(Andy Synn‘s week-long round-up of metal in 2020 continues with this list of his picks for the year’s “Critical Top Ten” across a broad range of metal genres. You might also want to read his round-ups of the year’s “Great“, “Good“, and most “Disappointing” albums to see what you may have missed.)
So here’s the thing… I recently came to the realisation that there’s more than one reason why this article is referred to as my “Critical” (that’s the key word) Top Ten, and not “The Best of…”.
It’s not just because it symbolises me putting on my “critic” hat in an attempt to inject a sliver of objectivity and self-awareness into the proceedings (because of this my “Critical” and my “Personal” lists rarely cross over), but because I believe that these ten albums are critical if you want to gain a fuller, more rounded grasp of the visceral variety and creative vitality of the Metal scene in 2020.
Of course, ten entries is woefully insufficient to cover the full breadth and depth of the year’s output, but you’ll find that the albums I’ve selected still encompass a range of styles and sub-genres, and feature releases ranging from as far back as January to as recently as a few weeks ago.
As always the list isn’t ranked – this article isn’t about saying which albums are better/worse, but about presenting a representative sample of the year’s best – and I’ve again included an extra “bonus” recommendation alongside each main entry, so even if you’re already familiar with something picked out there’ll should still be something new for you to listen to as well/instead.
This year it really feels like I’ve diverged quite a bit from the common consensus (not on purpose, I hasten to add), as there’s only really one entry here that I would call an “obvious” pick, but I still stand by every one of my choices regardless of how divisive and/or controversial they might be.
And so, without further ado, let’s get critical.
ULCERATE – STARE INTO DEATH AND BE STILL
We might as well kick things off with the one “obvious” selection I mentioned in the intro, as there was pretty much no way that this album wasn’t going to end up on this list.
Now, Ulcerate have long since established themselves as one of the most powerful and defining Death Metal bands of the current era, and their distinctive brand of dissonance-infused “Post-Death” (if you want to call it that) has inspired a legion of followers and imitators (some of whom have done a fantastic job of taking the band’s influence and putting their own special spin on it).
But, truthfully, since the release of the career-defining modern classic Destroyers of All the band haven’t quite managed to repeat that same level of eye-opening, paradigm-shifting success (though not for lack of trying).
That is, until now. And all it took, it seems, was for them to stop trying to replicate what came before and instead decide to approach their signature sound from a slightly different angle.
Different how, exactly, I hear you ask?
Well, Stare Into Death and Be Still is easily the band’s most introspective album yet, one which places an even greater emphasis on mood and atmosphere – and, dare I even say, melody – than ever before, but somehow does so without sacrificing any of the band’s innate intensity, even as it streamlines and sharpens their sound to flow in a new direction.
To quote my own review:
“…Stare Into Death and Be Still [is] a true classic in the making and a(nother) watershed moment in the band’s career.”
If you like this, try: Wake – Devouring Ruin
One of the biggest (and best) surprises of 2020 (not just for me, but for a lot of people) was Wake’s sudden transformation from spiteful grindmongers to purveyors of some of the most expansive, evocative extremity – dissonant and devastating at one moment, atmospheric and alluring the next – of the year. A truly next level album, no doubt about it.
KVAEN – THE FUNERAL PYRE
If the previous entry represents a more cerebral, although still thrillingly visceral, form of extremity, then this one should provide some captivating contrast, with its focus on provoking a primal, instinctive emotional response from the listener.
That’s not to say that The Funeral Pyre, the debut album from Swedish Black Metal solo artist Jakob Björnfot (aka Kvaen), isn’t a smart record – it most definitely is, and you can see/hear/feel his impressive musical intellect in every keenly crafted twist and turn.
It’s just that, from the moment that anthemic opener “Revenge By Fire” kicks in, all the way through to the epic, moody climax of “Hymn to Kvaenland”, this is an album of pure immediacy, pure urgency, pure now – even as it casts its eyes and ears back to an earlier, simpler time for inspiration.
And while it definitely wears its influences loudly and proudly on its sleeves – Bathory, obviously, Immortal, early Metallica, and so on – it’s impossible to complain when the results are this infectious and electrifying.
Would it be wrong, even, to say that it’s actually fun? Is that allowed when we’re talking about Black Metal (even Black Metal as shamelessly bold and bombastic as this)?
