Dr. Wvrm’s Top Ten(ish) of 2020

The review game is tough. Sometimes, the anger burns hot, and you’ve got five paragraphs in an hour. Sometimes, the dictive bowels ain’t moving well, and you’ve really gotta work it out. But what do you do when the tank runs dry? At times this year (and the last as well), it’s felt like I’ve been scraping bottom, not just in terms of how much I want to write, but how much I even want to listen to metal. After consuming so much for so long in a musical landscape constitutionally bound to stagnation, I spent a lot of days this year begging the refuge of other shores, of chillhop and synthwave, They Might Be Giants and Wanima and The Mountain Goats, to keep myself from losing my mind.

As such, though not as well-researched as prior years, this list and the records enclosed herein are loved all the more, as they are the scions that punched through my malaise. I listened to them because I wanted to listen to them. I hope you like them as much as I do.

Despite not showing my face quite as often, I appreciate this community and the rest of the AMG staff more than ever. That’s why I’ve stuck around and tried to make myself useful in other ways instead of throwing in the towel. A big thank you to Steel Druhm and the rest of the editorial staff for allowing me to be one rung above useless. A very special thanks to Mrs. Wvrm, who continues to kick my ass every time I go a while without writing anything, though I suspect this is more for personal ends than anything. The more wailing, gnashing torture-porn soundtracks I listen to for review, the less of the chillhop and synthwave that she hates oh so much gets played in the house. I probably should be concerned about what appeals to her, specifically, very specifically, about Vulvodynia and Shining compared to Kupla and Megahit, but she’s a keeper nonetheless.

And thank you to you, for stopping in, even if just to say hi or tell me I fucking suck. I hope this last year has treated you well.

#ish. Countless Skies // Glow – I’ve previously described Countless Skies as “Be’lakor for the birds, instead of the Minotaur.” Though properly tickled by my descriptive abilities, I quietly harbored concerns  with the proof-of-concept nature behind Countless Skies’ debut New Dawn. For the band to transcend adoring homage, Glow needed to fill the twin demands of depth and originality. And boy did it. The record does leave room to grow, but at its most spectacular zenith? Countless Skies is the limit for this band.

#10. Svalbard // When I Die, Will I Get Better? – I hate post. Post cereal, the postal service, those paired grinning bastards denying fans the ecstasy of goal, and especially post-metal. It takes something truly electric to get me to give a good goddamn about post-anything, and Svalbard somehow managed it. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about it that’s hard to place. The offsetting tenderness and intensity, the sheer momentum, the Astronoidian ethereality, it’s got such a right-place, right-time feel to it that I can’t help but love it.

#9. The Night Flight Orchestra // Aeromantic – It’s no Amber Galactic, but it’s also no Sometimes the World Ain’t Enough. AMG’s favorite AOR act’s latest entry fell somewhere between the agony and the ecstasy, and you know what? It’s still pretty great. The bangers could have their own top ten list, the clunkers are mitigated, and the singalongs satiate my need for Speed. It pains me to think that the band’s peak are probably behind them (that’s what happens when you start releasing an album in a year), but if this is their baseline, I can’t be too upset.

#8. Kvaen // The Funeral Pyre – That line. That stupid fucking line. Part of me wants to argue that line is the only reason it’s on anyone’s list, but off me fuck, chief. The Funeral Pyre is excellent. The 80s swagger and panache; the savage pillaging of the meloblack metal riffery; the stone-cold execution and the surprising depth; this is truly an album for all ages. If you like metal, any genre at all, you’ll find something here to delight you (even if it’s just that stupid fucking line).

#7. Cytotoxin // Nuklearth – Every year, there’s a death metal record that beats my ass into shriveled, irradiated grass. It usually lands around this spot on my list, usually the result of me riding Kronos‘ coattails, usually riddled with that sweet, sweet cred. This year’s entry is Cytotoxin, and to be honest, before this year I thought these guys were turbo-losers. The awkward puns,1 the kitschy art, the whole thing screamed “two-point-fucking-zero.” Except it isn’t. It’s some of the heaviest death to come steamrolling up your ass-phalt, in a banner year for the genre to boot. It’s hard to recommend a song or two when all of the songs or two are worth recommending. Get irradiated.

#6. Mitochondrial Sun // Mitochondrial Sun – Never once have I ever given a shit about instrumental work, to say nothing of ambient, so this is a surprise, even for me. But something about Niklas Sundin’s (Dark Tranquillity) dark, brooding electronic envelopment speaks to the same part of me that enjoys Low Roar and the dulcet calm of chillhop. The compositions feel whole despite a lack of vocals, and the overall feel is fresh when splashed against a metal scene that, with rare exception, hasn’t exactly embraced the expanding electronic frontier. This venue could be a pristine, unspoiled dimension for Mitochondrial Sun to explore (let’s all just agree to ignore the mediocre Unreqvited apery of immediate follow-up Sju Pulsarer). Very few, if any, metal(ish) bands out there doing what Sundin is doing here, so I’m not even joking when I say it’s free real estate. We could be—I hope we are—witnessing the start of something new here. Jørn knows metaldom needs it.

#5. Havok // V – This is the Havok album for which I’ve waited a decade, and damn, is it good. It was never a sure thing that the Coloradoans would find their way out of sterling, if single-dimensioned, infancy into something more substantial; thrash metal has trapped better bands. But after a few roundabout efforts and pretty good tries, it’s V delivering the goods. Their thrash is technical and sneering, deriving elements from wherever strikes their fancy, all for the purpose of cutting the meanest, tightest songs possible. Certain vestiges of the past may linger, but Havok no more enshrine them than give them a wide berth. The results in turn gleam with a modern vivacity and immediacy that so much of thrash lacks, lighting the way for a band only just getting started.

