IT. IS. DONE. I mean, sort of. All you Heaviest of Bloggers made it through to 2021. We’re not quite out of the woods yet (I guess the pandemic and President Orange Assburger didn’t quite get the memo about knocking it the fuck off), but we can at least put the year number 2020 behind us.
As we got to the end of the year, it became so clear that way too much happened last year for any of us to keep track of it all. It seemed like everybody decided to get really busy now that they were all stuck at home. There were tons of surprise releases all over the place as bands used their energies into creation instead of performances. I appreciated it all around, but it made coming up with a definitive ranked list quite difficult. So instead of full on rankings, we’re just giving you all a list of doom records we really loved this year. It just felt like the right thing to do this year and we hope y’all are able to reminisce about the good things that happened in 2020 (however limited that list might be).
Anyway, I don’t want to go on too long here. Let’s have a nice and friendly review of the past year so we can celebrate going forward. Be well in 2021, everybody! GIMME THE RIFFS.
Abrams – Modern Ways
I’ve been waiting for this one a long time: an Abrams album which fully capitalizes on the band’s insane potential and delivers a full blast of their poppy, grungy, jumpy sort of stoner rock. Don’t get me wrong; the previous two releases were good but I always felt they were to the side, so to speak, not really hitting the nail on the head. Funnily enough, it’s only when I first heard Modern Ways that I could first articulate what bothered me with previous releases. I still can’t quite put my finger on it but I don’t need to, really; you can just listen to the release.
Once you do, you’ll hear this irresistible energy that runs from the first second of the self titled track, bursting onto your eardrums with great aplomb. From there, Modern Ways does not slow down, constantly banging the drum (literally, the drums here are so punchy) of that sweet, uplifting, and affective grunge rock that bands like Lo Pan and mid-era Torche are so good for. Yeah, I just dropped those two names; that’s how good this release is. So what are you waiting for? Get on it.
All Them Witches – Nothing as the Ideal
Pretty much anything goes when throwing around that “psych” label, but we don’t often see the kinds of regular cross-pollination that’s been happening across the worlds of post-rock or black metal. For whatever reason, a lot of stoner/psych stuff seems to stay in its own lane, yet All Them Witches have always had a way of escaping such basic categorization. As I outlined in my review, Nothing as the Ideal takes their sound a step further by welcoming heavier doses of post and prog metal as they leave behind some the more traditional psych rock elements, and they’re definitely better for it because this disc is arguably their best yet.
The album has a bumblebee-like flow, bounding from stoner sludge to bouncy classic prog to slow-burning psych to stripped-down blues rock to Tool-inflected post metal and everywhere in between. As little as they retread sounds explored on their previous records, they take the same approach from song-to-song on this effort, where it’s like hearing these experimentations take place in the moment. Nothing as the Ideal is psych metal wonder with that classic rock album feel, a perfect entry point for new listeners as much as it is a treat for those who’ve been following the group for some time.
Atramentus – Stygian
Stygian is an impossibly great album, almost literally so. Shelved for nearly a decade by project mastermind Phillipe Tougas, it’s crazy to think that something as impeccable as this has been waiting in the purgatorial wings to be unleashed upon sorrow-slurping ears thirsty for adventure in the most burdensome year of our lifetimes. A strong sense of narrative gives Atramentus’ epic funeral doom a cinematic feel, a prestige and stature that’s merely a gold ring to be reached for by most others in the genre. Honestly, who else besides Mournful Congregation, Evoken, or Bell Witch has created such an immersive and gripping funeral doom experience?
The ambiance is top-notch, instilling an atmosphere pregnant with dread and solitude. The glacial pace underscores the Stygian’s wonderful production where immaculate guitars plod along, mingling with pianos, organs, and other assorted instrumentation that classes things up. The soundstage is quite roomy, suitable for the record’s epic and grandiose concept. As a package, it’s an exceptionally rich and diverse exhibition of everything you could ever want from a funeral doom record. Isn’t that enough?
Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin – Stygian Bough, Vol. 1
Since it’s a year ending with a number and the Bell Witch duo released a record, we have to talk about Stygian Bough, Vol. 1. This outing saw the pair collaborating with folk doom solo artist Aerial Ruin for an epic tome of all things slow and low. Out of all the artists in the world to collaborate for a record, the two entities combining for this record have some of the most compatible sounds for a wholly unique and singular vision. Since their styles mash up so well together, Stygian Bough has become one of my absolute favorites of the year and a great example of why special collaborations aren’t just novelties you can ignore.
Personally, I was going to listen to this record no matter what. New music from Bell Witch is always worth my time. However, I was completely taken aback by what Stygian Bough has to offer. The atmosphere of the record conveys all the meaning you need, but even the you wouldn’t get the full picture. The melodic qualities of the record combine with the atmosphere to give the record a dramatic rise and fall of emotion, further conveying the ultimate sadness one might expect from a collaboration between Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin. It’s a true achievement of art for this record to exist, and you should listen to it if only for that reason.
Calyces – Impulse to Soar
We get a lot of room to talk about music here on Doomsday. It just seems like we have a lot of opportunities to talk about brand new ideas and influences in the genre. I’m very glad for that as it allows me to talk about Calyces, the experimental and math-influenced prog band from Athens, Greece. Impulse to Soar, their latest record, is a fantastic journey through the prog side of life. I do hope you were looking for music to mess with your sense of rhythm because holy damn does this record do that.
I love Impulse to Soar because the band is perfectly fine with playing with the listener. Each track is full of rhythmic and time changes while also blasting mind-blowing riffs. It tickles your brain in a delightful way and makes you want more. It’s also a pretty heavy record, too. So while it’s messing with your head, it’s also blasting your ear drums with sound. This record is the altar where we pray to the riff, so don’t let it just pass you by.
Cirith Ungol – Forever Black
Here I am, writing about this album once again and doing it with joy in my heart. I think the only angle I haven’t really covered when talking about this album is how much I was setting myself up for disappointment with this one and how glad I am that I didn’t end up being that. I haven’t been a huge Cirith Ungol fan for that long; I probably stumbled across their music for the first time back in 2014, when I was expanding my taste and listenings as I joined the blog. But boy did I fall hard for their style; there was something about their brand of proto-doom, slightly power metal kind of music that just works super well for me. That means that I masticated their original four releases to death and was extremely excited to hear that they were back.
Lo and behold, the album managed to meet and exceed those expectations. Forever Black shows us a few things (otherwise I wouldn’t be able to write about it so much) but it mostly shows us that Cirith Ungol know exactly what makes their sound work, even after all of these years. They could have easily tried to jock some more modern doom tropes, updating their sound to seem more relevant. But instead, they doubled down; you can hear it in the production, tones, composition, and even the lyrics on the album. That’s why the album is titled Forever Black to begin with. That name says: “we are Cirith Ungol, this is what we do best, come get it” and by Arioch, they make it work.
Crystal Coffin – The Transformation Room
I’m of the opinion that everything tastes better blackened. Chicken, fish, and sludge metal for me! Crystal Coffin first came across my radar with their demo in 2019. That was more than enough to get me interested in a full-length record, and The Transformation Room absolutely blew my expectations out of the water. There’s no other way to say it. It’s the uncommon moment where a record is critically praiseworthy and also a personal favorite of the year. Even after numerous playthroughs, I’m still convinced that my original praise for the record is still valid.
My own personal feelings aside, there’s not much to criticize this record for. No part of this record is done for the sake of adding something in or of meeting some genre standard. In fact, the record breaks some molds of their classification. There’s a beautiful melodic quality to their brand of blackened sludge that contrasts well with the harsh coldness of much of the record. The band draws a lot of inspiration from Russian culture and folklore, and it clearly shows. Every part of this record reflects their inspirations. It’s precisely what an artist means to achieve when they put out a record, and you’d be hard-pressed to disagree.
