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Mining Metal: Top 10 Underground Metal Albums of 2020

on December 23, 2020, 11:46am

“Mining Metal” is a monthly column from Heavy Consequence writers Joseph Schafer and Langdon Hickman. The focus is on noteworthy new music emerging from the non-mainstream metal scene, highlighting releases from small and independent labels — or even releases from unsigned acts.

The year 2020 is nearly done, and we’re sure most “Mining Metal” readers can join us in wishing it good riddance. The global pandemic left the international metal community, not to mention the entire music world, in a precarious spot: tours and festivals canceled, venues closed, and hard-working metalheads losing jobs.

With all that darkness, the resilience of the genre remained a hopeful light. 2020 offered no shortage of excellent albums, some of them recorded during the pandemic itself. Diverse in their aims, styles and strengths, together they paint the picture of an international family more than capable of withstanding any crisis thrown at it, largely without the aid of mainstream press.

In that context, picking just 10 records to represent the cream of the underground crop was no small feat. We could have easily done 10 excellent releases in each of metal’s profligate sub-genres.

Even so, we found some consensus and it was enlightening. Our composite tastes run toward the adventurous, the experimental and especially the tuneful. It’s been a joy to uncover them for you all, and we look forward to continuing it in 2021. –Joseph Schafer

Bedsore – Hypnagogic Hallucinations

Equal parts weird Italian psych/prog a la Goblin or perhaps the more creepy elements of PFM as it is truly frightening death metal, Bedsore manage to evoke the Lovecraftian fixations of the genre with aplomb. This record sits juxtapositional against the Sweven album; both are debuts, but where Sweven bleeds the two spaces together into one album-length fog, Bedsore separate the two elements a bit more keenly, giving lengthy prog workouts that explode into guttural death metal and vice versa. It turns out both approaches produce brilliant records. Buy it on Bandcamp. – Langdon Hickman

Cryptic Shift – Visitations from Enceladus

Opening your record with a 25-minute long song that brings to mind more “Cygnus X-1”-era Rush than it does Cannibal Corpse is a hell of a way to start a death metal record. There is some merit to viewing this record as the Hidden History of the Human Race of 2020 not just because of its structure or deep Rush influence, but also because it simply is fucking incredible. These are substantial song structures, but Cryptic Shift is never spare with hooks, blending each idea one into the next with firm emotional logic and a grand vision. Oh, and chops to match. Buy it on Bandcamp. – Langdon Hickman

Dool – Summerlands

Dool just barely missed our coverage earlier this year, but this Dutch quintet’s sophomore LP, Summerlands, has only grown on me since its release. Drawing from old school doom metal as well as post-punk for inspiration, it scratches a lot of the itches that Ghost did a decade ago before setting their sights on arena-sized hooks (not a bad thing). But Dool do more than dredge up the past. Songs like “God Particle” and “Be Your Sins” stretch and pull their primary influences into unrecognizable shapes without ever sacrificing listenability. The key to their sound is vocalist Ryanne van Dorst, whose range and charisma match the searching, yearning compositions of her bandmates. Buy it on Bandcamp. – Joseph Schafer

Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full

Prolific NOLA sludge experimentalists Thou have a particular talent for covers. Re-imagining of pop, grunge and alternative rock classics has been a part of their repertoire live and on record for years, so much so that it’s often been tempting to imagine them recording a whole album of such material, This year they did one better, partnering with beloved slowcore songstress Emma Ruth Rundle for an album, May Our Chambers Be Full, that evoke the melancholic melodies of Mazzy Star or Siouxsie & The Banshees, reinforced with the repulsive re-bar of a band like Grief. May Our Chambers Be Full leverages the strengths of both artists into a tight collection of memorably depressive songs among the best in both artists’ catalogues. The pair of acts will also kick off 2021 with a recently announced companion EP, The Helm of Sorrow. Buy it on Bandcamp. – Joseph Schafer

Eternal Champion – Ravening Iron

There is a perfect simplicity to what Eternal Champion do. This is not traditional heavy metal in as much as it is the platonic ideal of the genre, garish and somewhat puerile covers included. The band manages to produce music that feels like you pulled it from a used record bin, unearthing some forgotten minor record from 1982 that manages to include the best songs you’ve ever heard in your life. This is the mythic image of heavy metal we are taught to consider made reality. All hail the steel, forever. Buy it on Bandcamp. – Langdon Hickman

Havukruunu – Uinuos Syömen Sota

Finnish black metal act Havukruunu have slowly but steadily built up an international fanbase with a string of strong records, but the enthusiasm around them seems to have hit a fever pitch with Uinuos Syömen Sota. With galloping rhythms and bigger-than-big riffs, they evoke the often-overlooked but incredibly lovable style of Immortal, not to mention the Blood Fire Death bravado of scene OG’s Bathory. Havukruunu’s obvious love for the folktales and melodies of their homeland gives this niche but noteworthy style an otherworldly edge. There was no better album in 2020 to evoke the feeling of riding into battle on horseback, ready to die but intent on victory. Buy it on Bandcamp. – Joseph Schafer

Obsidian Kingdom – Meat Machine

God bless this band. They’re progressive metal in the most literal sense; no two records sound alike, all developed with a distinctly post-modern approach to the genre ideas they deploy. Meat Machine sees the band pivot away from the minimalist Nordic prog of their previous record and replace it with an industrialized and noise rock-intensified approach to the ideas Faith No More explore. There is a perpetual excitement to the record, not unlike Emptiness’ similar post-modern records, one that elevates their prog metal to year-end caliber. Like watching the world burn down. Buy it on Bandcamp. – Langdon Hickman

Question – Reflections of the Void

Simply one of the best records that painfully few seemed to talk about. Question’s approach to death metal is evident on the cover alone: psychedelic, flecked with prog, but lingering close to the weirding core of the style rather than riding off into the inhuman realms of tech. Any record that can make me sit back and think about The Chasm, early Cynic or Horrendous is a good one. It’s no surprise that the lysergic end of death metal appeals to us as much as it does, but for being such a great record with so little in the way of champions, this one felt mandatory for our list. Buy it on Bandcamp. – Langdon Hickman

Sweven – The Eternal Resonance

The debut album by Sweden’s Sweven continues the cosmic journey that vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Robert Andersson began with his previous band, Morbus Chron (Sweven shares a name with his previous band’s ultimate album). Though Andersson’s vocals mostly grunt and growl, The Eternal Resonance eschews most of death metal’s conventions. Prolonged songs rendered more with reverb pedals than overdrive distortion typify the trippy sweet spot that Sweven maintains, only peppering in a few punishing grooves here and there for momentum. It’s an album about expanding the power of perception that winds up widening the scope of what constitutes extreme metal. Buy it on Bandcamp. – Joseph Schafer

Ulcerate – Stare into Death and Be Still

New Zealand death metal outfit Ulcerate could have landed on this list just by the prescient title of their sixth record. Stare into Death and Be Still sounds as much like a challenge to anyone alive during a global pandemic as it does a mantra for the foreboding sounds waiting on the vinyl, CD or mp3 files. Ulcerate has been a hot to trot outfit since the 20111 release of their album The Destroyers of All, which crystalized their sculptural take on bleak and technical music – riffs cycling like loops over complex drum patterns that subtly shift and evolve over the course of their prolonged tunes. Subsequent albums revisited that sound without altering it much, but Stare into Death and Be Still simplifies and clarifies Ulcerates riffs, and somehow being able to clearly hear every note in their finger-destroying fret stretch arpeggios just underlines the existential angst that they channel. Buy it on Bandcamp. – Joseph Schafer