I have spent most of my considerable number of intros in 2020 to talk about how the world is falling apart. No one can blame me; the world is falling apart and we haven’t seen anything yet. We’re in the prelude. But I feel like that’s getting a bit redundant. Don’t get me wrong, I think I’ll definitely keep writing intros like that since there’s not going to be a lack of ways in which the world is falling apart but also because the blog does, after all, serve as a major emotional outlet for me. And, for better or for worse (mostly worse), a lot of my emotional space is made up of how I feel about things ending (hint: not great). Nor is the counterpoint you sometimes find in these intros, made up of music and how wonderful it is, offer a fresher perspective. Is there anything more redundant than telling people music is amazing? Everyone knows music is amazing; it’s music!
Instead, maybe I’ll do one of those moments of honesty that I like to do and talk about how writing the blog gets harder every day. Actually, I’d like to qualify and expand on that: it’s getting harder and harder to write, period. It’s a factor of what I mentioned above; when your internal voice is fixated on screaming about how everything is dying, it’s hard to make the room for talking to yourself (which is what all writing is). It’s also harder and harder to write, for me personally, because I’ve been doing this for so long. I’ve written dozens of these intros, probably over a hundred, and things get dull. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to write. In fact, I think I’ve already exceeded the number of deep dives I wrote in 2019 and I’m on track to break 2018’s number as well. What is getting harder to write is the stuff around those moments of burning passion, the day to day of making the blog take shape.
All of that taken into account, I was worried about this intro. Usually I either know well in advance what I’m going to write or it comes to me in a flash as I sit down to do so. But here, I had no idea what I would write going in and still didn’t when my fingers hit the keyboard. So I took a pause and scrolled through this list and waited for something to come up and grab me. And as I did, I suddenly realized that I want to write about is not a single thing but rather about the whole thing even existing, the list, the blog, the music. But especially the list. It represents one of the main things that keep me going, one of the main things that reignite my passion even for the “mundane” posts that make up the blog: our staff. It really is a unique and extremely gratifying privilege to be able to work with so many talented writers, with such diverse tastes in music (this is probably the most diverse mid-year list we’ve ever run). It just makes all the words and hours spent on the blog suddenly seem like nothing. It’s not that they’re “worth it”, it’s literally that they don’t matter at all if I get the chance to work with such people.
So, here’s our mid-year list. The world continues to rot around us. Our societies are flimsy and cruel and violent. But we also have the capacity to build circles of affinity, of friendship, and of collaboration that are powerful and beautiful. Here is the music that our little circle most loved in 2020. It’s pretty damn good.
Aesthesys – Alignments
By the mid-point this year we’ve already had several very strong releases from the world of post-rock, and as a contributor to our monthly post-rock-post column I’ve had the pleasure of being soaked in plenty of it. By the end of June there was one that emerged head and shoulders above the rest, Aesthesys’ Alignments. Post-rock has a knack for being great at integrating influences from other genres, from jazz, math rock, electronic, prog, folk, post-hardcore and metal… I could go on. With Alignments, this Russian four-piece have run the gamut. With their strong incorporation of keyboards and rhythmic math rock guitars similar to old 65daysofstatic and sleepmakeswaves, heavy progressive rock and metal riffs, and uniquely fitting violin. The way the violin, guitar and keyboard play off each other is unlike much I’ve ever heard in the genre. It’s really a masterful experiment in making the best of what each musician has within the relative confines of the genre
There’s a strong link between the cinematic nature of synth-laden post rock and science fiction. Heavier post-rock bands with keyboards can conjure imagery of dystopian, rainy tech-noir cities. You get a bit of this in “Hello World.” But as the violin comes in it translates to an oddly vibrant, optimistic, dare I say Star Trek-ian feel. Also in the sense that some of the moments across the album that could fit in a modern Star Trek series intro. Even the relatively heavier tracks like the fittingly titled “Replicant Party” come off triumphant more than anything. The harmonizing violin, synths and guitars remind of the sound that Maybeshewill really nailed on I Was Here For a Moment, Then I Was Gone.
The more experimental “Better Stranger” stretches across the board with its influences. The intro sounds straight out of Battles’Mirrored, before moving into a super upbeat nu-jazz/prog rock type keyboard part that eventually launches into an equally prog guitar lick? Every track has almost its own unique style. Yet, it and the album as a whole come together for an immensely compelling instrumental journey across ten of the best post-rock tracks this year.
Afterbirth – Four Dimensional Flesh
It feels a bit weird to kick off a review of an incredible album by talking about its producer. But in this case it’s more than warranted. Brutal death metal as a subgenre is extremely difficult to get right in the studio for many reasons, not the least of which being that the sheer chaos of this brand of music often causes records to feel like a gelatinous blob of chunky sonics that are only interested in merciless sonic punishment. Brutal death metal and words like “nuance” and “clarity” rarely go hand-in-hand. But Colin Marston isn’t your everyday death metal production wizard, and Afterbirth’s spellbinding and neck-snapping sophomore record Four Dimensional Flesh is living proof that even the most chaotic of sounds can sound clear, complex, and intimidating in the right hands.
In case Marston’s mad genius wasn’t already confirmed, his work with Defeated Sanity, Imperial Triumphant, and Pyrrhon should silence all doubters as to his incredible skill and ear for pulling up the most essential elements in the records he produces. But Four Dimensional Flesh may be his crown jewel. Afterbirth could not have made a better decision regarding the recording of this album, as it contains their most incredible songwriting and performances to date while also being uniformly and exceptionally well-produced. This record deserved nothing less than a master behind the boards, and DAMN does it sound great. But all the production wizardry in the world can’t replace good songwriting, and in this regard Afterbirth excel in glorious fashion. Balancing ethereal post-metal dreamscapes (“Girl in Landscape”) with ultra-heavy death metal punishment (“Everything in Its Path”, “Swallowing Spiders”), Four Dimensional Flesh is a masterclass in death metal songwriting and performance that deserves every shred of the praise it has thus far received. There isn’t a track here that falls below sheer excellence.
