Holdeneye’s Top Ten(ish) of 2021

I’d be lying if I said that I’m going to be sad to see 2021 fading into the rearview mirror. Last year, I reported that the worldwide nightmare that was 2020 had left me relatively unscathed. Well, 2021 must have overheard me saying that, because it seemed hellbent on bringing me to my knees in an effort to avenge its predecessor. From a mental health perspective, this was my hardest year yet.

Nietzsche famously wrote, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”1 For the last ten years, I’ve worked on one of the busiest fire engines in the Pacific Northwest. In many ways, it’s been an absolute pleasure and an honor, but 2021 saw Nietzsche’s words trying to fulfill themselves in my life. In certain lines of work you can—and must—get used to seeing horrible things, but this year the ante was upped, big time. 2021 offered up a disproportionately high number of bad calls—the kind that will haunt me until the day I die—and that, coupled with a shift in how society views and treats first responders and healthcare workers, began to have a tangible impact on my life. My relationships began to suffer, my faith in humanity waned, my sense of self blurred, and whatever creative energy I once had was swallowed up by that gazing abyss. Writing became nearly impossible, and listening to new music was a chore when all I wanted to do was wallow in Sabaton’s comfortably familiar discography. Overwhelming feelings of self-doubt had me seriously considering walking away from this place.

Fortunately, I can report that with the undying support and love of Mrs. Holdeneye, my kids, my friends, my coworkers, and the supportive staff here at AMG, I was able to weather the storm and take some of the steps I needed to take to become a healthier human being. I was fortunate to find and be accepted by a therapist who specializes in helping first responders, and that has made an enormous difference. I can’t change what I see at work, but I can change how I respond to it. A simple mental shift and a focus on gratitude have me feeling more like myself, and I’d like to say that I’m more tolerable to be around—but you’d have to ask my wife to know for sure. I’d like to thank Steel Druhm for his understanding and patience as I repeatedly shirked my writing and editing duties this year to focus on my brain. I’ll never know where he and Madam X find the energy and motivation to keep this machine running so smoothly. And I really want to thank you, the reader. I have an intensely personal way of enjoying and evaluating music, and I’m continually surprised when people seem to actually enjoy reading what I write. This gig would be a lot less fun without all of you.

Phew. Feels good to get that off my chest. I know it was long, but your attentiveness is much appreciated. Now, take heart! Your patience is about to be rewarded! Behold the finest year-end list you’ve ever seen!

#(ish): Duel // In Carne Persona — This one was genuinely unexpected. I rarely choose to review doom—and until this year had never reviewed stoner metal—so imagine my surprise when these Texans delighted me with their take on the style. The classic voice of Tom Frank mixes with the instrumentation to transport the listener back to the early seventies, when no one knew that hard rock and heavy metal are different things. Unlike most stoner bands, Duel understands that less is more. Anthemic opener “Children of the Fire” sets the tone and the rest of In Carne Persona worms its way through your mind in under 40 minutes. I challenge you to Duel, coward!

#10: Demoniac // So It GoesSo It Goes is a bit of a paradox: it’s not only one of the most “classic” sounding thrash albums I heard all year, it’s also one of the most forward-thinking. By taking a base thrash sound akin to early Kreator and adding progressive movements and—gasp!—clarinet, Chile’s Demoniac is, to quote myself, “stretching the boundaries of what we consider to be acceptable in thrash.” Full disclosure: I usually hate when my metal gets tainted by things like the saxophone or the clarinet, but I’ll be damned if this particular example of clarimetal didn’t win me over. “The Trap” may be under four minutes long, but its evocative piano intro and fiendish thrash riffing make it one of the most compelling tracks of the year.

