The multi-instrumentalist is no longer a rarity thanks to the development of home technology and the digitisation of music. Thirty years ago, Trent Reznor was an anomaly; now the world of heavy music boasts hundreds of top-class musicians who write and record everything for an album release. Sometimes they even produce it.
Of course, we want to celebrate the finest musicians of 2021, and being a virtuoso on one instrument does not exclude entry on this list. Drummers like David Haley (The Amenta/Werewolves/Psycroptic), Vlad Ulasevich (Jinjer) and Tim Stewart (Blindfolded and Led to the Woods) are worthy of a place in our top seven, but we put a strong emphasis on composers when choosing the individuals that dazzled us in 2021.
New names appeared this year, most of whom should go on to leave their mark as cult artists over the next decade. Colin Jenkins (Christ the Bait), Northmaan, Martin Haumann (Mother of All), Eric Smith (End You), and Cameron Davis (Cicada the Burrower/Devour Every Star) spring to mind. Meanwhile, veterans like James Fogarty (Ewigkeit) and Carline Van Roos (Aythis) continue to write and perform all instruments on their records. The shortlist is a long one.
Ladies and gentlemen, we present you with our top seven musicians of 2021…
7. William Melsness (The Ember, the Ash)
Canadian multi-instrumentalist, William Melsness, surprised the black metal underground with his sophomore effort this year. Dropping the depressive black metal sound in favour of a symphonic deathcore approach met with predictable dismay in some circles but impressed the staff at Scream Blast Repeat. Now signed to Prosthetic Records, you can understand why they took a punt on The Ember, the Ash, in no small part due to Melsness’ talent for arrangement and thirst for iconoclastic experimentation. His riffs are sharp, his beats are brutal, and his piano splashes are subtle. And wait until you hear the ferocity of his hardcore vocals…
Read the original SBR review of Fixation by The Ember, the Ash here.
6. Greg Eleftheriou (Scar of the Sun)
Greek prog-metal quintet, Scar of the Sun, formed in London as undergraduates at the turn of the century. Guitarist and chief song-writer, Greg Eleftheriou, is a respected composer for film and television as well as a master of music theory. A fan of the ambient guitar tones in metal, Eleftheriou prides himself on his melodic choruses and introspective intros to balance his love of heavy riffing. Scar of the Sun waste not a single note on their latest album, thanks to the precision and expressive mood of their composer.
5. Lee McKinney (Born of Osiris)
Lee McKinney found time to write eight new Born of Osiris songs in addition to their latest record and also finished two future solo albums during the Covid-19 lockdown. The Chicago eight-stringer showed once again that his ear for scintillating lead guitar melodies is up there with the best on songs like ‘White Nile’, while his polyrhythms remain as chunky as ever. Like Veil of Maya’s Marc Okubo, McKinney is a constant stream of creativity who accepts no boundaries to his musical vision.
Read the original SBR review of Angel or Alien by Born of Osiris here.
4. Horace Rosenqvist (Aquilus)
We had to wait ten years for it, but Aquilus’ masterful Bellum I exceeded expectations upon release. Australian neo-classical composer, Horace Rosenqvist, writes atmospheric black metal with a savage roar and no thought for the conventions of simple verse-chorus formulas. It can be the caress of violin bows, violent blast beats, grinding metal guitars or imperious horns that lead you into enchantment, but nothing is predictable or sterile in an Aquilus song. Apparently, Rosenqvist has Bellum II ready, but whether we see that in the next couple of years is anyone’s guess.
Read the original SBR review of Bellum I by Aquilus here.
3. Dan Briggs (Between the Buried and Me)
Bassist and prog-metal acolyte, Dan Briggs, is an essential part of the Between the Buried and Me (BTBAM) juggernaut that produced Colors II this year. As resident keyboardist, backing vocalist, and author of his own monstrous riffs on the seven-string as well as five-string neck, Briggs is just as comfortable playing jazz fusion as metallic hardcore or death metal. Indeed, prog metal anoraks will be asking when the next Nova Collective album with Haken’s Richard Henshall will be released. It’s hard to stand out in a band with two world-class guitarists, but the Pennsylvanian is the star performer on BTBAM’s latest record.
2. Tamás Kátai (Thy Catafalque)
Hungarian experimentalist, Tamás Kátai, is avant-garde metal’s outstanding composer of the twenty-first century. A former NHS worker in Scotland and renowned photographer, Kátai, continues to expand the frontiers of what is possible in heavy music. Listeners of his latest Thy Catafalque album will marvel at the stellar guitar work and inventive use of synthetic beats. No body tries to categorise the Hungarian’s art but all feel inducted when they understand it.
1. Fabban (Aborym)
He was once the future of black metal as its most celebrated disrupter, but Italian composer, Fabban (aka Fabrizio Giannese), spends his days writing industrial music with trip hop downbeats and alt-metal rhythms. Now a confident baritone vocalist and veteran studio engineer/producer, Aborym’s founding member returned with a magnificent album this year to prove that he still has a lot to offer in the contemporary scene. Happier and no longer shackled to the concerns of the TRVE black metal crowd, Fabban’s song-writing is at a peak right now. He might prefer the piano to the bass guitar these days, but the author of 2001’s legendary Fire Walk With Us record experienced a creative resurgence in 2021.