DEATH METAL — Fuck the trendiness of banal modern hardcore influenced ‘old school’ death metal permutations today. Fuck all of the vapid tough guy shit that sleepy-eyed dispassionate folks are putting out! I’ve compiled this list not as a “best of” for the wide blanket of Death Metal in 2020 but to illustrate what Death Metal is/was beneath the surface in 2020… and where I think it was most interesting, polished and overlooked. From my own point of vantage these albums were underrepresented and/or passed by quickly by media outlets and some for admittedly valid reasons, when I use the term “underground” keep in mind at least two of these records have major retailer distribution. There are countless great bands that I don’t mention here which I’ve already reviewed, covered, interviewed, mentioned or put in my Top 50 Albums of the Year so hit the search icon to see if I’ve already covered something vital, otherwise let me know what I’ve missed. Ratings don’t matter, think for yourself!
|TITLE||Beneath the Canopy of Compost|
Parasitic Records [Cassette]
I’m gonna namedrop a ton of bands here and not only because I’m into all of it but also hey, between the six fellows contributing to New York/New Jersey death metal band Reeking Aura they’ve got at least a couple paragraphs worth of past-and-present resume kicking around. The major crossover is more or less Afterbirth and Grey Skies Fallen members alongside fellows from Buckshot Facelift, Artificial Brain and Thætas. Yeah, at least three of the better albums in their own niches released this year between ’em and one of the three guitarists is Ryan Lipynsky from my personal favorite sludge band this last decade or so Unearthly Trance, as well as several other notable projects. Beyond that it was produced by Colin Marston with logo by Jon Zig, too? Hell, I was ready to slap an editor’s choice sticker on this tape before I’d even heard it. Of course I kid but hey, forget all that shit I said already anyhow — This is a badass ‘old school’ death/doom metal tape, gutter-sluicing and gore-crawling pure impact riffing with enough diggable detail for a full-length in just three 4-6 minute songs.
‘Beneath the Canopy of Compost’ makes its case without hesitation pulling from the gloomiest shade of NYDM (Morpheus Descends‘ second album, maybe?) as well as Finnish death and widespread classic death/doom metal, fashioning an ideal that balances death and doom metal in such a way that sub-genres aren’t “parts” but a miasma of lingering basement stench and mortuary fog. You could maybe consider the thrill of Disma‘s early demo tapes to start but this’d provide little more than a sense of morbidity, when the riffs hit they’re all sinister tunnels of heat-seeking ruin a la Vastum and Sempiternal Dusk, pieces that reveal complexity without sacrificing the tension built by doom. A recording with three guitar tracks isn’t such a big deal but composing for more than spatial orientation or contrasting tones means Reeking Aura have given us two rhythm guitars that might phase into contrapuntal action for extended verses or hit the odd time signature a la Eulogy‘s ‘The Essence’ (sans the aggressive blasting of early 90’s Florida death metal.) Suffice to say you’ll find bigger ‘old school’ death metal grooves and crypt needling undertones in varying states of harmony throughout. Or, in simpler terms: More guitars, more riffs? More or less. Its a jam, and I put this one up front because it is the best death/doom adjacent metal you’ve probably not heard of this year.
|TITLE||Rot in the Multidimensional Sewer|
|LABEL||Harmful Existence Productions|
Solarcrypt is a solo death metal project from Heredia, Costa Rica-based musician J.P. Montero who performs the entirety of this debut demo while additionally mixing it. No question about it, this guy doesn’t just love nowadays ‘old school’ sounding bands but seems to have really studied classic death metal and matched his taste with capabilities well. The distorted bass gives strong texture to the grooves that define each song where we can hear elements of the post-Amebix crust waves as well as early Bolt Thrower in the rhythm section. The riff composition seems to pull from the darkest side of United States death metal, the early days of Incantation but also the filthy-but-serious attack you’d find in Chicago death metal in the early 90’s. Echoing vomitous vocals and menacing rhythms makes this tape something special and, again, the bass tone is a nice distinct touch that helps bring in some interesting texture to the rhythms — It’d been noticeable enough that I had found myself wondering what he might do with more percussive bass guitar tone, something more clanging. If I can speak beyond the obvious potential here I’d say the vision is really secure here, a well-realized set of songs that hit the mark of modern day ‘old school’ styled death metal. Check out the other Harmful Existence stuff, too, all three tapes they’ve put out are pulverizing death.
