Swatty's Top Ten Albums Of 2020

Fri Feb 19 2021

Greetings, dear reader, and welcome to my highly subjective take on the albums I enjoyed the most in the perpetual soul-sucking misery-fest that was 2020. Normally I would use this section to deliberate on what the year meant to me, where my head is at, and provide a very generalized take on the pulse of metal from the previous year. However, given the many factors that we have all collectively experienced and continue to experience, that seems rather moot now. We are all miserable, we are all depressed, we are all angry for one reason or another, and finding some common thread for us to unite on is nigh impossible. As such, I see no point in providing my take on the year of hell that was 2020. My suffering is but a drop in the sea of hopelessness that so many other people have felt and now continue to feel in this year that doesn’t feel much different than the one before it.

Additionally, I normally do a top 15 every year (don’t ask me why – it seemed right many years ago for reasons I can no longer recall), but given how different this year actually was, I have truncated my selections down to ten albums. Maybe this newfound conciseness won’t scare off the too long; didn’t read crowd. In any event, one thing that I will say is that I am grateful to the artists that have taken the time (and in some cases, risk) to record and bring us new music to help ferry us across this vast and endless hellscape and maybe, just maybe, give us a miniscule morsel of joy and hope when nothing else can. So without further ado, here are the best ditties that made me smile, cry and grimace in fuck-off-forever-2020.

10. Atavist – III: Absolution

Thirteen years. That’s how long it took Atavist to complete their trilogy dedicated to depression, self-loathing and misanthropy. Granted, the dudes were probably a little busy riding the success of their other project, Winterfylleth, and rightfully so, considering the adoration it has received from both fans and critics alike for the better part of a decade. But even they realized it was time to put that on pause and return to the vehicle more suited to traverse this current landscape. Whereas previous album II: Ruined left off with its highly cacophonous brand of dissonant funeral-noise-sludge, ripe with misanthropy and high on anger, this new opus sees the Brits a bit more restrained, a hell of a lot more depressed, and surprisingly focused on melody. Right away the first track, “Loss”, sets the mood with a gentle and introspective acoustic riff that acts like a subdued gaze towards the misery to come. This eventually evolves into a warmer and louder version of itself before settling into something like a disconnected acceptance. The next two tracks definitely channel the spirit of the previous album with more aggression and a guitar tone that just obliterates everything in its path. Final track “Absolution”, however, is where everything comes together in an emotional blitzkrieg that is not so unlike the more cathartic moments of latter Esoteric. Definitely perfect for those moments where you stare out to the sea and lose yourself in the waves, hoping they pull you in.

9. Monolithe – Okta Khora

For those not in the know, Monolithe are a French funeral-doom-ish band that have been putting out their own progressive take on the genre for more than a decade and a half now. After their second album they took a break for seven years before picking back up with a more direct and polished approach to their songwriting. And while the one running narrative for their first four albums was to name them eponymously followed by a numeral, album number five changed their trajectory by using Greek numerals and a heavy newfound focus on cosmic themes. This new perspective appears to have peaked with their latest statement, and it is a progressive and challenging wonder. They have now cast aside any semblance of funeral doom mopiness and instead embraced synthesizers and unusual melody so much, it almost feels like another chapter in Edge Of Sanity’s highly vaunted Crimson series. Granted, there are many new players in this perpetually shapeshifting army of space cowboys, but this is the sound of a band completely comfortable in their own moonskin. Here they have created forward-thinking astronomical dirges that all worship at the altar of Asimov and Sagan, and you are highly encouraged to put on your spacesuit and headbang along.

Side note: this was leaked in late 2019 and the band had no choice but to release it then since it was spreading so rapidly, but it was intended to be a 2020 release and is thusly treated as such.

8. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi

It’s been four years since the release of Oranssi Pazuzu’s psychotic lysergic nightmare that was Värähtelijä. That album is on quite the pedestal for me personally as I truly believe that it represented as high a peak of hallucinogenic extreme metal as we had yet experienced in totality. It was such a jarring and at times unnerving affair that one almost had to prepare for a listen to it, lest they be overwhelmed completely. While this new opus doesn’t quite reach those same kaleidoscopic heights, it does take what is now the signature Oranssi Pazuzu sound and allow it to curve and zigzag through more terrestial planes. Instead of focusing on incongruent relationships with all the instruments and unhinged bursts of noise, Mestarin Kynsi takes more of a cooperative and copacetic approach in the telling of their tales from worlds beyond. At times, there’s a pervasive krautrock vibe that seems to be the glue that holds much of this album together. And while the themes and harmonies are just as alien as before, it is all done with a more direct line of communication to the listener. Their ability to lift your astral self and project it into terrifying spiral vortices is still here in spades; it just feels a lot better when it happens.

