20 Albums of 2020
"Year of the short album"
2020 – it’s hard to comment on the past year without producing some kind of waffling diatribe, so we're not going to. Regardless of where we sit on the optimism scale, we’re not here to speculate, but to look back at the sonic offerings bestowed upon us from the calamity that was this past 12 months. Introducing – the 20 Albums of 2020.
A major feature of 2020 was domestication. As our mobility dwindled, there seemed to be a corresponding lack of resources at our disposal. A consequence, it seems, is that albums got shorter, way shorter. Not a single double album made this list and the running time of 8 entries sat somewhere between 33 and 40 minutes. As a result, we have dubbed 2020 "Year of the Short Album". Quality over quantity, we say. Read on to explore the best offerings produced by 2020 from the worlds of doom, experimentalism, black metal, abrasion, and tranquility…
20 Albums of 2020
Flowers of Evil
It probably doesn’t need to be said that Ulver’s stellar trilogy of black metal albums at their inception are well and truly relegated into their yesteryears. Jump forward to 2014 and it seems a similar story with the drones and horns of their collaboration with Sunn O))). Jump again to the late 2010s to grasp a depiction of Ulver in their contemporary form. Latest effort, Flowers of Evil, employs synths, violins, drum machine, echoes, chorus, and catchiness and slots peacefully in line with the structured pop era of Ulver pronounced by previous effort, The Assassination of Julius Caesar. Though just because we’re now more likely to now compare them to Depeche Mode than Emperor need not be cause for alarm. Flowers of Evil is a pop record with darkwave undertones and thoughtful lyrics. Lightly experimental and defiantly pop structured, Ulver have always been comfortable in their new skin.
JG Thirlwell + Simon Steensland
Arguably best known for his tirades about socialist authoritarianism via the medium of Foetus, J.G. Thirlwell’s career is a many-headed beast. Production credits, TV show scoring (most notably, Archer), and his common link between England's 70s and 80s esoteric underground (Coil, Nurse With Wound, Current 93) and New York's brief moment of No Wave (Swans, Lydia Lunch...) all embolden the Melbourne-turned-New Yorker’s legacy. Usually solo, Thirlwell has teamed up with Swedish avant-composer, Simon Steensland, for their collaborative effort, Oscillospira.
The union is a fitting one for professed control freak, Thirlwell, as the album characterises their complimentary talents. There are the sharp, frantic notes of Steenland's unrestrained take on classical music on the one hand, meticulously interwoven through Thirlwell's post-production skills on the other. The cinematic, 70 minute album boasts a huge range of instrumentation that includes oboe, bass clarinet, and violin. Though deep, muddy guitar passages and heavy percussion also scatter and envelop the album. Released on Mike Patton's Ipecac, Oscillospira is manic and constantly on the precipice of profound change. A record that received little by way of promotion, this work possibly functions as a stamp on the CV for a future in film scoring.
To the Death
Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, Vassafor are one of a handful of bands who are putting Kiwi metal on the map. Latest effort, To the Death, is a grand gesture in blackened metal that surges in length, bursts with blastbeats, and is submerged in lo-fi production. With openers and closers that span 12 and 17 minutes respectively, Vassafor are hellbent on a loud, grisly statement that they’re not fucking around. Tracks 1 -3 are relentless assaults and tests of stamina. The non-stop riffing only briefly subsiding as centre track, Black Talon, opens up a small breathing space. The closing track, Singularity, is also deserving of special mention for its epic, triumphant, and nuanced take on all the album’s elements that have preceded. Along with war metal heroes, Diocletian, and speed metal freaks, Stälker, Vassafor represent a growing number of Kiwi bands who operate in classic metal territories but manage to keep them fresh in the process.
