Continuing the amodelofcontrol.com review of 2020, which this week turns attention to the best tracks of the year. Next week will be the wrap of the best albums of 2020.
/2016/School of Seven Bells/Signals
/2013/Seabound/Nothing But Love
/2011/Frank Turner/One Foot Before The Other
/2010/In Strict Confidence/Silver Bullets
/2009/Yeah Yeah Yeahs/Zero
/2008/Mind.in.a.box/What Used To Be (Short Storm)
/2007/Prometheus Burning/Battery Drain
/2006: No tracks of the year list
/2005/Grendel/Soilbleed / Rotersand/Exterminate Annihilate Destroy
/2004: No tracks of the year list
The tracks of the year post is often the hardest to collate and write. It is perhaps because I have so much choice – even from just the /Tracks of the Month posts in my /Tuesday Ten series this year, I had 137 tracks to choose from (needless to say, it’s not unusual for me to be writing about more than ten tracks each month!), and it’s also not unusual for a few more to pop into consideration in one way or another. But as well as that, there seems to have been more music worth writing about this year, and perhaps if I’d had more time to write about more of it at the time, perhaps this post would have been easier to write.
The other interesting thing about 2020, at least in terms of my musical consumption, is that I have listened to an enormous amount of music. Even just going by my Last.fm stats, I’ve listened to over 16,000 songs during the “qualifying” period for this list. Working from home, for the most part, helps – music has long soundtracked my working day, when I’m not on calls – but it has also helped me get through the more monotonous moments of this year. I’ve also returned to DJing (in livestream form!) in a big way, and that has perhaps widened the reach of what I might write about this year – there is perhaps less industrial in this year’s list than in a long time.
As you’ll note, there is, of course, no gig round-up this year. What’s the point? I attended just seven shows before gigs came to an abrupt halt with the lockdown in March, I’ve seen one acoustic show in the meantime, and even with one more (distanced) show tonight, to test the water, I don’t have the heart to wrap up this tiny number of shows. So it’ll just be three posts this year (and they’ve taken me long enough to write). A note, too, on “eligibility” for this list. If the song was released between 01-Dec 2019 and 30-Nov 2020, or featured on an album of new material in that same timeframe, it counts.
I run /amodelofcontrol.com as what might be called a “labour of love”. I’ve written about music for twenty-four years, seventeen of those years under this website banner, and I continue to want to celebrate all that is great about this corner of the musical realm. So this site continues to exist – with no external funding and no paid-for advertising – and I will continue to do so as long as I want to do it, and as long as people want to read it.
So thanks for reading, contributing, offering comment, or being one of those people that makes the music I want to write about. And here’s to 2021 being better than 2020, eh?
My Spotify playlist was built initially by using my friend Dylan Beattie’s excellent utility.
At just eighteen minutes in length, it was absolutely not a full-length album, but this collaboration between Chelsea Wolfe and Jess Gowrie opened up new horizons for both, it seemed. Certainly, it had rather more bite than some of Wolfe’s recent work, which for me had felt like treading water somewhat after such an intriguing first few releases. The best track was Knelt, a grimy, rolling groove of a song that was layered with fuzzed-out guitars, thumping drums and Wolfe’s otherworldly wail, resulting in a striking, attention-grabbing song.
Ventenner has long been a band that has thrived on their live power, so I would suspect that this year has been a tough one for them. That said, their new album has been released this year, and was led out by this excellent single, which confirmed what was to come. And that was a subtle change in style, to a more alternative-rock based style that suits Charlie Dawe’s powerful vocals well, as he is backed by a brooding, bass-heavy sound that has a good, crunchy feel and also gives his voice space to truly let rip, as it does in the chorus. Another solid release from this great London band.
/Asian Dub Foundation
/Stealing The Future
Back after a few years since their last album, the ADF of 2020 sounds revitalised and ready to fight – much as they were when they first made a splash in the nineties. Sadly the atmosphere has changed for the worse, with immigrants and people who aren’t white in the UK now apparently even less welcome than ever, according to our Government. ADF appear ready to make their voice heard all the more, though, as a result, and this bruising single, which takes in drum’n’bass, hip-hop, and some subtle Indian musical influences, rages against the shitty hand the youth of the UK have now been dealt. The title is an apt way to describe it – their future options for travel and work outside the UK robbed by Brexit and economic decay, something the COVID crisis has only made worse (just look at the numbers for youth unemployment this year) – and ADF made this into a striking, brilliant protest anthem.
