Jon Rosenthal’s Top Albums of 2021
I've been with Invisible Oranges for six and a half years now. Can you believe it? In relative terms, I've been here as long as legendary site founder Cosmo Lee's tenure (from 2006 to 2012). It's really bizarre to think about that, especially with Invisible Oranges being a site I perused while Cosmo ran and actively wrote for the site. I guess you could say I've been here a long time -- maybe not as long as some of our writers (looking at you, Rowella), but pretty dang long -- and it's strange when putting it in terms of my last website, which lasted two years (three if you count the year I ran two reviews and bailed on doing a year-end list). I think a lot about what keeps me here at this particular website. It's hard to describe, especially on the frustrating days, but I'm still here.
When Relapse Records' Enrique Sagarnaga reached out to me saying Invisible Oranges needed a new "Upcoming Releases" guy, I really weighed my options. I was functionally retired at the time, having put The Inarguable to bed and feeling free from the prison of opinion, but… I'm very opinionated, and at the time I was young and stupid so I had opinions about everything. I kind of fell into the position after a phone call with Joseph, and suddenly I had this megaphone. I was writing for Invisible Oranges. That was weird, y'all! I really let the dam burst, and I got a few years of being really opinionated out of it.
Now? I don't know. I have a lot to say, but it all comes out garbled. I've been trying to figure out exactly what I've learned during my time here at Invisible Oranges, and honestly all I've learned is stuff about bands. That's my passion -- attaining knowledge and giving context, and that is why I'm still here. I want to learn -- I want to learn about and from music. I want to listen to everything and I want to speak with artists whose music has been an inspiration, even in the smallest way. So I can learn. Opinion seems kind of separate from what I want now. I just want to capture and document.
What I'm trying to say is you might see me as less of a "critical" voice here and more of an "educational" one. I've been reevaluating my voice and what "opinion" has become in the Metal Music Internet doesn't jive with me anymore. Writing superlatives about every new release just doesn't interest me. I'll still share new music and write about it (with the expectation that whatever I cover is hopefully decent), but I don't feel the need to be an extension of the PR campaign anymore. Hopefully we'll get to learn cool stuff together.
With that in mind, here is something critical: a list of my favorite albums released in 2021. I listened to a lot of music this year, as is the case with every year, I guess, but this year felt heftier for some reason or another. As I was going through my list of favorites, there were a bunch of albums I liked but just didn't spend enough time with. These albums were really good, I just didn't really listen to them super often for some reason or another. I wanted to bring a few of these albums to your attention in hopes that you enjoy them. I'm going to spend more time listening to them, myself. Maybe year-end lists should be delayed a few months, huh?
Top 10 albums I feel like I should have listened to more this year (unordered):
Baazlvaat - The Higher Power (Labyrinth Tower, USA) (Classic Rock Black Metal? Thin Lizzy in corpse paint?)
Wormsblood - The Wildness (Brave Mysteries, USA) (Woodland Black Metal)
The Silver - Ward of Roses (Gilead Media, USA) (Prog Rock Black Metal?)
Atvm - Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless (Independent, England) (Progressive Weirdo Death Metal)
Tardigrada - Vom Bruch bis zur Freiheit (Eisenwald, Switzerland) (Atmospheric Black Metal)
Ethereal Shroud - Trisagion (Northern Silence Productions, England) (Atmospheric Blackened Funeral Doom Metal)
Plebeian Grandstand - Rien ne suffit (Debemur Morti Productions, France) (CHAOS)
Pan-Amerikan Native Front - Little Turtle's War (Independent/Nuclear War Now! Productions, USA) (Indigenous Black Metal of War!)
Grouper - Shade (Kranky, USA) (Liz Harris quietly whispering a lullaby as you drift off into sleep)
:Of the Wand & the Moon: - Your Love Can't Hold This Wreath Of Sorrow (Tesco, Denmark) (What if neofolk was psychedelic 60s pop?)
Now that you have ten hours of music to listen to, here's my list of current undeniable favorites. Ask me again in a year, though, and I'll probably tell you a different story about 2021 in music. Ah, the impermanence of it all. Bear in mind that these are all full-length albums -- no EPs, splits, demos, live albums, nor compilations. If I were to break that rule, though, I'd probably include the Bodom After Midnight EP, which I've listened to about 50 times. Also, they have to have been released in the 2021 calendar year, otherwise my Album of the Year every year would be Kvist's For kunsten maa vi evig vike. Oh, and before you ask "where's [band]?!" (or, if you're rude, you simply ask the band's name): know that is probably on your list and not mine. Funny how opinions differ.
Enjoy the rest of your year.
20. Trhä – Endlhëtonëg (Independent/Labyrinth Tower, Unknown)
19. Këkht Aräkh – Pale Swordsman (Livor Mortis, Ukraine)
18. Poison Ruïn – Poison Ruïn (Urge Records, USA)
17. Primeval Well – Talkin' in Tongues with Mountain Spirits (Moonlight Cypress Archetypes, USA)
16. Noltem – Illusions in the Wake (Transcending Obscurity Records, USA)
15. Paysage d'Hiver – Geister (Kunsthall Produktion, Switzerland)
14. Escumergamënt – ...ni degu fazentz escumergament e mesorga... (Avantgarde Music, Sweden)
13. Grey Aura – Zwart Vierkant (Onism Productions/Kunstlicht, Netherlands)
12. Efterbild – En flod av tid (Reclusion Records, Sweden)
11. Skepticism – Companion (Svart Records, Finland)
I put on my headphones and suddenly it's 1998 again. That's how Colorado-based symphonic black metal troupe Stormkeep truly succeeds. This is a love letter to the beginning of black metal's extravagant years, when musicianship really started to take hold and black metal bands embraced being musicians instead of conservative stylistic conduits. Mastermind Isaac Faulk (who you might recognize behind the Blood Incantation and Wayfarer's drum kits) weaves a dramatic tale with equally striking art.
