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Axl Rosenberg’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2020

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You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been the Lulu of years. And you don’t need me to tell you that the severe shittiness of 2020 made music more important than ever.

But you might need me to tell you about some bright spots you missed. And I can do that!

So. Here’s the music that kept me sane and alive through 2020:

15. Igorrr – Spirituality and Distortion (Metal Blade)

Igorrr continues to be a total weirdo. I mean that as a compliment. His latest genre-bender once again throws metal into a blender with about 15,000,000 other types of music (often within the same song), but somehow it always sounds coherent and pleasing to the ear. Spirituality and Distortion doesn’t feel like a record so much as it feels like a thoroughly authentic aural distillation of one glorious madman’s inner being. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

14. Night Crowned – Impius Viam (Noble Demon)

I told you way back in January that Impius Viam might very well end up on my list… and it has! I mean, obviously. Because you’re reading this.

Right. So. Night Crowned is from Gothenburg, and its members also currently play or have played in bands like Dark Funeral and Nightrage, so you’ll likely anticipate Impius Viam‘s blend of symphonic black metal and Swedish melodeath. What you won’t anticipate is just how fucking massive, cinematic, and hooky this thing is. The results end up sounding kinda like an At the Gates album written by Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia-era Dimmu Borgir, only much better. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

13. Intronaut – Fluid Existential Inversions (Metal Blade)

The intro track is called “Procurement of the Victuals,” so yeah you know this one is gonna go over good with the weedhead. Intronaut’s angular prog once again strikes the perfect balance between mind-warping musicianship and melodies you can follow without a map… but Fluid may also be the catchiest album Intronaut have made 2008’s Prehistoricisms. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

12. -(16)-  – Dream Squasher (Relapse)

Dream Squasher is a sadistically cruel, nihilistic swamp of gristle and thorns… which is not to say it’s without gallows humor: all of us who prefer our pets to other people can relate to “Me and the Dog Die Together.” It chugs like a coal engine train, and leaves just as much bilious black smoke in its wake. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

11. The Black Dahlia Murder – Verminous (Metal Blade)

The Black Dahlia Murder make being routinely excellent look so easy, it’s no wonder we’re swarmed with terrible wannabes every year. Verminous, like every BDM album, is heavy AF, somehow sounds both evil and heroic at the same time, and goes down super-smooth. It’s not easy listening, but it is an easy listen. It also continues BDM’s grand tradition of the last song on the record — in this case “Dawn of Rats” — being the most epic song on the record. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

10. Mr. Bungle – The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo (Ipecac)

Some would argue that Raging Wrath shouldn’t be eligible for 2020 year end lists because it is technically a re-recording of a demo from the ’80s. But I call bullshit. How many of us ever heard that demo before this? And if we did hear it, was it in any way, shape, or form actually listenable after decades of tape trading and dubbing?

In any case, Raging Wrath is, full stop, the best pure thrash album of the year. Even though no one in the band is fifteen anymore, they managed to inject this album with all the snotty fuck you-ness of an adolescent garage band. Plus, if your mind isn’t blown that there’s now a Mr. Bungle record with Dave Lombardo and Scott Ian, your mind must be dead. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

9. Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism (Century Media)

After like a bajillion years, Napalm Death are still full of piss and vinegar. A rock thrown through the window of your brain, Throes is so full of rage it’s impossible to listen to it without clenching your fists. It also seems to get better and better the more I listen to it. It’s been less than two months since its release; given another few months I think it would probably be even higher on this list. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

8. Fange – Pudeur (Throatruiner)

Oppressively heavy industrialized sludge from France that sounds kind of like a supergroup featuring members of Godflesh, Converge, and Gojira. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, I dunno, I think Five Finger Death Punch put something out this year. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

7. Krallice – Mass Cathexis (self-released)

If there were any justice in the world, there’d be a mass cathexis of Mass Cathexis, which is about as mind-melting a progressive experimental black metal album as you’re gonna hear; if you told me it was actually capable of opening portals to other planes of existence, I’d believe you. Krallice are from NYC, so it seems about right that they should so ably be able to mix druggy, jazzy showmanship with a certain hardcore je ne sais quoi. Mass Cathexis makes me feel stupid in the best possible way. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

