Sentynel and Twelve’s Top Ten(ish) o’ 2021

Sentynel

This has been a bit of a weird year, even excepting the obvious. For the first half of the year, I managed to write semi-regularly and listen to a reasonable amount of music. I was a bit disappointed with the year’s output up to that point, though. Then I moved house at fairly short notice, and my writing and listening completely fell off a cliff in the inevitable barrage of new house drama.1 I haven’t quite managed to pick writing back up yet. Fortunately, I did manage to start listening to new music again just in time to enjoy a frighteningly good October/November. Thus was my list flipped from “I’m not sure what I’m going to put on it” to “I’m not sure what I’m going to take off it,” reassuring me that I still like metal in the process.

Meanwhile, AngryMetalGuy dot com goes from strength to strength. After a tiny pandemic-induced dip last year, everyone is back to slacking off at work by reading AMG. An updated comment system allows us to forgo words in favor of animated gifs. A new crop of n00bs run the gauntlet as we speak, and I look forward to welcoming the survivors and mourning the fallen. Our glorious leader has returned to the fold, doctorate in hand. Most of all, the whole crew continue to be the best group of overworked, unpaid pseudo-colleagues a person could ask for.2


#ish. Abstract Void // Wishdream – Yes, I have become one of those people who unironically listens to the synthwave/black metal band. (Okay, okay, that’s not at all surprising.) Unlike some other attempts at that mashup, some of which I have panned on this very blog, Abstract Void‘s genre merge is surprisingly natural. The result recalls a black metal version of the Uplink soundtrack, and I love it.

#10. Seven Spires // Gods of DebaucheryEmerald Seas, which is fantastic, was unfairly slighted on my list last year mostly because I didn’t hear it in time. Gods of Debauchery is another great album. The whole band, but particularly Adrienne Cowan, remain prodigiously talented musicians and songwriters. Despite being stuffed with great songs, it does suffer one of the genre’s regular flaws: it’s too long. But that’s not enough to scupper the album, and it reassures me that symphonic power metal isn’t quite out of ideas or talent yet.

#9. Duskmourn // Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns – I get this nagging feeling, listening to this album, that I’m being a little too transparently manipulated. Are the stirring folk melodies and chorus vocals a little too on the nose? Probably, and yet I can’t bring myself to care. Sometimes you need a break from things artsy and original, and Duskmourn‘s singalong folk-melodeath provides that break.

#8. Djiin // Meandering Soul – A Steel find, landing squarely in my “weird witchy music” niche. Meandering Soul spans the stylistic space from swaggering 70s doom to unsettling psychedelic exploration, at its best recalling a creepier, doomier The Mars Volta. Vocalist Chloé Panhaleux is adroitly varied across the album, with some genuinely evil shrieks a particular highlight. After a couple of months of listening to it, it still teeters on the brink of being a little too obtuse, but it keeps drawing me back.

#7. Aephanemer // A Dream of Wilderness – The sequel to my 2019 AotY was always going to be a bit nail-biting. Fortunately, while not quite as stuffed with immediate bangers as Prokopton, A Dream of Wilderness is a worthy follow-up: perhaps less immediate, but still a non-stop ride of melodeath classics. It cements Apehammer‘s position as the best melodeath band around. Gorgeous album art, too.

#6. Archspire // Bleed the Future – This was a good year for tech death. After years of bouncing off the genre’s anodyne, soulless technicality, I liked more than one tech death record this year. But where Gloire Éternelle was ultimately a struggle to listen to much through sheer length, Bleed the Future is short and punchy, catchy and melodic, and ultimately a lot of fun. (Also preposterously fast, of course.)

#5. Diablo Swing Orchestra // Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole – Confusing production job aside, this is another great record from DSO. They’re masters of melding a stylistic scattergun into a cohesive whole, while somehow landing consistently catchy, immediate songs across their myriad styles. In haste, I overrated the last album—which was good, but not great. I’ve had longer with this one and I’m more confident it’ll stick with me. It’s less shallow, sounds more comfortable with the “new” vocalist, and there’s no quality dips.

