Hey. I want to make sure that you know something: 2020 is the best year for the next few decades. Yes, I know that that seems impossible and if you get specific about it, it’s probably not true. That is, there are going to be some years in which not a whole lot that is as terrible as a plague happens. But that’s not the point of saying that 2020 is the best year for the next few decades. The point is to try and fight the brain’s predilection to stop looking for patterns exactly when we need it to start looking for patterns. It’s ironic how, when analyzing news for example or other mediums of “current events”, our brain’s pattern-seeking centers go into overdrive. That’s how you get conspiracy theories: the brain looks at a disconnected and “dead” world and can’t stop itself from making connections, so many red pieces of string running like feverish power lines from newspaper scrap to newspaper scrap.
But when we look at a period of time that is longer than the present (whatever period you’d like to choose here is fine with me; if the present is amorphous, which it is, then pretty much anything more defined can be bigger than it) these centers seem to shut themselves off. That’s why we can look at something like, let’s say, pandemics and seem to be doing everything from scratch, every single time. I mean, 1918 isn’t that long ago, right? It’s not lost in the mists of time and the pandemic with which we struggled back then (AKA The Spanish Flu) was actually quite similar to COVID-19. Of course that’s a gross over-generalization and there is a lot of potential risk in reacting to a disease by blindly using an older one. What works to counter one might not work for another and, in fact, could cause more damage.
But once we knew what we were dealing with, more or less (since there’s still much we don’t know) there was a lot we could have learned from what worked and, disastrously, what didn’t work the last time around. Hell, we don’t even need to go that far back. Much of the reason that certain countries in Southeast Asia were able to deal with this virus better than us is that they have the experience of other coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS. Was it really that hard to take a look at what they had learned and implement it? Maybe it was. But it feels like it shouldn’t have been. You’d think a machine as hungry for patterns as our brain is would see something so clearly correlated as what amounts to cousins in epidemiology and pounce on the opportunity to make connections.
Is it something about diseases specifically that strips our brain from the ability to put two and two together? I don’t think that’s the case. I can think of a few other examples that have nothing to do with disease that seem to have the same effect. For example, the housing market. We stand in awe at every spin of the boom/bust wheel, each time crying that “no one could have seen this coming” as markets designed to squeeze profits from a basic human right continue to deliver suffering to us. Or, as another example, music: a lot of us, probably most of us, look at releases, genres, and even trends as isolated. When we see them as part of a bigger picture (let’s say call a certain proliferation of releases “the golden age of metal”) we keep it small. The effort to connect it to other periods, to larger trends, remains somewhat beyond us and that’s very weird. You’d think that’s the sort of things that our brains would jump at, right? But beyond a few academics, it seems as if our hunger for individualism burns so bright that it demands to make everything that is happening to us special, unique, singular.
Kind of like the pandemic, right? COVID-19 is the worst thing ever. It is unprecedented. It is world-shattering. But the truth is that, while the pandemic is certainly terrible and extremely hard to deal with (and, of course, deadly in many ways) it shares common attributes and realities with things that have happened in the past, things we could have learned from if, perhaps, we weren’t so focused on our way of life, on our priorities but rather were open to different ways to organize ourselves.
Damn. I didn’t want this post to be about COVID-19 but let’s face it, it would pretty absurd to write a 2020 year in review and not mention the one occurrence that shaped it more than any other. Well, let’s try and excavate back into the greater point: what are we to do in face of the things that break our ability to recognize and perhaps create patterns? There are these things that seem to evade our perception, to trick it into some sort of tunnel vision, a narrowing of perspective (otherwhere, we might call them hyperobjects, but that’s for a different sort of post). What are we to do with these things? What ought we do?
I think, in many ways, that I have already answered this question in my 2018 in review. Titled Semantic Memory, I used this post to reconfigure my approach towards yearly summaries. Instead of sweeping predictions or analysis, I wrote there in what seems the Before Time, decades ago instead of two years, that I would give you something intimate, a glance at the musical moments and sensations that accompanied me, Eden Kupermintz, the person, not the disembodied voice of a blog, through 2018. To be honest, I think that was a good idea (good job, past Eden). I thought back then that it was a good idea (otherwise I wouldn’t have written it) but right now, it seems damn near prophetic.
