On last week’s podcast, Eden and Noyan dove deep into the question of what it means for a genre to be “alive,” “dead,” or “revived.” One of those genres in question was post-metal, which is currently seeing more widespread attention given to it than it has in a while due to its prevalence and influence in many other higher-profile or ascending groups, from Deafheaven to So Hideous to Fallujah and Wrvth. Part of this discussion was spurred due to a recent article that made the rounds a few weeks ago from Doc Coyle writing over at VH1, in which he posited that post-metal was “the next big thing” in metal. As all the best clickbait headlines do, the article spread like wildfire and was met with a ton of derision and strong opinions, including around the Heavy Blog virtual watercooler. And for good reason, though perhaps not for the same reasons many think. Coyle’s thesis was not completely without merit (“next big thing” notwithstanding), but because he approached it from the completely wrong angle.
Commenters left and right have carped and complained that the vast majority of the bands Coyle held up as shining examples currently carrying the banner for post-metal into the forefront of mainstream metal — Baroness, Shining (NOR), Kylesa, Russian Circles, and the aforementioned Deafheaven and So Hideous — aren’t actually post-metal bands, and technically they’re correct. The only bands that could realistically fall into the confines of the genre as it’s widely understood are Russian Circles — which has been around long enough and grew so much out of the vestiges of the original post-metal wave that calling them the next big anything sounds a bit disingenuous — and So Hideous — which, as I noted in my review of their fantastic Laurestine, is just one of many boxes encompassing a band that is both all and none of them at once. The rest are very clearly not post-metal bands. They’re bands that have either been heavily influenced by or have embraced some of the pinnings of the genre in recent years (Baroness’s Yellow & Green and the past couple of Kylesa albums for sure have employed some post-metal-y atmospherics and constructions at times).
There are certainly plenty of bands in the past decade that have turned to post-metal for ways to tinker with and experiment with their sound, and it is not at all a stretch to say that we are in the throes of a period of high experimentation with the genre for all sorts of bands (Fallujah’s The Flesh Prevails is nothing if not the album that has launched dozens of post-metal-infused tech death ships just in the past year alone). I’m willing to be charitable here and say that that is really the point that Coyle was trying to make: that post-metal, as a very loose and broad set of tenets and musical elements, is permeating through the greater metal community in ways we haven’t really seen before and that it is changing a lot of how we think about and discuss much of the heavy music we listen to. But that is not the same as saying post-metal itself is seeing a major resurgence and that the post-metal scene is where the most interesting things are happening in heavy music.
Which brings me to an important point that Eden brought up in the podcast discussion: this concept of a creative pulse and using it as a broad (though certainly not complete) measure of the overall vibrance and vitality of a musical genre or scene. The notion is that every genre or style of music that takes root and grows has a natural creative life cycle. There is a period of innovation and experimentation — a pulse — in which bands either break new sonic territory or borrow ideas from other bands in other places and take them further and in completely new directions. Some of these bands blow up and become the de facto standard bearers of this new “genre”; many only reach cult status and eventually die out as footnotes in the history of the genre, oft referenced by the bigger bands in the scene and the scene’s most avid fans but not far beyond that. After this initial “pulse” comes the period of rapid growth, in which leagues of new bands start popping up who are influenced by the original crop of bands who formed the genre. Those original bands continue growing and putting out material, some of whom may continue to experiment and push their sound and the sound of the genre for a while, some of whom may actually end up moving away from that sound that got them big as they continue to evolve, and some of whom will inevitably try to ride the sound that got them big as far as they can for many albums until few people other than their most diehard fans can muster any enthusiasm or care about them.
Eventually, the growth ends, the zeitgeist moves on, and fewer new bands mimicking that sound pop up. This by no means is a definite indication that a genre is “dead” or even dying, but in the natural life cycle of a popular style of music, there must be crests and nadirs in terms of cultural relevance and creativity. To keep the cycle going from there, it requires a new “pulse,” a new set of bands who take what the previous wave of that genre accomplished and once again experiment, tinker, and at times completely shake the foundation of that sound. In the many conversations Eden and I have had about both post-rock and post-metal in this context, we have lamented the general state of the music and the many elements that once were fresh and innovative but now feel predictable, stale, and less like freeing musical liberation than constrictive boxes and corners bands write themselves into. You certainly will not be seeing either of us writing an article with a headline like “Is Post-Metal The Next Big Thing In Heavy Music?” anytime soon. However, where there is life there is hope, and there are absolutely strong signs of life in the genre if you know where to look. So come along with us for the ride as we delve into a few of these bands and the ways in which they are tweaking, disrupting, and ultimately transforming the way we should be thinking about post-metal, all the while hopefully pushing it forward towards its next great creative “pulse.”
