1. Titus Andronicus
Named from Shakespeare, and with an appropriately bombastic sensibility, these New Brunswick warhorses combine punk, metal, shoegaze, and a host of other influences into one giant, loud, pile-on of rawk. With lyrics at once self-affirming and self-deprecating, Titus Andronicus' music is a teeming mass of nervous physicality, and their live shows are equally messy and fun. There's a hilarious sense of high-low fusion at work -- the band's debut album was called The Airing of Grievances , and the opening track, "Fear and Loathing in Mahweh, NJ," ends with a quote from Titus Andronicus.
2. Gary Clark Jr.
Austin's newest export, Gary Clark Jr., is a blues guitar hero for the iPhone generation. Clark's take on the blues is thoroughly modern and of its time without sacrificing any of the genre's sincerity or energy. After the biting lead of "Bright Lights" kicks in, Clark struts up to the mic and delivers a hell of a boast: "You're gonna know my name by the end of the night," and we'll be damned if he doesn't deliver. He's equally at home with acoustic and electric settings, and his voice is agile and emotive in a way that a lot of guitar virtuosos (cough, Eric Clapton, cough) aren't. Check him out at once.
3. The Sword
Back when MySpace was a thing that people actually cared about, The Sword's profile said that their music sounded like "a herd of buffalo falling off a cliff," and boy do they deliver on that. Derided initially as a bunch of Sabbath-worshipping stoners, The Sword's pummeling take on heavy, riff-centric stoner metal has grown considerably with time -- Warp Riders was almost proggy at points -- but their bread and butter is still riffs-heavy enough to cleave armor. "I will mount your heads on bloody spears outside your palace gates" vows "Winter's Wolves," and the band swings between tightly wound chuggedachuggeda riffs and half-time stomps with enough ferocity to make you believe them.
Liturgy got tagged as "hipster black metal" because they're from Brooklyn and because lead singer Hunter Hunt-Hendrix wrote a deeply absurd chin-stroking treatise on black metal that was so staggeringly pretentious as to be unbelievable. That said, they slay. Their second album Aesthetica, featuring the now-departed Greg Fox on drums, was a withering chunk of streamlined metal that was equal parts Kreator and Philip Glass. Tracks like "Generation" build up hammering repetition to trance-like levels, threatening to bore you, until Liturgy drops the floor out from under you, falling slickly into the kind of lock-step riffage that could stop trains. Hunt-Hendrix wails like a fox in heat on certain tracks, sounding like he's very angry at the bottom of a very deep cave, and the whole album has the the kind of creativity that I wish more metal showed. The band's been playing with a drum machine lately, so something might have been lost from Aesthetica to their current live album, but for a fresh take on metal, one is well advised to make the time for their show.
Certainly one of the most theatrical live shows around, Ghost's lead singer emerges onstage dressed as some kind of Satanic cardinal, and the rest of the group plays shrouded in monk-like hoods. Their music is straight ahead throwback metal, all polished guitar harmonies and hilariously overwrought Satanic lyrics, but the group has a real way with melody and hooks -- you'll be singing mournfully tuneful songs like "Elizabeth" before you realize it's about Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who supposedly bathed in the blood of girls to stay young. Yeesh. Ghost's over-the-top theatricality goes a long way towards defusing the content of the songs -- you get the sense that, although they've got straight faces on the whole time, they're winking behind the hoods.