Death Metal Underground

Death metal albums of which I will never tire

by Brett Stevens
May 4, 2014 –

morbid_angel-live

Early death metal (Bathory, Slayer, Hellhammer, Sodom, Master) emerged as an aggregate of the past, comprised of speed metal (Metallica, Exodus, Nuclear Assault, Testament, Megadeth), late hardcore (Cro-Mags, Amebix, Discharge, The Exploited, GBH), classic heavy metal (Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead) and thrash (DRI, COC, Cryptic Slaughter). As a result, most death metal bands exhibited some tendencies more than others, although the founding early death metal bands tended toward the type of tremolo-powered phrase-based riffing exemplified by Slayer.

For example, Deicide on its second album Legion arguably made the album that …And Justice For All wanted to be, with lots of choppy percussive riffing forming intricate textures from which a melody emerged. Early Master sounded more like a punk band with its simple song structures and emphasis on droning, protest-like vocals. Second-wave death metal like Death and Possessed had a tendency to apply speed metal song structures and riff styles. Even advanced death metal like Pestilence often sounded like a more technical and complex version of early speed metal.

But focusing on death metal requires we look at what was unique to it. Getting past the vocals and the intensity, what distinguishes it musically is its use of that tremolo-strummed phrasal riff. This in turn forced bands to escape from riffs integrated strictly with drums, and to as a result put more riffs into the song to drive changes that previous would have been done by the drums. That in turn forced bands to make those riffs fit together, what Asphyx call “riff-gluing,” so that songs avoided the “riff salad” plague that captured later speed metal.

These bands exploded onto the world from 1983-1985, inspired in part by Discharge’s Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing which hit the ground in 1982. Slayer in particular stitched together classic heavy metal and ambient hardcore like Discharge and GBH and ended up with its particular formulation, taking the tremolo and riffs independent of drums from Discharge and matching them to the complex proggy structures of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with Motorhead speed and aggression. This was what launched death metal free from the shadow of speed metal, which was the first metal genre to break out of underground status despite being — for the time — fast, aggressive and dark.

If you want to get to the core of death metal, these albums might help. They’re albums I keep returning to year after year because they have enough complexity and that unquantifiable quality of having purpose and being expressive, perhaps even emulating the life around them and converting it into a beast of mythological quality, which makes them interesting each time I pick them up. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, the players….

Slayer – Show No Mercy

While Hell Awaits has more expert composition, South of Heaven better control of mood and melody, and Reign in Blood more pure rhythmic intensity, Show No Mercy captures Slayer flush with the fervor of youth and the belief in big concepts. As a result, it is an intensity mystical album, uniting a narrative about war between good and evil with the actions of people on earth. It is not like Hell Awaits more solidly situated in a single mythology, nor like Reign in Blood and after an attempt to explore the dark side of modern existence in a literal sense. Instead, it is a flight of imagination mated to an apocalyptic vision of a society crumbling from within. As a result it is musically the most imaginative of Slayer albums, creating grand constructions of visions of worlds beyond that stimulate the fantasy dwelling within our otherwise obedient minds.

Massacra – Enjoy the Violence

Another early album in very much the style of Slayer but with intensity cranked to the ceiling, Enjoy the Violence shows a band intent on conveying intense energy through their music. To do this, they rely on not only near-constant breakneck speed but also vivid contrasts between the types of riffs that are used in a song, welding a rich narrative from riffs that initially seem simple like the scattered twisted bits of metal left after a battle. The result is closer to epic poem that punk music and blows conventional heavy metal and speed metal out of the water with the sense of unbridled aggression and lust for life that surges through its passages. In addition, it carries on the mythological tradition of Slayer but adds a Nietzschean spin whereby constant war for supremacy and domination is the only path not only to victory, but to personal integrity.

Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation

Most prefer the more refined versions of these songs from Altars of Madness and Blessed Are the Sick, but my ear favors these nuanced and unsystematic detail-heavy songs which feature more of a blending of textures into what sounds like a communication from another world heard underwater or through the croaking voice of a medium. Trey Azagthoth’s solos were best when he used his half-whole step leaps to make solos that sounded like the creation of gnarly sculptures, and these songs powered by Mike Browning’s drums and voice have more of an organic jauntiness to them than the later mechanistic tanks-crushing-the-shopping-mall sound of the full albums. In addition, this combination of songs strays from the later more interruption-based riffing this band would attempt and instead brings out their inner desire to rip all ahead go at all times, creating a suspension of reality like war itself.

