TOP ALBUMS OV 2020 W/ SPEAR, GOATFOREST AND VLAD POUTINE!
Day 5 of LISTMANIA is upon us like a swarm of locusts, clearing out even the small change left at the bottom of our coffers. I blame Spear, GoatForest and Vladimir Poutine!
Holy shit guys, I’m ranking my list this year. How are they ranked? More or less arbitrarily, but the 10 felt very much like a 10 and the 1 and 2 felt very much like a 1 and 2, and it would have been weird to only rank three. I’m also forgoing my rule of only featuring smaller bands, because fuck it, it’s 2020 and I just want to share stuff that made me happy this year.
10. Trivium – What the Dead Men Say
This new Trivium album answers the age-old question of, “What if Stone Sour was actually listenable?” Jokes aside, I was debating whether or not to include this on the basis that there are a lot of smaller and arguably better albums that could be occupying this slot. Hell, I wouldn’t even call this Trivium’s best album—2017’s The Sin and the Sentence was a stronger record by all accounts—but it’s still a good album, and it’s one of the things I listened to most this year. It’s an album largely carried by big, powerful, sing-along choruses, but the riffs are decent at worst, the leads are solid across the board, and there’s a couple real bangers on here. Ultimately, What the Dead Men Say makes this list because it was my comfort listen of the year. Trivium has been a favorite of mine for a long time now; this is what I fell back on whenever I wasn’t sure what else to listen to, and it made this dumb fucking year a bit more tolerable.
9. Cosmic Putrefaction – The Horizon Towards Which Splendour Withers
I, Voidhanger | Review
Our boy Sepulcrustacean did a better job of dissecting this album than I could ever hope to do (check out that review linked above), so I’ll try to keep this brief. While his criticisms of the album certainly stand, particularly regarding the atmospheric sections, I found myself coming back to this one over and over again. The riffs here are dark and heavy, muscular but weird; in short, exactly my shit. If G.G. can expand on the groundwork he laid with this album and intertwine the riffs and the atmospheric bits a little more tightly, then the followup to this is going to be a monster. But until that hypothetical followup comes, I’m going to continue jamming the shit out of this.
8. Snakeblade – The Kingdom
This mean little EP came out of nowhere this summer and blindsided me with its ferocity. Melodic, riff-driven, punky black metal about a variety of nerd shit? You know I’m down for this. It’s aggressive, it’s dirty (in spite of its overall level of polish), and it’s a shitload of fun. It also gets points for featuring what I’m pretty sure is the only metal song I’ve heard about a character from Metal Gear Solid 2. Not bad for a project that came out of someone being bored under quarantine.
7. Atramentus – Stygian
20 Buck Spin
Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a big doom boy. Slow music is by and large anathema to me, and while the occasional doom album gets me excited, I had never enjoyed a funeral doom record prior to Stygian. It steers well clear of the droning proclivities of the genre at large, keeping the music in motion despite the lack of speed and keeping me engaged through the ponderous journey. Great production helps as well, ensuring the heaviest parts of the song hit with all the weight the album’s concept demands. This is literally the only funeral doom album I’ve ever enjoyed, and for it to be this enthralling is a feat.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a fickle bitch and a liar, which is why there are two doom albums on my top 10 list this year. Oceans of Slumber is, of course, of a very different strain of doom than the record above, and they are no less captivating. The band’s self-titled album feels like a continuation of 2018’s The Banished Heart in many ways even through the big lineup changes over the past two years, and I’m totally here for it. It’s slow and mournful, interspersed with moments of seething rage and crushing heaviness; Cammie Gilbert’s incredible vocals are still the star of the show, of course, but everyone in the band certainly holds their own in terms of performance and interesting parts. There’s a reason 365 called them a prime example of the recently-minted passion doom genre, and this record further cements their position as its kings.
It wouldn’t be a real Spear top 10 without some dumb riffy bullshit, and while Earth Rot might not be quite as unga bunga as most other acts employing an HM-2 as their primary grit engine, they fit the bill well enough here. Honestly, the sheer audacity of including a goofy-ass blues rock bridge in the middle of “The Cape of Storms” was enough to secure themselves a position here in the first place, but this is a damn fine blackened death metal album besides. It’s equal parts stormy ambience and grinding fretwork, and it’s easily the band’s best work to date.
4. Falconer – From a Dying Ember
Falconer had one of the best ratios of hits to misses among power metal bands right up through the end of their career, going out on a high note with From a Dying Ember. The band did essentially nothing new on this one aside from including a couple instruments that they hadn’t used before, but that’s really all I wanted out of this. It’s more of Falconer doing what they did best and continuing to do it extremely well. The final song hearkening back to the Mithotyn days is a perfect touch, a fitting farewell to one of my favorite bands.
That this list should be full of dolorous melodies is fitting, and Wayfarer gave us some of the best of them. This grim, bleak examination of the US’s bloody expansion into the west deconstructs the silver screen fetishization of the gunslingers of days past with incredible cinematic flair. Its presentation fits the Western aesthetic to a tee, the music evocative of dusty plains and thundering locomotives. At the risk of continuing to sound like some kind of pull quote generator, this album goes way beyond what I typically expect from black metal, and it’s absolutely worthy of all the praise that’s been heaped upon it.
2. Sutrah – Aletheia
The Artisan Era
Despite what some bird-faced slanderers lurking within the depths of this accursed bowl might tell you [Hoo? ~Roldy], this album is not overrated, it totally whips sack, is absolutely deserving of all the praise heaped upon it, and I will not hear otherwise. I love it when extreme metal is as beautiful as it is heavy, and Sutrah more than delivers in that regard. Aletheia isn’t as weird as its predecessor, but the tighter focus, album-spanning leitmotifs, and uplifting melody is enough to put it alongside Song of the Crippled Bull as my favorite progressive death metal EP. Bands like Sutrah are a rare breed, and I can’t get enough of this style of death metal.
1. Unleash the Archers – Abyss
Napalm Records | Review
Was it ever going to be anything else? Well, actually yes, I figured Sutrah was going to be the shoo-in for my number one slot for a long time, and it’s still an extremely close second, but I digress. It’s unreal how far Unleash the Archers pushed their sound on Abyss, especially in the wake of how good Apex was, and it still gets me hyped up even after months of listening to it. The way they bound together their music and concept is near unrivaled in the world of power metal, and the production is stellar on top of it. Everything that makes this band unique and fun is cranked up to 11 here, and they’ve pushed into unfamiliar territory as well. It’s a damn masterpiece, and that’s all there is to it.
Also the Japanese special edition has a cover of “Sunglasses at Night,” so even all that aside, album of the year right here.
I haven’t had a lot of time or desire to listen to new music this year, what with an extremely demanding work schedule and a seemingly endless funk brought on by a combination of my ever-present long-term “natural” depression and a perpetual low grade terror brought on by the accelerating onset of American fascism. I’ve mostly fallen back onto music with the feelings that I mostly enjoy. Namely, I’ve generally listened to black metal, and with a few exceptions, my top 10 reflects that.
10. Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still
Debemur Morti Productions
Full disclosure: I don’t actually own this album yet, and haven’t spent as much time with it as the others on this list. Hence, its relatively low ranking. Still, it has definitely earned a place on the top somewhere. It’s a chaotic, swirling thing of dread and horror that demands to be heard and applauded.
9. Naglfar – Cerecloth
Century Media Records| Review
Dissection is long gone, but, fuck it. We still have Naglfar. They’ve always been sonically darker, while being less sketchy, anyways. On Cerecloth, Naglfar continues to mine the few remaining nuggets of gold left in traditional melodic black metal’s aging caverns. They’re not doing anything they haven’t done before, but if it ain’t broke… Look, even a bog standard Naglfar album is so good that it stands out. These bastards are just that able.
8.Vous Autres– Sel de Pierre
Season of Mist
Do you like depressive atmosphere and existential angst? If so, Vous Autres has you covered. Each track expresses itself like a plodding nightmare in that you may not remember exactly how it went, but you will definitely remember how it made you feel. Be warned: this is an emotionally draining listen.
