MetalBite's Top Albums Of 2021 By George
Of the four years I've now spent exploring metal, 2021 has been by far the most noteworthy, and that's hardly surprising. 2020 prevented many artists from getting to studios to record and mix new material, but it also left everyone with a lot of free time - for musicians that meant a lot of writing got done, and the result is the gigantic explosion of releases we've seen over the last year. And while I didn't manage to listen to everything, I'm proud of the amount I got through, so without further ado here are my top 25 albums of 2021!
Honourable Mention: Mordant Rapture - Irreverent Opus
While it doesn't technically meet my criteria for inclusion on this list, Irreverent Opus is one of the most promising singles of 2021, consisting of punchy technical death metal layered with dramatic symphonics in a manner reminiscent of Fleshgod Apocalypse's best works. And to let the brilliant musicianship on display truly shine, the B-side transforms the work into a theatrical orchestral piece, showing that Mordant Rapture could fare just as well writing symphonies as they do metal songs.
25) Starlight Ritual - Sealed in Starlight
In a year to me marked chiefly by quality black, death and doom metal, the more traditional side of the genre didn't command a lot of attention. Starlight Ritual, however, are a very welcome exception, releasing a powerful, adventurous romp of a debut album which still manages to find moments to increase the intensity and dial up the atmosphere, chiefly the titular 'Sealed In Starlight'.
24) Firienholt - By The Waters Of Awakening
Epic black metal fans, rejoice! Although Caladan Brood news has eluded us for yet another year, Firienholt have landed on the scene with a worthy debut that pays tribute to their best qualities, complete with all the slow builds and heart-wrenching melodies you'd expect and even featuring a dead ringer for Jake Rogers on vocals. My only complaint about the album is that it sometimes strays a bit too far into Caladan Brood's territory, the most obvious parallel being the endings of 'The Whispering Shadow' and 'Book Of The Fallen' - but then again, if you're going to take such heavy inspiration from somewhere, it's definitely a good idea to go for one of the best damn finales to any song out there.
23) Swallow The Sun - Moonflowers
Swallow The Sun need no introduction; any fan of doom metal should be familiar with these purveyors of gloom, beauty and despair, and their latest effort once more plays host to generous amounts of all three qualities. Though it does not quite reach the astronomical heights of its 2019 predecessor, Moonflowers is an excellent album in its own right - it even features full reworkings of each song into more stripped-back orchestral versions, a perfect execution of a very ambitious concept.
22) Zornheym - The Zornheim Sleep Experiment
Zornheym are an underground gem of a symphonic black metal band, using their music to tell us tales of the inner secrets of a nightmarish fictional asylum. While their debut was just a small collection of self-contained stories, The Zornheim Sleep Experiment ups the ante dramatically, weaving a full-on concept album taking us through a twisted experiment and its devastating consequences. Additionally, the band have expanded and matured their sound, with the epic, emotive choirs featured on the choruses to both 'Dead Silence' and 'Slumber Comes In Time' creating a sorrowful edge that their music was previously missing.
21) Loot the Body - Hex Volume 1
Loot the Body are a young psychedelic rock band whose mission statement is to refract classic D&D stories through fuzzy guitars, catchy riffs and dreamy soundscapes. A staggering amount of variety is packed into Hex Volume 1 considering it's a 6-track EP that barely crests a runtime of 25 minutes, containing everything from heavy, pounding bass on 'White Plume Mountain' and 'Dwellers Of The Forbidden City' to soft, crooning ballads like 'The Keep On The Borderlands'. Don't miss this one if you're a fan of progressive rock - and while you're at it check out the much more recently released Volume 2 as well, which I unfortunately didn't manage to make time for but I'm sure is just as good.
20) StarGazer - Psychic Secretions
StarGazer's off-kilter, brazenly experimental approach to technical death metal has had me enamoured since the very first time I heard The Scream That Tore The Sky, and this newest opus might be the finest in their whole discography. Psychic Secretions is every bit as unapologetically weird as the cover art promises it will be, occasionally undercutting the band's signature bass-forward style of tech-death with staggeringly melodic guitarwork, the marriage far and away at its strongest on 'Lash Of The Tytans'.
19) Cân Bardd - Devoured By The Oak
The second (but certainly not last...) atmoblack entry on this list was a late but stunning addition. Devoured By The Oak delivers on every front, from the immersive ambient folk interludes to the painfully intense black metal, all compounded by an excellent musical instinct for where some wonderful violin or a melodious clean vocal section is needed.
18) Enshine - Transcending Fire
The Transcending Fire EP is an accomplished expansion to Enshine's unique spacey take on doomy melodeath, providing both the wondrous synths and the euphonic guitarwork the band has become known for. The true jewel of the EP, however, comes in the form of 'Ascend', an atmospheric, keyboard-fronted instrumental that builds masterfully over four minutes to an otherworldly conclusion reminiscent of Jari Lindholm's incredible work in Atoma.
