BPMHILL’s Best Albums of 2021

As it turned out, 2020 was only part one of a difficult and frankly batshit time to exist on planet earth. Fortunately, through all the muck that was 2021, we’ve been graced with some truly stunning works of art. These are the albums that were able to blend all the pain and beauty this year had to offer. Here are the albums that I continue to spin since release and will be spinning for the foreseeable future:

Best EP’s:

  1. Bodom After Midnight – “Paint the Sky with Blood”
  2. Cult of Luna – “The Raging River”
  3. Soen – “The Undiscovered Lotus”
  4. Enslaved – “Caravans to the Outer Worlds”
  5. Insomnium – “Argent Moon”

Best Live Albums:

  1. Ulver – “Hexahedron: Live at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter” & “Scary Muzak”
  2. The Pineapple Thief – “Nothing But the Truth”
  3. Enslaved – “Cinematic Tour 2020”
  4. Devin Townsend – “Galactic Quarantine”
  5. Paradise Lost – “At the Mill”

Best Vinyl Variants:

  1. Opeth – Blackwater Park 20th Anniversary & In Cauda Venenum Connoisseur Edition
  2. Esa Holopainen – Silver Lake
  3. Ulver – Vargnatt reissue
  4. Deafheaven – Infinite Granite
  5. White Ward – Love Exchange Failure reissue
  6. Freddy’s Nightmares OST
  7. The Ocean – Phanerozoic I & Phanerozoic II reissues
  8. Between the Buried & Me – Colors II, Come Ecliptic reissue, The Parallax II reissue
  9. Agalloch – Pale Folklore & Bloodbath – Resurrection Through Carnage reissues via Nesi Media
  10. The Dillinger Escape Plan – Ire Works & Miss Machine reissues

Best Studio Albums:

This definitely was not the easiest year to pick a best of list. I enjoyed a ton of albums but ultimately narrowed it down to twenty that have stuck with me for a variety of reasons. There are certainly some that didn’t make the cut and I’m still likely exploring those and haven’t quite figured them out yet. Devin Townsend’s The Puzzle/Snuggles and Swallow the Sun’s Moonflowers being a couple of examples. There are also a few that came very close like Maiden’s Senjutsu and Mol’s Diorama but ultimately I had to cut somewhere so here we are.

