We should probably talk about my tastes real quick

Whenever a non-musician asks me what type of music I listen to, I freeze up. My fellow human has asked an innocuous question in an attempt to get to know me better. But I’m an overthinker, I dislike categories, and I seek out music I personally enjoy — as opposed to listening to music simply because it’s popular. And the music I most gravitate toward is often difficult to neatly categorize and somewhat lesser known.

For me, the 2010s were a journey away from the radio rock, pop punk, and post-hardcore stuff I listened to as a teenager. I become bored by that stuff. I wasn’t being challenged or moved any more. So, over time, I expanded my tastes to include harsher vocals, heavier guitar tones, and more complex rhythm and harmony.

So that’s the backdrop for this list. These are the albums that blew my mind at some point over the past decade, and have remained in my rotation, in no particular order.

Side note: all links are to Bandcamp or YouTube playlists. You’re welcome.

Karnivool — Sound Awake

Released 2009  |  1 hour, 13 minutes

I discovered this record a few years back and it became an instant favorite. Despite the silly band name and lengthy runtime, I can put this on and listen to it all the way through at any time. It’s one of those rare albums for me that grabbed me when I first heard it, but also holds up on repeat listens. The sound is downtuned guitars with layers of ambiance, a monstrous and groovy rhythm section, and angelic vocals. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Tool and Tesseract, but also totally its own thing.

The band’s preceding album was a bit too straightforward for me, and the one that followed was a little too unapproachable. But Sound Awake is the most Goldilocks album I’ve ever heard. If you listen to only one album on this list, make it this one.

Intervals — The Shape of Colour

Released 2015  |  35 minutes

I’m so glad Aaron Marshall made the decision to shift his band from djent-by-numbers and create this absurdly melodic and upbeat lead guitar-fronted masterpiece. I listen to plenty of instrumental music and have grown past requiring vocals as a hook, but here the guitars actively sing. Aaron’s technique of nonstop sliding and arpeggiating has been a massive influence on my guitar playing. The cherry on top is Travis Orbin’s drumming, which somehow manages to be jaw droppingly technical and effortlessly tasteful at the same time.

If you believe that music requires vocals to be catchy, this album will prove you wrong. The follow up album is also enjoyable and recommended.

Tesseract — Altered State

Released 2013  |  51 minutes

This album is perfect and mind blowing. For me it required patience and a few repeat listens to sink in. But once it clicks, the long and angular rhythmic phrases combine with a lush backdrop of polyrhythmic ambient layers, resulting in otherworldly grooves unlike anything I’ve ever heard before or since.

The album which followed this one featured a return to the band’s original singer and a more streamlined style. It’s also good, for different reasons.

Plini — Handmade Cities

Released 2016  |  35 minutes

Plini has some definite synergy with Intervals: groovy, melodic instrumental music fronted by a guitar virtuoso. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the two bands at the same show (as “Plintervals”) multiple times at this point, and indeed that’s how I was first introduced to Plini. But what sets Plini apart is the feelings of genuine hope and positivity, especially when accompanied by the incredible bassist Simon Grove and canonical drummer Troy Wright.

Intronaut — The Direction of Last Things

Released 2015  |  47 minutes

This album is everything great about 2010’s Valley of Smoke, dialed up to 11 — proggy post metal at its best. The gruff vocals and grind-influenced drums won’t be for everyone — including metal snobs who dismiss it as not being brutal or fast enough (⁉️). But this is an extremely well-written collection of songs with lots of memorable moments. I saw the band perform this album in its entirety and it was glorious.

My one and only YouTube drum cover is of a nine minute song from this album. I have conflicting thoughts about the situation with Danny Walker, but I can’t deny that he’s had a big influence on my drumming.

Meshuggah — Koloss

Released 2012  |  55 minutes

I’m not sure how I held out for so long, listening to djent bands while ignoring the grandfather. I think it’s because I value melody, and there is very little of that to be found with Meshuggah — their music is almost entirely rhythmic. But compared to their earlier, more thrashy stuff, they slow things down considerably on this record. As a result, Koloss grooves. Sure it sounds like the universe is coming to an end, but you will nod your head as it happens.

Leprous — Malina

Released 2017  |  59 minutes

This album started out as a prog metal band, and as of their latest album I would classify them as a...prog pop band? But Malina was in the middle of the transition, making it their most rock album. Really they don’t have a bad album, but this one is my favorite.

The band leans into darkness and vulnerability, while bravely executing massive dynamic shifts. In addition to downtuned guitars, you’ll also hear lots of cello and keyboards. Einar Solberg’s vocals are an acquired taste, but it’s worth it. And Baard Kolstad is an absolute madman behind the kit.

Protest the Hero — Scurrilous

Released 2011  |  45 minutes

This was a polarizing album for fans of the band. Frontman Rody Walker took on lyrical duties, resulting in personal and literal executions, compared to former bassist Arif Mirabdolbaghi’s grandiose storytelling. The band reigned in the musical arrangements as well, trading relentless unpredictability for more straightforwardly structured songs. But the blistering guitars are as impressive as ever. Looking back, it’s my favorite Protest the Hero album.

Periphery — Periphery II

Released 2012  |  1 hour, 9 minutes

If Periphery I was more or less Misha Mansoor’s solo project, this monster of a sequel first showcased the different voices in the band: three top tier guitarists, an incredible bassist and producer, a world class drummer, and a singer with a voice powerful enough to finally put the haters to rest.

In future releases, the individual voices melded together to form the band’s sound, but this album is a really interesting time capsule of where the band was at a specific point in time where they were beginning to figure out how to work together as a group. It has some killer songs, and an album structure which I shamelessly ripped off.

Animals as Leaders — The Joy of Motion

Released 2014  |  55 minutes

I consider this to be the most approachable Animals as Leaders record (not that the band could be reasonably described in that way). Then new drummer Matt Gartska provides realism and depth that the previous albums lacked, and fusion influences blend with electronic layers. You’ll find jaw-dropping moments of rhythmic insanity amongst well-written songs.

The follow up album features one of the world’s best drummers pushing himself to the limit, and it’s worth a listen just to appreciate the insane level of musicianship, but overall The Joy of Motion is their best album to date.

Honorable mentions

So there you have it

Now that we’re in the roaring twenties, maybe the pendulum will swing back, my tastes will mellow out, and I will find some mainstream music that speaks to me. Maybe. Probably not. 😬

James Ferrell

I’m a UX developer currently living in Asheville, NC. I build websites and web applications which are well-designed, responsive, accessible, and fast.

I’m currently taking on new projects, so get in touch!