This is the point of the year where I usually make a joke about the hits and misses, what bands are underrated and which should fuck off into oblivion, of how much I hated CMFT and love everything Khemmis touches. But this year is different.
COVID-19 has changed things now and moving forward for the entire entertainment industry, and the world of heavy metal is in no way exempt from that. Tours have been re-routed or canceled entirely, bands have been hit hard with the financial burdens of being grounded during peak seasons, and we as fans have been deprived of mosh pits and festival merch for nine months and counting. But there's hope.
Despite it all, heavy metal acts have put out some unbelievably good releases throughout 2020. In a year where so many have lost so much, the fact that we fans have found an outlet, an escape, through the efforts of these metallers across the globe is nothing short of miraculous.
There are too many to name, and I'd kick myself for not honourably mentioning Deftones, Heaven Shall Burn, Body Count, Hjelvik, Paradise Lost, Warbringer, Sodom, King Witch, and Lucifer. Leaving those artists and more out of my final list was far from easy.
I re-wrote this list, juggled, and shifted more than I have any in recent memory. For me they are all equally brilliant, but for the purposes of year-end rankings, here are my top 10 metal albums of 2020!
10. SPIRIT ADRIFT
Enlightened By Eternity
20 Buck Spin/Century Media
Spirit Adrift seem to get a ton of love when it comes to best of's and year-end lists, and for good reason. The band technically hasn't had anything close to a bad album. Brilliant, more like, though I'd reason to say Enlightened By Eternity is more of a departure for early fans of the band. If Divided By Darkness began a move into the more traditional heavy metal territory and less of a doom feel, then Enlightened By Eternity is that dialed up to eleven. But bottom line, they do both at such an elite level it's hard to bitch at whatever creative direction they take.
"Spirit Adrift, I'm starting to realize, is always going to be completely reflective of where I'm at personally when I'm writing the music," frontman Nate Garrett shared with Metal Injection back in February. "The early stuff, I was in a certain headspace and dealing with certain things and the music is reflective of that. As I kind of like regain my footing in life and regain some mental energy and I get some spiritual energy and that sort of stuff, the music I think is a little more energetic. I really started to revisit all of this stuff that first got me into metal, which was Sabbath, Metallica, Slayer, Pantera, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, that sort of stuff."
Listen to Enlightened in Eternity in its entirety here.
Shadow Kingdom Records
One of the harder points of these lists for me in the past five years or so has been deciding which Trevor Church record to choose above the rest? His output is becoming the stuff of legend, with four Haunt LPs since 2018 to go alongside a pair of EPs, and a compilation released this year. That's not even touching on Beastmaker.
And while the self-released Flashback under his very own Metal Church Recordings is classic Haunt, I felt closer to January's Mind Freeze. Maybe that's the early-year release curse? More time to fall in love?
Church and longtime partner-in-crime Daniel Wilson (drums) are lights out as usual with their patented blend of NWOBHM inspired riffs and ranged melodic vocals. Guitarist John Tucker and bassist Taylor Hollman are more than up to the task of buying into Church's winning formula of old school metal meets modern production. "Hearts On Fire" and "Divide and Conquer" are particular highlights.
Listen to Mind Freeze in its entirety here.
8. KILLER BE KILLED
Nuclear Blast Records
There's something unlikeable about the term supergroup, isn't it? Almost an impermanence, fleeting or temporary, something defined by past success rather than present output. I've always preferred to focus on the now, and what's now for 'supergroup' Killer Be Killed is a mind-blowing hodgepodge of heavy metal tastes that kicks complete ass.
Troy Sanders (Mastodon, Gone Is Gone), shared his dislike for the term in a fantastic one-on-one with Metal Injection's Cody Davis in November, just as Killer Be Killed dropped their long-awaited sophomore album, Reluctant Hero.
The first record for the band since 2014s self-titled debut and the first with Converge/Mutoid Man drummer Ben Koller, Killer Be Killed is rounded out by Sanders, and a pair of legendary frontmen in Greg Puciato (ex-The Dillinger Escape Plan, The Black Queen) and Max Cavalera (Soulfly, ex-Sepultura). Each member of the group brings a wealth of experience and different wrinkles of the game and it shows.
Reluctant Hero is diverse, heavy, and a more than worthy follow-up for six years of patience between releases. "Dream Gone Bad" is a must-listen for newcomers.
Listen to Reluctant Hero in its entirety here.
7. MR. BUNGLE
The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo
Full disclosure, I never gave Mr. Bungle much of a chance in the past, despite how instrumental the group has been to experimental rock/metal since the mid 1980s. But when I heard Patton, Spruance, and Dunn were getting the band back together, with goddamn Scott Ian and Dave Lombardo no less, I had no choice but to invest.
I don't even know where to start with The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo. Honestly, this album was my biggest pleasant surprise of the year and maybe the hardest to define.
I do think longtime fans of Mr. Bungle wouldn't fault me for saying it's a complete departure from the previous three albums in the bands' discography. As a long-serving thrash fan, Mr. Bungle may have released the best 'thrash' album of 2020, and that comes in a year in which some serious genre heavyweights uncorked some rippers (Sodom, Testament, Heathen, etc).