Take all of the typical pejoratives or negative connotations associated with brutal death metal and toss them aside, because Afterbirth redefine what it means to be brutal with Four Dimensional Flesh. This is a stunning record that’s as good as I’ve heard in the subgenre, well, ever, and I look forward to listening to it for years to come. They may have waited 25 years to release their initial full-length recordings, but count this as one of the few cases where the product was worth the VERY long wait.
Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
I often wonder why modern music journalists have embraced hyperbole to the degree they have. For example, when Pitchfork declared that “No music has ever sounded quite like this” in their review for Fetch the Bolt Cutters, I couldn’t help but wonder who that line was intended to persuade. By now, longtime fans and detractors alike know where they stand on Fiona Apple’s music, what with her status as one of the most acclaimed singer/songwriters of the last several decades. Frankly, statements like that distract from discussions about her music (you know, what actually matters) and instead spawn rants like this.
Suffice it to say, Fetch the Bolt Cutters does indeed have its roots in music that preceded it, specifically Fiona’s spectacular back catalog of jazzy, piano-drive art pop. In my view, it’s more accurate to assert that this is arguably her boldest album yet, and arguably one of the top two or three releases in her career.
There’s simply too much musical and lyrical depth to provide a track-by-track breakdown, which I attempted to do with my entry for Editors’ Picks in April. Instead, I’d actually like to dissect some of the album’s imperfections. I know, and odd choice, but stick with me. Overall, the adventurous nature of Fetch the Bolt Cutters is achieved through truly raw songwriting, which surfaces throughout the track list. Fiona’s voice wavers during the extended refrain on “I Want You to Love Me.” The backing barks of her dogs on the title track is quant, but a bit on the odder end of the spectrum. And the unconventional percussion used throughout the album can be hit or miss.
But that’s exactly what makes me love Fetch the Bolt Cutters as much as I do. At this stage in her career, Fiona could have easily followed the paths of countless established artists before her: latching onto a fad of the moment, retreading all too familiar territory, experimenting for the sake of being different, etc. Instead, what Fiona offers on Fetch the Bolt Cutters is undeniably “her,” and all of its quirks feel like a glimpse into her true, unfiltered creative process. It’s an added bonus that it offers some of the best songs she’s ever written.
Beneath the Massacre – Fearmonger
It’s been eight long years of radio silence from brutal tech death maestros Beneath The Massacre. All had been quiet since 2012’s Incongruous, which left all of us wondering if we’d ever get anything else from the Canadian masters of death. Had they broken up? Were we forsaken? Had they been captured by a villain pointing cartoonishly large speakers at the ground, forcing them to drill through the earth with the power of their seismic blasting and were thus rendered incapable of releasing a new record? Luckily, that wasn’t the case (we think) and 2019 brought us the first single off Fearmonger, and all at once the world felt whole again.
Beneath The Massacre pick up right where they left off as if no time had passed at all. Title track and album opener “Rise of the Fearmonger” immediately kicks you in the face with lightning fast riffs, gravity blasts, and dissonant harmonic sweeps, all anchored by the measured brutality of vocalist Elliot Desgagnés. And that doesn’t stop. For thirty minutes. The only detours from this formula are for big, fuck-you breakdowns that just make you want to snap your head off from the top of your spinal column. Beneath The Massacre are nothing if not consistent, and in that way, Fearmonger feels like running a wire brush over your brain, scraping off the rust of daily life and allowing a half hour of pure meditation through violence.
They aren’t all show, either. Beneath The Massacre has always been a band with a proletariat message, and Fearmonger is no different. It is a pointed barb at the absurdities and dangers of a rising fascist leader (guess who the fearmonger is!) and at the late-stage capitalist war machine as a whole. In a time of political tumult, lyrics of solidarity and social equity like those of “Treacherous” are a welcome addition to an already outstanding record. If you are a fan of blasting your head off and maybe raising a hand in revolution, Fearmonger is for you.
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Like the music and the lyrics, the artwork of Phoebe Bridgers’ hugely anticipated second album Punisher reflects this dichotomy of grey earthliness and effervescent dreaminess. Phoebe is foregrounded, a dire crimson surrounding her and illuminating the rough edges of the boulders around her. The background however, stands tall and panoramic, with the cool blue of the night sky giving off a quiet assuredness. Many of the record’s tracks have a version of this duality at play, and for me, it is the most striking element of Punisher and what makes it a standout album of 2020. Phoebe’s mental disorientation on the indie bop “Kyoto” is uncomfortable despite the rush of the chorus. The lyrics reveal her frustration at the insufficiency of novelty to lift her thoughts away from home and the hardships it has attached to it, like her father’s instability.
It wouldn’t be a Phoebe Bridgers album though if the duality didn’t deepen and the imagery becomes more surreal. Nowhere is this more present than on the record’s love songs, like the aching, self-flagellating “Moon Song”. The gap between Phoebe’s painful abstractions that this person is way beyond the level of dysfunction that she can comprehend, and the odd anecdotal tidbits, is truly a jab in the heart: ‘…you pushed me in / And now my feet can’t touch the bottom of you / …We hate Tears In Heaven / But it’s sad that his baby died’.
Undoubtedly, the most powerful moment comes with the road trip-gone-rapture ballad “I Know the End”, which could well be one of the most climactic and consuming album closers of the year, with its somewhat movement-like structure and a mesmerising crescendo of biblical horns, bluesy guitars and maddening screams. Once again however, it is the sheer pointedness of Phoebe’s lyrics that leave me still every single time. Rushing through the arid wasteland of Northern California, Phoebe’s thoughts are increasingly fantastical yet tinged with inevitable sadness and futility as eschatological imagery is juxtaposed with the physical and mundane: ‘Driving out into the sun / Let the ultraviolet cover me up / Went looking for a creation myth / Ended up with a pair of cracked lips’.
Embracing the inconsistencies of the world, the contradictions and the messiness, and wrapping it all up in short, understated indie-folk songs is no easy feat, but Bridgers does it with a deft hand, holding comedy and tragedy so close to her heart simultaneously.
Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant
Funnily enough, Caligula’s Horse Rise Radiant is another one of those albums that have grown on me over time rather than immediately captured me wholesale, like Katatonia’s City Burials. Which is not to say I didn’t love the first few listens to the lead single “The Tempest” or “Slow Violence”; they remain some of my favorite tracks on the album. Rather, it is that my relationship with the album took time to fully mature. As a non-concept album from one of my favorite concept-forward bands, I perhaps dismissed the possibility of many layers existing on Rise Radiant, content to listen to it “just” for the music, not really seeking a meta level which might lie beneath.
But, with repeated listens, I find myself more and more cognizant of that meta level. It manifests itself in the lyrics yes, but not like those lyrics might function on a concept album. It’s more a shared space, a common type of language rather than actual recurring names, words or themes. That’s the case with the music as well, which tends to be even more synth and bass heavy than previous releases by the band (which is saying something). All of this lends Rise Radiant the same feeling that the album cover does, of a lush and verdant place, a certain perspective glimpsed from beyond the fourth wall of the painting.
This means that further and further listens solidify that perspective, as I become more and more attached to and aware of the perspective of the album. To sum it up in less than the thousands of words I actually want to use how this album makes me feel, I’ll say that it’s the album I needed to balance out everything else I’ve been listening to. As the world continues to spiral out around me, I have been gravitating to many dire, grandiose, and melancholic releases. To them, Rise Radiant is the answer, the still burning flame, what hope I have left for better things and better days.
Caspian – On Circles
Caspian’s 2015 record, Dust & Disquiet, has shown itself to be a high water mark for triumphant, urgent, devastating post-rock; a mark for how to execute that style of post-rock completely and utterly perfectly. Coming after the tragic passing of the band’s original bassist, Chris Friedrich, in 2013, the album is tortured in its sombre and featherweight moments, as well as in its monolithic and turbulent moments. Through its drastic twists and turns you can see just how much of a turning point Chris’ death was for the remaining members of Caspian.
Although Dust & Disquiet undoubtedly allowed the band to sit with their grief and feel it for all its grooves and thorns, an album of such emotional weight and subsequent years of touring on top of it could only have caused mental exhaustion and possible disillusionment. This is put into some detail in the 4-part podcast series the band did in anticipation for On Circles. The series puts the album creation process into real time and shows the gestation period of the ideas and experiences which would come to make up On Circles. One part of the tapestry of experiences that formed the album was guitarist Erin Burke-Moran’s endeavour to hike the full 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Certainly a track like “Wildblood” seems to hint at this odyssey of a journey, suggesting a fresh palette from which to start anew. The expansive opening power chords that ring out bring to mind a phoenix bursting into life or a panoramic vista opening up in front of you after days hiking fighting encumbrance and lethargy. This is the theme that On Circles conjures if it could be said to contain any semblance of overarching themes at all, not something the band wanted to dwell on too much after the conceptual underpinnings of Dust.
Coming after as monolithic a release as Dust, Caspian were clearly in a difficult position, as all acts inevitably are after a possible career highlight. With On Circles however, the path hasn’t just been changed, it’s been completely redrawn, and not only have new directions been traversed, but directions that were previously hidden have been uncovered.
Code Orange – Underneath
I’ve never understood the hype behind Code Orange. Hardcore and industrial aren’t my genres of choice, but even so I had always expected that I should at least appreciate, if not enjoy, their music. Yet, it never seemed particularly remarkable to me: until now. Code Orange have well and truly won me over on this one, so much so that this is far and away my leading contender for AOTY to date. The intro song sets the mood with its industrial samples and unsettling atmosphere, before the full band lurch into life on “Swallowing the Rabbit Whole”. Over the course of the next three songs the band throw everything they have at the listener, pummeling them with punishing guitars, angular riffs, abrasive electronics and the clever juxtaposition of the raw and the pristine. The harsh vocals, songwriting and pure attitude immediately resonate as raw, unfiltered and aggressive – contrasting neatly with the perfect production and electronics. In particular, the band use silence incredibly well, as they use electronic samples as waystations where all can go quiet for half a second, teasing the listener before recommencing their sonic onslaught,
While the first few tracks go hard, as we move into “Who I Am” the band show that they have more strings to their bow. This smooth number introduces much improved clean vocals which, tonally, at times even bring to mind the incredible Ashe O’Hara. The neck-snapping ferocity is replaced here and in radio-standout “Sulfur Surrounding” with big vocal hooks that will get crowds singing. But, sandwiched in between these tracks, is the balls-to-the-wall insanity of “Cold.Metal.Place”. Lurching riffs, creepy samples, and then the magic: a huge fucking wall of sound with pinch harmonics rampaging around as your limbs simply start swinging at anything and everything in the vicinity. Fucking brilliant.
The record’s second half is just as good, its consistency one of its hallmarks. This is a strong effort from front to back and whatever creative idea they threw out there looks to have worked on this one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a ground-breaking and innovative record – after all the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Fear Factory and others exist. But the execution of ideas here is fantastic as guitars, samples, drums, electronics, vocals etc. all fall perfectly into place and accentuate each other’s impact. Don’t fret if this doesn’t click at first – it’s a grower and the investment is bloody well worth it.
Covet – Technicolor
There is little to say that my compatriots haven’t already waxed poetic about in regards to technicolor. Since their inception, covet have been writing the kind of music that makes you want to get up, get out, and experience the world. Captained by the indomitable Yvette Young, the trio have pulled fans from every corner of the odd-time-signature-loving realm, and it’s easy to see why. Their dreamy, groovy blend of post and math rock saunters between being contemplative, dancy, and at times, disarmingly heavy. It is always, however, infectious and uplifting in a way that is very rare to accomplish.
What makes this album stand out in particular against their prior releases is how soft and expansive it manages to be without pulling any of their normal punches. As a whole, the tracks feel more thoughtful and organic, allowing room for passages to really live and breathe – especially on “predawn,” which aptly features Phillip Jamieson of Caspian. Primarily an instrumental project, technicolor also features Yvette’s enchanting voice on the tracks “parachute,” “odessa,” and “farewell.” As a fan of her solo stuff, I cannot overstate how giddy I was to finally hear singing on a covet record, and it did not disappoint. Her voice here is just another instrument added to the fold, a tool used sparingly to evoke a specific response before disappearing again into the warm kaleidoscope of tapped leads and delay-drenched atmosphere.
