Good music takes time to absorb, so I won’t try to make any claims for best records of the year. What I can do instead is to summarize my favorites and new discoveries of the year. It was a year that I spent (willingly) unemployed for 5 months which meant disposable income for music was quite limited, but I did get some purchases in. Here are the main genres and topics.
Catching up on Troum
German drone dreamweavers Troum have been on my radar for nearly two decades and I’ve had some of their records for about as long, but 2020 began with me finally giving their discography a proper deep dive and buying physical versions of some of my favorites. I chose vinyl where available, and ended up getting AIWS, Ljubimaya, and Ryna. On CD I bought Eald-Ge-Stréon, Sigqan, Symballein, Objectlessness (re-release version, as the original CDr is beautiful but exceedingly rare), completed my collection of the Tjukurrpa trilogy by getting Part Three: Rhythms And Pulsations, and then three collaborative releases: Actualization / Excrement Of Old Dreams with Asianova, Voice Of Eye, S.Q.E, and Ure Thrall, Mnemonic Induction with Yen Pox, and Shutûn with All Sides.
Troum is not music for all occasions, but in a year steeped in near impenetrable darkness they satisfied a truly primal need for me.
Elsewhere in ambient land
Beyond Troum I got some other ambient. Blinkar Från Norr (which, despite an artist moniker in Swedish, is Italian) released Metaphors For Things which I quite enjoyed and the label A Strangely Isolated Place always produce beautiful physical manifestations of their releases.
Zakè, who I believe is American, has existed at the far periphery of my musical radar for some time but moved confidently into my sonic fovea this year. I bought both Carolina and the remix compilation Geneva, and so far both seem to reveal further depths on repeat listening. I hope this could be an ambient acquaintance to cultivate further over the years to come.
Atmospheric techno headliner Joachim Spieth released a melancholy and introspective yet escapist ambient album, Tides. This might be the ambient album of the year for me, with the caveat that there are 9 bazillion other releases I haven’t yet laid ears on. Excellent vinyl pressing, by the way.
I still swear by physical media but sometimes I venture into the ethereal world of download releases. One that was a mainstay in 2020 was the digital only bonus track on Mathias Grassow’s Tarart Mima Mystery. (Bandcamp buyers: The extended version is not listed on the page but unlocked upon purchase. Highly recommended.) Grassow’s torrential output feels frustratingly unfiltered but when he strikes gold it’s truly world class, and this 46 minute bonus track is sheer ritual magic. This would quite easily be my pick for track of the year if not for the fact it was released late 2019.
Steve Roach, the artist I have more music by than any other, is maintaining a high pace almost 40 years after his debut. He launched a Bandcamp subscription thing I didn’t jump on as I’m reluctant to amass 10 dollar monthly fees for individual artists, but I might be tempted as he released many(!) full lengths albums exclusively to subscribers. He did however get some regular releases out the door too. My vinyl copy of Tomorrow has yet to arrive (I guess due to pressing delays) but it’s an exquisite Berlin school arpeggio synth bonanza. It may not reach the depths (or distant nebulae) of some of his other rhythmic works like Core, but still feels like something I’ll enjoy on many lazy Sundays afternoons for years to come. On the pure ambient atmospherics side, Stillpoint is great even if we’ve heard these colors from his sonic palette before.
Atmospheric techno is still going strong
It seems I can’t get enough of hypnotic bass pulses under melancholy atmospheres, so it was another big year for atmospheric techno. Amandra remains a favorite with his unique organic sound, with both Sarbacane d’Antan EP and Ruban Rouge EP, the latter with a gorgeous Edit Select remix. Speaking of him, I listened a lot to the ultra deep Ripple Effect EP that came out in January.
