Ted Nubel’s Top Albums of 2020
I started writing for Invisible Oranges just about a year ago now, and to be honest, this is also my first year doing "true" metal coverage, beyond just writing about the local Chicago scene. This time last year, I was blissfully unaware of what goes into making a year-end list. Previously, I'd just sort of designated a "good" pile in my mind -- maybe a sea of thirty to fifty records -- that floated around with an ambiguous ordering, uncaring of where they stood against the rest. Well, that ignorance is over, and this year I've put that dubious heap of music to the test, pruning and wrenching it into some semblance of an ordered list.
Even if you're a steadfast opponent of rankings, I think there's some benefit to the exercise. It gets those records from earlier in the year back in rotation, and often there's some real gems that get left behind due to the failings of human memory. Putting it in writing, whether public or not, also helps absent-minded folks like myself recall what came out in each year. But realistically, the ordering that you see here is mostly a facade -- how can I evaluate a number eight versus a number nine without resorting to equally pointless numerical scores for each of them? My first attempt -- entrail divining -- didn't go so well, so instead I opted for as close as an approximation to a "true order" as I can get.
Creating this list served as a sort of mental pathway for me -- from things that I liked to things that I really liked, to the albums that have enthroned themselves in my head for the year. Follow my psychic footsteps and check out my picks for the year.
20. Briton Rites – Occulte Fantastique (Echoes of Crom, USA)
19. Lord Drunkalot – Heads & Spirits (Independent, Croatia)
18. Necrot – Mortal (Tankcrimes, USA)
17. Cloud Cruiser – I: Capacity (Shuga Records, USA)
16. Lamp of Murmuur – Heir of Ecliptical Romanticism (Death Kvlt, USA)
15. Begräbnis – Izanaena (Weird Truth, Japan)
14. Yatra – Blood of the Night (STB Records, USA)
13. Valkyrie – Fear (Relapse, USA)
12. Old Nick – "T.N.O.T.A.A.T.P.B.T.Q.A.S.F.A.B.O.O.T.D.O.S.S.T.T.E.V.H.S. (The Night of the Ambush and the Pillage by the Queen Ann Styl'd Furniture, Animated by One of the Dozen or So Spells That Thee Eastern Vampyre Has Studied)" (Grime Stone Records, USA)
11. Drown – Subaqueous (Independent, USA)
Opium Warlords – "Nembutal"(Svart Records, Finland)
As I remarked in my review last month, Nembutal (which happens to be the name of a barbiturate), has a sense of a tragic passing gone unnoticed and unavenged. Starting off with a set of long, beefy doom tracks in the manner of Albert Witchfinder's other project Reverend Bizarre, the album then transitions into eerie and depressing quiet, using acoustic textures and softer vocals to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Words and phrases jump out and sink into your mind, adding to the weirdness, and then before you know it, the album closer "Xanadu" sends you back into the realm of volume-centric doom, offering no resolution and no peace.
Undergang – "Aldrig i livet"(Dark Descent Records, Denmark)
December came, and as I was beginning to get a handle on my end-of-year thoughts, Aldrig I livet jumped around the corner and swung a nail-tipped bat into my kidneys. Simply put, it's death metal stripped down to its essentials and rebuilt as a lumbering monstrosity: it goes exactly as fast as it needs to with just as many notes as are necessary to pound skulls into paste. No showing off, no wankery, just shambling riffs carving out a hypnotic soundtrack for ripping bones out of corpses.
Hällas – "Conundrum"(Sweden, Napalm Records)
Conundrum took Hällas's bewitching "adventure rock," rooted in 1970s prog rock, and pushed it up a few years into the 1980s, adding beefier synths and boomier drums. As it followed 2017's vaunted Excerpts from a Future Past, I definitely wondered early on in the year if Conundrum would hold up. Repeated listens toward the end of the year confirm that it did indeed: if you'd like to be rocketed away from Earth post-haste to a world of retro-futuristic adventure, this is your ticket out of here.
Molassess – "Through the Hollow"(Season of Mist, Netherlands)
If the fact that Through the Hollow is a swirling vial of gothic-tinged, metal-adjacent psychedelic rock ready to swathe you in velvet tones isn't enough to pique your interest, I suppose the fact that the band consists of ex-The Devil's Blood members would be helpful to know too. Molassess is its own entity, however, leaning more heavily towards abstract concepts of struggle and turmoil and creating multi-layered rock soundscapes to explore them.
Purification – "Perfect Doctrine"(Rafchild Records, USA)
The argument for Perfect Doctrine is pretty simple: sneering, ornate doom condensed down into short-format jams and doused in over-the-top theatrics. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Reverend Bizarre, but in a much quicker package. Obviously, both approaches are excellent, but being able to jump into this album and immediately be showered with riffs was a huge benefit to my 2020 experience. Plus, any band that uses the Cadaver Synod for album art is going great places.
