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Music critics have a peculiar penchant for the prefix “post.” Post-punk. Post-hardcore. Post-”Please Mr. Postman”. We can’t get enough of it. In the early ‘90s Simon Reynolds coined the term “post-rock” for artists who were using “rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes.” It was applied to a wide array of broadly experimental musicians from Talk Talk to Tortoise whose deconstructed music valued textures and timbres over verse/chorus clichés. Such bands were influenced by non-rock genres such as jazz, classical and electronica. Incidentally, many of them favored biodegradable cardboard CD covers over ’orrible plastic cases.
Soon enough, “post-metal” was adopted to describe bands that remolded the boundaries of heavier music by eschewing traditional formulas of metal songwriting and incorporating ambient, psychedelic, avant-garde and drone influences into their extended compositions. Several of the post-rockers’ metal counterparts took similar exception to the genre label they’d been assigned. Despite their slowly unwinding, instrumental songs, Illinois’ Pelican considered themselves to be punk. Musician and Hydra Head label boss Aaron Turner, meanwhile, preferred to call it “thinking man’s metal.” You can headbang in slow-motion to these records if you like. Chin-stroking, philosophizing, studying, meditating, designing architecture or slumping in a beanbag are equally encouraged.
Formed way back in 1985 as a crusty hardcore punk band, in the ‘90s Neurosis transformed into the daddies of post-metal. The Californian band’s music has grown even more polished and sophisticated since then but their fifth album remains a touchstone in both Neurosis’ discography and for the rest of the post-metal scene. Confronted by its creepy textures, industrial edges, doomy riffs, tribal drumbeats, eerie samples and apocalyptic barks, you’ll already think Through Silver In Blood has got it all...And then the bagpipes kick in! Throughout this revolutionary LP’s 70-minute running time, there’s barely one moment that ceases to blow the brain out the top of your skull.
Before the word was commandeered by militant fundamentalist wieners, “Isis” had a range of positive connotations including the name of the dog from Downton Abbey. Another was the band Isis, who formed in Boston in 1997 and whose 2002 album Oceanic is their masterpiece. To paralyzing effect, Oceanic’s chugging, downtuned riffs are complemented by subtle electronics, mellower passages of melodic ambience and vocal contributions from Maria Christopher of the Massachusetts indie band 27. Over the course of the LP, Aaron Turner’s lyrics narrate a tragic tale of obsession, incest and suicide. You’ll require the interior booklet to follow the storyline, mind, as Turner’s growls are low enough in the mix to avoid drawing the spotlight away from the epic music. Appropriately enough, it’s an album that can swallow you up like the sea.
I remember that day in 2003 as if it was only yesterday. My friend running into the room, panting with excitement and waving this vibrant orange-colored object in my face. “You have got to hear this record,” he squealed. “It’s like Mogwai if they only played the terribly heavy bits.” We never looked back. There’s a wealth of “instru-metal” groups out there but few have reached the dizzy heights of this behemothic LP. Australasia wallops you round the head with riff after riff after mother-effing riff (as they say in the business), barely letting up except for the one calm penultimate track, and that even features the added bonus of a singing saw. It’s clear that Mogwai themselves were keeping one eye on the competition as their own subsequent LP, Mr. Beast, would be their heaviest to date.
Speaking of Mogwai, the label they own (Rock Action) distributed this album in the UK. And that imprint doesn’t put out any old rubbish. By this time, Tokyo’s Envy had outgrown their roots as a post-hardcore/screamo outfit and evolved into a far more progressive prospect, all without losing their ability to leave your ears battered and ringing for days. On this record, the rhythm section was joined by three guitar players and together they shift seamlessly between lobe-melting crescendos and delicate cinematic melancholy. Between occasional soft whispers, Tetsuya Fukagawa screams so intensely it’s as if he has a personal vendetta against his own lungs. The tracklist builds to the climactic final number, “A Will Remains In The Ashes”, an incredible 13-minute tapestry of raw emotions that’ll leave you gasping for breath.
The fertile post-metal scene has been particularly adept at birthing side-projects and cross-band collaborations. One short-lived supergroup was Battle Of Mice which featured members of Red Sparowes, Made Out Of Babies and Book Of Knots. Julie Christmas and Josh Graham were in a turbulent on/off relationship during the making of Battle Of Mice’s one full-length (A Day Of Nights) and the anger and frustration of that situation bled naturally and nastily into its brooding music. Most of Christmas’ vocals were captured on first take and for “Cave Of Spleen” she hadn’t even prepared any lyrics, improvising her verses about chipped teeth and bloody mouths on the spot, and bursting into tears by the end of the recording. Christmas’ versatile voice whispers, soars, screams, speaks, screeches, moans, wails and roars, leaving rival metal vocalists trailing in their two-dimensional dust. The original album never made it to vinyl but it takes up most of Consouling Sound’s posthumous 2-LP “complete recordings” compilation.
