El Cuervo’s and Diabolus in Muzaka’s Top Ten(ish) of 2020

El Cuervo

I’ve no doubt this subject will have been thoroughly addressed already: COVID-19. There really can be no other word to summarize 2020. While it’s significantly limited my day to day life, holiday plans and social skills, I’ve remained positive—due in no small part to music. A shockingly sunny British spring and summer, hard lockdown and a dearth of work (at least until August, at which point work started to shit on my life) meant I had plenty of time to dig into new music as I wandered the greener areas around my hometown.

A bumper crop of discoveries among new and old releases and my ever-expanding tastes resulted in my strongest year for music since 2015. I really struggled to refine my shortlist of 19 records and agonized over the #ish and #10 spots. Quality and quantity in a range of subgenres are evident, but it’s clear that death metal ruled the roost in 2020. It takes three spots in my top five and influences at least four further records across my list and HMs. Narrowing a top 10 songs of the year was equally challenging, though my final selection is highly satisfactory to me as it also demonstrates the range of music I enjoy beyond mere metal.

Stay safe and sensible this holiday season and let’s all cross our fingers for the expeditious dissemination of vaccines next year!


(ish). The Night Flight Orchestra // Aeromantic – You may question why you should spend your time on Aeromantic when the last two NFO releases already exist. It’s true that it does very little that differs. But it simply remains the case that NFO are the premium throwback rock band around, knocking out poppy, 80s bangers album after album. If you like great melodies, catchy lyrics, and direct songwriting, then really there is no excuse to not listen to Aeromantic. Questionable Christmas songs aside, 2020 proves that musical comfort food can still be fulfilling.

#10. Firelink // Firelink – Firelink is the archetype of a grower. It’s a record that initially disappointed me following my immediate admiration of last year’s The Inveterate Fire but which progressively elevated in my estimations until it clinched the last spot on this list at the eleventh (tenth?) hour. It’s a more challenging listen than its predecessor but rewards perseverance as the detailed songwriting and progressive song structures ultimately yield a deeper, richer experience. The relative heaviness and difficulty of the first half give way to a brighter, dynamic second, with tracks such as “Cloak of Marrow” and “End of Piety” matching the peak quality from The Inveterate Fire. Defying easy categorization, Firelink is a strong pick for those that enjoy fusions of death metal, black metal melody, and progression.

#9. Svalbard // When I Die, Will I Get Better? – And here it is: the typical one entry on my list from a genre I don’t normally care for but which struck me nonetheless. With its emotive command, thoughtful arrangements, and stark lyrics, it’s no wonder I enjoy the post-hardcore power of When I Die, Will I Get Better? I don’t even care too much that the lyrics are the auditory equivalent of a tumblr post as they address important issues such as gender inequality, female objectification, and the corrupting influence of social media. The intent is admirable and the music is so damn good that the on-the-nose nature of the lyrics doesn’t get in the way. The closing tripartite of songs is worth the price of entry alone.

#8. Vampire // Rex – Rex represents that mid-80s hybrid of styles which would later be deconstructed into differing classic, thrash, and death metal sub-genres, leveraging strains of each into infectious riffs and a lively atmosphere. Its melody, speed, and over-the-top approach ensure it’s everything I want in a 1980s metal record, except that it’s actually from 2020. It’s an album with a real sense of progression as each song is meaningful while also contributing to the whole.  Things culminate with “Anima” at the penultimate track and its own climax is distinctly powerful as we get the vocalist’s pained scream of “Anima!” Vampire have distilled their various 80s influences into their best record to date and I’m excited to hear what lies ahead.

#7. Kardashev // The Baring of Shadows – The first of two releases that are not full-length albums on this list, Kardashev were a revelation to me. Though they have a pedigree of which I was previously unaware, I don’t at all hear the deathcore that apparently used to characterize the band’s sound. What remains is lush, expansive post-metal, swaying between shimmering shoegaze and explosive death metal. Baring is deftly detailed and textured, but the controlling melodies ensure that focus on songs always remains (which is ordinarily my great grievance with post-metal). I don’t even care that the band uses an edgy ‘lower case with no punctuation’ approach to titling its songs. If you like dynamic metal, Kardashev is 2020’s easiest choice.

#6. Panopticon // Rune’s Heart – Ruminating (rune-inating?) on his son’s heart condition, Austin Lunn wrote one, single, expressive track to document the terrible experience via Panopticon, one of the top folk metal bands about. The emotional offloading into his music, memorable compositions, and melodic guitars result in a powerful but ultimately uplifting ode to resilience. The mournful stillness of the track’s middle passage, enclosed by blackened fury, lends dynamism to Rune’s Heart which most black metal cannot dream of achieving. Is it the best material he’s written? I debatably prefer a few other tracks in the Panopticon discography but rest assured that all of your atmospheric, folksy, blackened needs will be met by Rune’s Heart.

#5. Ulcerate // Stare into Death and Be Still – Yeah, I know. Ulcerate is the closest thing on this list to a critics’ consensus pick. But there is just something about the atmosphere on Stare into Death and Be Still. It’s perfectly described by its title; dark, nightmarish yet enrapturing. You can’t help but stare quietly at this death as it’s and swirling guitars and ridiculous rhythms storm around you. It isn’t abrasive and scouring like how other Ulcerate albums have been. The softer production and bolder melodies caress its listener as it demands everything from you but rest assured that there are few heavier 2020 albums. Does it stand above all other Ulcerate albums? Maybe, and if that doesn’t convince you then nothing will.

#4. The Midnight // Monsters – No, your eyes do not deceive you: this is the second The Midnight entry into the annual clusterfuck that we at AMG call “list season.” And I didn’t even have the good grace to hide this summary behind a deceptive note as in 2018. Sitting behind the broad “synthwave” tag, The Midnight are at the forefront of popular synth music for good reason. Unbelievable catchy melodies and immaculate, wistful production conjure a unique blend of electronic and pop. Representing a sure step away from Kids and its predecessors, Monsters adopts a slightly harsher tone, more 90s influences, and fewer overt pop-isms in its musings on adulthood and the modern day. It’s less chirpy and more experimental, but all the deeper for it. The Midnight remain uniquely affecting.

#3. Hellripper // The Affair of the Poisons – Speed. Scotland. Goats. Speed. These are but four of the elements at the heart of Hellripper’s second full-length and it’s a doozy. It’s impossible to overstate the unrelenting energy of Poisons; it’s utterly infectious and excites me every time I listen. Working in tandem with this energy is the brevity; Hellripper know that less is more, especially when it comes to the musical, if not temporal, excess of speed metal. No one wants a six-minute speed metal track and none here exceed five. Poisons is hardly revolutionary but offers a confident and accomplished refinement from James McBain’s existing repertoire of blackened speed metal.

#2. Ulthar // Providence – I knew within moments that Ulthar and their sophomore album would be approaching the top of my list. It’s the death metal completionist’s death metal album, touching on melodic, technical, dissonant, atmospheric, blackened, and thrashy influences from each decade since the 80s. But rest assured this is no homage. It looks forwards with its uniquely brutal approach, promulgating a mechanical but organic brand of death metal. Above all, Providence is an assured album. It sounds like the production of a band with far more tenure such are its precise but punishing song-writing and menacing directness. This is the sound of life being slowly but deliberately crushed by asphyxiation. ‘tis the year of death metal beginning with “ul”!

