10 of the best independent American metal records of the 21st century

In celebration of the United States’ Independence Day this weekend, we revisit 10 of the greatest heavy records dropped outside the major label system this century…

10 of the best independent American metal records of the 21st century
Sam Law

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…"

When America's Founding Fathers laid the cornerstones of their constitution – freedom, self-determination, limited government, individual responsibility – on July 4, 1776, it's doubtful that any among their number could've conceived of the world of DIY hard rock and heavy metal. It's remarkable, all the same, just how transferable those values are to bands and imprints looking to conduct their business away from the prying eyes and interfering hands of music's multinational major label-dominated mainstream.

Almost 250 years into the United States' existence, there are dozens of independent labels and self-release set-ups within its borders, enabling bands to put out the music they want on their own terms, and thousands of records released through that system are worthy of your time. In celebration of Independence Day, though, we thought it'd be fun to try and narrow down 10 relatively recent gunpowder-loaded classics with which to salute The Star-Spangled Banner…

Avenged Sevenfold – Waking The Fallen (Hopeless, 2003)

Huntington Beach bad-boys Avenged Sevenfold had already made something of a name for themselves with the serrated gothic metalcore of 2001 debut Sounding The Seventh Trumpet, but where that album was initially put out through Belgian indie Good Life Recordings, we've gone with their first album with Californian alt. label Hopeless. Somewhat at odds with the emo/pop-punk focus of Hopeless’ roster, Waking The Fallen remains arguably A7X's heaviest, most angular offering, featuring M. Shadows' guttural vocals (before adopting a cleaner style from 2005's City Of Evil onwards) lighting up all-time bangers Chapter Four and Unholy Confessions.

Baroness – Purple (Abraxan Hymns, 2015)

Everything changed for Philadelphia-based alt.metallers Baroness on the morning of August 15, 2012, when their tour bus plummeted off a viaduct in Monkton Combe, just outside Bath. As they regrouped to come back, not only was there a specific impetus on the music, with John Dyer Baizley’s troubled lyrics accompanied by what he’s referred to as “grand slam” instrumental composition, but also on the band’s ownership of their sounds. Consequently, Purple was released on their own newly-formed Abraxan Hymns label after years spent with renowned independent Relapse. Songs like Shock Me and Desperation Burns are some of the most poignant and powerful in modern heavy music.

Converge – Jane Doe (Equal Vision, 2001)

There’s an irony in the title to the fourth album from Salem, Massachusetts’ metalcore heavyweights Converge: after its release, they became some of the most recognisable faces in the genre. A moody, jaggedly metallic set of songs, its easy to wonder whether any major label would have seriously invested in its brilliance in the era of million-selling nu-metal, but New York punk institution Equal Vision Records were more than happy to be the springboard for one of the defining albums of its era. The burning fury, caustic catharsis and fleeting beauty of songs like Concubine and the stunning 11-minute title-track will surely live forever.

letlive. – The Blackest Beautiful (Epitaph, 2013)

Los Angeles’ letlive. re-released their incredible 2010 debut Fake History through Epitaph after an initial run by North Carolina’s Tragic Hero, but their first release proper with the legendary punk label – founded by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz – was even more impressive. A potently politicised post-hardcore masterpiece that blended high-octane hardcore punk, hip-swivelling pop and rich soul influences, The Blackest Beautiful is our pick from an absolutely stacked roster that dates back to classics like The Offspring's Smash and Rancid’s …And Out Come The Wolves. An absolute thriller.

Mastodon – Leviathan (Relapse, 2004)

Founded by Matthew F. Jacobson in Upper Darby, PA in 1990, Relapse Records has gone on to become one of the most recognisable brands – and an almost unimpeachable guarantee of quality – in the worlds of death metal, sludge and grindcore. Arguably no signing has been more important to that enduring reputation than that of Atlantan maestros Mastodon, whose fiery debut Remission was only surpassed by their Moby Dick-inspired second LP Leviathan. Powered by modern metal standards Iron Tusk, Megalodon and Blood And Thunder, it would rapidly accelerate the career of the 21st century’s most important heavy band (2006’s Blood Mountain came out through Warner subsidiary Reprise), and go on to be Kerrang!’s Album Of The Year in 2004.

Lamb Of God – As The Palaces Burn (Prosthetic, 2003)

Lamb Of God had spent two albums up to this point – 1999’s self-titled LP as Burn The Priest and 2000’s New American Gospel – perfecting their machine-tooled attack, but it was 2003’s devastating As The Palaces Burn that put the whole world on notice. Wielding a scourging combination of groove, thrash and hardcore, and co-produced by Devin Townsend, songs like Ruin, 11th Hour and Vigil would become modern mosh classics. Los Angeles-based indie label Prosthetic Records gave them the platform, while also elevating fellow future heavyweights Gojira and Animals As Leaders in the early 21st century.

Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun (Sargent House, 2017)

Named after the historic downtown Los Angeles building in which its offices sit, Sargent House was set up by seasoned industry veteran Cathy Pellow as a sort-of record label/management company hybrid, and has become the launching-pad for some of the most interesting records in modern heavy music; from acts like The Armed and Mutoid Man to Russian Circles and Emma Ruth Rundle. The dark jewel in their crown, however, is surely Californian singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe. Produced by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou and featuring Queens Of The Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and Isis frontman Aaron Turner, Ms. Wolfe’s breakthrough fifth LP Hiss Spun is a work of singular, haunting class.

Deafheaven – Sunbather (Deathwish, 2013)

We’ve already mentioned Converge’s great independent LP Jane Doe, but their frontman Jacob Bannon also set up his own label Deathwish (alongside friend Tre McCarthy) a year earlier, in 2000. Home to the likes of Oathbreaker, Modern Life Is War and Birds In Row, it remains a heavyweight, hugely respected hardcore brand. Aside, perhaps, from latter-day Converge albums, its greatest release is almost certainly the second LP from Californian post-black metallers Deafheaven. With mainman George Clarke driving us into a miserabilist abyss across its sprawling seven tracks, Sunbather remains the pinnacle of American “blackgaze”.

Daughters – You Won’t Get What You Want (Ipecac, 2018)

Having blazed a noise-rock trail between 2003 and 2009 (2010’s self-titled third album actually came after their initial break-up), then reforming in 2013, anticipation was ridiculously high for the fourth LP from avant-garde Rhode Island collective Daughters. When the wryly-titled You Won’t Get What You Want finally arrived in 2018, Ipecac Recordings felt like its natural home. Named after the syrup of ipecac, an emetic (or vomit-inducing) medicine, flying under the slogan "Ipecac Recordings – Making People Sick Since 1999", and co-founded by prolific Faith No More / Mr. Bungle frontman Mike Patton, they’ve never shied away from wilful awkwardness or biting countercultural angularity.

Power Trip – Nightmare Logic (Southern Lord)

Set up in 1998 by Greg Anderson, guitarist in stoner-doom outfit Goatsnake and frequent collaborator with Sunn O))) visionary Stephen O'Malley, Southern Lord has been a home for some of the most interesting heavy bands in modern America. Alumni include Corrosion Of Conformity, St. Vitus and Nails, while the current roster boasts acts as varied as Jesus Piece, High On Fire and A Storm Of Light. But no output has been of more contemporary relevance than Power Trip's Manifest Decimation and Nightmare Logic. Packing in anthems like Soul Sacrifice and Executioner's Tax (Swing Of The Axe), the latter should have been the record to make the Texan quintet massive but, following his death in August 2020, it will forever stand as a bittersweet monument to late, great frontman Riley Gale.

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