(Yesterday we posted Gonzo‘s year-end list of Top 10 EPs and album honorable mentions, and today we begin his list of Top 20 albums for 2021, divided into two parts.)
Now that I’ve gotten the EPs and honorable album mentions out of the way, it’s time to start cranking out a list that I’ve spent far too much time organizing (and agonizing over) in my head: My top 20 full-length releases of 2021.
Before we get into this, can we just take a second to stare in complete awe at the towering monolith of head-spinning amazement that was heavy music in 2021? Just off the top of my head, it was a banner year for subgenres like tech-death, sludge, post-metal, and seemingly everything in between. It was also a great time for labels like 20 Buck Spin and Relapse. Some of this was the injection of new blood into the mix, as there were some truly noteworthy debuts and breakouts. The old guard showed up in force, too, with some surprising out-of-nowhere returns to form. And my personal favorite: Getting my fucking subatomic particles rearranged by discovering a new band that simply blows my doors off.
All of that happened this year and then some. Even with the inclusion of my honorable mentions, the actual list of releases I enjoyed this year is way more than what I’ll be talking about here. But in the interests of brevity (as well as staying on top of my day job), here’s the first half of the vaunted top 20.
- Sarin, You Can’t Go Back
It’s hard to believe that I was first transfixed by this molten slab of sludgy post-metal almost a year ago, but here we are.
Sarin picks up the torch left behind by Aaron Turner and ISIS and carry it into a new era. The comparisons between the two bands are going to be obvious upon hearing Sarin for the first time, but the latter takes their big, brooding sound and expands it to glorious lengths on You Can’t Go Back.
Largely powered by broken relationships and emotional turmoil, this album will hit you like a brick to the head and leave you in a perpetual state of unease. It builds layers upon layers of brilliant atmosphere between absolute wallops of crunchy yet emotive riffs. And then there’s that gravely baritone of a vocal howl that’s used sparingly but effectively. I’ll quote myself on the rest, from my review way back in March:
The record is self-described by the band as being “written in the wake of several crumbling relationships… and recognizing behaviors and circumstances that make joy scarce.” Considering that backdrop, the soundtrack fits the bill. Try to listen to “Reckoner” without feeling the weight of it hang in your gut like an anvil being dropped off a skyscraper. The emotion is palpable and jarring, but after multiple listens, I can’t help but notice a distinctly uplifting undertone that’s quietly laying beneath the surface. The way the band laces moody post-rock passages through such abject brutality is impressive; even more so when you realize that it doesn’t sound the least bit forced.
- The Ruins of Beverast, The Thule Grimoires
This is another one I couldn’t get enough of through the first few months of 2021. Vacillating somewhere between the industrial-strength psychedelic terror of Blut Aus Nord and the smoldering swampland horror of Worm, The Thule Grimoires is a record that’s thick as hell but surprisingly accessible.
I wouldn’t normally use “accessible” to describe a metal album that leads off with a wormhole of a track that clocks in at just under 13 minutes, but this is the beast that Alexander von Meilenwald has curated and orchestrated over the years. His grasp of songwriting and atmosphere has been sharpened into an edge that’s perfect for inflicting precision damage, and he executes that with lethal efficacy throughout Grimoires. If you want to know how the music here will make you feel, look no further than the album’s cover art.
Grimoires can be challenging, make no mistake. It’s not one you’ll just want to put on in the background while you’re doing something else – there’s enough layers and texture here to warrant your full attention. And you’ll be generously rewarded if you do.
- Marianas Rest, Fata Morgana
Finland gets a lot of things right as a country, and among those is its ample supply of metal bands that consistently produce heavy music that’s both awesome and depressing as hell.
Following that theme, Marianas Rest is a band that could only come from Finland. Their brand of grief-stricken heaviness is beautiful and heartbreaking, much like their countrymen in Omnium Gatherum and Swallow the Sun. Appropriately, OG’s keyboard man Aapo Koivisto also serves that role in Rest.
Instantly, Fata Morgana grabs you with the haunting intro of “Sacrificial,” and trudges into an equally haunting buildup with “Glow from the Edge,” which ended up being one of my favorite songs of the year. It reminds me of some of the best work from Draconian.
