I don’t think there’s such a thing as a bad year for music. You just have to know where to look. Sometimes it’ll seem like everything you’ve listened to is a little underwhelming, or that you haven’t really found that one record that really knocks you on your ass. And sometimes there are conditions that make it so that a lot of albums are delayed, or in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of bands can’t actually make it into a physical studio. (The fact that we’re seeing so many November releases on the horizon kind of emphasizes that point.)
All of which is to say: I was starting to worry that this was going to be a lackluster year for metal. Sure, I loved the hell out of the Wode and Tribulation and Portrayal of Guilt records that were released at the beginning of the year, and I, Voidhanger is consistently dropping incredible new music. (I don’t typically choose a label of the year, but they deserve some kind of special merit for how consistently they’re offering up outside-the-box extreme metal highlights.) But then it kind of just seemed like everything was…fine? Yeah, it was fine.
I’m not discounting the possibility that it’s me. That perhaps I just was inspired by more music outside of the metal sphere (or perhaps that a lot of it is tangentially connected to metal but not so strictly defined—don’t roll your eyes when The Armed and The Body & Big Brave’s folk album top my year-end metal list). And, well, maybe it’s inevitable that at some point, we’d reach a lull, everyone would need a refresh (especially after the couple of years we’ve been going through) and maybe 2022 would be a lot better when it came to riffs and roars. I mean, there are worse things in the world than having to deal with a fairly lackluster season of metal.
…And then that all kind of turned around. And 2021 didn’t just become a better year for metal, but all of a sudden it feels like a great one, in large part because there’s been a flood of outstanding new death metal. There are probably good reasons for this like the ones I’ve outlined above, having to do with studio scheduling and vinyl pressing being interrupted for numerous reasons, be it either Covid-19 or an unprecedented demand in vinyl and no more resources to handle it (the new Converge Bloodmoon: 1 album won’t be available on vinyl until June 2022!).
But here we are, and there’s nothing but great death metal as far as the eye can see—or death metal-influenced records—all of which seem to have arrived in the blink of an eye. Perhaps it’s because we’re getting so close to Halloween and all the ghouls are letting out their feral barks, or maybe it just took this long for all the albums to be finished. (And just a side note here: Bands? You get a free pass. This hasn’t been an easy year for anyone trying to make stuff happen.) And you can’t say that it’s an underwhelming year for metal when Carcass has a new album out (counterpoint being the year they released Swansong, but 1996 did have some bangers).
But this month, I’ve lined up six great death metal records (some of them more death metal-ish, arguably) that have made the wait well worth it. Let those riffs fly.
Carcass – Torn Arteries
Any discussion this month of death metal that doesn’t involve Carcass is overlooking maybe the most important release. Nothing but respect for MY kings of death metal, complete with mostly anatomically correct human heart made out of vegetables on the cover of their new album. When I reviewed this album earlier this month, I felt like I might have undersold it a little; if that’s the case, here’s me saying Torn Arteries is a killer death metal album, no need to equivocate. As one of the bands that (dubiously, some might argue) helped put death ‘n’ roll on the map, it’s both refreshing to hear Carcass remind us just how well rock accessibility and death metal ferocity go hand in hand, but mostly what makes Torn Arteries great is the same thing that makes all of the best heavy metal records great. It’s loud, it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and the band doesn’t hold back. They’re neither Opeth nor Gorguts and that’s not what I want them to be. I want a Carcass album to be as fun as a Carcass show—guitar-pick flinging, hair swinging, one-song-bleeding-into-the-next sprint of riffs and glory. And that’s exactly what they deliver. (Nuclear Blast)
Full of Hell – Garden of Burning Apparitions
Yes, Full of Hell aren’t a death metal band in the strictest sense of the word, but also don’t make me tap the sign. The raw, ugly intensity of death metal is at the heart of what the Maryland grindcore band does, whether that takes the form of short bursts of powerviolence of just plain noise, as is the case with cacophonous new track “Derelict Satellite.” What separates Garden of Burning Apparitions from the group’s previous works is, in large part, a drive toward melody that didn’t always have a place within their albums (“All Bells Ringing” and “Reeking Tunnels” are downright catchy!). But in between those hooks are clusters of riffs that sound like Autopsy played at 78 RPMs, all abrasion and dissonance delivered with speed, precision and complete disregard for safety precautions. I’ve had fun listening to Full of Hell records in the past, so I won’t say it’s the first time they’ve pulled off something that sounds fun, but I get the impression after hearing this, more people might actually take notice. (Relapse)
Qrixkuor – Poison Palinopsia
Most of the albums in this month’s roundup are pretty short. Hell, a few of ’em slide under a half hour or skate only slightly past that mark. But the latest album from UK group Qrixkuor is 48 minutes long and features only two songs. Yup, these dudes aren’t really about the whole less-is-more thing, and thank the dark lord for that. The two monoliths that make up this beast of a record are immense and imposing, transitioning from moments of hell-bent gallop to cavernous death-doom growl and melodic occult darkness. I can’t even complain about the band’s lack of interest in self-editing because, well, it’s not even true! You could argue there’s about six songs within each of these side-long pieces but each part is seamlessly connected and executed meticulously, which makes the infernal ride well worth taking. Get in loser, we’re going to hellllllllll. (Dark Descent)
Rivers of Nihil – The Work
Rivers of Nihil won me over a few years back for Where Owls Know My Name—an artful progressive death metal album that featured some of the best use of saxophone on a metal record in recent memory. (And you know I love some saxophone.) Its follow-up The Work is an album of emotion as much as it is technicality and texture (and for more on that, make sure to read Michael Pementel’s review of the album), and it’s one that rivals its predecessor in sheer scope and imagination. This isn’t an album that consistently delivers a death metal assault in the same way that some of these others do; “Wait” has a Floydian ambiance about it, while “Focus” has a melodic build-and-release progression that feels more aligned with bands like Deftones than Death or Gorguts. But that’s essentially what makes it an album worth revisiting—there’s a lot happening here, much of it beautiful, some of it more progressive rock or simply rock than death metal, but then an absolute ripper of a track like “MORE?” comes around to shred that serenity like a chainsaw through cushion foam, and it’s just fantastic. (Metal Blade)
Sermon of Flames – I Have Seen the Light, and It Was Repulsive
Ireland’s Sermon of Flames have arrived with one hell of a debut on I Have Seen the Light, and It Was Repulsive. In fact, I very likely haven’t heard a better metal debut in 2021 than this, an utterly relentless barrage of dissonance, noise, riffs and venom. The band’s M.O. is pure, vile destruction—not unlike Full of Hell, with whom they share some common column space this month, but with a bit more reverence for classic death metal groove. There’s an imposing wall of static that often permeates what they do, pushing their brand of death metal ever closer to noise or power electronics, but they never sacrifice the momentum or thrill of death metal at its most furious for the sake of total chaos. What they pull off is a balance between bilious underworld groove and an industrial-dark ambient dystopia, a sweet spot that won’t make them crossover icons but by all means makes for one of the most incredible metal listens of 2021, and yet another feather in the cap of the unstoppable I, Voidhanger label. (I, Voidhanger)
Succumb – XXI
I went longer on this album in a review that’ll be published on this very site soon, but I’ll give you the abridged version: Succumb’s new album is just nasty, filthy, apocalyptic death metal that harnesses the most abrasive forms of darkness and spits them right back in your face (or in the face of all the things that are making us all feel a bit on edge right now). Increasingly I’m growing weary of bands that cosplay evil without really having much purpose behind what they do, but Succumb provide both a sense of catharsis (something that’s been extremely appealing for me this year) and a defiance that reminds us how much more powerful the human element behind extreme metal is than some imaginary supernatural terrors. (Flenser)
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.