BLACK METAL — I’ve compiled this list not as a “best of” for the wide blanket of Black Metal in 2020 but to illustrate what Black 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 some 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!
This’ll be the second time an album from Icelandic black metal act Vetur has landed in my ‘to do’ pile a few months beyond its release date so, I’d not ignored ‘Vist’ but set it aside for several months. Having now sat with it quite a bit I can appreciate the progression between ‘Nætur’ (2018) and this follow-up, which picks up similar lyrical themes and aesthetics while modulating the unique texture of their melodic and considerably modern take black metal to align a bit more with post-black sensibilities. That might sound horrendous to some just for the sake of the “post-black” tag but in this case I’m using it as shorthand for death metal influenced progressive black metal something truly “post-” and not post-metal influenced. Honestly this record won’t seem like much to start, it just needs to work up its groove and you’ll have to settle into the soft n’ crispy guitar tone a bit. Once you’ve chilled out “Þrá” stomps in with a bit of triumphant Enslaved action and these guys can handle it. If anything these songs are surprisingly ambitious with divergent rhythms and bold non-traditional tonality, heralded drummer Dirk Verbeuren (Scarve, Megadeth) is a real asset for this adventurous style. Definitely check this band out of you’re big on the more aggressive Helheim records, Vried, and ‘The Olden Domain’.
Folks who are attuned to psychedelic black metal, avant-garde metal, and willing to swing between folkish Thy Catafalque-esque creep jazz and Oranssi Pazuzu‘s freak bops will find the third Wyrmwoods album challenging and perhaps even more rewarding for it. Consider ‘Gamma’ a spooky black metal take on Finnish symphonic prog rock, at least in spirit. Opener “Astralanum” grinds out a bit tuneless to start, a sweeping rhythmic event in some sense but uneventfully lain, glitched. The extremity of the experience lies in the amount of strange detail they’ve infused into what is essentially a jazzed prog rock album delivered via the modern experimental extreme metal perspective and achieved with humble production values. As a solo project this is ambitious in terms of skill though much of the charm ‘Gamma’ possesses lies in the smaller details of the compositions, the swinging motifs that line up with surrealistic folkish jogs and the playful keyboard melodies developed atop these rhythms. I’m a sucker for an album that rides the fence between complete genre fuck nightmare and tuneful, introspective high art. A hidden gem for folks who stop just short of “weird for the sake of weird”.
|LABEL||Edged Circle Productions|
This debut full-length from Peruvian occult black metal act Arcada is at the top of my ‘pile of shame’ this year after having missed its late March release date for a review and keeping it on the back burner far too long. Why? ‘Projections’ is an intensely surreal, disturbing ritual that I still do not have any great understanding of. Vocalist Iniquiator A.D. (Iniquitatem) vomits his own viscera and begins to scry within his guts as a uniquely brazen attack persists, folkish yet squarely occultist; This might sound a natural fit for the niche but Arcada is unusually exuberant for the sub-genre, rhythmically mesmerizing and just so gloriously over the top. One might think of Shrine of Insanabilis after taking a look at the album but the riffs are closer to Ultra Silvam to start, barked and banged out with an energetic percussive quality. “Lunar Possession” is the revelation or, for my own taste, the main event to look forward to during extensive listening sessions. I have such a raw time describing this album because it is so otherworldly in nature but entirely present and shouting as if summoning a demon eternally longed for, worshiped and adored. It is absolutely one of the most underrated black metal albums of 2020 and deserves serious meditation.