/Into the Fire
An impressive release this year came from Alex Virlios (Blue Images) and guitarist/producer Andrew Sega (Iris) in the form of Hallowed Hearts. I’m not especially familiar with Blue Images, but I’ve long been a fan of Iris, and the difference from that couldn’t be starker. Rather than lush, emotional synthpop, this is a more stark, colder release, where post-punk-edging-into-goth-rock is the order of the day, and at its best, it easily stands as an impressive new artist. The best song here is Lost, where the atmosphere is a little more ominous, the clouds gather and the pressure is released in a fabulous, soaring chorus that confirms the quality of the songcraft at work here.
/Love U More
Like so many other artists, ACTORS had big plans for 2020. Their excellent, previous album This Will Come To You, and the seemingly endless touring they did to support it, had left them in a great place, with a much anticipated new album to come. But then, COVID happened, touring was stopped, and so ACTORS regrouped, reassessed the album and took more time to refine it. The album will come in early 2021 now, and in the meantime, there was the promised new single. There seems to have been a bit of a shift, too – sure, there’s still the excellent blend of synthpop and post-punk, but there felt here like there was a lighter touch than before, and the result is a wistful, elegant song that bodes well for what comes next.
/A Violent Stimulator
/The Ecstasy of Emptiness
Concrete Lung has now been releasing material for over a decade, and even after a move from London to the rather sunnier climes of Australia have not dented their nasty, oppressive sound. In fact, I think they have actually been heavier and nastier as a result, and their latest album this year saw this proved. A Violent Stimulator is a perfect case in point – a slow-as-molasses rhythm drags everything (even the tolling of a detuned bell, as far as I can tell) through the mire, while Ed Oxime’s vocals are harsher and more malevolent than ever. Nearing the realms of death industrial these days, this is a grimy, unpleasant listen – as it clearly intends to be.
/The Guild of the Poor Brave Things
/I Know Why You Dance
/The Guild of the Poor Brave Things
I was rather sad to see The Golden Age of Nothing disband after releasing their best album yet, but in the world of smaller bands trying to break through, not everyone will survive too long, I guess. That said, former frontman Graeme Wilkinson returned this year with his new solo project, which in many respects felt like picking up some of the threads from tGAoN. This song very much felt like the link between the two, the downcast, bass-heavy rhythm nodding back to The Cure, while Wilkinson’s vocals have what has become his trademark – a world-weariness that suits his range well as if even the music he’s creating is a mental drain. For those of us listening, despite the gloom, it remains a joy.
One of the most surprising returns this year was of agit-industrialists Consolidated, and I was all the more surprised to be able to get the first interview with Adam Sherburne since they returned (/Talk Show Host/063). New album We’re Already There didn’t quite make it in time for consideration this year (the album is due imminently, but likely now sometime in December), but the singles did, and their first track back remains a striking return to form. The hip-hop/industrial stylings – complete with a host of appropriate samples and searing political comment – are present and correct, and there is a feeling that the anger of 2020 was the perfect time for Consolidated to break their long silence.
/Heavy Is The Head That Wears The Crown
Jamie Blacker’s work under the ESA name continues to enthrall, particularly as, even after so many years, he is still finding ways to advance his work. This track from most recent album Burial 10 highlights this well. Rather than just pounding industrial electronics, this takes influence from grime and bass music, resulting in a cavernous bottom-end and an unusual sounding rhythm pattern. Add to that the fast-paced rapping delivery by Lecture, and the result is a great track, that links British industrial and grime-influenced sounds (even if Lecture is from the US) in an unexpected, smart way – and I only wish that more artists in the industrial scene in the UK would look outside of what is an ostensibly “white” scene (in both racial makeup and influence), as there are some genuinely fascinating ideas to take in.
Industrial pioneers Portion Control – who’ve enjoyed an impressive second life in the twenty-first century – re-appeared out of nowhere again after a few year’s silence in the summer, with an album that felt like a work in progress for the most part (with multiple takes on a handful of songs, at least going on the track titles). That said, there was nothing half-done about the punishing kick of lead and title track Head Buried, which saw PorCon doing what they do best. Mid-paced industrial that snarls and bites through an aggressive delivery and punchy rhythms that, once again, prove this duo are still masters of their machines.
