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As with the recent indie hip-hop list, the first thing we need to do is define what post-metal even is.

As with most sub-genres of music, by the time people started accepting post-metal as a thing, time was running out for it. Music is often most interesting when you’re left wondering what the hell it is even supposed to be.

If you ask the average underground metal head, they’ll tell you that post-metal is the stuff that sounds like Neurosis or Isis (the latter beating Anthrax into a cocked hat for the title of Band Most Ruined By Unrelated Terrorists, even if the rock group was rather long gone by the time Mosul fell). But then, the best Neurosis albums don’t sound anything like the best offerings from Isis. And where do you draw the line between post-metal and doom, or modern black metal, or even prog?

The truth is post-metal takes in all of these elements without being entirely any one of them. So we’ll be featuring nothing totally proggy, like Ayreon; nor pure doom, like Electric Wizard; nor your modern black metal fellows like Leviathan, Wolves in the Throne Room, or Velvet Cacoon, though their peaks certainly coincided with post-metal. We’re also starting the list in the 90s, so while Gore, early Swans and Godflesh and even Last Exit and Glenn Branca may be deserving, they won’t be on this particular list.

Around the time grime was evolving from garage – in the simplest terms – so too was post-metal emerging from noisecore. Noisecore was the culmination of the fast-and-complex style of thrash and metallic hardcore. Between 1997 and 2000, bands like Botch, Kiss It Goodbye, Dillinger Escape Plan and Coalesce were twisting hardcore and metal into increasingly technical shapes, blurring the brutality with jazz, pop and, well, Gregorian chants. Eventually, the time passed for noisecore, and those young intellectuals decided to slow it down, growing oddly tender at times.

Once the material Relapse and Hydra Head were releasing started getting slower, more bass-heavy and abstract, the name post-metal came about: This is most likely due to the fact that post-rock, by that stage, inhabited a similar area, thanks to the likes of Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Lift To Experience loudening up what was once the domain of Tortoise, Labradford and Ui. No sooner is a movement given a name, than people then have to look back to investigate what may have caused this. As a result, you end up looking at 90s metal-that-isn’t-metal, like Helmet, Rollins Band, Swans or Fugazi.

Some of the aforementioned will be on this list. Some won’t. Some attempts at justification will be made for a band or album’s inclusion. The only guarantee is there will be some very long songs.

Listen to the list’s highlights now on YouTube, Rdio and Spotify.

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40. Sólstafir
(Season of Mist, 2014)

A recent album for this list, Sólstafir impressed a lot of listeners with Ótta, their fifth record. While it looks from the cover like it’s going to be some incredibly bleak depressive black metal (pretty sure that’s a legit sub-genre), possibly with an Ingmar Bergman tie-in, the music on this one is surprisingly light. Not light in that it’s positive or pleasant, just not as abrasive as you might imagine.

Vocalist Aðalbjörn Tryggvason sings in Icelandic, and this brings to ears untrained in the tongue comparisons with compatriots Sigur Rós. The fact that some of the music sounds rather like those Hopelandic sleepwalkers doesn’t hurt either. But elsewhere, this is an interestingly Viking-like take on folk, rock and the joy of repetition.

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39. Inter Arma
Sky Burial
(Relapse, 2013)

This is what happens when post-metal evolves. With a modernised take on classic rock prevailing at the moment (Torche, Mastodon, Baroness, et al.), it stands to reason that a band ostensibly plying their trade in post-metal would assimilate elements of that. Especially so when that band hails from Richmond, Virginia, home of Lamb of God and Alabama Thunderpussy (okay, and more subtle bands such as Labradford and Gregor Samsa).

As their geography implies, this is a very hard rock take on the genre. You still get the songs hovering around the 10-minute mark, and the cloud-like riffs. But it’s all performed in a traditional rock way, like Sabbath or Mountain played through a prism of Pelican, with country elements and space rock segments thrown in. It’s a bit macho, as you might expect from modern Relapse, but it’s a clever (though not too clever) take on both post-metal and classic rock.

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38. Palms
(Ipecac, 2013)

Possibly the logical conclusion of post metal. As the trend waned and tapered off, the slowness replaced by the speed of the thrash/crust revival (Black Breath, Saviours, Xibalba, The Secret), it makes sense that the shining embers of the ‘nice metal’ scene would throw up a curiosity such as this.

Formed by Isis members Jeff Caxide and Aaron Harris with Deftones frontman and nu-metal Morrissey himself, Chino Moreno, Palms is an exercise in pushing that Isis/Tool school of crystal clear, melodic and spacious metal into poppier spaces. The vocals are of course the big shift from Aaron Turner’s roar, but there is clearly some Tool worship going on, even if it isn’t quite pulled off. As with the Pelicans and Russian Circles of this world, how much you love this is will largely depend on how much malice you need in your metal.

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37. Russian Circles
(Sargent House, 2011)

One of the mainstays of the post-metal scene, Russian Circles are a Chicago band apparently formed by members of defunct band Dakota/Dakota, one of whom was the bass player. I thought Brian Cook had always played bass for them. Cook was in noisecore legends Botch as a young lad, and after their demise helped form the scintillating noise-rock supremos These Arms Are Snakes, also now firmly shuffled off this mortal coil.

Russian Circles are supposedly named for some ice hockey drill rather than anything arcane to do with the mysterious behaviour of the former Soviet Union. Empros is their fourth album, and by this point they were pretty damn sophisticated in their musical arrangements. The production is smooth, allowing the dynamics to flow, and bringing in some interesting keyboard textures. Take ‘Schiphol’. The quiet bits are neatly arranged, and the band manages the crescendo well, but it feels a bit too thought-out, which is a big risk when you’re dealing with post-metal. The trick is to balance the intellect and ambition with a fire. Make the heavy bits really intense. I’ve never had that feeling from Russian Circles, and it is for that reason that they are a fitting example of the movement: they feature both the good and the ill.

