Let’s Talk About Proto-Djent
Prog metal is my jam. Downtuned guitars are my jam. Ambient music is my jam. Bouncy riffs? Totally my jam. A variety of intense and pleasant vocal styles within the same track? THAT’S. MY. JAM. Put them all together, what do you get? DJENT… which is absolutely not my jam. But why not?
I have a similar ambivalence toward djenty metal that I do toward Skrillex-style “dubstep”. Both genres are partially defined by non-linear song structures, abrasive sounds, and disjointed rhythms (all of which I dig), but the ubiquitous, bland and predictable breakdowns/drops in each respective genre are cringey enough to keep my interest at a safe distance. Still, even though I don’t care for either style, it makes me pretty happy that any sort of weird, abrasive music is popular and, in the case of dubstep, actually a significant portion of current mainstream musical vocabulary.
Now, I could opine about why I like “chuggita-chuggitas” and “noodly-doodlies” more than “bwow-nows”, but really it’s just a matter of subjective taste. None of you give a fuck about why I like under-ripe bananas or dislike the “Red Delicious” cultivar of apples*, so why would you care what some dingbat who pretends to be a baby on the internet thinks about loud guitar sounds? I’m not gonna try to make you care. Instead, I’m going to assume there must be a few of you put there that share my skeptical admiration of the djent scene, and offer up some bands I consider “proto-djent” that you might actually dig. These are progressive metal bands that either predate or were at ground zero for The Djentening in the mid 2000’s and that, to my taste, are much more compelling than the scene they helped to spawn. As we trace the lineage of metal’s most onomatopoeic genre, let us ponder the following: “why is this shit dank, and why does that other shit stank?”.
Although the elephant in the room can’t be completely ignored, the conversation about Meshuggah and djent has been done to death and I won’t waste your time rehashing it. I will instead take this chance to remind you that Meshuggah’s early material from the 90’s is distinct from what came after because it can be best described as progressive thrash. Midtempo and downtempo songs were an exception, not the rule. The stuttering, stupefyingly heavy riffs of Destroy Erase Improve were crafted in the context that metal is a fast and ferocious genre. This album is always going to sound timeless to me; two decades after its release, the breakdown in Future Breed Machine at 3:42 remains one of the heaviest things I’ve ever heard and probably ever will.
DEVIN TOWNSEND/STRAPPING YOUNG LAD
Yes, this is another well-known artist, and we have covered master Townsend plenty before. For the purposes of this article, I mainly want to point out that Devin Townsend was the first (and only?) artist to reach his level of popularity and cult following by combing industrial grooves with absolutely ripping, downtuned metal shredding. Djent has always had electronic influences surrounding its perimeter, and Devy’s penchant for putting electronic textures over the top of chunky grooves foretold of this future all the way back in 1997 with his first great work Ocean Machine: Biomech. If you only listen to one Strapping Young Lad song in your whole life, though, make it 2006’s Almost Again. It is as emotionally wrenching as it is rhythmically absract, and shows the full range of one of metal’s absolute greatest vocalists who also happens to kinda shred a guitar in half I guess.
As far as my (probably wrong) knowledge goes, Textures were the first metalcore band to take Meshuggah riffs and up the ante both on their jazz-fusion polyrhythms and their spaced-out ambience, all the way back in 2003. Right down to the “Plurals” band name, Textures predicted a lot of tropes in rhythm-focused progressive metal. Sadly, they eventually succumbed to all of the most boring of those tropes after their first release, Polars, which remains among my favorite heavy albums of all time.
What makes Polars special? For one thing, it’s the only “djent” album I know of that has a straight-up thrash metal vocalist, and a fantastic one at that. I want Pieter Verpaalen to sing for basically every band. He has that perfect, classic rasp that’s intense, but not harsh. All other singers Textures have had since him have been competent, featureless placeholders for a shoehorned human vocal precense to coincide with the riffs and noodly-doodlies. Also, like early Meshuggah, early Textures seemed to function foremost as a weird, but most importantly FAST, band. The speedy speedy death metal parts were the emotional crux of the song, whereas later material placed greatest emphasis on lame “pretty” parts and midtempo chugs. (Boo-urns.) Finally, this is the only album where Textures so deeply embraced their ambient influences; a full 18 minutes of the record is dedicated to ambient noise, which is pretty fucking bold for what is otherwise a tech-metal album aimed at pleasing guitar nerds.
I think a lot of modern djent aims for a middle ground in between heavy riffs and poppy melodies. I’m super into heavy/pretty jams (The Atlas Moth, Agalloch, etc.), but for me, Polars stands out among other progressive metal records because of how extreme it is, in all directions. At different points throughout the record it’s extremely fast, extremely pretty, extremely technical, and extremely ambient. It’s captivating and fresh from note to note to note, and oh my word do I wish there was another record like it somewhere in the world.
I’ll be honest, this entire post was basically just an excuse for me to talk about two of my favorite prog bands – Textures and Sikth. Sikth were (are?) a megatechnical band with undeniable metalcore elements, but their obsession was on creating chaos, not obvious groove. Constantly intertwining guitar deedlies overlay one of the most dexterous rhythm sections of the 2000s to create one of the most compositionally dense listening experiences a guitar-based band can offer. I am told this band is a favorite of djent enthusiasts, but whereas I think djent is defined heavily by the space between notes, Sikth are a band with almost no space involved in any of their music. It is a constant, relentless cacophony, AKA THE DOPE SHIT. The exception, much like with Textures, are the occasional quiet tracks they do which are VERY spaced out, even uncomfortably so, as best exemplified by the nightmare vocal sonata Can’t We All Dream.
I guess I lied earlier when I said I wanted Pieter Verpaalen to sing for every band. Sikth wouldn’t be the alarmingly original group they are without the tag-team hyperscat stylings of Mikee Goodman and Justin Hill. I used to just tolerate Mikee’s deranged shrieks in order to hear the sick tech-shred of the instrumentalists it’s, but now it’s the most compelling aspect of the band to me as a listener.** Djent vocalists tend to collectively blend into an indiscernible, bland mess to me, whereas Sikth’s vocals might as well be from another goddamn planet. Oh my word, do these vocals give this band character. See, djent kids, experimentation is good! (Unless you’re Hacktivist. I could have gotten along just fine without djent-rap in my life.)
RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE
But wait, actually… huh.
Well kiddos, what did we learn today? Apparently if you want HessianHunter to like your technical metalcore band, you better bring the weird, play fast, and have a very, very good vocalist or two. Modern djent often comes close to the mark, but misses by being juuuuuust a few hairs shy of my bwow-now tolerance threshold. If you have other suggestions of almost-djent bands you think the Toiletariat needs to snack on, let’s hear about ’em in the comments.
*Ok srsly because fuck that tasteless chalky bullshit THAT’S WHY
**A little off topic, but something I can’t skim over completely: Sikth’s vocals are actually just very, very good nu-metal vocals. Mikee and Justin’s haunting warbles and bizarro screams have much more in common with Jonathan Davis than with James Hetfield or Dio, for instance. This band is FULL of goofy genres’ wasted potentials.