TOP ALBUMS OV 2020 W/ A SPOOKY MANSION, STICK, AND SNOOTY!
Just when you thought it was safe to put your wallet away…LISTMANIA STRIKES AGAIN. This third round of lists was carefully curated by none other than A Spooky Mansion, Joaquin Stick and Snooty McWords.
A Spooky Mansion
I had a bunch of pent-up word-goo from not writing an article last month. Forgive me.
Atmoblack is far from my usual territory, which perhaps helps me summon the spirit of remoteness that Paul Ravenwood makes so central to his work in Twilight Fauna. I’m out past the territories I know, but Foundations‘ varied geography of placid, drifting folk and biting, chill black metal paints a compelling map. Like Bell Witch later on this list, Paul has a good sense of the power of true silence to give a composition more breadth and scale, turning loneliness into an experience of melding with the forested, mountain landscape.
I first discovered this band on a shallow hunt for another Panopticon, but Foundations has laid out a much more interesting trail for me than I anticipated, the same instruments and theme of ‘Appalachianess’ taking a much more morose mood. Twilight Fauna is my dark horse choice for this year, a step into the yawning darkness beyond my backyard fence.
There’s an unhinged, off-the-cuffness to Athenar’s songwriting. Its throwback nature is not just in the shamelessly cliché pentatonic riffs and full-throated infernal invective, but also in the way that all these songs seem like they could have been written as they went. They’re strung together according to gut instinct, nailed together with 2x4s, then thrown together in a mix where they can smash each other up in a demonic demolition derby. The genius of it all is that they’re not just fun mosh fodder, but seriously hooky and even distinct, with the leadwork of “You Can Drag Me Through Fire” in particular stretching the basic ABCs of rusty punk guitar into something downright tasty. If there’s any true heir to the style-over-substance, posture-over-poignance overacting of Venom, it’s Midnight. And not to talk shit, but Athenar can actually play, too.
8. Xibalba – Anos En Infierno
Southern Lord | Review
“Ritualistic” is the word for the well-mulched blend of death-doom Xibalba served up this year. Visceral and brimming with contempt, yet measured, drawing out the most tense moments to summon divine fury in the congregation. Dissolving from rumbling Bolt Thrower tremolo into looming, harmonized slow breaks while losing no intensity is a burden shouldered almost entirely by Xibalba’s drums. Jason Brunes’ kicks can stir up a storm fit to carry spirits right up from the netherworld, then start marching with the guitars to the very summit of the pyramid adorning the album cover.
The guitars are no less mighty, distorted just short of white noise fuzz, slamming so ferociously they can barely be chained to the spot by the drums. The instruments seize and shift together not unlike throngs of worshippers following a high priest, or a mob of protesters taking to the streets, and even when they stop to catch a breath, the sheer size of these arrangements has a presence all its own.
7. Nechochwen/Panopticon – Split
Bindrune Recordings | Recommendation
Always good to see scene pals helping each other out, although Panopticon is definitely doing more of the heavy lifting here. Austin Lunn even released a second split the same day with Aerial Ruin (who in turn, released a different split), and the entire business ended up with the trio sharing a virtual stream concert. Nechochwen‘s contribution is a concentrated punch of melodic, motif-laden black metal, with the occasional spot for drum-beating and chanting around the fire. I always love Nechochwen‘s articulate acoustics, but Lunn is the one really pushing his emotional boundaries with a harrowing letter of love and fear for his own son.
His sole track, “Rune’s Heart”, presses through nauseating panic, desperation, and quiet, patient resignation over its 20-minute run. It mires you in despair until you burn out, lets you soak in shame, then forces you back to your feet to walk with all that weight on you, out of pure, moving devotion. Lunn’s anarchist lyrics in prior releases have, of course, always focused on standing up and pressing on for the sake of those ground down by the many hierarchical institutions that poison our world (maaaaaaann!), but this one comes even closer to the heart.
6. Cauldron Black Ram – Slaver
20 Buck Spin | Recommendation
Tremble at his approach, ye wretched! Cauldron Black Ram has such a great, cohesive angle on this brand of blackened-deathened-doomened mutt metal. It’s got a lurching, ramshackle pulse to it, with the guitar and drums sometimes playing a bit off-kilter to one another, but it also gives each strike of the drums and snarling guitar some serious stomp. When I listen to this album, I get the profound sense that I am not wearing enough pelts or horned helmets.
