The term “instrumental” seems to throw some people off, so here’s a list of bands you should check out to fix your perception.
If you think of the voice as just another instrument, then the idea of starting an instrumental band doesn’t seem a particularly daunting task – after all, plenty of bands navigate a guitar-less or bass-less existence without sacrificing much in the way of quality. But, think of the poetic capabilities of lyrics and the versatility of a good vocalist and suddenly the task seems almost impossible. How does an artist create albums that not only captivate, but consistently hold a listener’s attention through music alone?
Certain genres seemingly lend themselves to prolonged vocal-less sections, but you could just as easily argue that the application of sparse vocals at specific moments of significance gives said vocals a higher importance than were they utilised more frequently. It takes a remarkably high calibre degree of songwriting ability to craft something moving and affecting through instrumentals alone, but there’s no shortage of artists providing the goods. Despite this, the term “instrumental” seems to throw some people off, so if you’ve been avoiding bands who negate a singer, here’s a list of some you should check out.
Even looking beyond the rich creativity and startling invention of their countless peers, Chicago based three-piece Russian Circles have always stood just that bit taller than the rest. Harnessing the familiar post-metal dynamic troupe of swell and burst, it’s what the trio are able to achieve within this framework that makes them such an endlessly thrilling proposition, meandering fuzz-drenched melees and snatches of baroque folk-rock often giving way to a sonic fire-storm of apocalyptic measures. Indeed, the devastating Neurosis-eque template and muscular percussive thump scattered throughout latest LP Guidance (produced by Converge axe-slinger and mixing board dynamo Kurt Ballou, so you know it’s good) suggest a metallic know-how worthy of the genre’s best, and between the seismic crescendos and shimmering fragility, the band’s entire catalogue delivers a sustained barrage of jaw-dropping moments.
Ddent, the brainchild of French multi-instrumentalist Louis Lambert, craft vivid soundscapes that are as crushingly heavy as they are poignant. Last year’s آكتئاب transcended the post-metal genre to provide an utterly unique listening experience shaped by snail-paced riffs and mesmerising atmospherics, but second album Toro, released last month, proves even more ambitious. Spearheaded by colossal, sprawling masterpieces full of mournful tones and psychedelic grandeur, the album boasts elegant melodies and hefty guitar-work, both of which illuminate the inherently captivating nature of the music. Though it’s instantly loveable for its dense atmospheres and enchanting musicality, Toro grows increasingly rewarding with each listen, consistently enthralling enough to make you forget – or, more accurately, not notice to begin with – the absence of vocals.
Though genres like country and folk would begin to creep into their more recent, post-hiatus output, America’s Earth are still considered a major inspiration on many of today’s more ambient-focused metal acts. Despite affiliations with the grunge scene – if only for founder Dylan Carlson’s friendship with Kurt Cobain – the band had loftier ambitions. Their debut full-length, Earth 2, surpassed 70 minutes but held just three tracks, but said ambition undoubtedly paid off, as the band would go on to be considered drone metal pioneers. With the adept use of distortion, drone, minimalism and monotonous repetition, they found a style so captivating that vocals would most likely be an unwelcome appendage.
Making a doom band that’s interesting in this day and age is a hard task. Creating an instrumental doom outfit that’s interesting is a whole different ballpark. Bongripper however, have made it into an art form. Formed within the green-tinged depths of the emerald city back in 2006, Bongripper have been creating some of the most punishing stoner/doom/sludge metal out of the entire genre. Ranging from the seventy-nine-minute opus that was their debut, The Great Barrier Reefer, to devastating multitrack albums like the aptly titled Satan Worshipping Doom, Bongripper have forged a legacy across six genre-defining albums and a handful of splits and EPs. As we approach their seventh album Terminal, due this July, it’s hard not to appreciate what an important band Bongripper are to their genre.
Masterminded by prog-metal pioneer and six-string deity Ron Jarzombek (Watchtower, Spastic Ink), the quite frankly ridiculous instrumental pedigree of power-trio Blotted Science would be enough to impress even the most hardened tech-sceptic. Rounded out by Cannibal Corpse bassist extraordinaire Alex Webster and Charlie Zeleny (Behold… The Archtopus) behind the kit, the band’s debut full length The Machinations of Dementia fuses Jarzombek’s signature oddball approach with flat-out extreme metal savagery, spilling over with a warped sense of rhythmic deformity and perverted riffage. Follow up EP, The Animation of Entomology (2011), was the last we heard from the band (another brain twistingly berserk display of finger-blurred ability and mutant complexity), yet the fact remains that few before or since have been able to wordlessly elicit extreme metal’s grisly spirit with such virtuoso brutality. Just a cursory listen to Blotted Science, and today’s tech-obsessed new breed will be fleeing back to the woodshed.
Rome-bred outfit Lento have been chugging out albums at a steady pace for a decade now, but latest album Fourth proves their most accomplished. Often garnering comparisons with Ufomammut – if only for their shared homeland and proclivity for doom – the band’s sound has more in common with American outfit Earth, though with heftier portions of out-and-out sludge. The five-piece’s rolling slabs of metallic riffs are segued by more solemn moments, and the band continuously keep things fresh through masterfully executed experimentation. The alterations in style and speed are almost alarmingly stark, but Lento pull them off with class, making an abrupt shift from muscular riffage to intricate minimalism seem natural and effortless. By the end, you’ll be wondering why anyone values vocals so highly.
Although most instrumental projects are defined either by their cross-pollinating ambition or hyper-technical showboating, there are some still gleefully flying the flag for Sabbath‘s immortal, riff-driven ethos. And Pelican do it better than most. Emerging from Des Plaines, Illinois at the turn of the millennium, the quartet’s nearly two-decade career has been a slow shifting of gears. The glacial explorations and lumbering menace of debut full-length Australasia morphed into 2005’s multilayered monolith The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw, before a line-up change and brief hiatus saw the band return with a rejuvenating dollop of thunderously succinct riff worship, the spirit of Iommi’s visionary turbo blues looming large. Striking a fine balance between progressive sprawl and hard rocking simplicity, Pelican are by turns as artful and expansive as any in the post-rock game, yet arguably reach the apex of their power when locked into a stormy, groove-led riff-orama.
Year Of No Light
Forming in 2001, Bordeaux natives Year Of No Light have made a habit of making grand, epic statements. Whilst early work incorporated the use of vocals to varying degrees, it was not until 2010’s Ausserwelt that the sextet truly established their signature brand of hypnotic opulence, with the departure of Julien Perez (vocalist/keyboards) ushering in a voiceless new era and a focus on the sort of quasi-melodic surging that easily contends with the post-rock alumni. Indeed, built on a foundation of swelling crescendos and acute melancholy, Year Of No Light manage to pull off the rather neat trick of being both thoroughly despondent and overwhelmingly beautiful, with shimmering walls of guitar inching forward at almost funeral doom pace before snatches of pitiless black metal hell-blasting and thudding rhythmic blows pierce the refined gloom. It is thoroughly exhausting stuff, yet with an uncanny knack for welding thunderous power to expansive elegance. Once we are fully immersed, the rewards are obvious.
Karma To Burn
Have you ever been listening to the latest Orange Goblin wannabes only to have a kick-ass riff interrupted by some pesky vocals? Then Karma To Burn are the band for you. The appeal of these West Virginians is pretty rudimentary, but when you consider that the band has carved such an accessible sound out of a mostly instrumental style then you start to realise how impressive their stoner rock riff-fests are. Indeed, K2B were initially so committed to their vocal-less style that they sacked the vocalist that Roadrunner Records forced them to hire after their debut album, resulting in being dropped from the label. Subsequent albums, 1999’s Wild Wonderful Purgatory and 2001’s Almost Heathen, revelled in their instrumental nature, diving from one riff to the next in thrilling fashion. The band has flirted with vocals since, even adopting a naming system to differentiate tracks with vocals from the instrumental numbers – the former being named with words (‘The Cynics’, ‘Waiting On The Western World’) whilst the latter are named with numbers (‘Fifty-Seven’, ‘Twenty’).
Swapping vocals for Tibetan bowls and cymbals, African small bells played with goat nails and an array of old synthesizers and electric organs, Parisian duo WuW blend doom, avant-garde post-metal, krautrock, and space rock to create some of the most unique soundscapes ever put on record. The brothers behind the music may be best known (at least in the metal world) for their time with stoner rockers Abrahma, but their time in jazz ensembles, classical orchestras and world-music troupes also inform their sprawling but often minimalist compositions. Debut album Rien Ne Nous Sera Épargné dropped in late March of this year, and is a must for anyone looking for something unique to get lost in. Critics have been describing music as a “journey” or “voyage” for so long that it’s easy to misuse the terms on lesser bands, but WuW are a rare case in which they’re apposite.
Inhabiting a strange musical world that will leave just as many beaming as terminally perplexed, Dysrhythmia‘s unhinged explorations and dork-friendly tech is certain to divide music fans into two distinct camps; untrained ears shrinking in terror, and those who appreciate the art of veteran fret-manglers pushing the edge of their sonic curiosity. With as much in common with jazz-fusion icon Allan Holdsworth as the freewheeling death metal madness of Gorguts, there is a descent-into-hell intensity to what Dysrhythmia do, as touches of avant-garde and prog rock collide in an explosion of instrumental colour, the band constantly shifting ideas yet never resorting to dead-eyed technical showboating. Having said that, this trio still know how to shatter a jaw or two, with some fearsome metallic heft and mind-bending percussive violence providing just enough of that flagrantly brutal extreme metal head rush we all crave.
Starting your career by releasing an album as devastatingly affecting as The Burden Of Hope does set a bit of precedent; luckily Portland-based genre-benders Grails have stayed on their special path for each and every subsequent record. The band formerly known as Laurel Canyon have delivered the serious goods from follow-up Redlight through Black Tar Prophecies all the way to their recent Chalice Hymnal, and while you won’t be buried in a blasting avalanche of cone-shattering bass or towering riffs, tracks like ‘Silk Road’ and ‘Space Prophet Dogon’ could inform the best late-night drive of your life. It doesn’t hurt that drummer Emil Amos has his own excellent band, Holy Sons; oh, and he’s the drummer on Om’s Advaitic Songs, remaining with them as they plough on through the cosmos. Refusing to be tied down to a singular approach, Grails are the best band you’ve never heard.
5ive/The Theory Of Abstract Light
A double showing here because of the shared membership of these two entities. Ben Carr and Charlie Harrold’s drone/noise/riff/whatever duo 5ive were once sued by the dross boy band Five, urging them to become 5ive’s Continuum Research Project for one release. Commencing with a self-titled record in 2001 and following it the same year with the superb The Telestic Disfracture, 5ive have worked with Justin Broadrick of Godflesh/Jesu and Jeff Caxide of Isis, releasing the fabulous full-length Hesperus, taking a wild swing at Pink Floyd’s Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun along the way. Carr recorded solo as The Theory Of Abstract Light, whose self-titled EP is a dream-state piece of crumbling brilliance. He currently plays with Larry Herweg from Pelican in INTRCPTR, so if you dig anyone mentioned here, go and check them out.
Off-centre French three-piece with no vocals but a lot of riffs, Baron Crâne put out their first release, EP-1, in 2015, with the follow-up Electric Shades seeing light in late 2016. Powered along by a seemingly boundless determination to give time the shaft, tracks like ‘Captain Peacock’, ‘Tear Gas’ and ‘After The Bombs’ read the polyrhythmic activities of The Physics House Band as a proposition for diving headlong into dirty, corkscrewing riffs and smile-choked adventure, with plenty of convoluted fretboard behaviour to go round. With the likes of Karma To Burn roaming around, it’s tough being a riff-centric band without falling into the colloquialisms to which that approach can steer you, but the Baron have their own thing going on, with a pretty major bass sound to cap it off.
Naturally Australian given their Japanese name, Art As Catharsis signees Kurushimi are a misleading entity, giving the listener the impression that they might be safe when they aren’t. Vocal-free but with plenty of sax and violence, Kurushimi’s self-titled record rides an uneasy half-metal, half-corrupted-flesh animal, keeping the tension of one camp and the (relative) smoothness of the other going at the same time. This makes for a right old listen, and the band themselves certainly thought so, coming back to their original self-titled 2016 release to “re-imagine” the track ‘Kimon’ on Return 1: Kimon. “Re-imagine” appears to mean “mangle and stretch out to weird lengths with little of the source material remaining”, and indeed on Shototsu certain tracks – ‘Gambler’s Death-Shuffle’, for instance – do away with the idea of melody or structure entirely. They reference Morbid Angel and Bohren & Der Club Of Gore as influences, which probably tells you more than this paragraph did.
The Physics House Band
Any band that calls their first single ‘Abraxical Solapse’ deserve a courtesy listen at the very least. With a graciously technical bent and some volatile drumming, The Physics House Band blew minds all over when they released Horizons/Rapture, and since then the Brighton bewilderers have gone on to release Mercury Fountain, which is an absolute must for fans of bands like Tricot, The Dismemberment Plan, Suffer Like G Did and Zu. A standard guitar/bass/drums fare takes on quite the extra dimension as two string players play synths and keys additionally, giving the band a whole other layer, and if you could imagine Crack The Skye-era Mastodon as a softly-spoken jazz trio you wouldn’t be miles away. They’re gigging extensively so keep your eyes peeled for some wordless, breathless synth/prog action.
If you enjoyed this, check out our feature on transcendent innovation in black metal.
Words: George Parr, Tony Bliss, John Tron Davidson and Dan Hallam