(We continue our week-long series of personal year-end lists compiled by Andy Synn (which actually began last Friday), and today we have his list of 2020’s “Great” albums, again crossing a wide range of genres. You might also want to read his round-ups of the year’s “Good“, and most “Disappointing” albums to see what you may have missed.)
On one hand today’s article was much easier to write than yesterday’s, mainly because it’s less than half the length.
However, it’s actually more difficult in other ways, largely due to the fact that greatness comes in many forms – whether it’s a fantastic debut that instantly puts the band on the map, a career-defining milestone from a band finally realising their full potential, or a career re-defining return to form from a legendary artist – and so choosing where to draw the line is infinitely harder.
Some of the artists you’re about to read about were included because their music pushes the boundaries in brave new directions. Others made it onto the list by simply being the best there is at what they do. Some of these bands found a way to put their own unique spin on otherwise familiar sounds, while a handful of them have come to define an entire sub-genre all by themselves.
Ultimately there’s no one rule which dictates who does, and who doesn’t, make the cut, but I’ve tried my best to remain at least a little bit objective and self-aware when making these selections.
Now, a word of advice – this list shouldn’t be considered comprehensive (I can’t stress this enough).
No writer (not even me) is actually capable of listening to and assessing every great record released every year, so no list is ever truly “definitive” (anyone who claims otherwise is either lying or delusional).
Instead it’s best just to think of this more as a round-up of various bands and albums that I think all of our listeners need to hear.
Inevitably, of course, its content is coloured and dictated by my own listening habits and inherent biases – there’s simply no escaping that, no matter how much I try to listen outside my usual comfort zone each year – which means that, inevitably, there’s going to be a lot of stuff that I missed out on, including new albums from Sweven, Paysage d’Hiver, Thy Catafalque, Azarath, Undeath, Mora Prokaza, and Hail Spirit Noir, to name but a few.
But I think you’ll find there’s still a lot of great stuff to listen to here, and I’ve split them up into various sub-headings (though they’re more playful than proscriptive) to help you navigate things.
And, remember, if there’s anything that particularly grabs your attention just click on the band name and you’ll be able to give it a listen for yourself!
THE NEW BLACK
While 2020 may not have given us much, it definitely gave us an array of new Black Metal bands all fit and ready to carry the torch for the genre into the next decade (and beyond), from the razor-sharp riffage and devilishly dynamic songwriting of Antzaat to the atmospheric desolation of Shagor and the gigantic guitars and grim occult grandeur of Sinistral King.
Some of these albums – such as the bombastic blood, fire, and fury of Kvaen – I discovered myself, whereas others, like the majestic extremity and melodic ecstasy of Eos I have Islander to thank for introducing me to them, and in some cases we need to look even further afield to some of our brother and sister sites to give credit where credit is due… as is the case with the rivetingly raw yet artfully refined debut from Liminal Shroud.
Now I’m not saying that these records are flawless, or that the bands themselves don’t still have room to grow and develop in the future, but as debut albums go this corrosive coterie of releases is pretty damn untouchable.
THE RISING DARK
As good as this year was for new Black Metal bands, it was arguably even better for a number of rising stars whose latest releases firmly seized the spotlight and refused to relinquish it no matter what.
The humongous new record from Panzerfaust is an obvious example of this phenomenon, of course, as is the spectacular second album from Afsky, both of which I’ve seen making multiple appearances on many different lists already.
But the more underground connoisseurs amongst our readers should also already be aware of the utterly savage new album from Drouth, the infectiously unorthodox second album from Odraza, and the scathing yet sinister third record by Skáphe too.
The new Beltez is equal parts cerebral chills and visceral thrills, displaying a singular blend of impressive ambition and masterful execution, while those in search of a more atmospherically-intense experience will doubtless already have checked out the new Ars Magna Umbrae (and if not, what are you waiting for?) but may not yet have gotten around to the spellbinding new record from Fluisteraars which, for my money at least, is arguably their most engaging and immersive release yet, and more than equal to the very best of their back-catalogue.
Of course, if you’re after some prime examples of pure blackened riff-craft and bleak, haunting melody, then you’ll probably want to give the primal, punk-inflected strains of Imha Tarikat, the haunting horror and thrashy heaviness of Luctus, or the frantic, yet surprisingly multifaceted, new album from Membaris, a listen ASAP.
And then, obviously, there’s no way I could let this moment go by without mentioning the cathartic, climactic, final release from Deadspace (RIP), which saw the band go out on the highest of possible highs.
