Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Best of 2021: Trivium, BLS, Sumo Cyco, Flotsam and Jetsam, Ad Infinitum, Cody Jinks

I’ve been pretty quiet in 2021, and that’s because it was a year of great change for me. I made a career shift well out of my comfort zone in January, and it was a pretty intense 12 months – but intense in a good way. Because of that, I didn’t get the opportunity to write much about the music that moved me, and there was a lot of it, so I didn’t want to let it all pass without at least some small acknowledgement. I’ve got a lot to say for one best of list, so without further ado, here’s a look at my Best of 2021:

Honorable Mentions

 ANTI-MORTEM – ANTI-MORTEM: This was probably my most anticipated album of the year. I loved their 2014 debut New SouthernNew Southern, and the first single from this record, “Old Washita,” recaptured that grooving Southern sound that hit so close to home for me. It sticks out like a sore thumb on this album, though. The rest of the record is mostly good, but very different than what I expected. The heavy guitar riffs from Nevada Romo are still there, but it has a more modern feel with some electronics thrown in – and Larado Romo’s powerful voice is too often disguised under megaphones or effects. 

Standout songs: “Old Washita,” “STFU,” “Money”

Get Anti-Mortem.

BEAST IN BLACK – DARK CONNECTION: Beast in Black’s last album From Hell With Love was an absolute blast. The mingling of power metal and 1980s electronic pop just hit me in all the right feels. My next Best of 2021 honorable mention offers much of the same, though there’s nothing here quite as catchy as the title track or “Die by the Blade” from the last album. There’s an interesting contrast in the two cover songs, Manowar’s “Battle Hymn” and Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care about Us.” Oddly, the Jackson cover is by far the stronger of the two. 

Standout songs: “Blade Runner,” “Hardcore,” “Moonlight Rendezvous,” “Revengeance Machine” (despite my obvious objections as an editor), “To the Last Drop of Blood,” “They Don’t Care about Us”

Get Dark Connection.

BURNING WITCHES – THE WITCH OF THE NORTH: I’ve become a big fan of this band, which I often jokingly refer to as Judas Priestess, over the last few years. They continue to deliver some fantastic classic metal here. I secretly believe they hate their singers, though, based on cover choices. On previous albums they’ve returned to Dio (“Holy Diver”) and Judas Priest (“Jawbreaker”), and here they take on Savatage with “Hall of the Mountain King” (featuring a guest appearance by ‘Tage guitarist Chris Caffery.) It’s a tall order, but Laura Guldemond is up to the task on her second album with the band. All-in-all, this is another solid album worthy of attention from anyone who loves the likes of Priest, Maiden and Dio. 

Standout songs: “The Witch of the North,” “Flight of the Valkyries,” “Thrall,” “Hall of the Mountain King”

Get The Witch of the North.

IRON MAIDEN – SENJUTSU: This seems to be a love or hate offering for most Iron Maiden fans, but I’m somewhere in the middle. I initially really liked it, but Senjutsu hasn’t held up over the months since its release. I liken this to mid-’90s Stephen King, when no one was editing him and every book he wrote was a 1,200-page doorstop that could have been a pretty good 500-pager. Iron Maiden needs an editor. I think there are some really good pieces of music on this album, but Senjutsu could have used someone to ask questions like, “does that intro that repeats the same phrase over and over really need to be two minutes long?” or “shouldn’t we get to the catchy part of the song before the four-and-a-half minute mark?” I love the fact that they played with some things, like the blues-rock feel on “The Writing on the Wall,” but the runtime on this one just feels eternal. 

Standout songs: “Stratego,” “The Writing on the Wall,” “Days of Future Past,” “The Time Machine”

Get Senjutsu.

UNTO OTHERS – STRENGTH: In my sophomore year of college, I had a roommate who introduced me to the dark, gothic side of late 1980s/early 1990s alternative and industrial, bands like Sisters of Mercy. This album takes me right back to that dorm room. At times, it’s thrashy, with even the occasional light death growl, then there are the warbly guitar chords and a vocal delivery straight out of the early ‘90s. And don’t forget the hardcore and punk influences, particularly the Misfits. It’s a strange and interesting melting pot. The only reason that it didn’t make my Top 10 Best of 2021 list is because it’s not something I would listen to every day. But when the mood is right, this is an incredible record. 

Standout songs: “Heroin,” “When Will God’s Work Be Done,” “No Children Laughing Now,” “Just a Matter of Time,” “Hell is for Children”

Get Strength.

Top 10 Best of 2021

No. 10. CODY JINKS – MERCY: I haven’t listened to as much country/Southern rock over the last couple of years as I usually do, but Cody Jinks caught my ear in 2021, and I’ve been exploring his catalog with its blend of classic 1970s country, the red dirt sound and a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a nice mix of hell-raising outlaw numbers, heartfelt love songs and tunes with messages worth pondering for a few minutes. “Nobody Knows How to Read” hits particularly hard given the state of the world. 