These riffs are memorable, moody, and menacing, but not so overwhelmingly busy as a lot of other death metal in this vein. Probably because the drums aren’t blasting over every single inch of the thing. In fact, the drums might be the most expertly-deployed instrument here, creating adaptive, lean beats with flourish. For Cauldron Black Ram’s bluntness and spare composition, they weirdly pair very well with Conan. Hail the wickedest of the ancients.
5. Code Orange – Underneath
Roadrunner | Interview
All other hardcore can weep and sulk in the corner before the Antikytheran sight of Code Orange, spinning noxious nu-metal straw into brilliant breakdowns-and-heavy-electronics gold. All the imagery and sonic palette of Underneath add up to a sterile white lab splattered with burning chrome, ransacked for parts by the frozen corpse/cyborg/ghost leering out at you from the cover. Glittery glitches pull at the seams of breakdowns so irresponsible and so overcharged that they’ll short your Wi-Fi router, and all the while you scowl at nothing in particular and realize that you tore the sleeves off of all your t-shirts in a fugue.
While Code Orange’s previous records leaned much more heavily on relentless breakdown-after-breakdown pummeling, the gang have learned to cram that aggression into songs with actual choruses and refrains, letting the best riffs sink in and spicing, liberally with synths and samples for added discord. Jami Morgan steps away from the drums to embrace the microphone, while Reba Meyers takes a more forward vocal role as well, a clear expansion of their best experiment from the last record, Forever. This shit makes me want to fistfight an Amazon drone.
4. Howling Giant/Sgt. Thunderhoof – Turned To Stone Chapter 2: Masamune and Muramasa
Ripple Music | Interview
Maybe this release hangs out at the fringe of metal, but I don’t know what other company this duet of plodding, proggy pieces could keep. It’s got the pacing and rumble of stoner doom, but it’s breathable and airy instead of drunk on its own fuzz. And the leadwork? Honed to a razor edge. The two bands apparently swapped leftover riff ideas while composing, in a challenge to match one another’s songwriting (not unlike the legendary contests of the titular swordsmiths), and they both won.
Howling Giant‘s half is anthemic and warm, the vocals in particular soaring in with pseudo-Taoist lyrics that feel like unrolling a scroll of sage poetry before you. Sgt. Thunderhoof ups the distortion for cosmic contemplation, then digs down into properly headbangable territory, though the riffing has a driving sense of purpose throughout, instead of getting lost in a desert of blues scales. The Sergeant takes things in a more minor direction than Howling Giant, a kind of day-and-night shift from the wisdom of the blazing forge to ruminations on a swordsman’s guilt. Day begins and ends, night begins and ends. Then you turn the record over and start again. Life’s a never-ending wheel.
3. Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin – Stygian Bough Volume 1
Profound Lore | Review
This record just takes me to another realm, entirely, for reasons I think I’ve already thoroughly explained. Still, you shouldn’t need much coaxing from me to set aside a lonely spare hour and sink into the misty forgotten. Stygian Bough demands your attention, because the mix is teeming with tender tones that billow together organically, growing more nestled and interlaced as you all descend together, flowering in the grand stillness echoing between the strings.
In a genre (and subgenre) so romantic and focused on sweeping gestures of emotionality (mostly negative), Bell Witch is still here making the most purposefully pacifying metal they can on the grandest canvas they’ve yet tried their hand with. The expanded input of Aerial Ruin into the project is a seamless integration, a bloom of beautiful whispers and mewls, and ghostly guitar that dances, dreamlike, with Bell Witch’s somnambulic bass. Stygian Bough reaches into me and quells all desires, like finally hearing the music of the heavenly bodies.
Sometimes a fella does get tired of old school death metal. So many bands wearing their influences on their sleeve and wearing out the same lifeless tricks, tracing from the masters without grasping the form and weight underneath. Andrew Lee is several cuts above that, thankfully, and his Luan shook me out of my cobwebs and taught me to love anew. I love these trilling, tense tremolos. I love the chopping to-and-fro circle pit riffs, tumultuous as an angry sea and jagged as the rocks it breaks against. And I fucking love these solos, the only complaint being that there are so few. Not that the songs really need them to reach a satisfying crescendo, though.
This is the apex of death metal songwriting, playing with the full array of slow and sinister, grooving and gory, and finally, frantic and fiery, churning it all up together into songs loaded with foreboding buildup and totally wicked release. Still, “Opening Salvo” easily places as the album’s highlight for that mesmerizing shredtacular that comes out of absolutely nowhere and transforms everything into a power metal bash, yet still feels like a perfect fit. That is mastery. Lee just gets it, dude.
