Onto the third and final week of /Countdown/2021 on amodelofcontrol.com, and this week I’m looking at the best albums of the year. As I’m sure I’ve explained before, I treat the “year” as 01-December to 30-November, to allow me a cut-off point, and to allow this to be done and dusted before Christmas so that I can take the usual break from writing for a couple of weeks over the holiday period..
/2018/Promenade Cinema/Living Ghosts
/2015/Dead When I Found Her/All The Way Down
/2014/3 TEETH/3 TEETH
/2013/Front Line Assembly/Echogenetic
/2012/Dead When I Found Her/Rag Doll Blues
/2010/Edge of Dawn/Anything That Gets You Through The Night
/2009/Alice In Chains/Black Gives Way To Blue
/2008/Aesthetic Perfection/A Violent Emotion
/2006/In Strict Confidence/Exile Paradise
/2004/Rotersand/Truth Is Fanatic
Much like as 2020 ended, I’m going to be happy to sweep most of 2021 into the bin too. The continued absence of gigging – I’ve attended just four live shows all year – has meant I’ve lost one potential route of discovering new music for the most part, but on the flip side, I’ve perhaps considered more releases this year for the end-of-year lists than ever before. Weirdly, too, I’ve clearly listened to more industrial this year than I thought, with about half of the top ten – never mind the rest of the list – being at least related to that genre.
A few intriguing statistics. Firstly, no less than forty-five of the fifty albums here are available on Bandcamp this year (while unlike last year, a couple of them are not on Spotify), and there are artists from nine countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, France, Norway, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. Women are not greatly represented, though (27 out of 149 band members), which while “better” than last year, still isn’t brilliant. As I note every year, I do not aim for any bias in my choices – everything here is on merit – and the stats continue to confirm that much of the music that we listen to in the “alternative” side of things is still biased in favour of men.
While I still try and keep the broad focus of the music covered here to the wider sphere of industrial music, I also listen to other music – this year perhaps more than ever – and thus the spread here is perhaps a bit wider than you might otherwise expect. You know what, though? Try some of this music. Especially the stuff you don’t recognise or don’t know. Go for it – I love hearing new music that someone else has enthused about, trying to understand what’s so awesome about it. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it will take days or weeks to click, and hopefully, something here will do that to you.
And on that note, with a potential exception or two, /amodelofcontrol.com is now taking a break until the new year. Thanks for reading during 2021, and I’ll be back in early 2022, beginning with the usual round-up of new music for the coming year.
Time to cue the music. You can listen along on Spotify or Youtube. Links to the right.
/The Force Dimension
I was fortunate to see the resurrected Force Dimension at BIMFest a good few years back, and their cracking early singles still kick hard – but perhaps more interesting to me has been their return to recording new music as well. Their latest album, released on Sonic Groove earlier in the autumn, is a glowering, darker take on EBM and New Beat than they perhaps ever had originally. René Van Dijck buries his voice in robotic treatments and rich, well-produced arrangements, that feel designed for the towering speakers of a club more than they ever would for home listening. That said, this is a great album, one that rewards repeat listening.
I’m not going to lie – there’s a fair bit of noisy rock music, i.e. noise rock, in this years’ roundup. It’s a style of music, long before the genre was retrospectively coined, that I’ve been listening to for a long time, and it never ceases to amaze me that artists are still finding new ways of expressing themselves within that arena. Scottish musician Jay Thurley certainly has – bringing in a host of collaborators from notable peers – and the most interesting thing to me is that Thurley deliberately doesn’t maintain the seething power of the first couple of tracks. The excellent Casey Rowe’s Ghost sounds like Jesus Lizard having a dust-up with a military drummer, and it is followed a couple of songs later by the delicate string-and-woodwind-backed Not Lonely, a supreme lament that Michael Gira would have been proud to have penned. Elsewhere, chaotic saxophones and booming vocals on Vanity, The Fool create a hellish, free-jazz cacophony that will either enthrall or repulse, while Beans is a stuttering, mysterious track that feels like it might evaporate into nothing at any moment. A strange, unexpected trip, this.
/The machine is burning and now everyone knows it could happen again
It certainly ticks the post-rock cliché boxes at first glance – unusual name (BRUIT means “Noise” in French, quite why there’s a “Greater than or equal to” symbol too, I have no idea – other than a thought that they are saying they are “greater than (just) noise”?), lengthy, emotional album title. But look and listen that bit closer, and you get an impressive album that is rather more unusual than you might expect. As well as the usual instrumentation, they bring in strings, brass and tape loops, and the result is mournful swells of quasi-orchestral post-rock that has a notable emotional heft, and at points is extraordinarily moving (particularly the sample of the environmentalist discussing commitments to saving flora and fauna from extinction at the close of Amazing Old Tree). The pick of the four tracks, though, is the closing The Machine Is Burning (all twelve minutes of it). A remarkable, densely textured piece, it ebbs and flows like the rolling sea, and sounds like an entire orchestra has taken over.
Eight years since the implausibly brilliant comeback Surgical Steel, Carcass finally release another album, heavily delayed by COVID. The…ok EP Despicable last year perhaps tempered expectations a bit – but then, those tracks were ones that didn’t make the new album, and it turns out that we didn’t need to worry. Carcass is back, they are as belligerent as ever, but interestingly, perhaps back to being a touch melodic again – ok, not quite full-on Heartwork, but there are more than enough nods to that sound to make you sit up and take notice. That said, the old face-ripping power is not lost (just check that galloping, neck-snapping intro to Eleanor Rigor Mortis, for example) either. The general feeling, though, is that this is another excellent Carcass album, from a band who long since had nothing left to prove. The old masters remain on their throne.
