You right, bruv? Happy holidays and all that jazz. I love this time of year because I’m a certified deafening noise junkie who gets his kicks shouting about murderous-sounding music. Obviously, end-of-year list season presents a golden opportunity to do just that. However, realistically, at this point in the year, most potential readers of this feature will be sick to their back teeth of lengthy listicles.
That’s fair enough. We’ve all got a limit on the number of opinions we can comfortably digest before the reflux kicks in. Plus, I imagine the top priority for most folks right now will be sleeping off another plate of leftovers rather than reading this rubbish. That means you likely had to make a concerted effort to read this article. So thanks for that, you goddamn beautiful motherfucker.
The truth is, I’m not a cool or cult correspondent, which means you’ll likely have heard all of my EOY choices before now. But maybe – just maybe – you’ll discover something new to light the fire in your belly. The prospect of that occurring fills my rotten little heart with glee. And that’s what motivates me to keep typing these words in the full knowledge that only a handful of eyes will ever read them.
You’ll soon discover from reading the list below that clobbering caveman noise was my go-to sphere in 2020. I’ve included a couple of forward-thinking recommendations. But I’d be the first to admit my choices are drawn from a limited number of metal’s rawer and uglier subgenres. Honestly, I back all my choices 666%. But I’d also encourage you to check out the rest of Last Rites’ EOY features to get a much broader picture of all of the great metal released this year.
Obviously, this year was personally challenging for most of us, and whatever your political persuasion – or current level of conspiratorial insanity – I’m sure we can all agree that the past 12 months have been an endless parade of misery. It was all too easy to become dispirited. But it was also undeniably uplifting to see so many metal fans stepping up to support each other as 2020’s tragedies began to hit hard. All of that generosity underscored that, although we fuss and fight at times, underground music’s sense of community remains strong. We should be proud of that.
Cheers to my handsome colleagues at Last Rites for granting me the space to holler about ear-wrecking music. And thanks to everyone who paid a visit to Last Rites’ hallowed halls this year. A hearty cheer also goes out to the bands and labels whose horrible-sounding releases got me through some equally horrible times in 2020. I’m a firm believer in mind-crushing music being a crucial source of catharsis. Here’s hoping a few of my EOY choices help to exorcise your demons too.
One final and very important note: The list below isn’t a complete catalog of my favorite metal releases from 2020. Chiefly because you won’t find any bands from my neck of the woods, Aotearoa New Zealand. A NZ-specific feature will materialize at some point to celebrate homegrown Kiwi noise. Spoiler: this year, I’d rank a number of NZ metal releases amongst 2020’s best. See releases from the likes of Vassafor, Winter Deluge, Ulcerate, and Stalker.
Stay safe. Be well. I’ll see on the flipside.
20. Sodom – Genesis XIX
To be honest, I didn’t expect to be writing about Sodom at this point in their career. The German thrashers haven’t really held my attention for many years, but there’s no denying Sodom’s Genesis XIX LP features some of the band’s best work since their late-80s heyday. Genesis XIX is genuinely exhilarating and radiates as much aggression as it does creative hunger. It’s been a great year for many other long-lived bands too: see smashing releases from Cirith Ungol, Sepultura, Onslaught, Paradise Lost, Blue Öyster Cult, My Dying Bride, and even goddamn Stryper!
19. Black Magnet – Hallucination Scene / Realize – Machine Violence
I never imagined at the start of 2020 I’d be listing two industrial metal albums amongst the year’s best. I was as crazy as anyone about groups like Front Line Assembly, Skinny Puppy, Fear Factory, or Godflesh back in the day. But my interest in industrial metal waned when every second band began to sound like a straight Ministry or Nine Inch Nails clone. Black Magnet and Realize dig much deeper than that for inspiration, sounding like devotees of more cult bands like Meathook Seed or Pitch Shifter. Black Magnet’s Hallucination Scene and Realize’s Machine Violence LPs mix gruesome organics with harsh mechanics as precision-drilled riffs and twisted electronic stonk combines in an overwhelming synthesis of punishing rhythms and synth-heavy pandemonium. Crushing metal meets machine-driven mayhem. T-1000 levels of awesomeness.
