01. Igorrr – Spirituality and Distortion (SAMPLE)
Spirituality and Distortion is a truly strange album, and it plays into that as its strength just perfectly. It’s one of those avant-garde metal albums that throws in a ton of different sounds, either one after another or at the same time. You’ll hear French musette accordion-skipping merrily along with blast beats, extreme metal and cybergrind influences sitting snugly amid electronic breakcore beats, Arabic folk melodies mixed smoothly with frantic bass strumming and industrialised grooves, as well as the occasional farmyard animal noise. Vocals range from soaring operatics to folk singing to tortured shrieks and gang chants. And it all works so damn well. Unlike some other “everything and the kitchen sink” bands (*cough*Unexpect*cough*), Igorrr never let the strangeness be a substitute for good music.
02. Ecclesia – De Ecclesiae Universalis (SAMPLE)
In contrast to the above, there’s nothing especially bizarre or unusual about De Ecclesiae Universalis…but there is still so much right about it. It’s one of those albums that works beautifully purely on the merits of its solid, catchy song-writing. Doom metal crunch with power metal’s sense of showmanship, all topped with some wonderfully cheesy ecclesiastical lyrics. These guys step up alongside the likes Powerwolf in a glorious crusade for the Heavy Metal Mass, and I’m loving every minute of it.
03. Brothers of Metal – Emblas Saga (SAMPLE)
Brothers of Metal’s debut was unabashedly cheesy and gloriously fun power metal, and the follow-up is very much more of the same. It merrily embraces the over-the-top and sometimes ridiculous nature of the Norse mythology it takes as lyrical fodder (the tale of Thor dressing up as a bride to recover his hammer Mjornir from the giants, for example) and it matches perfectly well with the power metal they deliver. Emblas Saga is a non-stop ride of catchy melodies, layered vocals and pure fun.
04. Thy Catafalque – Naiv (SAMPLE)
Thy Catafalque is still as bizarre a product as ever. Partly in the mix of black metal, electronic, industrial, folk and progressive sounds it combines together, and partly in how damn well it works. At the core, Naiv isn’t a departure of sound, but it’s a sound so vibrant and full of potential that this is more than acceptable. It sharpens things up a tad from Geometria, sitting somewhere between that and Rengeteg or Meta in terms of heaviness.
05. Macbeth – Gedankenwächter (SAMPLE)
You know those albums that just perfectly capture the essence of a genre and what you enjoy in it? This is one of those. Macbeth never feel like they’re straining or trying to hard, they just craft rock-fucking-solid thrash metal, dominated by crushing riffs and blitzkrieg vocals. And German really is a great language for thrash.
06. Warbringer – Weapons of Tomorrow (SAMPLE)
I first got into Warbringer way back with their first EP (“One by One, the Wicked Fall”, 2006), then kind of drifted away, just listening to the odd song here and there. Album #6, Weapons of Tomorrow, seemed to be getting a lot of attention, so I decided to dive back in, and I’m glad I did! This is some killer material, thanks in large part to some really quality song-writing. Songs like “The Black Hand Reaches Out”, “Notre Dame” and “Glorious End” showcase the band’s ability to weave a tale with their music, to take you on a journey that makes the ending, however dark, all the more satisfying.
07. Greyhawk – Keepers of the Flame (SAMPLE)
Keepers of the Flame is heavy fuckin’ metal at some of it’s most glorious and enjoyable. Catchy riffs and booming, boisterous vocals drive us forth on mighty quest after mighty quest. It’s openly nostalgic, but doesn’t simply rely on that feeling to coast by, instead delivering a solid slab where every track’s a winner.
08. Waltari – Global Rock (SAMPLE)
As with just about all of Waltari’s albums, Global Rock is an acquired taste, and decidedly not for those without fairly broad palettes. These guys have always been perfectly comfortable and frankly shameless in mashing together pop music, electronica, hard rock, grindcore, heavy metal, and just about anything you can think of. This can make it a bit much for some, but if you can go in with an open mind and just take each track as it comes and for what it is, you’ll find something you can listen to over and over again and enjoy all the way through.
09. Vader – Solitude in Madness (SAMPLE)
After the absolute skull-smashers that were Welcome to the Morbid Reich and Tibi et Igni, 2016’s The Empire gave me some more lukewarm feelings, and a concern that Vader might be content to fall into a rut. Solitude in Madness guts, disembowels and utterly slaughters such concerns with a bloody grin. Their brand of death-thrash is every bit as rewarding as ever, with any trace of filler or fat flensed away, leaving short, punchy tracks of pure adrenaline.
