Remember when we thought 2020 was a bad year? How silly of us. This year we found out half of our neighbours are idiots, we again remained mostly showless (I managed to catch four local shows!,) but what kept us at least reasonably sane as well as, you know, alive, was another year of great releases; those minuscule doses of dopamine that Fridays usually bring. Whether it’s the relatable bleakness of extreme metal, the jolly folky tunes, the angry thrashy rhythms or the pensive and complicated prog metal that you were looking for there was something for you in 2021. If you’ve been following closely this is the time where you nod along in smug agreement or find yourself thinking I’m a tasteless uncultured swine. If you haven’t – well, hopefully you find something for you. This is 2021’s top 20 albums.
P.S. Not a fan of reading, just wanna hear some new metals? Here’s a Best of 2021 playlist I made as well
20. Iotunn – Access All Words
We are opening this list with a debut release from the Danish Iotunn that got quite a lot of traction. They play a very interesting and unique proggy melodeath that’s quite difficult to appreciate at first as it does seem overwhelming, but it’s hard to deny there’s a lot of skill involved in this record. At the forefront of it is the band’s vocalist Jón Aldará (also Barren Earth and Hamferð) whose vocal versatility really amazes throughout this cosmic journey the band takes us on. While production is not the best, that is something I’m willing to overlook and I’m excited to see how all of this will be functioning in a live setting as well as how the band’s sound develops in the future.
Songs to hear: “Access All Worlds,” “Laihem’s Golden Pits”
I keep forgetting how massive of a band Gojira actually is because their music has never seemed like something the mainstream metalhead would find it easy to get into. Usually bands that make it as they have don’t really produce amazing albums at this point, but the French band’s 7th release is still really solid. Furthermore, it manages to be very unique, yet very distinctly Gojira with those famous squeal-type sounds they incorporate into their particular brand of prog metal. While this record isn’t amazing and it’s not the band’s finest work it still a good effort by what is by now an iconic band and deserves a mention on the list.
Songs to hear: “Born For One Thing,” “Another World,” “The Chant”
18. Ildaruni – Beyond Unseen Gateways
I’m always thrilled to find cool new bands from countries that aren’t typically known as exporters of a lot of metal or music in general, and this year we have the Armenian band Ildaruni whose debut really exceeds all expectations. As for their sound – it’s a modern, melodic and a unique take on black metal which makes use of some Armenian folk instruments as well, thus adding that ethnic note to the release. Luckily, it’s also produced very well, something that tends to be the biggest issue for most small bands on their first album or two. “Beyond Unseen Gateways” is a glimpse into the yet undiscovered world of extreme metal in the region of western Asia and I really hope there’s more to follow.
Songs to hear: “Treading the Path of Cryptic Wisdom,” “Towards Subterranean Realms,” “Exalted Birth”
17. Ex Deo – The Thirteen Years of Nero
Funnily enough, this side project of the Kataklysm vocalist Maurizio Iacono is consistently better than his main band and this album certainly isn’t an exception. It’s one of those releases where seeing names that contributed to it is enough to let you know it’s going to be great. Besides the brilliant frontman that is Iacono, the album features symphonic elements done by Carach Angren’s Ardek and a guest performance from Brittney Slayes (Unleash the Archers). In this symphonic melodeath album the story of the infamous Roman emperor Nero is presented in a chronological way and while the album is very dramatic and quite aggressive it does lack a real hit song like Ex Deo have delivered before with “I, Caligvla”.
Songs to hear: “Imperator,” “Boudicca (Queen of the Iceni),” “Britannia: The 9th at Camulodonum”
The Finnish/British prog band burst onto the scene in 2019 with “Moving Backwards” (which I shamefully missed in my best albums of that year), and since everyone has been waiting if they can follow up with their second album. They have, although in a manner that’s a bit softer and more sensual. As Wheel is in the process of really finding their sound we’re treated to another lovely proggy album, but I do think their best songs are the ones that would fit in well with their debut release. It’s an album that’s easy to listen to, but slightly harder to truly appreciate and understand its messages as that will probably take a few listens.
Songs to hear: “Movement,” “Ascend,” “Hyperion”
A very fascinating album from the relatively unknown Swiss atmospheric blackened folk band. It’s their third full-length release in only four years and it seems they’ve really found their sound with this one. It’s a record that’s very intense, even at the slow, atmospheric parts that make sure to set up the blackened parts very well. I have to say what attracted me to the album initially was actually some of the titles, which are just romantic in a very foresty way if that makes sense. It’s an album that has a meditative feel to it and lulls you in before its violent parts awaken a different feeling within you, but both are very well accompanied by various orchestrations and folky tunes.
Songs to hear: “Une couronne de branches,” “Devoured by the Oak Pt. 2”
I’m as shocked as anyone that my list this year actually includes some thrash metal, but the Spaniards have definitely earned it. Anyone will have a hard time convincing me that most thrash isn’t horribly stale and imaginative, while Angelus Apatrida really makes it modern and just conveys that energy that thrash should have. The lyrics are fittingly angry and have a message, a sort of critique of modern society that’s hard to go amiss with these days. This self-titled release is definitely an album that makes you want to see the band live as some of their songs are akin to proper live anthems.
Songs to hear: “Indoctrinate,” “The Age of Disinformation,” “We Stand Alone”
Leprous is one of those bands that really defies genres and just does whatever they feel like doing – amazingly almost always very well. In “Aphelion” they’ve probably stepped further away from metal than ever before, but they have definitely not toned down the proggy elements. Their music has always put their vocalist Einar Solberg at the forefront, and it’s not hard to see why as he is an insanely good vocalist as well as a great composer. “Aphelion” is very much an experimental album that’s executed very well and is inventing new musical ways while also being very accessible to new listeners.
Songs to hear: “Running Low,” “Have You Ever?,” “The Silent Revelation”
A very consistently upbeat and thoroughly fun album from a fairly unknown Swedish folk metal group who I would not have found out about were it not for my friend and bandmate (Hi, Larissa). Even though it does have some classic Vikingy themes metal often has it doesn’t feel like another one of those cliche albums. The vocals feel mighty and are definitely good enough to not make you wish the album had some growls, which is normally needed to add variety to such records. There’s also a nyckelharpa and as any folk metal fans knows those are guaranteed to add a fun factor to any song.
Songs to hear: “Svåra År,” “Hedningablod,” “Nordaland”
A thoroughly fascinating release from a Swedish band that just can’t seem to produce anything that’s not excellent and I’m surprised they’re not a bigger name outside the underground black metal scene. “Arkivet” takes the band into slightly more post-black metal waters, whereas the previous release “Nattarvet” was a bit folkier. The album is, however, based on a book titled “The Archive” and is a story about how mankind is harming the planet and the grim consequences that await us. The lyricism on the record definitely deserves a special mention as it does a great job of driving forward the story, while the guitars are especially exquisite on the musical front.
Songs to hear: “The Archive,” “My Northern Heart,” “The Gentle Touch of Humanity”
It took eight years for this iconic band that shaped a lot of what is now known as viking metal to release a new album and it was worth the wait. “Vanagandr” manages to mix folky melodies with a blackened sound and just enough catchiness to get you to remember the songs. There are a lot of cool touches on the vocals, through which Jens Ryden manages to really capture that viking feeling of desperation and aggression that the album needs to raise it to the next level. The album itself is very consistent and it’s hard to pick out individual songs that would really stand out, but it’s also continuously on a very high level.
Songs to hear: “Döp dem i eld,” “Fredlös,” “Håg och minne”
Oh wow, another thrash album and one that’s here somewhat surprisingly because I really didn’t enjoy it at the start, but going back to it a few times really cemented its place in this list. Stam1na has a very special take on thrash metal, which is far more interesting than the vast majority of thrash bands out there. It’s chaotically edgy in a very Finnish way, violent and perfect for releasing your negative energy. It’s, however, a big departure from their previous album “Taival,” and goes back to their thrashier roots. Most big thrash metal bands could definitely learn a few things from the Finns.
Songs to hear: “Narsisti,” “Betelgeuse,” “Sirkkeli”
There’s a band every year that insists on a really late release, which makes these lists harder because I need a while to process the album. In Mourning is a band that’s always worth waiting for, however, and this is just another in the line of great releases for them. Compared to its predecessor from 2019, “Garden of Storms,” it’s actually a bit more on the extreme side of prog death, but it is also more consistent in its quality. “The Bleeding Veil” is a very furious album, it assaults you with its sound and vocals, yet hides underneath enough melody that it really makes the record very appealing. Perhaps not a release that’s very easy to get into, but once you do it’ll stay with you.
Songs to hear: “At the Behest of Night,” “Solitude and Silence,” “Thornwalker”
Most of the people reading this will know the story of this band and the point in it that this album represents. It’s a lighter chapter than their previous album was, filled with less harsh vocals, but it maintains that standard Swallow the Sun feeling of sorrow. Those that look to the Finns for their blackened aspects might be a bit disappointed, but the album is far from being weak. A special mention has to go to the song “All Hallows’ Grieve” which features Cammie Gilbert of Oceans of Slumber and is one of the most beautiful pieces released this year. Being on the lighter side of doom/death this is an album that’s very suitable for newcomers that aren’t very used to extreme metal, but it won’t be long until the record draws them in to explore further.
