The Little Engine That Could
A four-part series by MarsKid
Part III: Death of a Genre?
What exactly causes a genre of music to ‘die’? The concept is used commonly, yet the specific definition shifts depending on who utters it. For some observers, a category experiencing a demise means that it has lost any and all creativity. Others contend it occurs when, as far as mainstream coverage is concerned, the genre appears to lose whatever relevance it had. In an extreme case, there may be so few named players in a scene that it might as well be declared obsolete. If anything, I find that the latter explanation seems most appropriate. First, the concept often supplied of ‘lacking imagination’ is less of a “genre is dead” scenario and more of a case of stagnation. Groups still exist in the classification — perhaps even in high amounts — but none of them are diverging from the classics that led to their emergence. Secondly, the mainstream is a poor judge of measuring viability, since the underground will never receive the same press coverage. Thus, a scene where the big-league bands are struggling can give a false illustration, because what happens under their domineering popularity might be compelling. The nadirs of metalcore may not have been at the productivity witnessed years prior, but it was still pumping out memorable releases. Where and how did “metalcore is dead” come about?
If Warped Tour was to be an indicator, the esteem metalcore accrued during its rapid ascendancy had neared an apex of importance. Killswitch Engage, All That Remains, Atreyu, Asking Alexandria, and heaps of others had been peddling a sound that snagged a chunk of mainstream attention. Australian heavyweights Parkway Drive were becoming leaders of the scene. These weren’t random phenomena as well; these were groups that were landing in the Billboard Top 200. Not only were they popular, but they were selling; fans were arriving in droves and were purchasing what they were hearing. Another revolution arrived from what was to be dubbed the “prog-core” scene, which merged progressive metal characteristics of the time period with a metalcore foundation. Dynamic vocalists and catchy instrumentation made this splinter scene a hit, with ERRA and Northlane, among many contemporaries, establishing a novel market for a category quickly earning attention from critics and music appreciators. Talking to a prog-core fan paints a much different picture. After all, Discoveries and Augment — large sections of the prog-core Bible, as it were — were produced in 2011 and 2013, respectively. Metalcore clearly wasn’t ‘dead’ regardless of my definition or any other descriptor. So, if a death didn’t happen, what did?
The answer might be rather simple: the scene had split and disagreed over changes. Purists were dismayed as bands came and went, much like how the transition from the ’90s to the 2000s ended some careers and spawned others. Another significant series of changes were underway, but in a manner different from the”golden age,” as fans were not nearly as satisfied with the results. Classical styles had become more of a fixture of the underground, rarely seen in the spotlight, while a newfound mainstream aesthetic controlled headlines. Losing so many artists inevitably left a portion of the metalcore fanbase disenfranchised; not many of them held an interest in where the future seemed to be heading, and their personal interests were no longer being catered to. It could be that, when faced with groups such as The Devil Wears Prada, the old-school sound wasn’t as commercially viable — overbearing technicality and heaviness were not easy sells to the market at large when performed with profound complexity. Converge and The Dillinger Escape Plan are exceptions, not the rule. Regardless, whether metalcore ‘died’ or not is up to speculation, and most claims focused upon it are frequently contradicted.
Immunity wasn’t a gift enjoyed by the post-metalcore crowd. Of the bands discussed throughout this exercise, nearly all have gone defunct. Knut are, at the very least, inactive, their status unknown. Breach are long gone; ditto for Keelhaul. Eden Maine, Harlots, and .crrust were over before the decade switched. Ephel Duath never recaptured the peculiarities of The Painter’s Palette and quietly dispersed in 2014. Comity caved in last year despite valiantly fighting to the end. Of the surviving cast, Will Haven’s latest material has left much to be desired — the set seemingly desires to recapture glory days that are far off in the rearview mirror — and Today Is the Day appear low on ideas. Everything continued to forge onward as if ignoring the massive plague that wiped off the post-metalcore professionals; the 2010s would tack on to the initial decade innovative additions to the catalogue. Some of these pushes would prove to pale in comparison to forerunners, while others would amalgamate all available resources to advance the sound to another peak. The only downside was that, once more, this was an underground operation, not quite attaining the spotlight yet. A valiant German trio, however, would begin to chip away at that barrier that for years had blocked post-metalcore from the mainstream. There were some other assemblages before then that desired to claim the elusive throne.
Hailing from California, this San Francisco trio — apparently there were a plethora of three-piece outfits coming out to play — hit the ground running by engaging themselves in an ambitious project: a debut record stocked with thirteen individual tracks and spanning across a duration totaling nearly an hour and 20 minutes long. Streaming had not yet become the beast it would soon emblemize, but the art of making an elongated product transcended generational boundaries; it was always a difficult endeavor to ask a significant amount of time for an audience, let alone as a first attempt. Included in the progressive innards of Internet Killed the Audio Star is a four-part suite and a 10-minute epic, among several other longer songs. The sludge intensity of prior U.S. acts such as Swarm of the Lotus reared its ugly head, colliding with the technicality and post-metal dichotomy of Comity to form an album that bends the fabric of tunes liberally while keeping proceedings as heavy as possible. Jazzy bass licks and winding, melodic riffs are invited to the party, though the group is quick to dismiss these motifs for something more mathematical or something that necessitates a slower pace. New to the game as they were, Name were demonstrating a level of songwriting not often witnessed from a starting effort.
Name have few bells and whistles attached to their output. For the vast majority of their initial adventure, the bass, guitars, and drums are the sole absolutes. What the trio is capable of accomplishing with such a limited toolset is highly impressive, bounding from sludgy soundscapes to mathcore chaos as if having practiced for decades. A number like “Dave Mustaine” is a pure exhibition of Name’s creativity in action, with the conclusion of the entry being especially memorable. After an onslaught of pandemonic instrumentation, a groovy, poppy section supported by a polished synth takes over the proceedings, throwing in a true surprise that meshes well with the unpredictability of the song. The Cali crew flex their muscle on the aforementioned centerpiece “The Sycophant, The Saint & The Gamefox”, which populates its rather expansive 10-minute existence with a patient methodology intent on submerging a listener into shadowy depths. There’s also the instrumental foray “You’ll Never Die In This Town Again”, delicate strumming developing a calm atmosphere, introducing a rare moment of rest in the nearly inflexible bedlam of the preceding record.
Stacked up to peers, Name weren’t rewriting the script. What mattered most was that they had incredible spirit early on in their career, representing that post-metalcore could foster a young roster to replace any of the fallen older acts. That which had been achieved previously on The Deus Ex Machina As A Forgotten Genius had the power to endure and become an inspiration, motivating newer collectives to trace the footsteps. A comparative lack of mood hampers Name to an extent, but what they stood for remains important. And, by the end of the day, they released a massive album that never resulted in a sensation of boredom. This passion could be discovered a year later when Dionaea’s Still came upon the scene. Their output trended towards progressive metal, grind, and post-rock, but their inventive perspective would fuse in elements of mathcore and post-metalcore trademarks. These portions of suffocating grind-influenced metalcore would return in the works of Frontierer and Sectioned. Critically, Dionaea would diverge from the morose atmosphere oft attributed to -core; Still, though vicious at times, possessed a peaceful tone to its wandering post-rock environments. Their short-lived popularity and eventual disbanding left a lingering, astonishing impression: post-metalcore could be pretty.
Amia Venera Landscape
Seemingly from nowhere, extreme music was conquered overnight by an unlikely source that performed equally shocking music. Their production quality was leagues above the value often delivered by underground acts. Songs were written with multiple instrumental layers that were constantly in motion, continuously evolving, exhibiting a ‘big-band’ approach that utilized three guitar credits while still striving to include a bass. These individual parts, held together by a masterful percussion performance, were able to morph from startling complexity to polished timbres without complication. Paired with passionate clean vocals and bellowing harsh vocals, the songwriting and general composition of Amia Venera Landscape were uncannily ahead of the competition in every regard. It was as if the route post-metalcore was taking had suddenly jumped forward several years to reach an apex prematurely, bypassing peers to snatch the crown before anyone noticed. In typical post-metalcore fashion, none were the wiser in the broader scene, but the underground found itself in the territory of Amia Venera Landscape’s empire. The intrepid Italian assemblage were letting anyone that cared to listen understand that they were in charge now.
Upon hearing The Long Procession, its appeal to the scene, as well as the crossover approval it garnered from post-metal circles, is obvious: it is arguably the most complete album that could be considered as post-metalcore. This objective would conceivably be reached long into the existence of a category, but Amia Venera Landscape leapfrogged having to establish themselves and overwhelmed audiences on their debut effort. The technicality brought to the table seemingly ages ago by Keelhaul received an unbelievable makeover. Opening number “Empire” is as visceral as -core can be, wasting no time with introductions, instead barreling straight into an unending swarm of serpentine riffs, energetic percussion, and volatile swings. On the very same disc there is “Ascending”, where guitars do not dare roam. Instead, a melancholic piano and ambient noise occupy the environment, erecting a gigantic space with few variables at their disposal; the sound crafted by their cooperation feels as though it constructs an infinite expanse, slowly traversing through a somber countryside with not another soul in sight. Atmosphere is what links every entry, connecting them under a vast umbrella that portrays human pain in all its forms.
Flowing gracefully between intricate metalcore rockers and atmospheric pieces, the record flourishes in a mix that highlights the contributions all members bring to the proceedings. The prototype envisioned by Eden Maine is perfected here; no awkwardness or predictability is discovered. Themes of loss, hatred, and regret obtain appropriate tones, tying the emotions of the lyricism to instrumental motifs that create a lush portrait. Melodies dance about the runtime of “A New Aurora”, while subsequent “My Hands Will Burn First” distributes hardcore strength that focuses intently upon substantial weight, culminating in possibly the most intimidating breakdown put to an LP of any musical persuasion. Whether or not Amia Venera Landscape ever return to answer to this indisputable classic is unnecessary; their legacy is robust enough. The fervor surrounding the record when it hit the underground and the gift of hindsight have favored The Long Procession, correctly heralding it as the magnum opus it always was. Ushering in a new era of post-metalcore and simultaneously setting an apparently impossible top to pass is more than any band could ask for.
Occupying the opposite end of the spectrum of beauty were a quintet that cared not for dressing up their tunes. Emerging from Syracuse, New York’s Bleak ensured that the noisiness Today Is the Day instilled so many years ago endured as an important feature of metalcore. The labyrinthine contents of We Deserve Our Failures is as violent and menacing as its dismal title appears, imbuing their music with the frightening power of KEN mode injected into a metalcore construction, stacking weighty sludge chambers on top of more intricate displays. Sludge is the order of the day, however, and this genre reigns supreme over the threatening sound the collective emits. All things ‘pretty’ are smothered by the infinite abyss opened up as towering guitar riffs, buttressed by the distinctive crunch of the bass, plunge the listener deep into fathoms unknown. Every cymbal clash and every drum hit are a resounding explosion as the band continues to guide through the murky depths of being. Not since Harlots introduced Betrayer did post-metalcore sound this crushing, this mean to its audience. Extraordinarily, such a profound sensation developed not from a titanic duration, but a rather brief half-hour trot through madness itself.
While describing Bleak as opposed to post-metalcore’s new infatuation with softer sonic settings paints them as a misfit, such is not necessarily the case. Name weren’t exactly gorgeous, yet Bleak and their Californian counterparts both occupied a space in the scene. Whereas Name continued a progressive interpretation of the genre, Bleak rekindled the unadulterated sludge practiced in the past, setting their sights on making an atmosphere that relied almost entirely on damning their audience to hellish heaviness. Some of the more chaotic metalcore albums of the category’s history pause for a breath — but not Bleak. Once the play button is pressed for We Deserve Our Failures, the unforgiving hatred and the unremitting despair are forever in the foreground. On occasion, the Syracuse gang accelerates, dazzling with complex, grind-esque guitars that harken to the You Fail Me stage of Converge. The artists are more than likely to set a steady slow tempo that drags riffs to a trudging pace. Static erupts as the dual-guitar assault merges with the bass to craft a wall of sound whose might deserves respect. It is not heaviness simply for the sake of it; Bleak knew how to write a damn fine series of songs. Their high watermark came in the concluding “Eternal Silent Darkness” — a ten-minute monstrosity that is one of post-metalcore’s best tracks. It would take another three years before anyone dared venture further into the shadows than what was displayed here.
The Hirsch Effekt
The career trajectory of this intrepid three-piece is anything but predictable. While The Hirsch Effekt‘s beginnings were rooted into the post-hardcore scene, everything would change upon playing a fateful few shows supporting The Dillinger Escape Plan. These Hanover gentlemen were no strangers to the realm of chaotic instrumentation — debut record Holon: Hiberno relished in surprising twists, barraging the listener with multiple musical motifs. Yet it wasn’t until the U.S. introduced them to their own brand of insanity that the Germans decided to integrate metalcore into their sound, separating themselves from post-hardcore and transforming themselves into a core-hybrid of sorts. Considering how the collective never settled in their sound, having made drastic changes already when transitioning to Holon: Anamnesis, making a further alteration was par for the course. Enter Holon: Agnosie, the last of the Holon series and a record that arguably captured the progressive imagination of the group the best. Categorizing this particular album as just metalcore or post-hardcore does it a disservice. As an entire experience, the label of post-metalcore itself may not cover all the bases for the jazzy, classical-imbued, ambient, alternative rock, poppy masterpiece the trio weaved together. As a whole, should any box be able to contain a crew that does everything in their power to avoid being boxed, post-metalcore does the trick.
Dillinger tribute album this was not. The Hirsch Effekt make their newfound inspiration abundantly clear on proper opening number “Jayus” — the manic energy discovered inside of it is a love letter — but the following LP is far from an imitation. Post-hardcore, once the bedrock of the German’s output, took somewhat of a backseat to allow mathy guitarwork to flourish. A pristine production highlighted the core dynamic of the outfit immaculately, lovingly blasting the jazzy bass grooves while punctuating the intense percussion. The cooperation between each member, now having played together since 2009, was at a peak, the winding riffs playing off of the thumping bass as the drumming kept the pulse of each individual track. There are many areas that could be considered the crown jewel, be it the somber ambiance and delicate piano of “Tombeau” or the slow buildup of “Cotard”, its conclusion beautifully returning the audience to the album’s humble start in the horn-infused “Simurgh”. A cut above the rest is “Bezoar”, which remains among the greatest songs the band have dreamt up. Lively vocals, addicting riffs — if that central, jangly, razor-edged guitar doesn’t get stuck in your head I don’t know what will — and a charismatic bass performance lead the charge. The group runs into a flamenco-esque interlude with shakers, and the finale has the refrain dissolve into classical string contributions repeating its instrumental backing. It has it all: atmosphere, emotion, technicality, precision, and cohesion; the band move from piece to piece without ever feeling forced, naturally progressing their sound. Agnosie is full of these wonders, but “Bezoar” rests on a pedestal.
Of the many fascinating aspects of the disc, none are more compelling than the fact that it was popular. The Dillinger Escape Plan did more than just provide a new set of influences for the band to draw from; an international audience had now been introduced to an unconventional act that played their hearts out, matching the zaniness of a legendary name brand known for being as crazy on stage as possible. Already having cultivated a healthy fanbase in their own country, earning respect in the local scene, the group began to turn heads on a global scale. It was a slow start, but it was one that allowed subsequent LP Eskapist to receive noteworthy praise. Though The Hirsch Effekt had changed again — to the surprise of no one — their work on Holon: Agnosie was undeniably stellar. Their blissful atmosphere, unhinged creativity, and relentless assault made for a complete package demanding of more attention. It also did what no other post-metalcore band had done before: it got a bigger audience to hear it. There were plenty of choruses to find marched out alongside tracks that were like Germany’s answer to The Dismemberment Plan — “Fixum” is a dead ringer. It was accessible while also possessing plenty of features that made it seem less palatable on paper. Bridging that gap is certainly a feat that should always be in discussion.
For once, it seemed, post-metalcore may have a future in the limelight. That said, no one really knew the height such an obscure movement was preparing to reach.