TheKenWord’s and Carcharodon’s Top Ten(ish) of 2020

TheKenWord

2020 has been one helluva year. The pandemic hit just as I decided I was tired of being single, and two of my roommates got happily engaged and bought a house together, so we split off and each moved into our own places. Then, my parents put their house on the market and needed help getting it prepped. Then, I got promoted at work twice in the span of a single month. Right after that, the most exhausting presidential election in my lifetime happened. Needless to say, I and nearly everyone else around me were pretty busy trying to scrape our lives together in pretty much every respect, resolutely refusing to allow a stupid microscopic piece of bother to sully everything we work so hard to build. The near constant swirl of activity and shifting responsibilities made keeping track of and financially supporting the ridiculous amount of quality music that released this year impossible. It also increased my stress levels close to what they were in college, so most of my time consisted of me keeping my mental health in check as best as I could.

I can’t say that I’ve done the best job of either, but I can say that I tried. It’s a tricky balance, trying to keep myself healthy and happy while paying adequate attention to my friends and family, who I love very much. No matter what you have to shoulder, I have to believe that every decent person has worth and deserves happiness so long as they live. With that in mind, I prioritized happiness over every other factor for my list. In a time where every scrap of positivity counts, the albums which lifted me up the most I, in turn, lifted up in kind.

On the topic of lifting me up, I want to take a “brief” moment to thank everyone at AMG Torture Chambers and Sundries for keeping at least one part of my life stable and consistent this year. Special thanks to my list buddy Carcharodon for being my list buddy, and a mighty friendly shark who remembered that fish sponges are not food; to Grymm and our lovely The Master Formerly Known as Muppet for allowing me to butt in on our Mental Health Awareness interview series this year; to Kronos and Ferrous Beuller for being my main deathboying deathboards during the year of death; Diabolus in Muzaka for having the worst taste in death metal this year—and also for dealing the most effective and infuriating trolling strategy I’ve been subjected to thus far—thereby upgrading my trveness quotient by 244.666% compared to last year; to GardensTale for being the best Discord partner ever; to Sentynel for his devotion to the maintenance and comprehensive overhaul of this site and it’s wonderfully minimalist features; and of course the ever rock solid Steel Druhm and matriarch Madam X for keeping this shipwreck barely afloat. Finally, I want to extend a begrudging acknowledgement to the commenters, the wave of skulls and viscera this site deserves.

There you have it. The following 10(ish) selections, plus a few Honorable Mentions, brought me the most joy over the course of this difficult year, either through cathartic release or emotional resonance. Stay healthy, frens, and do whatever it is that makes you happy!


#ish. Cytotoxin // Nuklearth – I simply can’t overstate how much fun I’ve had with Cytotoxin this year. In my infinite stupidity, I slept on 2017’s immense Gammageddon for stupid people reasons. That changed in 2020, and I happened to realize that the Germans’ brand of nuclear fallout themes and groove-laden technicality was exactly the thing I never knew I needed. Nuklearth might not be as wild and unhinged as Gammageddon, but the album is groovier than bright blue bell-bottoms and heavier than uranium. If I ever see them live I might just break all bones and dislocate all joints, but it’ll be worth it.

#10. Thætas // Shrines to Absurdity – Thætas is kinda like Afterbirth‘s evil twin—futuristic and brutal death metal. But, the future in Thætas‘s universe is all sewers and gutters, refuse in the streets and disease everywhere. It’s a grim, gruesome slab of concrete and rebar, and sounds the part. Riffs thicken the blood and the technical, slightly jazzy overtones give the record the same intimidating presence as a sprawling urban square. It kicks my ass on every street corner, and I wind up in my little refrigerator box in the alley, covered in oozing cuts and throbbing bruises. What more could a young sponge ask for?

#9. Draconian // Under a Godless Veil – I was extremely nervous about this one. First, the advance tracks were doing exactly what I wanted a new Draconian to do. Then, hype settled in for the long haul as I anxiously awaited release day. Closer to the day of, the damn dirty ape’s review left me worried that Under a Godless Veil might not be all that and a bag of chips. Finally, the day of reckoning came, and I was relieved to say the least. I love this album. It’s not what I thought would come after Sovran, but I gotta respect a collective that makes the music they want and still puts out better tunes than the majority of their peers.

