DARK MATTER WEBZINE'S BEST EXTREME METAL ALBUMS OF 2020
If the last 365 days has taught us anything (and for some it’s taught nothing), it’s that humanity appears to be heading for a sprint finish in the midst of a slow motion apocalypse. And while we grapple with a new world disorder, with nary the comfort of the end being in sight, at least we still have heavy music. While lockdown meant live gigs have been put on ice for the time being, it hasn’t stopped some incredible records being released. From the career highs from the likes of Napalm Death to debut long players from Beggar, 2020 has seen bands of every shade of darkness give us a visceral thrill. The Dark Matter coven have put their heads together and managed to pick five records each that were their absolute stand outs, and a few more we just couldn’t leave out. And while 2021 may see more months of Zoom calls, masks and more social distancing than even the most fervent misanthrope could have ever sacrificed a goat for, at least we can take comfort in the fact that at least one legacy of 2020 is that it proves the dark spirit of our music can not be extinguished.
The generous, coal-black lashings of grimly observed gallows humour with which this apocalyptic epic is richly furnished might strike you as being little more than a superfluous added bonus to the blindingly aggressive calibre of audio contained herein. Yet it’s precisely this intensely volatile cocktail of bitterly outraged and despairing sentiment that, time and time again, has equipped its visionary creators with all they need to weave the stuff of nightmarish compositional brilliance. Indeed, having reached completion mere weeks before a world teetering on the brink of global catastrophe finally collapsed into a state of abject chaos and devastation, it seems latest album ‘Endarkenment’ could not have arrived at a more eerily appropriate moment. Spanning an immense, black-hearted plethora of influences numbering pulverising death, darkly beguiling melodic movements and vertigo-inducing crescendos of stratospheric opera, this is the perfectly orchestrated soundtrack for a civilisation mindlessly sleepwalking its way into self-annihilation.
(Trust No One)
From its crushingly expansive slabs of sinewy groove, deftly manipulated tremolo and madly accelerating episodes of pummelling ultra-violence, it’s hard to imagine an album more thoroughly drenched in darkness than this impeccably executed long-player. Opening on a jarringly brutal and unrelenting barrage of hyperblasting insanity that leaves the synapses instantly crackling with adrenaline, explosive opener ‘Death Magic’ is quick to weave its violently exhilarating spell upon the listener from the get-go. Paired with a vocal presence so intensely ghoulish and contorted in character as to palpably reek of the grave, this initial, instantly gratifying hit of aggression soon unfurls in a pitch-black profusion of luxuriantly elongated fretwork whose writhing contortions abound with classically blackened majesty. And this is all before we’ve even had the pleasure of revelling in the bristling, unimaginably gnarly throes of ‘World Ablaze’ or delving headlong into the post-apocalyptic majesty of epic title track ‘Black Waves’. As richly steeped in second wave nostalgia as it is audibly awash with compositional ingenuity, this accomplished album resonates only too well with the exceptionally dark new decade in which we presently find ourselves.
'Dawn of the Damned'
From the classic, frigidly brutalising pleasures of Dark Funeral and Naglfar to the blood-drenched, ritualistic magic of Mephorash, Sweden has long been a tremendously fertile breeding ground for some of the most viciously innovative names in black metal. Certainly no exception to the norm, fellow countrymen Necrophobic have spent the past three decades studiously honing and progressing their joyously visceral craft, operating largely unobserved beneath the radar of their more mainstream, controversy-courting peers. That is, until the infernal collective in question unleashed the unparalleled feat of blistering, tautly executed musical alchemy that is ninth studio album ‘Dawn of the Damned’ to riotously glowing reviews last autumn. From the gargantuan layerings of darkly entangled riffage that adorn eerily cinematic opener ‘Aphelion’ to the angrily bristling hostility of ‘Tartarian Winds’ and the cataclysmic, exquisitely rendered fretwork of otherworldly riff-fest ‘The Infernal Depths of Eternity’, this career-defining full-length pushes the parameters of what is possible to achieve in heavy music to truly untouchable new heights. Redefining darkness indeed…
'Effigy of Nightmares'
Perhaps it’s the deliciously visceral, crimson-soaked cover imagery that clinches it, but for the Clive Barker-worshipping scribe presently penning this editorial at least, there’s something decidedly Hellraiser-esque about this subterranean gem of a record. Much like the series’ iconic diabolical puzzle box, the Ohio natives’ third long-player to date is tidily bijou, perhaps even unassuming, in physical proportions, clocking in at a modest 30-minute runtime. But from the moment you set about unravelling the expansive multitude of labyrinthine, sanity-ravaging secrets contained within, it fast becomes apparent what a masterful feat of genre-transcending composition this truly is. From the ambient flourishes and icily rippling piano notes that richly possess tension-laden opener ‘Gates of Hospice’ to ‘Red Burning Candles of Hatred’s’ exhilarating melding of pulverising aggression and coldly harrowing atmospherics, this is darkly engrossing extreme metal to devour. So go ahead, sink your teeth in and savour every last drop of sweet, gorily intoxicating suffering.
