GardensTale’s and Ferrous Beuller’s Top Ten(ish) of 2021


Fuck 2021. I don’t think a lot of people are going to fight me on this statement. 2020 may have had longer lockdowns and more deaths, it was at least honest and upfront about all of its garbage from the start. 2021 was the year of hope shot down. The year of last-minute cancellations and unfulfilled anticipation. The year of misinformation making people physically ill, not just mentally, at a time where we seemed to have an out. I have a lot to be thankful for, personally, like a new job1 that’s been very flexible and supportive, something that seems to be increasingly rare these days. But setbacks in every other area of life have cast heavy clouds over much of the remainder of day-to-day life.

Metal-wise, things have been a little more all over the place. Most albums that really struck a chord were bands I hadn’t heard before; conversely, most albums for which I had expectations2 didn’t keep my interest long enough to rank. After a pretty decent start of the year, the scene’s output simmered down to the point where it seemed like a bust altogether. But the number of good albums that came out this autumn was insane, and with the quiet summer lulling me into complacency, it’s been a frenzy trying to keep up with everything worthy of my love. As a result, the list is split somewhat into two categories: the pre-summer ones, which I’ve been able to spin at my leisure for a long time, and the post-summer ones, which I’ve had to cram into my listening schedule left and right whenever I had a moment, just to get enough spins in for proper opinionizing.

I’ve had the privilege of writing for this blog for 5 years now. That’s longer than any real job I’ve had, including my teenage years of picking tomatoes for pocket change every Saturday morning. I’d like to thank the triumvirate Steel Druhm, Madam X and Angry Metal Guy himself once more for giving me that opportunity and keeping me on board despite my terrible takes. And I want to thank the rest of the crew as well. Despite all of us being scattered across the globe, I feel closer to most of you than I do most of my family. Popping into the chat has become the internet equivalent of coming home, and our semi-monthly video calls are better than any reunion. And of course, thanks to all of our readers. Without all of you, being a writer here wouldn’t grant nearly as much bragging right as it does. So thanks, and have a nice end of the year. May we finally see some relief in 2022.

(ish). Dormant Ordeal // The Grand Scheme of Things — I’m usually more enthusiastic about death-and-then-some metal than the straight stuff. Dormant Ordeal are an exception, but then again, they are pretty exceptional in their niche. It’s tight and technical but it’s all in support of the groove, that interminable factor that gets your head banging of its own accord. Add to that some unexpected melancholic twists later in the running time and you got a recipe for a total banger.

(ish). Dordeduh // Har — I’ll be honest, I expected this one higher the first few times I listened to it. Romanian folk black transmogrifying into something that occasionally reminds me of Devin Townsend is a pretty bizarre path to take, but somehow it works wonderfully. It’s a decidedly non-linear experience, but between the ritualistic cleans and crushing growls, the atypical hooks and intelligent song structures, it’s one that makes it easy to appreciate repeatedly.

#10. Kauan // Ice Fleet — I remember the first time I came across anything post-. It was Explosions in the Sky’s gorgeous The Earth is Not A Cold Dead Place, which remains high in my lifetime favorites. Ice Fleet is not that record of course, but it gives me the same sense of a gradually evolving journey, a soundtrack to its own movie rendered entirely in music. The sparse but well-placed vocals enhance the trip in beautiful ways, and it’s hard to put Ice Fleet on and not listen to it end to end.

#9. King Buffalo // The Burden of RestlessnessKing Buffalo had a pretty lofty goal: record and release three albums in 2021. Like so many others, their goal withered on the vine, seeing as they only released their second one, Acheron, earlier this month.3 But in another year where many of us spent a lot of time staring at a silverfish on the wall in an apathetic stupor, The Burden of Restlessness painted that picture with vivid psychedelics and a style of vocals that may be far too recognizable to anyone who’s personally experienced depression.

#8. Franklin Zoo // The Dandelion ChildFranklin Zoo was one of the biggest and most enduring surprises this year. First, it surprised me with how good the album was, despite the band’s unfortunate moniker. Then it surprised me by how much it connected with the readers as well, with top 10 and Record o’ the Month calls left and right. And since then it has continued to surprise me with how much leg this album has, as it has managed to stay in my rotation for months. Despite its heft and complexity, it’s a remarkably digestible spin, and it’s more than earned its list spot this year.

#7. Windfaerer // Breaths of Elder Dawns — Here begins a small run of late additions that left me gobsmacked. And yeah, Windfaerer came out during the summer, and yeah, El Cuervo has been singing its praises behind the scenes for a few months now, but I didn’t get round to it for reasons.4 When I did, I was hooked before the first minute was done. The usage of strings reminds me of the early works of Dark Lunacy, but the combination with spacious black metal makes for a beautifully windswept experience. It’s a bit long, but it only feels that way because (and I stress again) I have so much other shit to listen to right now.

