I spend a lot of time thinking about balance. We all do, to varying degrees, but I sometimes wonder if I think about balance more than the average human, and I occasionally suspect that this may be true at least in part because I am a libra. No, I don’t spend much time thinking about astrology, because even if everything regarding astrology were 100% veritable, I probably wouldn’t study it because I’m also one of those humans who prefers to simply let things happen without external factors having the potential to anticipate or sway my behavior. Go with the flow, adapt, advance, conquer—I live by these codes as best I can. But I also have zodiac-haunted friends who periodically inform me of my model libra behavior, and as you perhaps know, the symbol for libra involves scales working to find balance.
I bring this up because balance had everything to do with my overall music listening habits in 2020. Being honest, it probably has from the very day I first used Trouble’s Psalm 9 to counterweight Don’t Break the Oath, but I think I might’ve done that without thinking too much about why. It just felt natural. 35 years later, I’m still doing whatever it takes to strive for balance in every aspect of my environment, and it goes without saying that 2020 did its dirtyfucking damndest to drop a deuce the size of Mount McKinley on the scales. I buckled down, as humans are wont to do, and I have made a point of spending a portion of every day being realistic about my situation and understanding that it’s been a relative cakewalk compared to everyone in the medical profession and all others required to be out and on the front lines for any number of reasons. It’s been bleak over here, though, as I’m sure it’s been bleak for you, so familiar and strange torments alike have haunted every corner of my homebase and brain with stubborn determination. Because of this, far less grim music has dominated my listening habits this year in an effort to combat the twisting mayhem draining the light from my surroundings. So, while I recognize the greatness of something like, say, Ulcerate’s Stare into Death and Be Still, it’s been put on hold for some point in the future because I do not need its nihilism shepherding even more darkness into my 2020.
Trimming the grim in 2020 lead to more attention being focused on the outskirts of metal, and on branches that emphasize tags such as “epic,” “powerful,” “melodic,” “adventurous,” “charming,” “calming,” “refreshing,” and about twenty other descriptors that essentially equate to favorable comfort. We Have the Power underscored a large portion of this realm, and I will admit with confidence right here and now that the record that saw the most attention from me over the course of 2020 was this:
But I am a cheater in the most righteous way, so none of what landed on We Have the Power will land on today’s personal list because, despite the thorough feculence of 2020, it delivered well enough musical greatness to warrant two lists that frankly still don’t even manage to cover the comprehensive windfall. Conceivably unfortunate for some, however, is my decision to spotlight the adventurous and calming and refreshing components of my heavy year by including a mighty fistful of hard rock that meant the world to me in 2020. To banish such releases to a non-metal list, despite the clear link due to THE RIFF, felt like an injustice, particularly because there was well enough truly non-metal music this year that also merits spotlighting. If that distresses in some way, please accept the following apology as further recompense:
Okay, that’s it. Thanks to any and all who still make a point to read the words out there. All the words, mind you, not just mine. Moreover, a heartfelt thank you is due each and every person making a difference in the trenches amidst a pandemic, and also to all the artists who provide a near endless accumulation of wealth to remind us of the truth that humankind remains wondrously capable of creating brilliance, even amidst the darkest of times.
Two Notable Releases Not Listed for Two Entirely Different (and Hopefully Interesting) Reasons:
Tyranonaut – Marble Eye
I don’t know much about Rochester, NY’s Tyranonaut, beyond the fact that the band is comprised of two brothers whose parents possibly grounded them more than once many, many years ago for repeatedly blasting Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4 at a level that cracked the foundation of their humble abode. It was their 2017 demo that first landed them on my radar, but I’ll admit to completely forgetting about their existence until they shared the cover for their new album, Marble Eye. Needless to say, I am an easy mark for richly detailed, colorful artwork such as this that depicts some form of sorcery in what looks like a terrifically enchanted forest. I did not, however, have enough time to fully assimilate the wonderful rawness of Marble Eye. It’s largely Sabbathian, of course, but the brew really starts getting interesting once you dip into the back-to-back peculiarity of “The Doller House” and “Erskine Hollow” that take up nearly 30 minutes of the full 52-minute ride. There are hints of Robin Trower, Wishbone Ash and Pagan Altar in the corners, and the two cared enough about their craft to hire James Plotkin to mix and master this beast. With a little more time, I’m guessing Marble Eye would have made the cut, so please give them some attention.
Eternal Champion – Ravening Iron
Not seeing this record in my top 20 doesn’t mean I don’t like it—I’ve simply resigned myself to the fact that the auto-entry status I assumed Ravening Iron would secure early on just ain’t there yet. I look forward to a more tangible, introspective dissection once the LP eventually arrives, but repeated spins of the promo left me wishing for more of the title track’s swirling synths and outright splendor, and I do think “Banners of Arhai” is an unfortunate closer. Still, the Champs leveled up in the lead department, and there are enough steely riffs here to build a bridge to Melniboné, so it’s conceivable that I will flog myself in a month or so for omitting it.
THE HEROES OF THE ARTILLERY LINE:
20. Armored Saint – Punching the Sky
To be brutally honest (and mean), I figured my days of trumpeting about the virtue of Armored Saint were far enough in the rearview mirror to award them “were great” status. That seems noticeably assholish, though, because Armored Saint—while not exactly prolific with their output over the last 38 years—hasn’t actually released anything that warrants excessive contempt. Their revival following a decade of rest that began with La Raza (2010) and Win Hands Down (2015) provided serviceable Saint, but Punching the Sky finally finds them circling back to the days of greatness by stacking the record with the most winners they’ve dealt since 1991’s Symbol of Salvation. This record does nothing new, but it proves that you don’t actually need to do anything new when you do the old as well as Punching the Sky did in 2020.