You’ll have to decide for yourself on that score (my answer, by the way, is an emphatic yes). But what I do know, with absolute certainty, is that this record is a relentless thrill ride of heroic proportions and one of the finest debut albums, one of the finest albums – period, of 2020.
If you like this, try: Havukruunu – Uinuos Syömein Sota
The third (and quite possibly best) album from Finnish Pagan Metal warriors Havukruunu shares a similar throwback vibe to the album above, managing somehow to be both familiar yet fresh, old school but not out-dated, but has a more triumphant and more grandiose tone to it that gives every track an almost fantastical sense of heightened emotion and epic ambition.
LEECHED – TO DULL THE BLADES OF YOUR ABUSE
As the oldest album on this list (To Dull The Blades of Your Abuse was originally released way back at the end of January, in the pre-pandemic period now known only as “The Before Times”) this album has had to fight off challenger after challenger to hold onto its position.
And, to be perfectly honest, I’m not really surprised by that it’s still here, as it’s one of the heaviest, nastiest, and most aggressive albums of the year, a dirty, no-rules, no-quarter street fight of a record that’s not afraid to employ whatever it needs to – from an organ-rupturing Death Metal pounding to a claustrophobic, sludge-soaked submission hold, from a kerb-stomping Deathcore breakdown to a spasm-inducing Industrial nerve-punch to an ugly Grindcore eye-gouging – to win at any cost.
But it’s not just about unrelenting sonic violence (though that’s certainly a big part of what makes this album such a horrendously heavy, and cruelly compelling, listening experience). There’s real, raw emotion driving this record. Leeched have been places, seen and experienced things, that have cut them deep, and this album is their way of projecting and sharing that pain, that frustration, that apoplectic anger, with the rest of us.
Like I said back in January:
“This, my friends, is what you get when you make an album without compromise. When you refuse to temper your approach to fit into someone else’s idea of what’s acceptable. It’s visceral. It’s volatile. It’s wholly unsuitable for audiences of a sensitive disposition…”
…and it’s one of the best albums of the year too.
If you like this, try: Primitive Man – Immersion
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that, somehow, Primitive Man have actually managed to become even darker and doomier than ever. It’s no wonder they decided to call their new album Immersion, as it completely submerges you in utter filth from its bilious beginning to its crippling, claustrophobic conclusion.
NÉVOA – TOWARDS BELIEF
Whereas Leeched were the earliest, and most resilient, addition to my short-list for inclusion here, Portuguese Post/Prog (Black?) Metallers Névoa represent the most recent release out of all ten of my selections for this list.
However, just because it’s the newest doesn’t mean that Towards Belief doesn’t fully deserve and justify its presence here with every single listen.
What makes this album such a vital (you might even say critical) part of this list? It’s a simple combination of effortlessly engaging execution, ambitious creative vision, and total listener immersion.
The band’s previous albums were, unquestionably, great examples of ambitious Atmospheric/Post-Black Metal – that’s a given – but their newest one finds them stepping outside of this particular box to create a sound that’s subtly familiar in flavour yet brilliantly unorthodox and unique in expression.
Combining freewheeling jazz influences, off-kilter blackened intensity, and darkly dynamic passages of Post-Metal power, these eight tracks wend their way, with lush, languid momentum, from free-form freak-outs to simmering, sombre ambience to crushing metallic catharsis, and back again, in a way that combines both moody unpredictability and sombre, soothing introspection.
Comparable, in places, to the Black-Noir elegance of White Ward and/or the vivid vastness of Precambrian-era The Ocean, as well as the sorrowful slow-burn of Earth at their simmering, cinematic best, Towards Belief nevertheless finds Névoa redefining and re-establishing their uniquely hypnotic sound for a brand new era and, in doing so, separating themselves from the rest of their peers and competitors with both striking style and gloomy grace.
Just an all-round amazing, captivating, compellingly creative piece of work from beginning to end.
If you like this, try: Close the Hatch – Modern Witchcraft
I’m both surprised and a little disappointed that this album didn’t make more of an impact this year, as it’s a quietly stunning release from a highly unusual band I’ve seen referred to by some people as “the Deftones of Doom”. And while I know that will probably repel as many people as it will entice, the band’s introverted, instantly recognisable sound – part Doom, part Post-Metal, part Shoegaze – honestly deserves a much larger audience in my opinion.
