LISTMANIA 2020: UNDERGROUND METAL FOR THE TRVE CURMUDGEON (BEST OF 2020 EDITION, BY SURGICALBRUTE)
(For the 10th (!) year in a row, we asked our old friend SurgicalBrute to weigh in with his year-end list of favorite albums and/or EPs. As expected, his list adds many names that haven’t appeared before in our 2020 Listmania series, and this year there’s a definite lean into black metal.)
If 2020 had a face, I’d punch it.
Yes…deeply profound, I know, but what do you really expect me to say here? There’s really no point in sugar-coating things, because this year has been an absolute trash fire and we all know it. We’re all tired, we’re all pissed off, and we’re all just hoping that when that ball finally drops on December 31st a message doesn’t appear in the sky saying: “Tutorial completed…prepare for level one”.
Despite everything, or maybe because of it, one of the far-too-few few bright points to come out of this whole mess was the huge number of great metal albums that got released… something I’d say was especially true if you’re a black metal fan. That’s not to say there weren’t great albums coming out across all the various subgenres. I found more than enough from everywhere to make me happy, but as a genre that thrives on expressing negative feelings and emotions, black metal was tailor-made for a year like this and I can only assume the artists who create it must have noticed, because they seemed to have stepped up their game accordingly.
As a result, probably more than any other year-end list I’ve done for NCS, I’m going to end up favoring one subgenre more strongly over all the other styles I tend to enjoy… and I’m still only scratching the surface of the stuff from this year that I’d recommend tracking down.
Now with all that out of the way, same rules as always. No tech, no -core, no prog. Production values are optional, and my taste will always be better than yours… so kick back and enjoy the music. \m/
Afsky – Ofte jeg drømmer mig død (Black Metal)
Most people who have even a basic interest in black metal have probably already heard this album. Atmospheric and melodic, this isn’t the kind of album that rips your face off. If I had to describe it, I think the term “epic” seems most appropriate, as it’s definitely trying to take you on a journey.
Black Curse – Endless Wound (Black/Death)
If you haven’t heard of this one already, then what rock are you living under? Made up of members of Blood Incantation, Spectral Voice, Primitive Man, and Khemmis, pretty much everyone’s been buzzing about this band since they tried to sneak out their demo in late 2019. Fortunately, where most supergroups tend to fall on their faces, the full-length managed to actually live up to the potential, and we got the desired savage attack of chaotic blackened death metal that was promised from the demo.
Cyhyraeth – Unholy Night’s Mischief (Black Metal)
Honestly, I live for exactly this type of black metal. The production is stripped-down and tinny as hell, but the music itself is filled with riffs and melody. Something about that combination just works to my ear. Make sure to grab the demo that came out this year as well.
Fanebærer – Den første ild (Black)
Sticking with that same stripped-down production (you’ll see that phrase a lot today), Fanebærer is a bit more mid-paced and traditional sounding, replacing Cyhyraeth’s melodies with a more punk-oriented approach to the riffs.
Grifteskymfning – Svart Materia and Bedrövelsens Härd (Black Metal)
Okay yeah… I’m cheating a bit here posting two albums at once, but after nearly 11 years since their last full-length Grifteskymfning decides to drop back-to-back albums in 2020?… and they’re both awesome? No way in hell am I choosing between the two of them. Lo-fi, riff-driven, synth-heavy, Swedish black metal, straight from the nineties.
Häxanu – Snare of All Salvation (Black Metal)
Alex Poole is in like a dozen different projects and almost all of them are completely awesome. Häxanu may be more straight-forward than some of them, taking its cues from traditional Scandinavian acts, but that’s really just a baseline that he builds the music on. The first listen is going to grab you, but trust me, do a deep dive on this album because it only gets better with repeated spins.
Herxheim – Incised Arrival (Black/Death)
Howls of Ebb shouldn’t have been a band I liked. I mean, does anything about my list here scream “this guy sure does like weird, experimental takes on blackened death”? Somehow though, I really got into those albums. So, when one-half of the members decided they were going to release an album of more straightforward, primitive blackened death, well, you can bet your ass I snatched that up.
Kommodus – Kommodus (Black Metal)
You all know I’ve been pushing Kommodus for a couple years now, and there’s no doubt this project always fucking delivers. While I’d say the production is still pretty uninviting by most people’s standards, it’s actually been cleaned up a fair bit for the full-length, and damn, does it really matter when the music underneath is this damn cool?
