Last week, we took a trip through the early years of heavy metal, from its origins, to the British New Wave, the birth of doom metal, thrash and death metal. But as much great metal as the ’70s and ’80s gave birth to, from the ’90s up to the present, metal has taken on all kinds of varied shapes and styles, expanding into diverse and experimental realms, as well as forming hybrids with other genres.
In the early ’90s, with the grunge explosion in Seattle, bands like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden brought a metal edge to alternative and indie audiences, while around the same time, in Norway, a group of musicians were tapping into metal’s most evil potential and giving rise to the second wave of black metal. And from there, countless possibilities emerged, from the epic sprawl of post-metal, to the burly low end of sludge, the abstract rumble of drone doom and the technical aggression of metalcore. There have been a large number of amazing developments in metal in the past couple decades, and so many different artists doing their own unique style that it’s sometimes hard to keep track.
The evolution of metal has inevitably led to a debate over what is, in fact, metal and not just rock music influenced by metal. Sometimes it’s a feeling more than a specific attribute, and in the case of some artists like Sunn0))) or Earth, “ambient” is just as appropriate a name for what they do. But keep in mind, this mix is not about traditional metal but its evolution and inevitable metamorphosis into various different sounds, specifically from 1991 to 2011. But semantics aside, every artist on this mix has put out some truly amazing heavy music. Unfortunately, I couldn’t include every artist I wanted to, so for those looking to expand beyond this collection, here are even more artists to seek out: Akimbo, Atheist, The Body, Burst, Carcass, Cathedral, Cave In, Cobalt, Disfear, Enslaved, Genghis Tron, High on Fire, Immortal, Krallice, Liturgy, Meshuggah, Ocean, Opeth, Pelican, Red Fang, Torche, Trap Them, Weakling, Wolves in the Throne Room, Xasthur, Yob and Zoroaster, among many, many others.
Note: all tracks are linked to a YouTube video or stream. This 90 Minute Guide is also a Spotify playlist.
Side One: Stoner Witch or Calculating Infinity
“In the Meantime” 3:07
[found on Meantime, 1992]
This mix could have very well started off with early ’90s material from Slayer or Megadeth, but I already covered that ground back in Part One. So, I thought I’d take a different tack. In the early ’90s, metal began to seep into alternative rock, primarily because of grunge. Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, in particular, issued some pretty badass (alt-)metal albums under the guise of “grunge,” and similarly, a New York post-hardcore outfit signed a $1 million contract with Interscope and came out the other side with an album so heavy, “noise-rock” simply didn’t cover it. This was not the birth of alternative metal, but the pinnacle. Helmet’s Meantime doesn’t look or act like a metal album, and yet it’s so massive, it at least deserves an honorary title. “In the Meantime” kicks off the album with an explosion, its precise, simple chugging like repeated smacks to the head. Somehow the band keeps going, despite frontman Page Hamilton being the only permanent member of the band, but in its most recent incarnation, Helmet treated some fans to live performances of the entire album on the ‘Metalliance’ tour.
Faith No More
“Midlife Crisis” 4:23
[found on Angel Dust, 1992]
I’m probably going to receive a lot of flak for featuring two “alt-metal” tracks in a row, but it’s hard to cover all of the necessary ground without mentioning Faith No More. Initially a group with heavier funk influences, and a self-fulfilling hit single in 1989’s “Epic,” Faith No More evolved into a darker, heavier and more art-damaged outfit in the years following that massive breakthrough. Angel Dust, their twisted follow-up to The Real Thing, is a very weird record. By Mike Patton standards, it’s actually pretty standard, accessible material, but as far as rock and metal went in 1992, this was pretty out there. Lingering funk elements blended with thrashy guitars, gothic synths and Patton’s own bizarre vocal tics. It was weird, but it was actually really, really good, and featured a single that, in my opinion, far surpasses “Epic.” “Midlife Crisis” isn’t as massive or as ambitious as “Epic,” perhaps, but as songwriting goes, it’s one of Faith No More’s highest peaks. And it’s actually considerably heavier than anything that was on alternative radio at the time.
