Friday, December 31, 2021

Mick's Töp 15 Albums of 2021

2021 was an interesting year. It cleared the lowest bar possible of being better than 2020, but still was another year of adjusting to whatever the “new normal” is supposed to be. I work from home and do have a job that I love, but the monotony of not leaving my house basically ever has surfaced more moments of existential dread than I typically like to allow in one calendar year. My wife and our two cats have continued to be my foundation. Having each other has certainly meant the world in navigating through these weird times. I fell deeper into some hobbies which mostly were video game related (shocker, I know) but the tradeoff was that I wrote about music less. Durf really put the team on his back by coming up with the Durf’s Weekly Workout column, but it was personally a slow year around these parts. All in all, 2021 was like beating Dark Souls (which was also something I did for the first time this year); there were plenty of moments that felt like I was beating my head against the wall, but seeing it through was ultimately worth it. And since I didn’t write a ton this year, please allow me to word vomit a bit about the albums that carried me through.

15. Worm - Foreverglade

When Foreverglade first came out, Durf was singing from the rooftops about how amaze-balls the guitar tones were. He was right to do so. Florida’s Worm blends death, doom, and funeral metal all into one grungy and grimy mix that feels like the funeral doom elements of Evoken meets the clean reverberating guitar tones of Pallbearer. Between the deep vocal growls and the constant crusty droning of the guitars, everything about Foreverglade is cavernous where nothing feels like it has a bottom end. It’s a constant hammering that will keep you simultaneously drawn in but also rendered helpless to. Ultimately, this album reminds me of how I feel about the last release from Tomb Mold; I don’t typically lean towards this type of metal but the way it’s executed in this specific instance just knocks it out of the park.

Favorite Tracks : “Murk Above the Dark Door”, “Empire of the Necromancers

14. Der Weg Einer Freiheit - Noktvrn

Hearing black metal that feels emotionally raw and is balanced with triumphant, longer-form song structures isn’t something that’s often done so flawlessly. Der Weg Einer Freihet’s previous album, Finisterre, did just that and was phenomenal. As you could surmise, I had high hopes for this year’s release of Noktvrn. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, but I was off put a bit after my initial listen of the album. What I soon realized makes Noktvrn great, after subsequent listens, was that the album is unique unto itself in the overall tone it sets. From beginning to end, the album has a numbing melancholy about it that will soak into your bones. Much like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, the music maintains gloomy underpinnings while allowing for moments of immense power to break through. I know this one will continue to grow on me.

Favorite Tracks : “Monument”, “Gegen das Licht

13. Carcass - Torn Arteries

In 2013, I’m pretty sure I was the only person anywhere that didn’t include Surgical Steel on my year end list. But I’m here now to put some respect on Carcass’ name. Featuring riffs that are slowed down a bit (by their standards, anyways) and much more groove-based, Torn Arteries is more my speed. As good as Surgical Steel was, Torn Arteries allows the death metal legends to showcase more range. The dizzying harmonized guitar riffs and solos going by at blazing speeds are evened out by thunderous rhythms that provide needed breaks in the madness. Jeff Walker’s screams remain as sharp and vicious as ever, remaining a steadfast foundation for the band. While I understand the notion that some may be irked by Carcass being on the top of so many year end lists solely because they are Carcass, albums like Surgical Steel and Torn Arteries are legitimate reasons that they’re in these discussions at all.

Favorite Tracks : “Under the Scalpel Blade”, “Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited

12. Paysage d’Hiver - Geister

Last year’s Im Wald was my introduction to Paysage d’Hiver and while I loved it, it was also TWO HOURS long. Comparatively, Geister clocks in at a measly hour and 11 minutes, and by taking a more straightforward approach, it packs just as much -  if not more - punch than its predecessor. Im Wald made more of a concerted effort to develop an ambience that was more vast and expansive but Geister takes a bit of a u-turn by cultivating a more harsh experience with fewer frills. By being so tightly controlled, the guitar rhythms evolve at a pace where you can feel that changes are happening but it would be nearly impossible to know which track is playing if you started playing one at random. This is raw, lo-fi black metal at its finest but it will take a few listens to fully appreciate its nuances.

Favorite Tracks : “Bluet”, “Schtampfä

11. Spectral Wound - A Diabolic Thirst

Whereas the previous entry on this list is more about droning ambience, Montreal’s Spectral Wound serves up a catchier, more melodic flavor of raw black metal. With slightly better production value and roaring guitar riffage, A Diabolic Thirst slams on the gas pedal immediately and never lets up. What’s most impressive about this one is how each track manages to keep things varied and accessible while also maintaining the cold abrasiveness that is core to the classic black metal identity. Vocal shrieks constantly wail by with spiraling, high-pitched guitar riffs and crashing drums. It makes for a listening experience that is harsh but also full of energy that is easy to latch onto. If black metal isn’t typically your thing, consider this a palatable option.

