The very act of reviewing music is at best somewhat arrogant and at worst perhaps inherently redundant. Sure, it can be beneficial as a means of communicating what an album sounds like and how it feels or what it represents from a certain point of view, but a review can never truly be a certified statement on an album’s quality. Often reviewers care more about how their writing is perceived and their own reputation, writing for other writers more so than for those who come to them for interesting or informative takes on music. When Astral Noize first started reviewing music we felt strongly that the bigger the scale of star or number ratings the less honest the review (still waiting for Pitchfork to explain what it is exactly that separates a 6.6 from a 6.7). We’d prefer to encourage our writers to express themselves and write creatively, letting their summation (however brief or long) of an album speak for itself instead of offering up bitesize ratings to be slapped on a poster by a PR. Thus we decided to exclude ratings entirely, and have stuck by it since. But we’ve also largely adhered to the established formula of covering primarily new music and, at the end of the year, arbitrarily ranking them on an Album of the Year list, the final standings of which could easily fluctuate quite substantially.
It’s a hard formula to break, but ultimately I think the best music writing is the kind written with passion. Instead of assigning albums to writers as a means to tick them off and appease labels, I’d rather see writers tackle a release that they want to write about regardless of when it came out or who it’s by. Naturally, new and upcoming releases will dominate as the hype around them is hard to ignore – why wouldn’t you be excited by a potentially powerful new release right as it’s ushered into the world? – but this doesn’t need to be a rule. So, though these Tales of 2020 pieces were not my idea and it has not been me editing them (props to our reviews editor David Burke on that front), I have been thoroughly enjoying them as an alternative to the usual end-of-year fare as they’re personable and passionate, and thus more engaging for me as a reader. Now, I’m thrilled to have a turn as a writer.
When I first sat down to write this Tales of 2020 piece, I typed out a long list of albums I’ve enjoyed this year, not wanting to forget those that got me through lockdown and months of furlough, and this exercise helped me notice a pattern that I hadn’t picked up on until recently. Though it sounds obvious now, I hadn’t initially noticed the extent to which my listening habits have been quite dramatically shaped by the events of this year.
Life has felt slower over the past twelve months. Some weeks came and went in which I genuinely couldn’t tell you a single thing of note that happened to me personally, and as a result, the music I consumed largely shifted away from extreme metal of the faster variety and into the realm which has long been my favoured brand of heavy music, namely the wider doom umbrella, also encompassing sludge and stoner metal.
With so much time spent cooped up inside, though, metal alone was never going to get me through 2020. Alongside brief forays into the post-hardcore and pop-punk I listened to when I was a bit younger, I’ve discovered a host of folk, ambient and pop music that has become a real hallmark of my 2020 listening. As a result, you’ll find some of that in the lists below.
There’s simply been too many good albums this year to write a piece that goes over them all, and the best solution I’ve found is to compile a handful in an exhaustive breakdown split into four categories, each one reflecting the role they played for me this year. Ranking them was never an option – this isn’t intended as an Albums of the Year list per se, but a self-indulgent look at the albums that got me through the year we’ll all hope to forget.
Doom and Gloom
I’m often accused of having a fairly depressing music taste, but I’ve always found that the sadder the music, the greater the catharsis. I feel comforted and assured when listening to something real and full of emotion, and this year has certained called for music that emits those feelings. So whilst the following albums might make it seem like I’ve just been wallowing in despair this year, I’d argue that they’ve stopped me from doing just that. No wonder this is far and away the most stacked category.
Primitive Man – Immersion
Denver’s Primitive Man may have seen fit to use prolonged runtimes on mammoth previous LP Caustic, but they were never the band’s sole USP. The trio’s real strength lies in their ability to drag you into the gutter and hold your face down in the dirt whilst proving themselves as remarkably dynamic and creative songwriters in the process. On Caustic, this meant approaching sludge the way a noise artist would, all distressing tones and drawn-out deafening feedback, but August’s Immersion saw a more erratic blending of the band’s ingredients. Yes, there’s grinding, industrial sludge that’s exhausting in its incessance, but there’s also ear-piercing noise that ensures tracks like ‘Entity’ and ‘∞’ ratchet up the tension by never truly finding a groove. And at times, as on ‘Menacing’ and ‘Consumption’, the band break up this carefully cultivated tension by leaping out of the murk at the drop of a hat to take a more rabid and frenzied approach. Where Caustic was a taxing wallow in pitch-black tar, Immersion is a more frantic and fractured experience, and as such will stand the test of time as a fitting sonic embodiment of the mood of 2020.
