When I first got into Meshuggah, I couldn’t figure out how to tag them. Progressive? Experimental? Their lead guitarist, Fredrik Thordendal, has given us a word for it: “Djent” is an onomatopoeia, referring to the crunchy, stabbing guitar sound that pervades Messhugah’s music. Since the introduction of the term, other bands have been described as djent.
The most impressive feature of Meshuggah’s music is its dizzying syncopation. Often, you hear a cymbal grinding out quarter notes while the rest of the rhythm section chugs through labyrinthine polymetric riffs:
Maryland band Periphery expand on Meshuggah’s formula with increased melodicism and flashier guitar work:
Hailing from the Netherlands, Textures offers a take on djent that is more atmospheric. I especially enjoy “Sanguine Draws the Oath,” partly because of the undeniably Mike Patton-esque vocals in the chorus (first heard at 1:29).
Several have criticized the use of “djent” as a genre label, arguing that it is merely a term meant to describe a guitar tone. However, once any nomenclature has been established within a certain context, it becomes a cultural habit that is nigh impossible to break.
Apart from “Nü-Metal,” which is universally abhored, Metalcore is likely the most reviled metal subgenre among traditionalists. It is so-named because it borrows elements of hardcore punk, and is therefore a natural extension of grindcore and crossover. For that reason, I regard it as no less genuine than any other metal style. Browse the forums, however, and you quickly get a different impression. I once asked the metal-archives.com staff why several prominent metalcore bands were not included in their Encyclopaedia Metallum, and the terse answer was, “Because we only include real metal bands.”
I find it difficult to understand how these artists can be considered so distant in style as to be discounted from the repertoire. They utilize many of the same musical techniques, especially in the guitars. What’s different about metalcore is mostly in the vocals and drums. Vocals are screamed, not in a menacing manner befitting black metal, but in a fit of youthful rage. This, and a tendency to promote “straightedge” lifestyles, are the punk elements that put the “-core” in metalcore. Drum patterns are more complex than ever — even approaching a post-bop jazz sound at times.Tempo and meter changes are frequent and sudden enough to humble the most accomplished prog rockers.
The guitar solo is no longer the centerpiece of most arrangements, but soloistic guitar riffs in a higher register provide backing for verses. Guitarists flail away at dissonant intervals as though they only just discovered half-steps.
The Dillinger Escape Plan are arguably the most relevant metalcore band. Their music, and that of others like Into the Moat, Ion Dissonance, From a Second Story Window, The Number Twelve Looks Like You, and PsyOpus, is commonly labeled “mathcore” because of its extreme complexity.
Another subcategory of metalcore is “melodic metalcore,” here represented by All That Remains:
As you might imagine, All That Remains’s melodicism has helped them establish more credibility with purists than other metalcore artists.
Finally we come to deathcore — a currently popular subgenre that fuses the growls and guitar riffs of death metal with the breakdowns of metalcore. Despised Icon is one such group:
Mr. Bungle is a group that has has a significant impact on musicians while remaining largely unknown among the general public. Fronted by Michael Patton, himself better recognized as the vocalist for Faith No More, they began as a sort of novelty group. In their first, self-titled album, their music is an amalgam of ska, jazz and thrash; and their lyrics deal with subjects far removed from the usual, such as the properties of an egg, having to put down a family dog, myriad porn fetishes, and surreal portraits, like that of a quadriplegic mute at a discotheque.
Their sophomore release, Disco Volante, is in my opinion a masterwork to be ranked with the likes of The White Album. It opened my eyes to how the studio can be used as an instrument. It seems that Disco Volante marks a point at which Patton’s musical maturity is fully realized. He utilizes his voice not merely as a means for delivering lyrics, but as a means of contributing to the arrangement, using whatever sounds necessary. In “Carry Stress in the Jaw,” Mr. Bungle delivers a brilliant collage of hardcore, metal, free jazz, and art song, followed by the album’s hidden track (hidden in plain sight after track three, not at the end of the album as per convention).
At this point, the Downtown New York scene was thriving; and John Zorn himself had produced Mr. Bungle’s first album. From the mid-90′s on, Patton and Zorn would be regular collaborators.
