The Sleeve’s Top Albums of ’21
Another year…and another year of Covid. Album releases were at least more plentiful than last year due to touring coming back, especially in the later part of 2021, but there are still bands sitting on albums waiting till they deem it completely safe to tour. The trends for me this year seemed to be melodic death and doom death yet still a diverse list with hardcore, thrash, and even power metal thrown in. All in all, it was a confusing yet satisfying year of music. Some classic bands I love didn’t hit me as much as they should (no clue as to why), I discovered one of the best new hardcore bands out there (thanks to Mike Neely, fellow ITPA writer), and I even got excited for a power metal release, a genre I barely listen to anymore. Last year I didn’t have a clear album of the year, but a few led the pack such as albums by BLACK ROYAL, DRACONIAN, FIRES IN THE DISTANCE, PARADISE LOST, and DAWN OF SOLACE. For a full recap of 2020’s picks click here. This year my album of the year was a no brainer from doom/death semi-newcomers MARIANIAS REST with their stellar album “Fata Morgana” but SWALLOW THE SUN came roaring in late in the year with “Moonflowers” to take the top sport, not by much as both albums are doom death masterpieces. 2021 is looking bright with albums from DAWN OF SOLACE, AMORPHIS, and BLACK ROYAL, just to name a few. Well, without further ado let’s get to it:
SWALLOW THE SUN – Moonflowers (Century Media)
This band seems to have stepped up their game as of late this, being the second album in a row gaining excellent reviews and raising the profile of this band. Everything they have done has been great but at almost 20 years in and 8 albums deep to be this consistent and arguable better as times goes on is quite impressive. If you are not familiar with Swallow the Sun doom/death is the name of the game here and these guys have been one of the leaders in the genre, rightfully so. Besides top notch song writing in general the band employs a few smart touches that make this album diverse. The first one would be fantastic guest vocals on the song “All Hollows Grieve” from Cammie Gilbert of OCEANS OF SLUMBER, whose voice perfectly melds with the melancholy this album carries. The second is the song itself and placement of “This House Has no Home”, the final yet heaviest song off this album with its black metal vocals and blast beats. The reason why this works so well is it ends the album with a bang and gives the album the contrast on whats to come. And what is that? A second album! The band enlist the help of TRIO N O X to create instrumental classical versions of each song, and man are they unbelievably well done! This gives the listeners two distinct experiences for the album and was a wonderful touch. This band has always thought outside the box and continue to deliver metal at the highest level.
FEAR FACTORY – Aggression Continuum (Nuclear Blast)
After the last two mediocre albums and all the controversy surrounding this release I was not expecting much, yet I was pleasantly surprised. This album easily being their best since at least 2010’s “Mechanize.” First lets get to the controversy. This album, finished years ago, was finally released this year after a lengthy legal battle between guitarist Dino Cazares and vocalist Burton C Bell. The result had Dino keeping the Fear Factory name and Burton ultimately quitting the band. It’s hard to imaging Fear Factory without founding member Burton’s signature vocals (who inspired so many) but we shall see what the band sound like with new singer, who they will be unvieiling soon. After the dust cleared Dino decided to set up a GoFundMe asking for donations to touch up the album and record live drums from journeyman Mike Heller, who played on their last release. Although a great idea to have live drums once again on this album after the backlash of programmed drums on 2012’s “The Industrialist” it did urk me that there were no perks involved. Just pure donation, but hell if it meant that much to you to shell our your money then more power to you. Now to the music. The guitars have an even lower end than usual due to Dino using a fanned fret 7-string instead of a standard 7 string but are recorded immaculately lettting the guitar and riffs stand out, someting a lot of newer band who tune low take note of. Not exactly reinventing the Fear Factory wheel, these songs are well written and catchy with a few curveballs such as the track “Monolith” than harken back to a softer “Transgression” style song. Burton sounds as great as ever reminding people that he is still one of the best in the business. The lineup moving forward includes Mike Heller (Abigail Williams, Raven, Malignancy) on drums, Tony Campos (Static-X, Asesino, Ministry, Soulfly) on bass, and a new singer to be revealed on the upcoming tour with Static-X. Lets see what the future hold for Fear Factory.
FLOTSAM AND JETSAM – Blood in the Water (AFM)
Legendary thrash stalwarts Flotsam and Jetsam continue their streak of excellent albums. After their well recieved 2016 self-titled comeback of sorts, at least towards thrash, the band continues to deliver high end metal. The songs are still quite thrashy yet with a modern sound that could easily appeal to metalheads that did not grow up on them. Erick AK’s vocals are top notch as usual and the wongs are well written with plenty of catchy riffs and aggression throughout. 35 years in and these guys show everyone how it’s done. Not many duds in this bands catalog and I always believed that they should be bigger than they are with few bands putting out consistantly great music, with Blood in the Water a testament to that fact.
