For many metalheads, the COVID-19 lockdown was one of the most defining moments in their lives, if not the most defining moment. Between the the cancellation of all live music, the government-issued stay-at-home order, and the tragic deaths of over a million people worldwide, the pandemic was an unprecedented era of anxiety and confusion, a mini-apocalypse that sent our everyday existences for a loop. Now, as vaccines are given at supermarkets and tours are officially being rescheduled, many of us are left to wonder how we got through it all.
The answer, as always, is music. Though many bands shelved their planned albums in 2020 due to the COVID shutdown, many more released some of their best work thus far, and kept us afloat knowing that while everything outside our doors was fucked, heavy music would always be a comforting hand on our shoulders. Today, we look back at the songs that found their ways onto our headphones and stereos the most during the COVID lockdown. These were tracks released between March 15th, when the first U.S. stay-at-home order was issued, and December 14th, when the first COVID vaccine was delivered in America. We’ve ordered them chronologically, to offer an understanding of when each one reached us under quarantine.
Here are the 19 tracks that helped us weather the storm of 2020…
Malokarpatan, “Ze semana viselcuov čarovny koren povstáva”
Slovakia’s Malokarpatan released one of 2020’s most criminally underrated gems with Krupinské Ohne, a record that was simultaneously arcane, aggressive, and strangely beautiful. “Ze semana viselcuov čarovny koren povstáva” is a perfect distillation of the band’s dark, long-form folk metal, with a chugging black’n’roll open leading to a mystical forest-dwelling breakdown in the middle. Though not a track one might usually put on headphones while walking to the bar, it was the perfect backing music to feeling like a forest spirit trapped in the tree of your home. No one needs to see you wearing a cape for it to be special.
Temple of Void, “Leave the Light Behind”
With each consecutive record, Detroit death-doom act Temple of Void have refined their compelling sound; with 2020’s The World That Was, the band reached a new sonic plateau. “Leave the Light Behind” might have ruined a less-nuanced band with its clean chorus and infectious guitar lead, but these dudes pulled it off excellently. The track still stomps in its subterranean rage, but does so with a Lovecraftian psychedelia that makes it sound like a procession to the vortex that swallows us all after death. A breathtaking track that made the canceled year worthwhile.
The Black Dahlia Murder, “Removal of the Oaken Stake”
With 2020’s Verminous, The Black Dahlia Murder found a perfect middle ground between their rollicking melodeath and their putrid love of the macabre. “Removal of the Oaken Stake” brings this to a head, using kickass, beyond-catchy murder riffs to tell the story of a vampire rotting in his coffin. In that respect, the track was a perfect metaphor for every night creature trapped in the tomb of their own home, condemned to cannibalize their liquor cabinet as they wondered if the sun would ever set on this vile era. Every home is a crypt if you finally have time to decorate it.
Carpenter Brut feat. Yann Ligner, “Maniac”
When synthwave sleaze merchants Carpenter Brut released their cover Flashdance anthem “Maniac,” it felt like destiny. Ever since the world felt this French act’s leather teeth on their skin, they knew that every cheesy ‘80s song would sound better if they were involved. That the band picked the ultimate ’80s dance club anthem to throw their shadow across — in the middle of an unprecedented closure of clubs and venues, no less — was both ballsy and prophetic. Your poor neighbors probably got tired of watching you jump around in your underwear to this one, but screw ’em.
Alestorm, “Shit Boat (No Fans)”
2020’s Curse of the Crystal Coconut was a brilliant refinement of Alestorm’s pirate party sound, but “Shit Boat (No Fans)” feels like the band’s entire career boiled down into a single minute-and-change track. The song’s message is simple: your pirate ship fucking sucks, and so do you, dickface. Of course, in Alestorm-ese, one’s ‘pirate ship’ could be a stand-in for the listener’s whole life and everything about them…but maybe it’s also a reference to your literal pirate ship. Which, if we’re being honest, is some primo crapola. Look at that thing. The chick on the masthead has a chipped tooth and a hair mole. You fucking suck, dude.
Unleash The Archers, “Soulbound”
“We race around the melted char of what was once a neutron star” is not a lyric most bands can pull off, but Unleash the Archers do so believably on “Soulbound.” The track, hailing from the band’s epic 2020 concept record Abyss, shows off all the weapons in the Canadian power metallers’ arsenal, from vicious shredding to beyond-soaring choruses. For a population stuck in their homes for months on end, this track was a glorious escape, a way to feel like they were soaring through the cosmos and not just making the invisible orb in their bathrobe. We believe we can fly.
Katavasia, “Daughters of Darkness”
Maybe if the promo machine was functioning normally in 2020, Greek occult death metallers Katavasia would’ve received the proper praise for their second full-length record Magnus Venerator. Opener “Daughters of Darkness” exudes the kind of imperial scope and demonic glee that fans of Absu and Melechesh live for, and even throws in a Nile-ish period breakdown in the middle. The result is the kind of song that had amateur alchemists stomping around their houses in esoteric delight. A band to look for impressive things from in the future.
Plague Years, “Evil One”
Utterly trampled. Michigan’s Plague Years really nailed that fine-line niche between death metal and hardcore on Circle of Darkness, making music as kinetic as it was reverb-drenched. But “Evil One” sees the band cut short the nonstop grinding of human remains, and instead gives fans a Slayerized blast of arch-evil riffage. There’s still plenty of punishing weight to this track, but its use of more diabolical metallic elements really sets it above its peers. Music for steamrolling a field of skeletons.
