Metal for Non-Metalheads

    There are many reasons to hate heavy metal. Maybe you want your music to show some sensitivity. Maybe you like the riffs but can’t deal with the abrasive vocals. Maybe you’re actually a big fan of organized religion. Or maybe you’ve always found the genre’s inherent machismo to be a little circumspect, since those masturbatory guitar solos are obviously just veiled homoerotic displays. But just like any genre that’s been around for decades, heavy metal continues to deepen, hybridize and evolve in dozens of different directions. And because there’s no single element true of all metal, it stands to reason that there’s no way to dismiss it all.

    The list below contains a baker’s dozen of albums that just might speak to the many heavy-metal haters among us. Some of these albums are instrumental; some feature proper singing and standard rock ’n’ roll structures; some brandish the all-important quality of irony. Some are so emotionally expansive that they should connect with any music fan who has a heart. This list isn’t meant to convert anyone into a fanatic (though applications are most welcome); it’s more to alert the unconverted that portions of the heavy-metal establishment are far more inclusive and accessible than commonly believed.

    Happy reading, praise to Odin.


    Dethklok
    The Dethalbum
    Williams Street [2007]

    This soundtrack to the popular Cartoon Network show Metalocalypse debuted at number twenty-one on the Billboard charts, the highest position ever achieved by a death-metal album. What’s driving all the nonmetalheads to Best Buy all of a sudden? Maybe the fact that these songs — written and performed by comedian Brendon Small — are hilarious (and pretty acute) lampoons of pretty much every heavy-metal convention you can imagine. The Dethalbum keeps its extreme metal cred by employing legendary drummer Gene Hoglan (Death/Strapping Young Lad), but songs like “Go Forth and Die” and “Better Metal Snake” are catchy enough for the uninitiated and funny enough for the uninterested.

    ***

    Metalocalypse: http://www.adultswim.com/shows/metal/
    Prefix review: http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews/dethklok/the-dethalbum/16334


    Dimmu Borgir
    Death Cult Armageddon
    Nuclear Blast [2003]

    The antithesis of the sloppy, atonal basement productions that defined Scandinavian black metal in the early days of the genre, Dimmu Borgir’s Death Cult Armageddon is a grandly ambitious masterwork of truly symphonic scope — a live orchestra plays behind the Norwegian sextet’s maelstrom of melodic riffs, rasps, and gothic keyboards, sending the band’s already forward-thinking song structures into the stratosphere. These over-the-top arrangements make underground black-metal purists shudder, especially when the giant clean-sung chorus of “Progenies of the Great Apocalypse” detonates. But that penchant for theatrics has made Dimmu Borgir the most popular black-metal band in the world, and it might just convince the nonmetalhead to witness the spectacle.

    ***

    Band: http://www.dimmu-borgir.com


    The Fucking Champs
    IV
    Drag City [2000]

    Metalheads are noticeably absent at the Fucking Champs’ live shows, likely due to the overt sense that the band is making fun of them. With no vocals, cheeky titles like “Thor Is Like Immortal” and “These Glyphs are Dusty” and that uncompromising band name, the Fucking Champs could get by on quirk alone. Luckily they don’t have to, as the Champs fill their confusingly titled second album, IV, with a bottomless supply of melodic metal crunch. Drummer Tim Soete knows his way around a double kick pedal but prefers to stick with a rock ’n’ roll backbeat, and that factor — combined with the two guitarists’ predilection for Iron Maiden-style guitar harmonies in a major key — gives these tracks an undeniably fun, early-’80s hard-rock feel. With no bass guitar to be found, IV has a weirdly unfinished vibe, only adding to its winking lack of seriousness. Whether you’re in it for the righteous jams or the irony, the Fucking Champs’ IV delivers.

