One of 2010's most ballyhooed metal debuts has finally arrived, but does it live up to the hype?
Doom metal is so firmly rooted in the template set by the likes of Black Sabbath, Pentagram, Saint Vitus, Trouble, and Candlemass, that despite being very satisfying both on record and live, it doesn't lead to very much variation. That's all well and good, stubbornly refusing to stray from the unwritten rules of a subgenre is something many metal bands justifiably take a great deal of pride in. Plus, metal at its most formulaic can be as immensely satisfying as something more cutting-edge. When it comes to reviewing it, though, it's often difficult to string together 700 words about a doom record without repeating oneself. The fact is, more often than not, it all boils down to one simple assessment: It's a doom record; either you'll get it or you won't. Pentatonic riffs, slow, powerful drumming and cymbal crashes, total monolithic power captured on record. Aside from the odd lyrical quirk (like Ahab's absorbing preoccupation with nautical themes), what more do you need to know? It's metal stripped down to its very basics, and while it might not always be the coolest style of metal, it is one of the more reliable subgenres.
Every now and then, though, something special comes along that wakes you up from your diminished-fifth stupor, such as the simple brilliance of Oregonian doomsters YOB, the defiantly American sounds of Sweden's Kongh, or the unorthodox approach of Virginia band Salome. It's the latter band that's been attracting a good deal of attention for the past 12 months, and for good reason. Modestly comprised of only a guitarist, a drummer, and a diminutive female vocalist (doom without bass? Sung by a girl? Blasphemers!), Salome hardly seems like the next big thing, but after attracting much attention from both the metal and Brooklyn-based indie blogs with their ferocious, highly visceral live performances in 2009, the inevitable "Band To Watch" tag was foisted on the trio before they even entered the studio to record their first album. That wave of hype continued prior to Terminal's release, the increasingly crowded bandwagon boasting some of the most unlikely passengers you could imagine, including the New York Times, National Public Radio, and, erm, the Financial Post. The album hadn't even come out in physical form yet, and the effusive praise was bordering on completely over the top.
Who knows what's attracting the indie scenesters and middle-of-the-road folks at public radio, but from a metal standpoint, Terminal is indeed a very strong debut. The usual elements of doom rise to the fore immediately, and guitarist Rob Moore's tone is so thick, wonderfully produced by drummer Aaron Deal, that you don't even notice the lack of a bassist. Meanwhile, Deal hammers on the skins and cymbals with a savage physicality, devoid of fancy fills or flourishes: just the beats, hammered remorselessly into your head. As instantly gratifying as all that is, it's when the more unique elements of Salome enter into the music that Terminal truly becomes compelling.
Vocalist Kat Katz is already a proven frontwoman in extreme music, having served as both a lyricist and screamer with the great grindcore band Agoraphobic Nosebleed. Like Fuck the Facts' Mel Mongeon and the oft-touted Grace Perry of Landmine Marathon, Katz displays a level of vocal power that goes far beyond her size. Like Moore's riffs and Deal's drumming, Katz gets every ounce of power out when delivering her vocal lines, which more often than not come at the listener in a tortured roar. There's no need for vocal melodies here. It's not introspection or bombast Katz and Salome are trying to convey, but in the vein of the legendary Eyehategod, pure, brute force, and when you hear the threesome mesh as brilliantly as they do on "The Unbelievers" and "Terminal", the effect can be thrilling. The revelatory, nearly eleven minute "Epidemic" shows that there's potential beyond the usual doom as well, Moore changing things up with a wicked, swaggering riff that feels part Eyehategod, part Lamb of God, followed by an unexpected middle section of ambient noise, which then segues into a straight-ahead groove led by Deal's mid-paced drumming.
For all the ambition Terminal displays, Salome does overplay its hand a touch on the instrumental "An Accident of History". Their melding of doom, sludge, and noise works well enough, but to put more than 17 minutes of feedback right in the middle of what's already a mighty fine album takes things a little too far. Although the flow of the album is severely interrupted, that's what "skip" buttons are there for, and the 50 other minutes of the album are terrific. Besides, despite the 17 minute hiccup, this is an album you need in physical form: housed in a beautifully embossed white digipak with provocative artwork by Fade Kainer inside, its minimalist visual approach is another very refreshing change from the usual THC-aided fare we usually get in the doom realm. Album of the year? No. Debut of the year? No, that honor goes to Profound Lore labelmates Castevet. But Salome have absolutely laid the groundwork for what should be an exciting career, one that should continue well after the cooler-than-thou Williamsburg kids have found the next fad to fixate on.