#9: Cryptosis // Bionic Swarm — Brewed from the remnants of established Dutch thrash band Distillator, Bionic Swarm is the sound of a band reinventing itself. While the thrash of the band’s pre-Cryptosis days remains, the record welcomes progressive song structures and symphonic black metal flourishes to the party. And the result is a highly enjoyable take on thrash, a genre that has a tendency to wallow in the Slough of Samey-ness. The thick mellotron swells pair excellently with both the thrash riffs and blackened bits, and vocalist Laurens Houvast delivers a genuinely violent performance. “Prospect of Immortality” is a great example of how Cryptosis have pimped up their thrash.

#8: Mortiferum // Preserved in Torment — A purely visceral experience, Mortiferum’s sophomore album Preserved in Torment demands that the listener leave their intellect at the door before engaging. No amount of reason or thought will protect you from the relentless onslaught of riffs that is coming your way, and you’ll be all the better for it. A track like “Exhumed from Mortal Spheres” doesn’t give a fuck what you may think about it, so just lay back and enjoy as the scrumptious grooves pulverize you into soil-enriching fertilizer. Some records simply defy scientific evaluation, and Preserved in Torment is one of those records.

#7: Diabolizer // Khalkedonian Death — Does life ever make you feel like painstakingly reducing the entire planet into space dust using only a sledgehammer? If so, then Khalkedonian Death would be an excellent soundtrack while you tackle the task. Diabolizer appeared in my life just when I need it, and I honestly can’t remember loving a pure death metal album so thoroughly. At first glance, this record seems relentlessly brutal—and it is—but repeat listens reward the patient listener with intricate guitar licks, bass lines, and drum fills strewn into the maelstrom by an impressively skilled band. I’ve been unable to extract the main riff for “Cloaked in an Aura of Madness” from my brain since I first heard it nearly six months ago, but then again, why would I want to?

#6: Seth // La Morsure du Christ — Each year, I seem to find one black metal album that really resonates with me, and in 2021, that record was La Morsure du Christ. Seth’s brand of melodic black metal is indescribably beautiful while never losing the deadly edge that the genre demands. Vocalist Saint Vincent spews venom across the entire album and, when combined with the violent drumming, counterpoints the resplendent keys and leads. In a year where my life felt like it was on the verge of becoming something like that inferno on the cover art, I relied on albums like this for cathartic relief, and thanks to that emotional connection, the organ outro to “Le Triomphe de Lucifer” chokes me up nearly every time hear it.

#5: Enforced // Kill Grid — These guys kicked my ass in 2018, and they returned in 2021 to finish me off. Kill Grid sees Enforced improving upon their formula in every way imaginable, and the result is one of the best crossover thrash albums I’ve ever heard. The bludgeoning tracks fueled my workouts—who am I kidding, they fueled my life— for most of the year, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. Press play on “Curtain Fire” and watch as the Ghost of Slayers Past appears and proceeds to mosh its immaterial brains out. I was delighted—but not surprised—to find that Enforced’s Century Media debut was this fantastic, and it’s about time this band becomes a household name across the metalverse.

#4: Silver Talon // Decadence and Decay — I almost claimed reviewing rights for this one myself, but it’s probably a good thing that Dr. Grier ended up with it—there’s no telling what naughty things I would have done to it. No metal death has affected me as strongly as the sudden loss of Warrel Dane, so imagine my elation when I first heard Silver Talon vocalist Wyatt Howell. His deep croon and firmament-piercing wail are a soothing balm to my soul in this post-Warrel world, and his performance alone might have garnered list consideration, even if the accompanying music didn’t kick ass—which it does. This band is onto something special, and the follow up to Decadence and Decay will be one of my most anticipated releases in whatever year it comes. All the songs are awesome, but “Divine Fury” is just out of this world.

