Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years.
2021 did force me to put my writing here on pause for a while. Between the very good and the very bad it was a wild pendulum of a year, and at some point I found myself unable to keep up with all of it. I took time away, as I have been want to do lately. And for the first time in a long time, I feel like that time away really did me some good. I’m not just back here writing a year-end list because I feel like I have to in order to earn my keep, I’m doing it because I feel like I have things to say about the music I loved this year. Because there was a lot to love, and because I managed, somewhere along the way, to find that love again after feeling like it had been fading for the last few years. Between long train rides with old favorites and early mornings with coffee and brand new discoveries, I felt that connection between me and the music I love slowly flowing back. I feel hopeful that that connection will allow me to be able to share more with you all about what it is that makes me light up.
But then, I suppose I should talk about what made that happen for me in 2021, right?
10. Ustalost – Before the Glinting Spell Unvests
Before the Glinting Spell Unvests is precisely why I have decided as of the last few years to write my year-end lists after the year has officially ended. Sneaking in after many a major publication had already considered 2021 done and dusted, Ustalost dropped a surprise album five years in the making in mid-December, a move that any publicist would probably describe as career suicide. Yet this devil-may-care attitude exactly correlates to the outside-the-box thinking that has landed Before the Glinting Spell Unvests on this list in the first place. The fact that Ustalost is a project of Will Skarstad of Yellow Eyes (pound-for-pound the best black metal band going right now and I’ll for real fight you about that) should tell you all the rest. No one approaches writing black metal quite like this, always on the outer edges of sanity, threatening to come undone, yet held together with sheer willpower. Ustalost is for the true believers.
9. Atrae Bilis – Apexapien
There may have been other albums ranked higher on this list than Apexapien. There may have even been other death metal albums that I felt deserved a higher spot. But Apexapien is unquestioningly the album from 2021 that I listened to the most, simply because it is so easy to love, and so easy to fit into my day. It’s thirty-one minutes of everything that makes death metal rule, with no low point at all during that run time. I threw this on while riding the train to work. I threw it on while doing chores. I threw it on while cooking dinner. There is no situation that can’t be enhanced by throwing your hands in the air and yelling “MARCH! INTO THE SEAS OF SEPSIS!” along with this Vancouver, BC quartet (now three piece). Apexapien is a triumph of an album and a hell of a high water mark for a band’s debut full-length.
8. Emptiness – Vide
Caught somewhere between easy listening and nightmare fuel, Vide is one of the strangest turns I’ve ever seen a band take musically. Realistically, I should have expected Emptiness to gift us with something totally out of left field; they’ve never been an easy act to pin down after all. But I will say that Vide was not even close to where I thought they would be going post-Not For Music. Even more surprising, I think, was how much I really ended up enjoying this album. There is, quite simply, nothing out there that sounds like Vide, and that fact alone kept me coming back to this album time and time again. It is a unique, jarring, unsettling, wholly entertaining experience that I’m sure I’ll be continuing to journey into again and again.
7. Dream Unending – Tide Turns Eternal
The pedigree of musicians involved in Dream Unending should prepare you for what you’re getting into. All the accolades thrown at this album already, even as it has only been out a little over a month, should prepare you for what you’re getting into. The strength of the label putting it out should prepare you for what you’re getting into. But it won’t. It can’t. There is something about this album that has to be heard to be believed. Tide Turns Eternal takes death metal and makes it cinematic, an old school death-doom formula played in the most wonderfully unconventional way, loading up on atmosphere and emotion without sacrificing any of the heaviness along the way. An outstanding artistic statement and one of the most unexpected victories of 2021.
6. A Pregnant Light – Kiss Me Thru the Phone
Damian Master does not miss, but on his most adventurous release yet, an album whose creation story involves a dedicated phone line, anonymous voicemail confessions, and monthly song releases, he has created one of the best works in his whole catalogue. Kiss Me Thru the Phone is a deeply affecting statement on the need for connection, an album that didn’t start out influenced by the unpleasantness that has persisted for almost three years now, but was forced to persevere in its vision in spite of it, much like many of the people who contributed their fears, happiness, and intimacy to the project alongside Master. It also happens to contain the best songs APL has put out among a sea of excellent new releases along the way. Long live Purple Metal.
