Metal 2010-2019: The Shape of Heavy to Come
I’ve spent most of this last year, the last of the waning decade, trying to make sense of the music that had sustained me and this website. One of the ways I have been trying to figure all that out has been interviewing some of my favorite artists/musicians for this blog’s Albums of the Decade interview series. What began as a pipe dream – me interviewing some of my favorite living artists about some of my favorite albums – became a rich, challenging, inspiring, heartwarming and funny reality (the mental image of me talking about heavy metal aesthetics while cramped in my car, yelling into my phone is probably a good summation of at least some of that humor).
I entered this weird, ambitious project with a few questions on my mind, most of which having to do with me wondering what it was that attracted me to all this sombre mayhem, and also more general questions about the nature of the music I loved, love, and will forever love (and hate, simultaneously). Some of those questions were left untouched, some, I feel, quite adequately answered, and some bred even more questions. So, while understanding this process of inquiry is not a finite one, and also considering the fact that I’m not even done with the series (about 10 more to go), I did want to address two major points that I felt yielded some interesting insights. Those are: the foundations/inspirations of the 2010-2019 metal underground metal scene; and, more specifically, the foundations of contemporary (mostly) American extreme metal. The last chapter will be my analysis, given all this, of where I think this all may be heading. But first thing’s first.
CHAPTER 1 – EXIT AND RETURN
I quit listening to metal around 2003, and I hadn’t listened to much of it until early 2009. I state this because I feel like this may, or may not, be the experience of a lot of people who like the music I do, and/or read this blog, of the decade preceding the present one as being one of leaving something behind. Personally, I quit because along with the slow demise of some of my favorite genres – thrash, death, and mid-90s black metal – there was the supernova-like embarrassment of whatever it was that happened to nu metal around 2000. To be clear, nu metal was big for me, also in terms of a lot of the bands I’ll mention here, surprisingly. The first Korn album and first three Deftones albums were, and are, monumental moments in my life, where metal, always standoffish and aggressive, became also tender and personal. But, as we all know, the quality, by and large, did not keep up while the bands only kept cloning each other to death.
But that feeling of being fed up and wanting something to change was in the air. And here I get to the first point here – that this period was a period of change not only for me, but for a lot of the people actually making the music, and it manifested in the way music was made. A new wave of artists was pushing through a kind of expressive, heavy music, that focused on personal experience and on beauty and reflection, that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, served a counter to the dying giants of the 90s and to the over-processed, repetitive music that had been propagating in the early 2000s (I'd like to think Mayhem's Grand Declaration of War was meant as a kind of "fuck you" to that era as well, albeit to a different musical sector). And this shift, this new musical horizon came to light in a bunch of ways: in what Aaron Turner says is his growing interest in black metal during the final years of ISIS, which would lead to that band’s demise and the rise of others, as well as in James Kelley's dissatisfaction with black metal around the same time in Altar of Plagues; in the energy that led to the formation of forward-thinking black metal bands like Woe, Yellow Eyes, and Krallice, and the Americana-metal of Panopticon, the psychedelic black metal of Oranssi Pazuzu, the personal doom of Thou, True Widow, Pallbearer, and Eight Bells, the absolute madness of Portal or Have a Nice Life, and the tender melancholy of Deafheaven, Sub Rosa, and Chelsea Wolfe; to the demise of prominent 2000s labels such as Hydra Head, and the rise of others such as The Flenser, Svart, I, Voidhanger, Dark Descent Records, Fallen Empire Records (RIP), and some that were ahead of the curve such as 20 Buck Spin, Bindrune, NoEvDia, Profound Lore, and Gilead Media; a shift in tone and/or continued development by veteran bands like Wolves in the Throne Room, Agalloch, Behemoth, Ulver, Cobalt, Cult of Luna, Celtic Frost/Triptykon, The Ruins of Beverast, Kayo Dot, and Deathspell Omega; and in the demise of more traditionally “metal” bands such as Warning and the rise of newer projects in their ashes – 40 Watt Sun. Later, it is the same shifting bedrock that would birth bands that would take the same spirit of clashing shit together and build on it: Imperial Triumphant, Blood Incantation, Artificial Brain, Markov Soroka, Wormlust, Rivers of Nihil, Skaphe, and others.
Something was shifting, and it wasn’t just me or this blog – established 2010 – that was susceptible to a sea change in what heavy music could do. I left heavy music thinking it was a place doomed for the dominance of machismo and power, and returned to it and began writing about it, because it seemed that in that time it had become a place for creativity personal self expression. It was heartfelt, it was creative, it drew from a variety of artistic well-springs, and it was made by motivated, informed, and challenging artists.