It is remarkable to think that JP Anderson’s Rabbit Junk project has now been around for over fifteen years, and in all that time, RJ have stuck to their guns in being wildly eclectic and a whole lot of fun. Releases over the years have taken in punk, industrial, black metal, hip-hop, synthwave and probably a number of other styles that I’ve forgotten about. But even amid all this sonic carnage, there is a distinct sound, and when you hear a new song, it’s easy to identify it as RJ. This year’s release Xenospheres is something of a throwback to the earlier RJ that got me hooked in the first place – and Prismatic is the highlight here. Sum Grrl offers her vocal assistance here, and the song pivots between calmer verses and wild choruses, chock-full of riffs and shout-along hooks. Turn it up and bounce off the walls.
In some respects, the ultra-futurist electro-industrial of 11grams is something that’s not so much in vogue anymore, but that’s not to say that it’s not really rather great. I’ve long preferred this kind of technical industrial to the harsher, aggrotech-leaning alternatives, and 11grams have the technical ability, for sure. This track, the lead track on their solid second album Humanicide, is made up of thumping beats, layer-after-layer of synths, and samples and vocals filling the gaps, resulting in a densely-packed, intriguing song that I could very much see being a dancefloor hit if only I had somewhere to play it.
/Shadow of Fear
Richard H. Kirk’s return under the name Cabaret Voltaire came as a surprise to some, but it’s not exactly new – he’d played a few shows under the name in recent years, even though it is just him these days (Stephen Mallinder appears perfectly happy to be working both solo and with the excellent Wrangler). What was a surprise, perhaps, is how good the album is – something of a whistlestop tour of the electronic realms Kirk is working under these days, and there are certainly various nods to the Cabs of old. Perhaps one of the clearest nods – and by far the best track on the album – is the pummelling grooves of Vasto. Analogue synths fizz and bubble away around a straightforward 4/4 kick, sampled wailing vocals loop in and out, and the feel is of later Cabs after they’d shed the funk interests for more straightforward techno – a style of course much in vogue nowadays. And why shouldn’t Kirk head back in that direction? The Cabs were always way ahead of everyone else, so you can forgive him an indulgence or two now that they are finally getting the recognition of their enormous influence along the way.
/Blackest Ever Buckfast
Taken from an unusual mini-album – an industrial techno concept album, based around a trip to Manchester to go clubbing, it would seem – Kenny Campbell’s release for the Drøne crew in Manchester had a number of highlights, but none more so than the tongue-in-cheek, hard-edged techno thrills of XTC USA. There are nods to older songs, both in the hooks and the samples (the title is a neat play that should give you an idea where it is going), but broadly this is an entertaining, punishing five-minute dancefloor workout of the type I used to enjoy in my younger clubbing days. Hearing more tracks like this might tempt me back to clubbing that bit more, something I’d already begun to lose the habit of before lockdown, now I’m in my forties…
/The Comet Line
A song I featured in a recent /Tuesday Ten, but well worth repeating here, as The Comet Line remain one of the best, most acerbic indie-rock bands in London. Their sharp-edged, snappy songs dip into the well of classic indie-rock and post-punk, sure, but these comfortable clothes provide a great base for the fabulous, detailed vignettes that make up their lyrics and vocal delivery. Often, they are small snapshots of the futile and frustrating endeavour that makes up our lives, and this opening track to their most recent EP is a perfect example of that. Clearly at least inspired by the early stages of the horrors that were to come in 2020, it sees the band banging their heads against the wall as the world goes to shit around them. So the title harks back to advice that they might have received from relatives in their younger years, where “sensible shoes” becomes the metaphor for being prepared for whatever life will throw at you.
This Australian EBM act has become another from that country in recent years to make an impression, and once again are building on classic stylings to forge their own way forward. The best track on the latest EP is the sucker-punch of The Destroyer, a track that surges ahead on the base of a classic EBM synth hook and a steady beat and drops into an impressive instrumental bridge, too. Like the best EBM, this is another artist that has realised that you don’t need to increase the tempo to have a solid, hard-hitting track, and The Destroyer is an outstanding modern example of a now long-lived, ever-evolving genre.
/Born On The Outs
/The Malignant Fire EP
Many bands with an album the calibre of The Shape of Punk to Come in their discography would simply reform and tour on the back of that. So Refused should be applauded for taking their sound in other directions since their reformation, while keeping their adventurous spirit and seething resentment at the current political paradigm. Their latest missive was a relatively short EP this autumn, led by Born on the Outs, which if we didn’t know already, laid out their views clearly. Searingly left-wing, anti-nazi and absolutely ferocious in musical delivery, this is Refused at their fist-pumping, rabble-rousing best, and the lengthy intro is worth what explodes into life in time.
