(Today we present Part Three of the week-long rollout of DGR‘s year-end list, with a segment that includes his picks from 30 through 21.)
On The Bubble:
The bubble is a difficult term to describe but it’s the one I’ve found myself applying to releases throughout the year. It’s the place where a lot of the albums that would normally make the ‘pretty good’ list for most people tend to reside. They’re ones that I enjoy tremendously throughout the year but I can often recognize when it’s a band playing to their comforts more than anything else.
Of course, that leaves a lot of room wide open for different hypocritical statements. Sometimes a band can be as ‘comfort zone’ as they can think of and still wind up winning me over, where at other times a band can just jam out a bizarrely ambitious release and have it not quite work. I don’t think I have the strength in me to truly ‘hate’ anything anymore – especially because at this point, I’ve learned to see a lot of signs for things that I just know I’m not going to enjoy and we’re not the type to force anyone to listen to anything here – but I definitely have room to recognize when things work less well for me than others.
It’s hard to tell what or why a band might break through and make it on to the year-ender proper, but you’ve probably noticed that this year I didn’t bother constructing a ‘bubble list’ of things I felt worthy to check out. I reviewed and wrote up a lot of shit this year so if you’re looking to go even further into the fruits of 2021 and none of Andy‘s expansive lists this year have you covered then you could likely make worse mistakes. Save for the few bands that have just always been hit or miss with me, but you’ll likely guess those when you don’t see a name like Converge popping up here.
30) Alustrium – A Monument To Silence
I ended yesterday with some heavily indulgent and genre-mixing prog/tech-death and today I begin with some more of that… except a hell of a lot faster and leaning way, way harder on the technical side of the scale.
We’ve been covering Philadelphia, PA’s Alustrium for a while now and every time we’ve walked away impressed by the altars to guitar-shredding the band build on each release. Their latest full length A Monument To Silence arrives six years after its older sibling full-length and one year after the EP Insurmountable. Two things are made evident immediately upon looking at A Monument To Silence: One, there is a fucking lot to unpack here, with the total runtime of this release being an especially beefy hour-and-two minutes. The second is a little simpler, that A Monument To Silence is going to be anything but what its title says.
If you’re a fan of the style of melodeath/tech-death hybrid that Arsis have slowly evolved into then you can kind of skim the rest of this explanation because you should’ve hit play on A Monument To Silence a long time ago. With the tremendous amount of material to discover and the sheer weight of rhythm sections alone for you to nod your head along to, I imagine that each pass through this is going to bring a different moment that catches your attention each time. If you know the album, you may be like me, drifting into and out of A Monument To Silence, and every time it just never seems to let up, and so it just seems like it was always there, always present, and always the soundtrack to whatever you were doing.
Andy wrote up A Monument To Silence alongside two other absolutely nuclear tech-death releases this year as part of a review three parter all the way back in July, and a lot of the ground covered in their segment still holds here. One of my favorite things in metal is when a band spends the whole release going for gold and leaving caution to the wind – especially when they have the technical chops to back it up. Naturally this results in some pretty lengthy releases as seemingly no idea gets left behind in the pursuit of glory. However, I can also recognize that those releases can start to get a little long and A Monument To Silence definitely gets that way.
On the other hand, I’m also paralyzed by the problem of choice, because I couldn’t even begin to suggest where they should have slimmed things down. It’s just great song after great song; I wound up splitting the album in half often because it kept the ‘great’ from becoming the mundane normal.
Alustrium are setting the bar very high for the riff-worshippers out there. Combined with that and the release hitting in the middle of June meant that I had plenty of time to digest and enjoy this one – each time through would just cement its place more and more firmly on the year-end archive. If you’re in the mood for some epic-length high-speed tech-death, Alustrium’s A Monument To Silence is a hell of a place to get your fix.
29) Ghosts Of Atlantis – 184.108.40.206
If there is one thing you’ll see reiterated throughout this list – and especially the next few entries – it’s that I do love me a spectacle. I enjoy when metal bands make themselves out to be larger than life and when they take what could be considered the dumbest music out there – and to be fair, I encourage the rock-smashing brutality as much as anyone else – and try to elevate it or make it into something larger out of sheer bombast.
