Go, then. There are other worlds than these. – Jake Chambers
The zombie sub-genre of horror film introduced some interesting hypotheticals. Everyone reading this has, in all likelihood, at least pondered on how they would act in the event of a zombie outbreak. Usually informed from the omnipotent point-of-view of the spectator, these discussions are typically littered with Monday morning quarterback calls; after all, there is no way anyone could be so stupid as to ignore such obvious warning signs of impending chaos and terror, right? It’s easy to see decline from the comfort of one’s sofa or from the safety of a hypothetical scenario where the entire response is tainted with the foreknowledge of the imminent threat. Yet this year, we did get a glimpse of how we would behave in the face of a global pandemic. For the most part, it was a lot of waiting. Waiting to see if you or a loved one would get sick, waiting for news of a vaccine, waiting to get tested, waiting to lose your job, waiting to be evicted, waiting for things to get worse.
However, as has happened time and again, times of great struggle birth great art, and heavy metal has been no exception in this, the Year Of The Plague. In fact, through the past 358 days of doom and gloom, it’s no wonder the champion genre of foreboding negativity hit a thriving stride. In a world where each passing day seems to bring some new horror, it’s as though the passion in the work was handled with an uncompromising conviction. After all, any given day could mark catastrophe – get in while you have the chance. Record that album, write that book, or take up painting: Anything to connect in some way again to the human spirit and find release in the ecstasy of creation or, at the very least, experience some force of control when the world feels like it is spinning further and further away from it.
And yet, as my personal year unfolded, it was the music that drew from a more resilient source that resonated the most. It’s not surprising that the top three albums on this list are all works that focus on championing as they emanate a conquering triumph in the face of adversity. Perhaps in our darkest hours we cling most steadfastly to hope, if even to dream of overcoming an unfathomable wave of terror and trepidation.
It was within this cocoon of fear that I lived a thousand lives. From the comfort of my own sofa, I traversed the cosmos: I explored the strangest regions of foreign galaxies, rode into conflict against all odds with a legion of battle-hardened warriors across majestical landscapes, feasted within the moldy lairs of vampires, and broke bread with mad wizards in enchanted forests. As the world felt like it was collapsing around me, I escaped to desert wastes, lurked within the hearts of haunted castles, tumbled through cavernous nightmares, and witnessed the death of a planet. I came face to face with my own inner darkness, achieved enlightenment, fell in and out of love. I raced across the empty streets of a neon metropolis, soared on the wings of dragons, took shortcuts through alternate dimensions, set sail on unknown seas inhabited by cunning sirens and vicious beasts, and surfed amongst space debris through the rings of alien worlds. I was dismembered by serial killers, devoured by otherworldly abominations, tortured by sadistic priests. I achieved immortality, shotgunned beers with Satan, partied after-hours in the Kingdom Of Hell, shattered chains, and danced with demons under a moonless sky – all thanks to these auditory portals so lovingly crafted by the sonic alchemists of heavy metal. When my will to cling to reality broke, it was falling into these worlds that felt like the greatest escape from the dread of waiting for the next catastrophic event.
One of the greatest things about music is its dependence on a singular sense. This creates a symbiotic relationship between the mind of its creator and that of the listener. What was imagined and brought into existence is then perceived through the very personal lens of experience and the creativity of the recipient. Fueled by this culmination of inspiration, it gives power to the listener to fill in the missing sensory gaps, so to speak, to construct and explore their own worlds to the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) soundtrack. What follows were the portals I most enjoyed exploring when I needed to get away from the increasing hopelessness of everyday life. They are the albums I most returned to and relied on, the records that had the greatest impact on my personal journey throughout a year where the doldrums of despair were broken only by further malaise and tragedy. This is no small act, and a few thanks are in order. To the artists, labels, PR folks, cover artists, engineers, producers, venues that hosted live streams, and (especially) the U.S. Postal Service for keeping me sane in these trying times: Thank you. To the zines, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and especially the passionate fans who still took time to share their finds and mutual love for this music: Thank you. To the Last Rites staff, regular readers, and friends for allowing me my own little creative space and for remaining a steadfast source of support and love: Thank you. I can only hope, in the lists that follow, that I might spread a bit of joy or shine a light on something you, dear Reader, may not have had the pleasure of exploring. Even if you know them all, hopefully a few of your picks are to follow that we might rejoice in the connection of sharing some favorites. Gods be with ye on thy quest, and beware: Hc svnt dracones!
BOOK I: ROADS TO GLORY, ROADS TO DEATH
The first ten of the top twenty, and, honestly, the hardest choices to narrow down every year since I’ve been writing here.
20. Siege Column – Darkside Legions
A man comes upon another man who is repeatedly bashing himself in the face with a seven-pound hammer. When asked why he’s beating his face to a pulp, the man with the hammer replies, “Because it feels so good when I stop!” While the sophomore effort of New Jersey’s Siege Column feels good while it’s going, I imagine the cathartic effect of ceasing to bash one’s own face with a paver mallet is similar to the pleasure to be found within the sheer release of brutality on Darkside Legions. Wailing guitar screams over grinding death metal of war with a bass tone that leaves strings of saliva drooling from a slack jaw, Siege Column harness the barbaric old school on their own terms, and it’s every bit as evil and nasty as the After-School Detention cover art implies.
19. Worm – Gloomlord
Perhaps I’m being ungrateful towards the outpouring of excellent death metal in the past few years, or perhaps I’m just jaded and cynical, but I can’t shake the feeling it’s headed the way of the pizza thrash revival in the early 2000s. Not that all bands sound exactly the same, but so many are drawing from similar sources that the inbreeding of influence has created stagnation in the gene pool. Luckily, death/doom doesn’t seem to be falling into the same incestuous pitfalls. Worm channel the muck and guck of the swamps of their home state of Florida. Lush, vibrant haze encapsulates the recording, the very air becomes dense with a pungent mist. The vocals carry the reverb-laden atmosphere of Xantotol, calling back to Worm’s earlier forays into black metal. The riffs slow to a near-funeral doom crawl, bearing much in similarity to the classic Finnish death metal scene, picking up only when the foul breath of death can be felt on the listener’s neck. Even with the slow tempo, there’s not a second to breathe as Gloomlord slowly sinks further and further into the murky dark of its quagmires.
18. Omegavortex – Black Abomination Spawn
A bit of a late contender, perhaps, but the debut from Germany’s Omegavortex has inspired so many repeat listens at this point that it fully deserves it’s spot on this list. Visceral black/death that finds no shortage of riffs and chaotic solos, Black Abomination Spawn brings with it a very particular flavor of fury. The album is never content to stay still, even when riffs repeat for a spell the drum patterns are always there to enhance the destruction of quantum levels of chaos. Something is always happening, and there isn’t quite a comfortable moment to be found. It leads to an extremely restless atmosphere that charges the music with a sporadic and unpredictable flow of energy. Fans of Necrovore, or, more recently, Ascended Dead, will find a lot to love in the forty-five minute nonstop barrage of volume that simply reeks with the stale vacuumed stench of outerworldly warfare and death.
17. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi
Mestarin Kynsi was a bit of a grower for me. Upon the release of the Finnish psychedelic black metal band’s fifth studio full-length, I played it once or twice, enjoyed it, and then promptly forgot about it for a few months. Coming back further into the year opened the swirling dark fog of color emitted from the hypnotic rhythms, otherworldly tones, and patient builds. Mestarin Kynsi is a record that is made to become lost in by design, and each subsequent play seemed to affect me differently. Every trip through the album feels like it’s own journey through a crystalline vile of LSD, yet there’s a comforting nature to the repetition as the song builds around the firmly rooted rhythm section. Twists, turns, set changes, and surprises abound, marking another unique entry to the already heavy calibre catalogue of the band.
16. High Spirits – Hard To Stop
High Spirits is a band that never ceases to threaten me with a good time, regardless of the circumstances in my day-to-day life. Hard rockin’ heavy metal littered with pop hooks all haunted with the specters of late nights and city lights, Hard To Stop is another serotonin slam dunk for the Chicago outfit. The energetic nature of the songs serve the band’s namesake well; even when the tunes touch on heartbreak and disappointment, they never lose grip on the optimistic perspective from whence they draw their power. The Dan Swanö production brings out the band’s best sound to date: It’s crisp, clear, and inviting as it actuates the warmth of the band. Highly recommend for hitting the highway with nothing but dreams and a full tank of gas.
15. Greyhawk – Keepers Of The Flame
Following 2018’s Ride Out EP, the Seattle, Washington heavy metal act Greyhawk went well beyond the promise of their initial offering with their debut full-length. Keepers Of The Flame is a special slice of U.S. power metal, packed with burly vocals, uplifting choruses, memorable riffs, and a guitar tone that bears more than a little resemblance to Jake E. Lee era Ozzy. It’s the minuscule musical touches that flirt with the more pop-friendly aspect of the 80s that bring out the spirit of the time period most on the album (the Sisters Of Mercy sounding “The Rising Sign” additionally comes immediately to mind). Rather than relying on a retro styled production, the band strive for a retro spirit that shines through like a blazing heart. The diversity of the record proves one of its greatest strengths, every song has its own fully fleshed out personality. What results in this culmination the band have concocted is a full-bodied trip through some infectiously fun heavy metal – the top down, sun out record of the summer.
14. Pharmacist – Medical Renditions Of Grinding Decomposition
It’d be easy to simply write Pharmacist off as little more than an excellent band paying homage to the goregrind grandpappys in Carcass. There’s a point to be made there, after all, the galloping riffs are right out of Carcass’s whiplashing playbook. What made the debut from the Japan’s Pharmacist stand out even more were the marked differences from their primary muse. The scope of influence expertly extracts a touch of everything from the grinding Reek Of Putrefaction to the Big Death Metal Riffs™ of Necroticism. The vocal manipulation and occasional keyboard use add an extra layer atop the Carcass cake from whence the foundation is created, and the longer-form songs certainly experiment with goregrind’s traditionally under two minute limit on song length. It’s no less rambunctious for it, packing quick changes and plenty of variety for the A.D.H.D.-addled mind. Medical Renditions Of Grinding Decomposition is a grosstasticly puke-a-riffic romp through an alternate future where Carcass made a slight left following Necroticism instead of a hard right into Heartwork.