"Anarchy Up Your Anus," "Eracist," "Sudden Death," and "Raping Your Mind" are all tremendous, and I can't recommend enough the cover of Corrosion of Conformity's "Loss For Words."
Listen to The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo in its entirety here.
6. UNLEASH THE ARCHERS
Don't even try to pigeonhole Canada's Unleash The Archers with genre tags. For example, Wikipedia calls them power metal, but there's so much diversity and genre-bending that limiting them to such broad strokes is criminal.
Abyss follows up 2017's Apex in story and overall tone. Big soaring vocals from powerhouse frontwoman Brittney Slayes, massive solos, and some fierce growl vocals from multi-threat guitarists Grant Truesdell and Andrew Kingsley. No trouble to tell the band is inspired by everything from 3 Inches of Blood to Iced Earth and Judas Priest.
"Faster Than Light" is a great place to start for those needing an introduction to everything the band brings to the table.
Listen to Abyss in its entirety here.
Rebirth By Blasphemy
Metal Blade Records
Grimy, scummy, blackened, brutal, epic, thrashy, fucking speed and darkness metal. Midnight should need to introduction to Metal Injection readers, but for the uninitiated, Rebirth By Blasphemy is prime territory to start with. Vocalist/guitarist/bassist/drummer Athenar has been Midnight's jack of all trades since the early 2000s.
This is pedal to the metal, get pissed off and break stuff heavy metal and fuck if we need it in 2020. No frills, no bullshit.
"Fucking Speed And Darkness", "Escape The Grave" and "Warning From The Reaper" will make you miss live music and mosh pits. I know I do.
Listen to Rebirth By Blasphemy in its entirety here.
4. PROTEST THE HERO
I'll admit, Protest The Hero isn't for everyone. My wife hates them, and they get a ton of heat across the board. But you can't help but be impressed by the balls and tenacity of just how far they go in experimentation album in and album out, both in vocals and instrumentals.
Palimpsest may be the bands' most daring record to date, and that's not even considering the fact that the album is largely a giant middle finger to Trump's America.
Longtime fans of the band will know PTH have never been concerned with abiding by the status quo of metal. Mixing frenzied guitar, a maddening range of vocals from frontman Rody Walker and tones that run the table from fever pitch aggressive to melancholic, Palimpsest is the culmination of the bands' evolution over the years. Epic standout cuts include "The Canary," "From The Sky," and "Little Snakes."
Listen to Palimpsest in its entirety here.
3. THE BLACK DAHLIA MURDER
Metal Blade Records
I had a conversation with a friend a few months back that went something like, "Black Dahlia Murder has never had a bad record." I can't imagine a more accurate summary of one of melodic death metal's most consistent bands.
Three years removed from 2017s Nightbringers, Trevor Strnad and company haven't lost a step on Verminous. From the chest-caving title track opener to the closing "Dawn of Rats" – who doesn't like the sound of rats gnawing through flesh to close out a party? – this is classic BDM in all the right ways.
"Child of Night", "The Wereworm's Feast" and "The Leather Apron's Scorn" should be staples of the bands' setlist post-pandemic.
Listen to Verminous in its entirety here.
Gates of Hell Records
DO YOU NOT LOVE HEAVY METAL?!
Canada's Traveler are old school in all caps. Big, soaring vocals from frontman JP Abboud, ridiculously slick NWOBHM inspired solos and riffs from Matt Rees and Torying Schadlich, with bassist Dave Arnold and drummer Chad Vallier more than living up to their end.
If you're a fan of Angel Witch, early Judas Priest, Saxon and Diamond Head, Traveler is your drug of choice. It's no secret that the throwback era of heavy metal appeals to me in a way hard to pin-down. These guys, along with fellow Canucks Riot City, are absolutely checking off all the boxes.
Standout singles include the addictive title track, "Shaded Mirror," "Terra Exodus," and "Diary of a Maiden."
Listen to Termination Shock in its entirety here.
1. ANAAL NATHRAKH
Metal Blade Records
There was no other choice. It's very rare that the real world blends into my heavy metal, but British extreme metallers Anaal Nathrakh changed that with Endarkenment, an all too timely mirror held up to our global socio-political failings.
"One of the weird things I noticed with Brexit debates was there was no information deficit that was going to be equalized and therefore resolved the debate. This wasn't people who just didn't know the right facts. It didn't matter what the facts were. They were still going to be screaming at each other and not changing their minds," shared vocalist Dave Hunt in an October interview with Metal Injection.
"The fact that it wasn't an information deficit sort of dawned on me and sort of grew into this realization of this opposite of enlightenment thing going on. Once that had happened I realized that it had been part of a lot of things I'd be thinking about that had cropped up on different songs throughout the album."
I mean, how do you beat these lyrics?:
"Everything is sex
Trust instinct for the truth
A pig with cocks in its eyes
Masturbating to the end of the world."
Dave Hunt transitions masterfully from frenzied, near mania-level shrieks and growls to clean vocals, while Mick Kenney more than lays claim to the title of one of the most under-appreciated instrumentalists in extreme music.
Endarkenment for me is the album I will look back on when I think of 2020. Angry, uncompromising and reflective of realities stranger than fiction. "A Gadarene charge into endarkenment!"
Listen to Endarkenment in its entirety here.