The UK found itself sneaking into the list by way of the group Ghosts Of Atlantis and their newest album 220.127.116.11. This album was a very late-in-the-year discovery for me but it was one where I was surprised it was flying under a lot of radars. I dove into the waters with this one all the way back in April alongside Canadian group Tides Of Kharon. Ghosts Of Atlantis‘ usage of symphonics and a multi-pronged vocal attack worked so well with the band’s melodeath stylings that I couldn’t help but be drawn in. Yes, its partially the theater and orchestra-class-in-school part of me that is always going to be drawn to groups like this. Ghosts Of Atlantis have something here with the story they’re trying to tell, but even taking random songs on their own, there’s generally something to like.
There’s forty minutes of music to discover here and a lot of that is a huge helping of symphonics layered over a bedrock of chunky death metal riffs and percussive rhythm sections. Occasional moments throughout have the drummer at the lead with the way some of these tend to tap themselves out over time. If you’re looking for some shorthand songs to check out, “Poseidon’s Bow” was a fantastic early highlight and three of the disc’s lead-off singles — “The Lost Compass”, “Halls Of Lemuria” and “The Third Pillar” — all shine pretty brightly even though they’ve been around longer than the disc itself. “The Curse Of Man” is also great if you’re just looking for one of the instant-ragers of the album.
18.104.22.168‘s mysteriously shrouded name origins only served to keep it in the back of my mind throughout 2021. To be fair, there’s at least one other release close by in this specific grouping that I found myself constantly going back to because of something like that. If anything, the larger-conceptual album works found themselves tied together for that reason. 22.214.171.124 is a great first full-length for the Ghosts Of Atlantis crew.
28) Rivers Of Nihil – The Work
I understand why people consider this album to be divisive. When presented with the challenge of making a followup to the acclaimed Where Owls Know My Name, it seems as if Rivers Of Nihil were fucking determined to just not do that same release again. The group upended everything that was that disc, and as a result have landed on The Work – an ambitious, and ambitiously flawed release – that has them channeling groups and genres far beyond what they were starting to become known for.
The saxophone solos that were a large part of the draw for people – mostly because the idea still seemed so out there for those of us who had never crossed paths with Shining’s Blackjazz release – are dialed back within The Work in favor of a whole lot more prog-rock inspired synths, a lot of clean interludes to build around the story of The Work, and a much, much slower pacing than what one might initially expect from a group that gave us the grooving-death monster of Monarchy or the refined and career-exploding work of its followup.
I enjoyed The Work but it is definitely a release that tends to grow on you. Not the sort where you continually listen to something you don’t enjoy as if you can self-hypnotize yourself into finding value, but a release where I immediately noticed the seeds of what the band were trying to grow and it would take multiple listens for me to get there because of it. There was an appeal for sure, but not quite as grab you by the shirt and yell in your face as Rivers Of Nihil‘s prior releases had been.
I get the sense that there’s a block of people for whom the issues I have are the same ones that still make them hesitant with this album. One: I don’t think, even after the multitude of listens this one has gotten, that I have any idea what The Work is supposed to be. It’s an intentionally vague concept written for an increasingly introspective album. There’s a struggling character here and a sense that if they just get through whatever is haunting them here, things may improve. But given that the lyrics on The Work tend to dart all over the place and put a multitude of scenarios in play, the sheer driving force of this album spends more time being established as this forever off in the distance and never fully pictured entity.
Second is that The Work has pacing issues: It is very slow in comparison to other works the group have put out. Some may harp on the amount of clean singing here but I’ve found that it works well within the confines of this release. Where I tend to agree with the detractors is in the pacing. The clean segues and songs that are usually tied into The Work as a whole hit too frequently in the opening, and it seems like it takes a while for the album to find its footing. Instead, it is dancing all over the place. I imagine the first three songs as the clean-sung theme, the nightmare of “Dreaming Black Clockwork” right into another clean sung-song with a power chorus, might’ve put people off. Even just moving one of those around in favor of being more gentle – especially given that there doesn’t seem to be an immediate chronological order to these – in introducing people to the group’s prog-wanderings might’ve helped a ton. I’m not in favor of removing any from the tracklisting, but the way The Work seems to be suffering from prog-rock hotfoot hurts it for me.
