We’ve come down to it. After an absolutely batshit year, we’ve compiled our favorite releases in the wonderful world of death metal in the year of shit 2020. As is the custom, usual suspect Scott and myself will be delivering unto thee the good of goods, highlighting our ten favorite releases of the year. It’s been one of the wildest 365 in recent memory, and we could not be more grateful that you have stuck with us through the insanity. Thank you for being here to revel in the slime-ridden riffs of the best music on the planet. To a more globally prosperous and deliciously heavy 2021.

Jonathan Adams

Fifteen Minutes of Flames: Death Metal’s Mainstream Fling Fizzles Out

Metal and the mainstream have an interesting relationship, particularly when it comes to the more extreme corners of the genre. I picture it as one of those “What People Think I Do vs. What I Actually Do” memes; the former square shows metalheads soaked in blood and screaming over pentagrams in the forest, while the latter is just a dude in a black band tee slouching in front of his laptop and scrolling through Metal Archives. In short, metal is either frieghetning or goofy to most “normal” folks, and at best, it’s usually relegated to a punchline in popular media. You have the famous Cannibal Corpse scene in Ace Ventura, and the more recent Mastodon joke in Monsters University.

I could pivot to an argument that Sunbather changed this narrative for at least a fleeting moment, which is true to an extent. But even though I dismiss arguments that it’s not metal (it is, get over it), Deafheaven certainly don’t play the type of music most people think of when “heavy metal” comes to mind. Yet, even still, there’s no denying that critics elevating Sunbather beyond their metal lists was a groundbreaking moment for mainstream acceptance of metal, later upheld by bands like Pallbearer and Code Orange. I realize Pitchfork isn’t a 1-to-1 proxy for the general public, but it still means something to folks when an established voice endorses something that doesn’t belong. I have friends with no prior interest in black metal who picked up Sunbather based solely on the critical acclaim. 

So it seemed like an even more promising sign of progress when two heavy-hitters from the death metal scene made a splash in critic’s circles last year.  Tomb Mold’s Planetary Clairvoyance didn’t receive quite as much acclaim, it did earn an 8.0 review from Pitchfork, while Blood Incantation’s Hidden History of the Human Race earned a Best New Music tag from the site (which might very well be the first time that’s happened with a metal album). More impressive still, Hidden History landed at 41 on their overall Top 50 Albums of 2019 list

Blood Incantation and Tomb Mold both received acclaim from across the metal community, of course, including spots among metal-specific lists from publications like Rolling Stone and Consequence of Sound. And the album landed on overall AOTY lists from more genre-agnostic sites like The Quietus and Stereogum. But it’s another thing entirely for Pitchfork — aka Rolling Stone for millennials — to treat a death metal album as they would a release from any other genre and include it as one of the best albums of the year. And for all this to happen after their acquisition by Condé Nast and amidst their “poptimism” push is no small feat, either. 

So what happened? After seemingly cracking the door open for death metal to “go mainstream,” the genre went virtually unnoticed throughout 2020. Pitchfork went from bestowing perhaps their first BNM tag on a metal album to reviewing a grand total of one death metal album all year (Ulthar’s great sophomore album Providence). In total, they reviewed 13 albums tagged as “metal” in their system, three of which were reissues or classic reviews and another being Inter Arma’s new covers album. And perhaps oddest of all, neither Pitchfork nor Rolling Stone — the two biggest names in music journalism — even published a dedicated AOTY list for metal, let alone included any metal albums among their overall top albums of the year for 2020.

Here’s why I think that happened, and why it matters. While I’ve appreciated the metal writing Pitchfork has run in the past, it feels as though they’ve dedicated less time and fewer resources to the genre over the years. This can certainly be said for Rolling Stone as well, minus the track record of good metal writing. It made sense why an album like Sunbather rose to the top in their eyes, considering the obvious crossover appeal with fans of post-rock, shoegaze, etc. But with Blood Incantation, I think the more likely explanation is an attempt to capitalize on a “safe” pick to establish credibility with a metal audience. The acclaim for Blood Incantation and Tomb Mold from the metal world preceded Hidden History and Planetary Clairvoyance, only skyrocketing from there. Being able to ride that wave and put the “hip” in hipster without actually putting in the leg work to curate noteworthy metal feels like a win-win for publications who don’t want to invest in the genre.

