(Today we begin the week-long rollout of DGR‘s year-end list with Part One, encompassing his picks from 50 through 41.)
When I started this list I had 65 albums and EPs that I had set aside to construct my year end list out of. I’m not saying this to brag about how much music I’m able to digest throughout the year, because in the face of some of our other writers around here it’s pretty clear that I’m not anywhere close to being able to do that. I say this because in all honesty I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do my usual ridiculous top fifty this year.
For a large chunk of it I couldn’t even remember what had come out. Nothing was sticking – save for the few I had written down in my ongoing text file that morphs into this list – and more often that not it felt like there was a haze hovering over much of 2021, as if we were still trapped within the confines of 2020 and that year had just never ended.
With so many bands unable to tour or even play shows, and those that were brave enough to do so often cancelling multiple dates when the inevitable COVID-positive test would happen, it seemed like now was the time for any sort of EP/Single release they could pull off. In that case many bands even went year-over-year with releases, so there are some names here in very similar spots where you might find yourself saying, ‘But we saw that last year too!’. Don’t worry, I thought the same thing.
Taking this list down from 65 – which I reiterate is an incredible number of releases that I would be deeming worthy – to 50 was surprisingly difficult. So much so that it was tempting to do the usual ‘on the fence’ section of the list, and I just may as I get deeper in, but it also may be tempting to do a segment on some of the more notable absences in this year-end list. We’ll see where the winds take us. It may also be that my fingers will have cramped up by then.
Preamble out of the way, let’s begin our tour through what may have in fact been the year 2021, no matter what my brain seems to think.
50) Sepiroth – Condemned to Suffer
Score one for the Netherlands here at number 50 of the year-end list because they’re starting things off with a pretty healthy butcher dumping a carcass onto a table style slap. The upper reaches of my year-end list always feel a little scattershot and all over the map, genre-wise. I think, looking over this year’s inductees into the class of 2021, this may be the first year that is actually semi-consistent.
I tend to use these upper-reach ones for the part of this list that I consider extremely fungible, wherein any actual numbered ranking might shift up and down constantly over the course of writing as I go through and re-listen to each one of these – which can often lead to me noticing some particular thing that I think is fucking awesome that completely recontextualizes bits of that release for me; the sort of stuff that might not have even been noticed around the time I wrote a review.
This year I think the inductees into this part of the list tend to alternate between being the genre comfort-food segment and the albums that tend to feel like they landed so firmly in my specific genre-leanings that I couldn’t help but like them. There’s also the usual bunch where they came out way late in the year and I could recognize that I enjoyed it but was just unable to dedicate time to it. This is basically my long-winded way of explaining why you’re looking at the cover art for Sepiroth‘s third album Condemned To Suffer right here as the first exposure to what 2021’s listenings were like.
Condemned to Suffer is one of those releases that I classify as a riff-apocalypse. Obviously that’s not just guitar-focused but it’s a solid catch-all to explain the sort of music that just seems like an unending avalanche of different rhythm parts tumbling over you while the vocalist percussively hammers away at the top. It’s a very burly style of death metal and one that I’ll find three or four releases of each year and generally enjoy myself.
Condemned To Suffer gathers more and more momentum as it hurtles downhill to flatten the town below it. It doesn’t really push the genre forward in any particular direction so much as it expertly sticks to its chosen blueprint and executes upon it. Thus, every song maintains a pretty similar high-speed tempo, and a listening session is a thirty-five-minute battering from which you emerge bruised but with the adrenaline as high as just having been in a fight.
The late in the tracklisting “Selective Apocalypse” showed itself to be a highlight, but punching in the same weight class right alongside it were the triplet of “Agonizing Subjection”, “Six Times A Charm”, and the titular “Condemned To Suffer”. But Condemned To Suffer is one of those releases where picking out highlights can feel a little reductive, because every song here clears the “solid” mark with exceptional ease. I just need to figure out a better way to describe the sort of out-of-control high-speed bulldozer that is this particular style.
