Scholar of the First Sin: Hera’s Best of 2021

Best of 2021

I am the Scholar of the First Sin, and I have insight to give.

Last year, my list was short and to the point, as I spent more time listening to music that gave me respite and comfort than to new releases. This meant that, once I had more time on my hands, I was finally able to go out and see what I had missed. The fact that I can’t include Dark Tranquility’s Moment, an album that deserves more attention, on this list because it came out last year fucking kills me.

Despite the Omicron variant (at this time) destroying all hope for a small sense of normalcy, 2021 was an absolutely fantastic year for music. After many bands either couldn’t tour because of the onset of the pandemic or postponed a lot of their releases, this year provided us with new music, which meant that a lot of vetting had to happen in order for me to make this list. After graduation, I suddenly had more time than I ever had to do with and decided to dive deep into what I had been ignoring for the better part of five months.

Welcome to EOY list season!

In lieu of the unexpected, I have decided to break my own rules and include albums I have written about this year, as I ended up writing about albums I was very interested in. However, EPs continue to be off the list, so, for example, Argent Moon will not make an appearance here.

With this is mind, this list is divided into four parts, which are follows:

  • The nebulous, where any of those albums’ placements could be placed anywhere at any time;
  • The hypothetical, where the albums’ placements are more concrete, but can also be moved around; and
  • The theoretical, where the albums’ placements have been solidified.
  • Album of the year. Period.

Here we go!


Part I: The Nebulous

20. Grey Aura – Zwart Vierkant

I want to mention that if someone can get me a copy of the book that the band did for the album, I will be in your debt. I may not be able to read Dutch, but I want that book for my own keepsake.

Do you know what happens when you mix the decadence of art and feral sensuality? You get something like Zwart Vierkant, an album whose high art aesthetic blends perfectly well with the soundscapes of avant-garde black metal. There is something about this album that both terrifies me and makes me unable to pull away from what I am hearing, even when the music becomes something that I can’t comprehend. Mixing jazz, noise, and bolero into their blend of black metal, Grey Aura manages to capture the listener from beginning to end, enthralling as they witness a man slowly losing his mind for the sake of his art. Given how the general theme of the art the man creates is about whether art is a subjective experience, we actually don’t know if he is imagining each scenario he’s involved or if he’s actually experiencing it. Regardless, if that’s what it takes to make great art, then, by all means, play this album for me. In the meantime, this will be one of the many albums on this list that I will be re-listening to as the new year begins.

19. Obscura – A Valediction

Hey, Obscura, I have a question for you: have you finally decided to shift your sound to full-on prog death or what?

I have made no secret that Obscura is one of my favorite tech death bands, having been a fan of theirs for years. Their previous album, Dilivium, was a tech death feast of fretless bass, moving melody, and impressive technicality, as any good tech death album should be. With A Valediction, Obscura has become more emotive, creating music that seems more in line with what I’ve heard prog death bands like Alustrium and Black Crown Initiate do. In a way, I see Obscura moving more towards walking the prog death line rather than tech death, but they still hold on to their technical mastery of their instrumentation. A Valediction seems to be a revival for them, and I am happy to hear that they have managed to go out of their comfort zone while also delivering all the fretless bass we can gorge on.

I wish I had spent more time with this album, as it guts me to place it here. However, just like Zwart Vierkant, I hope to spend more time with it once this EOY season is over.

18. Omnium Gatherum – Origin

“Hey, Hera, I thought you liked this album. Why is it here?” Because it’s still a high spot? Placement is a human construct.

I already wrote a review about Origin, so I am not going to spend too much time repeating my thoughts on it. However, I will say this: I think my main problem with it is that, after multiple listens, you start to find some problems with pacing. Perhaps it’s because I got used to it after a few listens, but once you go back to it after putting it down, I started to find that Origin didn’t grab me the same way it initially did. The instrumentation can still be a bit jarring, and some of the songs don’t transition as well as the first time (and several times later on loop) I heard it. However, I still love this album, and while it may not bring anything new to the table, Omnium Gatherum remains consistent in creating excellent music. After all, why recreate the wheel when you already have all the parts to keep moving?

17. Evergrey – Escape of the Phoenix

If there is one thing Evergrey knows how to do well, it’s creating powerful ballads, and Escape of the Phoenix has a great bunch of them.

