Friday, December 18, 2020

Mick's Töp 15 Albums of 2020

With 2020 taking Game 1, we need to hone the resilience of MJ

Oh 2020, where do we even begin? You were a year that kept devouring more and more for itself, but if you were good for anything it was making obvious the value of music. In a year where the world is on pause, escapism becomes a hot commodity. Movies and video games will always offer that to an extent, but there's something completely unique to letting music take you on its own journey. From desolate forests to the American Wild West, my favorites from this year took me to some pretty sublime places. Hopefully, they can bring you a little comfort as well.

Check out my favorites from this abysmal year after the break!

15. Proscription - Conduit

"This is the kind of death metal that can swallow worlds and exterminate all light." This quote was taken from Dark Descent's Bandcamp page and while it may seem hokey after reading for the first time, it's actually quite apt. Conduit is indeed blackened death metal of the most evil order. It's an unrelenting album that is so steadfast in its pursuit of everything unholy that it's straight up suffocating. The drums are constantly blasting, the guitars are constantly swirling in deep, demonic sequences, and the vocals oscillate between tortured screams and rumbling growls that are in frequent lockstep with the insidious nature of the guitars. Conduit is one of those albums that leaves nothing to the imagination. If you're in the need of venting or in the need of something palpably evil, look no further.

Favorite Tracks : "I, the Burning Son", "Conduit

14. Nug - Alter Ego

Albums that make an effort to cross genre boundaries are fun and all, but sometimes an album that does fewer things but executes those fewer things extremely well hits the spot. In enters Ukranian progressive, post-metal outfit Nug. Those few things that Alter Ego does well are transitioning seamlessly between the more ambient post-metally moments and the harder hitting progressive moments, the vocals acting as percussive extension of the guitars, and striking a good balance between generic breakdowns and more intricate guitar work. While breakdowns are easy to lean on, Nug thankfully demonstrates they understand how to break that monotony up with more engaging patterns. Alter Ego doesn't do anything new by any stretch of the imagination, but what it does do is done well enough to give itself a unique allure that is worth biting on.

Favorite Tracks : "Shores", "Radiance

13. Izthmi - The Arrows of Our Ways

I remember this being the first album I was excited about this year and that feeling has yet to fade. While immediately recognizable as an atmospheric black metal album, The Arrows of Our Ways also brings the fervor of death metal and the thunderous nature of doom into the mix. Virtuosic guitar solos, chugging riffs, acoustic passages, harmonics, and even finger-tapping all come together in a seemingly endless well of places from which Izthmi pulls both melody and aggression. And despite all of these varying elements at play, The Arrows of Our Ways comes out as an impressively cohesive whole.

Favorite Tracks : "To Traipse Alone", "The Arrows of Our Ways"


12. Haunt - Mind Freeze

For all the traditional metal fans out there, this is the stuff. As this is the first of three albums that Haunt put out this year, they've been putting out records at an ungodly pace so it's become a chore to keep up with them. Fortunately this came out early this year, in the before times known as "January" when I was more attuned to new music that was dropping. So what's the fuss? Well, I will say that this the only album on this list where I listened to the opening track upwards of 500 times before I listened to the rest of the album. Seriously, it's THAT catchy. Harmonized guitar riffs that are super intricate but come across as effortless, equally melodic vocals, and synthy soundscapes in the background all come together in a mix that is familiar, but comfortably so. What's old is new right?

Favorite Tracks : "Light the Beacon", "Divide and Conquer

11. Barishi - Old Smoke

Much like the first entry of this list, the sophomore effort from Barishi also has a dismal, spiraling feel about it. The difference here, however, is that we're spiraling through crunchy riffage instead of oppressive death metal. With how the forceful guitar chords and flowing riffs are strung along, Old Smoke brings to mind Leviathan-era Mastodon but with more solemn overtones. While there are moments where acoustic guitars slow things down, the album is more often than not a veritable riff factory that, along with fierce screams and cascading drum rhythms, form a soundscape fitting for a post-apocalyptic landscape. Old Smoke has a genuine intensity about it that is hard to ignore and easy to connect with. 