|TITLE||Omnia Mors Aequat|
A lot of rough circumstances lead Ulveblod to birth into the world and rough circumstances continue to grace them today. That is to say that this solo (with session musicians) debut full-length from Netherlands-based musician/producer V. arrives after his former project Nihill ceased, on account of their vocalist Michiel Eikenaar (Dodecahedron) passing away last year. What are the rough circumstances beyond birth of a new era? Well, this obnoxious bout of black metal driven harsh noise was slated to make its live debut at Roadburn this year, a really big endorsement for a project few would know. ‘Omnia Mors Aequat’ is not deconstructive but maximalist chaos achieved via noise wall, heavily effects-drowned instrumentation, and dissonant guitar runs. Ruddy programmed drums set in mountainous reverb states, howling and sneering vocals, all of it buried in a psychedelic smear of oily blackened excess. The experience is truly hateful, the equivalent of blacking out a painting, then cutting your wrists over it. I hated this and found it painfully reliant on (probably) digital effects that occasionally felt a bit “stock” at times. I suppose that is the point and if they’ve met their goals, who am I to complain that it makes me want to die?
|TITLE||Towards the Great White Nothing|
Czechia based experimental black metal quintet Voluptas may be heavily influenced by the Norwegian avant-garde movement of the mid-to-late 90’s (Ved Buens Ende, Dødheimsgard, Manes, etc.) on their debut full-length but the end result isn’t pure worship. Earthen shades of early Ulver and (early) Negură Bunget albums as well as modern artsy rock angularity make for an unusually overburdened atmospheric black metal sound. Overburdened in the sense that they veer dangerously close to chaos as all elements fight for aural space, producing a brutal and sweeping sensation on the long-winded rhythm guitar driven portions of the record. The only point where I feel like the band are just fucking around comes with parts of the ~14 minute album closer “Desert Twilight” beyond the 9 minute mark as it devolves into noise and fiddling around that doesn’t serve the song or end the album well. Otherwise this is a band to watch closely in the future.
British atmospheric/melodic black metal duo Ante-Inferno might have you pointing to the grey area between earlier Code and Winterfylleth in description of their post-metal influenced take on atmospheric black metal but they’re just a triumphant lead run away from Der Weg Einer Freiheit in most cases. Quite accessible and plain blackened post-metal with plenty of the sweeping, long-winded arrangements and dryly barked vocals that fans of modern atmospheric black metal will likely align with ease. This isn’t my thing, I find it dryly cinematic, dispassionate and a bit shaggy compared to what similar bands are doing in Belgium and the Netherlands today. So why feature it? This is actually refined and ambitious for this very well-stocked sub-genre of post-black metal vagaries and it’ll prove entirely listenable for most. Again, not my thing but worth a mention.
|TITLE||Zmierzch Stalowej Ciemności|
Originally released by Fallen Temple and picked up for wider release with Signal Rex this debut EP from Polish black metal duo Vermisst isn’t lacking in representation but their initial output is just too good to leave behind without some serious mention. To start they aren’t the spitting image of early Burzum but folks who see clearly the lineage beyond ‘Filosofem’ will be immediately drawn to this deeply forlorn set of songs. Maudlin pure black metal riffing and synth/ambient misadventures of Vermisst aren’t that far from a band like Sammas Equinox yet they’ve kept things as lo fi as possible without losing the celestial sheen of the keyboard work. This would be substantial enough but they’ve extended this edition of the EP to full-length with some rehearsal/demo extras from another session, just in case you’re up for something truly necro.
|TITLE||Discernment in Viscera|
Assault Sorcery‘s first stab at this inventive form of rhythmically unconventional black metal does yet indicate the projects formative status, as is appropriate for a demo, but they will likely win folks over with their death and doom metal influenced riffs as ‘Discernment in Viscera’ plays. Dissonant black metal riffing, unconventional meter, and a very bulbous n’ clangorous guitar sound make for an exciting prospect. I gotta say, that guitar tone might be simply achieved but it provides a distinctly rounded tonal resonance with some satisfying harmonic overtones. Think of Hagzissa if they were served an even more cavernous atmosphere whilst taking black n’ roll rides into downtempo post-punk and Gorguts. An odd thought but a decent enough illustration of the memorable works here, especially the engine-rumbling riffs of the opener. I see the potential here and I suppose the bigger picture as well, something along the lines of Krallice (or, Fluisteraars?) but eager to jump into punk and doom rants rather than progressive sprawl. Powerful gloom, suffocating dissonance, and flighty punkish jogs.