The Atlantic was such a great album that I didn’t shut up about it for an entire year, so my expectations were rather high for what was being sold to me as a sequel to The Atlantic. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Mind you, I did enjoy this album initially – I even played it during my exam to motivate me into writing – but as more time went on, the less I came back to it. While there are reasons for it, the main issue is that The Atlantic was such a strong album that anything that reminded me of it was not going to be on the same level as that album. I also wasn’t impressed by “The Beholder,” a song that has both Tom Englund and James LaBrie, of Dream Theater fame, singing on it, and their voices don’t contrast very well, since the song is much more suited for Tom, and James’s vocals can be jarring when they first come up. However, the album is still very solid, and I expect Escape of the Phoenix to eventually grow on me.

16. Burial in the Sky – The Consumed Self

Listen, I know that this is tech death erasure, but I think The Consumed Self falls squarely into the prog death camp. You can fight me on this.

Another one of the albums I have reviewed this year, The Consumed Self became one of my sleeper favorites, as I had just gotten into the swing of listening to this type of music. I also didn’t want to pass on what I had heard to be a great band, especially when I heard rumors of a sax being used. While I didn’t spend as much time with it as I would have liked – one of the few reasons why it’s at this spot – I heard this album enough during the reviewing process to note that this was an excellent prog death/tech death record. I also enjoyed the sax work here, as it elevates the album to new heights, and it adds a strong eclectic flavor to The Consumed Self’s inherent complexity. If you were disappointed by River of Nihil’s The Work because you thought it was too safe, Burial in the Sky’s The Consumed Self is everything that album could have been.

15. Emigrate – The Persistence of Memory

Emigrate got away with ripping off the main riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” by downtuning and changing some of the notes on one of their songs. That’s impressive.

I didn’t have “Emigrate releases a new album in 2021” in my bingo card, but, to my infinite delight, they did. The Persistence of Memory is an enjoyable record that follows up 2018’s A Million Degrees. However, unlike A Million Degrees, The Persistence of Memory sounds like the album someone writes when they are being reflective. In the case of Richard Kruspe, after the massive tour he had with Rammstein, he felt tired and wanted to quit music entirely. However, after looking through old Emigrate demos, he found himself thinking about music again, and thus made this album. The music on Persistence sounds like a man who wanted to find purpose again, and it pays off, as a lot of the songs reference the band’s self-titled first album. While I came to this album way after its release, it started to slowly sneak higher and higher into my list, but I still feel like I haven’t fully listened through all of it. I also feel like the album has all of its strong songs in the front-end, which may have played a role in placing it here. No matter – the album is still a jam.


Part II: The Hypothetical

14. Hypocrisy – Worship

I have been waiting so long for a new Hypocrisy album, and I am so happy we finally got it.

Probably the best record since 2009’s A Taste of Extreme Divinity, Worship feels like a return to form for the band, especially when I thought End of Disclosure was more of a highlight reel than an actual proper album. With Worship, Hypocrisy returns with enough pent-up aggression and catchy hooks to make even the most cynic death metal listener want to see what they missed out on. For a band who has lasted as long as Hypocrisy, I feel like a lot of people take them for granted; after all, the band makes music for the joy and the fun of it. After all, I come for the heaviness of their music, and it makes me feel like headbanging while listening to it. I was also very happy to see that their energy and bombastic nature translates well to live performances when I saw them live, and I am excited to see how Worship will translate in a live setting. This album is one of their strongest to date, and I, for one, am just happy that we got them back. Just like the other albums in this section, I will definitely be spending more time with it after EOY season is over. Welcome back, Hypocrisy!

13. Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen – Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen

Listen, when you get some of my favorite people in metal to come and sing on your project’s debut album, you should know I will be listening.

Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen is a collection of songs written by Esa Holopainen – yes, of Amorphis fame – and performed by a myriad of singers, including Jonas Renkse, Einar Solberg, Anneke van Giersbergen, and Bjorn Strid. Each song is a different atmosphere and sound, going from straight ballads to what sounds like a folk song in the middle of the album. It’s quite obvious that Esa is a careful craftsman when it comes to his music: it feels like he made sure that each song he wrote falls in accordance with each singer’s personality and vocal range. For example, “Ray of Light” sounds like something a song that would be on a Leprous record, while “Alkusointu” (“alliteration” in Finnish) is a spoken word song sung by legendary Finnish actor and musician Vesa-Matti “Vesku” Loiri, with folk leanings that remind me of the “Sankarin Tango” from Control, a game with nods to Finnish mythology. Although a project like this can be perceived with a myriad of reactions due to its versatility, Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen is an excellent record that caters to everyone.

12. Pentakill – III: Lost Chapter

Riot, the company behind League of Legends, must have an astounding music department, because all of their various music projects are incredibly successful. Hell, they got Jorn Lande and Noora Louhimo involved as two of the three main singers on the album; how can you not listen to this?