#4. Anaal Nathrakh // Endarkenment – Sorry to the underground, to the kvlt and trve. Anaal Nathrakh’s years of poser annihilation, and all the cred that went along with it, gone overnight. There is no greater sign of a band’s personal apocalypse than when it starts appearing on lists across weeniedom… like yours truly’s. The increased focus on approachability, on melody and hooks, works miracles in directing a sound best described – then and now – as bottled chaos. The result combines savage and catchy in a way that shouldn’t make sense but does. Pinnacles like those of “The Age of Starlight Ends” and consensus Song o’ the Year finalist “Endarkenment” aren’t exactly shadows on the cave wall to the band that wrote “On Being a Slave” and “More of Fire Than Blood,” but the step required to reach this point is a massive one in terms of songwriting intent. I have no idea if this is a one-off, or the first step in a phase of Anaal Nathrakh’s career, but either way, Endarkenment will always be a spectacle.

#3. Panzerfaust // The Suns of Perdition – Chapter II: Render Unto Eden – Black metal, for better or worse, is black metal. No frills, no fucks, and certainly no surprises. In fact, the only time the genre surprises me anymore is when it can overcome that lack of surprise. Render Unto Eden is that record. It doesn’t seem like it should stick around; Panzerfaust don’t do anything that 1914, Mgła, take your pick, hasn’t done before, and yet… I can’t stop listening to them. There are no surprises, and yet the deceptively clever slow build from “Promethean Fire” still lulls you into a false sense of security. There are no surprises, as “The Faustian Pact” and “Areopagitica” endlessly produce meaningful direction after savage riff. There are no surprises, coos “The Snare of the Fowler” harmlessly, just before laying down the hammer on one of the best tracks of the year. Render Unto Eden doesn’t have to surprise to be successful. It manages success all on its own.

#2. Lör // Edge of Eternity – I never quite understood the widespread embrace of Lör’s debut In Forgotten Sleep, number one on the 2017 AMG Aggregate List and an album I bitterly wished I enjoyed more than I did. I understand even less the lack of that same treatment for Edge of Eternity. The spin is arguably the five best songs of the year, so what gives? Is it the “shorter” length? Asinine if true; the taut format lends a directness that In Forgotten Sleep lacked. Is it the prioritization of thrashy punch over classic heavy and progressive exposition? A more likely culprit, given the multitude of trad and prog weenies kicking about here, and not an argument I can win simply by saying “the music is better,” even though the music is fucking better. Every improvement Lör could make after In Forgotten Sleep, save a polished production, they delivered in grand fashion. This is the record Lör should be known for. This is the power metal we need in our lives.

#1. Protest the Hero // Palimpsest – The best bands manage relevance for years. The rare band offers transcendence but once. Consider this my Contrite Metal Wvrm piece: Palimpsest is Protest the Hero’s magnum opus, full stop. The taming and transformation of their frenetic fretwork into a laser-focused masterclass of songwriting. The sage introduction of orchestration bolstering an already intense and complex sonic profile. The spine-chilling themes of the record eerily plugging directly into the core of our zeitgeist. The sheer magnitude and indomitability of the entire thing, standing against the worst year of our collective lives and coming out essential. A great record dazzles, irrelevant of context; the best bend back upon it, so immutable that it changes the context around it instead. That will be forever how I think of Palimpsest, striking at the right place in the right time such that its tales of poverty and selfishness and hope could just as easily be happening outside my door. These songs aren’t about somewhere else, couldn’t be for someone else. They’re so inextricably linked to right now that I can’t imagine another record having a similar impact on me, now or in the future.


Honorable Mentions

Non-Metal Albums o’ the Year

  • Wanima // Cheddar Flavor – If I’m being totally honest, this is my actual album of the year. I listened to it so much in the last two months of 2020 that it was my most listened-to record of the year, and each of my top five songs most played last year came from that record. That’s not hard with grindcore lengths, infectious enthusiasm, and a stupid-fun level of catchiness. If you don’t believe me, check out the twin bill of “Life” and “Cheddar Flavor.”
  • Kupla // Kingdom in Blue – A gorgeous, soothing EP, capped by “Valentine,” my favorite chillhop track of the year.

Disappointment(s) o’ the Year // Dark Tranquillity’s Moment, Elder’s Omens, and Æther Realm’s Redneck Vikings from Hell – Following up 4.5+ material is no easy feat, especially when I consider the records in question to be modern benchmarks in their particular genres. However, 2020’s entries from three of my favorite bands saw a such staggering drop in quality that not even I could fanboy my way into liking. Here’s hoping they find their form again their next time out.

Songs o’ the Year

  • Æther Realm – “TMHC”
  • Anaal Nathrakh – “Endarkenment”
  • Carnation – “Iron Discipline”
  • Kvaen – “Yee Naaldlooshii”
  • Lör – “A Life Once Known”
  • Necrot – “Sinister Will”
  • The Night Flight Orchestra – “Taurus”
  • Panzerfaust – “The Snare of the Fowler”
  • Protest the Hero – “All Hands”
  • Protest the Hero – “Rivet”

Show 1 footnote

  1. Nuklearth is a shitty album name, I don’t care what you think.
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