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Diamond Oz: The Best Albums And Bands Of 2020

Photo of Napalm Death

Band Photo: Napalm Death (?)

Right off the bat, I know some of you are laughing at the idea that 2020 could offer a best of anything. It's been a year to forget for most of us, thanks largely to the COVID-19 virus, which has had a devastating effect across the globe. Metal is no exception to the impact of the corona virus, and subsequently, we've not been able to attend many shows this year, with tours being cancelled left and right and it being unknown when they'll return. We've also sadly lost some true icons this year, including Eddie Van Halen, Pete Way and Leslie West, as well as the tragic death of Power Trip frontman Riley Gale.

Nevertheless, every situation has a positive and when it comes to the music itself, metal does what it does best and fights against the negative with some stellar new albums, as well as some incredible new bands emerging and the reformation of such bands as Vektor, Genghis Tron and Trail Of Tears. In this article, we'll be recognising some of the year's best releases, best live bands (from the short time we were able to actually see live music) and the best newcomers. Starting with...


Best Live Band

As I may have mentioned once or twice already, live shows were a rarity this year and so much of the bands I saw came from my time on board 70000 Tons Of Metal, where there were some very strong contenders for best live performance. While Toxik, At The Gates, Possessed and The Agonist all put on blistering shows, delighting all who were lucky enough to attend, the two bands who really stood out this time were Mexican deathgrinders Brujeria and Irish folk metal pioneers Cruachan. Brujeria are always a treat live, never failing to combine extreme metal with humour and a decent slice of politics, plus there's nothing quite like boarding a boat to Florida from Mexico, with a crowd singing "La Migra" at the top of their lungs! Cruachan meanwhile fought through some technical difficulties and a very late time slot to thrill those who stayed up to see them, before packing out the bar on the third night for their version of an Irish pub sing along, leading hundreds of metal fans in stirring renditions of such staples as "Seven Drunken Nights", "Come Out Ye Black And Tans" and of course, "Ride On." However my pick for best live band goes to a quartet who are about to unleash their first album in seven years and who weren't on board 70000 Tons this year.

Eyehategod

In what had to be the best package tour to actually happen this year, Napalm Death collected a motley crew of some of metal's best to wreck the ears of European headbangers, storming across Europe with Eyehategod, Misery Index, Rotten Sound and Bat. Each one of these bands were absolutely fantastic and it's always hard to top Napalm Death live, as it is Rotten Sound, but somehow Eyehategod did it. With fearsome energy, Mike IX's "fuck you" attitude and Jimmy Bower's exemplary riffs, the four piece absolutely tore Leeds apart on a cold February night. There were some in the crowd who weren't familiar with the New Orleans icons, but by the end of their set, they were cheered as heroes by all in attendence. One young lady I spoke to before their set that didn't know them was nearly in tears after by how overwhelmed she was by their performance. That new album can't come soon enough.

Best Newcomer

In this man's opinion, metal has been getting stronger and stronger the past six or seven years when it comes to new bands. Younger musicians who truly love metal have been on the rise and once again, women are staking their claim as the current leaders of the genre. In recent years we've seen the rise of such bands as Nerovsa, Burning Witches and Lovebites and one of the most exciting new bands of the year is another all female band, this time hailing from Denmark. Konvent has been a breath of fresh air in the death/doom genre, an area which can be difficult to evolve in, but their debut album, "Puritan Masochism" was a great start to the new year. However, when it comes to best new band, I'm choosing one out of my comfort zone and selecting...

Surma

Where to begin with Surma? This collective of talented musicians, led by vocalist Viktorie Surmová and Tyr frontman Heri Joensen, the band has forged a combination of symphonic and power metal to create one of the most dynamic sounding new groups around. The Czechia based outfit released their debut album, "The Light Within" last month through Metal Blade Records and it proved to be one of the most varied, powerful and engaging works of 2020. Of course, with Joensen on board, the listener is guaranteed interesting music, but Surmová herself has an absolutely stunning voice, hooking the ears of all who hear her and not letting go. Keep your eyes on Surma, they'll be headlining festivals once things get back to normal.

Top Five Albums Of The Year

Honourable mentions:
There's been no shortage of albums this year, from newcomers to legends. Vader, Fates Warning, Benediction and Onslaught all unleashed very worthy additions to their already impressive catalogues, while one of the standouts came from German duo Mantar and their covers EP, "Grungetown Hooligans II," which saw the two tackle songs from the likes of Sonic Youth, L7 and Mazzy Star to name a few. It was also a great year for fans of doom and Gothic metal, with Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride and Draconian all just barely missing out on the top five this year with some of their darkest and most haunting material to date. Ultimately though, there can be only five... Because it's a top five.

