One more year and one more list. AND, I’m in pole position for main lists. How is that possible? Right, who cares… Anywho, 2021 was yet another dumpster fire globally, but personally it’s been a good year, for the most part. The road we’re on with supply chains and inflation has to hit a ceiling soon or dumpster fire won’t even begin to brand what we’ll be facing in 2022. But, before I get too far down the road we’re all too familiar with, ENOUGH of that shit. I’ve had it up to my ass with all of it. Metal, again, had a great year. Some genres fared better than others, as you’ll see in the list below, but overall it was a very good year, as Sinatra once said. All the anger and hatred and frustration pushed artists to a level of creativity, and for some a level of vitriol, we haven’t seen in a long time and I don’t expect that trend to change anytime soon. So, on that point, score.
List season. We all love them for one reason or another and love bitchin’ about them. It’s human nature. With that said, here’s all the albums that meant the most to me throughout 2021 and as usual, I’m in the top nine and nine honorable mentions format because, branding. Jump in and enjoy what made me tick this year.
Alright, before we get into the picks…wait…you already did, didn’t you? Of course you did. FINE. No really, FINE. As I was saying, I had a recent discussion with fellow Nine Circler and all around close friend, Mr. Chris Voss (The Necrolytic One), about just how much our 2021 lists reflect us and where our heads have been. It was eye opening as I hadn’t thought about it that way but looking at mine and looking at his, our picks absolutely represent us, living in this year, and getting by the best we can. It’s a case of music and life and life and music, a soundtrack of sorts, if you will. This list of eighteen and their placement was not difficult and I only went through one round of cuts. Some of these have been on my list for months and, as a rule, exactly where they were placed initially. Some, depending on release date, have been here for a shorter time while others have been here the whole year. I say all this to make the point clear that these albums 100% represent what meant the most to me, what made the biggest impact, and what I return to more than anything else. So, enough of my drivel…let’s do it.
Metal isn’t supposed to be boring. Period. What it’s supposed to be is exactly the kind of beating that South Carolina based Demiser’s Through the Gate Eternal is. Blackened thrash, speed metal, satanic bile, or whatever tag du jour fits so you know what you’re getting works. But, what would be missing is how they damn near start their own brand of “rock n roll is the devil’s music” here. Side note: there actually was a time when Elvis and The Beatles were considered to be devil’s music and Demiser slam dunks that feel with their dirty rockin’ thrash and speedy yet melodic take on extreme metal. During an interview with Demiser the Demiser, it was apparent just how serious they take this that I struggle to name a current band with this much dedication to their craft and painstaking adoration of extreme metal’s legends. If you count Bathory, early Immortal, Possessed, Slayer, Goatwhore, and recent Skeletonwitch as favorites, this is an easy touchdown. I realize I just did a RIYL and I hate that shit, but this is my attempt to win over anyone that’s been living under a rock since March. These guys live and breathe what they’re doing and want nothing more than for you to experience it. I even picked it as my Album of the Month. Give me the galloping groove of “Deathstrike” and watch me build an entire weekend party with it.
You can lump Gatecreeper into the revivalist rash of old school death metal or in the Swedeath persuasion but you’d be missing the point. Sure, they fit either of those due to the grime and tone but they are their own damn band with their own damn sound. Over the course of two full lengths, several splits, and several one-offs, they’ve positioned themselves at the top of death metal and rightfully so due to their insane work ethic and even more insane death metal chops. But here, we get an atom bomb of death metal that unfortunately is over about as long as it takes to press the detonate button, and a Bell Witch length doom track. Wait, what? Yep. And they do it with the same gusto as what brought them to the dance to start with. Take their slick and neck snapping approach to “Starved” and “Sick of Being Sober” and apply it to the 11 minute “Emptiness” and you’ve got death / doom GOLD. No doubt, death metal had a banner year, but nothing else called me back more than An Unexpected Reality. It’s absurd how good these guys are.
