I don’t think there’s any disagreement about it: 2021 has been a very weird year. A series of fits and starts to attempt to get back to a normal we might never see again, in the midst of a global pandemic that’s still here. But even in the midst of this continually more complicated to navigate present, music has remained a source of inspiration and comfort, something that offers promise and hope and, above all, catharsis.
But music itself was pretty weird too, you know? Nowhere was this more apparent for me than in metal this year, which had plenty of expectedly great entries in death metal, doom metal, black metal and hardcore, but at its best went in some truly odd directions. Two of the best bands going right now teamed up to make a folk record, greater melodic elements crept into a number of incredible albums this year, and more than a few bands dared to provoke the schisms between those who want to see heavy music evolve and those who’d prefer to stay in one lane.
For this reason, I’ve decided not to rank my favorite metal albums this year. That doesn’t mean I won’t go back to the old system next year, but for this year, a hierarchy didn’t make sense with a collection of traditional folk songs at number two. And my number one—my album of the year overall, even—was The Armed’s ULTRAPOP, a record that scans to me as a masterpiece of heavy music, but one that seems to exist in its own peculiar space. I made it clear at the beginning of the year that these semantic arguments just don’t matter, and I already included Lingua Ignota—who makes operatic darkwave with screaming—in a previous list, so I think I’ve made my position clear by now. (I didn’t include Deafheaven though; I might contradict myself.) What’s not up for debate is the quality of the selection of albums I’ve chosen; these are the best metal albums of 2021, wherever they fall on heavy music’s spectrum.
Ænigmatum – Deconsecrate
Portland’s Ænigmatum isn’t a new band, exactly—maybe the Grammys’ definition of “new” might apply here, but the death metal outfit had been honing their riffs for about four years by the time they released their 20 Buck Spin debut, Deconsecrate. Yet this album feels like their proper arrival, sprung forth fully formed from the head of Chuck Schuldiner and laying down two sides worth of intricately crafted, impeccably performed death metal with a progressive streak and an avant garde undercurrent. Ænigmatum maintain a balance that’s difficult to pull off but seemingly effortless in its presentation, elaborate rhythmic structures juxtaposed with melodic immediacy and unpredictable musical directions. It’s an album that scans even on a cursory listen as thrilling death metal that upholds both the guttural and grandiose torchbearers of the style. It’s also the kind of death metal album that offers so much more to explore with every new spin.
Alastor – Onwards and Downwards
Finding new ground to uncover in the well-trodden landscape of stoner metal isn’t easy. The thick, resin-caked Sabbath riffs that define the genre are deeply satisfying but rarely revelatory, save for the epic contact highs of a band like Sleep or the soaring, progressive journeys of Elder. Sweden’s Alastor are somewhere between the two, stirring up dense, Windhand-like doom riffs in the service of bigger melodies and a mesmerizing psychedelic undercurrent—white-hot organ drones simmer at the core of Onwards and Downwards opener “The Killer in My Skull” and a one-note “I Wanna Be Your Dog” piano riff courses through the hellbound joyride of “Death Cult.” Alastor’s third album still pays reverence to Birmingham’s gods of heavy metal—specifically Sabbath, not Priest, though there’s more than a hint of that band’s songwriting chops here as well—but it’s less that Alastor play songs in the style of Sabbath than merely capturing the spirit of heavy metal when it was still new, still unnamed, still yet to launch a thousand cannabis puns.
The Armed – ULTRAPOP
The Armed’s decision to name their fourth album ULTRAPOP is a provocative act. It’s also 100 percent true. The Detroit hardcore group, whose 2018 album Only Love provided the utterly bonkers template for its studio-perfected and hook-driven shredgaze, embrace pop in an even more prominent and unapologetic way on ULTRAPOP, introducing the album with dreamlike twinkles and infusing even their most visceral compositions with a melodicism that makes every moment soar. They haven’t abandoned the furious mathcore complexity that defined their previous two records, as evident in the escalating scaffold of riffs on “Masunaga Vapors” or the go-for-the-throat assault of “Faith in Medication,” but it’s an appreciation and affection for pop that forms the basis of these 12 songs. ULTRAPOP is somehow both the most intense thing I’ve heard all year and the most unabashedly joyous—to witness their recent Adult Swim Festival performance is to see a band that’s holding absolutely nothing back and seemingly just as thrilled about it as their audience. I mentioned earlier that this was my number one album, despite the absence of a ranking system, and that’s not limited strictly to heavy music; as with the best albums of any era, it fits in both everywhere and nowhere all at once.