“A Blaze in the Northern Sky” 4:58
[found on A Blaze in the Northern Sky, 1992]
The second wave of black metal in Norway has attracted its share of sensational attention, thanks largely in part to several key players’ involvement in church burnings and the murder of Mayhem’s Euronymous by Burzum’s Varg Vikernes. Aside from some ill-advised attempts at shock PR, Darkthrone mostly avoided any of the controversy that surrounded much of the scene. In fact, drummer and singer Fenriz is one of the most oddly likable characters in black metal, having become an outspoken advocate for his favorite metal bands worldwide, from Europe to South America and Taiwan. He also possesses one truly rare quality in black metal music: a sense of humor. The group has morphed into a more crust punk-inspired sound of late, but in 1992, Darkthrone released one of the essential Norwegian black metal albums, A Blaze in the Northern Sky. Its title track is simply awesome, a lo-fi onslaught of blast beats and death-metal riffs that maintains a much simpler and thrashier approach than more symphonic acts such as Emperor and Dimmu Borgir.
“Honey Bucket” 3:01
[found on Houdini, 1993]
The greatest trick the Melvins ever pulled was convincing the world they were grunge. Which, I guess, they kind of were. But only if your definition of grunge leans more toward harsh, low-tuned sludge than the more polished sounds of Candlebox or Stone Temple Pilots. Melvins, while connected to Nirvana via drummer Dale Crover and signed to Atlantic during that whole grunge overload thing in the ’90s, are one of the most prolific and influential sludge metal bands of the past 20 years. That Boris named themselves after one of the band’s songs says a lot, as well as the fact that there are countless Melvins soundalikes even this far down the line. Plenty of Melvins albums bring the burly, beastly goods, but Houdini is a great place to start, and the punchy “Honey Bucket” is the kind of track that reveals why the Melvins have spawned so many imitators. It’s harsh, it’s loud and even a little catchy. And that’s why we love ’em.
“Capitel I: I Troldskog faren vild” 7:51
[found on Bergtatt, 1994]
Norway’s Ulver, while tangentially related to the black metal scene of the early ’90s, didn’t sound much like the harsher blasts of bands like Mayhem or Darkthrone. Rather, their debut album Bergtatt maintained a balance between tranquil folk music and a somewhat more elegant style of black metal that was heavy but atmospheric. Yet following that 1994, the band explored countless other genres, from ambient on Perdition City to neofolk on Kveldssanger and even art pop on this year’s Wars of the Roses. So, the band has not, by any means, been consistently metal. But maybe that’s because Bergtatt is such an impressive first outing, that they didn’t feel the need to repeat themselves much. In any case, “Capitel I,” or the first chapter, is the album’s most fluid blend of atmospheric folk and black metal, combining in an oddly moving but still quite aggressive piece.
“Sacred Serenity” 4:27
[found on Symbolic, 1995]
While “death metal” essentially got its name from a track on Possessed’s Seven Churches, it’s not coincidental that one of death metal’s most iconic bands was aptly named Death. The Floridian band, helmed by Chuck Schuldiner, released a series of albums that, impressively enough, each has its ample share of advocates for it being the band’s best, from Leprosy to Individual Thought Patterns. I’ll vouch for Symbolic, however, which finds the band simultaneously opting for more progressive and technical elements, while injecting each song with strong melodies. On “Sacred Serenity,” those two sides of the band coexist in perfect harmony. In fact, while I’ve never necessarily seen anyone draw the line, I can only imagine that this era of the band’s career had to have been a pretty substantial influence on early Mastodon. Sadly, Schuldiner succumbed to cancer in 2002, but the band’s catalog still stands strong.
“Locust Star” 5:48
[found on Through Silver In Blood, 1996]
Oakland’s Neurosis started as a hardcore act but shortly transformed into one of the most epic, ambitious beasts in all of metal. Though they had made their metamorphosis several years beforehand, 1996’s Through Silver In Blood is the point at which their ambition matured into a force of unequaled power. The album’s 12-minute title track, alone, could probably level an entire forest, its rumbling tribal drums and slow, churning riffs awakening like some kind of angry, tormented dragon. But that won’t fit here. “Locust Star,” at half the length, is all the power with a much quicker build, launching right into the meat of its blood-curdling slow scorch. This kind of metal takes a little patience, but if anyone can fight narcoleptic urges after listening to a Tool album, then rest assured that Neurosis might very well have the opposite effect, though I haven’t yet had any night terrors…
The Dillinger Escape Plan
Metal, as with rock, punk and all aggressive-ish forms of music, gradually got faster and faster over time, eventually peaking with the chaotic blur of grindcore’s bullet train speeds. New Jersey’s Dillinger Escape Plan went one better, however, by not only playing at breakneck velocity, but also by making it as technically proficient and rhythmically complex as possible. Their debut album Calculating Infinity is what happens when math nerds and seething hardcore combine. It’s not the kind of album that one can fully absorb in one sitting. It can be a bit dizzying to follow, and without warning, the group throws in bits of jazz, classical guitar, and beautiful post-rock interludes. But they also abrade with the best of them, as on “The Running Board,” a song that launches into hyperdrive before offering an unexpected atmospheric midsection, and then rocketing into mathematical ferocity once again. And this was before they teamed up with Mike Patton.
