Simon’s Top Ten Releases of 2021

Simon’s Top Ten Releases of 2021
By Simon Black

Beth here! There’s always one awkward bugger on every team isn’t there. And here at Ever Metal it’s our Simon (we love him though, so it’s ok)! He’s done his Top Ten a little differently, because he simply couldn’t pick his favourite – so well done to all on the list, you’re all joint first place! Enjoy Simon’s words of wisdom…

Happy Christmas you crazy bunch! First off, here are my journo statistics for 2021 first:

Albums Reviewed: 225
Web Sites Contributed To: 2
Live Gigs / Festivals Attended: 1 (just don’t, OK?)
Live Streams Watched: 4
Interviews conducted: 2
Pints of Beer Consumed: I’ve no idea, but there are countries out there with smaller I am sure…

There goes the year when everything didn’t quite get back to normal, but we’re getting there, aren’t we? OK, maybe not with yet another variant unexpectedly teaching us more of the Greek alphabet just when we thought that the end was in sight. Whatever your personal experiences of the last terrible, awful, heart wrenchingly brutal two years have been, the one positive thing that this period of history has delivered is some of the most well-crafted and innovatively created music I have had the privilege to hear in my 51 and a bit years circling this benighted rock. Having realised that this virus thing was not going away, that touring (and the cash lifeline that goes with it) was rapidly becoming a dream and a memory, it seems that lots of musicians found focus, had plenty of things to say and knuckled down in the studio … or indeed in their airing cupboards surrounded by soundproofing duvets… 

My big regret this year though has been missing Bloodstock, as despite having a ticket roll over, a last minute COVID outbreak in my family meant that went out of the window. But I am really heartened that emerging independent bands like Agrona and Ward XVI got the chance to break through into the next tier on that stage. It’s moments like that that make all this reviewing lark seem worthwhile.

Before I give you my personal highlights, a little about the methodology I’ve employed first. I don’t dish out full marks very often and when I do, it’s because I know this is likely to be a record I will want to listen to again and again. With over 200 records crossing my path across two websites, my time to revisit stuff does start to get limited very quickly, especially since I don’t spend my life on the road in the same way anymore. That said, when I find something I really like, it will make its way to my phone and car. So consistently good has been the output this year that whittling this down to only ten entries has not been that easy. So, in alphabetical order ….

The Top Ten

Arion – “Vultures Die Alone”

Part Melodic, part Symphonic, part Progressive, but a thoroughly Modern Metal Milly to boot, Arion came out of left field for me back in April. At the time they only scored a nine, but time and repeated listening has meant that they have certainly moved up to the top of the list of 2021 and they are a classic example of why sometimes bands should not rush out albums for the sake of it. This is timely and beautifully crafted, with some well-used guest features, and a vocalist with the most distinctive larynx I’ve heard in a long while (think of a more Modern Metal version of Chester Bennington, with all the soul and emotion that goes with that image). It’s catchy, it’s heavier than a two ton heavy thing, and it’s still got me going months later. Even the ballad rocks the bollocks off of most of the competition.

Highlights:
‘Out Of My Life’
‘Bloodline’
‘In The Name of Love’

Vultures Die Alone Album Cover Art

https://www.facebook.com/OfficialArion

Beast In Black – “Dark Connection”

Former Battle Beast axeman Anton Kabanen has put together a truly odd little album here. I shouldn’t like it, but I really do. Whereas the first two albums were a little more in the traditional Melodic/ Power Metal mode (although starting to head in this direction), this piece melds Synthwave groove (to the point where 80’s Disco starts to come out loud and clear) with blisteringly infectious Metal tropes, as let’s face it I can’t think of a single other Metal record that could claim the Bee Gees as an influence. The songs on here are so catchy that you cannot help but tap along throughout, with the unexpectedly brutal vocal delivery of Yannis Papadopoulos, who could give Ripper Owens a serious run for his money, even when he’s channelling his inner Barry Gibb. Even my kids like it, so it must be good … the cover is less so though (see below)…

Highlights:
‘Highway To Mars’
‘One Night In Tokyo’
‘Moonlight Rendezvous

Dark Connection Album Cover Art

https://www.facebook.com/beastinblackofficial

Dream Theater – “A View From The Top Of The World”

Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, there can be no doubt that Dream Theater are absolutely top of the Progressive Metal totem pole. They’ve not always done that consistently over the years, with the challenges that line up stability always brings, not to mention the odd ridiculously over indulgent and naff double concept album along the way. That felt like it was a blip, as the current line-up that finally cemented when Mike Mangini joined the band a few albums back has been the strongest and most consistent in their long history. You can forgive them for something like ‘The Astonishing’ when this comes along, because this is seminal, distilled and spot on Dream Theater firing on all cylinders. Catchy and melodic, this album bizarrely remains highly listenable despite its length and the presence of a couple of crazily long tracks. This is pure DT at their absolute best.

Highlights:
‘The Alien’
‘Invisible Monster’
‘Sleeping Giant’
‘A View From The Top Of The World’

A View From The top Of The World Album Cover Art

https://www.facebook.com/dreamtheater

Exodus – “Persona Non Grata”

I never understood why Exodus have been so criminally overlooked, as they were so much a part of the original Thrash scene’s birth in San Francisco’s Bay Area. It’s a shame, but line up stability had an awful lot to do with it. But time has continually proven their place in the history of the scene, and albums like this along with the righteous recent surge in their popularity underline clearly why. Bands in the 80’s in the genre often turned out their best material in pressured studio environments, on crap equipment and with engineers who didn’t understand Metal but still had a frisson that overcame those limitations, yet bizarrely lost that special something when better production values came along. But not here, oh no. This album is shit hot energetic Thrash of the finest quality, which has the hasty and frenetic energy of the early days combined with the maturity, craft and production values of right here and now. It really doesn’t get better than this, and the (remaining) members of the Big Four should take note, because Exodus deserve the slot vacated by Slayer for this album alone.

Highlights:
‘Persona Non Grata’
‘Lunatic Liar Lord’
‘The Years of Death and Dying’

Persona Non Grata Album Cover Art

https://www.facebook.com/exodusattack

Flotsam & Jetsam – “Blood In the Water”

For the second time this year, and indeed, within this very article, I must bow down to the elder gods of Thrash for rising from the ashes with an album that both encapsulates their heritage and leaves it standing in the dust at the same time. This band had a deserved reputation, yet have struggled to get the popularity and consistency over the years. But for the best part of a decade they have come back bigger and better than their original heyday, which let’s face it was criminally undervalued at the time. It manages the same trick that Exodus pulled off of capturing their old zeitgeist in a new and crisply well-produced package, and A.K. Knutson’s vocal delivery is quite frankly exceptional. I stand by my original review comment that a 10 is not quite enough here, as sometimes things truly do go up to 11…

Highlights:
‘Blood In The Water’
‘Cry For The Dead’
‘Burn The Sky’

Blood In The Water Album Cover Art

https://www.facebook.com/flotsamandjetsam.official

Helloween – “Helloween”

The template for Euro Power Metal really does begin with this band. From Kai Hansen’s Thrash and Speed Metal inspired debut, to the glory years when the frankly phenomenal vocal powers of Michael Kiske came on board, Helloween were one of the most influential and more importantly great Metal bands of the period and the lynchpin of the success of the Noise International label. When both of those two moved on, Helloween floundered, along with everyone else, as Grunge ripped the Metal scene apart. But they built themselves back up again from scratch with the stylistically very different but very strong singer Andy Derkis. Then a few years ago the unimaginable happened – both Hansen and Kiske re-joined Helloween alongside the existing line up to form a seven piece Powerhouse of Metal. The Pumpkins Reunited tour was a massive global hit and as this album proved, not just a one-off event. This line up has recorded what may just be their masterpiece, which successfully melds the three very different singers and all the better elements of their vast career into an absolute monster of a record, and would appear to be the way all things Helloween are done from now on. 

Highlights:
‘Out For The Glory’
‘Best Time’
‘Skyfall’

Helloween Album Cover Art

https://www.facebook.com/helloweenofficial

Ignea & Ersedu – “Bestia” EP

I had come across Ignea last year and rather enjoyed them, but this split 5 track EP project with fellow Ukranians Ersedu is something else entirely. Covering between the two acts the stylistic fusion of Symphonic, Power and Death Metal with a distinctly Middle Eastern chord structure this conceptual EP exploring the mythical cultures of their home country is quite simply fabulous. It stylistically is so left field that it still leaves me with an uncanny feeling of surprise all these listens later, and I defy anyone not to be blown away by the vocal performances of the two frontwomen delivering roaring guttural shredding and clean and beautiful brilliance in equal measures between them. I normally save this end of year adoration for full albums rather than EP’s, but this is conceptually clever enough to be so close it’s not worth calling. The bands’ alternate tracks and then come together for the spectacular closer ‘The Eaters of the Sun’ and I am left bereft at the thought that this is just a one off, despite now having two new bands I know that I am going to keep following.

Highlights:
‘Mermaids’
‘The Eaters of the Sun’

Bestia EP Cover Art

https://www.facebook.com/ignea.band/

https://www.facebook.com/erseduband/

Mad Symphony – “Mad Symphony” EP

This Canadian Melodic Hard Rock Supergroup released their EP in the summer, to universally and deservedly high praise across the board. What has become known as the New Wave Of Classic Rock (did we learn nothing with the NWOBHM acronym?) is more than just some retro bubble, but a genuine breathing musical entity that has one platform boot firmly in the Classic Rock world, with the other firmly ensconced in the present and, more importantly, the future. It quite frankly blew my socks off when I heard it for its unnerving ability to summarise so many of the sounds that got me here all those years ago, whilst also sounding fresh, modern, relevant and damned good fun. This EP was a toe-tester at the label’s behest, with a full album waiting in the wings for 2022 release. Watch this space, because these chaps are going to be phenomenal.

