Ivan Belcic’s Top Albums Of 2020
We all know 2020 was trash. But despite the utter obliteration of joy that it’s been, some people out there managed to make the best of it. While nearly every other aspect of this year was truly loathsome, there’s been no shortage of soul-buoying music.
From the declarative anthems of “WAP” and “Body” and “Yo Perreo Sola” to the legacy-cementing After Hours, Folklore, and Burden of Proof, from the late-career highs of Letter to You, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Abracadabra, and Power Up to the posthumous reflections of Circles and Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, 2020 has overflown with top-tier work. And as usual, this is true in heavy music as well—2020 has been a lot of things, but it’s also been the year of Abyss, City Burials, and even I Disagree.
Artists around the world quickly adapted to our new, shared circumstances, pivoting from cancelled tours and attempting to mitigate the loss of live music with an abundance of live-streamed events—some hosting intimate home performances, others organizing full-scale productions in ailing, empty venues. But even in light of these heartening efforts, the consumption and subsequent processing of music in 2020 has been largely a solitary act. Deprived of the communal live celebration, severed from the spontaneity of the stage and its two-way energy exchange, we’re no longer a collective audience but a sea of isolated incubators for 2020’s bounteous artistic expression.
From the apartment in which I've been holed up since March, here are 20 records—mostly metal, some metal-adjacent—that I’ve especially enjoyed this year, returning to them over and over again.
Honorable Mentions: (Intentionally Unranked)
Afsky – Ofte jeg drømmer mig død (Independent, Denmark)
Nug – Alter Ego (Willowtip, Ukraine)
Sweven – The Eternal Resonance (Ván Records, Sweden)
Second to Sun – Leviathan (Independent, Russia)
Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better? (Church Road Records / Translation Loss, UK)
Psychonaut – Unfold the God Man (Pelagic Records, Belgium)
Beggar – Compelled to Repeat (APF Records, UK)
SVNTH (Seventh Genocide) – Spring in Blue (Transcending Records, Italy)
Inexorum – Moonlit Navigation (Gilead Media, USA)
Uprising – II (Tridroid Records, Germany)
Pelagic Records is synonymous with “huge,” in that no matter what genre the band they’ve signed is pushing, the assured steamroller of a record they’ve got is going to ship with some serious weight attached. Barrens are no exception, and as evidenced on their debut full-length Penumbra, they excel at sculpting purposeful narratives driven by an appreciation for how much more obliterating a song’s grandest moments can be when they’re bookended by periods of relative calm. Masters of the slow build, Barrens are equally adept at knowing when to turn the faucet off, doling out hits of catharsis and taking it away before it loses any of its potency. But it’s not all lumbering chords—on Penumbra, you’ll find just as many nimble, almost dancey passages to complement the record’s bulkier segments.
The slow burn of Barrens’ instrumental post metal relies as much on the band’s extensive use of synths as it does their guitars. The band use synths as a foundational instrument in their songs, as opposed to them being a distinct layer floating atop the more traditional instrumentation. The variety of synth tones and flexibility in their use, from chordal underpinnings to lead melodies to background textures, impart a commanding beauty to the music that’s kept me returning over and over again.
Stepping back to look at my list as a whole, I realized that I hadn’t included a single black metal band whose music could handily be described as “traditional” for the genre. Instead, every black metal band featured here has run wild with the core concepts of the genre to create a sound that’s uniquely their own—leading this charge here is Biesy with their second full-length release Transsatanizm. Wrenching apart the bones of the genre and reassembling them at will is as nonconformist as it gets, yet you’ll find no shortage of people rushing to decry any black metal band who fails to dogmatically ape a very small set of bands operating during a very small span of years in a very small geographic area. It’s much to these people’s chagrin and my joy that bands like Biesy gleefully dispense with these expectations.
In true black metal fashion as established by genre pioneers Ulver and Emperor’s Ihsahn, Biesy’s latest release is even a rebellion against their previous work: in this case, the very brutal post-metal-leaning blackened death of 2017’s Noc lekkich obyczajów. Here on Transsatanizm, sole member Faustyna IHS Moreau has radically overhauled the project’s identity to the point where there’s little to tangibly link this release to the previous one. Expect to find rave-ready industrial dance beats and synths popping in and out alongside the blast beats and tormented howls that remind us we’re still dancing along the edges of black metal territory.
