[22 March 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For a subgenre so stripped down and simple as doom-metal, there’s not much room for innovation. A band can simply embrace the sound for the massive, gut-rumbling, enveloping music that it is and turn it into something extraordinary, like Oregon’s great YOB has done over the past decade. Or as bands like Thou, Salome, and the Body have done to great critical acclaim among the metal-dabbling indie rock press, take a slightly more broadminded approach to doom, adding non-traditional touches to the form, be it by adding choral singing as the Body has done, or in Salome’s case, performing some unspeakably heavy music without a bass player. Such experimentation is all well and good, but with such trendy bands too-often resorting to cathartic yet monotonous growls rather than good old singing, whatever happened to trying new things with doom’s traditional, slightly less cool, more melodic side?
Enter Salt Lake City’s SubRosa, who not only is on to a brilliant idea with its highly unconventional set-up, but sounds so assured on just its second full-length that it can stop you in your tracks. This band’s approach is unusual enough on paper to elicit eye-rolling among jaded doom traditionalists: three women and two men, two of whom play electric violin, just as influenced by PJ Harvey, Swans, and traditional American folk music as Kyuss. Oh great, more indie hipsters dabbling in heavy music. But give No Help For the Mighty Ones a spin and you’ll discover something extraordinary: a band that knows how to write good material, with an uncanny ability to mesh disparate sounds with astonishing grace.
The violin is no stranger to metal music. It plays a central role in the thriving folk/pagan scene (Korpiklaani, Turisas, Eluveitie, and Cruachan among the bands popularizing the approach), while it’s also crept into the melancholic strains of goth-metal and, in as Unexpect has done, been incorporated into some wildly eclectic progressive-metal. What SubRosa does, however, is so much more understated. The band could flaunt the bowing skills of Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack just as any guitar-slinging duo would, but instead the two take a less-is-more approach. We hear it immediately on the gorgeous album opener, “Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes”, as a violin plays a mournful little melody around a simple, repeated doom groove by guitarist Rebecca Vernon, bassist Dave Jones, and drummer Zach Hatsis. It leaves an overwhelming tinge of sadness to a song that would have otherwise had listeners feeling empty, offsetting Vernon’s cleanly-sung lead vocals, the song slowly building to a surprisingly emotional climax.
Comprised of eight songs clocking in at just under an hour, No Help For the Mighty Ones is a record that requires some patience, but to their credit, the band always manages to keep things interesting. Velvet Underground-esque violin screeches accentuate the murky middle section of “Beneath the Crown”, while “Stonecarver” starts off with a narration in Russian only to be taken over by Vernon’s spitted vocals, resembling a riot grrrl band from Olympia in the early ‘90s than a metal band. A wicked curveball is thrown in the form of a formal, a cappella reading of the traditional tune “House Carpenter”, featuring three-way harmony vocals by the band’s female members.
That said, this album is at its absolute strongest when full-on doom and those pesky violins are weaving in and out. The nine-minute “Attack on Golden Mountain” is enthralling, Pendleton and Pack accentuating the crushing chords and cymbal crashes to great effect before shifting into a haunting middle movement where the violins launch into repeated glissandos so unsettling you can’t help but wince. By the time the haunting groove of “Dark Country” rolls along, it becomes striking just how Old America SubRosa can sound. Like Earth, Agalloch, and Across Tundras, this is music as influenced by the geography of Western America as much as the musical tradition. There’s a comfort to the music, but like the terrain, also a harsh, unforgiving quality as well, thanks largely to that impeccable balance of femininity and melancholy strings with the harsh physicality of doom metal. It’s a combination we don’t see enough of in doom, and a breathtaking one at that.