El Cuervo’s and Diabolus in Muzaka’s Top Ten(ish) of 2021

El Cuervo

2021 saw another strong year for this great genre we call heavy metal. Though not all my selections below actually comprise such music, I’ve noticed following preparation that there are no two releases of the same sub-genre in my main list. This satisfies my general inclination that it’s been a solid year across the musical spectrum.

In addition, December (and late November) saw an embarrassment of metallic riches; there are four records which I seriously enjoy and would be potential list contenders. Notwithstanding my ish selection, they simply haven’t had enough gestation time for any sort of comparative assessment like a top ten list. These include Negură Bunget’s utterly mesmerizing final record, Zău. Its black metal is thunderous but the gentle, ambient folk really sells their sound to me. Trisagion by Ethereal Shroud is the doom-inflected, blackened monolith I didn’t realize my Winter needed, and yet it has undoubtedly improved it. And the second full-length release by Denmark’s Phrenelith entitled Chimaera is the burly monster I wanted it to be, and to my aural delight it leverages the awesome production package from the debut.

The message here is stop fucking releasing records in the last 5 weeks of the year. Merry Christmas.

(ish). Aquilus // Bellum IThe Aquilus sophomore album has been a decade in the making. Bellum I has been teased for so long that it’s been on my “upcoming releases” list for at least 4 years. The ultimate result is so densely compacted with grand, detailed orchestrations and classical complexity that it can hardly be termed metal. It has the towering feel of a superstructure, rather than a musical release. And despite its hour length, it passes so quickly, being much tighter than the 80-minute debut. I’ve agonized over this as my gut tells me this should be near the top of the list but my selections require some level of posterity and reflection; I wouldn’t want to make a snap decision that I regret in a month. A fuller review is to follow once I’ve unraveled more threads from this initially-stunning tapestry.

#10. Panopticon // …And Again into the Light – Following what felt disturbingly like expiry of quality with the last full-length I’m delighted to report that Panopticon in 2021 is back to strength following 2020’s excellent “Rune’s Heart”. …And Again into the Light exemplifies Austin Lunn’s approach to black metal, wrapping blasting melodies, delicate folk and atmospheric synths into expansive, rangy tracks. Though it arguably lacks some distinction in comparison with other albums in the Panopticon discography – for example, Kentucky’s raw, political charge and Autumn Eternal’s pristine excellence – its place on this list demonstrates that this is a band at the top of their scene, even when not releasing their best work. It’s hard to overstate the beauty of the gradual builds and crescendos on “Dead Loons” and “The Embers at Dawn,” and the judicious use of strings just highlight the professionalism of the package.

#9. Unreqvited // Beautiful Ghosts – I almost feel silly for liking Unreqvited as much as I do. Their uniquely engaging and accessible brand of post-blackness spits in the face of the origins of black metal and uses far too much major key song-writing to be remotely acceptable. But Beautiful Ghost’s bright, effervescent and emotive approach is so brazen that I couldn’t ignore it. And once I’d breached that listening barrier, I was unable to tear myself away. It offers a clean, easy listening experience through its smooth “oohs” and “ahs,” rousing piano lines and uplifting guitar leads. Sure, it does also feature the tremolo-picked guitars, blast beats and shrieks one expects from black metal but this is tonally as far as one can reach from Bergen in 1993 with these tools. And shockingly that’s not a bad thing at all.

#8. Replicant // Malignant Reality – The one thing I’ve not seen praised about Replicant’s Malignant Reality is its awesome, oppressive strangeness. It’s death metal which is technical enough to demonstrate legitimate chops, brutal enough to get a mosh pit moving, but which is also atmospheric enough to incite my imagination. Almost like Morbid Angel taken to a dissonant extreme, it’s a deeply unsettling release, with frantic leads and unexpected rhythms. Its infrequent slowness and interludes use stuttering, clicking vocals and chilling synths to build a cold, piercing atmosphere. But Replicant don’t get lost in their strangeness; they always remember they are a metal band first and foremost, and have stuffed their record full of stomping grooves and sharp lines. It should delight fans of the brutal and fans of the avant-garde alike.

#7. Bent Knee // Frosting – It says a lot that in this list of metal albums, the most outrageous, theatrical one doesn’t even fall into this genre. Bent Knee have long pushed at genre boundaries, blending arty rock, peppy pop, subtle electronica and even more subtle progressive tendencies. But Frosting finds them at their most experimental, where they’re just as happy building epic brass sections as they are layering autotuned vocals over trip-hop rhythms. Texture is the word of the day, as they skillfully and artfully layer sounds and instruments which are not ordinary bedfellows into irresistible compositions. While Land Animals has the highest highs of the Bent Knee discography, Frosting is easily the strangest and my favorite of their albums. It’s so far off the wall it’s… nearly in the middle of the room. That metaphor might have failed but Bent Knee have yet to do so.

#6. Spiritbox // Eternal Blue – It was only out of passing interest in members of what used to be iwrestledabearonce that I bothered to explore Spiritbox. Described in different places as metalcore, alt-metal, post-metal and industrial, I began listening to Eternal Blue with expectations of detestation. But let me tell you that my hat tastes delicious. It effortlessly synthesizes electronic textures, fat guitar leads and varied song-writing into a shockingly emotive release, leveraging the best of the aforementioned influences while doing so. It’s also clear that Courtney LaPlante’s melodramatic but devastating vocal performance is critical in reconciling its inherent diversity. The word compelling describes Eternal Blue best; its melodic hooks pull me away from other things I should be listening to and its deceptively-deep song-writing prevents me from leaving again. If this is the sound of modern metal, count me the fuck in.

#5. Kauan // Ice Fleet – I posed a question in the conclusion to my review of Kauan’s ninth full-length release. “Is Ice Fleet the best of their discography?” I was then unsure but my resounding response after 8 more months is “Yes!” Their penchant for songs that bleed together has always resulted in records which feel more like novels than collections of songs, and nowhere is that truer than with Ice Fleet. It’s one of the most atmospheric albums I’ve heard, spinning a hypnotic tale of a frozen ship with the tools of post-rock and metal. A beautiful and entrancing release, it winds its leisurely way through 42 minutes of delicate synths, icy leads and plaintive vocals. It achieves so much with so little, being compositionally the opposite of most other releases on this list. Ice Fleet is a record for a cold night with a warm(ing) whisky.

#4. VOLA // WitnessWitness sees Denmark’s VOLA firmly establishing themselves as one of the finest progressive metal bands in operation; with 3 quality releases, no one can say they’re a flash in the pan. They’ve upped the ante each time, constructing ever more extravagant compositions, but pairing this with obscenely catchy choruses. This approach wouldn’t be half as successful without the buttery smooth vocals of Asger Mygind, but his riffs are equally as immense and Martin Werner’s varied keyboard lends the glimmering, electronic overlay which stands these guys apart from the (distant) crowd. While the production on Witness is drier and boxier than their prior work, this fits the gradual creep towards electronica. And despite its unrelenting technicality and idiosyncratic rhythms, I’m overjoyed to hear progressive music enjoying a union with direct, focused songwriting.

#3. Timecop1983 // Faded Touch – I fear that synthwave records creeping into my list is becoming less of an exception and more of a feature. That’s what I would say if I cared what the editors think but fortunately for the sake of good music, I fear no glorified chimp.1 Timecop1983 has been one of the steadier acts in his scene, progressively improving over the last 8 years and now culminating with 2021’s excellent Faded Touch. It’s gloriously schmaltzy and over-produced, dripping with 80s charm and excellent vocal parts contributed by Josh Dally, who is now credited as a co-songwriter. Perhaps it’s Dally’s influence but the tunes here are catchier than ever, weaving emotive bangers which won’t leave your head for weeks. Even the instrumental tracks are stronger, with a mix of slow jams and flighty, driving ones. Let’s hope this upward trajectory continues.

#2. Sylosis // Cycle of Suffering – Following a prolonged period of Sylosis inactivity, Cycle of Suffering stomped back into The Scene and… I missed it. 2020 brought with it many things but sadly for me, that list did not include their new work. Fortunately, they have not skipped a beat and Cycle of Suffering exemplifies thrash in the modern day (namely that these 50 minutes don’t ape 1986’s releases which is refreshing). Tight but not technical, bruising but not brutal, Cycle of Suffering sees Sylosis eschewing the excesses of their last record and honing a laser-focus on riffs and hooks. I can’t think of a stronger collection of guitar leads in the last couple of years; if there is a complaint, it’s that the record is deeply detrimental to the wellbeing of its listener’s neck. Cycle of Suffering is a muscular, dominant powerhouse and you’d be a fool to miss it – you can trust me as I used to be one too.