Where covet shines is, as always, their ability to weave intricacy into simple, beautiful melodies. technicolor is a stroll down a sun-soaked orchard trail, nostalgia on your lips and the scent of earth and citrus in your nostrils. It’s a hug when you’ve really been needing one. And buddy, I think we all need one right about now.
Cryptic Shift – Visitations from Enceladus
There was a time when the thought of Blood Incantation and Vektor collaborating set my heart ablaze. Then certain events transpired that made me sad and that wish died a lonely, morally dubious death. Then Cryptic Shift dropped their utterly mesmerizing debut Visitations from Enceladus and lo and behold my dream or cosmic death metal colliding with technical thrash wankery became a reality in the most unexpected and delightful of ways. Fans of both of the above-mentioned bands (along with the likes of Cosmic Putrefaction, Voivod, and Tomb Mold) can smile and be happy, as these English fiends have unleashed upon the world a debut album that will go down in modern metal history as one of its boldest and brightest opening manifestations.
The Blood Incantation comparison is definitely fitting not only due to stylistic similarities, but in songwriting decisions as well. Cryptic Shift inject their debut record with enough transcendent riffs to destroy planets, and they most certainly aren’t afraid to go epic on their song lengths. In a similar vein to Hidden History of the Human Race’s titanic finale “Awakening…”, Cryptic Shift are at their best when shooting for the stars. “Moonbelt Immolator” is indisputably one of the best tracks of the year, floating effortlessly between fret-shredding technicality and comet-like heaviness with the expert precision of a much older band. But the best part of the whole record is how it continues being amazing after such a top-heavy start. “(Petrified in the) Hypogean Gaol” is not only an incredible reference to the best video game of all time (Bloodborne gang represent), but a fantastic showcase of the band’s instrumental prowess, stacking riff on riff with relentless energy and technical skill. The entire album is a sequence of straight bangers that will certainly go down as one of the year’s best.
Every year there seems to be a record or two that blast into my atmosphere from out of nowhere and arrest dozens of attentive hours. Cryptic Shift are certainly one of those bands for the year of our infernal undoing 2020, and I have a hard time imagining it being toppled from its pedestal as one of the most assured and adventurous death metal debuts in the last five years. If you have yet to give this record a spin, I strongly suggest you change that pronto. A fantastic and continuously engaging slab of thrashy death metal.
Elder – Omens
True masterpieces tend to only come once in a career. It’s implied in the name really. The singular concentration of creative prowess should really only come up once in a long while. At the same time, there are some artists who are themselves a masterpiece. Everything they do is carefully calculated and cautiously constructed in order to relate an untarnished idea. David Bowie comes to mind for me. But even an artist as great as Bowie had his stumbling blocks, or at least not quite as stellar art as he’s most known for. And after a lot of extensive research, it seems like I’m in a good crowd to say the same thing about Elder, a band we all know spins an idea into pure solid gold. Omens is just the latest example of Rumpelstiltskin spinning prog metal gold.
I suppose I should clarify that Omens is the best thing the band has yet put out. While a lot of their music is quite mature and defined, it has that extra little something. I hate to sound like a hack writer, but it really does have that little je ne sais quoi. It just feels like the most complete record they’ve put out yet. Musically, it allows for that extra contemplative space that benefits almost all records, but prog rock in particular. The band always knew how to use the studio to their advantage. The mixing of the more intricate parts compliments everything else in every track. All of this combines for a musical image of completeness. Truly, nothing is missing from this record that’s supposed to be there, and removing any single track or part or even note from any song would destroy the image.
Perhaps for me, the lyrics make the record so complete. I suppose there’s a poignancy and immediate relevance of the content making it a little less evergreen, but they do produce an image that a growing number of people can immediately relate to. The various aspects of a society in decline hit pretty close to home right about now, but there’s also a bit of a hidden message in the verses. The latter half of the record gives the idea of a way to rebound. In a weird way, it reminds me of Coldplay’s “Everything’s Not Lost”. It’s almost a prescription for how we get back to where we were. Or maybe how we rebound from this awfulness. It’s a bit hopeful in that way, completing the idea of the record to a very satisfying conclusion.
We’re only seven months into the new decade at this point, but there’s simply no way we don’t talk about Omens as a record of the decade. Elder has been at the top of the best of the best every single year they have put out a new record. I hesitate to say that this is what we expect of them, only because that would be unfair. However, how can we not expect this from them at this point? Every record has been their “best yet”. They are consistently reaching for their next big peak. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again and again: Omens is exactly the kind of thing you’d want from Elder specifically and from artists writ large. We absolutely need them to be reaching for the next peak. Thankfully, Elder is more than happy to oblige us.
END – Splinters From an Ever-Changing Face
Younger generations might be able to shed some light on the real definition of “hype beast”, but from my jaded, early thirties point of view, this first full-length from hardcore Megazord END is definitely “hype beast”. Following From the Unforgiving Arms of God with a percussive injection of new talent in the mighty Billy Rymer, the group containing current and former members of Fit For An Autopsy, Counterparts, Shai Hulud, etc turned a familiar set of styles and sounds into something fresh, something fierce, and ultimately something incredibly moreish. Splinters From An Ever-Changing Face really is the evil fountain version (fountain drinks are best and I will die on this hill) of your favourite off-the-shelf ‘core record.
An initial salvo of familiar d-beating and gargantuan breakdowns breaks quickly into some severely dark hardcore that flirts with forays into morose post-metal territory, all pinned together with the records multiple (and thankfully succinct) interludes; conversations with a man facing the fractures of his identity, heavy stuff, you’ll agree. While these dips into the murkier and more sombre territory are fleeting, they pack such a huge punch that they stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the material. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spin kicked holes into the thin wall I share with my neighbours listening to Splinters…, that’s for sure, but the leftfield choices made by this stellar group of savages make the big-ticket tracks infinitely more engaging. This is not standard fare ‘core.