IMMORTAL GUARDIAN – Psychosomatic (M-Theory Audio)
The biggest surprise of the year for me was the power metal powerhouse IMMORTAL GUARDIAN’s new release “Psychosomatic.” Not because given their track record it was a surprise that it was going to be good, it’s just that besides early HELLOWEEN and mid-period STRATOVARIUS I don’t really listen to power metal anymore. I find most of it too cheesy and it just doesn’t resonate with me the same way it did back in the day. But IG is more than just power metal. Tons of progressive elements and even modern metal (ie blast beats, harsh vocals) are layered throughout keeping the album fresh, modern, and unique. After completing almost a whole album’s worth of material the band decided to scrap it all and create a loosely based concept album dealing with different aspects of the pandemic. This was a smart move because it kept it current and lyrically grounded more in reality than fantasy, something all too common in this genre. On this, their second full-length album, the band is joined by new members Josh Lopez and drummer Justin Piedimonte in addition to founder Gabriel Guardiola on guitar/keys and journeyman vocalist Carlos Zema (Outworld, Metal Mike, Heaven’s Guardian, David Shankle Group). The new members are absolute beasts of players, but the spotlight is most definitely on Gabriel and Carlos. On this album Carlos showcases a master class on power metal singing, showing he can do just about anything. He shows constraint when needed throughout the songs and between the highs, lows, and in betweens he truly reads the songs well and proves why he has been a top tier vocalist for so long. Gabriel Guardiola aka Gabriel Guardian is a virtuoso of virtuosos. His main calling card is being able to play guitar and keys at the same time and it is a sight to behold. He does this seamlessly and effortlessly, making it look easy and either watching it will make you either want to put your instruments down forever or just push even harder. Either way it is beyond impressive. His guitar playing is of the highest order (and keys as well) and although he has blinding speed, just like Carlos he knows when to use restraint and come up with some insanely catchy riffs and solos. The songs are quite varied, keeping the listener engaged throughout the whole album and even feature guest performances from Marcelo Barbosa (Angra) on a guitar solo on “Phobia” Mary Zimmer (Helion Prime) with growling vocals on “Goodbye to Farewells”. I feel that I do need to mention that this band is on the record label I work for (M-Theory Audio) and although that helped bring this band to my attention my review and love for this band is completely unbiased. I’ve gotten to know some of these guys over the last year or so since Carlos and Gabriel have relocated to Las Vegas, where I live, and these are a great bunch of dudes with exciting ideas for their next album, marketing, stage shows, and beyond. This band writes catchy, mature tunes that bands that have been around way longer haven’t grasped as well, making this a band that truly deserves to be part of the power metal elite.
THE ABSENCE – Coffinized (M-Theory Audio)
Another M- Theory Audio release and I have to reiterate that although working for their label brings some bands like this to my attention more, the review is completely unbiased. With that out of the way the Florida melodic death metal veterans return with their 5th full-length album and of the best releases time date. After a long hiatus the band returned with the stellar “A Gift For the Obsessed” in 2018 and the engine running into this year’s “Coffinized.” The band members have been involved in a ton of projects over the years with such bands as Inhuman Creation, Venom Inc., Ex Deo, Massacre, and many more and although their involvement in these projects may have contributed to their 8-year gap in between albums it may have also contributed to their refreshed comeback albums. With “Coffinized” you have melodic death metal of the highest order. The songs have plenty of aggression with enough tempo changes throughout to keep the album interesting and have riffs galore that will undoubtedly get stuck in your head. Top off all that with nightmarish album artwork and that just solidifies the fact that this one of the best releases of 2021. The future is bright for this band and let’s hope they continue their streak of excellent albums put out regularly.
MARIANAS REST – Fata Morgana (Napalm)
Seemingly out of nowhere comes one of the best death doom bands on the scene today in Finland’s MARIANAS REST. Founded in 2013, the six-piece that notably features Omnium Gatherum’s Aapo Koivisto on keys release their third full-length “Fata Morgana” on the powerhouse that is Napalm Records. After listening to their previous albums, it’s a wonder why these guys haven’t been picked up by a bigger label like Napalm earlier. Clearly this band is doing something right and deserves to be heard by the masses, which hopefully is the case now. The album was released in March 2021 and was expertly produced by Teemu Aalto (Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum) and features guest vocals from Lindsay Schoolcraft (Cradle of Filth). This genre has been one this writer has been really loving and diving into deep the last few years and I’m so glad this band is now on my radar. What these guys offer is meat and potatoes death doom and there isn’t anything wrong with that. The band showcases a true mastery of heavy riffs, hypnotizing soundscapes, and time-changes that keep these songs fresh and interesting throughout. The songs are pretty slowly paced yet mightily epic with many peaks and valleys throughout each song. The lyrics are quite melancholic (as is the album tone in general), which is usually the standard with death doom bands, especially ones from Scandinavia. In the vocal department it’s straight death metal vocals, no back and forth with clean vocals like bands such as SWALLOW THE SUN and DRACONIAN (who’s male vocalist Anders Jacobsson is a good comparison), amongst others. My only minor musical gripe with this album is the drums. They are pretty basic and straightforward and while they do fit the songs well, I would prefer them having a little more variety and complexity. Still, a minor complaint. No filler on this album just perfect tunes that are flawlessly executed. These guys definitely deserve their day in the spotlight and I hope with Napalm Records behind them they ascend to the next level of top tier death doom bands because they definitely are one of them. This band is not reinventing the wheel but is a solid addition to this genre of metal. My second favorite album of the year and is a must for any fans of this style. Hoping for bigger things for this band and many more amazing albums.
