Scholar of the First Sin: Hera’s Best of 2020

Best of 2020

If you remember from last year, I had this to say as I closed my 2019 EOY list:

In the meantime, 2020 looks to be tumultuous as well, but things are looking up, as I have music to look forward to and scream about at some point. Maybe, at the end of the year, I can tell you if I have succeeded in making more selective choices in music.

2020 gave us a roundhouse kick to the collective bollocks, didn’t it? In my case, it kicked me in the face and didn’t let me listen to anything – this pandemic has been bad for my mental health, and it didn’t help that grad school has continued to essentially take all my time and joy away from me. After September of this year, I just went off the radar musically and I found – much to my detriment – that I could only listen to albums I had originally invested a lot of time in. As such, my favorite albums this year are all touchstones of comfort, albums that I enjoyed heavily throughout the year. However, there is an album that made its way through these touchstones and was able to move to a spot that I didn’t think it would reach.

Welcome back to the pit of despair that has exacerbated my depression EOY list season!

Despite a full-blown pandemic and an insane election cycle that resulted in a narrow win for democracy, 2020 still managed to be an impressive year for music in general. The output of music that came out was intense and foreboding, showing us that, even during times of great hardship, confusion, death, and political mismanagement, we still looked to art and music to fill the void in our collective hearts. To this end, I have not listened to as much music as I should have, so expect next year to contain some items from this year as I make my way through it.

Because this is just about albums, there are no EPs here, which means that Wake of A Nation will be something that I discuss as a separate item in a future write-up. I also chose to not include albums that I have written about – except for one, which will become evident when I get to it.

With this is mind, this list is divided into three parts, which are follows:

  • the nebulous, where any of those albums’ placements could be placed anywhere at any time;
  • the hypothetical, where the albums’ placements are more concrete, but can also be moved around; and
  • the theoretical, where the albums’ placements have been solidified.

Some context: I previously submitted a list to 9C earlier for our team list and have since changed some of the placements. Regardless of my choices placed here, two albums will always tie, and the top spot will always change. However, for this list, I have decided that the top spot would go to the album that best encapsulates what a dumpster fire 2020 was. We are being thematic this year!

Here we go!

Part I: The Nebulous

  1. Paradise Lost – Obsidian

I am going to be honest – this is my first Paradise Lost album, so I had no expectations whatsoever. As far as I knew, Paradise Lost is one of those legacy bands that reached a major milestone in their career, and I essentially picked up this album because I was curious enough to listen to it. However, you can say that Obsidian is a good introduction to someone who likes the more modern sounds of gothic metal and enjoyed When a Shadow is Forced into the Light.

This album is great – it has a heavy doom influence that digs its claws into you and lets you know that you are in for the long haul as a wave of despair and sadness falls over you. However, it’s not all hallowed vocals and a heavy drag that feels like Nick Holmes is personally dragging a body to your doorstep. Songs like “Ghosts” and “Forsaken” have a certain catchiness that wouldn’t be out of place at the local goth club, and there is a certain camaraderie that the band has established with their listeners. Obsidian also feels incredibly intimate, as it invites you into the dark side of melancholy and then it envelops you whole. While the dread persists, it is not always at the forefront, which new listeners will be able to handle its somber feel while making you feel like you want to dance.

However, after repeated listens, Obsidian has two main faults: it lacks variety in its instrumentality and flow, and it is incredibly top-heavy. While opener “Darker Thoughts” is a bombastic ripper that impresses the listener, the rest of the album seems to lack that quality, which can make it a tedious listen. Personally, I was counting the minutes until something new and bombastic would play, which I know is the antitheses of doom, but this album clearly dragged. While I did like the album as a whole, I didn’t revisit this album as much as other albums that placed higher on this list. Perhaps Paradise Lost’s back catalogue might have something to offer me, but, for now, I will go ahead and listen to the songs I enjoyed from Obsidian.

  1. Amberian Dawn – Looking For You

For an album that was released in the first month of the year, I am surprised that, despite months of me not listening to it, it still holds up. What surprises me more is that I still know all the words to the record – that’s how heavily stored Looking For You is in my memory bank.

