(Relative NCS newcomer Nathan Ferreira weighs in with a Top 20 year-end list and a healthy group of honorable mentions as well.)
HI NCS readers! In case you haven’t been bombarded by lists enough in the past few weeks, here’s my personal round-up of choice cuts.
This was my first year writing for this website, so I don’t really have the same sort of cred some of the veterans do around here. My taste is not particularly obscure, nor esoteric and unusual. There’s probably some overlap with other lists you’ve seen. I’m a generic metalhead (and proud of it!).
Still, this was the first year in a while I really focused on keeping up with new music, so I’d bet there’s a couple of things in this list you missed – I know I missed a bunch of stuff. Hopefully I can establish myself as more of a regular contributor in 2022 because this website is cool as shit.
Now, on to the thing!
Music is so subjective – my top 20 order sporadically changes given the day. A few of the albums below probably would have made it on if my mood had been a little different while I was putting together this list, because I enjoyed them a lot. As such, I felt like I had to give them at least a quick shout-out:
Terminalist – The Great Acceleration
Tasty, bouncy blackened thrash that feels like a breath of fresh air. Why can’t more modern bands take Voivod influence? It always works!
Aethyrick – Apotheosis
Has this way of sneaking up on you with a compelling atmosphere. You put it on in the background and a few minutes later you suddenly notice you’re completely dialed into the riff.
Throne – Pestilent Dawn
Blistering, menacing, and relentless, with a visceral power to the grooves that other bands in this slightly blackened, blasty death metal style wished they could capture.
Diskord – Degenerations
Good golly, this is some weird-ass stuff. The bass and drum interplay in particular is… something else.
First Fragment – Gloire éternelle
The swing thing they had going on in the first album blossomed like an off-beat flower, and Forest Lapointe gives the performance of his life, which is saying something considering this guy played on The Aura and Fragmentary Evidence. Stunning and almost overwhelming.
Galvanizer – Prying Sight of Imperception
Nearly won the “chunkiest OSDM album of the year” award that I made up literally right now. Simply filthy.
Gravehuffer – NecroEclosion
Descriptions like “more than the sum of its parts” were made for albums like this.
Cathartic Demise – In Absence
Young guns from my neck of the woods put out some rifftastic prog-thrash that will scratch your early Skeletonwitch-shaped itch very nicely.
Eye of Purgatory – The Lighthouse
Could be the most memorable thing Rogga Johansson’s on. This has some deadly catchy hooks.
Djevel – Tanker som rir natten
Fuck I love me some unoriginal midpaced black metal. This reinvents nothing, but it gives you what you came for.
Skepticism – Companion
The gods of desolate doom prove they still got it. Hurry up and die so they can play this at your funeral.
Unflesh – Inhumation
Any time an album reminds me of A Celebration of Guilt, I’m all over it.
Wheel – Preserved in Time
This really should have been on the list, I listened to it a ton when it first came out, I just forgot about it until the last second. Terrific epic doom.
Oriflamme – L’egide ardente
Everyone frothed at the mouth over Spectral Wound, but this was low-key one of the stronger Quebecois black metal albums the scene’s pumped out in a minute.
Crypts of Despair – All Light Swallowed
Batshit crazy. They weren’t as represented on this list as I thought they would be, but Transcending Obscurity Records still had a hell of a year.
TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2021
#20: Altered Dead – Returned to Life
OSDM revival is in full swing, with albums by Sněť, Galvanizer, Hyperdontia and Cadaveric Fumes turning a few heads over the course of 2021. All solid releases in their own right, but to my ears, the most ripping and potent death metal throwback this year was put out by a couple of deathpunks from British Columbia.
A healthy dose of d-beats prevents Returned to Life from being too convoluted or obfuscating, while giving the guitars the perfect foundation to showcase their stripped-down, pummeling grooves. There’s tons of appreciation for early Celtic Frost in this, highlighted by a cover of “Into the Crypts of Rays“, which merges so well with the band’s core sound you wouldn’t know it wasn’t an original if you weren’t familiar with the song beforehand. Every song is either a short, tight banger or a drudging brick to the face, with a maximum of three riffs. Sudden shifts in the drum pacing provide all the drops and transitions. Less is more with this band, though – Altered Dead isn’t a group that makes you appreciate the finer details, they just cycle through sick riffs that give you the stank face and/or make your head nod. At just 33 minutes, there is no time wasted – this is one lean cut of meat.
