(NCS contributor Gonzo has assembled a 3-part series of year-end lists, and today we present the first one.)
Ah yes, it’s that time of year again, in which I’m generously afforded a place in cyberspace to yell about the music I’ve been listening to for the past 12 months. Really though, all banal generalizations aside, this has become my perennial favorite month to be an NCS scribe, no matter what variety of aural decimation in which I’ve chosen to immerse myself throughout the year.
Regardless of your tastes or nuanced obsessions with subgenres (blackened post-glam doomgaze polka-core, anyone?), I think we can all agree 2021 had something for everyone when it came to heavy music. I spent hours upon hours this year digging into the grimiest corners of underground for new sounds to obsess over; it even inspired me to start writing my own monthly heavy roundup of whatever I found and liked enough to write about.
So, this post will begin the crux of all of that: My year-end wrap-up. It’s the first installment of a three-part series that I’ll be posting through the rest of the week, until my happy ass heads to Mexico to drink mojitos until I have to wheelbarrow myself back to the airport a week later. Ah, Christmas traditions.
With that, we’ll kick things off with 10 EPs I loved (because this was the year of the abundantly awesome EP), and then some honorable album mentions that didn’t quite crack my top 20 overall but I still really liked. Onward!
- Vukari, Omnes Nihil
Chicago blackened death metal crew Vukari have been on my radar since the first time I heard the devastating punishment dished out on their 2019 album Aevum.
When this band gets ahold of a blast beat they like, they’re gonna milk it for every last drop of extreme brutality. The band’s unholy grasp of dynamics results in the music smoldering like the pit of an erupting volcano. It was the case with Aevum and it’s most certainly the case with Omnes Nihil, though on a slightly smaller scale. Opening salvos of “Despondent” and the title track rage and crush their way through the speakers, pounding everything in their path into dust and never looking back.
It’s not until “The Weight of Dejection” that the band slow down into a moody, melancholic dirge that’s one of the best tracks the band have ever recorded. I hope to see them continue this bone-crushing trend into 2022 and beyond.
- Fuming Mouth, They Take What They Please
It might be only two tracks, but this EP from the acerbic Fuming Mouth will give you fucking whiplash.
Combining the galloping ferocity of d-beat mainstays Wolfbrigade and the buzzsaw guitars of Entombed, this Massachusetts outfit churns out some serious aggression with this EP’s title track to kick things off. If you’re not singing along to the vitriolic (and infectious) chorus of “THEY RAPE THE LAND AND TAKE WHAT THEY PLEASE” by about halfway through, I’d recommend checking your pulse. It’s a crushingly satisfying listen that makes you come back for repeat listens, especially after follow-up track “Devolve” finishes you off.
Here’s hoping this sets up Fuming Mouth to capitalize on this savage energy they’ve tapped into.
- Grand Cadaver, Madness Comes
When Dark Tranquility’s Mikael Stanne revealed his new collab with current and former members of Katatonia, Expulsion, and Novarupta, to name a few, I was immediately intrigued.
Turns out, the project, called Grand Cadaver, wasted no time in cranking out quality content throughout the year. This EP launched in February and its old-school, gut-churning sound wallows somewhere between Dismemberand Bolt Thrower, and Stanne’s vocals are a perfect fit for the outing. I’d even say Stanne is entering something resembling a career renaissance right now, as he’s also fronting a new project called The Halo Effect that just put out its first single as well, and it also slays.
This EP with Grand Cadaver, though, left me wanting more. Sure enough, they put out a full-length this past fall, and the one thing I can confidently say about the band’s flurry of work in the span of a year is “they’re definitely too good to be one-and-done.”
- Creeping Death, The Edge of Existence
With six blistering tracks that showcase some of the best work this Texas death metal crew has ever put out, The Edge of Existence feels more like a full album than an EP. Even still, it’s billed as an EP, so all I can do is shrug and give credit where it’s due.
This release is a fist-pumping, pit-inducing ride that wastes no opportunity to shred your face off at every possible moment. The opening riff of “Sacrament of Death” is absolutely fucking massive, while the rumbling low end of “Doused in Flames” could induce a bowel movement. (Inadvisable while moshing, though.)
If you’re looking for more riffs than you can possibly headbang to in one EP, give Creeping Death’s newest release a listen.
- Orbit Culture, Shaman
Speaking of riffs, Shaman is another EP that somehow packs an entire album’s worth of them into just five songs.
I’ve been keeping an eye on the Swedes known as Orbit Culture since I heard their criminally underrated 2016 release Rasen. It’s not the kind of metal you’d hear and immediately think “Sweden,” though – it’s definitely melodeath, but not as melodic as some of their peers. It’s also slightly more mechanized when the melodic edge dissipates, but not quite the soulless, dead-eyed killing machine you’d find in, say, Meshuggah.