#1. Scolopendra // Those of the Catacombs – “It’s just not the kind of DM I equate with your taste.” – Ferrous Beuller, 2020. This thinly veiled scorn with which I am faced every day in the hostile cubicles of AMG UK Ltd would almost be enough to ward off a fan of metal’s cleaner sounds. But Scolopendra’s murky, warped, and savage take on old school death metal resonated with me more strongly than any other release in 2020. Catacombs finds quality through its deadly guitars, ripping vocals, and sharp songwriting, but finds exceptionality through its distinct and creeping atmosphere. The movies of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci are honored in the strange, grim ambiance. If Ulthar is death by asphyxiation, Scolopendra is death by murderous insects; you’ll feel disgusted while chunks of flesh are stripped away. Only with death metal could such a description be indicative of the best of anything in a given year.

 

Honorable Mentions

XenobioticMandrake // Here lies the second “not my usual jam” pick on this list. Hammering its listener with a peculiar brand of technical, progressive deathcore, Mandrake falls into the modern, overly-polished metal I would ordinarily detest, but overcomes this with one key ingredient: talent. Detailed compositions, thoughtful leads, and contrasting songwriting make this the thinking man’s deathcore.
WarbringerWeapons of Tomorrow // From the thrashing masterclass on “Firepower Kills” until the NWoBHM-influenced “Glorious End,” Warbringer in 2020 deliver their best album. It plays with the most diverse array of influences in their discography while doubling down on their strongest thrashing riffs to date. “Power Unsurpassed” sounds like an unintentional homage to Power Trip which is exactly what we need following the tragic passing of Riley Gale in August.
… and OceansCosmic World Mother // Though it didn’t stick with me as well as other early year favorites, … and Oceans and their first full-length in 18 (18!) years remains the best melodic black metal release of 2020. Scything leads and tasteful symphonic elements contribute to this memorable Finnish release. Extra kudos for penning the best metal track of 2020, “Five of Swords.”

Disappointment o’ the Year
Hail Spirit Noir // Eden in Reverse – Because fuck you, that’s why.

Songs o’ the Year

  1. The Night Flight Orchestra – “Divinyls”
  2. The Midnight – “Brooklyn”
  3. …and Oceans – “Five of Swords”
  4. Æther Realm – “Guardian”
  5. FM-84 – “Maverick”
  6. Warbringer – “Power Unsurpassed”
  7. Unleash the Archers – “Through Stars”
  8. Oceans of Slumber – “A Return to the Earth Below”
  9. Blaze of Perdition – “Moonchild”
  10. Ambush – “Hellbiter


Diabolus in Muzaka

Draft after draft have I prepared of this introduction, and draft after draft have I discarded. You see, there’s The Issue of anno domini 2020, and everyone will have their view on it and be eager to share it with you. You’ll read these takes everywhere as they fill the internet like discarded masks dot our streets, parks, and forests. I’ve concluded that The Issue involves profound questions that, unsurprisingly, cannot and should not be answered by a man writing in his capacity as an author on a metal site as part of an introduction to a list of his favorite records of the year. Plus, our feuds in the comments should be restricted to angrily inquiring why your favorite record(s) of the year didn’t make it onto this list but Alestorm did.

My listening habits this year skewed towards the 80s and early 90s, with the early records of King Diamond and Bathory (first three from each) being reliable sonic companions. Beyond that, Consuming Impulse, Deathcrush, Psalm 9, Live in Leipzig, Iron Maiden, Killers, Haunting the Chapel, most of Razor’s discography, the first Agent Steel record, early Hirax, and the criminally underappreciated On the Prowl by my hometown of London, Ontario’s very own Sabre found a happy home on my stereo. While I didn’t ignore new music entirely, I did admittedly listen to much less of it than in an average year. Predictably, this caused my list to skew largely towards what was familiar to me, but this familiarity forced higher standards and, I think, produced a better list because of it.