#19: Mare Cognitum – Solar Paroxysm
I’m lazy and don’t want to re-write what I already wrote in my review of this album, but the good news is this album did hold up after several months of sitting on it. Here’s what I wrote about it back in March when it first came out:
“The fiery Adam Burke piece that graces the album’s cover gives a good sense of what makes this full-length different from other releases in Mare Cognitum’s back catalog: this has a warm, uplifting feel to it. It’s not as though that was absent from previous releases, but even the brightest moments of Luminiferous Aether still retained that chill that tends to permeate black metal in general. Solar Paroxysm indulges in the more vibrant aspects of Buczarski’s playing style: the flashy solos that cascade upwards into the light, the elongated crescendos, even the long storms of tremolo and blastbeats bring an almost comfortable resolution with them, and that wasn’t there as much before. The lyrics take less of a spiritual and more of a humanistic, political feel, and with it comes changes in the forces that guide and shape the mystical, ethereal core of the project.
What it sounds like, to me, is Buczarski shaking off a few more of the shackles of typical atmospheric black metal and leaning into what makes his sound unique and special, without in any way compromising what fans are gearing up to buy the album for…
…For this reason, the first time I heard Solar Paroxysm, I actually found it a tad underwhelming, but I knew better than to write off a Mare Cognitum album after one spin. Now that it’s had a few weeks to marinate, I can conclude it’s as good as anything else Buczarski has put out, and his most consistent work to date. This feels less like a collection of songs than any previous Mare Cognitum release has – “Terra Requiem” being the connecting bridge between the two bigger movements of the first two and last two tracks. Flurries of bright riffing with a hint of cosmic wandering shift more subtly and verses are sustained for a bit longer as well. It doesn’t overwhelm you immediately, but it’s a more rewarding listen long-term.”
#18: Stormkeep – Tales of Othertime
Isaac Faulk takes the crown for most versatile musician in metal right now. His work in Blood Incantation is arguably what he’s most renowned for, but the lush and wandering atmosphere he brings to Wayfarer, the purveyors of black metal Americana, is equally compelling. The two bands he’s in are both very good, and despite both being metal bands, they couldn’t be farther apart from one another in style.
Not one to keep his talent confined to a single instrument, Stormkeep is Faulk’s vessel to focus on guitar work and melodic composition. The style of black metal he chooses to operate in is distinct: Wayfarer has a modern apporach that mimics the allure and delivery of post-rock, but Tales of Othertime is a strict tribute to ’90s symphonic black metal: Limbonic Art, early Enslaved and Satyricon, and, of course, Emperor. A shitload of Emperor. The album cover even seems to be a modern reworking/alternate take on In the Nightside Eclipse. It’s a hard style to recreate, and Faulk seems to do it without breaking a sweat. He would be a great candidate for my next deep dive article. (hmmm…)
This is not a style I’m especially partial to – when it comes to the second wave, I tend to prefer the visceral, punk-lined stuff over the grandiose maximalism. However, if you have any familiarity with the style at all, the strength of the compositions is easy to see. Faulk makes nods to Ihsahn‘s approach to the guitar, warped and dissonant for the genre, and creates powerful storms of riffing with them. Opener “The Seer” has that specific little quasi-dissonant cadence you only really hear utilized in Norwegian symph-black, and while it’s a lazy trope of a black metal review to make some sort of second-wave comparison, Tales of Othertime is the first thing I’ve heard in a while that actually has that feel. You know the one I’m talking about.
The more restrained moments on this album are equally divine, if not more so. They sound “medieval” without being too obvious and corny, and effortlessly evoke mystical, fantastic imagery. Antiq Records is kicking themselves for not signing this group while they had the chance.
