A lot of people don’t like metal. And that’s ok. Metal isn’t supposed to be easy. In fact, its roots come as a reaction against that very thing. But talking to people who think they despise heavy metal is often just as difficult. Most people know about Metallica and Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, but they’re what’s considered mainstream.
Introducing your easy listening friends to metal doesn’t have to be an exercise in Green Eggs & Ham-level obsession with you chasing them around while clutching your collection of Deicide or Pig Destroyer records. Just as in the case of Sam I Am, sometimes trying something new can and often results in what’s a literally life-changing experience. We picked out 10 gateway records that could convert even the non-metal listeners.
Although Deafhaven’s full-length debut Roads to Judah dropped in 2011, the San Francisco group has since become one of the most engaging metal bands since that time when Alcest actually sounded like black metal. With 2013’s Sunbather, Deafheaven took that very influence, framing it within compositional nods to “totally unmetal” artists/bands such as Johnny Marr, The Edge, and My Bloody Valentine. The vocals are most definitely harsh and the black metal foundation is ever present, but Sunbather primarily works so well due to the fact that that otherwise abrasive ferocity is carried by way of an unrelenting beauty and atmosphere. While the word “beauty” often results in the unfortunate gag reflex of many a metalhead concerning Deafheaven, it’s the selling point of one of today’s most captivating bands, metal or not.
All stupid terrorist jokes aside, ISIS remains one of the most influential groups not only for their metal cohorts but for a litany of non-metal artists who take their strides from the band’s ornate-meets abrasive stylizations. Despite being disbanded since 2010, Boston’s post-metal giants have continued to make waves, even leaving on the high note that was their best album with 2009’s Wavering Radiant. But it was 2004’s Panopticon that marked the biggest shift in ISIS’ history, as the band employed a wider range of possibilities with what their music could accomplish rather than sticking to one particular (in this case very sludgy) brand of heavy. Just under an hour long, Panopticon is, much like its namesake, a complex and beautiful sonic journey, rendering scenes as psychologically rooted as they are physiologically concerned. It’s that combination of the abstract and the palpable that came to be the definitive characteristic of ISIS, and it began here.
One of the reasons that the hugely successful and (mostly) bearded Mastodon have become the new whipping boy for metal’s most cross-armed crybabies is likely the very thing that gives the Atlanta-based foursome an appeal to non-metal minded audiences. After three concept albums so multifarious that even Peter Gabriel would tear up, the group upped the ante and released Crack the Skye in 2009. The plotline is about as logical as your entire 70s prog collection. But it’s that same prog rock influence, which had continually growing throughout each previous Mastodon release, that came to a brilliant head on Crack the Skye. Both clean vocals (no yelling, softies) and also harsh vocals (avert your ears, softies) come packaged with some of the genre’s most astounding guitar and rhythm work since the mid-‘80s.
Aside from chocolate, ABBA, and that cool movie about the vampire kid, the Scandinavian middle finger known as Sweden has given the world one of the most important metal bands of the last 20 years in Opeth. The group started in 1990 in Stockholm, but the band’s debut album Orchid served a necessary precursor to what would come with 2001’s Blackwater Park. The quintessential metal album of the 21st century so far, Blackwater Park not only raised the standard for the band who created it but for the genre and culture that would come in its wake. Even with Opeth’s much more cuddly recent efforts, the band’s most timeless and groundbreaking effort is largely so because of the band’s perfectly achieved balance between some of the most devastatingly harsh death metal vocals and the jarringly beautiful melody lines sung throughout by near-mythically versatile vocalist Mikael Åkerfeldt.
A more recent example of metal’s less aurally difficult acts, Little Rock’s Pallbearer arrived on the radar of many non-metallers almost right out of the gate. Their songs are long but not overly so; they’re are ornate without falling under the weight of their own compositional structure. It’s pop slowed down to a crawl with a healthy dose of atmospheric, Pink Floyd-inspired psychedelia. For any metal band to have pop appeal is like some fiction out of the early ‘90s (cough), but alas, 2012 not only saw that very thing but from a doom metal band no less. It’s a testament not only to Pallbearer’s individual members’ abilities as songwriters but also to the evolving fanbase of a genre that’s far less the oddball in the crowd than it used to be.
