An interesting year, with the top 10 list populated by entries spanning the genres of metal, and some probably not qualifying according to the more dick-ish of fans. A strong year that perhaps lacks the top-heavy strength of the recent Crypt Sermon and Atlas Moth list-toppers, but has a more consistent emphasis on records that provide some fucking fun. That’s no coincidence with the goddamn year we just had. Check it out, keep your heads up, and don’t let these MAGA fucks scare you.
A return to the self-titled record’s feeling of abandon.
-Dark Forest–Oak, Ash, & Thorn
Just silly enough stay below the Pharaoh/Slough Feg tier, but the riffs and song structures are undeniable–there’s Iron Maiden-worthy material here.
-Xibalba–Anos en Infierno
Beatdowns aren’t really my jam, but when they are married to maybe the best late-era Morbid Angel worship I’ve heard, I’ll forgive some of the machismo nonsense. Turn it on and get your ass beat like you’re 15 in a Slipknot pit all over again.
-Svalbard/Ripped to Shreds/Lamp of Murmuur
These are on me, as I failed once again to complete my homework and have not spun these enough. Suffice to say, what I’ve heard is impressive, and each one is a likely candidate to force their way on to the list. Also, can anyone tell me who Svalbard fucking reminds me of with that shimmer guitar technique? I will be forever indebted. Is it Cave-In? Converge? Explosions in the Sky? Fucked Up? ARGGHHH.
TOP TEN METAL RECORDS OF 2020
10. Sweven–The Eternal Resonance
A blessing of needed meditativeness in this year. Though it is sonically more akin to the Morbus Chron record that coined their name, the vibe I got was something along that woodsy black metal feeling conjured by Agalloch and Panopticon, when you just need to adjust your goddamn brainwaves.
9. Kvaen–The Funeral Pyre
If Kvelertak scratched that peak Turbonegro itch, Kvaen just straight flayed off that skin that’s been bumming out that Destroyer 666…well, you know.
New Wave of North American Death Metal cannot be stopped.
7. Havukruunu–Uinuos Syomein Sota
Havukruunu sheds the Moonsorrow-worship to fully realize a style all their own, somehow melding the epic feel of mid-period Bathory with raw black metal ferocity and a strong link to their folk roots.
An unsurprising return to form after whatever the hell Gore was, Ohms has some of Carpenter’s best 2nd-era riffs and a mature lyrical approach to go with the familiar heavy-verse/soaring-chorus dynamic Deftones mastered on Diamond Eyes. Their reliance on this paradigm is also what keeps Ohms from the top-5, though, as a few more risks structurally would be welcome next time around.
This album is much more accessible than I would’ve expected, with perhaps the most simplistic opening riff of an album I’ve ever heard for a well-regarded extreme metal band. Uada makes it work, with the moments of extremity mostly giving way to create a supremely unsettling yet inviting atmosphere. Unlike Sweven or Agalloch, I reached for this record to provoke existential fears rather than assuaging them. Which, fuck, this is black metal, sometimes that’s the point.
Pair with Gatecreeper and book ’em in Soldier Field, let’s will this stadium death metal thing into existence just like QAnon willed into existence a new country while we laughed at how stupid Trump supporters were.
3. Paradise Lost–Obsidian
Such is Paradise Lost’s mastery that they followed their heaviest records in decades with their poppiest, and both are amongst the best records anyone released in each year. Not sure it helped my early-quarantine mood to spin this literally every day, but that’s not really this band’s lane, is it? Simply, Mackintosh and Holmes are masters of their craft, and its a privilege to hear them perform it.
2. Spirit Adrift–Enlightened in Eternity
Spirit Adrift achieves their potential and unleashes the album Metallica should have made after …And Justice for All. Hyperbole? You put on Ride Into the Light on a walk home from the bar and see if you don’t nearly fall into the street from jamming too hard. Totally didn’t happen to me. I’m 36.
1. Midnight–Rebirth by Blasphemy
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of 2021 is that the lockdown occurred right before these boys were scheduled to play Empty Bottle. There is one track that isn’t a stone cold classic, and even that tune is about Satan’s fecal matter. The rest? The best NWOBHM/early speed/early black metal album maybe ever.
Venom if they could actually write good songs; Judas Priest dragged through the fire; Motorhead fucking Quorthon.
1. Opeth–February 14, 2020–Riviera Theatre, Chicago, IL
10. The Rental
9. Borat 2
6. Palm Springs
5. Vast of Night
2. Black Bear
1. Bliss (I know it technically came out in 2019, but let me have this)
My anticipation for the new (now sadly delayed) Enslaved record prompted a full voyage through their whole discography. Unsurprisingly, my response was “holy shit!” I first jumped aboard around 2007 with Isa, and still have trouble making sense of some of the more arcane Mardraum/Monumension freakouts. But the eclecticism and mastery shown from Frost onwards (not so much Vikingr, sorry) is nothing short of legendary.
Perhaps most impressive is their ambition. Though slightly derivative out of the gates (having one Emperor record (Vikingr) and one Immortal record (Bloodhemn) as they do), Enslaved managed to eclipse both of these black metal giants by never stopping their growth and never backing away from their instinct to make the less obvious choice.
Ranking albums is kind of my thing here, but with such distinct eras and such a vast discography, let’s celebrate these extreme metal champions with a list of their best songs:
–Convoys to Nothingness–Monumension
Monumension can be frustrating because the genius is constantly obfuscated by the bizarre. The exception is Convoys, which powers through with clarity around the 2-minute mark with a memorable mid-paced riff. Of course, Enslaved then bizarrely mutates that riff, notably at the five minute mark, where a down tempo shift renders it less and less recognizable until it finally disappears into… I don’t know, maybe that painting on the cover?
