It’s been interesting reviewing a few of my best of the year introductions over the last four years. Hilariously, I always presented the prospect that it “can’t get much worse than this!” How wrong I was each year!
The year started well enough for me as I traveled through Georgia and Hungary, though I should say that I was slightly emotionally sidelined with a bit of existential depression. After my consistent, low-level depression was starting to lift with the arrival of spring, Friday, March 13th (yes, I know) changed everything. That’s when we were informed that we would have to leave our posts and return to the United States, effective immediately. What transpired that following week is fodder for a memoir, but I will spare you the details here. After returning to the United States, I was beset with a new kind of depression as I experienced the worst reverse culture shock of my life and the feeling of being utterly existentially lost as the cold, rainy March weather pressed down upon me.
Of course, what I experienced then and what I have experienced in the last 9 months is nothing compared to what some others have experienced. People are experiencing calamity on multiple levels as the pandemic continues to destroy lives in literal and figurative senses. Furthermore, racial tensions are high, financial woes are omnipresent, the political landscape is full of chaos, and climate change continues unmitigated.
It is difficult to say how we will look back on 2020 in the years to come, but suffice it to say, it will not be with kind words or nostalgic thoughts. This year has tested us individually and collectively on multiple levels, and I think everyone is looking for emotional and mental relief. As I’ve mentioned in other posts this year, music has served that purpose for me to the extent that it can. And what better way to recognize that then another edition of Judge Dredd’s Dreaded Top 10.
Despite listening to music nearly constantly in quarantine, I had trouble identifying my top 10 metal albums. This is not because there were so many albums that could have been in my top 10 that I had trouble deciding. Rather, this was because I had trouble selecting releases that I listened to frequently and stood out in quality. I’m not sure what the reason for this is, but perhaps it was just one of those years when not many high-quality artists who fit my tastes put out noteworthy albums. Or maybe many bands were delayed their releases because of the pandemic. On the other hand, there were many excellent non-metal releases I highlight further below. In any case, here are the 10 albums I came back to again and again during this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.
10. DSM-5, Blood From The Soul
I really slept on this one. I saved this to Spotify and just never gave it the time it deserved until a couple of weeks before the end of the year.
DSM-5 is the result of Shane Embury (Napalm Death, Venomous Concept, etc.) revitalizing his 90s industrial hardcore band Blood From The Soul, which was initially a project between Shane and Sick Of It All frontman Lou Koller. Instead of Lou Koller, Shane recruited vocalist Jacob Bannon (Converge, Umbra Vitae), Dirk Verbeuren (Megadeth, Soilwork), and Jesper Liveröd (Nasum).
What makes this album so enjoyable is the its deft mix of several influences: Converge’s angular hardcore, Godflesh’s pounding rhythms, and Killing Joke’s post-punk melodicism. These elements aren’t necessarily blended together, but different parts of different songs seem to emphasize one of those influences over the others.
Nonetheless, it’s great to hear a supergroup produce such an excellent album because I’m so often let down by expecting supergroups to produce something as great as the sum of their parts. Here is an instance where that actually happens.
9. The Affair of the Poisons, Hellripper
The halcyon days of the thrash revival of the mid-2000s are long gone. While thrash shows were super fun to attend during that time, I can’t say that I was a huge fan of any band in the movement aside from local heroes Hammerlord. I rarely go back and listen to even the scene leaders Municipal Waste except when I’m in the mood for some party metal. However, I am a fan of the recent surge of occult, blackened thrash with bands like Inculter, Deathhammer, and Bütcher that harken back to Slayer‘s early days.
Hellripper fits snugly within that blackened thrash scene, but with The Affair of the Poisons, there is a bit more emphasis on the bluesy thrash of Motorhead or Kill’Em All–era Metallica than many of the other bands in the scene have. So, besides one killer riff after another at breakneck speeds, this is also an immensely catchy and fun album. The kind of album that we needed in 2020.
8. Dikter om döden, Höstblod
Höstblod’s newest offering is a scaled-back approach to folk/black metal. The primary characteristics that differentiate Höstblod‘s style as opposed to other folk/black metal acts is the understated distortion and the emphasis of the “folk” over the “black” in some songs. For the former, the guitar’s distortion seems naturally obtained – like a clean guitar channel being dimed out – rather than caked in distortion pedals like so much of the genre. This adds a slightly warmer, more intimate tone, which creates an interesting counterpoint to the desolation expressed throughout most of the album.
These two distinguishing characteristics are most apparent in “Allt vi bär på”, which repeats a hypnotic acoustic and clean guitar riff throughout most of the song as Johan Nilsson’s languishing screams punctuate the sense of loss and despair. With just a couple of minutes remaining in its 10-minute length, the song climaxes into a more traditional black metal blast after a brief silence with just two minutes remaining in the track. Other tracks more prominently feature in the “black” of the folk/black metal, but the acoustic/clean guitars and piano are never too far away in interludes and lengthy passages within the proper tracks
Dikter om döde, as well as Grift’s 2020 offering, present a whole new take on the folk/black metal genre – one which is much more scaled back, intimate, and laid bare with emotional resonance.
