|Pelican, the premier post-metal band|
One of the most amazing things about metal music is how it has continued to evolve. To me, nothing has been more intriguing than the development of post-metal. Post-metal describes a sub-genre of extreme metal which, similar to the way post-rock leaves many of the standard tropes of rock behind, uses metal as a jumping off point for more unusual explorations of this variation that (much like post-rock itself) typically involves minimal vocals, a grander, more neo-classical compositional structure, and an emphasis on sonic textures over traditional riffs and chords, atypical instrumentation, etc.
I’ve talked in two recent posts about the rise of crossover/thrash and grindcore/death metal from the ashes of the hardcore scenes in England and America. Post-metal can trace its lineage to grindcore through the career of one fascinating musician, Justin Broadrick. Broadrick’s musical career began when he formed his first band Final in the early 80’s when he was just 13; originally conceived as a punk band, Final used a drum machine instead of a live drummer (much like Nine Inch Nails would a decade or so later) and was involved in the nascent industrial scene.
In 1985 Broadrick became the guitarist for Napalm Death and recorded side one of their now-legendary 1987 grindcore classic Scum with them. Broadrick’s massive wall-of-sound guitar noise was a critical element to the emerging genre of grindcore and was a bridge between the emerging hardcore punk, extreme metal and industrial genres.
In 1986 he joined as a drummer the industrial bands Fall of Because and Head of David and edged even closer to a fusion of punk, metal and industrial. The Fall of Because compilation Life Is Easy was released in 1989 (and re-released by Invisible Records in 1999 and is available on iTunes) and showcases this musical direction. The music sounds like an update of Killing Joke; other bands like Swans are clear influences, while in America bands like Big Black were pursuing similar sonic avenues. It has elements of punk and the wall-of-feedback-and-distortion element that the Jesus and Mary Chain developed, and which the indie shoegazer movement would make even more famous. It also has a sludgy, Flipper element that would also find popularity in another genre, grunge, a few years later; the tempo of much of Broadrick’s post-Napalm Death music tends to be very slow and grinding rather than blisteringly fast. “Grind”, “Survive”, and “Merciless” are particular standouts.
In 1988 Broadrick evolved Fall of Because into Godflesh with Because bassist G.C. Green. Godflesh continued on in this same punk/metal/industrial vein. 1988’s Godflesh is like a Venn diagram between the feedback whine of indie shoegazer and the rumble and blast of grindcore, particularly on songs like “Godhead” and “Spinebender”. The influence on bands like Ministry and other late 80's/early 90’s industrial bands is obvious. 1989’s Streetcleaner was an even more cogent musical statement, boasting cleaner production and an even better defined ethic. The songs here lumber and lurch like proto-Sabbath sludge; guitars clang and howl; Broadrick’s vocals are deep throated growls. My favorite song is “Christbait Rising”, with its rat-a-tat drum machine and droning, feedback-drenched blitz. This music is definitely heavy enough to appeal to metalers able to step out of the traditional structure of heavy metal, people who would form bands like White Zombie. The industrial element comes more directly from the drum machine and staccato rhythms and less from overt synth or sampling elements.
My personal favorite album by Godflesh is 1994’s album Selfless; to me the production here is top notch; the guitars (and Green’s bass) pulse and roar. I like “Xnoybis” and “Anything is Mine”; the lurching, pulsing, grinding rhythm of the latter reminds me almost of early Soundgarden or Nirvana it’s so sludgy. The high, repeating feedback of the former is also really memorable to me, and really makes me think again of Killing Joke, a high compliment indeed from me. This album also has one of my favorite album covers of all time, a scanning electron image of a cultured fibroblast growing on a computer chip, a fitting image for such organic-yet-electronic music.
Another contributor to Godflesh was Robert Hampson, who was another interesting player in the evolution of metal’s evolution toward industrial and electronica. Hampson had been guitarist and a main architect of the band Loop. Loop sat much closer to the art/damage sound of Sonic Youth and Naked Raygun than they did to Napalm Death, but Hampson brought these other, more trance-like elements into the Godflesh mix. Their 1987 album Heaven’s End captures this hypnotic feel, particularly on songs like “Straight to your Heart”, which sounds like something off Sonic Youth’s Evol album, and the title track, which hearkens back to the Velvet Underground’s early drone experimentation (only with looped samples). They continued in this vibe on 1988’s Fade Out; I have “This is Where You End” and the title track, which have that repetitive feedback drone that can be found in everything from the art/damage of Sonic Youth to the reverb-filled debut of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to the shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine and Blur. This is actually really great music that I don’t listen to often enough.
