2020 was an unprecedented year, and as it always has, music provided escape, comfort, catharsis and hope in an uncertain time. Here are our picks for the best heavy metal albums released in 2020.
Carach Angren – Frankensteina
Deftones – Ohms
Empire of the Moon – Εκλειψις
Green Carnation – Leaves Of Yesteryear
Infera Bruo – Rites Of The Nameless
Killer Be Killed – Reluctant Hero
Kvelertak – Splid
Loviator – Lightless
Necrot – Mortal
Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better?
Thematic – Skyrunner
Umbra Vitae – Shadow Of Life
Vulkan – Technatura
Wobbler – Dwellers Of The Deep
Xenobiotic – Mordrake
25. Armored Saint – Punching The Sky (Metal Blade)
It seems age is no obstacle for many of the heavier bands of yore. Armored Saint’s last album, Win Hands Down, was released in June 2015. It’s been a while. Amazingly, the band’s lineup has been unchanged for over thirty years, and the comfort level they have with each other, the songwriting maturity, the knack for earworm arrangements, it’s all in play here on Punching The Sky. Throughout the album, bassist Joey Vera (also the main songwriter here, and the bassist for Fates Warning, who have an album of their own dropping in two weeks – busy guy!) shows he is equally comfortable in the producer’s chair as he is in front of a bass stack. This album kicks and punches with an organic aggression that hits the sweet spot.
Musically, Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan deliver killer riffs and searing leads much as we have come to expect over the years. Vera and drummer Gonzo Sandoval are as tight and punchy a rhythm section as there is, and John Bush might be the only human being on the planet whose voice has not changed over the last forty years. While Armored Saint’s last two albums, La Raza and Win Hands Down, were both enjoyable, Punching The Sky is a step up, and one of the band’s finest efforts – certainly their best since Symbol of Salvation. This is traditional heavy metal at its finest, and you owe it to yourself to give it a spin.
24. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi (Nuclear Blast)
For their latest album Mestarin Kynsi, the Finnish band Oranssi Pazuzu have signed with Nuclear Blast, one of metal’s bigger labels. Even with a larger platform, they remain as experimental and inscrutable as ever.
The six tracks are all lengthy, in the 7 to 10 minute range, each with a different perspective and vibe. Oranssi Pazuzu start with black metal, then expand their sonic palette by utilizing everything from prog to noise to psychedelia and even krautrock. Songs like “Tyhjyyden sakramentti” shift from subdued to chaotic to avant-garde. The music is constantly changing, twisting and reforming into something unexpected. It can be challenging listen at times, but a smooth and hypnotic experience at other times. It takes an adventurous listener to appreciate Oranssi Pazuzu, and if you haven’t immersed yourself in their music yet, this is a good time to jump in.
23. Vile Creature – Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm! (Prosthetic)
Glory, Glory! Apathy Took Helm! is at once both the bleakest and most optimistic album of Vile Creature’s burgeoning career. The first half of the album falls under the former, with a pair of 11-plus minute doom titans. Each snare hit sounds like a stick of dynamite going off, as acid-drenched guitar riffs echo into the shadows. Their crushing execution blankets these songs in a threatening undertone.
All of this menace fades into the sublime two-part title track, which are the best songs the band has written to date. A choir composed of vocalist Laurel Minnes and her band, Minuscule, accompany members KW and Vic as a beacon of motivation in a time of uncertainty. People throw the word out “beautiful” a lot, but there are points during this title track where that’s the only word that can suffice. It’s a stirring finish to a fantastic third album from Vile Creature.
22. Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void (InsideOut)
California progsters Psychotic Waltz released several albums before disbanding in 1997. They reunited in 2010, but it took a decade for new material to emerge in the form of God-Shaped Void. The 2020 version of the band includes all five members that appeared on their first three records, including vocalist Devon Graves, known then as Buddy Lackey.
The album isn’t a clone of their earlier material, but a natural progression. Songs like opener “Devils And Angels” and “Back To Black” blend hooks and catchy choruses with complexity and progressive interludes. “The Fallen” is a relatively straightforward ballad that’s a nice change of pace before the prog resumes. Graves is a compelling vocalist, and the band’s musicianship is top-notch. The band took several years to write and record the album, allowing the songs to be shaped, honed and perfected. It’s a welcome return for an influential band.
21. Cirith Ungol – Forever Black (Metal Blade)
Cirith Ungol are back with Forever Black, their fifth proper album and first new material since 1991’s Paradise Lost. They’ve always a bit of an oddity especially with Tim Baker’s unique vocal style that fits the band almost as well as the late Terry Jones fit Pagan Altar.
Toeing the line between doom metal and the fantasy elements of power metal, Cirith Ungol are a tremendously fun band with tracks like “The Fire Divine” and “The Frost Monstreme” immediately hearkening the listener back to the two strongest albums the band has released in King of the Dead and One Foot In Hell nearly 40 years later. This is career revitalization on par with the best comebacks of all time, this is Cirith Ungol!
20. Ulcerate – Stare Into Death And Be Still (Debemur Morti)
The New Zealand tech death trio Ulcerate have been around for nearly 20 years now. Over that time they have established themselves as a potent force in the underground. Stare Into Death And Be Still, their sixth album, explores the concept of death reverence.
While there’s still plenty of extremity and technicality on this album, Ulcerate bring more atmosphere and melody to the table this time around. Top-notch production gives the songs a powerful sound, whether it’s drummer Jamie Saint Merat’s rolling fills and powerful blasts or guitarist Michael Hoggard’s memorable riffs. Hoggard also brings a melancholy vibe to songs such as the title track. Dynamic is a good way to describe these songs, with tracks like “Exhale The Ash” shifting between crushing heaviness and glimpses of melody. By blending extremity and introspection Ulcerate have pushed their musical boundaries and reinforced why they are one of the genre’s best.
19. Haunt – Mind Freeze (Shadow Kingdom)
The furious pace at which Trevor William Church has worked in recent years should be commended. With Haunt‘s latest album Mind Freeze, there’s a stronger emphasis by the band on the synth front, leaning more heavily towards the embrace that these guys are a fringe power metal outfit, in the best way possible. The sounds of guitars swirl within these synths and the pounding drums of Wolfy Wilson which are high in the mix, sounding more like a bomb brigade than a typical battery.
The speed varies over the album from the frenetic flamethrowers to the songs like “Have No Fear” which are great examples of how Church’s vocals have continued to improve over the course of these past few years.Haunt’s body of work essentially speaks for itself at this point. They play fast, furious, speedy heavy metal that if teeming with melody and lyrics that would appeal to the most stalwart power metal fan. With continued crossover appeal, Mind Freeze may yet be another feather in a plumage laden hat.
18. Pyrrhon – Abscess Time (Willowtip)
NYC based extreme entity Pyrrhon are here to remind you that everything is far from OK. Harsh noise abounds from the outset of the title track, feeling like The Jesus Lizard, Swans and death metal all within the same breath. This follow-up to their critically acclaimed 2017 release What Passes For Survival shows a further evolution in the band’s overall sound, moving more and more away from the traditional song structures of their previous death metal endeavors. Even the voice samples of ignorance seem more poignant in times of people’s unwavering biases towards information, all encapsulated within this violent vessel.
Doug Moore’s vocals set the stage with varying different effects on display as guitarist Dylan DiLella does his best to keep up within each odd time signature. This cohesive effort is hard to break down into components, since this needs to be experienced in full; though “Another Day In Paradise” is a great encapsulating effort on its own. Tough to find many bands in the genre who are willing to take these risks and see it pay off so massively. One of the best and bizarre death metal albums of 2020.
17. Spirit Adrift – Enlightened In Eternity (20 Buck Spin)
Spirit Adrift’s fourth album Enlightened In Eternity is the first album without any connections to Gatecreeper, as frontman Nate Garrett stepped aside from those band duties so as to focus on this, his main band. Already one of the stronger traditional heavy metal bands in the genre, Garrett has set himself up some high expectations. Opening with the powerful “Ride Into Light,” Spirit Adrift start things off on a mid-tempo gallop with Garrett’s guitar playing coming through melodically to balance out his gruff vocal delivery.
Album closer “Reunited In The Void” brings to close a story that is alluded to on the album’s cover, namely of two dogs, one of which belonged to Garrett and the other to Bryant. The song features some Sabbath and Type O Negative riffs throughout but, towards the middle of the track you get the sense of galloping and the clicking of a dog’s tags while running. This nearly 11 minute salute is a powerful sendoff for the band to some of their closest friends and a fitting close to a strong album. Spirit Adrift haven’t been around that long but they certainly do heavy metal right.
16. Dark Fortress – Spectres From The Old World (Century Media)
German black metal veterans Dark Fortress took more time than usual between releases. There was a six year gap between Venereal Dawn and their latest album Spectres From The Old World.
Their brand of black metal is melodic at times while maintaining aggression and extremity. Tracks like “Coalescence” run the gamut from dense blastbeats to melodic guitar solos. “The Spider In The Web” is a highlight, with groovy riffs that transition to a mellow mid-section before the guitars resume. Tracks like “Pulling At Threads” and “Swan Song” insert some melodic singing that contrasts the ominous guitars and harsh vocals. Keyboards add atmosphere and depth throughout. It’s an extremely well rounded album, showcasing both old school black metal and more progressive, modern approaches to the genre while showing flashes of other styles as well.
15. Intronaut – Fluid Existential Inversions (Metal Blade)
After a five-year gap in new material, Intronaut return with Fluid Existential Inversions. After an intro track to get things going the band breaks out “Cubensis,” a polyrhythmic tour de force, one that should hook longtime fans with the many different movements of overt heaviness combined with sections of post metal ambiance. “Contrapasso” is a slow-paced crawl that gives way to some progressive tinged speed and vocal harmonies courtesy of the guitar section. That sound continues to make Intronaut a unique band in the scene to this day.
Fluid Existential Inversions is a great intro to the band if you haven’t given them the time of day before, or if you have followed them since Void all those years ago. This album only gets better on repeated listens and with enough nuance to shake a stick at, there should be plenty to hear again and again.
14. My Dying Bride – The Ghost Of Orion (Nuclear Blast)
Gothic doom metal pioneers My Dying Bride return for their fourteenth installment of slow-moving melancholy. Changing moods and styles all while keeping the feeling sad and/or destructive is a masterful constant throughout their existence and The Ghost of Orion is no exception.
Fans of My Dying Bride’s style of dejected doom with a flair for interweaving somber strings within their pessimistic plod will be more than happy with this result. Their excellent songwriting skills and ability to operate as a well-oiled machine is certainly one thing that is very much in their favor.Entering their fourth decade of existence has not made this British body sound any different than in the past. We welcome them in for another stay, hopefully with the warm embrace that this cheerless collective is clearly in need of.
13. Black Crown Initiate – Violent Portraits Of A Doomed Escape (Century Media)
American progressive death metal outfit Black Crown Initiate are back with their third release, Violent Portraits of a Doomed Escape. Four years between albums is a lot, but the band has been hard at work honing their skills, and boy does it pay off in spades here. As long as you prefer your prog-death to lean more towards the progressive side, Violent Portraits… will scratch your itch perfectly.
While the clean passages may outweigh the harsh, these guys are not afraid to bring the brutality, which they do on numerous occasions. The material presented here is dynamic and brilliantly paced, with devastating riffs countering melodic moments perfectly. The short interlude “Bellow” may seem odd, but even that adds atmosphere to an already superb record. Violent Portraits… is one of the year’s best.
12. Eternal Champion – Ravening Iron (No Remorse)
On Ravening Iron, Texas based epic metal collective Eternal Champion pick up right where they left off with their 2016 debut The Armor of Ire. As epic heavy metal has picked steam in recent years, Eternal Champion remain a torchbearer for the current state of the genre that includes Visigoth, Smoulder, Sumerlands and Atlantean Kodex among other recent bands.
Exploding out of the gate with “A Face In The Glare” lead singer Jason Tarpey fits the mold of the genre very well, bonus points for his barks from his time fronting Texas crossover legends Iron Age. The title track absolutely brings the trademark energy to the album, fast and furious riffs, epic soaring vocals and solos for days, true to form. From a purely heavy metal standpoint Ravening Iron is one of the best the genre has produced in 2020.
11. Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full (Sacred Bones)
A collaboration between singer/songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle and sludge behemoths Thou may seem unlikely in theory, but the execution is top-notch on May Our Chambers Be Full. This is a product of like-minded individuals banding together to produce an album that will engross both of their respective fan bases. Thou get to maintain a laborious weight over the music, while Rundle’s haunting grace cuts through the murky atmosphere.
Though it’s easy to pick out a few striking moments on May Our Chambers Be Full — the Kim Thayil-mannered guitar solo on “Into Being,” the quick veer off into black metal on “Magickal Cost” — the cohesion of the entire album is noteworthy. From the clashing vocal harmonies on “Killing Floor” to the soul-ripping closer “The Valley,” it’s apparent that Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou were destined to join to create one of the best albums of 2020.
10. Sweven – The Eternal Resonance (Ván)
Prior to the demise of Morbus Chron, they released the excellent Sweven, breaking from the more traditional death metal they had been playing previously. The album was a progressive metal masterpiece, but was unfortunately the band’s dying breath.
Six years later a resurrection has taken place and in a relatively quiet fashion, founding Morbus Chron member Robert Andersson and former live member of the band Isak Koskinen Rosemarin are joined by Jesper Nyrelius to form a band named Sweven after the legacy of old. What The Eternal Resonance sounds like is a spiritual successor to Sweven with plenty of allusions to Human and Testimony of the Ancients. “Mycelia” is gorgeous and well worth the price of admission.
9. Oceans Of Slumber – Oceans Of Slumber (Century Media)
Oceans of Slumber’s self-titled album is their fifth release over seven years, so the group have made their mark and established their progressive sound. Cammie Gilbert’s clean vocal tones give way to growls layered with screams by Alexander Lucian and Semir Ӧzerkan. Soft acoustic melodies transition into a mania of Dobber Beverly’s kick drums and churning, distorted riffs.
“The Adorned Fathomless Creation” seems like a death metal song, but changes melodiously, while “Pray For Fire” has the opposite effect. Even when the music is slow and Gilbert presents her sweet vocal tones, Beverly’s drumming is an impetus that intensifies their songs. Piano and keys are of note too especially on “September (Those Who Came Before)” and “The Red Flower.” Gilbert joins Antimatter’s Mick Moss on the morose-yet-hopeful “The Colors of Grace.” “Wolf Moon” honors the original Type O Negative song while doing just enough to make it their own. Oceans of Slumber is a stunning work of beautiful darkness.
8. Code Orange – Underneath (Roadrunner)
Code Orange ascended to the proverbial “next level” with their last album, 2017’s Forever, which landed on numerous year-end lists and garnered the band a Grammy nomination. That has made Underneath one of the year’s most anticipated releases.
Each album finds the band evolving, and this is no exception. There’s passionate hardcore with increased industrial elements and contrasting harsh and melodic vocals. You’ll also hear everything from noise to punk to goth to rock at various points on the album. They smoothly shift from pummeling repetition to more dissonant and experimental moments. It’s an ambitious effort with a lot of depth and complexity in the arrangements that unfurls a bit more with each listen. “Autumn And Carbine” with vocals from Reba Meyers is perhaps the most straightforward and accessible song on the album, and it’s followed by “Back Inside The Glass,” one of the record’s most brutal. Underneath is full of contrasts and emotion, a compelling and constantly shifting album that meets or exceeds all expectations.
7. Midnight – Rebirth By Blasphemy (Metal Blade)
Cleveland’s resident Venom worshipers Midnight return with their fourth album and Metal Blade debut, Rebirth By Blasphemy. The label change hasn’t exactly changed the band’s course which much like a track of their debut is three things: lust, filth and sleaze.
Right from the subtle intro, “Fucking Speed and Darkness” is Black Metal-era Venom sprinkled with Motorhead’s take no bs mentality. If this is your first foray with the band, let this serve as a trial by fire, and in true Midnight fashion they will pour more gasoline on it, too. If a good old-fashioned romp with the dark lord is what 2020 called for, then Midnight have delivered on all fronts with one of their most consistent releases to date, right up there with their stellar debut.
6. Haken – Virus (InsideOut)
Much of Virus harkens back to Affinity and The Mountain, two albums fans would rightly consider the band’s high points. And there’s a story to this. Virus, and to an extent Vector, further the storyline from The Mountain of who the Cockroach King is. That story arc extends across both albums, and in fact listening to them back to back makes for a long but totally engrossing and unified play. Let’s be honest, though: storylines don’t matter if songwriting can’t hold up its end of the bargain. Luckily, Haken are gifted in this regard.
Haken have taken the heavy, at times djent-like attack of Vector and tempered the edges, bringing back more of their renowned melodicism and of course Ross Jennings’ trademark vocals. The integration of themes and styles from Affinity and The Mountain make Virus a truly special release.
