Ah, the big one. I’ve been looking forward to writing this for a while, but I also can’t help but feel like there’s no way I could possibly put everything I loved about music in 2020 into enough words to satisfy myself. If I had enough time or gumption to make a list that was twenty or thirty albums long, I still don’t think that would be enough. So much great music happened amid the Unpleasantness, and I think more than ever it was worth paying attention to all of it, whether for excitement or escape or transcendentalism or catharsis. For me, losing a twice-daily commute meant that I had to be an active listener to the music I chose to put on, and I think that made the releases that stood out to me stand out all the more. Plus, being a part of the team here has been a literal dream come true, and I had more access than ever to quality releases. Without further ado, here are the ones I’ve fallen for the hardest.
Pallbearer – Forgotten Days
I had to wonder how Pallbearer were going to follow up a monumental and game-changing release like Heartless. Do you try to top something like that? Do you go in a different direction entirely? Do you double down and put out essentially the same album twice? Pallbearer opts for none of those choices on Forgotten Days, essentially going back to their roots while simultaneously expanding their horizons with the proggiest, most experimental bits as well as heavy, old-school doom that hearkens back to their big break with Sorrow and Extinction. Truly, Forgotten Days feels like a retrospective of their entire career, featuring everything that you loved about each of their individual albums all put together in one spot. There is the heaviness and riffs from their debut, the melodicism of Foundations of Burden, the progressive elements from Heartless, and each one has been expanded to be…more. The riffs are heavier than they’ve ever been, the melodies more mournful and the experimentation more out there, but all of it is extremely successful and harmonious.
Angela and I teamed up to write the review of this one, and it was one of the most fun writing experiences I’ve had here! Check the link for the full thing.
Vile Creature – Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm!
In every possible sense, Vile Creature are not your typical metal band. At first blush, it might not look like the self-styled “angry queer gloom cult” take themselves that seriously, what with their 90’s Geocities styled official website and the branded gummy worms they offered as merch to promote their newest album, and maybe they don’t, but once the first scream of “Harbinger of Nothing” kicks in, it’s immediately apparent that Glory, Glory! is anything but a joke. Vic and KW are back with a vengeance, and it seems vengeance is the name of the game. Glory, Glory! is a savage listen, one full of passion and fury, loss, despair and, ultimately, defiant triumph. Every Vile Creature release seems to be a “fuck you” to the world at large and especially to the people who continue to deny the duo their right to exist, but Glory, Glory! stands as the boldest, sharpest and most tightly focused middle finger yet. Undisputed masters of branded merchandising, and now undisputed masters of their own particular brand of doomed out, no-holds-barred metal. If nothing else, it certainly wins for best album art, but it can’t be understated that the music is just as powerful as the artwork.
Chris had a lot more to say about this one, so check out his review here!
Thy Catafalque – Naiv
Maybe it’s sentimentality that brings the newest from Thy Catafalque onto my list. It was the first album that I reviewed for this site, and that does have a lot to do with the space that it holds in my heart. On the other hand, though, it’s a really good album, one that doesn’t shy away from doing what literally no one else is doing right now. Saxophone, funk bass, Hungarian folk instruments, horns, strings, all pair up with icy distorted guitars and industrial electronic elements in what are truly unique compositions that are equal parts complex and catchy. Just how much is put into each song might seem like it all turns out to be a mess and too spread out, but every piece plays well with the others in a way that doesn’t overwhelm you all at once, but offers more layers to be uncovered with repeated listens. And you’ll want to listen repeatedly, because these are songs that are guaranteed to get stuck in your brain. Try to resist pelvic thrusts when the horns on “Tsitsushka” kick in. It’s impossible, you can’t. You don’t even notice that slap bass and saxophone are decidedly un-metal until the guitars kick back and you come back to reality.
Click here for the aforementioned review.
Paradise Lost – Obsidian
Paradise Lost are a band that has had a nebulous relationship with genre over their 30+ year career, and it’s a rare thing indeed to be able to say that after that much time going a band is truly coming into their own, but for Paradise Lost it may be true. Yes, their early death/doom work is vital and it can’t be understated how important and transformative it is, but Obsidian may just be their finest work yet because of how well it blends together all of the various sounds they’ve played with since the late 80s. There are shades of doom, death, art rock, and post punk, all seamlessly woven together in songs that are as catchy are they are heavy. The bassline from “Ghosts” continues to put a groove in my step, and I woke up with the chorus to “Darker Thoughts” stuck in my head for, no joke, a whole month. Old Nick’s vocals have never been better than they are now, and his deep growls pair perfectly with the sultry croon he uses to cut through the more melodic and dancy numbers. I said it in the review, but I want this album to always be playing in the background of everything that I do.
Wayfarer – A Romance with Violence
The trajectory that Wayfarer have been riding since they started has been something really special to be a part of. I’ve known them since Children of the Iron Age, but that seems like a completely different band now, especially considering A Romance with Violence sees them at the undisputed peak of their career. The Western themes first brought up in World’s Blood are fully realized in a way that is not cheesy, but as a means to tell a story. They don’t hide their songs behind a façade and hope the gimmick makes up for it. The songs are extremely catchy, packed full of riffs and hooks that stick deep in the brain. Everything supplementing that, the acoustic folk twangs, the spaghetti western piano, the chicken-fried melodies, works in conjunction, leading to a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Not least among those parts is the drumming of Isaac Faulk, who between Blood Incantation last year and Romance and the Stormkeep album this year, seems to be the man who takes the literal and metaphorical throne for metal. Really, everyone shines here, and Romance is an album that leaves you wanting to start it over as soon as it ends.
I wrote the review for this one too, which you can check out here.
Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville
There is only one band under the sun that would have the unmitigated gall to put a barbershop quartet intro before a lumbering, sludgy post metal crawl that erupts into atmospheric, outlandish black metal complete with choirs and organs. That band is Imperial Triumphant, and if you thought that they couldn’t get any more out there with Vile Luxury, you would be dead wrong. Alphaville is everything that Vile Luxury was and more. The jazz influences are still there, but the experimentation has been pushed into outer space, and so many more influences are thrown in there, like the barbershop number, taiko drums, black metal, post metal, death metal, hip hop and even the background noise of New York City. What ties it all together is the stellar engineering from Colin Marston, who I have already mentioned is having a banner year. Everything is much clearer and more sharply defined, and it allows you to appreciate and really analyze everything that went into making these compositions what they are. And you might have to analyze them a bit, but once you really get into it, Alphaville is an album that will knock you on your ass.
I had the pleasure of writing the review for this one, so check it out here for more words!
Ulcerate – Stare into Death and Be Still
What more can be said about this album than has been said already? It was our combined pick for number one album of the year by a wide margin, showing up on almost every single one of our year end lists at some spot or another. It dominated almost as much of the conversation on May’s Audio Thing as the actual album we picked, and it got some heavy mentions on our year end Audio Thing (which is coming soon). Simply put, this is an album that completely reinvents the landscape of death metal. It is brutal, bleak, crushing, uncompromising, and wholly engrossing from start to finish. There is a level of unparalleled technicality that cannot be undersold. There are no musicians around who physically or mentally can do the things that Ulcerate can do. Stare into Death will spawn a new breed of death metal bands who will try, and there will be varying degrees of success, but Ulcerate will stand alone, decades from now, and will be spoken of with the same reverent tones as Morbid Angel, Death, Cannibal Corpse, et al.
To see the full review by Charles, featuring text excerpts from our group chat, click here.
Unleash the Archers – Abyss
Unleash the Archers is one of the few bands that I can actually say gets better with every single release. From their beginning days as an ambitious, but a little unfocused, mix of power metal and metalcore, to the titans on the scene that they are now, every single output from them has been better than the last, and Abyss is no exception. A lot of the criticism I’ve seen for Abyss comes from standing it next to Apex and bemoaning the lack of bombast, but I would argue that the success of Abyss is because of the restraint the band shows, not in spite of it. Simply put, Unleash the Archers attempt to do, and succeed wildly at, things that no other power metal band is doing right now. You can’t talk about UtA without mentioning that Brittney Slays is truly in a league of her own, but here, she shows sides of her voice that are more than just shrieks and wails, and it all works to serve the song. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gallops and frantic riffs, but my favorite moments on the album are the moments where the group branches out into territory that is decidedly un-power metal. The 80’s-tinged dance beats and synths on “Through Stars” and the borderline atmospheric black metal on “Legacy” stand as some of the finest moments in the band’s outstanding career, and I cannot even fathom where they will go next, but one thing is certain: nobody can fuck with them right now.
If you’re wondering what beer goes best with Abyss, check out Vince’s Evcharist featuring a writeup here.
Aara – En Ergô Einai
The order of just about everything else here might be open to interpretation and the daily changes of my whims, but this is without a doubt my favorite release of the year, beginning with the first time I experienced the moment when “Arkanum” truly kicks in. I mean that literally. Even now, as it plays while I’m typing, I don’t feel like I’m listening. I feel like I’m experiencing it, in a way that is deep and profound and hard to put a grip on with words. There is something incredibly moving about the way that the newly expanded trio take atmospheric black metal and turn it into something more than just that. Live drums certainly help bring in the human element I think they have been missing, but more than that, it’s the way they have clearly sat down and studied classical music and brought that into black metal without leaning on it as a crutch. Whereas other bands use the gimmick of orchestration to hide mediocre songs, Aara craft beautiful, symphonic melodies and arrangements and put them into the black metal format. The end result is something truly triumphant and unlike anything I have heard from the genre in a long time, and the safe money says I won’t for a while yet to come.
You bet I wrote the review for this one, and you can find it here.
Zeal and Ardor – Wake of a Nation
I really wish Wake of a Nation didn’t have to be made, but I’m glad that it was. It is incredibly difficult to get through, but it is also vital and necessary, and one of the most emotionally powerful releases this year, no matter how small. Manuel Gagneux has been no stranger to social commentary in his releases, but his music has never been a stronger force for good than now, even if the four tracks are more of a cry of rage and sadness than a call to action. You feel every ounce of pain in every furious riff, every wail and chant and scream. For those of us who strive to be the change we want to see in the world, these songs will cut you to your core. They will make you severely uncomfortable and it will not be easy listening, but it’s a crucial message that we, unfortunately, need to be reminded of time and again as we take space to listen to the voices of those crying out for justice. And if you’re the kind of person who needs to steer the conversation towards how you feel, or interject some whatabout-isms or false equivalencies, I would also implore you to shut the fuck up and listen.
Maybe you’re disappointed to see names like Sólstafir, Enslaved, Napalm Death and Elder missing from this list. Trust me, I am too, but it does bear repeating that they’re not missing because I don’t regard them highly. It’s only a function of the time I have to put all my thoughts on metal this year into words, and I assure you those releases all hold a place in my heart. But that’s the thing about this year, and the time and energy we all had available to us: my bursts of energy were few and far in between, but whether I was fired up or needing escape, there was always something there for me, whether it was an album on this list or not. There was so much creative good that came out of all the negative space, and that’s really hard to keep to a minimum when you’re trying to be concise in wrapping things up. So take all this with a grain of salt if you must, but if you didn’t happen to check out a few of the albums on this list, do yourself a favor and fix that right now. See you next year, wherever that takes us.