Djent Was A Genre Full Of Great Debuts And Little Else

Djent had an explosive entrance into the world of heavy music, around the start of the decade. It was a truly exciting occurrence, with first-wave acts like Periphery, Animals As Leaders and Cloudkicker filtering the technically-driven progressive sound of acts like Meshuggah, Sikth, and those of the budding “Sumeriancore” movement, into something  altogether more accessible, while still retaining much of their forebears’ technical and progressive edge. Yet, like most new sub-genres, djent quickly devolved into pastiche and gave way to over saturation—perhaps a little bit quicker than most. Djent, it seems, has had a propperly ballistic trajectory, and—in 2017—as its momentum trails off, it’s hard to get excited about this once-promising phenomenon.

It’s difficult to deny the appeal of the subgenre’s early output. It really is striking how many now-classic records managed to crop up within the movement during its initial period. Along with the foundational releases produced by those “first-wave” artists mentioned above, can be readily cited Vildhjarta’s Masstaden, Tesseract’s One, Februus by Uneven Structure (all 2011) and—my personal favorite djent offering—MonumentsGnosis (2012). An argument might also be made for Glass Cloud’s The Royal Thousand and The HAARP Machine‘s Disclosure (both 2012), or even Volumes’ Via (2011). That so many great albums were released in such a short amount of time is a testament to the excitement djent inspired, and to the quality of the many ridiculously talented musicians it brought to our attention. However, a closer look reveals a further, unshakable realization: these classic albums are all also debut records, and there have been few subsequent releases that have challenged their stranglehold on the djent canon.

Many of the bands that produced the great debuts appear to have disappeared off the face of the planet, and those follow-ups we have received have usually paled in comparison to their predecessors. Vildhjarta have been teasing their supposed sophomore effort “Thall” since the release of their debut. Six years on, however, fans have nothing to show for it, besides the 2013 EP Thousands of Evils, which I’m sure the majority of them have forgotten even exists—for good reason! Fans of The HAARP Machine and Glass Cloud have found themselves in a similar situation. The most the members of the latter have done in recent years was to make an Emmure album actually half-listenable (even if the rest of its makeup remains unforgivable garbage), while the former seems stuck in line-up limbo.

Even when djent bands have continued to put out records, they’ve rarely been worth the wait. Outside of Periphery, Animals As Leaders and Textures have perhaps been the most prolific and well-regarded of djent acts. Yet, while each of their subsequent releases has been decent enough in their own way, each has also consistently felt less and less essential than the last. There’s an argument to be made for Weightless (2011) being Animals As Leaders’ true masterpiece. However, 2013’s The Joy Of Motion proved ultimately forgettable, and I personally know a handful of AAL fans who didn’t even bother listening to last year’s mostly mundane Madness of Many. When it comes to Tesseract, Altered State and Polaris surely have their fans. Yet neither release has shared the success and impact of their outstanding debut, and each has moved further and further away from what made that record, and arguably band itself, so great to begin with (and, if their new single is anything to go by, they seem to be continuing on that trajectory). Underground favorites The Korea remain pleasing to their fans, although the quality of their output also seems to have waned following their 2012 breakthrough—and first properly djentrified—album Колесницы Богов (Chariots Of The Gods). Interest in what Volumes are doing has seemed to similarly wane with each of their subsequent records, and Cloudkicker quickly abandoned the djent sound—going on to release a string of more ambient/experimental releases that grew less and less interesting with each incarnation.

Often it’s the best djent acts who have proven to be some of the most disappointing. Although it received widely positive reviews across the board, it also took six long years for the follow-up to Februus to arrive. When it did, my initial reaction was to ask: “what the hell happened to Uneven Structure?”, and subsequent ventures have proven equally fruitless. Again, it’s a decent enough record for what it is but it hardly stacked up to what came before. Hip-hop hybrids Hacktivist share a similar story—making waves with their self-titled EP in 2012. By the time their lacklustre debut arrived four years later, however, it seemed all the excitement and enthusiasm had been drained. Monuments’ The Amanuensis (2014), on the other hand, arrived hot on the heels of Doxa. Yet, while it would have been a fantastic album by anyone else’s standards, it also seemed to lack the spark of their debut and next to nothing has been heard from them since. Likewise, Ghost Iris—a lesser and lesser-known act to be sure, but one I nonetheless had hopes of reviving the genre following the arrival of their impressive debut, Anecdotes Of Science & Soul (2015)—took only a couple of years to get their second record out. Unfortunately, the end result, Blind World (2017), made me wish they’d taken a bit longer.

There are exceptions, of course. Periphery have managed to put out four full-length records, including a double-album, and a fantastic seven-track EP over the last seven years—all of fairly consistent quality. They also long ago left their landmark debut behind as the benchmark of their lauded career, in favor of either its far superior sequel or the ambitious Juggernaut double album(s). Skyharbor seem to have managed to string together a pair of equally-rewarding releases so far, and underground favourites, while the inexplicably popular Northlane appear to have averted the issue altogether by never releasing a truly worthwhile album to begin with. However, these successful examples remain few and far between and, outside of Periphery, the acts listed here never set the bar as high as those mentioned above did in the first place. So what is it about the djent scene in particular that has seen it slip into a seemingly inevitable sophomore slump?

