The Top 20 Albums of January | 2021

THE TOP 20 ALBUMS OF THE MONTH is just that, a grip of twenty albums that’d resonated most powerfully throughout this month. If you’re new to the site, it’ll be about 75-100% metal albums. Choices are selected based on temporal immersion, personal connection, impressive style/personality, and with great consideration for the lasting value of each album. All choices are ultimately personal and land without consideration for popular culture, hype or “relevance”. There are several albums that I will leave out of this list, but they’ll still be considered for end of the year list(s). Links to full reviews are provided when applicable. Do not think I’ve overlooked any promotional material, I am but one man and writing about music is a passion I afford as much time as is manageable. I am eternally grateful to have so much to choose from. Thank you.

I. Hibernal solstice in full swing, the spoken-word battles of Alban Arthan, and the maze-like hodgepodge of January, wherein the momentum of a freshened year offers “just another damn day” seemingly ad infinitum. Yet we are counting each day warmer and wondering why we’ve no winter here, yet. It bodes poorly for our survival. After several long sessions with Cyberpunk 2077 in the span of this month I’m nearing the end of my journey with Keanu’s Johnny Silverhand entirely at peace with the struggle its brokenness has offered. The theme is satisfyingly anti-corporate, acknowledging openly the reality that corporate interests will eventually eat away the will of the people that’d given up insisting upon a self-regulatory government. I am ready to accept its flaws and wisdom alike before moving on to the next story, which will likely entail finishing the second, unmercifully dour 30+ hour stretch of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.

II. Deathcrust will sustain us?! In fact the An Exhaustive Study: Death Metal/Crust Punk feature has seen one of the fastest proliferation of views for an article/feature to date, particularly part one and this is very much thanks to a mention from the fellows in Deviated Instinct. Next month we’ll get into 2000’s with part three. Beyond that I’ve been able to line up a bunch of interviews and premieres for February that I’m excited about, along with reviews for some of my all-time favorite bands (Stargazer, The Ruins of Beverast, etc.)

III. January releases still in consideration (or process) for reviewCryptic Brood / Night Hag, Blind Golem, Mirzadeh, Zeahorse, Lords of Quarmall, Demon Head. I intend to review each of these releases, some may not be covered due to time constraints or they will end up in lists later on. This month is a mess of random releases, as you’ll see from the impending list.

IV. Each day I meditate with all-consuming gratitude aimed toward the bands, labels and PR firms who choose to work with me — As well as the kind few readers who donate to the site intermittently. The goals and ethos of Grizzly Butts have not changed in 2021 but this year I will focus on long-form reviews, sub-genre features, more interviews, and generally keeping up to date with new releases. Thank you.

#1Album of the Month
RECORD LABEL(S):The Sinister Flame

Easily the Album of the Month for January this year, ‘Apotheosis’ refines and intensifies this increasingly solidified Finnish atmospheric/melodic black metal duo’s sound. Aethyrick‘s signature isn’t as subtle as it seems, I’d almost argue their style is infectiously hymnal or, devotional — A naturalistic yet ethereal sensation that grows in hook and meaning with repeated listening. I was sure this third cycle from the project would be of high quality yet it remains even more impressive as their third album in roughly three years, the inspiration remains appreciable. If you’d stayed engaged with ‘Gnosis’ for the bulk of last year as I did, you’ll concur there is a certain joy in having this next piece as a greeting to carry into the new year.

RECORD LABEL(S):Hessian Firm

Ambitious, stylish, and entirely sentient black/death metal rarely seen beyond the high-brained and youthful era of Scandinavian extreme metal in the early 90’s, Oakland quartet Mefitis‘ second album emphasizes flow and multi-tiered structural feats above the blatant groove we find in most classics-minded death metal music today. The experience is no less orchestrated and preened-over than their debut ‘Emberdawn’ was yet the production de-emphasizes bass for the sake of a well rounded and clarity boosted experience. To put it simply, they’ve refined and improved yet fans of early At the Gates and Dawn will still find a comfortable semblance in hand. Any band this serious and earnestly engaged in the process of learning despite their already ultra high skill level certainly deserves credit for their effort and largely “do it yourself” modus.