A Swarm of the Sun
The best place to start might be on the edges, where post-metal intersects with post-rock and the lines between “heavy” and “sad” start to blur. There are many guides to such places, psychopomps that might help us make sense of the new maps and routes being drawn into what post metal is all about. Perhaps the most adept of these totems however are A Swarm of the Sun, a duo that put out one of the most emotional albums of 2015. The Rifts embodies everything that we can discern to be the next “pulse” in post metal: the new wave of what that sound means and how it operates. The album features its share of heavy riffs and crushing tonality but the emphasis is on the spaces between these monolithic weights. These spaces are populated by piano, sonorous leads and an overall dark and ethereal ambiance.
However, the vocals might be the largest departure from the “stock” post-metal sound. One of the common features of the old style of post-metal is very abrasive, drawn out and semi-growled vocals. Here, we’re “treated” instead to clean vocals on the verge of heartbreak, melancholy dripping from every single word. Coupled with the recent of the instruments, the vocals perhaps speak the loudest on what’s new about the “new wave” of post-metal. The focus had always been on the darker side of the emotional scale but plenty of anger and rage had been added into the mix. Now, the main emotion conveyed if one of loss, melancholy and despair. It’s less grandiose, less overbearing and monolithic and rather more personal, hurt and bereft.
Mouth of the Architect
That is not to say that the genre is moving away from anger or abrasive sounds completely. Another direction within this “pulse” is the incorporation of the more distorted sounds directly into the bereftness, creating a mind-boggling meld of the two emotions or musical palettes. Such a merging can be seen on Mouth of the Architect‘s masterpiece, Quietly. Although it came out years ago, in 2008, it can be seen as a precursor or harbinger of the movement we are discussing. The album features many quiet passages but also rolling, shattering heavy parts and even a direct admonition to get mad, in the form of a sample of the famous speech from the movie “The Network.”
But still, the way this album wants you to get mad is not via some object shattering fit or perhaps body-pummeling mosh. It’s much more intelligent and insidious than that. Instead, it wants you to look deep within you, access some sort of latent rage at the state of things as they are and channel that creatively. This comes to light in the music as well, as the band keep switching up the two styles. It’s not an issue of the speed of the switch, but the different releases and applications of pressure. Instead of one rolling wave, one massive bombardment, we are subjected to ducking and weaving, quiet passages that are their own beast and set up the listener to the full blast of the heavier segments.
In a similar vein, Brooklyn’s Sannhet have garnered widespread coverage and praise for their ability to channel post-metal’s more primal and abrasive side and condense it into patently un-post-like track lengths. The trio employ chunky guitar tones, searing melodies and noisy production that wades into shoegaze territory, with the near-constant pummeling of drummer Christopher Todd anchoring the whole thing and constantly propelling it forward. In this way they could be compared to another post-metal trio, the aforementioned Russian Circles, who often revolve around the intensely precise drumming of Dave Turncrantz and have, particularly over their last couple of albums, embraced a looser compositional and production style.
Sannhet is in no way a Russian Circles knock-off though, and their latest album Revisionist is all the proof needed of that. The band have little use for long stretches of repeating lines and buildups, preferring to launch themselves directly into crushing passages of chug patterns, blastbeats, and great guitar hooks. The songs are densely packed with ideas, but the group pushes each composition to a logical and often climatically-satisfying conclusion without feeling the need to draw things out into the usual pitfalls of loud/soft/loud compositions. Instead, those lighter, more ethereal moments are given their own space to breathe as standalone tracks, such as “Sinking Forward” and “Mint Divine.” The result is a seamless and often brutally gorgeous journey, but one that knows exactly how not to overstay its welcome and blunt its edge.
Tangled Thoughts of Leaving
Moving onto something pretty radically different, we find ourselves on the opposite end of the world in Australia, which has already proven to be incredibly fertile ground in recent years for all kinds of incredible metal. Though probably best known for their excellent prog scene, they’ve also cultivated a fantastic crop of instrumental rock and metal groups (adventurous post-rockers sleepmakeswaves likely being the best-known of them). Perth’s Tangled Thoughts of Leaving are leading the charge though as one of the most fascinating and mesmerizing post-metal acts anywhere. I gave a pretty encompassing survey of the band’s career thus far in my review of their most recent full-length, Yield To Despair, but the short version is that after starting out as a more technically-focused experimental jazz/metal fusion group, TToL have settled into a slower and heavier drone-influenced sound to become one of the most emotionally-crushing acts out there. Both Yield To Despair and its recent companion EP, The Black Captain, are absolute monsters of tonality, creating massive walls of sound steeped in pitch-black sonic muck that are occasionally offset by moments of hauntingly stark beauty, often led by the shimmering piano and keys work of Ron Pollard.
