Joe Aprill’s Top Albums of 2020
2020 has been… well, it’s bordering on parody at this point, but the truth is inescapable that for many, due in large part to the global Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 has been one of the worst years in living memory. While the death toll certainly hasn’t yet approached the level of misery experienced during the second world war, this has certainly been the largest global experience since then to impact so many people. Even for those of us who haven’t experienced the worst with the loss of life hitting family and friends (a situation that every day entangles more and more of us) the measures in attempting to control the outbreak have put many of our lives on pause or twisted into scenarios unthinkable from a year ago. There's also the infuriation from witnessing so many dismiss the danger at hand or try to contort human suffering into ever wilder conspiracy theories. I’ve long felt the phenomenon of the latter derived from our psychological need for a universe in order, even if that order is malevolent, like the devil or a cabal of elite bureaucracies. The truth, that what we’re witnessing is the collision of nature’s simmering chaos and humanity’s ignorance, is at best a cold comfort given how many persist in delusions either sad or maddenly dangerous.
That all said, even in the darkness there are lights that guide us toward hope and offer some cheer while journeying toward safer shores. The world of music has certainly been that to a bountiful extent this year and just as so in the world of metal and extreme music. While some bands have put off their planned releases for next year, just as most of the film industry did, a surprisingly number seemed to say “fuck it” or at least understood that a world population unable to enjoy much outside of their homes and local parks would be relishing to hear new music. There’s so much of it, in fact, that a top 20 album list seems almost too short to really mention everything worth recommending from this year.
With that last thought in mind, let me introduce a few side discussions before we get to my main list. First, a number of non-metal albums, though many bear strong relations to the metal scene, stood out this year. Ulver’s Flowers of Evil feels like the more melancholic sister album to their synth-pop driven approach that really began on 2017’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar and it’s all the more addictive for me as a result. For sure the most time I’ve spent with a non-metal album this year was driving down barren Los Angeles streets and highways with this record pouring sweet cold nectar from my car speakers. Zombi’s 2020 was another favorite, combining the synth-laden gloom of Goblin and John Carpenter movie soundtracks with the rocking spirit of the 1970’s from bands like Van Halen and Blue Öyster Cult. Finally on the non-metal front I want to mention Run The Jewels’ RTJ4 and while I’m not all that knowledgeable of hip-hop I’ve really taken a liking to the cosmic chemistry Killer Mike and El-P create since hearing their third album a couple years back. The release seemed to hold prescience for the public outcry and reckoning George Floyd’s murder would create, but in truth they were just saying what they’d already been seeing for a long time.
Before finally getting to the main attraction, let's as well give some shout outs to some fantastic short length releases in the form of EPs. Denmark’s NyreDolk with IndeBrændt kept up the promise of their previous lone demo to deliver a deliciously scummy mix of black metal and UK hardcore punk spite. And speaking of punk from the British isles, famed UK punk originators The Damned returned with a catchy-as-hell burst of energy with The Rockfield Files. Smoulder kept the epic doom of last year’s full length marching along with the Dream Quest Ends that even includes a tasty Manilla Road cover. French metallers Meurtrières debuted with their self-titled EP that recalls continental 80’s heroes like Sortilège and Acid. Finally, in a year where death metal surprisingly didn’t catch my ear as much as years past, one of my favorite releases in the genre came from Costa Rican bandAstriferous with their EP The Lower Levels of Sentience, a record that stands its ground against many titans of the genre from Sweden or the USA.
Having covered all of that (and please don’t skimp on some of the gems mentioned) let’s get on with the main show!