Pterygium is the Melbourne based, post-industrial outfit that teeters the edges of dark ambient and power electronics. Sole member, Henry (Hank) Gillet, spoke with Discipline Mag earlier this year about the album and his process. To quote Discipline Mag: “Latest release, Stoic Ubiquity, has become a fitting soundtrack to 2020, underscored with dread and claustrophobia, though with a sense of finesse often absent from its genres.” Opening track, 100 Sin, solidly displays what Pterygium is capable of. Ominous, smoky, and static-drenched noise permeates and disorientates. Dig deeper into the tracks If God Was Capable, A Tragedy at Point Blank Range, and 36 Heart for the continually dreadful atmospheres that lurk within. With Stoic Ubiquity as their testimony, Pterygium is firmly committed to the post-industrial discipline.
Alles in Allem
Keeping the strange tradition alive that sees many early industrial pioneers consistently active (unless they cease to exist, of course), at their 40-odd years of existence, Einstürzende Neubauten’s Alles in Allem (translated to 'all in all' in English) is a momentous release. If anybody has been even remotely engaged with Einstürzende Neubauten throughout their career, you would know that in their seniority the clank, smash, and imploding steelworks brand of industrial noise is well and truly behind them. Instead, we get a greater emphasis on song writing, space, and melody which sees some orchestration and strange instrumentation in the fold. Their journey not being dissimilar to that of Nick Cave’s transition from junkyard bandit to expressive song writer (hardly surprising given their crossovers and shared band mate in Blixa Bargeld). With some standout tracks including Am Landwehrkanal, Zivilisatorisches Missgeschick, and Seven Screws, the sometimes tender, occasionally structured, and generally unnerving sound of Alles in Allem can sound both pensive and like a pop record in the throes of surgery.
Lords sleaze and unpleasantness, Sweden’s Brainbombs return for album number 9, Cold Case. On Cold Case, many things are in their place, but then again, some things are not. It’s not quite the sonic equivalent of inappropriately standing up at a seated function to spit out instructions on dead body disposal that many have come to expect of Brainbombs. The trash rock mess of instruments are there, as is the disconcerting horn that haunts Brainbomb’s work. Though this is all business as usual.
The track, I Love You All, contains all these elements. It's slow and repetitive, but it’s the suppression of outbursts that gives its murderous feel (you know what they say, it’s the quiet ones you have to look out for). Hell, if you put lyrics about depression and self-reflection behind Lost in the Pas this could even strike a real emotional nerve. Though this has been going on for a while in the Brainbombs camp. 2016’s Souvenirs being a recent example of a slightly more measured, and almost, dare I say it, “artistic” approach. Cold Case retains Brainbomb’s distinctively messy edge, but quietly takes a step away from the trash-rock-from-the-gutter-of-depravity feeling that Brainbombs are more often associated with.
La Ilden Lyse
Okkultokrati live up to their Norwegian heritage, but don’t entirely submit to their predecessors. Fusing black metal riffs with rock n’ roll hedonism, the recipe has proved successful as La Ilden Lyse boasts their second record for the esteemed pedlars of heaviness, Southern Lord.
With a smooth, chronological flow, La Ilden Lyse is a fun listen. Track 2 and album apex, Grimoire Luciferian Dream, takes its mesh of hazy riffs and punk drumming into blackened crust territory. Its riffs and sound being good enough for any party. While a reference point for this may lie with the more recent end of Darkthrone’s catalogue, cracking their frozen shells of grimness sound like different respective journeys. Rounding out with the formidable, The Dying Grass Moon, La Ilden Lyse carries a great mix of speed, keys, and dirt. By black metal standards, Okkultokrati have a pretty good time in the process.
Death Entries (1, 2, & 3)
The stalwart of “Japanoise”, Maso Yamazaki has been primarily concerned with Controlled Death of late, giving Masonna a moment of much needed rest. But first things first, the logistics: technically, this is actually 3 albums released in a single series. Strangely/annoyingly, Death Entries 1 was released as a standalone record in early 2020, while Death Entries 2 & 3 came out simultaneously and as a 3 LP box, leaving those who bought DE1 rather alienated. Though, what can we expect from an artist who released an album where 30 of 31 songs were “bonus” tracks?
