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Columnus Metallicus

Columnus Metallicus: The Best Heavy Metal Of 2020
Kez Whelan , December 8th, 2020 10:04

Kez Whelan casts his eye back over this longest of years to bring you a chart of the 20 best heavy metal albums

Black Curse

Condensing a year’s worth of music into a list of twenty records is never an easy task, but this one has been especially difficult given that anything released back in those halcyon pre-COVID days before March feels like a remnant of some distant memory from another universe entirely at this point.

I suppose that’s always the case with these year-end lists to some degree (for example, was that late November release really one of the year’s best, or did I just get into it right around the time list season kicked into gear?) but lockdown has made that gap between early January releases and the October rush feel more like a vast, impenetrable gulf.

It doesn’t help that we haven’t had any gigs to break up life’s usual monotony either – for a genre like metal, having gigs cut off is like slicing off a limb. It’s been weird hearing great new albums and instead of being hit by the little buzz of “oh man, I can’t wait to hear this in a dingy little sweatbox venue in a month or two”, getting sucker-punched instead by the grim realisation that you have no idea when you’ll get a chance to see a live band again.

Still, whilst gigs are a huge part of the genre’s lifesblood, metal is not just a purely communal art form, and as expected from a year spent in isolation, more anti-social subgenres like lo-fi black metal have been really thriving throughout 2020. As hard as lockdown has been, it’s been inspiring to see so many musicians using the time to create weird and wonderful solo projects, and explore sounds they perhaps couldn’t in their main bands.

I could probably have put together a top 50 for this year in all honesty, but I’ve tried not to overthink it. Most of these albums are simply the ones I’ve found myself returning to the most. I don’t necessarily think that’s the best indicator of a truly “great” album, no matter how neat a definition that seems, as a lot of albums can make a huge impact on you despite not being designed for binge listening – that emotionally exhausting 70 minute odyssey you have to specifically set aside time for may have had a far more profound and long-lasting effect on you than the fun 20 minute thrash EP you throw on every morning before work, for example.

But nevertheless, I found myself inexplicably drawn to all of the following records and couldn’t help revisiting them over and over. Each one really dug deep into my psyche and tickled something right in the core of my being. Maybe it’s not the most comprehensive list of 2020’s metal releases, there are likely several glaring omissions that I’ll kick myself for forgetting in a week’s time and I’m sure you’ll have already found some greasy little oddity in the depths of Bandcamp that smokes the lot of it – but at the very least, here are twenty metal records that I would wholeheartedly say are worth your time.

For any of you who’ve been keeping up to date with this column throughout the past year, this majority of this list likely won’t be a massive surprise, but for those who haven’t – where have you been?! You’re going to want to catch up on the following immediately, as we’ve already got a lot to get through in 2021. See you on the other side…

20. Undeath - Lesions Of A Different Kind

Even in an age inundated with old school death metal, this Rochester quintet managed to stand out significantly with this robust debut, melding Cannibal Corpse’s lurching groove with Incantation’s detuned heft and more hooks than your nearest fishing shop.

19. Isengard - Vårjevndøgn

I wasn’t expecting so many people to really hate this one, but I still can’t get enough of it in all honesty; sure, neither the ominous atmosphere or folky melodies of previous Isengard releases are present at all, but the songs themselves are great and the energy is so infectious. In a year that’s been pretty harsh and unforgiving, I think hearing Fenriz drunkenly wail his way through several raucous old school heavy metal bangers was exactly what I needed.

18. Cirith Ungol - Forever Black
(Metal Blade)

If you only buy one old school heavy metal record this year though (and I’m sure Fenriz would probably agree), make it this one. I don’t think anyone expected these Californian pioneers to thaw out quite so flawlessly on this, their first record in almost thirty years, but Forever Black is a triumphant, rip-roaring set of rambunctious metal glory that could have come direct from their 80s heyday.

17. Sweven - The Eternal Resonance

I’m sure I’m not the only one that still hasn’t gotten over Swedish death metallers Morbus Chron splitting up right at the crest of their artistic peak, so this long-awaited new outfit from frontman Robert Andersson was a very nice surprise this year. Although the Autopsy worship of Morbus Chron has disappeared entirely, The Eternal Resonance was easily one of 2020’s most harrowing, macabre and intricate progressive metal LPs.

16. Svalbard - When I Die, Will I Get Better?
(Church Road)

This feels like an important record in the Bristolians’ discography for many reasons, severing ties with their former label to strike out on their own whilst also making sure their impassioned lyrical stance is more articulate and biting than ever, and heavily expanding on the more melodic, atmospheric post-metal aspects of their sound that have always been bubbling away beneath their stirring, powerful hardcore surface.

15. Vile Creature - Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm!

This is definitely the Canadian sludge duo’s most expressive, dynamic and cathartic release to date, contrasting moments of punishing doom with elegiac, choral beauty whilst retaining a clear thematic focus on positivity and resisting the allure of apathy throughout – a perspective that was especially vital this year, of all years.

14. Undergang - Aldrig I Livet
(Dark Descent)

It doesn’t get much filthier than this. But then again, Danish death metallers Undergang had already mastered that filthy, detuned sound on their debut; what makes their fifth album so special is the surprising depth and nuance to the song-writing, building twisted mini-epics whilst still showering you in a jet of rancid old-school grime.

13. Pallbearer - Forgotten Days
(Nuclear Blast)

More focused, varied and catchy than 2017’s mournful Heartless, Pallbearer’s latest found the quartet bringing both the light and dark aspects of their sound into sharper focus with even tighter, punchier song writing and a whimsical, Autumnal beauty that runs throughout.

