Once again Andy Synn sets out to try and capture the best of the year in just ten albums.
Does he succeed? Let’s find out!
For those of you who might be new to the site, allow me to explain.
My “Critical Top Ten” isn’t quite the same as your usual “Top Ten” you’ll find elsewhere.
For one thing, it’s not a ranked list. Rather, it’s purposefully structured to present a – hopefully – broad overview of the year’s best albums, ones which I think exemplify, in different ways, the best of their respective genres, in an attempt to feature as many different faces and facets of the year’s Metal scene as I can fit into just ten selections.
Of course, this is inevitably coloured by my own tastes, no matter how much I might try to be objective about things, and limited both by what I’ve actually heard (I can’t judge it if I haven’t listened to it, after all) and by the fact that ten albums is never enough to fully represent the vibrant variety of the last twelve months (case in point, I had to drop both In Asymmetry and Dordeduh at the last minute in order to keep it down to ten).
But, still, I’ve spent many hours agonising over each one of these choices (including the “bonus” recommendations for those already familiar with my main selections) hoping that, collectively, they at least aspire to being a representative sample of 2021 – the albums which are, you might say, critical, to understanding and appreciating the last twelve months in Metal.
Tomorrow, of course, I’ll be publishing my list of my “Personal” favourites of the year, something which is generally a lot easier and a lot less pressure, but for now… enjoy!
SUFFERING HOUR – THE CYCLIC RECKONING
Let’s start off with something that has been a lock for this list since February, shall we?
After all, it shouldn’t really be a surprise to see this one here if you’ve been paying attention, because I explicitly said that The Cyclic Reckoning was possibly the first truly “Great” album of 2021 back when I reviewed it ten long months ago, and multiple re-listens have only confirmed that opinion.
With its roiling blend of jagged riffs and whirling drums, acid-laced anti-melodies and guttural, bowel-quaking vocals this is the sort of brooding, blistering, and hypnotically heavy “Blackened Death Metal” that truly brings out the best in both worlds.
But whether you consider this Black Metal for Death Metal fans, or Death Metal for Black Metal fans, it’s ultimately the album’s embrace of psychotropic dissonance and psychedelic ambience which makes it one of the year’s true stand-outs, as well as one of the (very) few albums I’ve ever encountered that could conceivably, and with very little hyperbole, be compared to bands like Weakling, Teitanblood, and Oranssi Pazuzu – all at the same time! – without actually sounding like any one of them.
Both a huge step up for the band and a major surprise for their listeners, there was no way this wasn’t going to make this year’s list.
If you’ve already heard this, why not try: Withered – Verloren
We have a long history with Black/Death/Sludge masochists Withered here at NCS, and have been observing their ongoing evolution with equal parts anticipation and trepidation for years, watching as they steadily get grimmer, gnarlier, and nastier with each release. But Verloren might just be their most vile and visceral release yet, one that’s somehow both more accessible and more alienating in equal measure, and which finds the Atlanta quartet adding more melody, more dissonance, and even more intensity to their already soul-scarring sound.
OPHIDIAN I – DESOLATE
There was so much excellent Tech Death released this year that picking just one band to represent the scene on this list was incredibly difficult. Hell, it was such a packed field that many of those on my “Good” list were almost in contention. That’s how much great stuff has come out over the last twelve months.
But, ultimately, it had to be Ophidian I and their absolutely stunning second album, Desolate, for the simple reason that, in gleeful defiance of the cliched idea that Tech Death is all pompous, self-satisfied show-offs who prioritise technical talent over songwriting skill, it’s actually, ridiculously… fun.
Imagine, if you will, the sound of Dragonforce covering Obscura (or vice versa) or the best parts of Scale the Summit and Allegaeon mixed together and then played back at near-superluminal speed, and you’ll be on the right sort of path to getting what makes this record so, so good.
It goes a million miles an hour, yet somehow always manages to find time to develop an irresistibly headbangable groove, displays some truly awe-inspiring technicality, yet doesn’t skimp on catchy riffs or gleaming melodic hooks, and – quite honestly – just does everything every other Tech Death band wishes they could do… only better.
And that’s why it’s on this list.
If you liked this, why not try: First Fragment – Gloire Éternelle
Of course, if you’re already familiar with Ophidian I and want an alternative that’s proggier and more shamelessly self-indulgent (penultimate track “In’el”, for example, is almost 19 minutes long) but still ridiculously good fun (it also happens to be a fantastic song, and arguably one of the year’s best, in fact) then you should give Gloire Éternelle a chance. Especially if your tastes run more towards the ridiculously ostentatious, shred-happy neo-classical side of things.