Loop’s swan song was 1990’s A Gilded Eternity. I have four songs that I like from this one, all of which fit that Sonic-Youth-meets-Blur vibe. “Arc-Lite” has the echoey vocals of 60’s obscurities like the Godz and a catchily repetitive riff. “Vapour” is another dead-on Sonic Youth carbon copy; honestly, if I snuck this into your electronic copy of Bad Moon Rising, you probably wouldn’t even notice. Aside from the fey vocals, “The Nail Will Burn” sounds the most like Godflesh and you can see why Broadrick asked him to join. “Blood” is quieter, with a dominant repeating drum line and a softly feeding back guitar and occasional chimes of guitar riff and other sampled sonics.
Broadrick also collaborated in side projects with Kevin Martin, another drone experimentalist who had formed the band Ice in the mid-90’s. Ice was not metal at all, but traded heavily in low key, jazz-influenced ambient electronica. I have the song “Out of Focus” (not a cover of Blue Cheer’s famous proto-metal barn burner) from the album Under the Skin. I like the skittery, free jazz drums and pulsing electronic skirls on this song. As mentioned, this is far from metal, but still has an occasional ominous chug that tethers it to industrial music. It often sounds like an super-extended chillwave/dub remix of Godflesh’s more accessible stuff.
Broadrick broke up Godflesh after suffering a nervous breakedown in 2002 (though they reformed in 2010) and in 2004 formed the industrial metal/post-metal band Jesu. Jesu is often described as post-metal; here Broadrick has crisply delineated the minor key electronic elements and guitar chug. The vocals are not the shouted growls of Godflesh but soft and optimistic, sounding like something off an ambient/trance album. “Bright Eyes” off 2007’s Conqueror sounds like a cross between Vangelis and the tight thrumming guitar chug of Soundgarden’s “Beyond the Wheel”; similarly, “Stanlow” has a rough Godflesh-like chug to the guitars but again the electronic elements here sound like something off a science fiction movie soundtrack.
My favorite work is from their most recent album, 2011’s Ascension. “Birth Day” is magnificent ambient metal, there’s really no other word for it. The electronic elements on “Broken Home” almost sound like a harpsichord or something and the guitar chug is wonderful here too. “Small Wonder” is more fuzzed-out and the electronic elements are submerged more into the overall feedback drone and guitar chug. The song occasionally resolves into a gently picked (i.e., not heavily amplified and feeding back) guitar and Broadrick’s gentle vocals. This might be the best Jesu song to me. The title track continues this more introspective and peaceful vibe and is really close to the post-rock of Mogwai or Bark Psychosis, just repeating elements and intersecting lines and lots of majestic, introspective, hazy beauty. I hope Broadrick continues to do his Jesu work, he’s truly captured a unique and beautifully optimistic take on music in general and metal in particular.
In the late 90’s and into the 21st century other bands have attempted to infuse extreme metal with a similarly orchestrated and majestic feel, focusing more on textures than on bludgeoning riffs or extreme speed. An early pioneer was the Oakland band Neurosis, who evolved from hardcore punk to death metal to a band mixing elements of death metal with ambient and electronic elements much like Broadrick has done throughout his career. I have not downloaded much by this band but definitely will check them out.
Isis is another early post-metal pioneer, and guitarist Aaron Turner also formed Hydra Head Records, a label which specializes in extreme metal, everything from the grindcore of Agoraphobic Nosebleed to the post-metal of Jesu. Isis (who also write their name ISIS) emerged from a more straightforward hardcore and death metal sonic place (as can be seen by the songs on their debut album, 2000’s Celestial). My favorite downloads thus far (like with Neurosis, I’ve only just begun exploring) are “So Did We”, a moody, introspective piece off their third album, 2006’s Panopticon, that also occasionally rumbles and roars, and sports gravelly, growled vocals used sparingly between long crisp instrumental passages. “Backlit” also references post-rock bands like Slint but it builds like classic Godflesh to soaring pinnacles of noisy splendor interspersed with airy ambient waves. My other two favorites are “Wrists of Kings” off 2006’s In the Absence of Truth; this reminds me a lot of the contemporary post-rock I’ve been downloading in droves recently, specifically stuff by Califone, Clog’s, Rachel’s, and Diagonah, and only reaches the sturm and drang of metal sporadically. “Dulcinea” off this album is similar, often sounding as moody and introspective as early Cure. As with Neurosis, I’m still on the ascending limb of my collection curve with respect to this band but eventually builds in power and intensity.