Listening to these two albums in particular, it’s difficult to come up with any band anywhere who is creating this kind of affecting, and frankly, downright upsetting music. Sure, you can see plenty of traces of Sunn O))) or Ulver in their more blatant noise/drone sections, and you can hear the great doom influence of bands like Earth in moments when beautiful guitar melodies manage to rise above the noise to present a moment of respite, especially in the tearjerker “Shaking Off Futility.” But I dare you to point to anyone putting all of these elements together within a more traditional post-metal framework in such a cohesive package, and I dare you to find anyone able to blend in the kind of jazzy and improv-based melodies, leads, and jams that they sprinkle throughout, especially on tracks like “The Albanian Sleepover Pt. 2.” TToL are truly doing what no post-metal band has done before, and more people need to be paying close attention to them and see where they go next.
And on the other side of the coin, we stay in Australia and talk about the other most fascinating and innovative post-metal group in that part of the world, Dumbsaint. Eden already wrote about the band in detail on this very subject of “second-wave post-metal” in his extensive review of the band’s newest album Panorama, in ten pieces, and frankly I can’t say it better than he did, but I’ll try to neatly summarize his sentiments from there. Dumbsaint are, for sure, a heavy as all hell band who stack their songs with juicy riffs contrasted by more contemplative and gorgeous lighter touches. But what separates this band from anyone else out there is the intimately cinematic approach they take to every aspect of what they do.
As visual artists themselves, they not only create vast pieces of work, but every bit of writing they do comes with a matching visual in mind. This means that the band have produced a lot of videos to accompany their music (which you should absolutely watch), but it also means that the music is not simply “soundtrack music” in the conventional sense. Oftentimes, people throw around the “soundtrack” label at music that is pleasant and does some interesting things but is ultimately low-key enough to not detract from whatever activity they might be focusing on, so essentially background music. Dumbsaint’s music is anything but however. It demands your attention, and every piece of it is written with this razor-sharp narrative intent in mind. It’s dark, brooding, mysterious, haunting, and always brimming with tension and carefully-calculated emotion. It’s also a perfect extension of the notion of post-metal as a way to express grand and heavy ideas and emotions over a period of time without the constraints of more conventional metal songwriting, both embracing the strengths of the genre while putting their unique spin that elevates it into a much higher form. Once again, another band that is criminally underrated, and along with TToL, forms two very distinct forks in the post-metal road that are equally fascinating and invigorating.
A Couple Of Other Bands To Keep Your Eyes On
Instrumental music is perhaps the field where post-metal is pushed most to its limits. Lacking the signature vocal styles, it is forced to find new ways to express the more abrasive elements of its sound. Telepathy. however don’t concern themselves too much with making their music heavier or more crushing to catch up with the lack of vocals: instead, they know that the ambiance and atmosphere they seek will be generated by their composition and execution. And such is the result: by relying on intricate layers and complex musical interactions, Telepathy. manage to create a sound that is somewhat soothing at the same time as it is violent, crushing and elusive.
I wrote about these guys earlier this year, and even though they currently only have one EP out called Antique, it’s strong as hell and noteworthy enough to warrant paying some serious attention to. Hitting several areas mentioned in the above bands, particularly fellow Brooklynites Sannhet, the band hit an enticing mixture of catchy, winding heavy riffs with dreamier and more uplifting passages reminiscent of a post-rock band we’re very fond of around here, Sleeping Bear. We will definitely be on the lookout for their debut full-length, which is likely to drop sometime next year.
So, it’s safe to say that there are many directions and different sounds contained in the bands we’ve explored above. It seems unlikely that one of these sounds will be crowned supreme over the others anytime soon. That might be a hamper over any imagined renaissance that might overcome the genre in the near future. However, it’s at least an indicator that the genre is far from dead. Rather, this might be the period between the “pulses”, a gathering of forces indicated by questions being asked about the basic structure of the post-metal genre and its tropes.
For us, as listeners, this is a good place to be in. It ensures that we have a direction to hang on to, common elements that are still intimately recognizable and grounding. On top of these elements we also receive innovation and new ideas, the buds of new landscapes and musical approaches. This crossroad also comes with an onus however, an obligation to stick with the genre we love. Not only fidelity but also prudence is required: it’s ultimately up to us which new ideas survive and what the shape of things to come will ultimately formulate into. Open your ears and your pockets and vote with your attention on what bands are moving in directions we would like to foster and how post-metal will look in the coming years.
-NC + EK