Saunders’, Huck N’ Roll’s and Cherd’s Top Ten(ish) of 2021

Saunders

Well here we are again, after another year of global chaos, not to mention the usual everyday challenges and curveballs of life. Yet we made it through the slog. As always, metal has been a welcome distraction and positive, cathartic outlet. It’s also a festive time of year and opportunity for us to share what we all deem as superior taste with the extended family here at Angry Metal Guy. Some seven years and change into my tenure writing on this finest of the fine metal blogs, it remains a humbling and endlessly satisfying experience contributing to these esteemed pages. Although other commitments prevent me from contributing as often as I would like, I am a daily lurker, and exploring these pages, and behind the scenes shenanigans at Angry Metal Guy (timezone glitches notwithstanding), is a cherished, comforting ritual.

Seeing the blog grow in stature and the team and readership swell has been awesome to be a part of. Deepest thanks to everyone that is a part of the AMG crew, from the great people that pour their heart, soul, time and creativity to make it all happen, to the always loyal readership. Special thanks for all the killer recommendations from colleagues and readers alike that continually challenge me to broaden my horizons. I found myself dabbling in more traditional territories, and even power terrain (Silver Talon), and I’m looking forward to spending way more time with Tower and Black Soul Horde in particular. My heartfelt thanks and appreciation goes out to all the editors and AMG big wigs that keep shit under control with an iron fist, including the tireless Steel Druhm and Dr. AMG himself.

My shortlist of albums to consider for list honors continued to grow out of control in a year full of great releases, if a shortage of truly mind-blowing, timeless material. Still there were stacks of tremendous albums and many more to discover and explore deeper. My love of tech and death metal came to the fore with a stupendous collection of techy delights to fuck with my brainwaves. I am looking forward to delving deeper into intriguing late comers and overlooked gems that I simply didn’t get to spend enough time with, including strong stuff from Aephanemer (the debut didn’t stick for me), Stormkeep, Demoniac, Zornheym, and the late hitting Abscession, along with other fine platters to feature in the TYMHM segments.

Hope you dig some of the following picks… Cheers.


#ish. Diskord // Degenerations – The experimental Norwegians made a triumphant return after an extended break from the studio, creating another batshit album of bonkers death metal. Old school in spirit and utterly tweaked in its crazy, yet always thoroughly entertaining construction. Degenerations is a hyperactive, confounding, yet far from impenetrable demonstration of incredible skill, creativity, and abstract songcraft. More time spent absorbing the strange vapors proved thoroughly rewarding when the mood struck.

#10. The Silver // Ward of RosesSpawned from members of Horrendous and Crypt Sermon, these unlikely allies created a debut of wonder, beauty and visceral bite. Not easily pinned down stylistically, The Silver traverse versatile pathways across the compelling duration of Ward of Roses. Black metal coagulates beneath goth, prog, doom and post metal influences, resulting in a strangely exotic and cohesive amalgamation of disparate styles. The end result is a richly rewarding album, steeped in gothic drama, and reinforced with searing extremity, doomy menace, and barbed aggression.

#9. Alustrium // A Monument to SilenceA long awaited return from these supremely talented masters of technical and progressive death. A different beast to its much-lauded predecessor, A Monument to Silence is a less outright over-the-top platter than A Tunnel to Eden, yet its strengths are plentiful. Alustrium applied careful restraint and hints of experimentation within a scorching framework of melodic and proggy tech death. Measured pacing, clever dynamic tweaks and outstanding musicianship bookend expertly crafted and memorable songs. The mood and tone of the album is darker, the attack slightly charred and blackened, while the hooks drip with emotion and aggression. Importantly, A Monument to Silence has never dropped far from my rotation.

#8. Archspire // Bleed the Future It took me a while to fully embrace and connect with Archspire‘s acclaimed 2017 opus Relentless Mutation. The album eventually clicked, and like many, anticipation levels began to escalate prior to the release of follow-up, Bleed the Future. This is about as ridiculously over-the-top as the already over-the-top tech death style gets. Yeah, the warp speed records and technical bombast, coupled with relentless brutality and rhythmic vocal fireworks can teeter on the overwhelming. However, Archspire are not a case of style over substance. Amidst the head-spinning chaos resides a band with the skills to write tunes that may not automatically enter the memory bank, but mesh together into one immersive slab of addictive, elite tech death. A few more groovier moments and less crushed master would have elevated an already great album to even greater heights.

#7. Boss Keloid // Family the Smiling ThrushBoss Keloid may have taken a while to hit their stride, but the last several albums have set them apart and gained notable traction in the modern prog and stoner scenes. After capturing my attention with 2018’s superb Melted on the Inch, expectations were high for fifth LP, the oddly titled, Family the Smiling Thrush. First impressions were mixed. The soaring vocal hooks and instantly latchonable hooks of Melted... were less prominent and far more elusive. On the verge of dismissing the album as a huge disappointment, my persistence eventually paid off. The end result? An album of depth, complexity and staying power. For a release that I struggled to connect with, it’s quite remarkable how addictive these quirky, muscular and complex stoner doom meets prog tunes have become.

#6. WORM // Foreverglade – WORM stormed home at the finish with their colossal opus of death-doom excellence. In a year dominated by shiny tech wonders, it was refreshing to bask in the dim, grimy glow of Foreverglade. Simply put, WORM nailed the sometimes tricky to balance death-doom style to maximum effect. WORM have the goods to craft gripping long-form epics, like the funereal stomp of closer “Centuries of Ooze” and compelling, subtly twisty slow burn, “Cloaked in Nightwinds.” There’s a deft touch in the insidious melodies and guitar leads, lending a touch of class to otherwise brutish, bleak songs. I particularly dig the tempo variables the band skillfully wield throughout dense, intelligent compositions.

#5. Headshrinker // Callous IndifferenceMuch like Son of Sam, though totally different musically, Headshrinker weeded their way into heavy rotation with an eclectic album that should be garnering more love than it appears to be. Despite the bleak atmosphere and harrowing subject matter, I’ve never found Callous Indifference to be too overly grim to stop me wanting to revisit it regularly. The album is dark and gritty, brutal and melodic, groovy and chock full of top-shelf riffs, wrapped in a doomy blackened death cloak. For an album wallowing in darkness and despair, Callous Indifference is an infectious, riff and groove packed delight

#4. Black Sites // UntrueChicago’s Black Sites just keep getting better album by album. While I greatly enjoyed their previous two albums, Untrue has hit me on a different level. In fact, the mix of modern styles with old school trve metal has been a huge catalyst in my gradually increasing interest in more traditional forms of heavy metal. Untrue kicks it up a couple of notches from the accomplished Exile and feels like the band’s most consistent, progressive, and hook-laden affair. The scorching guitar work shines like a sparkling diamond, exploring progressive dimensions while ramping up their penchant for penning earworm choruses and glorious trad metal hooks.

#3. Paranorm // EmpyreanOf all the techy gems of 2021, Sweden’s thrashy, deathy, melodic guns Paranorm released a truly special album that appeared to slip through the cracks. Empyrean is an ambitious, sublimely composed album, boasting incredible musicianship, razor-sharp hooks, and superb blend of old school thrash and modern progressive crunch. Hints of Carcass and later-era Death adds further layers of awesomeness to an intoxicating progressive death-thrash brew from a talented bunch of unheralded stars. Another album that stayed in heavy rotation through the year, solidifying its high position on my list.

#2. Son of Sam // And the Monster Awoke…Wow what a fucking album! The debut LP from a project comprised of two dudes from Rimfrost came out of left field and knocked me for six. They skillfully whipped thrashy melodic death, epic heavy metal, Viking, and blackened influences into a strikingly diverse and ridiculously hooky collection of unique tunes. Although the musicianship and writing is sharp, there is an unrefined, endearing charm to the album that makes it an extra special listen. While the somewhat boneheaded crunch of “Depravity” sticks out like a sore thumb, it is redeemed by its chunky riffs and fuck you attitude. However, this pales in comparison to such immaculate, fist-pumping gems like “I Am,” “My Nuclear Desire,” and the stunning “Gods in the North.” An exceptional beginning to what I hope is the first of many great chapters to come. Extra points for one of my favorite vocal performances of the year.