RECORD LABEL(S):Willowtip Records

Although I wouldn’t describe mysterious occult Ukrainian technical death metal band Eximperitus as brutish or naïve their earlier records were under-produced, sounding a bit like a CD-r you’d get from a band’s MySpace back when the biggest band around was Nile. That isn’t a knock but my way of setting up how serious, tightly wound, and sharply rendered their second album is. I spend so many hours with ‘Šahrartu’ for the sake of how hypnotic its Sumerian and far eastern mystic themed whirling is. I am such a fan of Mithras and Ulcerate that I couldn’t help but appreciate this record’s verve balancing the two tendencies in their own unique way. Beyond that, I’ve entered into 2021 craving truly extreme music and less fucking dry-assed hardcore “caveman” death metal bullshit. In this sense Eximperitus represents what I love about the greater evolutionary instinct of death metal towards intelligence, ancient spirituality, and brilliant musicianship.

TITLE:The Hollow Man
RECORD LABEL(S):Duplicate Records

What do Shakespeare, Guy Fawkes, Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now!, and T.S. Eliot all have in common? Each became useful or, directly involved in the realization of this fine third album from British avant-garde black metal project Void. ‘The Hollow Man’ is a dauntingly detailed but mercifully tempered in length opus conveying the existential crises of a mundane gentleman, the everyman, when faced with the chaotic dissolution of society around him. For Eliot art (poetry) was for the sake of conveying his distaste for change in every aspect of his life while coming to terms with that fact that it’d all change him regardless of his efforts. This is perhaps what I’d found while searching for what Void intended to echo throughout their narrative, which largely follows the imagery of the poem (“The Hollow Men”) with their protagonist finding these references in a tremendous bout of delirium. The end of the world has arrived and ‘The Hollow Man’ provides a thrilling depiction and reflection of these events, determined and ruthlessly splattered as if a black metal Pollock painting. Well, that is my riff on it anyhow, an unusually memorable avant-garde black metal album with plenty of proggy hits and curiously memorable moments that are a wonder to return to.

TITLE:Ritual Divination
RECORD LABEL(S):RidingEasy Records

Though we can credit Here Lies Man with one of the most original rhythmic conceptions in stoner/heavy rock in decades their (originally) ultra-fuzzed out sound has long been searching for the right angle to catch the ear of the average listener and it seems, in terms of critics, we’re finding the “Black Sabbath meets afrobeat” pitch catching on as this, their fourth album arrives. African revolutionary rhythms sell themselves easily in live performances, these are funk-tribal fusion events themselves but, fashioning 70’s influenced “retro” heavy psych with plenty of hooks while staying reminiscent of those rhythms is certainly no easy feat. I’d argue that ‘Ritual Divination’ perfects this crossover event by simply embracing the heavy psych angle ~10% more but the credit goes to their growing knack for hooks and intricate riffing which always feel emotional and physical in practice. The sore part of this is that you really need to feel this music live to appreciate its shake and surge, here’s hoping they’re able to tour again soon.

TITLE:Returned to Life
RECORD LABEL(S):Memento Mori,
Fucking Kill Records

You could argue that this second album from Canadian death metal duo Altered Dead is punkish, savage and yet it doesn’t bring anything transcendent to the death metal realm but, I suppose that is the point. ‘Returned to Life’ aims for primal death metal simplicity, to the effect of both early Swedish death and the core influences of those scenes. Just the right dose of punk energy keeps it late 80’s in feeling and early 90’s in terms of a serious artistic standard. It is a relatively simple appeal that doesn’t require a ton of qualifiers beyond big riffs and a rotten, heavy sound. I liked it enough to grab the vinyl, even if I don’t think it’ll blow minds the full listen is yet satisfying.

