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Heavy Hearts: The Bands That Made Metal A Rare Bright Spot in 2020

Wednesday, 02 December 2020 Written by Matt Mills

Clockwise: Code Orange, Loathe, Svalbard, Respire, Sharptooth, Misery Signals

After COVID-19 brought the world to its knees, 2020 deserves to be a write-off year. However, despite the horrid lack of gigs, the last 12 months have been some of the best for new metal music this century.

We’ve seen reliable triumphs from the likes of Paradise Lost and Dark Tranquillity, as well as career-launching debuts courtesy of A.A. Williams and 156/Silence. Deftones made a mighty comeback, while Ihsahn dominated with his twin EPs–and that’s just scratching the surface.

To deliver a true deep dive into the escapist glory of 2020’s metal landscape, here’s the year as described by the genre’s hottest artists.

January: Garganjua // ‘Toward the Sun’ 

New Year is rarely kind to people’s mental health. As Christmas fades into the distance, the stresses of returning to work and losing the holiday weight often creep in. Luckily, this year countered those blues with ‘Toward the Sun’, an engrossing doom metal album that teaches the joys of mindfulness.

“I feel that humans think the world owes us something and we constantly want, want, want, only to never be satisfied,” says Garganjua guitarist and vocalist Scott Taylor. “‘Toward…’ is a reminder to be present, if we ever forget. We will weather storms along the way, but dig your feet into the sand, feel the sun against your skin and embrace it, because every storm will pass.”

Plus, thanks to thundering tunes that mix the psychedelia of Pink Floyd with the loud melancholia of My Dying Bride, Garganjua’s latest is as musically engrossing as it is lyrically enlightening.

February: Loathe // ‘I Let It In and It Took Everything’

In February, iconic Deftones singer Chino Moreno shared the lead single of ‘I Let It In…’, Two-Way Mirror, on Twitter. “That was pretty huge,” Loathe guitarist Erik Bickerstaffe happily reflects 10 months later. “We’re all big fans of Deftones so to wake up and see that was pretty surreal.”

You can understand Chino’s fondness for the Liverpudlians. Their second full-length is a luscious fusion of metalcore and shoegaze, able to ebb and flow between beauty and rage in a manner inspired by (but more erratic than) Deftones’ early material.

“We went through pretty much every form of emotional attachment to this record,” Bickerstaffe adds. “We continuously went back and forth between loving and hating it, then everything in between.”

They’re only two albums in, yet it already feels like Loathe are carving out their own unique form of extreme metal. It begs the question of just what avenues the five-piece hope to explore next. “Every single one,” replies Bickerstaffe.

March: Code Orange // ‘Underneath’

What a 12 months Code Orange have had. ‘Underneath’ has been topping album of the year lists left right and centre, after infusing industrial Nine Inch Nails textures into raw heavy metal. Their ‘Under the Skin’ livestream was also one of the best, most innovative video performances of 2020. They’re the most talked-about heavy band of the moment, but Jami Morgan isn’t content.

“We’re at a 3 on the 10 scale of where we want to be,” the ever-hungry drummer-vocalist states. “We believe we have something grand to offer–it's our responsibility to continue to prove that on a regular basis in an extremely noisy world.”

Drive is something these hellraisers have never lacked, and they’ve grown to new heights in a year where almost every one of their peers have stagnated. “We’ve been the most active band by far in terms of putting out high quality art pieces,” Morgan adds. “The work’s kept us motivated and strong. When our platform and reach is equal to the greats of past eras, we will be close to satisfied. Maybe.”

April: Oranssi Pazuzu // ‘Mestarin kynsi’

A screeching voyage into the darkest depths of aural depravity, ‘Mestarin kynsi’ is an avant-garde disc unlike anything else metalheads heard in 2020. Its alien blend of black metal, space rock and noise music captivated listeners beyond each genre’s niche, resulting in the biggest triumph of the Finns’ career.

