Whatever else happened this year — and it was a lot — it was still a very good year for music.
2020 saw the surprise returns of Fiona Apple, AC/DC, Deep Purple, Armored Saint, Public Enemy, and the Smashing Pumpkins. We got great new albums by Ozzy, Taylor Swift (yeah I said it), and Testament, among others. But as I say every year, this is not an attempt at listing what I think are the best new albums of the year, but instead the ones that got under my skin and stuck around on repeat for a while.
I do enjoy making this list. I listen to tons of music all year (Spotify tells me that on their platform alone I listened to 423 new artists for 25,914 minutes in 2020!) This list gives me a chance to share albums that might not be more widely known, and also to revisit music I’ve missed, when I take time in early December to look back and catch up. As usual, there’s a few you’ll know, a few you won’t, and a surprise or two!
Normally I say ‘in no particular order’ but these are a little bit in order. I unashamedly love Athenian rockers Puta Volcano and I had this album on hard repeat on and off all year. AMMA is a little less up front and obvious than Dune, their previous full length, which is one of my all-time favorite albums, but that just means there’s more to grow on here. Dig in!
Speaking of surprise returns! After a 20 year break between albums (take that, Tool!), Sweden’s legendary Lowrider dropped this bomb in early 2020, causing shockwaves throughout the heavy music world. Refractions is the awesome follow up to Io, the now-classic debut by these seminal stoner rockers. I expect to see this album on a lot of year-end best-of lists.
King Buffalo quickly came out of seemingly nowhere to become one of my favorite bands in the last couple of years, and I was really looking forward to seeing them again in SF this past spring, before the world got cancelled. Dead Star is a semi-concept EP bridging the gap between 2018’s critically-acclaimed Longing to be the Mountain and whatever masterpiece they cook up next. Just killer progressive stoner rock that you don’t listen to as much as experience.
Elephant Tree is one of those bands that if you know, you know. Granted, I had never heard of them until Jamie from San Francisco’s Brume told me about them some years ago. But I was hooked instantly on their hypnotic brand of psychedelic space rock, which has one foot in the 60s and one in the future. Habits is the highly anticipated follow up to their 2016 self-titled album, and it definitely doesn’t disappoint.
Balls out, straight ahead rock and roll, just turn it up and get your headbang on. Heavy 70s style Aussie hard rock in the vein of Sabbath, Deep Purple, Rainbow. It’s just feel good, top down, get your ya-yas out bluesy heavy guitar rock.
Maria Brink and crew bring their special brand of hair-raising cathartic power and emotion to In This Moment‘s newest release, Mother. With powerful covers of songs like Fly Like an Eagle and We Will Rock You (feat. Lzzy Hale of Halestorm), as well as amazing originals like The In-Between, the latest from In This Moment is a must listen.
Part QUOTSA, part early Beatles, all Green Day and a whole lot of fun. A little less cynical, and a little more power pop, Father of all Motherfuckers is an energetic treat, with a lot of nods to early rock and roll in its peppy songs and polished production. I love that these guys just keep on doing their thing and dgaf what anyone thinks of their sonic experimentations.
Deftones are an acquired taste, and I wonder if people out there who love classic Deftones will feel like this is watered-down, accessible Deftones, but then again who cares, it’s just good. Relentless raw nerve vocals alternated with mellow melodies over staccato beats, Ohms is… well, it’s Deftones.
Casting the Circle is the second full length release by LA doom trio High Priestess. If you’re unfamiliar with the psychedelic swirls and melodic mist of High Priestess’ magical brand of doom rock, then now’s your chance to dive in and get caught in their spell.
Somehow, while I was listening to Reverie on repeat, trying to decide if I liked it or not, it wormed its way into my psyche and lodged there for several weeks. The funny thing is that this album sounds very much like it doesn’t care if you like it or not, it is what it is despite it all — crushingly heavy pounding fuzz rock, swirling through time and space and passing through your brain on its way.
Wolftooth is back and has stepped up their game with their second full length, Valhalla, sounding more like the best of the Sword than they did on their self-titled 2018 debut. just pure riff rock fury in NWOBHM style from these Louisiana metalheads.
