20. Black Curse – Endless Wound (Sepulchral Voice)
In 2015 members of acclaimed acts Primitive Man, Khemmis, and Blood Incantation discussed their love for the early days of extreme metal. That was the time when the lines between black and death metal were blurred, both reveling in an evil spirited nature. The result of this meeting was Malibis, which soon evolved into Black Curse and release debut record
It is a tempest from the past that greets you as the sharp guitar feedback erupts into a venomous onslaught of war metal grandeur in “Charnel Rift”. The fast pace leaves nothing standing in its path as blast beats and double bass merge with the frenzied riffage for a devastating assault. Yet, Black Curse does not possess a singular gear, and soon, they bend this chaotic structure, awakening a deeply dissonant and disturbing interlude. With a similarly apt attitude, they drop the pace, giving birth to moments of towering majesty in the interlude “Lifeless Sanctum”, carrying on this monstrous form in the second half of the title track.
And while through the 38 minutes of
Endless Wound they tick all the boxes for old school black/death, what shines through is the attitude and deep appreciation of the style. It is exactly that quality that makes tracks like “Finality I Behold” sound truly damned and evil, instead of simply cliché and rehashed. – Spyros Stasis
19. Megaton Sword – Blood Hails Steel (Dying Victims Productions)
Listening to Swiss quartet Megaton Sword’s full-length debut for the first time brought me back to my early forays in metal music when each record was a small new world unto itself just waiting to be discovered. Discographies of (proto) epic heavy metal stalwarts like Saxon, Manilla Road, and Manowar were a special pleasure of mine at the time, with their huge riffs and over-the-top delivery providing gateways for the exploration of the broader universe of metal.
In this context, Blood Hails Steel – Steel Hails Fire is an instant classic, as it could have existed along with the defining works of those pioneers during the heyday of the genre, and be counted as a proper gem. But it is also an album that sounds equally strong in today’s metal scene. While it’s meaty riffs, galloping rhythms, nifty songwriting, gruff vocal delivery, and grandiose atmosphere carry a certain vintage patina, the music here is all the better for it. Thanks to their pure and simple understanding of the genre and its influences, Megaton Sword have created one of the best (epic) heavy metal releases in recent years. – Antonio Poscic
18. Kevel – Mutatis, Mutandis (I, Voidhanger)
Kevel approach post-metal as an ever-expanding jigsaw puzzle. And as they have based their core and foundations on much of the genre’s principles, they are constantly looking to expand further. The ethereal weavings of progressive sludge crush against the eerie blackened sense in opener “Of Being”, the lead guitars constantly moving through dissonant means while drums erratically switch the narrative from majestically ceremonial to full-blown chaos. The incorporation of a vocalist was another missing piece that Kevel have addressed, able to increase the inherent angst and unpredictability of “The Apophatic ” or awaken the mystical essence of psychedelic overture moments like “Terraforming”.
Traveling further towards outer space, Kevel brilliantly fit their hazy psych-rock movements, altering the weight of their sludge core to deliver stunning moments of overwhelming grandeur in “Cosmic Domination” and “Utopia Planitia”. Still, what separates Mutatis Mutandis is the level of craftsmanship that Kevel have put into this work. The complex structures and furious advances, the fluency of their long-form compositions are perfectly encapsulated throughout the duration of Mutatis Mutandis. A gem brightly shining through the mirk underground. – Spyros Stasis
17. Spirit Adrift – Enlightened in Eternity (20 Buck Spin)
Spirit Adrift’s dedication to the heavy metal sound transcends decades. The introduction of “Ride Into The Light” captures the essence of NWOBM, as the sharp riffs combine with the blistering lead work and a tremendous pace dictated by drummer Marcus Bryant. From this 1980s-induced vision, Spirit Adrift travel further back in time to the 1970s with “Astral Levitation” ever so slightly letting go of their pedal to the metal mentality for a beautifully crafted, verging on the progressive composition. Full-on outbreaks of energy provide an injection of rush and purpose as the likes of “Cosmic Conquest” and “Stronger Than Your Pain” unfold, while the epic undercurrent rushes to the surface in the fluid “Screaming From Beyond” and the spiraling “Battle High”.
