Joseph Aprill’s Top Albums of 2021
Another year has come and gone, yet we still live in the shadow of the Covid Pandemic, whose consequences are still literally mutating our lives biologically and socially. I've been waiting with bated breath amongst billions to hear about the progress of vaccination against the virus becoming a reality and hopefully putting an end to this nightmare. I guess we did get that this year, but it was also accompanied with a mixture of escalating vaccine hesitancy to outright conspiracy theorizing paired with enough time allowed amongst still-unvaccinated populations for even more harmful and transmittable variants to develop [deep sigh]. I guess that’s just the reality we’re stuck with.
I wasn't fully stuck, though—I did have control over some circumstances. During the previous year, I began making plans to leave my day job, especially if certain conditions occurred, and move out to the East Coast to be closer to family. I made good on those plans, packed my car to the near brim, and drove out of Los Angeles in mid to late August. I initially thought I’d organize it around stopping in Las Vegas first to partake in the Psycho Las Vegas festival, but I decided against it for a number of reasons. Chief amongst those was the expanding reach of the Delta variant of Covid, which I personally didn’t feel too threatened by but I didn’t want to put any of my friends hosting me at risk of even getting a mild case and especially the worse possibilities for any underage family of theirs at that time non-eligible for the vaccine.
The drive was a great little adventure: feeling quite liberated compared to the cramped Los Angeles, I was driving long distances sometimes on land where one could stretch their legs for miles before bumping into another person. Taking my time to enjoy myself and make a vacation of it, I got to visit some very dear friends I hadn’t seen in years even before the pandemic and some I had only previously met online and through Zoom meetings. One of my last stops in Chicago was an example of the latter as I finally got to meet up and hang out for an evening with IO’s own co- Editor in Chiefs, Jon Rosenthal and Ted Nubel. I had a great time getting to socialize in person, and hopefully it won't be too long that we can again either at a festival or back in Chicago.
I’m now getting myself settled in Maryland and making plans for the next steps. I certainly have no regrets yet about the choice, even though it still feels like swimming in unfamiliar waters, but I’m hopeful and I think feeling much more relieved from the isolation that was really starting to get to me. Just as last year, it’s been the music in this scene we all love that has kept me steady through the more tumultuous moments and even accentuated the marvelous ones. We’re not entirely close to what was normal before and in some ways the previous normal maybe isn’t what we should want, but it is grand to see the social aspects of the scene starting to reappear buoyed by the continual studio output of metalheads and freaks of extremity the world over. So join me below as I celebrate what I think were some of the finest examples of the metal scene in this hyper anxious and digitally distorted age we all share.
Before we dive into the best full length albums of the year, though, I want to shout out some truly exceptional EP releases as well.
Cirith Ungol - Half Past Human (Metal Blade, USA): Back during the May 2021 roundup I wrote about Half Past Human saying, "It's that sweet spot so keenly associated with the 1970s, where the boundaries between hard rock and heavy metal barely existed, as both genres were still in their infancy. That said, the re-recording process has brought in some modern sensibilities to the sonic nature of the recordings and it hits hard in a way any fan of heavy metal should expect. 1970s songwriting skills paired with the far more accessible studio recording wizardry of the modern era worked well for the band's full length return last year, just as it does here with these unearthed buried treasures." For more about Cirith Ungol’s latest I highly recommend checking out the excellent interview with drummer Rob Garven conducted by Brandon Corsair.
Mother of Graves - In Somber Dreams (Wise Blood Records, USA): As will be noticed in my full-length list, I think 2021 turned out to be a bold and exciting year for death doom metal and here is a prime example of that. The first thing noticed with this EP is how much Mother of Graves has tapped one of the most unique touchstones in the sub genre Katatonia’s Brave Murder Day, including vocals that come damn close to Michael Åkerfeldt's growling timbre from the 1990s. A warmer tone generally throughout distinguishes it from a pure carbon copy, at times even a bit remindful of Sentenced’s "suicide rock" era, and melodic flourishes not quite found in the Swedish classic. What’s clear though is there’s real promise here with this band and if you don’t believe me then take metal guru Dan Swanö’s word, as he mastered this EP!
