Huck N’ Roll’s and Eldritch Elitist’s Top Ten(ish) of 2020

Huck N’ Roll

What a year. And I mean that in both glowing and apocalyptic terms. As we up here in Canada finally emerged from our snow-covered homes in May, I made a decision to attack the year, like a certain Dungeons and Dragons player attacked the darkness all those years ago. So yeah, a ton of stuff about this year sucked, but I focused on the positive: my job was stable, I got a ton of mountain biking in, and my friends and family are all pulling through.

Musically this was an awesome year. The overall quality of releases was incredibly high, and every week something great was coming out that I loved playing. Putting this list together was no easy task; I had at least fifty albums that could have placed anywhere from “Honorable Mention” to, say, third place. For the top? Well, all year I kept waiting for those one or two albums that really stood head and shoulders above the pack. They never came. So yeah, it was an awesome year for really good albums, but nothing earth-shattering. Hence, not a single 4.5 review from Yours Truly.

The list below is neither perfect nor diverse; it’s simply the albums I connected with the most in a year most of us likely want to forget. If these picks can change even one life, then it was all worth it. Have a read, and let me know how bad these picks are in the comments, or if you happen to like any of these albums. Cheers!

(ish). Armored Saint // Punching the Sky – And right off the bat the dad metal fan in me comes out. Just like back in 2018, when I threw Judas Priest into my -ish position. Well, when a band of grizzled graybeards can harness the energy of bands half their age, write a batch of excellent songs, and play their asses off, you reward them. I’ve played Punching the Sky back to back with March of the Saint more than once this autumn, and I continue to be impressed. All of these songs cut to the chase and feature stellar performances: “End of the Attention Span” and “Missile to Gun” in particular have great hooks. I’m also pretty sure John Bush is ageless. This is the band’s best work since Symbol of Salvation.

#10. Hyborian // Vol. II – Every year, the same acquaintance recommends a band to me that I’ve never heard of, and I’m blown away. Two years ago, it was Agrimonia. Then last year, Adrift. And this year, Hyborian. Vol. II is the most muscular album I listened to this year, jacked-up with riff upon riff yet boiling over with a complexity that takes you by surprise. The way each song transitions into a new riff towards the end then drops into the next song at a blistering pace keeps one’s adrenaline spiking. And if you need to do a voiceover, the bizarre manner in which this album ends is how you do it. Vol. II is the musical equivalent of a jackhammer. I can’t wait for Vol. III.

#9. Oceans of Slumber // Oceans of Slumber – The most cerebral of my choices here, in that it took a ton of focused listening sessions to really appreciate everything happening on this album. I’ve always been a fan of Oceans of Slumber’s work, and here on their self-titled the stars (and hard work) all align to create the band’s most vital work. As always, Cammie Gilbert brings her A-game to the party, singing with confidence and emotion while the band augments her vocals with extravagant arrangements and top-notch musicianship. While it is true that the band doesn’t really write that one undeniably perfect song on their albums, here they present us with eleven songs overflowing with the vitality that often accompanies massive lineup overhauls such as what they’ve gone through here.

#8. Nug // Alter Ego – Yup, I told Grymm I thought these guys sound like The Ocean without the clean vocals. That was a very brief summary just to hook him, though. Really, these guys can take their place beside all the heavy hitters of the post-prog world: Cult of Luna, Isis, you name it; the songs are that good. Their debut EP was this strong, as well. There’s an amazing amount of talent in this band, and the music is much more than just a wall of sound once you peel the layers back. And the vocalist’s other project, Octopus Kraft, just released a very cool album last month. With all these bands name-dropped here, along with newcomers Nug, progressive post-metal is in very good hands.

Katatonia - City Burials#7. Katatonia // City Burials – Wait, I talk about surrounding myself with positivity this year and then I put this on my list? Well, I consider City Burials to be positive in a different way. Yeah, it’s morose and gloomy, and one can consider it a bit depressive. But for me, the way Katatonia have put this record together is a joy to listen to, more so with each listen. I was a bit more into the songwriting than AMG Himself. Sure, there’s some unevenness to be found here—particularly for me in the oddly-arranged guitar solos at times—but there is on every album this year, and that doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the most gorgeous-sounding albums of the year.

#6. Black Crown Initiate // Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape – I put Black Crown Initiate on my second tier of 2020 releases I was looking forward to. My hope was for them to take even just an incremental step forward in the evolution of their sound, and they did that and more here. I’ve gotten more into progressive death metal over the last few years. To hook me in you need the hooks, the variety in the songwriting, some unique tidbits in the arrangements, and most importantly a diverse vocal mix. Violent Portraits… has all of that going for it. To me there was a ton of good prog-death this year—Descend, Rannoch, Xenobiotic, Luna’s Call, the list goes on—but this album took the crown.

#5. Haken // Virus – As the opening notes of “Prosthetic” graced my speakers, I thought “Oh no, more djent, the lads won’t be happy with this at all.” But that song turned out to be merely a transition from Vector to Virus. The rest of this album, while it does sadly feature too-mechanical, over-processed drum production and arrangement, is an enticing mix of Haken then and now. Elements of The Mountain outweigh holdovers from Vector. What puts Haken over the top in this genre isn’t the complex arrangements, the technical aptitude, or the Rush-like musicianship. It’s Ross Jennings’ vocal melodies, which make every song far catchier than it should be. This is pretty much the only prog where one wants to sing along.

#4. Wobbler // Dwellers of the Deep – I’m always stoked to hear new music from Wobbler, and Dwellers of the Deep was no exception. Their last album garnered Honorable Mention in my 2017 list, and that might have been underrating it. Wobbler craft 70s-era progressive rock like nobody else these days, imbuing their often-lengthy compositions with a mystic feel and unique tone that never fails to cast a spell on the listener. This is Andreas Prestmo’s third album as the vocalist, and all three albums are amongst the best prog had to offer in their release years. Wobbler aren’t heavy and they aren’t metal, but they do write some of the most enticing music out there.

#3. Loviatar // Lightless – For a few months this was my top album of the year. Certain folks amongst us poo-pooed J.D. Gobeil’s vocals, but I kind of dig them. And the songwriting hits just the right spot for me. Doom wasn’t really my thing this year, largely due to my desire to seek out positivity during the on-going shitshow, but Loviatar throw enough hooks, pacing, and changeups into Lightless that I’m constantly engaged. TheKenWord nailed it in his review, and while I don’t know if Lightless is going to make it onto his list, I sure hope it does. The worst thing about this album is the fact that a vinyl purchase from these fellow Canadians would run me nearly $70. Ludicrous, but oh so close to worth it.

#2. Vulkan // Technatura – There was a ton of amazing music this year that I just couldn’t devote enough time to, albums that, after a couple of cursory listens, quite possibly would have knocked a few of these ones out of the list. There just wasn’t enough time to really get into all of those albums, but Technatura had enough going for it that it was the one non-promo album I kept returning to whenever I had a moment of respite in my schedule. Through the course of the last few months, Vulkan’s latest album has moved from “interesting” all the way up to my second-favorite of the year, bumping more than a few worthy contenders down the rungs. Writing a compelling and original progressive rock album will do that for you.

#1. The Ocean // Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic – Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic finished high on my 2018 list, so it is no surprise that II, a better album, would do the same. And with many of my most-anticipated albums falling short this year, nobody came along to knock this album off its lofty perch. That might sound like faint praise, but it really isn’t. The Ocean have pushed themselves further compositionally than ever before, and the vocal performances are home runs. The opening and closing trios of songs are the epitomai of progressive metal. Aside from a brief and somewhat directionless lull in the middle, Phanerozoic II is a near-perfect album, and the best 2020 had to offer.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Gaerea // Limbo – In honor of our dearly departed Muppet, another solid effort from this band.
  • Imperial Triumphant // Alphaville – Two black metal (or black metal-adjacent) albums in my HM? I guess I’m expanding my tastes a bit! But I love the insanity here.
  • Manticora // To Live to Kill to Live – Their best album so far, an excellent genre-mashing collection of songs.
  • Megaton Sword // Blood Hails Steel – Steel Hails Fire – The apex of all the epic metal albums released this year. And there were a lot of good ones!
  • Xenobiotic // Mordrake – This prog death album stood the test of time, sounding as good upon revisiting as it did ten months ago.