However, where I came around to The Work was in its back-half when the release finally starts to crystalize together. After the initial run of the lead-off singles and you reach “The Void From Which No Sound Escapes”, The Work finally finds its footing and it seems as if all its disparate elements are coming together. It’s still a pretty big ask, given that this is another release that sails in over an hour, but once The Work finds its groove it does become an enjoyable piece.
I’ll probably have the closing segment of ‘I HOPE IT FUCKING KILLS YOU’ from ‘More?’ stuck in my head for an incredibly long time. Also ‘More?’ being one of the more traditionally heavy songs in an album full of experimentation makes it an unintentional highlight because it shows that Rivers Of Nihil are still insanely strong as tech-death songwriters. Cycling “Terrestria IV” around in its ending so that it closes with the opening of “Terrestria I” was also a nice touch. But again, in bucking trends from previous releases “Terrestria IV” isn’t a mostly instrumental track.
I came to some of the same conclusions as our review did in that The Work is Rivers Of Nihil working damned hard to try and redefine what they are as a band, and in some ways leaves the gates so wide open that it’s hard to tell where they’re going to come from next.
27) Zornheym – The Zorenheim Sleep Experiment
We return to the NCS love of a good spectacle.
If you’ve been following the site for a bit and can remember what all we’ve reviewed this year – congrats! you’ve done more than me and I live here! – then maybe this band crossed your mind when I mentioned symphonic and metal hybrids with a heavy flair for the dramatic earlier on in my Ghosts Of Atlantis writeup. You’d be correct too, in assuming that this was the band I was referring to when I mentioned that somehow two projects became intertwined in what little brain functioning I have, due to the similarities in execution between the two.
The second full-length release from multi-instrumentalist Zorn sees him and his merry crew of musician cohorts returning again to the evil mental institution the band had previously portrayed during their first album, 2017’s Where Hatred Dwells And Darknress Reigns. The Zornheim Sleep Experiment refines on that musical styling and also has them getting increasingly ambitious as well, recruiting a real choir and string quartet in their latest adventures through the world of madness. It’s also criminally catchy, with at least three of the songs here ready to claw their way into your skull and refuse to leave long after you’ve realized they’re in there.
It actually wasn’t too long ago I wrote this release up as the first of two reviews that saw them standing alongside the Bay Area death metal bruisers Broken Glass Sanctuary. Nearly four weeks after the late October release of The Zornheim Sleep Experiment and I was already well into having the first five songs in this release constantly stuck in my head. “Keep The Devil Away” had long since set up residence, and immediate follower “Slumber Comes In Time” was quickly working its way in there as well, both buoyed by impressively catchy chorus and melodic lines that I could see other bands killing to have. The pairing of “The Revelation” and “Keep Cutting” as The Zornheim Sleep Experiment reaches its story peak in the closing third of the album contains some of the heavier moments on this album, but the group’s combination of the catchier sides of melodeath, folk metal, and black metal translated into the album remains strong throughout.
If you’re like me and enjoy incredibly ambitious projects like this – the band even created a graphic novel to go alongside the record – then Zornheim Sleep Experiment is an easy recommendation. Wherever this band goes from here is going to be worth following.
26) Cognizance – Upheaval
Less grandiose and ambitious, far more relentless and high-speed than the previous entry, we find ourselves at the doorstep of Cognizance and their latest release Upheaval via Prosthetic Records – who’ve gone on a tear with the British metal scene recently.
Arriving two years after Malignant Dominion, Upheaval is the sort of album that is defined by the idea of not fixing what isn’t broken. Instead, Cognizance refine on Malignant Domnion and for an album that somehow is four minutes longer than its older sibling it still seems to whip by the listener even faster.
