Best of 2020: Chris’s Honorable Mention List

Best of 2020

It’s the beginning of the end. Of the year. This shitty, terrifying, mind-screw of a year. But you know what?  It’s also the beginning of list making, which by now (if you’ve been reading me over the last four years) you realize I relish even as I qualify and condition every list I make.  As per usual I kicked it off with a list of great albums that  – for various reasons – didn’t make my main lists, but that didn’t make them any less special.  Every album does that for me: even the ones I don’t connect with tell me something about how I connect with music, and sometimes that’s just as important as finding an album that does make that connection.

It seems silly to call this an Honorable Mention list.  It’s not: it’s really just more of my favorite metal albums of 2020.  Last year I said that you could consider these all tied for #26 on my list, or even bumped up to #1 depending on the day.  If this year has taught me anything it’s that everything is mutable, rankings live for a specific moment of time and then fade into the ether as new stimulus occupies our minds, ears, and eyes.  I still love it, and will do it until my dying breath, but I don’t worry as much about it.  Why worry when the beautiful fact is all of these albums impacted me, left their impression, and stand out as a singular achievement whenever I put them on?

Enough talk.  Let’s rock.

The Outer Circle

Honorable Mentions

audn - vökudraumsins fangi

I caught up with Vökudraumsins Fangi from Iceland’s Auðn soon after I finished my annual Blood Red marathon, and it hasn’t left my rotation since.  I’m finding my relationship to black metal constantly changes, and even though certain bands and albums can touch the same points and result in similar executions, one will just “hit” more than another.  And that’s definitely the case here.  Tracks like the brutal opener “Einn um alla tíð” are filled with subtle touches in the fantastic production that allow the song to breathe and climb to dramatic heights.  The same song in one moment can calm me down or raise my blood to boiling, and for a band to do that with the same riff is something special.

Bütcher - 666 Goats Carry My Chariot

I wrote about the wicked old-school punk of Bütcher back in January when their new album, the awesomely titled 666 Goats Carry My Chariot burned its way into my brain, and every time I put it back on I’m immediately banging my head and living inside that reverb.  The way the bass stands out on “Iron Bitch” combines with killer solos to bring Di’Anno era Iron Maiden to mind, even as the screamed vocals recall something more raw and evil.  The frantic speed and urgency of songs like “45RPM Metal” and “Sentinels of Dethe” give the impression Bütcher can only go at one speed, but then you have the massive epic title track which, admittedly, also kinda barges ahead at one speed, but carries enough twists to make this one of the most fun albums of 2020.

Cult of Lilith - Mara

Thank the gods for our own Buke, who turned me on to Cult of Lilith after his interview with vocalist Mario Infantes earlier this year.  debut full length Mara runs the gamut of death, symphonic, progressive, black and even moments of electronic/industrial, but it is first and foremost metal as f–k (though Mario would prefer “Necromechanical Baroque”).  The instrumental twists songs like “Purple Tide” take are mesmerizing as the band makes each odd choice marry seamlessly into each composition, allowing the song to reign rather than the individual performances – all of which are excellent.  I’m also a sucker for the varied vocal delivery.  Mara is a serious rager, one I’m still finding new things in months later. 

Deathwhite - Grave Image

Another 2020 discovery for me, despite the band putting out the excellent For a Black Tomorrow in 2018, was Pennsylvania’s Deathwhite.  I mention the Pennsylvania part because my first listen to sophomore album Grave Image had me convinced these folks were rubbing shoulders with Katatonia in Sweden or even My Dying Bride in the UK.  Taking melodic, gothic doom to unassailable heights (and yeah, touching on much of the same elements as the aforementioned bands) there’s a throbbing pulse embedded in tracks like “In Eclipse” and late mood stomper “Plague of Virtue” that even on this bright December afternoon the second I press play on the album the rain starts to fall.  Also that bass tone….masterful. 

Deeds of Flesh - Nucleus

It’s a rare band that can get me even a little excited for technical death metal.  For every great album, there are at least 20 that fail spectacularly.  Keep your Obscuras, your Revocations, your Hate Eternals…give me Deeds of Flesh and we’ll call it even.  After the tragic death of vocalist/guitarist/songwriter and Unique Leader founder Erik Lindmark, it was a question if the band would ever release anything again.  Seven years feels like an eternity since Portals to Canaan, but Nucleus is so good it makes you forget any time has gone at all.  The spirit of Landmark is all over the album, and as our own Ian remarked in his review, Nucleus masterfully mixes both old and new school death metal technicality to craft a banger of a death metal release.   Fretboards are completely annihilated on tracks like “Alyen Scourge” and “Races Conjoined” and the mix of guest vocalists bring a zest and vitality to a record I was already primed to love.