18. Disembowel – Echoes of Terror
I’m a sucker for no-frills death metal with troglodyte riffs, and Portland trio Disembowel delivered exactly that on their antediluvian Echoes of Terror LP. All the bludgeoning guitars, indecipherable grunts, and hammering drums on Echoes of Terror see late-80s and early-90s death metal dead in Disembowel’s sights. Like a lot of Maggot Stomp Records’ releases, Echoes of Terror is pitch-perfect in its abrasiveness and gruesomeness, and it oozes an infectious old school charm. Disembowel might be a young band, but they’re tapping right into the bloodthirsty charisma of classic death-dealing metal.
17. Undeath – Lesions of a Different Kind / Necrot – Mortal
I’m sitting Undeath’s Lesions of a Different Kind LP and Necrot’s Mortal album side-by-side right here because they were two of the most hyped death metal releases of 2020. Of course, hype can be a total killer. But in this case, all the enthusiastic pre-release chatter was well-deserved.
Undeath don’t waste time with needless technical showboating on Lesions of a Different Kind. The band stick to emphasizing the sheer brutality and belligerence of zero-bullshit death metal with tracks that tip their hat to the likes of Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel. Necrot’s Mortal LP features VERY strong songwriting and jagged (albeit often melodic) hooks that owe a debt to definitive death metal. What marks Necrot as more interesting than most is the way they weave the influence of raw hardcore and crust punk into their sound. Necrot certainly aren’t a punk band, although they’re definitely politically outspoken. But Mortal is fueled by as much punk attitude as it is inspired by classic death metal bands like Death, Morbid Angel, or Immolation.
16. Internal Rot – Grieving Birth / Meth Leppard – Woke
Good luck separating the 2020 releases from Aussie grindcore champs Internal Rot and Meth Leppard. Both releases are preeminent examples of grisly-sounding grind that’ll sink its claws deep into your brain-pan. Unpredictable pivots and swerves are matched by mercilessly precise percussion and guitars. Internal Rot serve up breakneck, deranged grind that found fans the world over in 2020, while Meth Leppard deliver pure gutter grind – all smashed teeth, ulcerous wounds, and festering emotional injuries. Press play on either release for a staggering lesson in pulverizing audio violence. (FYI: Yes, technically, Internal Rot’s Grieving Birth came out in late-2019. But the album’s 2020 (re)release via killer label Iron Lung Records bumped it far higher into the consciousness of grind freaks and extreme metal nerds.)
15. Serpent Column – Kathodos
Serpent Column released a formidable EP early in the year, Endless Detainment, but the band’s 2020 full-length, Kathodos, is even better. Kathodos displays cleaner lines with Serpent Column significantly upping the influence of progressive metal, mathcore, and more melodic inspirations. Serpent Column have always been an adventurous band and more than willing to stretch the definition of black metal. But Kathodos reveals a renewed and fascinating depth of multi-layered songwriting. A bleak winter still rages outside the window, but Serpent Column’s storytelling here is richer than ever.
14. Xibalba – Anõs en Infierno
Años en Infierno is Xibalba’s heaviest release yet. The album sees the Californian heavyweights putting their powerful metallic machinery to work carving out gargantuan grooves as bulldozing instrumentation and bellowing vocals combine in pulverizing synchronization. Años en Infierno‘s tracks feature as much cavernous bleakness as they do up-front brutality, with Xibalba exploring grim musical domains as well as the deepest pits of the soul. Sledgehammering hardcore fuses with neck-spanning death metal throughout, and all the chest-crushing darkness here is also unquestionably cathartic.
13. VoidCeremony – Entropic Reflections Continuum: Dimensional Unravel
Lashed by skin-flaying riffs, VoidCeremony’s full-length debut, Entropic Reflections Continuum: Dimensional Unravel is a mind-bending journey through the netherworlds of Stygian death metal. Guttural howls and frenzied yet intricate alchemy summon hideous subterranean visions. But there’s also a strong cosmic component here, which looks to the pitch-black gulf between the stars and asks what monstrous beings lurk just out of sight. VoidCeremony’s genius lies in their ability to create such a manic sound that sees technically formidable songs buckle and contort but never break. Brain-warping solos and riffs tear a hole between this world and the next, with all the orchestrated evil here akin to rapturous chaos.
