10. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville
Produced by Mr. Bungle’s Trey Spruance and Colin Marston (Gorguts/Behold The Arctopus), and featuring a guest spot from Meshuggah’s Tomas Haake – who learned Japanese Taiko drumming for this mission – the mindblowing fourth album from New York’s masked metal mysterios paid homage to arthouse cinema visionaries Fritz Lang and Jean-Luc Godard while incorporating the rhythmic turbulence of jazz. Not only staging this fusion with a conviction generally lacking from the work of similarly inclined artists, Imperial Triumphant’s integration of industrial beats and electronics generated a complex simulation of the city as monstrous organism. Endlessly shifting and churning – not unlike the reconfiguring metropolis of Alex Proyas’s 1998 cult movie Dark City – Alphaville pushed the band’s inimitably disorientating brand of heaviness further into the world beyond black metal. Not so much an album as a sonic environment in which to get hopelessly, deliriously lost.
9. Enslaved – Utgard
Utgard – in Norse mythology a primordial realm where giants roam – continued Enslaved’s exploration of caustically cosmic environs where BM and prog meet, with a strikingly relevant conceptual metaphor: we must journey through a realm of chaos, but through these dark times we hope can come a newfound sense of self, and shared purpose. New drummer Iver Sandøy fitted in seamlessly, adding another layer of backing vocals on top of keyboard player Håkon Vinje’s, all in soaring contrast to the rasping, eternal vocals of bassist Grutle Kjellson and the driving, expansive riffs of creative partner Ivar Bjørnson and lead maestro Ice Dale. From sonorous Norse chants, through to the percussive clang of actual anvils, to the pulsating electronics of Urjotun, Utgard united heritage and experimentation while delivering all the brutality, epic solos, quickening percussion and empowering melodic uplift you’d want from Enslaved. For all its exhilarating twists and turns, this was their sharpest, most focused voyage to date.
8. Trivium – What The Dead Men Say
Following the triumphant return to form of 2017’s The Sin And The Sentence, there was great anticipation to see if album number nine would see a worthy follow-up or Trivium dropping the ball. Blessedly, not only did What The Dead Men Say prove to be one of the year’s best, but it challenged for a podium finish among the band’s finest to date. This was Trivium doing what they do best: writing immense, modern metallic anthems. The Defiant and The Ones We Leave Behind rolled back the clock to the youthful rush of Ascendancy, Among The Shadows & The Stones and Bending The Arc To Fear had choruses with enough force to level small settlements, while Catastrophist and the title track possessed choruses that demanded stadium-sized singalongs. While its predecessor was a comeback story of renown, this felt like Trivium’s victory lap.
7. Oceans Of Slumber – Oceans Of Slumber
Such is the arresting, evocative power of Cammie Gilbert’s voice that had the music on the Texans’ self-titled fourth album been a dud we’d still be waxing lyrically about it. As it was, drummer Dobber Beverly and his new henchmen created the most ambitious and absorbing songs of Ocean Of Slumber’s journey so far. Able to caress the heartstrings one minute and run you over with a tank the next, the likes of Pray For Fire and The Soundtrack To My Last Day swelled and cascaded like epic seaborne voyages, while I Mourn These Yellowed Leaves and A Return To The Earth Below were so fragile, they felt like they could crack under anything more than the most delicate of touches. A cathartic, caustic and crucial trip into the most sensitive pressure points of the soul from one of music’s most distinctive acts.
6. A.A. Williams – Forever Blue
One of the year’s most resonant releases contained barely a shred of heavy metal and yet A.A. Williams’ debut album captivated the hearts of metalheads worldwide. Williams composed eight bewitching gothic elegies that entwined darkly soulful melodies with her hypnotic vocals. Exploring themes of loneliness and despair, she conjured a sound that was fragile yet unbelievably heavy. A stunning guest turn from Cult Of Luna’s Johannes Persson delivered the album’s only true metal moment, as he added his otherworldly howl to Fearless’s dramatic climax. But Forever Blue was always about Williams and the emotional impact of her music. Slow-burning and darkly seductive, this was a work of staggering beauty and sadness that will continue to send ripples through metal for years to come.
5. Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better?
Two years on from It’s Hard To Have Hope’s deliciously aggressive meld of hardcore and extreme metal, Svalbard’s third album established the Bristolians as an essential voice. Tackling issues such as abuse, the objectification of women and mental illness head on, Serena Cherry’s throat- shredding screams of ‘Stop fucking raping us!’ formed the backbone of When I Die, Will I Get Better?’s visceral outpouring of emotion. Its razor- sharp analysis and venomous drive were tempered by swirls of ambient shoegaze and shimmering guitars as Svalbard proved that beauty could lie within the chaos. The whirlwind of riffs that danced over tracks such as The Currency Of Beauty showed just how capable the four-piece were of hitting the listener with myriad emotions. An emotional rollercoaster, When I Die… was one of 2020’s most intense and essential listening experiences.
4. Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin Kynsi
Oranssi Pazuzu have been operating in their own strange sonic and psychic space since day one, each successive release being beamed back from further out in the cosmic void. Their fifth album, Mestarin Kynsi saw the Finns take their unique psychedelic black metal to ever-greater heights, mixing iridescent synths, space-age melodies, baroque flourishes and caustic waves of vision-altering noise. Effortlessly different and extraordinarily ambitious, the album was terrifying, exhilarating and obliterative, tearing the listener in multiple directions with its bewildering vortex of sounds, ideas and styles. That a record so challenging and difficult to unpick should be so easy to enjoy and so immersive was perhaps its greatest strength, but also the source of its greatest mystery – evidence, perhaps, of some deep alien intelligence that’s trying desperately to make contact by means of masterfully hypnotic psychedelia.
3. Code Orange – Underneath
For years metal has been waiting for the next revolutionary sound to take it into undiscovered territory. With Underneath, Code Orange didn’t just give heavy music a push into the unknown but put a rocket to its arse and sent it into another orbit. Building on the melting pot of 2017’s Forever, an electrifying concoction of metal, hardcore, hip hop, alt-rock, industrial, piercing noise and more was fused into a sonic assault that was as exhilarating on the 30th listen as the first. But while all the inventive bells and whistles made for a thrillingly interesting listen, it was the sheer strength of the songs that made Underneath such an achievement. They all sounded like nothing else, dripping with gallant innovation and single-minded resolve.
2. Napalm Death – Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism
A wonder of the music world, Napalm Death have existed in one form or another for nearly 40 years. As if to prove that experience conquers all, their 16th studio album made many younger bands sound lethargic and unimaginative. Still rooted in the churning blitzkrieg of grindcore but infused with all manner of disorientating elements, from abstract noise to post-punk squall, Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism sounded like nothing else this year. As lyrically incisive and intelligent as ever, assaults like Backlash Just Because and That Curse Of Being In Thrall meddled with the band’s own maverick grind formula with undisguised glee, while warped dirges Invigorating Clutch and A Bellyful Of Salt And Spleen wallowed in grim surrealism and pitch-black disquiet. Sonically punishing and yet, at times, oddly accessible, this was yet more solid proof that Napalm Death are still one of the most important and joyously extreme bands on the planet.