(This is the last installment in Andy Synn‘s week-long series of essays about metal in 2020, closing with a Top 10 list of his personal favorites.)
You might think that, compared to the struggle for objectivity and insight that is my “Critical Top Ten” every year, that putting together a list of “Personal” favourites would be a walk in the park.
But, actually, the requirements and restrictions which help me define my “Critical” selections make it easier to put together the initial short-list, since removing (or, at least, downplaying) any sense of personal favouritism means it’s possible to focus more on the “objective” qualities of ambition, execution, and emotion.
Making a list of favourites though? Just ten of them? Now that’s hard…
In fact this year it was harder than any other time I can remember as there were simply so many bands/albums I loved this year, so many that I wanted to highlight and hype up – from Rannoch to Uprising to Hexer to Nug – that cutting it down it down to a mere ten entries was an almost physically painful process this year.
But I managed it. Just. So here are the ten albums – drawn from both my “Good” and “Great” lists – that struck the biggest/deepest chord with me this year, and that I simply can’t stop listening to.
As always, this list is less about overall, “objective” quality, and more about giving our readers some insight into my listening habits and personal preferences (while also giving a shout out to some damn fine albums).
10. OLD GROWTH – MOSSWEAVER
This one is a pretty last minute addition… mostly because it’s a pretty new album, having only been officially released last Friday (although, thankfully, I’ve been listening to it a fair bit longer than that).
Marrying the expansive approach of Wolves In The Throne Room to the cathartic intensity of Agrypnie and the visceral emotive vulnerability of King Apathy, the seven tracks which make up this album are clearly inspired/influenced by the Cascadian/Amtospheric/Post- Black Metal scene, but also firmly rooted in the German tradition of brooding melody and seething fury at the same time.
I’m not going to pretend that songs such as moody, eponymous opener “Old Growth” or the electrifying “The Seedling” are doing anything hugely new or different by any means, but I will say that Mossweaver takes these recognisable elements and influences and combines them in a way that just feels more natural, more honest, and more passionate than 90% of those who try.
As organic as it is dynamic, as poignant as it is propulsive, it’s an album that hit me hard the very first time I heard it, and which only continues to burrow its way deeper under my skin with every listen.
09. KORONAL – A GIFT OF CONSCIOUSNESS
It’s always gratifying, and always incredibly satisfying, to see a band you love continue to crank out killer album after killer album, although in this case it took a little longer than I might have liked – four long, long years, in fact – for Polish post-Meshuggah groove monsters Koronal to produce the follow-up to their attention-grabbing debut, Flicker Away.
Thankfully those four years clearly weren’t spent waiting in vain, as while the band’s line-up may have contracted a little (as far as I can tell, anyway) their sound has actually expanded somewhat, incorporating a dose of the jagged explosivity of Car Bomb and the eye-popping Nu-Death aggression of Chimaira to complement their already heady mix of pneumatic Meshuggah-nisms and twitchy, Gorguts-y twists.
Again, it’s not so much that Koronal are doing something totally brand-new, but more the way that they stamp their own authority and identity on every moment of this record – while also remembering to write actual songs that are as hooky as they are heavy, from the coiled tension of “Self Divided” to the angular atmospherics of “Fear Statement”, and so on – which has kept me coming back to this album, again and again (and again).
08. DEADSPACE – A PORTRAIT OF SACRIFICIAL SCARS
Proving, once again, that it is always better to burn out than to fade away, while I’m saddened that this is the last we’ll hear from Deadspace (the various members of which are already well-ensconced in other bands and other projects), it has to be said that A Portrait of Sacrificial Scars is, by some margin, the band’s best work, and therefore the best possible epitaph for them to leave behind.
The reason it’s the band’s best album is tied to the fact that it’s made up of the darkest, most harrowing, and most focussed work of their career, with songs like desolate, devastating opener “Finale”, the intensely introspective “Fatigue”, and the titanic, doom-laden, two-part title-track showcasing a band more vibrant, more visceral, and more in-sync than ever before.
For all its morose melodies and sinister, shimmering keys, however, A Portrait of Sacrificial Scars isn’t necessarily an easy listen, such is the level of anguish and agony it conveys, but it is most definitely a great album, and a fitting final chapter in the band’s legacy of darkness and despair.
Now about those physical copies lads…
07. JUSTICE FOR THE DAMNED – PAIN IS POWER
While some of the artists/albums on this list were chosen for their cerebral, challenging nature… this one definitely wasn’t. This one was chosen simply because it delivers shot after shot of addictive, unadulterated heaviness aimed at provoking an instinctive, fight-or-flight, gut-level response that doesn’t require deep thought, just a willingness to lose yourself in the volume and violence of it all.
