There are few genres more inherently focused on the underground than the niche fusion of black/thrash metal. A special handful of bands have managed to get on and stay on big labels- particularly classic ones like Desaster, who have a new album coming later this year on Metal Blade- but for most of them, a significantly smaller label is the end of the line.

With this lack of visibility, it’s not always easy to follow new black/thrash releases without a significant amount of effort, and weeding out the try-hards and have-nots from the quality bands can be hard. Fortunately, this has been a really solid year for the genre and there have been some really cool releases so far. To save you the effort of finding them, here are three of the best black/thrash albums to be released thus far in 2021, in alphabetical order.

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DemiserThrough the Gate Eternal (Boris Records)

I have to admit that I was a little skeptical of this one going in. With band members using pseudonyms like “Gravepisser” and “Phalomancer,” I expected something rather less serious with a level of quality to match. That is not the case. Demiser, for whatever silliness they get up to on their own time (“just southern drunken boys,” according to a friend), are dead serious about the music that they write and it shows in each lovingly-crafted song why Boris Records partnered with them for the vinyl release of Through the Gate Eternal.

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The label itself describes the band as “European black thrash mixed with early Teutonic and American thrash” and that’s not at all a bad description. Tightly played, razor-sharp traditional black/thrash riffs a la Nifelheim or Aura Noir will rage on and then out of nowhere morph into a groovy Exodus riff with a rock solo over the top, or turn a section of Destruction-worship into Motörhead licks without warning. The juxtaposition of that more straightforward, oft-repeated classic European black/thrash sound with the outside influences gives the album the kick to really stand out from their peers; rather than being yet another band playing second-tier Aura Noir worship, they’re a band with obvious influences but their own sound.

More importantly than the core approach itself, Demiser write good songs that flow together without repeating themselves. Any part of the album can be a starting point, in a way, because each song has its own identity. The art of writing individually memorable and catchy songs is a difficult one; the fact that Demiser has earworm choruses (“RENOUNCE YOUR FUCKING SON!”) and a good amount of dynamics of songwriting is worth a hell of a lot. Some songs are more melodic, stuffed full of long tremolo melodies, while others launch into more traditional thrash attacks, carefully balanced with a song order put together to keep each new song feeling fresher than the last. That variety is especially laudable in an environment where bands seem to be afraid to make songs that sound different from each other. Despite being one of the most varied records in this style in recent memory, the band’s overall singularity of will is enough to keep all of it sounding like a part of the same album.

From moment to moment, the members' skills and techniques propel each track to sadistic greatness. Special note has to go to the vocalist, Demiser the Demiser, who has a grim tone and ear for catchy vocal lines, and to the drummer, Infestor, for his gunfire approach to thrashing torment when hitting the skins. The speed and inventiveness of the drums are a good portion of why the album works- Infestor has an amazing ear for when to go absolutely insane, and the chops to back it up, but he’s not afraid to go into a skank to properly accent a riff. Combined with guitars that aren’t afraid to jump from chugging to tremolos to power chords to leads and back, Through the Gate Eternal is a dynamic, devilish powerhouse.

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Evil Possessed by Evil (Nuclear War Now! Productions)

"Witching metal" in Japan has a long tradition via the legendary Sabbat, who formed all the way back in the first half of the ‘80s and are killer live and on record to this day. Despite their long shadow looming over the global scene, the Japanese metal scene has never been known for black/thrash outside of Abigail and Abigail’s side project Barbatos. Evil disregard any lack of local stylistic popularity and continue in the finest of thrashing tradition, with a history of frantic riffs going back ten years.

After a four year gap, Evil are back with their second album, Possessed by Evil, on long-running witching metal supports Nuclear War Now! Productions. From the brutal drum-only opening and the rocking solo over a simpler rhythm section that immediately follows it, Evil makes it clear that this isn’t a rehash of their first record (which, by the way, is well worth hitting) -- but neither is it a departure from form. The essence of Evil is ripping thrash, and it seems unlikely that there are any plans to ever drop that.

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There are really two core strains of black/thrash; the side that leans more towards the bands from before black metal was codified in the early 1990s, and the side that leans more into the sharper assault that came later on. On Possessed by Evil the attack is completely and utterly primordial, disregarding decades of development to play something that’s as likely to dive into a Motörhead riff (see: “Raizin”) as into something more rooted in Slayer or Bathory. Solos are simple, melodic, and catchy, aiming for memorability rather than to show off, which is a nice change from the standard chaotic approach for this subsection of metal. Lead guitar outside of the solos is mostly an afterthought- there are no complicated sections of layered harmony or huge twin guitar melodies, with almost every second of non-soloing dedicated towards huge riffs instead.

Much of the songwriting relies heavily on the combination vocal and drum attack to carry through simple power chords rather than on the rapidfire tremolos and chugs that are usually associated with the genre. Urgency and a sense of motion are the result of the entire instrumental collective of the band rather than via any particular instrumental performance or oft-abused genre trope. A general attitude of unhinged aggression in the vocals and inherent rawness of production (most notably on the drums) recalls the legendary Japanese hardcore scene, but a great mixing job, melodic solos, and some slower sections of consonance keep any of the hardcore influence from overpowering the metallic nature of the album; it enhances the effect rather than pulling it into another direction.

