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The Editors Picks: The best releases of 2020 so far (January-June)

13 August 2020 | 2:08 pm | Alex Sievers

2020, made more bearable thanks to Loathe, Phoebe Bridgers, Dance Gavin Dance, Shady Nasty, Code Orange, Enter Shikari, & more.

I know it, you know it: 2020 has been one hell of a fucked up year. A list of reasons why would still omit multiple important yet equally depressing news or events. It's the kind of 12 month period that seems like a sick joke, like a complete and utter write-off. And it isn't even over yet. In times of crisis and upheaval, people will often turn to art: some for guidance, some for comfort, others for escapism. But nearly all of us for some variation of the three. I'm no different.

Just like my two 2019 album lists, here's the records that have helped to make my 2020 a little better; a little more tolerable. While not every album I've liked this year made the cut, less we be here forever - honorable mentions to SpartaEnvyCaspain, and Pulses. - maybe you'll remember some sick records that came out earlier in the year (that seems like a lifetime ago), or maybe you'll discover some new stuff to help keep you sane. Off we go!

Dance Gavin Dance - 'Afterburner' 

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'Afterburner' polymerises like a Captain Planet summoning; a variety of robust elements forming a powerful whole. Jon Mess' raw screams and absurdist lyrics; Tilian Pearson's huge vocal runs and swaggered hooks; Will Swan's colourful math-rock riffs and well-voiced progressions; Matt Mingus' and Tim Feerick's incredibly groovy rhythm section; bright and fuzzy song timbres; and a heavier emphasis on funky Latin fusion and expanding dynamics. It's simultaneously the Dance Gavin Dance that we all expected, whilst also throwing in new surprises, with both sides feeling so fleshed out. Like Tilian singing in Spanish on 'Calentamiento Global,'or Bilmuri's guest feature and Will's rapping lending 'Into The Sunset' a trap, emo-rap edge.

This is my AOTY so far because it's the album that has made me the happiest in 2020. It's the album I've listened to the most, and the sole release that makes me smile most; the record I've had the most amount of fun with all year. For me, 'Afterburner' is a record that's a prime source of rejuvenation amongst a year that's trying it's fucking hardest to nothing short of soul-crushing.

Loathe - 'I Let It In And It Took Everything' 

It's impossible for me to care about coddled, middle-of-the-road, ultimately generic metalcore bands this year when such a creative, striking act like Loathe exists. Especially when such a band like this U.K. group is producing such a forward-thinking second record in the form of 'I Let It In And It Took Everything.' 'I Let It In...' hurls you through a gamut of varied sounds and emotions. Over it's 14 songs, you feel everything from elation, sorrow, loss, passion, rage, defeat, and uncertainty. In just 49 minutes, you hear everything from beautiful shoegaze ('Two-Way Mirror', 'A Sad Cartoon'), well-written '90s grunge-rock ('Screaming'), scorching new-age metalcore ('Broken Vision Rhythm,' 'Red Room'), filthy progressive-metal and djenty tastes ('Gored'), murky and ambient sound collages ('Theme,' '451 Days, the reprise of 'A Sad Cartoon'), as well fierce black metal and acoustic jazz ('Heavy Is The Head That Falls With The Weight Of A Thousand Thoughts.')

This is an undisputed masterclass in modern heavy music, an incredibly inspired and arresting record with absorbing production and Squire Jazzmaster Baritone guitars at the forefront of this immense sound. They're so much more than just a Deftones worship act; as the band blends a host of influences and sounds. It's that kind of well-crafted eccentric boldness that cements Loathe as part of the future of not just metalcore or shoegaze, but alternative and heavy music that's worth a damn. 'I Let It In...' makes writing about music so much more fun and worthwhile.

Shady Nasty - 'Bad Posture' EP

Shady Nasty; the best Australian band that you don't know about. Shady Nasty's experimental mix of jazz, dark post-punk, noise-rock, shimmering post-rock and hip-hop isn't anything that new outside of Australia, but within Australia, it's a sound that hasn't been all that well explored. It's yet to fully catch on here. Well, unless this Sydney trio have anything to say about it. They're seemingly throwing caution to the wind and creating whatever weird, different and exciting art that they want to with a grand EP like 'Bad Posture.'

