What is avant-garde metal? Experimental metal is the antithesis of pop music. It never strives to achieve that universally adored melody, it never expects commercial success, and it certainly never panders to popular ideas of what music should be. In fact, John Cage’s piece 4′33″ (a cornerstone of pure experimental music) might be the biggest challenge to your perception of what music is. The early musical experiments of Cage and co. combined with the broad spectrum of heavy metal result in a style of music which is often both incredibly visceral and excessively calculated, pushing the music (ideally) to the upper echelons of the imagination. The style is by no means a recent invention, it being one of the genres pioneered by musical visionaries King Crimson (who I happen to regard as one of the best bands of all time) in the early to mid-1970s. The band’s albums Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Red carved out the blueprint for experimental metal, roughly 15 years before the style would be revisited.
Perhaps the feature which would be the most obviously different to the casual listener (assuming it’s not too masked by harsh vocals) is the use of vastly esoteric lyrics within the more out-there styles of metal music. Whilst it is true that most types of metal focus on bleak, often funereal subject matter, avant-garde metal takes it a step further. The body of work of experimental black metal band Deathspell Omega, for instance, is characterised by lyrics dealing with Satanism – but exclusively on a metaphysical level. The group asserts that “all other interpretations of Satan are intellectually invalid”. Perhaps not what you might expect from your average metal band. Furthermore, Norwegian experimental collective Ulver’s album Themes From William Blake’s The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell was as vanguard lyrically as it was musically – and about as much as you’d expect from a metal interpretation of a William Blake poem – whilst their earlier black metal work was grounded in Scandinavian folklore and Baroque poetry.
Avant-garde metal has its roots in abstract divergence from the basic elements of metal, often taking on board influences from many other styles which would not typically be integrated. French band Alcest are known for having effectively turned black metal on its head by fusing its raw, distorted infrastructure with hazy, atmospheric shoegaze, and pioneering the blackgaze genre in the process. This paved the way for bands like Deafheaven and Ghost Bath to embellish the canvas of black metal with a kaleidoscope of colour, leading it out of the shade and into the light. Norwegian group Shining’s music is perhaps more rooted in jazz than it is in traditional metal, likely owing to the band’s jazz quartet origins, and they might be the only band in the world who have legitimately attracted the label jazz metal. But aside from the would-be intellectual lyricisms and eclectic influences often employed within the style, sometimes avant-garde metal is truest to its name through its utilisation of direct and extensive experimentation, nonstandard instrumentation, and subverted song structures. From the poly-rhythmic discipline and near-desultory riffage of Meshuggah to the alien textural inclinations of Leprous, the style manifests itself in mysterious ways. Orthrelm’s third album OV consists entirely of one 45 minute track – a joyride through minimalistic, robotic grindcore which holds no quarter, being totally unrelenting in sound and uncompromising in approach.
Often I find myself resenting the term “experimental music”. It brings to mind a sort of facile trial and error approach to creating good music, wherein the musicians focus entirely on performing sonic experiments which could yield sublime or terrible results. Perhaps it just goes against what my idea of music is, but I dislike the idea that greatly skilled musicians could be so haphazard and risky when it comes to making consistently good music. It suggests experimental music should often and regularly fail enormously in its endeavours. Yet I suppose there is some accuracy to the description. When it comes to purveyors of a genre as bold as this, those who fall will fall hard. But sometimes bands just about have the chops and the smarts to pull it off. Experimentation? Maybe. But it yields some fascinating results.
Alcest – Là où naissent les couleurs nouvelles
Meshuggah – Rational Gaze
Leprous – Thorn (feat. Ihsahn)
Deathspell Omega – Apokatastasis Pantôn
Tombs – V
Deafheaven – The Pecan Tree
Shining – The Madness and the Damage Done
Rolo Tomassi – Stage Knives
Sunn O))) & Ulver – Eternal Return