The Little Engine That Could
A four-part series by MarsKid
Part II: Underground Alone
The blueprints for post-metalcore had been amassed over the course of the 1990s. Once the genre began near the early 2000s and stepped into a new century, the efforts of groups past started to coalesce into products that combined their influences into the primary works of the post-metalcore catalogue. The overarching category as a whole was readying to embark upon a renaissance period that would result in an explosion of new acts. A changing of the guard was occurring as the hardcore acts of yesteryear passed the torch on to nascent crews. Those that survived the shifting of years, like The Dillinger Escape Plan, Converge, and Zao continued to accrue relevance, with the former two bands hitting their stride in the initial half of the new decade — Miss Machine would arrive in 2004, while the iconic Jane Doe would storm the metal world in 2001, forever changing the category it was attached to. It was in this period that an affinity for melody was championed, which found a home in the spacey soundscapes of Hopesfall and the addicting passages of Misery Signals. Norma Jean was starting to wreak havoc. Underoath was slowly starting to establish itself. Beecher was angry and wanted everyone to hear it.
It’s impossible to list all the amazing records that came out from 2000 to around 2009, where metalcore took the lessons of its predecessors and erupted in popularity, creativity, and productivity. This was no longer a portion of music relegated to tough-as-nails hardcore acts; their efforts had finally paid off and ushered in an era of the classification that older aficionados still wax poetic about, nostalgically referring to this memorable stretch as the golden days of metalcore. Unquestionably, it appeared as if the label was en route to becoming a force in the mainstream market of metal, which would be considerably augmented once more poppy, anthemic sensibilities were brought into the fold. The next decade beginning in 2010 would see this particular approach reach a newfound height in adulation by fans and disparagement by genre diehards. One thing was true: metalcore was firing on all cylinders, and there was an increasing audience for it.
Where does post-metalcore find itself in this framework? Though it would release important records in this era, much of what would be accomplished would never reach listeners to the extent enjoyed by renowned peer groups. It was a movement that was consigned to the underground for development. Underneath the touted-about successes of the period, unknown acts pumped out albums that were startlingly ahead of their time, silently pushing limitations as they dared any passing critic to pigeonhole them. The foundation of post-metalcore, already raised, was enhanced, spawning a choice few cuts that quite possibly outclassed releases that were allotted much more time in the spotlight. It could be that what the following bands accomplished wasn’t exactly palatable; certain groups would take it upon themselves to test the restrictions of what metalcore could do to an extreme. But then again, Calculating Infinity became a classic, and it is surely a bizarre invention. Reasoning might be boiled down to pure bad luck or just poor advertising. Whatever the reason, post-metalcore was thriving, but never show-stealing; it was on the sidelines.
Even the most influential of the post-metalcore crowd found themselves loved only by few and advocated only on the edges of the scene. Their impact would turn out to be much larger.
What many often forget is that Challenger was beaten to the punch by Carpe Diem. California’s own Will Haven were around a year ahead of the Swiss rockers, taking after the disruptiveness of Today Is the Day in their 2001 opus. Their sludgy, post-metal heaviness and atmosphere would not come from Sweden, but instead a source much closer to home: Oakland’s famed post-metal act Neurosis. It’s hard not to find similar sensations and structuring in what Will Haven create on Carpe Diem and the body of work Neurosis cultivated in the ’90s. In their output, the Cali gentlemen took to assailing their audience with robust riffs that concentrated on heaviness, letting static soundscapes breathe to instill a threatening ambiance.
Unlike other groups to come, Will Haven’s focus was never on technicality, their eyes instead set on creating a foreboding sense that brought forth nothing but darkness. Percussion commanded considerable authority as it descended upon the album with daunting resonance. Paired next to a beefy bass tone, Carpe Diem became a weighty customer to encounter. It was just as capable as Neurosis and Pelican of bending a listener to its every will, forcing obedience through a heaviness that was buttressed by a raucous metalcore framework. This attraction towards a cloudy sort of production quality would eventually become identified by many as a hallmark of classic metalcore; it exuded the raw energy the youthful category possessed in its infancy. Will Haven’s expertise in implementing it would reoccur in the products of crews all over the globe.