13. Possessed Steel – Aedris
There was a certain added allure to well-conceptualized and executed concept albums for me this year. Perhaps it was that desire for escape lurking deep within mine loins that yearned for a good story to unfold across some galloping riffs, crisp melodies, and magical undertones. Whatever it was, Possessed Steel certainly struck true on their debut album, Aedris. The record sits comfortably between mid-paced doom and galavanting NWOBHM, with a dash of US power metal’s infatuation with all things sword and sworcery, might and magick, honour and glory. The vocals weave the yarn well with a diverse toolbox that always finds the right way to translate the music to tale – the delivery is just as much a part of the storytelling as the words themselves. Possessed Steel have crafted quite an adventure in Aedris, all delivered under the warmth of a crackling fire in the well-kept hearth of a tavern on a chilly night before embarking on a most valiant quest.
12. Undergang – Aldrig I Livet
I don’t necessarily write these blurbs in order, but I’m sure I’ve hemmed and hawed elsewhere about how so much death metal just wasn’t exciting for me this year. It seems that a bulk of the output from the genre this year failed to break the cookie cutter mold or felt like it was written for the explicit purpose of finding a home on a “Death Metal Yoga” Spotify playlist. One spin of Aldrig I Livet threw all of that straight into the toilet, spiraling me headfirst in a month-long death metal swirly of a binge with Undergang as the centerpiece. The band’s fifth full-length is one of their grooviest, grossest, and sassiest yet, and it’s packed with tracks perfectly suited for the “Septic Leakage On Leg Day” playlist. Seriously, it’s those iron-clad grooves that keep bringing me back time and again, dripping and oozing with the gory textures and delirious riffs that just send it on home with a wet flush into the heavenly grotesque sewers of death metal.
11. Ifernach – The Green Enchanted Forest Of The Druid Wizard
Radiant, shimmering, and grandiose may not be the first words that come to mind when thinking of black metal, yet Ifernach cover all three on The Green Enchanted Forest Of The Druid Wizard. Lush, vibrant, minimalist interludes string together songs rooted in the coming to terms of a violent, conflicted heritage through a marriage of folklore and fantasy set to stunningly melodic, energetic black metal. Themes of duality can be dissected throughout the approach to album flow and songwriting; these opposing sides play off one another and intertwine to create a brilliant journey through the eyes of a fenian revolutionary as he embarks through the Druid Wizard’s enchanted wood. Delightful and haunting, melodic and abrasive, The Green Enchanted Forest Of The Druid Wizard is a memorable adventure that begs many fruitful returns. Also, “A Winter Tree Clad In Black” may be one of the most joyful black metal songs I’ve heard, delivered with a glowing honesty that will have me come to fisticuffs with anyone who tries to claim its not “trve” enough. Seriously, I’ll fight you, put your address in the comments below.
BOOK II: MASTER THE BLADE, CONQUER THE STEEL
The final ten of the top twenty. The ones that were the easier picks, these are the records that stuck with me the most. They’re ones I consistently just can not shut up about, the ones I’ve constantly annoyed my friends to listen to, the ones that really went above and beyond the call of duty when it came to reliably carrying me away from the world when I needed it.
They’re pretty good, you should give them a listen if you haven’t already.
10. BÜTCHER – 666 GOATS CARRY MY CHARIOT
Let’s face it: The hour of crudely welding a bazooka to the side car of your frankensteinian beast of an iron steed is rapidly approaching. It’ll be a time when the sweet, sweet petrol guarded by heavily armed post-apocalyptic barbarians is but a mere barren waste away from your tanks. As you pop your bootleg amphetamines and begin your journey across the harsh desert, you’re going to need a soundtrack that’ll keep the adrenaline flowing until that precious fuel is in your possession. When that time comes, you’ll be so glad you saved your copy of 666 Goats Carry My Chariot instead of your stupid family photo albums or whatever. Belgium’s Bütcher are bringing nothing short of manic, rip ridin’ speed metal packed (in full studded leather armor, of course) to capacity with spikes, chains, whips, and the sweet pungency of diesel exhaust. Wearing their influences fully on their sleeve, Bütcher places riffs and references to the greatness of heavy metal yesteryear in a display of fan service greater than any anime DeviantArt account. It’s a nonstop adventure ride, cresting with an epic title track: When they say the name of the album in the song, it feels like it actually means something. Ride out, raider. Ride fast, and may all 666 goats carry your chariot to maximum high-octane glory.
