This year has been a rupture like no other. Plague and politics have beset the world in truly shocking fashion whilst They In Power have seized their moment to encroach further on our collective wellbeing, privacy and freedom. Rather than presenting a (rockist, “definitive”) selection of Albums of The Year, we asked our writers to tell us their stories of this annus horribilis, using their favourite releases as anchors. We offer tours of intensities, auditory navigations, ways of hearing and being.
Over ten days or so of writing, I’ve spent a lot of time staring at a blank or semi-blank screen while drumming my fingers, drinking cold coffee, scratching my head, swearing and pacing. As strategically as I thought I approached the work, the writing went the way of all good plans—which is, to say, I spent a lot of time up shit creek trying to convince myself I was on the right path. After all, the pages of notes I made were my guides, my signposts along the way and I happily followed them into the void of abstraction. After all, this was 2020 and there had to be something greater to write about than records, and maybe there is, who knows. What I found from being out in the weeds for a week is that wandering around with the head in the clouds is fine, but it didn’t get me anywhere, and that felt like the most 2020 thing yet. As important as it’s been to think about the big things and focus on the big things, the small things carry a lot of weight, too. So, in a rare keep-it-simple-stupid moment, I scrapped the waxing and wailing and pontificating and just focused on the records that impacted me somehow this past year and hoped for the best.
The first record that sprung to mind when looking back at the past year was Oranssi Pazuzu’s spectrum-warping masterpiece, Mestarin kynsi. The Finnish album, full of warbling and disorienting gravitational energy, disconnected me from immediate reality while also embodying and manifesting the snarling and swarming nature of the day-to-day. In the metal world, this is awesome; in the real world, this is not awesome. The unrelenting stress and pressure it applied to the psyche made it too much of a 2020 record for me. While I absolutely have Mestarin kynsi in my list of top albums for the year, it was also pivotal in my steering away from a lot of releases whose foundations seemed to rest in the realm of total detachment. Staying lost in space works for a minute, but getting stuck out there isn’t good, and that saw me consciously pull back from absolute metal weirdness.
Unfortunately, the approach also saw me not pay enough attention to records like Melted Bodies’ Enjoy Yourself, Anaal Nathrakh’s Endarkenment, Bedsore’s Hypnagogic Hallucinations, Of Feather and Bone’s Sulphuric Disintegration—which features song-title-of-the-year and album opener ‘Regurgitated Communion’—and a host of other records I’d both stumbled across and about which I’d been really excited. A bummer for sure, but it was what it was. I spent a good portion of the spring listening to anything but extreme music to try and keep the mind right, but part of keeping the mind right—for me, at least—is connecting with uglier sounds. The question then became where were the touchpoints that would allow me to feel connected to the current climate while also providing some sense of catharsis rather than anxiety? As luck would have it, another favourite album of the year provided some direction.
Arkansas’ Terminal Nation nearly blew out my speakers when I threw on Holocene Extinction for the first listen. From track 1 to track 13, Terminal Nation show off similar musculature to All Out War, Integrity, and Ringworm, and channel old school death metal, classic 90’s metallic hardcore, and blistering grind across a 13 track, 35-minute record without ever sounding derivative, re-imagined, or repurposed. The candour of Holocene Extinction was refreshing, too, especially when watching many in the world struggle with the imperial and colonial roots of so many structures and systems within which we exist, engage, and operate. Since that first spin, Holocene Extinction has continually been a record I circled back to and one I routinely recommended.
Since I was in the metallic hardcore space already, I started looking for something a bit closer to home and came across another absolute beast of an album, albeit one that leans more towards the hardcore side of metallic-hardcore than the metallic side. Mortality Rate—hailing from Calgary, Alberta, Canada—absolutely went for the throat with their punishing record, Sleep Deprivation. From start to finish, there is no let-up with memories of Sworn Enemy, 100 Demons, Terror,and First Blood all coming to mind right away; for 19 minutes at a time, Mortality Rate deliver on known knowns, and in a year where nothing felt concrete, I needed that sense of familiarity more than ever. What I love so deeply about hardcore is its no frills attitude and approach, and in an increasingly polarizing world, it feels good to see bands with absolutely no qualms about planting a flag in the ground. Maybe every hill isn’t the one to die on, but that isn’t to say every hill isn’t one to fight on.
With that last notion in mind I turned to Florida’s Ecostrike, whose stellar youth crew release, A Truth We Still Believe, gave me the dose of positivity I desperately needed this year. Over nine tracks, Ecostrike touch on a lot to familiar concepts in hardcore—principally solidarity, straightedge and change—and their sonic lineage of Youth of Today, Ten Yard Fight, or Carry On is on clear display. For some, the stick-to-the-classics approach on A Truth We Still Believe may be easy to tune out, but tuning out is the root of so many of our problems. At the core of the release is the notion of the intrinsic value of the clear mind and the freedom with which one can exist as a result of mental clarity. Extrapolating A Truth We Still Believe’s pointed foundation of straightedge feels even more necessary in a time where unfounded conspiracy theory is taken as truth, and where reliance on uninformed sources as fonts of wisdom, political herd mentality, aversion to consideration of a broader community, and indifference towards systemic racism and sexism is killing people every single day. The focus on connection—which is the opposite of addiction, by the way—was absolutely the headspace I needed to be in to be able to get through the year.
At the end of the day—and probably in unsurprising fashion—the energy I normally would have spent on metal just didn’t really exist in the same capacity as it did in previous years. Looking back at 2019, putting together a list of 50 favourites would take a bit of time, but wouldn’t be overly difficult; off the top of my head Altarage, Vanum, Waste of Space Orchestra, Inter Arma, N’Zwaa, Big Brave, Bloody Hammers, Russian Circles, Cloud Rat, Chelsea Wolfe, Esoteric, Bask, and Blood Incantation all put out stellar albums last year; this year I don’t know if I could put together a list of ten. The exhaustion I felt stemmed mostly from the overt intensity of the daily news, with everything—plague, economic collapse, socio-political unrest—constantly running like a computer script in the base of my brain. While I can’t impact how my body processes stress, I most certainly have the ability and capacity to put myself in a good space to facilitate some degree of calm.
Aside from the four I pored over, the records I ended up settling on for repeated listening most decidedly fell outside the confines of metal: Orville Peck’s Show Pony EP gave me the sweetest, most soothing voice to lean into when I just needed comfort and support; Ulver’s Flowers of Evil and Blaqk Audio’s Beneath the Black Palms let me dance it out any time I needed physical catharsis I couldn’t get on the yoga mat; Emma Ruth Rundle+Thou’s May Our Chambers Be Full offered, in effect, Tori Amos fronting a sludge band and summoned the absolute ferocity with which Tori sings at times; and, finally, Nation of Language let me remember endless summer nights for forty-ish minutes at a time on Introduction, Presence.
So much of 2020 has been defined by needing and wanting to escape, hoping and dreaming for something to break right and for the nightmare of a year to blink away. The upshot and counterbalance, of course, is that wanting everything to just snap back to whatever normal was is dreaming for that which cannot exist and to which we cannot return. We are where we are, the work continues, and hopefully 2021 brings about a year in which we want to be present and connected, regardless of the prevailing currents of the age in which we exist.
Words: Tristan McCallum