Well! It certainly has been a year, hasn’t it? 2020 was such a trial and disappointment in so many ways. It sucked, frankly. 0 stars, would not recommend, etc. etc. In spite of all of that though, I was genuinely surprised the extent to which post-rock and all post- adjacent music absolutely dominated my listening in 2020 and so often well exceeded my expectations. Whether it was heavy and gloomy, it was cheery and bright, it was slow and low, it was technical and fast, it was jazzy and groovy, or something completely different, post- was able to adequately capture every emotion and mood I was in over the past year.
In the end, that’s really why we all listen to this stuff, right? Post- is all about using the language of music and specific genres to convey emotions, imagery, and more that more conventional songforms simply can’t achieve. It represents freedom and limitless potential.
Below are some of the many albums we felt did the best job of that in 2020, as well as a couple of essays by myself and Eden on topics we felt represented the overarching genre well this past year. As always we love you and appreciate you, and we can’t wait to see what musical journeys 2021 has in store!
Post-Rock: Now With (Slightly) Fewer Dudes
If I had to name the single most prominent development across most strains of rock, both in the mainstream and indie, over the past decade, I would say that it’s the rising prominence of women-led bands/acts in coverage and consumption. Women and women-led groups have been visible and successful in rock and roll since around the time of its initial rise, but up until very recently it still was treated as more of an anomaly than the norm. Rock, long associated with machismo – performed, managed, bought, and sold by pigs who saw women as little more than objects to be fetishized and/or abused – had barriers and gatekeepers up and down keeping women who couldn’t fit into very neat boxes of marketability (primarily based on looks) from getting much of anywhere. Women who “made it” often succeeded in spite of those many roadblocks and threats or realities of abuse.
As western culture continues to grapple with gender relations, sexism, male abuse of power, and the notion of gender itself, it’s clear that one positive thing has come out of it. The number of women featured in rock publications large and small – your Pitchforks, your Rolling Stones, your NMEs, your Stereogums, etc. – has noticeably spiked since around the time I was in high school and college in the 2000s, where you were likely to see maybe a select few make it onto end-of-year lists but were almost never leading the discussion of what rock sounded like and represented. Conversely, over ⅓ of Pitchfork’s recent list of best rock albums from 2020 and exactly half of Rolling Stone’s overall top 50 albums were either women solo artists or women-led groups. Frankly, there are simply far too many prominent women in rock currently for me to list off the top of my head. The industry didn’t fix itself overnight and most of the issues that led to the #MeToo movement still exist in some form, but at least now seeing a woman play guitar loudly and sing about heavy shit is close to being a norm.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t been spread evenly across the industry. Though metal has also made significant strides over the past decade in that department, it still has way more barriers to topple and bullshit to deal with – exhibit A: Feminazgul. But at least there’s been visible progress – see our list of incredible women-fronted albums of 2020 for further evidence. Much less can be said about the umbrella post- genres. Of just about any sub-strain of rock and metal, for whatever reason since its inception post-rock and metal has been exceedingly homogenous, both racially/ethnically and in terms of gender. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious cause for this that would differentiate it from the rest of rock and metal. If anything, post- has largely eschewed uber-masculine/aggressive aesthetics in favor of more emotional and contemplative ones.
Nonetheless, prior to the past year or so, I could almost certainly count the number of post- bands I’ve covered or come across that have either been led by or featured women on one hand. Part of the problem is, of course, that due to the fact that so much of the music is instrumental it’s not always obvious who’s playing it unless you specifically check out who plays in the band. But even barring a few I may have missed due to that, it’s still been an exceeding rarity.
2020 was different, though. For the first time, a significant number of post- bands that released some of my favorite albums of the year were either women led or prominently featured women. At the forefront have been a group of bands leading the charge in one of post-’s most promising offshoots of the past decade: doomgaze. These are bands that play slow, dark, and heavy music that shoots straight for the gut and heart. In London’s A.A. Williams and LA’s Iress you have a pair of singer/songwriters – the eponymous Williams and Michelle Malley – who simply command a room with their powerful and velvety tenor voices. Both bands released albums in 2020 that really catapulted them into the spotlight for fans of post-rock/metal, doom, shoegaze, and beyond.
Flaw, Iress’s sophomore album and first since 2015, has all the feeling of a true debut both in production and performance. It comes across as a fully-formed package that follows in the footsteps of acts like Windhand while putting their own dreamy and fluid spin on it. It’s difficult to listen to tracks like “Nest” and “Underneath” and not simply be swept under by the force of Malley’s voice and the powerful nature of their compositions. For A.A. Williams, Forever Blue is truly her first full-length, following her impressive 2019 self-titled debut EP. Williams’s music takes a somewhat more cinematic and dramatic approach, featuring plenty of piano and strings alongside heavy guitars and bass, which made her a perfect fit to collaborate with Mono for a 10” late 2019. Forever Blue mostly continues the promise of that early work and delivers in stunning fashion. Delicate passages of acoustic guitar and piano effortlessly give way to momentous bouts of energy as Williams constantly plucks at the heartstrings before occasionally going in for an emotional gut punch.
Of course, one can’t talk about women in post- and not mention one of its most promising and exciting new acts in Circus Trees. I already went into deep detail on the young trio of sisters prior to the release of their debut LP Delusions, but it bears repeating just how impressive what they’re doing is for musicians of any age, let alone three under 20 and two still in high school. Delusions finds the McCarthy sisters – Giuls, Fin, and Edmee (or “Egg” as the other two affectionately call her) – finding their voice and stride as songwriters and performers. Like the previous acts mentioned, Circus Trees play slow and heavy, building songs and ideas gradually in typical post- fashion. The music of Delusions though is a bit rawer, dirtier, and indebted more to the traditions of hardcore even if Fin’s even-keeled delivery doesn’t match the usual screeches and shouts of most hardcore music. Having continually shocked and won over crowds of all types and sizes though, Circus Trees is poised to be a leading voice of the newest generation of post- bands who are redefining what the music means and stands for.
