Of course, in terms of human events, a year is an arbitrary construct. It isn’t a thing with agency. A year doesn’t do things. But maaaan, 2020 feels like a real life son-of-a-bitch, doesn’t it? Even recognizing it’s non-sentience, it’s hard to deny the sense that 2020 has done things. Bad things. Yes, there were so many good things that happened, but don’t even those things feel different? Like they happened despite 2020, against all odds. Of course, all the things, good and bad, happened irrespective of any calendar and were, in many cases, actually the culmination of decisions made (or not) in the many, many years preceding, very few of which any one person has any control over at all. In other words, all we can do, even in 2020, is take care of ourselves and do the things that align with our values.
The problem that 2020 shined a fat glaring light on for so many of us is that people we thought we knew turned out to have very different core values, truth be told. That will be 2020’s lasting legacy for many. I read recently that the phrase, “Blood is thicker than water” is a modern misinterpretation of the original, “Blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” Turns out that’s probably not entirely accurate, but I’ll let the etymologists and other word nerds figure that one out. Meanwhile, I really like the idea that bonds forged through shared experience can be stronger than those gifted by kinship. It’s an old idea that feels new and different now and has helped to reshape my notion of relationships going forward, especially how my energy is apportioned among them. It also seems like a role custom built for music and the people who love it.
Of all the stress in 2020, family-related tension weighed the most for me, contributing the most to sleepless nights and angst-ridden days. Again, though, the meaningful struggle focuses on what we can control and one of the most helpful responses I could muster was, as always, to listen to music. So much music. All kinds at all times.
My music-listening experiences in 2020 included new music from beloved bands that had been dormant for years, sometimes decades, mostly in the heavy metal and progressive rock genres. These are huge genres I spend most of my time in, full of so many bands doing so many variations of the basic styles going back 50 years, so part of my great joy was discovering new music and even new bands in arenas I thought I knew so well, especially in subgenres like epic heavy metal and Italian prog rock. I also got to share a lot of it with friends looking for something new.
I also learned to begin to find some love for a lot of music I actually hated for most of my life, most of it created in the 80’s. Bands like The Cure, Tears for Fears, and Roxy Music, and albums like Grace Under Pressure, previously scorned and derided for their simplicity and plasticity, were now met with an open mind and genuine curiosity, leading to a real appreciation of a whole new world of music. A major factor in my willingness to open up was insistent prompting by good pals who want their friends to feel the joy they do when they listen.
During the summer, I got a strange itch to explore modern soul music, specifically what some people call new old soul. Not so much a new interpretation of soul music that pushes that genre forward (that’d be neo soul), but a reinvigoration of the old style of Al Green and The Temptations and Aretha Franklin. A few weeks of exploration yielded wonderful experiences with Son Little and Fantastic Negrito and Durand Jones & The Indications and many more, along with the knowledge that I’d only barely begun to scratch the surface of the tippy top layer, not to mention the countless wonderful artists of nearly a hundred years past. Suddenly I had language for conversations that might have eluded me before. Yet another whole new world.
It’s hard to know just what flipped these various switches, but I like to think that during a time when I needed more light in my life, something within me knew that music would provide it, if I’d only let it in.
Here’s a necessarily incomplete list of the music that shined most brightly for me in 2020:
THERE’S PLENTY OF DARKNESS, SHOULD YOU SEEK IT
20. Atramentus – Stygian
Funeral doom has to get it just right to grab me and Atramentus gets it just right on Stygian. It’s fathoms deep and horizon wide, endlessly empty between landmarks and every bit as heavy as all that implies. But it’s the little bit more painted into all that blackness that makes Stygian great: Faintly silver crescents and halos, interwoven tendrils of gray smoke, amorphous shimmer that looks like the fear you’re struggling to contain.
19. Elder – Omens
One of the highest accolades I reserve for a band is that they create the kind of music that makes me squeeze my eyes and sway or nod my head as I follow along. I don’t think about it; I just realize after a while that I’ve been doing it, the music grabs hold so hard and so fully. Elder has been making this kind of music for a lot of years now, and Omens shows they’ve got it in them to keep finding new and exciting ways to squeeze those eyelids together.
18. Molassess – Through the Hollow
Molassess was born following a reunion of The Devil’s Blood members in remembrance of founding member Selim Lemouchi, who took his own life in 2014. Selim’s sister, Frida, is the voice of Molassess, whose music is deep and dark and steeped in the occult, drawing from the counterculture of the late 60’s and early 70’s when music was as much belief as it was signifier. Through the Hollow was a wonderful, all-encompassing escape in 2020.
17. John Petrucci – Terminal Velocity
I thought I’d heard all the guitar solo albums I’d ever need to hear, especially by members of bands I know very well. When John Petrucci’s Terminal Velocity hit, though, it was just so full of goodness I couldn’t resist it. The man’s talent goes without saying, of course, so it was the feeling that sold it. Pure joy and love for the music.
16. Ripped to Shreds – 亂 (Luan)
亂 (Luan) was my favorite way to release the rage in 2020. Besides just being a fucking relentlessly angry album, there’s a strange comfort in the familiarity of its Swedish death metal roots and colossal heaviness. Ripped to Shreds is mostly the product of one talented and angry man named Andrew Lee who, as it turns out, is also apparently a fine human being invested in social justice who reserves his fury for those particular assholes of the world who deserve it most.
15. Pharmacist – Medical Renditions of Grinding Decomposition
Super gross death metal isn’t something I belly up to the bar for very often. In fact, it’s so infrequent that I had to be told that Pharmacist’s Medical Renditions of Grinding Decomposition isn’t super gross death metal at all, but goregrind. Well… who fucking cares. All I know is that there were more occasions than usual in 2020 in which I needed a vicarious release of gross feelings I don’t need to be carrying around and this album lightened my load too many times to count.
14. Enslaved – Utgard
It’s hard to tell whether Enslaved has begun making more accessible music or we’ve simply become accustomed to something the majority of the world would find perplexing at best. Utgard is testament to Enslaved’s greatness in that it makes you really squint to see what’s new and yet, once you see it, you feel it as deeply as you have on any record before it.
13. Katatonia – City Burials
There’s more than one way to heavy, of course, and Katatonia has long-since mastered the art of “feels heavy even when it doesn’t sound heavy.” City Burials sees the Swedes draw again from an apparently endless well of melancholy to create yet another amazing album that finds its strength in the listener’s willingness to recognize and identify with those fucking feelings.
12. Mekong Delta – Tales of a Future Past
Tales of a Future Past has all the hallmarks of a great Mekong Delta album, including killer riffs and solos couched within complex song structures inspired by classical composers. But there’s an emphasis this time around on melodies that push things closer to prog metal than past records, an approach that maximizes symbiosis between lead singer Martin LeMar and guitarist Peter Lake. Ralf Hubert has been the core dynamo of Mekong Delta for a long time and Tales of a Future Past is easily among his best.
11. Lord of Light – Morningstar
Sweden’s Lord of Light came seemingly out of nowhere in late 2019 with their self-released Morningstar and then No Remorse Records wisely snatched them up quick for a CD release in March of this year. Morningstar is difficult to label. It’s progressive metal, but it’s power metal, but it’s pretty plainly good old heavy metal with a white hi-top sneaker firmly planted in the 80’s. What’s beyond dispute it is that it’s awesome, full of powerful riffs and solos, strong melodies and compelling hooks. Short of being a perfect album, Morningstar is a magnificent collection of heavy metal songs that bodes well for Lord of Light’s future endeavors, God willing.
THERE’S AS MUCH LIGHT AS YOU’RE WILLING TO LET IN
10. Autonoesis – Autonoesis
Autonoesis, the band (or person), is a mystery. Fittingly ironic, given the meaning of the word, which refers to the awareness of oneself in relation to past, present, and future. The music Autonoesis makes is mysterious, too, but in a much friendlier way, blending attributes of progressive and technical death metal so that it makes you forget the particular aspects of both for the all-consuming power of the riffs, not to mention miles of brightly shining leads. Autonoesis may be a bedroom project, but it’s got the soul of a full-fledged and well-travelled collective.
9. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi
It’s hard to communicate the appeal of Oranssi Pazuzu’s music to someone who doesn’t share a fan’s perspective. To me, though, it kind of just makes sense, even when it doesn’t and sometimes especially when it doesn’t. Mestarin Kynsi is like some oily alien entity that exists only as an amalgamation of the darkest and most deeply repressed memories siphoned from beings unfortunate enough to stray within range. Just that, floating around in space. Music that feels like that? That makes the listener feel like that? That’s pretty fucking cool.
8. Wytch Hazel – III: Pentecost
Like Valkyrie in the seventh spot, Wytch Hazel’s 2020 offering is golden-hued and imbued with a reserved melancholy. Unlike Fear’s inward focus, III: Pentecost finds strength through spirituality and celebrates that connection with the stately countenance of a thrice blessed Paladin. What makes this album truly special is that it genuinely feels as if the band is singing with you. They’re worshipping, for sure, but they’ve got your hand in theirs. The salvation and glory Wytch Hazel celebrates is every bit as much yours as it is theirs.
7. Valkyrie – Fear
Fear is a heartfelt expression of anxiety, sadness, loneliness, doubt, and regret. Like all of us from time to time, Valkyrie found themselves in emotional space that didn’t quite jibe with a summery vibe and, rather than ignoring or avoiding it, they faced it, embraced it, and turned it into music. Good for them. But you don’t even need to get into all this feelings stuff to enjoy this record. The guitars are so strong and the songwriting so good, the production so robust and lush, that this album stands on its own merits regardless.
6. Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void
I was so happy to be able to write about a new Psychotic Waltz album in 2020 after a 23 year recording hiatus. From my review: With The God-Shaped Void, Psychotic Waltz has created a bold, contemporary statement of progressive metal relevance and folded into it a beautiful and wonderful paean to their past. They took their time, prioritized their values of integrity and craftsmanship, and created an album full of melodic and emotional hooks that will set slowly but deeply for listeners willing to invest. What a coup for a band who had so many years and apparent reasons to give up, yet stayed true to themselves and their musical vision and, through it all, refused to relent their drive toward the light.
5. Falconer – From a Dying Ember
If you’d have told me at the beginning of 2020 that my end-of-year list would include a Falconer album in its top five, I’d have told you to lay off the peyote, muchacho. And yet here we are. From a Dying Ember is (mostly) mid-paced power metal, which typically ain’t my bag. It’s not particularly heavy or complex or eclectic or any of the things that usually woo me. It is, however, bright and triumphant and just relentlessly joyous. And it’s delivered with all the unabashed verve of a master thespian, which turned out to be the active ingredient of a prescription I didn’t even know I needed.
4. Dark Quarterer – Pompei
Dark Quarterer’s great strength is telling epic, sweeping stories through the music, as lyrics and vocals and instruments are braided in the songwriting process so that the weave is both stronger and more aesthetically interesting than the strands individually. The listener’s experience, of course, is the proof of concept. We all know the story of Pompei: there’s a volcano, it erupts, people are killed and buried. Yet the music on Dark Quarterer’s eighth album captures the imagination nonetheless through their immersive and dynamic songwriting approach coupled with passionate playing that touches the listener emotionally.
3. Hail Spirit Noir – Eden in Reverse
Eden in Reverse is rooted in psychedelic rock and krautrock, pulls tones and textures from 80’s synth aesthetics, dresses up its melodies in the proto-prog style of the late 60’s and layers it all into the modern black metal interpretation and expansion of those musical enclaves. Blackened psychedelia blends into a swirling krautrock that swells and threatens violent dissolution but maintains a weird spiraling integrity. The lingering effect is the disquieting sense that you know what this is even if you don’t quite recognize it.