A.A. Williams – Forever Blue
I’ve never found it easy to pick just one album of the year, but if I were to name one for 2020, it would probably be this. I remember thinking when writing my review back in July that this was a genuine album of the year contender, but I didn’t want to make that call too early as it’s become somewhat cliche to round off a review by making such a bold statement. Nevertheless, here we are. On her debut full-length, A.A. Williams’ stunning combination of forlorn guitar, soaring strings and melancholy piano is breathtakingly impressive even after you learn that the songwriter is a classically-trained multi-instrumentalist. It is her celestial croons that take centre stage though. Driven by desolate lyrics, her vocals are achingly evocative, capable of expressing the kind of deep sadness that can be uniquely comforting and uplifting despite an innately bleak aura. Indeed, Forever Blue is a fitting title for an album so heart-rendingly sorrowful, but these downtrodden songs aren’t intended to dampen your spirits – they’re a tonic on dark days, capable of dragging you out of the murk and showing you the route back to brighter days ahead. By the time heavy-hearted closer ‘I’m Fine’ begins to fade away to be replaced by the rejuvenating chirps of songbirds, the album’s hopeful message has well and truly sunk in.
Kira McSpice – Postdrome/Aura/Attack
Kira McSpice’s utterly unique strain of dark ambient-tinged gothic folk has been the find of 2020 for me, and my interview with the artist earlier this year is one of my favourite things I’ve worked on in the past twelve months. The Boston singer-songwriter is, at the time of writing, three albums deep into a four-part series inspired by the four phases of a migraine. These three records work fantastically well together but there’s currently a sense that without the fourth instalment, Postdrome, there’s a missing piece of the puzzle – so for now I’ve largely been listening to them independently. Nevertheless, I was unable to pick a favourite for this list, but if you’re a heavy music fan I implore you to give Attack a listen. It’s probably the most devastating thing I’ve heard all year, and I can’t wait for Postdrome to round out this ambitious tetralogy with what I expect will be a more soothing tonic in juxtaposition to the grating and scathing nature of Attack.
Turtle Skull – Monoliths
With an eclectic style that traverses the fuzzy grooves of stoner rock, the hypnotic tones of heavy psych and the light, floating aura of atmospheric pop, Australian “flower doom” inventors Turtle Skull offer music fans that rare, elusive opportunity that doesn’t come around all that often – the chance to hear something truly unique, for which existing descriptors simply don’t do justice. Though you could certainly argue that the band have a place somewhere under the constantly expanding doom metal umbrella, they use its tropes in a vastly different way than your average doom act. Instead of pummelling mercilessly, the band’s music rides a groove to its fullest conclusion, retaining doom’s “hypnosis through repetition” mantra but replacing the apocalyptic sense of dread with a soothing, transcendental style. Their expansive track-lengths don’t seem like a daunting proposition, rather an exciting opportunity to lose yourself in the band’s soaring psychedelic odysseys.
Boris – NO
Watching the batshit career trajectory of experimental Japanese trio Boris is always entertaining if not always fruitful, and whilst the band are no doubt set to alienate many again with whatever they release next, their most recent full-length NO offered what many of the band’s fans have been hoping for from them in recent years. Indeed, it is perhaps one of their most well-received releases of all time, and though a lot of their recent releases are in my opinion undervalued by comparison, NO fully deserves the plaudits. It’s an incredible album, and one of the band’s most cohesive offerings to date. Written and released during quarantine, it reflects a world in suffering, taking everything heavy the band have ever done and diluting it into a thrilling 40 minutes full of hardcore bursts of antagonism, gigantic doom riffs and hard rock hooks.
Mrs. Piss – Self-Surgery
Though shades of both musicians’ past work can be heard on Self-Surgery, Chelsea Wolfe and Jess Gowrie’s Mrs. Piss very much proved itself to be a new project rather than a simple collaboration. Though it’s a relatively short debut, the duo packed a ton of experimentation and genre-bending into the release’s eight tracks, from the punky zeal of ‘Downer Surrounded By Uppers’ to the utterly transfixing plodding industrialised doom of ‘Knelt’ and the gothic noise of ‘Nobody Wants To Party With Us’. It is the alluring nature of these compositions that has made them feature heavily in my yearly listening, and I simply can’t wait to see what a proper full-length from this project would sound like.
Drown – Subaqueous
Marko Soroka may not be a household name, but he is one of many dedicated artists keeping the metal section of Bandcamp interesting with a prolific catalogue of releases from a wide array of genres. Acting as a sequel to the project’s first outing, Unsleep (released back when the project went by the name Slow), Drown’s Subaqueous comprises two twenty-minute tracks that explore grief and dejection through a metaphor of sinking deeper and deeper. Like the best concept records, these themes manifest in the music itself. Soroka’s cockle shell-encrusted throat bellows the lyrics, which ring out like a foghorn whilst the riffs spew forth like black waves, smothering the listener with salt foam and seaweed. This record is one of the heaviest things you’ll hear all year, but praise should also go to the mournful melodies and floating harmonies that carry the album’s grief-stricken heart.
