As a working-class foursome from Allentown, Pennsylvania (the town that inspired the Billy Joel song “Allentown”), Pissed Jeans vent their frustrations through a bludgeoning, midtempo grunge punk sound focused on sexual depression and factory-town hopelessness, all doused in a heavy coat of sarcasm and apathy. On a sweltering August night in 2003, the Gatecrashers were driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco while rocking out to World Wrestling Federation: The Music, Vol. 2. During the peak of the sweaty singalong they realized they were onto something special and decided it would be fun to form a side project where they sang songs in the vein of the Whittingtons’ “I’m Young, Dumb and Full of Cum,” the idea being that everyone would swap instruments and create music for meatheads. Enveloped by the discomforting mood provided by the car’s broken air conditioner, they reasoned that the vibe of the music should be like the oppressive heat inside the vehicle — overwhelming and designed to drain the listener’s energy.
With influences ranging from early-’80s punk to ’90s hardcore, the members of the Gatecrashers (Matt Korvette, Bradley Fry, Dave Rosenstrauss, and Tim) started penning songs for a demo under the name Unrequited Hard-On. Soon after, they changed their name to Pissed Jeans and recorded a second demo with the addition of a new song, “Night Minutes.” After concocting a new batch of woeful anti-authoritative material, they released a 7” titled Throbbing Organ and their first LP, Shallow, on Parts Unknown. Shallow branched off of the sounds of Flipper and Stick Men with Rayguns into a more sludgy and droning territory. After the departure of drummer Tim, they recruited Sean McGuinness to take over, and the band signed to the iconic grunge label Sub Pop Records. Despite their new status, the bandmembers kept their day jobs. Guitarist Fry continued working in account management, bassist Rosenstrauss converted cars to run on biodiesel, and frontman Korvette worked as a claims adjuster for an insurance company. The blue-collar way of life fueled the lyrical fire for a 7” released on June 6, 2006, called I Don’t Need Smoke to Make Myself Disappear, an angry ditty about working in a restaurant and despising the patrons. The following year, Pissed Jeans released their second full-length, the heavy plodding Hope for Men for Sub Pop, while remaining in their hometown. After touring and making a video for “I’ve Got You Ice Cream” the group returned with King of Jeans in 2009. A fourth album, Honeys, arrived in 2013.
Seattle, Washington lo-fi goth artists Grave Babies started making music when Danny Wahlfeldt, the de facto leader of the group, started recording songs in his basement with keyboardist Tyler Robinson. Drummer Keith Whiteman and bassist Mitch Saulsberry joined up for live shows, and after releasing their debut, Deathface, on Denmark label Skrot Up, the group signed to Hardly Art for a couple singles (Pleasures and Gothdammit) and released Crusher in 2013, which Wahlfeldt described pretty accurately as sounding like the Cure being played through a distortion pedal.
Taking their name from the Norewgian word for wolf, Ulver is a black metal band employing both noisy death-metal blasting and more relaxed, morose acoustic instrumentation, depending on the concept of their work. Led by vocalist Garm, Ulver recorded two concept albums beginning in 1995; Bergtatt detailed a Norse legend in which maidens are abducted by denizens of the underworld to live in their mountain halls, and the following year’s Kveldssanger (“Twilight Songs”) was an all-acoustic collection of melancholy dirges. Ulver made their international debut in 1997 with Nattens Madrigal (Madrigal of the Night), a concept album about wolves performed in the traditional Norwegian black metal style; it was recorded for Century Black with a lineup of Garm, lead/acoustic guitarist Haavard, rhythm guitarist Aismal, bassist Skoll, and drummer AiwarikiaR.
Based in Toronto, this ambient doom/metal/electronic duo was the brainchild (and originally the solo project) of Aidan Baker. Already a prolific musician who had released a number of works with labels worldwide — including a vast catalog of CD-R only releases — Baker used Nadja to explore the darker aspects of his musical soul. Taking on vocalist and bass player Leah Buckareff allowed the expansion of Nadja’s sound, as well as the ability to play live. Established in 2003, Nadja’s early releases followed the pattern already established by Baker, that is to say a lot of CD-R limited releases, but by 2005, the duo was ready for official release, and Alien8 released that year’s Truth Becomes Death. More releases followed, including EPs and collaborative efforts, and in 2007 Alien8 and Nadja released the well-received Touched. The band also built a following by opening shows for such post-metal luminaries as Ocean and Isis.
