Sentynel and Twelve’s Top Ten(ish) o’ 2020

Sentynel

Hey, look at this, a full list! Fortunately for you all, I used up my year’s supply of silly programming references on Master Boot Record. It’s been over six years since I signed up as sysadmin. The site continues to function, which is always a relief where WordPress is concerned. This year, we finally updated the visual style and provided a unified desktop and mobile theme, which clears out one of my primary remaining annoyances after last year’s comment system upgrade. Huge thanks to TheKenWord, AMG, and everyone else who helped with that project. Hanging out with the whole AMG crew continues to be an absolute blast. Thanks must of course go to Madam X, the editors, and the writers, without whom none of this would be possible. And a particular thanks to Dr. Wvrm, whose feedback has been invaluable on my journey to becoming a real, if infrequent, writer here.

I won’t belabor the extent to which 2020 sucked and shat on literally all of everyone’s plans. It’s definitely impacted my impressions of the year’s music, though. Many of my fellow writers found 2020 to be a particularly good year for metal. To be fair, a lot of that was death metal, which (shocking, I know) is not really my genre. My reactions have been rather muted by the general aura of suck, and by comparison to the fantastic 2019. I’m sure many a good record has unfairly passed me by, or simply failed to grab me. Contenders here include Haken, Wytch Hazel, Eternal Champion, Blackevil, Oceans of Slumber, Unleash the Archers, Sojourner, and probably many more I don’t know about. As usual, I’m sure TYMHM season and everyone else’s lists will prove educational. This is also a particularly unbrutal list even by my usual incredibly unbrutal standards, with about half of it falling well outside the “metal” umbrella. Nonetheless, there have been some great records.


#ish. Nightwish // HUMAN. :II: NATURE. – Between the awful title and the snoozefest that was Endless Forms Most Beautiful, nobody is more surprised than me to see this here. And I’ll be the first to admit this is a flawed record and probably doesn’t entirely deserve its placement. But it’s just so nice to enjoy listening to a Nightwish album again, or at least the first 2/3 of one, that I’ve ended up listening to it loads, so here we are. The second disk doesn’t really belong, and not all of the songs are winners. But enough are and the band, and Floor, sound great.

#10. The Night Flight Orchestra // Aeromantic – “Better than the last record, but not as good as the absolute classic before” is a recurrent theme of this list. Aeromantic isn’t going to win any hearts and minds that Amber Galactic hadn’t already, but NFO continue to distill the best of the 80s into a set of absolute bangers. It feels a little odd listening to a record bravely remaining chirpy in the face of 2020, but it’s also a welcome relief.

#9. Lord Buffalo // Tohu Wa BohuLord Buffalo‘s bleak, gothic American folk rock would have been my sort of thing in any year, and it fits this one perfectly. I don’t consume the genre in large quantities and I don’t have anything like Cherd‘s knowledge, but every now and then an album comes to my attention one way or another. I’m still not quite sure how this ended up on this site—although that could be said for a lot of the rest of my list too!—but I’m glad it did.

#8. Scaphoid // Absent Passages – Scandalously underrated by TheKenWord of all people. This has been a good year for post-rock/metal in general. Absent Passages is a great example of the genre’s prettier, twinklier, God is an Astronautier side. Instrumental post is a difficult genre to keep interesting, and this record generally succeeds admirably. Plus it’s helped fill the void left in my heart by ArcTanGent festival’s pandemic cancellation.

Forndom - Fathir#7. Forndom // Faþir – Like Twelve, I find it a bit difficult to put into words what makes this album so good. Forndom‘s sound is deeply evocative of misty ancient forests. It feels like standing in one of my favorite spots on the planet, a small tor hidden in a clearing in a forest in the depths of Cornwall. Ultimately it’s just a really beautiful listen.

#6. Raphael Weinroth-Browne // Worlds Within – I have previously mentioned how much I love cello music, and this is a perfect example. Beautiful and lushly textured, the variety of sounds on show here are exactly why I love the instrument. Pulling off a full album with a single instrument is a tricky business. Weinroth-Browne displays the flair for composition necessary to deliver.