One of my very favorite albums of the year, Bound’s Haunts, while not woman-fronted like the other mentioned bands, is still significant for its many contributions from Trish Harris, who plays synth, sings backing vocals, provided field recordings, and handled all art and design for the album. Another band who is deeply excelling in the murky fields of doomgaze, Haunts is just an absolutely devastating trip through gorgeously melancholy landscapes. Harris’s contributions make it all that much sweeter a listen for it.
Frankly, it’s still not enough. A handful of bands barely constitutes a trend, let alone a movement or sea change. But it’s a hell of a lot more than there’s been in the years I’ve been covering this music, and far more than the legions of dudes who comprised post-rock’s most formative and zeitgeist-y years. I hope I can look back on this down the line and shake my head at my making seemingly a mountain out of a molehill because of the proliferation of women (not to mention trans and non-gender conforming people) performing these styles of music. If that happens though, I have no doubt that the above groups will have a role in it.
Punching Up: Post Rock’s Energetic 2020
Hey! Have you ever just had a day where your legs won’t stop moving? Have you ever just felt that if you sat down for exactly one second longer, you’d go crazy? Have you ever felt that you simply must get outside, get up, get going, get doing something? Well, if your answer is “yes”, then oh boy, does 2020 post rock have some albums for you! Don’t get me wrong, this sort of bubbling energy has always been a part of post rock, albeit an overlooked part. For a genre that has garnered for itself a reputation for being dour, drawn out, and melodramatic (and rightfully so), post rock has always had this playful, explosive, simmering sort of energy to it hiding in far reaches of the style. These far reaches probably overlap with the borderlands between post rock and math rock pretty completely, creating a Venn diagram of bouncy riffs, dreamy drums, and punchy bass lines. Boy, isn’t this segment fun?
Yes, yes it is! I think the reason I love this combination of styles, which might also draw its power not just from math rock but also from the fruitful collaborations of post rock and electronic music, is that it takes away a lot of the seriousness from post rock. Certainly, grandiose, melancholy, and earnest-to-a-fault albums are great. But sometimes you just want to dance, you know? More than that, sometimes you want your music to help you channel the energies that take us over, the forces that course through our bodies, the joy we sometimes, inexplicably, feel in the face of a world that has so much wrong with it. Sometimes we don’t want to sit with all that is wrong about it, we want to scream about it, we want to dance about it, we want to feel about it. And for that, the elixirs created when post rock, math rock, EDM, jazz, disco, and many more styles blend together are second to none.
So, back to 2020. Looking back at the year in post rock adjacent releases, we find a lot of these sorts of energies being channeled from multiple sides. The first example of this, the example that must come first here, is wthAura’s GROCERY. If, by some miracle, you’ve missed the countless times we’ve mentioned this album on the blog, allow me to refresh your memory. GROCERY is a blend between post rock, math rock, and progressive rock that creates a sort of technical, sprawling version of math rock tinged post rock, producing a sort of music that is both immediately intriguing (that is, its moment to moment is complex and interesting) and also rich on the structural level, allowing listeners to sink deeper into its embrace with returning listens.
It’s also an album that just refuses to stop, kicking right out of the gate with the sort of energies that I am referencing here. Unlike many albums in the style, it’s not really worried about balancing its explosive efflorescence of sound with calmer, more somber tracks. I mean, take a track like “Storage”; this is as close as you’ll get to a “calm” track on this release and even it is punctuated with those brooding yet punctual main chords. The track might go slower but it doesn’t hold its punches; there’s nothing calm about it. Not to mention the fact that it leads right into “Pets”, driven by those dreamy synths to conjure up neon city-scapes lit by night, bouncing with the captured energy of the day. I could go on but you get the picture. There’s something not just addictive to this energy (I listened to it non-stop when I first heard it and I still go back to it at least once a week) but also emblematic of the sort of charged, high-impact blend of post and math rock that we got during 2020.
Another perfect example of the fruitful, restless, and downright disturbing energy that can be created when blending post rock with other styles is undoubtedly Lespecial’s sleeper, December released, Ancient Homies. This album is like a darker sibling to wthAura’s urban dreams. It’s an album steeped in a horror vibe, drawing on EDM, synthwave, jazz, djent, and more to supercharge math rock with this skin-crawling, powerful vibe that’s really hard to pin down. In fact, it goes so far down these routes that you might be able to, understandably, make the argument that it doesn’t even belong in this post. But that’s just the thing; I don’t care. Something about the music released in these spaces during 2020 has broken down the barriers and genre-definitions that otherwise would hold sway. Not that I’m a huge genre guy to begin with, you know this. But still, letting go of those demarcations and just soaking up in whatever freaky transmissions 2020 releases were giving us felt even more right than it does to me during other years.
Ancient Homies is a really good example of how this shedding of genres creates a sort of fission that lets off incredible amounts of power. Listen to “Tonberry” for example; it’s one of the tracks on the album that most easily assumes the mantle of post rock. Most of it is this brooding line led by the bass, slowly unspooling across an entire track. But it’s not “just” melancholy; it has a monstrous opening riff after the intro and a repetition of that same massive riff on its outro. Both of these segments only work because they go back to the first track of the album, channelling the the heavier influences from metal that were introduced on it. The melding of the genres, the clashing, conjoining, and assembling of post rock alongside other styles is what makes it work so well and be so damn effective. And effective it is: what would be, on “just” another post rock album, a groovy and math rock influenced track becomes something more, a meeting of styles that makes it not only work as a track (it does) but also as another step in crafting this intriguing and alluring album.
