Missed Connections: Looking Back on 2021

Best of 2021

Oh hey, you thought lists were all done?  Nope, I’ve got one more in the tank and some more albums to talk about.  I wrote one of these lists last year, amid a flurry of excitement and trepidation that I had missed something truly great, which is kind of a silly thing to worry about now that I think about it.  Of course I did then, and of course I do now.  There just isn’t enough time in the world for me to take every great album in, even in the span of a whole year.  And, not least of all, new bands and new albums are always being thrown my way thanks to the good folks we have on staff.  So, here I sit with some leftovers of 2021, albums that for whatever reason didn’t jump out at me right away but have since found their way into my heart.  Don’t consider these throwaways; they stack up to anything on anyone else’s list, and in fact, many of them WERE on other peoples’ list and that’s what brought them to my attention.  Just consider it a nice bonus present, post-holidays.

Cynic – Ascension Codes

I honestly spent a while wondering if I was even going to be able to listen to Ascension Codes at all.  It’s hard to imagine Cynic without the Seans in their respective places, least of all without Sean Malone, one of my absolute favorite musicians on the planet and whose light is sorely missed.  Still, I’ve known Matt Lynch is a monster behind the kit, and the choice to include Dave Mackay on synthesizers to cover the bass frequencies is a smart one, both in terms of moving Cynic’s sound forward and in terms of Sean Malone being impossible to replace (forget for a second the fact that, you know, they did a couple of times in the past).  Ascension Codes sounds, maybe surprisingly, exactly like a Cynic album, which is a huge relief.  It is proggy and spacey and melodic and esoteric in all the best ways a Cynic album can be, which might just be the ultimate tribute to two of the greatest musicians ever to grace us with their presence.

So Hideous – None But a Pure Heart Can Sing

There’s always one December release that makes me question every list-based decision I had been building up to for the entire year, and this year it was None But a Pure Heart Can Sing.  Those of us who have been waiting with bated breath since Laurestine came out six years ago have had quite the anticipation build up, and None But a Pure Heart seizes those expectations and not only fulfills them, but also takes them into places that you might not have seen coming.  Effortlessly blending traces of black metal, screamo, orchestral and world music, the band’s incorporation of more horns and Afro-Caribbean beats makes this such an interesting listen that is both similar to and exceptionally distinct from Laurestine.  It’s a little on the short side, but I really hope that this is a taste of things to come, because right now So Hideous have managed to further refine a sound that is all their own.

Hey, look!  Another one of mine!  Check it out here.

The Silver – Ward of Roses

Ward of Roses was one of the earlier releases this year that had our staff group chat buzzing.  The first couple of singles caught my attention, and I was distinctly impressed by the supergroup’s instrumental prowess, but after that, well…life got in the way and catching up on the rest of this had to wait until Angela actually reminded me that this album had 1) come out this year, and 2) is actually very good.  And, as in most things, she’s not wrong about either of those statements.  More experimental and progressive than I was expecting it to be, but that sound ended up being the exact thing I didn’t know I was in the mood for when I sat down to listen to the album properly, so everything clicked immediately.  Gotta love when moments like that happen.

Atræ Bilis – Apexapian

atrae bilis apexapien

Unique to all the albums on this list, Apexapian is an album that I actively avoided listening to.  I reviewed last year’s Divinihility, and while I can say that I enjoyed it in the moment, there was something underwhelming about the long-term enjoyment I felt.  It was something that I really wanted to be able to come back to again and again, and I just couldn’t find any reason to.  So when tons of us on staff (especially Vince) were raving about Apexapian, I almost thought they were talking about a different Atræ Bilis.  And then I finally listened to Apexapian and I thought maybe it actually was a different Atræ Bilis.  Apexapian is so night and day better than I was expecting it to be that I almost feel like I need to go back and reassess Divinihility as well.  Melodic and progressive without being alienating, technical without being too techy, brutal and intense as well as interesting and memorable, it somehow manages to tick every single box there is. It is a truly unbelievably good slice of death metal, and I would like to go on the record and say that I was wrong and I’m sorry.

For a lot more things Atræ Bilis, check out Vince’s review, Buke’s fantastic interview and a bonus end of the year round-up chat with David Stepanavicius!

Mystras – Empires Vanquished and Dismantled

Ayloss, best known as the musician behind Spectral Lore, certainly had one hell of a 2021.  I was lucky enough to be able to write the review for the excellent Ετερόφωτος, which was just one of many releases put out under various brands, but the brand I was most interested in seeing come back was Mystras, another solo release, but one more rooted in the blending of lo-fi production black metal and medieval folk.  In fact, I distinctly remember saying to myself that I hoped Mystras would release more material soon, and it turns out that he did without me even realizing it.  I only just found out that my fervent prayers had been answered back in early November, but Empires Vanquished and Dismantled is everything I hoped it would be.  Production seems to be a little more polished, but the raw black metal aggression still very much present, however, the folk elements are even more prominent and critical to the album as a whole this time around, as is the razor-sharp critique of European colonialism that makes up the thematic elements of the album.  I truly hope this isn’t the last we’ll hear of Mystras, and I will make sure to pay a lot closer attention so the next one doesn’t catch me by surprise.

