[Best of 2020] Black Metal Round-Up Vol. 1

Author’s Note: I, for one, hate best-of lists. You can’t make me narrow down the myriad releases of the year into a top ten, a top twenty, or a top one hundred. What I will do, however, is break down a handful of the great EPs and full-lengths that have been released this year, and recommend a handful of them based on their genre. Everybody’s looking for something, as the Annie Lennox line goes, and thus, I bring you these genre round-ups.

Despite the effects of the current state of affairs on the music industry, the moves of the black metal scene have been almost exclusively in darkness. As such, the year in black metal has been a busy one, as not only did many new records see the light of day, but many saw physical releases on CDs, vinyl, or even cassette tapes. Whether preserving the craft or exploring new avenues to unleash the fury of the north, here are just a few of the brightest offerings of the darkest genre in the game.

Katavasia - Magnus Verator (Floga)

As much as black metal can bring violence and fury, it is also best when it brings a sense of grandeur. Greece’s Katavasia brings an epic flourish to their blend of black metal, taking a page of the book of the almighty Mayhem, especially on songs like “The Tyrant” and “Babylon (Sammu-Rawat).” Structurally, the album is set up ornately, with an eerie interlude smack-dab in the middle to break up the tension, with ebbs and flows of the pomp and circumstance and the brutality. It is a sweeping record with plenty to enjoy for fans of that classic black metal feeling.

Carach Angren - Franckensteina Strataemontanus (Season of Mist)

Based on the tale of Johann Konrad Dippel, the alleged inspiration for Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, this sixth studio album from the Dutch horror-metal stalwarts is rife with orchestral passages and pounding drum lines. With the unnerving “Monster” and the uncanny bass lines of its title track, the record is a hulking brute of an affair. “Skull with a Forked Tongue” comes in like a house of fire, with pinch harmonics galore and a fury unlike most of Carach’s catalogue - and that is saying something.

Dark Fortress - Spectres of the Old World (Century Media)

On this latest album, Dark Fortress uses their black metal ways as more of a window dressing than the blueprint for the entire storefront. There are elements of gothic, death, and doom metal, with notes of traditional metal thrown in as well. The one-two punch of the opening “Nascence” and “Coalescence” makes for great black metal fare, while the marching pace of “Pali Aike” brings thunder from the north. “The Spider in the Web” sounds like a rock-driven song written by a black metal band, and that’s not a slight against it. The affair even ends with a great guitar and bell duo (now that’s a combo few would expect) on the closing “Nox Irae,” wrapping up a damn fun metal record that is more metal than black, and that’s absolutely OK.

The Lotus Thief - Oresteia (Prophecy)

This is a melting pot of mystical metal, bringing together doom, death, black, and progressive for a dense offering. The interludes such as “Woe” and “Banishment” break up the long-form tracks, which can barrel in with blast beats or low guitar tones. Vocals can sing sweetly or screech scarily here, and this diverse record is one that must be heard to be believed. Snag the Luxus version for a few ambient cuts of tracks featured on the original album, if you’re interested in a deeper, fuller experience than the one offered by the standard edition.

Myrkur - Folkesange (Relapse)

Yes, I realize that this is a pure folk release from Amalie Bruun, who usually releases folk-informed black metal. That said, there is an undeniable and unbelievable amount of darkness within this release, even given the gorgeous voice Bruun possesses. Production values are insanely high here, as Bruun uses her full vocal range across every track here. From the scintillating “Leaves of Yggdrasil” to the dark ballad “Ramund,” and to the wild high notes in “Tor i Helheim,” you’ll be hard-pressed to find a prettier album to listen to, especially as the cold bitch that is winter makes her return for those of us north of the Equator.

Stygian Temple - In the Sign of the Five Angles (Deviant / Sol)

This debut release from the German black metal warlords originally came out in 2016, but the vinyl release of this classically evil record came out this year courtesy of The Sinister Flame. This one is for the purists, as tracks like “The Great Cosmic Void” invoke the feelings of the cultists and kvltists of old. While the placement of the lead guitar in the mix on “Cathartic Nimbus” is an odd choice at first, it is remedied before long, and therefore redeems itself. Add in the cries of hell that are the dissonant licks in “Verbum Dei” and the closer “Dominion of the Trident,” and this is a record that is liable to leave the listener writhing in the best ways.