2020, eh? I reckon it was a really good year… musically, anyway. Apparently there was something else going on, but I wasn’t paying much attention to that. Once again, I’ve had a lot of problems trimming down my list to 20 albums because there are just so many other albums I want to talk about. It’s a very diverse list this year, although slightly dominated by prog and doom/death. So here we are, these are the releases that have survived the culling.
20: FIREWIND – FIREWIND
FIREWIND has decided that after 22 years it’s time to release a self-titled album and it’s a really decent power metal record. A band that’s probably been hindered by its vocalists endlessly leaving the band was now joined by Herbie Langhans on this album and he does a really good job for them. “Firewind” is a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging album from a band that constantly puts Greece on the metal map for more than their extreme metal scene. This could rank higher if some songs didn’t feel a bit like filler material as they don’t add much to the album.
Songs to listen to: “Welcome to the Empire,” “Perfect Stranger,” “Kill the Pain”
19: GOD DETHRONED – ILLUMINATI
A bit of a surprise inclusion on this list, at least for me personally, but I can’t deny “Illuminati” is a brilliant take on blackened death, a subgenre that’s lately perhaps not seen that much quality since the highly acclaimed “The Satanist” by BEHEMOTH. The Dutch band deliver really solid death metal and sprinkle it with those peculiar barky vocals that give it that black metally hellish touch. Tragically, GOD DETHRONED is also only one of the two bands on the list I’ve actually seen live this year and they delivered a great performance and showcased the record very well.
Songs to listen to: “Illuminati,” “Spirit of Beelzebub,” “Eye of Horus”
18: HULKOFF – PANSARFOLK
The second album from Pär Hulkoff, otherwise known as the vocalist of RAUBTIER, develops his particular take on folk metal, which very often goes into country. It’s a slightly peculiar sound that we’re not really used to, but it makes for a fun listen. The record is available in Swedish and English, the latter of which I willfully ignore, because pretty much everything is always better in any band’s native language.
Songs to listen to: “Martialisk,” “Varjagen”
17: THE OCEAN – PHANEROZOIC II: MESOZOIC | CENOZOIC
I bet you didn’t think geology metal is a thing. Well, it is and it’s awesome. THE OCEAN is a German prog metal outfit who apparently really loves geological periods and all of the songs on the album carry names of one or more. It’s an expertly composed album that often flirts with post-metal and various other influences, including some black metal. Furthermore, the album has possibly the best song of the year, a 13:24-long beast in the form of “Jurassic | Cretaceous,” which may seem daunting to listen to, but you will not regret it.
Songs to listen to: “Triassic,” “Jurassic | Cretaceous,” “Pleistocene”
16: ANOUSHBARD – MITHRA
An album I’ve stumbled upon randomly very early in the year and then reviewed and interviewed the band. This Iranian prog death metal band’s debut is perhaps slightly rough around the edges, the production could be better, and the growls especially are not as good as they could be. Yet the album is technical musically and somehow has a soul to it – as Arabic and Middle Eastern metal tends to. A very promising debut from an unlikely country, ANOUSHBARD’s “Mithra” is an album I just could not exclude from this list.
Songs to listen to: “The Man Who Rides Through the Fire,” “The Ward”
15: PARADISE LOST – OBSIDIAN
“Obsidian” is, unbelievably, already the 16th full length album by the British godfathers of doom. And while – in some of their work in the last two decades – the band has gotten a bit lost, this record once again really delivers with those low and soothing doomy riffs that go together so well with Nick Holmes’ deep growls and the gothic metal influences. PARADISE LOST is one of those bands that knows their sound thoroughly and how to execute it properly and thus is always a pleasure to hear.
Songs to listen to: “Darker Thoughts,” “Ghosts,” “Defiler”
14: VARG – ZEICHEN
The German folk/melodeath outfit has taken a step back to the roots of their sound with a much more pagan approach and it’s worked out really well. The addition of Fylgja and her female vocals adds a dimension to their sound and makes it feel more Vikingy, but not at the expense of proper melodeath, of which there is plenty on the record. The band has also released a second CD with well-known metal musicians such as EQUILLIBRIUM’s Robse and ELUVEITIE’s Chrigel Glanzmann covering songs on the album – sort of alternative versions of the songs.
