Ted Nubel’s Top Albums of 2021
Well, hey, we're just a few days away from the end of my first year as co-editor-in-chief of Invisible Oranges. It's been a lot different from the year I spent as a writer, mainly in that I've sent a lot more emails and spent a lot more time in Wordpress, but our acquisition (by proxy of BrooklynVegan being acquired) by Project M has also changed things up. We now have a budget for writers, which makes me feel a lot better about nagging people to get things in on time.
It's been a great year: we've started a podcast (not abandoned—there'll be another episode out before the end of the year!) and run a ton of great content, including some absurdly in-depth interviews and cool columns [take a spin through our features]. Working together with Jon to get all of that out of the door meant I was exposed to a ton of music that I wouldn't have found on my own, which might be my favorite thing about being an editor, after getting to work with heaps of great writers: any gaps in my musical discovery are plugged with the sweet stuff everyone else wants to write about.
Between that and listening to an ungodly amount of music to put out our Upcoming Releases column, the top twenty you see below comes from a pretty large pool, but don't mistake that to mean this is meant to be all-encompassing—I know for a fact there's records that deserve to be on here that I just couldn't get to mesh with my brain. Frankly, if anyone tells you their year-end list is somehow "complete," they're delusional. In his list, Jon was able to enumerate the records he felt like he needed to listen more to this year; mine are currently an unorganized mob locked in a deep, dark corner of my mind. Maybe next year?
Before we get to the list proper, I wanted to lay out a few of my favorite EPs, since what follows is all full-lengths:
Flesh of the Stars—Mirror/Vessels EP: Melodic doom has never been so persuasively narrative, and rarely is it as beautifully composed as here. While we wait for a full-length follow-up to Mercy, this shall definitely suffice. [Interview]
Entierro—El Camazotz EP: If combining a promising upcoming Maryland doom with ex-Fates Warning guitarist Victor Arduini seems like a weird fever-dream-mashup, well, turns out it's reality. The band's shift to aggressive heavy-metal-meets-stoner-doom on their latest EP was a thing of wonders, and apparently convincing enough to get them a "Heavy Metal (Later)" addition to their genre tag on Metal Archives.
Sahara—The Curse EP: Recorded live and graced with album art straight out of a middle-school sketchbook, The Curse recaptures a precise balance between sub-par recording quality and pleasing saturation/distortion generally only seen in shitty cassette demos from the 1980s, and uses that as a vivid canvas for their proto-metal hijinks. If you enjoy stuff like Bedemon's Child of Darkness, definitely hit this.
And with that, on to my top records of 2021.
20. Spillage – Electric Exorcist (Qumran Records, USA)
19. Demiser – Through the Gate Eternal (Blacklight Media, USA)
18. Mono – Pilgrimage (Temporary Residence, Japan/USA) [Interview]
17. Fortress – Don't Spare the Wicked (High Roller Records, USA)
16. Suffering Hour – The Cyclic Reckoning (Profound Lore Records, USA)
15. Dungeon Serpent – World of Sorrows (Nameless Grave Records, Canada)
14. Mehenet – Ng'Ambu - Onde Exu Acena Como Uma Fogueira (Gilead Media/Stygian Black Hand, USA)
13. Tower – Shock to the System (Cruz del Sur Music, USA)
12. Dream Unending – Tide Turns Eternal (20 Buck Spin, International)
11. Kal-El – Dark Majesty (Majestic Mountain Records, Norway) [Track-by-Track]
Riptime came as a late-in-the-year surprise to me—good thing I didn't publish this list until later in the month, huh? It was about halfway through the album, as I was listening to "Tinker Tanner," that I realized just how good this was: even a song that seems to be a merchant listing what he's got for sale is a complete banger. Mega Colossus, formerly known as Colossus, has always been kind of insane—I remember seeing them play live in Chicago around 2016 and being impressed, yet confused, as they calmly announced their name change on stage while delivering a tight and frenetic set. Riptime distills this insanity into an electrifying burst of heavy metal that seems to have absolutely no lulls and hops frantically from one magnetizing riff to the next. Though I'd generally label this as traditional metal, its breakneck pace sometimes puts it within the realms of speed and power metal, too.
