Steel Druhm’s Top Ten(ish) of 2021

2021 was a dumpster fire and the various staff reflections tell of frustration and burnout thanks to the neverending COVID Olympics. I’ll refrain from adding to the diary of woe and instead extend a word to the esteemed staff of AMG. You’re all underproducing, overrating bastards. Soon you will be forced to train the army of n00bs who will replace you with extreme prejudice (severance packages will be made available in the dissection room. Ask for Bonesaw).

In seriousness, some of the staff did actual work at times, and a few even outperformed work quotas. Sloth and indolence aside, they’re all good eggs and we’ve developed into quite the happily dysfunctional family with our monthly Zoom planning sessions/chug-o-thons. Here’s to continuing the hobo wine-fueled fun into 2022 and beyond.

It’s the readers that continue to be the real problem here. 2022 will see the AMG team conduct intensive focus group and demographic research on how best to drive you away in the largest numbers possible. Only then can we freely hurl our opinions into the void without complaints or back sass from metal elitists, intellectuals, or socialites of any stripe. Ah, the sweet, sweet sound of deafening silence!

In the meantime, here be the selections of Steel. Praise be.

(ish) Tower // Shock to the SystemTower’s sophomore outing hit me late in the year but left lasting marks. Their rowdy blend of hard rock, speed, and traditional metal gets me right in the 80s nostalgia and few acts boast a vocal talent like Sarabeth Linden. Songs like “Blood Moon” and “Lay Down the Law” are impossible to resist as Ms. Linden blows the doors off, backed up by super 80s-centric metal with a fine layer of Velveeta. Yes, it’s throwback dad metal, but when it’s this enthusiastic and contagious, who really cares? Did I mention the vocals?

#10. Pharaoh // The Powers That Be – I’ve loved Pharaoh’s retro American power metal sound since I heard their 2003 debut, and I admit I was a bit underwhelmed by The Powers That Be after the 9-year wait for it to arrive. Given time though, the curse of the Pharaoh took hold, as cuts like “Waiting to Drown,” “Lost in the Waves” and “Dying Sun” called me back again and again. One of the best retro metal platters of the year, these cats have a special something I want more of than their 9-year album release schedule allows for. Be more productive!

#9. Desolate Realm // Desolate Realm – Balls, battleaxes, and backhair await as Desolate Realm’s debut lurches and lumbers through the lumber yards of epic doom. Brought to you by members of Finnish death metal act, Decaying, Desolate Realm bring the power of RIFFS to the genre, plastering you with blunt, Argus-esque grooves as hoarse vocals wax upon epical topics. Tracks like “Spire,” “Beneath the Surface” and “Reckoning” ugly you up and keep you wanting more. Strong writing, a Kryst the Conqueror influence, and a slight Sumerlands vibe helped cement this in my yearly rotation. Meaty stuff!

#8. Green Lung // Black Harvest – An unexpected gem that hooked into the same niche that Wytch Hazel filled so well last year, blending classic Sabbath worship with a bit of Jethro Tull’s country manor folk. Add bits of Led Zeppelin and even Boston into the mix and you get twice-baked retro stoner doom rock with rich, bold flavors. “Graveyard Sun” is a laid-back triumph that feels so 70s it’s hard to believe it’s from 2021. The slick, strong writing makes Black Harvest a breezy, nostalgic world you want to live in when the real world gets too noisy.

#7. Brainstorm // Wall of SkullsBrainstorm are the perfect heavy metal band. They forever dwell in that small, heavy space between Painkiller and prime Iced Earth, releasing album after album of fist-pumping, hook-laden anthems that stick like hot tar. Wall of Skulls was the 2021 addition and the hits were many. I will probably go to my grave with “Glory Disappears” warbling through my aged brain, and “Turn Off the Light” may be the greatest dad metal tune of all time. No fluff, no filler, all killer (and skulls).

#6. Memory Garden // 1349 – A morose powerdoom album about the plague? Sure, what a great way to end an eight-year hiatus! Though 1349 landed late in the year, its classy, polished Candlemass-meets-Tad Morose blueprint proved too much for the Steel One to resist. Crunchy cuts like “Distrust” are paired well with regal numbers like “Shallow Waters” and the emotions run deep courtesy of top-notch vocals from Stefan Berglund. If you love Candlemass and Sorcerer, you will eat this up like Christmas date loaf with extra cloves. Welcome back to the Garden!

Album cover of the Record o' the Month for February 2021, a picture of an ethereal being in a cosmos#5. Iotunn // Access All WorldsAccess All Worlds was the first album to really impress me in 2021, and though I didn’t expect it to have major staying power, it clung to my rotation all year long. Something about the spacey, tastefully proggy textures paired with Jón Aldará’s outstanding, semi-operatic singing and death roaring really resonates with me and I returned to this one a lot. “The Tower of Cosmic Nihility” is one of the best songs this year and even a shitty production couldn’t stop this freight train of proggy melodeath from making its mark.