Over the three records, Yamazaki has provided a dark, meditative, and psychedelic piece of death industrial. Its 6 overall tracks being misleading, as each track is broken up into 2-5 minute pieces. His use of synthesizers, delays, and voice manipulators create a deep, wintery atmosphere where his buried screams barely escape layers of distorted fuzz. Some reference points could include Naturecum from Prurient’s doom electronics behemoth, Rainbow Mirror, and the ambient black metal releases of Burzum like Filosofem and Hvis Lyset Tar Oss (the static haze, atmosphere, and even elements of the artwork being particularly strong nods to the latter). With the Controlled Death moniker, we see the psychedelic-freakout-noise and radical performances of Masonna behind us, though with Yamazaki well into his 40s this was never going to be sustainable. Despite Masonna’s endearingly memorable qualities, it’s the Controlled Death output that ultimately ends up getting more frequent rotations.
Jarboe’s career is about as diverse and profound as the artists she has worked with. From Justin K. Broderick to Atilla Csihar to Merzbow to Neurosis and many more, Jarboe has come a long way and found her own voice since her formative years in Swans. Forever stoic and resistant to categorisation, Illusory is a continuation of this legacy.
As implied by the title, Illusory is an ominous release, blurring perception and seamlessly bleeding together as one. Sitting at the more experimental end of Jarboe’s work (is there any other?), her classically trained voice layers its orchestral tones alongside intricate instrumentation. The track Flight exemplifying this with its moody synths and looped vocal rhythms. Cathedral being another standout with its transition from acapella, to group vocals, and through to its subtle industrial outro. Though the atmosphere is broken up by Nourish, a repetitive instrumental that paves the way for closer, A Man of Hate. This track is actually a rendition of A Man of Hate Lord Misery from Jarboe’s first solo record, 1991’s Thirteen Masks. In its Illusory form, this track doesn’t seem too far removed from late 80s-early 90s Swans with its repeated guitar strum whose persistence leads to a heady sense of psychedelia. Representative of Illusory as a whole with its delicate surface reinforced by layers of substance.
Prolific as always, Japan’s Boris present what some accounts consider to be their 26th studio/non-collaborative album. Usually purveyors of doom/drone/shoegaze/power pop/avant-metal, Boris have put such tags to the side for this release. Opting instead for a far more immediate sonic fist to the head, No is neatly contained within a 40 minute package. Conceived and recorded during Japan’s first lockdown around March, the hardcore aggression was apparently a sign of the times, and possibly a coping mechanism which has seen the band atypically flirt with politics with a general message that opposes disunity.
Greeted with a wall of sludge in instrumental opener, Genesis, its muddy exterior was made to crumble at the thrashing that ensues. After this, it’s time to buckle up and shotgun some saké because shit is kicking off. The hardcore punk inspiration of Anti-Gone sets the tone of the album. Punk drumming, shouted vocals, and even a verse chorus structure emerge. Though there is a slight bit of breathing space in Zerkalo (even if its doom and dissonance make the air taste like that of a decrepit cellar). Fast riffs, manic, drums, shouted group vocals, and even a few speed metal solos occupy No out till its dreamy final track. With Vein (Hardcore Version) the only comparable album within Boris’s discography, No is far cleaner and better produced than its lo-fi predecessor. Possibly leaving those who got used to the more expansive side of Boris a little jarred, No actually makes quite a lot of sense. What else are you going to do if you’re locked up 3 months but thrash, rage, and make some therapeutic noise.
A sickening piece of death doom from the monolithic Neanderthals of sludge, noise, and pain, Primitive Man. Following the grand scale of their 75 minute long previous album, Caustic, latest offering, Immersion, takes a slightly more measured approach (to length, anyway). Even at less than half the running time of its predecessor, Immersion in no way steers clear of the bowel weakening depravity we have come to expect from Primitive Man.
Tracks like Entity demonstrate the band’s predisposition to crawling dissonance, Menace plays with tempo, and ∞ is the interlude track that offers about as much refreshment as a sealed coffin. This one is for the nihilists, the noise-heads, and the ones who feel the edge just isn’t far enough. While Caustic largely put Primitive Man on the map, it's projects like Immersion that will keep them there.
Thou + Emma Ruth Rundle
May Our Chambers Be Full
Serial collaborators, Thou, have teamed up Emma Ruth Rundle for what is a departure from Thou’s tradition of collaborations with The Body. With the two parties apparently being mutual fans, the opportunity to collaborate was met with open arms. Thou are a band most associated with their heavily downtuned brand of sludge and near blackened shrieks, though are partial to an occasional display of tenderness. Rundle on the other hand has her hand in the pot of several bands and has released work that spans the disparate areas of post-rock, folk, darkwave, and doom. In effect, both parties are suitably versatile, and it can be presumed that their collaborative residency at 2019’s Roadburn Festival only aided in the conception of this recorded work.
The end result is an album that covers a lot of this aforementioned ground. Slow, doomy riffs compete with Rundle’s soothing, but not understated, vocals at the front of the mix. Thou’s murky sludge riffs dissipate into atmospheric ambience, only to reform. And with extra hands on deck, the vocal passages of many of the involved get a chance behind the mic. One of the most notable observations of this record is the seamlessness of this pairing. While it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the genesis of these ideas began at Roadburn in early 2019, the execution of this project has taken place during a time of global catastrophe. Despite this, the result is a seldom strained and natural representation of Thou and Emma Ruth Rundle that simultaneously balances and highlights each other’s strengths.
In recent years we have seen Prurient’s hegemony put under question, seriously threatened by Vatican Shadow and staunch ally, Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement. Where we seem to be today is a state of volatile relations, but for the time being, Prurient’s natural order has been reinstated. Though that is not to say the threat is contained entirely, as Prurient has continued to reciprocate with tactics from the Vatican Shadow playbook. Themes of warfare and militarism have slowly leaked from the Vatican Shadow camp to Prurient's, becoming increasingly evident in the 2019 front, Garden of the Mutilated Paratroopers. These “airborne electronics” have persevered into Casablanca Flamethrower, though the methods of sonic assault have adapted to the modern rules of battle.
The tracks Black Iceberg and Normandy Reaper – Snow on the Atlantic demonstrate Prurient’s naval efforts. Though Corn Cob Pipe Butcher, The Thrust of the Spear, and Fucked by Tracers appear to be thinly veiled threats. Intel has signified that both Prurient and Vatican Shadow take orders from the same general. This has only deepened the wartime conspiracy which the invested parties show no sign of withdrawing from.
Grave of a Dog
In the world of experimental music, supergroups don’t get much stronger than this. Featuring Kristen Hayter of Lingua Ignota, Lee Burford of The Body, and Dylan Walker of Full of Hell, there is some major talent running through the veins of Sightless Pit. Released on affiliated label, Thrill Jockey, Grave of a Dog is an interesting listen. It captures elements of each of each member’s respective mainstay, but on the whole sounds unique and nothing like any.
These elements are perhaps most pronounced on opener, Kingscorpse. Functioning as a pilot of sorts, on display are Hayter’s moans, Walker's signature growls, and Burford’s programming and manipulation. Though this in no way insinuates predictability as the chants of The Ocean of Mercy, the harsh yet classically inspired Drunk on Marrow, and the keys and organ that Hayter scatters throughout all demonstrate.
All three members are experimenting with their respective abilities with a joyful disregard of the fact that the edge of their talents have still not been fully realised. It has been said that the term “industrial” can be lazily applied to anything remotely experimental or difficult to define and in this case, we may just have just gained another example. This project seems the result of a trio who are bursting with uncontainable creative energy. If the work of any of these “extreme experimentalists” is of interest, then this project surely will be, too.
Boris + Merzbow
Cleverly anagramming 2020 + RIP, Boris and trusted master of abrasion, Merzbow, see their latest collaborative effort 2R0I2P0 released just in time for one last glance up the backside of this tumultuous past twelve months. It’s a curious release given how busy both entities have been of late. As previously mentioned, Boris’s NO was released only months ago. While Merzbow is guilty of at least 3 solo releases this year and this sees his second collaborative release.