|TITLE||The Tides of Blood|
|LABEL||Sentient Ruin Laboratories|
If folks are going to tire from the whole palatable and pleasantly classic ‘old school’ death metal salad bar of the last decade so soon then the next step for the legion of punks going metal these days is inevitable: Death-leaning war metal, bestial attacks of burnt-edged blackened death with pure rhythmic punishment as a major feature. Ruin Lust and Of Feather and Bone have suggested meaningful examples of killer threads this year but what Vancouver, British Colombia’s Ceremonial Bloodbath are doing on their debut full-length is a step beyond that portal. Upholding the severity of their pace and attack but allowing breaks into full-on riffing atmospheric death metal or castle-haunting blackened death gives texture and theatric excess to a brutal artform.
You’ll engage with Side A for its ferality and hammer horror modus but man, wait for Side B (especially “Hammer Throne” and “Seven Wells”) This is perhaps the same sort of high-brained modulation of extremes sludge metal received via an emphasis on its crust punk compatibility in recent years only I’d suggest black/death metal has a much deeper well to pull from without needing a whiff of fuckin’ post-metal. I definitely did not intend to overlook this album for review in October when it released, it was a random case of not adding the release date into my “to do” data sheet and spacing.
You won’t find me covering a ton of modern brutal death metal releases because I am generally not even slightly hyped to fuck with deathcore or slam, at least not very often. I’ve heard it all for decades and dumb mosh riffs aren’t my jam anymore. Give me a “sitting in the balcony at a show after too many edibles” riff and I’m there, though. That said, I still love true brutal death metal and its tireless, needlessly fiddly groove evolution during the 2000’s. When I sit with ‘Prahara’, this debut full-length from Indonesian brutal death trio Disintegration, I hear a dagger taken to the neck of at least some of the trendy shit that absorbs into brutal death. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not afraid of a breakdown (see: “Tahta Berhala”) and the dub-drops they toss up hit like a Michael Bay film trailer throughout but these guys are generally all about the blasts, the riffs, and hitting ’em each as hard as possible. When aligning with brutal death metal guitar work the rhythmic language is obviously key so, the straight-forward hammer of ‘Prahara’ had me engaged throughout, generally unaffected by the slamming brutal stuff that kicks up about half of the time. When I walk away from a brutal death metal album I want it to feel like I’ve had my ass kicked or, skull broken by some murderous angered spirit and in that sense Disintegration are doing a fine job.
|TITLE||A Comedic Tragedy|
Solo technical death/thrash metal project Scorn is only just Steven Rowlands out of convenience. After the side-project status of the band had considerably slowed progress Rowlands took it all on himself and hell, knowing that makes ‘A Comedic Tragedy’ even more impressive. Since the dude hails from Guelph, Ontario of course the immediate convenience of Canada’s prolific progressive death metal history allows some notable quick comparisons in Obliveon and Martyr. The rhythms of these songs aren’t so irregular, though, Scorn is most comfortable when leaning into the bigger lessons Bay Area guitar worship brought to United States death/thrash and late 80’s death metal theatrics. “Demented” is the embodiment of this notion, a ‘Beneath the Remains’ style chopper with ‘Nemesis’-era Stéphane Picard sounding vocals; I figure anyone who knows me would see what a holy grail that is. The idea is totally there, this sounds like a serious project, and the execution is flawlessly professional but the programmed drums occasionally act as cognitive dissonance, machined to sound human and showing this loudest when a song calls for a human touch.
Otherwise the whole of ‘A Comedic Tragedy’ epitomizes modern death-thrash metal in hitting upon tuneful, ripping pieces with satisfying performative dramatics and plenty of tempered technical skill in hand. If you’re like me and anything death/thrash after ’93 is marginally acceptable as thrash-related beyond legacy I’d at least suggest trying this one because Rowlands’ taste for riffs doesn’t indulge groove in the stop-start bonking mosh riff + melodeath style you’ll find in most modern death/thrash metal arsenal. Instead think of ‘Serpents of the Light’ levels of groove applied to technical thrash metal at a soured and rushed-rolling pace. The piece might buzz towards a Schuldiner style riff transition or hit upon the progressive era of that band but always biting at an early 90’s/early 2000’s Malevolent Creation level of attack. Definitely the kind of record you need to brew with if you don’t like “modern” death/thrash sound design but still up front great with the tunes.
