The Sleeve’s Top 15 of ’20
No doubt 2020 was a difficult one for bands, with much of the year not being able to tour but that did not stop them from still putting out some killer releases. In fact, many bands said that not touring allowed them to put more time into their albums, making the end-product even better, and some even writing and recording when they weren’t even scheduled to do so. That being the case I feel there were stronger releases towards the end of the year and I feel that may continue into the first half of 2021 especially with great songs from The Nocturnal Affair, Soen, Immortal Guardian, among others already released for their 2021 albums. You had some milestones: Ozzy’s first album in 10 years, some impressive debuts, a surprise AC/DC album without Malcom Young, and some legends like Eddie Van Halen and Neil Peart passing away. It was one hell of a year good and bad (well, mostly bad). Let’s hope touring comes back next year so we can get our desperately needed concert fix satisfied and these bands can start making the money they truly deserve. My picks were all over the map this year and one wasn’t even metal (shocker I know). My album of the year of 2019 was an easy one with Sermon (if you like Katatonia don’t sleep on these guys), which has become one of my favorite albums ever, but 2020 was way more difficult with 4 or 5 leading the pack. So without further ado here are my top 15 albums of 2020 in no order:
BLACK ROYAL – Firebride (Suicide)
Dubbed “Death Blues” this Finnish band started out as a pretty unique mix of heavy stoner rock with death metal vocals. On this, their 4th album, the stoner rock has been toned down a bit and the music being a little more death metal, but there are still riffs galore and the vocals and the music complement each other a lot more now. The riff to “Pagan Savior” will get stuck in your head for days. Been running through my metal brain all year. Still quite refreshing to hear a death metal album with zero double bass and just straight groove. These dudes should definitely be a lot bigger than they are by now, maybe this album will make that happen.
MORS PRINCIPIUM EST – Seven (AFM)
This Finnish melodic death metal band being pretty much a two-piece by now with vocalist Ville Viljanen and British guitarist extraordinaire Any Gillion, who has been with the band for almost a decade, apparently found the formula that works. In this writer’s opinion this is their best album by far. Pristine production, lush orchestral parts, and mind blowing riffs and solos from one the best guitarists in the business, this album is a masterpiece of melo-death.
FIRES IN THE DISTANCE – Echoes from Deep November (Prosthetic)
The debut album from Connecticut death metal band Fires in the Distance, these guys come out of the gates swinging. Already on many end of the year lists, this band plays a brand of doomy melo-death that is quite unique and quite catchy. If this is an indication of what this band is and where they are heading the future look very bright for them. For more in depth info about this release check out the album review I did here.
DRACONIAN – Under a Godless Veil (Napalm)
After a long 5 year wait since their last album “Sovran” it seems like all the time was worth it. Their second album with female vocalist Heike Langhans is among their best in their 17-year history. The songs are sad yet epic, everything you would expect from Draconian only notched up a step. An absolutely stellar performance from Heike she seem to be coming into her own with her vocals ranging from goth to operatic and everything in between, she has been a great find and has pushed this album over the edge.
ALEAH – Aleah (Svart)
My non-metal pic of the year. Someone call the authorities. This review will be a little more personal for good reason. I feel it needs a backstory. Discovering the beautiful voice of Aleah Starbridge has been one of the most enjoyable musical wormholes I have ever been through. It all started with Amorphis sharing the band Trees of Eternity, the first full album to feature Aleah’s vocals. Not only did that album introduce me to her beautiful voice and produce one of my favorite albums ever, but I discovered great bands such as Swallow the Sun and Antimatter. Sadly, Aleah passed away from cancer following the recording of Trees but her legacy lives on. An album was put out after Trees with Tomi from Amorphis on vocals under the name Hallatar that carried on the music style of Trees (Juha Raivio of Swallow the Sun being the main songwriter in both) and used lyrics written by Aleah. That album also featured guest vocals by Heike of Draconian, putting that band on my radar thankfully. Ok, finally on to the review of this album. This album features old songs written and performed by Aleah with just vocals and guitar. A lot of these songs were up on YouTube so the fans of her new most of them but what Juha decided to do (he was her boyfriend and had full control over this album) was take some of those songs plus a few others and strip the guitars away and add keyboards and some percussion to make lush landscapes behind her vocals. All this talk and not an explanation yet of why her voice is so beautiful and amazing. Although rife with sadness her voice is whisper-like, ethereal, and will make you truly feel every word she is saying. Absolutely unique. This world truly lost a one of a kind talent. RIP
MIDNIGHT – Rebirth by Blasphemy (Metal Blade)
The bastard son (written and performed solely by mysterious front man Athenar) of Motorhead and Venom, Midnight brings back their brand of blackened speed metal with a punk attitude and executes another excellent album. No deep lyrics, just a ton of fun and energy to bang your head to. I cannot wait to see them at next year’s Psycho Vegas Festivals. They are sure to be one of the highlights.
PARADISE LOST – Obsidian (Nuclear Blast)
Paradise Lost seem to be on a roll lately with their last few releases and this album is no exception. Much like “The Plague Within” and “Medusa” Paradise Lost return to their early days incorporating death metal and gothic vocals back into their sound. This may be even better than the last two albums that started the new and improved direction and is a great representation of a band holding on to their roots without seeming forced. The song “Ending Days” was my most played song of the year and for good reason.
