Unsurprisingly, my favorite metal albums of 2020 are a mix of always reliable heavy hitters and remarkable up-and-comers who absolutely deserve more attention. If there’s any connective tissue between them—aside from shared styles—it’s that a few of these records really took me by surprise regarding their peculiarities and experimentations. Even the most predictable and safe entries offered enough to enjoy, though, allowing their creators to retain their crowns as the best at what they do.
As always, I'm sure I missed some great ones, so please let me know which LPs made your list!
10. PYRAMID THEOREM
Beyond the Exosphere
Often times, the best music comes from relatively unknown artists. Case in point: Canadian quartet Pyramid Theorem, whose latest record—Beyond the Exosphere—is easily their best yet. Produced by Rich Chycki (Aerosmith, Def Leppard), the LP confidently evokes influences like Rush, Dream Theater, and Spock’s Beard; however, there’s also a distinctive style at the core of the collection that proves how much Pyramid Theorem achieve on their own merits. The opening title track is an epic beast that transitions between captivating segments as smoothly and grippingly as possible, allowing it to rival similar suites by far more established acts. Fortunately, the remaining four tunes—“Under Control,” “Freedom,” “Closer to the End,” and “Intonate”—match that excellence in their own ways. Throughout it all, the band shines at blending with forceful hooks and complex instrumentation, making Beyond the Exosphere the ideal introduction to your new favorite progressive metal foursome.
Listen to Beyond the Exosphere in its entirety here.
Fluid Existential Inversions
Metal Blade Records
Earlier this year, we scored Fluid Existential Inversions 9.5/10, and for good reason. The follow-up to 2015’s The Direction of Last Things, this sixth LP from the Californian avant-metal troupe continues their penchant for taking listeners on an unpredictable and eclectic journey. Straight away—via the dissonant instrumental prelude “Procurement of the Victuals”—Intronaut evokes the bizarre hecticness of peers like Between the Buried and Me, An Endless Sporadic, and Animals as Leaders. Once “Cubensis” kicks in, the malicious catchiness of Enslaved and Meshuggah also appears and is sustained until the end. Other highlights include the spiritual softness within “Contrapasso” and the dreamy weirdness of “Check Your Misfortune.” All in all, Fluid Existential Inversions is a really hypnotic, penetrating, and coherent experience that demonstrates what makes Intronaut among the best at what they do.
Listen to Fluid Existential Inversions in its entirety here.
Spearheaded by Austin, TX musician Matt Hobart, Scaphoid’s fusion of wordless progressive and folk elements made 2016’s Dies Mercurii EP immensely satisfying and exciting. Luckily, he doubles down on that potential with Absent Passages, which was produced by genre legend Jamie King (BTBAM, Scale the Summit). It totally lives up to Hobart’s aim of crafting “a sonically dexterous, focused, and fiercely independent sound that moves freely between aggression and atmosphere, from incendiary roar to infectious groove to intoxicating delicacy in a matter of moments.” In particular, “Marauder” is a mostly gentle and multilayered gem whose spiraling transcendences recall Pink Floyd and Steven Wilson. Then, “Shores of Rain” bombards you with lovely acoustic guitar work that feels like a segment from lost Opeth and Agalloch classics. They truly make for a stupendous one-two punch, yet they’re just the tip of the wonderful iceberg that is Absent Passages.
Listen to Absent Passages in its entirety here.
Nuclear Blast Records
Enslaved were set to have a difficult time topping 2017’s E, and while Utgard isn’t out-and-out superior, it’s certainly on par with its predecessor. With yet another line-up change for them to contend with (the departure of drummer Cato Bekkevold and the addition of Iver Sandøy), the group had that much more reason to show how strong they still are in 2020. Sure, “Fires in the Dark” lacks the immediate appeal of “Storm Son” from E, but it’s nonetheless a thrilling and memorable mixture of rustic accentuations, harsh foundations, and chilling transitions. From there, “Sequence” offers compact harmonies and moody breathers that can’t help but allure, whereas “Urjotun” surrounds its sleek rhythmic movements and bellowing verses with nifty electronic loops. The duality of “Utgard” and “Storms of Utgard” is completely enthralling, too, helping Enslaved capitalize on their balance of purifying and commanding motifs.
Listen to Utgard in its entirety here.
I only got into Katatonia a few years ago, so I’m most accustomed to—and appreciative of—their most symphonic and bittersweet material. Usurpingly, then, City Burials was exactly what I expected from them. That’s far from a bad thing, though, as it further harnesses the magic of The Fall of Hearts. Built around “the intensity of fragile emotions unsettled by the passing of time”—as the band describes—the record is a sublime excursion into awe-inspiring tragedy. “Heart Set to Divide” is as strong a starter as anything else they’ve done, with Jonas Renkse’s immediately recognizable morose mellowness complementing the band’s characteristically spacey sorrow and dynamic upheaval. Later, “Lacquer” and “Vanishers” rank among their most beautifully bleak compositions, while “Flicker” is mesmerizingly hostile. True, it doesn’t stray very far from their usual formula, but when they still do it this well, it’s hard not to love it anyway.