That's represented by its four songs that share similar threads yet are stark in their differences from each other. 'Jewellery,' 'Get Buff,' 'AA,' and '77Sunk' all flow between one another gracefully. They're dense mixtures of the various styles mentioned above, yet also being so much more than the sum of their parts. Dealing with issues like the weight of youth and generational expectations, crippling mental health and physical rehabilitation, isolation from one's friends and maladjustment with society, 'Bad Posture' is bleak and negative in tone. Yet there's hope under those layers of murkiness. Like how a bad back can be cracked and worked on until it returns to good shape, so too can one's mind and outlook on life. Songs like these help with that.

Phoebe Bridgers - 'Punisher'

There's an ironic cynicism, a playful heartache, that exists at the core of the music that Phoebe Bridgers creates. There is such an adept skill in how she bundles up subtle moments, mundane experiences, awkward situations, and extraordinary life moments, and turns them into endearing, relatable, and cleverly phrased fables over low-key percussion and soft guitar strums. It's her diamond-sharp writing - both musical and lyrical - that turns inside-out her thoughts about her self, family, friends and relationships into a perfectly curated honest experience. Whilst creating some of her best songs  yet: the brilliant two-part opener of 'DVD Menu' and 'Garden Song,' 'Kyoto,' 'I See You' ('ICU') and a fatalistic closing piece that actually feels like an album ender, the urgent mad-dash escape from time and death of 'I Know The End.'

Using genre tags like "indie," "lo-fi" and "singer-songwriter" to describe the breadth of the sounds, thoughts and production behind 'Punisher' wouldn't do Phoebe or this record justice. There's a very good reason as to why she's blowing up right now. Believe the hype, dive in, and be yourself.

Code Orange - 'Underneath'

Industrial horrors, frenzied metallic hardcore, '90s alt-rock, and bouncy nu-metal become a singular glass whole during 'Underneath.' Track skips and sudden silences cut like cold knives, as glitches and self-referential lyrical motifs fire-off relentlessly next to stomping guitar riffs and head-caving breakdowns. A jarring, abrasive soundtrack to someone's descent down the fucking rabbit hole. Though it's a spiral in which there is never a dull or under-cooked moment in the busy, experimental chaos that Code Orange cultivate. 'Underneath' is a cruel but deceptively honest reflective surface that Code Orange sculpt with the utmost care. Right before smashing it into a million tiny pieces so they can find out exactly what resides within, and so you can mosh until your hearts content. Introspective and cerebral, but tough and violent, there's a strong undercurrent of duality.

Just like Loathe's section above, and whilst Code Orange's fourth album is a very different form of metalcore and heavy music to that other particular release, it's pushing the boat out far, until it's not but a dot on the horizon. It's seriously pushing the envelope for hardcore and metalcore harder than ever before. It's daring! This fourth album truly feels like the journey that began on 'I Am King' (2015) and 'Forever' (2017) has reached it's zenith. I have no idea what Code Orange will do next and that makes me giddy with excitement. 'Underneath,' forever.

Tycho - 'Simulcast'

Funnily enough, the very aspects that someone could genuinely criticize Tycho and 'Simulcast' on - that it's music to do something else to, that it's just meant to fill a void in your day, that it's supposed to be background noise - are the very reasons why I love Scott Hansen's work and his new album. 'Simulcast' is the re-worked instrumental accompaniment to the gorgeous 'Weather' (a 2019 favourite of mine), which was helpfully brought to life by the rich vocals of Hannah Cottrell, AKA Saint Sinner.

Here, we have a lush, colourful, IDM synth-pop vacation that's purely instrumental. Tycho goes back to his roots and does what he does best: serene and soothing, ambient compositions with lovely synth arpeggios, tasteful percussion and drum breaks, and vibrant tone colours. Vocals or not, Tycho knows just how to communicate certain ideas and feelings through his sensual, twilight-bathed tracks. And in 2020, we could all use a quiet moment or two.

