You’ve possibly heard this list already on Hell Bent For Metal. But if you haven’t, here are the official* best 20 albums of 2020.
*according to KillWithPower**.com
20. Dzö-nga – Thunder In The Mountains
Previously covered in Below The Light #3, Thunder In The Mountains never dropped off extensive rotation. It’s just too darn packed with positives. Great riffs, terrific melodies, an atmosphere that’s all its own, and a general captivating, engaging quality to the texture it weaves for you.
Its immediacy isn’t the thing that made it so strong, though. It’s that you can give it your full and undivided attention many times over and still be noticing something new. Black metal isn’t supposed to make you feel this good – but Thunder In The Mountains manages it with ease.
19. Anaal Nathrakh – Endarkenment
I wrote earlier in the year about how what I need from Nathrakh is now pretty well defined. The tl;dr version is that it has to be decent all the way through for six months, and have three or more songs I will want to hear live when they play. And Endarkenment passed this with room to spare.
It is so acerbic it sounds like someone’s pouring acid in your ears, but with catchy choruses. It’s got the absolute monstrous banger at the start, while still being completely horrific, and then decides to get even nastier. What’s not to love?
18. Elephant Tree – Habits
Christ on a bike with a t-shirt cannon shooting mashed potato into bin lorries… if this is what Elephant Tree can do on a debut, everyone who vaguely likes heavy music should be watching them like a hawk. Because if, in an album or three’s time, they drop a classic, it shouldn’t come as a shock.
Tragic, floaty doom that doesn’t batter you over the head with its weight but rather surrounds you, then sings about how sad everything is, Habits is the doom album non-doom fans will love as much as those of us still mourning Cathedral. And ‘Bird‘ is probably the best song released this year not taken from the number one album on this list.
17. Black Magnet – Hallucination Scene
Raging, terrifying industrial courtesy of the excellent 20 Buck Spin, Hallucination Scene sounds a little bit like someone brought Trent Reznor up on much, much angrier music, then stole his telly and pissed in his shoes. It’s furious.
Pummelling, pumping, pounding (and several other gerunds that sound vaguely sexual, but not in a fun way) industrial that gets in, smashes everything, leaves you feeling significantly in need of a wash, then breaks your window to get out again. And yet, still quite catchy. Fantastic.
16. Vredehammer – Viperous
Take one big slug of KoK. Simmer until distilled to its core essences. Add 20 or 30 dashes of draconic glee. Mix in a little Mysticum. That’s Viperous.
Thrashy, melodic black metal with just a touch of industrial bits that focuses purely on really fucking fun songs. At one point, they were a little bit too much tied to their influences to really fly, but now, they’ve found their voice – and they’re shooting arrow like into battle. And holy shit is it a bloody great time.
15. Blodiga Skald – The Undrunken Curse
Previously covered back in Below The Light #4, this hasn’t lost its charm in the slightest – which really goes to show just how not-dumb this really was. This kind of fun-with-no-self-restraint folk metal dies almost as soon as it starts if it doesn’t have something beyond some good rhythms to back it up, and Blodiga Skald have masses of actual ideas to keep your interest.
There are cool riffs, amazing little violin melodies, and a whole bunch of shit that really shouldn’t be crammed into such a concise running time. If you concentrate, you’ll notice how smart it is, but you’ll probably be grinning too much to notice the first few spins.
14. Black Crown Initiate – Violet Portraits Of Doomed Escape
Could it be? Have we finally, nine years after Mike dragged Opeth out of the kicking and screaming and into progland, got a successor to their crown? It’s taken them a few albums (and, from the sound of the production, a slightly higher budget), but Black Crown Initiate have jumped from being promising to releasing a fucking superb album.
Excellent sliced together and shifting in its mood as this is, prog death is full of bands who can stitch together an atmospheric tapestry but have precious few capable of having as many memorable ideas as this. The last bastard-heavy band to come along this capable of writing songs this catchy was Gojira. And they’ve done alright since.
Taster track: ‘Invitation‘
Where to hear it: Spotify
13. Falconer – From A Dying Ember
Another one from Below The Light #4 (and it won’t be the last on this list), I don’t think I twigged at that point quite how good this is. I knew it was bloody good, sure; possibly one of Falconer’s very best. Now I know.
The Viking/power/prog metal-meets-West-End-musicals idiosyncratic beast that is Falconer are oddly understated, in some ways. Sure, the music is stupidly OTT and has less embarrassment about what it does than a nudist doing star jumps, but it’s not hook-your-brains-out infectious either. It doesn’t sit in D major and anthem its way through three-quarters of an hour, it sets its traps more subtly than that. But sweet Satan’s wood glue, is it impossible to get out of those traps once you’re in them.
My entire household spent a solid month where we couldn’t turn this record off. One of us would suddenly start humming ‘Rejoice The Adorned‘ while brewing tea or muttering the bridge to ‘Thrust The Dagger Deep‘ while reheating some leftovers, and it’d simply have to go back on. Un-turn-off-able.
12. Unleash The Archers – Abyss
If there’s one band singularly responsible for kicking me out of my slumber and writing about music again in 2020, it’s Unleash The Archers. So really, this is all their fault, and you can blame Abyss for everything.
Sure, I don’t love it quite as much as Apex, but that hasn’t stopped me spinning Abyss ever since. Muscular, hooky, uplifting, well arranged, and just really fucking good. If they end up going places, count me firmly along for the ride
11. Sepultura – Quadra
Where the hell has this come from? Sure, Sepultura have been firmly back on track from the post-Brixton-1996-fallout slump since the really not good A-lex was followed up with the really very good Kairos, and everything since has been good. But this is a step up from even that consistent level of quality.