/Love Songs For End Times
The Winnipeg-based duo Ghost Twin made an excellent album Plastic Heart back in 2017, and their welcome return this year with new material felt like something of a rebirth and retooling. There’s a more ethereal sound to the band – very much “dreampop”, if you will – with the trip-hop-esque sounds dialled back for more an exploration of synthpop on the majority of the album. But on tracks like the outstanding Become Control, fierce, hard-edged electro-industrial becomes the unexpected order of the day. Ghost Twin has become a fearless duo, unafraid to try new styles, and while perhaps there aren’t the real standout pop songs this time, maybe that’s not what they wanted to do, and all power to them if so.
The oh-so-predictable backlash came for IDLES on their third album, Ultra Mono, last year. Some of it was justified, some of it entirely unnecessary, but it has transpired with the release of Crawler just recently that things were really not well within the band, and particularly with Joe Talbot, and much of this – to be honest, a little uneven – album is Talbot making amends or facing up to his past. But also, it is IDLES as a band heading off into different musical places. The first single The Beachland Ballroom, is a surprisingly tender ballad, Progress an unusual bass-led track that is entirely beatless, while at the other extreme, Wizz is thirty seconds of brutal power-violence/grindcore (can we have an entire album of that, lads?). They still can’t resist dipping into old habits, though, and while not all hit the mark, The New Sensation is a thundering, foot-shaking groove that just happens to get an oblique jab in at Government “advice” to musicians during 2020. It’s clear that, unlike many punk bands, they really do fucking care, about themselves and what others say, but critically they are using that as fuel for the fire of inspiration.
/Black Country, New Road
/For the first time
What happened if Slint were to add strings and saxophones is not a question I ever thought I’d need to ask. But, this is 2021, and never-before anticipated events are rather the norm now. Ok, so there’s not the nerve-shredding dread, but there is a distinct Englishness to the lyrical subjects and general matter of factness. Away from the Slint-aping guitars and rhythmic structures, though, the saxophones, in particular, add a chaotic, disorienting feel and that might be their secret, devastatingly effective weapon.
/Blacken The Skies
An album that perhaps got a little lost in a year where there has been a deluge of releases, and I can’t help thinking that this is a bit unfair. Thomas Mark Anthony – for he is TERMINAL in a recorded sense, anyway – created a fascinating, unusual album in the world of industrial in 2021, one that was full of political and real-world comment, and also wasn’t quite your regular electro-industrial album. Sure, there’s dancefloor thumpers like Deadline and Riot Shields, but there are also anthemic industrial rock tracks like Dance Fall Pray, and the almost nu-metal grooves of Godfire – all of which are excellent. Thomas Mark Anthony has made a conscious effort to be different with this project, and it is well worth your listening time.
/I’ve Seen All I Need to See
The nihilistic, vicious power of this album reminds me of the most terrifying film I’ve ever seen. Threads was a warning about the realities of nuclear war in the 1980s, that scared the bejesus out of everyone that has ever seen it and reputedly was seen by world leaders that fairly swiftly began to thaw their stances. There’ll be no thawing of opinions here, though, as this is eight tracks of brutal, distorted aural destruction. The core duo has gone back to basics here, so just drums, down tuned guitars and howls from the depths, but thanks to the production work of Seth Manchester, it is smeared in glitch and grime, burying everything in a filthy miasma that is entirely in keeping with the hateful nature of the entire album. If you want a soundtrack to punching the walls in never-ending frustration and disgust, look no further.
/Museum on the Horizon
/Profound Lore Records
This abrasive, self-titled “cyberpunk” band continue their steady work, and admittedly one that won’t appeal to everyone. Chris Bug’s growling, harsh vocals (there’s a distinct Suicide vibe to his delivery) might be that divisive point, but I think they work well with the music – which is somewhere between noise rock and industrial rock, with extensive, and well-placed, use of synths and electronics to charge up the noisy, stark rock base that the band begin with. The other interesting thing is that their base sound is genuinely different to their peers as if they’ve chosen an entirely different path from a similar starting point to just about everyone else – and when they do head down a more electronic path on the second half of the album, like on the excellent Mission Creep, they suddenly morph into atmospheric minimal wave, while Human Factor ironically removes all organic matter aside from the vocals, a series of electronic pulses and beats the only accompaniment. If this is the sound of the band trying on new ideas for size, I can’t wait to hear where they go next.
/You and I Will Never Die
Things have changed somewhat since KANGA’s spectacular debut (that topped /Countdown/2016/Albums on this site). It took some time for KANGA to follow it up – the much-delayed, and twice released Eternal Daughter, which felt like the stopgap it was – and now, You and I Will Never Die feels like the real follow-up. The overt industrial-pop catchiness has continued to be dialled down, for a sound that to my ears drifts more into dreampop-meets-industrial, particularly around her vocals, that seem to be deliberately pushed into the mix in ways that they didn’t do the first time around. That’s not to say it doesn’t work, though – the drowsy, laid-back vocals work surprisingly well with the fiercer programming of Brother, while conversely, Godless fizzes with energy (and a killer chorus). KANGA seems to have found the style that suits them. Fine by me.
/Public Service Broadcasting
The ever-fascinating Public Service Broadcasting seemed to garner less attention for their fourth album, although with the swirling chaos of the UK in September 2021, perhaps that can be forgiven. Perhaps, too, J. Wilgoose, Esq and his band turning their attention across to Europe – and specifically to Berlin – may have turned some off in these all-too-nationalistic times, but maybe that was the point. Anyway, this is for the most part rather different to previous work by the band – guest vocalists do most of the work of the usual samples, while there is a notably electronic feel (as befits Berlin, frankly), and the feel is one of warm, measured tribute. Bowie, Depeche Mode, Dietrich all are nodded to or referenced, it was recorded at Hansa Studios, and even Blixa from Neubauten drops in for a guest turn. Maybe the band needed to move on from what they’ve become known for – but maybe deeply thoughtful, often slow-paced album might turn some off. The latter will be missing out – give this your undivided attention on headphones, with no interruptions, and frankly it sounds gorgeous.