The somewhat mysterious Swiss gang had to have gained much from their acknowledgement by Aaron Turner. After tours with Converge and Botch, the group was brought up to the Hydra Head label owner, who promptly rereleased the band’s debut Bastardiser. Not only did Knut share the stage with ISIS, but they also encountered Pelican and — surprise, surprise — Keelhaul. What was then fashioned on Challenger, therefore, is impossible to chalk up to mere coincidence; the collective had spent extensive time hanging around post-metal players. Then, there were the shadowy depths that were offered by Breach, the controlled-chaos methodology Converge practiced, and the hardcore variables of Botch. Knut managed to pluck from all of these separate entities and craft something that, while possessing traceable stimuli, was wholly their own.
It’s not surprising then that underground enthusiasts point to Challenger as the first real post-metalcore album. It was able to incorporate heaviness, ambiance, technicality, repetition, riffs, noise, and haziness in a complete tour de force. Prior entries had specialized in specific traits, like Keelhaul’s Devil-may-care technical tactics or Will Haven’s blurred heaviness. The success of this particular disc is in how it never let itself be ruled by one approach over the other; it was doing all of them at once, moving as a unit. No release at that time was quite doing the same thing Knut was doing, which indisputably paved the way for artists that were interested in pushing the envelope. Such an achievement was impressive for its time and rightfully earned a place amongst the expansive gallery of metalcore ‘must-listen’ records.
Among the many elements worthy of discussing, the most intriguing would have to be the famous finale of the disc. It was uncommon for a metalcore album to sport tracks that stretched past the 10-minute waterline, and even above 5 minutes was a tall order at times. Knut’s concluding statement took that apparent boundary and smashed it to pieces, releasing the near 20-minute behemoth titled “March”. As an individual track, it is debatable exactly how engaging it is due to the group’s unrelenting utilization of repetition throughout. What can be agreed upon is that it is an ambitious number that had not been witnessed before. It was one of the few elongated metalcore tracks to ever be recorded, far outpacing Botch’s “Man the Ramparts” and Converge’s “Jane Doe.” This was a valuable lesson to -core bands that the possibilities of post-metalcore were endless; it didn’t need to be relegated to any particular duration. The door had been opened up for long-form post-metalcore.
It was only a matter of time before someone took “March” and ran with the freedom it stood for. Will Haven and Breach had performed numbers that were either completely or nearly instrumental, sprinkling a track or two in their albums to allow atmosphere to soak through. This British group managed to take developing concepts — remember that cloudy aesthetic Europe was brewing — and take Knut’s sound to the next level. The single full-length ever crafted by the band, To You the First Star, remains in a class of its own for the most part due to a rare characteristic: for a metalcore album, it is rather light on the -core. Eden Maine strived to encapsulate the infinite scope of atmosphere on their record, which led to an assortment of interludes and post-metal forays that thoroughly diversified the record. Sporting that lovable haziness, the disc would ebb and flow between terrifying technicality spurred onward by manic vocals and quieter sections. These gents placed an even higher importance on how an individual track felt; guitars would adopt melodic timbres and gradually progress to a climax, letting the ambiance of the different tones and lurking static dispel an air of restlessness.
Such was Eden Maine’s calling card: unease. Songs like “I Am What You Are” sound like the soundtrack to a horror movie — a build-up to a monster crawling from the dark recesses of the Earth. Then, when the group opted to crank up the insanity, it became a madhouse; “The Acidic Taste of Betrayal” remains one of the more vicious, Satanic ventures to be put on a metalcore record, possessing a fierceness that fully displayed the collective’s command over both chaos and emotion. In another callback to Knut, Eden Maine capped off their journey with a titanic, albeit shorter, closing statement. The 13-plus-minute “Disinformasiya”, though propelled by twisting riffs and thunderous drums, dissolved into a post-rock finale that allowed delicate strumming to escort the album away. One other way Eden Maine urged the genre onwards was with their inclusion of additional instrumental elements. The strings of “The Atheist Light” may be brief, but what they do for that particular cut is engaging. It demonstrated that post-metalcore could house whatever it needed to in order to accomplish its goals.
In their own country, Eden Maine would eventually have their footsteps followed by Devil Sold His Soul, who formed around the time To You the First Star was distributed in 2005. Their first effort as a band, 2007’s A Fragile Hope, made use of atmosphere and ambiance in a manner that was comparable to the output of the Hertfordshire collective that preceded them. This London crew would manage to gain a substantial enough following to become a cornerstone of the U.K. -core scene as it continued development through the latter half of the 2000s. Of importance is that, whereas Eden Maine’s vision was more dissonant, Devil Sold His Soul opted for a methodology that was more melodic in character. Combined with slower tempos, the group was able to carve out their own niche that built off of peers.