“We’ve always had the mentality of an explorer,” says singer and guitarist Jun-His. “There are so many exciting things waiting for you when you head for unbeaten paths, rather than stick to limited pre-settings.

“We wanted to create an album that would feel like the listener is set on a path where you first follow it strictly, but little by little start wandering off and get lost among the surroundings.”

The album’s cosmic grind hit even greater levels of psychedelia when the band performed it in full on a summer livestream: “We were after something between a basement session and Pink Floyd’s ‘Live at Pompeii’. We wanted the watcher to be in the midst of the band.”

May: Bleed from Within // ‘Fracture’

In 2018, Bleed From Within returned from inactivity with the ferocious ‘Era’, a comeback that eclipsed anything the Scottish metalcore nasties had done previously. “Going into that album, our first in five years, we were asking ourselves if people still cared,” remembers drummer Ali Richardson. “The mood going into our new album, ‘Fracture’, was far removed from that. The mood was overwhelmingly positive.”

Even following the groove-metal-and melo-death-tinged ‘Era’, ‘Fracture’ strikes as a more vicious collection. It capitalises on the momentum of the band’s comeback, offering an extension of the same roaring melodies and breakdowns.

“‘Fracture’ is our most accomplished work,” Richardson adds. “There’s something in there for everyone, and the album has put us in a position we never thought we’d find ourselves in. Moving forward, the sky appears to be the limit.”

Considering the quintet later closed 2020 by opening for a Lamb of God livestream, it’s hard to disagree.

June: Protest the Hero // ‘Palimpsest’

This year marked the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency, as record numbers voted for opponent Joe Biden to add The Donald’s name to a short list of single term leaders in U.S. history. Protest the Hero singer Rody Walker–whose band’s fifth album discusses Americans rewriting history–remains perturbed at the closeness of the contest, though.

“When over 70 million people vote for a man who is a blatant bigot, greatness is in flux,” he says. “‘Palimpsest’ looks at the duality of ‘greatness’ in the United States. I wanted to address the hideous moments that are reshaped as great, and the great moments that are belittled or ignored.”

Accompanying Walker’s analysis, his bandmates play hyper-technical post-hardcore, as wild guitar leads flourish atop near-incomprehensible time signatures. It’s a mathematical display, yet it always remains soulful and catchy at the same time. Followed by the companion EP ‘Fabula & Syuzhet’ just weeks later, it ensured Protest the Hero were one of the rock bands of the summer.

July: Sharptooth // ‘Transitional Forms’

“My goal with this band is to level the playing field,” says Sharptooth guitarist Lance Donati. “We want people experiencing our music to feel welcome under any circumstance and background.”

As a result, their second album ‘Transitional Forms’ is almost a parody of metalcore, unpicking its male-centric and hyper-aggressive cliches. Lead single Say Nothing mocks the vacuity of the genre’s lyricism, setting the stage for Evolution and 153’s bitter cries for egalitarianism.

“Honesty can be hard,” adds bassist Peter Bruno. “I like to think we are helping people feel that they can be more like who they want to be.”

The subversive wordplay and hammering musicianship on ‘Transitional Forms’ saw Sharptooth’s reputation soar despite of no touring being possible this year. “I’m an optimist and know that, for every down in life, there’s an up,” continues Donati. “You just need to appreciate both processes to survive.”

August: Misery Signals // ‘Ultraviolet’

In 2014, Misery Signals’ classic lineup reunited for the 10th anniversary of their landmark debut, ‘Of Malice and the Magnum Heart’. What followed was a blockbuster of a tour and, six years later, at last a new album: ‘Ultraviolet’.

“We didn’t want to ‘outdo’ our past efforts,” guitarist Stuart Ross says of his quintet’s latest. “We made ‘Malice…’ a long time ago and we’ve come a long way as musicians and songwriters since then. I just think ‘Ultraviolet’ is a great representation of the band in 2020.”