12. Spectral Lore / Mare Cognitum – Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine
Inspired by Gustav Holst’s famed *Planets* suite, atmospheric black metallers Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum released one of 2020’s most ambitious split releases with their 3LP Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine collaboration. For cosmic metal nerds, like me, the album was a gift from the stars. Say goodbye to Satan, and say hello to Saturn, with Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum exploring science, mythology, philosophy, and the mysterious depths of our solar system over ten epic-length tracks. Monumental in scope, Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine blends celestial, melodic, avant-garde, and raw black metal, perfectly balancing ferocity and ecstatic bliss. Vast conceptual works like this can easily be derailed by endless complicating factors. But the album is a breathtaking trip through the heavens above.
11. Gorephilla – In the Eye of Nothing
Finnish death metal band Gorephilla returned with their third formidable album in 2020 and In the Eye of Nothing is the band’s first release since the tragic death of Gorephilla’s founding vocalist Henu. You could argue that In the Eye of Nothing is Gorephilla’s most refined work to date, but only in the sense that the band honed their latest songs to their deadliest edge. Strong and concise tracks are stripped of any filler as wretched images of creatures writhing in the diabolical darkness abound. Brutal in tone, and shrouded in doom, there’s a Morbid Angel-like fierceness here that coalesces with the vileness of classic Finnish death metal. Kudos to Gorephilla for ratcheting up the dread as each martial riff is measured out for maximum impact as manifestations of pure evil slither into view.
10. Boris – NO
To be honest, I’ve only paid cursory attention to Japanese legends Boris’ recent albums. That’s no slight on the band. They’re rightly heralded as plucky sonic explorers. But I simply prefer Boris’ earlier and often heavier work. The band’s 2020 LP, NO, is a welcome return to those visceral years – at least, it is in tone and temper. Written and recorded in self-isolation, NO is an ear-splitting existential howl, with Boris cramming 11 hard-hitting songs into 35 raging minutes. This is Boris at their most metal. (Or, arguably, at their most hardcore.) Sludge, thrash, crust, d-beat, doom, grind, and psychedelic metal are lashed by feedbacking noise, with some of NO‘s song’s being Discharge-like with squalls of blasting noise, and others being much doomier cacophonies. NO channels the anger and fear of 2020 in a squall of pummeling drums and speaker-shredding guitars. Easily Boris’ best (and most ferocious) work in a decade and a half.
9. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi
Oranssi Pazuzu’s Mestarin Kynsi LP only features six songs, but the sheer depth and breadth of the music within means the album feels like a monumental epic (and, perhaps, the zenith of the band’s creative ascent). A lot of fans likely thought the band couldn’t top their much-lauded Värähtelijä LP. But Mestarin Kynsi sees the band diving even deeper into long-form metallic Krautrock and bold progressive and psychedelic black metal. With heavier use of synths and haunting effects, Mestarin Kynsi often feels like it’s cut its ties to any specific sub-genre – with Oranssi Pazuzu adding even more adventurous colors to their sonic palette. Masterfully executed, Mestarin Kynsi features superlative left-field metal that’s jaw-dropping and soul-stirring in equal measure.
8. Ceremonial Bloodbath – The Tides of Blood
Ceremonial Bloodbath’s full-length debut, The Tides of Blood, is one of this year’s best releases from Californian label Sentient Ruin Laboratories. Like most of Sentient Ruin’s roster, Ceremonial Bloodbath sound deviant, diseased, and disgusting, but the band are also a very curious beast. The Tides of Blood is full of abominable audio annihilation that’ll sate the appetite of any Blasphemy, Sarcófago, or Archgoat fiend. (And Ceremonial Bloodbath’s black and death metal is unquestionably inhuman in tone and texture.) But what also emerges from the depths of The Tides of Blood is an almost avant-garde approach to mixing the most hideous veins of extreme metal. For all of The Tides of Blood‘s barbaric primitivism, of which there is plenty, Ceremonial Bloodbath’s music also feels like a mad scientist/alchemist’s fusion of abhorrent and yet adventurous experimentation.
