my Vox piece on alt metal

Hey guys, I’m thrilled to share a piece I wrote for Vox on art/alt/heady metal music, why I love it, how to get into it, and some bands to try out. I haven’t had this much fun writing something in a long time.

And now some words for the purists. (Whom I love, despite myself!)

  • I knew going in that a lot of metalheads would hate it. It was inevitable. You can’t write the words “heavy” and “metal” on the internet, even if you’re a chemist, without somebody showing up to tell you You’re Doing It Wrong. Didn’t write the piece for them.
  • Some people’s unhappiness seems to stem from the headline, which I grant does suggest that this will be a piece specifically on doom metal, a particular subgenre within the world of metal. That’s unfortunate, and I would have preferred they use the term art metal or alt metal. There are, however, two things to say about this. First, “I’m not in love with the headline” is a thing approximately 100% of writers on the internet have said about the stuff they’ve had published. (It amazes me that some people still don’t know this, but writers almost never write their own headlines.) But listen: publishers, particularly those who pay, have a right to decide what the headline is. Headlines have everything to do with whether a piece gets shared, and whether a piece gets shared determines if they’re going to get any advertising revenue. Vox is paying me actual American currency for this piece; they have a right to influence the headline. Second, you could solve this problem by reading the fucking article instead of only the headline and the band names.
  • If you want doom metal as such, my friend Gavin recommends Thergothon, Skepticism, and Shape of Despair
  • I had a much longer bit discussing what I was talking about and what I wasn’t, mentioning names and genres of more traditional kinds of metal, and defining why I wasn’t writing about them. It was cut in editing. And you know what? That was the correct decision by the editor. The draft I initially handed in was legit 4500 words. I wrote defensively at the beginning because I knew I would take some hits about what is and isn’t metal. But the piece is for exactly the people who don’t care about that; they’re who I’m trying to reach. The piece was improved in editing, and again, when you get paid, the publisher has a legitimate right to cut.
  • The piece isn’t, and doesn’t purport to be, a comprehensive guide to any particular genre. It’s saying “here’s some music I’m into, here’s why I’m into it, here’s how to get into it yourself, and here’s some great songs and bands to try out.” Because I really do love it and want other people to love it too.
  • I did my time. I spent years going to mostly-terrible and occasionally amazing local metal and hardcore shows at the El ‘n’ Gee club in New London (RIP), followed great metal and hardcore bands like God Forbid and Converge, spending my time in the mosh pits. Met Kerry King. Again, you can never please people. I did my time. I’m too damn old to worry about if I’m a true metalhead.
  • I’m opening up comments, so pop in and discuss, ask for recs, give recs, or yell at me about what a hipster/poseur/fake I am. And thanks to Vox and Dylan Matthews.

28 Comments

  1. The first thing I thought of when I read this post was Don Caballero. You ever try out their first couple albums?

      1. My thought about your list was that these bands are in the direction that Don Caballero did not take. I was friends with them in Pittsburgh when they were starting, and their earliest stuff was more spacious and vaguely soundtracky, but then Ian Williams joined the band, and they became more notey “math rock” pioneers. Might still be right down your alley though.

  2. Surprised you didn’t recommend any of the more artsy black metal bands like Deafheaven, Deathspell Omega, or Wolves in the Throne Room. Black metal has progressed quite a bit since the early days. I would also recommend the band Godflesh, especially their album Streetcleaner.

  3. Nice piece. Metal seems to be on a real creative high. Unlike indie/alt-rock which seems moribund these days.

    You should check out Black Metal. A lot of really interesting bands there these days. From the avant stuff (Liturgy, Krallice), the post BM stuff (Wolves in the Throne Room), to the genuinely insane (the Botanist. Black Metal on the Dulcimer with a radical Gaia theme).

    And if you like High on Fire (who are awesome) try Baroness, Black Tusk and Kylessa.

    Also, if you’re going to include the Swans, what about Wovenhand?

    1. Love Wolves! AGALLOCH from Portland is maybe less “ritualistic” but in the same broad school. And utterly amazing as a live band.

      1. I wanted to second Agalloch. They are a fantastic introduction to more ‘artsy’ metal, especially their more mellow albums.

  4. Awesome, freddie!

    If you have a tolerance for the really, really weird, I might suggest (via the amazing Bandcamp) strange Italian doom-black metal band DISHARMONIC. REALLY, REALLY Italian!

    ABYSSAL is some amazing death metal I am enjoying right now.

    And for doom, BELL WITCH’ latest is pretty awesome.

    finally, I have discovered a pretty amazing Galician band, Kathaarsys https://kathaarsys.bandcamp.com/

    I could bore you to tears with recommendations. Metal is one of my (costly) obsessions, despite being an aging nerd!

  5. Thanks for this! I’ve always wanted so hard to love metal, but I’ve never known how to get into it, how to train my ear for it. Hopefully someone makes an article like this for punk, the other genre that’s incredibly hard to get into but still has a large culture and (seemingly) a lot to offer.

