Ok so this year’s different because there’s a colossal ass elephant in the room. You know some reviewers will be all over it while others will pretend to ignore it like it’s not even there. Iron Maiden released an album this year, that’s final, we can’t ignore it. If you start pretending Maiden wasn’t one of the greatest this year, you’re lying not only to yourself but to your readers. So, we’re getting that part over with. Down below will be a list of the 20-ish (I haven’t decided yet) greatest songs released in 2021 and the only thing you know for goddam certain in a year where Maiden released an album is that Maiden will be on that list.
So, 2021 was a challenge in plenty of ways. A year of struggle for many of us. We were just a day or two in, and some fuckwits decided democracy was way shit and then my boy Jon Schaffer kinda ended up probably not releasing another Iced Earth album in a while. Or ever. Also we all though this whole covid business would be over, but it’s not because thanks a lot anti-vaxxers and all the asshats that decided caring about other people not dying was leftist agenda to turn the frickin frogs gay. But, we got here, to the end of 2021. Finally.
And these are Mr. Torture’s picks for the best songs released this year, as experienced by a fan of mainly power metal, prog, progpower, heavy and various melodic styles. As always, if your favorite isn’t on the list, toss me a comment and let me know how big an idiot I am.
Silver Talon - Decadence and Decay
Inspired by the heavy metal classics Kill All Kings takes cues from both the likes of Judas Priest and King Diamond, and even hints of Bay Area thrash vibes. It comes from Silver Talon’s as of yet underappreciated debut and it’s an absolute banger that should satisfy the needs of any fan of old school heavy metal. Kickass riffage sets it off and then keeps rolling like a freight train studded with metal spikes. A mean ass attitude takes things to the next level, embodied by the burning bass lines and bulldozer drums just smashing all opposition. It has the speed, it has the attitude and it has all the technical chops to put Silver Talon on the board. If they can churn out quality flesh like this on a regular basis, Kill All Kings will be in mighty good company. And a bunch of dead kings.
Rhapsody of Fire - Glory for Salvation
I’ll Be Your Hero doesn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, and it’s a far cry from the band’s own emerald glories of the past, but it’s still a fine, high flying tune that tosses in just a little bit of everything we love the guys for. The rhythm section pounding, marching as Staropoli’s keyboards add that incredibly melodramatic flair no one else has emulated sets things off, and in comes Roberto de Micheli’s guitar antics, flashy and big sounding; that short but sweet ass guitar solo delivering everything just right - though perhaps not quite enough of it, as you end up wanting more. Probably the band’s most accessible tune to date I’ll Be Your Hero is definitely very much a pop song with Rhapsody of Fire’s theatricality on it, and a vessel for Giacomo Voli to muster all the Giacomo Voli he can dish out. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.
Powerwolf - Call of the Wild
From the moment Dancing with the Dead slaps open the Maiden influence is immediate. It’s in the Greywolf brothers’ riffing and that gut slap approach. The ever more popular wolf pack then of course make the four minute smasher their absolute very own, the main features as always Attila Dorn’s colossal vocal delivery in that massive, catchy chorus and Falk Maria Schlegel’s churchly organ that drapes the entire song in that larger than life feel Powerwolf are very much all about. The solo battling right there in the middle is invigorating, revitalizing the song just as you thought it couldn’t get any more energetic. It’s not Powerwolf’s greatest tune, but it’s definitely the best (by far) from their latest album, and a great homage all in their own style.
Skeletoon - The 1.21 Gigawatts Club
More Italians on the list. You can never have too many power metal Italians on your list. Skeletoon have churned out a name for themselves as a happy metal staple, and Holding On is all about that. It’s the opener from their Back to the Future inspired album, and it subverts expectations in all the right ways. The guitar leads are just catchy as all hell, blasting 1.21 gigawatts on top of those speedy drums and everything just clicks. Now, the intro is flashy, melodic and uplifting as fuck, but enter Tomi Fooler’s vocals as the verse comes on and he’s got this laid back, somber approach that just builds up the whole thing like you wouldn’t believe. When that powerful chorus strikes you can’t help but be swept along for the ride - just keep holding on.
Sorceress of Sin - Constantine
Brimming with energy and melodic might, the highlight from British power metallers Sorceress of Sin’s debut album packs a hell of a wallop. The rhythm section will not quit, right from Paul Skinner’s tight ass drum work and those thick bass lines, setting the stage for colossal melodic antics to unfurl throughout the tune. Though it’s built fairly standard it feels anything but, thanks to those ever present leads from Constantine Kanakis; throughout the verses and the choruses he’s there in the back, noodling and shredding, whilst Lisa Skinner belts her lungs out like nobody’s business. All the while Tom MacLean’s subtle keyboard is there to just amp the whole feeling up. The climax of the song takes everything to the max and cranks it up another notch, as the band fires of all cylinders, and you can’t help but be swept along for the raw fury of it.
Soen - Imperial
To define prog sensation Soen in a paragraph is quite a task, especially as a full album review has yet eluded me. Lumerian, the opener from their latest release, however needs to be on this list, so here we go. With Lumerian, Soen embody a sort of subtle grandiosity. The riffs are flawless and thick, spurred on by melodic keyboards and a haunting, eclectic vocal performance from Joel Ekelöf. The highlight is of course the chorus, as big sounding and catchy as it is emotionally drawing. That initial hook when the first chorus rolls in is undeniable. After about two and a half minutes, it breaks into some groovy riffing, only then to turn into a somber bridge just before the soloing. At the same time, it’s still accessible and charismatic; a crowd pleaser that’s both technical and catchy. You can never really place it, but it worms its way into your head and your feels.
Blaze Bayley - War Within Me
Never count Blaze Bayley out. A few years break after finishing his William Black trilogy lead us to another album in the vein of classic, no bullcrap heavy metal. The title track and opener is the epitome of all Bayley is; right down from that opening riffing that just shreds from Chris Appleton (the man’s riffs spit fucken venom) and to the empowering backbone that is Bayley’s own vocal delivery it’s all Bayley’s heart in the music - the man himself is greater than ever. Martin McNee’s drums are tight as hell, building that clean, Maiden inspired rhythm section for Appleton’s guitar to engulf; the riffs are catchy as hell, the melodic leads clean and the solos - though often short - packed with charisma and that bittersweet emotion Blaze Bayley has put on record for the past half decade.
Labÿrinth - Welcome to the Absurd Circus
Labyrinth never really struck home for me. They’d always be decent enough, but never exceptional. As a whole, maybe their 2021 album doesn’t exactly change that, but Finally Free hits all the buttons. A fleshy closer, its subject matter might not be original, but its riffing is both tight and melodic, Olaf Thörsen and Andrea Cantarelli battling off each other while Oleg Smirnoff’s keys lay like a tapestry on top. Some of Roberto Tiranti's most soulful vocals manage to worm their way into your brain during that cheesy chorus that just sticks with you. But the best part is Nik Mazzucconi’s bass solo in that soulful middle part. Finally Free is uplifting, charismatic and just complex enough that it doesn’t get boring for a moment during its six minute runtime; just Labyrinth effortlessly putting out world class modern progpower.
Evergrey - Escape of the Phoenix
Evergrey have been going for ages and ages, and even now they’re still breaking new ground and getting more popular - justly so, one could argue. While their 2021 album may not have been their most style forming, it’s likely their most accessible, though without sacrificing their integrity or musical direction. Gritty, riff driven power metal all with Evergrey’s signature dramatic and emotional touch permeating the entire being, due in large to Tom Englund’s fine pipe making one of his greatest vocal deliveries yet - that chorus is chilling in its efficiency and the emotional strings it manages to pull so easily. The guitar solo dueling right in the middle works to emphasize all of this, and it lands comfortably. Eternal Nocturnal is not just a great song, it’s perhaps mostly a testament to the longevity and quality that Evergrey keep dishing out.
Project: Roenwolfe - Edge of Saturn
Adventurous and bold, the seminal closer from Project: Roenwolfe’s badass comeback album Edge of Saturn cements most of Alicia Cordisco as a riff smith of epic proportions. A thick few instrumental minutes opens the nine minute epic up, setting the tone as Cordisco dishes out some toxic ass riffage much in the vein of her previous band Judicator - but meatier, angrier. It’s as melodic and epic as it is thick in riffage and even thrashy. Patrick Parris sings a tale both grandiose and tragic, helped on by his massive vocal presence. Though of course Cordisco still steals the show; that intro sets the stage perfectly, and she tosses in some kickass soloing to boot throughout the runtime and then closes on some heavy Maiden inspired melodic riffing right at the end. Though all will pass, Project: Roenwolfe made a heavy ass comeback to the scene and this epic was the heart of it.
Sunrise - Equilibria
Though technically released as a single way back in 2020, The Bridge Across Infinity was the highlight from Sunrise’s latest album, Equilibria. They came from humble Sonata Arctica emulating backgrounds, but man what a rise. Usually going the pretty standard power metal route in their songwriting, this one is progpower at its absolute finest. Just shy of six minutes, it’s an unassuming piece that lets every piece of the production shine in its own right. From the splendid duet between Konstantin and Daria Naumenko that gets ever more energetic through the runtime, to the riffing and melodic leads, guitars and keyboards battling things out as the vocalists’ chemistry gets tighter. Thick bass lines groove underneath and the drums are meaty as heck. The Bridge Across Infinity manages to be both epic and humble at the same time, thanks to all star performances from a band that deserves way more recognition from the power metal scene.
Fragment Soul - Axiom of Choice
Coming from one of my most listened albums of 2021 - and one of my highest ranked as well - the only thing that stops A Soul Inhabiting Two Bodies from climbing the list is how it needs the rest of its album to really fall into place. Incredibly atmospheric, the somber feeling is accentuated by phenomenal performances from vocalist Nick Argyriou and guest vocalist Heike Langhans (Draconian), both bringing melancholy in heaps and maintaining a heartfelt chemistry between each other. Melodic guitars set things off alongside somber keyboard strokes, and then moves through emotions throughout the ever more enveloping thirteen minute runtime. A definite must for fans of atmospheric prog metal, A Soul Inhabiting Two Bodies take cues from the likes of Devin Townshend and Finnish band Thence, incorporating technical musicianship into a being that evolves all on its own into something complex and hard to define. It’s beautiful.
KK's Priest - Sermons of the Sinner
Come on. There is literally no way to dislike classic Judas Priest antics and cheesy ass storytelling. KK’s Priest’s debut missed the mark a lot, but holy painkiller, Hail for the Priest slaps hard down on all things eighties Priest. Goes to wonder why they bothered writing an actual sequel to The Sentinel when the spiritual successor is right here, right down to the dramatic lyrics delivered so potently and seriously by Ripper Owens, that shrieking banshee of a vocalist. Mean riffing set things off sounding straight out of Defenders of the Faith, KK Downing and A.J. Mills truly falling into that classic dueling axes style for a few glorious minutes. The speedy middle section sees heaps of solo dueling as they trade off each other to perfection. It might be just a walk down memory lane in many respects, but Hail for the Priest makes that promenade a fucken blast.
Eternity's End - Embers of War
It’s kinda obvious actually that these guys come from more extreme musical backgrounds, what with the insane technicality they’ve put into their music - and it keeps growing! All lineup changes are not of evil, either, as mastermind Christian Münzner has found himself a sparring partner of rank in Justin Hombach, and it’s noticeable all over Hounds of Tindalos. Münzner and Hombach battle it out in gritty riffing and massive solos, lighting up the timeline with blazing fury. Enter Iuri Sanson from all angles of time, and his mighty ass vocals. With each repetition of the chorus he gets more into it, belts the fury out with greater passion. Everything about this song is awesome; right from the badass drumming from Hannes Grossmann to the mean lead guitar dueling to the soaring melodic vocals. It’s hella catchy right from the get go, and the proof is in the pudding - you mess with the timeline, beware the Hounds of Tindalos.
Dragony - Viribus Unitis
If you want to beat Sabaton at their own war to end all wars, you do what Dragony did and add zombies, steam punk emperors and Tesla shooting magic laser beams. It’s way more interesting that way. Sure, Dragony won’t be getting Sabaton’s airtime, but this here criminally underrated tune from their latest album shows exactly why they should. Triumphant power metal, complete with bigass keyboard antics, meaty power chords, sweet hooky soloing and epic vocals - and that’s just on paper. The war theme takes a back seat lyrically but is there in the marching of the drums and the triumphant keyboards that are so catchy you’ll be whistling along before the song is out. The chorus then draws you in and slaps all resistance; it’s just so incredibly catchy, and at the same time the Austrians manage to make it emotionally engaging as well, perhaps mostly thanks to Siegfried Samer’s stellar vocal delivery. Love You to Death embodies all things great about power metal and does it with more heart than most big names in the genre. And that drum fill right before the last chorus, mmmhm.
In Mourning - The Bleeding Veil
The first part of the triptych that closes In Mourning’s latest colossus, Blood in the Furrows has all the trappings of a dark melodic masterpiece. Eerie atmosphere permeates this (just shy of) eight minute tower, built on bombastic riffs, creeping melodic leads and huge vocals, all hearkening to the band’s own 2012 album. Blood in the Furrows evolves slowly, beginning with an eerie guitar melody before bursting into melodic majesty as the riffing takes a hold, and thick bass lines add a smooth depth to it all. Drenched in darkness, it moves in somber emotive states, embodied flawlessly by the musicianship. Netzell shifts perfectly between his tender clean vocals and menacing harsh ones, just as perfectly as the instrumentals change from soft melodic trilling to immense, dark riffs and gigantic rhythm section, menacing blast beats tearing flesh. Not really a track you’ll put on for your yoga session, Blod in the Furrows showcases all things great about In Mourning, and the guys even make it seem so simple, yet so effective.
Helloween - Helloween
It’s really hard to go wrong when it’s Kai Hansen steering the space ship. Not gonna lie, Helloween’s self titled album was failing to deliver, right until that closing epic swept in on Hansen’s magic songwriting. So Skyfall is definitely the greatest thing Helloween has put out since Hansen left that first time (and likely Hansen’s greatest since Avalon), and it has all the trappings of a classic pumpkin tune, amped to eleven with all the Gamma Ray feeling Hansen has put into it. Obviously the triple singer threat works magically here, as the twelve minute opus lets all three get their own sections. Michael Kiske proves that his voice is as magical as ever, slapping those knee shakingly sweet high notes almost like on the Keeper albums. Markus Grosskopf as always with his musty groove thickening out the three guitarists and adding his own style right there, while the three guitarists trade off leads and soloing. Skyfall is a triumphant epic the likes of which the world has needed for many long years; the culmination of four years of pumpkins united, and the greatest power metal tune in many many years.
Witherfall - Curse of Autumn
All right, deep breath now. I’m talking to myself. Curse of Autumn held plenty of great moments and darkly lit anthems. None more so than the epic closer, where Witherfall make good on all the promises the previous two albums have made. It’s their first really big, true prog metal epic, and it’s one that at a quarter of an hour’s runtime highlights all of Witherfall’s strengths. From Jake Dreyer’s guitars opening the tune up, his mastery of the art is showcased throughout, as are his influences, ranging from classic, to extreme metal to even flamenco when the music calls for it.
Marco Minneman’s drums are the foundation upon which all lies, the phenomenal drummer laying the steady progressive groundwork for Dreyer and for Anthony Crawford, whose mean bass is very much as present a personality as Dreyer’s guitars and Joseph Michael’s eclectic vocals. Not just technically magnificent, …And They All Blew Away is also heavy with that emotive pull Witherfall put into all their music, and it’s epic and bombastic all the same. It’s hard to do it justice in a paragraph, but …And They All Blew Away proves in fifteen mere minutes why Witherfall are likely the greatest and most intriguing prog metal band on the planet right now.