Cognizance prove that they’re once again high up the chain when it comes to being riff lords. The assault by this band on Upheaval is near-constant and it’s one of the reasons why this disc stuck with me as long as it has. I’m a big fan of the sort of endless avalanche of riffwork that Cognizance get up to here. Even though it could sometimes blur together, Upheaval was still able to catch my attention at multiple points throughout its run time. Breaking out different songs worked better, and taking each song – save for the “Syntheticus” pair – would often reveal unheard parts that might’ve whipped past me upon an initial listen.
Reviewing this one actually took a little bit of time because of the desire to keep finding stuff hidden within the bounds of Upheaval. The lead-off singles for this one were insanely strong but it felt a little unfair to constantly point people to “Aeon Sickness” and “Oneiric” as immediate standouts because it seemed like giving the other eight songs short shrift. You could throw darts at Upheaval each day and wind up with a different great song to listen to. “Hymns” rips right past you in the blink of an eye and “Forbidden Alchemy” contains some hefty groove work that is sure to keep you nodding along.
There’s rarely a song within Upheaval that jumps over the three-minute mark and the surgical efficiency of the band is a quality that is definitely appreciated. They know what they want to say, hammer it all out incredibly fast, and get out before you even notice that they’ve been there sometimes. To describe the band as ‘tight’ is putting it politely. They’re a sleek tech-death beast and one that shouldn’t be missed.
25) Betrayal – Disorder Remains
I think that Betrayal are one of the more severely underrated projects out there. A hybrid of progressive, thrash, and tech-death genres, Betrayal – much like Cognizance above – are surprisingly sleek in their movements. Disorder Remains was released all the way back in April and it took the equivalent of forever and a day for me to actually get around to writing about it. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t listening to it the whole time but 2021 had a habit of taking me by surprise with snapshots of shit that I had missed.
Disorder Remains is a weighty album too, clocking in at almost fifty minutes across twelve songs, yet the progression from beginning to end is surprisingly natural. It’s not a frontloaded disc – though I won’t lie and act like “War” through “The Manifest” aren’t absolutely killer – but there’s a very clear turning point where the band actually slow things down a bit and get a little more melodic than you might expect after the opening collection of gallops and circle-pit riffs. There’s plenty of headbanging to be found throughout, but as the disc reaches “Lost Promises” the songs start to get longer as the band make way for their “Disorder Remains” collection of tracks.
The four-piece comprising Betrayal dance all over the place within the bounds of this album. They sound polished as can get, but within the thrashier explorations or the death metal blast segments, they will bury all these little one-off leads or rhythm segments that will catch your attention. They’re not as showy as most death metal groups these days, and they’re a hard group to pin down genre-wise. They exist at a cross-section of styles and Disorder Remains is one of the better executions out there.
With this album and 2015’s Infinite Circles, Betrayal have landed in my year-end lists twice now, and both times it has felt like they’ve been flying under the radar. They’re not the most brutally heavy band out there but they’ve definitely left a mark with me with the quick, ride-to-battle style they’re extablishing for themselves here.
24) Maysaloon – A Lip to Earth, A Lip to Heaven, and a Tongue To The Stars
I had not expected during this year that one of the albums that would make it into the upper part of my year-end list would be a blackened death metal band from Syria. Yet, the world of heavy metal moves in fascinating ways and I am more than happy to go along for the ride.
In this case, what had initially caught my eye about Maysaloon and their 2021 release A Lip To Earth, A Lip To Heaven, and A Tongue To The Stars was the album title. That a band would name their album something like that is sometimes enough to grab you, and while the phrase itself has its roots in ancient history – which the band themselves cover on their Bandcamp page for this release – the music that Maysaloon create is fitting for modern times.