Of course, no entry exploring the intrusion of scintillating, high energy influences into post-rock would be complete without mentioning VASA and Alpha Male Tea Party. Continuing the European storm of bouncy, groovy, and chromatic instrumental music that has been raging for years now, both bands released albums that represent huge steps forward. First, there’s Heroics, VASA’s most agile and effective release to date. It sees the band tightening the screws all across the board, siphoning their brand of happy-go-lucky, massively groove post-rock through narrow bottlenecks of exquisite tones and sleek compositions. The result is an album that gets you where you need to go and does it fast, immediately landing you in a hyper-charged state of mind. Infinity Stare is the perfect compatriot for it; on it, Alpha Male Tea Party have crafted the largest, most over the top iteration of their sound to date. It’s an album that bristles, sending out its hooks in all directions at once. It’s a maximalist affair, taking that coruscating fire that’s run through the band’s veins since their first releases and spraying it all over their sound and, by extension, your ears.
Alright then! That was 2020 as seen through the very specific lens of an intersection between math rock, post rock, electronic music, and happiness. That’s right, happiness; in a year of dreariness, lockdowns, and uncertainty, it seems only necessary that this specific intersection of sounds have a banner year. Or, rather, I could say that I am incredibly grateful that it did. This sort of upbeat, forward, incisive music is everything I needed to tide me through the last nine months or so (and beyond). It serves to show, once again, the lie of public opinion which asserts that post rock is dead or monochromatic or overly serious. There are sections of this genre/scene/what have you that bursting with life, blooming with musical ideas that, like so much fungi, are sure to plant their spores in your heart and cause it to grow a size or two. Yikes, that’s the image I chose to close this off with? Whatever, go listen to these bands and have yourself a grand old time.
Nick’s Top Ten Post- Whatever Albums
10. albinobeach – The Ladder
I’ll be the first to admit that I have a huge blind spot when it comes to most great music coming out from Africa. And though South Africa is somewhat anomalous from the rest of the continent, it still surprised me a bit to find a band from there playing killer music combining prog, pysch, math, and post- into a super slick and appealing package. That’s exactly what the trio of albinobeach did on The Ladder though. Like the other trios on this list, albinobeach have figured out how to leverage their stripped down ensemble to its fullest, building complex compositions from single riffs and grooves and building them up to mammoth heights. From the epic journey of the title track to the anthemic riffs of “Jugga” to the frantic energy of “Make the Call,” The Ladder is huge in every way.
9. Alpha Male Tea Party – Infinity Stare
Very similar to VASA below, Liverpool’s Alpha Male Tea Party put out an album this past year that separated them from the rest of the aggressive post-math rock pack. Infinity Stare is just one solid kick in the teeth after another, featuring a constant onslaught of massive and unexpected riffs broken up by equally shocking beauty or straight-up chill. I think what I love most about this album is just how willing it is to take some really cool and weird motif and perform a complete hairpin turn into some other really cool and weird thing that is entirely different but still somehow fits in perfectly well. Each track on Infinity Stare is its own little maze that you’re not in any rush to find your way out of. I also appreciate the dedication they have to flaunting maximum crunch in their tones to just create this incredibly sharp sonic blade of sound. This is one you just feel in your bones.
8. TROMB – I/O
Frankly if this album had come out earlier in the year and I had more time with it there’s a very good chance this would have landed even higher up. I fucking love every single thing about this band and album though. Like Arcing Wires, it’s a superb example of complex jazz fusion thrown in with metal and post-rock, but Sweden’s TROMB are a little less dense and far smoother, thanks in large part to the starring role of Tom Gabrielsson’s soprano sax. At the same time the group’s compositions can be even punchier and more jagged than the likes of Arcing Wires, with tracks like “Breach,” “Thoughts and Deeds,” and “Stampede” building upon a completely off-kilter groove that simply forces the listener to deal with the discomfort. With each listen I find something new to appreciate about this one, and I expect that to continue well into 2021 and beyond.
7. VASA – Heroics
There have been dozens of bands that have popped up since And So I Watch You From Afar burst onto the scene in the late 2000s looking to replicate their mixture of aggressive instrumental rock, playful math rock, and dreamier post-rock. Starting with their 2015 debut Colours, Scotland’s VASA entered the fray as a band to key an eye on within this niche. It took 5 years, but on Heroics they finally ascended beyond mere FFO ASIWYFA status as a band with their own distinct musical identity and viewpoint. The album is simply swimming in incredible riffs and ideas that build into something greater than the sum of its parts. I adore the overarching theme running throughout, of life milestones and the outsized drama that percolates, all the way through “adulthood,” grappling with “expectations” versus reality, and eventually learning to “settle” for something hopefully in between the two. It’s sonically heavy and dense but, true to form, always has a certain twinkle or something that preserves its levity.