Mr. Bungle released only three studio albums, each bringing something different to the table. Their third, California, explored more conventional song styles (e.g. surf-rock, doo-wop, pop ballad); but a couple of stand-out tracks, including “Ars Moriendi,” represent their experimental side under moderation:
Mr. Bungle’s first album was released in 1989, long before the “rap-metal” of late 90′s artists Limp Bizkit, Korn, and other so-called “Nü Metal” artists, but Bungle’s spirit and sound echo through every decidedly non-traditionalist metal act to the present.
Although no other group totally captures the essence of Mr. Bungle, some come close. Idiot Flesh is one. Their third album, Fancy, while inconsistent, has some clever moments. Songwriting credits for “Chicken Little” include vocalist Nils Frykdahl, along with composers Béla Bartók, Pierre Boulez, and Iannis Xenakis.
We’re getting to a point where several major subgenres are being re-split into sub-subgenres. Some, like “blackened thrash” and “death ‘n’ roll,” are not prolific enough to be featured in a history. But Melodic Death certainly is. It was big in the 90′s, and continues to be one of the most listened-to metal styles today.
Melodic death bears some traits of Florida-type death metal, but its point of divergence is an increased melodicism in the guitars. Vocals are still growled, but guitar riffs are often based on the same phrygian, diminished, and harmonic minor sounds as earlier forms of metal. Tempos are often slower, with fewer blast beats and more classic rock grooves. The net result is a style that satisfies those who crave the brutal sounds of extreme metal without alienating the casual listener.
Some of the pioneers of the melodic death style include At the Gates, Dark Tranquility, and In Flames, all of whom were from Sweden. Because this movement was highly localized, it is sometimes referred to as “Gothenburg metal.” One group from Gothenburg, Arch Enemy, was founded by ex-Carcass guitarist Michael Amott (Carcass themselves, a British band, also being integral to 90′s melodic death). After two albums, they found a replacement singer in Angela Gossow; and this lineup has been very successful.
Metal is usually a marriage of musicianship and spectacle — powerful music, often masterfully performed, coupled with theatrical presentation. But the Norwegians have a tradition of blurring theatrics with reality. Black metal represents the darkest possible contingent within metal.
The black metal image is engineered to shock and provoke. Whereas death metal musicians wrote songs about corpses, black metal musicians strive to look like corpses. Some black groups routinely decorate their stages with pig and goat heads. In black metal, metal’s detached fascination with gore and tragedy crosses the fourth wall.
Musically, black metal is close to death metal in its use of blast beats and tremolo-picked riffs, but the singers screech rather than growl, and there is less variation in song forms. Black metal can easily sound like a wall of noise from start to finish; but some black groups temper their hyper-noisy arrangements with keyboards, and a sub-class of black metal called Viking metal hearkens to ancient Norse folk music.
Norway is a nation in religious turmoil. Although it is home to a higher percentage of atheists and agnostics than most other countries, it retains vestiges of a theocracy founded after the Reformation. The royal family is required to be Lutheran, and at least one half of the state government must belong to the state church. Some idealistic youth are offended by Christianity’s encroachment on indigenous pagan traditions. Many of these youth are integral to the black metal scene. Some have become notorious for engaging in a church-burning campaign. For them, black metal is protest music. To the rest of us, this is a bit too intense — a situation best left to run its course. Classic shock-rocker Alice Cooper, on the other hand, claims to see through the menacing exterior:
The closest thing to black metal in my collection is the album Demigod, by Behemoth. These are not strictly a black band, but cross the line between death and black, inspiring the highly specific tag “blackened death.” This sort of hair-splitting is quite common in modern parlance.
During the 1990′s, grunge replaced pop metal as the predominant hard rock style on the radio; but metal’s fan base remained as strong as ever, albeit back in the underground. Still, some groups popped into the collective conscious, as token ambassadors of metal. Among them were a small but significant contingent of post-thrash artists whose music bounced more than it thrashed, and encouraged head-bobbing over head-banging.