Incantation – Onward to Golgotha

When the idea comes to mind of death metal at its essence, this album will be mentioned because it creates a sound unlike anything else. Incantation took the Slayer riff and song formula and slowed it down, doubled the complexity, and focused on alternating tempos and riff styles to create a building mood of immersive darkness. The result was not only aggressive, but melancholic and contemplative, like a warrior looking out over an abandoned bullet-pocked city. Detuned riffs collide and deconstruct one another, resulting in a sound like the inexorable flow of black water through underground caverns as civilizations collapse above. This rare group of musicians achieved a triumph here that none have been able to repeat individually, suggesting this album was born of a magic confluence of ideas more than a process (ham sandwiches on a conveyor belt).

Carnage – Dark Recollections

If you want “the Swedish sound” at its most powerful, Dark Recollections offers every component synthesized into a package that has not yet had time to become self-critical and neurotic, and thus is an unfettered expression of the thoughts of precocious adolescents translated into sound. The components of Swedish death metal are the modified d-beat, the use of melody to expand song development, a gritty electric explosion of guitar sound, and a tendency to write songs that are half searing budget riff and half horror movie sound track.

Sepultura – Morbid Visions/Bestial Devastation

The first EP in this two-EP package is the more classic death metal version and packs a solid blast of inventive riffcraft staged with theatrical precision into songs that form narratives of the topics denoted in their titles. But the riffs are instant creations of their own, shaped from raw chromaticism and whipped into fury by two levels of rhythm, both in the change of chords and the texturing of the sounding of them. The result owes quite a bit to Slayer, Bathory and Hellhammer, but also to the punk hardcore underlying those acts and a good knowledge of dark metal of the time, and yet is still its own animal. Nothing sounds like this except it, and by giving itself a unique voice, it conjures a power of revelation that endows these songs with lasting enjoyment for the listener.

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62 comments

  • Lord Mosher

    Hey what about At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul and Cannibal Corpse – Butchered at Birth ??
    .
    Ha ha.
    Just kidding!

    1. Brett Stevens Post author

      I’m going to add those right after Opeth’s Morningrise, right after I buy myself a MacBook, right after I join Joel Osteen’s church and start watching a lot of TV.

  • asdfgh

    [countdown to posts questioning what Show No Mercy is doing in a death metal list, 5, 4, 3, 2...]

    1. tiny midget

      isn’t Slayer a thrash band ? the interviewed guy on the past post refers to slayer as thrash,,, sowhy isit in deathmetal?
      slayer never thought of themselves as death metal.

        1. amber the hammer

          Not only is Crypts of Eternity death metal, it’s their single best song writing.

  • SERIOUS QUESTIONER

    Would anyone please care to explain what the following mean?
    I need an Anus dictionary sometimes to catch up with the ideas lexicon expressed on this site-
    - riff salad
    - budget riff
    - suspension of reality
    - riff-gluing
    - raw chromaticism

    1. fenrir

      I’d rather let Mr. Stevens explain that directly as I am just a reader like you. But I can give it a shot. Anyone else please feel free to correct me:

      >riff salad: the song arrangements typical of some old school death metal which consists of writing strands of riffs in line and letting the flow of the song be dictated by this( rather than strictly by chord circles or clear blocks like “verse” or “chorus” and “bridge”. I guess there are lot of gray areas here…)

      >budget riff: probably, a riff that achieves it purpose with minimal requirements. It performs the job it’s supposed to do and nothing more. No extra flare. I can understand this in the context of a band like Carnage.

      >suspension of reality: come on, this is more of a poetic description of a very subjective nature. It means the writer feels this music makes him feel as if this music makes him enter a state of mind which he interprets as separate from every day experiences. It’s just a description of feelings to convey an impression of the music.

      > riff-gluing: you have the definition right there, man:
      “This in turn forced bands to escape from riffs integrated strictly with drums, and to as a result put more riffs into the song to drive changes that previous would have been done by the drums. That in turn forced bands to make those riffs fit together, what Asphyx call “riff-gluing…”
      So, structuring of riffs without relying on the drums to introduce certain transitions. I would prefer a clearer explanation/example too but I think the basic idea is pretty straight-forward.

