Chris Rowella’s Top Albums of 2020
This is usually the one spot on Invisible Oranges where I drop the “no first person narrative!” journalism rule I have imposed on myself and discuss the previous year, in regards to heavy music and sometimes the world at large. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to lockdown isolation…
I’m quite sure 2020 will be discussed in countless, intangible ways for decades to come. I’ll try to keep it about the music, which did not disappoint (does it ever, really?). Despite listening to fewer new albums than I ever have before, there was a lot to love. This year was a good opportunity to dig deep and discover lost gems, or find new favorites you didn’t even know you needed (thank you, Thundercat). New acts with something to prove came charging out of the gate, while a few old masters showed that they still have it. Some of our legends went to the great gig in the sky, another reminder that time marches on, pandemic or not. The good folks behind Two Minutes To Late Night and Anthrax/S.O.D. drummer Charlie Benante kept us entertained with two respective series of fun, collaborative covers jams. Could circumstances be better? Of course. But they could also be much worse. Music saves.
20. Lowrider – Refractions (Blues Funeral, USA)
19. Haunt – Mind Freeze (Shadow Kingdom, USA)
18. Brant Bjork – Brant Bjork (Heavy Psych Sounds, USA)
17. Like Rats – Death Monolith (Hibernation, USA)
16. Fotocrime – South Of Heaven (Profound Lore, USA)
15. Freeways – True Bearings (Temple Of Mystery, Canada)
14. Xibalba – Años en Infierno (Southern Lord, USA)
13. Barghest – Altars Of Rot (Independent, USA)
12. Sons Of Otis – Isolation (Totem Cat, Canada)
11. Blue Oyster Cult – The Symbol Remains (Frontiers, USA)
Like a number of peers in their particular age range, LA metal institution Armored Saint don’t have to keep creating new music. They could easily cruise by on their stellar early catalog, play an occasional tour for some cash, and call it a day. Luckily for us, that isn’t the case. With Punching The Sky, their eighth full-length, "the Saint" demonstrate how to make accessible, mainstream heavy metal without devolving into cliche and cringe. Big festival-ready hooks, John Bush’s superior, soaring vocals, and a well-oiled songwriting machine cranking out instant hits like “Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants” and “Missile To Gun” are just the beginning of another solid era for a band that has earned every bit of praise, and deserves much more.
Coming in with the perhaps the most prescient album title of the year, -16- continue a dominating second wave of their long career. There’s plenty of the acidic, noisy sludge we’ve come to expect, as well as a few ventures outside the band’s gnarled comfort zone. On “Sadlands,” guitarist/sole remaining original member Bobby Ferry steps up to the mic for honest-to-Ra clean vocals, and it will make you wonder why he hasn’t done it sooner. The bluesy dirge is just one highlight of many on Dream Squasher, the best ugly music for some ugly times.
What’s left to say? Death metal doesn’t get much better than this.
Calling an underground metal band “underrated” is somewhat contrived at this point. Still, it’s an apt descriptor for DC’s Ilsa. They’ve been churning out solid, interesting death/doom for over a decade, and it continues on Preyer. Not so much a concept album as it is a reflection on the life, trial and aftermath of Satanic murderer Sean Sellers, Preyer churns, hammers and crushes throughout its runtime. The band’s new three-guitar attack creates a monolithic wall of riffs that turn songs like “Scavengers” and “Lady Diamond” into towering pillars of heavy. Put some respect on Ilsa’s name, damnit.
What other genre founders, almost 40 years in, are still putting out vital and inventive music in that same genre? Albums that are just as good—or better - than any of the bands that followed in their wake? Napalm Death have been a grindcore gold standard this long for a reason, and Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism is just another fast and furious validation. While they trade some of their fastest blasts in for more of the no wave and art rock influence they’ve always toyed with — closer “A Bellyful Of Salt And Spleen” has been a lightning rod — it does nothing to lessen the visceral, biting aural devastation that they do so well.
Maybe I missed it, but No Good To Anyone seems to have been completely left out of the 2020 metal discourse. That’s a damn shame, because the emotional heft of this thing is palpable. Steve Austin has gone through some serious shit since 2014’s Animal Mother — a bad car crash, misdiagnosed injuries, contracting the Lyme’s Disease that killed his dog — and it culminates on the unsettling, acerbic tracks contained here. It’s an angry album, but it’s a focused and controlled anger; “subtle” isn’t the correct word, but the strongest emotions are definitely found in the spaces between the blasts of “Burn In Hell” and the sorrowful acoustics of “Callie”.
Shall I compare thee to a dying star?
Thou art more heavy and more brutal:
Rough riffs do shake the darling speakers of Yamaha,
And earbud’s lease hath all too short a breaking point
An absolute juggernaut of a debut. If you truly want to lean into every negative, fucked up instinct this shitshow of a year has thrown at us, Compelled To Repeat is the perfect soundtrack to destroying everything within reach. An endless supply of heavy as hell riffs, sandpaper vocals and a rhythm section that hits like a hundred hammers, whilst somehow also finding room to groove and rip the occasional epic solo. No two songs sound quite the same, aside from C.M. Davis’ trusty howls. The heaviness of Dopethrone, the haunted melodies of Acid Bath, the caustic wit and metier of Eyehategod: it’s all here, and it’s glorious.
Morbus Chron is dead, long live Sweven. While we rightfully mourned the demise of the former, their spirit lives on in vocalist/guitarist/now-bassist Robert Andersson’s new venture. Fully embracing the progressive death metal of his previous project, The Eternal Resonance is also shot through with melancholy and mourning. The lyrical themes and soft instrumental moments provide a counterpoint to the jazzy Cynic-isms and Steer-worthy melodeath solos. Comparisons to later Carcass and Death are apt, but there’s even more personal depth to what Sweven are doing here. Like all the best albums, there are new layers to discover with each listen.
I can’t remember the last album I bought without hearing a note of it beforehand. (Brain: sure you can, it was St. Anger. Me: go away.) Inlet broke that streak; even though all the tracks were right there on Bandcamp, ready to turn up to 11, I made sure to purchase it first, if only to confirm that it was real. Much like Quicksand’s Interiors (not so coincidentally my #1 album of 2017) Hum stick to what made them such a compelling act in their Nineties heyday: strong songwriting, layers and layers of spaced-out guitars, and Matt Talbott’s comforting, singular voice. Inlet feels like wearing an old hoodie; the first few seconds of “Waves” is a familiar and welcoming sensation. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and one I try to avoid overindulging, but come on: fifteen seconds into “Step Into You” and I’m 14 again with the world and the future laid out sparkling in front of me. All bets are off this year anyway, so love what you love as hard as you can.