A lot of things about this past year sucked, but the one thing that absolutely didn’t was the music. Between the scheduled releases and the surprise ones few were expecting, it’s been a stellar year of powerful, emotionally charged music, and I’ve been in a very fortunate position to be able to sit back and take it all in. So fortunate, in fact, that I couldn’t contain a year end list to just one article. So, here’s the first installment, the honorable mentions. Truthfully, any of these albums could have ended up on the “main” list on a different day, so really, this is just my way of extending the fun and talking about more of my favorite albums.
Behold…The Arctopus – Hapeleptic Overtrove
If anyone’s had a banner year in 2020, it might be Colin Marston. Between all of the stellar albums he’s engineered, to the 4,217 releases he’s been a part of (including a stellar new one from Krallice), he’s been quite a busy guy, but the one album that I find myself still entranced by is the newest and least expected one from the partially self-styled “worst band in the world.” Hapeleptic Overtrove is the least conventional BtA release yet, and anyone even remotely familiar with the band knows that’s saying something. The nontraditional, angular and atonal arrangements of “guitar guitar” and Warr guitar return, but this time they’re backed up by chamber-music style percussion. No cymbals, no sticks, no traditional beats, just broken pipes, wood blocks, almglocken, and a lot of really inventive, musical playing. Despite what it sounds like, it feels natural and very fitting for a band that vehemently eschews any sense of the traditional in metal.
If you need more convincing from me, check out the full review here.
Misery Signals – Ultraviolet
Yet another surprise that I was not expecting, from a band that I grew up with and one that provided a gateway into heavy music that defied convention. Misery Signals have always been the reigning kings of metalcore, because of their staunch commitment to doing what they do with honesty, integrity and just a touch more melodic sensibility and technical flair than their contemporaries. Ultraviolet sees the reuniting of the band’s original lineup, the one that recorded their celebrated debut Of Malice and the Magnum Heart, but this is not a trip down memory lane, nor is it Of Malice 2: Electric Boogaloo. Vocalist Jesse Zaraska and the brothers Morgan return with a direct continuation of the band’s hyper-melodic, technical metalcore that they have steadily been perfecting over the course of almost two decades. More importantly, this is an album that is tinged with hope, the kind of hope that comes with maturity and growth, and the kind that we sorely needed.
Check out the review that Vince and I wrote together, where we talk more about what this band means to us and why Ultraviolet might just be their finest offering.
envy – The Fallen Crimson
For a hot second, it looked like envy were done. With the departure of vocalist Tetsu, as well as their founding guitarist and drummer, there was a big question mark thrown on the end of the Japanese post-hardcore titans’ career. Fortunately for us all, the band redoubled their efforts, and with the rejoining of Tetsu, what we get is an album that showcases a new side of the band. At first blush, The Fallen Crimson is a much more aggressive affair than they might be known for, but with repeated listens, the pieces of the puzzle come together to form an image that plumbs the depths of emotion, gracefully moving between hardcore, spoken word, black metal and post-rock all in the span of one song. It’s got a little something from every corner that envy have explored, and it’s an album that quashes any doubts about whether they are here to stay.
For a more eloquent explanation of why you need to hear this album, check out Vince’s column featuring a writeup here.
Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin – Stygian Bough, Volume 1
My favorite Bell Witch songs have always been the songs that Erik Moggridge, aka Aerial Ruin, guests on. His voice is the perfect foil to the Seattle duo’s booming bass and thundering drums, so actively including him in the writing and performing of a new set of songs seems like a no-brainer, especially considering the big question (from me, at least) was how to properly follow up an album like 2018’s Mirror Reaper, one that is unparalleled in emotional depth and execution. Why try to outdo something that you can’t conceivably outdo? Instead, the duo chooses to push into new territory, expanding into a trio and including guitar for the first time amongst their instruments of choice, and builds a whole world extending the concepts first explored in “Rows (Of Endless Waves),” which, incidentally is my favorite Bell Witch song. What’s not to love? Bell Witch good, Aerial Ruin good, put them together and the result is unsurprisingly good.
The Ocean (Collective) – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic
It’s a rare day indeed where the 4+ years and hundreds of thousands of dollars I spent on a college education can help me properly appreciate a heavy metal album, but here we are. I love dinosaurs so much, and for me, this album flawlessly explores the history of life on Earth, in loving detail, from the asteroid wiping out our large friends until modern day man makes a similar mess of the place. But what the real appeal of The Ocean might be is the fact that interpretations vary quite widely over what the album *actually* talks about. It’s hard for me to look at this album as being anything other than literal, but there are allegories and parallels all over, and it’s very easy to take different interpretations on the lyrics, but any way you take it, this is a powerful album that speaks to deep, emotional topics, both natural and psychological. To top it all off, the riffs and songs bang, plain and simple.
If you need more convincing, or you just want to hear me scream incoherently about dinosaurs, please listen to September’s episode of The Audio Thing, which is for sure my favorite episode I have been a part of or listened to.
