Our Djent Problem – Is There Truth In Perception?

Originally written by Jordan Campbell

Djent is inherently problematic.

The forefathers of the sound, Meshuggah, are one of the most complex, innovative acts in the history of progressive metal. That alone should lend the Scions of Chug a modicum of credibility, at least within extreme circles.

Slight issue: This pedigree is significantly damaged when the core sound can be replicated by hitting a stick.

As such, the subgenre is a controversial entity. Djentrification has been on the creep for years, and the underground is rife with skepticism and unrest. A vocal minority sees it as the future of progressive metal, casting it favorably as a futuristic and long-overdue detachment from retro trappings and Euro-pomp. Meanwhile, the majority of underdwellers see it as a simplistic, bullshitty trend, a reincarnation of nu-metal for the twenty-something set.

The question: Is djent a beacon or a blight?

Maybe it’s both.

Not all djent is created equal. The practitioners typically fall into three distinct groups (with Hacktivist as an obvious outlier). Let’s explore.

 • • •

THE KIDMAN/HAAKE COMPLEX

Djent’s most prominent incarnation mainlines full-strength Meshuggah, and also includes the acts that bro-volved from deathcore’s still-smoldering ashes, such as After the Burial and Structures. This is the heavier-than-thou edge of the spectrum, and the one that should—in theory—appeal to extremists.

It doesn’t.

The main problem lies in the vocal delivery. Godfather Kidman’s vocal range isn’t exactly the stuff of legend. His static bellows have been known to ground even the most kinetic Meshuggah cuts. (“Pravus,” I’m looking at you.) But when bands try to emulate Kidman’s delivery—such as Vildhjarta or the slightly-more-nuanced Uneven Structure—it only serves to highlight Kidman’s unmatched talent for finding the pocket and turning his voice into a percussive device of its own.

One could fault Meshuggah themselves for looming too large over their offspring; their shadow is inescapable, and the band is still (arguably) in their prime. But that’s a bullshit argument. It’s not Metallica’s fault that no one gives a shit about Sacred Reich. Problem is, these younger acts aren’t doing enough to step out and separate their sound. A band like Uneven Structure is perceived as only mildly ambitious, when they should be downright strident. It’s impossible to escape a shadow while jogging a half step behind its throw.

These acts are playing around in predetermined confines, belying the alleged nature of progressive metal itself. Worse still are bands like the aforementioned After The Burial, who are Control-V’ing others’ progress for their own jumpdafuckup patchwork, or Thira, who forge themselves into a 2014 incarnation of Ozzfest second-stagers by hammering on a single tactic.

Here, the signature chug becomes a crutch. A breakdown replacement. A trendy trick. And thus, derision swells. Djent is framed as something reserved for scenester acts with chronic Lead Singer Syndrome and the all-ages bro-down ethos. (And few things are worse than the sight of grown-ass men playing childrens’ music.) But even though this stuff gets the most attention, it’s not a true representation of djentdom. It’s merely an opportunistic bastardization.

 • • •

THE PROG PUSHERS

While many are content to copy and paste, daring djentlemen do exist. They utilize Meshuggah’s oddball foundation, yet refuse to remain tethered to their central tenets. TesseracT and Periphery are the most notable acts to take the core sound into proggy headspaces, but their stylistic quirks have been met with significant backlash. The problem?

Vocals. Again.

Like most prog acts, they use predominantly clean vocals, with is bizarrely anathema to most ‘heads.

(Can we step back and appreciate this insane paradox for a moment? That these bands are being skewered for singing, while Sludge Band #4007 gets a free pass because their bassist can yell with a certain degree of fervor? Or Local Death Metal Band #28567 gets points for their “brutal” and/or “sick” barfgargles? Heavy metal conservatism strikes again. Stay comfy, kids.)

Another issue with this take on the sound is that it leans less “progressive metal” and more Capital-P “prog.” More Coheed than Dillinger, more Mars Volta than Destrage or The Safety Fire. They push, but only so much. And that’s problematic in itself: Heavy metal is supposed to be dangerous, but these guys are squeaky-clean and chromed-out.

Long story short? It’s a little too tame, and more than a little manufactured. It takes a small army to keep these machines moving, and that’s fine, but if metal history has shown us anything, some of the best underground movements have been spawned in solitude.

 • • •

THE BEDROOM VISIONARIES

The first two groups shoulder the responsibility for djent’s perception problem. They’ve co-opted the sound for purposes of appeal, and metalheads have a hyper-sensitive radar for disingenuousness. (Whether these blips are real or imagined is best argued on a case-by-case basis—and on a different set of pages.)

Regardless of accuracy, we pull for the underdogs. The ones that get their hands dirty. The ones that follow an uncontrollable muse, untethered to commerce and charged by rebellion. (Hey, it only took us a couple of decades to catch up to punk rock, but at least we’re here, dammit.)

Under the surface, djent is teeming with true independence. It’s a scene rippling with vitality, and possibly one of the most unique, inspiring things to hit heavy metal since the initial surge of the Second Wave.

There are two dominant figures in the solo djent arena: Tosin Abasi and Ben Sharp.

Abasi’s Animals As Leaders project is the worshipped deity: The wildly-talented, off-planet act that is actually putting the word “progress” into the term “progressive rock.” He took a solo project and built it into a headlining act. His talents are intimidating, and his business model is almost impossible for soilworkers to emulate without his perfect combination of insane skill and good fortune. Furthermore, with the recent release of The Joy of Motion, AAL has reached next-fucking-level status; his jazz-fueled shred has shot to unattainable heights.

Abasi is the Zeus of bedroom djentdom. Ben Sharp is Prometheus.

His gift? Bandcamp.

Sharp’s Cloudkicker project was a trailblazer: He released The Discovery, a crushing-yet-melodic riff on Meshuggah’s blueprint, in 2008. Digitally. For free. (All of his work up to and including 2010’s Beacons is essential.) This seemingly-insane business model has now become something of the norm for upstarts.

The approach of the Bandcamp-based new breed can vary wildly: Delicate, sunshining prog comes courtesy of Plini and Sithu Aye, while an act like Nemertines will satiate primal urges for stupid-heavy (and kinda creepy) compression.

Somewhere in the middle lies Miroist, a dexterous, compact riff project that’s teeming with both class and crush. The recently-released Curve is subtle in its devastation and hyper-intelligent in applying rolling grooves—a stark contrast to the acts outlined in the first category, who pummel with a level of restraint usually reserved for people that think elimination of the Department of Education is a legitimate policital stance.

Curve was self-recorded and self-released as a NYP download. All of the merch was crowdsourced using Kickstarter.

 • • •

So, back to the question: Is djent a beacon or a blight?

Is it a grassroots movement born from bootstrapped upstarts? Lone wolves that just have to get the riff out at all costs (and no cost to the consumer)?

Or is it merely a cheap trick employed by uncreative pander-metallers, dudes that take their cues from their peers and their influences from the day before yesterday?

Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer at this stage. The battle is still being waged. But I’m throwing my bankroll behind the former stance.

As the first “new” subgenre of metal in decades (!), it also has the distinction of being the first metal movement that was spawned in the Youtube era. The djent infection spread at light speed, to the point where the “sellout” acts had co-opted the sound before the independent progenitors could even gain traction. (Imagine if black metal went from Under A Funeral Moon to Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia in the span of eighteen months.) This is problematic for the little guy, as it’s hard to stretch out and strive for that Animals As Leaders / Cloudkicker level of appeal when they’re being beaten to the punch by people that are co-opting the youth movement and cheapening their craft.

However, that shouldn’t stop us from appreciating their work. Metal fans have an amazing propensity for ignoring flash-in-the-pan pop acts while championing their miniature heroes. The same thing applies here, just on a much smaller scale. Despite being a few years ahead of their time, acts like Cloudkicker and Miroist are sketching the blueprint for vitality amidst the new realities of the music business.

Don’t let the cynics smear their revolution.

Posted by Old Guard

The retired elite of LastRites/MetalReview.

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