Dead Quiet – Truth and Ruin
There’s a lot of experimental music on this list, albums which push the envelope on what constitutes doom metal and how you can reconfigure it using all sorts of influences. But damn it, sometimes all you want is to rock. You want a big riff, honey-soaked vocals, thundering drums, and roiling bass to get your boiling like no other genre but the stoner/doom genres can. And if that mood strikes you, there are a few albums more suited to quell your hunger than Dead Quiet’s Truth and Ruin. This album has it all: incredible tone, massive synths, vocal hooks for miles, and an overall propensity to groove that will leave you looking for the nearest hot rod to drive off a cliff. Honestly, that’s all you need to know: just go play this album, play it loud, and rock the fuck out, bro.
Drown – Subaqueous
It wouldn’t be a Doomsday end of the year post without some heavy duty funeral doom. I would feel derelict in my duties not to bring up Drown and their latest entry, Subaqueous. And lucky you, it’s the second funeral doom record on the list! HOORAY, FEEL THE ENERGY THAT SLOWLY DRAGS YOU DOWN INTO THE EARTH!
Funeral doom records can often feel like reading Russian literature. It’s dense, there’s a lot going on, and it’s hard to see the full picture until the end. Subaqueous, however, might be the most straightforward funeral doom record I’ve ever heard. There are interesting musical and songwriting qualities to the record that keep you from getting too lost along the way, and it’s accessible enough that I would highly recommend this record for anyone getting into funeral doom.
On top of that, Drown absolutely nails atmosphere. The music is telling a story of loss and death in a way that emphasizes that feeling precisely. The whole record (all 2 tracks of it, GOD I love funeral doom sometimes) is guided to create that feeling to really illustrate the emotion. It’s a huge achievement for any artist to reach regardless of their medium. The fact that Drown is able to do it at all is enough to extol this record to the heavens, but it’s even more amazing that he doesn’t need much more than a minute into a 42 minute record for you to know what it’s about. It’s sad and beautiful and absolutely worth all of your time.
Elder – Omens
What’s left to say about this band that hasn’t been said before? Not much save that they were, are, and will remain one of the best bands to ever pick up an instrument. No, I am not exaggerating. You know how I know? Because I can hit shuffle on their entire damn discography and whatever track plays, I get chills. This is doubly true for Omens; to try and claim that this is their best release would be a fool’s errand since how can you pick between such unique and magnificent releases?
But, for me at least, it’s their album that most captured the dream-like, otherworldly, intensely emotional vibe that Elder have always been so effective at channeling. On Omens, everything comes together to transport you to someplace else, somewhere deep inside of you and yet, somewhere also far away. It’s an album that unravels me whenever I listen to it, breaking me up with its powerful evocation of dream, of mind, of elsewhere, of beautiful, melodic, psychedelic music that emanates strongly with something within. Just…just listen to it, OK?
Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full
Thou has an unfuckwithable track record complete with handfuls of albums that basically everyone and their mom hold up as sludge standards, yet it’s their “riskier” efforts like Inconsolable, Rhea Sylvia, and their collaborative albums that seem to click best with me as of late. Needless to say, the collaboration with Emma Ruth Rundle immediately spoke to me, delivering on pretty much every facet of their less “pure” sludge efforts. The pairing works exceedingly well, ERR’s presence is integral in fleshing out some of their Inconsolable-ish to amplified new heights in tracks like “Magickal Cost,” “The Valley,” and “Out of Existence” while “Ancestral Recall” and others skew more toward their grungier side.
Opening with a distinctly Alice in Chains flavor, the tone is set early on that the heavy/beauty overlap is going to center this partnership, and it’s the perfect touchstone to peg May Our Chambers Be Full’s vibe. There’s an apparition-like glide to this record, making some of the most sonically punishing moments almost sedate. It’s a special sound not that is truly the best of both worlds, and I know I’m not alone in saying that I’m already hungry for another collab from these two.
