Back in 2019, when it came time to choose my favorite metal album of the year, I kept returning to one that felt like something of an outlier: Big Brave’s A Gaze Among Them. It’s a heavy album, but it doesn’t really employ the kinds of musical devices that metal albums typically do. It’s a spacious album, a minimalist album in many ways—the band doesn’t have a “concept” necessarily, but the Canadian trio does follow a certain rule upon which all of their compositions are created: Every song is written with just one chord. You’d think that would get old quick, at least that’s how it seems on paper, but those five one-chord wonders produced results that seemed to expand beyond my expectations for the entire world of metal itself. It wasn’t the best album of the year that followed the rules of metal, but rather the one that offered possibilities beyond those rules.
Increasingly, I find myself drawn to heavy music that doesn’t settle anywhere comfortably. It feels like a genuine testament to the human spirit that when we’ve already perfected and made thousands of offshoots of sounds like death metal, black metal, crust punk, thrash, post-metal and grindcore, we somehow keep finding new terrain to explore. As much as there will always be room for bands who wear their Death or Bathory influences proudly, metal can be even more exciting when those influences hit you out of left field—or perhaps if you can’t even figure out what those influences are.
The past month has seen a particularly fertile crop of genre-breakers and shape-shifters in the realm of metal, some newcomers and some veterans of the scene. But I couldn’t help but notice how weird so much of the best metal is right now. Or if not weird, consciously challenging the format and structure of the standard metal album and sound. And sometimes all of these things at once. That inevitably means they’ll be met with some resistance, or confusion, or uncertainty, and that’s OK. I don’t mean to suggest that music that provides a sense of comfort has no value, of course, but I also know that so, so much of what’s been great in recent years has been from bands who dared to redefine heavy music on their own terms.
This month, I’ve selected six great new metal albums by bands who challenge perceptions about heavy music in some way. Some of it is pretty, some of it’s ugly, some of it simply blurs genre lines and others seek to confuse the senses. They’re all powerful and intense in their own way, just maybe not the way you’d expect them to be.
The Armed – ULTRAPOP
The first time I heard The Armed, I wasn’t sure if I totally understood what was happening—but I loved it. The Detroit band hits you with a lot at once, and very little of that frontal barrage comprises digestible facts or usable information. They’re loud, dense, heavy, and everything they do moves and evolves so fast, it’s not always easy to keep up with where they’re going. And with their third LP ULTRAPOP, that joyride found them crashing on the glittery shores of pop. Sort of. ULTRAPOP is still an album built with the tools of hardcore and metal, but its choruses are the kind you’d shout along to with five of your friends in an overcrowded sedan on a Saturday night, and its riffs are the sort that swirl around your head for days. ULTRAPOP is a description as much of a title—the band’s everything-core has been perfected and shaped to its most wondrous form here, and as Ben Cohn suggested in his review of the album, it’s the kind of album that could legitimately turn people who typically avoid heavy music into fanatics. Then again, I’ve been listening to metal and hardcore since I was a teenager (pop too, really), and I absolutely love it. As stands right now, this is my favorite album of the year, and whether it remains in that spot, I doubt I’ll find another record this year that’s as much of an absolute joy to listen to. (Sargent House)
Genghis Tron – Dream Weapon
If you were to ask me what the most controversial album of 2021 is, at least so far, I’d probably point to the latest from Genghis Tron. I’m not sure if that’s true, but very little music itself sparks controversy anymore, just how pop stars’ fans behave (which is increasingly troubling—I hope and pray that vaccination and more opportunities to be outside mean more people spend time away from Twitter this summer and fall). But Genghis Tron’s first new album in 13 years has sparked a bit of conversation in my corner of the Internet because it doesn’t really sound much like the synth-addled mathcore band that emerged in the mid-’00s. Rather, Genghis Tron have embraced the gauzy atmosphere of dream pop and shoegaze, along with the intricate songcraft of progressive rock. Dream Weapon only resembles the Genghis Tron of old in very small doses—and that to me is part of what makes it interesting. But I can also see why it’s a sticking point for certain listeners. But enter it with an open mind; after 13 years, a lot can change, and a lot probably will change, but it’s fascinating to see where the group has ended up, with a set of songs that’s far prettier and more hypnotic than anything they’ve released before. If, perhaps, less metal. That part is certainly arguable, but there’s no question that they’ve created something special. (Relapse)