'Where Only Gods May Tread'
With their synapse-scorching brand of bludgeoning, densely abrasive sonic battery having instantly ensnared our collective attentions from the word ‘go’, the past couple of years have seen us eagerly awaiting the follow-up to the sonically ruinous tour de force that was 2018’s ‘The Level Above Human’. And while there was certainly no doubt that the Mancunian wrecking crew’s latest long-player was always destined to be a thing of blistering, hardcore-laden excellence, none could have anticipated just how unfathomably bleak and sinister a shape we would find these talented players in by the year 2020. Compromising not so much as a shred of their trademark, brutalising prowess in transition, ‘Where Only Gods May Tread’ in fact only amplifies the sheer savagery that’s long underpinned Ingested’s signature sound, imbuing in it a still darker sense of desolation that rends at the soul like the most profoundly agonising throes of existential torment. With Kirk Windstein-starring standout ‘Another Breath’s’ skilful melding of crushing, darkly elongated atmospherics and hammering aggression demonstrating genre-straddling new heights of darkly arresting compositional intelligence, this monstrous, oftentimes harrowing slab forms a flawlessly fitting accompaniment to a state of being darker than we’ve ever known to date.
Naglfar - 'Cerecloth' (Century Media)
Vredehammer - 'Viperous' (Indie Recordings)
Demonical - 'World Domination' (Agonia)
One of the criteria when picking a record the year is that it’s still as fresh as the day you first set it to spin. Without a doubt ‘Omens’ still reverberates with the vitality of its songwriting as much as it did when it was released back in April. Already known to have an impressive way with a doom riff, Elder have gradually eased the malevolence for a sweeping melodic scope, with keyboard washes aplenty and ever more nuanced long form playing that rival some of the classic progressive rock artists they take their inspiration from, and the result is stunning. The songcraft is glorious even by the three piece’s own high standards as they continue to build and build. ‘Omens’ has something new to listen to in its quintet of tracks every single time. If this is an omen, imagine what’s coming next...
‘Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic’
Much as I love the Elder record, I couldn’t bring myself to use the word ‘epic’ to describe them; that rightfully belongs to this latest long player from The Ocean. A band dealing in epochs and extinction-level events feels entirely appropriate in the context of the global pandemic we’re living in. Gloominess aside, it’s a rip-roaring album that rings visceral on every spin. Like the geographical eras they take their inspiration from, the more you dig into this record, the more you will find; layers upon layers unfolding in every breath-taking passage. Pull back, and the whole thing is a pulsating journey that shows flair and thrills in its fearless songwriting. Move over Tool, The Ocean have proven themselves the best progressive metal band playing today.
CRIPPLED BLACK PHOENIX
(Season of Mist)
From such dark beginnings – losing musicians a day before heading into the studio – to releasing in even darker times of a pandemic such as the world has not seen, ‘Ellengæst’ has risen from the fires of its creation to be one of Dark Matter’s albums of the year. With our life stifled by a virus that we’re still struggling to understand how to live with, ‘Ellengæst’ has been a salve for all our battered souls. With the grace of its namesake the elegant poetry, both lyrical and musical swoops and glides and shares in the darkness we all feel. Crippled Black Phoenix have combined post-punk and Pink Floyd with their own divine songcraft, and in the process delivered a career highlight. Such beauty, such grace, such passion.
‘Compelled To Repeat’
In times of great adversity comes great art. It also begat Beggar’s debut long player, and an easy one to choose for any discerning extreme metal fan. If ‘Compelled To Repeat’ is any guide, the London four piece have been shat on from a very great height for a very long time, and ain’t gonna take it any more. Amid the malign grooves, you find a debut that scarily, might not be the peak of their powers but they definitely plumb the depths. Beggar bring the full force of UK underground extreme music on ‘Compelled To Repeat’: the ferocity, the innovation, the visceral and the enigmatic. A face-ripping mind-mangling slab of sludge stewed in the filth of urban Britain.
There have been plenty of supergroups down years, where artists have combined their talents. While the results are always interesting and frequently quality listens, few have have given such perfect results as this. Given the alumni of Human Impact – members have played in Swans, Unsane and Cop Shoot Cop – the alchemy when they came to write this self-titled was not something even the most grimly optimistic music fan could have predicted. In the pressure cooker of urban angst, Human Impact have delivered an album that seethes with dystopian vision beyond our wildest visions, hissing and screaming with pressure cooker intensity. A perfect record for our times.
Ohhms – ‘Close’ (Holy Roar)
Burial – ‘Satanic Upheaval’ (Apocalyptic Witchcraft)
Jesu – ‘Terminus’ (Avalanche Recordings)
‘Stare Into Death and Be Still’
(Debemur Morti Productions)
Technical death metal often treads a fine line, pushing boundaries without becoming a dull mess of musical one-upmanship. It’s a tough balance to find but one that Ulcerate have always managed with an apparent ease and consistency that most other bands just don’t have. The New Zealanders do brilliantly to incorporate atmosphere into their swirling death metal storm, atmosphere that post-metal titans like Neurosis would be proud of. Jamie Saint Merat’s drumming is once again utterly breath-taking, not an inch of the kit is left untouched and goes light years beyond the drudgery of just being insanely fast. The musicianship throughout is superb and the dense yet crisp production allows every facet to shine. Six albums in and Ulcerate are just getting better and better. In fact, there is no one better for me at this point. This is, simply put, the finest death metal to ever grace my ears in practically 30 years of listening to the genre. Utterly untouchable.
‘Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism’
Let’s be honest, 2020 has been a prick of a year. The pandemic has taken so many lives and stifled so much of life’s enjoyment, and widespread political unrest and tensions have caused chaos worldwide. In times like these there is only truly one band that can speak on our behalf with both rage and insight. That band is the timeless Napalm Death. No matter how many years the band has been around, time has not dulled their vitriol in the slightest. The band has been on a seemingly unstoppable roll since the turn of the century and they keep finding ways to keep themselves sounding fresh and vital yet angry and uncompromising. Barney Greenway is one of music’s finest social commentators as well, taking aim at many of society's ills (I feel this album contains more than a passing slap in the face of how many of us consume information and no longer question what we are being fed). Ever evolving and as vital as they ever were, Napalm Death are an extreme music treasure.
In 2015, Akhlys dropped upon the world the single most terrifying slab of black metal ever made. ‘The Dreaming I’ was a masterclass in sheer audio terror. Then the mastermind of the nightmare, Naas Alcameth, decided to leave us wanting more whilst he worked on his many other projects (all of which are very much worth your time). When ‘Melinoë’ was announced it brought both great anticipation and a dash of trepidation. Could ‘The Dreaming I’ and its foreboding atmosphere be repeated? The bar had been set insanely high. Fortunately, when the album finally dropped it was apparent that not a step had been missed in five years. Every part of this sits brilliantly together; the attention to detail on the mix and tone is impeccable. The use of atmospherics is balanced perfectly, never falling into the Hammer Horror-esque black metal realms. The only slight knock on the album is that it doesn’t have the initial shock value of the first but that was always going to be the case. In all other ways, this is at the very least as superbly crafted and hauntingly evil as its predecessor. Black metal at its frightening finest.
SONS OF A WANTED MAN
(Les Acteurs de l'ombre)
Belgium’s Sons of a Wanted Man were probably my happiest accident this year. Despite having been in existence for over five years I had never stumbled upon them in my extensive trawling through the web for new bands. Stumbling upon ‘Kenoma’, however, looks like it could be the start of beautiful friendship. Black metal-tinged post-metal may be nothing new but as with all things, when it’s done right you always take note. The band blend savagery with subtlety so well, the flow between the two is effortless and never feels disjointed or forced, which a lot of bands fall foul of. Post-metal always works best when it’s emotive and this has all that and more. Belgium has a rich heritage with bands like Amenra and Oathbreaker to name a few; Sons of a Wanted Man should be mentioned in the same breath.
‘En Ergô Einai’
(Debemur Morti Productions)
As the home of one of the most seminal extreme metal bands in Celtic Frost, it’s surprising that Switzerland doesn’t have a more bustling and abundant metal scene. It’s rare you stumble across a band from the land of penknives and cuckoo clocks but Aara really made themselves stand out this year with their new album. Swirling with a very unusual yet crisp production job, this is one of the most grandiose black metal albums I’ve heard in some time. Not in an over the top way though, more in an almost regal way, as odd as that sounds! To me there is a classical feel to the composition, almost orchestral. The album also contains some of the most visceral and piercing vocals I’ve come across in some time! There’s no filler on here either and sets the band up as truly one to watch.
Déluge - ‘Ægo Templo’ (Metal Blade)
Serpent Column – ‘Endless Detainment’ (Mystískaos)
Afksy - ‘Ofte Jeg Drømmer Mig Død’ (Vendetta)