      > raw chromaticism: well, it just means chromatism. You can look that up. By ‘raw’ I assume he means that there is no particular purpose in the chromatic movements rather than their sound itself. This as opposed to, for instance, a 12-tone approach where chromatism happens as an effect of the requirement of such approach.

      1. Brett Stevens Post author

        Short on time, so this is quick: most of the definitions above are quite good. Addenda:

        Budget riff Rhythm riffs made of few chords and/or open strings.

        Riff gluing “structuring of riffs without relying on the drums to introduce certain transitions” is true but also: assembling riffs together so that a narrative is created that expands context with each evolution, producing the “death metal feeling” of bursting through dense woods onto the vista of a vast landscape.

        Raw chromaticism ” By ‘raw’ I assume he means that there is no particular purpose in the chromatic movements rather than their sound itself.” — yes, and implication that rhythm has dominated any sense of melody.

        1. eman

          I know you are short on time but here’s a question from curiosity: Is there a metric that determines how “raw” chromaticism of riffage is? I get that Slayer’s riffs were rawer in this sense than any of their contemporaries and were furthered by Possessed. But I would guess that bands like Entombed, Death, or Unleashed favored a more “refined” method to riffing than, say Suffocation or Gorguts. Incantation also uses “chromatic” riffs but I would consider them very much refined by the time of Diabolical Conquest. Nevertheless they are very much chromatic even during solos and lead parts that really don’t augment the rhythm. Is that still “raw”?

          /autism

          1. Redman

            Twelve tones. Smaller the intervals between tones whilst not coinciding on either major/minor scales, more the perceived atonality. Groupings of 2-3 such notes of the chromatic scale leads to the “raw chromaticism” suggested by the author. Examples are Slayer on SNM, early Sepultura, bands like Havohej/Profanatica, early Death, etc. Something like Deeds Of Flesh, on the other are an extremely refined instance as you put it.

            1. eman

              I see, that’s what I had guessed. Thanks. Too bad death metal has not moved into microtonal territory yet. That shit could sound way more insane than the “mere” twelve tones of the western musical scale.

  • veien

    Awesome list!

    Mine would probably include:

    Autopsy – Mental Funeral
    Godflesh – Streetcleaner
    Beherit – Engram

    1. eman

      I wanna play too. Add;

      Gorguts – Considered Dead
      Morpheus Descends – Ritual of Infinity

        1. eman

          Considered Dead features some awesome structuring throughout each song but foregoes flashiness. It is written in a very utilitarian way. There is no fat to any song, each is a muscular machine. The leads are cool as hell and the riffing is very imaginative and always appropriate in context of the drums and vocals. Lyrics are also pretty interesting too but not on the level of Suffocation.

          Ritual of Infinity is heavier than gravity but avoids sounding knuckle-dragging stupid. The riffs pull you along and are damn catchy bet never repetitive. Vocally the whole album is nightmarish. The band also has a really intuitive sense of where to switch between the choppy percussive chugging and the smoother single-note-at-a-time sections. I always thought that this album was sort of an aggregate of all the best aspects of death metal of its era without really being the “-est” of anything. That makes it sound average so I am describing my thoughts poorly at this point and will therefore end with the suggestion that you make what you can out of it rather than take my word.

          1. Nester

            I’ll relisten to them with what you had to say in mind. Gorguts, I like their second album, and really love their third. Their first to me always sounded like uninspired imitation to the floridian bands at the time. And Morpheus descends, like a shallower and less exciting Suffocation.

            I think a lot of similar albums go over our head. We usually expect a little bit of pretension in art, so when we encounter something with next to none of it, we see it as simple and unexciting. Someone around here said this a while ago.

            1. fenrir

              “And Morpheus descends, like a shallower and less exciting Suffocation.”