Eternal Champion – Ravening Iron
I can’t imagine it comes as a surprise to anyone here that Eternal Champion made our shortlist. The praise everyone is heaping on Ravening Iron is well-deserved, and maybe it’s even being sold short a bit? There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s one of the best traditional style heavy metal albums of 2020, but I’d take that even further to say it’s probably the best classic-sounding heavy metal album this millenia. It’s a perfect union of aesthetics, execution, and production; if you’ve listened to and enjoyed any old-school metal records released prior to 1990, you’ll get it. It’s not complicated. It’s just that fucking great and that fucking fun.
Eye of Nix – Ligeia
Ligeia probably have the honor to be the weirdest and most ambitious album on this list. In a way, it evokes blog favorites Dreadnought but the comparison only goes so far; instead of trippy progressive rock a la Camel, Eye of Nix have decided to blend their spacey black metal with operatic vocals and dark ambience. The end result is an album which channels its surreal cover art rather well; the vocals feel like a sort of bright object, refracting and unfolding across the blackness of space and time. The song and album structure are also plenty fragmentary, whisking the listener away on a seemingly endless ride between tremolo picked riffs which saw through the quiet, harsh vocals that serve as contrast for the grandiose clean variants, and blast-beats that seem to underpin this musical universe.
Of course, its presence on the Doomsday list is also plenty justified; while it can go fast, it often spends time revelling in the drawn out nature of its valleys and peaks. The guitars seem to unspool, giving the aforementioned operatic vocals time to explore the areas in which they find themselves. These explorations give it a somewhat occult vibe, again linking it to the doom genre. Long story short, it’s one of those albums after which you need to take a deep breath, about which I could probably write a thousand words or more. For now, I’ll live you with a warm recommendation to play this often; there’s a lot to wrap your mind around before you can say you’ve understood or heard this one.
Grayceon – Mothers Weavers Vultures
I wrote elsewhere (read: the 2020 Post Rock Post) about how much I love strings in my music and this is no different when we’re talking about doom. I mean, Grayceon already straddle the line with post rock pretty closely, so it makes sense that their usage of strings works in much the same way as it does for bands in that illustrious genre. But, of course, Grayceon sound a bit different, embracing tones and sensibilities from stoner, doom, and psychedelic music. Mothers Weaves Vultures is their best attempt yet at synthesizing all of these influences together into one whole which works. Previous releases suffered a bit from repetition and underutilization of the promise that this mix of sounds creates perhaps only brought fully to bear now that we have the perfected version in front of our eyes.
Which isn’t to say that Mothers Weaves Vultures is only good in comparison to Grayceon’s past attempts; it is a genuinely fantastic album that solidifies the unique Grayceon sound. Seriously, I am trying to think of other touchpoints in the genre right now and can’t seem to think of any. I mean, there are bands out there which use strings as part of their doom metal, of course. But none of them have the specific blend of Grayceon, the dreamy vocals and how they “ping” off of the strings, the winding guitar riffs and how they underpin that mixture or just the overall style and sound of the album as a whole. Oh, I can think of one comparison and, if you’re familiar with the band, it will tell you all you need to know: The Crooked Fiddle Band.
Grayceon have that same kind of aggression, directness, and “full” use of their stringed instruments, using both the morose and the more direct mode that these instruments can produce. Bottom line, this album is a must listen if you’re a fan of doom or stoner metal that reconfigures its basic approach to what sort of instruments perform which role and how composition works to bring them together. In those areas, it’s really unparalleled.
Green Druid – At the Maw of Ruin
As much as I love a good genre record, the more meaningful records to me are from artists who are constantly trying to do something new. Taking a wide variety of influences and concentrating them into something new is utterly fascinating to me. Green Druid is definitely one of those bands bringing metal into a new era with their variation on the stoner doom sound on At the Maw of Ruin. If you were wondering why stoner doom isn’t aggressive, wonder no more because Green Druid got it figured out.
