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Axl Rosenberg’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2021

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MetalSucks will celebrate its fifteenth anniversary just about a month from now; this list will be my personal 21,169th post for the site. I turn forty a couple of weeks after the blog’s quinceañera. Vince will have about a month to call me “old man” before he joins me in middle-age.

Perhaps as a result of getting older, 2021 was really the first year I started to worry about the stagnation of metal. I mean, if James Hetfield farts or Maynard James Keenan threatens to turn this car around if you kids don’t pipe down, our bills get paid. Buoy for us. But who will MetalSucks be covering in 2036? Tobias Forge will be 55, Corey Taylor will be 62, Lars Ulrich will be 73, and Ozzy will be pushing 90. This website is gonna hafta change its name to MetalObituaries.

And that’s just the really big bands. Every subgenre is dominated by veterans. Even the underground bands have been worshipping at the same altar for-fuckin’-ever now.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that in 2021, I heavily gravitated towards bands that felt less… er… familiar, for lack of a better word. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it until I put my list together, but I realized that most of my favorite stuff this year came from groups that have only made three or four albums, maybe five, tops.

Some of these groups are already “famous” to some degree (whatever that means in metal terms), and some of them don’t seem to have made the lasting impression I’d argue they deserve (even the one band that has made more than five albums is underexposed). But all of them give me hope for the future.

Unless climate change just kills everyone. In which case this whole discussion would be a moot point. So there’s that to think about, too.

15. Kollapse — Sult (Fysisk Format)

SULT | kollapse

To not-so-humbly quote myself: Denmark’s Kollapse sound like the woebegone bastard of Cult of Luna and Intronaut. I might toss Neurosis and old Mastodon in there, too. Like those bands, Kollapse are proggy, but not in a Dream Theater-y “I’ve never known the warm touch of another human being” way. The third of the record’s six songs is called “Drunker,” but truthfully, each cut on Sult sounds slightly-more-inebriated than the last. And Kollapse isn’t a nice drunk.

14. Mouth for War — Life Cast in Glass (1126)

You’d assume this band sounds exactly like Pantera. But they probably have more in common with Xibalba and The Acacia Strain than they do with Throwdown. Life Cast in Glass — a witty title for a band whose music is very much like a bull in a china shop — is what people sometimes call “ignorant” in a complimentary way. This record has no higher purpose than to incite terrifyingly-violent mosh pits. It’s also an unremittingly angry album. I’m actually a little worried about the people who made it. You dudes okay?

13. Cerebral Rot — Excretion of Mortality (20 Buck Spin)

Excretion of Mortality is probably the best album title of the year. But it’s not here because of its killer name (or its rad artwork, for that matter). Listening to Excretion of Mortality makes me feel like I need a shower. It comes off as the music not of a serial killer, but of a serial killer with some truly gross fetishes. Like, I bet the members of this band — who plausibly might just be cancerous tumors that escaped their hosts’ corpses — think the victims in the Human Centipede movies got off light.

12. Orphan Donor — Unraveled (Zegema Beach)

I don’t know if Unraveled is best categorized as grindy mathcore or mathy grindcore. Or maybe it’s jazzy hardcore? Actually, it might be klezmeric punk. In any case, Unraveled sounds gloriously stripped down and “live,” and it’s so delirious it will always keep you on your toes — like you were walkin’ through a fuckin’ mindfield.

11. Kauan — Ice Fleet (Artoffact)

Ice Fleet is an absolutely gorgeous and haunting shoegaze record that is never so chilly as its title suggests. On the contrary; the music on Ice Fleet often gives one the impression of having just thawed out in the warm sun. This is a great album for when you want something that mixes heavy and melodic elements but not in a dumb Black Veil Brides way.

10. The Absence — Coffinized (M-Theory Audio)

Coffinized confirms The Absence’s place as the most under-appreciated band in melodic death metal today. This is the kind of album that, okay, sure, it’s heavy as fuck, but it feels like party music. It’s impossible to imagine that guitarist Taylor Nordberg, whose every solo is just mwah!, perfect, doesn’t have some affinity for glam metal. It’s all so tasty and fun, even while being about. Y’know. Homicide and stuff.

9. Ænigmatum — Deconsecrate (20 Buck Spin)

Who even knew people from Portland could be this angry? Deconsecrate is 45 minutes of grade-A progressive technical blackened death metal. It’s not afraid to show off, but it’s still cooler than Dream Theater. Ænigmatum clearly love Death (who doesn’t, right?), but they learned the most important lesson Chuck Schuldiner imparted upon us: if you ain’t got good songs, you ain’t got shit.

8. Iotunn — Access All Worlds (Metal Blade)

If you told me this band’s sophomore album is gonna be my favorite record of whatever year it’s released, I’d believe you. In the meantime, I’ll just have to savor this extremely impressive debut. The title and album art of Access All Worlds might make you think this is gonna be a seriously hippy-dippy psychedelic album. And yeah, most of the songs are so long, it’s hard to imagine mind-expanding substances weren’t involved in the songwriting process at some point. But it’s more old Opeth than new Opeth. It also has symphonic elements that sometimes feel in the vein of Fleshgod Apocalypse or Dimmu Borgir before Dimmu Borgir started to be disappointing. I’d wager the members of Iotunn are also Insomnium fans. So, sure, it would make a great soundtrack for a laser light show. But I think In Flames fans are probably more likely to be susceptible to its charms than Sleep fans would be. Anyway. Whatever. This album rules.

7. Worm — Foreverglade (20 Buck Spin)

Brad Moore’s cover art for Foreverglade looks like Larry Carroll’s cover art for Reign in Blood if Larry Carroll made the Reign in Blood cover art while going through the world’s worst LSD trip. Similarly, Foreverglade sounds like Morbid Angel’s Domination if Morbid Angel made Domination while slowly being consumed by The Blob. Foreverglade often sounds like an incantation (and sometimes like Incantation), and I’d almost believe it really could conjure Lovecraftian abominations. Foreverglade may have been the scariest thing to emerge from Florida in 2021, which is really saying something.

6. Khemmis — Deceiver (NB)

Album Artwork by Sam Turner

Describing a band’s music as “melodic trad-doom” isn’t the fastest way to get me to listen to them. But Khemmis are so clearly way, way, way ahead of their peers in the genre, and Deceiver might be their masterpiece. I don’t know why anyone wants Black Sabbath to Weekend at Bernie’s it for another reunion tour when Khemmis exist. Deceiver is so good, it makes me wish I gave a shit about Dungeons & Dragons.

5. The Silver — Ward of Roses (Gilead Media)

Members of the tremendous trad metal band Crypt Sermon and the demonic death metal band Horrendous got together and made the best pure black metal album of the year. It’s reductive to say that Ward of Roses is the best Enslaved album Enslaved never made, but I do believe that if you love Enslaved, you will love Ward of Roses. You will also probably love it if you just have good taste.

4. So Hideous — None But a Pure Heart (Silent Pendulum)

If Ward of Roses is the best pure black metal album of 2021, None But a Pure Heart is the best experimental black metal album of 2021. So Hideous have never been afraid to follow their own path, but holy crap, do they go for it here. Violins and saxophones and instruments I’m not sure I can identify are all present, and not just for atmosphere; they are often at the forefront of the mix. But they don’t feel forced or ironic or whatever — they’re another vital expression of all the pain, anger, and heartbreak the band exorcises through their music. Black metal is rarely this emotional. The only thing stopping from None But a Pure Heart from being higher on this list is its relatively brief run time. This is the group’s first outing since 2015; here’s hoping they don’t wait another six years to release more new music.

3. Genghis Tron — Dream Weapon (Relapse)

When Genghis Tron announced plans to finally reunite and release a new album after a decade, I don’t think anyone imagined Dream Weapon would be the result. But if Dream Weapon‘s considerably-less-heavy sound was a surprise, it wasn’t at all an unwelcome one. I wrote a feature about this record, and I fucking loathe writing features. I did that because I genuinely love this band, and genuinely love this album. It’s immersive and hypnotic and dense and beautifully composed, and if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed about Genghis Tron, it’s that they are as independent and forward-thinking as ever. Dream Weapon isn’t the Genghis Tron album we wanted — it’s the Genghis Tron album we didn’t know we needed.

2. Four Stroke Baron — Classics (Prosthetic)

Calling your album Classics takes huge balls and a wicked sense of humor. Calling your sophomore album Classics takes balls so big you should probably have them checked out and a sense of humor so wicked it might be criminal. But Four Stroke Baron have the goods to back it up. They’re so original and creative, and give so few fucks about convention — I can name twelve bands for whom they’d be both perfect and horrible tour mates — that I’m absolutely horrified none of you idiots will appreciate Classics until after FSB break up. Please please PLEASE prove my fears are for naught.

1. Rivers of Nihil — The Work (Metal Blade)

Some of you will say I’m only putting The Work at #1 because I manage them. And then I’ll remind you that I don’t manage them, Vince does. And then some of you will say I must get a cut. And then I’ll clue you in that I don’t get a cut. And then some of you will say I don’t wanna hurt my friend’s feelings. In which case you have forgotten that I am a narcissist. And we could could go back and forth on this conflict of interest of all day, but at this point, truly, I feel like, hey, y’know what? Don’t listen to The Work if you don’t want to. You’re only hurting yourself, dummy.

Because The Work is brilliant, and it only cements Rivers of Nihil’s status as the most exciting up-and-coming death metal band today (if not the most exciting up-and-coming metal band today period). The fourth and final album in the band’s “seasons” cycle is appropriately wintery — there’s an air of existential melancholy hovering over the entire thing, somewhat akin to low-grade Seasonal Affective Disorder — without being unbearably cold. The Work isn’t an unfeeling challenge to the listener to stick with the frostiest, least-inviting material ever so much as it’s an empathetic invitation to share the warmth from a trash can fire (it even ends on an optimistic note — the last thing you hear is the sound of a chirping bird, heralding the arrival of spring). It’s experiential and mesmeric and rewards not only multiple listens, but, thanks to recurring musical and lyrical themes and motifs, single-sit listens, too.

That it’s such a textured, novelistic, cohesive piece of work is all the more impressive given the varied nature of the material, which clearly draws from influences both in and outside of the metalsphere. Rivers of Nihil could have played it safe after Where Owls Know My Name, which came about as close to universally-well-received as any metal album can. But that wasn’t a safe record to begin with!

So it’s fortunate for us all that the band continue to carve their own path. They have somehow found that perfect sweet spot between pushing the envelope and maintaining the hooks and not alienating the ever-persnickety metal audience all at the same time.

Every now and then, a band and/or album comes along that feels like the culmination of all of metal to date. Rivers of Nihil are that band; The Work is that album. I don’t know whether or not MetalSucks will still be covering them in 2036… but goddamnit, I’m rooting for them.

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