12. Gulch - Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress
(Closed Casket Activities)

Damn, this thing is addictive. In terms of metallic hardcore, nothing really came close to Gulch’s debut album for me this year. There’s this intense, larger-than-life energy to it which, when combined with the utter lizard brain immediacy of these riffs, has kept me coming back time and time again.

11. Primitive Man - Immersion

The very antithesis of “mellowing with age”, each successive Primitive Man release just seems to get bleaker, nastier and more hateful. I didn’t see how they were going to top the suffocating, sludgy excess of Caustic, but Immersion is even more vicious and confrontational, a seething half hour of gut-wrenching sludge metal that acts as a thick glob of viscous black bile spat directly in the face of 2020.

10. Cryptic Shift - Visitations From Enceladus
(Blood Harvest)

I was expecting big things from Cryptic Shift’s full-length debut, but the sheer scope and depth of Visitations From Enceladus still took me aback. It’s easy to see why the quartet are being hailed as the UK’s answer to Blood Incantation – but whilst the Blood Incantation formula is made up of Morbid Angel, Timeghoul and Death, Cryptic Shift draw more from Atheist, Pestilence and Cynic, nailing the inventiveness and ambition of that specific early 90s wave of progressive death metal whilst pushing it into whole new realms with an irresistible sci-fi aesthetic and extremely adventurous song-writing.

9. Esoctrilihum - Eternity Of Shaog
(I, Voidhanger)

The more I listen to Eternity Of Shaog, the more I think it could be this French solo outfit’s most successful record to date. Whilst the dense, claustrophobic nature of his previous albums were a big part of their appeal, this one feels significantly less cluttered, with the extra breathing room allowing Esoctrilihum’s disorientating, feverish black metal sound to take an even firmer and more authoritative grip on the listener’s consciousness far more efficiently.

8. Sightless Pit - Grave Of A Dog
(Thrill Jockey)

Sure, Lingua Ignota’s Kristin Hayter, The Body’s Lee Buford and Full Of Hell’s Dylan Walker have all collaborated across numerous projects many different times over the last few years, but this Sightless Pit debut definitely didn’t feel like “just another” collaboration – it feels like a fully-fledged band in its own right, with a very distinct and well-realised aesthetic that was responsible for some of 2020’s most harrowing and most sublime industrial bangers.

7. Lamp Of Murmuur - Heir Of Ecliptical Romanticism
(Death Kvlt)

This Washington based solo black metal project really came into its own this year, with this debut full-length broadening out into both harsher, blizzard-like walls of sound and sumptuous, evocative atmospherics. Striking the perfect balance between aggressive riffery and hypnotic ambience with focussed, memorable song-writing throughout, it’s one of the most fresh, startling and well-realised lo-fi black metal records I’ve heard in a long time.

6. Oranssi Pazuzu - Mestarin Kynsi
(Nuclear Blast)

Though it may not quite topple their last album Värähtelijä, the Finns’ latest offering is an even darker, weirder beast, a throbbing, undulating psychedelic monster that side-lines the group’s black metal sound in favour of kosmische synth worship, warped and abrasive electronics and heady, repetitive grooves that spiral out into oblivion.

5. Paysage d’Hiver - Im Wald
(Kunsthall Produktionen)

Given that this enigmatic Swiss black metal mastermind’s demo discography spans ten fully-realised album-length releases over more than two decades, it felt like his debut album proper really needed to pull out all the stops and make a big statement. Im Wald fulfilled that criteria and then some, offering some of Paysage d’Hiver’s most hypnotic and powerful material and maintaining a genuinely other-worldly atmosphere for the entirety of its two hour length.

4. Atramentus - Stygian
(20 Buck Spin)

Whilst the wait for a new Chthe'ilist album continues, mastermind Phil Tougas just casually released Stygian with his “other” project this year, one of the most assured and genuinely enveloping funeral doom debuts I’ve heard in years. It’s not just the keen narrative focus and patient, artful song writing that makes this one so great; it’s also the reverence and understanding Tougas clearly has for the genre, whilst also not being afraid to get more adventurous and reach beyond its conventions.

3. Pyrrhon - Abscess Time

Whilst the phrase “technical death metal” has seemed like a fairly inadequate description of Pyrrhon’s wild, head-spinning sound for several years now, this fourth album saw the New York quintet smash through remaining genre barriers entirely. There are still loads of blistering, acidic death-grind bludgeonings and wonky Gorguts-isms all over Abscess Time, but it’s complimented by an increasingly large noise rock influence and some of the jazziest, most atonal guitar passages you’ll hear on a metal record this year. One of those rare records that manages to be as psychedelic as it is abrasive.

2. Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou - May Our Chambers Be Full
(Sacred Bones)

The combination of Emma Ruth Rundle’s haunting but infectious song writing with Thou’s overwhelming sonic force was every bit as captivating as I’d hoped it would be here, but I didn’t expect the album to be this compact and focussed. Wisely eschewing excessive sprawl, every moment of May Our Chambers Be Full feels vital, and driven purely by a timeless, powerful sense of song craft. The result is one of the most satisfying and addictive records in either artists’ back catalogue.

1. Black Curse - Endless Wound
(Sepulchral Voice)

As difficult as it was to narrow down the preceding nineteen albums however, my number one spot has basically been assured since this Denver based death metal act released their debut back in April. Comprised of members of Blood Incantation, Spectral Voice, Primitive Man and Khemmis, Black Curse are more than their sum of their parts, nailing down a brutal but incredibly atmospheric sound akin to a doomier Teitanblood or a riffier Revenge. Endless Wound is just so endlessly listenable, and hasn’t lost any of its savagery on repeated spins whatsoever – every time I spin this album, it tears my head clean off just like it did the first time.