6. pg.lost – Oscillate
If Barrens entered the heavy synth post-rock game in 2020, pg.lost have been at the forefront of it for years now. You could hear the beginnings of the synth experimentation on 2012’s Key and then fleshed out more clearly in follow-up Versus. On Oscillate though they finally went full-tilt on dark and heavy synth post-rock, and the results speak for themselves. Oscillate is probably the band’s most straight-forward album to date in terms of executing single themes and hammering them home, but it’s incredibly effective in its directness. Tracks like “E22” are just straight-up anthems in the best way, and it allows the band to hone in on the fundamentals of the genre – compelling melodies, thrilling tension, and exaltant catharsis – without sacrificing any of their own identity. If bands like Barrens and pg.lost (both signed to Pelagic, perhaps not coincidentally) represent a large portion of the future of post- in the coming years, sign me up for more.
5. Whale Fall – It Will Become Itself
I’ve seen many people compliment the fourth album from CA’s Whale Fall while also saying they still prefer the band’s previous album, Sondersongs. I get that. Sondersongs is a tighter and more intentional release compared to the looseness of It Will Become Itself. As someone who has always gravitated towards the jazzier end of the post-spectrum though and as someone who appreciates just how difficult it is to produce anything of any real, lasting worth out of jam sessions, this album simply hit me on multiple levels. Due to its improvisational nature, the songs on It Will Become Itself build and grow in such organic ways while still allowing for really shocking twists and turns. “El Caracol” in particular is really just the platonic ideal of this form of songwriting, built upon a gorgeously flowing foundation and driving towards incredible meditative heights that would make GY!BE proud. It’s just a purely wonderful and satisfying release, a perfect example of musical alchemy at its best.
4. Barrens – Penumbra
You would be hard-pressed to find as impressive a debut in post- last year as Barrens had with Penumbra. Not that the trio who comprise it are in any way newcomers to the scene. Rather, Barrens is the culmination of many years of work in bands like Sweden’s Scraps of Tape, which excelled in harnessing the possibilities of post-’s raw energy and darkness. With Barrens and Penumbra though, the Swedes have channeled that darkness through one of post-’s other rapidly-growing offshoots in synth and electronic rock. The result is an absolute white-knuckle futuristic thrill ride across neon-lit soundscapes and heavy as hell grooves. It feels like the culmination of a decade of the ground laid by other bands like 65daysofstatic, Mogwai, and more who have been incorporating synth-heavy and electronic influences into the traditions of instrumental post-rock/metal. Place this one in the category of “most likely to have you simultaneously headbang and dance like an idiot.”
3. Arcing Wires – Prime
Hello, can I interest you in some progressive psych post-jazz metal fusion? Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to figure out what exactly that sounds like based on that smattering of genres either, but somehow Australia’s Arcing Wires did exactly that on Prime. The opening of “Lizard” begins with a psychedelic prog show that wouldn’t be too out of place from an Elder or We Are Impala record, jumps to some anthemic as hell jazz fusion, transitions to more chaos and build, and ends on some spacey, post-y themes before repeating the process multiple times across other tracks. It’s a lot. But if you’re at all inclined for some instrumental mania, Arcing Wires has it in spades.
2. Bound – Haunts
As I wrote previously about DC band Bound, for a number of reasons I was not particularly taken with their debut. Haunts, though…whew, where do I begin? This one really took me by surprise. Part of it perhaps was a matter of timing and the fact that it arrived as I was at the height of my anxiety and sense of doom about the impending presidential election. More than that though, Haunts spoke to me and my desire to simultaneously wallow in sadness while being comforted by beautiful sounds. Shockingly, it’s been the album I’ve been most likely to return to whenever I want something melancholy or at least not upbeat. There’s just something so comforting about the mixture of Bryan Buchanan’s unassuming vocals and the constant turbulence and struggle expressed behind him. As winter has set in here and monsters continue to lurk everywhere, I foresee Haunts continuing to be the emotional salve I need frequently.
1. sleepmakeswaves – these are not your dreams
I think it’s fair to say that the Australian powerhouse trio suffered from their own incredible success a bit after the release of the seminal Love of Cartography, which remains a virtually flawless and peerless album. Their follow-up, Made of Breath Only, was quite good but just lacked a certain je ne sais quoi to have it stick around with me. So even with slightly tempered expectations going into hearing these are not your dreams the first time, the band absolutely brought me back to believing they are one of the all-time greats. Just the opening of “the endings we write” was enough to bring back all of the emotions of lift and ecstasy I felt from Cartography. Smw are at their best when they play with the contemplative tropes of cinematic post-rock and stuff them with immediately catchy riffs, melodies, and an overall sense of exploration and adventure. Even as they clearly stretched themselves out musically with experimenting in a few different styles, every moment felt utterly unique to them and added to the overall package. It’s not Cartography 2.0, but these are not your dreams made me more excited for the future of smw than any repeat or direct sequel could have.
Eden’s Top Ten Post And Beyond Albums
10. Yardsss – ∅∀‡ | Cultus
Let’s start this all off with a bit of a weird one, shall we? Yardsss are a group that have so many varying members, from so many different sounds, identities, and bands, that they use symbols in their album names to indicate the specific lineup that each recording comes from. In addition, their music is also highly improvisational, emerging from the above mentioned roster of rotating artists as the music is made. Beyond all of that, which might be perceived by some as superfluous, the music itself is just damn excellent. If you miss the days of yore, where post-rock felt immediate, dangerous, and wild (you know, when Godspeed You! Black Emperor were still making incisive music, hot take) then this album is for you. ∅∀‡ | Cultus is an unwinding, unravelling piece of dark, brooding post rock that’s perfect on journeys into the centers of confusion or disdain that live inside us all.