#4. Musk Ox // Inheritance – No surprises here after my glowing review, and everything I said there is still true. Inheritance remains a stellar example of folky modern classical (with occasional metal sensibilities). It hasn’t lost any of its potency in the months since it came out. If anything, it’s a more natural soundtrack to autumn and winter than it is summer.

#3. Kauan // Ice Fleet – Despite being a big fan of post-metal, post-rock often loses me to minimalism. Ice Fleet does not have this problem. Kauan deftly steer Ice Fleet through the perilous waters of minimalism via sheer elegance of composition. Beautiful quiet passages flow satisfyingly into bursts of heaviness no less beautiful. The result is a haunting, gorgeous album which gently wormed its way into my head and worked its way up my list.

#2. Meer // Playing House – It wouldn’t be a Sentynel list without something entirely un-metal scoring highly, and here we are. Huck pointed me at this one in January. I didn’t really know what to expect, and I’ve been listening ever since. Meer play gorgeous, lushly textured symphonic, progressive pop, and it’s brilliant. It’s catchy thanks to great songwriting rather than the sugary, empty hooks of mainstream pop, and every time I listen to it every song gets stuck in my head. In a sense this reminds me of some of Vienna Teng‘s work, though without quite her lyrical flare. But in another it’s not really like anything else I listen to.

#1. Thy Catafalque // Vadak – I so, so nearly missed this. It came out right around when my spare time vanished, and I listened to it once, wrote “wow this is great,” and then didn’t come back for months. Fortunately for me, I spotted my note when things settled down a little, and here we are. This is the first Thy Catafalque record I’ve really got into, but wow have I got into it. I’m a complete sucker for mixing interesting folk into modern styles, and Vadak‘s cross of Hungarian folk with weird prog metal is exactly what I needed. Each track does something unexpected yet hugely successful, from folk dance to prog death. Every time I finish the record, I want to put it back on again, and if I don’t, I wander around humming the riffs.

Honorable Mentions

  • Dvne // Etemen Ænka – More fun and memorable than sludge has any right to be.
  • Hand of Kalliach // Samhainn – Celtic folk melodeath with great beauty-and-the-beast vocals, recalling everything from Enya to the Witcher 3 soundtrack.
  • Jess and the Ancient Ones // Vertigo – After a bit of a wobble, Vertigo sees JatAO back in the throwback psychedelic rock saddle in fine form.
  • Paladin // Quest – Not to be confused with the other Paladin, my favorite one-man purveyor of “wizard disco” synthwave drops another album of vaguely fantasy-themed dance bangers.

Disappointment o’ the Year

Gloryhammer. Goddammit.

Song o’ the Year

Seven Spires – “Lightbringer” – There’s been almost no songs this year that I’ve listened to much outside of their albums, even by my usual standards of not doing that very much. (Shout-out to this cover of “I See Fire,” though, which is great.) Several Meer songs were contenders for this slot. But “Lightbringer” is the year’s most outrageously catchy song, so here we are.


Twelve

So that was a year. After all that time bemoaning 2020, I have to say, in many ways, I enjoyed 2021 a whole lot less. For me, this has been a long, stressful, and utterly exhausting year, and while I’d much rather be opening this whole list thing with some positivity, that’s kind of where my head’s at. As if to add salt to the wound, I haven’t had the best luck reviewing either; I awarded a grand total of one score above 3.5 this year, which incidentally is the only album on the list below that I reviewed myself.

And yet, despite everything, I couldn’t go so far as to say I’m unhappy. The music I did like from this year was music I loved; the changes in my life that contributed to my stress have me headed in an ultimately positive direction. I had a two-month stretch in the summer where I awarded not a single score above 2.5, but never stopped feeling grateful for the opportunity to write here for all of you. I am, at heart, frustratingly stubborn in my commitment to optimism, and still overjoyed to be sharing my top twelve ten(ish) albums of the year with all of you.

