BEST OF 2021: 10-6

10. SPECTRAL LORE, “Ετερόφωτος” (I, Voidhanger): Looking back on our own personal history can give us a chance to examine where we’ve been, what we’ve done as people, and if we’re on the right track to where we want to go in the future. Spectral Lore’s sole creator Ayloss was on a similar path as he constructed his project’s latest full-length record “Ετερόφωτος,” a title that loosely translates to “the one whose light comes from others.” Ayloss took time for serious self-reflection using maturity and awareness in order to navigate his path backward to go forward. His music is heavily immersed in black metal, a music form with a troubling past and present, though artists such as Ayloss have spent time trying to change some of that so it’s not entirely a pit of horrible people with even-worse ideas.

“Ατραπός” starts the record, a 12:42 epic that opens in a storm with Ayloss’ shrieks ripping into your rib cage. The track rampages as the fury builds, and the guitars jettison all over, clobbering the senses and leaving the room spinning. Guitars spit fire again, the tempo shifts, and the chaotic gust pulverizes until a cold front arrives, altering the temperature again. “The Golden Armor” is the shortest track, still running a healthy 7:33 and launching into a ferocious pace with speed and Ayloss’ growls crushing beneath their weight. “The Sorcerer Above the Clouds” runs 11:16 and begins with clean tones and warmth, lulling you into serenity until the bottom is torn out. Guitars come to life and hit the races as the drums rampage, and everything comes unglued. “Terean” closes the record, the longest selection here at 19:10. The track is an ambient piece that boils in alien noises, subtle beats, and voices traveling through the stars. Storms lightly spread and rain static, chants emerge, and strange waves lap over you, putting this journey to sleep deep within the earth’s core. (April 23)

For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/spectral.lorebm

To buy the album, go here: http://i-voidhanger.com/shop/

For more on the label, go here: http://i-voidhanger.com/

9. KING WOMAN, “Celestial Blues” (Relapse): Kristina Esfandiari falls in with those who were ravaged by religion, who saw its worst face and spent years trying to recover. Her band King Woman has been a vessel for the mental anguish she suffered growing up in a Charismatic Christian family, where speaking in tongues and exorcisms in home were regular occurrences. On top of that, Esfandiari also suffered a near-death experience as a child, as well as faced constant threats of eternity in hell, and all of this is wrapped into King Woman’s second full-length, the enrapturing and cathartic “Celestial Blues.” This nine-track record is as raw and vulnerable as anything Esfandiari has put to tape, and that’s a major statement since the thematic material and music to this date have been both infectious and gripping.

The title track starts the record, quietly flowing as Esfandiari, in a chilled hush, calls, “The devil left a bruise, but God left a light on for Her wayward ones, left under a fountainhead for dead, casting out the spirit of death.” The track then bursts with life as she clings and climbs through the trauma, the music pounding away, her pain on display as the track bows out. “Morning Star” is the lead single and recounts the fall of Satan, and she makes him a more sympathetic character as she takes on his plight. “Boghz” is a slow drip at the start as the atmosphere develops, and her trademark whispery delivery gets inside you and chills. But you know the strike is coming, and as she wails, “Hey!” the heaviness untangles, and she howls defiantly, “Here’s what I’m gonna do, get down on my hands and knees for you, you know this is a lie, shot down by the arrows above.” “Paradise Lost” ends the record, focusing on the John Milton text of the same name that is another focus here. It starts with a hush, opening the wounds and letting the blood flow. “I need a place I can grieve,” Esfandiari admits as the tempo keeps you at an arm’s length. There is nothing in this world like King Woman, a force for which no one can possibly stand against and survive. (July 30)

For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/KNGWMN/

To buy the album, go here: http://relapse.com/king-woman-celestial-blues/

For more on the label, go here: https://relapserecords.bandcamp.com/

8. HELLOWEEN, self-titled (Nuclear Blast): As much as I love Helloween, and I’ve been a fan nearly since their start, even I didn’t expect their sort-of reunion and their self-titled record to be something that would be more than just a nostalgia trip. Fuck, was I ever wrong, and I could not be happier about it. This record is full of life and while it’s a little longer than it needs to be, it’s the perfect way to unite every era of the band into this 12-track, 64-minute record. Its current members—vocalists Mike Kiske and Andi Deris, guitarist/vocalist Kai Hansen, guitarists Michael Weikath (a lifer) and Sascha Gerstner, bassist Markus Grosskopf (another lifer), drummer Daniel Loble—bring all their finest elements together and not just coexist but to thrive.