#1. VOLA // WitnessContinuing a trend that seems to rear its head more often than not, my number one pick was not an easy lock. Perhaps more than ever, certain spaces in my end of year list of 2021 are interchangeable. However, what is certain is that VOLA‘s Witness was my most played album of the year. Even though I consider myself a modern prog metal aficionado, somehow, I had previously overlooked the output from this Danish/Swedish combo. Witness rapidly changed all that with its captivating display of melancholic, emotive, and dangerously addictive blend of prog, darkly hooky pop, djent, electronica and metal. The first half of the album features big hitter after big hitter, but the power packed hooks and hefty sucker punches of “Immortal Bird” and “Stone Leader Falling Down” ramp the momentum of an accomplished second half.  Witness is a hugely infectious, unique and consistent batch of excellent proggy tuneage.

Honorable Mentions:

  • 1914 // Where Fear and Weapons MeetThe Blind Leading the Blind was always going to be an extremely tough act to follow. Adding some symphonic bombast into their blackened death war machine shows 1914 are not content to repeat themselves. While initially, I felt a pang of disappointment, Where Fear and Weapons Meet marks another crushing examination of the cruel domain of war. A definite grower likely to rise in stature as time passes by.
  • Iotunn // Access All Worlds – Initially the flat production sapped some of my enjoyment of this fresh project featuring Jón Aldará (Barren EarthHamferð). After putting it on the back burner, Iotunn hit the ground running upon revisiting and has been hard to shake in recent times. Cosmic, progressive death with big melodies and even bigger hooks. Stellar musicianship, interesting writing, and Aldará’s excellent vocals, featuring beefy growls and excellent, if divisive, melodramatic cleans, iced the cake. I regret pushing it aside for so long.
  • Green Lung // Black Harvest – I am pretty selective with my retro doom/stoner/occult rock. After enjoying my time with Doctor Smoke‘s infectiously fun 2021 release, Green Lung‘s sophomore album Black Harvest proved an even more addictive jam of nostalgia, old school authenticity, and top-quality songwriting. While the vocals and slightly off production took some slight adjusting to, the album is stacked with bangin’ earworm after earworm; warm, folky, dusty yet hard rocking songs that pack emotional weight and a fresh edge to match the band’s time traveling doom rock ditties.
  • First Fragment // Gloire Éternelle – Yeah I know, this fucker is too damn long, making one sitting listens hard to handle. And yes, I hypocritically included the album in my extended list despite being a strong critic on these very pages of overlong albums. However, the sheer scope, ambition, insane musicianship and overflowing enthusiasm, energy and color bursting through proved irresistible. Some tighter editing would have likely skyrocketed the album near the top of the pile. Bloated ambitions aside, this is truly an album to marvel at.
  • Inhuman Condition // Rat°GodWhen overloaded with the ridiculously strong abundance of tech and experimental death delights in 2021, when I was craving some good old-fashioned meat and potatoes death, Inhuman Condition proved the most reliable of old school death jams.
  • Replicant // Malignant RealityAnother killer album with list climbing potential had I invested more time in it, Malignant Reality is nevertheless a barnstorming display of rugged, mechanical grunt, technical proficiency and sick, piledriving grooves. Replicant released a unique, compelling and hard-hitting album.
  • Sunless // YlemReally cool to hear Sunless back extending upon the potential displayed on their impressive debut. Ylem demonstrates a unique voice in the tech and disso death field, featuring the band’s dexterous musicianship, gritty, streetwise execution and tighter, more infectious writing, highlighting a great album.
  • Obscura // A Valediction – After being a little underwhelmed and nonplussed by their past couple of albums, hearing Obscura bounce back to form by embracing thrashy and aggressive Gothenburg style melodeath without sacrificing technical showmanship proved the tonic to reignite my interest in the German stalwarts. The veterans edged out fine efforts from Inferi, Stortregn and Ophidian I for list honors.

2021 Score Regret:

EYEHATEGOD // Eyehategod: A respectable return from the sludge lords initially had me pumped. However, little desire to return to the album throughout the year, coupled with some nagging flaws and a little too much polish, has the album on my shortlist for the next edition of Contrite Metal Guy.

