A once-uncool and admittedly limiting metal subgenre is poised to become the Next Big Thing in loud music -- that is, if the metal community lets it guard down long enough to accept it.
"Oh, but Moe! The dank! The dank!"
Carl Carlson, The Simpsons
Two decades ago when I was in high school, my headbanger friends and I were fully aware of a new movement brewing in the metal underground. Some bands were starting to slow things down, let those guitar and bass notes sustain, and put more emphasis on single bass drum kicks and cymbal crashes, flying in the face of thrash metal trends. Twenty years ago, playing slow music was the most uncool thing a metal band could do. It was all about speed then: Metallica's "Fight Fire With Fire", Slayer's "Chemical Warfare", Anthrax's "Panic". To paraphrase the popular Tom Cruise movie of the time, we had the need the need to go really fast. We were kids, we had short attention spans, and we relished double-time drumming, fast-pickin' riffs, and blinding solos. If a song was going to drag on for more than seven minutes, it had to have enough time signature changes to give music theorists motion sickness.
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Some kids proved more savvy than the rest of us; they tried to sway us with the first Trouble album, Psalm 9, but we backed off as soon as we heard the rumor that it was a Christian metal band. (Ironically, that same year we'd think Stryper's Soldiers Under Command was awesome.) We had no access to the albums by St. Vitus, since SST had no distribution out on the Canadian prairies. We read about Candlemass in magazines, chortling at the tubby little singer dressed like a monk, but we wanted Master of Puppets, not Epicus Doomicus Metallicus. And although I was getting to know our hallowed forefathers in Black Sabbath as the rest of my buds were, I greatly preferred the crisp, ambitious sounds of Paranoid and Vol. 4 to the painfully turgid, poorly recorded morass of sludge that was Black Sabbath. It wasn't until 1988 when Slayer, much to our extreme shock, followed up the timeless speedfest Reign in Blood with a down-tempo opus of its own that we started to take the slower stuff more seriously; after allowing South of Heaven to sink in, that so-called "doom" sound started to become a bit more appealing.
Far from the trendiest subgenre back in the '80s, doom metal has gathered serious steam since then, and today, it couldn't be cooler. As the '80s went on, the most powerful of power trios, the Melvins, had a profound influence on some kid named Cobain. In the '90s, Eyehategod added heaps of sludge to the already dense sound, Paradise Lost classed it up, Earth made it more surreal, and Theatre of Tragedy brought in a pretty female voice. Now, thanks to the avant-garde drone sounds of Sunn O))) and Khanate, Mastodon's masterful blend of sludge and prog metal, and a band like Early Man attracting interest from prominent indie rock labels, doom suddenly has cachet, both among the tastemakers and the metal crowd. It all seems to be coming to a head rather quickly, and as four noteworthy new releases prove, the key to succeeding in the doom realm is to not only fully acknowledge the sound's past, but also have a keen ear on where this rather limiting style can be taken in the future.
Austin, Texas foursome The Sword is the latest retro-sounding doom metal band to be marketed toward the indie rock crowd. Like Early Man, whose likeable, albeit ordinary Closing In was inexplicably released by indie mainstay Matador Records, the Sword's Age of Winters comes with a substantial amount of advance press, as well as support from another hipster-centric label, Kemado, the major label-subsidized "fake indie" brand that's also the home to art collective Lansing-Dreiden, Swedish psych-rock outfit Dungen, and New York retro-rockers Diamond Nights. While it's obvious the Sword (not to be confused with Canadian '80s metalers Sword) is being saddled with the "guitar rock for people who don't like guitar rock" label, the metal cliques would be wise to give its album a listen before launching the verbal barbs: although it may sound mind-numbingly generic at times, it contains enough promising moments to make us believe that the advance hype just may be warranted.
Heavily indebted to the Melvins and Sleep (to the point where you're left wondering if Buzz Osborne and Matt Pike should sue), Age of Winters doesn't just revel in churning, sludgy guitar riffs it wallows in them, as guitarists J.D. Cronise and Kyle Shutt construct a monolithic wall of distortion, and bassist Bryan Richie and drummer Trevor Wingo nail down a concrete bottom end. Cronise's plain-Jane stoner vocals lack charisma (he sounds a lot like Floor/Torche mastermind Steve Brooks, sans the catchy hooks) and the first half of the album takes tentative baby steps too often, seemingly unwilling to kick things up a notch; its nadir is a rather embarrassing, not to mention obvious, refrain of howls near the end of "Winter's Wolves".