Because what else can I do in the face of this, Our Best Year For A Few Decades, 2020? A year where time itself has collapsed, where the milestones of routine by which we used to navigate our day to day have been shattered into socially isolated pieces? Is it a wonder that my brain slips on the accounting of the year, grey matter glazing over the hard, glass-like surface of weeks that have melded together into days, formed into a harsh, cold diamond under the pressure of a plague? No, it is no wonder and I want to be kind and compassionate to myself. It’s OK that this is the way it is. It’s OK that my brain can’t cope and that no patterns are emerging. It’s OK that there aren’t grand gestures to be made in the face of something as horrible as this virus. It’s OK to just get by with it.
But, of course, the glassy surface of the year vexes me to no end. The last time that time (a mouthful, I know) shattered and melded together in this way for me was 2017, when I was flying around so much that my body just lost grip on where it was and when it was. And guess what I did back then? That’s right, I used music! Here’s another thing for you: music is time. It is not just time, it is controlled time. It’s controlled by the musician to make it (carving up minutes into beats, lining up repetition and its death, manipulating what goes where, creating containers and delimitations of time). But it’s also controlled by listeners; you get to decide when to enter a period of moments called “listening to an album”. You get to decide when you stop that period by hitting the stop button. You can also pause it, rewind, go back and forwards. You control that time on at least one level: sound.
But, of course, sound is not “just” one level. Sound is also mood and awareness (ever heard an album and had an hour just fly by?) Sound, accompanied by lyrics or instrumental moods and themes, is also meaning and thought. You’re not actually “just” controlling sound: you’re controlling music. And that’s a mighty power, a power we should never take for granted. It is the power to stick a peg into a series of moments and say: “this is now mine and I get to decide what to do with it and what to experience in it”. These pegs stretch on behind you, like an ice climber marking the path they have taken to the summit through the holes left by their gear, like the posts of a fence speeding by a highway, like trees that line a rural road and blend into a wall of green behind you. Music can be a series of way-stones, a vibrant road which makes inroads of meaning and location even in a year like 2020.
Even in Our Best Year For A Few Decades, music shines bright when you look back on it. So that’s going to be the rest of the post. Like 2018 Eden (great guy), I’m going to be showing you along this yellow brick road of beat, groove, melody, harmony, and expression. We won’t stop at every point of interest because that would probably take us a dozen posts (especially in the prolific 2020). Instead, I’ll choose a few to highlight, showing you some of the musical pegs that struck especially deep into my memory of this year. Hopefully, that allows you to ruminate on your own and make just a little bit more sense of the year we just experienced. Hopefully, I can help you find a pattern to hold on to from the past year or perhaps just shine a light on patterns that were already burning in the corner of your eye.
Hey. I want to make sure that you know something: I love you. It’s going to get so much harder but we have each other and we have music and that will have to be Enough.
The Death of Me – Burning In the Cleansing Fire of Metal
As hinted at in the intro above, life can move in weird little circles. Listening to music is no different and metal is certainly no different. Here, I am not referring to trends in the music itself or in the community which produces it (although recurring little rhymes, to paraphrase one George Lucas, can certainly be found) but rather cyclical patterns in how I experience music. One of those patterns is my relationship with the epic, with the grand gesture in my music. When I started out listening to music, around the age of thirteen, I gravitated towards music, and metal specifically, that incorporated these gestures. I’ve recorded this elsewhere on the blog but that’s why I started listening to Iron Maiden, Blind Guardian, Dream Theater, Metallica and their ilk. I was addicted to the massive scale and melodrama of the genre.
In 2020, that addiction was multiplied manifold by a multitude of conditions. First of all, the deathly silence of the quarantine. It gets so damn quiet when a city is under lockdown that it becomes oppressive; the silence haunts you, chasing you down streets you thought were warm and familiar with tireless legs. Metal’s (literal) cry to be heard was a powerful analgesic against these pangs of frigid silence, filling up the space left behind by outside noise with my own, internal, blazing world of emotion and emotive expression.