Instead, Orbit Culture keeps things dynamic, using a fair amount of harsh-to-clean vocals from two of the band members. “Mast of the World” gets right in your face from the moment you hit “play,” with a snarling groove that unfurls into vocals that bring to mind Nergal’s blast furnace of a throat. “Carvings” might be a “Most Infectious Song of the Year” candidate, while “Strangler” goes off the rails in a truly strange call-and-response vocal attack that doesn’t quite work as well it could’ve.
Minor gripes aside, this is a great introduction to Orbit Culture if you’ve never heard them. And if you have, you still won’t be disappointed.
- Cult of Luna, The Raging River
Fair warning: I’m a rabid fan of everything this band does, so there wasn’t much of a chance this EP was ever going to be left off this list. We all have those.
But even being an unashamed fanboy, I’d say The Raging River ranks pretty high in Cult of Luna’s impressive discography. It’s less dense and slightly more accessible than Mariner, which works to the band’s favor in this case – they focus more on getting to the point rather than taking their time with an eight-minute intro (see “Vicarious Redemption”). That’s not a bad thing, per se, but the brevity-first approach suits an EP very well. I spent a lot of time this year nodding my head along to “What I Leave Behind,” as I’m doing right now while I type this.
Few bands have so firmly established themselves into a metal subgenre like Cult of Luna have and continue to evolve their sound while so many try – and often fail – to replicate it. Whet your appetite with The Raging River for another couple of months until their new full-length drops in February.
- Insomnium, Argent Moon
When I first heard the single “The Conjurer” this past spring, I was hoping to see a full album from these maestros of melodeath. Normally I’d be disappointed to discover it’s only an EP. Not this time.
Insomnium create music that succeeds in ripping your heart out while you bang your head. It’s a balance that’s exceptionally hard for a death metal band to establish, let alone persist with, and very few do it better than Insomnium does. I think “The Conjurer” fits that bill on this outing, as it reminds me of their song “Lose to Night,” one of the songs that’s closest to my heart in heavy music.
The four tracks on display in Argent Moon gravitate towards the less-heavy side of the band, for the most part. The quiet, almost folky buildup in “The Antagonist” works perfectly in contrast with its more bombastic second half, never sparing a moment of intensity along the way. “The Wanderer” closes things out on a similar note – a slow build that leads into a slightly more upbeat climax, which ends the EP on a more uplifting note than I was expecting.
- Dream Troll, Realm of the Tormentor
One thing that’s easy to forget about metal sometimes:
It’s supposed to be fun, goddammit.
The UK’s Dream Troll, meanwhile, might very well operate on this philosophy. Hell, it might be the reason they make music. Their upbeat, melodic sound is equal parts Thin Lizzy and Motley Crue with a pinch of Eternal Champion thrown in for modernization. I’d hesitate to use the description of “power metal,” but it’s… not inaccurate? Whatever it is, it’s fun and addictive as hell.
I loved Dream Troll’s last album, Second to None, and Tormentor picks up right where that album left off. Like other releases in this list, though, six tracks might warrant enough material to consider this a full album, but I’m not about to get lost in semantics. Tormentor is roll-your-windows-down metal, perfect for blasting at unreasonable volumes as you speed down a highway. Or, as I call it, therapy.
- Spirit Adrift, Forge Your Future
Here I go again, violating our tongue-in-cheek eponymous rule around here. So be it.
Even with just three tracks, this EP is simply too good to leave off this list. Lead songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Nate Garrett has taken this band from a small side project into a true force in metal in just a few years. The title track kicks things off beautifully on Forge Your Future, bringing to mind Ozzy Osbourne’s best power ballad moments, while the punchy “Wake Up” keeps the ball rolling effortlessly.
There’s a distinctively “classic rock” edge to the music here, with addictive hooks and instantly memorable choruses. It’s a little lighter than something we’d usually cover on these pages, but that’s not to take away anything great about this release, because there’s a lot of “great” on it. If nothing else, the pure joy of nostalgia you’ll hear on this EP might remind you, much like Dream Troll above, that metal is inherently rooted in having a great time. Last year’s Enlightened in Eternity was Spirit Adrift’s finest moment to date, and this EP shows Garrett & co. aren’t about to slow it down anytime soon. And the world is better for it.
- Kataan, Kataan
Of all the EPs I heard this year (and there were many), nothing kept pulling me back for more quite like the melodic blackened death metal of this duo from New Hampshire.
Urgent, engrossing, captivating, and completely unique are words I’d use to describe the four tracks unleashed by Brett Boland and Nick Thornbury on this EP. I’ll revisit what I said when I first reviewed the effort last spring:
“Erase” comes blasting out of the gate with a triumphant burst of energy as the leadoff track, showcasing solid production value and musical craftsmanship. Nicholas Thornbury’s vocals are balanced within this sonic fury perfectly well, sounding more like an additional instrument than an actual human voice for most of the time. Think what you’d hear if Astronoid jammed with early Alcest and their main influence was At the Gates, and you’ll begin to get an idea of what you’ll hear throughout the EP.
By the time closing track “Vessel” finalizes its majestic departure, you’ll want to give this another spin. The only complaint I have about this debut is that it’s only an EP, but with a future as bright as what Kataan have in front of them, it’d be a tragedy to not follow this up with a stunning full-length record.