6. Esoctrilihum – Eternity of Shaog (I, Voidhanger)

Eternity of Shaog sounds nothing like Portal, but it kind of reminds me of Portal in that I’m not 100% the artist isn’t pulling our collective leg, but it’s ultimately so awesome I’m inclined to take it seriously. Eternity of Shaog is old school black metal as created by an alien that’s been trapped in a bad LSD trip for the past fifty years. Whereas Igorrr’s Spirituality and Distortion is so impressive because it comes together so seamlessly, Shaog is amazing because the elements all remain disparate and crude, but in a way which feels totally deliberate and less chaotic than it may initially sound. Like, I imagine Esoctrilihum’s sole member, Asthâghul, is tremendously confident in his abilities as a musician, and clearly, he has a right to be. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

5. Black Crown Initiate – Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape (Century Media)

Reading, PA is just about the last place you’d expect to be the next Gothenburg or Bay Area. But between Black Crown Initiate and Rivers of Nihil, if I was in A&R, I’d be watching every goddamn metal band in that town like a hawk. Black Crown Initiate’s third album to date is also their strongest offering yet. Forward-thinking, adventurous, and bludgeoning, Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape sounds like Protest the Hero huffing Nile. And before you say “You’re just putting this so high on the list because Vince manages the band,” you should know that the only thing I get out BCI making such a great record is the music that record contains. I mean don’t get me wrong, I asked Vince for payola. But he refused to pay out, and I’m still including Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape. It’s that good. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

4. SpiritWorld – Pagan Rhythms (self-released)

In a year bereft of parties, SpiritWorld’s Pagan Rhythms became my go-to party record. That’s because it hits the sweet spot between unsociable animosity of the kind of groovy goodness that instinctively incites head bangin’ n’ bobbin’. The brainchild of Las Vegas-based artist, author, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist Stu Folsom, SpiritWorld’s deft fusion of galloping deathrash and stomping metallic hardcore may be the best of its kind since the demise of Enabler. As a bonus, proceeds from the record are donated to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, cementing its place as the feel-good feel bad release of the year. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

3. Fires in the Distance – Echoes From Deep November (Prosthetic)

Maybe the best European melodeath-doom album ever recorded by a band from Connecticut, Fires in the Distance is an appropriately foreboding East Coast soundtrack to the West Coast burning. Expertly brewing militaristic DM riffs with ethereal, melancholic synths, Echoes From Deep November is another album that inspires involuntary rhythmic movement of the neck even as it refuses to let the listener forget about the shittiness of modern human existence. Put more succinctly: it feels kinda like someone took Insomnium’s antidepressants away. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

2. Sylosis – Cycle of Suffering (NB)

I probably listened to “I Sever” more than any other single metal song this year, and almost certainly shouted “FARE THEE WELL MY AL-LY!” at random intervals with sufficient frequency to make my neighbors believe I have Tourette’s.

Of course, one great song does not an album make. But Cycle of Suffering is a total blast from start to finish. For nearly an hour, frontman Josh Middleton breaths fire while a meat grinder of corrosive guitars and walloping drums churn out strobe light riffage and hooks so sharp they won’t just get stuck in your head, they’ll impale themselves in your brain. This album is the reason I survived 2020.

1. Descend – The Deviant (Aftermath)

It’s reductive, and not wholly accurate, to describe Descend’s The Deviant as an album Opeth might have made of Opeth has stayed heavy and not gone down the Yes hippy-dippy rabbit hole. But it’s also about as good an elevator pitch as you’re gonna get for this record, and both bands are from Stockholm. So. Yeah!

The Deviant is 45 glorious minutes of EXTREMELY catchy progressive melodeath, often peppered with beautiful bits of pagan metal/folk/viking metal and, in one instance (“Wallow”), a steamy sax solo which foreshadows an equally-sexy guitar solo. Each track on The Deviant is longer than the last, and after the intro, “Avalin,” the shortest song is seven-and-a-half minutes long. Yet not a second feels wasted; each moment on The Deviant is a mouth-watering bite of grade-A steak unto itself.

Descend’s The Deviant is the reason I survived 2020.

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