Max Heilman’s 60 best metal albums of 2020: 10-1

Mr. Bungle, The Ocean Collective, Wailin’ Storms, Liturgy, Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou, Ulcerate, Umbra Vitae, Nero di Marte, Protest the Hero, Tombs, Palimpsest, Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic, The Raging Wrath Of The Easter Bunny Demo, Under Sullen Skies, Shadow of Life, Stare Into Death and Be Still, Immoto, May Our Chambers be Full, Origin of the Alimonies

The 60 best metal albums of 2020 include (clockwise from top left): Mr. Bungle, The Ocean Collective, Wailin’ Storms, Liturgy, Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou, Ulcerate, Umbra Vitae, Nero di Marte, Protest the Hero and Tombs.

Who would’ve though Mr. Bungle would make it this high with a re-recorded demo? Here it is, folks… The absolute best metal albums of the year. It wasn’t easy to narrow down this final crop of bands, but I’m confident when I say this stuff mad me laugh, cry and sit in awe more than once.

2020 in Review, Best of 2020, best albums of 2020, best concerts of 2020, 2020 in review, The Most OK of 2020

Illustration: Skott Bennett/STAFF.

Be sure to check out parts one (60-51), two (50-41)three (40-31)four (30-21) and five (20-11) if you haven’t already!

10. Protest the HeroPalimpsest — Palimpsest remains true to the best part of Protest the Hero—melodic technicality. The fact you could recommend this to fans of progressive metalcore and power metal shows how unique this band really is. Rody Walker’s voice has recovered miraculously, considering he blew it out right before the recording process started. The rest of the band sounds alive and well, too, but there’s a political tone to this record that gives it increased urgency. Without sounding overdone or heavy-handed, Protest the Hero spotlights the often-ignored history of violence, arrogance and bigotry that recurs in American history.

9. The Ocean CollectivePhanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic — The Ocean’s latest album completes its ambitious Phanerozoic, taking listeners from the dawn of the dinosaurs to the present day with a masterful prog-metal experience. The band’s melodic quotient remains as potent as it was in Part I, with Katatonia vocalist Jonas Renkse reprising his contributing role. It’s not progressive in a hyper-technical sense. The band chooses to use its musical chops to come up with the best hooks and sweeping crescendos. Still, what’s really impressive about these guys is how they take relatable narratives out of something as difficult as the entire history of the planet. The Ocean’s ability to write compelling music is matched only by its narrative scope.

8. Mr. BungleThe Raging Wrath Of The Easter Bunny Demo — Mr. Bungle’s revamp of its first demo becomes the most viscerally entertaining thrash metal album in who knows how long. The Raging Wrath Of The Easter Bunny Demo is simply too much fun to resist. It’s clear the band deeply enjoyed revisiting the ventures of its youth, with two thrash metal warriors on board. If you’re like me, it’s easy to roll your eyes about yet another thrash album—especially if it’s an old band redoing the songs from its youth. The inclusion of Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian and ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo notwithstanding, this album is ridiculously entertaining. Mike Patton comes through with some of his most exciting vocals ever, while guitarist Trey Spruance and bassist Trevor Dunn channel their innate weirdness into a beer-soaked romp filled with potty humor and youthful rioting.

7. Tombs Under Sullen Skies — The EP Monarchy of Shadows suggested a rebirth for these New York veterans, but Under Sullen Skies is the true second coming of Tombs. There’s honestly too many cool moments on this album to name, suffice to say that these 12 tracks pretty much cover every extreme metal category. We’re talking metalcore breakdowns, Darkthrone-worshipping black metal and funeral doom dirges. Though technically an outgrowth from the U.S. black metal movement, Tombs does a lot to transcend concrete categorizations. One minute they’re bringing Celtic Frost to mind, and the next they’re bringing Integrity singer Dwid Hellion into the mix. Tombs establishes itself as a true master of all trades. From synthetic atmospheres and chugging riffs to chilling tremolo riffs—and operatic baritone singing mixed in with growls and snarls—Tombs are ready to take the new decade by storm.

6. Umbra Vitae Shadow of Life —Considering the all-star lineup, there was no chance of this band getting ignored. Fronted by Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon, having guitarists Mike McKenzie (The Red Chord) and Sean Martin (ex-Hatebreed, Twitching Tongues), would be cool enough, but the band also has The Red Chord’s Greg Weeks on bass and drummer Jon Rice (Uncle Acid, ex-Job for a Cowboy) going to bat. The objective is simple: do as much damage in as little time as possible. That being said, this album absolutely destroys everything in its path with a nexus of Swedish death metal, dark hardcore and battle-hardened grindcore. It’s not exactly a new concept, but Umbra Vitae’s meeting of minds elevates the sonic attack into outer space before pile-driving listeners into the depths of hell.

