(Next week Andy Synn begins his annual roll-out of year-end lists as part of his ongoing attempt to cover as many different albums from the last twelve months as possible – but, before then, he’d like to draw your attention to some of the shorter, but no less sweet, releases from 2021)
Well, well, well… it’s been a whole year since we last did this little dance hasn’t it?
Sure, it might seem like it’s been longer than that, for a number of different reasons that we really don’t have time or space to go into here, but it’s actually only been twelve months.
Those twelve months have been absolutely packed with music though, and today we’re going to be taking a look, and a listen, to some – not all, of course, just as many as I managed to actually hear, so don’t get too upset when you realise that this isn’t totally comprehensive – of the EPs that were released this year, beginning with a general round-up of everything that I can remember and recommend, and closing with a countdown of my ten favourite short-form releases of the year.
So let us begin…
There were lots of very good Death Metal releases this year, not only from (in)famous names like Outer Heaven (paying tribute to the greats), Gatecreeper and Creeping Death – with the latter two delivering a pair of EPs which were arguably better than either of their most recent albums – but also from up-and-comers like Ashen and Tribal Gaze, from whom I expect big things in the future.
Abhorrent Rapture by Witch Vomit, however, was arguably better than all of them, and only narrowly missed out on my Top Ten (as did the far too short, but still excellent, two-track EP from Fuming Mouth), and I’ve got a special place in my heart for both Blodwar’s new one, which saw the US groovemonsters adopting a much grimmer and grimier approach, and Fossilized‘s Eat or be Eaten, which is dumb as a bag of hammers and just as stupidly heavy, in the best possible way.
On the more downright brutal and/or ‘core-influenced end of things we had solid new releases from A Night In The Abyss, Bound In Fear, and Exhumation, along with some absolutely devastating new material from This Is Turin, Twitch of the Death Nerve, and Unfathomable Ruination, all of which helped keep the British end up… as it were… while Down-Under devastators To The Grave continued not to pull any punches on Epilogue.
Then there were more tech-tastic releases from the likes of Demon King, Hideous Divinity, and Swelling Repulsion – all of which are well worth checking out if you haven’t done so already – although my money is on Black Hole Deity as the real “ones to watch” from this particular crop – while the ever-prolific Demonstealer dropped another star-studded EP that was somehow even better than his last.
And, of course, we got some seriously warped and weird sounds from the proggier side of the Death Metal spectrum, including the angular atonal assault of Maere, the experimental dissonance of Ecliptic, the psycho-active ugliness of Plasmodium, and the immersive, pseudo-cinematic Prog-Death of Phlebotomized (another one which almost made my list).
The Black Metal scene also produced its fair share of obsidian gems this year too, with established NCS-favourites like Serpent Column, The Negative Bias, and White Ward continuing to demonstrate just why they’re so beloved around these parts, while the UK contingent was also well-represented by new releases from Antre, Dawn Ray’d, and Trivax (and I’d urge you to check out the latter in particular).
2021 also saw several bands experimenting and expanding their sound, with both Odraza and Giant of the Mountain pushing themselves further than ever (albeit in very different ways), and both Code and Maladie transitioning into a more acoustic/atmospheric mode with nrcss and Symptoms III, respectively, while riffier acts like Nordjevel, Havukruunu (who reworked a number of their earlier, less-known songs for this release) and Voidwomb kept things as electrifying and bombastic as ever.
And while a lot of eyes and ears were on Enslaved’s new EP (which proved to be something of a mixed bag in my opinion) I’d argue that The Humming Mountain by Gaahl’s Wyrd was not only the best Black Metal EP of the year, but one of the best EPs of any genre, period.
Last, but by no means least, the sludgier and/or atmospheric and/or Post-Metal sphere also gave us several impressive offerings, from uncompromising crushers like Oblivion by Cult Burial to moody, meditative numbers such as Awake by SOM.
Of course, it was Cult of Luna who received the most hype and attention, and for good reason, but if you’d prefer to spend your time listening to some some lesser-known, but just as intriguing, releases, then might I recommend making some time to check out the blackened beauty of Mother’s single-track Interlude I or the absolutely abrasive collaboration between Rorcal & Earthflesh?
