So, hey, you remember last year when everyone said “Next year will be better”? Well, I guess this year was better than last year — at least, comparatively. But it was still a rough year for a lot of us. ‘Nuff said about that, really — it’s been covered ad nauseam everywhere else, of course, and I’ll leave it at this: If you’re still hanging in there, and you’re still here reading, then you’re doing great, and I hope absolutely nothing but the best for you and your loved ones as we continue to navigate these bullshit days.
For whatever reason, the past two years have been dominated by grindcore for me — I’ve long been a fan of the blasting and the loud, but I’ve gone further into the rabbit holes in recent days. 2020 was the year of Unholy Grave for me, that longstanding Japanese band having handily outpaced any others in terms of my listening hours and collecting dollars. 2021 was the year of Rot and of weirdo goregrind projects. With that in mind, there are a handful of those records that I should’ve spent more time with, and thus they won’t be represented below but definitely were in the running. Here are those honorable mentions:
- Nak’ay — Closed Doors / Open Veins. These Indianans dropped a blast-happy monster this year. Short, sweet, fast, violent. What more do you need? Bandcamp is here.
- Blockheads — Trip To The Void. Released right at the end of November, this one would’ve likely been in my Top Ten had I not already submitted the list below. This Trip’s an absolute rager, pure and savage death/grind. Bandcamp is here. (Or at least, a few songs.)
- Lymphatic Phlegm — Roughly Excised – Putrefindings, Morbidescriptions And Necrognoses. Now celebrating a quarter century of gore, this Brazilian duo returns with another full-length of guttural gurgles and medical terminology. Bandcamp is here.
- Socioclast — Socioclast. Classic styled death/grinding from this new Californian outfit. Check out the review. Bandcamp is here.
- Sick Sinus Syndrome — Rotten To The Core. More Carcass-leaning gore from a Czech “supergroup” of sorts, featuring members of Malignant Tumour, Ingrowing, and Pathologist. Check out the review. Bandcamp is here.
And now, further on to the matter at hand: It’s goddamned list season. I hate goddamned list season. I get the point of it, of course, and I certainly understand that rating and critiquing someone’s art is kind of the whole schtick of this “internet music critic” gig, but nevertheless, it’s stressful and invariably someone gets bent out of shape because I like Iron Maiden more than they do. (When in reality — let’s call a spade a spade here — they’re mostly just upset because they think they like Iron Maiden more than I do.) So here’s the skinny on what you’re either about to read or what you’re about to click the back button and ignore completely: These are the albums that meant the most to me in 2021, in roughly the order of how much I listened to them, from least to most, with a few notable exceptions indicated. Is the #3 record qualitatively better than the #8 record? Is that band more important? Hell if I know. But I listened to the record more often, so I will logically assume that I liked it more.
And so here they are…
THE SECOND TEN
20. Asphyx – Necroceros
It’s said you can’t teach an old dog a new trick, but when the old dogs and the old tricks are still working this well, who effing cares, amirite? (I’m right. I’m always right.) Van Drunen and company return with another crushing slab of Asphyx-iating doom-tinted death metal, all bulldozer drive and world-smashing heaviness. Get squished.
19. Flotsam & Jetsam – Blood In The Water
Arizona’s premier thrashers find themselves in the throes of a resurgence, now three albums back from a lengthy slump in the bloodless waters of groove. Coming off their self-titled rebirth and the even stronger The End Of Chaos, with Blood In The Water, Flotzilla proves they’re still capable of leveling a city or two, even forty years along the way. And at least he’s not showing you his kaiju wang on the cover this time.
18. Sete Star Sept – Bird
Japan is a wonderous place. This duo has been churning out relentless noise-grind-punk for however long now, and try as I have to keep up, there’s just so much of it. But of the various compilations and records I do have, it’s all fun as hell, and Bird was an early entry to the noisy chaos of 2021, and one that saw repeated returns. Kick back and let the noise consume you.