5. Wailin’ StormsRattle — Sometimes an album comes out of nowhere and scares the living daylights out of you. For me, that was Wailin’ Storms with Rattle. With an interesting cross-section of doom rock, Southern gothic and post-punk, the sonic cuisine is palatable enough. The songwriting is really catchy and memorable. What’s really the defining characteristic, however, is the lyricism and the way the words are sung. Rattle is full of horrific tales made for giving you the creeps and turning on more lights. It’s like a more melodic, almost bluesy version of You Won’t Get What You Want by Daughters, in that the rising action presented by the instrumentation is driven by gripping storylines. Don’t listen to this thing in the dark… well actually, maybe you should so the album can have its way with you.

4. UlcerateStare Into Death and Be Still — New Zealand’s Ulcerate has long ridden the line between avant-metal and tech-death, but nowhere has that line been more tread until now. In a lot of ways, Stare Into Death and Be Still is the most melodic Ulcerate album yet. It’s surprising to hear riffs you could actually hum along to, but this is a situation where it sounds accessible until you look beyond the surface. Ulcerate is still unfathomably complex, from constant rhythm changes and unorthodox guitar licks, but these guys know just when to milk a melodic idea for all the emotion it’s worth. Granted, the growls and blast beats are as ferocious as expected. It’s the fact that Ulcerate can dial into simple, satisfying grooves before blasting back into the storm is really what makes the album so glorious.

3. Nero di MarteImmoto — Italian progressive metallers Nero di Marte have been pushing themselves into new territory for a while now, but Immoto finds the band going inward rather than outward. It’s a release of atmosphere and melody with the soft-spoken chemistry of a jazz combo. Sean Worrell’s singing voice finds the spotlight during the meditative jams, whispering harmonies into unassuming, slow-burning post-metal. Once the music explodes, the band’s knack for sounding improvised becomes apparent. The band never full settles into a groove, but it always feel in control of the proceedings. And on the heaviest parts of the album, the punishing beats and detuned riffs find a better foothold in the tumult. Nero di Marte’s decision to quiet things down has resulted in its most intriguing album to date.

2. Emma Ruth Rundle & ThouMay Our Chambers Be Full — In sludge metal circles, Thou has become one of the best bands around. Likewise, Emma Ruth Rundle has earned a lot of respect for her heavier, more monolithic take on folk and rock. Thou and Rundle began to make a habit of playing together over the years, including a collaborative set of Misfits covers. That was the moment that left everyone expecting a collaborative album. May Our Chambers Be Full absolutely delivers. Thou and Rundle’s chemistry goes beyond a simple contrast of their respective styles. This combination works because it sounds like a real band playing together. Rundle sounds like she could become a full-time member of Thou and, more surprisingly, vice versa. Thou manages to adapt its crushing heaviness for Rundle’s voice and guitar, but this never comes at the expense of the riffs for which everyone loves it. Certain cuts do come off more like either artist, but there’s more than enough full-blown combination songs to show how necessary this album is to both artists’ fully discovering their potential.

1. LiturgyOrigin of the Alimonies — For the second consecutive year, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix has released an incredible album. If H.A.A.Q. represented a rebirth for her (now out as trans) then Origin of the Alimonies represents a true embrace of her musical and philosophical sensibilities. Technically conceived as an opera, it’s definitely the most fluid Liturgy album in terms of conceptual flow. This is quite a feat, considering how many directions these seven tracks go. From trap/djent, chamber music and celestial noise rock, Hunt-Hendrix’s transcendental vision has never been this colorful and fully realized.

The extensive use of harps, strings and brass would surely appear to fans of 20th century classical music, but the black metal element rises to the occasion with a religious fervor. There’s a definite embrace of Christian mysticism that was present in H.A.A.Q. But Origin of the Alimonies is biblical in its scope. This is most clear in “Appartion of the Eternal Church,” a 14-minute oddessey of heavenly bombast and sprawling crescendos. As overwhelming as it is engrossing, this album feels like the most accurate representation of something Hunt-Hendrix has been striving to realize since she penned her manifesto so many years ago. It’s bodacious, beautiful, bizarre and era-inducing.

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