The 10 Best Metal Albums Of 2020

The 10 Best Metal Albums Of 2020

Metal, there is a lot of it. If this is the first and last time that you’re checking in on metal this year, that’s my grand pronouncement, my state of the style address. Please scroll ahead and dunk on our best-of selections. Thank you for stopping by.

Lemme rewind. Metal, there is a lot of it. I’ve written that often. But, like most things this year, that statement feels different. Then again, it doesn’t feel different at all. It’s all about where you look and how you choose to observe it, I guess. Metal, the Schrödinger’s cat of music.

I love metal, but that makes it a real pain in the ass to write about. Regardless of whatever you want to say about it, you can rest assured that this genre has a contradiction locked and loaded in the chamber. It encompasses so many disparate styles and ideologies that it’s impossible to explain neatly with any measure of objectivity. You can get lost in it and the good parts can blind you to its uglier aspects. Other genres are probably like this, too. But they don’t have slams.

After the great substyle boom of the ‘80s, metal became a Choose Your Own Adventure tale knee deep in dualities. The duality I usually yammer on about is that metal is both constantly evolving and stuck in stasis. On the one hand, you could miss a day of updating your Bandcamp feed and return to find that everyone is raving about technical beatdown doinkwave that, much like tadpoles in a puddle, is inexplicably populated by dozens of bands you’ve never seen before. On the other, metal is the great argument for eternalism, that any band, album, or innovation in its 50-year history has an infinite vending-machine feeder of artists who only care to reenact that bygone tick of the clock.

Metal is able to house both of those realities because it’s massive. It stretches out in every direction. That makes some of its statistics, the accumulation of its myriad there’s-a-lotnesses, absolutely bonkers for a genre that’s often ignored.

Longtime readers already knew this next part was coming: 22,275. At the time I’m writing this in early December, that’s how many metal releases either came out or are planned for the remainder of 2020 per Encyclopaedia Metallum. 7,835 of those are full-lengths.

Once the dust settles, it’s likely that 2020’s total number of full-lengths will eventually exceed 2019’s all-time record of 8,121. In a vacuum, that wouldn’t be particularly notable. Metal releases have been creeping impossibly upwards for years, like a game of Jenga between sociopathic tech CEOs played on a table made of Jenga blocks. But, of course, 2020 has been a year. A life-altering, societal-shifting, economy-crushing, kayfabe-shattering, systemic-rot-exposing year. I don’t need to summarize it. You lived it.

So, that’s … weird, right? That metal’s output, even during this year, is undiminished? That despite being in the grips of a global pandemic with a potential fallout that will take decades to fully measure, metal just kinda rolls on? If you go solely by metal releases, 2020 won’t look like an anomaly. You can’t say that about many other areas of life. Even the most stubborn sports leagues that continue to mismanage COVID-19 the same way they do concussions have record books littered with lasting numerical markers, both shockingly brazen and insidiously banal, that this year is different. Metal is seemingly just like, “K. Did you know there’s a new Dark Tranquillity album?”

Again, on the surface, that’s cool. Metal was here for you. You could burrow into it whenever you were getting licked by the flames of this hell year. And yet, 2020 wrecked metal’s shit, continually body slamming best laid plans with impunity.

I talked to a musician who released an album this year who said that 2020 was all of the horseshit and none of the fun parts. Records were released, the PR cycle spun, but, after March, in-person shows and the tours were put on ice unless you were super careful or super an asshole. Bands adapted, figuring out how to stream shows in empty spaces that looked like deleted scenes from I Am Legend. Artists shipped mountains of merch after Bandcamp did more for musicians than most governments. Metal acclimated because, perhaps, metal is used to no one really giving a shit about it except the lifers who show up anyway, who already go to great lengths to clear cultural hurdles and make their fandom work. Still, if playing metal is your hobby, this year sucked. If playing metal is your job, it really sucked. Of course, the fun stuff wasn’t the only casualty.

The RIP section of Encyclopaedia Metallum contains grimmer and realer statistics than the ones I cited above. Sprinkled within the other causes of death, COVID-19 stands out, sending a jolt through my nervous system whenever I see it. The total reported number is comparatively small: 11. Each one still buzzed like a live wire under any decision I made this year. No matter the stature of the musician, they’re equally gutting. “RIP to our brother in arms!” goes a March 30th tribute posted to Arizona heavy metallers Infamous Demise’s Facebook about its former drummer. “Bob Wise AKA, ‘the thud’ you absolutely saved Infamous Demise and blew everyone’s mind along the way.” Seeing the accompanying pictures of an average metalhead who is no longer on this planet is sobering. It reminds me that there are people behind all of this.

