscape really emphasize the surrounding darkness and dust that scuzz up the sound of the rest of the album. When the electric guitars rev up and finally kick in, they hit with the force of a raging burn that at once both meanders slowly and catches up to you, carrying the weight of a thousand tears, a thousand anguished and panicked thoughts. The second track “Sempervirens” opens with wildlife recordings, the sounds of birds and wind and the serenity of nature, before it’s drowned in the incredibly wet reverb of singer/guitarist/writer/creator Shantel Amundson’s electric guitar, right alongside some very folky acoustics, and her singing is somber and at times more indecipherable sound than enunciated lyric, which all combined create an oppressive and blanketing amount of texture and are only rarely removed by spots of bright light and open tones.
Shantel ponders on metaphysics and the nature of being in this album more than she directly engages with much of a physical connection to the wildfires, and it’s reflected in the music’s superbly ephemeral transitions between intense walls of sound and more quiet and background focused softer, more melodic acoustic passages, which sit almost as park benches for you to sit and ground yourself, to absorb the weight of what you’ve just listened to, to breathe in all of the wind and ash and grief. It’s important to have these moments to be able to reflect because this entire album is so much dancing with the idea of how to even communicate this pain and these experiences with other people, with the universe itself and how we are so shaped by our experiences, and those quiet moments give even stronger sucker-punch to the crescendos that Shantel manages to expertly craft and build towards, especially in the latter half of the album on tracks “Ātopa”, “Madrigal” and “Where Death and Dreams Do Manifest” – there is so much anticipation of what’s coming next, because it’s going to hurt you, but you need to know what it feels like, to live the experience. Ash of the Womb is an incredibly powerful and emotionally affective meditation on trauma and the spectral barrier between pain, and communication and language, and while you’re listening you find yourself wanting to be choked in ash and buried beneath the cinders of cedars and redwoods – when the smoke clears, and the dust settles, and it always will, the California sun will shine on you and remind you that you survived, you lived, you experienced, and that bright light is coming even if you can’t see it in the dust and haze.