EDITOR’S NOTE: After a hiatus, we welcome back our old friend Professor D. Grover the XIIIth (founder of The Number of the Blog, whose inspiration helped spawn NCS so many years ago), who again has brought us his year-end lists of favorite releases, both metal and not-metal. Yesterday the focus of Part I was EPs and singles, and today it’s albums. To repeat part of what Grover wrote in yesterday’s introduction:
“As with any of my previous lists, for some familiar with them, there are a few things to bear in mind. First, this list is entirely my own opinion and my favorite releases of the year, regardless of genre. While the majority of what I listen to is metal, not everything is, and my list will reflect that. Second, I listen to and enjoy a lot of music throughout the year, but to include it all on the list would be impractical at best. In years past I’ve included a list of honorable mentions, but those lists always ended up being stupidly long and ain’t no one got time for that.”
- Benediction – Scriptures / Cadaver – Edder & Bile / Mercyless – The Mother Of All Plagues / Necrophobic – Dawn Of The Damned / Sinister – Deformation Of The Holy Realm / Vader – Solitude In Madness / Wombbath – Choirs Of The Fallen
There were a number of old death metal bands releasing high quality new albums this year, and while none of these albums really did enough to truly elevate themselves from the pack, I would be remiss to not mention that I enjoyed each of these albums quite a bit.
- Internal Rot – Grieving Birth / Triage – Triage / Caustic Wound – Death Posture / Collision – The Final Kill / Venomous Concept – Politics Versus The Erection
Similarly, there were several good grindcore albums that dropped throughout the year that I really liked, but didn’t find enough reason to list them separately (with one notable exception to come later).
- Static-X – Project Regeneration, Vol. 1
I suppose this could be considered a relatively controversial choice, given the posthumous inclusion of Wayne Static’s vocals as well as new vocals recorded per Edsel D– er, “Xer0”. However, I was a huge Static-X fan when Wisconsin Death Trip was released ages ago, and although the band never truly recaptured the magic of that album, Project Regeneration, Vol, 1 did a fine job of finding some of that magic, and as a whole I really ended up liking this album a lot more than I expected to.
- Ensiferum – Thalassic
Ensiferum’s post-From Afar output has varied in quality, with One Man Army standing as a good album between the not-quite-as-good Two Paths and the flaccid Unsung Heroes, but Thalassic is as close as the band have gotten to their earlier material in a while. It’s not a perfect album, but its high moments are up there with the band’s best.
- Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 – The Butcher Shoppe Sessions / Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 2 – The Cowboy Arms Sessions
Why, yes, this IS a country album on my list. (It’s not the last one, either.) Sturgill Simpson is something of a country music outsider, a guy who was nominated for a Grammy despite zero radio support from Nashville, a guy daring enough to release a psyche-rock album as a country artist. Here he’s revisiting a wealth of his early work and re-recording them as bluegrass songs, and in doing so finds something new and different in those older songs. He’s a helpful reminder that what you hear on the radio is barely country music any more, but that there are still true practitioners of the art.
- Carpenter Brut – Blood Machines OST
Synthwave is one of those microgenres (like djent) that rapidly grew to oversaturation and began to collapse under the weight of so many similar artists, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any worthwhile artists. Carpenter Brut is arguably one of the best, and on the soundtrack for the indie film Blood Machines, Franck Hueso finds himself in slightly more experimental territory, moving between the driving synth tracks he’s known for and more ambient work appropriate for a film score. It remains to be seen if this is an indication of the project’s future direction, but the album remains an engrossing listen.
- Necrot – Mortal
There are a lot of newer bands playing old school death metal, and while a lot of it can be simultaneously entertaining and derivative, Necrot are one of the bands who are just good enough at it to stay memorable. Sometimes you just want to hear some goddamn riffs, and Necrot know how to deliver.