Derrick Vella (Tomb Mold) and Justin DeTore (Innumerable Forms, Mind Eraser et al) find an expressive and emotional means of finding the middle ground between early gothic-inspired death/doom metal and the dream pop and darkwave which dominated labels like 4AD and Projekt in the 80s and early 90s. The result? As a death/doom metal band, Dream Unending is certainly heavy, but not harrowing like its predecessors. Instead, Tide Turns Eternal's celebration of life and the indomitable essence of the human spirit fully embraces the "dream doom" tag the band self-imbued.
It's fucking BLACK METAL, spelled in all caps and in a gothic font. Gallows is meant to be a traditional foray into black metal's formative years, and this Denver/Salem duo certainly capture that era's magick and musical values. Vocalist Mouth of Greed's manic yowling and hooting pairs perfectly with multi-instrumentalist Lord Elzevir's (later revealed to be I'm in a Coffin guitarist Adorable) night-worshipping riffcraft, and the 66 riffs which comprise 66 Black Wings (not a coincidence) hearken back to glory days of violent, unfriendly black metal made by frowning faces in monochrome.
Spaceman Jake goes for the gold and makes his most metallic record yet. Solar Paroxysm's riff-heavy and more blackened presence places itself apart from solo artist Jacob Buczarski's historic forays into deep space's more beautiful and atmospheric aspects. A logical conclusion from Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine's steps towards aggression, Mare Cognitum goes all in on power and strength, resulting in his best album to date. This was the record Mare Cognitum was meant to make.
Yes, of course you've heard this record, and with good reason. Sole creator M.'s previous releases are each masterworks in raw black metal riffcraft (except for the dungeon synth EP, which also rules), but it's on Submission and Slavery where we begin to find more character in this enigmatic artist's works. As evidenced by the cover's tribute to The Sisters of Mercy's Floodland, Lamp of Murmuur's latest album takes quite a bit from post-punk and heavy gothic rock, giving the album more of a spooky, almost Halloween-like atmosphere.
It's the right time of year for this album. Cradle of Judah's "gothic folk" (read as: neofolk) walks the walk with its minimal and folk-inspired instrumentation, but it's with songwriter Gabe Durkee's rich vocal harmonies that this album sets itself apart from your everyday neofolk project. Cradle of Judah carries a profound sadness, one which even makes a cover of The Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire" sound dour.
John Darnielle's work as The Mountain Goats is the stuff of legend. Coming from recording directly into a boombox to crafting this elegantly dark folk rock album is quite the "glow up," but the spirit remains the same. Dark In Here's heavy emphasis on Americana and Western-style musics sets it apart from the band's more indie rock-focused sound, focusing on opulent textures and practiced full-band composing and orchestration to bring forth an incredible album.
Markus "Schwadorf" Stock has an ear for the past, especially his own. Understanding Empyrium's stance in a niche, Romantic scene is part of it, but it took understanding the person he was when he made those first two metal albums in the mid-90s and the person he's become two decades later. Being able to reconcile those two halves and find his own identity, one beyond his influences and instead looking inside at what made Empyrium his music: a doomed, folk-inspired metallic sound full of longing and despair. Though obviously inspired by Empyrium's salad days as a metal band prior to pivoting to a neofolk and progressive rock mid-period (and a lengthy break), Über den Sternen picks up right where Empyrium left off in 1997, but with a few years of added wisdom. As such, the musicianship and songwriting take this album on a more complex path than its predecessors, but it is still unmistakably Empyrium.
I love Circle of Ouroborus, especially when they concentrate on their more metallic half, not unlike the legendary split with Urfaust or their Armon Keitaalla album. Kiromantia, the band's sole release this year, draws from that same pool of dreamy post-punk and unconventional black metal which made them an underground staple, but with a distinctly autumnal vibe. As opposed to an onslaught of demos, albums, and splits, Circle of Ouroborus shows what the masters of hazy melancholy can really do when they are given ample time to do it, and I truly believe the space Rauta and Antti Klemi put between releases shows. Though some might find Klemi's vocals off-putting, there is a primordial sadness to his pitchy, warbling voice which wouldn't come across as powerful in a more traditional performance. Though I miss the days when I could get up to ten Circle of Ouroborus releases in a year's time, the potency found within this single public 2021 release can be felt, and it is quite a statement in a massive discography.
Like my favorite band of all time wasn't going to make the best album of 2021. Shame on you for thinking otherwise. Following in Double Negative's electronics-heavy footsteps, HEY WHAT takes that last album's musical concept to an extreme. Noise-heavy and laden with difficult, cranky textures, Low's latest opus is an exercise in pop music's resilience. How far can Low and their producer take their simple, harmony-rich indie rock (slowcore, but not really anymore) songs and stretch their musical base? At times resembling a Cold Meat Industry record, at others a sun-baked psychedelic pop dream, Low's volume worship has completely turned the public's idea about their music on its head. Once a band who would retaliate against outside noise by turning down their speakers and singing even quieter, HEY WHAT's HNP (Harsh Noise Pop) ushers in a new era for this long-standing band.