We used to #defendentombedcore at Heavy Blog all the time back when I started and, while we still do to an extent, this END record has definitely kickstarted a new appreciation in many for the kind of rolling and tumbling hardcore that doesn’t rely on chest-beating and Minor League mosh calls. Splinters From an Ever-Changing Face is far more nuanced than a lot of punters will give it credit for with all of the layers of feedback, low-key electronics, and of course the immaculate layering of Murphy’s caustic vocals. Over three hundred words in and you’re yet to hear anything specifically about Rymer’s performance behind the kit too. Yes. He slays, and it’s very refreshing to hear him get a chance to sit down on some thick grooves and beat the absolute fuck out of his cymbals and drums. Top notch.
Envy – The Crimson Fallen
Envy is back. That’s honestly all that needs to be said here. The esteemed screamo/post-rock veterans’ name alone should carry enough weight for anyone to have kicked the tires on their latest, but it’s my duty to slather it on about how fucking excellent it is to behold their return with The Fallen Crimson (y’know, for those dragging their feet, er… ears?). To cut to the chase, it’s arguably their finest accomplishment in their already stacked discography, yet it’s somehow without the fanfare and hype it truly deserves. Considering post-rock’s expansion into just about every extreme subgenre out there, as well as the proliferation of excellent post-hardcore releases over recent years, I can’t help but feel like this masterwork may be primed to be the sleeper hit of the year.
It’s not simply that Envy are capable of reaching the peaks as they always have, but rather how invigorated they sound and how vital each moment feels. The new additions on drums and guitar (as well as the return of vocalist Tetsuya Fukagawa) have the group champing at the bit, rising to the challenge to craft an artistic statement that’s worthy of their name. The Fallen Crimson is tumultuous and epic, immaculately arranged, achieving a golden balance of introspection, hope, conflict, and fury. It’s an unstoppable force of a record where everything is steeped in an emotive fluorescence that has every crushing apex hitting as hard as the next, each delicate moment locked in slow-motion beauty, and every fevered bark and spoken word loaded with passion and gravitas. The feels hit consistently from quite literally all angles.
A kinetic energy permeates The Fallen Crimson. Melodies of tracks like “Swaying leaves and scattering breath,” “Rhythm,” and “Memories and the limit” are immediately burned into memory, fierce, jarring bombasts like “A faint new world,” “Fingerprint mark,” and “Marginalized thread” which rouse and rally, and the outright gorgeous tides of emotion found in “Eternal memories and reincarnation,” “Dawn and gaze,” and “HIKARI” commingle and enhance one another. No two moments across The Fallen Crimson hit in the same way short of their impossible consistency and heart-wrenching strength. Envy’s deft shapeshifting has never been so fully realized and efficient, and it makes for one of the most exhilarating albums of the year (or longer).
Honey Harper – Starmaker
You’re likely scrolling through this list in search of the best heavy music 2020 has had to offer in its tumultuous first half, and instead, you find yourself staring at the face of a curious-looking country artist, confused at how we ended up here. To be fair, Georgia-born and London-based singer-songwriter Will Fussell — operating under the stage name Honey Harper — isn’t just any country artist. On separate occasions, Fussell has described his sound as “Cosmic Country” and “Glam Country”, which is as fitting a description as any. One might be forgiven for reading too far into Fussell’s dramatic change in scenery in his youth, but his debut album Starmaker often feels like the marriage of the southern crooning of Conway Twitty and the ethereal and eccentric aesthetic of the likes of David Bowie and Elton John.
It’s an influential lineage that may seem strange to the uninitiated, but makes sense when you look back at rock and roll history. Country as we know it is a distinct evolutionary branch of music that’s separated from modern rock, but consider Elvis’ contributions to music and how his influence touched everything that came in the decades after, including country balladeers and eccentric rockers alike. The “androgynous cowboy” archetype was nearly forgotten to modern music, but it’s been picked up in recent years thanks to the likes of Orville Peck and, most recently, Honey Harper.
Starmaker is an experience plucked out of time and recontextualized with contemporary production and artistry, with idiosyncrasies that make it shine. The record opens with stacked vocoder harmonies and celestial windchimes. There’s a purposeful psychedelic bent throughout, with an atmosphere informed by Pink Floyd with slide guitars soaring over the acoustics and droning pads creeping in and out of focus. Fussell’s vulnerability and sentimentality are on display in these gorgeous compositions, either stripped back to guitar and voice (as on the somber “Vaguely Satisfied”) or backed by lush symphonic orchestrations (as heard on tracks “Something Relative” and “Suzuki Dreams”). Fussell also takes cues from Roy Orbison on the upbeat “Tomorrow Never Comes,” and album highlight and single “In Light Of Us” feels like a countrified take on Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles.
“Quaint” is often used as a pejorative term when it comes to music, but that’s Starmaker by design. It’s a wonderful record that is nostalgic and sentimental without sacrificing the art and gravity of it all. We understand that Fussell’s behatted visage makes for a hard sell on the pages of a website with “heavy” in its name no less than two times, but Starmaker is an experience that transcends genre.
Intronaut – Fluid Existential Inversions
Are we truly surprised this album made the list? The progressive/post metal titans from Los Angeles are back with their sixth record after a five-year gap, and it is mind blowing to say the least. Yet they still find ways to keep things interesting. Their secret: constantly reinventing themselves and not sitting neatly in one box. The term “progressive” these days can be vast in sound but Intronaut combine the sounds of jazz, sludge and avant-garde just to scratch the surface of the ground they cover. Although, they have really leaned into post rock on this album. Look no further than the track, “Pangloss”.
The vocal harmonies between Sacha Dunable and Dave Timnick are the best they have ever been and work so well in the context of the songs. While the rhythm section, composed of bassist Joe Lester and session drummer, Alex Rudinger (whose resume is IMPRESSIVE to say the least) are tighter than ever. The way Joe utilizes the bass as an integral part of the overall sound, it’s a driving force that could be compared to a band like Meshuggah. The final ingredient is the mixing by mastermind, Kurt Ballou, that elevates this record even further.
