“Sold out.” “Gone soft.” These are phrases we hear when metal bands step a toe in the land of the light. Perhaps inspired by my recent article about heavy bands that took huge left turns with respect to their creative direction, it got me thinking about how much I enjoy when metal bands include something different on an already heavy album: a token curveball among a collection of 100 mph fastballs.
Because it’s coming from a heavy band, I almost appreciate it more when we get a glimpse into the more vulnerable side of genre known for projecting unyielding strength and stoic resolve. Often it affects me more than listening to a folk artist like Jack Johnson where the entire soundscape is sensitive, quiet, and beautiful. I yearn for the peaks and valleys, the yins and yangs.
As I was formulating this list, I had to set up some parameters:
First, what classifies as a heavy band? I could have included Alice In Chains’ “Nutshell”, which is a monumentally popular track, loved by metalheads and normal folks alike. Is Alice In Chains a rock band? A metal band? It’s difficult to say, but I felt that they released a substantial quantity of acoustic, lighter music that it’s basically just part of their sound.
A similar example of this would be a band like Opeth who is (was?) definitely metal, but always went back and forth between very heavy melodic death metal and smooth folk-y prog within one song. When they finally put out a full-on light album, Damnation, it wasn’t so much a deviation as it was particularly focused.
In keeping with referencing Opeth’s songwriting style, for a song to be considered, it had to be relatively mellow the entire way through. This disallowed tracks like Avenged Sevenfold’s “Buried Alive”.
I really love this tune, “Tired Of You”, by the Foo Fighters, but their catalogue is definitely not heavy enough for this song to be considered a departure.
I should also give a giant honorable mention to Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”, but I talk enough about Metallica on here, so I prefer to shine a light on some more unheralded tracks.
With that said, here are my favorite light songs by heavy bands:
Testament – “Trail Of Tears” (Acoustic Version)
Despite Testament being one of thrash metal’s most ferocious groups, every Testament album between Practice What You Preach (1989) and Low (1994) featured a ballad. And guess what? Testament was very good at writing ballads. They were never cheesy (to me at least), and they still sounded like Testament songs. The musicianship in Testament always seemed to be a notch above their peers, with maybe only Megadeth comparing, and those abilities and versatility were on full display in these types of songs. “Trail Of Tears” was originally featured on Low, but this awesome acoustic version is from 1995’s Live At The Fillmore with James Murphy on lead guitar.
Mastodon – “White Walker”
You won’t find too many Mastodon detractors. Rarely has a heavy band been allowed to slowly evolve. As one of it’s generation’s most experimental groups, they have been able to grab new audiences with each expansive release without disaffecting it’s longtime, loyal fanbase. Mastodon has walked this tightrope flawlessly. Many people probably forget how unapologetically heavy and crushing those early records are. They have evolved into something more in keeping with a psychedelic prog act, but Mastodon had never released something that was this mellow and soothing before. “White Walker” is a brand new song released as part of the Catch the Throne: The Mixtape Volume 2, as a companion piece to HBO’s global phenomenon cable show, Game of Thrones. This song hypnotized me. I listened to it about 100 times in 2 days. It fits the vibe of the show perfectly, and I hope Mastodon does more stuff like this.
Poison The Well – “Slow Good Morning”
Poison The Well is one of the most important bands for turn-of-the-century metalcore and post-hardcore. Unlike Mastodon, their sonic metamorphosis, although slow, did not pull old fans along for the ride. Though history will probably remember them for old crowd favorites like “Nerdy” and “Botchla”, I thought the band became more and more artistically interesting with each album released that distanced them from their more basic, hardcore roots. “Slow Good Morning” is the culmination of their transformation. The song’s old-time-y sullen country feel is cinematic and alluring. Instrumentation choices like using a Mellotron are captivating, and I love the horns on the outro.
Demon Hunter – “My Throat Is An Open Grave”
Demon Hunter have come a very long way. Starting in 2000 as a part time Christian metal band that would rarely tour, their recorded output began to speak for itself with each subsequent release, outselling most of their counterparts that were full time bands. There may have been a huge Christian fanbase, but there are also plenty of people like myself, who loved the band just because they are fantastic, with little regard for their religiosity. “My Throat Is An Open Grave” is from Demon Hunter’s 2002 self-titled debut. The album itself is mediocre in comparison to the band’s later material, but that song stood out then, and is still absolutely gripping. Vocalist, Ryan Clark, has a world-class rock voice and timbre, and this was evident on day one.