17. Anatomia – Corporeal Torment
I’ve got a buddy who always says that he doesn’t like music where it sounds like the band is smiling. Then, guess what, fucko? Anatomia’s the band for you. Nothing here is happy; no one here is smiling. Don’t let the uptempo opening fool you: This is heavy-as-hell, crawling death / doom ugliness, coated in tar and rolling at the speed of a dying snail. Keep that frown right side up, Grumpy Cat.
16. Replicant – Malignant Reality
Weirdo skronky Gorguts-ish death metal that also doesn’t skimp on the Suffo-beatdown grooves, this one appeals to the brain and the brawn, both smart and dumb at the same time. Cut the sleeves off your Demilich shirt and get the pit going.
15. Nekromantheon – Visions Of Trismegistros
So much of the retro-thrash of the past decade or so doesn’t hold up, but Nekromantheon does. Raw, vicious, with lightly blackened atmosphere, like all the greats of yesteryear, bundled together and blended up into one ooey-gooey stuff of thrashing violence. Think Sodom meets early Voivod and Dark Angel and Aura Noir in a backalley brawl, and you’re getting warmer. Turn it up. Loud.
14. Last Days Of Humanity – Horrific Compositions Of Decomposition
After a fifteen-year hiatus, everyone’s favorite Dutch goregrinders (and they are your favorite, right?) return with one hell of a full-length, noticeably cleaner than their infamously roughshod earlier efforts and yet nowhere even remotely near clean. Thirty-three songs in twenty-one minutes, this is down-tuned, toilet-vocal blast worship, and it’s goddamned glorious. Gurglegurglegurglegoregoregood.
• Don’t believe me? Well, you’ll have to. We didn’t cover this one.
• Een keer op Bandcamp
13. Steel Bearing Hand – Slay In Hell
The image of the sword-wielding warrior is so closely aligned with heavy metal that it’s cliché by now, but it’s usually alongside the more power-ful side of things. Steel Bearing Hand plies a trade in the world of thrashing death, but they’re no less inclined towards imagery of armies of swordsman clashing, the sound of steel on steel, the screams of the dying. This is epic death metal, kiddos, and (ahem) handily the best the band has born.
12. Mystic Storm – From The Ancient Chaos
Speaking of new thrash that kicks and bites, these Russians toss their bullet belts in the ring with one hell of a clamor, evoking the likes of Detente (partly due to the impressive snarl of vocalist Anya, but largely due to the actual Detente cover, “Vultures In The Sky”) and Protector. Speedy, flashy, fiery fury, this Chaos is a killer, and the thrash scene has another mighty warrior to watch.
11. Pharaoh – The Powers That Be
It’s just like my grandmother used to say, “American power metal just doesn’t get much better than Pharaoh.” Well, honestly, she never actually said that, but I’m sure she would have if she wanted to, especially later in life when she didn’t give a damn. The point here is that American power metal just doesn’t get much better than Pharaoh, and even if The Powers That Be may not be at the top of the band’s catalog, even a slightly lesser Pharaoh record is still aces. Aymar’s grit; Johnsen’s riffs and melodies; that rhythm section that just brings the fire. A more-than-welcome return.
THE FIRST TEN
10. MEFITIS – OUTSCOURINGS
What’s that you say? Tech-leaning death/thrash that sounds like it was airlifted from 1990 right into my earholes? Yes, please. Harking back to the likes of vintage melodeath, mid-period Death, early Atheist, dashes of Coroner flash and Voivod weirdness, Mefitis takes that melange of influences and creates what they’ve termed “dark metal,” a somewhat appropriate moniker given the sort of general bleakness lent to the proceedings by subtle choral flourishes and goth-tinted guitars. Still, “gothic metal” this is not: It’s made of razor-sharp riffing with dissonant angles, given a shiny and open production that allows the songs to breathe beneath Vatha’s midrange snarl. Not at all what I was expecting given the “dark metal” tag and the OU812 album art, but here we are, and here is a good place to be.