There is something to be said about the cover art of the album and the contrast between it and the sound of the record. It looks as though it could be moving and how it would tickle all the senses, working as companion piece to the record. Almost a living, breathing work of art.
When all is said and done, this is Intronaut’s best album to date because it incorporates everything they have done on previous albums, while expanding on it even further. There is always something new to discover with each listen. 15 years in, this band continues to reinvent themselves and push the boundaries of progressive metal in new directions.
Katatonia – City Burials
There are a few bands out there whose albums just take time to fully grow on me. It’s not that I listen to them at first and don’t like them, that kind of album is nothing much to talk about. Rather, it’s that I listen to the release for the first time and like it but not love it. Perhaps it’s because the music is intricate or just because I need to be in the right mood. Or, perhaps, it’s because the main thing which draws me to the albums at hand is an emotional connection, a connection which takes time to foster. This is definitely the case with my relationship with Katatonia, a relationship which has been ducking in and out of my life for 15 years. Whenever I think a new album is their misstep, their fade-to-black, I suddenly find myself three months later, sobbing to its music.
This is also what happened to me with City Burials. I liked the album when I first heard it but it took me many listens to get to the point where I was ready to declare it yet another resounding success on my review. Ever since I wrote that review, my love for the album has only been growing stronger as the emotional bonds between me and the album grow tighter. Yes, we could talk of the musical direction that the band have chosen to take on this album, a mix of their previous releases and earlier works. But, between you and me, we know that that’s not, at the end of the day, what draws us to Katatonia. Rather, it is their ability to speak true words, to cut to the heart of living, to the heart of feeling.
With City Burials, Katatonia inject a certain liveliness or spirit of the fight to this heart of feeling. It would be weird to call any album by the kinds of goth and melancholia “hopeful” but City Burials certainly feels more self-empowering and energized. As time goes by, I find myself not sinking deeper into its webs of despair and pain, as was the case with previous releases, but rather uplifted, riding on its highs, and lows, of emotional capacity. In that regard, this might be Katatonia’s subtlest album yet, channeling a more nuanced and intriguing version of their emotional palette. I can’t wait to spend many more years with it.
Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin kynsi
The M.O. for Oranssi Pazuzu has always been about doing big things and pushing the envelope. Their novel progressive flavor of psychedelic black metal is unfathomably huge. How huge? Well, I don’t think anyone was really “ready” for Mestarin kynsi. With Värähtelijä being only four years old – I’m half kidding here – it’s still incredibly deep, ripe with interesting ideas, and sounds as fresh as ever. But Värähtelijä also seemed to be the exhaustive zenith of their sound (and to be honest, maybe even a little exhaust-ing for listeners). Like, where do they go from something like that? As luck would have it, they went to the darkest, weirdest depths possible and pulled out a Mestarin kynsi, a hallmark Oranssi Pazuzu album that maintains their impeccable track record as much as it explodes the envelope to open a portal to a new, bizarre stratosphere of psychedelia.
Mestarin kynsi’s tendrils of drone, krautrock, and industrial which now envelop their strange blackened core further isolate them from normalcy. It’s a highly atmospheric work that’s best experienced with headphones. Concentric rhythms orbit with a cold, calculated, and indifferent feel, conjuring a Frankenstein’s monster-like pulse that threads through each track. There’s something very disconnected and inhuman communicated through these textures, but it’s not until listeners become acquainted with the starkly violent eruptions that burst through this icy shell do we really start to see where the madness coalesces into something far beyond “psychedelic black metal.”
Instead, Oranssi Pazuzu has developed a new language on this outing, communicating something wildly darker and more contorted than ever. The electronic tones bring to mind Nine Inch Nails’ varied-yet-somehow-totally-signature sonic palette, where the nauseating rhythms and unrestrained vitriol seep through the entirety of their being, lending an immediacy and urgency that was largely absent from their prior work, though most of these tracks are still of the exploratory nature and length. There’s no doubt Oranssi Pazuzu is still the go-to for getting lost in the woods of blackened psychedelia, I just wonder if we’re even in the woods anymore… or if we’re even lost anymore… In fact, I feel found, and that’s way creepier.
Protest the Hero – Palimpsest
I feel a little odd writing about progressive metal. I know some about it but not a ton. Generally speaking, it’s just not my bag. However, I do know a whole lot about good music and I know what I personally like. I have very recently become a fan of Protest the Hero as a result of Palimpsest. Protest the Hero has clearly always been making complex math-y style progressive metal, but at the same time it’s really accessible music that doesn’t require a particular taste or background knowledge. Palimpsest should be held up as a model for modern progressive metal.
This band wants to completely engage you for every song and album. Palimpsest is possibly the highest point of this behavior in their career. I’m astounded by the guitar work on every single song. They have that little tastiness you need to fill your riff quota for a while. Every part is so intricately and delicately written that to only listen to this album once is to miss everything cool about it. Some records have to grow on you, so you might listen to them a few times before you really love them. Palimpsest has a different problem: there’s so much cool damn stuff going on that you simply can’t take it in with a single sitting.
Personally, Protest the Hero is what Coheed & Cambria should be (just to me, nerds, I know they’re pretty rad as is). There are those kinds of moments on the record that feel like a Coheed song, but it’s so much more than that. There’s a depth and complexity to Palimpsest that makes it mature. This record feels like something I’ll be coming back to again and again. It’s a fantastic journey through modern prog metal and something I hope we’ll be talking about a lot in the coming years.
Pyrrhon – Abscess Time
Every Pyrrhon release has presented a new auditory maze that feels more difficult to navigate than its predecessor. I initially found The Mother of Virtues (2014) to be overly abrasive, and I couldn’t make it through a full listen on my first few attempts at “understanding” the band’s music. Yet, even during those contentious explorations, the complexity and value of Pyrrhon’s music was apparent from the onset and continued luring me back to attempt cracking the code once and for all. When it clicked, I found myself ranking Pyrrhon among the most creative (and best) death metal bands operating today.
