Dark forces would likely prefer me to use this platform to complain about how life & times in 2021 decided to increase the pressure of its boot compared to 2020, but I ain’t that guy, and this ain’t the Airing of Grievances at Festivus dinner, so I’m opting to focus on the GOOD. Good is pretty great, isn’t it? Good is the all-too-often necessary first step that can lead to great, and at the least, it is the opposite of bad, so it deserves all the celebration we can muster.
Beyond the comforting balm of sweetsweet music, books played a major role in the goodness equation for me in 2021—tangible books held in my hands and read for entertainment. To clarify, books have always played a significant role in my life, from the day I first received and read my own copy of Beverly Cleary’s Runaway Ralph as a wee tot, but life & times (and technology) continue to find unique ways to distract and force downtime to become even more fleeting. This year, though, I have (for the most part) stuck to a routine that’s finally found that trend reversing, and I absolutely feel all the better for it.
As has been the case since day one, I continue to use the medium as an escape, so it’s mostly science fiction (the Three Body Problem trilogy—wow) and fantasy, with the most significant commitment finally being thrown toward something that’s lurked on the perimeter for quite some time: Steven Erikson’s epic Malazan series. I’ve attempted to crack into this particular 10-volume sprawl in the past, but the endeavor stalled early for a number of reasons, much of which I recently brought up to a dear friend who’s made a quiet mission of keeping Erikson’s undertaking alive in the outskirts of our conversations. Paraphrased from one of our back-and-forths:
“I think an interesting thing about Malazan is that it represents the antithesis of what so many people are capable of taking on today: ‘Give it time and attention and it will pay off immensely, but you have to give it that time and attention.’
Time and attention is what people lack in the modern age, so the idea of committing to a 10-book series seems flat-out fucking outrageous. And I kind of get that, because I’m in that camp. It seems almost narcissistic to me that an author would expect people to devote 10 books of attention to a single storyline. Like, who the hell are you to demand that of readers? There’s an endless well of talented writers out there who are deserving of attention and sparse free-time.
Hell, some people find ways to balk at a trilogy in the modern age. 10 books, though? That’s a mountain that requires a unique individual, even if they’re curious about it. But despite the fact that I find it rather absurd to cut away the year+ I’m guessing it’ll take me to read all of Malazan, I feel like it’ll be worth it because Malazan really does seem like a world that’s inviting and has the potential to actually teach me something in a similar way the Star Trek universe has helped shape me for decades.”
I won’t use this space as an extensive opportunity to dive into the well of emotions and inspirations my Malazan commitment has delivered so far, as I’ve only made it through four books to date, but I will remark that I feel as if Erikson’s fantasy realm has already helped me—like, actually helped me in a way that puts a fresh shine on crucial elements such as compassion and friendship and relying on your own unique form of “warrens” when life really throws some heavy shit toward the fan. Yes, Malazan is obviously a made-up world, but, as I also mentioned to the same friend above in one of our follow-up conversations, “Is it really a fantasy world once it becomes a part of your everyday life? If it helps you when you’re in need of help? If it reminds you to be compassionate? To engage with and tap inscrutable positive energy? That is when our fantasy realms become reality.”
The bottom line is this: I don’t know how long it’ll take me to get through all 10 Malazan books, or even if Earth will allow me enough time to see its end, but it’s never really been about the endpoint. Similar to any artistic endeavor, the reward is in the process, not its completion. Part of me is living in Genabackis these days, and that is a comfort when the continent my corporeal form continues to endure the years in appears to insist on…well, largely sucking. So, yeah, I take back any unjust thoughts about Erikson being narcissistic—as if he’s plotting and wringing his hands at the thought of people surrendering their undivided attention. His brain simply housed an alien world, he found a way to bring that world to reality, and he’s offering anyone interested an opportunity to drift through, hole up, or even just dip one foot in before shuffling off elsewhere. If that manages to result in any form of goodness, then he’s done us a favor that’s worthy of recognition and appreciation.
How the hell does this relate to a year-end list involving heavy metal? Take your pick of any number of answers: Many of these albums found ways to coincide with my Malazan adventures by offering comparable escapes, by reminding me of characters or passages, or even simply by existing as a “to listen to” pile amidst my venturing. In that way, it’s possible these releases will always have a unique place in my life, just as Malazan has offered a terrifically memorable escape on its own. I like to think that. Thinking about that makes me feel good.
One important hitch that requires a spotlight before moving forward: As was the case last year, what you see below is not the full picture, as a significant portion of my 2021 listening time, particularly in the second half, was devoted to the world of power metal and its kin, and this has already been represented with the latest version of We Have the Power. I would be remiss if I didn’t make a point of mentioning that absolute gutters from the likes of Dragonbreath, Eternity’s End, Galneryus, Helloween, et al. were also favorites of mine, but this list gives me an opportunity to highlight things that land (further) outside of the power-related world.
Right, enough bauble. As Karsa Orlong once said,
“I am done speaking, witch. Witness.”
SOLDIERS OF THE MALAZAN EMPIRE:
20. Fucked Up – Year of the Horse
Year of the Horse was my first exposure to Toronto, Ontario’s Fucked Up, and while their brand of modern hardcore is admittedly something I’d assumed was outside my wheelhouse (I am more of a strict traditionalist when it comes to the genre), it managed to pull me in time and again due to its unwavering commitment to throwing endless knuckleballs. Like, seriously zigzagging knuckleballs. The record stretches just beyond the hour-and-a-half mark, which is largely verboten amidst an age when people consume in mighty small chunks, but it also confounds in its constantly shifting delivery that recalls everything from hardcore (duh) to sludge to straight-up metal to anthemic 70’s rock to a strange sort of nod to Spaghetti Westerns. Beyond defying any and all genre confines, however, Year of the Horse most importantly represents innovative musical storytelling at its best, and I remain in awe of bands who find compelling ways to do just that.