17) Duskmourn - Fallen Kings And Rusted Crowns
As if one quality EP and two excellent full-lengths weren't enough, in 2021 Duskmourn have proven their consistency once again. Fallen Kings And Rusted Crowns not only sports the finest cover art of the year, it takes the listener on a deeply atmospheric trip of epic proportions into a lush fantasy world. The soundscapes are every bit as rich and textured as they were on the band's previous two efforts, sporting a balanced mix of the melodic death featured on 2014's Legends and the more atmospheric, blackened approach of 2017's Of Shadow And Flame.
16) Servants To The Tide - Servants To The Tide
Another debut entry, Servants to the Tide's self-titled album brings us some of the best the niche but nearly infallible genre of epic doom has to offer. Everything about this album evokes an aspect of seafaring, be it the staggering endlessness of the ocean in those drawn-out spaces between each melody (it is doom metal after all), or the light, obscuring mists conjured by the reverberations of the guitars. Fans of Atlantean Kodex would do well to give this one a listen, especially the tender yet sprawling epic 'North Sea'.
15) Kauan - Ice Fleet
...And speaking of seafaring, the (mostly) wordless storytellers Kauan offer us passage to the frozen waters of the world's furthest northern reaches. Ice Fleet is a 40 minute album that, despite being divided into seven tracks, is intended to be experienced as a single, cohesive whole. For the most part it consists of atmospheric, melodious post-rock, further characterised by frost-rimed piano and an auroral keyboard sheen, but the band aren't afraid to veer into extreme metal when the mood is right - it's a resounding lesson on how to tell a story through music, and in that respect I have no hesitation in placing it on the same tier as some of post-metal's all-time greats (namely Departure Songs and Panopticon). Ice Fleet is, in truth, a masterpiece, and the fact that it did not even crack my top 10 this year only stands testament to the sheer amount of quality metal 2021 has given us.
14) गौतम बुद्ध - पुनर्जन्म भाग १ (Gautama Buddha - Reincarnation Part 1)
Gautama Buddha is a mysterious Indian black metal project, tackling the genre with an astonishing amount of melody considering the biting rawness of both the production and the surreal, inhuman screeches that make up the vocals. Though Reincarnation Part 1 is not an album for the faint of heart, those who enjoy a lo-fi, underproduced aesthetic but still have a penchant for melody would do well to track this one down.
13) Miasmata - Unlight: Songs Of Earth And Atrophy
Keeping the black metal debut streak going, Miasmata hails from New Zealand, offering up a 40 minute blaze of melody. Unlight: Songs Of Earth And Atrophy exists as a love-letter to metal as a genre, with influences ranging from Venom to Maiden combining to form a delightful whole, a sound that they scale up to epic on the lengthier, more ambitious tracks such as 'Spell Of Unlight'.
12) Spectral Lore - Ετερόφωτος
One of Greece's finest black metal offerings, Spectral Lore's newest album is home to a refreshingly antiquated interpretation of the band's signature atmospheric sound. Ετερόφωτος is steeped in ancient Greek history and culture, evoking ancient battles and tribulations through aggression without being afraid to break into a more wondrous, ambient section (as is done for 20 straight minutes on the droning closer 'Terean').
11) Sepulcros - Vazio
Over on the other side of Europe, Portuguese death/doomers Sepulcros drop a delightfully dreary debut, steeped in menacing atmosphere with some funereal and even dark ambient undertones, though they don't stop it from feeling driven and purposeful. The production is delightful, featuring cascading guitars and buried vocals that seem to cry for freedom every step of the way, an effect excellently maintained by Batista's charismatic performance.
10) Cistvaen - Under The Silent Meadow Skies
Cistvaen are an atmospheric black metal hailing from the UK, and their debut EP showcases one of the best executed takes on the genre of the year (and I hope I've established by now that that's saying a lot). To soul of Under The Silent Meadow Skies lies in its crushingly melancholic overtones, driven by both despairing vocals and Cascadian melodies reminiscent of Fen and Wolves In The Throne Room. Three tracks each drag you into the depths of hopelessness, all resolving in a harrowing, ethereal manner at the end of 'The Voice of an Old God'.
9) Cosmic Vision - One Love To Last (The Stellar Sphere; Prologue)
Cosmic Vision cement themselves as 2021's most exciting new prospect by channelling and combining the best atmospheres metal has to offer - over these 40 minutes you'll hear the influence not only of older bands like Insomnium and Agalloch, but also the more contemporary scene, with Shylmagoghnar, Cân Bardd and An Abstract Illusion all explicitly cited as inspirations on the project's bandcamp page. One Love To Last not only recaptures the feel of Insomnium's perfect run from In The Halls Of Awaiting to Above The Weeping World better than any other band I've heard, it also adds in enough variety to keep the experience fresh and avoid feeling like they're retreading any old territory at all.
