If there’s one thing I love, it’s spicy hummus. That’s not relevant to this column, but I’m going to need it for an overstretched analogy in a minute, so I thought I’d make it clear.
But another thing I love is shouting about albums I think are great that I don’t see enough love for, so I’m back with another selection of underappreciated gems from 2020. And this one is, even by the standards set so far, a fun one. Except for the first pick. That’s about as cheerful an Alan Bennett monologue on dropping your hummus on the kitchen floor, slipping in it, falling, breaking your glasses, and viewing that as a metaphor for your life. Or something…
An Autumn For Crippled Children – All Fell Silent, Everything Went Quiet
It’s shocking that I feel the need to include this one, as AAFCC are not a new name. But it turns out there are still plenty of people who would like this band who don’t know about them yet, on top of which, some of the band’s fans are not overly impressed with their latest outing – an opinion I could not share less if it wore a MAGA cap.
AAFCC’s music still sounds like it comes through some kind of summery haze, all warm and bright with dappled sunbeams, but what it illuminates could not be less cheerful. Gothy synths and wistful melodies speak of loss out of joy, not silver linings in clouds, and it’s powerfully mournful.
The criticisms of All Fell Silent… from within the fanbase seem mainly to have stemmed from the high quality of the previous album and how this compares, or from AAFCC’s staunch sticking to their sound without much change. Irrespective of any opinions of any other records, however, this release is chock full of beauty, emotion and atmosphere, and stands out on its own merits. Moreover, AAFCC’s trick has long since been to make very subtle changes of pace or tone, but carry a huge shift in mood as they do so. That trick has never been more on display than on All Fell Silent… – and a band that tugs your heartstrings through subtle shifts don’t need to change gear. This is wonderful.
Carrion Vael – God Killer
Carrion Veil really, really fucking love The Black Dahlia Murder, and Satan’s beard, can you tell. God Killer sounds like what TBDM would have made if one of them liked Kreator just a tiny bit more, and if Trevor Strnad’s sense of rhythm owed a little to Speed from Soilwork (see the ‘Follow The Hollow‘-isms of ‘Black Chariot‘ for Exhibit A).
Sure, this is not original in the slightest, but it is seriously fuckin’ fun, all snarling theatrics and big dirty riffs that come with plenty of crunch but bags of melody. But these chaps from Richmond, Indiana, are relative newcomers (this is their sophomore record, and they look barely out of sophomore year of college themselves), and they can develop distinctiveness later. What matters is whether their music is any good – and this slays harder than Buffy if you’re mean to Joyce.
Dzö-nga – Thunder In The Mountains
Further evidence that basically everything put out by Avantgarde Music is worth checking out at least once, Dzö-nga’s third album is a complete joy. Mixing black metal riffs captured in bright, clear production with compound time signatures and gentle melodies conveyed through clean vocals and sparing keyboards, this manages the difficult trick of leaving you admiring how bloody pretty it all is.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is soft or twee, though; Thunder In The Mountains is aptly named, and owes more musically (although categorically not spiritually) to Primordial, Agalloch and Summoning than it does to anything within a kilt’s length of Ensiferum. As a case in point, there’s an excellent reference to ‘Into The Infinity Of Thoughts‘ by Emperor in the album’s closer that shows the band’s black metal literacy while simultaneously displaying these Bostonians’ ability to set their influences to a completely original voice.
The only thing separating this from genuine greatness is the budget to get a few more vocal takes, and to enrich the production. Dan Swanö and Borknagar’s Øystein Garnes Brun do good work with the master and mix respectively, but I would spend silly money on the vinyl of a version recorded by Jens Bogren.
Erdling – Yggrasil
There’s never enough German nonsense, so thank fuck for Erdling. Absolute zero-subtlety four-on-the-floor gothy industrial with Norse mythology as the lyrical inspiration sung entirely in German, Yggdrasil is considerably less complicated or original than I just made it sound. Rammstein would not have to work hard to spot their influence, and frankly, there are plenty of people out there whose only exposure to rock music is the soundtrack to The Matrix who could spot it too.
But this shit is extremely hard to do well, and there is such a wealth of genuinely catchy stompy poptastic cheese packing this out, that if you’re not smiling and tapping your foot by the end of opener ‘Blizzard‘, please never get stuck with me in a lift.
Dumb trashy fun, and I am fully here for it.
Feuerschwanz – Das Elfte Gebot
Why have one dose of generic German silliness when you can have two?
Feuerschwanz are on Napalm Records and oh sweet Christ can you tell. Folk metal that has about as much to do with actual folk music as a postcard with a Lederhosen-wearing oompah band has to Germany, this makes Turisas look like Amorphis. It is camp-as-tits party metal that belongs at Wacken like mistrust from the public belongs at an enterprise helmed by Dido Harding.
Frankly though, this pitch could not sound better to me if you offered it to me with beer and a pretzel. Das Elfte Gebot is bouncy dancing fun that has a wink in its eye and a shit-eating grin on its lips – and, joking aside, a shitload of good hooks within the cheese. Although admittedly there is enough of the smelly dairy product to provoke a PETA protest.
Kvaen – The Funeral Pyre
One-man Swedish act Kvaen play black metal. No frills, no gimmicks, no prefix. What The Funeral Pyre does is manage to carry bags of melody in with the savagery. It’s all conveyed through riffs, with just a sparing use of lead lines. The vocals biggest concession to melody is a catchy sense of rhythm (think Watain, but more rage than reverence) to hook you, without anything approaching cleanliness in sight. It’s all relentless too, as upper-midtempo is about as slow as it ever gets for sustained periods.
While the Dissection-isms aren’t enormously hidden, this has three key tricks that stop it falling into the traps that the oversaturation of bands a decade ago got caught by. First, it’s an inspiration, not simply a rehash of The Somberlain; second, there is a great big bucket of personality that is clearly Kvaen’s, not Nodveidt’s (which is for the better, because fuck that guy); thirdly, for all the melodies, the lasting impression is enormous aggression, not melody.
Put another way, this fucking rips.
Operus – Score Of Nightmares
Lightly symphonic power metal with absolutely no self-awareness to speak of, if Feuerschwanz have enough cheese to risk a PETA protest, Operus have so much even France is thinking, “steady now…”
Epic in ways that are unbelievably difficult to pull off without simply being shit, Score Of Nightmares is the kind of record that is all too rare in its complete commitment to what it’s doing while still having massive hooks and soaring operatic melodies to boot. I bloody love it, and am hungry for anything these Canadians do in future.
The reason it’s a Googly is simple: even confirmed power metal fans might find this on the edge of their tolerance. This is one die-hards will lap up, but it won’t be for all.