MY DYING BRIDE – The Ghost of Orion (Nuclear Blast)
Always aware of this band but never listened much once I heard the first single from this album (“Your Broken Shore”) I was hooked. Discovering bands such as Swallow the Sun, Draconian, and others somewhat recently, this band and the doom-death they play is right up my alley. They are one of the originators and are still putting out amazing and career defining albums 28 years into their existence. The only issue with it is that out of the eight songs, two are instrumental and one features a female vocalist that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. They have made up for it though with an ep that also came out this year consisting of 3 new songs but if they were written at the same time as “The Ghost of Orion” it would make more sense to have included them on this album.
HEAVEN SHALL BURN – Of Truth and Sacrifice (Century Media)
HSB hasn’t really changed their style much over the years, which some would call melo-death some call it death-core, but with “OF Truth and Sacrifice” being a double album they had the freedom to branch out a bit more. There are plenty of classic sounding HSB songs but also some curveballs here and there, which makes this double album quite diverse. Lyric-wise this has everything they are known for/ speak up about and the music is as heavy, intricate, and riff-tastic as it has always been. The videos are as good as metal videos get and are a true testament to the creativity and passion of this band. 22 years on this band truly hasn’t lost a step. For more in depth info about this release check out the album review I did here.
SINISTHRA– The Broad and Beaten Way (Rockshots)
Sinisthra is the band vocalist Tomi Joutsen was in before Amorphis and seemingly out of nowhere they released a new album, which would be their first in 15 years. The band only released one album in 2005 before Tomi went to Amorphis and broke up after that. The music was mid-paced Scandinavian metal with clean vocals and a touch of alternative thrown in. This album seems to change that up a bit. Still utilizing only his clean voice (which is magnificent) the band incorporates bit more metal while still having some mellow songs much like the first album. The first single “Closely Guarded Distance” is a perfection representation of what you will find on this album. The song starts off heavy and switches to a beautiful piano driven soft section to an epic ending, Tomi’s voice shining the whole way. This band absolutely should be way more well-known and could use more promotion from Amorphis. Let’s hope there is a follow up down the road.
GREEN CARNATION – Leaves of Yesteryear ep (Season of Mist)
Another band putting out their first album in almost 15 years and, similar to SINISTHRA, they’re a band I have never heard of until recently. This band has been around since 2000 and has put out several releases yet went on a long hiatus starting in 2006 with only a live album out in between. Surprisingly started by guitarist Tchort, more well known for his time in black metal bands such as EMPEROR and CARPATHIAN FOREST among others, this band isn’t even in the ballpark of black metal. What you have here is accessible prog metal similar to SOEN with a 70’s classic rock touch. The only issue here is that after all these years all you get is an ep and only 3 out of the 5 songs are new. It includes a reworking (and far superior version imo) of one of their old songs and putting their own spin on an amazing cover of BLACK SABBATH’S “Solitude”. Here’s to hoping these guys put out some more material soon.
DAWN OF SOLACE – Waves (Noble Demon)
Yet another band putting an album after a long hiatus (14 years), DAWN OF SOLACE is pretty much a solo band from Toumas Saukkonen (BEFORE THE DAWN, WOLDHEART, BLACK SUN AEON) and just like the first album all the instruments were played by him and featured another vocalist. On the first album he traded his harsh vocals with the clean vocals of Lars Eikind, this time around only featuring clean vocals from new singer Mikko Heikkila. This album bears little resemblance to the first but is far superior in every way. Mikko is an excellent singer with a great voice full of emotion, the songs are catchier, and the production is stellar. This is Finnish melancholic metal at its best.
AVATAR – Hunter Gatherer (eOne)
Surprisingly released only two years after “Avatar Country” Avatar return with another album chock full of their signature brand of melodic death metal with a twist. Quite a bit simpler and more straight forward than “Avatar Country” but still full of fun, weird songs only Avatar can write. Tons of variety here as usual and even features a guest appearance from Corey Taylor of SLIPKNOT. The first single “Silence in the Age of Apes” came out roaring and is easily one of their heaviest songs in quite some time. A band I was always afraid of selling out, which gladly they have not, they have gained fair a deal of popularity over the years but never seemed to have broken as big as they should have (at least here in the US). That is quite a shame because their live show is astounding and the music they make is utterly unique. This album may be a bit safe but this band still continues to make some great music and always stand apart from the pack.
BLACK CROWN INITIATE – Violent Portraits of Doomed Escape (Century Media)
Another band I always thought were cool yet never hooked me until this album, which may be due to the addition of a new second guitarist and drummer for this album. The name of the game here is tech-death but with this album the tech is taken down a bit more and replaced with groove and all for the better. You still have your techy, djenty parts but the songs on this album are a little more straight forward and the chorus’ more memorable, making this album a lot more catchy than previous albums. The songwriting is better, the production is stellar, and the lyrics seem more personal sucking you in ever further. Looking forward to seeing what’s next for this band.
NUCLEAR POWER TRIO – A Clear and Present Rager (Metal Blade)
Featuring members of ALLEGAEON, JOB FOR A COWBY, and HAVOK this three-piece band have put out not only one of the best instrumental albums of the year but one of the best in quite some time. The shtick of this band is that they are all disguised as world leaders (Trump, Putin, and Kim Jong-Un) and without making a political statement they make super funny videos and insanely catchy instrumental metal. The star of the show in this band is the bass playing of Nick Schendzielos (HAVOK, CEPHALIC CARNAGE, JOB FOR A COWBOY). Holy hell does it not shine but you will be drawn in by these bass lines. Standing out, yet not in a Primus way, he creates some funky, technical, and mesmerizing bass lines.
Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons – We’re the Bastards
Carcass – Despicable
Wolfheart – Wolves of Karelia
Ozzy – Ordinary Man
Heathen – Empire of the Blind
John Petrucci – Terminal Velocity