Avant-Metal Rolls on in 2022

Two years ago we published an article covering what we saw as an upsurge in the volume and quality of avant-metal. Thankfully, not much has changed since then. This rough genre (which involves “traditional” heavy metal tropes combined with other styles and new ideas) continues to thrive. When people ask me if I listen to heavy metal, I might respond that 98% of it is pretty rote and what I like is squarely in the other 2%.

What makes avant-metal interesting – at least to these ears – is that it can take various forms. Some of these are metal-adjacent rather than metal themselves. Classical, jazz, free improv, experimental, and drone all play a role in some of the most innovative modern examples. Thus, even listeners who are not into metal at all – or even put off by it – can find much to like when exploring the 2%.

Below are reprints of a handful of reviews that we published earlier this year focusing on this growing niche.

Jo Quail – The Cartographer

This album is largely classical music that is played in a heavy fashion, with its unusual instrumentation adding a subtlely alien feel. Techniques from minimalism (pounding piano chords) and chant are coupled with martial percussion to great effect. This is often strangely reminiscent of Magma, another source of ponderous rock/classical amalgams. The centerpiece of the album is Movement 3, a powerful and deliberately-paced 15-minute cinematic exploration. It begins softly with layers of brass and voices, while staccato rhythms build and ebb. Quail’s contributions are subdued – mostly taking the form of slow melodies. This picks up in volume and pace around the 7-minute mark with thick and majestic chords from the strings and brass. At first blush, these sections resemble massive electric guitar riffs (to be fair the cello and violin are amplified so some distortion effects may have been applied). The piano and percussion continue their off-kilter march, driving the piece forward as the vocals switch from quiet to shouted. All of this is restrained – controlled despite its raw energy and power. This one track is just a taste of The Cartographer. There is much more to hear, including passages that would be in place on a recording of Steve Reich or Sunn O))). But Quail’s offering manages to also have similarities to other classical / metal hybrids of recent years – Triptykon and Nightwish, for instance.

John Zorn – Spinoza

Spinoza is the latest effort from John Zorn’s organ-metal trio Simulacrum. It features two long tracks, Immanence showcasing guitarist Bill Frisell and the title track as a vehicle for Zorn himself. Immanence keeps with the general Simulacrum style that has developed since their first release in 2015. Complex riffing and runs are punctuated by chaotic breaks and softer interludes. Frisell is prominent in the latter, his undistorted electric taking on bluesy or Americana tones that contrast with the distorted blasts of energy from Hollenberg. In particular, Frisell and Medeski accompany one another with a notable sensitivity. Even in the more energetic passages where Frisell employs distortion, he maintains a distinct spikiness harkening to jazz and rock rather than extreme metal. Spinoza begins with Zorn’s signature disjointed lines, including a long, piercing high-pitched blast that is joined by heaviness from Medeski, Grohowski, and Hollenberg. The track is a vehicle for soloing, with Zorn, Medeski, and Hollenberg trading leads. Not unexpectedly, Zorn’s contributions are outside the lines and include harsh fragments. When the tempo slows, Zorn’s playing tames but remains edgy. Where Spinoza shines, however, is when Zorn relents a bit and engages in a soaring solo over a pounding metal riff structure from his bandmates.

The Flying Luttenbachers – Terror Iridescence

Led by multi-instrumentalist Weasel Walter (who focuses on drums and guitars), the Luttenbachers recorded and performed from the early 90’s until about 2007, pioneering an intense and ear-splitting brand of metal, free jazz, punk, and prog. After a 10-year hiatus, Walter reformed the group with new and shifting lineups, and a handful of albums followed. Terror Iridescence is the latest, a live-in-the-studio exercise of guided improvisation spanning two 20-minute tracks. The lineup this time around includes Tim Dahl (bass), Katie Battistoni (guitar), Matt Nelson (sax), and Sam Ospovat (drums). Walter contributed guitar, bass, and drum parts, and Nelson and Ospovat joined him on electronics.