Pantera – “Suicide Note Pt. I”
There was a big temptation on my behalf to include “Planet Caravan”, Pantera’s haunting Black Sabbath cover that closed Far Beyond Driven. The more I thought about it, I realized Pantera deserved to be recognized for an original song. Their versatility is really what made them the biggest metal band of their era. Like Metallica before them and Slipknot after, being the top dog requires serious range. Even though “Suicide Note Pt. I” is an acoustic song, it never loses any of the intensity Pantera was known for. Much of it had to do with Phil Anselmo’s vocal delivery, which was as emotive as it was masculine, but never felt forced. From “Cemetery Gates” to “Hollow” to “Floods”, these guys always knew how to paint with different colors. This type of breather in the midst of crushing jams is what was missing from Pantera’s swan song, Reinventing the Steel.
Times Of Grace – “The Forgotten One”
If you aren’t aware, Times Of Grace is the side project of Killswitch Engage members Adam D and Jesse Leach. Their only album, The Hymn Of A Broken Man, was released in 2011, before Leach had rejoined Killswitch Engage as lead vocalist. On first listens, the material is not much different than Killswitch, but there is a depth and soulful expression that Killswitch just doesn’t strive for. I found this to be extremely refreshing. A song like “The Forgotten One” exemplifies this willingness to go deeper and bare more intimate emotions. Hearing it made wonder why Killswitch never tried anything like that. Jesse really shines as the tune plays to his strength as a blues singer who just happens to be in metal bands. I also implore you to check out the entire album and the acoustic version of another album standout, “Willing”. More of this, please.
Baroness – “Twinkler”
It’s very interesting when you take a look at Baroness’ career in comparison to Mastodon, because to my ears, early Baroness took a healthy nod from Mastodon’s sound. But unlike Mastodon, Baroness didn’t take 4 or 5 albums to evolve into something different. They flipped a switch. On the latest Baroness double album release, Yellow & Green (2012), the band pulled an about-face, stripped most of the metal from their sound, and settled into being one of the most intriguing rock bands in the world. What’s amazing is the band only got bigger, reborn with a fresh identity. “Twinkler” is a song that I listen to, and I feel like I can see into the infinite cosmos; it’s transcendent. I know my job is to put these feelings into words, but it’s sincerely a tall order to elaborate without me sounding like I took some type of hallucinogenic compound. What a band…
Sevendust – “Angel’s Son”
Sevendust are one of my favorite bands. They are one of the best live metal bands…period. I’ve probably seen them perform 20-30 times since 1998, and I would say they are still underrated. “Angel’s Son” was originally recorded as part of the compilation album, Straight Up (2000), which was a tribute to deceased Snot lead singer, Lynn Straight. The song was a fairly successful hit on radio and MTV, and eventually Sevendust re-recorded the track for their album, Animosity, which is my favorite album by the band. “Angel’s Son” almost feels like a gospel tune with the spiritually minded lyrics and Lajon’s signature croon. Guitarist and 2nd vocalist, Clint Lowery, really made his mark on the track as well. It may be the catchiest song the band has ever written, and will get the entire crowd singing along without fail.
Slipknot – “Vermillion Pt. 2”
I probably don’t need to give any lengthy back story on Slipknot, considering the magnitude of their success, but I think it’s very important to point out how much a departure, Vol. 3:The Subliminal Verse, really was. Although the first 2 albums had a couple songs do well at radio, the entire ethos surrounding Slipknot’s material was focused on unstoppable adrenalized explosiveness. Perhaps, the lines between where Slipknot started and Stone Sour ended had become blurred, but super producer, Rick Rubin, opened doors that allowed the band to tunefully express themselves as artists and somehow make it through the other side with their identity intact. This song and it’s seamless interplay with counterpart, “Vermillion Pt. 1“, added another dimension to an already fascinating band.
Divine Heresy – “Closure” (Acoustic Version)
I certainly can’t claim objectivity with this choice, as I’ve been playing in bands with the singer, Tommy Vext, for years. If you just heard this song without listening to Divine Heresy’s other material, you may be in for a real surprise because it’s disgustingly fast and heavy. Divine Heresy was a band legendary guitarist, Dino Cazares, started before he rejoined Fear Factory. Their debut album, Bleed The Fifth, is unbelievable — it’s almost like Killswitch Engage went death metal. It was really ahead of it’s time and is worth checking out. “Closure” was the album’s epic, melodic closer (pun intended?). This acoustic version is a beautiful rendition that shows what you can accomplish with a phenomenal singer and simply effective songwriting.
Do you have any lighter songs by heavy bands that you enjoy as well? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.