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Vince Neilstein’s Top Fifteen Metal Albums of 2020

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Screw “objective” analysis: these are the 15 metal records I enjoyed the most over the past year, my favorites! Whether you think my list is full of the usual suspects or with more “underground” acts depends entirely on your own relationship with them, but my hope is that either way you’ll find at least a couple of albums here to love that you missed the first time.

Onward…

15. Glorious Depravity – Ageless Violence (Translation Loss)

Ageless Violence largely slipped under the radar of the deathmetalsphere upon its release last week, and that’s a damn shame: it may be the best pure death metal record of 2020. Featuring members of Pyrrhon, Woe, and Mutilation Rites, the band’s genetic makeup is sound, but we all know what looks good on paper doesn’t always manifest the way we hope. Fortunately this particular group delivered, and they delivered bigly; Ageless Violence is a masterclass in ’90s death metal worship — which the band openly admits — a feat many a metal musician has attempted, but at which few have succeeded at doing this well.

14. Dool – Summerland (Prophecy)

Dool’s 2017 album, Here Now, There Then, placed at #9 on my best-of list that year, but don’t let the slightly lower ranking for their latest effort deter you: Dool are still at the top of their game, cranking out dark and heavy jams that are eminently singable. Ryanne van Dorst (ex-The Devil’s Blood) is a treasure, a singular talent; seeing her front Dool at Hellfest in 2019 is an experience I won’t soon forget, an absolutely electrifying stage presence. Truthfully, I really ought to spend more time with this album… check back with me in a month and maybe I’ll say I should’ve ranked it higher. This band is so frickin’ good: pay attention!

13. Sylosis – Cycle of Suffering (NB)

No disrespect to Architects — not really my thing, although many folks seem to dig them — but Josh Middleton’s insane level of talent is wasting away over there in generic metalcore land. He could be giving us a new Sylosis record every year, a record as powerful, captivating and expertly-crafted as Cycle of Suffering — shit, that applies to ALL of Sylosis’ albums! — but instead the poor guy’s gotta get paid. That’s understandable — I’m being selfish, obviously — and it’s the same reason this site published 123 articles about Corey Taylor this year (just a guess, maybe more) and only three about Sylosis. But man, Josh Fucking Middleton! An absolute metal all star, one of the most skilled and focused musicians in the scene today.

12. Insect Ark – The Vanishing (Profound Lore)

MetalSucks commenter UmphreysRocks summarized Insect Ark’s The Vanishing as “a really, really dark version of Russian Circles” when I covered the record back in March, a description I like because it’s so immediate. Boiling a band down to “a more X version of [other band]” is reductive, of course, and Insect Ark are a whole lot more — atmospheric, morose, unsettling, jarring, uncomfortable, and a tad proggy — so check out “Tectonic” below in the event you didn’t catch this record when it came out in the Before Times.

11. Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better? (Translation Loss)

I had no idea I needed an album of atmospheric post-hardcore this year, but it turns out I really, really did. When When I Die, Will I Get Better? finally came out after weeks of teasing through its promising initial singles, I hit play, let it ride, and I couldn’t get enough… three times in a row! I simply couldn’t tear myself away. In an age when there’s exponentially more music available to consumers than ever before, this one truly stuck with me, from the lush guitar layering to saturated production to wrenching and refreshingly honest tales of emotional distress.

10. Intronaut – Fluid Existenial Inversions (Metal Blade)

Intronaut have never put out a bad record, or even a mediocre one; they’re all somewhere on the scale of good to great, and the only question going into any new release is which of those two superlatives will apply. Time is a friend to creativity for most metal bands, and the five years Intronaut took between albums only helped them refine the riffs, tones and rhythms on what would end up being Fluid Existenial Inversions, which falls firmly into “great” territory. (I felt the same way about The Direction of Last Things in 2015).

9. Völur – Death Cult (Prophecy)

There are clearly billions and billions of dollars in the burgeoning psych-doom scene, so I decided to take on the three jazz freaks in Völur for management this year. Thankfully they rewarded me with a killer album of lush, expertly assembled, violin-led doom madness — going from structure to chaos and back again without you even feeling it happen — a rare balm for my pandemic-scorched soul in this hellscape of a year.

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

I tried to bribe Axl into putting Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape higher on his year-end list in an effort to boost the millions of dollars I made from managing this band through their third full length album’s release into billions. My efforts failed. Defeated and sulking, without his badge of approval, I decided I couldn’t possibly rank it higher than he did, hence this #6 spot to his #5. Thankfully the music thereon is some of the best the progressive death metal band has ever written — I’ve been a fan of these guys since way back in 2013, seven years before my managerial gig kicked in — so I don’t even need his approval, or yours. Take that!

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

I say the following as a longtime passive fan of The Black Dahlia Murder: I don’t believe an album of theirs has ever ended up on my year end list before this one. The difference on Verminous is the guitar work, with otherworldly riffs and cosmic solos courtesy of longtime musical mastermind Brian Eschbach and lead shredder Brandon Ellis, who we hear truly flexing here for the first time in TBDM. Verminous isn’t just a shred-fest, though, it’s a full-band effort with memorable songs through and through.

6. Oceans of Slumber – Oceans of Slumber (Century)

The Banished Heart caught my ear in 2018 enough to land the #10 spot on my year-end list, so it’s been both encouraging and vindicating to watch this band take the metal world by storm with their latest self-titled affair. At once melancholic, morose and full of dynamic and nuance, I only expect Oceans of Slumbers to continue their upward trajectory in the years to come.

5. Ozzy Osbourne – Ordinary Man (Epic)

He fuckin’ did it, right? Who could’ve possibly seen this coming after a series of less-than-mediocre albums in recent years? Sure, “did it” is relative — we really have producer/writer Andrew Watt to thank for, well, pretty much everything about this album — but I don’t think we should sell short Ozzy’s knack for knowing a good song when he hears one, for knowing his way around a vocal hook, and for choosing Watt as a collaborator in the first place. A stunning return to form, especially in light of the pile of shit Ozzy has faced health-wise the past couple of years.

4. The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic (Nuclear Blast)

Praise be David Andersson! Dude is such a talented hook architect he should be hoisting steel storage containers onto cargo ships destined for the high seas. It’s gotten to the point where The Night Flight Orchestra have such a rock solid catalogue full of unstoppable jams that I’d rather listen to those than the AOR artists that inspired them. Incredible that he has basically single-handedly made AOR cool again and introduced an entire new generation (generations, even!) to its magic, together with Björn “Speed” Strid’s iconic voice, and the other members, too, whose impact on the band’s sound I’m surely selling short.

3. Girish and the Chronicles – Rock the Highway (Lion’s Pride)

I laughed when I first saw the music video for “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay,” whatwith its five young long-hairs doing their absolute best Skid Row / Slaughter / Saigon Kick impersonations amongst architectural ruins somewhere in the Indian desert. But my mindset quickly shifted, as it only took me a minute to realize that not only are these guys completely serious — this isn’t a spoof — they’re really fucking good at it. No band from anywhere in the world has done this solid of a job recreating the magic of late ’80s / early ’90s hair metal since, well, those bands first did it! Rock the Highway has jams for days; you’re already singing along, every song!

2. Poppy – I Disagree (Sumerian)

I’m certainly not the only metal fan with some misgivings about Poppy’s full crossover into metal — she has become quite the lightning rod — but I’m likely one of the few who feel that way specifically because I was such a big fan of the dance pop on her previous record, Am I a Girl? She did an absolutely fantastic job on I Disagree, though, putting her own instantly identifiable idiosyncrasies on top of an expertly crafted metal record, with sprinkles of her former self thrown in. Poppy has become a brand, a player, a force, and if the audience at the February concert I attended is any indication (one of my last before the world ended), she’s done it by assembling a faction of fans from all across the musical spectrum.

1. Unleash the Archers – Abyss (Napalm)

No band captured the metal world’s attention more in 2020 than Unleash the Archers. From the moment the video for the title track dropped in June (it has since amassed over 2 million views), it was destiny: there was just something different about this band, this record, this time, that would allow them to step out from under the shadow of “power metal” and into the metal world at large. So many folks first discovered Unleash the Archers on Abyss, their fifth album, that I hope the band members aren’t surprised how few people seem to know the old stuff very well when they play it live. Abyss is perfect, start to finish, a year-defining album, and maybe even a generational one if Unleash the Archers play their cards right. Congratulations to everyone in the band for all of this album’s success!

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