Now to bring it all home, especially for folks reading this who already wrote off Pitchfork from the start of this column. While Pitchfork has been the butt of many jokes for years, they are unquestionably well-regarded by a wide swath of music fans. Even people who rage comment on their posts reinforce the notion that their opinions are worth establishing discourse about. When they use that voice to prop up a genre long maligned genre, that means something, as is the case when they largely ignore the genre like they did in 2020. 

I’m certainly not calling for at least one obligatory metal pick on every AOTY lists a major outlet publishes. Rather, I’m pointing out something deeper that informs the problem in the first place. When you barely review metal throughout the year and then relegate the genre to its own year-end list, it’s no wonder the quality of curation continues to decline. And as you’ll seem from our own lists in this post, it’s not like death metal had a down year. Clearly, none of this affects our ability to curate and recommend great death metal to our readers. I just wish Pitchfork and their peers had the same viewpoint. 

Scott Murphy

Top 10*

  1. Pyrrhon – Abscess Time (sludgy tech death)

With Abscess Time, Pyrrhon have become the Black Flag of death metal. This is partially due to the record’s embrace of styles pioneered on albums like My War, particularly sludge and noise rock. But more importantly, the band have clearly separated themselves from their peers, writing death metal that’s emblematic of the genre while also evolving beyond the need for neat, definable guideposts. Of course, it helps that Abscess Time is Pyrrhon’s grimiest, heaviest outing to date. But from a structural standpoint, the album FEELS like the band’s longest and most challenging to navigate, which I mean as the highest compliment. It’s such a dense, intense listen, but once you make it to the other side, it feels incredibly rewarding to finally “get” such a massive achievement.

  1. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville (avant-garde death metal)

In all honesty, Alphaville is truly a refinement and expansion of what Imperial Triumphant produced with Vile Luxury. Yet, that’s precisely why it’s among my favorite albums of the year, regardless of genre. When you hit on a successful formula, it can be counter-productive to tinker just for the sake of experimentation. Instead of breaking new ground with Alphaville, Imperial Triumphant simply build upon the wasteland they’ve created, symbolized by the skyscraper on the album’s cover. Picture every dissonant riff, jazzy passage, and deranged song structure you heard on Vile Luxury, then dial it up a notch. Trust me, you’re in for a real treat.

  1. Xythlia – Immortality Through Quantum Suicide (mathy deathgrind)

Immortality Through Quantum Suicide was a great candidate for a number of our AOTY topics, but the best fit in my view was, “I need to break out my calculator for this.” There’s a LOT going on across this record, from deathgrind to borderline djent to pure, unadulterated mathcore goodness. On first listen, it was tough to keep track of what Xythlia was doing, especially on the shorter tracks where things devolved into mathy, grindy chaos. Instead of compartmentalizing every note, I put away my calculator, pressed repeat, and simply enjoyed the cacophony unfolding around me. I encourage you to do the same; just strap in for the ride and let the album pummel you into the ground. You’ll thank me, I promise.

  1. Countless Skies – Glow (progressive melodeath)

When you think of death metal, “gorgeous” isn’t typically the first adjective that comes to mind. Even melodeath isn’t a consistent portrait of beauty. But make no mistake about it, Glow is one of the most stunning, awing, sublime albums you’ll hear from 2020, regardless of genre. Countless Skies leverage emotional power and instrumental depth to send listeners into the stratosphere throughout the album’s runtime. Glow was one of the most balanced albums I heard from 2020, offering everything a death metal fan could possibly want from the melodic side of the genre.

  1. Aseitas – False Peace (post-tech death)

Who says death metal has to be fast? Sure, there are blast beats on False Peace that help the tempo swell a bit. But Aseitas prove that the genre is defined by intensity and riffs, which the band execute at the highest level across their excellent sophomore outing. Aseitas lean on crushing grooves and dizzying dissonance to flatten listeners intro the ground, only to summon them out of the dirt with off-kilter melodies and post-metal atmospheres. It’s a dense listen that’s worth the ride.