Out for the Glory” is just a killer opener as the track speeds in, and Kiske takes the lead, making it feel like the band’s first glory period again. The chorus is huge and surging, and then Deris blasts in and delivers some harsh screams as the guitar erupts, and the track ends in great glory. “Fear of the Fallen” starts clean and hammers away, as Deris takes the lead and drives. Shock of shocks, it’s another killer chorus, and then the guitars take turns with the soloing, giving everyone a chance to shine, and then everything rips back in, with the calls of, “Listen to your heart,” bursting with positivity. “Best Time” erupts with sounds bubbling and the energy bleeding. “Indestructible” brings chugging guitars and the pumpkins again defying all the odds, calling, “Because we are one,” as all their voices align. The track is anthemic as they battle for freedom, the guitar work bursts from the gates, and Kiske’s and Deris’ voices bring the track to its end. The awesome 12-minute closer “Skyfall,” a track about a fallen alien stuck here on earth, is classic Helloween, the perfect amalgamation of all their eras, bringing their best to the table. Kiske starts the track, sounding like he never went away, and Deris follows him up, adding more grit. It’s a great epic, one of the best tracks in their entire catalog. (June 16)

For more on the band, go here: https://www.helloween.org/

To buy the album, go here: https://shop.nuclearblast.com/en/shop/item/groups/192526.pre-orders.html

For more on the label, go here: https://shop.nuclearblast.com/en/shop/index.html

7. USTALOST, “Before the Glinting Spell Unvests” (Gilead Media): Yeah, we had our list busted, but the reason that happened is the middle of December we were delivered “Before the Glinting Spells Unvests,” the second effort from Ustalost, which is helmed by Will Skarstad, co-founder of black metal spirits Yellow Eyes. The album is just astonishingly great, which is no big surprise, and it makes a heavy lunge into even more immersive synthesizers and cosmic energy that aims to fill every pore with this record’s majesty. When I listen to this record, just like I did with every visit with Ustalost’s debut “The Spoor of Vipers,” I feen transported elsewhere, a place where my imagination can thrive and where strange scenes splash in my mind and play out along with the music.

“Enough Glass Will Cast a Shadow” get things started basking in a synth cloud that feels almost as if it’s emitting the green and blue from the cover before the track tears apart. The shrieks punish as they echo in the atmosphere, the pace charges with a progressive energy, and the riffs cascade, washing you away with them. “Stinging Stone” basks in fog as the tempo arrives under cover of night, and the vocals rip hard, joined by an inhuman clean choral section behind, taking you into the stars. The bass slinks and slithers as vicious cries jolt, and a blinding storm arrives that robs you of sight. The title track gets moving in a hurry as tricky riffs tangle you in laces and then taunt, encircling you with a gust of chaos. Chilling choral sections cause you to shiver as the guitars confound, the bass tramples, and a delirious push ends in soot. The 9:08-long closer “Bright Window Closing” is a track that muscles its way in with strong guitar work and flooding melodies that work alongside the vocals that carve into your skull. A disarming chorus sits behind and haunts while the pace doubles and blisters, folding in on itself. I can’t think of a better way to end 2021 than with another mind melt from Ustalost. (Dec. 17)

For more on the band, go here: https://ustalost.bandcamp.com/

To buy the album, go here: https://gileadmedia.bandcamp.com/

For more on the label, go here: https://gileadmedia.net/

6. PANOPTICON, “…and Again Into the Light” (Bindrune Recordings): We long have had a soft spot for Panopticon, the atmospheric black metal project long helmed by Austin Lunn, and it’s because we’re constantly rewarded with records such as “…and Again Into the Light,” the band’s 10th full-length. While Panopticon often keep close to home with their melodic black metal intertwined by bluegrass, inspired by Lunn’s Kentucky origins, a new record never means regurgitation. Every fresh collection means a separate adventure that easily lives alongside the rest of the discography but always stands as its own, unique entry, and this eight-track, 71-minute beast continues that tradition of magical power and absolute wonder. Here, Lunn also is joined by violinist Charlie Anderson and cellist Patrick Urban, as well as guest vocalists Jan van Berlekom (Waldgewfluster) and Eric Moggridge (Aerial Ruin) to fully flesh out this vision, and their contributions are vital to the mood and texture.

The title track opens layering violins and tender acoustics with Lunn’s quieter vocals, an unassuming way to start the record, and that blends into “Dead Loons,” which remains tranquil for a stretch before the storm clouds open and soak the grounds, the heaviness entering into gloomy stretches as the violins swoon, making your heart gush with power and emotion. “Rope Burn Exit” starts in similar form with strings calling before the lava bursts, growls roar into the wilderness, and the flood of melodies enter your senses and flood you with stirring feelings that stay with you for the life of the track. That back end races even harder, flowing right into “A Snowless Winter” that’s as pummeling as anything on here, as is “A Moth Eaten Soul.” That track is gut wrenching and glorious, raging toward the edge of the wilderness with an unchained spirit that ends in volcanic ash. “As Golden Laughter Echoes (Reva’s Song)” is a short, rustic cut that pulls back on the intensity, and that bleeds into “The Embers at Dawn” that features Moggridge’s singing leading most of the way through a foggy dream, though the final moments are storming and huge. “Know Hope” is the closer, a devastating, dismantling track that cascades and crumbles, with some of the fieriest yet brightest guitar work that unloads and disappears into swelling strings. Every moment of this record is vital not only to heavy metal but to the human spirit. (May 15)   

For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/TheTruePanopticon

To buy the album, go here: https://shop.bindrunerecordings.com/

For more on the label, go here: https://www.facebook.com/bindrunerecordings/

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