Surprise! Thought you had seen the last of me, huh?
Well, joke’s on you.
I am not dead. I have just been incredibly busy and now I return to bestow upon you more stories about listening to different genres. The story will soon end, but I have such sights to show you in the meantime.
Now that I have graduated and have more free time, I can talk about the more important things in life: the weirdness of music. Granted, my journey coming into this genre has been an interesting one, and while I aim to show you things that most people aren’t familiar with, I also want people to listen to these albums. Thus, I started with albums that have less barriers to cross than others that I will mention for the sake of the story.
It’s time we talk about Avant-Garde Metal.
Living in the Avant-Garde Nowhere
While I tend to plan out what aspects of my musical history I want to talk about—especially since I have become more secretive over the years—I did not expect to talk about some of the more “experimental” aspects of metal and how they all touch upon different aspects of what people enjoy. From the technicality and instrumentality of tech death to the orchestration and aesthetics of neoclassical metal, “experimental metal” is a spectrum of different textures, colors, and barriers to entry that makes things difficult to parse, especially when we truly start talking about the other end of the spectrum, which is where avant-garde metal lives.
Now, before we talk about this specific genre, I want to clarify that most of my knowledge regarding this comes from years of diving into black metal and finding things that I consider to be interesting. As such, avant-garde metal can be defined as “black metal-adjacent” for the most part, but I have also decided to introduce music that most people would not consider to be avant-garde in any way, shape, or form.
My first encounter with what we will now term “avant-garde metal” was when I was assigned to write a retrospective about Ved Buens Ende’s Written in Waters, an album famous for both introducing most people to the weirder aspects of metal and for being the only album in the band’s discography before they disbanded. At the same time, I was writing about Phlebotomized’s Immense Intense Suspense/Skycontact, a compilation album that was on the weirder side of death metal (At the time, Phlebotomized was rumored to return with a new album that year, after almost two decades of inactivity). Now, unlike IIS/S, which is both eccentric and catchy, Written in Waters, I cannot emphasize this enough, scared the shit out of me. The barrier to entry to Written in Waters is so high that, even to this day, I will not recommend this to anyone in good faith unless they are incredibly familiar with other bands in the same vein. In fact, when we talked about Vide during our The Ruins of Beverast chat, I made the explicit point that a new listener must work up the ladder of weird to get into the “avant-garde nowhere,” a realm of avant-garde metal that is highly complex and not enjoyable at first listen.
Written in Waters was an experience for me. I can still picture the memory in my head, crystalline and untouched after years of stress and sleepless nights. I remember the rain that fell in early February of that year as I sat, awake at 2 am in a hotel room, being scared shitless and hoping that the album would end soon so I could write my thoughts about it. I remember the uneasiness and the nausea that stayed with me as what sounded like nails on a chalkboard made me more claustrophobic and paranoid. The worst part was going back and listening to the album again to catch anything I had missed, retraumatizing myself in the process. Despite this, something about Written in Waters clicked in my brain that made me realize two things about myself: my music listening habits were, once again, changing, and for once, I was elated to be out of my comfort zone. There were no guides or tracks to follow, and the only thing I could do was walk off the edge of what I knew and dive headfirst into what that uneasiness had to show me.
I have not regretted that decision since.
To this day, I am still on the hunt for avant-garde music and while I have been somewhat successful outside of black metal, black metal tends to one that mostly caters to my interest into the weird. I have even developed a list that ranks the albums from the highest barrier to entry to the lowest barrier to entry. Granted, the list is subjective, but it’s a start, nonetheless.
Let’s dive into the cesspool of weird, shall we?
Avant-Garde Metal Gateway Albums
Dir En Grey (Diru) – The Insulated World (2018)
Barrier to entry: Mid – the music can be off-putting to a first-time listener. In comparison to everything else, this might be the easiest album to start with.
This band both delights and terrifies me in a way that I cannot explain.
A band that started during the peak of the visual kei movement, Diru have transformed from a band mired in aesthetics to an international powerhouse whose lyrical ability and instrumentality changes with every album they have released. Despite these changes, they have remained an excellent band that whose live shows and overall aesthetic transcends art. What I love most about this band is that they are not afraid to talk about taboo topics and do a stellar job with hiding it under a veneer of wordplay and puns. Hell, everything about Diru is so fundamentally messed up that it makes you wonder who their audience is.
I have been listening to this band for several years now – I have no memory of when they came to my life, but they are now a significant part of it – and what they do as a band is so impressive that no amount of words can truly articulate how I feel about them. All I know is that Diru is one of those bands that have been around for so long that it astounds me that not a lot of people have heard of them, especially because they are notorious for what singer Kyo does onstage. Their visual aesthetics are also some of the most transgressive mishmash of sounds and images that I have ever seen, and while they can be gross, you cannot pull away. There is also Kyo’s intense vocal delivery, which can shift from beautiful clean signing to a monster’s bellow, one of Diru’s many highlights.
Think about it: imagine a dude who looks small on stage and then this ferocious growl comes out of him, only for him to then switch into a beautiful operatic voice at the flick of a switch. It’s insane.
Now, The Insulated World is one of the most comprehensively masterful albums that Diru has put out, putting everything they have ever made into a cohesive wall of sound that gets better and better with every listen. This album has everything: ballads, harrowing screams, songs that make you want to get up and dance, a demented cacophony of sound that makes you wonder how you even got here, and a sincerity that still resonates with me. Within this album vacuum, Diru thrives as they throw everything at you, making sure that everything can be explored without any restraint whatsoever. They are currently one of the best bands in the game for this reason, and they continue to impress me with everything they have put out. Hell, even their re-recordings of some of their more well-known material is enough to pull you into this world. This album is a joy to listen to, and one that I keep coming back to whenever I am in the mood to listen to the avant-garde without the black metal tonalities.
Speaking of black metal-adjacent avant-garde…
Kekal – Deeper Underground (2018)
Barrier to entry: Mid – the music utilizes electronic elements that can be off-putting but rewarding if you stick with it.
No, this is not Igorr, but it certainly can be at times, and it works.
One of Indonesia’s most notable exports, Kekal is a band that has been making music for more than two decades and are still very much underground for the most part, as not many people have heard about them. I found them about two years ago when I was looking for albums to review and expand my knowledge on the weirder side of black metal. At the time, the interest was building, and I had to just find out what the fuss was about when it came to people talking about this kind of music in general.
And then came this album.
Imagine my surprise when I first listened to Deeper Underground and thought I found the key to how black metal could evolve into this mix of electronics and raw power that you could hear in bands like The Body and Igorr, albeit with an easier time on your disposition. My sentiments from two years ago are still very relevant:
This is most evident on title track where a slight of blues and sludge come in to give the song texture. The electronica here also gives the album an 80’s feel that reminded me of Depeche Mode and their intense, sensual tonality… As the album continues to play, that Depeche Mode aesthetic truly comes out, playing with our expectations (see “The Many Faces of Your Face” and “Revealment”) as it switches back to black metal and vice versa. The way that Kekal manages to switch between genres and tones in a matter of seconds is astounding, and they do it so seamlessly that I can’t help but be enamored of their capacity to do as they want. For reference.
Deeper Underground is an album that does not hesitate to move from one genre to the next, seamlessly shifting from intense electronics to black metal to Depeche Mode aesthetics to everything in between. The most confusing part of it all is that it works, and relistening to this again just reminds me of how talented this group is. They are not afraid to expand their soundscape and create a wall of sound that sticks with you long after the album is over. And yet, you go back and replay it, because you want to capture every sound and texture and then focus on how each part works within the context of the album. It’s a brilliant clusterfuck of things that makes you realize how truly colorful this genre can be and how it can truly push black metal towards something that continuously breaks the mold.
Speaking of brilliant clusterfucks…
Diablo Swing Orchestra – Pacifisticuffs (2017)
Barrier to entry: Low to mid – there is so much to parse with this album alone.
If there is something that I cannot emphasize enough, it’s my love for Diablo Swing Orchestra and how absolutely bonkers they are.
Diablo Swing Orchestra is a band that have shown that they can be as weird and as psychotic as they want, and they will resonate with everyone to an extent. Hell, they even switched singers, and the new singer, Kristin Evegård, adds to that colorful insanity with how simultaneously whimsical and ethereal her voice is. Add to the fact the band favors a heavy string and brass section in their music, and I am bound to have a great time.
When I first got into Diablo Swing Orchestra, I was fresh out of undergrad and I had encountered one of the band’s best-known singles, “Voodoo Mon Amour.” At the time, their singer, Annlouice Loegdlund, had left a band, an incredibly talented opera singer whose voice could either lull you to sleep or ask you to commit murder. However, she had left after Pandora’s Piñata’s release, so her voice was still accessible to me. Imagine my surprise when the song started, and you get a wave of brass before it goes into swing and then her voice hits and you just sit there and listen. This song, as a first impression, blew me away, and I had to find out what else they had to offer.
And that’s what I did.
Now, while I would have placed Pandora’s Piñata on this list, I personally think Pacisfisticuffs caters more to the image that Diablo Swing Orchestra have created for themselves, especially with how the music seems to click better with Kristin. Like I said, her voice energizes the band to go full balls-to-the-wall into their myriad of sound, as they are a communal soup of opera, pop, swing, orchestra, heavy metal, disco, tango, and other genres that should not sound as good as they do, but they do. This album has everything: ballads, operatic pieces, dramatic overtones, and everything in between. The music is campy, ethereal, and straight-up insane at times, but it is incredibly joyous and filled with a certain flair that makes me want to get up and dance. It is also one of the most accessible albums when it comes to the avant-garde, given the shift in tonalities and themes coming as quickly as they can churn them.
And I can’t get enough of it.
It feels good to be back and talk about the things that I love, after coming off the busiest six months in my life. The hard work has paid off and I am now officially a magistrate, so back to the things I love.
Tune in next time as we talk about another genre whose recent inclusion into my musical diet has been very good for me.
Hasta la proxima!