Despite metal’s intense pursuit of the fantastical and impossible, for all of its misanthropic world-murdering cosplay, it is pretty human. It contains the same multitudes, the good and bad. You can have bands like Order Of The Wolf, a Scottish solo act that “covers topics such as the rise of fascism on a domestic and global scale and the inherent need to rally against it no matter the cost,” and you can have delusional labels like Agonia Records that sign Inquisition and cower behind disabled comments while trying to grab as much cash as possible. All of it, for better or worse, is metal.

The sketchier side of that deepening dichotomy, with infinite trenches full of reply guys, has become a tougher thing to swallow in 2020. I was often reminded of what Doug Moore, who had a busy year himself, wrote in this very space in 2017:

So next time someone tries to defend something obviously stupid or crappy with a smirk and a “duh, it’s metal!”, tell them to fuck off. The nice thing about a small community like metal’s is that, unlike in so many other areas of modern life, individuals do have a meaningful say. Metal is only trash if we let it be trash. And life is too short to eat shit with a smile on your face.

That feels especially pertinent now.

While this was my default setting for most the year, I don’t mean for this kind of off-the-cuff intro to sound so world-weary. Good stuff happened. And, once more, it’s because there’s so much metal.

That’s the thing I can’t stop nerding out about. Forgot the obscure stuff that we typically traffic in, that even mainstream-y bands like Nightwish and Nile can exist under the same big umbrella is wild. Metal is so vast and varied that I can’t help but turn into that Frank Zappa Onion article whenever someone says they don’t like it. “Really? Not even “Black Winter Day?”

I came across Gelassenheit this year, a project self-described as “one transwoman experimental unblack RABM focusing on highlighting the aspects of Christianity which instruct us to care for the poor and needy.” Heck yeah. Do your thing, Gelassenheit. I also reread Tenacity: Heavy Metal In The Middle East And Africa, Beth Winegarner’s 2018 mini-book, while doing research and marveled anew at just how global metal is. Each new voice adds depth and richness to the music. Metal can be pretty diverse, even if the coverage sometimes isn’t. So, while there’s work to do on the inclusivity end, I feel like there’s a greater chance than ever that there’s a metal band out there for you.

There’s also, rest assured, a band out there that hates you. The dualities can suck. As metal is made by contrarian outsiders for contrarian outsiders, it often feels like it’s a contested space that’s ground zero for a forever war. Metal is always going to be locked in a fight to decide what is true and what is false.

Of course, there are a growing number of bands that playfully subvert that, that endeavor to be both true and false. “Yes, we do write our music in jest sometimes, I like to think of Old Nick as the political cartoon of black metal, a caricature of sorts,” Old Nick singer Abysmal Specter said to Heed The Darkness in July, later adding, “Old Nick pokes fun at black metal while simultaneously worshiping it.”

In that way, that might make Old Nick the 2020iest band, one that exists in multiple spaces at once while releasing a billion recordings. I’ll be honest: I don’t get it. But, hey. Metal, there is a lot of it. Here’s a best of list with some more.

Real quick, I have some business to attend to. Since this our final column of 2020, per tradition, I wanted to follow up on a few open items.

In January, I wrote about the Trad Belt and its holders’ reigns from 1970-2019. Here are your champions for the first three quarters of 2020 and a fairly safe projection for Q4:

Q1: Angel Witch – Angel Of Light
Q2: Cirith Ungol – Forever Black
Q3: Raven – Metal City
Q4: Wytch Hazel – III: Pentecost

Raven’s classic athletic rock plus the drummer from Malignancy? Yep, totally saw that one coming.

Regarding my intro in July that explored the psychology and philosophy behind naming bands … well, I don’t have a real followup here, but wanted to note that Arsebreed’s new album is great. Yes, this quote will now pop up on my background checks.

If you were left holding your breath after my September intro in which I predicted that 2020 could, ironically, be the year with the most released live albums, you can exhale. We did it. We’re currently at 405, smashing the previous record.

Finally, I have an update on The Gate, the 1987 horror movie for kids that I went deep on in October. I traded emails with Darrell “DWaRf” Millar of Killer Dwarfs. So, how did the band’s logo end up on Terry’s battlevest? “How it happened was, the movie producer saw our name and logo in the Toronto Sun newspaper,” Millar wrote. “We were playing the Gasworks on Yonge Street. He contacted our manager Wiggy and asked if they could use our logo for the movie. No funds were offered. More of an exposure deal. There was no mention of using any of our music in the movie. Just the name.”

