The Black Market

The Month In Metal – January 2020

Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath turns 50 on 2/13. If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, Wow, 50 years! If traditional heavy metal were a professional wrestling promotion, I wonder which band holds the heavy metal championship belt today. And if you’re really like me, in which case you should go to the hospital, you might also be thinking, I wonder if I can use two different online music resources to figure that out.

The tl;dr synopsis is this: I’m going to build a database of wrestling competitors based on an Encyclopaedia Metallum (Metal-Archives) search for bands with either “heavy metal” or “NWOBHM” in their list of genres. I’m primarily interested in regular-degular heavy metal: no pure thrash, death metal, or black metal. Instead, I am recruiting those proud many that are trad and true, adhering to a next-one-up, vending machine philosophy of classic Sabbathian and Priestly non-progression. I will then pull all of those bands’ applicable albums and apply the respective Rate Your Music (RYM) average rating to each one. Once the database is set, those albums, acting as bands’ storylines/angles, will enter into rumbling battle royals. Starting in 1970, I’ll run four contests every year, with each contest landing at the end of a business quarter. Albums will debut in the competition following their original release dates. The album with the highest rating in each battle royal wins the TRAD BELT for its band for that quarter until the next fight for heavy metal domination. I’ll do this until I find our modern champion.

That’s the idea, anyway. Turns out drawing borders around something as simple as “traditional metal” is a real pain in the ass. Even within the most restrictive interpretation of metal, the variation of the output is near-infinite and wholly contradictory. Meaning, you bet, we’ll be breaking rules and churning out controversial champions. Alas, as the chairman of this alternate plane wrestling federation, making confounding booking decisions is probably my sole job description. Ian “Mr. Dipshit” Chainey, Heat Generator in Chief. So, pull on your gloves of metal, enter the hall, and prepare your butts, marks.

First, though, I want to take a deeper dive into the methodology. This gets weedy, so I’m going to enrobe it in asterisks, allowing you to tap out with a ctrl+f if you are a sane person who doesn’t care.

***

I want to make this clear right now: These are not our picks for the “best” heavy metal albums. These are not our “favorite” heavy metal albums. Everyone knows that, if it were up to me, I’d give the belt to Satan or Blood Money and you would like it. However, I feel like hating on the methodology behind this activity is absolutely fair game since (1) I made some admittedly dumb arbitrary decisions and (2) there are buttloads of caveats that I should disclose.

Okay, the competitor database: I used Encyclopaedia Metallum’s advanced search function to put together the big list. My initial query was “heavy metal” in the genre field, and “full-length” and “live album” as the release types, reasoning that heavy metal bands that could kill it live should still have a chance at the belt. I performed a second search using “NWOBHM” in the genre field to catch bands that were only tagged as such. I then sorted out the duplicates. This process returned over 20,000 albums. It also presented some early problems:

  1. So. Many. Edge cases. And, no, that’s not a new murder podcast hosted by the Rated-R Superstar. Forget the “hard rock” or “alternative metal” fringe bands that are not quite “heavy metal” to my ear. The bigger issue was all of the bands that released one heavy metal album and then moved on to something else. Their vestigial detritus junked up my big list. So, to alleviate my OCD, I put my big ol’ subjective thumb on the scale, excising the more questionable entries that didn’t pass my gut test. You will soon see that my stupid decision-gut, unlike my real gut, didn’t exactly expel many of the debatable competitors.
  2. To that end, I let some albums slide because I found their inner spirits — a very quantifiable and therefore scientific measure endorsed by many esteemed Goop crystal owners — to be sufficiently heavy metal. On one side of the heavy coin, think Darkthrone’s The Underground Resistance. On the other, get ready for some supreme power/prog nerditude. I’ll point these examples out when they come up.
  3. Conversely, by tightening the belt to only “heavy metal” and “NWOBHM,” I unintendedly excluded many trad-minded bands that I thought would’ve done well. Farewell, dusty speed metal, epic doom, power metal, etc. No Helstar. No Candlemass. No Helloween. No Hammers Of Misfortune! Remember what I wrote about prog nerditude? Exactly.
  4. Here’s the deal with live albums: I only counted them if the concert in question was recorded within a couple years of the release date. No archival drops. That axed Ozzy’s Tribute: Randy Rhoads and Motörhead’s Everything Louder Than Everyone Else. Both deserving! But Rainbow could rule the belt forever if it slow-played bootlegs from its 1976 tour.
  5. For albums that didn’t have an exact release date, such as those listed in Metal-Archives as “2005” as opposed to “April 20, 2005,” I changed the release date to 6/9.