END - 'Splinters From An Ever-Changing Face'

The depiction of a despondent, melting face on the cover of END's debut record is extremely apt. For it's exactly the kind of visceral effect that 'Splinters From An Ever-Changing Face' leaves upon you due to it's dark, 2000's-suited underground metalcore shtick. Lethal in instrumental and vocal delivery, entirely suffocating in its bleak tone and atmosphere, and eerily haunting and therapeutic in it what shares about mental health struggles, seeking help, personal strife, and inner pain. It was always going to be a steep order to match, let alone top their vicious 2017 EP, 'From The Unforgiving Arms Of God,' but they did it. The pedigree of END is unmatched by many of their peers, and I was foolish for doubting. Basically, if you even remotely like hardcore and metalcore in the current year, then you owe it to yourself and your ears to hear this fucker ASAP.

Protest The Hero - 'Palimpsest'

We never reviewed Protest The Hero's first LP in seven years, 'Palimpsest,' when it dropped in June, so consider this catch-up. Real talk, this is the Canadian band's best release since 'Fortress' (2008), seeing session bassist Cam McLellan and new full-time drummer Mike Ieradi earning their keep. With all of his impressive falsetto range and vibrato in-check, it's impossible to tell that vocalist Rody Walker was ever in vocal recovery after 2018. Then, with shorter piano etudes acting as the calm before the furious, riffy storms that are about to hit - 'Harbourside' to 'All Hands,'; 'Mountainside' to 'Gardenias'; and 'Hillside' to 'Rivet' - this LP is an expertly constructed, political prog-metal listen.

More than that, it's an ugly but sobering look at American history in the early 20th century, often referencing music and events from that mid-century era. 'Palimpsest' is named after a document that's erased to make way for new text; a skin-crawling metaphor for how images impact our memories and learning more than text ever does. A lazy analysis of 'Palimpsest' would call it an "anti-Trump" record, but it's instead critiquing the schools of thought and nationalistic ideals that create people like that. 'Palimpsest' is saying that American exceptionalism is a disease, as is the blind patriotism that's bred from its own historical revisionism. For history, American or otherwise, is like gold - the most malleable metal on Earth - and as 'From The Sky' puts it: "we remember because we're malleable as gold." Winners write it, and we're moulded into remembering all of the dark half-truths of history.

'Palimpsest' has so much to say, whether it's about the 1930's Dust Bowl and how poor, starving migrants were the very people that helped build the country to what it is ('The Migrant Mother'), or 'The Canary,' named after Amelia Earhart’s yellow bi-plane, talking about fate and the accomplishment of women, but how women are dragged harder "when they crash." 'From The Sky' hones in on the Hindenburg Zeppelin's crash in 1937 and it's ties to Nazi Germany, overlooked by the focus being on the failure of technological ambition rather than ties to fascism and a looming war machine. 'The Fireside' targets the U.S.' hunger for warfare in how they need but one reason - any reason - to head to war. 'Reverie' may quote John Dillinger but is actually about America's prison system that's only grown into a monstrous industrial complex in the last sixty years. 'Little Snakes' examines the genocide of Native Americans - treaties broken by white Americans, deep racism, use of bigoted laws to steal Indigenous land - and how one of faces carved into Mount Rushmore (Abraham Lincoln) ordered the largest mass execution of Native Americans.

Ending with 'Rivet,' about the second-wave of industrialism and the expansion of the country via the creation of the railroad, it's a soaring, musically optimistic power-metal tune. 'Rivet' co-opts the "Make America Great Again" phrase, but not to meet some pro-Trumpian agenda. Rather, it's a call to actually make real what that slogan states: to do away with the toxic patriotism and to focus on striving to make that greatness tangible. For all peoples of that nation, not just a select few. And that's Protest The Hero's 'Palimpsest.' It's great stuff, and you shouldn't sleep on it! Riffs and education, together at last.

