How many artists would it take to transition seamlessly from Justin Bieber to Burzum? That is our challenge today. On the one hand we have a pop icon whose hairstyles take up more news cycles than some third world countries. On the other we have the convicted murderer, church arsonist, and mainstay of early 90’s Norwegian black metal. I can already sense this will be a cakewalk.
The rules are simple: start with Bieber’s similar artists on last.fm. Using no more than the first 3 pages of similar artists at a time, navigate through the last.fm library until you make it to Burzum. Let us begin.
Justin Bieber. I don’t have much to say about Bieber that hasn’t been said already. I almost never hear about him in the context of music, but his EDM-styled latest album has been quite successful. Three singles off the album have already hit #1 on the Billboard 200, which is probably why even I have heard all three of them.
Transition 1: Pop to Pop-Punk
Pop-punk is the natural first step as it is the closest an electric guitar comes to Pop Proper. We’re going to need guitars to get into black metal, so let’s see what happens.
Jonas Brothers. I’m not surprised that these guys are my only option to leave the Justin Bieber solar system. What I am surprised about is that someone thought the Jonas Brothers qualified as pop-punk. Their most popular tracks don’t strike me that way, but I suppose an argument could be made for songs like Lovebug or S.O.S.
5 Seconds of Summer. There is no doubt in my mind that the rock version of One Direction has earned the title of pop-punk. She Looks So Perfect actually made me laugh the first time I heard it because of all the boxes it ticks for the genre. The anthemic intro, the chord progressions, the 16-year-old aesthetic… Good Girls honestly sounds like a blink-182 song.
Fall Out Boy. This is undoubtedly the first time Fall Out Boy has ever been the heaviest and most technical band on a list. I’m not a fan of the band, but I can’t take away that songs like Sugar, We’re Goin Down and Dance, Dance made them a defining act of 2000’s pop-punk. The simple fact is that I know that they have a closer conceptual link to the genres that influence them than 5SOS (which was arguably influenced by bands like Fall Out Boy themselves), which means we’re approaching another transition.
Brand New. Brand New is about the closest to “legit” you’re going to get with a pop-punk band. The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows is one of the best pop-punk songs ever written. What makes Brand New interesting isn’t the songs they’ve made which embody the pop-punk sound, but rather the songs they’ve made that don’t. This is what gives them a cross-genre reach unlike any of the bands we’ve looked at so far.
Transition 2: Pop-Punk to Emo
Emo brings us some much-needed depth, and importantly exposure to two channels that will get us into truly heavy music: its sister genre post-hardcore (to take us into hardcore punk), and screamo.
Seahaven. Seahaven are a lesser-known but quite talented emo band. They also have several elements of post-hardcore in their songs which gives me the two-for-one I was talking about above. I hear more of the emo sound in songs like Goodnight, and more post-hardcore in Plague.
Transition 3: Emo to Hardcore
Hardcore/hardcore punk is heavy. Metal is heavy. We’re definitely on the chase now.
Title Fight. Title Fight isn’t exactly “pure” hardcore, but that’s what you would expect from a band we navigated to via emo. I will say one thing, though. Tracks like Symmetry are relatively “soft” when you compare them to our destination, but they’re also relatively heavy when compared to our port of departure — if you can’t get into Memorial Field, you aren’t going to like what’s coming next.
Touché Amoré. These guys are another hybrid, definitely bringing some of the more modern sounds from screamo and melodic hardcore into the mix. However, they are the first band on the list who have an aggressive “driving” sound to them (which is a characteristic of metal that we’re looking for). Songs like ~ and Gravity, Metaphorically are pretty accessible. Songs like Pathfinder and Honest Sleep… a little less so.
Converge. We now say goodbye to melody and hello to chaotic hardcore. Anyone not familiar with Converge will get a pleasant hello from Concubine and its connecting track Fault and Fracture. I first listened to the band because, like I suspect is the case with a lot of people, I was intrigued by the album art on Jane Doe. Consider my curiosity sated.
