The 13 Bleakest Rock And Metal Albums Ever
The days are shorter. The sun grows wan in the sky. Everyday existence becomes a trudge from darkness to further darkness, with only biting cold and the misery of the working day wedged in-between. As December looms, most folk might be looking towards the electric light and popping parties of the festive season, but true miserabilists and misanthropes know that the dark end of the year belongs to them. In ‘celebration’, we’ve compiled our rundown of the 13 bleakest and most outright nihilistic releases in the history of rock and metal.
Prepare to feel the misery…
13. Godflesh – Streetcleaner
Thirty years old on November 13 just passed, the monolithic masterpiece from Birmingham industrial metallers Godflesh still delivers that stomach lurching sense of hollow dread as severely today as it did the first time. Streetcleaner might face stiff competition in the bleakness stakes even within Godflesh’s own discography – hello, Pure and A World Lit Only By Fire – but its sheer apocalyptic atmosphere and scene-changing impact is unsurpassed. Picking up on the work of American noise rockers Swans and their Brummie brethren in Napalm Death, songs with the suffocating power of Like Rats, Dream Long Dead and Devastator helped define the still emergent industrial subgenre and set a bar that has arguably yet to be reached.
12. Black Flag – My War
It’d be impossible to put together a list like this without at least one mention of legendary Californian punks Black Flag. Representing the dark underbelly of The Golden State, the hardcore progenitors grappled with social isolation, paranoia, poverty and neurosis throughout their career (indeed, 1981 debut Damaged could’ve easily made this list but for its sheer up-punching pugilistic spirit), but 1984’s My War was the height of their sheer nihilism. Put together in poor conditions over four tense years where the band were unable to release material for legal reasons – and during which legendary frontman Henry Rollins was becoming ever more of a powder-keg during live performances – tracks like Beat My Head Against The Wall and The Swinging Man have oceans of misery beneath their high energy exteriors.
11. Gallows – Grey Britain
When Watford punks Gallows signed a major-label deal with Warner Bros. records and hit the studio with renowned producer Garth Richardson, even longtime fans couldn’t help but wonder whether their heroes had sold their souls for a pot of gold. Spectacularly, Frank Carter and his not-so-merry men did quite the opposite, emerging from the studio with one of the most unapologetically nihilistic records imaginable. ‘Grey Britain is burning down’, rang out the opening lyric on The Riverbed. ‘We’ll be buried alive before we drown’. These fair isles might’ve actually slipped further towards oblivion in the decade since, but the soundtrack remains the same…
10. Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible
The third LP from Welsh alt.rockers Manic Street Preachers remains a miserabilist landmark both within rock and the more mainstream indie genre the band would go on to inhabit in the 25 years since. Recorded while legendary rhythm guitarist/lyricist Richey Edwards was in the grip of depression, alcoholism, self-harm and anorexia, it unfolds as a tortured journal of his experience. The songs within darkly reflect his mental state, referencing subject matter as troubling as prostitution, serial killers, self-starvation, capital punishment, fascism and suicide and present an overwhelming sense of anger and resignation. Richey would infamously disappear just over five months after the record’s release on February 1 1995. The album remains a harrowing monument to his tortured genius.
9. Type O Negative – World Coming Down
Written in the wake of a series of deaths in frontman Peter Steele’s family, World Coming Down plumbs a remarkable well of darkness even for the prodigiously depressive Brooklyn goth-metallers. Provisionally titled Prophets Of Doom And Aggroculture, album five saw a departure from the lyrical themes of love, sex and heartache with which they’d made their name in favour of far more desolate subject matter like cocaine addiction (White Slavery), bereavement (Everyone I Love Is Dead) and existential angst (Everything Dies). Incorporating cold, industrial instrumentation and reversed vocal ‘backmasking’ alongside the sound of Gregorian chanting and organ music, it delivers lurching dread with real dynamism.
8. Killing Joke – Killing Joke (1980)
When the debut LP Killing Joke was reviewed in K! predecessor Sounds, the reviewer awarded the album a perfect 5/5 score, but opted to addend a 1/5 rating for ‘morality’ and warned that the music contained within might prove “corrosive” to the soul. They had a point. From cover artwork depicting the use of CS gas by British troops against peaceful protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland to the weird, industrial-inflected post-punk of Wardance, Requiem and Bloodsport, this was Jaz Coleman let off the leash. Its darkness has leached right through mainstream rock, too, with Dave Grohl naming the album amongst his all-time favourites, while Metallica covered The Wait on 1987’s Garage Days Revisited EP.
