Ivan Belcic’s Top Albums of 2021
It's hard not to see the deluge of top-tier music released over the past year as a collective unbottling of our pent-up exhaustion, loneliness, anxiety, and grief. The ongoing clusterfuck of the world’s response to Covid-19 is just one of many stressors worming its way into the daily fabric of our lives, with the garishly unbalanced "recovery" only a single expression of deeply pervasive global inequality.
Nothing about the past few years has been easy for the bands we love and those who work in the industry surrounding them. The absence of live music isn’t the only challenge artists have had to overcome: when tours were permitted, they were abruptly canceled just as frequently, vinyl records became ludicrously time-consuming to produce and bottlenecked by major-label orders, and the global logistics crush sent shipping rates rocketing ever higher.
It takes courage to release music with no assurances that you’ll be able to realize anything materially from it—when you can't physically put yourself, your music, and your merch in the faces of the people who love it, the act of releasing a record into which you’ve poured not only money but time, effort, and passion becomes even more daunting. This list goes out to all the bands and independent labels who, over the course of the past two years, collectively said "fuck it" to things like reliable touring revenues and let their creative zeal take the lead.
From the artists shaping our despair to the ones extending a hand out of it, here are the albums that resonated most strongly with me in 2021.
Comatose – A Way Back (Transcending Records, USA)
Dödsrit – Mortal Coil (Wolves of Hades, Sweden)
Kanonenfieber – Menschenmühle (Noisebringer Records, Germany)
Mental Cruelty – A Hill to Die Upon (Unique Leader, Germany)
Moral Collapse – Moral Collapse (Subcontinental Records, India)
Рожь – Вечное (Reflection Nebula, Russia)
Sermon of Flames – I Have Seen The Light, And It Was Repulsive (I, Voidhanger, Ireland)
Solar Cross – Echoes of the Eternal Word (Transcending Records, Finland)
Stone Healer – Conquistador (Independent, USA)
Vivid Illusion – Vivid Illusion (Independent, USA)
Trhä's endlhëtonëg is a single work broken up for semi-convenience into discrete movements. Largely an ambient dronescape splintered apart by several blackened frenzies, the record is transfixing in its expansiveness, yet tantalizingly sparse in arrangement.
Drifting between contemplative and crushing, the album's pinnacle is the melodic church bell passage spanning the entire second half of the album’s third track “endlhëturhën.” Not since Mirror Reaper have I been so spellbound by the careful use of so few notes spaced so far apart.
If, like me, you’re living in a part of the world in which collective asshattery has made it still unsafe to congregate socially, let endlhëtonëg be your frigid soundtrack through the bleakness awaiting you.
There’s never been any doubt in my mind whether one of Garry Brents's 2021 records would merit inclusion in this year-end list—the only question was, which one? Having issued two releases each this year with Cara Neir, Gonemage, Homeskin, and Sallow Moth, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has had a wildly prolific year—all while maintaining a stunning degree of polish and attention to detail throughout his work.
But like Brents himself has said in interviews, my favorite record amongst his 2021 body of work is Gonemage's Sudden Deluge. The album takes Cara Neir's glitched-out staccato blackchip-metal as a jump-off point, smoothing out the junctions and steering his mind down a course slightly more uplifting, though no less unhinged. This missive from the far reaches of Brents' creativity is a decisive signal that our warped odyssey through the shared Cara Neir, Gonemage, and Homeskin universe is nowhere near close to running out of steam.
One of my metrics for these lists is whether or not an album has stuck with me throughout the year. Have I returned to it over and over again as new music comes and goes? Does it take me somewhere that only this band can? A record's staying power is paramount for me when looking back over the year’s releases, a genuine marker of the impact the artist’s work has had on me.
Released in March but in regular rotation ever since, Dvne's Etemen Ænka more than delivers in this regard, and there’s nothing stale about it—despite Etemen Ænka being one of my most-played heavy records this year, it’s no less exhilarating every time I reach for it.
The "albums shouldn’t be longer than 40 minutes" crowd can take a backseat where they belong, as there’s not a second of this hour-plus record that doesn't deserve to be here. Etemen Ænka is resplendent with secrets to discover, progressive and unpredictable in its twists, yet never leaving the reliability of its grooves behind.
I’m a relative latecomer to Violet Cold, with Anomie as the first record of his that I heard—but it overran my brain in a way that few other bands have since my teenage obsession with Dream Theater. And since then, every subsequent full-length outside the 2018 Sommermorgen trilogy has made my top 10.
Violet Cold has incrementally inched away from Anomie’s trademark post-astroblack sound in favor of what in retrospect is almost a pre-hyperpop drift. On Empire of Love, that ultra-saturated extravagance is on full display, the vivid colors of the album’s cover setting the stage for the content it contains.
Empire of Love is a record of protest and solidarity, a salvo against the repressive conditions in Violet Cold’s home country of Azerbaijan as well as a global embrace to anyone facing similar prejudices and struggles. Guliyev's message on Empire of Love is a triumphant and celebratory one, but also a bulwark against the hate and bigotry squirming in the crevasses of our community.
Mastiff is the sound of the moment the final shreds of hope and optimism clinging to your heart are smothered out. That’s not to say there’s no coming back from the dark places Mastiff bring you, but Leave Me the Ashes of the Earth is the soundtrack to our collective despair and anguish. If there’s a record emblematic of the past two years, it’s the oppressive blackened sludgecore of Mastiff.
