L. Saunders’ and Mark Z.’s Top Ten(ish) of 2020

L. Saunders

I am not going to bore you with my tales of woe of 2020. Sure, it has been a hell of a shitty year on multiple fronts, but put into perspective, I came out of the global dramas with job and health intact, and my homeland in a far less perilous position than many other parts of the world, for which I am grateful. One thing for certain, 2020 at least delivered in a big fucking way on the heavy music front. Death metal had another banner year, and overall, there was a timely bounty of quality releases across the metal spectrum. In times of need, this was especially important, leaning on my love of music and metal to navigate darker times.

A big thank you to the outstanding readership that continues to grow and prosper, and to my comrades at AMG, it truly is an amazing community here across the board and I feel extremely grateful to still be putting my two cents into this writing game after six-plus years of service. As usual, the end of year catch-up on missed releases and annual Things You Might Have Missed season dished up plenty of quality stuff I neglected to check out during the year, including albums I am currently hooked on from Akurion, Plague, and Stoned God amidst other freshly discovered gems. Anywho, you can’t win them all, but I hope you enjoy some of the albums that floated my boat throughout the turbulent waves of 2020.

Wishing everyone safe and happy holidays, and here’s to a hopefully much improved 2021. Cheers.

#ish. Benighted // Obscene Repressed – I’m a hopeless fanboy of these French deathgrind veterans. There is something about their insanely fun, over-the-top, and bludgeoning style that appeals to me in a big fucking way. I regretfully neglected to include their 2017 album Necrobreed on my list, but thankfully Obscene Repressed continues Benighted’s trend of consistency and pig squealing deathgrind madness. There’s a razor sharpness to the album, boosted by their technical proficiency, and taut collection of brutal, fun, slammy tunes and butchering hooks. Obscene Repressed is a more than worthy addition to Benighted’s repertoire.

#10. Caustic Wound // Death Posture – I can thank Diabolus for pointing me in the direction of this barbaric slab of hook-laden, unrefined brutality. During times of needing a savage beatdown, more often than not, Death Posture was my jam in 2020. A debut album from underground scene vets, Death Posture looks backward in moving forwards. Utterly filthy, feral old school deathgrind is the order of the day, dished up in a putrid concoction of sewage dripping grooves, blazing tempos, and insanely catchy, precise riffing. The grind and brutal death elements are expertly welded together, with the death parts bringing the low, gurgling brutality tenfold, while the grind components recall hints of classic Terrorizer and early Lock-Up.

#9. Shores of Null // Beyond the Shores (On Death and Dying) – I’m extremely stoked to see these Italian up and comers rebound so strongly from a slight sophomore stumble. Shores of Null returned with an adventurous, bleak concept album based on the five stages of grief, as defined by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. A 38-minute, one-track endeavor of funereal death-doom, Shores of Null took some big creative risks with Beyond the Shores (On Death and Dying) and they paid off in spades. A beautifully paced and crafted opus, featuring an array of inspired guest vocalists and musicians, Beyond the Shores (On Death and Dying) pulls on the heartstrings and is enveloped in oppressive gloom. At once a bleak, beautiful, haunting, painful journey, it’s not devoid of hope. Recent personal events in my life brought an even heavier weight to some intense listening sessions.

#8. Warbringer // Weapons of Tomorrow – Perhaps it’s my jaded perspective on a large chunk of modern thrash, but for whatever reason, I had previously overlooked Warbringer. That changed when I explored their monumental sixth LP, Weapons of Tomorrow. It clicked on first listen and continues to entertain many listens later. Yes, like most modern thrash it has a retro edge, but the sleek modern production, charismatic thrash howls of frontman John Kevill, and inspired guitar work raise the stakes. The album’s weighty length is counterpunched by standout songwriting and compositional diversity, including the scorching blackened moments that tear through the massive ‘Heart of Darkness.”

#7. Faceless Burial // Speciation – The Aussie upstarts lifted the intensity on their second album, entering higher realms as they created a dense, complex, memorable slab of old school death on Speciation. Despite notable nods to death metal’s fertile past, Faceless Burial sound far fresher than your average old school death band, bringing some modern zest and songwriting zing. Speciation is a riff-packed beast that pulls no punches, treading a fine line between brutality, memorability, complexity, and groove. The whole affair is pulled off with aplomb, as bone-jarring heaviness and guttural heft harmoniously collide with intelligent compositions and challenging intricacies.

