Post-metal Stylistic origins Post-rock, heavy metal Cultural origins Mid 1990s, United States and Sweden Typical instruments Electric guitar – Bass – Drums – Synthesizer – Other less common instruments, such as cello, minimal use of vocals Mainstream popularity Low, exists mostly within the metal and post-rock scenes Regional scenes California, Chicago, Illinois, New England and Umeå, Sweden Other topics Drone metal
Hydra Head Records owner and Isis frontman Aaron Turner originally termed the genre "thinking man's metal", demonstrating that his band was trying to move away from common metal conventions. "Post-metal" is the favored name for the growing genre, but it is also referred to as "metalgaze", "steel," "atmospheric metal," and "experimental metal," though this last term is also another term for avant-garde metal.
Journalist Simon Reynolds writes that
“ the term post-metal seems increasingly useful to describe the vast and variegated swath of genres (the thousand flavors of doom/black/death/grind/drone/sludge/etc., ad infinitum) that emerged from the early '90s onward. Sometimes beat-free and ambient, increasingly the work of home-studio loners rather than performing bands, post-metal of the kind released by labels like Hydra Head often seems to have barely any connection to metal as understood by, say, VH1 Classic doc-makers. The continuity is less sonic but attitudinal: the penchant for morbidity and darkness taken to a sometimes hokey degree; the somber clothing and the long hair; the harrowed, indecipherably growled vocals; the bombastically verbose lyrics/song titles/band names. It's that aesthetic rather than a way of riffing or a palette of guitar sounds that ties post-metal back to Judas Priest and Black Sabbath. ”
According to Aaron Turner of Isis, experimental bands such as Melvins, Godflesh and Neurosis "laid the groundwork for us [...] we're part of a recognizable lineage". Although Neurosis and Godflesh appeared earlier and display elements befitting post-metal, Isis are often credited with laying down the conventions and definition of the genre in less nebulous terms, with their release of Oceanic in 2002.
Helmet's albums Meantime (1992) and Betty (1994) are cited as having "eschewed the traditional concept of heavy music" and having "trademarked the drop-d power-groove in 5/4." They may be considered "definitive texts in post-metal."
The simplest way to define post-metal is as a fusion of post-rock and heavy metal. This indicates the interplay of light and dark - taking the distorted guitars and guttural vocals of metal and setting that against the clean instrumentalism of post-rock. Pieces tend to be at a slow- to mid-tempo, focusing on chord changes and barrages of sound rather than lead guitar riffing and shredding, and usually eschewing guitar solos.
Isis' Panopticon (2004) is a prime example of post-metal, and post-rock elements are clearly evident in the contrast between calm melodic passages and aggressive distortion-driven climactic sequences. Similar musical structuring can be heard in Pelican's second album released in 2005, The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, again with a focus on gradual evolution of structure.
A typical post-metal set-up includes two or three guitars, a bass guitar, synthesizers, a drum kit and a vocalist. There are a number of completely instrumental post-metal bands, such as Pelican and Russian Circles.
The overall sound is generally very bass-heavy, with guitars being down-tuned to B or lower, the equivalent of a seven-string guitar. Production is usually very tight, and there is little "garage band" feel to the music. This allows for pervasive or minimalist sections, often including instruments such as clean guitars or synthesizer, to come through more clearly.
Vocals and lyrics
The general philosophy behind post-metal production is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so each instrument is usually given about equal presence. Vocals are often not particularly high in the mix, and in most cases are "barked" in the style of hardcore punk or metal, i.e. guttural and shouted, rather than growled in death metal. Lyrics cover a wide spectrum of issues, usually somewhat metaphysical, existentialist or macroscopic, as opposed to deeply personal or directly allegorical. Themes often include political dissatisfaction, or criticism of herd mentality.
Post-metal is also defined by structure, which leans far more towards that of post-rock than metal: songs tend to 'evolve' to a crescendo or climax (or multiple ones within a song), building upon a repeated theme or chord shift, whereas metal, however, often adheres to verse-chorus-verse conventions of song structure. As Aaron Turner of Isis states, "the standard song format of verse-chorus-verse-chorus is something that has been done and redone, and it seems pointless to adhere to that structure when there are so many other avenues to explore". The result of this is often long songs, commonly in the range of six to eleven minutes. Therefore a typical post-metal track is not generally suitable for radio play, nor is it commercially viable. Similarly, albums are often created as quasi-conceptual, creating the greatest impact when listened to as a whole. Likewise, it is not uncommon to see literary influences on albums, such as Red Sparowes' At the Soundless Dawn.
A typical post-metal piece might start with a lone guitar, but eventually build to six-plus members playing simultaneously, as shown in songs like "Genesis" from The Beyond by Cult of Luna. Likewise, a post-metal song may leap "head-first" into the music, with distortion and aggression evident from the start. Songs like this challenge the definition of the genre, but the majority of them will contain clean interludes or lulls, usually as parts of a build-up in themselves. Relevant examples include "False Light" from Oceanic by Isis, or "Australasia" from Australasia by Pelican.
Criticism of the term
Since this genre is relatively new and is only represented by a small number of artists, the need for an entirely independent classification of music has occasionally been questioned by music reviewers and listeners. As a label, some see "post-metal" as redundant, since some bands listed as post-metal contain many elements similar to doom metal, progressive metal, sludge metal, and stoner metal. Others, however, argue that these elements have been combined and altered in ways that go beyond the boundaries of those respective genres, creating the need for a single, distinguishing label.
Pelican's Trevor de Brauw said, "I have an affinity for metal, but I don't think of Pelican as a metal band. So when people call us 'instrumetal', or post-metal, or metalcore or whatever, I can see why they say that, but it's not something that I feel a close connection with... I feel our [music] has more in common with punk and hardcore."
Aesthetic or visual similarities in album art and performance are cited as derivative in claims that post-metal is an overly incestuous movement for its relatively small group of bands and musicians. Isis is often cited as the source of this shared imagery, although bands with similar visual themes playing in the post-metal style existed before Isis greatly popularized the subgenre.
List of notable post-metal bands
- Battle of Mice
- Cult of Luna
- Made Out of Babies
- Mouth of the Architect
- The Ocean
- Red Sparowes
- Russian Circles
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