Soen-Imperial–Best Metal Album–1st Quarter 2021

Due to my profligacy, there haven’t been monthly best-ofs to kick off this year. So let’s catch up with a bit of a shortcut: here’s with my top 5 so far of 2021. You’ll never guess what’s number 1…

Dishonorable Mention:

Tribulation–Where the Gloom Becomes Sound

I’ve finally grown the courage to say it–Tribulation sucks now. Down Below wasn’t good. This is worse. Try writing an actual riff next time.

5. Anaal Nathrakh–Endarkenment

I know, this is from 2020. But of the batch of year-end stuff I scooped up that I didn’t catch during 2020-proper, this was the best record, because duh. Of course it was. When Anaal brings it, they are fucking amazing, the best molding of the most extreme and the most catchy that exists in extreme metal. They brought it on Endarkenment, and that means it is essential. Probably their best since Eschaton.

4. Demoniac– So it Goes

Technical thrash from Chile that occasionally features saxophone. And if that gets them attention, fine, but it is the least interesting and least effective aspect of the album. The tracks where they don’t needlessly include saxophone sound like late 80’s Kreator decided to use Vektor’s modern sound and song structures. THAT should be the appeal. Also Vonnegut references.

3. Stargazer–Psychic Secretions

I loved A Great Work of Ages, but then lost track of Stargazer. Turns out they still play bizarre black metal that is simultaneously catchy, unsettling, and … fun? Yeah, this shit is fun. It sounds sometimes like they are taking the piss, as Aussies might say, but that’s cool with me on an album where each spin is a pleasure packed with new surprises and left turns that just evaded you last time around.

2. Suffering Hour–The Cyclic Reckoning

This shit is weird. Something is up in Colorado, where these boys share a breeding ground with like-minded acts like Blood Incantation and Black Curse. But this record doesn’t really sound like either of those, or anything else you’ve ever heard. It is ostensibly extreme metal, but it is not particularly heavy or aggressive. Goddamn if it isn’t unsettling, impressive, and addictive, though.

1. Soen–Imperial

Prog is not typically my genre, but this band slides in just below peak-era Leprous in the pecking order. This a metalhead’s prog band–the riffs are just a little heavier, the drumming just a little more aggressive, the arrangements just a little more familiar than the esoteric prog that’s turned me off in the past. Drummer Martin Lopez, formerly, of course, of Opeth, always features prominently on Soen records, but he pushes all the way to the front on Imperial. Those aforementioned riffs form the core of their bangers (balanced with two ballads on here, which are meh for me), but Lopez constantly adds flourish and aggression where typical prog would not. Thankfully, this is not a Pelican-City-of-Echoes-situation; the increased aggression in the drumming not only works, it elevates. And I would be remiss not to mention vocalist Joel Ekelof, who slots just beneath our (former?) friend Einar Solberg of Leprous for engaging, tasteful vocal flourish in a genre often overrun by power-metally warbling nonsense. If you have even a little tolerance for prog, you will love this.

Best Metal Albums of the Summer

It was a lost summer over here, but I’ve managed to sneak in a few of listens. Let’s rank ’em up.

1. Paradise Lost–Obsidian

The last record was as metal as Paradise Lost has been in years. And was a triumph.  So naturally, this album is a late-era-Katatonia pop album. 

And it’s a triumph.

These songs will stick right in your head, and you won’t want to kick them out.

2. Dark Forest–Oak, Ash, & Thorn

Miss Pharaoh?  Here’s your cure. Maybe even catchier than the American power heroes, Dark Forest has an unmatched ability to channel the Maiden-esque twin guitar attack, which many middling bands deploy, into actual Maiden-esque moments of transcendence.

3. Xibalba–Anos en Infierno

An absolute beatdown. It has surprising depth as well, but if you never get beyond the initial onslaught, you’ll still love it.

Hatebreed + Morbid Angel + Sepultura? Yes, please.

4. Ulthar–Providence

Another excellent, next-level death metal record and worthy contender to Tomb Mold and Horrendous’s throne. I think there is officially a new scene, with Tomb Mold, Horrendous, Blood Incantation, Necrot, Gatecreeper, Vastum, Spectral Voice, Witch Vomit, and now Ulthar flying the flag. They don’t all sound the same, but each have blended various elements of the classic death metal scenes in Florida, New York, Sweden and California into their own sophisticated sounds.

New Wave of (North) American Death Metal, anyone?

5. Black Curse–Endless Wound

This sounds like just about you would imagine from a Blood Incantation/Primitive Man team-up, though the Khemmis touches creep in at times.  The main standout though, and why this band is an entity unto itself, is the relentless intensity. I can’t make heads or tails of most of these songs, but I do know its an overpowering, oppressive force that despite being abrasive and dissonant STILL ROCKS AND HAS RIFFS.  ULCERATE, I’M LOOKING AT YOU.

6. Valdrin–Effigy of Nightmares

This is Diabolical Masquerade/Dark Tranquility territory for me. It’s competent and accomplished and I find myself coming back to it often, but when broken down, nothing is super impressive musically or compositionally. These are just fun melodic blackened death/deathened black tunes, with that air of pomposity that often suits this type of music. Check it out, but I doubt it’s a year-ender.

7. Horn–Mohngang

This is good, which is a disappointment because we know Horn is capable of being great.  Too much weird filler and not enough good ideas to fill the overly long tracks bring this in solidly below Torm am Hung.

8. Lamb of God–S/T

The absence of Chris Adler is palapable, but so is a recommitment to riff-writing. This is no Ashes of the Wake (what could be?), but Memento Mori, Reality Bath, and Poison Dream are as accessible as anything since Sacrament. Which is a good thing; starting with Wrath, LoG’s have had an obtuseness to their songwriting, which is antithetical to what made the Palaces through Sacrament run so remarkable.

Welcome back boys.

9. Malokarpatan–Krupinske Ohne

Trad metal riffs, black metal vocals, odd song structures, bizarre instrumentation and genre blending make Malokarpatan one of a kind…

Oh wait. Sigh exists. This is like Sigh. And not in an unenjoyable way, but still, if you like this type of shit, you’re probably better off just firing up Imaginary Sonicscape again.

10. Ulcerate–Stare Into Death and Be Still

I respect this band and I am certainly unsettled every time I listen to this album. There is just simply more going on than I understand. They are as close to Gorguts as it gets right now…but…dissonance-forward extreme metal is not my jam. 

11. Calligram–The Eye is the First Circle

This one never connected with me. Intensity for intensity’s sake has its place, but nothing made me want to come back.

UNRANKABLE–Dawnbringer–Snake

Snake by Dawnbringer (Album, Heavy Metal): Reviews, Ratings, Credits, Song  list - Rate Your Music

Chris Black taking different parts from Motorhead songs and linking them together alongside some original Superchrist-style riffs to create a concept album about how war is fucked up, man. If that sounds appealing to you, scoop this up immediately. For the uninitiated, though, might I suggest Into the Lair of the Sun God?