Surprise Packet: Mastodon // Hushed & Grim – I went into this eight LP, and first double LP, from Atlanta veterans and modern metal juggernaut Mastodon with a belly full of skepticism. Long-time fandom aside, I have not been blown away by their releases since Crack the Skye dropped way back in 2009, so the prospect of a bloated double album didn’t fill me with much excitement. And while I have continued to enjoy their patchier, streamlined and averagely solid past few albums, the band has seemingly peaked on a creative level. Hushed and Grim does not entirely change that viewpoint, but it has given me reason to be excited and captivated by a Mastodon album for the first time in years.

Song o’ the Year:

Green Lung‘s “Graveyard Sun” – There were many contenders for Song o’ the Year honors, many I would be comfortable interchanging with my final choice. In the end, there was something special and hopelessly addictive about Green Lung‘s old timey tune. Like a time capsule back to their ’70s era of inspiration, the emotion-charged “Graveyard Sun” boasted one of 2021’s catchiest hooks, along with a scorching solo, melancholic atmosphere, and masterful soft-loud dynamics. A splendid tune with a timeless feel.

Non Heavy Picks:

Leon Bridges // Gold-Diggers Sound

Hiatus Kaiyote // Mood Valiant

Genesis Owusu // Smiling with No Teeth

Failure // Wild Type Droid


Huck N’ Roll

Okay, thank god that came to an end. I mean, 2021 was supposed to be better than 2020, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?? Not here. I worked way way too hard at my day job, which meant I listened to probably the fewest albums of any of the past six years. Normally I’d plow my way through maybe 350-400 albums in a year. This year, I think just over 200. So even though my list is still amazing, perfect, and impeccable, I’m sure there’s a pile of music that could just as easily have made it on here if I had the time to listen. So if you read this list and think “Huck, this is so excellent, and judging from your excellent list I bet you would also like This Band,” well speak up in the comments. I’d love to check out some other suggestions.

What was good about this year? Plenty of things, but above all the writers and commenters here at Angry Metal Guy make for a fantastic community. There is so much variety in all aspects of this ecosystem that it’s truly a joy to be a part of it. I reviewed less this year than any previous year, but still love writing when I can, and hopefully I was able to turn a few of you on to some decent music, as you did for me.

Five of the albums below didn’t get an AMG review this year, so read the bits and go find them on Bandcamp. They’re good. And read all the other lists. They’re good as well. See you next year.


(Ish). Malady // Ainavihantaa – My favorite progressive rock album of the year had to get a spot on this list. What a great-sounding record. It was a late entry, but luckily I’ve had it since the summer, as its release was delayed a couple times, so it hasn’t suffered the fate of many December releases; namely, lack of playing time. As I say in the review, this is not noodly self-indulgent prog, but rather textured and immersive, an album full of beautiful moments and just a rearranging of the saxophone parts away from being much higher up the list. Fans of the early 70’s prog-rock movement will love this album, and the band in general. Favorite song: “Dyadi.”

#10. Tower // Shock to the SystemBlack Soul Horde was neck and neck with Tower for this spot, and Silver Talon wasn’t far behind, but I figured Steel would give BSH plenty of love in his column so here’s Tower for you. Rawer music, better vocals, and an enthusiasm that’s more infectious than that thing Doc Grier has been sporting around the office. My list is littered with proggy albums this year, but this isn’t one of them. This album is just straight-up no-frills metal, and singer Sarabeth Linden absolutely refuses to watch you mope, forcing you to love Shock to the System even if you don’t want to. If you want that 80’s metal vibe this is truly a joy to listen to. Favorite song: “In Dreams.”

#9. Hippotraktor // Meridian – We didn’t review this, but it’s on my list so it must be good. I love the name, TheKenWord does not. Regardless of that, there is some killer progressive post-metal on Meridian. Do you like The Ocean Collective? Nug? Go listen to this. Stefan De Graef also sings for Psychonaut, and if you imagine a bit of that band, a bit of Gojira, a lot of The Ocean, and all cranked up with a bit more fury at times, you’ll have an idea of what’s going on here. It’s the perfect blend of progressive and post-metal, the perfect blend of massive and delicate, and an excellent addition to the Pelagic catalog, as well as your own library. Don’t miss out! Favorite song: “Mover of Skies.”

