(We don’t publish a single “official” NCS year-end list of best releases. Instead, each of our staff members compiles his own individual list. As usual, we have begun this year with a series of lists compiled by Andy Synn. Last Friday we published his list of 2020’s best EPs, and this week we’re rolling out the rest of them, day by day. As in the past we’re starting with an installment that veers off our usual theme of focusing on music we enthusiastically recommend. Feel free to disagree — some of us here may disagree as well — but also feel free to share in the Comments your own thoughts about 2020 albums that disappointed you.)
And so it begins…
Once again I’m starting off my annual week-long listravaganza with a round-up of those albums which I felt ultimately failed to live up to their promise and potential (and, in some cases, hype).
As always, however, I come here today not to praise Caesar… but not to bury him either…. but simply to point out that sometimes, sometimes, the emperor is a little under-dressed.
Of course, if I’m being totally honest, doing this column actually makes me a little sad, as it frequently (including this time) features bands who I consider some of my personal favourites.
But, by the same token, I think it’s important, and necessary, to acknowledge that even the best bands, even the bands we love the most, aren’t perfect, and sometimes come in under the bar.
This is especially relevant to this year’s article, as it contains a number of big/famous/seminal names, all with lengthy careers behind them (and hopefully lengthy careers still before them), who – for various reasons – simply didn’t produce their best work this year.
Chances are you won’t agree with all of my choices here. Some of you may even be upset by them (though you don’t need to be, this won’t harm any of the bands – in fact it might even help them identify some weaknesses in their overall game). But, no matter what, I hope we can all remain civil and polite in the comments.
After all, we’re all here because we love music… even when it sometimes disappoints us.
DARK FORTRESS – SPECTRES FROM THE OLD WORLD
For the sake of context I should point out that Dark Fortress are one of my favourite bands. I jumped onboard with the release of Eidolon, fell hard for Ylem, and then equally hard for Venereal Dawn, and in the meantime also worked my way back through the band’s impressive discography too.
Unfortunately the sad truth is that Spectres from the Old World just isn’t in the same league as either of its immediate predecessors, although that surely isn’t from lack of trying, as the individual performances are still top-notch (Seraph in particular remains one of the most interesting and underrated drummers in Black Metal).
It’s the structure and flow of the album – or, more accurately, the lack thereof – which really hamstrings it, resulting in a tonally uneven tracklisting that could do with trimming down and tightening up quite a bit.
I wanted to like this. I really did. And although I do like some of it, the whole thing just doesn’t hang together as well as it should.
ENSLAVED – UTGARD
Now, this is the first entry on today’s list (and probably not the last) that might potentially result in me receiving a few death threats (or at least a few mean comments).
But, then again… maybe not? I feel like Enslaved have a long enough, and rich enough, career by now that maybe people have started to accept that they’re not perfect, and that acknowledging this fact isn’t going to suddenly destroy everything they’ve worked so hard to build?
To get a handle on how/why Utgard ended up on this list I’d like to refer back to my own review, and one key phrase in particular, which stated that this album was/is:
“…a bit of a mixed bag – sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating, occasionally phenomenal – which seems, to me at least, to find the band stuck in a transitional form.”
Because I still stand by it. For every bold new step they (tentatively) take towards what might be the next stage of their evolution they take another step back into safe, overly-familiar territory.
There’s still quite a bit to like (even love) here, but it simply doesn’t quite reach far enough.
GREEN CARNATION – LEAVES OF YESTERYEAR
Now this one hurts. Green Carnation are one of those bands where practically everyone who knows them loves them, myself included. And when it was announced that they would be releasing their first album in almost a decade-and-a-half this year I know I wasn’t alone in practically glowing with excitement and anticipation.
Except, sadly, what we got wasn’t really much of an album, when all is said and done.
Oh, the songs are pretty good, for the most part (though we could argue whether “pretty good” is really “good enough” when it comes to GC), but with only three originals, plus a re-recording and a cover, Leaves of Yesteryear is more of a glorified EP than the true return to glory which we’d all been hoping for.
Not only that, but the group have since released another stand-alone original which clearly could have gone on the album if they’d waited a little, compounding this feeling that, somehow, the band managed to rush this release, even though they’ve had over ten years to patiently prepare!
A missed opportunity, for sure.
IHSAHN – TELEMARK / PHAROS
Let me be blunt about this. Ihsahn is one of my favourite artists, and his post-Emperor career has been been one hell of a rollercoaster ride, with several major high points (After and Amr in particular), and a few lows… but even those are usually capable of delivering a good balance of “killer” and “filler”.
Sadly that’s just not the case on either of his latest two EPs, as there’s maybe one song on each that lives up to the man’s previous potential (and standards), while the covers are depressingly generic in both execution and ambition (the one exception being his cover of “Roads” by Portishead) and just blandly reproduce the original without trying to put even the slightest Ihsahn-esque spin on things.