Doomed heavy metal, they say. Honestly, after a full tilt boogie through their discography, if one arrived at a different way to describe them I’d be shocked. Khemmis has yet to put out a bad album or even a lukewarm effort. So, it’s not with an easy hand that I say Deceiver is their best. The soaring riffs soar higher, the vocals and harmonies are
heavenly er…devilishly bigger, the emotions behind each song are larger than ever, and the drumming keeps everything stitched up tight as a hangman’s knot. Deceiver is the full sum of what Khemmis has been working towards since day one and what we get here is a realization of all their work. It’s in the ‘same but different’ scenario with the different part being defined as grander scale than ever before. If one can listen to the ridiculous leads, melodies, and vocal acrobatics of “Avernal Gate” or hell, any track here and not get a tingle in the loins similar to the first time Dio became a staple, I call bullshit.
When I say meat and potatoes death metal you, dear reader, probably conjure up images of typical phoned in ‘by the numbers’ sort of fare. For me, this type of death metal is the sweet spot; bands like Deicide, Nile, and Hate Eternal all trip my trigger in ways that few others can. So, Diabolizer came in on Khalkedonian Death with a medium rare slab of death metal tailor made to my liking; chewy and bloody enough to make the flavors pop. It’s got groove but just enough for melodic sake (catchy, as they say), it has brutality in its speed and full on venom which rarely ever lets up, and it has memorable damn songs aka: full on and meaty substance. Their 2016 EP, Apokalypse, was good but this is outstanding, and as it should be five years on. The other thing about this album that really grabbed me is the suffocating atmosphere that, you can tell, was just a byproduct of the music in lieu of something they were trying for. In other words, it’s genuinely thick like a fog over the smoldering opening to hell. THIS is death metal, plain and simple, and it excels by not trying to be anything other than what it is. What a rush.
Death thrash with a dusting of black metal. Sounds kind of like Demiser, eh? Sorta, but not really. The emphasis here, however, is more on the death thrash jam band side. Twelve plus minute closer “Ensanguined” is the best example with its journey all over the metal landscape and long instrumental sections. However, the album is sprinkled with vocal-less moments and this is where Steel Bearing Hand shines like a doomed crystal, particularly the enormous guitar work. Look, I’ve spent large chunks of my lifetime digging deep into the whole jam band thing and honestly, Slay In Hell is like an ice cold glass of water after months of desert dehydration…it’s damn refreshing to hear this sort of thing from a death thrash band. It has great pacing, good track picks, and excellent musicianship to do the talking when the vocalist decides not to.
Thorn’s Crawling Worship has this crazy psychedelic backbone that initially made me think it was an I, Voidhanger release (pro tip: it’s not). High pitched twangs hit like surround sound as guttural death metal and cave dwelling doom explodes into a swirling maelstrom of hate and satanic interludes. Sole member Brennen Westermeyer shares vocal duties on the latest Fluids full length if that’s of any consolation, not to mention the two entities share a lot regarding depth of nastiness they’re willing to explore. This album is unlike anything I’ve heard all year and with each listen it gets weirder and heavier. On paper, it sounds uninviting but if, like me, one was in the market for something unique in death doom, this is the best 2021 has on offer.
I said earlier that death metal had a banner year and in case you’re not keeping count, Godless Voyage from Tribal Gaze is the fourth such entry in my top nine. Both the terms “catchy” and “memorable” also make several showings in this list—why else would it be here, dammit—as well and that’s exactly what this album is, from start to finish. It’s old school caveman death metal to be clear, but the delineation between this and actual old school are the hooks and melodies are big enough to hang Leatherface from. Plus, THAT GUITAR TONE! Seriously, I could write a second by second spreadsheet breaking down my favorite moments where this tone surfaces, it fondly reminds me of the swampy Morbid Angel tone and for that alone this album would be a winner. But, for a debut, this Texan effort is incredibly impressive even if it is too short. I would have loved another 20 minutes or so. But hey, you can’t have it all.