  1. At the Gates – “The Nightmare of Being”: What do you mean Carcass isn’t #1?? Well what can I say other than At the Gates put out the album that really defined this year for me. The dudes put out some of their best riffs and catchiest songs to date. “Spectre of Extinction” is easily one of the best songs they’ve written and a track I simply can’t stop listening to. Not only that but ATG went full prog and I’m a damn sucker for that. Check out “The Fall Into Time” for one example of this. This is epic, brutal and exactly what I want from one of the classiest Melo-death bands around. Songs to Listen To: Spectre of Extinction, The Fall Into Time, Eternal Winter of Reason
  2. Harakiri for the Sky – “Maere”: One of the most emotional and heartfelt albums this year comes from Harakiri for the Sky who took things up yet another notch with “Maere”. The album starts with a proper banger in “I, Pallbearer” and doesn’t let up. Songs to Listen To: I, Pallbearer, Sing for the Damage We’ve Done, Song to Say Goodbye
  3. Between the Buried & Me – “Colors II”: Very few bands would risk making a sequel to one of their most beloved albums. Count on BTBAM for fully embracing it and making an album that while attached to the core of the original Colors, is really its own beast entirely. It’s an incredibly varied album and truly distinct. It doesn’t rely on its sibling and yet clever traces of the DNA are woven in. This is how you write a sequel. Songs to Listen To: Revolution in Limbo, The Future is Behind Us, Bad Habits
  4. Leprous – “Aphelion”: While the last album, “Pitfalls”, was somewhat a change of pace for the band, Aphelion manages to mix the sound of that with some of their earlier albums and creates one of their finest moments yet. This has potential to become one of my all time favorites from the group and I’ve yet to grow bored of a single track. Songs to Listen To: Nighttime Disguise, The Silent Revelation, Silhouette
  5. Rivers of Nihil – “The Work”: Rivers of Nihil pulled off quite an ambitious record with “The Work”. This could have easily gone poorly with a fairly big leap from what they did on “Where Owls Know My Name”. Fortunately with this innovative band at the hull, we’re treated to a great blend of genres and excellent songwriting. Songs to Listen To: Clean, Terrestria IV, Wait
  6. Deafheaven – “Infinite Granite”: I’ll admit this one has been all over the map for me but I feel very comfortable where it stands on my list now. I was lucky enough to see the band perform the album front to back live and it changed the full experience for me. If you’ve previously written it off, I highly recommend catching Deafheaven’s 2022 tour if they make a stop in your city. Songs to Listen To: Great Mass of Color, Mombasa, In Blur
  7. Steven Wilson – “The Future Bites”: Possibly my most decisive choice here (along with Deafheaven) but where “To the Bone” felt like a warm up for this direction, Wilson fully commits to an electronic sound. For my money, it works brilliantly. That isn’t to say I don’t miss his guitar led albums like “The Raven that Refused to Sing” but this is still a prog album in its own way. Just perhaps not what most are used to in the traditional sense. There are plenty of masterful tracks to discover here for the open minded. Songs to Listen To: King Ghost, Man of the People, Eyewitness. Note: I’m cheating a little bit as Eyewitness isn’t from the album proper but one of the many great tracks that was recorded during the sessions. How it isn’t on the main album is beyond me as it’s wonderful.
  8. Dream Theater – “A View from the Top”: Did you really think Dream Theater’s latest wouldn’t be on my list? Admittedly, I don’t know if this one will stick with me as much as their last album, “Distance Over Time”, did which is why it’s lower down the list. Regardless, it’s a damn fine collection of songs by one of the best bands out there. Songs to Listen To: Answering the Call, The Alien, A View from the Top
  9. Mastodon – “Hushed & Grim”: This is an overwhelming and lengthy listen and yet it’s absolutely stunning. It may be awhile before I can claim it’s their best since “Crack the Skye”, but I can say with certainty that the band sound on top of their game. This was only further solidified when I saw them perform several of the tracks live earlier this month. Songs to Listen To: Pain with an Anchor, Pushing the Tides, Gigantium
  10. Tribulation – “Where the Gloom Becomes Sound”: I was debating as to which album would ultimately get the final slot in the top 10 and I found that out of the rest of the top 20 here, this is the one I came back to the most. Though it may not beat out 2015’s “The Children of the Night” in the bands discography, it’s a very solid album. Plus the vinyl exclusive track “The Damphir” is one of the best Tribulation songs period. Songs to Listen To: Hour of the Wolf, Leviathans, Funeral Pyre.
  11. Khemmis – “Deceiver”
  12. Vola – “Witness”
  13. Archspire – “Bleed the Future”
  14. Wolves in the Throne Room – “Primordial Arcana”
  15. Spiritbox – “Eternal Blue”
  16. Cynic – “Ascension Codes”
  17. Gojira – “Fortitude”
  18. Carcass – “Torn Arteries”
  19. Soen – “Imperial”
  20. Perturbator – “Lustful Sacraments”

2+2 Reviews: VOLA, Steven Wilson, Tribulation, and Mogwai

New Indie Pong Column!

We’ve been scheming on putting together a collaborative Indie Pong column for awhile now, and this last week, we decided to bring 2+2 into the world.

So, what is 2+2?

Basically, this will be a bi-weekly column to highlight new offerings from the world of metal, prog, and post-rock music. For each entry, bpmhill (BPM henceforth) and I (STMG henceforth) will both choose two songs that we’re feeling, and write about them. Of those four total songs, we will choose two of them to write about together, so you’ll be getting two different takes on the music, for half of the songs that we feature.

In any case, without further ado, let’s get into our first track selection this week:

Vola- Straight Lines

STMG: Coming into this, I was 100% unfamiliar with VOLA or their work.

I loved this song though, and I’m curious to seek out more of what they’ve done.

The song’s standout moment comes pretty early on, specifically, when the chorus hits. After a very djent-y verse, the pre-chorus shifts gears to something else entirely, building towards a VERY dramatic key change.