Biggest Disappointment: My hopes for the big hitters going into the year. The bands I had my eye on didn’t release duds, but they all put out albums I had much higher hopes for: Blues Pills, Deftones, Elder, Fates Warning, Huntsmen, The Night Flight Orchestra, Pain of Salvation, Pallbearer, Ulver, and Witchcraft, if you want ten names.

Second Biggest Disappointment: Bad PR, no PR, and bands that don’t think they need PR. There were at least ten albums that, had I been able to listen to them in my review cycle, could have cracked my list. Alas, no promo showed up, and when you review hundreds of albums a year one doesn’t have time to listen to music simply for fun. Thus only one band outside the regular review cycle cracks my list.

Best Review Comment: Raven // Metal City. “Off you fuck, chief” will go down in the annals of history. I’m still told that almost daily here at Chez Huck.

I Shouldn’t Have Reviewed This But I Slept In A Holiday Inn Express Last Night: Sepultura // Quadra. I’m glad I did, though. A super album that didn’t miss the list by much.

Songs o’ the Year

  1. The Ocean – “Jurassic | Cretaceous”
  2. High Spirits – “Voice in the Wind”
  3. Dead Kosmonaut – “The Spirit Divide”
  4. Hyborian – “Planet Destructor”
  5. Dool – “Be Your Sins”
  6. Pure Reason Revolution – “Eupnea”
  7. The Night Flight Orchestra – “Transmissions”
  8. Ian Blurton“Space is Forever”
  9. Witchcraft – “Elegantly Expresssed Depression”
  10. Mortal Device – “All That I Have”

Eldritch Elitist

I regularly think about a comment I received sometime around my first anniversary of writing for Angry Metal Guy. The gist of the comment was that whenever this person read one of my positive reviews, they were excited because they knew there was a high probability that they would enjoy the album as well. In this absolute shitfest of a year, periodically reminding myself of this commenter’s support has done two things. Firstly, it has encouraged me to keep writing and to make a genuine effort at putting together a proper year-end list, despite my unwillingness to tear myself away from Cannibal Corpse’s discography in the last several months. Secondly, it is a constant reminder of the kindness of people, and how even the smallest offhand voicing of support can make all the difference to someone who is struggling in hard times. This second point also extends to my AMG colleagues and superiors, who have been extremely friendly and supportive as I’ve struggled to maintain my drive to write.

This year’s list, admittedly, feels under-researched. I spent most of the year catching up with essential bands I’d neglected over the years, and a lot of amazing records slipped under my radar if no one screamed at me to listen to them; hence the lack of honorable mentions. Nevertheless, I feel like I have a pretty great collection of records that served as excellent companions throughout this year. If you’ve ever found a personal treasure based on anything I’ve written in the past, I think you’ll find at least one thing to love here as well.

(ish) Sojourner // PremonitionsSojourner’s past efforts have offered high-quality black metal escapism in the Summoning tradition, but Premonitions is downright transportive. Their atmosphere has condensed into something borderline tangible with the record, which evokes darkened, apocalyptic landscapes translated through an idealistic storybook lens. Premonitions’ individual cuts don’t quite touch the best tracks from 2018’s The Shadowed Road, but it’s a far more consistent effort, and tracks like “Fatal Frame” and “The Event Horizon” come damn close to matching Sojourner’s greatest hits. It’s still difficult to say whether this makes Premonitions the superior record, but it is every bit as good, cementing Sojourner’s burgeoning discography as one of the best early footholds in atmospheric black metal.

#10. Æther Realm // Redneck Vikings from HellRedneck Vikings from Hell is not a traditional listmaker. Its consistency is just a bit too scattershot to bar it from true greatness. But god damn if it isn’t an excellent comfort record, and one that I’ve leaned heavily on this year thanks to Æther Realm’s emotional openness. It’s rare to hear a metal record as nakedly honest in its lyrics as this one, and its commitment to wholeheartedly embracing the good and bad in life helps make sense of its scattershot tone. Æther Realm’s take on pop-oriented melodeath isn’t a slam dunk with every track, but all of the quicksilver thrills and emotional swells of Tarot are well intact. Though it’s the lesser of the two records, I’ve probably listened to RVFH as many times in 2020 as I did Tarot in 2017. It goes to show that earnestness goes far in selling convincingly good music, and a record as honest as this one feels nothing like a sellout.