Standout songs: “All It Cost Me was Everything,” “Hurt You,” “Feeding the Flames,” “Nobody Knows How to Read,” “When Whiskey Calls the Shots”

Get Mercy.

No. 9. JINJER –  WALLFLOWERS: Jinjer continues with the variety that they do best on this record, from the raging album opener “Call Me a Symbol” to entrancing melodic pieces like “Vortex,” often covering that range in the same song. While the latter tune does seem more than a little like an attempt to recreate their breakout song “Pisces,” it’s still a very solid offering. The band really shines to me when they’re punctuating their most melodic passages with snarling, djenty heaviness. They even throw in a little bit of commercial rock sound on this record in “Disclosure!,” where Tatiana Shmailyuk brings an almost pop delivery to the vocals before going into full rage mode. Jinjer continues to be one of the more interesting bands on the scene for me. 

Standout songs: “Vortex,” “Disclosure!,” “Copycat,” “Pearls and Swine,” “Wallflower”

Get Wallflowers.

No. 8. AD INFINITUM – CHAPTER II: LEGACY: I fully admit that I’m a complete Melissa Bonny fanboy. Not only does Ad Infinitum make the list, but she was featured in two other favorite tunes this year, the debut single of her side project Dark Side of the Moon and Feuerschwanz’ over-the-top cover of Manowar’s “Warriors of the World United” (which also featured ex-Gloryhammer vocalist Thomas Winkler, so there was almost no way that I could not like it). Ad Infinitum’s sophomore album is, perhaps, a bit more restrained than their debut, leaning a little more on simple melody than the big symphonics of Chapter I – though those are certainly still found here. That’s not a bad strategy at all when you have a voice like Bonny’s up front that can shift from angelic to demonic on a dime. 

Standout songs: “Unstoppable,” “Inferno,” “Your Enemy,” “Animals,” “My Justice, Your Pain”

Get Chapter II: Legacy.

No. 7. THE DUST CODA – MOJO SKYLINE: Ever wondered what Aerosmith (I’m talking the awesome early Aerosmith) would sound like if Chris Cornell fronted the band? Well, the Dust Coda gives you just a little taste of that on an album filled with bluesy hard rock that evokes the classic sounds of the ‘70s, but manages to do so without sounding like they’re trying to copy it. There’s a ton of influence from Boston’s favorite hard rockers, and vocalist John Drake does have a similar tone and timbre to the late, great Cornell. It really comes together on songs like “She’s Gone” and “Jimmy 2 Times.” They also call on other classic influences, such as Zeppelin and Ted Nugent. In fact, “Best Believe It” might be a better Nuge song than he’s recorded in a while. It’s a powerful and potent mix that makes these Aussies one of my favorite discoveries of the year. 

Standout songs: “Breakdown,” “Limbo Man,” “Jimmy 2 Times,” “She’s Gone,” “Best Believe It”

Get Mojo Skyline.

No. 6. DURBIN – THE BEAST AWAKENS: So, yes, I now own an LP by an American Idol alum. I have mixed feelings about that, but The Beast Awakens is so much fun that I don’t give a damn. It’s a pure love letter from James Durbin to the classic heavy metal of the 1980s, particularly Ronnie James Dio, who is referenced both musically throughout the album and lyrically on “Kings before You,” which features guest appearances by pro wrestler and Fozzy frontman Chris Jericho and guitarist Phil Demmel (Machine Head, Vio-lence). The 12 tracks on this Best of 2021 honoree have more cheese than a Swiss Colony catalog (hey, we’re in the ‘80s, we might as well go full ‘80s), but The Beast Awakens is an absolute blast. It sounds like Durbin is having just as much fun as we are. After a series of post-Idol albums that were aimed more at airplay (yes, I sampled them for comparison and regretted it), it sounds like Durbin is actually making music he’s passionate about here. 

Standout songs: “The Prince of Metal,” “Kings Before You,” “The Beast Awakens,” “Necromancer,” “Calling out for Midnight”

Get The Beast Awakens.

No. 5. ROB ZOMBIE – THE LUNAR INJECTION KOOL AID ECLIPSE CONSPIRACY: Rob Zombie’s last few outings have been surprisingly solid, bringing me back into the fan fold after he had nearly lost me. This album with a typically long-winded title continues that trend. The music that Zombie and guitarist John 5 have created is all over the place: There are throwbacks to White Zombie’s Astrocreep album on a number of songs; there’s a ZZ Top-influenced blues rock number (“Boom-Boom-Boom”); there’s a twangy country-tinged and Primus-inspired knee-slapper (“18th Century Cannibals, Excitable Morlocks and a One-Way Ticket on the Ghost Train”); a weed anthem (“Shake Your Ass, Smoke Your Grass”); and even a tribute to 1970s blaxploitation horror film Blacula. It’s wild, it’s weird and it’s Rob Zombie at his best. 