19. Mefitis – Offscourings
“…possibly the most refreshing aspect relates to how [Offscourings] manages to tap into a form of progressive death metal that feels born from space without rebuilding or redecorating the Timeghoul and / or Blood Incantation blueprint. That sort of approach is great and all, but we already have umpteen bands in the modern age offering up reinterpretations of that particular strain of death. All said and done, maybe it’s best to just wipe away thoughts of death metal entirely—wipe away death metal, black metal, technical thrash and any and all other descriptors we’ve become so reliant on in order to make our brains feel more orderly. Instead, let’s simply enjoy this for what it is: a wonderfully unique and adventurous slab of heavy metal.”
18. Stormkeep – Tales of Othertime
Hey, friend, have you seen all the hype surrounding Stormkeep and their debut full-length, Tales of Othertime? You enjoy heavy metal and have internet access, so of course you have witnessed said hype. Frankly, I’m really not sure what it is about our genre and our need to both embrace and repudiate hype with equal intensity, but I’m guessing it’s owed to the governing laws of physics, so let’s just keep it that straightforward and attempt to approach the record with a level head.
It’s admittedly absurd to allow any album this fresh off the press admittance to a year-end list, but Tales of Othertime does have an inviting sense of magic flitting about this 43-minute journey—one that should appeal to anyone who counts melodic Blue Album Cover Black Metal as staples in the diet. Whether the album manages to climb (seems likely) or descend over time remains to be seen, but the initial impression is certainly good enough to warrant hyped enthusiasm. For best results, crank while out in the cold.
17. Outre-Tombe – Abysse mortifère
“With album number three, we find Outre-Tombe expanding their vision just a touch, while still remaining happily tangled in the very same web our friend the colossus spider spun 30 years in the past. In other words, if you’re looking for innovation, you most certainly took a wrong turn at Albuquerque, Mr. Fudd—Abysse Mortifère is as antique as a packed cassette case stowed under a baja poncho in a 1989 Tercel. In fact, the production techniques actually seem to be deteriorating with each release, giving the new record an even more crumbly, woolly, unkempt pelt that whiffs of a loose putridity that’s as suited to this style of death metal as it is to a week-old roadkill. (Bring a shovel.)”
16. Sigil – Nether
I don’t recall where I first came across this Calgary, Alberta crew’s sophomore effort, but I’d like to offer said individual the complicated secret handshake necessary to prove we’re members of the same exclusive cabal that periodically meets in the pitch of night to celebrate extremely underground releases that explore death metal, black metal, sludge and post-hardcore with equal intent and fury. That’s Nether in a nutshell, and the fact that it’s only available digitally or through a (very snazzy) cassette is probably further indication of precisely who their intended target audience is. One thing for certain, based on the overall quality and venturesomeness of Nether, the chances this band hits a much larger audience with their next release seems very likely. So, yeah, if you prefer to play the role of one of those “I liked ‘em back when” folks, now’s your chance to get in on the ground floor.
15. Wheel – Preserved in Time
“One of the most significant developments that’s strengthened Wheel since 2013’s Icarus is a sharper sense of focus. Whereas previous releases did a fine job of showcasing a notably diverse set of influences—from classic doom by way of Vitus and Reverend Bizarre to stoner rock to flashes of prog and even (gasp) death metal—Preserved in Time feels more honed and resolved to underscore the band’s true strength: classic doom with a notably epic glow. There’s still room enough for adventuring, particularly in the second half with the fairly peculiar “Aeon of Darkness” and the record’s most aggressive cut, “Hero of the Weak,” but Wheel circa 2021 seems mostly keen on refining the formula into a unique marriage between Solitude Aeturnus, Spiritus Mortis and Warning (UK).”
14. Succumb – XXI
“Will a record like XXI appeal to both Blasphemy junkies and fresh-born metalers who wouldn’t know Blasphemy if they walked in on the band kicking back incredibly far on their living room couch? Who the hell knows. Getting down to brass tacks, there’s one final selling or sticking point touched on earlier: Despite the fact that XXI packs a massive amount of destructive force inside its comfortably brief 34 minutes, it still manages to feel…strangely positive in a brutal death metal kind of way, without being Brutal Death Metal. So yeah, Succumb is a positive energy in the universe, and that appears to be by design. Closing the record with a song called “8 Trigrams” and naming the record (at least in part) after the 21st Major Arcana tarot card demonstrates a recognition of closure, clean slates, harmony and moving forward, and the music feels like the final hidden advantage necessary to detonate whatever walls bar the way for starting anew.”
13. Monolord – Your Time to Shine
Just what in the hell needs to occur in our fickle little scene in order for stoner doom such as Your Time to Shine to swing back into the broader conversation again? Remember about 20 years ago when sludge, stoner and desert rock were all the belles of the ball, and no one could keep their eyes and ears off said belles? Not so much the case in 2021. Thankfully, we still have crucial fronts such as JJ Koczan’s incredible The Obelisk (plus joints like The Sleeping Shaman) to keep us fully in the know, which I’m fairly certain is how I first caught wind of Sweden’s Monolord.
Your Time to Shine very much sounds like the same Monolord that produced the previous four records, and while that won’t win any awards for creativity, it ends up working out beautifully because this sort of bottom-heavy, fuzzy, pungent endo-doom arrives with a fresh shine when everything else on your pile sounds like…well anything but endo-weed doom. What’s always managed to keep Monolord in the circumference for me is their penchant for tacking pretty melody to the picture, and Your Time to Shine certainly continues that trajectory.
12. Mystic Storm – From the Ancient Chaos
“From the Ancient Chaos lands at what must be considered an ideal time; while there hasn’t exactly been a dearth of thrash the last decade-plus, 2021 is proving to be a true champion of this off-shoot in particular, offering up freshies from an endless swarm of young bands that wisely introduce all manner of delightful supplements to further twist the timeworn formula, be it strong infusions of death, black metal, prog, tech, and so forth in perpetuity. With regard to Mystic Storm, the band wraps an aggressive and aggressively melodic style of thrash reminiscent of the Teutonic scene in the late 80s—Vendetta, Grinder and the raw fury of Protector—with enough galloping Sword & Sorcery trad metal that one could make just as strong a case for tagging them #fuckingepicheavymetal as they might #conanthrash. In fact, throw From the Ancient Chaos in the ring mano a mano with Eternal Champion’s Ravening Iron and the former could very well end up winning the day through its sheer might and wealth of lightning burst leads. Plus, vocalist Anya conjures the ancient spirits of Debbie Gunn (Sentinel Beast), Tam Simpson (from the mighty Sacrilege) and especially Dawn Crosby (Detente—whose song “Vultures in the Sky” gets covered as a closer for the record), and that’s honestly something we could use a lot more of in thrash and thrash-infused metal in general.”