Atvm – Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless
The first thing you’d likely notice about Atvm’s debut album, Famine, Putrid, and Fucking Endless, is how tight its instrumentation is. The British band play with precision, but they do so fluidly and effortlessly; so much music that’s described as being “technical” feels labored and sanitized, but from the introduction of a heavy bass backing a soaring melodic lead in opening track “Sanguinary Floating Orb,” Atvm play the hell out of their instruments with sweat and muscle rather than the illusion of robotic technical enhancement. When the band builds up a full head of steam, they’re as furious and tense as any death metal band of greater renown, as proven through the vicious groove of “Vagh Nakh.” But there’s so much happening here—much of it complex, a lot of it stunningly melodic, some of it involving slap bass—that it’s not easy to fully grasp the scope of Atvm’s first LP on a first listen alone. All the more reason to keep listening to unlock its myriad surprises.
The Body & Big|Brave – Leaving None But Small Birds
The Body and Big|Brave each released (very good!) albums of their own this year before releasing a collaborative effort together that basically throws out the blueprint for what an album from either band is meant to sound like. There are no unearthly screeches from Chip King, no extended single-note drones that seem to have emerged from the earth’s molten core (well, that’s not true, there’s a few). Instead, The Body and Big|Brave draw from English and American songbooks for a set that merges elements of their experimental, heavy drone-metal with traditional folk. As such, this is an album from two artists within heavy music spaces that’s actually not that much of a metal album at all. There are overbearing walls of noise in “Hard Times” and “Babes in the Woods,” and tracks like “The Blackest Crow” and “Once I Had a Sweetheart” are only a shade less colossal than Big|Brave at full strength. But ultimately Leaving None But Small Birds is less about riffs than communicating with generations of music that came before, participating in a long tradition of music that keeps centuries-old songs alive by never letting the act of writing or interpretation come to an end.
Body Void – Bury Me Beneath This Rotting Earth
Bury Me Beneath This Rotting Earth is an exercise in agony, both a scathing critique of the capitalist system that’s destroying our fragile earth and a harrowing listening experience unto itself. Body Void play doom metal that feels like the literal end of existence, all smoldering embers and noxious clouds of ash. This isn’t the kind of metal to throw on when throwing back shots of Jaegermeister or late night debauchery—it’s a deeply physical experience that roars and shrieks and unleashes a cry of pain from deep within the earth. And yet, in spite of this or perhaps because of it, it’s breathtaking. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by music this dense and abrasive, not to mention the words of warning at the center of it, but it’s curiously energizing stuff, a lurching bellow of a doom metal record that serves as a call to fend off an oncoming crisis.
Carcass – Torn Arteries
The degree to which you’re won over by Torn Arteries, Carcass’ first new album in eight years, depends largely on how much you already loved Carcass. It’s Carcass at their streamlined best, delivering melodic death metal anthems rife with towering riffs, their characteristically twisted sense of humor, speed, energy, drive, and just enough death ‘n’ roll swagger to remind you that such a phrase need not leave a bad taste in your mouth. Looking back through the years, it becomes stark just how much evolution the group’s gone through; Reek of Putrefaction doesn’t sound much like this album at all, for instance. But in their three decades (with a break somewhere in the middle), Carcass have remained uniquely, awesomely Carcass, a fact that doesn’t change with Torn Arteries. But what’s remarkable is that through barnburners like “Dance of Ixtab” and “The Scythe’s Remorseless Swing,” their growth and evolution continues, the sound of greats holding fast to their crown.
Converge – Bloodmoon: I
It feels significant that 20 years have passed since Converge released Jane Doe. That album is at once a perfection of Converge as a band and a concept; it’s also a measure of just how far they’ve progressed since then, having pushed themselves farther, tested the limits of their sound and essentially reimagined what Converge really is in the past two decades. An idea that began with a unique Roadburn festival performance, Bloodmoon: I is the greatest challenge to our perception of what Converge can be, inviting in collaborators Chelsea Wolfe and Cave In guitarist/vocalist Stephen Brodsky to craft a dark and epic work of gothic doom metal that embraces both haunting atmosphere and majestic balladry in grand fashion. It seems only natural that Wolfe is such a prominent player here, given that these kinds of doom-goth anthems are her stock in trade, but there are surprises around every turn, new shades and hues cast upon Converge’s methods and aesthetics. This is the sound of a great band reborn.