Hiraki – Stumbling Through the Walls
Denmark’s Hiraki occupy a brutal but hard-to-define space that might best be summarized as “noise rock.” And it would be true. More or less. Yet their cacophony echoes a similarly punishing if aesthetically distinct din as those of Uniform or The Body than, say, The Jesus Lizard, particularly once they fire up the EBM beat machine on dancefloor beatdowns like “Peach Lung.” Any number of subcultures could probably, plausibly claim Hiraki as their own, from hardcore to industrial, and they’d still seem just that much more belligerent and hostile, their throat-searing screams and screeching feedback riffs sharpened instruments that aren’t elegant and lethal, but often quite painful. You feel every scrape, every scratch, every burn. But because I knew this one was gonna be a brute, I’ve also brought along some ice for that ache… (Nefarious Industries)
Kauan – Ice Fleet
It became clear back in January with the release of Frozen Soul’s new album that ice is the new thematic horror element in metal this year, but it takes on a dramatically different form on Kauan’s new conceptual work, Ice Fleet. The Russian group’s latest is based on a historical Russian mystery in which a fleet of ships were discovered in the northernmost part of the country, completely frozen—including their ill-fated crew. It’s a terrifying image, but the music itself is more epic, often quite beautiful and, indeed, frequently very cold. Generally speaking, Kauan is a “post-metal” band, their blend of epic, dynamic instrumentals and moments of climactic fury descended from the same family tree as Isis and Cult of Luna. Yet the metal part of their formula is a relatively scarce one, as much of the power in their music comes from the uniquely beautiful moments of grace and openness that they craft. Even here in southern California, it’s hard not to feel a chill while listening to music this evocative of icy seas and frozen tundras. While those moments of climactic heaviness certainly arrive, it’s the haunting beauty that surrounds them that’s most striking about this album. Oh, and the album comes with a tabletop RPG. Hope you’re not ready to leave the basement just yet. (Artoffact)
Neptunian Maximalism – Solar Drone Ceremony
I included Neptunian Maximalism’s breathtaking triple album Éons in both my list of the best metal albums and in our list of the best jazz albums of 2020, and it arguably was neither. But both certainly felt right—the freedom of spiritual jazz bolstered by the sonic immensity of doom. Less than a year later, in what appears to be a campaign of stunning encores from the I, Voidhanger camp, the Belgian group has returned with another colossal recording, their hour-long Solar Drone Ceremony. It’s a single, unbroken track, and this one is more recognizably “metal,” which still remains a fluid and ambiguous thing in their hands. This, essentially, is heavy music made with guitars and drums, colossal and mighty, but its aims are more spiritual and ceremonial, something to be performed at a temple lit only by flame than in a club or a concert hall. That sense of mysticism is what makes it unique, what makes it special—groups like Sunn O))) might have the wardrobe down, but Neptunian Maximalism almost feel like they could capture a kind of magic with their strange, sometimes seemingly free-form doom ceremonies. In some ways it’s similar to its predecessor and in more ways it’s quite different, but regardless, it’s a remarkable hour of music. (I, Voidhanger)
Wode – Burn in Many Mirrors
This month’s roundup of new metal albums, ostensibly, is about metal that dares to fit in where the names of subgenres simply don’t apply. That’s not true of Wode. They’re a black metal band. Er, that is, they’re kind of a death metal band. Though come to think of it, maybe they’re just a heavy metal band? You see where I’m going with this. You can pick any particular point in Burn in Many Mirrors and say that it’s this type of metal or that, but Wode isn’t any one specific thing, and even if their roots and their aesthetic is in black metal, the thing that makes them fun is that they color outside the lines so often, swerving into some brutal moments of OSDM for a track, veering back over to anthemic black ‘n’ roll with massive hooks for another. In fact, there aren’t really any moments of Transilvanian Hunger worship throughout this album, but there are lots of surprises, and because of that, Wode are doing their part to keep black metal interesting, exciting and novel. (20 Buck Spin)
I also recently wrote about the 25th anniversary of Neurosis’ Through Silver In Blood, an album that changed metal forever, and for that matter, changed how I hear it.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.