2. Fates Warning – Long Day Good Night
Long Day Good Night feels like coming home. A hackneyed sentiment, to be sure, but think a little on it. Just like Fates Warning’s music, the bare face of those words belies a deeper meaning, a duplicity, a recognition that life is rarely so simple and acceptance that we’ve ultimately got very little say in how it transpires outside of our responses to it. Coming home, of course, signals an arrival to a place of comfort, of sanctuary. It also represents the end of a journey and, thus, a bittersweet culmination of emotion, an orange gradient horizon casting a warm, life-giving glow on what might otherwise die in shadow.
1. Thy Catafalque – Naiv
Tamás Kátai’s Thy Catafalque is one of those projects that’s really difficult to describe but, out of all the many words used to describe what Kátai does, the one that seems to do it best does it simply: Adventure. Rooted in Hungarian traditional and folk melodies and spliced within a black and progressive metal lattice, Thy Catafalque’s truest mystery is how Kátai so fully and naturally shoots it all through the human experience and up into the cosmos. On Naiv, the answer isn’t any clearer, though the listener is surer than ever before that they are more than observer, more than passenger, finally and fully integrated with Thy Catafalque as both conduit and, ultimately, cognizance.
SOMETIMES A LITTLE BIT’LL DO
1. Lör – Edge of Eternity
I only really spent very much time with one heavy metal EP this year and it was Lör’s Edge of Eternity. The truth is, if this wasn’t categorized as an EP, it would have made my regular list, probably at least near the top ten. Besides being well-written and -executed, it’s just all the things I want a Progressive Heavy Metal album to be: bright, smart, complex, and fiercely unique.
MOST EVERYTHING FALLS SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN
20. Jaga Jazzist – Pyramid
What if jazz from the 60’s discovered synthpop in the 80’s through a post-rock portal?
19. Long Earth – Once Around the Sun
Beautiful, stretched out and melodic space rock as reverent as it is personal.
18. J G Thirlwell & Simon Steensland – Oscillospira
Spooky avant prog reminiscent of early Univers Zero with just enough familiar flavor to be more palatable than disagreeable.
17. Magick Brother & Mystic Sister – Magick Brother & Mystic Sister
Spacey, funky psychedelic prog with retro soul so groovy it practically reanimates the best of the 70’s from Pink Floyd to Khan through half of the Canterbury scene.
16. Onségen Ensemble – Fear
Dark and ritualistic heavy prog, dashed with jazz and folk, with an ear for the eclectic and an eye for grand vistas.
15. Ring Van Möbius – The 3rd Majesty
Straddling the line between Yes and ELP with all the fire and spirit of the scene they invented.
14. Airbag – A Day at the Beach
Patient and persistent melancholic soundscapes drawing inspiration from the background music of the 80’s.
13. Pat Metheny – From This Place
Pat Metheny is a master of what has become the clear Metheny style of contemporary jazz and fusion, and From This Place sees him executing it to perfection.
12. Antony Kalugin – Marshmallow Moondust
Nobody else is doing quite what Antony Kalugin is doing with prog rock. Marshmallow Moondust is such unabashedly uplifting ear candy that it’d be hard to take seriously if it wasn’t so seriously good.
11. Lazuli – Le fantastique envol de Dieter Böhm
A wonderful collection of melodic rock and roll songs filtered through the progressive sieve to tell a compelling story. Pretty much the epitome of effective prog rock.
10. Rick Wakeman – The Red Planet
Rick Wakeman’s The Red Planet is as big an idea as he’s ever had (and that’s saying something) and he absolutely nails it, emphasizing all the points that make a prog nerd drool. Maybe even the best solo album he’s ever made.
9. La Maschera di Cera – S.E.I.
Modern Italian prog with an affinity for the ways of the old guard. La Maschera di Cera wraps outstanding RPI style songwriting in pure and polished classic prog sounds of mellotron and flute and amazing vocals.
