If you go beneath the surface of whatever mainstream tracks are hitting the regular radio rotation, there’s a whole other world of music waiting to discovered that break genre barriers and create unbelievable soundscapes.
While my musical focus is on the metal side, this is true of just about any style if you check out the more underground bands. Looking back at the bands that got me into metal, there are a handful of absolute gems that really stand out for changing what I thought was possible in music, and today we’ll look at eight of those perspective-altering albums.
Part 1 below focuses on albums I originally heard in my teens and early 20s before starting to work in the metal journalism field. Past that point the number of bands I heard on a monthly basis absolutely exploded as press releases from all around the world hit my inbox. There were plenty of albums in that flood of metal that radically changed my concept of music, but we’ll get to some of those next time around.
Amorphis – Am Universum
By the time I heard Am Universum I was around 15 or 16 and had been diving into black metal from the likes of Dimmu Borgir and Emperor. While I had heard some of the less heavy and more experimental stuff from Tiamat or Therion, I can safely say I was NOT expecting what Am Universum had to offer when the album was recommended to me.
Amorphis has shifted between several different vocalists and has very distinct periods in the band’s history, changing radically in sound from early releases like Tales From The Thousand Lakes to the melodic death metal of more recent albums such as Circle and Under The Red Cloud.
Smack dab in the middle of that transitioning is the oddball Am Universum, which is nothing like any previous or later Amorphis album, ditching all harsh vocals and going on a psychedelic and progressive trip.
Just describing the album is a challenge all its own. It’s Pink Floyd meets melodic death metal, but minus the death, driven by sax, keyboard, and some truly killer hooks. Simply put, there needs to be more music like this that doesn’t care about fitting cleanly in a genre slot.
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing members of Amorphis before, and it always seemed like they were ready to forget Am Universum exists and aren’t interested in playing the material live, which is a damn shame.
Samael – Passage
If one album absolutely defined and dominated my teen years, it was unquestionably Samael’s magnum opus, Passage.
Vorph’s semi-legible vocals mixed into the utterly revolutionary (for the time) twist on black metal gripped my 14 year old brain and never let go. Samael was essentially my religion for a good number of years there.
When opening track Rain took on the absurdity (and horrific immorality) of the Biblical flood story, I was hooked. When the keys on Angel’s Decay came in I felt like my whole world would be forever changed, having no idea black metal was allowed to do that. When fifth track Jupiterian Vibe opened with a bongo beat, I knew there was no going back. Lo-fi kvlt nonsense wasn’t going to cut it for me anymore.
The album’s intense darkness was tempered by an uplifting vibe (which would get much stronger in later albums) and it also ditched the direct Satanic messages of previous Samael releases, creating something wholly unique in the metal world at the time.
Peccatum – Amor Fati
Emperor frontman Ihsahn has made a huge impact on the metal world, but its actually not that iconic black metal band that bowled me over nearly as much as some of his other side projects.
Ihsahn’s first few solo albums sit solidly in my favorite releases of all time, but its his side band Peccatum with wife Starofash (then going by Ihriel) that had my jaw dropping as a teen.
The phrase “avant-garde” hadn’t ever been uttered in my presence when I popped on Amor Fati, so I didn’t have a fucking clue what I was in for on opening track One Play No Script. The absolutely bizarre harsh vocals meshing alongside the clean female singing had me intrigued and I had to keep listening through, trying to wrap my head around the odd sound effects of No Title For A Cause.
It was third track Murder that shattered everything I thought I knew about music, opening with orchestral strings seeming to have nothing to do with metal, and then suddenly erupting with harshly dissonant shrieks and guitar riffs perfectly matching the string instruments.
Even though I was the kid into the unknown metal bands everyone else hated, I knew I was onto something here that was truly underground and different, and it left a lasting impression. Ever since then, I’ve been on the lookout for the most progressive, unexpected, and avant-garde music I can get my hands on. I can easily say that I never would have braved bands like Abruptum, Painkiller, Unexpect, or Sigh without Peccatum’s influence on my listening tastes.
All of Peccatum’s discography eventually made it into my rotation, with Lost In Reverie perhaps an even better album than Amor Fati, and just as bizarre (although in different ways). The oddity of Peccatum is also on full display in Source Of Tide, a band from Ihsahn’s brother, as well as the later Hardingrock project that would match up Emperor style black metal with spoken word poems and hardingfiddle.
Opeth – My Arms Your Hearse
Hearing My Arms Your Hearse for the very first time is easily one of my favorite childhood memories. It happened on my 14th birthday in a very unexpected way. I was out at a restaurant with the family and opened a birthday present from my older brother, who didn’t live with us.
I was pretty stoked to see it was a game development bundle, which I was really into at the time, and this was back when PC software came in those oversized boxes and had huge manuals with the disc case floating around in all that empty space.
I opened the box up to look through the contents, and discovered the software had all been a ruse — tucked underneath the manual was a copy of Opeth’s My Arms Your Hearse, secreted away from parental view. I just smiled and put the box away, waiting until I could get home to listen in private. My folks are incredibly religious, and things with names like “progressive death metal” were certainly not allowed in our home.
Opeth would end up being my #1 favorite band from that moment onward for more than a decade (until the release of Heritage, but we won’t sully fond reminiscing with that unfortunate debacle), and meeting Mikael Akerfeldt on a tour bus in ’08 was the whole reason I quit my day job and got into freelancing to begin with.
At the time, there wasn’t an album in the world that sounded ANYTHING like this one. Atmospheric and melodic acoustic segments, full force death metal, sections that melded the two, and those poetic, mysterious lyrics all came together to create a powerhouse that catapulted Opeth to the top of the underground metal kingdom.
The cry of “When can I take you from this place, when can we scream instead of whisper” was essentially my personal anthem for a lot of years trapped in a home situation I didn’t want to be a part of at all. I listened to this thing late at night on my headphones while the parents were asleep hundreds of times, diving deep into the esoteric sounds and dreaming strange premonitions in my slumber.
Tristania – World Of Glass
From Samael’s track Together to the similarly titled We’re In This Together from Nine Inch Nails, there are more love songs in the heavy realm than you might expect. Tragic romance and forbidden love are hot topics in the gothic and symphonic metal realms, especially in the earlier Tristania albums.
In high school, my girlfriend and I fell hard for Tristania with the Widow’s Weeds album, but it was World Of Glass that would stick with me the longest. Third track Tender Trip On Earth is so unlike any love song you’ll ever hear that I guarantee you’ll never forget it.
When you add in the anti-religious themes of the album (which was very appealing to me at the time), you had the perfect storm for a romantic black metal kid whose parents hated his pagan girlfriend. There’s much more appeal to the album than just that aspect though, from ninth song The Modern End’s post-modern take on music to closing track Crushed Dreams having this amazing gothic atmosphere that still stands up to anything today.
At 17 years old when I finally saved up enough money to put a CD player in my vehicle, opening track The Shining Path was the first song I ever played to properly christen the car.
Katatonia – Last Fair Deal Gone Down
I will never forget the feel of unfolding this album’s thick, four square insert (back when physical packaging was still a thing) and exploring the interior artwork and lyrics.
Sadly, I haven’t been digging the latest output from this genre-morphing Swedish institution, but there was a time when Katatonia was among my go-to musical outlets.
Much like Amorphis, the band has radically changed sounds, going from death metal to a depressive rock sound.
Last Fair Deal Gone Down is another album much like Amorphis’ Am Universum that I absolutely was not expecting based on the underground metal I had been hearing at the time. You can tell there’s a metal influence in the sound and the songwriting, but you won’t find any screams or blast beats here.
The melancholy feel, injecting in both a downtrodden atmosphere and occasional moments of hope, definitely spoke to me as a kid, with songs like Transpire in particular feeling like they were tailor made for my ears. The album really breaks a lot of genre barriers along the way, like with the truly oddball We Must Bury You.
Last Fair Deal Gone Down further sits in a unique position on the band’s output, arriving after the relentlessly bleak Discouraged Ones but before more modern takes like Viva Emptiness or Night Is The New Day. It’s a forgotten entry in the band’s output that’s well worth returning to from time to time.
Dimmu Borgir – In Sorte Diaboli
I first got into this long-running (and now long-absent) Norwegian band as a teen with Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, which sat proudly in my pawn shop-bought Discman during church outings and study hall alike (yes, my Discman, and it skipped like a mother fucker all the damn time).
Near the end of high school, Spiritual Black Dimensions was in heavy rotation when I finally got a car and needed to blast some metal on the way to work. It would be a few years later though when Dimmu Borgir really hit me with the combination of style and substance on concept album In Sorte Diaboli.
The album arrived just as physical media was starting to take a major hit in favor of digital, and going to the record shop to pick up your favorite band’s new release was still a thing. I poured over every last millimeter of the insert on this one, studying all the writings online I could find to piece together the album’s story of a priest who has doubts about his religion.
Arriving before ICS Vortex was booted from the band, for me this is the pinnacle of Dimmu Borgir, perfectly expressing the sound and lyrical concepts that the band stands for. There are some really unexpected elements on the album as well, like the odd mounting keyboard intro to The Sacrilegious Scorn, or the unexpected interlude The Fallen Arises, which frankly sounds like it belongs on the Planescape: Torment soundtrack.
Arch Enemy – Anthems of Rebellion
We’ll wrap up this first look at albums that radically changed my outlook on music on a incredibly energetic note with Arch Enemy’s Anthems Of Rebellion, which first graced my ears in Cisco class junior year of high school.
I had no idea that death metal was capable of being this anthemic or fist pumping, and my world sort of exploded when I figured out that the hell beast vocalist was a lady by the name of Angela.
Silent Wars is such an incredible pump-you-up track, but hands down my favorite has to be Leader Of The Rats, with its throat-shredding vocals and tasty riffs that sort of demand spontaneous headbanging. Playing this disc in your car makes you feel like you should be in a high speed chase.
There are many more albums I’ve had the opportunity to review over the years that would radically change how I viewed music, so stay tuned for the next entry! In the mean time let me know — what albums exploded your brain and made you re-think the concept of music?