This structure, though still loose, helps shape a “song” out of the collection of sounds. The tension between chaos and coherence is vital to Enslaved’s later period, and though they still were figuring out how to navigate it here, it is thrilling to experience the sheer inventiveness.
–Secrets of the Flesh–Isa
Who doesn’t love an extreme metal instrumental? Secrets of the Flesh rips right out of the gate and never stops kicking your ass. As perfect a riff as they’ve ever conceived, it is a shame this one isn’t a staple of the live set.
Note–I’m aware there is nothing from Below the Lights on here. That was not a mistake.
TOP 10 ENSLAVED SONGS:
Ground contains beautiful passages, a soaring solo, and an iconic moment in Enslaved history (“There’s a sound made by…BURNING…FLESH!!!). Without the clean passage–solo–BURNING sequence, its debatable whether Enslaved would have found that groove of songwriting they enjoyed until In Times. From 2:45 until the end, Ground is as good as extreme metal gets.
9. Ethica Odini–Axioma Ethica Odini
As soon as Ethica’s riff hits, you know Enslaved hadn’t taken even a tiny step back, somehow, as their blistering streak continued. This is the album that cemented them as the best extreme metal band on the planet.
Eschewing a slow build, the need for momentum, and the entire notion of easing in, Ethica Odini roars out so ferociously that it is literally difficult to catch your breath. Ethica Odini represents a band perfecting their balance–clean v. harsh vocals, keys v. guitars, dark v. light. The beauty of the song is that even after 100 listens, knowing all the moves doesn’t diminish the magic.
And at 6:20–that clean vocal passage into the soaring solo…
Admit it, you cried the first time you saw it live. Don’t worry, so did I.
8. Death in the Eyes of Dawn–RIITIR
RIITIR was different than Axioma. Now Enslaved was using extreme metal instrumentation to play prog rock songs, instead of playing progressive extreme metal songs. Death in the Eyes of Dawn crystalized this notion, and though I have grown increasingly bummed on this transition as we get into E territory, it is excellent here. The emphasis is still on Rock and Song, even while the Prog is being turned up. This is Enslaved passing through that sweet spot of Axioma towards their current period.
Frost came before my time–I was not super grym as an 11 year old. The Enslaved of this era seems like an entirely different entity, but once you stop looking for through lines and just enjoy the early records for what they are, there is plenty to savor. Frost is probably the fan favorite, and Fenris is its best song. This fucker grabs you and holds on viciously.
I always like my blasting black metal with a side of Celtic Frost, so give me early Darkthrone over Mayhem or Immortal, and give me Fenris over anything else from this period of Enslaved. It’s all about that crunching, galloping main riff, which Dissection would have been proud to put on Storm of the Light’s Bane. Keep this one in the set as long as you want boys.
6. Fusion of Sense and Earth–Ruun
Though no Isa or Vertebrae, Ruun shouldn’t be overlooked–it is maybe the last time Enslaved raged. Nowhere harder than on Fusion…, with a thrashing storm of a verse and a huge stomping riff (first appearing at :50) that lends serious heft to the affair. This is still 3rd era Enslaved though, so that ethereal spirit journey is never far away. That they were able to…oh no…FUSE all these elements together (sorry) on this track makes it a stand out.
I mean…it’s sixteen minutes of Viking metal at its highest level, what more do you want? For me to break down each minute? Fine, if you insist:
1–Ominous intro, bad early black metal keys–pretty standard
2–I’m guessing this is the soundtrack for Grutle making his way to that throne on the cover. Not looking unlike Joffrey Baratheon, disturbingly.
3–Grandiosity levels are increasing, but this still sounds like some Mortiis shit, until…
4—Guitars acoustic and electric spring forth into a Bathorian stomp
5—Ok, here’s a hot take for you—this is the same riff as Ethica Odini. At the very least, the chord progression (I think that’s the term, I don’t play instruments, fuck off) is strikingly reminiscent. Not a bad thing.
6–The acoustic and electric guitars, still pounding that…familiar…mid-paced riff create a pleasing contrast, pushing the folk aspect to the fore not unlike the style Moonsorrow has perfected
7–Excellent lead comes back over the Ethica Odini riff
8–Back to Bathoryville
9–Now off to Blashyrkh–abrupt but awesome transition, a hallmark of the 2nd era
10–The band breaks it back down as an emotive, almost tragic lead takes center stage
11–Some folk instrumentation that I can’t quite identify, it works just fine in a Nightside Eclipse, lets-pretend-these-keys-sound-good sort of sense
12–The tragic lead is back, another remarkable transition providing the organizing principle for the back half of the song
13–Mid-paced stomper breaks out–had to tip the cap to Darkthrone
14–Didn’t last, back on the longship home to Bathoryville. Riff really beefs up at 13:20 before…
15–Blast us home!
16–The acoustic guitar cycles back around to the end.
A singular entity in their discography.
4. The Beacon–Axioma Ethica Odini
If I don’t listen to this whole record front to back, it’s usually because I’m so emotionally ravaged by The Beacon that I can’t bear to continue. The opening riff storms right out of the gate, the chorus does not let up though the dynamics shift, the clean vocal-bridge is perfect and then the main riff comes back with those flourishes in the lead. It is such a perfect first two minutes that it is hard to imagine what they could do to top it.
So what does Enslaved do? Subtle tempo change for the chorus, clean bridge into a pure moment of savagery (STRUGGLE!!!), into the most pleasingly straightforward headbanging session on the album. Then Monumension real quick before heading back to the chorus.