Oathbreaker. It is a rather rare treat to find a female-fronted hardcore band, but here we are. Last.fm calls them “blackened hardcore,” and that is exactly what I want to see if I’m journeying toward black metal. The “atmosphere” generated by songs like No Rest For The Weary and The Abyss Looks Into Me is where the black comes from. This band is not nearly as chaotic as Converge (black metal rarely is either), but their sense of melody is certainly closer to metal than it is to pop punk.
Transition 4: Hardcore to Sludge
We’re in an interesting situation here. Sludge/sludge metal is not really where I want to be, but I had a heck of a time getting from hardcore to black metal by any other path. It seems that the “similar artists” algorithm really wants us to stay under the Greater Punk banner rather than move on. If anyone is playing along at home, I could easily see you beating my path length around this area.
Seven Sisters of Sleep. Sludge is a slow, head-nodding, even groovy genre of music. The gravity of the sound can be oppressive. War Master is as good a place to start as any for someone curious what this genre sounds like. Monastery is another good one.
Primitive Man. I won’t even pretend I’ve heard of this band before, but last.fm has branded them with the magic words I’m looking for “blackened sludge”. With that comes a more demonic feel as compared to Seven Sisters of Sleep (music videos notwithstanding), which you can hear on Scorn. And for anyone who finds Scorn to be too lengthy a track, but still wants the Primitive Man experience, you can try Rags.
Inter Arma. I’m not sure how to describe these guys. They’re in exactly the same genre as Primitive Man and sound completely different. It’s almost surreal at this point in our voyage — it reminds me of the mood of the Do Lung Bridge scene in Apocalypse Now. The Survival Fires is a song I can understand. What the hell is The Long Road Home? Some kind of offshoot of atmospheric black metal, I assume. Destroyer is just straight up sludge (and pretty bitchin’, I might add). I have to say I’m liking this band.
Transition 5: Sludge to Black Metal
Atmospheric black metal, to be specific. This seems to be the “natural” pivot point for sludge, and we’ve finally made it there. We’re in Burzum’s neighborhood, so it is only a matter of time before we find him.
Altar of Plagues. I think people would be very surprised (at this point) to discover they might actually like this band and indeed this genre. Listen to Earth: As a Womb. Is it really so inaccessible? It’s the interesting thing about atmospheric black metal. Deep in the pits of a violent, noisy genre, you find this calm. Neither that track nor its accompanying track Earth: As a Furnace will let you forget you’re listening to metal, but I know that I was surprised when I first heard music like this.
Wolves in the Throne Room. Wolves in the Throne Room are definitely one of the big name black metal acts of the last decade. They have a pretty similar feel to Altar of Plagues, with many seemingly unconventional songs like Cleansing and Queen of the Borrowed Light. Hard to judge which is more accessible, but I’d suggest Wolves.
Drudkh. Another big one from the 2000’s. They are more raw and brutal than the last two bands, and a lot noisier (an aesthetic you’ll note in Burzum’s music). Glare of Autumn is a good example track. Smell of Rain is straight up noise. Only The Wind Remembers My Name gives us that lo-fi tone that hearkens back to 90’s black metal. Lo and behold…
Burzum. We have arrived upon the most controversial man in metal: Varg Vikernes. For more about him, you can watch the documentary Until the Light Takes Us about the history of Norwegian black metal. For now, I’ll just share two of his most well-known tracks so you can appreciate how he has so much in common with Justin Bieber.
It took me 16 steps to go from Justin Bieber to Burzum. Mathematically speaking, I was supposed to complete this task in about 4. So much for that. I think it’s decent enough that I spent no more than four hops in a given genre to shake off the remnants of its source and don the raiment of our destination.
The question remains: could a Justin Bieber fan follow this path and actually enjoy Burzum? Probably not on the first try. I have a suspicion that people will get choked up around the middle section of the trek, when melodies stop presenting themselves the way we’re used to them. However, I think the path is valid, and perhaps some time spent wandering the Fields of Hardcore could open one’s heart to the rest of the bands on the list.
If anybody else tries to play this game, let me know if you beat 16.