This has been a strange year in music. Blood Incantation announced their hour-long, ambient Century Media debut. Andi Deris proved the best bobbing head on the new and remarkable Helloween hydra. Melodic black metal not too far removed from Enthrone Darkness Triumphant-era Dimmu Borgir became the sound du jour. And a vinyl record now costs as much as a video game.
And yet it’s also been an oddly familiar year in music. We’re still getting hot takes on COVID (and now Omicron) from musicians we don’t care about whose opinions we didn’t ask for. And magazines steeped in heavy metal tradition—like Forbes—are still treating us to their carefully curated year-end lists. You know, just in case we forgot about Deafheaven or Gojira.
So yeah, another stellar year in music. Seriously, though. I welcomed all of it. After all, who doesn’t need a little post-Lynch Dokken in their life? I certainly did—go get Church of Vinyl’s reissue of Erase the Slate. It’s great! And did I hear you say you liked the new Carcass? I am happy for you—check out Pharmacist’s Carnal Pollution EP, too! Oh, did you not get your fill of symphonic power metal? Treat yourself to Solarus’ A Dance with Tragedy. What about American power thrash? Gift your ears Project: Roenwolfe’s excellent Edge of Saturn.
This is true every year, but 2021 delivered a little something for everyone. The Last Rites Combined Staff Top 25 certainly reflected that. But I get the feeling that not everyone is so adventurous. And there’s a certain comfort in routine. Some may have even deluded themselves into thinking that they’ve listened to enough music to know what they like.
What I find most exciting, however, is finding enough time in the day to give just one surprise band a shot. It could be a friend’s recommendation. Maybe the cover art caught my eye. Or perhaps I am a little curious about what Brazilian prog sounds like. I know Lone Watie was—he clued myself and others into the, as he put it, ballsy experimentation of Papangu. Those moments of surprise interest often define the year in music for me. Last year it was Fires in the Distance and Hinayana—two American bands playing at times very Finnish sounding melodeath.
I haven’t quite decided yet which releases defined my 2021, from the surprising (A Hill to Die Upon; Tide Turns Eternal) to the not so surprising (Helloween; Gegrepen door de geest der Zielsontluiking). Significantly more big bands delivered in 2021 than I ever would have guessed—maybe that’s the defining theme. Regardless of the takeaway, it’s been another embarrassment of riches, and I am plenty happy being spoiled. So let’s get to the list . . .
HEADING FOR 20-11
20. Dungeon Serpent – World of Sorrows
World of Sorrows is relentless in its commitment to melodic death metal orthodoxy. And it’s that commitment that gives its author’s unitary and uncompromised vision life. Plus, this is a really fun, bludgeoning kind of melody. When you’re a death metal band getting disparate comparisons like The Chasm and At the Gates, you know you’re doing something right.
19. Eternity’s End – Embers of War
Eternity’s End did that thing where they riff. Then they riff some more. And keep riffing. It’s awesome. And kudos to Prosthetic for signing them and gifting us Eternity’s End vinyl. Now reissue the first two, please. We need those riffs on wax. As a wise man once said—not too long ago, in fact—“[w]e’re here because we love tickling the pleasure center with full-frontal shred[.]” These guys deliver that shred.
18. Vaelmyst – Secrypts of the Egochasm
From German power shred to American neoclassical death metal shred, Vaelmyst’s Secrypts of the Egochasm comes in at #18. And this record flat out smokes. As a wise man once said—only slightly longer ago, in fact—“[i]t’s no exaggeration to say that Secrypts will rank as one of the year’s strongest death metal releases, and the fact that it’s coming from the debut full-length of a virtually unknown band is as impressive as it is exciting.” Total Dave Suzuki-style shredfest and I am here for it.
17. Monolord – Your Time to Shine
Despite a confusing start that had me thinking this was Your Time to Shrine with a dead rabbit in a flower circle, I was quickly charmed by these five hypnotic songs. Though there’s hardly a shortage of fuzz and psychedelia in my collection, it’s been a while since I’ve been this enamored by all things low and slow. I am not sure why it took me this long to pick up on Monolord, but I am glad Your Time to Shine was my introduction.
