Well, here we are at the Last Chance Saloon, which is an entirely different beast compared to the Last Rites Saloon in that the former offers one final shot at highlighting albums we sincerely look forward to in 2021, and the latter is a joint that invariably inspires Last Rites staffers to swear they’ll never drink again the next morning. But before we jump into the foray, let’s take a quick moment to discuss one particular project and album that’s conspicuously missing from all three parts of this here dealio:
If you’re at all familiar with Last Rites, you know we’re basically the easiest mark possible for most everything related to 80s’ metal, and we love love LOVE Judas Priest. Given this, why the hell doesn’t the impending KK’s Priest debut manage to land amidst the piles and piles of anticipated releases this week? We know the record is landing in 2021, and we know it involves Les Binks, who drummed on wallopers such as Stained Class, Hell Bent for Leather and Unleashed in the East, and we have a pretty good idea that it will sound more like “classic Priest” than the current manifestation of Judas Priest. Therefore, it only stands to reason that the new record should at least ping our radar. Well, like a lot of folks out there, our optimism remains rather cautious. KK Downing didn’t exactly paint himself as the most reasonable retiree of Priest, and seeing Ripper pulled back into the picture isn’t exactly the biggest endorsement because he appears to take most any job that affords him an opportunity to net endorsement money from wearing a Monster Energy hat in promo pics. The footage of the band playing small venues is quite promising, though, so let’s just stick with the “fingers crossed” tag and a generous side-eye chaser, and then we can just stack apologies to the rafters if the record ends up burning a hole through our skulls.
Right. Now that that’s out of the way… CANNONBALL!!!
CODE – TBA
With two monster albums and a lineage connected to the whole Ved Buens Ende / Dødheimsgard family tree, Code’s career started as promising as just about any black(ened) metal band around. Even the departure of dynamic vocalist Kvohst couldn’t really slow them down, as third album Augur Nox was also quite beastly, if not quite at the modern classic level of its predecessors. Then they made the odd decision to release a largely softer, if still quite pleasant record in Mut, redo some early tunes in the Mut style and some Mut songs in an earlier style on the Lost Signal EP, and a little bit of everything on the Under the Subgleam EP.
The last several years have been scattered and below the band’s previous standards, to be sure. But the highs on the most recent EP definitely hinted at their full prowess, and the promise of a new album in 2021 certainly brings with it a real sense of hope. Code themselves told fans to prepare for “a brutal, claustrophobic and cathartic album of vivid theatre,” which certainly hints at an album equal parts heavy, emotionally intense, dramatic, qualities that certainly helped elevate both Nouveau Gloaming and Resplendent Grotesque. Can they get back to that level, or at least to Augur Nox? We shall see. [ZACH DUVALL]
Quality Confidence Factor: 65%
BLIND GUARDIAN – TBA
Friends, have you felt the truth in your bones? You know the one: it’s the truth that whispers that iron-clad conviction that power and triumph and victory can be yours if you stand arm-in-arm with your sisters and brothers. Have you seen the guardian / guardian / guardian of the blind and imagined your own voice magnified to a choir of thousands?
Yes, plenty of your idiot pals at dusty ol’ Last Rites HQ are dyed in the wool followers of Ye Olden Bards of Deutschland themselves, Blind Guardian, from the thrilling, white-knuckle speed of their “watch out, Helloween, we are hungry and we are coming for you” early era and all the way through their almost impossibly orchestrated yet still ferociously heavy later work. With Beyond the Red Mirror now (shockingly) more than five years gone, our thirst is again beginning to feel cruelly unslaked. Although 2019’s fully symphonic (aka No Their Hain’t No Dang Geetars Here So Please Stop Asking) Legacy of the Dark Lands was clearly a passion project that Kürsch and Olbrich needed to get out into the world, the first real taste of new Blind Guardian material came by way of a live version of new song “Violent Shadows” at the digital Wacken festival in August 2020.
