In the penultimate round-up of stuff that seemed to fly under the radar in 2020, we’ve got the usual multinational selection you can use to help avoid the sickly feast of Christmas schmaltz you’re probably drowning with. So whether you want something grim, something heavy, something catchy, or something apocalyptically violent, there’s probably something you can use to drown out Mariah.
The Infernal Sea – Negotium Crucis
Anyone who caught The Infernal Sea live early in their existence, or who listened to their debut back in 2012, may have been surprised at how that melodic dawn has progressed into ever more necro and grim terrain – but probably not disappointed.
The British black metallers are not in any way shy of showing you how much they like Darkthrone (especially the Ravishing Grimness era) but when they’re this bloody good at it, any concerns about what might have been, or that their love for their inspirations might smother their personality, drop dead in their tracks.
Strangely catchy in places, and with a ferocity that’s hard not to raise a gnarly smile to, their third album rips. Into tiny pieces. Then stomps on the pieces for a bit. Then sets fire to them, just because they can. It’s vicious, basically.
Might – Might
German doomsters Might’s self-titled debut is a cracking beast of a record in its own right, but you can’t help hear it and think they’ll go on to eclipse it with ease in the future.
The sine qua non with anything as uncluttered and focused as this is that the building blocks are fantastic – and they are. The riffs are chonky and heavy, the cleaner bits shift the mood well (see the opening of ‘Warlight‘ for a perfect example), and the execution of them is as tight as you need to be to sound this grooving. The vocals are full of personality, show a great ear for a melody, and are underpinned by bags of skill. All of this is what makes you think they can only go from strength to strength.
But to start your output off with something that captures the ear and drags you into its melancholy but still leaves you feeling appropriately strong – like this does – means that even if they never do anything again, this will have been worth your time.
Morwinyon – Pristine
Mixed and mastered by the guy behind Unreqvited (who I may continue harping on about for a while to come), you can see immediately why the two artists would want to work together on this, the debut from this Italian two-piece. It’s sort-of-but-not-quite black metal, using tremolo picking and fast drums with harsh vocals, but it’s massively uplifting, flirts with symphonics and more post-y stuff, and it’s got a real sense of looking up in wonder at a star-dappled night sky.
Pristine builds its compositions towards emotional peaks, then watches as all the tension drops from your face and joins in with the big smile it puts on your face, and suddenly everything feels like it’s right in the world. It leaves you there, floating weightless on the emotional high it’s brought you too, then brings you slowly and gently down to the ground again, before slipping off into the dark once more, leaving you ready to do it all over again straight away.
39 minutes of absolute bliss that leaves room for the band to improve on the follow-up, which simply can’t come soon enough.
Ripped To Shreds – 亂 (Luan)
With a name taken from a Terrorizer song, a guitar tone taken from Sweden circa 1990, and a production clearly fond of what Kurt Ballou did with that first Black Breath album, San Jose-via-Taipei one-man death metal act Ripped To Shreds are in hugely familiar territory to anyone who’s been listening to death metal for more than a couple of weeks. And should make both veterans and newcomers extremely happy.
Violent, unsettling but still very musical riffs fight over punky drums while rasping vocals spit out unspeakable horror in two languages. And if all that sounds like no fun at all, you couldn’t be more wrong. Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Lee’s understanding of what makes this stuff good is excellent, and at no point does this lose sight of how entertaining and smile-inducing this stuff should be.
Horrific, putrid carnage. Marvellous.
Romuvos – The Baltic Crusade
Without doubt the most painful omission from my end-of-year top 20, this Lithuanian/Israeli folk metal record is absolutely not what you expect from the name, artwork or subgenre. Rather than bombast, pace and OTT theatrics, The Baltic Crusade spends its entire length at marching pace or slower, slowly unfolding layers of melodies through driving metal guitars and drums, folk instruments, a superb and highly distinctive clean vocal delivery, male chants and close vocal harmonies, and the occasional faint sound effect.
The result is a slow-burning but endlessly rewarding epic with a tale-telling atmosphere and a tragic edge to its muscularity, never exploding into life and ruining its tension, but never losing your ear, right up to the enrapturing conclusion.
Unlucky Morpheus – Unfinished
Prolific power metallers Unlucky Morpheus apparently spend most of their time making albums that are arrangements of the soundtracks of bullethell series Touhou, but this is a set of original songs, and good grief are they great. As often happens with Japanese power metal bands, there’s a fair whack of of extreme stuff in with the hooks, but it’s ultimately all about the melody (and, before you assume, no it doesn’t sound like Babymetal – the vocals are metal as fuck with no J-pop in sight).
I struggle to name anything more energetic I’ve listened to all year – even Unleash The Archers’ latest. Which is doubly impressive considering that, for power metal, this isn’t that fast. The oomph comes instead from the vocal power, the drive of the rhythm section, and how bloody crisp the riffs are, and this gives it staying power throughout. If it was just sheer pace, you might get used to it by the end, but with this technique, you get to the end of the 33 minutes of running time, and the impact hasn’t slipped for a second.
Bonkers, but and better for it.
Taster track: ‘Kago no tori‘
Where to hear it: Spotify
Victorius – Space Ninjas From Hell
Imagine if someone heard DragonForce, and instead of thinking the best bit was not the ludicrous pace or the bonkers virtuoso solos, but the bits that sound like someone metalled up Japanese computer game soundtracks. That’s basically Victorius. (Side note – the best bit of DragonForce is of course, in fact, Sam Totman’s bloody ace songwriting. The man’s ridiculous.)
“Japan-obsessed” doesn’t even cover the half of these Germans thematically, stylistically and lyrically, but it does help give them a distinct sound, and they’ve got some fun songs in here among the schtick. Slick, taut, and crunching, with some catchy melodies and plenty of moments to make you smile, Space Ninjas From Hell is a record to put a cheesy grin on your face. The absolute unapologetic silliness might make this something of a Marmite listen, though.