Well, here we go again: For the 12th straight year I present my list of the preceding year’s Most Infectious Extreme Metal Songs.
I’m going to dispense with repeating the operative definition of what I think makes a song “infectious”; if you’re encountering this series for the first time, go here to see that. But I will remind you what I do to compile the list, and why I currently have no idea how long it will be, or precisely when the rollout will end — which has been true in nearly every other year when I’ve done this.
As before, the universe of songs I’ve considered includes a list of candidates that I began making at the start of 2019 and continued expanding as the year progressed. It also includes every suggestion made by our readers in response to my invitation, in the comments to this post. It also includes recommendations from my colleague DGR, who is the only staff writer who usually makes suggestions each year, though I might still get some from Andy this year. When you add up my own ideas, those of our readers, and those from DGR, the universe of candidates includes songs from more than 400 bands.
Interestingly, but not atypically, only 36 bands showed up three or more times, and only 11 songs were mentioned more than twice (as it happens, two of the three songs I’m rolling out today were among those 11). So there’s obviously a tremendous amount of scatter in what people found most infectious in their playlists, but that’s a sign of just how vibrant and creative underground metal turned out to be in 2020, though it does make my job harder.
Now, to be clear, what I’ll be choosing in this list (as always) isn’t the result of a vote or any other kind of popularity contest. It’s my own personal list, and so only I can be blamed for any shortcomings. On the other hand, I do pay attention to all the suggestions, including the many songs in the universe of candidates that I didn’t manage to hear until I started working on this. And one other thing I try to do is provide genre diversity, so that the list becomes a way of summing up and remembering the year that’s just ended.
Finally, although you’ll see some “big names” represented on the list (including in this first Part), and excerpts from some records that made a lot of year-end best-album lists, I’ve also made a conscious effort to recognize music from much more obscure artists and labels around the world, because our site has always been devoted to spreading the word about music that needs more recognition, more so than singing the praises of music that every other metal site in creation is already spotlighting.
As for what songs will come after today, I have only a partially formed idea. As of today, I’ve planned out Part 1 through Part 12, which is actually further ahead than I usually am at this point. Because the candidate list is so massive, and because I’m still only part-way through thinking things over, I’m not sure how long the list will be. I will post an installment every day or two, sometimes with two tracks per day and sometimes more, and will make myself stop by no later than the end of February. Hopefully you won’t lose interest before then, but that’s out of my hands. Needless to say, I’m rolling out the songs in no particular order.
And now on to the first three selections…
Enslaved‘s 2020 album Utgard seemed to produce mixed reactions, even among die-hard fans of this groundbreaking band. Our own Andy Synn, for example, wrote in his review:
“The fact of the matter is that, regardless of what you might have seen/heard elsewhere, the band’s fifteenth(!) album is a bit of a mixed bag – sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating, occasionally phenomenal – which seems, to me at least, to find the band stuck in a transitional form…. I’d say that Enslaved have never done a “bad” album, and that streak is still alive today, as although Utgard isn’t their best, or most consistent, release, it’s one that may well prove pivotal in laying the groundwork for the next stage of the band’s career, while also providing some killer tunes of its own too.”
Among the killer tunes, “Homebound” is certainly a standout. Not surprisingly, it was the first single released from Utgard. As I wrote after I first heard it: “The song includes many contrasts — between Grutle Kjellson‘s harsh snarls and drummer Iver Sandøy‘s soaring singing, between the neck-slugging opening riff and rocking beat and the battering and swarming sections that trade places with that, between the blaring chord pulses and the fluid beauty of the guitar solo… and like the flashing storm clouds in the accompanying video, the music becomes panoramic and glorious.”
It’s a song that has stayed with me, and many other listeners, and so it earned its place here.
As an immediate demonstration of what I wrote in the introductory section above, my second choice for this list is by a band whose name recognition isn’t nearly at the level of Enslaved‘s. But the power of their music is tremendous, and their profile has justly risen on the strength of their 2020 album, Sternenberster (which was picked up for a reissue by Prophecy Productions).
At our site, the album was the only one that appeared on both Andy Synn‘s Personal Top 10 and his list of 2020’s Great Albums. Among the many words he spilled about the record over the course of those posts and others were these:
“With every electrifying riff, every nimble, punky bass-line, every skittering blastbeat and every ragged, snarling vocal, Sternenberster positions itself as an album for the outsider, even within a scene of outsiders. It’s an album that stands, loud and proud, on its own feet – while also standing on the shoulders of giants – and which speaks with no other voice but its own, an album from a band who are clearly more than willing to remain the black sheep of the Black Metal scene as long as it allows them to walk their own path.”
My own enthusiasm for Sternenberster equaled Andy‘s, and although a great album doesn’t necessarily include any highly infectious songs, this one does. And in my mind, “Brand Am Firmament” is the most contagious of them all. In his review, Andy called this song a “whirling dervish”, and it is. It blazes like a racing bonfire, and the drumming is off-the-hook. As if the intensity weren’t sufficiently white-hot already, the vocals are amazingly impassioned, and the fantastical flickering leads propel the song to even greater heights of wild exultation. There does come a point near the end when the song radically transforms, giving way to vibrant, folk-inflected acoustic strumming, which seems to signify that Ruhsuz Cellât still holds dear his Turkish homeland.
This is a track I’ve returned to a lot since first discovering it, and that’s a good sign that it belongs on this list.
I gave this Norwegian band’s 2020 album Viperous a far-too-brief review here back in March, a review that included these enthusiastic words:
“Cool use of electronics in the opener ‘Winds of Dysphoria’ before the lights-out drumming, viciously roiling, slashing, and pulsing riffage, and barbarian-at-the-gates vocals take over. With that huge adrenaline rush of a track as the launching pad, Vredehammer‘s latest album rampages through eight more tracks of high-octane, highly addictive, black/death metal, with well-placed segues into passages of grandiose atmospheric melody and further use of synth and electro accents to very good effect. The drumming steals scene after scene, but the rest of the band hold their own, creating a near non-stop powerhouse of turbine-driven bombastic sound”.
I concluded my write-up this way: “Big question about which of these tracks will wind up on the 2020 Most Infectious Song list mentioned above (which will not be the first time Vredehammer have made one of those lists), but I’m confident one of them will”.
And indeed, one of them has. Rather than spend too much time wrestling over which one it would be, I chose a track that happened to be among those 11 songs that were mentioned in my massive combined candidate list more than twice. Its very fitting name is “Aggressor“: