It’s the final Below The Light of 2020, but rather than scraping the barrel at this point, I’m mourning the stuff I had to leave out to fit this stuff in. So don’t worry that it’s too late to include these in your top 20, just wait a few months from when you realise something in this blog should have been in there, then lie and say it was all along.
This one has a largely grim mood to it, even finding a fairly morose power(ish) metal record, but ends in the most cheery black metal record of the year. And takes in something so nerdy, I think my glasses duplicate themselves and get stronger every time I listen to it.
Atramentus – Stygian
This one got some attention (partially because it’s yet another excellent record on 20 Buck Spin), but so much less than it deserves that I simply have to write about it. Another that narrowly missed out on my top 20 and was painful to leave out, Stygian is one of the most achingly beautiful things I heard in 2020.
Mournful, anguished, tormented and absolutely exquisitely pained, Atramentus’ founder apparently wrote Stygian then shoved it away for six years, before the Canadian act formed and recorded it – and thank fuck they did.
Sure, it’s a gut-wrenching listen that leaves you emotionally wrung out and feeling like you need a hug and a cuppa; but the outro section does provide some catharsis, and anyway there’s such a moving and heartfelt quality to Stygian that you’re also left very glad that you listened to it. And, although two of the three individual songs are very long, the album is only 44 minutes, so it’s never exhausting or off-putting to return to. And you should return – again and again and again.
Anyone who fell in love with Bell Witch’s masterpiece Mirror Reaper needs to hear this immediately.
Cytotoxin – Nuklearth
Oh look, it’s another record I love on Unique Leader, how shocking. This is ace again, though. Brutal tech death very much in the Origin and Wormed school, these Chernobyl-obsessed Germans might be dizzyingly intricate and fast, but the emphasis isn’t just on trying to show off how fast they can play. The intricacies are used to make quality ideas.
Sometimes, great riffs (which they have) and the groove that really well executed technicality brings are enough to hang together a decent 45 minutes of fun. But often, that can struggle to put together memorable songs, and can be forgettable. So thank fuck Nuklearth is full of actual songs, with variety, changes of pace and switches of mood, rarely better than on the title track or ‘Quarantine Fortress‘. But even when they’re just getting their heads down and going for the kill like with ‘Drown In Havoc‘ or opener ‘Atomb‘, there’s always enough skillful construction to make things distinct.
Diespnea – Pneuma
This Italian duo (whose name seems to be a word play on “dies”, and the medical term for shortness of breath in Italian) are stylistically almost impossible to pin down. At times, they are highly odd and original, treading their own paths but doing so in similar terrain to Blut Aus Nord or Mord’a’Stigmata, with weird but somehow clearly intelligible riff ideas; at others, they’re in fairly orthodox black metal climes; but then they throw something completely unexpected into your ear and make you sit up and pay attention.
The piano amidst the thunderous riffage on ‘Gorgoneion‘ sounds like someone heard the original ‘Sorgens Kammer‘ off Stormblåst and thought, “let’s make that weirder”, but the way in which it then blossoms into one of the very few moments of light on Pneuma is hugely affecting. The most spectacular moment of odd genius, however, is the sudden entry of near-Gregorian clean vocals that come out of nowhere on ‘Immortale‘, blindsiding you completely and making you sit up – but, crucially, as the melody is introduced in the opening guitar refrain, it somehow makes total sense.
The whole thing should make less sense than a Monty Python sketch written in Japanese by someone who only speaks German that was then subtitled into English by a cockatoo who only knows 22 words, all of them swearing, and all Russian. And yet it’s easy to take in and somehow comes together in your mind with ease. It’s an unsettling but uplifting listen, weird yet somehow completely understandable, and idiosyncratic but enormously relatable – and never less than completely compelling.
Emyn Muil – Afar Angathfark
It’s just vaguely possible the one man behind Emyn Muil has listened to Summoning. What with the obsession with Tolkien, and the, y’know, music. But while it’s unlikely Saverio Giove is going to win any prizes for staggering originality, anyone who likes epic, dark, expansive (and, as a consequence, long) compositions will quickly find this engaging.
