In heavy music as it was with every aspect of 2020, this has been a strange year. If you had told me that some of the best metal albums of the year would be two-hour splits about the solar system, a quarantine-recorded hardcore album by seasoned vets and what can only be described as a three-LP soundtrack to a volcanic ritual, well, I might have believed you. But I also probably would have said, “Where’s the death metal?”
Of course, there was plenty of death metal that made 2020 bearable, even exciting. A lot of black metal too. Some doom, some sludge, and a lot that can’t really be categorized in any easily understandable way. But metal, for being a genre of misfits and miscreants, still yielded some of the most powerful, life-affirming and soul-nourishing music of 2020. Every year I have trouble narrowing it down, and since 2017 I’ve expanded my list twice, from 10 to 20 and then from 20 to 25. I didn’t have the time to add an extra five or 15, but suffice it to say there were a lot of albums that made 2020 slightly less of a nightmare even while pushing deeper into the darkest spaces.
As with every year, this is a list of subjective favorites. Nonetheless, I feel more than comfortable saying that these are the best metal albums of 2020.
25. Wake – Devouring Ruin
Wake are a good grindcore band. They’re a much better black metal band. Where albums like 2016’s Sowing the Seeds of a Worthless Tomorrow revealed their prowess with speed and precision, Devouring Ruin marks the moment where the band’s songwriting has caught up with their performance. And let’s be clear—their performance remains absolutely impeccable. Sloppiness has never been a detriment to black metal by any means, but the Canadian group’s technical abilities only provide a more solid foundation for the melodic glories and awe-inspiring atmosphere they uncover here. It’s not as if Wake’s accomplishment is unprecedented; any band 10 years into their career will end up leagues beyond where they started. It’s just that the end product of Devouring Ruin is so strong, it feels like they’ve ascended to a new realm.
24. Adzes – No One Wants to Speak About It
The escapist aspect of metal is paradoxically both overrated and underrated; you can never have too much absurd air guitar pageantry as far as I’m concerned, but also riffs are never a good reason to excuse bad behavior. That said, escapism isn’t really what Adzes does. The Seattle-based outfit, driven by a punishing Godflesh-style industrial metal throb and melodic guitar grind, draw their inspiration from how fucked everything is—not in a fantastical interpretation of the apocalypse, but a practical one. Climate change, capitalism, a hollowed-out sense of self worth—No One Wants to Speak About It isn’t comfort listening. It’s harsh, angry music, and in its most triumphant moments, like the title track or “Jesus Built My Death Squads,” it sounds immaculate in its hostility. Just because it’s not built to make you feel better doesn’t mean it won’t, however; changing the world is an uphill battle, but music this furious and powerful is motivational fuel for kicking against the pricks.
23. Duma – Duma
I’ve heard very little this year, or any year, that sounds like the self-titled debut album from Nairobi’s Duma. You haven’t either. I’m not even sure that “metal” really applies here in the way that it does to the 24 other albums on the list (well, 23 now that I look it over once more), as the duo create their industrial grindcore speedfreak noise exercises through primarily electronic means. In their most visceral moments they fall somewhere between Atari Teenage Riot and Prurient, with an added dose of guttural black metal screech, but at just about any point throughout the album, what’s happening is thrilling, chaotic, dangerous, weird. Though the passage of time guarantees that my take on where an album should be ranked on a year-end list is an unfixed, evolving thing, I’m just going to give it to you straight and let you know this number’s just a placeholder. I know I’m not done taking in all of Duma, and I look forward to where each subsequent listen takes me.
22. Gulch – Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress
I took a trip to the mountains earlier this month with my wife, and somehow in this more sparsely populated landscape, snow-covered roads and a shaky electrical grid, I still managed to run into a dude wearing a Gulch t-shirt. It’s maybe an oversimplification to say that Gulch is the story in hardcore in 2020, but it’s not too far off. They’re an uncommonly good and uncommonly vicious band of bruisers, whose bile-throated intensity and routinely market-flipped merch have built them into something of a myth. The buzz is earned, however; debut album Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is 16 minutes of physical endurance, white-hot rage and death metal riffs to spare, and a Siouxsie and the Banshees cover as an encore. The details are there to be discovered and intricacies picked apart later, but the primary reason this album is on this list is because it will absolutely beat your ass.
21. Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still
Technical death metal doesn’t have to be a compromise. It’s a fallacy to believe that a musician’s ability to burn craters in their instrument should get in the way of a good melody—literally, it might, but that’s another story. New Zealand’s Ulcerate have been making the case for the better part of two decades that attention to detail, airtight musical performance and pristine production values go hand in hand with great songwriting and immersive atmosphere, all of which come together in glorious harmony on their sixth album Stare Into Death and Be Still. More than any previous releases, Stare finds Ulcerate delving more deeply into a mood-based palette, building up a set of songs that have more than a foundation or a framework—they carry an aura, an intoxicating ether. It’s dark and dramatic stuff, often aiming for the grandiosity of prog without sacrificing their sinister edge.
20. Primitive Man – Immersion
Listening to Primitive Man is to hear pain converted into sound. The Colorado band’s music is slow and abrasive, it’s often ugly and horrific. The way the group emits feedback feels like the gushing of a particularly ghastly open wound. None of which has changed on their latest album, Immersion. The difference is in how compact and digestible the experience is. Convenience isn’t necessarily what they’re after—none of us are leaving our houses right now, there’s no reason not to stew while listening to a 77-minute sludge marathon. But Immersion finds Primitive Man making their cathartic case in just over 35 minutes, with room to spare on the A and B sides. And in doing so, each blast of gut-churning agony sounds as immaculate as ever, their guitar tones thick and noxious as Inland Empire smog, Ethan McCarthy’s bellows delivered with flames in his throat. It’s tempting to call this a less-is-more situation, but there’s nothing minimalist or restrained about metal this overwhelming.
19. Necrot – Mortal
The bar set for death metal in the 2010s keeps getting nudged a little higher thanks to a forward-thinking if faithful batch of North American bands. The cosmic explorations of Blood Incantation, the progressive melodicism of Horrendous, the raw urgency of Tomb Mold, and so on. You can count Necrot among the best of the American death metal crop of the past decade, following up their stellar 2017 debut Blood Offerings with a set of songs that reveals the blueprint underneath—Death, Autopsy, Morbid Angel—while presenting it in sharp clarity, with riffs that could lop off a finger or two. But the classically harsh sound of vintage death metal is an end in itself for Necrot; there are no forays into jazz or dark ambient, no prog-rock leanings, no intricate conceptual diversions. They’re just here to lay down some melodic brutality, and the sound of Mortal shows that they only keep getting better at it.
18. Esoctrilihum – Eternity of Shaog
Eternity of Shaog, the fifth album by mysterious French black metal artist Esoctrilihum, checks off a lot of appealing boxes for one of the year’s most notable metal releases: 1. difficult-to-pronounce name, 2. enigmatic man behind the curtain, 3. rich depth of instrumentation that includes a heavy presence of acoustic instruments, 4. gorgeous space-vampire cover art from Alan Brown (Mastodon), and 5. a complicated conceptual backstory about a mythical being that represents the darkest parts of ourselves. It has a lot going for it! But talking points alone can’t really explain what makes this album as stunning as it is. Eternity of Shaog is, true to many of the best releases on the always excellent I, Voidhanger label, an exploration of black metal at its weirdest—aesthetically, tonally, conceptually. It’s a disorienting and thrilling first listen worth cherishing, and a bizarre and wonderful realm worth revisiting over and over again.
17. Sumac – May You Be Held
Sumac have yet to release an album that sounds like what we expect a metal album to sound like—aside from the volume and Aaron Turner’s throaty bark—and it’s increasingly unlikely they ever will. Sumac are their own subgenre, their own style. They’re the only band that makes music that sounds like this, and that’s as much reason as any to savor every moment of it. Though May You Be Held doesn’t necessarily have the same kind of urgency and drive that its predecessor, Love in Shadow, did in its most immediate moments, the looseness and sense of psychedelic exploration on display reveals a band deeply in tune with their own psychic abilities. They play with space and improvisation that few bands would dare, and there’s an openness that’s every bit as powerful as the most crushing moments. I’d love to hear more bands attempt the kind of radical noise-metal that Sumac have made their signature, but it would appear those bands have a lot of catching up to do.
