As the world gets closer to normalcy, 2021 saw some outstanding releases. Here are our picks for 2021’s best heavy metal albums.
The Amenta – Revelator (Debemur Morti)
Asphyx – Necroceros (Century Media)
Deformatory – Inversion Of the Unseen Horizon (Self)
Domkraft – Seeds (Magnetic Eye)
Drawn And Quartered – Congregation Pestilence (Krucyator)
Dream Theater – A View From The Top Of The World (InsideOut)
Employed To Serve – Conquering (Spinefarm)
Empyrium – Uber den Sternen (Prophecy)
Hypocrisy – Worship (Nuclear Blast)
Jinjer – Wallflowers (Napalm)
Lucifer – Lucifer IV (Century Media)
Rivers Of Nihil – The Work (Metal Blade)
The Ruins Of Beverast – The Thule Grimoires (Van)
Sulphurous – The Black Mouth Of Sepulchre (Dark Descent)
Trivium – In The Court Of The Dragon (Roadrunner)
25. Boss Keloid – Family The Smiling Thrush (Ripple)
Boss Keloid‘s last album, 2018’s Melted On The Inch, was an honorable mention on our Best of 2018 albums list, so the anticipation for their latest release Family The Smiling Thrush was high. Over the years Boss Keloid’s sound has evolved and expanded from stoner/doom. While that style is still there, they have really expanded their progressive approach, and this is their proggiest album to-date.
They boldly open with the album’s longest track, the 9 minute “Orang Of Noyn.” On songs such as “Gentle Clovis” and “Hats The Mandrill” they display a masterful blend of groovy riffs, progressive forays and memorable melodies. This is album that’s both catchy and creative, immediately accessible but also displaying depth that unfolds more and more upon multiple listens. Family The Smiling Thrush is diverse and dynamic, appealing to fans of numerous genres.
24. Soen – Imperial (Silver Lining)
In the decade since their formation, Soen have become one of progressive metal’s powerhouses. After the tour de force that was 2019’s Lotus, expectations are high for the Swedish band’s fifth album Imperial. The band’s album titles have all been one word, and for the third consecutive album, all the song titles are also one word on Imperial.
As you’d expect from a Soen album, the songs are dynamic. Joel Ekelof has a very expressive voice that really brings out the emotions in a song, whether they are melancholy, joyful or somewhere in between. Mellow songs like “Illusion” are balanced by more aggressive and heavier songs such as “Antagonist.” The tracks are melodic and catchy, and at under 45 minutes in length, there’s minimal filler. Imperial is an enjoyable and well-executed prog metal release.
23. Wolves In The Throne Room – Primordial Arcana (Relapse)
On the last few releases from Wolves In The Throne Room (save for their move into ambiance with 2014’s Celestite), there has been a humble warmth buried in their earthy tones. If their music was a season, it was a crisp winter day with the sun shining just enough to melt a few icicles off barren tree limbs. That glare is largely missing from Primordial Arcana, as a bitter chill rests over their sound, at times flirting with symphonic black metal with its consistent arrangement of synths providing a cinematic touch. Whatever frost forms over this album coats a solid sheet of ice that’s already there, as the forest has been sapped of life by a belligerent blackened blizzard. For the first time on any of their albums, they only have one track that goes over 10 minutes, a feat that puts their restraint on display.
Wolves In The Throne Room have never tried to make themselves accessible to anyone who doesn’t have the tenacity to embrace their rustic roots, yet Primordial Arcana is the record that could come the closest to being accepted by a wider range of listeners. The shorter songs help, as does the distinct pacing that makes the full-throttled “Mountain Magick” and the delayed explosiveness of “Through Eternal Fields” work well together. They don’t reinvent themselves, but the band does tinker with their sound to make Primordial Arcana a viable addition to their essential discography.
22. Between The Buried And Me – Colors II (Sumerian)
In 2007, Between The Buried And Me released their fourth album Colors. Nearly 15 years later they decided to do a sequel. While they have established themselves as one of prog’s most successful bands, they say they still struggle with where they belong in the music scene.
Colors II, while sharing musical similarities with the original, is more wide ranging, plus their songwriting and musical chops are better now than they were in 2007. At 78 minutes, it’s a lot to absorb, but BTBAM balance shorter, more accessible songs like “Fix The Error” (which features a drum solo from Mike Portnoy) and the ballad “Stare Into The Abyss” with epics like “Never Seen/Future Shock” and the 15 minute closer “Human Is Hell (Another One With Love).” Progressive forays and clever melodies keep the listener engaged, with constant shifts and surprises.