#1. Beaten to Death // Laat maar, ik verhuis naar het bos – You see my second spot going to a 2020 release and I raise you the first spot. But I’m guiltless on this one as Laat maar was only completely available digitally on Christmas Eve, many weeks after much cooler sites published their year-end lists. So here it is topping 2021. Beaten to Death are a perennial favorite around these parts and Laat maar is typical of these quirky Norwegians – that is to say, it’s even more unexpected than the last. Their schizophrenic leads, glossy production and daring sense of fun are a constant but the core grindcore here is interspersed with more outside influences than ever. Alt-rock, math rock, shoegaze, thrash metal and even ambience all stamp their mark on the music which is all the more exciting for it. But there’s no heavy metal. Definitely no heavy metal. Beaten to Death truly are an exceptional band.

Honorable Mentions

MaladyAinavihantaa // Of all of these honorable mentions, Ainavihantaa is the one that deserves most to be on the list proper. It really should be there but for the eleventh-hour unveiling of the new Aquilus. Less spirited than its predecessor though it may be, the subtler melodies and smoother production sand off a precise and warming example of Finnish progressive rock.
EmpyriumÜber den Sternen // I was taken by Über den Sternen from the first minute of its first single. Empyrium’s folksy approach to post-metal boasts a singular hypnotism, something which lures you in and pulls you close. Its ethereal atmosphere has held my rapture for nearly 10 months and it’s an accomplished addition to an enigmatic discography.
Mare CognitumSolar Paroxysm // I’m deeply distrustful of cosmic black metal. I participated in the Shreddit Secret Satan programme one year, specifically stipulating that I didn’t want atmospheric black metal, only to be unironically gifted Mesarthim’s latest snooze-fest. Fortunately, 2021 has brought a particularly good example. Solar Paroxysm’s songs may be long, but they are sharply written and explore more ideas than most repetitive atmoblack.

Songs o’ the Year

  1. VOLA – “Straight Lines”
  2. The Midnight – “Nothing Beats Like a Heart”
  3. Osukaru – “Within the Depths of Love”
  4. Greta Van Fleet – “Heat Above”
  5. At 1980 – “We Were on Fire”
  6. The Night Flight Orchestra – “White Jeans”
  7. Unreqvited – “All Is Found”
  8. Panopticon – “The Embers at Dawn”
  9. Trevor Something – “Kill Myself”
  10. NINA – “Berlin”

Diabolus in Muzaka

If the reader will allow me a moment of candor, I’ve discarded at least ten different versions of these opening paragraphs before going with what you see before you. Each version was more bitter and sardonic than the last. What should have been one of the best years of my life was consistently marred by anger, a pervasive sense of dread, and a general taedium novus vitae about the new permanent state of emergency we seem to find ourselves in. But, damn it all, these paragraphs have had a celebratory tone since I started writing them in 2015, and I’m not going to let that die. Besides, the reader surely doesn’t need more doom and gloom in their internet diet.

Despite the above, this year has been great in some regards. I graduated law school, passed both bar exams on the first try, started working in my field, shed some dead weight from my personal life more than once, and was able to focus more on reading, exercise, worthwhile friends, and family. It’s been productive.

Also aiding productivity was the dearth of releases that stood out to me in a meaningful way this year. This allowed me to spend more time with older/classic records than usual, and to spend more time with the entries you’ll see below. It was difficult to put this list together solely because I had no idea where anything should go after the top five records. These, for my money, defined the year. The rest are interchangeable depending on what I had for breakfast that morning. Fortunately, this was because I kept finding more to like each time I listened in an attempt to lock in the order. I think that’s a good problem to have.

As always, I’d like to thank my colleagues here for being reliable sources of banter, debate, and musical discussion. To the editors, thanks for cleaning up my digital chicken-scratch and making it presentable to the readership. To the commenters, thanks for taking the time out of your day to read what we write around here and expressing your views, especially when they diverge from the content of the review. Nothing is quite so boring as a hive mind, after all.