Crafting “doom-drenched electric folk,” Los Angeles’ Chelsea Wolfe brings a foreboding feel to songs as disparate as “You Are My Sunshine” and album tracks by Norwegian black metal icon Burzum. Wolfe grew up in Northern California with a father who had a country band and his own home studio, so she was immersed in music at an early age and began recording herself at age nine; by the time she was in fourth grade, she knew she wanted to be a singer. However, it wasn’t until 2009, when she returned from a three-month tour with a performance artist friend in spaces including old nuclear factories, that she began making music for others to hear. Wolfe recorded with her friends on a portable eight-track, the results of which became her 2010 debut album, The Grime and the Glow. Wolfe also contributed a radically different version of the Strokes’ “The Modern Age” to a tribute to the band curated by Stereogum.com, and her song “Moses” was used to soundtrack artist/director Richard Phillips’ short film Sasha Grey. After moving to L.A., Wolfe recorded her second album, Apokalypsis, in a proper studio, working with musicians including Ben Chisholm; it was released by Pendu Sound Recordings in August 2011. Wolfe took a few musicians, including Chisolm, into the northern California woods to record Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs, which was released in October 2012. Prayer for the Unborn, her contribution to Southern Records Latitudes EP series, arrived a few weeks later.
Dealing in hardcore punk that’s punctuated with explosive fits of sonic violence, Ceremony formed in the California Bay area in 2005. With a sound that fused the no-nonsense hardcore of bands like Black Flag and Suicidal Tendencies with the unpredictable outbursts of Dillinger Escape Plan, the band cultivated a brutal sound that owed just as much to power violence as it did to old-school punk. In 2006, the band made their full-length debut with Violence, Violence, a 13-song, 13-minute long album that found the band exploding onto the scene in a burst of unfiltered aggression. The quintet followed up with a pair of releases, 2008’s Still, Nothing Moves You and 2010’s Rohnert Park, released on Bridge 9 Records. The band eventually began to tinker with their sound, tempering their raw, aggressive approach with post-punk influences like Wire and the Fall. After a surprising move to indie giant Matador, the band debuted their new sound in 2012 with the release of their fourth album, Zoo.
Dan Snaith’s early recordings as Manitoba underlined his status among the chattering electronic classes as one of the brightest talents to emerge during the early 2000s. Having already proved himself master of the sublime with his 2000 debut EP, People Eating Fruit, the Canadian’s subsequent Paul’s Birthday EP opened him out even further. After moving to London, he released an excellent second album, Up in Flames (2003), that saw him become a darling of critics. One year later, however, Snaith was forced to give up the name Manitoba after Dictators frontman Handsome Dick Manitoba sued for trademark infringement, despite the passing of 15 years since the release of the only material under his name. Snaith renamed his project Caribou, his two previous full-lengths were reissued under the new moniker, and he released his first new Caribou album, The Milk of Human Kindness, in 2005 for Domino. Snaith moved to Merge for 2007’s gorgeous Brit psych-influenced Andorra — which won Canada’s 2008 Polaris Music Prize — and 2010’s more dancefloor-oriented Swim.
"If vomit were a movie, this would be the soundtrack," wrote one critic of Cannibal Corpse’s music, some of the most extreme, violent death metal sounds and subject matter ever committed to tape. Reveling in splatter-horror imagery in their often indecipherable lyrics, the group’s graphic album artwork and song titles like "Meat Hook Sodomy," "Entrails Ripped from a Virgin’s Cunt," "Fucked with a Knife," and so on, have — not surprisingly — attracted a fair amount of controversy and sometimes resulted in their albums being banned. However, their over-the-top extremity has won them a rabid cult following and made them one of the most popular death metal bands of the ’90s; sticking with what works, the band didn’t alter or develop its style much over the decade, although fans didn’t seem to mind.