5. Big|Brave – Vital
Vital, in line with albums like Vide, the pick following this one, and others that did not make my list proper, encapsulates one of the more interesting categories of albums I found myself gravitating towards last year, which is albums that are ‘heavy’ without being ‘metal.’ Trying to break down my lists between what belongs on a ‘metal’ list and on a ‘non-metal’ list felt like an impossible exercise in hair splitting this year, and what helped me more was to think about the albums I love as ‘heavy’ versus ‘non-heavy’ instead. And trust me, metal or not, Big|Brave’s thick, noisy, droning riffs belong firmly among these heavy releases. Vital is an album imbued with a tremendous amount of substance, like a weighted blanket for your ears, pressure that soothes an overstimulated mind. It’s the album that finally made me stand up and take notice of the things people had been singing this band’s praises over for years now, and once I ‘got’ them, I couldn’t put this album down. Truly, I still can’t.
4. Deafheaven – Infinite Granite
Fuck the haters. I could leave this at just that statement alone. I won’t. But I could. Because it probably flies very close to the ethos Deafheaven had going into making Infinite Granite. Here is a band that has both the ability and the mettle to chase their muse wherever it may lead them, trusting that those that understand will follow along. There is nothing this band seems to be able to create that will do anything less than outright wow me, even the transition away from the centering of metal in their sound at all. Even if it is a radical shift in tone, Infinite Granite is an album that has the uniquely Deafheaven spark at its core.
3. Amenra – De doorn
In the relatively short time I have been immersing myself in Amenra’s discography, they have become one of my favorite bands on earth. The mix of heavy, artsy, and emotional is quite simply everything I look for in heavy music. De doorn takes all of those aspects and cranks them up to eleven, making it an absolute shoe-in for some of the best music to come out last year. The addition of the inimitable Caro Tanghe to the mix on this album is the absolute icing on the cake. Like other albums on this list, listening to De doorn is less of a way to pass time and more of an experience, something you come into with intention, and come out of changed.
2. Lantlôs – Wildhund
Seven long years have I waited for this album, and from hearing just the first advance song, I knew it was going to be worth that wait. From noir-jazz black metal, to sludgy post-metal, now onto shoegaze-inflected heavy pop rock, there is something about Markus Siegenhort, much like with the previously discussed Deafheaven album, that allows him to shine and excel no matter what kind of music he puts his mind to. No band that has tried this level of maximalism in their music has gotten me to take interest in it, yet somehow Wildhund succeeds at utilizing every crazy idea in this man’s head to concoct an album of pure, unadulterated bliss. Every time I listen it’s instant serotonin.
1. Dreamwell – Modern Grotesque
And here it is. The album that has been with me through everything this year has thrown at me, high and low. The album that did so much for me since its release that even as I sit here some ten months after I first got my ears around it, I don’t know if I could say how I feel about it. There are albums that are your favorite in a year because they contain the best songs you’ve heard, and there are albums that are your favorite in a year because they resonate on some deep emotional level with you. Modern Grotesque is both. It is an album of some of the best and most inventive screamo I have heard since I started getting deep into screamo again, and also an album that fundamentally, quantifiably changed who I am for having heard it. It is a monumentally important album, for me and for the greater landscape of heavy music as a whole. It defiantly carves out a place for queer and trans people in heavy music. It says that we will not back down or make ourselves smaller or lesser because of the loud minority that would have the whole scene homogenized to suit their own limited understanding of the complexities of human existence. It shows that to be wholly unique is the greatest gift we have available to us. It shows that no matter how scary it might be to bare all of yourself to witness, even the parts that you wish weren’t there, it will give you comfort, and will impart that comfort to others who might not even realize they need to hear what you have to say. Modern Grotesque is an album that will be measured as a triumph, as a pinnacle of heavy music, for years to come.
Perhaps you’ll hear from me again. Perhaps it will be sooner than you think.
Until then, you know what to do.