Listen to City Burials in its entirety here.
Inside Out Music
As the cover implies, Virus continues where 2018’s Vector left off. Ingeniously, though, it doesn’t stop there, as it even goes back to 2013’s The Mountain by reprising the “Cockroach King” narrative. Along the way, the group explores serious subject matter (such as mental illness and abuse) with emblematic catchiness, smoothness, variability, and forcefulness. “Carousel” and “Canary Yellow” channel Haken’s cosmic and soft persona, while the lengthy “Messiah Complex” is an ever-changing titan that might just be their best album closer. “Prosthetic” is a clear standout, too, as its addictive complexity makes it the perfect way to start off the sequence. In total, Virus is the culmination of Haken’s sundry style—it sees them exploring their lighter and heavier sides in roughly equal measure—so it’s both a stout entry point for newcomers and a satisfying treat for longtime enthusiasts.
Listen to Virus in its entirety here.
4. CALIGULA’S HORSE
Inside Out Music
Despite not being quite as ambitious or lengthy as its precursor, Rise Radiant is pretty much everything one could hope for from a successor to 2017’s lovely In Contact. Their first album with Dale Prinsse taking over for original bassist Dave Couper, the LP is delightfully vivid, serene, and frenzied the whole way through. Singer Jim Grey emits as much density and variety as ever, filling classics like “The Tempest” and “Valkyrie” is as much fury and fragility as possible. There’s also the soothing respite of “Resonate” along the way, as well as the seductive ominousness of “Oceanrise.” That said, “Salt” is inarguably the standout track due to its gorgeous and malleable central motif, which immediately gets stuck in your head and never leaves. When it comes to consistently delivering relentlessly affective prog metal powerhouses, Caligula’s Horse rise to the occasion every time.
Listen to Rise Radiant in its entirety here.
Spirituality and Distortion
Metal Blade Records
By far the weirdest and most erratic metal album I’ve heard all year, Spirituality and Distortion was my introduction to Igorrr. As such, he’s one of my top musical discoveries of 2020. Although its enchanting commitment to sundry strangeness and intricate musicianship likens the album to selected works by Frank Zappa, Devin Townsend, Björk, Ihsahn, and Major Parkinson, it also presents Igorrr and company as a fascinating entity all their own. “Downgrade Desert” alone is simultaneously horrifying and elegant, with the absurd electro-metal carnival that is “Very Noise” arriving shortly thereafter. Further on, “Camel Dancefloor” fills the madcap orchestral void left by Sleeptytime Gorilla Museum (albeit with a bit more Middle Eastern flair). At times, Spirituality and Distortion almost descends into unlistenable genius, which means that no matter how polarizing it gets, it never strays from the true purpose of art.
Listen to Spirituality and Distortion in its entirety here.
2. THE OCEAN
Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic / Cenozoic
Metal Blade Records
By consistently dishing out alluring and ambitious album-by-album dives into different eras of history, The Ocean has cemented itself as one of Germany’s best progressive metal outfits. With Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic / Cenozoic—which picks up right where 2018’s Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic—they soar higher than ever. Honestly, its predecessor is more instantly gratifying and memorable; however, what Phanerozoic II misses in transparent appeal, it makes up for with amplified nuance, scope, and motivation. An inspirational merger of the group’s spacey hookiness and unabashed viciousness, opener “Triassic” is an instant earworm. Not to be bested, “Jurassic / Cretaceous” is extremely symphonic and wide-ranging (thanks in part to guest vocalist Jonas Renkse of Katatonia), whereas “Eocene” and “Oligocene” act as a one-two punch of controlled anguish. All in all, The Ocean has set a new benchmark with Phanerozoic II.
Listen to Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic / Cenozoic in its entirety here.
1. PAIN OF SALVATION
Inside Out Music
Sweden’s Pain of Salvation has always been among the most unique and consistent progressive metal bands (due largely to the amiable individuality of mastermind Daniel Gildenlöw). After all, 2017’s In The Passing Light of Day was easily their best LP since BE, with sundry arrangements, confessional songwriting, and faint ties to 2002’s Remedy Lane making it a lovely comeback of sorts. Naturally, Panther upholds that distinction with added diversity, oddness, and provocative dilemmas (involving social and intellectual “normality” vs. “abnormality”). As an introduction, “Accelerator” is compellingly quirky, powerful, and animated, pinning itself into your heart right away. Then, “Wait” channels the ballads of the Road Salt duology, “Restless Boy” evokes the changeable brashness of 2007’s Scarsick, and “Icon”—like “The Passing Light of Day” before it—prompts meditation with its extensive poetic glow. From start to end, Panther is a true victory.
Listen to Panther in its entirety here.