To end on an even more positive note, I’ll take a second to offer my sincerest thanks to every writer, editor, administrator, and overlord on this blog for being phenomenal at what you do, and for being far better friends than you’d expect any group of overworked, underpaid bloggers to be. I’d also like to thank every n00b, commenter, and reader for contributing to this blog in the way you do, and helping to make it as amazing as it is. I really do love it here, and it’s thanks to all of you.


#ish. Stortregn // Impermanence – Why isn’t more death metal this much fun? Impermanence makes it look easy; vibrant and addictive, it’s awesome to experience an album so complex, catchy, and utterly ear-wormy as Stortregn‘s fifth full-length. Ordinarily, I’d consider this one to to be a bit long for such a technical death metal album, but somehow, everything comes together in the best possible way to make it all fly by. Also, there’s acoustic guitars. What more could I ask for?

#10. VOLA // Witness – Between the djent, the electronica, and the bouts of rapping, I’m not sure why I gave Witness a chance, it’s so far outside of what I normally listen to. But I’m so glad I did; this album is beautiful and dark. The catchiest elements of VOLA‘s sound are used extremely well to create elegant music like I couldn’t find anywhere else this year. Everything about this album caught me by surprise, and everything about it thrilled me; this has been my earnest reminder to try something different once in a while, because it turns out sometimes it’s awesome.

#9. Empyrium // Über den Sternen – What a beautiful album. Honestly, what a gorgeous, gorgeous listen. It’s no secret around these parts that I am a sucker for good neofolk and one for good metal too. Über den Sternen effortlessly offers both styles in the highest quality. Since February, it’s been a staple of my listening, with no signs of going anywhere soon—and how could it? It’s coldly beautiful, lush, somber, and expansive. This kind of music is ideal for me, and I’ll be happy to keep listening as the days grow shorter.

# 8. Noltem // Illusions in the Wake – Okay, this one was a surprise. Atmospheric and melodic black metal have always been good styles for me, but Illusions in the Wake goes above and beyond, expertly-crafting music that feels utterly expansive. Often, I don’t even need to be in the mood to listen to it, because it does such a good job of forcing me to feel the way its songwriters did when they wrote it. It’s an open, honest, and gorgeous exploration of black metal in exactly the kind of style that resonates best with me—contemplative, explorative, mature, and open. It’s done nothing but grow on me since I started listening to it, and I can only imagine that trend is going to continue from here.

#7. Sur Austru // Obârșie – Like many people, I often turn to music for escapism, and few albums this year have delivered on that ideal like Obârșie has. I can hardly think of an approach to folk metal that could resonate more strongly with me than this: blackened, mystical, serious, and seemingly imbued with the otherworldly power to transport the listener to somewhere far, far away. I’m thrilled I came across this album when I did; it has filled a sorely-missed niche in my listening for 2021, and, the way I’m listening to it, will continue to do so well into 2022.

#6. Archspire // Bleed the Future – This album is just so solidArchspire has always exuded confidence in their music, but Bleed the Future feels like something else entirely. I’ve seen much debate as to whether or not this one is “better” than Relentless Mutation; for my part, I think this album shows Archspire at their best. The polish, the melodies, the catchiness imbued into so many of the songs—not to mention the hilarious vocal sample on “A.U.M.”—make this album an easy admission into my metaphorical Hall of Favorite Technical Death Metal Albums. It’s catchy and it’s impressive, and I love every maniacal second.