In many ways 2R0I2P0 follows in the footsteps of their previous collaboration, 2016’s Gensho. Like Gensho, 2R0I2P0 consists of many “second takes” of previously recorded Boris tracks. 2R0I2P0 largely focuses on tracks from Boris’s 2019 effort, Love and Evol, though also includes Dear’s Absolutego (not to be confused with the album of the same name). Where Gensho had a rendition of My Bloody Valentine’s Sometimes, we’re again treated to another “classic” cover in Boris’s namesake inspiration, Boris by the Melvins (caught wind of in Discipline Mag’s review of the Boris & Merzbow collaborative performance in Melbourne earlier this year). Thankfully, unlike the separate Boris and Merzbow discs of Gensho that required two sound systems, they’ve opted to track both artists into the same grooves on 2R0I2P0.
If it’s ever been said that the Merzbow input of his collaborative affairs see him submerged in the background, then this has worked very hard to rectify that. At the very least, Merzbow is always rattling away at something, making his squeals of static abandon known throughout. As Boris’s contributions focus more on their atmospheric side than their thick walls of sludge, this gives Merzbow far more space to shine. The role reversal is an interesting one as it’s now Boris who struggles to escape Merzbow’s wall of trash compactor electronics.
New York’s hardcore inspired industrialists, Uniform, have released their latest album, Shame. Like previous album, The Long Walk, Uniform have again done away with the drum machine, instead opting for a live drummer. In the process, this, on top of Greenberg’s riffing, sees the group gravitate closer to metal, though cautiously tread that line while staying true to their fundamentals. The more lo-fi and electronic abrasion of Perfect World and Wake In Fright slowly retreat further on Shame. With Shame’s inspiration stretching as far as PiL, Ozzy Osbourne, Sick of it All, and Whitehouse, this is hardly surprising.
Provocatively released on September 11, the work is oozing with social commentary of some form. God makes regular appearances, as do vocalist, Michael Berdan’s anxieties. Big riffs are buried by haze and electronics in The Shadow of God’s Hand which revels in its cloudy sludge and hardcore breakout. The blackened blasts of Life in Remission clear the path for the heaviness, slowed tempo, and lingering melancholy of title track, Shame. Curtain closer, I Am the Cancer, once again putting this on display with its mix of riffs, speed, and poetically resonant lyrics. These examples representing Uniform’s increasing susceptibility to the craft of structuring an album with focus and maturity, and their inability to compromise on standards.
Justin K. Broderick is an artist you can set your watch to. From cutting his teeth in Napalm Death, his formidable work with Godflesh, the industrial techno of J.K. Flesh, and in this instance, the shoegaze inspired pop metal of Jesu, the man has donned many hats and has typically done so with great authority. The grime and grit of Birmingham Council Estates undoubtedly inspired the mechanised grind of his early years. Though fast-forward to the past decade and it’s interesting to once again consider geography. Now located in the Welsh countryside, Broderick still releases industrial inspired music that would ordinarily be associated with the anxieties of urban existence, but also manages to counter this with the much prettier work of Jesu.
On Terminus, Broderick exercises such expansive tendencies. Only moments in his signature downtuning rears its atmospheric head. On track 2, Alone, Broderick’s capacity for electronic avant-pop makes its strongest appearance before its flow through shoegaze epics. With Terminus, Broderick prioritises atmosphere, but often does so without losing himself in the vast space he creates. Terminus flows through the haze, blissfully guided by distorted ambience.
Imagine you’ve been sent on an intergalactic mission to another dimension. You’re trying to settle in and in your transition, you find odours of familiarity amidst incomprehensible difference. Sleaze, vice, and debauchery exists here, albeit acquired to local tastes and resources. The thing you miss more than anything are the grim riffs and shrill squeals of Norway’s finest. While frequenting the dirty, smoky underground entertainment dens and inebriated on space liquor and alien narcotics you stumble across a sound based ritualistic ceremony. You don’t know what’s happening, but you take that figurative step inside. What ensues is a heady mix of incense, brooding string instruments, spaced out synths, and interstellar black metal outbursts. There are semblances of things you know, but overwhelmingly, it’s what you don’t know that keeps you from ever wanting to leave. In summary, this shit is trippy. Mestarin Kynsi by Oranssi Pazuzu is one of the best releases of a year when life on another planet became increasingly desirable.