Witch Vomit - Abhorrent Rapture (20 Buck Spin, USA): This band has been steadily improving since their beginning and not only are their death metal songwriting chops starting to really show on this EP, but they've landed on a production that finally places all their strengths at the forefront. This is vicious death metal with dizzyingly captivating lead work and cacophonous vocals playing as the soundtrack to an underground slaughter house… so basically like The Descent. This will impress death metal legions craving well executed attacks akin to classic Incantation, Demigod and even the rolling onslaught of Bolt Thrower. I think it’s no bold statement to say this is even better than some of the full length releases from death metal giants I have listed in the full length section.
Natürgeist - Reinvigorated Terror (Independent/Electric Assault Records, USA): This one is pretty easy to sum up; when a key member of Blood Incantation, Spectral Voice, and Black Curse conjures some of the most evil sounding black metal in a decade using witchcraft and ancient sorcery, then of course to preserve the project's kvlt secrecy he’s going to pose nude for the cover.
Gaahl’s Wyrd – The Humming Mountain (Season of Mist, Norway): Gaahl is about the pinnacle of a frontman you can find in black metal for both embodying the genre while defying expectations in an enigmatic fashion. That hasn’t abated yet with this new release. Opening track "The Seed" leans close to his time spent in dark folk giants Wardruna for a full nine minutes until the title track brings in some mid-paced metal edge, although with Gaahl himself still leading with somber and contemplative clean vocals. "The Dwell" kicks up the pace with some violent blasting calling back somewhat to Gorgoroth, but that gives away quickly to far more complex and moody passages where Gaahl even puts his clean vocal range to test amongst some rather 'call it from the mountaintop' epic moments. The EP continues in similar fashion to what came before but what becomes remarkably clear is the lack of distorted vocals throughout, setting out an interesting realm of exploration for Gaahl going forward.
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20. Frozen Soul – Crypt of Ice (Century Media, USA)
19. Demon Head – Viscera (Metal Blade, Denmark)
18. Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined (Metal Blade, USA)
17. Tower – Shock to the System (Cruz del Sur Music, USA)
16. Carcass – Torn Arteries (Nuclear Blast, UK) [Get a limited white edition here]
15. Tribulation – Where The Gloom Becomes Sound (Century Media/Metal Blade, Sweden) [Get a limited swamp green edition here]
14. John Carpenter – Lost Themes III: Alive After Death (Sacred Bones Records, USA)
13. Drott – Orcus (By Norse Music, Norway) [Interview]
12. Dungeon Serpent – World of Sorrows (Independent/Nameless Grave Records, Canada)
11. The Ruins of Beverast – The Thule Grimoires (Ván Records, Germany)
Sarke might be one of the most underrated supergroups in the Scandinavian metal scene, considering how they seem to coast just below the surface of wider awareness despite kicking ass for over a decade and now with their seventh album, Allsighr, under their belt. The group's biggest names include Nocturno Culto of Darkthrone, the self named Sarke of Khold and Tulus, and now brand new member Cato Bekkevold, formerly of Enslaved and Red Harvest. Now admittedly Sarke have never much played live, something that probably appealed to new arrival Cato given his mentioned road weariness from his tenure in Enslaved, but not only would I highly recommend catching those rare appearances (I did, for example, at the 2014 Maryland Deathfest). I also can’t implore enough to check out their studio output.
Musically, the band is clearly rooted in the Norwegian black metal tradition from which most of its members hail, but it's developed to include in equal measure the hard rock and heavy metal of the 1970s and 80s. Anders Hunstad’s keyboards, for example, give a real Deep Purple or Rainbow grounding to the group not only in the tones used, but in how it functions as an independent instrument in the songs rather than atmospheric lacing. At times that might remind one of their contemporaries of the prog metal world like the aforementioned Enslaved, Ihsahn and even Opeth, but that’s a misjudgment as attention given to the riffs will show far more love for the blues soaked hard rock and metal foundations -- a fine example is the blues heavy guitar solos that cry out on track "The Reverberation of the Lost."
