It was a good year for metal, a decent year for rock, a so-so year for electronica, and a not-much-happening year for punk. Every year’s a good one for metal, though. It expands and diversifies, evolving and surviving. Even in the ’90s when the print media – horseshit-talkers to a man – was blethering about “the death of metal” and claiming Kurt Cobain and Nirvana had killed it, actual events proved otherwise. Some of metal’s biggest-selling outfits sold fewer albums during the grunge years, but the old guard rolled on regardless, continuing to record new music, release it, and play it live around the world. Meanwhile, the Second Wave of Black Metal was building momentum in ways that changed the face of the genre forever. That Second Wave – or, as some call it, the First Wave of Norwegian Black Metal – saw a phenomenal surge in creativity which continues to this day. And just a few miles away in Finland, the melodic-death-metal scene was being born. It spawned the trailblazing bands Amorphis, Omnium Gatherum, Swallow the Sun, Insomnium, Ensiferum and Wintersun. A few miles in the other direction, Sweden’s Gothenburg scene was blossoming, with In Flames, Dark Tranquillity and Soilwork spearheading the vanguard. Yet magazines continued to print their nonsense about the death of metal, which in reality had never been more alive. The main breeding grounds had moved. That’s all. Metal was born in Britain in the late ’60s and grew there throughout the ’70s and right up to the early ’80s, with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWoBHM to those in the know) spawning a staggering depth and breadth of talent. In the early ’80s the main breeding grounds moved to the US as the thrash movement (and, hot on its heels, the death-metal movement) exploded from San Francisco Bay Area (or in death metal’s case, South Florida) out to all other parts of that nation. And beyond. Then in the ’90s the main breeding grounds moved again, this time to the icy north – Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark – where they remain to this day. I don’t see that ever changing again. Finland spends five times more on musical education per capita than any other country does. It’s no accident that so many of the most talented musicians on the planet hail from Finland. Or that Finland has more metal bands per square mile than any other nation on Earth. By far. The cold beauty of that landscape plays its role too, as does the mythology of the people.
I usually have a difficult time choosing my favourite album of any given year, sometimes so much so that I award joint #1 to two or more records which I can’t separate in terms of quality. But in 2020, for the first time ever, it was an easy decision. The top album won by such a huge margin – a chasm – that the others couldn’t touch it or even get close. The album in question wasn’t by a Finnish or Scandinavian outfit either. Rather, it was a new release from one of the aforementioned old guard – the most transcendent recording they’ve ever created. A thing of utter sonic perfection. Without any further ado (or adon’t, or amight), here’s my list, starting with that astonishing slab of metal.
- Armored Saint – Punching the Sky
John Bush gets my vote for best metal vocalist in the known Universe. He always knows exactly what note to hit, how much intensity to hit it with, what tone(s) to use, and how long to sustain it for maximum emotional impact. In short, the man’s a vocal powerhouse. He approaches singing in the same way he approaches life: fearlessly. I saw him fronting Anthrax a few times in Glasgow. At one of those gigs, Bush climbed up a huge stack of Marshall amps. When he reached the top, he was so high that he couldn’t stand up straight without putting his head through the ceiling. He stood there semi-crouched, looking out over the crowd. Then he leaned forwards, swaying back and forth like he was preparing to jump. I thought, ‘Surely he won’t. He’s a long way up.’ He did. Not some half-hearted jump either. A full-force launch that sent him flying over the crowd, whose upstretched hands caught him safely and passed him back to the stage. That is a frontman. Punching the Sky came 5 years after its predecessor. It was worth every minute of the wait. It’s a barnstormer of a record, an immaculate masterpiece – a gesamtkunstwerk – jaw-droppingly impressive throughout, from the haunting Uilleann pipe intro of opening track Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (an intro which reminds me of Gerry Rafferty’s Shipyard Town – one of my favourite songs) to the riproaring strains of closer Never You Fret. It’d normally be difficult to pick a favourite song on an album that’s utterly perfect, but in this case it’s easy – Lone Wolf is out of this world. It’s not as instantly haunting as the opening track, but after 10 seconds of slow Sabbathesque riffage it shows its true colours, baring its teeth and morphing into a hungrier beast. The verse is a slow-burner but the bridge is pure sonic magic. Then, just as it seems impossible for the song to get any better, the chorus hits and John Bush comes into his own. The chorus of Lone Wolf brings tears to my eyes, sends shivers rippling through me, causes all my body hair to stand up and the flesh at the base of each hair to steeple: an awe response. On that chorus Bush isn’t human-singing. He’s wolf-singing. Not high-pitched howls but drawn-out lupine lowing so plaintive and loaded with longing, it has a monumental emotional impact on the listener. John Bush: a wolf in human form. Armored Saint: stronger than they’ve ever been before.
