You want more? You got more. Not that I exactly want to look back on 2020, but there was so much killer music this past year that I decided to take a page out of Chris’ book and talk about the ones that got away from me, regardless of how great they might be. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about why these albums didn’t make the cut the first time around. It’s the same story for each one, a story about time and energy and brainpower. This year was draining, both from being alive in the world and from having quite a bit to keep up with in the way of reviews and podcasts for a certain illustrious publication, and while I am proud of the list I put out and I’m not going to go back and amend it, I do think there needs to be more room for discussing what I feel like I missed out on. Albums that, for whatever reason, needed more than the time I had for me to fully realize them in my mind’s eye, but now I can unquestionably say they belong among the great ones that we got in the last calendar year.
Havukruunu – Uinuos Syömein Sota
This is the album that actually inspired me to start making yet another year end list, well past the end of the year. I didn’t get into this one until well after it came out, but as soon as I saw the album art, I knew I was in for a treat. Blistering black metal meets a sort of power metal fantasy aesthetic coupled with blistering solos that can only be accurately described with the over-enunciation of the word “tasty” make this a real treat, one that I don’t think deserves to be slept on the way that I slept on it. This is truly an album that, when you put it on while driving, will make you automatically go much faster than you legally and ethically should. And while I don’t speak a word of Finnish (as you can tell from all the times I’ve tried), Zyklonius tells us that the lyrics trade out the “hey-ho brothers!” bombast of battle culture for a more “world-weary and longing-for-death” type tone. That is, as the youths say, a big mood.
Grayceon – Mothers Weavers Vultures
I promised you this would end up somewhere, didn’t I? Being a mid-December sleeper hit, it may not have had time to make its way into my full year end list, but the latest from the San Francisco art rock/doom/prog metal trio certainly had enough time to stick in my brain from the instant I first put it on. Haunting cello lines meet fleet fingered guitar riffs and tasteful drums, all held down by some of the most haunting lyrics and vocals I’ve encountered in an album to date. Mothers Weavers Vultures is a call to action if I’ve ever heard one, just in case you forgot that we also have to deal with a climate crisis on top of everything else. However, the beauty of the album is that it hits you with a wider range of emotions than just despair and hopelessness. It’s somber when it needs to be, but there’s moments of lightness that give a feeling almost like hope, if we remember what that even feels like at this point.
I did the review, which you may have guessed at this point. It’s here if you need more convincing.
Elder – Omens
Omens is an album that is all about confidence, and Elder has never been more steeped in swagger than they are right now. On previous releases they have been lumped in with the doom crowd, the prog rock crowd, the stoner crowd, but none of those labels felt like they totally encompassed everything that they can do, and on this, their fourth full length release, they finally said “fuck it” to labels and put out an album that is unabashedly themselves laid bare. What we get out of it is something that sees all their influences taken up to the proverbial eleven. The prog is proggier, the riffs are riffier, the space is spacier, but nothing is sacrificed in the way of this expansion. Whereas one of the things that kept me from really clicking with Elder was how it sometimes felt like they tried to do too much in too little time, the songs on Omen breathe in a way that lets everything fall into place naturally, without feeling rushed. Not to mention the expanded use of synths feels like the textures they’ve been missing all along.
Another banger of a review from Charles, going into a lot more depth than I ever could, can be found right here.
Angerot – The Divine Apostate
I think amid all the deeply emotional pieces of music that captured my attention, the one seed I forgot to water was the seed of liking death metal, and when I need a hit of no-holds-barred, in your face savagery, there is no better place to turn than The Divine Apostate. I had never heard of Angerot and their newest release was not put onto my radar until I saw it come up on Josh’s year end list, but from his glowing recommendation I not only found a new album to listen to at ear-splitting volume, but I also impulse bought their branded coffee (more on that later…). From the first time I put it on, The Divine Apostate was an album I was simply commanded to take notice of. Unrelenting savagery without any pause for reflection or ambience, this the kind of death metal that I really appreciate. It’s the kind that makes you feel like you forgot how to read after being assaulted by it, but when you dig down deep past the surface layer of brutality, you find some really creative nuances that set this album a cut above its contemporaries. The riffs are incredibly smart and catchy in addition to being brutal, and the operatic vocals sprinkled throughout lend an air of sophistication that the dumb-guy guitars might belie.
Xenobiotic – Mordrake
Maybe it’s because February 2020 seems more like five years ago than eleven months ago that I spaced out on this. I truly forgot it was released in the same year as everything else. Despite the fact that I spaced out on it for some time, Mordrake manages to bring together everything that I want from a death metal release: a lot of atmosphere, dark melodies, some technicality, big honkin’ riffs and a dense, thick sense of foreboding. Truly an album that knows how to weave an atmosphere together, Mordrake encapsulates a feeling of dread and looming doom like no other, which is ironic considering its temporal placement in the General Unpleasantness. It’s an album that is deeply rooted in catharsis for some pretty hefty emotions, but the shining point of pride for the band should be the way that they bring in a wealth of sleek, highly technical and modern riffs that sets this album light-years away from their previous endeavors. This is the album that is going to give them an edge above their peers, and it’ll be a real treat to see them grow from here.
Peep the review, once again by me, right here.
Proscription – Conduit
Snooping on Zyklonius’ Bandcamp purchases pays off almost every single time. If it wasn’t for that, Conduit is also an album whose artwork I was immediately drawn to like a fly to shit, but what’s on the inside is also certainly up my alley as well. A dark, truly evil brand of blackened death metal that has a gravitas that sets it apart from the usual “camo pants and oversized long-sleeve shirt” death metal and forces me to pay attention. Conduit is a smart, razor sharp album that feels truly unique in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. Probably the way that their split of black and death metal leans quite heavily on the aesthetics of black metal, but with the power and force of death metal. I don’t quite know why more people aren’t talking about this one. It feels like a game changer, and it’s surprising to me that I’m not more familiar with this band, and that it took me as long as I did to get around to this one.
Akhlys – Melinoë
First of all, I don’t think it’s fair that Akhlys just gets to use a picture of my sleep paralysis demon without my express consent, but I’m not gonna, like sue or anything. Mostly because of how literally terrifyingly good this album is. Melinoë is an album that is incredibly difficult to listen to, but the payoff is worth all the nightmares you’re left with. It’s black metal unlike any other black metal I can remember, a kind that feels truly otherworldly and demonic in a way that second-metal purists can only dream about. The inventive and wild use of discordant melodies and frightening vocals leave me speechless, both wanting more and afraid to click play one more time. It joins Mestarin Kynsi in the relatively new subgenre of “there’s a hell party full of demented clowns jamming out in my brain right now” metal, but in all seriousness, Melinoë is an album that is truly impressive in just how effectively it delivers on the promised concept. Debemur Morti really can’t do bad releases, huh?
Mare Cognitum/Spectral Lore – Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine
Okay, I will talk about why this one missed my list, actually. It’s two fucking hours, which is a lot of time to invest in an album that absolutely begs to be listened to in one solid go. So, with everything life threw at me, I didn’t exactly get many chances to spin this one, but when I did, I knew it was something really special. I love an album with unbridled ambition, even if it doesn’t pay off, but this astounding concept piece has both the ambition and payoff in spades. Is it dense? Yeah, of course. There’s a ton to unpack here, from black and death metal to prog elements, to jazz bass and ambient synths, but damn it all if you don’t listen to a song called “Saturn (The Rebel)” and immediately understand what it all means. The fact that some of these songs are written and performed by Spectral Lore and some are by Mare Cognitum doesn’t actually make this listen feel disjointed at all. The shared vision is so strong that it successfully unites everything together in something grand and magnificent in scope and execution.
Charles did a fantastic writeup of this one, and it won’t take you two hours to read through it!
Fuck the Facts – Pleine Noirceur
I vaguely remember the group chat buzzing with talk about this one, especially from Josh, who placed it solidly in his year end list. I also was…ahem, not in the right state of mind to be able to remember that we had been buzzing about this one the next morning, so I slept on it for a bit, and it took seeing it pop up again on our year end lists for me to remember to actually sit down and listen to the thing. And what a listen it is. I already mentioned in another list that it’s been a good year for grindcore, and Pleine Noirceur is another fantastic proof of my point. There’s a reason it’s been on quite a few of our year end lists in one spot or another, and that is the emotional weight that comes with these songs. This is grindcore with a point, not simply for the sake of making it, and the band’s blend of progressive and experimental ideas with traditional deathgrind has never been tighter or more focused.
Kardashev – The Baring of Shadows
In case you haven’t gotten my particular format yet, here is where I throw an EP, just to get a nice round number on things. Kardashev are truly unlike any other band I have ever heard before, and if you’d told me “atmospheric death metal” would ever be a thing, I would have surely thought you were joking. The Baring of Shadows is anything but a joke. Simply put, it’s gorgeous. I am the kind of person who sometimes shies away from clean vocals in metal, especially when they are super operatic, but the haunting wails and keening drifting in and out of the four track EP are the perfect foil to guitars that are simultaneously light as a feather and heavy as a ton of bricks. In a very post-metal way, they are steeped in dense layers of reverb, but there is enough space for everything to be comfortable and not have it be a super dense listen. And the melodies are truly glorious and heartbreaking, matching perfectly with the vocals. It is exceptional and unique among everything that I listened to last year, and I truly wish I’d gotten to it sooner, because it is certainly cruising to upset some slots.
Okay I’m finally done now. I promise no more lists, and certainly no more looking backwards. Truly, there is a lot to be excited about in 2021 and I’ve already got a lot of fun lined up in the books as part of the team and individually. Still, there are some albums that just won’t leave my brain until I talk about them, and these are the lion’s share of them. Not overlooked so much as just postponed, any of these albums could have done the trick if circumstances were different. So let’s look back fondly, if we can, on the last little bit of 2020 I’m keeping with me, as we look forward to better things.