I’ve been really into metal music lately, and I think anyone that appreciates good innovative music should love metal.
So, if you already love Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Mahler, and Debussy and have an appreciation for people like Schoenberg, Crumb, Ives, Cage, and Corigliano, then this guide is perfect for you.
I’ll progress from “easiest” to get into to the most abstract. I’m not going to go into all the sub-sub genres of metal. In fact, I’m purposely misplacing a lot of bands to make the categorization easier.
If you’re really into the precise categories please don’t comment why some band that is labeled ambi-djent jazz death metal when it is post-death djent metal with jazz influences or something.
I’ll post one characteristic song I like after each band to give an idea.
For future reference, djent refers to the style of quick hitting of the guitar on top of snare/bass to produce the “djent” sound heard at the 7-second mark here.
Less screaming, more singing. The guitar is used to make notes rather than just rhythmic noise. Basically, it’s rock music with influences from classical art music.
Tool – Most mainstream band on the list. Their songs make it to the radio. I wouldn’t call them metal, but it is a good gentle introduction to the genre.
They play in complicated time signatures like 7/8 and use interesting extended chords.
There’s nothing overly crazy here, though.
TesseracT – This reminds me of Tool, but a little harder on the metal side. Their climaxes involve big power chords, but also some screaming and noise.
If you can listen to rock, but like something more complicated this is a great place to start. Their albums are quite enjoyable.
Not only do they use complicated time signatures, but the time signatures themselves tend to change rapidly.
There is less of a tonal center and chromatic melodies and harmonies are used. Think of the impressionistic composers being played on guitar. Often times there is a theatrical element to it as well.
Animals as Leaders – Basically this is Tosin Abasi playing virtuoso music on guitar with a backup band. Think if Joshua Bell released an album (maybe he has?) of just him playing virtuoso violin solos.
Then make those solos a ton harder technically because standard virtuoso music like Paganini’s 24th doesn’t involve complicated tonalities and time signatures.
These guys blow my mind.
Unexpect – Not really “prog”, but more Phantom of the Opera meets circus music played by a metal band…yeah, what?
Baroque music by a metal band? I’m not really sure this is a whole subgenre, but at least one band is doing it: Extra Life.
Metal with jazz influences such as saxophone solos. This is probably my favorite genre of metal.
T.R.A.M. – Much more of a jazz outfit than metal jazz.
(The) Mass – This is the most underrated band on the list. This band is absolutely fantastic. The band is a perfect blend of punk, metal, and free jazz improv to go with it.
Jazzy parts start about 1:20 in.
The Iceburn Collective – Almost classic big band music, but sometimes breaks out into metal. Another fantastic band that very few people have heard of.
Electronica/dance music influences.
Algorithm – This isn’t so much a band as a one-man operation. He produces awesome electronica mixed with djent style metal.
The focus is on almost impossible to follow complicated rhythms and time signatures. Often there isn’t a time signature at all.
Sometimes there are aspects of minimalism. This is the first place on the list where the listening gets much harder. Mathcore tends to be true metal.
Don Caballero – One of the founders of math rock. This is more rock oriented and listenable than some of the hard “core” bands later. This is a good introduction to the genre.
Dillinger Escape Plan – Probably the most famous band of this genre. They play some pretty hardcore stuff, but you won’t find more complicated music anywhere (both rhythmically and tonally).
They’ve recently stepped back their complication and hardcore-ness, so I recommend the album Calculating Infinity in general. This is one of my favorite bands on the list.
Meshuggah – I know, they play djent not mathcore, but they also focus a lot on rhythmic complexity over anything. This is why they placed so low in my halfway list. I’ve gotten over the monotonicity of their sound and actually appreciate what they do a lot more now.
Uncategorizable due to extremely avant-garde aspects such as raw noise or bizarre instrumentation.
Naked City – Possibly the founders of the genre. This is John Zorn’s band, and anyone who has heard anything about avant-garde music of any kind probably has run into him. He plays free jazz/avant-garde saxophone. This band could fit under jazz metal as well.
Maudlin of the Well – Currently known as Kayo Dot. Maudlin could probably go under prog metal and is easy to listen to. Kayo Dot is quite a bit more avant-garde using what seems to be close to a full orchestra, so we’ll pick something from that.
Time of Orchids – This is one of my favorite bands of all time. They have such a range of styles and everyone in the band is an absolutely fantastic musician. Their music has some incredibly beautiful and abstract melodies on top of strange time signatures.
Normal Love – By far the most avant-garde of the avant-metal here. It is almost impossible to describe this in words. My best attempt would be if George Crumb were in a metal band.
Listen to clips at Amazon.
Long drones by a super-amplified bass.
Sunn O))) – In general, I don’t recommend this genre, but if you want the closest thing to a full symphony composed and recorded by a metal band get Monoliths & Dimensions.
Seriously. It is four parts and orchestrated like a symphony. It is also somehow beautiful once you get over the fact that you are listening to drone metal. It reminds me of Henrik Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
To close, remember to buy anything you like!!
Almost all of these bands are small relatively unheard of names, so they need the support.
There are a ton of great genres I haven’t even mentioned like death metal, black metal, and doom metal. These are essential listening to fully understand the genre, but they probably aren’t the best starting place.
If you want to better understand the thought process and philosophy of the early days, an excellent book on the topic is Choosing Death by Albert Mudrian.
[Author’s Note: This post started getting a bunch of views randomly. It’s over seven years out of date. These might not be the things I’d recommend anymore. I might come back and make some changes in the near future.]