Good heavy music is a wonderful thing. There is something about it that satisfies at a primal level. I have spent my entire adult life playing heavy music and I can tell you that as a drummer I have a physical connection with it. A tight rhythm section that knows how to emphasize heaviness creates a physical sensation for the listener, but to actually play the parts, to actively determine how the transitions are played out is something that resonates within me every time we get it right. If it were any more physical than it is I would probably have an addiction problem!
It is very hard to believe how commercialized heavy music has become. I understand its appeal to fans, but that it has become a lucrative sub genre of hard rock is something almost no one could have imagined when we started playing as a band. Underground metal and punk rock were so counter-culture that mass acceptance was an anathema to everyone involved in the two movements. It was a badge of honor to be immersed in something that seemed so extreme on the outside, so avant-garde. Metallica blew the doors right off of their hinges and a curious world full of more comfortable music fans rightly poked its head into the dark underbelly it only spoke of in hushed whispers to see what it had been missing. Nothing has been the same in extreme metal since then, and I would argue that the term "underground" has lost almost all of its original meaning.
Quickly, bands by the dozens tried to glom onto what had been fresh and exciting only a few months earlier and as is true in all movements, the genre became watered down. It became harder to find bands that had unique visions in a sea of lowest common denominator head banging. I have no issue with "bangers". What a person loves in his or her music is just as inspiring to them as what I love is to me. But as is the case with all art forms, when so many people are satisfied with "less", it becomes harder to find artist who mean to create "more". I got tired of being disappointed with ninety plus percent of what was coming out and I stopped trying to find new bands that were doing heavy music justice. A few bands have kept pushing the envelope in creative ways and have stayed true to the sense of adventure that underground metal was born with.
Here is a list of five albums that I feel are shining examples of the kinds of worlds "heaviness" can create.
- Godflesh, "Songs of Love and Hate": Godflesh is the last "favorite band" I couldn't get enough of. If machines have dreams, Godflesh would be the soundtrack to all of their nightmares. I suppose they are ultimately an industrial band, but they are just as much a rock band of the darkest variety. Godflesh utilizes more discordant notes, or "cluster tones" than you can shake a stick at. The payoff is a catalogue full of lush, but incredibly dark and ominous guitar landscapes. The band uses repetition to drive home just how heavy the music is, and this is one of those records I can listen to several times in a row. The vocals are brutal and it's easy to imagine blood flying out of Justin Broadrick's mouth by the end of most songs. He sounds like he is either possessed by rage or gripped with terror most of the time, which makes the music more primal than it already is. They do "ugly" in such a way that it becomes beautiful and elegant if you can get lost in it. That is the wonderful thing about so many minor notes and cluster tones... their world is just as limitless and colorful as that of major chord progressions, but the palette is completely different! Equally melodic, but emotive in a very different way. I have always been drawn toward the darker versions of things. Well maybe not toast as much as music and art, but I love a sense of ominousness in creative pursuits and in nature.
- Decapitated, "Organic Hallucinosis": I never gave "blast bands" a chance. Speed was the antithesis of heavy in my mind, but for awhile speed became the new heavy for many people. It became a philosophical sticking point for me. Bands that were focused on playing faster and faster were really just watching each other masturbate. It seemed to me an extension of the lead guitar mentality and while there is a dedication and athleticism I can appreciate, the music lacks so many of the things that I love most about metal. It took Necrophagist, and the Decapitated to finally create something in the sub-genre I could sink my teeth into. "Organic Hallucinosis" is a fully realized, utterly bleak vision executed with surgical precision by clearly passionate metal devotees. While Necrophagist has a flashier aesthetic, Decapitated are the band that will just mow you down. The drummer, who is tragically no longer with us, has the most awe inspiring way of bleeding fast, single stroke tom fills into double bass patterns with enough hi-hat and cymbal work to cover the transitions so that you feel overwhelmed by an undulating wave of post apocalyptic beat downs. The vocalist on this record is quite possibly my favorite of all singers in death/grindcore. He doesn't sing as much as threaten, and it is very effective. Also, the guitarists use surprisingly major chords at times to create powerful, bleak spaces. This album takes no prisoners!
- Celtic Frost, "Monotheist": Celtic Frost was one of the bands I started to get into way back in the early 80's when underground metal began to do more for me than punk rock. In a way, Frost was as punk as they were metal in that they had a similar flare for chording and picking. They were primitive, but darker and edgier. By the time their third release was out they had lost me. They tried to be more artful than heavy and it just didn't work for me anymore. I had started following bands that used more schooled precision in their music and Celtic Frost dragged their knuckles too much for me. Their final album, "Monotheist" finally shows what I believe Tom G. Warrior had been striving for all along. Thirty years of knuckle dragging has made them the aped hands down best at primate brutality with more than a splash of anti-christian preaching. They definitely adhere to the "less is more" doctrine when creating their caveman masterpieces, but they spice things up with truly dark, inspired electronic sound beds and sporadic, cryptic recitations from what seems to be a witch with emphysema. Artful head banging for all of your agitated polytheist, Uruk Hai look-alike warrior friends.
- Opeth, "Blackwater Park": Opeth and Necrophagist were the two bands that restored my faith in extreme metal. They are miles apart aesthetically, but together they create a very rounded picture of what kinds of things are possibly in the truest, rule-less world of metal. Opeth tread dangerously close to renaissance fair music at times, but I can still appreciate that they are trying to create an entire world for their fans, instead of just a room or two. "Blackwater Park" stands out from their other releases to me because of its subtle departure from the traditional framework of underground metal. Enough of a departure that it becomes a different kind of experience. There is something about this record, as with Celtic Frost's "Monotheist", that almost feels like a concept record. I like it when bands successfully weave in some kind of theme to tie different parts of an album together. It makes it feel less like twelve snapshots and more like a movie, if you know what I mean. A lot of people use Pink Floyd references when they speak of Opeth and the overall flow of this record is the strongest connection I can think of between the two bands. Mikael Akerfeldt happens to be another guy whose cookie monster voice actually sounds really damned good, and on this record he hadn't become enamored of his own traditional singing voice yet, so there is a better balance of heavy and light than some of their later recordings.
- Meshuggah, "Koloss": People tried to turn me onto Meshuggah several years ago but I just couldn't do it. I have never heard their oldest releases, but what I did hear I found to be too stiff and cold. There were a couple of things that always wore me down pretty quickly, so when it was suggested that I may enjoy "Obzen" by someone who was never crazy about them either I thought I'd give it a shot. I do really like most of that album but their latest release, "Koloss" shows that the band are willing to branch out more than before. The rhythmic contortions are here and gone in a handful of seconds where they would have gone off on a micro-tweak exercise for an eternity before. Meshuggah are punishingly precise band that raise the bar in such a way that anyone who wants to try to keep up is going to have to think of music in non-traditional ways. I love seeing or hearing a different take on things! They have a way of muting their guitar chunks that makes it sound like something just slammed into whatever building you happen to be in. They make the bass a prominent star in their mixes which makes them far heavier than most. The songs on "Koloss" are shorter and more varied than previous releases which breathes a new life into some of their signature guitar counterpoints. Things that were repetitive before really benefit from the new, slower pace of many of the songs. They have become more ambient than seems possible given the kind of metal they play. I am very happy to see them expand their horizons, and I am even more excited about where they may go from here.