Spreading exquisite hooks, powerful choruses, and memorable melodies act as powerful earworms, but that does not mean that Spirit Adrift display a superficiality to their compositions. Performing a deep dive with the ten-minute-long opus “Reunited in the Void” showcases their ambitious side, beautifully concluding the record. Once more Spirit Adrift have outdone themselves, the pristine production of Enlightened in Eternity allows their ideas to shine more clearly, and given their prolific output so far, we can hope that they will continue to do so in the near future. – Spyros Stasis
16. Primitive Man – Immersion (Relapse)
Dark and twisted, crushing, overwhelming, and all-consuming. That is the reality for Primitive Man, for the band from Colorado has made a point to weaponize doom and sludge, noise, and power electronics to maximum effect. This much was certain from the release of their debut record Scorn in 2013. Since then, Primitive Man have been on a path of destruction, collaborating with fellow travelers in Northless, Sea Bastard, Hell, and the mighty Unearthly Trance. This spring of productivity has resulted in the exquisite Home Is Where The Hatred Is EP and the punishing Caustic, with the trio now returning with renewed brutality in Immersion.
The primal sense and the animalistic attitude take form, with “The Lifer” coming into view in a darkened cloak through a mist of noise. Harsh feedback, glacial pace, brutally low vocals greet in this domain of despair as Primitive Man deliver a recital of punishment and anguish. Everything is piercing and cruel, as the howling guitars of “Entity” revolve in a spiraling fashion for the entirety of the track to build this otherworldly, verging on the psychedelic, sense. And this is a trip that has gone horribly wrong, as Primitive Man navigate through all this awe-inspiring weight through the processional progression of “Foul”, the synthetic corridors of “∞” and finally closing this savage listen with a sadistic pinnacle in “Consumption”. – Spyros Stasis
15. Wake – Devouring Ruin (Translation Loss)
While Calgary’s Wake started as a pretty accomplished grindcore band about a decade ago, it was 2018’s Misery Rites that redefined their style into something special. Suddenly, there were elements of death, black, and doom metal breaking up grindcore attacks, orchestrated in interesting but never tedious ways that underlined their heavy themes and lyricism.
Devouring Ruin moves even further in the direction hinted at by the previous record, as strains of various extreme metal subgenres become more prominent and important in their music. Bouts of blazing grindcore and death metal blasts make way for sonically spacier, yet emotionally rousing segments of doom metal, before finally launching into twin-guitar harmonies that leave traces of hope behind. While occasionally overwhelming, this fusion of styles is compact and executed impeccably, and always with a holistic approach in mind. This holds true even as “Torchbearer”—one of the best metal songs of the year—spends ten minutes shuffling from style to style and delivering blow after blow of mind-crushing riffs, drum hits, and growls, only to go up in flames of hardcore furor. – Antonio Poscic
14. Pyrrhon – Abscess Time (Willowtip)
One of the iconoclasts, New York’s Pyrrhon have always defied guidelines and norms, instead chose to bend the rules and always pave their own path towards the technical death metal pantheon. An Excellent Servant But a Terrible Master, The Mother of Virtues and the insane What Passes for Survival, have all highlighted the unconventional methodology of Pyrrhon. Technical death metal for them is not defined by strict instructions regarding technical aptitude and endless aggression; it is about experimentation and openness. That remains true for their latest offering in Abscess Time.
The title track immediately presents Pyrrhon’s deconstructed view. The pace is glacial, slower than death itself. Yet, all the ideas remain extremely complex, the beat constantly eluding, the guitars spiraling out of control with their dissonant touch. It is almost as if Pyrrhon are moving towards a strange drone trajectory before they unleash something more in-your-face with “Down at Liberty Ashes”. A meticulous progression that constantly twists and turns in unpredictable fashion while the cacophony of the guitar solos creates pure havoc. No matter the state, be it slow and epic, fast and unforgiving, or taking on heavier groove elements, Abscess Time does not hinder any domain. It is the accumulation of all elements that make forward-thinking and innovative death metal so thrilling and intoxicating. – Spyros Stasis
13. Haken – Virus (InsideOut Records)
One of the defining characteristics of Haken’s flavor of prog metal has always been the ability to combine progressive metal’s technical prowess and compositional meanderings with harder metallic attacks and the effervescence of art-pop. While the DNA of these elements has changed over time as their sound adopted an edgier attack, the relationship between individual stylistic strains has remained in balance.
In the context of the London group’s career, Virus continues where Vector left off, fully immersed in djent but completely aware of the road that brought them where they are today. Simultaneously complex and tuneful, the album moves elegantly and imperceptibly from grooves to soaring choruses, and from surprisingly heavy, chugging sections to balladry that feels earned and essential, not a shoehorned filler.