  1. Defeated Sanity – The Sanguinary Impetus (brutal death metal)
  2. Ceremonial Bloodbath – The Tides of Blood (war metal)
  3. Of Feather and Bone – Sulfuric Disintegration (deathgrind)
  4. Phalanx – Golden Horde (death metal)
  5. Tzompantli – Tlamanalli (death-doom)

*Cryptic Shift’s excellent new album Visitations From Enceladus landed on my overall Top 50, but I feel like it straddles the line between tech death and tech thrash a bit too much for a death metal list. Consider this a caveat or honorable mention and definitely check out the album if you haven’t already. It’s like a better, more death metal-oriented Vektor without the domestic abuse. [From Jonathan: Emphatic second]

Great Expectations: How Hype Elevated and Crippled 2020 Death Metal

It is a well known fact in my circle that I have a strong dislike for the majority of the works of Charles Dickens. As a person who has read widely in the English classics, my distaste for the works of an “English master” has been the center of many a literary debate between myself and like-minded friends. Given the vehement opposition I have received toward this particular view of a literary giant, I have spent more time contemplating the “why” behind my feeling toward Dickens more than perhaps any other author I’ve been exposed to. While there are a multitude of reasons surrounding my feelings on Dickens’ works (far too long and loquacious, often dull and with repetitive character archetypes from novel to novel, etc.), there is one factor that has had an outsized impact on my reaction to his work: It has uniformly failed to live up to the hype.

To be clear, I want to assert that a work of art receiving hype does not inherently doom it to instant disappointment status. As I will break down over the next few paragraphs, in regards to music there are plenty of bands that have received absolute gobs of hype only to release records that exceed all of those lofty and unrealistic expectations. But as we will see, that sort of delivery is becoming rarer in the internet age. It’s incredibly easy to listen to a demo and declare a band the next big thing, and much more difficult for a band to live up to expectations that should not have been placed on them in the first place, often resulting in negative impacts on their careers. It’s my belief that the hype machine was particularly lively in 2020, and had some adverse (as well as some positive) impacts on a few releases in the genre.

If we’re to focus on the positive attributes of hype first, Ulcerate and Imperial Triumphant are two bands that spent 2020 living up to every possible expectation and then some. Stare Into Death and Be Still and Alphaville respectively entered their release months with more hype than most any records in the metal scene, and delivered in spades. As established Titans in the death metal scene, this is not as surprising as it could be. Both have established reputations for pushing envelopes since their earliest recordings, and sonic exploration is part of their standard repertoire. With reputations established by over a decade of work, it’s almost safer to assume that they’ll deliver rather than that they won’t. It’s with younger bands that the darkside of hype rears its ugly head. 

Two new bands that dropped death metal records to considerable hype in 2020 were Undeath and Sanguisugabogg, and the results were decidedly more mixed. While Undeath’s debut was indeed excellent, there was almost no way the band could live up to the titanic expectations placed upon them by the blogosphere. The same could be said of the latter band as well. While there are definitive benefits to hype generation prior to early releases (increased exposure, sales, billing on tours) that are all great for bands, there’s a two-edged sword to that level of saturation early on in a band’s career that can often spell disaster. 

For those who love indie music, you may recall the work of Glasvegas, and Pitchfork’s championing the band as the next coming of indie godhood. Unfortunately, the crown placed on their head weighed far heavier than their young necks could carry. After a tumultuous first few years, the new kings of indie rock simply vanished from memory. The same could be said about the hype generated around Editors, Interpol, amd even The Strokes, who saw insane amounts of press before their debut records even dropped. Not every band is prepared to handle the pressures that come with, honestly, unearned praise, and rock music is littered with the corpses of bands that failed to live up to the hype. For young bands in the death metal world, that pressure is equally potent and potentially damaging. 

As the blogosphere expands and continues to exist as the primary spot for new music discovery and hype generation, the road for new young bands is more fraught with peril than ever. As a writer, I’ve been guilty many times of trying to hype new bands to a degree that they perhaps neither deserve or need. It’s important, for the future of the genre, that bands get the opportunity to develop and evolve on their own terms. Hype is inevitable and something that can’t always be avoided, but as this genre continues to attract new talent it’s important for we as listeners to be gracious with young bands learning the ropes. Not every band will hit a grand slam on their first try, and we don’t need to pressure or expect bands to do so. The next Blood Incantation may already be releasing music that we haven’t even heard yet. More power to them. 