#6. The Silver // Ward of Roses — I don’t know how much time there was between my first exposure to the first single off Ward of Roses and the album’s release, but it feels like it was more than 6 months. It was a long wait because I loved that single. That single was “Fallow,” and it is still as great as it was back then. The rest of the album lives up to it, too. Few bands manage the trick of creating a sound that is both unique and consistent, but The Silver mixes post-black and sludge and doom and gothic and… stuff… to something with venomous barbs and blood-streaked hooks and it is gnarly and addictive and inspiring.

#5. Zornheym // The Zornheim Sleep Experiment — I missed the previous Zornheym, so I could not join in with all the comparisons made between Sleep Experiment and that one. All I know is that it’s fun and hooky, and the dark cabaret atmosphere is terrific. I compared it to Lemony Snicket’s and TheKenWord went through the roof.5 The creative mixing of vocal styles and intelligent use of orchestral elements only adds to the theatricality. I’ve seen complaints about the amount of clean vocals and I simply can’t fathom where they come from, particularly when they’re as expertly done as this. I mean, “Slumber Comes in Time” is easily among the best choruses of the year.

#4. Subterranean Masquerade // Mountain Fever — If there’s one thing the pandemic era has not been, it’s exuberant. But that’s exactly the right word for Mountain Fever. I feel like I’m celebrating some joyous holiday listening to this record, and hitting all the best stops on my journey. It’s eclectic, experimental, and steeped in the culture of Tomer Pink’s native Israel. But there is emotional depth, too, and the pains of homesickness and wanderlust alike are palpable. As a huge fan of their early work, it’s been beautiful to watch the band grow more and more confident in its new sound after a decade-long hiatus, and it’s been getting better with every album.

3. Dvne // Etemen Ænka — There are two albums on this list that lived up to my hopes and expectations for them from the moment they were announced. The first was Mountain Fever, and the second is this one. I found out about Dvne’s debut Asheran through the comments and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the follow-up since then. It’s been worth the wait. I’ve waxed poetically about Dvne’s many strengths back in March, and I stand by all of them. Not many bands are this adept at stacking layer upon layer of churning riffs and avalanchian drums. For fewer still is more actually more. Dvne make it work.

#2. Kyning // Ān — I have the commentariat to thank for Kyning. Someone mentioned it in some review and mentioned deranged vocals. Next thing I know I’ve spun the record two dozen times in two weeks. It’s not the deepest or most original, but it has so much character I could not give two shits about any of that, because it has punched me right in the ‘odd but awesome vocals’ and ‘big catchy riffs’ organs. When Vogel rasps ‘BURY ME!’ it sends shivers down my spine, “Preacher” fills me with visions of dead-eyed hordes following the titular character through apocalyptic wastelands, and every time the chorus for “Hate//Fear” strikes, I’m wailing along to the dismay of friends, pets and neighbors alike.

#1. Iotunn // Access All Worlds — What is left to write when you’ve already written the review of your own Album of the Year? What can I say about Iotunn I haven’t already said? Do I reiterate my deep and enduring love for Aldara’s colossal vocal performance? Restate my points about the stellar songwriting and solos? Repeat my compliments for the riffs, the dynamic bass, the incredible drumming? I suppose I should. I might also re-clarify that Access All Worlds would have been the easiest 4.5 I’d ever given, had the production not been as cramped.6 That Iotunn has endured as my #1 pick for the year all the way from February until now despite that mark on its record should tell you all you need to know. Access All Worlds remains a galaxy-sized experience no one should miss, and it was absolutely the best thing the planet Earth produced during its latest solar revolution.

Album cover of the Record o' the Month for February 2021, a picture of an ethereal being in a cosmos

Honorable Mentions:

Bloody Cumshot // Nymphomania — I’m sorry, I can’t hear any more complaints about the name because my ear canals are full of adrenaline.
Green Lung // Black Harvest — Another example of stoner getting better when it focuses less on fuzz. This one is joyously hooky and a much-needed bright spot in my playlists this year.
Black Sites // Untrue — I never really connected with Exile, but Untrue is a blue collar songwriting masterclass from Fisting and companions.
Møl // Diorama — Major-key atmoblack done right. Razors in one hand, flowers in the other.

Disappointment o’ the Year

Honestly, the disappointment of the year 2021 is the year 2021. Mankind collectively shit the bed in so many ways it’s been a letdown even for someone with low expectations. If I have to go music-wise, which the gun barrel in the back of my neck is indicating, the list of options is a little lengthier. For a while it seemed like Tribulation’s messy Where The Gloom Becomes Sound was going to take the prize home. But since a few months there has been a clear winner for anyone like me, with two working ears and an Eddie tattoo. I’ve tried to listen to Senjutsu several times, made it through once, and that one time I wasn’t paying much attention anyway. Somehow it managed to sound much more bloated than Book of Souls despite shaving off 10 minutes. As much as it hurts to say, it might be time for Iron Maiden to retire.

