When people asked, "What kind of music do you listen to?" I used to give the stock answer everyone gives: I listen to all kinds. Rock, jazz, hip hop, country, classical — all kinds.
No longer. Not because it’s untrue, but because it’s nonresponsive, and because I’d rather give an answer that actually starts a conversation.
Now, even though I love Ibeyi and Modest Mouse and Young Fathers and Torres and Lykke Li, I answer simply, "Metal. Arty, dark metal."
It’s limiting, sure. But it’s the statement most likely to actually inform people, because it defines what I do like that most people don’t like. After all, what value is there in saying that I like Rihanna and Tegan and Sara? Everybody likes Rihanna and Tegan and Sara. Saying I like arty metal, or alt-metal, actually tells people something new.
People tend to have strong feelings about metal even when they never listen to it. Given current musical cosmopolitanism, that divisiveness is rare. The online era has resulted in greater potential for aesthetic diversity, but in practice actually leads to greater conformity in taste. As people discover a bigger and wider array of genres, fewer and fewer people identify themselves with one scene in particular. Few people stake firm stands for what they love, or against what they hate. One prominent exception: metalheads.
The sonic philosophy of avant-garde metal
Personally, I ride for arty, or alt-metal. There’s obviously more to the metal world than that, and I can’t teach you about all of it. (There are many rooms in the house of Satan.) I won’t go into classic metal, like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, or Deep Purple; or hair metal, like Poison or Ratt; or thrash metal, like Metallica or Slayer; or thrash metal’s deranged Floridian cousin death metal; or black metal, the largely Scandinavian, Satan-worshiping, corpse-paint-wearing, scary, dark, and slow, church-burning, brain-eating family of metal that seems intent on taking every metal cliché to 11.
No, what I’m getting at here is a constellation of avant-garde metals — experimental, self-conscious, unusual, philosophical. These are metal bands with, for lack of a better term, an ideology: They are mostly made up of musicians who care a great deal not just about how their music sounds but about what their music says, and what their music says about how music should sound.
I realize there’s an inherent implication of value judgment here, like I’m saying that more conventional types of metal aren’t made by people with ideas. That’s not my intent. It’s just that there’s a real dedication to aesthetic philosophy in a lot of the music I’m talking about, and that tends to result in the kind of sonic weirdness I really go for. I would be satisfied with the terms arty metal, experimental metal, or avant-garde metal. Or, as a great New York Times Magazine profile of Sunn 0))) and Boris brilliantly suggested, heady metal. My old death- and black-metal-obsessed buddy Jason would likely call it snobby metal, and there’s something to that, too.
So: In a saturated musical environment, with so many things to listen to at your fingertips, why invest precious listening time in a genre that is often as reviled as it is worshiped? Why bother seeking out stuff you like in an often intentionally forbidding genre? First, because while the pop landscape is filled with many delights, there just isn’t a lot of heaviness in today’s pop music. It’s not like the days when you could find Alice in Chains on Top 40 radio. And raw, angry music can be just what the doctor ordered when you’re feeling raw and angry emotions.
Second, there’s a paradoxical soothing quality to much of this music. A lot of these acts are things I love to put on when I’m tired and need to relax; the deep distortion and grinding riffage can lull you into a special kind of oblivion. Finally, one of my favorite aspects of music appreciation is following lines of influence, seeing how disparate acts influence and inform each other, and tons of mainstream rock and even hip-hop acts draw heavily on metal artists. A band like Sleep can be the secret bridge between ZZ Top and Death Grips; there’s really not that much space between Liquid Swords and Soundtracks for the Blind. I dig that.
How to listen to art metal
Before I get to specific recommendations, here are a few tips.
Play it loud. I mean, duh. But really: Volume is an essential element of musical composition. There are genuine sonic features that can only be heard at a given volume, layers that need volume to hear and appreciate. This is true of all music, but especially music that was written, practiced, and recorded at ear-splitting levels. So annoy your neighbors and crank it up. (Note: neither Vox Media nor the author of this piece is responsible for any hearing damage as a result of listening to the recommended music. Consult a doctor before beginning any musical exercise regimen.)
Don’t multitask, just listen. This one, also, can go for all different kinds of music. But in a culture where people perform being busy ceaselessly, trying to outdo others in how stretched they are for time, it’s hard to convince anyone of the virtues of not doing 10 different things at once. Sure, you can absorb and enjoy music while writing or working out or commuting. Many of us have to. But if you get a chance to just put some cans on and listen (and maybe sip a beer), go for it.
