(We dom’t publish a single “official” NCS year-end list of best releases. Instead, each of our staff members compiles his own individual list. Andy Synn‘s week-long series of year-end lists continues today with his large collection of 2020’s “Good” albums across a wide range of genres.)
So, now that all the fury and furore about yesterday’s list has (hopefully) died down, it’s time for us to get stuck into the good stuff.
And I do mean the “good” stuff, as today’s list features a wide variety of albums and artists all of whom I think are worth giving a listen to, some of which came very close to making it onto tomorrow’s “great” list, while others sit more in the “flawed, but still fun” category, but which all ultimately offer something worthwhile whether or not you’re a new listener or a long-time fan.
As always, I have to point out that this list is in no way “ranked”… it’s more of a general round-up of things (over 200 of them at last count) which I’ve had chance to listen to and form a semi-coherent opinion on over the course of the last twelve months… and is designed primarily to help our readers discover (or give a second chance to) things they might otherwise have missed or dismissed.
Oh, and if anything does catch your ear (and if nothing does then perhaps you’re on the wrong site?) then just give the band name a click and it should take you to their bandcamp page (or equivalent).
Anyway, without further ado, let’s get going, shall we?
BIG NAMES AND FAMOUS FACES
We’ll start off by covering some of the year’s “big” releases (by our standards anyway), such as the new Dark Tranquillity, which was a big (and more memorable) step up from their last two records, as was the new Sólstafir.
Both Katatonia and Lamb of God gifted us with solid new albums, mixing a bunch of killer with a handful of filler (although the latter, as a self-titled album, seems like a missed opportunity to redefine the next era of the band) while Heaven Shall Burn only just missed out on a place on tomorrow’s “Great” list.
Ulver continued to live out their electro-pop fantasies with Flowers of Evil, while Secrets of the Moon moved even further away from their blackened roots with the gothy, post-punk inspired Black House.
It was an even bigger year for some of the old-school titans though, with both Testament and Vader continuing to kick some serious ass, while Sepultura might even have made it onto the “Great” list for the first time in years had the second half of of Quadra been as killer as the first.
And then there was the new one from Sodom, which proved to be one of the big surprises of the year (for me, anyway)!
NONE MORE BLACK
Moving away from the limelight and into the darkness, 2020 was a busy year for the Black Metal scene, with some of the big names – Naglfar, Acherontas, Cult of Fire – continuing to cement their legacies with style, however it was the new names and debut albums that really caught my attention this year.
Under the radar releases from bands like Ba’a, Bythos, and Yaotl Mictlan proved that all three bands are “ones to watch” going forwards, while impressive debuts from Ante-Inferno, Feminazgul, and Black Flux also generated a lot of well-deserved buzz too.
Debut albums from Exitium Sui, Lebenssucht, and Gloom (whose album, sadly, I didn’t have time to review here) proved that the future of the grim arts is in safe hands, as did new records from Hadopelagial, Bezwering, and Helfró (and, yes, I know the latter received a limited release in late 2018, but it got its main/proper release this year, so I’m counting it).
Noctriulm impressed me with their experimentally-inclined debut Un (and apparently released a follow-up just last month which I have yet to check out) as did Serpents Oath with their devilish debut, Nihil, which only narrowly missed out on a place on the “Great” list.
The more “atmosphere” focussed end of the Black Metal spectrum delivered a rich variety of desolate delights this year, from mysterious anonymous artists like Voidsphere and Mahr to scintillating solo-projects such as Odoacer, Titaan, Scáth Na Déithe and Shrieking.
Speaking of solo-projects, the extravagant split-album from Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum turned a lot of heads this year, although I feel like the tracks from the latter were, for the most part, stronger than the ones from the former, while I did my own part in directing a few eyes and ears towards Dysylumn and their new triple-disc release when I featured them in October’s Synn Report.