It's not until the raging "Iron Swan" that the band decides to press down on the accelerator a la High on Fire's "Cometh Down Hessian", a mini-suite that opens with a stock, faux exotic intro, explodes into a ferocious 2/4 sprint, shifts down suddenly, and then launches into a midtempo gallop. The quartet heads off in decidedly unpredictable directions throughout, capped off by a good, Pike-esque solo and breakdown. From then on, the album starts to gain momentum, first on the epic "Lament for the Aurochs" (a straight-faced tribute to, you guessed it, a prehistoric ox), followed by the instrumental "March of the Lor", which segues nicely into "Ebethron", the album's best track, and concludes with a Corrosion of Conformity-style swagger that was strangely absent early on.
If mainstream success in the US might be just out of the Sword's reach, in the case of Australian upstarts Wolfmother, it could well be an inevitability. Already stars in their home country (they recently played for 55,000 people at the Big Day Out festival in Sydney), they wear their Sabbath loyalty on their sleeves. Unlike Sweden's Witchcraft, who brilliantly duplicates the morbid sounds of early '70s Sabbath and Pentagram, Wolfmother is a savvy bunch, tinting its sound with '60s psychedelic rock, from Blue Cheer to Vanilla Fudge to Cream. The result is some monstrous yet accessible doom-steeped rock 'n' roll that's unafraid to open the window shades every once in a while a tactic guaranteed to win over the classic rock set. In an inspired move that will confound many indie rock fans that don't normally listen to the heavy stuff, there's no ironic winking going on whatsoever. Wolfmother sings songs about unicorns and gnomes, and does so with a complete straight face. It's up to the listeners to decide whether they are willing to buy into it.
Wolfmother's debut EP, Dimensions, was released by Interscope in North America last month, but its confident, self-titled full-length debut, currently all over the internet, will be in stores this coming May. Opening track "Colossal" lurches at a brontosaurian pace, instantly doing away with any Jet comparisons some cynics might have had in mind; "Pyramid" effectively pulls off that trademark swing that Sabbath mastered 30 years ago; and the catchy, uptempo "Dimension" shines the spotlight on fuzzy-headed singer/guitarist Andrew Stockdale, whose versatile tenor voice sounds like a combination of Jack White and Cedric Bixler-Zavala. This is one ballsy trio, one willing to toss in some patently uncool, Ron Burgundy-esque flute solos ("Witchcraft"), go all stoner prog on "White Unicorn", and then crank out the mighty Hammond organ on the Uriah Heep-like "Mind's Eye". Other moments can try your patience: "Apple Tree" is too much of a White Stripes imitation, and "Tales From the Forest of Gnomes" makes a surreal shift from graceful, mellotron-backed verses to a strange refrain that evokes memories of Spinal Tap's "Stonehenge". It's imperfect, but immense, overblown fun, and car stereos could very well be cranking songs like "Woman" and "Joker and the Thief" come summer.
The young upstarts might be generating the majority of the buzz, but it's the old guys who continue to show the kids how it's done. Helmed by Victor Griffin (former guitarist for doom pioneers Pentagram), Knoxville, Tennessee's Place of Skulls doesn't so much pick up where Pentagram left off as it follows the example of Trouble. Theirs is an enticing blend of powerfully heavy riffs, startlingly accessible vocal melodies, and positive lyrical themes. Now a devout Christian, Griffin's compositions are all preoccupied with spirituality, and like Trouble's best work, the music is not so much preachy as it is dignified, introspective, and ultimately poignant.
The Black Is Never Far (Southern Lord), the band's third album and first since 2003, adheres to the formula as everyone would expect, but the real surprise is how upbeat the record is. There's nothing new going on whatsoever, but the band's workmanlike performance sells it well: "Prisoner's Greed" and "Masters of Jest" both combine fuzzed-out guitar tones with Tim Tomaselli's massive, ride cymbal-driven beats (much like Kyuss); "Apart From Me" cruises along, locked in an Alice in Chains (circa Facelift) groove, complete with double-tracked vocals; and "We the Unrighteous" has a great '80s power metal feel. Best of all, "Darkest Hour" switches brilliantly from acoustic verses to a chorus highlighted by a massive, low-end riff (not to mention Griffin's impassioned vocal delivery, which greatly resembles that of Gary Moore), and in a bold move, the cover of the Pentagram classic "Relentless" is just as explosive as the original, with Griffin, Tomaselli, and bassist Dennis Cornelius putting their own stamp on the song, to great effect.