Thanks to the brilliant songwriting and musical inventiveness that glues all of these elements together, Virus becomes a nearly flawless record. A harmonious work of prog metal that is also wickedly smart in its use of extra-musical elements, self-references, and ties to earlier recordings, but one that thrives on advancing both sonic and lyrical narratives. The bottom line is straightforward: Haken have crafted not only the best prog metal album of 2020 but the most well-rounded album of their already magnificent career. – Antonio Poscic
12. Thou and Emma Ruth Randle – May Our Chambers Be Full (Sacred Bones)
Some might think that combining these two forces would be like trying to mix oil and water, the elements failing to coalesce pushing away from one another. Yet, May Our Chambers Be Full is nothing if not cohesive, without either Rundle or Thou having to sacrifice part of their identity. Finding a common denominator, indulging for the psychedelic, “The Killing Floor” expands through clouds of surrounding feedback, subtle melodies rising through its mists. Yet, it is when Rundle’s melodic delivery combines with Bryan Funck’s subliminal growls that everything falls into place. Dissonance and harmony meet in this strange place, both persisting, neither shying away from its counterpart and combining to a stunning emotive peak.
The heavy grooves build a monumental pace with “Out of Existence” before the progression takes a turn for the subtler, sparse leads paving the way for Rundle’s epic conclusion. More impressive is the complete coalition of these two worlds with “Ancestral Recall”, contrasting moments of sludge superiority in “Monolith” and “Magickal Cost”. Yet, it is the closer, “The Valley”, that perfectly encapsulates this work. It brings a strong ending with Rundle beautifully dominating for most of its duration in an emotive ballad-inspired approach, before Thou’s heavy onslaught abruptly concludes this work. In this aftermath, the idea of Emma Ruth Rundle collaborating with Thou doesn’t sound bizarre; it like the most obvious thought anyone has ever had. – Spyros Stasis
11. Faceless Burial – Speciation (Dark Descent Records)
If Incantation’s excellent Sect of Vile Divinities represented death metal’s still vibrant old guard in 2020, then Faceless Burial emerged as their rightful heirs with Speciation, a sonic monument built in the honor and written in the image of all strains of death metal that came before. Incredibly varied and technically complex, the Melbourne trio’s second LP sheds tempos and riffs continually, slithering and tempting like a snake on desert sand, combining visceral brutality with magnificent virtuosity.
One needs to look no further than the opening “Worship”, where they traverse the space between Dying Fetus’s impactful grindcore and Gorguts inspired chaos of discord in a matter of seconds, breaking everything up with chunks of Cryptopsy’s brutal technical death metal. With nearly no peers, apart from equally inventive groups like Blood Incantation and Tomb Mold, Faceless Burial have created a masterpiece of death metal and one of the best death metal records of the year. – Antonio Poscic
10. Wayfarer – A Romance With Violence (Profound Lore)
Now on their fourth record, A Romance With Violence and Wayfarer are perfecting their vision. The raw days of Children of Iron gave way to intricate compositions in Old Souls like the majestic “Old Souls’ New Dawn” gathering the lifeblood for what would be their finest moment in World’s Blood. Now, this is surpassed once more, as Wayfarer bring a record with a much more graphic essence. Opener “The Curtain Pulls Back” effortlessly transfers you back in time, the scenery is of course the American frontier in all its majestically beautiful and at the same time brutal manifestation.
This is exactly where Wayfarer stands as “The Crimson Rider” unfolds, bouncing between the traditional extreme sense of black metal and its melodic side. Violent outbreaks intertwine with epic soundscapes, building this intriguing narrative. Here, the Americana touch arrives with its distinct twang transforming the black metal notions with its defiant structure, as with the main theme of “The Iron Horse”, or offering respite from the polemics of “Masquerade of Gunslingers” with a retreat to an acoustic shelter. Then it can dictate the entire of a track, as is the case with the excellent closer “Vaudeville”, lending a romantic touch to its black metal edge. It’s Wayfarer’s ability to combine the black metal tradition and the Americana spirit that has made their sound so exceptional, and it has now produced their finest work to date. – Spyros Stasis
9. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin kynsi (Nuclear Blast)
While in 2020 heralded a string of bands like Aara, Valdrin, and Helfró adept in commanding black metal idioms into musically gorgeous directions, Finnish shamans Oranssi Pazuzu remained the absolute masters at exploding them into rituals of galactic vastness.Mestarin kynsi is another step towards a field of metal just their own, at times so strange that it appears to lose all substance and turns into a nebula of sound. In this bizarre and perverted microcosm, the spaced-out space rock of Acid Mothers Temple meets the roughness of extreme metal to create more expansive and hypnotic textural landscapes. And with each note, break, and progression that pushes Oranssi Pazuzu away from traditional genre identifiers, Mestarin kynsi approaches a near-masterpiece of existential metal. – Antonio Poscic
8. Expander – Neuropunk Boostergang (Profound Lore)
Metal-punk? Neuropunk? Re-thrash? Some other strained neologism. But who the hell cares. Whatever wacky moniker you want to name their style, the Texan quartet Expander have quite simply delivered a glimpse into the future of thrash and metal for a world that has no future. And in that bright tomorrow that might never come for the human race, this ungodly concoction of dissonant guitar stunts, huge beats driven at the speed of light, and mind-bashing vocal assaults underlined by retro-futuristic electronic effects will perhaps be worshipped by a race of robots instead. As a reminder of the silly meatbags that created them but didn’t deserve to live. Listen to Neuropunk Boostergang before your face is melted away. – Antonio Poscic
7. Old Man Gloom – Seminar VIII: Light of Meaning/Seminar IX: Darkness of Being (Profound Lore)
The dual records of Seminar VIII and Seminar IX, arrive to solidify the polymorphic nature of Old Man Gloom further. Usually, so-called supergroups take a safe path, relying on works of the past and attributes of the individual members’ style instead of breaking new ground. Nothing could be further from the truth for Old Man Gloom. Seminars VIII and IX are ambitious to the core, featuring the whole array of influences and sounds that made Christmas, Ape of God and NO such excellent works.