#5. Svalbard // When I Die, Will I Get Better? – To the perpetual disappointment of my partner, I’ve always been rather ambivalent about post-hardcore. This record is the exception, with some great melodic writing that recalls Atlas Losing Grip at times. Pretty, bleak, furious, cathartic, it’s the perfect soundtrack to 2020.

#4. Scardust // Strangers – There comes a time in everyone’s lives where we find ourselves agreeing with 4.0ldeneye, and this is mine. Answering “I can’t decide what sort of music our new band should play…” with “How about all of them?” is always a risky move, but Scardust pull it off. They sound like The Offering writing for Epica and I love it. The musicianship required to deliver something this ambitious is significant, but fortunately the whole band rises to the challenge with precious few missteps. The prog record of the year.

#3. Mitochondrial Sun // Mitochondrial Sun – Easily my favorite of the albums I reviewed this year. Across its runtime, a wide variety of progressive, electronic and modern classical influences show up. Yet the album retains a consistent and immediately recognizable identity. The melodic writing is excellent and expansive, and the mood and aesthetic striking. I think, if you’ll allow me a mini-Contrite Metal Guy, I may have underrated it slightly at the time. I stand by my gripes about the slightly awkward pacing of the back half, but I’ve kept coming back to it all year regardless and it hasn’t hampered my enjoyment.

#2. The Ocean // Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | CenozoicPelagial was easily my album of the decade, and I didn’t like Phanerozoic I nearly so much. This doesn’t quite reach the lofty highs of Pelagial, but it’s a great album for a lot of the same reasons. I continue to love the band’s progressive writing and changeable moods.  The dense, complex composition, Middle Eastern influences, and more varied vocals on display here all work in the record’s favor.

#1. Forlesen // Hierophant Violent – Pushing the slow build to its absolute limits, Forlesen deliver with the mother of all payoffs. I love a good witchy post-metal album anyway, and this one is right up there. Making the amount of ambient synthy build-up on this album work takes guts, compositional adroitness, and a damn good finale, and they make it all look easy. I knew when I first heard it it was going to land pretty high up here, but it’s carried on growing on me all year and nothing else has come close. Also notable for stunning album art.1

Honorable Mentions

Best Thing I Missed in 2020: Villagers of Ioannina City // Age of Aquarius

Song o’ the Year

Myrkur‘s “House Carpenter” – This is a simple arrangement (and very close to Joan Baez‘s at that) of a trad folk song written around 1685. I’m not sure whether this is, technically speaking, in the spirit of the “Song o’ the Year 2020” award. I don’t tend to spend much time listening to individual tracks, though. This is one of a couple of songs this year that I’ve found addictive enough to listen to on their own a lot, and it’s easily my most played 2020 track. It’s incredibly, subtly catchy, and Myrkur‘s voice is perfect for it. Please file your complaints in the comment section. The other track I’ve played on repeat a lot is Scardust‘s “Gone,” if you were wondering (that chorus!). The other contenders were all just the high points of my top few albums (“Nightbridge,” “Miocene | Pliocene” and “Celestial Animal,” respectively.)


Twelve

…and what a year it’s been. This has been my first full year writing for this website I’ve held so dear, and it has been an indescribably good experience, even if, on the whole, I was generally disappointed by the year’s musical output. I know it was a year for a lot of big releases, but, for the most part, they all fell flat to my weary ears. I suspect that many of my esteemed colleagues will undoubtedly disagree with me, but looking back, I just wasn’t taken by all that much this year.

The silver lining to all that, however, has been what I feel is the most refreshingly honest top records list I could have come up with; it came together easily and organically, and represents the stuff that made me happiest this year.

But before I get into all of that, I’d like to earnestly say thank-you for reading my regular ramblings, for those of you who did, and thank-you for reading my scores, for those of you who didn’t. As a part of my day job, I write regularly, and there’s no better way to burn out of something you like doing than being made to do it day in and day out! Writing for this website, and for all of you, is what keeps my love of the written word alive some days, and that is something I hope to never lose sight of. With that, I cease my ramble—onto the music!