I don’t want to say Green Druid is the first band to make stoner music sound belligerent because there’s always another example of a “first” happening. However, I will say that Green Druid has a very interesting approach to it. It’s fun to hear heavy riffs get a psychedelic treatment, and there are numerous examples on At the Maw of Ruin. One might say the entire record is nothing but heavy riffs inside of a kaleidoscope, which would be very accurate and also super cool. The tracks build out without meandering and always provide a new and interesting avenue to go down. I am so glad I live in the same hometown as these guys so I can see them let it rip live first.
High Priestess – Casting the Circle
Few things in the world move me like a spooky stoner doom record. On top of that, I always like being able to amplify voices we don’t have enough of in metal, i.e. women. So imagine my unmitigated joy in being able to say High Priestess and their latest record, Casting the Circle, is by far one of my personal favorites (if not THE favorite) record of the year. The record is excellently written and produced. It absolutely nails atmosphere and heavy psych in a way that makes it a modern standard for this kind of sound.
I absolutely love what the record achieves. I get some heavy horror movie-style vibes. For some reason, I can’t help but be reminded of 2015’s The Witch final scene: women of the woods dancing around a bonfire and repeating chants in praise of the Devil. I suppose that’s sort of the purpose of the record, but it’s simply floors me every time at just how well it is made. Even through high-end headphones, the record still sounds like a masterpiece. The trio has made a lifelong fan out of me. I can’t imagine any reader of this column not agreeing.
Huntsmen – Mandala of Fear
I was first introduced to Huntsmen earlier this year when I reviewed Mandala of Fear, and I have been exceptionally remiss in my duties in that I haven’t talked about it nearly enough. That’s a huge mistake on my part since it’s the kind of record I always bang the drum for. I always want to draw attention to great records in doom and sludge, but I feel a need to truly amplify my voice when it’s a record that goes far beyond the niche sound. That is exactly what Mandala of Fear does.
As I alluded to when I first reviewed it back in February, Mandala of Fear is a shockingly mature showing from a band with only a single other record under its belt. Their first record, American Scrap, showed that this songwriting ability of theirs is legit, but it didn’t have the scope or backing behind it to make it achieve what it set out to do. Mandala of Fear does in spades. There’s such an epic scope to what they do that I think a comparison to Dreadnought is complementary and appropriate. Huntsmen are really on to something in their career if they continue to put out records as good as Mandala of Fear.
Ilsa – Preyer
Lately, I’ve found myself digging deep into the annals of sludge metal history. The one thing about those early records is that they are all brutal, dark, and the definition of aggressive. Ilsa is a reconnection with that history, and Preyer is a love letter to that time. As much as I loved Corpse Fortress, it barely holds a candle to this latest release. Preyer finds the band engaging in both the dark punishing riffs of sludge metal history while also interrupting those riffs with moments of dramatic melody. They’ve mastered their songwriting abilities on Preyer, and it is absolutely brilliant.
While the band is certainly a niche taste to begin with, I love that Ilsa doesn’t just stick to single specific style. They mix it up and do slightly different things on each track, and there is some dedicated thought to how a song or sound will work. It’s this artisan approach to songwriting that makes Preyer jump out at you. This record is a special baby to them, and it shows. I’ll always be on the lookout for anything band does, but this one hits me different and makes me very excited about new releases or even a live show (fingers crossed).
Intronaut – Fluid Existential Inversions
There are some bands who will get automatically nominated for best of the year stuff no matter what. Sure, it’s partially because a lot of people love what they do and don’t care about the quality of the product, but that’s simply not the case with Intronaut. Intronaut blows minds no matter what they’re doing or what they release because it’s always absolutely brilliant, and that is certainly the case with Fluid Existential Inversions. Even if Intronaut makes music that is beyond description, we here on Doomsday will always celebrate them for blowing our minds with amazing riffs and rhythms.
Along with writing brilliant music, the band knows how to construct a record. Each of these songs has a flow that carries it into the next track. If these songs were on any other record, or even in a different order on Fluid Existential Inversions, it would still be great but not as good. Clearly a lot of time, thought, and effort was put into these songs and organization. For that alone the record is worth praise. Obviously that isn’t the only reason we’re celebrating it here, but it’s worth mentioning since the devil is always in the details. Fluid is probably the earliest released record from 2020 on this list, and a few playthroughs will convince you exactly why it has stayed on our radar.