Don’t sweat the labels. I’ve already talked about various subgenres, and will again, but don’t take them too seriously or let them get in the way of what you enjoy. Nobody actually wants to claim their labels, anyway – it’s a classic musician move to get annoyed by the genre label you’re most associated with. (The members of the Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age family, for example, dismiss the "stoner rock" label they’re often associated with, preferring the sui generis "desert rock.") Discussions of subgenres have their place; they can be useful to figure out where to go next in an often bewildering universe of metal. But they’re like any other tool: Use 'em until they stop being useful.
Give it a little time. We’re in an era of aggressive music populism, where anything that resembles music as assignment or obligation comes pre-derided. But pop perfection like "Call Me Maybe" doesn’t require as many listens to grasp as an Earth album. Because many of the bands I’m talking about here use multiple layers of sound, subtle tonal and rhythmic shifts, and the establishment of slowly gestating themes or motifs, it often takes several listens to really grasp what’s going on. Give this stuff a fighting chance: Try to listen to albums at least a couple of times. Or pick a track, listen to it while working, exercising, or driving, then come back to it a couple days later when you have time to just listen. Think of it like letting a red wine breathe.
If you don’t like it, throw it back. That said, if after a couple of good-faith listens and an attempt to connect with the music you find you don’t dig it, don’t listen to it anymore. The point of this whole exercise is to find stuff you like. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. This is music, not church. "It’s not for me" is one of the most freeing, most useful statements you can make.
Here are some albums to get you started
Boris, Heavy Rocks (2002)
This band is the gateway drug, not just for alt/art metal, but for a whole slew of microgenres within – doom metal, drone metal, noise metal, and more. Boris are a tireless three-piece from Japan, and it’s not hard to see why they've maintained an impeccable reputation for two decades. Heady, dedicated, fearless in adopting new styles and trying new things, enthusiastic collaborators, a relentless and constantly touring live band, and effortlessly poised, they've been the secret love of many for a long time. They even look fantastic — the lanky and brooding leader Takeshi rocking a double-necked bass and guitar, the elegant and beautiful Wata shredding on a Gibson Les Paul, while wild man Atsuo screams and bangs his drums in the background. Boris are … cool.
With more than 20 albums and counting, it can be bewildering knowing where to start with Boris, particularly given that they change genres and sounds as fast as the Beatles. This flowchart that’s been floating around the internet (and whose author I wish I knew, so I could give credit) is genuinely useful. I’m not so much a fan of the J-pop of albums like New Album or the band showing off their softer side on albums like Flood. My tastes run from the deafening white noise of Feedbacker to the pummeling riff rock of the original Heavy Rocks, which I’m recommending here. That’s the 2002 Heavy Rocks with the orange cover, not the 2011 Heavy Rocks with the purple one — Boris have a habit of giving multiple albums the same name, which is either cool or pretentious, depending on your point of view.
The original Heavy Rocks is filled with old-school, grunge-influenced rock, but that more conventional sound doesn’t mean the album is lacking in Boris’s weirder elements. The slow, doom-laden space rock churn of opening track "Heavy Friends" establishes Boris’s willingness to go out on a limb, with Wata’s astonishing lead guitar work floating over the top of an impossibly deep, constantly mutating rhythm track. This slow burn gives way quickly to the aggro speed and drive of tracks like "Korosu" and "Rattlesnake." As the album winds to its end, it dips back into the slower atmospherics and expansive noise that are part of Boris’s trademark sound. Heavy Rocks is an album to fall in love with, and can be your jumping-off point for a discography that you can spend months exploring.
Kyuss, Welcome to Sky Valley
Kyuss are less well-known but more influential than Queens of the Stone Age, the band that rose from their ashes. Queens, with their chart-topping 2002 album Songs for the Deaf, are easily the most successful band within the genre of stoner metal they’ve been reluctantly assigned. But Kyuss — which featured Josh Homme, the multitalented leader of Queens, and Nick Oliveri, onetime bassist of Queens — set the formula, and arguably did more to influence later bands.
Like the Velvet Underground, Kyuss became much more popular and influential after they broke up. Their groove-heavy, repetitive riffage lends itself well to altered consciousness, part of the reason they’ve attracted the stoner rock label. But you don’t have to be high to appreciate just how tight the band is, how perfectly slow they can sound while playing beats that are actually quite uptempo. It’s music to fade away into.
Welcome to Sky Valley is an album that sounds like ZZ Top got really stoned and listened to Motörhead and Maggot Brain at the same time. It matches heaviness and distortion with impeccable timing and undeniable rhythmic inventiveness. The desert rock moniker might seem inscrutable before you hear this album, but it won’t be afterward; In their insistent repetition and trippy atmospherics, the tracks on Welcome to Sky Valley are reminiscent of an endless drive down a desert highway, the road churning ceaselessly underneath you. Everything seems vaguely the same but different, and the result is hypnotic. Some aspects of Kyuss haven’t aged that well; the vocals in particular sound dated, and there’s a cock rock element that I find distasteful. But I’ll take it all for those perfect grooves, the way the album lets you dissolve into your chair, the music harsh, the effect gentle.
Swans, To Be Kind
Are Swans a metal band? I’m not sure. Frontman (and sole continuous member) Michael Gira famously summed up their ethos in saying, "Swans are majestic, beautiful-looking creatures. With really ugly temperaments." Which is both an accurate statement about their sound, and metal as fuck.
The most common term associated with Swans, experimental rock, might seem laughably imprecise, but that’s a function of Gira’s remarkably varied songwriting. Swans are one of those bands whose sound is utterly different from album to album, and yet who maintain a certain organic logic in their music, a kind of musical DNA that you can see from record to record even as they move wildly from phase to phase. Their guitars snarl with a ferocity that any metal band would love to match. Their music is defined by darkness, invention, and that voice — Gira’s voice, a wailing, animal howl that’s as distinct as any in rock music.
Swans are one of those rarest of birds, an influential group that are still making their best music 30 years into their run. As with most of these bands, different fans claim different albums as the ultimate Swans record. The 1996 album Soundtracks for the Blind has many partisans, as does the band’s 1983 (!) debut Filth. But as a relatively recent vintage Swans fan myself, my money’s on 2014’s To Be Kind. A return to form after 2013’s somewhat disappointing album The Seer, To Be Kind packs levels upon levels, leaping from punk to noise to post-rock to industrial to … whatever the title track is. I’m not sure whether you’d call it a double album or what — my LP has three discs — but it’s a lot of music. A lot of genius, heavy, heady, challenging music.
In particular, nothing can quite prepare you for To Be Kind’s "Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture," easily my favorite track of 2014 and one of the most legitimately astonishing pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It’s almost a treatise on why you would want to listen to the kind of music I’m advocating for here, with thunderous guitars, atonality, heart-stabbing vocals, and breakdowns into pure noise. After a pitch-perfect few seconds of quiet electronics, better than two minutes of the same crushing chord grinds you into submission. It’s a great introduction to the droning, repetitive sounds that are common to alt-metal. You might ask why anyone would want to play, or listen to, several minutes of the same chord. But if you let it pound its way through those two minutes – if you submit to it – you’ll understand: it doesn’t sound the same at the two-minute mark as it did at the 30-second mark. And after all that thunder, when the bottom drops out and the track goes quiet, the feeling of expansive space is palpable, which makes Gira’s haunting wail resonate that much more. From there, the track goes on a tour of styles and sounds, developing into a slow-building groove that grows into a chant, then breaking down completely into pure noise, which curdles into Gira shouting in another language, sounding at once anguished and accusatory. It’s several albums’ worth of ideas in one 34-minute track. And though this might be a stretch, with its rage and pain and references to the great Haitian revolutionary L'Ouverture, I found it an eerie and apt soundtrack for the past year of street protests against anti-black police violence.
Even if you don’t try any of the rest of the music I’m recommending here, carve out a half-hour and listen to that track. It’s worth it.
If Kyuss were reluctant members of the stoner rock genre, Sleep cheerfully carried the banner, with lyrics like "Drop out of life with bong in hand." But I’m told you don’t need to smoke to enjoy Sleep’s pulsing, churning, exquisitely slow riffage. You just need to appreciate the potential of music to put you into a trance. Another long-deceased band, Sleep rode into '90s metal on a wave of smoke, dropped a few influential albums, and burned out as quickly as they had come. But they left an indelible mark on metal. In particular, they were one of the bands that proved heaviness doesn’t come from aggro lyrics or absurd speed, but rather from the power of the guitar attack and insistent, muscular delivery. The deep, pulsing tones start to take up residence in your bones. It’s a corporeal kind of music; you feel it in your body.