9. DARK QUARTERER – POMPEI
I remember when the Escape From Pompeii ride at Busch Gardens was first announced. It was billed as this whirlwind log flume adventure ride that climaxed with an epic splashdown down Mount Vesuvius. I never made it to the ride until many years later, and it ended up being extremely disappointing from the hype I remembered from early childhood. Seriously, even the splashdown was kinda lame. My experience with Pompei couldn’t be further from this. Dark Quarterer have always been one of those bands I’ve been tangentially familiar with but never really explored; checking out their latest work exceeded my imaginary expectations. Pompei is a full-on epic treatment of progressive heavy metal in the vein of greats like Hammers Of Misfortune. Striking a Bruce Lee master balance between strength and fluidity, the Italian band weave a tapestry of experiences centered around the devastating volcano that wiped out a city with a menagerie of shifting riffs and leads across a spunky and thoughtful rhythm section. In the year where I had a seemingly insatiable hunger for masterfully executed concept albums, Dark Quarterer quenched a thirst I didn’t know I had. It can be assured this is one band I will be spending more time getting to know in the coming year (with plenty of help from Lone Watie’s excellent primer).
8. PRIMEVAL MASS – NINE ALTARS
It is important to remember that albums are more than just a collection of songs. Well, sometimes they are, but even then some thought has to go into the albumcraft. Track order, the inclusion of interludes, liner notes, cover decisions, and packaging — to name a few — all play into creating the complete and total soul of the album. So much of the magic of Primeval Mass’s fourth album, Nine Altars, comes from the way in which the songs grow off of one another as the album progresses across a fifty-five minute duration that scorches all perception of time down to more like a half hour. Starting with a notably visceral display of blackened thrash (a bit of a departure from the band’s more orthodox black metal style on previous efforts) the album twists and turns through a labyrinth of riffs at blisteringly breakneck speed. The full lean into thrash is welcome — the guitar and drums trade off chaotic bursts of energy like a demon with a hyperactivity disorder– but nothing really preempts what comes next. As Nine Altars progresses, it opens up more and more into a whirlwind adventure through technical thrash, albeit charred and blackened with plenty of hellfire – especially on the three-peat fury composed of the blitzing “Night Rapture” into the triplet guitar attack on the instrumental “Amidst Twin Horizons” and going way off into the rapid fire weirdness of “Burning Sorcery.” Never straying from the energy and speed or sacrificing the songs for wanky musicianship, Primeval Mass hand delivers the best thrash album of the year, and one of the best in the genre in recent memory. A criminally overlooked and underappreciated release.
7. MALOKARPATAN – KRUPINSKÉ OHNE
Over the course of now three albums, Slovakia’s Malokarpatan have proven themselves as a sort of shaman in their interpretation of late first-wave black metal. Drawing heavily from the earlier works of Master’s Hammer, Mortuary Drape, and Root, Malokarpatan craft an intoxicating brew of riff-laden folk magic and, let’s say, an un-sober brilliance to songwriting. The way the songs transpose – from energetic gallops to drifting psychedelic flights to sneaky hooks that slip seemlessly into the nooks and crannies of the brain – create an adventure that grows more and more inviting to become lost within as the album further unfolds its organic layers. The black metal side still has an edge, but the bite of repugnance it projects holds more the welcoming sting of a freshly sliced red onion than a hock of rotten, decrepit meat. Krupinské Ohne is roguish and sassy, flirting with a mischievous nature but never really stepping outside of a chaotic neutral alignment. Its true greatness lies in that it’s a beautifully passive listen with plenty of potential for repeat plays to truly appreciate the subtleties in the songwriting, the riffs, and of the overall journey guided by the Slovakian mystics. Oh, and the “WOAHHHOOOOOHHHOOOOOO’s” in the album’s closing title track are one of my favorite moments in music this year.
6. AUTONOESIS – AUTONOESIS
Metal is, at its core, guitar-driven music. While there are plenty of bands that have completely broken this mold or rethought the way the guitar is to be utilized in these metals most heavy, the very soul of the genre can at the very least be traced all the way back to the rock guitar heroics of Jimmie Page, Jimi Hendrix and, of course, Eddie Van Halen (may the latter two shred in piece). As metal began to deviate further and further away from harder blues-rooted rock’n’roll music, it still carried over that strive to further the possibilities of what human fingers can do to a fretboard. From Iommi to Malmsteen to Shelton to Mustaine to Schuldiner to Nodtviedt and all the heroes between and since, to notable duos such as Downing/Tipton, Smith/Murray, or Denner/Shermann, guitarists of a particular caliber carry the power to grasp the reigns of heavy metal by the proverbial horns and up the power factor of a band by eleven. (The sustain! Listen to it!)
Make no mistake, Autonoesis is a string-driven release – the drums are pretty obviously programmed (albeit well-programmed). Even more specifically, the debut from the mysterious Canadian black/death/thrash band is a guitar-driven album. While the bass makes some pretty notable appearances, such as the DiGeorgio-esque fretless work on “Visions,” it’s really the guitarwork that steals the show. If the riffs don’t catch your interest on the “Nightfall” opener and that very first guitar solo doesn’t start pumping pure iron through your bloodstream, then you may very well need to get that metal heart examined. Autonoesis don’t hold back in the slightest, whether they’re whipping you around by your spinal column in a thrashtopian frenzy, funkin’ up the bass with a bit of buttery biscuit DiGiorgio-esque action, dropping ignorant Bolt Thrower riffs into the center of an otherwise thoughtful song progression, or simply shredding every bit of the bindings that hold us to this mortal coil with some seriously wondrous guitar solos. One of the most promising debut acts to come out of the Year Of Isolation, hands down.
5. SELBST – RELATOS DE ANGUSTIA
Sweet release. Whether it’s conquering a foe or surrendering to the darkness, there is certainly relief in moving beyond hopelessness. At least, that’s the best analysis I can muster walking away from the sophomore full length of Venezuela one man black metal act Selbst. As dark and haunting as the crisp, defined edges are, there’s still a certain repose to be found buried deep within the music. Perhaps it’s in the way the ever-fluid songs evolve to explosive climaxes against a bleak, all-encompassing backdrop, or, even more likely, within the subtle melodies buried amongst the cacophony of self-loathing on Relatos De Angustia. Either way, the album sets Selbst firmly on my radar of contemporary black metal greats. In a style so vastly flooded with mediocre edgelord attempts at nihilistic evaluations of self and society, this record sparkled and shone like black diamond in the onyx sands of Playa Arenilla Negra. The conflicting inner turmoil radiates from the bickering of the guitars as they weave their melodies across creative drumwork and vocals oozing with desolate conviction. Relatos De Angusita is the real deal; this is modern black metal executed with obsidian passion and a soot-ridden soul of darkness.
4. AFTERBIRTH – FOUR DIMENSIONAL FLESH
Despite all my “old man yells at clouds” takes on the genre this year, death metal really has been on fire for the past few rounds about the sun. Perhaps that’s where my discontent lies: The bar has been raised. With so much stuff that we would have been going absolutely apeshit over ten years ago flooding the landscape of Bandcamp on a seemingly weekly basis, the proverbial limbo stick has dropped a few pegs down to a near-unachievable gap. It takes a lot to really stand out in the genre these days, but damn if Afterbirth didn’t go and take all things brutal death to another realm. Between the vocals of Will Smith (Artificial Brain) and the dynamics of musicians Cody Drasser, David Case, and Keith Harris, Afterbirth (“Aftabeth” in the proper Long Island tongue) sculpt a cosmic death metal release of dynamics and creativity. The album’s presentation gives plenty of room for the crisp flash of the drums to glimmer and shine like the sparkling stars of the spiraling nethers. Additionally, it allows ample jurisdiction for the guitars to take command of the astromelodies on a journey through the more horrorific encounters of traversing the unfathomable depths of space and time, thanks in no small part to the production efforts of the prolific Colin Marston. This is the album that dared to reach beyond the boundaries and bring something fresh, new, and, most importantly, memorable to the galactic death metal table.
3. ETERNAL CHAMPION – RAVENING IRON
And here we are, at the Triumphant Three that lay atop the summits of my list. Off the back of their 2016 debut, The Armor Of Ire, Eternal Champion have become somewhat, well, the champions of the contemporary traditional metal movement. The band have singlehandedly inspired countless warriors to take up their axes in the name of Heavy Metal and innumerable amounts of scholars to delve deep into the past to discover more of the history of the style. Needless to say, the long-awaited sophomore album carried with it the demon known most colloquially as Expectation. Yet with veteran levels of expertise, The Five Who Are One managed to thwart this scheming foe by shifting stances entirely. While the core spirit of the band remained unwavering, Ravening Iron took a stronger offensive than it’s predecessor, relying more on aggression and immediacy than atmospheric sorcery. The leads and solos are even more impassioned and play a much greater role, the riffs are teetering on the edge of thrash in their urgency, and Tarpy’s vocals benefit from a bold robustness and self-assuredness. The album’s production pushes everything to the forefront – the band aren’t pretending like they’re limited, rather, they embrace having a full and well-rounded sound. Yet it’s the soul behind the songs that sells them, as was the point of success with the former effort. As long as Eternal Champion continue to stoke the flames in their forge, I see nothing but greatness ahead for the band.
2. HAVUKRUUNU – UINUOS SYÖMEIN SOTA
Where does courage come from? At its root, it’s a form of inspiration. It’s grown from the heart’s ability to overpower the grip of the flight instinct and face trials head on. It can be infectious – one person taking the reigns can inspire courage in others, and, being an emotion, transmuted into a viable currency of art. While I have yet to even begin to dive into the story behind Havukruunu’s massive pagan black metal third album, I can tell you that Uinuos Syömein Sota inspires courage. The energy of the percussion, the melodies of the guitars, the echoing grandiosity of the vocals all feel devoted to a cause larger than themselves. What’s more is the full package is delivered with such confidence, such brazen boldness, such swashbuckling swagger that the listener can’t help but feel swept up in it all. The muscle in the riffs, the fluidity of the solos, and the gratuitous amounts of reverb all add to making Uinuos Syömein Sota into something truly greater than the sum of its parts. This record feels larger than life, and must be experienced fully to be believed, from the epic cannon fire of the opener to the soft synth fadeaway of the outro and all the rifftastic grabs for glory of legend to be found betwixt the two.