In James McBain’s native Scotland, there resides a fast food paragon, consisting of a discount grab bag of fried chicken, gyro meat, pizza, and every other salty, deep-fried heartstopper stuffed in a pizza sleeve, affectionately dubbed the ‘Munchy Box’. With its gothic flourishes and melodic licks, super-speed Kill-Em-All chords, and crackling, savory solos, The Affair Of The Poisons is Munchy Box made metal. All the right brain-tingling substances, but in just the right proportion that they don’t overpower one another. Meat and potatoes at its heart, but the best meat and potatoes you’ve ever had, like from that bolthole bar next to the cigar store.
Poisons is so fuckin’ fast and intense, but oh so crisp and intelligible. A lean, mean hunter of a record, slavering as it races for its prey. In only 30 minutes, you’re getting 2 lesser bands worth of riffs, delivered in half the time. Listening to McBain’s tightly-wound rhythm work is just the dressing for his solos. They rise and fall, contort and snap, pouncing with teeth bared like a goddamn vampire from the grave. This is exactly what heavy metal is supposed to be. The Affair Of The Poisons is my favorite record all this year, and you need to buy this tasty platter right the fuck now and stuff it in your face with your bare hands.
10. Alustrium – Insurmountable
Independent | TovH Premiere
24 minutes of tech death? In my top ten? Insurmountable falls right on that line of being super complex but still totally coherent to my dumb brain. It scratches that Black Crown Initiate prog itch as well (that album would have made it in my top 15) without being too chorus dependent. Shreds.
9. Wills Dissolve – Echoes
Hypnotic Dirge | Review
Hans pretty much nailed it on the review. Go check that out. He really dug in on my Opeth references when I wrote a premiere of their debut, but I still stand by this being a way cooler and modernized version of that dead band. It’s a 32-minute single-track album, sorry, but it’s really worth it for any doom / prog / melodeath fans.
Well, we can’t get new Baroness every year, so I’ll accept this Calyces as a fill-in. In addition to that obvious reference point, I get a little Intronaut and Mastodon in there too. If you like any of those bands, this is a record you need. Above its progressive backbone hangs some dank smoke and a thin layer of sludge. I’m always happy to hear a new band that can be a bridge between entry-level metal and some junk with rougher edges.
Countless Skies is like if Opeth got Devin Townsend to collaborate on their first attempt at incorporating tech-death into their melo-death (it probably sounds nothing like that). It’s completely bonkers genre-in-a-blender music and I’m extremely into that. The soaring operatics are rad, the growls offer a nice balance, and the progressive shredding guitar always impresses. It’s not easy to be so diverse while also making your songs feel cohesive, but they accomplished that with ease.
This style of crunchy meandering doom is rife with bands that bore me into an indica-induced nap. Somehow, some way, Elder packs their harmonies with so much energy and passion that it feels authentic rather than forced genre-adhesion. The vocals still fall in the “meets expectations” realm if using a quarterly staff evaluation scale, but I love that for them. The album is a pleasant but surreal dream. Occasionally a motif will linger a bit too long, but there’s so much depth and it sounds so dang nice that I don’t even mind. This is Good Vibes.
Honestly, I thought I was over PtH. My enjoyment of their albums was in a slow but steady decline until it just totally bottomed out with Pacific Myth. To my great surprise, Palimpsest did a complete 180 in terms of emotive weight. Joyless noodling no more, Rody and crew tapped into something to unleash some of their most cathartic choruses yet.
Instrumentally, the trio would have caught my attention with its expertise in the post-rock genre alone. The drums take the Pelican approach with funky tom-driven rhythms during the verses. The guitar’s clean echoing tone fills in a ton of space with its ever-shifting melodies. They are masters of the pulse that infuses you with hopefully-pessimistic energy, but what really solidifies this as a great album is the way they successfully weave a vocal track inside, and not on top of, this chaotic landscape. It’s one thing to have a great voice, which is obvious here, but another altogether to be able to create such magnificent hooks.
Amorphous death metal is not my usual cup of cyanide, but Ulcerate always adds enough melodic (?) hooks to make a song actually feel like a song. As expected, the non-stop feathery drumming is so unique and seemingly inhuman. The abrasive riffs set the scene for a cosmic nightmare fever dream like nothing else. Also Stare Into Death and Be Still is a high-ranking badass album title of all time.
2. Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better?