#17: Diabolizer – Khalkedonian Death
Many of the releases that stood out to me this year had oodles of songwriting wanderlust and ambient garnish. This is not one of those albums. Khalkedonian Death is a lean, tender cut of straight beef in metal form. Even though Diabolizer doesn’t give a single fuck about originality, they still push the genre forward into newer, riffier realms all the same. This Turkish group creates new colors by blending familiar shades, merging the blasting fury of Angelcorpse with the blistering, punchy groove of Vomitory.
While Diabolizer never sought to reinvent the wheel, this is still a thorough step up from the herd. The guitar tone is monstrous, with those signature Mustafa mids barging in with the force of a military-grade battering ram. Aberrant’s drumming is unrelenting and vicious, with a healthy dose of tasty fills separating each riff into a consumable little package.
It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of guitarist Mustafa Gürcalioğlu’s work, given I not only premiered a song from this album, but also did a deep dive on all of his projects a couple months ago. To not include either this or Hyperdontia’s new album in my top 20 would have been sacrilege. While Hideous Entity made a bid for this list itself, faster and more aggressive music will always get more time in my ears, and Khalkedonian Death has just a wee bit more focus on that than their Danish brethren.
#16: Spectral Wound – A Diabolic Thirst
What kind of good, polite Canadian would I be without including an offering from our Quebecois brethren? QCBM is already one of the most stacked and distinct scenes within the black metal sphere, but it’s been relatively quiet the past few years following the ascent into notoriety of bands such as Forteresse, Gris and Csejthe. The scene needs new blood to stay at the top of the pack.
QCBM tends to draw from the long-winded, “riffs as textures rather than lines of melody” approach that bands like Drudkh and Walknut use, so it’s refreshing to hear an album that leans more to the spirited, punky side as Spectral Wound does. For that reason, they already turned a few heads with their debut album. A pivot to Profound Lore and a bit of an enhanced aesthetic was all it took for this band to blow up and become one of the most-hyped black metal bands in 2021.
Not to say that the hype wasn’t deserved – I am including this on my personal top 20 list, after all. For all the fancy rambling I can do to explain why my brain goes “thing good” when I listen to a piece of music, black metal is one of those genres you feel in your gut in an indescribable way. Some call it the hallmark of “true” black metal. Whatever that ineffable essence is, Spectral Wound is dripping with it on A Diabolic Curse. The riffs have the classic, evocative simplicity to them, the vocals are maybe a bit high in the mix, which only underscores their raw power.
The true beauty, though, lies in how this sounds exactly like a black metal album should. A Diabolic Curse is raw and cluttered on the surface, but then you realize there’s a subtlety and depth to it. Everything clicks when you realize mixing/mastering was handled by none other than the ubiquitous Arthur Rizk – you know, the Eternal Champion/Sumerlands guitarist who’s gotten a ton of accolades recently for his production jobs. Anything this dude gets his hand on sounds perfect for its respective style. He can make a mediocre band sound great, and when you’re already good like Spectral Wound? Daaaaamn….
#15: Ophidian I – Desolate
The best way I can sum up this album in a sentence: This is what Dragonforce and Spencer Prewett would sound like if someone locked them in a room and forced them to subsist solely on meth while writing an album together. Holy fuck. Even in a year where multiple tech-death bands came out with incredible, bar-raising material, Ophidian I still made tons of people exclaim “how the hell do they even do that???”.
The difference between this and the promising-but-forgettable debut Solvet Saeclum is like night and day. There’s a new drummer and vocalist, but the string section has stayed mostly consistent even in the 9 years between two full-lengths, and it sounds like they spent all 9 years working on their riffs 18 hours a day. There’s a clear elevation and enhancement in the speed and spirited, ubermelodic leads, creating some of the happiest death metal I’ve ever heard. Seriously, listen to one of these songs and tell me you don’t get this giddy feeling like you just saw your crush and/or consumed an unhealthy amount of stimulants.