Cannibal Corpse was formed in Buffalo, New York, in 1988, their lineup composed mostly of musically active scenesters: vocalist Chris Barnes, guitarists Bob Rusay and Jack Owen, bassist Alex Webster, and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz. Musically, they were closest to Slayer, although more extreme metal bands like Death also played a role in their sound. A 1989 demo helped the band secure a contract with Metal Blade Records, which released their debut album, Eaten Back to Life, in 1990. A cult following began to build behind the group with albums like 1991’s Butchered at Birth and 1992’s Tomb of the Mutilated. Bob Rusay was fired in 1993 and replaced with ex-Malevolent Creation guitarist Rob Barrett, who joined the group in time to appear as a club band in the Jim Carrey film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
Barrett debuted on record with 1994’s (relatively) more accessible The Bleeding, which proved to be Barnes’ final album; 1996’s Vile featured ex-Monstrosity vocalist George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher. Cannibal Corpse soldiered on through the decade, returning in 1998 with Gallery of Suicide. Bloodthirst followed a year later, and in 2000 the band issued both a video and CD titled Live Cannibalism (their second concert video but first official live album). Gore Obsessed arrived in 2002, followed by the obsessively packaged box set/DVD 15 Year Killing Spree. Their ninth album of all new material, Wretched Spawn, was released in 2004, followed by Kill in 2006. In 2008, the band went back into the studio with producer Erik Rutan (of Hate Eternal), emerging early the following year with the bands highest-charting album, Evisceration Plague. Two years later the gore-metal masters released the live DVD Global Evisceration before returning with their twelfth studio album, Torture, in 2012.
Arguably the most infamously named band in the annals of popular music — for years, radio found their moniker unspeakable, and the press deemed it unprintable — Butthole Surfers long reigned among the most twisted and depraved acts ever to bubble up from the American underground. Masters of calculated outrage, the group fused the sicko antics of shock rock with a distinct and chaotic mishmash of avant-garde, hardcore, and Texas psychedelia; sleazy, confrontational, and spiteful, songs like “The Revenge of Anus Presley,” “Bar-B-Q Pope,” and “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey Oswald’s Grave” seemed destined to guarantee the Buttholes little more than a lifetime of cultdom. Yet, by the mid-’90s, they were left-field Top 40 hitmakers, success perhaps their ultimate subversion of mainstream ideals.
The seeds of their formation dated back to 1977, when future frontman Gibby Haynes, the son of the Dallas-based children’s TV host known as “Mr. Peppermint,” met guitarist Paul Leary while attending college in San Antonio. Four years later, Haynes — then completing his graduate work in accounting — and Leary formed the Ashtray Baby Heads, later dubbed Nine Foot Worm Makes Home Food; they became Butthole Surfers only after a radio announcer mistakenly took the title of an early song to be the group’s name. In 1981, they signed to Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra’s label Alternative Tentacles, and two years later issued their hallucinatory eponymous debut, also issued on colored vinyl under the name Brown Reason to Live.
After a number of bassists and drummers, the Surfers’ lineup fell into place in 1983 with the addition of drummers King Coffey (formerly of the Hugh Beaumont Experience) and Theresa Nervosa; at the same time, their bizarre live gigs — a traveling freak show combining nude dancers, film clips of sex-change operations, and Haynes’ pyromaniacal behavior — began to win a devout cult following, and in 1984 they issued the concert set Live PCPPEP. A move to the Chicago-based indie Touch & Go precipitated a turn toward even greater thematic offensiveness, as evidenced by tracks like “Concubine” and “Lady Sniff” from 1985’s Psychic…Powerless…Another Man’s Sac.