Noise soundscapes, oscillators rising from the deep, and the ambient leanings collide with the intrinsic doom nature, as heavy, monolithic riffs extend through extreme distortion to unfathomable heights. Ambient tendencies morphing into aggressive and energetic onslaughts, a primal essence rising through a doom and sludge lineage. Eerie tones and psychedelia merge, and clean vocals and distortion beautifully combined to deliver epic and emotives crescendos, through scenery reminiscent of an industrialized hell.
Throughout their existence Old Man Gloom have done everything they could think of to come off as tricksters, playing pranks and relying on unconventional tricks, making fools out of all of us. But, the biggest trick they have managed to play is making everyone pay more attention to their quirks and non-conventional behavior instead of looking into the actual quality of their records. Both Light of Meaning and Darkness of Being are stellar works that encompass the best elements of modern extreme music. Despite all of Old Man Gloom’s efforts to shy away from that, that much is obvious. – Spyros Stasis
6. Neptunian Maximalism – Éons (I, Voidhanger Records)
Where does one even begin in describing the genre and eon spanning work of Neptunian Maximalism? The project, or “community of cultural engineers”, launched by multi-instrumentalist Guillaume Cazalet took only two years from their inception to reach what is a defining work in their career and one of 2020’s most impressive releases in both breadth and scale. Throughout its two hours,Éons is epic in the truest sense of the word. It first eclipses the boundaries of metal. Then it creates and bridges the divide between Sunn O))) inspired drones, free jazz freakouts infused with the raw ferocity of Peter Brötzmann, and psychedelic, folk-laden krautrock akin to what German progressive legends Embryo used to release in the mid-’90s.
The music is as sprawling and ambitious as the album’s thematic framework—one dealing with the end of Anthropocene and the onset of the Earthly domination of elephants—yet feels incredibly light, emerging from spaces and rituals of spiritual balance. A true masterpiece. – Antonio Poscic
5. Ulthar – Providence (20 Buck Spin)
Erratic and unpredictable. While the black/death brew of Bay Area’s Ulthar are defined by the old-school spirit and its retro element, it is these two characteristics that set them apart. Founded in 2014 by members of Mastery, Void Omnia, and Vastum, Ulthar unleashed their tentacle-like progression in full force with their 2018 debut Cosmovore. A multifaceted assault from all directions unveiled an adversary essence, set to achieve complete devastation. And it is exactly this same drive that propels them to new heights with Providence.
Proto-death metal, thrash infusions greet you at the door with “Churn”, as Ulthar open up their Lovecraft-ian realm to all who dare listen. The schizoid element, beautifully captured by the maniacal riffs and the rapid vocal delivery, build an impressive portal, a pedal to the metal attitude. Surprises are still welcome as Ulthar opens up “Undying Spear” with an acoustic passage, before once more plunging to their blackened mania. It is the layers of this work that define its depth, as Ulthar go the extra mile in meticulously constructing this world. Everything has its place in their palace, from the dark ambient interludes of “Through Downward Dynasties” to the black metal howls of “Furnace Hibernation” and the doom processions of closer “Humanoid Knot”. –Spyros Stasis
4. Duma – Duma (Nyege Nyege Tapes)
The debut by Kenyan duo Duma (“darkness” in Kikuyu) is one of the strangest pieces of art released in 2020. Within itself it carries a fusion of styles that is difficult to distill into words or a single genre. While “grindcore” might be the first association for the rhythmically driven and dark work of Sam Karugu and Martin Khanja (Lord Spike Heart), any expectations or points of reference are destroyed in the first ten seconds of Duma‘s opener “Angels and Abysses.”