While I have no concept about the lore behind the record or what the actual hell is going on in relation to the game itself, III: Lost Chapter quickly jumped up my rankings for being one of the most cohesive records I heard this year. When this record was announced, my curiosity was piqued, and I decided to just listen to the album because I had heard a lot of buzz surrounding it. Everything – from the music to the vocals – is well-structured and fun, and, if nothing else, it’s fantastic power metal with a myriad of other influences making appearances here and there. You have ballads (“Edge of Night”), battle anthems (“Stormrazor,” “Last Stand”), and outright jams (“Redemption”) all packed into an album that can make anything seem fun. III: Lost Chapter may be an album that most hardcore LoL players would be invested in and will have playing in the background during a gaming session, but it stands on its own as one of the most enjoyable albums 2021 has graced us with.

11. Swallow the Sun – Moonflowers

Oh, yes, we are back to talk about this album, which, unlike its predecessor, lacks the funerary bite that made it so hard-hitting. It still hurts, though.

While I didn’t exactly review this album, I did talk about it in the context of acceptance, as in how Juha Raivio has moved on from grieving his beloved partner and creative collaborator. After all, a moonflower that symbolizes hope, especially during dark times. As a result, Moonflowers is an album about hope, about memories hurting but not hurting as much anymore. Going back to this album now with this context in mind makes it more poignant, as there are several moments where the album shifts from a sense of contentment and understanding to a sense of despair and grief. What I also like about the album is that it portrays the feelings of a person who has lost a lot, and while ready to move on, he still feels like he doesn’t deserve to, because he doesn’t want to offend the memory of the departed. The album feels unsteady and hazy, as if the pain is still prevalent, but it has started to become dull with the passage of time. Even with all this pain, Moonflowers is a testament to Swallow the Sun’s musicianship, and everyone should hear it at least once.

10. Epica – Omega

Zaher Zorgati of Myrath is on this album – his voice is incredibly recognizable, and I couldn’t help but text one of my friends about it in the middle of my exam.

Inspired by the idea of the Omega Point, where there is one point in the universe that unites everything, Omega is an album that touches upon the idea that, in the end, we will all be spiritually and divinely unified. In terms of music, I personally think Omega is a grower of a record – while the music is fantastic, it didn’t grab me as much as, say, The Holographic Principle on a first listen. However, I put off listening to the album until I started my comprehensive exam (Comps); having Epica play in the background as I made an exam strategy and tackled two of the four domains made the whole experience more pleasant. It wasn’t until the second or third time I replayed Omega that I started to notice all of these intertwined elements and sounds that made the album that much more compelling. Hell, they got a children’s choir giving Simone’s voice a run for its money, at times taking away attention from her in one of the most operatic moments of the album. Months later, Omega still holds up, a powerful and well-orchestrated record that makes me want to learn all the words so I can sing along in the comfort of my home.

9. Leprous – Aphelion

I have to give props to Leprous; in the short time I have known this band, they have quickly become one of those bands that I have developed an interest in.

Aphelion is an excellent follow-up to 2019’s Pitfalls, an album whose art rock vibe and main soulful vocals made me want to quickly learn the main vocal melody from “At the Bottom.” On this album, Leprous spares no expense on both their vocal and instrumental versatility, layering riff upon orchestral backing to create walls of sound that envelops the listener in. This gives the album an emotional density that borders on the cathartic, as if all you want to do is sing along to this album while you play it at high volume. Of course, this density cannot be on all the time; there are moments where the songs themselves drop to almost somber tones that is just vocals and piano, allowing the listener to breathe a little before submerging into the music again. I also love how the band is not afraid to combine different elements of metal, rock, and pop into their music, as there moments where I think it recalls Ulver’s Flowers of Evil, especially in their use of synths. From the grandiose to the quiet, Aphelion is an album that allows itself to become bigger than it can hold, and it’s an experience.


Part III: The Theoretical

File all these albums under “Things Hera Will Never Shut Up About.”

8. Hippotraktor – Meridian

Hippotraktor - Meridian

2021 is the year of Pelagic Records, so, yes, at least one album from their roster would be here.

There aren’t many bands whose debut ranks high on many EOY lists but let me be the first to spout the gospel of Hippotraktor to the masses. Meridian, the collective’s debut, combines both elements of post-metal and prog to deliver one of the most devastating and brutal sonic experiences I have heard this year. This album made me want to headbang until I couldn’t move my neck, its energetic frenzy of sound becoming more and more embedded into my mind. This album shines because the band is not afraid to experiment with their sound, allowing their vocals to become true instruments. This adds weight to both the instrumental portions and to their heavy dissonance in some of their tracks. I also kept coming back to this album, especially during the month after its release, and I found more and more things to enjoy when I went back for further replays. There are so many musical threads to pull on Meridian, and they all lead to a fantastic atmosphere.

