Death To 2020: Death Drive 90.5’s Top 15 Death Metal Albums of the Year

by Schuler // Death Drive 90.5

It’d be disingenuous of me to frame 2020 as some kind of personal crucible. I made it through just fine. And it’d be absurd to try and make the preamble to a death metal end-of-year writeup into some kind of profound observation about perseverance or hope or grit or empathy or forgiveness or tolerance. I celebrate the recent steps we’ve taken to un-fuck the state of the world, but I worry that taking them wrung so much effort out us that we’re too tired to go much further, that we’re gonna stop for a breather and just not get back up. I hope you don’t feel that way. I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything, but I hope that you have. I hope that 2020 was better for you than it was for the many whose suffering is inextricably inked into the script that commits this year to history. I hope for all that. But I don’t count on it.

What I counted on in 2020 throughout my own comparatively insignificant struggles was music. In spite of their industry all but shuttering, in spite of their inability to tour and make money, a ton of the bands who had releases slated for 2020 bit the bullet and let their records spin. I’m grateful for that, but I’m also trying to bear in mind what it cost. These people are going to need our help. They’re going to need us to get merch when we can. They’re going to need us packing venues when shows start back up. If we listen to their shit and we like it, they’re gonna need us to spread the word. So that’s what I’m doing now. The following 15 albums gave me some of the most rewarding experiences of 2020. I hope you’ll check them out and support their creators.

Thanks for reading, thanks for listening to death metal, and thanks for supporting Death Drive 90.5 and WUSC. In this world of hate, we love you.

15. Shards of Humanity – Cold Logic (Unspeakable Axe)

Shards of Humanity’s sophomore LP, Cold Logic, sees the band developing the calculated death thrash of their debut further into Human-era Death worship… and to great effect. Songs like “Moths of Zeta” and instrumental opener “Cosmic Shield” get a ton of mileage out of the formula laid down by Chuck and the boys. But framing this record only in terms of homage would be underselling it. There’s a lot of ingenuity here, especially when the band really starts to blend their influences. The Swedish melodicism of “Mechanical Phosphene” and the crossover urgency of “I’ve Seen Death” show a band continuing to evolve as a songwriting unit, smoothing out the stitches on a Frankenstein’s monster of styles that’s getting easier and easier to look at.

14. Terminal Nation – Holocene Extinction (20 Buck Spin)

This is one of the angriest records I’ve ever heard. Terminal Nation’s been around for a while, steadily incorporating Sunlight Studios-worthy riffs into an abusive sonic relationship between powerviolence and hardcore. With their debut LP, however, they’ve struck a balance that equally embraces the underground’s obsession with the Stockholm buzzsaw, and speaks directly to the scarred psyche of a nation on fire. While production on Holocene Extinction was completed in 2019, you’d think it was written, recorded, and rushed out in the throes of fear brought on by the pandemic, frustration brought on by lockdown, and seething fucking rage fed by social injustice. These dudes have definitely captured 2020 in a hardcore-infused death metal record, but it’s not a flash in the pan either. Terminal Nation is an evolved unit that worships Clandestine and feeds on negativity; they’re not going anywhere.

13. Angerot – The Divine Apostate (Redefining Darkness)

The Divine Apostate is ambitious. The seething HM2 muscle that defined Angerot’s debut, The Splendid Iniquity, has been bulked up with thicker production, and beautified by operatic and orchestral flourishes, as well as a sharper focus on melody and song structure. The album’s opening track, “Below the Deep and Dreamless Sleep,” best showcases a style that lurks somewhere between Like an Everflowing Stream and Death Cult Armageddon. But while the combination might sound as paradoxical as the album’s title, I think you’ll find, like I did, that they’re not just pulling it off, they’re thriving. 

12. THÆTAS – Shrines To Absurdity (Maggot Stomp)

New York has played a crucial role in the mythological heights achieved by technical brutal death metal, so it’s no surprise that some of the state’s hungriest new acts are pushing the limits of the tradition forged by bands like Suffocation and Morpheus Descends. With THÆTAS’s Shrines To Absurdity, Maggot Stomp expands their roster’s domain beyond the entrance to the cave. This is territory where innovation and technicality make for an unpredictable, multifaceted record that delivers on the first listen and further unfolds when revisited. Give special attention to the sprawling, exploratory finale, “Greenhaven.”

11. Undeath – Lesions of a Different Kind (Prosthetic)

I’ve been following Undeath since not long after their first demo dropped in the spring of 2019. The band’s following has grown rapidly since then, reaching particularly impressive heights that fed a rabid anticipation of their first full-length. And it didn’t disappoint. The riffs on Lesions of a Different Kind are equal parts groovy, lurching crowd pleasers (the re-recorded “Archfiend Coercion Methods”) and angular change-ups reminiscent of Corpsegrinder-era Cannibal Corpse’s finest moments (“Kicked In The Protruding Guts”)… and that’s some of the highest praise I know how to give. Undeath joins a handful of freshman death metal acts that dropped 2020 debuts boasting styles so well-developed you’d think they were a few albums deep into their careers. Luckily for fans of quality death metal that embraces old school groove and modern unpredictability in equal measure, Undeath are just getting started.

