While a lot of heavy music may sound one-dimensionally negative to an outside ear, metalheads know that so many of the albums we love are premised on balancing the bleak with the blissful. Whether that be seeking catharsis through sheer volume and vigor à la Full of Hell and Knocked Loose, or trampling adversity with pure force of will as Gojira and Employed to Serve did on their victoriously titled LPs Fortitude and Conquering.
In a year of rollercoaster ups and downs, the themes and emotions that have been emanating from heavy music for decades became strangely omnipresent, and that climate yielded a fine crop of new releases from all over the map. With sounds ranging from trad metal to mathcore, and narratives that run the gamut from hopelessness to triumph, we always had an album to reach for no matter how the day's headlines made us feel. Below are our picks for the 25 best albums of 2021.
Although they hail from the dry heat climate of 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. Vocalist Chad Green is a former member of defunct crossover-thrash beasts Vulgar Display, and although his arctic bellows in Frozen Soul are way more Bolt Thrower than Bitter End, he and his bandmates carry themselves with the "don't fuck with us" stature of hardcore ex-pats.
Slaughter to Prevail make the type of music that would play during an underground boxing match in a dilapidated warehouse. Kostolom, the sophomore album by the Russian destroyers, is one bloody deathcore barrage after another — from the fittingly titled "Demolisher" to the stupidly heavy "Baba Yaga," which ends with frontman Aleksandr "Alex Terrible" Shikolai croaking like Satan in a fury of torment. The devastation is knowingly over-the-top, rife with spine-snapping breakdowns that are expressly written to accompany fists hitting flesh. But tracks like "Agony" and "Zevali Ebalo" are sprinkled with Slipknot-ian grooves and Korn-ish melodies that linger in your ear even after the teeth are swept up off the floor.
The Romance of Affliction feels like a recalibration for SeeYouSpaceCowboy. While their 2019 debut, The Correlation Between Entrance and Exit Wounds, was bone-crushing and bleak in its own right, the grindy sasscore elements that made their early material so unique were largely absent. Here, the sonic madness is restored with a new sense of purpose. At once more accessible and more experimental, Romance preserves their distinctive flair — Connie Sgarbossa's cheeky yelps, the band's dive-bombing mosh parts and their restless, non-linear song structures — while also offering a way forward in the form of catchy, emotionally gripping post-hardcore melodies that make the chaos around them feel more lasting.
From death metal and grind to hardcore and industrial, Full of Hell have been a near-impossible band to pin down across their decade-plus career and countless albums, EPs and split releases — except that their music is always challenging and extreme. On Garden of Burning Apparitions, they lean into their noise-rock inclinations with an emphasis on the fucking noise. Gnashing and abrasive — even when the saxophone kicks in on "Urchin Thrones" — the gloriously ugly album underscores why Full of Hell have inspired everyone from Code Orange to Ghostemane.
Carcass singer-bassist Jeff Walker and guitarist Bill Steer both doubted fans would embrace the follow-up to their stunning 2013 comeback album Surgical Steel. But the seasoned vets had no need to fret. Torn Arteries is a juicy slab of melodic death metal — and fans ate that shit up. Walker's vocals are crispy as ever as he unleashes a torrent of medically-inspired horror. Steer's playing is on fire, whether he's deploying blazing runs ("Torn Arteries"), stomping riffs ("Dance of Ixtab"), proggy workouts ("Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment Limited") or shredded pit-starters ("Eleanor Rigor Mortis"). And his signature blues-infused lead breaks? Forget about it. Dude is only getting better with age.
While soundtracks like The Crow, Judgement Night and those of innumerable Tony Hawk video games loom large in the psyches of many heavy-music fans, the finely curated hard-hitting soundtrack has long seemed a lost art. Enter the Dark Nights: Death Metal compilation, assembled by score composer Tyler Bates as a companion piece to the DC comic-book series of the same name. Boasting killer new cuts from Mastodon, Chelsea Wolfe, HEALTH with Deftones' Chino Moreno, Denzel Curry and many more, it's a diverse, dynamic listen and a worthy addition to the pantheon of badass metal soundtracks.
Employed to Serve went big on Conquering. The English metalcore band traded in their spazzy hardcore leanings for steady-handed groove-metal that scales up their sound to the size of personal heroes like Lamb of God and Machine Head. The grooves lunge rather than sprint. The riffs have been upgraded from close-range knife jabs to clobbering mallet swings. No longer fighting her way to the top of the scrum of unruly instrumentation, Justine Jones' raspy screams soar above the music with victorious grandeur. "Conquering" is a good way to put it.
