A bit late, but I’ll never forget about you Shattered Lens. Happy New Year. 🙂
20. Paysage d’Hiver – Im Wald
Sample track: Alt
Like every Paysage d’Hiver album I’ve heard, Im Wald is a meaty grind that I never fully internalized. At over two hours, this one was especially difficult to soak in. So why include it? I think Wintherr is a very consistent artist. At least, he sets an atmosphere that jives well with me and achieves roughly the same mood from one release to the next, whether he’s plodding out black metal or toying around with ambient noise. I’ve got nearly his entire discography sitting around and have yet to hear something I didn’t enjoy. Das Tor was the closest I came to really appreciating one on an individual track level, but… when in doubt looking for some relatively classic BM sounds to binge in October, Paysage d’Hiver is always a good fallback, and Im Wald sustained that expectation.
I gave this entry a last second bump over Nine Altars by Primeval Mass, which deserves an honorable mention. When it comes to albums I enjoyed a lot in passing but never fully committed to, black metal is going to win me over before thrash most of the time. But my 20th slot was a bit of a toss-up.
19. Krallice – Mass Cathexis
Sample track: Mass Cathexis
An honorary placement perhaps? I’m not sure how deep my bias runs here. I have a lot of respect for what Krallice does, and they have written some of my all time favorite music. Mass Cathexis is a very experimental piece prone to meandering chaos that doesn’t always resolve in a holistically satisfying composition for me, but just seeing them continue to create interesting things gives me a lot of satisfaction. There are a lot of albums I could have put into the low end of my top 20. The positive association I have with the band beyond this particular album gave it the edge over releases in a similar boat of enjoyable but not particularly memorable to me. And the title track featuring Dave Edwardson of Neurosis is pretty sick.
18. Enslaved – Utgard
Sample track: Homebound
I binged Enslaved pretty hard this year, not just this album but in general. Utgard is definitely one of their least interesting releases to me, but as I slowly approach old fart status, it becomes increasingly more appealing to hear old bands I’ve loved for a very long time continue to release music that doesn’t suck. And this is good, so I enjoyed it, and here we are.
17. Funeral Leech – Death Meditation
Sample track: Morbid Transcendence
I have no recollection of what lead me to pick this up on bandcamp earlier this year, and it hasn’t made any big waves in the metal universe that I know of. It’s a slightly doomy death metal grinder that has never leapt out at me as bearing any particularly unique qualities, but this sort of sound has an occasional home in my play list, and for whatever imperceptible reason, this is the album I was most inclined to put on when that mood struck.
16. Emyn Muil – Afar Angathfark
Sample track: Arise in Gondolin (extended)
When you base your sound around one of the most unique bands in metal, I suppose the parallels are unavoidable, but Emyn Muil doesn’t seem to care about any sense of originality. The homage here goes a bit beyond copying a style. Black Shining Crown, for instance, directly lifts its melody from The Glory Disappears off Stronghold, and it borderline qualifies as a cover song. …Giving it a new name rather than acknowledging it as such is at least a bit awkward, but honestly, I don’t really care. Summoning is sitting pretty at my #3 most listened-to band ever, and I’ll gladly indulge a group that goes out of their way to sound exactly like them. I haven’t actually heard their earlier albums yet, but given that my favorite track on this is a reworking of Arise in Gondolin from their 2013 debut, I’m pretty optimistic. Afar Angathfark is fun and highly attuned to my tastes, if entirely unoriginal, and despite a fairly late discovery, I ended up listening to it quite a lot this year.
15. Black Sky Giant – Orbiter
Sample track: The Phobos Rider
This is the only album that made my list that I wouldn’t really classify as metal. It’s a smooth, spacey jam that gets a bit heavy at times, a bit rock and roll at others, but definitely aims for chill vibes throughout. I have no idea how I even stumbled onto it, I really never dug in to learn much about it, and the artist seems to be pretty obscure. But it’s a great night mood when I want a pulse without an edge, and it’s kept me company a fair bit in recent months.
14. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville
Sample track: City Swine
I gave Vile Luxury second place in 2018, and I don’t regret it. What made Alphaville a bit harder to process was, well, Imperial Triumphant aren’t a novelty to me anymore. That what the hell am I listening to thrill is numbed, and we’re meandering eclectic through a chaotic scene I’ve seen before. Imperial Triumphant don’t write memorable, catchy riffs. They don’t conjure a contemplative atmosphere to focus my senses and drive me along from the background. This is a barely-hanging-on jumble of harsh contrasts, discordant noise, and patchworked transitions, all quite well suited and effective for capturing their sinister portrayal of urban opulence. If I was still in hobby of writing proper album reviews, I could conjure a pretty gushing one here, but when it comes to just ranking what I’ve enjoyed listening to the most, well, there are only so many undistracted hours I can devote to one album, and that’s what Alphaville demands. In the absence of that initial novelty of their sound I experienced two years ago, I do still love this, just not quite as replayably.
13. Havukruunu – Uinuos Syömein Sota
pagan black metal
Sample track: Uinuos Syömein Sota
First impressions are misleading, and that’s why this album stands where it does. I only discovered it sorting through other people’s year end lists, and while my initial impression was very positive, it never got the time to grow or fade on me. It was really exciting to hear something fresh within the pagan bm spectrum, and I wanted to bump this up really high, but lack of an opportunity to see how it stands for me over time held it back a bit. And unlike another album I stumbled into in the closing week of December, the growth didn’t force itself on me organically through a compulsion to just keep listening to it over and over again. I suspect this will move up, but this is the spot it’s earned for me so far.
12. Finntroll – Vredesvävd
Sample track: Mask
Yep. It’s been seven years, but Finntroll have a new album, and unlike quite a few gimmicky folk metal bands of their era, they’re still pretty damn good. If you’re familiar with anything this band’s released since Visor om slutet, you won’t be in for any surprises. If you like your metal with heavy synth and a side of polka, you won’t be in for any disappointments either.
11. Cénotaphe – Monte Verità
Sample track: Aux cieux antérieurs
An energized, driving debut full length out of the black metal powerhouse that is France, Monte Verità offers a hint of viking metal and some pretty catchy riffs. Cénotaphe keep it dark but vibrant, setting a mood that has stood the test of time well for me as a background piece that keeps me energized without getting in the way. I was surprised by just how many times I’d actually listened to this when I was going through my year end options. The numbers don’t lie. This was one of my most listened to BM albums of 2020 and still feels fresh as I’m writing this.
10. Primitive Man – Immersion
Sample track: The Lifer
This was my first time hearing Primitive Man. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Caustic, but I came into Immersion with a blank slate, and I have to say I enjoyed it quite a lot. The Lifer is an awesome opening track that just instantly crushes you under the weight of this band’s sound… and then not terribly much happens for the next 36 minutes. I think you either vibe with it or you don’t. These guys drag everything out at such lengths that it sometimes feels more like a very brutalized Sunn O))) album than something in the traditional doom metal sphere. The sheer weight of their sound is unmatched by anything I’ve heard personally, and at just over half an hour, it manages to compress a slow roll into a sufficiently brief package to still have identifiable songs without requiring too attentive of a listen to process. I actually preordered this based on a few samples, and that initial appeal has managed to sustain through to the end of the year. Definitely a band I’ll continue to keep tabs on. I also stumbled into the Sweet Leaf cover of my dreams along the way.
