Chris Rowella’s Top Albums of 2021
This introduction is always the hardest thing for me to write each year. Ostensibly it’s a space to survey the year in heavy music, possibly discuss certain trends and events, and maybe find a correlation to the world at large. I usually end up admitting that, for the most part, I really don’t have the first clue as to why the world is the way it is, and more subtly how I feel an ever-growing detachment from it with each passing year (still true). Hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement have given baseball a run for national pastime, and it’s incredibly easy to get bogged down in that muck with the grifters and shitheels. But music (among very few other things) hasn’t let me down yet, and I pray that it never does. Here are the albums that best got me through this nonsense, and will continue to do so when needed. By all indications, that’s going to be often.
20. Spelljammer – Abyssal Trip (RidingEasy Records, Sweden)
19. Panopticon – ...And Again Into The Light (Bindrune Recordings, USA)
18. Tunic – Quitter (Artoffact Records, Canada)
17. Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon (Relapse Records, USA)
16. Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined (Metal Blade Records, USA)
15. Lucifer – IV (Century Media Records, Germany/Sweden)
14. Universally Estranged – Reared Up In Spectral Predation (Blood Harvest Records, USA)
13. Mastodon – Hushed And Grim (Reprise Records, USA)
12. Withered – Verloren (Season Of Mist, USA)
11. Steel Bearing Hand – Slay In Hell (Carbonized Records, USA)
One of the catchiest grindcore albums you’ll hear this year, D.O.D. is the flag-planting debut of Camera Obscura Two (an important distinction, as they are easily confused with the other one). Comprised of Italian extreme underground talent from Cripple Bastards, Schizo, Novembre and others, coupled with a unique lineup featuring two bass players, CO2’s sound is equally assured and ferocious. With the low end locked up, the band hits all the Napalm Death/Repulsion buttons while carving out their own sound. In a scene where bands and albums easily seep into a giant blur of speed and noise, this is a standout.
Your uncle’s Florida death metal, this is not. If an ancient, cursed graveyard was flooded by an evil hurricane, Foreverglade might be what gurgled to the surface. Creeping, cavernous death/doom of the highest (lowest?) order, awash with keyboard flourishes, unintelligible chants, and slow-motion-headbang riffs. Album highlight “Cloaked In Nightwinds” is like a self-contained short horror film, an eleven-minute trip of chugging metal standards, ghostly solos, and a textured atmosphere of dread. Worm has found their icky, swampy, groove, and if they stick to it, there’s a good chance they will catch up to the masters whom appear a little further up these ranks.
I like to think Carcass put out new releases just to make it easier for me when it’s time to compile year-end lists. They don’t miss!
Red Fang has always been a band that was just...there. Their previous albums are perfectly fine, and they’ve made some great music videos, but the music never did the thing for me - until now. When Arrows came out, it was to a mixed response; a lot of their fans seemed confused or disappointed with it, especially the production. But it’s these perceived negatives that have endeared the album to me, a now-full-fledged Red Fang fan. The rawness and muffled effects on tracks like “Unreal Estate” and “Arrows” give the album a noisy, unpolished sound that sets it apart from the earlier records and hit the marks I typically look for in a great modern rock album. If Arrows is an indication of what the future looks like, I’m on board.
Look, we can talk about modern Black Sabbath worship for eternity. There are websites, books, magazines, and entire record labels dedicated to just that, not to mention the countless bands that fill the ranks. It boils down to this: if you’re going to do it, be the best at it, or be relegated to the opening slot on the fourth stage at Blazing Bong Fest or whatever. (I would absolutely attend that fest, but that’s neither here nor there.) Your Time To Shine is clearly Monolord doing their take on the Volume 4/Sabbath Bloody Sabbath era, and it’s better than anything else I’ve heard attempting to do the same thing. This may come across as damning with faint praise, but really, if you sound this much like the best band to ever exist it’s a very good thing.
February feels like both a million years ago and yesterday simultaneously, which in our post-outbreak world is no longer unusual. Songs For The Enamel Queen has been a close companion since then, its caustic emotional resonance striking a deep chord I didn’t even know existed. Throughout the flood of daily new releases and neverending promotional PR cycles, I’ve never gone more than a few days without listening to some or all of it. When people talk about the power music can wield, it’s an album like this I would use as a prime example.
Hooded Menace have explored every dank, cobwebbed crevice of the death/doom caverns, and now they’re...having fun!? Maybe Lasse Pyykko was listening to a lot of Maiden and Candlemass during the lockdowns, or the three year gap between full-lengths gave the band some extra juice. Either way, The Tritonus Bell absolutely shreds, in a way typically unheard of in this corner of the metal world. Pyykko’s riffs have always been HM’s centerpiece, and here they’re faster and more catchy than at any other point in the band’s existence. For a group that has always been at the top of their subgenre’s heap to incorporate a bold new sound, still kill it, AND have their fanbase on board? That’s a new level. To be here for it is a blessing.
Connecticut is a small state with an expectedly miniscule extreme music scene, so when a truly remarkable band emerges from time to time, I feel obligated to shout them from the hills. On their latest release, Intercourse cements a spot at the top of my favorite regional acts. Blending noise, hardcore, post-metal, and whatever else fits, their sardonic humor and unhinged energy come to a head on Rule 36 (“Rule 36: There will always be more fucked up shit than what you just saw.”) “Sorry I Missed Your Set” and “Crop Circle Jerk” tell you all you need to know right off the bat, while vocalist Tarek Ahmed launches lines at you like a belligerent standup comic bombing on a Tuesday night. The intensity only lets up during a few brief, droning moments on “Dr. Catheter” and the KEN Mode-styled staccato of “Sweet Dreams Sour Milk”, but otherwise this is a cement block in the washing machine on spin cycle. Listen accordingly.
It has been six years since Grievances, KWC’s previous album. That’s OK; once again, time is relative, a flat circle, etc. They are a band that, right from the first listen, felt like home. Comfortable, familiar, a space for reflection and introspection. Listening to a Kowloon Walled City album is disappearing from the physical world for a brief moment, and Piecework continues that tradition. The reasons are difficult to pinpoint; it’s not their specific sound, which is easy to identify in that sludgy post-hardcore Neurosis-type way. Scott Evans has a great voice that complements the songs perfectly, but that’s not quite it either. Somewhere in the sparse but eloquent arrangements, the moments of silence between strikes on strings or drumstick hits, there is truth and knowledge. It reveals itself slowly, almost imperceptibly, but in the end I always feel differently about myself, the world around me, often both. Yes, Piecework is transcendental, and despite that word being horribly overused lately, it’s the only one that fits.
If you’re going to title a song “I Want To Punch Bruce Springsteen In The Dick” just know that regardless of said song’s quality, you’re going in my top 10. I don’t make the rules, I just assist or get out of the way. But when that song completely rips, and is surrounded by other, equally head-ripping monster jams, well, you’re heading to the top. Dead Horse is the most fun you can have listening to music. A bold statement? Sure. (“But what about disco, Chris? What about EDM? Did you forget polka??”) But right from the opening feedback of “JFK Speedwagon” Bummer is creating a metaphysical amplifier; if you’re having a good day, Dead Horse will make it a great day. Conversely, if you come home fuming about the worst Monday ever, Dead Horse will make short work of putting fists through drywall. Either way, you’ll be making the metal stank face and pissing off your neighbors, and isn’t that the point of all this, anyway?