10. Anaal Nathrakh – Endarkenment (SAMPLE)
There aren’t many bands so capable of taking absolutely vicious, brutal intensity and yet somehow making it a consistently engaging and enjoyable thrill ride. Endarkenment deftly continues to cement Anaal Nathrakh’s crown, with lyrics revelling in both the absolute worst of humanity and also glimmering with moments of hope to shine through the filth.
11. Skeletal Remains – The Entombment of Chaos (SAMPLE)
Devouring Mortality impressed me no end a couple of years back, and Entombment of Chaos continues in much the same style. It’s straightforward, no-nonsense death metal, but just done so damn well. “Illusive Divinity”, “Tombs of Chaos”, “Dissectasy”, “Eternal Hatred”, this album is jam-packed with straight-up bangers.
12. Pain of Salvation – Panther (SAMPLE)
Panther may be one of the lighter albums in this list, and might not be among Pain of Salvation’s heavier works (though it has its moments), but it doesn’t need to be. It’s an honest, heartfelt exploration of feelings of isolation, introspection, growing up and the sense of being an outsider, and it’s genuinely one of the most accomplished works I’ve come across to express these thoughts.
13. Bonded – Rest in Violence (SAMPLE)
While maybe not the most conventionally Teutonic of thrash albums (its melodic tendencies maybe give it more in common with the Bay Area sound), Rest in Violence is a great time that rose through my personal rankings the more I listened to it. It’s a straightforward list of ingredients: catchy, effective riffs, relentless drums, and just enough variety to stave off any feelings of repetition. This is just a damn good thrash album, and the album I wish Onslaught had delivered (see my yearly disappointments…).
14. EMBR – 1823 (SAMPLE)
Like Oceans of Slumber or Horn of the Rhino, EMBR strike hard and true with their wonderfully vibrant vocals, with gritty bellows and haunting wails serving as a stirring counterpoint to one another. Add in a oppressive, grimy churn of doom riffs and you’ve got a recipe for success.
15. Finntroll – Vredesvävd (SAMPLE)
2013’s Blodsvept was the comeback I’d been waiting for from Finntroll, the first album from them in almost a decade that invigorated like the legendary Nattfödd did, so I had some high hopes for Vredesvävd. This one is less of an immediate blast of satisfaction, but it’s definitely a grower, just full of solid folk metal tracks, equal parts bouncy humppa and vicious black metal. Any existing fan of the band won’t be disappointed by this one.
16. Harlott – Detritus of the Final Age (SAMPLE)
As on their last album, Harlott continue to show why they’re such a powerful force in the realm of modern thrash metal bands. Like the best luminaries of the genre, they’re capable of explosive extremes: eruptions of violent ferocity, savage vocal delivery, machine gun riffing and drumming, slower, crushing passages to hammer it all home, but they’re all done to accentuate the songs as a whole. Never needless speed or violence for the sake of it, it’s all finely-honed and sharpened to deliver the decapitating strike just when needed.
17. Sölicitör – Spectral Devastation (SAMPLE)
Do you like speed? Do you like metal? Do you like SPEED FUCKING METAL? Of course you do. Get in, nerd, Sölicitör have got you covered, extraneous umlauts and all.
18. Eternal Champion – Ravening Iron (SAMPLE)
Eternal Champion’s debut album, The Armor of Ire, garnered a hell of a lot of positive attention some years back, so while I hadn’t tried it myself, I felt compelled to give follow-up Ravening Iron a spin, and I’m glad I did. Just as the album cover tells you, this is unashamedly vintage heavy metal rocking out. Ravening Iron can sit comfortably alongside classic Fantasy-inspired metal bands old and new, and though it might not soar quite as high in my own list as some, I couldn’t deny it a place. “Coward’s Keep” in particular just sums it all up beautifully.
19. Hypervolume – Conceive (SAMPLE)
Big and ballsy, rough and ready, and carrying a surprisingly effective environmental message, Hypervolume’s Conceive is a stomper of an album. The riffs are full of style and swagger, sweeping you up like only the best of stoner metal can, with just a twinge of southern style to spice things up, Karma to Burn style.
20. Wolftooth – Valhalla (SAMPLE)
With a sound that immediately calls the likes of The Sword of Mastodon to mind, Wolftooth offer up an album that sits pretty snugly amid stoner metal, hard rock and classic heavy metal. With riffs at the forefront and wailing vocals providing an accent, this album is going to take you on a trip up to the titular Valhalla, but it’ll get you there cruising down the highway getting high along the way. Call Scylla & Charybdis for a good time.
Best EP: Zeal & Ardor – Wake of a Nation (SAMPLE)
Wake of the Nation is an outstanding release, and honestly, if this had been a full-length release, it would’ve been a very real contender for my top spot of the year. As it is, it’s an EP that needs to be heard to be believed. I’d already fallen in love with Zeal & Ardor’s shockingly smooth merging of African-American spirituals with black metal, and in a year riven with racial injustice and outrage at the system, this kind of music couldn’t be more relevant. The whole EP churns and blisters with wrath at the topic, and “Vigil” is a genuinely heart-breaking piece.
Best New Band (debut full-length from 2020): Ecclesia
I’ve got to give this one to Ecclesia. As I say above, their album is just a great time, and ticks all the boxes for me in terms of catchy heaviness and a flair for the dramatic. I’ll be watching these guys eagerly, and recommend you do too!
Favourite Discovery of 2020: Pain of Salvation – Panther
I was aware of Pain of Salvation before this year, even tried some of their earlier material out, but Panther was one of those breakthrough releases for me personally. Its lyrics just hit home so hard, you could really tell it was a topic close to the band, and something that wanted to sincerely explore.
Best Comeback of 2020: Cirith Ungol – Forever Black (SAMPLE)
I mean, come on. It was always going to be the mighty Cirith Ungol, one of the unsung heroes of early heavy metal. While “Witch’s Game” might remain my favourite of their new material overall, Forever Black is still chock full of quality songs: “Legions Arise”, “Forever Black”, “Nightmare”, all great assertions that these NWOBHM boys are back.
Disappointments of 2020:
My Dying Bride – The Ghost of Orion
In a way, this one wasn’t a huge disappointment, because I feel like My Dying Bride haven’t been on their A-game since Songs of Darkness, Words of Light, but Ghost of Orion still surprised me with just how weak and limp it sounded. Some of their other recent albums might not have been great, but this was the first one where I really felt it was a major misstep, it’s just tedious and dull.
Heathen – Empire of the Blind
The first of two thrash letdowns for me this year. I was psyched for Empire of the Blind: Heathen’s classic material was, well, classic, and 2010’s Evolution of Chaos was great stuff too. But this one is just sad. There’s none of the top quality song-writing or virtuosity that made their style so enjoyable in the past. Empire of the Blind just sounds like another bargain-basement thrash album, and coming from legends like Heathen, that’s simply not good enough.
Onslaught – Generation Antichrist
The other major thrash disappointment for me, and if anything this was closer to my heart. Onslaught is one of the bands that properly got me into the thrash revival of the mid-2000s, and since then they’ve put out some pretty consistently excellent stuff. “A Perfect Day to Die” was a superb first taste for this album, and I couldn’t wait for a whole release of that kind of thrashtastic stuff.
The warning bells started when I heard Sy Keeler had departed. He was a major part of their sound, but I wanted to give newcomer David Garnett an honest shot at it. Credit to him, he sounds perfectly fine, but this album as a whole is just lacking in any kind of punch. The production/mix quality is appalling, carrying no weight or bite (just one listen to the old and new versions of “Perfect Day” illustrate the point), and many of the songs sound too standard and uninteresting.
2020 plans spoilt by covid-19:
There was one major one for me: tickets for Rammstein’s upcoming tour went on sale in the summer of 2019, and I remember staying up late, refreshing the page, ready to bag a pair (for myself and my girlfriend) the instant they went up. Much to my delight I managed it, and we were set for a hopefully intense live experience!
…and then, of course, covid rears its ugly head and messes things up. On the bright side, the tour is still intended to go ahead sooner or later, so hopefully it’s just a delay.
Hopes for 2021:
After all the issues of 2020, a good number of my hopes for 2021 are actually the same as last year! There are still promises of upcoming new releases from Evile, King Diamond and Jerry Cantrell to salivate over, and similarly while we did get a teaser EP from Carcass, there’s talk there too of a full-length on the horizon.
January is seeing new releases from Accept, Therion and Tribulation, all firmly on my radar, and the tasty stomp of “The Triumph of King Freak” might have rekindled my interest in Rob Zombie, if his upcoming album can maintain that sort of quality.
Further into the year we should be seeing new offerings from Epica, Powerwolf and Moonspell (the promise of a Moonspell cover of Candlemass’ “Darkness in Paradise” alone has me sold), all bands I wouldn’t be surprised to see in this list for next year! Even a cheeky covers album from Saxon full of hard rock classics!