Certainly there was a lot not to like in 2020… To avoid making a series of gross understatements, I’ll just leave that there.
But along with a very positive development in my family life that should be arriving on The Scene in early 2021, there was a lot of great music that came out in spite of the pandemic.
I’m never been great at year-end music lists because I don’t feel like my listening is vast or deep enough to warrant proclaiming that “these ten/twenty/whatever” albums are The Best. I find a couple promos or bandcamp digital downloads I like, burn ’em to CDs, and then spend months listening to the same three or four albums in my car.
So without further ado, here are the bands that made it into the burned CD rotation!
My first great find of 2020 was White Crone’s debut album The Poisoner, which was came out on February 22nd. The trad metal project of Oregon blues bassist/vocalist Lisa Mann, The Poisoner hearkens Priest and Dio with bass lines that would make Steve Harris Proud. Mann also handled most of the guitar work on the album and called in guest drummers including Vinny Appice of Dio and Black Sabbath. For a promo that I opened on a whim, The Poisoner stuck with me all year long — “Under Hag Stones” turned out to be my most played track on Spotify and I was in the “top 7%” of White Crone’s listeners!
So, yeah. Mann is one cool lady. Also, check out her recent blues album Old Girl!
Next up was Bone Church’s Acid Communion, released March 13th via Ripple Music. (Thank you Metal Dad Chip McCabe for reminding me this came out in 2020, anything pre-pandemic seems like decades ago.) These guys are from my home state of Connecticut, so I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them live several times. Acid Communion uses entrancing vocals, freight train drums, and ever-evolving guitar lines to tell the story of a New England village overrun by witchcraft hysteria and maybe even some real Satan. If you somehow slept on this album, do yourself a favor and grab a copy.
On April 24th, Cirith Ungol put out their first album in almost thirty years — and Forever Black did not disappoint. Released via Metal Blade, it was what you wanted to hear from a bunch of dudes who started their musical journey in the 1970s and helped shape heavy metal as we know it. Tim Baker’s voice is, uh, “distinctive” — you either like it or you don’t. But I like it, and Forever Black holds a place of honor in the Subaru of Doom.
Speaking of doom veterans and distinctive voices, Connecticut’s Vestal Claret also made a comeback in 2020 with their self-titled and supposedly final album, thrown onto the internet June 23rd. The longtime project of vocalist Phil Swanson and composer/multi-instrumentalist Simon Tuozzoli, these guys were doing the occult metal revival before it was cool. But if you’re looking for a reprise of 2014’s The Cult of Vestal Claret, you won’t find it here. This album takes the band down a new path: sinister, folk-inspired introspection accented by strings, brass, and female backing vocals. (Yours truly played about a minute of cello on one track, so now I can brag that I’m on a Vestal Claret album.)
For being at it since 2006, Vestal Claret shows that Tuozzoli and Swanson aren’t just rehashing the same old Satan — if this really is their last album together, it’s a visionary way to go out. Grab a digital copy through VC’s bandcamp; CDs are now available through Swords and Chains Records and LPs are coming soon via Sarlacc Productions.
And finally, I had a great time listening to Diamond Head’s re-recording of their 1980 album Lightning to the Nations, a heavy metal benchmark that’s had an influence far beyond what the UK then-teenagers who first recorded it ever imagined. Founding guitarist Brian Tatler said,
“We thought it’d be great to re-record the debut album with this lineup and the modern technology available. The original album was recorded and mixed in a week, and we were very young; still 19-20 years old when it was recorded, so there’s a lot of that youthful energy. But we didn’t have the technique, time, or craftsmanship to record it with the sort of power that we could now. So that was a real thing to savor: the opportunity to go in the studio and record these songs fresh and vibrant.”
Diehard fans will be happy that the 2020 version, put out by Metal Blade, stays true to the original — with notable differences being sleeker production (duh) and the soaring vocals of Rasmus Bom Andersen (also duh). The moaning noises in “Sucking My Love” are a little more camouflaged by guitars than they were in the first round… But if you’re a boomer getting mad about Cardi B’s WAP, maybe simmer down a little. Lightning to the Nations 2020 closes out with covers of Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Deep Purple, and — most fittingly — Metallica.
One reason I have a soft spot for Diamond Head is because I got to interview Brian Tatler in 2017 before the band played Psycho Las Vegas — and in the course of our conversation, I learned that the dude literally never stopped playing music. While former DH members became plumbers/insurance agents/whatever, Tatler worked in recording studios and cover bands, never giving up on the dream of Diamond Head. Now forty freaking years later, that perseverance is paying off and the band is finally getting its due. Lightning to the Nations indeed!
We’re all hoping that 2021 will bring better things than 2020… And while I don’t have a crystal ball, I do know of two debut releases coming out early next year that should be on some 2021 EOY lists: Eyes in the Night from Wisconsin thrashers Tantivy (January 15) and Means to an End by Connecticut melodeath newcomers Svn.Seeker (February 4).
What music did you enjoy in 2020? Leave a comment!