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36. Cult of Luna
The Beyond
(Earache, 2003)

While it could be argued that a lot of post-metal is pretty wet and anonymous (a lot of it is), and lacking that malice that has defined metal since that diabolus in musica opened the first Black Sabbath album in 1970, such an accusation would be scoffed at by Cult of Luna. A rampaging sextet from the wilds of Sweden (specifically Umeå), they take the repetitive riffery and large instrumental sections of post-metal and, well, make it really Scandinavian.

If the bands from the Pacific Northwest bring the rain and gloom, linking in with their grunge brethren, Cult of Luna look to the likes of Entombed, Carnage and especially the industrial-trudge-with-a-sharp-leading-edge of Misery Loves Co. While not as dynamic as a lot of post-metal, The Beyond is a tribute to tribal metal, albeit through a dark sci-fi filter with percussion coming from walls of solid guitar, though there are glimpses of light and shade on the last couple of epics on the album.

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35. Pelican
(Hydra Head, 2003)

Pelican have always been divisive. At the time Australasia was released, so many metal and rock dudes were blown away by this. It really was a breath of fresh air in 2003. We’d just had Isis’s Oceanic bringing the smoothness and minimalism; quiet bits without the ominous feeling usually accompanying quiet bits in metal.

But Australasia was a step further – the production was warm and thick. The bellowing vocals that even Isis had were absent, as were any vocals. This was actually pleasant metal. And, as vocals have traditionally been a barrier for many to get into metal, this was deemed “metal for people who don’t like metal”; both plaudit and pejorative.

Aside from being nice-metal scapegoats, and one of the more boring bands I’ve seen live, Australasia is a really solid record. And while it may not be the eye opener it was 12 years ago, it gets respect for being a big album of the scene.

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34. Mindrot
(Relapse, 1998)

These are some real OGs of post-metal. Releasing albums on Relapse Records in those glory days of Neurosis, Soilent Green, Brutal Truth and Today Is The Day, Mindrot got rather lost in the mix. It’s a shame, as this album – their second and last – is a fascinating curio.

There is something weirdly intriguing about really dark bands from sunny places. Neurosis were from California’s Bay Area (as was most elite thrash metal in the 1980s), but Mindrot went one step further, bringing the darkness to Orange County, home of suburban comfort and pop-punk.

The music on this album is largely slow, heavy and quiet-loud – the slow-burning ‘Incandescence’ is a marvellously woe-drenched centrepiece. They were clearly fellows with Neurosis, but as they’re of similar age they probably weren’t just aping them; on a tune like ‘Nothing’ there are even nu-metal elements. But back in 1998 even Slayer were hitching a ride on that gravy train. It’s just a shame the band apparently split up because the drummer was too busy with ska-pop band Save Ferris.

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33. A Storm of Light
Forgive Us Our Trespasses
(Neurot, 2009)

ASOL are some crafty veterans of noise rock and post-metal. With various members having had stints in Swans, Unsane (Vinnie Signorelli drummed for both) and Neurosis (main man Josh Graham), it’s safe to say this crew know how to make some ugly, intense sounds. Where these differ from those other bands is that, while those three revel in muck and mire, dragging the listener into it, ASOL is clear and crisp.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses is actually a pretty catchy record, with vocals reminiscent of John Bush, the better Anthrax singer. The mix is really high-end for clarity and space, as if this was an attempt at the metal mainstream. That may be gradually working, as the band have gone from Neurot to Southern Lord via Profound Lore, and the reviews are growing increasingly positive.

In fact, latest album Nations to Flames (2013) may be marginally better than this one, but it’s not really a stylistic fit for this list, sounding more like an industrial-tinged Megadeth. Forgive Us Our Trespasses is a fine example of modern post-metal, retaining the core elements of the music while updating the performance and delivery.

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32. Isis
(Hydra Head, 2000)

With a new decade came a new sound for underground metal. Aaron Turner, boss of Hydra Head records, and the man who signed and released so much fine noisecore, was turning his hand to slower music. Noisecore, by its very nature a combustible and thrilling subgenre, was imploding, with bands like Coalesce and Botch breaking up and Converge seemingly going on hiatus. The same year Celestial was released, former noiseheads Cave In were busy turning into a melodic hardcore Radiohead.

During this time of change, Celestial was a genuinely new sound (well, when it wasn’t audibly mimicking the previous two Neurosis albums) – chugging hardcore riffs were slowed down, interspersed with delicate passages, and an almost hypnotic repetition was the order of the day. Hey presto! Post metal was a thing. Isis of course got more subtle and liquid in their sound, but this album deserves placement for its impact. And because it’s good – and still pretty malicious, for the most part.

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The Deal
(Profound Lore, 2015)

Along with Minsk on this list, The Deal is a fine example of where post-metal is in 2015, now the trend has died down and the bandwagoners have hitched a new ride. I believe ‘sumac’ is the Americanised term for the exotic herb I sprinkle on my rice when I’m having a Persian meal. If so, fair play to them. ‘Them’ in this case consists of Aaron Turner (of Isis, Old Man Gloom and general Hydra Head fame) and Nick Yacyshyn from the refreshingly fast and thrashy Baptists.