Bolt Gun – Begotten
There’s something refreshing about art that embraces subtlety in the modern era, and it’s this knack for precision over power, minimalism over maximalism, that makes Bolt Gun’s music so richly rewarding. 2017’s Man Is Wolf To Man was concerned with unimaginable horror – by comparison, Begotten seems sedate, more concerned with the existential dread of being human than something more physical. This record is a cinematic journey, more multifaceted than its predecessor in terms of tone and atmosphere, but no less impressive in its ability to fully commit to a singular sonic vision.
Basic Instinct – Late Bloom
On ‘Feast’, the opening track to Basic Instinct‘s debut record Late Bloom, a swirling doom riff topped by bewitching, Dorthia Cottrell-esque croons soon gives way to guttural growls and unnerving tremolos before once again settling into a groove as if nothing happened. As openers go, it’s the perfect introduction to the Vancouver duo’s subtly unique strain of metal. Even the band’s own Facebook page labels them as “stoner/punk/sludge/we are not entirely sure”. In truth, I’m not sure either, but it’s this flippant disregard for convention that is driving them to do exciting new things with the doom metal genre. With an inventive blend of lumbering grooves, blackened textures, ritualistic vocals and otherworldly psych rock, Late Bloom is a nigh-on spiritual listening experience, and a remarkable example of just how far a simple two-person setup can go.
Beggar – Compelled To Repeat
There’s been a tendency this year to relate every piece of music to the ongoing pandemic, civil unrest and political upheavals, but no album is released into a vacuum, and if you wanted something to soundtrack the apocalypse, you could do much worse than Beggar’s formidable debut full-length. Boasting the groove-fuelled grit of the NOLA sludge scene as well as the gut-punching oomph of death metal and the sinister atmospheres of black metal, Compelled To Repeat is extreme metal at its absolute finest.
Vile Creature – Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm!
One of my personal highlights of a rather dire year was interviewing Canadian duo Vile Creature, who this year reestablished themselves as one of the leading names in the contemporary sludge scene. It was undoubtedly the band’s most experimental release to date, from the atmospheric sections of the album opener ‘Harbinger Of Nothing’ to the epic two-part closer, which utilises choral vocals and piano/organ contributions from Bismuth’s Tanya Byrne. Not only was it a fantastic album, but it served as a timely reminder that however appetising throwing in the towel might seem in the face of such gargantuan odds, staying in the game and fighting for a better world is always the better choice. For that reason, it resonated with me strongly.
Elder – Omens
A lot was made of Elder frontman Nick DiSalvo’s vocals sitting higher in the mix on the band’s fifth album, with some highlighting his lack of range, but in my view this came from an expectation that his vocals should match the epic scope of the band’s music. Groups like Mastodon have thrived on a vaguely similar (albeit much more effectively utilised) approach of somewhat-singing, somewhat-shouting vocals, and there’s no reason to suggest Elder couldn’t refine this approach into something similar going forward. Regardless where you stand on the vocals, Omens deserves to go down as a triumph for the band, and in many ways it is their best release yet. From the constant cascade of inventive riffs and head-bobbing grooves to the psychedelic meandering and keyboard-led progginess, Elder records always sound like the result of a band overflowing with ideas and finding the most inventive way to cram them all into a single full-length. Omens is perhaps the best example of this to date.
Oceans Of Slumber – Oceans Of Slumber
Doom metal has always been the domain of powerful vocalists, but even amongst such esteemed company, the triumphant cries of Cammie Gilbert put the singer in a league of her own. After joining Houston’s Oceans Of Slumber in 2014, Gilbert quickly became the six-piece’s centrepiece and on the band’s self-titled fourth LP, released back in September, Gilbert sounds more unstoppable than ever. Not only do the highs feel more herculean in scope, but the vulnerable croons during the record’s subdued, mournful moments have intensified in their poignancy. It’s not a surprise that with Gilbert at her best, the band crafted their most unique and creative album to date, stacked with what are undoubtedly the finest songs the Texans have gifted us thus far. Gilbert’s vocals lead the charge, but they’re especially effective when stacked up alongside bellowing growls, and the work that’s gone into making Oceans Of Slumber’s music more epic than ever cannot go unnoticed. Whilst ever-shrouded in a doom and gloom that seems uniquely apposite this year, the group also took adventurous steps on this album. The dramatic back-and-forth of death metal-imbued centrepiece ‘The Adorned Fathomless Creation’, the blues-meets-synths balladry of ‘To The Sea’ and the dazzling interlude ‘September (Those Who Come Before)’ are exemplative of a record that manages to surprise at almost every turn without losing what made the band so effective in the first place.