11. Worm – Foreverglade
I will now open myself up for public castigation with the following statement: Worm’s previous endeavor from 2019, Gloomlord, did not do much for me. The record was a hit around these parts, though, and I am always happy to see such grim music find a unique path to pleasure, so I kept my mouth (mostly) shut. But yeah, didn’t hit me as I’d hoped it would. Foreverglade, on the other hand, has managed to nestle its way into a very peculiar and loathsome part of my heart that makes me wonder if perhaps I was the problem back in 2019. Is it me? Am I the drama? I don’t think I’m the drama. Maybe I am. Am I the villain? I don’t think I’m the villain. Well, regardless, what I do know is that something happened to make Worm’s weirdly melodic, funereal, blackened death / doom a picture-perfect picnic of misery for little ol’ me, and I’m all the more thankful for their grisly vision in 2021.
10. Skepticism – Companion
“Companion takes the creativity in song structure to another level, where the lion-share of cuts offer a seemingly perpetual amount of switchbacks that include some of the most spirited (flippin’ speed metal compared to Stormcrowfleet) stretches Skepticism has done to date. Everything remains offset by the characteristic “Ent lumbering through Fangorn” deliberateness we know and love about the band, and it all still feels gradual and perhaps even gentle at times, with just one instrument—often the guitar—suddenly increasing the step or aggression with the rest of the players perhaps not heeding at first. This gives some of the transitions a unique sort of loose ’n’ free impression that almost makes one wonder if it’s actually being pulled off. It is, of course, and in a terrifically unique and shrewd sort of way, but the full experience of Companion sometimes gives the impression of seeing an enticing painting from a distance that becomes increasingly more Jean Metzinger / Le Goûter the closer you get; blocks and twists and sudden changes in shade are nevertheless fit together in a manner that comes about quite congruent when taken as a whole.”
9. Tower – Shock to the System
“Crux of the matter: Shock to the System puts on a clinic for anyone interested in heavy metal that remembers how to rock and does so loud enough to crack a skull in half. The fact that Tower also just so happens to retain the services of one of the more powerful voices you’ll hear on a record in 2021 is gravy on the taters, baby. Buy it for yourself, buy it for your loved ones, buy it for anyone in need of a reminder that the guitar will always be there for us when things get (or need to get) heavy.”
Well, did you buy it yet? I have it on good authority that Santa plans to crank Shock to the System in the sleigh this year, so expect leather gauntlets, half-burned jays and pristine / puffy high-top sneakers under the tree this year. Hail Santa!
8. Dream Unending – Tide Turns Eternal
Similar to the Stormkeep release, Dream Unending whooshed in at year-end with a hyped record that some might consider too fresh for a Best of 2021 position. It’s a solid argument, that, if it weren’t for the fact that Tide Turns Eternal manages to deliver one of the most satisfyingly morose yet unexpectedly optimistic albums the metal sphere has experienced since, I dunno, The Call of the Wretched Sea? It’s that unmistakable brightness woven into the pattern here that really makes Tide Turns Eternal stand out, and it’s something that increases its value tenfold, as we all need those records that transition us from depression into a few levels sunnier without the sudden shock of, say, a Helloween or flippin’ They Might Be Giants record.
There is endless warmth in the melody here—the “big sweater” variety that’s not too far off from early Tears for Fears at times—and it’s balanced perfectly within a sort of wavering, mildly psychedelic brand of gloom / doom that conjures visions of Belgium’s Emptiness (circa Nothing but the Whole), but with a clear “Peaceville in the mid 90s would have killed for this” authority.
7. Iron Maiden – Senjutsu
At this point I’m guessing you’re fully aware that the Last Rites collective is a fairly easy mark for Iron Maiden. If you could get a peek into our super exclusive Discord home office whenever word of a new record lands, or whenever a crew member begins a binge out of the blue, you’d wonder just how many times a crew of chimps could possibly rank a discography before some empyrean-occupying almighty finally agreed to smite us out of sheer pity.
We are not without pragmatism when it comes to this band, though, I assure you. So while there are obviously stars in our eyes when we begin to assimilate a new record like Senjutsu, we recognize the flaws and understand why Maiden can seem impenetrable, particularly with respect to their approach in the modern age. But there’s something a little more innovative dancing in the corners of this record that goes beyond nostalgia that’s kept it in the rotation longer. And while it remains a comfortable 5th place out of 6 in the re-Bruce era for me personally, I still dig it because the things I loved about Iron Maiden 35 years ago continue to get folded into the formula in 2021, even if Senjutsu sounds like a very distant cousin to Powerslave.
6. First Fragment – Gloire Éternelle
Gloire Éternelle is an authoritative exercise in extremes. Obviously it delivers extreme metal, but even within those confines it manages to find new and extraordinarily knotty pathways to novel extremes. Throw Gloire Éternelle on for the first time and you will be overwhelmed. Period. Rounds 2, 3 and 4 will likely elicit similar results. How, pray tell, can this many notes exist together in a (very close to not being) controlled environment and still create not only a semblance of sense, but a consequence that eventually becomes very enjoyable? The answer must be related to some Next Level approach to shred mastery—an obsessive compulsive approach to shred mastery. A level of shred that could cause Mike Varney circa 1987 to literally explode on the spot.
Beyond the sheer intricacy that’s going on here, what truly sells Gloire Éternelle is that once the smoke finally begins to settle—and it will settle—you’re left with something that ultimately renders the joy that was surely present when the members of the band first crammed these labyrinth tunes inside the First Fragment particle accelerator. Gloire Éternelle is an extreme album, for certain, but it’s also extremely fun.
