(Morbidly worrying whether the combined tonnage of words and music might finally sink the site, today we publish the fifth and final Part of DGR’s 2020 year-end list, counting down his personal Top 10 albums, and then adding some “not heavy” favorites and some EPs to wrap things up.)
We made it to the end. I can’t believe it. They haven’t kicked me off the site yet and somehow my hands haven’t fallen off at the wrist. In my best Richard Attenborough voice, “Welcome, to the final ten”….”and a whole bunch of other shit”.
We close out the final ten by going on what I would deem an absolute adventure. There’s no real throughline here, just impressive album after impressive album, all of which come highly recommended. You’ll note a handful of bigger names but there were some serious surprises that hijacked my listening this year and I felt it right that they be rewarded thusly. I really do hope that if you’ve never heard some of these bands before that you’ll check them out, because the final five or so are an absolute cacophony and I loved every second of it.
As usual, because this is the finale of my personal year-end archive and once again there’s no space left in the site’s budget for fireworks, I’ve once again gathered together all of the EPs as well as the ‘not metal’ releases – I elaborate further there – in the hopes that if you’ve made it this far, then some shorter or some more out-of-left-field stuff might be worthy of looking into as well.
If you have made it this far, thank you so much for reading all of this. I say this every year because I both love and hate myself for doing it, but I truly do treasure the ability to just look back at the year and then splatter a tremendous amount of albums on the wall for me to then write about. The final ten await and I hope some surprises sit there for all of you as well. Let’s journey on.
10) The Ocean – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic
If you’ve been following this list in recent days then the appearance of The Ocean sitting right here at number ten might be a little surprising. It still catches even me off guard when I look at this list zoomed out in comparison to everything surrounding it, since the albums I placed at twenty through eleven just seem like an endless procession of bleak atmospheres and destructive musical influences. While I’ll admit, 2020 was an endless misery parade and I’m not shocked to see a lot of people’s year-end lists matching it, The Ocean‘s continuation of their Phanerozoic series of albums was a nice change of pace, especially when paired up with its sibling from last year.
Phanzerozoic I scored pretty high with me in 2018, sneaking out right before the end of the year but managing to basically kidnap my listening habits for the entirety of the month of November, making damned near forty-eight minutes disappear like magic. There’s a sense of immediacy to that disc that kept pushing it forward even in the moments where it didn’t completely gel with me, so I found myself listening to it constantly because I often could be looking forward to that next part that I really, really enjoyed.
Stacking Phanerozoic II and its similar run-time up against its older sibling is interesting since Phanzerozoic II plays out like the calmer of the two. It’s far more focused on meditative atmospherics than the first one and there really isn’t a big power-chorus style single in the song list the way the first Phanerozoic had. If anything the standout ‘short song’ is built out of gorgeous vocal melodies in “Eocene”, the echoing “you promised me…” line often ringing in my head whenever I think of it.
I imagine a lot of people followed a similar path to The Ocean that I did, picking up on them either during the Heliocentric album cycle where they really seemed to start getting out there – I would’ve seen them live around this time too, opening for Cephalic Carnage, Job For A Cowboy, and Between The Buried And Me if they hadn’t got a fucking flat tire driving down from Lake Tahoe – or in the interstitial between Precambrian and Heliocentric. I say this because Phanerozoic II has a lot of The Ocean playing pretty well within their comfort zone.
They bring a lot of exotic instrumentation into the mix, augmenting their sound with a bevy of electronics and horns at times, and they pull from a group of guest vocalists famliar to the band as well to join Loic Rosetti for vocal duties. The especially fun part of Phanzerozoic II is the occasional segment where The Ocean drift into Tool territory – a particular bridge during “Jurassic | Cretaceous” hovering well within the event horizon of Tool’s “Vicarious” – and as a fan of the latter I’m not going to act like I didn’t appreciate it.
Since Phanerozoic II isn’t quite as ‘urgent’ as its immediate predecessor, it didn’t manage to hijack a month in the same way, but having been out since September certainly helped worm its way into my year-end list. It’s a comfortable addition to The Ocean‘s discography but it is still one of the best releases this year.
9) Wake – Confluence/Devouring Ruin
That said, fuck musicality and melody for a bit, let’s get back to the overwhelmingly bleak segment. That’s right, it’s time to get back on DGR’s grind bullshit.
It has been pleasant watching people pick up on Wake’s latest album Devouring Ruin. I reviewed the album for the site a little while after its release and have been on the Wake fan train for longer than that. I was bowled over by their live show, and around the same time I got the opportunity to cover 2018’s noise hurricane Misery Rites. Devouring Ruin is an entirely different beast by comparison,
Misery Rites is about twenty-seven minutes of full-throttle blasting that was probably the furthest Wake could push their particular brand of grind. At first glance, Devouring Ruin comes in at almost double that disc’s length and there are single songs on Devouring Ruin that are longer than two or three from Misery Rites put together. That’s because Devouring Ruin is an ugly fucker of an album and one that sounds like it shot an arrow through the many lined-up rings that is 2020. An exercise in expelling anguish in audio form, it basically re-aligns Wake with many of the throughlines that are currently worming their way through the viscous ichor that is the underground metal scene.
Then, Wake would release a three-song EP entitled Confluence that adds another twenty-three weighty minutes of music to their output this year – after a Decibel Flexi single entitled “Vast And Infinite” – which makes it so that their overall output this year is likely to leave an impact crater behind it. If you want over an hour of crushingly dark and heavy music with a strong wailing core within, then Wake’s overall Devouring Ruin/Confluence collection will absolutely get you by.
The mercurial and amorphous blob that Wake slowly morph their music into over the course of Devouring Ruin seems like it is barely holding itself together. Wake are long-time masters of controlled chaos and have cultivated a knack for the abrasive, so extending it outwards and making their sound more ambitious accounts for that. There are some gigantic songs here – by grind standards – and Wake make the most use of it, reaching tendrils out into sludge, doom, the various effects-reliant post’ genres, and all in the name of making Devouring Ruin into the overwhelming mass of sound that it is.
I’m overjoyed to see people picking up on this because it feels like Wake really put in some effort to expand their sound here, and that sort of ambition is actually being at least somewhat rewarded. Confluence following a similar path despite its more pleasant album artwork is just a cherry on top of an already rich sundae. You land one of the better albums of 2020 and then on top of that give us one of the better EPs out this year. Any other time, I imagine Wake would be out there absolutely suffocating people in sound with these new releases.
They were already capable of it before when they used the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink method of grind songwriting and now? Well, now it’s all a waiting game to see how Wake weaponize these new releases once we’re able to get shows going again, considering it’s already like drowning in a mudslide when just listening to them on headphones.
8) Make Them Die Slowly – Ferox/The Bodycount Continues
Mark this as the second time Mick Kenney makes an appearance on my year-end list. In much the same way that I enjoy when Gregor Mackintosh of Paradise Lost/Strigoi grabs his guitar and makes sad doom and death metal in just about any form, I’ve found that I enjoy when Mick Kenney gets the opportunity to grab a guitar and make big, dumb chugging guitar noises and backs them with a damn-near endless wall of drum-kit destruction and a pleasant piano melody.
Make Them Die Slowly finds him teaming up with long-time conspirator Duncan Wilkins – who was also part of the trio Born To Murder The World that consisted of him, Mick, and Shane from Napalm Death alongside being part of the Anaal Nathrakh live crew – to create a project lovingly dedicated to slasher films. Partially that tribute to particular movies and partially their own story complete with background lore, the group operate in disguise, using the names Void, Officer R. Kordhell, Doofus, and “Walter“.
The time inside has afforded them the opportunity to be especially prolific this year, releasing two full-length albums that clock in at about thirty-five minutes each and a holiday-themed single in the form of “Silent Night, Murder Night” that came out right around the time of this writing. In fact, I’m partially terrified that they might jam out another song in the span of time between my submitting this writeup and its publishing, given how the band seem to write at a speed that’s as fast as their music typically is.
Of course, dishing out a fuck-ton of music in a year isn’t worth anything if it’s the half-hour long equivalent of a balloon deflating. That’s not the case with Make Them Die Slowly, whose purposefully campy inspiration takes considerable glee in creating some absolutely bludgeoning songs. The band often pull motifs and melodies from specific soundtracks, erring just close enough to keep them familiar without them becoming covers, and then inevitably drop into one of two very familiar moods: high-speed intensity or humongous, lumbering and chugging -core riffs. They hybridize all of this together in search of extremity and with Void shrieking over the top of it and the occasional piano melody or choir to accent things even further.
Their second release, The Bodycount Continues, is the more ‘approachable’ of the two, if you use the term as loosely as possible. There’s an increased emphasis on rhythm sections and melody, with the various electronic synth lines being a lot more prominent as the band share their own written murder-story along with the other celebratory musical tributes. Ferox on the other hand, being their first, is like asking someone to set you on fire from the word go. It starts fast and hangs out in that lane for a healthy chunk of its run time, the only breaks being the grooves in “Demoni” and the massive choir breakdown that is “Of Jackal And Demon Born”.
I’ve found as the year went on that I would basically do a run-through of the entirety of their material and it would power me through just about anything. Make Them Die Slowly may be firmly in their musical comfort zone considering the other projects its musicians are involved in, but it is one that I have grown to love tremendously throughout the year. It can be ludicrously stupid and campy at times but I love it for those reasons. Listening to “Hack-O-Lantern” from The Bodycount Continues for the first time felt like a weakening of the armor as I found myself going “oh wow this really is just one gigantic chugging riff huh and oh man they put a keyboard line behind it and oh no I think I love this” through listening to it. As far as my ‘fun’ albums went this year, Make Them Die Slowly‘s were chief among them.
7) Aeternam – Al Qassam
It boggles me that Aeternam’s 2020 album Al Qassam hasn’t seen this Quebec-based death metal band picked up by a label yet. Aeternam put out their most recent two records independently and that seems nuts to me, because if we’re going by the quality demonstrated on the enormously ambitious and catchy music within Al Qassam, these guys could do some serious damage with wider reach.
Combining the sort of lumbering death metal one would credit to groups like Behemoth and Hate with a taste for the symphonic and melodic, a smidgeon of Nile influence, as well as adding a heaping portion of ethnic folk metal to the mix, and you have what could be argued as the group’s most mature and varied release to date. It’s one that I came to late in the year compared to its release (I even owned up to that fact in my june write up of the disc) but it is one that I most pleasantly surprised me this year.