On the subject of The Synn Report, I’ve had Hangatyr lined up for inclusion at some point for a while now, but you can (and should) check out their latest album as and when you get chance, while the ever-prolific Decoherence are building up an impressive catalogue so quickly it won’t be long until I have to give them their own feature too.
Of course, the line between “Atmospheric” Black Metal and “Post-Black Metal” isn’t always easy to define (sometimes I think it’s purely in the eye of the beholder), but wherever they land on the spectrum, I can honestly say that the new records from Redwood Hill, Hyrgal, and Regarde Les Hommes Tomber are three of the best examples (only narrowly missing out on tomorrow’s list) of the year, equal parts atmosphere and aggression, melody and menace.
An Autumn For Crippled Children reminded everyone why they’re rightly considered Post-Black progenitors with All Fell Silent, Everything Went Quiet, while Deluge, Toadeater, Dynfari, and Skyeater continued to go from strength to strength with their new records.
On a more personal note, Old Growth, Celestial Vault, and Aodon delivered three of my favourite records of the year, combining baleful blasting and melancholy melody in equal measure, as did the utterly spellbinding (though significantly less blackened) Massohist by Grav Morbus (just a beautiful record, through and through).
And for those of you a bit more… adventurous… I’d recommend giving the sinister space-rave of Mesarthim’s latest album, The Degenerate Era, a listen, as well as the heart-stopping, Post-Hardcore-meets-Post-Black of Ethicist.
WEIRD AND WONDERFUL, BLACKENED AND BLISTERING
On the proggier end of the Black Metal spectrum both Amiensus and Izthmi delivered a pleasing blend of creativity and catharsis, and Maladie and Satan continued to throw a cornucopia of different elements, influences, and instruments, into their strange blackened brew to striking, sometimes stunning, effect.
Serpent Column and Krallice proved, once again, that mind-bending technicality and anxiety-inducing angularity have their place in Black Metal (if anyone ever doubted it), while debut albums from Lord Almighty and Folterkammer suggested that both bands have a bright/bleak future ahead of them (the latter in particular).
PURE AS THE DRIVEN SNOW
If you’re after a bit of old-school worship that’s not totally enthralled to the old days, then From The Vastland, Infera Bruo, or Sicarius might just scratch that itch, whereas those looking for something a bit more thrash-tastic should give Cauldron Black Ram and Spirit Possession a spin ASAP.
Both The Spirit and The Infernal Sea provided a welcome dose of blackened bombast (although the latter was a slight step down from its predecessor in my opinion), while Vananidr, Wolves Den and Inexorum put the emphasis on seething melody even as Tod Huetet Uebel and Worthless focussed more on brutality.
And then there were the albums that really struck a chord with me personally, from Vyrion and Feral Light – who melded multiple styles and influences into one cohesive whole – to the relentless riff-craft of Gravenchalice and Grimah, to the hook-fuelled, hate-filled, melodic malevolence of Irdorath and Tombs (the former just missed out on making my “Personal Top Ten”, while the latter would probably have ended up on the “Great” list if it had been trimmed down ever so slightly).
BLACK TO THE BONE, HARD TO THE CORE
If you’re not obsessed with “purity”, but still like your Black Metal blast-fed and belligerent, then Blackened Hardcore stalwarts Ancst might be right up your alley. Or perhaps you’d prefer the pure adrenaline rush of Bait or the spiteful savagery of Cross Bringer, both of whom are likely to be the future of the scene.
Then again, if you prefer things a bit more Punk-influenced then I’d be remiss not to recommend the new Okkultokrati, while those of you with a Grind-fetish should be able to get your blackened rocks off to the ambitious new album from Icare or the face-melting debut from Canada’s Sophist.
FROM THE BLACK, TO THE DEATH
And if we’re talking about Black Metal crossing over with other genres then we can’t ignore the brutal phenomenon known as “Blackened Death Metal”, no matter whether it comes from new names like Automb, Hell Gate, Nansis, or Purnama, or old favourites such as Nomad, Vassafor and Horned Almighty.
