Surveying the Noise: Experimental Metal and Metallic Experimentalism
The intersection where experimental music and heavy metal meet is bursting with bands constructing and deconstructing mangled hybridizations. It's time to survey some of those magnificently malformed artists.
"Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we ﬁnd it fascinating."
John Cage -- The Future of Music: Credo (1937)
The intersection where experimental music and heavy metal meet is bursting with unrestrained, corybantic creativity. Bands are busy constructing and deconstructing marvelously mangled hybridizations, ripping appendages from multitudes of sonic anatomies. Subversive acoustics are mutilated for maximum physio/psychological impact, with discernible destinations equally as likely as fathomless improvisations. Metal's vernacular reverberates in blurs of noise and dwells in the deepest drones, but many of the bands indulging in such activities have misshapen and unclassifiable physiques.
In 2012, a number of releases have illustrated just such innovative deformity. Albums from Locrian, Sutekh Hexen, Wreck and Reference, and William Fowler Collins, have all coalesced multiple strains of metallic and non-metallic sound into inventive forms. Filled with walls of noise, blasting feedback, bleak ambient chills or some combination thereof, the albums have provided some of the most rewarding musical journeys this year. How they got here, and what those mutations all mean, makes for a wonderfully warped tale.
Alterations, Modifications and Evolution
A change in the musical climate in the late '80s and early '90s signaled the death of much of metal's extraneous pomp. The genre experienced radical changes, and incorporated a raft of hitherto-untouched music styles. Metal was certainly no stranger to experimentation before that date; bands such as Voivod and Celtic Frost had prepared the ground by integrating venturesome elements into their sound, and metal was well-acquainted with alternative arrangements. Technically minded bands experimented freely with jazzy riffs and complex orchestrations, and punk and hardcore's lo-fi, frenzied energy was routinely demonstrated.
However, whether it was due to a more open-mined music scene, or metal's desire and need to break free from the strictures of the past (a combination of all seems likely), influences from outside its traditional spectrum began to have a profound effect on increasingly aberrant sections of the genre.
Noise's unorthodox instrumentation jettisoned melody and structure, and its non-traditional audio techniques -- and unrelenting uber-distorted feedback -- made its presence felt strongly in metal. So, too, noise-rock, with its atonal pummeling and peculiar dissonant assaults. Drone, dark ambient, and industrial music rose from the underground, and the methods and attributes of the genres became readily apparent in metal. It was by no means a one-way street. Metal's influence, which had always existed in experimental music's idiom, was more readily acknowledged (at long last), and metal's wrath, dexterity, and funeral-march stomp featured prominently in the accents of many bands more commonly understood as experimental than metal.
Cross-pollination, Gordian entanglements and labyrinthine mixtures are now rampant. Citing formative, off-kilter and experimental bands is common when referencing metal outfits, where the influence of an avant-garde temperament can't be understated. Experimental music is found in their DNA and voiced in their idiosyncratic burrs, with Brian Eno, Suicide, Can, Sonic Youth, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, and copious other pioneering composers, bands and albums being as essential to their bloodline as Black Sabbath.
A binding theme among all the differing amalgamations of experimental metal and metallic experimentalism is a questioning of what constitutes heaviness. Out of that inquiry, music that tests or demolishes beliefs about metal but still retains its formidableness is born. Whether it arrives with buckling riffs or hushed harmonics, that inter-genre splicing and dicing has produced some engrossingly eccentric music.
Time then to survey some of those magnificently malformed artists.
The crestfallen beauty of noise: Locrian.
When it comes to manipulating irregular frequencies, prolific trio Locrian makes a noise like no other. Since forming in Chicago in 2005, the band has tinkered with tenebrous elements to much critical acclaim. But Territories and Crystal World from 2010, The Clearing/The Final Epoch reissue from 2012, and splits with Horseback in 2011 and Mamiffer in 2012, have gained Locrian increasing visibility. Stylistically, the band's multi-instrumentalists -- André Foisy, Terence Hannum and Steven Hess -- draw from an array of eldritch reservoirs. Dark ambient, drone, black metal, Krautrock and industrial sounds all feature in Locrian's heavily processed suites, where melodies are drowned under waves of distorting noise.
Locrian's latest album is a self-titled collaboration with German soundscape virtuoso Christoph Heemann (H.N.A.S, Current 93, Mirror). Locrian & Christoph Heemann reveals a far gentler though no less suspenseful side to Locrian, with its unhurried bio/electro compositions featuring the pulse of technological progression colliding with organic, skin-crawling realizations. The album's four lengthy tracks combine gentle tides of drone, hauntological instrumentation, and ripples of tranquil noise--with a melancholic mood promising grim tidings.
The minimalism of Locrian & Christoph Heemann lulls you in, but it’s anything but featureless. Dusty Americana is washed away by synth at the beginning of first track "Hecatomb", before poignant piano takes over till its static and skip outro. "Loath the Light" delivers harsh howls (the only pronounced metal on the LP) that cut through a gloomy and stretched-out '70s sci-fi soundtrack. The album's longest track, "Edgeless City", is gracefully sparse, rising and falling diaphanously over 15 mesmeric minutes. Final track, "The Drowned Forest", has monastic chants and darkly evocative overtones layered in an increasingly disquieting fashion -- never intensifying beyond a painstaking crawl, it's beautiful in its desolateness.
Locrian has always produced exquisite works; even the band’s blackest songs retain a breathtaking display of subtle harmonic balance, absorbing splinters of sound and nightmarish memories. In collaboration with Heemann, Locrian has crafted its most elegant songs, and eschewing its ferocious weaponry has done nothing to reduce the intensity of the material. What is most evident is that Heeman's presence magnifies the gravitational pull between experimental metal and shadowy minimalism--amplifying the feeling that our lives are built on unstable ground, and can be shattered in a moment by tremors of misfortune.