Favorite Tracks : "Blood Aurora", "Old Smoke"


10. The Ocean - Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic

Phanerozoic II makes my list because it's the album that grew the most on me this year. I may be more partial to the anthemic nature of their previous effort, Phanerozoic I, but Phanerozoic II earns its stripes by being more adventurous across the board. Using electronics as their foundation, which has continued to pay major dividends, The Ocean crafts songs that ooze creativity. Utilizing various types of horns, cellos, an extremely ranged vocal performance, and vocal/instrumental through lines, Phanerozoic II is a tour de force of progressive, post-metal songwriting that continues to inspire with each listen.

Favorite Tracks : "Jurassic | Cretaceous", "Miocene | Pliocene"


9. Svalbard - When I Die, Will I Get Better?

A cross between the likes of Alcest and Oathbreaker, Svalbard's third outing bridges the sedative nature of shoegaze with the aggression of hardcore. It's an emotionally charged album, one that draws the listener into topics as raw as sexism and mental health. The vocals, much like the instrumentation, play with varying levels of volume and intensity, going from soft, lullaby-esque singing to passionate screams with excellent balance in building up the transitions to and from those extremes. When I Die streams by at a pace that gives it a dreamlike quality where you might not remember all the specifics after it's over, but the message being conveyed will remain crystal clear. It's an album that wears its emotions on its sleeve and is impossible not to be drawn into by its earnestness.

Favorite Tracks : "Open Wound", "Listen to Someone

8. Paysage d'Hiver - Im Wald

Never in a million years would I have guessed that an album that clocks in at TWO HOURS would have made my list, but here we are. What managed to keep my rapt attention for Im Wald's duration was the all-encompassing atmosphere. Using dense, droning guitar rhythms, faint wails, crashing drums, and a persistent sound effect of wind whooshing through the air, it's easy to zone out and feel like you're in the middle of a snow-laden forest. Plenty of black metal bands have harnessed this cold, desolate vibe before, but Paysage d'Hiver's execution here is on par with Agalloch's Marrow of the Spirit and that's not a comparison I throw around lightly. I'm not sure how many more times I'll ever listen to this whole album in one sitting again, but it's an album that you can tune into at any point and instantly be transported to the Wald.

Favorite Tracks : "Le rêve lucide", "Weiter, immer weiter

7. Cloudkicker - Solitude

There's always something refreshing about discovering and listening to a new Cloudkicker album. Whether it's heavier full-lengths or more ambient EPs, Ben Sharp's output tends to put me in a zen-like frame of mind. That was especially necessary this year and, fortunately, Solitdue is some of his heaviest output for quite some time. With heavy, down-tuned guitars as a base, intricate guitar riffs and building sustain gradually layer on top of each other to create this blossoming effect where you can easily get swept away by the details or where the payoff is heading towards. More importantly, everywhere between the heaviest lows and the most animated highs are permeated with an uplifting sense of lightheartedness. It's the audible equivalent of putting good vibes into the universe and boy did this year need plenty of those.

Favorite Tracks : "Ashtabula", "Sandö

6. Deftones - Ohms

As Durf already mentioned in his list, Deftones are clearly a cut above all their peers of the nu metal movement. This is also a realization I have every time I click the "Fans also like" section of their Spotify page. Reflecting on it, you have to attribute Deftones' impressive staying-power with how they continue to organically evolve while staying true to the foundations laid out by every prior album. Ohms continues in this now 25 year tradition. The 8 string guitars, the hypnotic vocals and screaming outbursts of Chino Moreno, and the soaring melodies are all still the primary drivers here so I wouldn't go as far to say they introduced something drastically new to the formula. Rather, Ohms is more about a reshuffling of how those familiar elements play off each other. This album gets better with each listen by slowly sorting out that reshuffling.

Favorite Tracks : "The Spell of Mathematics", "Headless

5. Gaerea - Limbo

Since Gaerea's 2018 album, Unsettling Whispers, was my top album of that year, I was very eager to check out whether these Portugese black metallers could continue to deliver. The inclusion of Limbo on this list should confirm that they do exactly that and more. What drew me to Gaerea in the first place is how they're like Mgla but with way better production value. Every piece of the band is so audible and loud in the mix that it feels like being as close to being at a live concert as you could possibly be. Limbo not only continues to capture that energy, but also brings a more dramatic sense to their songwriting. The majority of the album still is a barrage of deep growls, blast beats, and thunderous guitar distortion but there are times where slower, more ambient guitar notes are used to allow the listener to soak in the onslaught. Though a subtle change, it was enough to elevate Gaerea to a whole new level and makes me confident they will continue to impress in the future.

Favorite Tracks : "Glare", "Mare

4. Lamp of Murmuur - Heir of Ecliptical Romanticism

While I usually prefer my black metal to be of the atmospheric variety, Heir of Ecliptical Romanticism stands out and will be remembered for its riffs instead. It's an album where, after listening to for the first time, I felt it had no business being as catchy as it was. But there's no going back now. This is the new standard that I will be holding black metal to going forward. Production-wise, this album is raw, lo-fi black metal to a T. The sinister shrieks of the vocals have this echoing, buried-beneath-the-surface feel while everything else in general sounds like it was recorded in the bottom of a well. However, while maintaining that cold, abrasiveness of black metal, each of the tracks that go by prop up these riffs that are so easy to get into that it's, for lack of a better word, staggering. Between the compositional melodies and the overall caustic presentation, there's something here for every walk of metal fan.

Favorite Tracks : "Of Infernal Passion and Aberrations", "Heir of Ecliptical Romanticism

3. Ulcerate - Stare Into Death and Be Still

As confirmed in an interview from earlier this year that I had with drummer Jamie Saint Merat, Ulcerate steered into a more melodic direction with Stare Into Death and Be Still. Though, "melodic" is still a relative term in this case. Ulcerate's patented brand of dissonant death metal is still very much intact here but the melody is more apparent in the album's pacing. One moment may feature lightly tapped cymbals and lingering, soft guitar notes while the next can turn on a dime into a flurry of dizzying drum work, swirling guitar distortion, and cavernous growls. Stare Into Death and Be Still is a true masterclass in building and releasing aural tension, making it one of the most cathartic listens of the year. It's also a landmark album for Ulcerate, perhaps only second to The Destroyers of All.

Favorite Tracks : "The Lifeless Advance", "Stare Into Death and Be Still

2. Skeleton - Skeleton

A common feeling that I've felt myself and have heard others express numerous times is how a great album that may lean on the lengthier side seemed like it flew by in a heartbeat.  The full-length debut from Austin's Skeleton is a rare case where the flip-side is also true. With only two of 11 tracks that surpass three minutes, this album actually does end in a heartbeat. Despite that, your ears will be brimming with some of the tastiest riffs of the year. "Blackened Punk" is the most common descriptor I've seen thrown around to categorize this and while genre descriptors can be fairly subjective, this one is pretty spot-on. Gravely vocals, steady drumbeats, and grungy, phaser-infused guitar tones culminate into a never ending riff fest that is intoxicating. This is hands down the most fun album of the year.

Favorite Tracks : "Mark of Death", "Catacombs

1. Wayfarer - A Romance With Violence 

The violent myths of the American Wild West might not seem like the most likely theme for a metal album, but Denver's Wayfarer knocked it out of the park with A Romance With Violence. What makes this album feel complete is that not only is the album on-theme lyrically but sonically as well; right down to the twangy guitars you would imagine hearing around a campfire while looking up at the starry night sky. Filled with vigorous growls, folksy signing, vibrant riffs, and impenetrable walls of epic guitar distortion, Wayfarer takes the listener on a journey that hits plenty of emotional highs and lows that resonate deeply. In a year where escapism was a necessity, A Romance With Violence is that perfect retreat. You'll also come to realize that it's the best metal soundtrack for the Red Dead Redemption games that never materialized. 

Favorite Tracks : "Masquerade of The Gunslingers", "Vaudeville"

It's a low bar to clear, but here's to hoping for better things from 2021. Stay safe and take care of yourselves.


- Mick

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