Actually, I can’t remember a previous moment as a music listener in which I heard a key change and was so startled. You really take a step back here, as said key changed is paired with an isolated vocal treatment, and a vocal octave pop for extra, “oopmh.” 

It’s brilliant.

The vocal treatment itself is pitch perfect too, with the clean leads taking up about 85% of the mix, and the harsh vocals back-mixed, so they come across more as a textural thing.

Hearing the specifics of all this for the first time, it’s almost a little disconcerting, as the gear shift is so powerful, but when you’ve fully processed what you’ve heard, I guarantee your eyebrows will be lifted, and you’ll find yourself feeling impressed.

Another highlight is the track’s synth solo which… kind of comes of nowhere. Listening to this for the first time, I was very much expecting some sort of standard half-diminished and/or modal tech-y guitar solo, and what we get instead is very different. There’s a real emphasis on melody here, and nothing in the way of typical metal shredding. It’s a solo that’s marked by restraint, and I both dig and appreciate that decision.

In any case, I’m all for this. Brandon, what was your knee-jerk reaction listening for the first time? Any specifics highlights for you, or what do you feel are the song’s strongest parts? 

BPM: I’m in the same boat as you, George.  I had heard of Vola on one of the Reddit channels I follow but never gave them a listen.  Glad you sent this track my way as it’s about time I had a proper introduction.

I’m loving the synth solo you mentioned along with just the general synth parts that add texture to the song.  I also love that “Straight Lines” hits you in the face right out of the gate with a really exciting synth build/djent-y moment leading into the first vocal line.  

Which speaking of, the vocals are strong here and I too appreciate the harsh vocals in the back of the mix. I’m not familiar enough with the band just yet to know if this clean/harsh vocal mix is something they normally do or not but it’s tastefully done.  I would love to hear some more harsh vocals within their songs and personally would dig them further up in the mix or in the lead too.

Vola’s sound here is reminiscent of other artists in the scene such as TesseracT, Leprous and certainly Voyager but I appreciate their songwriting on this track which is creative and shows they know how to write catchy riffs and melodies.

I’m looking forward to further exploring their back catalogue and will check out their upcoming full length album.

Steven Wilson- Man of the People

STMG: I think this is the first Steven Wilson solo cut that I’ve heard. 

I’ll be back for more.

Brandon informed me that this album has been a little more divisive amongst his fanbase, but considering what I know about him (as both an esteemed remixer, and a member of Porcupine Tree) I feel like this is probably a very natural progression.

At first blush, my reaction was, “huh, this sounds like 80s Phil Collins by way of modern production techniques.”

That might sound like a knock, but it’s not. 

Before Collins was a hit solo artist, he sat behind the kit in Genesis, performing a number of drum parts that people hold in very high esteem. As the singer, songwriter, and a guitar player in Porcupine Tree, Wilson also has some monolithic prog credentials. Like Collins though, he’s eschewing that here, in favor of something much closer to pop music.

To be clear, this isn’t, “In the Air Tonight.” It’s much more restrained, but infectious as an earworm, in the same way as Collins’ mega-hit is. I found myself nodding along before we hit the minute mark, which is always a good sign.

This is something I’d probably put on while I’m drawing, as it’s catchy enough to inspire me, but also, somewhat unobtrusive. There’s no real bombast to be found here, and the song manages to stay pretty consistent throughout.

Brandon, as someone who is more familiar with Wilson’s work, are you excited to see him continue in this direction, or, are you hoping a tune like this is a one-off itch that he just had to scratch? Did the song instantly connect with you, or, did it take a little time for it to grow?

BPM: George, I didn’t realize you hadn’t heard Wilson’s solo work before!  

I think what I’ve really enjoyed about his solo work is that each release has managed to blend what I loved about his work in Porcupine Tree, including the haunting, yet hooky songwriting and adding a new twist so it doesn’t feel formulaic.  The Future Bites, which is Wilson’s sixth full-length solo release, is a departure from say 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing or 2015’s Hand Cannot Erase.  Both of those albums are more traditionally progressive rock.  