THE BLAST ZONE
When it comes to searing, scorched-earth intensity, the unrelenting assault of Aversio Humanitatis and the utterly abrasive new album from Order of Orias provided two of the year’s most unflinching and unforgiving auditory experiences, while both Azziard and Gaerea elected to temper their visceral violence with moments of eerie, ambient minimalism or mournful melodic melancholy, in a way that actively helped increased the overall impact of their blast-propelled fury.
Of course, if you’re looking for something where the drums aren’t just intense but are also capable of surprising intricacy then you’ll want to listen to the new Selbst and Wardaemonic records too, as the scintillating percussive patterns and hypnotic guitars of the former and the propulsive rhythms and dervish-like drumming of the latter saw both bands (finally) ascending into the upper echelons of the Black Metal sphere.
LORDS OF CHAOS
Speaking of the upper echelons of the genre… there’s no denying that some of the fiercest and most famous names in Black Metal delivered some of their best work yet this year, whether it was in the form of what may well be their catchiest, but still utterly caustic, record (Anaal Nathrakh) or another major milestone in an ongoing career renaissance (Necrophobic).
And whether it was a case of looking back towards the genre’s misty past for inspiration (Havukruunu) or casting an eye towards the band’s own evolving future (Blaze of Perdition) – or somehow both at once (Serpent Noir) – 2020 demonstrated how lucky we are that these living legends refuse to lay down and die while there’s still life in their lungs and blood in their veins.
Oh, and let’s not forget about, …And Oceans, who returned from the outer fringes with their first new release in 18 years, one which managed to not only be the most blistering record of their career, but also still kept up their legacy of outlandish excess in practically every other aspect of their sound too.
OFF THE BLACKENED PATH
2020 also saw many bands continuing to take Black Metal to strange new places by intermixing it with other elements and influences, from the sludge-stained beauty and gloomy atmosphere of Vous Autres to the depressive, doom-laden strains of Núll (aka 0)and the piercing Post-Black meets heartfelt Post-Hardcore of L’homme Absurde.
Looking even further outside of the blackened box there was the unorthodox urban malevolence of Imperial Triumphant, the gender-bending, genre-blending, industrial-strength iconoclasm of Biesy, and the shamelessly melodramatic, wilfully erratic, Porta Nigra, each of whom are a Black Metal purists’ worst nightmare in their own distinct, deviant way.
And then there were those bands who didn’t so much break the mould as they did subtly shape it in their own image, whether it was the raging frustration and revolutionary fervour of Yovel, the dusty, windswept vistas of Wayfarer or the epic melodies and archaic grandeur of Abduction.
BLACKENED TO THE CORE
By contrast to the bands above, mixing Black Metal and Hardcore isn’t so much about taking the genre to “strange new places” but more about taking it back to its roots, as both styles clearly share a common ancestor (or two).
That, I suppose, is why the raw emotion and relentless aggression of the new Calligram album – eight tracks of ferocious blackened belligerence and savage Metallic Hardcore stripped down to only their most urgent and essential parts – feel like such a natural fit, and why the polemical fury and pissed-off attitude of the new Uprising pairs so well with its cathartic core of searing tremolo riffs and pulse-pounding blastbeats.
It’s also probably why the new LaCasta is one of the nastiest, gnarliest, and most nihilistc records of the year so far… since it’s channelling the unremitting rage and restless energy of not just one but two of the most vicious and visceral genres there are!
BLACK ‘N’ DEADLY
Similarly, the fusion of Black Metal and Death Metal isn’t exactly new or innovative these days, but every year it still throws up a handful of absolute monsters, and this year was no different, giving us both the asphyxiating audio-terrorism of To Crown All Befoulment by Dearth and the harrowing hellfire of Sulphuric Omnipotence by Fornicus, with the former leaning more towards the grim, gruesome, Death Metal end of the spectrum, while the latter favours a more barbaric, blasphemous, and blackened approach.
The debut album from Voidceremony, by contrast, made its mark with an ugly, unorthodox blend of grimy, Blackened Death Metal and sinuous, slithering technicality, whose impressive quality and striking complexity is no real surprise considering the collective pedigree of the band’s various members, while the fourth (or third, depending on how you count) album from Temple Nightside found the band once again firing on all sinister cylinders, while simultaneously showcasing an even greater sense of overarching mood and dynamic, raising the bar once again for both their peers and their imitators alike.
DEATH OR GLORY
The ever-fertile soil of Death Metal once again brought forth a killer crop of releases this year, from both brand new names and famous faces, underground icons and up-and-coming contenders.
Whether it’s the sulphurous primordial soup of the new Black Curse or the dynamic guitars and dramatic hooks of The Black Dahlia Murder (whose latest record is one of their strongest and most well-rounded to date), the sludge-encrusted Death/Doom hybrid of Ilsa (which I will definitely be writing more about very soon), or the humongous Hardcore meets Death Metal of Xibalba (whose new record found the group channelling more scorching Swe-Death and devastating Doom influences than ever), all these bands brought their A-game this year.
