Is 2020 the Year of Avant Metal?

As a genre, heavy metal is conservative in nature. Not necessarily in the political sense (though there is enough of that), but in the sense of musical progress. Hundreds of new albums from recent years don’t seem to advance the field beyond where it was 30 years ago. Some are comedically embarrassing in their bombast.

But every so often, avant-garde metal rears its head, roars loudly and discordantly in time signatures involving prime numbers, then seems to go dormant for a while. These moments are to be treasured, especially if the bombast is more charming than not. A recent article on Burning Ambulance noted that recently “Avant-garde metal continues to gush forth from New York City at an unprecedented rate.” I do not disagree, but would expand this thought a bit – while focused on New York, the music is coming from all over.

Furthermore, we are experiencing more and more of an overlap, in terms of personnel and styles, between avant-metal, free jazz, classical, and drone. As someone who grew up with metal and later became a fan of the latter three styles, there is little that I find more compelling than the genre-mashing that is going on now.

Below is an attempt to characterize a handful of this year’s avant-metal releases of note by excerpting our previous reviews of said albums. Enjoy.

Insect Ark – The Vanishing

Insect Ark features Dana Schechter on bass guitar, lap steel, electronics, and synths, while Andy Patterson takes on drumming duties. Collectively, they produce a compelling all-instrumental release that lands somewhere between metal and King Crimson inflected prog rock, with a sprinkling of doom, psychedelia, and post-rock. Despite being a duo, Schechter’s multi-instrumentalism and liberal use of overdubs results in The Vanishing having a think, dense sound. Anchored by heavy riffs and pounding rhythms, the lap steel adds a melancholic twang while the synths flesh out this dark atmosphere.

John Zorn – Beyond Good and Evil – Simulacrum Live

Simulacrum is John Zorn’s progressive / thrash metal band. It consists of John Medeski on organ, Kenny Grohowski on drums, and Matt Hollenberg on guitar. This is the seventh release from the group and the first one that is live. Medeski’s gritty swirling and angular soloing is contrasted with Hollenberg’s power chords and brief leads. If anything, Hollenberg is most unleashed of the three as he follows Zorn’s frameworks but subtlely diverges in how he carries out his solos. Grohowski is an absolute monster behind the kit, taking 90’s technical metal drumming to a new level with his jazz background. Indeed, the jazz (and even blues) influences shine through as well in one or two tracks, while soundtrack-like atmospherics can be found in several passages.

Triptykon with the Metropole Orkest – Requiem (Live At Roadburn 2019)

Triptykon is an unusual gothic / doom metal band that rose from the ashes of Celtic Frost, another unusual gothic / doom metal band. Orchestral metal hybrids have had mixed results at best. What is different here is how the orchestra is integrated into both the older and the new parts from the outset. The string and brass sections accentuate the heavy riffing, while Thomas Gabriel Fischer and Safa Heraghi trade off lead and backing vocals, employing call-and-response techniques from time to time. The pace is often deliberate with droning and doomy textures, while Heraghi’s soaring leads are accompanied by sawing violins. In addition to these elements, drummer Hannes Grossmann plays slowly-evolving patterns accompanied by subtle orchestral percussion. Bassist Vanja Slajh sticks with distorted rhythms that fit together with swells of horns. There is more than a little similarity to earlier Univers Zero, though without the latter’s overt complexities.

Doctor Nerve – LOUD

At first blush, LOUD seems to have much in common with what this group was doing a quarter-century ago – the horns wailing over power chords, the tightly-composed overlapping structures, as well as a general irreverence that comes across as a bunch of serious musicians just having fun with doing the unexpected. If You Were Me Right Now I’d Be Dead blasts off aggressively with outside blowing and dense patterns over weaponized heavy guitar. Painting with Bullets focuses on rhythmic complexity and centers around staccato piano chords. Meta 04 takes the rhythm in even more twisted and convoluted directions and couples it with guitar and horn flourishes and atmospherics. Uses Probe Form is another densely contrapuntal piece with active bass and piano work under horn and guitar solos.

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With a title that resembles something that you would see in a UNIX filesystem, HATHENTER has a similarly unconventional approach to its music. The group consists of guitarist Mick Barr and Warr guitarist Colin Marston, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, and bass guitarist Eliane Gazzard. The album is characterized by relentless speed-picking, often with multiple members of the group doing so in unison. The resulting sounds merge and blend into stuttered and buzzing drones. The picking falls into both distinct patterns that create giant distorted walls of dense sound, as well as more exploratory forms that twist around a central theme. This extreme approach is philosophically similar to post-rock but accompanied by an intensity and uneasiness.  Nonetheless, some sections sound more synth-generated (this may or may not be the case given the range of the Warr guitar and any studio manipulation that may have taken place), and closer to dark ambient soundscapes.

Behold The Arctopus – Hapeleptic Overtrove

Arctopus is Colin Marston on Warr guitar (a touch-based instrument similar to the Chapman Stick), Mike Lerner on guitar, and Jason Bauers on percussion. Hapeleptic Overtrove is an exercise in extreme technical metal containing the interlocking rhythms, demanding time changes, rolling melodies, heavy use of hammer-ons and pull-offs, and crunching riffs that you might expect. Think 80’s King Crimson turned up to 11, distorted, and played at double speed by a hyperactive band with little patience for repetition. In other words, the patterns produced by this trio are insane. But what sets this album apart from a handful of bands in the same general space is the aforementioned drumming of Bauers – his varied contributions do make the nine tracks on Hapeleptic Overtrove sound like chamber metal. Perhaps the best example of this is Blessing in Disgust, a 3-minute burst of disjointed energy with 30 minutes worth of ideas. Bauers’ bells, blocks and general rattling give an already convoluted set of start/stop rhythms a unique character and feel.

Titan to Tachyons – Cactides

Led by brilliant and versatile guitarist Sally Gates, Titan to Tachyons is a new trio with Matt Hollenberg on bass and Kenny Grohowski drums. Cactides consists of five medium-length instrumental tracks that are influenced by 50 years of metal and progressive rock, rearranged and mutilated for 2020. But Gates and company go beyond the tropes of these genres, incorporating heavy riffing, speed picking, feedback, and arpeggiated chords into unconventional structures and throwing in a dash of open improvisation here and there. Case in point, the ponderous themes of Tycho Magnetic would feel familiar to any fan of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, but also feature the cerebral atmospherics of early King Crimson as well as the circular melodies common to Zorn compositions. Representative of the album as a whole, this track also exhibits effortless shifts in tempos and textures, as Gates changes up playing style and effects pedals. Hollenberg’s playing mostly follows and accentuates that of Gates, while Grohowski’s signature maximalist drumming style is relentlessly active.