Tales Of 2020 / Escaping, Sinking (Stuart’s Tale)

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.

Compiling an “Albums of the Year” list for 2020 seems a bit silly, considering that it feels less like a year and more like something that has challenged the definition of time itself – dunno about you, but I can barely remember January and February. What I’ve needed from music has differed as the year has gone on, though two moods have been prominent – either escaping the black cloud of negativity that the pandemic has made so unavoidable; or sinking further into despair. Aside from some ever-presents, such as Judas Priest, Darkthrone, Celtic Frost, Squarepusher, Weakling, and Planes Mistaken For Stars, here’s what has characterised 2020 for me.

Turia – Degen Van Licht (escape; exploration)

I wasn’t sold on this album at first, but as the realities of working from home and my world shrinking into the space of my apartment and local shops became clear during March and April, Turia’s Degen Van Licht provided a kind of escape. Atmospheric black metal like this is often described as being something to “lose yourself” in, and that’s what this did for me. Cold, harsh, and all-consuming, it felt like being transported to some desolate mountains like those depicted on the cover. There’s also a viciousness here too, with the album showing snarling teeth that give it a cathartic edge.

Elder – Omens (potential; optimism)

Omens proved to be a bright spot in a year largely lacking in them. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of quality – there’s been a lot of good music released! – but in terms of feelings of optimism and that better days might be on their way. Stradling the line between retro and forward-thinking, this is the album where I feel Elder have really shown their strengths, combining prog rock and stoner metal into something exciting. Even if they don’t sound much like Rush, to me they embody a similar spirit and sense of adventure that was needed as the realities of lockdown became clear.

Planes Mistaken For Stars – Mercy (misery; depression)

Whilst Planes Mistaken For Stars (PMFS) might be an ever-present in my listening habits, this album was almost all I listened to for a period towards the end of April, and deserves special mention. It’s almost a joke I tell myself – how do I know when I’m feeling sad? Because I’ll listen to Mercy multiple times a day. This album is BLEAK, especially when contrasted with the rest of the PMFS discography. It is deeply wounded on a personal level, full of doubt and pain, with the shadow of death (both literal and metaphorical) hanging over everything. The 1-2-3 of ‘To Spit A Sparrow’, ‘Never Felt Prettier’, and ‘Killed By Killers Who Killed Each Other’ is one of the most emotionally taxing 10 minutes in punk rock, and there were times when it went beyond catharsis, helping me process feelings I was otherwise struggling to even conceptualise.

Alice Coltrane – World Galaxy (hope; optimism)

 In contrast, World Galaxy provided a very different kind of escape. Journey in Satchidananda maybe be the standard “go-to” Alice Coltrane album, but World Galaxy provided something different that I needed as spring ended. Maybe it’s the swirling strings, or maybe it’s the hints of disharmony throughout, and the way Coltrane takes old favourites and puts her own spin on them (with the opening cover of ‘My Favourite Things’ and closing interpretation of John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’) – familiar, yet different. Or maybe it’s that the album offered something positive, a sense of boundless love and adventure beyond the earthly realms. Either way, there was a period where I listened to this daily, and suspect I’ll forever associate it with that fragile period when it seemed things might be getting better.

Anaal Nathrakh – In the Constellation of the Black Widow (rage; catharsis)

But, of course, things have not got better, and the comfort I found in Coltrane wasn’t enough. Enter a complete shift in tone with an old favourite. In the Constellation of the Black Widow is, to me, when Anaal Nathrakh peaked, and the fury and fire unleashed here is unmatched within their discography. ‘Satanarchrist’, in particular, features one of the moments in black metal, when the previously relentless drums ease up for a moment and that melody from Ulver’s ‘IV: Of Wolf and Man’ kicks in. The hair on the back of your neck rises, the world falls into ruin, and for one brief moment, there is a sense of acceptance amongst all this misery.