9. Alpha Male Tea Party – Infinity Stare
I wrote plenty about this album in the intro to this post (and elsewhere) but let me just say: listen to “Leather Diamond” if you listen to nothing else from this release. That track perfectly captures what I love about Infinity Stare and what I love about it in relation to the band’s previous releases. “Leather Diamond”, like much of this release, is the promise of Alpha Male Tea Party’s potential writ large, brought to bear with an extreme degree of skill and proficiency. Listen to how the initial upbeat rhythm gives way to the more brooding, off-kilter meter of the first bridge and how that in turn gives way to the meaty middle passage of the track. Only, of course, to return to the bright beginnings, wearing a triumphant hue of distance travelled. God, this track is so good.
8. Nug – Alter Ego
See what I did here? I nestled bright post rock in between a sandwich of dark, brooding post metal. I’m clever like that. Seriously though, Nug don’t have too much in common with Yardsss. Alter Ego is more a child of the post-metal explosion of the previous decade than a beast of the dark post rock of the 2000’s. Whatever its lineage however, Alter Ego manages to be one of the most effective and convincing post-metal albums of the last few years. Forgoing the progressive, complex influences of something like The Ocean, Alter Ego returns to the core of what makes post-metal so good, namely the forceful expression of sadness, anger, and helplessness. It channels its cover art to an exceptional degree, giving you that sensation of being buried, both by the massive riffs and vocals that make up the main part of this album’s appeal but also by the emotions which hide behind them, peeking at you with their red eyes.
7. Portal To the God Damn Blood Dimension – Rotten Fruit; Regular Orchard
What to say about an album that includes the words “I hate this fucking band”? Perhaps we should go back to what we said about GY!BE down below, evoke once again the days when post rock felt fringe, dangerous, frenetic, frenzied almost. Rotten Fruit; Regular Orchard certainly feels like that. The album is harrowing at times, exposing the raw skin of all of the performers (rather than just the obvious one, the vocalist) as it unwinds its way into realms of despair, frustration, and hopelessness. But, like the days of yore at the zenith of GY!BE career (or, perhaps, more indicative of its many side projects), there is hope and resistance pouring through every note on this album. This album is pissed off. This album fights back. This album does not wear makeup and does not cover bruises. This album revels in them. And that’s exactly what makes it so good.
6. Moonlogue – Sail Under Nadir
This will undoubtedly be one of those albums which I end up holding dear to my heart as an underappreciated gem. Sail Under Nadir earns its name and then some; channeling influences such as Pink Floyd alongside more post rock and metal friendly names, the album is a trip and a half. It has psychedelic synths, long, drawn out build-ups based on bass/guitar interactions, and explosive crescendos that feel like a dream bubble breaking over your head. It’s the most transported I’ve been by an album in years. Maybe all I should have said is that they’re from Italy? The sharp-eyed among you will notice that I’ve had a bit of a fascination with the spaces that run between psychedelic, progressive, and plain weird music from Italy. Moonlogue firmly belong into this limited, but prestigious club, channeling the same whirlwind influences that the rest of their country seems so deft at manifesting.
5. gazelle(s) – True Meridian
What can I say? I’m an absolute sucker for strings in post rock, especially the deep, redulant strings of a cello. But gazelle(s) are much more than “just” post rock constructed around a string instrument. Instead, True Meridian is this fascinating blend between “classic” (i.e. grandiose, melancholy, and sweeping) post rock, doom, and even drone. There are moments when things get really dark, echoing the evocation of death, memory, and loneliness that their cover art first sets forth. And yet, we cannot deny the importance of the strings to this album; they add a magnitude and an incisiveness to the sound, cutting deep into your heart with their timbre. The result is one of the saddest albums of the year, perfectly harping on the more somber elements that post rock is so known for. But in adding in tastes from other genres, like de-tuning instruments, repetition, and a penchant for crashing chords, gazelle(s) manage to go beyond “just” a sad album and create one that is also introspective and unique.
4. Felperc – borders
The next duo on this list hint towards my ongoing obsession with electronic post rock but in very different ways. The first one, felperc’s borders is all about the contemplative, evocative mode that electronic music can add to post rock. He uses synths and pianos to create the sort of soundscapes that 65daysofstatic used so well on Music For an Infinite Universe, conjuring space, exploration, the horizon, and sheer size to great effect. felperc merges this sound with tremolo picked guitars that remind us of Mono, further adding to the sense of size and space crossed that the album’s electronic instruments convey. Borders ends up aptly named, as the album dances around the feeling you get when setting out on a journey. It’s also a unique take on both the electronic post rock style and Mono’s grandiose gestures, managing to breathe felperc’s unique sound and feeling into the formula. It’s an album to dream to and one which has taken my breath away countless times this year.
3. Aesthesys – Alignments
On the flip side from felperc, Aesthsys channel the other mode of electronic post rock, the more energetic and high speed one. Alignments is a romp more akin to acts like Reformat and the mid-era of 65daysofstatic. It’s a version of electronic post rock that draws on EDM for its tempo and tone, creating a heady mix between post rock and the electronic world’s bounciest style. Just like to a track like “Transcendants” and tell me it doesn’t make you want to dance. The staccato guitars, the faint strings in the background which punctuate them, the synths echoing them “below” the main sound and, finally, the explosion of sound and energy that it all builds up to. I’ve heard a lot of electronic post rock albums in the last few years but Aesthsys is the one which most made me get up and dance or go on my bike and tear the tarmac apart or sit back and watch thunderclouds clashing along the horizon.