Got all that?
Isa has reached iconic status, an absolute lock in the live set. This is the song, and maybe more importantly the riff, that signaled Enslaved’s entry into their 3rd era Golden Age. Belting it out as one is about as fun as a metal show gets–altogether now—
2. To the Coast–Vertebrae
This one might be a little out of left field, but for me, To the Coast is (almost) the pinnacle of the transcendent Enslaved feeling. Equal parts engaging, open, harsh and devastating.
1. Roots of the Mountain–RIITIR
Put your hands to the sky and let the spirit take you away:
Feel the flames, the streams of life below
Feel the flames, that blind your inner eye
Seek and find, what lingers deep inside
Seek and find, but do not try to understand
Spread the wings, and fly into your mind
Spread the wings, and find the eagle in the sky
Find the source, the ancient passion play
Find the source, the roots of the mountain
Every aspect of the song is breathtaking, but pay attention to the glorious double bass and guitar solo passage starting around minute three. And, of course, that final chorus when the clean and harsh vocals intertwine, elevating you at last to transcendence.
Kvaen v. Sweven–Battle of similar final syllables! I’m lame as fuck!
1. Kvaen–The Funeral Pyre
I am just a sucker for the word “pyre” this year–perhaps because the whole world has become one? Like Slaughter Messiah last month, Kvaen is here to bring the speed and bite back to your black metal. And fuck if it isn’t just about as fun as the Midnight album.
Like Destroyer 666 and Watain without the guilt!
2. Sweven–The Eternal Resonance
Morbus Chron died so Sweven could live. Fair trade. If you loved the album Sweven but favored the Pink Floyd over the Pestilence aspects, you just found your album of the year. The record avoids the jam band crutch of pure meander, picking up the pace and focus with uncanny timing to snap the songs back into form.
3. Black Royal–Firebride
When you think “this sounds like if Asphyx fucked Mastodon,” you are probably listening to a good album.
4. Lucifer III
Warning–Lucifer is a band I am simply in the bag for now. Don’t listen to anything I have to say in the guise of criticism, because my objectivity is out the window.
But do listen to me when I say this–Lucifer is rad. Is this their best record? Does it approach The Oath? NO, but who cares? It is awesome that Lucifer is a thing that exists, so turn it up and get loose.
5. Rosy Finch–Scarlet
A nod to the excellent angrymetalguy blog for another under-the-radar recommendation here. This record is an interesting Melvins/Royal Thunder mix. Though the songs don’t have enough hooks to really lodge in your brain, the band provides a welcome throwback to quality early/mid 90s alternative, and is well worth a look.
6. Earth Rot–Black Tides of Obscurity
Earth Rot are in a similar lane to Sulphur Aeon and The Great Old Ones. They are technically excellent, and the record is always engaging, but they play a style of death metal that does not hold my attention at the upper-echelon level of, say, a Tomb Mold or Horrendous. This is a shame, because when Earth Rot clicks into place like on the swaggering stomp in the middle of The Cape of Storms, it’s hard to imagine better death metal coming out all year. A strong effort, and a band that can absolutely reach the next level–but not there just yet.
7. Wake–Devouring Ruin
I’m not feeling the new direction. For many metal fans, this will be a year-ender, and I get that on an intellectual level. It is certainly dense and ambitious, and I intend to keep spinning it in the hopes it grows on me.
Misery Rites didn’t have to grow on me. Sure, it featured atmospheric touches and tempo changes, but it never stopped going for the throat. And when a visceral, vicious metal band decides to stop writing coherent songs in favor of atmospherics, they risk losing what made them powerful in the first place. This might be the old gatekeeper streak in me. This isn’t grindcore, pussies!
Simply put, Devouring Ruin leaves me cold, as most dissonance-focused metal projects tend to. The only exception is Gorguts. And Wake may be objectively great, but they ain’t Gorguts.
From now on, if I see the terms “dissonant” and/or “noise” as descriptors, I am steering clear. He said while planning to buy the new Ulcerate record.
I also want to mention the two great, and one not so great, rock records I spun this month:
1. Pearl Jam–Gigaton–A welcome return to form. If you wanted to put it on top of the Binaural-Lightning Bolt era, I wouldn’t argue. Only quibble is it may be lacking that one transcendent moment, like an Unthought Known. Sometimes with PJ, though, you can’t make that judgment until you hear the songs live. I’m thinking Superblood Wolfmoon and Quick Escape have real potential to enter the pantheon, and hopefully that hypothesis can be tested again before I fucking turn fucking 40.
2. Local H–Lifers–Big riffs, killer lyrics, permanent sneer–sounds like Local H to me.
3. The Strokes–The New Abnormal--Ugh.
Hey Rick, how should this chorus go?
I don’t know Julian, maybe just shoehorn in an abject Billy Idol rip-off, then follow it up with the only riff we have that’s actually good? That way people will really feel how awful the chorus is?
Cool with me, can I go play in a band I actually like now?
Reggie’s Rock Club is the coolest place in Chicago. Want to hang out on a rooftop? Go to a record store? See two separate shows within a 30 second walk of each other? How about a free ride to any concert? Where you can party DURING the ride, instead of worrying about DUIs or traffic? Reggie’s does ALL OF THIS. All the time. Plus, they will only give you half a dirty look if you like sports and ask them to put a game on instead of the Simpsons episode they usually have rolling…
Reggie’s is all about the live music, from the bus to its two venues to the ticket stubs built into the bar. Also the Pearl Jam and NIN vintage concert posters that I definitely am NOT going to steal one day. To honor this Chicago institution, I compiled my best memories, or at least the nonsense I concocted to fill the substance-fueled gaps. Let’s hope Reggie’s maintains it’s amazing ways for years to come. Help out if you can:
1. Slough Feg at Alehorn of Power VIII–July 12, 2014
I knew their material was excellent, but having never seen Slough Feg before, I didn’t know that Mike Scalzi and company were ROCK STARS on stage. Slough Feg has the kind of A+ material that deserves to be played to arenas, and damn if the boys didn’t treat the narrow Reggie’s confines like the mainstage at Wacken.