/Full of Hell
/Garden of Burning Apparitions
Full of Hell is not, as existing listeners will already know, your average Grindcore band. Sure, they stick to tradition by releasing a lot of very short songs (this album is twelve tracks, dispensed within twenty-one minutes, and just two of them go much over two minutes long), with tempos somewhere near warp speed, but where they differ is in their approach. As well as the traditional bass/drums/guitar, they also throw in bass clarinets, saxophones and a whole shit ton of electronic noise. Dylan Walker bellows and screams his lungs out over the top of the sonic carnage, and the result is a dizzying, overwhelming barrage of fury that is easily the most relentless twenty-minutes of noise that you’ll hear this year. If my wife is reading this, probably one you’ll want to skip.
Not the most pleasant of band names – but then, for many, London trio PUPIL SLICER won’t be a pleasant listen, either. This is a wild release – chaotic, math-metal often played at Grindcore tempos, full of stop-start tempos and time signatures you probably need to use calculus to decipher. Kate Davies delivers her vocals like a raging banshee, for the most part – but delivers unexpectedly pretty melodies at random moments – while the three band members are all locked into dense, chaotic grooves like an impressive machine. And this is their debut? Fuck knows what they do next!
One of those bands that seem to divide opinion, their fifth album this year probably won’t change the minds of the detractors, but that’s their loss. A band that plays molasses-slow post-metal/no-wave, with drums that stagger forward, regular pauses in their music meaning that momentum is always checked that little bit. The divisive bit might be Robin Wattie’s vocals, whose tremulous style may well be the part that some people can’t get used to (and I can’t help but feel that there might be a teeny bit of sexism involved here), but I like a lot, and when she lets go with throat-ripping howls (such as at the climax of brutal opener Abating the Incarnation of Matter), it’s really impressive. But that is put in the shade by the astonishing Half-Breed, which closes out with Wattie calmly reciting her words (the song is a comment on the historical and current treatment of mixed-race peoples, as far as I can tell), and it’s devastating. Leaning on drone as much as post-metal, this is an album that demands to be listened to very loudly indeed and frankly is quite brilliant.
Certainly one of the more intriguing post-metal releases of the year, KAUAN originate from Chelyabinsk, a city straddling the borderlands between Europe and Asia, and 1,500km east of Moscow. Not a city I think I’ve ever heard a band from before, and the distinctly chilly nature of the music here perhaps reflects the winter months of their hometown. This is stark, bleak music, one that builds on the Scandinavian metal roots and influences to create an unusually symphonic sound (presumably by multi-tracked guitars) that ebbs and flows like the winds across the West Siberian Plain. But don’t let bleak suggest that this isn’t beautiful – it is, and it is curiously emotional, too – a reminder that broadly instrumental music need not be scrubbed of its humanity. The album was also notable for the limited edition of it, which included a fully-fledged RPG based around a story of the titular ice fleet found abandoned.
/70 Years of Static
Pretty much the first album to qualify for this year’s list (it was released 04-Dec 2020), it is a testament to how good this album is that it has been on regular rotation here ever since. Bloody Knives seem to struggle to fit in somewhere, falling between the easy stools of noise rock, shoegaze and industrial electronics by fusing together all three. Their chops in the latter were reinforced by a (very, very loud) show at Cold Waves in 2016, that I saw and was blown away by – at least when my ears stopped ringing long enough for me to think again – and this album might well be their best yet. Vocalist Preston Maddox buries his vocals in the mix – oh-so-shoegaze – but his melodic touch is so good that even hidden away, they still float back to the surface, and the band manage a notable balancing act by never allowing the electronics to take over fully (that’s saved for some of the intriguing remixes that pad out this short album), instead using them to supercharge everything surrounding them, such as on the industrial pulse of out of the shadows into the light, the dense layers of this is the way you burn. You likely missed this – go back and catch up.
The work of Colin Cameron Allrich as Slighter often feels like a well-kept secret to a few of us, and I’m mystified as to why his work hasn’t reached the wider audience it deserves. Well, at least that knows the name of it, as their work has appeared on a host of US TV shows in recent years. Part of that perceived anonymity might be down to the sonic route that’s been taken, mind. V O I D is a dark, heavy album that lives in the shadows, one that uses the space between elements to brilliant effect, not to mention cavernous bass and vocals that are muttered in the corners of the mix. There are nods to Massive Attack’s suffocating Mezzanine, sure, but the other artist that springs to mind as I listen to this album is Burial. Enigmatic, sparse and intelligent electronic music that needs your full attention, lest you miss the detail.
Årabrot seems to get weirder and more unlikely, the more I read about them. A core partnership (musically and romantically) of Kjetil Nernes and Karin Park, they seem to come from entirely different backgrounds (indeed Park has written a Eurovision entry, pop songs for others and collaborated on tour with some huge names) and different musical influences too, but their work together has brought some amazing music to bear. 2021 saw them release a thematic EP (see last week) and this sprawling album, which is not quite the Gothic suggested in the title. Perhaps the Gothic relates to the old church the duo and their family live in, perhaps it relates to the bombast that permeates through this album. Strings, choirs, synths are all chucked into the mix and the result is an album that sounds enormous, songs roll into almighty, ecstatic crescendoes, and more than anything? A feeling that this is a band that is at the peak of their powers.
/Employed To Serve
Employed to Serve have swiftly become one of the prominent hardcore/metal bands in the UK, and with good reason. Previous material, and shit-kicking live shows, had put us on notice of their power and potential, and with the relentless Conquering, they very much have taken steps forward. Every song feels like a future live anthem, with vocalist Justine Jones delivering commanding vocal performances, backed by a super-tight band that bring riffs and breakdowns that could cut through walls. I think we should be crowning the new UK hardcore rulers about now.
On their third album Love Is Dead, it felt like CHVRCHES dropped the ball. Working with pop uber-producer Greg Kurstin, they seemed to double-down on relentless pop music that buffed away all the sharp edges that made CHVRCHES so good, and aside from a couple of songs, frankly, the sheen of the album dulled very fast indeed. In the meantime, COVID has happened, and, it appears, Lauren Mayberry in particular has been tipped over the edge around the appalling abuse she has suffered online for daring to be a woman that speaks out against those that dare to do so. Thus, they went back to basics, and remotely created most of the album, and they fashioned it into something of a slasher horror movie theme, only that the horrors are mental abuse. Thus He Said, She Said bitterly details gaslighting and the toxic bullshit of male expectation – but in the best CHVRCHES fashion, wrapped in a pop song containing hooks the size of skyscrapers. They even bring in a guest vocalist on the gloomy How Not To Drown – none other than Robert Smith, who knows a thing or two about gothic excellence, and his voice is the perfect foil for Mayberry on this song. CHVRCHES claw their way back, their vital signs showing more than a few signs of life despite everything.
/This Morn’ Omina
/The Roots Of Saraswati
The tribal-industrial juggernaut that is This Morn’ Omina returned in 2021 with a new line-up, Mika Godrijk joined this time by Scott Fox of iVardensphere, and the change in sound, as a result, is obvious. Less psytrance, and instead a darker, more reflective tone results, and perhaps surprisingly with less in the way of the monstrous, tribal-dancefloor bangers that TMO have long been (in)famous for. The overarching theme points the way: the concept of knowledge, growth and transcendence, that of learning from one’s mistakes and missteps and pushing forward anew. This manifests in the new line-up, Godrijk looking outward to push his group on, and some of these songs are indeed extraordinary. The slower Vadavigni (The All-Consuming Fire) brings in South Asian instrumentation to impressive effect – and works well as a slower track to take a breath amid the tribal workouts surrounding it – while elsewhere, new threads of sounds and rhythms weave through familiar feeling drums. Perhaps not as immediately fulfilling as some TMO releases, I have a hunch the real way to experience this will be, as ever, at one of the groups’ mindbending live performances in the coming year.
One of the legends of the NYC post-hardcore scene – and including members who had a history in other vitally important bands prior to Quicksand, not least Walter Schreifels, who was a key figure in both Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today – that only ever released two albums in their original form in the nineties, were not a band I ever expected to reform. But that they did, and while Interiors in 2017 felt a bit lacklustre, and frankly not up to the original releases, Distant Populations is vastly better. As you might expect, Schreifels’ vocals sound more measured, and notably wiser with age, and musically the band are still unafraid to change things up, but the band are – as ever – at their best when they go that bit heavier. The slower groove of Colossus (every bit as massive as the title suggests) is an utter joy, and elsewhere, there are all kinds of nods to their past, but crucially, it still sounds like a band hungry to do more.
/SINNER GET READY
Is there anyone out there creating music like Kristin Hayter? Her extraordinary, powerful voice, with an incredible range that goes from calm to shredding terror, and often, her voice (especially when it is multi-tracked for full effect) alone is enough to carry songs. On the astounding previous album CALIGULA, she enlisted the outside help of members of The Body, Uniform and Full of Hell, and the industrial-tinged terror they brought made for an album of shocking intensity. There is none of that here, instead relying on piano, banjo and cello to make an album that digs deep into religious fervour and devotion, and more to the point how that can turn ugly and vengeful when one’s prayers are not met – or when the veneer of respectability is cast aside by the monstrous deeds of authority (as samples in a few songs here remind us). Hayter at points sobs her vocals with extraordinary power, as if she’s been terminally forsaken, and at others, she rages at that God for their violence and punishment, and needless to say, this is a dramatic, bracing listen from a singular talent.
With the departure of vocalist Burton C. Bell – he is on this album, having recorded his vocals done time ago, but finally confirmed his departure from the fractured, dispute-ridden band before release – I rather see this as a swansong for a band who took extreme metal and industrial into new realms across their career. Despite the issues, and the number of people involved, this album is their best in ages, full of all that Fear Factory great in the first place, and while there are moments to breathe, the majority of the album is relentless, industrial thrash, with the mechanical precision we expect and Bell’s melodic edge to choruses, in particular, sounding better than ever. The title track with its depth charge bass is one highlight, as is the metal club-dancefloor aimed Disruptor, but the pick here is the monstrous Fuel Injected Suicide Machine, the band’s best track since anything on Obsolete at least. Who knows what happens with the remnants of the band now, but this will sit nicely as an epitaph if it is the end.
Twenty years on from the landmark Jane Doe, and this is very much not a return to the furious, blistering metalcore that makes up most of that album. Instead, by working with outside influences – most notably Chelsea Wolfe – they have created an album that sees Converge move into intriguing new realms, and reinvigorates Chelsea Wolfe, too, whose work on the last couple of albums had become for me a bit samey. Wolfe adds gothic grandeur to many of the songs here, while Converge rethink their sound and for the most part, slow things down into what might be called Gothic Doom at points – and frankly is nothing like I’d ever have expected Converge to explore. But why not try something new, when the results are this damned good? Elsewhere, they allow their hardcore power off the leash just for short moments, which only heightens the impact.
