Nine Circles ov…What Didn’t Make My 2021 End of Year List…(But Could Have)

It starts like it does every other year, with me desperately trying to whittle down the list of incredible albums I listened to into a manageable number. Well, maybe not so manageable; I know I’m known around these parts as the guy whose lists are waaaaay too long. But there’s so much out there, so many albums that impact me in large and small ways. Maybe it’s a riff, or a chorus, or a certain vocal line. It doesn’t matter; I just know I want to acknowledge it in some way and pass it on. Maybe it will impact you, too.

You’d think a list of 40 albums – my “official” Top 25 ranked list and an Honorable Mention list of 15 other albums in alphabetical order would be enough (it is for Decibel). But it never is. So for the past few years I’ve tacked on an additional nine albums that may not have made my lists for various reasons, but I still love and want to put on your radar. It’s never too late too discover something. Time may move ever forward, but these great records will forever be here for you to discover. Forget labels. Forget hype and marketing. Take a look (better yet, take a listen) to this edition of Nine Circles ov… and see what didn’t make my list for 2021…but maybe should have.

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alda - a distant fire

It’s been three years since Alda graced us with new music. Debut Tahoma was a warm, introspective album that invited comparisons to their peers in the “Cascadian” (bleh) black metal scene without feeling like an also-ran. A Distant Fire shows the three years away were spent crafting and honing their sound to within an inch of its life – this is start to finish a great, cohesive piece of work. From the opening notes of the classical guitar on “First Light” that slowly open to a more expansive, folk inspired mood (people over the moon for the new Panopticon should really give this a listen) to the crashing epic of the 16-minute closing title track, A Distant Fire is the album I think I’m going to regret the most not moving higher up the list.

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Every Time I Die came right at that time where I was still discovering where my tastes lay with this new “extreme” music. trying to find the bridge between the classic heavy metal I loved in the 80s and early 90s with what the scene was doing in 2005 when I jumped back in. The band was always a near miss: I would taste and sample what was coming out of albums like Gutter Phenomenon, The Big Dirty and New Junk Aesthetic and appreciated the groove but just couldn’t connect. All of which is to say expectations were low when I heard the praise for Radical. It’s hard to explain what changed here, but I sense an anger and sincerity seething in the opening proclamation of “Dark Distance” and in the massive riffing of “Planet Shit,” “Post-Boredom,” and “The Whip” that balance nicely with some of the more anthemic tracks like “White Void” that deliver a more complete album than anything I’ve heard from the band before. Here’s hoping they can figure out all the insanity currently going on in the band ranks and keep putting out stuff like this.

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hænesy - garabontzia

I didn’t review a lot of albums for the site this year, but Hænesy stood out with their atmospheric black metal. Garabontzia feels like a wash, with reverb drenched guitars and keyboards swirling in a vortex of melancholy. Even in its faster moments, as in the middle section of “Sinking Deep for a Hidden God” or my favorite track “Path to the Weeping Hollow” you can’t escape the the waves of infinite sadness. Nothing is being re-invented here; there’s no shoehorning of weird genres or influences (well, barring a massive crush for The Cure by way of Alcest, perhaps) and Hænesy aren’t trying to stretch boundaries. They’re simply making some excellent atmospheric black metal, and that’s enough. You can more about this great record in my review here.

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kayo dot - moss grew on the swords and plowshares alike

I guess this is now a theme: I write this post of things that could (or should) have made my “official” list, and as I listen to the music I second guess myself. Especially with Kayo Dot, who I relegated to the almost list back in 2019 with their excellent album Blasphemy, which tread strange and mysterious shores of gothic pop and progressive rock. It was a mistake then, and I’m sure it’s going to be a mistake now with the very different Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike. Toby Driver takes everything he’s done to date and adds a brutal sheen of metal to it, and the results on tracks like the awesome “Brethren of the Cross” are a wonder. Each minute brings a surprise, and even after multiple listens I can’t nail down what to expect from minute to minute. The album’s capacity to surprise guarantees it’s going to be getting more and more listens as other, higher ranked albums re left behind. What can you do?

