Katarina McGinn Best-of 2021

Thursday, 16th December 2021

2021 has been quite an impactful year, to say the least!  We don’t talk to much about our personal lives here at DR, mostly because it doesn’t seem all that relevant in terms of delivering heavy metal content.  However, you may have noticed a recent name change from yours truly. I publicly came out as transgender this fall and began the transition process months earlier. It has made a massive impact for the better in terms of my own mental health and overall happiness. It’s also amazing how welcoming and accepting the metal community has been so far (from bands, fans, and even labels), and I’m truly thankful for that!

While living life (quite) a bit more to the fullest did meant that there just wasn’t enough time in the day for all of the metal consumption that my life was used to, 2021 did provide a bounty of exceptional releases.  I really tried to narrow down my top list to the albums that I found myself repeatedly coming back to over the year.  Not just the ‘great ones,’ but the great ones that hit me on an emotional level and demanded the most of my attention.  As per usual, there’s a nice variety here to enjoy, with veterans and newcomers delivering some fine tunes to get through the year with.

12. Skarlett Riot – Invicta (Despotz Records)
When it comes to alternative metal, most bands tend to get more mellow with time.  Not the case with Skarlett Riot, who have gotten steadily heavier.  To their credit, it has helped them develop a unique sound that bridles hooks with crunchy riffs and lots of varied dynamic – memorable songs that all but latch onto your ears and stay there for indefinite amounts of time.

11. Venues – Solace (Arising Empire)
Coming out with a bang after line-up troubles, modern metal act Venues completely nails a merger of bouncy Amaranthe-like rhythms with a heavier, metalcore-esque bottom end.  Beauty and the beast vocals may not have the originality factor anymore, but the way Venues utilizes their vocalists makes it feel fresh.  As does the emphasis on addictive guitar melodies.

10. Depths of Hatred – Inheritance (Prosthetic)
There’s always at least one really brutal album that I tend to fixate on each year, and Depths of Hatred really surprised out of the gate with their latest.  A concept album that weaves together vicious, aggressive death metal with sprinklings of melody (and some clean vocals too) without turning it into a standard melodeath release made this one really stand out among the more brutal albums in 2021.

9. Persona – Animal (Self-Released)
Persona continues to get more interesting with each album.  From their symphonic beginnings to Animal, a release that sits firmly in more modern territory, it shows them at their creative best.  Hitting different notes than other acts in the genre, it doesn’t like your typical modern release.  Exotic flair, progressive notes, and moments of brutality give off a vibe that is solely Persona.Look no further for something interesting and incredibly catchy.

8. As Everything Unfolds – Within Each Lies the Other (Long Branch Records)
Emotionally raw and genuinely heartfelt, As Everything Unfolds provide an experience that combines anger, frustration, loneliness, and sadness and merges it into a real steamroller of a release.  Within Each Lies the Other manages to be touching yet visceral as it stomps, grooves, and soars through its runtime.  Considering its their first full-length, expect some big things from this act moving forward.

7. The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic II (Nuclear Blast)
Is there anything left to say about this band that hasn’t been mentioned already?  Seems there always needs to be an open spot on my top list left for these guys.  No one else does rock like The Night Flight Orchestra.  No one pumps out catchier, more addictive ‘roll down your windows and crank it’ fun songs like this band, but still have them mean something at the same time.  Long live The Night Flight Orchestra, and may they some day get over here to the States to play. 

6. Sumo Cyco – Initiation (Napalm)
Speaking of fun, there’s not many bands that have a sense of fun and flash to their music than Sumo Cyco.  Initiation perfects what they have been doing for years now, and they finally have the spotlight cast on them for being such a unique entity within the heavy music world.  Sumo Cyco sounds like no one else, and that alone should warrant some attention for them.  Heavy, unique, and full of life and passion – come get your dance on in the pit. No human should be able to sit still during the intense hooks in a song like “Overdrive.”

5. Blackbriar – The Cause of Shipwreck (Self-Released)
A gothic fairytale come to life, Blackbriar finally makes good on releasing a full-length after many shorter releases.  Completely cinematic and grandiose in tone (yet still personal and full of whimsy), Blackbriar is one of the few bands that can really take you into an entirely different world when you listen to them.  Considering the way that symphonic metal bands get snatched up by labels, it’s quite a surprise that this band is still doing their thing independently.Step into their dreamworld, you won’t regret it.

4. Unto Others – Strength (Roadrunner)
New band name, new label – but still that same glorious metal meets gothic vibes that only Unto Others has mastered.  More aggressive in points than their debut, but  no less gloomy and melancholic, Strength boasts some incredibly memorable songs.  Seemingly a theme this year in my list, Unto Others has a unique sound that hits into so many different genres and emotions.  It can ride true with the older metal crowd, yet bring in outsiders with the catchy and approachable gothic feelings.  The best of both worlds.

3. Fear Factory – Aggression Continuum (Nuclear Blast)
A bittersweet moment for sure, as this will be the last time we hear Burton and Dino on a Fear Factory record together.  But in that sense, it does go out with an explosive bang!  By far the best thing that the band has done in a decade, it rivals the strongest of their catalog (other than the untouchable Demanufacture of course) and delivers everything you’d hope from a Fear Factory release as well as provide a few new twists and turns here and there.  “Fuel Injected Suicide Machine” is an instant classic FF track and this is an album I’ll be jamming for quite some time still.

2. Spiritbox – Eternal Blue (Rise Records)
One recent band worthy of the immense hype tossed upon them, Spiritbox accomplishes much with Eternal Blue.  They can pull out some punishingly heavy numbers if they want to (“Holy Roller”) but aren’t afraid to write some openly catchy and melodic songs (“The Summit”) and somehow still make it work.  All about the atmosphere and massive grooves, they have struck a blend that manages to appeal to a wide audience.  It’s an intimate release that has layers, yet you can still love it the first time you hear it – providing maximum enjoyment.  Many have high hopes for this act (including yours truly) as they can really open some metal doors and there’s much potential still to unlock.

1. Rivers of Nihil – The Work (Metal Blade)
Another band that continues to evolve and surprise with each release, Rivers of Nihil really put themselves out there with The Work.  They have transcended their tech death roots, providing a real experience that not many acts could reproduce.  They can still do heavy (proven by “MORE?”), but the band wisely shifted some gears to provide a fresh and thought-provoking experience to conclude their seasons 4-album concept.  Truly innovative and boundary-pushing stuff, that type of daring is what we need more in metal.  The Work is a testament to a band staying true to where their vision takes them and really hitting it out of the park.  Some may be offput by the changes, but if you aren’t, you are probably thinking the same thing – The Work is a masterpiece that will not be easily forgotten.



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