Today I must bring this list to an end. It’s not because I’m really finished — I have dozens more songs I’d like to add and write about. It’s because we’re now a week into February and I really ought to spend more time focusing on the songs of this year instead of yesteryear.
So, please do me a favor and hold your fire. I know I didn’t include some of the songs you’ve been waiting to see, and please don’t question how the hell I chose the ones I did include, at the cost of your own favorites, because it was anything but an organized, scientific, and well-thought-out process. I’m happy with what I chose, but easily could have chosen others.
That statement is as true of today’s final songs as all the ones that came before. I picked a few — okay, more than a few (though accompanied by fewer words and no artwork) — but in coming down to the wire I yielded even more to random impulse than probably ever before.
On Monday I’ll add a “wrap up” post that compiles everything on the list from eager beginning to anguished end, all in one place. And with that, here are the final choices, this time arranged alphabetically.
ATRA HAERESIS (International)
If you didn’t catch this first song when we premiered it last year, you’d better take some big gulps of air before diving in, because it’s so exhilarating on so many levels that you’ll need the extra oxygen. And on top of that I would add the warning to loosen up your neck muscles, because its powerfully hammering grooves will trigger the good old headbang reflex in extravagant fashion.
BEYOND GRACE (UK)
Nope, we have no anti-nepotism rule here at NCS. But although I can’t “un-know” that Andy Synn is the vocalist of Beyond Grace, I still feel objectively reasonable in picking “Hive Mind” as one of last year’s most infectious songs. It’s a vicious piece of work, but viciously catchy too, and highly capable of getting your blood rushing and bones rumbling.
This next song is a big earth-shaker and a mighty head-mover but also palpably sinister, and the mix of singing and ravenous, fangs-bared hostility works very well. The closing sequence of swirling guitars, titanic bass lines, compulsive drumwork and eerie, brazen melody seals the deal.
CRYSTAL COFFIN (Canada)
Man, I loved The Starway Eternal, from its fascinating concept to its jaw-dropping musical scale, intensity, and unearthly atmosphere. Lucky me that I got to premiere the whole album. I fell for the title track hardest of all. The music blares and jolts, creates maddened musical seizures, and incorporates so many rhythmic and melodic hooks within the fast-paced torrent that the song becomes immediately infectious — and it also soars in a way that makes it even more towering and majestic, without losing the overarching feeling of dread and downfall.
CULT OF LUNA (Sweden)
I’ll let Andy Synn speak for this next one (from his review of the EP that included it): “‘What I Leave Behind’, is the real star here…. At just under six minutes it’s the shortest, and perhaps most focussed, ‘proper’ Cult of Luna track the band have produced in almost a decade, whose blend of heaviness, intensity, and simmering aggression recalls the group’s earlier, angrier, years as seen through the lens of an older, wiser, but no less vital, no less visceral, version of the band”.
FUNERAL CHANT (U.S.)
I got to premiere this band’s self-titled first album last year, and what a pleasure that was. What really sets Funeral Chant apart from the throngs of bands perpetrating seething, murky, black/death metal abominations is the combination of technical skill and adventurousness they display in their murderous work. And fortunately, despite the feral, lo-fi production quality of their debut, those head-spinning qualities still come through clearly enough to give most listeners bugged-out eyes, dropped jaws, and maybe rivulets of gasping slobber.
And so, the songs are crushing, eviscerating, hateful, and ferocious at a primal level, but are also intricate, well-plotted, and eerie. In the heat of the moment, they trigger an enormous adrenaline rush, but it takes multiple listens before you begin to follow all the labyrinthine exercises going on within these raging storms of sound. “Serpent Pact” is a great example.
MAN MUST DIE (UK)
You didn’t really think I’d leave Man Must Die off this list did you? Few bands command such enthusiastic shared support among me and my longest-term comrades here at NCS — support that was further cemented by “Bring Me the Head of the King“. It’s a wild and furious ride, faster than a cheetah with a rocket in its ass and packed with jolting twists and turns. There’s some singing in this one, coupled with the furious teeth-bared howls, plus tendrils of despairing and despondent melody.
MARIANAS REST (Finland)
Thank you Gonzo for making sure I didn’t miss “Pointless Tale“. As he wrote when he put the band’s 2021 album on his year-end list: “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 [Omnium Gatherum and Swallow the Sun] also follow, but on tracks like ‘Pointless Tale,’ Rest ups the ante. It’s a heartbreaking song, but also infectious as an airborne virus”.
“The Truther” is stupefyingly heavy. It hits so hard that you might think you’re sitting beneath a pile-driver in operation, and the blaring lead riff immediately invades the mind and begins to scourge it, accompanied by crazed shrieking and snarling vocals. The juggernaut rhythm is a serious neck-wrecker, and the siren-like pulse of that brazen main riff turns out to be contagious. The song relentlessly cycles ever onward, with an eerie screaming guitar fighting to get through. Eventually, the music subtly and briefly changes, but becomes no less devastating or head-hooking.
“The Serpent’s Stone” is a tremendous musical fantasy. It blends majestically blazing and blasting black metal with sprightly and sweeping dungeon synth, creating vast visions of myth and magic. The heart-pounding music ravages, whirls, and soars; glorious power-metal vocals send the music to even greater heights when they trade off with the caustic goblin snarls. The guitar solo, though crestfallen, is also riveting. Yes, I’ll say it, the track is epic.
THE LION’S DAUGHTER (U.S.)
Post-punk and New Wave have been brought into extreme metal with increasing frequency. I happen still to be devoted to those influences from the ’80s even though I don’t listen to the music nearly as much as I did back then. And thus I’d be dishonest with myself if I didn’t include even one song on the list that displays this kind of melting pot. “Neon Teeth” is the one I chose, in part because of its deliciously spooky keys. If it doesn’t get you moving, I’ll be surprised.
And I close with one more song (and an excellent video) that I got to know because I hosted the premiere (in late December, just under the wire for consideration for this list). You had better get your neck and shoulders loose before listening to “Renewal“. Hell, get your whole body loose, because the song will make you move, and your conscious mind will likely have no power over that impulse.
It rocks very damned hard, thanks to its skull-cracking drum rhythms, gut-rumbling bass lines, and swaggering, slashing chords. It also erupts in flurries of blasting drums and feverish tremolo’d fretwork, shifting the song’s mood of grim, sinister menace into one of feral frenzy. The vocals shift as well. There comes a point when the song changes gears, becoming slower and somewhat less neck-damaging, and when that happens the riffing both jolts and becomes more unnerving. But the song is still punching your neck and moving your head, just at a more moderate pace.