This was a decade of eclecticism. Hip-hop artists De La Soul and Arrested Development adopted elements of alternative pop. Beck infused folk with rap. Ex-Sugarcubes singer Björk migrated from avant-garde indie rock to an exotic blend of electronica and world music. Likewise, some of the most visible metal acts were incorporating rhythms drawn from non-metal sources. The Brazilian group Sepultura, for instance, expressed national pride by incorporating ideas from local indigenous music on their now-classic album, Roots. And one can often sense the influence of funk and hip-hop in the rhythms of a Texan band called Pantera, who would single-handedly define a genre:
The members of Pantera called their music “power groove,” which today is referred to simply as “groove.” Earlier, I compared thrash to hard bop, explaining that just as hard bop defines the modern jazz sound, thrash is the basis for most modern metal. We can carry the metaphor further: As the “funky jazz” of hard bop artists Kenny Dorham and Horace Silver is to jazz, groove is to metal. Groove expands on the classic thrash sound by making it more — dare I say “danceable?”
This is a small sub-genre; it’s difficult to find a lot of artists who fit the description. But it is as important to the metal timeline as any. Its influence can be heard in Slayer’s God Hates Us All, a groovy departure from an otherwise dyed-in-the-wool thrash band.
Pantera were a welcome counterbalance to their grungy contemporaries. Alice in Chains found their strength in songcraft; but with Pantera, the riff was still king. And this is some surprisingly aggressive stuff for having enjoyed airplay. Singer Phil Anselmo claimed that their intent in recording Far Beyond Driven was to produce the heaviest sounding album ever. With near-amelodic vocals and Dimebag Darrell’s ultra-crunchy guitar, Pantera delivered satisfaction to those listeners whose preferences lay on the heavier side, while paving the way for the next decade’s metalcore explosion.
If any group exists today whose music might be considered groove metal, it’s Lamb of God. Their vocal style is completely void of melody, and therefore akin to the death growl, but their riffs and rhythms do not resemble death in the slightest. This is the new face of groove:
“Alternative” was a buzzword during the 90′s, signifying pretty much anything that didn’t sound like dance-pop. But it was during the 80′s that so-called alternative music took root, in groups like the B-52′s and R.E.M. The eclectic sounds of rock’s fringe would inevitably contain traces of metal.
During the late 80′s and early 90′s, artists like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, and Primus, who you might not consider metal, borrowed enough ideas from metal to generate significant crossover appeal.
Primus had especially close ties with metal. They originated in California, where bassist and founder Les Claypool and eventual Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett were schoolmates. When Metallica’s bassist Cliff Burton died, Claypool was briefly considered as a replacement, but, as James Hetfield put it, was rejected for being “too good.” Primus’s classic lineup would also include guitarist Larry LaLonde, who previously appeared on Possessed’s Seven Churches. In spite of their metal connections, Primus crafted a sound that remains entirely their own.
The opening bars of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” have been treated by entertainment journalists as the critical strike that felled Metal. Throughout the early 90′s, a new style of hard rock, dubbed “Grunge,” dominated the airwaves. Songsmanship took priority over virtuosity, explorations in texture over sheer heaviness. The trend was so hot that labels scrambled to sign any act that came out of Seattle, good or bad. Pop metal’s superficiality had grown tiresome, and more genuine forms of metal were once again pushed into the underground, with rare exceptions — Metallica, Ozzy, and Pantera, among others — maintaining a high degree of visibility.
In hindsight, I realize that grunge was not the “anti-metal” we once perceived it to be, but rather a more subtle expression of metal. Some groups began their careers in metal, but were only rebranded as grunge. Soundgarden unashamedly carried Black Sabbath’s torch. Alice in Chains, in singer Layne Staley’s words, “dressed in drag and played speed metal,” before growing into an immensely successful crossover act. And as far as I am concerned, Stone Temple Pilots’sCore is a straight-up metal album.
Here are Alice in Chains at their finest:
Punk and alternative weren’t the only styles into which metal artists crossed over. Throughout the 80′s and 90′s, there was also an ongoing flirtation with funk and soul. Extreme, Living Colour, King’s X, and Faith No More are often designated as “funk metal.” Living Colour were particularly convincing as both an R&B group and a metal group.
At times, Faith No More’s early material sounds like a thrash band pretending to know how to play other styles. But their sound matured with each release, until — a rarity in the music world — they peaked with their final album. The appropriately titled Album of the Year is a sure masterwork, thanks in part to tracks like this:
You may notice that we are no longer following a strictly linear chronology. By the early 90′s, metal was developing along several distinct lines, just as jazz had begun to do in the early 60′s.
Two lines of development are similar enough that their artists are often described as one or the other. The first I’d like to present is doom metal.