Last but not least is the latest from Louisiana rockers The Heavy Eyes, Love Like Machines. Not to be confused with the now-defunct Flying Eyes, who they call to mind on this fuzzed out feast of funky catchy riffs. Fans of Kyuss, Clutch, and Freedom Hawk will dig this one, a future desert rock classic.
Honorable mentions – Ordinary Man by Ozzy, Excruciation by Curse the Son, Cyr by Smashing Pumpkins, Scorpio by Atomic Bitchwax; What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? by Public Enemy, Si Vis Paceum, Para Bellum by Seether. And honestly I wanted to like Marilyn Manson’s latest We Are Chaos but I didn’t.
Bonus – this year I’ve created a Spotify playlist of selected songs from the albums listed here, enjoy! Micropayments for everyone!
What are your favorite albums of 2020? Comment below or let me know!
Mariana Fiel is the founding member of Los Angeles doom band High Priestess. She provides the band’s pulsing bass groove and shares lead vocal duties with guitarist Katie Gilchrest, while Megan “Whiplash” Mullins rounds out the trio with her thundering drums. Together they weave the hypnotic fuzz doom magic of one of LA’s great up and coming heavy bands. I was lucky enough to get Mariana to answer some questions for me ahead of the release of their sophomore album Casting the Circle, due out on Ripple Music in April 2020.
Mojo: Hi Mariana! Thanks for taking the time. Tell us a little about how you put the band together and what your hopes were for your project.
MF: The original concept for the band was to be a bass and drum duo. An ad was placed with some of the influences of the sound I was interested in developing and what I was looking for in a drummer. I believe there’s a tendency to think that playing drums in a doom band is super easy, but there’s so much to be said about filling in those slow tempos, keeping the time and making them interesting, that I find that it might be actually harder. Luckily, Megan saw the ad (by chance!) and filled up all those check marks and then some!
Meanwhile — even before I got the email from Megan — Katie was visiting Los Angeles and wondering what the music scene was about, so she was also searching band ads and saw mine. She responded with something along the lines of “I know you’re not looking for a guitar player but this sounds like my dream project” and sent along a couple of links to Arcane Lore (the band she was in back on the east coast) showing her guitar skills that everyone is now not only aware of, but that has grown to know and love, and I just couldn’t pass on that sort of powerhouse.
I feel extremely lucky that the Universe brought these two exceptional human beings into my life to make music with, because they strongly elevate and add so much more to the sound I was originally trying to achieve.
High Priestess (credit: C Jones)
I totally agree! Your debut album received a lot of well-deserved praise. What may be surprising to some is that you got noticed and signed on the basis of your self-produced demo, how did that come about?
Well, our songs were somewhat ready, so we decided to just go ahead and record the instrumental portion of the tracks at our practice space with Katie’s mobile recording studio. We originally intended it to be just a lo-fi recording, and were planning on professionally record the songs again in the future.
Katie has a masters in music technology, so she used her expertise to capture our sound, and just recording in our practice space turned out much better than we had anticipated.
The song Mother Forgive Me got a complete change on the vocal arrangements on the day we were recording vocals. I was singing the original arrangement and it just didn’t feel completely right, so i turned to Katie and asked “do you mind if i try something different really quick? Just to see if it fits?” and thankfully it fit and finally felt complete and finished.
Nice. It sounds like you recorded the new album Casting the Circle in record time, tell us a little about that.
We wrote a majority of the new songs before going on the European tour with Cities of Mars. While on tour, we incorporated those news songs in some of our shows, so we wanted to record them as soon as we got back, to have that “fresh off the tour” energy. Upon our return back to the US, we started fleshing out the Side B tracks, and before you knew it, we were ready! The basic guitar, bass, and drums instrumental was recorded in two back to back takes of each song and my vocals were split in two separate sessions (Side A – one session; Side B – second session). We also had a separate session for percussion textures overdubs, and from there, Katie locked herself in a dungeon for a month and a half working on guitar and keyboard overdubs, her vocals, mixing and mastering.
That sounds intense! How would you say the sound of High Priestess has evolved since your self-titled 2018 debut?
