Thirty years ago, when the heavy metal genre was still in its teenage years, if you told someone you were a fan of the genre, they could reasonably assume you were into fast guitars, faster drums, and all of it loud. But as heavy metal entered adulthood, musicians began pushing the boundaries of what defined metal, expanding the compositional structures, lyrical themes and instrumentation used. The best bands, listed below, remain as punishingly loud as they are ambitiously artistic. Here are 10 of the artiest bands in existence whose work still falls (sometimes loosely) under the heading of metal.
This Belgian act, formed in 2008, started off with a more furious, screaming hardcore edge, similar to such genre greats as Converge. As the band evolved, Oathbreaker slowly introduced elements of sludge, atmospheric black metal and more avant-garde, post-rock leanings. This evolution culminated with last year’s Rheia, a sprawling, 63-minute opus anchored by the diverse vocal stylings of Caro Tanghe, who adeptly balances caustic black metal screams with pixie-ish warbling that evokes Björk going black metal.
9. Gnaw Their Tongues
Dutch musician Maurice de Jong (aka “Mories”) has spent more than a dozen years composing terrifying soundscapes under the Gnaw Their Tongues name. He once titled one of his albums An Epiphanic Vomiting of Blood, which appropriately describes the din De Jong generates, as he uses paint-stripping black metal shrieks to enhance complex compositions that veer from industrial black metal to soundtracklike orchestral interludes, never settling long on one side or the other of his chosen musical spectrum.
Norway's Shining (not to be confused with a Swedish black metal band of the same name) launched in 1999 as a fairly straightforward jazz act. Over time, band leader Jørgen Munkeby has steered the group toward the industrial-metal genre while still leaving room for noisy jazz saxophone freakouts to provide a greater sense of chaos on albums such as 2015’s International Blackjazz Society. In the live setting, Munkeby juggles vocals, guitars and saxophone to re-create the fullness of the band’s deafening commotion.
This Chicago band also incorporates saxophone and other woodwind instruments into their metallic rumble, but they take it in an entirely different direction. On albums such as 2012’s Beyul, the band alternate between abrasive grindcore and Mastodon-like sludge, and also break out into avant-noise sax solos similar to the legendary John Zorn. The band, led by vocalist/saxophonist Bruce Lamont, break up the aggression with quieter jazz interludes, at times lulling listeners into a more low-key state of musical comfort before pummeling them again.
This one-man Australian act travels down the shoegaze-meets–black metal path walked the last few years by acts such as Deafheaven. But the final product on records such as 2016’s Escape has a more celestial nature, thanks to soaring shred guitars and electronica elements that are mixed tastefully within a black metal framework. Whether he is using desperate black metal screams, Joe Satriani–ish guitar solos or danceable electronic atmospherics, Germ mastermind Tim Yatras puts together fantastic odes to depression.
Another one-man black metal project, Panopticon has leaned more toward traditional black metal on recent works. But previous efforts from Austin Lunn, such as 2014’s Roads to the North, have incorporated moments of Appalachia-inspired folk and bluegrass to add a touch of atmosphere not found in similar acts. Munn’s ornate instrumentation has in the past included everything from symphonic violins to steel guitars, enhancing a dizzying metallic exploration loaded with twists and turns.
4. Author & Punisher
The harsh industrial metal generated by San Diego musician Tristan Shone would be enough to make this list based purely on the quality of his musical output. But the instruments that Shone uses to power albums such as 2015’s Melk en Honing and his live performances are literal works of art themselves. Shone designs and fabricates custom-built devices and apparatuses to generate rhythms and musical chords, disappearing behind his constructions at times as if trapped inside a steampunk prison cell.
This Norwegian collective have spent the last 20-plus years being one of the more musically nomadic acts in all heavy music genres. Their purer black metal origins will occasionally poke their head through, but overall the news that a new album from Ulver is coming doesn’t mean you know what it is going to sound like. It could be anything from a foray into chamber orchestra music (2013’s Messe I.X-VI.X) to hypnotizing soundtrack compositions (2016’s Riverhead) or live improvisation (2016’s ATGCLVLSSCAP).
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This Salt Lake City quintet have burst out within metal circles the last few years thanks to sludgy doom-metal compositions that have gotten more and more sprawling and more and more densely layered, most recently on 2016’s For This We Fought the Battle of Ages. Guitarist-vocalist Rebecca Vernon composes thunderous riffs that rattle and ripple through your body, but additional vocals and violins from Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack add an ethereal touch.
Nearly every other group on this list owes some sort of debt to Neurosis. Starting as a hardcore band in the late-’80s Bay Area scene, this seminal group took a turn toward the artistically ambitious in the early ’90s. Genre-defining classics such as 1996’s Through Silver in Blood remain benchmarks against which any album remotely dabbling in atmospheric post-metal or apocalyptic doom-metal is measured. Guitarists/vocalists Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till trade off mighty vocal bellows and equally mighty riffs that power expansive metallic soundscapes backed by tribal drumming, which could serve as the soundtrack for a Terrence Malick film about the apocalypse.