Songs to listen to: “Auf die Götter,” “Fara til Ranar,” “Zeichen”
13: AETHER REALM – COWBOY VIKINGS FROM HELL
I know the album title is highly off-putting and ridiculous, but as I’ve discovered only recently, after at first not really getting into this record, it is actually really great. The band from North Carolina, USA, decided to fuse a bit of country into their sound, which is, frankly, a questionable choice, but the album overall is a good mix of modern melodeath and folk metal. It’s almost annoyingly catchy at certain points, but it makes you come back and discover the little things it has hidden in the songs. “Cowboy Vikings from Hell” is another really solid from the US, which, I think perhaps controversially, has really been stepping up its metal game lately.
Songs to listen to: “Hunger,” “Guardian,” “TMHC”
12: FALCONER – FROM A DYING EMBER
Sadly, after just over 20 years one of the most prominent power metal bands has decided to quit and the band won’t be continuing with their career. But before that, they made one last album as a bit of a goodbye and I’m happy to say it’s a really good one. “From a Dying Ember” has a very medieval, bard-like feeling that’s hard to find and stands out from a lot of rather mediocre power metal that has been released lately.
Songs to listen to: “Kings and Queens,” “Redeem and Repent,” “In Regal Attire”
11: SRD – OGNJA PREROK
It makes me very happy that I finally get to talk about a Slovenian band in one of these lists. SRD’s second album has been coming for a while, and after hearing some of the songs live before on numerous occasions, we finally have the full studio version. I was hopeful that the record would be decent, but the lads absolutely exceeded my expectations and came out with a well-thought-out black metal/black’n’roll album that features some very innovative black metal ideas, such as the introduction of an accordion. Besides that, the album has some not-so-subtle SHINING influences, no doubt from the band spending their time with the renowned metal bad boy, Niklas Kvarforth.
Songs to listen to: “Ognja prerok,” “Zlohotne zvezde pleme,” “Sreča na vrvici”
10: VERIKALPA – TUOPPITANSSI
This is a fittingly titled (tuoppitanssi can be translated pint-dance) folk metal album that really put the lads from Oulu in northern Finland on the map. While their debut a few years ago showed promise, VERIKALPA definitely massively stepped up their game with the second release. It’s a very entertaining album full of catchy songs and ridiculousness, which I’m sure would become even more apparent and thoroughly enjoyable in a live setting.
Songs to listen to: “Tuoppitanssi,” “Sankara, Saatana, Kostaja,” “Tuonen Miekka”
9: DARK TRANQUILLITY – MOMENT
The Göteborg melodeath scene is one that keeps on giving and it’s given us another fantastic album this year from one of the three revolutionary bands that are all still going strong after almost 30 years. “Moment” is fairly logical step the band has taken after “Atoma” and continues to explore this softer side of melodeath, with a lot of morosity to it. With a rare case of equally alluring growls and cleans, Mikael Stanne once again captains this release and the band steers you into an almost dream-like serenity.
Songs to listen to: “Phantom Days” “The Dark Unbroken,” “Failstate”
8: AL-NAMROOD – WALA’AT
We’re back in the Arab world! How surprising, right? AL-NAMROOD is a Saudi Arabian band that risks their own lives by playing their chaotic black metal mixed with plenty of folky Arabian feel. I’ve never been much of a fan of theirs, but “Wala’at” really excels in bombarding you with a surge of angry black metal, one that’s, as I said, somehow very chaotic, yet sensible. Sadly, we’re unlikely to ever see the Saudis live as that would come with a pretty serious risk of a death sentence.
Songs to listen to: “Kail Be Mekialain,” “Fasique,” “Aar Al Estibad”
7: AETERNAM – AL QASSAM
AETERNAM is one of the most underrated bands I know and don’t really understand why they don’t get more love and recognition. “Al Qassam” is another fantastic chapter in the Canadian band’s repertoire, once again filled with Moroccan influences brought by the band’s vocalist, Achraf Loudiy. The record is excellently produced and actually focuses more on the death metal part of melodeath than its predecessor. Adding one of the finishing touches is also Kobi Farhi of ORPHANED LAND with his guest performance on “Palmyra Scriptures.” Overall, this is a very consistent album with very few weak points and could be a great introduction for anyone new to melodeath.
Songs to listen to: “Al Qassam,” “Palmyra Scriptures,” “Poena Universi”
6: ANAAL NATHRAKH – ENDARKENMENT
Ferocious, furious and fucking brutal – just three alliterative descriptions for this beast of an album, which has a hauntingly similar feel to last year’s CATTLE DECAPITATION’s “Bring Back the Plague.” And we all know what happened after that album was released. “Endarkenment” is the anger-filled social commentary and a prediction of what’s to come if we continue this way. A different sort of plague, if you will, but one that will be much harder to beat. The English duo truly break new barriers in extreme metal with this release and it’s absolutely one of those albums everyone should hear, even if they might not like it, hopefully it at least teaches them something.
Songs to listen to: “Endarkenment,” “The Age of Starlight Ends,” “Libidinous (A Pig with Cocks in Its Eyes)”
5: FINNTROLL – VREDESVÄVD
Seven long years have we waited for the Finnish trolls to bless us with more of their unique blackened pagan sound and wow, was it worth it. FINNTROLL is back with an extremely catchy record, which is unfortunately only 38 minutes long, but every song is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s hard to say that this is anything but a near-perfect folk metal album, full of trollish aggression and playful folky tunes that we’ve gotten used to from the Finns. The sound is very consistent throughout the album and the album almost feels like one long song, which really makes it pass in no time. But luckily you can quickly just have it repeat – and you will. Many times.
Songs to listen to: “Ormfolk,” “Forsen,” “Mask”
4: DRACONIAN – UNDER A GODLESS VEIL
Here is an album that somehow manages to get better with every listen. I found it almost disappointing at first, but then it managed to edge its way into the cold, but romantic hearts of every doom/death fan. DRACONIAN have absolutely mastered the subgenre with “Under a Godless Veil,” as well as the predecessor “Sovran,” and it seems they can do no wrong at present. The album presents a beautiful story full of sorrow that no one could deliver better than Heike Langhans with her angelic vocals, complemented by Anders Jacobsson’s deep and hellish growls.
Songs to listen to: “Sleepwalkers,” “Moon Over Sabaoth,” “Ascend Into Darkness”
3: BLACK CROWN INITIATE – VIOLENT PORTRAITS OF DOOMED ESCAPE
It seems that every year, a band I’ve not been aware of before surprises me with a brilliant release – this year that’s the American prog outfit BLACK CROWN INITIATE, whose album “Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape” is just that perfect blend of all sorts of proggy goodness. Harsh, often desperate sounding growls, lovely cleans that tie it all together, and ever-intriguing guitar work. A highly thought-out record that will stay with you and have you discover something new with every listen.
Songs to listen to: “Invitation,” “Trauma Bonds,” “Years in Frigid Light”
2: UNLEASH THE ARCHERS – ABYSS
After the absolute power metal masterpiece that was “Apex” it was hard to believe UNLEASH THE ARCHERS could come up with another amazing album like that. And while it’s maybe not quite as brilliant as “Apex,” “Abyss” really does come very close. Led by one of the best power metal vocalists in Canada, Brittney Slayes, UTA is very technical for a band of its subgenre and knows how to make space for every member of the band to showcase their skill. The record, while almost an hour long, at no point feels boring or repetitive and I truly wish there was more power metal similar to their style.
Songs to listen to: “Abyss,” “Faster Than Light,” “The Wind That Shapes the Land”
1: OCEANS OF SLUMBER – OCEANS OF SLUMBER
I somehow overlooked OCEANS OF SLUMBER with “The Banished Heart” in 2018 and it’s probably my biggest mistake of that year, but I am so happy I paid full attention this time and I’ve had their self-titled album on repeat a lot even since before its official release. The Texans have such an amazing way of capturing a certain morose beauty in a wide array of different musical expressions, which makes it turn into an absolute masterpiece of prog metal. Cammie Gilbert is an incredibly impressive vocalist that fits this band perfectly, while instrumentally you can’t omit the brilliant drumming of Dobber Beverly, which adds so much needed heaviness that creates the contrast in the band’s sound. Lyrically, the record is full of complex emotional themes, oft quite tragic, that are painted beautifully into this 71-minutes long release that finishes off with a cover of TYPE 0 NEGATIVE’s “Wolf Moon.”
Songs to listen to: All of them. Often.
Written by Didrik Mešiček