Standout songs: “The Triumph of King Freak,” “The Ballad of Sleazy Rider,” “The Eternal Struggles of the Howling Man,” “Boom-Boom-Boom,” “Crow Killer Blues”

Get The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy,

No. 4. FLOTSAM AND JETSAM – BLOOD IN THE WATER: The old-school thrash bands just keep delivering surprises. While a lot of Best of 2021 lists will probably talk about the new Exodus album, it was Blood in the Water that delivered the goods for me. Flotsam & Jetsam has always been a hit and miss band, as far as my listening is concerned. The albums I like, I absolutely love; the others, I don’t generally dislike, but I could take them or leave them. This one falls firmly in the first category. It’s pummeling thrash with Eric “AK” Knutson’s underrated vocals soaring over and accentuating the more melodic side of the music. As always with Flots, there are a couple of songs that miss the mark, but not many. This is everything I want in a Flotsam & Jetsam record. 

Standout songs: “Blood in the Water,” “Burn the Sky,” “Brace for Impact,” “The Walls,” “Seven Seconds ‘til the End of the World”

Get Blood in the Water.

No. 3. SUMO CYCO – INITIATION: I never thought I’d find myself singing along to a chorus that started with the words “ooh-na-na,” yet here we are. I’d heard of Sumo Cyco, but wasn’t really familiar with their work before I randomly clicked on the video for first single “Bystander” when it was released early in 2021. I initially wrote it off as too poppy. A few hours later, I was still humming it, so I revisited and started to explore their back catalog. They’ve been a staple in my shuffle ever since. Sever, the Harley Quinn-esque alter ego of former pop singer Skye Sweetnam, delivers the songs compellingly and convincingly whether calling on her pop past or screaming her lungs out – and the riffs and compositions of Matt Drake fit her schizophrenic personality perfectly. At times, Sumo Cyco does go a little too far to the pop side for my liking, as on songs like “M.I.A.,” but when they hit the right balance it’s undeniable. 

Standout songs: “Bystander,” “Bad News,” “No Surrender,” “Cyclone,” “Power & Control,” “This Dance is Doomed,” “Sun Eater” (bonus track on the deluxe edition)

Get Initiation.

No. 2. BLACK LABEL SOCIETY – DOOM CREW INC.: This was a very pleasant surprise. I’ve felt that Zakk Wylde’s last couple of outings with Black Label Society have been a little lackluster and phoned in. Doom Crew, Inc. is the first BLS album to give a bit of the spotlight to a second guitarist, Dario Lorina, and he seems to have injected a huge hit of energy into the record. Don’t get it wrong. This still sounds just like Black Label Society. There’s no off-the-wall stylistic change. It’s heavily Sabbath-influenced metal with a little bit of Southern and blues rock flair and a whole lot of pentatonic pyrotechnics from Wylde. But, damn, is it solid stuff. For the first time in a while, they sound inspired. The largely simplistic riffs (a la Wylde hero Tony Iommi) have a lot of bite, and there’s a fresh feeling here that I haven’t really felt on a Black Label Society album since Stronger than Death, 20 years ago. 

Standout songs: “Set You Free,” “Destroy & Conquer,” “You Made Me Want to Live,” “End of Days,” “Forsaken,” “Gospel of Lies,” “Gather All My Sins”

Get Doom Crew Inc.

No. 1. TRIVIUM – IN THE COURT OF THE DRAGON: No one is more surprised than me by this pick for Best of 2021. Trivium has always been one of those bands that’s just hanging out there in the metal world for me. I was a bigger fan of the since-removed “BOAT! RUDDER! STRANGE MOUNTAIN!” misheard lyrics video of their song “Pull Harder on the Strings of Your Martyr” than I was of most of Trivium’s actual catalog. They’ve had songs here and there that I liked, but Trivium has just never quite connected with me. In fact, my favorite record of theirs prior to this one was 2006’s The Crusade, a thrash/mainstream rock mashup that most fans would probably rate among the band’s worst. But In the Court of the Dragon punched me right in the chest from the opening screams of the title track. Trivium offers up a nice set of hard-hitting thrashy riffs, big melodic choruses and the occasional surprise. “Feast of Fire,” for example, is more of a straight-up rock tune. “The Shadow of the Abattoir,” minus the breakdown and screams in the middle, could be a better Iron Maiden song than any on Senjutsu – and closing track “The Phalanx” is just epic. Maybe I should revisit Trivium’s catalog because In the Court of the Dragon kills from start to finish. 

Standout songs: Pretty much all of them.

Get In the Court of the Dragon

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