Light Dweller unleashed a tangled maelstrom of dissonance and distorted atmosphere with Hominal (as well as a recent follow-up which I’ve yet to hear), as did Patrons of the Rotting Gate (although the latter was possibly a little too ambitious for its own good), while both Burial and the returning Zebadiah Crowe gave us a brutal blend of nasty thrills, gnarly riffs, and gruesome swagger.
Omega Infinity definitely showed a spark of potential greatness on their debut this year, as did the horrific debut from Proscription (which, I’d argue, even outdid the new Vassafor mentioned above), but I really want to draw your attention toTimeless Past Above, the absolutely crushing second album from Russia’s Odem, and the devastating debut from Germany’s Omegavortex, both of whom don’t so much break the mould as they do use it to bludgeon you into submission.
DEATH IS MY ONLY FRIEND
From Blackened Death Metal we move on into the realms of true/pure/real (delete as appropriate) Death Metal, which again had a very good year, from big names like God Dethroned, Incantation, and Ingested (who only narrowly missed out on a place on tomorrow’s list) to underground icons like Sxuperion and Cosmic Putrefaction.
A bunch of new names also made their presence known this year, from the rapid-fire riffs and turbo-charged terrorism of bands like Apep, The Malice, and Horresque, to the darker, doomier sound of Cult Burial and Saturno, the thrashier assault of Ataudes and Sanctifying Ritual, and the multifaceted Prog-Death of Sallow Moth.
And then, of course, there was the twin-headed hydra of Ritual Contrition and Warp Chamber, who each put their own scorched spin on things with a complex, contorted mix of Floridian and Finnish influences, thrashy riffs and proggy time-shifts.
OLD SCHOOL VIBES
Speaking of the “Old School”… we all know that true Death Metal can never die, and this year continued to prove that, with lot of (well-deserved) praise being lavished on both Necrot and Ulthar, with more than enough left over to be shared with the merciless, melody-tinged debut from Draghkar as well as the fearsome first album from savage super-group Glorious Depravity.
Both Heretic Warfare and Iron Flesh delivered the gruesome goods while also remaining hideously underrated (and I’ll hopefully be writing more about both of them very soon), while Avernal and Earth Rot brought some singularly Swe-Death influenced buzz-saw riffage to the table.
Divine Chaos continued to meld Death and Thrash with a keen melodic edge on The Way to Oblivion, while Decrepid provided a welcome throwback to the days when the lines between Death, Doom, and Thrash were first made permeable… and speaking of blurred lines, a quick listen to the new releases from Live Burial, and Intellect Devourer will surely please anyone who loves the thrashy, proto-technical style of Death, Atheist, Sadus, etc.
Speaking of Death Metal with a more technical edge/focus, both Pestifer and Denominate showcased a lot of promise and potential, while Symbolik displayed some serious shred skills (and symphonic embellishments) on their debut Emergence.
Ovid’s Withering and Clients added some even more extravagant symphonic embellishments to their frantic technical thrills, and Deinos and Wastewalker added a slight ‘core inflection to their own particular brand of Melodic Tech Death destruction.
Fans of The Black Dahlia Murder, Arsis, Mors Principium Est, etc, would do well to pick up the new album from Chronicle, which was a real eye-opener, while those in search of a proggier approach to Tech Death should seek out the new Contrarian ASAP.
And for those of you looking for something a bit more off the beaten path, but still within the techier realms of Death Metal, then there’s the Nu Death Metal deviance of Red Method and the humongous, post-Meshuggah montrosity of Koronal to check out too.
BRINGING THE BRUTALITY
The crossover between “Tech” and “Brutal” Death Metal brought us some seriously heavy (and stunningly technical) stuff this year, from the punishing Slam-Tech of Defeated Sanity and Cytotoxin, to the crushing Tech-Deathcore of Ahtme andEmbodiment, the chunky riffology of Enslavement, and the grinding technical fury of Zan.
