“You’re the light in the dark,” sang Leather Leone on Chastain’s hugely underrated power metal album For Those Who Dare. This year, the message in that song has never felt more apt.
Metal music, as the quality of the albums below demonstrates, can enable us to transcend our circumstances. Even if it is in the most fleeting of moments – a guitar solo that inspires our own brief air guitar; a galloping rhythm that compels us to bang our heads; a crushing guitar riff that prompts us to raise our devil horns in salute – the music can afford sublime escapism.
Alternatively, in a strange way metal can be a means of making sense of the bleakest scenarios; the dark and contemplative subject matter evident on recent platters from the likes of Katatonia and Paradise Lost can resonate more when we are feeling lost or low.
Yet, ironically in a year when we have needed it most, when we look back on 2020, we may ultimately reflect on how it has been the start of a period that has threatened the sustainability of metal and rock music in general.
Concerts and festivals have been the lifeblood of metal musicians since the earliest roots of the genre, but the enforced restrictions on live music due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has starved many of their livelihoods within this sector. In Liverpool alone, Zanzibar and Sound, two venues that were a regular part of the contemporary live metal music circuit have been forced to close their doors.
Even long-established, internationally acclaimed bands have not been immune from the crisis. Anathema, one of Liverpool’s most revered names in both gothic metal and later progressive rock circles, announced an “indefinite hiatus” and one wonders whether we will see them together again.
The current pandemic aside, 2020 has seen no resolution to an ongoing situation that may seriously restrict the ability of musicians to tour within Europe.
The Brexit deal that has been agreed between the UK and the EU, despite the warnings from the likes of the Musicians Union, still does not contain adequate provisions for touring musicians. It remains to be seen whether a Musicians’ Passport will be adopted or whether there will be reciprocal arrangements with the EU that enable musicians to tour across borders without the risks of being hit with unsustainable costs.
In this climate, supporting artists, venues and scenes has never felt so urgent. The list below shows that 2020 has still given us some fantastic metal music, now, more than ever, we need to give back where we can.
The term legendary is an over-used one in rock music, but in the case of California’s Tyrant, it is certainly apt. This outfit were first formed in 1978 and put out debut album Legions of the Dead as far back as 1985, before seemingly calling it a day in 1996.
However, after developing something of a cult following, the band have returned to live action in recent years and Hereafter is their first new album in more than two decades.
The latest release features a rejuvenated line-up that is boosted by none other than Rob Lowe from Solitude Aeternus. His voice enables the band to meld their NWOBHM sensibilities with an altogether more doom metal edge.
The result is an unashamedly old school sounding record that still manages to put to shame some of the younger pretenders on scorchers such as fist-pumping opener Dancing on Graves. Highlights include the gritty and menacing Fire Burns, the galloping Pieces of Mine and the brooding, When the Sky Falls, which evokes Dio-era Sabbath at their finest.
Hellripper: The Affair of the Poisons
While there is no shortage of blackened speed and thrash metal acts out there, Hellripper’s first full album for legendary label Peaceville Records still felt like a game changer. In part, this is thanks to Hellripper’s (aka James McBain) appreciation of an old school sound (early Metallica meets Venom meets Motörhead), which drips from this album’s every pore, but it is also because this enthusiasm is channelled into something that still sounds fresh and exciting.
The sheer raucous energy on songs like the title track and Savage Blasphemy is infectious and exhilarating. Such energy is also aided by McBain’s vocals which are the sonic equivalent of 1000 lashes from a scourge; venomous and cutting in equal measure.
Amaranthe’s sixth studio album and their first with Nuclear Blast saw them continue to display a canny ability for crafting anthems that grab the listener from the outset. Songs such as opener, Fearless, and first single, Viral, harness the ferocity of melodic death metal and the grandeur of power metal to devastating effect.
Crisp, pristine production ensures that the sweeping highs and lows on this record have maximum impact. Yet, what comes across the most on this latest release is the outfit’s ability to write epic choruses that compel the listener to punch the air.
With more than thirty years in the business, Benediction are rightly recognised as one of the originators of death metal. Yet, with Scriptures (their first album for twelve years) the British veterans sound as fresh as ever and ready to reclaim their place as one of the elite.
From the outset, the album is laden with riff upon neck-snapping riff on tracks such as the savage Stormcrow and the haunting The Crooked Man. An in-you-face mix by producer Scott Atkins showcases each crunching guitar hook with aplomb.
Returning vocalist Dave Ingram puts in a mighty performance throughout, with his customary growls the ideal complement to the colossal dual guitar work of Darren Brookes and Peter Rew.
Psychotic Waltz: The God Shaped Void
Their first new music for 23 years, US prog metal pioneers, Psychotic Waltz, returned with an album that reaffirmed their status as one of the premier acts in their genre.
Boasting pristine production from Jens Bogren, there is a high definition feel to the aural experience, which is epitomised by dramatic opener Devils And Angels.
Vocalist Devon Graves is on commanding form throughout this record; delivering both moments of restraint and soaring high notes that are occasionally supported by choral harmony.
Highlights are plentiful here but the majestic Stranded and the darker Back to Black feature an entrancing combination of crushing riffs with dazzling virtuosic soloing.
Afterbirth: Four Dimensional Flesh
Unique Leader Records
Cult US death metal act, Afterbirth, released the most surprising metal album of 2020. Four Dimensional Flesh constitutes a re-imagining of the parameters of brutal death metal; it creates a soundscape that is as lavish as it is oppressive.
Prog rock and psychedelic dynamics collide with guitar riffs that remain uncompromisingly thick with distortion to conjure one of the most bewildering, yet addictive records of recent years. Such a dissonant combination shouldn’t work, that it does is testimony to the band’s musicianship.
Darkened: Kingdom of Decay
After last year’s sublime debut EP, Into the Blackness, we had high expectations for death metal supergroup Darkened’s first full-length platter.
Kingdom of Decay, while perhaps not as immediate as its shorter predecessor, is an ultimately more rewarding experience.
The album’s overall modus operandi is summed up by songs such as the epic title track and the likes of 1000 years. The latter melds juddering doom-laden riffing with a frenetic tempo to construct a convincingly world-weary evocation of the horrors of “endless war.”
Indeed, while other extreme metal acts often appear to revel in warfare and conquest, Darkened’s treatment of such themes is a far more sombre in tone. This is largely thanks to the overall atmosphere created during songs like Pandemonium, with its vibrato drenched slowed-down hooks imbuing vocalist Gord Olson’s rasping vocals with gravitas and menace.
Vader: Solitude In Madness
The Godfathers of Polish death metal returned in 2020 and they were in no mood for messing around.
Their sixteenth studio album, Solitude In Madness, saw the band give more than a nod to their roots in thrash metal with a short but devastatingly sweet collection that clocks in at just over 27 minutes in total.
While it emphasizes speed, this does not mean that the urgent and polished death metal on display here foregoes melody and precision. Scintillating numbers such as Incineration of the Gods and Sanctification Denied even evoke virtuosic thrash metal titans Megadeth with their emphasis on technical precision.
Haunt: Mind Freeze
The prolific Haunt, led by seemingly the hardest working man in metal, Trevor William Church, released not one but two studio albums during 2020.
While the more recent album Flashback had some killer tunes, it was pivotal third album Mind Freeze that makes our end of year list. The record saw Haunt evolve their new wave of traditional heavy metal formula ever so slightly.
The over-driven, shredding 80s guitar sound that evokes the likes of Jake E Lee and Vito Bratta still adorns scorchers like Light the Beacon and Fight or Flight.
Yet, on Mind Freeze these are also underpinned by more extensive use of keyboards to enhance the melodies and riffs. This works most effectively on the powerful title track and on the prog-tinged Saviours of Man, which is one of the best things the band has ever written.
Testament: Titans of Creation
These Bay area thrash veterans continued their rich vein of form with their thirteenth studio album.
Chuck Billy is arguably the best vocalist in thrash metal and he is on stupendous form from the onset of epic opener, Children of the Next Level, to the simply massive sounding first single Night of the Witch.
Testament are a well-oiled machine propelled by drummer Alex Hoglan and lead guitarist Alex Skolnik who crafts mighty riffs and scintillating solos throughout.
Highlights come thick and fast but for our money it is Symptoms with its slower, more menacing riffing and more introspective theme that is the standout here.
Rebel Wizard: Magickal Mystical Indifference
NKSV’s project Rebel Wizard returned in 2020 to bring us more of their unique brand of ‘negative wizard metal.’
An exhilarating blend of NWOBHM melodies, fretboard melting solos, black metal fury and punk attitude, Magickal Mystical Indifference grabs the listener as soon as the needle hits the groove.
From excoriatingly vicious slabs of noise like Urination of Vapidity on Consciousness to soaring shredders like The Mind is Not Your Friend, this is a record chock full of gems.
My Dying Bride: The Ghost of Orion
Perhaps it is the understanding of the challenges that My Dying Bride faced both prior to and during the making of this record that makes it such an emotional listening experience
Vocalist Aaron Stainthorpe’s five-year-old daughter’s cancer diagnosis and the departures of other members meant that guitarist Andrew Craighan had to write The Ghost of Orion on his own.
Despite its difficult birth, The Ghost of Orion is still classic My Dying Bride.
It is slightly more accessible record than some earlier releases, particularly on first single Your Broken Shore, which features an immediately compelling riff and a memorable, growled chorus delivered in Stainhope’s typically powerful style. Yet, this is still an album that demands total immersion to appreciate the ways that Craighan’s guitar melodies meld with Shaun Magowan’s mournful violin to complement Stainhope’s emotion-laden vocals.
Burning Witches: Dance with the Devil
With the weight of its brilliant predecessor, Hexenhammer, on its shoulders and the departure of previous vocalist Seraina Telli to contend with, it is fair to say that there was a lot riding on Dance with the Devil.
However, any doubts about Burning Witches’ continued ability to produce classic heavy metal were quickly dispelled on this all important third album.
The elements that make them such a compelling proposition are still there in abundance – the soaring Tipton and Downing like dual guitar work of Romana and Sonia, the occult and supernatural lyrical themes, and the ability to write infectious fists-in-the-air anthems like the gloriously bombastic title track.
Temple of Void: The World that Was
Detroit quintet, Temple of Void, are a rapidly rising force in death-doom metal and The World that Was is a monumental testimony to that fact. This is a record that harnesses the gloom of grunge titans Alice in Chains but tethers it to their own brand of hypnotic, bolt-cutter heavy riffing.
Songs like the mesmerising Self-schism and the epic title track make judicious use of synths to conjure soundscapes that are at times staggeringly bleak, yet strangely enchanting.
Katatonia: City Burials
As soon as Anders Nyström’s searing guitars cut through the brooding keyboard soundscapes on opener, Heart Set To Divide, we quickly realised that Katatonia’s eleventh studio album was a different beast to its predecessor, 2016’s The Fall of Hearts.
The addition of new member and second guitarist, Roger Öjersson, has also coincided with what vocalist Jonas Renkse referred to as their 80s heavy metal influences seeping into their music. These are in full effect on second single, Behind The Blood, which features wailing, soaring guitar work that would not be out of place on a classic Judas Priest album.
Yet, this is still very much a Katatonia record, and the forays into cleaner, more virtuosic fretwork are merely one more element in a musical palette that enables them to evoke the darkly melancholic, progressive sound worlds that have become their forte.
Loathe: I Let It In And It Took Everything
Loathe’s sophomore album saw them continue to build on their status as rising stars in the global metal and alt scene. I Let It In And It Took Everything, while still containing the sheer white hot rage of its predecessor, is a richer and more textured sonic landscape.
The production and arrangement of the tracks on this album add much to its sublime power, with the listener taken on a journey that is at times stark (Red Room, Gored) but also intimate and uplifting (New Faces in the Dark, Aggressive Evolution).
Paradise Lost: Obsidian
The sixteenth studio album from these Goth metal pioneers saw them continue to demonstrate their unrivalled ability for constructing sombre yet captivating songs that gracefully explore humanity’s darker side.
Eschewing the more immediately crushing and doom-laden approach of recent offerings Medusa and The Plague Within, Obsidian partly saw a return to the band’s gothic rock influences.
This was particularly the case on second single, Ghosts, which re-imagines 80s Goth to produce driving doom riffs encased in velvet and patchouli oil.
However, it is Hope Dies Young that steals the show on this record, with Gregor Mackintosh’s inimitable high-pitched guitar harmonics delivering a lavish soundscape within which vocalist Nick Holmes gives a silky smooth performance.
Video Nasties: Dominion
Dominion is a thrill-ride of a debut album from Liverpool black ‘n’ roll crew Video Nasties; the sonic equivalent of a runaway ghost train controlled by maniacs. Every twist and turn of this record is orchestrated for gut-wrenching impact – from the twisted horror rock of Hanging Tree,to the post-punk infused Red of Night.
In the context of this John Carpenter-inspired cinematic journey, singles Transvoltum and Drone Eagle sound massive, with the immediate driving riffs on the latter track evoking the likes of Carcass at their finest.
Eternal Champion: Ravening Iron
For all those who ever played Dungeons & Dragons and just had to create a warrior character, Eternal Champion are the band for you.
This is fantasy-derived new wave of traditional metal taken to its ultimate conclusion. It even has its own sword-and-sorcery companion novel, The Godblade, written by frontman Jason Tarpey.
Yet, irrespective of the Conan the Barbarian aesthetics, this is the most complete true heavy metal album of the year and the perfect antidote to 2020. From the flowing harmonies of the title track to the gargantuan riffage of Skullseeker to the galloping Worms of the Earth, this is an album that will have listeners punching the air in delight.
Nuclear Blast Records
Let’s cut to the chase. Not only is it the most captivating Sepultura album of the Derrick Green era, Quadra is one of the greatest albums in the band’s entire history.
Tracks like Capital Enslavement and Means To An End contain all the features that have made Sepultura’s music so essential over the years. Tribal percussion, urgent rhythms, aggressive vocal delivery and, above all else, compelling riff after compelling riff.
Continuing to display the fearless approach to expanding their thrash horizons that has characterised recent releases, songs such as Guardians of Earth with its extensive use of choral harmony add weight and grandeur to Sepultura’s typically caustic examination of personal, social and political issues within their lyrics.