Dismalimerence – Tome: 1
I love a good hometown hero situation, and Dismalimerence are a band that not only hail from my city of Chicago, but they are a band that I am proud to say that I’ve been a fan of for a while. I had the pleasure of watching them open for Wayfarer and Saor when they came through, and I was not expecting the local openers to be able to stand their own against the absolute monsters at the top of the bill, but I was pleasantly wrong. They put on a memorable performance, and I knew I had to keep my eyes on them. Enter Tome: 1, the stellar debut that has been over ten years in the making, but well worth the wait. A deeply emotional and poignant mix of black and death, it showcases the smart, honest songwriting that has real flashes of technical flair without sacrificing the raw heart that was put in. This is a moving album that hopefully marks the beginning of Dismalimerence being household names, no matter how hard that name might be to pronounce.
For more details, check out my review here.
Wake – Devouring Ruin
Grindcore is in a very, very good spot right now. To my knowledge, there has never been more diverse offerings that blend the aggression of grindcore with all kinds of mix-ins, making the genre stronger and more fit to survive. No single album, and perhaps no single band, distorts the lines of grindcore in a more profoundly awesome way than Wake and their monumental release Devouring Ruin. Savage aggression and wild, chaotic riffs meet dense, ethereal melody and atmosphere, crafting an album that doesn’t just suck you in: it chews you up and spits you out, mangled and bloody and changed on a metaphysical level. It takes a lot of chutzpah to be a grindcore band and have the centerpiece of your album be a 10+ minute sludgy romp and have it absolutely crush, but here we are. Devouring Ruin (and the subsequently released surprise EP Confluence) will undoubtedly change the face of the genre to come, and I am all for it.
For bonus content, listen to March’s episode of The Audio Thing, where we wax poetic in a lot more detail.
An Autumn for Crippled Children – All Fell Silent, Everything Went Quiet
I guess the theme of this year is music that impacted me emotionally. I appreciate a good, slappin’ riff as much as the next guy, but in a year that felt like a nonstop panic attack, what I truly appreciated was an album that I could feel something to, and An Autumn for Crippled Children have always been able to scratch that itch, along with providing a healthy dose of their one-of-a-kind brand of blackened post-punk, two genres that follow the formula of “if I love them independent of each other, I’ll surely love them mashed together.” All Fell Silent continues their loving blend of dance beats, atmospheric guitar lines, melancholic synth work and shrieked, almost wailed vocals that never quite fail to strike something deeply resonant in me. It’s an album that induces catharsis by way of sinking in and wallowing for a little while, which isn’t always the healthiest way to deal with The Unpleasantness, but when that’s literally all you can do, I’m glad I had this album to fall into.
Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better?
Building off of that last pick, we’ve come to the album that maybe moved me emotionally the most out of any that I’ve listened to this year. 2018’s It’s Hard to Have Hope is an album that I fell in love with, and fell hard. It is the perfect blend of punk rock aggression, cutting social commentary, gorgeous melodies and furious, anthemic songwriting, and When I Die picks up right where the group left off and crafts another transcendent release. Fueled by a desire to speak out against the ills of society, the band taps back into the righteous fury that makes all their listens so compelling and mixes it with d-beats and some of the most profoundly striking melodies I’ve ever heard. It’s hard not to be moved to tears by the honesty, compassion and enormous spirit that fills every second of this album, and When I Die furthers the bands place at the forefront of socially conscious, evocative hardcore.
To read more about why this album is so incredible, check out Charles’ brilliant review here.
Pig Destroyer – The Octagonal Stairway
I debated for a while about whether or not I wanted to include EPs on my year end list. Ultimately, I chose to because of one EP in particular, which is actually not The Octagonal Stairway, but since I decided to include them in general, I knew that this spot needed to be filled by the grindcore legends’ newest offering. Whereas Wake choose to expand and fracture the stylistic trappings of grind, Pig Destroyer do what they’ve always done, which is lean into the fast and furious and go full out. The Octagonal Stairway doesn’t break any new ground, but it does give you more of what you’ve always loved about Pig Destroyer, which is the riffs, the smart songwriting and the deeply philosophical lyrics. Throw in some experimentation with harsh noise, and what do you get? An extremely satisfying listen that further proves the expansion of the band’s lineup on 2018’s Head Cage was nowhere near a mistake.
Check out my review here for more!
Despite the fact that I’m calling this my “honorable mentions,” I cannot overstate how much these albums represent some of the best of the best that 2020 had to offer. Each one is an album that stuck in my mind and begged repeated listens, deep dives and lot of introspection and headbanging. This is just a preview of what’s to come, and the next set of nine albums (plus an EP) is really more of a continuation of what started here as opposed to a “true” year end list. It’s been a wild ride, but I’m very glad for the role that music played in helping me get through it. Here’s to more to come.