A couple of years ago I gathered up my pile of ticket stubs, most of which I had saved from the beginning of my gig-going career, and began to organize them. The physical stubs are in an ever-expanding catalogue, and dates, bands, and venues are recorded in a document. It’s a long and interesting history, although there is a large gap in the middle, but all that is probably a topic for another post. What is relevant here is the second gap: The Year of No Gigs, the enforced global pause.
I have two shows listed under 2020: The Musical Box in January, and then the Katatonia live stream that happened in May. I decided to list it because I paid for a ticket to watch it, and it was better than many gigs I’ve seen in person, not just by Katatonia themselves, but other bands as well…once you got past the eerie silence at the end of each song.
Everything else has been cancelled, or postponed. There were some shreds of hope in the early days of the lockdown, that maybe by June there would be a return to normalcy or something close to it, but as the weeks went by it became depressingly clear that no such thing was going to happen. Tours were cancelled, postponed gigs were jettisoned, and even the gigs shifted from March to August are looking unlikely. It is probably safe to say that concerts, at least in any meaningful sense, are going to be the last things to return.
It has been a brutal year in more than this. Working from home was not just a matter of firing up the computer every morning; the nature of my job changed significantly, and the level of work and exhaustion ramped up to a level where I simply had no energy left to think about music. I barely played the music I owned, let alone searched out new stuff. A few things came along in the times when I felt inspired to look, but not much. There really has been a psychological toll to this pandemic that goes beyond the inability to socialize normally; it goes deep.
Which is not to say that I have found nothing. Bits and pieces have filtered through; pre-orders arrived, singles were released, more pre-orders went up. Bandcamp’s Friday no-fee marathons encourage buying, because the company waives its piece of the action in order to help the hardest hit of all sectors — the music business. Spotify Discovery lists have been hopeful — all I have to do is follow up on some of these things.
So, here is a list of the things I’ve checked out, musically, in 2020. There are singles, EPs, and albums; I’ve been buying more singles than usual, mostly in an effort to focus on what I like, rather than end up with a bunch of albums I rarely or never play. And as always, there are a few albums from last year that I just found this year.
Mariusz Duda: “The Song of a Dying Memory”
Duda adds yet another variant to his never-ending output, in this case the first song in a series of (maybe) more acoustic material, under his own name (rather than trying to slot things into either Riverside or Lunatic Soul).
I believe we can expect more of these releases over the year, and there is also a new Lunatic Soul in the offing.
Michał Łapaj: “Breathe” (and other electronic excursions–check his Youtube channel)
Mariusz Duda’s keyboard-playing Riverside compatriot has also emerged with some solo efforts, instead of (or maybe eventually in addition to) a long-awaited solo album. Łapaj indulges in his love of synths, and electronica, and movie soundtracks, and oh my god we knew he was good but I’m not sure anybody expected the sheer hair-raising majesty of this track. And I mean that literally — goosebumps, every single time. At 4 minutes it does feel a bit truncated, but that could just be the vast regret of the listener when it ends.
Seeming: “Go Small” (from the upcoming album The Birdwatcher’s Guide to Atrocity)
Seeming’s album Sol: A Self-Banishment Ritual was my album of 2017, so I am looking forward to the release of the new one. This song portends a similar kind of feel — percussive, acoustic, and electronic all at once, and a million ideas packed into the cascade of lyrics. It is hard to know where this track will fit into the overall theme of the album, but of course there will be a theme, and it will fit.
All Them Witches: “Saturnine and the Iron Jaw” (from the upcoming album Nothing as the Ideal)
I have one ATW album that I don’t play all that often; I find their quirky style of countrified rock a little much over the span of an album. However, this track is powerfully atmospheric and compelling, nice and rocky with a strong rhythm section underlying the reverb-heavy slow lyric line; if the rest of the album doesn’t stray too far from these kinds of ideas it will be worth checking out for sure.
Kellermensch — “Nothing”; “Mission”
Kellermensch is a 6-piece outfit from Denmark, with two albums; they’ve released two singles this year, probably in anticipation of a new album, although as of this writing I haven’t heard much more about that. These two tracks carry on with their yearning, dark melancholic sound, made all the more so by the singer’s keening vocal style — which could work for or against, depending on one’s toleration for keening voices. The two songs here seem less heavy than the material on their last album Goliath.
I guess there might be a new album coming, I don’t know. I’ve never paid much attention to Puscifer over the years; the little I heard never prompted me to keep listening. However, I heard this pop up in my Spotify Discovery list without knowing what it was, and it interested me enough to flag it for follow-up. Subsequent listens have confirmed that I quite like it. I expect that I don’t have to explain who Pusicifer is, and that anyone who recognizes the name knows what to expect. I will keep my ears open for more.