8) Horre - Songs Of A Wanderer
Skepticism's Companion was certainly a capable album in its own right, but it also left me with a yearning for the calm, ethereal magic of Stormcrowfleet that they have seldom returned to. Fortunately, the man behind Horre has taken it upon himself to do just that, crafting a funeral doom experience as ambient as it is metal, combining otherworldly synths and choral sections with hazy guitars to create something truly surreal.
7) Be'lakor - Coherence
Be'lakor have shown time and again that they can do no wrong, each of their albums being a meticulously crafted melodeath odyssey. Coherence unsurprisingly continues the trend, adding just enough new elements to give their reliable formula a new shine. 'Sweep of Days' is the real gem here, a near-flawless progressive instrumental nestled midway through that marks the only real departure from the band's established sound. But hey, not everything needs to be subversive or experimental - as the old saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
6) Midnight Odyssey - Biolume Part 2: The Golden Orb
Midnight Odyssey is a project characterised by ambition, famed for producing sprawling epics that often last multiple hours. The second part of the ongoing Biolume trilogy puts an arcane, mystical spin on the band's signature celestial black metal sound through the inclusion of bombastic soundtrack-esque synths and even sections of epic doom metal - The Golden Orb is a pioneering combination of genres executed to perfection, and the only remaining question is whether the final installment of the series can be any more special.
5) Hooded Menace - The Tritonus Bell
Hooded Menace have long established themselves as titans of both death and doom metal, a title that The Tritonus Bell resoundingly proves they are worthy of. Not only is it dripping with both atmosphere and the band's eponymous menace, it also flirts with classic 80s metal sensibilities, resulting in more of a groove than was present on previous releases - hell, they end it off with a W.A.S.P. cover, fittingly twisted to suit their needs to the point where it doesn't feel out of place in the slightest.
4) Ethereal Shroud - Trisagion
There's a good reason Trisagion has been the talk of the town in pretty much every extreme metal avenue for the past month - it has a genuine claim to being one of the most well-executed, sincere and above all wholly unique atmoblack albums ever released. The resigned nature of the quieter segments combines with a heavy amount of funeral doom influence and drawn-out screams to achieve an atmosphere that's never really been seen before in the genre. This isn't just one of the best releases of 2021 - this may well go down in black metal history as a crowning achievement of the genre.
3) So Hideous - None But A Pure Heart Can Sing
For my money, 2015's Lausterine is the best blackgaze album ever recorded, so the question of whether it could possibly be followed up was burning in my mind from the moment So Hideous announced they had something new in the works. But on None But A Pure Heart Can Sing they cleverly sidestep that question, choosing to create something wild and new instead of reliving past glories. This album is as chaotic as it is daring, pulling guitars, cellos, violins, trumpets and sax together into a whirling post-black metal frenzy then topping it all off with a truly harrowing vocal performance. I don't think anyone was expecting the quartet to take their music on this direction, but I welcome it as a bold experiment that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its predecessor.
2) Empyrium - Über Den Sternen
Empyrium have a long and storied legacy, starting out as creators dreary doom metal and later shifting focus entirely to pastoral, intensely personal darkfolk. Über Den Sternen sees the duo combine the best of both worlds, a culmination of all their past works into one single showcase of their capabilities. The album seamlessly builds from hypnotic folk ballads such as 'The Three Flame Sapphire', which evoke the tender atmosphere of 'Many Moons Ago' while dialing up the complexity, and heavier hitters such as the title track, which unleashes the pressure through thunderous riffing. This is without a doubt Empyrium's definitive work, rivalling both the diversity of Weiland and the quality of Where At Night The Wood Grouse Plays, and for that it earns my #2 spot.
1) Aquilus - Bellum I
Griseus' one-of-a-kind neoclassical approach to atmoblack earned Aquilus a cult following, and almost exactly a decade later Bellum I marks the project's monumental return. The classical influence Rosenqvist incorporates into his music very much remains in the form of brooding piano and violin, while the black metal sections see a welcome evolution - we're treated to fuller, darker soundscapes, far more forceful and menacing than was present on the debut. The manner in the two genres are weaved together is once more nothing short of perfection, and not a single section or transition feels out of place. The only aspect of Bellum I that could be called a fault is that it very much feels like a Part 1, lacking the beautiful resolution that the end of 'Night Bell' provided on the debut. To me, though, that isn't a weakness - only a reason to be even more excited for the follow-up.
|De Gevreesde Ziekte|