/Witch of the Vale
Witch of the Vale was one of my finds of the year last year, and their much-anticipated debut album comes this week, a bit later than expected (amid the carnage of multiple lockdowns and everything else, it’s perhaps understandable). But we did get the striking first single from it at the end of the summer, where Erin’s clear, elegant vocals remain centre-stage, but what has changed a bit is the music behind it. The industrial, clanking grind behind her reminds unexpectedly of mid-nineties Nine Inch Nails, which is no bad thing and adds a more…upfront and aggressive edge to the sound. No wallflowers, it appears that a bright future still awaits this most intriguing of duos.
/IN FIRE AND IN BLOOD
/IN FIRE AND IN BLOOD
∆AIMON’s return recently has been tentative, a single last year and another this year, with that long-awaited new album on the way in 2021, as far as I’m aware. Clearly life – including moving across the US – has taken precedence, which is fair enough – after all, most musicians in our scene have to earn a living, and their life away from music is often more important. The new material, though, is giving us pointers to what to expect. That cleaner, less distorted style from their full-length album remains – there are acres of space in the mix behind the cavernous drums, while Brant’s vocals have some treatment (that gives a menacing edge), while Nancy’s sweet backing vocals temper that somewhat, and the interplay between them is one of thing that makes this song – and ∆AIMON generally – so good. I am keenly awaiting the new album, whenever it is ready.
Gary Zon’s Dismantled project has now been around for nearly two decades, remarkably – and his first new track in a little while was an impressive, snarling rebuke of his home in the US in 2020. I’ve been extremely cynical of songs written about COVID-19 this year (the amount of promo text I’ve had this year that references that artists’ struggles with the pandemic…), but this nails the frustration and anger at the poor response well. Made all the better, too, by Zon returning to the complex, synth-heavy (and his early trademark, the heavily distorted vocals) sound of his early days that in retrospect, was a whole lot more unique than we gave it credit for at the time.
Forty years into their career, Boris Blank and Dieter Meier have nothing left to prove, and there was something reassuring about the elastic, weird joys of Waba Duba sounding just like Yello always have. Built around a liquid, bouncing rhythm, the endlessly looped refrain adds in more rhythm (even the saxophone does), and then there is the video, which has the duo dancing and babbling at each other, in front of wonderfully retro-kitsch computer-generated backgrounds. There is no one like them, genuinely, and these grand old men of electronic music are owed a greater debt by groups that have come after them than is usually acknowledged.
/Children of the Gun
I first heard BILE thanks to an Energy Records comp back in the late 90s, and they had perhaps vanished from my memory a bit in recent years – so the unexpected appearance of BILE’s first new material in seven years or so was a bit of a jolt. Especially as the first new track was such a snappy jolt. An incessant, distorted-to-fuck guitar hook repeats through most of the song, a surprisingly subtle beat adds weight to the stomp of the rhythm, and there is a general feeling of the nasty edge of BILE’s best work all present and correct. More new material is to come, apparently, and I am absolutely here for this.
/A. A. Williams
/All I Asked For (Was To End It All)
I was introduced to A. A. Williams’ bleak, stark rock sound earlier in the year, and was immediately captivated by the depth of it. The lead track to her debut full-length album, this song could not be a better starting point. Her voice has a sense of desperation in it, which suits a song apparently about ultimately giving up in the most dramatic of ways, and from the delicate, piano-and-voice opening, it swells and gradually opens up like a dark flower, the full band taking time to accompany her, and when it does fully burst into life, it’s a heart-stopping moment. This year has been a tough one for everyone, and while this was likely written beforehand, it’s one of those songs that rather struck a nerve at the toughest of points in 2020.
/Randolph & Mortimer
/THEY KNOW WE KNOW THEY LIE
R&M has continued to plug away, even during lockdown, particularly with the excellent double-vinyl release of Manifesto For A Modern World, which included four new tracks on it, and were separately released as a digital EP later in the year. It continued the theme of the album, that’s for sure – EBM/industrial hybrids with a distinctly political edge, and almost all vocals from samples. Of the new tracks, though, STATELESS is the relentless highlight. A high-tempo drum pattern reminds of classic, late-80s Ministry, and droning synths provide additional texture as the track blasts out of your speakers. Yet another essential purchase from this underrated artist.
