End of 2020 Release Roundup
Ivan Belcic sums it up beautifully in his piece below, but December releases are always worth noting for their defiance of the ever-present media hype cycle: though most reviewers will have heard everything slated for the year by the time they put together their year-end lists, those late releases are hard to rank against stuff that's been in your ears all year. Ignoring them altogether, however, is unwise. We're actually including one November release in this edition, but to be fair, it came out at the end of the month -- and funnily enough, end-of-month releases sometimes get skipped in their respective roundups as well.
Let's look back to the final days of 2020, somehow now preferable to the opening salvo of 2021, and take a look at some of the releases that caught our ears.
Cardinal Wyrm — Devotionals
December 11th, 2020
Devotionals is a bizarrely multi-natured beast, and you'll notice that right off the bat. By the time the first song is through, they've already fit rough, punky riffing in with Yes-style solos, draping it all in the leaden finery of majestic doom metal like no other styling could possibly have made sense.
The rapid swings from formality to informality mirror the madness that the album emanates in every other way, so as much as it should feel inconsistent, it feels like a wholly rational experience. On "Nightmarchers," perhaps an ideal microcosm of this experience, the epic doom choruses match up just fine with the rough, chopped-up verses where solemn vocals are intoned through what sounds like a Walkie-Talkie. Cardinal Wyrm clearly have their own universe and their own rules, and the resulting export to our dimension is a strange gem indeed.
Respire — Black Line
December 4th, 2020
Toronto's Respire have been making boundary-pushing heavy music since debuting a half-decade ago, and their third album Black Line just might be their best yet. Previously a band known for introspection, this record looks outwards at "a world growing increasingly ill... a world that abets the rise of fascism and drives climate catastrophe," and it's also their most musically ambitious. It's got melodic black metal blasts that nail the heavy/beautiful divide as well as anything by Deafheaven or Alcest, orchestral post-rock that's towering enough to rival Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and shouty screamo that brings to mind the emotive yet experimental sounds of bands like Circle Takes The Square and City of Caterpillar. It also works in an array of other sounds, from clean-sung emo to roaring sludge metal, and it does all of this in a way that's entirely seamless. This is an album where you don't know if you should call it screamo or metal or none of the above; it can't be pigeonholed. It's also an album that feels like heavy music's answer to Broken Social Scene - like on that band's classics, almost every individual song on Black Line is a mini epic of its own, and they're so climactic that almost any of them sound like they could be the grand finale. When you do finally get to the closing crescendo of final track "Catacombs Part II," though, you'd never argue with Black Line's sequencing. There's no better way this intense journey could have ended.
Tassi — Northland One + Northland Two
I love December releases. They're one of the best ways to throw a middle finger up at the music press industry who've collectively decided that they (we?) are oblivious to new music for one month out of the year. It thrills me every time I see an artist cutting out the press middleman and dropping new tunes for the fans whenever it works best for them, regardless of what anyone else might insist.
Tassi is the solo venture from Dryad, vocalist of Beijing-based post-black metal band Bliss-Illusion. Through Tassi, Dryad navigates the universe he's created in a meandering prose series on the Chinese messaging and social platform WeChat, previously explored with Bliss-Illusion's recent single "Leave·Abhassara-Deva."
Ratcheting up the "post" aspect of the genre with longing gazes back at the early emo of bands like Mineral and Lewis, the two Northland albums track the journey of the band's eponymous central character through a Buddhism-steeped dreamland. Dryad relates Tassi's travels and travails in a mixture of Mandarin as well as a fictional language he created for the project. He's leveraging the full range of his vocal abilities as he flits between meditative spoken word-whispers, barely-breathed melodies, gentle and drawn out like a fingertip's measured graze across an exposed stretch of skin, and the sky-scraping howls that characterize his work with Bliss-Illusion.
Northland One & Northland Two are out now as digital releases, with physical versions planned to drop soon.
Undergang — Aldrig i livet
December 4th, 2020
Caveman death metal wasn't always all the rage. Before Cerebral Rot, Fetid or Maggot Stomp, there was Undergang preaching the word of the pummeling riff, and their relentless touring, insanely high quality, and regular releases were really what paved the way for bands like Frozen Soul or Undeath to sign to big labels — though Undergang are about a mile ahead of any other modern band that people compare them to, and even people not interested in the current neolithic trends in death metal will find plenty to enjoy.
Aldrig i livet is the band's fifth studio album, and their descent into filth and horror drives them to further depths of crawling, scummy decay. There's plenty to dig into here and the band breaks mold more than a few times — the record still sounds like Undergang but it goes at various points slower, faster, and more and less melodic than they've done in the past, exploring a gamut of sonic extremes within the Undergang mold. Undergang are easily one of my favorite recent death metal bands, and it's a joy to have them back- this is an experienced band firing on all cylinders, and if you like death metal, you need to hear it.
Possessed Steel — Aedris
November 30th, 2020
Possessed Steel arrive on the scene clad in leather and ready to ride into battle from their encampment in Toronto. Bearing Slough Feg, Brocas Helm and Thin Lizzy on their armored sleeves, Aedris takes flight.
"Keeper of the Woods" and "Frost Lich" strike a chord on par with fellow scene members Visigoth, yet the band allow themselves to also play some beautiful music on "Free At Last". Possessed Steel are not shy about going into slower doom-tinged dirges ether, especially on the slow-burning "Skeleton King". Vocalist Talon Sullivan is powerful in his delivery of fist-pumping vocals as the rest of the band are set loose to pillage your aural cavities during these self-proclaimed “Mythic Metal” anthems. For fans looking for an epic metal album whose grandeur borders on power metal, Aedris will surely satisfy fans new and old.