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pounder - breaking the world

With 2021 being in some (many) ways a similar dumpster fire to 2020, I once again found a lot of my music listening harkening back to my youth where things were deceptively simpler by the simple fact that I survived it. That meant plenty of fast, thrashy metal. Pounder has no other mission in life than to punch you in the face with a meaty NWOBHM inflected fist. Breaking the World has plenty of crunchy riffs that feel ripped from the 80s, dual guitar licks, anthemic choruses. Matt Harvey shows that whether he’s ripping your face off in Exhumed or holding a beer in one hand and a torch in the other to champion the gods of heavy metal in Pounder, he knows what he’s doing. Hands down some of the most fun riffs that came out this year.

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In the last month or so everyone in the 9C camp went crazy with tech death, gushing over releases by First Fragment, Archspire, and Obscura. But back in March those of us craving some seriously good technical death metal were already happy: Stortregn came barreling into our ears with the massive Impermanence. By settling down the tempo a bit and focusing on executing some gnarly melodies in service to more classic song structures the band created an instant ear worm of an album where you’re carried away start to finish with dazzling solos, memorable melodies and other instances of alliteration I’m too exhausted to come up with. What I mean to say it Impermanence works as an album, from beginning to end and rather than tiring you out, engages you more and more the deeper into it you go.

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trivium - in the court of the dragon

Am I as shocked as you are I have Trivium on a year end list? I don’t know, and honestly? I’m not shocked: In the Court of the Dragon is Trivium’s best album in forever, and as far as straight up modern metal? It’s one of the best releases I’ve heard in years. Gone are a lot of the commercial trappings that plagued albums like The Crusade where Matt Heafy discovered his clean voice and went on a smooth rock rampage. Tracks like the ripping title track and “Like a Sword Over Damocles” have a heft and viciousness to the riffs that border on progressive in their refusal to cater to a simple verse/chorus/verse structure. And when the inevitable anthemic choruses do kick in? I can’t help but rock along to it. The production has a pristine clarity that I’m sure will rub some folks the wrong way…but what do I know? Just that Trivium whipped up some serious righteous metal and we should never be ashamed to acknowledge that.

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urne - serpent & spirit

The description for Urne, a metal outfit out of the UK, says it all: “…shades of Metallica, Mastodon, Death & Alice In Chains in there, hopping between sludge, tech-metal, doom, hardcore & anything else with a weighty heart.” All of that is readily apparent on their debut Serpent & Spirit but only hints at the deep vein of vintage metal that runs through each song. Progressive meets thrash, when takes a detour into alternative metal a la Baroness (albeit with a much better production) before sitting next to the masters of traditional heavy metal. The opening title track gives you a taste of pretty much everything the band is aiming for, and then takes those notes and runs them through their paces on raves like the chugging “The Palace of Devils and Wolves” and the old school death of “Envy the Dead” that really takes you by surprise when it morphs into an Alice in Chains song. A fantastic debut that reaches back in time while sounding thoroughly modern at the same time.

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wolf king - the path of wrath

Sometimes you just want an album to get just ugly enough, you know? Not earth crushing, soul wallowing ugly, but enough to leave blood and dirt on you when it ends. Wolf King does that, mixing healthy does of blackened hardcore and cavernous death metal on sophomore LP The Path of Wrath. The 1-2 punch of “Messenger of Death” and “Wandering Soul” show you just where these guys are coming from – the hardcore component is really up front, but covering in the viscera of black metal, sludge, and some old school death. Some albums like this can drown you – this one leaves everything red and raw and bruised and ready for a fight.

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Listening back I can already feel the second guessing start, which is why ultimately lists don’t matter. Even when they do. I won’t pretend I don’t love making them, if for nothing else that to just share what really worked its fingers into me this year, in the hopes it may do the same for you. Next week start the real countdown, but if Im being honest, that countdown actually started right here.

Until next week, keep it heavy.


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