19. Elder – Omens
I suppose it’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify Elder for a list like this when they continue to temper their fuzzy heft with proggier and less severe elements, but there’s still enough weight behind these riffs to receive a heavy blessing. Here’s what I had to say back in April concerning Omens: “Call it a ‘softening’ or an increased focus on drifting psychedelics, the current face of Elder has opened its wings further to incorporate an even greater emphasis on keyboards / synthesizers and atmospherics, which has lead to the band straight-up assimilating one-time guest guitarist / keyboardist Michael Risberg into the ranks. So, yes, Elder is now operating as a four-piece (including new drummer Georg Edert), and you can hear that added layer almost immediately upon hitting play on the opening title track. “Omens” is just as winsome and packed with those golden, reflective moments we’ve come to expect, but most every twist and turn from mellowness back to heft is now painted with some measure of keys—sometimes in the foreground, other times nestled in the back. It’s an extremely natural fit, really, because everything this band decides to incorporate into the pattern continues to prioritize the noble purpose of warmth.”
18. Cardinal Wyrm – Devotionals
I’ve long been a fan of Bay Area eccentrics Cardinal Wyrm and their brand of atypical outsider doom, but they pulled out all the stops for their fourth full-length, Devotionals. As ever, the approach sidesteps the standard blueprints laid down by Sabbath or Candlemass in favor of something that sounds more rooted in Reverend Bizarre infected with Celtic Frost’s heaviness and infusions of early 90s’ Amphetamine Reptile / Boner Records grunge muck, but where Devotionals raises the bar compared to earlier releases relates to how guitarist Nathan Verrill is given a skosh more room to run, and that equates to a tad more melody and sporadic bursts of seriously explosive shred. Leila Abdul-Rauf (Hammers of Misfortune, Vastum, ex-Saros) continues to provide random gnarls and an extremely spirited bass, and drummer / vocalist Pranjal Tiwari still conjures an image of some sort of thundering centaur forewarning humankind of the Last Days. More centaurs in metal, please.
17. Grayceon – Mothers Weavers Vultures
I recognize the absurdity of having an album on this list that isn’t even out until December 18th, but the luxury of receiving early promos combined with an enduring appreciation for Grayceon for the better part of the last decade+ essentially equates to a notably enthusiastic rendezvous after a two year gap between releases. What remains particularly interesting is the fact that Grayceon has a unique enough footprint in the heavy sphere that extravagant experimentation from one album to the next is actually not a requirement. Not that they shouldn’t, mind you, it’s just a unique characteristic that’s exclusive to notably singular bands such as The Dirty Three, The Necks or Low. For Grayceon’s part, they occupy a nebulous sort of realm that flirts with doom, sludge and chamber music that never fails to nuzzle its way straight into the most vulnerable parts of the heart, and Mothers Weavers Vultures does so with precisely the right combination of pensiveness and punch.
16. Cryptic Shift – Visitations from Enceladus
As you are hopefully aware, progressive death metal and technical death metal are not mutually exclusive. As you’re also likely aware, progressive death metal with virtually zip relation to tech death has managed to wedge itself into a permanent darling status inside the heavy metal underground. It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when this universal revitalization occurred, but you can count the reissue of Timeghoul’s discography in 2012 and the ensuing discovery of Blood Incantation a couple years later as feasible launching points. Since then, we’ve experienced a never-ending avalanche of contenders attempting varying degrees of daring in an attempt to stand out, and England’s Cryptic Shift did a snazzy job of raising that particular bar by offering a debut that crammed a 26-minute whirlwind song, “Moonbelt Immolator,” into our ears right from the jump. Yes, a record like Visitations from Enceladus owes its proper debt to Schuldiner’s daredevil version of Death, but it also sounds more indebted to the knotty tech thrash laid down by Voivod, Sadus, Coroner, Aspid et al. without ever losing full sight of the surprisingly pretty side of chaos.
15. Ecclesia – De Ecclesiæ Universalis
Church: That place even the faithful drag their feet to get to if the churchy folks in charge of said church have no clue how to make church’s churchiness a little more epic. Surprise, most people’s idea of a great time doesn’t involve freshly pressed pants and sitting through those dreadful Psalms again while some stiff-necked pastor / reverend / vicar / padre / etc condemns you for thinking ill about the neighbor who keeps the shipwrecked version of the S.S. Minnow parked right outside your kitchen window. If church was more like Ecclesia, however—Greek for “church,” and HQ’d in France—yours truly would be there every week with a fin for the collection plate and my shirt tucked in. This album sounds like an ideal collision between Candlemass and Griftegård with a touch of Ghost’s theatricality to help keep you at the edge of your pew. The leads are smart, the organs are opulent, the riffs are terrific, and the vocalist comes across like David Bower (Hell / UK) with a little more demon in his belly.
