THE TOP 13 ALBUMS OF 2021
Rules are the same as always: Full lengths only (one of these entries is disputed on whether it's an EP or LP, but the band goes with the latter so I'm counting it) and that's it. The list tends to stay metal since that's just where my listening focuses but ya never know. Fuckin' Foxy won last year so ya gotta stay on your toes. Let's get on with it:
Ya know, for a guy who has always counted doom as one of his least favorite of the major metal subgenres, there really was something about this ultra basic classic doom record from Fimir this year that grabbed me and refused to let go since the day I came across it. I have no history with four of the five members' previous band, Church of Void, but I had a feeling upon first listen that these guys were scene veterans already. There's a confidence in Tomb of God that can only come with experience. "One Eyed Beast" is such an incredible earworm but has massive balls for riding on basically one riff for nine and a half minutes while the vocalist devolves into tuneless moaning by track's end. The fact that they could pull off such a terrible idea so well speaks to the level of artistry on display here.
12: Yoth Iria - As the Flame Withers
For all my admitted ageism when it comes to metal bands, I find it darkly ironic that the first two entries here are debut albums by "new" bands comprised mostly of scene veterans. Yoth Iria sports a much healthier lineage, with the two founding members having played on the first two Rotting Christ albums, and even though I never really got into the Greek black metal scene all that much, I know damn well the clout that brings the band. As the Flame Withers fantastically channels that warm atmosphere of their homeland. The album art is actually a pretty good metaphor for the sound on display. It's massive, smooth, dark, and colorful all at the same time. That may seem like a strange combo for a genre as traditionally icy and inaccessible as black metal but I promise you it kicks ass.
11: Inoculation - Celestial Putridity
I initially had Archspire bringing up the tail on this list, but as the months rolled on I found myself more and more let down by it. I think the reason Inoculation find themselves here instead is because this sounds like Archspire if every other note was removed. The Canadians' signature blend of total sensory overload used to augment some sharp hooks, but they've regressed back to being all sizzle and no steak. I'm spending half of this entry talking about a different album but that's because Inoculation is such a phenomenal respec of one of the most popular tech death bands in the world. It turns out that by taking 20 points out of Speed and putting them into Songwriting instead you can wind up with the same basic idea but much better. Inoculation is modern tech death with a Nocturnus sensibility and that's a surprisingly delicate line to thread.
10: Demiser - Through the Gate Eternal
This is just so god damned stupid and I can't get enough of it. Through the Gate Eternal is basically just regular old piss-n'-vinegar black/thrash and if you've heard Desaster, Aura Noir, or D666 before then you aren't going to find too many surprises, but what they lack in forward-thinking creativity they make up for in sheer fuckin' testicular fortitude. This is over the top debauchery that is so on the nose that it rockets past farce and lands squarely on "pure fun". I mean come on, the members gave themselves names like "Gravepisser", "Phalomancer", and the creme de la creme, "Demiser the Demiser", which also adorns the name of an appropriately silly track. There's so much energy in a track like "Deathstrike" that I could never not adore this, even if I genuinely can't tell where the sincerity and irony actually end.
9: Hooded Menace - The Tritonous Bell
Hooded Menace is a band I've seen as kinda cursed to always be "quite good" but never managed to break the glass ceiling. Turns out sixth time is the charm I guess. I've always appreciated how they approach death/doom the same way as Runemagick, where the "doom" half of the equation comes from honest to god doom metal riffs instead of just slow death metal. I don't know what they've really done differently here compared to their previous five albums, but they finally got over the hump with this one. I really think it just boils down to them dialing in the grooves to an almost scientifically lethal degree this time. They were always there but they were never as fully torqued as "Corpus Asunder" or "Blood Ornaments", the latter of which would almost certainly be my favorite song of the year if it wasn't for an upcoming entry.
8: 1914 - Where Fear and Weapons Meet I think it speaks to how phenomenal the songwriting normally is with 1914 that they can close this album on an agonizingly long rendition of "The Green Fields of France" (which is thematically appropriate but meh in execution) and still manage to land in the top ten based on the previous 52 minutes. I've beaten the drum enough when it comes to how much I hate themes of real life war being treated like a Disney movie and 1914 continues to be the poster child of making their music just as grimy and unpleasant as their themes. This type of deathified black metal is so fucking bleak and nihilistic, it just punches me in the heartstrings every single time. Where Fear and Weapons Meet is another triumph in their career and I'm glad they're finally starting to build the popularity they so obviously deserve.
