Colin Dempsey’s Top Albums of 2021
I self-impose a rule to abstain from using the first person pronoun "I" unless it’s necessary. You might’ve noticed I already broke that rule in the previous sentence. That's because this is my list, and you're reading it, so I'm going to be as selfish as I please.
Before getting deeper into my year-end reflection, I need to stress that Invisible Oranges is the best music blog on the planet. There's no website that does what the staff writers do here as damn well as they do it. I'm drawn to Invisible Oranges pieces now for the same reason I was when I began regularly reading this site. The writers here are masters at describing what makes each release worthwhile in tangible terms. I leave every Invisible Oranges article knowing both exactly what a band sounds like and why they’re worth checking out. The Invisible Oranges staff make me feel like I've just read an album's director's notes. Music journalism and criticism is an industry built on press release cycles and up-to-date coverage, limiting how much thought one could put into a piece before its deadline. Invisible Oranges trudges ever-forward by stressing only the music we believe in and promoting that good faith.
Now, back to me. My metric for assessing an album's quality is by how long it lingers in my mind. If I've only heard an album once and I'm still thinking about it months later then I'm convinced it's special. This philosophy is especially applicable to heavy metal and the branching subgenres that regularly wet my whistle because there's plenty of metal music that doesn't lend itself to conventional listening. I wouldn't casually throw on a single Im Wald track. I need to listen to that beast in its entirety. The same can be said for many of 2021's stellar albums.
Finally, there’s plenty I haven’t heard this year that I'm confident would’ve radically altered this list. I probably would’ve loved Lamp of Murmuur, MØL, Body Void, and Fluisteraars. It’s likely I would've spent a month bathing in Moss Grew on the Swords and Plowshares Alike, though I doubt I would’ve cared for the new Mastodon.
All I can then offer is ten albums I’ve spent most of 2021 listening to and thinking about.
20. World Eaters – Grinding Advance (Independent, Canada)
19. Sjenovik – Dissolution of Innocence (Aphotic Sonance, United States)
18. Froglord – Save the Frogs (The Swamp Records, United Kingdom)
17. Krallice – Demonic Wealth (Independent, United States)
16. Primeval Well – Talkin' in Tongues with Mountain Spirits (Moonlight Cypress Archetypes, United States)
15. Crescent – Carving the Fires of Akhet (Listenable Records, Egypt)
14. Cara Neir – Phase Out (Independent, USA)
13. Seputus – Phantom Indigo (Willowtip Records, United States)
12. Paysage d’Hiver – Geister (Kunsthall Produktionen, Switzerland)
11. Stormkeep – Tales of Othertime (Ván Records, United States)
Dungeon Serpent’s compositional modus operandi is simple; upwards mobility. World of Sorrows never stops and is never stopping. The Vancouver death metal solo act always packages another riff, or another bated breath spoken-word segue, or even an entire 11-minute instrumental onslaught, right when it seems their tracks should end. Thankfully, it’s rewarding rather than self-indulgent, because their late-game additions evolve on the preceding sections, continually increasing the tension.
The acoustic guitar that sweeps through Intonate’s track "Sever"’s closing minute is a microcosm of Severed Within’s distinguishing vulnerability. It is, like its artwork suggests, Intonate expelling their subconscious wounds in search of understanding. While the tracks are all mindfully composed, Intonate hint that they’re deepening their self-comprehension through their technical death metal. Mindfully composed in this case meaning that segments feed off of one another and undergo meiosis as opposed to throttling the mix with bass notes that buzz with a bumblebee’s fluttering frequency.
Succumb make no apologies with XXI. They’re remorseless, unsympathetic, and self-assured in their conquest. Each sludge-dripping, hardcore-festering moment seeps urgency. There are probably albums more brutal than XXI, there are definitely some that are heavier in terms of volume, but none hold a candle to Succumb’s perpetually pissed-off poise.
Twin Dream scratches so many itches so effectively that it’s jealousy-inducing. Seriously, listen to how Glassing glide between genres while also weaving them into their distinct distortions on "Burden" and try not to ball your fists in anger. Glassing wear their influences on their sleeve, but they also sew the garment using unorthodox materials like eyelashes and cobwebs.
More bands should learn from Worm’s decision-making skills. Yes, the group is putrid in the most pleasurable way, but Foreverglade soars beyond being a just grimy record due to Worm’s intelligent compositions. There’s as much intentionality here as there is cavernous miasma. For proof, let’s list Worm’s three wisest choices. First, shove as many riffs as you can into your introduction track (which technically means they preloaded Foreverglade with an armada of riffs before the record even begins). Next, stew black metal, death metal, and funeral doom metal into a Dutch oven until it congeals into a gummy, beefy, carcass. Finally, douse it in Floridian swamp seasoning so it sounds like it was born from the glades.
Unambitious is rarely used as a compliment, but A Diabolic Thirst is all the better for its focus on refinement over reinvention. Spectral Wound recorded the best-case scenario for pure genre worship, forging an album out of unconditional love for black metal. It doesn’t lift from black metal’s pillar releases so much as it distills their primal rush into a modern spectacle. This is the band who once told Exclaim! "We're not trying to push the boundaries of the genre in any way," and their commitment shines as a power source rather than a limitation.
Deceiver most likely has its own story (your album art can’t go as hard as this record’s without it portraying some narrative) but it’s more interesting as a collection of repentances. The lyrics speak to guilt dragging bodies down into the mire, forcing the protagonist to persevere or drown under his sins. The lead single "Living Pyre" orchestrates this through its gripping chorus, "I’m drowning in a mind that’s always caving in." Many of these lyrical bombs are punchy and concise, which is great because they crystallize the journey the cascading doom metal instrumentals portray.
There’s plenty Ars Moriendi does to deserve praise. Consider his propulsive songwriting, his ambitious narrative structures, the utilization of genres both familiar and relatively untapped by black metal, and his slathering vocal delivery. Beyond all that, Le Silence Déraisonnable du Ciel’s best trait is its understanding that the best way to make an album is to fill it with as many “fuck yeah” moments as humanly possible. Le Silence Déraisonnable du Ciel rouses like a Medieval canteen after a bar-wide toast, except that toast happens nearly every two minutes.
While not a traditional heavy metal release, Pan Daijing’s sophomore LP is more emotionally taxing than most albums about conquering ghoulish hordes or how Nordic winter snowfall is a metaphor for loneliness. Jade玉观音 crumbles, dissolving the lines between personal space and tangible mass. Daijing beckons you to trudge deeper into her world of noise and dark ambient as she knows that inside its walls lies camaraderie. The record grows less stand-offish and more communal as time passes. It universalizes isolation, depicting its harshness without betraying its ubiquity (especially as some have yet to reacquaint themselves with standard social life).
So much heavy metal conveys suffering as an end goal without reflecting on the positive changes strife compels in the soul. Austin Lunn’s latest project is a painful listen as he deconstructs his failings through some of 2021’s most destructive refrains, but, and this is a monumental but, it’s the first step in ...And Again Into The Light’s healing. It’s a record about recovery and how that process isn’t linear. Repeated listens gift new revelations, in part due to Lunn’s refusal to publish his lyrics and partly from the record’s practiced post-rock and Western soliloquies. It’s the year’s most uplifting album through its recognition that self-improvement is a ceaseless task that’s made rewarding only through adherence.