Once the list was polished to a point that I could somewhat live with, I pulled each album’s average rating from Rate Your Music. I decided on RYM because of the larger sample size of appraisals. At the time I’m writing this, Ace Of Spades has 14 reviews on Metal-Archives. On RYM, it has 7,449 ratings. With those kind of numbers, extreme outlier, Yelp-ass reviews shouldn’t have much of an effect. I then tweaked the average rating in two ways:

  1. Since the Trad Belt should be a populist affair, I applied a quick and dirty weighting formula to give albums with more ratings a push. I also tried to diminish the impact of albums that had only a handful of ratings. This formula was recalculated to account for fluctuations with the arithmetic mean of total ratings within that decade. Basically, 2010 albums (228 ratings) shouldn’t be held to 1970 standards (3,947 ratings). Hey, guess who’s not a statistician!
  2. In order to match real-world wrestling pushes of prolonged title defenses, I ran a two-percent depreciation on albums each subsequent time they battled. That is to say, albums could enter the ring multiple times. In fact, I never took them out of contention. Black Sabbath competed for the 2019 Q4 Trad Belt just like it did in the 199 previous battle royals.

Here’s the process in action: Black Sabbath was released on 2/13/1970. It debuts as a competitor in the 1970 Q1 competition that catches all albums released before 4/1/1970. At the time I’m writing this, Black Sabbath has a RYM rating of 4.08 (this is good, it’s out of 5). It has 20,062 ratings, so it receives the biggest popularity push, taking it to a 4.23. Spoiler: it’s the only album in the database released that quarter, so it romps. When it battles again in 1970 Q2, now facing new competition, its adjusted 4.1454 rating still romps. Make sense? I hope so, because typing that made me feel like an onion-soup-smelling guy in the library who tries to talk to you about orgone energy. I should open a Talkspace account.

Some additional caveats:

  • Obviously, I’m doing this from a vantage point that benefits significantly from hindsight. Is what it is. The kind of contemporary data needed to balance things out is too hard to find. Like, Kerrang! doesn’t start publishing year-end lists until the early ‘80s. So, yes, some of the belt-holders have undergone a dramatic reappraisal and that’s the reason they’re on top now. Embrace it.
  • For my sanity, I focused on albums that hurdled a RYM quality/quantity threshold. Is there a chance that my tired eyes missed something big when paring down the database? Yeah. Totally. Did my barely functioning brain still include something incredibly dumb? Yes. Guaranteed.
  • When Bill Barnwell ran a similar belt-bestowing feature for Grantland in 2013, he could rely on football positions being, for the most part, not very contentious: where you line up and what you do is what you are. Of course, music genres, which are eternally-gerrymandered by “well, actually” doofuses such as I, don’t have that kind of sorting logic. They’re totally subjective. I’ll poke fun at Metal-Archives from time to time because a handful of its omissions and designations seem so incongruous to me, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a Wonder Of The Internet and one of the best things metal has produced.
  • No one rated these albums thinking, Man, I hope some dork with too much time on his hands uses this data to invent an imaginary wrasslin’ belt. Yeah, we’re not using hard Baseball-Reference.com statistics. This exercise relies on the emotion-based votes of many, collected in a confusingly archaic manner, to decide winners. As an American, I’m glad I don’t have to experience something like that again in 2020.
  • I don’t know any other way to write this: RYM users are turbo horny for prog. That’s going to be a factor.

***

Alright, enough hot-dogging and grandstanding. In the words of OSW Review, it’s time for your main event.

1970s

Black Sabbath
1970 Q1 – 1972 Q3
Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master Of Reality, Vol 4

Deep Purple
1972 Q4 – 1973 Q3
Made In Japan

Black Sabbath
1973 Q4 – 1975 Q4
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Sabotage

Judas Priest
1976 Q1
Sad Wings Of Destiny

Rainbow
1976 Q2 – 1977 Q1
Rising

Judas Priest
1977 Q2
Sin After Sin

Rainbow
1977 Q3 – 1977 Q4
On Stage

Judas Priest
1978 Q1
Stained Class

Scorpions
1978 Q2 – 1978 Q4
Tokyo Tapes

Motörhead
1979 Q1 – 1979 Q2
Overkill

Judas Priest
1979 Q3 – 1979 Q4
Unleashed In The East

Atlantean sword to my neck, this doesn’t look too bad, right? It’s a shame that bands like my beloved Budgie got buried, but these rightful champions were bulldozers.

If there’s anything dubious in there, it might be Scorpions and Deep Purple. I thought the latter influenced NWOBHM enough to count. That said, so did Thin Lizzy and I decided to…*cringe*…sort them off. Love ‘em, an all-timer, but metal? Eh, convince me in the comments. Same goes for, yikes, Rush. RIP Neil. Stuff like “Cygnus X-1” is heavier than most planets. A favorite. But…metal?

These were the kind of decisions I made again and again. Even if I’m right on those, I’ll give it all back in the decades to come. In other words, this is the last time this list of winners will look this bulletproof.

The Extremely Ian Stable For Squashed Competitors:
For our inaugural best loser, how about Japanese rockers Flower Travellin’ Band, the group that knew “Black Sabbath” was classic before a lot of people.

1980s

Judas Priest
1980 Q1
Unleashed In The East

Iron Maiden
1980 Q2 – 1980 Q3
Iron Maiden

Motörhead
1980 Q4 – 1981 Q4
Ace Of Spades, No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith

Iron Maiden
1982 Q1 – 1982 Q2
The Number Of The Beast

Judas Priest
1982 Q3 – 1983 Q1
Screaming For Vengeance

Iron Maiden
1983 Q2 – 1983 Q3
Piece Of Mind

Mercyful Fate
1983 Q4
Melissa

Judas Priest
1984 Q1 – 1984 Q2
Defenders Of The Faith

Iron Maiden
1984 Q3 – 1987 Q1
Powerslave, Live After Death

Manilla Road
1987 Q2
Mystification

Savatage
1987 Q3
Hall Of The Mountain King

King Diamond
1987 Q4 – 1988 Q1
Abigail

Iron Maiden
1988 Q2 – 1989 Q1
Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son

W.A.S.P.
1989 Q2
The Headless Children

King Diamond
1989 Q3
Conspiracy

Iron Maiden
1989 Q4
Maiden England ‘88

Here we go. Controversy. While I think you could make a decent case for any champion, casually stating that Iron Maiden’s debut bounces Black Sabbath’s Heaven And Hell might earn you a black eye in some places. The deciding factor in that instance was the dreaded popularity push: Heaven And Hell beats Iron Maiden on pure average rating, but got bodied by Maiden’s 2,000+ ratings lead. I like Di’Anno-era Maiden heaps, but that’s a tough one to swallow.

However, I love Manilla Road nabbing the belt with the thrashy Mystification. Not sure it would’ve topped lists back in 1987, but the legend of Mark The Shark continues to grow.

Speaking of reappraisals, I was let down that Dokken, providers of the current theme song to NWA Powerrr, was so easily dunked on. It also would’ve been nice to see something culty like Jag Panzer, Cirith Ungol, or Crimson Glory break through, but hey.

The Extremely Ian Stable For Squashed Competitors:
Despite me shoving slam down your throat whenever possible, this is my favorite era of metal. I think I’ve furtively linked NWOSHM stuff like Proud before, and my current obsession, Original Sin (h/t autothrall), isn’t eligible. So, let’s go with the mighty Chastain. Cincinnati’s strongest is still kicking. Belter Leather Leone puts out paint-peeling solo material, too.

1990s

Iron Maiden
1990 Q1 – 1990 Q2
Maiden England ‘88

Judas Priest
1990 Q3 – 1991 Q3
Painkiller

Queensrÿche
1991 Q4 – 1992 Q2
Operation: Livecrime

W.A.S.P.
1992 Q3 – 1993 Q1
The Crimson Idol

Savatage
1993 Q2 – 1993 Q3
Edge Of Thorns

Motörhead
1993 Q4
Bastards

Running Wild
1994 Q1 – 1994 Q3
Black Hand Inn

Virgin Steele
1994 Q4 – 1995 Q1
The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell – Part One

Rage
1995 Q2
Black In Mind

Savatage
1995 Q3 – 1996 Q2
Dead Winter Dead, Ghost In The Ruins: A Tribute To Criss Oliva

Grave Digger
1996 Q3 – 1997 Q1
Tunes Of War

Bruce Dickinson
1997 Q2 – 1997 Q4
Accident Of Birth

Dio
1998 Q1
Dio’s Inferno – The Last In Live

Virgin Steele
1998 Q2
Invictus

Bruce Dickinson
1998 Q3 – 1999 Q3
The Chemical Wedding

Virgin Steele
1999 Q4
The House Of Atreus – Act I

Here’s where we feel the loss of pure power metal. Due to the Pangaea-esque spread of genres in the late ’80s, along with the natural escalation of heavy metal extremity, if you were young and true in the ‘90s, you were probably on the Blind Guardian side of the hall. These power-y inclusions from Running Wild, Rage, and Grave Digger bear that out in my mind. Still, doesn’t this collection of ’80s megastar holdovers mirror where big-budget wrestling was in the ‘90s? Is this not WCW? Is Painkiller not Ric Flair?

And yeah, here’s where RYM’s proggening unleashes its nerdy horrors. How traditionally metal is the rock opera era of Queensrÿche and Savatage? Eh. I left them in due to my affinity for the earlier stuff. Live In Tokyo and Sirens rule. In the interest of full disclosure though, I deleted Streets: A Rock Opera faster than Jeff Bezos now does with MBS’s texts.

The Extremely Ian Stable For Squashed Competitors:
I should probably give some shine to Russia’s Ария. Игра с огнём was released around 1990. 1990ish. Sort of. But, instead, I’m going to ruin my reputation by writing this: I will go to my grave telling anyone within earshot that Black Sabbath’s Tyr is a great album.

2000s

Virgin Steele
2000 Q1
The House Of Atreus – Act I

Iron Maiden
2000 Q2 – 2000 Q4
Brave New World

Halford
2001 Q1 – 2001 Q4
Live Insurrection

Iron Maiden
2002 Q1 – 2002 Q4
Rock In Rio

The Lord Weird Slough Feg
2003 Q1 – 2003 Q3
Traveller

King Diamond
2003 Q4 – 2004 Q1
The Puppet Master

Motörhead
2004 Q2
Inferno

King Diamond
2004 Q3 – 2005 Q1
Deadly Lullabyes Live

Bruce Dickinson
2005 Q2
Tyranny Of Souls

Allen – Lande
2005 Q3
The Battle

Bloodbound
2005 Q4
Nosferatu

Jorn
2006 Q1
The Duke

Dio
2006 Q2 – 2006 Q3
Holy Diver Live

Pagan Altar
2006 Q4 – 2007 Q2
Mythical & Magical

Heaven & Hell
2007 Q3 – 2008 Q1
Live From Radio City Music Hall

Grand Magus
2008 Q2 – 2009 Q1
Iron Will

Iron Maiden
2009 Q2 – 2009 Q4
Flight 666: The Original Soundtrack

These results feel like a consequence of my methodology. The 2000s should belong to Slough Feg, but it didn’t get the push. Then there’s Pagan Altar, evading the archival ban by re-recording old, unreleased material. Finally, this decade had the most live albums reaching the top: six.

As for the relative randos, while Yngwie might not remember him, I do love me some Jorn. I was tickled to see his Coverdale-in-disguise strutter The Duke got him over, awarding him a second title following his tag-team foray with Russell Allen. Unexpected! Same can be said for Bloodbound. Double shocker: Bloodbound is still around! (I am so bad at my job.)

The Extremely Ian Stable For Overlooked Competitors:
Besides discovering a band named Axecrack, the best part of this exercise was uncovering Malediction. France has a deep heavy metal history thanks to bands like Vulcain, Sortilège, ADX, and High Power. Malediction’s Condamnés is like a more powered up version of Blaspheme and it holds a sterling 3.9 on RYM. Someone should reissue this.

2010s

Iron Maiden
2010 Q1
Flight 666: The Original Soundtrack

Enforcer
2010 Q2
Diamonds

Accept
2010 Q3
Blood Of The Nations

Heaven & Hell
2010 Q4 – 2011 Q3
Neon Nights: 30 Years Of Heaven & Hell – Live In Europe

Riot
2011 Q4
Immortal Soul

Iron Maiden
2012 Q1
En Vivo!

Accept
2012 Q2
Stalingrad: Brothers In Death

Eclipse
2012 Q3
Bleed & Scream

Anthem
2012 Q4
Burning Oath

Magic Circle
2013 Q1
Magic Circle

Satan
2013 Q2
Life Sentence

Atlantean Kodex
2013 Q3
The White Goddess

Hell
2013 Q4 – 2014 Q1
Curse And Chapter

Ambush
2014 Q2
Firestorm

Riot
2014 Q3
Unleash The Fire

Air Raid
2014 Q4
Point Of Impact

Enforcer
2015 Q1 – 2015 Q2
From Beyond

Ghost
2015 Q3 – 2016 Q1
Meliora

Demon Bitch
2016 Q2
Hellfriends

Eternal Champion
2016 Q3 – 2016 Q4
The Armor Of Ire

Satan’s Hallow
2017 Q1 – 2017 Q2
Satan’s Hallow

Pagan Altar
2017 Q3
The Room Of Shadows

Ghost
2017 Q4
Ceremony And Devotion

Judas Priest
2018 Q1 – 2018 Q2
Firepower

Hitten
2018 Q3
Twist Of Fate

Deceased
2018 Q4 – 2019 Q1
Ghostly White

Idle Hands
2019 Q2
Mana

Atleantean Kodex
2019 Q3
The Course Of Empire

Angel Witch
2019 Q4
Angel Of Light

Where to start.

The belt changed hands 29 times in this span. That’s more than the ‘70s and ‘80s combined. The reason for that variance is probably because of the uptick in applicable releases: a little over 10,000 in the 2010s. That accounted for about half of my total database. As I’ve written again and again: There’s a lot of metal now.

And with that, a curious trend emerges: As the release numbers rise, the RYM adjusted average for winners falls. These 29 albums averaged 3.65. That’s down from 3.79 in the 2000s. (The ‘80s have the highest average with 4.01.) You’d think that more meh-to-bad albums would make the good ones seem better. Not so. In the RYM community, at least, what’s new in heavy metal is heavily scrutinized.

Numbers aside, I kind of like how this played out. I mean, Ghost sucks. However, it would be weird talking about heavy metal in the 2010s without mentioning them. I guess even comedy heels have to win the belt from time to time. It just further highlights the wildness of this mix of bands.

You have your vets cycling into the belt just by being around at the right time. Not quite Hacksaw Jim Duggan finding the WCW Television Championship belt in the trash, but they’ve been crowned well outside of their peaks. Weep for Saxon, then: That band has held the line for over 40 years. Shame it’s the world’s best jobber in this setting.

Then, you have the out-of-nowhere winners. Ambush, Air Raid, Hitten. Anthem are the badass band from Japan. The band has been around forever. Burning Oath is dope. Maybe it’s finally catching on. Sweden’s Eclipse are new to me, but they’re pretty capable Swedish hard rock. Metal-Archives let Bleed & Scream slide. I do, too. It’s solid. And, of course, you’ve got the edgiest edge case: Agreed, Deceased are absolutely a death/thrash band. But try telling me Ghostly White isn’t a secret King Diamond record.

Anyway, to answer the question from many words ago: Angel Witch are the current holder of the TRAD BELT. 39 years on from their stellar self-titled debut, they finally fly to the top with Angel Of Light.

Some final stats:

Most wins (band): Iron Maiden, 34
Most wins (album): Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, 7
Longest consecutive run (band): Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, 11
Manowars: 0. Wait, how in the fu-

The Extremely Ian Stable For Overlooked Competitors:
Play us out, Hellhound. –Ian Chainey

10. Mære – “I Transcending”

Location: Germany
Subgenre: death metal

Ah, the death metal lurch. Simple in purpose, yet it possesses a high degree of difficulty, something you’ve no doubt experienced whenever a sleepy OSDM disciple flubs one in your presence. You just can’t cut corners with those body-on-the-rack juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnns. True pain masters must spend years learning how to execute it effectively. It’s worth it. When it’s right, few riffs are better. So, it’s a little surprising that Mære, a new quintet debuting on the reliable Lavadome Productions, is already trudging upright, eyes set on scaling the twisted-iron mountain that’s dissonant death metal. However, the fast start makes sense given the players. Although anonymized on its Facebook, 60 percent of Mære’s staff has been outed as duders who played on the pre-bizzaro incarnation of Ingurgitating Oblivion. If you’re unfamiliar with that Black Market mainstay, may I point you towards Continuum Of Absence, an abstract, heaving mass of riffs that harnesses Immolation’s angel-dusted hellishness, those old school liches of the lurch. Mære’s LP, I, is definitely that kind of nasty, casting stank-face AOEs with every downstroke. But, like the aforementioned, there’s more going down than just some uggo riffs. Malte Schön’s scream is contorted by Lemay-esque pain. Guitarists Ralf Büsing and Sascha Hermesdorf exhibit a neat interplay that adds rich details to each section. And bassist Christian Pfeil and drummer Ingo Neugebauer make for quite a battery, favoring slightly off-kilter barrages that engagingly unravel expectations. [From I, out now via Lavadome Productions.]Ian Chainey

9. Wormhole – “Ingswarm”

Location: Baltimore, MD
Subgenre: technical death metal

In an interview accompanying the premiere of the title track off of Wormhole’s second full-length, The Weakest Among Us, guitarist Sanil Kumar described the band’s plans to Decibel like this: “The purpose of the song is to be really tech but also very slam.” Nailed it. Put it on my tombstone. Of course, Wormhole gets up to more across these 28 minutes. Each song is stuffed with the kind of myriad interests that would drive guidance counselors to get lunch-drunk. There’s the theoretical sci-fi sightseeing that recalls a certain other worm-y band, sneaky melodic noodling of modern Afterbirth, and prog-jazz soloing favored by the Holdsworthian line of shredders. Smart stuff! That said, if you’d have to boil it down, especially as the first chug smacks your face with delightful unenlightenment, you’d say with the nasally tone of someone with a broken nose: “Really tech. Very slam.” Enjoy then, the nasal fracturing “Ingswarm.” Two points of interest. First, that is some solid bassing, Alex Weber. Second, I love the production that favors a more in-the-room fusion sound than the static-crunch most prevalent in the scene right now. It’s like the gnarliest Greg Howe record. Anyway, forget the small stuff, the track on the whole is really something. Sanil Kumar and Sanjay Kumar’s juds give way to squiggles and then to auroras. Their rhythms are cleverly offset by drummer Matt Tillett who is always shaking the ground beneath the listener. And then there’s Anshuman Goswami. His vox are straight from the gut. A varied arsenal of gurgles. Glorious. [From The Weakest Among Us, out now via Lacerated Enemy Records.]Ian Chainey