Now, I’m sure there’s umpteen EPs that I’ve missed out – either because I forgot about them, or because I simply can’t listen to everything that comes out in a given year – so please feel free to make recommendations in the comments (not just for my benefit but for the rest of our readers too).
But, before then, I’d like to present you with my ten favourite EPs of 2021, starting off with:
10. THE CIRCLE – METAMORPHOSIS
Even though I mentioned in my review of this EP by German Symphonic/Progressive Black/Death Metallers The Circle, that the band still had a little way left to go in order to fully define their own voice and identity – some of the more obvious Ihsahn-isms, both vocally and riff-wise, for example, suggest that they’re not quite there just yet – I’ve still found myself coming back to this release over and over again ever since I stumbled across it.
Part of that, of course, is that I’m a big Ihsahn fan, so those comparisons really do it for me (and it helps that the band’s sound is also comparable to both In Vain and Horizon Ablaze too), but really it’s just the quality of the execution, from the blending of strafing blasts and moody melodies, to the vibrant, varied, visceral vocals, to the way all the different elements – the bombastic riffs, the atmospheric synths, the ever-changing rhythms – are woven together into something far greater than just the sum of its already-impressive individual parts and performances.
09. DJINN-GHUL – MECHALITH
If I were to describe this EP as being “Deathcore Fear Factory” would that be enough to entice you to listen to it?
Oh, I know some of our readers blanch at the very mention of anything even remotely ‘core, but if you’re looking for something that exists purely to pulverise your ear-drums – blasting and bludgeoning and breaking-the-fuck-down without mercy or restraint – but also has a few clever cyber-synth tricks up its heavily armed and armoured sleeve (also drawing comparison, in places, to the extremophile excess of our old friends The Monolith Deathcult), then you should definitely give Mechalith a shot.
Sure, it’s a pretty new release (it only actually came out yesterday) but I’ve had the promo for a little while and can comfortably and confidently say that I’m going to be listening to this one for a long time to come.
08. FLOOD PEAK – FIXED RITUAL
What’s particularly interesting about this one is that I honestly didn’t expect it to be here. After all, it’s yet another EP from way back in January, and one which I actually hadn’t listened to in a little while before I started putting this list together.
But, then, that’s one of the most rewarding things about List Season every year (for me at least). It lets me go back and listen to things with fresh ears, and rediscover stuff I might have overlooked or not appreciated properly at the time.
Case in point, while I really liked this EP when I first heard it, and listened to it pretty steadily during the first half of the year, it was only when I came back to it again recently that I truly fell in love with it.
Humongously heavy and darkly dynamic, with both atmosphere and aggression to spare, this is one superb slab of Post-/Sludge Metal that I think is easily the equal of anything else which that particular sub-genre has produced this year (and, yes, that includes the latest Cult of Luna EP).
07. TEETH – FINITE
What an absolute monster of an EP this is. I mean, Teeth have always been a nasty, abrasive bunch of bastards, everyone knows that (or should do), but there’s something even darker and more oppressive about Finite which makes it hit even harder… or, at the very least, makes it hit just as hard in a different, but no less devastating way.
Don’t get me wrong, the band can still blast and brutalise with the very best of them, but you’ll find that songs like “Dreamless Hieroglyphs” and “The Fog of Futility” now come at you from some unexpected angles, scraping at your nerves with waves of caustic dissonance and hammering at your skull with erratic eruptions of arrhythmic aggression.
It’s the increased prominence of the group’s doomier and more atmospheric inclinations – most notably during massive opener “Garden of Eyes” and the second half of cathartic closer “Scornful Nexus” – which really demonstrates how these subtle changes have reaped huge rewards for the group’s sound, which is now even more dynamic yet has lost none of its punishing power.
06. TEITAN – VÁKUUM
This one is… well, you know what, I’m just going to quote my own review for this one and let that speak for me:
“One of the most unique, unusual, and intriguing releases of the past several months, the new EP from Teitan takes the standard template of Black Metal and twists it around on itself into a paradoxical mobius strip of strangled dissonance and strange melody whose unsettling and off-kilter sound sits somewhere between Dødheimsgard and Deathspell Omega, Blut Aus Nord and Black Hole Generator.
But, as weird and as warped as things get (and they get very weird and very warped at times) there’s still something disturbingly hooky and hypnotic about this material, and once it gets under your skin it’s unlikely that anything else is going to be able to scratch the itch.”