Last minute surprises are always a joy, and this album certainly fits that bill having crossed my path not long before finalizing this list. It impressed me so much I made it my favorite album on the November 2021 Roundup column where I said:
Current Editor in Chief Jon Rosenthal sent Stormkeep’s debut EP Galdrum to me last year and I have to admit at the time I wasn’t quite as excited as he was for this new project. The pedigree was apparent enough, given the inclusion of members from two of Denver, Colorado’s most exceptional bands, Blood Incantation (Isaac Faulk) and Wayfarer (Jamie Hansen and Shane McCarthy [and Isaac Faulk]). I didn’t hear anything that made me go "wow," but certainly enough there that could promise greater things. Well, Jon clearly heard that promise better than I could as I got smacked to the ground upon first listen to their debut album in Tales of Othertime.
First thing said is this has to be one of the most fun listening experiences I've had with a black metal album in a long while. Their finely crafted work brings to mind a lot of early to mid-era Dimmu Borgir, Borknagar, and the often overlooked melodic black metal of Sweden's Dawn. The soaring, epic guitar melodies are reminiscent of the aforementioned Dawn, getting the listener drunk like a flag off sweet mead, while the Dimmu influences shine on Mustis-esque keyboard performances that puncture to the front of the band’s sound and the soaring clean vocals, performed by Visigoth's Jake Rogers, highly reminiscent of Vortex's epic moments. Tales of Othertime is the type of black metal equally suited for soundtracking a hike into wooded hills or friends gathered around a D&D campaign, in either case helping listeners imagine themselves battling a horde of trolls and goblins or pondering your blue crystal orb in the highest castle keep. With only their debut this new supergroup from the Denver Colorado area have set a real feather in the cap for their ever growing musical scene.
On their 6th album,Primordial Arcana, Wolves in the Throne Room have in a number of ways reinvented themselves, and it might well be my favorite album ever from them. Most Wolves in the Throne Room albums are filled with over-ten-minute long epics, sometimes reaching towards 15 or 20, while here only a single track breaks the ten minute mark (and only by a little). The short track lengths also exhibit a songwriting focus and editing down of excess to the point where one is no longer sometimes lost in the woods but generally walking on a clear path, a change that perhaps started with their last album. New second guitarist Kody Keyworth, formerly of legendary Pacific Northwesterners Fall of the Bastards, really makes his presence felt as lead guitar work and actual solos, as so expertly played on lead single "Mountain Magic," are expertly interwoven into the songs.
Keys also play a very positive note throughout the album in adding atmospheric touches and even melodic flourishes as heard delicately on a track like "Masters of Rain and Storm" in part reminiscent of Dead Can Dance. The totality of the changes makes the bands sound closer to the more nature-and-atmospheric based second wave black metal bands that influenced Wolves in the Throne Room in their origins but it’s still undeniably a Wolves in the Throne Room album, just now refined and edited in my esteem to near perfection—a perfection that personally created a sublime moment while I was traveling across the country earlier this year. As I drove at night, ever wary of a potential deer or elk, crossing through the rocky mountains of Utah into Western Colorado with crashing lightning breaking across the treetops, the storm kept a steady pace ahead of me as I finally left the mountainous woods for a valley where the storm played with the open sky like an electric brush upon a black canvas. No album but Primordial Arcana could have elevated that moment in time to such rapturous splendor that I’m still in awe thinking back to it.
Two years ago I placed Mork’s previous work, Det svarte juv, as my eighth favorite album of the year and here they are again, this time one step higher in my list! Now, do I think their fifth release, Katedralen, is a better album? Well, it's hard to say, and I certainly wouldn't proclaim it as such, rather instead insisting I judged the album at least for this list amongst it’s 2021 contemporaries rather than against the band’s own past. What I can say is that for a comfortable fist to the face of pure, albeit modern, Norwegian black metal, Mork delivers once again. While still rooted in a Darkthrone approach, the album has a production as clear and warm as one would expect on recent Satyricon. The album’s title of Katedralen is Norwegian for "The Cathedral," which fits not only David Thiérrée’s superbly grim cover art, but fits as well the opening and closing organ contributions by Eero Pöyry of doom legends Skepticism, which in particular leave a truly satisfying feeling for album's end. Other guest appearances show up, including Darkthrone's Nocturno Culto and Kampfar's Dolk, but it's Mork mastermind Thomas Eriksen's songwriting chops that again elevate his work beyond the black metal masses and makes it a must for my year end list.