I’ve enjoyed every release from Binah to such a degree that I bought this self-released demo the moment I saw it. ‘Hallucinating in Resurrecture’ is one of the best debuts of the last decade and, though it was entirely different, I’d liked ‘Phobiate’ just as much. ‘Amorte’ continues this streak of consistently great riffs, aided by this perfectly restrained HM-2 adjacent guitar sound where the overdrive is tamed into an actual thunderous, porcelain tone. “In Mourning” is the main event, a 5+ minute song that whips the ass off so many tired Swedish death metal bands lazing out riffs today. The build up and then refrain of the song around the ~1 minute mark before hitting the buzzsaw is a brilliant reminder why this band remains notable and underrated. “In Sickness” is a remarkable two minute mosh-thrasher, an intense wind tunnel of piece. The third piece is maybe the best part as each of the three songs thread together in the process of the listen and then easily loop back around thanks to the exodus of “Love Beyond the Grave”. If a third album hits upon any of these ideas or, just includes these songs I’ll be all about it.
|TITLE||Echoes of Doom|
|LABEL||Ripping Storm Records|
|BUY||Ripping Storm Distro|
‘Echoes of Doom’ is a six song, half hour death/doom metal EP that kicks into crusted up hardcore punk influenced death metal along the way, think of it as if God Macabre had gone more doom or if early Tiamat hadn’t gone goth. The easiest comparison is probably demo-era My Dying Bride or the first Paradise Lost album but ‘Echoes of Doom’ isn’t as brutal or riff-focused as either, tending to lunge into bouts of something more primitive a la Mourning or Winter where toying with doom metal riff pacing pays off as well as any classic tape in the style, as long as they keep breaking into semi-melodic death metal statements it all works itself out. These guys have an incredibly authentic take on gritty gothic death/doom metal sound and it really shines during the slower parts of each piece as they develop, this is essentially a perfect study. The only thing I could posit as a criticism would be the need to develop a more distinct approach to the full-on death metal parts, it doesn’t all have to swings towards Ceremonium exactly but tipping in some real blasting violence. Otherwise the songwriting does more than plainly invoke style, their take on gothic doom that kicks up some death metal Hell is yet remarkable. Definitely go check out the other nearby releases from Ripping Storm this year, Zöldïer Noïz especially.
Since In Grief took us to this depressive, gritty world of melodious roars and shoegazing gothic death metal, let Furnace kick the door all the way open. What does melodic death metal mean to you? If your answer was “Be more specific.” then this band probably your thing. When it comes to Rogga Johansson we’ve gotten a broad range of Dismember influenced melodic death ideas within various projects but this fairly new band with Peter Svensson of Void Moon (who absolutely rule!) suggests they’ve got a bit of Swedeath, Peaceville three, and the epic speed metal pulse of Deceased in hand. I’ll cut all of that down to Sentenced‘s ‘The Trooper’ EP with a bit more of the gothic rock influence showing in compositions, throw in some late 90’s/early 2000’s gothy Rotting Christ style rhythm guitar and you’re pretty much there.
The core appeal of ‘Dark Vistas’ can be reduced to the iteration of three central guitar techniques feeding a bit of traditional heavy metal influenced melodic death, think of ‘A Dead Poem’ but without the fluid lead guitars running concurrent for the duration of each song. The feeling of apocalyptic rock applied to late 90’s gothy melodic death metal is a natural fit yet it stops just short of catharsis. Their gig wears a bit as the songs become too thematically repetitive but the intimacy of the melodic and sometimes uplifting (“From the Blackest Void”) compositions sustains well; Furnace remain evocative even when the same post-punk beat and jangling guitar features in several pieces. With all of that said, I’m impressed by the two records Furnace released this year… I think about 3-4 months apart? That is a considerable feat even in terms of logistics and hey, both albums are solid listens.
The marriage of post-metal and doom is perhaps another decade away from perfection in the hands of the prog-rock inclined folks headed there but if we kick the extreme dial on and envision post-black metal guitar shimmering its unblackened soul towards current atmospheric death/doom metal heights Ascian‘s debut full-length makes plenty of sense. One of my favorite Portland area bands Maestus does an exceptional job with similar ingredients, and we will talk about them soon enough yet this German band have their own perspective, a bit more of a traditional doom metal churn where death metal vocals rise atop chunk n’ roll riffing to offer just one (admittedly major) point of extremity to the greater journey. The clean vocals are a bit more monastic, an appropriately Germanic approach to the early My Dying Bride haunts. This band works on a conceptual level and a few of the doom riffs really hit quite hard but the death metal side of the band feels undernourished and the post-black guitar work is rarely exciting beyond a few theatrical moments. The title track is probably the best song for my own taste, tormented and grand at its apex.
|TITLE||Dawn of a New Epoch|
Cidesphere are a Turkish melodic death metal quintet that’d arisen in the country’s capital back in the late 90’s, eventually putting out a sole full-length back in 2002 after a couple of EP releases. Looking at their past-and-present line-ups it seems like the major reason they’d slowed down was either a lack of interest or a lack of a steady drummer. About twelve years after they’d disbanded things lined back up in 2017 as they’d eventually find a new drummer (cycling through an ex-Cenotaph drummer or two) and landing in this present coalition. ‘Dawn of a New Epoch’ is not necessarily a 2020 modern melodic death metal record, in fact just like the similar reprisal of Eternal Lies two years ago it sounds like they’d written and composed this ‘comeback’ record back in 2002.
Even back in that era ‘Dawn of a New Epoch’ would have been seen as fairly traditional Gothenburg style melodeath, obviously still functionally tied to the revelation of ‘Terminal Spirit Disease’ with some hints of circa ’94 Hypocrisy and the second Ceremonial Oath album when the leads really kick in. You’ll undoubtedly hear the classic At the Gates sound as the more energetic and pointed pieces introduce the very slightly updated sound of the band. Many of the riffs that’ll catch your ear are very literal modulations of ‘Slaughter of the Soul’ pieces (“Plague of Greed” especially) but as the album moves along the natural peak of “Sadist” finds the guitarists reigning it in and resembling the aforementioned acts a bit more. Obvious influences are no crime and, even more importantly, Cidesphere craft a somber and affecting piece of classic melodeath that true fans of the style will enjoy. My only real criticism is in the artwork and layout design, these are just not up to par for my own taste and hardly representative of the dark hand that drives the album.
|TITLE||Genesis of Blasphemy|
Putrid Cult [Cassette]
If you’ve ever engaged with the filthiest underground sects of Polish death metal you’ll recognize the grimy do-it-yourself skull clubbing sounds of Atonement as a deep, moldy rut of mid-paced blackened death. Primitive yet expressive movements force-fed through raw guitars and belching thick mud for vocals make for a decent formative experience. The guitars have a thin digital sounding distortion that weakens the death grooves of pieces like opener “Mirdautas Vras”, which is also probably the most “blackened” piece on the tape. Demo level stuff but this band definitely shows a pro understanding of atmospheric tension, plodding dirges, and Cianide (or, earlier Throneum) level burners. Worth checking out and seeing how their sound develops next.
Long Beach, California ‘old school’ death metal quintet Guillatine help to emphasize that classic death metal in the hands of modern day bands might not be intensely complex in terms of rhythmic variation but they make up for it with strong sound design, perfect crypt-chilling horror landscapes and in the case of ‘Beheaded’, belligerent cemetery stomps a la Scorched. Simple, brutal, fast as fuck, and raw vomited throughout you’ll absolutely dig this if you’ve been following bands like Ruin as they proliferate and terrify. Guillatine touch upon death/thrash riffs, some brutal death hits, and countless grinded out change-ups on this three song demo + rehearsal and they’ve impressed me in the process. The only hang-up I have is that I’d just like to hear more so I can better suss out exactly what makes this band anything special. “Decapitated Thought” is certainly a good window into what they’re capable of thanks to the technical section in the middle, this reminds me of the first Undeath tape on some level. They’ve got riffs and they’re putting out garage-shaking ‘old school’ death metal, full support.
