Nine (or so Heavily Qualified) Circles ov…2021: A Mid-Year Report

2021 mid-year report

Wait…so the guy who only wrote a total of 10 freakin’ reviews this year thinks he has any weight when it comes to a mid-year report? Well, uh…I guess that’s why I put the “heavily qualified” in the title of this post?

But seriously, I’ll be the first to admit that metal hasn’t really been my #1 go-to when it comes to music lately, but like everything else, what you see on the Internet never tells you the whole story. I haven’t been writing nearly as much about the genre lately, but I have been listening. Listening, and refining. Finding the things that really resonate despite the press and the push of PR, or what the pundits tell you on the 1,001 other sites out there scrambling for clicks. And what I’ve discovered is that more and more I’m coming to the sounds that drew me to the genre: thrash riffs, lots of melody, and tasty solos. So yeah: expect some old school bands putting out great records more than 30 years into their existence here. And maybe a few newer bands as well.

Is that qualified enough for ya? Then let’s dig in.

I don’t know if anyone needs to carry the torch for Testament, since they’re still moving along quite nicely, but Angelus Apatrida give off some really heavy classic Testament vibes on their self-titled seventh album. Tracks like “Indoctrinate” and “Bleed the Crown” are ripe with chugging riffs and harmonized licks that whiplash at a furious tempo. Solos are spirited and plentiful: check out the break on “The Age of Disinformation” and if you aren’t convinced Angelus Apatrida are keeping the thrash moment invigorated then you probably have pebbles in your shoes, I don’t know.

Celestial Sanctuary - Soul Diminished

Sometimes you just want your death metal decidedly old school. Give me some chainsaw guitars that owe their allegiance to Boss pedals, vocals that sound like they’re creeping up from a murky sewer, and groove that wasn’t this prominent since the early 90s. Celestial Sanctuary have soaked all this up and let it bleed forth on Soul Diminished, and I am 100% here for their gloom and doom death metal that refuses to acknowledge any gain setting lower than 11. The mid-paced muck of the title track is currently a personal favorite, and the drums on this thing just sound MASSIVE.

cryptosis - bionic swarm

I didn’t get clued into Cryptosis (or their previous incarnation as Distillator) until editing Buke’s interview with bassist Frank te Riet that I got hip to what was being put out on Bionic Swarm. And that is a razor sharp blend of thrash and progressive death metal with doses of symphonic black metal subtly (if that’s even possible) sprinkled into the mix. There’s enough start and stop riffage on tracks like “Prospect of Immortality,” “Conjuring the Egoist” and “Transcendence” to induce carpal tunnel in stay-at-home-guitarists trying to capture the feel of what the band is effortlessly laying out there.

Did you think this wasn’t going to be on the list? Do you know me at all??? I mean, it’s one of the 10 reviews I wrote this year, so we’ll leave it at that.

I know I really like something when before even finishing my first listen of an album I’m racing to make sure I can secure a vinyl copy before the first pressing sells out. Such was the case with Har, the second full-length from Romania’s Dordeduh, made up of the remnants of the once mighty Negura Bunget. I guess you can call this progressive black metal, with folk and psychedelic elements woven into the fabric of the songs. I call it stunning: the production allows every aspect fo the instrumentation to stand out, and the blend of styles feels completely cohesive and seamless. Opening track “Timpul Întâilor” leads the way for a truly outstanding progressive metal album that – yes – I did manage to snag a vinyl copy of, thank you very much.

flotsam and jetsam - blood in the water

If you had told me Flotsam and Jetsam were putting out not only some of the best music of their career but some of the best metal period 35 years on from their debut I would have smiled, chalked you up as crazy and been on my way. Then I heard Blood in the Water. And all I can say is I am hard put to single out anything in 2021 that sounds this vital, this aggressive and alive. The title track is a literal beast (it’s right there on the cover) and vocalist Erik “A.K.” Knutson sounds just as vicious as he did all those years ago on bonafide classics like Doomsday the Deceiver and No Place For Disgrace. I’m not kidding when I say this album ranks right up there with those as some of the best music the band has ever delivered. There are too many highlights to choose from, so I’ll randomly pick “Burn the Sky” and later track “Reaggression” but trust me: start with the opener and you’ll be hooked.

Gojira has always been a huge band for the 9C crew…except for me. The music never really stuck with me, and year after year I would try and fail to find the hook that would lead me in. So I’m as shocked as anyone how much I really dig Fortitude, their seventh album. The hooks are much more up front than ever before (I wonder if this is turning off long-time fans?) and the Duplantier brothers have really started to stretch the arrangements and instrumentation for a more diverse sound. Other opinions be dammed, because I really love the jaw harp on “Amazonia” and the Sepultura homage going on there. Elsewhere opener “Born For One Thing” really capture the overall tone of Fortitude, and songs like “New Found” and late syncopated ripper “Into the Storm” keep things moving in a great direction.

helloween self titled

What? Another 80s favorite putting out great metal decades later? You better believe it: after getting the WHOLE gang back together for a massive reunion tour, dreams of a full Halloween lineup with all the original singers felt like asking for too much, a hope that – if brought to fruition – would inevitably be a bloated disappointment. Au contraire mon frère! Instead we have this wonderful eponymous album filled with everything you could possibly want from the band. Straddling the line between the classic speed of the Seven Keys years and the more modern incarnation, it’s incredible how well everything fits together. You’d think three singers would be a bit much, but I’m here to tell you every second Michael Kiske opens those pipes it feels like heaven is opening up. And combined with Andi Deris they’re a potent match for all the guitar heroics constructed by longtime guitarist Michael Weikath and returning Gamma Ray champion Kai Hanson. It’s a glorious over the top combination of speed, power, and glorious heavy metal I haven’t been able to turn off yet. Check out “Out for the Glory,” “Fear of the Fallen” and “Skyfall” and see what you’re missing.

Inhuman Condition - Rat God

It all made sense when I read that Inhuman Condition formed out of the remains of what would have been the new Massacre album. There is an embedded old-school feel that can’t be learned; it has to be lived, and RatºGod has it in spades. This is technical death metal that focuses on the death metal more than the technical. As I grow increasingly tired of million notes a second wankery that sacrifices songwriting (sorry Obscura and most of what constitutes “tech death”) I keep coming back to the more controlled, precise riffing of the kind to be found on “Euphoriphobia” and “Planetary Paroxysm” where the intent is to snap your fingers (snap your neck). There’s a definite thrash influence here as well which I admit is my weak spot, but Inhuman Condition have created a wicked portal in time I find myself revisiting with alarming frequency.

miserable - esclavo miserable

Why is Miserable not being talked about more? Available via streaming outlets but not on Bandcamp, this is my favorite technical thrash album to come out in years. It PERFECTLY captures the feel of the metal I was obsessed with as a teenager, and sounds incredible when held up against anything else attempting the same thing right now. I talked about in my second circle for this how songs like “Quien Escupe la Verdad” bring me back to bands like DBC and Wrathchild America, and even late-period Death in the great harmonized licks. Maybe that’s the hook that will reel you in: do you love Symbolic or Individual Thought Patterns era Death? Then you need some Miserable in your life.

panopticon - and again into the light

I’ll say this for Austin Lunn and Panopticon: they make bold choices, and whether you agree with them or not doesn’t matter. The man is crafting extremely personal music and we’re welcome to take it or leave it on its own terms. …And Again Into the Light is probably the best thing he’s ever written; rather than keep to the segregation of styles found on previous quadruple slog The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness, Lunn masterfully merges the two together, deftly moving between the pastoral and the bleak fury of despair, only to arrive at a destination few of us may have seen coming: a contemplative peace. “Dead Loons” is aching in its different moods, and if I still wish the production was just a little bit clearer I can forgive it when the bursts of melody and passion arise out fo the fury and take hold. There’s not a track that doesn’t evoke the same feeling, but if I had to pick a current favorite it would be “The Embers at Dawn” just edging out the aforementioned “Dead Loons.” Never has an album sounded so loud while striving for some inner quiet.

silver talon - decadence and decay

Spellcaster are no more, but if the split means I now get Unto Others and Silver Talon? I’ll take it. Decadence and Decay traffics in that rare pocket of modern metal that was the purview of bands Nevermore and Into Eternity. incredible guitar heroics intertwined with anthemic, dark progressive power metal. With a triple guitar attack that I daresay feels more locked in than Iron Maiden (I love you, Gers) and contributions from masters like Andy La Rocque contributing solos this is a feast for guitarists. In the vocal department Wyatt Howell nails those upper register screams and channels Warrell Dane in the best possible way. From the opening moments of “Deceiver, I Am” to the closing of “Touch the Void” there’s barely a breath where I’m not giggling over the amount of talent on display here.

2021 has been such an embarrassment of cool music. I haven’t even dug through the crust yet: between the gorgeous dream synth rock of the reincarnation of Genghis Tron, the welcome return of Thy Catafalque, the brutal invigoration of Cannibal Corpse…there’s so much out there doing the Lord’s work of bringing the heavy to the masses. I can keep going: The Crown, Frozen Soul, Hænesy, Heavy Temple, Majestic Downfall, Pounder, Pupil Slicer, Wode, Wolf King…each has stirred something in me that keeps the flame of new metal alive in my heart.

I guess the only question left is, what’s done it for you so far this year?

In the meantime, keep it heavy, keep it safe.


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