10. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – K.G.
Given the outlook of 2020, we could all have expected at least four new albums from Australia’s psychedelic troupe. But behold, Stu Mackenzie and his band of bonkers blokes have not only condensed their lockdown creative output into a singular unit this time, it’s also a quasi-self-titled piece too. How very restrained!
Ironic, as their sixteenth full length is anything but. K.G. blends a delicious concoction of their crazy experimentation over the years, crafting sounds from acoustic folk to blues and garage rock, stoner and thrash metal, and now… Turkish house? Nestled amongst familiar Gizz tropes are fragments of absurd sound trials that always come up trumps, particularly the aforementioned Intrasport penned by ever-emerging songwriter Joey Walker. And despite the loss of secondary drummer Eric Moore to band management and record label duties, each remaining member brings their idiosyncrasies to K.G. to craft a range of sounds that builds confidently on the remarkable concept of microtonal playing, first exhibited in 2017’s near-sublime Flying Microtonal Banana.
You can always expect Stu et al to throw your ears sideways with the Eastern influenced twangy riffs, and these hit just the right notes as before. But with the lackadaisical Straws in the Wind, trippy bopper Intrasport and Sabbath-like closer The Hungry Wolf of Fate, they’ve upped their game in their continued search for alternative instrumentation. There’s even a love song in Honey – a rare relic since such romantic trips as Her & I (Slow Jam II) – the first taste of 2020 in the Gizzverse. We can surely bet that will drip sweetly into the next year as some of the globe’s most prolific creatives seem far from uninspired despite continued restrictions. Keep ‘em coming.
9. Bilmuri – EGGY POCKET
There’s always the ‘fun choice’ in the mix and, well, this is certainly it. Nothing seems surprising in the cacophony of nonsense that is 2020, and a love for memecore culture becomes completely non-ironic to the point of lunacy. And guess what? Attack Attack! are back!
The kings of crabcore’s comeback proved to be a little bit rubbish, with the absence of non-Beartooth mastermind Caleb Shomo and Johnny Franck proving pivotal. Since leaving AA!, Franck’s side project Bilmuri has spearheaded genre-bending passion projects within the scene, being heinously busy to release 11 records since 2016, all well worth of attention for his ability to actually nail the self-dubbed deathcore/ambient/post-jazz/hard rock genre. Plus the latest effort, confusingly titled EGGY POCKET, has captured Franck at his most assured; 7 tracks of experiments taken from a cosmos of creative ideas, which all culminate in remarkably catchy brilliance.
Of course, the face value of Bilmuri is farcical at best. It took me way too long to realise the ‘band’ was just called ‘Bill Murray’, alongside viral meme-based green screen videos, and talk of MIDWESTLAWNCAREDADSWHOSMASHBREWS, poultry, eggs, lifting at the gym and riding pigs. But jokes aside, Franck can write a killer pop hook, implement br00tal breakdowns using a now-trademark clean(ish) guitar tone, and deliver emotion through some sincere lyricism, crooning and growling. It’s all here on the table, including a drawn out chicken cluck, Spongebob Squarepants sampling and a wicked vocal from Dance Gavin Dance’s lunatic extraordinaire Jon Mess to show it’s not all that serious. But if you want happiness, at least twice a year in wretched circumstances, Johnny Franck continues to do more than deliver the eggy goodness whether adopting his cowboy persona or not. I don’t really understand either.
8. Killer Be Killed – Reluctant Hero
Supergroups, huh? Yuck!
The downbeat pessimism associated with that phrase is fairly warranted; a heft of talent from individual members that never quite cements a synchronicity we all admire in our favourite bands. Step up Killer Be Killed then, the letting-off-steam side project for members of Soulfly, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Mastodon and Converge.
If those names alone don’t get the blood pumping and the horns raised, some further metal therapy is needed, best delivered through a spin of sophomore effort Reluctant Hero. After a solid debut full of speedy riffage and neat vocal tradeoffs, Reluctant Hero is a drastic step up as a measured rule book for how best to attack your listeners’ hearts and minds courtesy of metal’s biggest names. The stylish Billy Goats Gruff Troy Sanders, part time GG Allin/part time Michael Bublé Greg Puciato and Max Cavalera – who transcends the genre in demigod form – deliver not only some of their personal vocal highlights (irrespective of phenomenal other projects past and present), but among the most effectively sung all year. No question.
The idiosyncratic styles of their spiked or honeyed tongues (depending on the heaviness of the music undercutting them) meld almost as if altered through software, as do their complementary styles of proggy Mastodon beauty, the hardcore punk whirling dervish of Dillinger and Sepultura’s thrash ‘n’ headbang to dictate the swerving course of a perfectly constructed tracklist. Adding Ben Koller, the Tasmanian Devil behind Converge’s drumkit, seems almost too much of a good thing. But I suppose you can never have enough of that as the tried-and-tested adage goes.
For a group of (highly esteemed) metal mates mucking around, this is a monumental record to define the crushing beauty that appeals to metal fans genre-wise. Want a ballad instead? Well, they end on that note as well with aplomb. So never write off this supergroup again please.
7. Grimes – Miss Anthropocene
It may be another year yet where the talent of Grimes (aka Claire Boucher, or c) once again gets overlooked. That can, of course, be attributed to the widespread coverage of her personal life as now-mother to baby X Æ A-Xii, but among the tabloid sensationalism lies another experimental kaleidoscope fashioned from one of this past decade’s most divisive artists.
Miss Anthropocene, a portmanteau of the dislike for the human race and the impending destruction of their planet, is as ambitious as the name suggests. The usual vocal whisperings and jitters remain, alongside dark auras – see Darkseid – to drill home Boucher’s intended industrial soundscapes of evil, decay and ruin from the situation in which they were composed. All these looking to fit a story based on Roman Gods and climate change, loosely, and that ‘loosely’ term can be stressed greatly…
It’s inconsistent, but had this one-track misery remained for the duration, it may not have culminated in Grimes’ most admirably diverse output. The acoustic-led pop belter Delete Forever is in equal parts musical pep and lyrical sadness (discussing the death of friends from the opioid crisis), and IDORU sees an anti-Grimes notion. A love song, and a flourishing sprawl of a closer, picturing Bambis frolicking through fields of cowslips in comparison to So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth which sets a sinister tone to proceedings.
Grimes’ fifth full length loves to jostle the listener through her main loves: anime, swords, breakbeats and sweaty discos, all while maintaining a level of songwriting credibility that has been upped further since the pop-tinged Art Angels days. The newspapers can continue to focus on Elon, so long as the music pantheon can continue to hear the rise of Grimes.
6. Kvelertak – Splid
In a year like this, Kvelertak’s new vocalist Ivar Nikolaisen was taking some chances in saying “Misantropi, så jævla 2009!”, but we’ll grant him the benefit of the doubt for writing such positivity pre-coronavirus.
There’s plenty of praise to heap on Ivar, saying that. A key feature on Kvelertak’s breakout hit Blødtorst, and following an unexpected departure from founding vocalist Erlend Hjelvik, he’s had huge steel-capped boots to fill in propelling new life into one of Norway’s most cherished exports. A higher scream, but with ample amounts of snarls about drink binges and Old Norse hedonism, he slots perfectly into the established black ‘n’ roll compositions that Kvelertak has spearheaded for the past decade.
Not many do guitars like this band, and back with King of Tones Kurt Ballou at GodCity Studios, they’ve regained the playful and catchy, yet punishing and technical gravitas that elevated their debut to legendary status. Rogaland acts as an Åpenbaring-style opener, building beautiful melodies with layered chords for an eruptive celebration of their hometown, but Splid sees far more curveballs than usual. Tevling and Uglas Hegemoni exhibit some 80s Police pastiche and banterous Turbonegro punk respectively, while thrash finds its way into Fanden ta dette hull! and speed demon riffing offers a nails-on-chalkboard mess in Delirium tremens to wondrous effect.
For us non-native speakers, rare English lyrics are more commonplace to diversify Kvelertak’s more trademark moments, with guest turns from aforementioned star Troy Sanders and Converge’s bassist Nate Newton. And another Easter egg? Black metal fans will have much to drool over with the continuation of Kvelertak’s original brand of tremolo-picked neck runs and blastbeats in Necrosoft or rapturous closer Ved bredden av Nihil, so there’s tastes for fans old and new.
Rasping, rejuvenated, and relentless: this is Kvelertak for the next decade and, for want of a better phrase, that excites the shit outta me.
5. Charli XCX – how I’m feeling now
Since May, many lockdown-only records have surfaced. But taking a step back in time to the most extreme lockup timeframe, it seems bubblegum pop queen Charli XCX was the very first to complete a whole project in a remarkably short time frame. Six weeks is a bloody unreal feat to write anything (I won’t reveal this author’s efforts for this here article…), let alone a pop album of such class that it earned Charlotte Aitchison a well-deserved nod for the Mercury Music Prize.
how I’m feeling now takes on the slap-dash recording style of phenomenal mixtapes Number 1 Angel and Pop 2. Working in collaboration with PC Music’s governor A.G. Cook to compose nuggets of glitchy, hyperactive pop, the ‘this works, keep it!’ approach has led to all killer no filler tracks to make up an extraordinarily varied and successful pop record. Sprinkle 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady, ‘H U G E’ Danny L Harle and BJ Burton onto production duties (as well as the input of Charli’s ‘angels’ fanbase) and you get a sickly sweet pie of gnarly headbangers (e.g. anthems and claws). These masters of pop exuberance have hit their stride the past couple of years and Charli’s ear for a hook could not complement their ridiculous experiments any better.
Whether discussing the longing for friends and partying as we all have this year (party 4 u), repetition of cereal choices or the enduring love of her long-term partner (7 years), Charli delves into the emotional side of the human psyche that exploded in this worldwide age of anxiety. Exemplified best in the bubbling and euphoric instrumental of album closer visions, all of this shall pass whereby we can once again enjoy the donk-heavy strobe of excitement that life has to offer. This lockdown songcraft doubly acts as a time capsule for 2020, but endures as a testament to our resilience in the face of adversity.
Bring on the future party, with this as the soundtrack. It’s Charliiiiii baybeeeeeeeeeee!
4. Code Orange – UNDERNEATH
The newfound medium of livestreamed concerts has become a regular fixture. While million dollar spectacles may become the norm (Dua Lipa’s efforts spring to mind), it’s refreshing to look back at the first: a more shoestring budget live experience, put on by metal pioneers Code Orange (with help from hate5six) for the release of UNDERNEATH back in February.
The furore surrounding the Pittsburgh youngsters has been building throughout the past decade; I Am King and Forever managed to capture an industrial/nu-metal throwback sound that gripped the community. Then again, nothing could have compared any listener for their latest effort. Screeching glitches, maniacal laughter and screams, pinch harmonic overload, anthemic tribal drums and Anthony Joshua-flooring breakdowns make up the majority of this most memorable and awe-inspiring experiment into the limits of heavy music.
But amongst this blessed wreckage we find Reba Myers’ much improved singing voice, backed up by drummer-cum-Till Lindemann Jami Morgan, through more commercially viable Sulfur Surrounding or Autumn and Carbine. It’s a smörgåsbord of widely accepted WWE wrestling entrance music metal, the likes you’d have found on Kerrang TV! back in the day, and a whole brand of devastating, skull-crushing intensity that could vacate a rat-infested sewer. Making it through You and You Alone or Cold.Metal.Place, even for the hardened extreme metal fan, is a feat in itself. There’s so much going on that it feels like a construction site underway in your very eardrums, but a metal masterpiece project managed with such confidence that it could’ve been built by Satan himself.
As we all awaited an age of continued uncertainty, Code Orange delivered an album release of such needed catharsis that it gave hope for time of difficulty, while reemphasising their role as the gamechangers of metal music for the new decade. All we can do is wait for musicians to hit stages for adoring fans across the board once more. Until then, discover the hyper-reality industrial metal that Code Orange had written before this non-reality that we’ve found ourselves in. Who knows where they, and the world, will go next.
3. Gulch – Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress
Speaking of live shows, are there any other hardcore party starters that can make a crowd quiver with fear and anticipation like Santa Cruz’s Gulch? Perhaps DRAIN and Nails, sure, but the former features Gulch drummer Sammy Ciaramitaro on vocals, and Nails are from California anyways. There must be something in that Pacific Coast Water.
Gulch have carved their name into the hardcore bark after very few years in the game. Taking a mostly do-it-myself punk attitude, guitarist Cole Kakimoto uses his normal printing shop job to make Gulch’s merch – now already collectors’ items that would shift 1000 units in as few seconds and find themselves on Depop’s reselling platform immediately. And in already releasing a string of EPs with unrivalled fury, a range of influences from 80s post-punk to black metal and the inimitable squeal from vocalist Elliot Morrow, their cult-like status has only continued to rise through this year’s debut album release.
An album that still only reaches a 15 minute runtime, and re-recordings of some former tracks, but compacted into this are a non-stop barrage of speed riffery, tinpan sounding snares, bludgeoning lyrical splatterings (mainly written on the eve of recording) and even an admirable cover of a Siouxsie Sioux classic to (slightly) slow things down for a few seconds. This is meant completely literally. Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress never fails to lose its ridonkulous intensity, all its rawness captured by Jack Shirley of Deafheaven production fame. It sounds like one complete, improvised track recorded live to tape at your local skate park under an umbrella of serrated metal, and it’s a complete hoot.