Although information on the exact timing of the release is still scarce (with some sources saying ‘first half 2021’ and others ‘fall 2021’), “Violent Shadows” is an absolutely scorching tune – in, fire, out in barely four minutes – and it closes with one of Hansi’s most feral screams in decades. Of course it’s a bit foolhardy with this outfit to try and predict the final sound of the produced album from a single live outing, but the possibility of even a partial return to the fire and fury of their hungriest days is simply icing on the minstrels’ finest cake. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
Quality Confidence Factor: [Cryyyyyy for] Nine times Ten-alorn%
PHARAOH – TBA
Well now hello how do you do, I was just begging for new Pharaoh material back in May of 2020 in Volume 9 of our 100 Essential Albums of the 2010s. I hate to be the guy who just cuts & pastes his way through this exercise, but here’s a little of what I said back then:
“Pharaoh has always been that sort of band: unmistakably shaped by the more aggressive form of U.S. power metal that eventually led to the bouncier Euro style, but with enough of a modern edge that virtually anyone with a basic love of melodic heavy metal might be considered demented for not finding something to love about them. Yes, Pharaoh is a power metal band, but they’re the sort of power metal band that power metal devotees love kicking into the faces of louts who claim to hate all power metal.”
It’s been a very long nine years since the release of Bury the Light, and that spacious and grim stretch hasn’t exactly been filled with routine updates or gainful evidence pointing devotees to a light at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately, those same years also failed to deliver the dreaded “On hold” or “Split-up” status through Metal Archives, so hope of course endured. Then, rather suddenly toward the close of 2020, indication of life finally trickled in from shadows. First, via a response through social media where drummer Chris Black (Aktor, Dawnbringer, High Spirits, etc.) revealed the new record was hitting the mixing stage, and second, through an official band update on their Facebook page in October that read, “Great news! The vocal tracks and album cover are done! Will the mixing and layout processes be underway soon? ~ The Powers That Be.”
So, yes, it’s time to get really lathered up over a new Pharaoh record again—the oodles of leads, the galloping riffs, the soaring vocals of Tim Aymar, and the endless sense of adventure this wonderful band never fails to create whenever it comes time to finally deliver. And despite the fact that we have no other information to go on as of today, we know the chances of record number five being the sort of thing we’ll still be singing about come December 2021 is notably high because the formula is proven and all the same players are returning again. [CAPTAIN]
Quality Confidence Factor: 95%
VENATOR – TBA
It’s not the riffs that make Heavy Load so great (that’s certainly part of it). It’s not the catchy leads, either (that is, also, certainly part of it). The real magic of the band is their ability to a) write fantastic choruses and b) simultaneously capture an escapist vibe (could “Take Me Away” make that in any way more clear??). It’s fun, heartfelt, honest heavy metal: A steel armored exterior with a heart of gold. When Austria’s Venator released their 2020 EP Paradiser (also re-released later in the year on a match-made-in-1981 split with Angel Blade), the band transplanted the gleaming heart of Heavy Load into their own metallic exoskeleton. Perhaps a bit faster and more urgent than the more centerfield midpace of Heavy Load, Venator hit the proverbial burnin’ rubber to the pavement. The riffage, the leadage, the poppy hooks and memorable choruses are all there: If there’s a single throughway across the EP’s three songs it’s the feeling of freedom in leaving it all behind and chasing the ecstasy of escape. Needless to say, three songs are not enough and I’m greatly looking forward to an album that’ll get me far enough down the road to never turn back again. [RYAN TYSINGER]
Quality Confidence Factor: 87%
CHTHE’ILIST – TBA