I’d been aware of the band before, but this album is something special, shooting off in a variety of directions in its quest for heavy while also crafting something epic all its own within the last few songs. Trying to pin it down to one specific style made trying to describe it difficult at first, but describing the complete combination helped a ton in explaining why Al Qassam – and its awesome album art – really drew me in. The first few songs are gorgeous and heavy assaults composed of folk, melodeath, and tech-death all crashing head-first into each other, with Aeternam leaning heavily into the mythological and regional inspirations for tracks like “Bringer Of Rain” and “Lunar Ceremony”.
Where I found Al Qassam really shined for me was actually in the back half of the album. Every song post “Palmyra Scriptures” – which features Orphaned Land vocalist Kobi Farhi making a guest appearance – is one hell of a journey, and that Al Qassam‘s closing two songs tie together is just fantastic. “Ascension” is one of the most straightforwardly brutal and heavy songs on Al Qassam, trading in a lot of the atmospherics and multi-pronged vocal attack for a singular bellow that wraps itself around a hefty death metal beating. Yet as it increases in scale the song starts to blend into its backing symphonics and almost perfectly leads into the massive epic on Al Qassam, “Poena Universi”.
At six minutes and forty-two seconds, “Poena Universi” wins out in sheer punching weight by about half a minute vs its closest rival on the album, and it earns it, being the epic closer of the album. It’s where everything the band use throughout Al Qassam comes to a head, and it was easily one of the highlights of one of the more perfectly-spaced-out albums I’ve heard in some time. I wouldn’t say Al Qassam is all killer but it comes pretty damned close, which is why the band existing as this sort of simmering underground monster instead of gaining widespread appeal is why I’m somewhat taken aback. They seem like a band built and ready for crossover and gateway appeal, their latest album adding to a pretty killer collection of releases so far. If you haven’t checked this one out yet, it’s well worth it to do so.
6) Napalm Death – Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism/Logic Ravaged By Brute Force
I once joked way back in ye olden days of my review for Napalm Death‘s Apex Predator – Easy Mea, that there really wasn’t much left to say about the band other than that they were important to heavy metal and had long since ascended to become a cultural institution by sheer force of willingness not to quit. Watching as Napalm Death‘s myriad of releases became a cultural hallmark was fun too because it became clear that the guys were now free to basically do whatever the fuck they wanted musically.
As long as Shane Embury gets a chance to keep the low end rumbling and Barney Greenway gets to scream at me while running back and forth – because time waits for no man who stays still either – then Napalm Death will have a pretty good thing going. That said, this also makes it so that the lead up to any new Napalm Death album is filled with the fun game of ‘oh fuck what are they going to throw at us this time’.
When the band unleashed their early-2020 single “Logic Ravaged By Brute Force” coupled with a cover of “White Kross”, it seemed like they might be peering into noise-rock territory for the new one in order to augment their usual hammering grind. Leaping head first into the fray upon the release of Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism would find me drawing similar conclusions while at the same time being pleasantly surprised by the group’s embracing of sheer pit riffage this time around. As if Napalm Death were ever likely to have trouble getting me to run in circles like a moron who has accidentally set his hair on fire.
Every Napalm Death release is bound to have a quirk or two in it, in order to make things interesting as compared to the previous album. I was surprised by just how punk and hXc style hardcore had worked its way into the new album. I had expected them to lean even harder into the noise-rock style based off their Sonic Youth cover, but instead it seemed that Napalm Death had refined and honed it into the forty some odd minutes that comprises the album.
I still can’t help but wonder how much a song like “Amoral” was helping to color their impressions of the disc as a whole because that song is an eyebrow-raiser for sure, especially in comparison to the two ass-kickers before and after it and the industrial closer in “A Bellyful Of Salt And Spleen”. Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism opens with three immediate blasters in the form of “Fuck The Factoid”, “Backlash Just Because” – a personal favorite – and “Curse Of Being In Thrall”, because everything must be leveled in order to be built back up again. Having that sort of traditional grind tantrum combined with Napalm Death‘s latest acquired taste for that aforementioned pit riffing is one of the album’s major strengths.
Napalm Death keep things dynamic enough that the record isn’t just a forty-minute bulldozer – not that I would complain, given a couple of the albums that have appeared here. You just want to freak out alongside the band for a bit while listening to them. Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism pumped out a surprising amount of energy that helped to shock me awake more than once. Combining it with the “Logic Ravaged By Brute Force” single was like getting struck by a freight train. Napalm Death continue to be one of the greats.
5) Feastem – Graveyard Earth
We’re on the grind train for a little bit in this year-end extravaganza, so how much more time for that have you got available to you? Have you got about twenty minutes? Yes? Wonderful, fantastic. It’s time to have a chat about Finland’s Feastem and their early March 2020 album Graveyard Earth.
Now, if you haven’t crossed paths with Feastem before and are hitting the play button right now – which will probably see the album wrapping up about two paragraphs from now – then you probably had your hair completely blown back by the opening song. The self described “Plutonium-powered grind punk” band are fucking fast and they like to keep it that way with Graveyard Earth. My journey with the disc found a twenty-minute blaster of an album that was packed with “shrieking violence” – all credit to the vocal work of one Petri Eskelinen for that – which moved so lethally fast that it was like being caught in a grindcore wind tunnel filled with glass.