49) The Lurking Fear – Death, Madness, Horror, Decay
The throwback swede-death of The Lurking Fear is the sort of project I was actually somewhat surprised to see a second album from. Considering the stacked lineup of musicians within its ranks, how increasingly busy they are, and the ephemeral nature of a lot of these ‘let’s make an old-school release like what we grew up with’ style projects, I had figured that The Lurking Fear would’ve purged the desire from their systems with 2017’s Out Of The Voiceless Grave. Yet mid-November would prove me a fool as they returned with their second full-length, Death, Madness, Horror, Decay. And honestly, I think I may like it better than Out Of The Voiceless Grave. It just hasn’t had enough time to completely get through the seemingly impenetrable wall of music that is also getting spun up right now.
Death, Madness, Horror, Decay does the thing you want sophomore albums to do with projects like this. The first release can always feel a little proof-of-concept, as if they’re still trying to figure everything out or they make the conservative choice of doing what they know is going to work just to get something out the door and show that a project like The Lurking Fear has a reason to exist, other than to just adding another corpse to the miles-high body pile that is the death metal genre.
This new one sounds like a more focused version of their debut album. The band have wisely used the four-year gap between releases to chip away at the jagged edges of their armor and really come through with something that sounds like their ideal ‘sewage dwelling, caveman beating on rock’ style of death metal. While vocalist Tomas Lindberg more than happily pulls from his usual bag of ruminations on the void and all things rot, the crew behind him roll forth with some infernal music that puts flames behind the screaming demon up front – so much so that even the mid-tempo songs have an air of ‘old school sinister’ to them that would’ve otherwise just been tossed off in favor of the next chainsaw riff barrage. Chris Reifert even pops up in the mix here during the minute-and-thirty of yelling that makes up “Kaleidoscoping Mutations” halfway into the album.
Death, Madness, Horror, Decay maintains a pretty even keel throughout, about as no-bullshit as they can get while still allowing for some indulgence in a small grouping of four-to-five minute songs. Otherwise, what you can expect is often a two and a half minute toss-around from one part to another, all maintaining the sort of non-stop march on the drums that turns things near-primal and a whole fucking lot of buzzing guitar to sand your ears off of the side of your head.
48) Humanity’s Last Breath – Välde
I didn’t review the latest release from Swedish deathcore troupe Humanity’s Last Breath. Andy covered that here, so for some deeper meditations on all things downtuned and downtempo, we’ve got you covered. I am admittedly one of the few here that will be predisposed to checking out the more ‘-core’ side of our heavy metal genre-spectrum, so Humanity’s Last Breath was one of those groups consistently on my radar. It wasn’t until Andy’s review that at the very least I had figured Välde might be worth diving into, especially since it seemed like the band were willing to reach beyond the usual ‘what works for deathcore’ stylings into something far, far denser.
For lack of better descriptor, Välde is one of the few albums out there where the cover art matches almost exactly the music within. It’s as if the band started with their chosen artwork first, saw the huge dense monolith on the cover, and declared ‘yeah, we can probably write something that sounds like that’. In a lot of ways, that is exactly what Välde is – a massive block of chugging riffs that continually crawls forward with a seemingly singular mindset on just sounding ‘gigantic’.
In fact, I imagine that this February release would’ve placed much higher with me were it not for a few issues that are actually pretty similar to what Andy covers in his review. It’s a release that tends to run out of steam a little and overstays its welcome. With twelve songs that mostly hover around the four-minute mark, you’re asking for about forty-five minutes of time and unfortunately the amount of ideas doesn’t quite make up for just how fucking strong this disc is at the start. I cannot tell you how many times I made it to the end of “Tide” and thought the album was over only to see I had four more songs to go – which when taken separately are just as crushing as the eight that came before it.
But here’s the thing about Välde and it’s opening movements: When this disc works, it just seems to fucking work. Nothing seems heavier or weighty than when the band continually punch out the next chugging segment or thundering drum hit. The closing bit of “Spectre” may be one of the dumbest breakdowns in human history yet I’d be lying if I said I didn’t turn mildly feral when it hits every time. The apocalyptic choir at the end of “Dehumanize” is pitch-perfect for that segment of the album and seems to arrive after the band have already spent a good chunk of time pounding you into dust.
