Tuonela Magazine’s Annual Staff Picks (2021): Jani Lehtinen’s Edition

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Now that the year 2021 is coming to a close, we at Tuonela Magazine want to share what releases we enjoyed the most. Each of our staff members will share their own lists. Here are the lists of Jani Lehtinen.

The year 2021 has been a gift that just keeps on giving, in every way you could possibly imagine. Over the course of the past 12 months, this happened quite often: just when you thought things couldn’t get any more surreal, something utterly weird happened so that you began to question your sanity or, for a moment at least, were quite sure we must be living in a simulated reality gone totally off the rails. I’m pretty sure that all the writers of dystopian science fiction are having a field day at the moment. In fact, there is a wild theory claiming that a weasel screwed up the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in April 2016 and that it shifted us into the wrong timeline in this cosmic multiverse. It would certainly explain a lot of things, don’t you agree? Probably, the only thing that is still keeping us sane is music. If there is a silver lining to this slow descent into the zombie apocalypse, these strange and unprecedented times have ushered bands to really focus on their art and pull up their A-game, if only to remind us that once upon a time we used to be humans. Great albums were released throughout the year – so many, in fact, that it was pretty damn hard to pick just a few. Eventually, through a great effort of will and voodoo, I managed to single out the best of the best with regard to the outings released in 2021. Among these, there were two particular albums that I would never have guessed to be so overwhelmingly awesome: A View From the Top Of the World by DREAM THEATER and Marching in Time by TREMONTI. Of course, I did not exactly expect these bands to release something completely subpar, not with their track record, but the level of magnificence that unfolded when I put these records on for the first time caught me totally off-guard. The same applies to the Here Be Dragons album by the Finnish singer-songwriter, Janita. You see, I have a reputation for punching holes in the musical outlook of my close friends by exposing, say, die-hard metalheads to the vintage hardbop-jazz of the 1950s and 1960s or by forcing devoted prog-snobs to lend an ear to the drum&bass or dub-techno of the mid-1990s. Still, I think it’s safe to assume that none of them saw it coming that I’d be tooting the horn for THIS artist in 2021! After all, most of my age peers remember Janita for her early-1990s teeny-pop hits. So, when I claim that her new album is one of the best releases of 2021, it is practically the same thing as if a long-time MESHUGGAH fan suddenly started confessing his undying love for LADY GAGA (needless to say, I have both the “Fame Monster” and “Obzen” albums in my collection).

Speaking of which, the 2011 mash-up of the MESHUGGAH song, “Bleed,” and the LADY GAGA blockbuster hit, “Paparazzi,” is still pure gold! I mean, the humor value aside, the mash-up is a genuine piece of musical excellence. Pop melodies work outstandingly well with brutal polyrhythms, as we have come to acknowledge with the advent of modern metal bands such as SPIRITBOX. If my memory is not playing tricks on me, the music video for the song, “Constance,” premiered around this time of year in 2020. I remember regretting the abundant use of the word “haunting” in my past reviews upon hearing this song: the word should have been reserved for this song exclusively! It still gives me goosebumps – and when the new SPIRITBOX album, Eternal Blue,” finally came out, it truly lived up to the last bit of the hype created by this song. I feel tempted to pronounce it the best album of 2021. Then again, I feel just as tempted to nominate VOLA’s brilliant new outing Witness or the equally excellent full-length, Day and Age,” by FROST*. Who am I kidding, really? Depending on the day, the cosmic alignment of the planets, my ever-changing moods, or the HEX index, I could say the exact same thing about each album on my lists.

A lot of strange things happened in 2021 that none of us saw coming. The biggest surprise, however, was the comeback of the British pop duo, TEARS FOR FEARS. Who could honestly say that they were expecting these two old gentlemen, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, to drop new music, let alone that their comeback single would be so stratospherically brilliant? The announcement for their comeback along with the video single, “The Tipping Point,” emerged totally out of the blue in October. Their new album bearing the same title is due out in February and it will be one of my most anticipated album releases of 2022. I practically grew up listening to all the magnificent TEARS FOR FEARS hits in the 1980s and the comeback single quite nicely pays a subtle homage to the duo’s 1985 blockbuster hit, “Everybody Wants To Rule the World,” with the laid-back 12/8 rhythm. I must say that these British gents scoop the prize for the most unexpected comeback of the year, maybe even any year ever – and they do it with style. We live amidst the strangest of times, indeed. Some wise-cracks say that the fact no one has yet contacted us is solid proof that there is intelligent life in the universe. Should the occasion ever occur that I get to introduce myself to the alien master race, I feel confident that playing these following songs and discussing the fine music of our species over a pint of intergalactic import beer would make sure that those extraterrestrial beings couldn’t at least be hostile towards us. Yes, it sounds a little bit over-the-top but, 11 months deep into 2021, nothing can surprise me anymore. In fact, I feel compelled to think that the ill-fated weasel who got fried in the Hadron Collider must have been related to the saber-toothed squirrel that makes an appearance in each of the stories in the Ice Age animated film series. Hopefully, our inter-dimensional overlords will soon apologize for this mess and reset this simulation back to 2015. There’s only one sincere wish I would like to address to them: let us take all this excellent music back with us!

Long story short: here are my cherry-picked songs and albums that rocked my world in 2021. Neither the albums nor the individual songs are in any particular order. 

Top 10 International Albums 

10. Vola – Witness
9. Tremonti – Marching in Time
8. Frost* – Day and Age
7. Thy Catafalque – Vadak
6. Spiritbox – Eternal Blue
5. Twelve Foot Ninja – Vengeance
4. Rivers of Nihil – The Work
3. Jinjer – Wallflowers
2. Nad Sylvan – Spiritus Mundi
1. Dream Theater – A View From the Top of the World

Read more: REVIEW: Vola – Witness | REVIEW: Tremonti – Marching In Time | REVIEW: Frost* – Day and Age | REVIEW: Thy Catafalque – Vadak | REVIEW: Spiritbox – Eternal Blue | REVIEW: Twelve Foot Ninja – Vengeance | REVIEW: Rivers of Nihil – The Work | REVIEW: Jinjer – Wallflowers | REVIEW: Nad Sylvan – Spiritus Mundi | REVIEW: Dream Theater – A View From The Top Of The World

Top 10 Finnish Albums

10. Swallow the Sun – Moonflowers
9. Janita – Here Be Dragons
8. Darkwoods My Betrothed – Angels of Carnage Unleashed
7. Shedfromthebody – To Hold the Ripened Sun
6. Riutta – Enne
5. Keoma – Hypotheses
4. Dust Mountain – Hymns For Wilderness
3. Akkajee – Lastenkerääjä
2. Minutian – Magical Thinking
1. SUAD – Waves

Read more: REVIEW: Swallow The Sun – Moonflowers | REVIEW: Janita – Here Be Dragons | REVIEW: Darkwoods My Bethrothed – Angel of Carnage Unleashed | REVIEW: Shedfromthebody – A Dead and Aimless Hum | REVIEW: Riutta – Enne | REVIEW: Keoma – Hypotheses | REVIEW: Dust Mountain – Hymns For Wilderness | REVIEW: Akkajee – Lastenkerääjä | REVIEW: Minutian – Magical Thinking | REVIEW: Suad – Waves

Top 3 EPs

3. Oenos – CRNO IV
2. Enslaved – Caravans to the Outer Worlds
1. Cult Of Luna – The Raging River

Read more: REVIEW: Oenos – Crno IV | REVIEW: Enslaved – EP: Caravans to the Outer Worlds | REVIEW: Cult of Luna – EP: The Raging River

Best Livestream Concert

It is rather tragic that I managed to view just one livestream concert in 2021. Last year, I guess I was luckier, even though I only managed to enjoy a few. It was quite punctually exactly a year ago when I made the solemn promise to do better this year. Then life happened. Halfway into 2021, I kept myself busy with scoring +100 ECTS points at my University of Applied Sciences. Then, I started to put my thesis together. However, the one livestream concert that I managed to squeeze into my overachieving nutjob schedule was nothing short of a breathtaking evening of magic. The “Live From the Pool” livestream concert by the Danish prog-monolith, VOLA, premiered on September 11th and needless to say, I was glued to my computer screen for the whole duration of the event. Still, every now and then, I revisit the live performance via YouTube. It doesn’t happen very often that a rock concert experienced through the flat screen of a television or a computer leaves you breathless. I’ve got a buttload of music DVDs in my collection and yet, there are only a few that manage to convey the mesmerizing feel of actual live performance. A good concert is like a heart-wrenching movie: it can transform you in an instant so that you have a hard time adjusting to the real world when you walk out of the movie theater or the rock venue. From the artist’s standpoint, I guess it isn’t very easy to conjure up genuine human emotions merely through a small, digital screen. Some artists seem to have an innate and almost unnatural ability to do so and judging by the “Live From the Pool” performance, VOLA is definitely one of that rare breed. For an old-fashioned music junkie with a fetish for all sorts of obsolete physical music formats, it would be really nice to be able to purchase this particular live performance as a DVD. You can never really have too many of those, especially if the band is this good. Watching and listening to music is like making a deposit in the bank account of your spiritual well-being, so you cannot actually overdo it.

In September, there was another event worth mentioning, albeit it was not a livestream concert. I had the privilege to attend the pre-listening session of SWALLOW THE SUN’s new Moonflowers album at Sonic Pump Studios in Helsinki. What made the occasion truly something out of the ordinary was the fact that the album was to be released with a dedicated music video for each track. Thus, the session served as a pre-screening of the music videos as well. Watching the animated videos on the giant screen of the studio and listening to the music blasting out of those big-ass Genelecs was an audiovisual experience that did not exactly fall short of a typical livestream concert. In a way, it was even better: it was a flawless stream of sublime audiovisual excellence that I shall forever remember and revere like any other haunting musical encounter. 

Read more: 09.11.2021 VOLA: Live From the Pool | REVIEW: Swallow The Sun – Moonflowers

Most Promising Act

As a person who is easily seduced by shoe-gazing dream-pop that is layered with a distinct sense of doom, it was probably written in the stars that I would find the Finnish up-and-coming doomgaze artist, SHEDFROMTHEBODY, to be the most intriguing and exciting when I got the chance to review the album, A Dead and Aimless Hum,” in early 2021. The album had been released already in May 2020, so I wrote the review in a somewhat retrospective fashion. I’m glad that I did. As luck would have it, this one-woman doomgaze-powerhouse orchestrated by Suvi Saarikko released a new single in October 2021, under the title, “Fascia.” It was released ahead of her new full-length album “To Hold the Ripened Sun,” set for release on December 1st. The song instantly proved to be yet another poignant, new chapter in the chronicles of Finnish doomgaze, further suggesting that SHEDFROMTHEBODY is slowly and steadily becoming a force to be reckoned with – and the sooner you reckon, the better. You’d better believe me.

Read more: REVIEW: Shedfromthebody – A Dead and Aimless Hum

Top 5 Music Videos

I was not entirely sure whether I should try to pick music videos with big and flashy production, intriguing plot twists, and whatnot – or just go with my gut feeling and simply pick music videos for killer songs. Then, little-by-little, I realized that I have been a lazy bastard throughout 2021: I’ve been watching the same few music videos over and over again, completely disregarding whether the video narrative is any good if the song kicks ass. For instance, the music video for “Marching in Time” by TREMONTI is by no means going to win Oscars. The video is sorely lacking the visual gimmicks of big-budget video productions. However, when I first exposed my delicate ears to the song, it hit so hard I simply could not bring myself to not pick it. For the past couple of months, it has been my totem of a song. It is the song of choice that I put on at full blast when I need a little push in the right direction. The song is charged with such a crazy amount of raw power that it is hard to put in words. Then again, coming to think about it, so are all the rest of the songs on the list.

  1. Spiritbox – Circle With Me
  1. Vola – Head Mounted Sideways
  1. Tremonti – Marching in Time
  1. Rivers of Nihil – The Void From Which No Sound Escapes
  1. Twelve Foot Ninja – Over and Out (ft. Tatiana Shmayluk)

Read more: REVIEW: Spiritbox – Eternal Blue | REVIEW: Vola – Witness | REVIEW: Tremonti – Marching In Time | REVIEW: Rivers of Nihil – The Work | REVIEW: Twelve Foot Ninja – Vengeance

Top 5 Lyric Videos

  1. Amorphis – Brother and Sister
  1. Swallow the Sun – Enemy

Are lyric videos going out of style already? After a long, hard look into 2021, I could only come up with a handful of lyric videos, mostly by mainstream artists that I don’t really give two shits about. Then again, I was busy for the best part of the year with all sorts of non-musical activities. Most likely, I was just too busy to keep up to pace with what’s happening in the music video realm. Fortunately, I can find comfort in the fact that AMORPHIS and SWALLOW THE SUN never fail to amaze me. 

Read more: REVIEW: Swallow The Sun – Moonflowers

Top 5 International Songs

  1. Spiritbox – Constance
  2. Vola – Napalm
  3. Frost* – The Boy Who Stood Still
  4. Jinjer – Wallflower
  5. Thy Catafalque – Szarvas

Read more: REVIEW: Spiritbox – Eternal Blue | REVIEW: Vola – Witness | REVIEW: Frost* – Day and Age | REVIEW: Jinjer – Wallflowers | REVIEW: Thy Catafalque – Vadak

Top 5 Finnish Songs

  1. SUAD – White Lies
  2. Shedfromthebody – Fascia
  3. Swallow the Sun – Woven Into Sorrow
  4. Darkwoods My Betrothed – Murktide and Midnight Sun
  5. Janita – I Do

Read more: REVIEW: Suad – Waves | REVIEW: Shedfromthebody – A Dead and Aimless Hum | REVIEW: Swallow The Sun – Moonflowers | REVIEW: Darkwoods My Bethrothed – Angel of Carnage Unleashed | REVIEW: Janita – Here Be Dragons

Top 5 Best Last-Minute Songs

  1. David Nevory: You & the Sea
  2. Prisma: Gold
  3. Malady: Alava Vaara
  4. Shedfromthebody: To Hold the Ripened Sun
  5. Lo Moon: Dream Never Dies

Top 5 Cover Art

Terravoid: Ectogenesis

Swallow the Sun: Moonflowers

God Is An Astronaut: Ghost Tapes #10

Janita: Here Be Dragons

Vola: Witness

Read more: REVIEW: Terravoid – Ectogenesis | REVIEW: Swallow The Sun – Moonflowers | REVIEW: God Is an Astronaut – Ghost Tapes #10 | REVIEW: Janita – Here Be Dragons | REVIEW: Vola – Witness

Best Collaboration

Swallow the Sun: All Hallow’s Grieve (featuring Cammie Gilbert of Oceans of Slumber)

Read more: REVIEW: Swallow The Sun – Moonflowers

Top 5 Most Anticipated Releases of 2022

  1. Porcupine Tree: Closure/Continuation
  2. Tears For Fears: The Tipping Point
  3. Korn: Requiem
  4. Cult of Luna: The Long Road North
  5. The Butterfly Effect: TBA

If everything goes according to the cosmic plans, the year 2022 will be marked by at least three unexpected comeback albums, namely those of the legendary prog outfit, PORCUPINE TREE, the British pedigree pop-duo, TEARS FOR FEARS, and THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT, hailing from Australia. The most promising of these, judging by the teasers already available online, is going to be the new studio album by those two old British gents, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, hands down. However, the sudden resurrection of THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT might also mean, with the global shit show permitting, that I could finally get my hands on the band’s 2008 album “Final Conversations of Kings.” In fact, after hunting it down for a good number of years, I found it at some second-hand online music dealer located in Australia in early 2020. Obviously, I placed an order ASAP – only to find out that due to the coronavirus restrictions, the Australian postal service wouldn’t send it to Finland. Now, if the band is coming back to life, they just might re-release their old albums worldwide, eh? Yes? I am already the happy owner of their 2006 album, “Imago,” and if the new album is going to be anywhere near as brilliant as these two studio outings, I’m going to have to get it too, of course. 

Want to share your lists with us? Comment below with your lists.

The whole Tuonela Magazine team wishes you an inspirational 2022 filled with a lot of new music to discover. We hope to see you back next year!