    ***

    Band: http://www.thefuckingchamps.com


    Grayceon
    Grayceon
    Vendlus [2007]

    Plenty of metal bands bring the complex structures of classical music to their music, but few go so far as to include orchestral instruments in any integral way. Grayceon’s electric cello player Jackie Perez-Gratz is a far more important part of her band’s sound than, say, the violinist in Yellowcard. She takes the place of a bassist in the band’s elaborately sculpted, neoclassical progressive metal epics, sometimes playing tandem rhythmic lines with drummer Zack Farwell, other times engaging in tricky counterpoint with guitarist Max Doyle. The few patches of vocals are delivered in understated clean-sung voices, and despite the surplus of energy Grayceon builds during the faster parts, nothing on this album could be considered the least bit extreme. Much of Grayceon is flat-out beautiful, and even during its most metal moments, it retains the melodic elegance of chamber music.

    ***

    Band: http://www.grayceon.com
    Prefix review: http://www.prefixmag.com/reviews/grayceon/grayceon/16028/


    Isis
    Oceanic
    Ipecac [2002]

    It’s no accident that Isis gained currency in nonmetal circles after the release of its sophomore full-length, Oceanic. The band’s music is undeniably rooted in heavy metal, but its evolving, towering riffs and hoarse growls act as an inevitable catharsis, coming as they do after the tension that swirls around them in pools of watery atmospherics. Even at its most violent, Oceanic retains a rarefied cerebral air, making it ideal for eyes-closed headphone listening as well as speaker-blasting headbang sessions. Music fans looking for transcendence in their listening should be swept away by this album, regardless of preferred genre.

    ***

    Band: http://www.isistheband.com


    Kyuss
    Blues for the Red Sun  
    Dali [1992]

    For five years before he formed Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Homme was the guitarist of seminal stoner-rock band Kyuss. The band’s classic second album, Blues for the Red Sun, is just as indebted to the sweet leaf as it is to the parched landscapes of the Southern California desert where the band lived and practiced. Elemental biker riffs ooze like amplified bong-hits from colossal bass amps and evaporate into watery Hendrix jams; Brant Bjork channels Bonham with his heavy, heavy kick-drum foot; and singer John Garcia sings his stoned ass off. Blues for the Red Sun is far from extreme — really more “heavy” and less “metal.” Anyone with an appreciation for classic rock grooves and dark, smoky atmosphere will find plenty to dig here.

    ***

    Band: http://www.stonerrock.com/kyuss


    Mastodon
    Leviathan
    Relapse [2004]

    If Isis’s Oceanic pulls us into the sea with slow-lapping waves, Mastodon’s second album, Leviathan, throws us into choppy waters during a nasty thunderstorm. Multipronged riffs froth mightily, heaving melodies and grooves to and fro, propelled by the perpetual churning of über-drummer Brann Dailor. We get that this album depicts a turbulent sea battle, even without Leviathan’s clever Moby Dick conceit. The members of Mastodon care more about what’s right for a song than what’s most extreme, which means that acoustic-guitar intros and clean vocals pop up across Leviathan with regularity. And when the heave-ho growls do spout up, they’re used more as accents than focal points — long stretches of Leviathan are free of vocals entirely. The band members sound less brutal than really, really excited to be staking new ground on Leviathan, and it’s that palpable, almost joyful sense of discovery that keeps the album accessible to those wary of headbanging.

    ***

    Band: http://www.mastodonrocks.com


    Melvins
    Stoner Witch
    Atlantic [1994]

    Though the Melvins are considered godfathers of grunge thanks in part to their influence on fellow Washingtonians Nirvana (Kurt Cobain guested on one album) and Mudhoney (bassist Matt Lukin was once a Melvin), they indulged an abiding love of metal that no grunge band expressed as explicitly as the Melvins do on Stoner Witch. And although the album finds joyous metallic release in a variety of ways (check the amped-up biker riffs on “Sweet Willy Rollbar” or the plodding sludge of “At the Stake”), Stoner Witch remains listener-friendly and throws too many stylistic curveballs to be considered a record solely for heshers. Rock fans of all stripes will appreciate the catchy jam at the end of “Revolve” and the peppy instrumental showcase “June Bug,” and experimental listeners have the noise track “Magic Pig Detective” and ambient closer “Lividity” to chew on. Wrapping the album up in a big polka-dot bow is the always-tuneful voice of King Buzzo, who sings with equal parts soul, smirk and menace throughout.