Mastodon, “Fallen Torches”
At the head of Mastodon’s 2020 Medium Rarities album was a brand new track, and damn if fans didn’t need it given the year they’d had. “Fallen Torches” was exciting in part because it showed Atlanta’s experimental kings returning to their patented mixture of hard-hitting stoner metal and far-out hard rock. As such, the song felt like a welcome reminder of how rad the metal world was, and would be when this was all over. 2020 was a long journey, but this song definitely helped light the way.
Carnation, “Where Death Lies”
The title track to Carnation’s second full-length album is nothing short of death metal perfect. With boundless momentum and morbid enthusiasm, the song mows down any questions of its power in seconds, and performs the rare feat of sounding both grand and tight as fuck. Every second takes the listener on a breakneck tour of the chthonic landscape depicted on this incredible record’s cover. The kind of track you put on to listen to, but end up moshing to without a second thought.
Svalbard, “Throw Your Heart Away”
UK blackened hardcore act Svalbard got screwed especially hard by the coronavirus. The band’s third full-length album When I Die, Will It Get Better? had them poised to become one of the scene’s biggest emerging bands, and no track better exemplified this than “Throw Your Heart Away,” with its kinetic approach to astoundingly pretty music. Seeing this track live would’ve won over countless new fans — which, unfortunately, didn’t happen, for obvious reasons. Don’t worry, we’ll still be looking for these guys’ next record once we’re back in the live arena.
Zeal & Ardor, “Tuskegee”
In 2020, the only event more harrowing and culturally important than COVID-19 was the protests and riots across the world inspired by the murder of George Floyd. Given their use of slave spirituals in their music, it’s unsurprising that Swiss genre-mergers Zeal & Ardor created an EP of brilliantly harrowing music out of that moment of tragedy. “Tuskegee” sees the band going as black metal as they ever have, but also presenting an emotional weight that suits the humanity of America’s explosive racial unrest in 2020. This is the sound of the new school, a voice that would’ve once been shouted down who is finally screaming loudly enough that no one can ignore it.
Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou, “Ancestral Recall”
When singer/songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle and NOLA doom crew Thou announced their collaborative album May Our Chambers Be Full, many expected something languid and pretty. But “Ancestral Recall” is awesome specifically because of how brutal and crushing it is. The track’s uncommon elements only add to its heartfelt power; Rundle may not have the guttural howl that Thou frontman Bryan Funck does, but her anguished cries add space and depth to the otherwise stark song. Arguably the most emotionally nuanced track on this list.
Mr. Bungle, “Raping Your Mind”
Before COVID ruined everything, 2020 was going to be the year of Mr. Bungle. The band’s live return was met with massive excitement, as was the announcement that they’d be rerecording their demo, The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny with the help of Anthrax’s Scott Ian and former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo. But while the band never got the tour they deserved, “Raping Your Mind” certainly gave fans everything they could ask for. Wily, chaotic, and thrashy as hell, the song is a firm reminder that Bungle can scramble your brains as well with saw-toothed riffage as they can with circus music. Everybody loves a clown until that greased-up bastard pull a knife.
Acid Witch, “The Halloween That Wasn’t”
Halloween 2020 was on a Saturday, on a full moon, and had an extra hour due to Daylight Savings Time — and it was fucked by COVID-19. No one felt that harder than Acid Witch, Detroit’s resident Halloween metallers, who wrote a song dedicated to the coronavirus scuttling the greatest night of the year. Sludgy, anguished, and full of poison, the track both exudes the holiday’s signature spookiness and does grody justice to its unexpected cancelation. Some bands wrote songs about 2020 sucking; this one nailed one of the main reasons why.
Boundaries, “I’d Rather Not Say”
Though the whole album is packed with undeniably heavy track, “I’d Rather Not Say” is the crown jewel of Boundaries’ 2020 release Your Receding Warmth. Brolic from the start, emotionally fraught throughout, and sporting an awesome breakdown-laden ending, the track feels made for getting punched by someone you love. While it’s tragic that the band didn’t get a chance to play it live, it’s heartwarming to know that the pandemic included songs like this, that’ll start a circle pit in your living room no matter how long you’ve been stuck at home. Your poor cat.
Killer Be Killed, “Inner Calm from Outer Storms”
Not only was Killer Be Killed’s Reluctant Hero unexpectedly powerful, but its mid-paced single “Inner Calm from Outer Storms” was also surprising in its poignancy. Other tracks on the record are absolutely brutal, but this slow, almost sensual cut feels like a powerful statement on how the average metal heart was faring during the unprecedented world of the COVID pandemic. Even Max’s vicious section in the middle comes off as more ethereal than one would expect from a band with this many scraped knees and cracked teeth. Proof that even the heaviest acts do best when they touch your soul.
Tombs, “The Hunger”
Leave it to Brooklyn’s Tombs to offer the metal world its shadowiest single of 2020. “The Hunger” is one of the more genuinely dark tracks about vampires that any band has ever released, its umbra of nocturnal occultism mixing perfectly with its concrete-slab kinetics. Only a man like Mike Hill could sense such looming power behind night’s minions, forsaking Victorian ruffles for ‘80s undead blasphemy. The kind of track that makes you want to drink dark beer in a catacomb — as though that wasn’t already your plan for the evening.
If we’re being honest, we didn’t see Spiritbox’s “Constance” coming. If you’d told us that a band featuring two members of iwrestledabearonce would release a gazecore track that would take the metal world by storm, we’d have smiled politely and laughed in private. But not only was the song a huge success for the band, it also seemed to champion a novel merging of subgenres, bringing together elements of everything from metalcore to atmospheric black metal. During a period of just trying to survive, we needed a song that told us it was okay to mourn, and this was it.
Words by Chris Krovatin