Dr. A.N. Grier’s Top Ten(ish) of 2021

As I write this, I’m sitting in the dark of my new place, having just charged my computer in my truck. I’ve been promised my electricity will be on in a couple of days and I won’t have to hotspot anymore. Yet, I can’t complain that it’s been a bad year, and I’m sorry for all the writers that have had a tough go at it. I’m not surprised how destructive it’s been to people’s psyche to hear that the pandemic is over, and then it’s not. I’ve seen it in many of my fellow writers, friends, family, and colleagues. It’s been a tough year. In some cases, worse than last year. And no one really expected it.

But that’s what makes this place so great. Music is permanent things we have in this world. It’s always there when you need it, and no one can take it away. And, for all the concerts we’ve missed and all the money lost by these hardworking bands, we’ve seen a lot of great output this year. I can’t ignore the interview I had with the Rimfrost guys when they told me that without the time the pandemic gave them, Son of Sam’s And the Monster Awoke… probably never would have happened. Sure, it’s a silver lining. But, with all the frustrations we have right now, that’s something positive to remember. Not only have all these bands created something relevant to the times, but we all get to enjoy it. I know that this year’s music hit many of us as hard as it did the first time we ventured into metal. And, from where I stand, I’m grateful. And every one of the albums I’ve listened to this year (good and bad) proves that a pandemic can’t stop it. Every band on every one of our lists worked their asses off to produce something they believe in, even if it makes them no money. And, even if I gave it a rough score, someone loves it and looks at it as the best gift they could receive in this tough time.

So, I’d like to thank all the bands out there working hard to give us everything we’ve loved, hated, and argued about this year. For all the bigger bands we’ve reviewed at AMG, we’ve seen a lot of underground acts, as well as brave, new ones, surface in our inbox. Although I’m upset that I’ve been so busy that my output is the lowest it’s ever been, this crew of writers—working only for the love of music1—continue to give these bands visibility and share their efforts with all you. I’m lucky to be a part of this crew, and I know you’re appreciative of them as well. You’d be surprised by the number of albums the crew buys, given that we get free mp3 promos. We all do our part, and I’ve never been more proud to be a writer here.

No matter if you’re a writer crafting a review for free while your kids are asleep or you’re a reader checking on a review in hopes of finding something that’ll make you happy on your lunch break, I’m glad you’re here. Sure, an in-person concert would be great. But, don’t forget that simply loving an album has helped make someone’s dream come true. So, here’s to up-and-coming bands and releases that will blow our socks off in 2022. Happy New Year to my beloved AMG colleagues2 and all you.3

#ish. Trivium // In the Court of the Dragon – You don’t even need to say it; I can feel your disappointment from here. But, it would be stupid of me to ignore In the Court of the Dragon. I’ve probably listened to it more than everything else this year. And it only came out in October. So, in standing with Grier list tradition, Trivium’s newest outing is my ish for the year. I know you’re all mad and that starting my list with a heavy metal/quasi-metalcore record won’t help me make any friends. But, honestly, I don’t want your friendship. If you can’t appreciate the impressive shredding, killer drum work, and calculated choruses—with each syllable precisely placed—then I guess this is goodbye. On your way out, I’ll play you “Like a Sword over Damocles” and “From Dawn to Decadence,” so you’ll forever know what you’re missing. Although this declaration might leave me an eternal poser, it’s really OK to like Trivium. Not everything sold at Hot Topic is shit.

#10. Take Over and Destroy // Fade Out – These Arizona boys (affectionately known as TOaD) have an air to them that reminds me of Amenra. Not so much musically, but because of their presence at a live show. Both are easily the most captivating bands I’ve ever seen. Vocalists of both bands are so absorbed in the music that you can literally feel it radiating off them, traveling across the room, and penetrating your very soul. You can’t look away, can’t headbang, you can’t do anything. All you can do is stare. These two bands also share some similarities in the sludge genre they play in, but TOaD is far more approachable. Their riffs are moody, single-plucked notes in the vein of old-school doom. And when the vocals go clean, there’s a good amount of Peter Steele in those croonings. But, while Take Over and Destroy has rocking numbers, moody pieces, and organ-filled atmospheres, Fade Out is very streamlined. It abandons those Type O Negative vibes for chug and groove. Fade Out is a pleasing jammer that never gets old no matter how many times I’ve partaken.

#9. Opera Diabolicus // Death on a Pale HorseOpera Diabolicus has all the elements that kick Grier squarely in the nuts. Of course, I knew I would like Opera Diabolicus before spinning this new record, but, goddamn, does Death on a Pale Horse deliver. Being a big-time King Diamond fan, it’s not surprising that Death on a Pale Horse would draw me in. And not just because of the overlapping guests and band members. This is definitely my over-the-top horror metal kick for the year. In previous years, I’ve turned to the goofy fun of Them. But Opera Diabolicus is so much more—backing the story up with some killer riffage. But you won’t know it on your first spin. You have to dive right in and commit yourself. It won’t take you long before you’re hooked. If not, then fuck right off, poser.

#8. Decline of the I // Johannes – Twenty-twenty-one was a-buzz with some killer French black metal. Which, I’ve discovered in previous years, is my jam. But I didn’t know the lasting power of Johannes when I reviewed it back in March. Decline of the I found a focal point in the teachings of theologian Søren Kierkegaard and ran with it. The atmospheres, the cathedral choirs, clean guitar interludes, and the vicious black metal approach results in one of the nastiest black metal releases of the year. Like Mephorash, I’m unable to pull from its grasp. And even though it’s only five songs, the depth is so much more than that. When I listen to Johannes, I feel like I’m locked away in a black church covered in reptilian scales. No one can enter, and I can’t escape. It’s the same feeling I get when I listen to Shining’s mighty IV – The Eerie Cold and V – Halmstad. I’m alone in here, succumbing to the demons conjured from the depths of hell. And, in this church, these monsters relentlessly poison my mind with their truths? Their lies? Either way, I don’t want them ever to stop.

#7. Blood Red Throne // Imperial Congregation – We all know I’m a snobby death metal fan. It must be right up my alley, or it can fuck right off. Twenty-twenty-one has been a good year for death metal—tech death, in particular—but, to these ears, most of it is mediocre. I know, I know, but before you start flinging shit my way, I’ve admitted that I’m a snobby death metal listener.4 Give me Autopsy, Impaled, and Obituary-core, and I’m happy as a clam. Though that list is exclusively American, there’s another that I must add: Blood Red Throne. I’ve been with BRT since its inception. Neither ‘Merideath nor Swedeath, BRT started a bizarre, Scandinavian death metal trend of their own. While the band has shed most of its black influences, they continue to push their boundaries. And Imperial Congregation is one of their best and one of their heaviest. I’ve drawn every riff machine this year up against this album, and Imperial Congregation always comes out on top.

#6. Ars Moriendi // Le Silence Déraisonnable du CielArs Moriendi isn’t new to my year-end lists. Ars Moriendi’s last two albums found homes on my 2016 and 2019 lists. But it’s been a while since Arsonist gave us a dose of his mindfucking progressive black metal. While I’m sure it’s fun for Arsonist to see how much he can shove into a song, they’re still songs with structure and uniqueness. While there are plenty o’ one-person black metal bands with this much content, no one can entirely craft a piece like Arsonist. Everything we know of traditional black and atmoblack is on Le Silence Déraisonnable du Ciel. Once you dive in, there’s no way you can ignore the amount of musical talent here. Le Silence Déraisonnable du Ciel is, without a doubt, the progressive black metal record of the year.

#5. Ethereal Shroud // Trisagion – At some point, all things must come to an end. Trisagion marks the end of a trilogy, the end of an era, and the end of a band. Though we’ll run into Joe Hawker again one day, it won’t be under the moniker of Ethereal Shroud. And what a way to close this chapter. While I adore They Became the Falling Ash, I can’t deny that Trisagion is better. There’s so much to the album that it’s impossible to absorb everything even after the sixth spin. They Became the Falling Ash wasn’t predictable, but you knew what was coming before you got there. But, that isn’t true for Trisagion. At each turn, I’m more and more surprised by the songwriting. It’s full of inventive riffs, vocals, and the atmospheres are ever consuming. It feels like I’m trying to breathe through tar. Trisagion is very much Ethereal Shroud, but this is a side of Hawker I’ve never seen before.