Favorite Tracks : “Frigid and Spellbound”, “Diabolic Immanence

10. Burial - Inner Gateways To The Slumbering Equilibrium At The Center Of Cosmos

Evenly mixing death metal with funeral doom, the full length debut (whose title I refuse to type in full more than once) from Italy’s Burial is among the more oppressive entries on my list this year. It’s also a good example of the album cover being accurately reflective of the contents therein. Running with themes of cosmic horror, Inner Gateways weaves in and out of moments of creepy, echoing guitar notes into grungy walls of sound. The crustiness of the guitars are only matched by the vocals with both trying to outdo the other in seeing who can hit the lowest and darkest lows. All these elements combined form this feeling of an endless spiraling descent into madness. Inner Gateways is a really cool album that, despite having noticeable structure, feels vast and limitless.

Favorite Tracks : “The Curse of the Unbornlike God”, “Dark Womb of Outern Creation

09. Succumb - XXI

There aren’t enough Red Bulls in the entire world that can put your energy on the same level as the latest album from Succumb. XXI charges forward with a brutal reckless abandon; leaving you in the dust with a flurry of sludge-infused death metal. The guitars squeal and revel in high-pitched feedback so much that it feels as though you’re hearing a live concert as opposed to a studio recording. The vocal performance is also super unique. By striking this interesting balance of not quite being screaming but also not quite being growling, the vocals being belted out match the grit and griminess of the instrumentation. XXI is one of those albums that will make you feel like you have to take a shower after hearing; not necessarily because of the lyrical subject matter but more so because of how down and dirty its approach is.

Favorite Tracks : “Okeanos”, “Graal

08. Trivium - In the Court of the Dragon

Starting with 2017’s The Sin and the Sentence, Trivium’s most recent albums have proven to be among their most important. The thrashy guitar riffs, the breakdowns, the screaming that transitions into clean, powerful choruses... All these familiar pieces from the Trivium formula have been mixed in different proportions on prior efforts but In the Court of the Dragon gets the mixture just right. As someone who holds Ascendancy and Shogun as the crown jewels of the band’s discography, this is front to back the most complete Trivium album I’ve heard in quite some time. I don’t think “revival” is quite the right term, but there’s something about this album that feels appropriate for where the band is currently at in their careers.

Favorite Tracks : “Like a Sword Over Damocles”, “A Crisis of Revelation

07. Silver Talon - Decadence and Decay

I’m typically not one for power metal, but boy did the full length debut from Silver Talon stick the landing. Decadence and Decay is a veritable riff factory. Though, after finding out the band boasts three guitarists in their lineup, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Between solos, harmonized riffs, and thunderous backing rhythms, the guitars on each track deliver plenty of variation but without fail they all hit their mark and are all kick ass. Following in the tradition of classic metal acts such as Judas Priest and King Diamond, the vocals reach many operatic highs and are pretty much what you would expect stylistically. What I did appreciate a lot about the vocals, however, was that they weren’t singing about Tolkien-esque fantasy. Instead Silver Talon is inspired by “gnoticism, demonology, and cyberpunk aesthetics” which gives the music overall a more interesting edge than the typical corniness you might expect from power metal. Unless enjoying good times and good riffs isn’t your thing, Decadence and Decay is one helluva fun ride.

Favorite Tracks : “Resistance 2029”, “As the World Burns

06. Genghis Tron - Dream Weapon

Living up to the hype of returning from a 13 year hiatus is no easy task. With Dream Weapon, Genghis Tron lives up to this hype but probably not in ways you would anticipate. Gone are the days of Genghis Tron that championed mixing synths and other electronics with the franticness of a band like The Dillinger Escape Plan. Instead, the band now focuses on taking their electronic soundscapes into more lush directions that are accompanied by clean vocals 99% of the time. The tone of the band’s electronic backdrops and the repetition of rolling guitar riffs remain familiar, but the compositions focus more on steady layering of each piece of the band as opposed to the uncontrolled spontaneity of yesteryear. Of all the albums on this list, Dream Weapon is probably the one I’ve listened to the most just because of how easy it is to get sucked into. The payoff is worth it every time.