/Barbed Wire Church
There seems to have been something of a resurgence of experimental music at the fringes of the genres that I cover in recent times, and I’m all for it when it reveals artists like LONESAW. This Liverpool-based act appears to belong to the lineage of experimentalists like Swans or Neubauten, with this first released track a savage, meticulously sequenced track that builds from a fast-paced heartbeat into a dragged-out rush of ominous terror, that has short blasts of saxophone and drum-fills tear out of the speakers like they are literally being punched through the walls around you, and as the track closes, they keep coming in a relentless wave that feels designed to unsettle. I await further material with great interest.
/Backlash Just Because
/Throes of Joy In The Jaws of Defeatism
While some of the experimental diversions on the excellent new Napalm Death album are worthy of note (and more on those next week), there’s something really satisfying around the relentless first few tracks on the new album, which is, broadly, Napalm Death doing what they do best – fast, technical grindcore that packs a hell of a punch. The best of them is Backlash Just Because, full of dirty basslines and choppy riffs and Barney growling away above the carnage – but it is capped off by the closing breakdown that takes up a full third of the track, and could break rocks it is so brutally heavy (and likely a few skulls too, once live shows return). Another lesson in grindcore from the pioneers and masters.
/Allt þetta Helvítis Myrkur
Probably the most striking video I saw this year came from Icelandic band Katla, whose video for this track is based around the ancient concept of the Níðstang (Nithing Pole), an ancient curse against another person from the Norse tradition. The song that soundtracks said video, though, is just as dark and forbidding, perhaps as befits a band named after the legendary, enormous volcano in southern Iceland. It straddles the lines between doomy atmospherics and fierce, ice blasted black metal, with symphonic overtones, and is yet another example of the vibrant, fast-evolving extreme metal scene in Iceland.
/My Dying Bride
/Macabre Cabaret EP
Something about My Dying Bride’s album The Ghost of Orion didn’t sit with me at all this year – an album that I listened to a couple of times, then left on the shelf as it simply didn’t do it for me. So colour me surprised with an unexpected EP that dropped late in November, as suddenly the MDB that I’ve loved for a few decades shone through once again. The lead, title, track on the EP is an epic, dramatic beast that feels like the My Dying Bride of old, as it sweeps between heavier, guitar-based sections and piano-led ambience, Aaron’s voice also showing a little restraint (and in his lower register, too). The excellent video that accompanies it only adds to the dark, foreboding feel of the song, a lament of pain and suffering, something MDB has always excelled at, and do again here.
The posthumous album from the late Jeremy Inkel initially came as a surprise, at least to me, but it made more sense when I got the full story from Chris Peterson (/Talk Show Host/066 refers). It turned out to be a collection of songs that Inkel had been working on for some time, and knowing that he’d spent some time DJing as well as working with Left Spine Down, Front Line Assembly and many other bands, the fact that the album has its roots in techno makes a lot of sense. There were obvious highlights in the album, though, and WAYVY is the best of the bunch. A seven-minute bass and techno monster, it pounds out of the speakers on an elastic bassline, multiple drops and peaks, begging to be played on a monstrous sound system in a club. I’m looking forward to the day when I can do just that.
/…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
/Into the Godless Void
/X: The Godless Void and Other Stories
For their tenth album, Trail of Dead returned to the original duo, broadly, with Jason Reece and Conrad Keely the only core members and, presumably, when live shows resume, other people will join them. But after some considerable changes in their lives – particularly Keely moving back from a period in Cambodia – this new album saw them sound revitalised in some way, and this single was easily the best track on it. “Out of the darkness…” they roar in the chorus, and this chaotic, dense song has an intense melodic core, with one of the band’s best choruses in years, one that is full of defiance and fire, as if the duo needed to cast away the grime of recent years and find themselves anew. For a group that always felt – particularly live – that they could self-destruct and combust into flames at any moment, for them to still be these fantastic twenty-five years in is a hell of a feat. I’ve followed them since being blown away by Richter Scale Madness back in the late nineties, and that they can still do that in 2020 is something that warms my heart.
Matt Fanale and Eric Oehler’s love letter to the EBM that inspired them in the first place that is KLACK have turned out to be a hugely enjoyable project on the whole, both in their original tracks and the handful of covers that they’ve put out, too (the recent take on Move Any Mountain being a perfect example of the latter). This has continued with their latest release, the excellent EP Probably, whose peak was the fantastic Bark, Bite, with a slower-paced but still dancefloor-friendly drum’n’synth pattern and a 1-2 punch of a chorus that 242 would be proud of.
