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MetalMatters: The Best Metal Albums of December 2020

Post-rock legends Jesu return after seven years, chameleonic rockers Boris collaborate once more with noise fiend Merzbow, and Dan Barrett unleashes Black Wing's sophomore record.

The final month of the year, and while December is usually expected to be a touch quieter when it comes to releases, there were no less than 16 records that caught our attention. Black metal and death metal in all their different flavors, from old-school to avant-garde, post-rock and post-metal, avant-doom, and even some classic heavy metal. And of course, going off-kilter with some fierce noise and experimental electronica. So dig in! – Spyros Stasis

Heavy Metal Guitarist by The Digital Artist (Pixabay)

Akhlys - Melinoë (Debemur Morti)

Despite their unforgiving black metal outlook, Akhlys actually started off as a dark ambient exploration. Their debut record, Supplication stood away from the aggression and hostility of black metal, with Akhlys instead engulfing it in atmospheric eeriness and dark ambient inspired industrial machinations. This complete dedication to the electronic sound would not last long for Akhlys, and in time they would fiercely introduce an extravagance of black metal flavors to the project, but without completely abandoning the dark ambient etherealism. The Dreaming I was the bitter result of this transfiguration, a devastating offering of grim, dissonant bliss. Yet, it is the return now with Melinoe that sees Aklhys complete their vision.

Aptly named after the Greek nymph, a bringer of nightmares and madness, Akhlys take advantage of their dichotomy between the atmospheric and the aggressive. Dark ambient passages herald the coming darkness in "Somniloquy", before the full force of the blackened onslaught ensues. And it is something Akhlys performs with conviction and purpose. What is striking with this blend is the retained sense of balance of this work, managing to always hold on to an ethereal and otherworldly facade, even when unleashing full-blown chaos. The long-form "Pnigalion" augments this feeling of anxiety through these bursts of angst and agony. Yet, Melinoe takes its most terrifying form when the ambiance sets in, either through the ritualistic pacing of "Ephialtes" or the complete plunge into the unknown abyss with "Succubare". No matter the case Akhlys have reached a creative peak, aptly weaving dark ambient and black metal to create a horrifying experience in Melinoe. – Spyros Stasis

Black Soul Horde - Land of Demise (Independent)

If I could go back and revise my year-end list of metal albums for 2020, the sophomore release by Black Soul Horde would be right up there with the best of them. On the surface, the music of the Greek trio is fairly straightforward in terms of heavy metal tropes. Their riffs are as massive as they are harmonically vibrant. Rhythms gallop over plains of dynamic drum patterns and burrowing bass. Vocal lines soar to Halford-like falsettos and descend into silky baritones. Throughout, a sense of epic atmosphere and groove prevails. But above all, the eight tracks on Land of Demise are so well-written and performed with such gusto and prowess that they leave all competition behind, eclipsing even the likes of the excellent Megaton Sword. In short, Black Soul Horde have created, excuse my cliché, a modern classic. A trad and retro heavy metal album that sounds anything but dated. – Antonio Poscic

Black Wing - No Moon (The Flenser)

The common thread running through all of Dan Barrett's creative output is a sense of melancholia. Be it through the post-punk structures and lo-fi aesthetics of Have a Nice Life, or the acoustic passageways of Giles Corey, that sense of fragile gloom is always present. And while Barrett's adventurous spirit has led him to explore the electronic domain, with his Black Wing project, this trademark quality still arises. Releasing an intriguing debut record in ...is Doomed, Barrett stepped into a digital realm comprising indie-pop sensibilities with chillwave methodologies.

The return now with No Moon, Black Wing's sophomore record, sees Barrett continue to drive the electronica theme. Abstracted dark dancehalls appear through the bleakness, as the catchy choruses of "Bollywood Apologetics" spread through the spacious scenery. Heavier moments of infectious groove rise, with the sub-bass on "Ominous '80s" reaching an obscene level, yet there is always this distinct feeling of longing and sadness that prevails. Where Barrett breaks ranks with Black Wing's past is with the regard to the strictness of the electronic genre, instead opting for looser forms that carry over towards an ambient domain in the likes of "Twinkling", or going to complete noise forms with "Vulnerable" and spoken words samples in "Choir of Assholes". – Spyros Stasis

Boris with Merzbow - 2R0I0P0 (Relapse)

In Merzbow's vast and varied catalog, the collaborations with Boris rank among his best works. Born from a seemingly incongruous fusion of harsh noise, post-rock, doom, and psychedelia, these records often achieved an otherworldly harmony, allowing noise's positive and healing affectivity to shine through. In this sense, 2R0I0P0 is another triumph.

While based on re-recordings of songs from Boris's middling 2019 release LφVE & EVφL, 2R0I0P0 really is a thing of its own. For one, Boris's re-interpretations of their own material follow a more effervescent and invigorated score, adding flavor where they previously lacked it. Simultaneously, Merzbow's noisy interventions erase traces of silence left between melodies, inject themselves into swells of riffs, shape themselves around rhythms, and swallow them whole in culminations of post-rock crescendos.

Especially striking are cuts like "Love", where Merzbow's noise embraces a sorrowful guitar line, buzzing and bustling as if trying to touch sound with sound, and "Journey" on which meandering, softer waves of white noise and static hum a pensive lullaby. Elsewhere, on "Boris" and "Absolutego" Boris turn to noise rock patterns and filthy proto-doom as Merzbow's effects explode above and below them into thrilling shards of fireworks.

But for all the aural and sonic maximalism of this music, its soul is gentle and optimistic, consumed by an invocation of a better tomorrow. Or, as Boris themselves put it, it is a "monument to the requiem of the previous era. From here, a new world begins again." – Antonio Poscic

Cardinal Wyrm - Devotionals (Independent)

There is something deliciously wrong with Cardinal Wyrm's idea of doom metal that sounds absolutely right. As if phase-shifted just slightly out of our reality, the music of the Bay Area trio murmurs with a strange inflection, creating a loose and rambunctious sound that is as psychedelic as it is menacingly direct. On cuts like "Gannet", they reach for Voivod-like distorted, acerbic attacks amidst squeaking guitar leads, marching drum rolls, and digging bass lines. Then, they crawl down, way down, and go doom. Elsewhere, they sound like Killing Joke assembling a monster from post-punk and sludge metal on "Mrityunjaya" and "Imposter," before thrashing away with "Canticle", and trudging down a slower, twisted path akin to Virus on "Abbess." And whichever approach they take, the impact is one of mind-bending disorientation. Perhaps trying to lead us into a susceptible state and preparing us to fully absorb Pranjal Tiwari's persuasive, towering sermons of existential dread. – Antonio Poscic

Dira Mortis - Ancient Breath of Forgotten Misanthropy (Selfmadegod)

The colossal, seething sound grabs you right away. It has everything. Meaty, churning riffs, which drip with dissonance and sonic filth yet retain a melodic edge. Focused blast beats and swirling tremolos, moving forward while staying in place. Screaming guitar leads and solos that might make you wonder whether a resurrected Jeff Hanneman was playing here. Insane and continuous tempo changes and breaks. Growls trapped between black shrieks and brutal death metal growls delivered from abyssal depths. The sound of Dira Mortis—a quartet featuring veterans of the Polish metal scene—is quite simply one of the pinnacles of black and doom tinged death metal. Like Ophis' Abhorrence in Opulence, the physical and aural experience of Ancient Breath of Forgotten Misanthropy is captivating on its own, then made even more powerful by varied and never-resting songwriting. Gorgeous in its dreadfulness. – Antonio Poscic

Folterkammer - Die Lederpredigt (Gilead Media)

Andromeda Anarchia came into prominence in the extreme metal scene with her guest appearance in Imperial Triumphant's Vile Luxury and then 2020's Alphaville. And while with her project Andromeda Anarchia's DARMATTERS she explores a progressive verging on an experimental rock sound, her other project Folterkammer follows a much more potent and brutal perspective. Joined by Imperial Triumphant's Zachary Ezrin on guitars, Coffin Sore's Brendan McGowan on drums, and bassist Darren Hanson, Folterkammer aim to re-establish the connection between classical and operatic music with black metal.

