2020 needs little introduction – twelve gruelling months that the world has barely managed to scrape past without setting off a landmine with each step. One way or another, the finishing line has breached the horizon and it’s high time round off the year with 2020’s greatest records; and there were a lot. 2020? Terrible. Its soundtrack? Phenomenal…
10) Phoxjaw – Royal Swan
After a strict summer diet of metal, metal and the odd garnish of metal, it was the task of Bristol-hailing foursome, Phoxjaw, to reignite my passion for rock music; and boy did they deliver. Their long-awaited debut, Royal Swan, is an indulgent smorgasbord of sounds that makes a serious case for the unlikely clashes between strokes of modern death metal, high-spirited indie and the occasional flare of ‘Berlin-era’ Bowie swagger.
Though it reads like a car crash waiting to happen, the band’s debut exerts a refined maturity that wields this diverse palette like a trusty blade with no sign of succumbing to this demanding balancing act. Cut sharp by poignant lyricism covering trophy hunting and Brexit, for some added heft to their swing, Phoxjaw emerges on their debut with a surefire way to kickstart a career.
Favourite tracks: Trophies in the Attic, Triple AAA, Teething, Bats for Bleeding
9) Palm Reader – Sleepless
It wouldn’t be enough for Palm Reader to bookend this year of strife with a final hurrah, no, it was only fitting for the band’s fourth release to mark their greatest work to date. After a hot streak of releases closing with 2018’s Braille, all eyes fell on the Nottingham quintet for a worthy successor. Sleepless is certainly the Palm Reader fans know and adore but it strikes as a grander, more compelling realisation than we’ve ever heard before.
Each cut it’s own unique journey through harsh beauty and rich textures, Sleepless packs an arsenal of songs brimming with detail and gut-punching power. In a canvas of shattering riffs, eclectic piano passages and heavy-duty synth work, the band has painted a restless scene that’s as plenty with points of aggression as it is with elaborate setpieces where going from point A to B simply isn’t an option. With such a field of diversity, Palm Reader have defied the ties of any restrictive genre labels and raised the bar to stratospheric new levels; good luck topping this one, lads.
Favourite Tracks: Hold/Release, Willow, A Bird and Its Feathers, Islay
8) Trivium – What The Dead Men Say
When regarding a band like Trivium, dependability is a key strength. It’s true that everyone may treasure their own favourite era of the band’s acerbic melodeath – be it Ascendency, Shogun or In Waves – but the general consensus remains that the Floridian quartet have enjoyed a reign of consistency to rival only some of the genre’s finest players. With this in mind, it was only inevitable that Trivium would put out yet another helping of out-and-out bangers in this years’ release; What The Dead Men Say.
Grandiose a statement it may be, but WTDMS is an exemplary showreel of what modern metal can and should be. Riffs are tight and memorable, production packs colossal scale and the band exerts a mature attitude to songwriting that shows no fear of straining from the norm; the sny little false-ending on the title track being a nice touch. Leading the way for countless bands to precede them, WTDMS is an era-defining landmark for metal’s place in the 21st century and will undoubtedly be required listening for the genre’s next generation of rising stars.
Favourite tracks: IX + What the Dead Men Say, Catastrophist, The Defiant
7) Pain of Salvation – Panther
As is the case for the majority of Pain of Salvation’s discography, Panther is an artwork that rarely reveals its true value on first glance; stare long enough, however, and you will be rewarded. Through a production process plagued by the logistical nightmare that is the global pandemic, it’s a miracle that Panther landed on its feet, let alone doing so with any grace. Alas, well acquainted with their brand of conceptual prog metal, Pain of Salvation delivers another flowering triumph in Panther.
Reflecting his experiences of living with autism in a metaphorical world inhabited by dogs and panthers (the latter of which being his ‘kind’), frontman and mastermind Daniel Gildenlow unravels an emotionally visceral narrative where feelings of simply not fitting in translates into one of 2020’s most demanding yet gratifying listens. It’s by no means the band’s most complex work, a standard that is difficult to attain, but it stands taller on its substance than it does on its style. Its style by no means slacks, the retro-futuristic palette is one of the year’s most interesting aural environments, but after a few spins, it’s the emotional tug that will keep you reeling back time after time.
Favourite tracks: WAIT, KEEN TO A FAULT, SPECIES, ICON
6) Code Orange – Underneath
It was the five-star, 10/10, album of the year must-have that put the alternative music industry on its head and while Code Orange’s Underneath is blatantly not my 2020 top pick, I can certainly understand why it should be.
Underneath, by all accounts, was a bit of a risk for Code Orange. Not only was it chosen to be released in the height of the pandemic, with no touring prospects to help propel sales, the band also merged their, now, renowned hardcore MO with frenetic, glitching electronics that raises ordinary aggression to something much more sinister. Whilst some purists decried Underneath for straying too far from their own forged path, the record is undeniably savage in its intensity and ruthless in its desire to push boundaries. The result could very well be the beginning of metal’s new future. Take the madness of headliner Swallowing the Rabbit Whole, the meditated groans of Who I Am, or the harrowing cries of Cold.Metal.Place; whichever way you look, Code Orange comes bearing the future. I hope you’re ready.
Favourite tracks: Swallowing the Rabbit Whole, Who I Am, Sulfur Surrounding, Underneath
5) Kvelertak – Splid
Now I won’t lie and ramble on about how Splid compares to the rest of the Kvelertak history books because this record stands as my one and only look into the world of this curious little black ‘n’ roll band from Norway. Considering they’ve landed in a list of what I literally think is the year’s best music; it’s safe to assume I’m quite fond of them.
