What is “heavy”? Sure, when it comes to metal, it usually means concrete-encrusted guitars and the kind of drum sound that leave you feeling like you've been hit around the chops wth a lumphammer are up there. But ‘extreme’ doesn’t just mean ‘loud’ - a whole host of bands have made insanely dark and heavy albums that sit outside the metal spectrum. From mind-fucking electronic music to the bleakest alt-rock imaginable, here are 10 of the heaviest non-metal albums.
Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible (1994)
A pretty good bet for the bleakest, most nihilistic and tortured album recorded in ANY genre of music ever. The Holy Bible is a supremely disturbing record even when taken away from the now familiar story of its creator. It’s hard to think of any artist that has laid his insecurities as bare as Edwards does on songs like the anorexia fantasy of 4st 7lbs or the suicide poetry of Die In The Summertime. Add to this Edwards’ cold, emotionless retelling of the holocaust on The Intense Humming Of Evil and you can see this is a portrait of a man falling apart. The band don’t soften his lyrical approach with their music either. Although the arrangement to a song like She Is Suffering could appear melodic and beautiful it is haunting when coupled with the lyrics, and much of the record is slow, grinding, obtuse and icy cold. When an album’s first track talks of buying a baby and cutting off its genitals, as Yes does here, you know it’s no easy ride… And that was released as a single. The Holy Bible is the most damning critique of humanity in the history of music, and is still shocking to this very day.
Atari Teenage Riot – Live At Brixton (1999)
On November 29th 1999 Nine Inch Nails headlined Brixton Academy. Being their first UK show in over five years there was palpable excitement in the air as their support band Atari Teenage Riot took to the stage. Twenty six minutes and thirty eight seconds later the mood had changed to one of hatred, pain, frustration and in comprehension. ATR had just imploded in front of the sold-out crowd. As the last night of an overly long and excessive world tour the German techno quartet had reached the end of their tether and decided to go out and make as much white, shapeless noise as humanly possible.
The results were captured on this album, compromising of one track. To manage your way through it all whilst keeping your sanity is almost impossible. Somewhere buried deep below the frustrated stabs of electronic noise there is something resembling music, finding it may take you a lifetime, though. Atari Teenage Riot always claimed their music was a weapon, on Live At Brixton it’s a noxious gas that is as deadly as a nuclear warhead.
Plan B – Who Needs Action When You’ve Got Words (2006)
He went on to notch up hits as a sharp-suited rap-soul crooner, but early on in his career Ben Drew, AKA Plan B, was one of the most incendiary rappers to have emerged since the early days of hip-hop.
Who Needs Action… features some of the most brutal lyrical content in a genre that had become all about ‘bling and bitches’. Drew gets to work straight away with setting himself up as someone to panic the moral majority with Kidz nonchalantly chucking in the idea of a youth culture that stabs everyone that they aren’t getting pregnant before the remarkable tongue twisting vitriol of Sick 2 Def warns of the power of his music to inspire murder. It’s unapologetically shocking and is underpinned by his lurching, minimalistic arrangements.
There is no let up on later tracks as Drew encourages his stepfather to slit his own throat on the unbelievably bleak Mama (Loves A Crackhead), a song that makes Cannibal Corpse’s lyrics sound like S Club 7 by comparison. Long after most music had lost its power to shock Who Needs Action… revitalised a genre and gave modern music a brand new Boogeyman. Luckily for those with a weak stomach he then decided to ditch this seething, hate-filled persona and began to make an altogether less interesting, but far more commercially successful, follow-up that turned him into a household name. One listen to this you’d never have believed it possible.
Aphex Twin – Come To Daddy (1997)
When The Dillinger Escape Plan and Mike Patton get together to cover a song and the original is still heavier then you know that this is one heavy artist. That’s true of Richard D. James, AKA Aphex Twin, and his song Come To Daddy. For the most part this is an album that confuses as much as it does scar your hearing. There are long ambient passages throughout that leave the listener being slowly coerced into the Twin’s weird and wonderful world. But it’s the title track that really stamps this collection of musical moments into our list.
As famous for the video as the song itself, where a group of children sporting Aphex Twin masks cause all manner of havoc on a housing estate before an old woman has her face screamed at by a large monster emerging from a television set… yeah, it’s pretty fucked up. James has said he conceived the song after sitting at home “getting pissed and fucking about with a crappy death metal jingle.” It’s a riff, or jingle if you like, that drives Come To Daddy on over a series of broken, ragged beats and a howling vocal line that proclaims to want to eat your soul. The single broke into the UK Top 40 and scared the living shit out of Top Of The Pops viewers all over the country.
Mogwai – Young Team (1997)
When Mogwai mocked the announcement of Metallica’s headline slot at the Glastonbury festival a few years ago, many metal fans scoffed that this was another case of a wimpy indie band being frightened by heavy music. Badly, badly wrong.
Young Team is a massive record; massive riffs, massive ideas, massive walls of sound and, most importantly, massively punishing on your speakers. The Glaswegians basically created the blueprint for what became the post-rock genre. And whether you’re a fan of Isis, Cult Of Luna or even Neurosis you’ll find something to enjoy here. The eleven and a half minute Like Herod is the stand-out track. Going from minuscule movements to bowl-aching levels of feedback and a guitar sound that could shatter diamond. This blatantly is closer to metal than it is The Arctic Monkeys. And, lest we forget, this is a band that booked Slayer to play Reign In Blood at their own ATP curated festival. Mogwai know about heaviness and Young Team is a skullfuck of an album.
Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1998)
In the eighties when Reagan ruled America and his ultra conservative government were dragging out the Cold War, a group of young, disenfranchised black youths were all but at the end of their tether. The rap of the time was highly politicised, utterly revolutionary and ferociously furious. At the forefront of this movement were New York’s Public Enemy.
It Takes A Nation Of Millions… is their definitive statement and possibly a high point that rap has never been able to match since. DJ Terminator X gave the perfect accompaniment to Chuck D’s articulate, threatening lyrics of alienation and revolution by sampling the soul and funk that the band would have grown up with and mutating it into booming bass and squealing scratches. The band even sampled Slayer on the incendiary She Watch Channel Zero, a scathing critique on the throwaway culture dished up by American television networks that disgusted them so much. Has an album ever been crammed with so much anger and righteous idignation? Louder than a bomb indeed.
Autechre – Draft 7.30 (2003)
It’s often said by many that are dismissive of the genre that dance music is too happy. It’s just about getting pulled-up divs to pop a pill and throw shapes whilst telling everyone that they love them. It’s true of most dull Ibiza fare, but there are exceptions to the rule.
The Manchester-based duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth formed Autechre in 1987 just before the second summer of love. But rejected the hippy, acid house love-in that made their hometown so famous during that period. Instead they forged their own musical path by taking their music in more extreme and un-danceable directions over the ensuing two decades. 2003’s Draft 7.30 is possibly not even their most unpalatable work, but it certainly will give you one hell of a headache. This is dance with no true semblance of rhythm in the traditional sense. Instead random electronic drum patterns come spewing at you from all angles, with the occasional stuttering break or baffling freak out, until you get a very twitchy eye. Just try dancing to the frankly baffling IV Vv IV Vv VIII or the grinding maelstrom of 61e.CR… actually don’t. You can’t. This makes The Algorithm sound like 2 Unlimited.
The Stooges – Fun House (1970)
If you can’t see the influence of Iggy Pop on the landscape of rock and metal then you are very dim indeed. And whilst most people associate him with his later solo material big hits like The Passenger and Lust For Life, his legendary status is assured in the eyes of fans of heavy music by his output in Detroit pre-punk, garage rock pioneers The Stooges.
If there is a record that celebrates pure wonton destruction quite as much as Fun House then it’s keeping itself very well hidden. The snarling gasoline and nitrogen charged guitars on song like Loose marked Fun House out as yet another cage-rattling, banshee howl heard on the band’s self-titled debut. But there is something altogether darker about what happens next on Fun House. The pumping punk rock clatter remains but a jazz and noise element is introduced into the second half of the record. Take a listen to the squealing, noise rock explosion of the final track L.A. Blues and remind yourself that this came out in 1970. Even today it can induce feelings of anxiety in its listener. Let’s also not forget that this was the same year as Black Sabbath unleashed their own debut on the world. Picking which one if those two records sounds more extreme is almost impossible. But needless to say, after hearing both, the hippy aesthetic of the sixties was clearly being doused in petrol and set ablaze.
Scott Walker – The Drift (2006)
Not just heavy, but genuinely frightening. Scott Walker may have started life as a an artist by playing orchestral pop in the 1960’s, but by 2006 the enigmatic baritone had taken an altogether darker and more menacing turn.
The Drift was his first record in eleven years and the avant-garde direction that his music had been heading in comes to a mind altering conclusion here. This is like a sonic stalking in the middle of a nightmare. Just take a listen to the haunting twelve minute long Clara, a song that switches from the monotonous pounding of drums to gruesome, intrusive strings. All scoring Walker’s terrible, pain-induced croon. Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt said that his Watershed album was to be a metal version of this record but he didn’t have as sick a head as Walker. This album is like staring into pitch black, ice cold, deep water; often hypnotic but quietly terrifying.
The Cure – The Cure (2004)
The Cure have been a constant source of inspiration for dark and moody rock and metal bands over the years, but many had forgotten of their influence due to a lack of activity by the dawn of the millennium. Enter nu-metal super producer Ross Robinson who brought them into the studio and told of his determination to make an album that was ‘Cure heavy’ as apposed to ‘nu-metal heavy’. He did… and then some.
This darkest of bands has never felt more raw and vulnerable than on opening track Lost, where Robert Smith wails his familiar laments over a more muscular and yet even more fragile Cure soundtrack. Robinson deserves plenty of credit for getting the best from the vocalists he works with, and he managed to harness Smith’s ability to lay bare his fears and insecurities in a realer way than he had in years. The Cure have always been heavy, here they are most definitely ‘Cure heavy’.