5. Empyrium – Über den Sternen
Attempts to find a fresh way to attach new words to my love of Über den Sternen have resulted in a return to two points brought up in the review of the record from earlier this year. First, a moth-eaten quote from Søren Kierkegaard, likely penned whilst he was busy being depressed in a posh Copenhagen manor in the mid 1800s: “My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known; what wonder, then, that I love her in return.” And second, this less moth-eaten quote from me, likely penned whilst being melancholy in decidedly less posh home office in 2021: “Through the course of time, we have witnessed melancholy become renovated into a gentler, more elegant form of sadness used to characterize pensive recollections, longings, and every shade of wistful sentiment. This is clearly a decidedly different beast compared to depression or misery, and it’s one that finds a unique way of comforting a person’s spirit in an isolated sort of way that underscores the notion of “alone, but not lonely.” It is within this sphere that Germany’s Empyrium not only operate, but reign as overlords wielding a melancholic blade the size of a city bus.”
4. Memory Garden – 1349
“The core Memory Garden formula that has successfully charmed uber-underground doom freaks for the better part of the last 25 years remains fully intact with 1349, but the level of triumph this time around is noteworthy enough to conclude the following: 1349 is the sort of conquering record Memory Garden deserves to release in 2021. They’ve put in the years, all players are at the top of their game, the production is perfect, and they very smartly jump backwards in time in order to establish a wickedly relevant theme for literally everyone in the world right now. The result is not only the best album in the band’s discography, but a stealthy mutineer for anyone who allows those sneaky December releases to bulldoze a favorites-of-the-year list.”
3. Fluisteraars – Gegrepen door de Geest der Zielsontluiking
I am so far out of touch with the black metal underground that I have no clue how its shadowy membership feels about Fluisteraars in 2021. Despite its freshness, a record like Gegrepen door de Geest der Zielsontluiking still feels decidedly raw and explosive, much the same way Written in Waters and Min tid skal komme did back in 1995. However, Fluisteraars has an instagram page, and I believe I’ve seen recent photos lurking about that indicate one of the members now has short hair and wears sweaters. Furthermore, despite a decision to underscore an even grimmer visage compared to 2020’s wonderful Bloem, Gegrepen continues to accentuate the band’s penchant for sophistication by way of post-rock and psychedelics, so… Yeah, maybe their albums are filed under “Alternative Rock” over at Neseblod Records. I really have no idea.
W… Wait a minute… Wow, I completely forgot to not give the tiniest of bonks about gatekeeping or fire-branded “true” titles in favor of underlining the ultimate truth concerning Gegrepen door de Geest der Zielsontluiking: It’s an absolutely mesmerizing modern black metal record, and it’s one I’m guessing will be revered with increasing enthusiasm and awareness as the years press forward.
2. Herzel – Le Dernier Rempart
I very much appreciate heavy metal’s unbridled perseverance with respect to expansion and exploration, but oft-times (as a rule, if I’m honest) it’s the bands that flash proficiency with what first brought me into the genre back in the early / mid 80s that ultimately win the day, even all these decades later. This is something I assume is true across the board, whether you were first seduced by late ’80s death metal, early ’90s black metal, late ’90s nu metal, etc. ad infinitum—we will always be drawn to our heritage, as heritage has the distinct advantage of nostalgia that interweaves so perfectly and powerfully with feelings that elicit gladness. France’s Herzel deliver a style of metal that unquestionably conjures fond memories of the genre’s golden era, and they do so while likewise highlighting their native region through use of traditional instruments, Celtic roots, and via a trilogy (“Berceau de cendre,” “L’épée des dieux,” and “L’ultime combat”) that concerns a young hero charged with delivering the Sword of the Gods to Brittany—a unique perspective that gives Le Dernier Rempart a freshness that goes well beyond the typical ’80s metal rehash.
1. Seven Sisters – Shadow of a Fallen Star Pt. 1
I normally prefer to give credit where credit is due when it comes to discovering new records that manage to land without aid from our familiar promo outlets (labels, PR firms, the bands themselves, etc.), but I have no recollection as to precisely where I first came across Seven Sisters’ phenomenal third full-length, Shadow of a Fallen Star Pt.1. In light of this, I have since decided the album must have fallen into my lap very literally from the shadow of a fallen star, which only serves to add to its magnificence.
Soundwise, Shadow of a Fallen Star Pt. 1 comes across as a very logical progression from the NWOBHM. Of course we all realize this is far from a new approach, and Seven Sisters admittedly won’t win any awards for novelty with this release, but holy hell have they found a way to put an exceedingly enjoyable fresh coat of paint on the entire package. Shadow of a Fallen Star is equal measures trad metal, (US) power, (classic) prog and hard rock, without being any one of those things to the point where the listener starts to wonder if one tag outweighs the other. Balance is key, for a fact, and it’s something that’s reinforced by an ideal production (engineered by vocalist / guitarist Kyle McNeil and mastered by Miro Rodenberg of Avantasia) that gives ample spotlight to all players.
The riffing throughout the full 40 minutes here is largely warm in lieu of being overly aggressive, the lead work is nothing short of spectacular, and if any one thing could be recognized as the crowned selling point, it would have to be the hook. Yes, the vocal hook, as McNeil’s agreeable voice does a remarkable job of drawing the listener in with endless catchy refrains from one song to the next, but also by virtue of a comprehensive lyrical approach to the root song-crafting that weaves a wonderfully absorbing narrative from start to finish. That narrative quickly plants itself deep in the marrow and never really relents, and by Fallen Star’s end, you get the sense that you’ve just completed a tremendously gratifying adventure—one that’s equal shares heroic, sophisticated, and exceptionally moving.
In short, Shadow of a Fallen Star Pt.1 is a blowout winner that’s sure to deliver mega-replay action for years to come.
TOP 5 EPS & DEMOS
5. Witch Vomit – Abhorrent Rapture
I can guarantee you one thing, it ain’t good luck to have a witch vomit on you. I mean, maybe there’s some circles where such a thing might be considered fortuitous in some twisted way, but no one—and I mean no one—wants to spend any portion of their day cleaning what once roosted in a witch’s gullet off their lap. The music of Witch Vomit, however, is extremely appropriate for all laps, and I’m guessing Abhorrent Rapture would make a wonderful accompaniment for a lap dance from a witch, but I have yet to be lucky enough to experience that.