#6. Mr. Bungle // The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo – The return of Mr. Bungle in 2020 was an unexpected surprise that did not disappoint. As a long time Bungle and Patton fanboy, the idea of the band reconnecting with their teenage roots and revisiting their crude thrash demo from 1986, held great appeal. Despite eschewing the more avant-garde, experimental rock weirdness that defined their career, The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo marked an action-packed, fun-filled return to their earliest beginnings, a wacky thrash album re-imagined with years of experience and the addition of thrash legends Dave Lombardo and Scott Ian, joining core trio of Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn, and Trey Spruance. The musicianship, writing, performances, and production are all top-notch, with the middle-age crew performing the material with the exuberance of their youth.

#5. The Ocean // Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic I Cenozoic – I had a strange initial experience with German juggernaut The Ocean’s anticipated blockbuster sequel to their powerhouse 2018 album, Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic, an album I awarded top honors. Although I enjoyed Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic I Cenozoic’s exploratory, melodic, and playful progginess, initial listens didn’t quite hit me like I hoped. Patience and persistence proved especially rewarding, as something eventually clicked and since that moment, like the past couple of albums from the band, I’m hopelessly hooked. I fucking love this band. Vocally, musically, lyrically, thematically, The Ocean are in the zone again and operating at an elite level. Time will tell where this stands against its excellent predecessor, but either way, The Ocean have crafted a pair of exceptional albums, destined to become modern classics of forward-thinking and intelligent progressive metal.

Afterbirth - Four Dimensional Flesh album cover#4. Afterbirth // Four Dimensional Flesh – New York’s Afterbirth well and truly outdid themselves on sophomore LP, Four Dimensional Flesh, a cosmic delight of uncompromising, exploratory and intelligent brutal death. Progressive, complex, infectious, slammy, and a downright inspired album. Nothing here is half baked, with even the spacey, psych instrumentals, “Girl in Landscape” and “Dreaming Astral Body,” gorgeously moody breathers wedged expertly amidst such insanely brutal numbers as “Beheading the Buddha” and “Everything in Its Path.” Topped with an organic production job and dynamic master, Four Dimensional Flesh ticks all the boxes. Undoubtedly one of the elite death metal albums of a power-packed 2020 for the genre.

#3. Green Carnation // Leaves of Yesteryear Green Carnation’s long-awaited return took me by surprise. My prior experience with the Norwegian stalwarts mostly relates back to past experiences with their 2001 Light of Day, Day of Darkness opus. Otherwise, I am a rank novice with little knowledge of their broader career. Doc Grier‘s top-shelf review of Leaves of Yesteryear piqued my interest, and the rest is history. Despite grumblings about the merit of this release, due to a reworking of an older tune and cover song, my limited experience with Green Carnation, and meaty 44 minutes of quality, proved more than enough to satiate my needs. The emotional heft, pristine performances across the board, and expertly crafted dark prog shone like a black diamond. Earworm special “Sentinels” is sublime, but the lengthier, epic compositions, “My Dark reflections of Life and Death” and “Hounds,” reveal the true depth and power of this album. A safe but heart-wrenching cover of Sabbath’s “Solitude” ices the prog cake.

#2. Bütcher // 666 Goats Carry My Chariot – Man, few albums hit with the adrenaline-charged speed, boisterous sense of fun, and manic energy of the sophomore barnstormer from Belgium’s Bütcher. I didn’t realize how much I needed such an over-the-top slab of old school speed metal in my life. The fact the awesomely titled 666 Goats Carry My Chariot dropped at the beginning of the year and has remained in high rotation is testament to its strength, durability, and staying power. Combining blazing speed metal with elements of thrash, black, Viking, and NWoBHM, Bütcher crafted a deceptively diverse and superbly written album, packed with infectiously memorable tunes, lightning-fast riffage, and the charismatic and unhinged vocals of R. Hellshrieker. The title track is the album’s magnificent centerpiece and highlight of 2020. Bütcher fucking eat, bleed, and shit metal, and the world is all the better for it.