21. At The Gates – The Nightmare Of Being (Century Media)
After getting At The Gates back together in 2010, The Nightmare Of Being is the band’s third full length since then. After sticking to the Slaughter Of The Soul formula at the beginning of the album, the sound shifts. Garden of Cyrus” has a heavy emphasis on the saxophone which gives way to a very brooding tone with some spoken word vocals to join with it, recalling bands like King Crimson and other references not often heard from the band.
After six previous albums it is refreshing to see At The Gates break some new ground and try something new. On The Nightmare Of Being they do just that and then some, leading to their best album since At War With Reality and taking risks like they did during The Red In The Sky Is Ours days.
20. Bornholm – Apotheosis (Napalm)
With a special focus on paganism themes, which have always been a hallmark of their music, Bornholm have made another attempt to create a dark and sinister epic in the form of a black metal work. Apotheosis, their fifth studio album once again emphasizes the band’s mastery in creating this form of epic.
The term black metal can be used to describe Bornholm, but the truth is that in a detailed description of their music, and this album in particular, it falls somewhere beyond this genre. It blends with strong folk, heavy metal melodies and orchestral touches that added the concentrated mythical and epic aspect to the album. Apotheosis shows the maturity of the band and clearly demonstrates their courage to make an ambitious and highly dynamic move in the band’s sound. In the composition of this album, progressive metal manifests itself more than ever. Twenty years after their founding, but it is never too late, Apotheosis is a new starting point for Bornholm to conquer the horizons ahead.
19. Craven Idol – Forked Tongues (Dark Descent)
Black metal blasphemers Craven Idol return with Forked Tongues, their third album under the Dark Descent banner. As laid out on the title “The Wrath of Typhon,” the Londoners look to dark tales of Greek mythology for lyrical inspiration. Loud and raucous, Forked Tongues presents a variety of influences from the old school thrash of Sodom to second wave black metal in the vein of Immortal, Mayhem, Destroyer 666 and Absu.
While the pace varies, their speed is undeniable. Much like Destroyer 666, they often place careening guitar solos over the speed to give the album an unhinged feel. Shrieks, growls, ancient choirs and high-pitched wails denote a variety of voices. Weighing in at over nine minutes, “Deify the Stormgod” and “The Gods Have Left Us for Dead” exemplify the band’s compositional and story telling chops. Like catching the eyes of Medusa, Forked Tongues is a hard album to turn away from.
I’ve been hooked on Terminus since grabbing their 2018 release Fortune Looming. The Arkansas trio specialize in a very unique amalgamation of doom, stoner, and prog, and do it wonderfully. The Silent Bell Toll is the band’s latest album, recorded a year and a half ago but not released until this month. The wait is worth it.
While Fortune Looming had a somewhat wistful feel to it, on The Silent Bell Toll Terminus turn up the volume and the chunky fuzz – slightly reminiscent of 2016’s “Safe Travels, See You Never.” This album is loaded with riffs, and the charismatic vocals of Sebastian Thomas (think of a cross between Pallbearer and Geddy Lee) make every song ooze with class. From the earworm riffs of “Black Swan” to the epic fuzz-tinged doom of “Oh Madrigal,” songwriting, performances, production, and arrangements are spot on.
17. The Crown – Royal Destroyer (Metal Blade)
Royal Destroyer marks over 30 years of existence for The Crown (they spent their first eight known as Crown of Thorns). Hailing from Sweden, The Crown’s extreme metal style defies a single “Swedish death metal band” classification. Although sometimes listeners hear melodic death in their sound, their sound encompasses more styles. Royal Destroyer is a good example of this diversity with moments of death metal, grind, punk, thrash/speed and of course, melodic death metal.
Even though the album is extreme in scope, it rarely recalls traditional death metal, especially the Sunlight Studio variety of Swedish death. Along with the melodic death style, The Crown forge their own brand of extreme death metal heavy with thrash and melody. Royal Destroyer will not disappoint long-time listeners. Having released at least one album four consecutive decades, the band has found a sound that works and fans enjoy. The group change tempos and styles without becoming predictable, but there is still a vibe that stays consistent throughout their discography. Henrik Axelsson has only manned the skins for a few years, but steps right into their consistently pummeling beat. Royal Destroyer is a fierce album that truly lives up to its name.