Blue Öyster Cult – "The Symbol Remains"(Frontiers Records, USA)
It's been about twenty years since Blue Öyster Cult's last full-length album, The Curse of the Hidden Mirror, and, honestly, anyone expecting a major improvement over that (which was far too heavy into southern rock for my tastes and a little long) was presumably fooling themselves. But as it turns out, if you were expecting another mediocre release... well, the joke's on you. The Symbol Remains is a walloping continuation of the band's legacy and has several tracks that stand out even ranked against the whole mighty discography. That includes a new all-time favorite for me, "The Alchemist," which taps into the long-dormant heaviness of the Imaginos days (and as a side note, Albert Bouchard's Re Imaginos re-do out this year unfortunately fell short of both his demo tape version and the studio release).
In short, we're now in a situation where I could see Blue Öyster Cult live in 2021 and actually want to hear songs from their latest album. Not even Black Sabbath could manage that -- sorry, 13.
Wrekmeister Harmonies – "We Love to Look at the Carnage"(Thrill Jockey Records, USA)
I got into a lot of drone and ambient music this year, probably because it's great at extracting a particular sentiment from your mind and examining it, lengthily, without jostling your brain too much. We Love to Look at the Carnage captured a very specific feeling for me: the near-trance reverie of being awake late at night, exhausted and with your mind almost totally empty. It reminds me of walking back from shows on snowy winter days long after midnight, traversing silent Chicago streets as I made my way back to public transit or my car (once I moved out of the city proper), alone with my thoughts among gently falling snow.
As for what it actually sounds like, well, the mixture of heavy drone textures with bright tones and well-placed ambiance wasn't matched by much else this year -- plus, the cynical spoken-word vocals narrate a tale that's mostly decipherable and entirely relatable.
Cirith Ungol – "Forever Black"(Metal Blade, USA)
There's no secrets as to why this is topping lists across the globe -- Cirith Ungol released four great albums (though of course Paradise Lost has a contentious history, it's got enough bangers to hold up) and then faded away -- and most of us cynical oft-disappointed metal fans, especially those who discovered them long after that point, figured that was it. But instead, following up on a beefy single to stoke the flames of hype, they came back with a full-length album better than most of the traditional metal out there today and one that stands up to their historical work. How do you take a multi-decade hiatus and come back like nothing happened, somehow learning from your past material and simultaneously avoiding any trend-hopping inclinations? That's a secret perhaps not meant for us to know.
Huntsmen – "Mandala of Fear"(Prosthetic Records, USA)
A bittersweet record -- sweet, mostly, because its blend of heavy progressive doom and post-metal provides an unparalleled 84 minute journey through vast swaths of sonic territory (and provides plenty of riffs while doing so), but remembering how its launch coincided with the pandemic bringing the world to a halt does hurt a bit.
The album's release was set to coincide with the band opening up for Om and Wovenhand at a conservatory here in Chicago, but alas: lockdown, plague, et cetera. Fittingly, that was also going to be my first time shooting a show for Invisible Oranges, so I got to be doubly disappointed. We did, at least, get a kickass livestream performance featuring Bruce Lamont adding saxophone wizardry at one point, but Mandala of Fear promises to be kickass live material, and hopefully 2021 will give it an opportunity.
2018's American Scrap felt unsurpassable, and yet, here we are -- they one-upped it. I interviewed the band earlier in the year -- frankly, it feels like a few years ago now -- and the passion the band has for this music is a huge factor in what makes their records so great.. Creating an hour-plus of diverse and thoughtful heavy metal like this requires far more than just technical ability or even good songwriting -- there's mastery here, full control over music's emotional power and an understanding of how to develop it through rumbling amps and post-apocalyptic poetry.
Pale Divine – "Consequence of Time"(Cruz del Sur Music, USA)
I'd always liked Pale Divine, but never really latched on to their releases in the past. Their serpentine and creative riffs were ear-catching, but you know how it is -- appreciating music is a combination of factors beyond just quality, and I guess I never had the time to lock it down. Well, Consequence of Time's name is fitting given that admission, because this time around I'm fully onboard and painfully aware of my past mistakes. This album unifies the long-honed riff-crafting and hook-writing skills of the Pennsylvanian doom band with a new element -- the vocals and additional guitar contributions of Dana Ortt, vocalist of the now-defunct Beelzefuzz.
In a way, it's a "two great tastes" situation: Pale Divine still has their punchy riffs and longtime vocalist Greg Diener's solemn lower-pitched vocals, while Dana's higher-pitched vocals, easily the highlight of Beelzefuzz for me, add mystical might to songs like "Satan in Starlight." Beyond that, Consequence of Time finds the band's songwriting in top form, with "Tyrants and Pawns (Easy Prey)" running through my head every damn day for the last six months, suggesting that I just go listen to it again instead of finding new music to check out. There's also just more high-end sparkle and shine in the mix, helping to bring out all the rich subtleties in this superbly detailed work -- it's consistently been a treat to succumb to that call in my head and revisit it throughout the year.