#1. Anaal Nathrakh // Endarkenment – During my tenure writing for Angry Metal Guy, I have often taken a left-field route with my number one album picks. Be it an album that surprised me in unexpectedly forceful ways, a prog album, or both, sometimes my number one selections are not necessarily as clear cut as you might expect. This year’s pick is no exception. Since 2012’s Vanitas, I have been an avid supporter of destructive UK extreme metal duo Anaal Nathrakh. While arguably the band peaked during their ’00s era, their post-2010 output has remained a strong balance between increasing accessibility and soaring hooks, without diluting their abrasive inclinations. Endarkenment is not Anaal Nathrakh’s best album, although I will contest it is amongst their stronger offerings in the past decade. However, it marks a strong return to form after the underwhelming A New Kind of Horror.

I simply have not been able to shake its irresistibly compulsive hooks, memorable writing, and stunning balance of refinement, accessibility, extremity, rage, and catharsis the album offers. Perhaps it is partially indicative of the turbulent times of 2020 that this album has held such a gripping appeal. Either way, the performances, slightly less ear fatiguing production, and gripping, consistent writing has demanded my attention relentlessly since release. “Endarkenment” rages in blisteringly typical fashion before unleashing a chorus for the ages. Other standouts include the unfuckwithable mid-album stretch featuring “Libidinous (a Pig with Cocks in its Eyes,” “Beyond Words,” “Feeding the Death Machine” and “Create Art, Though the World May Perish.” Yet it’s all an expert soldering of epic, fist-pumping hooks with extreme urges, covering black, grind, industrial, death, and power, that finds Dave Hunt and Mick Kenney keeping their well-established formula fresh and compelling.

Honorable Mentions

  • Black Royal // Firebride – An early year highlight that got a little lost in the shuffle towards the later stages of the year. Still a cracking album and masterful example of effective simplicity. Swaggering riffs, massive hooks, and satisfying mid-paced pummels lead the way throughout an addictive occult platter of sludgy death.
  • Haken // Virus A pleasing return to form after the disappointing Vector. The production is a little sterile to my ears, but the writing features the complexity, progressiveness, and soaring hooks that attracted me to the band in the first place.
  • Intellect Devourer // Demons of the Skull – An Aussie special from the murkiest depths of the underground. This long-gestating debut LP is a thumping throwback of technical, old school death, with a deliciously evil and memorable streak.
  • Spirit Adrift // Enlightened in Eternity – The big, shiny blockbuster Spirit Adrift have been gearing towards on their past couple of albums. Perhaps not their best album, but Enlightened in Eternity brings the fat, infectious tunes and soulful licks, merging trad metal and grooving doom to great effect. Shame about the unfortunate behavior of a certain band member on these pages though.
  • Eternal Champion // Ravening Iron – Epic and classic metal is not often my bag. Exceptions occasionally arise, and that has proven the case with the chest-thumping battle cries of Eternal Champion’s Ravening Iron. A crunchy, anthemic collection of consistently high quality, Ravening Iron is a concentrated dose of triumph, fun, and singalong epicness, highlighted by the sword hoarding title track.
  • Katatonia // City Burials – A divisive, moody return for the gloomy maestros of dark, progressive rock. I could use a little more rock crunch, such as that displayed on the excellent “Behind the Blood” but there’s no denying the melancholic mastery, emotion and gripping hooks littered throughout the album.
  • Mors Principium Est // Seven – Brickwalling aside, the underrated masters of melodic death returned to form with a high octane blast of ripping technicality, boundless energy, and infectious songs.

Disappointment o’ the Year

  • Caligula’s Horse // Rise Radiant – Solid but a tad underwhelming.
  • Dark Tranquillity // Moment – Flat and uninspired.
  • Æther Realm // RVFH – Not as terrible as first thought but a big step down from their last one.

Song o’ the Year

Bütcher’s “666 Goats Carry My Chariot” – Damn, there were some strong contenders for Song o’ the Year honors. But in the end, I settled on the ridiculously awesome, ambitious, and epic title track from the surprise packet of the year, Bütcher, and their phenomenal 666 Goats Carry My Chariot album. An amazingly well crafted and cohesive meshing of extreme styles into an immaculate and memorable composition.