              But these two bands are very different! You must listen to Morpheus Descends again with more attention. As eman pointed out, MD will sound average in the sense that it is not the “-est” of anything. But it is actually very solid and effective. I would say that I see much more strength/power/emotion in Ritual of Infinity than in Gorguts’ debut.
              Gorguts’ debut is more of the same stylistically but excellently done. I am not familiar enough to present a case for it. In my case I cannot stop coming back to Gorguts’ second album. This second album also has a “typical” sound when looked at from far away but in thinking it is worlds apart from Suffocation. I would say they are using the same building blocks but in very different ways. Suffocation was strictly rhythm oriented and played with the variations they could find there. Gorguts’ second concentrates more on the actual variation of melody, having more prominent themes in their longer riffs. I cannot get enough of Condemned to Obscurity.

              1. Richard Head

                Erosion of Sanity used to be my favorite Gorguts album but I have always been drawn back to Considered Dead. It does seem a boring album at first and second (probably even third) pass but it is only more subtle, lacking the bombast that we are used to from death metal (especially speaking of explosive technique like that of Suffocation who are really a completely different trip than Gorguts).

  • Nester

    I never completely understood this site’s obsession with Massacra. I only listened to Final Holocaust, how does Enjoy the Violence compare to it? I liked Final Holocaust but didn’t think of it as highly as you guys do.

    I think De Profundis is the pinnacle of the spirit stream tremolo styled death metal. The guitars run rampant yet everything’s controlled and the songs advance gracefully at lightning speeds. The production is perfect for it, it’s airy enough to provide more freedom for the guitars and further reach and power for the drums and vocals. And the guitar tone just cuts right through anything. This album is more worthy of a place in the best ever list than Massacra.

    1. Invisible Sandwich

      Final Holocaust, although it has its strong points (in its intensity and subtle use of melody), is hampered by janky songwriting – in the terms this site likes to use, the riff glue is weak. I can’t speak for Enjoy the Violence without giving it extended listening.

      1. fenrir

        I think the ‘riff glue’ in Final Holocaust is pretty strong, actually. It flows from a theme to variations on it on different riffs, then maybe into a smaller theme which connects really well to the last variation of the first theme, and so on.
        What bothers me about Final Holocaust (besides the shitty production, which isn’t a big problem when you really appreciate the music) is the constant 4/4 throughout the whole album without a hint of syncopation (as far as I can remember). There is a whole dimension to rhythmic dynamics that is just FLAT. This is what can be tiring about it, at least for me.
        Now, iff you actually sit down and listen with attention, without expecting hooks, but you focusing on the music, it is really rich.

        1. Brett Stevens Post author

          constant 4/4 throughout the whole album without a hint of syncopation

          Take techno, add metal’s cadence, and suddenly drums no longer lead composition. Aha.

          1. fenrir

            The syncopation I was referring to was not that of the drums.
            Rhythm =/= Percussion.
            Music without percussion may also contain syncopation. Actually, syncopation is essential for rhythmic variety in any kind of music. The most basic sort of syncopation is the one in which the melodic stresses fall on rhythmically (nothing to do with percussion necessarily) weak beats (in a 4/4 measure, those would be 2 and 4).
            Massacra’s Final Holocaust is still a great album without this dimension to it. But I am just mentioning it as something that can be off-puting for some.

  • Aaron Lynn

    Agree with most of this on the nose, however I would definitely throw “Legion” in there. That album is a train-ride through Hell and I never grow tired of that trip.

  • Kingdomgone

    I don’t know why anyone would pick Swedish death metal when you have Finnish one instead. Never cared for it with the exceptions of early At the Gates and Dismember. If I had to pick one Swedish album it would Dismember’s first. The rest is just too candyish-like. In a battle between Demilich, Demigod, Amorphis and Carnage, Entombed, Grave the winner would be unanimous.

    1. North from Here

      You realize Carnage is practically the first Dismember album, right?
      It’s also the best.

      As for Swedish death metal, look at it this way:
      first At the Gates
      first Cemetary
      first Carnage
      first 2 Dismember
      first 2 Entombed
      first Eucharist
      first Merciless
      first Necrophobic
      first 3 Therion
      first 2 Unleashed
      first 2 Hypocrisy

      These are more than 15 good to great death metal albums from a country with a population below 10 millions. Rest of Europe combined (bar Finland) hasn’t produced that many.

      1. Brett Stevens Post author

        I endorse this list:

        first At the Gates
        first Cemetary
        first Carnage
        first 2 Dismember
        first 2 Entombed
        first Eucharist
        first Merciless
        first Necrophobic
        first 3 Therion
        first 2 Unleashed
        first 2 Hypocrisy

        For those who will be listening for 20 years, I add that the last two entries can probably be chopped.