7. Alphaville, Imperial Triumphant
I’ll be honest, I haven’t actually listened to this album nearly as much as the other albums on my top 10 list. Much like Cleric’s Retrocausal, one of my top 10 choices for 2017, Alphaville is an emotional and mental rollercoaster because it’s draining in it’s scope and experimentation. After you get off the rollercoaster, you tell yourself, “You know what? I’m good for a while.”
However, from a critical standpoint, the artistry and vision presented in Alphaville cannot be denied. It’s such an utter leap in creative confluence compared to their previous efforts that one wouldn’t be faulted in thinking that this is an entirely different band. Of course, vocalist/guitarist Ilya’s characteristic warbling, angular dissonance on his instrument is still present, but there is an impressive amount of orchestral and jazz arrangements that are present throughout the album. It’s almost as if Ilya and co. have consulted New York City avant-garde jazz legend John Zorn regularly over the last few years and taken fastidious notes in the process. At the very least, I get the feeling that Ilya and the rest of the band have immersed themselves in the avant-garde (jazz or otherwise) scene in New York City over the last couple of years.
To me, this album is distinctly cosmopolitan in the same vein as Candiria‘s masterwork 300 Percent Density, wherein a number of unlikely influences that would not have been possible outside of a cosmopolitan context of New York City led to an extraordinary combination of creative ideas and a unique creative vision. Likewise, it seems as though the New Yorkers in Imperial Triumphant have seeped up the rich musical variety of the city and has subsequently enriched their sound.
6. Uinuos syömein sota, Havukruunu
Of all of my favorite albums from 2017, Havukruunu’s offer from that year is one that I return to the most often — and it wasn’t even in my top 10! As any of the other Malicious Intent crew could tell you, I’m not much of a fan of any metal that is accompanied by the modifiers “pagan” or “folk”, but 2017’s Kelle surut soi simply pushed all the right buttons for me while transcending the tropes of those “pagan” or “folk” modifiers that turn me off.
I was initially turned off by Uinuos syömein sota because of the greater production value and the more expansive orchestral elements that I thought took away from the rawness of their previous sound. However, as is often the case with me when I have high expectations for new releases, it took a few spins before I acknowledged how excellent this offer was.
Listening to Uinuos syömein sota indulges my childhood fantasies by making me feel like I’m a Viking running through the forests onward to the next battle — or that I’m a warrior in a world akin to Conan the Barbarian. The combination of the album’s soaring melodies, galloping single-note riffs, rapid-fire blast beats, bellowing choirs, and samples of horses neighing and waves crashing all transport me to a different place and time..
5. Livsvelda, GRID
In my opinion, GRID‘s 2020 offering Livsleda is the best grindcore album of the year — and that’s saying a lot considering Napalm Death released a stellar 2020 record which ended their longest break between albums. Livsleda takes up the mantle of melodic crust-inspired grindcore a lá fellow Swedes Nasum. Like Nasum before them, there is a forlorn melodicism that carries the listener throughout the album. It adds a slant of hopelessness to their socio-political lyrical themes of conformity, consumerism, and existential anxiety among others. Despite the characteristically short crushing tracks that grindcore is infamous for, the GRID‘s knack for earworm melodicism helps the album attain what I think is the holy grail of grindcore: creating a short (17-25 minutes is the sweet spot), quality collection of songs in which each song is distinct from the next.
4. Empty Body, Spook The Horses
I stumbled upon this release in a Facebook music nerd group I’m a member of called NoGenreBias where people post Bandcamp and YouTube links for music from any genre, ranging from free jazz to death metal and from avant-garde to pop.
The description of the post read as follows:
“Give it a listen for thick walls of distortion and and driving bass lines. Very ‘standing at the edge of the apocalypse’ type vibes.”
Well, that was enough for me to give it a listen. And it turns out that description was absolutely spot on.
I stand by my comment to that user’s post in saying that Empty Body is what it would sound like if Cult of Luna played noise rock at faster tempos. Whereas a lot of noise rock is all loud all of the time, Spook The Horses has an unbelievable ear for restraint, dynamics, and pace, much like that of Cult of Luna, and this is apparent throughout Empty Body.
While the Cult of Luna comparisons are extremely apt, the power and punch of Spook The Horses work on Empty Body make it one of my favorites and most frequently listened to albums of 2020.
