Well, well well. How the turntables.
Me: AOTY lists are silly, the variety of music we listen to renders the exercise futile.
Also me: Here’s ten of my favourite releases this year because they deserve far more attention.
To be fair, that’s the whole point of this blog. We strictly only cover stuff we think is so good that more people deserve to hear it. And while you may heave heard some or all of the below records, and while they may have appeared on a few lists you’ve read already, they are on mine because I’ve absolutely rinsed each one so many times throughout 2021 that it would be a crime not to.
Grey Aura – Zwart Vierkant
If you told me in 2020 that my favourite black metal release of 2021 would be an avant-garde black metal exploration of a novel about an early 20th century painter who becomes obsessed with an art style based on geometric shapes by a Dutch band, I would have actually been very interested because that sounds right up my street.
Grey Aura is not interested in creating cookie-cutter 2nd wave worship. This is black metal as artistic expression, going against the grain of the genre’s more popular acts. So, very much in the original spirit of black metal, then.
Zwart Vierkant refuses to be pigeonholed. Maybe we could say it’s atmospheric black metal, but the atmosphere is that of a journey across Europe. One minute in a smoky jazz bar in Paris, the next travelling through Spanish landscapes. Regardless, this is a textured and varied listen every single time. It’s not going to be for everyone, but that’s what makes it beautiful.
Body Void – Bury Me Beneath This Rotting Earth
I listened to a radio interview with McFly a long time ago, but it’s stuck with me. They were talking about how they write songs, and match vocal melodies with some chords they threw together. They were laughing as if this was a really easy and silly thing that anyone could do. But the key takeaway for me was that they found an approach to songwriting that worked for them, and were so consistent that they made it look easy.
Willow Ryan of Body Void also seems to have found an approach to songwriting that works for them. Shortly after the release of Bury Me Beneath This Rotting Earth, she (from memory) tweeted that she just tries to make every song heavier than the last. It’s an approach that has led Body Void to be considered alongside Primitive Man as one of the heaviest bands on the planet.
While it only spans four tracks, Bury Me Beneath This Rotting Earth sees the band produce their most disgusting material yet. It’s also their most listenable, if you can say that about Body Void.
You might think that the comparison to McFly is an odd one, and I don’t blame you. But both the saccharine pop stars and the grizzled doom trio have found a way to consistently produce material that is instantly recognisable as their own, and only get better with age.
Dreamwell – Modern Grotesque
Pandemic aside, we all have, or mourn for, a small bar in our town or city that is home to our most cherished musical memories. Perhaps it’s covered in gig posters both old and new. It almost certainly has a sticky carpet. The stage is probably just one corner of the bar with the wooden floorboards exposed.
In Dundee, this would be The Balcony Bar. No longer a music venue, still every corner of the place as it was is etched into my brain.
There is also a sound that I associate with the Balcony. Chaotic, emotional hardcore: sometimes sung, oft screamed. Largely indecipherable, yet the 60 people crammed into that room will repeatedly drown out the cheap PA.
Dreamwell make me long for this period between 2002 – 2007. For me, Modern Grotesque is the pinnacle of modern screamo and it makes me feel warm inside. I can’t think of higher praise.
They deserve more, but I hope people can soon crowd into a tiny bar, break fire safety rules, spill cheap beer on each others’ shoes and scream from the top of their lungs “I need someone to believe in, I need someone to deceive” at Keziah Staska as Dreamwell stand on a stage far too small for their number and quality. I’m certain that’s what they wish for too.
Frontierer – Oxidized
I have no idea what’s going on inside Pedram Valiani’s head, I can only express delight that he has been able to extract it for the rest of us to experience.
Equal parts digital noise and mathcore, Frontierer is a transatlantic exercise in brutality. Pedram writes, records and mixes everything himself here in Scotland then sends to Chad Kapper in the USA who puts lyrics and vocals to the songs while the rest of the band try to work out what the hell Pedram has composed for them.
It’s a method of working that has paid increasing dividends with each release. Oxidized is the band’s 3rd full-length and hands down their best. On first listen it is hard to pinpoint what has changed, but once you get past the dense noise wall, you’ll hear that the songs have a tight focus and digress far less. In addition, digital effects have been ramped up and are used to accentuate rather than detract from key moments in their songs.
The band are heading out on tour across the UK with Devil Sold His Soul in 2022, and I have no idea how DSHS fans will respond to crushing maelstrom that is Frontierer but I’m certain they won’t forget the experience.