Body Count and Ice-T never really went away, but as his country’s politics have lurched alarmingly to the far-right over the Trump administration era, the struggles within that time have clearly lit a fire in the band, with them sounding more vital than they have since they caused such a splash in the early nineties. In some respects, this isn’t much of a change from Body Count – it is still heavy metal with Ice-T rapping over the top – but the subjects covered are where things get interesting. Bum Rush was and is the obvious standout from Carnivore, as Ice-T roars a call to arms, pondering why the masses haven’t quite risen up to fight a tyrannical Government when the issues and the reasons to do so are obvious (the continuing scandal of the water in Flint is one particular flashpoint mentioned). Interestingly, of course, other events did cause an uprising in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer, and while Trump was eventually ousted at the ballot box (not that he’s accepted it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence), there is still much to inspire Ice-T and Body Count for future releases. In the meantime, though, heavy metal in 2020 didn’t get much better than Bum Rush.
/The Universal Want
When doves went on hiatus a decade or so ago, I rather thought that might be it, so I was pleasantly surprised when this most unassuming of bands returned with a dramatic, heroic performance at the Royal Albert Hall last year. Even better was when new material appeared earlier this year, especially when it became clear that the band had picked up where they left off. “Hello, old friend, It’s been a while” goes this glorious, skyscraping burst of epic indie-rock, as doves remind us just how elegant and brilliant they still are – and reinforce my love for a band who’ve soundtracked most of my adult life, both the good and the band. It’s great to hear from you again, old friends.
Jonas Renkse has this striking habit of writing songs for Katatonia that have a devastating emotional punch, and all of Katatonia’s greatest songs have such a hit, and the song on the excellent City Burials that does this is Flicker. Initially, it seems to be a stuttering, piano-drenched ballad that won’t go too far, until everything drops away and suddenly swells into a symphonic, heart-stopping chorus that Renske seems to be pouring out every ounce of his emotional frustration into. Katatonia has always been a band that brilliantly deal with heartbreak, frustration and loss, turning ruminations on these subjects into relatable, storming songs. Here’s another to add to their already extensive list.
An immediate standout on Shah’s fourth album was this woozy, entertaining song that is as intoxicating as the titular namesake. Amid a musical backing that appears to be just on the right side of vertical, Shah targets a boozy failure who may be someone who’s just drunk and trying it on or more likely is a gaslighting shitbag who she needs to kick out of the nearest door. There are hints of desperation from the other party, of trying for undeserved sympathy, but Shah is having none of it, and the line “reciting all the times you kicked yourself and missed” makes me laugh every time I hear it. Shah is done with your shit, and frankly, I don’t blame her.
/Passions In The Back Room
The stand-out moment from Promenade Cinema’s second, more introspective album was a song that sounded rather different to the rest of it. It was debuted in late 2019 at their BEAT:CANCER show, and frankly, it was a stand-out even then. A song where Dorian and Emma share vocals, with Emma getting the hammer blow of a chorus that suddenly, brilliantly, lifts the song out of a mid-tempo strut, toward a slinky, sexy piece that suggests illicit thrills behind the door. But like so many of the duo’s greatest songs, it’s all about that tease. You get a fleeting glimpse behind the door, enough to pique your interest, and then the door is slammed shut, and you’re left wanting more, so much more.
/Stravinsky’s Only Hit
/A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
Over fifty years into their career as arch-pop auteurs, and frankly it is utterly remarkable that they can still come up with glorious, clever songs such as this. Russell Mael imagines himself as an assistant to Stravinsky, as if the master composer was just a one-hit-wonder, living off his “hit” (presumably Rite of Spring, of course) and lavishing money to good causes, and as ever the imagery that it conjures up is mildly surreal, silly, but also reverent to the subject. Especially as the orchestral pop that backs Mael on the song is clearly riffing on Stravinsky’s dramatic style, even if I don’t think it is directly lifting from any specific pieces. The rest of A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, mind, is great, it’s just that this song towers over the rest of it in invention, songcraft and humour. How do Sparks remain so brilliant and relevant?