Restraint appears at a few points, including the beginning of the first track, Meredyth Herold. The dual guitars and sax form a dense and textural basis, with Ospovat providing open-ended drumming atop these structures. Notably, the group included a click track which was initially used to guide their in-studio recording. Its circular nature adds an existentially creepy feel. But as the piece progresses between noisier and quieter passages, it becomes clear that any form of moderation is barely contained and the playing is restrained only in comparison to the Luttenbachers’ more extreme offerings of the past. There are no pounding rhythms or heavy riffing – the approach here is more focused on suffocating drones and walls of sculpted noise punctuated by the occasional clamorous free-for-all. Battistoni and Walter made for a complementary pairing of heavily distorted guitar, whether speed picking, laying down more nuanced chording, or guttural motifs. The last few minutes evolve into a wonderful chaos including heavy processing of the drums and sax. Tom Smith, the second track, also begins with slow, haunting, textural improv. This evolves into disjointed electronic themes as well as angular (and less dense) constructs. But it is not long before the piece takes on a more “traditional” Luttenbachers approach, with massive walled riffs and something resembling a repeating rhythm. Add in some manipulated feedback and all notion of restraint disappears for a few minutes. But this more extreme approach just ends around the 12-minute mark and is replaced by drum and electronics melodies backed by jagged guitar improv. The interlude is followed by all-out guitar and sax wailing with the first steady drum patterns of the album. The mashed-up character of the track continues to its end, which features another abstract amalgam of skronk.

MWWB – The Harvest

MWWB formerly called itself Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, a fitting moniker for this stoner doom metal band from Wales that flirts with progressive rock stylings. In addition to the necessary massive riffs and pounding rhythms, vocalist Jessica Ball and guitarist Paul Michael Davies both contribute spacey synths ala Hawkwind. To that point, the title track lays down a ponderous crunch accompanied by alien-sounding motifs and drones. As contrast, Ball’s vocals are ethereal and ghostly. Another piece, Let’s Send the Bastards Whence They Came employs slow keyboard melodies, sequencers, and chants, eschewing the guitars. These tracks mostly follow songlike structures with choruses and repetition. Drummer Dom McCready and bassist Stuart Sinclair provide workmanlike rhythms with sufficient twists and turns to outshine most metal outfits.

Soonago – Fathom

From Germany, Soonago falls into that metal / post-rock crossover space that many groups seem to be occupying in the last few years. Nonetheless, this instrumental four-piece is a cut above and then some with sweeping walls of sound created from speed picking and power chords. Alternatively driving and melodic, the group builds to crescendos that release into angular motifs or more introspective passages that employ cello along with dual guitars, bass, and drums. But just when you are lulled into a state of relaxation, another jarring riff brings forth yet more heavy orchestral structures and subtle variations on themes. The album ends with a title track that employs generous spoken-word voiceovers.

Titan to Tachyons – Vonals

A true genre-blending outfit led by guitarist Sally Gates, on Vonals the group fuses technical metal, prog rock, jazz, blues, and generally heavy weirdness across 45 minutes. Joining Gates are prior bandmates Matt Hollenberg on bass VI and Kenny Grohowski on drums. Trevor Dunn, who guested on bass for one track on the last go-around, is a full member this time. Hollenberg and Grohowski are two-thirds of John Zorn’s Simulacrum and half of Zorn’s Chao Magick, while Dunn has collaborated with Zorn on at least a dozen releases. Nonetheless, while Titan to Tachyons exhibits the occasional Zorn-ism, its sound is largely driven by Gates. She is a muscular player who combines heavy riffing with blues-oriented soloing and an understated lyricism that bleeds into abstraction. Indeed, her melodies and themes are memorable, bursting with ideas that dance about the angular / catchy and inside / outside axes. Hollenberg and Dunn both taking on bass duties adds a unique flavor to Vonals. Particularly, the bass VI is a six-string bass that is tuned like a guitar but an octave lower. Hollenberg plays it both like a guitar and a bass, which allows him to counterpoint Gates, Dunn, or both. In addition, the three guitars can combine into a massive wall of sound or delicate interlocking rhythms. And lest we forget, Grohowski is a creative monster on the drum kit.