7. Paradise Lost – Obsidian

I really don’t think it’s possible to find another band that exemplifies the whole “time is a flat circle” philosophy better than Paradise Lost. After their years of wandering through pastures more electronic and friendly to big radio (that still a thing now?) they have slowly returned full circle to the crush and despair of the niche they created between 1991’s Gothic and 1995’s Draconian Times. Vocalist Nick Holmes is growling again and the absolutely unmistakable style and tone of Gregor Mackintosh’s guitar lacerates the heartstrings with familiarity. This trajectory has been quite clear: 2012’s Tragic Idol was their homage to Draconian Times, while 2015’s The Plague Within and 2017’s Medusa channeled the spirit of Gothic and 1992’s Shades Of God, respectively. Why am I pointing out all these details? Because on their latest LP, they have made their first real effort to mix all of these different playstyles together in a (mostly) cohesive manner. There certainly seems to be a heavier focus on their Sisters Of Mercy influence as the post-punk is all over the place, but there are also Lee Morris-esque drum fills circa Draconian Times and plenty of nods to the multitude of styles that have made them permanent leaders in a genre they practically invented. It is this kind of fan service that marks this album so highly on my list, and while I wouldn’t recommend this album to a listener new to the ‘Lost, if you’ve been a lifelong fan, you absolutely will love this beautifully sorrowful LP.

6. Jesu – Terminus

Hoo doggy did the world need a new Jesu album in 2020. Though chameleon JK Broadrick has been unfathomably busy with his solo stuff and the JK Flesh moniker, not to mention blessing the world with two of the best albums in the entire Godflesh oeuvre, he has somehow found time to create a sublime and hazy-gazy masterpiece for depressed ground-starers everywhere. Over the years, the vision of Jesu hasn’t really shifted that much; rather, it continued to be refined with each release to varying degrees of success. However, on Terminus and on previous EP Never, Broadrick seems to be more comfortable letting the electronica be the main actor of his tragic plays. He has also stated that the swirling melancholia that pervades this album is the result of getting lost in nostalgia and honestly, you can hear that overarching theme through most of the tracks here. It feels like the point of view of a child who doesn’t understand why everything hurts all the time and just wants to run away from it all. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying what he was reaching for with this LP; all I know is that I am more than content to close my eyes and get lost in the wispy tendrils of this music and let them fly me off to better days when the world felt bigger, and to dream that anything was possible.

5. Wayfarer – A Romance With Violence

Czech composer Antonín Dvořák came to America in the late 19th century at the invitation of the newly-created National Conservatory of Music of America to both serve as its director and also to help create a national music culturally unique to the still-young nation. At this point, the country felt it had no unique identity, and given Dvořák’s nationalistic history, members of the Conservatory believed he could give them just that. However, as he explored America he discovered that its identity had been there all along, through Negro sprituals and the music of natives who had already lived there for millenia. As such, his hugely popular Symphony No. 9 – The New World was born. This anecdote is important because US black metal has also struggled over the years to differentiate itself from the well-established European school. Indeed, Colorado’s Wayfarer has revolutionized the very identity of USBM by creating a similar narrative, both musically and lyrically, out of post-Civil-War America. They have taken the skeleton of black metal and fleshed it out with Old West themes and a pronounced rustic Americana in the riffage. Up to now, it’s been clear that this process has been a continuous experiment, but on A Romance With Violence they have finally nailed the proper formula. On paper, it doesn’t seem like it should work, but when heard and felt, it simply overwhelms with sepia imagery and deep melancholy as it seeks to tell the tale of a nation torn asunder through violence, genocide and willful servitude to the engine of capitalism. While Americana has been mixed in with metal for some time (e.g. Across Tundras, Souvenir’s Young America, In The Company Of Serpents, et al.), it is the rhythm section of drummer Isaac Faulk and bassist Jamie Hansen that sets Wayfarer apart. These two have developed a propulsion for the unrelenting wave of minor chords that by all accounts is a perfect representation of a steam engine raging along the tracks and destroying everything in its path. The cumulative effect of all elements is a hell of a ride, and if you take away one band to listen to off this list, I would suggest this one. You’d be hard pressed to find a more unique entity wholly in synch with the broken identity of America in all of black metal.

4. Exgenesis – Solve et Coagula

Look, I’ll make no bones about it, I’m a complete sucker for death-doom, particularly the melodic-cry-in-my-skull-stein variety. Once I heard October Tide’s one-two masterpieces Rain Without End and Grey Dawn I have never looked back once. Over the years, they and other bands like Mar De Grises, Daylight Dies, and Rapture have built on that foundation and produced high-water marks over the years. Exgenesis, however, have truly elevated the sub-genre to previously unknown heights. Granted, there’s nothing revolutionary in terms of compositional style, but the execution is simply flooring. Vocalist/guitarist Alejandro Lotero’s vocals are the perfectly emotive combination of gutturals and screams. More awe-inspiring are his and Jari Lindholm’s riffing throughout this crestfallen ode to death. They utilize a much more classically influenced take on composition, choosing to follow motifs more commonly seen in 19th century Romanticism, and it is glorious to behold. One only has to listen to the coda at the end of “Truth”, with its gorgeous minor-key circular chord progression and incredibly moving flourishes of upper string descants, to ensure the tears will flow, and flow hard. If you’re a fan of death-doom, and this isn’t already in your collection, you seriously need to re-evaluate your life choices.