Völur – Death Cult
Replacing a lead guitar with Laura C. Bates’ poignant violin is a stroke of genius that makes the folklore-inspired doom of Canadian trio Völur feel that much more rustic and mystical. It’s a setup that had produced some of my favourite music of the past several years, and as a result this was one of my most anticipated albums of 2020. I’m pleased to report that it did not disappoint. The band could easily have delivered a rehash of their past material and I’d have been more than content, but Death Cult saw the group make significant strides in terms of songwriting and musicianship. It is undoubtedly the band’s most cohesive release yet, with their disparate inspirations – be they doom, classical, folk or free jazz – all pushed further than ever and yet somehow also implemented more seamlessly than on previous records.
Chained To The Bottom Of The Ocean – The Vestige
Though a compilation of their releases wasn’t planned from the start, this October record from Massachesetts’ sludge monoliths Chained To The Bottom Of The Ocean seemed like the natural culmination of their material thus far. The most depraved realms of sludge’s seedy underground often churn up music that hits on something uniquely in touch with the human experience, and this is where the band really excel. The group’s musical influences are largely what you’d expect – Rwake, Indian, Primitive Man, The Body, Graves At Sea, Neurosis et al – but they also have the unique ability to weave the more bare-faced sincerity of folk and indie music into the mix. Not only do they cite the likes of Bon Iver as an influence, but one of their most lauded songs is a scorching cover of Death Cab For Cutie’s ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’, which trades the original’s saccharine (and let’s be honest creepy) allure for intimidating shrieks and lumbering herculean riffs. Brilliant stuff.
Thou X Emma Ruth Rundle – May Our Chambers Be Full
Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou’s joint set at Roadburn 2019 was a standout highlight of that week, but for obvious reasons it felt like a lifetime passed between that and the eventual release of the artists’ collaborative album in October of this year. The pair’s music blends fantastically on May Our Chambers Be Full, despite the obvious differences between the bowel-wrenching intensity of Thou’s guttural sludge and the sorrowful atmospheres of Emma Ruth Rundle’s unique brand of poignant gothic folk. The album instead focuses on the traits the artists share, namely a subtle embrace of downjected grungy tones, making it an album that’s as heavy atmospherically as it is in terms of traditional metallic riffs ‘n’ shouts. It’s a record that somehow sounded exactly as you would expect and yet still showed us a different side to two artists who already had a reputation as creative and innovative songwriters.
Dirt Woman – The Glass Cliff
Ocean City’s Dirt Woman utilise a transfixing strain of stoner doom to express concerns about the future of our planet, with lyrics addressing global warming and the current political climate, not to mention the apathy and contempt of those in charge. Debut album The Glass Cliff, released back in March, is a stoner metal delight, combining influences from across the genre to emerge with a sound exemplifying all of its strengths with none of its drawbacks. The adventurous but lackadaisical riffs of Sleep, the gloomy atmosphere of early Black Sabbath, the otherworldly allure of Windhand – it’s all here, operating in tandem like a doom Megazord. I’m so glad I found this band.
Steve Von Till – No Wilderness Deep Enough
The most recent album from Neurosis mastermind Steve Von Till is a completely different beast from his past solo releases, comprising a unique amalgamation of ambient, neo-classical and gothic Americana. The songwriter even initially planned to release it as an instrumental record, and it took a push from producer Randall Dunn for Von Till to add vocals. The result is one of the most enthralling pieces of music I’ve encountered this year. It’s a gorgeous album that’s just so easy to get lost in, and as with much of his work, it has a deeply ruminative atmosphere that seems so uniquely in tune with the natural world, and a megalithic past where people were more in touch with the language of the landscape that surrounds us.
Lesser Glow – Nullity
Sludge has long held an ability to offer catharsis. The all-consuming atmospheres, interspersed by gargantuan riffs and tortured cries, offer a uniquely effective form of release. On Nullity, however, Boston’s Lesser Glow explored vulnerability in a way that differs from the genre’s muscular, feedback-reliant norm, with a style that’s at once destructive and serene. Most impressive is how the band made these two juxtaposing styles work in tandem as well as singularly. Nullity sounds more expansive than its predecessor (2018’s Ruined) by virtue of being bolder both in attack and retreat, with booming percussion giving the record more grit in the heavier passages, whilst the band’s melodic sensibilities have also never been more prominent.
Atramentus – Stygian
At times the debut album from Canada’s Atramentus comes across a bit like a slower version of the band members’ fantastic death metal project Chthe’ilist, particularly when Phil Tougas’ distinct growls first emanate out of the infernal abyss, but it does this phenomenal record a disservice to view the project only through the lens of the members’ other endeavours. Atramentus have their own distinct sound, one that conjures a vast atmosphere wholly deserving of being commended on its own merits. In a post-Mirror Reaper world, comparisons to Bell Witch are all too easy when it comes to any and all funeral doom (especially with that artwork), but Stygian is a far cry from the intensely measured Mirror Reaper. The Canadians’ music is comparatively focused, showing remarkable restraint for an album that features a track 23 minutes long. Staying true to its epic but mournful tone to the very last, Stygian is a masterclass in funeral doom, showing a surprising degree of songwriting efficiency in a genre known for never doing things by halves.