Diskord – Degenerations
When you hear a fretless bass in a death metal song, that’s when you know the real shit’s going down. Unlikely as it might seem on paper, the instrument’s played a crucial role in many of death metal’s greatest bands, from Death and Cynic on up to Blood Incantation, and it’s right there at the beginning of Diskord’s Degenerations, within the dissonance and tumult of leadoff track “Loitering in the Portal” (cool track name, that). The Norwegian group, despite country of origin, draw heavily from a lineage of supremely technical and often supremely weird North American death metal. But it’s a technicality that favors the unease and ugliness of old-school death metal rather than clean lines and sleek exteriors; more often than not they veer into even more explicitly analog directions like the death rock chorus pedal sound that arises toward the album’s back half, in addition to violin and a surprising amount of cowbell. Listeners probably won’t be surprised to find Colin Marston of Gorguts credited on the album (he did the mastering), as Diskord often sounds like that legendary Canadian group if they let their foot off the avant garde composition just a little. More than anything, Degenerations simply sounds like everything that makes death metal exciting, the explicit and the intangible alike.
Dream Unending – Tide Turns Eternal
The measure of a great death-doom album is in how easy it is to pick yourself up after two or more sides of time-standing-still BPMs and impossibly graceful yet colossal riffs. If you don’t feel the weight of existence bearing down on your chest by the end of it, then there’s a good chance they didn’t do it right. Dream Unending—the duo of Tomb Mold’s Derrick Vella and Innumerable Form’s Justin DeTore—don’t suffer such inadequacies, their debut album Tide Turns Eternal at once fascinatingly detailed moment by moment and overwhelming in its scope. These two complementary yet contradictory elements are crucial in making Tide as stunning a showpiece as it is, its shimmering psychedelic guitar riffs and dreamy effects an aesthetic curiosity—perhaps the prettiest moments of any metal album this year—that makes its longer stretches feel like they could drift past in the blink of an eye, with a rumbling foundation that anchors each dirge even though they seem as if they could be subsumed into the ether. It’s a lot to process—take all the time you need.
Esoctrilihum – Dy’th Requiem for the Serpent Telepath
Esoctrilihum didn’t waste any time in delivering a follow-up to last year’s incredible Eternity of Shaog, and it’s a pretty gargantuan avant garde black metal record at that. Dy’th Requiem for the Serpent Telepath is a symphony of the damned, an intricate and elaborate one-man black metal double-album sprawl of gothic synthesizer flourishes, surging aggression, supernatural ethereality and occasional melodic groove that elevates black metal beyond much of the rote, too-similar lo-fi offerings that clog up the pipeline. Released via the I, Voidhanger label that gets so much praise on these pages, Dy’th Requiem is both stunning to listen to and equally impressive as a physical package, with gorgeous gatefold artwork, making this one of 2021’s offerings that’s maybe best heard without distractions, by candlelight, on a particularly cold night this winter.
Full of Hell – Garden of Burning Apparitions
It always takes a few seconds to fully grasp what’s happening on a Full of Hell album. The Maryland grindcore outfit bottle chaos and serve it shot by shot, so finding some kind of grounding device while navigating their onslaught of sonic malice is something of a necessity. Once that happens, however, the scope of Garden of Burning Apparitions grows all the more impressive. It’s not their most accessible album, necessarily—I’m not even sure that’s a measurable quality with a band so committed to acid-drenched cacophony. Take, for instance, “Derelict Satellite,” which isn’t so much a song as a storm of noise with screaming. But with each permutation of the band’s barrage of bilious sound, there’s a new aspect or shade of Full of Hell’s sound comes into view, whether the d-beat crunch of “Asphyxiant Blessing,” the doomjazz trip that introduces “Murmuring Foul Spring,” the grind ‘n’ roll of “All Bells Ringing,” or the noise-rock groove of “Reeking Tunnels.” Every time Full of Hell returns with new music, it’s as if they’ve emerged from a cocoon a bigger, stronger, filthier version of themselves.
Glassing – Twin Dream
Glassing do a lot of things well—shimmering shoegaze soundscapes, blistering black metal ferocity, graceful instrumental passages—but it’s the tension that holds them all together that makes them such a formidable force. The Austin group’s second album, Spotted Horse, contained all of these ideas in various forms, sometimes mere glimpses and at other times the full scope of them, but it’s on Twin Dream where the band’s kaleidoscopic nightmare fully converges into a vivid and terrifying vision. Few moments on Twin Dream feel anything but apocalyptic, but Glassing find something beautiful within that: the saturated hues of the flames that rise up over the horizon, and the blue-green foam of the ocean waves that threaten to consume us. There’s poetry and grace in Glassing’s onslaught, a post-metal masterpiece that offers emotional connection rather than cerebral detachment.
