‘To hell is where I’ll go’ … Live Metal’s best of 2021

By Greg Maki
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After the hellscape of 2020, music surged back in a big way throughout 2021. Concerts—even festivals—returned along with a flood of new releases from artists young and old. Metal and hard rock remain far outside the mainstream, but if you put in the effort to look, I’d argue that there’s more quality music in either genre now than ever before. In fact, there are dozens of albums that I love but didn’t have room for on this list. And for the record, I don’t make much of a distinction between metal and hard rock—or any of the many, many subgenres. Whatever I happen to like coexists peacefully in my ears and in this round-up. I’m also not out to show you how cool and edgy I am by selecting the most obscure bands with the most unreadable logos (not that there’s anything wrong with those bands or logos, by the way). So let’s get to it.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Architects – “For Those That Wish to Exist”
Beartooth – “Below” (review)
Danko Jones – “Power Trio” (review)
Dream Theater – “A View from the Top of the World” (review)
Exodus – “Persona Non Grata”
Iron Maiden – “Senjutsu”
Jinjer – “Wallflowers” (review)
Ayron Jones – “Child of the State”
Light the Torch – “You Will Be the Death of Me” (review)
Mammoth WVH – “Mammoth WVH”
Dee Snider – “Leave a Scar”
Sumo Cyco – “Initiation” (review)
Tetrarch – “Unstable” (review)
Venues – “Solace” (review)
Volbeat – “Servant of the Mind”

10. Tremonti – “Marching in Time”

“If it were not for you, then I’d be dead …”

Front to back, the fifth album from Alter Bridge/Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti’s eponymous band might be its strongest yet. It’s a showcase for Mark’s stellar songwriting, muscular and deft guitar playing, and continually improving vocals. But it also allows the entire band to shine, especially drummer Ryan Bennett, who lays down a thunderous foundation in his recording debut with the group. (review)

Key tracks: “A World Away,” “In One Piece,” “Marching in Time”

9. Gojira – “Fortitude”

“The greatest miracle is burning to the ground …”

What is left to be said about Gojira’s seventh album that hasn’t been written in virtually every metal publication’s year-end wrap-up? “Fortitude” is a more adventurous continuation of the less death/more groove sound the band explored on 2016’s “Magma” with a heavy emphasis on environmental preservation. It’s a masterclass in metal, and respect to the band for trying to use its platform to make the world a better place. 

Key tracks: “Born for One Thing,” “Amazonia,” “The Chant”

8. Black Label Society – “Doom Crew Inc.”

“Take my hand/Walk with me …”

The 11th BLS studio album offers some of the best material of main man/guitar god Zakk Wylde’s career. The guitars are more heroic than ever, due in no small part to Dario Lorina, a member of the touring lineup since 2014, making his recording debut with the band. Harmonies, dueling solos and unisons open up the songs like never before, rejuvenating the entire band. While the dozen tunes here still very much fall into the biker metal/Southern rock groove Zakk has cultivated over the years, there are extra levels of energy and creativity that elevate it to arguably the best version of it to date. (review)

Key tracks: “Set You Free,” “Forsaken,” “Gospel of Lies”

7. Bewitcher – “Cursed Be Thy Kingdom”

“Stay on your toes and watch your back, or face the satanic magick attack …”

It’s hard not to love a band that plays “heavy metal at the speed of Satan.” Portland, Oregon’s Bewitcher made the jump to Century Media for its third record and, in the process, beefed up its sound by focusing more on heavy grooves than a nonstop barrage of thrash metal riffing. It’s a more dynamic attack, and drenched in demonic, blood-soaked imagery, it’s as uncompromising as either of Bewitcher’s first two albums. Satan is smiling when he hears this one. (review)

Key tracks: “Satanic Magick Attack,” “Mystifier (White Night City),” “Valley of the Ravens”

6. We’re Wolves – “Evil Things”

“Feeding our monstrous side/Watching all chaos thrive …”

On its full-length debut, based on Dante’s “Inferno,” South Florida’s We’re Wolves takes us on a heavy yet hook-filled trek through the nine circles of hell. The horror-loving act packs a lot into just 33 minutes—crushing riffs, huge choruses, an atmospheric instrumental, nu metal, even an acoustic ballad. Eternal damnation never sounded so good. (review)