9. SUCCUMB – XXI
Succumb is basically the sound of an anxiety attack. Consequently, this is the first entry where I broke my own earlier-stated rule about listing these albums more or less in order of amount of spins. XXI is a brilliant record, all hideous death metal inflected with a hearty dash of grinding and noise and whatever ugliness popped in their heads in the moment. But it’s not easy to listen to, so I didn’t reach for it as often as some others. Which, I’m pretty sure, is the whole damned point. And since it achieved its point in such grandly unsettling fashion, it gets bumped up a little in the rankings here. All that means this: XXI is not particularly fun to listen to, and yet, it is absolutely fun to listen to; it’s brutal and it’s death metal, but it’s not brutal death metal. Get what I’m saying? No? Shut up and listen to the record.
8. ROT – ORGANIC
For whatever reason, in these pandemic times, I’ve been stuck on grindcore, even more than usual. Last year’s lockdown begat an unholy Unholy Grave obsession, and 2021 has been the year of Rot for me. In some form or another, these Brazilians have been cranking out old dirty grindcores (their words, not mine) for thirty-one years now, and they’ve managed to do it without really progressing at all. Organic is classic styled grinding, punky riffs and Barney Greenway bellows, blastbeats and d-beats and thrash beats all at warp speed. The lyrics are in Portuguese, which surprisingly I do not speak, being from East Tennessee and all, but given the way the album resolves with a killer cut that samples Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator, repeating the lines “The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people,” I’m guessing that I know what side of the line Rot’s standing on. Time to get dirty, kids.
On a more somber note, we lost longtime Rot bassist Alex “Bucho” Strambio to COVID-19 in April of 2021. Organic is one hell of a goodbye, and the band is soldiering on. RIP, Bucho, and thanks for the grinding.
• Don’t believe me? We didn’t cover this one either, but we should have because it’s killer.
• Uma vez no Acampamento
7. EASTWOOD – ANTIBIOSE
Eastwood’s stated ethos is simple: “Play fast; work slow.” And they live by it, clearly: After kicking around the grindcore scene for a decade, these Germans are just now managing their first full-length. Over the course of that decade, they’ve evolved from a more simple and straightforward punkish grinding into a more complex and nuanced beast, and now that Antibiose is here, it’s a damned-ol’ rager, all angular grinding and blastbeats and a whip-tight snappy sound, perfect for getting the heart rate up. Tempos shift from fast to faster, stopping and starting at breakneck pace, with hints of Discordance Axis discordance and Six Brew Bantha riffy runs now smashing headlong into those grind-punk beginnings. New drummer Mak comes over from the subtly-monikered Warfuck, and maybe it’s the new blood, or maybe it’s the lengthy development process, or maybe it’s all of the above, but Eastwood circa 2021 rocks with magnum force. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another decade for a proper follow-up.
Bonus points: Now you can add “Anthropozentrische Kacksheisse” to your list of German Things It’s Fun To Say. You should feel lucky, punk. We all should.
• Don’t believe me? Didn’t cover this one either. Le sigh.
• Einmal im Bandcamp
6. WORM – FOREVERGLADE
Floridian swampmonsters in Worm continue their upward trajectory with this one, building upon the basic blocks they established with Gloomlord and improving in almost every way, from songwriting to production to performance. Fear not, intrepid bog-travelers, Foreverglade is still filthy and mud-caked death / doom, but now its achieved a certain clarity of filth, cleaning away some of the muck to show that, underneath it, it’s still some ugly swampy ick. Crunching riffs, sweeping and melodic leads, growls and shrieks, and all of it at a lumbering pace, content to pull you down into the mire but in no rush to do so. Don’t let the psychedelic colors of the cover lead you to believe otherwise: Aside from a guest guitar solo or two, almost all of which are highlights of songs already strong, this swamp ain’t pretty… although I guess none of them are. But you get the point.