JA

Top 10

  1. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville (avant-garde death metal)

A few years back, when Vile Luxury spent several weeks in constant rotation breaking my brain, I had the sneaking suspicion that Imperial Triumphant were on the cusp of a full-blown classic album. Time will tell if Alphaville is indeed that classic that I hoped for, but at this juncture I have few if any hesitations about its place as the best death(ish) metal album of 2020. From its production choices (helmed in part by the masterful Colin Marston) to its focused-yet-straight-bananas songwriting and crisp, beautifully jarring performances, there isn’t a single aspect of this album that fails to live up to the magnitude and scale of its predecessor. In fact, I’d feel comfortable asserting that it eclipses all of the band’s previous recordings. For those who are willing to let their death metal take them deep into jazzy, avant-garde territory, you won’t find a more breathtaking and uniformly superb record than Alphaville. One of the most truly exceptional releases of the year in any genre. 

  1. Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still (progressive/dissonant death metal)

Every year that an Ulcerate record gets released, it seems to receive widespread (if not universal) acclaim and recognition as the pinnacle of its chosen sonic space. This type of band and this type of record are typically received with a hearty “meh” from yours truly, as the final product often falls well short of the hype. Stare Into Death and Be Still, no matter how many times I listen to it or how many ways I try to dissect it, is one thing and one thing only: masterful. It would be dishonest for me to deny the unique and otherworldly power this record contains as well as the impact it has had on me. Above all of the records in the band’s truly legendary discography, their latest entry gave me goosebumps and impacted me emotionally in a way I have not experienced with an Ulcerate record before. The band has always been technically insane and compelling, and all of the elements that have made them such a unique and special group in the death metal world are still there in spades. But the atmospheric and emotional core that pervades their songwriting on this record are more tangible, impactful, and ultimately rewarding than in any release previous. It may be, quite simply, their most perfect record yet. Allow me to heap even more kindling on the Ulcerate praise bonfire, and state that the accolades are absolutely deserved.

  1. Afterbirth – Four Dimensional Flesh (progressiv/brutal tech death)

What on earth even is this record? Afterbirth have been around for over 20 years, and their discography contains exactly two full-length records, both released in the past few years. Yet somehow their tiny discography already feels like it borders on classic status. Four Dimensional Flesh is an absolutely phenomenal record in every respect. I’ve listened to this thing dozens of times at this point and there has been no shortage of additional revelations with each new listen. This is a brutal, complex, transcendent record that is also enormously captivating. Brutal death metal often has that overwhelming effect on where tracks bleed together and eventually just lose my interest, but massive props to these obvious vets of the scene for constructing a record that feels wild without ever becoming listless, complex without ever losing its sense of accessibility,  and brutal without ever being dull. An utterly stunning effort from a truly great death metal band.

  1. Black Curse – Endless Wound (deathgrind)

Black Curse is what happens when you take members of Denver metal staples Khemmis, Blood Incantation/Spectral Voice, and Primitive Man and let them run wild. Endless Wound, outside of being one of the best death metal debuts in recent years, is a blistering and fundamentally punishing death-grind opus that is nearly impossible to shake after first exposure. This music is dark, and there are few bands in the business that are more capable of turning utter bleakness into art like the conglomerated members of Black Curse. Melding the non-stop assault of death-grind with a more cosmic and measured doom vibe has never sounded this good, causing these tracks to feel both individually engaging and somewhat unpredictable while never feeling either too monotone or erratic. It’s the perfect balance for a record coming from the much lauded Denver scene, and I genuinely hope we hear a lot more from this supergroup in the near future. An absolutely captivating and crushing debut.

  1. Aseitas – False Peace (post-tech death) 

Aseitas’ self-titled debut album caught my interest back in 2018 when it was released, but unfortunately fell out of rotation after a few spins. It’s not that the record wasn’t quality (revisiting it recently has only further cemented my opinion of how talented Aseitas is), but something about it just didn’t compel me like other releases did that year. Fast forward to 2020 and False Peace has seen near-constant play, despite its intimidating length. What this band has accomplished between their debut and sophomore albums is truly remarkable, and other than its length I have almost nothing of note to criticize this record for. The band take their time on False Peace creating a captivating sonic world, allowing each track to balance power and patience with expert precision and consistency. The production and performances throughout are superb, and the songwriting is truly ambitious as well as lethally effective in the heaviness department. If you’ve yet to check out this record, you’re missing one of the unsung gems of the year, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

  1. Xythlia – Immortality Through Quantum Suicide (mathy deathgrind)
  2. Pyrrhon – Abscess Time (sludgy tech death)
  3. Defeated Sanity – The Sanguinary Impetus (progressive tech death)
  4. Ulthar – Providence (old school death metal)
  5. Of Feather and Bone – Sulfuric Disintegration (deathgrind)
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