Given that its impetus came with the sinister riff opening “Black Sabbath,” doom metal has arguably had the longest evolutionary stretch of any metal subgenre. Of course, just how much any given subgenre has evolved is difficult to pin down, especially considering the disparate directions and offshoots are present within each temple within metal’s larger pantheon. On paper, it might seem like the doom metal formula is the least malleable in terms of experimentation; at the most basic level, doom metal is a genre of “slow” and “slower” bands. This is is a limited, uneducated view of course, as doom’s more important ethos of “impactful riffs” can blow the roof of any limitations. I recall one particularly doomy CD haul from a few years ago where I bought albums from Earth, Electric Wizard, Pallbearer and Sunn O))), none of whom approach their overarching genre from the same direction.
Which brings us to Skullcave, the latest bullseye addition to the phenomenal Art As Carthasis roster. Label mastermind Lachlan Dale has a knack for crafting band descriptions that are tantalizing and concise and avoid being overly verbose, which is precisely the case with his labeling of Skullcave as “progressive, layered doom.” The term “progressive” may be the most overused and inaccurately deployed term in modern metal, but with FEAR, there’s no better way to describe the band’s approach to the doom formula. The “doomgaze” trend oft-credited to Planning for Burial is at the core of Skullcave’s sound, albeit with a much more direct, unclouded sound and delivery. Most interestingly, this already well-spliced foundation is sprinkled with shades of grunge, stoner rock and post-hardcore, which expands the scope, appeal and impact of FEAR into even more enticing directions.
Right out of the gate, the lead-in of “Escape” into “Fear to Hide” defines Skullcave’s unique approach to doomgaze. Reverb and effects aren’t inherently flawed tools of the trade when it comes to “-gaze” styles, but the more stripped-down approach taken by Skullcave on FEAR is refreshing. The guitar tone and riffing on this track and throughout the album exude a combination of pained experience and hopeful longing, which is rooted in melancholic melodies and intricate song passages. In a way, the vocal parts and quasi-refrain on the song are reminiscent of Alice in Chains at their slowest moments mixed with a contemporary, emotive act like Less Art. These kinds of incorporated elements add a more lean, energetic approach to delivering doom metal in a forward-thinking fashion. Continuing this trend are “Forgiving” and “Next Earth. The former feels like a more experimental and intense take on the Pallbearer sound, while the latter is a gloom-and-doom take on the post-hardcore formula; again, Less Art feels like an apt comparison. Though the album could end there comfortably, the listener discovers that the previous four tracks were building up to the most grandiose statement of them all. At just under the 20-minute mark, “Bleak” is a finale of epic proportions that remains enthralling from start to finish. The pacing an attention to detail of the opus is straight from the Earth playbook, and shades of hues of Pallbearer punctuate the band’s songwriting throughout as well.
Yet, from both an overarching and in-depth perspective, “Bleak” and the remainder of the album sounds like Skullcave’s own sound through and through. The band have conjured a unique approach to doom that remains captivating on every track, and its quality is just as potent on each of the varying track lengths that populate FEAR. The more time spent with the album results in a further understanding and appreciation of what Skullcave set out to accomplish, and there’s no doubt doom fans of every persuasion will view this among the highlights of the year.