Extremely catchy and technically astounding, Riptime's only possible weakness is that it might not be the most cohesive work of all time, but that idiosyncrasy is what makes a lot of heavy metal so long-lasting. Sometimes I want albums to dazzle me moment to moment, and I'll let the entrenching power of dozens of listens enforce the continuity for me.
At first, Bushmeat seems like a gross, knuckle-dragging approach to death metal. And it is—guard your brain cells and your stomach carefully when listening to this—but along with the primitive, threatening riffs and grotesque vocals comes an unexpected edge of, dare I say, intellect? Often diving into slow and doomy territory, Dipygus works in malevolent harmonies even in the midst of its most bloodthirsty feasts, and it pockets catchy hooks between gut-wrenching violence to make its grisly fun especially memorable. Throw in some chilling samples here and there, and Bushmeat never fully left my mind this year.
Stoner rock was my inroads to heavy metal as a whole, and I've listened to enough of it that it really takes something special to catch my ear. After all, there's only so many ways you can rehash Volume 4 or half-heartedly play blues licks through a Matamp, right?
Canyyn's debut record immediately stood out to me. They take the proto-metal-doom threat that Black Sabbath helped originate and merge it with soulful, heartfelt blues sensibility that hits on an entirely different level. While not at all shy about their core influence (they've played entire Sabbath sets before, and knocked out an impromptu "Into the Void" cover at their album release party), it's merged in with a broader palette of musical tastes (in my interview with them, both the Allman Brothers and Hawkwind were referenced, and Between the Buried and Me off-transcript)—and the level of technical competence and creativity found within the expressive stoner-doom-blues on Canyyn goes way beyond idle fascination. Tapping into the power-trio format that's never gone out of style, Mike Fetzer's lead guitar heroics can, and do, steal the show, but bassist Dan Rovak's vocals are equally impressive, both backed by nuanced, in-the-pocket drumming that crushes at slow tempos and keeps the tempo groovy as it ramps up.
Big, mean, and ugly doom is great, but so is the epic and beautiful stuff—and bonus points if it's kind of weird to boot. On Preserved in Time, Wheel excels at cultivating an atmosphere that's not just epic and doomy, but eccentric as well: meaning that I really wish I had a big comfy cloak or a wizard staff around just to match the mood. Simply enormous riffs and majestic, wistful vocals trigger mental fog machines, reverberating as endlessly as the album title suggests. They absolutely crush the traditional side of doom metal, as every slow-paced riff gets my head nodding immediately, but there's some less conventional parts, like the aggressive introductory riff to "At Night They Came Upon Us" and the bordering-on-disco beat halfway through "Aeon of Darkness" that cascades back into the mighty chorus. While they revere the genre's mighty past, Wheel put a new spin on the stately side of doom metal.
Black Sites is 'traditional heavy metal' in that they rely on driving rhythms, melodic guitar lines, and clean vocals arranged into choruses and verses, and in doing so, sound like the early form of the genre, but they're progressive in that their songwriting isn't just a carbon copy of what people were doing forty years ago. This leads to the honestly useless genre tag of "Heavy/Progressive" on Metal Archives, but when you get down to it, no short phrase is ever going to tell the full story.
I didn't quite 'get it' when they first came onto my radar with the release of Exile in 2019, but Untrue shook me from my stupor and clearly illustrated their unusual appeal. Very few records, traditional or progressive or whatever, sound like this—and while uniqueness isn't necessarily a good thing (as hours of trawling independent releases on Bandcamp will reveal to you), Black Sites' dynamic heavy metal is invigorating in a way little else this year was. As I noted when I premiered "Sword of Orion":
[On] Untrue, Black Sites forges a progressive assault that strikes deep with clever riffs and soaring melodies, continuing their singularly elevated brand of heavy metal that goes beyond retro worship. While it retains the classical appeal of catchy twin-guitar metal, Untrue captures not only the heart but the imagination as it explores the incredibly lucrative potential of enriching the tried-and-true with heavy instrumental prowess and an ear for tasty hooks.
Spiral Grave was formed after founding Iron Man guitarist and vocalist Al Morris' passing in 2018, with the rest of Iron Man's last lineup enlisting Lord guitarist Willy Rivera to round out the bill. So, in a way, it's kind of a bummer that this record exists, but on the other hand, Spiral Grave is a worthy follow-up to the fantastic legacy of Iron Man and a mighty force in their own right. As part of the lineage of "Maryland doom," Spiral Grave takes the heavy tones and sensibilities of doom metal and melds them to their own purposes, mixing British proto-doom and Southern metal with nary a hint of disagreement between the two. Bass and drums weave their own syncopated and fill-full path around Rivera's snappy riffing, while "Screaming Mad Dee" Calhoun's gritty, powerful vocals set the whole album, which seems to be doused in motor oil and whiskey, alight. Legacy of the Anointed keeps coming with one inventive hook after another, and then doubles down on the hooks with head-nodding verses and unexpected diversions.
Not every album in a year-end list needs a flowery writeup—the fewer words between you and listening to Slay in Hell, the better. To put it briefly, "Slay in Hell" is about as pure a manifestation of the primal, body-moving energy that inspired the entirety of extreme metal as possible. From the throat-ripping vocals to the adrenaline-pumping riffs, every aspect of this album is a thrill.
I've definitely described more than one band this year as having 'memorable lead lines,' but no band has done a better job of that this year than Herzel. The hook on "Maîtres de l'Océan" is easily up there with any Maiden melody I can think of, and it's couched in energetic heavy metal that piles on tight riffs and powerful momentum, managing to make an eight-minute opener song seem all too short.
The album only gets better from there, bringing in eclectic instrumentation and showcasing the band's versatility as they weave dramatic narratives that never seem to drag, whether at a gallop or a slow, confident stride. The vocals are quite high in the mix, which heavily pays off here—too often bands bury them to disguise flaws or keep the guitars as a centerpiece. Instead, the stellar instrumentals get plenty of time to shine on their own, but the flawless and impassioned vocal delivery serves as a centerpiece that helps give Le Dernier Rempart the authenticity it needs to stick around.
Pale Swordsman absolutely nails something I've been wanting in my black metal since I first heard the genre, but could have never identified beforehand: legitimately intriguing gothic horror. It tells a vivid story, painting the plight of a wandering vampire in lovely shades of black and white. Gloomy fantasy and wistful regret swirl within its tremolo riffs and crude blast beats, evoking fantastic imagery in the mind's eye. Even without reading the lyrics (which are impressively poetic), the protagonist's misery, struggle, and forlorn love shine through. With some great riffs and choruses ("wandering in the night, Pale Swordsman HEEUGH,") a legitimately badass black metal heart beats at the center of the record, but gentle interludes, occasional embellishments, and even some clean vocals on the final track break up the flow and, rather than distract, help make the returns to black metal proper that much more dramatic. Pale Swordsman is great black metal, but it also tells its story with exceptional aplomb.
Being a fan of retro doom metal is often a recipe for late-career disappointment: bands come along with an exciting take on the genre, get our hopes up for follow-up records, and then—I dunno, wander off into artsy prog rock territory, decide to mix in goth rock, or do something else decidedly non-traditional. While I don't begrudge bands for following their own paths, generally speaking, and a lot of these excursions can be good, they do nothing for my bordering-on-harmful addiction to classic doom riffs.
But Lucifer, four albums deep, shows no signs of straying from the path they walk on, one that draws from classic, occult rock like Roky Erikson and Blue Öyster Cult as well as Pentagram—and yet they're still improving and pushing the bar on retro doom worship. For the most part, they operate in that 'sweet spot' where it sounds kind of like the classics but without feeling derivative—it helps that they've got a phenomenal lineup involved, including Nicke Andersson (ex-Entombed, The Hellacopters, and so much more) and Martin Nordin of Dead Lord. Johanna Sadonis' (ex-The Oath) vocals, saturated to the point of near-distortion, croon over the groovy riffs like an apparition. Seeming almost supernatural in presence, she lends the band the occult atmosphere they sort of need with a name like Lucifer.
Lucifer IV is a finely-oiled machine of hooks, riffs, and absurdly cool grooves, dressed with appropriately spooky keyboard/synth accompaniment and goosebump-raising interludes. It calls back to a lost era without coming off as a lazy imitation, but more importantly it stands on its own as a rousing execution of hard rock, doom, and heavy metal, another impeccable tombstone in the band's growing mausoleum.