14. Havukruunu – Uinuous syömein sota
I ain’t about to claim Havukruunu’s previous record, 2017’s breakout Kelle surut soi, was “only okay,” because a great many people I very much respect totally shit their faces off for that release. However, it didn’t end up overstaying its welcome for me personally because the form of epic pagan black metal the band offered up was familiar enough that it ended up blending into the backdrop—terrifically anthemic in a similar way that Hammerheart-era Bathory and early Borknagar managed, but missing an extra little kick to make it truly stand out. With Uinuous syömein sota, Havukruunu has discovered just how powerful an epic passage can become when you tack an absurdly melodic element to the bumper. Now, not only do these songs make you feel as if you’re crashing through waves on the way to some heroic campaign, they make you think you can survive three arrows to the chest as you explode into the foray on wings of fire. Havukruunu have crossed the line from epic to majestically fucking triumphant.
13. Afterbirth – Four Dimensional Flesh
Here we are nine months later and I’m still not entirely sure what Afterbirth birthed into our laps. Four Dimensional Flesh is our child now, though, so I love it, even if it has appendages where appendages normally don’t fit and very often sounds like a 200lb Rottweiler in the midst of a dream filled with frolicking hares. This is brutal death metal, sure, but that dreamier side to the band’s personality is what really makes the record stand out amidst an endless avalanche of contenders. One moment you’re getting smooshed into paste by a gargantuan iron press, and the next you’re being steered through space by an unfathomably large cosmic cuttlefish informing you of all the points of interest to your left and right. Thank you, cosmic cuttlefish, I will take note of Triton’s majestic spew as we slowly drift through our fascinating little tour.
12. Dropdead – Dropdead 2020
If you’re alive in 2020, you are probably pissed off about something. This is natural, given the amount of stupidity hurtling through Earth’s atmosphere at any given moment these days. Accepting rage is the first step in learning to master rage, and the smartest way to master rage is to schedule short bursts of fury severe enough to reduce a brick wall to powder. No, this isn’t a silly attempt to ward off a massive temper meltdown in the future that ends with you getting hauled off to the joint, we’re simply interested in exploring a strategy for embracing your rage, mastering your rage, and not letting your rage broil under your lid for an entire day. In the spirit of helping achieve rage authority, it has been proven by yours truly that dropping a needle to Dropdead 2020 at least once a day and allowing yourself to throw an absolute fit on the floor or in any room that contains zero sharp objects can be an extremely effective tool for zen ascendance. Use it wisely, angry grasshoppers.
11. Bütcher – 666 Goats Carry My Chariot
When confronted with an album called 666 Goats Carry My Chariot, you have one of two primary options: climb aboard and hold on, or get run-the-hell over and become the poor bastard who ended up in the hospital after being run over by a chariot pulled by 666 goats. Here’s the great news: both choices involve getting exposed to an album that hits the bloodstream like butt-bonging a pint of 5-hour Energy. (Please do not butt-bong any amount of 5-hour Energy. Or anything else, for that matter.)
Belgium’s Bütcher doesn’t really care about innovation or undue amounts of finesse, they care about speed and power, and about harnessing absurd amounts of raw energy and firing it from Marshall stacks piled as high as a mighty oak. 666 Goats Carry My Chariot is forged in the same fires that created monsters such as Power and Pain, Show No Mercy and Nifelheim’s eponymous debut, and even though it doesn’t exactly pull into any new terrain, that’s not something you’ll care that much about after that coconut you call a head gets cracked into a hundred pieces.
THEY ARE THE CHAMPIONS, MY FRANDS:
10. Freeways – True Bearings
Canada’s Freeways is not at all metal in the same way that Blue Öyster Cult, UFO, Triumph and Slade were and still ain’t even really metal, but it’s appropriate to remember the following: 1) who cares, and 2) they rock hard enough to make you want to shelve that hang-dried Darkthrone shirt in favor of a vintage Suzanne Somers iron-on tee that better corresponds with the fact that repeated spins of True Bearings will cause you to ditch whatever bullshit life you got goin’ on in favor of the open road, truck stop gin mills and beds that vibrate when you pump a couple quarters into ‘em. Being obsessed with the brutally heavy and all things grim is super awesome, but do you even Schlitz, bro?
9. Pharmacist – Medical Renditions of Grinding Decomposition
What was it about 2020 that’s had everyone freaking out, reaching for hazmat suits and gobbling up the full supply of Earth’s toilet paper? Oh yeah! The wildly relentless influx of classic Carcass worshippers! On the tippy-top of that generous heap of pyosisified viscera is Japan’s Pharmacist, a band that’s less interested in divvying out everything from muscle relaxers to glow-in-the-dark prophylactics and more obsessed with inducing immediate and extreme cranial putrefaction via totally freakin’ sick, grinding riffs stacked atop riffs stacked atop riffs. Medical Renditions of Grinding Decomposition offers up 46 minutes of relentlessly scooting, tank-treaded goregrind that’s soaked to the gills with the sort of wet, wounded, vocals one might expect to be belched from a swollen pustule. In layman’s terms, it totally rules!
8. Henrik Palm – Poverty Metal
What can you expect from a solo record delivered by the fellow responsible for the guitars on In Solitude’s widely celebrated The World. The Flesh. The Devil and Sister, and also the bass and rhythm guitar on Ghost’s Meliora? Here’s a tidy lil summary from a review I did back in October: “A record like Poverty Metal obviously ain’t fit for everyone, particularly those who mostly favor the more extreme end of the spectrum. If you’re an adventurous sort, though, and if you’re someone whose record collection indicates a voracious appetite that consumes treasures from all possible avenues, then this work absolutely deserves your attention. Poverty Metal is catchy, sullen, fun, melodic, raucous, raw and gothy, and it’s wrapped in a patchwork of swaddling clothes and bundled into a perfectly snug basket that’s just begging to come in off the porch and into the warmth of your home. Let the right one in.”