There's no blueprint for what deathcore bands should do when they're eight albums deep into a 15-year career, so Whitechapel — one of the genre's pioneering acts — are doing what they've always done: setting the standard. After experimenting with dusky clean vocals on 2019's The Valley, Phil Bozeman and his bandmates fully embraced melodic metal and rock balladry on Kin, stripping back their craggy deathcore exterior so that the frontman's intimate personal excavations can be properly absorbed. They're not abandoning what they've built so far (see: the crushing weight of "A Bloodsoaked Symphony" and "The Ones That Made Us"), but rather showing fans that the battlements they've spent years fortifying is thankfully still far from complete.
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. It's not particularly hard to make this type of chaotic metalcore sound discombobulating, but to make it sound as viscerally engaging, technically mystifying and musically digestible as Pupil Slicer do? That takes a rare breed of talent.
On Party at the Cemetery, Poorstacy is tapping into a sound without precedent. The South Florida figure emerged from the SoundCloud trenches making mawkish emo-rap, but this record is a stark pivot to breakneck punk that congeals every misfit at the warehouse gig into one hulking beast. The album swerves between the gothic emo-punk of early My Chemical Romance, elastic post-punk smeared with industrial atmosphere, drum-and-bass that's wielding a dirty switchblade, and convulsive metalcore collabs with Bring Me the Horizon's Oli Sykes that balance out the pop-punk anthems with bloodthirsty savagery.
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 and more. From the rousing "ya-ya-ya" punk chants of "All Futures" and nail-scraping guitar solo on "An Iteration," to the floor-pounding churn of "Big Shell" and the ominous Mark Lanegan guest appearance that closes out the whole show, Ultrapop's holistic approach is brazenly overwhelming but also strangely cathartic.
By borrowing from the iconic yet hard-to-replicate structure of Black Flag's My War, Gatecreeper pulled themselves out of their "stadium death metal" comfort zone and into a rigorous boot camp of punk-metal insanity. For its first seven songs, 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. The Phoenix crushers have always taken no prisoners, but this is scorched-earth brutality even by their own standards.
The Devil Wears Prada's 2010 Zombie EP was a low-stakes passion project that ended up becoming a high-water mark for scene-era metalcore. Its sequel, arriving 11 years after the fact, has the same effect for where both the genre and the band currently stand. The five-song EP folds TDWP's last decade of considerable songwriting maturation — more dynamic instrumentation and a diversified vocal toolkit from Mike Hranica — in with the unpretentious thrills of high-octane zombie tales. "Termination" has a rubbery nu-core influence and "Nora" toys with glitchy bass wobbles, while "Contagion" balloons from misty cleans and concussive chugs into a majestic expanse of melody and technicality.
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, with spacious production and planet-colliding guitar textures that sound like if Deftones' recent albums were informed by the raucous energy of the U.K.'s small-club metal scene. It's the type of record that carries its own implicit mission statement: We're here to fucking stay.
When we caught up with Jinjer in the studio working on their 2021 album, the Ukrainian progressive metal stars promised an "uneasy listen" and "the most aggressive sound we've ever had." Goddamn did they deliver. A concept album of sorts that sees powerhouse singer Tatiana Shmayluk wrangling with what it means to be an introvert, Wallflowers takes the group's R&B- and jazz-inflected djent metal to the next level, with ragers like "Disclosure" and "Mediator" spinning off in knotty tangents while the centerpiece title-track ballad showcases Shmayluk's alluring clean vocals and underlines the band's incomparable range.
At this point in the game, metalcore has a lot of history behind it, and Dying Wish are reassuring proof that taking influence from the past doesn't have to lead to carbon copy regurgitation. The Portland band's ferocious debut LP, Fragments of a Bitter Memory, is a graduate of Y2k metalcore — the melodeath riffage of Killswitch Engage, the pained hooks of Poison the Well, the ornate breakdowns of Bleeding Through and the hardcore energy that those bands and their many peers were directly channeling. That said, Emma Boster's bladed screams and vengeful lyrics are wholly her own, and the rest of Dying Wish are simply an air-tight band who make banger metallic hardcore as hard-hitting as it is listenable.
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 "Say Cheese" and "CUE" sounding like Grimes if she came up walking on heads at Dillinger Escape Plan shows. Poppy's full-length album from later this year, Flux, fully leans into the sassy punk flourishes on EAT's title track and the buffed-up grunge hookiness of the wobbly "Breeders," but the way those sensibilities are placed alongside the metalcore ruptures on EAT is what makes this particular project so thrilling.
Knocked Loose arrived on the other side of lockdown opening for Gojira and playing major rock festivals, so it wouldn't have been surprising if their new music was situated for a wider audience. Instead, they did the opposite. The Kentucky bruisers' A Tear in the Fabric of Life is a concept EP (and animated film) about grief that features their heaviest, most traditionally inaccessible material to date. Songs such as "God Knows" and "Permanent" move up into the death-metal weight class, while cuts like "Forced to Stay" and "Where Light Divides the Holler" have enough decimating breakdowns to convince any OG fan that Knocked Loose aren't interested in ceding the mosh champ title to anyone else anytime soon.