And, of course, extra special mention must go to the new Deeds of Flesh album, Nucleus, which was not only a fitting tribute to the life and legacy of Eric Lindmark but also a killer comeback from one of Technical Death Metal’s most seminal bands.
On the proggier end of the Death Metal scale, 2020 found Black Crown Initiate taking some big, promising steps back in the right direction after the disappointment of their second album, while Prog-Tech-Death-Core collective Neck of the Woods continued to build up their own legacy with The Annex of Ire.
However, I’d say that The Smothering Arms of Mercy, the humongous, slightly overly-ambitious, debut from Australia’s Growth actually managed to outdo and overshadow both of them.
On the more melodic side of Progressive Death Metal, Temnein put out their third (and finest) record yet this year, while Wills Dissolve went full sci-fi concept with their single-track second album Echoes, and Astringency accentuated their taut melodic riffage and sinuous song structures with an extra dose of deathly heaviness.
And, of course, both the new releases from Lascaille’s Shroud, Othercosmic Divinations I and Wounds, deserve some extra-special attention for the way in which they meld Death Metal, Prog, Power Metal, Synthwave, and Doom influences.
DOOMED TO DEATH
Going from “Progressive” to “Doom-laden”, the sheer ominous heft of Funeralopolis and the crushing claustrophobia of Void Rot were two of the year’s darkest, doomiest highlights, which also saw the release of some similarly hefty, riff-heavy slabs of Death-Doom from Endless Forms Most Gruesome, Konvent, and Godthrymm (from whom I expect even bigger, better things, in the future).
DEATH METAL MUSCLE, HARDCORE HEART
In terms of Death Metal blending with other styles/genres, the crossover with Hardcore brought up some real gems this year, from the thunderous Doom-core of bands like Kruelty and Justice for the Damned – two of the undeniably heaviest albums of 2020 – to the savage Death-Grind of Tithe and Werewolves (the latter being an unexpected favourite of mine).
Holocene Extinction, the debut album from Terminal Nation, received a tonne of hype and praise this year – all of which it thoroughly deserved – but I wish that Death Monolith from Like Rats had received the same level of attention, because that is one massive slab of Death Metal meets Hardcore heaviness that deserves way more attention than it received.
I’d also like to use this opportunity to draw your attention to 1134, the debut album from crushing crossover crew Embitter, and the churning chug-a-thon of Ego Death, as well as the bruising second album from France’s Horned, which really saw the band upping their game and stepping up into the big leagues in the process.
Moving into the realm of “pure” Hardcore (if there is such a thing), 2020 gave us the angular antagonism of Dawn Patrol and the more metallic attack of Cremations, as well as the Punk Rock prowess of Death By Stereo and Radioactive Rats.
I was particularly taken by the crusty, blackened bitterness of Serpent Eater as well, while Canadian crew Peer Pressure filled that Walls of Jericho shaped hole in my heart with their mix of punchy, Hardcore rhythms and thrashy, Slayer-esque riffs.
The crossover between Hardcore and Post-Metal is a well-known phenomenon. A lot of the best and biggest Post-Metal groups began life as a Metallic Hardcore band before expanding their sound.
For example, The Ocean continue to hold onto their Hardcore roots even as they expanded their progressive side on Phanerozoic II (having Paul Seidel behind the kit certainly helped), while Deadwood Tree (who are clearly more Amenra-influenced than a lot of their peers) also managed to marry that same sense of stripped-down Hardcore urgency to a bolder, more colourful approach.
On the proggier/weirder side of things, Moloken and The Breaching Experiment showcased the versatility of the sub-genre by lathering on layers of Black Metal, Sludge, Noise, etc, while Belgium’s Mother also blended their Post-Metal core with splashes of blackened fury and sombre Shoegaze.