Given the transformation we’ve already seen between Biesy albums, I can’t expect Faustyna to release another record like this one, but I surely wouldn’t complain if they did.
When summing up Violet Cold’s last record kOsmik for my 2019 year-end list, I characterized it as one long crescendo leading up to the glorious atmospheric post-blackened pop explosion at the end of the title track. That moment is the record, for me, that blissful long-awaited hit that you can only experience once for the first time, but which doesn’t lose its potency on subsequent revisits.
Just over a year later, Violet Cold dropped Noir Kid, which is an entire album of that one moment in kOsmik. Singular mastermind behind the band Emin Guliyev took that passage, atomized it into its most fundamental elements, and reconfigured them countless times over for his relentlessly beautiful follow-up. Synthier and floatier than ever before, Noir Kid begins at the tentative steps kOsmik took into warmer pop waters and submerges the project wholly into this embrace.
“Synergy,” the record’s third track, is Noir Kid’s chipmunk-vocal-laden mission statement, a grand declaration of Guliyev’s ambitious fusion of dance anthems with his black metal roots. By the time we reach mid-album centerpiece “Euphoria,” which thoroughly embodies its title, we’ve progressed well past any recognizable trappings of black metal outside of Guliyev’s ever-present shrieks, nothing like the antagonistic rage-howls of his peers so much as an exorcism of everything negative from his soul.
Black metal purists of the world, take note: whatever your thoughts might be on the rules of the genre, rest assured that Violet Cold does not give a fuck.
I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for this one because some beautiful soul bought it for me for my birthday as part of the Metal Bandcamp Gift Club community. But sentimental attachment aside, Ainsoph’s album speaks for itself. Having dropped barely a month into 2020, back when much of the world could still pretend that COVID would be a localized happening, Ω - V has been a steady presence in my listening rotation all year long.
Ω - V is one of those debut records that is way more confident in its identity than any debut typically has any right to be—there’s no hesitation, no overreaching, just a band with an ironclad vision and the drive to execute it flawlessly. Ainsoph reaches to black metal and fuses it with sprawling jazz-tinted breaks and 90s alt-rock for an effect that somehow manages to feel cohesive and individual while also stopping short of erasing the boundaries between all the band’s disparate influences. Over it all, vocalist Isa’s breathy murmurs feel ever on the edge of fracture, but there’s an undeniable potency behind the seeming frailty of her delivery.
There’s nothing predictable about what Fliege is creating. The group characterize their music as “blackened hair metal,” but it’s a woefully incomplete description of everything they’ve poured into this record, and what’s come slithering out of the incubator as a result (though it’s their first record that’s an homage to The Fly, not this one). The Invisible Seam is a concept record inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal, which, I’ll admit, I’ve never seen—and so I’m wondering just how much of the record I’m not getting, coming from it without any meaningful understanding of the source material. But even so, I’m madly in love with it, which speaks to the power of the music the Brooklyn trio is putting out. You don’t need to know a thing about the movie they’re inspired by to appreciate the energy of this record.
The sizzling, caustically artificial drums, glitchy and 8-bit-esque, bring a frigid sterility to the music that’s confounded by how easily these drums could be copied and pasted into uplifting party tracks. And the contrast between harsh vocalist Peter Rittweger’s feral barks and guitarist Coleman Bentley’s thin, trebly clean vocals, which feel almost ripped from some aggressively 2000s-Brooklyn-indie band recording in the room next door, works just as well for a band who’ve taken the baffling eclecticness of their artistic vision and rendered it a successful hallmark. Fleige at their black metal-iest hold their own against the genre’s more orthodox bands—and this record gets plenty heavy too—but then they go ahead and do so much more with it as well.
Aara feels like a chamber quartet who somehow discovered the magic of distortion and found a drummer. The ornate compositions on their second full-length En Ergô Einai
are simmering with tangible electricity—focused, driving, and profound—while at the same time immaculately draped in trappings of opulent gold, marble, and silk. Reaching back to classical music for inspiration and theory is a longstanding tradition across multiple genres of metal, but rather than veer towards the decadent symphonic excesses of many other efforts, Aara fully channels Baroque splendor in a way that is riveting in its immediacy, but also in its authenticity. There’s an urgency simmering beneath the sumptuous glamour—far from painstakingly assembling some gilded mural, Aara's members are captive to the passion pushing them to tear these compositions out of themselves and realize them in concrete form for the rest of us.