        This output is one of the reasons the old school was absolutely crazy for Swedish metal. It wasn’t a sound, per se; it was a sound and a compositional heritage.

        Good that you mention Finland:

        first Amorphis
        first 2 Sentenced + EP
        first Demigod
        Demilich, period
        first Belial
        Skepticism

        From Norway at the same time:

        second Cadaver
        first 2 Molested

        1. eman

          Wonder why I never see Purtenance mentioned when speaking of classic-era Finnish bands. Shame.

          1. Nester

            Purtenance, Depravity, Abhorrence are on a level right below these. And then comes Convulse, Adramelech below that, which aren’t really that good, but don’t completely suck.

            1. eman

              Really? I’m only getting into Adramelech and I thought their first album was pretty outstanding. I’ll check out the others you mentioned. Thanks.

              1. Argonaut

                Their second is even better if you don’t get put off by the more modern aesthetics/production.
                Actually, the mechanical sound suits the music and the mixing is ridiculously good.
                It’s like that thing on the cover; a technologically advanced robot, possessed by a vengeful ancient spirit.

                1. eman

                  Sounds good to me, I will dig into it. I only started checking out the “Finnish school” recently because I’ve been jacking off to Demilich for a while and though I can never get bored of Nespithe, I am interested in the local sounds that inspired it. I’m only familiar with the first Adramelech but I will check out your suggestion and any others that anyone has to offer.

                  1. EDS

                    Purtenance, Abhorrence, Cartilage and Belial are top rate Finn-death. I always considered Demilich in another league separate from the straight ahead old school filthy death metal of their countrymen.

                    1. Nester

                      What else are good finnish dm? The ones I’ve listened to so far are Demilich, Demigod, Abhorrence, Purtenance, Funebre, Adramelech, Belial, Convulse, Depravity, Amorphis, Sentenced. I have a couple of more on my list that I haven’t checked out(Xysma, Disgrace, Lubricant… etc), I don’t have high hopes for these though. I will check out Cartilage.

                    2. EDS

                      Odd, Nesters comment does not have the “Reply” link
                      So in reply to Nester…

                      When you check out Cartilage make sure to listen to Wings to. Wings was the follow on project of Cartilage members. Xysma is weird as their first demo was like early Carcass complete with a shitty production. I kind of like it though. Later the EP’s were boring deathgrind stuff. Disgrace’s Inside the Labyrinth of Depression is a great demo and one of my all time favorites. Lubricant are different and many here at DMU and ANUS would not like them but I love their demo and EP. Make sure to check out Rippikoulu is you want heavy dense skull crushing death metal with some death/doom. Also Necropsy is good to as Century Media just released their demo compilation. Speed/death metal with choppy riffing and plenty of energy. Some songs have the filthy tremolo riffing of their fellow Finn-death brethren. I like them too.

                    3. Nester

                      Yeah, yours don’t have a Reply link too. I think it stops showing it after a certain amount of posts in the chain.

                      I already listen to Rippikoulu, but just knew about Necropsy and Wings. I’ll check all of these out. Thanks.

        2. Nito

          Eucharist is a bit too “sappy” in the end and that second Entombed is mediocre at best (cool cover art though).

      2. Kingdomgone

        Alright Sweden has produced some quality acts. I forgot about Necrophobic. The Nocturnal Silence is one of the top 5 dm albums for me. But I still stand with the fact that Finland is superior. Maybe it is just our destiny to be the less popular outsider of the death metal scene?

        How about modern death metal? Finland has Lie in Ruins, Desecresy, Hooded Menace to mention a few. What does Sweden have?

        1. EDS

          I’d agree to the extent that only the first Grave album belongs. I never got into either of the first two Unleashed albums all that much.

          1. Nester

            Really? Both these Grave albums are minor classics at best, but I thought the second was a little bit better. Both Unleashed albums are pretty subpar.

            1. EDS

              For me Into the Grave is better despite it having a few to many songs. None are really boring though. On the second album they released a few snoozers. I agree on Unleashed.

