Over the past several weeks on Twitter, I’ve seen a significant number of writers and artists looking for background music that bears a more dark and gloomy tone to use as inspiration for their art or to put them in the proper mindset. As a result, I did a small Twitter thread outlining some of the best artists to use for this purpose. Given how often I see the request, I decided to write a full blog post expanding on the Twitter thread I did this past week. For some background, I’ve been listening to heavy metal and darker music for over 20 years, so I’ve amassed quite the archive of music, much of which leans toward the bleaker side of things, so I feel quite qualified to take you on a journey into the depths of darkness. Let me start by outlining the stages we will progress through, as melancholy music comes in many different forms. This is not meant to be an exhaustive outline of every sub-genre available but will be more than enough to set the tone.
1. Dark Ambient: This genre is purely instrumental background music, and ideal for most of our primary purposes of setting the mood for either writing, art, or a themed Halloween party.
2. Dark Instrumentals: These are more typical bands that use traditional instrumentals to break up their standard albums, some having made entire instrumental records. These are appropriate for mood, but also a little more punishing and dark than traditional Dark Ambient.
3. Black Post Rock Folk: This is a genre that has similarities to classic black metal, but bears themes of nature and humanity, while mostly eschewing the screeching sensory assault of traditional black metal.
4. Spectral and Shoe-gaze: Spectral is characterized by church organs and typically a female vocalist with an ethereal quality to the vocals, while Shoe-gaze attempts to induce a more trance-like experience.
5. Doom Metal: Punishingly heavy guitar riffs and haunting voices characterize this sub-genre of metal. Themes can get extremely dark, usually focusing on misanthropy and nihilism. Be warned; this genre can get extremely depressing, so do not venture here unless you are prepared mentally for soul-shattering blackness.
6. Funeral Doom: The alpha and omega of the bleak. This genre is very similar to Doom metal but adds in funeral dirges and things like Gregorian chants, and nearly always has a death related theme.
7. Traditional Metal: Many “normal” bands have dismal themes, and I’ll cover a few of these as well.
Now that I’ve outlined the styles let’s get down to the bands. I’ll lay out the best of each group and some recommendations for other honorable mentions.
Dark Ambient: Nox Arcana
There is no other band you need for Dark Ambient. This group has been doing nothing but for decades, and as a result, bears an astonishing array of material. Even if you need something oddly specific, they likely have an album that caters to that need. Need a Germanic werewolf gothic horror theme? Ebonshire. How about a spectral carnival theme? Theater of Illusion. What about a dark castle in a frozen wasteland? Darklore Manor and Winter’s Knight. Maybe you need some evil pirates? No problem, Phantoms of the High Seas. Perhaps you are a Poe and Lovecraft aficionado. Ok, Shadow of the Raven and Necronomicon are there for you. There really is no other band you need for Dark Ambient.
Honorable Mention: Lustmord and Deathprod
Dark Instrumentals and Black Post Rock Folk: Agalloch
Possibly my favorite band of all time. Their first four albums are all masterpieces, and even though they broke up, I’ve found no other group that can match their style exactly. Their instrumentals such as The Misshapen Steed and the Hawthorne Passage are best in class at evoking a dark, contemplative mindset, while their traditional songs such as She Painted Fire Across the Skyline and You Were but a Ghost in My Arms ruminate on nature and it’s relationship with humanity. Read the lyrics, and you will understand why they are the best of the best in this sub-genre.
Honorable Mention: Mortiss, Burzum
Spectral and Shoegaze: Anna Von Hausswolff
I invented the spectral genre just for Anna. Her haunting ethereal voice backed with her church organ creates a tone that feels wholly original. The name of her last album is Dead Magic, which pretty much sums up what your expectations should be. Shoegaze is a more trance-like type of metal with extended arrangements where the artists “shoegaze” as though they are in a trance and also produces some very dark material. Bands like Katatonia and Alcest have gotten as close to perfection as you can get within this genre. Speaking of this genre, do yourself a favor and listen to my favorite Christmas album of all time: Tarja’s From Spirits and Ghosts: Score for a Dark Christmas.
Honorable Mention: Chelsea Wolfe, Alcest, Les Discrets
Doom: Swallow the Sun
Songs from the North is one of the greatest albums I’ve ever experienced. This colossal triple album takes the listener on a journey from the beauty of nature to the punishing blackness of the abyss. Doom metal, the genre first pioneered by Black Sabbath, is a vast genre of hundreds of bands sure to crush your soul. They are not recommended for those with mental health issues or depression.
Honorable Mention: A Swarm of the Sun, Khemmis, My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, Candlemass, Avatarium, Pallbearer
Funeral Doom: Mournful Congregation and Dolorian
You were warned. Do not even attempt this genre unless you are already in a positive mindset, as this genre can sink your soul. Doom is dark enough, but this takes depression and misanthropy to a whole other level. And definitely don’t read the lyrics unless your mind is girded for battle against the forces of darkness.
Honorable Mention: Ahab
Traditional Metal: Danzig and Type O Negative
These, relative to the others, are more traditional metal bands that deal with darker themes. Danzig 4 and October Rust are two of my favorite albums of all time, and will undoubtedly take you on a journey, albeit one that isn’t quite as disturbing as many of the offerings mentioned above.
Honorable Mention: Moonspell, Tryptikon, Celtic Frost
There we have it, your journey through hell is complete, with some albums sure to make Satan himself raise an eyebrow. Now that we’ve survived this journey, perhaps I’ll do another on the most uplifting music next. Let me know on social media your favorites, and I’ll update this list!
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