It took a bit less time to recognize the genius of What Passes For Survival (2017), which saw the band once again splicing together mathcore, brutal prog, and tech death to create an intense bricolage of sounds. But just when I thought I had Pyrrhon nailed down, they unleash Abscess Time and splinter off into a fresh (foul?) new direction. The band’s core sound remains, but it’s channeled through a filthy new lens that brings out the band’s grimiest, noisiest, and most confrontational material to date. From the working class samples sprinkled throughout the album to its generally loose, brash attitude, this feels like Pyrrhon at their most grounded and rebellious.
If Black Flag transitioned into a death metal band while writing Family Man, it would likely sound like what Pyrrhon have crafted on Abscess Time. The emphasis on sludgier riffs and and overall dirtier aesthetic remind me of the core ethos that informed Black Flag’s post-My War era, particularly Greg Ginn’s erratic guitar explorations. As I mentioned previously, this is yet another challenging listen from a band that’s constantly shattering the boundaries attempting to define the vast expanses of their sound. Yet, after a few listens (and then countless more), that challenge was worth the immense payoff of experiencing some of the most adventurous death metal from the genre you’ll encounter this year.
Run the Jewels – RTJ4
Whether or not RTJ4 is the best album on this list, it’s undoubtedly the most important. The record was surprise released a week into the ongoing protests against police brutality, sparked by the murder of Minnesota resident George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, as three other officers looked on. The album perfectly captured (and propelled) a moment whose reverberations are still being felt around the world. When Killer Mike raps
everyday on evening news they feed you fear for free
and you’re so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me
’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
on standout track “Walking in the Snow”, it’s genuinely haunting. He is no prescient prophet, however. The whole point is that this sort of thing has been going on forever, and we’re not going to be allowed to ignore it any longer.
That the album has become bigger than Run the Jewels themselves that’s not to take away from the monumental musical achievement that is RTJ4. Even without its bolstering social context, the duo’s fourth outing is undeniable, focussing the raw power and musical exploration of their previous efforts into a concise thirty-nine minutes that’s at once more expansive and vital than anything else in their catalogue. Most of the focus has, rightfully, been on Killer Mike in the wake of the album’s release. However, El-P is equally impressive. His production throughout the record – whether dropping braggadocious bangers like “The Ground Below” or exploring more ethereal textures like on “Pulling the Pin” or “A Few Words for the Firing Squad” – is nothing short of phenomenal, and his lyrics every bit as biting and insightful: “Funny fact about a cage, they’re never built for just one group / So when that cage is done with them and you’re still poor, it’ll come for you”.
Mainstream hip-hop over the last decade has centred around the rise “emotional” hip-hop, largely resulting in the elevation and celebration of melancholic megalomaniacs. What is so often overlooked is that anger is also an emotion, and an often urgent and vital one at that. As Rage Against the Machine frontman Zac de la Rocha once said, “Your anger is a gift,” and when he shows up spitting venom on “Ju$t” it should be enough to strike fear into the hearts of white supremacists everywhere; “Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state”.
Satyr – Locus
When thinking of mathcore and progressive-post hardcore bands the mind immediately goes to Dance Gavin Dance or the numerous other Swan-Core bands. But what if there was a band that incorporated a heavier and more chaotic sound along the lines of Fall of Troy or even the DGD side project, Secret Band? Insert Satyr and their debut full length after an EP two years ago.
The vocals will be the first thing to take note of with a back and forth between the screams of guitarist/lead vocalist, Michael Campbell, and guitarist, Janald Long, whose voice has incredible melody, reminiscent of Toby Morrell from Emery. This can be showcased in the song, “Not to Scale”. Mind you, this band is only a four piece! They are rounded out by drummer Brody Smith and bassist, Calvin Cox. These songs are technical and complex while also incorporating a balance of melody. They seamlessly keep your ear engaged, weaving in and out of complex passages.
The fact that they chose “Picayune” as the first single is brilliant as it really showcases the artistic ability of the band: Beautiful melodies that turn on its head halfway through, with harsh chaotic vocals and crushing riffs, finishing it off where it all began. There is definitely a fine balance in this style of music trying to be creative while also finding something to latch onto and also not repeating the same thing over and over again, but Satyr have nailed that perfectly.
There is a weird balance with this record. The run time of the album is only thirty-six minutes which is perfect as it keeps your attention but it also has the ability to make you immediately want to hit play again. Satyr are on to something and are an extremely talented band destined to make waves in the post hardcore/mathcore scene. This record should be on everyone’s radar.
Ulcerate – Stare into Death and Be Still
Technical death metal at some point seemed to split into arguably two factions: the cleaner, more melodic and virtuosic solo-heavy side of bands like Obscura and The Faceless, and the less immediately-digestible avant-garde style popularized by bands like Gorguts. While the former has reigned in popularity for some time, Ulcerate write tech death for people clamoring to the latter. The style known for its structural complexity, dizzying use of dissonance and atonal guitar work has seen a re-emergence in recent years with bands like Artificial Brain, and increasingly in black metal. Ulcerate have been near the forefront of this since their 2009 breakout album Everything Is Fire, however their increasing integration of sludge and post-metal on this year’s Stare Into Death And Be Still has elevated them to a new territory that few have explored. It’s rare and exciting when an album can force me to come up with a “new” sub-genre tag to define it, but I find “post-death metal” to be aptly fitting for the hard to pinpoint sound they’ve cultivated.
The sonically suffocating elements of this brand of death metal merge with the dense viscosity of atmospheric sludge and post-metal for an album that’s both claustrophobic yet expansive. It’s the bridge between hyper-technical and abrasive, yet incredibly immersive; the avant-garde and the… catchy? While arguably a less challenging listen compared to their previous two releases, the quality and ambition weren’t lost in the process. There’s an undeniable groove throughout that keeps you engaged, and the boiling post-metal swells work to perfectly amplify these surges of catharsis.