#8. Depravity // Grand Malevolence – Brutal death metal hardly gets more br00tal than Depravity. After Evil Upheaval landed on my radar, I pretty much lost my ability to remain calm about the Aussies’ intractable viciousness. Relentless, demolishing riffs take cities down like papier-mâché. Monstrous growls shatter bone and liquefy muscle. Thick production intimidates the weak. By the end of these destructive 49 minutes, there remain no survivors to tell tales of Depravity‘s reckless abandon wrought across a razed landscape. Scorched, blood-soaked rubble is all there is left. That, to be sure, is a Grand Malevolence.

#7. 殞煞 Vengeful Spectre // 殞煞 Vengeful Spectre – Discovering this album was an accident. I don’t even remember how it happened now. Regardless, 殞煞 Vengeful Spectre fucking rules, with tons of awesome riffs, bloodcurdling shrieks and ripping solos, not to mention all of the cool traditional instruments scattered hither and thither. Furthermore, every time I thought some other album would overtake 殞煞 Vengeful Spectre on my list, the damned thing reappeared with bloodthirsty wengeance.

#6. Spectral Lore/Mare Cognitum // Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine – Of all the albums I’ve listened to that put to sound the crushing loneliness and indifferent violence of space, Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine feels like the most accurate rendition. It’s gorgeous, raw, and unforgiving. Spectral Lore‘s well-known talent for atmosphere and suspense melds sublimely with Mare Cognitum‘s unsung mastery of riffs and hooks to create a thoroughly entrancing journey. It’s overlong to be sure, but I hardly call the time spent a waste. Atmospheric black metal rarely offers me anything other than tropes and tired melodies. Needless to say, Wanderers put atmoblack back on my cosmic map.

#5. Black Royal // Firebride – Hot fuck, this album slaps! Serious riffage and some of the catchiest vocal passages of the year define every moment of Firebride. Blues and death sludge go together like peanut butter and jelly, and Black Royal know exactly how to smash them together. As if that wasn’t enough to sell this record to pretty much everybody, it sounds fantastic to boot, with deep thundering tones and lush layering. I don’t know that I can say anything else about it. Just, do me a favor if you don’t mind? HAIL YOURSELF!

#4. Unleash the Archers // Abyss – I wasn’t sure how Unleash the Archers was going to follow up the immense Apex. It seemed like an insurmountable task. I needn’t have worried, because Abyss totally won me over from the onset. I love the shift in sound towards something more upbeat and effervescent, and the melodies that they wrote to accompany that shift make my spine shiver. The band is in top form in 2020, showing incredible maturity in songwriting while retaining their youthful drive for musical expansion, and Abyss only assures their ruling seat over the power metal galaxy.

#3. Nawabs of Destruction // Rising Wengeance – To crack my Top 3 in a good year for metal, an album must meet three conditions: 1. I must experience extreme difficulty putting the record down once it’s picked up; 2. It must give me something novel, something I haven’t heard before (this can be subtle or overt, either is valid); 3. People around me get annoyed with how often I proselytize the album in question.1 Nawabs of Destruction‘s debut Rising Vengeance hit the bullseye on all three categories, rapidly climbing the ranks and landing a coveted podium spot. The only reason it didn’t rank higher is because the next two were tenths of a second quicker to the finish line.

Afterbirth - Four Dimensional Flesh album cover#2. Afterbirth // Four Dimensional Flesh – In a year saturated with excellent death metal, the coolest record of all is Four Dimensional Flesh. Brutal death metal so rarely feels optimistic, but Afterbirth somehow found a way to make it happen. Part of that accomplishment comes from heavy Hum influences and futuristic songwriting aesthetics, but I think the more prevalent contributor is the love and attention to detail given to the mix. Thick and muscular, but also expansive and remarkably clear, Colin Marston’s masterful work producing Four Dimensional Flesh launches the record from an excellent musical experiment to an essential record for the genre.

#1. Omnivortex // Diagrams of Consciousness – Well, I guess sometimes a marvelous execution beats out a novel idea. Afterbirth holds the record for longest time spent in first place this year. However, I just can’t get enough of Diagrams of Consciousness. Despite a mountainous 53-minute runtime, the record flies by and there’s not a moment wasted. Every time I come back, I sit in awe of all the wonderful ways Omnivortex transmutes and shifts into abominable forms. Progressive and forward thinking, yet fiercely musical and indelible, the Finnish quintet’s deathly debut plastered a smile across my face which still hasn’t evaporated. Perhaps more importantly, as hard as I tried to find something—anythingthat detracts from the experience, I come up with nothing. At the time of writing, there’s not one second of Diagrams of Consciousness that I would cut, shorten, or otherwise alter. And so it takes its rightful place atop this spire of metallic ascendancy, my Album o’ the Year, Omnivortex‘s Diagrams of Consciousness!

Honorable Mentions

  • Nexorum // Death Unchained – Blackened death metal rarely gets more entertaining than this. Riffs grind bone to dust and the way everything is arranged is intoxicating. It’s basically a more evil Vredehammer. Need I say more?
  • Seven Spires // Emerald Seas – This album has been out since February. I, however, first heard it the day the Staff Lists dropped (thanks, Emya!). This album is so good that with only a few days’ time it earned a place here. With more time, it would’ve have easily broken my Top 5.
  • Aeternam // Al Qassam – I love this band. I love this album. It fought like hell for a slot on my list proper. Al Qassam is simply a beautiful melodic death metal album, through and through.
  • Luna’s Call // Void – Prog-death is a tricky genre for me. I rarely love albums that live firmly within the bounds of prog, but every now and then the music is just too good to dismiss. Void easily qualifies as such music.
  • Izthmi // The Arrows of Our Ways – The melodies and riffs totally took me off guard, and the warm, arid production puts everything that happens here in such a cool perspective. The interludes are a bit much, but they make it feel like a complete story, and it’s one I love hearing.
  • Amaranthe // Manifest – I have no excuse for this.2 I love this album. It’s the most fun chunk of pop metal Amaranthe have ever penned, and I am definitely, massively addicted to it.
  • Bütcher // 666 Goats Carry My Chariot – Speed metal isn’t my typical choice, but damn it Bütcher dragged me straight to hell and whipped me into shape right proper. Can I please have another ride in the chariot, master?

Songs o’ the Year

    1. Bütcher – “666 Goats Carry My Chariot”
    2. Nawabs of Destruction – “The Merciless”
    3. Unleash the Archers – “Faster than Light”
    4. Nexorum – “Procession of the Damned”
    5. Amaranthe – “Strong”
    6. 殞煞 Vengeful Spectre – “肅弒 Rainy Night Carnage”
    7. Delain – “Masters of Destiny”
    8. Depravity – “Cantankerous Butcher”
    9. Black Royal – “Hail Yourself”
    10. Atræ Bilis – “Ectopian”

EP o’ the Year

  • Atræ Bilis // Divinihility – Although this EP is pretty much tied with Beast Impalor‘s silly and scrumptious Goblin for my favorite short-form release this year, the fact remains that Atræ Bilis has better riffs. Straddling the fence between modern tech and old school filth, Divinihility is an exciting preview of what this band might unleash on a full length platter ov devastation. Don’t miss out!

Disappointments o’ the Year

  • TheKenWord’s Top 10 of 2020 – This ranks as my biggest disappointment because it needs MOAR Aether Realm, Countless Skies, Wormhole, Firelink, Loviatar, Khôra, Vredehammer, Drown, Green Carnation, Ulthar, Wytch Hazel, Megaton Sword, Kvaen, Anaal Nathrakh, and all the jillion other righteous things that I thought might earn a spot.
  • Within Destruction // Yōkai – No single album released this year crushed my heart to smithereens quite like Yōkai. Slovenian deathcore monster Within Destruction had something really awesome going with Void and D E A T H W I S H but they threw every single little bitty bit of that into the trash with this latest abomination. Fusing new styles into their established sound should have worked, but the execution here is bizarrely trashy. But the worst part is the production—I’ve never experienced the pain of a severe migraine before, but I imagine this record feels exactly like one when I listen to it. This is more than a misfire. It’s a nuclear disaster.