20. Sodom – Genesis XIX (Steamhammer, Germany)
19. Eternal Champion – Ravening Iron (No Remorse Records, USA)
18. Valdrin – Effigy Of Nightmares (Blood Harvest, USA)
17. Posehn – Grandpa Metal (Megaforce Records, USA) [Read my interview with Brian Posehn]
16. Hellripper – The Affair of the Poisons (Peaceville Records, UK)
15. Fluisteraars – Bloem (Eisenwald, Netherlands)
14. Black Curse – Endless Wound (Sepulchral Voice Records, USA)
13. Secrets of the Moon – Black House (Lupus Lounge/Prophecy Productions, Germany) [Read my interview with Michael Zech]
12. My Dying Bride – The Ghost of Orion (Nuclear Blast, UK) [Read my interview with Aaron Stainthorpe]
11. Enslaved – Utgard (Nuclear Blast, Norway) [Read my interview with Grutle Kjellson]
Cult of Fire continued this year projecting black metal into further and further interesting and unexplored conceptual realms far beyond their home footing in the Czech Republic. Some might think the band smacks a bit of cultural appropriation, but my reading of the limited press releases from the band coupled with previously witnessing their elaborate and reverent stage show belies far more a sense of appreciation and a real understanding of theological philosophies employed. I as well approach the “two” albums with a sense of reverence, seeing them, as I believe they're intended, as sibling albums meant to be listened to together: so I haven't yet listened to Moksha without following it with Nirvana. I also still stick by my review of the album for our UMR feature where I said:
Seven years ago, the Czech Republic’s own Cult of Fire made massive waves in the world of black metal as they shifted their entire concept, including albums and live performances, from the rather common European occultism/satanism within the scene to instead focus on the darker aspects of the Vedic/Hindu traditions of the Indian subcontinent. This year, Cult of Fire returns to quench the thirst of their disciples with a packed offering found on two simultaneous albums Moksha and Nirvana. Any fans of the band’s previous work won’t be surprised when they hear familiarly warm, quick-paced, and melodic black metal paired with delicate flourishes of Indian string and percussion instrumentation. Conceptually, the albums explore interesting spiritual concepts -- Moksha and Nirvana being similar metaphysical goals to attain liberation from the cycles of reincarnation, with the former focusing on the radically ascetic and taboo breaking path of the Aghori with the latter focusing on the esoteric Tantric Buddhist path.
I’d been a renewed fan of Paradise Lost given their return to some of their death-doom metal roots with previous albums like The Plague Within and Medusa, but the real highlight for me in this current era for these metal veterans has been this year’s Obsidian. The album embodies almost every aspect from the band’s history, from the aforementioned death-doom roots to the gothic tinged heavy metal anthems to the alternative pop-rock experimentations, all swirled together and mixed to a stunning level of perfection. If this album were a pint of ice cream, every bite’s profile would be a bit different from the one before and after, but each pivotal element/ingredient is present in each. All of which can be perfectly experienced just in the transition from one of the harder hitting tracks like “Fall from Grace” to the goth dance floor shaker of “Ghosts” followed by “The Devil Embraced” where growls and croons are equally a sing-along joy. I don’t think a Paradise Lost album since their 90’s career high of Draconian Times has impressed me so much, but unlike it Obsidian’s death-doom nods retain even more of the band’s old school fans. Check out my interview from this year with Paradise Lost’s vocalist Nick Holmes.
I was a bit unsure on the whole with A Romance with Violence, but as time has gone it’s already starting to hit even better like a shot of whiskey in a frontier-era Denver saloon. Earlier in the year, I wrote about my immediate curiosity with the album, saying:
For a long time I’ve pondered how great it would be to hear more metal try to incorporate the sounds and atmospheres of the Wild West. There’s certainly been some who have approached it, like drone doom masters Earth upon their reformation in the mid 2000s, along with the not explicitly metal, but still at times heavy, Wovenhand. Wayfarer looks to lay a strong claim to this approach with their latest album A Romance With Violence, a distinct combination of black metal and some doom metal with the atmosphere most modern listeners will recognize from spaghetti western movies and the Red Dead Redemption games.
The band does a fine job of incorporating the Old West vibe while still raging hard, as seen on opener proper “The Crimson Rider (Gallows Frontier, Act I)” accompanied by equally poetic lyrics that conjure the grit and mythic scope of the Wild West. Every major song on the album, besides the two transitory pieces, performs a good balancing act between sonic assault and grand ambience but things really are taken up a notch on album finale “Vaudeville” where most genre conventions disappear in smoke amidst the band creating a truly cinematic experience.