- Moodie Black – F U Z Z
Moodie Black have been pushing boundaries in noise hip-hop for years now, but F U Z Z might be my favorite release yet. Frontwoman K-Death’s lyrics are powerful, incendiary, and introspective as ever, and the music weaves between genres effortlessly, blending hip-hop, harsh noise, industrial, and rock to create something wonderfully weird.
- Exocrine – Maelstrom
Exocrine have been around for a few years and have always been kind of a B tier tech death band for me, good but not super memorable. However, Maelstrom managed to break that trend because, as with Inferi, Exocrine pair an impressive degree of technical skills with a deft songwriting touch.
- Igorrr – Spirituality And Distortion
Speaking of artists pushing boundaries… Igorrr has for years been experimenting with various mixtures of techno, breakcore, metal, and classical across several projects, but his eponymous work remains his most varied, even as Spirituality And Distortion follows the more metal direction that started with the album’s predecessor Savage Sinusoid. The result is accessible (for an Igorrr album) but still incredibly odd.
- Just Before Dawn – An Army At Dawn
There are a lot of bands that have been influenced by Bolt Thrower, and more than a few that seek to emulate them, but there are very few that actually manage to effectively duplicate those tank tread rumble guitar riffs. (Even Memoriam, who are made up of several former Bolt Thrower members, find this to be a struggle.) Just Before Dawn succeed in a way that the others do not, in that ex-Amon Amarth/Blood Mortized guitarist Anders Biazzi and his now-traditional rotating cast of guest vocalists seem to have a solid grasp on the subtleties that make Bolt Thrower‘s music immediately recognizable.
- Lamb Of God – Lamb Of God
At this point in their career no one would blame Lamb Of God for coasting a bit, as their last few albums might have a little bit. However, their self-titled eighth album (not counting their work as Burn The Priest) finds a band revitalized and angry, and the result is their best work in years.
- Napalm Death – Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism
The exception mentioned in my grindcore group earlier is, of course, Napalm Death, who somehow still remain one of grind’s defining practitioners. Barney Greenway still sounds as angry and deranged as ever, even as the band find new ways to experiment with their sound.
- Chris Stapleton – Starting Over
I did say there would be another country album on this list. Where Sturgill Simpson is a Nashville outsider, Chris Stapleton is something of an improbable success story, earning a significant amount of critical acclaim and radio success based not on trend-chasing or image, but unadulterated talent. He plays country music in the old way and his voice is captivating, whether he’s singing about the life and death of his family dog or spitting vitriol at the cowards who shoot up concerts and synagogues. Starting Over is easily the most commercial record on my list, but it’s driven by sheer talent.
- Cult Of Lilith – Mara
You know a band has managed to impress someone when their full-length debut lands on a record label like Metal Blade, and Cult Of Lilith do not disappoint. b is an ambitious work, blending tech death and prog with some truly unexpected flourishes (like some Hammond organ or flamenco) to create something truly impressive. At times the music can be a little jarring and rough about the edges, but the rest is so good that it really doesn’t matter.
- Skeletal Remains – The Entombment Of Chaos
This, right here, is the finest old school death metal album of the year. Nothing draws me into a death metal record like quality riffs, and Skeletal Remains writes them better than just about anyone. This is simple, no-frills classic death metal done right.
- Anaal Nathrakh – Endarkenment
By now, if you’re familiar with Anaal Nathrakh you should have a pretty good idea what to expect from them, and Endarkenment is no exception. Fortunately, a typical Anaal Nathrakh record is still going to contain some of the most diabolically twisted vocals in all of music over blistering riffs. Endarkenment is the perfect soundtrack to a point in time that feels like the end of days.
- Havukruunu – Uinuos Syömein Sota
I have no idea what the album title, song titles, or lyrics mean on Uinuos Syömein Sota, much like Havukruunu’s prior records, but it doesn’t matter, because the music speaks perfectly clearly. The dual influences of Hammerheart-era Bathory and the immortal Immortal are readily apparent, but Uinuos Syömein Sota never feels derivative, instead sparking a flame in the Viking part of my blood that as far as I know shouldn’t exist.