This also had something to do with my anxious response to the pandemic, to the risk of getting infected, and (even worse) to the risk of infecting those I love. Because you can be asymptomatic and still infectious, you’re cautioned to always see yourself as such. Which is, of course, the right way to go but it also leaves you with this constant suspicion of your body, with this eternal feeling of being infected, dirty, unhealthy, repulsive, repugnant. Metal helped me cleanse that feeling away, by making me feel powerful and capable. It was like a fire burning through my body, physically running through every vein and skin pore with its epic brightness and shining a new, healing light on everything.
In that regard, one album stands above the rest (and, if you look closely at my persona list for 2020, you’ll see that I gave it its deserving place) and that is Countless Skies‘ Glow. I’ve written many, many words about this album already but yet, I return to talk about it once again. The reason it is my album of the year (oops, spoilers) is not because it is technically impressive (though it’s quite good in the regard as well); many albums released in 2020 are more technical. It’s not groundbreaking either (though it does have its own, unique blend of sounds). But what it is is brilliantly, uniquely epic, creating the perfect blend of melodic death metal, progressive metal and operatic elements that results in a fantastic explosion of light, emotions, imagery, and passion.
Listening to Glow captures so much of what listening to metal in general was, for me, this year; a sensation of a virtuous immolation, a cocoon of protective fire sheltering me from the world, on one hand, and cleansing me from within on the other. At the end of the day, what other genre can accomplish this better than metal? 2020 made me grateful for the fact that I have chosen to dedicate so much of my time and passion to it; I’ve never needed it more.
Thunder in the Mountains – Awestruck In the Midst of Black Metal
I’ve said on the blog before that my relationship with black metal is both the youngest and the most “artificial” of my journeys with metal’s many sub-genres. It started around the middle of 2014, as I joined the blog and was looking to expand my listening habits. Don’t get me wrong, I had heard black metal before that and I even I enjoyed some of it, but that was the first time that I seriously started paying attention to the nuances of the genre and what made it tick. It was rough going; I spent a few months shaking my head in confusion as I tried to parse what people found in the genre that kept them coming back to it beyond a few albums.
I don’t really remember what it was that made everything click into place but my relationship with black metal is a blossoming one nowadays. As I spent around five thousand words telling you, the genre has come to typify everything that I love about metal in general, including love itself. That’s why this segment of the post has a lot of overlap with the first one because there are few genres better equipped to channel the sort of epicness that I crave in my metal than black metal. But there’s something else lying in wait there, beyond (or beside) the love which I wrote that essay about. I think that the best way to describe that feeling, or at least the feeling that ended up defining my black metal listening in 2020, is awe.
What, exactly, is awe? Don’t worry, this won’t launch a two thousand foray into the nature of awe (although, now that I’m talking about, that would make an interesting post) but let’s spend a little time unpacking that. Awe, for me at least, is an emotion that’s related to size, to the sheer volume of something. Awe is what I feel when looking up at a mountain, or hearing a storm bear down on me. Awe is a sensation that fills my every pore, rising from the core of me, reminding me of the magnificent nature of something. You can see how this relates to black metal; beyond the pretty obvious use of natural metaphors (a staple of black metal, of course), the genre loves to create these larger than life moments and evoke the sensation of awe.
For me, no album captures this more than Dzö-nga‘s Thunder in the Mountains. Beyond being based on a literal epic, the folk tales of the Ojibwe peoples as represented in H. W. Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha”, Thunder in the Mountains is just a massive album on every scale. Its softer elements, like the clean vocals and the pianos, only serve to underpin the mighty drums that churn at the album’s depths and the grandiose, sweeping riffs that inform it. The harsh vocals inverse this gesture “upwards”, further building the verticality of the sound, in stark contrast to the drums and guitars. Crowning it all are exquisite violins, fragile but breathtaking, like the snow that is shorn off the peak in a heavy wind. They complete the awe-inspiring tension that runs through the album, evoking within us that feeling of being in the presence of something massive, towering above us.
These feelings, adjectives, and images ran through much of my listening to black metal this year. Does that say something about black metal during 2020? Possibly. You could make the case that lockdowns and global fear create within us a desire to soar and that desire can be expressed through music. But Thunder in the Mountains was released in February, the Before Times when we were all still blissfully unaware of what exactly was coming our way.