BOSS KELOID – FAMILY THE SMILING THRUSH
In contrast to both the preceding releases – which could, arguably, be portrayed as coming (almost) out of nowhere – this is one that the band in question have clearly been building to for some time, as Boss Keloid have been getting better and better with each new release for years now, with Family the Smiling Thrush being the inevitable end-game (though, hopefully, not the actual end) of their steady ascent through the ranks.
While their previous stuff could, generously, have been classified under the Stoner/Sludge label, their latest (and greatest) album errs much more towards the Progressive Doom side of things, its thrumming riffs, bombastic grooves, and soulful, soaring melodies owing just as much to Black Sabbath and Soundgarden as they do Crowbar and Clutch.
Add in a sense of shameless grandeur and proggy songwriting akin to Devin Townsend at his most focussed and fulfilling, and – coupled to the band’s innate knack for crafting instantly infectious hooks out of anything and everything they can get their hands on – well, brother, you’ve got yourself a stew going… one rich enough to feed a huge cross-section of listeners and still have them coming back for more.
If you liked this, why not try: Green Lung – Black Harvest
This is one of those situations where the line between this album and the one above was absolutely razor-thin, and on a different day I might even have switched the order of them. Either way though, this is a sublime piece of work (one which puts the new Khemmis to shame, imo), consisting of ten tracks of absolutely stunning, subtly proggy Stoner Doom, equal parts Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult, Dio and Deep Purple, which pays glowing tribute to the genre’s progenitors yet still sounds as fresh and vibrant as when this style first took shape.
LLNN – UNMAKER
From one of the most uplifting and energising releases on the list we now move to one of the most singularly crushing albums of the year.
Seriously, the combined guitar/bass tone alone on this album cis best described as “apocalyptic” and, if played at sufficient volume, there’s a very good chance that Unmaker could cause serious structural damage to the foundations of your house. It’s that heavy (so consider this a warning).
Of course, there’s more to it than just that, as the vocals provide every track with a sense of raw, riveting catharsis, and the subtle-but-striking synths conjure an even more ominous and oppressive atmosphere, while the use of carefully positioned and proportioned moments of moody, doomy calm not only enhance the album’s devastating dynamic but actively serve to make the next hammering blow hurt even more.
And yet it’s the sort of pain that’s incredibly addictive – you don’t just have to endure the back-breaking, muscle-tearing weight of the music, but you actually start to enjoy and anticipate the next hit – so much so that, once you’ve started, you’re not going to be able to stop listening.
If you’ve already heard this, why not try: Kollapse – Sult
As you may know, we’re big fans of championing the underdogs and the unheard here at NCS, and while I’ve seen this particular album pop up in a handful of places this month, it really seems like Sult has mostly flown under the radar, which is a real shame as not only is it nearly as punishing and powerful as Unmaker (no easy feat in itself) but it also has a slightly proggier edge to it, and makes great use of atmosphere and ambience, plus the occasional sombre spoken-word part or warbling trumpet passage, to keep the dynamic constantly in flux.
SPECTRAL WOUND – A DIABOLIC THIRST
In a year full of excellent Black Metal releases (many of which I’ve already highlighted here) there was one clear and obvious stand-out to me, and that was A Diabolic Thirst, the third album – in what was already a very impressive career – from Canadian quartet Spectral Wound.
There’s just something about it, an indefinable “x-factor” if you will, that makes it stand out.
Maybe it’s the sheer uncompromising confidence of a band who have stayed true – if only to themselves – on every single record, and who remain, as ever, totally unconcerned with the judgement of anyone else.
Or maybe it’s the simple fact that every single track on this album – and there’s not a weak one among them – finds the band ranting and raging, spitting venom and breathing fire, all while blasting, tremming, and shredding with reckless abandon like some demonic whirling dervish of elemental energy and spellbinding melody.
To quote the opening passage of my own review:
“Spectral Wound are a phenomenal band and A Diabolic Thirst is a phenomenal album. ‘nuff said.”
If you’ve already heard this, why not try: Misotheist – For the Glory of Your Redeemer
The second album from Norway’s Misotheist may not be as instantly, icily infectious as A Diabolic Thirst, but it’s a more than worthy companion piece in many ways, delivering a merciless mix of dissonance and melody, atmosphere and aggression, doom-laden density and angst-ridden intensity, in just over 30 malevolent minutes. It’s a prime example of how you can still stay true to the core tenets of Black Metal without restricting your art or ambition in the process.