Still can’t believe I didn’t recognize the Twisted Sister cover song right off the bat.
7. Defeated Sanity – The Sanguinary Impetus
What I expected from Defeated Sanity in 2020: skull annihilating brutality mighty enough to knock me unconscious until the very moment Earth completely folds in on itself and we all finally blink out of existence. What I wasn’t expecting from Defeated Sanity in 2020: to have that annihilation done in such a…pleasing and comforting way? Don’t get me wrong, The Sanguinary Impetus would still separate an innocent bystander’s melon from their body in about 30 seconds, but there’s just something about the warmth and richness of Colin Marston’s mix / master job here that makes it all come across as comfy-cosy. Not at all in an overly cutesy Kirby’s Epic Yarn boss battle kind of way, but more like getting your face repeated pounded through a brand new Mandalorian duvet. “OUCH! Oh, that’s nice.”
6. Possessed Steel – Aedris
Greetings, traveler! Come in, come in! Warm those weary bones by the fire while I fetch you some roast partridge smothered in blackberries and a strong ale. Swords and any other variety of poking devices may remain on your person, but we ask that you refrain from drawing any and all munitions while inside our establishment. I’m sorry, what? Do we have an outlet to charge a what? You’ll have to pardon my Derbyshire Hillock upbringing, good sir, but I am unfamiliar with…whatever a “smart phone” might entail. Are you in need of a cleric? I must admit, judging from the eccentric attire, you don’t appear to be the sort who typically frequents The Twysted Tyt Tavern, but we’re open to all manner of folk in these parts—just as long as your coin be true and your penchant for tuneful revelry bends toward the traditional and heavy. And do be mindful of young Aedris over there. His brain burns with glimpses of black unicorns and undead necromancers, so a smile and a quick nod is your best protection.
5. Fates Warning – Long Day Good Night
I attached what most individuals would consider “an obscene amount of words” to Long Day Good Night back in October, so it’s probably best to avoid digging even further into this record’s countless virtues and opt instead to spend a moment lamenting the fact that the foreshadowing alluded to toward the close of said review very unfortunately turned out to be true. “The Last Song” indeed appears to be the last new song we can expect to hear from the combined efforts of Jim Matheos, Ray Alder, Joey Vera and Bobby Jarzombek under the Fates Warning banner, and despite the fact that this wonderful band will leave humanity thirteen timeless representations of their significant impact on heavy metal / progressive metal and music in general, I can’t help but feel that 2020 managed to sneak in one of its most underhanded punches by seeing new music from Fates Warning put to rest. Still, A Long Day Good Night is a hell of a note to go out on, and at least it appears as if the band still plans to tour at some point in the future.
4. Thy Catafalque – Naiv
I have at best considered myself a casual fan of Thy Catafalque over the years—interested in and impressed with whatever principal architect Tamás Kátai manages to fuse together with each subsequent release, but never quite getting to the point where I reap large-scale benefits. That all changed with Naiv, and I’m honestly not exactly sure about the hows and whys in a smart enough way that would make it appear as if I know what the hell I’m talking about. Part of the appeal for me is the way Naiv manages to deliver something that sounds as if could be heard pumping from the Blue Frog port bar on Ceres Station, because I’m a science fiction nerd like that. Also, if you can offer up something as jarringly funky and knotty as “Tsitsushka” and still commit to being cosmically connected to Reign In Blood through a song like “Veto,” I am in your corner, baby.
3. Cirith Ungol – Forever Black
Here’s a little something I had to say back in April concerning Forever Black: “There’s really not much to grumble about here, especially considering how long it’s been since these guys stepped into the studio to attempt to conjure a little fire. All parties play off one another as if they’ve been secretly gathering under the shadow of night without anyone being the wiser, and the whole package—the production, the artwork, the message, and most certainly the potential for things to come—fires far enough through the roof that you can fully expect to see Forever Black gracing a number of year-end lists.”
What a smart cookie I am! And what a phenomenal band Cirith Ungol remains. Seven months following its release, the one thing I will admit to being the most excited about regarding this triumphant reunion is the potential for the future, and that’s really not something I ever expected to say regarding Cirith Ungol in the modern age. Thankfully, wonders never cease.
2. Hällas – Conundrum
Hey, guy, I get it: Hällas ain’t really metal. Hey, gal, I know what you mean: Conundrum sounds like some sort of space rock your uncle might yammer on and on about whilst hotboxing chong out in the garage. Shame on me for including it on a metal list, and shame on Last Rites for violating the Prime Directive: Do not interfere in the normal development of heavy metal.
Or wait, is it possible that instead of violating the Prime Directive we just stepped into the Holodeck and went back in time to explore the highly adventurous realms laid out by the proto heavy heavies who leaned on bold prog to blow people’s minds? An endeavor like Hällas clearly owes a great debt to bands such as Khan, Captain Beyond, Van der Graaf Generator et al., and they wrap their particular brand of courageous adventure prog in a rather metal narrative that involves knights, labyrinths and Star Riders. Furthermore, the closing 23 minutes here that include “Labyrinth of Distant Echoes,” “Blinded by the Emerald Mist” and “Fading Hero” is as epic as Eternal Champion underpants hiding beneath the Christmas tree. So yeah, maybe we can remember that you don’t always have to be Bolt Thrower v12.0 to deliver “heavy.” Whoooaaa, that’s heavy, man.