This album hit in late-August but it wasn’t until one of my last-ditch efforts to clear my plate before, well…. this… that I was able to write it up alongside Be’lakor‘s latest release. Of course, it’s also because I had only come across the band – currently based out of Lebanon – a month or so prior and was looking for any excuse to write up this release. A Lip To Earth, A Lip To Heaven, And A Tongue To The Stars is a massive and ambitious release that fuses a lot of elements of modern blackened death metal with regional folk instrumentation and a heavy emphasis on mythological inspiration, and wow, does this formula work.
It’s a real good feeling when you can glance at a tracklisting and think, ‘Wow, those first three songs are great,’ and then look at it later and find yourself going, ‘Wow, the back four songs are also really fucking good,’ only to realize you’re basically talking about the entire disc. It’s easy to see why Maysaloon would draw comparisons to groups like Behemoth and Hate, but their focus on regional instrumentation throughout could also have them bringing forth the spectre of some of Nile’s more gigantic moments as well.
There are four songs on A Lip To Earth, A Lip To Heaven, And A Tongue To The Stars that sail well over the seven-minute range and there is nothing under six once you’re past the album’s intro, but it is time well spent. They’re writing massive death metal songs and they use the space they’ve cleared for it well.
Maysaloon were a very late-year discovery for me but one that has paid huge dividends. They’re one of the heavier bands in this year-end archive and it’s an album I highly recommend listening to. They’re going to be a band to watch and it’s shocking that they haven’t found much wider notoriety just yet within the metal scene as a whole.
23) The Breathing Process – Labyrinthian
The burly bruisers class of 2021 welcomed quite a few new candidates into their halls, and long-running symphonic blackened deathcore outfit The Breathing Process were one of those.
The group’s newest album Labyrinthian arrived a hell of a lot faster than the gap separating its predecessor from the album prior to it, a nice three-year wait instead of…eight. Now granted, there was a lot of stuff happening for he crew in that eight-year gap but their return album Samsara was a great release and Labyrinthian – with a couple of new musicians in the lineup – stands right alongside it.
The Breathing Process pack fifty-three minutes of heavy chugging riffs, swelling keyboards, and manic vocal work into Labyrinthian. It’s partially a snapshot of the current -core scene as a whole but it’s also a moodier sibling to Samsara before it. A sizeable amount of Labyrinthian is built upon a foundation of the school of low-and-slow. It leverages the group’s time in the metal world and has them joined by two other guest vocalists as well. Our review of the album elaborated much further upon those points, so if you’re hunting for a deep reason why a certain breakdown might hit with the force of a high-speed train then we have you covered there.
If you’re curious what I meant by the low-and-slow remark then give the first four tracks of Labyrinthian a spin. You’ll note that “Terminal” to “A Savage Plea” are all built around being these gigantic and lumbering songs, with the infectious “Shadow Self” being one of the ‘faster’ numbers. “Wilt” is especially built from throwing its weight around, and the band really only start to pick up the pace and move into epic-sounding territory on the titular “Labyrinthian” song. Hence why I could see this one working its way into the bruisers club, if not on name reputation alone.
The Breathing Process specialize in a genre-hybrid style and on Labyrinthian they were more than happy to let the ‘core’ side of the equation sit in the driver’s seat for the first handful of tracks. It’s just that when it shifts into the more keyboard-filled and grander-sounding song-styles, it shifts hard. Where your preferences lay may be different from my own as I found Labyrinthian to be pretty even across the board. But on that same note, I definitely prefer the symphonic and blackened stuff the group puts out.
A large part of my love of Samsara started with songs like “The Nothing” and where they began and ended in almost completely different places and Labyrinthian continues that trend. I think “Wilt” and its ending is hilarious with the ‘hey, what if we just kept getting slower’ approach, but I’m really here for the music that is like the title track and onwards.
Since its early-October release, Labyrinthian has been a constant go-to either way and one that I’m hoping will get The Breathing Process crew enough momentum that they’ll be able to travel further out than halfway across the US.
22) Eximperitus – Šahrartu
The name Eximperituserqethhzebiböiptugakkathöulweliarzaxulum exists as a send-up of heavy metal’s penchant for the ridiculous, no matter what story of dead ancient languages and void summonings the Belarus musicians may make up to justify it. When your name looks like porngrind splatterfont in recognizable letters, its clear that there’s a little tongue-in-cheek to the band’s overall philosophy.