7. Temple Nightside – Pillars of Damnation
The soul-scouring music of Antipodean black and death metal cult Temple Nightside sounds and feels like it’s been torn from the pages of an otherworldly rite. The band’s self-described “Ritualistic Death Metal Necromancy” worships the final exit for us all, calling to mind visions of humanity’s sickest deeds along the way. Temple Nightside’s 2020 LP, Pillars of Damnation, delves into the pitch-black chambers of ancient and atavistic metal. If it’s eldritch dread and sickening levels of trepidation you’re after, Pillars of Damnation‘s black-hearted tracks have got you covered. Punishing riffs and six-feet-under vocals call to mind black and death metal’s most bestial hallmarks, while demonic delights twitch and convulse just out the corner of your eye. Some bands like to toy with unholy tropes, but Temple Nightside fix their gaze on conjuring the last gasping moments of your life, right at the point where you glimpse the abominable Hell that awaits us all.
6. Cryptic Shift – Visitations from Enceladus
Cryptic Shift’s 2020 full-length, Visitations from Enceladus, is a mind-blowing, thought-expanding, and chest-ripping masterwork. The UK band’s full-length debut is a huge step up from their previous work, featuring a 26-minute opening track that traverses time and space as it rockets towards the hinterlands of forward-thinking death metal. I can’t emphasize enough how much I love metal releases that survey celestial horizons. Visitations from Enceladus is stacked with cosmic tracks that nod to bands like Atheist, Nocturnus, Cynic, and Pestilence while offering their own inspired take on strange visitations and alien explorations. Serpentine riffs range from the melodic to reflective and to full-bore bursts of thrashing noise as heavy as collapsing stars. Meticulous musicianship meets valiant adventurism. A-grade death metal for the galaxy-gazing nerd in all of us.
5. Primitive Man – Immersion
Primitive Man’s 2020 LP, Immersion, was heavier than a loved one’s funeral, as toxic as a radioactive dump, and about as confrontational as it gets. Of course, all of that is par for the course for Primitive Man. But the way those factors coalesce to such a hope-trampling degree on Immersion makes it Primitive Man’s best album yet. Few bands are this heavy – either sonically or psychologically – and Primitive Man exceed their already crushingly bleak aesthetic on Immersion. Antagonistic in the extreme – in both intent and execution – Immersion‘s tracks drag you down to the filth-caked sewers of sludge and doom. There, your worst fears are laid bare, and your sickest imaginings are realized. Immersion is corruption incarnate. A psyche-shattering tour de force where humanity’s most debased intentions are made manifest in real-time.
4. Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism
Napalm Death’s 16th studio album, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism, arrived in the midst of a rampant pandemic and all sorts of other political machinations and social upheavals. Not to suggest that COVID is a good thing, but it was certainly great seeing Napalm Death frontman Barney doing a bunch of fascinating Zoom interviews around the album’s release, which often covered topics far and wide. Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism was released at the perfect time for metal fans desperate for the kinds of chest-ripping cathartic noise that Napalm Death reliably deliver. Even better, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism continues Napalm Death’s latter career upswing featuring some of their strongest work since back in the day. Whiplashing grindcore, death metal, hardcore, and juddering avant-exploits backed the band’s forthright lyrical and musical ferocity. Nearly 40 years into their career, Napalm Death are producing some of their fiercest and most rabble-rousing work yet. Rebellious, subversive, and lawless. Napalm Death are everything a band should be.
3. Undergang – Aldrig i Livet
There’s the sewers of death metal, and then there’s the sewers of death metal, and Danish miscreants Undergang definitely occupy the lower strata. The band’s latest LP, Aldrig i Livet, is a boiling morass of worm-ridden, spine-chilling metal that’s old-school in its tone, texture, and lingering stench. Doomier, gloomier, and somehow even heavier than the band’s previous spine-breaking releases, Aldrig i Livet‘s suffocating tracks crawl inexorably forward on split knuckles as hook-filled traps snap shut. It’s not like Undergang changed tack here either. They simply concentrated on honing their strengths: see massively heavy riffs, horrorshow atmospherics, and throat-slitting vocals (see also: Aldrig i Livet‘s A+ cover art). Best of all, Undergang sound like they’re having a total blast making horrible fucking music. Is that still allowed? I sure hope so. Because Undergang’s latest release is as fun as it is utterly filthy. Gloriously grotesque death metal for when the sickest gurgles and gruesomest gutturals are required.
