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If one thing has been drilled into our bones throughout the last year, it's that change is a constant. Between the rollercoaster of hope and despair that's been life during the pandemic, and the critical demands of the Black Lives Matter movement ushering in an ongoing societal reckoning, nothing has felt stagnant, and heavy music has responded to that moment. We're only halfway through 2021 and we've already received a bounty of new albums that offer a fresh and exciting look at the bright future of metal, hardcore, hard rock and more. From veteran acts refining their craft to young up-and-comers staking their claim, all 20 records on this list are, in their sonics and/or subject manner, a reflection of the multi-dimensional and fast-changing world we live in.
On their ninth record, Architects went big. The U.K. metalcore stalwarts injected French horns, strings, synths and strange vocal effects into the 15-track opus that navigated the push-pull between hope and utter nihilism. Metalcore doesn't traditionally save much space for nuance, but Architects made room on For Those Who Wish to Exist.
As frontman Adam Vallely told us in our exploratory profile, the Armed's methodology for their bombastic fourth album was simple: every single element of our culture has been turned into "pop," so why not draw from everything — hardcore, industrial, alt-rock, bubblegum pop, death metal, electrogrind, post-modern art theory. That's Ultrapop, baby.
The Devil Wears Prada's 2010 Zombie EP was a low-stakes passion project that ended up being a high-water mark for scene-era metalcore. Its sequel, arriving 11 years after the fact, has the same effect, folding together TWDP's decade of songwriting maturation with the unpretentious thrills of zombie tales.
There's no shortage of good crossover thrash albums coming out these days, but Kill Grid is a rare great one. The sophomore record from Richmond's Enforced nails the sweet spot between husky riffs, battering mosh parts and sturdy production that gives it that open-air grandness that really makes a difference in this style of music.
"Survival hurts/But I keep breathing in," Amy Lee sings on "Broken Pieces Shine," the second track on The Bitter Truth, her band's first album of original material in a decade. The words speak to the pandemic amid which the LP was created and released, to Lee's personal trials and travails and to the greater theme of the album. Ultimately, The Bitter Truth is a triumphant statement of perseverance, with Lee seizing her role as alt-metal elder stateswoman for some of the hardest hitting songs of her career.
Although they hail from Fort Worth, Texas, Frozen Soul make death metal that conjures the sub-zero temperatures of an arctic wasteland. Their debut full-length, Crypt of Ice, is a shiver-inducing avalanche of wicked growls and bitter riffs that'll chill you enough to justify turning off the AC.
For its first seven songs, Gatecreeper's An Unexpected Reality is a ceaseless onslaught of bazooka-blast grindcore that's reinforced with military-grade death-metal heaviness. Then, its closer is an 11-minute funeral-doom track that makes you forget everything that came before it. No prisoners, no survivors, this is scorched-earth brutality.
Gojira did it again. The French prog-metal titans' seventh LP, Fortitude, refines and polishes their signature formula — humongous riffs, gusty singing, sacred grooves — while straddling their catchier and more experimental inclinations. At this point, Gojira are a well-oiled machine, and Fortitude is them operating at peak efficiency
Gulch and Sunami are two of the hottest upstarts in hardcore, which made their March split a shoe-in before anyone even heard it. Both bands hail from the thriving Bay Area scene, but their differences are what makes this project so compelling. Sunami bring their thuggish beatdown shenanigans, and Gulch return with their scorching breed of grindy, punky, death-metally mayhem.
Kaonashi's debut LP is a mangle of djent, metalcore, proggy post-hardcore à la the Fall of Troy and the lush hooks of singers like Claudio Sanchez and Anthony Green. Plus, it's got a dense narrative about a fictional character navigating the complexities of high school while struggling with a history of abuse and mental illness. Most bands make a career out of one of those threads, but these Pennsylvania weirdos want the whole quilt.
Serena Cherry's main band, Svalbard, has always had a dash of black-metal atmosphere in their overcast post-hardcore, so it makes sense that the guitarist-vocalist would parlay that into a full-on solo affair. Her debut under the Noctule moniker, Wretched Abyss, is entirely based on the video game Skyrim, and the record translates the excitement of that dense virtual world into a sonic campaign of epic black metal.
After Poppy went nu-metal on last year's I Disagree, it was anyone's guess what she'd do next. On her surprise-released EAT (NXT Soundtrack) EP, the post-genre auteur got heavier and skronkier, with tracks like "Say Cheese" and "CUE" that sound like Grimes crossed with the Dillinger Escape Plan. It's some of her best work yet.
Pupil Slicer live up to their name. On their debut LP, Mirrors, the London trio, led by vocalist-guitarist Kate Davies, sound like a fine-tuned instrument of torture — razory metalcore riffs, precise mathcore rhythms and squirm-inducing electrogrind spasms that make you feel like you're strapped to a chair while a mad scientist brandishes his blade. 'Core doesn't get much more visceral than this.
Red Fang's latest is a batch of poolside stoner rock that keeps things fun, casual and riffy as ever. The Portland band's approach has cooled a bit since the fiery days of "Wires" and "Prehistoric Dog," but Arrows finds a warm spot on the grill between charcoal-dusted metal and un-scorched hooks — all served up with Red Fang's signature, smoky flavor.
On their terrific split, A Sure Disaster, SeeYouSpaceCowboy and If I Die First go together like red on white. The San Diego sasscore unit offer up a couple choice cuts of idiosyncratic metalcore, while the L.A. motley crew of emo rappers and From First to Last members throw it back to the melodies of early Myspace. The collaborative centerpiece between the two bands, "bloodstainedeyes," is the best of both worlds.
Sanguisugabogg specialize in graphic lyrics about mutilating pedophiles, vocals that sound like an ogre puking and guitar tones that buzz like a chainsaw that's rusted over after marinating in a tub of blood. The debut full-length from the Ohio death-metal miscreants is likely the ugliest album you'll hear all year, which is to say that it accomplished everything the band set out to do and then some.
Supergroups are rarely actually super, but this one — currently comprised of Faith No More's Mike Patton, the Jesus Lizard's Duane Denison, Mr. Bungle's Trevor Dunn and Helmet's John Stanier — is at least super weird. Tonic Immobility, Tomahawk's first album since 2013, is packed with thrillingly off-kilter alt-metal bangers and bizarro digressions (check the bossa nova rhythms of "Howlie") that suggest these guys have only gotten more eccentric with age.
Yautja's Relapse Records debut is a scrapyard sculpture of fuming sludge, mangled grind and the type of heavy hardcore that's too knotty and lumbering to mosh to. The Lurch is smart but not snobby, technical but not showy, hopping mad but not in a performative way. Proof that this Nashville trio is onto something.
The collaborative album between L.A. EBM duo Youth Code and Portland trap-metal producer King Yosef is one of those projects that works as well in reality as it does on paper. On their own, each artist makes eerie, visceral, screeching music with electrifying textures, and on A Skeleton Key in the Doors of Depression, their sounds click together with the satisfying ease of the last puzzle piece.
Nearly 40 years into his musical career, Rob Zombie still sounds like he's having a fucking blast. His latest LP, The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy, is another batch of over-the-top freak-show anthems that celebrate the vintage hard-rock camp he's been particularly fond of since the early 2010s. It's hard to think of another metal icon whose shtick has aged as gracefully as Rob's.