You’d probably lose a layer of skin by sheer acceleration alone but Feastem were definitely going to leave you a shocked skeleton a la prop comedy movie by the end of its closing few tracks. The one song here that even bothers clearing the two-minute mark is the titular “Graveyard Earth”. Most stay well within the thirty-five second to minute and a half range so a listening session is like being shaken back and forth by someone in the midst of a manic fit.
I remarked in my review that it’s tempting to keep reviews short for discs like this because there’s not a tremendous amount you can say by the time the aural assault wraps itself up – in this case with the help of artist tyhji, who handled the disc’s closing track – so you sort of want the review to blast by as quick as the opening few songs do. I still hold to that, but it’d be a shame not to highlight some of the absolute killers that are within a track-list whose only separation between songs is the sudden “START.STOP” dynamic that is often part of grind discs.
The one-two punch of “Creeping Heat” and “In Isolation We Die” in the middle of Graveyard Earth is great, and “Terror Balance” early on is also a lot of fun and features an appearance by Distaste vocalist/guitarist Armin Schweiger. The “Graveyard Earth” song – highlighted both here and in my review at the time – remains easily one of the meanest songs within the lineup.
I usually find myself with a couple of grind albums ranking high at the end of the year, and upon first hearing this one and considering how often I’ve continued listening to it since then, I couldn’t help but have Graveyard Earth make its way into the top ten. The brevity alone, in the face of some fucking leviathan albums that came out this year, would turn out to be a tremendous help in getting it there.
Plus, it only took me three laps around the disc this time to write it up.
4) …And Oceans – Cosmic World Mother
Score two for Finland in the top ten. Now we journey from grind so fast, slimmed-down, and lethal that the only way to describe it would be as if it were fired from a rail gun, to black metal so excessive, blown-out, and ambitious that you just can’t help but admire it. That’s …And Oceans‘ 2020 comeback album via Season Of Mist, Cosmic World Mother.
Upon hearing Cosmic World Mother I had not expected to love it as much as I did. Yet the opening song “The Dissolution Of Mind And Matter” sets the tone for the album and it really drew me in and refused to let me go. …And Oceans find their groove early with that song and stick pretty rigidly to it through the album, creating a blistering near-fifty minutes of music which is so expansive that it moves well into the realm of crushing listeners by weight alone.
It seems that nearly every song on Cosmic World Mother exists with all its elements cranked up to as fast and loud as the band could go. It’s as if …And Oceans declared that if they were going to take another crack at it, then they were going to record music as if they’d never get another chance to do so again. As a result, the album and its lovely-blue artworks is one of the more fiery and white-hot releases to come out this year.
Cosmic World Mother is a pretty traditional symphonic black metal album for the most part, powered by some incredibly strong songwriting that – as mentioned before – finds its groove pretty early on and then keeps hammering at it for eleven songs. The near endless high speed storm emanating from the band is enough to keep people awake through just about any event. …And Oceans make good use of all the electronics available to them as well, and it results in every song sounding gigantic.
There are some definite standouts though: I deeply enjoy the album’s title track, which for all my talk about the heavy leaning on symphonics and high-speed tempo to make an absolutely scorching black metal disc, contains within it one of the most blatant electronics breaks I’ve heard in some time as well as the strongest closing segment of any of the songs here. It feels like the band were building up to that closing final yell of “Cosmic World Mother” during the whole album and then you realize that it’s only the fifth song.
The haunting and apocalyptic synth work that sweeps through “Apokatastasis” like a bird of prey from on high turns that song into an almost instant standout as well. It’s a little campy with the keys going full ‘madman strapped to a church organ’ at times, but that just makes it so the song stands out while the band continue to steer Cosmic World Mother through its final closing movements. “The Flickering Lights” sends things out as one of the more cinematic songs in the album’s final passages and ties things off neatly, long after you’ve been bowled over at some point, as …And Oceans seem like they’re never going to stop. Could be that they were pent up with material and this was the shot to throw it all out there.
Either way, the heavy emphasis on backing melody, epic passages, and white-hot songwriting made it so that Cosmic World Mother was near-guaranteed to wind up high on the year-end list.
3) Choke Me – The Cousin Of Death
Welcome everybody to today’s edition of your favorite heavy metal game show You Fucked Up and I’m your host DGR here to tell you exactly how and why You Fucked Up by letting Choke Me‘s 2020 album The Cousin Of Death pass by you upon its release in late June and even after my eventual beating of the drum for the Southern California deathgrind anarchists a few months later.
Too busy chasing after the latest slam heavy craze? Congratulations! You Fucked Up! Fawning over the newest old-school death metal revival act playing updated takes on a well-stablished sytle? Congratulations! You Fucked Up! Lost in the latest thirty-seven thousand minute doom odyssey that is likely to have seven drum hits total in the next fifteen minutes? Guess what! You Fucked Up.