Try as many doom bands might, nobody can match the pure, unadulterated dementia of Cathedral. Formed by vocalist Lee Dorrian in 1989 after he left Napalm Death, Cathedral went in the complete opposite direction of the frenzied grind of Dorrian's former band, slowing things down to an abnormally turgid pace, punctuated by their slow-as-molasses-in-January debut Forest of Equilibrium. In addition to following the example of (you guessed it) Trouble, St. Vitus, and Candlemass (capped off by 1995's triumphant The Carnival Bizarre), elements of psychedelic rock began to feature more and more prominently in the Cathedral sound, which leads us to its eighth album, the ambitious, equally enthralling and confounding opus The Garden of Unearthly Delights (Nuclear Blast), a record bent on testing the patience of anyone who hears it.
Inspired by the Hieronymous Bosch painting The Garden of Earthly Delights and boasting lavish artwork by Dave Patchett, The Garden of Unearthly Delights exemplifies everything that is great about Cathedral, but also shows its worst side: how the band's more ambitious compositions have always tended to overreach. The first half of the album is spectacular; the quartet reels off some of its best, most instantly engaging music in years, and Warren Ryker's production (he of Crowbar notoriety) creates some guitar and bass tones that are positively filthy. "Tree of Life and Death" is built around a fabulous midtempo riff reminiscent of Morbid Tales-era Celtic Frost (and, to a lesser extent, Hallow's Eve), while Dorrian has a blast re-telling the tale of the Fall of Man, his distinct growl as charismatic as ever.
Fans might bristle at the been-there-done-that feel of "North Berwick Witch Trials", but it's nonetheless a sharp, very catchy performance highlighted by the fun chorus, "A grand Sabbath with one aim in sight...To destroy the king of England!" "Corpsecycle" is one of the most blatantly melodic tracks the band has ever recorded (sounding almost UFO-like), yet works very well. Dorrian's lyrics are especially perceptive, lampooning the suit-and-tie wearing masses ("Walking corpses, vacant slaves / Banking rottenness, decay / Saving cash for early graves"), while guitarist Gaz Jennings shines on the headbang-inducing, galloping "Oro the Manslayer", displaying his soloing prowess during the extended breakdown as the song is bluntly underscored by some truly goofy sounds of swordfights.
After the fun of "Oro", the weirdness begins, first with the bizarre "Beneath a Funeral Sun", a five-and-a-half-minute mess that includes children reciting lines, incomprehensible screaming, and a ludicrously out-of-place '60s psych-rock bridge that sounds arbitrarily tossed-in. That's nothing, though, compared to the whopping 27-minute epic "The Garden". The musical equivalent of the Mr. Creosote scene from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, it begins innocuously with a pastoral intro of acoustic guitars and female lead vocals (reminiscent of the fantasy metal of Battlelore), but soon, like Terry Jones in his fat suit, the song slowly expands and expands to the point where we're cringing, expecting to be splattered with entrails at any second. Dorrian's thinly-veiled parable isn't exactly a garden; it's a vomitorium of musical excess, as movements range from the ridiculous ("Cadaverous Butterfly") to the surreal ("Blind Man's Gaze") to the inspired (the phenomenal doom riff of "Flight of the Reaper") in mere minutes. More Brueghel than Bosch, "The Garden" is a fascinating train wreck that, while going on for far too long, doesn't derail what is otherwise a stalwart album by one of Britain's best, most enduring metal acts.
Whether or not the recent so-called retro doom revival will be able to crack the collective consciousness of mainstream audiences remains to be seen, but judging from the strong debuts by both the Sword and Wolfmother, it could very well happen. Such a thought might be abhorrent to the more narrow-minded fans of underground metal, but they can at least take comfort in the fact that as the young upstarts woo the hipster crowd, there will always be reliable veterans like Griffin and mad geniuses like Dorrian who will continue to fly the doom flag in their own, often mimicked, yet always inimitable ways. Besides, all it might take is one listen to "Ebethron" by a curious first-timer to open that door a little wider, and begin a journey through the dark, dank inner netherworld of one of the most misunderstood of all of metal's myriad subgenres. And if you know anything about doom, the Sword is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.