#ish 2. Sacred Outcry // Damned for All Time In a year where power metal mostly disappointed me, Damned for All Time tore across its competition, landing songs that are heavy, catchy, and well-made, with enough variety across the album to keep it from becoming even remotely stale. Decades in the making, and, while I daresay that no music is quite worth that level of waiting, Sacred Outcry can and should rest knowing that they absolutely nailed their debut release.

#ish 1. Fluisteraars // Bloem – I’m going to level with you, I find it hard to believe that this album came out this year. Maybe because it’s such a solid release; probably because it came out in February. And since February, it’s been a staple of my listening. It taps into a strange mood that I can’t fully explain, and does a phenomenal job at doing so. It is beautiful, distant, and welcoming all at once. It feels impossible that I’m attaching that description to an unmistakably black metal album, but here it is! Bloem is absolutely worth hearing regardless of whether you’re a fan of the style.

#10. Shores of Null // Beyond the Shores (On Death and Dying) – I can see this one climbing higher, given time, but as it’s a fairly recent release, I’m content to say that it’s at least one of the best doom albums I’ve heard in a long, long time. I’m an absolute sucker for single-song albums, but wouldn’t have expected this style to suit the approach this well! But between heartbreaking violins, crushing vocals, brief moments of catchiness, and that ending, I really can’t  get enough of this one, and I owe Grymm big time for putting it on my radar.

#9. Marrasmieli // Between Land and Sky – I got a bit of flak in the comments section for labelling Between Land and Sky as an atmospheric black metal album, but I stand by the description. The thing that makes this album so great is the way it insists on having serious atmosphere without compromising on immediacy or power. It is a beautiful album, dark and mystical at once, and it has lasted the test of time, remaining a firm staple of my listening for nearly the entire year. I cannot wait to hear what these guys do next.

#8. Raphael Weinroth-Browne // Worlds Within – 2020 was a good year for, well, not-metal, and it all started with this gorgeous album. Worlds Within offers a strong argument for the power of the instrumental album. Something so simple can be so beautiful – Worlds Within is exactly as its title suggests, and the idea that the whole thing was written by a single man and his trusty cello is mind-boggling to me. I’m not sure what this year would have looked like for me without Worlds Within, and I’m glad it came out early enough in the year that I never had to find out.

#7. The Ocean // Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic – Where the first instalment of this two-part series didn’t grab me, Phanerozoic II grabbed me by the throat and refused to let go. As ever, The Ocean‘s lyrical prowess elevates their post-metal power above and beyond any of their contemporaries, and, as a result, they are not only one of very few post-metal bands that I enjoy, but one of my favorite bands around in any style. Such is the power of exceptional songwriting, lyricism, and performance! On Phanerozoic IIThe Ocean transcend genre and simply deliver quality.

#6. Árstíðir lífsins // Saga á tveim tungum II: Eigi fjǫll né firðir If there’s a band out there that does storytelling like Árstíðir lífsins, I’d dearly love to hear it. This album is an absolute thrill, an ideal blend of viciousness, melody, and lore. The band’s clear and genuine love for their subject matter informs every second of runtime. This is an album that seems to get better every time I spin it, right up to this day. Chants, growls, narrations, solos, blast beats, introspection—this album has it all. That it’s the perfect complement to last year’s release is really just the icing on the cake. This album is exceptional.

#5. October Falls // Syys – I’m a simple creature; when October Falls releases an acoustic album, I lob it onto my end-year list. This is a “lob first, listen later” kind of event too, because M. Lehto is nothing if not consistent with these. In truth, I’d given up on seeing another acoustic album from October Falls, as it’s been so long, but Syys picks up exactly where Kaarna and Sarastus left off, including a few swoon-worthy callbacks to the legendary Marras. The power of this album to calm in chaos and reveal beauty in darkness has been nearly unparalleled this year, and while I did not see this one coming, I couldn’t be happier that it’s here.