There’s a running theme amongst the more experienced bands in this list, and that theme is evolution. The most thrilling bands over time are the ones who know when it’s time to close the books on past achievements and guide their artistic impulses down new pathways. You’ll always have bands content to retread the same ground for decades, and their die-hard fans will celebrate them for it. But then you’ll also have bands like Wake, who after having mastered the meticulous technical madness-grind of previous records released their towering blackened post-deathgrind masterwork Devouring Ruin.
This album has been chewing through AOTY lists across the board this year, and it belongs on every single one of them. It’s rewarding to behold a band consciously in the process of reinventing themselves and watch them succeed so winningly at it. It’s not that there was anything wrong with Wake’s prior work, it’s just that their output this year—this record as well as their follow-up EP Confluence—is so stupefyingly perfect.
God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out of It isn’t Backxwash’s first release, but it’s the one that strapped a rocket to her back as one of 2020’s fastest-rising names. The record is a grinding gauntlet of bass-forward beats and heavily manipulated samples over which Backxwash issues forth her forceful combination of rage, anguish, grief and frustration.
From the very first sound on the album—a warped sample of Ozzy wailing “Oh no no, please God help me” from Black Sabbath’s self-titled album opener—Backxwash (aka Ashanti Mutinta) places her metal influences at the forefront. It’s this fierce loyalty to herself and her creative vision that nabbed Backxwash this year’s Polaris Music Prize. With a considerable run of upcoming releases already hinted at for next year, it seems that Backxwash is wasting no time at all diving back into the void…
It’s very much in the spirit of 2020 to have the year of COVID, with all that’s entailed, also be a year during which police departments declared war on protestors all across the US and in many other countries around the world as well. Dropping after a summer of constant protest and state-sanctioned pushback, and hitting back against the latter with an opener titled “Kill Your Inner Cop,” the latest full-length from wildly prolific antifascist blackened crust crew Ancst couldn’t have come at a timelier moment.
While “Kill Your Inner Cop” and “Denazification” leave no doubt as to where Ancst’s lines have been drawn, the group give equal weight to the internal struggles that many of us have been forced to confront during a year of enforced isolation and resulting loneliness, employment insecurity and financial instability, and for anyone working in medicine, retail, or service, day after day of increased health risks and the added mental toll that comes with it.
Ultimately, though especially poignant in this swollen, malodorous boil of a year, the themes explored on Summits of Despondency are timeless. For every battle cry, there’s a corresponding hand on your shoulder letting you know that you’re not alone, no matter what the causes of your despondency might be.
If I had to describe Satyr in one word, that word would be “exuberant.” Compositionally, the quartet are ever restless, bouncing from one extreme to the next in a never-ending game of one-upmanship with themselves—“can this song’s next passage be even more face-slappingly stunning than the last?”—but if there’s one constant running throughout their debut full-length Locus, it’s an irrepressible sense of joy.
Reaching back to the best parts of the mathcore boom of the 2000s, Satyr update their beloved influences with traces of emo and a few knowing nods in a djenty direction, resulting in a writhing, multi-tendriled beast that’d be equally at home on the road with the Blood Brothers and Fall of Troy as it would with Protest the Hero, Covet, or Invalids.
And though Locus is a staggering display of musicianship, Satyr’s greatest strength may lie in their restraint—at no point do the compositions veer off the trail of the palatable into the brambled woods of the obnoxious. There’s no self-congratulatory noodling and wheedling here; you’ll instead find four impeccable musicians writing music that takes full advantage of their skills but always in a way that places the song first. Even in the record’s wildest throes, there’s a consistent groove—anchored by the feather-fingered Brody Smith on drums and bassist Calvin Cox—to carry the interwoven vocal and guitar lines from Michael Campbell and Janald Long.
So yeah, we all know that this has been one festeringly vile shitheap of a year. But with Satyr, you’ve got at least one band who found a way to transform this energy into a celebration of something they love, and that enjoyment pervades Locus like an aerosolized virus throughout a boisterous pub.