Even in a genre built on intentionally difficult aesthetics, metal vocals hold a special place of distinction for their divisiveness. Cleans aside, the world of growls, screams, gutturals, shrieks, and pig squeals is no country for the faint of heart and even the most trve, blve, cvlt, dyed-in-the-wool metal devotees among us had to slowly acquire the taste for harsh metal vocals in our fandom’s infancy. Once the initial hurdle is cleared, these vocals reveal themselves to be one of the most enjoyable elements in metal, a truly unique vehicle to highlight and bolster the diversity, idiosyncrasy, and emotive power of the genre writ large. But what a hurdle it can be.
Fear not! There is an incredible number of metal bands that don’t need no stinkin’ vocals to rock ‘n roll with the best of them. Over the past few weeks, the staff writers at Heavy Blog have been engaged in a furious, single-elimination fight to the death bracket tournament to determine the best of the best of instrumental metal and rock. As you’ll see from the results below, there are plenty of extraordinary bands running the gamut of all styles of metal so there’s sure to be something for everybody in these ranks. As long as you don’t want vocals, of course.
Be sure to leave a comment with some of your favorite instrumental bands and albums you feel should have made the cut. And, without further ado, check out the best of instrumental metal and rock!
Bongripper – Satan Worshipping Doom
When I think of musical experience coupled with the consumption of weed, I tend to think of your staples: Sleep, Om, Kyuss, Electric Wizard, Weedeater, and the like. These are bands that exude, to me, the essential qualities that make stoner metal the tripped-out experience that it is: low and slow, fuzzy, and ridiculously heavy (bonus points for lyrical journeys involving Marijuanauts and deserts). One thing that I tend not to include in this list of stoner metal qualities is the term sinister. Chicago’s Bongripper has always fallen into that sonic category for me, and despite their name carry a sonic ferocity that most other bands in the stoner metal world cannot match. Theirs is a dark, jagged, oppressively heavy take on the stoner doom motif, and it works brilliantly. Satan Worshipping Doom is the best example in their discography of everything the band does well, condensed into four long, diverse, and devastating instrumental tracks. It’s premium metal sans vocals, and one of my favorite records in these categories.
What sets this band and record apart from others in their genre sphere is undoubtedly guitar tone. While maniacally heavy as one would expect from such an enterprise, the guitar tone strikes a delicate balance between smooth/fuzzy heaviness and jagged sharpness. It feels as if the band could take their sound in a multitude of subgenre-based directions, splitting off whenever they so choose into brutally fast passages or ridiculously slow sections to equal impact. Opener “Hail” is a perfect example of this, blasting out of the gates with fuzzy riffs that sound like the audio equivalent of a knife wrapped in a wool blanket, only to be followed up by “Satan”, which ups the ante in this regard even further, toying with feedback atmospherics before diving head-long into a black metal-esque blastbeat sequence that is razor sharp in its intensity and speed. The band’s instrumental chops are legendary throughout their entire discography, but no more so than here, running the full gamut of their skill-set.
But despite their attachment to speed, aggression, and experimentation, Bongripper never stray too far from that classic stoner doom sound on Satan Worshipping Doom. “Worship” is an all-time great doom metal odyssey, packed to the brim with enough incredible riffs to fuel several sessions of life-dropping. Closer “Doom” continues this trajectory but even more slowly, trudging through some of the albums nastiest and slowest riffs before descending into a screeching, barely controlled sonic maelstrom that caps the album in a sea of all-consuming, nightmarish noise. It’s a sonic journey from start to finish that never once feels anything less than completely engrossing and engaging.
There is so little wrong with this album that it almost seems unfair. Bongripper is a band with gobs of talent, and few pull out the instrumental pyrotechnics with more assurance and zeal than they do. Satan Worshipping Doom is an intense experience that I highly recommend. Just… maybe avoid it if weed makes you paranoid. This won’t help.
Cloudkicker – Beacons
It’s been a minute since we’ve heard from guitarist Ben Sharp’s bedroom project (and one-time Intronaut touring vehicle) Cloudkicker, and when we did last hear new material, the music was closer to Smashing Pumpkins than the Meshuggah-meets-post-rock instrumentation that set internet metal community ablaze during the still-developing djent phase we all went through in 2010. No, Beacons – Cloudkicker’s second full length and fifth overall release – was unlike any other release during that time; not quite djent, not quite post-metal, and not technical or progressive enough to be considered a virtuosic nu-prog instrumental record that would slowly but surely replace djent’s grip on guitar music. It’s been eight years, and while the scene that cropped up since then spawned many bedroom acts, nothing quite sounds like this seminal instrumental metal record.