This was also a great year for bands reviving and revitalising the old school sound by giving it their own distinctive, subtly proggy twist (Faceless Burial, Question) as well as those whose version of Death Metal errs more towards the flesh-ripping ferocity of Grind (Of Feather and Bone).
And let’s not forget that sometimes all you want from a killer Death Metal record is a sense of merciless fun… which is where the big, dumb, balls-to-the-wall bombast of Dominion, the debut album by Horror-obsessed riffmongers Video Nasties comes into play!
It’s been clear for a while now that Ulcerate have influenced the formation of a distinct new sub-genre with their signature blend of contorted dissonance and abrasive atmosphere, but that doesn’t meant the band themselves have stopped evolving, as Stare Into Death and Be Still proved this year.
Similarly, many of those who followed them down this “Post” Death Metal path have developed their own distinctive take on it over the years, from the expansive, progressive approach of Nero Di Marte to the dense, disharmonic delivery of Karmacipher (which tips its hat a little more towards both Gorguts and Immolation in the process) and the jagged-edged, rhythmic angularity of newcomers Kevel.
But one of the year’s biggest surprises came in the form of Wake and their absolutely devastating new album, Devouring Ruin, which found the band transforming into a corrosive cross-breed of blistering blackened fury and gargantuan, grating atmosphere that effectively redefines the band’s identity for a whole new era.
If you like your Death Metal delivered with a blend of lethal brutality and laser-guided precision then you’ll obviously have checked out the relentless percussive power and hyper-focussed fury of the new Abysmal Dawn, right?
And if you’re looking for something that hits the sweet spot between “Progressive” and “Technical”, while still delivering a rollercoaster of deathly riffs and neck-snapping twists, then you’ll want to pick up the dark horse debut from Prog-Death philosophers Cellar Vessel and the phenomenal first album from “Astro-Death” techies Cryptic Shift as soon as (meta)physically possible.
Of course, if you prefer your technicality delivered purely in the service of gut-wrenching, bone-crushing brutality, then the punishing sci-fi Prog-Slam of Afterbirth and Wormhole should more than satisfy your cravings for ear-splitting extremity (and then some).
But if that’s not enough then I’d also recommend the absolutely crushing comeback from Beneath the Massacre and the sadistic new record from Death/Grind/Core maniacs Benighted as two perfect examples of Death Metal at its most technical, most brutal, and most breath-takingly berserk.
And then there’s the constantly mutating Prog-Tech-Death-Grind hybrid of Vampire Squid for those of you looking for something that little bit stranger…
If frenzied ferocity and barely-controlled chaos is more your thing then you need to listen to the unapologetic, unpredictable, and unrelentingly intense new album from Fawn Limbs, the virulent anti-groove violence of Pyrrhon, and the morbid monolith of death and discordance that is Aseitas… although probably not all at once, as I don’t think the human mind is capable of absorbing that much metallic madness in one go!
And no list like this would be complete without mentioning the eardrum-shattering new albums from nascent super-groups END and Umbra Vitae, both of whom offer a stunningly savage blend of frenetic Death Metal and frantic Grind that blurs the lines between these styles while simultaneously bludgeoning the listener into submission.
From calculated chaos to progressive creativity, 2020 saw the release of Descend’s complex, captivating, and cathartic new album, The Deviant, which is easily the best record of the band’s career, as well as the massive Blackened Prog Death masterpiece Reflections Upon Darkness by Rannoch.
Of course, Rannoch weren’t the only UK Prog-Death band to massively up their game this year, as the new album from Countless Skies would have been a really good Melodeath record if that’s all the band wanted it to be, but their more extravagantly proggy ambitions ended up elevating it to a whole new level (though I still think there’s room for them to get even better).
It was Luna’s Call who took the award for “most improved” this year however, as their new record is an absolutely spectacular piece of work, from start to finish… although Progressive Death-Groove trio Stoned God weren’t far behind with their stunning second album Incorporeal.
From refined progressive power to unrestrained sludge-stained slaughter, putting on the brakes this hard might be in danger of giving you whiplash… but it’s definitely worth it, as these fine-fettered examples of Death-Doom provide the perfect opportunity to slow things down, from the suffocating funereal crawl of Stygian by Atramentus to the grim, progressive grandeur of Silvered and their long-gestating, soul-stirring second album Six Hours.
You also should make sure not to overlook the haunting, oppressive, immersive new album from Drown – which, spoiler alert, might be making another appearance this week – and the mesmerising mix of deathly doom and gothic gloom which makes up Solve et Coagula by Exgenesis if you know what’s good for you.