Millar remembered that he didn’t think much would come out of an exposure bucks pact with a low budget horror flick. And then, he bought a ticket. “I went to the theater to see it first hand in Winnipeg, still not knowing what it was about for us. When the kid walked out and bent down and the whole back patch was on the big screen, I freaked. I was blown away. Loved it. And I heard all these whispers in the theater. ‘The DWaRfS. Cool.’ No one knew I was in the theater.”

And yep, the Dwarfs are still doing it. The quartet signed to EMP Label Group run by Megadeth’s David Ellefson in 2018. They’re working on their eighth full-length. The band will turn 40 in the fall of 2021.

Alright, that’s it. Our favorite records are below. Please share your lists in the comments. Reading your lists is the highlight of the year, one of the best opportunities to find new stuff. See you in January. —Ian Chainey

10

Oranssi Pazuzu - Mestarin Kynsi (Nuclear Blast)

Oranssi Pazuzu bring the psychedelic best out of black metal, and on Mestarin kynsi the modern Finnish greats bend soundwaves further than ever before. We’re not much for press releases around here, but at the album launch back in April, frontman Jun-His said in a statement that the band was inspired by electro music and the idea of a song that travels through portals, changing at each gateway. That image really is brought to life on Mestarin Kynsi, where quiet unease and mischievously brooding dark energy transmute into flashes of neon light and cosmic brilliance and back again. Jun-His' vocals are a highlight as always, a gravelly croak coming in and out of range, a dark presence calling and cajoling from the other side of a wormhole. The uncanny is to be expected, as is superb musicianship that abandons the black metal tag more often than not to venture into prog and jazz territories. The sheer scope of effects on display — shimmering sands, celestial groans, boinging rayguns, and an apparent orchestra’s worth of strings — would impress the sound technicians at Lucasfilm. This wholly articulated, deeply strange universe Oranssi Pazuzu has crafted transcends description, spilling over into a mind-altering, full-body experience. –Wyatt Marshall

09

Esoctrilihum - Eternity Of Shaog (I, Voidhanger)

Eternity Of Shaog is bizarre — the weirdest album on this list by a good margin — but it's also remarkably catchy. That’s a real feat for experimental black metal that strays into atonal territory at times, with off-kilter violins warbling in, out, and around big orchestral sweeps and growls straight out of Mordor central casting barking venomously and unpredictably throughout. It might be a little too weird if it weren't for the backbone of razor-sharp riffs underpinning the monstrosity, holding together the crazed vision of the musician behind the madness, a Frenchman who goes by Asthâghul. Asthâghul's laid out the album in a series of eight passages, and listening straight through you'll bear witness to the strange journey he's imagined, one with all the fire and darkness and stoic grandeur of high fantasy. But it's a journey through the looking glass, one that descends into a sort of Boschian madness, and at the end there's little by way of clarity — just a strange pull to listen again. –Wyatt Marshall

08

Ulcerate - Stare Into Death And Be Still (Debemur Morti)

Back in April, back when life was still busy grinding to a halt, before we reached the war-of-mental-attrition phase of quarantine, I described the new Ulcerate jawn as “almost meditative.” Yeah, that’s borne out across the rest of this shit year. As we blindly grope through our collective dark night of the soul, or whatever you want to call it — a civilizational death rattle, maybe, where the crest of the killing wave is longer than perception allows — I keep chasing that feeling, the meditative calm that comes from the balance of blasting, screaming, and just enough melody to wash it down. Stare Into Death And Be Still. Yes, exactly that. What “Orinoco Flow” does for my mom, Ulcerate does for me. I queue up “Exhale The Ash” and my pulse slows at the first kiss of distorted bass. Guitars chime and squeal, coils of wire spun tight around a weary melody, drums breathing fire into my chest. Bullshit burns away. We emerge, like Khaleesi, cleansed by tongues of flame. If this all sounds overblown or self-serious, I’m sure it is. But that’s the game these days, so who cares. Everybody hurts. Trauma warps the everyday in strange ways, imprinting the mundane with unnatural meaning, teasing out recursive patterns we can’t seem to escape. As I was writing this, I took a breather to read something new by a favorite author of mine — bad idea. It was Blake Butler’s elegy for his wife, the poet Molly Brodak. Pain just layers on. We’re in the heart of a festering psychic wound, all of us, looking for something to kill the pain, some violent soporific to bludgeon us to sleep. It sounds stupid to say — broken brain pleb shit that it is — but this was the record I’d reach for to scrape through another night. After decades of subjecting myself to noise, this is enough to feel like relief, like sunlight –Aaron Lariviere