Favorite Tracks : “Ritual Circle”, “Great Mother

05. Tribulation - Where the Gloom Becomes Sound

Continuing to run with the successful formula from their prior album, 2018’s Down Below, Tribulation’s “black n’ roll” stylings are still very much intact. However, Where the Gloom Becomes Sound manages to take things a step further and make the overall gothic presentation darker and more menacing. Whereas Down Below managed to achieve this by heavily utilizing sounds akin to an almost child-like music box, Where the Gloom Becomes Sound takes a more straightforward approach by letting the guitars drive even more of the melodies and set the ambience. Along with piano/organs and gravelly vocals, the album gives off a certain regalness and sophistication that is a sign of the band’s maturation more than anything else. Going back to the “black n’ roll” genre tag, Where the Gloom Becomes Sound is a great example of how you can have eerie tones and harsher vocals mixed with more accessible guitar riffs and rhythms that, oddly enough, would make the whole presentation completely work in an arena rock setting.

Favorite Tracks : “In Remembrance”, “Funeral Pyre

04. Amenra - De Doorn

Amenra is a band that I’ve slept on for way too long. Rooted in doom and post-metal, the band builds these impenetrable walls of sound that are both immensely powerful and emotionally gripping. De Doorn continues in this tradition by successfully juxtaposing volumetric extremes. With typically no middle ground, you transition from these passages of slowly-plucked, echoing guitar notes that have ominous strings in the background instantly into sections of massive guitar distortion and piercing vocal shrieks. These vocals, by the way, also play a key role in this dichotomy of sound. All sung in Flemish, the vocals range from spoken word to the aforementioned piercing shrills that often match the energy of the current instrumentation. Altogether, these elements create invigorating cathartic releases in their constant push and pull of tension. While De Doorn has plenty of moments that will have you bobbing your head, it also invokes plenty of introspection that will tap deep into your soul.

Favorite Tracks : “Ogentroost”, “Voor Immer

03. Wolves in the Throne Room - Primordial Arcana

Being as into atmospheric black metal as I am, I always wonder why Wolves in the Throne Room is a band that I’ve never included much into my regular listening rotations. I ponder this question once more because hearing Primordial Arcana for the first time was easily the most fun I’ve had listening to the band that wasn’t in a live concert setting. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that this album reinvents the wheel, but everything about it just flows so effortlessly and hits all the right ebbs and flows throughout that it makes for an extremely fluid listening experience. The vocal screams, the driving drum rhythms, the menacing guitar tones, and even electronic elements from a certain WITTR album that shall not be named all play off of each other in a variety of interesting ways that keeps Primordial Arcana balanced but also 100% on brand with the WITTR aesthetic.

Favorite Tracks : “Through Eternal Fields”, “Primal Chasm (Gift of Fire)

02. Panopticon - ...And Again Into the Light

Saying a new Panopticon release is excellent is becoming old hat, but this one is truly special. Special in that it is the truest encapsulation of everything that is Panopticon. From the twangy acoustic guitars, banjos, and cellos to the heavy hitting blackened death metal riffs, And Again Into the Light not only brings back all of the project’s trademark elements but brings them back sounding the best they’ve ever sounded on a Panopticon album; both in actual sound quality and thematic cohesion. In terms of the theme itself, Austin Lunn notes that “this record is dedicated to all who refuse to give up and continue to struggle for light and beauty in this world.” Knowing that statement comes from the context of struggling with mental health, it brings a whole new dimension to this album. The heavier riffs hit harder and the longer-form compositions feel all the more grandiose given the intent is to put positive vibes out into the world. In my mind, any further debates about which Panopticon album is the best are really debating about which album is second best. And Again Into the Light takes the #1 spot and it’s not even close.

Favorite Tracks : “Dead Loons”, “Moth Eaten Soul

01. The Lion’s Daughter - Skin Show

In a year with a multitude of fantastic releases, my tie-breaker for the top spot had to go to something truly unique. Captivating, catchy, heavy, and unsettling, The Lion’s Daugther’s Skin Show is truly in a league of its own. Along with sludge and doom metal, the band seamlessly weaves in synth-laden backgrounds that provide a cinematic feel. I can’t remember where I read this, but somewhere this album was described as the “doom version of a John Carpenter soundtrack” and I’m honestly not sure I can come up with a better descriptor. To top it all off, the lyrics dive deep into abuse, violence, sex, and drugs; creating a world themed around depravity. Skin Show is an album that has an unshakable darkness about it; one that will both enthrall and unnerve you. But these are the kinds of listening experiences that are hard to forget and tend to stand the test of time.

Favorite Tracks : “Curtains”, “Dead in Dreams

- Mick

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