LUNA’S CALL – VOID
To be totally honest with you, this album was pretty much a lock for this list from the moment it hit my ears (knocking the “bonus” album recommended below off the top spot in the process).
Instantly impactful, endlessly rewarding, and consistently surprising, the band’s material combines meaty riffs and multifaceted vocals, lithe, technical twists and vibrant progressive melodies, and while the band’s primary influences are clear as daylight (Cynic, Opeth, Porcupine Tree, Ihsahn, Swano), their music never comes across as dated or derivative but instead feels like the next logical step in the slow but steady evolution of their shared Progressive Death Metal sound.
It’s also obvious just how much care and effort has gone into each and every composition – whether it’s three-and-a-half or thirteen-and-a-half minutes long – as well as just how much fun the band must have been having during the creative process, allowing their imaginations and most audacious ideas a chance to run wild, all while maintaining careful control over the final output to ensure that everything flows together seamlessly.
To quote from my own review:
“…Luna’s Call absolutely excel at crafting extravagant, long-form Prog-Death arrangements which cycle through multiple movements – from rapid-fire riffery to synth-tinged grooves to doomy darkness, from moody melodic minimalism to gorgeous, gleaming grandeur to bombastic blasting – without ever losing the central thread which guides the listener through this ever-twisting, ever-turning labyrinth of sound.”
It’s a bold statement, for sure, but one I stand by, as ultimately the entire album is a technicolour feast for the senses (including visually, as that wrap-around album art is absolutely gorgeous) which only grows more rewarding the more familiar with it you become, while still maintaining the ability to upend your expectations when you least expect it.
If you like this, try: Descend – The Deviant
While The Deviant might be taking the “runner up” slot here, on a different day there’s every chance that the positions of these two albums could easily have ended up reversed. Suffice it to say then that if you’re in the mood for another dose of prime-cut Progressive Death Metal, one which positively crackles with energy, emotion, and creativity, then you should most definitely listen to this album.
HYMN – BREACH US
One thing I’ve noticed while writing this article, that I wasn’t aware of when I first put the list of potential candidates together, is that very few of the artists I’ve chosen to feature this year fit neatly under one particular genre term/tag. It’s definitely not a purist’s list, that’s for sure (not that I have anything against bands who prefer to deliver their music in an unfiltered, unadulterated form), but it’s definitely one that seems to reward the clever and creative melding and blending of styles.
In the case of Breach Us, the second album from Norwegian duo Hymn, the music is primarily a mix of heavily distorted, doomy riffosity and sinister sludgy swagger, whose dense, monolithic sound is shot through with rich veins of pulsing, Post-Metal pressure and grungey melodic misery.
It’s the sort of album which conveys a palpable sense of weight and mass, of physical presence and visceral power, one whose gargantuan, groove-laden riffs conceal an unexpectedly proggy edge and whose dynamic, domineering drums hold the whole thing together so tightly that it’s easy to miss how contorted and complex many of the song structures actually are.
But, then, I guess that’s the duo’s strength isn’t it (and, yes, I need to reiterate, there’s only two people in the band, which makes the humongous heaviness of this record even more impressive – because, no matter how many layers a band might be able to record in studio, that’s no substitution for that unfakeable feeling of hugeness which this record delivers throughout)?
It’s their ability to make what they do so heavy, so hooky, so crushingly dense and disgustingly catchy, that you don’t immediately realise or appreciate the multitude of different, deeper, levels the music is working on.
If you like this, try: Kvll – Death/Sacrifice
I decided to pair up Hymn with Melbourne, Australia’s Kvll both because I like the symmetry of putting a pair of doomy duos together, and because Death/Sacrifice is one hell of a distressingly heavy debut, whose first line – a hair-raising howl of “collapse under pressure!” – pretty much sums up everything you need to know about it. Basically, it’s an absolute monster.
BELTEZ – A GREY CHILL AND A WHISPER
If the one other Black Metal album on this list is an album, in many ways, about looking backwards and recapturing/recreating the spirit of a bygone era, then this record is in many ways the opposite – it’s about a band looking forward and setting the stage for the next five, ten, fifteen years of their career, about creating their own style, their own concept – rather than building on, or basing things off, someone else’s.