Unfortunate circumstances this year led me to inherit a cassette deck in September. As I’m part Dutch, I lost not my grandmother but my Oma. I’m grateful for all the time I was blessed to spend with her. She was of that generation who disliked seeing anything go to waste (a trait I’ve inherited), so naturally this meant I started up a humble cassette collection out of a self-imposed obligation to use the deck as it was intended instead of keeping it around as a dusty relic. It’s been a fun time determining what a good “cassette album” is and finding a copy of Loudness’ legendary Thunder in the East at my local record store helped kick that off in earnest. It’s been interesting getting used to the unique sound of tapes, as they offer quite the peculiar listening experience which I’m not whatsoever used to. I don’t intend to trivialize my Oma’s courageous final battle with cancer by this cassette deck bit, but rather to put whatever small positive spin I can on the matter.

Before concluding this introduction, I would as always like to thank my excellent colleagues, our tireless editors, and our one-man IT department extraordinaire. You’ve all done wonders for this site, improving it muchly from the already great place I was honored to join in 2014. You’ve also been great digital companions throughout the year, and while we may have our disagreements you all have my respect and gratitude. To our readers, thank you for choosing AMG in the zero-sum game of picking what to do on the internet. Billions of websites at your fingertips, and you keep coming back here; to say I’m humbled is an understatement.

Without further ado, below is a list of the records that served as the contemporary soundtrack to my 2020. Let’s all take the night off and focus on the positives of 2020. Here’s to a better 2021, and another decade of heavy metal thunder.


(ish). Blaze of Perdition // The Harrowing of Hearts – The impact and import of The Harrowing of Hearts has not waned since I first heard it in January. Blaze of Perdition have one of the most interesting takes on religion black metal has to offer: a depiction of struggling with it. This is music that finds the beauty in inner turmoil, as inner turmoil about life’s biggest questions is fundamental to the search for truth. With moments of beauty and hope giving way to darkness and aggression and vice versa, this is an emotional record but not a maudlin one. A powerful listen that proved cathartic throughout the year, especially with the pitch-perfect Fields of the Nephilim cover which closes the record on a note of elation.

#10. Membaris // Misanthrosophie – Now this is how what we call “melo-black” is supposed to sound. Membaris writes boldly and with purpose, utilizing clean vocals and big leads tastefully and never as a crutch. These finely crafted songs require time and attention to grasp, and the skill with which Membaris writes and plays throughout all 54 minutes handsomely rewards the listener’s attention. Scattered throughout the runtime of Misanthrosophie are moments of melodic brilliance, elevating further a black metal record already well-above average. These climactic moments land with full force thanks to smart songwriting and a focus on patiently developing a structure instead of rushing through it. Few fifty-four-minute records are this respectful of the listener’s time.

#9. Defeated Sanity // The Sanguinary Impetus – Is this the best Defeated Sanity record? A case could absolutely be made, but I prefer Psalms of the Moribund. “Propelled into Sacrilege” still has the best slam of 2020 though. Every time I spin The Sanguinary Impetus I grow more impressed with how Colin Marston’s expert production captures flawlessly how unabashedly weird yet unbelievably heavy Defeated Sanity manages to be here. Imagine an elephant figured out how to wield a sledgehammer with its trunk and alternated between hitting you with it and stomping on you while guitar, bass, and drum clinics happen simultaneously in the vicinity. Now imagine that you enjoyed that experience, and you’ve got an accurate picture of why Defeated Sanity is the best brutal death metal record of 2020.

#8. Lantern // Dimensions – In a year full of much quality death metal, Lantern quietly dropped the best thing they’ve ever done. Underneath Lantern’s Finnish death metal run two currents: one of Hellenic black metal, and the other of Mercyful Fate. This creates a fascinating vision of death metal, which is made all the more exciting by one of the most charismatic vocal performances of the year in this subgenre. Lantern performs with confidence and without compromise throughout Dimensions, and their years of experience as a band have given them the hard-earned chops to make this all really work. Dimensions sees Lantern truly finding their sound, and this sound resonated deeply with me.

