The world of heavy metal can be an exercise in absurdity and uninspired imitation played at blistering volume. With the relatively recent (and fading) popularity of "stoner-rock" and "doom metal," as evidenced by tours including the reunited line-ups of Sleep, Saint Vitus (read our recent interview with Dave Chandler) and Pentagram, a wave of bands inspired by Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer and their ilk have come through and the mark of Sabbath even among non-metal bands appears here to stay. Following is a list of ten of the best of the modern crop of bands that, as Henry Rollins once mentioned for himself, may have had the first six Black Sabbath albums playing in their collective heads simultaneously until they had to exorcise that demon in song. (Notice The Sword on the list, you can see them at Westword Music Showcase on June 18. Buy your tickets here. -ed.)
10. Eagle Twin When you think of "sludge" or "doom" metal, Salt Lake City is hardly the point of entry that readily comes to mind. But that's where Eagle Twin is based. It's 2009 album, The Unkindness of Crows, released by Southern Lord Records, takes the colossal sound of every band drawing on the sonic legacy of Black Sabbath and injects it with an uncommon literary sensibility as a kind of concept album about crows. Gentry Densley's old band is cited as an influence on Isis, Pelican and Sunn O))) but Eagle Twin is Densley taking it to the next artistic plateau with heady drones, crushing but creative guitar work and a thematic depth in his lyrics rare in heavy music. Recommended track: "Heavy Hooves"
9. Baroness Like a lot of people who went on to do this kind of music, some of the guys in Baroness were in a punk rock band and looking for a change of pace. With more an ear for precise rhythms and song structure, Baroness would be a prog metal outfit but its penchant for unusual melodic passages more often heard well outside metal make Baroness not just an interesting and odd metal band but specifically one in this realm of the art form. Considering the band tapped John Congleton (St. Vincent, Modest Mouse, Wye Oak, The Polyphonic Spree and others) to engineer and produce it's 2009 Blue Record, the sonic connections beyond metal are clear. Recommended track: "A Horse Called Golgotha"
8. Priestess This band sounds like it could have been around in 1986 with its stylistic nods to early thrash. However, its songwriting is clearly influenced directly by that era of metal when bands told epic stories both lyrically and in the sweeping gait of its rhythmic structure. Just check out the band's video for "Lady Killer" and any worries that this band isn't coming from the pure core and foundation of metal that is Black Sabbath with a bit of Judas Priest should vanish. Priestess did, however, weave in a bit of influence from Deep Purple, a band whose music should be at the forefront of any modern metal act. Recommended track: "I Am the Night, Colour Me Black."
7. Lair of the Minotaur In a field where subtlety is not the most salient trait in both the music and its presentation, Lair of the Minotaur stand out. While it's outward sound is more akin to thrash and death metal, its loping rhythms are right out of Sleep and Black Sabbath. In its video for "Evil Power," the Lair decided to go with a visually unflinching realization of the song's "Raining Blood"-worthy lyrics. While also a bit over the top and silly, Lair of the Minotaur at least sounds like it's genuinely dipped into Black Sabbath's bag of scare tactics. Recommended track: "Evil Power," of course.
6. The Sword Clearly direct descendents of the lineage of bands from Black Sabbath to St. Vitus to Sleep, The Sword writes the kind of music that could have served as an inspiration for This is Spinal Tap. All the excess and bombast but also a clear willingness to go beyond its obvious influences. There is a real drive and fire undergirding The Sword's sludge. As heavy as it is, those traits make this band appealing not just to metalheads but also anyone who appreciates good rock and roll that doesn't try too hard to fit into a specific subgenre. Recommended track: "How Heavy This Axe"
5. Torche Steve Brooks and Juan Montoya would have been important figures in the world of modern metal generally just from having been in Floor. But they formed Torche in 2004 in Florida, the cradle of death metal as we know it. Torche, though, took the murky, dark guitar sounds and shot it through with some adrenaline for a band with the energy of hardcore but with the warped tones of their immediate influences. These guys also have to have a sense of humor with an album title as hilarious as Meanderthal. Beyond the headlong verve of the music, Torche made and anthemic version of music more often seen as plainly epic. Recommended track: "Healer"
4. Big Business You can't really get more sludge metal cred than also being current members of The Melvins. And that's what Jared Warren and Coady Willis did in 2006. The fact that Warren and Willis would create the kind of heavy music that was left of center should come as no surprise seeing as the former was once in legendary noise rock outfit Karp and the psych-prog Tight Bros. From Way Back and the latter was once in Murder City Devils. This four piece is aptly named because its sonic assault is colossal, crushing and relentless. Big Business makes glacial song arcs somehow seem aggressive.
3. Zoroaster Although now just becoming known to wider audiences, Zoroaster from Atlanta, Georgia sounds it spends most of its time not just writing some of the heaviest song dynamics but also some of the weightiest. That and Will Fiore seems to have deconstructed sludgy riffs and put them back together with a real ear for the possibility of tone inherent in the ingredients of that sound. The result is an expansive, incredibly sweeping range of musical ideas that is often only heard in the more adventurous psychedelic guitar bands. Zoroaster's music is a true fusion of space rock, psychedelia and stoner rock. Recommended track: "Odyssey"
2. Jesu Justin Broadrick should receive a lifetime achievement award for innovation in extreme music. As the guitarist for Napalm Death on that band's debut record, Scum, Broadrick basically created the template for almost every flavor of grindcore guitar. In Godflesh he took that sound a step forward into a style of music that was called grindcore but was really a bizarre kind of industrial rock and still defies easy classification. With Jesu, Broadrick all but pioneered ambient metal. At the very least, he populated the aesthetic of that style of music with his multiple explorations of how one can create beautiful, ambient guitar music of incredibly heaviness so as to give the sense of "Planet Caravan" without trying to actually be Black Sabbath. Broadrick is one of the few artists who is able to write intense and majestic music that is also dreamy. Recommended track: "Farewell"
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1. Kylesa Too many metal bands stick with one basic formula for their entire careers. Kylesa has always seemed willing to push its boundaries with each album while never settling for following in the footsteps of its heroes. Without trying to be too many things to too many people, Kylesa has created a true alloy of psychedelia, prog and sludgy metal. Stir in some flecks of decidedly non-metal elements and you get this unique and consistently fascinating band's innovative sound in a style of music where the motto so often seems to be, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Recommended track: "Where the Horizon Unfolds" (listen below.)