This year has been a tough one for me. While I usually don’t have too much difficulty in putting together a top 10, 2021 hasn’t been all that generous with its releases for me personally. I mean, sure there was plenty of music to choose from, but where I usually have to personally hold a fun battle royale with myself for each band to get its spot in the list, I had little difficulty in compiling this list. The struggle is the fun part. And if there’s no struggle, it means I’ve had too few records in my selection. I just think 2021 lacked the really outstanding memorable albums I found the previous years. But that’s all right. We all have our slumps, I guess. Without further ado, here are my 10 favourite releases of 2021.
10. Sabled Sun – 2149
The fifth installment in an ongoing series, this futuristic dark ambient project by Swedish composer and mastermind Simon Heath has left a lasting mark on me. In combining synths, drones and field recordings he creates an atmosphere bound to titillate any science-fiction fan able to keep an open mind when it comes to unconventional music. The album’s eerie soundscapes will have you follow the journey of a person awakened from cryo sleep on an undesignated planet as he makes his way through the underground city of Sector 33. The only thing visually guiding you is the artwork; the rest is left to your imagination. The concept alone has my geeky heart racing. ‘2149’ is the perfect soundtrack for either a scifi role-playing sesh, a night of studying or just an evening of chilling out on your sofa to clear your head. Best to listen to the whole album in one go though. Hardcore Alien and Blade Runner fans must not pass on this.
9. Unto Others – Strength
Returning in my top albums this time under a new moniker, Unto Others (previously Idle Hands) were likely to become the victim of their own success after having released such a banger of a debut. Indeed, 2019’s critically acclaimed ‘Mana‘ wouldn’t be an easy record to top. Yet although their sophomore doesn’t quite reach the same heights as its predecessor, we can all agree ‘Strength‘ is a more than worthy follow-up. This time goth rock takes the upper hand over NWOHM however, and after a few spins one could even forget they ever dabbled in the latter. Thematically speaking this choice in style makes sense since it’s also a darker album revolving around war, death as the inevitable fate of humanity, suicide, or child abuse among others. Not that ‘Mana‘ avoided such themes, quite the opposite, but the subject matter hits even harder on ‘Strength‘. Tracks like ‘No Children Laughing Now’, ‘Little Bird’, ‘Just A Matter Of Time’, and ‘Hell Is For Children’ take the absolute cake. Also, can I get more cowbell on ‘Summer Lightning’, please?
8. Fluids – Not Dark Yet
All in all it’s not been a bad year for grindcore. Even though I somewhat missed the more hardcore-oriented grind which was so prevalent last year, the goregrind subgenre enjoyed solid representation. The main issue with goregrind is that you have to wade through a ton of garbage before you find a record that stands out. Among those I did manage to find, I stumbled upon Fluids‘ latest auditory monstrosity: ‘Not Dark Yet‘. Agreed, this record tends to veer more towards brutal death metal at times, but it’s goregrind at heart. This album is a horrendous combo of slamming grooves, ridiculous electronic drums and unsettling samples. Speaking of which, listing a band that uses a drum machine among my favourite albums is against my good conscience, but the overall vibe of this record is what convinced me to do it anyway. This is one typical instance where the result is more than the sum of its parts. If you’re okay with over-the-top drum programming and Mortician-style fuzzy chugging, don’t hesitate to pick this up.
7. Last Days of Humanity – Horrific Compositions of Decomposition
For this year’s biggest underground comeback with their first album in 15 years, we have Dutch noisegrind legends Last Days of Humanity bringing us their ‘Horrific Compositions of Decomposition‘. And what a comeback this is. Their latest creation is an intense array of extremely violent tracks delivered in rapid bursts that mostly clock under a minute. As you can imagine, the 33-track experience is over before you know it, but the pummeling you’ll have endured is quite unforgettable. The trio of lightning-fast slamming blast beats, crunchy grinding strings, and vocals that sound as though the mic were dropped down a flushing toilet make the whole thing sound like end-of-the-world material. Truly horrific compositions, indeed.