Ahead of the good-but-not-great Hooded Menace album, Foreverglade would’ve been the death / doom album of the year, were it not for these meddling kids below…
5. DREAM UNENDING – TIDE TURNS ETERNAL
If you know me, you know my longstanding love for Paradise Lost, and thus for classic death / doom and the gothic metal that that particular member of the Peaceville Three branched into. This new project from members of Innumerable Forms and Tomb Mold leans more towards Anathema’s side of the sad-sack classics, but that’s close enough for me. Chiming arpeggiated clean guitars lead the way, proving that heaviness isn’t just born of distortion, while the trudging tempos possess an energy that is counter-intuitive, the whole of it achieving an interesting dichotomy: death / doom that isn’t ugly, isn’t despondent, is somehow beautiful, positive, uplifting, hopeful. Tide Turns Eternal is a truly breathtaking journey, one that should be taken from top to bottom, but there’s such majesty in songs like the title cut or the band’s eponymous track that really every one (save the brief interludes, which are great, but don’t count) is microcosmically as brilliant as the whole. Turn the lights off, turn the sound up, and let the tide roll in.
This one was a late entry to the year-end list, so it also breaks my ideal order by virtue of not having enough time to spin it more than some others. Still, it’s worth every bit of your attention, so get to it.
4. DEATH TOLL 80K – THE FUTURE IS YOURS
Five dollars in graphic design fees, a sidewalk, and a can of spray paint gets you a simple manifesto. It’s a call to arms, a statement as direct and black-and-white as the cover it adorns: The Future Is Yours, my friend, and here’s the soundtrack to the takeover. These Finns spit forth pure grinding energy, equally as simple and direct and black-and-white as that cover. It’s a solid punch to the face, a kick in the guts, and a knee to the nuts, all at once, except in a good way. It’s got big riffs and a relentless spark, balancing blastbeat frenzies against bouts of serious swinging grooves. In short, it’s grindcore at its best, and another massive win for these fine Finnish fellows. Take the future in your hands and crush it.
• Don’t believe me? The future is yours, and you should spend it reading this.
• Kerran Bändileirillä
3. CANNIBAL CORPSE – VIOLENCE UNIMAGINED
Cannibal Corpse remains one of metal’s most consistent bands, now thirty-plus years into their career. Sure, if you’ve been keeping up, you’ve heard this type of thing before, but if you’ve been keeping up, then you probably like Violence Unimagined largely because of that. Cannibal Corpse does what Cannibal Corpse does, and damned if it still doesn’t hit hard. Now with Erik Rutan on lead guitar in place of the sidelined Pat O’Brien, this newest lineup gets a little injection of fresh juice, and Rutan’s songwriting skills add a slightly different shade of blood red to the band’s well-established brutality. Still, tech-tinted riffs and skull-crushing power are the name of this game, grooving and blasting beneath Corpsegrinder’s near-perfect death growl. It’s more tales of horror and death and dismemberment and zombies and violence, and it’s damn-near impeccable. Imagine that.
But seriously, how did it take Cannibal Corpse three decades to finally write a song titled “Murderous Rampage”?
2. IRON MAIDEN – SENJUTSU
I mean, what can I say about Iron Maiden that hasn’t been said a hundred times over by now? Virtually nothing, of course, but that won’t stop me. Way back 450 years ago, Iron Maiden was the band that brought me into heavy metal, with a little ol’ album called Somewhere In Time, and I’ve been head-over-heels for ’em ever since, through their various ups and downs. They’ve been on a pretty solid roll across the re-Bruce era, and Senjutsu proves that they still have plenty of fire left in their bellies. As with the last however many now, Steve Harris continues to focus on epic-length compositions, and though a few of them are Senjutsu’s weakest moments, “Hell On Earth” is a grand closer and the epic introductory title track (co-written with Adrian Smith) is pure Maiden bliss. Elsewhere, the likes of “Stratego” and “Days Of Future Past” show that Adrian can still write a damn fine rocker, and the war ballad “Darkest Hour” is another example of glory like only Iron Maiden can pull off. Bruce can still wail like a man half his age (or even less, at this point), and the triple-guitar assault is as formidable as ever, with some absolutely stellar lead work throughout. Let’s hope Iron Maiden can keep this up forever.