Bogwych – On The Wind Is All That Is Left. Only Roots Remain.
In just two tracks split over an expansive hour and ten minutes, Sheffield’s Bogwych offer up an impenetrable wall of ambient noise, droning doom and harsh blackened soundscapes. On The Wind Is All That Is Left. Only Roots Remain. is a massive, ambitious undertaking that isn’t for the faint of heart, but one that’s uniquely rewarding when given the time it requires to seep into your ears and warp your mind. The fantastic Trepanation Recordings sent us this one back in early January and we were lucky enough to premiere it in full, and it’s stuck in my mind ever since.
1000mods – Youth Of Dissent
Stoner rock isn’t always laid-back grooves and lackadaisical vocals. In fact, Greece’s 1000mods showed back in April that it can be as vibrant and passionate as any other style of heavy music. Youth Of Dissent is a dynamic affair, always bursting with vivacious energy whether it comes in the form of the arena-ready adrenaline of ‘Warped’ and ‘Pearl’, the grungy power of ‘So Many Days’ and ‘Blister’ or desert rock romps like ‘Lucid’ and ‘Dissent’. There’s even psychedelic flourishes to the more expansive spaces of ‘Dear Herculine’ and ‘21st Space Century’ – tracks which entice you in before the band’s ridiculous knack for an addictive riff can do the dirty work. Youth Of Dissent’s eleven tracks are staggered in such a way that the record’s 55 minutes breeze past – it feels lively throughout, never lingering on one method of attack for too long. A fantastic and underappreciated album.
Anna Von Hausswolff – All Thoughts Fly
If you’d told me at the start of the year that an instrumental pipe organ album would find its way onto this list it’s safe to say I’d have been surprised, and yet it’s hardly the biggest surprise to happen this year, though it is one of very few good ones. To go without vocals and therefore forego perhaps the hallmark of her sound, Swedish singer-songwriter Anna Von Hausswolff was seemingly taking a big risk with this release, but her career has seen her grow more intimate with the organ as an instrument each time around, and on All Thoughts Fly she managed to warp the instrument’s perception as a dull and monotonous one whilst utilising its innate spiritual resonance, being something we associate so closely with sermons and praise. A beautiful and surprisingly dynamic album composed with such care, this is a real highlight.
Honourable mentions: Pallbearer – Forgotten Days, Coldbones – The Cataclysm, Mountain Caller – The Truthseeker, Elephant Tree – Habits, Throwing Bricks – What Will Be Lost, Garganjua – Toward The Sun, Witching – Vernal, Bosphorus – Silhouette, VoidOath – Illumination Through Necromancy, Peine Kapital – Sanguinarium, Everson Poe – Rituals, Adzes – No One Wants To Speak About It (can you believe that my initial plan was to write about all of these in detail, wtf is wrong with me)
Soft and Serene
Music within this broad descriptor tends to strike a chord because of how sincere and intimate it is, and it’s been a real help during this hellish year. A lot of the music of this type that I’ve delved into was released before 2020 (shoutout to Julia Jacklin, Natalie Evans, Tom Rosenthal, Bonniesongs et al.) but that’s not the case for all of it, as the following releases show.
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Perhaps my favourite thing about this phenomenal second album from LA singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers is how it innovates so thoroughly and yet so subtly, managing to slyly mix in bouts of psychedelia, ambient music, atmospheric pop and more whilst staying at least vaguely rooted in the realm of indie folk. In a genre that is often downbeat and monotone, Bridgers injects an uneasy, anxious aura through this loose experimentation. This is a record that has rightfully been lauded as one of the year’s standouts.
Skullcrusher – Skullcrusher
Despite a name more suited to caveman riffs and guttural shouts, the debut EP from Los Angeles-based musician Helen Ballentine is soft, serene and subtle. This kind of intimate folk has been a real help through the rougher periods of this year, and I’m only annoyed I didn’t discover this concise EP sooner. The poignant sadness has consistently offered a comforting hand on my shoulder whilst the ambient backdrop simultaneously provides a broad soundscape to get lost in. Can’t recommend this one enough.
Biffy Clyro – A Celebration Of Endings
Though the Scottish trio are now bona fide radio rock heavyweights, I maintain to this day that they deserve credit as a band who have sustained a fierce creative drive even after touring arenas and featuring on *shudder* The X Factor. 2019’s Balance, Not Symmetry (the soundtrack to the somewhat lacklustre film of the same name) was an absolute triumph that deserved more plaudits, and whilst A Celebration Of Endings was not, in my view, on that same level, it was yet another fantastic album in a career lined with them. No matter how averse you are to a saccharine ballad, I implore you not to cry every time ‘Space’ comes on.