9. Wayfarer – A Romance with Violence
atmospheric black/folk metal
Sample track: Masquerade Of The Gunslingers
It’s hard to say how much Wayfarer’s open embrace of the American west in theme and imagery preemptively colors my perception of their sound. The acoustic guitar passages certainly carry it deep into the music, but there’s something very compelling in their full package. I often find their drudging mood highly reminiscent of Drudkh from an inattentive distance–a band that similarly captures a specific folk aesthetic with fairly minimal open deference to musical tradition. Much like World’s Blood, which also finished high for me when I first discovered the band in 2018, A Romance with Violence is a difficult album for me to sit down and focus on. It’s a mood piece in which I find few memorable passages but a steady progression that can keep me passively engaged as I go about my work and let its ambience fill the void around me. It’s been one of my go-to defaults to put on when nothing else is immediately drawing me, and in that distanced capacity it has managed to rack up more plays than most this year despite an October release.
8. VoidCeremony – Entropic Reflections Continuum: Dimensional Unravel
progressive death metal
Sample track: Sacrosanct Delusions
It’s rare for a death metal album to sit this well with me in terms of plain old repeatable enjoyment, but this one really hits a sweet spot. Loaded with complex but catchy hooks and outstanding bass runs, it manages to merge brutal intensity and enough oddly timed noodling to keep my brain occupied while still feeling smooth on the edges. As someone who doesn’t listen to much death metal, it’s hard for me to make a direct comparison. The bass here sort of reminds me of Opeth’s Morningrise, not in tone but in the way it tends to flare up into a second lead adding another layer of life to the sound, making otherwise generically harsh passages feel vibrant and alluring.
7. Boris – NO
Sample track: Anti-Gone
What a triumph. I’m always hesitant to label anything my unconditional “favorite” in music. These lists are just a silly excuse to double down on exploring and sharing what I’ve enjoyed most throughout the year. But let’s be real. I’ve been doing this for two decades now, and there’s only one name that has never faded out of top ten contention into obscurity through those years. Boris is my favorite band by so many objective measures that there’s really no point in pretending they’re anything less or putting on a facade of unbiased scrutiny towards their eternal onslaught of new releases.
NO leaves its mark in their discography in the form of unrelenting energy, and that’s a pretty unusual statement for a band to make nearly 30 years into their history. It’s a sound that’s been fundamental in their repertoire from the get-go and frequently reared its head for a track or two up through Pink, but it wasn’t what made them great. Ibitsu and Furi felt like filler tracks on Akuma no Uta. There’s a lengthy stretch between Heavy Friends and Kane the Bell Tower of a Sign that I barely remember on Heavy Rocks. Boris were killing it on post-rock and doom metal and bluesy 60s rock anthems in a way that I felt overshadowed their punk inclinations before eventually branching out in every direction imaginable. NO takes it back to the punk roots hard, but with no strings attached. Especially in that post-Flood era of rock cuts, I feel like they were writing songs that built on the ideas of their predecessors. There was a sort of formula to it all, that over-the-top-distorted 60s blues aesthetic cut loose into rock and roll. By 2020, there’s really no point in comparing Boris to anyone but Boris. NO is 40 minutes of doing that thing they do with an intensity they haven’t approached in ages, and their sound has expanded so much in the interim that all of their previous punk inclinations pale in comparison.
6. Velnias – Scion of Aether
Sample track: Supernal Emergent
I saw Velnias live in 2010 opening for Alcest and was impressed enough by the performance to pick up their then only release, Sovereign Nocturnal, but I dropped the ball on ever giving it a proper listen. When Scion of Aether dropped on Bandcamp this year, something triggered a recommendation ping, and it took 30 seconds of sampling to convince me to grab a copy. They tend to be labeled folk metal of that American sort, and I definitely picked up on vibes reminiscent of Wolves in the Throne Room and Agalloch in their performance a decade ago. But this is something a bit more polished than those bands, with a grooving progressive aesthetic sometimes reminiscent of Russian Circles adorned by earthy organic tones. This album offers immersion in a primitive natural setting through the smooth brain massage of post-metal.
It was interesting finding myself placing this album so close to Wayfarer. I suspect on a superficial level they may feel very similar, but the holistic experience is completely different for me. A Romance with Violence is ideal in the background, setting the mood without getting in the way. Scion of Aether is distracting, frequently gripping my attention. A Romance with Violence is grounded and bleak. Scion of Aether is, well, a bit aethereal.
5. Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still
atmospheric death metal
Sample track: Drawn Into the Next Void
I am very hesitant to put late discoveries in my top 10. I’ve been there and laughed at myself for it enough before. First impressions can be pretty slanted, and albums with a lot of catchy riffs especially start out higher than they often end up. But this isn’t that kind of album. This is a slow grower that hooked me so fast it has accumulated a month’s worth of plays in the past seven days. I knew I was in for something special the first run through by the way its mood resonated with me. When absolutely nothing specific stands out but I still walk away feeling incredible, an album is destined to hold up well, because the familiarity will establish itself in an already highly positive context. I’ve been listening to this obsessively ever since, and every time I notice more and more detail fleshing out the massive if morbid world of sound they’re presenting. Drawn Into the Next Void’s crushing waltz is the highlight for me so far, but I don’t think I am anywhere near done exploring this album yet, and I won’t be surprised if 5th place feels too low when all is said and done.
4. Lure – Morbid Funeral
Sample track: La danse du pendu
What a find. I’ve never heard a single band on Amor Fati and stumbled into this debut demo on a lark clicking through fairly random recommendations. I think the post-black metal tag is beginning to feel dull in an era where bands that don’t take the genre some place unexpected rarely get mentioned. Fifteen years ago, I might have used it here. It’s noteworthy because Morbid Funeral has a lot of the trappings of a conventional black metal album. It’s as brilliantly raw as its French origin promises and definitely sustained by perpetual blast beats, tremolo, and unearthly howls. But it is intensely emotionally evocative in a way that characterization fails to imply. It’s a constant onslaught of gut-wrenching chord progressions paced to feel like absolute desperation which, despite the shortest track clocking at over 12 minutes, rarely breaks into anything that could be perceived as fill. The album descends down a rabbit hole of rapid-fire despair that climaxes 7 minutes into the closing track in reverse form, slamming on the breaks for the first time in half an hour to slow roll out a death knell broken bittersweet melody while B.F.S. coughs and chokes and loses his freaking mind on the microphone. La danse du pendu will inevitably be overlooked in most metal circles in 2020, but to call Lure the most promising new artist I’ve heard in a few years would be a disservice; he offered a masterpiece out the gate.
3. Liturgy – Origin of the Alimonies
Sample track: SIHEYMN’s Lament
Where do you even begin with a Liturgy album? A big step up from H.A.Q.Q. for me, which I nevertheless enjoyed, Origin of the Alimonies is yet another unique and inspired installment in a discography that’s been so persistently ahead of its time I think more people will respect this 20 years from now than do today. H.A.Q.Q. was, for all its oddities, at least a slight return to form in reinviting the project’s black metal roots into the framework. Origin of the Alimonies reaches back into the unknown, but not with the bold curiosity I adore on The Ark Work. This is a highly refined album, carried along by a narrative orchestration, the intensity flaring up in fits and starts as movements within Hunter’s esoteric tale. It’s some sort of black metal opera.
I can listen to this all day and never [i”>feel[/i”> like I’m listening to a metal album. For all its intense drumming and screams and tremolo guitar, the mood is almost intellectual. Hunter’s a pretty rare gem impervious to conformity and brilliant at articulating the the unique musical ideas in her mind, and I can easily call this my second favorite album in her discography.
2. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin kynsi
psychedelic black metal
I picked up the new Oranssi Pazuzu almost as a matter of policy. I’ve known about them since their debut and have every full length album. After a certain amount of accumulation, a band just becomes automatic. But honestly, I couldn’t have told you anything about them. I never really [i”>listened[/i”> to them, not even as a passive background piece. I dimly acknowledged that they were doing creative original things within the sphere of my metal interests, and that was good enough for me, but every release to this point was one spin and done. Going back and briefly sampling their older albums, I’m not convinced that I was missing out. Their sound is distinct, but not the sort that instantly compels me to relisten. I don’t think I’ve given their past releases enough of a fair chance to say that Mestarin kynsi is different, but my goodness did it strike me differently from the get-go.