1. Wytch Hazel – III: Pentecost
What I’m about to say could be the least metal confession I’ve made since admitting that I love the opening theme(s) to Felicity, and that particular confession just came to light again literally five minutes before writing this blurb, so let that be your guide if you’re wondering how much of my day is spent being extremely unmetal. Anyway, my latest admission of guilt: This hit my #1 because III: Pentecost is the record that felt like it cared the most about my wellbeing, and that was key in a year as dastardly as 2020. Keep in mind, this would be true even without the Pentecostal element tacked to Wytch Hazel (and specifically vocalist / guitarist Colin Hendra) that insinuates some sort of mystical powers of divine healing. I suppose it’s the warmth factor these songs exude that in turn conjure thoughts of a golden and glutted honeycomb in the forest in the midst of a warm spring day? The overabundance of virulent choruses and an interminable cascade shimmering melody from splendiferous guitars? The halcyon artwork offering a champion’s claymore for notably difficult days? All of these things make III: Pentecost feel as if the principal goal of Wytch Hazel in 2020 was to offer a portal to a healing spring, and I for one made use of those curative waters about a million times this year.
“Awaken! Oh, awaken!
I will bring you… Back to life!
Awaken! Oh, awaken!
See these dry bones… They will rise!”
TOP 10 EPS & DEMOS
NOTE: Lör’s fantastic Edge of Eternity EP is not listed below is because I already highlighted it in We Have the Power.
10. Mustard Gas & Roses – We Are One
I will tread lightly into any project that includes the phrase “mustard gas,” but seeing covers by Joy Division and Spiritualized, plus familiar names on drums (Patrick Crawford of Nite, Serpents of Dawn, Older Sun) and guitar (Michael Gallagher of Isis THE BAND), and suddenly any reservations regarding the name become eclipsed. MG&R play a style of experimental post-rock that’s not unlike the dark unrest laid down by a band like Swans (thanks largely to fact that Gallagher has a distinct Gira timber to his voice), but their formula tones down the strange and blends in heavier doses of post-punk. FFO Swans (duh) and most things Nick Cave-related.
9. Meurtrières – Meurtrières
Friend, do you care about the spirit of heavy metal? That may seem like a silly question, given that you’re here reading these words, but there are a lot of metal bands and metal fans in the modern age that wouldn’t know the spirit of heavy metal if it drifted right out of a can of White Claw and boxed their ears for ten minutes. France’s Meurtrières, on the other hand, very much cares about the spirit of heavy metal. They take everything we love about the raw, punky face of the very early French scene (Sortilège, Vulcain, Warning, High Power et al.) and shotgun it directly into your face in a way that clearly pays homage without outright mimicking. That’s enough to make this debut EP something special. P.S. fans of the Di’Anno-era of Maiden should move to the head of the line.
8. Iron Cemetery – Manic Deliverance
From my review back in September: “Manic Deliverance offers up 15 minutes of blissfully diabolical death / thrash custom-built for Hell’s rank and file. All the sheer joy resulting from stoking consuming fires and cheerfully tormenting lost souls bleeds through these five fleeting odes to human suffering, and the impish manner in which the band’s new vocalist (some goblin designated Grog) barks certainly slams home the euphoria Iron Cemetery must reap as a result of loosing such wickedness upon the earth. IT’S EVIL, GODDAMNIT!”
7. Fleshvessel – Bile of Man Reborn
Having Fleshvessel’s debut land on a list attached to my name is significant for one principal reason: I normally bolt from all things I, Voidhanger Records as a wampyric prince might flee the budding sunlight. Not a huge deal, just of those “it’s not you, it’s me” scenarios that involves a perpetual (and probably unfair) bias against neverending one-person “atmospheric” black metal that’s allowed to run one or two hours too long. Fleshvessel, however, is an actual band, and Bile of Man Reborn offers up the most satisfying interpretation of the current experimental death metal trend that’s available in a surprisingly tidy 25 minutes. True to the I, Voidhanger aesthetic, however—the band crams said 25 minutes into one song. Fingers crossed they land an actual drummer in the future!
6. Morbific – Pestilent Hordes
I love it when death metal delivers a soundtrack to a narrative that involves a dead bear getting reanimated by an evil sorcerer and going on a rampage that eventually takes down an entire village of innocents who were previously weaving baskets, salting meats and winterizing lodges prior to said reanimated bear’s gruesome invasion. And praise the Lord! Morbific is just the sort of death metal band interested in creating death metal that galumphs, charges, snaps bones, rips flesh, stomps rib cages and refuses to die! We even get to hear the sounds of villagers DYING IN EXTREME PAIN! Oh, what a glorious day.
5. Engulfed – Vengeance of the Fallen
Granted, I don’t live in Turkey and therefore know essentially fuck-all about their underground extreme metal scene, but I don’t normally think of that corner of the globe when tenderly contemplating the sort of rotted death metal that inspires visions of hopelessly sinking into the maw of madness. And yet, here roars Engulfed and the delightfully atrocious Vengeance of the Fallen, an EP tailor-made for those who grow tired of waiting for a band like Dead Congregation to release a new record. Hail, grim savagery.
4. Ifernach – Waqan
In case it’s not already clear, I don’t spend a ton of time with black metal these days. I’m not wild about a significant portion of the modern hybrids, I already have well enough nihilistic forces circling me in the modern age, and the “truer” side of the realm often spends too much time trying to offend / kick away progressives and not enough time channeling the old spirits that inspire us to sprint into the wilderness and become reacquainted with the wild heart of darkness. Ifernach, however, really knows how to get me excited about black metal again. The project involving one Finian Patraic also released a fantastic full-length this year, The Green Enchanted Forest of the Druid Wizard, but it was this EP that absolutely obliterated me with its raw, unyielding power that blends the best of classic epic black metal with a clear appreciation of punk fury.