Highlights:
‘Do It All Over Again’
‘The Next Door’

Mad Symphony EP Cover Art

https://www.facebook.com/madsymphonyband/

Manimal – “Armageddon”

This album is simultaneously one of the best and also the most frustrating things to have come across my desk this year. I had not encountered Manimal before, perhaps not surprising in that even though they’ve been going for over 20 years, this is only their fourth album. Let’s be clear – it’s an absolutely fantastic piece of music, with a vocal performance in the Halford and Ripper traditions (with a good dose of Primal Fear for good measure) that is quite frankly exceptional. In fact it’s everything that I was hoping that K.K.’s Priest would deliver, but sadly didn’t. The frustration though comes from the fact that, although I reviewed it way back in early September, its release has been continually put back, as Manimal, like so many others, have struggled to get their physical copies pressed and distributed. Those copies are existential life blood for bands when touring is still not fully up to speed, but the worry I have is that this may disappear if it’s released too close to Christmas. So I’m playing it loud a lot and so should you. 

Highlights:
‘Burn In Hell’
‘Slaves of Babylon’
‘Path To The Unknown’

Armageddon Album Cover Art

https://www.facebook.com/manimalofficial/

Powerwolf – “Call of the Wild”

Given the number of Power Metal albums I cover, you may be surprised to read that Powerwolf had not really registered too much on my radar before this. I guess their image had always made me assume that they were something very different musically, but when it comes to anthemic Power tropes, these boys (along with Sabaton) are probably top of the game of the second generation of Power Metal in Europe. Their home country would appear to agree with them as this record made it to number 2 in the Germany charts. It’s not difficult to see why, being laden with catchy and anthemic tracks from start to finish. There’s an argument out there that says if you’ve heard one Powerwolf album, then you’ve heard them all, in which case make this your starting selection, as its them in a nutshell.

Highlights:
‘Faster Than The Flame’
‘Dancing With The Dead’
‘Alive or Undead’

Call Of The Wild Album Cover Art

https://www.facebook.com/powerwolfmetal

Notable Mentions

So this is where it gets tight. These are the ones I still think are fab, but fall below my criteria of repeated listens, although to be fair in some cases it’s simply because they’ve not been around as long yet. Either way, all are thoroughly recommended.

Against Evil – “End Of The Line”
Armored Saint – “Symbol Of Salvation Live”
Artillery – “X”
Blaze Bayley – “War Within Me”
Motorjesus – “Hellbreaker”
Ronnie Atkins – “One Shot”
The Spectre Beneath – “The New Identity of Sidney Stone”
Ward XVI – “Unplugged And Sedated”

Worst Album Cover Of The Year

Last year I signed off with an album from an established artist who really should have known better, that was so excruciatingly bad that it deserved everything it got and gave me a chance to go full on 80’s Kerrang! on his ass (sorry Glen). This year I’ve taken a slightly different approach to reviewing in general though… 

Basically with far more albums to review than I could possibly have time for and because I like to give them enough time to appreciate some of the work that’s gone into them (which means at least two listens apiece before I write so much as a word), I made the decision at the start of the year that if something was clearly going to be a bit of a flop that I would shift my attention elsewhere, which is why you rarely see anything from me with a score under 5. It’s not that I am being overly generous with my scores, it’s simply that I would rather spend my precious time in front of the keyboard being a little more kind to those who deserve it, than being bitchy for the sake of it. This means quite a lot of material gets filtered out after a couple of tracks and handed to a colleague more in tune with it, as it’s really better to say nothing than something nasty for the sake of filling electronic space.

That said, a couple of the albums that crossed my radar have raised my eyebrows in a different way this year. Now most of us ye olde folks probably own a couple of examples of some really atrocious album art – most likely dating back to the 80’s, when some labels were really not showing much love and care to their artistes. There’s plenty of websites dedicated to this phenomenon, with social media feeds periodically reminding us of some classic clangers, but like Christmas songs new entrants aren’t being given an opportunity to shine, so I have decided to do my small part to correct that. This last year has seen a revival of the The Truly Awful Album Art genre and so for your delectation and delight I present you with my two personal favourites in this category from 2021. 

One important point – both these albums scored 6 or above, in fact one of them is in my top 10 above, however, someone needs to have a word about how to make an impression with artwork.. Here goes:

Beast In Black – “Dark Connection”

Now, the whole mood of this piece drips with 80’s tropes and thematically is a homage to Blade Runner. It’s a fantastic piece of music but the cover really needs to fall through the time warp that brought it soon…

Bloody Hell – “The Bloodening”

Joseph, Mary and the Wee Little Donkey why, why, why?

The Bloodening Album Cover Art

Read some of Simon’s original reviews here:

(Written by Beth Jones)

Disclaimer: This review is solely the property of Simon Black and Ever Metal. It is strictly forbidden to copy any part of this review, unless you have the strict permission of both parties. Failure to adhere to this will be treated as plagiarism and will be reported to the relevant authorities.