Speaking of “Blackened Post-Metal”, both Sons of a Wanted Man and Ba’al provided two ferocious examples of this particular style/sub-genre with Kenoma and Ellipsisism, respectively, while both OHHMS and Spook the Horses produced two of the most underrated albums of the year in the form of Close and Empty Body, with the former focussing on a moodier, doomier approach, and the latter favouring a more energetic and experimental mix of elements and influences.
The more melodic side of things brought us the pensive, Post-Rock meets Post-Hardcore of Cavern, the moody, melancholy vibes of Where We Live by Chrome Waves, as well as the imemrsive instrumental strains of Ghosts of the Sun and Barrens (with the bleak, synth-infused beauty of the latter being of particular note).
And last, but by no means least, Maiastra dwell on that indistinct boundary separating Post-Metal from Sludge, and do it very well indeed.
SLUDGY AND UGLY
Just on the other side of the Post-Metal/Sludge divide we find the intriguing and intense new albums from Lesser Glow and Bosphorus, both of which demand (and reward) deep immersion from the listener, as well as the even heavier, even more hypnotic, third album from The Osedax.
If pure heaviness and ugliness is what you’re looking for then give Beggar, Turin Horse and Relic Point a listen (just make sure you’re fully prepared before pressing play), whereas if you’re after something proggier, then give the new records from Demonic Death Judge and Intronaut a spin (especially the latter, which almost made it onto tomorrow’s list).
In terms of pure darkness, however, the Blackened Sludge-Doom of Baerus set a grim and grisly tone which only a few other albums this year managed to match, while new records from Wren and Witching suggested that the future of the genre (“Post-”Sludge?) is in safe hands too.
2020 was also, somewhat fittingly, a very healthy year for all the varied and visceral forms of Doom, with new releases from big names such as Paradise Lost and Bell Witch (in collaboration with Aerial Ruin) standing proudly alongside up-and-coming acts like Catalepsia and Sea.
The hulking heaviness and captivating catharsis of new albums from Jupiterian and Red Moon Architect (both of which I absolutely loved) were balanced out by the more ethereal and ambient strains of Lethian Dreams and Shedfromthebody (both of which, in my opinion, remain hugely underrated), while the more expansive, droning doomery of artists like Forlesen and Atavist found a perfect antithesis in the sinister swagger and rugged riffery of Swamp Lantern and Ursa.
The heroic heaviness of Realm of Ash and Blood by Solothus should please anyone who knows what is best in life… as should the eclectic, expressive new album from Marche Funebre and the thunderous cosmic calamity of Without Light, while those of you with a hankering for something proggier and more psychedelic should embrace the Astral Doom Musick of Astral Sleep immediately.
And then, of course, absolutely everyone should be listening to the Progressive/Post-Doom of Garganjua if they know what’s good for them.
PROG OUT, PARTY ON
Lastly, at least for today, there’s a bunch of proggy gems I want to highlight, none of which fit neatly into any of the categories above, but cross and blur boundaries, ranging from the psychedelic, instrumental Space-Prog of Yuri Gagarin to the four-dimensional cyberthrash of Expander to the contorted Blackened Death Sludge of Barishi.
Various ex-Extol members continued to build on that band’s legacy in different ways this year, whether it was the captivating Prog-Thrash hybrid of Loop of Yesterdays by Azusa or the creative Prog-Pop of Mantric, and those of you who actually like a bit (or a lot) of clean singing in your Metal will undoubtedly be pleased by the new album from Binary Code (especially if you were a fan of either Benea Reach and/or Ghost Brigade) as well as the OTT new album from Communic.
And finally (and I mean really finally this time) I can’t close out today’s proceedings without giving a shout-out to Of Valleys and Mountains, the ambitious debut album from New Zealand’s Pull Down the Sun, and the technicolour Power-Prog of A Peaceful Annihilation by Tiberius, as while both have their flaws (namely wearing their influences a little too blatantly – Gojira and Deftones in the case of the former, Protest the Hero and Evergrey in the latter) both records also clearly position the bands as “ones to watch” in the future.