Non-Heavy Picks

  • Run the Jewels // Run the Jewels 4
  • Thundercat // It Is What It Is
  • Alain Johannes // Hum
  • Ulver // Flowers of Evil

Best New-Old Discoveries

  • Radio Birdman – All their shit
  • Died PrettyDoughboy Hollow
  • ArcturusThe Sham Mirrors

Mark Z.

There’s nothing I can say about 2020 that hasn’t already been said. This was obviously a shit year for most people. While my struggles were nothing compared to what many others faced, I did have the challenge of leaving my job and moving across the country with my dog and girlfriend in the middle of the pandemic. Fortunately, there was one silver lining in the midst of it all: the metal was fucking great. The last year I remember being this good for metal was 2015, and even then I think 2020 has it beat. There were albums I loved at first listen, albums that grew on me, albums that gingerly took my testicles in their hands and then crushed them like walnuts in a nutcracker. Most importantly, there were a lot of new bands that produced great releases, which obviously bodes well for our beloved scene. It’s also great to see that even with the pandemic still on-going, artists are finding ways to stay active and make new music. Metal is far from dead and at least we have that to be grateful for. Without further ado, here are the albums that really ravaged my soft parts.

#ish. Evoker // Evil Torment EP – Evoker try to make death metal, but they can’t escape the fact that they’re from Australia. Thus, the blood of blackened thrash runs through their veins and it helps make this trio’s debut one of the best extreme metal EPs I’ve heard in a long time. Check the vicious chugs in “Old Evil” or the furious verses of “Sacrilicious Lust.” And then check your skivvies, because you’ll probably need to change them. This would make a great stocking stuffer for the Nocturnal Graves fan in your life.

#10. Violent Hammer // Riders of the Wasteland – Unsurprisingly released via Hells Headbangers, this Finnish quintet’s debut (14 years since their formation!) is a monster. Riders of the Wasteland smashes together primitive black and death metal and then uses the resulting conglomeration to pummel the skulls of all those unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. The songwriting is surprisingly skillful given the band’s blunt approach, but what really sells Riders is the performance of vocalist Joonas Niemeläinen. The man roars like a Godzilla-sized grizzly bear that’s been awakened from his slumber to destroy whatever is left of the world after 2020. Prepare to get Hammered.

#9. Misery Signals // Ultraviolet – Coming seven years after their last album, Ultraviolet marks Misery Signals’s first album with original vocalist Jesse Zaraska since the metalcore quintet’s 2004 debut. And, much like Akerblogger, I initially expected more from it. Yet with subsequent listens, I realized Ultraviolet was better than I first thought. Tracks like “Old Ghosts,” “Sunlifter,” and “Some Dreams” hit with a dazzling hardcore punch that recalls fellow Canadians Counterparts (who’ve claimed Misery Signals is one of their primary influences). While Ultraviolet doesn’t reach the same heights as the band’s early stuff, somehow its understated sense of melody makes it feel more intimate. The 2016 documentary Yesterday Was Everything showed that there have been a lot of emotional struggles for this group. I feel that more and more every time I give Ultraviolet a listen.

#8. Occult Burial // Burning Eerie Lore – It would not be a Mark Z. list without a blackened thrash album. Occult Burial is here to provide and oh, do they provide. On their second album Burning Eerie Lore, this Canadian trio charge forth with the explosive force of Deathhammer and the speed metal menace of Hellripper. That guitar tone sounds like Burial somehow figured out a way to use motorcycles as amplifiers and those screeched vocals are so over-the-top, they remind me of the harsh vocalist from 3 Inches of Blood. Lore is stuffed with banging riff after banging riff, to the point where I practically need a neck massage after it’s over. Better idea: spin it again, slam some fukkin beers, and deal with the pain tomorrow.

#7. Siege Column // Darkside LegionsSiege Column are like the groovier older brother of Violent Hammer. On their 2018 debut, this New Jersey duo showed their love of Blasphemy and other bestial blackened death metal. With second album Darkside Legions, they maintain this aesthetic while adding plenty of stomps, grooves, and riffs big enough to topple buildings. The punky edge and whiffs of Bolt Thrower don’t hurt either. Like New Jersey itself, Siege Column is an acquired taste. But for those who have a love for all things noisy and belligerent, nothing else comes close.

