At this point, what more is there to say about what happened in 2020? I could echo the sentiments of so many others, on this blog and otherwise, but I think we get the idea. I could take this time to lament about the struggles around us, our unsustainable societal structure and all that, but that rant should probably be for another time and place. For now, I’ll just say that my hope is that we can all reflect on the events of 2020 and recalibrate what we prioritize as a society… but I’m not optimistic that will happen. And to all the calendar watchers out there, 2021 won’t magically be better just because it happens to not be 2020. Want things to be better? Make change. That applies to all of us. Status quo sucks anyway.
Enough of that, let’s spin the narrative a bit. As the world continues to burn around us (literally and figuratively), I need to express unrelenting gratitude to all the artists and musicians that continued to perfect their craft over the past several months. Without concerts, and as album sales continue to serve as minimal revenue at best, pausing these pursuits in search of other enterprises would have been understandable. In a year with so much negativity, and so much time away from friends and family, the music I absorbed in 2020 resonated on a deeper level than it has in years. So, thank you, for offering an escape from the daily chaos. A (completely self-induced) pressure to absorb more and more music had taken over in recent years, and as a result my connection to individual records was hindered. A basic quantity over quality concept in listening experience, I suppose. This past year, however, that wasn’t the case. I still consumed an aggressive amount of new music, but the exploration was more curious, and more genuine, than in years past. The result? A stronger attachment to the 2020 releases… which I’m certain will resonate long after we start our 2021 discussions. If there is a bright side to 2020, it’s the realigning, or rediscovering, of our passions and finding new ways to pursue them in the day-to-day. And that’s a mentality I hope to take into the new year.
So let’s dive into my 2020 picks. As always, nine favorites and nine honorable mentions. Side note: I can’t remember a year in which it was this hard to separate a few albums from the greater pack, and that’s probably the result of offering myself the opportunity to truly embed myself in these albums. There was just so much quality presented this year, and delivered over such an expansive spectrum. Just another part of the ridiculous journey that was 2020, I suppose. Anyway…
The fact that Phanerozoic II followed in the footsteps of its predecessor in claiming my top spot in its respective release year isn’t a complete surprise… but also is, I suppose. As immense and creative as Phanerozoic I was, the second installment took things to yet another level, even for The Ocean’s standards. The natural inclination is to compare the two halves of this record, and while there are plenty of parallels, I see them as very different listening experiences. Where the former was more anthemic, bordering on optimistic, the latter seems to present a darker perspective, using a certain disjunction to create something truly cataclysmic. Progressing from one track to another, the limits of our imagination are challenged. Each individual track showcases a universe-worth of nuances and subtleties, coupled with repeated passages for structural balance. This ambitiously unwavering journey through seemingly every sub-genre possible, presented with themes of geologic time, mass extinction, and climate change, yields something remarkable. The Ocean continue their exploration forward and outward, with another new chapter seemingly on the horizon. What that means exactly is still to be determined.
If Wayfarer had halted their westward expansion with World’s Blood, I would have been more than content with the form of black metal they had created. But with the release of A Romance With Violence, I’m certainly glad they didn’t. Rather than offering up subtle undertones, the western blues and folk influences are thrust to the surface on this record and it truly feels as though the Wayfarer vision has been fully realized. It’s a blend that may not seem logical when presented verbally, but when you explore the Wayfarer catalog in chronological order, it becomes crystal clear how natural the progression has been, and more importantly, how effectively they put it all together today. A specific nod must be directed at the production as well, as each element within these complex tracks is allowed to absolutely soar, while a rustic undertone keeps the emotional side of the record authentic and downright intoxicating. It’s a brilliant album, conceptually and technically, and successfully pushes the black metal genre further into new directions.