Key tracks: “Welcome to Hell,” “Fall with Me,” “Pride” (featuring Spencer Charnas)

5. Lucifer – “Lucifer IV”

“Baby, take my hand/If that ain’t sacred, I’ll be damned …”

The appropriately titled fourth album from Swedish/German occult band Lucifer continues in the same ‘70s-style, heavy rock vein of its three predecessors but this time comes with a looser feel, as if the band has set up to jam out these tunes in your living room. And of course, frontwoman Johanna Sadonis brings the hooks—a seemingly endless supply of them and catchier than ever. As playful as it is dark, “Lucifer IV” is a devilishly good time.

Key tracks: “Crucifix (I Burn for You),” “Bring Me His Head,” “Louise”

4. Turnstile – “Glow On”

“You know it won’t be long until the end …”

Across the 15 tracks that comprise the third full-length from Baltimore’s Turnstile, the band traffics in the expected hardcore and punk sounds while stirring a wide variety of other influences into the mix. Pop, R&B, electronics, freakin’ samba—no stone is left unturned. The band packs an almost unbelievable amount of adventurousness into a mere 35 minutes. “Glow On” is a transcendent album, a redefinition—or is it a destruction?—of genre.

Key tracks: “Blackout,” “Wild Wrld,” “Dance-Off”

3. Trivium – “In the Court of the Dragon”

“In the court of the dragon, you will know your worth …”

Ten albums and more than 20 years into its career, Trivium hit a new high with its second pandemic-era release. While the band’s previous two records brought together all the various styles of metal Trivium has dabbled in over the years, playing as sort of career retrospectives with new songs, “In the Court of the Dragon” is a more focused effort. It’s heavy and ambitious—three songs top seven minutes—without sacrificing hooks and accessibility, while the songwriting and musicianship have never been sharper. (review)

Key tracks: “In the Court of the Dragon,” “Feast of Fire,” “The Shadow of the Abattoir”

2. Spiritbox – “Eternal Blue”

“Sunken in, now we live in a strange world …”

The hype surrounding Spiritbox leading up to the release of its full-length debut reached deafening levels throughout the metal world, and perhaps the biggest surprise of 2021 is that “Eternal Blue” justified all the hope and anticipation. Alternately crushingly heavy and sweetly melodic, pulverizing and hypnotic, this collection is remarkably diverse. There’s something here for almost every kind of metal fan and beyond, yet it all sounds coherent and focused. It adds up to the best metal debut in recent memory and one of the most satisfying listening experiences of the year. (review)

Key tracks: “Sun Killer,” “Secret Garden,” “Holy Roller”

1. Ice Nine Kills – “The Silver Scream 2: Welcome to Horrorwood”

“Sit back for the sequel of your dreams …”

Part-twos aren’t nearly as ingrained in music as they are in the movies, and when they do appear, it’s often a struggle to live up to the original piece (see Rob Zombie’s “Hellbilly Deluxe 2,” Alice Cooper’s “Welcome 2 My Nightmare”). Perhaps in part because it takes its inspiration from horror movies, where the killer never stays dead and there’s always another sequel in the works, Ice Nine Kills’ sixth LP avoids this trap—spectacularly.

After a slow but steady upward trajectory since forming 20 years ago and gaining major momentum with 2018’s “The Silver Scream,” Ice Nine Kills exploded this year with “The Silver Scream 2: Welcome to Horrorwood,” a record that simultaneously sees the band at its heaviest and most accessible. The hooks, the riffs, the breakdowns, the lyrical wordplay, the visuals—this record truly has it all.

With this trip to “Horrorwood,” Ice Nine Kills has become an absolute juggernaut, an unparalleled creative force. After playing a string of sold-out shows up and down the East Coast and in the Midwest in the latter part of 2021, the Spencer Charnas-led act is poised to take even bigger steps into 2022. I might be jumping ahead a bit, but if you’re looking for the next arena/festival headliner in heavy music, your search could be over. (review)

Key tracks: “Funeral Derangements,” “Hip to Be Scared,” “Farewell II Flesh”

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