#6. Witches // The Fates – Formed in 1986 by vocalist and guitarist Sibylle Colin-Tocquaine, Witches put out their debut in 1994 and have been remarkably consistent about releasing an album every 13 years since then. That makes The Fates their third album and one that I assumed would be (at best) a competent slice of dad-thrash. Instead, Witches sound more bloodthirsty than many bands half their age. Sibylle is as vicious a frontwoman as I’ve ever heard, with a scathing rasp that recalls blackened thrash groups like Nocturnal. Her nimble and tight riffing is fierce yet also offers plenty of melody and catchy moments. Fates has earned its place next to Aura Noir’s Black Thrash Attack as a true blackened thrashterpiece. Kudos to them for keeping the fire burning and doing it so damn well.

#5. Scolopendra // Those of the Catacombs – One of my favorite things to do this past summer was stay up late, guzzle Mike’s Hard Lemonades, and watch old horror movies. Scolopendra gave me the same experience while still allowing me to get to bed at a reasonable hour. On their Those of the Catacombs debut, this Italian duo sling fat riffs at the listener while dripping with the atmosphere of an old horror film. I love the way they aren’t afraid to lock into a big chug or occasionally add keyboards. El Cuervo’s take on Catacombs was dead-on and I’d encourage anyone interested in meaty yet engrossing death metal to give this a spin.

#4. Goatpenis // Decapitation Philosophy – With 2017’s Anesthetic Vapor, Goatpenis went from a band whose name I chuckled at to one of my favorite blackened death metal groups active today. While maintaining the extremity of war metal, Anesthetic stood out with riffs that were remarkably melodic and even emotional. Decapitation Philosophy was thus one of my most anticipated albums of 2020 and I’m happy to say this Brazilian trio have stepped things up even more. With Philosophy, the band’s savagery has been refined through matured songwriting that occasionally evokes 2000s Behemoth. There are plenty of crunchy marches, scalding tremolos, and even a scream-along chorus in the title track. To me, Goatpenis are on the front lines of modern blackened death metal. They’re one of the only bands today that can actually sound accessible while still packing such extreme firepower.

#3. Temple Nightside // Pillars of Damnation – It’s always great to find an album that just works in so many ways. Australia’s Temple Nightside have an impressive pedigree (including current and former members of Ulcerate, Diocletian, and Austere). Perhaps that’s why they could create a record as good as Pillars of Damnation. In the vein of Dead Congregation, Pillars is “cavernous” death metal that still manages to riff hard. It’s not afraid to get doomy (“The Carrion Veil”), get groovy (“Death Eucharist”) or even throw in a swashbuckling riff that sounds like it came straight from Cauldron Black Ram (“Blood Cathedral”). While a slightly clearer production wouldn’t have hurt, I can’t deny the dense atmosphere this thing has. Fans of Grave Miasma and Cruciamentum are sure to love this just as much as I did.

#2. Blasphamagoatachrist // Bastardizing the Purity Blasphemy. Goatpenis. Antichrist. Three cult names in blackened death metal, each contributing at least one member to Blasphamagoatachrist. In the spirit of Blasphemy’s legendary Fallen Angel of Doom, this project came together to create an album that scorches the pubes off of almost every other war metal band out there today. Like a colossal goat demon flexing his rippling muscles, Bastardizing the Purity is a display of songwriting finesse. These tracks twist and lurch between stomping grooves, violent blasts, and searing riffs that you’ll actually remember tomorrow. The vomited roars and unpolished charm of the whole thing make it all the better. With Purity being the first album from this project, I can only hope that we hear more from Blasphamagoatachrist in the future.

