(This is Part I of a “Top 20 of 2020” year-end list compiled by NCS writer Gonzo. It counts down from No. 20 through No. 11, and in Part II we’ll have the top ten.)
If nothing else, 2020 has proven to us that there’s no force in hell or on earth that can stop the gods and lesser idols of metal from cranking out quality material.
Musically speaking, 2020 surprised the shit out of me. When the world came to a grinding halt in March, I was all but certain that creating a “Top 20” or “Top Anything” list come December would be a depressing exercise. Bands were going to stop touring. Gigs were canceled worldwide. And with everything looking so grim and uncertain, I was bracing myself for a down year in metal.
In this case, I was happy to be wrong: Apparently, quarantine lent itself to creativity in brutality. Paired with the litany of political and socioeconomic issues that dominated headlines during this hellish 12 months, it seems plenty of bands drew from a vast pool of inspiration to churn out some seriously impressive work.
Like everyone else here, I didn’t get a chance to listen to everything I probably should have, but here’s the first half of my top 20 picks from the best of a very weird year.
- Cryptic Shift, Visitations from Enceladus
After crawling around the UK underground scene for the past six or seven years, Leeds tech-death crew Cryptic Shift unleashed their first full-length this year. And as far as debuts go, this one absolutely slays.
Full of dizzying fretwork and tempestuous songwriting gymnastics, Visitations from Enceladus packs as much air-tight destruction into four tracks as it can muster. It’s a veritable case study in the best of modern technical death metal. The album wears its influences on its sleeve while still adding a layer of creativity that keeps things sounding fresh and engaging. (Think Vektor-meets-Gorguts-meets-Death.)
Clocking in at just under 47 minutes with just four songs, there’s a lot to unpack with Enceladus. Take it for a spin and get lost in its ominous sonic landscape.
- Sweven, The Eternal Resonance
From the ashes of Morbus Chron came Sweven, the progressive death metal project from Chron mastermind Robert Andersson. To say Sweven picks up where Chron left off would be a good start, but very much only the tip of this jagged iceberg.
Opener “The Spark” takes its time with building the dramatic tension until it effortlessly flows into “By Virtue of a Promise.” It’s not until almost two minutes in that Andersson’s gravely snarl rips a hole in the otherwise tranquil journey on which they’re sending you. The band’s meticulous attention to detail in how they structure each passage creates an experience that’s as mesmerizing as it is addicting, as each new spin of this sucker brings something out that I didn’t notice before. It’s kind of like listening to the audial equivalent of a Terry Gilliam movie.
Sweven is one Swedish trio to keep an eye on. If Eternal Resonance is only their debut, this band gets my vote as one that could pave the way into a brilliant post-death future.
- In the Company of Serpents, Lux
My fellow Coloradans of In the Company of Serpents have been churning out some of the best American sludge for the better part of the past decade, but Lux might be the crown jewel of their catalog.
Rife with just as much angularity as it has grime, Lux takes the best parts of doom, sludge, and stoner metal and throws it into the swampiest-sounding cauldron this side of New Orleans. There’s a bit of Crowbar, a bit of Yob, and a whole lot of bluesy metal originality that makes for the heaviest moments that much heavier. Conversely, the quieter moments do a bang-up job of building tension. Sometimes, the anticipation is almost unbearable. But if there’s one thing In the Company of Serpents does well, it’s hitting the moment when it counts. The way “Daybreak” precedes album highlight “In the Chasm at the Mouth of the All” is without doubt one of my favorite excerpts from any album I’ve heard this year.
- Afsky, Often jeg drømmer mig død
Sometimes, the right music catches your ear at just the right time in your life. If you’re lucky, and if you’re paying attention, said music can be downright therapeutic.
I caught this release by blackened Danes Afksy at such a time this year, as summer was in its death throes in mid-September. The majestic and searingly emotional Ofte jeg drømmer mig død (roughly translated, “Often I dream of my death”) moved me the same way Alcest often does, with sweeping acoustic passages delicately placed between salvos of tremolo-driven blackened fury. Neill Jameson likened this sound to early Drudkh, and I think that’s a spot-on comparison. Something about this record just feels so urgent, so raw, and so necessary. It has moments of intensity that rival anything else I’ve heard this year, and also can seamlessly shift gears into a folky, sorrowful side without sounding the least bit forced.
What I love most about this album, though (and to elaborate on finding this band at just the right time), is the vulnerability in the lyrics and themes throughout. Death, pain, loss, and depression are the heavy hitters here, and the way each of the six tracks are composed takes the listener through a journey that’s fraught with inner demons. (For non-Danish speakers, Google Translate helps.) If you have some of your own demons to deal with, I can’t recommend this album enough.
- Psychotic Waltz, The God-Shaped Void
For a band that hasn’t released any new music since 1996, Psychotic Waltz sound like they never left.
I think it’s fair to say a lot of the metal community forgot about the San Diego prog metal stalwarts in the years since 1996’s Bleeding. While it was a solid album on its own and fairly ahead of its time, it simply pales in comparison to what the band has achieved with The God-Shaped Void. Each of the 11 songs leaves not a second of filler, as the band’s focus allows the album to unfold like a well-told story. Buddy Lackey’s vocal range seems to have only improved during Waltz’s hiatus, and Brian McAlpin’s guitar leads remind us all that he’s up there with John Petrucci as one of the best axe-men in prog.
And for anyone who heard Waltz’s previous work and thought the production value could use a little work, fear not: The God-Shaped Void is damn near perfectly mixed from start to finish. There hasn’t been a whole lot of prog on my radar in recent years – at least, not in the traditional sense – but even if there was, The God-Shaped Void would likely stand just as tall in a crowded space.
- Furnace, Dark Vistas
Roger “Rogga” Johansson has quite the metal resume. Just looking at the number of bands this dude’s spent time ripping apart the Swedish underground with makes you wonder how the hell he has time to eat or sleep.
One of his projects, Swedish death dealers Furnace, even put out not one but two albums this year. Dark Vistas is the latter of the two, and also one of the best goddamn representations of the Swedish underground scene that’s assaulted my eardrums in recent memory.
There’s definitely nothing fancy or even original about Dark Vistas, but it doesn’t need to be. Furnace takes a very tried-and-true death metal formula to craft 11 stellar tracks of mid-paced Swe-death. There’s definitely a hint of early Paradise Lost and even some of the glory days of In Flames that comes to mind when listening to some of them. Check out the infectious “Yog-Sothoth (The Key and the Gateway)” and “94 Bloch Lane” for some of this album’s best moments; the former of which has an absolutely neck-jolting headbanger riff that I still can’t stop listening to.
- The Night Flight Orchestra, Aeromantic
While it might not be a “metal” album in the truest sense of the word, this Swedish supergroup features Bjorn Strid on vocals and Sharlee D’Angelo on bass, so you’re goddamn right I’m including a release as good as Aeromantic here.
And as long as we’re being forthright, I normally shrug at “supergroups” in the first place. Sometimes they’re vanity projects, sometimes they’re just interesting experiments, and sometimes they just really shouldn’t have happened. Not only is The Night Flight Orchestra not any of those things, but they deserve recognition outside the lens of the members’ other projects. On Aeromantic, Strid sings his face off. It’s like you’re listening to the greatest moments from Soilwork’s choruses minus the growls. D’Angelo’s plodding basslines give the underbelly of this rhythm section the teeth it needs, even if it’s not the heaviest thing you’ll hear from this list.
Besides, I’m not afraid to admit that music like this is just fucking fun to listen to. That feeling is palpable throughout Aeromantic as well. You can almost see the smiles on Strid’s face during the chorus of the syrupy grooves of “Curves,” the frenzied pace of “This Boy’s Last Summer,” and the earworm “Divinyls.” Bottom line, it’s just hard to not have a blast listening to this record.
- Sólstafir, Endless Twilight of Codependent Love
The Icelandic space Vikings in Solstafir have gone to a whole new level with this one. I wasn’t totally disappointed by 2017’s Berdreyminn, but I also wasn’t overly wild about it. It had its moments, but the whole thing didn’t feel as cohesive and expansive as, say, 2009’s Kold. (Then again, not much else does.)
What makes Endless Twilight of Codependent Love so astonishing is that feeling of pure encapsulation that Sólstafir is so good at delivering sonically. There are fewer restraints with the music this time out. “Dionysus” even throws a nostalgic shot of the band’s black metal origins into the mix, which was unexpected. But when they’re at their best, that’s what makes this band what they are – their level of creative genius thrives when there aren’t any limits placed on the songwriting. Outside of another assemblage of psychedelic cowboys from the north like Oranssi Pazuzu, Sólstafir is one of the only bands in metal that captures the unique intersection of black metal, post-rock, folk, and even shoegaze into one wholly original and distinctive sound.
Endless Twilight… is a triumphant return to form for the Icelanders. As difficult to describe as it may be at times, it delivers one of the band’s best moments throughout their stellar career.
- Wayfarer, A Romance with Violence
If there’s an American counterpart to Sólstafir, Colorado’s Wayfarer might very well be it.
“Frontier metal” might be the best way to describe their sound, and that descriptor is also the best way to summarize the brilliant A Romance with Violence. Each track unfolds like a progressively more intense spaghetti western, only if Clint Eastwood’s character was inspired by William Burroughs. (I even theorized about what that movie would look like earlier this year.) That added bit of conceptualization brings an unmistakably cinematic edge to the songs, and the folky moments still manage to stay within the blackened landscape painted by the band.
Like something weird you see on a long road trip, this music is hard to categorize but impossible to forget. A Romance with Violence the strongest, most thoroughly badass release Wayfarer has created.
- Countless Skies, Glow
In my unending quest to discover the best melodeath ever recorded, I stumbled into the breathtaking Glow this year.
After hearing it, though, I’ve been wondering how the hell I’ve managed to miss Countless Skies up to this point. Glow is a beautiful, moving, and crushingly heavy release, and that trifecta isn’t always easy to pull off. But, just as Hinayana, Omnium Gatherum and Amorphis have proven time and again, it’s not impossible.
Staring with the triumphant “Tempest,” Countless Skies soars. And, really, Glow is an appropriate title for this album as a whole. It radiates warmth while blasting you with stone-crushing heaviness. It emanates hope while ripping your heart out. It pulls you in and keeps you in the world it creates.
The title track is broken up into three parts to close out the record on a glorious, captivating note. The Opeth worship is pretty evident at times, as I swear I’m hearing the riff to “Grand Conjuration” in there somewhere, but that’s more of an observation than a critique. If you sound good enough to draw Opeth comparisons, you’re at least doing something right. In the case of Countless Skies, it’s one of many things they do right.