The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Quietus Charts

Columnus Metallicus: The Best Heavy Metal Of 2021
Kez Whelan , December 6th, 2021 10:21

Kez Whelan casts his eye back over the last 12 months to bring you this collection of unmissable albums


Boiling a year’s worth of music down to a list of twenty records is always a daunting challenge, but I found this one particularly hard to compile. The last few years have each yielded a clear stand-out, a record that instantly hooked me and resonated deeply, but I’ve ended up agonising over the top spot much more this time.

In all honesty, most of the records that really spoke to me over the last twelve months weren’t metal. No other album captured the anxiety, frustration and exhaustion of 2021 more acutely than The Bug’s Fire, hands down. Emma Ruth Rundle’s Engine Of Hell came close, however, removing the heavier guitar focus of her Thou collaboration and producing her most vulnerable, quiet and harrowing set of songs yet. Conversely, I loved Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s latest because of its uncharacteristically joyous and optimistic tone, perfecting the jammier, more rockin’ style of their post-reunion material whilst combining it with the denser compositional approach of their classic material. It’s their best in years to these ears.

Moor Mother’s Black Encyclopedia Of The Air is a delight too, combining the atmospheric hip hop of last year’s Brass with her more experimental free-jazz side to create an exceptionally tight half-hour opus that really shows off her range. All of which will likely stay with me for years to come, but would perhaps be odd choices for the top spot on a list of the year’s best metal records.

Don’t worry though, I’m not transforming into one of those joyless “metal is dying!” bores because it clearly fucking isn’t; just because I struggled to settle on that coveted number one spot doesn’t mean there weren’t numerous contenders. Metal continues to broaden out in thousands of different directions, and whatever permutation of it tickles you the most, chances are you’ve been spoilt for choice. The fact that every metal writer’s list I’ve seen so far this year has been completely, wildly different is a sign that the genre is as healthy and eclectic as ever.

However, it definitely felt like a lot of the metal albums I heard this year had a somewhat transitionary quality, compared to the more definitive statements many of these same artists have made in the last few years. Following a year in which many music lifers had to face the existential terror of an existence without live music, it perhaps makes sense that a lot of the recorded music to emerge from this weird era has a profoundly displaced feeling to it. The Body, Full Of Hell, Paysage d’Hiver, Esoctrilihum and Lamp Of Murmuur all continued their prolific streak in 2021 and turned in fascinating records, but records that felt a bit more low-key and unsure of themselves in comparison to their more robust, assured predecessors.

There are a lot of glaring omissions below for other reasons too, records that I’m sure will be gracing many of the other lists you’ll be perusing this month and could have easily made mine had it been a top 25. Both the new Carcass and Cannibal Corpse records are fantastic, and whilst it’s hard to compete with either’s cherished back catalogues, they both did a damn good job nonetheless. Carcass seemed to allow their sound a lot more breathing room this time, with Bill Steer turning in one of the most dazzling guitar performances of the year, whilst the inclusion of Erik Rutan into Cannibal’s ranks really lit a fire under them, resulting in one of their most focussed and powerful records in some time.

The new Lingua Ignota is fantastic too, and whilst it hasn’t quite clicked with me in the same way that the towering Caligula did, closer ‘The Solitary Brethren Of Ephrata’ is one of her most remarkable pieces yet, somehow managing to be both one of the most oddly comforting and utterly terrifying songs I’ve heard all year. But you already know those are great, right? At the very least, I’ll stand by every inclusion on the list below as an extremely solid metal record that is fully worth your time. Hopefully you’ll find some new favourites along the way…

20. Universally Estranged - Reared Up In Spectral Predation
(Blood Harvest)

There’s something genuinely otherworldly about this Texan solo musician’s debut album; almost as if some extra-terrestrial force had picked up on transmissions of Blood Incantation records and broadcast its own interpretation of them back at us. The charmingly lo-fi approach, mixed with the sheer oddness of some of the sounds here, make this one of the year’s most unique death metal records.

19. Hellish Form - Remains
(Translation Loss)

Combining mournful funeral doom with shimmering 4AD inspired soundscapes, this long distance doom duo’s debut album contains some of the most bleak, harrowing and despondent music I’ve heard all year, and some of the most serene, enchanting and beautiful. This tension makes Remains a really intense listen, capable of consoling and then emotionally eviscerating you minutes later.