Sarattma – Escape Velocity

Sarattma is the instrumental duo of Sara Neidorf on drums and Matt Hollenberg on electric guitars and bass (see what they are doing there with the name?). Escape Velocity, recorded in 2019 as a follow-up to their 2017 debut EP, is primarily a heavy album. From the outset, Hollenberg provides thick riffs to accompany Neidorf’s muscular drumming. The bass lines generally follow the guitar. The duo’s pacing changes within tracks, from doomy masses of distortion, to thrash metal, to blues-based soloing from Hollenberg. And they approach this genre-stretching with an intuitive feel, intellect, and even a bit of playful wit.

To that point, most of the tracks appear to be planned out, with abrupt changes as well as complex melodies and rhythmic patterns. Some exhibit compelling and catchy hooks that repeat often enough to provide distinctiveness without growing old. Neidorf and Hollenberg also avoid relying too extensively on metal tropes, with limited double-bass drum pounding and speed picking. For instance, Sublingual Excavation involves a slow-moving post-rock lead theme before breaking out into overdriven and chaotic passages. To Touch the Dust heads in a similar direction, with a picked acoustic main motif accompanied by synth chording. Hollenberg provides hints of Middle Eastern influences (from Zorn?) on Socotra, a track that also exhibits oddball riffs and a noir feel. Sciatic Haze is perhaps the best place to start for the curious, with spiraling guitar, ponderous chording, elaborate lead percussion from Neidorf, and a free-improv break toward the end.

Jason Blake – The Compromise Rationale

Jason Blake is a Chicago-based Warr guitarist, and The Compromise Rationale is a solo release of ambient progressive metal. Despite being the only performer, Blake gives the album a thick, rich sound. This is due, at least in part, to the very nature of his instrument, a 12-string touch guitar on which bass and electric guitar parts can be played simultaneously. He may have employed some overdubbing as well, since there are often more than two distinct voices.

Contentwise, Blake combines arpeggiated chords, distorted riffs, and layered drones in various arrangements. He provides rhythmic and melodic elements but replaces what would have otherwise been a percussion track with ambient tones lingering in the background. As an example, Euphoria with Repercussions begins with said arpeggiations and a background drone, then is joined by two overdriven guitar-like lines, one riffing while the other explores a slow theme. Blake varies these elements throughout the track’s seven minutes. This piece, and the entire album, has a moody and dark thematic character. Blake avoids any notion of guitar heroics and instead focuses on a more holistic, cinematic approach with haunting undercurrents and occasional hypnogogic passages. Thus, while his restrained energy works as background music, there is more than enough detail and compositional sophistication to keep your ears busy across multiple fully-attentive listenings.

Thisquietarmy x Away – Machine Consciousness, Phase III

In 2019, guitarist Eric Quach (thisquietarmy) and drummer Michel Langevin (Away) recorded a set of sessions, much of which resulted in the duo’s two previous albums, The Singularity, Phase I and The Singularity, Phase II. This effort also came from those sessions, though it was produced further by Quach, adding bass from Charles Bussières and brass from Reüel Ordoñez. Thus, Machine Consciousness, Phase III has a deeper, richer sound than its predecessors while remaining in the same general sonic locale. And that locale is a rather unique one, with Langevin alternating between steady hard-rock beats and exploring the edges of more complex patterns with improvisatorial flair. Quach’s efforts are more clearly extemporized, taking the forms of muddy walls of sound and processed drones. Bussières’ bass follows in kind, either providing a rhythm along with Langevin or adding to the atmospherics. Ordoñez contributes long-held tones that add ominous layers to the mix. When these pieces get going, they are reminiscent of classic Hawkwind or Kosmiche music with driving rhythms supporting trippy jams. But there is an overall heaviness and dark tone that brings to mind dystopian science fiction. What this all adds up to is a genre-straddling fusion of styles – metal, psychedelia, free improv, drone, experimental, and probably a few others. But these influences are pieced together in a seamless manner that can serve as a soundtrack for an imaginary movie, while retaining enough detail that makes more attentive listening an enjoyable journey.