(This is Part II of a “Top 20 of 2020” year-end list compiled by NCS writer Gonzo. It counts down from No. 10 through No. 1. You can find Part I here.)
As I’m writing this, there’s less than 12 hours left in 2020, and the existential dread of how fucked up life might be through the first half of 2021 is slowly beginning to creep in. If it wasn’t for music and legal weed, I don’t know where the hell I’d be mentally right now.
But, enough of that. We’re here for the music. My top 10 albums of the year did a damn fine job of lifting my spirits when I needed it and were also malleable enough to wallow in grief and despair with me when appropriate.
While we collectively light a match and throw it into the five-alarm dumpster fire of 2020 without even so much as turning back to look at the explosion, may I present to you my soundtrack of choice for the occasion.
- Ulver, Flowers of Evil
Whatever’s left to say about the evolution of Ulver at this point is 90% a matter of personal taste. And for me, their evolution has been as fascinating as it’s been confounding.
Call it dark synthwave, call it sinister Depeche Mode, call it “nightmare pop” or whatever inventive descriptors you want, but Flowers of Evil is a mesmerizing listen. Even some of the most diehard brutal death metal buffs I know can’t help but succumb to the addictive bliss that is “Machine Guns and Peacock Feathers.” Relevant lyrics, Kristoffer Rygg’s unmistakable croon, and hypnotic synths are just brilliantly orchestrated – both on that track and the rest of the album.
It might not be a metal album in the purest sense of the word, which would ordinarily prompt me to omit it from a list like this. But, fuck it. 2020 was anything but normal, and few soundtracks were more appropriate to this timeline than Flowers of Evil.
- Long Distance Calling, How Do We Want to Live?
As far as instru-metal goes, it doesn’t get much better than this. Long Distance Calling originally caught my attention in 2010 when they put out a darkly chilling single called “The Nearing Grave” with Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse handling vocals. How Do We Want to Live? surprised me when it just suddenly appeared on my Spotify one dark day this year, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Expansive, chilling, and powerful, these German maestros have crafted a unique piece of work that deserves attention. There are loud moments, there are soft moments, there are some moments in between, but all of them are captivating. When spoken-word additions are thrown into the mix, they paint a very dystopian, post-human portrait that fits the mood perfectly. This effect helps each track flow seamlessly into the next, and every moment feels urgent and timely.
- Unleash the Archers, Abyss
There was a time in my life where I would binge on power metal. Stratovarius, Crimson Glory, and hell, even Hammerfall and Kamelot were on heavy rotation. But that was a long time ago, and most power metal I hear these days tends to bring a nostalgic smirk and not much else.
That’s decidedly not the case with Unleash the Archers. The Canadian powerhouse has delivered an epic piece of work with Abyss. It’s a triumphant, soaring 56 minutes that plunges the listener into a conceptualized world led by the commanding vocal performance of Brittney Slayes and the monstrous fretwork of Grant Truesdell and Andrew Kingsley. Hell, while we’re giving credit, Scott Buchanan’s drumming is equally impressive; if nothing else, just to keep up with the furious tempos and riffs found in each of these 10 tracks.
If I were fucking lazy and, dare I say, less cultured, it would be easy to call Unleash the Archers “Lacuna Coil on steroids,” but I’m not, and they’re so much more than that. Every song blasts so much passion and energy that this album could be used as a remedy for clinical depression. (I speak from experience there.) “Through Stars,” “Legacy,” and “Carry the Flame” are some of the best examples of modern power metal you’re likely to hear anywhere.
- Novarupta, Marine Snow
It’s rare that a band can package sludge, post-rock and death metal into six tracks with six different singers and make it feel this cohesive.
Marine Snow is a diverse, experimental offering that runs the gamut of heavy music. It feels downright weird at times, almost like you’re listening to a smattering of early Isis, A Storm of Light, and Red Sparowes that’s been thrown into a blender with about 50 mg of psychedelic mushrooms. Hard to describe? Yes, it is, but it manages to stay on course while drifting in several different directions.
For me, the highlight here is the crushingly heavy “No Constellation” that features the demonic growls of Inter Arma’s Mike Paparo. I’d even argue that the musical backdrop provided by Novarupta fits his vocal style even better than his fulltime gig with his fellow Virginians, but that’s another debate for another time. You should listen to Marine Snow and lose yourself in its wholly original heavy madness.
- Dark Tranquillity, Moment
I’ve been a fan of the Swedish melodeath masters since Skydancer, but I haven’t been overly impressed with what they’ve put out since about 2010. Atoma had some really solid moments, but its predecessors were kind of forgettable, if we’re being honest.
The good news is Moment is so fucking amazing that it makes you forget about all of that. Maybe it’s Martin Brandstrom’s unique and irreplaceable layers of “adventure music” synth, maybe it’s Chris Amott’s leads, maybe it’s Mikael Stanne’s best vocal performance since Character, but Moment just absolutely slays. Each song leaves not a moment of filler to be found; no extra fat permeates the structure of anything they’ve crafted here. From the darkness of “Phantom Days” to the infectious riffage of “Transient” to the anthemic “Eyes of the World,” every track has its own identity. Identical to none, you might even say.
It may have taken the band longer than they’d have liked to release Moment, but now that their moment has come, it’s a testament to the evolution of Swedish death metal, and Dark Tranquillity is still one of the torchbearers.
- Marche Funebre, Einderlicht
Hitting that doom-death sweet spot is hard to nail, but few are doing it quite as well as Belgium’s Marche Funebre.
Einderlicht is a powerhouse of a record. Leading off with a 10-minute track like “Scarred” is quite the demand of a listener, but when it’s performed this well, time doesn’t matter. With a gentle but ominous guitar intro, the band prefers to ease things in rather than bludgeon the shit out of you from the start.
But as soon as things shift, they shift – heavily. Think early Paradise Lost merging with December Noire and Barren Earth. The tracks are stuffed with intricate melodies under a massive wall of sludgy death/doom that reminds me of the tapes I used to trade before the internet and streaming services made all of this shit way too easy. Then again, in a world that makes albums like Enderlicht more accessible than ever, maybe I’ll put away my “get off my lawn” exterior and just appreciate that I found this album to be the bright spot that it is.
And with Enderlicht translating to “the light at the end,” that’s an appropriately poetic metaphor.
- Paradise Lost, Obsidian
In several ways, Obsidian is a really similar album to Enderlicht. Hell, the opening tracks on both albums are basically carbon copies of each other. Given the wild career path of Paradise Lost, though, the release of Obsidian made me wonder which side of the band we’d see in 2020.
After putting it on heavy rotation for the greater part of the past six months, I can say with confidence that I think it’s the strongest thing they’ve released since 2009’s Faith Divides Us, Death Unites Us. It takes everything that’s made them the pioneers of doom since the late ’80s and excels magnificently. For me, Medusa and The Plague Within were good, but not great. Too many forgettable tracks, not enough standout moments. Obsidian is basically the opposite of that.
Maybe it’s Nick Holmes’ time in Bloodbath that helped him get back to his Gothic roots, but his dynamic, powerful range is showcased exceedingly well throughout Obsidian. “Forsaken” just about hits every high point of the band’s storied career, while closer “Defiler” is one of the heaviest, nastiest, and most thoroughly satisfying tracks I’ve heard from them in, well… ever?
- Napalm Death, Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism
Plenty of other scribes across seemingly every fucking publication about heavy music have made lots of noise about the UK grind lords’ 2020 release, but, let me just quantify the hype for a second –
Yes, it really is that good.
Admittedly, grind really isn’t my thing. I treat it more of a novelty than anything else. Granted, it’s high on the list of “fuck the establishment” forms of sonic art, and for that, I’ll happily channel my 20-year-old self and jump in the proverbial pit while waving a middle finger in youthful defiance. But, holy fucking shit, Throes of Joy… shreds so hard it could peel the paint off of a howitzer.
When live gigs start back up again and Napalm Death blasts out “Backlash Just Because” in front of a sweaty crowd in some shitty piss-soaked venue in whatever corner of the world they’re playing, the ensuing mosh pit during the breakdown will probably rip a hole in the stratosphere. And that’s just one track out of 14 others that pack enough vitriol and concentrated bursts of pure “fuck you” as anything you’ll hear this year. Barney Greenway has turned in the death metal vocal performance of the year on this one, through and through.
There’s just so much to say about Napalm Death’s back catalog as a whole and how influential it’s been for a legion of copycats, but they’ve taken it to new extremes on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism. 2021 will be their world. We’re just living in it.
- Eternal Champion, Ravening Iron
If “trad” is making a comeback, then Eternal Champion should immediately be handed the torch and told to march forth.
We could sit here and talk about the razor-sharp musicianship, the perfect mix, the fist-pumping vocals, or any number of other top-notch qualities you’ll hear throughout Ravening Iron, but one thing stands out to me more than anything else –
It’s just so goddamn fun to listen to.
It harkens back to a simpler time, when you’re sitting in your room by yourself with a pair of gigantic headphones plugged into a record player, reading a copy of Metal Maniacs while counting down the days until you get to see Iron Maiden live for the first time. The opening track alone on Ravening Iron captures everything nostalgic we love about metal and throws it into 2020, gimmicks and extra flash be damned.
While vocalist Jason Tarpey does resemble a Conan the Barbarian extra who also happens to forge his own iron (literally), it fits the music and atmosphere of his band perfectly. If you do nothing else with this band, just put on “Skullseeker” once. If you’re not hooked on this, I have no idea how else to revive your shambling corpse. At least I tried.
- Elder, Omens
Through all the heavy, the hard, the weird, and the unpredictable, one album has stood on its own in 2020 as something I can point to and say, “this music is flawless.”
It’s a bold, perhaps overly generous statement to lay on any piece of music, yes. But what Elder have pulled off with Omens is something so uniquely special that it’s deserving of such praise. It’s by no means the heaviest thing you’ll ever hear, and maybe not even the most attention-grabbing on its first spin.
What it is, though, is something more than that. It’s less a result of the creativity of four musicians (five, if you count the guest keyboards from Fabio Cuomo) and more of a single, conscious entity crafting truly hypnotic and amazing sounds. Everything throughout Omens is produced with the attention to detail that Opeth exhibits while powering it with the soul of classic ’70s-inspired rock. It has moments of psychedelia laced in for good measure, and even gets fairly jam-tastic at times, but it never loses its way. Music like this easily runs the risk of being way too idealistic for its own good, but that’s never the case here.
Consisting of only five songs, only one of which clocks under the 10-minute mark, Elder have hit their creative and stylistic peak. Put it on, sit back, and let this amazing record take you for a ride into better times ahead.