Blast beats excavated from an 808 drum machine and possessed by impish demons, reverberating synths distorted beyond recognition, conga drum hits that drift between the synthetic and the organic, and waves of angry gray noise form a vast bedrock for Khanja’s dissolved screams, shrieks, and growls. This bizarre medley sounds like a hypnagogic idea of grindcore deconstructed and then reassembled in dream space, roaming down a staggered and staggering path. What’s real and what’s not becomes a pointless question here.
Equally indebted to various strains of metal and electronic music—from death and grindcore to EDM, gqom, and singeli—Duma ultimately lives in all of these genres and none of them at all, combining and recombining their elements at will to create glorious music that could easily belong to a distant future. – Antonio Poscic
3. Paysage d’Hiver – Im Wald (Kunsthall Produktionen)
With Paysage d’Hiver, Wroth of legendary Swiss cosmic black metal act Darkspace, offers a different type of drive. Where Darkspace’s gaze was always fixed on the cosmos, Paysage d’Hiver is instead looking to the chthonian. This is not a tale that travels through the darkened void, exploring its vast majesty and untold terror. No, this is a story bound to the cold earth, navigating through dark forests amid the heartless winter. Wroth provides a plethora of interpretations for this imagery, through cataclysmic assaults of fury and purpose with opener “Im Winterwald” or through dark ambient passages that explore the vast mysteries of this Earth, as in “Verweilen” and “Wurzel”.
Without fear, Paysage d’Hiver take their time exploring this world they have built, the long-form tracks allowing for a meticulous and complete investigation of this harsh reality through its textural qualities and moods. The switches of perspective are perfect, rising from the ambient abyss in true fury with “Ueber den Baeumen”, or taking on a majestic leaning of epic quality with “La Reve Lucide”, and even traveling to the underworld in a funeral-esque progression with “Weiter Immer Weiter”. Im Wald is a masterful work, tapping into all that black metal has to offer, relying on the atmospherics and the raw vibe, the grand and the minimal using the textures to build the world and the progression to dictate the narrative. A true opus. – Spyros Stasis
2. SUMAC – May You Be Held (Thrill Jockey)
On their fourth full-length, Sumac carry on their mixing of sludge, post-metal, free-rock, and abstract ambient motifs. In true noise form, the record rears its ugly head with “A Prayer for Your Path”, slowly setting its darkened ambiance. Then, what ensues brings to mind Sumac at their most furious, with the repetitive barrage of heavy basslines and fluid drumming coming full force with “May You Be Held”. It’s an exhilarating listen that reawakens the sludgecore in triumphant form before the free rock interlude arrives. Losing themselves in their guitar exploration, combining the heavy post-metal side and their noise-rock affection, Sumac assemble a magnificent long-form overture that ends in drone devastation, as the full force of the rhythm section explodes, crushing it all to smithereens.
It’s this ability to incorporate their different sides together that makes May You Be Held stand apart. While Love in Shadow forced this union between free rock improvisation and sludge tradition, May You Be Held allows for these two elements to fall into place seamlessly. It’s this absolute harmony between all the parts of the Sumac machine that make the extravagant experimentation of “The Iron Chair”, the navigation of noise spaces, the hardcore explosions of “Consumed”, and the ambient solitude of “Laughter and Silence” so devastating and mesmerizing. – Spyros Stasis
1. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville (Century Media Records)
If the New York avant-black trio’s 2018 masterpiece Vile Luxury was a serenade for the coming apocalypse, then Alphaville is a vision of the world that survives it. Simultaneously wildly grotesque and painfully sobering, the album collapses the possible states of Western society—its good, bad, and ugly pasts, presents, and futures—into a superimposed destiny. In this tentative tomorrow, the debauchery of late-stage capitalism meshes with the quiet beauty found on the outskirts of post-digital existence.
These changes in scenery and ambiance make the music less direct and explicitly grandiose. Instead, the trio opt for touches of groveling, slowed down eccentricities akin to the permutations of Virus or Howls of Ebb, and place them amidst menacing syncopations. Resurfacing with anger, they release Gorguts-like dissonant squeals into the ether and come close to inventing Zeuhl metal during crucial segments of full-on jazz that buckle under the grandeur of their instrumentation.
Out of everything Imperial Triumphant have recorded, Alphaville is the most obvious example of how contemporary and avant-jazz’s idioms and aesthetics have influenced the band, infecting it with a sense of freedom. A boldness that allows them to reach for elements of augmented field recordings and found sounds. A unique album from a unique group. – Antonio Poscic