1. CIRITH UNGOL – FOREVER BLACK
I was not quite four years old the last time Cirith Ungol released a new studio album. I wasn’t even alive when they released the three albums I hold in highest regard, only discovering them after I was well on my way through the seemingly infinite expanses of heavy metal. I’ve hemmed and hawed in these very halls of being born too late or whatever, but sometimes the past has a way of finding new life and connection in the present. Cirith Ungol’s fifth full-length entry arrives twenty-nine years since their last album, yet Forever Black appears to have defied any concept of time. The Ventura, California quintet erupt with raging fire out of the appropriately titled introduction track, “The Call,” and into the galloping gallantry of “Legions Arise.” It is a fervent call to arms, and hearing Tim Baker’s banshee vocals howl out “Long have we slumbered, but now we awake!” brings waves of goosebumps even as I write this out. The record is a nonstop display of heavy metal triumph all the way through the closing solo of the album’s apex at the eponymous final tune. It’s more than a comeback record (and a damn great one at that); Forever Black feels like it’s my Cirith Ungol record – the one I got to experience simultaneously with fans blessed with the privilege of witnessing the original magic of the band firsthand in the early days. Pseudo-nostalgia aside, the band’s songwriting is as tight as ever: The little touches of vocal harmony really add an extra layer of dynamics, Baker’s vocals have matured like an exotic wine, the solos lean heavily into that rockin’, blues-riddled feel of heavy metal in its infancy, and that same fire that was lit so many years ago still blazes proudly with uncompromising passion. There’s conviction in the closing words to the album; they strike with the same feeling that goes straight for the gut as the first time hearing the band. Long live Cirith Ungol, and may they remain: Forever unrelenting, forever triumphant, forever heavy, forever black.
BOOK III: STILETTOS & SWITCHBLADES
EP’s, Demos, Splits, 7″‘s, 45’s, Promo Tapes, 8-Tracks, & Hit Clips® (I made this joke last year and will continue to do so until someone acknowledges that HitClips® were an actual thing and not just the product of a damaged and deranged imagination.)
10. Lamentari – Missa Pro Defunctus
Seemingly materializing out of nowhere**, Copenhagen symphonic black metal band Lamentari hit the ground running with their debut EP, Missa Pro Defunctus. Recorded by two individuals at the core of the band, the EP is a study in grandiose, over-the-top symphonics packed onto solid bones of mid-tempo black metal riffs. Ripping solos bleed out of the grooves laid down by the rhythm section, but the real icing here is the expertly composed symphonics. Lush, expansive soundscapes make Lamentari’s effort feel like the work of a seasoned band in their prime, and yet this is but the beginning. The band have rounded out to a full lineup, so expect more in the near future!
**Yes, Mr. Almonds, I realize they materialized from Denmark. You have to say these things when Andy’s around.
9. Vital Spirit – In The Faith That Looks Through Death
Sprawling, cinematic black metal that tastes of dusty plains, vibrant sunsets, towering mesas under an open sky, the galloping thunder of wild stampedes, and legends of old is the best way I can think to describe the debut EP of Vancouver, British Columbia’s Vital Spirit. In The Faith That Looks Through Death takes plenty of cues from Wayfarer, but there’s a more immediate feel to the urgency of Vital Spirit. Additionally the Canadian band are working from a different angle on an adjacent theme. Vital Spirit feels more of an indigenous perspective; they’re a touch more on the pagan side, at least philosophically speaking. While the EP opens with some interesting ideas, they all start coming together across the record. Musically, Vital Spirit are mixing the folkish interpretation of Enrico Morricone’s vision of the west more and more fervently into the black metal brew across the seventeen minute length. A genesis that bleeds with promise, I hope that they continue to blend these elements even more intricately in future works and unlock the full potential shown on this wonderful little extended play.
8. Meurtrières – Meurtrières
There’s something about the way the French merge melody and riffcraft in heavy metal that just feels French. Meurtrières are no exception. Remove the French name or the vocals being in the band’s native tongue, the metal itself is still explicitly French. The band take this seemingly blood-gifted technique and apply it to a slightly more epic-leaning level, tapping into another notable strength of their homeland’s metal scene: Medievalry. Riffy, catchy, and mighty, the band’s debut feels like making a final dash for the keep, with triumph just over the horizon. The spirit in the music is infectious, driving, unyielding, and packed with surprises – as soon as it feels as though a song is wrapping up, it keeps going just a while longer and manages to get a little better and better rather than fall into the pits of repetition. Meurtrières are packing some serious heat in the battle for all that is true, and stand to be a force to be reckoned with.
7. Fleshvessel – Bile Of Man Reborn
Usually the “kitchen sink” approach is used in a negative light. Luckily, Chicago’s experimental death outfit Fleshvessel are vomiting entrails, lungs, kidneys, gore, guts, and (of course) bile: Essentially, all the things you’d want in a death metal kitchen sink. What’s more, overachievers that they are, Fleshvessel take it a step further by going down the drain themselves and into a bizarre, clashing, otherworldly romp through strange, dreamlike melodies imminating from the elaborate and gratuitous use of keyboards, angular riffs from the ever-present guitars, and an absurdly inhuman drum machine. The EP’s singular twenty-five minute song is like a progressive rock nightmare come to life in a hellish ecstasy that’s both abrasive and, somehow, soothing in its escapism.