After Isis and their peers decided to get smoother and smoother, valuing texture and loveliness over all else, it’s a relief that this debut album has thrown all of that out of the window in favour of quite a minimalist take on the form. There are some quiet bits, but they’re not the introspective, plaintive arpeggios of bands wishing they had written Come On Die Young instead of Mogwai.

Partly because they’re a duo, the dynamics are more organic and translatable to a live performance. It’s a reaction to the studio-heavy textures and ambience that was once novel and interesting, but ended up bogging the genre down a bit. The riffs are propulsive and make you want to carry on listening, rather than smothering you in cotton wool. Between this and the return of Old Man Gloom, Turner seems to be the cockroach that has survived the post-metal apocalypse. Based on this evidence, what didn’t kill him has definitely made him stronger.

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30. Painkiller
Buried Secrets
(Earache, 1992)

This is the first of the big three 1992 albums that essentially set the tone for the rest of the list. Painkiller is what happens when experimental jazz musicians release a metal album, on what was at the time the coolest metal label (Napalm Death, Carcass, Godflesh, Entombed – can’t fuck with that). John Zorn, fresh from freaking everyone out with his marvellously deranged Naked City project and producing the first Mr. Bungle album, formed this crew with Mick Harris (Scorn, Napalm Death) and Bill Laswell (Massacre, Last Exit, the current and amazing Blood of Heroes), and all hell broke loose.

It seemed Zorn was on a mission to out-death-metal the death metal bands that were so popular at the time, so the sleeves of the EPs seemed to actually have corpses on them, rendered in stark black and white, and the songs were called things like ‘Guts of a Virgin’, ‘Tortured Souls’ and ‘Skinned’. The music, however, was pretty far from your Morbid Angels and Cannibal Corpses.

This was all about the atmosphere: sinister shards of feedback, lunatic saxophone, intrusive drum interjections and unpleasant vocals. And if that wasn’t lovely enough on its own, the band are joined on this EP by noise-rock band of the moment Godflesh. It’s an unholy matrimony that is sometimes treated like an afterthought or an audio nasty, but is actually pretty timeless as well as an essential part of the underground history of metal.

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29. 5ive
(Tortuga, 2001)

Not the same 5ive that blessed us with such pop gems as ‘Slam Dunk Da Funk’, but an instrumental duo from Massachusetts, a state that at that time was pouring forth gems from the likes of Cave In, Isis and Converge.

This is what I consider ‘proper post-metal’. It’s the kind of people who would have been making hardcore in the early 90s and noisecore in the late 90s. It’s on Hydra Head affiliate Tortuga (never quite understood the distinction there). No vocals. No references to the sea. This is post-metal which isn’t afraid to rock.

Guitarist Ben Carr (the line up was completed by drummer Charlie Harrold, though Jeff Caxide from Isis played on this one) was definitely into his Kyuss, as this is the closest music in sound to that late, lamented band, more so than Josh Homme’s own Queens of the Stone Age. This is the missing link between stoner rock and post-metal, though looking back, Kyuss were just way ahead of their time as well. You could even say that this power duo paved the way for the likes of Lightning Bolt and That Fucking Tank, but this music is more about establishing a groove than melting your synapses with too many notes and beats.

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28. Neurosis
Souls At Zero
(Alternative Tentacles, 1992)

Another of the three big hitters from 1992 on this list, and at the time there was no such thing as post-metal: either you were metal or you weren’t. Enter Neurosis. Originally a hardcore punk band from California’s Bay Area (they were on Lookout Records at one point, labelmates of Green Day and Operation Ivy), they were outsiders to the metal scene, much like their peers Godflesh. This album was released on the label owned by Jello Biafra, vocalist of the Dead Kennedys.

While the band would develop a more coherent sound on the following few albums, Souls At Zero is one of those moments you look back on as changing things. At its heart, it’s almost a set of stretched out Slayer songs, the Satanism replaced by introspection and abstraction, and with samples and non-rock instrumentation in place of the duelling solos. Both ahead of its time in terms of attitude and of its time in production, this influenced not just post-metal bands, but noisecore bands like Dillinger Escape Plan and the mainstream metal of Machine Head and Pantera. Enemy of the Sun, their album after this, was quite the aesthetic leap. However, this one gets included for its parallels with the other monsters of 1992.

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27. Dazzling Killmen
Face of Collapse
(Skin Graft, 1994)

Helmet were a good band, weren’t they? Signed to a major label in those post-Nevermind days when anyone alternative got a big record deal (Melvins on Atlantic for three albums, for instance), they were all music and no attitude. Like a less exciting Fugazi. I mention them because they are often credited with being progenitors of post-metal due to that artisanal, non-style approach to their heavy music. No solos, no spiky this or long that; just the facts, ma’am.

But at the same time they existed, there was another band lurking in the shadows. Hailing from Missouri, these were all former jazz students who decided to bring the rock (not unlike Painkiller, in that case). They were far more post-metal, in the sense they played with the composition and atmosphere of what one would expect metal to be in the early to mid-1990s, but retained that attack and impact. Sadly, the 14-minute near-title track ‘In the Face of Collapse’ doesn’t seem to be on YouTube, and that is even more pre-post-metal in its epic duration and unsettlingly just-off rhythm.

The Dazzling Killmen, as well as having an awesome name, were ostensibly noise-rock, not unlike the Killdozers of this world, and with more than a subtle nod to the jazzy indignation of Rollins Band or Nomeansno. As with a lot of the better bands on this list, they didn’t last very long, but they leave behind a fantastic – if largely unknown – legacy in the form of this album.