When the band describe this release as one of their bleakest and darkest to date, you can genuinely hear their effort in making it be so. It is just that; like mentioned before, as Välde stretches on and on it starts to seem more like a sustained-seige than the abrupt and apocalyptic bludgeoning that it initially promises to be. However, the sheer leap in terms of artistic aspiration and the promise of just how crushing releases from this band could be in the future made Välde one of the highlights of the year.
47) Empyreal Vault – Judgement
If the holy search bar in the right corner of our layout is to be believed, then this is the first time Empyreal Vault have been mentioned anywhere on our site, and that’s totally my fault.
Judgement – the second release from these French tech-death juggernauts – hit six months ago in June and I’ll own up to the fact that I came to it about four months later, after being curious as to what the Exocrine crew were up to, only to see that two of them were part of a different project that had actually put out something this year. Thus, Empyreal Vault found themselves the unfortunate victims of the back burner as the tidal wave of music in the latter part of the year steadily overwhelmed the urge to go back and review something from earlier on. The last gasp of that particular movement may have in fact been covering Betrayal’s latest release long after that one had hit.
But, we’re going to rectify that now because Judgement has been one of those releases – much like many in these here upper rafters of the list – that I’ve been more than happy to let bowl me over time and time again, because at its core Judgement is one of those sorts of releases. It is constantly blasting away at you, and everything surrounding it is just a steady chaotic whirlwind. It’s just that the chaotic whirlwind has a deeper taste for the occasional traipse through the world of deathcore than this crew’s other projects might suggest.
Trying to describe Emypreal Vault‘s genre inclinations is a mouthful. They’re in a similar vein of ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag approach that the musicians who comprise it seem to enjoy, and on Judgement that is something that becomes more apparent. They’re more bombastic on their followup release and definitely more experimental. They have solidified their core of sounding like construction equipment being buried by a building collapse and have added to it some minor symphonic elements and a little bit of clean singing – all of which makes an already ‘big’ sounding project sound even larger.
Initial runs through Judgement can leave you with the same sense of being overwhelmed that a tour through a release by Wormed can have. It’s a lot of music being placed in front of you, heavily focused on letting the low end drive things and with a vocalist whose range seems to be steadily approaching ‘cosmic vacuum’ in terms of scale. Empyreal Vault keep it tight on this release too, with one instrumental leading off the charge and then seven incredibly dense songs that seem to only get heavier as they add more words to the song titles. “War” with its distorted bass up front is an early highlight but it seems as if every song after that wants to grind its predecessor into dust. And thus “The Judgement” hammers that one into the dirt like a fence post, and then “The Giant Tree” falls on that with the weight of its namesake, and so on and so on.
Judgement definitely deserves a lot more focus than what it has gotten so far – and I’ll reiterate, partially my fault. This a great chance to rectify that.
46) Grand Cadaver – Into The Maw Of Death
The second throwback-esque release in this here collection, Grand Cadaver‘s new one narrowly beat out The Lurking Fear in part because of the surprise of what Into The Maw Of Death slowly morphed into. It’s a direction where I’m not sure the band themselves initially expected they’d be headed.
Grand Cadaver are another superstar union that counts some Names among its ranks, but their focus is one that has been clear from launch. It’s the same sort of ‘we want to play what got us into this music’ style of death metal that seems to be looping back into and out of the heavy metal world. They’ve shown themselves to be quick-movers too, since their four song Madness Comes EP was released in February and now they’ve also dished out a ten-song full length.
Of course you’ll recognize early on the formula that Grand Cadaver are gleefully pulling from to create their own putrescene slice of death metal, and likewise you may also draw interest just to hear Mikael Stanne breaking into the gore-soaked fields again and again as the band tear through a half-hour of music.