The Weeknd - 'After Hours'

I never fully clicked with 'Starboy' (2016), but boy, do I fuck with 'After hours' extremely hard. 'After Hours' is deftly self-aware. It doesn't point the finger at another for why a relationship fell apart, but rather, it sees The Weeknd pointing it inwards more often than not. It's addressing topics of self-loathing, hedonism, promiscuity, and vulnerability, all with honesty and, as everyone and their dog has already pointed out by now, with some stellar artistic reinvention. When you then merge together more interesting arrangements, sexy RnB moods, fantastic vocal production complimenting an excellent performance, and a range of new influences (the trendy '80s dream-pop behind 'Blinding Light' or the new-wave to 'In Your Eyes'), you get some of the finest and smoothest works that Abel Tesfaye has created. From 'Hardest To Love,' 'Alone Again,' 'Heartless,' 'After Hours,' through to 'Snowchild' and 'Escape From LA,' it's bops all the way down.

Pressure Cracks - 'This Is Called Survival' EP

Jason Butler, you may know him from some bands such as Letlive. and The Fever 333. Yet the enigmatic, hyper-energised frontman also rips the mic for hardcore punk outfit, Pressure Cracks. On only their second EP, Pressure Cracks hold nothing back, like it's the last chance they'll ever get to play. Cue four seriously chaotic hardcore jams with a message, clocking in at just over 12-minutes. With burning riffs and cracking drums, and Jason's signature passionate roars leading the way, the band tear down America's for-profit prison system ('Like Father Like None'), blind faith and moral hypocrisies ('Big T Youth'), and vile abuses of power ('Shhh.') 'This Is Called Survival' is the hardcore musical manifestation of unrest and frustration. A sign of the times, if you will. This is the world we live in; this is survival; and this is Pressure Cracks.

Enter Shikari - 'Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible'

'Nothing Is True & Everything Is Possible' is a snapshot of the fractured "now." It's an anthem for our fresh decade's existential dread; a scathing surgical dive into the multitude of issues that will make for some very interesting reading in a historical textbook forty years down the line for some bored teenager. When you have a year like 2020, what do you say and create in your art? In Enter Shikari's case, you say everything you damn well can and go for broke with an incredibly varied, dynamic, and downright weird record. (Even by their own high, eclectic standards.) And that's why it's bloody fantastic! Post-punk, pop, electronica, grooves galore, rock, orchestral, and so much more buoy what is Shikari's most sharpish release yet. A bold record that is deeply informed by where these four lads have been, and more excitingly, where they're now heading. Oh, and it's got some of their best songs in years. Like this:

Four Year Strong - 'Brain Pain' 

Five years ago, Four Year Strong returned to their pop-punk and easycore-leaning roots with their massive self-titled effort. Five years on from that, they've basically made lighting strike twice with yet another solid outing, 'Brain Pain.' Except this time, they're going bigger and bolder, with an endless supply of huge riffs, heavier breakdowns, slicker production, and (somehow) more captivating vocal hooks. Blending musical technicality with more holistic, fun refrains, 'Brain Pain' is some of the chunkiest, meatiest sounding Four Year Strong we've ever had. It's like a "best of" album, showing everything that these guys do so well, where they've been before, what their influences are, and that they've most certainty still got it. What's "it" you may ask? Just listen to 'It's Cool,' the title track, and closer 'Young At Heart.'

It feels so fucking good to have Four Year Strong back, and even if it takes another five years for their next record, I don't at all mind waiting if we're getting content like this.

Justice For The Damned - 'Pain Is Power'

Three years between their debut and their sophomore outing, Justice For The Damned bring the heat on one of the 2020's better metallic-hardcore releases, 'Pain Is Power.' Even though it's definitely more 'metal' than 'hardcore' this time around, both in songwriting and production, the band don't forgo their roots or their sense of dope mosh parts. While their former glories remain taller and stronger, searing songs like the end-of-days ready 'Final Cataclysm,' the trench violence of 'Machine Of War,' and the destructive haymakers in 'The House You Built Is Burning' cannot be discredited. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: existence is pain, but new Justice is blistering.