The album kicks off with a seven minute brooding introduction that builds up an eerie mood for things to come and ultimately climaxes into a pretty groovy but still restrained dark jam that’s driven as much by electronic tones as anything conventionally metal. The restraint is key, because each track takes this same approach while growing just a little bit more unhinged. It’s a masterfully planned collective work in terms of persistently evolving through levels of linear progression. Tyhjyyden sakramentti starts off as brooding as Ilmestys, but now a bit jazzed up, with a climax that’s more intense and a further progression out of that mid-track explosion into a warped psychedelic nightmare.
This progression through levels of increasing intensity and weirdness sort of maxes out near the end of Uusi teknokratia, roughly half way through the album, and you get a sort of soft reset with its outro and the subsequent Oikeamielisten sali, which feels entirely tame after where the album had gone before. A bit of a let down at first, but it came to feel like an integral part of the journey as I grew more familiar with the album, because we’re segueing into the two most wild tracks in the mix to close things out. Kuulen ääniä maan alta is a beat-driven electronic trip that takes the album to, if not its most intense moment thus far, certainly its most bizarre and satisfying. And the closer Taivaan portti is one of those grand finales that start at 11 and cram more and more and more into a sound space that was maxed out from the get-go until it finally just collapses into nothing. That’s a whole lot of hype words that don’t really say much of anything. Just go listen to it. I also found this fantastic live performance of the album. Taivaan portti is the sort of track that’s made to be experienced live, and the video does not disappoint.
This is, essentially, my idea of a perfectly crafted album, stringing together six independently grand tracks into a master work with clear flow and vision. It’s the sort of album I can easily give 1st place to and not feel silly about later, because it appeals to me both innately and as a piece of auditory art.
1. Mystras – Castles Conquered and Reclaimed
medieval black metal
Sample track: The Zealots of Thessaloniki
Relegating Spectral Lore’s III to second place on my 2014 list was a pretty boneheaded mistake, and after a great deal of consideration, I’m going to do it again. I’m not sure why Ayloss released this under a different name, but after half a decade of ambient and electronic pieces, this is absolutely the heir to III. Years later, when I’m still listening to it regularly and have long forgotten the winner, I will once again ask myself, why necromoonyeti? Why do you botch the list every single time?
…At least, that’s where my write-up sat for the past month. Relistening to everything one last time as I prepare to post this, I’m going with the switch. I do feel Oranssi Pazuzu delivered the most complete package I heard in 2020–a visionary work that I both enjoyed tremendously and admired for its sustained attention to how each piece weaves into the album as a whole. But if the question boils down to what I loved listening to the most in 2020, there’s just no debate to be had here.
Ayloss has an absolutely unmistakable guitar style that lead me to instantly identify him in this before I realized what I’d clicked on, and the fuzzy ear candy tones he employs lend to endless repeatability. If you can imagine Ulver’s Nattens Madrigal but rounded on the edges, Ayloss’s finished products are something closer to melodic white noise than metal. It’s downright soothing, and I don’t think I’ve ever found an artist with more background play equity for me personally.
Castles Conquered and Reclaimed might be my favorite Ayloss release to date. It’s hard to say. I’ll have to see what I’m queuing first another year from now. But there is a thematic difference going on, at least to my ears, that projects this album into a medieval sphere dominated lately by Obsequiae, where III felt very other-worldly and earlier Spectral Lore albums tended to give me nature vibes. Evoking the spirits of ancient battles and temples in ruin, ghosts echoing their glory across some sunlit plain. That’s how this album translates into my brain. And if I’m getting pretty far afield in fantasy land here, it must be a pretty unique composition to be able to take me there.
Previous years on Shattered Lens: