(Andy Synn presents a rare thing — an actual calm, reasoned, fairly objective discussion of Djent, and (surprisingly) a defense of sorts.)
Oh the dreaded “DJ-word”. Never has a genre risen, seemingly from out of nowhere, to such prominence so quickly. And perhaps never before has a genre gotten so over-saturated and over-exposed in such quick succession.
And it’s because of this (and perhaps a few other issues that I may, or may not, touch on in this column) that the merest mention of the word can reduce even the sanest Metalhead to a frothing ball of apoplectic fury. “It’s all the same!”, “It’s just nu-metal with fancier gear!”, “It’s not even a real genre!” are all things I’ve heard multiple times, spilling from the mouths (and fingers) of everyone from the angriest internet troll to the most elitist critic.
But rather than just brush all these protests and allegations aside, I thought I might try to actually engage with them for once, and look at not just what’s being said, but why it’s being said in the first place.
Now, in the same way that Mötorhead once coined the onomatopoeia “kerrang” to describe the Heavy Metal guitar sound, the rubbery skwonk of the now-ubiquitous “djent” guitar tone serves to describe a major aspect of the genre itself, one that remains perhaps its key identifier, yet also its key sticking point (as well as a key draw) for many people.
For me it seems at least a tad problematic having so many bands share such an identikit, ‘off-the-rack’ guitar sound, as it largely does away with the traditional notion of different bands (even within the same genre/sub-genre) having their own particular signature tone.
Now, granted, other genres have, in the past, suffered from the same problem — from the chainsaw buzz of the Stockholm guitar sound, to the venomous hiss of the early “necro” Black Metal scene, to the over-used (and abused) “scooped” mids of the post-Pantera set – but few have so intimately identified the very essence of their genre with such a specific, and unvarying, guitar tone.
Indeed, for a genre so closely associated with expensive, high-end gear and the use of effects, it’s puzzling to hear so little variety in the actual guitar tones used, as well as the same twinkly, spacey embellishments cropping up again and again.
So, in that sense, I suppose there’s certainly an argument to be made that it does “all sound the same!”
Or does it?
If we segue here into the second of the common allegations I mentioned above – the one about Djent essentially just being Nu-Metal in fancier clothing – we can see that while, yes, a good proportion of Djent as a genre is similarly based on low-tuned grooves a la Nu-Metal, along with an unfortunate preponderance of frontmen keen to over-emote all over the place in high-strung and melodramatic fashion, this is far from a complete picture of the genre. In fact this quite limited view of the Djent scene exposes a fairly familiar problem, one which also afflicted Nu-Metal before it:
The problem that, to a certain extent, there’s no clear definition of what Djent actually “is”. And a lot of people, most notably those extremely critical of the genre, seem to operate under a mandate of: “I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I hear it.”
It doesn’t help, of course, that the term has become something of a knee-jerk pejorative (again, much like “Nu-Metal” was), such that so many bands refuse to accept the term as applying to them, instead throwing around random variants on the words “Progressive”, “Post”, “Tech”, and “Groove” in an attempt to escape the stigma attached to it.
In fact many of the style’s most well-known luminaries aren’t much help either, with even the Gear God himself, Misha Mansoor, stating that:
“I don’t think people know what djent is… it’s just so vague that I don’t know what to make of it.”
Just think about it for a second with me. Yes, there’s a general, amorphous idea of “Djent”, in an abstract sense, that we all kind of get. And usually your mind will go straight to the big names, Tesseract, Periphery (and their legions of shameless imitators) as soon as you hear the term – with perhaps a passing thought for the genre’s supposed precursors in Sikth and Meshuggah – but it’s easy enough to argue, even for someone like myself who isn’t the biggest fan of the style, that there’s much, much more to it than just that.
The way it often seems to be used these days (often in a derisory fashion), Djent has largely become a catch-all term for anything that displays more than a hint of a Meshuggah influence, most frequently in terms of the guitar tone used and in the incorporation of chuggy polyrhythms (note to bands – using simple polyrhythms doesn’t make you “Progressive”. They’re not that hard. Doing something creative with it… that’s hard.).
But… the bands that so often fall under this umbrella, actually display far more variety than you might think. They DON’T all sound the same. It’s just that a lot of the bands within specific niches in the genre tend to share a lot of common features, and this similarity tends to get exaggerated in the booming wind-tunnel that is the inter web.
Now, love them or loathe them, I feel like it’s disingenuous to have any remaining doubt that, at their core, Meshuggah are a Death Metal band (the frantic, Thrash-tastic song featured above being one great example of this). Regardless of the imitators and impersonators trying to water down their style for mass consumption, the Swedish quintet are Metal to the core, and when they hit you live with their full force… they’re a Death Metal band alright, make no mistake about it.
By contrast, several of the Djent genre’s biggest acts… aren’t really very Metal when you get right down to it. And that’s not a criticism in itself (though you can interpret it as one if you like). It’s more an attempt to acknowledge one of the (several) reasons why a lot of Metal fans seem to have an instinctive distrust of the genre – they automatically associate the word with a style that seems to rely more on certain trappings of Metal rather than the substance they usually associate with it.
In essence, a good number of Djent bands are much closer to the Post-Hardcore scene than they are the Metal scene. They may have some low-tuned chugs (courtesy of the latest Axe-FX model), and some simplified polyrhythmic drum patterns, and may even display some flashy fretwork (bear in mind that the genre started, in many ways, as the product of bedroom guitarists and gear-heads), but the core, the foundation of their sound, isn’t quite the same as that of their main influences. And I think it’s this that gets so many people’s hackles up. A sense of not belonging. A sense that certain elements of “our” genre are being co-opted and watered down.
And though there’s certainly some merit to that, just as much as there is hyperbole, that doesn’t intrinsically make it bad music. Personally I am a huge fan of Thrice, and can hear a lot of their influence in several of the better bands lumped in with the Djent scene.
Still, it must be said that the style HAS become an easy (and rather superficial) “go-to” for bands looking to beef up their sound and play at some sort of heaviness, without having much of a “feel” for it.
But… whether you consider this type of band to be “play-acting” or not (personally I think that’s a very sweeping statement, and one that, at the very least, should be considered on a case-by-case basis), it also doesn’t sum up the entirety of the genre as a whole, as there are a surprising number of variants on the style in existence, if you can get past lumping them all in together due to shared similarities in guitar tone.
You’ll find that there are acts under the Djent umbrella who base their sound in a host of different genres… there’s Progressive variants, Post-Metal variants, Deathcore and Death Metal types, Hardcore, Metalcore… yes they often share some of the same stylistic features (albeit in different proportions) and yes, the least inspired of the bunch usually all end up sounding exactly the same (I’m looking rather pointedly at the whole “Sumeriancore” sub-scene right now)… but the better bands, the bands with a clear identity and vision of their own, have been slowly but surely helping to stretch the (admittedly rather restrictive) boundaries of the style.
On top of all this, as the genre has begun to establish itself, shedding some of the dross and allowing the cream to rise to the top, its influence has (arguably) begun to have a positive effect on a number of other styles.
In fact, one need only look towards the (similarly much-maligned) Deathcore genre to see an instance where the burgeoning Djent influence has actually had positive, rather than negative, repercussions. The simple fact that both styles possess such tightly prohibitive restrictions on what is/isn’t allowed actually means that the melding of the two styles – which blend together extremely naturally when done correctly — opens up extra avenues to explore, almost by default.
Whitechapel’s self-titled for example really benefits from a slight touch of that predatory mechanical tone popularised by Meshuggah (though I feel like they went overboard with it a bit on the follow-up, Our Endless War), while Impending Doom took that low, sub-dimensional tone and used it to add a whole new layer of heavy to their sound.
Obviously it’s not a magic cure-all for bad song-writing and a lack of artistic talent (Emmure will always be bad nu-metal masquerading as something heavier by hiding behind their down-tuned skwonky beatdowns), but it does illuminate one very clear instance where that Meshuggah influence has been a real positive.
And this extends even further as well.
You only have to look at bands like Decapitated, Gojira, Byzantine, Darkane, Living Sacrifice… all favourites of this site, and all bands who’ve admitted to having a marked Meshuggah influence (in some cases LONG before it became cool), or to proto-Djent bands like Sikth, Benea Reach, and Ion Dissonance (all of whom have had a marked influence on the genre’s formation long before the “dj” term was ever uttered) to see that, in actuality, many of the stylistic markers and elements that it incorporates have been around for a long time!
I mean, OF COURSE, if your only exposure to the genre is the poppiest and most derivative bands – the ones who sell sufficient albums/tshirts/ad-space (until, of course, they don’t, and are replaced by the next interchangeable band waiting in the wings for their “shot”) — you’re going to hate it. I don’t blame you for that. But you have to be careful to draw a line between hating something that becomes popular because it’s purposefully and shamelessly chasing mass-appeal status, and hating something just because it’s become popular. It’s a winnowing process, separating the wheat from the chaff. It just so happens that, in the Djent scene in particular, there’s a heck of a lot of chaff to sort through.
Though, in a sense, precisely because 99% of the bands seem interchangeable (at least from the outside), it often makes it easier, if you’re willing to invest the time, to pinpoint the bands who really bring something interesting and unique to the table.
So… now we come to the final allegation… is it even “a real genre”?
Well, avoiding the issues of semantics (what exactly is a “real” genre anyway?), I’m going to stick my neck out and say… yes. Of course it is. Most definitely. And while personally I remain someone reticent to declare myself a fan of the style, I’m more than open to changing my opinion on that.
As a reviewer and as a member of the music scene myself, I find that a lot of the bands I tend to encounter who come under the “Djent” category are, when it all comes down to it, little more than 6th generation Metalcore acts with flashier gear and a more polished sound (often to the point of nauseating blandness), or shameless doppelgangers of already established acts.
However I acknowledge that, like most genres, though these sorts of bands may appear to make up the majority of the scene, that doesn’t make them the entirety of it. I may not be a fan of it, per se, but I’m not going to try to deny its existence and its legitimacy. Indeed, I think it has enough distinct stylistic markers and identifying features these days to more than stand on its own, and also lends itself well to a wealth of cross-overs with other, complementary genres and styles.
Ultimately though, like any style of music, it pays to delve a little deeper than just what you might encounter on the surface. Superficial impressions are rarely the best (as Metal fans, we should know this more than most!).
Fittingly, I’m going to leave the last words to Djent divinity Tosin Abasi, who you might know from a little band called Animals As Leaders, but whom I’ll always remember from his time in chaotic proto-Djent scrappers Reflux:
“I guess it’s a legitimate genre… because if you can isolate, like, 3, 4, 5, qualities in a genre of music, and it’s consistent in every artist who’s playing in that genre, then I feel like you CAN call it a genre. So Djent to me IS a genre, because you can really isolate what makes something *Djent*”