18. Wode - Burn In Many Mirrors
(20 Buck Spin)

Manchester’s Wode have been one of the UK’s best black metal bands for a full decade now, but 2021 felt like the year everyone else finally caught up with them. Burn In Many Mirrors could be their best record, infusing their icy, arcane black metal with classic heavy metal song-writing nuance and a mysterious, eerie atmosphere that really doesn’t sound like any of their peers.

17. Alkerdeel - Slonk
(Babylon Doom Cult)

Nobody blends sludge with black metal like Alkerdeel, and the Belgians are sounding even more singular and depraved on this absolutely filthy fourth album. There’s a genuinely unhinged quality to Slonk, which somehow manages to sound physically flattening even whilst adhering to ruggedly lo-fi black metal production principles. This approach works wonders, bathing the band’s harsh, angular riffing in such a revoltingly grimy atmosphere you still won’t feel clean after the fifth shower.

16. Bongzilla - Weedsconsin
(Heavy Psych Sounds)

Let’s face it – stoner doom is fucking dead in 2021. After a good run, the genre got swamped by clones of clones of clones and disappeared up its own carb hole; which makes it all the more satisfying witnessing Bongzilla finally descend from on high to show us all how it’s done. Delivering riffs aplenty whilst embarking on some seriously psychedelic tangents and maintaining an organic, jammed out atmosphere throughout, Weedsconsin felt like picking up an ounce of kush after putting up with shitty soap-bar for months on end.

15. Heavy Sentence - Bang To Rights
(Dying Victims Productions)

Easily the best unabashed old-school heavy metal record of the year, this Manchester quintet’s debut is a joyous celebration of metal in its purest form, armed with boisterous NWOBHM style hooks galore and G. Howells’ snarling, Lemmy-gargling-sulphuric-acid howl. There’s enough vitality, grit and imagination in the song-writing here to prevent this from being mere nostalgia, however. Absolute ripper.

14. Dream Unending - Tide Turns Eternal
(20 Buck Spin)

Tide Turns Eternal is the most recently released record on this list, but it’s burrowed itself so deeply into my psyche that it had to be included. It’s an easy sell, if not wholly original – a classic Peaceville style doom with a strong post punk influence and an abundance of dreamy yet scorching solos? Sold! – but the album fulfils its brief so convincingly and emotively that it almost transcends its influences to become its own unique thing anyway.

13. Last Days Of Humanity – Horrific Compositions Of Decomposition
(Rotten Roll Rex)

Perhaps wisely realising they’d never out-do 2006’s Putrefaction In Progress in terms of sheer brutality, Dutch gore-grind legends Last Days Of Humanity toned down the pingy snare, eased off on the wall-of-noise approach and re-emphasised the more discernible, metallic riffery of their early work for this comeback album. Rather than sounding watered down however, the band retain their trademark intensity throughout, resulting in the year’s most memorable and exhilarating grindcore experience.

12. Mare Cognitum – Solar Paroxysm

It’s rare that black metal sounds this simultaneously furious, melodic and warm. This US solo project’s fifth album burns as bright as the sun, delivering five lengthy epics that don’t let up whatsoever. Despite the vast scope and manic pace, the yearning, passionate melodic hooks filling every song prevent Solar Paroxysm from becoming too exhausting.

11. Amenra - De Doorn

De Doorn is a first for this Belgian post metal collective in many ways; their first with Oathbreaker’s Caro Tanghe as a full-time collaborator, their first for Relapse, their first to be written for a series of commissioned events and their first to drop the traditional Mass title. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that the album also feels like their most communal and ceremonial yet, an enveloping outpouring of grief that ranks as one of their most cathartic efforts.

10. Worm - Foreverglade
(20 Buck Spin)

Now this one was a surprise; this Florida death/doom squad really blossomed on this third full-length, utilising a variety of different textures and moods to create not only one of 2021’s heaviest and most crushing doom albums, but one of its most expressive and colourful too. The leads on Foreverglade will haunt your memory just as incessantly as its riffs, which is really saying something given how many supremely satisfying, lizard-brain igniting thumpers there are on here.

9. Wolves In The Throne Room – Primordial Arcana

Recorded entirely by the band themselves in their Owl Lodge Studio, Primordial Arcana is not only the most personal Wolves In The Throne Room record but also one of their most focussed and cohesive in some time. Former Aldebaran guitarist Kody Keyworth really gels with the band here, his slow, achingly beautiful leads adding a crisp new dimension to the band’s atmospheric black metal.