If there is a band who has shown that change is for the better, then look no further than Amberian Dawn and their album, Looking For You. Following from 2017’s Darkness of Eternity, Looking for You is the power metal disco album of your dreams. It has catchy hooks worthy of power metal, the danceability of disco, and the instrumentality of symphonic metal, which all create a compelling, fun album that drove many of my sleepless nights when I was working on homework or during long study sessions. For the most part, Looking for You is a ride from beginning to end, with music that sticks to its themes and doesn’t deviate from its established formula. Hell, the lyrics are so catchy that you will sing along, even if you don’t know all the words. The best part of this album as a whole is how committed Amberian Dawn is to having a good time; the music is bombastic and makes you want to get up and dance, even during the slower parts of the album. They even covered ABBA’s “Lay All Your Love on Me,” which is also an absolute delight. Although this album is less of a metal record and more of a disco revival, Looking For You still holds up and allows for some happy moments, which we all need during this time.

However, Looking For You also suffers from being top-heavy, especially when the first four songs are absolute bangers. Then, you have “Symphony No. 1, Pt. 3: Awakening,” the one of two songs that have a symphonic tonality that in an otherwise disco-heavy atmosphere. While this song is not bad, Fabio Lione’s voice takes me out so hard that it feels like it should have been saved for another album. The other song, “Universe,” also suffers from having that symphonic tonality, and it should have been saved for another album. They just felt incredibly off, and I would skip them in order to get to the other songs on repeated listens. Despite this, Looking For You is a banger and an utter delight, and you all should listen to it if you are looking to have a good time.

  1. Apocalyptica – Cell-0 (pronounced “Cell Zero”)

Just like another album that landed on this list, you guys should already know that Apocalyptica is a band near and dear to my heart, so much so that placing this album in this spot physically hurts me. However, it might have been because I didn’t come back to it as much as I should have.

Cell-0 is the first fully instrumental album since 2003’s Reflections, which, if you ask me, was a long time coming. Although albums since then have been good (with some not being so great), I was hoping that Cell-0 would be an exciting foray into what the cello can do when three experts play it. To that end, it exceeded my expectations: the music on this album was fantastic, somber, and moving, continuing to showcase why Apocalyptica are continued masters in the neoclassical metal genre. For an album that is quieter than, say, Shadowmaker or Worlds Collide, Cello-0 showcases a return to the more orchestral aspects of music, especially since their last major release was their live tour album where they played songs from Plays Metallica by Four Cellos. Here, they show a certain maturity that comes with age and expertise, and on a first listen, the music sticks with you, and it makes you feel the joy that comes with knowing an instrument as intimately as they do. Hell, the album is also incredibly thematic – they start the theme early and they continue to build on it, allowing the pace of the music to ebb and flow until the last note. There are no words to describe what I feel about this album.

However, even with this, Cell-0 suffers from being bottom-heavy, as they placed their three best songs towards the end of the album. Because of its theme, it also tends to be repetitive, especially if you are familiar with the band’s music. There are a lot of sonic references to past albums, such as the music they composed for their Wagner Reloaded show, and there are slight references to one of the few instrumental tracks on Shadowmaker, “Reign of Fear.” While these don’t detract from Apocalyptica’s main theme of connection (and the concept of the God particle), it can make the album a bit cumbersome to sit through, especially if this kind of music is not your thing. However, I invite you to be open-minded and stick around, because Cell-0 is an experience.

Part II: The Hypothetical

  1. Thy Catafalque – Naiv

If you know me, you know that Thy Catafalque is a band that is close to my soul, so, regardless of expectations, Naiv was going to land on this list whether you wanted it or not. Actually, I don’t care about what you want; it was going to be on this list because I love this band – and this album – so very much.

Coming back to this album months after its initial release is like meeting an old friend and having the time to catch up on what is happening, while also feeling that no time has passed since the last time you saw each other. Naiv is one of those albums brought me so much joy in the first quarter of the year that listening to it again was an actual treat. In fact, it got better every time I played it.

I also introduced a friend to this band, and they fell in love with them immediately, so bonus points for me.

With Naiv, Thy Catafalque continues to show their penchant for versatility and sonic expansion without breaking a sweat. Here, the band aimed for a more post-metal outlook while still holding down to their roots in black metal. From the haunting, melodic vocals to the catchy tunes that seemed to float in and out of existence, Naiv is a testament to Tamas Katai’s incomparable work ethic and sheer musicality. It’s difficult to describe just how wonderfully complicated this album, because it experiments with everything and yet it sounds so cohesive. What I love most about this album is that it has references to Katai’s other side project, Neolunar – there is a certain ethereal feel that evokes the displacement of time while encompassing the listener whole. By the time you reach the last track of the album, you can’t help but feel that Thy Catafalque has outdone themselves to deliver an album of this caliber. If you enjoyed 2018’s Geometria, then Naiv is a worthy contender of a follow-up and it makes me wonder what other tricks Tamas Katai and company have up their sleeve.

