(Our friend Professor D. Grover the XIIIth (ex-The Number of the Blog) has been joining us this time of year for many years to share his diverse year-end lists, and does so again now.)
Greetings and salutations, friends. It’s that time of year again, that magical time when I realize that my taste in music is highly unusual and diverges significantly from most other people who are also in the list-making business. And before you say it, no, I don’t mean this in an “I’m so random and eclectic” kind of way. It’s been a long, long time since I had any fucks to give with regard to what people think about the kind of music that I like and don’t like. When I review an album, or write a list like this, it’s usually because the artist or artists that I mention have affected me on some emotional level, and I feel that they deserve to be recognized for this, because if they impacted me then they might do the same for someone else. Music is something that should be enjoyed, one way or another, and it’s basic human nature to want to share something you enjoy with others.
Anyway, now that I’ve gotten all of that mumbo-jumbo out of the way, let’s get down to the list. Actually, before we get to the list proper, I want to mention a song that I enjoyed that wasn’t on an album that made the list.
Andrew W.K. – ‘Babalon’
My interest in Andrew W.K. is an odd one, in that I don’t actually care about most of his music, but I’m utterly fascinated with the whole “Andrew W.K. doesn’t exist / is an actor” thing, something that (as far as I can tell) is likely fed into by Andrew himself as some sort of modern art installation or prank on the entertainment industry.
If the preceding sentence sounds like it’s compete gibberish, feel free to disregard this altogether, or if you’re in the mood for a complete mindfuck you can dig further into this. It’s definitely entertaining, and made that much more interesting by the “leak” of Andrew’s journal that allegedly predates his career and lays out the blueprint for everything that he’s done and everything that he’s going to do. It’s almost guaranteed to be bullshit, another layer to the bizarre construct that is the story of Andrew W.K., but it’s still engrossing stuff.
Which brings me to ‘Babalon’, the first single and video released in the lead-up to the new album God Is Partying. Along with the two videos that would follow, the visuals play heavily with the aforementioned concept as well as a strong flair for the occult, but the song itself is an absolute monster, possibly the heaviest thing Andrew has ever released, with one of the best riffs I’ve heard all year. (The other two songs that have videos are also pretty heavy and dark, but are not nearly as good, and I skimmed the rest of the album and found it to be pretty boring.) I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched this video, but it’s great. I wish the rest of the album was nearly this good.
And now, the list.
30: Paranorm – Empyrean
Paranorm is a band that plays hyper-shreddy prog-thrash with a little bit of black and death influence. I like them because they remind me a lot of Exmortus, with a similar penchant for crisp, razor-edged guitar riffs and intricate leads. It takes something fairly special to impress me when it comes to thrash metal these days, but these Uppsala natives manage to do just that.
29: Hail Spirit Noir – Mannequins
When it comes to Greek polymorphs Hail Spirit Noir, it’s always helpful to expect the unexpected. Across their previous four albums they’ve explored black metal, prog, jazz, and psychedelia, and when I saw the album art for Mannequins I expected the album to have an ’80s vibe. What I did not expect was for an entire album of full-on synthwave, drawing influence from the likes of John Carpenter, Kavinsky, and Carpenter Brut, along with the requisite ’80s slasher movies. And despite the fact that synthwave has long since reached the point of oversaturation and a lot of its most notable acts have started branching out (more on that later), Mannequins is a surprisingly entertaining album.
28: Unanimated – Victory In Blood
It’s been 26 years since Unanimated released Ancient God Of Evil, one of my favorite underrated albums from back then. They occupy a similar space as Dissection with regard to their mixture of early melodeath and black metal, and although this is only their second full-length release since then (the other being 2009’s In The Light Of Darkness) they remain consistently excellent, laying down the kind of melodic black metal that really sticks with me.
27: Fulci – Exhumed Information
Named for famed Italian horror film director Lucio Fulci and drawing the themes for all three of their previous releases from his films, Fulci take things a step further than in the past by flirting in a few spots with synthwave music, then going all in on the style across the second half of the album. It’s an interesting twist and it really ties in well with the album’s aesthetic, even if it might be a jarring contrast for some listeners.
26: Bodom After Midnight – Paint The Sky With Blood
With the passing of Alexi Laiho back in December of last year, Paint The Sky With Blood stands as Laiho‘s final work and the only release that will come from Bodom After Midnight. Although there are only three tracks here, they recall Laiho‘s best work with Children Of Bodom and give us a fleeting glimpse of what could have been.
25: Perturbator – Lustful Sacraments
With regard to synthwave artists branching out, Perturbator (aka James Kent) is one of the biggest names in the genre, and Lustful Sacraments sees him continue the directional shift that started with 2017’s New Model EP, sliding further from ’80s horror synth in favor of a gothier, industrial-and-post-punk sound. It’s not always entirely engaging, but the times when it is (like on the brilliant ‘Excess’) make the rest of the album worthwhile.
24: Death Toll 80K – The Future Is Yours
I haven’t hit the grindcore as hard this year as I have in years past, but there were still a couple solid releases (like the new one from Blockheads). Death Toll 80K remains, to this day, the closest I’ve found to the brilliance of Insect Warfare, and The Future Is Yours is 9 tracks and 11 minutes of relentless grind fury that help to further fill that void.
23: The Troops Of Doom – The Absence Of Light
I loved The Troops Of Doom‘s debut EP last year, featuring early Sepultura guitarist Jairo “Tormentor” Guedz bringing back the glory of those first few thrashy Sepultura releases. The Absence Of Light is more of that, even if it is just an intro, two original tracks, a cover of Sepultura‘s ‘Antichrist’, and then a pair of demos. Eventually I assume there will be a full-length release, but for now I’ll take what I can get.
22: Beyond Grace – Our Kingdom Undone
First, a disclaimer: yes, Beyond Grace is the band fronted by NCS‘ own Andy Synn, and yes, I’ve known him in some capacity for a long time. That, however, has no bearing on the placement of Our Kingdom Undone on this list. Now, I’ll be honest, I like Beyond Grace‘s preceding album Seekers more; Our Kingdom Undone is darker, uglier, more dissonant than its predecessor, and those aren’t always qualities that work for me. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t like Our Kingdom Undone, because let’s face it, it’s here on my list, isn’t it? The songs are vicious and the lyrics insightful (‘Dark Forest Doctrine’ has to be a Cixin Liu reference, right?). This is quality death metal.
21: Koffin Kats – Ya Can’t Take It With Ya
After a brief interest and exploration of the extremely niche psychobilly subgenre years ago, I’ve settled in on precisely two bands that I still keep tabs on. The first of these bands, The Creepshow, didn’t have any new releases this year. However, Koffin Kats (the second obviously) kicked out an EP of their usual excellent riffy, gore-soaked songs of horror and substance abuse, held together with a whole bunch of slap bass. These guys are consistently entertaining.
20: GosT – Rites Of Love And Reverence
Much like Perturbator, GosT (better known as James Lollar) has been moving away from the traditional synthwave sound to something darker. GosT always had its roots in metal, something that had a tendency to bleed into the music (peaking on 2019’s black metal-tinted Valediction), but Rites Of Love And Reverence is thematically based around witchcraft, especially from a female perspective, and so the music has a strong gothic element with a little bit of folk (see album closer ‘Burning Thyme’), and the result is an album that stands out from the synthwave pack.
19: Mr. Bungle – The Night They Came Home
After reuniting to re-record the classic Mr. Bungle demo The Raging Wrath Of The Easter Bunny (with newly adopted members Scott Ian and Dave Lombardo making this incarnation of Mr. Bungle a legitimate thrash metal supergroup), the band streamed a live set from the Eugene Public Library and released the results. Come for the tight thrash riffs and Mike Patton‘s typically unhinged vocals, stay for the covers (the album opens with a cover of the theme from Mr. Rogers and also features covers of the Circle Jerks, Van Halen, and an inspired mix of Slayer‘s ‘Hell Awaits’ and Seals & Croft‘s ‘Summer Breeze’). It’s definitely great to hear the band holding things down in a live setting.
18: Alustrium – A Monument To Silence
Alustrium are a band who are deserving of greater recognition, as they’ve been churning out quality technical, progressive death metal for years. In a year that was absolutely full of a lot of really good tech death (much of which didn’t make this list, although not for any lack of quality), Alustrium really differentiated themselves with an excellent album that holds a fair few homages to other bands (‘The Plea’, for example, features a very overt tribute to Between The Buried And Me), but isn’t defined by them.
17: Rivers Of Nihil – The Work
A concept album can be tricky to pull off, but when it works, the results can be stunning… and The Work does, indeed, work. It’s not a typical concept album driven by a story, but the unifying concept of work holds the whole thing together, and it’s definitely the kind of album that works best as a whole rather than broken into parts, but it’s definitely one of the year’s better progressive death metal albums.