For those uninitiated, Fluids is an amalgamation of guttural, distorted gore-grind-death-doom that’s more destructive than 99.9% of your favorite extreme bands. Hence why they’ve been compared alongside Mortician for so long. It’s nonstop, pure, and unadulterated violence that at times can churn your stomach or heart depending on personal thresholds for pain and suffering. “Why, that sounds disgusting!” You may say, and you’d be right as a golden shower. Hey, sometimes extreme is what it takes to get through the day and Not Dark Yet has gotten me through many, many days since its release. The band has a stacked back catalog available, and this album stays the course musically (that term is used lightly here) but at the same time feels better assembled and better executed. Yea, I’ve heard the naysayers “but, it’s more doomy” and as I said somewhere before; I call bullshit. This effort is simply better fleshed out than ever before. No other song holds the title of ‘gutted me to my core’ more than opener “Genesis Spoiled,” and to this day the spoken sample of a dude slitting his wrist and explaining it in full detail gives me the most uncomfortable feeling I can ever remember on an album. Ever. Also for the uninitiated, Fluids freely uses samples but they use real life samples and not stock movie shit so put that in your pipe and smoke it. I digress, this is my favorite thing Fluids have ever done and had my back when I needed it to get through whatever I felt like was a bad situation or experience. The fact that I can’t just queue it up at random and have to be in a certain mindset, gives it a layer of mystique and intrigue that nothing else even came close to matching.
Experiences bordering on religious in nature are few and far between in music, let alone metal. However, King Woman’s Celestial Blues is exactly that kind of experience. Fitting then that it’s a dissertation on spiritual harm, healing, and survival through Kristina Esfandiari’s eyes. It’s equal parts doom, post-rock, and shoegaze with some of the best vocal acrobatics ever featured anywhere. Her croons, whispers, and shouts envelop you while the musical tidal waves of bombast and restraint serve as the vehicle propelling you forward, deeper into this labyrinthine serpent with many heads. The lyrical subject matter and emotions behind it are heavy to be sure, but the album plays out in an arch where darkness leads you in and light leads you out. Are there stand out tracks? Sure: the ethereal “Morning Star” or the doom laden “Boghz” or the choralesque chants on “Golgotha,” but I could go on listing favorites and then it would miss the point of ‘stand out’ by a mile. The thing I haven’t been able to do yet is to play a random track and move on to something else. This album is so good it demands a complete and uninterrupted spin. Every. Time. Period.
The Honorable Mentions
There was a time when if a band set out to do a double LP, it was for good reason and not just to fill four sides or add a cool color to side four. For Mastodon, they either remembered this basic rule of thumb or just wrote too many songs. Either way, it works tremendously; the pacing is top notch, song placement is excellent, and it’s their career best that’s a long form exploration of 2009s Crack the Sky and everything since.
11. Inhuman Condition – Rat God
Inhuman Condition put out the Massacre album that Massacre didn’t. There, I said it. Rat God is quintessential, classic, sweaty ass Floridian Death Metal in 2021. It’s snappy, swampy, catchy, dirty around the edges, and just a damn ton of fun to listen to.
12. Feculent – The Grotesque Arena
There’s shades of Dead Congregation’s foul stench in the six tracks that comprise Feculent’s The Grotesque Arena, and it only grows fouler from that reference point. If you looked up brutal death-doom in the dictionary, this band and this album would be the definition. Damn.
13. W.E.B. – Colosseum
Full transparency here, I’ve never counted myself as a rabid symphonic metal fan but when an album has the kind of teeth W.E.B.’s Colosseum does, I’m ALL IN for it. Honestly, this isn’t traditional symphonic metal as it’s skewed more towards the extreme side. However, the way the band employs symphonic elements really makes this effort POP, it’s epic and full of grandeur. More please.