For some further deep diving into Mork check out thepodcast interview conducted with Eriksen earlier in the year.
For a decade plus now, Hooded Menace have been carving their name deep in the pillar of doom metal, and at this point their mark is indelible. I hadn’t been much of a follower of theirs, admittedly, until catching them live at the 2016 edition of the California Deathfest and a subsequent tour date in Los Angeles, where at both shows they absolutely blew me off my feet . With my ears primed for their crushing "blind dead" doom metal via Finland, I received their 2018 release Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed with perhaps their most melodic approach yet, with a fair number of nods to Paradise Lost’s classic run in the 1990’s. This year saw the release of their sixth album, The Tritonus Bell, which somehow even increased the melodicism and Paradise Lost worship while adding some very clear love for classic 1980s heavy metal. Songs like "Blood Ornaments" and "Corpus Asunder" exhibit the latter development perfectly with galloping-paced riffs straight from a King Diamond album. If that wasn't enough, they finish off with perhaps one of the finest W.A.S.P. covers ever, offering their rendition of "The Torture Never Stops." While my bias lies in hopping aboard this doom train far later than some of their earlier fans, it’s still unmistakable to me that by taking their original sound into newer frontiers of melody and songwriting, they’ve crafted a true gem in heavy metal history.
In my 2019 top albums list I had Idle Hands' debut release, Mana, as my favorite album of the year. Given their brand new start, I felt it was pretty reckless to put them at the head of the pack, but two years later I feel no regrets in doing that. Now, though, with a forced name change and larger label support behind them, they've seemingly dropped to fifth on my list, but, as referenced with Mork similarly moving in listing, I feel it's a reflection more what else I’ve been listening to this year than a reflection of any band's development in their discography. Now if a band didn’t even make this list as a repeat... that's a different story.
Back for the September 2021 Roundup I discussed the album, saying:
With Strength as the next musical step in their future, Unto Others certainly are capable of standing confidently on any large stage they are given. The core of the band’s sound remains intact, a triumphant traditional metal sound with touches of the melancholic and lead singer/songwriter Gabe Franco’s expressive baritone that push it towards gothic rock. Imagine a fist-raised hesher draped in denim and leather yet teary eyed, toting under the other arm books from Neil Gaiman and Edgar Allan Poe. All of this is expertly crafted into single-length songs bursting with catchy hooks that will have you singing or swaying in your car or at a festival. Developing on that core, though, is a more crystal clear production than debut Mana managed along with flourishes of more extreme influences like some straight up black/death metal shrieks and riffs straight from a Slayer album as noticed on cuts like opener “Heroin”. Almost every track could work as a radio hit, though the surprise cover of Pat Benatar’s 1980 “Hell is for Children” could easily blow the band up into higher realms. With well-crafted material still dripping out like overflowing honey and the support of deep pockets, Unto Others have the opportunity to conquer the world with their infectious brand of gloom.
I'm usually a little wary when a band releases a brand new album only a year after their previous release, even though many a classic band did so back in the 1970s and 80s, but when the occasion is a new Lamp of Murmuur album, then, please, throw all caution to the side and intravenously tap that sweet, sweet dark black metal dark coffee into my veins. The project's second full length, Submission and Slavery, is so economical, clocking in at just under 33 minutes (with two atmospheric tracks filling out what’s essentially just three main songs on the album proper), making one think this is maybe an EP. However, after so many listens, I can’t help but think of it as a complete work that further addition would actually be a detriment.
