Because a little head banging might be just what we need right now. Let’s just say it, it’s been a rough one. And we probably won’t be seeing a concert, or mosh pit for that matter, for a while. What you just might need to finally top off this neverending year is a little head banging list for that solo scream sesh in the car.
To help you out, here is our comprehensive list of the best that Heavy Metal had to offer in the hell hole that was 2020.
Because we’ve suffered enough, we spared ourselves the trouble of ranking them. And, one could add—there is much beauty in diversity, and thus, ranking wildly disparate subgenres of this great music umbrella we call Metal, would be unfair to one and all.
Oak, Ash & Thorn – Dark Forest
These gentle Brits that compose the band Dark Forest produced some of the finest power metal this year through sheer fun, folk-inspired, catchy melodies and harmonies and a somewhat uncanny vocal resemblance to a young Bruce Dickinson.
Oak, Ash & Thorn breezes by in rapturous winds that transport their listener to some vaguely medieval folk settings. Pair with mead and meat and you’re set for the Pagan holidays.
Uinous Syömein Sota – Havukruunu
However uncertain you might be on how to pronounce their band name and album titles, there is one certainty with these Pagan black metallers from Finland: they know how to set an epic atmosphere. Mixing grand riffs and frostbitten tones with ominous clean vocals only to then make your viking braids grow involuntarily with (lower register, for the genre) screams definitely worked wonders on this album.
A clear evolution from their previous records by adding more clean vocals and more focused song writing, you’d be a fool not to go running into frozen mountains with this album blaring in your ears.
Curse of The Crystal Coconut – Alestorm
If you don’t know these Scots by now, or what they’re all about—I’d recommend you throw yourself a (solo) party and gather whatever rum, beer, vodka and the likes you might have nearby, as there is no other way to experience the span of an Alestorm album than with copious amounts of booze.
Keeping their solid trajectory of loosely-inspired pirate metal, this year they gave us an album that feels like a more focused and triumphant culmination following a few missteps along their evolution from mere Running Wild-wannabes to Pirate Party Masters Extraordinaires (copyright pending).
This album is a fun, epic, fast, and unapologetically Scottish affair with keytar-influenced metal.
Emblas Saga – Brothers of Metal
Judging by my Spotify assessment, this particular contingent of Swedes might have put out my most-listened-to album this year.
Emblas Saga follows a loose concept revolving around the sons of Loki in Norse mythology: Jörmungandr (also known as Midgarsormr, i.e., the “World Serpent”), Fenrir (the massive wolf that will devour Odin at Ragnarök), and Hel (the Goddess most closely associated with death). Loki also gave birth to an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir… which is a thing, but he’s not mentioned in this album, and honestly, Loki has enough kinky interactions as it is.
From classic power metal to folky bits with vocals that ring of some of the best contemporary Irish folk singers—this album has it all.
Let There Be Nothing – Judicator
Judicator is an American band that crosses the gap between more European power metal like Blind Guardian (seriously, if Hansi Kursch ever needs a replacement, John Yelland is the man for the job) and Jag Panzer. The band focuses on various topics, including history and existentialism. And never is that more apparent than on Let There Be Nothing, as we follow a tale in the aftermath of the Fall of Rome.
Take out your history books and play that Gladiator Blu-Ray you bought last year for no reason other than to own it, and give this one a listen.
Virus – Haken
What is there to say about these magnificent prog bastards? For starters: this album is amazing! A definite spiritual successor to their previous opus Vector. Despite some fans clamoring for something more along the likes of Affinity, it did not disappoint. From frantic prog numbers to soulful introspective songs, this album ebbs and flows majestically through time signatures and delivers on all fronts.
The songs are great, the musicianship is astounding, the vocals are immense, and the production immaculate. If you’re not already a proghead, no better place to start than here.
Worlds Beyond – Paralydium
This (technically) supergroup from Sweden were something of a revelation on their debut EP five years ago. As a good friend once told me, “They’re like what Dream Theater should have sounded like if they had gotten an actually decent singer”.
Shade thrown at James LaBrie aside, said friend wasn’t half-wrong. These prog metallers have mixed a more straightforward approach to Dream Theater’s formula, at times reminiscent of projects like Ayreon or Sons of Apollo. That is good company to be in, and they do not stick out for want of quality amongst such titans of epic prog.
Soaring melodies and heavy percussive elements alongside great keyboards and guitar solos make for a great listening experience.
Obsidian – Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost are one of those institutions in metal that never fails you, and it would seem this latest effort by these gothic Brits satisfied the vast majority of fans—and for good reason.
Heavy and oppressing at times, it caresses your eardrums with uplifting melodies and acoustic sounds, only to then keep its metallic thumb on your head lest you escape its sonic dominance.
This album’s only fault, in my ears, is that it may be a tad long. But if you have the time, it’s well worth the spin for maximum gothic brutality.
Wolves of Karelia – Wolfheart
Finland keeps exporting awesome music (and Wolfheart won’t be the last Finns on this list).
With Wolves of Karelia, the wolf sinks its teeth into their brand of brutal melodic death metal. If I had to pick a song title from this album to describe the sound of this opus, it would no doubt be Hail of Steel. Calm at first then thundering and pounding unrelentlessly, carried on winds that under any other circumstance might be considered boring, it transports you into a magical space where the only warm element is, indeed, your wolf heart.
Never long enough, it ends before overstaying its welcome and makes for a terrific listen.
Human :||: Nature – Nightwish
Nightwish will forever hold a special place in my heart as the band that finally got me to dive fully into metal. That is not to say that I am biased in my appreciation of this album.
Ever since joining the band in 2013, Floor Jansen’s vocal prowess seems to have reinvigorated the creativity of our master composer Tuomas Holopainen. Keeping in tone with their previous album’s staunch secular themes and trusting science, the beauty of the human endeavor, and the simple joys of nature—they deliver yet another beautiful album. Though less heavy than previous efforts, it more than makes up for it in interesting vocal phrasing and unexpected song structures.
The song Shoemaker is an ode to Eugene Shoemaker, a geologist who helped with mapping the moon and pioneered the field of astrogeology. He himself was intended to take the voyage to the moon before dying in a car accident. In his honor, part of his ashes were placed on the moon, his urn engraved with the quote from Shakespeare that is read in the song.
Vengeful Specter – Vengeful Specter
Not a whole lot is known about this folk black metal band or their debut album. They are somewhat of a supergroup formed of various unnamed musicians in China. Encyclopaedia Metallum lists a few of their names in their Chinese characters; not much else has been confirmed about them, save that Fan Bo, aka Frozen, is the band’s singer.
But what matters here is the absolute destruction and raw emotion they manage to convey in what seems to be a story of revenge carried out by a soldier in medieval China after his side of the army gets well and truly crushed. What follows is masterful composition and emotion the likes that haven’t been heard in years. The use of traditional Chinese instruments only serve to further develop the bleak and eerie soundscape.
Go out of your way to give this album a try.
Thalassic – Ensiferum
Finland delivers again! Ensiferum is rarely one to disappoint (they only let us down on their Unsung Heroes album). This album brings in new blood with Pekka Montin filling in for both Emmi Silvennoinen and Netta Skog, and boy does he deliver the goods on vocals (the keyboards are always fairly good).
You may not subscribe to his particular vocal tone, but he soars high over classic viking-inspired riffs that form the core of Ensiferum. The songwriting is spot on, the playing is tight, and the songs come in to ravage and pillage all you have and leave you just in the nick of time.
Even the slower songs have an epic beauty to them. Petri Lindroos rules as always, and the rest of the crew is just having a blast.
City Burials – Katatonia
Katatonia haven’t strayed far from their typical post-metal sound in minor keys and ethereal sounds intertwining with thick heavy crunches. But when the songwriting hits, City Burials features excellent material. Whether it’s an ephemeral song-sketch like Lachesis or the unpredictable variations of Lacquer, these songs are great new entries into the band’s discography.
Katatonia has stepped away from those long brooding tracks and folk influences that colored recent albums. This feels like Jonas exploring new areas of his songwriting and hopefully pays off in the long run.
Not a perfect album, nor the best of Katatonia, yet still more than deserving of a spot on this list.
Limbo – Gaerea
Portugal wouldn’t be a country you’d associate with black metal, yet Gaerea are rapidly ascending to the top of the grim, corpse-painted heap. With a great album in the rearview mirror, they have now returned with another high quality slab of blackness. Long, frostbitten songs assault the listener with all manner of dark waves as Limbo blasts through simple but nuanced notes. Gaerea isn’t pushing genre boundaries so much as playing smartly inside lines drawn long ago.
Definitely worth your time, especially if you’ve never checked them out before.
Death of the Cosmic – Hinayana
Hinayana may have been criticised since their debut album for being something of an amalgam of their more obvious inspirations. But as they say, stealing from one source is plagiarism, but stealing from many is research. These Texans certainly wear their influences proudly on their sleeves, and they’ve done their research.
But don’t be fooled into believing they’re just derivative copycats. This is some of the finest melodeath you’ll listen to all year. The growth in songwriting and musicianship is palpable and will make you excited for future albums.
If you’ve ever enjoyed albums by Insomnium or the aforementioned Wolfheart, this is another one for your stash.
Premonitions – Sojourner
When Sojourner came on to my recommended albums, I didn’t really care for them beyond the nifty artwork. I figured them to be the umpteenth cheesy and terrible power metal album. Beelzebub, was I wrong.
Though technically they fall into the symphonic or melodic new wave of black metal, this album felt like so much more. Compared to previous works, they have added clean vocals from Chloe Bray (who left the band soon after the album’s release), and a lot of epic swells in their compositions—and the result is gorgeous.
Even if you’re not entirely into the black-ish scene, this one could bring a lot of surprises your way.
Vredesvävd – Finntroll
Perkele, vittu, satana ! as Ari Eldjárn would quip; it’s the mother-effing Finns again.
Finntroll is back and we should all give thanks. Not only did they produce one of the few “folk metal” albums that anyone has liked in years, but they also approached Vredesvävd with an aggression and direct attack that few could match.
It’s scary to think how good this album is from a band that counted among the so-called Big 5 of Folk Metal (Ensiferum, Turisas, Moonsorrow, Korpiklaani and Finntroll). One of those bands is no more, one has gone stale, one is a far-too-underappreciated cult classic, one is already on this list, and finally we have Finntroll. After all these years they still manage to outclass most other folk bands at their game by playing to the strengths that brought them to the Pagan dance. Give it all the spins.
Zeichen – Varg
Hailing from Germany, Varg delivers the goods—and has been doing so for a while now, however it can be said they found their stride with their signing to Nuclear Blast around 2015.
Zeichen is a true return to form for Varg, embracing a more Pagan/viking metal sound that reminds fans why they sparked their attention in the first place. This album is unrelentingly powerful, and the production is right there to support its mail-clad punch.
If you’ve ever wanted Amon Amarth to make sweet love to some supernatural beast of folk legend and produce an offspring, this could be it.
Phanerozoic II – The Ocean
The Ocean comes in to Styles. The crushing weight of the deepest oceans. A different voicing of their talents than what could be found on their 2010 release Heliocentric.
Rich in a more melodious and progressive approach, Phanerozoic II leans in the direction of thoughtfulness and melancholy, while subtly engaging in progressive composition that’s hard not to love. This album is an exercise in progressive variety that works masterfully and the band surprises at every turn. The Ocean has never let me down, and it seems they never will.
Seven – Mors Principium Est
This list has more Finns than Michigan at this point.
The creativity that did not go into naming this—their seventh album—went into crafting some amazing tunes. From beginning to end, Seven is, yet again, a great release for this band. As in previous efforts, it has a monstrous opener (A Day for Redemption), a heart-wrenching number (In Frozen Fields), a couple of hard-hitters (Rebirth and March to War), and a massive closer (My Home, My Grave).
Melodeath of insane speed and technicality warms the icy heart of this humble writer. Even despite how stupidly compressed it is. But many—myself included—will say that you can’t listen to Mors Principium Est unless it’s bludgeoningly loud. So enjoy your future tinnitus and raise the horns to this great album.