Despite the fact that the band largely doesn’t individually differ in any way from the bands that came before them instrumentally and despite a tendency towards borrowing small sections from the greats, their cohesiveness as a unit and the strong vision of the music keeps anything from coming across as hackneyed. Another strong point in Evil’s favor is their preference for shorter songs that don’t belabor the point, likely taken from the same local hardcore influence that went into the vocals and to the band’s overall production decisions; though the last two songs on the record stretch almost to the five minute mark, it still took the band 12 songs to hit the 36 minute threshold, and it feels fresh and tight across the duration of the album without ever feeling bloated.

Individual aspects of the record taken alone don’t tell the full picture of how the band makes everything come together. As a whole, Evil are at the top of their game. Having proven with their debut album Rites of Evil that they’re a force to be reckoned with, Possessed by Evil showcases their strength without any compromise and is one of the best albums in the style in recent years. Fans of flashy guitar playing and long, complicated songs might be disappointed here but those that long for the old days of filthy, ancient metal will find a lot to dig into.

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Transilvania Of Sleep and Death (Invictus Productions)

Some years ago, an impressive and fairly special black/thrash band from Austria called Triumphant dropped an album called “Herald the Unsung” that blew me away. Galloping riffs, tremendous melodies, and a mindfulness to thrash’s need to be forever ripping fast combined in a way that deeply appealed to my sensibilities, and the lack of a proper follow up remains to this day somewhat frustrating.

Flash forward a few years and the hype for a new black/thrash band with members of Triumphant reached my circles, and to my delight, the new band sounds somewhat similar to Triumphant’s lone album, Herald the Unsung, though the exact way that they handle things like production, the incorporation of melody, and other core aspects is fairly different. This year that newer band, Transilvania, has dropped their second album and it’s even better than their debut.

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An epic melody at the start of black metal epic “Opus Morbi” gives insight into the path that the album takes as a whole; melancholic, glorious, and dramatic, Transilvania aim to channel a darker undercurrent of melodic black metal into their thrashing roots to create something that’s nearly unique in the current scene. Gloomy melodies soar over moody rhythms as often as pounding black metal rages, but the melodies don’t overpower the songwriting balance- for every section replete with consonance is another of aggressive, pounding black/thrash of the oldest tradition, making for a variety even within individual songs that keeps it interesting the whole way through despite a tendency towards lengthier tracks that brings up the playtime of the album to a whopping 50 minutes.

Across Of Sleep and Death Transilvania make great use of their dual-guitar assault to add an extra layer, with harmonies, differentiated rhythm playing, and the occasional polyphonic line giving detail past the usual to the guitar playing, with details continuing to unfold across repeated listens of the album. It’s genuinely refreshing to hear a band in this style that’s dedicated to actually using both guitarists for something beyond filling out their live sound, with almost none of the playtime being wasted on unnecessary repetition on both guitars when some new rhythmic or lead intricacy could be introduced.

This additional depth stands almost at contrast with how fiendishly catchy the album is while also playing into it. Clever songwriting creates little earworms of a jangling melody played by one guitar while the other plays a sharp rhythm, or gloriously off-kilter rhythm sections where slightly out-of-time guitars in each channel create a sense of off-the-rails disorientation. The entire frantic approach of the guitar writing fits the ever-evolving nature of the album while also giving additional places for listeners to latch onto, with a lead melody often becoming a cornerstone of a song in the mind. Though not every section necessarily works, more than enough of it hits to make up for any shortcomings, and those themselves are rare and across repeated listens become more charming than anything.

Despite the commendable guitar playing, the album finds space for the other instruments without often feeling overly crowded. The vocals are a particular highlight throughout the course of the album, with frontman Possessor clearly crafting his lines with an attention to breathing room within the often-busy mix and with an ear for catchiness that few singers in modern black metal have. Particularly, the chorus of the title track has a tendency to latch in the head for days after a single listen through of the album, and his fierce snarl complements perfectly the production and musical choices that were made throughout the creation of the album; not many modern frontmen in black metal particularly stand out, but Possessor’s combination of killer tone and well-written vocal lines outshines much of the competition.

Drummer F.S. Hellblaster has a great dynamic sense of timing and beat selection, knowing when to accent a more melodic riff with a simpler skank as well as when to launch into aggressive blasts, and despite often sitting lower in the mix than is generally preferred for this genre does a splendid job of filling out and propelling the album in a way that most drummers could not pull off. His tendency towards playing simpler old school thrash and speed metal beats at opportune times is a large portion of why Of Sleep and Death works as well as it does; he can give a sense of gravitas to a riff that isn’t strong enough to handle more generic blasting as well as he can sit under one that needs a more restrained approach to ground out the insanity of the guitars.

Transilvania come across as a band that thinks through their songwriting and locks together in a way that is uncommon in an era of once-a-week rehearsals and albums given a fraction of the songwriting time that went into the greats. The thoughtful attention to detail in the songwriting complements a songwriting approach that leans towards ambitious epics, and how tightly the band rally together gives them the power to make their grand ideas work. Though the Transilvania guys are certainly playing black metal, they don't let ideas about genres or lineage constrain them, creating an experience as rewarding as it is deeply fun.

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