There are those who say metal offers the broadest musical canvas for experimentation, and there are those who find it limiting. Both camps are correct. On one hand, extreme music can blow any barrier to creativity clean off its hinges. The rules are obliterated, if the artist wants them to be. On the other hand, the desire to be trendy within a specific sub-genre — doom, death, black, stoner, sludge, thrash, grindcore, etc. — or to bear the earmarks of one’s influences makes for an abundance of bands suffering from the disease of sameness. As a listener, you may be very content with this fact or very discontent, depending on your preferences.
This brief list is not a best-of-the-year compilation, so if your favorite metal album of 2015 isn’t here, or if your band’s album isn’t here, that doesn’t mean this critic doesn’t like it. This is about a handful of artists who endeavored to be completely unique this year—and succeeded.
Big|Brave, Au De La
Big|Brave understand the drama of silence. On Au De La, songs appear to end midstream, interrupted by pauses, wherein artifacts of guitar and drum resonate and fade before the next blunt burst of notes. The Montreal group toys with the listening ear’s natural expectations of where a composition should go; what happens in the space of quiet becomes as essential as the moments full of sound. (Perhaps taking a cue from John Cage, they’ve been known to stop playing for indefinite stretches during performances to let the murmur of the audience take center stage.) With her vocals, Robin Wattie channels Kathleen Hanna, Björk, and bits of Patti Smith’s unfettered lyrical form to chilling effect. She’s also penned what may be the longest song title of 2015: “do.no.harm.do.no.wrong.Do.No.Harm.Do.No.Wrong.DO.NO.HARM.DO.NO.WRONG”
That crescendo of punctuation mirrors the dynamics of Au De La, a metal record that finds power in the extremities of whispers and roars.
Dimesland, Psychogenic Atrophy
Experimental metal — the kind with ever-shifting, irregular time signatures and virtuoso musicians — is not always the most euphonious. Sometimes it’s easier to revere it for sheer difficulty than it is to actually enjoy it. Dimesland’s first full-length, however, offers a welcome exception to this pattern with unpredictable tunes that land in fun grooves before ruthlessly jerking the listener in the next direction. Tastefully-applied atmospheric synths layer spooky textures to match the Kubrickian cover art. Although accessibility is never the point with this sort of music, it’s also never a bad thing when the avant-garde becomes more listenable. Sadly, Psychogenic Atrophy is a triumph shrouded in tragedy, as 44-year-old guitarist Drew Cook passed away at his Oakland home in May, six months before the record’s physical* release, leaving his brother Nolan as the band’s sole remaining guitarist. The future of Dimesland is uncertain, but this album stands as a sterling testament to what they accomplished during their early existence.
*Although Psychogenic Atrophy was released digitally in December 2014, the CD did not become available until November 2015.
Jane Getter Premonition, On
Leaning toward the prog rock end of the spectrum, this is the least traditionally metal album on this list, yet it bears mentioning for several reasons. For starters, the chops of the musicians are extraordinary. Jane Getter is the all-too-rare female jazz/rock guitarist at the helm and the author of all the songs. Under her lead are bassist Bryan Beller (of Dethklok and the Aristocrats), drummer Chad Wackerman (former percussionist for Frank Zappa), and keyboardist Adam Holzman (who played with Miles freakin’ Davis). Testament’s Alex Skolnick contributes additional guitar to three tunes. Flautist and saxophonist Theo Travis, known for his collaborations with Robert Fripp of King Crimson, appears on two tracks, and Corey Glover of Living Colour sings vocals on three. So, there’s that. If still you question the metal-ness of On, listen to “Train Main,” and witness Getter and Skolnick going toe to toe as guitar solo sparring partners. It’s a joy to hear a woman hold her own against one of the most adept shredders in the biz. If that’s not metal, what the heck is?
The Gentle Storm, The Diary
The Gentle Storm is the name of Dutch collaborative duo Arjen Lucassen and Anneke van Giersbergen. Composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and semi-recluse Lucassen is recognized for masterminding grand-scale concept albums with dozens of musicians under the project title Ayeron. Singer van Giersbergen, formerly of alt-prog band the Gathering, has worked with Lucassen before, but this is the first time they share top billing as a pair. Like all of Lucassen’s records, The Diary makes the word “epic” seem too tiny and trite. The 17th-century love story is given two contrasting arrangements: The “Gentle” side of the album showcases the delicacy of van Giersbergen’s voice against an acoustic folk backdrop, while the “Storm” side unfurls all the symphonic metal fury expected of a Lucassen masterpiece. The latter artist almost never performs live, so the fact that he and van Giersbergen have done limited acoustic gigs in Europe supporting this project is an unusual thing indeed. In a year that saw folk metal gaining popularity, the Gentle Storm set the gold standard of what that sub-genre can achieve.
You’d be forgiven if, upon first listening, your response to this record was simply, “What?” Hailing from Japan, Sigh have been recording since the Nineties under the auspices of black metal, thanks to the early support of Euronymous (the late guitarist of Norway’s Mayhem), who signed them to his label for their full-length debut in ’93. Fast forward a couple decades to their tenth LP, and it’s evident that this group prevails nowhere near the droning realms of black metal (and, truthfully, never have). Their goal seems to have been to throw every conceivable sound available into these fifty minutes of mania. It zigzags from bestial thrash riffs beneath saxophone accents to piano and organ solos to orchestral punches to watery choirs pitched high like a cassette speeding out of control. The best way to characterize it — without any hyperbole intended — is ridiculous. Consummately ridiculous. Love it or hate it, there is absolutely nothing else like this record.
Royal Thunder, Crooked Doors
Der Weg Einer Freiheit , Stellar (for the superhuman technique of drummer Tobias Schuler)