Originally conceived as an outlet for multi-instrumentalist Aidan Baker’s heavier tendencies, Nadja really started to make waves when Leah Buckareff joined on bass in 2005. So important was this addition that Baker felt it necessary to rerecord his old material as a duo. The original solo CD-R of Touched came out in 2003. Four years later, a fresh version appeared and the year after that its vinyl version was born. Nadja’s sound is extraordinarily dense, taking elements of drone, doom, shoegaze and goth and flattering them into vast tectonic layers. When Baker’s vocals float towards the murky surface, they tend to take the form of soft and ghostly murmurings. That’s until the climactic final track, when he lets himself go with some chilling black-metal roaring which sounds as if he’s trying to bellow his way out of a soily grave.
If Justin Broadrick had gone AWOL following the nervous breakdown that led him to split up Godflesh in 2002, he would have already played his part in the post-metal cause thanks to boundary-breaking releases such as 1992’s Pure. Instead, Broadrick dusted himself off and cracked on with Jesu. Less confrontational and industrially minded as his former project, Jesu resembles a shoegaze musician who has dutifully gawped down at his feet only to discover that his ankles are being gradually consumed by merciless quicksand. Following the acclaimed Silver EP, this melodic and crushing second full-length outing is smothered in guitar effects, adorned with delicate programming, dripping with sorrow and slower than a desolate tortoise queuing at the box office for a ticket to one of the artiest Gus Van Sant pictures.
The City of Leeds, UK, has bestowed many musical gifts on the world including The Wedding Present, Gang Of Four and one-fifth of The Spice Girls. Less renowned is the obscure post-metal act Humanfly despite the fact that their second album was objectively brilliant. Formed in late 2000, the quartet’s debut LP consisted of frantically paced post-hardcore rattlers with daft titles. That style swiftly bored Humanfly, however. Returning to the drawing board, the band started working on an alternative set of “impossibly long songs”. The outcome of this experiment was 2007’s II, released via the aptly named Total Prog Records. Its proggish structures are packed with massive riffs, washes of moody psychedelia and heady space-rock abstractness. Impossibly long and implausibly accomplished.
You’d think that fusing Scandinavian black metal with rustic Americana, raga drones and krautrock would be a difficult trick to pull off. Well, it certainly is. My pal attempted it once and the results were like Duke Garwood sitting in a sinkful of unwashed crockery. You’d have to be some kind of über-talented sonic prodigy to actually pull it off. Specifically you’d have to be one Jenks Miller, recording under his Horseback persona. 2012’s Half Blood really has to be heard to be believed. For the time being, it is perhaps worst described as sounding like the Vikings have returned from the underworld to invade North America with the express purpose of sacrificing Ry Cooder to the vindictive wind deities.
Try not to think of Lulu as an orderly continuation in the discography of either the world’s biggest metal band or the beshaded composer of Transformer. Think of it more as a never-to-be-repeated and utterly idiosyncratic piece of avant-garde conceptual art. Alternatively, think of it as an ambitious post-metal opus. It ticks many of the boxes, after all. Protracted songs based around repetitive, cyclical riffs? Check. Passages of spoken word? Check. An overriding conceptual narrative (inspired by bourgeois-baiting German theatre)? The incorporation of classical strings? Ominous existential drones? Check! Check! Check! Its later tracks are particularly rewarding, culminating in the majestic 20-minute closer “Junior Dad”, although it’s doubtful whether certain critics even made it that far, let alone awarding Lulu the repeat listens it requires to unveil its gnarled beauty. At the very least, displaying Lulu prominently and proudly in your record collection will certainly act as an interesting talking point, as I discovered when one house guest started chasing me round the garden brandishing the LP sleeve as a makeshift chakram. Go on, give it a second chance. Or an 88-minute chance, to be precise.
JR Moores is a freelance writer based in the north of England. His work has appeared in Noisey, Record Collector, Drowned In Sound, Bandcamp Daily, The Guardian and many others, and he is currently resident psych-rock columnist for The Quietus.