(In this essay NCS contributor Gonzo brings his 3-part YE lists to a close with a Top 10 ranking of favorite albums.)
I could write an intro here, but with this being my third and final installment into this series, the thought of being so redundant fills me with untold amounts of existential dread.
In the interests of avoiding that (because there’s already enough existential dread in this godforsaken world), this list is #1 to 10 of my favorite releases from 2021.
Omnium Gatherum, Origin
It’s always nice to not be disappointed by a record you’re looking forward to hearing.
I felt like 2018’s The Burning Cold was a bit of a weak point for this band, whose brutish but melodic breed of death metal has always found a way into my favorites in the genre. By way of comparison to the astonishingly good Beyond, The Burning Cold just felt kind of rushed and unmemorable, save a few moments.
With Origin, Omnium Gatherum have not only regrouped and recovered, but they sound better than they have in years. The songwriting is on par with some of Beyond’s best moments. Markus Vanhala’s guitar playing is so sharp it could cut through the air of any room he’s standing in. And normally I’d gripe about the opening track just being a 3-minute instrumental, but in the case of Origin, it works beautifully.
I’d also file this one under “things I was not disappointed by in 2021,” and really, in the grand scheme of things beyond just music, that list is pretty fucking short.
Hypocrisy wield riffs with gut-churning efficacy on Worship, their best album since 2005’s Virus. I was hooked from the instant I heard the entire thing, and it’s increasingly rare that an album does that to me from start to finish. “Chemical Whore,” “Greedy Bastards,” and the title track all hit like a planet-destroying de-atomizer fired from an alien mothership. Peter Tägtgren seems to have sat on this one for a while after 2013’s End of Disclosure, and the wait turned out to be worth it.
There’s nothing especially fancy or different about Worship – it just wants to crush and devour everything in its left-hand path. It’s so good to have them back.
Blanket, Modern Escapism
There aren’t a lot of bands that sound like the UK’s Blanket and pull it off so seamlessly.
Falling somewhere between Deftones, Between the Buried and Me, and Tesseract, this album takes you for a jarring ride to the stratosphere and gently sets you right back down where you were. It’s ethereal, confounding, and at times challenging, but the kind of challenging that warrants repeated listens. You’ll probably hear something you didn’t notice before on each consecutive spin.
“White Noise” starts off the journey with a heavy, meaty, post-metal backdrop, with the beautifully harmonized vocals of Bobby Pook and Simon Morgan channeling the best of Chino Moreno. “Romance,” featuring harsh vocals from Gost, turns up the discordant noise factor, as well as “In Awe,” which features Loathe’s Kadeem France on a vocal spot. The varied styles and guest musicians coalesce to create a truly diverse and intriguing listen.
What I love most about Modern Escapism, though, is the mastery of flow. Each track is superseded by the next in perfect continuity, making the album unfurl like a movie. It was a late addition to this list, but as you can see from the placement, Modern Escapism has stayed with me in ways other music like this often doesn’t.
BÆST, Necro Sapiens
I first discovered these dudes during their set at Copenhell a few years ago and I’m still letting my face heal after they melted it off. I’m even in the video somewhere, stomping around in a dusty pit full of maniacs.
Necro Sapiens is one hell of a record. Its buzzsaw guitars, pounding rhythms, and gurgling-demon-in-a-flushing-toilet vocals lead a ferocious charge. As I type this, I’m listening to the title track, and the hair on the back of my neck stands up every fucking time the chorus hits. I can see the gauntlet-clad fists in the air as a sweaty festival crowd roars along to the lyrics. It’s also hard to type while headbanging, so let’s get on with it.
There’s not a single moment of filler throughout Necro Sapiens. Every song evokes chaos and destruction, and you can almost see the smiles on the faces of BÆST as they summon forth so much audial carnage. “Abattoir,” “Towers of Suffocation,” and “Goregasm” are the most fun I’ve had listening to death metal all year. And with a new single out already, even after this album’s release, I don’t see these beasts losing any momentum whatsoever, and the world is better for it.
Modern Rites, Monuments
When Kuyashi’s Jonny Warren and Aara’s Berg got together to start writing songs, they weren’t sure how it would end up, but their goal was to transcend cultural barriers with an original take on melodic black metal.
The results are spellbinding. For someone who cites ‘90s industrial as a major influence, Warren has helped to make Monuments remarkably organic. I expected to hear something more mechanical in nature, like a Soul of a New Machine-era Fear Factory, but that’s decidedly not the case here. Think along the lines of a slightly more melodic version of Emperor when it comes to what Modern Rites is doing. And oh god, do they do it well.
At seven songs and 36 minutes long, Monuments packs in quality for what it lacks in quantity. “Black Wolf” and “Self Synthesis” are especially savage, with Warren’s tortured howl bellowing alongside Berg’s tremolo majesty. For a duo that was seemingly just a “fuck it, why not” quarantine project, the entity now known as Modern Rites has opened a Pandora’s Box of potential. Keep an eye on ‘em.
Unto Others, Strength
This pick might be too boring for some, but I’ll be damned if it’s not a kickass piece of music.
Since this Portland-based outfit rebranded as Unto Others from their Idle Hands origins, they definitely seem to be aiming a little higher with the release of Strength. Everything is more polished, to be sure, but fear not: it’s not the over-commercialized tripe that it easily could’ve been.
Instead, Strength sees the band fine-tuning its sound, songwriting, and musicianship into something bigger than their humble goth-metal beginnings. Strength opens with what might be my favorite leadoff track of the year in “Heroin,” an old school smash-and-grab riff fiesta that bursts with energy. Later on, “Downtown,” “Hell is For Children,” and “When Will God’s Work Be Done” are too damn fun to ignore. And much to my relief, Gabriel Franco’s liberal usage of “UURGH” and “HWWAAUGH” is applied many times throughout each track.
I seem to recall ranking their previously album Mana up pretty high on my 2019 list as well, and I’m pretty confident in saying Strength takes Unto Others into the territory they were looking to find themselves in when they recorded it.
URNE, Serpent & Spirit
This was another new discovery for me this year, and it might be my favorite of all of them. (And there were many.)
Listening to how deftly URNE can shift from menacing post-hardcore sludge to atmospheric… post-grunge?… is immensely enjoyable. They’ll pivot from Mastodon-like grooves and clean vocals to a ferociously down-tuned blast beat and then into something that resembles Alice in Chains, and sometimes all in the same song.
The way URNE manages to blend all of this together without losing their own identity in the process is definitely an incredible thing to listen to. There’s even a dash of newer Converge woven into URNE’s sonic fabric, especially on “The Palace of Devils & Wolves” and “Memorial.” Vocalist/bassist Joe Nally sounds like he could rupture a throat muscle at any given moment, even if the band chooses to use his commanding bellow somewhat sparingly.
All told, not only will Serpent & Spirit take you behind the woodshed and beat the shit out of you, but it will also take the long way around the back of the house and detour into the mad scientist’s lab in the basement on the way.
Duskmourn, Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns
2021 was another banner year for melodeath, and few of the releases I heard even came close to touching the glorious third full-length from New Jersey’s Duskmourn.
The first thing that surprised the living crap out of me about this band is that they’re not from Scandinavia. With a sound that falls somewhere between Eluvietie, Moonsorrow and Wolfheart, I just assumed this music was a product of somewhere cold and tucked away in the Alps or in a Norwegian forest or something. Even more surprising: Duskmourn is just two dudes. Bill Sharpe handles the drums, guitars, and keyboards, while Walter Deyo mans the bass and the mic.
Fallen Kings has a certain kind of irreplaceable and inimitable energy about it. It’s an album you’d want to storm across a battlefield to. It’s the kind of triumphant experience that almost makes you raise a fist in the air involuntarily. The galloping tempos and searing tremolo leads are everywhere, with riffs and nastiness to boot. I’ve talked a lot about how I think great melodeath can make you feel something while banging your head, and Fallen Kings is no exception.