8. The Ruins Of Beverast - The Thule Grimoires

Despite delving into some of the most morose, doom-laden and overtly gothic territory this German black metal project has ever explored, this is still perhaps their most accessible album. The dense, impenetrable aura of a Ruins Of Beverast record is part of its appeal, of course, and The Thule Grimoires certainly doesn’t disappoint in that regard, but there’s an immediacy and vitality to this syrupy darkness that should help ensnare new listeners as well as long-time fans.

7. Panopticon – …And Again Into The Light

After separating the black metal and folk aspects of his sound onto different discs with 2018’s double album The Scars Of Man On The Once Nameless Wilderness, Austin Lunn’s eighth Panopticon album was a glorious return to form, feeling like one of the most seamless fusions of these two seemingly disparate aspects of his musical identity yet. …And Again Into The Light has a much more pronounced post rock influence than his last few albums, but it blends perfectly with his stirring, windswept black metal here.

6. Darkthrone – Eternal Hails......

This album feels like the logical conclusion of the slower, doomier flavour that Darkthrone had been toying with on Arctic Thunder and Old Star, and by really honing in on that eerie, dusky atmosphere, I’d say it surpasses both. The song-writing has a genuinely epic quality to it, and the pair’s riff-craft is, as always, second to none – but what really makes Eternal Hails...... stand out is the strangely ancient aura it exudes, like a classic metal record that exists outside of time and space. It’s Darkthrone at their most esoteric and mystical, and it rules.

5. Underdark - Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry
(Surviving Sounds)

This atmospheric black metal quintet’s debut has been several years in the making but was fully worth the wait. Whilst a lot of bands peddling this style of dreamy, shoegaze inspired post black metal feel a bit too sugary or beige, there’s a real weight, urgency and relevance to Underdark’s powerful, organic sound. The song-writing here is imbued with a really distinct identity, tackling political issues without resorting to preachy sloganeering and deftly combining spine-chilling, otherworldly tremolo riffs with torrents of luxurious, reverb-drenched ambience.

4. The Body & Big Brave - Leaving None But Small Birds
(Thrill Jockey)

Both bands released great records on their own this year, The Body taking the harsh industrial aesthetic of their last two records and applying it to the more minimal compositional style of their debut, whilst Big Brave went in the opposite direction, broadening their sound out into an even grander, maximalist roar. Both could have easily made this list if I hadn’t realised that including this collab was a sly way to talk about them both anyway. Leaving None But Small Birds isn’t just here to game the word-count though; it’s a surprisingly gorgeous avant-folk record with warm classic rock undertones that feels like a true collaboration, standing distinct from anything in either band’s back catalogue, and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve found solace in it this year.

3. Fluisteraars - Gegrepen Door De Geest Der Zielsontluiking

This Dutch black metal duo have always been interesting, but it really feels like they’ve come into their own on this fourth record, an album that manages to be sprawling but concise, dark but luminous, cosmic but earthy, alien but deeply, uncomfortably human. The long song structures really emphasise the power of repetition within this genre, but also allow the duo to push far beyond its usual confines into out-there transcendental realms more in line with space rock or free-jazz. Even in what has been a great year for black metal, Gegrepen Door De Geest Der Zielsontluiking stands out as a fantastic example of the wilder, still largely unexplored fringes of the genre.

2. At The Gates – The Nightmare Of Being
(Century Media)

I’d enjoyed At The Gates’ post-reunion material, but genuinely didn’t think the band had another bona-fide classic left in them by this point. The Nightmare Of Being emphatically proved me wrong, not only making their trademark melodic death metal riffing sound more invigorating than it has done in years, but also expanding their sound into a variety of progressive, psychedelic places in ways that feel completely fresh but are also entirely true to the band’s identity. It’s incredible that, 30 years after their formation, At The Gates still sound this imaginative and powerful.

1. Succumb - XXI
(The Flenser)

In terms of white-knuckle intensity, nothing else could touch this Californian death metal quartet’s second album this year, which seemed to significantly increase their speed and technical precision whilst also reaching even more depraved and unnerving atmospheric depths. XXI blurs death, grind, noise and hardcore elements into a grotesque new shape that doesn’t really resemble any of those things too closely, and the exhilarating, deeply unsettling vibe it creates further cements Succumb as being on the absolute cutting edge of extreme metal.