It’s about a band tightening up their songwriting while loosening up the reins in order to allow their sound to expand and evolve on its own terms while still remaining resolutely Black Metal to its core.
Make no mistake about it though, A Grey Chill and a Whisper is certainly a Black Metal album, there’s no mistaking that, one that’s not afraid to unleash scorching obsidian hell on its listeners, yet also willing to strip things back and slow things down to allow them to unfurl at a more ominous pace.
When I first wrote about this record I described it as “…an album of incredible emotional intensity, marrying various elements designed to stimulate a variety of sensations and responses – from elegant, melancholy melodies to harrowing, heart-wrenching vocals, from sinister, spine-chilling riffs to dolorous, doom-laden chords – into an intricate tapestry of desolate beauty and intimate despair.”
But what I perhaps didn’t mention – at least, not to the same extent – was how although each of the individual tracks is a winner on its own, and the individual performances of the band’s members (from the harrowing, heart-rending vocals to the riveting, electrifying leads and devilish, driving drum work) exceptional throughout, it’s truly the way in which the entire album is tied together by its central concept, the dynamic way it ebbs and flows, from the most epic of highs to the most desolate of lows, which makes this record such a… yes, I’m going to say it… masterpiece.
If you like this, try: Panzerfaust – The Suns of Perdition, Chapter II: Render Unto Eden
If A Grey Chill and a Whisper doesn’t strike a chord with you – or even if it does – you’ll probably want to check out the phenomenal new album from Panzerfaust as well/instead, as it’s clearly the band’s moodiest, most mature, most atmospheric, and most intense work yet and you could easily switch the position of these two records around and I wouldn’t complain. They’re both that good.
FAWN LIMBS – SLEEPER VESSELS
I mentioned earlier about how a surprising number of this year’s selections blur and bend the lines between genres, and nowhere is that more obvious than on this album, which I once described as a “bastardised blend of squalling metallic noise, unsettling ambience, and distorted electronic effluent.”
One one level Sleeper Vessels just ticks so many boxes and incorporates so many extreme elements – from the chaotic complexity of Mathcore to the face-melting fury of Grind, the laser-guided precision of Tech-Death, and even the distorted digital discordance of glitchy electronica – that it sometimes feels like the band are simply throwing everything they have into a blender (or maybe it’s a woodchipper)… and then pushing their listener in face-first while the blades are still spinning.
And yet there is undoubtedly a Machiavellian method underpinning the band’s metallic madness, with every song positively teeming with jagged, flesh-jerking hooks that run the gamut from massive, Death Metal inspired riffs to scorching salvos of blistering blastbeats to eerie passages of brooding ambience to twitchy spasms of virulent technicality, and beyond.
Somehow, some way, it all fits together perfectly too, never becoming boring or losing its impact (as a lot of bands who only ever play with everything turned up past 11 often do), never becoming confusing or losing its way (or, at least, not unless Fawn Limbs want it to), and never feeling like the band are anything less than hyper-focussed and ultra-aware of the position and direction of every single part of this malevolent murder-machine which they’ve constructed.
It’s rare for something this unrelenting and this unforgiving to also be this addictive, but there’s just something about Sleeper Vessels that means by the time its all over you’re already itching for another spin in order to feed that part of your brain that’s now craving the sort of sonic punishment that only this album can deliver.
If you like this, try: Pyrrhon – Abscess Time
Not everyone likes Pyrrhon, I know. Hell, I’m not sure if I “like” Pyrrhon. But I damn well respect what they do, especially on Abscess Time, which tempers the band’s most violent, contortionist tendencies with an even greater level of creative control. Where do they go from here? I honestly don’t know. But, wherever it is, there’s no denying that their legacy of lethality is now truly assured.
DROWN – SUBAQUEOUS
There’s Doom… and then there’s Funeral Doom, its darker, slower, and heavier, cousin.
And at the top (or bottom, depending on how you choose to look at it) of the pile this year was an album of such morbid, funereal majesty and devastating, doom-laden intensity that it left every other contender dead in the water.