    ***

    Band: http://www.melvins.com


    Metallica
    Metallica  

    Elektra [1991]

    Metallica’s eponymous fifth LP is perhaps the ultimate metal album for the non-metalhead. At a time when the first wave of death-metal bands was upping the extremity of the underground, Metallica went the opposite route, streamlining and slowing down its songs into chugging, radio-ready rock singles and power ballads. The approach worked, and Metallica sold nearly fifteen million copies in the U.S. alone on the strength of its mammoth five singles — “Enter Sandman,” “Sad but True,” “The Unforgiven,” “Wherever I May Roam,” and “Nothing Else Matters” — all of which still pop up on rock-radio playlists. Complaints about the commercialism of Metallica often overshadow the fact that it’s a pretty terrific record by both rock and metal standards, proof that a successful bid for the mainstream doesn’t mean that a band has to compromise quality. Introspective lyrics and simple song structures? Sure. But Metallica is heavy as fuck, too.

    ***

    Band: http://www.metallica.com


    Neurosis
    Through Silver in Blood
    Relapse [1996]

    Yes, there’s a lot of howling and discordance on the fifth album by Bay Area metal granddaddies Neurosis. But the harsh vocals and punishing guitars that run throughout Through Silver in Blood aren’t manifestations of lunkheaded aggression, as they might be with a less thoughtful metal band. Neurosis songs feel like ancient rituals, with tribal rhythms and hulking guitar riffs evolving and repeating until all possible emotion has been confronted and released and a trancelike sense of euphoria sets in. Every tortured scream comes as a spiritual purging, disturbing yet vital. The members of Neurosis take their sweet time on Through Silver in Blood, stretching out four of these nine tracks beyond the ten-minute mark. And every track is stuffed with such a dynamic range of moods that it’s always worth sitting through. Nobody does “epic” quite like Neurosis, and even metalphobes will be awed by the massive emotional scope of Through Silver in Blood.

    ***

    Band: http://www.neurosis.com


    Opeth
    Blackwater Park
    Koch [2001]

    Handsome rewards await those growl-averse listeners who can make it past the guttural death-metal rasps that open Opeth’s fifth album, Blackwater Park. Surging riffs and shredded larynxes are only part of the Swedish band’s sonic cornucopia, which also includes acoustic folk, soaring melodic vocal lines, darkly pretty piano interludes, and plenty of gothic ambience. Mikael Akerfeldt’s poetic lyrics tend toward themes of sorrow and loss, in contrast to the gore and Satan focus of much traditional death metal. Blackwater Park is a progressive metal record in the best possible way: It reaches beyond the bounds of heavy metal in both sound and concept, achieving a place where beauty and intellect are held in equal regard to visceral aggression. Metal’s two-dimensional machismo dies in the presence of Opeth.

    ***

    Band: http://www.opeth.com


    Pelican
    Australasia
    Hydra Head [2003]

    If you fancy distorted, heavy guitar riffing but can’t get past the abrasive vocals of most metal bands, Pelican is for you. One of the few instrumental metal bands to make any inroads beyond the metal underground, Pelican gets by just fine without the growls and shrieks on its first offering, Australasia. The band’s lengthy metallic opuses would get more complicated and textured on subsequent albums, but the members of Pelican were never as dedicated to the pursuit of the ultimate riff as they were here — the skull-crusher that opens “NightEndDay” must surely measure on the Richter scale, and aftershocks can be heard throughout the rest of the album. Simply colossal.

    ***

    Band website: http://hydrahead.tortugarecordings.com/pelican


    Soilwork
    Steelbath Suicide
    Century Media [1998]

    Soilwork was one of the ripest fruits of the very fertile melodic-death-metal scene that arose in Sweden in the early ’90s, when countrymen like In Flames, At the Gates and Dark Tranquility were busy melding the speed and extremity of death metal with the appealing guitar harmonies of classic metal. Soilwork’s debut, Steelbath Suicide, is as seamless a fusion of ferocity and melody as the Swedish “melodeath” scene produced, and even if the screams of vocalist “Speed” Strid take some getting used to, Soilwork’s thrilling, highly musical guitar work is worth the effort.

    ***

    Band: http://www.soilwork.org