King Witch – Body of Light
Man, I could have written about this album under so many different categories and places for this end of year drop. Body of Light could have appeared under any roof that favors power, thrust, aggression, and energy. However, I suppose that it is only just that I end up writing about it here, under the Doomsday umbrella that I so love and adore because, more than anything, Body of Light is a kick ass doom album. Not the kind of ponderous, melancholy doom that I so often write about but rather the type with electricity coursing through every note, gracing every vocal line, and erupting from every drum beat to hit you full on in the face, like so much fuzzy lightning.
Sheesh. Yeah, this album gets me going, causing my language to explode into flowery purple prose. It’s just one of the albums, mostly because of the unbelievably massive vocals on it, that reaches deep into my stomach and twists. It leaves me empowered, yearning to go and storm the castle of my life, to conquer every challenge and climb every hill. What more do you need from epic doom? Oh, killer solos? It has that. Rumbling, clever bass? Yep, that’s on there. Kick ass lyrics? You bet! Body of Light really has all parts of the epic doom formula nailed down to a tee. All that’s left is to hit play and be blasted away by King Witch’s might.
MSW – Obliviosus
So often we try to capture the physicality of doom albums with words that draw attention to their gigantic riffs and dramatic display of volume. Those qualities are certainly present with MSW’s latest, but it’s value doesn’t hinge on these hallmarks. Instead, Obliviosus spins a potent, personal narrative matched only by 2017’s funeral doom favorite Mirror Reaper, though packaged in a much, much more consumable 40 minutes. The emotional weight of Obliviosus is every bit as massive as the sonic foundation on which it’s built – it’s devastatingly heavy – yet amidst the pitch atmosphere spun through this personal examination of substance abuse and loss, there are glimmers of hope and swaths of beauty that pass through via sweeping violins, pianos and beautiful vocals which counter, but never quite offset the bleak and downtrodden tone of the record.
Much like reconciling with death, Obliviosus puts a number of complicated feelings on display simultaneously, juxtaposing vibrant musical swaths of frustration, mourning, and atonement in ways that words so often fail to do. The instrumentals are disarming in a way that allows MSW’s lyrics to penetrate with an affective force that can touch a nerve, put a lump in your throat, and brim your eyes in an instant. The utterly agonizing “my brother…” of the title track is so incredibly raw and heartfelt, almost impossibly so, but the subsequent musical surge afterward seems to exorcise and quell this despair as an offer of hope and reprieve. It’s among the most powerful moments in all of extreme music this year, and for that reason alone I put this album on my short list, but the overall experience that sets up moments like this puts this record in a league of its own. Oblivious is an utterly painful and poignant dirge created by terribly unfortunate circumstances – a cathartic masterpiece of the very highest level.
Pallbearer – Forgotten Days
I can already tell: you’re all stunned I would talk about Pallbearer. On Doomsday! And the end of the year post no less! Well, what am I supposed to do? Forgotten Days is obviously one of the best records of the year, along with every other record the band has made. Forgotten Days, as the band has been saying in interviews, is a bit of a fusion of their first two records with the slight departure sound of Heartless and has resulted in their heaviest record yet. If that’s not worth celebrating, then get the fuck out of here because that’s what we’re doing.
As heavy as Forgotten Days is, both emotionally and musically, it sounds like the band is having fun in a way they hadn’t before. They make very dramatic and weighty music, of course, but there wasn’t many moments of musical joy. At least none that come across on the record. However, Forgotten Days has these little moments of musical wonder. Things like classic rock-style guitar solos or very intriguing riffs. However, these moments just draw you in deeper on here. I’m certain every person reading this now has experienced this record at least once since its release, but it might be a great time to revisit with this analysis. Like you weren’t going to relisten regardless. Pffft.
Spell – Opulent Decay
Readers of this column know that it’s been a pretty stellar year for heavy metal proper. Bonafide modern classics like Ravening Iron and Enlightened In Eternity worked wonders with many of metal’s proven magic formulas bent for the ears of new generations of listeners. Similarly, Spell carve their own path, albeit on a distinctively proggier end of the vintage metal spectrum. Rubbery bass lines, misty synths, high-altitude leads, and nimble rhythms put Opulent Decay in better company with the likes of Rush, Blue Öyster Cult, and Ghost rather than the muscular anthem-bringers mentioned above. The majestic flavor here makes Opulent Decay a bit more adventurous, and the variety all-but ensures back-to-back plays. It stacks up with the classics that inspired it, and it makes for a refreshing change of pace from the riff-driven OSHM that’s all the rage as of late.
Spirit Adrift – Enlightened In Eternity
Maybe it’s because I played the hell out of this album, but it already feels like an old classic. In spirit (ugh, I really did that), it is. It’s a truly inspired album, informed by the entire lineage of heavy metal, kind of filling in the blanks between eras while still keeping the Spirit Adrift stamp on things. A triumphant vigor is established from the get go as duo Garrett and Bryant play with an unmistakable enthusiasm that can only come from a true love for creation, and it makes Enlightened In Eternity easy to enjoy. It just rocks, you know this.
Closer “Reunited in the Void” has stood out as a favorite, the project’s classic doom sound is elevated in context with the lively gallops of “Stronger Than Your Pain” and the bounce and crunch of “Battle High,” in a way kind of rubbing off on some of the shine from those time-tested metal sounds. It plays like a greatest hits, and for that reason alone Enlightened In Eternity should be one of the first albums anyone suggests to someone looking to get into heavy metal. It’s not complicated or challenging, it just does everything *that* well. Why listen to decades worth of old metal bands when this one does it all?
Sumac – May You Be Held
Sumac are nothing if not one of modern music’s most interesting acts. What I initially took as an artsy spin on sludge with The Deal has evolved into a full blown art-sludge beast replete with fluid improvisation and brushstroke detail. The riffs are as foundational and debilitating as they’ve ever been, but the Keiji Haino collabs of albums past have left inerasable fingerprints on May You Be Held. It’s not that it’s just a novel spin on the style, it’s that Sumac are now making wholesale changes to where sludge can go forward. It’s a mind-expanding listen, and it appears they’ll continue down this path as long as there are lines to blur and standards to break.
The progressive and free nature should scare off the “just love me some riffs” dudes, but… the fucking riffs, y’all… they’re immense, and some of the group’s best ones are to be uncovered on this record (“Consumed” is quite the ride). Still, the utterly fearless experimentation, changing on whims as a unit (and sometimes independently) creates an amorphous perspective that doesn’t reflect on itself with traditional repeated riffing, but rather continues to push forward and beyond. Like, what sludge band opens and closes their album with free-flowing noise numbers? Who makes their lead single an (almost? I honestly can’t tell) entirely improvised jazz-sludge song? The even-numbered tracks will be more familiar to those who’ve delved into their prior work, albeit with a few more unpredictable twists and turns. The avant- angle lends a looseness and underscores their “feel” playing, making for another fascinating issue in their discography. It’s more than worth the time it’ll take to sink in (which is a lot), I can’t emphasize that enough.
Turtle Skull – Monoliths
Due to their intriguing and diverse roster, Art As Catharsis has been a blog favorite label for some time now, yet somehow I didn’t expect to hear anything quite like Turtle Skull’s Monoliths. Their sunny heavy psych is familiar, yet hits in a way I haven’t quite experienced before. Using “flower doom” as a tag is surprisingly apt, the intersection of airy psych rock and voluminous doom is where these Aussies flex hardest. Instead of crutching on these formats to underscore their differences with stark contrasts, Turtle Skull reveal their commonalities to offer something that skews to the periphery of conventional, but locks in on some great hooks.