#5. Thy Catafalque // Vadak – Vadak is a weird album, and you’d best believe I think that’s a good thing. There was a lot of surprise factor to this album that drew me in initially, but I stayed for the incredible high quality that persisted no matter which way Thy Catafalque turned. The extra instruments were the icing on the cake—this album has a redpipe solo! The material on this album is so solid that, even after that initial sense of wondering what in the world was going on faded, this has been one of my most returned-to albums of the year. Whatever kind of day I’m having, odds are there’s something here to turn to, and I can’t help but admire that kind of versatility in my metal.

#4. Aephanemer // A Dream of Wilderness – Well, well, well, look who did it again. Aephanemer have such a cool sound going for them that it’s hard to imagine any new release of their not placing on one of these lists, but A Dream of Wilderness was… different. Their approach became less intense and more introspective, and it took a moment, but when it hit me, it hit me hard. This album has such a way with melody, and I love the many, many details hidden throughout its many orchestrations. The album sounds great, the band is in fine form, and it’s been really great to listen to as autumn’s wound down this year. Like Prokopton, I can only see this one continuing to grow on me as time keeps flying by.

#3. 1914 // Where Fear and Weapons Meet – This massive album effortlessly pummelled its way nearly to the top of my list because it is powerful. The more I listen to it, the more I love it. Adding orchestration to their unforgiving sound has made me fall for 1914 hard. The way they integrate quotes, samples, and even music from the wartime into their songs speaks to the level of attention to detail these guys have for their subject history. The passion, anger, and bleakness held by so many songs made Where Fear and Weapons Meet a truly welcome companion for me at the tail end of this year. This is a powerful, beautiful album, and I’m still liking it more and more with every listen.

#2. Diablo Swing Orchestra // Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole – It’s not that Diablo Swing Orchestra have created an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of album. What’s really impressive is that that they’re so very good at it that this album, containing at least five different styles of music, still feels confidently, unapologetically, like the Diablo Swing Orchestra. Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole never takes its foot off the gas pedal, its catchy, zany, and unpredictable nature causing it to be one of my favorite albums of the year, or ever from this band. In a year I’ve described as stressful, bleak, and exhausting, this has been the dose of absolute fun I’ve needed, and I’ve enjoyed every moment of every listen since the first day I got it.

#1. Musk Ox // Inheritance – And again, here I am, crowning my personal album of the year to a non-metal album. But if Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole was the fun to my bleakness, Inheritance was the peace. So many times throughout the year, I have listened to this album because of its beautiful, intricate, and stunningly beautiful melodies. The way it ebbs and flows, rises and falls, and confidently strides to reach its intimate destination is everything I have needed from my music this year. Sometimes, circumstance is everything, and this was very much a “right time, right place” sort of album for me. I don’t mind admitting that I needed Inheritance this year. This hopeful and inspiring album has been escapism like nothing else, and I’m truly glad it came out when it did. For most of the year, there’s been no doubt where this one was ending up; this album is special, and it’s truly made a bleak year better.

Honorable Mention

  • Dvne // Etemen Ænka – Captivating, progressive, and different, I’ve come back to this one quite a bit this year. The ending in particular never fails to make me feel like I can take on the desert, and I even enjoy the interludes that help to pace the album! A solid listen from start to finish.

Disappointment o’ the Year

Frankly, it’s Diablo Swing Orchestra for what have apparently been some very controversial production choices on Swagger & Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole, casting a slight pall on the otherwise great time I had writing that review. You’re all wrong, by the way. It’s fine.

Song o’ the Year

“Malign Monologues” by the Diablo Swing Orchestra is my Song of the Year pretty much because I think the whole thing is hilarious. You take a little bit of swing, a little bit of metal, grab a smooth singer with some fairly disturbing lyrical content and away you go. The song makes so little sense, is way too cheerful for its subject matter, and makes fantastic use of the band’s horn section, all of which has led me to listen to far too much since I first heard it. It never fails to put a smile on my face, and it’s hard to beat that in these most unsettling of times.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. The gas leak was a particular low point, though you’ll be reassured to learn that I didn’t explode.
  2. Even you, Grier.
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