20 of the Most Influential Artists in Underground Metal Today

[13 July 2012]

By Dean Brown

Contributing Editor

Creating stone-cold classic slabs of musical might, crafting iconic album art, harnessing the raw energy of others and becoming the medium through which musical visions become realised, rampaging through a number of decades while re-imagining original musical intent, providing a sanctuary for the promotion and distribution of passionate music, and inventing a sound and inspiring a movement. All of these actions have been masterfully accomplished in one form or another by the musicians listed below. The results of these accomplishments should not be overlooked, for they have had a significant impact on the growing popularity of underground metal over the years.

In light of this, the life’s efforts of the following artists and bands need to be honoured, and their influence demands further recognition and praise. In this digital age where music and art have become transient, and where fame is characterised by the celebration of idiocies and lack of talent, the underground and the following creative thinkers provide a satisfying counterculture. For every ten commercially manufactured pop cretins, one iconoclast ariseth. For those who want substance and something substantial to hit you in the gut and heart simultaneously, the work of the following will change your life. For those who have been forever affected by the depth of soul their work contains, this piece is a long overdue acknowledgement of the gifts they have given us. This is a proclamation of individuality and artistry.

 
Mikael Åkerfeldt


Mikael Åkerfeldt’s career has undergone a gradual metamorphosis from a death metal progenitor (Opeth/Bloodbath) who happens to be fond of progressive rock, to a contemporary prog-puppeteer who cast aside the robes of death metal and set them alight in effigy. This move was always on the cards for any ardent Åkerfeldt fan to see and Opeth’s latest release, Heritage, was the realisation of this. Heritage played out like an absinthe party full of mellotron flourishes and King Crimson cosmic trusts, with Åkerfeldt’s song-writing genius at the forefront. His recent collaboration with prog-peer Steve Wilson under the guise of Storm Corrosion has allowed both parties to satisfy their personal musical urges by diving head first into their Scott Walker, Gentle Giant and Nick Drake LPs for inspiration; producing a work of spectral grandeur. Some less adventurous fans may wish that Åkerfeldt would return to the devilish aggression that made Blackwater Park such a metal milestone. The reality is Åkerfeldt is now one of the best songwriters of his generation, and possibly of all time. Whatever musical choices he makes going forward will be a cause for celebration and a privilege to behold.

 
Greg Anderson & Stephen O’Malley


This doom duo have dedicated their careers to preaching the Sabbathian sermons of days past. Some may say together they have regressed the metal genre to an ancient version of itself with their tenebrous Sunn O))) project. Anderson and O’Malley have been intrinsically tied together since co-founding the imposing Southern Lord record label back in 1998, and have been highly involved in the progression and preservation of the underground scene. Southern Lord has released albums by hardcore gutter punks (Black Breath/Trap Them), as well as the ecological battery of post-black metallers Wolves in the Throne Room and doomed rockers Goatsnake (of which Anderson is also a member). The label’s ethics seem to be based around quality over quantity and expressions of weighty art that holds substance. Without selfless individuals like this backing the underground, it would cease to exist. Through their art, promotion and numerous musical endeavours, Anderson and O’Malley have enlightened those who want more from their music, and for this they should be honoured.

 
John Dyer Baizley


Towing the creative line between moments of beautiful warmth and understated darkness—with both his music and his paintings—John Dyer Baizley is a contrasting and admired figure. Over the course of three full-lengths and two EPs, the Baroness frontman/guitarist has tempered his band’s primal sludge metal with a progressive Southern rock streak. Judging by latest release and career zenith, Yellow & Green, he has emerged triumphant. Baizley’s art career has also been a triumph. On first glance his paintings are strikingly colourful and full of signature themes, but look to the intricately subtle details beyond the obvious and things are not what they seem. It’s this previously mentioned juxtaposition that has his art in such high demand, gracing the covers of enigmatic bands like Kylesa, Kvelertak and Pig Destroyer. With both Baroness and his artwork, John Dyer Baizley has made a lasting impression on underground metal culture.

 
Kurt Ballou


The creator of some of the most apoplectic riffs in hardcore, Kurt Ballou remains one of the most underrated and imitated guitarists operating in modern metal. Throughout his career throwing riffs for Converge, Ballou has supplied a wealth of skin-flaying licks for Jacob Bannon to spit venom over. The force of Ballou’s volatile song structures and abrasive guitar tones (captured by his supreme album production), has made Converge unrivalled as a precise powerhouse in hardcore. In addition to this, Ballou established Godcity Studios in 1998 as a base to refine his production skills. He now sits as the alpha producer for any band looking document the violence of their live shows without sacrificing instrumental clarity. His style is based on capturing a feel and his ability to translate onto record, a true concentration of energy that has every band from High on Fire to Today Is the Day seeking to acquire his expertise.

 
Jacob Bannon


Inside Jacob Bannon beats the tortured heart of a romantic poet, who also happens to possess the harrowing scream of a fallen angel. Throughout his career as vocalist/lyricist of hardcore lions Converge and graphic artist and label leader for Deathwish Inc., Bannon has shown selfless dedication to a life of hardcore. More importantly, Jacob Bannon has done so without compromising the strong personal ethics which he holds paramount. Whether it is a considered brush-stroke or a viperous vocal line, Bannon has been blessed with the gift of transforming real, genuine emotion into lasting pieces of art. A senior figure-head of the hardcore scene, Jacob Bannon has become just as iconic as the Jane Doe album cover he created. If Ballou, Koller and Newton form the power and sinewy muscle of Converge, Jacob Bannon is the band’s soul.

Justin K. Broadrick and more...

 
Justin K. Broadrick


Justin K. Broadrick does not sleep. Or so it seems he would like you to believe. This workaholic has so many varying musical projects on the go that it would fill this entire piece just naming them. Broadrick has contributed to the history of grindcore with his efforts on the a-side of Napalm Death’s landmark album, Scum. However, it was his formation of aural-masochists Godflesh that really confirmed his legacy underground, particularly the industrial extremity that was Streetcleaner. Booming processed beats collided with emotionless guitars to produce a unique aura of malevolence, which created a lasting ripple effect through various genres. Broadrick remained unsatisfied and his creative thirst shaped another highly regarded project, Jesu. Jesu provides the light to Godflesh’s negative space and Broadrick seems to now have found a balance to allow both projects to exist without one destroying the other. A keen collaborator of the underground (Aaron Turner, Jarboe, etc.) and go-to guy to produce a levelling remix (see Pelican’s “Angel Tears”), it seems Broadrick’s drive to creative art will continue indefinitely and (more importantly) consistently.

 
Cannibal Corpse


Undoubtedly the most successful death metal band of all time, Cannibal Corpse formed in 1988, around the time that the first wave of death metal bands began crawling out of the sewers. Since their blood-spattered inception, the quality of their slaughterous output has not rotted with age. Through the horrifically graphic grunts of original vocalist Chris Barnes, to the rapid-fire, whiplash approach of his replacement George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher, this band’s intensity has refused to diminish. In fact, the last four Cannibal Corpse albums have been their most technically proficient and surgically precise. Impressive, considering the wretched lyrical gore has suffering a slight amputation when compared to the psychosexual Tombs of the Mutilated days. Cannibal Corpse has laid down (and continues to) the blood-print on how to make a lasting career in this deathly genre. Cannibal Corpse did not invent death metal, but Cannibal Corpse are death metal. The torture ends when they say so.

 
Darkthrone


Misanthropic, reclusive, punk, uncompromising. There are all adjectives that have been used to describe Norwegian blackened punks Darkthrone, and these words still ring true. For the past 25 years and counting, Fenriz and Nocturno Culto (under the Darkthrone black flag) have created a bunker full of lo-fi underground metal. Their mutational career has seen them prolifically vomit forth their selfish take on death metal, crusty punk, rock ‘n’ roll and of course, black metal. Darkthrone’s refusal to play live and their championing of a hermetic existence has furthered the band’s mystique and appeal. Fenriz’s love for unearthing undiscovered gems and promoting his finds through his blog has also had a massive impact upon a number of well deserving, young bands who have gained media exposure on foot of his renegade stamp of approval. Revered as the righteous essence of the metal underground, Darkthrone are without peers. Darkthrone are a single entity of reinvention and a true example of eccentricity.

 
The Dillinger Escape Plan


The Dillinger Escape Plan’s career, if compressed, would form a ball of riotous ire and kinetic energy. This group took the metal formula, added to it, subtracted, multiplied, divided and Calculated Infinity. Their sharp shocks of malicious, technical hardcore combined with explosions of free-form jazz invention, split the hardcore scene at its axis. With each album release, the Dillinger Escape Plan has further experimented with their sound without quenching a degree of the white hot aggression that made them so incendiary in the first place. Their violent live show has become the stuff of legend, and throughout their career they have thankfully brought danger back to hardcore; something which has been overlooked by the wealth of acts that have studied their arithmetic in recent years. Arguably the best live band in the world, there is a feeling that the Dillinger Escape Plan could implode at any second, and it’s this sense of unpredictability that makes them so special. Experience it while it still burns.