LEGION OF DOOM
Moving away from the Death-infused side of things, but keeping things dark and doomy, you’ll definitely want to dedicate some serious time (if you haven’t already) to the earth-shaking amalgam of Blackened Doom and Acid-drenched Drone of Realm of the Feathered Serpent by Hexer, and if you’re looking for only the biggest riffs and most gargantuan grooves then you’ll want to pick up a copy of Breach Us by Hymn ASAP… and maybe pair it up with the shameless Satanic swagger of Black Royal while you’re at it?
But if something moodier, more melodic, and more poignantly progressive is what you’re after then I’d like to direct your attention to the mournfully melodic, multifaceted new album from In The Company of Serpents and the immense emotional weight of Lightless by Loviatar, both of which deserve pride of place on any year-end list.
While we’re on the topic of emotional weight, I’m honestly amazed that the haunting, hypnotic new album from Close the Hatch hasn’t made more waves – it really deserves to – while I’m similarly surprised that the epic vocals and heroic hooks of the new Sorcerer haven’t appeared on more lists too (at least as far as I’ve seen so far).
This year also saw forlorn Funeral Doom collective Clouds strip their sound down to its barest, bleakest elements in order to deliver one of the most emotive and immersive performances of their career, while ascendant Prog-Doom artists Oceans of Slumber produced their most focussed and cathartic album yet in the form of their sublime self-titled record (although a little bit of judicious editing would have made it even better, in my opinion).
BATHED IN SLUDGE
From the dark realms of Doom we move into sludgier territory, beginning with the bone-grinding belligerence of Aussie duo Kvll and the grimy, groove-heavy debut from Hvrt, before sinking even deeper into the hellish depths of the new Primitive Man.
And then there’s the devastatingly harsh second album from Leeched, which melds only the most vile and virulent elements of Sludge, Death Metal, Industrial, and Grind into one absolutely crushing whole, as well as the monolithically heavy debut from Nug, which straddles the line between Post-Metal and Sludge while adding a plethora of proggy embellishments and an utterly massive, Meshuggah-esque guitar tone to sweeten the deal even further.
MORE THAN HARDCORE
It was a good year, a damn good year in fact, for bands with their roots in the Hardcore scene – albeit most of the ones I’m about to mention have evolved and expanded past the boundaries of that simple description – from the heart-on-sleeve anguish and frustration of Svalbard’s blend of Post-Hardcore and Post-Metal, to the d-beat Crust-Thrash attack of Destroyed In Seconds to the Tech-Prog Power-Punk of Protest the Hero.
That being said, if some straight-up, all killer, no filler, Metallic Hardcore is what you’re after then the visceral, versatile new album from Sharptooth – as agile as it is aggressive, as creative as it is cathartic – will surely satisfy all your ‘core-focussed cravings.
STRANGE BUT TRVE
It was also a great year for bands who don’t like to play within the traditional boundaries too.
Remember the crazy concept album about undead anti-Nazi war elephants by Progressive Doom-Thrashers Bull Elephant? That’s still an absolutely killer (and absolutely unique) record, and I can’t wait for the follow-up.
Then there was the new Oranssi Pazuzu, which found the band diving head first even further down the psychedelic/atmospheric rabbit hole with their more than worthy follow-up to Värähtelijä (which is still, probably, the slightly superior album), while their brothers from other mothers, hallucinogenic Doom/Drone disciples Dark Buddha Rising, produced their heaviest, darkest work yet in the form of their new album, Mathreyata.
And it should be impossible to forget about career-redefining records from Thurisaz and Névoa, the former taking bits and pieces of Katatonia, Enslaved, and Agalloch and fusing them into something fresh and new, the latter blending pensive, Post-Metal atmospherics, introspective blackened dynamics, and poignant, simmering passages of moody Jazz, in a way that’s both strikingly intimate and utterly inspired.
LAST, BUT BY NO MEANS LEAST…
Look, I know they’re a divisive band… and sometimes a little hit-or-miss… but the new Deftones album just keeps getting better with every listen, in my opinion, as more layers of rich, sonic texture and deeper levels of metatextual meaning continue to reveal themselves.
So, yeah, you’re damn right it’s going on this list.
If you’re still with me at this point, let me say thank you for reading and I hope you’ve discovered or been convinced to give a second chance to at least one artist/album from this list. That’s what we’re all here for, after all, and that’s why we do what we do.
Tune in again tomorrow for the “big” one – my list of the ten albums which I think are the most critical to hear of 2020.
Of course, if you’re into that sort of thing, you might want to start guessing who’s going to be included, as they’ve all been mentioned here somewhere above… or you might just want to wait around 24 hours so you don’t spoil the surprise for yourselves. It’s your call…