#8. Green Lung // Black Harvest – Any album that opens with blatant homage to Boston is going to grab my attention – I just wish their reworking of “Foreplay” as an intro was about three minutes longer. Green Lung’s follow-up to their excellent debut Woodland Rites, Black Harvest is a superb mix of classic rock, doom, occult, and straight-up hook-filled heavy metal. Tom Templar’s vocals might not be for everyone, but Carcharodon and I love them, and therefore they are good. And as my sharky friend says, Black Harvest is “tightly written, with stellar performances across the board from the band.” Favorite song: not including the intro “The Harrowing,” it would be “Reaper’s Scythe.”

#7. Dvne // Etemen ÆnkaGardensTale got his grimy mittens on a couple of albums that landed on my list this year. Does this mean he has great taste as well? No, it means he dives into the promo sump faster than I. And I would hate him for it if he wasn’t so lovable. Like Dvne, a band I’ve enjoyed since they came on the scene in 2017. Here on their sophomore outing the band takes their already-great formula and multiplies everything by two. Songwriting, musicianship, and even vocals are all improved, and Lissa Robertson’s guest spots do for this album what Per Wiberg does for Vokonis, adding another dimension to an album that was amazing to begin with. I can’t wait to see where Dvne go from here. Favorite song: “Court of the Matriarch.”

#6. Vokonis // Odyssey – I had my fingers crossed for this one. Why? Because I didn’t want the music to let down the gorgeous cover art. I bought this on vinyl as well, just to see a bigger version of it, and the gatefold is a thing of beauty. Luckily Vokonis deliver on the songs as well. Adding Per Wiberg on the organ ties this whole album together, as the music on Odyssey is full of crunch, fuzz, riffs, massive drums, and now perfectly complemented by a roaring Hammond. I love it. Like with many albums, vocals won’t be for everyone, but give this a chance, it will not disappoint. Favorite song: “Through the Depths.”

#5. Black Sites // Untrue – Three albums in and this killer Chicago group has finally cracked my list. It seems impossible for Black Sites to release anything bad, and here on Untrue they click on all cylinders musically, but more importantly the songwriting is on point throughout. Sugar and Co. somehow manage to infuse plenty of references to the 70s, 80s, and 90s in the songs while at the same time keeping everything fresh and modern. I wouldn’t call Untrue a breakthrough album, because the first two were also really good, but Black Sites deserve a lot more recognition and maybe this album will do it for them. Favorite song: “Call it by its Name.”

#4. Epiphanic Truth // Dark Triad: Bitter Psalms to a Sordid Species – I just wrote about this last week,1 what more do you want me to say? Well, I’ll say this: the three songs here are arranged such that they flow perfectly into one another, so as to make Dark Triad feel as though it is one 44-minute journey. It meanders, but not enough to lose my attention. It’s brutal, but not so much that it hurts my delicate Dad Rock ears. It sounds amazing, and cranking it on the big stereo shakes this 100-yr old house to its rickety foundations. It’s one of the few non-review metal albums I spun with frequency this year, and with good reason. It’s amazing. Favorite song: “Our Vile Roots Flourish Beyond Light.”

#3. Astrakhan // A Slow Ride Towards Death – Who remembers the sweaty man-bun days? Continuous positive reinforcement had almost obliterated that album cover from memory, but not the music from it. And here comes A Slow Ride Towards Death, another on my list that we didn’t get to review. This is 2021’s equivalent of In the Passing Light of Day. These Swedes caught lightning in a bottle here. Formed by members of Royal Hunt and Pain of Salvation, they play a style of modern prog much like PoS, complete with some of the best vocals of the year. If you missed this one, go find it! You won’t be disappointed. Favorite song: “Take Me With You.”