Dopesmoker stands as one of the great acts of career suicide in the history of music. Sleep responded to being signed by a big record label by writing an hourlong album that’s a single song. The record label’s meddling and resistance led to the band breaking up not long after finishing the album. It was worth it. Dopesmoker is one of those perfect musical statements, like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique or Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid: a record that doesn’t just touch great artistic heights, but that makes an insistent statement about what the artist is all about, again and again. It’s a thudding march of a track, one whose geometric guitar lines build and build and build and then collapse back on themselves. Non-wonky guitar solos complement the monotony, and the vocals roar like a Buddhist monk announcing the end of the world. I’ve listened to Dopesmoker dozens of times, and I never stop being amazed at how fresh and unique it is. At an hour long, it’s just long enough. Honestly, I know it sounds weird given its trappings, but I feel like lots of pop fans out there would love this record. I mean it. There’s something elementally pleasing about it.
High on Fire, Snakes for the Divine
High on Fire are easily the most straightforward metal band in this list, the band most in keeping with the lineage of Metallica and Megadeth and the rest. They're the band least likely to take one of the many subgenre names I’ve been throwing around here; High on Fire are a metal band, full stop.
And yet they’re also one of the more inventive metal bands out there today. They’re greater than the sum of their parts. So much of what makes them work is simply a matter of taking sounds and ideas that have become clichéd and reinvigorating them. I mean, it’s hard to say why lots of double bass so often makes a drummer sound like an asshole, but with High on Fire it just works. A rare metal power trio, they sound huge despite limited instruments even when playing live, likely owing to their incredibly tight musicianship and professionalism. They’re also remarkably prolific, churning out album after album without putting out a lot of filler. And they really know how to name metal songs. Their latest record includes track names like "Carcosa," "The Falconist," and "Slave the Hive." Come on!
High on Fire's 2010 Snakes for the Divine is the record that drew me in. Frontman (and former member of Sleep) Matt Pike’s guitar work has never been cleaner or more dramatic, and the rhythm section does an exquisite job of filling the space behind him, an essential task for a three-piece rock band. The title track really lays out both their ambitions and their ability; it’s like if Motörhead went to jazz school and practiced like crazy for a year before putting out a record. The bouncing mathematical precision of the high-end licks gives way immediately and perfectly to the pummeling low end. I typically have little patience for dragon voice, but Pike’s snarl suits the track perfectly. "Bastard Samurai" digs deep into Pike’s stoner rock roots, lulling you to sleep and kicking your ass at the same time. And "Frost Hammer" is just tight, tight, tight metal magic, featuring insanely complex drumming. (Then again, how could a metal song called "Frost Hammer" be bad?)
There are metal bands out there making more adventurous music than High on Fire. But I’m not sure there are any metal bands making better.
Sunn 0))), Monoliths and Dimensions
I must confess — and some people will want to pull my card for this — I’ve never been able to get into Sunn0))), the robe-clad masters of doom. I know it’s bullshit to say you respect an artist whose work you don’t really enjoy, but with their profound integrity, total commitment to an artistic vision, and clear craftsmanship, I find much more to admire in their music than to love. It’s just that when I put on tracks like, say, "It Took the Night to Believe," after a while I find my thoughts are preoccupied with the heat death of the universe and the fact that all life will someday be ground to dust by the pitiless forces of destruction and time. The last time I tried to play a Sunn 0))) album I caught my dog writing a suicide note. This band is dark.
Sunn 0))) are a true drone outfit; they’re famous for playing a single chord for minutes at a time. (That chord usually sounds the way being in hell feels.) Where a lot of the bands I’ve written about here are rhythm-first enterprises, percussion is pretty much unwelcome in Sunn 0)))’s music. Some of the other music I’ve recommended is deliberately repetitive, but you can’t say that about Sunn 0))) — for something to be repetitive you’d have to be able to sort out where one part ends and the next begins.
For the most part, listening to this music is like listening to a bunch of twisted druids put on a concert where the encore is them sacrificing you to Baal. It’s bleak, bleak stuff, relentless and punishing. As the NYT Magazine profile I mentioned above points out, Sunn 0))) are out to reduce heavy music to its absolute essence, to pull apart the constituent elements and find the black heart at the center. It’s vast, formidable music, made with care and integrity by a couple of guys who truly give a shit. I just can’t listen to it; I fear for my mental health. But look: It’s great this exists. We need some musicians to go out on a limb. Just like I respect and value noise musicians like Japanese god Merzbow, even though I rarely partake – that’s my older brother’s scene – I dig Sunn 0))) and will keep trying them out. What we should always want in music, whatever we like, is more difference, always. And who knows, maybe you need the feeling of death seeping into your ear. In which case, I can’t recommend Sunn 0))) highly enough.
Hevisaurus, "Jee Hevisaurus"
Dinosaurs who play metal for Finnish children. Done.