LANTLÔS – WILDHUND
This list isn’t all grit and grimness though, despite what the preceding entries might have you thinking. And what better way to prove it than by showering even more well-deserved praise on Wildhund?
Obviously, this is bound to be a controversial pick. It is, after all, one of the most upbeat, uplifting, and poppiest albums of the year, one which I’m sure a lot of people will say “isn’t Metal enough/at all”.
But scratch beneath all the bold, colourfully bombastic guitar work and shining, synth-infused melodies and you’ll find that there’s a moody and melancholy undercurrent to the music (and the lyrics) which hints at the album’s hidden depths, as well as a pristine proggy core which perfectly balances out its poppier proclivities.
And, you know what, maybe I’m underestimating our readers. After all, they’re generally a pretty eclectic bunch, and if you look at some of the bands I referenced in my review – Alcest and Feeder, Deftones and Devin, Pink Floyd and the Foo Fighters – you can see that anyone with an open mind will probably understand why this album is here, even if it’s not necessarily their usual thing.
After all, if you’re going to provide a balanced overview of the year – which is what I’m attempting to do here – you’ve got to have both the light and the dark, and I can’t think of a band or album which better represents the former side of things than this one.
If you’ve already heard this, why not try: Chrome Waves – The Rain Will Come
Chrome Waves are probably never going back to being a Black Metal band. Or even a “blackened” Metal band. And that’s totally fine with me, because what they’re doing right now – subtly proggy, gorgeously gloomy, and plaintively poppy “Post” Rock/Metal in the vein of Hum, Slowdive and, as one of our readers pointed out, Catherine Wheel – is clearly much closer to their hearts. And the fact is that they do it so well, with such clear conviction and engaging emotion, that I wouldn’t want them to do anything else.
BODY VOID – BURY ME BENEATH THIS ROTTING EARTH
If the former entry represented the light side (of the force) then Bury Me Beneath This Rotting Earth is the dark side given form and voice… as if millions of souls were crying out in pain and terror atop a soundtrack of some of the nastiest, gnarliest Sludge/Doom of the last decade (and beyond).
Honestly, looking back, I don’t think I can improve upon what I wrote about this album originally, so I’m just going to quote myself and say:
“Clocking in at a weighty fifty-one-and-a-half minutes, this is one seriously hefty slab of bowel-loosening lows, nerve-scraping shrieks, and abrasive, anxiety-inducing distortion.
It’s not a record for the faint of heart or those short on patience by any means. It’s a grisly, uncompromising piece of work, drawn-out and demanding and seemingly designed to upset your humours and dredge up past traumas (and probably cause tumours in laboratory mice too).
It’s the sort of album that you’re not meant to enjoy, you’re simply meant to endure, in the hope that the resultant catharsis – the spitting, puking, gut-wrenching purge of mental bile and negative emotion – will be worth it… and I’m here to tell you that it definitely is.”
If you’ve already heard this, why not try: Abstracter – Abominion
Californian “Blackened Sludge-Doom” collective Abstracter are another one of those bands who have only gotten better – even if only incrementally, because their stuff has always been good – and even heavier, with every album, and Abominion might just be the apex (or the nadir, depending on how you look at it) of their career, as it plumbs such horrible depths, and delivers such a monstrously dense wall of grim, nihilistic noise, that you’re probably going to want the crash team on stand-by when you listen to it, just in case.
GREY AURA – ZWART VIERKANT
For those looking for something not so much “off the beaten path” as “on a totally different planet altogether” then Grey Aura’s new album is the one you should check out ASAP.
Don’t get me wrong, there were a number of potential contenders for this particular slot (not least the genre-blending new album from France’s indefinable, indefatigable Creature) but Zward Vierkant has continually defied my attempts to categorise it, as while the band’s DNA is grounded in Black Metal, there’s clearly just as much Jazz in their genetic make-up (even the blastbeats, when they appear, seem to have more of an off-kilter, jazzed-up feel), along with… hell, is that some flamenco guitar? And maybe a bit of trumpet/trombone?… that you might as well just accept that “black” is but one of the many colours in their multiplicitous musical palette.
Whatever you want to call them, and however you define them – and, honestly, at the moment I’m just going to settle for Avant-Garde before my brain ruptures from the effort – it’s plain to see, and hear, that Grey Aura are a unique proposition in today’s scene, a band totally unencumbered by the standard rhythms and restrictions of style or genre, and totally willing (and able) to go places, and do things, that other “Metal” bands simply won’t (or can’t).
If you’ve already heard this, why not try: Dola – Czasy
The second album from Poland’s Dola should prove a great chaser for anyone whose appetite for the avant-garde was stimulated by Zwart Vierkant, as while it comes from a slightly different place – being more of a Drone/Doom album at its heart – it nevertheless possesses a similar, and blatant, disregard for genre conventions and outside expectations, weaving in threads of seething Black Metal, moody, noir-ish Jazz, and eerie, unsettling ambience, into its wholly unpredictable, wilfully unconventional, tapestry of strange sounds.
GHASTLY – MERCURIAL PASSAGES
In comparison to the previous entry, the penultimate record on this list – the third album from those furious Finns in Ghastly – is much more firmly rooted in a single genre, but while it may have its origins in the fetid depths of Old School Death Metal, just one listen to it and you’ll realise that the band have far greater ambitions than just paying tribute to a bygone age.
Not that they don’t do that exceptionally well, of course. There’s enough killer riffs and gruesome grooves packed into just one of these songs to lay waste to a whole field of hippies and posers (please note: that previous sentence was mostly tongue-in-cheek, although the point still stands).
But it’s the incorporation of eerie, almost psychedelic melodies and twisted, disturbingly infectious hooks, that really makes this one special, with the album only getting stranger, and stronger, as it goes on, transforming from a simple Death Metal barnburner into something much more multi-layered and immersive.
It’s a real grower, make no mistake about it, and one that might take multiple listens to properly unlock and appreciate to its fullest. But it’s also proof positive that – in the hands of the truly gifted – the primal nature of Death Metal allows it to take many different forms without losing the core of its being or the essence of what makes it great.
If you’ve already heard this, why not try: Abscession – Rot of Ages
I’ve said before that greatness comes in many forms. You don’t always have to push or progress a genre forwards. Sometimes you can just do it so perfectly that it reminds everyone who hears it why they love this particular style of music in the first place. And that’s exactly what Abscession have done on Rot of Ages, delivering riff after riff after riff of prime, meaty Death Metal which, coupled with the band’s love of both scything melody and instantly addictive hooks, should put a sick smile on all but the most jaded and cynical faces.
DVNE – ETEMEN ÆNKA
Last, but by no means least, this is another one of those albums which established its place on this list very early on and then refused to budge, no matter what else came along to try and challenge and usurp its place.
It’s also a perfect example of the difference between my “Personal” and “Critical” lists, as while the band’s previous album, Asheran, remains one of my all-time personal favourites, a big, big part of me acknowledges that Etemen Ænka is, arguably, both even more ambitious and, ultimately, superior in its execution, trading some of the rough-and-ready spontaneity of the band’s breakthrough in favour of a more cohesive, coherent, and cinematic experience that moves and flows with all the confidence and organic energy of a band absolutely on top of their game.
I’ve said it several times before that Dvne are “the UK’s answer to Mastodon”, and while I think this actually sells the band a little short (you might as well drop in some Isis and King Crimson references to complete the trifecta while you’re at it) the point still stands that these five individuals, working as a single collective unit, are easily one of the best bands in the UK right now, and clearly operating on a level far beyond the mere sum of their parts.
So if you’re after something which – like all the best and most rewarding Progressive Metal albums – it’s easy to totally get lost in, then set aside an hour or so and immerse yourself in everything which Etemen Ænka has to offer. You won’t regret it.
If you’ve already heard this, why not try: Sunnata – Burning in Heaven and Melting on Earth
While I may have included Burning in Heaven… by Polish sound-shamans Sunnata in the “Sludge” section of my round-up yesterday, the truth is that it’s one of those poignantly progressive, intensely immersive albums which doesn’t fit neatly in any one single genre, being just as much in thrall to Doom and Grunge and Post-Metal at different points. However you define it though, it’s a captivating, compelling listen from start to finish, and well worth checking out. Plus it’s got a track titled “God Emperor of Dune”, so how could I not include it here?
Well, there you have it. Ten albums which I hope represent the best this year had to offer, at least to the extent that’s possible in just ten records.
Hopefully you’ll all find something to like or love – whether in the main choices or in those sneaky bonus ones I always like to put in – and, if you’re very lucky, discover a new band or two with whom you’ll form a lasting and rewarding relationship
Tomorrow it’s the last day of “List Week” for me, where I’ll be revealing the ten albums that resonated the most with me this year. You might be surprised at what I’ve included!