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Avant-Garde Metal

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Primary Stylistic Influences (Avant-Garde):
Stylistic Influences (Experimental):

So you think Progressive Metal isn't technical, "smart" or experimental enough? Does it sound boring to you? Do you find its musical rules too limiting? Why not make prog metal even more prog, more wacky, up the unorthodoxy, and throw in all the faux-classical/jazz/folk/electronic/new wave/noise/whatever you can find? And that, my friends, is how you get avant-garde metal.

Avant-garde metal, also called "art metal" or "avant-metal", is a subgenre of Heavy Metal defined by the liberal use of innovative, Avant-Garde Music elements such as unconventional instruments, song structures and playing styles. It evolved out of Progressive Metal with influences from jazz fusion, classical, and extreme metal, and is primarily characterized by extreme musical virtuosity, a near-abandonment of heavy metal standards and a highly polished, technical sound. Avant-garde artists often seek to create an unusual, dynamic, and highly varied sound, in the same vein as most Progressive Metal artists. The two genres often overlap and may sound confusing to some listeners, but the main difference is that avant-garde metal artists usually take an additional step beyond and strive to push the boundaries of what's musically possible within heavy metal.

Often listed as a sister genre to avant-garde metal is the aptly-named "experimental metal" subgenre, which refers to a subgenre of metal, more specifically a direct offshoot of extreme metal that focuses on creating a bizarre, abstract sound through large-scale experimentation, the use of nonstandard sounds, extended playing and vocal techniques, varying degrees of musical manipulation, and the infusion of sounds from different and disparate musical genres outside of metal, such as world music, electronic, breakbeat, and noise music. In this regard, it overlaps with Alternative Metal and Nu Metal, and is seen as having grown out of it.

As with Alternative Metal and Nu Metal, avant-garde metal and experimental metal are often used interchangeably, and like the former two genres, metalheads will often argue that avant-garde and experimental are the same thing, but in recent years, a distinction between avant-garde and experimental has arisen, with "avant-garde" being more about proficient and innovative musicianship, while "experimental" being more about transcending stylistic constraints. Both subsets, however, remain very loosely defined, as bands that fall into either one or both genres also overlap considerably with other related genres such as progressive or alternative metal.

A partial list of bands and artists considered as or frequently associated with avant-garde metal and/or experimental metal include the following:

The avant-garde and experimental metal subgenres provide examples of the following tropes:

  • All Drummers Are Animals: Subverted - the scene is home to some of the best drummers in metal, most of which possess monstrous stamina, but they really know their thing as opposed to the "big, dumb drummer" stereotype. Good examples include Matt Halpern (Periphery), Van Williams (Nevermore) and drum virtuosos Tomas Haake (Meshuggah) and Yoshiki Hayashi (X Japan)
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: Appreciating Avant-garde/experimental metal can be highly difficult, and usually, listeners cannot particularly identify what makes a certain song sound awesome, especially when it sounds like a chaotic mash-up of different metal and/or non-metal subgenres made to sound like an orderly mess, when it is drenched in guitar effects/digital processing/orchestral elements, or, if a song is old enough, endlessly copied that it sounds like ''every other song'' out there. Some examples are probably made more awesome and difficult to listen to at the same time when artists deliberately encrypt thought-stimulating ideas into the music itself. Good examples of the application of this trope would be the Fibonacci sequence in "Lateralus" by tool and many a Meshuggah song.note 
  • Dead Unicorn Trope: The definition of avant-garde metal (and to an extent, experimental metal) is frequently a matter of debate. Some metal fans argue that avant-garde metal isn't a standalone genre, because many bands and artists associated with the label also fall under Progressive Metal, Alternative Metal, mathcore and similar genres, but its questionable status as a genre is primarily due to the existence of a certain subset of metal...
    • Additionally, while the idea of a high-concept novelty band is often strongly associated with the genre (thanks to bands like Therion, Diablo Swing Orchestra, and Dog Fashion Disco), it is by no means a requirement; many such concept-based acts also exist outside avant-garde metal, and most avant-garde metal bands would rather choose to stand out musically without seeing the need to create a particular mythos or write a Concept Album about a niche concept.
  • Doing It for the Art. Many of these bands feature very educated or technically skilled musicians, sometimes both, with a strong artistic grounding at least for some members.
    • This artistic foundation often shows itself in live shows and studio playthroughs, with members sometimes covering elaborate classical or jazz compositions and even playing such works in an entirely different instrument, such as when Yoshiki of X Japan converted a Rachmaninoff piece into drums.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Early avant-garde or experimental metal bands are usually just either Progressive Metal or extreme metal with a bit more unconventional style. More and more bands added bigger and bigger elements from other musical genres until avant-garde metal becomes a distinctive genre of its own flesh instead of mere dialect of prog metal.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: While other metal bands outside of this genre did utilise this trope to a certain extent, many, many bands here took it to its radical extreme.
  • Genre-Busting/Genre Roulette: Experimental metal, and to some extent, avant-garde metal draws influence from a very wide range of musical styles. Bands and artists who fall under the label also tend to produce material showcasing different styles of music, which may not exactly be "metal" in the conventional sense.
  • Grunge/Post-Grunge: The grunge movement and its subsequent post-grunge counterpart played a role in Trope Codifier phase of both avant-garde and experimental metal, particularly the former's dark guitar effects, DIY subculture and aesthetic, coupled with the latter's accessibility and appeal.
  • Idol Singer: Arguably a staple in Japanese avant-garde/experimental metal, thanks to BABYMETAL.
  • Improv: It's not uncommon for the bands in this genre to include free improvisation.
  • Kayfabe Music: Many (but not all) avant-garde and experimental metal acts are so-called novelty bands; primarily revolving around and cultivating a unique image and mythos that would make them stand out from other bands in the general heavy metal milieu. While many such acts such as Diablo Swing Orchestra and Buckethead have maintained a consistent image throughout their musical careers, others such as Dir en grey and Devin Townsend have undergone numerous persona changes and stylistic evolutions.
  • Lead Bassist: Loads and loads of Type A (the virtuoso type, common in avant-garde) and Type D (musical lead, common in experimental) examples.
  • Man of a Thousand Voices: Most examples of this trope in metal fall under the avant-garde metal umbrella. Some of the most notable include Mike Patton, Kyo of Dir en grey, Devin Townsend, Roughton Reynolds of Enter Shikari, Serj Tankian of System of a Down, Julien Truchan of Benighted, Travis Ryan of Cattle Decapitation, Toby Driver of Kayo Dot, and Jonathan Davis of Korn. Toshi was an early example with his ability to combine Melismatic Vocals and Metal Scream. Yasuko Onuki of Melt-Banana and Courtney Laplante of Iwrestledabearonce (and Spiritbox) are female examples.
  • Multiple Demographic Appeal: A huge chunk of the genre's reputation rests upon its appeal to both Heavy Metal fans as well as fans of other musical styles who don't mind venturing out of their comfort zone.
  • Popularity Polynomial: The genre got off to a strong start in The '90s when several of its most influential acts first emerged out of the underground scene and into the mainstream, conveniently riding the wave of creative musicianship that later gave rise to Nu Metal. However, this path to success nearly led to the genre's extinction when its more mainstream counterpart fell from grace, and all but the most extreme avant-garde/experimental bands saw their fanbases dwindle as the genre was written off as pretentious and derivative. Several attempts to rehabilitate the genre were done by bands such as Enter Shikari and The Dillinger Escape Plan, but the genre was largely overshadowed in the West by the then-emerging djent scene which derived heavily from it. It took almost a decade of being a dumping ground for bands too weird to be classed as alternative, djent, or mathcore until avant-garde metal regained popularity in The New '10s, beginning with Korn's comeback album The Path of Totality which combined Groove Metal and Nu Metal stylings with modern Electronic Music. A similarly huge push came from foreign, mostly Japanese, musical acts, such as Babymetal and their eclectic, mainstream-friendly brand of "kawaii metal", and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, which took the electronica-infused style of Enter Shikari and pushed it to absurd extremes. The genre's ethos of Doing It for the Art proved to be a valid statement for a growing number of metal bands dissatisfied with an increasingly derivative industry of retro-metal pandering and soundalike "mallcore" bands, and these same bands began pushing the envelope of what is possible within Heavy Metal, bringing back much-needed diversity to the genre and appealing to a broader audience, with many avant-garde and experimental acts producing both radio-friendly but still recognizably metallic hits, as well as exceedingly technical and extreme productions that have garnered critical acclaim. In the 2020s social climate of faster-paced musical trends, convention-challenging creativity, and artists prioritizing authenticity over industry money, it would be safe to say that avant-garde metal is back in vogue.
  • Postmodernism: Quite often the one concept that underpins all material classified under the genre, to the point where one would find it difficult to find anything in the genre that isn't made to be postmodern art. The trope is also one of the prime reasons why critics and fans either hold the genre in high regard or dismiss it as metal for the musically inept.
  • Spiritual Successor: Avant-garde metal is this to early Progressive Metal while experimental is this to Alternative Metal.
  • Stylistic Suck: Bands on the more extreme end of avant-garde and experimental metal often adopt this stance when it comes with their music, and would produce the harshest, weirdest, and most abstract tunes they could as a way to prove their nonconformity or silence critics. The irony to this is that their intentional breaking of musical conventions is often rooted in a firm and sometimes academic knowledge in music theory, instrument playing, and sound production, giving credence to the whole rule of "following the rules before breaking them"
  • Trope Codifier: Therion for avant-garde metal in general and Enter Shikari for modern avant-garde. For the Western scene, Faith No More for experimental metal in general, Meshuggah for djenty experimental, and System of a Down for modern experimental metal. Dir en grey, Sigh, Sound Horizon and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas are credited as these for the Eastern scene.
  • Trope Maker: Either Voivod or Celtic Frost, for avant-garde (though the latter is usually seen as the Ur-Example). The origins of experimental metal are a little less definite, though Meshuggah, Korn and Mr. Bungle are arguably safe bets.
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible: Perhaps the only idea that can describe the entire genre in a nutshell, at least for the average metalhead.
  • Ur-Example: Either Celtic Frost or Atheist for the West, and X Japan for the Japanese emergence of it. Elements of what has now become avant-garde metal can be traced to bands such as Dream Theater, Sieges Even and King Crimson.
  • Widget Series: The genre literally thrives in Japan, where some of the biggest and most recognizable acts (X Japan, Dir en grey, Sound Horizon, Sigh, Babymetal etc.) are based.


Video Example(s):


Diablo Swing Orchestra

Diablo Swing Orchestra, also shortened DSO, is a Swedish avant-garde metal band formed in 2003. They have released four albums: The Butcher's Ballroom (2006), Sing Along Songs for the Damned & Delirious (2009), Pandora's Pinata (2012) and Pacifisticuffs (2017).<br><br>Known for its blend of different genres, the band mixes numerous influences, most prominently from heavy metal, rock, swing, progressive, and classical, although various other influences are frequently mentioned by critics. The line-up features several instruments uncommon for rock or metal bands, such as a cellist, a trumpeter, and a trombonist, while their albums often prominently feature string and brass sections.<br><br>The song used as an example is "Voodoo Mon Amour."

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