#14: Worm – Foreverglade
You come for the gorgeous Brad Moore art, you stay for the simplistic, yet oddly captivating heavy melody, and you get sucked in for the long haul when the guitarist starts to show off. On Foreverglade, Worm takes cues from the gods of spacious gloom such as Evoken, Disembowelment and Esoteric and twists them into a faint black metal base, referencing their earlier stages. The Floridian group seems perfectly comfortable in the style. The sickly low growls, acid-gargling high rasps and wandering, skeletal drums coalesce around the smooth, bass-heavy tone to take you on an unexpected, nightmarish journey.
Death/doom traditionally has a few different means of generating atmosphere: an overwhelmingly distorted tone, focusing more on the ambience, or perhaps just cranking out groovy, midpaced riffs one after the other. Worm opts to do none of those things, but instead twist and turn through various themes and motifs with the lurching grace of a Lovecraftian monster. It sometimes seems random and convoluted, but every diversion, like the unusually virtuosic solos or the blastbeat section in “Empire of the Necromancers” serves a purpose and adds another layer to the cascading psychedelia. If you’re going to listen to one death/doom album this year and tire quickly of the tropes the genre is known to offer, this will be a pleasant surprise.
#13: Dvne – Etemen Aenka
Progressive sludge metal is definitely mood music for me – I can go months on end without even so much as thinking about it, but then I start feeling those all-natural hippy-dippy vibes (or just do some psychedelics) and suddenly choice cuts by Isis and Baroness once again become some of my all-time favorite albums. I tend to stick with what I already know in these times, though – Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard put out a great ethereal doom album in 2019 that I jammed a lot, but otherwise the long-standing heavy hitters in this field (add Neurosis and The Ocean to the short list I had above) are the safest bets to deliver…
…until now. Etemen Aenka is going to take some time to grow on you – the nasal undertone in the clean vocals take some time to resonate, and the spacious, bubbling melody is almost too well infused with the powerful, sludgy climaxes, which at times seems to dampen their effect… but give it some patience. Leave it on in the background while you do something else, and feel how this synchronized, breathing body grows and pulsates. It slowly creeps up on you when you least expect it, and then suddenly you’re belting out a high-pitched soprano while doing the dishes.
I had no clue where this was going to fall on the AOTY list for me because when I love it, it’s arguably better than anything I’ve heard in 2021, but when I’m not locked into the mood, it’s merely decent. That being said, there was no way it wasn’t making the cut somewhere. This is what I want out of a major label album like Metal Blade: great production, cinematic in scope without losing its organic, grounded qualities, and tons of layered atmosphere-building. That stuff’s not impossible to do on a smaller budget, but being backed by the big dogs certainly doesn’t hurt if that’s the sound you’re going for.
Whatever the context, this band quietly added themselves to the ranks of the progressive sludge elites with Etemen Aenka, and you’d be shafting yourself if you’re a fan of the style and didn’t get to it.
#12: Ominous Ruin – Amidst Voices that Echo in Stone
When I was really starting to get into metal around the mid-2000s, I remember the Cali tech death scene being one of the most notorious and discussion-spawning in the internet metal realms: Decrepit Birth, Severed Savior, and Odious Mortem continue to awe me to this day. Brain Drill was more known around then, and Inanimate Existence carried on the Cali traditions. Some people loved the jaw-dropping, boundary-pushing speed and musicianship, others criticized the prioritization of maximalism over memorability. I definitely place myself more in the former camp – maybe it’s because it was so essential in shaping my taste, but that specific intricate, tasty sound is one of my favorite flavors, and it’s not easy to come by.
That may be why I’ve given a ton of spins to the new Ominous Ruin full-length – it’s the closest thing I’ve heard to a throwback to that sweepy Bay Area sound – tons of noodles, rhythms so tight they feel robotic, riff-blender songwriting that captures your attention with sudden, overt melody, and acrobatic showmanship. The bass tone is silky smooth and the performance is phenomenal, and would be the bass performance of the year if Forest Lapointe hadn’t gone absolutely bonkers on the new First Fragment album.
That being said, you might notice that First Fragment just missed the cut for the top 20 – that album went balls to the wall, and maybe it’ll move up this list once it has more time to marinate, but overall, I find myself drawn to the brevity and punch of Amidst Voices That Echo in Stone more. Sure enough, the old guard themselves recognized that Ominous Ruin are carrying the torch, as Odious Mortem recently recruited their main songwriter, Alex Bacey, as a second guitarist. If that doesn’t give you the seal of approval, I don’t know what will.
#11: Pestilential Shadows – Revenant
Pestilential Shadows was a new find for me this year, despite them having 20 years of experience and a half dozen albums under their belt. Just goes to show there’s always something else you have’nt heard yet in this genre.
There’s this almost… bouncy… cadence to this album I haven’t heard much of before. Whatever it is, it evokes the “true black metal” vibe almost effortlessly. This doesn’t sound anything like a second-wave band, but the end feeling is the same if that makes sense. Revenant taps into that small area at the base of your spine that makes you tingle, grabs a firm hold and stays right there through the rise and fall of several tracks. Though the riffs are simple, there isn’t a single boring part and even the most minimal moments on this release are carefully crafted.
The bass tone is absolutely perfect. You can’t even understand how much bass gets neglected in this style until you hear the harmony in ‘Procession of Souls‘ when the mid-paced part kicks in. It rounds out the melodies to give them the impact they need, carrying them to even further heights by grounding them with a warm tone. Without fail, that part gives me frisson and gets my head nodding every time, and there’s several more moments like that throughout Revenant to enjoy.
(full feature here)
#10: Passéisme – Eminence
This was a curveball that hit me right in the face right from the first riff. The name Passéisme may suggest a French origin, and the atmosphere evokes images of medieval France, but this trio of antiquated black metallers actually comes out of the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. It’s a peculiar release before you’ve even heard a note, and it might seem a bit silly and ham-fisted if the music wasn’t so powerfully gripping.
There’s an exuberant playfulness in Eminence that demands to be heard, overflowing to the brim with joyous, prideful melody. The abundant energy never overpowers the mystique, though those two forces constantly seem to be duelling for dominance. It makes for a more succinct and immediately rewarding listen than fellow Medieval metallers Obsequiae – they venture into similar textures and themes, but Passéisme has more bang for your buck because they don’t just focus on cultivating an atmosphere – they hammer you over the head with riffs as well. Paradoxically, this makes the album feel more “medieval” than anything Obsequiae or Forefather ever did.
#9: Crystal Coffin – The Starway Eternal
Hailing from the West coast, Crystal Coffin are a band rooted in the Cascadian tradition. Long, sustained marches of frigid tremolo set the tone for the songs, dictating their pace and flow while the warm bass of Aron Shute adds an earthy undertone with subtle harmony. The drums never leave the pocket, with fills and transitions seldom being used lest they detract from the rolling grooves and steady march that propels the songs forward.
The Starway Eternal adds a steadier resonance and extra keyboard layers to fatten out the mix compared to its predecessor The Transformation Room. Guitarist/keyboardist Lenkyn Ostapovich writes simple, long-form melodic lines that hold your interest even as they repeat for minutes at a time, and the transitions between riffs are incredibly fluid – the drums hold the same beat, and since you’re already dialed into the groove, the next riff slips into your head almost without notice… and then it’s just suddenly there, like the song is in a different place and you were so into the ride you didn’t even realize where it was taking you.
Wolves in the Throne Room put out a solid album in its own right this year, one that has a few parallels to The Starway Eternal in style. At this point, though, the expansive, post-rock tendencies Wolves have grown fond of play a much bigger role. Crystal Coffin, on the other hand, is rooted in pure black metal. Even with some dips into ponderous stargazing and a futuristic, fantasy-rich lyrical theme that is unusual for the genre, this still has that paradoxical power to completely lock you into a song with a simple three-note riff. Even though you don’t always hear it directly you get the sense these guys listen to a lot of prog rock like Opeth and Porcupine Tree, because the songs aren’t afraid to lean on repetition. Occasionally you get the sense they might be hanging on for too long, but once the next movement has subtly wormed its way in, you immediately forget about that. Fortunately, when they took Opeth cues, they didn’t also inherit Mikael Akerfeldt’s inability to smoothy transition between themes. This is on the other side of the spectrum in how unified, cohesive, and simple-yet-effective it is.