What Splid nails down to the letter is the simple joy of having fun. Sure, you get the expected howls and distorted pummelling of the best black metal crossovers but the care-free spirit and punk-driven riffs speak to nothing other than an ear-to-ear grin with a cold beer; like if AC/DC had formed in 80s Scandinavia. Far from a one-trick pony, BrateBrann and Fanden ta dette hull! lean harder on Kvelertak’s more progressive sides whilst 8-minute wonder Delirium tremends would prefer to smash your beer and rip off your smile if it was given the chance with its tremendous outbursts of fury. It goes without saying that, in the course of 58 minutes and 11 songs, Kvelertak have found themselves a new loyal follower.
Favourite tracks: Rogaland, Crack of Doom (feat. Troy Sanders), Bratebrann, Fanden ta dette hull!
4) The Ocean – Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic
Now. I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at that name and wondering: “I know Alex listens to some weird stuff but surely there’s no such thing as Paleontology metal right?”. Thankfully while the lyrical content certainly uses the various geological eras of our planet’s history for its metaphors, there’s no giant reptiles behind the microphones; frankly I’m not sure a T-Rex could reach the guitar strings.
Like most prog records, or any record produced by German outfit The Ocean for that matter, Phanerozoic II is very much a journey for the senses. Imposing musical arrangements with carefully balanced interplay of light and dark – these eight tracks could be mined for their intricately placed compositional jewels for decades to come. A fittingly ambitious work that stacks nicely against the collective’s previous ventures, the colossal contextual backdrop of mass extinction really gives the continuous ebbs and flows a living and breathing resonance. If you’re partial to having your mind blown by music then why not give this one a spin?
Favourite tracks: Triassic, Jurassic|Cretaceous, Oligocene, Pleistocene
3) Orbit Culture – Nija
A horror movie score by Hans Zimmer. Now make it metal. Now there’s a winning formula. Back when The Shadowing was teased as our first taste of Orbit Culture’s new LP, Nija, I knew I had stumbled upon something special. Having finally reared their formidable heads from the scene’s undergrowth, Nija was rightfully touted as a breakthrough moment for the Swedes, pricking up more ears than could be counted.
What was drawing the masses was nothing more complicated than this album’s sound. It’s cataclysmically huge. In one hand Orbit Culture wields the fire and fury of the best melodic death metal, striking the precious balance of terror and tranquility, and in the other, all the tension and atmosphere of any masterful horror soundtrack. It’s a soundscape unlike any other. With this mould in place, the band connects the dots with great hooks and colossal breakdowns with Niklas Karlsson, one of metal’s most exciting vocalists, leading us into the chaos. It may draw from its influences a little too proudly for some, but Nija does more than enough to stand on its own two feet; and it stands proudly.
Favourite tracks: Behold, Open Eye, The Shadowing
2) Caligula’s Horse – Rise Radiant
Those that know me will know I’m by no means a man of stone but, with that in mind, it does take something quite ‘special’ to evoke a proper emotional reaction from this ole brainbox. Now, though I didn’t find myself sobbing on the floor clutching the nearest porous object to my face, Rise Radiant is, among many other things, staggeringly beautiful. Caligula’s Horse have always excelled in their realm of ‘heaviness’ amongst beauty and Rise Radiant masters this very ideal with the same proficiency as 2017s phenomenal In Contact.
Across a mere eight tracks, the band deftly explores the spectrum of their sound. Heavy hitters, like The Tempest, Slow Violence and Oceanrise, are presented as more straightforward cuts, packing the soul and complexity of the band’s modus operandi into more succinct packages than their more elaborate counterparts. Salt and Autumn, then, is where the album drops its emotional anchor. With more real estate given for each to slowly unravel, these ballads mark great tributes to the power of sound; each fleshed out through numerous phases and a hefty bolstering by Jim Grey’s spotless deliveries. This comes to a point in closer The Ascent; a ten-minute hike through the record’s palette, laying bare all that preceded it. Whilst Rise Radiant may not see the band take a new light, it’s yet another indelible offering from the magicians behind some of the scene’s most inspired magic.
Favourite tracks: Slow Violence, Salt, Autumn, The Ascent
1) Psychonaut – Unfold The God Man
It was only ever going to be this way. Casting minds back to early March, I had suspicions that Unfold the God Man would clinch the crown of 2020, and after battling the adversaries you see on this list it has reigned supreme.
Surprising no-one, it’s a metal album. An eloquent blend of progressive sludge and post-metal to be exact. Now these words speak very little to those unaware of the band’s sound but, truthfully, Psychonaut’s latest full-length needs to be heard to be truly understood. The operatic size of the instruments in play and the even mightier arena of production in which they are played truly speaks to something cosmic. To comprehend this otherworldly composition look no further than the stentorian strikes of riff work on instrumental opener All I Saw As a Huge Monkey, or the vast, evolving planes of The Fall of Consciousness and Sananda where the band’s gripping two-tone vocal performances make for moments of true suspense.
With an hour and nine minutes to hand, Psychonaut makes great use of its time. Unfold the God Man excels in constructing drawn-out spectacles – lulling listeners into beds of steadily drifting lead lines and wisps of ethereal vocal lines before firing back on all cylinders with little remorse. It’s a colourful dynamic that gives each relisten its due worth. Bound by no limits for experimentation, the LP even harks upon elements of throat singing and what I can only describe as Gregorian chants (but in space, of course) – it’s an appropriately diverse soundscape for a record that rarely turns to look back on the worn path. I will have no issue in claiming that, to me, Psychonaut has gone above and beyond to deliver the best music 2020 has had to offer. In a year of unfortunate events, Unfold the God Man is an exquisite exercise in celestial escapism; truly a saving grace for this troubled planet.
Favourite tracks: All I Saw As A Giant Monkey, The Story of Your Enslavement, Sananda, Halls of Amenti
By Alex Mace