Wanderer – Liberation From A Brutalist Existence
Describing something as metalcore hardly narrows it down. For me, that term makes me think of bands such as Converge, Venom Prison, Norma Jean and Wanderer. Hardcore songs that have often been written with metal firmly in mind.
While their unrelenting approach to music is presented in a way that will appeal to both hardcore and death metal (but maybe not deathcore) fans, what sticks out more than any basic genre definition is the sheer weight of ideas Wanderer has crammed into these 23 minutes.
Each song is an amuse-bouche, served up to offer momentary delight. One minute you’ll get a light smattering of frenetic Trap Them, the next a furious Norma Jean staccato. Liberation From A Brutalist Existence is a litany to the numerous influences on the band, performed flawlessly.
Vallendusk – Heralds of Strife
This album almost never made it on this list. I was prepared to add Sur Austra’s Obarsie instead. However when I thought about which album I listened to most, I knew it hard to be Vallendusk.
Their 4th album, Heralds of Strife, is melodic black metal that manages to hit hard on both the “melodic” as well as the “black metal” side. Harmonising guitars and catchy melodies from both guitar and vocals that you can hum are a rarity in black metal.
There are folky, acoustic touches littered throughout, but moreso as brief interludes in the songs than focal points of their approach. The fun really comes from the toe-tapping riffs and melodies dripping from each track.
Songs combining the melodies from heavy metal and the savage nature of black metal may not be new but both Indonesia’s Vallendusk and the UK’s Wode have both given us fantastic albums full of them this year.
Moral Collapse – Moral Collapse
There are only three albums on this list I immediately bought physical copies of as soon as I could. I pre-ordered Body Void and Nocutule without hearing anything from them because I knew they would deliver. Nobody saw Moral Collapse coming, but they were the 3rd I bought instantly.
I was immediately intrigued by three things:
- What little death metal I’ve heard coming from India thus far has been top notch
- Hannes Grossmann is the drummer
- Holy saxophone solo, Batman!
Every second of this record was designed to capture and keep the listener’s attention, either through interesting rhythmic patterns, textured sections, ripping solos or just endless groove.
This is one of my most played vinyl records this year, because every time it finished I flipped it over and started again. 2021 gave us a literal mountain of spectacular technical metal albums but none captured me more than Moral Collapse.
Noctule – Wretched Abyss
As I mentioned above, as soon as I heard about this project I put in a pre-order. The more I read, the more interested I got. Serena Cherry solo record. Yes! It’s black metal. Yes!! It’s Skyrim themed. YES!!!
Serena has a knack for writing serious hooks, a skill she’s successfully employed in every song on Wretched Abyss. It’s strange that a black metal album makes me feel so happy, but whenever I slap this record on the turntable I beam from ear to ear.
While clearly a passion project borne of the time gifted to us by the otherwise awful pandemic we continue to live through, Serena has confirmed recently that there will be a second Noctule album. Take my money already!
Mastiff – Leave Me The Ashes Of The Earth
Leave Me The Ashes Of The Earth takes top spot for the most furious album I heard this year, with Burn in Hell coming a close second. Given the very obvious slide into fascism we’re seeing in the UK, I think Mastiff have released this at the perfect time. As the old line goes if you’re not angry you’re not paying attention.
This felt like a breakout album for Mastiff. Signing to eOne Heavy (now MNRK) has hopefully provided wider marketing and distribution for this hard-working hardcore band, but it hasn’t dulled their sound one bit. Leave Me The Ashes Of The Earth is a laser focused collection of songs with the noise turned down but the anger turned up to 11.
Revelations about the band actually being super nice lads, and the singer being a huge Taylor Swift fan haven’t changed my opinion about them being one of the best heavy bands in the UK right now.
Crypts of Despair – All Light Swallowed
This one is definitely not on enough year-end lists, showing just how spoiled we’ve been with death metal in 2021. Lithuanian death metal outfit Crypts of Despair hit us with their second full-length in April and at the time I described it as everything I love about death metal. I’ve not changed my mind one bit since.
Listening again to this record, I’m reminded why I loved it in the first place. Using death metal as a jumping off point means they never leave the listener stranded in unfamiliar territory, while allowing themselves the legroom to stretch and experiment with their sound.
The two biggest draws for me remain the dual vocal approach, where guitarist and bassist trade sections and sometimes lines with different vocal styles, and the impeccable sounding drums. That’s just for me personally, I don’t doubt that there will be something here to appeal to any metalhead.