The Albums — released in 2019
The debut album from a new-ish Norwegian prog outfit, and there is no doubt that the first track, “Seismic” is a killer melodic metal prog-fest, hard and enthusiastic. It is a high bar to get over, which is probably why the rest of the album is less memorable. The band seems intent on trying to jam as many ideas as possible into each track (quite a feat when the longest track is a shade over 5 minutes); the ambition is laudable, and the guys have chops, but I can’t last longer than about 4 tracks in a row before fatigue sets in. Maybe someone will advise them about dialing it back before their next effort.
Die Krupps: Vision 2020
The venerable German industrial metallists are back with another bleak view of the world; it seems that predicting the dissolution of civil society is a pretty safe bet. Vision 2020 is heavy, but smoother and more consistent than the last album, 2015’s Metal Machine Music (if one ignores the rather odd cover of Genesis’ “The Carpet Crawlers”). At any rate, I find myself playing this album a lot. I had seen the name Die Krupps often enough the past few years as I cruised through the offerings of Artoffact Records, a distributor for electronica and related genres, but I had never stopped to look. It’s funny how we pass over things that later on, heard in an accidental way, turn out to be interesting.
Shriekback: Some Kinds of Light
Intellectual indie pop, as these guys always have been. Their heyday was back in the 1980s, when they had a few hits, and to which era the song “All These Things Are Gone” (from their 2016 album Without Real String or Fish) ironically looks back; their subsequent albums have been variable, but this one is strong and consistent, with some very good tracks: there are no showstoppers, but songs like “This is the Science”, “Putting All the Lights Out”, and “All About Nothing” are solidly satisfying, both musically and lyrically, demonstrating that nearly 40 years on, the guys are not out of ideas yet.
The Albums — released in 2020
Maserati: Enter the Mirror
I don’t buy a lot of post-rock any more; I got out of that phase about five years ago. I think it was also about five years ago the last time I listened to any Maserati, and I never followed up. But Enter the Mirror is solid; tracks range from powerfully electronic with lots of sweeping synths to heavy bass/drum/guitar-driven post metal. Good melodic attention-getters.
Me and That Man: New Man, New Songs, Same Shit, Vol. 1
Adam Nergal Darski’s (Behemoth) solo project, second album. I’m not a follower of Behemoth, but I was curious to know how this project would differ. The first album didn’t do much for me, but this one is more interesting. Most of the tracks feature a different guest vocalist (one of which is Corey Taylor), and there is a range of styles: from dance tunes through chugging blues rock to choral laments. All the lyrics are in English except for “Męstwo”, which is also the only one featuring Darski as lead singer. The production is clean and up-front, and while it’s not likely to find itself on frequent rotation, it provides a nice change.
Stabbing Westward: Dead and Gone (EP)
The return of an old industrial rock band who had ceased operations in the early 2000s, which made a lot of people happy (the return, not the cessation) — a three-track EP (5 tracks actually, but the last two are remixes of the first two songs). It’s pretty good stuff, densely electronic, hard and poppy at the same time, with the heavy ballad “Crawl” probably the best track. No word that I know of whether a full-length album is to come.
PORN: No Monster’s [sic] in God’s Eyes — Act III
French goth metal (and fun to look up on Google…), vast and heavy, gloomy and majestic as good goth metal should be. I like a lot of this album, but I think it is too long. They didn’t have sufficient ideas to fill up a whole hour’s worth, and eventually the songs begin to sound the same.
Killswitch Engage: Atonement II: B-sides for Charity (EP)
A band I never really paid much attention to, I find them rather typical metalcore, not terrible by any means but a bit wearing, as the genre can be. This EP seemed like a good enough way for me to indulge without feeling too bad if I didn’t care for it. It is a collection of 6 tracks that did not make the original Atonement album (2019), and released, as the title suggests, to raise funds for a Covid-19-related charity. Turns out, it’s actually pretty good.
Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts
The legendary industrial outfit released two albums of ambient electronica, for free: Together is smooth, if not exactly upbeat at least relatively soothing, while Locusts is discordant, dark and unsettling — take your pick. I may be slightly more inclined towards Locusts; it does demand more attention than Together.
Body Count: Carnivore
Ice-T promised that Carnivore would be more brutal than 2017’s Bloodlust, and at the time it was hard to figure how they’d do it. But Carnivore is exactly that — brutal, heavy as fuck, more consistent than Bloodlust, and a lot more metal if that is even imaginable. And I think that comes down to the bass/drum duo of Vincent Dennis (a.k.a. Vincent Price) and Will Dorsey, Jr. respectively. The rhythm section has been cranked to eleven — the bass in particular sounds absolutely monstrous, and the two lay down the huge foundation for the rest of the guys to build on. The tracks feature various guests: Riley Gale (Power Trip), Jamie Jasta (Hatebreed), and Amy Lee (Evanescence). The songs are the standard Body Count themes — life in the ‘hood, institutionalized racism, discontent and anger — it’s not that Ice-T is prescient, it’s just that every once in a while the normal shit that goes down for people of colour manages to break into white consciousness, and for a few minutes the songs become relevant for everyone else. There is also the tribute track to their influences, in this case “Ace of Spades”, sounding more Mötorhead than Mötorhead. So far, this is my album of 2020.