#4. Völur // Death Cult – This one came out of nowhere to dominate my list a mere month ago. An intense, avant-garde doom metal experience, twisted and turning and filled with eerie emotion, Death Cult perfectly fills a void I didn’t know existed, and does it with the grace and passion of brilliant musicians. However dark the year gets, Death Cult will absolutely be a worthy companion to embrace what comes. I’ve really fallen hard for this album, and it’s hard to imagine that changing anytime soon.

#3. Sunken // Livslede – When it’s come to dark, depressive, unhappy metal, nothing has come close to toppling Livslede for me. I hadn’t even heard of Sunken before I picked up this album to review, blissfully unaware of the soul-rending experience I was about to… experience. This album has been my companion through so much unhappiness in a year that’s been particularly prone to unhappiness. This is powerful, beautiful black metal played with passion and pain and and the catharsis is overwhelming. I really can’t say enough nice things about it, and I know I’ll be listening to it for years to come.

#2. Alestorm // Curse of the Crystal Coconut – Still, as wonderful as depressive black metal can be, a little bit of cheering up goes a long way, and no one does cheering up like the Pirate Metal Drinking Crew. Curse of the Crystal Coconut is easily Alestorm‘s best album yet in a career chock-full of them. This album is fun, but doesn’t cross so far over the threshold of “silly” as Alestorm has in the past; the music is powerful, but recognizably great power/folk metal, and there’s no question that the band brings its all to this album. They may claim they’ve sold out as early in as the first track, but what they’ve truly accomplished here could not possibly be further from it. This is as authentic as pirate metal gets, and this album has been a joy to have around this year.

#1. Forndom // Faþir – Frankly, I would never have expected that I could utter the phrase “Alestorm‘s best album yet” in an end-year list and then not immediately give them the top spot. But then, I never would have expected an album like Faþir either. I’ve always been a huge fan of neofolk, but Forndom goes so far above and beyond mere genre descriptions that it seems silly to chalk this album up to a categorical “win.” No, Faþir is my album of the year because it is stunningly beautiful from beginning to end. All this time later, I still don’t have the words to describe this album’s power, gracefulness, and sheer beauty. In a year that has been nothing short of chaotic, Forndom has offered an album filled with peace like I haven’t heard on any recording before or since. It is utterly mesmerizing, absolutely beautiful, and my favorite album this year by a long shot. I couldn’t possibly recommend this one more highly.

Forndom - Fathir

Honorable Mentions

  • Symbolik  // Emergence – I don’t often become enamored with technical death metal, but Emergence is just plain fun. Great, consistent songwriting and storytelling makes for an album to remember!
  • Gazpacho // Fireworker – Gazpacho are a strange group, and Fireworker is a strange album. That’s why it’s great! I really like this semi-symphonic side to the band, and hope to hear them continue on their current trajectory.
  • Amiensus // Abreaction – I feel that if I’d only given this album more playing time, it might have made a serious impact on my year-end list. Unfortunately, other albums demanded more attention more loudly, but this is a beautiful slice of black metal that is worthy of highlight.

 

Disappointment of the Year

The realization that Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex is actually an amazing album and I didn’t give it the attention it deserved last year. But since I’m pretty sure this section is supposed to be about this year’s music, I’ll reiterate my stance that Human. :||: Nature. is the most overblown, boring slab of overproduced music Nightwish has ever released, and I’m still a bit sad about that.

Surprise of the Year

Not only is folklore by Taylor Swift not an atmospheric black metal album, as any sensible person looking at the cover would assume, but it’s also pretty good.2

Song of the Year

Picking a single song for the year was very difficult this time. As you may have noticed, my list this year is pretty eclectic. Do I choose a joyous song? A sad song? Something I listened to when I was overjoyed to preserve the feeling? Something that made me feel better when everything sucked? Something beautiful, or something heart-wrenching? Finally, I decided upon a single song that fit every category. “Hemkomst” is beautiful, and it’s the ideal song for me to close out the year. Til árs ok friðar indeed.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. p.s. @Carcharodon—surprise!
  2. The only reason I’m not deleting this post right now is that Sentynel is on the other side of it. – Dr. “You’re Fired” Wvrm
« »