So it’s probable that these sensations, after all pretty particular to my emotional makeup, are located in my own experiences from the year. But that’s the point of music, right? You release something out into the world without knowing how it will meet the listener and what sort of new creation will be born from that meeting. Nowhere should this be truer than in black metal, where the emotional investment and intimacy of the listener with the music ought lead the way.
Truthseeker – Falling Back In Love With Stoner and Doom Metal
There’s a similarly titled section in last year’s review and I really hope there’s one in next year’s as well. Falling back in love with genres you used to adore is one of my favorite things in the world. But why do we even fall out of love with them in the first place? I find that it has a lot to do with chance, for sure, but also with the sad nature of diminishing returns. When you first discover a genre, you’re blown away by what drew you to it and you can’t get enough of it; you seem to drink every single release you can get your hands on. But then, through this very process of over-consumption, the magic starts to fade.
This is often coupled with the growing popularity of the genre itself. Let’s be honest here: you don’t often discover a whole style of music before that style starts blowing up and getting popular. Like you, many people out there are discovering the genre and it grows exponentially; you’re hungry for more releases and there they are, springing up like mushrooms after the rain. For a while, this works well: you want a ton of that style and you get it. But as more and more bands start to work in these spaces, the overall supply gets diluted and genres become stale and repetitive. Note that I’m not saying about authenticity or “posers” or whatever; none of those latter bands are “less good” because they entered a style late. That’s gatekeeping and it sucks.
Rather, I’m thinking of Sturgeon’s Law here, bluntly phrased as “shit floats to the top”. When you get hundreds of releases in a style, you start to get mediocrity and, just as your own pleasure loop starts weakening and fading, the “cost of labor” to find albums that might your heart beat faster increases. That’s when you fall out of love with a genre and it’s happened to me a few times now: before it happened to me with synthwave, it happened to me with stoner metal and rock, as the early years of the decades saw an explosive interest in the style. At first, it was amazing; I was diving into these monumental and amazing releases. But quickly there were literally dozens of albums being released each month with that sound and everything became very tired and drawn out.
But, luckily, just as these things fade, so they can spring up again. Maybe it’s because once the genre gets really big, others start to notice its repetitive nature and move on, thus decreasing the genre again and making releases easier to find. Maybe it’s just chance, a brace of great releases hitting your ears at the same time and reigniting your passion for the sound. Or maybe it’s something about you, a certain change in your life which leads to a change in your ears, guiding you back to what originally sparked your interest in the music. Or, probably, it’s all three.
Whatever the case, or the dosages involved in the volatile rekindling of musical passion, that’s what happened to me in 2019 with synthwave and what happened to me in 2020 with stoner metal. The album that most encapsulates this feeling is, without even a shred of a doubt, King Witch‘s Body of Light. Holy fuck, this album is so incredibly powerful. At its base lie these massive, crawling, gargantuan riffs, punctuated by equally forceful drum and bass. The instruments have that hefty, sword-swinging groove that first drew me to doom and stoner; they give off that sort of arrogance that the genre captures so well. Above these foundations soar the vocals; it’s really hard to overstate how powerful these vocals are so instead I won’t try and just send you to listen to “Of Rock And Stone”.
That chorus! The power in those high notes! The empowering lyrics! The massive riffs that punctuate it all! The solo! The way the riff comes back but slower! It’s so freaking good. I’ve listened to this track and album so many times this year because nothing quite compared; going back to the epic gesture at the base of metal, King Witch are like a high that no other drug could really get me to this year. And the thing is, once I had reached these heights, I sought out more stoner and doom to get me to that peak but from a different (yet similar) direction. And, in 2020, I reached out and, over and over again, I found something to latch on to, yet another magnificent release in the style. And that felt so good, something that I had not been able to do for at least five to six years. It felt like coming back home.
Hey. I want to make sure you know something: I will never stop fighting for metal’s existence and its continued improvement. I love this genre of music too much. I love the people I met through it too much. We have a lot to sort through. We have a lot of people to fight against. We have so many people to fight for. But I am never stopping and I know you won’t either. I know we can do this together. We must do it together because we’re going to need it: the future is dark and we will need metal to burn bright.
Light the fire.