Song o’ the Year

Iotunn’s “Waves Below” — The following is totally true: I just went to check for an embed of Iotunn’s absolutely monumental “Waves Below,” and I was shocked to find out it wasn’t 6 or 7 minutes as I remembered, but a full 10. I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise though. This song covers so much ground in its running time that it feels much shorter than it actually is. The buildup to the first verse’s grand take-off. The run-up to the grandeur of the first chorus with Aldara’s fantastic delivery on ‘Something was here / And might still be!’ The best solo of the year, hands down. And from there on end, the song just continues in a winding, spiraling journey that remains legendary no matter how often I spin it.

Ferrous Beuller

2021 draws to a clamorous close and, once again, we are collectively left to summarize the year’s musical offerings. Fear not, I won’t blather on about my personal year. You don’t care about the ever-shifting fuckery of education funding or the trials and tribulations of peer reviews. And nor should you. Because, let’s be honest, it has been another incredibly trying twelve months for us all. Nobody wants to hear me whine because, believe me, once I start, I really can’t stop. No, instead you’re here for the fucking metal and to stack your tastes against mine.

While we’re on the subject of taste, or lack thereof, let’s get a few acknowledgments in: I would like to commit a sweeping and genuine thank you to the entire AMG universe. From the editors, and Sentynel to the co-writers and, hell, even the readers… I know I’m a surly bastard sometimes but I honestly do hate love you all.

To Steel: I know my awful excuses for late work and general absence are poor. But I’ve only got one more year of being a slack bastard left, so please stop firing me.

Because I have functioned on very little time to dedicate to music this year, the following list is really more of a collection of the albums that I managed to play with any regularity. Before you lies a catalog of some of the best extreme records that dropped this year. Any egregious exclusions/entries can either be attributed to my lack of availability or that I’m right and you’re wrong.

Now, potatoes of couch, prepare ye for an aural mashing!

#(ish). Anomaly // Planet Storm – Out of the yawning void, Anomaly dropped a fine debut in the form of Planet Storm. Far too many bands try and adapt technical death metal by overly concerning themselves with opaque time signatures and neoclassical boredom. Anomaly keep their riffing tight and steeped in tradition and the results have kept me satisfied since release. If world-razing riffs and sun-scorching solos are your thing then look no further. If that’s not your proverbial bag, then I’d advise you to give the rest of this list a wide birth. We only deal in quality here and, make no mistake, so does Planet Storm.

#10. Conjureth // Majestic Dissolve – There has been no shortage of great death metal this year and Conjureth were responsible for my favorite old school entry. Their take on the genre reminds me of Master but with better solos and a more immersive quality. Majestic Dissolve flaunts its appeal with a blanket approach to riffing that never fails to give way to disgusting sub-dermal hooks. The constant jagged assault has entertained me all year and if you missed it, then shame on you. This big boy is a grower, not a shower. Let that sink in…

#9. Praise the Plague // The Obsidian Gate – I’m a sucker for suffocating extremity but I wasn’t prepared for just how huge The Obsidian Gate would be. Praise the Plague wield a looming assault that draws obvious parallels with Anaal Nathrakh sans the grind, but with a particularly relentless blackened edge. I’ve been trying to batter down The Obsidian Gate since Grymm’s predictably excellent review, but these huge halls of sound aren’t easily tamed. Enter this cathedral of dread with caution; remain with madness.

#8. Churchburn // Genocidal Rant – Nasty, grimy yet weirdly musical. This is a combo I find impossible to resist and, frankly, I’ve long since stopped trying. Churchburn grind with a tumultuous core that feels diseased and nihilistic. Yet, somehow, Genocidal Rant manages to incorporate clear and even faintly melodic solos into their doomed mix without doubling down on any trite tropes. The fleeting length of the album just means I can manage to get one more playthrough in before my sternum finally implodes… and that’s the way I like it, baby; I don’t want to live forever…

#7. Dormant Ordeal // The Grand Scheme of ThingsDr. Wvrm and I awaited this album with bated breath for what seemed like forever. When the album finally dropped… I was not disappointed. While it may seem odd to include a record so recently released, I have no regrets. The Grand Scheme of Things takes that unforgiving Polish death metal that we (should) all love and manages to forge it into an oddly emotional affair. If you’re a fan of extreme metal in general, then Dormant Ordeal provide something for everyone. The Grand Scheme of Things is refined yet feral and impossibly engaging. Don’t assume your 2021 is complete without it.