Now keep in mind. I take no pleasure in informing you that You Fucked Up but hey You Fucked Up, not me. That’s why you see this album sitting high up in my year-end list even if it’s not on yours. Much like a doting parent though, I’m not mad that You Fucked Up, just disappointed, and that’s okay because there’s still time to fix that fact by jamming The Cousin Of Death now. Go ahead! You’ll be back in a little under twenty minutes guaranteed and you can thank me then.
I don’t claim to be the most in-touch with the wider metal community nor the most hip person on the web, so really, I’m just having fun with you. But unless the wool is being pulled over my eyes and this band doesn’t really exist, The Cousin of Death should be getting a hell of a lot more attention than it has received so far. It is a fucking mean album, full of barbs and ready to tear people apart. The trio behind Choke Me take their cause and purpose and weaponize them over twelve songs of blast-heavy death and grind, with a big focus on circle-pit music and some sneering punk rock ‘fuck you’ attitude just to put a bow on the whole package.
When the one epic-length song on an album is the only one crossing the three-minute mark, you have a good idea what sort of genre the band are playing in. Choke Me refer to themselves as fastcore and it’s an understandable label given the breathless nature with which they deliver many of the songs. It’s meant to be high-speed and violent; crossing the span of a handful of genres and jumbling them together in the name of speed is probably the easiest way to look at it, and the resulting roller-coaster ride is very damned good. I love any band that’ll just name a song “You Aren’t Special” as well. It worked on me with Dead Wretch back when Hug Division Dead Wretch hit, and it works on me here.
I found that the constant barrage of one-minute blasters felt like the band intentionally tossing us around, but there’s a lot of power in that opening one-two pairing of “Collective Upheaval” – whose ‘get a fucking gun, arm the fucking neighborhood’ is anthemic on its own – and “Lost Time”, which is easily one of my favorites alongside “Useful Idiot” later in the collection. “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” and its “GET THE FUCK OUT” yell have provided enough energy for me at some points that I could probably power a small city.
Long story short: This one went off like a lit rocket once I hit play. Few albums out there hold instant appeal to an internet dipshit like myself, and The Cousin Of Death managed to achieve that. So quit fucking up and listen to this damn thing.
2) Night Crowned – Impius Viam
I never would’ve guessed that the first full-length from Sweden’s Night Crowned was going to wind up as one of my most listened to albums this year, but from the moment I got my hands on it, it’s become one of the default go-to’s in my musical free time. Can’t figure out amongst your 20,000-plus song collection what to listen to? Why not give Impius Viam another spin?
Night Crowned are a newer project in the grand scheme of things. They formed in 2016 and until the release of Impius Viam had only put out an EP entitled Humanity Will Echo Out in 2018 – whose three songs appear within Impius Viam‘s track-list as well. Its members hail from a wide spectrum of music, and between them can count credits from bands like Dark Funeral, Cipher System, Disrated, Nightrage, and really, based off of drummer Janne Jaloma‘s resume, we could add another seven or eight groups. We interviewed him about this as well as his activities with Night Crowned and Dark Funeral back in April.
Night Crowned‘s core foundation is built around a very melodic form of black metal but they spread their infernal wings wide with Impius Viam and take a whole swath of extreme metal underneath them. Thus, you wind up with an album that is surprisingly huge both in terms of sound and amount of music present. I dove pretty deep into both ideas when I reviewed the disc and took a lot of time describing just how good this band was at going from an incredibly fast and adrenaline-pumping form of metal right into a gloriously catchy guitar solo, and just how easily that sort of thing sinks its hooks in me.
If there is one fault that I could bring up with Impius Viam it’s probably the double-edged sword of there being a lot of music on this disc. But this is one of the reasons why I enjoyed Impius Viam so much. It is twelve songs and fifty-five minutes long, which translated to being there for me just about any time I needed to fill an hour with a high speed blast-party. Vocalist Ken Romlin puts on a show as well here, with most of his time spent way up there in a shrill scream that seems to be throat-tearing at times, yet across twelve songs is always the first strike of any musical air-raid that Night Crowned go on. There’ll be one big shriek and then the guitars just rain down from the heavens, partially apocalyptic and acting as if they were summoning the final battle themselves.
Impius Viam has a ton of guitar and keyboard work, if you enjoy wrapping your head around a multitude of leads and solos. Henric Liljesand and Johan Eskilsson put in some serious work on that front, packing Impius Viam to the gills with plenty of stuff to get stuck in your brain long after you’re done listening to it. I know I’ve brought it up before but I’ll probably forever have in my head the moment during “Nocturnal Pulse” where the song switches from the high-speed attack into a humongous sounding guitar part reinforced by a chugging rhythm section before dropping backward into the initial all-out-attack that was driving much of the song to start with. I’d be curious to see what other parts capture people’s attention considering there’s just so much present here.
Impius Viam may have been the year’s biggest stealth dark horse for me in terms of list-making. But once I sat down and seriously started to figure out what had gotten a ton of listening to this year and why, Night Crowned‘s hefty melodic sense, blisteringly fast songwriting, and overwhelming atmosphere was something that quickly came to mind. It was a constant in the face of so many other albums this year, and one that fit perfectly into my sensibilities.
1) Exocrine – Maelstrom
Then we get to the one that I easily listened to the most this year in the tech-death cluster bomb that is Exocrine’s late-June release Maelstrom. This is the album that easily captured my attention the most this year. Were it not for me using the ‘hey, you fucked up’ joke earlier on, you would find liberal usage of it here because Maelstrom feels like Exocrine ascending to a whole other level of songwriting. How this one has flown under so many radars catches me off guard.
I actually included Exocrine’s previous album Molten Giant on one of my other year-end lists, so news that they’d be releasing another one this year was very exciting. I didn’t know much about what was going on, but if the pattern and upward ascension in terms of quality were to continue, then I was expecting Maelstrom to be gigantic. If you would like to explore what I mean by that, our own Andy Synn actually went to war with the French tech-death group’s whole discography and somehow came out of the other side with all limbs intact and only a very slight thousand-yard stare.
With the formalities out of the way now, allow me to turn into a zealot for Maelstrom because holy shit is this album good. It starts off a little weird but once it comes into its own, it’s hard not to hang on for dear life as Exocrine smash their way through just about every death metal subgenre they could think of over the course of Maelstrom’s forty minutes, because goddamn, sometimes you just need to know what the band are going to do next. The twists and turns they take are filled with moments meant to raise eyebrows, if not outright cause whiplash from the double-takes, when you find yourself going ‘wait, they fucking did what?!’ as you finally think you’ve gotten used to the band’s high-speed prog-death ambitions to go alongside the scene hybridization and tech-death city-levelling.
Maelstrom starts out sounding like it is going to stay pretty close to the excesses of the group’s previous album, Molten Giant. The first seconds of Maelstrom are Exocrine already running at a million miles an hour. They lead off with the title song, which saws its way through a swarm of different tech-death parts and riffs at such a high speed that the moment the backing clean-sung vocals appear for what constitutes a chorus during “Maelstrom”, it takes you by surprise. From there, Exocrine hammer away at that blueprint for the next track “The Kraken” – which oh boy that’s taken on a different meaning recently hasnt it? – and has a guest vocal appearance by fellow French deathgrinder Julien Truchan of Benighted doing exactly what he’s known for, basically getting into a low-vocals fight with Exocrine’s vocalist Jordy Besse.
After those two initial volleys is when Maelstrom really comes into its own. ‘Why?’, you ask. Because my friends, that’s when the synth line starts, and that’s when what has somehow become my song of the year starts. Because that is when “Wall Of Water” starts. “Wall Of Water” is built around a gigantic groove, a humongous opening chug, before throwing you back into the musical hurricane the band have whipped up, and reinforces it with a lot of near jazz and prog interludes, yet it always circles back around to the punchy as hell “WALL OF WATER” shout.
That song has refused to let go of me from the moment I first heard it, and the fact that it is at this point in Maelstrom that Exocrine decide to turn the album into this weird sci-fi, detective-noir, near-concept album evoking smokey atmospheres of jazz clubs, eldritch gods, flooded coastal towns, and space – because why the fuck not – makes this turn amazing. “Wall Of Water” closes on a gigantic trumpet hit and it seems like ‘because why the fuck not?’ then becomes the philosophy that drives the rest of the disc.
That’s not the only jazzy instrument that worms its way into Maelstrom either. They close out a few other songs with similar solos but goddamn does Maelstrom seem to get more and more fun from there. When all of those elements start to appear during “The Wreck” – including the trumpet being a main component instead of something with which to catch you off guard at the end – Maelstrom truly becomes something special.
I feel like given enough time and space I could fawn over every second of Maelstrom for hours. This record is so jam-packed with stuff that there’s still things that’ll catch your ear even after a couple hundred listens. Exocrine doing the musical ‘throw everything we have at it’ works out fantastically well here, and it is bound to bowl people over once they actually listen to it. The sheer willingness and ambition present here placed it pretty high with me already, but to have it all work out while the band swing for the fences every single time meant this album easily found its way to the top spot.
I listen to it constantly. When I need something dumb, it’s here. If I want a ton of brutal death, then Maelstrom has me covered. If I need to be caught off guard by jazzy interludes and solos spread throughout, then yeah, I’ve got Maelstrom. And if I want to hear a band going a million miles an hour while still going full weird-prog at times, then Exocrine have somehow fit that into Maelstrom too, and man, it’s just sitting there ready for another listen.
Plus, this year I didn’t need anything to bleach my brain from a fucking episode of King of Queens since I’m not going to risk packing myself into a fucking break room at work right now.
I’m not completely done wasting your time yet. In recent years I’ve found that I occasionally need to give a shoutout to the ‘non-metal’ side of things that I’ve been listening to. The term is fungible at best and left open to translation, as most of the time ‘not metal’ might simply boil down to ‘not as heavy as the musical slab of granite I carved my lists from’.
One year I had the gall to put Ghost on here beause I was arguing that the band weren’t a metal group on that specific release but more of a rock band. I loved that album and enjoy the hell out of the band, but felt it was silly for us sewer dwellers to try and claim that one as one of our own. If Blue Oyster Cult don’t like being called proto-metal, then the band who’ve made a career out of kicking out discs that sound like Scooby Doo writing Blue Oyster Cult songs don’t get to be either.
Katatonia – City Burials
Which explains why this year you get to see Katatonia in the ‘not heavy’ lineup. Because while Katatonia are one of my favorite bands of all time and I love Jonas Renske‘s singing voice and any time that band decides to get moody for an hour and record it, City Burials is not a ‘heavy’ album. Gorgeous and lush, absolutely. Atmospheric? You bet. A little hit or miss with me? Yeah. But overall I listened to that disc a ton anyway. It’s just not as heavy as the bar that I set for records this year. Still worth enjoying, although telling metalheads to listen to Katatonia these days may be the most preaching-to-the-choir I could do.
Pain of Salvation – Panther
Same would go for Pain of Salvation‘s truly given-to-excess album Panther. Pain of Salvation have a truly ambitious, expansive, and storied career by this point, having long since reached popularity within prog circles and for good reason. Though every Pain of Salvation album has sounded different, the group’s willingness to just go for it over the years has meant that their discography has something for everyone.
I’ve been following them for a bit but always on the fringes: I enjoyed releases but they haven’t not a constant go-to. Yet something about the manic and incredibly overproduced nature of Panther appealed to me. There are so many layers of electronics and vocal effects on this album that I constantly feel like I’m noticing something new while the Pain of Salvation crew dances across different genres. Some of it doesn’t quite work but the overly sincere nature of their willingness to ‘try’ won me over, and the few times when the band are somewhat raw and not buried within a wall of effects shows that they are incredibly talented to begin with. Daniel Gildenlow sounds great here and his performance, alongside drummer Léo Margarit‘s wild as hell drumming lines, during both “Accelerator” and “Unfuture” hooked me real hard.
Inno – The Rain Under
Inno’s The Rain Under is a head-turner based on lineup alone. We’ve already made a lot of noise about it but when you have a band whose line-up can count among themselves ex-Fleshgod Apocalypse, Ex-Novembre, and current Hour Of Penance/Coffin Birth credits, and they decide to create music wholly unlike everything they’ve done so far, you can’t help but be interested.
The group take a goth-rock/doom turn on The Rain Under and all of it is built around Elisabetta Marchetti‘s excellent singing voice. As a focal point of the album, she wanders within some beautifully sombre landscapes painted by the band for about fifty minutes. On top of this, the group even manage to crank out a really good cover of Pink Floyd’s “High Hopes” – which is already a fantastic song on its own – to close things out. Released on February 28th of this year, I’ve felt like The Rain Under has been unfortunately overlooked, even when we got a chance to premiere a haunting music video for “Pale Dead Sky” within the confines of this site. But it’s something that you can rectify now by listening to it. If you miss groups like Ava Inferi, then you should really consider giving Inno a chance.
Kalandra – The Line
While we’re on the subject of the moody and melancholy, special attention needs to be paid to Norwegian group Kalandra and their album The Line, which saw release at the tail end of October. After being blown away by a live show of theirs that was streamed over the Summer, I felt like I had to pay attention to the ‘alternative pop’ group, and when the album came out I purchased it near immediately and somewhat sight unseen.
The Line does in fact pull from pop influences but also has a dark shadow laying over it, which results in some absolutely beautiful moments spread throughout the release. I was hard-pressed to make it past the minimalist and multi-layered vocal approach of the opening song “Borders” for an incredibly long time. That song will still hit me like a freight train if I don’t see it coming. You also have more electronic-oriented numbers like “Naive”, folk-oriented songs like “Brave New World”, actual traditional rockers like its follower “On The Run”, and the lovely acoustic songs like “Wonderland”.
Of course, some idiot singing its praises on a heavy metal site isn’t going to have the proper vocabulary to truly describe just how well The Line works – and not a single blastbeat anywhere, what the fuck am I doing?! – but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t own up to listening to this constantly or using it as a way to calm down when things were getting too manic for me.
Another breakout thing I’m prone to do and something I’ve saved until the last day is focus on the EPs I’ve really enjoyed. It would’ve felt like a dick move ghettoizing them on the first day, so instead I felt I should break them off into their own grouping – totally not the same thing – on the last day in hopes some people would keep noticing as the allure of a 10 to 1 ranking would hopefully prove strong enough to keep drawing people in. I had a pretty good time with EPs this year, and given the state of the world, there sure was reason for groups to release a fuckload of them. Most of them actually tagged alongside major albums, but for the few that didn’t, I feel like they deserve a shoutout here.
Aborted – Le Grande Mascarade
Three solid pummeling tracks from Aborted, as the group find themselves with new blood in the lineup once again. Still as grindy as they have been, Le Grande Mascarade plays up the atmospherics a bit but still keeps things going at an incredibly fast clip. It may be a little on the red meat side in terms of what it’s offering, but I’ve enjoyed whatever musical offal Aborted throw on the table for some time now. Le Grande Mascarade may be the first time when I’m not sure where the band are looking in the future, but so long as they’re keeping guys like Ken Bedine and Stefano Fransceschini in the lineup, at the very least I can rely on an immense ass-kicking via the rhythm section.
Carcass – Despicable
This one is realy fucking simple and dumb. I like Carcass. I want new Carcass music. Despicable is new Carcass music. Problem: Solved.
It’s not fast Carcass, which is a bit of a bummer, but I’ll enjoy some goddamned Jeff Walker and Bill Steer ripping through twenty minutes of music – even if it’s in a similar vein to “Zochrot” from the Surgical Steel sessions – anyway.