Beacons’ charm comes from its repetitive and strangely emotive riffing delivered with concise songwriting. Early banger “We’re goin’ in. We’re goin’ down.” establishes this style of collecting massive riffs and repeating them for hypnotic effect while building a massive ambiance in the background, paying off in recurring motifs and choruses. The “Meshuggah riff + ambiance” formula has been done to death since 2010, but Sharp’s approach, particularly in the context of its time period, was more genuine and emotionally effective. Penultimate track “It’s bad. We’re hit, man, we are hit.” for example is as soaring as any instrumental track can be, with a haunting chord progression that can be adequately described as passionate and nostalgic.
In hindsight, with the (until lately) regular release of free music, we might have taken Sharp’s command for shoegaze, djent, and post-metal for granted. The scene that popped up around this looping songwriting technique and style of metal has come and gone, but Beacons has lasting power and holds up nearly a decade later.
Earth – The Bees Made Honey In the Lion’s Skull
As easy as it was to choose Earth as my go-to pick for instrumental metal, landing on a specific album proved incredibly difficult. For starters, the band’s nearly 30-year career is full of two distinct halves, each of which has its own genre classics and all-around excellent records. Anything from the band’s formative years is a textbook example of drone doom at its best, particularly Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version, one of the style’s crowning jewel. Personally, I’m partial to the latter half of the band’s discography; Dylan Carlon and company’s droning, melancholic Americana showed incredible promise on Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method and evolved into some incredible, genre-bending directions. While I think the dark, cello-driven duet of Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I & II are criminally underrated, it’s hard to argue against The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull as the band’s crowning achievement and the one most deserving of the spotlight when it comes to essential instrumental music.
Ten years later, Bees is still as enthralling, lush and textured as it was on first listen. The album truly epitomizes everything that makes Earth arguably the greatest artist in the drone doom subgenre. Carlson plays an invaluable role in establishing this, as his hypnotic, repetitive riffs lure the listener in with their emotive simplicity and retain their interest with subtle but poignant progressions. Underneath lies the patiently precise percussion of Adrienne Davies and plodding bass of Don McGreevy, which maintain an immaculate rhythm that provides crucial structure to the track’s expansive territory. And finally, unique to this record is Earth’s foray into the use of piano and organ, with the steady fingers of Steve Moore providing an intriguing layer to the mix.
Aside from its near-perfection musically, the album’s gorgeous cover art and title must be considered, both of which are derived from the Biblical tale of when Samson “turned aside to see the carcass of the lion: and, behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion” (Judges 14:8, KJV). This is precisely where the album transports the listener: withering and decomposing in a savannah on a muggy day while feeling blissful all the while. Though you really can’t go wrong with the vast majority of Earth’s discography, I can’t think of a better starting point than Bees. It’s the kind of album that encapsulates all of its subgenre’s strengths while defying the confines of what the style dictates as “standard fare.” While other drone doom acts offer up a nice, enjoyable burger, Bees is a honey-glazed lion fillet served with a smokey glass of whiskey.
Latitudes – Old Sunlight
Let’s get this out of the way first thing; yes, Old Sunlight does have vocals on it. But Latitudes are, at their core, an instrumental band, and the vocals are only on a few tracks. The core of Latitudes sound, the instrumentals, are still the focus of Old Sunlight, and the addition of guest vocalists only serves to help the UK-based band achieve a third album that’s as masterfully composed and performed as the material of bands who’ve been at this for twice as long, at least.
Latitudes interplay of the guitar riff, the bassline and the drums, along with whatever instrumental leads the band is playing, allows every track and every section of this album to stand out as their own unique little mini-composition, and nearly every single one of them is memorable. That core sound, of the sometimes-heavy but always emotionally resonant instrumental rock/metal, is further enhanced by the presence of effective and well-performed guest vocal spots. Rather than breaking the flow of the album, these feel like a natural element of the bands sound. That they can write instrumental tracks that are as effective and enjoyable on their own as the tracks they choose to include vocals on, with little to no disparity between quality or style, is a testament to the band’s impressive technical chops and compositional and arrangement abilities.