6. Pa Vesh En – Burial
Not only is Pa Vesh En by far my favorite contemporary raw black metal band, but they may well take the crown for black/doom in that department as well. Slow, mournful, and utterly soul-devouring, the Belarus act play heavily into the use of bass and vocal layering to create asphyxiating atmospheres of death and decay. It’s a bit of a tough nut to crack at first, but as the ears adapt, the subtle brilliance of Burial, the band’s latest EP, ignites into a blaze of mesmerizing and hauntingly beautiful melodies. The band’s choice to experiment with cleaner vocals on “Pachavannie” adds an even more harrowing dynamic to the sound, further proving that the band are continuing to shine a lantern out a little more outwardly into this shadow world they have created across the expanse of their increasingly strong discography.
5. Iron Cemetery – Manic Deliverance
One of the little gifts to be found amongst the muck, gluck, and total yuck of the year was the surprise sophomore release from Missoula, Montana’s Iron Cemetery. Manic Deliverance continues the thorny, chaotic death/thrash the band began crafting with 2018’s self-titled EP. The latest offering is, if anything, more visceral than it’s predecessor, boasting searing guitar work that needles its way under the skin with the subtly of psychopathic acupuncturist. There’s a slight blackening to the music that is, if anything, drawn from the evilness inherent in tapping into that sweet spot between thrash and death in the vein of the legendary Ripping Corpse. With two excellent EP’s now under their belt, hopefully the band have plans for an album in the future to really give the true thrash maniax something to talk about around the Mickey’s cooler.
4. Moldé Volhal – Into The Cave Of Ordeals….
Black metal had such a curveball year with so many interesting little projects popping up left and right. The outpouring of material proved that the black metal talent pool remains a steadfast source of the will to create, which constructs an environment rich with promise. Moldé Volhal was one of such projects that stayed close to the top of my listening stack since it’s release in late July. The nonstop tremolos over the fast-paced running of the kick drums reliably gifted the ethereal feeling of soaring through the clouds above vast, vibrant landscapes every time the play button was pressed. As soon as it feels like the ceiling of Into The Cave Of Ordeals… is approaching, Moldé Volhal take it one level closer to the stratosphere with bursts of frenzied soloing and blinding tremolo melodies. Hopefully the Norwegian act has plans for future material, because this debut is promising as hell. Spread your wings, take a leap of faith, glide through the mountain passes and over the gaping caverns, mystic rivers, and ancient ruins and experience what it truly means to feel free.
3. Midnight Dice – Hypnotized
I remember when the announcement came through shortly after the release of their excellent 2017 debut that Satan’s Hallow were breaking up. I remember being cautiously optimistic about the rest of the band pledging to form a new band after the inescapable departure of their guitarist. Turns out any caution I had meant fuck-all, because Midnight Dice have beeb bringing the proverbial sauce since the dissolution of their former band. Packed with energetic riffs, a flurry of leads and solos, and a top-of-the-game performance from vocalist Mandy Martillo, Hypnotized lays any fears to the future of the Satan’s Hallow allumni to rest. I can’t wait for an album of the rip roarin’, devil-may-care, pure 80s heavy metal. Hell, even if that never happens, I’ve got these songs to hang onto, and they’re already more than I could ask for. Speed city, baby.
2. Old Nick – Haunted Loom!!!
Someone once described Old Nick as the 100 Gecs of black metal and that, as mad as that makes me to admit, is about a fitting description as anything.
1. Venator – Paradiser
Give me heavy metal that romanticizes the feeling of the open road. Give me heavy metal that feels like cutting all ties and riding off into the wild blue yonder. Give me heavy metal that puts a rumble between the legs under the neon lights of the big city. Give me heavy metal about breaking the chains that bind us to this miserable heartbreak of existence. Give me heavy metal that makes me want to escape, but still be capable of feeling the raging fire of emotion deep within my loins. Give me speed. Give me passion. Give me Venator.
(Plus, their hooks really capture the magic of Heavy Load and I can never really get enough of that.)
BOOK IV: BEYOND THE PALE & INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER
At what point is it no longer considered heavy metal? It can become quite a hazy line to draw, and, first and foremost, I want to assure you that separating the following releases from the original list in no way is to be perceived as diminishment in their value. Quite the contrary, it was a lot of the material that could be considered tangentially connected to metal that hit the hardest for me this year. 2020 was an excellent year for music that lies just beyond the horizons of metal itself, and thus I feel a short separate list is in order. If anything, the choice to focus on this area is a reflection of the success of these records outside of the more traditional confines of what is considered metal beyond the Sabbath/Priest line that tends to become a firm line in the sand.