Igorrr - 'Spirituality and Distortion' 

Igorrr do not fuck around. French mastermind Gautier Serre and his band do things on their own terms. 'Spirituality and Distortion' once again shows off this group's near-boundless energy and creativity, being one of 2020's most mind-bending experimental metal records. Polka beats, accordion's, death metal sections (even one fronted by Cannibal Corpse George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher), prog riffs, jazz parts, drum-and-bass breaks, glitchy chiptune moments, Middle Eastern tones, Setars, hectic patch-bay editing, and even some silly hand claps and skin-slapping gets thrown into the sonic hurricane of Igorrr. And it all comes together stunningly. Sometimes cheeky, other times extreme, but always avant-garde and well-written, Igorrr's latest epic sounds like the madness one might succumb to when dying of thirst in an desert, miles from water and salvation. Thankfully, you can just listen to this from the comfort of your own home or car, appreciating it's sheer skill and intense absurdity all the same.

Tricot - '真っ黒'

Don't let this album's all-black front cover deceive your initial impressions: catchy J-rock and bubbly math-rock collide on Tricot's wonderful new release, '真っ黒' ('Makkuro.') Technical and tasteful, Tricot are at their peak with this euphoric LP, a match for their astonishing debut, 'T H E' (2013.) It's an incredibly fun and blissful experience, one in which talented drummer Yuusuke Yoshida measures and controls the sweet dual-guitar attacks of Ikumi Nakajima and Motoko Kida, as well as the fuzzy, funky bass tones from Hiromi Sagane. All four members are perfectly, beautifully, in-sync with each other's mindset and musical flow, sensibly blending virtuoso mathrock with their lively punk ideals over 14 buttery-smooth compositions that float like clouds. "Math-pop?" 'Makkuro' damn-well makes it a thing with one of the better major label debuts I've heard in some time. This new Tricot record and it's delicious refrains are a lot like candy, and I'm a little kid locked inside it's store overnight.

Run The Jewels - RTJ4'

Proving that the even-numbered Run The Jewels releases are king, 'RTJ4' is the rap/hip-hop duo's biggest, brashest, ballsiest and (potentially) best release since 'Run The Jewels 2.' Mixing older and newer production styles, Killer Mike and El-P keep it clever and copacetic, with as strong a vocal chemistry and measured egos as ever, both rappers bite down hard with equal parts satire, anger and rationality. Some may find the social and political commentary behind the album regarding race, corruption, elections, policies, colour, police brutality, and current politics in America will heavily date it. To which I say: good! We need more albums focusing on the right here and right now, with the strength, edge and care to tackle the heavier, trickier subjects that so many either ignore or argue in bad faith against. Throw in some stellar guest performances (like Pharrell Williams and Zach de la Rocha on the banging 'Ju$t'), solid hooks, great beats, and killer flows, and you have one of 2020's most provoking records.

Satyr - 'Locus'

Sounding like a proggier version of Dance Gavin Dance - or like a heavier iteration of The Fall Of Troy in all but name alone - Satyr's songwriting and merit goes much further than those popular and obvious comparisons. Subtle metric modulation, wacked-out time signatures, weird-as-shit song meters, killer riffs, and a keen ear for blending intense post-hardcore action with sensible, white-hot vocal and instrumental hooks, 'Locus' is one hell of a debut LP powerhouse. If you had told me earlier in the year that these dudes were on their fourth or fifth album, I'd have believed you. The talent and ability of a band this young (but this eager to perform and this hungry to prove themselves) is astounding. This is a band destined to become a cult-favourite in prog-metal and post-hardcore, and with awesome tunes like 'Bird, 'Picayune,' 'Apogee,' and 'Pathing' poised just up their sleeves, it practically makes them an essential new band to be aware of. Get on-board now in order to ascertain full street cred.

Ebonivory - 'The Long Dream I'

[Since this piece was published, various unpleasant things have come out about Ebonivory singer, Charlie Powlett , with all other band members quitting in haste and their label, Wild Things, dropping them. Myself and KYS do not support any kind of abusive behaviour, and we won't be covering Ebonivory in the future.]