King Woman – Celestial Blues
In the four years since King Woman’s last album Created in the Image of Suffering, Kristina Esfandiari has released through her various other projects a dream pop album, a shoegaze album, a noise album and a handful of industrial trap singles—a scorching palate cleanser of material, but not enough to diminish the lingering impact of her primary band’s atmospheric doom, which takes on the shape of gothic grunge on Celestial Blues. King Woman’s second album further explores trauma and a dark journey of the soul told through the storytelling device of the myth of Lucifer. Esfandiari embodies the role stunningly, giving some her most visceral performances—screaming through seemingly literal demons on “Coil” and “Psychic Wound”—while seemingly having a hell of a time doing it (sorry). Yet the melodies here are so strong that it’s hard not to see the potential for crossover into a more mainstream audience, assuming that audience is ready to confront something this dark.
Kowloon Walled City – Piecework
Kowloon Walled City’s Piecework is another piece of evidence for why ranking the year’s best metal just didn’t work in any kind of logical fashion; I’m not sure “metal” is even the best way to describe what they do, and when I spoke to vocalist Scott Evans earlier this year, he seemed to agree. But even within the open spaces of their stark, tense post-hardcore, there’s a sense of power within their restraint, a crunch that rattles the sternum and matches the weight of the darkness and chilling abstraction that permeates Evans’ narratives. Tension comprises the building blocks of Piecework‘s seven tracks, the kind that feels like trying to walk across a frozen lake, and it’s almost more impactful than the moments in which the bassline plunges and snare drum cracks like a left hook. Just because it’s the band’s most graceful album doesn’t mean it’s not devastating.
Papangu – Holoceno
Holoceno, the debut album by Brazil’s Papangu, borders on sensory overload. The riffs hit hard, the group’s arrangements are intricate and elaborately woven, and each song seems to change time signatures at least two or three times. But it might not be until two-thirds of the way through “Bacia de Almas” that it becomes crystal clear: This is a prog album. The heaviest kind of prog imaginable—King Crimson tuned several steps lower and Magma if they were born from the bowels of hell instead of, uh, France. That doesn’t mean it’s not also a metal album, an absolutely dizzying array of rhythms and textures intended to overwhelm as much as mesmerize. There’s no proper emotional reaction to an album like this other than total awe.
Portrayal of Guilt – We Are Always Alone
Portrayal of Guilt released two albums this year, one of which has a much more confrontational title. But it’s hard to say definitively which of the two is the more hostile record. We Are Always Alone is, arguably, the more accessible of the two, which is perhaps a dubious measure when discussing a band whose every note drips with violence. It’s definitely the stronger of the two, however, an impeccable set of black metal-informed hardcore that’s always brooding at its most subtle, capable of severing tendons when gnashing at full strength. Portrayal of Guilt tap into a darkness that’s pretty harrowing even by the already terrifying standard set by generations of metal bands before them. That alone is worthy of its own praise.
Sermon of Flames – I Have Seen the Light and It Was Repulsive
Any album that begins with a song titled “Cauldron of Boiling Piss” is bound to be a pretty nasty piece of work, and Irish death/black metal/noise duo Sermon of Flames offer nothing but caustic hostility on their full-length debut. A blistering standout among a pretty stacked year of releases on the venerable and admirably weird I, Voidhanger label (including a handful of really good albums that aren’t really metal by any conventional measure), I Have Seen the Light and It Was Repulsive, more than any other album in recent memory, bridges the gap between the dissonant onslaught of death metal riffs and the suffocating atmosphere of industrial and noise. Eardrum tormenting frequencies erupt throughout the album, but they don’t necessarily dominate; tracks like “I__H__D__O__D__E__S__I__W__A__C” prove that Sermon of Flames have more than their share of riffs to go around, while moments like the bass-throbbing industrial grind of “G.O.D.” reveal an aesthetic connection to The Body (when they’re not playing traditional folk songs). When their atmospheric terror and riff-driven menace come together on a track such as “Vacuous & Disjointed,” they sound like they could devour souls.
The Silver – Ward of Roses
I’ve always admired the fact that so many musicians in metal can be members of not one but two incredible bands at once, and sometimes even more than that (how many bands has Ben Koller played in, again?). The Silver can be viewed as a side project from members of Horrendous and Crypt Sermon, one that sounds nothing like either of those groups, but their debut album Ward of Roses is such a fully formed and impeccably crafted set of songs that I can’t help but crave more where this came from. Melodic, dark, immediate, even romantic—aesthetically if not necessarily thematically—Ward of Roses reimagines black metal through the lens of goth and progressive rock, upgrading straightforward guttural assault with soaring vocals and arrangements that harbor a post-punk sexiness. In a year full of some pretty incredible metal debuts, this one rises just a little higher.