Songs to hear: “Moonflowers Bloom in Misery,” “All Hallows’ Grieve,” “This House Has No Home”
After Korpiklaani’s last album, which was a bit dull and had this odd farmy feel, I was quite concerned about the Finnish folk metal giants ever delivering a really great album again, but “Jylhä” was a lovely surprise to the year. It’s an energetic album, full of catchy songs, which also show a lot of maturity, but not at the expense of their typical sound. The release is filled with classic Finnish stories, which are often darker than you’d think if you don’t speak the language. A very interesting step in the evolution of the band with some of the best songs the band has ever written:
Songs to hear: “Verikoira,” “Leväluhta,” “Sanaton maa,” “Pohja”
What an absolute mess of an album – and I could not mean that in a more positive way. A band that already had a reputation as probably the best parody and joke group in metal really excels with this release, which walks the line between folk and power metal while showcasing numerous types of Italian culture, music and attitude. Of course, it’s all sprinkled with more double entendres, jokes and references than I could ever understand, which makes this one of those albums that you can keep digging deeper into and discover new things. Along with all of that the album has amazing guest performances such as Francesco Paoli (Fleshgod Apocalypse) and Jade Etro (Frozen Crown). Truly an extremely fun album, which – from death metal to football anthems – doesn’t let you down musically either.
Songs to hear: “L’assedio di Porto Cervo,” “Scugnizzi of the Land of Fires,” “Il Signore delli Agnelli dello Stadio”
Definitely not a band I expected to see this high up on the list, but Epica has really surprised me with this album. It’s immediately obvious the record is very well thought out and designed. Despite its 70 minutes run time, it’s extremely engaging, which makes it feel like it passes in no time at all. Symphonic metal has been lacking in quality and new ideas lately and this is an album that’s clearly a step above almost anything else out there in the subgenre. The band manages to complement the vocalist Simone Simmons very well with their great musicality that includes more extreme metal elements than in most symphonic metal bands and enough growls and choirs to spice things up. Furthermore, there’s a wide array of different songs on the album, from a 13:24 long masterpiece of a track, to an actually brilliant ballad as well as a fantastic guest performance from Zaher Zorgati (Myrath) that adds an Arabic touch to “Code of Life.” Epica have firmly established themselves as the symphonic metal rulers with this release.
Songs to hear: “The Skeleton Key,” “Code of Life,” “Kingdom of Heaven Pt.3 – The Antediluvian Universe,” “Rivers”
I can’t think of a time when an extreme metal release has made me so excited. Firstly, 1914 is an Ukrainian blackened death metal band that – as you might’ve guessed from the name – talks about World War I. They do it in a way that’s firstly story-telling as opposed to just singing. From the intro which is actually a Serbian WW I folk song, to the many heroic – and mostly extremely harrowing – stories from The Great War, this album is full of emotion as well as raw extreme metal brutality that never lacks surprise. The album’s heaviness is broken by the intermezzo “Coward” (sung by Sasha Boole), which is an acoustic piece about a deserting soldier. What follows is a song based on an actual letter the family of a fallen soldier received – on which the vocals are done by Nick Holmes of Paradise Lost. “Where Fear and Weapons Meet” is an hour long glance into the horrors of the war that was supposed to end all wars, and the stories of which we should never forget.
Songs to hear: “Pillars of Fire (The Battle of Messines),” “Coward,” “…And a Cross Now Marks His Place,” “Mit Gott für König und Vaterland”
As one of metal’s most unique bands Rivers of Nihil had quite the expectations with them for this release following the highly acclaimed “Where Owls Know My Name.” And wow, did they manage to fulfill them. The album takes a completely different path to its predecessor, but acts as a cohesive story, a journey through life, often hopeless, sometimes romantic, full of ups and downs, but never boring. Furthermore, it’s a relationship of a worker to his job, his bosses, and most of all capitalism and greed. It’s an album you keep coming back to and find that you have a new favourite song each time you listen to it. The catchiness and energy of “Focus” gets your attention, but the romantic start of the album’s intro/theme “The Tower” makes you fall in love before you realise the album peaks in “Episode.” A fantastic and timeless release by one of the driving forces of today’s prog metal.
Songs to hear: “The Tower,” “Focus,” “MORE?”, “Episode”
This year didn’t have an obvious winner as I do think the top three albums are very close, but Soen was the first album I’ve reviewed this year and it just wasn’t knocked down from that number one spot throughout the entire year. Everything the previous album “Lotus” was, “Imperial” is as well, but with even more emotional songs and painful stories that are real for someone and if you really listen, songs like “Illusion” will probably make you cry. The lyricism might be the best I’ve ever seen on any album, and musically the Swedes have always been amazing – especially worthy of a mention here is, of course, the ex-Opeth drummer Martin Lopez. “Imperial” isn’t just a release to which you sing along or dance to – it’s a very meaningful collection of stories and life lessons, of observations about the world that will sooner or later affect us all. That’s what makes this album art, which transcends music itself. Sadly, the album is on the short side at 42 minutes, but Soen has also released three additional tracks from “Lotus” this year and I am going to chuck them in under “things Soen did this year.” Where will you heal when the river runs dry? How will you sweeten the bitter? Let “Imperial” be a start.
Songs to hear: The entire album + “EMDR” and “Thurifer” from “Lotus (Bonus Edition)”