Probably my biggest disappointment(s) of the year, if I’m going to be honest.
INTER ARMA – GARBERS DAYS REVISITED
And speaking of covers… our old friends Inter Arma decided to put out a covers album this year and it’s kind of… not good.
There’s a couple that pass muster I suppose, but for the most part they’re played generically straight and just lack that spark, that fire, which usually makes Inter Arma such a harrowing joy to listen to.
Swing and a miss, guys.
IRIST – ORDER OF THE MIND
I don’t usually like to include debut albums in this list. But, sadly, the hype about this straight-to-a-major-label-debut was so overblown (multiple times I was informed that Irist were going to be the next big thing on the block) that the end result was always going to be a bit of a disappointment.
Ultimately Irist are a talented band, but there’s pretty much nothing here you haven’t heard before by other bigger/better bands, and while it does everything it sets out to do, and does it well, it doesn’t do anything great or particularly original with any of it.
That being said, there’s a glimmer of promise and potential in the last two tracks that I’d like to hear more of, and maybe the band’s next release will actually live up to the hype.
KATAKLYSM – UNCONQUERED
The name Kataklysm has been a byword for bull-headed stubbornness and riffy reliability for two solid decades now, and while it’s been quite a while since they produced anything that was a real “must have”, they’ve always been able to mix in a decent amount of “killer” among all the “filler”.
Unfortunately the ratio on their latest album is skewed drastically towards the latter, with song after song stumbling over rough transitions and following aimless melodic passages that don’t really go anywhere, resulting in what is easily some of the most awkward writing of the band’s career.
It’s not ALL bad news, as while the transition to seven strings doesn’t really take advantage of the extended range of the guitars (there’s a lot of sluggish Nu-Metal style riffage going on), there are times (such as the spikey, Slipknot-esque “Stitches”) where you can hear that maybe, just maybe, there’s some life left in the old beast yet.
It’s just that, for the most part, this one is more bark than bite.
SVART CROWN – WOLVES AMONG THE ASHES
Simply put, when this album is on it is on. And when it’s off… hoo boy is it ever off.
It’s not going to be a career-killer by any means (at least I hope not, as I love these guys), it’s just nowhere near the same level as their previous work.
Still, you can’t necessarily knock the band for trying some new things even if, disappointingly, they don’t really work out for the best a lot of the time.
SYLOSIS – CYCLE OF SUFFERING
Over the course of their career Sylosis have been a lot of different things to a lot of different people, from up-and-coming Metalcore underdogs, to the “the UK’s answer to Trivium”, to brawny, High On Fire worshipping riff-mongers (their best period, in my opinion), and lots, lots more.
And throughout the years they’ve also been juggling a level of hype and expectations that would have crushed lesser bands. So I’m sure you can imagine the insane levels of anticipation and hyperbole which surrounded the release of their long-awaited “comeback” album… as well as the disappointment of those who discovered it was far from their best work.
To be fair, they’re as technically talented as ever, and there are a few stand-out tracks… but the presence of these songs actually serves to emphasise how underwhelming and relatively middle of the road much of the material is, largely lacking that necessary dynamic spark – several of the choruses, for example, just fall flat, and even some of the solos are surprisingly dull – so that it often feels like they’re just going through the motions.
You know what they say, “with great hype comes great responsibility”, and sadly Cycle of Suffering, for the most part, doesn’t live up to either the hype or its responsibility as the band’s big comeback.
UADA – DJINN
Let me give you a quick history lesson – I loved Uada’s debut album, Devoid of Light, in spite of its slightly rough edges. I loved the band even more when I caught them live at MDF in 2017. I even loved their second album, Cult of a Dying Sun (though I know opinions about that are more mixed).
But Djinn? I don’t love Djinn.
It’s not a bad album, of course. Its cardinal sin is that it’s just a bit… bland. A bit safe. A bit, dare I say it, boring.
What almost makes it worse though is the fact that part way through “Forestless”, the album’s penultimate track, everything suddenly lines up and it’s like the band suddenly come back to life, with the subsequent “Between Two Worlds” being an absolute stunner, from start to finish.
Ah, if only it was all like that!
VISCERA – OBSIDIAN
Obsidian is a perfect example of how great potential doesn’t always translate into great music.
It’s solid, streamlined, and impeccably recorded, and delivered by a bunch of dudes with a wealth of talent and experience among them, but musically the whole thing feels so painfully micromanaged – like it was written by an algorithm designed to calculate out exactly what percentage mix of Death Metal, Metalcore, Djent and Deathcore would appeal to the widest cross-section of listeners – that it often feels very forced and artificial (the calculated/contrived blend of gritty, “tough guy” vocals and smooth, sensitive cleans in particular feels like the product of intensive focus-testing).
To be clear, that’s not a knock on any of the band’s members. It’s just that they appear to have tried to build something here which, as usual, manages to be a jack of all trades and a master of none.