Adrianne Lenker – Songs / Instrumentals
One thing that has been a revelation for me in 2020 is just how healing any time spent in nature can be. Being cooped up inside and having time off from my day job has renewed a passion for the simple pleasures of walking and exploring, getting in touch with the landscape outside of the built-up areas that surround me and trying to view the world through a more spiritual lens of folklore, mythology and history. Music that shares this spirit has thus become a big part of my year, and in recent weeks it has been the music of Indiana artist Adrianne Lenker that has resonated with me on this level. I only discovered the songwriter very recently, but her October album songs and its hauntingly beautiful accompaniment instrumentals have already found themselves on heavy rotation. Music this starkly revealing and excruciatingly honest can be almost uncomfortable to listen to, but it’s also so extraordinarily beautiful that I simply can’t stop.
Stornoway – The Farewell Show Live at New Theatre, Oxford
Oxford’s now defunct Stornoway have long been an anomaly in my music taste, their infectious and heart-rending folk-pop remaining a constant even as I tumbled deeper and deeper down the extreme metal rabbithole. I purchased 2013’s Tales From Terra Firma on a whim (having previously heard just a few of their songs) soon after my dad gave me his old record player and right before I made the nerve-wracking journey to university, and it remains one of my favourite albums of all time. Not only do the band have perhaps the best ever reason for breaking up, with frontman Brian Briggs wishing to focus on a career as an ornithologist and nature reserve warden, but my girlfriend and I have fond memories of attending their last ever show in her native Oxford. It was an emotional night and, having seen them previously, I was again blown away by how tight they were as a live unit. Three years on, the band decided to release this show and it’s been a constant source of comfort, its impact undoubtedly bolstered by its serving as a reminder of a time when we could attend live shows shoulder to shoulder with countless strangers. Try not to well up as the crowd sings the verse to ‘Zorbing’ to end the night – I’m certain it can’t be done.
Gia Margaret – Mia Gargaret
The not-quite-self-titled name of Gia Margaret‘s second full-length reflects its role as an album that forced the songwriter to adapt. Mia Gargaret is not at all what you might expect had you heard Margaret’s acclaimed 2018 debut There’s Always Glimmer, but with context its much more ambient and instrumental sound makes sense. Due to illness, Margaret found herself unable to use her serene vocals for months, and acclimatised by composing synthesiser-based tracks that she states helped her hold on to her identity as a songwriter. During a tough time the songwriter crafted something achingly poignant but with a shining beam of hope running right through its centre. A delightful record.
Music of Resistance
I mentioned above that things have felt slower this year, and that’s largely due to an unending sense of frustrated despair that has perceived since the pandemic took over. But there’s also been a lot of anger. This year saw catastrophic bushfires, more far-right activity, continued police brutality and systemic racism, continued transphobia from people with huge platforms and a global pandemic mismanaged by governments around the world. Art is no replacement for direct action, but it can inspire, inform and at the very least offer catharsis. Here are some records that have helped me channel the anger I’ve felt in 2020.
Bob Vylan – We Live Here
Enough has already been said about the irony of punk claiming to be a genre of rebellion whilst enforcing rigid genre boundaries, not to mention many of its aging figureheads becoming reactionary establishment-supporting dickheads. You could argue now that for some time the baton of resistance has been picked up by other styles of music, not least of all grime. One of the year’s standout EPs, Bob Vylan’s We Live Here is a potent blend of both grime and punk, from the crushing riffs and volatile vocals of ‘Pulled Pork’ (featuring a guest spot from Jason Aalon Butler) to the more minimal but no less impactful approach of ‘Lynch Your Leaders’. Though the band were ignored by the music press for too long, they began to get the acclaim they deserve this year. Here’s hoping it continues.
Respire – Black Line
If there’s one thing we need to maintain moving into 2021 and hopefully beyond this pandemic, it’s a sense of togetherness, of coming together to fight for a better future. It would be heavy-handed to assert that a single album has the ability to do this, but the recent album from Canada’s Respire certainly represents an emphasis on diversity, inclusion and community that’s very much needed right now. Black Line is a beast of a record, somehow more powerful and expansive than the band’s previous two albums, 2016’s Gravity And Grace and 2018’s Dénouement, but simultaneously sounding like the culmination of an epic trilogy. It is a vast, orchestral record that’s almost overwhelming in its scope. From the intimacy of the poignant strings to the limitless intensity of the tidal-wave crescendos, this is an album that’s never anything less than enthralling.