/Debemur Morti Productions
OK, so the rest of the album might not quite be at the level of the blistering opener Somniloquy – I don’t think any band could keep up that level of intensity for an entire album – but what results is a fascinating take on Black Metal and also shows nicely how things have evolved. For a start, this sounds absolutely enormous – everything is loud, clear and huge, with a deliberate “Wall of Sound” approach that makes for a relentless surge of noise across the best tracks, while also knowing full well that moments of calm and near-silence make for an unsettling bedfellow when you know that the power and fury will crash back over you again (as it does, time and again here). Other bands – particularly those who took Black Metal into truly symphonic realms – have long proven that quality production and engineering can really change the game in the genre, but here, Akhlys have looked at it a little differently, with spectacular results. A fascinating, overwhelming release.
Chicago’s HIDE has never made things easy for the listener – that’s pretty much the point of what they do – but even by their standards, Interior Terror is a brutal, uncompromising listen. Tracks rarely last too long – some, like the blunt force rhythms of Nightmare, less than a minute – but they certainly make their point known. Rhythms are created with samples that seem to have serrated edges, vocalist Heather Gabel delivering vocals from the depths of their own personal hell and experience, but they are no passive victim in any track here. Instead, Gabel is like a terrifying avenging angel, staring down abusers and violent police alike, daring them to lift a finger. While one of the most striking tracks comprises simply of (pitch-)dark ambience, with a pitch-shifted vocal reading Brock Turner’s fathers statement supporting his son (who was, of course, rightly jailed and registered as a sex offender for his actions) – giving it a new context and reminding of the sheer privilege of rich white men. HIDE tear into such bullshit with musical chainsaws, and the result is an uncomfortable but necessary aural bloodbath.
/Emma Ruth Rundle
/Engine of Hell
I’ve had suggestions from a number of people close to me, or whose musical recommendations I respect deeply, that I should have been listening to Emma Ruth Rundle’s work for some time. I finally did so thanks to the fascinating power of her collaboration with Thou, May Our Chambers Be Full, last year – whose track Ancestral Recall was an astonishing piece of work – and now, we have her first solo album in a little while. This is a stark, bleak album, broadly just Rundle with either a guitar or piano, any excess and augmentation stripped away, which came as a shock to many. Then, I read this interview in the Grauniad with her, and it makes sense. Having kicked lengthy addictions and gotten divorced recently, this album feels like a cleansing and a form of penance, as mistakes of the past are faced up to and accepted. A difficult listen, but one that isn’t without an uneasy beauty.
As I noted last week while including the outstanding Inhumane Harvest, these Death Metal veterans really stepped up this year, with their best album in a great many years. The thing is, it’s not like they’ve done anything particularly different – there are no sudden deviations into balladry, no clean singing, indeed nothing other than forty-two minutes and fifty-three seconds of absolutely relentless Death Metal. It’s just that it is heavier, Erik Rutan’s production is so sharp it has teeth, not to mention his and Rob Barrett’s guitar work sounding better than ever. Then there is vocalist Corpsegrinder, who sounds the most menacing he ever has. Who’d have thought that Cannibal Corpse would set the bar for excellence in Death Metal in 2021?
/La Mort Du Sens
“The Death of Sense” (or “The Death of Meaning, depending on the translation) is the title for this ferocious album by GNOD, and for this Salford band, it rather neatly sums up the past half-decade in the UK. With Brexit, and the appalling response to COVID, in particular, this country does feel at points to have lost its fucking mind, and this album at points sounds – and feels, it is so damned heavy – as if you are listening to the band repeatedly banging their heads against a wall. Opener Regimental is over six minutes of percussive, savage rhythmic brutality (if you’ve seen Swans live in recent years, you know what I mean), and while things are perhaps a little more restrained in the subsequent tracks, the colossal closer Giro Day – all twelve minutes of it – is the heaviest kosmische song you will ever hear. Thundering drums – two sets, as far as I can tell – filthy basslines, metallic guitars all in a locked groove for pretty much the whole track, and it only won’t send you into a trance because it is so damned heavy. A challenging, but ultimately enthralling and fantastic release.
/As Days Get Dark
/Rock Action Records
Aidan Moffat doesn’t beat around the bush opening this album – he has a knack with opening lines, as we’ve long known – as he tells us “I don’t give a fuck about the past“. Twenty-five years on since The Week Never Starts Round Here, and sixteen since their last album (having split and reformed in the meantime), maybe it was time for Moffat and Malcolm Middleton to move on. Certainly, even the sound is a world away from what came before: a rich, full-bodied production makes every aspect clear as a bell, even Moffat’s vocals, rather than the thin production and low volumes of old. Moffat’s song subjects have moved on, kind of, too. Sex is still a key element, but now, it is the boredom of middle age, voyeurism, p0rnography, and getting it when you can, if at all. Relationships have the sad feel of life has left the good times behind, or of those now gone, while those epic benders Moffat used to write incredible songs about are now seen from the perspective of the invisible service staff that clean up your shit, vomit and used condoms (the remarkable, weirdly anthemic Kebabylon). There is even a rare foray into politics, in the extraordinary Fable of the Urban Fox (see last week). The older, wiser, reflective Arab Strap. Who knew they’d still be this good?
Now easily one of London’s best indie bands, Desperate Journalist have continued to evolve over their decade as a band, and their fourth album is another exceptional release. Like the previous album, it seems to hang together on a broad theme, this time around the power of women and the shit that they have to deal with in everyday life, and the anger of this bubbles over in Jo Bevan’s lyrics and delivery time and again. Especially in the initially oh-so-bright-and-sunny Personality Girlfriend, a scorching takedown of emotional labour and dullard men, while the long, epic Everything You Wanted seethes at the dead-end life in a small-town, itching to get on that bypass and escape. Musically, though, the album also bites – the dominant, pitch-dark bassline of Fault is a bitter highlight, especially as Bevan’s sharp-tongued vocals drip with malice and fury too. The melodic, chiming guitars and post-punk basslines of Poison Pen, too, back a cutting take on terrible male authors. They might have a gothic, dark edge to their sound, but broadly, this is a band headed for indie stardom.