What did prove to be surprising was that despite the chainsaw distortion worship you might expect from a project like Grand Cadaver, it also has a melodic bent to it. So after the intro of “Disanimated” lays out the blueprint for not only the album but seemingly the band as a whole, little surprises start to appear throughout.
A little over a month ago I dove deeper into this one alongside the surprise Halloween Exhumed release and came to a similar conclusion then. Even recognizing that they go on something of a murder-spree early on, I stated in my review of Into The Maw Of Death that “…it would be easy to see the early grouping of “Soul Infestation”, “World Mausoleum”, “Grim Eternal”, and “Reign Through Fire” finding its way onto people’s infectious song listings”, and that “Soul Infestation” is strong enough, in fact, that an argument could’ve been made for that to be the opener…”
Recognizing that Into The Maw Of Death falls squarely into that genre-comfort-food realm is also enough to see why it winds up in the ever-shifting, constantly fungible part of the list. It’s a release that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with, and I go to it because I know near exactly what I’m going to get from it. But there is a smidge of promise to be found in there when the group break out some of the more ear-worming stuff like the last few moments of “Soul Infestation”.
45) Werewolves – What A Time To Be Alive
Australian three-piece Werewolves dropped an explosion of an album early in the year with What A Time To Be Alive. The group make a certain sort of sense when you keep in mind that they’re intentionally trying to write some of the stupidest music out there, and that they count among their ranks gentlemen who are also part of the equally batshit projects The Berzerker – which is somehow alive again? -, The Antichrist Imperium, and on the strength of Dave Haley behind the kit alone, The Amenta, and Psycroptic. So, if it seems like from moment one that Werewolves start things at a million miles an hour while informing the listener “I Don’t Like You”, then you’ll have a pretty fucking good sense of What A Time To Be Alive‘s M.O. is going to be.
Boy howdy, do they stick rigidly to it as well, because the album is a solid thirty-five minutes of that level of batshit. Save for some kind-of-unnecessary movie samples, this is one that propels itself forward by the sheer force of fucking dumb. It’s not often you get to describe something as sounding like it is running around with its hair on fire, but hey, what a time to be alive, right?
Werewolves is one of the more intentionally nihilist releases I found myself listening to this year, but when you have something that is purposefully made to be full of ‘hate’, it sort of loops back around into being a goofy caricature of itself. I would listen to a song like “Mission Statement” because of the stupid count-off right in the opening before it basically becomes a similar beatdown to “What A Time To Be Alive”. The opening lines to “What A Time To Be Alive” made me smirk as the hand of ‘if you were the last person on earth/i’d fucking kill us both’ gets played real early, and I can’t help but be amused by just how blatant it is. “Antisocial” and “Unfathomably Fucked” both tumble over each other in a rush out of the door to show which song is heavier than the other.
For those of us who enjoy the Anaal Nathrakh school of ‘everything all at once’, Werewolves are likely to have instant appeal, simply because it does the same thing. While it is intentionally designed to be the most stupidly furious thing out there, What A Time To Be Alive also was one of the records where I wound up spinning random songs from it constantly.
44) Lock Up – The Dregs Of Hades
If you figured that Lock Up were going to make an appearance somewhere in my year-end list then you’ve probably figured out that I’m a creature of habit. I actually found the group’s recent lineup-shifting to be very exciting, because as far as I was concerned, any excuse to put Adam Jarvis behind a kit is a good one, and bringing vocalist Tomas Lindberg – for his second appearance in this very article even – back into the fold to tag-team the monster-noises work alongside Kevin Sharp was a goddamned fantastic idea.
The Lock Up crew are stubbornly consistent if nothing else, and they maintain a lot of what has made them great since coming back in force with Necropolis Transparent so many years ago, only on The Dregs Of Hades it seems to be a whole lot more manic. Granted; a huge credit for that is due to having the two vocalists, but there are multiple times throughout this album when it seems like both Kevin and Tomas are in competition with each other to sound like who is losing their mind more. Couple that with the band’s long-running writing style of everything as fast as possible and then blasted to bits like being hit with an orbital strike and you have a reciple for an album that at almost forty minutes is liable to leave you a smoking husk by the time it wraps up.