7: Eternity's End - Embers of War
Man do you have any idea how awesome it is to hear Iuri Sanson singing on a good album for the first time in like a decade? I recall their earlier albums being a less catchy old-school Dragonforce, but Embers of War has much more classic metal influence and holy shit is that the secret sauce they needed. There are so many shades of classic power metal bands and here that it borders on being plagiarism but I don't give a shit because dammit Iron Savior and Running Wild are classic bands for a reason and their signature tropes just fucking work. Honestly, if every song was as good as "Hounds of Tindalos" then this would be #1 without a second thought. It is primo early 90s Running Wild put through a shreddier filter and I could listen to it a billion times in a row. That's the song of the year without a fucking doubt.
6: Green Lung - Black Harvest
The most concise review of this album is three words long: "Ghost but good". This is stoner doom at its core but there is such a massive injection of 70s rock in here that the comparison is unavoidable (especially since the vocals are equally thin and goofy). The way "The Harrowing" leads into "Old Gods" is pure Boston and it works exactly as well as the classic rock staple it's obviously ripping off. Black Harvest proceeds to be a salvo of Sabbathian riffage and Deep Purple organ shredding and it never stops being entertaining. I'm almost certain this is the first album that could be described as "stoner" to ever land on this list and I don't know if that's because I'm finally warming up to the style or this is seriously head and shoulders above everything else. Either way it owns.
5: Dream Troll - Realm of the Tormentor
This is actually kind of a weird one since it seems to be debatable whether this is an LP or EP, and long time fans tell me that this is a bit of a step down and the new vocalist isn't as good as their old one. However, this is the first release of theirs that I've actually heard, so all this tells me is that I have an amazing backlog to explore, because I love every single second of this banger. There are obviously four albums I like more than this one, but this is without a doubt the catchiest release of 2021. This is hook after hook after hook and I can't get enough of it. It should be clear by now that I like throwback metal when it feels like a lost classic instead of a deliberate homage, and this fulfills that criteria easily. I could time travel to 1984 and put this on record store shelves and nobody would notice that it's from 35 years in the future.
4: Tower - Shock to the System
I only managed to write like five reviews this year, and Tower was one of the few album that motivated me enough to shout about how awesome it is. Everything I loved about Satan's Hallow is showcased here in exactly as much glory as that tragically short-lived project. Sporting possibly the most unhinged vocal performance of the year and some of the most ear catching throwback metal I've heard in a long while. All the youth and fire that made those classic releases so good burns fuckin' hot on Shock to the System. There's very little I can say that I haven't already said about this stunner, so I'll just reiterate how fucking awesome "Blood Moon" is. I don't think I've heard a better opening track since Scanner's "Warp 7" way back in 1988.
3: Craven Idol - Forked Tongues Say it with me now, "Dark Descent is a massively important label but the further away from death metal their releases are, the better they tend to be". I've been saying this for a long while based on fantastic releases from Crypt Sermon and Tyranny and such, and Craven Idol here brings some of the most scorching black/thrash metal recorded in years to further solidify my belief that DDR should just give death metal a break at this point. This is, without a doubt, Craven Idol's masterpiece. All of the intensity, venom, hooks, and razor sharp riffage that made Towards Eschaton and The Shackles of Mammon instant hits for me has been amped up to a nearly unbelievable degree on Forked Tongues. This is one of the few times that a metal record has not only lived up to, but easily surpassed the hype for me.
2: Spectral Wound - A Diabolic Thirst
I've never really dipped my toes into QCBM beyond a handful of releases, but I've always been aware of the little microscene and have enjoyed most of what I'd heard. The reason Spectral Wound's homeland was such a surprise to me is because I was absolutely positive this band was either Finnish or French on first blush. A Diabolic Thirst so exquisitely nails that dripping melodic edge that's so inherent to those scenes. The entire album is fine-tuned and razor sharp, and brimming with so much caustic malice that it almost physically hurts to listen to. I often say that I prefer my black metal to be a bit more fiery than icy, but Spectral Wound here is ice fucking cold and never once takes their foot off the gas. I've singled out a lot of "best songs of the year" so far but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how utterly fucking flawless "Frigid and Spellbound" is.
