Nine Circles ov…What Didn’t Make My 2020 End of Year List…(But Could Have)

Next week I’ll be posting Part 1 of my annual glut of end of year posts, but there’s usually so much I enjoyed I like to spread the wealth a little bit and put some beloved but odd-man-out entries out there for you to consider.  In a dumpster fire of a year like 2020, putting anything out is kind of a miracle, but the amount of quality music – let alone metal – is kind of astounding. It served as a balm when I needed to calm down, as an ignition switch when I needed to get fired up, and as a wail of despair when I didn’t think I could take much more of what life was throwing at me.

So similar to years past, any one of these could have made my final list.  Maybe it was a lack of time, maybe it was something that stood as a taste instead of a meal…maybe it’s just that what I needed was served elsewhere.  Doesn’t make this list any less righteous.  So for this edition of Nine Circles ov…, let’s stop talking and get into the good stuff.

asunojokei - wishes ep

I’m always ready for a new release by Japanese band Asunojokei, but I wasn’t prepared for their new EP Wishes, which literally released last Friday. It takes their usual approach of deftly mixing scream, black metal, shoe gaze and hardcore and traveling into ethereal, prog-like territories.  Songs like “I Won’t Pray Anymore” reach into Alcest melody even as it segues into brutal black metal.  Its recent release combined with the fact I decided against EPs on my proper list are what place it here, but I know Wishes is something I can’t wait to spend more time with.

Cirith Ungol - Forever Black

Dang, this one’s on me, folks.  I gave Forever Black, the long-awaited comeback album from heavy metal veterans Cirith Ungol in almost 30 years a quick listen back when it came out in April, but my promise to dig deeper got waylaid as the crush of new releases continued.  I didn’t get to it until last week and HOLY CRAP this thing rocks with holy fire.  Songs like “Legions Arise” and “Frost Monotreme” blaze with a raw, almost primitive fire, but the riffs are pure lightning as the band moves from doom to power to traditional heavy metal and show bands half their age how to do it right.  The guitars sound like they’re cutting through steel, and Tim Baker’s vocals?  Pure heavy heaven.

couch slut - take a chance on rock and roll

I have had the honor years back before you had to remain 6′ away from others to stay safe to hang out with Megan O. She is incredible and funny and warm and once even sang “Happy Birthday” to me.  I have also had the chance multiple times of seeing the feral essence of Megan on stage with Couch Slut, and it is a primal, earth-shattering experience: one far removed from the drinks, laughter, and warmth.  The fury of Take a Chance On Rock ‘n’ Roll comes closest to the sonic explosion that is the band’s live show, and I think the only reason it’s not in the top 5 of the year for me is that it is SO visceral, so brutal and angry and painful that I could only take it in small doses, lest I fall deeper into black.  I think that’s a roaring success in their books, so I can’t let the year go without remarking on how the 28 minutes contained on this absolute beast of a record is some of the best noise you’ll put in your ear holes.

garden of the ark - stumble into the light

I’m obligated to tell you in full disclosure I am friends and in fact raid virtual goblin dens with one of the members of the NYC noise rock outfit Garden of the Ark.  But I am also obligated to tell you that their debut album Stumble Into The Light sounds like 90s alternative and noise met the doom and stomp of the 2010s and decided that we needed riffs that were 100 miles high and written in stone.  Using space to punch every instrument directly into your brain I can’t point to anything else I heard this year that gives me Ian MacKaye vibes like “Undone” does.  And MacKaye put an album out this year!  Again: not on my list for the personal connection but consider yourself now enlightened: Garden of the Ark rock serious and hard, and bring the noise rock sound you’ve been craving all this time?  Don’t believe me?  Listen to the opening of “Behind the Bully Pulpit” and tell me I’m a liar.

hellripper - the affair of the poisons

I have no excuse for not being familiar with the black and roll blast that is Hellripper; hell, we even did a profile of him a few years back.  A few weeks ago I was scrolling through YouTube videos and there was one of those “Get Into Black Metal” videos.  Don’t ask me what made me press play; I’m just glad I did because I heard like 30 seconds of Hellripper and immediately dove in to see what I was missing all this time.  Well, if The Affair of the Poisons is any indication, I’ve been missing some of the best speed/punk/black metal this side of early Bathory.  Give me romps like “Spectres Of The Blood Moon Sabbath” with it’s pure rock and roll solo straight out of 80s hard rock and there speed thrash frenzy of late track “Blood Orgy Of The She-Devils” and I am your slave for a lifetime.  This is one of the most fun records I’ve heard all year.

mr bungle - the raging wrath of the easter bunny demo

Is this the best thing Scott Ian’s done in the last 30 years?  I don’t know, but damn if Mr. Bungle aren’t back with a “demo” that not only lives up to the band’s name, but gives everything S.O.D. ever tried to do in the 80s a run for their money, too.  The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny is pure Grade-A thrash with the requisite insanity only someone like Mike Patton can bring.  But the thing that stands out here above all else are the riffs.  Riffs that go for miles, and feel like the best stuff you remember from your childhood.  Granted, a childhood where you were battered, beaten, and left to play with matches in the abandoned housing project that never got finished, but that’s where you make the best memories, right?

Nero di Marte - Immoto

There must be something in the water over in Italy…Nero di Marte are taking elements of post, death, and black metal and throwing a dramatic avant-garde sheen over the proceedings that has the attack and complexity of Imperial Triumphant but with a more spiraling chaos that feels distinctly old world.  From a production standpoint Immoto is one of the best sounding records I heard in 2020 (thanks for the heads up Zyklonius): it’s really hard to take all these seemingly disparate elements and give them the space and time to come together, but that’s just what the album does on tracks like opener “Sisyphos” and the throbbing, wriggling serpent that is “La Casa Del Diavolo.”  Listening back to it now as I write this, I feel like this is going to be another one of those mistakes I made by not putting it on the list proper.  We’ll see…

question - reflections of the void

Death metal didn’t play a huge part of my 2020 listening experience for a number of reasons I’ll get into when my main list drops, but Reflections of the Void, the third full-length from Mexican brutal slayers Question stayed with me after again being highly recommended by the always beautiful Zyklonius.  Marrying old school elements with new school technicality and weirdness, this is technical and progressive without once giving way to the wankery that pervades so much of the genre.  if there’s a comparison to be made, think what would happen if Voivod and Death decided to get a band together.  Tracks like “Beyond Illusions of Existence” and the punchy stomp of “Alone With Everybody” show a willingness to explore and the chops to execute it like few other bands.  Question are a band deserving of a lot more exposure, laying the groundwork for the way death metal can get out of its own way and feel fresh again.

zeal & ardor - wake of a nation

Is “Vigil” the song of the year?  It’s close for me, and in another world Zeal & Ardor are topping my end of year list with an EP.  Turbulent times call for anthems to stand against the tyrants, and the Wake Of A Nation EP might just be the best thing Manuel Gagneux has yet produced.  The only reason I have it here is that I’m assuming everyone else on the planet is going to be talking about it come year end, and I wanted to use that space for a different purpose.

But make no mistake.  This is bar none one of the best releases of 2020: razor-sharp and pointed and vital and angry and a rallying cry to fight the injustice all around you until your dying breath.

There’s more to come in the next few weeks, as I count down my 40 favorite albums of the year.  Plus all the great writers and staff have some amazing picks coming.  All I can do now is repeat the mantra of last year:  keep the sounds coming, and I’ll keep devouring it.  It’s all I know how to do.

Until next time, keep it heavy.

– Chris

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