5. Katatonia – City Burials (Peaceville)
Katatonia‘s eleventh offering, City Burials delivers a set of emotional, glistening dark prog, but this time around with a few classic heavy metal embellishments. Co-founder and singer Jonas Renske delivers the lyrics with the emotional heft that is his trademark, his deep voice reverberating with a mix of yearning and wistfulness.
Despite the songs on City Burials being written almost completely by Renske, Katatonia sound like a vital and invigorated band. A year off did Katatonia a world of good. While both Dead End Kings and The Fall of Hearts were strong albums, they had weak moments. Not so on City Burials. This is an album of beautifully dark progressive rock that will keep listeners glued to their speakers start to finish
4. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville (Century Media)
After an array of EPs and three full-length albums, avant-garde trio Imperial Triumphant issue their first release through Century Media and fourth overall, Alphaville. There is nothing normal about the album, but some of the musical themes include atmosphere, orchestration, jazz components and tech-death brutality.
Eerie sci-fi noises usher in the album on “Rotted Futures.” These noises shimmer but progressively become louder before the clunk of the bass and drums come in. The rhythm section is very important on Alphaville. The bass is upfront and often takes lead, cutting through the chaotic din of the drums. Organs and other orchestral elements create twisted interludes as heard on the end of “Rotted Futures.” “Transmission to Mercury” features a jazz opening with brass that appears during the death metal moments. The Voivod cover “Experiment” fits well for the band’s technical style. Whether it’s bewildering fast crescendos, chunky grooves, trippy effects, oddly timed death metal or peculiar orchestrations, Alphaville will keep listeners guessing what comes next.
3. The Ocean – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic (Metal Blade)
Right out of the gate two things are obvious on Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic. First, this album lives up to, and in fact exceeds in some respects, its predecessor. And second, this is not merely a continuation of the first album, but another evolutionary step in The Ocean’s sound. Musically and vocally, II is the band’s most dynamic album to date, introducing a variety of vocal styles and effects as well as new more organic, even Eastern-influenced, musical motifs we haven’t heard from them before.
Once again produced by Jens Bogren, the sounds and mix are dead-on. Drums were tracked at the same time for II as they were for I, which keeps things consistent, and Bogren once again wields a deft hand on the console, augmenting the organic quality of the songs with an unobtrusive mix that keeps everything exactly where it should be. In short, these albums are a joy to listen to.
2. Napalm Death – Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism (Century Media)
With 15 prior albums under their belt, Napalm Death have very little left to prove to the metal world, being the fathers of grindcore and one of the most active and influential extreme bands to ever exist. Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism might be their strongest since 2009’s Time Waits For No Slave. Noise and atmosphere reign supreme on “Joie De Ne Pas Vivre” and “Amoral.” They both combine elements of Killing Joke and Throbbing Gristle here to a maximum and frightening effect while still maintaining the pace that you would expect from the band. This is just one of the reasons that this album is so diverse.
Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism is a special album that perfectly captures the apocalyptic spirit of the current global climate and is intended to be experienced on repeat until there is a proper solution. Expect to see this album adorn ample amounts of lists by year’s end. Nearly 40 years as a band and Napalm Death are far from done.
1. Paradise Lost – Obsidian (Nuclear Blast)
Death/doom pioneers Paradise Lost return with their sixteenth studio album, Obsidian. Long time fans will be happy to know Obsidian continues their return to the death/doom of their last two albums The Plague Within and Medusa. It’s somewhat ironic to say “happy,” since this recording is so gloomy and morbid. The album doesn’t fully rely on down-tempos. While a slow pace may dictate part of a song, there are other upbeat parts to fill in the whole. Whether it’s a gothic section or a death/doom section, each style resonates exceptionally well with major hooks. The way Paradise Lost mesh these styles is brilliant and the stylistic and tempo changes create massive dynamics.
Whether it’s a death/doom dirge or goth rock hip shaker, Paradise Lost are accessible on so many levels. Obsidian has something to offer fans from all eras of the band. Paradise Lost know how to turn a phrase or melody and master the control of action. It’s unusual for a band thirty-plus years into their career keep getting better, but that is the case with Paradise Lost. They succeeded in creating an unforgettable album from beginning to the end of Obsidian.