Friday, January 1, 2021
BH AWARDS 2020 AND MISCELLANEOUS NONSENSE
Hey guys, you know what time it is! I've been doing this for too long now, as this is the 11th AOTY list I've posted to this blog (and they started as "unofficial" forum posts on a long-dead board back in 2005 or so so really I've been doing this for half my life now) and I just want to say thank you all for sticking with me as long as y'all have. I put zero effort into promoting myself either here or at MA (where I started writing and where most of you know me from) so the fact that I have people willing to listen to whatever bullshit I have to say warms my cockles. Thank you all. I know it'd be the obvious cliche to talk about how much 2020 sucked as a year, but I'm only going to mention it in passing to explain that due to how awful the year was, I actually spent way less time listening to music at work (where I tend to do it) and instead focused mostly on podcasts and audiobooks for most of the year. As a result, sometime around mid November I had realized I only heard like seven or eight albums that I even liked, so most of the last six weeks has seen me blitzing to check out everything I missed and get my list ready. As a result, this is probably my least solid AOTY list in a long time, based purely on the fact that many albums haven't had time to grow on me and many of the ones that had a strong first impression didn't have time to fall off if they were going to. So when 2030 rolls around and the next Album of the Decade list goes up, you can expect a lot of these to not return. Sorry I dropped the ball for y'all this year, but I'm only human. Either way, it's time for!
THE TOP 13 ALBUMS OF 2020
Y'all know the rule: full lengths only. I dropped the "metal only" requirement years ago but the list tends to stay 100% metal anyway just by virtue of my listening habits. Anyway lets get on with it!
I briefly rememberGaerea being promising a few years ago with Unsettling Whispers in 2018. That debut took black metal and mixed it with the nasty heaviness of sludge, and while it's initially kind of disappointing that they've become much more "normal" BM on Limbo, it's pretty quickly washed away simply by the virtue of how much better the songs themselves are this time around. This is a very caustic and overwhelming album with an incongruent atmosphere of catharsis. Every track here feels like taking the wakizashi to your gut and letting your demons spill out on the floor. I'm hearing a lot of similarities to Mgla here but with a lot less malice involved. It tends to hit the same mood over and over for the entire runtime but this is a case where that works marvelously because it's overwhelming in a good, artistic way.
I can't explain this album for the life of me. On one hand it kinda sucks. It feels much longer than it is, it focuses very heavily on groove elements in conjunction with melodeath, perfectly playing one of the least exciting and most entry-level styles of metal on the surface, the production is very punchy but is so mechanized and inhuman that it lacks any real sense of danger, et cetera. On the other hand, I can't stop fucking listening to it and have come back to it like a dozen times since the summer so it must be doing something right. Nija sounds like what I thought Fear Factory sounded like based on description alone, or alternatively like Scar Symmetry if they had more going for them besides a great vocalist. Any album with tracks as devastating as "At the Front" or "Open Eye" is going to be a hit with me, full stop.
While it didn't rank at the time, I really enjoyed Jordablod's debut, Upon My Cremation Pyre. It took the discordant, DSO styled-jangleblack and played it with both feet firmly planted on the ground, with much less incomprehensible experimentation and ultimately sounded like one of the few albums in the niche created by humans. The Cabinet of Numinous Song completely throws that out the window and spends the lion's share of the runtime experimenting with noisy ambient soundscapes. It's by no means an "ambient" or "noise" album, but both of those influences are definitely here, intertwined beautifully with both chaotic and downbeat dissonant black metal straight from the void. "The Two Wings of Becoming" is great black metal, while the title track is mostly noise accompanied by a guitar that sounds like a screaming baby.
I so badly want Vader to stop appearing on these lists so I can stick to my ageist bullshit about classic bands needing to move on so new blood can keep the genre alive and exciting, but fuck man, Vader just can't physically stop themselves from kicking ass. This is more Tibi et Igni than The Empire, basically meaning that this is full steam ahead from the word go and stays consistently wicked. You'd think that after 30+ years they'd've slowed down at least a little bit, but no. Vader sounds just as hungry and vicious as they did in 1995 and that's unbelievable to me. Piotr is in his mid 50s how the fuck is he still this fast and angry? To still routinely pump out songs as wild and nasty as "Shock and Awe" is nearly criminal. As long as Vader lives, classic death metal will never truly die.