“Rabbit” skillfully mesh a distinctive culty flavor from both ends of the spectrum, “Why Do You Ask?” rides a desert rock drive via a whimsical prog thread, “Apple Of Your Eye” traverses spacey, mellow valleys and hugely fuzzy climaxes; it’s always comforting and vibrant, but doesn’t stray too far from serious crunch or hot leads. If you have a case of riff fatigue from dooming out too often, the Elder-esque effortlessness and momentum found on Monoliths ought to level you out. Give your ears a vacation with this record.
Valkyrie – Fear
I love writing Doomsday for a lot of reasons. Obviously my love for doom and its spawn informs the majority of those reasons, but also because I get to get away with writing about bands and records that are doom/metal adjacent. So I’m extremely glad that Valkyrie is blasting 70s-influenced riff and prog rock these days because Fear is such a fun record that I greatly want to tell everyone about. Hope y’all are ready for all the fuzz riffs you can stand!
Far too often while writing about music, I forget that not every record needs to comment on current events or heavily emotional ideas. Music can just be fun because it’s fun, and that’s what Fear reminded me of. It’s awesome to turn on a record of well-made music, turn up the bass and the volume, and just rock the hell out in your home in your underpants. Yes, I did do that. No, I don’t regret talking about it on the internet. Fear is that great and so is Valkyrie. Hopefully now that Pete Adams is free to play more with Valkyrie, it means we get more awesome releases like Fear. Fingers crossed!
Vile Creature – Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm!
2020 was nothing if not a year for unmitigated and raw emotions. Those expressions simply must come out and be given form. Vile Creature are the current masters of this idea. Their version of plodding sludge and doom allows them the space to explode with these thoughts, and Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm! is their masterpiece. The moments of expressing rage toward the hypocrites and bigots in the modern world have no comparison, and this is a record that was released at the perfect time to let others connect with those thoughts.
Raw emotion can only take you so far. If all you did was rely on that, you’d just end up with a record of people screaming. But Vile Creature knows how to direct what they’re feeling. These songs are perfectly written to convey that emotion. Everything is slowed down to give ideas room to breathe. It’s far easier to take in the whole thing that way, and you need all the help you can get because there is a lot to unpack here. If you’re not completely outraged and pissed off by the time the final seconds tick past, you failed the test and will have to retake it.
Völur – Death Cult
End of the year lists should always include something off the beaten path. It’s not much of a wrap-up if you only focus on the expectations of others and the traditional ideas. So here I am promoting the hell out of Volur and their record, Death Cult. The Toronto trio has some incredible examples of how doom is more than just shirtless dudes playing fuzz riffs and singing about demons and marijuana. The band’s music in general is a unique experience, and Death Cult follows that same path.
The music the trio makes is such an interesting combination of sounds. What it lacks in traditional doom metal sounds it more than makes up for with its unique approach to achieving the same goal. Laura C. Bates’s violins replacing any trace of guitars on the record creates a haunting atmosphere and allows for new ideas to carry a doom track. It’s a singular experience for any listener, and you should do yourself a favor and check it out.
Wytch Hazel – III:Pentecost
Since we’ve adopted traditional metal bands as Doomsday-worthy topics, I would be extremely remiss not to mention Wytch Hazel this year. III:Pentecost treads the fine line between cheesy and earnest, and by God do they walk it well. It is a traditional heavy metal record rife with high-flying drama and adventure. Rarely do I conjure specific images in my head while listening to a record, but it’s hard NOT to picture the stories the band is telling of honorable knights and holy crusades. That feat in itself makes this an absolute gem of a record this year.
However, that’s not the only reason this made our list of favorites this year. It’s also a remarkably well-crafted record. In order to walk that fine line I mentioned and be taken seriously, everything you do must align to achieve that goal. It’s rare to hear that kind of sound unity on any record no matter what the band’s chemistry is. Wytch Hazel has managed to achieve that goal on each of their records, but there’s a uniquely special quality to III:Pentecost. It’s hard to describe exactly what that quality is, but expect more lightning in a bottle from Wytch Hazel in the future.