The new avant-garde

Allow me to indulge in a Wikipedia definition to kick this one off, which describes the avant-garde as “people or works that are experimental, radical, or unorthodox with respect to art, culture, or society. It is frequently characterized by aesthetic innovation and initial unacceptability.”

The reason for setting out the *define-your-terms* stall at the outset is to loosely frame the following discussion. I say discussion, it’s actually just another list. And whilst I’d be the last to say that what the world needs right now is another list curated by random-internet-guy, there’s no denying the fact that sometimes, you just have to point the way and let the music speak for itself.

So rather than me setting out a lengthy definition of “avant-garde” as a vehicle for laying down a marker between bands I like and those I don’t, let’s just celebrate some music for a change.

In keeping abreast of the latest releases coming out of the underground, I find that they tend to fall into three broad categories. The first is the overtly retro. These are made by bands explicitly aping a style or moment from the past. The second is the “genre” release. These are albums that make a show of being very much in one style or another, usually by exaggerating specific traits found in said style. There is a overlap between these first two categories, just as there will be wild swings in quality.

But it’s the third category that chiefly interests us today. Not necessarily one genre or another, not necessarily forward looking or backward looking; but music that justifies its own existence without the need for curator notes. And even if we were to offer some rhetoric to furnish the listening experience we find ourselves grasping in the dark for language, struggling to frame what’s before us. For that reason, many artists worthy of celebration have been missed off the list for the simple reason that they operate within more familiar territory. Not necessarily better or worse, but closer to convention regardless.

It’s the new frontiers of underground metal that concern us today, shining a brighter light in the dark, and some tentative predictions for the future. The artists in this list are ordered in the tradition of the alphabet.

A Forest of Stars

Long time bastions of UKBM, this Leeds based outfit have been patiently honing the cause of progressive black metal over their now five album strong discography. As with many artists on this list, the tags that surround them leave a bad taste in the mouths of certain discerning fans: psychedelic, steampunk, and yes, avant-garde. But this is not quirkiness for quirkiness’s sake. The Victoriana, the slices of Steeleye Span folk and the “weird English”, the heavy nods to British progressive rock, all wrapped up in a symphonic black metal bow; none of this does an ounce of justice to music that is both bracing and ambitious, and far more sombre and measured than any of the descriptors are quite able to capture.

Boreal

Summoning broke new ground in the late 1990s. Reemphasising black metal’s relationship with rich melodies, atmospheres of life and activity as opposed to the sparse and barren moors of blast-beats and tremolo strumming, and fully embracing keyboards as an integral cornerstone of music making alongside the guitars. The problem was that those who took up this mantel did so only partially, or else by carbon copying the Summoning formula. Enter Boreal from the US, who use many of the same techniques as their Austrian forebears, but put them towards crafting their own totally unique sound. They unselfconsciously capture the world building at the heart of black metal by largely ignoring the race to the bottom engaged in by many of their peers.    

Condor

Condor’s brand of melodic death/doom may offer a more easily brandable sound when compared to many artists on this list, but words only scratch the surface. Each of their four LPs has been dogged by demo quality production, but this has lent the music a certain childlike charm. This, along with cover artworks seemingly ripped straight from a child’s fairytale lends the music a naïve but hopeful quality that defies description. They wrap elements of baroque and neoclassical into this fragile mix, displaying a remarkable level of sophistication and forethought behind these fragile narratives.

Cryptic Shift

Another pillar of the Leeds metal scene, Cryptic Shift’s evolution from technical/progressive thrash metal into the true heir of Gorguts’ ‘Obscura’ has been a pleasure to watch. The debut album ‘Visitations from Enceladus’ is the culmination of this evolution to date, offering dense, angular, progressive death metal that, whilst boasting it’s fair share of musicianship, is unburdened by musical in jokes and needless displays of technicality for the sake of it.

Damim

London this time, but if we’re being honest, Damim are really putting out music beyond the trivialities of place. As with many bands founding settlements at the outer limits of sound, words will have to settle for a blended concoction of approximations. Damim combine the histrionics and melody of goth metal, the complex architecture of death metal, black metal’s grandiosity, and their own unique approach to stitching these familiar fragments together from across the metal spectrum into a hideous chimera. Like the best in horror and sci-fi, it holds a mirror up to the conventions of polite society, allowing the listener to recoil or revel in the uncanny world reflected back at them.

Demoniac

I would hesitate to offer any broad predictions for the onward trajectory of the 21st Century, but if I was a betting man, I would place South America at the very forefront of all things metal. And Chile’s Demoniac would be heading up the charge when it comes to the cause of progressive metal. The core of their sound is firmly rooted in Teutonic thrash metal, but from this jumping off point they work in a labyrinthine world of neoclassical dynamics, classically virtuoso guitar leads, and seamlessly meandering experimental segments that feel right at home next to the traditional thrash metal elements neighbouring them.