I think I half jokingly told fellow IO writer Jon Rosenthal after he suggested checking out a track he premiered for Heir of Ecliptical Romanticism that it seemed a bit too lo-fi for me. Well, I’m eating crow over that now, for at some point after the album’s release I must have given it a listen with some headphones and the murky distortion gave way to some of the best black metal I’ve heard in well over a decade. Too often, in my fussy opinion, some black metal musicians let the atmosphere drive their music to such an extent it’s to the detriment of songwriting and crafting exceptional riffs. That turns out to be no problem at all when it comes to Lamp of Murmuur’s full length debut, as nare every riff is astoundingly memorable with equal measures of sharp violence and catchy melodicism. Further, I have to give infernal props to anyone who can pull off a cover of a Dead Can Dance song in a black metal template so damn well. For anyone who loves the classics of black metal’s gloried second wave, this is an absolute essential work from a creative mind we’ll hopefully be hearing more from.
I enjoyed this album upon its release, but I don’t think I was certain back in the summer it would wind up in my top ten. But here we are -- the triumphant and infectiously melodic gallop Havukruunu conjured on their third album just continues to rise in my esteem. For the July release roundup I gave it praise, saying:
The band became a burning hot name in the black metal underground after the release of their 2017 sophomore release, so expectations have been running high till now. Those expectations, it can be said, have both been met and confounded. Havukruunu continue on with a type of melodic pagan black metal that leans closer to the epic riff focus of Bathory and later-era Immortal while eschewing tendencies for symphonic indulgence or folk dance jigs. However, a noticeable change to their sound is now felt in an absence of minor chords and dark atmospheres often replaced with songwriting that is perpetually uplifting and triumphant.
Uinuos Syömein Sota is an emotionally soaring work of metal that uses all its elements, especially the exultant clean sung choir sections, to transport the listener to a time of battle and glory. Though perhaps the album should come with a warning for its potency as your dear writer was far too taken away while attempting to sing along to it on a recent drive home from work that he blew past a red light. Oops! So please enjoy some new Havukruunu, responsibly.
It feels like a bit of a shame I didn’t include in my list last year Esoctrilihum’s last album, the rather mouthfully-titled The Telluric Ashes of the Ö Vrth Immemorial Gods, but that’s now rectified by having in my opinion their best album yet getting a very solid fifth place spot here. Eternity Of Shaog feels often like a black and death metal macabre symphony mentally transcribed in the prison-celled mind of the album cover’s demonic entity. Helping flesh out that reality is a well rounded set of instrumentation beyond the usual heavy metal tool shed including varied synthesizer sounds, piano, violin and kantele. Every song stands out as its own composition, but I do want to highlight a particular favorite toward the middle of the album -- first with “Aylowenn Aela (3rd Passage: The Undying Citadel)" where dervish-like violin playing in repetitive ecstasy routinely gives way to a guitar and synth passage that makes the heart weep. All of which is followed by “Shtg (4th Passage: Frozen Soul)" a mostly piano-based instrumental that calls to mind Morbid Angel’s intermissions on Blessed Are the Sick. Then, after a punctuation of guitars, the return to piano now being accompanied by a film sample immediately brings me back to the tender interludes one would experience on an Agalloch album. All of which I say to help conjure how Eternity of Shoag is a triumph of experimentation melded to solid metal songwriting.
The “kick out the jams, motherfuckers” musical moment of 2020 came early in the year with Midnight’s major metal label debut after a slew of underground gems that kicked enough ass to clearly catch Metal Blade’s attention. In my lead up to my interview with Midnight madman Athenar I gave my thoughts on his new iron-fisted album, saying:
Rest assured, Midnight’s move to Metal Blade Records hasn’t so far changed a single thing about the band on their latest release Rebirth by Blasphemy. It’s still an unholy and rotten mix of NWOBHM spirit, punk swagger, and early black/speed metal hell-raising. Of course, it's all filtered through the mind of Mr. Midnight himself: Athenar, who never lets genre expectations get in the way of laying down sugary sweet hooks on top of a dirt-crusted assault.
Rebirth by Blasphemy opens with a two-punch combo with “Fucking Speed and Darkness” followed by the anthemic chorus chanter of the title track. Not a single song is skippable for any fans of perpetual ecstasy, not the shaking groove of “Cursed Possessions” or the punk-as-fuck “The Sounds of Hell.” The album concludes appropriately with “You Can Drag Me through Fire” which serves as the final raised fist of defiance against all who wish to burn rock-'n’-roll at the stake.
Every once in a while, a band will come out of nowhere with a release that really shakes me up. It feels like even more of a surprise when some research later shows the band aren’t exactly brand new, which is precisely what happened with my third favorite album this year from Salt Lake City’s Yaotl Mictlan. A decade after their last album dropped, Sagrada Tierra del Jaguar has arrived like a storm ready to shake the heavens just as black metal prognitor Bathory did decades ago. Just as Bathory cleared a path in exhibiting how to interweave local pre-Christian culture with an otherworldly sonic assault, Yaotl Mictlan do that with their indigenous roots from Mexico. An assortment of pre-Columbian instrumentation, in particular Aztec and Mayan in origin, accompanies a bombast of epic black metal that hits just as hard and fierce as any Viking horde. I truly believe in the potential black metal has as a global musical movement that anyone the world over can interact with while also contributing their own unique heritage and history, so it’s an absolute joy to see a band like Yaotl Mictlan executing that calling with such power and finesse. Sagrada Tierra del Jaguar, in my humble estimation, is a destined future classic that hopefully will burn fires of passion in souls the world over.
If I had to describe a theme behind my favorite black metal and related albums this year, it would have to be a command of cinematic atmospherics paired with hook-heavy riffs that make you want to bang your head. It’s the desire to feel like the band is taking me on a journey into their own realms of imagination while at the same time adhering to some of the most core principles of heavy metal. For a while now a band that’s one of the best at accomplishing this balance has been Slovakian black-heavy metal sorcerers Malokarpatan. I fell in love with their sound on 2017’s Nordkarpatenland, an equal pairing of central European black metal deities like Master’s Hammer and Tormentor paired with the heavy metal righteousness of Mercyful Fate and Manilla Road. I further had the opportunity to finally witness the band live last year at a metal festival in Sweden where they proceeded to put the crowd into a lunatic head-thrashing spell of pure metal delight.
So I was delighted to find the band’s third release, Krupinské Ohne, getting released this year and quite happy to hear while the core of the band’s sound is intact (even after previous vocalist Temnohor leaving) they weren’t going to just release a part two album of what came before. This record is more epic and grand in its posture, even at certain times recalling Bathory’s Hammerheart while also including a strong nod to folky prog rock of the 1970s. All of this is crafted into a very autumnal textured telling of the real world witchcraft trials in the Slovakian town of Krupina -- a dark tale of superstition and paranoia that still has relevance in our modern times.
If you’ve been following my writing at IO or listening in to our podcasts you’d know myself and many other writers here have mentioned how much in love I’ve been with Cirith Ungol’s long-awaited return album, Forever Black. Was there ever a chance I wasn’t going to put this as my number one album of the year? Well, looking back at my then-recorded in early March interview with all five current members of Cirith Ungol I stated myself that, “I make no qualms in already saying it’s a high contender for album of the year for me.” So I guess that was settled, then!
As I recounted in that interview, Cirith Ungol, while a band I didn’t grow up with and really only properly discovered in the last decade, is a band I treasure very dearly, having witnessed their first reunion show and having been given the great privilege to watch their rehearsal for an upcoming festival show that COVID-19 would eventually cancel. All of this perhaps clouds my ability to judge if I really do think a band that started in the 1970’s releasing a new album for the first time in almost three decades is actually the best album of 2020. Yet, the metal world has been full of returns to glory rightfully praised such as Satan, Carcass, At the Gates, Celtic Frost and quite a few more. Cirith Ungol’s return may have been less believed than many of those were, but it’s just as important if not even more consequential given how much of a triumph Forever Black is.
The album feels like a mixture of the best qualities of their four legendary previous records purified in a production alchemy worthy of elder gods that makes it feel as timeless now as if it had been released in 1986. Every song is a track I’d love to hear them play live, including the rousing call to action of “Legions Arise” to “Stormbringer’s” epic storytelling of the band’s long time visual focal point, the doomed albino emperor Elric of Melniboné, to the sure sing-along with your comrade in arms fist-pumper “Before Tomorrow.” To paraphrase from fellow writer Langdon Hickman, Cirith Ungol has the absolute essence of heavy metal beating in its heart, something that only a few like Judas Priest can be said to have as well. There might be aspects of the band you might not like or have difficulty with, but if you truly can’t enjoy anything about Cirith Ungol, then maybe you don’t actually like heavy metal.
“As chaos descends, false metal will fall! Legions Arise!”