2020 was a shit year from a lot of perspectives.
In fact, 2020 was a shit year from MOST perspectives… but it was a great year for metal. With touring off the table, and even local shows an impossibility for most of the year, many musicians focused their excess energy on producing new music, and a lot of the energy available to be channeled into their creative output was pretty negative, because 2020.
Negative energy makes good metal. 2020 was the fertilest of soils for good metal.
One really obvious phenomenon in 2020 was new bands putting out amazing debut EPs, which makes perfect sense in the context of the radically altered social dynamics of The COVID Era. 2020 really was The Year of the EP, in particular the Debut EP, to the extent that I am going to have to put together (next) a Top Five EPs list for the first time ever. That’s how good some of these EPs are; they simply demand their due-and-proper.
As far as our current subject goes— the LPs of 2020— there was plenty of great metal on that end of things as well. Looking back at my Top Ten lists for 2018 and 2019, 2020 looks to have been on par with the past few years in terms of the range of quality from the top to the bottom of the lists.
As is not uncommon— youthful energy and enthusiasm tempered by a bit of experience being what it is— this year’s Top Ten is heavily populated by sophomore and junior releases, the only long-established bands on the list being Vader (sixteenth LP) and Benediction (eighth LP). Midnight falls somewhere in the middle; Rebirth by Blasphemy is their fourth LP (but also their major-label debut). Two of the Top Ten albums mark returns after a lengthy period of inactivity, which can be an energetically beneficial scenario because of renewed enthusiasm and purpose; Invictus Mortem is Smouldering In Forgotten’s first album in ten years, and Scriptures is Benediction’s first LP in 12 years.
Compared to last year, my 2020 Top Ten shows a return to the typical dominance by death metal (half the list) and significantly less black/hybrid metal than 2019, Midnight being the sole example this year. Death/thrash got its usual one spot– taken this time by the aptly-named Total Annihilation— and crossover/thrash doubled last year’s high-value territorial holdings as Power Trip and Verbal Razors took the top two spots. The oddball: the first pure retro-thrash album to make the list since 2017 (and it’s a scorcher), from Skeleton Pit.
- Power Trip – Live in Seattle 05.28.2018
Simply put, this independent digital-only live release captures one of the best modern thrash bands on the planet in their prime, harnessing the band’s raw energy as only the best live recordings do. Ace audio engineering recreates their studio sound admirably well, getting the most out of a really solid live setlist and an on-point performance. The set list alone would make this album of the year; combined with the performance and the production, I think that if this LP gets a wider physical release, it will eventually come to be regarded as one of THE classic metal live albums. Album of the Year.
Standout tracks: Executioner’s Tax (Swing of the Axe), Crucifixation, Manifest Decimation
- Verbal Razors – By Thunder and Lightning
Verbal Razors’ third LP By Thunder and Lightning is a twelve-track, 33-minute pissed-off rocket-ride. High-speed, low-drag tracks blend hardcore-heavy crossover, thrash, and bits of speed metal into a full-tilt, pummeling whirlwind of aggression that never lets up. Guitar is the name of the game: a masterfully executed combination of chunky, thrashy chugs and Bay Area power-chord riffing, decimating crossover chugs that would do MOD and DRI proud, some nice tremolo abuse, and an extra-heavy dose of bouncy, kinetic hardcore riffing. And leads? Shit-tons of leads, of all shapes and sorts, all of them seemingly indispensable to the action. The bright, ballsy bass locks in the low end with a high-speed hyper-chug rumble, occasionally emerging briefly to seize the spotlight in a hardcore-style bass break; the drums reflect the heavy hardcore influence as well, inevitably switching to uptempo d-beats when they have to push things forward. In keeping with the music, the vocals are fast-phrased hoarse hardcore shouts, and the production is completely consonant with the style.
Standout tracks: Trash, Alcohol, Cross the Line
- Red Dead – Forest of Chaos
The second LP from French old-school death metallers Red Dead, Forest of Chaos is an inhumanly battering blend of austere, stripped-down brutal/tech death and premium black/death metal; in addition, there are plenty of thrashy bits, demolition-grade chugs and well-placed tempo changes to keep things nice and lively, and to provide a nice grounding counter-point to the techish syncopated riffing, sinister tremolo picking and odd timing changes. The result is a world-class clinic in manslaughter that synergistically combines the best elements of two very different styles of death metal into ten precision-crafted verse/chorus bulldozers that tell the ghastly tale of a mortiferous French forest that ensnares the unwary, and the savage lustmord that roams and rends within it. Musicianship is top-notch— particularly the drumming— and the vocals and production are both a perfect fit for the brutal/tech parentage.
Standout tracks: Forest of Flesh, Butcher’s Pray, Wind of Chaos
- Scalpture – Eisenzeit
Eisenzeit is the second LP from the German death metal outfit Scalpture. Between the similarity in vocal style (a very van Drunenesque hoarse, tormented, growlish shout), subject matter (World War history) and approach to it (bleakly dispassionate), feel (martial, and by turns maudlin and triumphant), riffing (crushing death-chugs, somber chug-and-power-chord combos, and lethal uptempo tremolo-picking for contrast), leadwork (haunting thematic leads, often the focus of a somber bridge passage) and production (grimy-but-tight modernish production with Sunlight HM-2 worship on the guitars), this album is bound to draw the obvious, and well-earned, comparisons to Hail of Bullets. This is a fair cop, and a good thing. There’s not enough of this sort of bleak, crushing, doomish death metal in the world, and Scalpture are damn good at it.
Standout tracks: Eisenzeit, Of Daredevils and Doughboys, …Ebbs into Stalemate
- Skeleton Pit – Lust to Lynch
An intro plus nine barn-burning tracks from Germany’s Skeleton Pit comprise the best retro-thrash that came my way this year. Out-of-the-ballpark albums like this one are why I bother to wade through all of the tepid, try-hard, whiffle-ball retro thrash that comes around. There’s always a lot of great new hybrid thrash every year— black/thrash, death/thrash, crossover/thrash— but the pure-retro pizza-and-beer thrash crop is usually a pretty mediocre one, year after year. The occasional gems, though… they’re worth all the effort, and Lust to Lynch is a true gem: lethal, high-velocity old-school blitzkrieg thrash that evokes early Exodus/Flotsam/Forbidden/Overkill. Riffing is 100% on point; the spinecrushing chugs and razored power chords are irresistibly compelling pit-fodder. Rapid-fire hardcore-influenced thrash drumming pushes the action, driving whiplash feel changes and sick pit-stirring mosh parts, and even the production thinks it’s still 1985. If this album doesn’t make you want to break shit, check your pulse.
Standout tracks: Violent Raid, Like Vultures, Challenge to Kill
- Benediction – Scriptures
British death metal veterans Benediction are back with their first LP in 12 years, and it is consonant with the best of modern-style European death metal. Scriptures is twelve tracks of thrashy, chug-laden, mid-tempo, mid-length death metal that most favors Vader/Unleashed. Consistently great riffs, all seamlessly fit together, make this album a standout; spot-on instinctive use of tempo and feel changes keep one’s attention riveted. This is a top-tier exemplar of the style, with world-class musicianship… and it will wreck your neck!
Standout tracks: Scriptures in Scarlet, Tear Off These Wings, We Are Legion
- Midnight – Rebirth by Blasphemy
Midnight’s fourth LP, and first on Metal Blade, cedes no ground: Cleveland black/speed master Athenar baptizes this unholy union with ten tracks of filthy, sleazy metal born of Motörhead and Venom, performed with his usual aplomb and swagger; as always, the songs are short verse/chorus affairs that leave nothing but carnage and a whiff of brimstone in their wake. The album flow accelerates like a rocket-ride to Hell, and then fetches up against the mid-album bulwarks that are Rising Scum and Warning From the Reaper, as speed metal chugs, power chords and tremolo-picked notework vie for dominance with the wickedest leads this side of Satan’s titty bar. Uptempo, stripped-down, and gleefully depraved… it’s Midnight!
Standout tracks: Fucking Speed and Darkness, Rebirth by Blasphemy, The Sounds of Hell
- Total Annihilation – …On Chains of Doom
The third LP from Switzerland’s Total Annihilation is eight tracks of great Scandinavian-style death/thrash: crushing mid- and up-tempo thrash-based riffing and tremolo-picked sections played against down-tempo passages (either thrashy mosh parts or more dismal death metal pieces), all expertly welded together into verse-chorus juggernauts with death-metal-inspired structural flourishes— multi-part verses and choruses and complex extended bridges. These steamroller songs are driven by a blend of traditional and thrash drumming, buttressed by double-bass runs and the occasional d-beat-like pattern, and there are plenty of sick chugs, tempo shifts and dialog samples to go around. Song length ebbs and flows between mid-length and long, but none of them overstay their welcome, and production is consistent with the style: that blackish, slightly top-heavy sound— with extra crunch on the guitars— that characterizes Scandi death/thrash.
Standout tracks: Reborn in Flesh, …On Chains of Doom, Tunnelratten
- Vader – Solitude in Madness
The sixteenth full length album from Polish death metal titans Vader shows them to be as solid as ever, and continuing in the vein of the past half-dozen albums. It’s an eleven-track clinic in thrashy-yet-crushing, hit-you-like-a-ton-of-bricks modern European death metal, and it has everything that you want from Vader: a brutal blend of modern and old-school-Swedish-inspired death metal riffing, sharpened by congenital thrash tendencies, and densified by a bit of modern tech/brutal influence and machine-gun drumming… all with their characteristic massive-yet-sharp modern production. At 29:29, it is the shortest of Vader’s current-era LPs, edging out 2016’s The Empire by over 3:30, and with an extra track to boot. As a result, the pacing on the album is relentless, and the songs themselves are brief, brutal and to-the-point, like a bludgeoning in the night.
Standout tracks: Emptiness, Final Declaration, Bones
- Smouldering In Forgotten – Invictus Mortem
This is the third LP, and the first in ten years, from Bahrain’s Smouldering In Forgotten: nine longish tracks of proper blackened death metal, treating of old conflicts and ancient evils. The music emanates an aura of struggle, torment and grand infernal triumph, using lots of tremolo picking, death metal chugs and Swedish-style thematic leadwork, all offset by the occasional crushing downtempo chord-heavy passage, or uptempo thrashy bit, or fragment of black metal morbidity. The predominant tremolo-picked riffs are derived from both the death metal and black metal parentage, and form the backbone of the beast, as well as providing a lot of its atmosphere. Well-filled death metal drumming provides a basalt foundation and frequently elevates the feel by employing high-speed rolling double bass under slower riffing and vocal phrasing to create epic-feeling tension; different tempo riffing is often stacked this way as well. A dirty, buzzsaw, somewhat murky production creates a dark, heavy, leaden feel throughout. Touchpoints are as varied as Goatwhore, Corpsessed, Unleashed and Morbid Angel.
Standout tracks: Standout tracks: Cult de Aur, Tartarus, Impaled Heads
In alphabetical order:
Just Before Dawn – An Army at Dawn
Kommand – Terrorscape
Skeletal Throne – Human Deterioration
Undeath – Lesions of a Different Kind