16. Seth – La Morsure du Christ
Twenty-five years and five albums later, Seth releases its sixth and best album in La Morsure du Christ. With a contagious and fervent energy, the band confidently covers some undeniably dark but varied territory. For whatever reason, melodic black metal saw an upsurge in popularity this year. La Morsure was easily among the year’s best melodic black metal releases, particularly if you’d prefer yours with less synth. There’s some pomp, no doubt, but it’s a classy pomp and the symphonic elements befit the general ambience.
15. Blazon Rite – Endless Halls of Golden Totem
Fun sword and sorcery trad metal with excellent leads is all the pitch I needed to get into Blazon Rite. There’s a simple pleasure in lying down on the couch at the end of a long work day to cozy up to a warm, inviting album like Endless Halls of Golden Totem. My appreciation for that impact grew exponentially, so it’s no surprise that this was one of my most listened to albums this year. Though I am listing this at 15, I have no doubt that in revisiting this list a year from now, I’ll be kicking myself for not ranking this just a bit higher.
14. Stormkeep – Tales of Othertime
Tales is about as complete a package as one could ever hope to find in modern symphonic black metal. Everything from the tabletop RPG cover art to the sharp production is top class. Of course, none of this would matter if the music weren’t good. Fortunately for us, the music is pretty darn terrific. And inspirational, too. Pretty sure that 1990s melodic black metal binge I went on shortly after listening to this wasn’t a coincidence. Quick note: That early Old Man’s Child stuff absolutely ruled. OMC reference aside, I know I wasn’t alone in falling pretty hard and quick for this.
13. Wheel – Preserved in Time
I am sure I am not alone in being a recent convert to Wheel but I am a bit ashamed nonetheless-Preserved in Time is a mammoth record and these guys have apparently been selling their epic doom wares for over ten years. The fact that this album is showing up on more than a few year-end lists proves that it’s never too late to course correct. As one of those course correctors, I can say with the utmost confidence that vocalist Arkadius Kurek is a primary draw. The Patrick Walker meets Albert Witchfinder vibe, if not tone, colors the entirety of the record and compliments the emotive riffs perfectly.
12. Mental Cruelty – A Hill to Die Upon
Outside of Despised Icon and the odd newer band like Brand of Sacrifice, most deathcore escapes me. But Mental Cruelty’s riff-driven take on brutal blackened deathcore proved too tempting to ignore. This is fun, grandiose, and dense stuff. The fun part of the equation belies the complexity of the arrangements. There’s an elasticity to A Hill to Die Upon that made peeling back the layers with repeated listens a challenge that I looked forward to. This, for me, was the surprise of the year.
11. Iron Maiden – Senjutsu
I want my heroes to succeed but I won’t excuse their missteps. The Book of Souls was neither a misstep nor a success, lying somewhere in between. It was clear from the release of “The Writing on the Wall” that Senjutsu was likely to be a different animal entirely. Maiden is still very much in its proggier era but the songs here are simply more compelling—better riffs and with higher peaks and fewer valleys. Admittedly, they could do with some editing. And there’s some amount of confirmation bias going on, despite Maiden objectively being the best band ever. Yet there’s still no substitute. Need a Maiden fix? Listen to Maiden. You’re only as good as your options, and Senjutsu is Maiden in fine form. I am satisfied. Now let’s hear this stuff live in 2022.
HEADING FOR TOP TEN
10. Silver Talon – Decadence and Decay
Though I listened to and liked Silver Talon’s Becoming a Demon EP in 2018, I had long forgotten just how similar the band’s vocalist sounds to Nevermore’s Warrel Dane. So it was more than a little surprising to hear Decadence and Decay the first time.
After the initial shock wore off, I started to appreciate the album less as a Nevermore gap-filler and more as its own contribution to the small but expanding USPM scene. The fine line Silver Talon walks between heavy, prog, and power metal is a unique one not easily navigated. Yet the band sounds more confident here, on their full-length debut, than they have a right to be.