Non-Metal Album o’ the Year

  • Them Moose Rush // Dancing Maze – Yeah, I know we reviewed it here and tagged it under “Alt-Metal” but I personally don’t hear a drop of metal in this album. Nevertheless, it’s raucous fun and for a large swath of the year I couldn’t tear my ears away from this funky, pop-punky alternative rock. Dancing Maze is easily the most enjoyable non-metal album I tried in a while, and it singlehandedly kickstarted my interest in exploring more non-metal acts for the first time in over a decade.

Carcharodon

Well, goodness. What a goddamn terrible year. Despite the utter omnishambles that was the worst year I can remember in my almost-40 years of life, there have been a few bright spots to 2020. I have got to spend a lot more time with my shark pup, which has been awesome. Thanks to a lot of time indoors on Zwift, my cycling form is coming on nicely. And I think I have, finally, perfected my chili con carne recipe.3

I’ve also really come to know and *grits teeth* even *one side of face twitches uncontrollably* like all the awful people that write for this site. I have forced myself to actually look at some of them over regular Zoom calls too. If there is any silver lining to the pandemic, it is that it has given me the opportunity to connect with, and really get to know, a whole bunch of people in a way I never would have done otherwise. Yes, I miss seeing friends and colleagues in person but I doubt the writers here would ever have made time to regularly get together for virtual beers and shop talk otherwise—a big shout out to GardensTale for herding us. Each and every one of us has, I think, been through tough times at one point or another this year and I am very lucky to have had Team AMG in my corner. Thanks for helping keep me sane. Love you all. *sniff*

The other plus, of course, has been the tunes, with 2020 gifting us some of the best metal in years. Seriously, I could have put together a respectable4 top 10 just comprising stuff that I’ve reviewed overrated. As it is, there was a lot more out there and I have agonized over this list for literally months. By mid-November last year, my list was pretty much settled. Sure, a couple of albums sidled a few places up the list, while a couple of others slid gracelessly down but there was little uncertainty. Scroll forward 12 months and I was confused. I had wildly conflicting notes stuck all over the place and at least thirty contenders for my list proper, with almost as many Honorable Mention candidates as my spongy listmate Kenneth has items in his Bandcamp wishlist.5 But, Jørn give me strength, I’ve done the best I can.

Just before I lay my list before you for your general adulation and ridicule—in roughly equal measure, I hope—I would just like to say thank you to everyone who reads and comments here. Your humor is awful, your Yer Mom jokes punctual, your musical taste dubious and your company painful, and I appreciate the hell out of most all of you! Thank you for being you.


(ish) Dawn of Solace // Waves – Be honest now, did you remember the RotM from January? No, neither did I but in a moment of madness, I decided I should listen to each RotM again just to check I wasn’t forgetting anything great and, whaddayaknow, I was! This mournful, gothic slab of Finnish doom, tinged with just enough Insomnium-edges to give it some real bite, has got its hooks into me good and proper. It has also really scratched that forlorn itch that Deathwhite‘s Grave Image didn’t quite manage.  

#10. Eternal Champion // Ravening Iron – I am as surprised as anyone to see Eternal Champion here but I can’t seem to get enough of this record. As Steel professed, even while proceeding to underrate this gem, Ravening Iron is packed full of “propulsive, olde timey leads that make you want to get rowdy and join the nearest Norse Warfare Reenactment Club.” Yes, they do, Boss Ape — Eternal Champion are just a ton of rowdy, classic fun metal!!

#9. Arbrynth // A Place of Buried Light – Delivering gorgeous, sonorous, atmospheric post-black metal, I kept revisiting A Place of Buried Light after it dropped in February. At times a month or two would go by before I stopped in again but every time, it hit me how beautifully bleak and balanced this record is. It’s hard to describe what makes Arbrynth special but the almost symphonic, black metal fury that punctuates the delicate arrangements and moments of true fragility really spoke to me. Let’s hope these Australians don’t leave another nine years between releases!

#8. Frigoris // …in Stille – Stunning melodic black metal from German quartet Frigoris…in Stille completes a journey and vision begun four years ago on their last full-length Nur ein Moment… Soaring melodies temper the fury of Frigoris‘ raw black metal assault to gorgeous effect, particularly on opener “Aurora Stirbt” and the thunderous “Stimmen in Regen” and icy “Das Licht in Mir,” while the epic closer “Die Gleisen an denen wir starben II (…in Stille),” brings the whole double-album vision to a hugely emotive conclusion as it fades out over a delicate strong arrangement.  This completely blew me away all the way back in January and, unlike a number of other records from earlier in the year, which have gradually fallen away, …in Stille has remained with and, if anything grown on, me over the course of the year.