#9. Kvaen // The Funeral Pyre – 2020 has been an off-year for my relationship with traditional black metal. Tremolo riffs regurgitated into minor key oblivion were largely off the table for me as I sought out the excesses of power metal and the crushing weight of death metal. Yet Kvaen endured. Why? Because The Funeral Pyre is the exceedingly rare slab of second wave worship that’s actually fucking fun. Like, almost pizza thrash levels of fun. And while this isn’t really a blackened thrash record, its regular injections of speed metal thrills keep the blood pumping without straying too far from black metal conventions. The surprisingly thoughtful songwriting is an unexpected wrinkle in music like this, yet as I’m still finding new details to appreciate with each spin, it’s clear that Jakob Björnfot has vaulted himself to near-prestige status on his first go at a solo outing. Fire, fire, fire fucking fire indeed.

Afterbirth - Four Dimensional Flesh album cover#8. Afterbirth // Four Dimensional FleshFour Dimensional Flesh is as smart as it is dumb, and boy is it smart. Afterbirth’s take on progressive death metal is like little I’ve heard in the genre; where most progressive metal bands have a certain whiff of pretentiousness about them at the best of times, Four Dimensional Flesh gleefully frolics in the dankest caverns of OSDM and classic death metal. At the same time, it indulges a sense of cosmic wonder at every turn, soaring on classic progressive rock antics before diving back down for another bout of filthy guttural nonsense. These unpredictable turns follow a logic line within each song, making for compositions that feel farther reaching than the confines of their relatively short lengths. I admittedly haven’t listened to this one as much as I should have throughout the year, and if I had taken more time to fully appreciate its unique charms, Afterbirth might have easily wormed their way much higher on this list.

#7. Anaal Nathrakh // EndarkenmentAnaal Nathrakh and accessibility are two A-words that I didn’t think could coexist, but this A-word was proven wrong by Endarkenment. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as I share Grymm’s opinion that there have long been latent power metal influences in Anaal Nathrakh’s toolkit, and this record brings those elements to the forefront. The strong sense of melody, paired with more coherent songwriting, should have been a death knell for Endarkenment’s credibility. Instead, it pulls it all off within the confines of Anaal Nathrakh’s trademark grindy, grimy black metal. There’s hardly a more identifiable sound in all of metal music, and to hear the band so willingly and successfully tinker with their aesthetic eleven albums into their career is immensely satisfying. Endarkenment is not quite Anaal Nathrakh’s greatest effort, but it’s a refreshingly distinct release that rests firmly within the upper tiers of their catalog.

#6. Manticora // To Live to Kill to LiveTo Live to Kill to Live is Manticora’s best record, full stop, no qualifiers. Its immediate predecessor and thematic prequel couldn’t quite make it over that line, but where To Kill stumbled over too much filler, To Live feels essential from front to back. It’s also one of the most experimental records one is likely to find within the traditionally limited confines of power metal. Though unabashedly shreddy and hooky, it plays with grooves, tempos, and elements of extreme metal more liberally than nearly any of Manticora’s contemporaries, without ever feeling hodgepodge or amateurish. This is the kind of record that could handily trick extreme metal diehards into liking power metal, and I can’t wait to hear what Manticora does next with their powers of subversion.