8. Karfagen – Birds of Passage
Antony Kalugin’s Karfagen is the pure product of an artist in love with his craft. Two long passages interpret the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Blake, driven by emotion and held aloft by the joy of musical storytelling. (see Antony’s solo album at #12)
7. Tiger Moth Tales – Still Alive
Still Alive by Tiger Moth Tales, Pete Jones’ solo prog project, is essentially a love letter to everybody in his life, including family, friends, fans, and those he’s yet to meet. With the weight of the pandemic bearing down on artists and their circles the world over, Pete embraced us all with these songs, sharing a warm smile to lighten the load just a bit.
6. Monophonics – It’s Only Us
Motown and soul music more broadly imbued the 70’s with a warmth that persists today and those of us who remember the radio then can still feel the good vibes (well, so can everyone else, but I like to think it’s special for the dustier among us). Monophonics’ It’s Only Us channels all of it with equal parts confidence and deference.
5. Dai Kaht – Dai Kaht II
Dai Kaht is a strange marriage of zeuhl and Rock In Opposition, two very strange offshoots of prog, itself a strange manifestation of rock and roll music. More specifically, on Dai Kaht II, all the wacky eccentricities of zeuhl are crammed headlong through the distorted electric RIO filters to create an aggressively strange and ultimately addictive new, barely familiar monster.
4. Wobbler – Dwellers of the Deep
The only thing better than classic prog continuing to scratch its particular itch after all these years is young new bands carrying the torch as confidently and proudly as the vanguard in its day. And Wobbler does it better than just about everybody else, creating an album in Dwellers of the Deep that pushes typical time limits and still leaves the listener wanting more.
3. Mulatu Astatke & Black Jesus Experience – To Know Without Knowing
Mulatu Astatke, known for his Ethio-jazz and as a champion of global jazz collaborations, worked for a second time with Black Jesus Experience to create one of 2020’s most amazing records. To Know Without Knowing is the album I listened to the most in 2020. In a year marked by strife and harsh reminders that people of color have long been and continue to be disproportionately harmed by the status quo, this album of international collaboration and multicultural celebration was a breath of fresh air.
2. Lunatic Soul – Through Shaded Woods
Lunatic Soul is the solo project of Riverside’s Mariusz Duda, through which he explores avenues of musical variation not quite suited for his primary band. His 2020 offering, Through Shaded Woods finds him miles ahead of where he’s landed before, celebrating traditional sounds with acoustic guitar and folk melodies with what feels like a genuine love and passion for the music. Duda has never sounded so deeply invested in his music, and that’s saying something.
1. LogoS – Sadako e le Mille Gru di Carta
The next time you decide to explore something completely new to you in the world of music, please make it Italian prog rock (aka Rock Progressivo Italiano or RPI) and please begin with Sadako e le Mille Gru di Carta (Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes). (Yes, I’m assuming you aren’t already familiar with RPI. Odds are good, I think). I could write a million words about what make LogoS and this album so great, but you don’t want to read a million words. Instead, I’ll remind you that a great many of the best albums ever find that oh so delicate balance between familiarity and novelty. LogoS recalls all the greats of Italian prog rock, including Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Premiata Forneria Marconi, and Le Orme, and yet they sound more like LogoS than anything else. Instruments include electric guitars and synthesizers and songs are written in the rock and roll symphony style, all per the prog way and all with that distinctive Italian flair that is as familiar as it is difficult to describe to the uninitiated. Sadako is bold, majestic, exceedingly professional and as reverent as it is brave. As near to perfect an album as can be found in 2020.
Thanks for reading my list, for letting me share my experiences with you, in a very small way sharing the heavy burden that is the here and now.
It’s not like any of us has the answers.
There is real strength, though, and hope in the desire to discover the way. Music has an almost impossible power to connect people with shared values and visions and wishes for the world. I really do cherish that connection, real and implied, and hope it brings as much light to your day as it does mine.