Brutal death mainstay Comatose didn’t release a ton of records this year but everything they put out was pretty much solid, I’d especially loved Gorevent‘s album and the Twitch of the Death Nerve record was going to make it onto this list but as soon as I put Incinerate on I had to swap it in. When I glanced over the cover and details my first thought was “This is going to sound like mid-2000’s Deeds [of Flesh]” (or, early Decrepit Birth) and I was more or less close enough, think of ‘Brutality is Law’-era Severed Savior but some precision technical death hits and bass presence a la earlier Yattering. This sounds pretty cut-and-dry but they do venture into some strong technical sidebars as each song reaches its intensity or featured point of interest. “Trumpets of War” is a fine example of the battery of it all balanced with both technique and rhythmic interest, they’re not just phoning in some hard hits or relying on filler riffing to get by. The presence of the drums is a bit much (see: “Thrown to the Fire”), despite loving the smack of ’em being front and center I felt like it buried some of the bigger riffs along the way. Relentless brutality is the main draw, some strong non-wanking technical edge keeps things interesting.
|TITLE||Had “Debut MLP”|
|LABEL||Me Saco Un Ojo|
There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark… In the case of Had I don’t think this debut EP was underrated but it was certainly overlooked and I’d venture it was because the cover art obscures the band’s logo ’til unreadable and makes the highly professional Lovecraftian death metal tape look like cheap Bandcamp black metal fodder. The music itself is faintly blackened, an atmospheric yet regally delivered classic death metal sound that features the signature brutality of its constituent parts since Had features members of Sulphurous and Deiquisitor. Hard-hitting as this debut is, the guitar work is extremely sophisticated as they find a balance of emergent heavy metal spires and droning blackened death metal tirades. A class act already, but I’m not sure the project has made a compelling case with enough distance from their other band’s sounds.
|TITLE||The Encompassing Nothing|
Thorn is yes, yet another solo project, but this one is atmospheric death metal from Phoenix, Arizona-area musician Brennen Westermeyer as he sorts out his own take on death/doom metal. The guitar gives a bit of a dry bonk when he hits the open lows on certain riffs and this feels like an odd ‘djent’ moment at times, I don’t know why guitarists tune ultra-low these days but floppy strings makes for floppy riffs and chug abundance in my experience. Beyond this small, likely misdirected gripe I enjoyed the atmosphere ‘The Encompassing Nothing’ goes for, edging towards Krypts‘ spaced-out side a bit and maybe Ulcerate too. The atmosphere is keen but the riffs are pretty standard and the end result isn’t yet mind-shattering but still manages a solid full listen with plenty of snarling n’ limping sludgy doom moments to keep the mind entertained.
|TITLE||Spawned by Gore|
|LABEL||Burning Coffin Records|
This horror and torture filled Chilean death metal band released their debut back in April and I’d missed it entirely until seeing it on mentioned on Instagram earlier this month. The main influences I’ve seen mentioned are in the general realm of Autopsy and Impetigo, pointing towards the obscure brutality of Dr. Shrinker and (early) Necrophagia as influence upon visuals as well as their rotten, thunderous death metal sound. I love the hollow “live in studio” sound of the band, a pure evil presence perfectly suited for the mid-to-late 80’s death metal style they’re bringing on this debut. Plenty of thrashing riffs, divebombs, vomitous vocals, and rock solos lend themselves best to the ‘Scream Bloody Gore’/’Severed Survival’ spirit of the album, this is most heartily expressed on “Ripped to Shreds” which I am 99% sure isn’t a cover. The horror samples used throughout aren’t compelling but I understand what they’re going for in terms of theme and style, they nail it otherwise.
Around since 2009 sorting out the right line-up and experiencing gains trucking it around the states with a couple of EPs in the interim Phoenix, Arizona-borne blackened death metal crew Deadspawn sound exactly like they should on a debut album, fully prepared. They’ve got a bit of a ‘Satanica’ (or, Hate‘s ‘Anaclasis…’) vibe generally speaking, a black metallic interpretation of brutal death that hisses and slithers around its slow-poisoned prey. In fact ‘Pestilence Reborn’ is pretty noisome up front so it’ll take all but the most brutal among us to warm up to the subtler details in hand, a grower but not a particularly difficult to read experience from any angle. This sort of band tends to shove all of their most brutal pieces up front but we start to get small breathers as “From Ruins” starts to usher in some more directly black metal guitar work. Once Deadspawn starts to calm down a bit the really great shit kicks up, such as the brutal-yet-melodic hammer of “Language of Creation” which ended up being one of my favorite pieces on the album. I’m not saying Side B is soft but that most of the stuff that is going to stick to your brain cells comes in the second half whereas Side A is all murderous riff attack. Whether you see this as a band arriving upon their signature or hitting upon major potential, these guys manage an entirely pro debut with ‘Pestilence Reborn’.
