Rhys Williams’ Top Albums of 2020
There’s nothing new I can add to the myriad ways people have already described what kind of year 2020 was. Suffice it to say, it was pretty unusual for the vast majority of people and for the underground music communities in particular. Still, metal is no stranger to tough times and making lemonade, and I feel that the below albums really capture the essence of using shitty circumstances to make radical shit. Some particular trends to take note of include the continued renaissance of “caveman” death metal, the further evolution of hardcore and death metal into a new iteration of “deathcore”, and bands that straddle the divide between being a “joke” and being “serious”, or perhaps which take a third axis to either.
20. Faceless Burial – Speciation (Dark Descent, Australia)
19. Gulch – Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress (Closed Casket Activities, USA)
18. Escuela Grind – Indoctrination (To Live a Lie, USA)
17. Unurnment – Self-Immolation Suite (Maggot Stomp, USA)
16. Syphilic – Empty Nest (Self-Released, USA)
15. Kommand – Terrorscape (Maggot Stomp, USA)
14. Defeated Sanity – The Sanguinary Impetus (Willowtip, DE)
13. Atramentus – Stygian (20 Buck Spin, CA)
12. Incantation – Sect of Vile Divinities (Relapse, USA)
11. Nerve Exposure – Baptized in Carnage(Barbaric Brutality, USA)
From polymath creator Andrew Lee comes some rip snortin, IJA-burnin Chinese-themed Swedish-style death metal. Think if you took some hyper-fast thrash like Kreator, mixed it with like some recent Cannibal Corpse, and set it all to that old familiar Boss HM2 power tool sound (or a Left Hand Wrath if you’re a gear guy), with punishing results. The perfect soundtrack to perfecting my mastery of the Thousand-Fist Centipede Style! All we need now is a dual collab with either Fluids (about ancient Chinese torture methods) or with GZA (about obscure martial arts traditions).
Favorite track: “Righteous Fist to the Teeth of the Wicked”
Gruesome but slightly off-kilter gore death, the sort of thing that evokes classic Florida death but is consistently its own beast. Songs meander and flow in the same way as many of the classic Florida masters (i.e.early Death, Cannibal, Malevolent Creation), but a crisp modern production brings their technique to the forefront. Top notch vocals too, super deep but not gurgley for a change, and man, their guitarist can shred! Also the cover art is so bizarre and fucked up, it rules: is that a toxic waste mutant beheading Hank Hill in the middle of a Vasaeleth cover?
Favorite track: “Kicked in the Protruding Guts”
This record just slaps. Can’t get too poetic about it, because this is just a mean riff and slam machine, big chonky tones and YUGE thicc drum sounds. If Ripped to Shreds topped the Swedeath synthesis and Undeath the Florida synthesis for this year, Disembowel had the classic NYDM sound covered, down to the Mike Smith-style kick drum thrash rolls. Fans of Suffo/Immo/Interno Bleedo would be absolutely remiss not to peep this shit. Trust me, you WILL beat your PR with this album!
Favorite track: “Ripping Christ From the Cross”
Xibalba started life as a straightforward hardcore band but has over the years consistently adopted more death and doom elements, with generally positive though sometimes curious results. By 2020, they have evolved entirely into death metal, and with their new album have solidified their status as elder statesmen of the death metal/hardcore crossover. Slow, lurchy, drippy death that you can still spinkick to every so often, and fuck me Brian Ortiz is one of the unsung riff heroes of the 21st century. Everything he does is heavy as hell, they ain’t lying on the album title!
Favorite track: “La Injusticia”
It would be tempting to write off Money Hammer as a “joke” act. After all, how else but as a gag could one possibly reconcile the utter barbarity and wild abandon of brutal slamming death metal with the starchy, humdrum reality of personal finance? But Money Hammer is no joke, at all. Guttural growls and pit riffment are henceforth matched with detailed information on managing and diversifying personal finances. Ever heard an album you could both mosh too but also use as a reference for properly setting up an IRA? Now you have!
Favorite track: “Chapter 6: Invest in Exchange Traded Funds”
Out of all the “legendary” death metal bands currently operating, one that has consistently been overlooked for inspiration is Malignancy. Their style is not particularly imitable, but damn has Thætas evoked it while never biting it outright. Thætas blends sick slams with head-spinning atonal technicality in much the same vein as the Malignant masters, but their riffs are all their own, their tuning even deeper and their vocals even more monstrous. If you ever thought “what would Portal sound like with slams?”, this is your fuckin answer!
Favorite track: “Blood Distillery”
Afterbirth gave us what I feel to be the year’s top release in the still-small but ever-growing niche of sci-fi death metal. There are elements of all the sci-fi greats here: some Gorguts guitar skronk, some Demilich eldritch grooves, even some 7 H.Target off-kilter slams. However, Afterbirth blend these influences with their own special sauce: their vocalist literally sounds like an alien hellmouth, their placement of the bass at the forefront of the mix was a truly inspired choice, and some truly epic synths seal the deal.
Favorite track: “Spiritually Transmitted Disease”
In last year’s EOTY list I mentioned the increasing phenomenon of bands that merge death metal and hardcore into a new variety of “deathcore”. Bayou proves that this nascent trend has staying power: is it less guttural slam, slammy brutal death, or death metal-influenced hardcore? It actually doesn’t matter, because it is all of those things. Slamdinger’s Cat, if you will. Anyway, Bayou crushes and offers some top notch pit beef mosh anthems: if Disembowel will have you beating your PR, Bayou will have you lifting a damn truck over your head!
Favorite track: “Slim to None”
I gave this album my $0.02 back in September, but suffice it to say it still tops my BM shortlist for 2020. It’s the kind of black metal I prefer, with the emphasis on the METAL. Big cavernous drums with a neck-crack snare, big cronchy guitar tones, screams on the right side of throaty. It’s black metal that is never boring, which considering how many modern BM bands seem to associate “atmospheric” with “repetitive” is a welcome reprieve. Ice cold montane black metal with truly monumental modern production, which in my opinion is how black metal ought to be.
Favorite track: “Mountain Temple”
Supremely evil torture metal, bad vibes mixed with smooth synths and deep Mortician drum machine grooves. It’s not too different from their 2019 debut, but everything is just that much more tuned up. A thicker guitar tone with lower tuning, even deeper vocals, and an emphasis on the head-nod grooves that made Exploitative Practices so damn good. Snuff metal for the BestGore generation that transcends its caveman lineage and manages to hint at social commentary as well. Don’t overthink it, but also don’t underthink it.
Favorite track: “Coerced”