'The Long Dream I' is a lengthy progressive-rock/prog-metal album. One hour long, in fact. In that time, Australian youngsters, Ebonivory prove that they're the future of detailed, virtuosity prog in this country. Don't believe me? Just watch them play this fucker live. 'The Long Dream I' is clearly influenced by a whole host of artists in these sub-genres: Between The Buried & Me, Periphery, Devin Townsend, PolyphiaScale The SummitAnimals As Leaders, and so forth. That much is obvious well before the half-way point is reached. Does it sometimes border on imitation? Yeah, occasionally. Yet Ebonivory possess the cool know-how to replicate these ideas and styles authentically. Which is where it all matters. This obviously isn't the group's debut release, but this record is where things are really starting anew for them. So pay close attention.

Antagonist A.D. - 'Through Fire' EP

Discordant times call for discordant music. Enter Antagonist A.D.'s 2020 EP, 'Through Fire.' Honestly, Antag's music has never felt so relevant as it does on 'Through Fire.' For instance, 'No Justice' may have originally come out in 2018, but it's protest message of "no justice, no peace" regarding race, police violence, and inequality is sadly timeless. Because this shit keeps happening. The band have better records, sure - like 'Nothing From No One' (2012) - but this EP feels and sounds so fucking raw and angry. Much like Pressure Cracks above, this is timely and necessary. The endless parade of tragic events that have defined 2020 since this EP's release in January have only served to re-frame it's meaning into something more powerful. Here's hoping that we receive that second follow-up EP sooner rather than later. Something tells me Antag have a lot more more to share.

Methwitch - 'Indwell'

With his latest record under the Methwitch moniker, versatile vocalist, guitarist and sole member, Cameron McBride, has created an actual sense of indwell; of being ever-present in my mind, body, and spirit with this stupefying new record. As I've often thought about this utterly bonkers LP since it's release in April. Truly, this is what hellfire sounds like, and I cannot get enough of it. Because there's a method to the madness here. In an age of pretenders and deathcore-wannabees, 'Indwell' is the best kind of beatdown-loaded, grinding, slamming death metal that's engaging through and through. It's demented ferocity is unmatched, and its manic over-the-top qualities always feel required rather than superfluous.

'Indwell' is a hair-raising 15-track LP full of voice-breaking screams, emotive singing, gloomy melodies, otherworldly sounds, dissonant riffs, rising pitches, terrifying samples, and surprisingly dynamic yet monstrous instrumentation. Think the DOOM soundtrack but if it radiated far stronger crack-head energy. Obsession, hurt, rage, and regret rush to the surface in this ungodly death metal creation. This is what a full-blown mental breakdown sounds like. Methwitch's harrowing new work is the kind of the extreme metal release that skirts off-kilter rhythms, sudden shifts in tempo and sections, and just enough experimentation to keep it all brutally interesting. You don't know shit about fuck until you hear this record.

Emmure - 'Hindsight'

'Hindsight' is akin to a sweet release of aggression. Like a pent-up, pissed-off vent having it's scorching steam let out bit by bit, breakdown by breakdown, panic chord by panic chord. Emmure's latest isn't quite on par with its stellar predecessor, 'Look At Yourself' (2017), but it came damn close. And that's all I could have asked for. Instead of lingering under the shadow of their previous effort, 'Hindsight' keeps it "simple, stupid" in its dissonant riffs and tough-as-nails grooves, aiming for overwhelming weight, size and sheer impact instead of a deadly, surgical strike. With it's slightly shorter length, bitter sense of self-awareness and ego, and heavier focus on electronics and samples to embellish all of the band's nu-metalcore mosh madness, it feels more like a mixtape, but never once in a disposable manner.

Hindsight is 2020, and 2020 is 'Hindsight.' This is maximum Emmure, and Frankie Palmeri and pals have never been better than where they're at right now. Hop in losers, we're going moshing.