When it comes to strictly black metal (no genre hybrids like black/folk or post-black included), I can’t think of a better album this year. Just goes to show you shouldn’t judge an album by its cover. Quite the opposite, in fact.
#8: Dormant Ordeal – The Grand Scheme of Things
December releases tend to have a bit of a tough go in year-end lists – you don’t really have enough time to digest them for the year-end lists that are in the process of coming out, and you’re likely to forget about it when the time comes to make next year’s list. There’s a reason you tend to see a huge chunk of new releases come out between mid August and late October. That’s why I’ve made a point to include Dormant Ordeal’s new album, because this might be buried in the avalanche of other albums you missed checking out.
Dormant Ordeal was originally a solo project of drummer Radek Kowal, which is actually noticeable: the drums are the most attention-grabbing aspect of the show, with a constant sense of momentum in the snare and the footwork. I dunno what it is about Poles being really good at blast beats, but they seem to have a wealth of drummers over there that make going crazy fast seem stupidly easy. The rhythms sound like they were written before the guitars with how the string section tends to mirror the ups and downs of the rhythm, which guides the melody and drives it forward.
Speaking of the sense of melody – wow. This band will occasionally add drops of Mgla and Deathspell Omega into slick, speedy death metal grooves that bring to mind regional brethren like Decapitated and Lost Soul. The overflowing energy and pulsating life that spills out of this band manifests in an esoteric sort of playfulness, which is highlighted by the odd, not-sure-if-serious titles such as “Poetry Doesn’t Work on Whores“, “Here Be Dragons“, “Letters to Mr. Smith“… if nothing else, it’s a welcome change from metal’s tendency to pick song titles out of a death-and-suffering-themed word bank. The precise mix is one that’s energetic, multifaceted and powerful, yet still keeps the melodies discernible and within your grasp. In short, it’s got depth, but it’s still real easy to headbang to. Also, if you’re a speedfreak like me, you’re gonna have a field day with this.
#7: The Flight of Sleipnir – Eventide
In my opinion, this is the only band that can even stand in Agalloch’s shadow. There are worship bands like Oak Pantheon, Woods of Ypres, Gallowbraid, Arbor, Falls of Rauros, but none of them have their own way of expressing that magical feeling you get when you’re immersed in nature and feel inexplicably connected to everything around you.
As always, the secret sauce is in the songwriting. Though The Flight of Sleipnir have never ventured faster than a middling pace, the rhythm section is breathing and dynamic, with lush, oaken tom tones and tasteful cymbal melody. If they have a good idea in a song, it always lasts long enough to make you satisfied, yet never seems to linger long enough to wear out its welcome. The bridges between songs are equally as interesting as the climaxes, endlessly shifting the layers in the songs. They never really build into things the way a post-rock song might – there’s always a form of busyness somewhere in the songs; a bubbling guitar line, a tiny drum fill punctuating it, or interwoven guitar harmonies.
#6: Fractal Generator – Macrocosmos
This came out in January, so chances are a lot of people are going to forget about it, favoring more hyped releases that came out recently. This is your reminder to not sleep on this incredible work of claustrophobic Hate Eternal-styled death metal. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a guitar + synth tone combination that so accurately represented the suffocating vacuum of the cosmos in auditory form.
In merging discordant, speedy riffing with a mechanical, industrialized groove to the rhythms and throwing some robotic bleeps and bloops overtop, Fractal Generator overcame the common pitfalls of blasty death metal and space-influenced music. The mildly melodic undertones make parts stick instead of descending into a mindless cacophony a la Angelcorpse, yet the music rarely diverges from its riff focus and doesn’t sacrifice meat for an extra dollop of ambience like many cosmic-themed bands tend to do. I’ve always thought atmosphere is something generated by the music itself, not something you put on top of otherwise plain music like a condiment. This group of Canadians understands this better than most, as a majority of the resonant power of Macrocosmos stems directly from the otherworldly vibe the riffs are able to conjure.
Bonus points because these guys come from my home province – Ontario tech reigns supreme!!
#5: Ænigmatum – Deconsecrate
Ænigmatum’s second full-length shows stunning growth on what was already a developed and engaging core style. Like all good metal should, the star of the show is the riffs, and Kelly McLaughlin makes a serious case for becoming a household name in American metal with Deconsecrate. The free-flowing dissonant approach that incorporates multiple metal subgenres brings to mind prog death groups such as The Chasm, StarGazer and early At the Gates, but the riffs still have a hearty punch that hits you in the gut courtesy of the incredible drum performance laid down by Pierce Williams. The skinsman enjoyed a rapid ascent into metal notoriety in recent years for his guitar work in Lord Gore and Torture Rack before switching to drums and quickly being scooped up by death/thrash juggernauts Skeletal Remains, just to give an idea of his pedigree. The best part is, he was holding back in those past bands to fit their respective styles. Ænigmatum is where he gets to go all-out with extended drum fills and relentless, bubbling speed, and the end results are tight, catchy and complex all at once.
After being thoroughly enthralled and mind-boggled by the lead guitar and drums for a few spins of Deconsecrate, you’ll eventually notice the bass creeping in and how it seems to create a different harmony with each new repetition of a riff, locking several more moments on Deconsecrate straight into your memory. It’s hard to identify a weak point on this album, as the parts where you’re not jamming out to the riff usually have something different going on that requires further focus and inspection.
As a connoisseur of various extreme metal styles, this has everything I want out of a new album in 2021. Ænigmatum is here, and they deserve to be recognized as the force they are.
#4: Stortregn – Impermanence
At first you aren’t really sure what this is trying to be. Is it another wanky Inferi clone? A more progressive version of Insomnium, or perhaps a more technical Be’lakor? Early Cynic reimagined for the modern era?
It’s only when you get halfway through Impermanence and feel like it just started that you realize Stortregn is much, much more than the sum of whatever their influences are. Impermanence is a twelve-star buffet of guitar noodles stringing you in every direction, always giving you just enough and leading you into the next section with ease. There are epic riffs, catchy riffs, techy riffs, beautiful riffs, all garnished with delicious bass noodles, powerful roars, and drumming with fills that are as smooth as room-temperature butter. It’s a musical charcuterie board and every single piece on it is either finely preserved and cured meat or some insatiably creamy Brie.
The Artisan Era has a monopoly on anything in technical/prog death metal spheres – Inferi, Abiotic and Dessiderium came out via the label in this year alone. This band may be one of the least technical (it’s a high bar to clear, to be fair) and most generic bands on Artisan’s Era roster, but neither of those things end up mattering, because Stortregn’s songwriting chops are second to none. The rises and falls in tension are constructed flawlessly, and the trade-off guitar leads are so fucking tasty and always add to the song they’re in.
Everyone in the band clearly knows their way around, but Stortregn doesn’t like to show off. They give each musician a chance to say their piece, valuing pacing and flow over sheer jaw-dropping technicality, which makes for a much more memorable, lasting album in the long term. It helps that the band has been at this for a while – this is their fifth album in ten years, so they’ve had lots of practice and time to iron out their kinks. Long story short, this is an incredible band and outside of tech-head circles I haven’t seen Impermanence get nearly as much attention as it should.
#3: Suffering Hour – The Cyclic Reckoning
In Passing Ascension was already excellent, but there was still some room to go further, so I was especially excited for this album. All of my needs were fulfilled: this is Suffering Hour coming into their own and ramping up the little quirks that make their sound unique and cool to the absolute maximum. It’s got even more standout melodies, with an anthemic, almost folk-metal-styled influence to some moments, and the little dissonant bends that dragged you into maelstroms of discordant notes now create entire little groove sections. Suffering Hour takes the near-impossible-to-pull-off style of “melodic dissonance” only attempted by more high-minded, “intellectual” artists a la Blut Aus Nord, Ulcerate and The Chasm, and somehow inserts it into a formula that makes you headbang like crazy. The Cyclic Reckoning mixes sophistication with savagery like no other modern band does. It’s refreshingly original, surprisingly fun to listen to, and sucks you into its atmosphere immediately.