That album, obviously, was/is Subaqueous, the second full-length slab of suffocating Funeral Doom from sonic submariner Markov Soroka, a record absolutely drowning (pun intended) in both oppressive, oceanic atmosphere and abyssal heaviness and possessing such a palpable sense of physical weight and looming pressure that it almost feels like too much to bear at times.
But for all its crush-depth density what really makes this album work are the currents of gorgeous, almost gothic, melody woven throughout both of the record’s titanic, twenty-plus minute tracks – symmetrically titled “Mother Cetacean” and “Father Subaqueous” – whose drifting, lambent glow acts like an ever-present guide through these doomy aquatic depths.
These prominent, yet poignant, embellishments – mostly manifesting in the form of gleaming, luminescent leads, but also piercing the gloom as subtle, string and synth led melodic motifs – provide just the right amount of balance to counterweight the groaning, gargantuan mass of the record’s gigantic guitars and grisly, growling vocals, and it’s the combination of these two aspects of the band’s sound – both utterly vital, but unable to exist without the other – which gives this album its irresistible, tidal dynamic.
This truly is an immense, imposing, and totally immersive album, one which both set the bar for (Funeral) Doom this year while also, perhaps paradoxically, making it more accessible and approachable than ever. So even if you’re not usually a fan of this type of music, my advice is to take a deep breath… and dive in. Who knows what you might discover waiting beneath the surface?
If you like this, try: Atramentus – Stygian
Whereas Subaqueous (somehow) managed to transform Funeral Doom into something surprisingly accessible and instantly impactful, Stygian takes the genre in the opposite direction, making it more off-putting, more oppressive, and more difficult to decipher, than ever. But the dedication needed to fully unpack this record only makes the final reward all the sweeter. So give it the time it needs and you will be rewarded in kind, I promise.
PROTEST THE HERO – PALIMPSEST
It seems like every year there’s at least one selection on this list guaranteed to provoke controversy and push-back from some of our readers… and this year I’ve decided to save it until right at the end.
Aren’t I brave?
All sarcasm aside, I understand that this record won’t be for everyone (for an alternative check out the new Afterbirth, which would have been the eleventh entry if this list were longer), but I know for a fact that a large number of our readers really dig this band, and this album in particular, and on numerous occasions this year I’ve seen some of the most crusty, cantankerous and most dedicated Death Metallers professing their undying love for Palimpsest without an ounce of shame.
And with good reason too, because, regardless of questions of style or genre (I like to call it “Progressive Technical Power Punk”, but then I just like playing with language), this is one of the most urgent, energetic, and engaging albums of the year, one where the entire band is clearly firing on all cylinders and all aimed in precisely the same direction.
So what’s it going to take to convince you to give this album a chance?
Well, I could point out how thrillingly technical the guitar work is, or how the subtly symphonic synths give the material an increasingly epic edge. Or maybe I could highlight the punchy, propulsive performance of drummer Mike Ieradi, who really does not get enough credit for his vital contribution to the albums’ overall success?
But ultimately I know it’s going to be a bit of a hard sell, especially considering Rody Walker’s signature soaring vocals may simply be too poppy/punky/proggy for some, even though they’re delivered with such clarity and conviction that every crisp, clever couplet and massive melodic chorus hits with an oversized amount of impact every single time.
Still, if you do give this album a(nother) then maybe, just maybe, you’ll discover how absolutely brilliant it is. Go on, do it. For me.
If you like this, try: Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better?
At first glance this might seem like an odd recommendation to pair with the album above, but a closer look will reveal they actually have a lot in common. Both are rooted in Punk/Hardcore but have expanded in much more varied, more melodic directions. Both bands wear their hearts on their sleeves (lyrically speaking). And both bands delivered their best work yet this year.
So there you have it, my attempt to sum up an entire 12 months (or thereabouts) of music in just ten albums.
Obviously it was always doomed to failure – what ten albums could possibly cover and contain every facet and feature of our ever-expanding scene – but then, I’ve always been a sucker for a lost cause or a heroic last stand.
Tune in again tomorrow, same Bat-place, same Bat-channel, chums, for my final list of the week, where I’ll be highlighting the ten albums that have simply struck the biggest chord with me this year on a purely personal level. Expect a few surprises, and a LOT of riffs.