Albums: Honorable Mentions
Silver Talon, Decadence and Decay
For almost 20 years, Nevermore reigned as metal royalty in the Pacific Northwest. Warrel Dane’s unmistakable tortured croons and the inimitable, dizzying leads by Jeff Loomis were instantly identifiable. In particular, their albums Dreaming Neon Black, Dead Heart in a Dead World, and This Godless Endeavor still rank in the highest annals of metal canon, with many imitators but few equals.
Enter Silver Talon.
The Portland unit burst onto the scene this year with the release of Decadence and Decay, an album that seamlessly fuses crunching, intricate riffs with a soaring, melodic vocal howl. It might remind you of vintage material from a bygone era in the PNW, but to simply stop at comparing Silver Talon to Nevermore would be doing the former a massive disservice.
The formidable triple-guitar assault of Bryce Adams Vanhoosen, Sebastian Silva (also of Unto Others), and Devon Miller will make your head spin. Their performance across Decadence and Decay is impeccable, deftly alternating from proggy time changes to relentless down-tuned riffs. “Deceiver, I Am,” “As the World Burns,” and “Divine Fury” might set your speakers on fire if played too loudly, while “Next to the Sun” puts the “power” back in “power ballad.”
Sometimes when I’m putting these lists together, I almost have to punch myself in the head while muttering “DON’T MAKE IT JUST MELODEATH, DON’T MAKE IT JUST MELODEATH.” What can I say, I know what I like.
I’m sure you’ll forgive my melodeath transgressions if you listen to Arete, though. The album sees Netherbird taking their brooding Stockholm darkness to another level, both musically and lyrically. Opening tracks “Towers of Night” and “Void Dancer” make up one of my favorite one-two punches on any album of 2021, expertly blending white-hot ferocity with a melodic edge. It’s the same formula that some of the very best in Swedish melodeath employ, but the end result is less Opeth than it is Wayfarer.
The eight songs here are all solid, but “Infernal Vistas” and stunning closer “Atrium of the Storm” simply must be heard. It’s some of the band’s best work they’ve ever recorded.
Norway’s virtuosos have rebounded from a somewhat disappointing Pitfalls in 2019. It wasn’t a bad record, as it had some truly great moments, but it wasn’t as consistently good as I expected from these guys.
Aphelion, fortunately, has a lot more going on with it. The songwriting is more ambitious and exciting, the musicianship is sharper than ever, and the songs are memorable without sounding flat. “Running Low,” “Out of Here,” and “Silhouette” are stirring, classic examples of what made me start loving this band in the first place. It’s not by any means a rehash of Coal, but it comes closer to adding some elements that made that album so great. “Nighttime Disguise,” in particular, is basically the reincarnation of “Contaminate Me,” minus the Ihsahn vocals.
Fun fact: “Nighttime Disguise” was written in part with direction from fans as part of an interactive project Leprous embarked upon while recording this album. It was originally supposed to be a B-side or bonus track, but it came out too perfectly for the band to leave out. One listen to it and I think you’d be compelled to agree. It’s a breathtakingly awesome song.
White Stones, Dancing into Oblivion
Musically, it’s fair to say the side project from Opeth bassist Martin Mendez sounds a lot like his fulltime gig, but there’s a lot more to unpack about this second album from White Stones.
Mendez, drummer Joan Carles Mari, and vocalist Eloi Boucherie have released a thoroughly dynamic and nuanced album that takes the best of Opeth, In Mourning, and Edge of Sanity without sounding like a carbon copy of any of them. The bass is featured prominently, especially on album highlight “Chain of Command,” while Boucherie’s vocal style has more in common with Shagrath than it does with Dan Swanö or Mikael Åkerfeldt.
White Stones are also particularly good at building atmosphere throughout a song without sacrificing any engagement from the listener. These guys have been around a while and have poured their creative juices into heavy music for upwards of 20 years, and the collective genius shines on Dancing into Oblivion – namely on “Chain of Command” and the equally excellent “To Lie or to Die.”
Turnstile, Glow On
I hadn’t originally planned on including this album anywhere in my year-end favorites, but apparently the album had other ideas.
Glow On is infectious, enjoyable as hell, and nostalgic in ways I’d missed for years. Decades, even.
I grew up watching a lot of bands from the punk and hardcore scene in grimy-ass venues across California. While it’s not accurate to throw the upbeat, Jane’s Addiction-meets-Helmet-meets-Quicksand style of Turnstile into the same category as, say, Earth Crisis or Integrity, the music has a stirring, energetic quality that you don’t hear a lot from hardcore anymore. I wasn’t overly impressed by the newest Quicksand album, either, so Glow On scratches even more of an itch than I’d realized.
It’s a far cry from the heaviness you’ll find in plenty of other lists among us at NCS this year, but try listening to “Holiday” on this record and see if you’re not immediately nodding your head to it and yearning to be a 19-year-old in a circle pit again.