There is a rich tradition that has seen this alchemical experiment, be it through the majestic landscapes of Dimmu Borgir, the vampiric nightmares of Cradle of Filth, or the early days of the mighty Therion. Still, Folterkammer distance themselves from all these recipes and instead start from scratch, connecting the pensive quality of opera in all its tragic exasperations with the bitter traditional black metal demeanor. The impressive ambiance of "Die Nanie" collapses on the Andromeda Anarchia's cutthroat vocals, while the repetitive riffage and continuing drum pummeling create a circular effect.

From there on it is a true theatre of horror guided by Andromeda Anarchia's protean vocals, reaching soprano heights with "Die Hymne", particularly impressive within the pompous orchestrations of "Das Zeugnis'' or enacting a choral symmetry with "Das Gebet". It acts as a counterpoint from the darkness and grim essence of the instrumentation, standing fiercely as the only source of some light within the dim "Die Elegie". Yet, it does not turn the tide for Die Lederpredigt, making sure that the core of the record remains mean, oppressive, and torturous. An intriguing spin on the classical investigations of black metal, and an excellent introduction to Folterkammer. – Spyros Stasis

Gjoad - Samanon (Antiq)

A product of their Alpine environment, Austria's Gjoad set forth to make epic, atmospheric music. A new entity, this trio has come together and is now releasing their debut record Samanon through one of the more off-kilter black metal labels out there, Antiq. And while there is an inherent black metal essence, tying nicely to folk motives and ambient leanings, that is not where the entity of Gjoad's visions lie.

Gjoad approach Samanon as a spiritual experience, meticulously creating mirky passageways through dark forests or impressive climbs through the wild mountain range. Still, in order to achieve this, black metal is only part of the recipe. The folk influence that Gjoad inject into Samanon surpasses the mere melodic twist, with the trio implementing jaw harps and singing bowls alongside their distorted guitars and ritualistic drums. On top of this, the overall approach of Gjoad when it comes to world-building is mostly mirrored through a post-rock mentality.

The loose structures, the exploratory instinct, and the otherworldly ethereal elements establish a transcendental experience, as long-form tracks in opener "Rouh-Samanon" and "Peraht" showcase. It is an experience that is awe-inspiring, becoming overwhelming through the magnificent crescendos of "Gartsang" and "Untar", but it is also able to plunge the record in less pronounced and mysterious darkness, as with "Hagazussa". – Spyros Stasis

Grayceon - Mothers Weavers Vultures (Translation Loss)

The instrumental, undulating ending of Giant Squid's cut "Metridium Field" from their 2006 record Metridium Field has haunted my dreams ever since first hearing it. That specific, organ and guitar-driven section has always seemed to be the culmination of the Californians' aspirations to meld post-metal, doom, sludge, and progressive rock. The resulting fusion was a success: a stirring, yet kinetic attack.

While violinist and vocalist Jackie Perez Gratz joined them after that album, echoes and reflections of that poignant sound are clearly heard in her own band Grayceon. As if observing Giant Squid's music under a microscope, Gratz, Zack Farwell, and Max Doyle sequence and isolate their progressive and emotional essence, then explode it into a million colors.

Mothers Weavers Vultures continues this tradition, expanding both in the atmosphere and musical complexity. Here, Gratz's cello placates the otherwise intricate, grooving songs and heavy sludge riffs with a mournful, lamenting aura. Throughout, the compositions unfold like breathtaking landscapes, moving from mountain ranges of incisive progressive metal, jagged tremolos, and roaring cries to meadows of pensive acoustic folk and flowing melodies. A stunning album. – Antonio Poscic

Heretical Sect - Rapturous Flesh Consumed (Gilead Media)

Approaching blackened death from the black metal side of things, the basis of Heretical Sect's style on Rapturous Flesh Consumed is in the blazing dissonance and forward momentum of swirling tremolos and incessant blast beats. But on top of that foundation, inspired in part by French avant-black, they layer bits and pieces of death and doom metal, haunted atmospheres, and ritualistic flourishes. As a whole, the album feels like an unholy ritual. A black mass composed of both traditional and modern elements meant to ship us off onto an expertly guided tour of the suburbs of hell. Once there, we're introduced to the pervasive malevolence, tortured destinies, and brooding anger of its inhabitants, while the music alternately smolders and devilishly cauterizes our souls, bringing pleasure through pain. Until we feel like staying there permanently might not be such a bad thing. – Antonio Poscic

Imha Tarikat - Sternenberster (Prophecy)

Imha Tarikat made their first appearance in the German black metal underground in 2017, with their Kenoboros EP. Divulging without fear into the second black metal wave sound, Imha Tarikat are reinvigorating this retro sound but enhancing it with a few modern takes. These became more apparent with their excellent debut record Kara Ihlas, and Imha Tarikat now dives deeper with their sophomore full-length Sternenberster.