TITLE:Of Sleep and Death
RECORD LABEL(S):Invictus Productions

It might be too early to suggest this but so far I’d say ‘Of Sleep and Death’ is the most underrated release of this first month of 2021. On paper Transilvania read a bit like they’d marketed the third Tribulation album when that band hit the majors: Melodic black metal refinement, traditional heavy metal traipsing, and black/thrash metal furor. Well, the vampire theme might’ve gotten us there sooner but this Austrian quintet isn’t so typical. If you are a fan of labelmates Malokarpatan but also happily dabble into Funereal Presence and/or Dissection style melodic black metal you’ll find a truly remarkable record full of memorable moments. It might be a simplification of what Transilvania do but, effective enough.

RECORD LABEL(S):Memento Mori,
Expansion Abyss

If you’ve happened upon a review where I’ve mentioned deep ’92 cuts from Autopsy and Nuclear Death you can assume I’m elbow-and-fist flexing deep into loving what I’m hearing. This is absolutely the case in reference to this second Dipygus album, a slightly more death-doomed offering with Vastum-sized production and a wealth of nasty grooves. As often as I try to harp on the Neanderthal grind of death metal today, this I like. I don’t care about the skits, samples, whatever you’d call them on most records but these are placed well enough. Was going to dog the album for the length of the shrunken head account but man, I cannot forget what I’ve heard. Ugh.

RECORD LABEL(S):Nordvis Produktion

For my own taste ‘Ödhin’ is yet the most measured, complete statement from Swedish black/folk metal duo Bhleg to date, a seasonally appropriate journey just long enough to feel experiential without the threat of the mind’s larder emptying of its patience. I emphasize the length of the experience because the major criticism of their previous album was its indomitable and excessive runtime, here they’ve stopped at just the right point. The idea that these songs formed from continuous bouts of inspiration that had to be seen to completion, typically without breaks, is vital to my appreciation of how well realized their instinctive craft is. I’m entirely drawn to this sort of spiritual, identity rich black metal and, again, this is their best work to date.

TITLE:Welfare Jazz

In terms of modern post-punk doing anything remotely different Viagra Boys are refreshingly unpretentious. Actually, the whole of ‘Welfare Jazz’ seems to placate and infuriate the inner art snob of many a fellow I’ve seen reviewing it as they celebrate the inside joking lyrics, the heartfelt bits, and the lounging jazz meets screamin’ pub blues features that are flaunted even heavier in their exciting live performances. I totally expect folks to not “get” this choice until they’ve seen the band live, watch the “Shrimp Sessions 2” videos online and I think you’ll get why these Stockholm fellowes are something special or, something else… Passionate and energetic performers at the very least. Although this placement is low for January, by the time end of the year list choices are made this’ll be a memorable standout for a sub-genre I am entirely too picky with, it should rank fairly high considering the number of spins it has gotten.

TITLE:Dystopian Syndrome
RECORD LABEL(S):Self-Released

San Francisco-area death/thrash metal band Molten pull from a wealth of classic heavy metal influences in realization of this exceptional debut full-length. They’ve clearly absorbed the ambitious psyche of the late 80’s most ambitious feats, such as King Diamond‘s ‘Them’, and worked those dramatic bents into a death/thrash sound that recalls the best of Insanity, early 90’s Hexx, and nearby Slayer-heavy works. More simply put ‘Dystopian Syndrome’ is a death/thrash record that isn’t afraid to wheel into traditional heavy metal songwriting. It makes for a memorable listen full of dramatic moments that are tempered with big hulking thrash riff fests. I wouldn’t say it has stuck to my mind with any permanence but it has been a fantastic record to return to throughout the month.

TITLE:Godslastering: Hymns of a Forlorn Peasantry
RECORD LABEL(S):Iron Bonehead Productions

As valuable as so many folks find Hulder‘s previous work I’m not sure any of it holds up now that this clearly superior first album has landed upon us. The Belgium borne and longtime United States resident has some great appreciation for classic 90’s black metal of the melodic variety and this finds ‘Godslastering: Hymns of a Forlorn Peasantry’ steeped in mystic keyboard-enriched black metal majesty and fairly brutal guitar attacks. Think of Abigor, early Ancient, and even a bit of early Satyricon as it floats past but I wouldn’t say any of it feels too dryly sentimental for that era, only influenced by it. It was suggested that I scored this one a bit low but I’d say it’ll look much more appropriate once we’ve seen the full potential of this artist realized, I see an ocean of potential beyond this point and well, it comes as a wildly pleasant surprise.

RECORD LABEL(S):Everlasting Spew Records

You’ll notice I’m prone to enjoy technical and/or progressive death metal when there is a songwriter’s brain behind the arrangements and ‘Macrocosmos’ is surely that sort of human-operated and machine finessed breed of tech death that I enjoy most. Canadian project Fractal Generator stylistically resemble a bit of classic tech death, a heavy dose of the Hate Eternal school of 2000’s rhythmic development, and their own conceptual grinder of these ideas. The thrust forward they generate is so intense that the moment the skies open for a break in their greater menace I’m kinda done and thankfully the album cuts things off just as the momentum becomes a bit much. I’ll admit some arrangements are too textural and percussive for their own good here but these become virtues in the greater vortex of repeat listening and this is where I enjoyed ‘Macrocosmos’ most.

TITLE:Ignis Sacer
RECORD LABEL(S):Deutsche Bulvan Bolag

For their latest EP this Stockholm-based black metal duo have expanded to a quartet enabling the crust punk influenced roar of Regnvm Animale have refine, dividing the heavy lifting among its most capable. This means that ‘Ignis Sacer’ feels highly professional, effortless, and more capable than ever to deliver their anthemic and melodic black metal sound throughout. They aren’t quite hitting upon the infectious catchiness of an album like ‘Elddop’ but I’d venture a guess they’re fans of that band to some degree. By avoiding the usual Swedish crust tropes these guys shine via catchier, oddly arcing melodies. Refreshingly void of plain d-beaten paths and a substantial step forward for this long standing independent project.

TITLE:Alchemical Warfare
RECORD LABEL(S):Metal Blade Records

The third album from Irish heavy/doom metal trio Dread Sovereign is going to be a bit of a shocking, but good, surprise for some as its energetic 10+ minute blitz of an opener “She Wolves of the Savage Season” sparks on. They’ve changed things up for each album thus far but I wouldn’t say their classic doom metal influenced sound has really gone for it (eh, and hit a unique mark) ’til now. Of course the draw here is obvious, the exuberant howler from Primordial fronting a dark traditional doom metal band but I’d argue this record isn’t so expressly traditional in the sense that they’re pushing some faster tempos and jogging Brocas Helm-sized energy. Lots of watery, cracking psychedelic solos that creep along like an early 90’s Paradise Lost album and a big banging set of drums make for a loud, thumping wall of noise that doesn’t necessarily speak to the subtle creep of olden doom. Instead I’d say this is arena sized extreme metallic NWOBHM influenced heavy metal, something as unique as Primordial has become over the years. I’d place this one a bit higher for the month if I’d had a bit more time with it but alas, Metal Blade continues to be the one big label entirely uninterested in my bullshit. A must have record for January.

RECORD LABEL(S):Self-Released

I’ve been a fan of this atmospheric/melodic black metal solo project from Ukraine since they’d sent in a review copy of their self-titled compilation of early recordings in 2018 but I’d missed their second full-length release ‘Занепад’ from early 2020 and never took the time to return to it. Well this’d be the right time to resolve that as their third full-length ‘Розпад’ arrives as their most accomplished, intense and sweepingly melodic release to date. This sort of black metal so rarely feels like it transcends time and I’m typically able to hang on each note ’til achieving whatever blissful existential delirium is necessary but in the case of Svrm it feels like time escapes me, passes by beneath me and renders my interaction ephemeral. It is as if I’m visited by a passing ghost, uninterested and radiating unseen gloom as it looms and writhes in whatever tormented dimension imprisons. It is lifting, as lifting as a haunting presence can be in producing some appreciation for the severity of existence. Well, beyond that the appeal here will be instantaneous for fans of Slavic melodic black metal thanks to a clear but clearly independent render and several abruptly ending pieces that beg to be re-listened to and examined for their poetic statements.