Goatcraft

The first non-metal act on this list, Goatcraft are part of metal’s wider informal empire taking in ambient, neofolk, and neoclassical music. Entirely distinct but certainly something most metal fans will jump on. Although sharing many dark ambient traits with this metal adjacent culture, Goatcraft stand apart in the milieu. Imagine Rachmaninoff was born fifty years later in Tampa and started putting out albums alongside the greats of the late 80s. Rarely has a modern keyboard-based project sounded so pregnant with raw musical expression and complexity.

Hænesy

This Hungarian outfit are perhaps the closest to the common perception of metal’s experimental leanings, fixated as they have been on blackgaze and post black metal flavours for some time now. But Hænesy work in elements of goth, ambient, and progressive metal into their strange brew, and as a result end up in a league of their own. A twisting, turning, colliding miasma of sonic euphoria with none of the art school baggage.  

Havohej

The oldest artist on the list, this is the solo project of Paul Ledney after the split of the first incarnation of the USBM outfit Profanatica. Havohej’s infamous debut ‘Dethrone the Son of God’ released back in 1993 is a classic of raw, tongue-in-cheek black metal. But since then, and especially with the post 2000 reformation of the meat ‘n’ taters Profanatica, Havohej has moved in an ever more experimental direction. 2009’s ‘Kembatinan Premaster’ dropped raw black metal’s pretence of inhabiting a melodic core, making hay out of shifting rhythms, static of varying degrees of intensity, and elongated choral notes. 2020’s ‘Table of Uncreation’ extended this format into drone and noise territory, whilst retaining a deeply resonant percussive philosophy owing to Ledney’s mastery behind the kit. You have reached our administrative border, from this point on you are no longer under the protectorate of Fort Metal.

Into Oblivion

True to their Homeric lyrical themes, this Canadian outfit offer protracted historical epics in metallic form. Whilst not immediately obvious as avant-garde – I doubt the musicians themselves would self-identify as such – sometimes taking familiar elements to their absolute limit amounts to a new realm of sonic exploration. Into Oblivion take the idea of longform, narrative composition to heart, and use it to construct tracks and albums of significant length, constructed from ideas that unfurl over extended periods, defined by passages of energy and release, chaos, order, and decay. Like analysing the construction of ancient ruins, the language of architecture feels more fitting than the usual musical vocabulary when it comes to Into Oblivion.

Khand

Hailing from Worcester, Massachusetts, this fantasy ambient project raises the stakes for metal’s relationship with keyboard-based projects. Although firmly rooted in the tradition of the many ambient and neofolk side projects of black metal artists over the years, and the lamentable state of modern dungeon synth as an artform for stamp collectors, Khand exist and persist on their own path. Combining elements of medievalist and fantasy music, along with dark ambient and synth wave, Khand have not only built a welcome temple of retreat for weary metalheads, but also reminded those what needed reminding that ambient music is about more than just holding a few notes down on a synthesiser and reaping the accolades.

Khost

Another pick from the peripheries of metalville, this Brummie outfit imagine one possible future for a Godflesh that never was. If ‘Streetcleaner’ was a Bacchanalian ode to humanity’s warped sensibility in their new concrete dwellings, Khost is the human spirit’s ultimate defeat at the hands of this totalitarian modernity. The playfulness is gone, as is the life and energy of industrial’s rhythmic core. All that is left are the most rudimentary beats, a drone of layered guitars, static, dark ambient, and disconnected samples out of time and place. Listening to Khost is akin to walking through a heavily populated yet totally atomised urban area, and hearing disconnected samples from the lives of those dwelling therein. All sense of community, order, and collective action has been eroded away by years of neglect and empty promises of a better tomorrow.

Marthe

Perhaps the most conventional outfit on this list, Marthe are an Italian doom-cum-Viking-metal solo outfit that seems to emanate from another reality. The eerie vocals, fashioned from multiple tracks of harsh, semi-whispered takes, the simple yet massive guitar riffs, the straightforward marching rhythms, all find their true purpose under Marzia’s expert direction. This is not so much avant-garde metal as it is a conventional genre written by aliens, with none of the hang ups or sense of history that burdens our feeble human endeavours in this regard.

Mefitis

The avant-garde elements already present in death metal’s heyday of the early 1990s finds its culmination in the work of California’s Mefitis. Listening to them is like bearing witness to the next stage in metal’s evolution. There’s no denying their assimilation of avant-garde and progressive tendencies within their work, which continues to unfold and expand in unpredictable ways no matter how many times you spin an album, but the end result is very much of and within metal. This is a project that is not overtly engaging in genre alchemy so much as they are genre progression. Ask yourself where metal has left to go if the project of absorbing other genres so often falls short. Mefitis are pointing the way.

Of Wounds.