Roughly translating to burster of stars, Sternenberster does not hold back. The majestic start and the mid-pace of "Ekstase ohne Ende'' set the scene ablaze with its flamboyant lead work before the full-blown black metal onslaught ensues. Lo-fi vocals, a punishing bass line, and the old school black metal ethos rise from the depths creating an exhilarating ride, that well continues on "Sturm der Erlosang" with its thrashoid extensions. Yet Imha Tariket throw more fuel to this fire, be it through their punk-induced influences augmenting the volatility of their work as in the title track or going for an almost rock 'n' roll ride with "Klimax Downpour".

They even invoke the unholy beast that is Celtic Frost, resulting in the cold and detached weight of "Kreuzpunkt der Schicksale". And while this recipe is not novel, it is the temperament of Imha Tarikat that propels Sternberster. They fully embrace the retro black metal sound, their punk roots lend them a sense of angst and urgency, making Sternberster feel honest and true. – Spyros Stasis

Jesu - Terminus (Avalanche)

Justin K. Broadrick has a chameleonic ability to mutate his creative output through the years. From the grindcore awakenings of Napalm Death and the early brutal industrial days of Godflesh circa Streetcleaner to the experimentalism of Head of David, the electronic injections of Techno Animal, Broadrick has been in a state of constant flux. And so Jesu came along, in the early 2000s following the end of Godflesh, as Broadrick turned his attention towards the post-metallic realm. Jesu would go on and unleash some of Broadrick's most beautiful and emotive output, with a series of excellent releases in their self-titled debut and sophomore full-length Conqueror.

As the years went by, numerous collaborations came to the forefront with ZONAL and the return of Godflesh, with Jesu taking the back seat for Broadrick. Now Terminus arrives seven years after Every Day I Get Closer to the Light From Which I Came, and it acts as a nostalgic reminder of post-doom gloominess. Broadrick never leaves any of the trademark weight accompanying all his projects, even when the aim is for something more ethereal. Instead, doom and post-metal are inverted, projected through an indie-pop scope, and with a shoegaze sensibility to achieve maximum effect. The pop sensibilities are clear as daylight, in moments like "Alone" and its infectious earworm chorus let on, or the devastating slow beating of "Sleeping In".

It is the coalition of the mechanical with the emotive, the cold-blooded with the mystical that makes Terminus so enticing. Structures are abstracted, doom metal motifs are contorted in the likes of "Terminus", electronic ideas are disfigured in "Consciousness" and lo-fi aesthetics are reconfigured with "Don't Wake Me Up" and "Give Up". In the end, Jesu unfold a continuous process of healing and redemption, something essential for our times. – Spyros Stasis

Kelly Moran / Prurient - Chain Reaction at Dusk (Hospital Productions)

Kelly Moran and Dominick Fernow are amongst the most daring experimental artists of our times. Through her stunning prepared piano, Moran has been creating amalgamations of minimalist compositions and ambient endeavors. On the other end of the spectrum, Fernow with Prurient has been exploring the harshest side of electronic music, combining noise and sonic collage. Therefore Chain Reaction at Dusk becomes a true meeting of the minds, as Moran and Fernow offer a hallucinatory trip through 25 minutes of avant-garde expeditions.

Moran's side of the collaboration sees her once more combining the prepared piano teachings of pioneers like John Cage with a powerful ambient approach. The neoclassical introduction of "Red Storm'' washes over the continuation of the Helix compositions, with "Helix III". Retro electronic movements collapse on top of the pristine piano playing. It is a dreamlike scenery made real through the heavy drone foundation that takes over the sub-bass frequency region. The final piece "Hymn" closes this investigation in a minimal yet majestic tone, leading the way to Fernow's side. It is a quite distinct turn here, as "Tokyo Exorcist'' arrives, reminding that Prurient never really hold back. The disfigured Tubular Bells-like theme soon arrives, creating tension through every note and giving rise to a cinematic movement. It is a circular motion, one that surrounds everything as grim vocal lines fill the space.