3. Devouring Ruin, Wake
This was the first album of 2020 that really stood out to me as a solid top 10 possibility. I enjoyed Wake‘s 2018 release Misery Rites for its unrelenting nihilism filtered through the razor-sharp blackened grind, but it was hardly a standout album for me that year. Upon hearing the single “This Abyssal Plain”, I was immediately struck by the expansion of their musical repertoire that the single seemed to suggest. Not only was the song longer than anything found on Misery Rites, but it also contained so much more creatively: an unexpected noise passage, a forlorn breakdown, and even some melody. This tracked turned out not to be just an anomaly, but it is representative of the leaps and bounds in creativity that Wake has achieved in between Misery Rites and Devouring Ruin. For Devouring Ruin, Wake has developed an incredible amount of dynamics and song craftsmanship into their signature sound without losing any of the aggressive hopelessness that made me latch onto Wake in the first place.
Note: Wake also released the amazing Confluence EP this year
2. I Let It In And It Took Everything, Loathe
I was very surprised to see this album as my sixth most-listened-to album of the last 365 days. The main reason is that, on paper, Loathe should be a band that I absolutely despise.
Loathe is considered part of a new generation of bands integrating some of the sounds of 90s and early 00s nü-metal. As much as I am both irritated and confounded by the recent resurgence of nü-metal creeping into the sound of hardcore and metalcore bands like Code Orange, I would be remiss in acknowledging the way in which it has given room to some of those bands (Code Orange in particular) to experiment and expand their sound. But, man…sometimes it just reminds me of the hilariously childish angst of bands like Limp Bizkit – yea, I’m MAD! BREAK STUFF!
However, by taking an outsized influence from the Deftones, the band who I consider to be the only respectable and artistically still-relevant band from that period, Loathe has truly separated themselves from the rest of the resurgent nü-metal peddlers. In my opinion, I Let It In And It Took Everything is the album that the Deftones should have put out in 2020 rather than Ohms, which I found to be a total snooze fest.
Loathe took my favorite elements the Deftones‘ ethereality and added an angular, down-tuned tonality and complex rhythmical variations that are more reminiscent of some djent bands rather than the more straightforward groovy power chords of the Deftones. Throughout the album, the listener is exposed to the cacophonous down-tuned stomp and pummel of tracks like “Broken Vision Rhythm” and “Gored”. Other tracks, like “Aggressive Evolution” balance the aggro with the ethereal. Finally, “Two-Way Mirror” is easily one of my favorite tracks of the year, and it has much more in common with heavy shoegaze bands like HUM than anything relegated to the nü-metal category.
And that’s what makes Loathe so exceptional: while the Deftones and nü-metal influences are there (for better or for worse), the band makes it their own through variation and complexity, which allows them to easily forego the juvenile angst that made nü-metal so irritating in the first place.
1. Mestarin kynsi, Oranssi Pazuzu
Oranssi Pazuzu make their epic return with Mestarin kynsi, crystalizing their position as the premier psychedelic black metal band — and one of the most forward-thinking metal bands active today. While many black metal bands that claim psychedelic influences merely play with disorienting production quality or simply add delay effects to their vocals, Oranssi Pazuzu goes all the way with kraut rock-inspired hypnotic repetition, spacey synthesizer undulations, and explosive dissonant freak outs — all performed with a black metal darkness.
Before Mestarin kynsi dropped, I was skeptical that the band would be able to repeat 2016’s masterful Värähtelijä, but I would say they not only succeed in repeating the musical vision that they established on that album but they also expanded on it with further experimentations. Oranssi Pazuzu continues to push the black metal genre into unchartered, heady territory, and we can count ourselves lucky enough to tune in and drop out as they do.
Honorable Mentions (in no order)
Wreck Shop, Hammerlord
May Our Chambers Be Full, Thou & Emma Ruth Rundle
Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Deafeatism, Napalm Death
Pleine Noirceur, Fuck The Facts
Stare Into Death And Be Still, Ulcerate
Grieving Birth, Internal Rot
Visitations from Enceladus, Cryptic Shift
Seminar IX: Darkness of Being/Seminar VIII: Light of Meaning, Old Man Gloom
Compelled to Repeat, Beggar
Splinters from an Ever-Changing Face, END
The Signs of Spiritual Delusion, Cross Bringer
Through The Hollow, Molasses
Favorite Non-Metal (in no order)
Overall Non-Metal Favorites
Poverty Metal, Henrik Palm
Gathering Swans, Choir Boy
how i’m feeling now, Charli XCX
Atlas Vending, METZ
Figure, Into It. Over It.
The Night We Rise, Korine
A Drip is All We Know, Fake Eyes
Marveless, As Real
Floral LP, Floral
12th House Rock, Narrow Head
Moveys, Slow Pulp
American Advertisement, Advertisement
Disheveled Cuss, Disheveled Cuss
Tumbling Towards a Wall, Ulla
The Great Vague, Tettix Hexer
pop songs 2020, BUMPER
Random Desire, Greg Dulli
Morning Pageants, Delmer Darion
Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers
grae, Moses Sumney
It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, Kehlani
Ricky Music, Porches
Seeking Thrills, Georgia
Ephemera, Jim-E Stack
songs, Adrianne Lenker