Dream Unending – Tide Turns Eternal

dream unending tide turns eternal

Tide Turns Eternal is not a release that I had my eyes on at all this year.  I remember it being mentioned on release in our group chat, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time.  However, this is an album that has made significant waves on multiple year end lists, and when I saw the hype it was getting, I knew I had to go back in and check it out.  Needless to say, I was not disappointed.  Tide Turns Eternal is truly unlike anything I have listened to before.  It is death doom that makes unconventional and brilliant use of space like no other band (except for maybe one, but hold onto that thought) does.  It is doom that is the exact opposite of crushing and oppressive; rather there is a lightness to the melodies and tones that allows much more breathing room and transcendental thought than your standard fare.  I think this is an album people are going to be copying for some time to come.

The Body and BIG|BRAVE – Leaving None But Small Birds

It seems like a lot of people are extremely high on Vital, the, I guess you’d call it, proper BIG|BRAVE release from this year, and for good reason.  It is all things we have said it to be and more, but the release of theirs that stoked me up even more was Leaving None But Small Birds, another in a long and seemingly endless series of collaborations curated by The Body.  It’s no secret that I am an unabashed fan of these collaborations, and Leaving does exactly what the best of them do: something wholly unique is created in the shared experience, something that doesn’t sound anything like The Body or BIG|BRAVE.  It’s dark and brooding, but it’s also delicate and folksy.  It captures the full spectrum of emotion that both bands are known for, but it also pushes them both into uncharted territory.  It’s a fresh take on a classic format, and I for one consider it another in a series of successes in this collection.

King Woman – Celestial Blues

King Woman - Celestial Blues

My hand to god: I thought this album came out last year.  I really and truly did.  Temporal displacement is real and it hurts.  But at least I can’t say it took me a while to get to this album; Angela and I bumped it almost nonstop when it first dropped, and my first impressions were extremely positive.  And with good reason: it absolutely goes in musically and the amount of emotional depth put into this piece is astounding.  Plus, it managed to hold up until the end of the year, as it made the top spot on two people’s individual lists and did extremely well in our all-staff year end round up.  For me, I guess I just have to go back and give it some more thought.  Celestial Blues fell victim to the trap of being busy with albums that I need to listen to, but it will definitely be something Angela and I can cozy up to together and take in, and that’s something special all by itself.  I can’t say this for a lot of the albums in this particular set, but I think I fucked up really badly by not including Celestial Blues on my personal list…

If you want to see what really good writing looks like, look no further than Hera’s stunning review of Celestial Blues.

Kowloon Walled City – Piecework

Kowloon Walled City - Piecework

Piecework is probably the album on this list that has sat on my to-do list the longest.  Not because I have anything against Kowloon Walled City, I just…got sidetracked, but I always believe the hype around them, so as soon as I knew Piecework was coming, I made a note to myself to sit down and listen to it.  Well, things being what they were this year, it took me just a little bit longer to sit down and actually process it, and now that I have I am kicking myself as hard as I can.  Kowloon Walled City are the band mentioned above that are absolute masters of space.  It’s a cliché to say “it’s about the notes they don’t play,” but in the case of Piecework, it’s pretty true.  When the riffs kick in, they effortlessly blend melody and dissonance and are backed up by an absolutely thunderous rhythm section that sets your head banging.  But the beauty of Piecework is when the roar dies down and the noises settle into space and silence.  Some of the most powerful and evocative moments on Piecework happen when one or no instruments are playing, and there is a magic in that kind of subtlety that few except Kowloon Walled City can consistently capture.

Stabbing – Ravenous Psychotic Onslaught

I had another EP already locked, loaded and written about for this spot.  I was not expecting to have this order of things shaken up on the day that I go to draft this for the site, but I was listening to Buke’s aforementioned end-of-year chat with David from Atræ Bilis, and he mentioned Stabbing in tandem with another release on his list.  On a whim, I checked out Stabbing and immediately had a full-on Raiders of the Lost Ark face melt moment.  Pure meat-and-potatoes death metal, albeit hyper fast and vicious, it just warms me and fills me up and also breaks every bone in my body.  Not to mention that it’s a couple of couples getting together, which is always heartwarming (always need more women in metal!).  The true definition of a missed connection, I really think if I had spent more time with Ravenous Psychotic Onslaught before now it would have been something I’d have talked about on a different list.  Now I just have to teach Angela how to play guitar so we can get our new project…Poking off the ground.

The last time I wrote one of these, I used the exact phrase “no more looking back.”  Oops.  Well, maybe I didn’t mean “no more looking back on good tunes that slipped through the cracks for some reason.”  I’m sure that was it.  But from here on out, it’s all eyes on what 2022 has in store for me, which is already shaping up to be quite a lot.  Am I going to have to make one of these lists at the start of 2023?  It kinda looks that way already, and I’m not even upset about it.  For now, though, we gotta live in the present and embrace what is coming our way right now.  I’ll see you out there on the field.

– Ian

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