10. Benighted – Obscene Repressed (Season of Mist)

Obscene Repressed had a lot riding on it for Benighted. It’s their first full-length release since the departure of founding guitarist Olivier Gabriel, and it features some of the band’s most adventurous work since 2011’s Asylum Cave, which saw them lay down roots in the (somewhat) palatable, melodic tech of bands like Aborted and Cattle Decapitation. Obscene Repressed doesn’t take the band in any new directions, but it doesn’t feel like a rehash either. Its greatest strengths lie in showing time and personnel changes haven’t weakened the band. “Bound To Facial Plague” and “Scarecrow” (my favorite track from the album) would’ve been perfectly at home on Necrobreed, and songs like “Brutus” and “Muzzle” harken back to the chunky grind of Benighted’s Identisick days. Even “Implore The Negative” manages to rise above a bizarre, awkward cameo from Hatebreed vocalist Jamey Jasta. And if you get a chance to hear the bonus version, there’s a cover of Slipknot’s “Get This” that’s way more fun than it probably should be. And, as usual, vocalist and lone remaining founder Julien Truchan’s lyrics span multiple languages to plumb the most vexing and vulnerable depths of the human psyche, this time with a concept revolving around… well, obscene, repressed, Oedipal urges that eventually rise disturbingly to the surface. 

09. Necrot – Mortal (Tankcrimes)

Some albums are so overhyped ahead of their release that they’re bound to be a bit of a disappointment. On the other hand, some albums that are relentlessly pimped during their writing, recording, and finishing phases end up delivering all that was promised and then some. The universal popularity of Necrot’s first LP, Blood Offerings, combined with the lengthy and transparent production process of Mortal–the band announced the album’s title months ahead of its release and routinely provided updates on its progress–made it one of the most anticipated albums of 2020. And fortunately for everyone who waited so long, there’s not a note of disappointment on Mortal; from start to finish, it’s a keeper. Necrot’s formula throughout their past output has proven to be pretty successful, and it feels like they were aware enough of that to know not to try any radical departures. Mortal ended up delivering more of the burly, muscular, old school death metal the band’s become known for. If you got turned off by the hype machine (and I understand if you did), take some time to listen to “Stench of Decay” or “Asleep Forever.” This is powerful, superb death metal.

08. Incantation – Sect of Vile Divinities (Relapse)

Sect of Vile Divinities features some of Incantation’s cleanest production and some of their most immediately accessible material. If you’re a longtime fan of the band, you may be turned off by that description, but please don’t be. With a history as rich and a back catalog as extensive as theirs, there’s surely not much territory in cavernous, complex, dirgey death metal that Incantation haven’t covered. The decision (intentional or otherwise… we’ll get to that in a second) to roll out a record with songs that feel more focused and developed made for not only a solid entry in the band’s legacy, but some of 2020’s most memorable riffs. Listen to “Siege Hive,” “Fury’s Manifesto,” and “Entrails of The Hag Queen” and try to tell me that shit doesn’t stick with you. Interestingly enough, we recently had John McEntee as a guest on the Lifts & Riffs podcast, and he told us the writing and production of the record had been really drawn-out and tumultuous. That was surprising to me, as I think this is maybe Incantation’s most direct and approachable release. If you’re newer to Incantation, or to death metal in general, and you’re looking for a slightly more listenable entry point, this is an excellent place to start.

07. Fluids – Ignorance Exalted (Maggot Stomp)

Fluid’s first full-length, Exploitative Practices, was one of my favorite records of 2019. And on their 2020 release, Ignorance Exalted, goregrind’s wettest, most special boys continue to meld catchy riffing and guttural vocals with the cartoonish excess of increasingly flashy programmed percussion. And, of course, the samples are back, too, and they’re as mortifying as ever. In addition to being a hell of an entertaining death metal record, a Fluids release creates a legitimate unease that works the same way as found footage horror flicks like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity–it’s not what’s there that’s scary, it’s what’s implied that drops just enough hints to create a bubble the listener populates with their own imagination, deepest fears and all. 

06. Ulthar – Providence (20 Buck Spin)

Ulthar’s latest sentient amorphous mass of blackened, crusty death is even more satisfying than the first, which is quite an achievement. This time around, Ulthar leaned more heavily into the style of debut Cosmovore’s more experimental moments. Songs like “Undying Spear” and “Through Downward Dynasties” are framed by gloomy acoustic guitar and cold, harsh soundscapes that contrast with the heavier moments in ways that make them feel even more intense. Providence also contains one of 2020’s most amped-up openers; “Churn” is the band’s quickest, tightest song, and it’s the perfect opening salvo for the miasma that follows it. Put this motherfucker on and iä iä while you tekeli-li.