The Dregs Of Hades is one of those albums that is so hilariously up-front about what it is that, much like Werewolves elsewhere in this list, it becomes enjoyable on those terms. There’s no deeper messages here – though its always fun when the band dive into various mythos and all things evil for lyrical inspiration – but more a blunt focus on all-out assault. That anyone in this group found any time to even piece together The Dregs Of Hades with all of their other projects seemingly springing to life around the same time is incredible in its own right. That The Dregs Of Hades hews very close to the sort of infernal deathgrind that made up much of Necropolis Transparent is even better.
It still has the sort of ‘fuck everything and especially you’ attitude that colorized Demonization but the hybridizing of the two happens to work incredibly well, especially if you’re a fan of end-on-end facemelters as a musical style. It’s a frantic release but thats Lock Up doing what Lock Up do best, which is move everything at such a speed that by the end of it you’re sheared down to just a pile of ash by the sheer velocity at which you moved. The only reason it’s up here so numerically high is because it was an end of year release that wound up getting lumped in with a gigantic pile of other year-end releases for one last musical mudslide.
43) In Asymmetry – Ashes Of Dead Worlds
In Asymmetry were my “brutalizer” album this year. One glance at the multi-tentacled cover art, somehow jagged and organic ‘wet’ appearing font, and the fact that this record hit via Comatose Music should be all you really need to know on this one. It’s high-speed and gutteral death metal that sounds like a running car engine and the only idea of a ‘hook’ comes in the form of any sharp and sudden change that claws the listener back in for one more round with brutality.
In Asymmetry are a multinational project with artists in all corners of the globe. I initially came to the project because I was curious what former The Ritual Aura bassist Darren Joy was up to, and imagine my excitement when I saw that there was a death metal project involving him, journeyman kit destroyer Darren Cesca, and former The Kennedy Veil/Inanimate Existence vocalist Taylor Weintjes, and that at first blush this thing was an absolute monster of a release.
I dove much, much deeper into this release in a review collection back in July, that was also as multinational as the band is, as not only did we cover the In Asymmetry crew, we also traveled to China to experience the gurgles of Mvltifission and then went on to the most foreign land of all, Texas, to link up with the hammerer in Cathexis.
Ashes Of Dead Worlds plays with pretty recognizable subject territory, yet it is so constantly bulldozed me over that you just accept it as the cost of doing business. One of the more murderous songs on the album is entitled “Hatred Towards The Holy Creature”, and it’s not the only biblically blasphermous one that would make a good short-list of songs to check out on this album. “To Him Be The Glory Forever and Ever” and “In My Own Image And Likeness” hit equally hard, though just about every song on here hits at about this level.
The only real sudden shift in style throughout the forever-spinning storm that is all of the riffwork on this album is the old-school Deeds Of Flesh cover that closes things out – which is also one of the more fitting tributes to the band, given how much of the blueprint of In Asymmetry falls in alongside the grounds of the Deeds Of Flesh brand of technical-brutality. Even though it rarely shifts from its initial impact-event style of death metal in its opening, the ever-present and constant brutality of Ashes Of Dead Worlds was enough to keep it a constant listen for a better part of the year.
42) Gojira – Fortitude
The next two on this list are definitely in the more approachable camp. There are always a handful of releases throughout the year that become my ‘pop albums’, in that there’s a very low barrier to entry, they’re a little simplistic at times, and they’re catchy as all hell. It can’t rain all the time, and sometimes during your twelve-hour shift you need something that doesn’t sound like the movement of tectonic plates, and those albums tend to fill that role.
Of course, had you told me in the early-aughts that the French juggernaut of Gojira would be filling that role, I’d probably have given you a blank stare. But as time has moved on from the turn that was Magma, you come to appreciate an album like 2021’s Fortitude in its own right. In a just world where there would be shows happening all the time, Fortitude is the sort of album that would make Gojira absolutely massive. It’s the release that I think the band were trying to make with Magma ,and that Fortitude is even finding a foothold now is a testament to its strengths.