None of this, I should say, answers one of the major questions with which I entered this investigation, one which, out of the few I started with, remained relatively untouched – why, if you are so fearful/wary of the poisons of power and violence am I so attracted to music that is so explicitly about power and violence, or, at the very least, is using high explosives to try to make room for a non-explosive sentiment? I have gained glimpses into this curiosity in some of the interviews, such as the wonderful conversation with Kristin Hayer – AKA LINGUA IGNOTA – about both her experiences of the sharp end of power, as well as her own growing involvement with the metal scene – and with the amazing talk I had with Patrick Walker, in which I asked him why he still needed walls of noise in his music. Saying why The Inside Room was still a noisy record he said: ”It was part of the tradition of what I was doing, to an extent, and part of a need just to protect myself a little bit.”
But even if we for a moment ignore that question, one that I will continue to ask in the coming decade, a new generation of artists that felt it was OK to be heavy and weird or exposed came into being: it was OK to be heavy and be into nerdy shit (Krallice, Kayo Dot, Artificial Brain, Blood Incantation); it was OK to be heavy and wonder at the beauty of the world (WIITR, Panopticon, Ulver); it was OK to be heavy and sad (40 Watt Sun, Loss, Cult of Luna, ISIS); and, as the years advanced, it became more and more OK to be heavy and at odds with pain, personal grief, and hurt, the epitome of which is, to me, LINGUA IGNOTA’s CALIGULA (more on that later).
But none of the artists taking part in what I think can be called the “alternative extreme metal scene,” one borrows from The Cure and Diamanda Galas as much as it does from Emperor and Morbid Angel, could have made it thus far without some predecessors that allowed them to be the way they were while still being heavy. And this is another intersection in which I shall insert myself. Because the bands that allowed me into heavy music to begin with were bands that I had identified as those enabling vulnerability or weirdness in heavy music. Bands that allowed me to be nerdy (Carcass, Death, Megadeth, Devin Townsend), creative (White Zombie, Faith No More), moody (Sonic Youth, Type O Negative), an overt extravert (Autopsy, Emperor, Cradle of FIlth) and, as mentioned earlier, self-absorbed and angry (Deftones, Korn, and, to an extent, Tool). And while those bands were essential to everything I have been discussing thus far, especially Emperor, that are mentioned in a disproportionate number of interviews, there are a few bands I would like to focus on in the next chapter that I feel set the stage for a lot of what has been happening in music in the last decade. And here, if I may, I’m going to focus on the American side of things.
CHAPTER 2 – NEUROSIS AND THE INVENTION OF AMERICAN SPACE
The story of the metal, at least the metal I have been attracted to in the decade that is just now coming to an end is one of space and emotion. Music is always about both space and emotion, as music is an actualization of time and space in the form of measuring time and space via vibration. And all variety that exists in music is simply variations in how vibrations come, how hard they vibrate (this is getting awkward, isn’t it?) and what form that vibration takes. So, essentially, Morbid Angel is about space as much as Arvo Pärt or Dolly Parton. The music I love and follow makes that space present, refers to it. But the space I’m referring to here isn’t just “there,” in the way some post-metal just “places” space,” but is emotive space, the space cleared by and filled with emotion. And with that in mind I would like to, if I may, go ahead and name the three artists I feel are the most responsible for, for lack of a better way of putting it, for clearing the space for space, the same that has been so instrumental for a lot of the music I have loved in this dying decade: Ulver, Neurosis, and Jesu.
The focus of this chapter will be Neurosis, since they seem to be instrumental to a majority of what I have been following in the American scene. But what I will say here in short about all three is that there’s something to their combination of strength of vulnerability, power and melancholy, reflection and embodiment – making music that feels “physical,” that is of the body, has a lot to do with all of what I’m seeing and hearing. The body is that element I mention in the title to this, uh, thing, and the body will be the focus from now on.
And Neurosis is a beating heart, their drums and pace being, by far, the most expressive and paradigm-shifting aspect of their music. Drums that feel tribal and spacious, as if part of some pagan ritual that is not of the crowded woods and snow but of the open and desolate spaces. American metal has always had to deal with it's own American-ness, often since metal in its extreme forms finds its origins in Europe. Metallica is as big a band as it is, in some respects, and along with it the other major American thrash bands of the 80s and 90s, precisely because they seemed to finally find an American answer to the dominance of the quite European NWOBHM (there’s even that great quote by Megaforce founder Johnny Zazula about being blown away by a very young Metallica as being an American answer to Motörhead). This also became apparent as American black metal was taking its first steps in the mid 90s and early 2000s, and the even more apparent disrespect from European listeners and to some extent to lack of confidence on the American side.