5. Wytch Hazel – III: Pentecost
Not that there needed to be any proof that it doesn’t matter where you’re drawing inspiration from, but the common emotions that are tapped into that makes music so powerful. Regardless of our personal goals and desires, we all feel things on a similar level: hope is hope, disappointment is disappointment, joy is joy. Regardless of if the material in question is perceived from a humanist perspective or the Pentecostal viewpoint from whence it was composed, there’s no denying that Wytch Hazel’s latest effort taps into something special. Warm, uplifting rock that hits more than a few parallels with the legends in Wishbone Ash, all whittled with a steady, deliberate craftsmanship that makes III: Pentecost a work to be reckoned with in the current wave of 70s rock revival bands. The soul of the album is so open and pure that it’s not hard to form a fast bond with the tunes, and they’ll continue to carry the listener through the storms and trials of the human experience time and again.
4. Wobbler – Dwellers Of The Deep
Do you like Yes? Yes, Yes. No? No, I mean Yes. Maybe? No. The band, Yes. Yes. Yes? Yes, Yes. Oh, you do! Then by all means, you’ll find a lot to love in Wobber’s latest. My prog eyes are but just beginning to open, so take Cap’s more articulate word for it below, but Dwellers Of The Deep was one of those records that’s about to send me down a rabbit hole of exploration in the coming year. Its curious, yet gentle temperament has become a favorite of Sunday mornings where I’m tempted to make elaborate fancy breakfasts just to listen to the whole record. If I had to guess, Dwellers was a collaborative effort between its participants, if only judging from the way the undeniable talent of the musicians selflessly yields to the skills of another. The record constantly shifts the spotlight between keys, vocals, bass, and guitar: All delivered across the unrestrained pep and shuffle of the lively percussion. There’s an indisputable energy here, and regardless of one’s experience with this form of progressive rock it is a record that bears but the sweetest, rewarding fruits.
3. Ulver – Flowers Of Evil
Some artists are just born to be great musicians, regardless of the genre or stylistic confines they choose to set around themselves. Those few who are truly a cut above the rest, blessed with the rare gift of transmuting the core metaphysical aspects from an understanding of the musical/emotional relationships, tend to break outside of their own constrictions, desperately desiring new and exciting sandboxes to play in. Ulver are indisputably prodigies in this department given how quickly they shed black metal to achieve success in entirely uncharted territories. These lands were ripe for harvesting Ulver’s insatiable desire to create. Maybe that’s why my connection to Flowers Of Evil clicked into place: Ulver’s current incarnation as moody, synth-driven 80’s pop is largely unexplored territory for my palette. However, I had no problem picking up the sublimities that made me feel, at my core, that this album was something special. The moodiness, the subdued angst, the dystopian future, the underlying sexiness of it all radiated from the music without any need for translation to my crude iron palette. True art transcends all of those predispositions and just feels – and that’s exactly what Flowers Of Evil does.
2. Freeways – True Bearings
If there was one album that was my comfort blanket of 2020, it was Freeways’ debut, True Bearings. Free spirited, free wheelin’ rock and roll with a heart of gold, the album may not be as technically flashy or even as original as a few of the predecessors on this list, but it was the soul of the record that brought me back over and over again. True Bearings is stoned-on-a-sunny-Saturday-afternoon-washing-the-truck-with-a-cooler-of-cheap-beer levels of chill; it just cozily rocks without a care in the world. Listen, if you want to know what it feels like to be Matthew McConaughey’s mustache during the filming of Dazed & Confused, this is the one. And why wouldn’t you want that feeling?
1. Hällas – Conundrum
Man, if we want to talk about a record that takes you out of this world, Conundrum is The One. The Swedish prog rock upstarts took a full lean into the synth worship of 80’s progressive rock and it paid off for them over and over again in spades. Ethereal, floaty, and transcendent, Hällas take their brand of so-called “adventure rock” seriously. Conundrum truly is a transcendental adventure in its own right; the world Hällas have created is rich and vibrant, with no stone left unturned in the soundscape they have so eloquently painted across the record. Abundant in mystery and open in soul, the record just feels like something special, a treasure to be guarded at all costs and kept close to the heart.
I realize at this point I’m pretty much babbling without spending more than a word or two talking about the actual music, but sometimes a record can just leave you speechless save for the way it makes you feel, and I feel if everyone listened to and understood the spirit of this record the world would be a much better place.
EPILOGUE: ALL WARRIORS DIE, ALL WARRIORS LIVE FOREVER
Life really is a serious of chapters with their own beginnings and endings. It sounds pretty corny to say, but it’s no less true. While these partitions of our stories aren’t always apparent at the time, there are those certain moments when you know in your gut that one chapter is closing and, subsequently, another opening. Learning of Manny’s departure from the site was certainly one of those moments. He is, in fact, the reason I got to meet so many of the folks here that I’m now honored to call dear friends. It’s certainly a blow, but simultaneously, I understand the winds of battle sometimes call us to other fronts. I’m going to miss writing with you here, you insufferable walrus whisker. And so I leave you with the sacred blade, adorned with:
“an inscription of powerful runes denoting victory in every battle, and, if all is correct, a suitable curse inflicted by an appropriately evil wizard, binding you, on pain of walking undeath ’til time ends, to defend true metal in its darkest forms.”
I’m going to miss you, bud. Stay true.
See ya’ll next year, after all, hindsight is 2020.