8. Svrm – “Над Свіжими Могилами”

Location: Kharkiv, Ukraine
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

The label Vigor Deconstruct should be on your radar. Previously it brought us Krukh, the magnificent, chaotic and powerful black metal band featuring Markov Soroka of Aureole and Tchornobog. This month we’re featuring two more of its acts in Kaatayra, with Nascido Sob o Signo Incivilizatório, the mind-bogglingly good Brazilian folk-infused album we somehow missed last year, and Svrm. (Hailing from Ukraine, Soroka’s mark and good taste seem to be all over the label’s offerings, which now includes an Aureole classic.) Svrm, a solo project, absolutely nails an invigorating mix of world-weariness and last-ditch desperate rage on “Над Свіжими Могилами.” It’s both bleak and beautiful, a shot in the arm for life’s lowest points. You’ll certainly hear a good dose of Svrm’s compatriots Drudkh here. That we are only now just discovering Svrm, a project with three demos, five EPs, and a prior full-length, leaves a great deal of inspired listening ahead. [From Занепад, out now via Vigor Deconstruct.]Wyatt Marshall

7. Torture Chain – “Chaos At Feast / The Ascent Of Deimos”

Location: United States
Subgenre: black metal

This month is unreal. Democracy might be going up in smoke, and the earth is literally burning as I write this, but we’ve got so much blazing hot metal on our hands, who even cares? Let’s kick off 2020 with a scorcher: one-man black metal mutant Torture Chain is back with its third album, The Ascent Of Deimos, quietly released in December on Hospital Productions. December being the worst month to release things unless obscurity is the actual goal, it predictably slid into the no-mans-land that follows listmaking season, which means it arrived to essentially zero fanfare and most of us missed it. Even after we found it and figured out what we had on our hands, the Black Market wasn’t even in proper session for December, so we’ve been stuck sitting on our (collective) hands while this thing burns a hole in our (collective) pants. Just now I was looking back through our vast Black Market archives, reflecting on past greatness and squandered potential, and it turns out I’ve only written about Torture Chain once, before the dawn of time in December 2013, several months after TC’s first full length album was released. Late to the party even then. In those days, the “band” still clung to a shroud of anonymity. A few forum-dwellers dropped hints about his identity, but it wasn’t widely known. These days a visit to Metal-Archives and a few exploratory clicks will reveal all, but I’ll leave that to you. The mystery serves the music, to my mind. Think black ripping hell with a whiff of gothic antiquity (and a sick lead tone lifted from Christian Death), fluttering shadows wrapped in razorwire, jagged guitars and baroque keys woven into a tapestry of shredded flesh and brutal noise. Something about the incongruous sounds and ridiculous aggression reminds me of Abigor, but Torture Chain has its own esoteric charm, with more than its share of sneaky headbanging riffs. Come for the headache, stay for the nausea. [From The Ascent Of Deimos, out now via Hospital Productions.]Aaron Lariviere

6. Chrome Ghost – “Waltz In The Shadow Of The Hillside”

Location: Roseville, CA
Subgenre: doom / sludge / post-metal

Another one from out of nowhere. With a quiet cassette-only release in late November and the band handling its own digital rollout, this little gem from Chrome Ghost also almost fell prey to the year-end dumping grounds. Consider this another worthy carry-over from 2019, too good to be forgotten, and something I expect a lot of readers of this site might get behind. We begin with a healthy dose of cosmic sludge, pitched somewhere between Yob and latter-day Cave In. Sprinkle in some Opeth-ian prog grandeur, delivered via gorgeous acoustics that weave through and around the chunkier riffs, embiggening the sense of space and casting a warm glow over the proceedings. Give it a sinuous rhythm section, one that lurches and seethes just enough to help the songs breathe, even as they buttress the top level riffs with some thick and thoughtful structural support from below. But it’s the vocals that leap out. Lead broheim Jake Kilgore juggles guitar, bass, and vocal duty, and I’ll just say…he’s quite good at each. There’s an Alice In Chains quality to some of his choices, particularly in the assemblage of vocal harmonies. Fortunately there’s no yarling, which would have been immediately disqualifying for obvious reasons. “Waltz In The Shadow Of The Hillside” is the most straightforward sludge track on here, which makes it a good choice for the column because it hits especially hard, but worth noting the album goes quite a bit further afield and benefits from its wanderings. The title track is a 15-minute world unto itself, drifting through pastoral prog and meandering melodic sections that always seem to resolve with a heavenly riff or three. When the closing track unearths a mellotron and delivers a fat dose of moody feels, it struck me just how unexpected and strangely confident this record is. Some of it veers away from metal altogether, and it’s better for its sense of adventure. While they sound nothing alike, I could picture these guys playing some metal-adjacent “heavy” shows with bands like Elizabeth Colour Wheel or Cloakroom. Dig in. [From The Diving Bell, out now via Transylvanian Tapes.]Aaron Lariviere