The second and final offering for Prurient, "Help If I May Ask" takes an even darker turn, with Fernow combining noise, musique concrete, and sonic collage to disturbing effect. And so Chain Reaction at Dusk conducts a journey that starts in a nebulous, dreamlike scenery before being plunged into a digital hellscape, completing a perfect cycle. – Spyros Stasis

Nexul - Scythed Wings of Poisonous Decay (Iron Bonehead)

Hailing from El Paso and featuring members of the esteemed black/death/doom act Hellvetron, Nexul first started spreading its own black/death malice back in 2013 with their Nexulzifer demo. Taking their time, Nexul would return and unleash a work of pure darkness with the extremely volatile Paradigm of Chaos. Paying tribute to the old-school cult edge of black/death, without succumbing to a polished sound or a very refined end product, these Texans created a brutal and harsh work. And that is something that they now want to repeat with their new EP Scythed Wings of Poisonous Decay.

Much of Nexul's inclinations are still present in this new EP. The blasphemous outcries, the schizoid lead work borrowing from the proto-death metal scene is causing absolute havoc in "Reflected in Glaring Eyes", while the pummeling drum onslaught increases the bestiality of the EP in the likes of "Partitioned By Severity". What has changed is the approach toward production. Do not worry, these fiends still rely on their lo-fi aesthetic but in contrast with Paradigm of Chaos, the new EP features a more dense and atmospheric tone. It is an asphyxiating quality that ties in majestically with their more downtempo moments in "T.M.I.P.L.", while at the same time making their purposeful outbursts in "N.X.L.Z.F.R" that much more potent. An excellent follow-up that carries on Nexul's legacy. – Spyros Stasis

Pneuma Hagion - Voidgazer (Nuclear War Now!)

Sustaining a truly prolific creative output, Ryan Wilson has been responsible for a number of underground gems in recent years. Be it through the blackened crust with Endless Disease, brutal death/grind madness in Intestinal Disgorge, or funeral doom with Excantation and the Howling Void, Wilson always showed an excellent touch for all these different flavors of extreme music. Now, Wilson returns with another project in Pneuma Hagion, venturing forth in the black/death metal realm and all its unholy offerings.

Having released a number of demos and EPs, Wilson expands the one-man project with the inclusion of drummer Shane Elwell to release Pneuma Hagion's debut record Voidgazer. The plunge into the death metal abyss is immediate as the heavy bass lines of "Aeons of Slumber'' arrive. While the guttural death metal stench is always present, it is being obscured by a cult methodology. The death metal of Pneuma Hagion does not sound so much as physical, instead being otherworldly. Alternating the pace between fast and unforgiving, filled with blastbeats that would make Suffocation proud, and then turning it down a couple of notches to attain a doom oriented perspective.

It is an approach that brings to mind the doom induced darkness of acts like Incantation, while the touch of the blackened atmospherics ties everything together in moments like "Summoning" and "Primordial". Unapologetically dissonant, no bullshit terrifying and with a retro aesthetic, Pneuma Hagion truly arrive with Voidgazer. – Spyros Stasis

Yashira - Fail to Be (Good Fight Music)

The success of the doom, death, and noise rock imbued blend of sludge and post-metal played by Jacksonville's Yashira hinges on one thing: emotion. Oftentimes compositionally simple, this style of music greatly relies on playing raw and unbridled. It builds from a sort of authenticity of delivery needed to elevate the roaring and shrieking riffs, crushing drum hits, and oozing low frequencies into something more, something that will speak to the dark corners of our souls. And, oh boy, do Yashira bring an overabundance of uncut anger, pain, and hopelessness to the table.

Channeled through a tortured and enraged amalgamation of vocals, this suffering and fury sculpt the quartet's second full-length Fail to Be into a thing of powerful and awful beauty. Attacking, destroying, and huge, yes, but above all deeply human, complete with flaws and familiar struggles embedded into bits of blackgaze. As if all the turmoil of the world rested on their shoulders, Fail to Be encapsulates Yashira's liberating, endless scream. – Antonio Poscic

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