Leave Me the Ashes of the Earth is the band's third album and, despite the bleakness of 2019's Plague, finds the band at their bitterest and most punishing. Mastiff take us by the hand and lead us there into the murk, and we wallow in it with them, bludgeoned on all sides at once by loathing and world-weariness in auditory form.
The world of Putrescine gets progressively more warped with each release. Over a string of EPs, their interpretation of death metal has mutated from the twin loci of Carcass and Morbid Angel cited by the band via a steady infusion of what I imagine as a shimmering distillate sourced from the furthest reaches of the cosmos pumped straight into their brains.
The Fading Flame is fully post-corruption Putrescine, a writhing amalgam of songwriters and vocalists Marie McAuliffe and Trevor Van Hook. While the band’s roots are still very much present, the dissonant and progressive elements are served in equal proportion. The band’s latest work is a challenging and uncomfortable record that shifts thematically between videogame-based metaphor and stark struggles against transphobia and capitalist excess.
There have always been tangible traces of The Weird in Putrescine’s music, but as they’ve embraced this side of themselves more fully over the years, the results have been a delight to behold. And given that they’ve hinted at several more releases to come soon, I can only imagine how much odder things are about to get.
Møl arrived with their efficient and coherent take on blackgaze in Jord, but they've come into their own with the blackened post-pop of Diorama. Both a more aggressive as well as more joyful record than its predecessor, Diorama’s towering backbeat cadences zig-zag between major-key exaltations and some of the band’s heaviest and darkest material. Møl are a blackgaze band by legacy only at this point, having incorporated many of the subgenre’s defining conventions as signposts on the road to a novel sound.
Diorama is a catapult into the stratosphere powered by Møl's mastery of contrast, with a guest feature from Sylvaine further elevating their sculpted sound into cosmic realms. The record empathizes with you in the bowels of your grief while insulating you from it, an immersive balm that imparts every wrinkle of your being with its gentle and probing warmth.
I, Voidhanger Records has been having an absolute tear of a year, and it’d be relatively easy to build a compelling year-end list with their 2021 catalogue alone. Among these, it’s Créature's Eloge De l'Ombre that struck me most powerfully.
Like most I, Voidhanger Records releases, Eloge De l'Ombre is inscrutably weird, but unlike many of its label peers, it’s also immediately accessible. Weaving together the nü-metal intro, penultimate triplet-flow hip-hop track, Tuvan throat singing sample, and towering piles of orchestral instrumentation and choral vocals is a marvelously creative avant-garde progressive metal record that never comes close to sacrificing its roots in charismatic groove-oriented songwriting.
Replacing the horns of 2020’s Ex Cathedra with opulent synths, bringing in Leprous' Baard Kolstad for a spectacular performance on drums, and enjoying a massive leveling up in production, Créature's latest record is a perfect match for its cover art. It’s an overall darker experience, but peering through is a richness of colors and texture yearning to be explored.
I have no idea whatsoever what’s going on in Boss Keloid's fifth full-length Family the Smiling Thrush, and I feel completely at peace with this. The prog-sludge quartet, now keyboardless, are no strangers to surrealism, and on their latest, they’re fully immersed in what I can only imagine to be an oil-paint blend of dream and nightmare realm all their own.
"Prog" and "sludge" can both imply long stretches of music that may not always be the most riveting listen, but Boss Keloid explore the expanses of their curiosity with a keen eye on pacing. The record is relentlessly uplifting and cheerful while never forgetting that it was made by a sludge band: Boss Keloid crush just as hard as their more straightforward peers.
It's not important to get exactly what’s going on in Boss Keloid’s minds, because Family the Smiling Thrush's lyrics are immediately approachable (...most of the time). The record’s themes of self-doubt, compassion and mutual support, resilience and perseverance, and the search for meaningfulness in existence—these shine through in plain language.
Watching Backxwash blow up over the past two years from a rising rapper and producer to a Polaris Prize Winner and now a leading voice and cultural focal point has been an absolute privilege. As the artist has evolved visually over time from the purple braids and muted makeup of 2019's Black Sailor Moon to her current incarnation of white-on-black corpsepaint under a shocking sometimes-white, sometimes-black mane, so has her music: a riveting whirlpool of metal, industrial, and horrorcore hip-hop.
Backxwash on I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses is a death-drenched pillar to the profane, a lightning rod in the few live shows she's been able to perform and stream this year. With each subsequent release, Backxwash reserves a greater share of production duties for herself, taking the wheel in the active shaping of her sound and aesthetic as a holistic auteur. The songs on her latest full-length lumber and lurch, plodding ahead on throbbing drums, grinding machinery, and textural screams for an overall sound far more oppressive than that found in her earlier work.
While Backxwash's previous full-length God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It—which I had at number three on last year's version of this list—centered around her ongoing reckoning with Christianity and the various roles it’s played in her life, I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses expands the targets of her rage to the structural and societal impediments in her way:
She lambasts the "racist bitches up north," fires off a tracklong assault against colonialism, delves into jarring examinations of self-medication—"Back then, I took a bump in the face / to feel dead like my government name"—and self-harm—"I gotta wrestle with most of myself / from holding the rope, holding the belt"—and caps it off with a soul-shattering guest verse from Censored Dialogue on the ravages of transphobia and dysmorphia.
Nü-metal has been enjoying somewhat of a revival via bands like Bleed From Within, Tallah, and Code Orange—members of which produced I Lie Here Buried with My Rings and My Dresses’s penultimate track under the alias Nowhere2Run—but there’s no one exploring the ways in which metal and hardcore can interact with hip-hop and goth culture and nailing it quite like Backxwash.