The album ditches the more mathematical savagery of ‘Of Malice…’ to create a raw ride, peppered with the hallmarks of post-rock. It’s a gorgeous throwback to metalcore’s adolescence (post-Converge but pre-crabcore) that’s also able to stand on its own two feet. And, thankfully, we won’t have to wait another 16 years to hear its creators in action once more.

“When the time comes, I’m fairly confident that this lineup will continue to be members of Misery Signals moving forward,” Ross concludes.

September: Svalbard // ‘When I Die, Will I Get Better?’

‘When I Die, Will I Get Better?’ may be the darkest album name we’ve seen all year. “Writing the album, I was suffering from a severe bout of depression,” explains singer and guitarist Serena Cherry. “The title reflects that headspace. In a broader sense, I suppose it could also apply to some of the issues explored on the album: when sexism dies, the world will get better.”

Svalbard’s third album is one of post-hardcore’s most sociologically switched-on, highlighting not only sexism, but also abuse and stigmas around mental health. It possesses a moral compass in a world where prejudice and corruption are all too easily tolerated. 

It’s also as beautiful as it is destructive, giving hardcore rage gorgeously ambient post-rock segues. “I don't think of us as a hardcore band. I don't even listen to hardcore music,” laughs Cherry. The Bristol troupe will follow up their masterpiece by touring the UK with the Ocean in 2021.

October: Enslaved // ‘Utgard’

“Norse mythology is so much more than burlesque bedtime stories and phoney TV shows,” says Enslaved vocalist and bassist Grutle Kjellson. It’s a point the black metal favourites proved for the 15th time with ‘Utgard’, a transcendent voyage named after the mythical land of giants.

“The myths are a complex system where every single god, giant and other deity has a function,” he adds.” Enslaved’s new music is apropos then, since it too is a multifaceted beast, mixing the usual genre malevolence with touches of classic rock, prog and folk.

Frustratingly, ‘Utgard’ was delayed five months thanks to COVID-19, but the band used the time well, dropping appetising single after single and performing three unique livestreams over the summer.

“The main challenge was–and still is–to stay active and focused. We put a whole lot of effort into those streams, which kept the anticipation for the album alive. Our fans have expressed sincere gratitude for those shows, and that’s something we deeply appreciate.”

November: Palm Reader // ‘Sleepless’

A lot of great metalcore was released this year. However, few albums felt as genuinely emotional and sensitive as ‘Sleepless’. The fourth album by Palm Reader melded all the screams and riffs you’d expect with gorgeous touches of clean quasi-indie-rock.

“We tried really hard to not make a record that sucked,” guitarist Andy Gillan says of creating their career-best offering. “It was a labour of love and untold amounts of stress but, after the hours we put into it, it’s nice to know it’s making an impression.”

‘Sleepless’ arrived two years after predecessor ‘Braille’, which launched the Nottingham-based darlings into eager eyes beyond solely heavy metal culture. In continuing, Gillan admits there was increased scrutiny–but none of it came from fans or critics.

“The pressure is only internal,” he explains. “We had to prove to ourselves that we were better than we were last time. Because we take what we write to task so viciously, nothing extraneous could make it onto the record.”

And it didn’t. It’s all brilliant.

December: Respire // ‘Black Line’

From Envy to Svalbard to Fall of Messiah, 2020 was consistently brilliant for post-hardcore, and Respire brought the year to an amazing close with ‘Black Line’. Melding punk with black metal, metalcore and classical music, it was a triumph of eclectic rage.

“From the start, we wanted to push the envelope and make the sort of ambitious music we want to hear in the world,” says guitarist and vocalist Rohan Lilauwala. And “ambitious” they are. ‘Black Line’ features violins, horn sections and enchanting choirs, yet its heaviest moments are still gut-bustingly malevolent. 

Lilauwala continues: “It’s difficult to think of other bands doing what we do, because we make a conscious effort to try and not sound like anyone else. Our sound was forged by combining Godspeed You! Black Emperor with bands like Converge.”

In what was an unstoppable year for post-hardcore music, the fact that underdogs Respire made themselves a highlight says plenty about their ingenuity.

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