Is that it? Am I the last one? Dang. Again. Wait, maybe one more to come… Anyway, I guess I’ll start this off on my soapbox as always, by noting that I truly cannot comprehend where we are as a society. Well, I suppose I can, which is even more frustrating. If 2020 wasn’t a brutal enough year (not in a good way), 2021 seemed to serve as an appropriate encore. Seemingly everything we experience in life has been weaponized for political gain in one way or another, a global pandemic has been widely accepted as an endemic thanks, in part, to widespread misinformation, and, just as bluntly, climate disasters resulting from human activity are on the brink of running rampant for the duration of humanity’s remaining existence… however brief that may be. And those are just my three favorite, non-personal, items to discuss in our corner of the universe. It sucks, and I’m burnt out. Optimism has completely faded at this point, and I’m ready to run screaming into the woods. But hey, cheers to 2020, right?!
Checking my sarcasm and negativity for just a moment, I actually do want to express appreciation for some of the things that 2021 brought me. The limited travel I was able to experience in the last 12 months brought me much needed time with friends, family, and nature. Riding out this pandemic/endemic for another year afforded me more time to focus on personal health and hobbies, making those countless hours at the work desk more tolerable. And of course, this project. Another calendar year in the books for Nine Circles, and I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated this team more. Every day the Nine Circles collective gave me something to look forward to, be it through reading or hearing each other’s thoughts, or simply through gathering for virtual drinks and conversations. I wouldn’t trade the way we do things for anything, and I’m immensely proud of where we are today.
And to top it all off, let’s face it, this past year in metal was fucking awesome. So, at long last, I’ll step down from my soap box and share some of my favorites. As always, a top nine with nine honorable mentions. Let’s dive right in.
I have long been impressed by Mastodon. Every album offers a unique adventure, and their longevity and consistency should be celebrated, especially given the metal landscape over the past few decades. All that said, it wasn’t until 2021 that a Mastodon album hit me quite like this. Hushed and Grim is, for lack of a better phrase, as close to a perfect album as I could envision. All the progressiveness they’ve introduced and experimented with from one album to the next comes together brilliantly here. It’s both refreshing, yet nostalgic, with a solemn emotion expertly conveyed throughout, without overexaggerating any specific feeling or concept. There are so many layers to this extended collection of tracks, and so much complexity. Yet, somehow, it still comes from a place of familiarity and organization, without a wasted moment, making it undeniably easy to connect with. This is Mastodon at the top of their game. This is Mastodon fully leaning into the darker spaces of human emotions and delivering something truly memorable, in a way that only they can.
Der Weg einer Freiheit has seemingly released one incredible album after another over the years, so the latest from the German black metal collective was among my most anticipated in 2021. Needless to say, Noktvrn certainly did not disappoint. With their fifth studio album, they are at their most confident, and most creative. While they still deliver the style of black metal they have made their own with the expertise we’ve come to expect, they also introduce previously unexplored concepts that allow this album to truly stand out. The obvious example, of course, is “Immortal,” featuring The Devil’s Trade, an intersection of contrasting styles that on the surface seems questionable, yet proves to be completely sensible. We shouldn’t be surprised, but the most ambitious Der Weg einer Freheit album to date, is also their best yet.
This is exactly the album I didn’t know I needed from Wolves In The Throne Room. As much as I adore their discography, and as often as I revisit the likes of Celestial Lineage and Two Hunters, the more concise and organized structures taken on Primordial Arcana are executed to perfection. Perhaps a bit more polished, it’s still the organic form of Cascadian black metal we want and expect. All that said, Primordial Arcana introduces plenty of new elements that make it just as impressive, and time will certainly prove it to be just as memorable. If this marks a new chapter of sorts for Wolves In The Throne Room, we should all be excited about what the future will bring.
1914 was easily my discovery of the year. The blackened death and doom featured on Where Fear and Weapons Meet is inherently addicting, with just enough of a melodic component to keep it resonating long after the album ends. Their sound may not be groundbreaking, but it is crafted and delivered brilliantly, with robust production that really lets the pummeling qualities of their musical battlefield take hold. It’s fast, it’s dark, and it’s heavy, yet still offers a few instrumental minutes here and there to provide some respite. Between the music itself, and the way 1914 tell their war stories through the lyrics and production, Where Fear and Weapons Meet is a masterpiece. It’s simply an album (and experience) that I have been unable to put down as we’ve moved into the new year.
Unto Others first entered my periphery as Idle Hands, with Mana being one of my favorite albums in 2019. Fast forward a couple years, enter a new name, and Strength has proven to be more impressive still. The gloom and gothic quota is still very much satisfied, filled with catchy hooks and choruses. However, this collection adds an added layer of weight that is abundantly apparent from start to finish. Strength successfully built on Mana in every way I could have hoped, and the end result is another spot securely among the best of the year.
I’ve explored Vadak with frequency and regularity throughout 2021, and each time through I’ve managed to discover something new within the layered complexity. Tamás Kátai wields his mastery without hesitation across these incredibly diverse tracks, and each one tells its own story. It would be understandable then, if not expected, that merging all these musical influences would result in clumsiness, to the point of absolute chaos. But instead, thanks to brilliant craftsmanship, the structure of the end product is completely logical. Ambition successfully realized, resulting in probably the most engaging listening experience I had in the past year.
It is quite apparent that Khemmis’ upward trajectory won’t be slowing down in the immediate future. Their latest effort, Deceiver, is arguably their most impressive to date. The doomed heavy metal formula that Khemmis crafted and has since perfected is very much at play here, but they expand their horizon just enough to give this a darker, more personal feel. The added diversity in sound, featuring notably dynamic passages and transitions, increase the overall scale of the listening experience. It’s epic, and it’s mournfully heavy… it’s a version of Khemmis that’s even better than anticipated.
Amenra’s music seems to captivate me more with each passing day. The dark, melancholic atmospheres they create around a post-hardcore and doom structure just gets more impressive with each album. On De Doorn, they continue to expand the boundaries of their sound, balancing pensive moments of calm with aggression that is as jarring as anything in their discography. Personally, in recent days and weeks of emotional and mental struggle, this has been the perfect album to get lost in. As a result, I appreciate De Doorn in more ways than I ever could have anticipated.
While I’ve always appreciated The Ruins of Beverast, this is the first time I’ve truly connected with one of their albums. The Thule Grimoires is an extensive, and expansive, meandering journey that really defined the early parts of 2021 for me, and continued to hold up as the months ticked by. Contemplative and deliberate, it proved to be a mesmerizing experience that was almost too easy to get lost in. They find that balance of cosmic atmosphere, impenetrable darkness, and melancholic burden and manage to explore it in a seemingly infinite number of ways.
The Honorable Mentions
Agrypnie – Metamorphosis
There were a number of AOP releases that impressed me this year, but Metamorphosis tops the list. Atmospheric and introspective, progressive yet grounded, this is over an hour of some of the most captivating black metal I’ve heard in awhile.
Stormkeep – Tales of Othertime
Without a doubt, Stormkeep built on Galdrum in all the ways we hoped they would. Medieval black metal at its absolute best. This would have been in the top nine if fortune was on my side in snagging this on vinyl. Yes, I’m still bitter about that.
LLNN – Unmaker [Album Review]
This would very effectively serve as the soundtrack to our current world, were I to have a say in the matter. LLNN’s blend of industrial doom and post-metal is nothing less than complete destruction. It pummels you, over and over again. Yet, it’s really hard to put down. I’m obsessed.
Seth – La Morsure du Christ [Album Review]
As far as melodic black metal goes, the latest from Seth is familiar, but that doesn’t lessen its impact in the slightest. Compositionally, I fail to find even a single flaw. The galloping ferocity is persistent, and the orchestral undertones allow La Morsure du Christ to soar.
Krigsgrav – The Sundering
One of my favorite discoveries in recent years has been Krigsgrav, and they really set a new standard for themselves here. Unrelentingly dark and heavy, the atmospheric blackened doom found on The Sundering will prove to be a monumental step forward in the Krigsgrav timeline.
Crown – The End of All Things
I don’t know what it is that pulls me back to The End of All Things, but perhaps that’s the point. Industrial post-doom metal delivered with absolutely massive production makes this thing incredibly versatile, and really hard to turn away from.
Deafheaven – Infinite Granite [Album of the Month]
Deafheaven’s full immersion into shoegaze is anything but surprising, but that doesn’t make what they’ve created on Infinite Granite any less impressive. It’s a gorgeous, enveloping album from start to finish, and it still feels like Deafheaven… even if the sound has changed. All good by me.
Kataan – Kataan [Album Review]
A new project emerging from the creative minds behind Vattnet Viskar and Astronoid proved to be exactly what I was hoping for, except for one thing… I need more of it. This debut EP is incredible. It listens like a death metal record, with a familiar melodic blackgaze component woven in brilliantly.
The Lion’s Daughter – Skin Show [Album Review]
I wasn’t previously familiar with The Lion’s Daughter going into the year, but I certainly am glad I invested the time in Skin Show. It’s endlessly addicting, even if the overall energy is one of frustrated aggression. Add in just enough of an industrial structure, and Skin Show truly stands out from the crowd.
“Ein Bier… bitte.”