- Run The Jewels – RTJ4
Four albums into their collaboration, rap veterans Killer Mike and El-P show no signs of slowing down and have found success far above what either artist had achieved individually (see the duo’s live stream concert on Adult Swim, for an example). RTJ4 contains some of their most potent, relevant work, like ‘JU$T’ and ‘Walkin’ In The Snow’, a track whose “I can’t breathe” lyric predated George Floyd but took on a new significance when the album released amid the ensuing protests.
- Angelspit – The Ignorance Cartel
Angelspit‘s abrasive techno-industrial-punk sound has been a staple in my regular listening for years, even as the last several albums dropped the guitars in favor of a more dance-oriented style. Thankfully, The Ignorance Cartel finds Angelspit main member Zoog Von Rock bringing back frequent collaborator George Bikos, whose stabbing riffs return a missing level of aggression to the distinctive Angelspit sound.
- clipping. – Visions Of Bodies Being Burned
The second half of harsh noise hip-hop trio clipping.‘s horror-themed diptych, Visions Of Bodies Being Burned, is another addition to the pile of evidence that the group is one of the most adventurous, brilliant acts in music right now. On the musical side of things, respected harsh noise artists Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson manufacture incredible music out of the most unmusical sounds, and rapper (and noted actor) Daveed Diggs pairs an incomparable storytelling lyrical style with the kind of malleable flow and cadence that most rappers can only dream of attaining. While I actually found myself on the whole enjoying this record less than its predecessor, it’s still an incredible release filled with the kind of jaw-dropping moments that clipping. somehow make seem routine.
- Ulver – Flowers Of Evil
The Assassination Of Julius Caesar, Ulver’s initial venture into retrowave, was an album that sat well with me, but with Ulver one never knows what the next record will bring. Flowers Of Evil actually returns to that synthwave style a second time, and actually one-ups the previous sign in almost every way. Tracks like ‘Machine Guns And Peacock Feathers’ and ‘Apocalypse 1993’ carry such incredible, irresistible grooves, and Krystoffer Rigg‘s voice is absolutely perfect for the style. I don’t know if Ulver will stay with this style for the foreseeable future, but I can’t imagine that I’ll be disappointed if they do.
- Larkin Poe – Self Made Man / Kindred Spirits
In the past year I developed a mild obsession with Larkin Poe, a blues/folk/rock/country duo featuring singer/guitarist Rebecca Lovell and her sister, steel guitarist/harmonizing vocalist Megan Lovell. Their individual gifts complement one another incredibly well, and their DIY nature (the duo write, play, and produce everything) is incredibly appealing. Their previous record earned a Grammy nomination for best blues album, and while I place very little actual value on Grammy awards, it’s still gratifying to see deserving artists getting considered. The duo have actually released two albums this year, with Self Made Man being a collection of original tracks and Kindred Spirits being a number of acoustic covers (a staple of the pair’s Tip o’ The Hat series on YouTube), and both are excellent in their own right.
- Buried Realm – Embodiment Of The Divine
I’m a sucker for the Scar Symmetry/Bloodshot Dawn type of high-energy melodeath, and Buried Realm deliver in spades. This is made all the more impressive in that this is the work of one man, multi-instrumentalist Josh Dummer, along with a number of high-profile guest musicians and the mastering talents of the legendary Dan Swanö. The album isn’t perfect, with the overall sound lacking some low-end punch, but the music itself is outstanding.
- Falconer – From A Dying Ember
I have to say that I was incredibly saddened to learn that this is to be the final release from Falconer, my favorite power metal band ever, but discovering that bit of information put From A Dying Ember in a whole new context for me. What seemed to be some uneven songwriting at first revealed itself to be the band taking the various elements of their sound from previous releases and cranking them to eleven. The folk elements are folkier, the metal elements are metalier, the ballad is balladier. It’s a fitting final curtain for a wonderfully theatrical band.