#7. Membaris // Misanthrosophie – Misanthrosophie was the third of three albums that I 4.0ldeneyed back in March and, while I’m not saying that I overrated any of them,6 it’s perhaps notable that Membaris is the only one of the three to list. Although it’s all built around a core of raw, icy black metal, this German duo bring a lot more to the party, including prog-worthy solos and full acoustic folk passages to build a harshly compelling package. And if you’re one of those people complaining about the snare sound, off you fuck, chief, it’s fine.

#6. Exgenesis // Solve et Coagula – A gorgeous, hulking beast of a melodic death/doom album, Solve et Coagula is by degrees beautiful, haunting and harrowing. Packing a definite Swallow the Sun (circa-The Morning Never Came) vibe but upping the melodic quotient to epic proportions on tracks like “Coagula” and “Stasis,” Exgenesis played a blinder here. Chunky doom riffs battle for space with soaring melodic leads, as Alejandro Lotero roars his heart out behind the mic.

#5. Kardashev // The Baring of Shadows – While The Baring of Shadows may only be an EP, I have been physically unable to stop listening to it for months. Smashing together numerous different styles and influences to create something I see referred to as deathgaze, Kardashev floored me with the gut-wrenching emotional punch of The Baring of Shadows. The pain of loss is writ large across The Baring of Shadows, as Mark Garrett puts in the vocal performance of the year for me. If it were a full-length, it’s likely this record would have topped my list. It also provided my undisputed song of the year, “Snow-Sleep.”

#4. Anaal Nathrakh // Endarkenment – The industrial grind of this Birmingham duo is not normally something I reach for or really consider to be in my wheelhouse but in this shittiest of years, there is something about Endarkenment that spoke to me. Maybe it was that in 2020, to paraphrase a well-known film, Anaal Nathrakh wasn’t the band I deserved but was the one I needed? Or something. Maybe? The uncompromising nature of Endarkenment—even in its “Mozart-gone-awry” closing, as Grymm put it—is simply the perfect companion piece to this year, capturing the fury, frustration, and futility of it all in a dangerously unpredictable package. So, “Take what small comfort there may be left,” and genuflect before Anaal Nathrakh.

#3. Ulcerate // Stare into Death and be Still – Look, Ulcerate was never going to be able to provide a worthy successor to Shrines of Paralysis so let’s just move on and… oh, wait, they did. Stare into Death and be Still is phenomenal. It may, as Kronos pointed out, be Ulcerate‘s most approachable record yet but, at its beating heart, this is still brvtal, dissonant death metal, drenched – one could say “drowning”— in atmosphere and is utterly captivating as the violence ebbs and flows across Stare into Death‘s near one-hour run time.

#2. Forlesen // Hierophant ViolentHierophant Violent is not, I fully accept, an album for everyone. It requires patience. It also probably requires just the right moment for your first listen. But, if you have those things, the delicacy, intricacy and beauty of what Forlesen put together—combining drone, post metal, and fragments of doom and black metal—will repay you in spades. Gorgeously textured and layered, this thing just enchanted me on a devastatingly emotive level from my first spin. While I do not expect to see Hierophant Violent on any other lists for 2020 (except perhaps the best artwork list), that’s because you’re all wrong and awful.

#1. Panzerfaust // The Suns of Perdition – Chapter II: Render unto Eden – Unlike pretty much everything else on this page, the choice of Panzerfaust‘s Render unto Eden as my AotY was a pretty easy one. Managing to top 2019’s The Suns of Perdition I: War, Horrid War was always going to be a tall order but this Canadian Panzerwagen managed it, and only 12 months on to boot. Combining walls of crushing, blackened heaviness with delicate and melodic atmospherics, Panzerfaust completely blew me away. A particular highlight—and one I feel I perhaps undersold in my review—is Alexander Kartashov’s outstanding progressive work behind the kit. Goliath’s roars and whispers continue to cast a compelling spell, as the cascading riffs pummel you. It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes Render unto Eden so special. In one sense, Panzerfaust is not doing anything that Mgła and Gaerea haven’t but, for me, they just bring all the components together with a brutal skill that simply makes it better. Render unto Eden‘s hooks are well and truly right into that important quadrant of my brain, the Ametaldala.7