#5. Lör // Edge of Eternity – So, I have a bit of a confession to make: I am solely responsible for Edge of Eternity being considered as an EP across the metal blogosphere. When I was discussing reviewing and debuting the record in secret with vocalist Tyler Fideli, he told me that Lör wasn’t quite sure how to categorize this half-hour excursion, especially when they wanted to eventually make another record closer in length to In Forgotten Sleep. Thus, I somewhat hastily slapped my review with the dreaded “EP” tag. But as Edge of Eternity is considerably more satisfying than most records twice its length, I’m considering it a no-brainer entry into this list. Edge of Eternity is a more power metal-centric effort than In Forgotten Sleep, and while that record’s progressive charms have waned with this follow-up, Edge is no less successful. Lör here has leaned into the shreddiest and folkiest corners of their sound with utmost joy, making for a relentlessly catchy affair that is infectiously charming and immediately addictive. Unpolished production aside, Lör’s formula has otherwise been honed to near perfection.

#4. Sacred Outcry // Damned for All TimeDamned for All Time is powerful power metal. Much like Dire Peril before them (or perhaps after them, considering Damned for All Time took two decades to reach completion), Sacred Outcry thrives on driving heavy metal rhythms, elevated by gripping lyrics and phenomenal vocal work. Thematically, this is similarly classic fare, with much ado made about dire sword battles and melancholic protagonists, and it’s all sold by the endlessly talented Yannis Papadopoulos. In his best performance since his departure from Wardrum, he sells the drama as if he’s right in the thick of it, even carrying what might be the best power metal ballad of the last decade or so in the process. Combine his vocal performances with engaging and unpredictable songwriting, and you have yourself the year’s sneakiest and fastest grower, which crept up my list in record time at the eleventh hour.

#3. Cryptic Shift // Visitations from EnceladusCryptic Shift reminds us all why metal is so fucking awesome with every riff, solo, and fill. Visitations from Enceladus is a thrashing celebration of death metal excess, joining Unleash the Archers in leveraging an original sci-fi tale as a springboard to propulsive and progressive songwriting. It’s a smart record, too, opening with the legendarily lengthy “Moonbelt Immolator,” whose elements are then carefully dissected across Visitations’ remaining three cuts. In all of their compositions, Cryptic Shift conjures an inescapable feeling that this band would have been as big and important if they had risen to prominence alongside their 90’s influences, from Atheist to Death and beyond. The scene may be more crowded in 2020 than it was back then, yet few modern contemporaries show even a fraction of Cryptic Shift’s skill and promise, and nearly none of them pulled off a debut as impressive as this one.

#2. Black Curse // Endless Wound1 – I said it in April and I’ll say it again now: Black Curse have created a future classic in Endless Wound. Every measure of this record has been precision engineered for maximum impact, yet it has an unmistakably elemental quality that eludes the vast majority of extreme metal records. The interweaving of punishing riffs and squalling feedback grants Endless Wound an authentically “live” quality as well, and between the guitar work, the utter vocal insanity, and ball-crushing drum work, Endless Wound is one of the best performed and best-produced death metal records to come around in ages. It’s not catchy in any traditional sense, but it’s an unforgettably caustic experience.

#1. Unleash the Archers // AbyssAbyss’ relative quality to its immediate predecessor, 2017’s Apex, has seen fans of Unleash the Archers polarized to say the least. For many, much of the band’s appeal stemmed from their status as a “power metal band for the rest of us,” and to see Abyss shedding Apex’s brawny personality for more traditional power metal fare was a letdown. For a genre nerd like myself, it’s nothing short of a revelation. To hear a power metal record of this type executed so masterfully is almost unheard of; it tries new things around every corner while remaining true to the genre’s roots, and the result is an album in which more than every other song is a song of the year contender, with no two cuts sounding alike. Simultaneously, Abyss is cohesive, its bonkers science fantasy plot translating perfectly into every exhilarating, wondrous, and life-affirming turn. In a year like this one, such a vivacious celebration of life deserves endless celebration.

Song o’ the Year

Unleash the Archers’ “The Wind that Shapes the Land” – This is the toughest song o’ the year decision I’ve ever made, but I always knew it was going to be a track from Abyss. Ultimately, it had to be the song that consolidates all of the album’s strengths. “The Wind that Shapes the Land” is an amazing piece of sonic storytelling, a condensed epic where each movement is instantly memorable, while beautifully building the composition into something greater than the sum of its part. This song is what power metal is all about.

Show 1 footnote

  1. This incredible take on the record’s artwork comes courtesy of @metal_crab on Twitter.
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