Keelhaul’s fellow statesmen had a clear interest in imbuing their music with a flair for the technical. On the outside, Harlots were emblematic of the boom-and-bust character of the metalcore “golden age”: a group that was only active for roughly 4 years (2004 to about 2008, give or take) before calling it quits. Internally, these Ohioans were experimenting with post-metalcore in a manner not far removed from what their British counterparts had displayed. Whereas Eden Maine’s approach relied on their guitars, Harlots leaned into the realm of ambient, letting static, electronics, stray noise, and distant guitar strumming color a bleak canvas that sounded mysterious, almost impenetrable. What assisted in this was a sketchy production quality that conversely made the disc more intriguing; the murky mix accentuated the ambiance, making the dizzying riffs and spiraling percussion all the more difficult to perceive, playing perfectly into the group’s unique aura.
This methodology was on full display for debut record The Woman You Saw is the Great City that Rules over the Kings of the Earth, crafting a sub-40-minute adventure propped up by elongated tracks divided between ambient intervals. Over the course of their career in the industry, Harlots would diverge from this template, placing an emphasis instead on influence from the likes of Discordance Axis and Ion Dissonance, the latter being a group Harlots had tour experience with. Their final effort, Betrayer, limited the atmosphere, channeling the post-metal heaviness into horrifying grind sections buoyed by nigh-indecipherable musicianship that liberally transformed tempos, deconstructed rhythms, and shocked with both melody and syncopated chugs. Despite not being recognized much at all, Harlots could be serious contenders for the most pissed-off metalcore outfit, with “Avada Kedavra” being a stellar example of how imposing the band could be. Their most critical offering — ambiance — would crop up more over time, but it wasn’t until it entered Russia three years later that it was brought to the absolute brink.
While Harlots can be traced — Keelhaul are relaxing some miles up north alongside Canada’s grind scene — Austin, Texas’ Thumbscrew is a more interesting case. Fusing metalcore with grind and atmosphere, the group recorded their only album All is Quiet in an apparent vacuum. It’s plausible that they took to the rise of North American grindcore as it began to take shape, perhaps internalizing techniques debuted by Terrorizer in nearby California. It is an album that sounds out of time with what happened around it, as it divulges from the Will Haven school of post-metalcore. It makes for an incredible listening experience and one that is an anomaly in a scene already suffering from an absence of coverage. How it was pulled off so expertly in secret is a mystery, but one that deserves to be heard.
In some regards, the fine Frenchmen that composed the now-defunct Comity were a bit of an outlier. Compared to peers at the time, their brand of post-metalcore was decidedly more math-oriented while simultaneously managing to have a threatening sludge trait. Their career started off much like how Harlots ended theirs — technicality blended into a post-metal framework — but whereas the Ohio outfit lost sight of their original intent of crafting an omnipresent ambiance, Comity kept it near and dear. They did so for over a decade; the group managed to survive the fleeting lifespans encountered by many of their peers, finally performing their final bow in 2019. They had developed a local following in France, yet that recognition never stretched far enough to attract other countries to a visible extent. A true loss to the community, as the Parisian gentlemen were innovators in multiple ways. Primarily, it is critical to identify 2003’s The Deus Ex Machina As A Forgotten Genius as possibly the first long-form metalcore album regardless of specific subgenres, with each of the five original songs all clocking in past the 9-minute line. The LP becomes even greater in the 2004 reissue that tacks on the two-song Andy Warhol Sucks EP. If that wasn’t already impressive, this same unit would go on to create one of the stranger formations in the history of the category.
Comity’s purpose in their debut is not too removed from the Eden Maine approach, as each band decided to prioritize atmosphere more than those before them had tried to. The Paris collective offered a perspective that wasn’t afraid to drag proceedings down to a crawl, using slower tempos to disperse a sludge-infested atmosphere, emphasizing the darkness and the heaviness of the guitars as they trudged along. Doing so made their eventual outbursts all the more frightening; consider how the conclusion of “A Track To Forget What Has Been Forgotten” is incredibly somber and understated, which then is completely eviscerated by the runaway guitar riffing and insane percussion of “Her Own King Theory”. The contrast is marvelously effective, allowing a brooding mood to collapse on demand to throw the audience for a loop. When Comity were functioning at their peak, it was hard to find comparable excitement, with their patience proving a powerful asset in their songwriting toolkit. The group followed up this remarkable intro with … As Everything Is A Tragedy — a release that is as fun as it is puzzling. Subdivided into four halves, the record supplies 99 different songs, the majority of which are only a handful of seconds. A bizarre creative choice like this has no comparison point in the evolving tale of metalcore.
France proved to be ahead of the game, but Italy was not too far behind. While typically not mentioned as a metalcore act, Ephel Duath borrowed from the classification a fair bit as they constructed their special identity: jazz-fused hardcore punk music. Notably composed of a drummer trained in jazz, synthesizer elements, and a guest trumpet player, what these Italians provided to the globe was not a common sound, though Kayo Dot comparisons are often cited. Much like Comity — one could talk about Cult of Luna, Cave In, or Starkweather to paint an accurate enough portrait — Ephel Duath weren’t diminished due to their inspirations. Their works were able to stand strongly enough on their own without needed to rely on the shoulders of giants. Meanwhile, in the United States, Swarm of the Lotus were wielding a weighty gauntlet, using The Sirens of Silence to demonstrate sludgy post-metalcore in a format that decreased song lengths. Sadly, all three, with the exception of Ephel Duath’s cult-esque following per the underground hit The Painter’s Palette, never became big-name players.
Blow for blow, there were few others that were embarking down the zanier avenues of creativity like Comity were. Four years after their introductory work hit shelves, their ingenuity would find a match when Pain Is a Mere Sensation attacked the scene. The group, like Harlots before them, did not survive past the year 2010, and their achievements were only admired by a small, yet dedicated fanbase acquired past their break-up. However, .crrust had managed to morph Comity’s imaginative direction to the next logical level: an album made up of only one song. Long-form post-metalcore would forever meet its match as the Russian crew distributed their magnus opus embodied in a 44-minute odyssey through mathematics, captivating heaviness, and crippling atmosphere. No track changes intervene to save the stray listener. The sound never really stops at any point; .crrust have the their foot on the gas pedal for the entirety of the product, though what they do in that time span shifts. Compared to the ambiance of The Woman You Saw is the Great City, what .crrust accomplished feels as though it was the undisputed successor. Not only would the record prove to be enjoyable, but it would also act as a test of exactly how much distance could post-metalcore cover and, in that distance, to what extent could it push a listener’s toleration.
Though organized entirely as a singular song — the longest of its kind to ever fly under the metalcore label, as far as can be seen — Pain Is a Mere Sensation is internally separated into two distinct halves. The front end of the record wastes not a second on theatrics, instead opting to dive headfirst into Russia’s finest answer to The Dillinger Escape Plan. Buoyed by scattered interludes that promise only fleeting gasps of respite, .crrust uses twenty minutes to unquestionably bludgeon the fortunately unfortunate listener, blinding them with jazzy antics comparable to the performances of the aforementioned statesmen and the adopted stepchild that was Ephel Duath. Proceedings begin to take a turn in the second portion of the album as the Moscow band slinks into a lethargic pace. The metalcore wildness is substituted for something less urgent and more sinister, replacing musicianship with stray guitars, static, electronics, and other scattered noise. Pure ambiance takes the reins of the disc and refuses to let go. At this juncture, the Russians have played their whole hand; further surprises will not be encountered in the odd 20 minutes or so still remaining. The discordant, uncanny ambiance is absolute, drowning the audience in uncertainty while consequently daring them to change artists, their ambient viewpoint teasing any skill of patience.
The “golden age” was immeasurably successful for post-metalcore if only judged by the sheer determination that charged the scene at the time. The category had been forcefully pulled out of any sort of overarching framework by Knut and Comity, each showing how track lengths were never a restriction if an artist aspired for a grander score. Atmosphere and ambiance were no longer a blossoming flirtation; their contributions had become intertwined into the identity of the label thanks to the efforts of collectives like Eden Maine and their successors. If .crrust was evidence enough, post-metalcore seemed to be rushing to break barriers at a startling pace, having grown so much in only about six years. Come the 2010s, though, circumstances changed. The barrier, once so tantalizing close, suddenly became light years away.