16. Atramentus – Stygian
There are certain things we can essentially always expect from funeral doom metal, primarily that its songs will always be epic journeys that move at a tortoise’s pace and stretch out across the expanse of an entire side of vinyl. Stygian, the debut album by Canadian doom merchants Atramentus, does nothing to challenge that idea—the album is basically two extremely long tracks separated by a brief interlude. It’s in the sheer majesty and beauty of their creation where Atramentus stand out. In fact, it’s more than a little remarkable that this is their first album—this is beautiful, ornate, masterfully crafted metal. It’s likewise enormous in its sound and scope, as the best funeral doom often is, but this is less about the forest and more the trees. Sure, the overall picture is grand and impressive, but focus in on the smaller moments, the finer details, and bear witness to the introduction of doom metal masters in the making.
15. Lantern – Dimensions
Finland’s Lantern play death metal that’s melodic, but it’s not melodeath. It’s performed with precision, but it’s not tech-death. And as often as the six tracks on third album Dimensions recall the likes of vintage Morbid Angel in their raw, pummeling riffs or eerie atmosphere, they’re certainly not OSDM either. Though the hyphens might not be necessary, the caliber and creativity of the death metal that Lantern crafts is utterly staggering from the first spin of leadoff track “Strange Nebula,” a soaring slab of vicious guitar heroism that reveals the heights of Lantern’s ambition and the depths of their power-chord chug all at once. And that’s just within the first track—it’s remarkable how much ground the band covers and how immaculately written and performed Dimensions is from track to track, a testament to just how much depth a proper death metal band can explore.
14. Pallbearer – Forgotten Days
Pallbearer built their reputation on long, slowly unfolding dirges that drew inspiration from the most ornate corners of doom metal and progressive rock. That their debut album opened with a track as alternately intricate and powerful as “The Legend” spoke volumes about the Little Rock band just within its first minute or two. I always suspected that it was only a matter of time before they streamlined their approach, and songs like 2017’s “Thorns” brought that hunch to fruition, but on fourth album Forgotten Days, Pallbearer find a new kind of freedom in tighter, more concise anthems—hard rocking ones at that. The riff that opens the title track crushes as much as it soars, and the waltzing rhythm of “Rite of Passage” has a delicate beauty amid its hefty churn. Pallbearer don’t so much sound refreshed or re-energized as they do lean and focused, sacrificing none of their ambition or glory in their pursuit of a more perfect doom metal song.
13. Spirit Adrift – Enlightened in Eternity
Spirit Adrift once made doom metal, and perhaps that’s still an element of what they do, but it’s no longer what they are. Nate Garrett and company fully embraced the heroism and hedonism of old-school heavy metal on last year’s Divided by Darkness. But this year’s Enlightened in Eternity does so with more pyrotechnics, aerial stunts, leather and motorcycles. And yes, I’m basically describing a Judas Priest concert; Spirit Adrift aren’t gracing stages that large just yet (and yes, I know, nobody’s on any stages right now), but the band’s always had the chops for it, and their affection for vintage metal aesthetics and towering melodies certainly sound more fitting for the arena than the underground. Enlightened in Eternity isn’t purely an exercise in rock ‘n’ roll pageantry for its own sake—just as on their previous record, these are songs of both internal and external struggles—but there’s still plenty of reckless fun to go around.
12. Wailin Storms – Rattle
As true with metal as it is in any other musical sphere, the most compelling albums are often those with no particular allegiance to genre. North Carolina’s Wailin Storms are sometimes a noise rock band and sometimes a grunge band, and sometimes a sludge metal band that channels the restless spirits of early 20th century Delta Blues. The North Carolina band’s third album is steeped in a uniquely American gothic pall, their haunted dirges as connected to bands like 16 Horsepower and The Gun Club as they are to KEN Mode or Harvey Milk. Wailin Storms don’t opt for shock value or cheap scares but craft an aura of lingering existential horror, with eight songs that traffic in unseen ghosts and internal demons.
11. Fluisteraars – Bloem
There are metal albums that are great because they devoutly uphold the tropes and characteristics of metal that we love and hold dear, and there are metal albums that are great because they completely obliterate them. The Netherlands’ Fluisteraars do both—they don’t entirely turn black metal inside out, but the release of Bloem in February provided an early highlight for the year, not for embracing the safety of basement Satanism aesthetics but by taking the sound out into the daylight, under the sun, where it can grow and flourish. Bloem means “flower,” and it’s a fitting name for a set of songs that seek to open up black metal and show what kind of glorious places it can lead when given the gift of beauty and imagination, arrangements of piano and horns, and a purpose beyond misanthrope cosplay.