TITLE:Sky Destroyer
RECORD LABEL(S):Iron Oxide Records

When I’d seen this band described as “glam but kinda thrash, too” I couldn’t help but find myriad similarities between their enthusiastic classic mid-to-late 80’s heavy metal sound and over the top groups like Crimson Glory and pre-‘Nosferatu’ Helstar. Of course these guys really are on the glam rockin’ and guitar slinging spectrum but in an appreciably heavy way. As much as I enjoy the softer Canadian throwback to the Sunset Strip sound ‘Sky Destroyer’ brings testosterone back to these imitations of 80’s heavy metal spiritus. You’ll get what they’re all about within a song or two and hey, if you’re anything like me you’ll stick around ’til the ballad hits. Unmercifully catchy stuff, almost too much fun.

TITLE:The World Must Be Destroyed
RECORD LABEL(S):Pelagic Records

Perhaps as a testament to how much I’d loved ‘Who Do You Love’ (2017) I’m given a chance to love those sessions a bit more a few years later considering Årabrot recorded this EP’s worth of songs for that album and somehow plucked and tucked them away before moving on. Of course what they’ve cut from the whole is equally if not more golden, ear-worming odes to a necessary apocalypse and whatever’d be built from the loose bricks resultant. The title track is a hit, a hook or two, and a fine example of why/how the Norwegian artist continues to thrive in embrace of this thrilling anthropocene gesturing period of human history. I’d still liken these bizarre threads to the lest healthy side of The Birthday Party but, bigger on the angled artsy side of noise rock and avoiding all but the most absurd blues impulses. I won’t consider it a preamble for their upcoming ‘Norwegian Gothic’ full-length but something special and weird to tide us over. If all of my spin isn’t compelling enough looking up the various folks involved in these recordings should be impressive on another level.

RECORD LABEL(S):Sentient Ruin Laboratories

Dissonant and doomed blackened death metal ain’t the big deal it used to be in terms of sheer numbers of artists weaving anything too interesting these days but this first EP from Aberration seems to be headed in its own interesting direction. And honestly I’m not just saying that because their line-up features members of Void Rot and Suffering Hour, but because after I’d reviewed this record for a short column I’d come back to it a number of times. A dark pool to gaze into and get lost.

TITLE:Where the Gloom Becomes Sound
RECORD LABEL(S):Century Media Records

From a somewhat typical Swedish 80’s death metal revival to a fusion of progressive/heavy rock and death metal vocals the future was completely inspiring for Tribulation circa 2013 as major labels caught wind of their sound and… Then they went vampire gothic rock, fusing elements of traditional heavy metal and melodic black metal into a fairly popular debut. This was where their path has steadied over the years and yes, it would’ve been fair to expect a stagnant record after the last few. ‘Where the Gloom Becomes Sound’ looks to be the final album with the fine touch of Jonathan Hultén‘s guitar work as he exits the band to focus on his appreciably gender-bending solo work. I emphasize this event because I’ll have to admit I’m not interested in this project without his art attached but, this isn’t exactly why I’ve included the fifth Tribulation album here like the tombstone it is. In fact I’m on board in part because it reminds me of discovering Sentenced as a teenager, knowing that gothic metal might give way to some discography diving and eventually the unknown fan might find brilliant inspiration in ‘The Formulas of Death’ the same way I’d found ‘North From Here’. A stupid reason in a fairly slow month for interest? Maybe. But I cannot deny that this album is successfully theatrical, full of memorable guitar hooks and lovely art direction.


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