Had Meridian come out earlier in the year, this album would have been ranked higher, as it would have been part of the comprehensive exam studying sessions and it would have been part of the exam playlist. Please do not sleep on Meridian; it’s fantastic.

7. Eisbrecher – Liebe Macht Monster

Sometimes, you need music that is going to make both your job and your studying nights more enjoyable, and Eisbrecher did that for me.

Last year, Eisbrecher released Schicksalsmelodien, an album that showcased a range of cover songs from German bands and singers that the band members were into when they were young. While the covers were great, I hoped that their newest album would be released soon, and they did. Liebe Macht Monster (“Love makes monsters”) is an album that hits you from the ground running, starting with the one of the many bombastic anthems it has to offer, “Es lohnt sich nicht ein Mensch zu sein.” Of course, underneath the high-energy music and heavy industrial overtone, Eisbrecher continues its penchant for the heavy-handed and tongue-in-cheek wordplay that speaks to a rather morbid sense of humor. Even without the translation, you can still understand the rather somber tone most of these songs are in. However, despite its tone, I still found myself coming back to this album a lot during the first half of the year, and I learned to appreciate it to the point where I just kept playing it when I needed it during the final leg of studying for my exams.

In the end, listening to this album paid off, because I ended up graduating with distinction, so thank you, Liebe Macht Monster, for allowing me to pass my comprehensive exam.

6. Soen – Imperial

Soen - Imperial

The top album of my Spotify Wrapped 2021 – while it is not the top album in my heart, it definitely kept me company during the preparation and studying stages for Comps.

While I avoided this album for the better part of two months, Imperial started to slowly win me over the more time I spent with it. It actually became the go-to album during the preparation and studying stages of Comps, where I spent too much time studying and drinking coffee in order to review three years’ worth of material. On those initial listens, Imperial seemed to pull me into its embrace, a somewhat romantic album underneath lyrics of revolution, change, and hope. There was a warmth that, up until that point, I hadn’t been hearing on the albums I was listening to (with the exception of Dark Tranquility’s Moment) and it felt nice to have a soundtrack during those sleepless nights. Imperial tethered me to focus, and I learned to appreciate the album the more I listened to it. While I am not sure I will be listening the band’s discography any time soon, Imperial is a wonderful album that many people who like prog will enjoy. I also found myself really liking Joel Ekelöf’s voice, he’s got this great baritone croon that just ties the music together really well.

[full review]

5. Diablo Swing Orchestra – Swagger and Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole

diablo-swing-orchestra-swagger-and-stroll-down-the-rabbit-hole-01

I am surprised by how quickly this album climbed my list when it was first released; it might have been due to the fact that it’s so infectiously joyous and I needed some of that serotonin in my brain.

Swagger and Stroll Down the Rabbit Hole is a fantastic follow-up to 2017’s Pacifisticuffs, an album that decided to dip its toe in the water and see if some of their crazier ideas – and the introduction of a new vocalist – would pay off, which they did. Swagger and Stroll is a testament to DSO’s continuation of blurring genres together, which ranges from the big symphonies to swing. All of this is tied with the band’s main singers, Kristin Evegard and Daniel Håkansson, acting as the main focal point. When I think of bands that can change tempo and beat without breaking a sweat, DSO is the first that comes to mind, and Swagger and Stroll really showcases the band’s range. Their instrumentation is gorgeous and lively, and they really decided to go big on this record, filling every corner with sound. It reminds me of what a modern speakeasy would be like: seductive, lively, and loud. Honestly, had this been released earlier in the year – it was released in November – this album would have probably been higher on my list; hell, it might have been the AOTY. Despite this, I haven’t stopped listening and dancing along to Swagger and Stroll, and that is, most likely, not going to change at all.

4. VOLA – Witness

Yes, VOLA are the kings of prog in my list – I’ve played this album so much in the last three months of the year that it even surprised me.