Fuck the Facts - Pleine Noirceur

Here’s where it starts:  if I had a few more weeks with this album, you would definitely see it on the main EOY list.  It’s been a few years since Canadian grind legends Fuck the Facts have released a full-length, but like everything they do, when they finally get something out, it blows your mind.  Pleine Noirceur immediately challenges the assumptions of what a grind album should be with the almost 7-minute opener “Doubt, Fear, Neglect” which injects atmospheric solos, synths, and blasts to construct an emotionally crippling journey to kick off a dozen songs that each rip the flesh from your body.  There might not be a better bass song on an album this year (well, maybe my album of the year, but you’ll have to wait until next week for that) that the opening of “Aileurs,” and when the band continues to stretch their legs, as they do on the exquisite “Everything I Love is Ending” the results are devastating.  Writing about Pleine Noirceur here is just more evidence that ranking means nothing, because as the sound washes over me there is no better album than this one, at this moment in time.

Green Carnation - Leaves of Yesteryear

I still remember the first time I heard Light of Day, Day of Darkness, the 2001 single track opus from Green Carnation.  Its passages wormed their way into my brain, the repeated motifs and riffs becoming a soundtrack to the life of a 28-year old getting his act together to move to the city and get married.  Despite really enjoying 2005’s The Quiet Offspring it wasn’t enough to keep the band in my thoughts as life, the universe and everything took over.  So I don’t know what I was expecting when Leaves of Yesteryear started getting tongues wagging around the metal community (including ours).  I certainly wasn’t expecting to be as enamored of new tracks like “Sentinels” or “Hounds” or the steller title track, all of which rock heavier than the band has in ages.  But it’s the re-imagining of “My Dark Reflections of Life and Death” that brings those 2001 memories back to me, and hear a band revitalized and ready to bring their unique and somber sound back to the masses.

judicator - let there be nothing

There’s power metal, and then there’s Judicator.  With each release Tony Cordisco and John Yelland continue to expertly balance speed, aggression, and righteous power with flawless execution, and as I stated in my review Let There Be Nothing feels like a band at the very top of their game.  Reaching back to the heaviness of their earlier work, you can hear the DNA of all the band’s influences, from the galloping riffs of Iron Maiden and Blind Guardian to more extreme examples like Opeth.  “Gloria” is a rallying call to the wonders of their ability to encapsulate everything into a sharp, succinct tune, and the fuller band presence gives even more weight and majesty to epic tracks like “Amber Dusk.”  Make no mistake: if I were still doing the Power Metal Album of the Month, this would be my Power Metal Album of the Year. Not even close… 

rip - dead end

I invite you to experience Dead End, the full-of-thrills full-length from Portland Oregon’s R.I.P. the way I did if possible: knowing absolutely nothing.  See the album cover, with the white gimp mask, the way the gold choke collar matches the gold teeth.  Listen to the John Carpenter inspired first track “Streets of Death” and get even more confused.  Then get whiplash when the drums to “Judgement Night” kick and fall blissfully into the face-punching, bottle throwing throwback metal of a band that is having all the fun knocking you to the dirt.  The scuzzy production is perfect, making everything feel filthy even as you realize those riffs are razor sharp and prone to slicing.  I’ve kicked myself for not knowing R.I.P was around since 2016 to hit me with some rumbling rock and have gone back to both their debut In the Wind and 2017’s Street Reaper but Dead End is an altogether bigger, burlier beast. 

Rope Sect - The Great Flood

The whole “death rock” thing is starting to get crowded, but when you’re injecting a level of post-punk and gothic gloom like Rope Sect are on The Great Flood I’m all in.  Vocally, there are shades of Joy Division but musically tracks like “Rope of the Just” and “Hiraeth” recall that same vibe mixed with more violent rock and roll: think what The Wraith did last year on Gloom Ballet, but more desperate and hopeless.  It feels of the 80s without being overly slavish to it, and there’s a sinking vibe of despair to the songs that just feels like the heaviest blanket on a cold winter day.  The Great Flood is an album to get lost in, to sink beneath the waves and sleep between its leaden notes.