07

Krallice - Mass Cathexis (Hathenter)

Now that Krallice are on their ninth full-length, counting the 2017 co-AOTY Loüm of course, I think I took these avant-gardeners for granted. Somehow, I didn't cover Mass Cathexis in the column proper this year. My defense? I figured that you already knew about it. I mean, it's no secret that the New York quartet has been on one of metal's great runs for over a decade now. And sure, I mentioned Mass Cathexis frequently while covering the other members' prolific 2020 exploits. Colin Marston (guitars), Mick Barr (vocals, guitars), and Nicholas McMaster (bass, vocals) have been on a record-everything bender. (Drummer Lev Weinstein is no slouch, either. It's just that his Discogs expanding streak took place last year.) But, gotta say, this album's omission was ... what’s the right phrase here ... dumb as hell. These nine songs are bonkers. I should be in critic jail. While the album's 40 minutes should be enjoyed as a whole, lemme try to tackle the bonkerosity in a 10-minute chunk. The title track, with a guest spot by returning collaborator Dave Edwardson, is like if Man Is The Bastard turned into Slam420. It tumbles along with kill riff energy and a death/sludge density while Edwardson barks bleak lyrics. Then "The Form" twists post-hardcore timbres into a progged up spacey black metal track with rhythms that bounce around like a fumbled football inside of a tail-spinning cargo plane. It would be crazy for these two songs to exist on the same album. Here, they're back to back. Each song is like this: a mini-universe. And you get to hop through wormhole after wormhole, experiencing everything that's going to be cool in underground metal two years from now. How the heck could you take that for granted? Yeah, haha ... [*tugs collar*] no idea. Here it is now. –Ian Chainey

06

Defeated Sanity - The Sanguinary Impetus (Willowtip)

It’s hard to imagine it was possible for Defeated Sanity to take another step forward. I mean, forget steps. At times, it has felt like the German technical brutal death metal band is so far ahead that they flew around the metalsphere Superman style and returned most of the Slam Worldwide to primordial ooze. But at some point, bands will stop progressing and feeling themselves and going for it at every opportunity, right? The Sanguinary Impetus, Defeated Sanity’s sixth full-length and first non-Cynic-headfake since 2013's exemplary Passages Into Deformity, says, passionately and authoritatively, "narp." Once again, this band steps, sprints, and leaps forward. And it covers its new ground by being ... catchy as hell? Yeah. Lille Gruber (drums, guitars), Jacob Schmidt (bass), and Josh Welshman (vocals) have made a brutal death album that is not only more intricate than a web spun by a spider with OCD and heavier than a golden retriever locked in a sausage factory, but ridiculously fun thanks to the sheer hummability of these riffs. Tech plus slams plus earworm melodies? Does that add up? Somehow, these music math wizzes crunch the numbers. When I wrote about "Propelled Into Sacrilege" back in May, I said that it was "another advanced study in cutting up 100 Suffocation songs and ingeniously flipping them into place like they're part of a brutal death Rubik's Cube." I stand by that. (I also stand by my close read: The song is about polar bears.) But, the more time I spend with The Sanguinary Impetus, the more I’m impressed by the clarity of the songwriting. The widdles sure widdle extra hard, but they widdle for a reason, and that's to live inside your brain for the rest of your life. Also, 4:49 in "Drivelling Putrefaction" sounds like the countdown part in "Twelve Days Of Christmas." –Ian Chainey

05

Havukruunu - Uinuos Syömein Sota (Naturmacht)