“I Wanna Be a Sex Symbol on My Own Terms” 3:35
[from We Are the Romans, 1999]
Album titles on Botch’s outstanding 1999 album We Are the Romans include: “Swimming the Channel vs. Driving the Chunnel,” “C. Thomas Howell as the ‘Soul Man'” and “Frequency Ass Bandit.” Needless to say, they were composed of a bunch of smartasses. Incredibly talented, fierce and forward thinking smartasses. That 1999 breakthrough took metalcore and pushed well beyond the fairly unremarkable standards set by a lot of late ’90s metal/hardcore acts with the band’s jerky rhythms, dime-stop precision and ambitious songwriting. And these are all fantastic songs, no matter how ridiculous the names. One such favorite, “I Wanna Be a Sex Symbol on My Own Terms,” has such a dense and electrifying opening, one might be fooled into believing that the band is offering up a shoegazer track. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth; it’s dense, and those guitars most definitely create an impenetrable wall, but this is a rhythmic puzzle of sharp snaps and jolts, and a curiously accessible one at that. This is smartass metal, perhaps, but it’s also just plain smart.
[from Dopethrone, 2000]
One need not consume copious amounts of illicit substances to enjoy Electric Wizard, no matter what a name like Dopethrone seems to suggest. There’s a heavy layer of smoke and crust encasing every corner of their Sabbath-inspired doom-metal, and that’s precisely why they’ve been described as the “heaviest band in the universe.” Or, alternately, why so many reviews of the album on RateYourMusic simply read: “fuck.” They don’t come much denser or slower than Electric Wizard, but their bluesy fuzz is by no means inaccessible. Heavy and impenetrable as their wall of hallucinatory sludge is, it’s got hooks. Just check “Vinium Sabbathi,” one of the more digestible tracks on Dopethrone, which also contains one 11-minute epic, and the 20-minute title track. This, however, is nonetheless a substantial slab of thunder, its three short minutes packing a wallop that even more so-called “extreme” metal bands can’t really compete with.
Side Two: Fault and Fracture or The Best Game In Town
“Distance and Meaning” 4:17
[found on Jane Doe, 2001]
Few metal bands in the ’00s have a record as impressive as Converge. The Massachussetts-based metalcore band had been active through the second half of the ’90s, but truly began to come into an unstoppable force with the release of Jane Doe, a fierce, cathartic masterpiece of breakneck tempos, abrasive riffs and mesmerizing instrumental precision. It’s an album stacked with standouts, including the epic 12-minute title track, among others. But one of the best cross sections of the band’s talent is in early highlight “Distance and Meaning,” a song that’s part noise rock, part metal demolition session. The way the band effortlessly transitions between Jesus Lizard-style verses and a descent into a harrowing, yet breathtaking chorus is nothing short of magnificent. There’s a very good reason Decibel named this the Best Metal Album of the ’00s: it’s a triumph that few have come close to topping.
“The Other” 7:14
[found on Oceanic, 2002]
When Isis first formed in Boston in the late ’90s, they played a fairly standard, though definitely epic, style of sludge metal, but as they progressed (and relocated to Los Angeles), that sludge began to crystallize into more graceful and delicate post rock formations. The end result is something now known as “post-metal,” which is just another pointless genre name when you get right down to it. Some, however, call it the “NeurIsis” sound, for being pioneered by Isis and their most direct predecessor, Neurosis. Oceanic is a heavy and massive record, but much more atmospheric than the band’s previous recordings, and the way they balance the two can be an impressive thing to behold. Check “The Other,” a highlight that begins with an ambient post-rock intro, but subsequently gives way to a burly churn. Sometimes metal doesn’t always behave in the way you would expect.
“Blood and Thunder” 3:48
[found on Leviathan, 2004]
Atlanta’s Mastodon is largely to thank for bridging some of the divide between metalheads and indie rockers, and some people resent them for that. But the band’s blend of hardcore intensity, progressive songwriting and dense sludge is precisely what gives them the kind of appeal that crosses demographics. While I, personally, have a slight preference for their third album Blood Mountain, the definitive Mastodon song is “Blood and Thunder,” the burly anthem that kicks off their 2004 landmark album Leviathan. Following a gut-wrenching introductory chug, Troy Saunders bellows his lament, “I think that someone is trying to kill me!” Now that’s how you begin an album. And for that matter, how you introduce a new generation to metal.