5. Fluisteraars – “Vlek”

Location: Bennekom, Gelderland, The Netherlands
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

No band swirls chaos and beauty quite like Fluisteraars, none know how to whip up such a blinding maelstrom and then soar above it to such blissful heights. The duo that has served as the vanguard for an increasingly rich Dutch atmospheric black metal scene has always worked with a raw, natural array of tones, but on “Vlek” the band more directly embraces a folkish persuasion. It’s something to behold, an epic journey of the likes Fluisteraars is best known for from their prior releases, but now one that wraps in about half the time at a comparatively modest seven minutes in length. Things are brighter now, too, than they ever were before — something that was bubbling up on the amazing De Oord split with Turia and is now more overtly embraced (look at the album cover for the forthcoming Bloem). That Mink Koops, the man behind the instrumentation, and Bob Mollema, the intimidating rasp, continue to find the perfect tension between rage and splendor is remarkable. [From Bloem, out 2/28 via Eisenwald.]Wyatt Marshall

4. Sivyj Yar – “Горе (Grief)”

Location: Vyritsa, Russia
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

It’s somewhat hard to believe that it’s been almost five years since Burial Shrouds, Sivyj Yar’s last full-length of gorgeous, mournful black metal haunted by sole-member Vladimir’s wild-eyed wails. Горе / Grief, Sivyj Yar’s newest offering, picks up the story Vladimir has been telling all along, resuming his elegy for the brutal fate and lost ambitions of the Russian peasantry as modernisation marched relentlessly forward. The title track (“Горе” translates to “grief”) is a Sivyj Yar classic straight away — mysterious and devilishly playful, full of ominous premonitions and dark primal magic. The delightful and disarming Sivyj Yar hallmarks and quirks are as infectious and charming as ever, too, with lively bass and layers of airy, muted guitars creating a sense of distance between the present and the past. But Sivyj Yar has never been quite so focused, and in this concerted effort, Vladimir has foregone some of the more capricious melodic power of his previous work in favor of something more subtle. “Горе” doesn’t get stuck in your head, it lingers. [From Горе / Grief, out now via Avantgarde Music.]Wyatt Marshall

3. Kaatayra – “Chama, Pólvora E Esperança”

Location: Brasilia, Brazil
Subgenre: black metal

We slept on this one big time. Kaatayra, another one-man black metal project, this time hailing from Brazil, dropped two increasingly sick LPs in 2019. We heard neither in time for the year-end list, because there is no god. I can assure you had we heard these — in particular the second album, Nascido Sob o Signo Incivilizatório — our list would have looked significantly different. As fate would have it, Kaatayra popped up in my Bandcamp feed in January, and I promptly lost my mind. (Wyatt lost his too. Ian’s is too warped by slams, but we love him anyway.) Fortunately for all, shortly after our discovery, Kaatayra did the world a solid and re-released both LPs in a single 2+ hour compilation called Mata Mato, which you can download quite cheaply here. (The individual albums can be downloaded for free, but be a good human and throw the band some bucks if you can.) So what is this, and why does it rule? Upon first listen, this is how I described it to the guys in the official, highly secretive Black Market chat channel: “Ripping black metal with blazing leads all over the place. Reminds me of hearing early Yellow Eyes or Ash Borer for the first time, but the jungle vibes make it extra sick.” I then proceeded to listen straight through three times in a row and declare 2020’s preemptive AOTY to be an overlooked November 2019 release. (This being several days before I heard our #1 pick; metal in 2020 is already off the chain.) Essentially three long songs with a couple of shorter interstitial bits, Kaatayra’s second LP takes long-form black metal and transmogrifies it with wicked leads, chiming acoustics, hand percussion and ethnic instrumentation. This sits in the same sonic space (and admirably holds its own against the Spectral Lore / Mare Cognitum split, but it delves even further into its own idiosyncrasies, often inverting the violence of the central riffs to reveal a soft underbelly, swirling melodicism and thoughtful arrangements amid a distinctly Southern-hemisphere backdrop. “Chama, Pólvora e Esperança” is the grime-encrusted crown jewel plucked from the heart of the rainforest — an 18-minute monstrosity sewn together from layers of ragged guitar, furious drumming and what sounds like the ghosts of a dozen other songs. Somewhere in the middle, we start to float; it’s tempting to lose yourself in the ululating drift of samples and gentle melody, until it all snaps back with the smash of a drum. Lead guitars come alive, cutting through the din like piano-wire through skin, and the blood sprays like rain. If you’ve been around these parts for a bit, you know I only rave like this when I mean it (and I’m gonna do it again in a couple blurbs). Were it not for a certain record’s unexpected appearance, I’d have been shocked (and elated) to hear anything better than this in 2020. [From Nascido Sob o Signo Incivilizatório, out now via Vigor Deconstruct.]Aaron Lariviere