 
Lee Dorrian


Rise Above is a record label which provides a haven for musical progression and retrogression, releasing contemporary classics on a consistent basis. Label leader and doomsayer Lee Dorrian is responsible for the manifestation of this fertile breathing ground, which he formed in line with his own punk ethos and love for underground music. Dorrian has unceremoniously carved a career as both an underground musician and prophet. Former vocalist for seminal activists Napalm Death (side two of Scum and From Enslavement to Obliteration) and founder of doom dandies Cathedral, Dorrian career constitutes a pillar that strengthens the foundations of the grindcore/doom/stoner rock scenes. If the monarchy in the United Kingdom saw past their own importance and looked through the trees for inspiration, he would be knighted for his contributions to British music. Lee Dorrian, however, would probably prefer some obscure vinyl for his mammoth record collection.

Ihsahn and more...

 
Ihsahn


Black metal’s most sophisticated prodigy, Ihsahn has created a staggering career as a composer and progressive musician. During his reign in Emperor, Ihsahn also impressively managed to personally avoid the controversy surrounding the much publicised actions plaguing members of the second wave of black metal. From masterminding Emperor’s symphonic works of art and having the awareness to know the right time to step down from its icy throne, to insidiously crafting a solo career under his own name, Ihsahn has always put the music first. This is the reason why he is still a major force in underground metal. Since releasing himself from the self imposed limitations of Emperor’s complex compositions, Ihsahn’s solo work has contained a spirited sense of freedom. Encasing captivating moments of jazz and progressive rock around a menacing metal core, Ihsahn has gained a fresh musical perspective and his constant sense of adventure makes him a true visionary in every sense of the word.

 
The Melvins


Many a band in this circus of depravity called underground metal has suckled at the hairy teat of the Melvins (Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover). Kurt Cobain even carried this band’s gear just to be in their presence, and subsequently stole their Beatles-sludge by the bucketful for Nirvana’s debut album Bleach. Always in a constant state of re-genesis, the Melvins have experimented with their sound on countless occasions—dropping a doom-bomb on Bullhead, flexing their avant-garde muscle on Colossus of Destiny and collaborating with deviants’ Jello Biafra, Lustmord and Big Business. They even expanded their line-up by adopting the Big Business duo as full-time band members, only to let them fly the nest for upcoming album Freak Puke (released under the moniker Melvins Lite). Their cavalier attitude and self-centred approach to career choices may have disorientated some fans over the years, but it’s this selfish thought process which has made the Melvins career so engaging to follow.

 
Meshuggah


Meshuggah have created a movement with their polyrhythmic imperialism, and “djent” is the onomatopoeic word on everyone’s lips at the minute. The only surprising thing about the materialization of this genre is the fact that it hasn’t come sooner. Meshuggah have been dropping jaws and frying brains since 1987, and over seven albums have constructed a discography the quality of which still has not been fully realised or understood. It may take music historians centuries from now, who unearth Meshuggah’s aural treasures and spend years studying each jolting movement and alien diatribe communicated by the disengaged bark of Jens Kidman, to fully appreciate these architects of intellectual discordance. Shrines with be erected and every child the world over will be forced to learn “New Millennium Cyanide Christ” for each school recital… or maybe this is just wishful thinking! Either way, for those who have been re-aligned after encountering Meshuggah, nothing will be the same again.

 
Napalm Death


Napalm Death have been a grinding institution of extreme metal for over three decades. The fact that some past members appear above on this list is an indication of the pedigree of musicians that have slummed in Napalm’s squats over the years. An anomaly of the scene (none of the original members are currently in the band), Napalm Death are a movement in and of itself and have been a hive for extreme musicians who share similar socio-political ideas. Having managed to maintain a stable line-up since 1990’s Harmony Corruption (with the exception of late guitarist Jesse Pintado), Napalm Death have been the voice of the moral minority and have survived many fleeting music trends. With each release since 2000’s Enemy of the Music Business, Napalm Death have managed to make their music more intense than what proceeded it, and this is a testament to the passion for extreme music existing inside each of the surviving members. Leaders not followers, indeed.

 
Nergal


Adam Darski (under the Babylonian pseudonym of Nergal) has worked tirelessly to make Behemoth a premier death metal band. Initially inspired by black metal, Nergal meticulously incorporated the slick mechanics of death metal into Behemoth’s sound while preserving their black metal aesthetic. This gradual shift in dynamics has culminated in a magisterial run of albums: Demigod, The Apostacy and Evangelion. The reason these albums have been so powerful is due to the maturation of Nergal’s songwriting running in tandem with his elaborate album concepts. The riffs he writes have a commanding presence about them that carries aloft the classical song structures and hold the weight of drummer Inferno’s blackened blast beats. If this wasn’t remarkable enough, Darski has also fought personal demons in the form court cases in Poland for accusations of blasphemy and also leukaemia, both of which have been mercifully crushed.

Neurosis and more...

 
Photo: Brendan Tobin

Photo: Brendan Tobin

Neurosis


The most elementally powerful band to ever exist, Neurosis understand that the feeling created by the music is just as important as what is being played, and harnessing both makes for a truly devastating listen. Without getting too holistic, it is about hitting body and soul, and Neurosis’s opaque tribal hardcore reaches inside the listener and shakes their very soul. By establishing their own independent label—Neurot Recordings—Neurosis have preserved the purity of their art; with each record released remaining uncompromised and unaffected by basic human desires. Neurot also provides the band the opportunity to promote the work of kindred spirits such as Red Sparowes, Shrinebuilder and US Christmas et al. Their influence is found in every dark corner of the underground and just like Black Sabbath before them, their significance will felt for decades to come. Emotional, inexorable, a seismic force of nature—Neurosis’s atmospheric alchemy is without equal.

 
Erik Rutan


Found beneath the engulfing heat of Florida’s sun sits Erik Rutan’s production asylum Mana Recording Studios. It is here where Rutan has fortified the barbarity of a number of death metal albums by genre heavyweights—Cannibal Corpse, Goatwhore, Six Feet Under and his own band, the oppressive Hate Eternal. Rutan has a deep understanding of death metal’s traits/requirements, and his ability to capture instrumental clarity while wrestling with dense torrents of blast-beats makes him an absolute weapon in the production chair. This understanding comes from years paying studious attention to legends of the scene, and from playing guitar in Ripping Corpse and alongside Trey Azagthoth in the once-mercurial Morbid Angel. Hate Eternal have gone from deft death metal disciples to genre idols, throwing lightning rods at the lesser subjects below. This is all down to the unrelenting work ethic of Rutan, and frighteningly we have yet to see the full extent of his talents.

 
Devin Townsend


Devin Townsend began his career crooning for showboat Steve Vai. Unsatisfied, Townsend moved on to heavier pastures forming the frivolously titled Strapping Young Lad. Over his skullet sporting career helming the sarcastic terrorstorm of sonic abuse that was SYL, Townsend’s mechanized riffage and impressive vocal range earned SYL many accolades as a force in metal. During this period, Townsend gained the reputation of being a mad scientist; partly due to his creation/production of SYL’s musical dementia and partly because of the bouts of schizophrenia that he was personally suffering with. It became a persona Townsend happily embraced, and it did not hamper his creativity. Townsend began producing a number of burgeoning metal bands and released albums under his own name; covering progressive metal and even ambient electronica. Townsend’s career continues to soar since the recent release of his four-album series, which have revisited every aspect of his musical expertise to great effect. It’s safe to say the world would be a duller and less inspirational place without Mr. Townsend’s sarcasm and musical lunacy.

 
Aaron Turner


Isis (the now sadly defunct post-metal giant) created a number of towering monuments such as Oceanic, Panopticon and their tumultuous swansong, Wavering Radiant. Under Aaron Turner’s captaincy, this pioneering band wove moments of celestial beauty with calamitous, free-falling crescendos that moved with the pace of an avalanche. On top of this, Turner delivered abstract lyrics with an iron throated roar and his involved concepts perfectly matched the cryptic nature of the artwork, which he also created. Turner has also produced artwork for a large number of experimental metal bands such as Cave-In, Jesu and Knut, who also happen to be part of his revered Hydra Head Records stable. Since Isis’s end, Turner has maintained a rabid work ethic and has recently revived side-project Old Man Gloom, as well as forming new crust punk band (Split Cranium), amongst others. His career has encompassed a wide range of creative fields and his passion remains unquestionable. Whether or not Isis reform, you can be sure Aaron Turner will continue to be a force underground.

 
Tom G. Warrior


Tom G. Warrior: the gloomfather of all things extreme, possessor of one of the most destructive guitar tones in music and progenitor of the “death-grunt”. Three decades, three apocalyptic bands: Hellhammer, Celtic Frost and Triptykon. Warrior’s first band Hellhammer and their atavistic take on metal ignited the first wave of black metal. As his technical ability evolved, Warrior shed this incarnation and formed the mythical beast known as Celtic Frost, which released a number of annihilating albums during the ‘80s before internal friction caused the band to devour itself. In 2006, Warrior opened the Celtic Frost crypt long enough to allow career highlight Monotheist to crawl out; before the lid slammed closed behind it. Warrior then pieced together the remnants of his psyche and assembled Triptykon. Their remorseless debut Eparistera Daimones provided the perfect companion to Monotheist and buried any doubts that Warrior’s career was over. Tom G. Warrior, throughout the decades of his musical existence, has poured every ounce of his life’s blood into this trinity of the unholy, and has left a legacy of morbidity that will continue to infest the underground music scene well after his demise.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/159592-underground-metal/