The last few weeks have been, to say the least, quite stressful for a lot of us at the blog. When you look at the list of albums that we chose to run for this month’s Editors’ Picks, it might be tempting to paint some sort of narrative tying them together. Hey, that’s the whole point of these intros, right? But I would like, for once, to not do that and merely talk about another form of escape or balm that music might provide us: the chance to let go of the stories we tell ourselves and the freedom to indulge in other sorts of narratives.
Take my choice for example, Chaos Divine’s moving Legacies. Chaos Divine are an unapologetically Christian band and, while I am ever fascinated by the religion and its philosophies, I’m not a Christian by any stretch of the definition. And yet, the album, well-crafted as it is, allows me to partake of the perspectives, ideas, and aesthetics of someone who is. Looking further down the listen, we can say the same thing about Clipping.’s marvelous release. I’m not an African-American nor have I had an encounter with the supernatural (yet) but the album allows me to try and emphasize with the plight of a people oppressed and give me new roads of understanding into the messages of the horror genres.
That’s one of the hidden powers of music: they allow us to transport ourselves, sort of like books, into heads not our own. But, unlike books, they do so in many ways with unintelligible and unexplained tools, channeling wordless instrumentals as our psychopomps into the unknown. So, the best thing to do, often, is to let go the stylus of analysis and simply let the music carry us away. When was the last time you simply listened to an album, without thinking about it, letting it carry you away? Maybe that was recently; count yourself lucky then! But maybe not. Maybe this is the excuse you were waiting for. Maybe the closet door lies suspiciously open right now and I am inviting you, with a wink, to step into lands far beyond your ken? Maybe.
Chaos Divine – Legacies (progressive metal)
I have, overall, fallen out of love with progressive metal. But it would be an uncharacteristic mistake on my part to simply write off the entire genre; even in genres that are supposedly “dead”, there’s great music to be found. Case in point, this edition of Editors’ Picks sees me writing about not one but two progressive metal albums. So what’s the secret? What sets these releases apart from the fold of progressive metal today? If you know anything about me, you know the answer is passion. And in Chaos Divine’s case, that passion is religious passion, which is doubly interesting for me.
Legacies came at the right time; just a week before it was announced, I was wondering what had happened to this underrated Australian band. Colliding Skies is one of my favorite progressive metal albums so I was a bit worried about Legacies, once it was announced. Could Chaos Divine recapture their unique sound (mostly driven by the standout vocals)? The answer is, gladly, yes! Legacies sees the band dive back into what made them great, making a few tweaks here and there, but essentially maintaining their core sound. This is a sound mainly driven by modern progressive metal tropes: big sounding guitars, sweeping vocals, and a preference for melody over dissonance.
But, as before, Chaos Divine just sound like nothing else. To the massively moving clean vocals, still as powerful as they were on the last release, you can add harsh vocals. On their own, they’re fine; they do the work of adding a modicum of aggression to the sound. But the beauty is how Chaos Divine use them in conjunction with the clean vocals, bolstering them and making them sound even more robust. “No Saviour (Rise & Fall)”, the second track on the album, is a great example. Both when accompanying the clean vocals on the chorus and when standing on their won in the middle of the track, the harsh vocals do a good job of amplifying the rest of Chaos Divine’s sound.
Bottom line, the album is just filled with the power of expression and earnestness that make Chaos Divine great and, indeed, which are the prerequisites for progressive metal that still makes me feel something. This isn’t an album about a band trying to get a message across, paint a concept, or dawdle in general with an excess of music. Instead, it’s an album about a band moved by passion (and faith) to make music which manages to reach across the ether and evoke something within us.
clipping. – Visions of Bodies Being Burned (industrial hip-hop)
West Coast hip-hop outfit Clipping. (featuring everyone’s favorite up and coming superstar of the moment, Daveed Diggs of Hamilton) surprised us this year with a follow up to last year’s remarkable There Existed An Addiction To Blood, which married the band’s highly technical industrial and noise-infused hip-hop with specific nods to the Memphis Horrorcore scene and horror film score and sound design. Recorded in parallel, the sequel Visions of Bodies Being Burned continues and expands on the loose horror concept, and is perhaps more chilling and gut-wrenching than its predecessor.