All of this is to say that there had been some impressive counter attacks along the way – early 90s American death metal being the most prominent – but Neurosis were the ones who really ushered in a new era in American music. It may have been their varied influences (anything from punk/hardcore and death metal all the way to new wave and Black Sabbath), it may have been the combination of their location and the way each one of them meshed into a new artistic whole, and it may have been the drugs, but whatever it was Neurosis around The World as Law and Souls at Zero radically changed American heavy music, a were by far one of the most influential bands on the previous decade of extreme music.
But the reason it changed it is as important as the change itself. Neurosis gave American metal the ability to do what European metal and extreme metal as always done – connect personal anguish and struggle with an almost pantheistic approach to nature and mythology – but in an entirely American way. The space was American – vast and lonely – the mythology and pantheism was American and, most importantly, that which replaced an old failed system was American too. In European terms this former failure was famously the result of Christian dogma and repression. In American terms the historical narrative and thus this aesthetic narrative were quite different: America as that dream utopia to which one escapes those failures, and finds oneself confronted with, mostly, oneself. There are gods and systems, to be sure, that populate the Neurosis-made universe, but they are either of the past, dead, or too distant to approach. The majority of the word, mental, artistic, is then not that of replacing an old system with a new one or of the revival of an old one, but, basically, one of personal introspection amid the ruins of a dead world + riffs + that that Neurosis drum sound: Tribal blues metal.
Since this entire thing I’m writing is a tangent in and of itself, let’s make one last tangent before we proceed, a tangent that has to do with drums. Drums are, to be honest, everything in music. If music is manifestation of time and space in vibrations then drums are the time. As music becomes more and more abstract, the drums are what keep it together, and the really great drummers not only keep it together but give is something else: depth, change, surprise, structure, whatever. And drums, just like time, are a form of punishment – “you will die,” they seem to say, and the more they say it the more, for whatever reason, we bob our heads in recognition. Which is, by the way, the reason John Bonham was such a huge influence – he pounded the drums of punishment and time and at the same time gave that little shuffle, that little bluesy escape, that allowed his music to be both the measuring of time as well as that butterfly momentarily escaping the pain of time. Everything was pinned down and moving at the very same time.
Neurosis’ drums are a further adaptation of the Bonham idea. Like Bonham Jason Roeder, along with Dave Edwardson’s bass, and Steve Von Till and Scot Kelly’s voices and guitars, pounds that punishment hard, and provides a kind of escape. But the escape isn’t in the shuffle, it isn’t in the barely audible artistic flourish meant to signal life and the attempt to fight against time and pain, it is in the punishment itself. The punishment is so severe, and the spacing it creates to reflect on it so straining, that the eventual escape is to a world devoid of redemption, a world where only the body exists, a mind that is a body too, living in a space occupied by other bodies. A world of zero metaphysic that yields, then, a new form of metaphysics, a very American, pragmatic, and physical kind of spirituality. There’s a great Virginia Woolf quote (yeah, I know, pretentious alert) from her essay on Robinson Crusoe that seems appropriate here for this discussion of Neurosis and the segue we’re about to make into the future of the body in music. In the world of that 1719 novel, as in albums such as Through Silver in Blood or The Eye of Every Storm, the art being produced is, again, not a reestablishment of a new pantheon of Gods but a case of extreme self-reliance, one that comes with its own, very physical, magic:
Reality, fact, substance is going to dominate all that follows. We must hastily alter our proportions throughout; Nature must furl her splendid purples; she is only the giver of drought and water; man must be reduced to a struggling, life-preserving animal; and God shrivel into a magistrate whose seat, substantial and somewhat hard, is only a little way above the horizon.
It is this narrowing world, filled with pain, anguish, physicality, and redemption, that Neurosis create. A world that propped up an entire generation of bands walking in their footsteps: ISIS, Cult of Luna, Fall of Efrafa, Inter Arma, and many others. But more importantly it is a world that was also populated by bands that don't seem to be as influenced at first, but arguably have been significantly influenced by that space, ranging from Panopticon, Krallice, Bolzer, Dragged into Sunlight, Agalloch, Weakling, and many, many others. A world that helped, along with Ulver and Jesu, to make room for a new kind of space, which is the space of a lot of the music I have loved and followed in this waning decade of the 2010s. And also a world that has a lot to do, at least in principle – the bringing up of the body – with where I see the future.