AND THE WINNER IS...
1: Bewitcher - Cursed Be Thy Kingdom
On first listen way back in April, I thought this was kinda fun and then shelved it without much thought. As the year went on, I found myself constantly coming back to it. Over and over and over again I found myself humming quietly at work before realizing the tune coming out of my throat was the chorus of "Electric Phantoms". Like an oil spill this just kept creeping back into my bloodstream and before I knew it, Cursed Be Thy Kingdom was my most listened to album on the year by a pretty wide margin. This niche of blackened speed/heavy metal or whatever it's called nowadays (I've been calling it "Motorbastard" for a while) is consistently pretty good but rarely breaks above that for me. I like Midnight and Hellripper as much as any self respecting metalhead, but Bewitcher's third album here just blows the entire fucking scene out of the water as far as I'm concerned. I pegged Dream Troll as the catchiest release of the year but this is only behind by like a damn molecule. All of the raucous filth and debauchery that made Venom so amazing in the early 80s is on display here and arguably even surpasses those early classics. Yes, I'm willing to go that far for anybody who could write modern gems like "Satanic Magick Attack" or "Valley of the Ravens". It's pretty weird for how much I crow about how too many metalheads are stuck on old sounds and refuse to truly explore the new bands that are genuinely innovating the style we all love for me to have three of my top five here sound like they could've been written nearly 40 years ago, but in the case of Bewitcher it has less to do with them doing anything new and more to do with them doing everything better. Almost every album on this list was an instant hit for me, and historically like 70% of albums I put on these lists that immediately wowed me wind up fading from my memory after a few years, but Cursed Be Thy Kingdom was a slow burn that grew on me more and more as the year went on until I was fully in its clutches by year's end, and historically that bodes much better for how well this album is going to age along with me. The entire top three here was really tough for me to suss out, but ultimately my gut (and my heart) tells me the only true winner of the BH Award for Album of the Year 2021 could only be Bewitcher.
And now for something completely the same!
Stormkeep - Tales of Othertime: Honestly this is good enough to be like #8 or so, but I first heard it on the day I started writing this post. Maybe I'm being overly cautious and I'll regret not putting it on the list proper if it winds up holding up and becoming a modern favorite of mine, but due to a quirk of timing I just flat out don't feel comfortable putting it on the list. Phenomenal meloblack with some cool dungeon synth passages that I'd recommend any fan of classic Emperor or Dissection to check out, I just wish I would've heard it before December 26th.
Kanonenfieber - Menschenmühle: This is basically the exact same album as 1914's representative on the list and I'm being completely honest when I say that's the main reason I chose to exclude it. It's weird that both bands aim for this exact same microniche and wind up executing identical ideas in almost identical ways and logically I should be annoyed by that (and I am to an extent), but Kanonenfieber is very good on their own and this album could've wound up ranking in an alternate universe where 1914 didn't put out a slightly better album that I chose to listen to more often.
Ningen-Isu - Kuraku: In a year with more doom-adjacent bands on my list than ever before, Ningen Isu still tragically misses the list proper despite putting out a great album for basically the tenth time in a row because they are pathologically incapable of releasing an album that isn't excruciatingly long.
Noctambulist - The Barren Form: This actually fought with Inoculation and Inferi as my favorite overly technical death metal album of the year, and I like how it's much grimier and more chaotic than the album that wound up making the list, but it's held back by having way too many lengthy passages of near silence on every damn track. If they had mitigated (but retained) that effect then the final list would look different.
Kyning - Ān: I've heard literally nobody else talk about this excellent doom record this year, and I want to highlight it for two reasons. 1) The vocalist sometimes devolves into this odd fry-whine that sounds exactly like the dude from The Vines, and 2) Despite "only" being 55 minutes long, it still feels like cutting a track or two would've done this album a world of good. At times I really feel like we're re-entering the CD era and bands are just cramming as much content as possible into every release when almost everything I heard this year would've been better with ten minutes shaved off. Kyning is simply a great example of what I mean when I say that sort of thing.
