Doom metal is one of the most diverse subgenres of metal and subsequently one of the more difficult ones to understand. The problem here – should you wish to categorize it as a problem – is that very little actually ties doom’s styles together beyond the general focus on riffs above all else. And, believe you me, when it comes to doom metal, The Riff is God; no matter what part of the doom umbrella (doombrella?) a band falls under, they are beholden to putting riffs before any other part of the song-structuring process. That’s not to say doom bands don’t write cohesive songs, it’s more to point to the fact that when your only focus as a genre is to come up with awesome riffs, and all other delineations of style are, for the most part, thrown out the window, bands are going to run in any and all directions with that idea.
However, there are still three “main” subgenres within doom metal: stoner doom metal, traditional doom metal, and death doom metal. Stoner is fairly obvious given the name; like its straightforward stoner metal counterpart, it has a large blues rock influence and focuses on thick, swirling psychedelic atmospheres, and it’s often almost as slow and lethargic as the dopehounds that play the music. Bands with names like Electric Wizard (a portmanteau of Black Sabbath songs “Electric Funeral” and “The Wizard”) and Bongripper rule this style, combining the bluesy pomp and psychedelia of stoner stylings with the slower, riffier pace of doom metal. Traditional doom metal can be traced back to Black Sabbath and their immediate followers in Witchfinder General, Candlemass, and Saint Vitus, and it is, as the name would suggest, the most straightforward and immediate of the styles, taking exactly what the first couple Black Sabbath records did and turning that into its own genre. Death doom is, well, also exactly what one would expect: combining doom metal with old-school death metal, it is far more aggressive and cold than either of the other two main branches of the doom tree, utilising the natural minor scale for its signature depressing-yet-heavy sound and double bass drums for the added speed and intensity. Invented by Winter, diSEMBOWELMENT, and Paradise Lost, it flourished as its own genre in the early-to-mid 90s and is seeing somewhat of a comeback, with bands like Inverloch and Vainaja releasing albums in the style this year. It also leans much more heavily on the use of keyboards than either of the two styles, and incorporates death growls, something extremely uncommon in any other style of doom metal.
So, with that brief rundown, you, intrepid sonic explorer, are now ready to jump into the crazy world of doom metal! This time, I’ve chosen one album from each of these main subgenres of doom, so dive in wherever you want.
Sleep – Holy Mountain
Since we didn’t include Master of Reality on here, it seems only logical that we’d have to give it up to Sleep, one of the only bands that truly captured the initial spirit of Black Sabbath. This California trio were one of the most revered and influential figures in the stoner underground of the 1990s, and it was their sophomore album Holy Mountain that completely solidified them as an essential piece of the doom metal puzzle. Though their swansong Dopesmoker is often looked upon as the defining Sleep experience (and justifiably so), Holy Mountain is a much more immediate, catchy, and straightforward experience and one of the best ways to get into this niche genre. You’ll still get taken through a myriad of psychedelic freak outs like in the title track and “From Beyond,” but there’s also tracks like “Dragonaut,” which have some of the most ear-worming guitar lines ever composed by metal demigod Matt Pike. Sure, it’s not their most ambitious release ever, but Holy Mountain is an absolute gem that’s all killer and no filler. Put it on, spark up, and ride the dragon toward the crimson eye.
– Kit Brown
Candlemass – Nightfall
Putting a more gothic and epic spin on the traditional doom metal sound, Nightfall is one of the quintessential traditional doom metal albums. From the first pounding notes leading into “The Well of Souls,” one of the most incredible metal tunes ever penned, to the very last strained and fading second of “Black Candles,” every song on here is a total banger that elevates the doom metal sound to a soaring, epic combination of intense gothic imagery, beautifully wrought, operatic vocal work, and some really fucking good riffs. Seriously, every track on here is a total banger: just pick any random song and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The vocal performance is absolutely what carries this release all the way through; Messiah Marcolin is a phenomenal singer who manages to perfectly embody the feeling of every track, allowing the riffs to shine through when they need to and knowing when to take the leader’s mantle and sing his heart out. Everything here just adds up properly to being a release that embodies the doom metal ethos in totality: Obey The Riff.
My Dying Bride – Turn Loose The Swans
The thing about doom metal – especially death doom metal – is that the more melodramatic your name is, the better your music tends to be. Case in point: My Dying Bride. A British doom metal group with a truly over-the-top name, they’re responsible for some of the best albums in the death doom subgenre, their second album, Turn Loose The Swans, is a major high point in the genre. Although far from their only classic album, it’s the point where everything that makes up the death doom sound really coalesces into a sound wholly its own. Tracks like opener “Sear Me MCMXCIII” and the truly epic “The Crown of Sympathy” manage to sooth and sting at the same time, providing a comfort in melancholy at the same time they attack with a cold, unceasing aggression. Death doom has always been about playing with the abstract liminal space between sadness and anger, and nowhere is that more evident than on Turn Loose The Swans.