05. BARÚS – FANGES
It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone to see this EP featured here, since I only just finished gushing over it as part of our premiere of “Châssis de Chair” on Wednesday.
But, suffice it to say that Fanges successfully shows a somewhat different side – hell, several different sides – of the band, and hints at multiple ways in which the French foursome could go on to develop their already fearsome sound even further in the future.
Even better, when you consider that this material was written and recorded while dealing with a number of enforced restrictions and limitations on the band’s time and availability, who knows what they’re going to be capable of once all the restraints are lifted!
04. FERAL LIGHT – CEREMONIAL TOWER
Minneapolis duo Feral Light do not get enough credit. That, I believe, is an incontrovertible fact.
After all, over the course of three albums and two EPs (this being their second) they’ve proven themselves, time and time again, to be one of the finest, fiercest, and most no-fucks-given Black Metal bands on the US scene, and yet they continually seem to get overlooked.
So if you’re one of the people who hasn’t yet given the band the attention they deserve then why not start with Ceremonial Tower? After all, it’s a pretty much pitch-perfect (and pitch-black) distillation of the group’s bitterly blackened, punk-encrusted sound, all searing vocal venom and savage, snarling riffs, belligerent, blistering blastbeats and grim, predatory grooves, with just the right amount of weird melody and warped atmosphere to keep you constantly on edge.
Which, as it happens, is also a pretty good explanation for why it’s one of my favourite EPs of the year.
03. VUKARI – OMNES NIHIL
It’s always cool when a band drops a surprise EP without any prior warning. Who doesn’t love that?
And it’s even cooler when that EP immediately ramraids its way into your list of your favourite short-form releases of the year.
Taking absolutely no prisoners, the four tracks which make up Omnes Nihil showcase Vukari in their absolute prime, delivering their signature brand of electrifyingly intense, dizzyingly immersive Black Metal in a way which manages to simultaneously stir your emotions, pluck at your heartstrings, and rub your nerves raw.
It’s also probably worth pointing out that, in comparison to their (fantastic) previous album, Aevum, the music here is several shades darker, bleaker, and grimmer, and as such may well appeal to some of the more “traditional” Black Metal fans who might otherwise not have given the band the time of day.
Whether that’s the case or not, though, this is clearly one of the best things that Vukari have ever done, and a more than worthy addition to any “Best Of…” list.
02. NIGHTMARER – MONOLITH OF CORROSION
I’m going to cheat a little bit again here and cannibalise from my own review of Monolith of Corrosion to help explain why it’s my second-favourite EP of the year (and, all cards on the table, there wasn’t really much in it at all between this and my #1 pick).
“It’s not just that each of the group’s members have brought their absolute A-game here – drummer Paul Seidel in particular once again proves himself to be one of the most unstoppable, and underrated, drummers in the “extreme” scene – or even that, collectively, this EP contains the darkest, heaviest, and most intense material of their career so far.
It’s the fact that these three tracks are structured and constructed to be listened to as a singular whole, one which, when taken all together, is far greater, and far stronger, than the simple sum of its (absolutely punishing) parts.”
Give it a listen. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
01. HADAL MAW – OBLIQUE ORDER
It’s kind of weird to be choosing an EP that isn’t out until December 31st as my favourite “short-form” release of the year, since none of our readers will actually have heard it (although two songs, including the one we premiered last month, are available to stream via Bandcamp).
Still, I have to follow my heart (or my gut, whichever is in charge at the moment) and go with Oblique Order as my #1 pick, as it’s clearly the best thing the band have ever done.
From the dissonant aggression and devastating blasts of “Fetishize Consumption”, to the roiling riffs and lurching rhythms of “Vile Veneration”, via the brooding bludgeon of “Oblique Order” and the eerie atmospherics and bone-jarring spasms of “Future Eaters”, this is by far the group’s most intense-yet-intricate work, one which manages to push their sound to even heavier extremes while still maintaining an unusual melodic aura and incorporating some surprisingly sharp (yet incredibly dark) hooks which, collectively, help to raise the material to a whole new level.
Not only is it a crushingly concise, fat-free and nigh-on-flawless distillation of the band’s sonic identity, but it also has me thinking that if they can maintain this level of quality – and intensity – over the course of a full-length album, then their next record might just be a truly world-class affair.