|TITLE||Devourer Of God From The Void|
|LABEL||My Kingdom Music|
Infernal Angels are a black metal band from Italy who’ve vacillated between melodic black metal, black/death metal, and some “epic black metal” ideas over the course of their eighteen year run of five full-length albums. They mention Svartidaudi, Mgla, Aosoth, and Inferno in reference to this new album and I think that makes sense in terms of balancing these “epic” moments with occult black/death metal, high-reaching melodic arcs, and blasphemous blurring dissonance (in moderation). This combination doesn’t always inspire but Infernal Angels are undeniably professionals at this point, almost to the point of too much polish all things considered. The only issue I have with ‘Devourer of God From the Void’ is that it is extremely long at ~74 minutes and a few of the songs in the first half are brutally repetitive. I think if you’re a big fan of (later) Dawn or Astriaal there are moments on this record that recreate the feeling of some of their longer compositions, insistent refrains into a main riff ’til it becomes a etched in mind after 6-10 minutes.
The descending abysm of ‘Saturnal Chambers’ should initially remind listeners of Nocturnus (or, later Eternal Dirge?) via the odd sci-fi synth it uses to generate a frantic, escalating cosmic horror vibe. That said Kyrios‘ first tape is primarily a black metal event, a ten minute demonstration of sleepy movements and jittering chaos in perpetual dance with one another. Sometimes this is brilliant and others it is insufferably mushy. I’d appreciated the sandwiching of the interlude between the two key tracks on the tape, it all works in one shot and doesn’t feel like a freakishly out of place spacer as in ‘Testimony of the Ancients’ or ‘Lex Talionis’. Great first hit of material from the band, unique sound and thick-ass spaced atmosphere. Kyrios‘ sound is unique enough so I’m on board for whatever develops next in terms of songwriting.
|LABEL||Loud Rage Music|
Arisen in 2006 as a solo project and eventually expended to a full line-up for their seventh album (‘Sorcery of Darkness’, 2015), Ordinul Negru is the vision of prolific Romanian musician Fulmineos. The band is generally well known and respected in their country for their modern take on classic second wave sound(s), which will feel very natural for fans of German black metal of the early 2000’s. Now a quartet and reaching a very high professional standard this ‘Nebuisa’ EP offers a deeper drink of the avant-garde influences hinted at on their most recent full-length, ‘Faustian Dreams’ (2018). The title track is the most challenging piece in this regard whereas most of these songs fall in line with fairly mainstream taste, you’ll get both the avant-garde side of the songwriting and the more typical side of the band in alternation on standout track “Vodevil Isais”, perhaps clarifying that this Ordinul Negru aren’t such a standard band but they are reaching for a certain industry standard which denies any considerable niche appeal. The title track is the main event here but don’t skip past the epic atmo-gallop of my favorite piece on the EP “Triskelion and the Chronograph”.
First impressions weren’t all that compelling as I approached Brisbane, Australia-based black metal quartet Vyrion for the first time. The album art is more of a conceptual photoshop where the layout is appropriately do-it-yourself but not indicative of the quality of craft they’re pushing on ‘Nil’, their third full-length since forming in 2007. You’ll see a lot of folks pulling straight from the press release in description of this and well, I don’t think progressive/black n’ roll influences are pronounced enough to mention. This isn’t Glorior Belli or Enslaved, Vyrion have their own vibe which is austere and scalding, elite in attitude but not entirely nuanced at every corner. If anything this album eases up a bit, loosens the tension to a foggy stream of atmospheric black metal presented with muscle and teeth on display. They’re a fine band, entirely professional and accomplished yet ‘Nil’ insists on droning on for at least ten minutes too long, thrilling as their statuesque disdain for civilization is songs like “Dethrone” and “Crave” get a bit lost in their own maze. A solid independent record nonetheless.