2017’s To The Bone had a mix of prog with some pop and electronic elements and also featured Wilson’s first major step in a truly pop direction with the track “Permanating”.  Depending on who you ask in the fanbase, this is either a track they really love or find to be his absolute worst.  Personally, I found it very catchy and I was able to see him perform it live, which added to my love for it.  “Permanating” also pointed towards the direction Wilson is now in for his latest album.  

“Man of the People” might be my favorite song on The Future Bites.  The album as a whole, though Wilson’s shortest, is not the easiest to digest upon first listen if you’re set on hearing his typical 70’s prog influences.  In fact, as you mentioned George, this song (and album) is clearly inspired by 80’s pop and Collins lead era Genesis along with his solo output came top to mind for me as well.  I’m a huge fan of that period of Genesis’ music and happy to see Wilson channel it here. 

To answer your question George, I’m excited to see him continue in this direction and I could see him perfecting what he’s doing on this album on the next one.  “Man of the People” was an instant favorite for me personally.  I also want to point out that though this may not be your dad’s prog rock or Wilson’s usual output, I still think it is progressive.  Wilson is refusing to stay in one gear and naturally progressing to the next stage of his evolution.  I think that keeps his music refreshing so I can’t wait to hear what he concocts next.   

Tribulation – In Remembrance

BPM: I started my journey with Tribulation a few years ago when they released Down Below.  Both that album and their previous one, The Children of the Night, had received major accolades from most metal publications and Decibel in particular convinced me to really give them a listen.  

I love their blend of gothic tinged black’n’roll, doom, death metal and some seriously catchy guitar riffs.  In fact, if you removed the harsh vocals, Tribulation would be fairly in line with a band like Ghost.  Personally, I really dig Johannes Andersson’s vocals though so I’m glad they’ve kept them in place through the years.

The bands latest album, Where the Gloom Becomes Sound, just released and with it, several very worthy tracks.  While “In Remembrance” wasn’t one of their initial singles released, it certainly could have been.  

I’m a big fan of that slow build intro that crawls into your head and then about a minute in, the guitar and drums fully kick in.  The chorus that hits at nearly three minutes in feels like stadium rock played at a funeral.  I mean that as a major compliment.  It’s catchy as hell and I really want to hear this song live at a venue like The Forum in LA.  It feels really big and deserves a bigger audience too. 

I’m really curious where Tribulation will go next.  Their guitarist, Jonathan Hulten, just left the group so time will tell if the band will continue in this same direction or shake things up on the next one.

Mogwai- Pat Stains

STMG: I knew Mogwai was releasing one more single before their full album debuted this week, but I didn’t realize it happened on Friday!

Needless to say, when I found out that it was available to stream/download, I dropped everything, and gave it my undivided attention.

I like it quite well.

The band isn’t re-inventing the wheel here, but they are cruising very comfortably in a lane that they know well, and when they begin to open up the throttle, things get very pretty, very quickly.

As a midwesterner listening to this in the dead of winter, during a polar vortex, it’s hard not to draw parallels to what I’m bearing witness to outside my window.

I’m curious to see if I feel differently when nicer weather rolls around, but this is indeed a song for winter, and snowstorms.

The song begins and ends with quiet, with the loudest section of the song arriving around the ⅔ mark. The lead up to that section is gorgeous. More-or-less static guitar and drum figures hold things down, while every other instrument in the mix shapeshifts, and bubbles. As this is a Mogwai tune, you know that we’re in for some highly-considered, and melodic basslines throughout, and Dominic Aitchison more than delivers here. The bass here has a great warmth actually, which helps to soften the visions of wind and snow that otherwise, came to my mind.

While the song’s climax is all well and good, the song’s most impressive section may well be the closing minute or so– the calm after the storm, so to speak. An exercise in striking, absolute serenity, it brought about a very true, and humbling peace within me as I listened to it. 

I was super impressed.

Anyhow, thanks for joining us on the first edition of 2+2.  We look forward to bringing you the coolest tracks to put on your playlists for 2021.  If you like what you heard, drop us a note in the comments section and please support the artists.  

Fresh Earworms: 2021 Albums to Shape the Year

2021 is looking to be another great year in music even if we don’t get any live concerts. Several artists delayed their latest releases during the ongoing pandemic and as we’re inching closer to a time when they can tour again, some of the albums are finally seeing the light of day. Without further ado, here are some of the releases I’m most excited for.

  1. Steven Wilson – “The Future Bites”: Releases Jan 29 This album has been in the can so to speak for nearly a year but naturally was delayed until Wilson might have a chance to tour with it. Now we’re only a day out and I’m excited to see what he will bring to the table. It’s clear he’s going a very different direction with his latest, appearing to abandon his prog roots almost entirely and embracing retro art pop fully. Regardless of any genre labels, Wilson is consistently brilliant and “The Future Bites” looks to be the next big step in his evolution.

2. Soen – “Imperial”: Releases Jan 29

Soen has been cranking out terrific albums since their inception. Their last album, “Lotus”, was a near masterpiece in my eyes so the hype is incredibly high for “Imperial”. The singles so far have been total bangers, so I expect we will have another great album in our hands come Friday.

3. Tribulation – “Where the Gloom Becomes Sound”: Releases Jan 29

Three potential albums of the year are all releasing this week. Tribulation‘s last two albums were some of the best music in the previous decade. If you haven’t yet checked out the song “Strange Gateways Beckon” from their 2015 album “The Children of the Night”, time to draw the shades, light some candles and slap that baby on the vinyl player. Tribulation‘s new album is likely to feature some changes in the band’s sound and even includes a nearly 20 minute epic as a B-side. Check out one of the singles below:

4. John Carpenter – “Lost Themes 3”: Releases Feb 5

John Carpenter is one of the best filmmakers and composers of all time and he’s continuing to stay busy during the quarantine with his musical endeavors. The last two “Lost Themes” albums have been like hearing your new favorite score to a film that doesn’t yet exist. That is to say Carpenter‘s songs are so well crafted, you can easily imagine a film that would fit perfectly with each song. Needless to say, his latest should kick all kinds of ass.

5. Cult of Luna – “The Raging River EP”: Releases Feb 5

It may be an EP but given this is Cult of Luna, every song here should be fucking grand. Seriously though, Cult of Luna never fails to impress. Their previous full length, “A Dawn to Fear” was fantastically brutal and they’re one of the best live acts around. Don’t miss this.

6. Evergrey – “Escape of the Phoenix”: Releases Feb 26

Evergrey is back with album number twelve and the band looks to be re-energized with new catchy songs and seriously terrific artwork. Can’t wait to see what singer, Tom England, and the rest of the group have in store for us.

7. Liquid Tension Experiment – “LTE 3”: Releases March 26

The last album from Liquid Tension Experiment released when I was in junior high, which was (double checks current age) 22 years ago. Additionally, this is the first time John Petrucci, Mike Portnoy and Jordan Rudess have jammed on record since Dream Theater‘s 2009 album, “Black Clouds & Silver Linings”. If the first single is any indication, this may well be their finest hour. The hype is very real.

8. Panopticon – “…And Again Into the Light”: Releases TBA

Though not much is known about Panopticon‘s new album, it was just announced to be releasing in the first half of the year. If you haven’t yet been introduced to Austin Lunn AKA Panopticon‘s blend of atmo-BM, folk, bluegrass, it’s a great time to start. Austin generally plays every instrument on his albums and the ridiculous thing is he’s exceptional no matter he’s playing on. If you want to see a true DIY artist in the scene, give Panopticon a listen.

9. Carcass – “Torn Arteries”: Releases TBA

Another casualty of the 2020 release schedule, Carcass‘ latest should release at some point this year. Based on last year’s excellent EP, “Despicable”, which consisted of the tracks that didn’t make the cut on the album, this should absolutely CRUSH.

10. Devin Townsend – “Puzzle”: Releases TBA

Devin flirted with releasing this last year but realized “Puzzle” needed more time to develop and he pushed it into 2021. It is unclear when it will be released (or what it is exactly) but whenever it does (and whatever it is), it is sure to be a doozy. Devin is also working on a number of other projects that could be released as well which should surprise no one if you’ve followed his career to date. He’s one of the busiest artists out there and “Puzzle” is sure to be another crowning achievement.

There are a number of other artists who are currently in the studio or have hinted at having a release in the works so I’ll add on more releases as the 2021 schedule firms up.