Top Ten Of 2020: Liam Blanc
We all know that 2020 isn’t going to be remembered fondly by anyone so I’m sure you don’t need me to further enumerate the many, many ways in which it sucked. At a push I can think of a few things that were good about 2020… Um… Well, I saved a ton of money not having to commute to London for eight months, that was pretty sweet. And all those months at home when the weather was nice in the spring meant I finally had time to paint the shed. You’ll have to take my word for this as I don’t have pictures, but seriously: my shed looks amazing.
At the risk of sounding trite (perhaps it’s less of a risk and more of a certainty), one of the few redeeming features of 2020 has been the music. And I don’t just mean passing my Grade 3 bass exam; there’s been a ton of great music released this year that actually surpasses my error-strewn rendition of London’s Calling. It’s reassuring to know that whatever else is going on in the world, our own little corner of heavy music remains crammed with creative, awesome people dedicated to bringing the RAWK. So, without further ado…
10. Witchwood ‘Before The Winter’
There were so many albums I’ve enjoyed this year that I had an awful time whittling them down to just ten. I’ve changed my mind many times over what to include and what to leave out, and I eventually decided that I couldn’t omit the pure 70s awesomeness of Witchwood’s third album Before The Winter. Witchwood are a six-piece from Italy who seem to be perpetually stuck in 1972 and sound all the better for it. There are obvious overtones of Deep Purple and Jethro Tull (flute included), but Witchwood make it all sound authentically their own. If you were feeling hyper-critical you could argue that the record is a touch too long, but for me there are enough really good tunes from the infectious A Taste Of Winter to the epic craziness of Slow Colours Of Shadeto make it an essential listen.
Label: Jolly Roger Records | Kozmik Artifactz | Fu.zu.l. Records
9. Lacertilia ‘Calling The Quarters’
If 2020 has proven anything, other than that working from home full-time is less fun than it sounds, it’s that there are loads of bands out there bending stoner rock to their will and making it sound fresh and awesome. I’d definitely put Welsh quintet Lacertilia into that bracket: Calling The Quarters must be one of the fastest, angriest records I can think of that I’d still broadly tag as stoner rock. Think chunky riffs laden with some righteous punk fury and you’re in the right ballpark; Inside The Circle even skirts the edge of Among The Missing/Iron Monkey style filth. There’s loads of quality tunes and shout-along choruses and I particularly enjoyed the more psychedelic, spacey feel of album closer So Mote It Be.
Label: Proper Tidy Records
8. Howling Giant / Sergeant Thunderhoof ‘Turned To Stone Chapter 2: Masamune & Muramasa’
Both instalments of Ripple Music’s new Turned To Stone series were brilliant, but for me Chapter 2: Masamune & Muramasa just about edges it. Putting a novel twist on the split LP format, each band supplies a single epic (i.e. 20 minutes or so in length) track based upon a fable about two legendary Japanese sword makers, making it into some sort of two-legged concept album. Nashville’s Howling Giant use their track to showcase their heavy prog/space rock sound. It’s pacey, melodic, takes plenty of twists and turns and flat-out rocks. Bath’s Sergeant Thunderhoof bring some chunky stoner riffage to the party and make full use of their side of vinyl to really explore their proggy, psychedelic side. As a pairing it works brilliantly well: both sides on their own are excellent, but the bands really complement each other to make an intriguing and thoroughly satisfying LP.
Label: Ripple Music
7. Smoke Mountain ‘Queen Of Sin’
I’m not generally a fan of the guitar-and-drums-only approach to stoner-doom (I find it tends to sound rather sparse and quite limiting), but Floridians Smoke Mountain totally nail it on their first full-length Queen Of Sin. Argonauta Records have a knack for releasing some of scuzziest, lowest-fi heavy rock and this is no exception. The guitar tone across the album is pure filth, ranging from the expected tar-thick Electric Wizard-isms of album closer End Of Days to the title track which made me think of Darkthrone. It’s not just about the riffs though; Sarah Pitt has an awesome voice and there are some genuinely excellent songs on the album – you’ll struggle to find a better one-two punch than on I Walk Alone and Deathproof.
Label: Argonauta Records
6. Moonstone ‘Moonstone’
Bandcamp reminds me that the CD and digital version of this actually came out on 28th December 2019 (note to band: not a good way to make it onto many best-of-the-year lists), but seeing as it’s such a good album and was released on vinyl during the summer of 2020 I think including it here is justified. Moonstone (I’m hoping they got their name from the Wilkie Collins novel) are a trio from Krakow and this, their self-titled debut, is a 35-minute lesson in how to do stoner-doom right. I don’t object to the odd bit of occult silliness (which Moonstone thoroughly eschew), but what I really want from a stoner-doom record are riffs and Moonstone duly oblige. All five tracks are chockful of excellent riffage and slathered with a generous helping of groove: check out Ash And Stone for conclusive proof.