Terminal Nation – Holocene Extinction
The release of the debut album from Arkansas ensemble Terminal Nation felt like a proper event this year, given how eagerly awaited it was by so many in the scene. An intense and volatile bout of metallic hardcore, Holocene Extinction is a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of 2020 – not just a refusal to give in despite the issues that have plagued ordinary folk this year but a staunch statement of defiance. The monstrous riffs, gargantuan breakdowns and fierce shrieks are enough to make you want to take on the government single-handedly. A great source of catharsis in a year in which anger has been in no short supply.
Of Wolves – Balance
One thing’s clear the minute you dive into Balance, the July album from Chicago trio Of Wolves – they’re angry. And why shouldn’t they be? It’s hard to feel anything other than stressed, frustrated or straight-up disillusioned looking at what has happened all around the world in 2020. The band’s music is unashamedly antagonistic, refusing to settle in one particular genre and instead drawing from a host of confrontational styles to bolster the raw and heavy nature of their sonic assault. There’s shades of crust, hardcore, sludge and extreme metal across Balance. And even when the band take a moment of respite, as on the epic title-track, the music stays desolate, luring you into a false sense of security before relaunching into heavier realms – a powerful reminder to never become complacent.
Zeal & Ardor – Wake Of A Nation
If you’re planning on starting up a black metal project, don’t bother – Zeal & Ardor already exist. Manuel Gagneux’s innovative project was a striking breath of fresh air when it emerged several years back, and it’s gone from strength to strength since, becoming a fully-fledged band who then refined the project’s initial sound so impressively on 2018’s stunning Stranger Fruit. This year the group cropped up somewhat surprisingly with a new EP, one that was very much a reaction to the events of this year. There’s always been political tones to Zeal & Ardor’s output, but Wake Of A Nation is especially volatile in its scathing indictment of America’s history of racism and police brutality. Like previous Zeal & Ardor releases, Wake Of A Nation sees the project’s unique style played with a focus on progression, but its much leaner runtime and more direct thematic inspirations lends the EP an air of immediacy even as the gospel and electronic inspirations take over.
Fuck The Facts – Pleine Noirceur
Canada’s Fuck The Facts are hands down one of the best contemporary grind bands going, yet this November album seemed to go under the radar somewhat. Nevertheless, the reviews I have read are almost universally in adoration of this record, and rightfully so. It’s odd just how often the fastest and heaviest genres can feel tiresome and dull, but this much is never the case on Pleine Noirceur. This is partly down to the band being willing to drift outside the genre where they deem fit, with sprinklings of sludge hitting particularly hard, but it’s also down to a vibrant energy that quite simply never relents. Fuck The Facts have been around for some time now, but they’ve never felt more dynamic or incisive. Perhaps that’s a reaction to the doom that’s enveloping the world right now, or perhaps the band are simply going from strength to strength. Either way, they’re a group you simply need to be keeping an eye on.
Fast ‘n’ Heavy
There hasn’t been much cause for fast music this year, for me. Having been furloughed for months then largely confined to home either side of dull shifts at work, slower music has taken over. But the thrill of a thrashing riff or passionate scream will never subside, and thus there’s been plenty of heavy, fast and/or powerful music that’s won me over this year, even if the following records have spent less time on rotation than some of those above.
Rebel Wizard – Magickal Mystical Indifference
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the genre’s aesthetic that you completely forget that heavy metal is really fucking fun. But this one-man Australian project’s unique merging of black metal, thrash and classic metal à la NWOBHM is absolutely fucking brilliant and one heck of a good time. It’s the perfect encapsulation of everything that makes metal so great, boasting quality musicianship and inventive songwriting as well as ridiculously over-the-top imagery (not to mention tongue-in-cheek song titles like ‘Drunk on the Wizdom of Unicorn Semen’). Perhaps the best summation of this record I’ve heard came from Astral Noize writer Stuart Wain, who wrote an insightful review on the record, which does it more justice than I could.
Backxwash – God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It
I recall listening to this record back in April when one of our writers, Tim Birkbeck, decided to take a punt on it for review after the fantastic Grimalkin Records sent it our way. I was gripped as soon as I heard that sample of Ozzy Osbourne’s infamous cries, and am so happy that the album has gone on to receive praise from some huge publications. Backxwash has an insanely infectious flow to her lyrics, and yet the music hits as hard as any metal band. Dynamic and cathartic, this is one of the most powerful things I’ve heard all year. It’s a vital record, and if you’ve been sleeping on it then there’s no excuse not to go check it out right now.
Shrieking – Let The Galaxy Burn
Remember January? Yeah, believe it or not that was this year. This phenomenal record sneaks onto this list, having come out way back on 8th January, but it absolutely deserves its place. I’m not overly familiar with the world of Warhammer 40K but I adore when a band goes all-in on a concept like this with absolutely no shame. And it’s that unabashed and unpretentious attitude that makes this record so fucking good. It’s extreme metal of the highest calibre, offering the simple thrill of a straightforward thrashing riff but simultaneously doing away with the needless confines of genre. It doesn’t take long for this record to win you over as it launches from the sinister churn of ‘7 and 3 (Tallyman)’ and the hardcore riffs and noise samples of ‘Judgement’ to the ferocious firestorm of ‘Mindless Universe’ and the atmospheric sci-fi noise of ‘Labyrinthine’.
Putrescine – Devourer Of Gods
Ruthless death metal with a striking image of the Saint of the Deep himself, Aldrich, was always going to make an impact with me. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a massive sucker for heavy metal that covers the Soulsborne series of video games, and Putrescine’s Devourer Of Gods EP was another tantalising taste of what we can expect from their impending debut full-length. From what I’ve heard, the Souls influences aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but even if they were I’d still be immensely excited, because this EP has given me hours of enjoyment over the course of this year despite comprising just three tracks.
Deafkids/Petbrick – Deafbrick
If you’re a fan of psychedelic, digitised reimaginings of punk, then Deafkids and Petbrick are the two bands to watch right now. I was lucky enough to see the two acts collaborate on a transcendent live show at Roadburn back in 2019 and when I spoke to Deafbrick after their set they hinted at a collab release in the future. Naturally, I was immensely excited by the prospect. It was one of the first things I asked Petbrick in the studio later that year and thankfully they confirmed it was in the works. There was no way the final product could disappoint, but even with the highest of expectations, Deafbrick is a phenomenal record. It’s hypnotic from start to finish, with bursts of adrenaline like lead-single ‘Força Bruta’ being up there with the most exhilarating music I’ve heard all year. However, despite both band’s strengths when it comes to frenzied bouts of intense noise, the record’s strength lies in its dynamism, and it’s ability to exercise restraint where appropriate.
殞煞 Vengeful Spectre – 殞煞 Vengeful Spectre
Dubbing themselves “Eastern folk black metal swordsmen”, Chinese melodic black metallers Vengeful Spectre incorporate the traditional folk instruments of their home country into their scathing sound, which boasts stellar production and some of the most shockingly venomous shrieks I’ve ever encountered. Their sound is refreshingly to-the-point, with their latest record filling just 36 minutes despite being a concept album dealing with war, betrayal and revenge. I’ve probably stated numerous times already on this list, but generic black metal often goes over my head without making much of an impact, but despite myself I’ve had a lot of fun listening to this powerful record this year.
Duma – Duma
Metal is and always has been a global force, and the best way to hear varied takes and interesting new perspectives is to broaden your horizons and listen to music from parts of the world that you’re not using to hearing from. This year, the stunning new record from Duma opened my eyes to some of the awesome stuff happening across Africa but particularly in their native Kenya. In truth, though, the duo’s thrilling melting pot of grindcore, techno and industrial noise is in truth difficult to define simply as “metal”, but the album has nevertheless struck a chord with metalheads, and for good reason. There will no doubt be riff devotees who won’t find Duma to their liking, and you could be easily forgiven if this challenging strain of music simply wasn’t to your tastes, but if the sheer sonic ferocity of the heaviest extreme metal is what keeps you coming back to such eardrum-bursting music, then this record is likely to scratch that most hardest to reach of itches – sounding like something truly new, and something that is heavy in a completely different way to what you’ve heard before.
Hellripper – The Affair Of The Poisons
It’s insanely tough to craft retro-thrash that actually revitalises not just the sound but the feel of a certain period in time, yet Scotland’s James McBain makes it look easy with his scorching blackened thrash project Hellripper. Channelling the spirit of an early ’80s post-Ace Of Spades thrash band but simultaneously brandishing an energy that feels uniquely modern, Hellripper excel by putting their foot on the accelerator with devilish delight. October’s The Affair Of The Poisons is undoubtedly the blackened thrash album of 2020.
Cryptic Shift – Visitations From Enceladus
The realm of sci-fi thrash metal may be known more for adventurous song structures and grander compositions than the heads-down aggression of its less cosmically-inclined parent genre, but even within its comparatively epic framework, the 26-minute opener to Cryptic Shift’s debut album Visitations From Enceladus is pretty out-there. Despite this opener’s expansive nature, though, there’s nothing slow or laborious about the band’s mind-melting blend of thrashy hyper-blasts and turbulent death metal. Their music feels like a cosmic assault on the senses, and deserves to be considered amongst the best and most dynamic extreme metal currently in circulation.
Honourable mentions: Heathen Beast – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised But It Will Be Heard, Snorlax – II, Feminazgul – No Dawn For Men, Awenden – Golden Hour, Leeched – To Bull The Blades Of Your Abuse, Video Nasties – Dominion, Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better?, Gama Bomb – Sea Savage
Words: George Parr