05. Defeated Sanity – The Sanguinary Impetus (Willowtip)

I got off to a rough start with this record. As much as I was enjoying the songs’ trade-offs between heady tech death and crushing slams, the production felt off to me, especially when mixing in the new songs with my favorites from Defeated Sanity’s past efforts. But I came around, man, and now I can’t understand what my problem was. Lille Gruber set out to pick up where the band left off on Passages Into Deformity, and that’s pretty much what they’ve done. The Sanguinary Impetus represents a resolute step forward for Defeated Sanity, not just as they attempt to push their signature sound, but also as they fight to retain their elite status in an ever-crowding corner of the genre. Gruber opens the record with some snare and bass whimsy before the rest of the band launch into “Phytodigestion,” an opener that feels a lot like a conscious effort to reproduce the combo blows of Passages’s “Initiation” and “Naraka,” albeit trimmed of fat and dialed to eleven. “Imposed Corporeal Inhabitation” and first single “Propelled Into Sacrilege” continue in the spastic footsteps of the opener, but if you’re looking for songs more reminiscent of Chapters or Psalms, “Conceived Through Savagery” and “Entity Dissolving Entity” should feel like home. The band doesn’t lock in nearly as often to the bone-on-bone, dramatic stomp that shaped their earlier albums, but the trade-off is a showcase of instrumental wizardry that’s at once more calculated and also more discernible than past Defeated Sanity. 

04. Afterbirth – Four Dimensional Flesh (Unique Leader)

Afterbirth began as part of the early 90’s Long Island death metal scene, releasing a couple of demos before dissolving in 1995 and passing into obscurity. The band reactivated in 2013, and their initial demos were collected and reissued by Pathos Productions that same year. In 2017 Unique Leader released Afterbirth’s first proper LP, The Time Traveler’s Dilemma, a record showcasing a progressive sound that was starkly different from the band’s more rudimentary BDM beginnings. Four Dimensional Flesh is largely an extension of its predecessor, a mixture of bludgeoning brutal death metal jackhammering, cerebral, engaging instrumental passages, and some of the deepest gutturals in the game, courtesy of Will Smith (Artificial Brain). In addition to performances that warrant equal enthusiasm from the nerdiest progressive instrumentation fans and the most ignorant of FlexFit-wearing BDM smooth-brains, Four Dimensional Flesh follows an interesting concept which, like The Time Traveler’s Dilemma, is mostly devoid of the genre’s gory lyrical mainstays. Songs like “Beheading The Buddha” and “Never Ending Teeth” are some of the year’s most simultaneously challenging and catchy,  and there’s not a second of throwaway filler in any of the album’s three interludes or its outro. Four Dimensional Flesh is a journey. Take it more than once.

03. Deeds of Flesh – Nucleus (Unique Leader)

Prior to Nucleus’s release this past December, the last we’d heard of Deeds of Flesh was 2013’s Portals To Canaan, the blisteringly technical second entry in a planned trilogy of science fiction concept albums. Unfortunately, founding member and mastermind Erik Lindmark died of sclerosis in 2018, leaving a partially-written conclusion to the story hanging in limbo. In 2020, the remaining members of the band’s final lineup teamed up with past members Jacoby Kingston and Mike Hamilton to flesh out the parts Lindmark left behind and complete his vision. And they didn’t come alone. In addition to Kingston reclaiming his old co-vocalist position, Nucleus features guest performances from a cast of death metal legends, including Gorguts’s Luc Lemay and Cannibal Corpse’s George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher. It is, of course, a dizzying and dense record, and I’m still digesting parts of it. But I feel confident in saying that what I’ve absorbed so far combines the technical progression of the last two Deeds albums with the churning, refined brutality of the last entry from Kingston’s first stint in the band, Crown of Souls. Nucleus is a hell of an addition to the Deeds of Flesh catalog, and a fitting, powerful coda to Lindmark’s lasting legacy as one of death metal’s greatest advocates. Just like previous Deeds releases, I’m looking forward to all the new stuff I’ll discover on future listens.

02. The Black Dahlia Murder – Verminous (Metal Blade)

The announcement of a new Black Dahlia Murder record essentially guarantees a filled spot in my end-of-the-year top five, and Verminous is of course no exception. If you’ve listened to Death Drive 90.5 and/or the Lifts & Riffs podcast, you’ve probably heard me rail about my love for this band before, and what I have to say here doesn’t add much to past rants. But I’m gonna say it anyway. The Black Dahlia Murder is the most consistent and highest quality American act in melodic death metal. They’ve grown into master songwriters, storytellers and performers, rising to probably the highest level of commercial success that a career in music this heavy will allow. They’ve evolved as musicians without disregarding previous efforts, and musically, they’ve never once catered to trends like breakdowns or clean vocals (neither of which would offend me) that wouldn’t have fit organically within their sound. But I think their most impressive feat is the ability to shed and reabsorb members like The Blob; some amazing players have come and gone from their ranks over the years, and while each has made his own indelible contribution, each exit hasn’t made the slightest dent in the band’s commitment to its mission. Having said that, I think the lineup that gave us Verminous is the band’s best yet.