The end of a year always prompts reflection directed both backwards and forwards. That said, I have no idea what this genre or the world will look like by the end of 2022. I won’t pretend to know what the future brings – your guess is as good as mine. The only thing that’s guaranteed to us is that we will suffer, and we will die – this is our lot. You can live your life in fear of these truths, or you can use them well. They can be the prompting you need to truly cherish the irreplaceable time with friends and family. They can be your fuel to drink deeply of the well of philosophy to discern the world around you, your place within it, and your worth as a man. They can be that blast of frigid water that awakens you from a social media-induced stupor. They can be that nudge you need to revisit your favorite records again and spend quality time with them like you did before Spotify. Napalm Death told us Time Waits for No Slave, but rest assured it waits for no “master” either. Whoever you are, wherever you may be, vow to live, not to merely perpetuate your existence.

With that, let’s look back at what this year had to offer, shall we?

#(ish): Outre-TombeAbysse Mortifère // Outre-Tombe sounds like they’ve risen from the grave in the best way here, with production coating the songs with the dust of dried bones. The combination of riffs, performance and production present on Abysse Mortifere made me return again and again to the ‘Tombe, just like its two predecessors.

#10: MefitisOffscourgings // A fascinating progressive metal record that smartly expands death metal’s horizons. It doesn’t do this by throwing weird instruments into the mix, forcing odd time signatures down your throat, being as dissonant as possible, or, somewhat paradoxically, returning to the seventies for its inspirations. Instead, Mefitis does truly interesting things with their instruments. Offscourgings is both new and exciting.

#9: Drawn and Quartered Congregation Pestilence // I don’t recall precisely when the Incantation niche got so big and popular (2012, maybe?), but that popularity resulted in a lot of chaff amongst the wheat. Drawn and Quartered have been playing death metal for longer than plenty of our readers have been alive, and on Congregation Pestilence that longevity and experience show. A record this accomplished and true to its roots can only be the product of a band who lives and breathes this style and has done so for decades. Drawn and Quartered has no need for arbitrary innovation – their tools, forged in the fires of experience and seemingly tireless effort, are suited perfectly well for their purposes.

#8: Ex Deo The Thirteen Years of Nero // I got to The Thirteen Years of Nero far too late into the year for it to make the impact The Immortal Wars did when it dropped, but I’d be remiss not to include Ex Deo’s latest here. Once again firing on all cylinders, Ex Deo is equal parts charismatic and cinematic in their mature and balanced portrayal of Emperor Nero. The band’s knack for melody and pummeling, deceptively simple riffing won me over on my first spin and continues to impress.

#7: Starlight Ritual Sealed in Starlight // If you’re going to do big, burly, retrograde metal, the only way to succeed is to go all-in. Starlight Ritual does exactly that on Sealed in Starlight and have made one of the year’s most infectious and uplifting records in the process. The whole record is played with such conviction that the song lengths never bothered me, even though if I wanted to take an “objective” look at it they very well might. I don’t want to take an objective look, though – I’d rather crank up my stereo to eleven, throw on Sealed in Starlight again, and go looking for the nearest sword or two.

#6: EvilPossessed by Evil // Total 80s proto-black/speed metal glory. I still love how earnest this is – no poseurdom here, folks. As it turns out, some of the leads were done by the Significant Point dudes which helps explain why, for a record of this type, the guitar solos are a bona fide highlight. Consistently great songs, a raw and warm analog-sounding production, and the total lack of departure from the best old-school conventions, Evil is “regressive” in all the best ways. The past is alive and extremely well.

#5: Witches Hammer Devourer of the Dead // It seems Canadian speed metal miscreants Witches Hammer cannot stop winning. After returning triumphantly last year with Damnation is My Salvation – a record that’s grown on me further since I reviewed it here – Devourer of the Dead comes hot on its heels with more of the same. Here, “the same” refers to extremely aggressive old-school speed metal done right. Essentially listening. Falses need not entry.

#4: CambionConflagrate the Celestial Refugium // No death metal album this year epitomizes speed and violence like Conflagrate the Celestial Refugium. Occupying a similar territory as old Hate Eternal and Angelcorpse, Cambion seem to exist to push extremity as far as they can without devolving into hypnotic rhythms, parody, or impenetrable noise. The speed here is visceral instead of clinical, and while I’m sure some contemporary tech-death band is, from a theory standpoint, faster, Cambion is infinitely more ripping. I’ll continue returning to this for a long time.

#3: Jess and the Ancient OnesVertigo // Easily one of my most frequent spins of 2021, Vertigo is expertly crafted, supremely catchy, and led by the charismatic voice of an incredible frontwoman. Jess’s outstanding vocals would only take mediocre tracks so far, but here the Ancient Ones all turn in superb performances and produce songs that would already be killer without phenomenal vocals over top. The production, which exudes analog warmth, is a lovely bonus. Despite being only tangentially metal (if that), Vertigo is an outstanding collection of songs played by an exceptional group of musicians.

Angry Metal Guy’s Note: It should be noted that the inclusion of Inquisition at #2 violated our “Don’t Support Nazis” policy due to Dagon’s involvement in a 2006 neo-Nazi comp. If you were unaware of this, now you know. Armed with that information, I encourage you to not support Inquisition or any Nazi band. The reason this is important is because financial support for neo-Nazi groups often comes via the white power punk and metal music scenes and, therefore, cutting off financial support to these bands may be a meaningful way to counteract the ability to organize. I apologize for its inclusion and for being slow to respond to its inclusion, and I intend to clarify the editorial policy regarding these matters soon. The text has been removed until I decide precisely what the policy for dealing with such mistakes will be going forward.

#1: Significant Point Into the Storm // Sometimes, you just know. The second I hit play on Into the Storm, I was impressed. I worried for a moment if Significant Point could keep up the energy, great writing, and superlative performances that “Attacker” started proceedings off on. To my unfathomable joy, not only did Into the Strom keep up with its opening track, it managed to get even better. It did this through earnest, passionate, and truly superlative performances of songs that are smartly written and endlessly memorable. Looking back, I underrated this much like I did Cobra Speed Venom. I thought there could be a better record to come out this year that would earn a 4.5. I was wrong. Into the Storm set the standard for metal in 2021, and the genre’s most Significant Point of the year was when this masterpiece dropped.

Honorable Mentions

Inhuman Condition // Rat°God – As a fan of big, burly Massacre and Obituary riffs, this brought me joy.

Dominum Inferum // Reviling – A devastating slice of Ross Bay war metal from the reactivated now-solo project of Ryan Förster, Dominum Inferum wastes no time, takes no prisoners, and lays down a merciless carpet bombing to remember.

Septage // Septisk Eradikasyon – Gross and gurgling goregrind done right once again by this Danish crew.

Baest // Necro Sapiens – A seriously entertaining mishmash of Bloodbath, Carcass, and Morbid Angel, Necro Sapiens is relatively accessible but a great time thanks to quality riffs and songs.

Last Days of Humanity // Horrific Compositions of Decomposition – The band’s most accessible record, but it’s still nearly absurd – but tons of fun.

At the Gates // The Nightmare of Being – The band’s best post-reunion record and an overall impressive showing.

Hyperdontia // Hideous Entity – The consistently smart use of melodies, memorable riffs, and some standout leads helped Hyperdontia stand out from the pack this year.

Intonate // Severed Within – To me, this is what progressive/technical death metal is supposed to sound like.

Tenebro // Liberace dal male – It either sounds like Mortician playing Undergang or Undergang playing Mortician – either way, it rules.

Cannibal Corpse // Violence Unimagined – It’s exactly what I expected, but it makes me happy, and I like being happy.

Sein // The Denial of Death – A tremendously fun EP that does Slaughter of the Soul well by not forgetting to be properly aggressive, thrashy, and not rote metalcore.

Songs o’ the Year – Since these songs tend to comprise a Spotify playlist and a good portion of my favorite songs (from Cambion, Outre-Tombe, Evil, and Witches Hammer, among others) are not on that service, I’ve made a list of my Top Ten Songs that are available on Spotify so whoever wants can listen to them on there. They are in no particular order.

  • Significant Point – “Deathrider”
  • Hyperdontia – “Grinding Teeth”
  • At the Gates – “Cult of Salvation”
  • Starlight Ritual – “Civilization Lost”
  • Ex Deo – “What Artist Dies in Me…”
  • Drawn and Quartered – “Oblivion Pilgrimage”
  • Intonate – “Yearn”
  • Jess and the Ancient Ones – “Love Zombi”
  • Significant Point – “Night of the Axe”

Show 1 footnote

  1. You are in for a rough 2022. – Glorious Steel
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