Album cover of the Record o' the Month for February 2021, a picture of an ethereal being in a cosmos#2. Iotunn // Access All Worlds – Early on in the year there were two albums that were standing tall, early entries in my tentative year end list. One eventually got bumped down to Honorable Mention, the other held strong. Guess which one held strong – this one! Any album with Barren Earth/Hamferð singer Jón Aldará will get my attention, and Iotunn delivered in spades on this debut. Aldará soars in clean and harsh fashion through all of these death/power/prog tracks and the band tears through these songs with aplomb. As GardensTale stated in his review, Access All Worlds is “gargantuan, adventurous, impeccably composed, and perfectly executed.” This was almost the best album of the year…favorite song: “Voyage of the Garganey I.”

#1. Dordeduh // Har – This should be no surprise to anyone. My first 4.5 review since March of 2019 (Sermon), Dordeduh hit all the right spots. It was an amazing year for Romanian metal, with Negură Bunget and Sur Austru both delivering strong albums, but Dordeduh shone brighter than their cousins. The incorporation of Romanian instruments into prog/black metal is seamless here, with every song perfectly arranged and even perfectly-er executed. The scope of Har blew me away when I first heard it in April and continues to do so to this day, but now cranked on my turntable (and what excellent LP packaging, by the way) it is even more awe-inspiring. When an album clicks for me I just know it, and it does so on a visceral, subconscious level. That makes it hard to explain, but easy to place at Number 1 for the year. Favorite song: “De neam vergur.”

Honorable Mentions:

  • The Body and BIG|BRAVE // Leaving None but Small Birds – Alluring, harrowing, and not at all what I expected from this collaboration. A must-listen for the adventurous amongst you.
  • Boss Keloid // Family the Smiling Thrush – I had to work way too hard to enjoy this album (far too many vocals). In hindsight, maybe it was a 3.5.
  • Diablo Swing Orchestra // Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole – A welcome return to form with some amazing songs.
  • King Buffalo // The Burden of Restlessness – It’s impossible to not lose yourself in this band’s work, so hypnotically groovy.
  • Spire // Temple of Khronos – One of the best albums early in the year, a blast of progressive pagan black metal.
  • Terminus // The Silent Bell Toll – Fantastic album by a little-known band, I found myself returning to it often.

Biggest Disappointment: This is where we would usually include some heavy hitters that failed to live up to our lofty expectations, but honestly all the big bands delivered pretty much exactly what I was expecting. Meaning, I didn’t think Iron Maiden or Gojira would be able to give us landmark releases. I wanted them to, but I know better than to get my hopes up.

Favorite Non-Metal Releases:

  • Haitus Kaiyote // Mood Valiant
  • The Lucid Furs // Damn! That Was Easy
  • Meer // Playing House
  • Tom Petty // Finding Wildflowers
  • Neil Young and Crazy Horse // Way Down in the Rust Bucket

Cherd of Doom

Here we are at the end of 2021, a year when everything went back to normal and happiness and prosperity was available for all who wanted it. Gone are the hardships of the terrible, no good, very bad 2020. I spent my year working in medical facilities, thankful that all those butt burps who denied the severity of what we were going through and made my job harder were a distant memOK, actually I spent my year pulled from my normal duties to work a combination of Covid testing sites and vaccine clinics. It was way less fun than my wife’s job. She gets to tell entities like cities and companies and the US Army to play ball or pound sand while she saves endangered species and shit. Meanwhile, my son gained the verbal and complex motor skills of a three year old, which means he’s like a constantly drunk slapstick comedian who’s so cute you just want to grab his cheeks, pull him close and puke in his round little face.

It’s hard to assess whether this was a truly good or sub-par year for metal output. I’ve always been the type to insist that you can find a lot to love in any year as long as you’re not some kind of cantankerous git, but this was the first year in a while that a true runaway personal winner failed to emerge. By my records, I also listened to 33% fewer records this year than last due to various factors, which leads me to my yearly disclaimer: if you read my list or any of the others and wonder why you don’t see your pet record, remember that I am but one man with but one toddler son who robs me of time and life force. I probably didn’t get to it. Or maybe I did and your taste is just terrible. I’d like to thank Steel Druhm and Madam X for performing the Sisyphean task of keeping us writers productive, AMG for not firing the lot of us as he so frequently threatens, our editors for catching between 20 – 40% of my typos, and of course you for reading.


(ish) Plebeian Grandstand // Rien ne suffit – Like its memorable cover art, engaging with Rien ne suffit is like wrestling an opponent that grows new limbs and sheds old ones mid-match. It’s a shifting object in space with tactile surfaces and textures that crystalize and mutate under your grasp. Its ability to sow pointed confusion and nameless dread is almost Lynchian in cinematic scope, like an extreme metal equivalent to Eraserhead or Twin Peaks the Return. It may be mercurial, but it never loses cohesion or sense of purpose, even if that purpose is alien to ours.

#10. Hellish Form // Remains – I had some inkling when I reviewed this back in June that it could sneak into my top ten. In a year that saw new albums by heavyweights Skepticism, Funeral and Clouds in my beloved funeral doom genre, it was the added components of sludge, noise/drone and dream pop synths that helped Remains crack my AOTY post over those more conventional offerings. This is caustic, slow-moving poetry that inspired me to write sentences like “Things gradually build until synths float above the din like a white bird catching the light against a dark storm cloud.” Sappy, perhaps, but good sludge/noise/funeral doom just makes me wistful I guess.

#9. Panopticon // …And Again Into the Light – Austin Lunn’s music has always been tailor-made for my sensibilities. There are few things I like more than triumphant black metal, Americana influences or themes of landscape and site-specificity. When he lived in Kentucky, the land and people of that place populated his work. Now he lives in Minnesota, so his settings and imagery have shifted north. I’ll admit that I was tepid on his last full-length, the double album The Scars of Man On the Once Nameless Wilderness2 after loving the albums before it, but his 20+ minute 2020 single Rune’s Heart got mine racing again. …And Again Into the Light is the return to form I had hoped for, and with a new wrinkle, as this is his heaviest album ever. I’ve heard and understand folks’ issues with this album’s production, but I’m much more forgiving of such things in black metal.

#8. Zao // The Crimson Corridor – Having already awarded this album a 3.5 in my April review, it just kept growing in my mind throughout the rest of the year. For this band to not only endure, but thrive in yet another decade with some of their tightest songwriting to date is more than I ever could have expected when I first heard them in the 90s. “Ship of Theseus,” “Croatoan” and “The Crimson Corridor” have yet to leave heavy rotation for me. And of course this is a uniquely personal selection, as I already noted in my original review, “There’s a kinship connection that’s hard to explain between those who have escaped religious fundamentalism. Given our shared history, I’m proud of (Zao) the way you’re proud of hometown kids done good in the real world.”

#7. Somnuri // Nefarious Wave – A better man than I once said of this album, “Nefarious Wave blasts through a range of melodic grooves and vein popping outbursts without any musical aspect outstaying its welcome…The flow from sludgy trudges and vocal harmonies to caustic aggression never feels forced, nor do the compositional progressions ever feel superfluous or self indulgent. Somnuri play like they know they don’t have time to dick around. Each movement and choice feels animated by purpose with an endgame in mind.” Wait, no, I said that. Tired of progressive sludge that can’t edit itself (looks directly at Hushed and Grim), but love the genre? Spin this on repeat.

#6. Archspire // Bleed the Future – I look back on the 2017 release of Relentless Mutation as one of those rare watershed moments in heavy music. Something new landed then, something we didn’t know we needed until we heard it. I couldn’t stop listening to it. Still can’t. I’ve asked myself more than once if I’d regard Bleed the Future the same way if it had been released first. Probably, since so little of Archspire‘s formula has changed. How do you follow up an instant classic? Turn everything that made it good up another notch, of course. The novelty may be gone, but the, um, danger remains in this music.

#5. So Hideous // None But a Pure Heart Can Sing – This was an 11th hour addition to this list. One of those wrecking balls that upend how you think about the year’s output. I strongly suspect this would place higher given more time. With genre tags as wide-ranging as orchestral, blackened, post-hardcore and post-metal, this somehow never gets swallowed up by it’s own extra-ness. Each song is a vital addition to the watertight 30 minute runtime, and the album goes out on what feels like one of those theatrical experiences when the cast takes the stage for a rousing final coda. I know our own Dear Hollow gave this record a less than glowing review, but we did a fisticuffs and I won, so now you have to listen to it.

