SBR Top 7 Avant-Garde Metal Albums of 2021

We decided to create a new category for our end-of-year accolades for 2021. A multitude of artists operate in an experimental paradigm of metal, many of which produce the most innovative music in the underground. The current debate about post-metal being another name for avant-garde metal merits consideration, but we feel the latter term deserves a category of its own.

The origins of avant-garde metal begin with Celtic Frost’s 1987 masterpiece, Into the Pandemonium, but the artists associated with the label since then have little in common other than a determination to bring unorthodox musical styles and instruments into established heavy metal parameters. How do you put Naked City, Mr Bungle, Maudlin of the Well and Igorrr into the same collective?

Avant-garde metal evolves and redefines itself as trends come and go and the experimental becomes the mainstream. Many would have viewed Helmet as avant-garde in 1989 – four men with short hair and university degrees playing drop-tuned riffs with heavy syncopation, jazz phrasings, and hardcore aggression would seem strange in the days of hair metal. Now it’s such a familiar sound and one that received mainstream recognition thanks to the rise of alternative metal and nu metal in the 1990s. Nobody would call Helmet’s music avant-garde these days.

After much deliberation, we shortlisted twenty-three records from 2021. Australian experimentalists, Twelve Foot Ninja, did not make the list because we feel their magnificent new album is a boost for alternative metal rather than the avant-garde. These are the top seven picks from the staff at Scream Blast Repeat…

7. Atlas – UKKO

What we said at the time: “The key to Atlas is their worship of the snow-filled landscapes and crystal-clear water streams of their homeland. Listen to the winter chill breeze and needle-drop effects blustering through the sparse acoustic guitars and Finnish folk harmonies of ‘Talvi’. This could be Dead Can Dance if you close your eyes. But when they blast, they do it with the meanest and chunkiest eight-string guitar drops this side of Humanity’s Last Breath.”

Country: Finland

Style: Avant-garde metalcore

Released: 10/12/2021

Label: Long Branch Records

Read the original SBR review here.

6.Five the Hierophant – Through Aureate Void

What we said at the time: “Every inward breath from the saxophonist’s diaphragm presents a new paradigm of delayed pleasure. Every distorted guitar note captures the grungy tone of The Melvins… You can feel your ego slipping away and the calories burning from your body with every minute. Man, this is like receiving enlightenment from a spiritual deity.”

Country: England

Style: Experimental doom jazz

Released: 26/02/2021

Label: Dark Essence Records

Read the original SBR review here.

5. Aquilus – Bellum I

What we said at the time: “You cannot but admire the power and purpose of the strings in conjunction with the guitar distortion and ferocious vocals… Listen to the lighter moments of clarity among the transcendent aggression – could we call this atmospheric baroque metal? Blast beats, violins and horns make for an enchanting but sinister arrangement. Everything is about creating new possibilities of climax and perspicacity in the world of Aquilus.”

Country: Australia

Style: Neo-classical atmospheric metal

Released: 03/12/2021

Label: Blood Music

Read the original SBR review here.

4. Psykup – Hello Karma

What we said at the time: “The listener will notice on opener, ‘Nothing to Sell’, that Psykup are much sharper and brutal on their latest offering, like a metallic hardcore band from the late 90s hearing Dillinger Escape Plan for the first time and merging it with the depraved ‘murder metal’ of Macabre. Those worried they might abandon their Mr Bungle origins need not worry after one listen to ‘Masturbation Failed’, which retains the spirit of Mike Patton’s boys from 1990 and updates it with the brutal production of Kataklysm’s latest record.”

Country: France

Style: Eclectic metal

Released: 05/02/2021

Label: L’Autre Distribution

Read the original SBR review here.

3. Cicada The Burrower – Corpseflower

What we said at the time: “This album is torment personified; the music has an eternal quality to it that makes you want to keep walking onwards in the false belief that the horizon will eventually disappear. It won’t. Those things we put off with procrastination and trepidation will one day catch up with us… It may be more of a jazz record embracing darkwave and blackgaze than a black metal album reaching out to avant-garde influences, but Corpseflower is that rare thing – an original LP that appeals to metal fans and leftfield experimentalists alike.”

Country: USA

Style: Avant-garde black metal

Released: 23/04/2021

Label: Blue Bedroom Records

Read the original SBR review here.

2. Thy Catafalque – Vadak

What we said at the time: “Those who enjoyed the avant-garde jazz and bizarre new wave dalliance of 2020’s Naiv LP but lamented the absence of extreme metal will feel their cheeks widen when they listen to Vadak. On this studio effort, it’s clear that Kátai rolled up his sleeves and dusted down his guitar like a born-again metal acolyte. This is a heavy record, full of technical thrash passages and head-banging drum patterns. Of course, the approach is still unorthodox, almost like if Apollo 440 or The Chemical Brothers decided to do a blackened thrash record.”

Country: Hungary

Style: Experimental/Avant-garde metal

Released: 25/06/2021

Label: Season of Mist

Read the original SBR review here.

1. Voices – Breaking The Trauma Bond

What we said at the time: “By the sounds of it, they spent lockdown exploring their post-punk vinyl collection and plotting how to redefine the left-field boundaries of extreme metal. Those who feared they might abandon the malevolent strain of blackened death metal running through their music have nothing to fear. Breaking the Trauma Bond is as challenging as anything issued in their name to date and just as mesmerising… We’ve been waiting for a band to discover the formula that can bring light to extreme metal and genuine neurotic despair to the aggression of the music. Breaking the Trauma Bond is the record that can do both these things. This is a classic in the making.”

Country: England

Style: Avant-garde extreme metal

Released: 26/11/2021

Label: Church Road Records

Read the original SBR review here.

Honourable mentions

Epiphanic Truth – Dark Triad: Bitter Psalms to a Sordid Species (Label: Church Road Records)

Lotus Thrones – Lovers In Wartime (Label: Disorder Records)

Portal – Avow (Label: Profound Lore)

Sea Mosquito – Fire, Magic & Venom (Label: Onism Productions)

Varmia – bal Lada (Label: Self-released)