4. Cult of Luna – The Raging River
Hello, I’m the guy who waited until 2021 to dive into the works of Cult of Luna. I know I’m late to the party, but I brought a $23 bottle of wine to accompany this 40-minute long EP, so let’s get wild and end up lost in all the climbing and crashing and swirling and zigging and zagging and raging. Hello, I’m also the guy who’ll ask to crash on your couch tonight.
3. Solemn Lament – Solemn Lament
Phil Swanson (ex-Briton Rites, Seamount, Vestal Claret) has a voice that was born to be attached to doom, and pairing him with Justin DeTore (Dream Unending, Innumerable Forms, Stone Dagger, Sumerlands, Vestal Claret) for a project whose purpose it is to doom quite epically is a dream realized for anyone who’s spent any time fantasizing about how fun it might be to wear a full set of plate armor.
2. Scald – Their Flies Our Wail!
Hopefully you love epic doom as much as I do, and hopefully (to the second power) you count the band Scald as near and dear to your heart. If you’re unfamiliar, just know that they were—and now thankfully are again—Russia’s answer to the earliest interpretation of Candlemass. The very unfortunate news: Everything fell to pieces with the loss of vocalist Maxim “Agyl” Andrianov’s to a tragic accident all the way back in 1997. The very fortunate news: The remaining members have finally decided to start things up again, and Felipe Kutzbach (Procession, Capilla Ardiente, Nifelheim) is the man behind the mic.
1. Cirith Ungol – Half Past Human
Cirith Ungol returns with 20 minutes of new music that’s not actually “new” (Half Past Human is stacked with re-imagined versions of songs written by the band fifty years ago), and if you’re wondering how essential the material is, just focus on the following snapshot from the review I wrote earlier this year:
“There is nothing at all rudimentary, half-assed or unduly moth-ridden about these 22-minutes (beyond Cirith Ungol continuing to show how 80’s metal should sound in 2021). The songs have been rethought, refined, and redeployed with the band’s newfound spirit and a modern production (courtesy, once again, of Night Demon’s Armand John Anthony), and even the song released for the Decibel Flexi Series last year, “Brutish Manchild,” gets a remix and some additional melody painted into the corners. In other words, expect the same attention to detail and commitment to traditional epic metal as was delivered with Forever Black, and be prepared to allow your reestablished Ungol fanaticism to find the next level of appreciation.”
25 WONDERFUL ALBUMS OUTSIDE OF METAL THAT WERE INSTRUMENTAL IN HELPING ME PLOW THROUGH 2021
Something that further strengthens the bonds of the crew behind Last Rites is our collective devotion to music nerdery that goes well beyond any one, two or ten genres. We are, by and large, students of music across the board, and some might be surprised just how much time is spent behind the scenes shining spotlights on music that’s several hundreds blocks away from heavy—or at least the version of heavy the site focuses on upfront. The stack of releases below represents 25 albums outside of metal in 2021 that became near-and-dear to my heart, and they are offered in an alphabetical order because attempting to put so many distinct genres into some sort of cruel ranking makes my brain want to leap into the nearest microwave.
Adam Bałdych – Poetry
Poetry is the latest offering in a long line of releases from Polish violinist Adam Bałdych, an artist who’s been celebrated for years due to his virtuosic ability honed from the age of 9. Here, Bałdych scales back the dexterity in favor of underscoring emotion, which results in an hour’s-worth of warm, often sentimental / ever engaging jazz whose ultimate purpose it is to celebrate those vital personal connections that become all the more critical when circumstances force us into separation.
• Genre: Jazz / violin crossover
Anneke van Giersbergen – The Darkest Skies are the Brightest
Hopefully you’re no stranger to the name Anneke van Giersbergen—her impressive resume includes everything from the seminal The Gathering to The Gentle Storm to Vuur, and her guest list stretches across Amorphis to Napalm Death to Timo Tolkki’s Avalon. “Versatility” is a handy word that comes to mind when thinking of her vocal talent, but she really shines like a diamond when things are stripped down to the roots of rock and folk, which is precisely what we get with the wonderful The Darkest Skies are the Brightest. Get ready to cry your damned eyes out during “Losing You.”
• Genre: Folk / rock that will comfort and destroy you
Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince
You may not come across a more emotionally draining and rewarding record in 2021 than Vulture Prince. Consider its background: Written amidst a swirling vortex of political unrest and a global pandemic, the record was furthermore influenced by the sudden loss of Arooj Aftab’s youngest brother, Maher. All extremely heavy matters that Aftab renders into seven songs that pour sorrow and salvation with equally heavy hands. The dreamy quality of the previous record still colors the corners, but Vulture Prince employs a more stripped-down approach that matches Aftab’s incredible voice to violin, harp, acoustic guitar and occasional percussion, while exploring everything from jazz to folk to reggae. The journey here may pulverize the heart, but the elegance behind Aftab’s delivery and her songcrafting always manages to keep things grounded in a graceful allure.
• Genre: Neo-classical jazz folk that will make your heart leap from your chest and go cry in the shower
Athletic Progression – cloud high in dreams, but heavy in the air
If the idea of a very soulful blend of jazz and trip hop sounds like something your brain would very much enjoy wrapping itself in, you will find no better interpretation of said blueprint this year than cloud high in dreams, but heavy in the air. The soulful bits employed by Athletic Progression have a distinct 70’s vibe that’s as warm as a summer sunset, and the electronic and groove-based jazz elements that weave and dip around every corner keep things rooted in a modern spirit that’s as fresh as it is nostalgic.
• Genre: Electronic jazz trip hop with a smoooooth soul
Bicep – Isles
Matt McBriar and Andy Ferguson likely prefer to make and play music that inspires packed clubs and festivals to dance, celebrate and get really flippin’ sweaty. With their sophomore effort Isles, however, they offer a more dialed-back affair that’s awash with a seductive darkness that often feels more “goth club at 4am” than it does something that’s intended to get the party started. It’s still a danceable affair, to be clear, but it’s more intimate and slightly ghostly, and therefore tailor-made for anyone whose idea of isolating amidst a pandemic includes combating hardship with shadowy, utterly infectious beats.
• Genre: Cerebral techno for people who don’t care much for glow-sticks
Bruit ≤ – The Machine is burning and now everyone knows it could happen again
One of the deepest dives I made in 2021 was into the sprawling realm of post-rock—everything from the roots (Talk Talk and Bark Psychosis) to the enduring stalwarts (Mogwai and Mono), and all inspired by a promo that landed early in 2021 for France’s Bruit ≤ and their full-length debut, The Machine is burning and now everyone knows it could happen again (a post-rock title if I’ve ever seen one). I listened to the record obsessively when it first dropped, and it continues to deliver fresh windfalls now 8 months later, but what I firmly believe will give it legs very far into the future is the way the band manages to incorporate a dark, billowing classical element that gives The Machine is burning a true uniqueness of form. Yes, it’s still clearly cut from a similar cloth that birthed umpteen post-rock bands over the course of decades, but it’s just so damned gripping and gratifying.
• Genre: Neo-classical post-rock
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels – Tone Poem
Back around 20 years ago I had my world turned on its head by Brian Blade and his sophomore release as a leader, Perceptual. I found it in a specialty record store in Berkeley, CA during a frequent dip into jazz, and my attention was caught by the inclusion of pedal steel as one of the record’s principal components. I love the pedal steel, and at the time I had a hard time imagining how it might become incorporated into something as seemingly incongruous as jazz. Holy hell was I ever wrong about that horseappled presumption, and I’ve spent the many years since getting a little extra excited about jazz that integrates “Americana” elements, which is precisely where Charles Lloyd & the Marvels butters its incredibly scrumptious bread. First of all, Charles Lloyd is true maverick of jazz—his name alone should be well enough reason to buy any record lucky enough to have him attached—but tie in guitarist Bill Frisell and a host of other players (yes, including pedal steel, courtesy of Greg Leisz) that balance the warmth and sprawl of Americana to loose & plucky jazz and you’ve got one heck of a home run on your hands.
• Genre: Jazz to listen to while tending your succulent garden in New Mexico
The Cookers – Look Out!
Allow me to let you in on a little secret: The best active music column in existence today is Ugly Beauty, the ongoing monthly celebration of jazz releases penned by Phil Freeman for Stereogum. I would be absolutely lost without this essential cornerstone, as the world of jazz produces an epic amount of work that could easily bury a fan without someone trustworthy to help keep your head above water. Freeman is as trustworthy a source for what’s happening in jazz today as you can get, and according to his October 2021 edition, hard boppers The Cookers rank amongst his very favorite groups of all time. Boom, that’s well enough for me to snap to attention. I’m a little ashamed to admit this is my first run with these veterans (comprised of members who’ve been at it for the better part of the last 60 years), but it’s never too late to take a dive, and Look Out! provides precisely the sort of horn-heavy, largely hard-driving OOMPH necessary to help a listener power through the doldrums of living / working / entertaining mostly from home amidst a pandemic age.
• Genre: Bebop that even bees will love to bop to
Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – I Told You So
One look at the cover for I Told You So will give you a pretty good indication of what to expect from the record: punchy, scrappy, big and fun, and packaged with a clear nod to the suavity of yesteryear. Funk plays the primary role here—the kind of funk that powered Jimmy Smith, Booker T. Jones and The Meters through the 60s, and the sort of groove that’s born to roar from a trio comprised of nothing but an organist, guitarist and drummer who are extraordinarily adept at carrying this style into the modern age and beyond. It is absolutely impossibly to listen to a record like I Told You So with a frown on your face, and you will not find an album in 2021 more suited for celebrating your coolness and willingness to triumph in the face of pandemic adversity.
• Genre: Shit, goddamn, get off your ass and jam Jazz
George Riley – interest rates, a tape
George Riley is in possession of a unique key that unlocks a door to a wonderfully captivating world that finds R&B (both classic and modern) colliding with modern electronic and jazz to a point where it almost sounds as if she’s stumbled onto an entirely new world altogether. Furthermore, Riley navigates these streets as if she made the jump long enough ago that all the avenues, dark alleys and most pleasant pockets have already been fully committed to her memory. Riley’s voice is beacon, one that stirs comfort, excitement and leisure with equal intent, and the diverse music that surrounds her paints a full spectrum of moods without ever losing full sight of a seductive form of shadowiness that dominates the whole of interest rates, a tape.
• Genre: Dark and swirling R&B that will make you feel powerful
Giant Sky – Giant Sky
Giant Sky is the latest musical outlet from Erlend Viken, the vocalist / keyboardist / mastermind behind Trondheim, Norway’s purveyors of curious prog / psych / post-rock, Soup. If you’re unfamiliar with that particular outfit—which a number of people seem to be, particularly Stateside—please do yourself a favor by taking their 2017 masterstroke Remedies for a spin as soon as possible, as hearing that alongside Viken’s latest project will give you a good idea of what sort of palette this fellow prefers to paint from. Or, you know, just take a moment or ten to appreciate the album cover artwork for Giant Sky, which does a remarkable job of capturing just about everything you can expect to feel when listening to this wonderful album: a strong sense of otherworldliness, hugeness, and transcendence, as well as an unmistakable “greenness” that corresponds to the lushness that colors all the edges. Giant Sky feels like a gentle record, but it still holds immense power in the way the songs manage to wrap around the spirit and lift the listener far away from everyday grumblings to a point in the welkin that offers a stark reminder of just how small we actually are against the greater macrocosm.
• Genre: Trippy progressive rock that will make you believe there are whales in space
Godspeed You! You Black Emperor – G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
How fortuitous for me that Canada’s longstanding Godspeed You! Black Emperor decided to release their seventh studio album amidst a year where I opted to take an extensive dive into all things post-rock. I assume everyone here realizes just how influential GY!BE has been to this particular genre over their 25+ years of existence, but in case you don’t, understand they represent one of the most authentic depictions of all the elegance, force, fury, crescendo and culmination that makes post-rock, well, so very post-rock, and G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! finds the band revitalized to the point of detonation from beginning to end. For whatever reason I’d expected the years to somehow soften the GY!BE punch, but there’s a ferocity present that’s as raw and gritty as a punk venue bathroom, and it’s filtered through that unmistakable sense of drifting desolation that makes STATE’S END! feel like the most ideal soundtrack to 2021 once could ever hope to net from a band.
• Genre: Post-rock custom-built to level castle walls
Loscil – Clara
Life gets loud. Life gets loud outside and inside your head. Very often you can’t control the former, but with significant effort and perseverance you can get a handle on the latter. If you’re like me, though, the idea of sitting in absolute quiet is weirdly terrifying, which is where ambient music whooshes in to save the day. Ambient music does wonders for centering yourself and sweeping out the noise that often muddles the brain. Fittingly, I have reached for Scott Morgan’s Loscil project time and again over the last decade+ when leaning on the healing powers of ambient, and I state with great confidence that Clara has done wonders for me amidst a 2021 that did its very best to make a mess of my brain. Something to love about Loscil’s approach here is that the music is as drifty and lifting and centering as is necessary, but Morgan still knows how sneak a hook under the calming covers. Bonus points for naming the prettiest and most moving song of the bunch after one of my favorite dogs who has long-since passed on to the aether: “Stella.”
• Genre: Ambient to fix up your brain realreal good
Low – HEY WHAT
I’ve been a fan of Low from the very day I first heard the incredible Things We Lost in the Fire (2001), but I will freely admit that my love of the band found a new level once they began incorporating electronic elements with 2015’s Ones and Sixes. 2018’s dark, pulsing Double Negative took that to new heights, and now with HEY WHAT Low has steered the ship to yet another completely new planet that offsets Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk’s delightful harmony vocals with glitchy, (sometimes surprisingly) noisy / distorted stretches. Album opener “White Horses” is almost jarring once it hits its closing stretch, doing work to convince the listener that the record might actually bounce beauty from the bar as if it just booted in the bathroom sink, but that repetitive clank eventually morphs into a strangely hypnotic pulse that guides the ensuing “I Can Wait.” This is precisely the sort of thing we can expect from Low circa 2021: Expect the unexpected, because the unexpected is where this amazing band continues to discover fresh and thrilling frontiers.
• Genre: Low
Mathias Eick – When We Leave
There’s something about the landscape of Norway that’s so absolutely powerful it manages to eke its way into nearly all the art its denizens produce. For his part, trumpeter Mathias Eick delivers a dreamy brand of solace that’s typical of a label like ECM in that it straddles lines that separate jazz, modern classical and even folk, and it does so while painting the sort of wide-open, glacial (but not necessarily cold) terrain in character with Norway. A bracing form of elegance governs the full journey, as Eick’s crisp tone mingles with wintry violin, occasional lap steel, measured piano and meticulous drumming, and once When We Leave closes out, you’re off searching through Eick’s back catalog in an effort to keep the mood rolling. Great news: the Eick albums prior to this are just as good! Quite possibly my most listened-to album of 2021.
• Genre: Forelsketjazz
Menagerie – Many Worlds
Melbourne-based spiritual jazz ensemble Menagerie are in the business of getting the listener up, out and into the sort of groove that makes it clear you plan to conquer the day. And with nine players on the docket, expect this objective to be accomplished with a similar sort of adventurousness as delivered by, say, Kamasi Washington or Sons of Kemet. A very soulful groove dominates the comprehensive atmosphere, and frequent soloing from horns, guitar, keys / organ and plenty of break-out percussion drive an ironclad sense of suaveness to the point where nearly any workaday obstacle becomes the tiniest blip on your way to victory.
• Genre: Spiritual jazz that will inspire you to skip work in favor of going to the park to eat ice cream
Motorpsycho – Kingdom of Oblivion
I have spent years witnessing the name Motorpsycho pop up during conversations regarding “one of the most underrated bands,” but I’ve never taken the dive for two principal reasons: 1) Their material is very hard to come by in these United States, and 2) Based on the name alone, I’d always sorta assumed they were some form of hotrod-rock that doesn’t really fall into my wheelhouse. Well, armed with a fresh Apple Music account that covers the full span of the band’s deep discography, I quickly discovered I couldn’t have been more wrong about how my brain decided to pigeonhole things. In fact, attempting to categorize Motorpsycho at all is an exercise in futility. I will, however, state that there is no better time or album to jump in than with Kingdom of Oblivion, as the latest album once again showcases the sheer intrepidness of these Norwegians and their penchant for blending elements of prog rock, stoner rock, psychedelic rock and hard rock into a long-jamming amalgamation that never fails to keep your attention front and center.
• Genre: Prog / psych / stoner rock that jams, and not that crappy jam you get in Goober Grape
Nala Sinephro – Space 1.8
Given my predilection toward palliative (read: narcotic) jazz and ambient, it’s no wonder the debut from Caribbean-Belgian musician and London, UK-dweller Nala Sinphro hit such a satisfying chord for me. Space 1.8 delivers 45 minutes of pensive, dreamlike wayfaring that’s custom-built for those who enjoy plaintively watching the world go by from the vantage of a perfectly positioned bench amidst a park inside a bustling urban city. True, Sinephro’s overall approach underscores a tranquil temperament, but that doesn’t mean Space 1.8 spends its full stretch in nothing more than a wooly haze—lively jump-ins from sax and synth sporadically bring the corners to life, but it’s all done in a way that never loses sight of making sure the listener feels extremely comfortable and at home in the world Sinephro has created.
• Genre: Classical / choral music
Nuovo Testamento – New Earth
As my granny always used to say, “Do not step to me with the word ‘disco’ unless it also has ‘Italo’ attached to it.”