While I’m not part of the zeitgeist that is going to continually proclaim everything the crew does as being the best in the world, I’ve also had plenty of time to go through the five stages of grief with the fact that I’ve still got From Mars To Sirius, The Way Of All Flesh, and L’Enfant Sauvage as their heaviest releases and they’ve earned plenty of ground with me to beome something of a gateway into heavier music. You could honestly have much worse festival headliners.
All of that said, it is still funny to me that even after listening to the more-frontloaded half of the disc with all the singles — the optimistic and empowering “Born For One Thing”, the bounce of “Amazonia”, and the recognizably-prog journey of “Another World” — I still found myself drawn to the heavier songs on Fortitude that were buried in the back half. This translated to the fact that, for me, the strength of Fortitude wasn’t in the more spiritual meditations of the first movement of the album up to the sing-song nature-tour that is “The Chant”, but the thunder brought down in the last songs with “Sphinx”, “Into The Storm” and “Grind”.
If Gojira just want to use “Into The Storm” and “Grind” as the blueprint for the next potentially ‘harder’ album, then I would very much be happy with that. At this point if you just want to let Mario Duplantier freak out on a drum set and have the rest of the band hang on for dear life, that would be pretty fucking enjoyable. As it stands right now though, much like Magma, Fortitude gave me another solid batch of songs to jam to when I decide to shuffle up the group’s whole discography, and since it feels like a more laser-focused version of that album, you can see where Fortitude might worm its way into a few year-end lists.
41) Omnium Gatherum – Origin
Other than Grey Heavens, Finland’s keyboard-happy melodeath crew Omnium Gatherum have had a pretty good batting average in terms of popping up somewhere in ye olde year-end tome, with them appearing somewhere ever since we became so enamored with 2013’s Beyond as a website.
While they’ve been somewhat frustratingly inconsistent on that level of quality, Omnium Gatherum have shown themselves to be a steady machine in releasing good music throughout the years. And I think ever since the single of ‘Blade Reflections” and 2018’s The Burning Cold, Omnium Gatherum have realized that a lot of their strength lies in just letting the guitar and keyboard work go full-cheeseball and jam as catchy a melodic line as they can think of within each song.
Origin, their latest release, plays into that strength even further with the band unleashing many a power-chorus over the fifty minutes it asks of you. It’s a ‘written to be a positive and uplifting’ release at times, so there are even moments when it may seem like Omnium Gatherum decided to go full The Fly mutation with The Night Flight Orchestra. Thus, even though it only hit a month and a half ago, Origin has easily became a fast friend and inhabited one of the ‘catchy/pop’ spots on my year-end list. It’s no surprise they appear right next to Fortitude because of thAT; the only reason they place a little higher is because goddamn when Aapo Koivisto and Markus Vanhala get going in a song, they’re damn near unbeatable.
The single-word song title trend that permeates the album is just a hint of the laser-focus that Omnium Gatherum maintain on Origin. It’s clear that they were aiming to make a bunch of catchy-as-hell songs, and for the most part it works. They experiment a bit throughout – and, no lie, having a second “Fortitude” song appearing next to a Fortitude album on this list is amusing to the stats dork that I am – but Origin is just as full of Omnium Gatherum going for the tried-and-true strengths of the band.
Our own NCS-scribe Andy enjoyed his time with it upon release, and honestly my opinions line up pretty close to his save for a few superfluous ‘U’s in our common language. Citing it as the least ‘death metal’ makes sense as its a path that the band have steadily been on since the days of The Redshift; Origin just happens to be the most blatant, given how hard Omnium Gatherum lean on the swelling keys and guitars in this album. It’s not quite High Spirits level of neon-drenched streets and white pants, but it definitely has its moments.
That said, it also has the death metal gallop of “Friction” and wow is that one a lot of fun. That song and “Tempest” are in a constant battle for late in the tracklisting highlights.