“We All Falter”
[found on Jesu, 2004]
Justin Broadrick’s curriculum vitae lists so many bands, from Napalm Death and Godflesh (an unfortunate outtake from the first 90 Minute Guide to Metal due to song length) to Ice and Techno Animal, that one wonders how he finds the time to continually pursue so many projects. With Jesu, founded after Godflesh broke up, Broadrick became more concerned with prettier, shoegazer-influenced textures, while maintaining a slow metal dirge sound not unlike that of Godflesh. Yet his vocals, while still treated with effects, sound much more human and transcendent than on any past projects. The shortest track on Jesu’s self-titled debut (and not coincidentally still one of the longest here), “We All Falter” maintains just a slight trace of Godflesh’s abrasive malevolence while ultimately reaching for more graceful and psychedelic effects. Some of Jesu’s releases, particularly the splendid Silver EP, are actually more straightforward in shoegazer sound, this maintains the perfect balance of effects laden bliss and metal devastation.
Japanese doom/sludge trio Boris took their name from a song on Melvins’ Bullhead, which is an important fact to have when diving into their discography, but it only explains part of the story. Their early records dealt heavily with blown-out doom drones and sludge riffs, two tropes that remained a sort of constant up through the present. But since then, they’ve made a psych-rock record with Ghost’s Michio Kurihara, collaborated with noisenik Merzbow and fellow drone merchants Sunn0))), and most recently, released a shoegazer/dream pop record in Attention Please. The most perfect summary of everything they do best is Pink, a dense and crusty slab of sludge rock that begins with a transcendent shoegazer anthem and subsequently takes the listener through every speaker-blowing permutation of their distortion encrusted style. “Woman on the Screen” is a sample of the band at their most unhinged, showing off a kind of badass rock ‘n’ roll style complete with ass-kicking riffs and an exclamatory “wooo!” right when you need it.
“The Machete Twins” 3:02
[found on Phantom Limb, 2007]
You shouldn’t expect subtlety from a band that goes by the name Pig Destroyer. Nope, this Virginia-based grindcore band doesn’t play anything less than a harsh, aggressive and incredibly intense grind with death metal and hardcore elements stirred in. Their 2007 album Phantom Limb is a marathon session for such gut-wrenching deathgrind, with just about all of its 14 tracks arriving like mechanized punches to the stomach. But the band does mix it up with a good groove now and then, as with “The Machete Twins,” for which the band actually filmed a music video! It’s just a little slower than their typical metal drill session, and there’s even a bit of infectious melody in there as well. But don’t be fooled; this is relentless, uncompromising music.
Hailing from Athens, Ga., home to R.E.M. and a sizable stack of other notable American underground bands, Harvey Milk have built a career out of a unique style of sludge that borrows just as much from southern rock as it does from The Melvins and pigfuck. There are just as many rock solid anthems in their discography as completely bleak and devastating dirges, and somehow they all seem to fit together despite the contradiction. One place in which those pieces all come together in one messy, disjointed but ultimately awesome blend is their 2008 album Life… the Best Game In Town. And right in the middle is “Motown,” still slow and sludgy, but tuneful. In fact, it’s one of the best pop songs the band has ever written, as little sense as that statement makes. The way they combine hooks and gut-punching heft is a thing of beauty. Nurse those bruises with pride.
Where Louisiana once stood as the American capital of sludge metal, Georgia has since come to produce some of the most amazing progressive sludge metal bands in recent history. There’s Mastodon for one, as well as Harvey Milk. And then there’s Baroness, a band that has taken a loud, heavy foundation and layered it with Fugazi-style intensity, classic rock riffage and melodies that soar higher than even most rock bands dare to attempt. “A Horse Called ‘Golgotha'” from their sophomore album Blue Record is, by all accounts, an extra massive classic rock song. There’s more than a twinge of southern rock in the band’s epic approach, but there’s also plenty of Iron Maiden-style harmonization and heroism. It’s a sound that could fill stadiums, even if much of the world hasn’t yet caught on.