The visceral artwork, the throat-shredding screams, the butchered instruments, the band name itself: absolute carnage. Join the Gulch cult for as long as it lasts which, according to its members, may not be much longer.
2. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Rarely does an album opener give quite the same goosebumps on the hundredth listen as it did on its first, but that’s precisely the experience from the first taste of new Fiona Apple in eight years with I Want You to Love Me. An intense, yearning, immediate track from one of the world’s most masterful songwriters, not once does Fiona lose her penchant for subverted humour, heart-on-sleeve realness, and attention-grabbing subject matter on Fetch the Bolt Cutters. It’s a profound joy to be able to have experienced it throughout lockdown and beyond.
Taking precious time to construct this work, you can tell that Fiona’s attention to detail is a cut above the rest. Recorded mainly from her own California dwelling, the unconventional production style encompasses dog barks and percussion featuring everyday objects and hand claps to create soundscapes akin to friends constructing a song around the campfire in an almost primitive way. But this evocation of musical togetherness contrasts the intimacy of Fiona’s Apple presence on the record. The way in which her voice transcends the instrumentation as if her face is directly oppose you, is an effect that makes these tracks seem fairly alien. This, the distinct deviation from song structure, and the implementation of repeated, layered vocals are hallucinogenic, the simple ‘drum and voice’ setup a far more complex beast than initially thought.
Apple has no qualms about addressing issues of social injustice on Bolt Cutters, emphasising the power against subordination in Under the Table, or confronting sexual assault head-on with For Her to devastating effect. It is an utterly flooring experience: upfront, and shifting gears exactly when it needs to, you’re forced to take in exactly what Fiona is presenting, and it’s impossible to switch off. Even when the intense drum builds and hammered, staccato pianos fade to soothing ‘wooh oohs’ (Ladies), the emotional rise and fall combines Apple with the listener in tandem. The musical equivalent of a close-knit Fiona Apple dinner party.
Was it worth the extended wait? You bloody bet it was. It’ll be a while before you hear such a unique and assured performance again.
1. Deftones – Ohms
If 2020 was good for anything, it’s stellar comeback records, and that is definitely the case for the long-awaited return from one of the globe’s most beloved alternative metal bands. Deftones never need much introduction. We headed into this year with the promise of a whole set of new tunes, and a remix of their seminal White Pony record. Not only that, but for the super low tuning nerds like me, whose toenails curl simply at the prospect of Steph Carpenter’s first implementation of a 9 string guitar, this all seemed like a fever dream.
2016’s Gore, while still a perfectly valuable addition to the Sacramento quintet’s legendary canon, was far from their usual lofty heights. In the intermediary years since, news of Steph Carpenter’s lack of contribution to the project surfaced, a more concrete example of the dichotomy of his and Chino Moreno’s vision for Deftones; beefy, distorted riffs underpinning dreamy romanticism that sets the band apart from the rest. With Ohms however, Carpenter was back on board with a newfound lease of life for writing music (as well as some questionable flat earth/anti-vax beliefs…), ready to merge with pinnacular vocals from Moreno and metal’s most powerhouse rhythm section in Abe Cunningham and Sergio Vega.
Cunningham and Vega’s battle royale beats you into submission on the head-bopping Radiant City, and Vega masterfully combats Carpenter’s guitars utilising lush slides higher up the neck to really shine through the mix, all handled once again by White Pony’s producer Terry Date. Now that this collaboration returned the signature base of Deftones sound, other flourishes set Ohms apart to elevate the pedestal that they still reside on alone. Carpenter’s boppy playing has never reached lower depths than the utter filth of that open string on The Spell of Mathematics, while tasteful clean/delayed leads find their way onto Error and Headless to harness the gravitas of Chino Moreno’s idiosyncratic voice, which has lost none of its velvety texture thirty years on. In fact, he’s rarely sounded better. Many would also attribute Ohms to being ‘Frank’s album’, with keyboardist and turntablist Frank Delgado being the unsung hero of Deftones for corroborating their instrumentals with background atmospherics. These are brought to the fore in Ceremony, or through throbbing synths to open the record, with surprise seagull sounds adding a refreshing natural breeze in the cleaner sections of bruising track Pompeji.
All this culminates in a record that expands the palate of the band that juggles beauty and brutality to such an effect that no other follower has quite clinched it. To place a new Deftones record among their best with White Pony or Diamond Eyes seems absurd. But in a year of unpredictability, that impossible has occurred, and leaves Ohms as the only choice for most metalheads’ album of the year. Triumphant.