I was not short of song options from Ohms, but more and more, I found myself drawn back to the yin-and-yang of Urantia, which opens with Stephen Carpenter’s heaviest, most dramatic riff in an age, before pivoting into a synth-and-bass roll that sounds starlit, as Chino Moreno delivers a curious, broken narrative that appears to hint at relationship breakdown and obsession in ways only he can hint at, but the most marvellous thing about this song is the soaring melodies (and accompanying backing vocals), as well as the dynamic shifts that never feel jarring – you’re being taken on a fantastic ride by the band. Strap in and enjoy it, it’s a hell of a trip.
The bruising, all-too-brief opener to one of my finds of 2020, this US-based industrial metal project roared out of the traps with this track. In just two minutes, it opens up a huge electronic rhythm with tons of bass (and multiple layers), as well as chugging riffs that certainly bring to mind Godflesh and early Fear Factory particularly, but interestingly also show an artist that has their own ideas of how their sound wants to be presented. This is no mere slavish worship of others, this is an artist keen on making their own mark, this track was a hell of a way to start that. The album, too, delivered in spades.
Something of a surprise release in the spring (on one of the first Bandcamp Fridays that have been so useful to many artists this year), and happily the quality of the release was no such surprise. Chris Connelly and Jason Novak have hit the bullseye repeatedly with their Cocksure project – something of a follow-on from RevCo, but with a distinctly darker, heavier sound, for the most part – and that run continues here. The best track on the EP, and one of the best Cocksure tracks yet, is the anthemic bark of Operation C.O.C.K.S.U.R.E., a song that, amid the flood of lyrics, appears to be tearing into religious influence and lobbying in politics, coupled with a monster of a chorus that simply repeats the titular acronym. A hugely enjoyable song, frankly, that has rather more success than the similar WWII operation codename, that thankfully never went ahead (as it would have been a pointless bloodbath).
/Say Nothing (In the Absence of Content)
Sadly released in a time where such gigs can’t happen, but finally, a hardcore band call out “fans” that just turn up for the violence of the pit. Full of snarky lyrics, callbacks to classic hardcore, and, needless to say, a shit-kicking mosh-friendly track in itself. Vocalist Lauren Kashan has an interesting past and a lot to say, and quite rightly – women are all often marginalised in the macho world of the hardcore beatdown, so why not have a woman telling it like it is? The great bit, though, is that the band blow out the walls with this fantastic track, which ticks every box of metallic hardcore that I’d ever want, especially the breakdown where Kashan spells out the problem with many bands – and fans – nice and clearly before the riffs kick in. Also a mention for the hilarious video that accompanies this, but really? This is the best hardcore I’ve heard in ages.
The lead single from the excellent new A23 album was this track, a song that rather reflected the times we live in, to an uncomfortable degree. When it was written, some time pre-US election and Trump’s defeat, things were not looking good. COVID was beginning to ravage society and cause untold economic damage too, particularly in the US, and here, amid his trademark mid-paced electro-industrial, Tom Shear embraces the end, as he bitterly sets the scene of an apocalypse that we as humans perhaps brought upon ourselves. Even with a new President in the White House, mind, is there much hope for the future? Who knows, frankly, but maybe there is a chink of light ahead in these darkest of times, and in the meantime, Shear’s excellent songcraft is here to get us through it, with a welcome jolt of truth.
/Hot Ashes – Radicalized
/Reloaded – Reworks of How Do You Feel Today
The best remix of 2020, by a long chalk. Rotersand have always been a band with a more positive outlook, perhaps, and a more upbeat sound than many of their peers, but the standout track on recent album How Do You Feel Today felt like a deliberate statement, a stately dancefloor track whose only refrain was “Dancing on the hearts of fascists“. Come the remix album, though, and it was led out by this outstanding rework, by Ulf Häusgen of Armageddon Dildos. The tempo was increased, guitars were added, and the result was a stomping dancefloor tune – just the thing to soundtrack shouting down fascists – that sounds for all the world like the best track KMFDM have done in years…
Ok, so maybe this album didn’t quite grab me like I hoped it would, but that’s mainly down to the towering brilliance of this song. Both artists are artists that I’ve been meaning to dig into more – Emma Ruth Rundle is a singer one of my partners has been trying to get me to listen to for ages, while Thou’s relentless output has long intrigued – but this song immediately got me like it had pinned me against the wall. A rolling, toiling sea of a rhythm is punched out by Thou for Emma Ruth Rundle to majestically soar over, and the result is a breathtaking song that is worth this album purchase alone.