Daughter Chaos – Daughter Chaos
Andy’s right when it comes to Daughter Chaos. If you didn’t catch him giving them a shoutout when discussing solid EPs that came out this year then you get to see me doing it now. Composed initially out of ex-members from the most recent lineup of Armageddon, Daughter Chaos know how to whip out some shit-hot melodeath songs. The opening track’s guitar lead work alone should be a fucking instant selling point with people, and the promise of twenty minutes of it is fucking fantastic. Promising as all hell, Daughter Chaos have started their career out strong. Here’s hoping that they keep it up in the future. They’re easily a group to watch.
Sarcoptes – Plague Hymns
Like I’m going to miss the opportunity to give the symphonic black/thrash metal hybrid from the hometown a shoutout. Sarcoptes are easily one of the more severely underrated acts out there right now and their collective material so far has been fucking fantastic. While there was a serious gap of time between releases, having the group back and now signed to Transcending Obscurity has been an exciting event. Right now the collaboration has resuled in the two-song, twelve-minute journey of Plague Hymns and both songs are scorchers. You want some fiery blast work courtesy of Garret Garvey – who continues to make drumming seem fucking effortless – then Sarcoptes have got your number. The light symphonic touches and speedy guitar make it so that Sarcoptes kick a serious amount of ass in twelve minutes.
Human Serpent – Shrouds
Greece’s Human Serpent may in fact have one of the earliest releases on my year-end list, and really it’s just one new song that clocks in at just over a minute of abrasive music and a grim-as-hell piano take on a song from another one of their releases. Shrouds came out as a benefit EP on January 20th but any time I get to talk about Human Serpent I’ll be taking the chance. The black metal crew have some true weapons within their releases and if you haven’t gotten the chance to explore the wider reaches of their discography, the journey is well worth taking. They even have a full-length coming out entitled Heirlooms Eternal hitting at the tail end of January (if I’m doing my European date format reading correctl – although I’d be likely to buy there being a 30th month added to the year at this point).
Inferi – Of Sunless Realms
I reviewed Of Sunless Realms two months ago and my opinion remains the same. The shorter format for the “everything and the kitchen sink at light speed” style tech-death band works for them. It doesn’t get the chance to get too overwhelming and instead is just like a twenty-minute adrenaline shot right to the chest. Mike Low and Malcolm Pugh put on a master class in guitar shred here and Steve Boisier sounds like he has lost his mind on the vocal front. Inferi are a group where everyone seems to be a death metal cyborg having just achieved sentience, and the breathless way they dish out material during Of Sunless Realms is fucking great.
Hinayana – Death Of The Cosmic
Because I will never not find it hilarious to go from a group that musically launches everything out a rail cannon to someone doomier and moodier, we’ll jump from me recommending Inferi to me recommending the Austin, Texas doom crew Hinayana. Death Of The Cosmic is a gorgeous EP in the way a lot of the more melodically minded doom bands can channel the beauty of frozen lakes and iced-over forests. The band have continued to refine themselves since their full-length Order Divine. What they have here is immensely promising for the group’s future, and right now just twenty-five minutes worth of swelling key work and slow rumble on the guitar front has placed Hinayana in an absolutely killer position for the future. Death Of The Cosmic is well worth the listen.
Sepultura – The First Half of Quadra
Quadra is the most frontloaded album I have heard in some time. It’s fucking great hearing Sepultura kick out some killer songs again, and though some amongst us would argue that they’ve been doing so for a while now – I’ll go to bat for Eloy Casagrande being an incredible drummer – Quadra really does have the band firing on all cylinders…for about seven songs. After that things setlle into Sepultura’s more ‘working man’s metal’ style of songwriting. But man, if you drop “Guardians Of The Earth” and close out on “The Pentagram” – for which Sepultura deserve special commendation, considering they actually made an interesting instrumental, something you do’t see often – then you have an absolute motherfucker of an EP. “Isolation” and “Last Time” may be doomed to forever be part of the band’s live sets now.
Also the back half is just fine as well, so get off my case, but man, that front half is killer.
Pop the champaigne, this shit is done
We’ve made it to the end, and honestly I don’t have any grand or profound statement to wrap this year up with. I’m just happy you all made it to the final weeks with me and I hope you’re all staying safe around this time. 2020 wore on all of us and it’s likely going to continue doing so well into 2021, though on the metal side of things it seems like the release slate is already starting to fill up and they’re hoping to have concerts again, which is something I can’t even fathom right now. That is all very exciting.
Considering how many bands I recognized that released music this year, perhaps 2021 will be one of those years where I have the free time to discover a bunch of new stuff and truly bring some surprises to the table come year-end time. 2021 will also – I think – mark ten years at the site, so that is another huge milestone I’m looking forward to hitting. I promise you, whatever I do there, it’ll fall well within the boundaries of being profoundly stupid. It’s what I’m here for. And Goatwhore. We’re probably due to hear from them again, that’ll hopefully be fun.
That said, it feels like I say this every year and I’m not about to stop now. I told 2019 to do so and you damn well better believe I’ll tell 2020 to do so: Get Fucked. See you all next year. I love you.
Except for you, prick. You know what you did.