Old Nick – The Night Of The Ambush And The Pillage By The Queen Ann Styl’d Furniture, Animated By One Of The Dozen Or So Spells That Thee Eastern Vampyre Has Studied (T​.​N​.​O​.​T​.​A​.​A​.​T​.​P​.​B​.​T​.​Q​.​A​.​S​.​F​.​A​.​B​.​O​.​O​.​T​.​D​.​O​.​S​.​S​.​T​.​T​.​E​.​V​.​H​.​S) (joy; absurdity)

I think at some point rage and despair gave way to embracing the sheer absurdity of the UK government’s response, that could hardly have been more inept if it tried. Old Nick are far from inept, but their mix of raw black metal and dungeon synth is certainly absurd, and intentionally so. Just look at that album title! And now, listen to this album and try not to feel uplifted by it. This is the silliest black metal has been since Immortal’s video for ‘Call of the Wintermoon’, and all the better for it. Like if nintendocore didn’t latch on to hardcore but old Les Legions Noire demos instead, and both were vastly better than they actually are.

Kobold –   The Cave of the Lost Talisman (escape; nostalgia)

Prior to hearing this album, I’d already started playing about with my own music, trying to combine the chiptune sounds I’d been using with textures drawing more from dungeon synth. Shortly after, I came across this album which helped me feel both more confident in what I was doing, but also a touch intimidated, because how could my own music be as good as The Cave of the Lost Talisman? This has become my favourite Kobold release, sounding as it does like the soundtrack to some forgotten ZX Spectrum RPG. This is fun!

Lamp of Murmuur – Heir of Ecliptical Romanticism (strength; motivation)

I was sceptical of all the hype around Lamp of Murmuur at first. Be involved in underground music – and especially black metal – for long enough, and you’ll notice the same patterns repeating. Hell, you’ll probably contribute to some of them yourself! An anonymous musical project, releasing demos in quantities making them hard to hear and riding a wave of buzz from those supposedly in the know? I’m sure I’ve seen this cycle before. And sure, those demos were good, but nothing prepared me for how good Heir of Ecliptical Romanticism was when it was released. I’ve written elsewhere about this album – here, in fact – so I’ll do little except repeat my firm belief that this is the best black metal album of the past 20 years, and has been the perfect soundtrack to these increasingly dark days. It is, by some distance, my album of the year.

Soul Glo – Songs to Yeet at the Sun (catharsis; energy)

I almost skipped over this because of the title, but Songs to Yeet at the Sun is a superb 11 minutes of impassioned punk rock/hardcore/emo. Just take 2 minutes out of your day to check out ‘(Quietly) Do the Right Thing’ – you can thank me later. It can be easy to forget just how creative and fearless punk can be, given how homogenised and commercialised large parts of the genre are now, but Songs to Yeet at the Sun proves there’s life in it yet.

Fogweaver – Spellwind (escape; contemplation)

I listened to Spellwind on release, went “oh, that’s nice” and then promptly forgot about it until towards the end of the year. Now, with the darkness drawing in earlier and earlier and the days feeling more melancholy, Fogweaver’s quiet optimism is needed more than ever, and this has become a firm favourite. Based on Le Guin’s Earthsea novels and leaning into the more ambient side of dungeon synth, this – along with Kobold – has had a huge influence on my own music writing.

Stuart’s top 10 records released in 2020:

  1. Lamp of Murmuur – Heir of Ecliptical Romanticism
  2. Old Nick – The Night Of The Ambush And The Pillage By The Queen Ann Styl’d Furniture, Animated By One Of The Dozen Or So Spells That Thee Eastern Vampyre Has Studied (T​.​N​.​O​.​T​.​A​.​A​.​T​.​P​.​B​.​T​.​Q​.​A​.​S​.​F​.​A​.​B​.​O​.​O​.​T​.​D​.​O​.​S​.​S​.​T​.​T​.​E​.​V​.​H​.​S)
  3. Petrine Cross – Centuries of August
  4. Turia – Degen Van Licht
  5. Feminazgul – No Dawn for Men
  6. Forlesen – Hierophant Violent
  7. Celestial Sword – Fallen from the Astral Temple
  8. Esoctrilihum – Eternity of Shaog
  9. Black Curse – Endless Wound
  10. Fogweaver – Spellwind

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