 

Honorable mentions:

  • Black Royal // Firebride – rRffs upon riffs, upon joyous, crushing riffs. There is no magic, nor even real complexity, to what Black Royal do but, to quote DOWN, “the power of the riff compels me!”
  • B R I Q U E V I L L E // Quelle – Going into this one, I expected little but irritation from the smug pretentiousness of it all but, in fact, Quelle is an angular, jarringly beautiful affair, packing some great post-metal riffs and truckloads of atmosphere.
  • Faceless Burial // Speciation – It’s no secret that I don’t really do death metal but, as Kronos said in his review of Speciation, “[s]ometimes you know within seconds that an album is going to absolutely rule.” Maybe what I needed all along was the modern take on OSDM that Faceless Burial slammed into my unprepared earholes!
  • Kvaen // The Funeral Pyre– “Fire! Fire! Fire, fucking fire!” (“Yee Naaldlooshii”) is what Kevin8 is all about: melodic black metal riffs, stacked one atop the other to incredible, vicious and breathless effect.  
  • Liminal Shroud // Through the False Narrows – Mixing raw black metal with organic ambiance, Liminal Shroud put out a proper dose of autumn misery that I loved. As HellmutNighthammer commented on my review of this: “By Odin’s nipples, tis a banger!”
  • Nyktophobia // What Lasts Forever – The only out and out melodeath record that I loved this year. I reviewed a couple of pretty poor efforts in the genre and was recommended others but I kept coming back to the killer riffs and genuine emotion of What Lasts Forever.
  • Sumac // May you be Held – Earlier this year I penned a YMIO for ISIS‘ Celestial, which Doom_et_Al summarised as “prickly, requires effort … [but] beyond essential.” Little did the erudite Doctor know, he was also summing up the latest sprawling, mesmerizing effort from Aaron Turner and Sumac.

Surprises o’ the Year:

  • Armored Saint // Punching the Sky – Many years ago, I picked up a second-hand CD of 1984’s March of the Saints, in a Berlin flea market for a couple of Euros and loved it. Armored Saint‘s last few records have been … fine but Punching the Sky fucking rocks, and I love that these guys can still turn out such a quality record in their 38th year!
  • Gazpacho // Fireworker – One of the greatest discoveries this site ever gifted me is Gazpacho‘s Demon, which is a 5.0/5.0. While Fireworker can’t quite compete with that masterpiece, it’s not a million miles away and its off-kilter rhythms and unexpected twists and turns make it far better than the two forgettable Gazpacho records that preceded it.
  • The genius comment from Mr John Gallagher of Raven, reacting to our 2.5 review of Metal City – “off you fuck chief”. Love it! Much respect John.

Disappointments o’ the Year:

In this order:

  • 2020 in general – need I elaborate?!
  • August RotM for not being Panzerfaust‘s The Suns of Perdition – Chapter II: Render unto Eden.
  • Dark Tranquillity‘s Moment because, well, read the double review and take your pick of the “meh” Moments highlighted by Steel Druhm and Grymm. They are all correct.
  • The surprising and frankly very unsavory reaction of a particular band member to his latest effort being awarded a 3.0. If you don’t know what I am talking about, best leave it that way, but let me just take this opportunity to remind everyone that on our scale, 3.0 = Good.

Songs o’ the Year: Kardashev – “Snow-Sleep”

Show 8 footnotes

  1. Yup. – Dr. Been Proselytized Wvrm
  2. There IS no excuse for this. – Steel
  3. The key is to … wait, you didn’t think I was actually going to give it up, did you?!
  4. To me at least, which is frankly all I care about, given how long it’s been since I actually socialized with anyone.
  5. A whopping 1,140 at last count. In case you were wondering.
  6. I may have overrated two of them.
  7. I’m sorry. Blame Holdeneye for encouraging this sort of malicious dad humor.
  8. As they are affectionately known hereabouts.
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