|TITLE||Dying Embers to Coldening Coals|
Flail‘s debut full-length is a fine example of modern black metal’s penchant for unique atmospheric design, obscurant instrumentation, and quite long pieces driven by glitched-out depressive and atmospheric black metal variation… rather than songwriting. The two 9+ minute songs that kick off this four song ~40 minute album are initially indistinguishable from one another, using the same pot of boiling mercury for the guitar tone and at least 3-4 effects pedals to achieve a very stagnant and brooding sort of melancholic gazer. Of course this is inherently cool as a sort of lo fi black metal/noise collage with its nose pointed towards depressive black metal dreariness at all times but I don’t think the instrumentation will be particularly captivating for most folks beyond the first couple of listens. I’ve listened to a seemingly endless supply of this kind of stuff all year yet Flail‘s stuff has proven worth returning to. It might just be a vibe for now but it is a strong one.
Anonymous Italian black metal project Drought speak their presence and mind(s) via chaotic Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord influenced atmospheric black metal pieces which inspire with their themes of tantric/yogic revelation. Named ‘Trimurti’ for the triad of Hindu gods (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) which we can equate with Hecate’s faces to some degree, this exploration of Eastern spirituality via aggressive dual-guitar driven pieces might sound a bit forced in passing description but you’ll likely not pick up on the lyrics due to the buried nature of the vocals. If you’ll allow me to consider this an atmospheric black metal album rather than an avant-garde one, ‘Trimurti’ ends up being one of the stronger reveals in hindsight this year, a true oversight on my part since it released in March. There is a lot to let sink in here at ~47 minutes so give it a real chance to build up towards the second half.
|ARTIST||HARK FROM THE TOMB|
|TITLE||Let Them Die|
‘Let Them Die’ is the debut full-length from independent Swedish black metal duo Hark From the Tomb who are anonymous but purported to have been active in black metal since the 90’s. Their sound is likely to inspire folks with some lasting adoration for Vinterland, Grafvitnir and Kvist, elaborate semi-melodic riffs that typically lean into half-churned epics to create suspense amongst the icy chill of the record. Panoramic in presentation but hatefully soured in voice, most of ‘Let Them Die’ coldly rants a brimming hatred for humanity as they cast judgement upon the intellectual devolution of humanity that has intensified since monotheism became a dominant force. “Plague, War, Death” is probably my favorite song here but to be fair it was hard to really pick amongst the running order here. If you are a huge fan of the obscure gems of Swedish melodic black metal throughout the 90’s there’ll be some instant appeal served by Hark From the Tomb herein. The full listen could use a bit more variation within the melodic side of the guitar arrangements, the textures of the recording could be more harmonious (rhythm guitar louder, warmer bass drum) but taken as is, ‘Let Them Die’ is a brilliant capture of a classic feeling.
|TITLE||At the Darkest Night|
Evilcult are an over the top Satanic speed/black metal duo from southern Brazil, bringing their metalpunk energy to otherwise classic witching metal sounds. Fans of Power From Hell and Whipstriker will likely sit well with what Evilcult are doing though their focus is often closer to a band like Diabolic Night, Blackrat or Bewitcher than the usual evil thrashers. ‘At the Darkest Night’ works so well for me because it is first and foremost a simple speed metal riff album with a cavernous black metal presence. “Eternal Cult of Darkness” is one of the major tracks for my own taste as they trip between epic speed metal songs, anthemic metalpunk hits, and their own take on straight forward thrashers. I know we’ve gotten a lot of this type of thing these last ten years but these guys make a simple-yet-effective argument for this ancient style of evil heavy metal.