And now for the total opposite, my hometown heroes strike once again with yet another totally underappreciated delight of classic metal. I've once heard High Spirits described as "as light as you can get while still being undeniably metal", and while that's less true in a post-Tanith/Wytch Hazel world, they still reign supreme to me in this niche of "light metal" or whatever you want to call it. Their sound is so uplifting, unthreatening, and easy to listen to that they manage to strike a crossover into basically every other fandom within metal, and somehow they still haven't broken out as one of the "big names" in the scene. Hard to Stop is something that both a bearded extreme metal freak like myself and my dad who liked AC/DC in the 70s can rock out to together, and dammit isn't metal supposed to be all about bringing people together?
I am eternally thankful for Pest Productions for all the work they do signal boosting Chinese bands. I've always had a fascination with bands from there since it's weird to see the most populous country so wildly underrepresented in the world of metal. It's thanks to them I've been able to hear great bands like Black Kirin, Holyarrow, Skeletal Augury, and now, Vengeful Spectre. These guys have a flavor of Chinese folk in here thanks to the cool howly/whistly instruments, but the real appeal to me is how suffocatingly dense this record is. You could just flippantly describe this self titled as "just" meloblack, but the fact that every song has like two hundred riffs in them and the intensity stays so high, even during the slow parts, is out of this world. "Rainy Night Carnage" and "Wailing Wrath" are legitimately two of my favorite songs on the year.
Oranssi Pazuzu is one of the bigger names in black metal right now and for whatever reason I just never really gave them the time of day until this year. Most people I've talked to have pegged this as their least good album but really that just tells me that I have one hell of an incredible backlog to sift through. Mestarin kynsi scratches the exact same itch for me that Sigh scratched in their weird middle era. The occasional blasts of intensity that cut through the downbeat electronics and psychedelic soundscapes is exactly what I've been missing out of one of my old favorites since In Somniphobia. Sigh likely isn't the best point of comparison, but the muted trip hop elements can't help but bring them to the fore of my mind, and OP is fucking great at replicating that feeling I've been missing. Maybe this is more for me than y'all, but I adore this.
I couldn't get into Horrendous's Ecdysis when it dropped several years ago, so as a result I ignored every band that got compared to it, which is why I missed out on Morbus Chron when they were a thing. Now that they're "back" as Sweven, I'm really starting to think that this whole psychedelic death metal thing was actually right up my alley all along (see also my 2018 list where Chapel of Disease landed a spot). There's something about this vaguely extreme prog metal with low distortion, haunting melodies, and rollicking 70s rock grooves that I just can't get enough of right now, and The Eternal Resonance delivers that in spades. I think I lack the language to explain exactly why this touches me so perfectly, but tracks like "By Virtue of a Promise" and "Mycelia" just tickle an erogenous zone I didn't even know I had.
Iceland has become a surprising hotspot for metal in recent years, mostly thanks to the jangleblack scene (though I'm convinced most of those bands are decent at best and tend to get subconscious extra credit simply for being from Mystikal Volcano Island), but here we are finally giving the tiny nation some recognition and it turns out to be for incredibly precise, pristinely produced death metal. Mara reminds me of a less technical version of early Fleshgod Apocalypse with odd Devin Townsend style vocals barging in every once in a while, and it's such a strange experience that I just can't kill it. The first time I heard the quick two seconds of clean vocals in "Cosmic Maelstrom" I knew I was in for some weird shit that really shouldn't work but god dammit it works for me and this is probably the metal album I've spent the most time with this year.
Speaking of extreme metal with random operatic cleans! Anaal Nathrakh is losing their shine for a lot of people it seems, as they've been sticking with the same style more or less exclusively for like six or seven albums in a row now, but god damn it works for me. I know damn well they're gonna do that thing where they build up and then stop dead silent for half a beat before exploding with a blast beat and YAAAAAAAH scream. I don't care, that shit gets me hyped every fucking time. Despite me loving their style, they've been pretty hit or miss since Constellation but I can't deny that Endarkenment is definitely one of the good ones. This is exactly as violent and unhinged as I like AN to sound, and the fact that Hunt's clean vocals keep getting worse over the years only makes the clean vocals sound more desperate and apocalyptic. I love it.
I've probably made it clear already, but Persuader's second and third albums are two of my all time favorites and their frustratingly slow release schedule since then has been a heavy pain on my heart. The Fiction Maze had one or two incredible songs but was kind of underwhelming, so imagine my shock when Necromancy finally dropped six years later and wound up being nothing but absolute heaters and the true successor to When Eden Burns. This is everything I want out of a Persuader album, blisteringly heavy power metal with anthemic choruses that consist of three hooks at once. I've said for a long while that they picked up where Blind Guardian left off when they abandoned the rough speed metal of their early sound, and Necromancy continues to prove that. "Scars" alone should illustrate why this is peak BH metal.