2. Absent Hearts – The Peak & The Valley
I’m honestly baffled that this album didn’t get more publicity and love this year; I think it’s one of the most morose, wide-eyed, and honest albums I’ve heard in years. The Peak & The Valley, like its name and cover art suggest, is an album that deals in the sort of heart-aching wonder and beauty that all of the greatest post rock evokes. It’s also a beautifully guitar-centric album but not in the way you would expect: it sports neither the tremolo-picked, delay-ridden antics of classic post rock nor the many-noted approach of math rock. Instead, it’s more playful than the first and more restrained than the second, painting with a very accurate and modest brush. But it’s able to accomplish so much more with its minimalism, relying on the powerful interaction between great guitar playing and great bass lines. The end result is an album which sounds like a running brook, a playful romp through meadow, tree, and mountain that manages to also stay engaging. It’s one of my favorite albums of the year.
1. sleepmakeswaves – these are not your dreams
Come on. How? How did sleepmakeswaves manage to equal Love of Cartography, one of the greatest albums ever made? As my mind-twin wrote in his #1 entry for this album, its predecessor had a massively impossible task to contend with, namely the afore-mentioned Love of Cartography. But, apparently, sleepmakeswaves decided not to stop trying to rise up to their own challenge and made these are not your dreams. It’s a softer album than Love of Cartography, less prone to sudden explosions of sound or grand tracks that brush the ten minute track, but it’s just as powerful nonetheless. From the introduction of vocals (which some people didn’t like but I absolutely adore for their fragile strength) to the new electronic elements found on the release, passing by the presence of blast-beats and the heaviest sounds for the band yet, and all the way through to how unassuming it is, how much it creeps on you with its greatness, it stuns me with how much it’s indicative and “of” the sleepmakeswaves sound and yet innovates it in all the right ways. This is, once again, one of the best post rock albums ever made. Again. They did it again!
David’s Top 10 Post- Albums Of 2020
10. hubris. – Metempsychosis
It’s rare in post-rock to find bands that can balance being persistently kinetic and achingly beautiful, but that’s what can be found on this Swiss band’s third and most thoroughly successful album. Taking cues from Greek mythology, they’ve authored a record with a gaze decidedly fixed toward the heavens of those ancient stories. It’s like what I imagine the experience of hurtling through space and time would sound like; somehow spacious and extensive while retaining the immediacy and focus needed to propel it to the heights it’s aiming for, with infectious melodies and energy that grab the listener and urge the journey forward. This is the kind of album you’ll want to get lost in time and again.
9. Of The Vine – Left Alone
From a position considerably under the radar, Atlanta’s Of The Vine has been pushing boundaries for more than a half-decade now. Their 2015 record East-the-Water retains its title as the prettiest doom record you’ve ever heard. Their newest release drops them directly into the ever-expanding landscape of doomgaze, and they acquit themselves amazingly well right from the start. Incorporating vocals for the first time, the band uses their intentionally hazy, dreamy quality to bring an added textural element to an already dense, brooding atmosphere that finds the sweetest middle ground between towering heaviness and poignant delicacy. It’s unlikely that this band will ever be able to be approachable enough to garner wider acclaim without sacrificing what makes them so wonderfully hypnotic and entirely crushing, but they will undoubtedly be a group that listeners will continue to stumble upon and be consumed by as the years go on.
8. A Burial At Sea – A Burial At Sea
No post-rock band put forth as impressive a debut in 2020 as the U.K. quintet A Burial At Sea, whose pitch-perfect blend of ASIWYFA-inspired muscular math rock and American Football-esque horn-driven indie rock proved both mesmerizing and energizing. Equal parts hard-driving and contemplative, this record cements the band as king of the hill regarding new blood to keep an eye on heading into a new decade.
7. Show Me A Dinosaur – Plantgazer
This Russian blackgaze group was the genesis for what has become quite a formidable empire, as most of the members are also responsible for bands like TRNA and Somn, both of which have released incredibly impressive albums over the past couple of years. Honestly, up until this year it felt like Show Me A Dinosaur had potentially fallen behind in terms of the quality of output. But Plantgazer reverses that narrative, coalescing intoxicating blend of aggressive black metal, dreamy shoegaze, and tranquil post-rock into their finest release to date.
6. sleepmakeswaves – these are not your dreams
My colleagues have covered most of what needs to be said about this album. I’m just chiming in to confirm that it rules. I like a band with the brass to lead with an eleven and a half minute song, and it definitely pays off here, setting the tone for a killer album that plays with a ton of tones, tempos, and stylistic approaches.
5. Coastlands – Death
Moving from drone-heavy, quietly pretty post-rock to straight-up post-metal over the course of three releases, Portland’s Coastlands is a band that has truly thrown out the script in favor of doing what’s in their hearts. A few years ago it was ambience, now it’s riffs, and lots of them. Of all the bands under the post-rock heading that released albums in 2020, none come close to the sheer weight and volume of Death. There’s little room to breathe, with every song pounding away at you and leaving you exhausted, only to see the band shift to the next track in unrelenting fashion. Ironically, the song that shows the most restraint is also eventually the most punishing, as the relatively placid front half of “Dead Friends” gives way to the scorched-earth climax featuring very well-conceived and placed vocals from Glassing’s Dustin Coffman. I don’t even know if it’s appropriate to call Coastlands a post-rock band going forward. If their last two albums are any indication of their future material, they’ve entered fully into the realm of metal.
4. Respire – Black Line
It all came together for this Toronto collective this year, the first time that their incredible potential crystallized into a consistent, well-produced, entirely cohesive release. The makings were always there, it was just a matter of whether they’d all come together, and they did in a major way on Black Line. It’s hard to apply genre tags to Respire, as their blend of screamo, hardcore, black metal, and post-rock is so seamless that none of those descriptors feel right on their own. They really have carved out their own unique sound on Black Line, and they stand as one of the most exciting acts to follow as the next few years unfold. The potential is seemingly limitless.