2. Enslaved – Utgard
A near-perfect album from one of Norway’s most iconic and influential metal outfits. Enslaved’s recorded output has slowed a bit over the past decade, not through apathy or abandonment, but because frontman Ivar Bjørnson and his friend Einar Selvik (formerly drummer with black-metal titans Gorgoroth, and then founder/frontman of Wardruna) collaborated on their two groundbreaking Viking-folk-roots recordings Skuggsjá and Hugsjá. Bjørnson has brought some of these influences into Enslaved’s music (which was always rich in folk influences, but originally these manifested thematically, not musically). On Utgard these folk-roots qualities are more notable than on any previous Enslaved record, and the album’s all the better for it. Still, this is very much a metal album. There’s plenty of incendiary riffage and that familiar Bjørnson growl, but there are also quieter musical interludes (reminiscent of Opeth’s recent heavy-prog style) and some clean singing too. I love when I can hear a band evolving and growing from album to album, adding new influences and experimenting with new sounds, without abandoning the original vision. That’s musical maturity. Enslaved now understands that the spaces in between the notes are as important as the notes themselves, that both light and shade are necessary in order to create atmospherics. Utgard is one atmospheric album. Its vast sweeping soundscapes conjure images of frozen tundra, icy winds, angry seas, mountains, ravens, Vikings and the pantheon of Nordic deities. For every burst of aggression, there’s an ambient interlude to counterbalance it. That’s something Utgard gets just right: balance. It’s the sound of a band in control of its craft. Tracks this rich in atmospherics and emotional resonance don’t happen by accident or by following some music-by-numbers formula. These are personal songs composed and performed from the heart.
3. Pendragon – Love Over Fear
I’ve loved Pendragon since I was 10. Back then, my elder brother’s best friend (known to all as “Big Pete”) was a roadie for Pendragon and Marillion, neither of which had record deals yet. The giant Pete used to bring me demo tapes, badges and patches of those bands. That was a magical experience for me: being there at the very beginning, hearing amazing music by bands that other people – even rock and metal fans – hadn’t heard of. I felt like I was being entrusted with sacred secret sounds, which I suppose I was. Marillion went on to become one of the biggest rock bands in Britain. Pendragon didn’t achieve anywhere near that level of commercial success, but – full credit to them – they never went away. They stuck to their guns, creating some of the greatest and most underrated heavy prog albums on record. Love Over Fear might just be the greatest Pendragon album of all. And what an appropriate title. The first 55 seconds annoy me – I don’t know what kind of mushroom trip made Nick Barrett think that intro was a good idea. But after that, things improve immeasurably. The guitar tones are sublime – very much like the signature tone of Marillion’s Steve Rothery. Lyrically, the album is angry, observant and uplifting. One recurring theme is: seeing through and overcoming the lies and propaganda that have been ravaging the world. That’s a timely message, when most people have lost the ability to think independently, use critical-thinking skills and apply logical analysis to see through the lies spewed by so-called governments and medical authorities (two huge misnomers), and the mainstream media (news and social).
4. Paradise Lost – Obsidian
One of my favourite bands since they first riffed their way out of Halifax back in the ’90s. Obsidian is quintessential Paradise Lost. It combines the catchiness of the One Second and Symbol of Life albums with the doominess of early PL material and the heaviness of Obsidian‘s predecessor, Medusa. An ideal blend. As always, Nick Holmes’s vocals manage to be simultaneously dour and uplifting. That’s a paradox, I know, but Paradise Lost has always been a band steeped in duality: heavy yet catchy; gloomy yet inspiring; pessimistic but born survivors.
5. Blue Öyster Cult – The Symbol Remains
It had been a long time since a BÖC studio album arrived – almost 20 years. I’d heard Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma talk about an all-acoustic album they’d been considering for ages and might get around to recording/releasing. This isn’t it. The Symbol Remains is electrified and loud – it’s Blue Öyster Cult on top form doing what they do best: layering unique vocals and backing harmonies over glorious guitar riffage, while a rock-solid rhythm section keeps everything structured to perfection. This album came somewhat out of the blue. I’d seen the band perform live just a few months earlier in Glasgow, but they said nothing about a forthcoming album. Kept it very much under their hats. This meant a big surprise when I received a ‘you may be interested in’ e-mail with a link to a new Blue Öyster Cult record. I may be interested? I couldn’t be more interested! It’s perhaps appropriate that during the interim between BÖC’s most recent albums – 2003’s The Curse of the Hidden Mirror and The Symbol Remains in 2020 – Swedish band Ghost borrowed/stole/recycled the BÖC musical/vocal blueprint and melded it with Mercyful Fate’s darker sensibilities to great effect. Now the masters have returned to show that they can still do it like no one else. Others can mimic the style, but it’s never quite the same.
A wee Blue Öyster Cult story for you. In the early 2000s they played a couple of shows – 1 year apart – at my favourite gig venue (ever since Glasgow Apollo closed), originally called The Renfrew Ferry but later renamed The Ferry. At the first of these shows my journalist friend Mike (who was reviewing the show for a Scottish daily newspaper) was in his usual spot upstairs, directly above and behind the stage. (The main crowd/stage area downstairs had once been the ship’s engine room. In order to turn the vessel into a concert venue, the ship had to be disemboweled to make room for a stage platform and standing audience space.) Mikey and I prefer to be upstairs at Ferry gigs, seated at one of the few tables on the perimeter of the upper deck. This vantage point offers an uninterrupted view of the stage. Plus you can buy chips upstairs. And, in Mike’s case, beer too. At Blue Öyster Cult’s first Ferry gig, Mike went to the bar to buy a fresh pint of beer just before the band was due to arrive onstage. While he was on his way back to the table – which was right above the drum kit – the lights went out and BÖC stepped onto the stage. As the band launched into its opening track, Mikey rushed back to the table, tripped over a chair leg, and dropped his glass on the tabletop. The glass tipped and the full pint of beer poured down onto drummer Bob Rondinelli’s head. The poor bastard had only just sat on his drum stool and already he was drenched. Many drummers would have thrown a tantrum at that point. Some would have walked offstage and refused to perform. Rondinelli wiped beer out of his eyes but kept on playing. A true professional. A year later Mikey and I were back on The Ferry, awaiting the arrival of Blue Öyster Cult. I’d insisted on sitting at a different table upstairs – one at the right-hand side, in a location that offered a diagonal-front view of the stage and made it impossible for clumsy Mike to spill beer on the band. A few seconds into the gig, I’m watching Rondinelli closely to see if he looks up. I figure he plays thousands of gigs in thousands of venues, so he may not remember that this particular location was where he received a pint of beer on top of his napper. But he did remember! About 30 seconds into the first track, he looked up and an expression of recognition (and horror) appeared on his face. I nudged Mike with my elbow and pointed this out, laughing so hard I could barely hear the music. During the gig, Rondinelli looked up nervously 15 or 20 times, obviously wondering if/when he’d be soaked by a torrent of some idiot’s beer. I said to Mike, “Look! Look what you’ve done tae Rondinelli! He’s a nervous wreck! You’ve given him a twitch!” Bobby played beautifully, as always, but every time he looked up with that worried expression I fell apart laughing and shook my head at my eejit friend Mike. That’s my favourite Blue Öyster Cult story.
6. Diamond Head – Lightning to the Nations 2020
When I first saw this advertised I thought it might be a 2020 remaster of the original Lightning to the Nations album – Diamond Head’s debut – which I’ve loved since I was a kid. If it had been, it wouldn’t have qualified for an album-of-the-year list. Those are for new studio recordings only – not compilations, remasters or live albums. But LttN2020 is a complete revamp and re-recording of the tracks from the original record, plus some cover versions of other artists’ songs. Those early Diamond Head tracks are some of the most iconic metal ever recorded. They couldn’t be bettered in terms of song quality or compositional creativity. But the production values of the early material were sketchy, so there was a lot of room for improvement there. LttN2020 revamps the old songs enough to make them new and fresh – not just clones of the classics. These tracks are whole new animals – they’re still recognisable as the classic DH songs, yet they have a different sonic DNA. Vocalist Rasmus Bom Andersen sounds enough like original singer Sean Harris to give this record that quintessential Diamond Head sound, yet Andersen’s voice has enough of its own character to make this a new Diamond Head rather than a band trying to reproduce its old sound. Andersen also plays back-up guitars on the record, as well as being mixer and producer. He did an amazing job of the production. Every nuance of every track is fit to bear the name Diamond Head. It’s a phenomenal record. I was over the moon to receive a copy signed by all five members of the band – fantastic! One thing DH lacks now, though, is a member with a truly heavy-metal name. They lacked that in the beginning too. But they did once have a vocalist with perhaps the best name in metal: Nick Tart. He sang for them during the 12 years between Harris’s departure and Andersen’s arrival. I cannot confirm whether Nick has sisters named Strawberry and Slutty, but I like to think he does. I realise I’ve gone off topic a bit, but this is my blog and I’ll fucking well go off piste if I like. So there.
7. Biff Byford – School of Hard Knocks
Biff Byford is one of my favourite people on the planet. I love him. Not in the sense that I want to rip off his clothes and tamper with him, but in the platonic sense of having major respect for the man as an artist, a vocalist, a musician and a human being. While writing my first book, Metallic Dreams, and seeking permission to quote certain song lyrics in the manuscript, I quickly found out that record companies are greedy bastards who do nothing unless there’s a lot of money in it for them (in my experience there was only one exception – EMI Germany). Record companies – especially major labels – like to retain legal ownership of the music and lyrics of all the artists on their roster, even though the folk at the record labels didn’t compose the songs or write the lyrics. This is an area where many bands have been shafted, finding – to their horror – that despite selling many records (sometimes millions) they’re still broke…but the record company isn’t! Fledgling artists would do well to learn that lesson: don’t give away legal ownership of your art – retain it at all costs. This is true in all types of art, but music in particular is an arena where corporate entities have been financially shafting artists since recorded music became a business. Anyway, back to Biff. I had approached several record companies asking permission to quote lyrics from albums released on their labels. Most of these companies either didn’t respond or replied with something along the lines of, “Permission to quote said lyric in your book will cost you £X per word.” The X value varied from company to company but it was always a big number, particularly the X that Sony Music asked for. Sony’s X was so ridiculously high that I sent them a picture of my bare arse along with the words, “This is my arse. Kiss it. And by the way, since I hold complete legal rights over that arse (as well as any and all images of it), each kiss will cost you £X.” (X being the same figure they had requested from me.) I thought they might see the funny side of this, realise they were being pricks, and waive all costs. But I never heard back from Sony, so I never quoted those particular lyrics in my book. EMI Germany, on the other hand, was far more accommodating. I had requested permission to quote a chunk of the lyric to Rocking Again, from the Saxon album Innocence Is No Excuse (originally released on the EMI Germany label). EMI replied quickly and helpfully, explaining that they didn’t own the legal rights to Saxon’s lyrics – Biff Byford did. They suggested that I contact Saxon’s (then) manager Leonard Loers and provided me with his e-mail address. I fired off a quick message to Leo, telling him the premise of the book, detailing exactly what lyrics I wanted to quote (a fairly big chunk), and assuring him that in the story every mention of Saxon is affectionate and born out of love for the band’s music. Moments later Leo sent me a reply that said, “I’ll phone Biff to ask.” A few minutes after that, another e-mail arrived from Leo. This one said, “Biff says yes! He’s excited about it.” No mention of money, no requests or demands for payment. None of that shit. Just a big beautiful excited yes. I felt the same magic I’d experienced as a kid of 10, when I first heard Saxon’s music. Over the next few months I sent Leo periodic updates on the book’s progress. When the novel was nearly finished, I received an e-mail from Leo saying, “Biff was wondering if he could have a signed copy of the book when it’s ready.” I replied, “Of course! I’d be honoured for him to have one.” A couple of days after that, another e-mail arrived from Leo: “Now the other guys in the band want signed copies too! They’re feeling left out. Could they have a signed copy each? Would that be possible?” I replied, “Yes! Of course. I’ll send ten signed copies: six named and signed copies – one for each of the band, and one for you – as well as four plain signed copies for wives/roadies/whomever else in the Saxon camp might want one.” So that was that – I sent the ten books to Leo in Germany, making sure the package arrived before Saxon set off on tour…because secretly I loved the idea of Biff and his bandmates reading my book in their bunks as the Saxon tour bus rolled through Europe. The very thought of that felt surreal and life-affirming. A few weeks later, at Saxon’s Glasgow gig, I met Biff and the band after the show. We talked about their tour and my book, which Biff told me he’d been reading on the bus in between shows. He quoted an incident from the story (from chapter 2, in which the 10-year-old Spark MacDubh first discovers heavy metal, in the form of the Saxon song Princess of the Night). As Biff and I stood in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street talking about my story, the karmic nature of the experience hit me: since I was a kid Saxon’s music had been playing a huge part in my life – changing it for the better, widening my horizons and opening new dimensions; now Biff and his Saxon compadres were enjoying something I’d created. That felt so good – and surreal – it made all the blood, sweat, tears and other bodily fluids I’d put into the book’s creation worthwhile. Before leaving to drive home that night, I asked the five members of Saxon (and Leo) to sign the same page of a fresh copy of Metallic Dreams. I loved the idea of having on my bookshelf a copy of my book signed by all of them. They thought it was a cracking idea and were happy to oblige. Since then, I’ve been put on the guest list for every Saxon show in Glasgow. They treat me like family because that’s the kind of human beings they are.
Now, to Biff’s solo album. Right from the outset of opening track Welcome to the Show, this record is magic. Most of the songs on School of Hard Knocks would fit right in on a Saxon album, but there are three delicate ballads that showcase a softer side to the Byford voice: (1) Throw Down the Sword; (2) Me and You; (3) a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair. The voice is still instantly recognisable as Biff’s, but it’s good to hear him occasionally ease back from his usual stratospherics in order to sing in a more relaxed fashion. There’s also a spoken-word track – Inquisitor – that’s too short to have much impact. (Biff has a perfect voice for spoken-word compositions – listen to Saxon’s Kingdom of the Cross to hear what I mean: it’s an immaculate track on which the Byford vocal delivery is spellbinding.) By comparison, Inquisitor is just a short filler between one song and another. It doesn’t hinder the album but doesn’t add much either. School of Hard Knocks is what I hoped it would be: a strong album that sounds a lot like Saxon most of the time but contains a few welcome surprises too. Best of both worlds. You can’t knock that.
8. Karg – Traktat
Often characterised as ‘depressive black metal’, Karg’s music is – to me – uplifting. It’s cathartic and angry, for sure, especially the vocals, and the musical backing has a lament quality (I nearly wrote ‘a lamentable quality’ there by accident!), but the overall emotional effect is, on me at least, absolutely positive. I find this to be true of much so-called depressive black metal and ambient black metal too. Partly it’s a cathartic thing. Hearing a musical artist who’s unafraid to bare his heart and soul – unafraid to channel his deepest pain and anguish into his music – is cathartic to hear because the listener senses it’s the sound of someone undergoing healing through music. It’s honest. And vulnerable. Pure too. Uncontrived. Those qualities are in short supply, which makes them all the more precious.
9. Katatonia – City Burials
One of the most consistently impressive bands, period. There’s never been a weak Katatonia track, let alone a weak album. The atmospherics are astonishing. Part of the genius of Katatonia is the way even their heaviest melodies are complemented by Jonas Renske’s hypnotic silk-smooth vocals. This creates a unique ambience. Many of their tracks are deceptively heavy – deceptive because Renske’s soaring voice can lull the listener into believing (s)he’s hearing something much lighter than it actually is. Then the listener notices a particular down-tuned riff that makes the walls shudder, or a guitar solo of savage intensity. This is the hallmark of Katatonia: blending velvet vocals and deceptively heavy music that’s memorable, catchy and overflowing with atmosphere. City Burials is a worthy successor to The Fall of Hearts and continues in the same musical vein.