Whether you want to think of it as Death Metal influenced Hardcore, Hardcore influenced Death Metal, or… shudder, Deathcore (although personally I prefer “Doomcore” due to the sheer weight and presence of some of these apocalyptically heavy, slow-motion riffs)… the simple truth is that Pain Is Power is one ungodly heavy album, no matter what you call it, and doesn’t pull any of its punches or show even an ounce of mercy over the course of its ten taut and tumultuous tracks.
For all its unerring focus on pure sonic punishment, however, it’s not a dumb album by any means. In fact what it lacks in complexity it more than makes up for in low cunning, knowing intuitively when to switch from churning chuggery to thrashy thuggery to subtly shift the dynamic, and when to deploy a cluster-bomb breakdown or a bracing barrage of blastbeats to ensure maximum impact.
What. A. Rush.
06. IMHA TARIKAT – STERNENBERSTER
The second of four(!) different artists from Germany on my list (I told you a while back there must be something in the water over there which makes them particularly appealing to me), Imha Tarikat represent a form of Black Metal that refuses to be bound by tradition but which, nevertheless, reaffirms its commitment to the black arts with every blazing blast and twisted tremolo line.
It does this by taking inspiration from across the blackened spectrum – a dose of second-wave Norwegian nihilism here, a dash of Icelandic melodic majesty or a drop of martial, Hellenic swagger there – and combining this with the sort of primal power and punky potency that owes just as much, to my ears, to bands like Anti-Cimex and Wolfbrigade as it does to Black Metal.
With every electrifying riff, every nimble, punky bass-line, every skittering blastbeat and every ragged, snarling vocal, Sternenberster positions itself as an album for the outsider, even within a scene of outsiders.
It’s an album that stands, loud and proud, on its own feet – while also standing on the shoulders of giants – and which speaks with no other voice but its own, an album from a band who are clearly more than willing to remain the black sheep of the Black Metal scene as long as it allows them to walk their own path.
05. STONED GOD – INCORPOREAL
If there’s one album I’ve been pushing really hard this year, it’s this one.
Precise, powerful, and perfectly proportioned. Stunningly catchy and devastatingly dynamic. Incorporeal is the sort of album that makes me look at all the staid, sub-par artists and albums clogging up the arteries of “mainstream” (relatively speaking, anyway) Metal and ask “why?”
As in, why aren’t this band more successful, when so many more mediocre ones are absolutely massive?
Situated at the gravitational nexus between Gojira and Darkane, Strapping Young Lad and Fit For An Autopsy, the second album from German Prog-Death powerhouses Stoned God delivers nine absolutely stunning tracks of bombastic riffs, backbreaking grooves, and biomechanical melodies that effortlessly balance hooks and heaviness, technicality and intensity, in near-perfect harmony.
Possessing a humongous, ambitious, and incredibly confident sound, the band are the absolute epitome of the term “underground sensation”, and have all the necessary songwriting skills and technical talents to go even further, if given the chance.
There’s not much more I can say about this band/album than that. These guys deserve to be huge, and I’m not going to stop heaping praise on them until someone up there takes notice.
04. YOVEL – FORTHCOMING HUMANITY
Giving credit where credit is due, I have to give thanks to Islander for introducing me to this band earlier in the year, as their latest album is undoubtedly one of the rawest, realest, records of 2020.
Blending brooding acoustic atmosphere and moody metallic intensity, the Greek group channel all the turmoil they’ve witnessed, all the disappointment and despair they’ve experienced, into nine tracks of triumphant melody and tormented fury, all interspersed with a series of spine-chilling quotes and sombre spoken-word passages which reaffirm that this is a band who hold their message to be as important as their music.
Driven in equal amounts by both raging frustration and revolutionary fervour, Forthcoming Humanity is almost as much a political polemic as it is a Black Metal album, yet never comes across as preachy or pretentious – it’s too heartfelt, too harrowing, too painfully human for that.
And while I understand that many of our readers perhaps prefer to separate politics and music, it honestly doesn’t seem like that’s an option for Yovel. For them the very act of creating music is an act of resistance, their art is their expression, their beliefs inseparable from their passion. And that’s what makes this record such an inspiring, engaging, and uncompromising piece of work.
03. WAKE – DEVOURING RUIN
It’s always a surprise when a band drastically alters their style. And it’s even more surprising when a band changes to become something that fits your tastes absolutely perfectly.
Of course, the signs had been building for a while now that Wake were on the verge of an evolutionary paradigm shift in sound, but I don’t think anyone expected the results to be this good.
Embracing an almost Ulcerate-esque, dissonant Post-Death aesthetic, and combining it with the venomous vitality of Black Metal, along with a plethora of unexpectedly proggy touches and atmospheric embellishments, Devouring Ruin is bigger, more extravagant, and more ambitious than anything the band have written before.
And while they clearly haven’t forgotten their roots – there’s a wildness and an intensity underlying to it that can’t be taught, but must be learned through bitter experience – it’s also obvious that they’ve now blossomed into something far too prodigious, and far too powerful, to be contained or constrained by the shackles of their past.
Make no mistake about it, Devouring Ruin is as intense and as immolating an album as I’ve heard this year, but also one of the most artful and ambitious examples of a band undergoing their musical evolution in real time that I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.
02. HVRT – THE GRIEF THAT FEEDS THE NIGHT
Sometimes there’s a band… and I’m talking about Hvrt here… and, well, they’re the right band for their time and place.
Comprising ten terrific/terrifying tracks (totalling just over thirty-five minutes) this is one of those albums that instantly clicked with me the moment I heard it, blending as it does biting, buzz-saw riffs, gruesome, glass-gargling vocals, and gritty, grime-encrusted grooves into a disgustingly aggressive, hellishly addictive sound I like to refer to as Blackened Death Sludge (patent pending).
As I said back in October (not long after I’d discovered the band):
“One moment it’ll be grinding you down with a rolling barrage of stomping Swe-Death riffage (“Moralists”, “Zentrum”), the next they’re dragging you down into a misery-drenched mire of savage sludgery (“Loathers”), before unleashing a bombardment of blistering blastbeats (“Egodepression”) and doom-laden desolation (“Zwischen jetzt und nie”)…
Hell, a lot of these tracks blend all these different elements, and more (including some truly creepy touches of spine-tingling, atmospheric minimalism) within the same song, but such is the band’s natural/nurtured talent… that every piece and every part just flows together seamlessly…”
As perfect for fans of Grave, Grief, and Goatwhore as it is for followers of Phantom Winter, Planks, and Primitive Man, The Grief That Feeds the Night is a prime example of how to fuse together the best bits of various sub-genres without pandering to the lowest common denominator or dulling all the harsh edges in the process.
01. PROTEST THE HERO – PALIMPSEST
Now normally there’s not that much crossover between my “Critical” and “Personal” lists – I actually try to keep them as separate as I can to at least nod towards some form of objectivity with the former – but this year I couldn’t help it.
Not only do I honestly think this is one of the most creative and complete records of the year – regardless of style or sub-genre – but there’s just something about it that connects with me on a fundamental level.
It’s not just the music – which is a real rollercoaster of energy and emotion – it’s the lyrics and the message behind the music which makes this album extra special to me, with lines like:
“Fireball and tower / Conceal the swastika / Which might have served to sour / Our desired erotica”
“Because the fireside chats are comforting
While the population’s wondering
If suffering’s not the only option left?”
Exploring and exposing the way in which we so often rewrite our own history and alter the narrative to cast things in different, more positive, light, while brushing any inconvenient truths that we don’t want to deal with under the proverbial carpet.
It helps, of course, that Palimpsest is absolutely packed with massive choruses that stick in your head from the moment you first hear them, but it’s not just about the chorus hooks by any means, as practically every single line is delivered with a brilliant blend of passion and conviction and insanely catchy execution.
There’s a reason this has been my most listened to and most replayed album of 2020 – it is, quite simply, the most instantly (and consistently) infectious album of the year, but one that doesn’t sacrifice intricacy or intelligence in the process.
So there we have it. The ten artists/albums which have been dominating my listening over the last twelve months. It’s not necessarily a definitive list (both Ulcerate and Panzerfaust could/should have been included if I’d had more time and space) but I think it gives a pretty good impression of what I’ve been enjoying the most this year.
Thanks again to everyone who’s read and commented on all my articles over the last week, and throughout the year. I hope you’ve all discovered at least one (and hopefully more) new artist or album that you can really connect with, and I hope you all continue to visit us and find even more music in the coming weeks and months.
Rest assured, I’m not done writing for this year either, and have a bunch of additional reviews and articles lined up to bring some attention to some of the albums from this week which haven’t, as of yet, been given proper coverage, as well as several artists whose work we haven’t written about at all, so… stay tuned for that!