The Guide #24: how metal bands dared to go soft

In this week’s newsletter: it’s a music genre that used to be all about doom and thrash – but in 2022 you’re lucky if there’s even a riff in the mix

You probably know what to expect from a band called Blood Incantation: pulverising blast beats; jagged, discordant riffs; vocals seemingly sourced from the killing floor of an abattoir. And, by and large, you’d be right. For most of the acclaimed Coloradan death metal band’s career, that’s been the playbook (give or take some intriguingly psychedelia-tinged detours). But for their new album, Blood Incantation have drastically changed tack. Timewave Zero bins off the aforementioned growling and howling for a pair of ambient “suites” – moody, droney synth tracks that, while not “heavy” in the traditional sense, retain an air of menace and foreboding. “Now that we’ve proven we can do both metal and ambient, we’re totally free to just be Blood Incantation,” the band told the Guardian.

Blood Incantation aren’t the only band to have embraced less punishing textures in their music of late. Deafheaven, previously purveyors of “blackgaze”, a skyscraping mix of black metal and shoegaze, abandoned the former bit of that portmanteau on their most recent album Infinite Granite, a collection of rather pleasant, largely mid-tempo dream-pop songs. And even the bands that aren’t entirely casting off their brutality seem to be dabbling in surprising sonic textures these days. You can hear it in the Warp Records-esque glitches that pepper Code Orange’s brilliant, bruising alternative metal, the sinister synthscapes of the otherwise relentless metalcore act, or the woozy excursions with Dev Hynes, AKA Blood Orange, from backflipping hardcore heroes Turnstile.

Of course plenty of metal bands have shown signs of sonic adventurism in the past, but for a world that is often characterised as po-faced and rigid, divided up into militantly enforced sub-categories (doom, thrash, nü, black… and let’s not get into the many genres ending in -core), there does seem to be something in the water at present.

It comes at a time when defining what “heavy” even means is becoming more challenging. Heaviness, as Dom Lawson points out in his valiant attempt to determine the heaviest music ever made, encompasses acts as diametrically opposed as Motörhead and the impenetrable electronic noise artist Merzbow (aside: I very much enjoyed the wag who wrote “my mother used to sing this to me when I was a boy” in the comments of this YouTube video). Some of the heaviest music I’ve experienced in the last decade or so, at least in its throbbing, unremitting sense of oppressiveness, is by Blanck Mass, a techno artist and film scorer whose previous band had a song played at the Olympics‘ opening ceremony. Dillinger Escape Plan he is not, but he captures an essential part of what I associate with “heaviness”.

Even so, there seem to be hints of more traditional heaviness everywhere you look these days. Glossy pop stars like Rina Sawayama and Poppy chuck in the odd drop-D riff or get out the double kick drum pedal to spice things up a bit. Hitherto indie-ish bands like the Horrors are embracing their inner Nine Inch Nails. 100 Gecs drop shards of piercing noise into the middle of otherwise cheesy hyperpop songs. In this fractious, bordering on terrifying moment, sonic abrasion seems to be the default mode. You can hear it in the post-punk revival, or drill and grime, or even at the movies with their punishing surround sound and booming superhero soundtracks (that whoommmmp noise you hear in every trailer is nothing if not heavy). Even if the metal bands are getting less metal-y, we’re living in a new age of loud.

If you want to read the complete version of this newsletter please subscribe to receive The Guide in your inbox every Friday.


Gwilym Mumford

The GuardianTramp

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