As a talented scribe once wrote of Decadence and Decay, “One would be hard-pressed to find this blend of modern rhythm guitar, neoclassical leads, and proggy synth anywhere else.” The cinematic quality to the songwriting delivers those seemingly disparate layers in epic fashion.
9. Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined
It took all of 3 or 4 songs to recognize that Erik Rutan and Cannibal Corpse are a winning combo. Not that there was ever a reason to think otherwise. But aside from Vile and maybe The Bleeding, there hasn’t been another album representative of as much change—though Kill was the first without Jack Owen, Rob Barrett had rejoined the fold. Last Rites’ own Spencer dissected this change incredibly well in his review. So, for me anyway, there was a pre-release excitement unique to Violence Unimagined. I expected the intensity level to go from 110 to 200%. And I expected Corpsegrinder to sound appropriately mental over some Rutan riffage.
All of the above proved true, of course, but what I didn’t expect was for the songwriting to be this tight. There are hypnotic bangers (“Slowly Sawn,” “Follow the Blood,” and “Cerements of the Flayed”). There are ripping bangers (“Ritual Annihilation,” “Inhumane Harvest,” and “Murderous Rampage”). And there are other songs that just flat out rule (“Surround, Kill, Devour” and “Bound and Burned”). I read a comment somewhere that this is their best album since Kill. That seems about right.
8. Pharaoh – The Powers That Be
Very few bands have enjoyed as much universal praise and love among the writers at Last Rites and its previous iterations as Pharaoh. And for good reason. So it goes without saying that after nine years sans Pharaoh, most at Last Rites had a minor heart attack when The Powers That Be was first announced. Though I attempted to convince myself long ago that anything after Be Gone was gravy, I got greedy after Bury the Light. Truth be told, against my better judgment, I was maximum-level hyped about The Powers That Be—against my better judgment not because it wasn’t going to be great, but because I really didn’t want to set this up for failure in my mind.
Fortunately, our collective patience was rewarded. The Powers That Be is, indeed, Pharaoh being Pharaoh for over 40 minutes on record, which is to say that it is over 40 minutes of USPM awesomeness. “Freedom” is the catchier, more rock-oriented and lyrically-grounded tune with a hummable chorus. “Lost in the Waves” is the harder-edged, more fantasy-based and emotive track. “Dying Sun” is the journey within a song. And “Will We Rise” and “Ride Us to Hell” are the barn burners.
Pharaoh’s commitment to song diversity has always been rock solid, and that doesn’t change here. What does change, or at least shift slightly, is the way in which the band uses the tense political climate to fuel its lyrical point-of-view. And while it’s less overt and more metaphoric, it’s noticeable enough to register as different. I really enjoyed that difference—it felt personal and genuine and it drew me in as a listener in a way that I wasn’t expecting.
7. Wolves in the Throne Room – Primordial Arcana
Primordial Arcana sounds like Wolves in the Throne Room more clearly expressing everything I’ve come to love about them but in a distilled form. There are as many disadvantages to that as there are benefits—the confidence with which the band approaches the aesthetic makes all the difference. Despite the occasional feeling that there’s too much self-editing, the songs themselves are punchier and more immediately impactful. This comes at the sacrifice of the slow burn—and I am not suggesting Primordial Arcana is remotely close to the best album from the band—but I don’t think songs such as “Through Eternal Fields” and “Primal Chasm (Gift of Fire)” would sound quite as striking otherwise.
6. Warrior Path – The Mad King
That I liked but didn’t love Warrior Path’s debut album should explain why I am as surprised as you likely are to see The Mad King at my number six spot this year. The self-titled, 2019 release showed plenty of promise—all the pieces were there—but it ultimately felt too bloated and repetitive to be one of the year’s stronger albums. Not true of The Mad King.
Warrior Path’s heavy/power hybrid sound is largely the same, but the pacing here is much improved over the debut. Though Yannis Papadopoulos was impressive in his own right, and hardly the reason why the first record fell a little flat for me, it doesn’t hurt that The Mad King features one Daniel Heiman on vocals. Not only does his tone perfectly compliment the pace here, but he really knows how to make these choruses stick.
