Langdon Hickman’s Top Albums of 2020
Normally these kinds of lists come with a brief essay to wrap up the year and frame the list, but like... Man, what the fuck do I even say? This was a nightmare of a year and one that, while the ravaging effects of COVID (fingers crossed) look to be soon fading away with the vaccine rollout, will still continue on into at least the midway period of 2021. I spent an enormous amount of time listening to music but so much of it was distracted listening both between the pandemic and its effects as well as the election, which in America is an event that lasts well over a year. This doesn't even begin to touch the nationwide protests for racial justice and the immediate violent response from the state apparatus, which always responds to systemic challenges to its structures of power first with brutality and second by co-opting and colonizing. I'm proud of the work I've been able to do this year despite everything, but it's hard not to view it still as incomplete work; articles I could have finished, chapters I could have written, albums and bands and spaces I could have explored, all if the year wasn't as much shit as it wound up becoming. It is what it is, though. At least we had a lot of great records that came from it.
My list is, as always, roughly unsorted; the closer you get to the top the more certain I am they belong there, but this year contained literally hundreds of quality of releases and this only captures a bare 20 of those, so view it more as a roughly-curated sampler of the year rather than a necessarily empirically rigorous best-of list. Likewise, I have restricted this list to purely heavy metal releases. I've additionally excluded Deftones from the list because you shouldn't need me to tell you it's fucking great. (I originally intended to have a satirical essay open this list claiming it was both the only objectively correct ranking of the year devoid of subjectivity as well as being entirely payola-based. I still have that drafted but, thinking back over the year proper, I felt it better to show how I really feel: weary.)
20. Gorephilia – In the Eye of Nothing (Dark Descent Records, Finland)
19. Necrot – Mortal (Tankcrimes, United States)
18. Cosmic Putrefaction – The Horizons Toward Which Splendor Withers (I, Voidhanger, Italy)
17. Fuck the Facts – Pleine Noirceur Noise Salvation, Canada)
16. Proscription – Conduit (Dark Descent Records, Finland)
15. Cryptic Shift – Visitations from Enceladus (Blood Harvest, UK)
14. Plague Organ – Orphan (Sentient Ruin Laboratories, Netherlands)
13. Question – Reflections of the Void (Chaos Records, Mexico)
12. Undergang – Aldrig i Livet (Dark Descent Records, Denmark)
11. Cryptae – Nightmare Traversal (Sentient Ruin Laboratories, Netherlands)
Unleash The Archers – "Abyss"(Napalm Records, Canada)
This was presented to me by a few trusted friends as one of the most emotionally-charged and fun records they'd heard in a while and my god if that wasn't accurate. I was bowled over by the second or third track, clenching my fists and fantasizing myself singing along on top of a windswept mountain. It takes something Blind Guardian-sized to move me when it comes to power metal and Unleash the Archers certainly deliver on that front, generating absolutely massive sonic landscapes with carefully considered deployments of chops, hooks, technical flash and melodic heft, all driven by an astonishing powerhouse vocalist. I don't understand the concept behind the band nor do I want to; all I need to know is this shit whips.
Mare Cognitum / Spectral Lore – "Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine"(I, Voidhanger, USA / Greece)
I called this one early as one of my year-end records in my review of it earlier this year and that was for a reason. This year has seen a few two-hour black metal releases but this is the one that particularly moved me in a way that I correctly guessed few other records would be able to. Both of these groups are some of my all-time favorites when it comes to black metal, nailing exactly the blend of prog and viciousness and space rock I want from the genre, but here skewed toward magical terrain of the hemming stars. It feels like a meditation, like I've entered a cathedral and am bowing in prayer before the glowing altar. This is the intense spirituality that I want black metal to contain. Plus anything that makes me think back to Schammasch's immaculate Triangle is fit to be a favorite for me.
Krallice – "Mass Cathexis"(Gilead Media, USA)
You should have anticipated this one, to be honest, given all I've written about Krallice. Mass Cathexis feels to me to be the current culmination of their sound, feeling like a sister-record to Dimensional Bleedthrough (my favorite of the group). Krallice manage a balance between the flighty cerebralisms that this lineup are capable of as well as driving and earthy black metal riffing. This record, like many of their best, reminds me of Rush, a group that clearly is quite thoughtful and capable yet still refuses to fly entirely off the rails. There are songs here, cogent emotional arcs, not just flightful shows of their seemingly limitless technical potential. I adore this band.