There’s perhaps a fair argument to be made that djent is still in its infancy, and that time simply has not allowed for strong follow-up records to emerge. However, when compared to other sub-genres, five-to-seven years seems like more than enough time to establish a healthily-developed body of work. Thrash metal, for example, didn’t just give us Kill ‘em All and Show No Mercy in 1983, but also Ride The Lightning, Master of Puppets, Hell Awaits and Reign In Blood by 1986—along with such non-debut classics like Among The Living, Peace Sells…, Rust In Peace, The New Order, Fabulous Disaster, …And Justice For All, South of Heaven, Seasons In The Abyss, Eternal Devastation, Pleasure To Kill, Extreme Aggression, The Years Of Decay, Beneath The Remains and many others, by the time it was at the stage where djent is now, and it continued to deliver quality releases for (at least) a short time after. The same can be said for death metal between 1985 and 1991 and second-wave black metal during the early nineties.

Such prolific output isn’t particular to just those genres either. Taking a look at more recent trends: bands like Lamb Of God, Killswitch Engage, Chimaira, Darkest HourAs i Lay Dying, Parkway Drive, Shadows Fall and God Forbid kept putting out quality releases throughout the NWOAHM/metalcore explosion, and—despite repeated reports of its demise—deathcore is still very much a thing, and one often worth delving into. If you want to take it in the other direction, it can be pointed out that Black Sabbath released their first five, definitive albums within three years and the entirety of their classic output with Ozzy Osbourne (sans Thirteen (2013)) within the space of eight. Led Zeppelin did much the same within a similar time frame, and even if later acts like Judas Priest, Motörhead and even Iron Maiden took a little bit to get going, once they did they managed to string together at least three or four classic releases in a row. Seven years is enough time for most sub-genres to run their course, and in 2017 it feels like djent very much has. Yet, outside of Periphery, none of the many acts it spawned have managed to construct a long-lasting and consistently rewarding career out of it.

An appeal might also be made to the technical nature of djent, as a reason for the hold-up between quality records. Yet this excuse doesn’t seem to float either, when compared to those preceding Sumeriancore acts who bridged the gap between deathcore and djent. Born Of Osiris, Veil Of Maya, After The Burial and Within The Ruins have all constantly put out decent records (well, the first three at least) and even put out some of their best material in recent years. Likewise, Dream Theater—a far more demanding and ambitious act than any djent mainstay—manage to put out a record every couple of years or so, whether anyone asked for it or not; and the entire tech-death scene speaks for itself. Keeping things closer to home: Sikth managed everything they pulled-off first time around in the space of about six years, and although Meshuggah tend to take three or four years between records, they’re usually worth the wait. No djent band has put out anything yet that rivals these two progenitors at their best, and it’s seeming less and less likely that they ever will.

Perhaps the answer to djent’s lack of endurance has to do with its distinctively more centralized approach to writing music. While most bands in any genre can be reduced to a singular mastermind, it seems like djent band’s often stand in for one person. Animals As Leaders are essentially Tosin Abasi’s backing act and the same can be said for The HAARP Machine and Al Mu’min, while Chimp Spanner and Cloudkicker are literally just one guy. Most of the other acts mentioned here have found it hard to pin down a consistent line-up and, while the amount of ship-jumping and member-sharing that’s gone on within the scene isn’t at all too dissimilar to the amount that went on in the early days of thrash, death and black metal. In djent’s case, however, it’s often the singers who have been switched out between releases—causing a hold-up while also forcing listeners to re-acquaint themselves with perhaps the most crucial element of their sound each time a new record rolls around. It’s no coincidence that Periphery went from being just “Bulb” and a bunch of demos, to releasing their debut album around the time their original line-up solidified, and since then they have only undergone two line-up changes—both in-between their first and second albums. Like them or not, Periphery’s stable line-up and their wider array of main songwriters has seen them continue to lead the djent charge throughout the genre’s entire existence, while also being one of the few acts to continually and consistently expand upon what came before.

It is still potentially early days for the genre, and there are still new bands putting out new records, and doing new and exciting things with its distinctive sound. When compared with other notable movements that have taken place within metal, however, it also seems to have severely underperformed—by this point anyway. Maybe I’m wrong about the new Uneven Structure record, and maybe the great third and second albums from Monuments and Vildhjarta are just around the corner. But the clock is ticking and something else—some new sonic fad—is surely on its way, and the many acts mentioned here are going to have to severely step-up their game if they want to be remembered as anything more than a curious blip on the radar of heavy music history. Then again, maybe the race djent ran was simply a sprint and not a marathon.