5. Epica – Omega
Like every Epica release—as carefully orchestrated as they are—Omega is dense. As a fan, peeling back the layers with repeated listens is part of the fun. But the nods to the band’s earlier, more purely orchestral arrangements on The Phantom Agony and Consign to Oblivion were obvious and really sit this one apart from everything since The Divine Conspiracy.
Admittedly, I am awfully fond of this band for reasons I can’t even describe all that well. Simone Simons’ vocals are, of course, a principal selling point. And Simons sounds as beautiful here as she usually does. But what separates this release from the last few is the occasional infusion of the same gothic orchestral vibe we first heard 18 years ago. Omega feels personal, and as listeners invested in the life of bands and the art they produce, that matters. There’s something, not nostalgic, but youthful about Omega that makes the nods to an earlier sound feel less vintage and more inspired. It shares that quality with the above-mentioned Helloween hydra.
4. Dream Unending – Tide Turns Eternal
There’s a heavy but ethereal quality to Tide Turns Eternal that feels like an announcement of sorts. It’s done so confidently, so seemingly effortlessly, that it must be a statement. Of what, I am not sure. And, don’t get me wrong, Tomb Mold is a good band. But Tomb Mold is one good band of many good bands playing a fairly similar style of death metal. There aren’t a ton of Anathema-inspired bands playing doom/death dripped in this much atmosphere (sidenote: that solo at 6:00 in “Adorned in Lies” is something else, right?). All of this is to say that I never imagined that someone from Tomb Mold (guitarist Derrick Vella) would have a side project that sounds like this.
That Dream Unending’s Tide Turns Eternal was a mid-November release and made it to the top 5 of Last Rites’ Combined Staff Top 25 speaks to its immediate impact. There’s an almost cinematic, narrative quality to it that feels strangely hypnotic. The repeated appearance of certain riffs over several tracks is not dissimilar to the use of leitmotif in film music, and that parallel contributes in part to said hypnotism. Intentional or not, that repetition gives the album a uniformity that draws listeners in and allows for that immediate connection.
If your experience with Tide Turn Eternals is anything like mine, you’ll leave the record thinking 45 minutes is far too short. But it’s probably about perfect. And all will be forgiven if we see, at the very least, an EP in 2022.
3. Helloween – Helloween
I’ll spare you a ton of Helloween blurbing because this release has been covered better by others here. But this self-titled, bridging of worlds type deal met and even exceeded the highest of expectations.
The evidence seems to suggest that Helloween took a “best of all eras” approach. But the album feels less calculated and more like the concerted effort of individuals who genuinely wanted to (and succeeded in) bottling some of the magic that drew fans to Walls of Jericho, Keeper of the Seven Keys, and Master of the Rings. Helloween, the album, may never be on par with the former two, simply due to the historical importance of those two albums in the early development of power metal, but it certainly ranks among the band’s best.
2. Herzel – Le Deniere Rempart
Some things transcend language. Namely, Herzel’s passion for good old-fashioned and epic heavy metal and their insanely impressive ability to harness that passion into recording the six stellar songs that appear on Le Dernier Rempart.
I can’t speak for others, but the relative infancy of the band has at least something to do with the impact this album made on me, at least initially. Le Dernier Rempart sounds like a confident band playing at its peak. Yet it might as well have dropped from the sky given how blindly I went into the first listen. The album is 36 minutes of riff-driven, often falsetto’d bliss, with nary a misstep. Even the French Celtic lore translates well in tone, despite my not understanding much of any of it.
Outside of Tide Turns Eternal and A Hill to Die Upon, there really wasn’t another record that surprised me quite like this one in 2021. It’s a charmer.
1. Fluisteraars – Gegrepen door de Geest der Zielsontluiking
I was fairly certain just a year ago that nothing could top Fluisteraars’ Bloem. But Fluisteraars’ Gegrepen door de Geest der Zielsontluiking announced itself and, well, that earlier proclamation suddenly seems less true.