Translation Loss | Review
After the Holy Roar disaster earlier this year, I was thrilled to see Svalbard get this release out without delay. This is pure fury. The vocals are adequately pissed off for their lyrical content and the screaming guitar melodies and tremolos back them up with huge hooks. They mix in some great ambient stuff just to give your ears a break, but the energy of this record is astounding. The quick 38-minute runtime leaves no time for filler and every track feels like it could be a single on its own.
I didn’t really see much hype around this album, and often some negative comments, but I enjoy pretty much every second of it. My fanboyism probably forced me to give it more of a chance than most gave it, and after a few extra listens, it clicked in the hardest way. The psychedelic meanderings, the weird vocals, the angular grooves all sound so good to my ears after a little time. Besides Jamie Saint Merat, this fill-in drum performance by Alex Rudinger may be the unexpected drum highlight of the year for me.
It seems that one of nearly everything was unleashed this year; an entire lifetime’s worth of aspirations as well as dreads, outrages and dreams.
The year of our lord 2020 began in proper on January 20th when the first recorded case of COVID-19 was documented in the United States, surely to become only a minor curiosity in the footnotes of history.
By March, I was doing my best Corpsegrinder neck impersonation at a Nervosa concert, which would turn out to be both the first and last that I would see of the year. The date was March 7th. A week later I would spend 7 days on the couch playing Civilization VI as I sweated miserably, achingly in the throes of the novel coronavirus. The 13th of that month, Breonna Taylor was murdered by police serving a no-knock warrant and using indiscriminate lethal force; they were later indicted for their errant rounds qualifying as ‘reckless endangerment’ to her neighbors. By March 21st I was well enough to take a walk around the block, and I felt proud and accomplished. March 27 Velnias released Scion of Aether in support of an upcoming European tour that dematerialized in April as most countries worldwide implemented protective restrictions for their populace. The United Kingdom impressed everyone with their selfless willingness and dedication to lean out of windows and clap.
Somewhere in that nebulous springtime boundary between March and April, Brazil had already demolished an area of the Amazon equal to its annual allowed limit of deforestation. As lockdowns set in worldwide, my vitality waned and I ceased being able to listen to music entirely. The last remaining atoms of sanity and creative energy to my name I poured into playing drums and releasing music, and by Memorial Day weekend, they too were gone. No combination of windmill-length hair, 3,455 black tshirts or Bolt Thrower full dynamic range vinyls have been able to summon me from my fathomless musical doldrums. As it turns out, it is I whomst will never be one of us.
On May 25th, George Floyd was murdered at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department. By May 28th the citizens of Minneapolis decided to experiment with alternate approaches to policing. Lady Gaga released Chromatica the next day. May 31st saw Kim Jones explain the urgency of the public perspective on the history of slavery, racism and property in this video from Atlanta. In June the CO2 saturation in the atmosphere hits 417 ppm, the highest in human history and in the last 3 million years.
As the tidal waves of pandemic infection dashed upon the hidden rocks of inevitable mortality, festering herds of post-Klansmen salivated over the lurching boots of impending fascism, the greed-mongers continued to sow seeds of destitution and decay, leaving the less fortunate to feast on infernos, unemployment and homelessness. I found a new therapist and a 12-step program over Zoom.
The rest of the year is a home-bound blur; working in between fits of staring out the window over the back yard or glancing at the news, trying to ascertain the degree to which I should balance answering email or collecting seeds and building a bunker. Often the compromise was to do neither. Meanwhile, 4 million tons of plastic waste have entered the ocean.
In spite of all normalcy grinding to a halt, July saw the material release of some of my favorite and otherwise most anticipated artists: Defeated Sanity, Question and Imperial Triumphant. Their albums are all fantastic and I don’t think I’ve managed to listen to a single one in its entirety. The double gatefold Alphaville LP still sits unopened on my shelf. My main contribution to the musical community is now using the thumbnail of myself in Zoom sessions to adjust my laptop angle to better show off my Reflections of the Void t-shirt. On Aug 26, Riley Gale of Power Trip died.
Other cherished and revered acts braved the election cycle to release their labors of limitless love and crafted pain. Stalwarts like War on Women and Botanist were joined by a delightful discovery of Shinda Saibo No Katamari. I’ve heard a handful of songs off of each and they are all marvelous and I don’t remember what enjoying music sounds like anymore.
I record more drums, play more songs, mechanically. My dork suits gather only dust.
Somehow, an untold horde of music persistently stampedes onto the greater earthly scene: Body Count, Stormkeep, Svalbard, Terminal Nation, Enslaved, Wayfarer, Extinction, Stormland, Drainbow, Al Namrood, Adzes, White Crone, Mother Anxiety, Ulcerate, Pyrrhon, xClassActionx, Incriminating Silence and many other bands and albums who I’m probably assuming manifested in some other long distant forgotten year of archeological obscurity that may actually have been two weeks ago.