14. Atræ Bilis – Apexapien
When it comes to technical death metal, fans have their picks and while Archspire put out a batshit crazy, borderline gimmicky, album this year, Atræ Bilis nailed it with Apexapien. It’s everything I think of when it comes to properly mixing technical wizardry with the harshness of death metal. Best part of it is, they don’t try to baffle you with bullshit noodling and instead just put the hammer down and let it happen organically. Bravo!
15. Outre-Tombe – Abysse Mortifère
Not only is this some of the best old school death metal (think early 90s) of 2021 but it also captures the era by sounding like it was recorded in the same bathroom as Venom’s Black Metal. All joking aside, this thing is extremely bottom end heavy to give it a nice Repulsion feel which I thoroughly enjoy AND Abysse Mortifère is Outre-Tombe’s most violent, neck snapping outing to date. I’d love to see them expand on this exact sound and approach next time, but I’m selfish like that.
16. Alchemy of Flesh – Ageless Abominations
Excellent one-man death metal strained through a Morbid Angel seve and all about the video games. Sign me up! This is yet another stellar full length debut that I’ve had a hard time finding anything at all to nitpick. Thus, here it lands on my list and in the Honorable Mentions only because the ones that came before held a bit more sentiment. Seriously, the technicality and precision here is just amazing and not to mention the hot August thick, humid atmosphere presented as a result. No idea how main man Tim Rowland can up the ante from here, but it’s obvious dude has the skills to do so.
17. Dold Vorde Ens Navn – Mørkere
The one lone black metal pick goes to somewhat of a supergroup comprised of Dodheimsgard, ex-Ulver, ex-Aura Noir members (to name a few) and Mørkere sounds roughly like you’d expect based on that. It relentlessly pummels but shifts on a dime to the weirdness of DHG in an instant. And the vocal range is stellar; shrieks, growls, spoken, and what I call preacher style hymn mode, it’s all there and really makes this thing stand out amongst the masses. Black metal hasn’t tripped my trigger this year, but the avant-garde nature of Dold Vorde Ens Navn really hit home and I haven’t experienced anything like it this year. Or really, in a long, long time. Definitely worth a try if you’ve yet to dabble.
18. Bongzilla – Weedsconsin
I had an out of body moment when the news of new Bongzilla crossed my radar and Weedsconsin does not disappoint. This is straight up, no filter, fuzzy stoner metal that is as heavy as doom metal and as violent as death metal, and I’ve always loved the band for their unique approach to this genre. They’ve never tried to be anything more and after 16 years, they haven’t changed one bit. And while they’ve never made the same album twice, I’ve always known exactly what I’d be getting with new material and it’s always been exactly what I wanted, just tuned lower and turned to 11. I guess you could say they’re my Motørhead and you wouldn’t be wrong. Anyway, Weedsconsin is the best stoner metal of 2021, HANDS DOWN.
So, there it is. My list of eighteen. It was fun for me and fun for you, maybe. But, if not, leave me a love letter in the comments below.
I did listen to more than just metal over the course of this year and have some non-metal favorites, but that’s for another list I probably won’t make. 2022 is already looking bright with Hath, Immolation, Thorn, and Paul Cauthen announcing new albums for the early part of the year and by the time this goes live I’m sure several more will have been announced. Meanwhile, I’ll be perusing other lists because that’s what I do during list season. But, one thing I know for sure is that nothing I’ll find will change one damn thing about the above list. And that’s how strong these picks are for me. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the bands featured above for their incredible work, to the labels that house them, to the PR folks that got them to me/us earlier than most preorders happened (and yes, I did purchase everything on this list in some form or another), and to you, dear reader, for stopping by. And, with that, I’m out. See you in 2022.
One last thing – Completely Non Metal and Non Music Related Best of 2021: My Jaguars and Shahid Khan FINALLY fired that asshat Urban Meyer. Absolute shit stain of an NFL coaching job and good riddance.