2. Turia – “Degen Van Licht”

Location: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Subgenre: atmospheric black metal

We last heard from Turia on De Oord, the incredible split that the Dutch three-piece shared with their compatriots Fluisteraars, also featured here on this list. (We felt so strongly about De Oord that, despite not necessarily qualifying as an album, we voted it the best album of 2018 anyway.) Turia’s contribution to that two-track monster, “Aan den Golven der Aarde Geofferd,” was an ode to the Waal, a river that ran through the band’s hometown. That track thrashes and rages while simultaneously conjuring a sort of psychedelic dream state — it’s an absolutely massive work that took all of the promise and excellence the band had showed up until that point and magnified it. The title track from Turia’s newest album, “Degen van Licht” is, somewhat unbelievably, just as amazing and monumental. It too is a soundtrack in awe of a natural feature — here, Turia ranges the sun-blasted mountains of Europe in the dead, stifling heat of summer. As only Turia can, they conjure a surreal, absorbing soundscape that is as alluring as it is disquieting, pounding out a hypnotic trudge before giving way to unexpected and unsettling twists. The band’s signature jangly guitars ring like sirens, and similarly, their characteristic horns fray at the edges as they dissipate in hot air. The massive sound was achieved with the help of M. Koops of Fluisteraars, who along with “O” of Turia mixed the album. The two best Dutch black metal bands continue to excel side by side. [From Degen van Licht, out 2/14 via Eisenwald.]Wyatt Marshall

1. Mare Cognitum – “Mars (The Warrior)”

Location: Portland, OR
Subgenre: black metal

Our feeble brains can’t even process this. The year is too young, too protean, we had no time to prepare. Our attention spans were insufficiently primed, but still we must consume this in a single go, repeatedly, for the rest of the year. There’s no way around it. Sliding back from the brink, let’s take stock. Here we are, faced with an instant year-end contender of a mammoth triple LP split release from two of the best one-man bands in all of black metal. Come to think of it, two of the best ongoing musical projects in any genre. Spectral Lore. Mare Cognitum. Both responsible for some of the best black metal releases of the last decade, here they’re teamed for an unbelievably sick follow-up to their 2013 split Sol, expanding the scope of their joint ambition to tackle an eye watering concept album about each and every planet in our solar system, one song per planet and Pluto gets two collaborative tracks to close the thing out, naturally. All in all, it’s a breezy hour and 55 minutes. Does it rule? Of course. Both bands are in top form, delivering classic riffs at an impossible clip, tossing off atmospheric black perfection like the songs were somehow preordained, like they always existed in spiritual form and merely needed two vessels of flesh to give them shape and force them into our ears.

Some housekeeping: nominally this post goes to Mare Cognitum, because we have rules even if we barely mention them, and I’m only allowed to pick one because Ian is a tyrannical editorial godbeing who hath spoken. I picked Mare for the non-reason that I’ve written about Spectral Lore more recently, and I was always partial to the equal-time rule (as well as the fairness doctrine, may it rest in power). So after you burn through a few million dopamine units on Mare Cognitum’s bowel-shredding “Mars (The Warrior),” which is a lesson in guitar violence straight through, be sure to spin Spectral Lore’s hilariously/perfectly titled “Earth (The Mother).” It makes for a relatively subdued if unbelievably melodic counterpart, right up until it lights itself on fire and blasts hard enough to reach ludicrous speed and punch through the other side. Between the two, you get a satisfying 21-minute taste of the best release of the year thus far (aka the current holder of the Extreme Belt), and the singles don’t even come close to the best material on here. You should buy everything on this list, of course, but you should unquestionably buy this. [From Wanderers: Astrology Of The Nine, out 3/13 via Entropic Recordings and I, Voidhanger Records.]Aaron Lariviere

RIP, Sean Reinert.