  1. Delain – Apocalypse and Chill

Someone better start paying Delain royalties every time someone plays this album in its entirety, because that’s essentially what this pandemic was to many of us: apocalypse and chill (as in, chilling in our homes during the initial part of the pandemic).

If you know anything about my musical preference, it’s that I love symphonic metal and anything that has a kickass beat. Apocalypse and Chill is a fantastic follow-up to both 2016’s Moonbathers and 2019’s Hunter’s Moon, the latter of which caused me to think that Delain has written the best melodeath song of that year. On this album, Delain was not afraid to embrace a more nuanced approach to their instrumentality. While still deeply rooted in symphonic metal, Apocalypse and Chill was not afraid to inject pop and melodeath tonalities into its music, albeit with less restraint than what was on Moonbathers. However, it’s not until “Chemical Redemption,” the album’s third track, where the mood shifts to metal and it starts to hit you straight in the gut. From that point forward, you can only sit and listen to the album as it tells you that there is so much chaos in the world that you might as well continue to live. Yes, the world is on fire and people continue to believe that things will never affect them, but you cannot afford to despair, not yet, no matter how hard things are at this moment in time. Delain pulls this bait-and-switch so easily and flawlessly that someone currently listening to the album will have their jaw dropped on the floor. The lyrics suddenly make sense within the context of the album, and you can only sit there and listen to what the band has to say.

Of course, as time went on, I kept coming back to one song on this album, and to one song in particular: “To Live is to Die.” Although this song focused on the positive aspect of living, I couldn’t help but connect to the second bridge of the song (Tell me how you’ll fill the void/And live a life worth dying for), especially as my mental health began to take a big hit downwards when the pandemic began to insidiously affect our lives and we became isolated. In my case, it felt like a constant barrage of unfortunate events, and work just kept piling up because, suddenly, everyone was working from home and you couldn’t go outside. The line between work and home began to blur and I felt like I lost control. “To Live is to Die” essentially allowed me to keep myself in check, as it reminded that, despite everything, I was doing what I could with what I had, and I was alive. Hell, Pompeii is on fire, but you are still alive. You are still here. And that was comforting to me.

  1. Ulver – Flowers of Evil

What do burning churches, apocalyptic cults, dark sensuality, and Salo all have in common? They all lie at the heart of Flowers of Evil, an album that touches upon the darker side of intimacy. Unlike the previous albums I have mentioned on this list, which dealt with the darker side of the human condition in regards to depression, despair, isolation, and uncomfortable references to suicide, Flowers of Evil is an exploration into what indulgence can do and how it can drive you to commit heinous acts against yourself and others.

For context, Salo is the shortened name for the infamous film 120 Days of Sodom, adapted from the Marquis de Sade book of the same name. If you don’t want to know what kind of shit happens in that book and/or film, don’t look for them.

Generally, we don’t tend to discuss decadence and indulgence as a topic – instead, we tend to focus on what happens when we over-indulge in something and the allegories that are tied to making sure that something similar doesn’t befall you. In the case of Flowers of Evil, Ulver has moved from the decadence of ancient Rome and moved towards a more modern setting, with references to the indulgence of war (“Machine Guns and Peacock Feathers”); the delights of intimacy in the dark (“Hour of the Wolf”); and, of course, sexual degeneracy (“A Thousand Cuts”). Hell, we even get a reference to the Branch Davidians in “Apocalypse 1993,” which speaks of the events that occurred in the 1993 Waco siege that lead to that whole cult being essentially wiped out. While the album touches upon other topics, such as human trafficking and nuclear warfare, what makes me like this album is how, underneath the cruelty of humanity and the dark lyrics, Ulver makes music that seems to overshadow the darkness of the album. The continued use of synthpop, with Rygg’s rich vocals heavily contrasting with the lyrics, allows the listener to mentally separate themselves from what they are listening. They may not understand what the band is talking about, but they will dance along.

Dance a last dance inside a burning church while the world implodes – we deserve to be cleansed from the horrors of decadence by fire.