With that in mind, as someone who basically hasn’t heard more than a handful of notes all year that weren’t the sweet dulcet sounds of Microsoft Teams notifications, I invite you to the deranged trepidation that is my Not Top 10 Not Albums of the Year.
5. Drew Lock – Denver Broncos (2020)
Yes you read that right, my 5th favorite album this year is the rookie quarterback for a team that is 4-8 at the time of this writing. I ask you to bear with me and indulge my reasoning for a moment, for this is far more than a simple case of sports-nostalgia for chips and salsa, 40-second bursts of tense sportsmanship or marathons of truck ads. Indeed, the pandemic seems to have regressed my brain to a primal state in which sanity can only be maintained by nurturing a hearty emotional attachment to something entirely ridiculous and even more preposterously silly than the metal scene. But even beyond that, there is inspiration to be found in all the pointlessness and in the way that Drew Lock has perfectly captured the crushing sensation of 2020 and the dogged persistent hope that it has required of all of us.
For every 342 interceptions he throws, for every 3 quarters he goes with nary a single field goal, or for every 481 sacks he is subjected to, he still manages to get up for the next play and summon a bizarre combination of recklessness, vision and strength by launching the hand-egg ludicrous distances to the calm cradling arms of Jerry Jeudy. Again and again he dutifully looks to find his receivers even after having his ribs turned to a pulp by the opposing team’s meat skeletons when his defensive line only gives him 69 milliseconds following the snap with which to contemplate his mortal futility. I firmly believe that if he keeps at it, he’ll someday be able to throw passes into the end zone with the impressive speed and enthusiasm of a police union rehiring abusive officers.
4. The Plague – Albert Camus (1947)
Technically this entry is 73 years too late, but with passages like this, it seemed to be just in the nick of time.
“In this respect, our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they have taken no precautions.”
3. Making Spaces Safer – Shawna Potter (2019)
While the establishment and maintenance of ‘spaces’ is currently a little less certain than usual, the caring, inviting and detailed insight of this book is as relevant as ever. The War on Women vocalist has refined her training courses down to a remarkably practical combination of theory, advice, examples and understanding, that is both approachable and forgiving, but also firm. It encourages us to do better for each other and for ourselves too, in recognizing the depth of what respect looks like and how to encourage that in a world that desperately needs all of our unique and diverse talents and selves. Published by AK Press.
2. Behind the Bastards – Behind the Police (2020) 1-6
These 6 hours of podcasts are an essential vaccine to the propaganda and rosy revisionism that often passes for American History education. Robert Evans and his delightful producer and guests cover a wide range of essential topics throughout the seasons, many of which are still painfully relevant, but none more so than a deep dive on the slow grinding evolution from unwanted community thug mercenaries and slave patrols to the highly mechanized shock troops fanatically devoted to protecting property by bulldozing civil rights in the name of order. This podcast hits like a tear-gas canister to the face and a truncheon to the back of the head.
1. How to Be Antiracist – Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (2019)
Like many things in life, you can tell when someone’s really onto something when they’re making idiots fuming Mad Online.
Dr. Kendi’s ideas are deceptively simple and at first seem to be mere academic distinctions, esoteric definitions of racist idea vs racist policy, or ‘doing racism’ vs ‘being racist’. But after marinating and turning over the concepts of just how much greed-induced racist policy predated and often created racist ideas as a method of self-justification to its adherents and supporters, the world becomes both that much clearer and also more menacing.
From my privileged and often oblivious perspective, the world had felt somehow simpler and more digestible to me before I read this book, when I understood that the only thing necessary to be good and helpful was to simply ‘not be racist’. Written here it seems a silly thing to say, but that is essentially the ethics that were widely taught and which I dutifully and whole-heartedly absorbed in my suburban youth. But in a world full of people performing acts that either support bigotry and racist systems or deconstruct them, the nebulous idea of goodness not only became more difficult and challenging, but also painfully clear that being ‘not racist’ simply wasn’t enough, and never has been.
In spite of those uncomfortable personal shortcomings of comprehension that it unearths as it takes the reader on examinations of gender, color, justice, culture, education and many others, the book and its author are not blameful or shaming, but rather genuine and encouraging of honest introspection in owning fault and misconception, because that is the only true foundation from which the reader and society can truly build towards practicing a better future.