The real surprise on this list is that Persuader is actually my metal album of the year. It's true! The final two are, for the first time in LOTB history, not metal albums! That's not to say metal was weak this year, it's just that Protest the Hero somehow kept their streak alive and released another stunner. Somehow each new album is their new best album, and every time I'm initially disappointed before slowly realizing every track is brilliant. Rody irreparably damaged his vocal chords on the Fortress Anniversary tour, and as such the music had to change to accomodate his new voice and lack of ability to scream as much, and god fuck did they nail it. This more overtly melodic style with added synths is life affirming. "Little Snakes", "The Migrant Mother", and especially "All Hands" only further their legacy as one of the all time greats.
AND THE WINNER IS...
I mentioned before that my actual #1 album of the last decade wasn't actually Sigh and they took the prize entirely because I made the big list metal exclusive. My actual favorite album of the 2010s was Foxy Shazam's self titled album, and their dissolution in 2014 was pretty much my musical 9/11. Basically no other band on the planet has ever really managed to replicate Queen's classic 70s sound, but Foxy fuckin' did it back then. Burn, their first since their surprise reformation early this year, on the other hand, is a stylistic whirlwind with a serious tonal consistency problem and a lot of bizarre experimentation that fans have seemed to largely balk at. However, I think anybody familiar with them outside of their two most famous albums (the self titled and The Church of Rock and Roll) should be aware that they've never been afraid to experiment and have always been fearless in playing with expectations. Burn is such an incomprehensible mess of weird ideas that all come together beautifully that even though it only came out a few weeks ago, it was basically the only album all year that I heard and immediately said "YES! THIS IS IT!" I think what makes this work so much for me is that this is the first one to find a way to accurately portray how much of a cocaine nightmare their legendary live performances are. They are notoriously high energy and theatrical, despite the total lack of actual props or massive stages. They perform like a group of ravenous madmen from the 70s on the budget of a coffeehouse indie band, pure punk energy with the sound of old school arena glam. I saw them in 2014 on the Gonzo tour, and near the end of the show, Eric Nally took a pack of cigarettes from a fan in the crowd, lit four of them at once, ate them, and then sat cross legged on the floor and sang the chorus of "Dragula" a capella. I've seen live footage of Sky White playing keyboards while crowdsurfing while Nally does a color guard routine with the mic stand using only his feet. Even during their soulful ballads they act like a bunch of space cases that took a shitload of drugs that turned their brains into Jack Nicholson's face. Burn is the first album that matches that kaleidoscopic apocalypse they invoke onstage. The new bassist is a dude who wears a mask and calls himself Trigger Warning, there are two tracks that consist of nothing but swelling ambient strings and Nally and new drummer Teddy Aitkins singing Kevin Hart jokes with heavy autotune, "Dreamer" is a wonderful power ballad that starts off like something off Kesha's Rainbow and ends invoking Queen's more climactic moments, at one point the title track throws in a random death metal roar in the background before playing the breakdown from "Raining Blood" on the trumpet, "Suffering" is the most straight ahead driving rock song on the album and gets like one word away from referencing a Sublime song for the sake of a pun, "S.Y.A.A.F." contains the line "erection of the holy wood" before a jaw harp starts boinging away, there's just... a whole lot going on. I'm probably making this sound like some r/iamveryrandom shit, and maybe it is, I dunno, but for me it perfectly showcases the steadfast defiance against stupid things like "rules" that Foxy has always proudly stood for. This is everything I ever wanted out of a Foxy album, every single track is a banger, even the bizarre cloud rap ones, and at the end of the day, this album is like seeing an old friend for the first time in years and immediately reverting to all of your old inside jokes and catching up as though you haven't missed a day. This is the exact sepia-toned warm-and-fuzzy that I think we all needed to close out the screaming rollercoaster ride down Fuck Everything Avenue that was 2020. Likely the most controversial winner of the BH Award for Album of the Year we've had yet, but if I look in my heart and ask what my favorite album that came out in 2020 was, the answer is Burn. Hands down.
And now for something completely the same!
Expander - Neuropunk Boostergang: I love it when a band completely bucks the accepted aesthetics of their chosen genre, and Expander does that phenomenally with their Dan Terminus style album covers giving way to meaty thrash instead of busy synthwave, and even then it's not the hypertechnical excess that you'd expect from sci-fi themed thrash like Vektor or Watchtower, instead beefing up their sound with a ton of crusty grime and landing somewhere closer to Power Trip or Black Breath. Neuropunk Boostergang makes this sonic mismatch work even better than the debut, simply being both tighter and more epic in scope. The term "metalpunk" is often used with these guys but I need to stress that it's less the Motorbastard style and instead strikes a much more literal definition of crossover that sees them throwing in big heaps of noisy hardcore, and it rules.
