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.
I’m sure very few of us came into 2020 thinking that this would be a year that we, as the human race, would collectively recall to our children and grandchildren in the decades to come as a pivotal, life-changing period in our history. The pandemic was merely the setting for this chaotic, ridiculous, sometimes tragic portrait, one that would include civil uprisings, global economic immolation, mysterious monoliths popping up like meerkats on a desolate prairie, awkward Zoom meetings, the (un)believable tale of a tiger king, and the staggering, blustering collapse of the Donald Trump presidency. But that pesky pandemic was the tumultuous ocean in which we all had to swim and avoid drowning in, many being dragged under by its vile undercurrent. As 2020 comes to a close, it seems somewhat tempting to write it off as ‘the COVID year’ and have done with, but this is a sleight of hand, overlooking the catastrophe wrought – and its continuation. We’re not out of the woods yet.
My 2020 journey started with a two-month hard lockdown where I enjoyed the isolation with my small family, writing, reading, watching, listening, thus tending to needs that I had ignored for some time. But then the slow, laborious process of entering society and daily work began once again and I had to re-learn how to interact with people, all within a new world bedecked in face masks and the alcoholic fume of hand sanitiser – a forbidding, clinical patina that sat strangely atop the mess of the Real. It was here that an overwhelming sense of anxiety and a deep, dark depression crept in and multiplied, and to be honest, it hasn’t subsided or let up for a moment since. Certain records this year have made an impression on me, some helping my fragile state and some flat-out becoming the soundtrack to a building dread, but all showing a gleam of modern brilliance that only a year such as 2020 could bring out of musicians.
Imperial Triumphant have been plying their avant garde take on black/death metal for a few years now, but Alphaville is a whole different beast altogether. Their liberal use of barbershop and 20’s jazz creates an uneasiness that sits under the skins for weeks after listening, the dissonance of the music throwing wave after wave of torment and fear at the listener, a visceral experience that is as human as possible with a dash of ‘what the hell am I listening to?’, and it is unique and packed with class.
A more psychedelic experience, albeit as harrowing as the Imperial Triumphant album, is Mestarin Kynsi by the always-intriguing Oranssi Pazuzu. It slithers into the psyche with demonic intent, tracks down your deepest fears, and brings them out for a mental battle, and it can be quite therapeutic in the right ears. Elements of Nine Inch Nails-esque bleepy bloops and cosmic progressive rock blend with the narcotic black metal, journeys into the darkness that are awash with trippy colours and exuberant enthusiasm. It is a huge record that gives up many new ideas with each listen, but also takes a little bit away from the soul to
dissect and pore over.
Another album that hits the sweet spot is Splid by Norway’s bastard sons of black & roll, the highly entertaining Kvelertak. Continuing the legacy laid down by Turbonegro intertwined with bursts of furious black metal, their previous output has been nothing more than meticulously penned and downright fun, and Splid continues the upward trajectory. With huge songs like album-opener ‘Rogaland’, ‘Delirium Tremens’, and the sky-punching ‘Crack Of Doom’ (featuring Troy Sanders of Mastodon fame), this may well be their finest work yet, and it certainly helped ease a bruised psyche for me in 2020.
Elsewhere, Mr. Bungle, Napalm Death, Sodom, The Project Hate MCMXCIX, Killer Be Killed, and John Petrucci (and many others) all made an indelible impression and showed that time away from the live circuit clearly gave some musicians the breathing space to create instead of going through the motions, and the level of creativity this year has been off the charts. It’s been a rough ride that has changed, well, everything and it feels like a Year Zero for many. But, as always in a time of global turmoil, the artists are the ones that keep us going, keep feeding the soul, keep our heads above water when there is very little else to lend a hand. Should 2021 be a year of extended upheaval, we can take some small degree of solace as listeners, fans and critics, that our creative and emotional juices will be stirred briskly.
Words: John Morrow