Back to beloved West Yorkshire now, Dewsbury to be precise. Of Wounds. are very much a Yorkshire answer to the question of black metal: make it glum. This is the land of My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, Sisters of Mercy, and New Model Army after all. This rich brew of musical traditions owes its antecedents to the urban sprawls of Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, and Huddersfield as much as it does the soul nourishing natural landscapes of the area. Of Wounds. honour this legacy in a melancholy concoction of black metal’s rawness, the laments of melodic doom, and a playful rhythmic bounce all of their own. The end result might as well be Yorkshire’s equivalent of desert rockers Yawning Man as much as anything within metal itself.

Sorta Magora

Funeral doom finds its dynamic mojo with this duet hailing from Belgium and Slovakia respectively. This is no slow plod of droning chords and hysterical black metal vocalisations. Sort Magora have only released one track, but it’s a weight one clocking in at forty minutes. ‘Nič’ displays a clear narrative direction, one that finds its expression through black metal, doom, and dark ambient, weaving a rich tapestry of forward motion and compelling drama as it unfolds. As with so many artists listed here, they have redrawn the boundary for a genre many had sworn off entirely, and proved that what’s at fault is often not genre, but the minds operating within preconceived and needlessly strict limitations.

Thecodontion

Thecodontion are another one that provoke the need to smash genre tags around in order for us to frame just what exactly it is they’re doing. That’s a roundabout way of saying sorry for mess of labels that you are about to read. These Italian palaeontology enthusiasts hash a bizarre concoction of grindcore, free jazz, post metal, black metal, and why not chuck in some percussive death metal in there along the way as well. This concoction is achieved with nothing more than a drumkit, a bass guitar, and some frightening vocalisations. If this concoction sounds utterly repellent to you then your aesthetic senses are probably well honed, so I can only encourage to look past this and dive in. It is deeply abrasive whilst simultaneously life affirming extreme metal.

Tristwood

Industrial, grindcore, and black metal have perhaps had a more closely intertwined history than received wisdom would have you believe. Sure there are plenty of artists that have made something of this over the years – Zyklon-B, Black Funeral, Thorns, Impaled Nazarene – but the grouping has always been too loose and disparate to fall onto most people’s radar as fully fledged genre. Austria’s Tristwood have set up camp explicitly on these borderlands, and are doing some pretty unique things with the form thus far. A compelling blend that allows Tristwood a unique creative space with which to operate in, one that is both immersive yet aggressively urgent in equal measure.

Tsalal

Drone is another genre that purports to not really have a “normal” setting. It is experimental by definition. But since the heady days of ‘Earth 2 – Special Low Frequency Version’ the genre has circled round a great deal, sustaining its existence by stroking the egos of tourists indulging in fandom-as-vanity-project. But the obscure and as yet very young project known as Tsalal are having another look at the drone format. By resubmitting the genre to the dictates of conventional music, it is able to reinvigorate what is essentially an exploration of timbre into something with an actual expressive range beyond statements of raw and ultimately pointless intensity.  

Uncertainty Principle

Another UK based industrial/drone/noise project, Uncertainty principle are a long running and highly productive outfit in this field. Their latest work ‘Sonic Terror’ is a weighty undertaking even for hardened fans of this style. This artist puts the most rudimentary ideas under the microscope, allowing us to witness the achingly slow unfurling of ideas in their most basic form. This makes for a listen that strains at one’s patience, but can also function as an expression of the raw euphoria at the heart of boredom, the absolute limits of forward motion before sinking into stasis.  

Widziadło

This Polish entity offer a new take on ambient black metal, one that is formed from more complex and involved riffs over raw atmosphere. The usual trappings of the genre are there, but often the music will take the form of the sequence based long-form compositions of Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream transposed onto guitars. Their one LP entitled ‘Void’ lays down a new marker for the style, and a reminder of just how stagnant many offerings in this area have become.

Zealotry

Another heir to the throne of Gorguts, these guys blend Demilichian horror with the complex, unfolding rhythms of Gorguts circa ‘Erosion of Sanity’. The usual trappings of technical death metal – odd quirks in vocalisation, overt displays of technical proficiency, the invocation of Lovecraftian tentacled horrors – find a new maturity in the oddly measured work of Zealotry. They are not so much a new frontier, but rather a course correction for a genre that many consider to be metal’s answer to highbrow jazz and progressive derivatives.

景湖白

This Chinese outfit – named Scenery of Pale Lake in English – take the “post” literally in the definition of post black metal. Forget the usual hollow trappings of most who venture into the realms of post metal, and any contentious debate about what post metal in any form actually amounts to, this is the sound of black metal literally falling apart before your ears. Sure there are chords, there are rhythms, there are black metal shrieks and soaring keyboard lines. But all these things are applied in such a discordant way, such a rhythmically disjointed manner, that it feels like the slow disintegration of past musical forms, the end of the line.

And a perfect way to wrap up this document of the next stage of metal’s evolution.

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