16: Homeboy Sandman – Anjelitu
My familiarity with Homeboy Sandman was for the most part limited to his Lice collaborations with the great Aesop Rock, and part of my interest in Anjelitu comes from the fact that Aes handles the production (and contributes guest vocals on ‘Lice Team, Baby’), but Sandman‘s unique style really shines, especially on tracks like ‘Go Hard’ and ‘Cow’s Milk’. There weren’t a ton of hip-hop releases that stuck with me this year, but I keep coming back to Anjelitu.
15: NOFX – Single Album
NOFX have been around as a band for almost 40 years, and at this point if you’re not a fan then nothing that they’re releasing is going to change that. Still, as old as these guys are, they’re still kicking out quality punk rock and finding ways to piss people off. Single Album isn’t without its missteps, but lyrically it’s filled with a surprising amount of raw honesty, cut with the biting, dark humor that has always been the band’s calling card.
14: Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined
While this was a good year for technical death metal, old school death metal suffered a bit in my opinion. There were some solid releases from Gatecreeper, Massacre, Sinister, Asphyx, and Memoriam, none of them really stood out… except for Cannibal Corpse. Maybe it was the addition of longtime producer Erik Rutan on guitar, or maybe it was a pandemic-sparked surge of creativity, but whatever it was, Violence Unimagined hits like a hammer to the face. I dare you not to listen to ‘Surround, Kill, Devour’ without shouting along to the chorus.
13: Stortregn – Impermanence
Stortregn are an interesting band, mixing melodic black metal and technical death metal in almost equal parts to create a sound that differentiates itself from the rest of tech-death pack, coming across like a mix of Dissection and Gorod. That’s not necessarily an easy balance to maintain, but Stortregn do just that, and the result is pure excellence.
12: Larkin Poe & Nu Deco Ensemble – Paint The Roses (Live In Concert)
Larkin Poe have been something of an obsession for me the last couple years. There’s something about the blues/folk/country/rock blend put together by the Lovell sisters that I find absolutely addictive, mixing electric and lap steel guitar with occasional bits of electronica or the odd trap hi-hat. Paint The Roses finds the duo pairing with the genre-bending orchestral group Nu Deco Ensemble to bring a host of fresh nuances to their music in a live setting, playing a mix of older and newer songs. It’s almost worth it just to have a recorded version of their brilliant (and heretofore unrecorded) ‘Mad As A Hatter’, an emotionally charged track applying the world of Alice In Wonderland to the knowledge of a genetic predisposition toward Alzheimer’s. Paint The Roses is the best live album I’ve heard all year.
11: Angelspit – Diesel Priest
Over the last decade, Angelspit has been my go-to band when it comes to electronic/industrial/cyberpunk, and although the group (really just one man, Karl Learmont, aka Zoog Von Rock, with a steadily rotating list of contributors) has been through its share of change, Angelspit‘s output has remained remarkably consistent. Diesel Priest is another excellent album of bombastic synths and anti-consumerist, anti-fascist, anti-boring lyrics. Best listened to at high volume.
10: Fear Factory – Aggression Continuum
You know, if you had told me at the beginning of the year that Fear Factory would release an album that would make my list, I would have assumed that you were high on something. It’s been a long time since I really enjoyed a Fear Factory album, probably not since Obsolete, and I’ve found most of their work after that to be fairly mediocre. But yet, Aggression Continuum (the band’s final vocal contribution from Burton C. Bell) is highly enjoyable. It’s definitely not perfect, and for every great riff or vocal line there’s one that falls flat, but somehow, I found myself listening to this a lot. It’s no Remanufacture, but it’s still the best thing the band have released in a long time.
9: Diablo Swing Orchestra – Swagger & Swing Down The Rabbit Hole
I’ve been a fan of Diablo Swing Orchestra and their wildly eclectic mix of metal, jazz, swing, electronica, and opera since The Butcher’s Ballroom, and while their previous album kind of lost some of what was great about the band, Swagger & Swing recaptures a lot of that and then some. I must acknowledge that this album would be a lot higher on this list were it not for one of the most puzzlingly bad production jobs I’ve ever heard, with everything squeezed into a narrow soundstage and strangely mixed, with the guitars somewhat overpowered by the low end and the drums sounding thin and plasticky. It’s very distracting, although this was apparently by design, according to the band, although why anyone would intentionally do this to such a great record is beyond me. Still, despite this, it’s an excellent album, and if it gets a remix at some point in the future then that would be an added bonus.
8: Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power
Prior to the release of this album, I had no idea who Halsey was and no familiarity with their music. The only reason I even gave this album a chance was because it was produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. However, I’m glad I gave it a chance. Perhaps it’s because this is still intended to be a somewhat mainstream album, but Reznor and Ross tone down some of their more ambient, abstract, experimental tendencies, and the result is a bit more focused than their recent output. And Halsey‘s voice and lyrics prove to be a good match, especially on tracks like ‘Tradition’ and ‘Girl Is A Gun’. Of all the albums on this list, this is the one that surprised me the most.
7: Obscura – A Valediction
In a different year, there’s a pretty good chance that this album would be higher on my list. Obscura brought back Christian Münzner and J.P. Thesseling, and A Valediction sounds like a band revitalized, leaner, and more streamlined than on their last few releases. Thesseling‘s contributions feel a little more subdued than in the past (see: Cosmogenesis), and Steffen Kummerer has almost entirely abandoned his lower register growls, but A Valediction is tight and catchy in all the right places. Its main flaw is not so much an issue with the album itself, but that it came out after several albums yet to appear on this list, and thus suffered in comparison. Still, in a strong year for tech death, Obscura certainly acquitted themselves well.
6: Havukruunu – Kuu Erkylän Yllä
Somehow, Havukruunu are still finding ways to surprise me. After last year’s fantastic Uinuos Syömein Sota finished extremely high on my list with its Bathory-esque blend of folk and black metal, I wasn’t expecting another release so soon, but Havukruunu delivered once again, throwing in some interesting electronic flourishes (mostly between songs) while laying down some more excellent folky black metal. Already one of my favorite black metal acts, Havukruunu continue to further cement themselves in my mind.
5: Chiliasm – Flesh Over Finite
As I alluded to earlier, there were several incredible tech-death releases this year, and none of them surprised me as much as the debut EP from Chiliasm. Flesh Over Finite is the work of three dudes from various bands, plus a number of guests, and the four tracks on this album are some of the catchiest tech-death this side of Gorod (who remain the gold standard of tech-death songwriting for me). Add in some incredible fretless bass, and you’ve got a winner.
4: Aesop Rock & Blockhead – Garbology
Aesop Rock can do no wrong. In addition to releasing his own excellent albums every few years, he’s put out a steady stream of high-quality collaborations and elevates the quality of everything he touches. Garbology is surprisingly the first full album collaboration with Blockhead after more than twenty years of working together on various tracks and remixes, and as always Aesop‘s distinctive flow and outlandish lyricism is a fine match for Blockhead‘s abstract, sample-heavy beats. The two haven’t collaborated nearly as much since Aes’s move to Rhymesayers, but hearing them working together on Garbology, you’d never guess that was the case.
3: First Fragment – Gloire Eternelle / Archspire – Bleed The Future / Ophidian I – Desolate
Remember how I said it was a good year for tech-death? For the last several months I’ve been struggling to figure out how to rank these three albums, and in the end I couldn’t. All three albums feel like genre-defining classics, and all three albums are (in my opinion, at least) the best in each band’s discography to this point.
Ophidian I was early the biggest surprise of the three, mostly because their previous review Solvet Saeclum (released nine years ago) was solid but unspectacular. Desolate, on the other hand, features some of the most incredible guitar leads of any album I’ve heard this year, and they are so densely packed that it’s a true testament to the band’s writing talents that the album is so memorable. That’s in spite of the fact that this album is incredibly fast, rivaling Archspire in terms of pure speed.
Speaking of Archspire, Bleed The Future is perhaps the most dynamic and varied album they’ve ever released. That’s not to say that they’ve lost a step, because they are still one of the most ridiculously intricate bands in tech-death. The vocals are as rapid-fire as ever, the drums machinelike and precise, but it feels like Archspire have learned to slow things just enough on occasion to draw the listener in, and the result is some of their finest songwriting to date.
And then there’s First Fragment. Prior to Gloire Eternelle, their sole full-length album Dasein stood in my esteem as perhaps the only tech-death album I had ever heard that rivaled Gorod‘s ability to switch from blindingly nuanced riffing to massive grooves at the drop of a hat. And then they went and added tech-death legend Dominic “Forest” LaPoint on lead fretless bass. I’m not going to lie, it almost feels like cheating, but Forest‘s performance on Gloire Eternelle is most definitely the greatest bass performance I’ve ever heard on a death metal album, to the point that it almost distracts from the incredible guitar shredding going on alongside it.
All three albums have their weaknesses, of course. For all the incredible guitar work on Desolate, the bass is understated and barely noticeable at times, even though the bassist is mostly following the guitars, which is no small task. And although Archspire‘s technicality is utterly distinctive, the vocal cadence and absurdly fast kick drums can sometimes border on cartoonish. Meanwhile, with the excess of virtuosity on Gloire Eternelle, the album is an hour and 11 minutes long, more than the length of the other two albums mentioned here combined, and when you’ve packed this much complicated music into every minute of the entire album, it threatens to overwhelm the senses entirely.
Still, there’s a reason these three albums are this high on the list. All three are, as I said, genre-defining records that should stand as high points of the genre for a long time to come. It’s going to take something truly special to make me forget any of these albums.
2: Between The Buried And Me – Colors II
You could make the argument that it takes an incredible amount of hubris to release, after 14 years, a sequel to what is generally considered to be your finest album ever, an album that turned the metal world on its head. It would be a fool’s errand to try to recapture that kind of magic, right?
Well, you would be right, and fortunately, Between The Buried And Me know this as well. As such, calling this album Colors II is not an attempt to once again redefine the boundaries of progressive metal, but instead an attempt to redefine the boundaries of the band itself. There are certainly thematic links between the two albums, with a handful of lyrics directly referencing songs on Colors, but otherwise the main similarity between them is that each song flows into the next.
There’s a lot on Colors II that feels familiar within BTBAM‘s now-established sound, but there are also plenty of new and interesting elements sprinkled throughout the album’s runtime, from the incredible folk interlude on ‘Never Seen / Future Shock’ to the guest drum solos on ‘Fix The Error’ to the skronky Rush-meets-Prince retro bits on ‘The Future Is Behind Us’. There’s also a lot of lyrics that feel influenced by the ongoing Covid pandemic, and some of these hit me pretty hard.
The best example of this is on the song ‘Revolution In Limbo’, with the following lyrics that pop up multiple times throughout the track:
“Over and over
Day in day out
We didn’t live
We only existed”
This song entered my life at a difficult time at my job. We were severely understaffed and morale was at an-all time low, and as a result I was working at least 4 hours of overtime 3 out of every 4 days. Needless to say, these lyrics hit me like a brick, and there were more than a few days I found myself singing along at the top of my lungs to this song on my way to or from work. It made an impact on me.
So, Colors II doesn’t exactly replicate everything that made the first Colors special, but then again, that was never the point of this album to begin with. For me, this album is special in its own way, and I’ll never forget the way that it helped propel me through a difficult time.
1: Thy Catafalque – Vadak
Sometimes, you just know.
You’ll hear an album for the first time, and you immediately realize that it’s going to be the best thing you hear all year. Sometimes, you’re wrong. But sometimes, you’re absolutely right.
I think you see what I’m getting at here. The first time I heard Vadak, I was transfixed, mesmerized, entranced. I listened to it many, many times, and wrote a review about it, and to be honest, everything that I said in that review is still as accurate now as it was the day I wrote it, so I’m going to be lazy and quote myself as a means of explaining why this is my album of the year.
“I think that this album truly crystallized for me a thought that I’d been subconsciously working my way toward for the last several years and Thy Catafalque releases. Tamás Kátai has achieved mastery over his musical style, complete and utter mastery, and as a result he can do just about anything and make it sound very distinctively like his work. I’m convinced at this point that he could create a song based heavily on slide whistles, ukeleles, and fart noises, and I would hear it and know that it was his work. It’s a rarity in a constantly-changing music industry that grinds up and spits out artists at an incredible rate, for an artist to have that combination of talent, career longevity, and creative freedom necessary to achieve this level of mastery.”
I said then that this was my favorite Thy Catafalque album since Róka Hasa Rádió, my first exposure to the band, and I still feel that way now. This is a beautiful, brilliant album, and it fully deserves the number one spot on this list.
If you’re still reading at this point, then thanks for sticking with me. Take care of yourselves, and take care of others. Hopefully 2022 is a better year than 2021.