#4. Amenra // De Doorn – I know everyone wanted Mass VI, Part II, but you didn’t get it. And it’s not Amenra’s fault you wanted that. You’re actually a fucking idiot for expecting Amenra to settle into what? A groove? I will admit that I find Mass VI more enjoyable5 than De Doorn. That said, this new release is every bit as dark and haunting as its predecessor. Those spoken-word segments are like the narration to a horror movie. With the tale set, the distortion and shrieks sink deep into your skin and remove it. But, De Doorn takes its time. You are slowly stripped clean over forty-seven minutes. And, in the end, you are left heartless, hopeless, and skinless.

#3. Son of Sam // And the Monster Awoke… – A part of me died when Rimfrost broke up. Their reformation this year repaired the pain, but I didn’t know what to do with myself at the time. Nor did I know what to expect from the Son of Sam spinoff. Crafted without Hravn, Throllv and Khratos took the studio and just… played. The result of pent-up anger, frustrations, and the pandemic led to And the Monster Awoke… While there are plenty of Rimfrost vibes in here, there’s so much more to And the Monster Awoke… How the duo made an album with such diversity that the pissed-off “Depravity” is on the same disc as the psychedelic “Space Rider” is beyond me. On the surface, though, it’s a straightforward record that combines ’70s rock and ’80s metal with black, death, and melodeath. And that’s why it’s the most unique record of 2021.

Editor’s Note: Entry #2 on this list was removed under our “Don’t Support Nazis” policy due to the issues surrounding Mortuus and the rest of Marduk. We apologize for its inclusion.

#1. Black Sites // Untrue – I know I’m biased, and I showed that in my Untrue review. But that doesn’t dismiss the fact that Black Sites’s Untrue hit me hard. At my desk, in my truck, or going for a walk, Untrue is the perfect compliment. Mark Sugar has given us the most honest album he’s ever written. The band is in top form, and the way Sugar crafts a chorus is like no one else. Untrue is beautifully balanced, and you’re doing yourself a disservice not listening to the album’s final bar. “Call It by Its Name,” “The Worst of Us,” “Nocturne Everything Went Black,” and “White Ashes” are just a few of the highlights, and each is has stuck with me since I first heard the album back in September. Even with Funeral Mist dropping their massive bomb, it’s still no question in my mind that Untrue is this year’s best album.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Crystal Viper // The Cult – I can’t believe Crystal Viper once landed a spot on my 2019 Disappointment o’ the Year. That’s come and gone. Marta Gabriel is on the top of her game. Want some killer vocals and even killerier old-school heavy metal riffs? The Cult’s got it.
  • Bonehunter // Dark Blood Reincarnation System – Tent-Pole Teddy never looked so good. I hope he isn’t spent because no other band I’ve reviewed this many times continues to climb out of the pit like Bonehunter.
  • Pharaoh // The Powers That Be – What in the unholy hell is this? Having never really resonated with Pharaoh, I can’t put The Powers That Be to rest. Even when I think I’ve tired of it, I’m spinning it one more time.
  • Bizarrekult // Vi OverlevdeBizarrekult was a pleasant surprise. I have to admit, I didn’t think you could combine some old-school black with that burned-out black ‘n’ roll sound, but Vi Overlevde proved me wrong.
  • Liquid Tension Experiment // LT3 – I thought Dream Theater’s musicianship was fabulous at one point in my life. But I never liked the vocals. Then, came LTE. Unfortunately, LTE felt like a wankfest to me. But, now they’re back, and hearing the unbelievable Tony Levin is worth it. It’s not for everyone but, if anything else, you gotta check out the band’s metal rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Goddamn.

Disappointment o’ the Year:

  • Hypocrisy // Worship – I’m heartbroken doing this, but Hypocrisy’s Worship consists of 2-3 good songs. The rest is filler. Besides, Worship lacks that holistic atmosphere that Hypocrisy is so good at creating. The kind of atmosphere that holds an album together even when the songs aren’t that great.

Songs o’ the Year:

  • Black Sites “White Ashes” – Fuuuuuuck… that chorus speaks to me so much.

  • Blood Red Throne “Itika” – I haven’t cracked my neck this good in a long time.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. And fame and fortune.
  2. Shut the fuck up.
  3. Also, shut the fuck up.
  4. Snobby=lousy.
  5. If that’s how you want to put it.
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