6. VOLA – Witness
If you’re in desperate need of a breather after the last two entries, then VOLA‘s got you covered. I would qualify their latest and third full-length, ‘Witness‘, a hybrid evolution from their previous installments. On the one hand it’s a clear return to the djent sound of their 2015 debut, ‘Inmazes‘, and on the other they are very careful not to completely write off the proggy delight that was 2018’s follow-up, ‘Applause of a Distant Crowd‘. The music on this record is expectedly complex and, in spite of this, still catchy. But the true highlight here is frontman and founder Asger Mygind‘s singing. His angelic voice is simply mesmerizing. It also helps that his lyrics are distinct, memorable and easy to follow. You’ll find yourself humming the chorus of more than just their awesome single, ‘Straight Lines‘, on many occasions.
5. Dead Heat – World at War
But don’t sit down for too long because here are the thrashing Californians of Dead Heat. Their sophomore record ‘World at War‘ is a real marvel. It’s the perfect combination of hardcore, crossover and thrash metal with a true old school vibe that many bands try yet fail to emulate. Not these dudes however. They hit the nail on the head so right you’d think they’d time-machined their way straight out of the 80s. One can’t help but draw some parallels with bands like Toxic Holocaust, Municipal Waste and the mighty Suicidal Tendencies, but trust me when I say Dead Heat are still their own thing. Otherwise they’d never have made it on this list. Now, get to the pit!
4. Night Crowned – Hädanfärd
Last year Swedish melodeath ensemble Night Crowned barely missed my top 10 with the absolute banger of a record that was ‘Impius Viam‘. I did however include them in an extra top 10 list because I thought they very much deserved everyone’s attention. I excluded it from the initial top 10 more due to indecision and simply because I listened to other albums a bit more, not because its quality was lesser. This year they’ve returned with ‘Hädanfärd‘, a record that is just as good as the previous one, though there are some differences. The major one being that it’s sung entirely in Swedish, a great choice that helps us remind ourselves as to who we’re dealing with: a band from Gothenburg, the birthplace of Swedish melodic death metal. You’re not likely to forget it after you’ve listened to their sophomore. The album packs a punch in typical crunchy HM-2 fashion, just like its predecessor while at the same time offering a bit more respite with a more prominent black metal touch. Massage your neck muscles for this one, because they’re about to take a severe walloping.
3. Groza – The Redemptive End
The latest in a long line of cowl-donning atmospheric black metal bands but one that certainly stands out. With their sophomore, ‘The Redemptive End‘, the Germans from Groza bring us top-notch atmospheric black metal. It’s comparable to what we’ve heard from Mgla, (Drabikowski‘s) Batushka, Uada, Misþyrming and the like, so it’s not reinventing the genre but it’s definitely worthy of a spot up there with the others. This record’s got some very memorable moments and a few explosive contrasts that had my mouth agape with pleasant surprise. It astonishes me that it got so little attention when it dropped.
2. Wharflurch – Psychedelic Realms ov Hell
Since their conception in 2019, Florida’s Wharflurch have been dropping splits and EP’s faster than you can count. Last September however they managed to spew forth their slimy death metal full-length debut, ‘Psychedelic Realms ov Hell‘. Not only is this record testament to expert death/doom composition, it also serves as a love letter to cosmic horror, with its frequent use of atmospheric synth soundscapes. Combine that with some primitive chugging, doomy riffs, and the occasional relentless blast beat, and you’ve got yourself a rather memorable caveman death metal album. The very best of the year, if you ask me obviously. You can’t convince me otherwise. Fans of Krypts, Outer Heaven, Tomb Mold, Gatecreeper, Genocide Pact and others should have a good time with this. Get your scifi/horror geek on and give this record the ol’ spin.
1. Archspire – Bleed the Future
Well, no surprise there. Those who know me will most likely have expected this outcome. Archspire have been one of my preferred modern death metal bands ever since I’d first heard ‘The Lucid Collective‘ back in 2014. Everyone’s favourite Canadian tech death quipsters are true experts at making extremely fast and technical compositions still sound like acceptable songwriting. And they’ve once again done what we all deemed impossible: drop an even better, more impressive release than 2017’s ‘Relentless Mutation‘. With ‘Bleed the Future‘ Archspire have somehow succeeded in creating a record that’s even catchier than anything that came before, despite pushing the limits of technicality and speed even further. This is the record I’ve listened to the most, had the most fun with, and already know by heart. Except, of course, the lyrics. I’ll never be able to keep up with Oli‘s chopper-style grunts. The only minor downside to ‘Bleed the Future‘ is that it’s much too short of a ride. Barely clocking in at a little over half an hour, you’ll be wondering where the rest of the album went.