For being a band as rooted in sorrow and despair, Marianas Rest can also deliver one hell of a catchy groove. It’s a formula some of the aforementioned bands also follow, but on tracks like “Pointless Tale,” Rest ups the ante. It’s a heartbreaking song, but also infectious as an airborne virus.
And the rest of the album just keeps getting better from there. “The Weight” casts a sinister funeral-doom-style menace, while the ethereal dirge of the title track will send your mind into a gloomy place, adrift in another dimension somewhere. Luckily for you, it’s a place you won’t want to leave anyway.
- Mastiff, Leave Me the Ashes of the Earth
If you’re in the mood to have your face melted off, may I present the newest release from one of the UK’s most caustic and uncompromising bands today: Mastiff.
From start to finish, Leave Me the Ashes of the Earth is a fucking shotgun blast of an album. It tears, gnashes, and bludgeons its way through nine tracks that spit more venom than a pit full of angry cobras. Jim Hodge’s throat-scraping bark brings to mind Barney Greenway at times, which is interesting because even though the band bill themselves as “doom/sludge/hardcore,” I’d say they have more in common with Napalm Death. “Midnight Creeper,” for example, would fit right in on ND’s last album (which objectively fucking ruled), and the same could be said for “Beige Sabbath.” /smirk
But on Leave me the Ashes of the Earth, Mastiff take their obvious affinity for grind and throw it into a blender with Integrity and Caustic Wound to establish their own uniquely vicious identity. I hope these guys tour the States sometime soon because their live show looks completely fucking bonkers.
- At the Gates, The Nightmare of Being
Much has been said about this one from the legendary Swedes who need no introduction. Fans who were hoping for Slaughter of the Soul 2 were probably disappointed, but at this point I don’t imagine many people would have that expectation.
At the Gates have evolved quite a bit since their resurgence in 2014 with At War with Reality. I think that works in the band’s favor, as the addition of guitarist Jonas Stålhammar seems to have taken them a little more in that direction. It’s not just breakneck tempos and “GO!” anymore, and that’s not to say any of that was ever a bad thing. The band just sounds more confident in their explorative tendencies on Nightmare, and I don’t think that potential was fully realized on 2018’s To Drink from the Night Itself.
“The Paradox” is a good early indicator of how this album takes form. There’s a little bit of the metaphysical weirdness in the lyrics that helped make AWWR so fun, but the atmospheric elements in tracks like “Garden of Cyrus,” “Touched by the White Hands of Death,” and especially “The Fall into Time” push this album into elite territory.
Two other things worth noting, and then I’ll shut up about this one: Tomas Lindberg still sounds as ferocious as he did in 1994, and drummer Adrian Erlandsson has turned in a career-defining performance. The Nightmare of Being might be At the Gates at their finest since the comeback.
- Replicant, Malignant Reality
Sometime around its release, I remember checking out this album based on a review someone here at NCS wrote. Turns out, the praise was much deserved.
These three titans from New Jersey have delivered a death metal album that decimates everything in its path. Discordant, ripping leads shred through a backdrop of jackhammering drums and rumbling basslines to create a crunchy, totally satisfying listen. “Caverns of Insipid Reflection” and “Relinquish the Self” feature all of that, with the throaty, Uada-like bellow of Michael Gonçalves leading the charge.
I couldn’t get enough of the opening track “Caverns of Insipid Reflection” from the moment I heard it. And that’s not only because the ear-piercing chirp of the riff’s highest notes remind me of Machine Head’s “Davidian,” though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t immediately notice it. Make no mistake, though – Replicant is a death metal band, through and through. They just know how to make their particular variety of it into its own multi-headed hydra-like beast.
The best part of all this? The production value is one of the best I’ve heard all year. Every song is an exercise in both technical brilliance and unfettered rage, and you can distinctly hear every discernable gear as it powers the absolute unit that is Replicant.
- Sunnata, Burning in Heaven, Melting on Earth
It’s time to get weird.