3. Dead Neanderthals – Blood Rite
2. Chevalier – Life and Death
I’ve been in Chevalier’s corner from the very day I first experienced their inaugural EP A Call to Arms, but I was disappointed in last year’s debut full-length (Destiny Calls) because its reliance on hurtling speed ended up derailing the band’s iron gauntlet approach to walloping traditional metal. Thankfully, the Life and Death EP finds Chevalier righting the ship once again by pumping the brakes just enough to allow everyone to charge in harmony again. It’s still raw, blazing and as powerful as a spiked mace to the face, and Emma Grönqvist’s vocals remain the absolute highlight of the show, but what I love most about Life and Death is that is reestablishes Chevalier as one the most dominant forces in the NWOTHM realm.
1. Midnight Dice – Hypnotized
From my review back in September: “Is Hypnotized made-to-order for you? That depends on how you feel about the style of metal that bubbled to the surface in late ’86 and throughout ’87 that produced gems such as Inside the Electric Circus, The Ultimate Sin and any of the other examples listed above [Fifth Angel, Shok Paris, Hellion and Savatage]. I’m fairly certain Midnight Dice don’t have the big hair and big cocaine addictions that often walked hand-in-hand with the scene back then, but they sure as hell have the big swagger, big reverb and big flair required to ensure they’ll make an even bigger noise for 80s’ metal enthusiasts once a debut eventually lands. Until then, Hypnotized is more than enough to give you an appetite for more. Much, much more.”
TOP 20 NON-METAL ALBUMS OF 2019
Here are twenty terrifically unmetal, extremely wonderful records in no particular order, because my brain is too broken to figure out how to rank jazz against post-punk against ambient against prog rock in 2020. Please just understand this: Each of these records played a significant enough role in my mental health this year to consider them all significant triumphs.
Choir Boy – Gathering Swans
Salt Lake City’s Choir Boy is the Muhammad Ali of modern synth-pop / new wave that encapsulates much of what’s so rewarding about bands such as Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Duran Duran and The Cure, and they happen to be fronted by a voice as charismatic and emotive as a young Morrissey sans the nightmare that modern day Morrissey very unfortunately drags along with him. These songs are saturated with a familiar sort of John Hughes nostalgia, but nothing about the dreamy pop delivered by Gathering Swans actually sounds as if it landed 30+ years ago.
• Genre: synth-pop / new wave
Wild Nothing – Laughing Gas
Despite the fact that I’d probably place a record like Laughing Gas under a similar sort of dream pop umbrella as Choir Boy, Wild Nothing’s approach infuses the catch all blueprint with a little more…yacht rock? Can you even imagine Christopher Cross colliding with Cocteau Twins without it sounding like a slight toward all parties involved? Anyway, it’s just my failed attempt at drawing lines around dreamy, synthy, shimmery pop that makes me want to feel ocean wind in my hair. Breezy getaways for brutal times, baby.
• Genre: Dream pop
Death Bells – New Signs of Life
Is L.A. the current post-punk capital of the world? Anyone who knows anything about the continued resurgence of this genre and its offshoots would likely kill to be a part of what goes down any given Sunday Night // Goth Night in L.A. (particularly Part Time Punks), but I guess we’re all condemned to Zoom versions of dance parties as long as we remain in the grip of a pandemic. In that case, be sure to get the latest full-length from Death Bells into your playlist, because New Signs of Life delivers the sort of jangly, largely upbeat indie post-punk that’s perfectly suited for smoking the dance floor and lurking in the shadows alike.
• Genre: Post-punk with a touch of synth
Spectres – Nostalgia
Full-length number four from Vancouver’s steady-rocking Spectres eschews the current synth trend in favor of sticking to a more forceful, guitar-dominated form of post-punk that should appeal to anyone who might’ve had posters of Echo & the Bunnymen and The Jesus and Mary Chain decorating their dorm-room walls. Basically, if you feel the rock element has been largely missing from the bulk of the modern post-punk alterations, but you still want touches of melodic sheen, Spectres is your new best pal.
• Genre: Post-punk
The Psychedelic Furs – Made of Rain
I wasn’t really sure what to expect upon hearing about the first Psychedelic Furs record in (gulp) 29 years, but my confidence slowly climbed toward the ceiling with each subsequent song unveiled before Made of Rain finally dropped at the end of July. I had a pretty good idea that Richard Butler still sounded exactly like Richard Butler, thanks to the wonderful solo record he released back in 2006, but I wasn’t expecting to feel as if virtually no time had passed since the band’s glory era. Not that Made of Rain sounds like Still Talk Talk Talking, it’s just really nice to hear The Psychedelic Furs sounding like The Psychedelic Furs in 2020. Nostalgia in the truest sense of the word.
• Genre: New wave / post-punk
Ambrose Akinmusire – on the tender spot of every calloused moment
One of the most remarkable things concerning on the tender spot of every calloused moment relates to how the album manages to sound like life, and that includes all the beauty, chaos and the full gamut of emotions that occur in-between. Yes, it’s rendered through a jazz lens that involves piano, stand-up bass, drums and Akinmusire’s authoritative command of the trumpet, but similar to a fellow like Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, the goal here isn’t necessarily to “play jazz” or even “push jazz to new dimensions,” it’s to find compelling ways to portray the variability of life and human relationships by rendering it through wildly creative music. To hell with etiquette.