Quadra kicks fucking arse. And it’s not a radical departure stylistically from the last decade, with those Andreas Kisser riffs and the (criminally underrated) Derrick Green snarling and snapping with precision fury, all of which we’re used to by now. Only it’s so, so much better than what they’ve done at any point since those albums in the Nineties.
Taut, sharp, slick, and enormously memorable. The definitive post-Max Seps record.
10. Kaatayra – Só Quem Viu o Relâmpago à Sua Direita Sabe
Bewitching, partially acoustic Brazilian eco black metal, this was Kaatayra’s first of two albums this year (both of which featured in Below The Light #5, either of which could have got into this list. But this one just edged the second out of the picture.
Warm, beautiful, fierce and vibrantly earthy, Só Quem… has a way of making you lose track of everything else, and slowly fall into its spell. You can blot out everything else and just allow the record to blossom around you. Magical.
Taster track: ‘Chama Terra, Chama Chuva‘
Where to hear it: Bandcamp
9. Fluisteraars – Bloem
Yet another entry from Below The Light #4, Bloem has a peculiarly agoraphobic quality to it, like having a panic attack under a bright but uncaring sky, with no one around to help you.
And yet it’s surprisingly accessible, for all its grimness (and it is grim as fuck) and unsettling quality (and it is profoundly neurotic). Much like how Now, Diabolical was a superb way of making evil and majesty sound like something anyone vaguely into metal could deal with, Bloem – while slightly less beginner-friendly than the Satyricon classic – is not that challenging in its musical aesthetics. It’s simply the emotional side of things which is frightening, not the guitar tone or the production – or even the brutality, which is minimal. Even though it’s fucking raging.
8. Lotus Thief – Oresteia
Lotus Thief’s early black metal trappings are gone now. They’re now a strange sort of post-metal-y thing, like a huge Katatonia fan heard Mariner by Julie Christmas and Cult Of Luna, and got an idea.
Beautiful, reverent, patient, soaring and potent, Oresteia is a bloody marvel of a record. Its structure and its ideas and its interlude ask you to give them your attention, but they reward you with so much more than you put in. And if ‘The Furies‘ had appeared on Mariner itself, it would have been one of the best songs on that brilliant record.
7. Code Orange – Underneath
I’m not going to say much more about Code Orange, because everyone’s had their say on them already, either with this, or with the previous album, Forever. Even me.
So I’ll just say that, if there’s a more exciting band in the world than Code Orange right now, I haven’t heard them.
This makes me want to break everything.
6. Terminal Nation – Holocene Extinction
Sure, extreme metal dude has predictable 20 Buck Spin death metal pick in his AOTY list might be a cliché by now, but there’s something special about this lot.
Whether it’s the really fucking heavy death metal riffs, or the raging hardcore bits, or the righteous and biting lyrics, or the vocals which sound like someone ruining their entire neck yet where you can make out every word, or the fact they somehow manage to take a load of stuff from bands older than I am and yet sound so young, I’m not sure. But it’s one, some or all of those things.
Death metal seems to be having yet another renaissance right now, and this is its Sistine Chapel.
5. Finntroll – Vredesvävd
Even as a committed folk metal diehard of long standing who once put Finntroll on the cover of Terrorizer, if you’d told me Finntroll’s first album in seven years would be both their best, and my favourite folk metal record of the year in a bloody good year for the subgenre, I’d have been very sceptical. And completely wrong.
I’ve been drunk in Finland and had less fun than I have listening to Vredesvävd sober in my living room. More fun than watching a load of trolls trying to play table football using only their latex ears.
4. Enslaved – Utgard
I ranted about how much I love Enslaved and this album already, so I’ll spare you any more gush. This really is brilliant, though. In that blog, I said:
“Yet again, Enslaved have deepened their toolbox, and yet again, it is still Enslaved. The superficial stylings may have changed, the beards may be longer and greyer, but it still all scratches exactly the same musical itch that makes you dig out Eld or Ruun or Mardraum after all these years.”
In less flowery terms, this is fucking wicked and everyone who likes metal should listen to it.
3. Kassad – London Orbital
I still can’t wrap my head around how good this one is. It’s so grim, and so urban, and so easy to lose yourself in, and so grimy, and so brutalist, and yet so beautiful, and so enrapturing, and so hard to resist.
It’s London in a nutshell. It’s depressing and wonderful, varied and yet strangely uniform, bleak and yet seems so hard to get away from.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since I wrote about it in Below The Light #2, and I still don’t think I’ve quite got my head around it. Remarkable.
2. Violet Cold – Noir Kid
When I first wrote about this one, I thought it could be my album of the year. And if what’s at no.1 hadn’t come along, it would have been.
It’s not that it’s so clever and that I’m amazed so many seemingly contradictory musical ideas together that makes me keep going back to this, and shaking my head at how much I love it.
It’s that it’s so wonderfully uplifting. No matter how fucked up everything seems, I can stick Noir Kid on, and for 43 impossible minutes, it all seems calm and peaceful. While black metal riffs compete with Azerbaijani folk music and autotuned pop in the background.
1. Unreqvited – Empathica
I cannot remember the last time one album so obviously and totally blew me away and said that nothing else had any chance of competing for my affections. We might have to go all the way back to Mammal by Altar Of Plagues nearly a decade ago.
I loved both this and Mosaic II before. But even having heard Unreqvited’s stuff, even having liked another release earlier in the year, couldn’t prepare me for how completely and totally head over heels I’d fall for Empathica. It’s like being hugged tightly at your lowest ebb, and told everything is going to be OK. It’s the sense of anguish rippling through your soul, at the exact moment someone puts their hand on your shoulder and begins to help you up off the ground.
No matter how many times I go back in, none of the magic is lost.
The best thing I heard in 2020 without even having to think about it.