3. Intronaut – Fluid Existential Inversions

Intronaut have been perilously straddling that fine line between technical esoterica and jaw-dropping melody for the better part of 15 years now. In many instances, at best, the technical aspects were so extreme as to be lost on their prospective listeners; at worst, they appeared to be a statement of ego masturbation. However, starting with 2015’s The Direction Of Last Things, they finally seemed to be honing in on that perfect balance. With Fluid Existential Inversions, they have mastered it. Let there be no confusion—the insane masterful instrumental prowess is still on full display here, and it is still mind-boggling and borderline stroke-inducing. Attempts at following the main motifs through the many violent strata they travel through is still a challenge, but here it is usually anchored by some alien cantus firmus that the ears can’t help but be drawn to. A good example is in “Cubensis”, where an upper-string tremolo melody moves and shakes as though it were in the middle of some psilocybin-induced seizure. Fortunately, as the structure of the song seeks to nearly unravel itself at every turn, a beautifully aquatic and heavily wah-wah pedal-filtered bass line deftly played by Joe Lester keeps the whole thing from going off the rails. It is this juxtaposition of the technical and the grounded that keeps the whole affair interesting, and the same modus operandi carries on through the rest of the album. More impressive, though, is the band’s ability to take these challenging elements and have them resolve into grandly satisfying melodic payoffs, such as the end of “Check Your Misfortune”. In fact, that melody might be the most beautiful goddamn thing they have ever written. In totality, they have created the best album of their career by a long shot, and one of the best of the year.

2. Kairon; IRSE! – Polysomn

Here’s a band I discovered quite late, and have been experiencing regret every since for having missed out. Have you ever wondered what it would sound like if you could marry ethereal shoegaze vocals à la Slowdive with a ‘70s prog aesthetic? Well, look no further cosmonauts; your spaceship has arrived. Polysomn is the sound of unadulterated bliss in various states of flux and ecstasy. Normally I don’t gravitate towards music that has such a keenly happy vibe to it, but one can’t help but be magnetized to such glorious outbursts of melody that persist throughout this aural journey. Opener “Psionic Static” sets the tone perfectly with a heavily processed semi-acoustic guitar melody that is soon joined by a glissando bass line and patient drumming before it finally explodes into an exaltation of distortion with wispy female vocals from the ether and an aggressive descending melody. Inversely, “Welcome Blue Valkyrie” tones things down a bit with an almost waltz-like pace and a let-go-and-sway vibe that mellows the onslaught of what came before. However, the real highlights here are “An Bat None” and “Hypnogram”. The former confidently blasts with its in-your-face riffing, oscillating keyboards and beautifully playful vocal lines, while the latter might be the best keyboard performance in a metal-esque setting that I have heard outside of anything Lars Nedlund (Solefald, Borknagar, etc.) has done. I absolutely adore “Hypnogram”; it almost sounds like a lost Yes track with its twisting, turning and filtered lines reaching out into space and then caressing you as it details the galactic journeys it has just taken. Yeah, that’s a ton of hyperbole, sorry about that. Just forget what I say about this—listen to it and go on your own journey. I look forward to your postcards from the sky.

1. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville

Good god, where do I even start with this one? As someone who tends to get deeply lost in the science of counterpoint, this beast of an album is the equivalent of the Ark being opened and unleashed on an army of overconfident Nazis, face-melting and all. I think when you set your ambitions this high, there is a good chance you’re gonna unintentionally lose the listener in the ensuing cerebral maelstrom. And maybe that is indeed the case for Alphaville with a lot of people. All I can say is that I have heard the album probably 30 or more times by now, and I still find little nuances that were previously hidden to me. That, my dear readers, is the absolute hallmark of brilliant counterpoint. At its core, Alphaville is blackened death metal, but with nods and homages to just about every other genre out there. Look at “Atomic Age”—there’s even a barbershop quartet at the beginning! However, I think the thing that impresses me the most is the fact that in each song (aside from the covers) all the instruments, melodies, hell, even tempi seem to be in an adversarial relationship with one another. The best example of this comes in middle track, “Transmission To Mercury”. It starts innocently enough with a film noir duet between a grand piano and trombone, not like something you would hear out of a 1940s detective movie. Well, that soon gets wiped away with an atonal chord progression over a blast beat that then gets rejoined by some more of that trombone, albeit a bit sleazy this time. This soon gives way to true freak-the-fuck-out vocals accompanying a dissonant hexachord laid out string by string while said trombone just does its own interpretation of that same hexachord in a different tempo in the background. That’s one song, folks; one song. I can’t get into every track on here as that would require an article unto itself, such is the wealth of compositional mastery on display here. I suppose my rabid affinity for 12-tone counterpoint along with the more fringe 20th-century composers like Stravinsky and Xenakis meant that I was always going to love this album. However, I hope that others can find a fraction of the challenge and subsequent reward that I did. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, and raise a glass to this staggering work of contrapuntal brilliance that is my favorite album of 2020.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at you-phoria.com. He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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