  • Eric Syre

    Entombed-Clandestine
    Death-Spiritual Healing
    Amorphis-The Karelian Isthmus
    Dismember-Indecent And Obscene
    Morbid Angel-Covenant

  • Averno

    death metal never exist in the 80s, death metal born in 90s, even all the death metal bands that born and ve albums in the 80s all of them are thrash or could be thrash/death albums, but never death albums, case morbid angel, pestilence, death, obituary etc, the death metal is a exclusive gender of the 90s. For me its a big mistake to relate slayer, venom, sodom or bathory with it, in any case they are connect with black in reality they are thrash metal or 80s black/thash but the essence is without a doubt thrash metal.
    so this article ve biiigs mistakes named hard core: exploited and amebix, exploited is punk and punk metal later and amebix are the gods of crust. then say exodus, testament, metallica and nuclear assault speed jaja they are thrash and loud! And name like thrash Cryptic S and DRI?? ..bitch pleasee!! jaja
    Well this article sucks, very bad for the new generations just serve to confuse their minds

    1. eman

      I think you are just confused about the terminology used in the article. “Thrash” refers to “crossover/thrash” which was basically hardcore with metallic riffing and speed, but not purely metal or hardcore. It is of no use to call these bands “punk” because that term is used by people to describe everything between the Ramones and Minor Threat, who actually played totally different styles of mussic. So crossover/thrash effectively describes the music of Cryptic Slaughter and Suicidal Tendencies.

      Did you forget or just not know that Death, Obituary, Morbid Angel, and Deicide were playing shows or releasing records in the 1980s? Check out Possessed – “Seven Churches”, and I think you will hear the difference in their sound and style that makes them a death metal band, not speed metal or thrash.

      1. Brett Stevens Post author

        “Thrash” refers to “crossover/thrash” which was basically hardcore with metallic riffing and speed, but not purely metal or hardcore. It is of no use to call these bands “punk” because that term is used by people to describe everything between the Ramones and Minor Threat, who actually played totally different styles of mussic. So crossover/thrash effectively describes the music of Cryptic Slaughter and Suicidal Tendencies.

        I support this analysis. Can we add DRI and first album COC to the list?

        1. eman

          No doubt, though I’m less familiar with those groups than the ones I mentioned. And of course you support my analysis; it was just a reiteration of what you have already written about thrash vs. speed metal. I’m just a facet of your glorious hivemind after all.

  • mlotek

    Excellent choice of albums !
    I forgot that Slayer was called death metal or black metal besides thrash metal back then, as the underground metal scene kept changing / expanding / being redefined, every few months!

    Only thing I would like to add is when the Cadaver / Carnage split LP came out, it blew our minds, as we thought Entombed was the heaviest that death metal could get at that point.

    It all got topped once again later, when GRAVE’s debut Lp came out !

  • Benn E

    Kreator’s Pleasure to kill is another album that is a progenitor of Death Metal

  • Dionysus

    Excellent selection! Reading Prozak’s comments on these albums makes me extremely pumped to listen to all of them again, even those that have been with me consistently for years now like Show no Mercy and the Sepultura EPs (my first death metal purchase!)

    Out of curiosity, if you were to do a similarly compressed and nit-picky list for black metal, who would be the honorees?

    1. Brett Stevens Post author

      if you were to do a similarly compressed and nit-picky list for black metal, who would be the honorees?

      This is harder to do, since black metal isn’t for everyday listening, at least in its original form.

      1. fenrir

        I agree with that. My fondness and admiration for excellent Black Metal just keeps growing but listening to those albums (really listening to them) can be emotionally exhausting. It can be a really exhilarating experience, almost like a religious one in the right mindset but it drains you, in a way.

        1. Brett Stevens Post author

          Black metal is pure nature symbolism, so it’s crushing to experience and often requires silence afterwards to process. Death metal works more by energizing the nerves themselves and creating a kind of filter through which to view the world that is very effective.

          There is some black metal that does handle daily listening well, and that’s the more straightforward early stuff and later ambient stuff. I can handle early Bathory, Hellhammer and Ildjarn on a day-to-day basis and often reach for these. I also tend to throw on Merciless a lot.

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  • Nito

    Any chance we’ll get to hear about the “ambient” albums you will never tire of? (stuff like Klaus Schulze, not the metal derived projects like Burzum or Neptune Towers)