CHAPTER 3 – THE FUTURE, or: THE BODY
Where I see the future, then, and where I see the next decade doing is an increasing influence of the body. Just like “good music” deciding on whether something is of the future is something of a personal experience. Some people hear the future in post-human or computerized music, some people hear the future in a cross-breeding of genres and styles. I see the future in the body. And by body I mean here music that sounds like it stinks, that sounds uneven, that, in various ways, makes present a particular person, embodied, in mind after what seems like decades of overly compressed, diluted, and genetic attempts at metal, and after the culmination, for me, of the noise-music project. After decades of a sterile metal bureaucracy and an over-saturated, uninventive attempt to cancel the body by way of sheer noise, it’s the body’s time to shine. And stink.
Death metal has stunk for many years, but i has ceased to stink, its performance of stench becoming at this point, for the most part, just that, performance. Black metal, a reaction to the latter, used to stink up the place quite nicely, or, said less olfactorily, was good at making present a moving, specific body that was, often, trying to break out of some kind of dehumanizing monotony. Neither, I think, “work” at this anymore. Of course there are outstanding examples of the ability to transport a physical entity through those genres, this year bringing two such examples to the fore in Mizmor’s Cairn and Vastum’s Orificial Purge. Both albums stink, are present, are brilliant, but working against the odds in genres that, overall, fail to do so. Not for me, and this is coming from a person who spends 90 percent of their time listening to precisely those genres.
The future, like a railroad switch, has been put into motion by several artists that have, for me, broken away from these stale forms and are intent on a return of the body. The question being, then, how can the body return, and has it returned?
The answer to the first question is yes, it can, as seen in centuries of music and art that seemed to find a way to indicate the pulsing life that made it every time it seemed like it was beginning to fade. Post-punk emerged when punk became an empty gesture, black metal emerged when death metal became an empty gesture. Hell, Black Sabbath emerged when rock n roll became an empty gesture. Every once in a while a new way of breaking through, a new kind of “heavy” is found. And that’s really, I think, what we mean by “heavy” anyway – something that pushes through and sounds like someone is making it. Guitar distortion makes vibrations already there in clear tone more physically there, as do growling vocals with singing and vocal chords, and so on. But seeing that all of these don’t seem to do the job as much, let’s talk about the future. A future that sees the return of the past.
The future includes a multiplicity of voices, human and non-human, working at the same time to counteract each other, including the voice of one of the great enemies of extreme metal – tradition. That means clean vocals are making a comeback (book it!) and are going to sound heavier than growls. Even better, clean vocals in combination with growled vocals, in combination with a variety of kinds of growls. This is exactly what makes Vastum’s Orificial Purge as effective as it is, the combination of female and male growls also sung in a way that makes it difficult to to notice whose growling at what time. It’s confusing, it’s eerie, it creates a nice contrast, and it is, then, for all those reasons, heavy. And it has also been the secret to Cattle Decapitation's continued excellence, Travis Ryan's uncanny ability to just bend his throat and voice into anything he feels like it, and the reason why the work of metal-adjacent artists such as Mamiffer and Charlie Looker is as important as it is, feeling heavy and twisted despite sometimes bordering on the ambient. It’s also the reason bands incorporating clean passages in their music sound heavier, and this includes anything from the latest Tomb Mold or Blood Incantation albums to the latest Inter Arma or Dead to a Dying World. Heavy for heaviness’ sake is dead, mostly because it’s simply not heavy anymore. Heavy has context. Which is also why the future of metal, despite the fact that I just named a bunch of American bands, is much more international.
More and more artists away from the Western-Eastern European / American context are making their way to the surface of international metal listenership. South American, South European, Middle Eastern, African, Asian, and Euroasian bands are listening to everything they can, are being attentive to what’s being done, and messing with whatever existing paradigm to fashion a new form of heavy. It can be through exploiting certain generic boundaries in order to mess with them, it can be through attempting to copy and coming up with something completely different, or it can be just sheer obliviousness. But whatever it is, the dominance of platforms like Bandcamp mean that smaller international acts have better chance to push through. You have Locust Leaves and Spectral Lore in Greece, Kaatayra in Brazil, Karkait in Israel, Mirror in Cyprus, the international collective that is Fawn Limbs, labels like Vigor Deconstruct, Avantgarde Music, Cyclopean Eye Productions, I, Voidhanger, or Transcending Obscurity that have a decidedly international bent, and all that in addition to bands that, to me, are paving a new path for heavy in the, say, English speaking world, like Diploid in Australia or Stroda (Decoherence) and Abyssal in England, along with the American bands I have already mentioned and others, such as God’s Bastard, Immortal Bird, Fluoride, and many others. With apologies to anyone I didn’t mention, they’re a shitton of amazing music just waiting to be found. That, by the way, has less and less to do with labels, anyway.