Musically, the album pulls even more from traditional heavy metal and a lot from gothic rock that continues the bands hook-heavy, riff-filled composition style mixed with atmospheric blacklit dance floor vibes. The goth presence being made even more explicit on the album cover's clear tribute to The Sisters of Mercy's Floodland (though their album First and Last and Always is the closer musical inspiration), and in a closing cover of Christian Death’s "As Evening Falls." What can't go without mention, though, is the truly curveball clean tone guitar solo on "Deformed Erotic Visage" that brings Dire Straits to mind, but here functions as a contrasting element to help the song reach a fever pitch of emotional release. In such a short time, Lamp of Murmuur have made their stamp on the global black metal scene by pulling from traditional and experimental sources to craft music that will surely help define the impression of the genre for this decade.
I wasn’t necessarily expecting a new Darkthrone album this year, because for a while now, since 2010's Circle the Wagons, they had pretty consistently held out for three years between releases. This break in the absurd monotony of existence without a new Darkthrone comes thanks to their 19th release in Eternal Hails...…. Much fuss was made in the online metal world about those ellipses. Is it a joke? Some secret morse code message? Or is the band finally succumbing to a brain disease only found in deep Norwegian woods? For me, it doesn’t fucking matter! This is Darkthrone! All is simultaneously sacred and profane in the best of ways when you hear that first righteous riff, those thudding 1970s drums, and the croak of men too old and far too cold to care what you think.
Now rarely, and certainly recently, does a Darkthrone album sound the exact same as the one that came before it and that’s certainly again the case here in a few ways. The production choices stand out in how more subdued and almost muffled or muddy it sounds at first, though that quickly gives away to realize while it might be dripping in wet molasses that the instrumentation comes across crystal clear. It sounds like if a big 1970’s rock band were in a legit studio but wanting to go "lo-fi." On top of that, this is the fewest number of tracks ever on a Darkthrone album, with only five beefy songs ranging from seven to ten minutes, culminating in a very sweet spot of 42 minutes worth of ripping metal. Stylistically, Darkthrone are continuing on the trend of doom metal, or "slow heavy metal" as I recall Fenriz stating, they’ve been performing on their previous two albums, though here the "slow metal" parts really begin to reveal themselves as at times the riffs and drumming feel more like slower parts from classic metal bands. A middle ground for that might be to think of this album in the vein of Witchfinder General and Pentagram, as it absolutely swings and rocks even though nothing is exceptionally fast. It might be convenient to say Darkthrone are "old dogs still learning tricks," certainly in the case of including a analog synth outro as a first, but Fenriz and Nocturno Culto would likely insist they’re still grasping for that golden memory of the band’s heyday in the late 1980s. "It was a miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!"
Not far back at all for the October 2021 Roundup I praised this album and as it turns out it ranks as my favorite "metal" album of 2021, though not my number one album for this list. You can figure out that below but for now here’s what I had to say about this crushing release:
Worm’s third release Foreverglade came out of nowhere for me, which is exactly the kind of album I cherish to experience and the dearth of those experiences this year has made this instance all the sweeter. Their last album seemed to get some press, but it totally flew under my radar till I heard rumblings of hype from friends and colleagues about this next release. At first glance, I was a bit dismissive that it would sound like the sort of modern old-school-leaning death metal that more often than not hits the right sounds but is neither imaginative nor playful in songcraft. What I got instead is possibly one of the best death/doom metal releases of the year—potentially the best of the decade.
The band started as a black metal project, but that genre connection is far more tangential these days—though, it's still strikingly prominent in their promotional photos and occasional video interviews where they’re dressed head to toe like they’re ready to cut a music video in the deep Norwegian woods rather than anywhere near their Miami, Florida hometown. Instead, the dominant sound on the album is a near perfect encapsulation of tribute and genuine inspiration born from modern death/doom metal heroes like Evoken and Hooded Menace. However, the breadth of elements brought in elevates the album above limitations rather than keeping it like a log trapped in swampy muck.
It reaches a perfect balance of ethereal and haunted keys along with punctuations of lead guitar work laced over the crushing riffs adding just the right amount of melodic melancholy. Occasional guitar solos feel torn right from classic 1980’s metal guitar gods but never feel out of place with the song’s structure. Beyond the clear influential bands mentioned before, some sections surprise such as the early My Dying Bride-like riff that pops up midway on “Cloaked in Nightwinds,” the opening of “Centuries of Ooze” feeling right at home on a classic Cradle of Filth album, and “Empire of the Necromancers” at a certain point goes barreling at a speed beyond any doom metal right back to late 90’s Scandinavian melodic black metal. All those elements combined offer a supremely brilliant album worthy of its place alongside today’s heavy hitting contemporaries and yesteryear’s legends.
So let’s get this out of the way... Perturbator, the brainchild of one James Kent, have not suddenly gone full metal on this year’s Lustful Sacraments, even though that album has seen them continue into expanses of sound beyond what synthwave can wholly encompass.
I know it’s not a well received term by many [including his editor], but I categorize something like most of Perturbator's music as "metal adjacent," which isn’t to be dismissive of the non-metal traditions at play on this album, but rather to point out the work as a whole is in conversation with metal. For example, I'm not so sure Taylor Swift or BTS are in conversation with metal, at least currently, given it’s not the kind of music you hear played between metal bands sets and certainly don’t much mix up with metal bands at festivals, of which Perturbator has. Nor have those artists played in black metal bands in their younger days nor been covered by grindcore legends. To cap this defense I’ll quote from my intro to the interview with Kent I conducted earlier this year where I said, "Celtic Frost were no strangers to incorporating vastly divergent sounds to their art, and I’m often reminded of a quote from that group’s legendary member Martin Eric Ain who once said, 'There are many-many more shades and colors to darkness than just black.'"
With that addressed, let's look at what Lustful Sacraments really encompasses a beautifully crafted blend of his synthwave roots with a further emphasis on goth rock velvet darkness, post-punk disjointed dancing, and apocalyptic industrial menace to shape atmospheres rich enough to color a Philip K. Dick or J.G. Ballard novel. Those writers most famously constructed by typewriter and penned cinematic worlds that sometimes Hollywood has helped visualize, and it’s that trait that rings throughout Kents latest work, a fully cinematic world that shifts to the mind of every viewer.
With the album functioning like the VR helmet/dream-hallucination recorder from Videodrome I plunge into an avatar of myself in opening track "Reaching Xanadu," waking up from a haze in bed, running to the bathroom to purge and in return pour down designer stimulants to get my mind running fast enough to control the car I’m hoping into. The glass I used to swallow water with the pills falls to the floor shattering as I slam the car door. The title track "Lustful Sacraments" pulses as I drive through the neon-drenched megapolis by highway with life perpetually moving above and below. The only organic light penetrating my view being the fires burning to warm miniature necropolis of the pariah homeless or from the molotov cocktails exploding upon police vans as riots rage in a city that will not care to do anything about the unrest other than stamp it out. I reach my destination deep in the beating heart of the beast that is "Excess," where the doped and blissed out bodies of the privileged heave and twist upon bright dancefloors bustling with lights crawling all around like electric centipedes. The song's outro winddown shifts into "Secret Devotion" as I leave the dancefloor for the siderooms of debauched privacy where I’m to meet my contact. Waiting on an old ripped leather couch, I bear witness to politicians and gangsters haggling over human life like children's toys while surrounded by scenes of dancefloor rituals exploding into even darker manifestations of sex and violence. Here, then, we reach the "Death of the Soul," and the hallucinatory machine recording my mind has malfunctioned leaving no further data to leer and dissect.
This was just one of many worlds that I’ve introspectively conjured while listening to the works of James Kent's Perturbator, and none so expertly crafted as this year’s Lustful Sacraments. For many a lot of metal is a sonic journey to worlds dark, foreboding, and turbulent that lie every presently below the surface of our minds and hearts. These realms are opened just well by the techno-sorcery of Perturbator and for it being the path I’ve enjoyed taking the most this year it deserves my proclamation as the best album of 2021.