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26. Bloodlet
The Seraphim Fall
(Victory, 1998)

Love oddities like this. Back when post-metal was merely described as “hey, this band is a bit like Neurosis, but different!”, there was no accepted sound or aesthetic for what the music was supposed to be. No references to water or the ocean. In such a wide-eyed era, bands like Bloodlet appeared on labels like Victory, at the time home of straight-edge vegan hardcore bands like Strife, Earth Crisis and Snapcase (and more recently pop-emo bands like Bayside and A Day To Remember. But hey, it’s all good).

Back in 1998, Terrorizer magazine’s editor went barmy over The Seraphim Fall, and it remains a fantastic curio. Riffs snake over each other while vocalist Scott Angelacos’ dry throat makes him sound like a modern day Lemmy and the songs, unwilling to leave the area immediately, slide into one another. There is an espsecially satisfying moment in the segue between ‘Sister Supreme’ and ‘Shoot the Pig’ where their own little take on a hip hop loop transforms into a groove-metal riff. A much-missed band.

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25. Rye Wolves
Oceans Of Delicate Rain
(Aurora Borealis, 2008)

Another mystery band on this list, but this time your correspondent got on at the ground floor. This album turned up on the stereo in 2008, and it’s more technical in its composition than most albums on the list. Though it’s a grotesque name to give to an artistic endeavour, this would generally be described as a metal version of math rock.

Rye Wolves were a destructive power trio hailing from Eugene, Oregon. After this record, they went so quiet as to fall pretty much off the radar. A second album on start-up label Belief Mower Records eventually followed in summer 2011, but the band seems to no longer be a thing.

It’s a shame: Oceans… is a spiky effort, its combination of fury and finesse resulting in an edifying album of heaviness, intelligence and actual catchy melodies. The vocals are a bit black metal at times (the blackened doom thing was an avenue they investigated further on their swansong), but you can’t have everything. This was a fine companion to the Akimbo album, Jersey Shores, another late 2008 opus from a now-defunct band.

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24. Mouth Of The Architect
Time and Withering
(Translation Loss, 2004)

After Isis and Pelican officially introduced us to post-metal as a thing in 2002/03, Mouth Of The Architect were one of the first bands to really plant their flag on this fecund landscape. Heavy without being nasty, dynamic without being disorienting, melodic but still with weirdly hardcore/death metal vocals; all of what would soon become required elements are present and correct.

MOTA differ in that their music is oddly emotional (you know, beyond the emotion of being vaguely angry), while also having that artisan-like stoicism which either allures or alienates listeners. Seemingly taking their lead from the likes of Slint, Fugazi and Mogwai, between the monstrous chords and rather uninspiring shouting were excellent melodic interludes of clear, crisp guitar interplay.

The band are still going, ploughing their furrow, though they seem to have settled for a doomy sound now, almost in the Paradise Lost arena. So much of this type of music came out in the 2004-07 period that it was easy to get fatigued by the lengthy opuses; it can be difficult justifying a listen to a new album of this stuff, though perhaps Dawning (their only album in the last half a decade) would find fans with ears fresher to the scene.

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23. Gnaw
This Face
(Conspiracy Records, 2009)

Pretty close to the essence of sonic evil distilled in digital form, Gnaw was the grotesque being that rose from the cursed ashes of doom legends Burning Witch. Vocalist Alan Dubin (also of Khanate) and drummer Jamie Sykes hooked up with what were doubtless ne’er do wells to create a mangled monstrosity.

Like a Bosch painting modernised, This Face recalls prime Wolf Eyes or Coil in that it masterfully achieves sounding wrong. Dubin’s tormented wails are as at home set beside this electronic maelstrom as they were with Khanate’s bludgeon riffola. It’s almost worse when it gets melodic, as that step away from the natural setting just turns up the wrongness. The eeriest rock music since that Ulver song on the Sinister soundtrack when that family gets set on fire in the garage.

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22. Locrian
The Clearing & The Final Epoch
(Relapse, 2012)

This is the proper sound of post-metal in the modern day. It’s frustrating when you think a genre that is named for forward thinking descended so readily into generic cliché. Oh, we do post-metal? Let’s sound like Oceanic forever, without ever thinking about what the subgenre is supposed to mean.

Look back at the touchstones of the scene: Swans, Godflesh, Neurosis. They were genres unto themselves. And as soon as Broadrick and Gira decided they weren’t essential any more, they put an end to their bands and changed it up. So when you get bands producing bland, soulless eight-minute songs that don’t really go anywhere, heaviness without any malice aforethought, it’s really uninspiring.

Thank fuck for Locrian. Apparently the people ‘in metal’ debate whether this Chicago band are even metal. Isn’t that the point? I can assure you those death metal fans seeing Godflesh open up for their favourites didn’t think that was metal either. Tough. This is smart, forward-thinking, ominous, mysterious music. It sounds modern. At times it has you wondering if you even like it. It’s far from the safety of Pelican and Russian Circles. And it’s clearly metal enough for Relapse, home of the best Mastodon and High On Fire albums.

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21. Corrections House
Last City Zero
(Neurot, 2013)

Well, this is a lot of fun. If we can call Old Man Gloom a supergroup, we kinda have to do the same with this lot. Ostensibly led by Scott Kelly from Neurosis and Mike IX Williams from Eyehategod, we also have dudes from Yakuza and Minsk. And, while the album starts off like it’s going to be very solemn and repetitive, it ends up nothing of the sort, managing to combine sounds of Type O Negative and Ministry in an amazingly wrong cocktail of metal and electro.