Kindred spirits to their Savannah neighbors Baroness, Kylesa takes a similarly melodic sludge sound and grounds it with some churning crust-punk nastiness, as well as the enveloping, mighty sound of two drummers. They’re aggressive but cosmic, bringing some raw, fuzzy muck and slinging it into heady, swirling vortexes. And sometimes they merely crank out a perfect rock song, as on “Don’t Look Back.” It’s one of the mightiest, fist-pumping anthems in modern metal, almost inspirational in its infectious hooks and shout-along refrain of “Keep moving, Don’t! Look! Back!” The band’s not-so-secret weapon is guitarist Laura Pleasants, whose shredding skills are a dazzling thing to behold, and whose vocals ably transition between a menacing scream and an ethereal melodic chant. Kylesa’s music is an engrossing and huge experience, and one that’s just catchy enough to lure some curious onlookers to dive deeper into metal’s darkest, crustiest caverns.
“Wings of Predation” 3:43
[found on Paracletus, 2010]
Based in France and featuring contributing members from Finland and Japan, Deathspell Omega is a loosely defined black metal collective whose individual identities are enshrouded in secrecy. They almost never give interviews, they don’t perform live, and they don’t print lyrics in their album sleeves. However, those lyrics, when deciphered, deal largely with a complex philosophy about man’s relationship to God and Satan. It’s a much more intellectualized, metaphysical variation on the typical black metal Satanist identity, and one that’s a bit hard to fully comprehend in basic terms, though a representative from the band did note in a rare interview that they aren’t interested in art as entertainment. Suffice it to say, these guys probably are no fun at parties. But when it comes to their music, what Deathspell Omega does is mind-blowing. There’s a basic black metal foundation to their sound, but the band is definitely nontraditional, from their post-rock and post-hardcore influences that seep in, to the almost Trout Mask Replica-like complexity to the compositions. “Wings of Predation” is a standout from latest album Paracletus, surging with menace built around a highly complex arrangement. It’s an awe-inspiring sensory experience, however much that statement might irk the song’s creators.
Side Three: Monoliths/Dimensions
Because of the expansive, limitless nature of some of the most groundbreaking acts to emerge from a metal foundation, I had to clear a third side to add a bonus for this particular 90 minute guide. Specifically, the sprawling nature of Agalloch’s dramatic folk/black metal and the cavernous drone doom rumble of Earth and Sunn0))) have proven sticky in terms of how jaw-droppingly long some of their tracks are. But I couldn’t leave them out, either. So, to close out this chapter on metal, here are three 10+ minute behemoths from some of metal’s most progressive and avant garde artists.
It’s an odd thing to say with regard to metal, but Agalloch’s music is some of the most beautiful ever to emerge from something so harsh. With as much influence from post-rock and folk as from black metal, the Portland band creates a desolate wintry sound that feels much more like a blizzard than an attack from invading Viking hordes. “The Watcher’s Monolith,” one of six breathtaking compositions on their latest album, Marrow of the Spirit, comes on harsh and aggressive, but spends as much time exploring gentler, melancholy minor key sounds, with clean vocals no less. And for music this sprawling and forward thinking, it’s highly melodic, veering into realms once thought highly improbable from a band with a black metal foundation. Agalloch proves that heavy music can be pretty, too.
“Seven Angels” 15:35
[found on Earth 2, 1992]
Founded in Seattle by sole permanent member Dylan Carlson, Earth is less a metal band than the heaviest ambient outfit in musical history. With extended musical pieces sometimes composed only of bass and guitar and stretching far beyond any reasonable length of time, Earth is, much like their name, an organic and slowly circling giant with a molten core. Their very sound is like that of lava slowly trickling through a crevasse, terrifying but oddly beautiful. “Seven Angels” is the shortest track on Earth 2 and yet it’s colossal. Its sound, while rooted in the sludgy sounds of Black Sabbath and the Melvins, doesn’t actually mine those bands’ penchant for song structures or hooks. Instead, it’s distortion and volume taken to a degree seemingly unfit for human consumption. Named for a planet, Earth likewise sounds like it could obliterate one as well.
Heavily influenced by Earth, to the point that they originally went by the name “Mars,” Sunn0))) has taken that band’s foundation in awe-inspiring buzzing drone and shaped it into even more intriguing forms. Monoliths and Dimensions is nothing short of art – extremely heavy, frightening and overwhelming art. Yet its closing piece, “Alice,” is as much influenced by jazz as it is by metal. Named for Alice Coltrane, the track beautifully features horns accompanying the duo’s buzz and screech, which seems oddly lighter and less crushing in this context. It’s truly breathtaking, and a fine example of how far one artist can go while maintaining a metal foundation. Some might argue that this isn’t actually “metal,” and that’s fair. It’s something outside of pop music entirely, quite honestly. But metal is in Sunn0)))’s blood, and however they choose to alter its DNA, their music remains heavy.
Previously: The 90 Minute Guide: Metal, Part One
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.