Eye of Purgatory - The Lighthouse: This album had no chance of making the final ranking and I'd probably rate it a 7/10 or so, I just want to highlight it because I am utterly astounded that I stumbled across a Rogga project that isn't belligerently mediocre.
Archspire - Bleed the Future: I touched on it in the Inoculation entry, but Archspire really let me down this year. I noted at the time that The Lucid Collective could technically be classified as pornography since it was the type of thing you'd completely lose interest in once you finished masturbating, but Relentless Mutation just utterly trounced every expectation I could've possibly had for any modern tech death album in 2017 and to this day I still regret snubbing it on that year end list. In 2017 they put out a modern masterpiece that stands against and even at times surpasses the undisputed classics of their genre, and in 2021 they seemed to revert right back to making porn. I dunno, maybe their viral fame has shifted their priorities too much and now Dean is too busy focusing on memes and streaming to focus on writing a song as good as "Involuntary Doppelganger" again, but the end result here is that Archspire went from being kings that proved a dying genre still had some life left in it to just reminding me why I stopped listening to tech death so much in the first place. What a bummer.
Cannibal Corpse - Violence Unimagined: This album isn't actually bad really, but I do think it signals a future that I'm really not interested in for the band. Obviously, Pat is out of the band after his mental break a few years ago, and to the surprise of nobody he wound up replaced by Erik Rutan, who is a perfect fit based on chemistry alone. The problem I have is that Erik's writing is just far less interesting than Pat's, despite being a perfectly capable guitarist. Pat's songs had a more manic and technical edge that nobody really brings to the band anymore, so now their fifteenth album here is one of the very few where I really have no counter to the "it all sounds the same" criticism they normally get. It's not a bad album, but they've homogenized their sound even more and I think it's time to admit they'll never be truly great again.
Running Wild - Blood on Blood: Normally, since it hasn't been the early 90s for nearly thirty years now, I wouldn't have any expectations to dash in the first place when it comes to Running Wild. But I do admit, there was a part of me that was genuinely excited to hear this after Rapid Foray was so surprisingly decent. Neither I nor any other self respecting metalhead was expecting them to crank out another Death or Glory or Pile of Skulls after 40+ years, but after surprising everybody last time, Rolf put on his best songwriting cap and instead cranked out the most boring and inconsequential album in Running Wild history, which is no small feat considering that history contains shit like Resilient. Guess it was a fluke after all.
Grave Miasma - Abyss of Wrathful Deities: I only managed like five or six reviews all year as it is, one of them was for Grave Miasma, and at the end of the year I still forgot that I had even listened to this in the first place. Just very, very, very dull for a band that carries a ton of clout.
Chainsword - Blightmarch: At this point I'm just convinced that whatever intangible chemistry that made Bolt Thrower work so well is completely impossible to recapture, because every single band I've listened to that has tried to replicate their formula has wound up being mind-drainingly uninteresting and Chainsword is no exception.
Enforced - Kill Grid: This was hyped as the undisputed thrash king of the year and the worthy successor to Power Trip's throne after Riley Gale's untimely death. It wound up being the okayest album of the year.
Iron Maiden - Senjutsu: Is it really a disappointment if I knew it was going to be the same album they've been rewriting since 2000 with the exact same problems they've had since 2000 with the seventh-power diminished returns since 2000? I get that Maiden is one of the most legendary bands in the genre but fuckin' hell metal media has really been keeping their heads above water by desperately clinging onto bloated, waterlogged corpses like this one. They need to move the fuck on and cut the dinosaur show already. In no universe can I comprehend somebody listening to this shambling shadow of an album and thinking "Yo this fuckin SLAPS" while eagerly voting it as AOTY. Guys, it is completely okay to revere the classics while admitting that the band hasn't truly been great in decades.
And that's all for 2021! I've been trying to temper how much I personify years in recent months because it's very frustrating how instead of class consciousness we all get mad at abstract shit like years instead of lighting our bosses on fire, but regardless I hope this last cycle was good for you. There's a blizzard heading towards my hometown right now so I'm gonna just hole up for the next few days and catch y'all on the flipside. I promise I'll write more in 2022. Toodles!