For a full review of this album click here.
BASILICA – Basilica (Innerstrength Records)
This North Carolina quartet released their debut full-length earlier this year with one purpose: to pummel your fucking eardrums! Hardcore is the basis of the band but there is soooooo much more going on. We can call them the kitchen sink because they throw everything in there. Besides hardcore these guys incorporate thrash, death metal, black metal, programmed, tech, metalcore, and uh I think that’s it. Hahaha. They blend so many styles but doing it seamlessly and it really makes it a fun listen that you will want to keep going back to. Vocalist Reilly Appert’s voice is heavy deep hardcore vocals that borderline on death metal but not particularly deathcore. Either way it is great and keep the album consistently flowing heavy. At first listen the first thing that stands out is the guitar playing. Cameron Price is a wizard that throws out classic thrash and hardcore riffs of the highest order and sprinkles in techy insanity and crazy, off the wall noises that will make you constantly say wtf, which is a good thing. Once you get past all the crazy shit Cameron throws down you start noticing how amazing the drums are. Drummer Brady Kennedy plays some extremely complicated stuff and is really quite inventive in the stuff he comes up with. Maybe you have to be a drummer to truly appreciate his playing but man it’s fun to listen to and the more you listen to the album the more bits you pick up. Bassist Chandler Bell picks up the low end and is as fine as a player as the rest of them. From the Primus-like intro of “Dispel” to the interludes and general noodling one thing becomes apparently: this band is insanely talented. And the kicker? They are all in their early 20’s! If this band can make such great music this early in their musical careers, I cannot imagine what they will be able to come up with in the future. But I, for one, is immensely excited to find out. Me and fellow ITPA writer Mike Neely had the pleasure of interviewing the band earlier in the year which you can find here. You get to know the band better between their influences, schooling, their future and more and couldn’t be a nicer group of guys.
SOEN – Imperial (Silver Lining Music)
Released early in the year and rather quickly after their magnificent last album ‘Lotus’, Soen release this, their 5th album, and is another great chapter in the Soen discography. For those in the know Soen started off as a Swedish super group of sorts but is best known for drummer Martin Lopez of Opeth and Amon Amarth fame. Modern day Opeth is a decent comparison sound-wise, but Soen is truly unique and of their own sound. Yes, it’s progressive metal with clean vocals but singer Joel Ekelof shines like a diamond with a beautiful voice somewhat reminiscent of Tools Maynard James Keenan (the band was heavily compared to Tool in many aspects on their first album) but with way more passion. The riffs here are the truly unique part. They are quite complex, yet still catchy, and once you hear them you will know it’s Soen from the get-go. Personally, I’ve never heard such unique riff writing that will boggle your mind yet still get stuck in your head. Quite the accomplishment. Soen has seemed to gain quite a bit more popularity after ‘Lotus’ and even though this album is quite similar you still see a progression in the sound, and it will be fun to see where this band goes in the future, as they always seem to be evolving from album to album, and to see their popularity keep growing.
HYPOCRISY – Worship (Nuclear Blast)
After an 8-year hiatus, which during that time had the legendary Peter Tatgren release 2 albums under the Tillman banner with Til Lindeman of Rammstein, an album with his other band Pain, and of course plenty of production work, Hypocrisy comes roaring back with one of the best albums of their career. Not much of a difference stylistically from their last album “The end of Disclosure”, but that’s not a bad thing. Tatgren and company know what they are doing and that is producing melodic death metal of the highest order. Now that he is no longer part of the Lindemann project, let’s hope that follows with proper Hypocrisy tours and a follow up album that doesn’t take as long as this one.
EXODUS – Persona Non Grata (Nuclear Blast)
Another band with a long break between albums (7 years), the reason being guitarist Gary Holt famously joining Slayer as their guitar player, Exodus roars back with another excellent album and the second album back with Steve “Zetro” Souza. There is a lot going on with this album, which hopefully you’d expect after so long since their last album. A lot of the songs are longer than normal Exodus tracks with tons of riffs and solos throughout. That is never a bad thing with the expert guitar attack of Holt and Lee Altus. The riffs are signature Exodus and the second you hear them you will know who the band is, just like previously mentioned in the Soen review. Zetro seems to be expanding his vocal styles with a few variations thrown in here and there, on top of his signature style, to keep things fresh and keep listeners on their feet. The band never wavers on their intensity and at almost 40 years as a band it is truly impressive to deliver such high-level thrash with albums people still are dying to listen to. Here’s to many more years of an EXODUS ATTACK!
Gojira – Fortitude
At The Gates – The Nighmare of Being
Carcass – Torn Arteries
Mire – A New Found Rain