With many tours postponed to 2022 or outright canceled, late 2020 and early 2021 was prime for writing and studio time for legions of bands. While stages around the world were silent, with some exceptions in the second half of this year, the albums that came from months of uncertainty in the face of a pandemic were stellar.
This was a tough list to put together, but I am pleased to present my picks for the ten best metal albums of 2021. Visit your local record store and pick up a copy of all of these albums, let’s keep the music coming!
10.) Carcass – Torn Arteries (Nuclear Blast)
It’s hard to believe it’s been eight years since Surgical Steel was released but at long last, Carcass has returned from the morgue with a new offering. Celebrating 35 years together, the gnashing guitars and snarling vocals remain fresh as ever. Here’s hoping to see them on stage again soon.
9.) Between the Buried & Me – Colors II (Sumerian Records)
I am a bit of a heretic when it comes to BTBAM in that Alaska has and always will be my favorite album. That said, do you remember the time someone said “Wow, this new album is lame”? Yeah, me neither. To that point, Colors II is a wonderful sequel to the album that brought BTBAM out from the underground and introduced them to the masses, while remaining original and exciting in its content.
8.) Swallow the Sun – Moonflowers (Century Media)
Given the state of the world since March 2020, gothic doom metal is certainly a perfect audio backdrop. Finland is no stranger to the world of doom (as we’ll see again shortly), but Swallow the Sun knocked it out of the park as far as balancing beautiful melodies and ambient moods. If I have one regret from this year, it’s that I missed Swallow the Sun on tour with Abigail Williams and Wilderun in November.
7.) Skepticism – Companion (Svart Records)
Funeral doom metal is among one of the hardest sub-genres for even the most dedicated metalheads to get into. That said, if you’re going to take your first step into this extreme realm of music, start with Skepticism, one of two pioneering bands, both of which hail(ed) from Finland. With winter setting in quickly, I am sure the towering synths and organs will be a perfect companion to the dark, snowy season still to come.
6.) Whitechapel – Kin (Metal Blade Records)
I have known Whitechapel since the beginning and was definitely not ready for this album. Guitar solos, spacy-proggy sections, and Phil Bozeman clean singing are just a few elements of this album that made me rethink what I knew about Knoxville’s finest. Rest assured, there are still plenty of fierce moments, but there is much more to take away from this album that just breakdowns.
5.) Gojira – Fortitude (Roadrunner Records)
We did a more in-depth review of this album back in May 2021, but I stand by my words from then. A colossal sounding album with some of the finest drum work Mario Duplantier has ever delivered, I can see why Fortitude has placed high on many Best of 2021 lists. If you listen to one track from this record, sit down with “Amazonia”: if I had to make a list of my ten favorite Gojira songs, it would easily take the third or fourth spot.
4.) Archspire – Bleed the Future (Season of Mist)
I feel like I was just getting used to the intensity of 2017’s Relentless Mutation when this album dropped at the end of October. This is one of those albums when you need a minute after you’re done listening to it, it leaves you that winded. I know I use words like ‘merciless’ and ‘unforgiving’ a lot in my reviews but between the suffocating vocals and machine gun guitar/bass/drums, those words don’t even scratch the surface. You know what, just skip this album…you can’t handle this much metal.
3.) Rivers of Nihil – The Work (Metal Blade Records)
Following 2018’s Where Owls Know My Name, there was a lot of hype for River of Nihil’s next opus. What we got from the Pennsylvania based prog-tech death quintet was something quite polarizing: some fans found it extraordinary, others found it more tame and slower than the last album.
Musically, The Work is not an Owls part two, though there are some similarities, including the return of session sax player Zach Strouse. There is a sense of isolation in every track, of not wanting to be somewhere but still having to be there anyway and enduring it. If this doesn’t capture the feeling of the pandemic, then perhaps the studio photos in the album’s liner notes will. Five musicians, their faces masked and mired by looks of anxiety, coming together through a dark time to do what means most to them.
If I could sum up The Work in one work it would simply be: honest.
2.) Jinjer – Wallflowers (Napalm Records)
I had a feeling this album would make it somewhere on my top ten when it was released in August, but I found myself loving it more and more with each listen. Mixing prog and technical aspects with captivating melodies, there’s something for everyone on this album.
While Tatiana Shmayluk’s screams and growls are some of the strongest this side of Angela Gossow, her hypnotic clean vocals are a refreshing addition to the layers of heaviness the band delivers. And heaviness here doesn’t just mean endless distortion; for proof, give the title track a listen and you’ll experience a different kind of heaviness. Tell me you don’t feel a weight in your stomach with lyrics like “My circle of old friends is getting empty, getting emptier, and I don’t really wish for new ones.
Given their slew of sold out shows during their last U.S. tour (that we were fortunate enough to be at), I expect big things to come from Jinjer.
1.) Panopticon – …And Again Into the Light (Bindrune Recordings)
So far, multiple entries on this list have reflected this year’s fears, uncertainties, and sadness. To make it this high up the list would take an album that does more for me than to just vibe with these feelings. Enter Panopticon and …And Again Into the Light.
In keeping with all Panopticon releases, the album is minimally polished and the vocals still sound like the wails of the Old Man of the Mountain, but that’s exactly what makes it so perfect. The middle sections of “Dead Loons” and “A Snowless Winter” had me in tears. Maybe it’s the Minnesota landscape where Panopticon is based, but I found myself feeling small and alone throughout this album. Like a child trying to go home, only to find home was nowhere.
Still, there was almost a feeling of nostalgia for simpler days with the bluegrass infused instrumental song “As Her Golden Laughter Echoes”. This gave way to the unbelievable beauty of “The Embers At Dawn,” another tear jerker.
As dark as these years have been, Panopticon offers a bit of hope with the title of this album and the music on it. We will return to the light one day, even if we are not who we were before, but we will get there soon.
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