Iotunn - Access All Worlds
Safe Across the Endless Night closes Iotunn’s debut full length off. And with it they close a chapter in music history. Access All Worlds is the album of the year, and all of it is summarized beautifully in its majestic closer. This fourteen minute epic is a cosmic journey through phenomenal guitar licks and soloing galore, strewn across a starlit vocal performance and a soundscape built by the rhythm section and flawless songwriting that puts focus in turn on each part of the musicianship; everything coming to a massive climax as the album’s finale shrouds the entire production in its airy, mystic feeling.
Jesper Gräs and Jens Nicolai Gräs both pull phenomenal tricks on the guitars, through flashy solos and a haunting middle section, almost like ascending into finality as the massive crescendo ultimately arrives. Glittering like dreams of stars, on majestic riffage, soaring, sweeping melodic leads that every so often shifts shape or form into something more theatric, Safe Across the Endless Night grows more intense as it progresses, spurred on by Jón Aldará’s grand presence, blending pitch black harsh vocals with emotive cleans. When the climax finally arrives you’re left in awe, especially after hearing the entire phenomenal album. It is magic.
Iron Maiden - Senjutsu
Hardly surprising. Senjutsu saw Steve Harris unleash some of his most magnificent epics yet (and he’s been doing it for a while). Hell on Earth might be the crowd pleaser, but the might and majesty that The Parchment unravels throughout twelve epic minutes is on a far grander scale. It’s a slowly unraveling number that opens on a somber bass line from Harris himself, bursting then into melodic riffing, an eastern inspired folksy feel added by the keyboards. Nicko McBrain adds the war drums to evoke the theme whilst the three guitars as always riffing against each other, fueling each other’s fires.
Once Bruce Dickinson comes in, he reveals a mysterious tale of the eve before a battle in an old kingdom, Harris’s lyrics enticing and mystic, opening vistas that come to life through Dickinson’s majestic vocals. Especially the climax, growing in intensity, “Heading for afterlife, meet me there” and then that full on burst of solo dueling and thick, groovy bass lines. Some of the best solos on the album end it, and Harris himself tosses in a short but sweet bass solo to boot. I get why some would call Maiden repetitive, but The Parchment shows why they are still the greatest. A spiritual successor to the dark heraldry of Sign of the Cross, a grandiose and melodic masterpiece imbued with all the magic that can only come from Steve Harris.
I'd slap myself I didn't at least mention Wizard, even though no one else even likes them. Their 2021 album was pretty great as a whole but lacked that one massive standout. I Bring Light Into the Dark would have been the pick though. I also need to mention Ominous Glory, whose debut was released on January 1, so it's pretty much stuck around for a year; Love Knows No Distance is that sweet, cheesy power ballad that just kinda hits all the cheesy notes right - not to mention the Teets siblings of Mindmaze guests, and you know I'm a sucker for anything Sarah Teets sings.
Disappointment of the year
I was gonna say myself for letting my anxiety and depression get a hold of me to the point where reviewing - and even discovering new music - felt like a mountain to climb several times through 2021, but then I remembered how the year started and so the real disappointment is Jon Schaffer. Comon man.
Expectations for next year
We already have news of several early 2022 releases that promise greatness. Ashes of Ares is first up with more Barlowiness; the single is promising. Next is Persefone, and the expectations are sky high, especially with that album cover and the phenomenal single they dropped recently. My boys in Veonity are also blessing us with another album in February, and though we still haven't heard a single I have full faith in my dudes.
Power metal is also expecting greatness from Blind Guardian. No album announcement just yet, but their recent single makes me all kinds of tingly. Mindmaze as well seem to be up to no good. I was actually a backer of their "New EP 2018" kickstarter, which... we're still waiting pretty patiently for, but I hear they're making progress, so Mindmaze are on the radar. Obviously not all years can be a "Maiden released a new album!" year, but 2022 looks hella promising.
And with that I wish all of you a very Merry Chrimble and a Delicious New Year!