David E. Gehlke Best-of 2021Sunday, 19th December 2021
While it was a pleasure to see live shows return in 2021, the real bread-and-better of 2021 came via album releases. The glut of new LPs brought forth a near-dizzying array of worthy selections. Therefore, the assemblage of this list took some time to get the albums and order in place. But, alas, the top pick goes to the mighty Helloween. Their self-titled reunion album (hey, isn’t there a 1985 EP of the same name?) became one of the exceptions to the comeback album rule: They can be as good as a legacy release. Trailing the beloved Germans was some familiar and not-so-familiar faces, which, as noted above, is a good thing. On to the lists!
12. The Crown – Royal Destroyer (Metal Blade)
Save for one blip in their discography (2015’s Death is Not Dead), The Crown has solidified themselves as one of death metal’s most reliable bands. Sure, there’s always been doses of speed and even melodic death metal floating about, but the core of the band’s sound — extreme death ‘n’ roll — is what makes Royal Destroyer. Extra kudos “Motordeath,” their not-so-subtle nod to Metallica’s “Motorbreath.”
11. Negura Bunget – Zău (Lupus Lounge)
Negură Bunget may be one of those “not for everyone” kind of bands, but the final, posthumous release has plenty of atmospheric pull. Issued four years after the death of drumming and integral figure Gabriel “Negru” Mafa, Zău is a textured and pastoral joyride through the deepest climbs and regions of the band’s ever-so-unique sound. A fitting conclusion to a wondrous journey.
10. Hypocrisy – Worship (Nuclear Blast)
There was mild concern that Peter Tagtgren was no longer interested in death metal and was willing to abandon Hypocrisy after Pain and his project with Rammstein’s Till Lindemann. Thankfully, the Swede resurrected Hypocrisy after an eight-year break on Worship, which, if we’re keeping score, is yet another stalwart affair.
9. Omnium Gatherum – Origin (Century Media)
Regulars ‘round these parts, Omnium Gatherum have reached the juncture where albums of quality are a foregone conclusion. This year’s Origin finds OG still very much immersed in song-first, melody-always jaunts that are spun by guitar master and all-around fine gentleman Markus Vanhala.
8. Seth – La morsure du Christ (Season of Mist)
Their first release in eight years, French black metal ensemble Seth brought a firestorm of cascading melodies and vitriol on their all-native language La morsure du Christ. Not only does it harken to the glory BM days of yore (the 1990s), it rips and tears harder than bands half their age.
7. Empyrium – Über den Sternen (Prophecy)
German dark metal duo Empyrium have reveled in exquisite, wooded realms since they emerged in 1994. Über den Sternen, though, may be their finest. Laced with delicate acoustic guitar offerings, huffing, deep Goth vocals and flowing compositions, Empryium offers something for everyone here.
6. Emma Ruth Rundle – Engine of Hell (Sargent House)
Her fragility and sterling songcraft on full display, Emma Ruth Rundle crossed emotional thresholds few would ever dare on Engine of Hell. It’s a remarkably sparse but rewarding album – the first five songs here are about as dark and somber as anything in the last five years.
5. Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen (Nuclear Blast)
A bit odd seeing Amorphis primary songwriter Esa Holopainen step out on his own while his main band is still going strong, but Silver Lake provided the Finn an opportunity to drop in a variety of vocalists over his always-stellar compositions. While it does cross into Amorphis territory at times (heck, Tomi Joutsen even guests here), it’s Holopainen’s breadth and depth as a songwriter that shines through.
4. Unto Others – Strength (Roadrunner)
Current Goth metal hot-shots, young guns, whatever you may, Portland’s Unto Others (formerly Idle Hands), in a perfect world, would be on the cusp of a commercial breakthrough with Strength. It’s an album that drinks from the faucet of Type O Negative (vocally, at least), which latch onto Maiden and The Cure simultaneously. Talk about a winning combination…
3. Swallow the Sun – Moonflowers (Century Media)
Guitarist and founding member Juha Raivio may be the brains behind Swallow the Sun, but vocalist Mikko Kotamäki has emerged as their unsung hero of late. His clean vocal maneuvers on 2019’s When a Shadow is Forced into the Light only got better on Moonflowers, in particular, the world-beating single “The Enemy,” which is the Finnish doom anthem of the year.
2. An Autumn for Crippled Children – As the Morning Dawns We Close Our Eyes (Prosthetic)
Prolific as ever, An Autumn for Crippled Children remains arguably the most vital black-gaze band of the moment. With their melodies sparking bright and vocals still indecipherable, AAFCC dished out their finest moment since 2013’s Try Not to Destroy Everything You Love with As the Morning Dawns We Close Our Eyes.
1. Helloween – Helloween (Nuclear Blast)
Reunion albums are often dead-on-arrival, failing to live up to their lofty expectations. Helloween ran the same risk with Kai Hansen and Michael Kiske back in the band, but their self-titled foray is pure gold. Not a dud in the bunch (not even a ballad, one of Michael Weikath’s prerequisites), and highlighted by a broad array of songs, both joyous and humorous as they are powerful and catchy. Happy, happy Helloween indeed!
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