- Aesop Rock – Spirit World Field Guide
One of hip-hop’s most unique voices, Aesop Rock is at this point in his career not trying to make new friends. If you’re a fan of his music and his densely abstruse, non-sequitur-laced lyrical style, then this album is for you. If you’re not, well, Spirit World Field Guide is not going to change your mind. Even as an Aesop devotee, I found the record’s 21 tracks a challenging listen at first, but as with Aes’s other releases, repeat spins helped to unlock some of the album’s secrets. Regardless, this is most certainly the year’s finest hip-hop release as far as I’m concerned.
- Cytotoxin – Nuklearth
I’ll admit, prior to Nuklearth I had minimal interest in Cytotoxin’s music. I’d seen them hyped multiple times, but every time I checked them out I found myself turned off by the pig squeal vocal style and pinging snare drums, hallmarks of the brutal death metal subgenre. However, on Nuklearth Cytotoxin shifted to a more traditional vocal style, and I found my interest piqued. I’m not sure how the songwriting compares to the band’s previous work, but on Nuklearth there is an incredible breadth of variety, with moments of thunderous brutality balanced by massive grooves and astounding technicality. Balance is a key phrase here, because the manner in which these different elements are interwoven is simply masterful. Even the awkward spoken interlude and the piano outro that bracket the album’s penultimate track don’t bother me, because the rest of the record is just so good. My knowledge of brutal death metal isn’t enough to accurately say that this should be a defining moment in the subgenre, but it certainly is in my mind.
- Finntroll – Vredesvävd
Prior to Vredesvävd’s release, it had been seven years since the previous album Blodsvept. Speaking as a massive Finntroll fan (the band was instrumental in serving as a gateway to more extreme forms of metal for me), Blodsvept was enjoyable but ultimately a bit of a letdown after its predecessor Nifelvind, which stands as one of my favorite releases by the band. My cautious optimism upon hearing that a new album was impending spiked after hearing a few of the songs, and as a whole Vredesvävd is excellent, marrying the feel of the band’s recent work with their earlier sound quite effectively.
- Thy Catafalque – Naiv / Zápor
My love of Thy Catafalque is at this point well-documented. As I stated in my review of Naiv all the way back in January, “…this is a typical Thy Catafalque album, by which I mean that it is both familiar and unpredictable, painstakingly crafted, and absolutely beautiful.” A year of familiarity has done nothing to dim my enthusiasm, needless to say, but that brilliant album is joined in its spot on this list by Zápor, an EP released with a full discography box set that is comprised of five remastered/partially re-recorded tracks from 2004’s brilliant Tűnő Idő Tárlat, the album that to me truly began to define Thy Catafalque‘s sound.
- Luna’s Call – Void
A solid majority of the albums in this list are releases from artists with which I have some level of familiarity, but there are a handful of newcomers sprinkled here and there, and none made a bigger impression than Luna’s Call. If I were to describe their music to someone in a single sentence, I would say that it’s as if Opeth had decided to try to make a Between The Buried And Me album instead of boring dad prog. This is, of course, a rather reductive way to describe such an intricately crafted, artfully performed piece of music, but it serves as an effective starting point. Void is ambitious, progressive, and yes, bears resemblance to the unpredictable structures and changes that are Between The Buried And Me‘s calling card as well as the fine balance of beauty and ugliness that defined Opeth’s best material. Ultimately, there was no other record this year that made quite as much of an impact on me as Void, an album of which I am still exploring the depths.
If you’re still reading, thank you for taking the time. I hope that you find something on this list that you hadn’t yet discovered but find to your liking. The discovery of new music is one of the highlights of my day-to-day life, and bring able to share that gift with others is the reason I write. I hope 2021 isn’t nearly the abject dumpster fire that this past year has mostly been, and I wish you all the best.