16. Helloween – Helloween (Nuclear Blast)
The new (and sixteenth overall) self-titled platter from power metal founders Helloween has to be one of the more compelling and anticipated releases of 2021. Why? Because this is the band’s “reunion” lineup, a seven-piece outfit with three singers and some significant history. That potential is exercised to its fullest in immediate fashion, as the trio of opening songs is Helloween in all their glory. In fact, “Out for Glory,” “Fear of the Fallen,” and “Best Time” would be right at home on any of the band’s classic albums.
This might be an odd statement for a power metal release, but nothing on Helloween seems extravagant or over the top. Weikath, Hansen, and Sascha Gerstner all deliver great riffs and tasty solos, Grosskopf’s bass thrums and growls beneath them, and Löble’s drumming is never a distraction. The band had a tall task but they managed to hold their own with a fun, enthusiastic, and engaging offering of power metal that manages to evoke feelings of yore while still being modern.
15. So Hideous – None But A Pure Heart Can Sing (Silent Pendulum)
A new album from So Hideous was never a given, as the group went on hiatus shortly after the release of 2015’s Laurestine. Yet, six years later, None But A Pure Heart Can Sing is here to remind us that this group’s transformative music is still as important. The cinematic qualities of their songwriting are at peak performance on their third album, with “The Emerald Pearl” sounding like a soul tune from a lost country film, its trumpet and saxophone solos kicking up metaphorical dust clouds.
It’s also understated how genuinely beautiful this album sounds, especially when the orchestration is in control on “Intermezzo” and “From Now (Til the Time We’re Still).” Even when the band’s blackened heart takes charge, fury hasn’t been this blissful in a long time. None But A Pure Heart Can Sing is a marvelous album.
14. Vokonis – Odyssey (The Sign)
The Swedish trio Vokonis‘ style has evolved over the years. Starting as mainly a stoner/doom outfit, they have added more prog to the mix, with their fourth album Odyssey their most progressive to-date. Guest keyboards from Per Wiberg (Spiritual Beggars, ex-Opeth) help guide them down that progressive road.
There are still plenty of down-tuned riffs and sludgey sections along with progressive forays. There are dual vocals with Jonte Johansson’s smooth, melodic style contrasted by periodic harsh vocals from Simon Ohlsson that add variety. Some songs, like the opener “Rebellion” and “Blackened Wings” are compact in length while still providing twists and turns. Others like the title track and 12 plus minute closer “Through The Depths” are given much more space to develop while maintaining interest throughout. There are certainly Mastodon influences, but Vokonis have developed their own approach, with Odyssey their strongest album so far.
13. Darkthrone – Eternal Hails (Peaceville)
With album number 19, the dynamic Darkthrone duo of Nocturno Culto and Fenriz continue their love affair with the classic metal that helped shape their musical careers. Riffs are the name of the game throughout the entire run time of Eternal Hails, ranging from some tremolo picked sections to slow doom dirges and atmosphere.
Darkthrone have once again managed to craft an album that manages to marry the band’s black metal past with the sounds that helped to make them who they are. Is this heavy black metal or is it black doom metal? I’m not entirely sure, but after 19 albums one thing remains true: this band still rules. Eternal Hails is one of the highlights of the year.
12. Converge – Bloodmoon: I (Epitaph)
Converge are a band that needs very little introduction to the heavy music scene. However, with Bloodmoon: I things are very different this time around. That fact is made very evident on the opening track “Bloodmoon,” which sees the band being joined in tandem with Chelsea Wolfe’s haunting vocals. This kind of combination evokes the kind of change in style that Julie Christmas had with Cult of Luna on Mariner.
Think of Bloodmoon: I as something of an experiment from the band, one that showcases their ability to play some styles of music that they had only dabbled in before. Converge fully realize the potential of adding in guest musicians to help with the variety side of things. Bloodmoon: I is a successful experiment that showcases the band’s excellent musicianship accompanied by several other well established performers, adding to the total quality of this album from start to finish.
11. Yoth Iria – As The Flame Withers (Pagan)
Yoth Iria’s debut full-length As The Flame Withers is the product of three former members of Rotting Christ. Rotting Christ founding member Jim Mutilator joins vocalist The Magus (also Necromantia) and session guitarist George Emanuel. Mutilator played on seminal Greek black metal albums: Rotting Christ’s Thy Mighty Contract and Varathron’s His Majesty at the Swamp. As The Flame Withers has a definite European metal sound with obvious nods to Rotting Christ.
“The Great Hunter” opens the album and provides a preview of what’s to come — melodic leads, raspy vocals and blasting drums. Instrumentally, the band become more diverse and epic. For instance, “The Mantis” makes grandiose use of brass, kettle drums, choirs and a victorious riff from the school of Manowar. These parts help visualize the mythology of antiquity depicted in the intelligible lyrics. As The Flame Withers not only references newer Rotting Christ, but also the never-ending flame of old school metal.
10. Spiritbox – Eternal Blue (Rise)
A few years ago Courtney LaPlante and Mike Stringer left Iwrestledabearonce. They ended up forming Spiritbox and have issued a couple of EPs. They have released several well-received singles over the past year or so, whetting the appetite for their full-length debut Eternal Blue.
It’s an album of contrasts. There are smooth, rock/pop parts alongside intense metal. They embrace numerous genres from post metal to djent to prog to alt metal. Keyboards and electronics provide atmosphere, but riffs and groove drive the songs. LaPlante is a tour de force, mixing throat shredding harsh vocals with melodic singing. Of of the most accessible songs on the album is “Secret Garden,” featuring all melodic vocals and catchy hooks. It’s followed by “Silk In The Strings,” one of the album’s heaviest. The album is pretty evenly split between songs with exclusively melodic singing and those with both singing and screaming. Eternal Blue lives up to the hype, a varied album with memorable songs that should appeal to a wide cross section of metal fans.
9. Green Lung – Black Harvest (Svart)
One of the best self-released albums of 2019 was Green Lung’s debut, Woodland Rites. Adroitly mixing classic hard rock with horrific themes, folk rock, doom, and stoner, Woodland Rites captivated and engaged from start to end. Now the U.K. quintet is back with their highly anticipated follow-up, Black Harvest. Two years wiser, Green Lung have further refined and perfected their style to stunning effect.
The classic rock influences remain. One can hear plenty of Rainbow and Black Sabbath again, but the creepy eccentricity of Atomic Rooster and an unabashed (and frankly far too brief) homage to Boston also rear their heads. Combine this with excellent songwriting and an Uncle Acid uneasiness in the lyrics and we are left with a catchy, charismatic slice of retro hard rock with an updated, modern feel to it.
8. Iotunn – Access All Worlds (Metal Blade)
A space-themed concept album? Sure. Technical death metal with a few other influences tossed in? Okay. Jón Aldará, the singer for Hamferð and Barren Earth, on lead vocals? Now you’ve got me! Danish progressive metal band Iotunn present us with their debut full-length, Access All Worlds, five years after they released an EP with a different singer.
The only nitpick with Access All Worlds is the somewhat mellow (and loudly mastered) production. This is more than made up for with incredibly strong songs that incorporate prog, death, and power metal seamlessly, and a tour de force vocal performance from Aldará, as expected.
7. Cannibal Corpse – Violence Unimagined (Metal Blade)
Death metal legends Cannibal Corpse are back with album number 15, Violence Unimagined. Corpsegrinder sounds great as always, joined in lock step with Rob Barrett and their newest member Erik Rutan. Paul Mazurkiewicz’s drums are explosive and high in the mix on “Inhumane Harvest,” met with the fat and wobbly bass of Alex Webster, continuing the constant crushing grooves that help Cannibal Corpse to bludgeon their way through your aural cavities.
Death metal fans have been looking forward to a new release by these beasts and that should come as no surprise. Cannibal Corpse have always been remarkably consistent, especially since the introduction of their now longtime frontman into the mix. Violence Unimagined takes what the band has already been doing and replaced one guitarist for an even better one. Go out there and blare this auditory bloodshed for all to hear, this is a total ripper.
6. Iron Maiden – Senjutsu (BMG)
Iron Maiden’s last studio album, 2015’s The Book Of Souls, was a 90 plus minute double album. They look to the East on Senjutsu, another double album which has one fewer song and is about ten minutes shorter than The Book Of Souls.The album is a mix of streamlined songs and more epic tracks. The sequencing of the album flows really well. The shorter songs are mixed in with the longer ones, with a trio of the album’s lengthiest tracks wrapping up the proceedings.
The length of this album has been criticized, and 80 plus minutes is a lot, but when it’s Iron Maiden it’s much easier. They are able to write lengthy songs that avoid monotony and too much repetition. They have a lot of experience with epic songwriting, and know how to make it engaging. Plus, who knows how many more albums they are going to make? The more quality Maiden music, the better, and Senjutsu adds to their long legacy of memorable albums.