At first blush, Havukruunu seem like a study in muchness. “Uinuos Syömein Sota,” the title track to the Finnish four-piece's third LP, opens with the manliest choir since the Bears shuffled to the Super Bowl. "Ja Viimein On Yö" incorporates some radio drama Foley art, setting galloping horses loose before the galloping riffs rip open the earth. Even the hushed moments feel big, like the synth-sweep outro on "Tähti-Yö Ja Hevoiset" that sounds like Mike Oldfield midwifing the birth of a star. But, even with a nine-minute epic within its tracklist, Uinuos Syömein Sota avoids being indulgent. It's thrifty, even, at least a lot more than most pagan black metal, which, as I've said previously, "is a genre known to sit on trems in a meditative stupor." Not here. No, a lot of these songs remind me of the age-old screenwriting advice: Arrive late, leave early. When guitarists Stefan and Henkka let the trems fly, it feels like we're already cresting into a crescendo. Likewise, bassist Sinisalo and drummer Kostajainen make for an extra lively battery, working in tandem to swing the heck out of each section. More importantly, the players know when to put the songs to bed. Everyone present can shred more than if Yngwie was hired to destroy state secrets, but they don't belabor the build-ups and tear-downs. Even the aforementioned longform banger, "Vähiin Päivät Käy," feels super tight, retaining every ounce of its replay value. When I wrote about this in August, I said, “It's legit wild how talented this band is. It feels like anything is within its grasp." It's now that I realize it's because all involved can let go. –Ian Chainey

04

Kaatayra - Toda História Pela Frente (Mospharic)

When we had thought we finally had a handle on all the various shapes and shades black metal, increasingly the broader heavy metal genre's most mutable subgenre, has to offer, Kaatayra arrived to completely alter our understanding of the genre's potential and open up entire new netherworlds to explore. Hailing from Brazil, the one-man project from Caio Lemos inflects the full-speed-ahead, blasting foundation of black metal with rainforest magic, working Brazilian folk, tribal drumming, and a psychedelic and mischievous spirit into the underlying icy tenets. Last year we missed Kaatayra's year-end masterpiece Nascido Sob O Signo Incivilizatório, an album that entices you into its world with mesmerizing chants and heroic blazing guitars before wrapping its tendrils around you and subsuming you into the undergrowth. Remarkably, less than six months later, Lemos released an incredible album of otherworldly acoustic black metal, Só Quem Viu O Relâmpago À Sua Direita Sabe. And even more remarkably, Toda História Pela Frente arrived just a few months after that, meaning Lemos released three legitimate album of the year contenders in the space of 10 months. Toda História pela Frente is more similar to Nascido..., with electric guitars adding swathes of fire to the long-winded mix — a mix that rips with remarkable ferocity at times. Yet amidst these sonic fireworks, the pulsing heartbeat of the rainforest is ever present, bathing everything in the green-black mystical hues of the forest floor. –Wyatt Marshall

03

Turia - Degen Van Licht (Eisenwald)

“We are of the opinion that a lot of music and movies nowadays are very focused on keeping you constantly highly and emotionally moved,” O, Turia's guitarist and chief songwriter and a founding figure in the new wave of Dutch black metal, wrote to me when I interviewed him for the intro to May’s column. “Something that takes its time and doesn’t fear silence and emptiness jumps out to people.” Degen van Licht, Turia’s masterful and monumental third full-length, embodies this ethos, shimmering into focus across heat-distorted sun-blasted valleys while assuming its surreal bestial form. It’s a hypnotizing listen, one that immerses you in climbing and crashing waves of trilling guitars and pummeling drums and then leaves you out to dry in kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory light. For me, Turia often brings to mind the desert, and the band described Degen van Licht as an ode to a sort of Dutch desert of their own, to “the ageless lure of the unyielding mountains, and an exploration of the sweltering warmth which encompasses these heights every summer... [when] crackling green pastures full of life morph into scorching fields of withered grass and decaying alpine herbs.” It could soundtrack a spaghetti western, and Turia acknowledged stylistic similarities to the tense dramas that unfold in stark technicolor terrain: “The openness of the landscapes and sets, the small cast of characters, the total desolateness of the all-encompassing desert,” O wrote. “The small gesture, the facial expression, the sudden sounds of gunfire: Everything is more vibrant and pronounced when performed in this vacuum-like context.” –Wyatt Marshall

02

Spectral Lore/Mare Cognitum - Wanderers: Astrology Of The Nine (I, Voidhanger/Entropic)

Wanderers: Astrology Of The Nine, the 10-song, triple-LP, 2-hour split by Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore — two of exploratory black metal’s leading lights — is almost too much. But of course, in metal, there’s no such thing. If there’s a theme to my favorite albums this year, it’s that these were the very few that were sufficiently transcendent to rise above their surroundings and actually stick in my broken memory. I’ve loved both these bands for ages, and their 2013 split LP Sol stands as one of the better splits in metal history (right up there with the Skaphe/Wormlust split), so it’s not surprising this one rules even harder. As I wrote in January: “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.” Indeed. Of the two, Mare Cognitum sounds especially violent this time around, particularly on “Mars (The Warrior)” — which has lyrics I’m convinced have more to do with id Software’s Doom series than astrology (which, if true, obviously rules) — like a harder-edged Blut aus Nord, tearing through a dimensional cervix to birth horrors unimagined, or something. Shit rips pretty hard. The unassuming mastermind behind Mare Cognitum, Jacob Buczarski, has developed an incredibly sharp ear for production over the years — he mastered the (highly sick) Silver Knife album earlier this year and mixed and mastered the latest album from (the also quite sick) Blattaria — and his half of the album feels more rhythmically and technically precise. Not to be outdone, Ayloss of Spectral Lore leans into the rougher edges that have always existed within his sound, lacing his ragged melodies with darker overtones and occasionally caustic drum programming. As always with Spectral Lore, the mastery comes from the texture of the thing, the feel of the playing, the irrepressible presence embedded between the notes. “Earth (The Mother)” starts out subdued, basking in melancholy chordwork, all about that feel and texture until it’s suddenly not: the ending explodes in a burst of machine gun drumming, laying waste to everything that came before. “Saturn (The Rebel)” is all dark droning guitars and meandering bass, disjointed and nearly tuneless for the first several minutes; wailing leads only make things worse, and we’re treated to many minutes of seriously unpleasant music until a soaring organ swoops in from nowhere and the guitars suddenly find the right chords, and song and listener are transformed. Together, both projects play off each other’s strengths, giving us an album full of epics that alternate in intensity and approach until finally colliding on the last two tracks, which are sprawling collaborations about “Pluto (The Gatekeeper),” naturally. The first is a 12-minute synth drone, the cosmic ambient breather we’ve earned after the preceding 100 straight minutes of metal; the second is a 12-minute metallic culmination of everything that came before. Fortress of solitude synths, chintzy drum programming, and soaring harmonized leads take a sudden left-turn through full-blown mechanized death metal, only to collapse back into ripping cosmic black metal before the final comedown. It’s a thing of beauty, all the more impressive for its breadth and scope. –Aaron Lariviere

01

Eternal Champion - Ravening Iron (No Remorse/Sword Worship)

I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t have guessed my favorite album of 2020 would come with not one but two topless ladies on the cover. Mind you, one has snakes instead of arms (I think?), so it’s art. (Or at least confusing.) Nor would I guess that this year of all years I’d swear undying fealty to a majestic slice of capital-letter Heavy Metal above all else, but the perfectly tuned escapism turned out to be the best antidote to a poisoned reality, and the face-pounding tone of the riffs fit the mood. I’ve seen a bunch of weaklings on RateYourMusic whining that “the magic of the first album is gone.” Ignore them. What’s sacrificed in terms of anthemic accessibility is more than made up for with darker bursts of thrash, epic doom, and crushingly muscular US power metal, and the riffs and vocals feel several degrees more sophisticated. As I (correctly, prophetically) wrote way back in late October:

“I’m calling it now: AOTY. Thirty seconds into “Ravening Iron” and I’ve heard all I need to. Everything you need to know, everything you’ve been missing in life these past hellish months, is right there in that ripping guitar tone and that galloping riff. The gleaming steel of a thousand swords rips through your mind to haunt your dreams, and it’s only just the start ... Guitars are rich, textured, slightly jagged; drums crack like cannon-shot, resonant and absolutely massive. As before, the songwriting leans heavily on muscular US power metal like Omen and Liege Lord, but the riffs consistently outperform and cover much more ground, drawing on everything from early Helloween to chunky Nuclear Assault-style crossover. Every song seems to tap into something new, something wicked unexpected, and the album shines in its least predictable moments. The end of “Coward’s Keep” — a knuckle-dragging stomp in the middle of the record — collapses into a brutal gauntlet of decaying chugs, and it’s enough to shred your loincloth. The next track, “Worms Of The Earth,” takes the quickest of detours into harsh vocals, while the guitars screech through a burst of black thrash, before the whip cracks back to the heavy metal goods. Towards the end of “Ravening Iron,” the absurdly tight title track and first single, the band leaps through a psychedelic wormhole; in the space of a minute, we get flanger-drenched leads, chiming synths, and an absurd Viking chant to send us into the night, drunk on glory and ready to take on the world.”

Well said, slightly younger me. All that holds true. And so it’s a grave injustice to see the TRAD BELT in other hands, but when is life ever fair. (Blame the subhumans at RateYourMusic, may they eternally wither.) There was no finer metal album this year. –Aaron Lariviere

Listen to a playlist of the available songs on Spotify.

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