If the weird effect on the mind-fucking guitar part two minutes into “Strongholds of Awakening” doesn’t sell you, I don’t know what will. They do this thing where they add some sort of delay or flange effect on the guitar (I’m not enough of a gear nerd to know exactly what’s doing it) and it creates a haunting, almost gothic effect over powerful blackened death metal. Again, this is one of those things that came out early in the year and that seems to have gotten it shafted from a lot of year end lists. I was expecting something this bold, captivating and on top of current metal trends to be a media darling – this should have made even more waves than it did.
#2: Archspire – Bleed the Future
I couldn’t contain my excitement over this, which led me to write a giant slab of fanboy word vomit when covering it for the monthly Top 10 column that I do over at MetalBite. Everything I said in that is still true: Archspire have once again pushed the limits of technical death metal to untouched realms of speed, carpal-tunnel-inducing dexterity, and breath control, beefed up the low end in the production, and generally just make you wonder how the fuck long they had to practice to get to this level of skill throughout the entirety of Bleed the Future. 10,000 hours would get you maybe halfway there. Maybe.
Now that I’ve given this a bit of time to sit in and have removed my rose-colored glasses though, I can write about this a bit more objectively. I still think this is fantastic, obviously – Archspire is my favorite active band – but I might prefer Relentless Mutation over this a tad. I found the vocals had a bit more dynamic instead of being a constant tape on fast forward, and the songwriting more rounded and succinct. The heavier, slammy tracks on Bleed the Future, like “Golden Mouth of Ruin” and “A.U.M.“, are my favorites and among two of the best tracks they’ve done, but some of the lighter moments (“Drain of Incarnation”) seem to fall back on some of the motifs they used in Relentless Mutation. They feel like the only stagnant element in a band otherwise shooting straight upward.
It’s hard to find any real complaints with this though, considering Archspire cleared my absurdly high expectations effortlessly. I’m just giving a justification of sorts as to why this ended up falling a hair short to my personal Album of the Year pick…
#1: Stone Healer – Conquistador
The promotional material for this recommended it to “fans of Ulcerate, Krallice, Alice in Chains, Kvelertak, and Paradise Lost“, which is… perplexing, to say the least. Talk about a bunch of artists I never would have grouped together under any other circumstance. The text mentioned boundless expression of emotion, escaping the limits of their previous progressive black metal project to transcend and defy genre, mixing rock with dissonant death metal. It was a valiant and worthy effort to try and encapsulate whatever Conquistador is, but all that poetic waxing still didn’t properly articulate how it is like absolutely nothing I have ever heard before.
It’s not just the occasional moment that makes you go “huh, that was kinda different” – every single acoustic build, every climax, every single twist and turn is dotted with idiosyncratic Stone Healer-isms that perhaps have traces of the bands mentioned above as influences, but they’re integrated together in ways I didn’t think any musician could even fathom, much less make sound remotely appealing. Articulating what makes this such a spectacular, unique album is more difficult than usual because there’s so many different ideas here: the shrill, blackened dissonance of Krallice, a fill-laden, lush drum performance that brings to mind the more aggressive moments of Opeth (among many other things), a mix of tonal, passionate shouts and nasal, idiosyncratic clean singing that might be more of an acquired taste if the music around it wasn’t already so weird…and that’s just scratching the surface, really.
Now, the big hurdle to clear with any sort of genre-defying hybrid like this is not having everything sound like a total mess, but that’s probably why I love this so much: even though this sounds like twelve different genres, often simultaneously, it’s an incredibly easy listen. The magic of Conquistador is how accessible, memorable and downright fun it is, and it’s the kind of thing that nothing else is going to sound like even decades from now. That combination of immediately catchy and uniquely complex is very, very rare to see in an album, and I’m downright shocked to see that it hasn’t gotten more attention.
The Kaminsky brothers created a transcendental masterpiece with Conquistador. The degree to which this blows me away and continues to be an enthralling, thoroughly immersive piece of music after months of listening in various settings is why this narrowly edged out some amazing stuff to be my 2021 Album of the Year pick.