After 40-plus years, Iron Maiden proved they can still surprise us. Their 17th and latest album is the sound of a focused, invigorated crew creating one of their most complex and ambitious albums ever. Bruce Dickinson's range isn't what it used to be (dude beat throat cancer, for Chrissake), but his prodigious command of his road-worn instrument adds serious gravitas to the performances — which, appropriately, address apocalyptic doom. From standouts like the ripping single "The Writing on the Wall" to the 11-minute-plus closer "Hell on Earth," this is A1 prime grade three-guitar, galloping-bass, long-song, latter-day Maiden goodness.
We've been eagerly awaiting the debut album from Converge's "Bloodmoon" expanded lineup — featuring Chelsea Wolfe, Ben Chisholm and Cave In's Stephen Brodsky — ever since the avant-metal supergroup assembled for a one-off 2016 show at the Netherlands' Roadburn festival. That the resulting LP should surpass expectations makes its arrival all the more welcomed. Sure, there's plenty of Converge's metallic hardcore caterwaul and Wolfe's swirling goth rock, but there's also Sabbathian sludge, Spaghetti Western twang and choral prog, making Bloodmoon: 1 a captivating case of the sum being greater than the parts.
The Atlanta outfit's eighth studio outing is an epic: 90 minutes of proggy, sludgy, mystical, atmospheric, big-riff, big-emotion, big-moment metal. Their first-ever double album also might be their most sorrowful, as it was created in tribute to their late manager and longtime friend Nick John who died in 2018. It's definitely a triumph. The three-part vocal interplay is intoxicating. The crushing, intricate riffs are endless. The rhythms and arrangements are sterling — and the solos, including their first-ever bass solo, on "Teardrinker," are some of the tastiest in their catalog.
Part of hardcore's nature is that bands typically peak within their first decade, but Every Time I Die are intent on defying their genre's trends. Radical, the Buffalo band's ninth album and first since their also-fantastic 2016 LP, Low Teens, ranks among their greatest achievements. Channeling personal turmoil and political outrage, Keith Buckley delivers his sharpest lyrics yet, and his bandmates have never sounded tighter. The entire group's blood is hotter than ever on heavy standouts like "A Colossal Wreck" and "Planet Shit," while lighter moments such as the Mastodon-ish "White Void" and the tender "Thing With Feathers," an affecting duet with Manchester Orchestra's Andy Hull, suggest that they're one of the only 'core bands in existence with a killer rock & roll album in their future.
With their third LP, Baltimore's Turnstile have done more than just stretch beyond hardcore. Instead, it feels like they've picked up the once-rigidly-barricaded genre and are taking it with them wherever their curious ears may travel. That could be a soulful ballad with R&B innovator Blood Orange ("Alien Love Call"), fistfuls of percolating analog synths, giddy grunge chords ("Mystery"), hymnal funk caroling ("Wild Wrld") or a sticky hook at the heart of every ass-shaking track that's delivered with the ballistic joy of a kid who just landed their first stage-dive. Whether heavy music is only an occasional treat within your musical diet or all you have is two-stepping on your one-track-mind, Glow On has something for you. Turnstile are for everybody.
It's hard to remember a recent metal band that has headed into their debut album with more buzz around them than Spiritbox. Thankfully, far from bowing to the pressure, the trio — led by former Iwrestledabearonce singer Courtney LaPlante and guitarist Mike Stringer — rose to the challenge. On Eternal Blue, Spiritbox alchemically mix contrasting elements: tectonic djent heaviness and pristine pop hooks, crystaline electronic textures and ragged, clenched-fist roars. In Revolver's Fall 2021 cover story, LaPlante expressed a desire to help usher more fans and artists of every gender, creed and color under the metal umbrella and to "burn down the establishment" — an album this fire could do just that.
Gojira's seventh album is proof (as if any was needed) that the French eco-warriors are truly among the greatest, most progressive creators of heavy metal in the history of the genre. But more than just music, Fortitude is a vibe. Opener "Born for One Thing" sets the scene with its propulsive drum beat and guitar accents, before it pops off into Gojira's signature slamming assault. What follows is a cinematic journey through pick-scrapped grooves ("Grind"), bouncy Sepulturan riffs ("Amazonia"), ambient chants ("Fortitude," "The Chant"), hypnotic finger-tapping ("Another World"), knotty breakdowns ("Into the Storm"), uplifting choruses ("New Found"), rich atmospherics and more. For 20-plus years, Gojira have been perfecting their prog-death, groove-metal chops. But unlike other acts in that lane, bandleader Joe Duplantier and Co. haven't sacrificed their humanity for technicality. The result is gripping, organic metal infused with an indefinable spirit: headbanging songs that hit you right in the gut — and the heart.