#4. Mare Cognitum // Solar Paroxysm – This is the second consecutive year that Mare Cognitum has endured the ignominy of landing on my year end list after Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine, the grandiose split with Spectral Lore, came in at #10 in 2020. Jacob Buczarski simply does atmospheric black metal better than just about anyone in the biz. Seemingly against genre conventions, his work is dense and exhilarating, with a melodic scope as vast as the cosmic themes he explores. No song dips below ten minutes, but every second is vital to the unfolding experience of Solar Paroxysm.

#3. Old Nick // A New Generation of Vampiric Conspiracies – Abysmal Specter, the man behind Grimestone Records and a few dozen projects including Curta’n Wall, Bloody Keep and his flagship band Old Nick, has turned the world of raw black metal and dungeon synth on its head in the two short years he’s been operating. His is a truly unique vision that satirizes the cartoonish evil of black metal while also delivering sneaky good riffs and spooky ear-worm synths. I doubt there’s anyone in metal having more fun than Abysmal Specter, and since I can’t wipe the idiot grin from my face when I listen to Old Nick, it appears to be contagious.

#2. WORM // Foreverglade – This doomy gloomy year to end all doomy gloomy years almost passed without giving me that fresh honkin’ slab o despondency doomophiles like myself need to replenish our stores for the long winter ahead. Almost. Foreverglade is such a chonker of concentrated death doom murk, I’ll never go hungry again. Just as impressive as its wallowing lows are its emotional highs. As I note in my original review, “When (vocalist) Phantom Slaughter is employing his lowest death growl concurrent with the down-tuned trudging riffs, the result is like a blast furnace door opening and closing. Meanwhile, the clear, high tone of the (guitar) solos hover like an osprey on fresh winds high above the Floridian swamps.”

#1. Stortregn // Impermanence – I’ve never awarded a 4.5 on this site, but each year I usually find an album that I would have, given the opportunity. This year I didn’t. So in choosing my top album of the year, I turn to the one I couldn’t stop spinning. I always felt like listening to Impermanence, no matter what mood I was in. When I was compiling this list and sorting out placements, I continuously asked myself if I liked each album as much as Impermanence, and usually I’d stop that album and put this one on. From my previous review: “…Stortregn‘s ability to weave melodic black metal, thrash swagger, and even a little traditional speed metal into their frenetic space-borne assault shines across Impermanence…Wake up from hypersleep early and facing decades alone? Sentient black hole warping reality? Lieutenant Fletcher requesting entry to the airlock after a space walk but you look over at the nav station and he’s right there and they both start saying they’re the real Fletcher? If I have to face the horrors of deep space, I’ll do it with Stortregn‘s Impermanence blasting on a ship-wide channel.”

Honorable Mentions

  • Glassing // Twin Dream – This nearly made my list proper, but a slightly weaker second half bumped it down a notch. Still, second best blackened post-harcore post-metal of the year.
  • King Woman // Celestial Blues – From my review: “Celestial Blues sounds, to these ears, like a delivery on the promise shown on the band’s debut. There is more space between instruments and ideas, and Kristina Esfandiari inhabits it fully…King Woman bring a unique voice and perspective to the fertile ground in the gray space between metal and independent post-rock.”
  • Ars Magna Umbrae // Throne Between Worlds – After loving debut Lunar Ascension, I was seriously underwhelmed by last year’s Apotheosis. Thankfully, this is a return to form as well as a maturation of K.M.’s songwriting skills. More great cosmic black metal from I, Voidhanger.

Disappointment of the Year

Your performance in school. I know distance learning is hard but you need to get those grades up, mister. Your mother and I are worried that you’ll spin your wheels at community college and get stuck in a dead-end job. You think it’s funny now, but you won’t when you’re still living with roommates at forty. From now on you come straight home after basketball practice instead of hanging out with Lucas and his pothead friends. Are we clear?

Show 2 footnotes

  1. And I wish I could have written about the others on my list we didn’t review here, but time was not kind to me this year.
  2. Not for lack of familiarity or love of folk and country, mind you. You should see my sprawling Americana iTunes library.
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