My album of the year is…
Silver Lake – Esa Holopainen
What can I say, my favourite songwriter, contemporary lead guitarist and Amorphis (my fave band) guitarist does a solo album with guest performances from my three favourite vocalists. Namely Anneke Van Giersbergen (The Gathering, DTP), Einar Solberg (Leprous) and Tomi Joutsen (Amorphis). It’s a no brainer that I was going to love this and I do. It’s not as heavy as Amorphis, but saying that it doesn’t really resemble the lighter moments of Amorphis either. The album has an epic feel, whilst also managing to be a grounded and to-the-point affair that does not outstay its welcome. It has a wonderful flow and is full of Esa’s unique magic.
Here is a quick run-through of ten other albums I loved released in 2021, in no particular order.
The Darkest Skies Are The Brightest – Anneke Van Giersbergen
A return to a mainly acoustic sound from Anneke, the voice of The Gathering, Gentle Storm, Devin Townsend Project, Ayeron, Vuur and millions more. As ever the vocals are dominant and beautiful, with her distinctive songwriting offering twists and turns with a blend of moods. Incredible and deep. To be honest her voice is so incredible I’d take massive pleasure even just listening to Anneke read Commodore 64 machine code.
Wallflowers – Jinjer
This is by far their darkest and heaviest album and is absolutely relentless in comparison to earlier stuff. As ever it’s a mix of all sorts of technical heavy with Tati’s superb mix of screamed and soaring clean vocals over the top.
They could have taken this in many directions, and they get my respect for just going for the dark and heavy option. After all, with Tati’s epic voice they could just as easily gone for the $$$ and pumped out an album filled with more commercially laden tracks that have featured on their earlier stuff.
Etemen Ænka – Dvne
An absolute masterpiece of its kind. Gigantic, epic, relentless and enormously rewarding musically. Dvne has utterly laid down the law with this. They’ve grown at such an alarming rate since their inception that it’s genuinely astonishing what they have pumped out. A crazy creative work ethic at play. On first listen it sounds like a bonkers prog influenced studio album… except it’s all written and played as a band. Heavy music as it should be.
God is Partying – Andrew W.K.
Surprise hit of the year for me. I’ve never not liked Andrew W.K. I’ve also never liked him…. But every song from God is Partying has just knocked me for six and buried itself into my subconscious. I feel like I’ve been sucker punched by this, it’s just fucking great hard rock/metal that makes you feel good. There’s a sense of humour without any parody or irony which is a powerful edge to such strong songs.
Leave Me The Ashes of The Earth – Mastiff
Genuinely dark, unpleasant, threatening, malevolent, miserable, depressing, sludgy and all the awful things we love so much in heavy music. It’s not as brutal as their earlier work in terms of songwriting, but it is way more brutal in its overall production and sound. A monstrously distorted gargling of bile, shit and broken glass.
A Breath of Fresh Air – Callus
This is absolutely awesome. I think it is equally enthralling and remarkable when a band takes something dumb and predictable and makes it intelligent and unpredictable. In this case, it’s stoner rock/doom metal. They have the same exciting approach to the genre that those incredible early albums by The Sword did, but with extra High on Fire but sounding like neither.
This is seriously good stuff, and just when you think you’ve figured them out you realise that you haven’t. These are on my ‘must see live’ list… I might even make a return to promoting just to put them on so I can see them!
A Skeleton Key In The Doors of Depression – Youth Code
I love these. Like a none cartoon version of Atari Teenage Riot. Or a maliciously dark Depeche mode with Eyehategod vocals. All the best bits of industrial, 80s synth goth and techno but delivered as a furious DIY hardcore band. Utterly pumping, deep heavy electronic beats, some of the best I’ve heard currently happening but with hateful sludge vocals. Really menacing, utterly brilliant.
Omega – Epica
Never been big into these, but this album just seemed to keep appearing on my radar this year. Didn’t really notice myself getting more and more into it. I’d avoided them over the years as I thought they were probably a bit Nightwish-esque. But the music on this is proper epic heavy metal with some nice extreme bits for contrast. Another album that just stealth grabbed me without noticing.
Aphelion – Leprous
Some people think Leprous has gotten worse with every album, some people think the opposite. I am of the latter opinion. Leprous are for vocals what Yngwie Malmsteen is for guitar solos. It’s maxed out inhumanly talented singing of the absolute highest order with the band creating a wonderful atmospheric world for it to exist in. Mesmerising stuff.
Cinematic Tour – Enslaved
I’m sure somewhere there is a rule saying you can’t have live albums on an AOTY list, well it’s my list so fuck that hypothetical rule, plus it’s a quadruple live set. I’m including this as, most of the artists I have listed have referenced the dark uniqueness of 2020 in some way either directly in lyrics and concept, or indirectly via a claustrophobic menace that lurks throughout most of my picks.
Personally, 2020 is best summed up by these four live performances (recorded with no audience) by Enslaved throughout 2020. This is my personal favourite artistic response to the unusual experience the whole world went through. Instead of introspection, Enslaved chose to connect and embrace their fanbase working with the fans to pick the setlists for the majority of these concerts.
I found it an amazing reversal in that as we were lockdown in isolation, they were playing gigs to nobody, the incongruity of the project resonates greater than any other work released this year that references the weird time we have all experienced.