Best of 2021: Zyklonius’s List

Best of 2021

Huh, it appears that I blinked and a whole year went by just like that. Luckily there was metal, a lot of it in fact, to the extent that none of the albums on my list ended up on our staff’s combined list, which shows just how much diversity there is, in terms of releases, genres and our respective tastes and preferences. With majestic hails to the bands whose releases enriched my life in the past 12 months, the following contains my 20 favorite albums of the year. I hope you will find something that intrigues, excites and animates you. 

20. Emptiness – Vide

Emptiness - Vide

Emptiness excels in capturing and channeling the spirit of places and liminal spaces, but little did my love of the band (their previous release was, after all, my favorite album of 2017) help prepare for Vide, an album which needs to be approached as a full-body experience, as clinical assessment or analytical dissection simply won’t work. Vide is like William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops on barbiturates, with soundscapes and tape loops seemingly bereft of discernible riffs and structure. I would argue that full appreciation of it requires familiarity with the conventions and characteristics of ambient and minimal music and their emphasis on texture and atmosphere that are squeezed through the rusty sieve of disfigured, dystopian dream pop. Vide’s transient quintessence resembles a dawning realization of experiencing the first signs of early-onset dementia, characterized by terrifying confusion, melancholy and an inescapable sense of loss. 

[full review]

19. Grey Aura – Zwart Vierkant

With appropriate humility, I treasure my arrival at the welcoming bosom of Zwart Vierkant and its nigh-surrealist genius, a moment when I finally began to understand and enjoy the idiosyncratic allure of Dutch black metal in all its delightful weirdness. Yes, those bizarre vocal warble effects and the onslaught of castanets surprise and impress me every single time, but are just two of the many elements that coalesce into an unpredictably adventurous thing of alchemical wonder that defies the hackneyed conventions of black metal. 

18. Stargazer – Psychic Secretions

Stargazer’s albums are by design chock-full of wild ideas and complex arrangements, and with an extra serving of tasteful avant-garde without pointless meandering or sudden u-turns to dead-end streets. Yet my affair with them had always been one of admiration from a respectful distance, instead of complete emotional connection. But with Psychic Secretions, everything finally clicks. It is a bit more immediate and propulsive than their previous albums and comes suffused with a strange ageless charm, while also pushing the envelope and leaving behind any genre-specific limitations or purity benchmarks. There’s a beautiful jazzy vibe (naturally with fretless bass) and everything brims with adventurous flair. The band is in full control of the chaos and everything flows beautifully and whenever you are hit by abrupt curveballs or unexpected twists, the seams are always perfectly smooth and invisible to the eye.

17. Møl – Diorama

mol - diorama

Diorama is the bright, life-affirming injection that was sorely needed in the midst of a global pandemic. Møl is the band I always imagined Deafheaven to sound like, one that is not confined by the restricting shackles and factory-setting default grimness of black metal, and is free to explore new directions. Diorama deserves all the hype and love with its sparkling tones, lush textures and supercharged melodies. 

[full review]

16. Cadaveric Fumes – Echoing Chambers of Soul

I was devastated upon learning that Cadaveric Fumes split up at the same time they released their long-awaited debut full-length release, with its emotional impact made even worse when I dared to imagine the heights they would have surely reached by continuing on the creative trajectory established on Echoing Chambers of Soul, an album that oozes memorable hooks and atmospheric highlights, such as the swinging wrecking ball riffs of “The Stirring Unknown,” the sparkling psychedelic interlude of “Water of Absu” and the serrated venom-dripping slashes of “The Engulfed Sepulcher.”  

15. Spire – Temple of Khronos

Trying to describe the grandiosity and opulence of Temple of Khronos with the crippling limitations of mundane vocabulary is an exercise in absolute futility, thanks to the album’s conceptual magnificence which depicts the merciless passage and ravages of time and forms a journey through cosmic doorways into swirling psychedelic nebulae where all reference points have melted and morphed into an enveloping sonic mysticism. A foreboding sense of imminent annihilation permeates the album, albeit in the most inviting and pleasant manner, owing to the seamless way ceremonial choral arrangements and ambient soundscapes merge with the surrounding devastation. There are those rare metal albums that transcend space and time and invoke levitation-like sensations, but Temple of Khronos goes even further by constituting a metaphysical treatise and a musical out-of-body experience.