I’m not sure exactly how obsessed these enigmatic dudes from Poland are with Frank Herbert and Dune but judging by the subject matter on Burning in Heaven, Melting on Earth I’m gonna go out on a limb and say not only “yes,” but also “yes, and psychedelics were almost certainly involved at some point.”
And I’m gonna go even one step further and say “at some point” may have been the recording process of this album. On it, Sunnata demonstrate a chameleon-like ability to shift from a low-key, meditative passage into an aural tsunami. “God Emperor of Dune” is one of the most shining examples of this. I can almost see the scantily clad desert warriors summoning Shai-Hulud as it plays out.
The winding riffs of “A Million Lives,” meanwhile, pick up the pace and take you through a wormhole of distortion and discord. “Black Serpent” takes you back down again, its hypnotic verses alternating with a sludgy, grimy chorus. And the throat singing and overall unsettling vibe of “Volva (The Seerees)”? Yeah, sign me up.
- Hooded Menace, The Tritonus Bell
Finland’s Hooded Menace beefed up their latest album with more riffs and faster tempos, a move that proved to be surprisingly polarizing among fans.
I’m probably the exception to this rule, if for no other reason than I hadn’t really heard much from the band before this year. What I can say about them now that I have? The riffage and amped-up aggression on The Tritonus Bell made me instantly intrigued by it, all the way back at the beginning of summer when the “Blood Ornaments” single dropped.
The thing is, though, the faster riff-filled passages actually complement the band’s doomier style in the first place. The “good cop/bad cop” dynamic is definitely nothing new in metal, but Hooded Menance have mastered the art of it. When “Blood Ornaments” does slow down, for instance, it still convincingly threatens to lurch out of your speakers and coil itself around your neck, just not as fast. It’s kind of like seeing mask-clad Michael Myers in the first Halloween movie – just because he’s not running at you at full speed doesn’t make him any less menacing. If anything, that’s even scarier than a sprint.
- Stone Healer, Conquistador
Listening to the newest output from brothers Matt and Dave Kaminsky, it’s hard to believe that just two guys created such a thorough study in technical metallic brilliance. It’s the kind of music you’ll headbang to once, realize what you just heard, and play it again with headphones on to make sure what you just heard was actually real.
Stone Healer deftly maneuver from bouncy cowbell-driven prog-pop to absolute fucking chaos at the drop of a hat. “One Whisper” goes in about 23 unexpected directions after its opening minutes and none of it gets lost in the shuffle. More importantly, though, these guys are actually trying to make memorable music while flexing their technical prowess. They’re not just flexing their muscles for the sake of vanity here.
When “One Whisper” shifts from upbeat pop to Individual Thought Patterns–era Death at barely a moment’s notice, the band recovers just as easily, diving back down into acoustic interludes right when they need to. Despite the chaos, there’s always a method to the madness they add to the musical canvas. No easy feat, to be sure.
After “One Whisper” and follow-up track “Whence Shall I,” you’d be forgiven for thinking nobody could possibly stretch five more equally impressive songs into one album. You’d also be wrong. Conquistador is thoroughly engaging and jaw-dropping until its final moments on “Into the Space of Night.”
- Worm, Foreverglade
Nothing screams “Florida death metal” quite like naming your new album Foreverglade and sounding like your band lives in an actual swamp.
Yes, Florida’s Worm have crafted one of the grimiest death metal releases of 2021. They do it with a panhandle-sized portion of eerie leads and an atmosphere that’s extremely grim, like being tied to a dock while watching the alligators appear. The dizzying fretwork during the closing moments of “Murk Above the Dark Moor” is captivating as hell and represents only one highlight of an album that has many.
Later on, “Cloaked in Nightwinds” unfurls into what I can only describe as “funeral doom stomp.” It goes on for 11 minutes, and I challenge anyone to have any sense of time whatsoever while listening to it. It pulls you deep into its dark, murky depths, and if you’re not careful, you’ll stay there a while. (My advice is throw caution to the fucking wind.)
What a big surprise to see Marianas Rest on a “Best of the Year” list…. pretty awesome record!
I was surprised too – I think it flew under the radar pretty hard