|TITLE||Geen Weg Uit|
|LABEL||Wolves of Hades Records|
Another shade of polished yet expressive (and slightly progressive) modern black metal that doesn’t rely upon post-metal for theatrical ideas, North Holland-area Netherlands-based quintet Dystopia‘s second album ‘Geen Weg Uit’ outshines their first. Think along the lines of middle period Sólstafir and nearby anomalies such as Fluisteraars for a unique sound that frequently incorporates trumpets and trombones via the second guitarist. Storming blast-beating assaults typically give way to slower and heavier reinforcement via pieces that occasionally stun with their compositional strength (see: “Razernij: II”) but the bulk of ‘Geen Weg Uit’ is reinforced by watery, laid back cinematic highs.
|TITLE||Eye in Hell|
Sure, you can buy Vulcano records in certain department stores today but that doesn’t make them anything less than underground legends from the earliest days of Brazilian heavy metal. ‘Eye in Hell’ is yet another fine example of their mid-80’s modus where Venom, Sodom, and ‘Haunting the Chapel’ commiserate. The production sound is clean and clearly presented but the gritty evil-stoking blackened death/thrash riffing and slow-blasted drumming is the main event. The riffs aren’t overworked, the production isn’t overthought, and though this slightly janks up the full listen at times you can’t leave a Vulcano record feeling like you’ve been provided anything less than big ‘evil’ heavy metal personality. I particularly loved the Celtic Frost inspired riffs that highlight the choruses on “Evil Empire”, which I feel like would’ve been a groove metal song in the 90’s. Nothing life-changing but these guys still have riffs.
|ARTIST||THEY LEAPT FROM BURNING WINDOWS|
They Leapt From Burning Windows is a raw and melodic black metal duo from Anchorage, Alaska with a modern approach to riff craft and songwriting, focusing on post-black voicing and run-on guitar phrases that resemble post-hardcore song structures when divorced from the rasping turmoil of black metal. That is to say that ‘Demo 2020’ is a modern black metal release but, not representing an imitative or predictably trendy style. They’re clearly aiming for their own chaotic wrestling of the two main guitar parts within each song. Shorter pieces tend towards this chaos whereas longer songs lean into epic feats that occasionally stop resembling black metal beyond aesthetics as they peak. The listening experience is intimately self-involved, breaking itself between nihilistic pangs and pitied existence. A notion on my part but, there is some deeper emotional affector driving this band that makes them compelling. They’d make a good opener for Karg or similarly personal dark metal tinged post-black artist.
|ARTIST||JOURNEY INTO DARKNESS|
|TITLE||Multitudes of Emptiness|
If you’ve ever binged your way through the history of death/doom metal you’ll recall a somewhat overlooked and sophisticated discography from Florida’s Sorrow (ex-Apparition) who’d kicked around their own brand of morbid death metal from 1988-1993 or so, disbanding just short of recording their unfinished second album. Their former guitarist, Brett Clarin, would experiment with synth tunes for a few years after that point resulting in an instrumental synth metal album, ‘Life is a Near Death Experience‘ (1996), that should absolutely appeal to folks who enjoy the more flamboyant, fiery side of rock-attuned video game music. Nearly 25 years later he returns to the project name and introduces a solo symphonic black/death metal record which basically would’ve fit right into the late 90’s heyday for this kind of stuff. If you’re into Necronomicon (Canada), Vesania, or any overtly symphonic takes on black/death metal most of ‘Multitudes of Emptiness’ should appeal to you. I really love the ’96 synth album and I tend to get stuck on it instead of this record when I sit down to analyze it. The only gripe I have here is the three vocal styles constantly happening at once, the rasp, the speak-sing, and the growl as this becomes grating when overused. Great chip-tuned synths and dramatic movements are entertaining enough but I’d ultimately wanted something a bit more overtly melodic and catchy from the keyboard/synth arena; Not necessarily looking for an Old Man’s Child album but something with a bit of a buzz to come back to more often.
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