Label: Galactic Smokehouse
5. Freeways ‘True Bearings’
It’s a conundrum that’s troubled mankind for centuries: what would Argus-era Wishbone Ash sound like if they travelled forwards in time, listened to loads of 80s hard rock and then recorded an album with a vocalist whose voice brings to mind Cliff Richard? Fortunately for us all, Canadian four-piece Freeways were here to definitively answer that question with their debut album True Bearings. Now, I appreciate that name-dropping the Peter Pan of Pop probably isn’t going to set many pulses racing here on The Sleeping Shaman, but this is such a good album you really should check it out. It’s got awesome songs from start to finish, plenty of crunchy guitar and some indefinable Wishbone Ash vibe that really lifts things to another level.
Label: Temple Of Mystery Records
4. Deaf Mountain ‘If…’
I’d come across Edinburgh’s Wasted State Records before as the home of excellent bands like DVNE and Old Man Lizard. However, until a chance Bandcamp discovery I hadn’t realised that label head honcho Toni Martone was also a musician and multi-intrumentalist. Deaf Mountain is his collaboration with drummer Douglas Millar and the results are spectacular. Tagged as ‘desert punk’, it’s an intriguing mix of stoner rock and… melodic post-hardcore?? Have I made that up? To clarify: in the early 00s I used to get catalogue samplers from Initial Records and Deaf Mountain definitely reminded me of the more tuneful bands that would appear on those. Unhelpful genre tags aside, I’d urge you to check this one out as it’s an excellent album that seems to have gone rather unnoticed. As well as being crammed with quality tunes like Never The Same and Cop Chase, it’s an expertly crafted and hugely atmospheric album.
Label: Wasted State Records
3. Psychlona ‘Venus Skytrip’
With their second album, Venus Skytrip, Bradford’s Psychlona prove beyond doubt that straight-forward stoner rock can still sound awesome. The band are so thoroughly old-school that the whole album sounds like it’s swaggered straight out of 1997 with oodles of gnarly down-tuned fuzz, infectious grooves and even the odd space-related sound sample. Although they’ve clearly got their own thing going on, Psychlona have a weird and uncanny ability to channel early Fu Manchu and deploy it to excellent effect on cuts like 10,000 Volts and Star. The whole record is a timely reminder of why you fell in love with stoner rock in the first place and I can all but guarantee that it will put a big goofy grin on your face at multiple points.
Label: Cursed Tongue Records | Ripple Music
2. Geezer ‘Groovy’
If there were an award most apt album title, then Kingston, NY three-piece Geezer would win hands down. Geezer were one of those bands that I was aware of but never properly listened to before getting Groovy to review and, holy smokes, it’s so good. Eight tracks of laid-back, summery heavy rock that pretty much defines stoner cool, from start to finish it’s a corker. Much as I love Pat Harrington’s gravelly vocals and awesome guitar playing, the rhythm section really steals the show for me – nothing flashy, just irresistible groove after irresistible groove, all delivered with gratuitous amounts of low-end. Geezer take all the basic elements of stoner rock and meld them into something somehow unique and totally brilliant. I’d happily have the title track, an ode to everything awesome about the 70s, played at my funeral.
Label: Heavy Psych Sounds
1. Bone Church ‘Acid Communion’
There’s been a ton of great albums released in 2020, but Bone Church’s Acid Communion is top of the pile for me. I’d never heard of the Connecticut-based five-piece when I picked this up to review way back before the first lockdown and it totally blew me away. It’s like the band took advantage of my lack of a tinfoil hat to find out everything I like about heavy rock, made careful notes, and then used some wiggy science to turn it into a record. Acid Communion is a heady mix of bluesy, Led Zeppelin swagger and dark, doomy goodness, with lashings of snarling guitar and Jack Rune’s awesome vocals over the top. Everything on the record is top-notch, from the perfect vintage-with-a-touch-of-modern-grit guitar tone to the consistently excellent song writing. In particular I think you’d struggle to find a better central section of an album than Bone Church Blues and Iron Temple in this or any other year. The outro to the latter is just so good it jumps out from an album that’s like the musical equivalent of a highlight reel. Top stuff.
Label: Ripple Music
There’s no shortage of other excellent records from 2020 that I was really tempted to put on my list but couldn’t find space for. I could probably drone on for ages, but off the top of my head the ones I felt worst for leaving out were Mr. Bison / Spacetrucker Turned To Stone Chapter 1 (a really excellent split LP from two very different bands), Lowrider Refractions (the long-awaited and thoroughly enjoyable follow-up to stone cold classic Ode To Io) and Scorched Oak Withering Earth (stoner-doom with oodles of tasty riffs).
Also, although I’m partial to a good EP, I didn’t want to put any on my list as it’s so much easier to record a good EP than a good album. That said, two excellent EPs from two new-ish bands I’d strongly recommend are L’uomo Nero Andiamo Nel Deserto (an intriguing take on stoner rock with an excellent signer) and Hovenweep Salvian Journey (grungey, doomy goodness).
And that’s it. I hope 2020 has treated you well, or at least as well as can be expected, and that 2021 is slightly less depressing.
Scribed by: Liam Blanc