As we all know, metal has a nearly uncountable number of sub genres. And we at Metal Wani are dedicated to getting the word out for as many of them as we can. The purpose of this article, part of our ongoing series of “Introduction to” articles, is to serve as an entry point to one of my favorite sub genres: Experimental and Avant-garde metal.
As with any list introducing one to a genre, it is impossible to include all of the many amazing bands and albums that make this form of metal. And as each of these albums typically contains many different genres, hopping between several, often within a single song, I will be compiling this list of 15 bands alphabetically. Also due to the non commercial nature of the genre, and therefore the type of musicians who make it, you will see the same names pop up a few times in different bands. As for any article that is meant as an introduction, this isn’t a list meant for people who are already well versed in the genre and already love it. Rather it is meant to cover as many aspects of it as I can within a single article and to try and get people to give the genre a chance. This of course means that many worthy bands and albums have been omitted in order to keep things manageable. The final thing I must stress about these albums is that this is not easy music. It is dangerous, crazy, intense, and often unhinged music that generally cannot be taken in, understood, or fully appreciated with one listen, and certainly not a click through. And to be honest, there is stuff on here that plenty of you would say isn’t even music. Therefore if any of them catch your ear, I highly recommend giving the album the time and attention it deserves. It’s a wonderfully varied and exciting form of metal, and once it has its hooks in you, it’s hard to be satisfied with safe, “normal” music again.
- Age of Silence – ‘Acceleration’ (2004)
Age of Silence can best be described as a supergroup formed by keyboardist and Winds founder Andy Winter. He brought in Lars Nedland (Solefald) on vocals and Jan Axel “Hellhammer” Blomberg to handle the drum duties. With such a group assembled one would assume that they played a version of black metal, but that is far from the case. Rather the vocals are entirely clean sung and the music, while certainly heavy, is in large part key based with frequent and complex rhythmic changes and flourishes. Musically, while it doesn’t genre hop, the changes and shifts in structure and melody change frequently and unpredictably, rarely doing one thing for over a minute in length. ‘Acceleration’ is their only full length album, which is unfortunate as it is richly rewarding. It is also comparatively melodic and less chaotic than most albums on this list and is therefore an ideal entry point for avant garde metal.
- Arcturus – ‘The Sham Mirrors’ (2002)
Arcturus started as another super group in the late 90s comprised of members of Ulver (Garm), Mayhem (Hellhammer), and keyboardist Steinar Sverd Johnsen as primary composer. Their first album was a blindingly original black metal album. Their follow up album, ‘La Masquerade Infernale,’ was a hybrid complex metal and classical music that was fused into what is truly one of the most wildly experimental albums in the metal genre. I strongly considered that album for this list, but instead went with ‘The Sham Mirrors’ as I feel it is a better entry point to the band. It was also my introduction to their music, so perhaps I’m biased towards it. The lyrics written mainly by vocalist Kristoffer Rygg (a.k.a. Garm, a.k.a. Trickster G.) are based around space and abstract sci fi themes. Musically it draws more influences from electronic music than classical, but remains heavy throughout. Ihsahn also makes a guest appearance and provides his signature screams on “Radical Cut.” It’s a wonderfully varied album which reveals new things upon each listen.
- Blut Aus Nord – ‘777 Sect(s)’ (2011)
France’s Blut Aus Nord are known for their unique and unorthodox approach to black metal and their creating a dark, almost claustrophobic atmosphere. Their music is technical yet abstract in approach, and the tortured shrieks have a hollow sound to them which only adds to the atmosphere. This is the band’s 8th album, and the first of their 777 trilogy, of course the lyrics are entirely in French and the band doesn’t release them so for non French listeners the sound and mood is most likely more important than whatever story line is. The band has long experimented with electronic ambient passages on their albums, and it is especially important on this one. It was very well received upon its release, which is impressive given the outré nature of the music. Fans of traditional black metal wishing for something that throws out the rules and traditional aesthetics would do well to start here.
- Ephel Duath – ‘The Painters Palette’ (2003)
Italy’s Ephel Duath (named after one of Tolkien’s mountains in Mordor) is the manic, schizophrenic, avant metal creation of lone founding member Davide Tiso, and this was their first album on a major label. It’s a frantic, jazzy, blindingly intense and original black metal fused album, not dissimilar to Norway’s Shining, if they decided to go totally off the rails. Now calling it a black metal album is to a point misleading. There are many instances of black metal vocals, but they are certainly not exclusive; there are plenty of clean vocals as well. Now many black metal bands do this, but the aesthetic and over all sound of the album is far more experimental than typical black metal. The obvious comparison to this eclectic masterpiece is the legendary Mr. Bungle, which isn’t to say they sound like Bungle because no one does, but the frantic mix of musical styles and attitude is the same. Ephel Duath have done this, and have created something that, despite its wild nature, holds together very well. Music as wild and as unpredictable as this will never be popular, but anyone looking for something new and unique will be well rewarded.
- Fantômas – ‘Suspended Animation’ (2005)
Fantômas is the first of several bands on this list that feature legendary vocalist Mike Patton. Other members include the also legendary Dave Lombardo, Buzz Osborne, and bassist Trevor Dunn. ‘Suspended Animation’ is the last studio album the band did and is comprised of 30 tracks, most about 90 seconds in length. The concept is loosely based around the month of April and assorted strange holidays. While the music is metal in nature, cartoon music (such as one would hear in a Road Runner cartoon) is equally present and just as important. The style and jump cut nature of each song changes every few seconds, so if you don’t like what you’re hearing, simply wait 3 seconds and it will change. The result is highly chaotic and Patton vocalizes, chirps, and screams more than he sings; there are no lyrics in the traditional sense. A truly madcap and adrenaline filled album, there are few like it.
- Kayo Dot – ‘Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue’ (2006)
Kayo Dot is the brainchild of musical genius (a term I’m slow to use) Toby Driver who’s other fairly well known eclectic metal band maudlin of the Well could just as easily have made the list. ‘Dowsing Anemone…’ and the other Kayo Dot albums are unique in the metal world as the music is thorough-composed, and the music much more closely resembles classical music than it does metal in any way. Strings are in abundance, and even when the guitars come in and swirl and become very heavy the album never feels like a metal album as is generally thought of. All of this only makes the work such a brilliant piece of music. Driver not only delivers clean vocals, he provides savagely tortured shrieks; and besides guitar, he also plays piano, clarinet, and percussion. The band at the time was comprised of 8 different musicians including frequent collaborator and highly respected violinist and violist, Mia Matsumiya. Ultimately, this is a rich, beautiful, heavy, and engrossing work. While only an hour in length, the denseness of it makes it feel longer. It takes time to absorb everything going on in it, but it is well worth it.
- Mr. Bungle – ‘Mr. Bungle’ (1991)
When planning this article and thinking of what bands HAD to be included this was the first album that came to mind. Mr. Bungle has by this point reached the status of a cult band with a large following, and this debut is in large part why. Few albums are as completely free of restraint and eclectic as this. With Mike Patton on vocals, Trey Spruance on guitar, and Trevor Dunn on bass, they are anchored by Danny Heifetz’s precise drum work. This album is what avant garde metal is all about, a variety of genres (metal, jazz, ska, cartoon music and more) are included in nearly every song, and the band transitions through each with ease and precision. Lyrically colorful with outrageous humor Patton delivers a stunning vocal performance in many styles, from screams to crooning. This self titled album remains to this day one of the most outrageous and daringly original metal albums ever recorded.
- Naked City – ‘Grand Guignol’ (1992)
Another group I knew had to be included on this list is my favorite project from one of my favorite musicians, John Zorn. Naked City is just one of his many projects, and the most legendary. Zorn is a saxophonist out of New York City and is primarily known for his jazz work. Naked City is rooted certainly in jazz, but they were also rooted firmly in metal and hardcore music as well. A large portion of ‘Grand Guignol’ is comprised of 34 hardcore miniatures lasting from 15 seconds to a minute and 16 seconds, all of which first appeared on the compilation album ‘Torture Garden’ several years earlier. But within those brief moments, chaos and technical virtuosity rein. With both the previously mentioned Fantômas and Mr. Bungle I talked about the jump cut nature of the music, but they both take their cue from Naked City. Jazz, hardcore, metal, country western, classical, hard bop, and more are all represented, and all within those few seconds, and the tracks were recorded live, so there are no tricks or overdubs, just musicians of the highest caliber who are able to change on a dime. And screaming over the top of it all is Eye of Boredoms fame and his contributions are just as important as Zorn’s sax work, or the guitar playing of Bill Frisell. The rest of the album is made up of the 17 minute title track, which is slow and broodingly heavy rather than fast and chaotic, and classical pieces interpreted in their style with Debussy and Oliver Messiaen well represented. No one’s collection is complete without a little Naked City.
- Shining (Norway) – ‘Blackjazz’ (2010)
With ‘Blackjazz’ Norway’s Shining have formed their own niche and their own sub genre, blackjazz. The name is fitting for that is precisely what this album is; a marriage and fusion of intense experimental black metal and free jazz. Band leader/vocalist/saxophonist/guitarist Jørgen Munkeby is the face of the band, and his sax work calls to mind not only the style of the just above mentioned John Zorn, but free jazz pioneer Orenette Coleman as well. The music is fast and furious and driven as much by the keyboard work of Bernt Moen as it is the guitars and drums. With the freedom and spontaneity of free jazz at its core, and the instrumentation and vocal approach of black metal, Shining have created one of the most unique and, in my mind, exciting metal albums in recent memory. The wild and unhinged nature of the music is perfectly summed up on both “The Madness and the Damage Done” and their brilliant cover of the King Crimson classic “21st Century Schizoid Man.” This album is simply a rush from start to finish.
- Sigh – ‘Imaginary Soundscape’ (2001)
Japan’s Sigh have long been one of the most unusual and weird black metal bands. They started in the late 80s through the 90s as a more traditional black metal band, but slowly over those years adding touches of classical, jazz, and a more experimental approach to their writing, and this culminated in this their masterpiece. ‘Imaginary Soundscape’ is a truly weird album, even by avant garde standards; keyboards are heavily present, and psychedelic influences run rampant on the album that changes sound many times throughout. The black metal heaviness and vocals remain consistent, however, so despite its unusual and manic nature this album is an ideal entry point not only to the music of Sigh, but avant garde black metal in general.
- Sleepytime Gorilla Museum – ‘Grand Opening and Closing’ (2001)
Another band I knew was a given for inclusion from the beginning was Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, who incidentally were the first avant garde metal band I ever stumbled across. Sleepytime was formed by the remnants of Oakland, CA band Idiot Flesh by main vocalist/guitarist Nils Frykdahl, (and other members) with Carla Kihlstedt (vocals, violin and more). The result was this highly experimental and utterly unhinged band. Sleepytime (recently disbanded) were well known for their highly theatrical performances complete with puppets, mimes, and unusual costumes and makeup worn by the performers. Besides the standard rock instruments, the album is also a host to a variety of homemade instruments, both percussion and string. On this particular album the six members play no fewer than 18 instruments. The result is an album and band that sounds like no other that you’ve ever heard. ‘Grand Opening’ is certainly the wildest album the band ever released and the music spans from extreme metal to classical minimalist pieces, there are certainly melodies as well, but atonal noises and effects make up a larger part of the sound. This is an essential work in the genre. Though they no longer exist, most of the band has moved on to form Free Salamander Exhibit and released an album last year. Certainly good news for fans of such madness.
- Solefald – ‘Neonism’ (1999)
The second album of Norway’s Solefald is in spirit and aesthetic a black metal album, but the manic, wild result is so far removed from what is typically considered to be black metal that the band reportedly received death threats over it. Whether that is true or simply urban legend remains to be seen. Regardless, it speaks to the experimental nature of the album. It’s a music rollercoaster of sounds and styles. Both Lazare (keyboards, drums) and Cornelius (guitar, bass) provide clean and harsh vocals, some traditional sounding black or death, others more akin to an animal howling than anything normally heard. Lyrically the album deals largely with consumerism and critique of pop culture, which certainly differ from typical lyrics from the time. To add further fun to the proceedings, “Omnipolis” is sung in French. Although the album is predominantly heavy, electronic, and almost trip hop styles come into play as well, with moments that are more spoken word than sung. The result is an avant garde black metal album that is like none other.
13. Unexpect – ‘In A Flesh Aquarium’ (2006)
Furthering the cause of international avant garde metal is the now defunct Montreal based Unexpect (sometimes stylized as uneXpect), triple fronted extreme metal band with the crystal voiced Leïlindel in opposition to the screams, and growls of guitarists Syriak and Artagoth. Musically rooted in intense metal, it runs the gauntlet through classical, operatic, medieval, goth, electro, ambient, psychotic, noise, and circus music with a touch of jazz for good measure. They also employed a violinist, which added a nice flair. They were known for their theatric stage shows and circus like atmosphere. At once beautiful and violently brutal they were an open and forward thinking band where nothing was off limits if it drove their music. They were a highly unique and original band, and certainly missed.
- John Zorn – ‘Six Litanies For Heliogabalus’ (2007)
John Zorn of course appeared earlier as the driving force behind Naked City. He is also a solo artist, as well as the driving force behind many ensembles that he creates. He is also incredibly prolific putting out 8 or 9 albums a year on average. One of his more recent and most popular projects is Moonchild, comprised of the frequently mentioned Mike Patton on vocals, Trevor Dunn on bass, and drummer Joey Baron. The music is in part composed by Zorn, and in part improvised under his conducting, so the music, no matter how wild and unpredictable or improvised is still under his control. ‘Six Litanies’ was the third album for this line up, and they are augmented by Zorn on saxophone, Jamie Staff on organ, and Ikue Mori providing electronics, plus a trio of female vocalist. This is easily the most difficult album on the list (although not by Zorn’s standards), with music ranging from extreme metal, to jazz and medieval choral music. Due to it being in large part improvised the music is unpredictable and changes frequently. Patton does not sing in any traditional sense, but rather screams, chirps, squeaks and any number of random vocal noises. “Litany IV” is a piece for solo voice, and is enough to turn most people off from the rest of the album, as Patton makes random noises and gurgling sounds (at one point it sounds like he’s sticking his fingers down his throat). It’s an extreme piece and not for the faint hearted. Ultimately, this heavy, highly complex, and I feel brilliant album won’t be for everybody. But if you’re willing to put a little time into it and follow its internal logic and progression it unfolds as something special.
- Zu – ‘Carboniferous’ (2009)
The final band on this introductory list is Italy’s Zu who have had a rather long career, although limited distribution makes attaining most of it difficult. The trio play a hybrid of hardcore, electronic, and jazz. The instrumentation is limited to drums, electric bass, saxophone, and varied electronics though guest musicians appear (Melvin’s Buzz Osborne appears on one track). The music is driven by rhythmic intensity, melody is sparse throughout, and generally appears during one of the many squealing sax solos that pepper each track. Zu is one of the harder bands on this list to give a good description regarding their sound. Suffice to say it’s heavy, atonal, and complex, and highly unorthodox. Despite this, ‘Carboniferous’ is quite accessible, and the intense rhythms created will stick in your head, and are a great deal of fun to listen to. But in a metal world glutted by “djent” bands that people consider rhythmically interesting and heavy, the music created by these gentlemen is really a breath of fresh air.