  1. Bring Me the Horizon – Post Human: Survival Horror

I have no idea how many times I have listened to this album at this point, but it was certainly a surprise – so much so that it literally took one of the higher spots on this list. I also chose to not talk about the music here, as I was more inclined into discussing its themes as related to the pandemic.

In our music, we’ve always wanted to escape, but there’s been too much escapism and ignoring the problems in the world. It’s not what the world needs. The world needs more and needs to think about it and remember. You can’t just brush over it and expect life to go back to normal, because it fucking ain’t. In so many ways, we need to change. (x)

This album came out during the latter part of the year, sunk its claws into my flesh, and burrowed itself so deep into my skin that it made its mark. Someday, in about 10 years, when we talk about the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, Post Human: Survival Horror will be among a list of albums that encapsulated what many of us were going through as the pandemic literally caused chaos around the world; and how that rage and frustration will forever make us hold our leaders accountable for their actions as we watched – in real time – how people died.

Post Human is an album that comes from the darkness of the human condition, as we all transitioned from thinking that this pandemic wasn’t going to last very long to what we consider to be “normal” coming to a screeching halt as the pandemic hit various peaks in the past 9 months. With this in hindsight, Post Human speaks to the utter frustration as we watched helplessly how society imploded right in front of us and how our forced isolation led us to find different ways of keeping in contact with our friends and loved ones. If anything, this album was a cold comfort to the many of us whose mental health was severely impacted by the pandemic – after all, we were all experiencing the same myriad of emotions that comes with being holed up in our homes and watching how our governments just couldn’t get their stuff together. We are all in this together and we are all suffering.

Also, fun fact: these guys referenced Aya Brea from Parasite Eve, a video game that seems to be somewhat forgotten in the survival horror genre. For that reason alone, they ended up climbing really high.

Part III: The Theoretical

File all these albums under “Things Hera Will Never Shut Up About.”

  1. Leander Kills – Leander Kills IV

One thing you have to know is that Leander Kills has replaced the Devin Townsend Band as my top artist on Spotify for the second year in a row. Although they have not yet managed to get the top spot on my Last.fm – that honor goes to Katatonia – they are incredibly close. Leander Koteles is here and he’s not going anywhere.

Coming straight after the release of the excellent Luxusnyomor, the fourth Leander Kills album – IV – is a delight that became a beacon of joy during the latter part of the year. In fact, I listened to this album on a rather unhealthy loop while working on school projects and when I needed to hype myself up, which may have been the reason why Leander Kills became my top artist of 2020. Every song on this album is a banger – including the slow songs – which adds to my overall enjoyment of the record. Songs like “A karma mit akar ma?,” “Buona sera,” and “Gyere bánat” are true powerhouses with a catchy hook that make you want to headbang, while “Én vagyok a veszély” and “Feladtam egy levelet” showcase that Leander and Co. can write great ballads without sacrificing instrumentality or speed. What truly makes me like this band is the emotionality behind the band’s instrumentation – on IV, the band showcases a more mature aspect to the music, where each member brings their own flair to the music, while allowing the other members to shine when it’s their turn in the spotlight. However, what truly gets me is Leander’s voice, which can go from a nice tenor to a harrowing scream within a breath. As a person whose main focus has always been the vocals, Leander’s are always a delight to hear.

Ironically, I didn’t think this band would release an album 18 months after their last release, but if the output is good, then why not? For a relatively young band (in this incarnation, at least), Leander Kills have a highlight in my listening habits and have been rapidly becoming one of my favorite bands. Now, if only they could tour outside of Hungary…

And now for the tie –

  1. The Ocean – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic / Katatonia – City Burials

I have talked about all of these albums at length, especially on the podcast, but if you didn’t listen to the episodes, here’s a summary: I loved both of these albums very much and they each mean something to me. However, they both deal with certain themes and I am more interested in the themes than in the music for these. Besides, I already talked about them, so I am going to save my breath for the last album on this list.

In the Ocean’s case, Phanerozoic II is an album that deals with the aftermath of a broken relationship – it could be a friendship or an actual relationship – and how the speaker in the song deals with it. While Phanerozoic I was how the relationship officially ended, this album dealt with what happens after the ending, and how someone can pull themselves back up. Because of this, the album is much more somber and quieter than its predecessor, which ties it back to its themes of healing and taking the time to rebuild from the ground up. However, a lot of the heavier aspects to Phanerozoic II are in the first half of the album, particularly on the spectacular “Jurassic | Cretaceous,” which calls back to the rage that someone feels when they are dealing with the dissolution of something. When you think about the person and how things ended, there are moments of anger, flashes of pain, and then you move on, because what else can you do? You can’t go back to how things are – you can only pick up the pieces, put yourself together, solder it with gold, and move forward. You have to face the fact and understand that things will no longer be as they are, and, thus, you take the first step into something new.

