Combining introspection with a forward-thinking vision, Germany’s Der Weg Einer Freiheit top the best albums of 2021 with their fifth full-length, Noktvrn. Their Black Metal is one based on experimentation or more aptly put, mining the ether for myriad visions ranging from the psychedelic to the frantically charged mayhem that is their trademark. The album as a whole is a journey encompassing an arch that mirrors that of a storied drama. The thrill of the ride solidifies the album’s greatness, an engrossing affair that taps into influences as disparate as the requisite classic Black Metal along with touches of bands like Anathema and Sisters of Mercy in sections. Such a sublime brew intoxicates perfectly leaving the listener bereft of hangover and still wanting more.
Black Metal retains the two top positions on my list and rightfully so as proven by the veracity of these two releases. Mork’s fifth full-length (perhaps the fifth album is a lucky charm), Katedralen manages to ignite fear into rage, an irresistible tribute to the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Incorporating a massive rhythm section of bombastic drums and bass that seems to never stop exploring, Mork gives Black Metal a more pronounced “band” feel. Indeed, this is a thorough, solidly constructed opus that pays tribute to its roots a la Entombed and Celtic Frost yet still taps into the adventurous spirit of a band like Arcturus to help move the genre forward. The guitar tone is both modern and Black Metal apropos and it is this straddling of the fence separating the past and future where Mork truly shines.
Of all the albums on this list, Witherfall’s Curse of Autumn is the most decidedly, unabashedly Heavy Metal. There are few bands to occupy this specific niche, one most famously vacated by the illustrious Nevermore in the wake of Warrel Dane’s demise. Interestingly enough, singer Joseph Michael also fronts Sanctuary; thus, the comparison is appropriate. Witherfall succeeds in taking the roots of Crimson Glory, Queensryche, and others and injecting a lethal dose of modernity to form their unique sound. Such pioneering endeavors are colored by a singular heaviness – punishing double bass that meets the technical, polished guitar riffs. For those who cut their teeth on epic albums like Painkiller, Curse of Autumn is nothing less than a rallying cry.
The fourth spot on the list marks a return to Black Metal. In this instance, though, Symphonic Black Metal is on tap. Necronautical, a British band, dare to tread where visionaries like Emperor and trailblazers like Limbonic Art once explored. Indeed, it seems like Necronautical picked up right where the greats left off. Through a series of twists and turns, the band exercises a wealth of intricacies while successfully combining brutality with melody and convention with expression. Necronautical manages to reclaim that sacred vibe that spawned so many pretenders and return it to its vaulted state. With a sprinkling of Death Metal and a bit of the Avant-Garde, Necronautical has created an album to challenge notions that the genre has faded.
For those who have become bored with Death Metal, look no further for inspiration than Blood Red Throne, true pioneers in taking the sound to new heights altogether. One would not expect this brutal powerhouse to hail from Norway let alone to be comprised of members who played with the likes of Emperor and Satyricon. Fit to Kill is yet another offering, the band’s ninth in fact, to blur the lines between pummeling riffs and clever songwriting. There is a deeper level to Blood Red Throne, an appreciation for the guitar acrobatics of the likes of Dimebag Darrell melded with perennial favorites such as Carcass. Utilizing expert production, Fit to Kill establishes a gold standard for quality that is the prime platform for delivering this painfully incisive, biting carnage.
Proudly, I still own the Dopesick shirt I have had since the ‘90s; therefore, it is a no-brainer that the sludge masters of NOLA made the year-end best-of list. A new Eyehategod album is a momentous occasion, and A History of Nomadic Behavior is no exception. What separates this from the band’s prodigiously prolific back catalog is a new approach to production, one that more effectively showcases the inherent intensity coursing through the music. The second track, “The Outer Banks,” is an excellent point of reference as it transitions from a dirge-filled palm-muted section to a circle pit frenzy. As always Mike Williams’s vocals espouse lyrics speaking to the depravity of humanity while always injecting much-needed points of sly, dry humor. Take as needed for the pain.
Thief – The 16 Deaths of My Master
Thief, a decidedly non-metal project, is the brainchild of one Dylan Neal who cut his teeth as a multi-instrumentalist for Northern California experimental Black Metal act Botanist. Such a musical background certainly left a protracted impression upon Neal as evidenced by the vast soundscapes employed in The 16 Deaths of My Master. What separates Thief from other experimental electronic acts, though, is the synthesis of sacred chanting and choral music into a new form altogether. The end result is no less stunning than walking into a Gothic cathedral in the midst of a Baroque mass. In Neal’s own words, Thief specializes in “night music for haunted ballrooms and electric churches.” The dark seduction, sacred reverence, and the multitude of emotions underpinning this album contribute to the stunning experience it so adroitly conjures.
Tribulation is the intersection of Goth, Black Metal, Death Metal, and Psychedelia. Originally formed as a brutal Death Metal band, Tribulation subsequently expanded their vision to incorporate said influences. The band, therefore, make albums that are anything but boring and the maturity of the songs contained within eclipse their most valiant efforts. Diverse textures created through the careful layering of guitar parts color the sound throughout. Surprisingly, the seventh track, “Dirge of a Dying Soul” conjured visions of Def Leppard’s Hysteria in its enchanting hooks and pop-styled twists and turns. As long as Tribulation remains the odd band out in the Extreme Metal community embracing their creative oeuvre, their albums will continue to appear in my year-end lists.
Excretion of Mortality is the sophomore album from Seattle’s Cerebral Rot and as such, is a truly unforgettable experience. At times maddening, other moments mimic choking or being trapped. Perhaps a disclaimer should be presented on the cover for those with varied medical conditions. The guttural, dry lung vocals roar over the copping sensation created by the staccato palm-muting of the guitars. It is a resoundingly cavernous, expansive sound that fuels the dread that pervades the mind.
Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined
After the drama that ensued when former guitarist Pat O’ Brien became unhinged, Cannibal Corpse had a mandate to come back stronger than ever. Tapping Death Metal veteran, producer, and virtuoso Erik Rutan, the band accepted the challenge and definitely eclipsed all expectations. Cannibal Corpse has long been a staple of Death Metal creating bludgeoning anthems that move mosh pits and sell massive tons of merch, but it has been quite some time since the band delivered such a monstrously aggressive affair. Blending expertly crafted, pile-driving riffs with blasting drums and the ultimate Death Metal master of ceremonies in Corpsegrinder, this is Cannibal Corpse playing up to all of its strengths. While most of the albums on this list are more experimental, Violence Unimagined is the meat and potatoes. Nevertheless, though, comfort food never satisfied so well!