• Genre: Very adventurous LIFE jazz
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Axiom
If you’re a music freak, you undoubtedly feel the distress of No Live Music in 2020. That particular energy shared between artist(s) and listeners and even the space itself (venues beloved and not-so-beloved alike) is intensely unique, and to say we all “miss it” as this oppressive year slowly draws to a close is an understatement of epic proportions. Axiom, recorded in early March at the Blue Note / NY just before COVID forced extensive closures, serves as a stark reminder of how things used to be immediately prior to the shit really hitting the fan. Consequently, one can’t help but marvel over just how far we’ve managed to fall in just nine months upon hearing Christian Scott declare, “We’re not running. You know… Wash your damn hands, but we’re not running” at the close of Axiom’s opening track. The music itself is as mightily potent and genre defying as most of aTunde Adjuah’s catalog—I don’t think he’d punch you square in the chiclets for calling this sort of work jazz, but you’d get one hell of a cold stare—and experiencing Axiom’s form of creative improvised music in the comfort of your home is absolutely the next best thing when the joys of “shared force” continues to be obscured in a galaxy far, far away.
• Genre: Creative improvised music
Bill Frisell – Valentine
I very much hope you’re familiar with the name Bill Frisell. Extreme metal freaks will likely recognize him through his past efforts with John Zorn and Naked City, but he’s attached his guitar work to enough different genre tints that your head could spin for a week following attempts to connect it all on a snazzy slab of cork board. Case in point, Frisell’s corner of discogs features an impressive 107 pages, and if you think I’m expert enough to know even half his work, you are grievously mistaken. I am, however, aware of the truth that Valentine is considered a calmer work in the Frisell assortment, and its purpose is to flex not only his ridiculous aptitude for guitar in a slightly more understated way, but also to underscore the talents of the two associates who have joined him on extensive European tours prior to pandemic times: Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. Valentine is a slyly loose and playful record that might make you think about cats watching birds from the window, and it is therefore very well suited for easing into comfortable moments where the world’s insanity suddenly feels very far away.
• Genre: Jazz trio
Matthew Halsall – Salute to the Sun
Thanks to greed, money and power, human beings by and large have a terrifically shitty relationship with rainforests. We don’t deserve their excellence, basically, and at this point we should probably be condemned to experiencing their beauty strictly through art and a handful of worthy representatives such as Sir David Attenborough. Matthew Halsall’s latest album, Salute to the Sun, is a wonderful illustration of the goodness of the rainforest / jungle—and, as such, it is as restful and unruffled as Attenborough drinking several Batida de Cocos in a hammock after spending an informal day watching colorful Macaws dance and play amidst clay deposits and jungle canopies. Take as needed for pain.
• Genre: Jazz
Daniel Herskedal – Call for Winter
Call for Winter is one of two records from 2020 that wins the “Most Listened to at the Start of the Day” award. Accordingly, there is a clear ease floating about the record that shifts and pulls as softly as a rising sun. It also very much captures the spirit of its title from the perspective of someone who welcomes the muted beauty of winter and reveres its power for isolated invigoration. Notions such as this don’t often include images of tubas, but in the hands of Daniel Herskedal, this instrument (along with the bass trumpet) has the ability to transport the listener to a peaceful Nordic cabin where the closest neighbors walk on all fours and probably wonder what the hell you’re doing there in the first place.
• Genre: Jazz
Chad Taylor Trio – The Daily Biological
I’m fairly certain I listened to The Daily Biological at least twenty times before realizing its most obvious peculiarity: There is no bass. Am I a fool? Extremely conceivable. I’m also absolutely unsure of how often that’s occurred in the long history of jazz trio recordings, but it’s uncommon enough in my world that the realization has since transformed into an obsession where I just love listening to the record and exploring how drummer Chad Taylor, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles and pianist Neil Podgurski find ways to anchor that low end. Quite often they simply don’t, and that adds to the uniqueness of the experience, and other times their notes hit that lower limit in a way that makes you realize that a bass would actually feel unwelcome in this realm. What a strange and wonderful world jazz can be.
• Genre: Jazz trio
Wobbler – Dwellers of the Deep
From the review I wrote back in October: “Fiercely adventurous progressive rock such as this obviously ain’t built for everyone, but it can be an absolute lifeline for those who enjoy acts that reach back in order to hurtle forward and very far away from the horrors of the modern day. In a similar way that projects such as Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, ELP, and a great many others ferried listeners to new dimensions five decades ago (!!!) using music that scorned and defied traditional directives, bands like Wobbler find new ways to further that flight today. Dwellers of the Deep is a magnificent record that should sprint to the top of the list for any and all broad-minded explorers who like it freaky-deaky and extra wobbly.”
• Genre: Progressive rock
Polymoon – Caterpillars of Creation
Polymoon’s debut probably wasn’t intended to be compared to Kairon; IRSE’s highly anticipated fourth record, Polysomn, but the promos landed on the same day, and both explore psychedelia from a similar lens that was probably bought from a head shop that plays records by Gong and Nektar the entire day. Where Caterpillars of Creation differs and ultimately wins the fictitious Finnish mushroom-trip skirmish is the way that Polymoon avoids forgetting the power of “rocking your fucking face off.” Also, do you guys see the talking lemur by the couch over there, or is it just me.
• Genre: Progressive / psychedelic rock
Airbag – A Day at the Beach
Progressive rock ruled much of the Last Rites’ roost in 2020. To be clear, we’ve always been fans, but this year saw an extra heaping dose of exploration that involved dips into the distant past (Khan’s Space Shanty), the not-too-distant past (Anekdoten’s Until All the Ghosts are Gone and Soup’s Remedies), and even right here in the modern age with boons delivered by fellow Osloites Wobbler and the oddly designated Airbag. With A Day at the Beach, comparisons to Pink Floyd are unavoidable (and hopefully welcome), but there is a clear modernistic approach to that particular form of floating progressive rock that recalls the recent work of Steven Wilson or even Radiohead, so expect bits of electronic whirring, bleeping and whispering alongside all that majestic guitar and vocal work.
• Genre: Modern progressive rock
bvdub – Wrath & Apathy
I have long been a fan of Brock Van Wey / bvdub and his tenacious methods of exploring isolation and detachment through electronic music in nearly every form, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I discovered his efforts have often been influenced by the work of author Haruki Murakami. This was a particularly notable breakthrough for me because I’d unwittingly used prior works from Van Wey as a backdrop to a long overdue commitment to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle this year, and then I saw the following quote attached to Wrath & Apathy when it dropped in September: “People are drawn deeper into tragedy not by their defects but by their virtues.” That’s pulled from the Murakami novel Kafka On the Shore, and it really is a perfect encapsulation of the recognition that a great many of us dedicate considerable amounts of time in desolate, solitary reflection not because we’re depressed-obsessed, but because a deep familiarity isn’t just conducive to restoration, it’s necessary. Wrath & Apathy is a beautiful soundtrack for that epic voyage.
• Genre: Electronic / ambient
The Necks – Three
I find myself generally lost when attempting to explain precisely what Australia’s The Necks gets up to from one record to the next. Improvisational, experimental drone jazz electronics custom built for transcendental meditation? Sure, let’s go with that. Three, the band’s twenty-first (!!!) record in three decades, explores a similar sort of mystical desert spiritualism as previous works, but it still finds ways to be distinct, despite continually encompassing little more than a trio of piano, bass and drums / percussion. There are expansive stretches here where the core is as forceful as a train endlessly gulping coal (“Bloom”), or as taut as the moments just prior to a Freddy Krueger gut slash (“Lovelock”), but charm always ends up winning the day, which is certainly facilitated by closing the record on an expansive note as delightful as “Further.”
• Genre: Improvisational / experimental / drone / jazz / electronic
Anna von Hausswolff – All Thoughts Fly
I suppose I’ve always been pretty mesmerized by the sound of the organ. As a kid who did his time in Sunday services, I always enjoyed how the POWER component behind the organ shook drowsy parishioners out of stupors, but what I remember most fondly is how it would just quietly roam and grumble in the backdrop before services kicked off, like some giant godhead’s eye combing the flock for vulnerabilities. That’s the sense I get from Anna von Hausswolff’s latest endeavor, All Thoughts Fly, but with an even darker tint. There is nothing but organ present here, and it drifts and paints a perfect picture of the spookiness at the heart of what apparently stoked Hausswolff’s creative fires for the record: Italy’s Parco dei Mostri. Hey, is there really that much of a difference between stepping into church and wandering into the mouth of Orcus?
• Genre: Organ hypnotherapy
YlangYlang – Interplay
If you scroll up several hundred feet and jump back into my intro, you will recall that I spoke of the value of balance and the importance of working to ensure your environment finds a sense of pleasant harmony. Listening to YlangYlang’s wonderful Interplay leads me to believe that principal architect Catherine Debard likewise spends considerable time overthinking the significance of harmoniousness and balance. She perhaps wouldn’t appreciate me drawing comparisons to a more tranquil Björk, because that somehow seems too lazy, but that’s what comes to mind whenever I take this beautiful little trip.
• Genre: electronic / ambient / field recordings
Raphael Weinroth-Browne – Worlds Within
I first stumbled across the impressive talent of cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne through his work alongside guitarist Nathanael Larochette and violinist Evan Runge in the “progressive chamber trio” Musk Ox. (If you haven’t heard Woodfall, I suggest rectifying that blunder asap.) His solo work is similarly emotive, spellbinding and heartening, but being the sole proprietor allows him to underscore the limitless temperaments the cello is capable of generating at the hands of someone as skilled as Weinroth-Browne with the assistance of a few effects pedals. Worlds Within is dreamy, sweeping and balances long stretches of calm with moments where the swell soars high enough to make you feel as if the earth is passing far beneath your feet.
• Genre: Modern classical / solo cello / ambient / post-rock
Jaan-Eik Tulve / Vox Clamantis – The Suspended Harp of Babel
Hearing voices harmonize and climb and turn and dip with such precise and polished uniformity as they do throughout The Suspended Harp of Babel provided a very welcome sense of calm amidst the chaos of 2020, and I’m fairly certain I took advantage of this record’s services approximately five times a week from the day I first caught wind of it through NPR’s New Music Friday back in early May. These are ancient hymns and psalms developed by composer Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) and brought back to life by the Estonian choir Vox Clamantis (directed by Jaan-Eik Tulve), and I very much believe you needn’t be Ned-diddly Flanders in order to reap the benefit of such exquisite ecclesiastical serenity. Put simply, The Suspended Harp of Babel is one of the most absurdly beautiful albums of 2020.
• Genre: Classical / choral music
Eddie Van Halen