3. Envy – The Fallen Crimson
It deserves special mention that Envy has been able to maintain a high level for more than twenty years in a subgenre that is largely characterized as a “burn bright, break up young” sort of style. Due to its frantic nature and impossible-to-maintain intensity, screamo/emotional hardcore is rife with bands that release one EP and one LP, achieve underground legend status, and then split before they’re 23. Maybe it’s the forays into post-rock stylings that have allowed Envy to maintain momentum for all these years, giving them precious moments to take a breath here and there. Still, to continue releasing material at this high a level and with this kind of breathtaking emotional fervor and earnestness well into their forties is beyond impressive.
2. Grayceon – MOTHERS WEAVERS VULTURES
2020’s best post-metal album didn’t come from one of the usual suspects, instead falling excitingly in line with the female-forward theme that Nick laid out above. Former members of the San Francisco post-metal weirdos Giant Squid comprise in part this re-invention of the power trio led by Jackie Perez Gratz’s looming, powerful cello. That aspect gives the project its uniquity, but it’s the way her performance seamlessly blends with riff-heavy guitarwork and muscular drumming that brings it to the levels it ultimately achieves. Give a listen to “The Lucky Ones;” it’s one of the year’s most unabashedly rockin’ tunes, not a phrase you’d likely expect attached to the “cello-driven post-metal” description.
1. Caspian – On Circles
Remember back to the first few weeks of 2020 when Caspian released their fifth LP? No? Well, that’s understandable. It’s obviously been quite a weird one since then. However, what is not understandable is to forget how the boys from Beverley once again showed why they’re the best in the business. Here’s the thing about Caspian: unlike a lot of post-rock bands, they’ve never made the same album twice, they’ve never released anything that even approaches dull, and they’ve managed to consistently explore and expand their sound without ever alienating longtime fans. I don’t think they get enough credit for how inventive, creative, engaging, and daring they are. Maybe people have just grown too accustomed to them being great, I don’t know. But as much as I love post-rock, a lot of bands fall into all-too-familiar traps of repetitive song structures, long builds that overstay their welcome, and attempts at reinvention that fall flat. This genre has produced some absolutely incredible albums, but let’s just be honest here, it’s also produced a lot of eye-rollingly sameish slogs, or solid albums that play it way too safe (which might actually be an even worse offense).
Caspian played a huge part in creating modern post-rock in America and they have again and again set the bar with each record, a bar that seemingly only they can clear. If it’s been a while, go back through their albums. None of them sound the same. The production on each is purposefully different, the approach to songwriting is perpetually maturing, and there are always new layers to dig into. The only consistent element is the fact that every one of their releases was amongst the best of its year. That deserves seriously loud praise. With On Circles the band brought vocals even further into the fold, both with guitarist Philip Jamieson’s performance on the closing track and the guest appearance of Pianos Become The Teeth vocalist Kyle Dufrey on “Nostalgist.” We also got one of the band’s heaviest tracks to date in “Collapser,” as well as tunes like “Wildblood,” “Flowers of Light,” and “Division Blues” that are destined to become integral parts of their storied live performance. If it’s been a while since you’ve listened to On Circles, please re-introduce yourself to 2020’s finest post-rock record.
Trent’s Top Ten Post- Albums of 2020
10. sleepmakeswaves – These are not your dreams
Not a lot to say here that hasn’t been adequately gushed about already in this column, but it’s safe to say sleepmakeswaves have done it again. These are not your dreams is an album full of ambition, of a band having proved themselves and established a sound they know works, yet deciding not to settle and still wanting to push it further. The added vocals, synth work, and more selective bouts of genuine heaviness all come together for some of these Aussie’s best work to date. An unpredictably eclectic collection of post-rock brilliance.
9. Kjjjjjjjjj – Centro de dispersion
We travel to a lesser covered area of the world for post-rock now, down to Argentinato visit the curiously named Kjjjjjjjjj and their Centro de dispersion. This is regrettably an album I (and I think all of us) slept on until I was trying to put this ranked list together and stumbled upon them from rateyourmusic. One of the most energetic post- adjacent albums of the year, Kjjjjjjjjj take the unconventional aspects of prog rock, including its wonky time-signatures and structure, the technicality of math rock, and flesh that out into a post-rock album. They have this cavalier sense of not following genre conventions and just doing what sounds cool to them. You can feel their Latin-American origins at play, especially in some of the percussion that really gives it a unique flair. The hints of finger-style guitar, bright production and unexpected synth melodies bring a welcome smoothness, which is an underexplored feeling in the genre.
8. Képzelt Város — Samizdat
One of the more underrated artists on this list, and in the genre as whole, is Hungary’s Képzelt Város. Now with their 5th full-length since their debut in 2009, Samizdat deserves to be the album to push them into a spotlight. Much of the strength of this albums comes in its unpredictability, in combination with an extremely immersive song-writing acumen. The album bounces around between traditional post-rock style guitar work, expansive cello passages, and an undeniable sense of groove. Like Gazelle(s) that juxtaposition between the elegance of the cello, and impressively heavy grooves and borderline breakdowns is highly refreshing and memorable. And I haven’t even got to the vocals yet. They add this sense of calm in their mellow tone, not unlike how progressive rock groups such as Porcupine Tree stir in a more human emotion to easily latch on to. This is definitely an album warranting repeated listens, as new ideas and nuances stand out to me every time I revisit it.