Shadow of Fear
I, possibly like many others, had assumed Cabaret Voltaire in the 2010s was largely a historical entity by this point in time. Around 2017 this was challenged as I noticed the name Cabaret Voltaire was appearing on flyers for experimental European festivals. Occasionally dubbed “Cabaret Voltaire (DJ set)”, this only raised more questions than it answered. Would these be sets of classics or an array of newly developed electronics? And further, is this a reunion or Cabaret Voltaire lite?
It seems in both instances the latter is correct. Original member, Richard H. Kirk, has been vocal about their “No nostalgia” policy during sets that consist of only himself. All very interesting, seeing the ‘group’ resurrected as a solo endeavour. Though a little bit of digging reveals that Kirk has been working collaboratively under the Cabaret Voltaire moniker since as far back as the late 2010s with a scattered trail of live performances to boot.
Step into 2020 and Kirk has delivered Cabaret Voltaire’s first album in 26 years, Shadow of Fear. It would be wrong to call this record a return to form as after so many years and output that has been so prone to change, it’s hard to know what that "form" is anymore. Despite warning nostalgists he won’t be resurfacing past songs, Kirk has admitted to a continuation of the past’s “spirit”. The rhythmic warp and bounce of Shadow of Fear could slot seamlessly with Red Mecca’s less dark moments and the samples and artificial drums of The Voice of America. With a computer meltdown failing to convince Kirk that MacBooks now double as instruments, using his vintage equipment is one major factor that narrows the sonic distance between eras. The album flow mirrors their own progression from scratchy proto-industrialism to bouncy techno and avant-pop. Shadow of Fear delightfully expands on the Cabaret Voltaire library and drives a stake in the grounds of contemporary experimentalism from an entity who were responsible for first cultivating the soil.
Sitting at the top of this list and representing the only African entrant on the list this year, Duma are a two-piece hailing from Nairobi, Kenya. Consisting of Martin Khanja (Lord Spike Heart) on vocals and Sam Karugu on guitars and production, the youngest group on the list have packed a knockout punch into their only release and twelve months of existence. Emerging from Nairobi’s experimental and metal underground, Duma have slotted nicely into the family of Ugandan label/promoters/festival organisers, Neyge Nyege. Though Nyege Nyege is not new to Discipline Mag, having discussed the enterprise and Nyege Nyege Festival with Robin of Giant Swan in a 2017 interview.
From the tribal percussion of opener Angels and Abysses through to the deranged electronics and sci-fi paranoia that lurk in The Echoes of the Beyond, Duma is a nonstop trip through its 37 minutes of run time. Duma is also incredibly difficult to classify. Some have said “metal”, but that is too simple. Others have said grindcore, but that is too narrow. While many more have lazily slapped the experimental tag to Duma when the truth more closely resembles an overlapping Venn diagram. Sonic assault and death growls blast through Corners in Nihil, but don’t think you have Duma figured out just yet. Breaking through the abrasion comes the trap/grind of Omni with its pummeling drum machine and psychotic beat switches. With the rhythmic outburst of Lionsblood and Uganda with Sam, the schizophrenic computer synth of Kill Yourself Before They Kill You, and the jack hammering of Pembe 666 and Sin Nature, Duma is the sonic equivalent of a brick to the face.
Aside from being our number 1 album of the year, Duma’s Duma also boasts our favourite artwork of 2020. Its vibrant mesh of red from the shawl and hanging carcass leaving a fiercely primal impression (as if the music hadn’t already). Duma represent something fresh, something brutal, and something to keep a close eye on for the future. All hail the East African underground!