Stormkeep - Galdrum

I had no idea that if you mix members of Blood Incantation and Wayfarer you would get Stormkeep, but now that I do know, I am very, very happy.  Galdrum is old school black metal done to perfection: sweeping tremolo leads, keyboard breaks that deepen the mood instead of break away from it, and icy riffs for miles and miles.  The production is just lo-fi enough to evoke the flavor while allowing everything to sound utterly fantastic.  It’s almost impossible to choose between the four tracks we have been gifted with, but if you can’t hang with the wicked pulse of opener “Glass Caverns of Dragon Kings” then we can’t be friends.  Regrets?  yeah, I have a few: I found about them too late to grab a vinyl so had to settle for the CD (long live physical media!), and I had already finished my EOY list to make a change and put them on it.  So look out when I do the inevitable follow-up “Mistakes Were Made” post and put Stormkeep where they rightfully belong, but I love Galdrum that much.

Ulcerate - Stare Into Death and Be Still

Well, well, well…if it isn’t the Nine Circles 2020 Album of the Year…and it’s in my Honorable Mentions list?  Sometimes that’s the way the ball bounces.  Which is no slight to Ulcerate, who are going to be getting massive amounts of love on other lists both here and elsewhere (it already got a lot of love in our review).  Stare Into Death and Be Still is the band stepping up and laying claim to the crown of modern, technical, progressive death metal that really suffocates you with its thick, complex mix of musical ideas.  Songs like “Exhale the Ash” and the title track are filled with so many ideas it becomes dizzying, and the fact that all of this is never lost in the mix is a revelation.  There are moments when the tempo slows down and allows the space to give the impression of escape, only to close in again and envelop you in its folds.  Stare Into Death and Be Still is masterful death metal that bands will be chasing to emulate for some time.

vile creature - glory, glory!

If this isn’t the Album Art of the Year, you folks are doing it wrong.  This is also the year I could no longer keep my appreciation of Vile Creature at arm’s length; Glory! Glory! Apathy Took Helm! forces you to examine yourself as closely as the music Vic and KW pour forth.  I tried to capture this sense in my review and failed; I’m happy to fail again as I attempt to explain that no other album came close to laying open its flesh and invited me to find the beauty in its filth.  But if you prefer, you can (try to) lay all of that aside and simply revel in some of the best doom put forth in years.  This is a monumental step forward from the band’s previous offerings, and from the opening moments of “Harbinger of Nothing” to the sweeping finale of “Apathy Took Helm!” Vile Creature have crafted a singular, cohesive experience that is like nothing else that came out this year.

___

Even if Calgary’s Wake didn’t release their mesmerizing Confluence EP back in October, they would still be etched in stone on this list for the dynamic and brutal Devouring Ruin.  For years the band has been finding ways to mix black and death metal with post hardcore and more expressive elements, and listening to the ringing chords of “Kana Tevoro (Kania! Kania!)” against the blast beasts and bottomless rasp of vocalist Kyle Ball I’m pretty sure they found the perfect mix.  In some ways they’re treading the same earth as Ulcerate, but there’s a fragility to the madness of tracks like “Mouth of Abolition” and “Disparity and Chaos” from Confluence that keep my ears straining to get deeper and deeper into the notes, to hear air between the vibrating frequencies.  Wake were always a great band, but I wasn’t prepared for how much these two releases were going to stay in my rotation this year. 

xazraug - unsympathetic empyrean

Colin Marston might have been the business guy in metal in 2020…I can’t even recall all the releases he put out in one name or another.  But I do know that out of all of them, Xazraug was the one that immediately grabbed me and refused to let go.  Unsympathetic Empyrean is deep, thick, and gorgeous black metal.  Rich and complex with a heavy dose of ambience and dissonance, it’s easy to get lost in the rolling guitar lines of “Relentless Ignorance” or the buzz attack of “Grim and Unhallowed Entitlement.”  The more I listen the more I find, and that’s rare enough in any genre of music. 

15 albums that at any given moment propel themselves to the front of the list for 2020.  I feel like with some of these albums I’ve yet to even scratch the surface, and yet what I have found within the crooks and corners of all this has more than sustained me in a year of utter ruin and despair.  That’s all I can ask of music this year; it’s all I can ask of any music any year.

Help me survive.  Help me see another day.  

These album did that.

Keep it heavy, and I’ll see you next week with the final 25 of 2020.

– Chris


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