Turn around and defy the debris storm.

As for Katatonia, City Burials was what I thought to be an album that combined what I loved about Dead End Kings and the direction they went with The Fall of Hearts. In short, what you got was an album that combined both doom metal with a progressive feel that borders on art rock, and I found myself coming back to this album more often than I would have thought possible. There is something haunting about City Burials and how it can lull you into a form of security that I didn’t think I would have found. Its allure is similar to Kontinuum’s No Need to Reason, an album that oozed a noir aesthetic and this thrilling intimacy that felt electric. City Burials, while different from what we have heard in past Katatonia, is still Katatonia in its bones, asking us to take the time to sink in and experience it, again and again. In a year that minimized our connection to other people and kept us isolated, City Burials fulfills that desire for connection, as you can too feel what the band is creating. Because the music and the lyrics are left up to interpretation, the listener can project what they desire and what they feel, and that kept me sane this year.

I sought respite and the comfort of apathy, and I got them.

And the top album of the year is…

  1. Black Crown Initiate – Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape
Black Crown Initiate - Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape

If Post Human: Survival Horror is our reaction to the destruction the pandemic has left in its wake, then Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape is the resulting trauma and how we will deal with it.

Also, if you were one of those people who scoffed at the thought that BCI couldn’t write a new album, joke’s on you, because they threw that bull down the stairs.

I have written about this album in the past, so I will spare you the details of how amazing this album was to listen and how hard it hit me when I first listened to it. This time, I wanted to talk about how the passing of trauma will lead us to eventually question how we are going to deal with it after this ends.

Just like the 1918 influenza pandemic, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic caused our normalcy to shift and made us incredibly aware of the clusterfuck that is governmental mismanagement. Never have I felt so frustrated and unable to do anything in my life, and I have never screamed so loudly as I felt overwhelming frustration, exhaustion, and increasing apathy as I watched everything go to shit. I also have never felt so unsafe before, as I read the news and watched millions of people march against injustice while police threw tear gas and shot bullets against peaceful protesters while protecting militias. The more I saw this, the more traumatized I became; I felt, for the first time in my life, that I had no control over my life, over what was happening in this country. However, the more traumatized I became, the more desensitized and apathetic I became to the violence and death; to the growing insanity of an election year; and to a man who clearly cared about no one except himself, and whose government has destroyed almost everything in order to keep his friends pardoned and happy. As the death toll increased and I watched my friends get the virus, I could only scream and hope that all this trauma will be worth it when we finally get a glimmer of hope beneath the vitriol and the damage this year has caused us.

Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape is an album that encapsulates the rage and the damage this year has done to us; yet, it offers us a glimpse of hope beneath all the grief and despair we have seen. This album kept me company and kept me tethered to this world, especially when everything exhausted me and kept me at the edge of the void. I kept coming back to this album and the more I listened to it, the more hopeful I became. Yes, things are difficult, but despite everything, I am still here. I have managed to not fall into despair and have sought solace in the music I love. Despite the trauma that I will eventually deal with once this is over, Violent Portraits has allowed me to deal with it in a way that has not led to any form of harm and has allowed me to feel something even when I have felt incredibly numb. This album is a testament to how much this band means to me, and how their music has allowed me to find a way out of this depressing rut.

After all, I am the path that will end everything, and this is where my own trauma and grief ends. Here’s to a better tomorrow, once the tyrant king is dead.

You know, I keep telling myself that I won’t write too much about the music I enjoy, and yet here we are, 4000+ words and counting.

2020 has been a clusterfuck and I can’t wait until it’s finally over. May 2021 continue to keep us tethered to this world and may it bring something better that we can all appreciate and work towards. While I am not entirely optimistic about what the new year will bring, I can only hope that things will improve, and I can finally be free from my other obligations so I can finally write about music again in a bigger capacity.

In the meantime, please stay safe and I beg you, for all that’s holy, to follow your state/country health guidelines so we can finally kick this pandemic into oblivion.

Hasta la proxima!

Hera

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