5. Surma - The Light Within

Kicking off the list of best albums is the newcomer of the year, Surma. Already looking like the most important band to come from Czechia since Master's Hammer, the bombastic debut, "The Light Within" as everything to propel the band to stardom. Lead single, "Until It Rains Again," is one of the catchiest metal songs of the year. Add to this the whirlwind epic, "Fire And Wind," the pummeling yet creepy, "The City Of Winds," the soaring majesty of "Downfall," the stampede that is "Lost To Time" and the beautiful ending passage, "Deconstruction" and what you have is a variety pack of sounds which combines to form a mesmerising debut album and one of the year's finest.

4. Armored Saint - Punching The Sky

What's an end of year list without some legendary names? With their first album in five years, Californian metal masters Armored Saint released their strongest record in decades in the form of "Punching The Sky." Sounding just as fresh as they ever have, especially vocalist John Bush, this compendium of metal boasts some of Armored Saint's most memorable material to date, not least "Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants," from which the album takes its title from. "My Jurisdiction" sounds like it could have come straight from older albums like "Raising Fear" while the melodic "Lone Wolf" is just as pleasing to the soul as it is the ears, not to mention one of the album's most exciting tracks, "Missile To Gun." Armored Saint always guarantee quality, but this time they've outdone themselves.

3. Napalm Death - Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism

Speaking of five year waits, 2020 saw the release of "Throes Of Joy In The Jaws Of Defeatism," Napalm Death's first album since early 2015's, "Apex Predator - Easy Meat." What keeps Napalm Death at the top of the grindcore tree since their inception is their artistic integrity and willingness to experiment. It would have been very easy to replicate past sounds, but instead, the quartet took influence from the likes of Swans and Killing Joke to create a hybrid of grindcore and post punk and produce one of the most fascinating albums of their long and storied career. It may take a few listens for some fans, but this bold step is what makes Napalm Death one of the most important bands in extreme music.

2. Dark Tranquillity - Moment

A recent release which gained lots of attention, "Moment" may also be Dark Tranquillity's finest *ahem* moment in decades. The band have of course always been known for their melodic edge which helped pioneer the Gothenburg sound, but it's at its very best here, creating some of the sharpest hooks of the year. Singles "Phantom Days" and "Identical To None" were both extremely catchy and the icy cold sound of "The Dark Unbroken" embraces the listener in their deepest despair. Fans may have been worried about the depature of guitarist Niklas Sundin, but new members Christopher Amott and Johan Reinholdz keep the sound of Dark Tranquillity alive and vibrant.

1. Firewind - Firewind

Finally we come to what I believe to the album of the year. Like those of Dark Tranquillity, Firewind fans were concerned by lineup changes made by the Greek power metal veterans, particularly the departure of longtime keyboardist Bob Katsionis, while eyebrows were raised when it was confirmed that Henning Basse was no longer behind the microphone. Ultimately though, this new lineup with former Sinbreed singer Herbie Langhans in tow produced an absolutely incredible new album, with songs which are already guaranteed to become live favourites such as "Rising Fire," "Welcome To The Empire" and "Break Away," not to mention the fearsome "Devour," marching anthem "Overdrive" and turbocharged closer, "Kill The Pain" and what we have is not just a worthy successor to 2016's awesome, "Immortals," but one of the best entries in the Firewind discography. We can only hope that it won't be another four year wait for Firewind to let another album loose on the world, because this eponymous record may feature them at their very strongest.

2021

And that was 2020. No doubt I will have missed out on some of your favourite releases of the year, so why not name drop them in the comments and let me know how wrong I am? While we hope for better things in 2021, we must be realistic and acknowledge that it could be some time before the problems caused by the virus, as well as COVID-19 itself, could take some time to go away and that live shows aren't guaranteed. We do however have plenty of new albums on their way, with new material from Moonspell, Michael Schenker, Razor, Dragony, Therion and Nightfall just to name a few on the horizon. What are you most looking forward to?

Diamond Oz's avatar

Ollie Hynes has been a writer for Metal Underground.com since 2007 and a metal fan since 2001, going as far as to travel to other countries and continents for metal gigs.

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