Few instrumental rock or metal albums affect me emotionally the way this one does. Latitudes previous albums come close, but there’s something about the songwriting and performances on Old Sunlight that puts it above them, and above pretty much any other instrumental album out there. Listen to it on a good pair of headphones and let it envelop you. You won’t be disappointed.
Lotus Ash – The Evening Redness
Partaking of that rarified air reserved for bands that previously employed vocals only to later transition into an instrumental act, Lotus Ash brings a filthy, sludge-indebted doom perspective to the realm of instrumental metal. We’ve spilled ink over this album before and with good reason: The Evening Redness is an exhilarating odyssey through scorched tones and apocalyptic landscapes, one that gamely explores both the cerebral and the carnal while never neglecting its primary duty to be an enjoyable listening experience. Does it hurt that the record is a loose concept album based on Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian? No,
it does not hurt one bit.
The Evening Redness is a decidedly earth-bound album. Rather than soaring aimlessly into the stratosphere like some doom (particularly instrumental doom) tends to do, Lotus Ash remain chained to the desert floor. The riffs are burly and muscular, the vibe is unsettling and perhaps even menacing. Hazily fried tones, churning drums, and the ever-audible warbly bass throughout the record all serve to conjure the same sun-baked, charred apocalyptic landscape that, appropriately, serves as the thematic and literal backdrop of McCarthy’s novel. Even the few spaced out moments of the album (“Unto Stone,” the final moments of “Sometimes the Wolf Comes”) evoke the harsh, barren sparseness of a desert landscape rather than any celestial psychedelia. Anybody who has grappled with Blood Meridian knows how stark, violent, and unforgiving the world McCarthy created can be. Lotus Ash deserves serious credit for successfully conjuring the aesthetic and emotional weight of such an ambitious work of literature via music alone – and without the assistance of vocals to boot.
It’s my educated guess that The Evening Redness isn’t widely known even amongst metal fans. Who can say why certain records float to the top of collective consciousness more effectively than others? No matter – what’s important is that any fan of metal OR literature OR both owes it to themselves to give Lotus Ash a shot. Cerebral, apocalyptic industrially-tinged sludge doom steeped in the influence of one of the most harrowing and blood-soaked novels in the history of American literature. What’s not to love?
Meniscus – Absence of I
I’m certainly no expert when it comes to instrumental music. What I do know is that, whenever I am in the mood for some sans vocal aural stimulation, Meniscus’s Absence of I (2012) is always my first (and often only) port of call. For those unfamiliar, the three-piece (four with “visuals”) instrumental post-rock outfit are from Sydney, lead by current sleepmakeswaves guitarist Daniel Oreskovic. Yet, while the music of that more prestigious outfit—as well as Meniscus’s later output, if I’m being honest—has never truly caught my ear, there’s something about the soothing tones of Absence of I that I just keep going back to.
A lot of the album is reminiscent of many of the mellower passages found on Tool’s Lateralus (2001) (think “Reflection” and “Disposition”) and there’s just enough of a rhythmic edge to keep me engaged and stop my mind from wandering entirely. The mix of harsher, distorted guitar tones and sounds of flies buzzing with the softer drumming and more ethereal guitar loops creates a really interesting contrast that makes the album feel both wholly terrestrial and entirely otherworldly.
The European tour edition of the record, available on Bandcamp, comes with a free download of the previously-unreleased title-track in, place of the nine-minutes of fly-sounds that originally separated “Idiot Savant” and “Far”. The track builds to an uncharacteristically bombastic climax, which is a welcome addition to the record. However, there was something also beautiful about the way the original version lulls you into accepting the interlude as the logical conclusion to the record, before “Far” creeps in and closes thing out. Meniscus and Absence of I might not be genre staples but, for me, they’re often where my instrumental dabblings begin and end.
Russian Circles – Empros
Getting into instrumental music isn’t for everybody, but there are ways in. Just like I tell people there’s a metal band out there for everyone, there’s an instrumental band for every kind of taste. Do you like your music aggressive and raw but still emotive and introspective? Russian Circles is what you want. The trio really runs the gamut from loud and dirty doom to quiet and thought-provoking indie rock sensibilities.
Russian Circles were first introduced to me by the opening track “309”. The track kicks into high gear immediately. It sounds like it would be the soundtrack for a chase scene: the main guitar riff sounds like directed malevolence, seeking out a potential target. You don’t know what it is, but the melody feels like there’s a malicious goal at the end of the track. About halfway through, the song breaks down a little bit and grants some space to the listener. Perhaps the chaser has lost his way, doomed to lose its prey. The music created just emotes all of this through an equal interplay of guitar, bass, and drums.
What astounds me about Russian Circles is that I have to remember this is just 3 guys. I saw them live once and was completely blown away: how is there this much music coming from a guitar, bass, and drums? The compositions are far more complex than a trio could create. There are a lot of moving parts to any Russian Circles track to make them go through the flows of multiple sections in a single song. Most songs don’t stick to a single sound, and Empros defines this flow of the band.
“Mládek” is the track that really shows what this album is about. Chorus-laden tapping guitar riffs with a slow arpeggio pick along with atmospheric bass set the scene. Unlike “309,” the song is clearly more designed for a series of thoughts through musical movements. There’s also a bit more space to this track than the previous, allowing for the listener to become more introspective and experience the song in their head. Still, it doesn’t take long for the band to turn that on its head and introduce metal dissonance. Everything here is designed to bring out an emotional response from the listener, sometimes through the build up a melody but also through the dramatic shifts in a single track. If you need your metal to help you think, Empros is what you need.
Tempel – The Moon Lit Our Path
When we say “instrumental metal”, a very specific aesthetic and sound immediately come to mind. Since it has an obvious emphasis on intricate instrumentation, progressive music has always been a natural breeding ground for finally doing away with vocals and going pure instrumental. Thus, many people associate instrumental metal with over the top solos, intensely weird rhythmic structures and, in general, an image relying on technicality, musical prowess and intricacy.
But I’m here to sell you something different today (as is much of the list as a whole, by the way); I’m here today to sell you Tempel. These guys make nothing short of blackened stoner metal but instrumental. No screeches or deep growls accentuate these blast-beats and killer riffs. The Moon Lit Our Path runs on guitars, bass, drums and a fury that’s impossible to contain. That’s the secret behind why it even works; it shrugs off the need for melancholy, introspection and pent-up energy that its parent genres are so often riddled with and just goes right at it, hitting you with riff after riff.
All you need to do to be convinced is listen to the opening track, “Carvings in the Door”. It’s over eight minutes long but honestly feels like twenty seconds because it just doesn’t. Fucking. Stop. The bass is constantly chugging away at some line or other, partnering up with the drums to keep everything in motion. The guitars (and there are like, a bazillion tracks of them), exchange riffs, leads, bridges and solos in just the right amount, creating a churn above the deep waves, a constant play of aural foam that keeps you hooked.
That’s the one-two punch: deep resonance that holds a trove of ideas and sounds and a lighter touch that runs above it, bewitching you with elfin dexterity. Yeah, OK, perhaps I’ve been listening to a little too much metal lately. Regardless, this relatively unknown gem is a must-have for any fans of instrumental metal; it’s a masterclass in how to make it interesting without necessarily resorting to shred-storms or guitar wank fests.
This Will Destroy You – Young Mountain
I first heard This Will Destroy You when I was in college. I would listen to a Sigur Ros radio station while I studied or wrote papers. When “I Believe in Your Victory” first played, I was completely blown away. I had never heard such emotional and expressive music. Certainly, a lot of post-metal bands could write engaging melodies, but I had not heard anything quite so enthralling. It was totally mesmerized. I had to hear more of this.
The entirety of Young Mountain, the Texas quartet’s debut album, is just as emotional. It’s really peaks and troughs with your feelings. The soft melodic sections can be touching with their echoed clean guitar melodies. Jeremy Galindo and Christopher Royal King make some of the most beautiful guitar harmonies. They understand the power and weight of layering and composing. These really are more than just instrumental songs; these are composed symphonies. Symphonies are meant to be evocative. They’re more than just composed harmonies. It’s about bringing out a certain feeling and connecting you to the music.
While I’m personally more attached to “I Believe in Your Victory,” “The World Is Our ___” is the greater example of what This Will Destroy You can do. It begins with the quiet build-up of an echoed lone guitar melody with an atmospheric synth comes in with a hi-hat roll to give the song a little direction. Raymond Brown’s bass even gets to join in the melody a bit and plays around with the guitars. Then everything blows up when the guitars get distorted and the splash cymbals begin. The whole song plays around with this soft-loud-soft pattern, but it’s not just a practiced pattern or a force of habit. It’s absolutely necessary for the emotional delivery of the track. This is easily a modern instrumental classic.