1. HELLOWEEN – HELLOWEEN
Not content to let Iron Maiden hog all the reunited-and-rejuvenated glory, the new three-guitar / three-vocal Helloween finally Dr. Steins together their first release with this uber-Pumpkin lineup, and it’s a massive massive Hello-win. It’s the record that longtime Helloween fans have been waiting for since Michael Kiske was booted in 1993, and even at a whopping 73 minutes, Helloween manages not to overstay its welcome by one single second. Sure, there are some silly moments (those background vocals in “Best Time,” for example) — this is Helloween, after all — but no other band can do silly this seriously and get away with it. Kiske’s voice hasn’t lost a step, still soaring and smooth, not aged a day since the golden days of Keeper Of The Seven Keys 1 & 2. After and now alongside him, Andi Deris has always been a killer vocalist in his own right, a little snarlier and more aggressive than his predecessor, and the interplay between both main vocalists is perfect. Add in Kai Hansen’s rawer vocals, used far more sparingly but still present, and top it off with the triple guitar assault of Hansen / Weikath / Gerstner, and the Pumpkins United are literally a Helloween fan’s dream team.
And of course, none of that would matter if they hadn’t all turned in top-rate material, and thankfully, that’s exactly what they did. Weiki penned burners like “Out For The Glory” and “Robot King,” while Hansen turns in the twelve-minute “Skyfall,” which is everything you’d want from a Helloween epic. Deris’ “Fear Of The Fallen” showcases his mastery of power metal melodies; Gerstner’s “Angels” is another home run, with more of that kingly Kiske-Deris tandem. Markus Grosskopf gets in on the proceedings with the massive “Indestructible,” the album’s heaviest moment and one of its catchiest. There’s nary a bad track here. The Pumpkins are united and back at full strength.
THE SHORTER TEN
10. Birdflesh – All The Miseries
Birdflesh = fun. These silly Swedes have been cranking out variations on ridiculous and sarcastic grinding for awhile yet, and if you’re hip to them, then you should love them. Yeah, it’s goofy, but it’s also good. This EP slays on the studio side, and then falters a bit on the live portion — a Birdflesh live show is a glorious giddy grand ol’ time, but this one’s not the best recording. Still, grind ’em while you got ’em, and just skip the live stuff.
9. Gaes – Emasculating Death
I ran across Gaes via the Eastwood album above — vocalist Sasi lent her white-knuckle scream to the track “Lochfrass” on Antibiose — and beyond that, I don’t know much at all about them. But between the “fukk everyone” ethos on their Facebook info, and the five-minute / five-track blackened cacophonous death / grind on Emasculating Death, I’m sold, bigly. Fast, loud, ugly. Just like the good lord intended. And it’s free!
• Don’t believe me? Just listen and shut up. It’s five minutes long.
• One time, at German Deathgrindpunkcamp
8. General Surgery – Lay Down And Be Counted
No one looks to General Surgery for innovation — it’s a throwback to Carcass, with some Entombed for good measure. So what does Lay Down And Be Counted sound like? Well, it’s a throwback to Carcass, with some Entombed for good measure. But the thing about General Surgery is that they’re generally quite good at what they do, and here they are again. This is the first of the two EPs they dropped this year, after a long lay-off, so hopefully the gore keeps rolling.
7. Deterioration – Transcending Human Confines
These Minnesotan brothers aren’t exactly subtle or diverse, but that’s the fun of it — blistering grindcore, with just a hint of some vaguely rotten death metal, all grunts and growls and screams and riffs that are both relatively straightforward and yet perfectly carving, plus blastbeats and punky grooves performed with a two-piece drum kit. (With cymbals, of course — these guys aren’t complete heathens.) Nine minutes of pure pounding, interspersed with movie samples and coated in a certain filthy crust. “I Will Gladly Assist in Returning You to Your Original Lovely Liquid Form” would likely win the 2021 Last Rites Song Title Award, if such a thing existed and only I voted.
• Don’t believe me? Well… Tough.
• One time, at Midwest Grindcamp
6. Enslaved – Caravans To The Outer Worlds
The further Enslaved delves into the progressive (and thus away from the icy blackness of their earliest days), the more I embrace them. This EP is definitely Enslaved doing what modern Enslaved does, which is pushing beyond that icy blackness, but that’s not to say that it’s soft. With some big riffs to balance out its keyboard-laden atmospheres, Caravans is a short-but-very-sweet reminder that Enslaved is very much a top-tier outfit.