Steel Bearing Hand – Slay in Hell
A band doesn’t just choose the name Steel Bearing Hand—it must be earned. The Dallas group, formerly known as Live by the Sword (which is still a pretty cool name!), more than prove themselves worthy of the mantle, spending the entirety of Slay in Hell‘s 36 minutes sounding as if they’re going into battle. With furious guitar solos, galloping thrash metal rhythms and the best use of a whammy bar in years—but maybe also swords, I suppose. Though this record is longer than Reign in Blood by a good seven minutes or so, Steel Bearing Hand don’t waste a single moment. They’re a lean and muscular bunch, and this is thrash metal at its best.
Succumb – XXI
Ugliness is an art. It’s what separates death metal from most other forms of metal—not that grindcore and black metal don’t have their moments of face-screwing ugliness. But with death metal, it’s an asset, something to be celebrated and emulated. Bay Area miscreants Succumb don’t subsist purely on ugliness, though their barbarism is by all means unique—a choking, claustrophobic kind of intensity and dissonance that seamlessly swings with equally nasty groove (“Okeanos”), dizzying intricacy (“Smoke”), or just pure, unrelenting nastiness (“Aither”). It’s not that Succumb don’t make occasional forays into immediacy or melody, but that’s merely seasoning. XXI, above all, is a masterwork in ugly.
Thirdface – Do It With a Smile
So many of the metal albums that resonated with me this year are those that kick off with a kind of property damage-inducing level of energy and animosity as soon as they get off the ground. Do It With a Smile, the debut album by Nashville’s Thirdface, is exactly one of those albums, an album both melodic and capable of absolute mayhem. Vocalist Kathryn Edwards is a force of nature, casting her ire toward misogynistic institutions, performative allyship and capitalism with a fire-breathing screech. Yet she’s in good company instrumentally, the group’s take on hardcore at once dangerous and highly infectious, with moments of old-school punk, sludge and post-punk shining through on the moments where they ease slightly off the ass-beating. But make no mistake: it’s only a temporary reprieve.
Tribulation – Where the Gloom Becomes Sound
Tribulation have spent more than half a decade mining the melodic, anthemic goth-metal that’s become their signature—enough time to forget that they actually began life as a death metal band in the vein of some of their home country of Sweden’s best ’90s exports. Where the Gloom Becomes Sound is a refinement as much as an act of expansion, continuing to build on the moody theatrics of 2015’s Children of the Night and 2018’s Down Below through tighter songwriting, more prevalent hooks and the kind of grandeur that could easily find them becoming a mainstream powerhouse on the level of Ghost. Statements like this probably won’t win me any friends, but I’m not saying this is a bad thing; songs like “Leviathans” and “Funeral Pyre” are rife with streamlined post-punk influence and undeniable immediacy. Writing hits is pretty low on the list of priorities for any great metal band, if only because the market for them is essentially nonexistent. But songs like these conjure images of pyrotechnics and motorcycles on arena stages—a blockbuster kind of heavy metal that’s long overdue for a mainstream revival.
Unto Others – Strength
Unto Others seemed destined for bigger things back when they released their debut album Mana under the name Idle Hands. They didn’t transform into an altogether new band with the rebranding, but they have certainly grown stronger, honing in further on their gothic heavy metal sound with an added intensity through tracks like “Heroin,” the visceral opening track from second album Strength. Yet the band doesn’t shy away from their pop instincts either, as heard on the mesmerizing vocal harmonies in “Downtown” or the shimmering guitars of “When Will God’s Work Be Done.” And in making the move to Roadrunner, Unto Others have also upgraded their production to pristine, widescreen, MTV-during-the-daytime sonic quality, a clarity that does justice to their anthemic underworld. They might be the sort to wear sunglasses even after the sun goes down, but don’t let the pall cast over Strength suggest that this album is anything but a hell of a good time.
Wode – Burn in Many Mirrors
The primary difference between Wode and most other black metal bands is that the UK group actually sound like they’re having fun. It’s subtle—this is still dark and aggressive music, defined by ominous, gothic atmosphere and menacing growls. But listen a little closer, imagine yourself playing these songs yourself (which is hard! They play fast!) and think about what a blast it must be to tear through rippers like the six songs that comprise Burn in Many Mirrors. In a year in which goth gloom established a tangible presence in metal at large, Wode might be the band that harnessed it best, fusing it with black metal and vintage ’80s-indebted heavy metal sounds seamlessly. But that’s not the entirety of Burn in Many Mirrors’ strengths; of the band’s three excellent albums thus far, this is the one that finds their songwriting and sense of dramatic presentation at its strongest, arriving with the perfect balance of performance and pomp—a perfect candidate for capturing lightning on festival stages.
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