/If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power
Boy, did this cause a ruckus in some circles when it was released. Halsey – an alternative-leaning pop star – working with members of Nine Inch Nails as her production team. According to some NIN “fans”, this was selling out of the highest order, when conversely, it has got NIN to a bigger audience in 2021 than they ever would have done with their own material. And anyway, alternative artists working in mainstream pop is nothing new (in the recent past, for example: Oscar Holter, an ex-member of minor industrial band Necro Facility, has become a pop powerhouse, his most notable success co-writing Blinding Lights by The Weeknd). But what’s really interesting here is how Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross work with Halsey’s vision and create an appropriate sound around their vocals – and ensure that Halsey remains the star (which they unquestionably are). Halsey has been on record as saying that this is a concept album about motherhood, pregnancy and childbirth, removing some of the stigmas along the way, but it also comes across as a statement of power, that Halsey is unapologetically a woman, and she will use her power, position and status to fight against patriarchy and sexism. Sonically, too, it is also a surprisingly subversive pop-album, using flashes of industrial electronics, alternative rock and even drum’n’bass, but Reznor/Ross know where to stop, and as a result, this is a fantastic album that was one of the more unexpected joys in 2021.
/The Inevitable Relapse
Martin Sane’s project has for some time been a fascinating one – and is perhaps even better live, with a striking sense of showmanship rarely seen in this realm of industrial – and on The Inevitable Relapse, his songs sounded better than ever. There’s no doubt that there are nods to other artists – the swirling, dense productions of Mentallo and the Fixer is the first name that springs to mind, and vocally he’s not a million miles from ohGr’s work in Skinny Puppy – but this album proves beyond doubt that Sane is finding ways to take the style in his direction. Single Prognosis adds bruising, speaker-hurting bass that transforms the emphasis of the track, while Unknown to Virtue has synths twinkling like stars in the sky over a muscular, near-EBM rhythm, and the subtle choral-esque backing samples in Meltdown add spectacular dramatic effect. That said, the most surprising track here is the soaring gothic-electro of Tremors. Where, amid a forest of treated vocals across the album, guest Emke from Black Nail Cabaret delivers a scene-stealing performance with a clean, striking voice. The whole album is a triumph of production and ideas.
/Ocean to Ocean
The Tori Amos of 2021 is very different to the Tori Amos of the early nineties when I first was enraptured by her music, but then, in a funny way, some of the Tori Amos of 2021 has come full circle. Like so many performing artists, she was hit hard by COVID, the successive lockdowns and, perhaps most importantly, her ability to play live swept away for an extended period. Going on various interviews, it turned out that the music she was working on was binned entirely as the world changed irrevocably, and eventually, new songs were fashioned. While it’s intriguing to wonder what might have been, Ocean to Ocean is her best album in an age. An album ostensibly about loss and escape, it has a lush, deep sound that at least to my ears harks back to Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, and doesn’t waste a moment of the forty-eight-minute runtime (the shortest Tori album I can remember), full of excellent songs that soothe, question and inspire.
I’ve been a fan of IR for a long, long time – probably nearing two decades now – and thus the wait for the eternally delayed Mirror, that ended up being released at the beginning of 2021, nearly a decade since the self-titled album, has been a long one. They didn’t let us down, though. After the nudging toward synth-rock that the self-titled album was (and it didn’t always work, either), not to mention a more raw sound, Ted Phelps seems to have gone back to basics somewhat on this album, and along the way delivered exactly the IR album I was hoping for. There are punchy, furious dancefloor bangers (The Scales, of note too for the seething breakdown late-on, and Like Swine, which kicks really fucking hard, as does Ignite), melodic dancefloor bangers (Alter Ego, Stranger), and even genuinely moving ballads (Glass, and to a lesser extent Intertwined). Perhaps a decade away makes this feel a bit “out of time”, but then, Imperative Reaction often sounded like they were out on their own anyway, sticking with hard-hitting beats and genuine songcraft. If you missed this when it was released in the dead-zone after New Year, get back on it – this is well worth your time.
I had to double-check that it really was five years since the last Youth Code album (the excellent Commitment to Complications). After a relentless touring schedule, and the glare of publicity, though, who can blame Sara and Ryan for taking a bit of a break? The first seeds of a potential return came last year with the one-off single Puzzle (that doesn’t feature here), and when the album was announced, it was surprisingly self-released and also working with an outsider – in this case, Portland-based producer King Yosef. While this is still Youth Code, King Yosef’s input is fairly clear, as the eight tracks here are heavier and more importantly denser, with thumping bass and growling noisy effects filling the gaps. Critically, though, the Youth Code DNA is absolutely still here, with Sara’s throat-shredding vocals remaining the centrepiece of some excellent songs. The powerful, melodic – and ass-kickingly heavy – Looking Down is one particular highlight, while the brutal Head Underwater (featuring Matt Pike of High on Fire adding an impressive guitar solo) is probably the most intense, heaviest song Youth Code has yet released. Worth the wait? Abso-fucking-lutely.
/As The Love Continues
/Rock Action Records
Released twenty-five years to the day, apparently, since their first release – and I’ve been following this band for nearly as long – Mogwai has earned the right these days to explore whatever sounds they feel like. Their long-standing reputation as sonic terrorists is mainly explored live these days, where they remain a formidable and deafening presence, instead of on record they are more contemplative. That said, they’ve always had an ear for affecting melodies, and amid the kosmische synths, there are some great examples here. Such as on the delicate pulse of Dry Fantasy, which feels wistful and deeply sad. The vocal-led Richie Sacramento leans into shoegaze textures to great effect, too, while their past isn’t forgotten with the steady build and (very) noisy release of Drive the Nail, which I suspect will be best enjoyed live at maximum volume. The most satisfying Mogwai album in ages.
