Music is like many things but genres are mostly like a tree. We’ve made this point before but it bears repeating: the interaction of bands within a geographical, thematic or historical genre can be likened to the relationships between the branches of a tree. Perhaps the bands are leaves, if you’d like, with the branches representing wider themes within the genres who are, of course, the bark, the tree itself. Nutrients flow from the edges of these leaves, feeding on the sun which, in this very Platonistic metaphor of ours, represents the light of music and expression. Through the branches, this much needed lifeblood flows to the bark, bands sustaining the genre on which they grow. Thus, a symbiosis is achieved, wherein the genre grows new bands, just as the bark does leaves, and these bands then feed that genre in turn, completing the cycle.
One of these trees, planted in the endless orchards of metal sub-genres, is progressive or experimental doom. This genre draws on the basic ideas of doom, namely slow, feedback filled guitars and an overwhelming emphasis on overpowering vocals, while also injecting them with much needed variation. Thus, flutes, violins, synths of all sorts, odd time signatures, expansive compositions and much more can be found where before there would only have been the crashing thunder of old school doom. In recent years, it seems, as part of the Doom Revival™ which Heavy Blog had espoused in 2014, many leaves have been opening towards the sun, a multitude of bands feeding on and feeding into the main bark of this vital oak. Of those leaves, none pulse brighter with contained energy than SubRosa.
SubRosa have basically been a genre onto their own for the past 10 years. With four releases going as far back as 2006, they are criminally underrated, enjoying a mythological prestige out west but a wide-range effect one can only wish was larger. Their last release, More Constant Than the Gods was nothing short of a masterpiece, one of the grandest progressive doom albums ever released. Now, SubRosa return from out of the salt plains of their home town to befuddle our puny minds with For This We Fought the Battle of Ages (which shall be referred to from now on as Battle). More than just another chapter, Battle is as if a leaf decided to suddenly become a living thing in and of itself, breaking loose of the bark and flying into the distant sunrise.
Where More Constant Than the Gods was brilliant for reiterating on doom, Battle is brilliant for using that reiteration to shake free of the home-genre which must have constricted it. This is apparent from the first track to the last. “Despair is a Siren”, the opening note, ushers in this monumental undertaking with such a force that it is impossible to resist. This force is made up of more than the classic, familiar aggression of classic doom. Sure, the guitars are dolmens echoing across feedback plains and yes, the cymbals crash in their appropriate and assigned fashion. But listen to the intricate growth which the violin undertakes; hear how it is its own instrument rather than just a backing voice or simply a poignant counterpoint to the guitar. It contains within it the leitmotifs of the track and, in a genre which thrives on subtle variation, therefore carries the track itself within it.
Listen also to the moments of silence. More than just setups for thunderous returns, they tell their own story. Whether violin lines are strummed in their background or not, the silences are a stage for the expressive vocals that have always been the SubRosa calling card. Here, they are expertly positioned to suture the disparate lyrics together, since a few lines must hold for the over fifteen minutes long track time. These two instruments, namely the violin and silence are usually just curiosities within doom metal. Here, they are expanded upon, given independent life and importance. On these foundations, the importance of the vocals is doubled. The counterpoint is played between them and the violins, between them and the silences that are often their bedrock. “Wound of the Warden”, the next track, draws on the importance of the vocals even more; the entire track vibrates with the immediacy and power of the lyrics.
Delaying on those lyrics and their content near the end of the track reveals to us a succulent, tempting and intelligent esoterism, more evocative than a million bands singing about candles and smoke in the night. They whisper of the vibrant darkness, the easy arrogance of the powerful and their disregard for the rest of us. The bass line and backing vocals add to the hallowed feeling, as if we’re standing amidst venerated trees, their own great hall. This fascination with darkness and power, and its interplay with the soaring vocal style, continues into the next track, “Black Majesty”. The backing vocals complete their own movement here as, near the end of the first part of this track, they detach from their backing position and rise as a second vocal track in its own right. It seems that SubRosa are not content with leaving any part of the album as “just” a backing role, insisting instead on giving everything a journey and intricate progression.
In the wake of such a revelatory moment, namely the ascendance of the backing voice into the center, some of the heaviest segments of the album ensue; guitars cry out, the violin bristles with its high pitched thorns and everything seems to contract, channeling the pent up energies of everything that has passed beforehand. Thus, the first three tracks complete their own movement, a structure which should be familiar to fans of SubRosa and the sub-genre of experimental doom in general. The grandeur, anger, adoration, adulation, wonder and worship have been carefully shepherded by an exquisite mix of lyrics, interchanging vocal styles, violins and the more traditional tools of guitar, bass and drums. At this apex, the harsh vocals are re-introduced, finally enabling catharsis to wash over us as the outro takes us towards glorious silence.
These then, are the machinations which make up For This We Fought the Battle of Ages. This interplay between pent up pressure represented by the mainstay instruments of doom and the farflung timbres of vocals (clean and harsh), violins and composition consistently and constantly embroils the listener in an emotional drama. From here, along the last three tracks remaining, SubRosa are busy with a complex reconfiguration of this brilliant formula. Closing track “Troubled Cells” for example, injects a more melancholy and resigned atmosphere to the sound, mingled with dogged resolution. It has more somber, clean guitars and the clean vocals echo farther out, giving us the sensation of being lost in a vast unknown. The bass especially takes note of this, turning up its presence and amplifying its vibrant, solid melody.
Thus, an album which began with explosive power tinged by sorrow, finally taps into that moroseness at its end. In describing these cycles, only one thing is left to us and that is to call to mind our original metaphor. Revisiting our tree, we alight on the leaf that is SubRosa. It is firmly attached to the branch behind it, the branch of progressive doom which includes bands like Dreadnought (whose members took part in the making of this album) and Lesbian (who we reviewed last night), but it also flutters against that wooden anchor, striving to break free. In doing so, it only redoubles the strength and vitality which it sends in the opposite direction, a Newtonian engine that keeps the sub-genre moving forward. The more that SubRosa push against the limits of their niche, the more that that niche grows stronger, dozens of acts springing in their wake. For this, we owe them an immeasurable debt, a debt owed by every society to its trailblazers.