Ever since I listened to Applause of a Distant Crowd, a glissando effect that was prominent in the first track of that album has always stuck with me. I am happy to report that Witness has that same glissando effect in their first track, and VOLA employs it beautifully. By adding it to their tremendous wall of sound, the band elevates their instrumentation, thereby creating a great marriage between electronic music and prog. When this album was released, I had just graduated from grad school, and I saw Witness as one of the many rewards I rightfully earned after not sleeping for the better part of three years. What a reward it was – the music was sublime, the vocals crooned, and there was a surprise rap song that was incredibly enjoyable. However, the album became poignant towards the end of the year, where, after a particularly hard day, I listened to the album on loop and started to cry. To this day, songs like “24 Light-Years” and “Freak” still stir my emotions, and so I weep. I know that a lot of people won’t feel the same way I do about this album, but, hey, it’s their loss.

3. Gojira – Fortitude

The undisputed album of my Comps listening experience – I played this album from the day it was released until I finished my exam at 3:17 am on a Sunday.

Gojira will always hold a special place in my heart as one of the first technical (at the time) death metal bands I was introduced to when I was 16, and their change in sound has finally cemented itself with both 2016’s Magma and Fortitude. On Fortitude, Gojira continue the sonic themes they explored on Magma, albeit they are more cohesive and straightforward here. They also have managed to make this album a bit more joyous, despite some of their more somber songs, such as “Another World” and “Amazonia.” Although grief and the theme of strife are incredibly prevalent throughout, the album also has moments of levity and hope that moves away from the nihilistic themes I have seen in their past catalogue. For me, Fortitude provided a sense of comfort as I went through the second day of Comps, keeping me focused and hopeful that I would finish the exam on time. Because of the album’s pacing, it wasn’t distracting, and I could sing along when I needed a break from writing. In fact, as I turned in the last part of my exam, “Into the Storm” was playing, a triumphant song that made me like the delirium of the last few days was worth it.

2. Thy Catafalque – Vadak

thy catafalque - vadak

Just like a portion of the albums on this list, I wrote a review on Vadak, so I won’t be launching into a monologue about the record itself.

The third member of the avant-garde list trio, Vadak is truly a feast for the senses. It takes elements of jazz and electronica and melds them all together into this heap of sound that makes me want to get up and dance. When this album was announced, I was a bit skeptical, as, just last year, Thy Catafalque had released the equally beautiful and enigmatic Naiv. Of course, Vadak exceeded expectations – the music is as enigmatic and as chaotic as anything that Tamás Kátai makes, and it incorporates music from his other projects, like Neolunar. What I also love about Vadak is that it is sonically inconsistent. Because of the way the music is laid out and played, you get a little bit of everything: from soft-spoken female vocals to what sounds like heavy synths and dissonant guitar. Because of the way Thy Catafalque makes music, they have quickly cemented themselves as one of my favorite bands, and I always look forward to what they will make next. I have a feeling that their next album will continue to showcase the band’s versatility and their continuous ability to experiment. While they may not have DSO’s joie de vivre or Grey Aura’s feral sensuality, Thy Catafalque still stands out as a band unafraid to do as they wish – and I am very much into that.


And the top album of 2021 is…

1. King Woman – Celestial Blues

King Woman - Celestial Blues

In a year filled with more tragedy and misery, why wouldn’t I choose the album about found feelings as my Album of the Year?

Yes, I wrote a review for Celestial Blues, but that won’t stop me from writing more about it. 

It’s easy to become a nihilist, especially when it seems that a lot of things you thought of doing after you got out of something fall through. While 2021 has been a year filled with a sense of triumph and joy for certain aspects of my life, other parts of my life have been less than stellar. In this ongoing pandemic, where trauma and despair have become the normalcy, I felt more and more isolated, especially when I finally had the time to fully think about what I wanted to and who I was. In a way, Celestial Blues, despite its themes of strife and anger over the inherent hypocrisy of religion, is a celebration of rebellion, of being alive when everything is dark, and it feels like you are drowning. It is a personal album for me, as it allowed me to confront some of the things I had been questioning for some time and helped me understand more about how time tends to both distort and influence aspects of your life. Celestial Blues is a reckoning, a powerhouse of an album, and I will happily let it to continue to wreck me.


Woo, more word vomit.

2021 was another clusterfuck of a year, and I am so, so tired. I am not optimistic about 2022 being better than the last two years, but I am hoping things improve. I want them to improve.

In the meantime, please stay safe and I beg you, as your local Unfriendly Healthcare Professional, to follow your state/country health guidelines so we can finally kick this pandemic into oblivion.

Hasta la proxima!

Hera

One thought on “Scholar of the First Sin: Hera’s Best of 2021

  1. J from NJ December 28, 2021 / 7:36 pm

    I was massively disappointed by the new Rivers Of Nihil and not because it was safe. I don’t think it was. I just think it was directionless and the pacing from song to song and even within songs often slowed any momentum. I may check out Burial…now.

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