Midnight Dice – Hypnotized (Heavy/Traditional)
For those of you here who actually dig traditional metal, you may remember an absolutely killer release from a few years back by a band named Satan’s Hollow (…and if you haven’t heard of it, go fucking track that shit down right now). Anyway, the band broke up almost immediately after it came out, and it looked like that was that. Here we are now though, three years later, and 4/5ths of the band, including singer Mandy Martillo, are back together releasing new music and damn does it slay.
Mystras – Castles Conquered and Reclaimed (Black Metal)
I have no doubt you’re all familiar with Ayloss’s work on Spectral Lore. I mean, practically everyone is falling all over themselves over the split that came out this year with Mare Cognitum. Well forget all that when you start listening to Mystras, because this project is a completely different beast. The production quality is going to be a lot rougher than what you expect, far more in line with the other albums I’ve talked about here, and the cosmic nature of Spectral Lore is traded in for medieval folk tales. Once you make the adjustment though… well, you’ll probably be stumbling all over this album too.
Medieval Demon – Arcadian Witchcraft (Meloblack)
Hellenic black metal is a style I tend to overlook for some reason. Not because it’s bad or anything stupid like that… it’s definitely not. I think I’ve just become way too used to thinking that black metal equals the Scandinavian sound in my head. The good news is that when a band like Medieval Demon gets on my radar, it makes for a good day. You know the drill here sound-wise… Hellenic black metal tends to be more melodic, more grounded in traditional heavy metal riffing, and carries a strong sense of occult atmosphere, and Medieval Demon has all of that in spades
Mäleficentt – Night of Eternal Darkness (Black Metal)
If you’ve made it this far, I know what you’re probably thinking when you saw the cover for this album…. not more goddamn “raw” black metal. Well jokes on you pal, because this album doesn’t have nearly as much fuzz on it as you were probably expecting. Fast-paced and catchy, with plenty of actual melody, if you’re looking for something a bit more on the traditional side of things, this is probably the best release of the year.
Nekrovault – Totenzug: Festering Peregrination (Death Metal)
Not sure what it is about this year, but when it comes to bands whose demos or EPs I’ve included on previous lists, it sure does seem like a lot of chickens are coming home to roost with them finally dropping full lengths… and yes, this does mean you should be paying damn close attention to the bands I’m mentioning right now. While it’s safe to say that heavy, cavernous sound has gotten overused and stale as hell in recent years, there’s still bands popping up that pull it off in a way that really reminds you why you loved it so much in the first place, and fuck if that’s not what happened right here.
Narzissus – Akt I: Wille and Akt II: Fall (Black Metal)
Yeah… I know, cheating again, but listen to both these EPs and then tell me you’re going to take issue. Narzissus gave a hell of a debut release with Akt I… riffs, melodies, atmosphere, and of all things, some killer fucking drumming. Then, because that apparently was just his warm-up, he popped back up again in the latter half of the year with Akt II, and raised the bar for everyone. If, by the time the last note plays on Akt II, you haven’t bought everything, including the two bonus tracks that were released, then I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave the store.
Nimbifer – Demo II (Black Metal)
Pure early Sargeist worship, and I mean that in the best possible way. Raw and lo-fi black metal, with a still audible bass, this was one of my earliest picks for the year and it held on all the way ’til the end. If you picked up their first demo, this one is actually an improvement in just about every way… and that’s saying a lot considering how good that first release really was. If you haven’t heard of Nimbifer before now, go fucking grab demo’s I and II
Old Nick – Forest of Grief (Black/Synth)
About 90% of you are probably going to hate this, but I swear, the remaining 10% of you are going to think it’s the best thing you’ve heard all year. Intentionally amateurish, no-fi production, and melodies that sound like they’re played on a $50 Casio keyboard, mix with raw black metal in the best kind of way. While Forest of Grief was the album I chose to spotlight, it’s only one of eleven separate releases Old Nick did this year. Some lean more towards dungeon synth, others lean more heavily towards black metal, but no matter what, they’re all weirdly fucking killer.
Oldowan Gash – Hubris Unchained (Black Metal)
Kind of funny how U.S. black metal, always such an afterthought in the metal community, has come on so strong in recent years… and I don’t mean the meandering, naval-gazing, post-black type stuff that seemed to be getting popular in the U.S. a few years back. No, Oldowan Gash is part of what seems to be a growing collection of U.S. artists who make spiteful, nihilistic black metal that creates an atmosphere of contempt for humanity without quite going down the same well-trodden path we’ve heard a million times before… mostly because as nasty as it is, it’s also somehow weirdly victorious sounding.
Ôros Kaù – Imperii Templum Aries (Black/Death)
This was one of those bands I stumbled across because I was bored one night and just clicking around Bandcamp. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can usually get an idea of the type of music a band is going to play just by looking at the cover art, so I had a pretty good idea going in that this was going to be some kind of occult black metal or occult blackened death… and surprise, that’s exactly what it turned out to be. Seven tracks to name and summon demons from hell… and one surprisingly killer Pink Floyd cover, because why not? If you’re familiar with the German band Charon, you’ll have some idea what this sounds like, and whether you might like it.
Siege Column – Darkside Legions (Death Metal)
Siege Column isn’t your stereotypical Old School Death Metal clone. There’s no Swedish HM-2 buzzsaw sound. There’s no cavernous Incantation-core echo. Instead, what we get here is an aggressive, riff-heavy slice of very primitive sounding death metal from the days when metal bands wanted to go faster, sound harsher, and generally be more extreme than the band before them. This one really is a throwback to the early days of death metal.
Sorcier Des Glaces – Un monde de glace et de sang (Black Metal)
These dudes are so fucking consistent it’s actually a bit ridiculous. It becomes even more impressive when you see just how often they drop new releases. Since about 2011 we’ve gotten a new album roughly every two years, just like clockwork, and even at their worst, their brand of Scandinavian-inspired, slightly melodic black metal is still better than 90% of what’s out there, and this particular release is probably one of the best they’ve done since The Puressence of Primitive Forests.
Spectres & Teeth – No Magick Spawns! (Black/Death)
This album has been flying completely under the radar, at least up until now, but damn if I’m not going to make sure people hear about it. It’s got an old school production to it, so there’s a nice thick layer of fuzz over everything, but there’s a lot of dynamic riffing and rhythm changes going on within this album once it gets rolling. The worst part is that, even with six tracks, the damn thing goes by way too fast. Just when you’re really settling into it, it’s over.
Starcave – Final Sins (Atmospheric Black)
I’d heard good things about this album, but it really didn’t click with that first listen. Not that it was bad, I just didn’t get why people were so into it. I came back to it a second time, just because no one’s going to say I didn’t give it a shot, and all I can say is this one is definitely a grower. The back half especially is where this album really starts to shine… slow and rhythmic with riffs that somehow seem to be discordant, but still melodic. Spend some time with this one because it’s totally top-notch.
Vanik – III (Heavy/Speed)
I stumbled onto Vanik a couple years ago with the release of II: Dark Season and thought that album was a total banger. It barely missed my list that time around, and hell, looking back it probably should have been on there. This time around though… no question. Absolutely ripping, riff-heavy, speed metal.
Vacuous – Katabasis (Death Metal)
You know how when you start up a new album, and right when the first note hits you just know you’re onto something awesome? That was how I felt about this Vacuous EP. It’s not so much that they’re doing something so incredibly unique or different with their music. It’s just that it sounds right… it hits you in just the right way, and it scratches that itch perfectly.
Worm – Gloomlord (Black/Death/Doom)
This one actually saw a digital-only release at the very end of 2019, but fuck it… the physical releases didn’t hit until 2020, so as far as I’m concerned it still counts. The earliest efforts released by Worm fell very firmly into the blackened doom category, and they continued in that same vein for several demos. This first full-length though, there’s an obvious shift towards the doom side of things, sometimes bordering on funeral doom, and while the black metal elements aren’t completely gone, they’ve mostly been replaced by a healthy dose of death metal… Completely recommended for lovers of all things slow and crushing
Wow tons to check out here!!!
On behalf of me, I’d like to thank you for being the only commenter on my article. You clearly have great taste.
…but seriously, I hope you find some good stuff here that you like
Well you started it off with Afsky (my AOTY) so I was hooked.
Burning through some as I type and oh boy Oldowan Gash is fantastic! Never saw that release.
Starcave next! Thanks again.
Mine is Kommodus. So the same to me: i’m starving for lo-fi BM and even more chaotic stuff in this plague year so it seems i need at least a couple of weeks to dig your entire list Surgical.
Small tip for the both of you: try Revenant Marquis’ “Youth in Ribbons”. A glorious piece of haunting vampyric BM. My bloodletting cure.
Yes…the whole raw black metal trend has really been scratching just the right itch for me this year. In fact I found enough worthy bands that I could have easily doubled this list, no problem.
Who knows, maybe if I get the urge to stop being a lazy ass I’ll try and do a follow up for it in the next couple of weeks and spotlight a few more bands…
…and thanks for the reco. I’ve heard good things about Revenant Marquis but haven’t given them a spin yet. In return, a couple more you might like…
Vaamatar – Evil Witching Black Metal
Upir – Howling of the Ageless Winds: Hymns for the Black Tapestry of Night
I second the recommendation on Revenant Marquis, and also urge you to give us a follow-up spotlight on more bands (thanks for Vaamatar and Upir, which are new names to me).
Yeah…I’ll start putting some shit together this weekend
Super shit! As always, lots to dig into, but also lots of great stuff I enjoyed the fuck out of. Old Nick has been a riot this year. Its not always what I want to hear, but when I am feeling zany that shit is so good.
So pumped on the new SdG. They knocked it out of the fucking park.
Haxanu was a super treat too. AP just keeps on killing it no matter what form he assumes. He has great talent with him always too.
Taking this Medieval Demon for a spin and yes… This is right up my alley. Herxheim is next up!
Thanks for your time!!! Happy fucking new year!
Thanks man…glad you liked it.
…and yeah I like to mix my EoY picks a bit. I think a nice combination of better known releases and more underground stuff is usually the way to go when putting my final list together. Too obscure and people get put off by not knowing any albums, but too well known and people just kind of skim things because they’ve already seen those releases listed 100 times before
Totally! It’s cool to get that little boost of affirmation from seeing all of your favorite things loved in a more universal way, but its fleeting. What we’re all really after is more songs to fan the flames.
On that note, this Herkheim is a delight! Thanks for the rec!
Very excited to dig in to more of these. I adore that Mystras album and am glad to see it get some well-deserved praise! I am also one of those weirdos who enjoys Old Nick. Pleasantly surprised to see someone else mention it!
Thanks for checking things out….and totally agree about both Mystras and Old Nick. l knew that Mystras album would be on my list the first time I heard it…just clicked with me immediately…and Old Nick is just so weirdly enjoyable. It really shouldn’t work at all, but somehow they pull it off.
…make sure to check out those Grifteskymfning albums is you haven’t already, based on your like of Mystras and Old Nick, you may enjoy those albums as well (He just dropped a 3rd album as well, right around Christmas)
Wow… always looking forward to yours and Professor Grover’s lists . Just going through both your reccos right now.
As usual only ever about heard a quarter of these (Midnight Dice is ace!). And I still have to check the new Vanik I remember liking them in the past.
And finally a Hellenic release (Medieval Demon), I personally prefer the Hellenic style over Scandinavian stuff so that’s a welcome recco. Or lets just say I like a lot of melody that is more in the Hellenic vein (or generally prefer more melody but not too saccharine that it becomes unpalatable)
Fantastic list as always and like a trve curmudgeon. Still going through em all (loved the tracks i listened to from Haxanu, Cyhyraeth and Narzissus . thank you for that.)
On that topic, do you have any death metal reccos from last year? Would love to take them for a spin.
actually Cyhyraeth is blowing my mind. The melody therein is unmistakably American at places- or southern/Appalachian/Americana?
Hey Cain…always good to see you pop up.
I’ve got a couple of death metal albums on this list…Black Curse, Vacuous, Siege Column, Nekrovault, and I’m working on a follow-up article of overlooked albums from 2020 that should have a few more recos on it…but if you really want to stay busy.
..outside of the more obvious stuff like Faceless Burial, Undeath, Sentient Divide, and Undergang, maybe try:
Altar of Gore
Hopefully you’ll like a couple of those
Wonderful! Thanks a ton!
Yes i’m familiar with the obvious ones. But oh boy, I know very little of the extended list that you’ve just typed in, save for maybe Cosmovore and Cosmic Putrefaction.
Mighty thanks there Surgical. This’d keep me occupied for the next few days. Gah! I’ve been under listening for years now.
And yes, definitely looking forward to your overlooked albums piece.