What can I say, granny was a goth, and I am very much her grim grandson. Bologna, Italy’s Nuovo Testamento delivers the sort of intensely danceable Italo disco / new wave / synth-pop goodness the world desperately needs today (and tomorrow, and for the foreseeable future), and New Earth surrenders it with a Pet Shop Boys-level of hit-making that all but guarantees an infinite shelf-life befitting of the scores of undead goth-ghouls who will be dancing to this thing for the next 300 years or so, Earth willing.
• Genre: Italo disco synth-pop—the kind granny used to dance to
Toumani Diabaté & London Symphony Orchestra – Kôrôlén
I have very little experience with the 21-string kora, but I do know that Malian kora sorcerer Toumani Diabaté is widely considered the authority, counting seventy generations of history with the instrument through his ancestry. Kôrôlén is Diabaté’s latest endeavor following a successful 2020 release alongside Béla Fleck, who sought him out amidst his explorations of “the roots of the banjo.” That particular tidbit of information is important to consider if you haven’t a clue what to expect when someone says, “Hey, that’s some fine kora playin’, my friend.” It’s not that the kora necessarily sounds like the banjo, mind you, but you can definitely hear the similarities, particularly when plucked and driven with the sort of speed and dexterity as evidenced by Diabaté. And tacking the London Symphony Orchestra to the formula ensures that the end result will float and dip and swell like the soundtrack to one of the most pleasant afternoons in the sun one could hope to experience. Huge bonus points for the nod to The Good the Bad and the Ugly inside “Cantelowes Dream.”
• Genre: Classical / choral music
Tristan Arp – Sculpturegardening
“Colorful” is a word that pops up in the descriptor for Mexico City-based electronic musician Tristan Arp’s sophomore effort, Sculpturegardening, and there really might not be a better single tag for what goes down during these 30 minutes. The title itself invokes splashes of natural color, as it purposely draws attention to the disciplined beauty of a carefully fostered garden. The album’s biggest selling point, however, is Arp’s approach to the modular synthesizer that adds a wholly tempting wildness to the formula, as if nature herself threw one of her perfectly imperfect wrenches in the works. It’s a randomness, really—or at least the illusion of randomness—and it gives the keys this sort of “I’ll get it started and we’ll just see what happens next” feel as they pulse and flit and spring from the speakers to create something terrifically vibrant and graphic and extremely enjoyable to digest.
• Genre: Classical / choral music
UV-TV – Always Something
I love love love all the synth-pop / darkwave / new wave revival bands flooding the underground in recent years, but I will always have plenty room in my life for the bands that remember guitar-driven post-punk that inspires you to jump up, jump out, and jump through whatever obstacles life decides to throw your way. Queens, NY trio UV-TV play a notably spirited form of post-punk that’s sure to inspire listeners to wax nostalgic for an endless array of early 90s indie bands, but its biggest selling point for me personally is how much it recalls the quirky fun at the heart of The Adventures of Pete & Pete, possibly the most underrated show of all time, and one that just so happened to occasionally feature one of post-punk’s true progenitors, Iggy Pop. Dance, Petunia, dance!
• Genre: Lively Pete & Pete post-punk
Victor Gould – In Our Time
Given an unlikely event that finds me hard-pressed to pick my favorite lead instrument for jazz, I’d have to go with piano. Give credit to the greats such as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock and my all-time favorite jazz musician Thelonious Monk as much as you would the piano’s versatility as, well, the most instrumental instrument in the world. Appropriately, In Our Time, the fourth release from Berklee College Herbie Hancock Presidential Scholarship winner and Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz alum Victor Gould, is a jazz piano enthusiast’s dream: 53 minutes of (largely) trio-focused jazz where Gould’s spirited play is braced by cushiony bass (Tamir Shmerling) and splashy drumming (Anwar Marshall), and where the full spectrum of emotions gets equal spotlight as these songs twist and turn from animated runners to pensive heart-renderers. The record closes out with “In Memorium,” a stunning tribute to those we’ve lost during the pandemic, and the only song on the album that incorporates a string quartet, which does wonders for finding that unique sweet-spot where communal grief begins its journey toward healing.
• Genre: Piano-lead jazz trio beauty that’s fit for every emotion
Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh & Tyshawn Sorey – Uneasy
Jazz is the most comparable genre to Adobe Photoshop. That’s the tweet. Well, it would be the tweet if I actually tweeted, so further explanation would probably be beneficial.
Any person can sign up for Photoshop, watch a couple youtube vids, and quickly be on their way to removing red-eye from photos and creating their own hilaaaarious memes. But Photoshop also curtains a near endless well of trickery that likely requires an advanced degree to unlock, and those individuals literally do magic with their expertise. Jazz is wonderfully similar: You can hear it play at a local coffee shop and enjoy how it suits the mood for collective snuggling, or you can very literally attain an advanced degree to fully unlock its near endless veiled secrets and ultimately reach a sorcerous understanding of how music relates to the universe. Uneasy is precisely the sort of record I reach for when thinking about this sort of thing. This isn’t the time or place to fully unfold the incredible pedigree attributed to each of the three musicians who make up this “shared spotlight” trio, but understand they all have that “guru on a mountaintop” level of awareness when it comes to the prodigious complexities of jazz improvisation, and they have crafted a record that can be enjoyed on a very surface level that plays in the backdrop just as easily at it can offer an endless dive into a much more complex web of intricacies that accompany the album’s equally challenging themes. Layers, baby. Endless layers and masks and filters and images that ultimately lend themselves to an experience that will reap rewards for years to come.
• Genre: Three improvisational jazz gurus together under one giant roof
Xeno & Oaklander – Vi/deo
Minimal synth duo Xeno & Oaklander understand precisely how to strike an ideal balance between the old and new—a record like Vi/deo will absolutely conjure memories of the shadowy sort of synth-pop that bustled through basement clubs in the 80s, but there’s also an undeniable freshness attached to the comprehensive blip-blooping here that makes it clear the duo remains very forward-facing. “Sweet but still creepy” would be an apt description for this 30+ minute journey, and if your life has been missing the sort of dance record that could very well require a cape, you just found your latest obsession.
• Genre: Sweet ‘n’ creepy ‘n’ caped minimal synth
Rest in peace, little buddy. I miss you.