Any band can sound pretty. A few twinkling keys, some shimmering minor chords here and there, and bam, you’ve got a song that feels like the appropriate soundtrack to a sunrise in an indie teen movie. But sounding ugly — ah, therein lies a challenge. While distortion, downtuning, and vomitous vocals help, there’s a certain sort of atmosphere to sonic ugliness that can’t be faked. While plenty of bands over the years have bathed their music in fuzz and darkness, only a handful of them have really communicated hideousness through their songs.
As lovers of aural grossness, we wanted to honor the artists who have made music that sounds uniquely repulsive. These bands aren’t ugly themselves — most of them are good-looking, and some are even total beefcakes (looking at you, CT!) — but who make music which sounds ugly at its core. This is music that revels in the part of us that feels disfigured on a spiritual level, who put a sympathetic hand on the shoulder of our souls when you look into the mirror and think, Wow, I’m a fucking mess, but then again, maybe the world is too.
Here are the 15 bands who make music only a mother could love…
In a way, Bongripper tricked fans with their band name. People see ‘Bongripper’ and assume it’ll sound like Sleep: buoyant, soothing weed metal. But no dice — though they may sound rad while you’re high, this Chicago quartet’s doom is as unsightly as it gets, bursting with misery, hatred, and woe at every turn. Sure, there’s pendulous low-end riffs, but there’s a sticky physicality to them that makes them more resin than bud. Not for your average CBD dabbler.
Even though they didn’t get as involved in death metal’s gore overkill as bands like Cannibal Corpse, Autopsy managed to sound as ugly if not uglier than their peers. It was their combination of death and doom — their use of slow, tendon-pulling moments of anguish alongside the crash and gallop — that added a monstrous quality to their music. That said, covers like those of 1991’s Mental Funeral and 2014’s Tourniquets, Hacksaws & Graves certainly add to the band’s appalling appeal.
Ugliness isn’t always about doing your best to sound unpleasant — trying to be perversely sexy is supremely hideous as well. That’s what Detroit’s Shitfucker do best: the band is basically blackened glam metal made by three Buffalo Bills, and with album titles like Suck Cocks In Hell and Sex With Dead Body, these guys obviously works hard to promote that image. If they were one bit artsier, Shitfucker’d be Marilyn Manson; as it is, they’re just foul.
12. December Wolves
For a hot second at the turn of the millennium, December Wolves were the harshest band on the planet. The Massachusetts-based three-piece made sardonic, misanthropic blackened industrial metal with a genuine sense of loathing and chaos to it. The peak of this was 2002’s Blasterpiece Theater, a sonic halestorm of spleen that excited fans of both old-school horror and contemporary musical cruelty. Get into these guys — if you can stomach them.
Philly’s Pissgrave certainly work their asses off to make sure people are grossed out by them; the band’s forensic album covers are the stuff of explosive diarrhea. But they’re not inappropriate, given the finger-ripping grind of the band’s unique death metal. There’s just something about these guys’ level of fuzz, chug, and shriek that makes them sound more like an infected keloid than the rest. All that said, hot damn, also look at that fucking cover.
1o. The Body
Ugliness comes from many places, and for The Body, it comes from the heart. The Rhode Island duo’s music isn’t gross bodily, but emotionally; their experimental beats and atmospheric crashes evoke feelings like panic, frenzy, and mercenary hunger. This is what has drawn similarly-disturbing acts like Full of Hell and Thou to collaborate with them — a sense of genuine horror, an understanding of emotions that we don’t want the rest of the world to know we have. Upsetting on all fronts.
9. Burning Witch
Started by Southern Lord co-founder Greg Anderson, Burning Witch is proof that grunge was never Seattle’s most depressing musical product. With thrumming doom metal with vocals that sound like a goblin overdosing, the band hit a strung-out chord which would inspire countless imitators throughout the years. The moments of clean singing only increase the general feeling of unpleasantness which surrounds 2009’s Crippled Lucifer. Not as gross as some of this list’s other bands, but way more desperate and gutting.
Even if they didn’t include intestine-wrenching horror movie samples in almost every song, New York death metallers Mortician would still be considered masters of sonic repugnancy. The band’s death metal is as fuzzy, incomprehensible, and all-out ugly as you can find. Perhaps even nastier is that these guys don’t play at being artistic or avant-garde about it — the plodding, steady rhythms and structures of these songs only add to their rotten natures. This music is the feeling a zombie experiences when they catch their own face in a mirror.
It’s not that New York’s Pyrrhon make music that isn’t tight, or technically accomplished. It’s more that their riffs sound like a bulging deformity, and frontman Doug Moore’s bellows and wails remind the listener of a patient in one of those antiquated asylums where guards had to wear cages on their heads. The band’s groaning, off-kilter death metal comes off dangerously seasick, and is all the more shudder-inducing because of the moments of emotionality throughout. Like an ever-flowing cyst.
6. Anaal Nathrakh
Some people are worn out by time, resignation, and the inevitability of death — but those are the things the things that Anaal Nathrakh thrive on. The British twosome merge black metal, industrial, and even ecclesiastical singing into their uniquely upsetting sound. While the big-picture sweep of albums like The Codex Necro and Vanitas is powerful, it’s the collection of minutiae, the carefully-accented gurgles and snarls and buzzes, that really make this band a sore-covered work of genius. Hymns to power by people who have admitted to themselves that they’re human.
His main band Carpathian Forest may be known for their stygian darkness, but frontman Nattefrost’s solo albums are marked by their ground-level repulsiveness. 2004’s Blood & Vomit (the back cover featuring the caption ‘Possibly the best album in the world’) is full of scorching straightforward black metal about sluts and Satan in between recordings of its maker vomiting uncontrollably and taking a piss. 2005’s Terrorist followed suit with a whole track of Nattefrost taking a shit, a few songs before the nauseating “Preteen Deathfuck.” Not for the sensitive.
There’s something to Rwake’s dynamic sludge metal that is inherently southern. The busy-ness and breathless purpose that comes from fast-paced city life isn’t present in churning, heartbreaking albums like 2004’s If You Walk Before You Crawl, You Crawl Before You Die. Instead, it’s all vitally human, as though the turmoil and contempt being expressed in these songs come down to twisted joints and cracked lips. It’s a beautiful brand of noise that is nonetheless hideous to behold, and has cemented this band as one of America’s most dynamic and disturbing.
3. Primitive Man
Listening to a Primitive Man record is a lot like the opening credits of David Fincher’s Se7en — a nonstop stream of consciousness involving screeching metal, crumbling infrastructure, filthy fingernails and unhinged screams. The music is a snapshot of humanity at its most honest, with all the fury, disgust, and confusion that we normally keep locked inside ourselves. In that respect, some might even find the tag ‘music’ to be unfair — rather, Primitive Man are a sonic landscape of your own perverse subconscious. Let it get inside of you.
2. Acid Bath
There’s plenty of groove and soul in Acid Bath’s slippery sludge-metal music…and yet, there’s also something believably gross about them. Maybe it’s their guitar tone, which has a goosefleshy edge that sounds perpetually muddy. Or it could be frontman Dax Riggs’ mixture of anxious keening and puked shrieks that gives them their patented atmosphere. Whatever it is, the songs are such that the use of one of serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s paintings for the cover of 1994’s When The Kite String Pops felt wholly appropriate.
It’s impossible to tell what kind of bad Eyehategod are going to serve up to you today. Maybe it’s the dirt under the fingernails of a down-and-out addict who’s finally ready to do something unspeakable. Maybe it’s the curved flesh of a deformed Rottweiler wandering through a field by the side of the road. Maybe it’s the soul-numbing endlessness of life without parole. Whatever they’ve decided to bring to the table, the NOLA sludge crew will always do it with a sonic approach that sounds like black mold, white lines, and the weeping of the hungry. Awful — beautifully, inimitably awful.
Words by Chris Krovatin