‘Post-metal’ is a term as nebulous as the music it describes, no one having quite decided whether it describes a sub-genre unto itself or multiple stylistic elements found in a broad cross-section of metal’s ever multiplying sub-genres. As its increasing influence spreads, prevalent in latter day doom and black metal in particular, it has been met by a scene often undecided as to whether its presence is welcome or not; the music often dismissed as pretentious, its popular proponents dismissed as ‘hipsters’- another nebulous term if ever there was one.
If you asked Deafheaven, a band riding a wave of acclaim and on the cusp of releasing third album New Bermuda, they would certainly be able to speak of being made to feel unwelcome by the metal scene, despite the fact that their 2013 album Sunbather topped many people’s ‘best of the year’ lists. Sunbather’s scintillating mix of black metal invective and uplifting shoegaze became a breakout success, a figurehead for a burgeoning US black metal movement taking the music in bold new directions, unafraid to mix influences and repurpose the message. Whilst highlighting the exhilarating alchemy at work within extreme metal’s avant-garde, in effect legitimising the music in the eyes of scene outsiders, they also attracted the rancour of the orthodox metal elite – an again nebulous, atypically internet-based cabal, who saw no place for these youthful, arty types – (or the outsiders they might attract) – within metal’s darkest, most sacrosanct territories.
You could argue all day about what is and isn’t metal, and you’d be wasting your time. As a musical movement, we forget that it is still in its infancy. Many of our forefathers are still alive, still touring. Their classic, pioneering albums are still listened to, still celebrated. In the eyes of far too many however, those records are all that metal is and ever will be. One of the wonderfully liberating things about getting older is a realisation that there is abundant pleasure and inspiration waiting to be discovered in all kinds of music, that it is myopic in extremis to only embrace one style. Post-metal acknowledges this, experimenting with whatever influences it likes, frequently coming up with challenging, exciting new interpretations of what metal is capable of being. Post-metal is metal’s liberation; the sound of metal growing up.
It originated in the ‘90s when bands like Helmet, the Melvins, and Tool gleefully rejected what it traditionally meant to be a heavy band. With their second album Loveless, indie outfit My Bloody Valentine created a shimmering monument to noise, a revelatory landmark that in absence of structure there could be beautifully abstract substance. Such influences eventually took root in extreme metal, coalescing in the sludge of Neurosis’ fifth album Through Silver In Blood, which melded industrial, doom, and hardcore influences with introspectively thunderous catharsis, ponderous thought spaces of crackling electronica and quiet nothingness that allowed emotions to stir and swell, making the next thunderous riff outburst all the more devastating.
It’s a template often repeated, taking metal’s penchant for quiet/loud dynamics to the extreme, wide open spaces that obliterate archaic perceptions of verse/chorus song structure, allowing metal to evolve, never losing its core due to the sheer heaviness that underpins the experimentation. If all this is sounding a little highbrow, chances are some of your favourite bands have been influenced by it. Deftones quickly surpassed their nu-metal peers, experimenting with electronica, abstract lyrics and hazy shoegaze. Mastodon would not be the same band without their love for the Melvins and Neurosis.
The legendary Justin Broadrick, not content with pioneering grind with Napalm Death and making a defining contribution to industrial metal with Godflesh, then slowed the pulse of their electronic heartbeat to a fuzz-drenched pound, tearing his chest open with the spine-tingling post-metal of Jesu, pared down horizons of emotive yearning that alongside bands like Isis, Pelican and Cult of Luna took bold strides forward in the 2000s.
Nowadays, post-metal is rife, and it is the infusion of new blood that metal needs. The outsider perception that metal is little more than its clichés is massively frustrating. The horns, denim ‘n’ leather, Ace Of Spades and Ozzy biting the head off a bat are all parts of our proud heritage and nothing to be ashamed of, but for those of us in the know, metal can be, and is, so much more, but it’s a fact criminally underrepresented by the bands that make it into the mainstream – a motley crew that it might be fun to bang your head and get drunk to, but who contribute very little in terms of substantial innovation.
In this sense, a band like Deafheaven reaching a wider audience is a figurehead for the impassioned creativity occurring in the underground. Metal has never needed outsider approval, but without an influx of outside influence it is sure to stagnate. There will never be another Maiden or Metallica. The modern music industry, made increasingly obsolete by the power of the internet, the enormous diversity of music available, prohibits it. The future of the scene lies with artists of diverse taste and influence, and with the liberated mind-set to experiment freely. The heart of the scene will never die, it is not under threat, diversity and experimentation are not things to shy away from, they are instead fundaments of a realm of liberal expression, where extremities of emotion are not taboo – two ideals straight from metal’s rulebook if ever there was one. Metal at its best is raw, honest and vital, uncensored, achieving transcendence through physicality, but also through intellectual and emotional abstraction – something which post-metal brings to the forefront. It is a nebulous nebula, a stellar nursery for new ideas. Experimentation is its mandate. Don’t get hung up on the term ‘post’, this is all about where metal is now and where it is going, a cacophonous movement at the cutting edge of wider musical evolution, and that is something we should all be incredibly proud of.