    The only thing that is hard to figure out is whether or not it’s something that just isn’t for me; there isn’t really a sort of litmus test for whether you’re able to like metal, other than doing the hard work of listening to lots of stuff, is there? If everyone is able to like it if they put forth the effort, what do ‘musical tastes’ mean?

    1. One of the leading “lights*” of the Norwegian Black Metal Scene, Gaahl Gorgoroth, Godseed), is gay.

      That makes it 100% ok to love metal.

      Of course, Gaahl’s OTHER beliefs mean that he is not exactly an ally of progressivism and not acceptable in any way.

      * Gaahl is one scary dude. Pretentious as all hell, but scary.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaahl

      1. Only if you can trace your Nordic Aryan ancestry back at least 25 generations.

        (I confess I find his music very good at inducing a trance. In a good way. Even though Varg is the very definition of idiot. Why are all racist nutcases such…dweebs (albeit a violent dweeb).

    2. better be careful staking out a position like that. it will only take one savvy somebody on twitter sitting in the right place at the right time to figure out the phrase “poptimism is merely an avenue of antiracist and antisexist public performance for white cis men looking for ally stickers” and then you won’t want it attached to you anymore.

  6. Anyone into any of this should check out this canadian doom-ish Stay Here (who I just realized is probably named after a Swans song), it’s some serious end-of-the-world shit.. they only have two songs so I will keep foisting them on people in hopes they make more. http://stayhere.bandcamp.com/

    Black metal purist people are the funniest though, like the idea that Liturgy are “hipster sellouts” when if you listen to them they are basically as inaccessible as you can possibly get is pretty hilarious.

  7. Great article, and all in all, pretty varied take on the different ways metal manifests itself.

    Sleep actually isn’t “long-deceased,” they’ve played a few reunion shows over the last couple years, one of which I was able to go to. (I got fucked by a scalper the last time they played in my area, never buying concert tix on craigslist again.) The show that I saw was one of the 5 best concert experiences I’ve ever had.

    Love what you wrote about Kyuss, I also think some of the desert vibe comes from this sort of weird mysticism that pervades the music. Makes me think of old southwestern ghost stories. Lots of great stories of the band going out into the desert around palm springs and setting up rigs with a generator, and then building a bonfire and partying all night.

    Couple of recs:

    Power Trip (Dallas thrash, not really particularly reinventing it, but playing it with a certain muscularity, mostly in how it’s produced. Really good heavy riffs.)

    Electric Wizard (English band in that stoner/doom area. If you dig Sleep, you’ll dig them, though I would say EW’s a bit less bluesy and a bit more Sabbath-y. Fine distinctions, I know…)

    Any band with the word bong or weed in the name. Weedeater, Bongzilla, etc.

    HEALTH (wouldn’t call them strictly metal, more like noise rock. But a fan of heavy music can get into them big time. They’re making really cool music of a kind I’ve never really heard before.)

    Before the Light Takes Us (doc about Norwegian black metal scene. Focussing mostly on Varg Vikernes/Mayhem violence, but also a good look into how the various members of the scene see themselves and the music. Lot of them are really horrible people, but it’s still a really interesting movie.)

    Finally, an admission: the other day I was reading stuff on twitter and saw someone call someone else a “transmysoginist shitlord,” and the first thought I had was, “great band name.” Don’t know if I should be embarrassed about that…

    Love the chance to geek out about metal in an unlikely spot!

  8. Just want to give you a big fuck yea for giving some love to metal. I’ll admit art metal has never appealed to me. My go to subgenres are death, swedish-death, southern, and thrash. Still it’s refreshing to see anything that would never be played on fm radio taken seriously.

    Probably not your bag but give Byzantine a listen. The album the fundamental component would probably be most appealing to you (basing this on your fondness for converge).

  9. MIA: Torche, The Sword, Mastodon, Clutch, Witchcraft, Kyng, Dead Meadow, Conan, Weedeater, Suns of Huns, Down , Kröwnn, Red Fang… Good article though, this stuff doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

  10. Freddie, given your your descriptions of what you like, Neurosis either should have been included or you should be listening to them.

    Arguably the moment in heavy music you wrote about could best be described by saying that guitar bands have fully grasped the achievements of the Melvins. I remain amazed that a band can produce a music so incredibly complex and powerful, all while staying well within the classic rock idiom.

    As far as the question of how to “get into metal”, it really depends on what genres a person is comfortable with. For stripped down, dark indie rock, love of Joy Division or the Stooges can lead to an appreciation for Kyuss, while folks who like dramatic, emoesque orchestral rock could try Opeth. The key thing is to start with your favorite angry, loud rock song, and find heavy metal bands that have turned that sound into a science.

  11. I’m tardy to this but must add that, though they are not as dark as many of the bands discussed here, King’s X–especially early King’s X–is my favorite art metal band and I wish everyone loved them as much as I do.

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