#3: Paranorm // Empyrean — Every once in a while, an album comes along that sounds good on first listen, but then evolves exponentially right before your ears. Empyrean did exactly this. At first blush, the progressive riffing and impressive leads had me smiling in approval, but that approval soon grew to sheer ecstasy on repeat listens. Fredrik Kjellgren and Markus Hiltunen have to be one of the greatest guitar duos currently running, and thanks to their efforts, Paranorm have catapulted themselves to the forefront of the progressive death/thrash scene—and this is just their debut. It’s really hard for me to pick a favorite from the record, but “Empyrean” will show you just about everything that you need to know about Paranorm.

#2: Archspire // Bleed the Future — I’m not sure what else I can say about this record that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll leave you with a charming anecdote. I still remember the moment I truly fell in love with Archspire: I was at Tech Trek in Seattle, and I timidly approached the Archspire merch booth to purchase a flat-brimmed “Extreme Technical Death Metal” hat that I could never actually pull off. Archspire vocalist Oli Aleron was manning the booth and, referring to my Nevermore shirt, said “Nice shirt! I love that band!” My heart melted and my knees grew weak, and I would have knelt and sworn fealty to him right then and there if I’d been able to speak. After the absolute monstrosity that was Relentless Mutation, I was skeptical that the band could top it. Skeptical without reason, apparently, because Bleed the Future is absolutely phenomenal. “Abandon the Linear” is simply one of the best metal tracks I’ve ever heard.

#1: 1914 // Where Fear and Weapons Meet — Even before I heard the first single for Where Fear and Weapons Meet, I had a hunch that the follow-up to 1914’s The Blind Leading the Blind would be a contender for the top spot on this list. When I did finally hear “…And a Cross Now Marks His Place,” that hunch became a near certainty. And then the full record found its way into my greasy clutches, and my fate was sealed. I immediately fell in love with the symphonic elements that the band added to their already immense sound, and the interludes, intros, and outros made me feel like I was reconnecting with an old friend after a three-year absence. 1914 have become one of the greatest metal bands in the world because they now exactly what they want to do, and they know exactly how to make it happen. Think of it as a perfectly devised and executed musical Schlieffen Plan, with every single sound positioned strategically for maximum impact. Each time “The Green Fields of France” comes to a close, and the outro ushers me out of the theatre of war, I become keenly aware that I’ve just listened to one of the greatest albums of all time.

Honorable Mentions:

Disappointment o’ the Year:

Different year, same disappointment. Last December, Jon Schaffer was my disappointment because of an absolutely lackluster Demons & Wizards record. Little did I know that Mr. Schaffer would react so poorly to my criticism. Just days after my list ran, Mr. Schaffer demonstrated that he’d become a disciple of the lie, proceeding to violate a symbol of our democracy by taking part in his own secret declaration day. He did not stand alone, in fact ten thousand strong gathered around the US Capitol building to curse the sky after the reckoning on election day. He and his brainwashed buddies made the eagle cry and he landed in the clink. After the ghost of freedom bailed him out, the dark saga continued to unfold. Mr. Schaffer saw the coming curse written on the walls, and said to himself, “There’s no one watching over me. I walk alone. It’s time I become my own savior.” He pleaded guilty in an attempt to minimize the consequences of the invasion and may soon rely upon the clouding of the Witness Protection Program. These events have left me feeling profoundly melancholy. “Mr. Schaffer, I died for you,” says my grieving heart.

Song o’ the Year:

1914 — “The Green Fields of France” — In 2018, 1914’s “The Hundred Days Offensive” earned my Song o’ the Year honors. It was a long, emotionally charged epic that perfectly closed one of the finest albums of that year. Three years later, and they’ve done it again. I didn’t know if I even liked “The Green Fields of France” when I first heard it, but as I listened to Where Fear and Weapons Meet over and over, the sludgy, industrial closer quickly established itself as one of the album’s finest offerings. Choosing a cover for SotY might seem strange, but A.—I’m Holdeneye, and strange is a given—and B.—the song is nearly unrecognizable and may as well be an original track. At this point, it’s fair to say that 1914 have mastered the art of ending great albums.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Any other Baldur’s Gate nerds out there?
« »