Sure to gain the ire of metal purists for not being metal enough (or whatever the hell it is this week), Fort Worth’s Pinkish Black released its full-length debut in 2012 to immediate acclaim. In addition to the well-deserved praise, the duo’s music managed to be just as unsettling as nearly anything else considered extreme. Trading blast beats, shredding riffs, and indecipherable vocals for keyboards and a set of drums, Pinkish Black invokes a devastatingly heavy atmosphere that speaks as much to Joy Division as it does Popol Vuh. Born from some genuinely gruesome circumstances that directly influenced their moniker, Pinkish Black’s most powerful asset is their deliberately subdued presentation of all that makes heavy metal the force it is, and also proof that the paths to dark music are many, all with their own singular definition of what the word “heavy” can mean.
Released just this year, Crooked Doors is positively infectious for a straight up hard rock record. The band’s transition from its first to second records was a natural one with vocalist Mlny Parsonz (Mel Parsons) belting out her lines with a range that would make Grace Slick proud. Crooked Doors doesn’t require much patience on the part of the listener. From start to finish, the album kicks into a ‘70s hard rock edge with a punk rock ethos courtesy of Parsons’ singing which varies from graveled sneering to stratospheric melodic lines in the refrains. Not just one of the year’s best metal releases but one of its finest examples of no frills, no gimmicks, and no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll.
One of 2013’s best metal releases came by way of Salt Lake City’s SubRosa. A five-member multi-instrumental force, the band’s sheer depth of sound is something to behold. While the use of orchestral instruments, specifically in this case the violin, is nothing new to heavy metal or “extreme music”, SubRosa’s implementation is not simply an exercise in arbitrary timbre. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any other heavy metal band whose use of otherwise delicate instrumentation is even remotely as commanding as SubRosa’s. Active since 2005, More Constant Than the Gods is the group’s third album and handily their best. Similar to Pallbearer, SubRosa is quintessentially a gateway band, giving listeners a glimpse into the too often overlooked versatility in heavy metal.
Released in 2008 on the now (sort of) defunct Hydra Head Records—one of the most highly respected experimental music labels of the last decade—Meanderthal was an immediate anomaly in the metal world. The music is some of the heaviest on this entire list but the vocals are clean and actually quite pleasant. Singer/guitarist Steve Brooks pairs his baritone against a backdrop of doom metal on speed. Often referred to as “sludge” or “stoner” metal, Torche is modern metal’s answer to Van Halen or Cheap Trick in many ways. The music is fun. Metal is fun. You may actually find yourself smiling while headbanging. Stranger things have happened. For many previously uninitiated metalheads, Meanderthal still remains the standard gateway to what would become a gloriously loud journey into heavy metal.
Eugene, Ore.’s YOB formed in 1996. It was the same year that Tool, one of the most well-known crossover metal bands released the masterpiece known as Ænima. The connection doesn’t stop there, though. Years later, the two bands would tour together with YOB opening for the mighty Tool and their cult-like legions of fans. Having YOB open was no flippant choice on the part of Tool who, like many other globally recognized names, could have just as easily gone with a run-of-the-mill act or some slightly less well known act. Even that moment of pride doesn’t come close to YOB’s greatest triumph to date. That moment came just last year with Clearing the Path to Ascend, a four-track journey into some of modern metal’s most emotionally charged and unwaveringly gorgeous moments of the last several years. Mike Scheidt may very well be the most versatile vocalist in the metal game today, easily switching from bottomed-out growls to stratospheric vocalizations as tenderly vulnerable as they are definitively unassailable. Of its four tracks, no song perfectly captures the band’s unshakeable distinction among its peers as does the album’s closer “Marrow”. It’s just one of the many reasons you’re likely to hear this band’s name much more often in the near future.