That doesn’t, however, change things for the sound of the project, and the group’s latest release Šahrartu – which hit via Willowtip in late January – only shows that the crew behind this project are dangerously good at the abyssal death metal style without sounding like they were recorded performing in an underground cavern two miles away from the microphone.
Eximperitus only pack six songs onto Šahrartu but it still makes for a sizeable amount of music, as the maelstrom-genre clusterfuck of a band keep their average song length around six-plus minutes. with the opening build-up and closing ambient number “Riqûtu” both hovering around three. All the others… well, they’re all over the place above five minutes, with the biggest outlier being the bold and doom-leaden “Inqirad” crushing the scales at over ten minutes. “Doom” atmospherics doesn’t mean its a song that would lose a foot race to a glacier. It’s a big, ten-minute track that covers a big swath of underground death metal styles.
Eximperitus are an adventurous bunch too because throughout the run of Šahrartu they get equal parts meditative as they do brutal. It’s hard to describe but there are multiple moments on this disc where the band are just full-on instrumental, buttressed by a rolling double-bass drum and only the occasional guitar change as if to fill a giant empty room. I’d say even the recent Dead Can Dance cover kind of does it, but the group actually play that one fairly straight save for the work involved in turning it into a blast-filled death metal track.
Šahrartu is a monstrous album and even though I’ve spent the whole year struggling to describe it – and the band’s name – to people, it’s one that you should definitely look into as we reach the closing weeks of 2021.
21) Hannes Grossmann – To Where The Light Retreats
The fourth solo album from prolific death metal musician Hannes Grossmann arrived at the beginning of June and like his other solo works was an entirely different beast from the one before it.
While his first two releases were very much at home for what the musician was known for in the tech-death world, Apophenia was where the solo works really started to branch out a bit. It brought in some interesting names and styles that we hadn’t heard from Hannes in some time, and even though his core group of musician cohorts remained the same, Apophenia was an expansive album. To Where The Light Retreats then is once again a different beast. It’s a slimmer album in scope and actually has Hannes pulling back a little bit, transforming this solo project into a surprisingly sleek tech-death project again, albeit one that has also gotten surprisingly thrashy and able to write a hell of a guitar lead when needed.
You’ll recognize a lot of the names involved here, as once again Hannes‘ Alkaloid bandmates are more than willing to throw down, as well as bringing Dark Fortress’ V. Santura further into the fold. Actually, save for one song and a few other moments throughout, V.Santura handles much of the vocal work on To Where The Light Retreats, lending a much higher blackened rasp to the microphone front than before. Fellow Dark Fortress teammate – and previous vocals heavy lifter for this project – Morean picks up on the handful of times where he does not.
It’s impressive that the work of a solo project like this can have multiple nominees for the Most Infectious List this year, but I’d be damned if I didn’t own up to spinning “The Sun Eaters” constantly. At just a little over three and a half minutes, that is a song that is so practiced at what it is doing that it does so flawlessly. That main guitar melody is going to burn its way into my head for years.
Elsewhere in To Where The Light Retreats, Hannes and his team let loose on the prog-rock side of things and you wind up with a pairing of great songs – “Death And The Vast Nothing” and “The Fountain” – in the latter part of the album that have a magnetic draw to them, when you’re not just looking for the more straightforward and quicker-moving numbers in the mix. “The Symbolic Nature Of Terms” is also one that comes with a high recommendation mark, if not just for how angular and sharp the rhythm work is in that song.
This release was one that I got the opporutnity to review for the site and I was able to go much deeper into what made each song tick for me there. Hannes Grossmann with his own solo project and pursuing his own interests in music is still somehow some of the best stuff to hit in 2021, and that is pretty goddamned impressive.
Man, that Rivers of Nihil album is boring as fuck, no matter how many times I’ve tried to get into… for me is one of the biggest disappointments of the year.