Fluisteraars have the unique ability to create songs that sound at once cerebral and primal, melodic and dissonant. It’s not so much a “let’s capture all emotions” thing as a “let’s see where this ride takes us” thing. Amazingly, despite that approach, which sounds as progressive in practice as it does on paper, the band has never not sounded black metal. It’s the gut of the band, seemingly its driving force.
Though the ethos of the band seems grounded in the idea that they’re not wedded to any scene or sound—and that seems largely irrefutable—black metal’s rawness is the roux from which they create. That’s never been truer than on Gegrepen, which pulls more from psychedelia than even Bloem but often does so over a layer of above-mentioned rawness. The force of the album’s melodic peaks are built on the aforementioned interstitial dissonance, and they hit that much harder because of it. It’s that duality that makes Fluisteraars what it is, and the band channels that superbly on Gegrepen door de Geest der Zielsontluiking.
The Best EPs in 2021 (According to Me)
5. Gaahls Wyrd – The Humming Mountain
The Humming Mountain feels complete—less extended play, and more short act with a beginning, middle, and end all its own. So while a few of these songs are apparently rearranged versions of songs written for the debut full-length that didn’t quite make the final product, the EP itself is distinct in sound, feeling less afraid of the quiet moments and more inclined to fill them with melancholia. There’s a strange comfort in that. And something tells me I’ll be turning to The Humming Mountain often this winter.
4. Dialith – Atrophy
There aren’t many symphonic metal bands as fully engaged in the metal part of the equation as Dialith, which makes something like Atrophy all the more vital. The band’s full-length debut, Extinction Six, was an unexpected gem in 2019, so the two-year wait for this little EP felt particularly painful. Fortunately, Atrophy finds the band largely picking up where they left off on Extinction Six—playing intense, orchestral, lush, heavy, and infectious symphonic metal.
What really set Dialith apart from its peers two years ago was its near equal focus on operatic vocals, smooth synth, and sweet, heavy riffs. None of that has changed here. Though “Ignite the Sky” is perhaps less serious and more pomp than anything heard on Extinction Six, at its core it still sounds like an extension of the band’s sound. I am curious to hear if that’s something they explore in the future. And the rest remains, to our good fortune, entirely faithful to Extinction Six. Terrific tide me over, but please don’t make us wait too long for a follow-up.
3. Witch Vomit – Abhorrent Rapture
As I wrote not long ago, everything we loved about Witch Vomit’s last full-length, Buried Deep in a Bottomless Grave, is present and improved in this condensed form. The grooves dig just a bit deeper (“Necrometamorphosis”). The meaty, distorted riffs hit slightly harder (“Abhorrent Rapture”). The gurgles are gooier (“Purulent Burial Mound”). And the thrashy solos and tempo changes feel smoother (“Funeral Purgation”). Abhorrent Rapture is Witch Vomit nearly perfecting an already well-developed sound.
2. Fierce Deity – Power Wisdom Courage
The talented vocalist (and guitarist and bass and keyboard player) behind Australia’s Fierce Deity, one Jonathan Barwick (ex-Taberah), describes the band as “stoner power metal.” Or at least the band’s Bandcamp profile does. And while that’s probably truer of the band’s earlier singles, it isn’t necessarily inaccurate as applied to this EP, Power Wisdom Courage. But I think we can settle on “fun.”
Just give “Wisdom” a whirl. Seriously. That transition from super synth to heavy groove to the point where the vocals kick in is goosebump-inducing gloriousness. I know I’ve played it more than a handful of times in the car on a Friday afternoon.
It’s not all 1980s motivational montage type stuff, either. There’s meat on these bones, and the seemingly strange synth, power, and groove combo somehow works. Thank you, Mr. Barwick.
Cirith Ungol – Half Past Human
Last Rites’ love for all things Cirith Ungol is as well-documented as it is well-deserved. The fact that the site collectively voted Half Past Human as 2021’s Best EP should come as no surprise. As our own Captain put it, “the Cirith Ungol rejuvenation still has an abundance of vigor pumping at its crux, and not even tromping out a handful of 40+ year-old songs penned during a period before the band established their footing can stand in the way of these guys delivering a victory that’s every bit as worthy of your attention as the gems that landed before 2021.”