7. Nirvana – In Utero
Nirvana’s final release before Kurt Cobain’s death unfolds with a predictably caustic worldview. ‘Teenage angst has paid off well’, he sings on Serve The Servants, betraying an ominously shrouded worldview, ‘now I’m bored and old…’ Kurt even originally wanted to name the album I Hate Myself And I Want To Die. Striving for an abrasive, naturalistic sound throughout recording, the album audibly matches up. It’s as we dig into the darker themes underlying that things get really bleak, though. Scentless Apprentice retells the dark surrealism of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer. Milk It envisages lovers as conjoined parasites feeding off each other’s bodily waste. Heart Shaped Box reimagines the umbilical cord as a noose. Rape Me more or less speaks for itself… Not a happy album.
6. Shining – V: Halmstad
When a band self-define as “suicidal-depressive black metal” you know their output isn’t ever going to be the cheeriest. Their infamous fifth LP, however – featuring a monochrome picture of a young woman with a gun in her mouth on its cover – remains their deepest, darkest moment. Beginning with a haunting excerpt from William Hughes Mearns’ 1889 poem Antigonish – ‘As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. I wish, I wish he’d go away…’ - on Ytterligare Ett Steg Närmare Total Jävla Utfrysning (Yet Another Step Towards Complete Fucking Isolation), it simply does not let up.
5. Nailbomb – Point Blank
The first and only release from industrial metal ‘supergroup’ Nailbomb was a darkly uncompromising exercise. Bringing together Sepultura/Soulfly frontman Max Cavalera and Fudge Tunnel founder/producer extraordinaire Alex Newport (whose vocals are credited simply as ‘Mouthful Of Hate’) along with a handful of co-conspirators, Point Blank is an unrelenting slab of sonic cruelty. If that cover image of a U.S. soldier’s gun pressed to the head of a female Vietcong fighter didn’t give you an idea of the sheer nihilism contained within, song titles like Blind And Lost, Sum Of Your Achievements and Cockroaches certainly will…
4. My Dying Bride – Turn Loose The Swans
Legendary West Yorkshire doomsters My Dying Bride are another of those outfits where any individual release could have made this list. The fact that 1993’s sophomore LP Turn Loose The Swans outstrips 2015’s bluntly-titled Feel The Misery in terms of sheer bleakness should signpost just how much of a plunge into suffocating darkness this album delivers. Far slower and more considered than their debut As The Flower Withers, this one saw the band delve into the trademark mournfulness and complexity that would become their trademark across tracks like The Songless Bird and The Snow In My Hand. Album closer Black God even takes its lyrics from 18th century Scottish poem Ah! The Shepherd’s Mournful Fate – and it doesn’t get much more forlorn than that.
3. Alice In Chains – Dirt
Layne Staley’s performance on the second Alice In Chains LP might just be the most painfully poignant in all of music. Specifically referencing heroin usage and its ravaging effects across tracks like Sickman, Junkhead and God Smack, the record was a window into Layne’s spiralling personal experience. The concept loosely follows the anguish and uncertainty of usage through to the ultimate realisation that addiction itself is not an escape from suffering, but the prison that keeps the user tied in. Both Layne and bassist Mike Starr would ultimately pass away from overdoses, underlining the dark reality at the heart of these songs.
2. Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral
After 1989 debut Pretty Hate Machine had established Nine Inch Nails’ new brand of darkly seductive industrial to dancefloor dominating effect, few expected the lurch into much colder darkness that would follow. Moving into Los Angeles’ 10050 Cielo Drive – the scene of the Manson family’s infamous murders – and christening his studio ‘Le Pig’, mainman Trent Reznor wove together a concept album without any radio ready singles charting the descent of one man from the beginning of his ‘Downward Spiral’ right through to his eventual suicide. Courting controversy from conservative social commentators, copping blame for the Columbine massacre and going on to shift well over four million units worldwide, it remains arguably the most controversial mainstream rock release in history.
1. Warning – Watching From A Distance
There is no notorious public backstory to Watching From A Distance, no lurid context in which it should be viewed. Its imagery unfolds with a sense of heart-rending romance, not expounding every tortured detail but largely in the abstract. The depths of anguish conjured by Essex-based frontman Patrick Walker (now of 40 Watt Sun), however, are still utterly, utterly unmatched. His music does the talking, he has previously explained, so why would he say more himself? And how it talks. Drawing from a palette of hopeless greys and washed out sepia tones, the five tracks of this 2006 masterpiece unfold at a funereal pace, all earthen riffage and hauntingly plaintive vocals, conjuring a potent, timeless atmosphere of melancholia. At recent reunion shows, the album was played in full, and grown men were seen openly weeping. To fully understand why, you’ll need to listen for yourself…
READ THIS NEXT:
Evanescence’s Amy Lee has posted a thoughtful statement after being asked in an interview about “the lack of women historically on rock radio and in the mainstream rock world”.
We pay homage Death mastermind Chuck Schuldiner – death metal’s one true heartthrob