/The New Division
A bit of a bolt-from-the-blue for me, this one. Thanks to a link shared by a friend in the US, I was instantly hooked by this song on their latest album in particular. Their bio suggests that the original inspiration was eighties synthpop, but the sound here to me is more nuanced than just slavish copying of their heroes – punchy drum patterns and intelligent structuring of the song points toward house music influences, but there is none of the euphoria that might come from that, instead, a downcast sadness takes over, bathing the song in dim light. This, of course, means that the gorgeous, heartfelt chorus is an almighty gut-punch. A fabulous song from a group I only wish I’d discovered sooner.
/Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Of a great many brilliant songs on this universally-acclaimed album came this bolt from the blue – and remarkably, in this strangest of years, the real-life Shameika and Fiona Apple later got back in touch and recorded together – but this song is about more than just an attempt at reconnection. It is a fantastic song that is about the importance of helping one another, even when that other person isn’t someone that you know or particularly care for. It’s about doing the right thing, and how one simple positive comment can have repercussions down the ages, as this apparent event did. Apple burns with inspiration on this album, and this song is almost a distillation of that. A celebration of female unity and positivity, the song is as uplifting and celebratory in sound as the words that are sung are.
/Just Look At That Sky
A song that has been around a little while – it was first released in 2019 in one form (with an excellent, clever video), but was re-recorded for the latest album, not that there appears to be much difference on the first comparison. The really uncanny thing about it, though – much like the rest of this brilliant album – is that the uncertainty and angry introspection at the heart of the song could easily be about the issues many of us are experiencing while facing isolation during the COVID crisis. Alicia from the band went into great detail last year about this song, and it is interesting now to reappraise this now, in late 2020. Tearing strips off yourself at the moment is a common pastime, even though many of us are perhaps doing better than we think we are – or at least coping better than we think we are. This song has a rhythmic drive and power that is really quite bracing and coupled with Nadia’s appropriately dispassionate vocal delivery, the kick down into the vicious, snarling final coda makes for Ganser’s best song yet, and indeed one of the best songs of 2020.
/I Let It In and It Took Everything
The best track on one of my most notable, personal musical discoveries of the long year that has been 2020, and perhaps the lockdown – and I’ve easily listened to the most music in one calendar year in a long, long time – has given me that additional time I needed to get better acquainted with some music. Anyway, while the album that this comes from took me a bit longer to really love, this track leapt out and metaphorically pinned me against the wall in short order. It rather creeps up on you, too – the ambient close of the previous track leads you into guitar fuzz, and then out of nowhere, the rest of the band limber up before all leaping out of the speakers at once into a hyper-dense, roaring track full of thick basslines, relentless double-bass kicks, multi-tracked guitars and multiple vocals. In just three furiously intense minutes, it’s a hell of a trip.
/I LIKE TRAINS
/Desire Is A Mess
“How Do You Sleep At Night?” goes David Martin’s bitter, snarled refrain to this exceptional highlight from a genuinely brilliant album. An album preoccupied with populism and untruths that was, like the rest of their material, clearly meticulously researched and refined, and the result was nine songs that all seethed. But Desire Is A Mess seethed that bit more than the rest. A jabbing accusatory finger leads the theme of the song, as Martin mentally confronts those in power lying to us, to ask them how they can brazenly deny what is clear in front of us, and the song charges forward, apparently powered by that fury. The measured delivery – that never really moves beyond sung-spoken word – only heightens the effect.
/The Birdwatcher’s Guide to Atrocity
On an album stuffed with individual highlights, perhaps the greatest is Alex Reed at his snarling best. A shuffling breakbeat, interspersed with blasts of noise, provides the backing for Reed’s treated-vocal delivery. And it is those vocals that are the key to this song. This is a song about sweeping away the old (“I Was Born to Make My Kind Extinct” is the key line), about renewal and making a better future. In a time where the same old white men seem to be gaining the upper hand again – when there was, just a few years ago, the feeling that there might be a chance for something different – Reed’s words seem to be so pertinent, and his powerful delivery here rams the point home. We don’t just have to rely on hope, we need also action. Find ways to make positive change, find ways to move on from old ways of thinking. Seeming are a group that do that musically, having now released three exceptional albums of material that is constantly finding new ways forward, sounding like no one else along the way. They have now provided the jaw-dropping soundtrack to that change, one of inspiration and hope and fearlessness, and in a year like this, that is easily enough to make it the Track of the Year – and make it a second time for Seeming since I’ve been doing this.