7. Mountaineer – Bloodletting
Shoegazey post-metal, or “doomgaze” as its frequently grown to be known is a genre that’s rapidly shot up my preferred list over the past two years. I think Holy Fawn most succinctly defined it with their moniker, “loud, heavy, pretty noises.” The shoegaze elements bring this sense of lush bliss in its ethereal nature, and a familiarity that’s comforting like a warm blanket. Throw in some heavy sludginess, and you have one of the more compelling post-metal albums I’ve heard in years. I also can’t be understated how much work the vocals do here. The mixture of harsh and clean both work to bring different elements to the overall sound. Be that a more densely introspective atmosphere, or the surprising catchiness of some of the melodies. While it would still be a strong release as an instrumental, the vocals diversify so many of the tracks while augmenting the strong sense of song-writing and the impact of the build ups and release of tension.
6. Caspian – On Circles
I’ve had a bit of a tumultuous relationship with this album. After getting over the initial hype of “oh my god, new Caspian” it initially fell out of rotation for me surprisingly quickly. This was generally a two-fold issue of it not quite living up to the hefty bar they set with their previous release Dust and Disquiet, and generally just being inundated with great new music in early 2020. The album seemed to lack some of the dynamics that made the previous stand out to me, and treaded a lot of the same ground from track to track. For a little while I only really returned to “Nostalgist” because of how much I loved Kyle Durfey of Pianos Become the Teeth’s guest vocals. Upon later revisits the beauty of this finally fully clicked. Tracks like “Flowers of Light” and “Division Blues” capture that essence I was so enamoured with from Dust and Disquiet. The cathartic, soaring, heart wrenching sheer beauty that you can feel in your soul. That is what Caspian does best, and while it didn’t hit that level as consistently with On Circles, it did enough to warrant a spot on this list.
5. Barrens – Penumbra
Another artist looking to carry the torch of the revitalized electronic-post-rock scene this year was Sweden’s Barrens, with their impressive debut Penumbra. I was actually taken aback to find that this was their debut. If anything this album shows huge promise for what is to come from this group, but that’s not to say that this Penumbra isn’t a big achievement in itself. Barrens effectively took the groundwork that groups like God Is An Astronaut laid out years before them, and recrafted it in their own identity. A largely ethereal album, they mix in a heavy atmosphere of melancholy with brooding distorted guitars. Those post-metal moments fused with electronica are what heightens this beyond just another electronic-post-rock album for me. It captures this sombre and terrifying sense of being alone, adrift, in space.
4. Gazelle(s) – True Meridian
The first more traditional post-rock album on my list, Gazelle(s) take a more delicate, careful approach to their writing, yet the end product is a grandiose epic of post-rock mastery. True Meridian shows how much any string section can add to a post-rock album. The centre-piece of this album is largely the violin. It carries these just heart-wrenching, sorrowful melodies on top of lonesome guitar riffs, harkening to an image of a battered old-timey western America. Comparisons can be made to bands like This Patch of Sky and Balmorhea in its approach, but unlike them, Gazelle(s) spices in a unique dose of heaviness drawing from doom metal. While not usually something I look for in this genre, the use of rhythm on this album is one its standout aspects. Interesting syncopated grooves are worked into so many of the verses as sort of a steadying driving force behind the higher melodies, giving it more of a progressive flair. Truly one of the most rewarding violin-centric post-rock albums you can find.
3. Respire – Black Line
Rapidly becoming a band who need no introduction, and the only local band to me on this list, Toronto’s post-everything collective showed once again why they are a band who deserve your attention. Whether you’re a fan of the orchestral-chamber-music approach to post-rock, screamo, or blackgaze, Respire takes those three styles and bundles them together for something you’ve likely never heard before. I had the pleasure of interviewing this group back for our early December drop, and the earnest passion that comes across sonically through their music is paralleled by the drive and rage that fuelled it behind the scenes. This is post- music at its most therapeutic and liberating peak, burning with expression and a fever to reshape the world into something better.
2. Aesthesys – Alignments
The other post-rock niche I’ve been especially drawn to of late is of the electronically infused variety. Ever since hearing 65daysofstatic and Maybeshewill all those years ago, I’ve been captivated by the unique energy that electronic elements can bring to the genre. While not a new band, Aesthesys were my favourite “new to me” discovery this year as Alignments absolutely blew me away. Like Maybeshewill’s mid-to-later material, they bridge orchestral post-rock elements (in this case with impassioned violin) with a mixture of cinematic electronic music not unfit for a science-fiction thriller. Each song feels like a new scene with its own distinct dramatic tension, but it all flows together for a well structured final product. Their delicately layered drums, guitars, keys and violin build on each other without comprising anything, as its mixed to near-perfection for this sound. Alignments is one of those special post-rock albums that really feels like it’s telling a story, and taking you somewhere, without requiring any words.
1. Envy – The Fallen Crimson
If you’re an avid follower of this column you may have come to know me as the screamo guy. While I certainly adore traditional post-rock all the same, it’s fusion with the classic post-hardcore or screamo sound is a perfect storm for the emotional release and escape that I need from music. Few bands have done that approach better over the past two decades than Japan’s envy. Returning with their impressive 9th studio album this year, The Fallen Crimson showed why they remain at the forefront of this scene. With more clean and guest vocals, the ebb and flow of bittersweet melancholy and uplifting passion expressed here is poetic in its delivery. It feels like watching a super-cut of your life flashing before your eyes, but stripped down to just your most vulnerable inner-moments. From deep introspective longing, exasperated anguish, to acceptance and triumphant self-actualization. The most dynamic envy record to date, The Fallen Crimson is simply one of the best albums of 2020.