10. AC/DC – Power Up
AC/DC studio albums don’t come around often these days. After the death of founding band member/rhythm guitarist/key songwriter/producer Malcolm Young, it didn’t seem likely that there would be another AC/DC album, particularly one that contained Malcolm’s imprint. In that respect, Power Up was a surprise. (In 2014 AC/DC recorded Rock or Bust without Malcolm, who wasn’t physically well enough to participate. It sounded like AC/DC by numbers – not bad, but lacking the special magic that’s present on so much of the band’s back catalogue.) I suppose Angus must’ve felt pressure to make Power Up a strong album, as it’s the first to come after Malcolm’s death. Angus stated that Power Up is dedicated to Malcolm in the same way Back in Black was dedicated to Bon Scott. Although recorded by the same lineup that created Rock or Bust – with Angus and Malcolm’s nephew Stevie once again filling in for Malcolm on rhythm guitar and backing vocals – Power Up has Malcolm’s presence all over it. Angus crafted some of the tracks out of previously unused musical ideas Malcolm had come up with, so the end result sounds very much like quintessential AC/DC. On this record Stevie Young sounds just like his uncle did. With Stevie’s flawless rhythm playing, Phil Rudd’s signature four-on-the-floor beat and the pounding bass of Cliff Williams laying down AC/DC’s trademark sonic foundation, lead guitarist Angus Young and singer Brian Johnson are free to run riot all over the tracks, which they do in style. They sound like they’re having fun too. The record doesn’t contain any songs that I consider all-time AC/DC classics, but there aren’t any fillers either. Power Up is full to the gunnels with bouncy anthems that get feet tapping, heads banging, voices chanting, and air guitarists abusing their instruments with gusto.
There were many other cracking albums released in 2020. Rather than turning this blog post into a novel-length thing (it’s already heading that way) by waxing lyrical about my top 20 (or 30, or 40, or more) albums of last year, I’ll offer my thoughts on only the top 10 but will list below, in no particular order, the other 2020 records that impressed me.
British Lion – The Burning
Revolution Saints – Rise
Thor – Rising
Ayreon – Transitus
Ensiferum – Thalassic
Missing Persons – Dreaming
Varg – Zeichen
Sojourner – Premonitions
Kvelertor – Splid
Ross the Boss – Born of Fire
Raven – Metal City
Winterfylleth – The Reckoning Dawn
Reb Beach – A View from the Inside
Heaven Shall Burn – Of Truth and Sacrifice
Faidra – Six Voices Inside
Mezcaleros – The Preacher
Neal Schon – Universe
Heathen – Empire of the Blind
Stone Temple Pilots – Perdida
Deftones – Ohms
Marco Hietala – Pyre of the Black Heart
The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic
Secrets of the Moon – Black House
Trivium – What the Dead Men Say
Cirith Ungol – Forever Black
Deep Purple – Whoosh!
Belore – Journey Through Mountains and Valleys
Lionheart – The Reality of Miracles
Lucifer – Lucifer III
My Dying Bride – The Ghost of Orion
Napalm Death – Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism
Cloven Hoof – Age of Steel
Fish – Weltschmerz
FM – Synchronized
Midnight Odyssey – Ruins of a Celestial Fire
Conception – State of Deception
Bonfire – Fistful of Fire
Ludovico Einaudi – 12 Songs from Home
Moby – All Visible Objects
Tangerine Dream – Recurring Dreams
Testament – Titans of Creation
Ozric Tentacles – Space for the Earth
Lightracer – Across the Dark Sky
Dance with the Dead – Blackout
Snowy White and The White Flames – Something on Me
Ray Wylie Hubbard – Co-Starring
Neil Young – Homegrown
Sodom – Genesis XIX
Bruce Hornsby – Non-Secure Connection
That’s all for now. Happy listening. Till next time, keep your powder dry and your naughty bits wet.