Extreme metal has a long history of arriving at the doors of perception, but perhaps unsurprisingly, 2020 was the year that more people than ever heard it knocking. If 2019 wasn’t short of surreal, sense-heightening visions it could call its own – with stunning albums from France’s standard-bearers of avant-garde black metal, Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord, as well as sci-fi-obsessed, multi-dimensional death metallers Blood Incantation – they didn’t feel of their time in quite the same way as 2020’s crop of sonic psychonauts did.
New albums from the likes of Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu, New York City’s Imperial Triumphant, Leeds’ Cryptic Shift and more beamed down into a world continuously rocked by existential anxieties on various fronts – from the COVID-19 pandemic and isolation of lockdown, through to the rapacious Trump presidency, to the multi-pronged assault on truth itself. But while they might not have been a direct response to our current shitshow, the very nature of their otherworldliness struck a chord that brought metal’s outer limits into the conversation like never before. Whether or not 2020 was the year that metal took a leap into the unknown, it was the year when the unknown felt much closer to home.
Released in a COVID-19-clenched April 2020, Oranssi Pazuzu’s fifth album, Mestarin Kynsi (‘The Master’s Claw’), for all its lurch-through-the-looking-glass dynamics, felt like a crystallising moment. More stripped down than its 2016 predecessor, Värähtelijä, yet more wildly experimental, its psychedelically mutated, sci-fi-enhanced black metal offered footholds for the uninitiated, while still taking you on a guided tour through to the irrational, if awe-inducingly scenic, reaches of the Oranssi universe.
Lyrically, the band had arced from extra-terrestrial enquiry to the equally bewildering realms of the subconscious, finding an uncanny parallel with how the pandemic had taken control of both our outer and inner lives. But it was the album’s patient ratcheting of dread, from opener Ilmestys’s ritual uncurling like a serpent slowly waking in the depths of your brain, through to Kuulen Ääniä Maan Alta’s woozy, celestial mechanics, to Taivaan Portti’s ultimate, wig-out conflagration, that truly resonated with our dislocation. But there was momentum, too; an inexorable pull to the grooves that navigated uncharted territory and offered a sense of narrative, however helplessly we were caught in its grip.
You could feel the same, irresistible traction in Dark Buddha Rising’s Mathreyata album, released in November 2020. Hailing from the same city, Tampere, they continued their mission to freedive as far down the doom wormhole as the human mind can withstand. Consciousness-expanding, in the manner of a balloon that’s about to burst, and built on a tortuously drawn-out, gear-slipping groove akin to being constantly tripped up by a small planet, it was the sound of your psyche getting progressively warped over the course of its four lengthy tracks, unravelling itself until it reached a state of exhausted, ego-dissolved enlightenment.
Released ominously on the same day – a Friday 13th, no less – the sixth album from Turin, Italy’s Nibiru, Panspermia, took a parallel if even more rapt and synapse-ravaging route to sonic and psychic oblivion. This was a glimpse of the divine as perpetual, churning, incandescent inferno, the first five, almost freeform minutes of opener Alkaest by some stretch the most terrifying/mind-wiping/awe-inspiring induction to any album you were going to subject yourself to all year. It was akin putting your brain into a six-dimensional trash compactor, as swirling chants in the three-piece’s customary Enochian – the language of the angels according to the Elizabethan occultist John Dee – only added to the sense of unmoored, annihilating mayhem.
There was some trace of method to their madness, with tribal rhythms gradually emerging – the heart-palpitating rumble that kicked in 12-and-a-half minutes into Aqua Solis, the painstakingly invoked wreckage-storm of Efflatus – but even by their standards, this was their wildest ride into the beyond yet, tuned into frequencies at the far end of the existential dial. But like Oranssi Pazuzu and Dark Buddha Rising, Niburu’s determination to stretch the boundaries of sanity amplified the anxieties stirred by these gnawing 20s, and brought them to boiling point as an act of much-needed deliverance – albeit with the proviso that you should be careful what you wish for.
Arguably the strangest and most challenging band to break into the mainstream metal consciousness in the last 12 months was Imperial Triumphant. Although they’d made waves with 2018’s Vile Luxury, it was 2020’s Alphaville album that made them one of metal’s hottest properties. Cast in gold-plated art deco masks, like avatars for their native NYC and avant-garde to the nth degree, the intrigue they instilled was immediate, even if comprehension was less so. But their ability to fuse the alien and the familiar, the ugly and the beautiful, into a bewildering yet masterfully wrought whole was matched by the organic, deliriously restless compound they wrought from black metal, death metal and jazz. A kaleidoscopic vision of their home city where both past and present, and riches and destitution, exist simultaneously, Alphaville, like the French New Wave film from which it took its name, suggested that dystopia wasn’t in the future, but that it was all around us and had always been.
Imperial Triumphant weren’t making an explicitly political point; Alphaville was an impressionistic tour de force – an imaginative re-rendering that revealed something latent beneath the surface of the everyday. But that’s also key to how metal has often caught the spirit of the moment, not least thrash’s ultra-alert, constantly tensing response to the 80s threat of nuclear war, and its fantasies of radioactively glowing, zombie-populated, post-apocalyptic futures. It was Canada’s Voivod, however (tellingly covered by Imperial Triumphant for a bonus track on Alphaville) who took thrash into outright surrealism, creating an absurdist, future-shock world tilted off its axis that you needed to shift your centre of consciousness to fully grasp.
Imperial Triumphant were the template for Cryptic Shift’s debut, Visitations From Enceladus. Audaciously opening with the 25-minute Moonbelt Immolator, it took its sci-fi concept into ever-shifting death and thrash metal dimensions that challenged Alphaville for misdirected dissonance and attention-flaying expertise.
Cryptic Shift, like the rest of 2020’s weird brigade, offered huge vistas of escapism. In the process they started to piece our scrambled co-ordinates back together, but in ways that were transformative if sometimes terrifying. If you felt an existential shudder, it was one that accompanied a glimpse of liberation.