After the EP Cream Corn From the Socket of Davis, the Buttholes resurfaced in 1986 with Rembrandt Pussyhorse, a twisted trip into neo-psychedelia featuring a brutal deconstruction of the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” as well as new bassist Jeff “Tooter” Pinkus. The introduction of Haynes’ “Gibbytronix” vocal effects unit increased the level of dementia for 1987’s Locust Abortion Technician, an extremist fusion of punk, metal, art rock, and worldbeat rhythms. Following 1988’s faux-Zeppelin rant Hairway to Steven, the group issued Double Live, a mock bootleg released through their own Latino Bugger Veil imprint; after a pair of EPs, 1989’s Widowermaker! and 1990’s The Hurdy Gurdy Man, they remained uncharacteristically silent until 1991’s uneven Pioughd, recorded for the Rough Trade label.
For many observers, the biggest shock in a career built on outrageous behavior arrived in 1992, when the Buttholes signed with major label Capitol, which promptly reissued Pioughd following the demise of Rough Trade. After entering the studio with producer and former Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones, they emerged in 1993 with the LP Independent Worm Saloon; the first single and video, “Who Was in My Room Last Night?,” both garnered a surprising amount of airplay, much to the chagrin of the many media outlets which begrudgingly referred to the group as “BH Surfers.” Following a series of side projects — most notoriously Haynes’ group P, which also featured movie star Johnny Depp — the band (now a trio consisting of Haynes, Leary, and Coffey) returned in 1996 with Electriclarryland, scoring a major chart hit with the trip-hop-flavored “Pepper.” In 1998, they recorded a follow-up, After the Astronaut, but disputes between the Surfers and Capitol prevented the album from being released, though advance copies were sent to reviewers. Three years later, Butthole Surfers emerged with their first for Hollywood/Surfdog Records, Weird Revolution, which recycled some of the songs from After the Astronaut, but in new recordings.
Burzum is the one-man project of Varg Vikernes (born Christian Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh), perhaps the most notorious figure in Norwegian black metal. Although Burzum had an unpredictably experimental bent — encompassing black metal, industrial, electronic, and dark ambient music — Vikernes will forever be associated with his conviction for the 1993 murder of former Mayhem bandmate Euronymous. It wasn’t the first time Vikernes had run afoul of the law; he had been a suspect in arsons directed at historic Norwegian churches in Bergen, a perception not helped by his use of a post-fire photograph of the Fantoft Kirke church on the cover of Burzum’s 1993 Aske EP. Coupled with Vikernes’ racist, virulently anti-Judeo-Christian beliefs was a sort of nationalistic pride, a longing to return to the pre-Christian pagan culture and religion that had marked the glory days of the Vikings; this paganism became a frequently recurring theme in black metal circles, and led to the Norwegian metal sound being tagged Viking metal in some quarters.
As for his recording career, Vikernes issued the eponymous Burzum debut in 1992 under his Count Grishnackh alias (taken from a J.R.R. Tolkien book); it was largely a typical black metal record, although it featured a few synth dabblings and slower passages, neither of which had yet found much favor on the scene. Released in 1993, Det Som Engang Var expanded on those innovations while retaining an overall metal flavor. Hvis Lyset Tar Oss (If the Light Takes Us), issued in 1994 shortly after Vikernes’ imprisonment, integrated synthesizers more fully into the Burzum sound, and the all-electronic closing track foreshadowed Burzum’s later move into dark ambient. The well-received industrial/electronic-tinged Filosofem appeared in 1996, although it had been recorded (but not mixed) prior to Vikernes’ incarceration.
With the vaults thus exhausted, Burzum’s future appeared to be in doubt, but Vikernes managed to begin recording entirely instrumental synthesizer albums while in prison. A concept work recounting a well-known Norse myth, Daudi Baldrs (Balder’s Death), was released in 1997 as the first installment of a planned trilogy. The second portion, the mythology-themed Hlidskjalf, appeared in 1999, featuring an equipment upgrade and a correspondingly fuller sound. This would be the last Burzum release for nearly a decade until, in 2009, Vikernes was paroled after serving 15 years of a 21-year sentence. He began working on new material, and made a return to a more metal sound with 2010’s Belus. Staying productive, Burzum went in a more experimental direction, releasing Fallen early in 2011 before following up later that year with From the Depths of Darkness, which featured re-recorded versions of songs from his early albums Burzum and Det Som Engang Var. The spring of 2012 saw the release of Burzum’s Umskiptar.