Bedsore – "Hypnagogic Hallucinations"(20 Buck Spin, Italy)
"Weird Italian psych/prog meets death metal" is like a wet dream for me, literally my two favorite things fused into one perfect flesh, one that could describe any number of bands from Opeth to Tribulation to Morbus Chron. Bedsore take a tack that is most similar to those bands listed to that of Opeth, especially their early years. The psych/prog and death metal here do not intertwine as much as the segue one into the next, giving you lengthy eerie meditations that finally burst into savage and cavernous death metal before slinking back into the murk. You never know quite where it will burst next; meanwhile, the burbling and foggy psychedelia paints a slime-green and sickly visage upon the wall. Utterly entrancing, like a dream.
Enslaved – "Utgard"(Nuclear Blast, Norway)
My Enslaved hot take: like Ihsahn, they've only gotten better as their careers have gone on. RIITIIR may still be my favorite (and earned a place on my top albums of the decade list for a reason), but Utgard stands capably next to its sibling. They've expanded here, of all things, upon their Royksopp cover which closed off their previous record E, diving deep into proggy post-punk and the various styles of New Wave-infused prog of the 80s amid their prerequisite heavy metal. As a result, it's not only their most concise record song-by-song in quite some time, it's also their hookiest, all without sacrificing wild Genesis-inclined synth solos and knotty progressive rock interludes. Fuck whether these guys play good black metal anymore; they're an all-time great prog band, which is better anyway.
Napalm Death – "Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism"(Century Media Records, United Kingdom)
In a world where Deftones need more press, they would have come between Napalm Death and Enslaved, as all three demonstrate established bands tapping into a mixture of post-punk, prog and heavy music to craft not just some of the best of their careers but better than even many younger bands, proving they still have lessons to teach. Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism is, and this is another hot take, maybe Napalm Death's best record of their career, keeping the viciousness and leftist political bite of their grind but embracing fully their adoration of art music from the worlds of prog, noise rock, post-punk and more. There have always been experimental flashes in Napalm's long career, including a period in the 90s where that was their main approach, but this is the most integrated and confident they've ever sounded with those styles. It's a jaw-dropping record. They're legends for a reason.
Oranssi Pazuzu – "Mestarin Kynsi"(Nuclear Blast, Finland)
After their last record and then the Waste of Space Orchestra album, I had high expectations for this one that the band, thank god, managed to live up to. As you can probably see, I dig psych and prog about the same as death metal so this kind of thing is right up my alley. An intense psychic bath of a record, like slipping into a trance or a deep psychosis. This band gets more and more refreshing to me the less black metal they become, not because their approach to black metal was bad or unsatisfying but because their approach to prog and psychedelia is so much more exhilarating. Aluk Todolo, where you at? Drop us a new one.
Ulcerate – "Stare Into Death and Be Still"(Debemur Morti Productions, New Zealand)
I've written before about Ulcerate and my connection to them, so this was destined to rank up this high unless the band really fucked it up somehow, which they didn't. Seeing it on other people's lists validates to me that those gut reactions and emotionalist connections to me aren't necessarily wild out of step with the broader consensus of the music, which is satisfying to me since I won't even begin to pretend that I'm not biased here. This band evokes a very dark and frightening part of my life, a rather raw emotional space for me, but records like this aid in reconstituting those elements of my life and releasing bit by bit the pain and anxiety they bring.
Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – "May Our Chambers Be Full"(Sacred Bones, USA)
This is another one that was destined to rank high for me. I adore both of these bands, having lapped up both the last ERR record (one of the best albums of its year of release) as well as the summer of Thou meta-project. Each one contains traces of the other, a dreaminess and absinthe headiness latent within Thou and a resolute feral heaviness lurking within ERR, so this combination makes tremendous sense on paper and delivers more or less exactly what you'd hope for in that arrangement. It doesn't sound like a collaboration; it sounds like one band, almost like the previous records from both were solo projects of a larger band we just hadn't heard yet. There's a reason this has ranked so high on so many lists; it's fucking great. I listen to this more or less every night before sleep because it puts me in just a perfect mindset.
Sweven – "The Eternal Resonance"(Ván Records, Sweden)
This is an album more or less made specifically for me. Morbus Chron continuation that takes notes from their absolute best record but pushes further into the psychedelia and prog? Fuck yes. Much like how Enslaved and Oranssi Pazuzu have seemingly abandoned a great deal of their extreme metal backgrounds to explore prog more fully, Sweven has done functionally the same, with really only the vocals remaining of the proper death metal elements. But that abandonment has opened up their compositions in ways that seem designed solely for me. This is another heady absinthe-soaked record, one that I listen to like a novel. I cannot express adequately how precisely "my shit" this is. It feels personally close to me enough that, unlike something like Blood Incantation last year, I don't necessarily expect people to feel as passionately about this one as I do, which is okay. But I knew this was lodged very firmly at the top of my list the second I finished my first play.