I could go on naming more artists that perform this feat, of clashing clean with unclean, of making music strange and uneven in a way that allows for the “heavy” to come through. But, as with the former chapter, the remainder of this one will be occupied by a focus on the two acts that I feel are making the future happen now, and that are spearheading all this into the next decade: LINGUA IGNOTA and Bölzer (here's an interview).
Bölzer are the future in the present since they perform and realize the combination of clean and dirty, even and uneven, that, to me, makes the body manifest. And there are many ways in which that is performed: through vocal Okoi Jones’ vocal delivery, that ranges from clean vocals, fried screams, and, sometimes, full-on growls; in the interplay between alternative/heavy segments and those that sound almost traditional; and in the quite interesting production choices they have taken and that have developed from their demo to their latest EP. Basically those choices, along with Fabian Wyrsch’s playing style and the recording of his drums, boil down to something like “imperfection.” They sound off, they sound uncompressed, they sound uneven, both in terms of how they are played as well as how they are repeated. Things hardly stay stable or the same for very long. The opening track of their latest EP, in fact, features a whistling melody that is, to me, slightly out of tune. It may take a while to get used to imperfection, to the uneasy feeling of having a real person in the room. The reward, however, is "heavy."
But as with the anti-Bonham aspect that makes Neurosis such an influential band, here too there is a kind of “heart” to the weirdness and openness of Bölzer’s sound, which is Jones’ use of open chords on his 10-string guitar. You have the “heavy” part, or at least that part we have come to identify as “heavy,” but there is always a kind of extra remainder, an excess of un-muted open strings, that brings in that clean, maybe even “traditional” sound. It’s a combination that links Jones’ playing to both a heavy-metal tradition of power chords, distortion and general menacing mayhem as well as to an older tradition of stringed instruments in the European context (the lute comes to mind, and the use of open strings in medieval music). The means that, as with Bonham, Bölzer is able to play anti-music and music at the very same time, the punishment and the release, which are here the interplay between the attempt to break tradition and tradition itself. Which is the reason that to me Bölzer is not just another contemporary extreme metal band, but the progenitor of a whole generation of bands in the future.
This interplay between anti-tradition and tradition is also an important feature of LINGUA IGNOTA’s power. Kristin Hayter’s project has gained prominence at least partially also because of the thematic way in which it relates to violence – the project itself labeled as making “revenge anthems” that are Hayter’s way of dealing with past abuse and violence. But LINGUA IGNOTA’s importance is not in its biographical context, at least not wholly, but in the way its aesthetics reflect the struggle at the very heart of Hayter’s music, between, again, the clean and the noisy, the beautiful and the ugly, the rebellious and the traditional. Hayter’ borrows anywhere from medieval music, classical music, harsh noise, rock, to ballad and smashes all together to create a collage-like work of art that is probably the heaviest album of the decade all without having one palm-muted riff. Hayter’s power comes, then, not from trying a way to reject what we have called time and punishment, not in trying to annihilate tradition or find a new one, but in being whipped at the pole of tradition, and screaming that pain out. By taking a stained glass window, shattering it, and recomposing the bits into a beautiful new thing. It’s not completely new, since it is made of the old, but is not only new, it is startling and scary, and human.
And Hayter might just be the most future-oriented artist of the decade. Not simply because of the way she contorts narrative and the destruction of narrative in order to create a new heavy. But also because the body, which, as I have mentioned, is where I think we may be going, is no incidental in Hayer’s music and in the aesthetics that accompany that music. Her body – in performance, in the way her voice breaks, in the cover art, in her Instagram posts – co-inhabits the space of her music as much as her music. She, her bones, her flesh, her skin, is putting her body first. Because it is the body that was pummeled by personal experience, and the body that is participating in its attempt at personal redemption and artistry. But it is the way in which that body comes through in music that I find the most fascinating, and why I believe she is helping create the formula of the "heavy" to come.
Not going to say much here, really, other than the fact that it was a joy and an honor to be able to listen, enjoy, and document some of the music that has been made and released this decade. Maybe everything I have written here means nothing more than me coming to terms with my own joy and trying to formulate it in my own way. That has been my intention when I began writing this blog (almost) ten years ago, and it will be my intention in the future as well. Thanks for reading.