It’s easy to use that word, “epic”, too often in metal, but here it would be inaccurate not to use it. Afar Angathfark does sound like the black metal equivalent of a bard spinning epic tales of mystical times past. At times, it’s mighty; at others tragic. It is, however, impressive how often Emyn Muil manage to make your heart fill with an emotion at the same time your mind conjures up artistic depictions of scenes from The Silmarillion.
Even if Summoning and Caladan Brood both put out albums in three months time, anyone who embraces their grim, geeky side will be glad they checked this one out. This is nerdier than Farscape references written on a Red Dwarf convention poster that appears as an Easter egg in a Warhammer 40K MMO, and that’s entirely a good thing.
Fortið – World Serpent
When Fortið last released an album, it was just as a load of gnarly as fuck Icelandic black metal bands made their scene incredibly cool. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t get into any of that scene, with the exception of Fortið; unfortunately for Fortið, they were way too melodic to fit into that zeitgeist and got, for my money, criminally overlooked. Why, I can’t fathom, as 9 was ace. World Serpent may have taken five years to arrive, but it picks up exactly where that left off.
Playing fiery black metal where the large amounts of melody are conveyed much more through guitar sound and production clarity than they are through sacrificing musical intensity, Fortið have a fairly distinctive sound that isn’t really comparable to anyone else you might tag as “melodic black metal”. The only real let-up is provided through the clean vocals, but even then they are sufficiently dark and intense (and excellent) that it’s not much of a slackening of power, and is very much the band’s own distinctive approach.
Just occasionally, a slice of riffage sounds like something Emperor would have used – and there are precious few bands who can pull that off. ‘Galdur‘ on 9 sounded a bit like ‘I Am The Black Wizards‘ guitar-wise, and ‘Insignificant Is The Wormking’s Throne‘ repeats the trick with ‘Into The Infinity Of Thoughts‘ – the trick being that sounding for a few seconds like a band as unique as Emperor only serves to end up highlighting how full of character everything you’ve done is.
Rich, melodic, and more fiery than an episode of Question Time discussing not only Brexit, but also whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
Manticora – To Live To Kill To Live
Manticora’s prog metal with a power metal tinge returns with To Live To Kill To Live, the follow-up to 2018’s To Kill To Live To Kill. Confused? Don’t worry about it. Just focus on how completely committed to its full-throated and totally OTT odyssey through half a dozen different metal moods.
While there’s no denying the theatrics, there’s also plenty of grit and crunch, with a smattering of extreme vocals and even – such as at the end of ‘Slaughter In The Desert Room‘ – some mild blast beats to compliment the aggressive bits. And while it does veer into cheerier moments that wouldn’t be out of place on an Unleash The Archers record (the opening of ‘Tasered/Ice Cage‘, for instance), mostly it’s a lot moodier than that suggests, even when it’s doing it with fast bits.
You probably won’t have the faintest clue what’s going on with the concept, but it’s prog metal, so that’s the point. Just worry about the grin on your face and the bobbing of the head, and let these Danes figure that out. I definitely couldn’t, but I was having more fun than a university rugby club that’s just found a bar where inappropriate nudity and dangerous pranks involving fire, newspapers, and bodily orifices are allowed.
Botanist – Photosynthesis
Coming out of that weird, incestuous, wonderful San Francisco scene where everyone sounds like no one else (see Ludicra, Lotus Thief, Cormorant, Bosse-de-Nage and god-knows how many others for details), Botanist are a sort-of-but-not-quite black metal band who replace the guitars with a hammered dulcimer, and are (obviously) ecologically themed. Inherently, that makes them sound unique. Uniqueness only carries you along for so far, however, as you have to have something worth playing to back it up.
I’ve been very hot-and-cold on them up to this point, as a lot of their albums have had moments I liked but ended up being a little too nice for me overall, with the gentler bits failing to hold my attention the way other songs did. Photosynthesis, however, holds my attention throughout, balancing its niceness with some much less comfortable musical devices, such as the dissonance deployed adeptly on ‘Dehydration‘ at the precise moment before your ear may have started wanting something nastier than the prettiness on display.
There are metalheads – even ones quite happy to have their metal nice and shiny and upbeat – who may still find this a tad twinkly, hence why this is a Googly rather than a standard entry, but, for me, it’s comfortably the best balanced of their prolific output I’ve heard.