My current favorite post-metal band by a large margin is Chicago’s Pelican. Formed in 2001, they released their first album, Australasia, in 2003. I absolutely love the giant, soaring, majestic guitar landscapes constructed by this band; their sound is so optimistic and beautiful I’m almost always sucked into their magnificence. I honestly cannot recommend this band enough; they take the same joyous, hopeful sound approach of Jesu, but do not taint it with vocals: nearly all of their songs are instrumentals of unparalleled splendor. I love the short (for them) song “GW” off this first album but it’s easy to get lost in any of their wordless anthems. Some, like “Drought” or “Angel Tears” sit closer to the dirgy drone of Godflesh.
2005’s Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw is another triumph. “Last Day of Winter” almost sounds like “Kashmir” by Zep in terms of its lurching yet shimmering texture, but occasionally slows to even more spare and introspective moments of percussion alternating with bass chords; the shimmering middle sounds a lot like Jesu’s work on Ascension. “Sirius” clangs and burbles to start but then settles into a twangy thrum of guitar and bass before reaching a loud, crashing crescendo.
My favorite album by them is 2007’s City of Echoes. “Bliss in Concrete” starts with some downbeat riffing that suggests Godflesh or even arguably John McGeoch’s strange shimmering guitar work for Siouxsie and the Banshees (a strange comparison I know for a metal band). The title track is a blow-you-away standout song that never fails to amaze me; the balance between the guitar picking and the huge minor chord riffing is just incredible, and they even slip in a little Metallica-like superfast chugging, and I defy anyone to find a song with a more uplifting tone. I am absolutely nuts about this song right now; it is VERY high in my frequently changing personal top ten list. “Spaceship Broken-Parts Needed” starts with a repeating piano note-like sound and floats gossamer-like initially like an Angela Badalamenti composition but builds to some majestic riffage that still retains the evanescence of the intro even as it ramps up the power. The drumming here is particularly outstanding; by the four and a half minute mark this song is as majestic as “City of Echoes”. “Winds with Hands” starts off with acoustic strumming that sounds like Nick Drake; if the strumming weren’t so vigorous this would also sound like late era Talk Talk, the first post-anything band. Ironically, the emotional tension is the highest for any Pelican song I can think of, which shows how capable this band is. “A Delicate Sense of Balance” starts ominously but again like “Parts Needed” builds from a basic drum beat and softly strummed electric guitars to a huge, shimmering apex.
“Pulse”, off their 2009 untitled EP, shows that Pelican can pull off a soaring Jesu drone vibe with utter perfection; like much of Jesu’s work, this sounds like a cut from a particularly enjoyable science fiction movie. Their most recent album, 2009’s What We All Come to Need is another triumph. “Glimmer” has a great noodling background solo that reminds me of Greg Ginn’s work with late era Black Flag. The title track is my second most favorite Pelican song next to “City of Echoes”, another hopeful instrumental anthem that just takes you along like a briskly flowing river to new vistas of beauty.
Two other post-metal bands I’ve just begun exploring are Russian Circles and Callisto. Russian Circles is a Chicago trio who, like ISIS and Pelican, traffic in metallic landscapes that build in shimmering intensity and incorporate ambient, post-rock, and post-punk aspects of instrumentation. The two Russian Circles songs I have now are “Verses” off 2008’s Station and “Fathom” off 2009’s Geneva. I love the spacey electronica of the former and the chunky post-rock feel of the second (and its sustain ending). Much harder is “309” off their most recent album, 2011’s Empros, while “Mladek” and “Atackla” off this same album are uplifting but still retain a rough fuzz to the bass that offsets their sweetness. Finally, “Praise Be Man” reminds me of early Chemical Brothers in its eerie ambience and repeating elements, sort of like a metal “Where Do I Begin”. I like this band a lot, they’re probably my second fave next to Pelican.
Finland’s Callisto makes similarly ambitious music. The one song I have by them right now is “A Close Encounter” off 2007’s Noir; it starts with a mellow guitar line and spacey synths but eventually meanders its way into a traditional black metal structure, complete with hoarse, growled vocals and crashing guitar chords before wandering back into soothing electronics and guitar notes. “Wormwood” and “Fugitive” from this album are also good. I haven’t downloaded anything from it yet, but 2009’s Providence continues their evolution in this direction and is also good.