Hmmm… that’s a great question. It feels darker than the debut album. I feel like maybe on the first album there was a sense of impending doom creeping around the corner that could come in at any moment, while this one just has that constant veil of darkness draped all over the songs.
I can’t wait to hear it. Has being on the Ripple Music label helped your journey as a band?
Absolutely! They’re extremely supportive of our band and are constantly looking out for us. I had originally posted our demo on a Facebook group and Christine from Tridroid Records gave it a listen and tipped us off to Ripple!
We have some favorite bands in common, from Judas Priest and Sleep to the lesser known Messa, who are amazing. Who are some of your other favorites and influences?
OM… Al Cisneros just makes such beautiful trance inducing music with no frills. Every single note and every single tempo is just perfect. King Crimson (Late 60’s / early 70’s era). The Talking Drum will forever be on my top 10 of songs that I could listen to over and over again and never get tired of it. The constant crescendo on that track is just mind blowing.
Sepultura (Max Cavalera era) and it’s funny because I was telling Megan how much I love them, specially for Igor Cavalera’s balance between thrash and complex tribal grooves to it, and I really think Megan kind of channeled that vibe on this album but in her own way.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Emma Ruth Rundle, Tom Waits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Harvey Milk, KARP, Ravi Shankar, PJ Harvey, Alice In Chains, Unsane, Soundgarden and Earth lately. Oh and of course, Kate Bush. I love her and some people don’t seem to understand that. The woman is absolutely brilliant.
That is an impressive list! Now, you mentioned that last year you did a European tour with Cities of Mars, I know you also played Desertfest in London, were there any highlights from that tour?
Desertfest London was absolutely a highlight! I got to see so many friends I haven’t seen since I moved to the US! I was extremely confused when I stepped up on stage and realized the room was completely packed for us. I had noticed a line outside but I honestly thought it was to the bathroom. That whole experience was absolutely the highlight of the tour. Another highlight was sitting at a green room in Chemnitz (Karl-Marx-Stadt), Germany, eating pasta and listening to Enya with Cities of Mars.
That sounds perfect! Speaking of tours, I love that you do slightly unusual and unique merch to sell at your booth — I have a High Priestess prayer candle for instance — and you offered your last album on cassette. Are you doing anything like that with your new album?
We’ll definitely have some more elaborate candles that I’ll be adding some magick to for the new album. We’ll also have cassettes again, done by the awesome Tridroid Records. We’ll have some more mugs, because contrary to what Marie Kondo might say, you can’t have too many.
Speaking of not having too many, you guys even came out with your own High Priestess Fuzz Pedal in conjunction with Gremlin Machines, any chance we’ll see more pedals in the future or was this a one-time thing?
Paul at Gremlin Noise Machines is amazing. We’ve had the pedal for a while and I’m still blown away by it. We’re not currently planning on collaborating on another pedal, but who knows what the future might bring?
High Priestess (photo: Jusu Lahti)
I feel like you are part of a Golden Age, both of heavy music and women in heavy music. How do you feel about the state of heavy music right now?
It’s pretty spectacular, isn’t it? It’s refreshing to see all these women / woman identifying heavy bands nowadays. It was so scarce before. You had Acid King, Subarachnoid Space and Bottom from the Bay Area, Grey from Seattle and a couple more bands around, but that was about it. Nowadays you have a stunning abundance of powerful, talented and creative women in the spotlight and as headliners of the stoner / psych / doom scene and it’s beautiful! Now we just need to drop the “female fronted” thing, because women musicians are not a musical gender.
Hear hear! Okay, last question – favorite LA restaurant?
This is probably the hardest question! There are so many great places in LA. It’s like asking what my favorite bar is… it depends on what you’re in the mood for!
I’ll say this though: my favorite place to eat is at home. I live with this fantastic woman (and her ok husband) that comes home from work every night and cooks a whole elaborate meal for us. I don’t know how she does it, because when I get home from work all I want to do is lay down for a second and center myself and leave the stress from the job behind, but she just slips into some comfy clothes and cooks us these amazing and delicious meals that are infused with love, and absolutely no restaurant beats that.
That’s awesome! Thank you Mariana for taking the time and I can’t wait to see you all on tour!
Casting the Circle releases on Ripple Music on April 10, 2020