Steel Druhm’s Top Ten(ish) of 2020

Well, that was certainly an interesting year we just tumbled and crawled through. A deadly virus, global quarantine, massive death counts, the end of normal life; 2020 had all the awfulness you could imagine minus a world war. Like many others, I immersed myself deeply in music as an escape from what was playing out on the streets and on TV screens daily. I used the lockdown/home confinement to revisit long-beloved albums and ravenously embrace anything new and interesting. While my year-end list doesn’t fully reflect it, 2020 re-ignited my love of death metal and found me knee-deep in brutal music in a way I haven’t been since my carefree 30s. 2021 will prominently feature me brawling with the more brutal staffers for possession of deathly promo gold, and I’ve been working out and drinking milk in preparation. Death is life in a time when life is all about death.

As usual, I’d like to take a moment to thank those who continue to make AMG possible. We couldn’t do this without the patient and super organized promo-keeping by Madam X. Promo management is a tedious, thankless gig, but she makes sense of the waves of music we receive and ensures that everything runs smoothly in the sump. Additional thanks go to Doc Grier, Doc Wvrm, Holdeneye and Mark Z. whose assistance with editing chores make my daily life much easier. Special thanks go to Sentynel for keeping the site relatively virus and troll-free and making sure WordPress doesn’t opPress us. And a big thanks to AMG Himself for creating this place and helping keep it alive through good times and bad. I’d also like to thank the AMG team generally for some highly entertaining and boozy Zoom calls this year that helped make the absence of bars, pubs, and sketchy watering holes seem a little less awful. What a bunch of super freaks you all are.

And of course, none of this would matter without you, the loyal readers and commentariat. While we continue to look for ways to alienate and ultimately replace you all with more compliant lemmings, we do greatly appreciate your time and attention. You make AMG the nifty little community it is and no amount of Yer Mom jokes can ever take that away. Stay gold and stay safe, folks. We love (most of) you. Now that I got all mushy, let’s move to the metal that mattered in 2020.


(ish) Raventale // Planetarium II – Astaroth Merc did it again. Jumping away from the crushing funeral doom explored on 2019s Morphine Dead Gardens, the one-man act known as Raventale pivoted back to moody, melancholic black metal mixed with Viking influences, and this time a huge Finnish melodeath vibe is also included. The compositions are very well crafted and manage to blend disparate influences adroitly, making for an easily digestible slab of metal that sticks in the brain gunk. And let’s talk about that out of this world guitar-work. Astaroth truly outdoes himself here with satisfying riffs and soaring solos throughout. If only all one-man bands could operate at this level. Make planetariums great again!

#10. Mindwars // The Fourth Turning – This dark horse turned out to be my favorite thrash album of 2020 somehow. I liked it right away but only gave it a rating of “Good” at the time. After the review was done though I just kept spinning and spinning it and the hooks grew much deeper. The way the band blends traditional metal into their thrash template is admirable, and so much of what they do reeks of the 80s, but the overall sound isn’t too dated. The riffs are routinely awesome (though sometimes too obviously poached from Slayer‘s porch), and the blend of Holy Terror and more obscure acts like Sacrifice and Faith or Fear proved too hard to resist for an olde timer like me. Now I’m a veteran of psychic Mindwars and this was my Underrating Disaster o’ the Year. Apologies and much contrition.

#9. Faceless Burial // Speciation – Out of nowhere came a wonderful fusion of old school and modern death flavors. Nasty but techy, vile but forward-thinking, ugly but accessible – Speciation is the rare album that walks several fine lines without slipping and impaling its yarbles. Riffs of high quality spew and splatter everywhere as the music spasms and writhes its way through tortured exercises, and the listener is kept locked in for every grotesque twist and turn of the tentacle circus. When writing is this exceptional, techy, off-kilter death feels as much fun as the old school caveman variety and Faceless Burial just showed us how it’s done correctly.

#8. Plague // Portraits of Mind – In a year where I enjoyed of deep death, Plague struck early and kept me coming back month after month. Borrowing extensively from mid-period Death and using top-notch guitar work to power the compositions, Plague had the moniker and the recipe for grisly success in a bizarre year. Hell, there’s even a song called “Pandemic” on here. Talk about an album for the times. “Intersperse” is my favorite death nugget of the year and something about this material really gnaws into my brain. And those solos are fire! In short, Plague unleashed the best death metal album this year and I can’t wait to see what these prophetic Greeks do next.

#7. Drown // Subaqueous – 2 songs, 42 minutes, all funeral doom. Normally this wouldn’t lure me, but what Drown delivers on their water-logged masterwork Subaqueous is truly special. Much more melodic and dare I say, accessible than most funeral doom products, this is an album you can drift away with. Full of mournful but vibrant guitar-work and excellent writing, Subaqueous carries you through its runtime effortlessly, borne by dark yet subtle tides. I found myself returning to take this freakish tube ride often as 2020 wandered deeper into Hell, and it always helped elevate my mood somehow. Take a dip in this deep ocean of lament.

#6. Pale Divine // Consequence of Time – I was already a fan of Pale Divine‘s brand of Black Sabbath meets gritty biker doom, but the addition of guitarist/co-vocalist Dana Ortt elevated the band to that next level. With a way proggier approach and some razor-sharp writing, tracks like “Satan in Starlight” and the massive ten-minute title track became omnipresent companions this year. The band channels the very best of early Sabbath through a Yes prism and the results are excellent. A restrained drum performance elicited knocks from some, but this was the traditional doom album o’ the year for yours trvly.

#5. Bütcher // 666 Goats Carry My Chariot – I know less about about goats than resident animal husbandry expert, Mark Z., but I know a wild, wooly, badass dose of blackened speed metal when I hear it, and that’s what Bütcher served up hot and steaming. No album this year was more fun to blast, nor more entertainingly over-the-top. There’s simply no way to spin “Iron Bitch” and not feel your blood angering up, and the 9-minute title track is 666% mayhemic insanity served with goat cheese and pig cock(eye)tails. A little time with your local Bütcher and you too will be a goat lover. Take that as you will.

#4. Counting Hours // The WillRapture was gone, but now they’re back, in Counting Hours form! Featuring members of the long-defunct melancholic death legends, Counting Hours deliver almost exactly the same cold, forlorn brand of depressive mope metal and they have my number all damn day. Mining the same depressive ore as Dawn of Solace and cleaving close to the original Rapture recipe with essential elements of Katatonia mixed in, this was going to be an easy sell for me, but how well constructed and captivating the material is can’t be disputed. If this came out earlier in the year it might have wormed itself further up the list.

#3. Wytch Hazel // Wytch Hazel III: Pentecost – Look, I get it. Rocking, upbeat metal for Jesus isn’t for everyone. But if you can stomach some communion wafer in your music, Wytch Hazel churned out one of the most impossibly hooky, addicting platters of old school rock/metal you’re likely to find this side of the afterlife. It’s all about simple songs, simple melodies, and huge hooks that stick in your skull and drag you along behind the church outreach van as those kind souls feed the hungry and cloth the clothless. I don’t want to enjoy these Thin Lizzy meet Up With People anthems. I resisted long and hard. I still found religion and you should too, you filthy sinners.

#2. Armored Saint // Punching the Sky – I’ve loved Armored Saint since I was a wee metal laddie. They were forever the eternal underdogs punching above their weight. 38 years into their career they’re punching almost as hard as they did in the early days, and Punching the Sky is one of their best, most consistent releases ever. It’s gritty, tough, rowdy, and catchy as all Hell, with some of the best songs the band ever crafted. It feels like the classic Saint album I hoped for but it has enough new wrinkles to keep it fresh. This thing got spun so much that Madam X actually began to hate the album AND the band, and she’s a very tolerant woman.1 The Saint boldly marches into a new decade.

#1. Dawn of Solace // Waves – As a diehard fan of Tuomas Saukkonen’s body of work, I was the ideal demographic for a second Dawn of Solace effort. It marked the reunion of Saukkonen and vocalist Mikko Heikkilä, who performed so well on the Black Sun Aeon platters, and together this dour twosome crafted an album’s worth of icy, bleak, quintessentially Finnish melodic doom with melodeath elements. Trending someplace between Tuomas’ past works and Insomnium, Waves keeps the atmosphere cold and the moods morose. I loved the album when it released in January, but as the pandemic took hold it felt more and more like essential listening. Songs like “Lead Wings” and the simply awesome “Hiding” perfectly encapsulate the zeitgeist of these times and were never far from my mind. This is the real soundtrack to 2020, and it isn’t a joyous one. There’s great beauty in the bleakness though, and it’s easily the best thing Tuomas has done in a long time. Sadbois unite!

 

Honorable Mentions:

Obscene // The Inhabitable Dark – The evil offspring of Hail of Bullets and Obituary and it’s UGLY!
Sweven // The Eternal Resonance – I don’t fully understand this prog-death performance art piece, but I dig its quirky beauty nonetheless.
Cirith Ungol // Forever Black – The Kings of the Dead are back in black and they sound pissed off.
Megaton Sword // Blood Hail Fire – Steel Hail Fire –  It takes a big sword to be this fookin’ trve.
Celestial Season // The Secret Teachings – Long defunct death doomers return with new lesson plans.
Ambush // Infidel – If Don Dokken took roids and signed Chris Holmes, you’d get this.
Deathwhite // Grave Image – Another powerful dose of mope metal by the mystery men of mystery.
Scolopendra // Those of the Catacombs – Slimy, creepy Autopsy-core from the other land of good pizza
Eternal Champion // Ravening Iron – A sword horde that know the Riddle of Steel and cheesy motel art
Dark Forest // Oak, Ash & Thorn – One of the very best power/traditional outings of 2020 fell in a dimly lit forest
Blessed Black // Beyond the Crimson Throne – The only stoner metal album you need in 2020 because RIFFFFFS

Song o’ the Year: Dawn of Solace – “Hiding” – Is there a more perfect song for 2020? No, there most certainly is not.

Disappointment o’ the Year: Dark TranquillityMomentI’m a major Dark Tranquillity fanboy, and was hoping Atoma was the beginning of a late-career resurgence. I wasn’t expecting Moment to top Atoma but hoped for something engaging and memorable. I didn’t get that. It’s not a terrible album, but it’s not especially interesting either.

Show 1 footnote

  1. And she still bought me a rad Saint shirt for Christmas because she’s awesome.
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