Nyktophobia - What Lasts Forever: It's been nearly fifteen years since the last truly great Amon Amarth album, and I think a lot of fans like me have been yearning for a return to their more driving and pummeling early sound. Nyktophobia finally delivers the spiritual sequel to The Crusher that I've been wanting for decades.
Temperance - Viridian: On the whole, I could take or leave most of the bands from this 3rd wave of power metal that has been mixing the classic genre with arena rock hooks and danceable beats. Y'all know how I feel about Sabaton, Battle Beast and Dynazty have been steadily getting worse and worse, et cetera. Temperance finally made the jump to this style with this album and it was a beacon of genuinely stupid fun in a sea of albums that are offensively stupid and unfun.
Atramentus - Stygian: There's usually one funeral doom representative on these lists, either in the main thing or in the dooblydoo down here, and here it is for 2020. Any band Phil Tougas shows up in is going to get some positive press by default, but the difference between him and other known mega-prolific guys in metal is that most of the albums he touches are really good, and Stygian is no different.
Stalker - Black Majik Terror: Most throwback speed metal fans this year seemed to gravitate towards Solicitor or Traveler, but man Stalker is the exact kind of brainless energy that I just lap up. It's unabashedly corny and I love that about it.
Dynazty - The Dark Delight: Maybe this is my fault for simply wanting this album to be something that it never tried to be, but god damn do I miss when Dynazty was cranking out chest beating arena anthems on speed. Firesign may have signaled the shift to this 3rd wave style but it still had some great songs like the title track and "Follow Me". The Dark Delight has absolutely nothing. I don't fault the band for simply changing their style to better suit where they are as songwriters, but it's a damn shame that we traded the band that wrote monsters like Renatus and Titanic Mass in order to get a second rate Amaranthe knockoff. It's not the worst album of the year or anything, but it definitely has the least amount of good in it.
Enslaved - Utgard: I never really talk about them, but I like Enslaved a good amount. It took me a while to warm up to their new direction since I'm just not much of a prog fan, but Below the Lights and Axioma Ethica Odini are both great albums, and I don't have too many bad things to say about In Times either despite not thinking it's particularly phenomenal. Utgard on the other hand feels like pure autopilot. All of that creativity I like so much seems to have finally dried up, because this is just bland as hell from a band that usually does much better.
Sodom - Genesis XIX: This one barely qualifies since I think Sodom hasn't been truly good in a decade at this point, but I had several people I trust insist that this is a worthy addition to their discography and proof that they still have some left in the tank. Yeah sorry, I still don't hear it. They haven't had a new idea in eons and Angelripper is really showing his age.
Seven Spires - Emerald Seas: This wasn't even a bad album really, just much less exciting than Solveig and I'm kinda bummed that Adrienne Cowan is following the Jorn Lande path of being an incredible vocalist constantly stuck in kinda underwhelming bands. She needs to front something with some fuckin' power behind it, please, her voice is begging for that energy.
Wytch Hazel - III: Pentecost: Again, not even a bad album necessarily! This is just an example of an album that had a lot of hype behind it that just didn't connect with me. This "soft metal" niche is pretty cool and all but it just doesn't hit me like the more aggressive styles do and I was really hoping this one would change my mind.
Uhhhh - Ehhhh?: Every year I talk about how I plan on getting rid of the disappointments section because I get disappointed less and less each year, and that's how I feel again. I only kept it in this year because I didn't listen to enough demos to do that section again and nothing sucked nearly as much as the Aftermath and Ministry albums from the previous years so I felt no need to highlight anything as the worst. Yes I know I gave Imperial Triumphant a 0% review this year but it wasn't necessarily a disappointment and unlike the aforementioned albums I don't think it was an artistic failure. I get the appeal, I just hate it. And now I'm dragging this out because I have nothing else to say and I feel like this was a very short post this year, and George Soros pays me by the word so I've gotta stretch this shit like goatse. Screw Flanders.
And that's it for 2020! I always end on a note of hoping you all had a great year but let's be real here, unless you're a hermit crab you probably had an awful year. To everybody who made it, I'm proud of you and I'm glad you're here. If you're about to be evicted around the time you read this then you would be morally correct to beat your landlord to death. To everybody who didn't make it, I'm sorry the people in power failed you and I hope we can make the world better in your memory. To everybody who voted for Mitch McConnell, promptly fuck yourself with a railroad spike.