They also have a “minister of propaganda”, Seward Fairbury, who unleashes various mysterious press releases and who allegedly went missing late last year after a “violent confrontation within his home”. Make of that what you will, all I know is I miss the days when Neurosis had a minister of propaganda, Pete Inc. It certainly adds a welcome dimension of intrigue to proceedings, and the music – along with Gnaw – really brings the noise to post-metal.

So dark and unwholesome is this record that it actually recalls the sordid Painkiller collaborations between John Zorn and Godflesh. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest this is pretty much what Neurosis should be doing these days. I know they’re all family men, and are seeking the purity of natural recording with Steve Albini, but yeah.

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20. Minsk
The Crash And The Draw
(Relapse, 2015)

A fine example of what modern post-metal can be, Minsk (hailing from somewhere between Peoria and Chicago, rather than Belarus) really bring the crushing heaviness back to proceedings, after one too many bands striving for intellectual plaudits and respect outside the scene led to too much polite, boring metal.

The Crash And The Draw is their first album since 2009, when post-metal was still pretty much in its heyday. Minsk step blinking and shielding their eyes from the blinding sun of a new world of emo-metalcore and blackened crust-thrash, and give a good account of themselves.

The atmospherics and quiet parts are present, as one might expect, on tracks like ‘Conjunction’, but modern production techniques (you’d be surprised how things have changed in only a decade in terms of the pure sound of metal) allow – when the band is willing – the heaviness to really erupt from the speakers. Along with Inter Arma, Minsk deliver a very Relapse sense of post-metal, influenced by genre ancestors Neurosis and Mindrot, mixed with the more recent earthy sound championed by Red Fang, Baroness and Mastodon. The impressive use of post-metal vocal harmonies must be a Baroness thing.

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19. Supercontinent
(Saw Her Ghost, 2008)

I didn’t actually know of this short-lived Michigan band before starting work on this list. They’re an impressively epic band that I may not have appreciated so much had I heard them during the post-metal saturation years.

Supercontinent don’t veer massively from the tried and tested post-metal template, with their quiet – not ominous, but pleasant – introductions or interludes, which give way to crashing riffs and ursine vocals. There is just a reassuring sense of belief on Vaalbara. The rocking really rocks (there isn’t a po-faced academic sensibility to the heaviness here) and there are nods to metal past in the occasional twin guitar line or galloping rhythm.

But this isn’t Iron Maiden by any stretch, and nor does it nod too much to anything beyond the perimeters of Cult of Luna and Pelican. That prevents this album reaching the upper echelons, as the very best need to define or massively refine what post-metal is. Vaalbara falls slightly short of that, but is a very enjoyable genre piece.

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18. Godflesh
(Earache, 1992)

If you’re familiar with FACT’s decade lists, you’ll probably have heard of Godflesh. Justin Broadrick and GC Green changed metal with their early releases. So much so, in fact, that traditional metal fans usually plotzed when confronted with this industrial demanufacturer from the dark depths of Birmingham (copyright every “History of Metal” documentary ever made).

I actually remember this coming out. I was a child, but I remember it. Reading my first issue of Raw (Gilby Clarke from Guns N’ Roses on the front), leafing through the pages and seeing an emaciated skinhead tinker with guitar pedals on stage was frightening. Especially as that issue contained my first glimpse of muscular skinhead Phil Anselmo and the late, lamented metal alien Oderus Urungus.

Godflesh represented an aberration, and were formed by punk and hardcore. Pure is what happened when they started experimenting: incredibly harsh worlds of discordant post-punk guitar settling like factory smoke over catchy drum machine breakbeats. While this and Streetcleaner are always trotted out on lists like this, it is really worth checking out all of their 90s work, specifically Songs of Love and Hate. It’s just shy in its malevolent excellence of its more celebrated elder siblings.

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17. Akimbo
Jersey Shores
(Neurot, 2008)

As post-metal was starting to die a death, partly because it was getting too soft, partly because it all sounded too similar for too long, Akimbo fired out one of the genre’s finest examples. After flitting about between indie labels for the best part of a decade, putting out the kind of music that would later be really popular with the Big Business/Mastodon/Sword set, the Washington State trio hooked up with Neurosis’s record label to put out the kind of lengthy and dynamic bonanza of riffs and aggression that the scene’s granddaddies would have been proud of.

A concept album, Jersey Shores wasn’t actually about fist pumping, perma-tanned steroid fiends (that feast of televisual delights didn’t grace our screens for another year), but rather the 1916 shark attacks that killed four people. The music is adept at painting these scenes of carnage because, unlike so much quiet-loud music, the dynamics are there for a reason: the quiet periods representing the calm before the storm and the post-mortem eerie stillness, while the attack phases are suitably savage.

Though at the time some quarters dismissed this as simply a band signing to Neurosis’ label and then turning into them, Jersey Shores was actually recorded at the same time as the previous album, the briefer Navigating the Bronze, on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label. The label was just a good fit for the music, and if this was an approximation of Neurosis’ music, it was a better one than the Oakland legends had mustered in seven years at that point.

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16. Neurosis
A Sun That Never Sets
(Relapse, 2001)

The second Neurosis album produced by Steve Albini is probably the least sonically cohesive of that era, but by far the most satisfying. As with a lot of the more interesting albums on this list, it is seemingly more an amalgam of conflicting ideas – but loads of them – than a slick big concept.

We have hallmarks of the Neurosis sound, including the very quiet intros, colossal (often descending sharply) riffs, and howls that mix fury and despair. What’s new is the band’s increased comfort with the organic. Where once Neurosis had focused on sounding as fucked up as possible, A Sun That Never Sets is very naturally recorded by Albini, and Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly are really growing into their voices; the latter makes Tom Waits sound like a choir boy on ‘From the Hill’.