#6. Spectral Wound // A Diabolic Thirst – Long-time readers will know how fussy I am when it comes to black metal. But something about Spectral Wound caught me off guard. A Diabolic Thirst deals in the usual frostbitten synonyms of its genre, but this time they just seem exemplified. Every time I play the album, I’m not only captivated by its content, but it instills me with a hope that my long-dead romance with black metal might finally be coming to an end. And if not, then “Frigid and Spellbound” was worth the price of entry alone.

#5. Black Sites // Untrue – If, like me, you’re a fan of Judas Priest, Voivod, Hammers of Misfortune and Trouble amongst other, then this entry should require no explanation. Although there can be no denying that Untrue is clearly born of its influences, it’s also better than many of them have been for years. Big, traditional and innately progressive rhythms go hand-in-hand with similarly gargantuan choruses for endlessly memorable results. I’ve leaned on this thing through writer’s block, gym sessions and insomnia and it never fails to entertain. For any fans of the classics, Black Sites are the band to beat, and they remain unbeaten in 2021.

#4. Archspire // Bleed the Future – I’ll start of by admitting that I didn’t connect with Bleed the Future quite as much as predecessor Relentless Mutation. That the album still lands at this spot is testament to the band’s inexhaustible quality and skill. Tech death had a banner year but, sat atop the absolute peak of that mechanical skull pile, are B.C’s finest. Hyper precise, immeasurably heavy and with an ability to transcend genre preferences, Archspire have, once again, managed to produce an album that blows their peers out of the bloodied water. Play it loud or don’t play it at all.

#3. Replicant // Malignant Reality – I worship most of death metal’s permutations, but the Gorguts school of dissonant destruction has long been a favorite of mine. Replicant’s debut Negative Life impressed me enough to keep an iron eye out for their eventual return. While time constraints meant I had to ask Kronos to step in on my review, make no mistake, Malignant Reality made a serious impression. Their labyrinthine riffing has kept a vice-like grip on me while the unique transitions and resolutions in their writing always make for unique listening. Dissonance in death metal may be divisive, but this year has had enough fine offerings that even the most traditional of listeners should find something to enjoy. That something is Malignant Reality. Don’t miss out on a riff-platter of such magnitude.

#2. Veilburner // Lurkers in the Capsule of Skull – Full disclosure: I was once due to review Veilburner’s previous offering, the also excellent A Sire to the Ghouls of Lunacy. Although I missed my opportunity to cover the band in 2018, I will not make the same mistake in 2021. Namely because Veilburner released an album that very nearly topped this list. Lurkers in the Capsule of Skull is an extraordinary example of how to synchronize genres and still create something intrinsically cohesive. Any fan of extreme metal should parse something from their eerie compound of black, death and trad riffing while their signature weirdness marks the last word in accessible dissonance. Before listening, you might be forgiven for assuming Veilburner can’t settle on an identity. Fortunately, their discography missed the memo. Lurkers in the Capsule of Skull knows exactly what it is and so do I. It’s fucking excellent.

#1. Ad Nauseam // Imperative Imperceptible Impulse – Some works are so dense they represent a challenge. The challenge rears its head when the quality is undeniable even if the design seems unfamiliar. When Emily Brontë first wrote Wuthering Heights, the book was met with a confused reception. Repressed Victorians balked at what was considered a provocative and often shocking work. Generations later and the book’s classic status is irrevocably cemented into the literary canon. Earlier in the year Ad Nauseam’s death metal masterpiece, Imperative Imperceptible Impulse was released to some snorts of derision. Undeniably, dissonance and non-linear progressions just aren’t for everybody. But it is also an irrefutable truth that, what may be impenetrable to some may also be immersive to others. Imperative Imperceptible Impulse has represented a cypher for me; one that endlessly draws me back as it begs to be unraveled. And with every encryption broken, I unlock more of this album’s endless facets. By nature, this record can’t appeal en masse. But, in years to come, don’t be surprised to find Ad Nauseam’s current offering gilt with the recognition it deserves.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Sunless // Yelm
  • Take Over and Destroy // Fade Out
  • Intonate // Severed Within
  • Beyond Grace // Our Kingdom Undone

Song o’ the Year:

Spectral Wound’s “Frigid and Spellbound”

Show 6 footnotes

  1. Deja-vu to last year.
  2. Archspire, 1914, Diablo Swing Orchestra among others.
  3. Apparently, this was caused by a worldwide vinyl shortage caused by Adele printing half a million of her new album and basically monopolizing the vinyl industry. Yes, really.
  4. One of the reasons may be that El C’s tastes and mine don’t overlap all that often, but don’t tell him that, I don’t want to hurt his feelings.
  5. Though to be fair, that is a Tuesday for the sponge.
  6. To quote the genie from Aladdin: absolute cosmic power, itty bitty living space.
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