5. Khemmis – Deceiver (Nuclear Blast)
Critical doom metal darlings Khemmis are back with their fourth album Deceiver, after the longest gap between releases yet. Desolation saw the band moving slightly away from doom and making more forays into relatively up-tempo epic traditional metal, but on Deceiver there’s plenty of both across the album’s six songs. “Avernal Gate” is almost an encapsulation of everything the band does, and it’s an excellent way to kick off the album. The final song “The Astral Road” is the album highlight, a nine-minute excursion down slightly more up-tempo doom-enshrouded roads, full of mood shifts and perfectly arranged.
As far as production goes, this is a great-sounding record. There’s a ton of punch and crunch in all the instruments, and the vocals continue to show improvement, both clean and harsh. In fact, the vocal performances here are incredibly strong. Deceiver is Khemmis’s most dynamically varied release, and also the one with the least immediate impact. The bookend songs are fantastic and deliver on first listen. The rest of the album takes time to sink in, but if you give it that time you will be rewarded.
4. Mastodon – Hushed And Grim (Reprise)
Releasing a double album in today’s short attention span, single-driven music industry is a risk, with many being bloated and teeming with too much filler, boring interludes, self-indulgence and ambitions that fall short. A band of Mastodon’s caliber has the skill and self-awareness to avoid those pitfalls, and manage to do so.
The 15 tracks on Hushed And Grim revisit some of the band’s older stylistic ventures, continue some of their recent musical forays and move in new directions. Mastodon push the progressive envelope hard on this album, while also writing songs that are accessible and radio-ready. They often blend the two sensibilities. A nearly 90 minute album is a lot to absorb, and there are a lot of subtleties that reveal themselves after multiple listens. But the quality and quantity of great riffs and memorable melodies also make Hushed And Grim instantly accessible, a combination that’s hard to beat.
3. Carcass – Torn Arteries (Nuclear Blast)
Torn Arteries certainly has more than enough high expectations, following Carcass’ incredible 2013 comeback album Surgical Steel. Going right for the jugular the title track opens things off in a very death metal way. Jeff Walker’s vocal style joined by Steer’s riff work is vintage Carcass complete with returning drummer Daniel Wilding and newly minted member Tom Draper. Carcass can punish you and entice you within seconds allowing for a varied swath of emotions to envelop the listener within a four minute span.
Carcass have crafted another exemplary example of what it means to be both extreme as well as being integral to heavy rock music in 2021. Torn Arteries isn’t going to please everybody, but for those of us that celebrate the complete Carcass discography as a disjointed sewn together and bloody mess of melody and body parts, this will surely be near the top of many a list by year’s end.
2. Dordeduh – Har (Prophecy)
Nine years after their debut, the Romanian band Dordeduh return with Har. They were founded by two former members of Negura Bunget (vocalist/guitarist Hupogrammos and guitarist/keyboardist Sol Far).
Their first album was atmospheric folk/black metal, and while Har has those elements, Dordeduh expand their sound this time around with an avant-garde approach that incorporates everything from gothic to prog to electronic. The album opens with the 12 minute “Timpul Intilor,” which showcases all the aforementioned musical styles along with both harsh and melodic vocals. Whether epic in length or more streamlined, each song is compelling with numerous twists and turns. Catchy melodies devolve into extreme sections and progressive forays and back again, making for an eclectic album that maintains engagement throughout, even though it’s more than an hour long. The wait for a new Dordeduh album was a long one, but well worth it.
1. Tribulation – Where The Gloom Becomes Sound (Metal Blade)
Swedish goth metallers Tribulation return for their fifth proper album Where The Gloom Becomes Sound. Opening with “In Remembrance,” the band slowly makes their way into your ear cavity with chants of “Requiems” before the pace picks up on “Hour of the Wolf.” This is exactly what you want from a Tribulation song; catchy riffs, dark atmosphere, and Olof’s great throaty vocal style.
“The Wilderness” might be one of the best songs penned by the band yet. It builds throughout the first verse before it hits a magnificent riff, one that is brought back frequently throughout the course of the track itself, one that varies from a gallop to one that is played a bit slower in between each time it is re-introduced to the listener. Tribulation have returned to bring another album that will surely satiate the gothic lust sought out by their fans. Where does the band go from here without one of their most integral pieces? It was released way back in January, and Where The Gloom Becomes Sound is our pick for the best album of 2021.