Jon Rosenthal’s Top Albums of 2020
I generally write a lot about the past year in these introductions, but, as a few of my colleagues have remarked, what's the point? 2020 bad. We don't need to reflect on it. Luckily there's been a lot of pretty cool music which was released, but it doesn't really feel the same this time around. Oh well.
I did a lot for myself, though. I put out a vinyl record, released a whole bunch of music on my label, and had a small share of releases put out by other labels. I know, I know: "self-promotion bad" or whatever, but hear me out. I've never felt so accomplished as a musician, and that's coming from someone who actually studied classical guitar performance. I write about and critique what other people do, but what do I do for music itself? This year, I feel like I did something in the world of music, and that's pretty rad.
2021 will bring us some cool albums, though, and two of which will be from Empyrium and Mare Cognitum. Both of which will knock your socks off. Expect a few surprises, too.
Oh, and do yourself a favor and listen to Ved Buens Ende.
20. The Microphones – Microphones in 2020 (PW Elverum & Sun, USA)
19. Drown – Subaqueous (Prophecy Productions, USA)
18. Turia – Degen van Licht (Eisenwald, Netherlands)
17. Doldrum – The Knocking (Independent, USA)
16. Ripped to Shreds – 亂 (Luan) (Pulverized Records, USA)
15. Dämmerfarben – Des Herbstes Trauerhymnen MMXX (Northern Silence Productions, Germany)
14. Defeated Sanity – The Sanguinary Impetus (Willowtip, Germany)
13. Katatonia – City Burials (Peaceville, Sweden)
12. Lugubrum – Plage chômage (Aphelion Productions, Belgium)
11. I'm in a Coffin – Waste of Skin (Independent/War Against Yourself, USA)
Ah, take me back to the days when bands would riff instead of meander. This is everything I really want from a melodic, old-school black metal album, and from the most surprising source: Isaac Faulk, drummer for progressive death metal darlings Blood Incantation and Way-Out-Western black metal atmospherists Wayfarer. Galdrum solely looks back, when Swedish and Austrian black metal were king, and draws from the primordial source which birthed the "No Fashion" school of songwriting. This is the real deal, friends.
I will forever hold a soft spot for pastoral metal, and Bloem's nature-inspired radiance fulfills a very special need. "Atmospheric," but smoother than that, and not quite aggressive, more passionate, Fluisteraars' latest album places itself in an upper echelon of 2020's already stellar release year.
Holy hell, this is outrageous. I generally know Eli Wendler as a drummer (you can find him kit-fronting Colorado's Spectral Voice), but, as it turns out, he has quite the mastery of black/death metal guitar riffing. Endless Wound is grotesque and chilling, never losing itself in its cavernous qualities, but rather using the spooky ambiance they craft as a means of aggrandizing their already massive music. Also featuring Jonathan Campos of Primitive Man fame and Wendler's Spectral Voice bandmate Morris Kolontyrsky, Black Curse's pedigree is clear, and the talent which comes with it is unreal. One of my favorite death metal albums of 2020 for sure.
You don't really read much about funeral doom outside of small blogs and Metal-Archives reviews anymore, lest a legend like Skepticism or Esoteric makes an occasional, lengthy statement. Why? Frankly, most newer funeral doom metal sucks: it's a genre where you can be as low-effort as you want if you simply concentrate on the "slow" aspect of the whole thing, and this is what makes Atramentus' debut all the more wondrous. Impeccably composed to the point of being compelling, even at dense lugubre, Canada's Atramentus, the brainchild of Phil Tougas (also of Chthe'ilist, First Fragment, Serocs…) plays the "long game" fairly well with their mammoth debut. It's new funeral doom metal, but it's also really good. Really good. There's always an exception to the rule. You can read my interview with Tougas here.
Imagine being a huge black metal dork and realizing you got smoked by the goofiest, most endearing black metal band of 2020. Old Nick is absolutely ridiculous, be it their bouncing, caustic riffing or the cartoonish, "Harlequinesque" (as an eloquent Bandcamp user remarked) keyboards which rest atop the rawness, Old Nick's take on black metal and "dungeon synth" is as refreshing as it is comical. As it turns out, black metal can have a sense of humor.
Ulver put out a new album. It's good. I really should leave it at that, but I suppose I should explain. Flowers of Evil is the subtler cousin to its predecessor, the lauded The Assassination of Julius Caesar. Opting for a heavier Coil influence, Ulver's dance ballads are subdued and more textured than expected, and it ultimately works in their favor. I find myself dancing in small movements while sitting to "Russian Doll" (two of hearts, racing through the night…). Ulver is truly one of the best bands out there, and Flowers of Evil proves that point. Run with the wolves.
Believe the hype.
My god, it's just so emotional. Johan Nilsson's Höstblod, which is blacklisted from Metal-Archives, fuses neofolk and downtrodden folk-pop sensibilities with a uniquely melodic take on folky black metal. On the project's second album, Höstblod upped the ante, taking its two halves into further extremes -- the folk pop became more delicate, the black metal all the more incensed. Even so, Dikter om döden moves as a complete whole. Do not sleep on this band, especially with what I've heard about their future!
I guess I've been biased about death metal for a long time thanks to my Opeth indoctrination, but the best death metal, to me, is meant to be goddamn gorgeous, and Sweven taps into something inside me which made me wholly appreciate its beauty. I'll admit to not really being into Robert Andersson's Morbus Chron, and that might be due to some stubbornness on my behalf, but to enter his body of work with this -- something so truly progressive, melodic, and beautiful -- is truly something. I don't even know what to call this? Is it death metal? Is it even metal? Why even care?
I mean, did you expect anything else to take this spot? This is a perfect album. Not only does Wintherr successfully centralize his sound and concept, he does so with finesse and a mastery which only comes from holding steadfast to the concept he initially proposed over 20 years ago. Tipping the scales at two hours in length, Im Wald is obviously not an easy, accessible listen, but throughout its wintry wanderings does it present a meditative center. This is something you have to actively listen to to fully appreciate -- it is full of variety and nuance which might be lost beneath the whiteout haze Wintherr crafts with each new moment.
Is this the right Paysage d'Hiver album to listen to without any prior listening? This is a hard question to answer. While Im Wald captures the varied nature of each individual Paysage d'Hiver demo album (the terms are interchangeable in the Paysage d'Hiver universe) and essentially offers a survey of what the project itself is… this is also two hours of torrential, raw, exceedingly atmospheric black metal. Wintherr makes a big ask here, but he wholly delivers with his project's most complete vision to date.