|LABEL||Black Lion Records|
‘The Negationist’ finds Æolian succeeding in streamlining, iterating, and crafting a more open-armed approach to their epic thread, championing environmentalism with triumphant pieces that elicit the same chills you’d get from the view atop a mountain or, some manner of revelation involving the interconnectedness of all knowable things. Of course if you’d missed the sophomore album from the Mallorcan melodic death metal quintet (just a week or so ago) you probably don’t follow the sub-genre very closely, they are undoubtedly one of the best bands in the squarely “melodeath” style to emerge in the last several years. Aiming for epic, lead driven and always galloping heavy metal songs within this format means ‘The Negationist’ often lands upon axe-swinging viking/folk spiritus (see: “We Humans”) though their default is perhaps still along the lines of classic Insomnium when zooming out to the bigger picture. Much of what I’d written in review of ‘Silent Witness’ still applies and I don’t want to suggest the band have changed drastically, only that it becomes clear they’re aiming to strike upon iron that feels uniquely theirs. “Blackout” offers a vital step towards distinction with its wailing introductory power metal shrieks, something I’d not heard from Daniel Pérez before. Bravo, I definitely want more of this movement between Priest wails and death rasps. If you’re not a melodic death metal fan this stuff is far too pure and idiosyncratically evolved for the dabbler but, for the aficionado it should prove to be one of the best in its style this year.
|TITLE||Haven of Lies|
Back in 2018 I wasn’t all that impressed with Skanderborg, Denmark-based death metal quartet Wayward Dawn and their unfocused debut ‘Soil Organic Matter’ but after seeing this second album uh, on the shelves in a Target department store I had to investigate whether they’d suck as much as I’d expected. Even if you could suggest these guys are ‘on trend’ with this mid-paced doomed hardcore influenced sound ‘Haven of Lies’ won me over out of sheer charismatic excess. I am always up for the clarity and attack that Brad Boatright (Audiosiege) brings to death metal heavily influenced by the classics. I wouldn’t say Wayward Dawn are too directly reminiscent of ‘old school’ death metal but if we are counting up all of the terrible tough guy hardcore/death metal hybrids that kicked up dust this year no question these guys slaughter the heap by virtue of actually pulling off the mosh stuff with some dignity. If you’re big on Carnation, Outer Heaven and that brand of bigger label death metal this is going to be the right grab for you. Department store death metal kills, I guess.
I remember reviewing Portland, Oregon-based extreme melodic doom metal band Maestus‘ second album in early 2019 during one of my extended episodes of yearning for naturalism, wanting to punitively end civilization rather than witness another year of the pacific northwest’s dissolving habitat burning afire for months on end in the heat. For two summers I have breathed the burning ancestral forest’s death beyond and ‘Deliquesce’ has been one choice funeral dirge of this fiery abandonment. Whatever you might fight a war over, do not underestimate the power of an appropriately motivating theme. ‘Daybreak’s Advent’ is a grand hammering upon already set coffin nails, using Earth’s wooden casket as a drum to shake nerves loose of their sheath, displayed in rapturous collapsing diorama. “Adamancy Feigned” is cinematic in the throes of its oppressive heartbeaten pulse, the only relief comes when the violins call in the chorales and all energy releases upwards, ripping the roof into cinders and scouring the clergy along with. Yes, Maestus still sit high among my personal favorite melodic death/doom metal bands and not only for their exemplar blackened take on the style but for their focus upon emotional, affecting pieces that offer great strength and direction as they thunder about. Their cover of “My Hope, The Destroyer” is no less of an event, putting their own mark on a song you’d likely have to look up unless you were a diehard fan of ‘The Dreadful Hours’.
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