14. Autarkh – Form in Motion

On Form in Motion, Autarkh builds on the celebrated legacy and inventive excellence of Dodecahedron by taking an evolutionary leap that lands with flying, iridescent colors. Equal parts visceral and cerebral, with serpentine riffs and overwhelming barrages of disorienting beats and elements inspired by glitch, electro-industrial and IDM, Form in Motion radiates infectious energy that acts as an invitation to enter an ever-mutating dance floor illuminated by bursts of asynchronous strobes and incendiary beams of light. Autarkh exemplifies the boundless malleability of metal, further evidenced by the phenomenal Autarkh III set at the 2021 Roadburn Redux, which reimagined Form in Motion with new shapes, layers and textures (note to the band: please, please release the set on Bandcamp in the near-future). 

13. Fractal Universe – The Impassable Horizon

Attempting to pinpoint the je ne sais quoi that would help explain the odd excellence of The Impassable Horizon is both exhilarating and frustrating. Sure, it is death metal, but why does it feel so strangely… sophisticated, delicate and airy, like something you enjoy with a glass of lovely red wine? Absolutely, it is progressive to the bone in a way that defies death metal’s laws of physics, exhibited by an almost funky approach and jazzy playfulness that is graceful, deft and nimble (the integration of saxophone on multiple songs is done with particular elegance), and firmly anchored in beautiful musicianship that avoids any hint of flashy showboating. Rest assured, this is not to say that the album is light on actual pummeling, as the band knows exactly when and how to go on a rampage. Freed from the ossified dictates of death metal, Fractal Universe has mastered a majestic style that lets them soar above limiting expectations, utterly unafraid to explore new richly emotional terrains.

12. Ænigmatum – Deconsecrate

Ænigmatum - Deconsecrate

For a prime example of envelope-pushing capital-P progressive death metal with songwriting that is at once unpredictable and cohesive, look no further than Ænigmatum’s brilliant second full-length album. The stream of grade-A riffs is ever-flowing and the band exhibits mastery of dynamics, replete with hairpin turns and formidable lunges that are delivered with surgical precision and paradoxically fluid transitions, while even the slower moments throb with readiness to discharge constricted kinetic energy. The band members’ individual and collective musicianship reach breathtaking levels and are captured and amplified impeccably with a beautifully organic production. Deconsecrate is metal that demands to be experienced in a live setting.

[full review]

11. Dordeduh – Har

Despite very much being into inventive left-field permutations of metal, I nevertheless have an embarrassing, largely unexplained general aversion to the incorporation of traditional instruments and folk influences. Maybe it is simply a fear of the end result resembling a ye olde renaissance faire, at least to an urbanite poseur like yours truly. Well, I’d like to publicly apologize for my inane prejudice, as Har opened my eyes and transported me to beautiful magical landscapes of resplendent hues and breathtaking vistas. At the same time, Dordeduh remembers to deliver actual metal (the thundering climax of “În vieliștea uitării” being a particular highlight in this regard) at the exact right times as an integral part of the dream-like, pensive and hypnotic whole that makes Har such an evocative experience.

10. First Fragment – Gloire Éternelle

The giddy excitement created by the announcement of Gloire Éternelle (and the promo blurb’s promises of flamenco sections and “slap-bass-driven swing grooves”) was a mere harbinger of the awe and enjoyment the album delivered. It is an exhilarating work of art and the exceptional musicianship and arrangements continue evoking disbelief and enthusiastic chuckles at every turn. For the first couple of listening sessions, the album may sound overwhelming with a million things flying at you at the same time, all wrapped in extravagant excess and lightspeed. But the beautiful thing is that every time you give it a spin, you spot something new and its memorability keeps on growing. I chose Gloire Éternelle as our album of the month for October and in my introduction noted how the album has a heart and a soul and feels warm and inviting, in contrast both to the sterile coldness that often plagues tech death as well as the overwhelming cheesiness and histrionics that often threaten to derail neoclassical metal. It takes real skill and mastery of metal to create an album of such intensity and velocity.

9. Cult of Luna – The Raging River

One of the last metal shows I attended right before the COVID-19 pandemic started was Cult of Luna. I have a fractured rib cage (at least metaphorically) to prove it, thanks to the immense power and density of the band’s performance. Nominally an EP by the band’s standards, The Raging River captures and recalls the osmium hailstorm-like punch and intensity of the live experience. Instead of functioning as a serving of B-side leftovers from the recording sessions of 2019’s A Dawn to Fear, the EP sees the band continuing on the titanic evolutionary path established back in 2013’s Vertikal, with an increasing emphasis on atmospheric and industrial elements to bolster the towering majesty to even further levels. And if the first single off of the upcoming album is of any indication, this path has led the band to something brilliant that refuses to fade.

[full review

8. Dvne – Etemen Ænka

Using Dvne’s cinematic namesakes to describe Etemen Ænka, this is what you get by combining the vast scale and impact of Villeneuve’s Dune with the lush visual splendor and worldbuilding of Jodorowsky’s aborted vision for his movie adaptation. The sonic universe Dvne continues building on their second full-length album resonates with resounding marvel and success, presenting vivid pictorial grandeur and a level of immersive storytelling that are, both in cinematic and musical terms, absolutely astounding. To employ further Dune metaphors, its songs flow like the Spice and, similar to Shai-Hulud, know when to strike with rumbling fury (for pure metal perfection, look no further than the moment in “Sì-XIV” when the hammer falls and ends the preceding passage of thick psychedelic haze with a god-killer riff for the ages). Etemen Ænka is testament to the boundless power of imagination of forward-looking progressive sludge metal and Dvne is one of the genre’s main vanguards and torchbearers.

[full review

7. Ethereal Shroud – Trisagion

On paper, Trisagion should not work. Based on their over 20-minute length, two of its three songs could serve as standalone EPs. And let’s be honest, atmospheric black metal often becomes an unmemorable blur after breaching the 5-minute mark. Against this backdrop, it is almost unfathomable how anyone could maintain such energy, emotion and immersion across such runtimes. But Joseph Hawker is not your generic basement-dwelling black metal entity. By recalling Forteresse’s triumphant leads and white-knuckle intensity and Saor’s roaring momentum and epic scale, Trisagion provided me with the reference points that hooked me immediately, but ultimately it is Hawker’s singular vision that equips him with an intensely emotional and expansive palette. The fact that this will be the final Ethereal Shroud album should not be mourned but celebrated as a rare example of going out in a blaze of glory that will be venerated in the coming ages.

6. Year of No Light – Consolamentum

Year of No Light - Consolamentum

Regretfully I could not join our album of the month discussion in July, as I would have waxed poetic and heaped superlatives on Consolamentum, the stunning milestone in Year of No Light’s (so far) 20-year career. A masterful display of the dramatic interplay between shadow and light, vulnerability and resilience as well as sorrow and elation, Consolamentum ranks among the greatest instrumental metal albums ever made, driven by the band’s awe-inspiring dominion over the elements of music that manifest as magisterial wordless poetry. 

[full review

5. The Ruins of Beverast – The Thule Grimoires

The Ruins of Beverast - Thule Grimoires

Exuvia was #2 on my 2017 year-end list and set the bar ridiculously high for its follow-up. In fact, despite its immediate excellence, I initially felt that The Thule Grimoires had failed to meet the lofty standard established by Exuvia. At our album of the month discussion in February, I noted that while I really liked the Type O Negative vibes and Peter Steele-esque crooning, there were times when the quality and style of clean signing was quite questionable (despite my general love of Alexander von Meilenwald’s monstrous growl) and broke the immersion, an aspect I regard as a critical prerequisite for full appreciation of von Meilenwald’s music and its brilliance. Only over time did I come to terms with the fact that Exuvia was the unsurpassable primal psychedelic vortex, akin to roaring into the abyss while on peyote, while The Thule Grimoires was something else or the other side of the coin; if you will, the equivalent of a polar explorer terrestrial expedition took him to grim uncharted territories, while the destination of his kindred spirit and predecessor’s psychonautical voyage was innerspace. The key takeaway is that von Meilenvald’s art, imagination and ambition are always unpredictable and exceptional and refuse to simply rehash past achievements.

[full review]

4. LLNN – Unmaker

LLNN - Unmaker

A mere quick glimpse at the cover of any LLNN album should give a pretty compelling general idea of the density and gravitas of their apocalyptic melange of post-metal, sludge and richly textured industrial soundscapes. On Unmaker, LLNN goes nuclear and delivers a Melancholia-level impact event and arguably one of the most crushing, punishing and unforgiving metal albums in the recent history of the genre, akin to weaponized obsidian monoliths deployed from orbit and making planetfall with daisy-cutter-style blast damage and teeth-loosening resonance. At its eschatological core, Unmaker is the perfect soundtrack for basking in the dying embers of terminal-stage capitalism.

[full review]

3. Four Stroke Baron – Classics

The gutsy title of the album was a clear sign of its commensurately dauntless quality and unusual nature. Four Stroke Baron is a band that had been on the cusp of greatness on their previous releases which reminded me of Devin Townsend’s magical early work that has a special place in my heart. Well, lo and behold, for their new album they actually enlisted Townsend’s mixing and sound design services and the band, now shrunken to a duo, doubled-down on adventurous and ambitious songwriting and the results are simply phenomenal, like hearing Ocean Machine, updated for 2021, for the first time today. You not only get the Ocean Machine vibes, but also a dash of Torche’s bubblegum sludge-pop and Harmonicraft-era effervescence. You get incredible vocals that recall The Cure’s Robert Smith. You even hear some of Type O Negative’s pop sensibility. But ultimately all attempts at pigeonholing Four Stroke Baron by way of its sonic relatives are doomed to fail, as there is something endearing, amorphous and one-of-a-kind about the band. Filled to the brim with the metal equivalent of feel-good summer hits, dancing shoes are absolutely mandatory with Classics

2. Suffering Hour – The Cyclic Reckoning

With The Cyclic Reckoning, Suffering Hour can claim to have invaded the liminal space between sleep and wakefulness, by slithering its psychedelic tentacles through the blood-brain barrier with a trance-inducing combination of mesmerizing dissonance, eerie melody and hypnotizing guitar wizardry, and taking up haunting residence in my mind. A paradox incarnate, The Cyclic Reckoning feels like the most pleasant nightmare you will ever experience and are eager to relive every night, using the reverberations of its reality-warping tone and the bewitching allure of its compositional labyrinths as deformed orientation and coordinates for traversing the otherworldly dimensions invoked.

1. Code – Flyblown Prince

Flyblown Prince is an absolute beast, a masterful demonstration of how to use progressive black metal to build extravagant worlds and contort the metaphysics thereof, an album where literary grandeur and laudanum-laced phantasmagoria collide beautifully with moments of feverish sensual thrill and bursts of feral carnage. With Code’s songwriting skills, no eccentric gimmicks are needed. Flyblown Prince is expertly paced and sequenced, both in terms of musical variety and narrative cohesion, where every song forms an essential chapter of the grand opus and its dramatic arc, electrified by Wacian’s possessed vocal performance that personifies equal parts decadent spirit guide, deranged ringmaster and snarling maniac. From the title track’s vicious opening salvo, through the ominous fog of “Clemency and Atrophy,” the oppressive stomp of the suffocating “Rat King” and the blood-curdling savagery of “Scold’s Bridle,” all the way to the album’s soaring closing climax, the album is immaculate brilliance. 


2 thoughts on “Best of 2021: Zyklonius’s List

  1. D.F. January 5, 2022 / 2:33 pm

    Nice to see some StarGazer and Four Stroke Baron love! Happy 2022, Zyklonius.

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