Although the year 2020 has been precarious in terms of the social and political environments — to say the least — the respite that creative music provides has only grown stronger. There is an abundance of superbly captivating music that’s available to newly dive into this year, and the music stretches across genres and styles and, often, the creations in question feature elements from an array of different stylistic traditions.
What follows are five of the most captivating records of 2020, so far, since the year is now just over halfway through. These records are not ranked, and this list definitely by no means suggests anything less than greatness on the part of plenty of records that have not been referenced on this site (yet, at least). It’s just a list — albeit a list of some truly standout records.
Fluisteraars – Bloem
Bloem — the latest album from the Dutch post-black metal band Fluisteraars — leaves an indelible impression from the very first listen.
The band’s craft has been characterized as a blend of psychedelic rock traditions with the harshness of classic black metal, and that description definitely seems on-point, but it doesn’t quite capture the sheer emotional magnitude of the music. Within this impressively immersive album, there’s a metaphorical river of emotional release and catharsis, which Fluisteraars feel like they’ve captured via the striking melodies that they have interwoven with their black metal ferocity. There are plenty of moments of powerfully foreboding intensity on the album, but the entire record feels enthused with a more wistful tone, as if the tunes that the band perform within the black metal framework are oriented around experiencing something like the peaceful outdoors scene depicted on the cover art for Bloem, which features strikingly red poppies growing beneath a bright blue sky.
There’s a subtly escapist quality that seems to run through the music — it’s a journey into a grounded “great beyond” in which listeners can really feel the full outline of the emotional journey contained within this album. Without disposing of the thunderous ferocity that allows so much black metal to leave a deep impression, Fluisteraars feel like they’ve turned their craft towards the sun, in a sense. It’s not quite so icy, and there’s a rich fullness in the sound.
Listen below! It’s out via Eisenwald.
Kassad – London Orbital
In retrospect, the 2020 album London Orbital from the U.K. post-black metal project Kassad seems relatively straightforward, and yet, there is a stunning wellspring of power contained in the album’s five songs, three of which are over eight minutes long.
The music runs on a strong post-black metal foundation, featuring the ferocity of black metal music stretched out into a more melodically extended presentation, with plenty of atmosphere intermingled with the mix. The record doesn’t sound like it’s in a rush to arrive at some destination, be that a metaphorical trip or the literal journey through the album in terms of the energetic highs that might await if things were somewhat sped up.
What the album does contain are melodies that feel like they are poignant and powerful enough to knock the wind out of a listener, emotionally speaking, without having to resort to raw physical ferocity to do the trick — although the ferocity that is present on the album does aptly support the piercing emotional poignancy that sits at its core. The melodies feel like metaphorical daggers or like ice-cold blasts of wind suddenly blindsiding listeners. London Orbital feels, fundamentally, deeply mournful, but there’s something inescapably alluring about the fullness with which the music approaches the mournfulness. No parts of the isolating pain feel hidden here — it’s all been straightforwardly brought into the light.
Listen below! London Orbital is available via Hypnotic Dirge Records.
Pyrrhon – Abscess Time
Pyrrhon’s new record Abscess Time immediately unveils the technical death metal powerhouse contained within its runtime, but it’s not only captivating on account of the sheer intensity of the music, although there’s plenty of that. The record also feels defined by the band’s simultaneous delivery of stunning intricacy and horizon-expanding instability, as if they’re pushing inward and pulling outward at the same time.
Sonically speaking, it’s as if the band are utilizing the mountainous weight of their avalanche of musical brutality to find some kind of essential emotional core that might go underappreciated but always lurks in the background anyway. There’s an immediately palpable sincerity in the music, as if the instability and sheer chaos packed into many of the rhythms deliver a musical portrait of real-world emotions like rage and — crucially — those moments of exhausted collapse when rage implodes into something more desperate and even inward-facing. The music rushes through deeply invigorating blasts of metallic chaos, and in between these blasts, Pyrrhon rarely, if ever, feel like they find solid ground — they have funneled the monumental ferocity of technical death metal into a laceratingly chaotic hurricane of sound, and, staggeringly, they definitely do not feel like they have dialed down any of these elements.
The lyrics across Abscess Time are very socially conscious, and they’re grippingly blunt — “Down At Liberty Ashes,” for instance, tells stories including a tale of teenage workers who died when they became trapped in a grain silo. It’s an unforgettable portrait, and thanks in part to the desperate brutality of the sound, the reality of the grimness feels inescapable.
Listen below! Abscess Time is out via Willowtip Records.
Spice – s/t
The self-titled, debut record from the California-based group Spice is definitely not metal-oriented, unlike the above three records. Yet, strangely enough, the record does feel like it has similarly escapist qualities.
Spice perform their own uniquely gritty blend of post-punk, although keeping them confined to a particular genre description would be fruitless and do their actual music a disservice. Their music features invitingly familiar rock band instrumentation, with the added element of a violin that makes occasional prominent appearances throughout their nine songs. There’s a very strong, prominent melodic element to the songs — they don’t get too crazy and deliver any chaos here — but there’s a stunning richness underpinning these melodies that makes the songs instantly stick.
Ross Farrar, who also performs with the also California-based Ceremony, does vocals on the record, and his richly dynamic singing delivers a powerfully real-feeling portrait of the sentiments expressed in his lyrics, which hinge on various real-world facets of the malaise of modern life, as exemplified by the album’s closer, “I Don’t Wanna Die In New York.” The music that accompanies Farrar’s singing isn’t just an accompaniment — rather, the songs present their own rich world of churning emotional undercurrents that feel expertly captured by the musicians. Hints of instability feel like they’re present among the melodies, which adds to the real-world grittiness, and the main bulk of the songwriting itself leaps through cohesive yet swinging dynamics that express emotional volatility like little else could. There are faster and slower moments across Spice, but they’re all united by that propulsive and cathartically “real” energy.
Listen below! Spice’s debut is out via Dais Records.
Wailin’ Storms – Rattle
If you like gritty horror tales set in abandoned cabins and overlooked swamps, then you should probably not miss Rattle, the newest album from the Durham, North Carolina-area group Wailin’ Storms. The album somehow feels like it’s captured the feeling of those sorts of stories in musical form.
Fundamentally, the band perform energetic rock, but all of their songs feel infused with a deeply unnerving energy thanks to elements like the bluesy, soulful singing from the band’s Justin Storms and the waves of unsettling atmosphere that wash over so many of the songs. There’s a lot of earthy instability in the songs’ constructions, but there’s just about always a forward energy that strangely electrifies the feeling of the music, as if it’s the soundtrack for some kind of otherworldly beast rising from the dirt. The rhythms across the record feel chaotically churning yet inescapably propulsive, like the band have somehow set a grand metaphorical fire to illuminate nighttime chaos in some indeterminate yet isolated woods.
It’s richly immersive rock featuring swinging dynamics and a whole lot of gripping elements like a doom-laden, hazy atmosphere that runs through much of the record. Led by consistently powerful guitar riffing, deep bass groove, and perfectly energetic drum rhythms, Rattle delivers an overcast journey into what feels like a possessed thunderstorm of sound. The captivating music never lets up, and neither does the sense that the spiraling lurches of energy are cracking open some kind of forgotten path into a netherworld.
Listen below! Rattle is out via Gilead Media.