2. Black Curse – Endless Wound
Black Curse’s full-length debut, Endless Wound, is a masterpiece of sonic murder. That’s not a total surprise, given Black Curse features members from bands like Blood Incantation, Spectral Voice, Primitive Man, and more. But what is surprising is just how far Endless Wind’s nihilistic noise pushes past the extremity of those aforementioned bands. Black Curse’s malevolent MO combines black, death, and doom metal in a vortex of primordial pandemonium. You could call all the mayhem war metal, and Black Curse are aesthetically similar to bands like Ruin Lust or Antichrist Siege Machine. But Black Curse’s barbaric tracks are often far more hypnotic in their mind-blitzing intensity. Esoteric darkness is threaded through every one of Endless Wound‘s bestial and blast-beaten tracks – amplifying the album’s arcane undercurrents. Punishingly violent songs see labyrinthine rhythms collide with monstrous riffs, which are delivered with jaw-dropping levels of dexterity and dynamism. Expect a black-hearted maelstrom, barely corralled chaos, and Black Curse showcasing that there’s plenty of room left to up the extreme metal ante.
1. Bloodsoaked Necrovoid – Expelled into the Unknown Depths of the Unfathomable
Costa Rican band Bloodsoaked Necrovoid’s full-length debut isn’t just the most odious and ill-natured album of 2020, it’s also the year’s most aptly titled LP. It’s a sure and certain fact that humanity found itself in untested waters this year, and unfathomable levels of fear and uncertainty reigned supreme. Expelled into the Unknown Depths of the Unfathomable matched that real-world terror with a molten mass of unhinged metal, where death and decay permeate every utterance and inhuman growls ensure stomach-clenching dread pervades every moment.
Bloodsoaked Necrovoid’s 2019 demo compilation, Apocryphal Paths of the Ancient 8th Vitriolic Transcendence, was also utterly hostile to life and Expelled into the Unknown Depths of the Unfathomable somehow eclipses that massive feat. Bloodsoaked Necrovoid’s latest LP is a charnel house of sulfurous death and doom metal where soul-gouging instrumentation seethes on sepulchral tracks. All the crypt-born music here sees unbearable tension and crushing heaviness transform songs into slow-motion horror shows. But Bloodsoaked Necrovoid also unleash the hellhounds when faster, flesh-tearing onslaughts are required.
If bands like Winter, Spectral Voice, or Disembowelment appeal, you’re going to fall head over heels for the impossibly bleak (and tar-thick) negative noise right here. A suffocating atmosphere pervades all, and while Expelled into the Unknown Depths of the Unfathomable leans hard on ancient metal motifs, Bloodsoaked Necrovoid still unearth plenty of fresh (albeit rotten-sounding) ideas to incorporate into their loathsome tracks. Most impressive of all is the way Expelled into the Unknown Depths of the Unfathomable‘s six guttural dirges chisel their way into your subconscious with each relentless hammer blow of bile-spitting death metal slathered with a coating of mind-crushing doom. Ture morbid magnificence, through and through.
Or How About An Alternative #1
ALT: 1. Duma – S/T
I was going to pick Duma’s self-titled 2020 album as my #1 metal album this year. The only problem is, I’m not entirely sure that Duma’s mind-frying debut is a metal album at all. At least, not in direct comparison to Bloodsoaked Necrovoid’s Expelled into the Unknown Depths of the Unfathomable above. Duma sounds like it was created in an entirely separate universe, but I’ll leave worrying about genre tags or the correct designations to you. Instead, I’m simply going to offer Duma’s debut as an alternative #1 if you’re hankering for something that combines all of metal’s strength, stamina, and brutality with hyper-frenetic madness that frequently draws more from the world of experimental music than it does from heavy metal, per se.
Recorded at Kampala’s Nyege Nyege Studios (although born from Nairobi’s burgeoning underground metal scene), Duma sees Martin Khanja (aka Lord Spike Heart) and Sam Karugu mixing bone-breaking physicality with deranged avant-garde happenings on unquestionably extreme songs. Shuddering rhythmic assaults combine hardcore punk, industrial clangor, glitching techno, and grindcore – all of which is assailed non-stop by breakcore, piercing vocals, and fully lit noisecore. Duma‘s neck-wrenching tracks exhibit a complete disregard for any sonic or subgenre borders. The result is a harsh-sounding album that foregrounds intensity and raw creative ecstasy as nihilistic screeds of noise dissolve and reform in a vortex of head-splitting clatter. Think you’ve heard it all? Think again, my friend! Duma’s mix of ferocity and darkly atmospheric adventurism delivers genuinely boundary-challenging music. See within for true artistic genius in action.
6. Gutless / Mortal Wound – Split MLP
Gutless and Mortal Wound’s split MLP is one of a number of skull-cracking triumphs that death metal specialists Me Saco un Ojo Records and Maggot Stomp unleashed on fans this year. (FYI: more of the two labels’ filthy gems feature above and below.) Aussie horde Gutless vomit up disgusting tracks awash with grimy thrash and sludgy death metal that reek of vintage blast-beaten gunge. US band Mortal Wound deliver an equally brutal assault with their deranged riffs and grisly vocals mixing with plenty of cavernous old school carnage. Expect horrible hooks and memorable (albeit morbid) tracks on a monstrous-sounding split.
5. Resin Tomb – S/T
Australian band Resin Tomb threw sewer-dwelling death metal and maniacal blackened grind into a warp-speed blender on their 2020 self-titled EP. The Brisbane band’s dissonant debut was a certified underground hit with metal fans Downunder, with Resin Tomb’s blast-force mix of gruesomely hybridized metal and gnashing grind conjuring a gore-strewn, serial-killer dumping ground. Noxious fumes and toxic noise abound. Virulent subterranean vulgarity for the very worst of times.
4. Cerebral Rot – Spewing Purulence
Cerebral Rot’s Spewing Purulence 7″ features two tracks from the band’s upcoming LP on Parasitic Records. (And from the sounds of it, that unnamed LP is going to be a putrid dream come true.) Spewing Purulence‘s two tracks, “Vile Yolk of Contagion” and “Spewing Purulence,” are both septic-sounding delights that see Cerebral Rot dig ever deeper into the festering OSDM swamps they explored on their fantastically fetid debut LP, Odious Descent Into Decay. Best of all, the rotten sounds here favor suffocating disgustingness over any pointless histrionics.
3. Bog Body / Primitive Warfare – “The Gate of Grief” / “Undulating Torment”
The split MLP from Bog Body and Primitive Warfare is a firm reminder that the darkest depths of sub-underground metal is where the vilest bands lie in wait. Released by on-point New York label Stygian Black Hand, “The Gate of Grief” / “Undulating Torment” sees Bog Body’s pummeling drums and bass attack channeling unfathomable levels of doom and gloom on pitch-black, hypnotizing tracks. Primitive Warfare go straight for the jugular on their throat-ripping contributions with the band’s hyper-blasting war metal forming a decimating barrage of artillery-strength noise. Staggeringly good (and always brain-battering) tracks from both bands.
2. Ruin Lust – Choir of Babel
Ruin Lust’s brutal blend of death and black metal is wholly impressive and even more intimidating to behold. The New York band’s Choir of Babel EP is a bona fide war of all against all, where the stench of cordite and the howls of the maimed and damned are imbued in every track. Choir of Babel‘s five barbaric songs evoke decimated landscapes, shell-shocked minds, and mutilated bodies, with Ruin Lust’s relentless line of attack combining red-mist riffage with harsh primitivism. Expect no remorse, no regrets, and definitely no surrender. Just pure Hell on earth, until the end of time.
1. Astriferous – The Lower Levels of Sentience
Otherworldly Costa Rican death metallers Astriferous feature a couple of members of death/doom behemoth Bloodsoaked Necrovoid and that definitely dialed up my expectations to a significant degree. Thankfully, all the sepulchral/hideous happenings on Astriferous’ 2020 EP, The Lower Levels of Sentience, easily exceeded my hopes. The release’s grotesque tracks summon vast celestial terrors as much as they call to mind writhing plague pits and abyssal horrors. Malevolent artistry and sinister atmospherics coil around each other as The Lower Levels of Sentience churns with incalculable levels of dread throughout.