The album is a mix of ideas, some of which are more successful than others, but thankfully the success comes out on top. On ‘Crawl Back In’, a surprisingly delicate (think Mogwai or American Football) middle section gives way to a most dramatic climax. At the time, the album’s finale, all stuttering, spluttering and stalling, made listeners think their CD players were skipping. Nowadays, that effect will largely be lost. The band spent the following decade becoming cult legends, praised for ever-smoother albums. None of what followed would match this.

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15. Earth
HEX: or Printing in the Infernal Method
(Southern Lord, 2005)

I know there is a strict “no doom” rule (second instalment), but this ain’t a doom record. In what was a big year for underground metal (with stand-out records from Boris, Sunn O))), Rosetta, Khanate), Dylan Carlson and his band of veterans set themselves apart. Post-metal in the most literal sense: Carlson had done it, played it influenced it and changed it, entirely.

No distortion, HEX conjures brutality through transparency, revealing the heaviness of honesty. Famed disapprover of distortion Buddy Rich would have loved this, as the band play “without all [that] assistance”. It’s hard to play this slowly and this clearly – flaws show easily. But Earth don’t fear it. HEX is of the Earth, no pun intended. Clearly of its time, it also feels eternal, like the desert and mountains this stark, beautiful music evokes.

Unlike their earlier records, HEX didn’t inspire bands to copy this sound in their multitudes. It’s easily as good as any of their other records, it was just far less easy to imitate. Were it not for the band themselves still ploughing this furrow, HEX would truly stand alone.

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14. Envy
A Dead Sinking Story
(Level Plane, 2003)

Japan is known in underground noise rock/metal circles for Keiji Haino (and Fushitsusha, of course), Boredoms and Boris, but Envy are less well-known and often written off as ‘screamo’. While there are definitely elements of that noisy, hardcore-influenced scene – and more so in the band’s past – A Dead Sinking Story is something else entirely.

There is a galloping, sweeping quality to the guitars that can be traced back to black metal – Envy brought a hardcore edge to black metal years before Deafheaven got all the plaudits for it. The album breaks down into almost Slint or quiet-Mogwai sections, punctuated by ambient found sounds, and the tracks satisfyingly leak into one another, leading to a very satisfying sense of a whole.

There is an urgency to this band, bringing Converge/Deadguy influences to post-metal and giving the sub-genre a thrilling injection of energy. If you like Sunbather, you owe it to yourself to check out this far more dynamic predecessor.

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13. The Ocean
(Metal Blade, 2007)

Initially, this is clearly the most traditionally ‘metal’ entry on this list, from a very accomplished German band. And why not, given that Metal Blade is the traditional home of Cannibal Corpse, Trouble and Slayer. However, the first disc – pretty much straight-up metalcore – is a bizarre pretext to the album proper.

The idea behind Precambrian (something about prehistoric eras of Earth’s past, at a guess, though you don’t discern much from the vocals) is pretty proggy, and the record in general treads a fine line between the atmospherics and outsider mentality of post-metal and the busy craftsmanship (and high-minded concept) of prog. In execution, this is an exercise in dynamics – minimalist it most definitely is not. They get bonus points for featuring guest vocals from dudes from Converge, Cave In and Integrity.

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12. Isis
(Ipecac, 2002)

Oceanic is probably the accepted classic post-metal album. Listening to it now, after so many years of copycats, droners, doomers, drone-doomers and other bearded wonders, Oceanic is actually more refreshing than it was a decade ago. At the time it was pretty eye opening: Isis made a name for themselves at the end of the 1990s as a heavy, thick-riffed companion to Neurosis, but their first records hadn’t prepared us for this creative masterstroke.

While other bands were aiming to make their guitars sound as thick as possible, Aaron Turner and his merry crew of funsters decided to go the opposite way: minimalism. That is, as minimalist as metal can actually get, given that key identifiers of the genre include heavy riffs and pained vocals. The key here is the rhythm they establish, as well as the now-traditional “just plough ahead” method of post-metal playing.

Opener ‘The Beginning And The End’ is the best example of this, with a very brief drum fill introducing a wonderfully circular riff until it all kicks in. You get swept up (pun obviously intended) in the meander and little whirlpools. Every section is meticulously designed to add to the sense of momentum and dynamism.

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11. Jesu
(Hydra Head, 2006)

Though there had already been a couple of releases from the prettier, younger sibling of Justin Broadrick’s Godflesh, Silver was nevertheless something of an eye opener. It was Broadrick’s poppiest project to date, and made a virtue of simplicity, using repetition to create a mood of bliss and harmony rather than the unsympathetically muscular grind achieved by more than a few records on this list.

There is a brief sting in the tail, as final track ‘Dead Eyes’ suddenly shifts halfway through to assume a darker hue for a minute or so. It doesn’t quite turn into Godflesh’s ‘Don’t Bring Me Flowers’, but it’s a smart surprise from the veteran and highlights how effective relatively simple shifts can be when a mood has been so well established.

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10. Tool
(Zoo, 1996)

While Ænima isn’t exactly the first album that enters the conversation when people talk about post-metal, it is, in hindsight, one of the lynchpins of the sub-genre. Notoriously difficult to clarify, Ænima is that rare delight: an album that seems more modern the older it gets. That is helped by the fact that Tool themselves turned into a (very good) straight-up prog-metal band, and any copyists (anyone remember Ultraspank? Okay then) failed miserably.

Ænima is, on the surface, traditional rock – there are intros, verses, choruses and about the biggest, most urgent middle-eights imaginable. But it is how these traditional structures were stretched out – Adam Jones’ quicksilver guitar work helping them along – that both revitalised major label rock and influenced any metal band intending to inject subtlety and beauty into their music.

This is better than the vast majority of the records on here, but it’s penalised for not being traditional post-metal. If you can imagine Isis and Pelican existing without this record preceding them, you’re kidding yourself. It’s just a shame neither those bands nor anyone else were able to harness this alchemy of dynamic shifts, musical skill and the ability to do all that without sounding like Dream Theater. One of a kind.

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9. Boris
(Inoxia, 2000)

The metal answer to Levez Vos Skinny Fists Comme Antennas to Heaven, Flood is four tracks in 70 minutes. The CD actually claims it’s one track, on the back sleeve, but the music is divided into four marginally more digestible portions. Boris cold be seen as a bit of a hipster vote, having collaborated with Merzbow, Keiji Haino and Sunn O))) and had songs on a Jim Jarmusch soundtrack. But before all that, the Japanese band were twisting and squeezing rock and metal forms into fun and interesting shapes.

Prior to Flood, Boris had already done their one-track album, Absolutego, and with 1998’s Amplifier Worship had featured epic pieces like ‘Ganbou-ki’ alongside more accessible rockers. Following this, the blue shifted to orange and the power trio unleashed Heavy Rocks. Not one for ironic titles, this album was massively high octane, and made peers like Scissorfight sound like shuffling seniors.

Similarly unironic, Flood is all about drowning the listener in a heavy deluge. It doesn’t really kick in for about half an hour; like Akimbo’s Jersey Shores, you get a gorgeous calm before the storm. But when it kicks in, it is like little else in rock. It takes some clever production (and special amps) to make a trio sound quite this mind-bogglingly huge. This is the ultimate in oceanic metal, despite what Isis had planned, two years later.

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8. Cloudkicker
(Self-released, 2010)

So there’s a character called Ben Sharp, and he’s one of those annoyingly talented people. Back in 2010, an acquaintance drew my attention to a fun post-metal band by the name of Cloudkicker. I duly downloaded Beacons, for it was free, and didn’t listen to it for a while. When I did, I realised the ‘band’ was actually a bloke from Pittsburgh. I know bands have been blokes forever, and even punk rock supremo Bob Mould made an album all on his lonesome in 1996, but rarely does that set-up actually feel like a band.

Beacons is a cohesive whole: melodic without sounding overly nice and technical without being widdly and prog. There is a smoothness here in the guitar that is at times reminiscent of Tool’s Adam Jones, riffs sliding into one another, any ideas pulled off with not just ease but artistic flair. While sometimes this kind of music can jar as it shifts from one mood to another, Sharp makes sense of it, and even the song titles seem to follow on from one another (4. ‘Oh, god’ 5. ‘I admit it now. I was scared’ 6. ‘We were all scared’ and so on). It’s a decent mix of mini-epics and short songs, too, which gives the album a really cool overall tempo. What a bastard.

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7. Old Man Gloom
(Tortuga, 2004)

A post-metal supergroup, or as close as you’re going to get, Old Man Gloom is made up of members of Isis, Converge and Cave In. In fact, it’s the best band Aaron Turner (boss of both Isis and Hydra Head) has been in, and Christmas is their most fascinating release. Coming out the year after their tantalising Christmas Eve EP, this is clearly the sound of a bunch of serious modern heavy music heads relaxing and having a bit of fun away from their intense day jobs.

Christmas is a great example of what post-metal can be when a band actually makes the most of that label instead of confining themselves within it. The album opens with the epic soundscapes, heroic vocals and colossal riffery of ‘Gift’, through the mind-blowingly anthemic and fittingly named injection-and-explosion of energy ‘Valhalla’, and some eerie 1940s radio broadcast parody about surviving Armageddon. This all came after various simian-influenced doom/noisecore experimentations, and the band went on a hiatus afterwards. They’re back now, and they are more than welcome.

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6. The Angelic Process
Weighing Souls With Sand
(Roadburn Records, 2007)

Not having heard of The Angelic Process before this album, Weighing Souls With Sand was both an instructive, edifying experience and a bittersweet one. Frontman (and husband in this musical couple) K. Angylus took his own life a few months after this was released, lending tracks like ‘We All Die Laughing’ and ‘Dying in A-Minor’ a surreal poignancy.

Musically, this is like incredibly dense indie of the My Bloody Valentine mould, and not unlike that other pea-souper of a metal band, Nadja. Unusually low-fi, Weighing Souls With Sand is compressed and fuzzy, with vocals straining for recognition in the black hole of a mix. The effect is almost akin to a gothic take on Ariel Pink’s super warped and broken career-high, The Doldrums. While it may be technically rough around the edges, the brutally damaged beauty is undeniable.

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5. Rosetta
The Galilean Satellites
(Translation Loss, 2005)

The Galilean Satellites is a truly epic album from this set of Philadelphia stargazers. Not, as far as I can tell, related to any of the other bands on the list, the ambitious quartet really impressed with their debut record, a daring double album.

Rosetta have a fantastic ability to pace themselves, smartly using dynamics to accentuate the space available to them in the longer songs. The crystal clear production lets the ambience and intricate instrumentation shine through, while magnifying the heaviness when needed. The second disc isn’t quite as great, concentrating largely on ambience and atmosphere, but the whole is magnificent.

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4. Nadja
(Alien8 Recordings, 2007)

Touched is the Loveless of the Sunn O))) generation. Opener ‘Mutagen’, a quarter-hour trip into a layered fuzz void, sets the tone. This is the epitome of the glacial approach to metal – as long-winded as prog rock, but with no shifts in tempo and only very subtle rhythm. Like early Earth, Touched worships the moment, but extends it as far as the eye can see. Nadja clearly relish soaking in the sound of the incredibly dense mix, and they slow the moment for the listener so you almost don’t notice the length. The singing doesn’t even start until second track ‘Stays Demons’, its gradual and tender vocal line riding the crest of the wave much as Justin Broadrick does with Jesu, though here the vocal is just as likely to wipe out, submerging beneath the mix.

Touched is quite advanced in terms of production and delivery. At times, the singing sounds like Underworld, with a similarly repetitive backing (albeit not house in this case). It’s not just a metal band deciding to go quiet; massive riffs lumber through a super-dense mix of fuzz, as if someone injected Serena Maneesh with designer steroids. The sense of progression is excellent as we go from the instrumental opener to soft vocal delivery through to gargantuan unhumanity on the third and fourth of the five tracks.

It’s unhuman rather than inhumane – this isn’t malicious heaviness, it just is; any collateral damage is purely accidental. Contrast that with Khanate or Neurosis, where the ill intent is palpable.

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3. Mare
(Hydra Head, 2004)

Emerging from pretty much nowhere and returning almost as quickly, Mare were the ultimate short, sharp shock. Very much a Hydra Head band, they shared musical DNA with the likes of Cave In, Harkonnen and Botch, coming from thrashy, hardcore backgrounds but exploding in all kinds of different rock directions.

Very delicate and melodic at times, Mare were prone to explode with no notice. There is a rare and welcome clarity to the mix, highlighting the brilliant wrongness, and it is on records like this that the scene’s evolution from precise, technical noisecore is most clear. Mare didn’t only go from quiet to loud like their lazier brethren and descendants, but shifted from gorgeous melody to discord, or from order to chaos, if we’re going to really revel in cliché.

Mare were not a band to do things by halves, and singer Tyler Semrick-Palmateer (apparently now in a rather befuddling band called Barbara – think Primus, Mr. Bungle or They Might Be Giants) is willing and very able to switch from the emo/indie style of singing to a quite magnificent scream that recalls Tim Singer, from Deadguy/Kiss It Goodbye. It’s a dimension that so many other, otherwise similar bands either failed to realise or were unable to achieve.

Mare is a minor cult classic, showing a ton of promise that the band never brought to fruition; they split soon after it was released. Maybe this was all they intended to say, concisely. Final song ‘Sun for Miles’ is notable for being a sumptuous vignette of a cappella harmonies – until the very end, when a wall of dirge smashes into the track. The end, I guess.

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2. Kayo Dot
Choirs of the Eye
(Tzadik, 2003)

The incredibly talented Kayo Dot have always sounded like outsiders. Led by musical polymath Toby Driver, and formed from the ashes of prog-ish outfit Maudlin Of The Well, the band released their ear-opening debut Choirs of the Eye on the label owned by improv jazz supremo – and post-everything svengali – John Zorn.

It’s hard to know how to adequately describe this exercise in fucked up, beautiful sonic art. At times it is metal, at others you could be listening to Jeff Buckley, or a small orchestra. The fact the album was released on a jazz label says a lot about it. These aren’t merely Earth-worshipping metal dudes aiming to earn a few bucks by playing slow riffs through overdriven Orange amps; Choirs of the Eye is an intricate document of a band that emerged, annoyingly and brilliantly, fully-formed.

Kayo Dot would, in time, release records on established metal imprints Robotic Empire and Hydra Head. (In fact, they’re still releasing variously mind-bending examples of metal, at times collaborating with full-on brutal doom/sludge bands like Bloody Panda.) Choirs of the Eye, though, is beautifully untouched by such frivolities as scene and genre, existing in its own bizarre, bewitching world.

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1. Neurosis
Through Silver In Blood
(Relapse/Release, 1996)

The daddy. Through Silver In Blood was one of the first post-metal albums, and remains one of the most influential. It was never topped, either – not even by the band themselves. Who knows what possessed this sextet from Oakland, but Through Silver In Blood built on the foundations set by the 1992/3 one-two punch of Souls At Zero and Enemy of the Sun (both released on Alternative Tentacles), exploring darker, more ambitious territory.

Never actually a heavy metal band, Neurosis have a lot in common with Godflesh in that they started out making hardcore punk, sublimating that into their own take on heavy music. They bypassed the metal sound itself as they slowed things down and – in their own words – “started taking different drugs”.

Unlike a lot of post-metal, which is often categorised (usually derisively) as “metal that people who aren’t into metal can like”, this is not easy to listen to. To quote Steve Von Till talking about the album in Kerrang! in the late 90s, Through Silver In Blood is “user unfriendly”. It was as bad for the band as it was for most listeners; after playing these songs night after night on tour, they decided to go for a cleaner, more uplifting (for Neurosis, at least) sound on future albums.

So what is it about this record that is so intriguing and so alienating? Its nine tracks bleed into one another for 70 minutes; dynamic swings that aren’t so much quiet-to-loud as nothing-to-everything. Subsequent bands would hijack the riffing style, or the repetition, or the dynamics, or even some of the ambient elements. None of them mastered it all.

The production is a little murky compared to the Nine Inch Nails and Converges of the world, but Billy Anderson’s work at the mixing desk lends the combination of rock instruments and samples, tapes and loops a stark, inorganic quality. This is alien, and can be unpleasant, but that’s the point – this is the spiritual successor to Black Sabbath, the album that started it all.

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