#1. Fornicus // Sulphuric Omnipotence – I loved Fornicus’s 2014 debut Storming Heaven and enjoyed the band’s 2016 follow-up Hymns of Dominion. But after I saw they had lineup issues and went quiet on social media, I pretty much expected to never hear from this Kentucky group again. What a pleasant surprise, then, for them to unleash third album Sulphuric Omnipotence back in June. Like a fiery maelstrom that swirls together death metal and bestial black metal, Fornicus sound like they combine the best parts from every band that thrives at the outer bounds of extremity. Opener “Peridition’s Guiding Winds” seethes with Profanatica menace before bursting into Naglfar tremolos, the title track stampedes like a wild Archgoat, and “Vitriolic Proclamation” wouldn’t be out of place on a playlist with Proclamation themselves. The songwriting is consistently engaging and vocalist (and guitarist, and drummer) Scott Briggs keeps things varied with his mix of growls, rasps, and even moaned cleans. Omnipotence is a blackened death metal triumph that’s riffy, diverse, and memorable. In a subgenre that’s overflowing with bands trying to be as extreme as possible, Fornicus’s tempestuous flames make for one of the brightest lights out there today.

Honorable Mentions

  • Prosanctus Inferi // Hypnotic Blood Art – This Ohio group got even weirder on their third album and first in seven years. While maintaining their unique blend of Profanatica and Angelcorpse, Prosanctus slowed down and took on a ritualistic atmosphere not unlike MystifierArt is an intriguing album with torrents of riffs and an essence that lingers long after the record is back in its sleeve.
  • Vulcano // Eye in Hell – This Brazilian group are most famous for their 1986 debut Bloody Vengeance. With Eye in Hell, they show that age hasn’t slowed them down. Guitarist and sole founding member Zhema Rodero is 62 years old and still managed to craft a vicious death-thrash album that hits hard, has plenty of variety, and (most importantly) is just plain fun.
  • Witches Hammer // Damnation is My Salvation – Nuclear War Now! killed it this year (see GoatpenisScolopendra, Prosanctus InferiBlasphamagoatachrist, and Siege Column). Witches Hammer offer one more NWN! release for the pile. Formed in 1984, this cult band call themselves speed metal. Yet on their long-awaited Damnation is My Salvation debut, they sound a lot more like blackened thrash to me. No matter what you call it, this album is a ripper and was nipping at the heels of my list for most of the year.
  • Infesticide // Envenoming Wounds – About halfway through the year, I developed an insatiable craving for dizzying blackened death metal in the vein of Angelcorpse and Perdition TempleInfesticide were one of the only bands that actually satisfied this hunger. On their second album Envenoming Wounds, this Mexican trio sound absolutely unhinged and I love every second of it.
  • Front // Antichrist Militia EP – What do you get when you combine Infernal War, blackened thrash, and a dash of speed metal? You get a trip to the hospital because Front’s new EP made you headbang your frontal lobes into mush.
  • Code Orange // Underneath – These Pennsylvania metalcore darlings made something truly fresh with Underneath. Between bouts of glitchy and pummeling hardcore, the band incorporate plenty of rocking hooks courtesy of clean singer (and guitarist) Reba Meyers. While at times it pushed things a bit too far, Underneath is one Grammy nominee that deserved the recognition.

Disappointment o’ the Year

Frankly, the only disappointment this year was my own inability to manage my finances. I bought way more vinyl than I should have because apparently when I’m three drinks in I can’t live without a wax copy of the latest blackened death ass-scorcher that I don’t even have room for on my shelf. I see a lot of Ramen noodles in my future if I keep this shit up.

Song o’ the Year

Fornicus’ “The Abhorrent Path” – The perfect distillation of everything Sulphuric Omnipotence does right. I love the heaving Archgoat riffs at the beginning. I love the threatening chords that follow. And most of all, I love the little snarl that beckons a blasting onslaught and a barrage of slicing tremolos. Add in a huge death-march ending and you have a blackened death metal song for the ages.

Song o’ the Year – Runner Up

Counterparts’ “Strings of Separation” – Counterparts are one of my favorite active bands and this year they released two B-sides from 2019’s terrific Nothing Left to Love. “Strings of Separation” was one of them and it’s truly a melodic hardcore anthem. The swirling notes and rushing verses are as extreme as ever and yet the guitar melody in the chorus makes this feel catchy enough to be pop-punk. This quickly became my most listened-to song of 2020 and reaffirms my belief that Counterparts are easily the best band of the last decade.

Song o’ the Year – You Know You Loved It Too

Black Royal’s “Coven” – “Please forgive me Satan, for I have not sinned.”

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