7. Blaze of Perdition – The Harrowing of Hearts
Metal Blade Productions
On this one, Blaze of Perdition has married the emphasis on atmosphere found on The Conscious Darkness to more mid-paced black and roll riffs. Normally, with the exceptions of genre stalwarts such as Dark Fortress and Shining, this approach sacrifices atmosphere. Not so here. All in all, The Harrowing of Hearts manages to be both deep and catchy. That’s a winner in my book.
6. Illkynja – Sæti Sálarinna
Ugly. Dissonant. Phenomenal. There is something very wrong in Iceland, because that island keeps pumping out extremely creative and supremely disturbing black metal. Illkynja’s debut is no exception. Never has an album cover so accurately demonstrated the contents of a record.
Man, this one came outta nowhere. You’ve gotta hand it to a death metal band that manages to sound more evil and unsettling than 95% of existing black metal. Ulcerate and Portal have some strong competition on the rise.
4. Cytotoxin – Nuklearth
Unique Leader Records | Review
Brutal and direct, yet intelligent and dynamic, Nuklearth is a brutal death metal masterpiece, and it only gets better with repeated listens. It’s not my normal taste at all, yet I found my self walking away from this one both refreshed and very impressed.
Riffs. Riffs everywhere. Dark Fortress hasn’t sounded this good since Seance. Every song is memorable and chock full of riffs that will get your head steadily banging. The atmosphere is suitably ghostly, and there is variety rarely seen in black metal. It’s a straight banger that will appeal to the more open-minded black metal listener, as well as those who have mostly written off the genre.
2. Anaal Nathrakh – Endarkenment
Metal Blade Productions |Review
You knew this was coming. I unabashedly love this record. No album hit me on an emotional level this year quite like Endarkenment. Nothing has been more appropriate to express the carnage of 2020 than the nihilistic rage and seething disgust found on this album. The intensely violent moments contrast with the beautifully melodic ones to create a truly stunning work. “Create Art Though the World May Perish” indeed.
1. Esoctrilihum– Eternity of Shaog
I, Voidhanger Records | Premiere
Holy fucking shit is this album outstanding! Eternity of Shaog may be the most creative black metal album I have heard in recent memory. Esoctrilihum has managed to thrill on every level possible with this baby. The atmosphere is sublime. The instruments are worked masterfully. The lyrics are… well, I don’t what the Hell he’s talking about, but I imagine that they also rule. Everything is combined to form something wholly adventurous and unique. This is a once in a lifetime masterpiece. I literally can’t praise it enough.
10. Afterbirth – Four-Dimensional Flesh
Unique Leader Records
Bizarre in subject matter, beautifully balanced in arrangement across tracks, organically produced (another Colin Marston triumph), and self-aware enough not to overplay its hand, Four-Dimensional Flesh is another entry that—like Wake’s—feels greater than the sum of its parts. In my experience it’s odd for a brutal death metal record to feel as mature as it does complete in vision, but Afterbirth delivers in spades. For a less accomplished album, the unapologetically triumphalist title track would be stylistic overkill. Here, it’s practically mandatory.
The fuck, Denver. Without consciously singling it out, this high-plains metropolis seizes two slots on this list and a couple more in honorable mention. In Black Curse’s case, this is OSDM with little apparent intent other than to sound evil. Completely, disgustingly, noxiously evil. Someone on Twitter described them as a “doomier Teitanblood” and that seems pretty apt; filthy riffs, ground-glass vocals (seriously, those vocals!) and a no-bullshit aesthetic produce a lean and thoroughly malevolent little beast that embodies “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s awfully hard to find anywhere at all this album missteps.
8. Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better?
Translation Loss Records | Review
Shoegaze, screamo, and post-hardcore come together with D-beat to form a glossy yet cathartic package unafraid to address personal and societal issues. Its emotiveness and, dare I say, the prettiness of it will be off-putting to some, no doubt. For those folks, see the prior entry. But in a year where those of us who struggle with mental health have often found ourselves in dark places, as well as a year in which societal bigotries and hatreds are being violently confronted, I’m glad to see a group decline to hide behind abstraction and instead speak in plain terms.
7. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin kynsi
Frankly, I’m unsure why this landed at this spot; it could easily have been placed far closer to the top. Regardless, here we find everyone’s favorite psychedelic black metallers departing from the more spacey abstraction of Värähtelijä and leaning into a more immediate, though no less hypnotic incarnation of their fever dream. Slow, vast sonic expanses are largely exchanged for more aggressive and acrobatic synth work, even a venture (on the penultimate track) into what could almost be considered dance music- if each clubgoer were on an eighth of evil mushrooms. Or if Rudy Giuliani smoked DMT. There’s also an element of fun throughout the record that should not be discounted, and a renewed energy that suggests Oranssi Pazuzu’s creative spark has a long and bright, if thoroughly demented future ahead of it.
6. The Ocean Collective – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic / Cenozoic
Metal Blade Records
Won’t lie: as a longtime fanboy of these folks, I was sorely disappointed at the first listen through of Phanerozoic II. I expected more of the slow, sludgy, almost ponderous material that bookended Phanerozoic I so successfully, or perhaps proggy operatic forays a la Pelagial. Instead we get adventures in post-rock, a few hardcore leanings, all feeling very reserved and disjointed by comparison. Yet successive listens revealed far more cohesion throughout, with subtle thematic threads gone at a moment’s notice if your attention lapses. Is it their best? Nope. Pelagial and Precambrian both have it beaten easily. But it’s nevertheless markedly better than its predecessor, if less immediately apparent as such, and that’s no small feat in itself.
5. Sutrah – Aletheia
The Artisan Era
Keeping up with the high-mindedness, we get what may be the most ambitious EP of the year. Two instrumentals, two tracks with vocals, one of the latter being a 16-minute opus sporting- of all things- an a capella ending. Arguably Sutrah’s greatest strength is to balance oddities such as the aforementioned with subject matter that’s a welcome departure from metal’s more rote “Mutilate The Stillborn” stuff, but still delivered with a ferocity pulled straight from brutal death metal. Is it tech? Prog? BDM? Who cares. It’s wonderfully refreshing, even as Kevin Paradis’ performance behind the kit blasts the fillings out of your teeth. Whatever. I needed to go to the dentist anyway.
4. Havukruunu – Uinuos Syömein Sota
This makes you want to fight frost giants on top of a fourteener. Havukruunu’s command of absolutely monstrous riffs is nothing new, but this outing lends said riffs that much extra oomph, thanks in no small part to a trad-metal swagger and a tasteful—though not overdone—employment of clean vocals. Plus there are solos. It’s the much-needed counterexample to black metal’s oft-deserved stereotype of basement-dwelling incel Burzum clones.
3. Wake – Devouring Ruin
Translation Loss Records
Wake could have eschewed experimentation and gone on churning out the caustic deathgrind they were hitherto known for, and that would have been fine. Instead they’ve metastasized into a horrifying (in the best possible way) amalgam of long-form, atmospheric arrangements, wound throughout with hyperblasting ferocity and brief ambient interludes. What Cattle Decapitation‘s Monolith of Inhumanity was to The Harvest Floor, as far as artistic evolution goes, this is to Misery Rites. Most of all, Devouring Ruin carries that ineffable quality of feeling like a complete, mature, fully fleshed out artistic statement, delivered with supreme confidence. This thing is an absolute monster.
2. Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still
Debemur Morti Productions
Distill 2020 into death metal form and this, to a T, is what you will find. These Kiwis need no introduction, but I haven’t heard an album this evocative from them since The Destroyers of All; the spiraling, labyrinthine arrangements, lurching bass foundation and absurd drum work remain, but are here delivered with a more deliberate melodicism that captures the experience of a world collapsing, inexorably and in full horrified view of us all. Permeating its entirety is a mournful, almost funereal quality that rounds out the album’s more caustic elements. Not to be missed.
1. Wayfarer – A Romance With Violence
Profound Bore Records
This aural equivalent of Blood Meridian unseated Ulcerate for the top spot, against all expectation. It’s a near-flawless conjuration of the heat, dust, and brutality of the Old West- richly layered, sporting just the right amount of cinematic flair, and replete with that quintessentially American twang that transports you back to an era of steam engines, single-action revolvers, and saloons. Denver looks very different these days, but to hear Wayfarer tell it the town may as well still be in 1876.