Farewell, 2021: The Albums That Got Us Through Another Tough Year

2021 was tough. 2020 was tough too, of course, but 2021 felt like a real slog. We all know in our hearts that a new year means little more than writing a different number at the end of the date – it changes nothing about the state of the world, and likely only brings us closer to the impending apocalypse we seem to be barrelling towards. And yet something about it brings hope. Whether it’s an ancestral human trait to feel connected to the cycles of the Earth as we move into the brighter months, or merely the placebo effect of a perceived clean slate, a new year means a fresh start.

As such, we’re determined to make 2022 a good one. You can expect big things from us this year, and work is already underway on some projects we’re beyond excited for. Before we can truly engage with 2022 in any meaningful way, though, it’s time to metaphorically put 2021 behind us by saying thank you to the albums that got us through those hellish twelve months. The Astral Noize team have collectively put together this list of the records that we binged to get us through the tougher times – not all were released in 2021, but they were all some of our most played.

Lamp of Murmuur – Submission and Slavery

Both of the records I previewed for our Ones to Watch feature for 2021 disappointed in different ways. The new Darkthrone was, well… fine, I guess? But not the triumph I expected. And Inconcessus Lux Lucis signed with World Terror Committee, home to multiple NSBM bands, which is even more disappointing than an underwhelming record would be. Thank goodness then for Lamp Of Murmuur. I didn’t expect a new Lamp album so soon after last year’s genre-defining Heir To Ecliptical Romanticism, but Submission And Slavery more than delivered with its black metal meets ’80s goth rock, which built on many of the ideas in Heir…. The highlight is undoubtedly the dad-rock solo on ‘Deformed Erotic Visage’, an unexpected thrill in an album packed with them, showing just how much fun black metal can be. [SW]

Divide And Dissolve – Gas Lit

An eerie, intriguing mix of earth-splintering doom, gargantuan drone and bleak jazz, Divide And Dissolve‘s music is like no other’s, being visceral and arresting in a way that few acts can muster. The duo have set their sights specifically on dismantling white supremacist frameworks, demanding indigenous sovereignty and securing the liberation of people of colour. They channel these vital themes not through seething hardcore yells or poignant choruses, but through music alone. Brief spoken word sections lay down the theme, but for the most part the overwhelming heft of the guitars and the aching desperation of the saxophone drives home the weight of the message the band aims to deliver. As such, Gas Lit is a reminder of the inherent power of music, a universal language spoken by all that can channel and express all the pain, sorrow, grief and anger experienced by people across the world. [GP]

Portrayal Of Guilt – We Are Always Alone

Much of the appeal of blackened punk is tied up in sheer vibe: scorched tape production and bad photocopy aesthetics. Portrayal Of Guilt are what happens when an act has the confidence to leave these crutches behind and instead build a sound rooted in clarity, designed to showcase the sheer volume of musical ideas in every song on albums like We Are Always Alone, while somehow managing to sound more savage than everyone in your Bandcamp music feed. Portrayal Of Guilt had a prolific 2021, featuring on a number of splits and releasing a second album in November’s Christfucker, but We Are Always Alone is the clearest, most confident demonstration yet of their ability to throw black metal and hardcore into a tumble dryer to gratifying effect. [LJ]

Delving – Hirschbrunnen

Elder frontman Nick DiSalvo composed much of his solo project Delving’s album Hirschbrunnen during lockdown, ideas forming as he spent his days walking through the parks of Berlin amidst the new, hushed world we suddenly found ourselves in. The immersive, instrumental progressive music present on Hirschbrunnen reminds me of my own experience of lockdown; the solitude, the repetition and the sense that time was, for better or worse, beginning to lose meaning. Musically, the album has much in common with Elder’s The Gold And Silver Sessions, the songs unravelling gradually, taking the listener on a reflective journey. Hirschbrunnen is a wonderful and underrated album that I’ve found myself returning to time and time again this year on my own walks, during life’s quieter moments, and it contains music that will live with me for a very long time. [AP]

Marissa Nadler – The Path Of Clouds

Prolific singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler has always had the uncanny ability to find nuggets of poetry in both the humdrum of everyday existence and the doom and gloom that so often surrounds us, but this year’s The Path Of Clouds takes things to another level. For Nadler, lockdown meant writer’s block and binge-watching Unsolved Mysteries, and in the end one of these things ended up resolving the other. The Path Of Clouds is much more than a true crime record, though, because as she is often wont to do, Nadler buries deeper, finding the humanity and existential intrigue in stories of escaped Alcatraz inmates (‘Well Sometimes You Just Can’t Stay’), plane hijackers (title-track) and missing wilderness explorers (‘Bessie Did You Make It?’). There’s little to no interrogation of the implications of these events, nor the morality of those involved, just meditations on destiny, control and what it means to simply vanish – that thinnest of lines between an ending and a new beginning. Musically it varies somewhat from Nadler’s other works, with a greater reliance on piano (which Nadler taught herself to play in lockdown) and an impressive list of collaborators (Simon Raymonde, Mary Lattimore, Emma Ruth Rundle, Milky Burgess), but it is still tangibly a Nadler creation, turning every topic she explores into an ethereal masterpiece with intense relatability. [GP]

BackxWash – I Lie Here Buried With My Rings And My Dresses

The worst thing aggressive music can be is boring, but occasionally we’re lucky enough to hear something so invigorating that we realise just how bored we were until that point, and so it is with I Lie Here Buried With My Rings And My Dresses. The album deals with incredibly personal and painful subject matter, to the extent it can feel inappropriate to ‘enjoy’ it, but here is Backxwash in absolute ascendancy in terms of production, rhyme patterns, lyrics, and musical ideas. Songs swerve in and out of crisp harsh noise, Zulu healer samples, and jagged industrial guitars, all deployed with an enormous heft that matches Backxwash’s driving delivery. [LJ]

Wowod – Yarost’ I Proshchenie

There was such a deluge of fantastic, different records in 2021 that it’s been tough to keep up and even tougher to decide what warrants being spoken about in the context of ‘top’ anything! Whittle it down to one that got me through? Near impossible, but what I will do is whittle it to one I think more people should be speaking about… Yarost’ I Proshchenie, by Wowod. The record dropped on Church Road early on in the year – cases were on the rise, Christmas had been ripped to shreds and we were in the pressure cooking joys of national lockdown. This album, with its blend of The Ocean-style post-metal and angrier-than-a-bulldog-with-a-mouthful-of-bees grind/PV akin to Nails (without the toxic posturing) took my shitty January and smashed it to bits; it got me through my work grind, it lifted my spirits when I felt lost and it helped me cope when I couldn’t get my daughter to sleep at 2am after she had woken up and refused to get back down. I have returned to the album over and over this year and every single time, without fail, it works to make things feel better. [SY]

Pup – Morbid Stuff

Pup are a band I saw live as a support act once when I was a teenager and enjoyed for a time thereafter, but subsequently forgot about until this year, when I quite randomly stumbled across their Spotify page and hit play on their 2019 album Morbid Stuff. It’s been on heavy rotation ever since. To me, Morbid Stuff demonstrates the ways in which pop-punk should be maturing with its audience. Noughties pop-punk lyrics were often obnoxious in their selfishness, and that bitterness remains here, but it’s less concerned with getting laid and instead spends time dwelling on mortality, mental health and, in the band’s own words, “the mind-numbing reality of a godless existence”. Morbid Stuff is wall-to-wall bangers full of cathartic shouted choruses and anthemic highs that feel glorious to bellow along to after a couple of drinks. ‘See You At Your Funeral’ is without a doubt my anthem of the year too – an all time classic breakup song filled with all the resentment I felt after my own messy break up. Fuck you 2021. [GP]

Aerosol Jesus – Survive

The global pandemic placed us all into a state of stasis and for many the absence of live music made it an even tougher ordeal. When I first heard the stunning Survive back in April the prospect of going to a gig or travelling to meet up with friends still seemed a long way off. The dark themes present on Survive resonated with me from my first listen; after a year of lockdown and solitude, there was great comfort to be found in these powerful, cathartic songs. So, when the second part of this year saw our live scene slowly return, travelling to see Aerosol Jesus perform tracks from Survive at The Black Heart in London in September, in support of the sublime Underdark and Bismuth, became a true highlight, one made all the more special by seeing Tanya Byrne of Bismuth get on stage to accompany the band in playing my favourite track from Survive, the devastating, crushing ‘Drown’. Survive has become an album that will always remind me that even in times of darkness, we mustn’t give up hope, that there is a light at the end. It reminds me of where I’ve been and the strength that’s needed to go forward. [AP]

Mare Cognitum – Solar Paroxysm

Mare Cognitum have been mapping the far reaches of space and time for ten years now, but in 2021 they crashed explosively back to earth. Solar Paroxysm takes their characteristic grandeur and sweeping palette, and smashes them into the ground, layering on death metal churn that makes these five songs immediately memorable and pleasingly accessible, with a substantial dose of added textural grit. Ideally consumed whole in a single sitting to fully embrace the scope and narrative of the project, Solar Paroxysm is pristine celestial machinery powered by a blast furnace. [LJ]

Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power

Though I’ve never cared too much for Halsey’s music before, news she was working with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (so, Nine Inch Nails) piqued my interest. The resulting album was a real surprise – powerful, raw, and hugely enjoyable, If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power demonstrates all involved at the peak of their powers. Reznor and Ross bring all their experience and ideas to the table, providing a wildly varied backing for Halsey’s deeply personal pop songs. Though Halsey becoming a mother informs much of the album, you don’t need that context to appreciate its strength or cathartic nature – the performances of Reznor, Ross, and Halsey are more than enough to make If I Can’t Have Love… stand out. [SW]

Kowloon Walled City – Piecework

The music of California’s Kowloon Walled City has always seemed to be a unique sort of experiment in restraint, with songs that saunter without wallowing. Piecework takes this experiment one step further, making use of negative space in each of its seven tracks and yet also displaying concise songwriting as opposed to the lengthy ten-minute tracks you might expect from a band so content to let each riff ring out. There’s a sense of emptiness that is vivid throughout Piecework, effortlessly captured by the album cover – an image from photographer Melyssa Anishnabie of a desolate room in a building that was likely once a home but is now just a house. It seems to suggest the inherent loneliness of a place that once held significance but is now barren. Piecework is a moody album that’s comforting in the way it embraces the gloom, but just as the “stars shine through tin on plaster” on the title-track, it also offers hope. [GP]

Victory Over The Sun – Nowherer

Have you listened to this record? Genuinely, because if you haven’t you did something wrong in 2021 and you need to rectify that. Nowherer is one of those albums which defies every expectation. ‘Microtonal’ you say, okay so this is going to be an all-jarring, completely ugly listen? No, it’s beautiful and harmonious. Okay, so it’s using the microtonal aspects to produce non-western harmony which is still pretty? Yeah, it is – but it’s also folding that in on itself to produce jazz-inflected riffing that calls to mind the sort of fretless bass which slinks all over Atheist‘s material. It’s ruthless and heavy, and as head-bangable as any ripping metal classic you can name. Seriously, this album will melt your brain both through it’s sheer adventurousness and non-traditional composition and through sheer earth-shattering joy. This album is definitely going to be one of those records which is cited as a touchpoint by many, many musicians as the years unfold – I think that we will see more and more microtonal creations flourishing, pushing what we conceptualise music to be in the west out of its framework and into something far more expansive. Also, if watching Vivian beam the entire time she riffs through her tracks (she’s uploaded some playthroughs on the olde interwebs) doesn’t cheer you up then I reckon you’ve got a defective happiness gland. Listen to this record, order a cheap guitar and get ripping out those frets – we have a new metallic-master to ape. [SY]

Stornoway – Tales From Terra Firma

It’s 2014, I’ve just been given my Dad’s old record player, but I’ve got nothing to play on it. So I hop to the local HMV just as they’ve started restocking vinyl. There’s a small section of new releases and old classics, but it doesn’t go much deeper than Appetite For Destruction and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, so I’m surprised to find an album from Oxfordshire folk-pop outfit Stornoway. I recognise the name only from one or two previous singles I happened upon and found pleasant enough. Fuck it, I need something to play, so I pick it up and take it with me to university to kickstart my fledgling record collection. After the heartwarming opener, ‘Take Me As I Am’, a recount of frontman Brian Briggs’ wedding day that offers the hopeful promise that true love does exist, and the gorgeous ‘Farewell Appalachia’, with its warm but moody melody paired with a gentle strolling rhythm, I was hooked. The record ended up getting me through a tough first year of uni, and has helped me through countless rough periods since. 2021 was no different. Stornoway are intensely lovable, a band with an obvious love of Celtic and British folk music but with a modern accessibility, who are capable of expressing unbridled joy but not averse to finding solace in the darker moments of existence as well. It’s a shame they ever split, but Briggs’ most unrock’n’roll reasoning – his career as an ornithologist and wildlife conservationist – only makes the band all the more endearing. [GP]

To see our writers’ top albums of 2021, click here.

Words: Luke Jackson [LJ], George Parr [GP], Adam Pegg [AP], Simon Young [SY]

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