10. Bedsore – Hypnagogic Hallucinations
Some of the best therapy I found in 2020 has been simple, no frills heavy metal—this list might seem to contradict that, at least in part, but back in the spring when I put on Venom’s Black Metal at peak “We’re stuck like this, aren’t we?”, it sounded like the perfect thing at the time. And yet, one of the albums I kept returning to was the debut album by Italy’s Bedsore, who are decidedly not so straightforward. A death metal band infused with the horror-prog of their country’s own icons like Goblin, Bedsore seemingly found the interdimensional portal inside Morbid Angel’s chapel of ghouls. At their most visceral, Bedsore capture an old-school death metal spirit that’s simply raw, reckless fun. It’s rarely that simple, however, and the band most often find more roundabout ways of delivering their harsh riffs, be it between moments of ominous quiet or spiraling into a haunted k-hole.
9. Vile Creature – Glory Glory! Apathy Took Helm!
The best metal albums often feel like a cleansing primal scream, but the third album from Hamilton, Ontario duo Vile Creature seems especially cathartic in light of a world that’s been tilting toward apocalypse for the better part of the last half decade and change. For just two people, Vile Creature’s Vic and KW unleash a crushing mass of sound imposing enough to compete with a group thrice their size, but amid the frustration and raw, uncompromising power is a sense of beauty, grace and compassion. Their doom/sludge hybrid is informed by a yearning for better things, and that desperate search for some light in this dismal world takes the form of gorgeous choral arrangements and moments of post-rock stillness that balance out the intensity. The music isn’t delicate, but the balance they pull off certainly is.
8. Wayfarer – A Romance With Violence
To date no studio or director has successfully made a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a gruesome Western epic deemed both “unfilmable” because of its grotesque imagery. Should that moment ever come, Colorado’s Wayfarer should be tapped to tackle the soundtrack—anachronisms be damned, no other band can ably capture both the dusty aesthetic desolation of the West juxtaposed with an intensity that drives home the brutality and violence of America’s westward expansion. Then again, it kind of already exists; A Romance With Violence builds upon the eerie and epic hybrid of black metal with the Denver sound (a la 16 Horsepower) of 2018’s World’s Blood and paints it in more vivid, cinematic hues. Wayfarer have been building to this moment for most of a decade, the promise of an awe-inspiring widescreen black metal masterpiece fulfilled.
7. Skeleton – Skeleton
Austin’s Skeleton represent a certain kind of heavy metal ideal—a simple, straightforward hybrid of black metal and hardcore punk that you think would have been pretty well covered. It’s the kind of record that surely someone would have already perfected by now, probably 25 years ago. But no, not really—not outside of a riff here or there on a Venom or Bathory record. The Texas trio’s approach is deceptively simple, a punk-edged black metal gallop that’s hell bent for leather, and they pull it off with magnificent clarity and potency. In all of 27 minutes, Skeleton deliver a clear and consistent case for why they’ve been repeatedly hailed as kings of the underground stage well before releasing their first proper album. The end product is as strong as heavy metal debut albums get, a streamlined proof of concept that’s destined to occupy headphone space long after it made the rotation as the soundtrack of my summer.
6. Uniform – Shame
The best Uniform songs have always sounded as if the ground beneath them was about to collapse. That’s not the case on the band’s fourth album Shame, their heaviest album by some margin as well as their least chaotic—as long as you’re not counting the electronic noise and feedback that permeates the band’s gut-churning industrial metal outbursts. The addition of drummer Mike Sharp is also that of a firm foundation for harsher forays into doom-metal, shoegaze and black metal, upon which vocalist Michael Berdan delves more deeply into the trauma and psychic pain that makes every listen to a Uniform album a visceral experience. It’s massive, crushing, the biggest and best Uniform’s ever sounded, if no less comfortable.
5. Spectral Lore/Mare Cognitum – Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine
There’s a certain kind of poetry in that one of the earliest and most enduring triumphs in metal in a year that went to shit pretty immediately afterward was one that spoke to the boundlessness of the heavens and humanity’s own creative impulses. California’s Mare Cognitum and Greece’s Spectral Lore have shared the same vinyl space in the past, which made their new 90-minute split triple album not so much a surprise as an unexpected return on investment. The two artists engage in a staggering back in forth in an extended song cycle about the solar system, building exploration and mythology into epic feats of atmospheric black metal built on melody, progressive songcraft and sheer imagination. It’s quite honestly beautiful—there’s no controversy in saying such a thing about black metal in 2020. We know it to be not only possible but often true. Yet the artistic accomplishment itself is something even beyond the strength of its breathtaking songs, a testament to the possibilities of brotherhood and community in a time when we desperately need the reminder.