In his review, Eden contrasts Visions with Addiction, stating that while the ladder evokes an atmosphere of visceral and in-your-face grotesque violence, the former alludes to the uncanny, where the horror lies in the unknown and indescribable. If Addiction was a slasher film, Visions is a psychological horror. Now this isn’t so much a reflection of the lyrical content on each album (Visions features direct references to Scream, Candyman, and Zombie films), and is perhaps an unintentional or subconscious direction in the sequencing of the two albums, but there is a clear ramping-up in the stakes of Visions in its scenery and emotional hits.
Take the pre-release single “Pain Everyday,” which features recordings of purported Electronic Voice Phenomena (the likes of which are pored over by ghost hunters everywhere) and serves as a backdrop to chaotic breakbeats and emotive strings as Diggs rides the 7/8 time signature weaving a narrative of the ghost of a lynching victim and his anguish as he exacts revenge. Or perhaps the John Carpenter inspired “Check the Lock,” a particularly catchy and unnerving track about paranoia and always looking over your shoulder for a horror which never quite shows itself, but is never ruled out. Another highlight, “Say The Name,” takes direct influence from Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and leans into those haunting and overtly sexual vibes and flips them with references to the 1992 film Candyman.
Diggs is of course a technically proficient and versatile emcee, but the sound design and production from duo William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes sells Visions as an experience in horror as much as the narrative and lyrical delivery. Anyone who has heard Clipping. knows to expect unconventional and dynamic instrumentation, and in between noisy industrial hip-hop and nods to synthwave, Visions features a backdrop of field recordings and atmospheric tones — the clanging and banging of metal and the things that go bump in the night, jump scares serving as pivotal drops, the rush of leaves and twigs cracking underfoot, the creak of a rusty gate in the breeze, and the chirping of crickets in the dark serve as the soundtrack to Visions, and its masterfully executed.
It’s telling that Clipping. were able to create such an abundance of rich material on the subject of horror without falter. The subject of violence and terror aren’t exactly foreign to the trio, but these overt and purposeful odes to the genre’s various moods, eras, and movements don’t miss. Addiction was quite the proof of concept, but Visions is a blowout, one-upping its predecessor and serving as one of the more fascinating records to come out in 2020.
The Mountain Goats – Getting Into Knives (folk rock, indie folk)
As an ardent lover of music, few sensations rival the experience of finding a seminal artist with an extensive discography. Contemporary discoveries certainly have their own engaging cycle of enjoyment and anticipation with each new release. But stumbling upon an established band with seemingly endless listening options in their back catalog has been one of my favorite undertakings as a listener, especially as a collector of physical media. I love it all, from unpacking the history and context of their career and each individual release, to collecting and playing each installment in their discography.
The Mountain Goats are easily my favorite example of this during my time as an active music listener. I took a chance on Tallahassee (2002) and The Sunset Tree (2005) and discovered some of the best indie folk I’ve encountered from the genre, led by frontman and lyricist John Darnielle. His penchant for balancing raw, emotional honesty with a quirky, unique sense of humor helps create some incredible narratives, which the band couples with eclectic folk rock compositions. My love of the band has only grown stronger since buying all the band’s albums (except those Darnielle released as a lo-fi solo project).
Now that I’ve “caught up,” I’m approaching Getting Into Knives as a true fan, and someone able to contextualize the 19th installment in their discography. While Darnielle’s prolific tendencies might inflate that number a bit, it’s still been nearly 30 years since he decided to sit down with an acoustic guitar and low-budget tape deck. The landscape of indie folk has changed considerably since then, even excluding modern inventions like folktronica and other subgenre probably still incubating in someone’s basement. All this to say that Darnielle and Co.’s enduring popularity is admirable and a bit shocking; who knew albums about pro wrestling, goths, and Dungeons & Dragons would provide a late career popularity boost.
All this considered, it seems obvious to peg Getting Into Knives as a victory lapse of sorts, or at least a musical sandbox with borders far in the distance. The fact Darnielle and Co. recorded the album in Memphis isn’t surprising in the least; the bulk of the album has a loose, rock ’n’ roll attitude that adds new energy to the band’s signature personality.
This pushes the album in directions both bright and brooding. “Get Famous” is a triumphant, show stopping number complete with soulful organs and a boisterous brass section and an impassioned performance from Darnielle. Though the meaning of the track seems obvious on the surface (“You were born for these flashing lights/You were born for these endless nights”), there’s a dark humor to Darnielle’s lyrics that captures his subject’s contempt for “normal folks” (“Cold, grey world, all these obedient sheep/They act like they know, but they’re all sound asleep … You arrive on the scene like a message from God”) as well as the underbelly of fame (“Light up the sky like a comet/Make yourself want to vomit/Shine like a cursed star/Show everybody exactly who you are”).
On the other end of the spectrum, you have songs like “As Many Candles as Possible,” which see the organ and sax from earlier take on a darker and more boisterous tone. Of all the songs in the band’s catalog, this track offers the clearest influence of Darnielle’s love of metal, especially with the building, doomy intro. Darnielle sings of demons and beasts, detailing a character with a fairweather attitude toward his relationships and commitments (“When you see the risen beast in your nightmares/You treat him like a long lost brother/But when you pass him on the streets of the city by day/You pretend you don’t recognize each other”). The rest of the album colors in the middle of these two extremes and sees the band exploring new territory. “Pez Dorado” has a summery, quasi-country vibe offering hints of Silver Jews, while “Rat Queen” is a bouncy piano rock anthem with classic, dueling guitars on the chorus.
Yet, regardless of what twists and turns the album takes, I’m thankful for two key facts. Darnielle and Co. wrapped up recording in early March, right before the pandemic hit full swing and thus offering a purely fun, organic record written outside that context. And on a related note, that songwriting process unfolding like it dude demonstrates that The Mountain Goats haven’t lost their core sound while still entertaining new ideas. Nearly three decades in, there’s still a lot to love about what the band have to offer, something that doesn’t seem close to changing anytime soon.
Oneohtrix Point Never – Magic Oneohtrix Point Never (progressive electronic)
Daniel Lopatin is quite possibly the most important musical figure of the 2010s. The man behind 2010’s Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 (the tape that launched a thousand bandcamp vaporwave labels), 2011’s Replica, 2013’s R Plus Seven, and 2015’s Garden of Delete, as well as the scores for both Good Time and Uncut Gems, has been the wizard behind the curtain for some of the decade’s most enduring musical tastes and aesthetics. There are cogent arguments to make that to understand the state of many disparate music scenes that emerged in the past decade, you must first understand the albums of Oneohtrix Point Never.
So, how does the man who engineered the 2010s step into the new world? With Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, an album that is equal parts a victory lap, an exhibition of his past work, and a proud, stalwart banner for his music yet to come. Lopatin’s sound has always operated in a psychedelic, dreamlike space where an enormous amount of disparate sounds are allowed to flow together into a single luminous pyroclasm of auditory stimuli that melts between slow melancholy, vibrant energy, and serene flatness with a frightening and duplicitous ease. Fragmented textures of noise culled from a seemingly infinite number of crates to dig through and synthesizer variables to manipulate lay atop one another like several ocean currents moving just out of synchronicity or layers of molten rock slowly cooling and melting together into a soniscape that seems to always be undulating just outside the reaches of one’s vision.
Magic OPN doesn’t step away from this, but there is certainly a sea change in the moods characterizing previous OPN albums versus this. Where Lopatin’s past releases were charged with a futural anxiety, a sort of being-towards intimately related to the hyper-speed, never-enough, never-look-back cyberculture of the decade he characterized, Magic OPN finds him with a more pensive perspective that isn’t “washed up” (as some might have you believe) so much as it is contented. Lopatin feels calm here, like he’s finally realized that he’s earned the right to luxuriate and indulge himself in his craft instead of reinvent himself with the manic polymorphism that has been so key to his past albums.
“The Whether Channel” sees Lopatin basking in the neon glow of a slowly-growing fleet of synths that only burst into life at the very end in a crescendo that feels deeply earned in a way previous releases could have never managed. “Bow Ecco” is a soothing two minute ode to the phosphorescent vaporjams that bubbled up in Chuck Person’s wake. “Lost But Never Alone,” one of the album’s ending tracks, is a moody pop track that layers murmuring vocals with slow, booming drums and lonely radio static that occasionally whirrs to life for a gorgeous chorus. Overall, Magic OPN doesn’t see Lopatin tapping into anything he hasn’t done before, but the novelty is made up for in spades with his newfound ability to sit with a sound and let it fully bloom before moving on.
The core conceit of Magic OPN – that it’s a radio station, essentially, where the listener is invited to tune in and catch snippets of past releases – papers over the lacking cohesion of the album as an experience compared to his previous works. Songs breezily recall the different styles OPN has toyed with in the past and the many moods he’s created; however, each is treated as a will-o-the-wisp, a point of ephemeral contact that just as quickly vanishes into thin air. It’s a stark contrast from the almost cloying atmosphere of his monomaniacal past outings. One could even say it’s a “meta-mood” of sorts, a relation to relations, a set of previous sets. To reground it, the listening experience of Magic OPN ultimately resembles a museum gallery that Lopatin has constructed for himself, finally taking a step back and letting himself be proud of the discography he’s built to date.
That is all to say, on Magic OPN, Lopatin embraces the virtue of appreciation. After a decade of experimentation that has resulted in some of the most vital contemporary electronic music, OPN is calm, collected and collecting, culling his work into a primer that exposes the heart and soul of his music by sweeping through it all instead of focusing with the surgeon’s precision on a single point on the graph. Hearing an artist celebrate themself is rarely as joyful and endearing as this.
Skáphe – Skáphe³ (dissonant black metal)
As I have harped on again and again in Kvlt Kolvmn, there are few styles of extreme music that are as simultaneously experimental and lashed to tradition as black metal. Over the past several years, it would be difficult to argue that the former of these traits hasn’t had the most distinct and measurable impact on the genre. Deafheaven blew the door to the popularization of black metal-infused music wide open, and with this increased public exposure came a flood of bands eager to break the confines of black metal’s rigid, traditional tropes. While it would be foolish to claim that Deafheaven are the sole reason that experimentation within the style exploded over the past decade, it’s impossible to discount their outsized influence on the genre’s direction.
Regionally, the same could be said for Icelandic black metal. Melding the harsh cold atmosphere of classic second wave acts with the thrilling and unpredictable violence of dissonance, there is no more important geographical space for black metal’s most recent development. Melding USBM’s tradition of experimentation with Icelandic fury, Skáphe have been one of the most interesting bands in the avant-garde black metal space, and their third full-length project Skáphe³ is undoubtedly their best.
For those unfamiliar with the band, Skáphe is a collaborative effort between Alex Poole and Jack Blackburn of Chaos Moon (and a slew of other bands) and prolific Icelandic black metal maniac D.G., who is most recognizable for his work with Misþyrming. Together they have built a jagged cathedral to dissonant, experimental black metal that ranks among the best in the genre. Skáphe³ lays out their modus operandi with crystal clarity, while building on some of the more vicious and bizarre elements that were present in their collaborative record with Wormlust from last year. These tracks are punishing, confounding, and mesmerizing in equal measure.
One need only listen to the first few moments of opening track “IX – The Lowest Abyss” to pick up on the complex and intricately constructed songwriting that makes this band such a staple in the experimental black metal scene. The guitars weave glide over a bruising cacophony of mercilessly varied drum work that keeps the track feeling both consistently propulsive and frenetic, letting each sonic layer stack on the last with a delightful unpredictability. It’s this groundwork that carries the album beyond its contemporaries and into more rarified territory.
As one traverses the vast sonic reaches of Skáphe³, it becomes clear that it would be difficult to pull off such beautifully bizarre music without expert songwriters and musicians at the helm. The guitar work here (presumably shared by Poole and D.G.) is utterly spellbinding, lilting, thrusting, and propelling itself atop Blackburn’s absolutely superb drumwork in amoebas fashion. D.G.’s distinct vocals are also fantastic, keeping each bizarre track firmly grounded in black metal howls and growls that add a hefty dose of gravitas to an already flamboyant package.