For me this is also the best sounding Ulcerate album to date. The gritty distortion and strikingly ominous vocals are ever present, but everything feels perfectly balanced and in its place in the mix – especially the unrelenting power of the drumming. At essentially every point of this album the drums are doing something insane. For any other album it might be to near the point of distraction, but Jamie Saint Merat’s unique approach makes these huge waves of percussion feel almost like an accompanied vocal track that seeps emotion. On top of everything, the title itself Stare Into Death and Be Still is the perfect description of the experience of what listening to this feels like. The dramatic and densely knit tension that is built and released while you contemplate the void truly move me to a sense of meditative stillness.
VASA – Heroics
One of my catch phrases in relation to post-rock over the last couple of years has been “make the bass fucking loud” and I stand by it. It’s simply the best antidote for the worst tropes and pitfalls of the genre, namely airy melodies that go nowhere and have no punch to them. VASA, alongside bands like Town Portal and West Meets Wess, are one of the best champions of this adage. Their style is like sleepmakeswsaves with ADHD, punchy, direct, massive, bottom-heavy and insanely danceable.
Yeah, I said danceable. Don’t believe me? Throw on tracks like the opening self-titled number or the immense “Victoria” and feel your feet take over you. The first ingredient to this dance-a-thon is the scintillating tone of the guitars, like so many pieces of shattered glass tinkling on the surface of water or a million birds in flight. Then you add that goddamn bass churning behind it, drums that punch like Stone Cold Steve Austin himself and you’ve got yourself a truckload of fun.
On Heroics, the band have also added a heaviness that their previous releases only hinted at, with honest to go breakdowns (like at the end of the aforementioned “Victoria”, boy golly does it go hard). That’s frankly exactly what the band needed to keep them moving forward and evolving their sound. Now, in addition to those pretty melodies and leg-twitch inducing grooves, they also bring hefty haymakers to the table in the form of crushing, drawn out riffs. This means that Heroics is the full package, an album both ponderous and frivolous. Alright, enough adjectives; go dance!
Wake – Devouring Ruin
Someone, somewhere, told me that Wake was a grindcore band that had managed to release one of the greatest deathgrind albums to be heard in years back in March. So, imagine my confusion when I pulled up Devouring Ruin to hear an exploration of thoughtful yet catastrophic post-metal on opening track “Dissolve and Release.” After double checking that this was, in fact, the same Wake (active since 2009 and hailing from Alberta), I had resumed Devouring Ruin with exactly no expectations other than a good time, and my expectations were still vastly exceeded.
As Devouring Ruin unfurls, it moves into spaces not too dissimilar to that of Ulcerate’s latest trajectory, shedding their dissonance in favor of an all-enveloping melodic atmosphere. Once the record builds up momentum with the track “Kana Tevoro (Kania! Kania!),” the sustained arpeggiated guitars, intricate blastbeats, and reverberating growls offer a lovely familiarity, but are elevated in their spirit and urgency. Wake differ in the way they approach songwriting and sonic exploration in a way that feels more organic and personal; the different shades of grind, sludge, black metal, and death metal swirl into a thick mass of beautiful devastation that is accentuated by a stunning radiance and power that is, frankly, peerless.
Devouring Ruin is, front-to-back, a gorgeous record, but not in the way you might expect. It may take recurrent spins for the beauty to reveal itself beyond the oppressive presentation. It’s a take on nihilism that is comforting on the back-end, like a peaceful resignation. Of course, this is not a peaceful album at all, cinematic interludes notwithstanding, and the act’s roots in eviscerating grind are made evident on tracks like “Monuments to Impiety” or the barnburner “In the Lair of the Rat Kings.” When Wake goes, they fucking go. Yet, somehow, a deathless aura of serenity lurks beyond the wreck.
Devouring Ruin is immense and complicated. What genre is it? Does it even matter? This is a deeply evocative and expressive record that is exhilarating in its clever manipulation of extreme metal tropes to craft some of the most compelling music you’ll hear not just in the first half of 2020, but for years to come.
wthAura – Grocery
It’s rare you’ll see an album come from completely out of nowhere to capture enough hearts and minds to appear on a Best-Of list such as this, but that’s exactly what happened this year with Philadelphia’s wthAura, a project which appears to be not only obscure, but obscure by design. The Bandcamp page lists this as the solo work of a musician named Brian J. Davis, but that’s pretty much all the information we have. The project has zero social media presence, and this is the first album to emerge under the heading.
Sometimes you run into a problem with multi-instrumentalist solo material. It’s easy for it to veer into myopic, sameish territory, a product of an artist having too specific a vision and no one to bring different kinds of color to the music. Grocery, on the other hand, is an example of the solo artist experiment working perfectly. wthAura’s vision is of course singularly Wilson’s, but it’s also such a delicious blend of inspirations and applications that it’s unlikely it could have spawned from the minds of multiple contributors. It doesn’t hurt that Wilson is clearly a fantastically gifted performer and as such is able to give the appropriate amount of care and character to each instrument in order to allow the compositions to flourish and the components to feel like they stand on their own.
wthAura’s aesthetic also happens to be incredibly valuable in our current social context. Wilson’s choice to blend high-flying math rock acrobatics and prog-rock sensibilities with the warmth of synthwave and charm of indie rock, then place it all within a curiously commonplace conceptual framework (every song title corresponds to a different aisle or department of a grocery store) is whimsical and inspired. It sets a fun tone from the get-go, and wisely maintains that while simultaneously managing to spread its wings over a wide array of ideas and compositional approaches. It’s inventive, unpredictable, playful, busy, curious, joyous, and absolutely never boring.
I have no idea who Brian J. Davis is, what inspires him, what other projects he has, or whether wthAura is a one-off concept he’s already moved on from, and that’s part of the fun of Grocery. It seems to exist just for the hell of it. In a year where everything feels so dire, uncertain and scary, an album with no apparent agenda, no context, no pretensions, no social media presence, and no fanfare dropped out of the sky to enrich our lives as a pure, unapologetically weird, effortlessly engaging work, and unexpectedly blossomed into the exact thing we very much needed.