4. Neptunian Maximalism – Éons
This is the only album you’ll find on both our best metal and best jazz lists this year, and to be honest with you, it’s sort of neither and both simultaneously. I don’t necessarily feel the need to qualify this too much; the longer a genre exists, the less its boundaries are capable of containing it, but much has already been made of the hybrid of Sunn O))) and Sun Ra in the epic compositions of Belgian collective Neptunian Maximalism—in part because the rhyme and alliteration are right there, and in part because, well, it’s true. A psychedelic swirl of drone, avant garde chamber jazz, sludgy prog and a kind of chaotic, otherworldly film score, Éons is a journey into the center of the earth via slow-moving Morlock funicular. Neptunian Maximalism offer the listener every chance to capture the hellish scenery as it swirls by and the listener plunges deeper into the demons’ lair. It’s also two hours long, and despite being so overwhelming in both its sound and execution, every minute of its ominous descent is worth savoring.
3. Boris – NO
Boris don’t owe us anything. The Tokyo stoner/drone metal trio have been releasing music seemingly nonstop since the late ’90s, amassing upwards of 25 albums, and possibly as many as 40, depending on how you’re counting them (that it’s up for debate shows just how much of a fool’s errand it is to try to organize their massive output in any meaningful way). And yet, faced with an entire year’s worth of canceled tour dates, Boris simply got back to what they do best and headed into the studio with 40 minutes worth of blistering thrash and crust-punk tracks, as much an homage to Japanese hardcore heroes like Gudon and G.I.S.M. as they are an explosive new frontier for Boris themselves. NO is the band’s most direct album in years—and not merely because they self-released it on Bandcamp without label involvement. These songs don’t brood or linger in place, they know only explosive forward momentum. Experiencing the same frustration and cabin fever that the rest of us did in 2020, Boris offered what they call “rock therapy for the world.” And it kicks ass.
2. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi
There’s something reassuring, comforting even, about knowing that as Oranssi Pazuzu continue making music, they’ll only grow weirder over time. That’s been the pattern thus far, and they weren’t exactly a Darkthrone cover band to begin with. Mestarin Kynsi, their first for Nuclear Blast, seems to confirm that getting bigger and more experimental go hand in hand for the Finnish group, whose latest is at once their most fascinatingly enigmatic as well as an awe-inspiring masterpiece of heavy metal reinvention. Mestarin Kynsi is an album that’s recognizably their own, but it’s a lot more than Oranssi with a bigger budget. Weird time signatures, Steve Reich-inspired minimalist pulse sections, flutes(!)—Mestarin Kynsi opens a portal into an alien realm where beauty and terror go hand in hand, and where an ass-kicking metal song can be built on polyrhythms, horn sections and disorienting noise rock riffs. If Oranssi Pazuzu hadn’t created something this inspired and strange, I’m not sure I’d have even thought it possible.
1. Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full
There’s something poetic, affecting, even hopeful about the best heavy album of the year being made in collaboration by two artists from two different cities with considerably differing approaches to making music. Emma Ruth Rundle, a Californian turned Kentuckian singer/songwriter, infuses the darkness and vastness of doom metal into otherwise ethereal shoegaze and folk dirges, while New Orleans’ Thou does more or less the inverse, incorporating melancholy and textural intricacy into the scope of doom and sludge metal. Their collaboration, May Our Chambers Be Full, is a perfect yin and yang, a complementary work that somehow ends up leaning more toward the radio-friendly sound of grunge, if simultaneously prettier and nastier. On songs like “Ancestral Recall,” “Magickal Cost” and the breathtaking nine-minute closer “The Valley,” Rundle and Thou work not as two artists figuring out how they fit together, but as a self-contained force, reaching for the kinds of emotional eights to match the vastness of their sonic depth. This collab had roots in 2019 and was recorded well before lockdown, but when the simple idea of making music with your friends produces something this good, it’s hard not to feel moved by that.
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