“Deathless” employs the usage of flutes and more folky elements that easily makes it one of this album’s high points, and that’s after the first two songs are done crashing the party. “Blood of the Forest” and “Mountain Heart” follow the cadence perfectly, with Deyo’s venomous rasp overseeing gorgeous melodic passages.
Few albums grew on me this year the way Witness did.
I remember putting it on once, being way too excited about it (because I absolutely loved Applause of a Distant Crowd) and just kind of shrugging after four or five songs. What was I expecting? Did I love Applause the first time I heard it too? Was Witness just not a worthy follow-up?
The hip-hop insertion on “These Black Claws” seemed especially forced. I mean… why though?
But then, I put it on for another spin. I listened to it all the way through. “Stone Leader Falling Down” got my head nodding to the ridiculously awesome down-tuned riff and the circle pit-inducing breakdown in the middle. Okay, I thought, here’s something to work with.
And then, it hit me.
This album is subtle in its brilliance but also precise in its execution. It just warrants several listens before you truly begin to understand what these talented Danes in VOLA are doing. “Straight Lines” gets things kicked off on a deliciously rumbly note, while “Head Mounted Sideways” follows a similar formula. “Napalm” ended up being a song I would routinely listen to on repeat; picture a more melodic version of a Fear Factory riff and add some layered keyboards on top of it. “Future Bird” and “Inside Your Fur” close things out wonderfully, with some of the best bass production on any album I heard this year.
After almost eight months of it being released, I still can’t get enough of Witness. It’s definitely not the heaviest disc you’ll see here and it might not be for everyone, but I really can’t recommend it enough if you’re open to it. I think it’s even eclipsed Applause, and that was (and still is) a high standard in my view.
Burial in the Sky, The Consumed Self
This was a decision I agonized over for way too long, but these 56 minutes of unhinged technical savagery won me over for the top spot in ’21.
Tech-death normally isn’t even a subgenre I spend much time with, but Burial in the Sky have done something fucking transformative with The Consumed Self. As I said earlier with Stone Healer, sometimes tech-death bands just want to blow our feeble little minds with dizzying songwriting and prodigious fretwork, making our heads explode into a fine pink mist. The trouble with this? It’s easy to completely forget what the hell you just heard when it’s over.
Burial in the Sky takes that narrative and laughs in its face. They spin a breathlessly complex web of crazy on The Consumed Self, frantically emptying their musical tank into hyper-aggressive blast-beat assaults that sound almost too ferocious to be contained in your speakers. (I have a sneaking suspicion that this album has blown out more than one speaker somewhere since its release.)
“An Orphaned City” and “On Wings of Providence” channel the best of what The Faceless used to do in their heyday. Both tracks are dominated by insane time changes, rapid-fire vocals, and a cohesive tightness that allows zero air to escape from any of it. While this is definitely what I’d call a death metal record, there’s some unignorable elements of atmospheric black metal as well, in the same vein you hear from Rivers of Nihil. (And that’s not just because Zach Strouse plays sax on this album and a few from RoN.)
Speaking of sax, yes, it’s getting a little too trendy to throw that in for the sake of atmosphere, but Burial in the Sky write in parts for Strouse that actually make sense. (And as a sax player myself, let me just say it’s about the fucking time.) Beyond Strouse’s involvement, though, the songs move and flow like the T-1000 from Terminator 2, taking the shape of whatever incarnation of brutality the band want to conjure. And it works. Every. Fucking. Time. Most notably on the stupendously good “Mountains” duo on this album.
In a year with so many incredible technical death metal records, Burial in the Sky have created something that shakes itself loose from the rest of the pack. Their brilliant musicianship and airtight songwriting is a sonic killing machine that just puts them squarely into elite territory.