/Blossoms & Bicycles
The long, mystifyingly “under the radar” career of Philip Jeays continues with another album of excellent, heartfelt songs – and this one was a double helping of no less than twenty-four songs (although, for reasons I’ve never quite worked out, there were three or four “old favourites” reworked on the second CD – as great as they are, do we need another version of Cupid…?). Much of the album has a lush, vast sound, too, helped by strings, brass and a full band, and it only seems to push Jeays to make his delivery ever more grandiose. Jeays broadly has two wells of inspiration for his songs – a lovelorn past that seems to have no end of fascinating, often deeply sad stories, and a fiery political fury. Both styles are in evidence here, although the latter is mostly restricted to the unexpected punk-folk of Here Comes The Revolution, as he offers an appreciative eye to the younger generation(s) fighting battles for the future. His time in France is referenced in the sweet, sad Don’t Cry Marie, while one of his greatest ballads (Midnight In Trieste, now nearly two decades old) is continued in the defiant elegance of If I Do, I Do. There are fewer singers these days that are genuine storytellers where the tales are as important as the songs: Jeays is one of those, and I continue to treasure every release.
/No Gods No Masters
What a thrill to be hearing Garbage firing on all cylinders – and consistently – across an entire album for the first time in ages. In fact, on their best album since Version 2.0, the band sound like a more organic machine than ever. Sticking to their more recent style of an actual band, but peppering the sound again with electronics, samples and a whole host of treatments, it gives a springboard for a snarling Shirley Manson to unleash hell on her targets. Interestingly, one of those targets is herself, such as on the thrilling surges of Wolves, where she addresses her own failings, and similarly on the near-New Wave race of The Creeps. But there is more than enough room for Manson to look outward, too, such as on the downbeat, tender Waiting For God, where she looks at a world where racial justice seems so lacking, or the seething early single The Men That Rule The World. But perhaps the most intriguing is the industrial power of Godhead, where gender fluidity and sexual power games get analysed in forthright ways, amid a pulsing soundtrack that sees Garbage explore outright industrial sonic textures in ways they’ve rarely done before. An enthralling, energising return to form.
/I Was Never Really There
A rare album that manages the feat of being something of a throwback in sonic style, but also manages to sound so…now. Jan Dewulf first started Mildreda as a teenager (!) in the nineties, before putting it aside for the more electronic-dance oriented Diskonnekted. That project has come to an end in the past decade, and Dewulf returned to the electro-industrial Mildreda, and on the second full release under the name, Dewulf sounds reborn. All of the songs here are dense, complex beasts, with fantastic production skills on display as he avoids the trap of such dense songs collapsing under their own weight, but crucially, too, he doesn’t forget about melody or songcraft, indeed pulling in some other well-known friends (Dirk Ivens of DIVE/etc, Claus Larsen of Leæther Strip and Don Gordon of Numb, among others) to help realise the vision. As others have noted, it might be a touch longer than it needs to be, but musically, this is a fucking triumph on all counts.
Arriving like a bolt from the blue on the last Friday in November – and with grateful thanks to a member of a music-based online group I’m a member of for the heads-up on this release – was this savage album from Australian band Bitumen. Leaning into early-nineties shoegaze adjacent bands (I’ve seen Curve and Medicine mentioned, and they aren’t wrong), but also using more up-to-date industrial electronics results in an album that in some songs has an extraordinary primal force (the bruising opener Paint and Draw, with momentum like a freight train, is one, while the thundering Spun Gold Heaving is another) and a sense of groove (the excellent, choppy guitars and neo-baggy breakbeats of Out of Athens) but they are also capable of gorgeous, delicate songs, too – the lush elegance of Colosseum in particular. There is a notable change to their sound, listening back to their previous album Discipline Reaction, and clearly part of that change has been COVID-forced, but the huge, powerful sound on Cleareye Shining is an enormous leap forward.
/Where We Sleep
/The Scars They Leave
Blindness rather faded away with a bit of a whimper, despite a lot of promise, so it was heartening to find Beth Rettig ready to move forward with her new project Where We Sleep – and with Debbie Smith on guitars on a couple of songs here, there are still thematic links to that of old, as well as pointers to the future. Some of the songs do, for all the world, sound like Blindness still – particularly the bruising, heavy groove and Debbie’s squalling guitars on Drive – but elsewhere, some of the songs are stripped back to an eye-opening degree. Morning Song is little more than a drumbeat and Beth’s (multitracked) voice, with the slightest hint of guitars and synths streaking through the mix, while the equally impressive This Way springs from relatively simple loops into a forceful, defiant chorus. Missing Something, too, uses reverb to excellent effect, with Beth’s voice filling the room from my speakers, before the epic Patience seems to be one last emotional roar to close out the album. The change, it seems, has done Beth Rettig the world of good, with an album that builds on what she’d already achieved, and doesn’t waste a moment.
/Acts of Worship
Like many artists over the past year or two, ACTORS chose to postpone the release of their much-anticipated new album, instead using the downtime to refine things – and the time spent was well worth it. Acts of Worship is, to these ears, an even better album than the already brilliant It Will Come To You, continuing their exploration of post-punk, synthpop and goth-tinged songcraft. Where ACTORS succeed so well is that they never allow themselves to be pigeonholed in just one of those genres, and indeed they happily bust down any walls between them across this album. Lead single Love U More has a wistful touch to it, Jason Corbett’s vocals at the upper end of his range to great effect, while the frankly astonishing Killing Time (Is Over) at the mid-point of the album is one of the most thrilling songs I’ve heard all year, with a soaring, liquid chorus that I cannot wait to sing along to live. From start to finish, this is a fucking triumph.