#7. Bütcher // 666 Goats Carry My Chariot – I love old speed metal, especially when it takes the “evil” shtick well beyond parody. Venom were the masters of this, followed by Bulldozer. Decades later, along come Bütcher with their sophomore release to add to that loud and proud lineage. This is a trve celebration of how much fun speed metal is, with uproariously tasteless lyrics that would make Venom chuckle and music that perfectly captures the spirit of this fast, loud, and fun subgenre. This record is so anti-poser that Paul Baloff might’ve described it as “a bit much” if he were around to hear it. This was the first record I loved in 2020, and I’ve grown fonder of it over the course of the year.

#6. Wytch Hazel // III: Pentecost – What a joyful record this is. Pressing play on III: Pentecost is like sitting down by a fire on a chilly September night. It’s warm, it’s bright, and for the time it’s on all negativity seems to depart into the flames. I’m of the opinion that this is a result of frontman Colin Hendra’s faith permeating every crevice of this record, as he puts to music the joys that come therewith. This is not a “preachy” record, but one expressing the effects of the Good News on the songwriter’s soul. Sitting by the fire, we often begin to reflect—aloud if we’re among friends—on all that we’re thankful for. Sitting down with III: Pentecost inspires the same reaction.

#5. Lord Vigo // Danse De Noir – I felt a bit burnt out on metal for a time in April of this year. One day before my walk, Lord Vigo was dropped into my lap and I loaded it onto my music player before heading out. When I finished that walk—and about two spins of Danse De Noir—I was no longer burnt out on metal. The Blade Runner suite which takes up the record’s A-side is gloriously cheesy but incredibly effective, and this effort to establish an identity for the record went a long way in making it unforgettable. It’s hard to believe this only got a 3.5 here, and I wrote the review. Back when I was a youngster playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, I developed a real love for the 80s aesthetic, and experiencing it done well has been exciting ever since. Lord Vigo captures this excitement perfectly on Danse De Noir, succeeding in making me nostalgic for a time I never lived through but grateful to experience it vicariously through art.

#4. Akurion // Come Forth to Me – I don’t remember what I was hoping for when, on a commenter’s recommendation, I decided to check out Akurion, a band I’d heard nothing about prior. After I’d finished listening, it was clear that Come Forth to Me was the death metal record I wanted but didn’t know how to find, and it was written, performed, and executed at a level beyond my expectations. Quebecois death metal was a major part of my formative years, and Cryptopsy has remained my favorite death metal band from there for over a decade. Akurion have continued the streak of wild creativity that inspired the best of Cryptopsy, crafting a celebration of Quebecois death metal past, present, and future. A towering landmark of death metal that will be remembered for years.

#3. Armored Saint // Punching the Sky – This record, and Armored Saint themselves, are indomitable. I’d originally slated Punching the Sky at “ish” after a few spins, but I kept coming back and finding that the songs, like Armored Saint themselves, age like fine wine. There’s grit here which comes from working hard for years, chops that come from decades of practice, and an honest spirit, free of irony, which comes from keeping the flames of passion lit for the thing you’re doing. Armored Saint makes heavy metal, and they make it for people who love heavy metal—themselves included. Most of all, Punching the Sky has soul, and it invigorates with each listen.

#2. Alestorm // Curse of the Crystal Coconut – There are people who really didn’t agree with my totally unbiased, level-headed, objective, and accurate review of this record, and that’s fine; not everyone can have 11 different songs stuck in their head simultaneously and like it. During a summer where my job—like the jobs of many others—got “lost” for a time, singing Alestorm songs aloud to myself as I rushed around a warehouse fulfilling orders in my “replacement” job made my palpable disappointment much more tolerable. I’m grateful for that, but I’m also grateful that the endless font of joviality that is Alestorm is bolstered by terrific songwriting and a savant’s grasp of how to make unforgettable hooks. These songs, like those from Sunset on the Golden Age, will remain forever lodged in my brain and I’m perfectly fine with that. I’d like to end this entry with a single word: Tortuga.