Four albums deep into their tenure, rhythm section Alan Cassidy and Max Lavelle are so tight they feel like they’ve been playing together since the womb. Guitarist and Arsis alumnus Brandon Ellis’s second outing in TBDM sees him taking a more slightly more prominent position than on his debut, Nightbringers, particularly when it comes to his acrobatic solos. And then there’s the two remaining founders, the band’s creative core. Brian Eschbach is a fucking treasure. As good as the band’s debut, Unhallowed, was, it certainly fit the mold of a number of first efforts by young musicians: essentially recycling and homage. In the almost two decades since, Eschbach has risen to the highest echelon of the heroes he started out worshipping, becoming one of the most inventive and convicted craftsmen of his era. As for Trevor Strnad, Verminous is yet another testament to his status as a bonafide extreme metal frontman. His performance and delivery are as formidable as any of death metal’s most inimitable mouthpieces, but once again, I want to harp on what makes him stand out most to me: his lyrics. Strnad is a pedigree death metal fan. He knows the tradition he walks in. He knows what’s been done, he knows how to do it, and he knows how to keep it dangerous and push the envelope while keeping an edge of wit and a mind for prosody and poetic sensibility. I’ll say it again: Trevor Strnad is the greatest narrative lyricist in extreme metal.

Verminous is monumental. The album’s opening title track dances on a nerve-wracking main riff that can’t be entirely appreciated until you’ve both listened to the song and watched a play-through on YouTube. “Sunless Empire” and “Child of Night” see the band toying with structure and pacing to see just how eerily theatrical they can get without losing the thread (which they never do). And the closing suite of “A Womb in Dark Chrysalis” and “Dawn of Rats” is one of the most satisfying of their career, lyrically and instrumentally. For a band whose albums’ finales are often some of their most arresting songs, that’s a hell of a feat.  It’s not a jolting departure from past Black Dahlia efforts, but it doesn’t for a moment feel phoned in. Instead, Verminous is a welcome addition to what we’ve come to expect from The Black Dahlia Murder: a steady, purposed, continuing evolution of the band doing what they do best.

01. Akurion – Come Forth To Me (Redefining Darkness)

Talk about a record that came out of nowhere. While I’m an ardent defender of Mike DiSalvo’s tenure in Cryptopsy, I haven’t given a lot of thought over the last few years to where he might be or what he might be up to. I also can’t say whether or not that was a mistake, as part of what so thoroughly blew me away about Come Forth To Me was the fact that I wasn’t expecting it at all. Redefining Darkness is one of the most reliable labels in death metal, and a lot of their bands scratch my chronic HM2 itch, so I check out everything they release. I can’t remember exactly what I was anticipating when I first listened to this album, but by the end of it, I knew it was more than I planned for. Just in the album’s first track, the expansive nine-and-a-half minute “Leave Them Scars,” Akurion glide with fluid deliberation through pockets of technicality, melodicism, savage brutality, and reflective atmospherics; it’s essentially a three-song EP in and of itself. The songs’ lengths are as varied as the styles they contain; “Year of the Long Pig” is the band’s shortest and most intense track, raging to a close just past the three-minute mark, while centerpiece “Souvenir Gardens,” filled out with atmospheric breaks and orchestral movements, nears 12 minutes.

As natural and organic as each style sounds, it’s the musicians’ ability to shift so seamlessly from one to the next that’s entrancing. And with this lineup, it’s a quality that makes perfect sense. In addition to the welcome return of DiSalvo’s classic bark, Akurion features some death metal heavyweights with a ton of eclectic influences between them. The lineup includes bassist Oli Penard (Cryptopsy, Cattle Decapitation), guitarist Rob Milley (recently of Necrotic Mutation), and drummer Tommy McKinnon (DiSalvo’s other project, Conflux)… all of whom have done time in unsung Canadian tech death heroes, Neuraxis. These guys are seasoned creators with plenty of past experimentation under their belts. With as much territory as Come Forth To Me covers, it feels like they’re all somewhat relieved to be freed from their other projects’ reputations and able to really try something different. And it’s a roaring success.

I know these guys are busy with other bands, among them a couple of the genre’s biggest acts. I can only hope that the members of Akurion have the drive and find the time to make more music in the future. Come Forth To Me is a truly brilliant beginning.

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