Also special note goes to the 20 or so Traveller bros that showed up wearing the shirt with that album’s iconic cover. If you were at Reggie’s for another reason besides seeing Slough Feg, the sight of dozens of unkempt metal dudes wearing a shirt with a weird spacedog on it must have been…curious.
Undaunted by the valid of suspicions of other patrons, that small community banded together and lost it when The Final Gambit started. A pop worthy of the crescendo role that song plays in the album itself. A small group of like minded people there for the music and the good time with no pretense–Reggie’s crystalized.
2. Dillinger Escape Plan and Royal Thunder–May 8, 2013
I moved to Chicago on May 7, 2013. The only people I knew were my cousins. One of them ran a bar, and the other was dating a bartender working there. So, naturally, I went to that bar and got drunk. Having only one thing to talk about then (as I do now), I harassed the poor bartender/new boyfriend about this show the next day. It was at some random joint named Reggie’s. He knew DEP, and I convinced him that Royal Thunder was worth a look, so he agreed to go.
The next day, of course DEP blew the roof off the building and Mel Parsonz made a believer out of my new friend within the first powerful howl. It was quite the bonding experience. Not only did I discover my new favorite place, I made an amazing friend, with whom I have since shared many ridiculous concert experiences–two absolute benders in a Mindless Self Indulgence show and again with Municipal Waste stand out. And two years later, I was honored to stand up when he and my cousin got fucking married! Without live music, and the amazing places like Reggie’s that make it possible, I likely wouldn’t have been so lucky.
3. Lucifer–March 21, 2019
I did a full (and slightly sexist, despite my best efforts) write up of this show on this site, check it out here. I don’t have too much to add, except the warmth of the show hasn’t faded. It remains a great example of the perfect venue making a cool show fucking legendary.
4. Amorphis–March 26, 2017
An only-at-Reggie’s kind of evening. We watched North Carolina-Kentucky in the Elite 8 in the bar, walked to Chinatown to eat, then came back and casually saw straight up metal legends in Finland’s Amorphis. Pretty fucking hard to replicate, I would argue.
Also, holy shit, the entire show is up on Youtube and the quality is excellent. Check the whole thing out, but how about Bad Blood-My Kantele for now:
5. Khemmis–January 13, 2017; July 1, 2018; July 26, 2019
Had to sneak in a mention for the best new metal band of the last five years. Reggie’s is Khemmis’ Chicago haven, where they have been able to HEADLINE on three separate occasions. I’m happy to report they started strong and have only gotten better, with their crowd size steadily increasing each time around.
–The Chasm—August 16, 2018
Just because the band kicked so much ass it was almost beyond belief. Mexico’s best death metal band (sorry Brujeria) opened for Batushka and totally stole the show, making all the pomp and circumstance from that oddity seem downright silly.
–Damaged Justice/After Forever–January 5, 2019
The one free post-show drink ticket. Its almost as if Reggie’s knows that ticket will lead you to maybe stick around for another…and another…and end up staying until close. But the booze wasn’t the only culprit this time around, because I was lucky enough to hang out with the dudes in After Forever, who were fucking awesome to just bullshit about metal with. This could only happen at Reggie’s, give or take an Exit trip.
–Judas Beast–Multiple Dates
I couldn’t write up Reggie’s without mentioning their reigning champion, the best tribute act ever that flawlessly executes both Maiden and Priest tunes with appropriate bombast and set designs.
TOP 5 BUS RIDES:
Tool–June 8, 2017
It was one of the first big shows, and Reggie’s bus experiences, for my then new girlfriend and I. It was my fourth Tool show with a lifelong friend and fellow Reggie’s vet. And I managed to convince my decidedly non-metalhead cousing to join the heshers for the ride, her well-placed affection for 46 and 2 helping in the mission. We all had to work that day from disparate parts of the city, some had cars and some did not, and everyone wanted to get a little loose. How the fuck was this going to work? Simple–get your ass to Reggie’s and everything will be fine.
Miraculously, everyone got there before the buses loaded up. So we excitedly boarded and got on the road and…fucking traffic jam. But here is the real miracle–no one gave a shit, because we had a cooler full of beer and 40 randos to party with, all of whom had no concerns except figuring out what Tool would open with (The Grudge, btw, what a fucking draw!) By the time we got there, we were all a little closer with each other, both in life and Tool fandom. The ride added a level of anticipation and excitement that can be hard to build for a show when you’re an adult. The constant nonsense you have to deal with everyday takes up so much brainspace. Having that pocket of time to revel in the freedom of concert night is nothing short of an oasis.
My thoughts on the recent Tool live experience are documented elsewhere, but we were all loose enough upon entry that any setlist concerns were easily outmatched by the virtuosity on display. As for the aforementioned 46 and 2, I almost got in real trouble, as I mistook the final meanderings of Third Eye for another song entirely and told my cousin it was cool to go to the bathroom. Thankfully that familiar bass hit of 46 and 2 started only 20 seconds later, and I was able to grab her before she left to stand in line out of earshot. Had I needed to explain to her that she missed the song, I might have been walking from Rosemont that night. Which would have sucked, cause as you may have gathered, I kind of dig the Reggie’s bus.
Also a special mention for the bus accommodating our friend who met us at the venue, as he needed a ride back to the city because his ride got his asshole blown out by Maynard’s voice had to bail early.
Judas Priest–October 3, 2014
Oh boy. Here goes. I was on a solo mission for this show, but one of the best things about Reggie’s is you make quick friends and the bus is conducive to random hangouts.
This one took an interesting turn.
This bus had a table in the back, and I was back there having some beers with a few randos. All really nice people. One guy was VERY excited for the show. After a few minutes of conversation I had some…concerns…about his ability to successfully exit the bus and gain entry into the venue (Hammond Horseshoe), based on the drunkeness level. At some point he picks up an empty cup, turns his back to the table, and stands up. We are on the fucking highway going 60 mph with no seat belts or anything to hold onto, mind you. This fucking guy holds this position for awhile, so I stopped wondering what the hell was going on and and started smoking a cigarette.
My downed window apparently caught his attention, because the next thing I hear is, “Hey bro, can you throw this out the window?”
I turn around to see him shakily holding the cup, which is now filled. With a yellow liquid. That is splashing everywhere.
“Dude, is that your piss?”
“Ya, can you just throw it out the window?”
“Hey man, I don’t think we are tight enough yet for me to be handling your piss. Sorry.”
I then stopped interacting with this gentleman. I think I saw him in the show later, but thankfully by then I was locked in by legit intimacy of the Venue and how damn close Halford was standing to me. It was rad.
I’m not sure what became of the cup of piss. I suspect it did not meet a clean end, and some other poor passenger bore the brunt. Fuckin Reggie’s bus, man.
Prophets of Rage–September 3, 2016
Something about the good vibes on the bus, the weather, and lucking into the perfectly balanced buzz made this the most fun I’ve had at a random-ass summer rock show maybe ever. Do B-Real and Chuck D sound like Zach? Of course not. But that night no one cared, and I doubt even the real Rage would put on a show this celebratory.
Iron Maiden–June 15, 2017
This had all the hallmarks of a good Reggie’s midweek adventure. You sneak out of work early to get wristbands and a solid buzz. One of your crew is late, so you have to beg the staff to keep a wristband in reserve (which they accommodate, because they are fucking great). You pile in and quickly start singing along loudly and poorly with the rest of the bus to a song by the band you are heading to see (The Trooper, amongst others). Your friend decides to walk home from Tinley Park three songs in because Bruce is wearing a hoodie, and he proceeds to get stranded at the non-operational Metra station where he has to borrow a rando’s phone to call you to have you order him a $40 Uber home.
Typical Reggie’s midweek adventure.
I will note that the bus was just as, if not more, memorable than the show here, which means it wasn’t the best Maiden show. But it was a great fucking time.
Chicago Open Air–May 18, 2019
Dark skies and a bad forecast gave us some doubts, but we trudged to Reggie’s anyways. Good thing, because the skies opened up as we boarded the bus, which dropped us off a short walk from the venue. A far cry from the nonsense the year before, where I endured a grueling Pace bus from Midway. Besides being shitty and boring, the bus was late as fuck, causing me to miss the LAST FUCKING DEP PERFORMANCE IN CHICAGO. Fuckers. I should have known better.
The show itself was excellent, with SOAD pretending to like each other long enough to inspire full-crowd participation in Chop Suey and Toxicity like it was 2003. It was beautiful. And almost just as beautiful, we walked straight to the parking lot entrance afterwards and got the fuck out of there on a bus that had an IPOD we all passed around, trading Megadeth and Lamb of God tunes and just generally celebrating the whole experience.
2020 continues to be a strong year, though I’m not so sure there were any album of the year contenders here. Solid outings all though, with some encouraging returns to form and pleasant surprises from bands first coming across the radar, so all in all a very engaging batch. Let’s get to it:
1. Tombs–Monarchy of Shadows
I loved Path of Totality, liked Savage Gold, and was lukewarm on the Grand Annihilation, so the prospect of some new Tombs music did not inspire the level of excitement it once did. That is, until about 30 seconds into the first song and title track, when it becomes apparent that Tombs decided to stop fucking around and just rip out some throats. The cavernous horror of Paths of Totality and goth leanings from the last two are not gone, but they are de-emphasized in the name of playing METAL. Monarchy is relentless in this pursuit. The frostiness of Once Falls the Guillotine and Man Behind the Sun pair well with a mid-section in Necro Alchemy that invokes of Satisfaction-era Hatebreed (not complaining). Even the re-recorded track has a new vitality. Tombs is back.
2. Slaughter Messiah–Cursed to the Pyre
Terrible Certainty-era Kreator doing coke with Aura Noir. Pyre is a front-runner for song of the year, with a turbocharged back half that seems like it can’t possibly keep kicking this much ass until it starts kicking more.
This record puts into full focus what was missing from the last two. This band is about having fun in true Norwegian punk fashion, man. Pure Euroboy-Scandanavian-Leather-King-of-the-Rodeo shit. Mix in elements of extreme metal, and you are on to something. Kvelertak back to roots and sounding like the…wait for it…PARTY ANIMALS we know they are.
I was late to the brit-style doomdeath party, and I still don’t really give a shit about Anathema. Paradise Lost, on the other hand, grabbed me, and by extension so does Godthrymm. Katatonia and Paradise Lost, in different ways, each incorporate hooks and rock enough that there’s a propulsive spirit amongst the mope. I’m not sure Godthrymm pulls that off. This record is heavy and mournful and exhausting, which means (a) they executed their vision well, but (b) it is not something you will return with great frequency. If this is your genre, though, it’s a can’t-miss.
5. Blaze of Perdition–A Harrowing of Hearts
This was an interesting one. The atmosphere was reminiscent of Tribulation or In Solitude, more towards the gothic side of the black metal asthetic than the frightening side. The songwriting is strong here as well, but similar to Godthrymm, this is just not the type of music that is going to hold my attention for too long.
6. Oath of Cruelty–Summary Execution at Dawn
Angelcorpse-worship war metal. There isn’t too much else going on here, but if you get the itch, this one will satisfy. So will Exterminate or The Inexorable though, so prob just listen to those.
Due to my profligacy, there haven’t been monthly best-ofs to kick off this year. So let’s catch up with a bit of a shortcut: here’s with my top 5 so far of 2021. You’ll never guess what’s number 1…
Tribulation–Where the Gloom Becomes Sound
I’ve finally grown the courage to say it–Tribulation sucks now. Down Below wasn’t good. This is worse. Try writing an actual riff next time.
5. Anaal Nathrakh–Endarkenment
I know, this is from 2020. But of the batch of year-end stuff I scooped up that I didn’t catch during 2020-proper, this was the best record, because duh. Of course it was. When Anaal brings it, they are fucking amazing, the best molding of the most extreme and the most catchy that exists in extreme metal. They brought it on Endarkenment, and that means it is essential. Probably their best since Eschaton.
4. Demoniac– So it Goes
Technical thrash from Chile that occasionally features saxophone. And if that gets them attention, fine, but it is the least interesting and least effective aspect of the album. The tracks where they don’t needlessly include saxophone sound like late 80’s Kreator decided to use Vektor’s modern sound and song structures. THAT should be the appeal. Also Vonnegut references.
3. Stargazer–Psychic Secretions
I loved A Great Work of Ages, but then lost track of Stargazer. Turns out they still play bizarre black metal that is simultaneously catchy, unsettling, and … fun? Yeah, this shit is fun. It sounds sometimes like they are taking the piss, as Aussies might say, but that’s cool with me on an album where each spin is a pleasure packed with new surprises and left turns that just evaded you last time around.
2. Suffering Hour–The Cyclic Reckoning
This shit is weird. Something is up in Colorado, where these boys share a breeding ground with like-minded acts like Blood Incantation and Black Curse. But this record doesn’t really sound like either of those, or anything else you’ve ever heard. It is ostensibly extreme metal, but it is not particularly heavy or aggressive. Goddamn if it isn’t unsettling, impressive, and addictive, though.
Prog is not typically my genre, but this band slides in just below peak-era Leprous in the pecking order. This a metalhead’s prog band–the riffs are just a little heavier, the drumming just a little more aggressive, the arrangements just a little more familiar than the esoteric prog that’s turned me off in the past. Drummer Martin Lopez, formerly, of course, of Opeth, always features prominently on Soen records, but he pushes all the way to the front on Imperial. Those aforementioned riffs form the core of their bangers (balanced with two ballads on here, which are meh for me), but Lopez constantly adds flourish and aggression where typical prog would not. Thankfully, this is not a Pelican-City-of-Echoes-situation; the increased aggression in the drumming not only works, it elevates. And I would be remiss not to mention vocalist Joel Ekelof, who slots just beneath our (former?) friend Einar Solberg of Leprous for engaging, tasteful vocal flourish in a genre often overrun by power-metally warbling nonsense. If you have even a little tolerance for prog, you will love this.
It was a lost summer over here, but I’ve managed to sneak in a few of listens. Let’s rank ’em up.
1. Paradise Lost–Obsidian
The last record was as metal as Paradise Lost has been in years. And was a triumph. So naturally, this album is a late-era-Katatonia pop album.
And it’s a triumph.
These songs will stick right in your head, and you won’t want to kick them out.
2. Dark Forest–Oak, Ash, & Thorn
Miss Pharaoh? Here’s your cure. Maybe even catchier than the American power heroes, Dark Forest has an unmatched ability to channel the Maiden-esque twin guitar attack, which many middling bands deploy, into actual Maiden-esque moments of transcendence.
3. Xibalba–Anos en Infierno
An absolute beatdown. It has surprising depth as well, but if you never get beyond the initial onslaught, you’ll still love it.
Another excellent, next-level death metal record and worthy contender to Tomb Mold and Horrendous’s throne. I think there is officially a new scene, with Tomb Mold, Horrendous, Blood Incantation, Necrot, Gatecreeper, Vastum, Spectral Voice, Witch Vomit, and now Ulthar flying the flag. They don’t all sound the same, but each have blended various elements of the classic death metal scenes in Florida, New York, Sweden and California into their own sophisticated sounds.
New Wave of (North) American Death Metal, anyone?
5. Black Curse–Endless Wound
This sounds like just about you would imagine from a Blood Incantation/Primitive Man team-up, though the Khemmis touches creep in at times. The main standout though, and why this band is an entity unto itself, is the relentless intensity. I can’t make heads or tails of most of these songs, but I do know its an overpowering, oppressive force that despite being abrasive and dissonant STILL ROCKS AND HAS RIFFS. ULCERATE, I’M LOOKING AT YOU.
6. Valdrin–Effigy of Nightmares
This is Diabolical Masquerade/Dark Tranquility territory for me. It’s competent and accomplished and I find myself coming back to it often, but when broken down, nothing is super impressive musically or compositionally. These are just fun melodic blackened death/deathened black tunes, with that air of pomposity that often suits this type of music. Check it out, but I doubt it’s a year-ender.
This is good, which is a disappointment because we know Horn is capable of being great. Too much weird filler and not enough good ideas to fill the overly long tracks bring this in solidly below Torm am Hung.
8. Lamb of God–S/T
The absence of Chris Adler is palapable, but so is a recommitment to riff-writing. This is no Ashes of the Wake (what could be?), but Memento Mori, Reality Bath, and Poison Dream are as accessible as anything since Sacrament. Which is a good thing; starting with Wrath, LoG’s have had an obtuseness to their songwriting, which is antithetical to what made the Palaces through Sacrament run so remarkable.
Welcome back boys.
9. Malokarpatan–Krupinske Ohne
Trad metal riffs, black metal vocals, odd song structures, bizarre instrumentation and genre blending make Malokarpatan one of a kind…
Oh wait. Sigh exists. This is like Sigh. And not in an unenjoyable way, but still, if you like this type of shit, you’re probably better off just firing up Imaginary Sonicscape again.
10. Ulcerate–Stare Into Death and Be Still
I respect this band and I am certainly unsettled every time I listen to this album. There is just simply more going on than I understand. They are as close to Gorguts as it gets right now…but…dissonance-forward extreme metal is not my jam.
11. Calligram–The Eye is the First Circle
This one never connected with me. Intensity for intensity’s sake has its place, but nothing made me want to come back.
Chris Black taking different parts from Motorhead songs and linking them together alongside some original Superchrist-style riffs to create a concept album about how war is fucked up, man. If that sounds appealing to you, scoop this up immediately. For the uninitiated, though, might I suggest Into the Lair of the Sun God?
*This was delayed by the apocalypse. Please help any way you can, including giving to bands and venues affected by tour cancellation, and also the Red Cross and UNICEF and the like.*
February, the last normal month in human history, at least gave us an early favorite for album of the year. I fucking loved these records and expect they will stay on heavy rotation all year, so let me say up top–all of them are highly recommended. But if I must parse:
1. Midnight–Rebirth by Blasphemy
Their best album by a mile and my favorite record since…well, Crypt Sermon I suppose, but still. Holy shit! I expected dirty, Venomous nonsense of the highest order. I did not expect a United-style Priest anthem in the middle, or songs with real emotional heft behind the sleaze, but just listen to Rising Scum and You Can Drag me Through Fire. A next level jump by a band already at the upper echelon of the underground.
2. Xoth–Interdimensional Incantations
The cover art says it all. The last Vektor album with an injection consisting of equal parts death metal and mania. Might be too out there for some, but if you like thrash and losing your mind, get to it.
3. Haunt–Mind Freeze
Haunt is the most consistent and reliable trad metal band going right now. If those adjectives don’t get your heart racing, that’s on brand too–nowhere on Mind Freeze do they blow your mind, same as with If Icarus Could Fly and each release before that. But they aren’t swinging for the fences–they are trying get on base with each song. Would you rather have a record with 2 great songs and 6 garbage ones, or 8 pretty good ones, any of which could do the job in your live set? Haunt favors the latter, and I can’t knock them for it.
An outstanding melodic black metal album. Aethryick tends towards the atmospheric/mood side of the spectrum–think Dawn as opposed to Dissection or Naglfar. And they do so brilliantly, able to ring real emotion similar to Mgla’s brand of alchemy. Let’s just hope they don’t share some other things with Mgla…
5. The Great Old Ones–Cosmicism
I really enjoy GOO’s brand of death metal. They nail the Lovecraft aesthetic, and routinely have passages that come out of nowhere to just demolish the listener. These parts must be something to behold live. But they can never maintain that power throughout a whole song, let alone a record, which keeps them from rising to the very top of the genre. The album is still worth your time, and is perfectly suited to a particular type of mood, but you won’t be reaching for it like you do Tomb Mold or Horrendous records.
6. Blessed Black–Beyond the Crimson Throne
Blessed Black is a rock band. There is nothing wrong with that, but don’t go in expecting to hear stoner metal in the vein of Khemmis or even The Sword, because these guys are much more in the Kyng/Droids Attack/Taint lane. With that in mind, this is a solid collection of songs with good riffs and some standout soloing, and enough adventures towards the edges of traditional song structure that bodes well for the future. I will definitely see these guys live, and if they arrive at a sound and vision that’s truly their own, look out.
March Pick Ups:
Early thoughts–Interesting batch where each band has a seemingly obvious like for like (see below).
Hopefully some nuance reveals itself in the next few weeks, but even in this framework these are really enjoyable records. Tombs and Kvelertak sound reinvigorated, and Slaughter Messiah is the pummeling Destroyer 666-type machine I’ve been missing.
Provided this isn’t actually the Stand playing out, I’ll rank ’em up in about 3 weeks.
It’s winter, so to once again keep us all from that ledge, here’s a reminder that there is a reason we all endure these 3 (fine, 4) fucking months of nonsense–cool metal shit is on the horizon:
Decibel Metal and Beer–Philadelphia–April 3 and 4
Converge playing Jane Doe and Pig Destroyer doing Prowler in the Yard? Holy shit!
We are locked in this year, so look for a full report, provided I can remember any details.
Also, can we get Philly locals Crypt Sermon involved?
Migration–Pittsburgh–August 1 and 2
My hometown of Pittsburgh becomes the center of the US extreme metal universe in August. Tomb Mold, Spirit Adrift, Vastum, False, Falls of Rauros, Witch Vomit–20 Buck Spin has the deepest lineup of any label out there, and they’ll all be playing in beautiful Millvale, PA, right next to an old steel mill. To be fair, that’s everywhere in Pittsburgh.
See you fuckers at Grist House.
2. New Records
–Carcass–There’s no way it will be as good as Surgical Steel, but then again none of us thought there was any way Surgical Steel would be better than Heartwork, but here we are.
–Deftones–On this list last year. Let’s not make this a Tool thing, guys.
–Enslaved–I am nervous about this one, but they are still Enslaved. Remember songs, Ivan? See if we can get a couple of those on this record.
Fuck, that’s really it. I hear rumors Argus and Pharaoh may have something in store? Let’s hope see, because otherwise it is shaping up to be a lean year. Though the new Midnight album fucking rules so no one else really needs to put anything out anyways.
Opeth with Graveyard, two bands I used to love who have…progressed?…into areas I’m not so into. Still, I recall vividly multiple occasions where an Opeth show stopped my fucking heart, and Mikel is still a great stand up if nothing else. Hopefully the fact that I’m making this our Valentine’s Day celebration doesn’t stop my engagement in its still-fledgling status, but that is a distinct possibility. So boys, how about playing Bleak? That way it won’t be all bad when I’m recounting to my therapist why my life fell apart so I could see a band I’m kind of over.
Reggie’s is welcoming some legends this “spring,” starting with Poland’s favorite Slayer-aping death metal lifers. That’s not a knock, by the way–Vader sounds like mechanized Slayer, get over it. De Profundis is still one of my favorite death metal albums ever. Litany and Revelations both rule, too. I haven’t kept up with the last couple, but I’m guessing they sound like Slayer.
Legends part 2. With Tomb Mold, Vastum, Witch Vomit and others flying the flag of the dirty, gurgling side of death metal, Autopsy is as relevant as ever. And on the back of their own strong output since reforming, this is likely to rule pretty hard. Also Professor Black is opening! It is probably too much to ask that he mix in some Dawnbringer, but if Superchrist songs don’t give you dumb-metal-face, I mean, what the fuck man.
-Insomnium–March 22–The Forge
On quite the roll with Winter’s Gate and Heart like a Grave. Who wants to drive me to Joliet?
-Midnight–March 27–Empty Bottle
Fuck me Athenar.
-Monster Magnet–March 28–Metro
Powertrip in full! Finally the band realizes this is by far their best record, and won’t play a bunch of BORING SHITTY MEANDERING NONSENSE FROM SPINE OF GOD AND SUPERJUDGE!!
Wow that felt good. Whew. Fuck you all. Powertrip and Monolothic Baby! are where its fucking at, and go see the damn show if you don’t believe me.
An odd grouping of stuff from the year-end lists I didn’t hear the first time around. A lot of prog/power, but theres also a band called Funeral Fukk, so I’m not getting too classy.
1. High Command–Beyond the Wall of Desolation
Do you wish Power Trip wrote lyrics like The Sword’s first 2 records? Do you occasionally headbang involuntarily until you stumble into a wall in your apartment? Get this shit immediately.
2. Wilderun–Veil of Imagination
Well damn, this was out of control. I had to keep checking that I wasn’t listening to Blackwater Park, and not because the material is too close (though on occasion…). The melding of death metal with legitimate heft and progressive rock hasn’t been done to this level by anyone since Akerfeldt hung them up.
3. Funeral Fukk–Carnal Confessions
This album is shockingly successful. It executes everything it sets out to do, and invokes Woods of Ypres and Solitude Aeturnus in equal measure while establishing its own lane. So why isn’t it number 1 of the year, let alone this list?
Because its a concept album about the victims of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. It is SO fucking good, but how often are you going to find yourself in the mood for that? Turns out, not that often.
Let me be clear though–the songwriting is captivating, the riffs are memorable and crushing, and the atmosphere is pitch perfect.
Just–fucking ew, guys, come on. Ew.
4. Arch/Matheos and 5. Dimhav
Every year I see power metal albums at the very top of charts, every year I scoop a few up, and then every year I’m reminded–I just don’t really dig power metal.
Except for Pharaoh, for whatever reason. Get your asses back out here, Pharaoh.
It was a strong close to the year, though maybe not as I may have expected:
1. Blut Aus Nord–Hallucinogen
Lives up to its name. Truly hypnotic and a worthy successor to the Memoria records, Blut’s finest hour.
I liked what I had heard before, but I fucking loved this. Mid-period Dismember if instead of melodic death metal, it injected a healthy dose of Bolt Thrower. Best surprise–how damn catchy and memorable it is.
3. Blood Incantation–Hidden History of the Human Race
Believe the hype. I didn’t find it as engaging as the absolute top tier of death metal this year, your Tomb Molds and Gatecreepers. But it is worth acknowledging that engagement is not their concern. This is challenging and intricate while still pummeling, and I will gladly keep peeling the levels away.
4. Vastum–Orificial Purge
Equal parts cerebral and primal, Vastum lives in a peculiar murk but is so damn engaging that you will keep wading through.
5. Refused–War Music
Damn, if this wasn’t so close to IT. A true successor to Shape of Punk…But this album always steps back from the brink of true abandon, even at its most frenetic. The urgency is there in the lyrics, but counter to Dennis’ words, the songs don’t ever let the wick burn all the way down to a full explosion.
Do you like Jester Race and The Mind’s Eye? Step right up.
7. Die Choking
Only this low because grind is not my wheelhouse, this album is top quality and I recommend it highly for anyone who gravitates to this genre.
You know what you are going to get with Exhumed. When you want some straightforward, gorey death metal, there is no substitute. But you won’t find yourself returning unless you have that particular itch.
After Malina, anything was likely to be a letdown, but this is an unlistenable vanity outing for the vocalist.