5. Retaliation / Gadget – Split
Two longtime Swedish grindcore acts in one fell swoop. The Gadget side is tighter, more technically proficient, more of a Nasum-y death/grind, while the Retaliation side is rawer (though not as raw as much of their earliest works), punkier, more calamitous. Each side, however, is blistering and brilliant, and that’s what really matters.
4. Septage – Septisk Eradikasyon
More of the gurgling guttural grind that I couldn’t get enough of in 2021, Septage is back with another short burst of greasy riffs and filthy slimy grooves. The EP format is perfect for this type of thing, and Septage is two for two with this one and 2020’s Septic Decandance. No wasted space; nothing but gore.
3. Pharmacist – Carnal Pollution
Pharmacist rules: Let’s get that point out of the way right now. In the past two years, this two-man Ukrainian / Japanese outfit has gurgled their way straight into my old Carcass-loving heart, spitting out a slew of short releases. Of the six splits and EPs that they released in 2021, Carnal Pollution is the best and the most refined, showing them moving past their signature Symphonies Of Sickness influence into a slightly later era of Carcass, but to the same great result. Sometimes it’s good to get sick.
2. Exhumed – Worming
About two weeks before this EP appeared, I went on a huge Exhumed kick, spinning the discography from top to bottom, and then thinking, “Man, it’s been a few years. Probably due for a new one.” What I’m saying here is that I willed this into being, and you should all thank me. But seriously, though, it’s Exhumed, so you know the drill here, and Worming doesn’t disappoint, except in the unfortunate aspect of it being only an EP and not a full-length. Still, any new Exhumed is cause for celebration for me, so I’ll take it. And hey, yeah, Nazi metallers can certainly fuck off.
• Don’t believe me? We skipped this one, too. Epic fail.
• One time, at American Gorecamp
1. Cirith Ungol – Half Past Human
Captain already wrote a doctoral-level dissertation on the brilliance of Cirith Ungol for their last album, which rightly landed at the number three spot on our 2020 list, but the thing about it is: Cirith Ungol is brilliant. Last year’s Forever Black album saw these SoCal doom / trad legends back in full force, and the four-song Half Past Human follows suit, from the revved-up rock of “Route 666” to the epic pacing of the title track. Killer Cirith, completely.
ONE LAST GOODBYE
As with every year, unfortunately, we lost some greats in 2021. None of those losses hit me as hard as that of Metal Church vocalist Mike Howe. The Howe-fronted Metal Church records were part of the soundtrack to my youth, and the announcement of his return to the band for XI was one of the bright lights of the last decade. I was lucky enough to see the band in Chicago on that tour, and the feeling and the sound of them opening with “Fake Healer” was a goosebumps moment. I was even luckier to say hello to Mike and the rest after the show, and he was incredibly nice and genuine. I’ll never know the pain he felt or the struggles he endured. For anyone who may be going through the same thing, I say please don’t give up. There is always a way.
Also, a hearty final goodbye and thanks to:
Lee “Scratch” Perry
Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls
Dusty Hill of ZZ Top
LG Petrov of Entombed
Yasutaka Kajihara of Unholy Grave
Alex “Bucho” Strambio of Rot
Eric Wagner of Trouble / The Skull
Jeff LaBar of Cinderella
Mike Nesmith of The Monkees
Tom T. Hall
Joey Jordison of Slipknot
Alexi Laiho of Children Of Bodom
Hank von Hell of Turbonegro
Greg Mayne of Pentagram
Tim Bogert of Cactus
Hilton Valentine of The Animals
Graeme Edge of The Moody Blues
Robby Steinhardt of Kansas
John Lawton of Uriah Heep
Johnny Solinger of Skid Row
Brett Bradshaw of Faster Pussycat
John Hinch of Judas Priest
Andrea Haugen of Cradle Of Filth
Michael K. Williams
THANKS FOR READING
We can’t really do it without each of you, so in closing, a very heartfelt thank you from me to you. See you in 2022 and beyond, my friends.