Heavy metal is a rich genre, but to the casual listener, it often just sounds like a bunch of noise. The blistering riffs, machine-gun drums, and screaming vocals can send many people running as far away as they can. And for a long while, that included me.
But, through a fortuitous string of events, I discovered that I love metal, with all of its raw power and crushing beauty.
But there are many metal records that offer all of the same heaviness with a healthy dose of conventional beauty. If you’ve been curious about metal, here are ten albums that offer all the power of heavy metal without all the chaos.
10. Palms – Palms
Swirling with synthesizer ambiance and glistening guitars, “metal” might not be the first word you grab to describe this. But, it doesn’t really fit anywhere else.
Palms is a supergroup featuring members of ISIS (the metal band, not the terrorist group) and the singer of Deftones. Through their respective histories, both ISIS and Deftones dabbled with shoegaze, dream pop, and post rock. Palms finds them fully indulging these urges, mingling gentle waves of atmosphere with plenty of distorted walls of noise and Chino’s mercurial voice.
9. Lantlôs – Melting Sun
The German black-metal outfit Lantlôs (literally “homelandless”) made two celebrated albums that mixed the churning guitars and screeching vocals of black metal with ambient soundscapes.
For their third album, they cut out the screams altogether and went in a more melodic direction.
The instruments create lush soundscapes that still manage to be heavy, despite the lack of chugging guitars and double-pedaled kick drums.
8. Sannhet – Revisionist
For many music fans, the harsh screams of metal music are a huge barrier keeping them from enjoying the music.
Sannhet avoids this by skipping vocals altogether.
Revisionist doesn’t shy away from blast beats or punishing riffs, but it subtracts the vocals and adds a healthy dose of reverb to the guitar. The result is a look into an alternate universe where Explosions in the Sky listened to nothing but black metal.
7. ISIS – Panopticon
I mentioned ISIS earlier, so it’s only obvious that they get featured.
ISIS are often lifted up as the godfathers of post-metal, and that reputation is well deserved. ISIS are the undisputed masters of glacially paced, heavy music. There are a few screams on this disc, but they are far and few between (don’t let the first thirty seconds fool you).
Most of the record is instrumental, playing a calculated game of tension and release as the songs regularly stretch toward ten minutes. A few of the tracks are even in a major key!
6. Baroness – Purple
The rest of the records on this list so far are generally pretty chilled out, plodding menacingly more than exploding.
Not so with Purple.. This record is pure adrenaline shot right into your brainstem. This is a fist-pumping, headbanging barn burner.
But, it’s also incredibly melodic. Despite its high-octane riffs and gritty (not screamed) vocals, there’s a sensibility here that harkens back to epic arena-rock legends like Journey or Queen. Twin guitar harmonies and singalong-worthy choruses are par for the course. Perfect pump-up jams.
5. Pallbearer – Sorrow and Extinction
This Little Rock-based doom metal quartet takes the same tropes of 70s heavy metal and plays them slow and low. Guitars are huge, drums are punishing, and the tempos plod along like Hannibal’s elephants crossing the Alps. Lead singer Brett Campbell somehow manages to sing every single linelike it’s the climax of the album.
This record is as ominous and epic as metal gets.
4. Jesu – Conqueror
Jesu is the solo project of Justin Broadrick, one half of the industrial duo Godflesh. Jesu quiets things down significantly.
At its core, Conqueror is a singer-songwriter album. It’s almost a bedroom-folk record a la Elliot Smith or Bon Iver. Except Broadrick fills out the space with huge guitars, ethereal synths, and pounding drums.
3. Russian Circles – Empros
If instrumental post-rock is more your speed, Russian Circles are one of the best groups out there.
Empros traffics between punishing riffs and quiet melodic moments. While they borrow a few pages from Mogwai’s climax-chaser playbook, they inject it with a metal heaviness to create a sound all their own. Prepare for huge walls of noise, extended drone sections, and an album closer that sounds closer to Neutral Milk Hotel than Neurosis.
2. Alcest – Voyages de L’Âme
The French metal duo Alcest is commonly credited with inventing the genre “blackgaze,” which blends the textures of black metal with the thick reverbs and relaxed tempos of shoegaze.
Les Voyages De L’Âme (French for “Voyages of the Soul”) occasionally utilizes the blast beats, tremolo guitar, and screamed vocals of traditional black metal, but it tempers it with melodic composition and emotional songwriting. There’s also a healthy dose of post rock elements, if that’s your bag.
1. Deafheaven – Sunbather
There aren’t a ton of black metal crossover hits. But Sunbather somehow managed to land on the Billboard 200, as well as appearing on several year-end lists from Pitchfork, NPR, Metacritic, and more.
This is the most unabashedly metal record on the list, but I put it in the top spot for good reason. True, vocalist George Clarke never breaks from his indecipherable black metal shrieks, and there plenty of shredded guitars and blast beats to keep purists happy.
But, across the ten-minute runtimes, there’s enough dynamic shifts, cinematic climaxes, and clean guitar sections to get the purists really, really mad (seriously: black metal fans hate this record).
On a personal note, though, this is the first metal record that made me want to describe anything with screamed vocals “beautiful.” And, it was my gateway to metal, opening the door to a whole sonic world I didn’t know existed. It’s a true masterpiece, transcending scene and genre.
Nat FitzGerald is an independent musician, music enthusiast from South Bend, IN. He plays in like four bands, hosts house shows in his living room, and runs A Year of Vinyl, a music review blog.