2016 was an excellent year for death metal and one critical darling that rose from the swamps of H.P. Lovecraft’s haunted dreams was Chthe’ilist. The snaking bass, exceptional riffs, Predator-style gurgles and miasmic atmosphere made for one hell of a debut statement. While the members of the band have all been busy elsewhere, the Chthe’ilist camp has been silent outside of a solid two-song EP in 2018. I know Cthulhu is a slow rising giant of a creature, but five years before a new full-length is more torturous than the Eldritch God’s most heinous punishments. We were blessed with Atramentus’ excellent Stygian album last year thanks to ¾ of this band, but I’ll take the muck-caked, moss-covered, fog-hidden horror of Chthe’ilist over the icy tundra of Atramentus’ expansive world any day. Let’s hope Phil Tougas’ statements that 2021 will be the year of Chthe’ilist’s return from the slumber of the beyond will ring true! [SPENCER HOTZ]
Quality Confidence Factor: 97%
HOWLING SYCAMORE – TBD
I really struggled with whether I should write an anticipation blurb for a new Howling Sycamore. All I have to go on is a brief release history and a Bandcamp message from Davide Tiso last May saying that drum tracking was getting underway. But this isn’t the “most likely to be released” feature. It is about time, but I anticipate a new album from Howling Sycamore mostly because I really want one. Their brand of dark and weird, taut and twisted progressive heavy metal fills a void I hadn’t previously known was there to be filled. Tiso, Jason McMaster, and Hannes Grossman, along with a slew of Who’s Who guests, make amazing music and a new record would make me and a lot of other people happy.
Truth is, there’s no telling whether Howling Sycamore will give us their third album in 2021. Besides the general fickleness of the entertainment industry, even (maybe especially) at the small artist level where most metal bands live, there’s also the impact of the pandemic and the broader shittiness of the last year or so. If you’re a human being, you’ve experienced more stress than you’re used to lately, however you define and experience it. The guys in Howling Sycamore are human beings, too, and whether that stress gets translated into art may not be entirely within their control. Whereas some folks may get fired up by stressors, others are just as likely to get pulled into the darkness of depression. There, some will find inspiration to create while others struggle even take care of themselves. Knowing that he’s talked and written about his experiences with depression and its mercurial relationship with his creativity, I sincerely hope Davide is able to find some light, to stay healthy and well. Then, if that leads to music that he’s able to share for us to enjoy, that would be a wonderful thing for all involved. [LONE WATIE]
Quality Confidence Factor: 80%
IOTUNN – ACCESS ALL WORLDS
Release date: February 26th through Metal Blade Records
Hey, remember 2016? Feels a bit like it happened a hundred years ago, no? Well, it did; by agreeing to survive 2020, you actually consented to live an accelerated 100 years in the span of 12 months. This is part of the reason why comforting, idyllic memories of “the good years” now include golden remembrances from just 5 years ago that feel like faraway reflections. For me, that includes my first encounter with Denmark’s Iotunn and their unveiling 2016 EP The Wizard Falls, which managed to find its way to the #1 position in that year’s edition of We Have the Power. It was a cheat, of course, because what Iotunn brings to the table goes well beyond the confines of power metal or even prog / power, but there was just enough of a modicum of both to give it the green light.
To be perfectly honest, I still struggle when attempting to illustrate just what sort of beast The Wizard Falls represents, but I continue to push the idea of Ride the Lightning colliding with a more progressive version of Persuader as the most convenient representation. Like 2016, though, such configurations appear to be approximately 100 years in the past, because Iotunn 2.0 has undergone significant changes (gone is vocalist / bassist Benjamin Jensen, and in are Jón Aldará and Eskil Rask on vocals and bass, respectively), and the first song released from their upcoming debut full-length, Access All Worlds, sounds more like… Well, I still don’t really know! There are death elements afoot, and I don’t believe power holds much sway for them in 2021, despite Aldará already proving he has the pipes necessary to soar. In the end, I’m guessing Access All Worlds will challenge a number of metal’s boundaries, and that’s precisely the sort of thing that should get fans of most any sort of progressive metal pretty excited to hear what it has up the ol’ sleeves. [CAPTAIN]
Quality Confidence Factor: 85%