#1. Skyryder // Vol. 2 – Every time I hear Vol. 2, I’m catapulted back to when I heard Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast with fresh ears, wondering if all of metal was this good. Turns out it’s not—there’s plenty of rough for diamonds to get buried in. Skyryder recaptures that early feeling of that instinct that kicked in and told me that this was the type of music I’d been looking for. No need to chase that early dragon – Skyryder caught it and was nice enough to divide it amongst five truly excellent songs for our listening pleasure. Rare is the album where I can hardly get past the first song because of a compulsive need to replay it, but “Virtual Humanity” begins Vol. 2 in precisely that fashion. It took me far too long to reach closing number “Take the Night” and realize that it was just as good, but when I did it was quite the pleasant shock. 2020’s Record o’ the Year isn’t a record, nor even the friends we made along the way, but an EP from the best and most exciting new band playing old metal I’ve heard in years.

 

Honorable Mentions

  • Anaal Nathrakh – Endarkenment // A strange case of an “objective 4.0.” It deserved the glowing review and score Grymm gave it, but much as I too enjoyed Endarkenment, it was a bit too safe to crack the list proper. Nevertheless, another great record from Kenney and Hunt is cause for celebration.
  • Nyktophobia – What Lasts Forever // This may be the band’s best work yet. Great melodic death metal that doesn’t get bogged down in the polished and saccharine, delivering ample blasting and riffs instead.
  • Traveler – Termination Shock // A definite improvement over the already good debut, Traveler have made a fat-free and phenomenally fun metal record with Termination Shock.
  • Schizogen – Spawn of Almighty Essence // I found this to be a playful, fun, and creative technical death metal record that remembered to be brutal and do cool stuff with the instruments instead of just mindless shredding.
  • Undergang – Aldrig i livet // Death metal for people who like death metal. I’ll probably regret not putting this in the list proper sometime next year.
  • Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still // This is music that embraces the catharsis of screaming into the void. I’m grateful to have had it around when it was needed.
  • Obscene – The Inhabitable Dark // An all-around quality death metal record, especially the Martin van Drunen style of vocals. A hearty helping of meat and potatoes is always welcome.
  • Occult Burial – Burning Eerie Lore // Standout black-speed for fans of Hellripper. The Affair of the Poisons ruled, but I liked Occult Burial’s record a wee bit more.
  • Freeways – True Bearings // A band of my fellow Ontarians doing our province proud with hooky and well-composed NWOBHM-tinged classic rock.
  • Cirith Ungol – Forever Black // The return of a band most influential and trve, the weak did not heed the call but I hope that you do.
  • Everything Else I’ve Mentioned this List Season – Every Record I Discussed in Year-End/TYMHM Posts Both Published and Yet to Come // If they’re not in the Top Ten below, they’re Honorable Mentions.

Disappointment o’ the Year: Bittersweet Symphony of Sickness Edition

The End of PRC Music: On December 31st, PRC Music will close its doors and its owners will move on to new adventures in their lives. I wish them the best of luck in their future endeavors. With that said, it’s sad to see PRC go. I remember stumbling across the then-tiny Canadian distro and label when seeking out a copy of Desecresy‘s The Doom Skeptron, and striking up a friendly relationship with one of the owners. I spent parts of many paychecks at PRC, because they always had one ear to the underground and knew where to find some of the best underground extreme metal. Congratulations to PRC Music for all the success, and thanks for all the tunes.

Songs o’ the Year

  • Akurion – “Petals of a Rose Eventually Wither to Black”
  • Alestorm – “Tortuga”
  • Armored Saint – “Unfair”
  • Blaze of Perdition – “Moonchild”
  • Bütcher – “Iron Bitch”
  • Defeated Sanity – “Propelled into Sacrilege”
  • Freeways – “Dead Air”
  • Lord Vigo – “Between Despair and Ecstasy”
  • Skyryder – “Take the Night”
  • Skyryder – “Virtual Humanity”
  • Traveler – “Foreverman”

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