But that isn’t to say that Skáphe³ lacks subtlety. To the contrary, this record is rife with complexity that will take many spins to fully unpack. Whether it’s the ominous intonations of “XIV – A Spiritual Bypass”, the brutalizing bass-heavy grooviness of “XI – The Ocean of Fire”, or the immense and epic finality of “XVII – Rebirth Synthesis”, there’s a richly textured complexity to Skáphe³ that dramatically increases its replayability. It’s these elements that ultimately make this record one of the most interesting and intense listens of the year, and a record that I have spent a significant amount of time digesting and dissecting.
For those still roped to the mast of black metal’s most primitive and immovable sounds, I can only shake my head at what they are missing with records like Skáphe³. If the future of avant-garde, experimental black metal needs a face, there are few bands more capable and worthy of recognition. Front to back, there’s very little about Skáphe³ that isn’t fundamentally interesting and excellent, and it will surely be making its way on to my year-end list. A monumentally enjoyable and immersive outing.
Zeal & Ardor – Wake of a Nation (alt-metal, blackened blues rock)
I have always rooted for the idea of Zeal & Ardor even if I couldn’t bring myself to fully embrace the output. The sheer novelty of Manuel Gagneux’s black metal meets blues/black spiritual music fusion was more than enough to warrant giving him a fair amount of room to experiment and develop the concept even if his earliest material rarely transcended that novelty. 2018’s Stranger Fruit, held up by many as the project really coming into its own, still didn’t quite hit the mark for me, at least consistently. There were certainly moments and tracks where it transcended its premise into a truly coherent musical statement unto itself.
Too often though it still felt at once too safe and too dichotomous. There were songs that were definitively on the blues/spiritual side of things, like the very radio-friendly “Gravedigger’s Chant” that could easily be slotted into any number of commercial film and TV moments. More often when the black metal screams and blastbeats were incorporated it still felt like Gagneux placing the two sides in opposition to each other rather than truly fusing them together. Stranger Fruit was certainly a step up from Devil Is Fine and was more than solid overall, but there was a certain focus and unified intent missing keeping it from being a “great” album.
From its very first announcement, it was easy to tell that Wake of a Nation would be different. Perhaps one of the single most striking pieces of imagery from a year filled with striking imagery, the EP’s cover art featuring two stark-white police batons arranged side-by-side to evoke the impression of an inverted cross made its point of view and message known immediately. It’s not that Zeal & Ardor hadn’t been political up to this point. Its meager existence and juxtaposition of traditional black American music with the most racially and politically-fraught subsect of extreme metal was always meant to provoke and protest. But beyond that musical symbolism the actual politics of Gagneux’s music on a song-by-song basis has had a tendency to feel quite broad. After a while it no longer is enough to simply point out the inherent conflict and contradictions in your music without figuring out what you actually want to say about that conflict.
It seems that the mass waves of protests brought on by state-sanctioned violence against black bodies that we have witnessed this year provided the spark Gagneux needed to find his musical voice and point of view clearly. From the opening moments of “Vigil,” the message is there. “I can’t breathe, it’s a cellphone, please don’t shoot, I need to get home, I’m on my knees begging please; So you’re just following orders; They just keep falling on us; How many more will it last?; Why not just take all of us?” The anger, the disbelief, the fear, it’s all there both in the lyrics and the music. It’s not heavy, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a chant for the dead and a plea for the brutality to end.
To that end it’s pitch perfect that the track is followed by the vicious “Tuskegee,” which points its finger right back at the state for its exceedingly long history of brutalizing black bodies – in this case in the infamous experiments conducted on black men in which they were intentionally given Syphillis without treatment. It is perhaps the project’s most pointed and downright angry song to date, and it succeeds on the merits of that as well as its ability to harness that anger through catchy riffs, screams, and bluesy melodies.
The rest of the 6-song EP follows suit, blending a true sense of grief for the lives that have been already lost to centuries of racial violence with an anger and trepidation for the many more who will surely also fall. At a brief 17 minutes, Wake of a Nation is somehow more gripping and powerful than any of the project’s previous products. It is concise, but laser-focused, and it leaves an impression that carries over long after the EP ends. In a way it’s fitting that this released in the same month as clipping.’s latest statement. With Wake of a Nation Zeal & Ardor has finally shed its skin as a contradiction in search of a cause and became the clear-eyed and powerful political and societal commentary and art it could always be.
3,14 – Bombyx Mori (Middle Eastern classical music)
Worlds Within Worlds continues using their roster as a means of bolstering the modern canon of Indian classical music. Unique from the label’s recent solo artist/instrument releases, 3,14 are a trio of musicians who are clearly adept at their craft and well-versed in the traditions they honor on Bombyx Mori. The group pair a diverse range of string instruments with simple but potent percussion, pulling from traditional Egyptian, Turkish, Indian, Azeri, and Afghani music to craft truly gorgeous, transportive compositions.
Autechre – SIGN & PLUS (IDM, glitch)
For the first time since Exai (2013), legendary IDM duo Autechre have released new music with a palatable runtime. Sure, two hours of angular, unsettling electronics might be too much for some, but compare that to the 4-hour gauntlet on elseq 1–5 (2016), which the duo somehow managed to top with an 8-hour affair on NTS Sessions 1–4 (2018). As much as I love the band’s groundbreaking approach, I’m glad they’ve finally re-acquainted themselves with the cutting room floor on SIGN and PLUS, both offering an hour of the band’s signature experimental touch. While I prefer PLUS, both albums serve as a perfect compliment to each other. SIGN explores some of the most ambient textures from the duo’s repertoire, while PLUS gallops through the dark, twisting soundscapes I loved so much on Exai. If you’re new to Autechre and felt intimidated by their recent long-winded tendencies, now is the perfect time to experience a two-part clinic in how to craft successful experimental electronic music.
Bound – Haunts (post-rock, shoegaze)
Hop on over to this month’s Post Rock Post for some more thoughts on this, but DC’s Bound have released a true stunner of an album with their mixture of dreamy post-rock and shoegaze with gloomy atmosphere and some surprisingly lively compositions. Haunts is exactly as advertised in the title.
Bring Me the Horizon – POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR (alt-metal, metalcore)
After delivering a pop record in 2019’s amo, Bring Me The Horizon — inspired by video games and a global pandemic — collaborated with DOOM’s Mick Gordon for their heaviest material in over a decade. The first release in a planned series of EPs over the next year, POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR pairs industrial metal’s darting synths and thick riffs with massively catchy choruses and fascinating collaborations with BABYMETAL and Amy Lee of Evanescence, to name just a few. Plus there are death growls and blastbeats again!
Coastlands – Death (post-metal)
Another album that conveys pretty much everything you need to know in the title. Portland’s Coastlands completes their evolution from a lighter, post-rock meets shoegaze band into straight-up vicious post-metal that will peel the paint right off your walls if you’re not careful.
Ghostemane – ANTI-ICON (industrial hip-hop)
It’s no secret that Soundcloud rap icon Ghostemane has thick roots in the world of metal, and as he’s gained notoriety, he’s felt more comfortable exploring ideas within industrial metal, nu-metal, and hardcore. His latest full-length ANTI-ICON feels like Three 6 Mafia by way of Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. There’s a palpable movement of hip-hop that seems to be the contemporary equivalent to nu-metal (think acts like scxrlxrd, ho99o9, etc), but nobody does it quite like Ghostemane. Take a look at single “Lazaretto” below, which features a series of distorted breakdowns and infectious flows.
Honorary Astronaut – EP. 001 (prog rock, psych-pop)
The first release from The Dear Hunter frontman Casey Crescenzo’s solo moniker, EP.001, should sound very familiar to anyone remotely familiar with TDH’s oeuvre. Rather than attempting anything radically new for Crescenzo, Honorary Astronaut appears to be a vehicle to channel his strong affinity for 70s prog and psych rock/pop that occasionally comes peeking through in his writing for TDH. Thankfully the songs, as per usual for Crescenzo, rise above being simply TDH b-sides and are effortlessly catchy with plenty of noodling and knotty chord progressions.
Spirit Adrift – Enlightened In Eternity (heavy metal, traditional doom)
When your album kicks off with a riff that feels reminiscent of High on Fire’s “Snakes for the Divine”, there’s little you can do wrong from that point on in my book. Thankfully, Spirit Adrift’s latest record is front-to-back another top-notch sequence of heavy metal that’s about as entertaining and immensely enjoyable as anything you will hear this year. Comparing Enlightened In Eternity to the rest of the band’s discography, it’s difficult to not consider it among their best work thus far. Fans of the doom-infused heavy metal stylings of bands like Khemmis will find plenty to love here. Strongly recommended.
Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions) (bluegrass)
East Kentucky’s Sturgill Simpson is a cult icon in the realm of country music and its adjacent genres who gained considerable crossover appeal by including psychedelic and progressive rock influences with country and americana on his 2016 opus A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. In fact, it landed him a surprise Album of the Year nomination at that year’s Grammy Awards. After a detour in “steamy rock n’ roll” on 2019’s Sound & Fury, playing to an empty Ryman Auditorium for a charity livestream during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic (after recovering from the disease himself!) inspired Simpson to raze his discography for more traditional bluegrass interpretations. The result is the quaint Cuttin’ Grass collection, which is a valuable listen even if you can’t stand the genre. Sturgill’s just built different; where else are you going to hear an introspective bluegrass song about having a bad psychedelic trip?
Undeath – Lesions of a Different Kind (death metal)
These rotten Rochester freaks play a style of death metal that appears as economical and no-bullshit as they come on its face and is, as such, endlessly listenable. But peek under the hood and there’s a lot of unique stuff to love here: the more you listen to Lesions, the more Undeath’s hidden genius emerges. Probably the best death metal release of 2020, honestly.
Wake – Confluence (atmospheric blackened death metal)
How Wake managed to follow up an AOTY-worthy record like Devouring Ruin seven months later with another stunning 23 minutes of music is beyond me. Might have something to do with all the free time we’ve been having. Confluence builds their LP with some devastating and emotionally weighty metallic soundscapes existing somewhere on the intersection between post metal, black metal, and death metal. Interesting developments for a band that used to play grindcore.
Wobbler – Dwellers of the Deep (prog rock)
I’ve come a long way and time from my Yes worship days but I am still, at heart, a progressive rock nerd. That’s why whatever Wobbler decide to dish me, I will take. Dwellers of the Deep continues their dedication to groovy, majestic progressive rock with plenty of synths, tasty bass lines, and fine vocals. What more could you possibly want?
Amiensus – Abreaction (progressive black metal)
Arkheron Thodol – Rituals of the Sovereign Heart (atmospheric black metal)
Atlases – Woe Portrait (post-metal, death metal)
Autocatalytica – Powerclashing Maximalism (technical prog metal)
Big Scenic Nowhere – Lavender Blues (heavy psych, stoner rock)
Bleakheart – Dream Griever (doomgaze)
Botanist – Photosynthesis (blackgaze, avant-garde metal)
Briqueville – Quelle (post-metal, atmospheric sludge metal)
Calyces – Impulse to Soar (progressive stoner metal)
Coexistence – Collateral Dimension (tech death)
Convulse – Deathstar (melodeath, death ’n’ roll)
Convulsif – Extinct (noise rock, experimental rock)
Empress – Premonition (progressive stoner doom)
Enslaved – Utgard (progressive black metal, viking metal)
Gargoyl – Gargoyl (prog rock, grunge)
Glacier – The Passing of Time (heavy metal, power metal)
Hugo Kant – Far From Home (downtempo, nu-jazz)
James Norbert Ivanyi – Omen Faustum (prog fusion)
Lord Almighty – Wither (atmospheric black metal)
Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma and Divorce (abstract hip-hop)
Pallbearer – Forgotten Days (doom)
Radiant Knife – The Ghost (progressive sludge)
Scaphoid – Absent Passages (progressive post-rock)
Serpent Column – Kathodos (progressive black metal, mathcore)
Sulphur Sun – Placodermic Heraldry (brutal death metal)
SUMAC – May You Be Held (atmospheric sludge metal, noise rock)
Tallah – Matriphagy (nu-metal)
Thou & Emma Ruth Rundle – May Our Chambers Be Full (post-metal, dark folk)
Torrential Downpour – Twentytwentytwenty (math metal, prog metal)
Venom Prison – Primeval (death metal, deathcore)
Wytch Hazel – III: Pentecost (heavy metal, prog rock)