And then we have Enslaved, who can do no wrong, something they’ve long since proved. At this point, we can expect Enslaved to push their own boundaries with each release, without fear or hesitation. What makes Utgard so impressive is how they implement elements that made former albums so memorable (RIITIIR and Vertebrae come to mind when I consider the tracks on Utgard), and repackage them in a fresh way while still delivering new concepts altogether. “Homebound,” which is closer to melodic death metal than I would have expected from Enslaved, falls in the same track list as the absurdly experimental “Urjotun.” And it works. It always works. Couple that structural diversity with the atmospheric, bellowing choruses from the likes of “Fires In The Dark” and you’re left with yet another high point in the Enslaved discography. Make no mistake, Utgard is an immense experience and will take any listener to heights they couldn’t have predicted. Yet again, Enslaved showcases their ability to challenge their own sound and unquestionably deliver with success.
There’s something about this one-man German black metal project that I just can’t get enough of, and with each release my interest grows. It’s a form of pagan black metal, in a country filled with quality metal these days, that is simply enjoyable to absorb. The unmistakable grandiosity of the Horn sound comes through even more impressively with Mohngang. There is a tireless frosty fury to this album, end to end, but it’s presented in a way that is noticeably epic, and borderline triumphant. The production continues to improve in general clarity with each Horn album, but there’s still a relative harshness to it that allows the whole package to come together seamlessly… the imagery, lyrics, and, of course, the music. Furthermore, it’s also quickly apparent that within the rhythmic gallops, melodic leads, and soaring vocals, there exists a level of creativity and exploration in Mohngang that allows it to stay captivating from start to finish, and with each repeated listen. Mohngang is, frankly, addicting. Something we’ve come to expect from Horn albums over the years.
I had lost sight of My Dying Bride, perhaps unfairly, over the last several years. As a result, even I am surprised at how quickly I connected to The Ghost of Orion and how consistently it held up as the months of 2020 continued to pass. Musically, it hits that optimal balance of heavy and burdensome, with enough of an ambient and uplifting layer to keep it moving along effortlessly. From the absolute monster of an opener in “Your Broken Shore,” which features everything I could ask for in gothic doom, the album never wavers. Rather, it seems to explore each element presented in that introduction in extended ways as we work from one track to the next. But when you move your attention away from the details of the immense riffage and soaring leads and vocals, when you broaden the perspective, you realize how natural it is to identify with The Ghosts of Orion emotionally. It’s because of how well all these differing aspects are connected. It is a grief-stricken listening experience to be sure, but also offers hope and solace… acceptance, perhaps. It’s the ability of My Dying Bride to tap into so many emotions on The Ghost of Orion that make it captivating.
Gaerea was an interesting point of discussion here back when Unsettling Whispers came out. While some poured on the praise, others were more hesitant. I enjoyed the 2018 release, but ultimately found myself in the latter category. With Limbo, however, I have fully immersed myself within the mournful form of black metal the Portuguese collective have created. Melodic and slow-burning at times, fierce and unrelenting at others, Limbo shows a matured version of concepts introduced a few short years ago. Every element to this album feels more confident, more assured, and as a result the emotions and messages contained within the lines resonate deeper. At this point, I find it impossible to avoid getting lost in the depths of Limbo. The emotional anguish layered within a uniquely crafted form of black metal have thrust Gaerea into the upper echelons of the modern day genre.
One of the things I love about Katatonia is their willingness to continue pushing their brand of dark metal, even while paying homage to past successes. City Burials is another example of what I mean. When they returned with The Fall of Hearts in 2016, many called it their best album… ever. It would be hard to supplant The Great Cold Distance for me, but I don’t disagree, either. At times, especially in the first two tracks of City Burials, it felt as though we may be experiencing a true, defined, follow up to that. The moments on “Heart Set To Divide” and “Behind The Blood” were sharp, pronounced, relatively familiar, and brilliantly pieced together. But then City Burials truly took on its own form through its middle stages. The somber simplicity of “Lacquer” through the rhythmic melodies of the concise “The Winter Of Our Passing” showed the range City Burials would ultimately explore. What stands out to me is not that Katatonia reaches further within each album, it’s that Katatonia reaches in new directions within each album, even if the median is easily recognized. Katatonia deserves considerable applause for how they’ve repackage their own brand with success once again.
I continue to be impressed by the black metal scene pouring out of Iceland in recent years, and Auðn is the latest project to capture my undivided attention. Not only does Vökudraumsins Fangi feature everything I could ask for in a present-day black metal album — sweeping passages, dissonant undertones, an encompassing harshness through it all — but it’s how all these varying elements are constructed in relation to each other that make this album so impressive. For example, the unrelenting cadence that forms the backbone is balanced out through the implementation of regularly visited intervals of calmness. Not something unfamiliar to the genre, of course, but appreciated all the same. To delve further, however, even these moments of calm contain specific levels of tension, creating a sense of anticipation. It is this quality that makes the subsequent tidal waves of energy, the payoff, much more satisfying. For that reason, and countless others, Auðn have constructed what is easily one of the best, and most rewarding, black metal albums of 2020.
I’ve spent considerable time trying to identify what I appreciate most with Moonlit Navigation, but honestly there is so much that I could speak to. For starters, the sophomore effort from Inexorum shows tremendous growth and a more refined, yet diverse, display of their particular version of melodic black metal. The aspects of this album that resonate so well, however, are the heavy melodic death metal elements that force the energy of this collection of tracks upward. The harmonized leads are incredibly tasteful, leading to an echoing, layered quality to the overall sound that truly resonates. Coupling those elements with vocals that are appropriately balanced between dense, guttural howls and piercingly clean exclamations, result in a melodic black metal album that features very few weak moments. If Moonlit Navigation is evidence of things to come, Inexorum are on the verge of something massive. I can’t wait.
The Honorable Mentions
Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better?
Simply put, the shoegaze and hardcore blend is executed perfectly. There are just so many contrasting elements to this record that perhaps shouldn’t make sense, but they absolutely do. Not to mention how the emotional fusion, uplifting in its angst, lines up nicely when reflecting on the past year.
Aara – En Ergô Einai
In many ways I enjoyed En Ergô Einai more than some of my top nine picks, including fellow black metallers Auðn. This thing is truly captivating in every sense of the word, but the relatively short run time leaves me somewhat wanting. Still impressive, end to end.
Molassess – Through the Hollow
Psychedelic, progressive doom emerging from elements of The Devil’s Blood? Sign me up. This mammoth of an album is certainly enjoyable enough with a surface level, casual listen. But the more times you work through it, the more details you discover and the more it grows. Well done all around.
Paradise Lost – Obsidian
Paradise Lost are continuing to do their thing, and I am still very much here for it. The gothic elements on Obsidian really resonate, making tracks like “Ghosts” permanently stick in my head.
Vile Creature – Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm!
I almost included this just because the artwork is so damn impressive. Almost. Truthfully, I don’t think an album challenged me more in 2020. This thing is absolutely evil and will push you to your limits… and for that it deserves plenty of praise.
Deathwhite – Grave Image
From 2016’s For a Black Tomorrow, I am thrilled with what Deathwhite’s take on dark metal has become. This latest effort displays more creativity and maturity, while offering many of the same themes. Deathwhite is onto something and I’m eager to see what the next step, or leap, forward looks like.
Godthrymm – Reflections
Dark and dense, Reflections offers a wonderfully introspective doom metal experience. While offering plenty of weight and power, it’s the supplemented isolating moments on tracks like “The Grand Reclamation” that help this album stand out.
Stormkeep – Galdrum
The fact that Galdrum falls in the MLP category is the only reason it lands as an HM. This is everything I was hoping for from this black metal project. Enough of a throwback in sound and production to strike those sentimental chords, but plenty of rhythmic and melodic layers make this listen truly addicting.
Green Carnation – Leaves of Yesteryear
Leaves is an impressive return, to say the least. The expertly delivered reimagining of “My Dark Reflections…” alongside bangers like “Sentinels” puts the growth and progression of the Green Carnation project on full display. Another early 2020 release that has held up all year.
“Ein Bier… bitte.”