/Flood EP & Flood Remixed EP
This Bristol-based collective has been making waves for a few years now (and indeed topped /Countdown/2019/Tracks with the savage Ruptured), and all that buzz has seen them signed to Houndstooth, an offshoot of the Fabric club empire. This is less surprising than it first appears – SCALPING is one of a new breed of artists that perhaps have done more than many to cross the streams between industrial, rock and techno, and I can only imagine how incredible the band would sound on Fabric’s legendary sound system. Then again, they sound great enough at home, and this four-track EP – accompanied by a similarly fascinating remix EP – should do get them even more fans. They often rely on the build-and-release structure of club tracks, but layer in propulsive drum patterns, a storm of electronics, bass and guitar. In other words, they are perhaps one of the first bands in a while – probably the first since the wild experimentation of BATTLES first blew our minds over a decade ago – to truly nail the idea of playing electronic music in a live, organic form. The results remain astounding, and culminate here in the ominous, squalling build of Empty Cascade that eventually explodes into a staggering, industrial rock maelstrom. The remixes – released a little later – take things in unexpected directions (particularly the furious drum’n’bass whirlwind that AQXDM turn Deadlock into), and as a band who improvise and rework with every step, they fit their brief brilliantly. This band are one to watch closely.
Odonis Odonis are a tough band for those of us writing about them to pin down. Now onto their fifth album, they’ve shown a healthy disregard for genre terms across their decade of activity, and the fantastic Spectrums keeps you guessing across the all-too-short thirty-three-minute runtime. That said, keeping the album short means that none of the ten songs wastes a second. The searing opener Trust and similarly blunt Salesmen that closes the album are exercises in punishing body music, and while that rhythmic power doesn’t manifest in every track, the striking intensity really does. Even the tracks that nudge into melodic synthpop have glowering darkness about them, while mid-paced tracks like Get Out have droning synths/treated guitars to accompany the howling vocals and punchy drums. Something about this album, too, harks back to the origins of industrial music. This is confrontational music, metaphorically grabbing you by the collar and daring you to look away, and in that sense, it links to the history of this genre, which was never meant to be nice easy-to-listen music. A powerful, essential release, that upon repeated listens brought it to the fore as one of the finest releases of 2021.
/Witch of the Vale
One of the first releases to qualify for this year’s list (it was released in December 2020 – remember this site’s annual lists cover 01-Dec to 30-Nov), and perhaps deserved a better-timed release and a whole lot more promotion, as this album is extraordinary. Early singles – many of which feature on this album, but clearly with some spit’n’polish in the production – pointed toward a duo who sounded absolutely nothing like any of their peers, taking a route that involved pitch-dark trip-hop, dark ambient, and Scottish folksong, and this album delivers on all of that promise in spades. Some songs – like the thundering title track, and the searing tirade of Undressed – take a heavier, more industrial touch to the sound, but crucially never bury Erin’s clear, powerful voice, keeping it as the necessary focal point all of the way. This is ghostly, atmospheric music, effortlessly creating the kind of atmosphere “Goth” bands try their hardest to invoke, and it is utterly, utterly beautiful and brilliant.
/Godspeed You! Black Emperor
/G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
Amid the gloom of the world right now, perhaps an entirely expected missive arrived from post-rock titans Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whose exceptional seventh album arrived with moments of rippling, furious power, but also gorgeous, delicate moments of empathy and hope. They may have first appeared on the scene apparently soundtracking the end of the world, but over the years their symphonic and cinematic, found-sound heavy take on post-rock has gained yet more nuance. This album is easily their best since the end of their hiatus, and maybe, just maybe, deserves a place upon the pantheon where earlier albums F♯ A♯ ∞ and Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven already reside. There is drama, furious guitar-led power, mournful strings, delicate ambience and a pretty much perfect flow across fifty-two minutes, as GY!BE nail every element of their sound in every moment. That said, at this stage, I can’t imagine that this exceptional album will change the minds of those that don’t already love what they do, but that’s their loss. In a year where I needed music that inspired and soothed, this album delivered everything I wanted and hoped for.
/The Art of Losing
Catherine Anne Davies, despite a well-received debut album five years ago, has spent a long time working in the shadow of others. Having worked (and toured) with Simple Minds, the Manics, Bernard Butler and others, her much-anticipated second album seemed to be endlessly delayed but was finally released earlier in the year to a rapturous reception. And too right, too. There’s a lot to take in, as well – particularly when you discover that the album deals with the death of family members, miscarriages, severe illness and misogyny and sexism. This is an album of catharsis, sure, but also one that manages to be a hugely rewarding listen amid the darkness.
But what is also striking is the variety of sounds on show. Show Your Face – written as a response to the Kavanagh hearings a couple of years back but clearly having rather wider resonance – is sparkling, catchy and proggy post-punk, while the brilliant title track is a clenched fist of utter defiance, surrounded by a sophisticated synth-rock soundtrack that swirls like a storm, and album highlight Unravel coils and twists its way through a few different styles, but at the heart, it is an outstanding song.
Gentle, piano and orchestral interludes pepper the album, too, that work as part of the whole, but the most striking songs come when Davies really pares things back. 5am is simply her and a piano, as she recounts previous instances of abuse and sexual mistreatment in her life in stark, unflinching detail – and is a horrifying reminder of what too many women go through. With The Boys is similarly just Davies’ voice and a Wurlitzer organ, this time hinting at the awful treatment by men in the music industry, and the feeling at the end of the album is one of outrage, that even as the truth has begun to be revealed by women in recent years, there is a strong feeling that they still aren’t being believed, and still are being forced into silence.
Davies speaks out, and through her musical brilliance, has made an extraordinary statement of an album, a tour de force of her skills and honesty, and the point where she steps out of the shadows of others, and takes the plaudits for her own work. In a second year so difficult on so many levels, an album of defiance in the face of adversity seems to be the obvious choice for the /amodelofcontrol.com album of the year.