#4. Mortiferum // Preserved in Torment – If you blend Bolt Thrower and Incantation, Steel Druhm magically appears to hand you a jug o’ hobo wine. Mortiferum dared such alchemy with Preserved in Torment and I probably should have delivered a whole case of hooch. This is scuzzy caverncore death-doom with effective transitions between mournful melancholy and ferocious ugliness, brought home by righteously repellant death gurgles from the sub-basement of Hades. “Eternal Procession” brings back the glory days of Onward to Golgatha, and “Exhumed from Mortal Spheres” is an unnatural riff machine. The atmosphere is thick and oily and the riffs vile and gruesome. This is the right stuff. The rotten stuff.

#3. Worm // Foreverglade – It would take a massive slab of doom-death to beat Mortiferum’s ponderous entry, but somehow Worm turned it with Foreverglade. This one was a big shocker and its proprietary blend of doom, death, funeral, and traditional metal influence is accentuated by the smart use of synths to create a compelling sound stage with nuances aplenty. There’s just something special about cuts like “Foreverglade” and “Empire of the Necromancers,” with writing and execution that drags you in and keeps you stuck in the slithering morass. Hell, I even hear traces of Godless Beauty era Cemetery at times, which is great. It’s an awful experience and I love it.

#2. Black Soul Horde // Horrors from the Void – Greek trve/trad metal warriors Black Soul Horde unleashed a tentacle tangle of terrible turbulence with sophomore opus Horrors from the Void. Highly 80s-centric and channeling the magic of Agent Steel and Manilla Road while referencing modern acts like Eternal Champion, the Horde weave tales of elder gods, wizards, and unrealistically large swords. The songs are just so catchy and fun, full of killer riffs and gloriously over-the-top vocals, this thing is impossible to put down. If the song “God of War” doesn’t make you happy at your very core, you should purchase a lifetime membership to the Enya fan club and sail away.

#1. Headshrinker // Callous Indifference – A nasty death metal album at number one for Steel? Unpossible! This thing jumped out of a suspicious package in August and months later it’s still got hooks in me. Harrowing, grim, twisted, and creepy, Callous Indifference drags you through the cluttered labyrinth of a troubled mind using death, doom, and black metal as ugly guideposts. There’s a palpable Voices vibe present, but this is no mere copycat act. More a singular concept piece than individual songs, Callous Indifference is a beast of many shades, and tracks like “The Burn of Indifference” and “Wretched Soul” will leave a lasting impression on your psyche. Over its runtime, Callous Indifference rips you through numerous genres and styles, all blended adroitly and in a way that keeps you off-balance and tense. The individual performances are insane and the writing is top-notch. One of the darkest but most addicting listens to hit my ears in a long time, this had to take the ape cake for 2021.

Honorable Mentions:

Helloween // Helloween – The pumpkings are back and they brought all their singers. This should not have worked but totally did.

Diabolizer // Khalkedonian DeathOne of the meanest death metal steamrollers of the year, this one just keeps cracking my skull and finger painting with my brains.

Significant Point // Into the Storm – Crazy 80s speed metal done with so much energy and exuberance that it’s almost too much for a man of my advanced age.

Silver Talon // Decadence and Decay – One of the best blends of traditional and power metal in 2021, Silver Talon hit that sweet spot between Witherfall and Brainstorm.

Lake of Tears // Ominous – A weirdly glum, melancholic journey from one of the most mercurial of metal acts.

Witchcryer // When Their Gods Come for You – Doom rock with tons of mood, passion, and bigtime vocals.

Doctor Smoke // Dreamers and the Dead – Occult metal is best served fun and mindlessly catchy, and that’s what Doctor Smoke is smoking on their spirited, spooky Dreamers and the Dead opus.

Revulsion // Revulsion – I sold this little death gem short in early 2021 and it had lots of time to beat itself into my guilty conscience ever since. The Tell-Tale Heart album of the year.

Malignant Altar // Realms of Exquisite Morbidity – This cesscavern keeps backing up and needing attention. One of the ugliest death platters of the year and it pairs well with Mortiferum

Jess and the Ancient Ones // Vertigo – Jess & her assisted living buddies provided all the upbeat hippie rock I needed in a weird year.

Disappointment o’ the Year:

Iron Maiden // Senjutsu – I wasn’t one of those Maiden fans harboring unrealistic expectations about this album. At best I hoped Senjutsu could edge out The Book of Souls and maybe dispense with some of the late-era bloat. Lo and behold, the bloat is back (it never left) and Senjutsu is a truly laborious listen with moments of goodness lost in a sea of blandness and editorial malfeasance. I’m greatly puzzled as to how this is appearing on so many best-of lists. At least we’ll always have Saxon.

Song o’ the Year: Starlight Ritual “The Riddle of Steel”

« »