Swedish label Hypnus had another good year. I missed the original on colored vinyl but 2020 I finally picked up the re-press of Primal Code’s album La Via Della Seta, whose closing track might be one of the most beautiful pieces of music in my now rather vast collection. 2020 also saw Hypnus release Birds Ov Paradise Till Dig and the psychotropic journey that is Wa Wu We’s 108 Dimensions Of Green. I felt the new EP’s by Feral, and Primal Code—while both good—were not their very best, yet happy to have them in my collection.
I find ASC‘s relentless pace of releases overwhelming and can’t help wonder if some stricter curation could be in his interest, but at the same time can’t deny the constant quality of everything he does. I exercised some restraint and didn’t buy as much this past year, but could not resist Subliminal Flow State and the massive Realm of fhe Void album (despite technically being released in December of 2019). I was very intrigued by his drum’n’bass album Isolated Systems (and the EP An Exact Science, on the same label) but while I found it very enjoyable I didn’t quite need them. That said, I’ve listened to both on Tidal probably tens of times, so I might regret not buying them on physical media.
I’ll also have to namedrop Svarog’s Mystical Land and the old man’s trance that is Dorian Gray’s When Humans Will Walk With The Gods. I’m quite happy this generation of techno kids have at long last dropped the performative rejection of trance aesthetics that techno cosplayed itself into for decades. (Listen to “Stellar Wanderer” in particular.)
I like my metal like my coffee
Somehow Black Metal and its adjacent satellite sub genres keep reinventing themselves enough to maintain my interest.
While not a 2020 release, I know by now to trust Norma Evangelium Diaboli to keep their releases in print so I held off spending money on Drastus’ La Croix De Sang for a year and a half. But what an album! I’ve been on the Drastus train since day one, and I’m the one who submitted their debut to Discogs on both vinyl and CD back in 2005-06. While there’s a recognizable aesthetic from those early years, lone member C.Y.T. has evolved significantly. I can’t get enough of this, and it might be the quintessential modern era black metal album.
A late enough 2019 release to count as 2020 is Cult of Erinyes’ Aestivation. I wasn’t familiar with the band before and tried to talk myself out of buying the album as my shopping cart from label Amor Fati was too full, but could not resist this one. They’re quite close to Drastus in style and atmosphere at times, and this too feels remarkably musical on repeat plays.
I didn’t fill much wantlist back log this year but a major one is Trist’s Willenskraft. The debut of Trist was appropriately on Paysage D’hiver’s Kunsthall Produktionen label, as this sounds very much sonically related. I also grabbed Moon’s Render Of The Veils from 2015, a fantastic descent into dissonant black metal despair that sadly never saw a vinyl release. I continue to feel like the most authentic music in this genre is produced by one man bands, and this is deeply emotional in the most harrowing sense.
Seeping into surrounding genres, if only by the thinnest of margins, we find one of the more disgusting sounding albums of the year, Black Curse’s Endless Wound. Not only is the artwork stunning and the pressing terrific, the music on here is sheer lawless insanity. Devoid of the introvert lamentations black metal can sometimes indulge in, this record is pure vile fury radiating its hatred outwards in all directions.
Lastly, an album I need to introduce with a bit of back story. One of my favorite black metal albums of all time, and truly one of my desert island discs, is Weakling’s Dead as Dreams from 2000. (It’s so important to me, in fact, that I might eventually pay the $500+ that the vinyl version goes for, just to own the finest physical incarnation of this truly monstrous album.) There’s no shortage of bands drawing inspiration from this, perhaps most notably Wolves in the Throne Room in their early years when even the logo looked like a copy of Weakling’s. But nothing has really captured the true magic of Weakling to my ears, and perhaps this album I’m about to introduce doesn’t either. But it is so far the one that feels the most spiritually and aesthetically aligned, and I have to give extra credit to the vocal performance for getting the desperate howls so very right. I’m talking about a band called Worthless, whose album Dark Expressionism is one of my favorite vinyl purchases all year. This whole aesthetic is an acquired taste, admittedly, but a very rewarding one if you make it past the somewhat daunting threshold.