Doom metal can be traced to none other than Black Sabbath, whose albums Master of Reality and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath featured a number of dark, plodding tracks, including “Who Are You,” “Sweet Leaf,” and “Into the Void.” The detuned, down-tempo “downer rock,” as described by Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, is echoed quite strongly in the reefer-inspired music of groups like Electric Wizard, EyeHateGod, and Madison’s own Bongzilla.
The classic doom sound arose in the 1980′s, and was pioneered by groups like Witchfinder General, Saint Vitus, and Candlemass:
By the 1990′s, we were introduced to a less gothic, more rock ‘n roll variant on doom, as evidenced in the songs of groups like Crowbar. This brings us one step closer to a concurrent trend in metal — that of sludge.
Sludge metal, so-named because of its origins near the Mississippi delta, is not as tightly executed as other styles, giving it a resemblance to grunge, which seemed to rule the 90′s hard rock world. While Seattle-based artists Nirvana and Soundgarden infused the Sabbath sound with indie-pop and punk, their sludge counterparts kept things nice and heavy.
One sludge group that did not come out of the south, The Melvins, were among the most influential. From their formation in the 1980′s to today, they have consistently produced some of the finest hard rock I have heard, and I recommend their Houdini album whenever I have the chance.
Metal always had a progressive side. Black Sabbath, brutish though they seemed, would sometimes craft lengthy songs with sectional forms; and thrash artists like Metallica routinely served up 6-minute long mini-epics. Metal musicians historically seem to have been highly straightforward, pragmatic musicians who harbored fascination with the academic. And it was academia from which came Dream Theater, the brainchild of Berklee students John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy.
In the 90′s, critics had written metal off as dead at the hands of grunge, never minding that Metallica were still outselling Nirvana, and that grunge rockers like Soundgarden were living tributes to Sabbath. These were my college years, and I fondly recall the closed-door “parties within parties” where we rhythm section nerds would keep Dream Theater’s debut, Images And Words, in rotation alongside decidedly anti-metal artists Beck and Soul Coughing. Good music is good music, and prog rockers were determined to play their best in any cultural climate.
Progressive metal as realized by Dream Theater is sectional, often with sharp contrasts in meter and key from one section to the next. Every musician in the group is world-class. Arrangements push performers into tight rhythmic unison one moment, raggy polyphony the next. Odd meters figure prominently. Uncommon in other forms of metal, keyboards are often central to the sound.
Although Dream Theater ruled the 90′s, their neo-classical counterparts Symphony X have been the dominant prog band since, and at this moment are my personal preference. Here is one of their finest moments on record:
Modern progressive metal is often less melodic and more agressive. What it has in common with Dream Theater and Symphony X is its tight group work, but that’s where the parallels end. Today, the term “progressive” can refer to anything intricate or highly developed. From Protest the Hero, here is an impressive melding of hardcore, power, and progressive influences:
Death may be the most athletic of metal subgenres. It is packed with unrelenting tremolo-picked guitar riffs and blast beats. You might consider the drummer the star of a death metal band; to play death, a drummer must conquer hypersonic tempi, with all four limbs in constant play.
Death originated in Florida during the late 1980′s, with the release of Seven Churches, by Possessed. Other groups from the area, including Morbid Angel, Death, Atheist, and Deicide, followed their lead. In the hands of its progenitors, death metal isolated and expanded on thrash’s most extreme characteristics. Thrash beats were fast; death is faster. Thrash vocalists sang or chanted with a little grit; death singers screeched raspily. Guitars were more distorted and deeply tuned than ever.
By the time Cannibal Corpse broke in the early 90′s, the predominant vocal style had settled into a much lower register, becoming the “cookie monster” growl we now associate with death metal:
At its inception, lyrical and visual themes in death metal were anti-theistic. Later, it seems the novelty of religious rebellion wore off; and morbidity became the central focus. Some critics attribute this to our innate fascination with our own mortality; others prefer a more direct explanation — that gore is entertainment. Death metal seeks, if not to become a slasher film soundtrack, to at least narrate the details.
Even if death isn’t the most listened-to metal style, I consider it to be metal’s nerve center. It perpetually maintains a following among the most serious of metal fans. It is at once a natural extension of thrash and a wellspring from which came today’s extreme styles. And it remains strongly represented. Here are one of my current favorites — a group that chooses Egyptology over bloody gore as its prevailing motif, named Nile: