Written by John Angel
“I take core in my metal”
Hello to all the wonderful, underground theydies and djentlethems! Today I’m bringing you the sixth installment of The Z-List, a column dedicated to bringing some much deserved attention to the underground of underground music and celebrating the people that make up our small community. We’re after the smallest, most obscure bands and projects that lack institutional support. No label? That’s Z-List. One person band? Z-Lister band. Mainstream music journalists say liking this band is elitist?? Oh baby, that’s the most Z-List of all! Our sixth entry in the Z-List column features four projects that all share some pretty heavy metalcore influences. We have an exciting quartet from the UK, a prog trio from Boston, a queer, one person djent project from New York, and perhaps the most Z-List project I’ve ever covered from California. Let’s dive in!
Moon Machine – Moon Machine
Prog rock/metal from Boston, US
Released Jul 30, 2021
We start our latest instalment with the group perhaps least influenced by the metalcore craze of the last 20 years, Moon Machine. Hailing from Boston, this trio plays a brand of prog reminiscent of Porcupine Tree and Tool. Headbanging riffs, soaring choruses, a mix dripping with atmosphere and space, and detailed arrangements featuring myriad instruments and vocal layers are what’s on tap for Moon Machine’s self titled debut album. You’re guaranteed to find something you like! My favorite aspect of this record is the emotional sweep. I feel like I really go on a journey here. One track in particular encapsulates this emotional journey and that’s “Reckoning”. Grooving riffage starts off the track and gets your head a-bangin’. This groove section alternates with a beautiful, soaring melody in the chorus before bringing all the energy down for a hushed, acoustic bridge. We slowly have the energy restored with a gradual build into the last chorus that gives way to an outro guitar solo. Dear reader, I fucking love outro guitar solos! There’s something so satisfying about hitting the high of that last chorus and then going out in a shred fest. My words here don’t do justice to the emotional trip you take with this track. You have to listen to it.
Moon Machine has put together a well constructed and compelling record. It’s very accessible and melodic while offering the rhythmic and songwriting flourishes so common in music with the “prog” moniker. I look forward to seeing what this trio does next. I feel they can deliver on a really expansive vision in their future output. Be sure to give this one a spin when it drops July 30!!
EARTHLY BODIES – PARADISE
Prog metalcore from New York, NY
Released February 5, 2021
We get way nastier in our sonic palette with the next entry, EARTHLY BODIES, a one-human prog metalcore outfit that describes themselves as “queer djent to study and relax to” and their debut, PARADISE – a concept album laying out the history of The Dread, a “nomadic and ancient evil alien civilization”. Steph, the human behind all the intergalactic mayhem, hasn’t explicitly spelled out their influences but I hear lots of older The Contortionist and I feel this project could be the musical descendant of their legendary first record, Exoplanet. But let’s get back to Steph and their music. Vacillating between breakdowns resulting in aural evisceration and dreamy, lush soundscapes of beautiful ambiance, PARADISE serves up an ambient djent record for the ages. One thing I really appreciate about this album are the varied song structures. After the intro track we get two straight forward tunes in “ENGAGE” and “PARADISE” that both utilize verse-chorus form, often a vehicle for the stylistic conventions of pop singles. And wouldn’t you know it, both these tracks are singles for the record, containing pop sensibilities that appeal to wide audiences. “ALTAR”, the next track, is a behemoth, clocking in at over 11 minutes and displaying Steph’s more experimental tendencies. The rest of the album is fairly experimental when it comes to song structure and includes a beautiful instrumental in “PURPOSE” that’s basically an 8 minute build up to an incredibly cathartic release. I think this is a pretty cool way to write a record. It nods to the commercial forces that musicians have to contend with if they want to make a living releasing music while still maintaining an artistic vision that incorporates experimentation. Plus, doing both forces you to grow as an artist.
I’m going to get on my soapbox for a second. Metal is full of straight white dudes in general and prog bands and fandoms especially. I’m really happy to see an artist like Steph queering this music. We need more queer musicians in metal. In conclusion, if you like sci-fi metal and/or face melting djent, you need to listen to this record. That’s all there is to it.
if i had a heart – IF I HAD A HEART
Metalcore/djent from Oakley, CA
Released March 20, 2021
We now come to what is perhaps the most Z-List release I’ve covered in this column (more on that statement below). if i had a heart’s self-titled record is a fantastic blend of death metal, djent, and proggy bits brought into this world by one Richard Reynolds. “Plague”, the lead track, is a muscular piece of tech death that bludgeons the ear with riffs at a break-neck pace. Reynolds totally flips the script on the next track, “The Sound of Darkness”, by serving up an atmospheric death-doom track that plods along in a slow-moving, irresistible sonic avalanche. “Makes You Honest” throws us yet another curveball in the form of a straight up pop song. We get a big riff plus big synths followed by a trap beat with female pop vocals. The lyrics are even about relationship drama while doing drugs! Stylistic diversity is definitely the hallmark of this record and is born out in the rest of the tracks. Mr. Reynolds knows his way around genre convention. Not to mention the mix is phenomenal, especially for a semi-anonymous project.
Now, why is this the most Z-List release? It’s because I can’t find ANYTHING about this band/record. Reynolds is credited with music on every track and has a handful of guest vocalists who I can also find precious little on. There’s a semi-famous DJ with the same name but I don’t think it’s the same person. No social media presence for the project. Vocals on the track “From the Void” are credited to “CeilingsInTheirEyes” and searching for that leads to an Instagram profile of a musician that sells their vocal talents on Fiverr. I guess I’ll tag that dude in the post and see if he can’t help me in the search. Or at least let Richard know someone reviewed their music. But for real, this record fucking whips and if you’re into death metal and/or djent you should check it out!
Insurgent – Sentient
Metalcore from Birmingham, UK
Releases Aug 6, 2021
Our last project for this Z-List is hard-charging metalcore quartet Insurgent. Hailing from Birmingham, UK, this young outfit delivers a polished and well-written debut EP in Sentient. Fans of the more melodic and polished metal acts of today will find a lot to love here. Vocalist Kate Teitge leads the charge with her beautiful voice and soaring melodies like one finds on Jinjer and Trivium records. She doesn’t do any screaming but I find myself not caring at all. Her voice kicks that much ass and there’s still plenty of heavy moments all over the record. Guitarist Joe Rowley has at least one sweet riff on every track and brings the angular, downtuned style all the rage in the djent/prog scene these days. Insurgent bring buckets full of groove to the table as well. Jake Brettle (bass) and Mike Tebone (drums) make a tight rhythm section that provides the body-moving bedrock on which Kate and Joe are able to do their thing.
My favorite thing about Sentient is the songwriting. Each track is well-crafted with nuanced differences between the repeated sections and careful attention to how the sonic energy builds and releases. Yes, we’re talking about pop songs and sensibilities here but it takes skill and reflects a honed craft to write such compelling songs in this style. All your favorite Iron Maiden tracks are fuckin’ pop songs anyway. My hat’s off to Insurgent for producing a well written and focused debut EP in Sentient. Make sure to give it a spin when it drops August 6!!