Clearing the Path to Ascend – A Taxonomy of Doom Metal

Over the past few months, we’ve started to embrace the taxonomy model. Under its auspices, we aim to catalog the different sub-genres, ideas and sounds which a certain sub-genre contains. The goal is not to provide an exhaustive list or even a complete picture of the state of the sub-genre. Such aspirations are impossible to follow, since even one sub-genre contains more music and paths than we can ever hope to describe or even know. Instead, the aim is to provide a certain tool, a way to think about the sub-genre, where it is today and where it might be going. So far, we’ve looked at progressive metal and post-rock, two genres that clearly require such analysis. One has divergence written into its basic code while the other is often on the receiving end of criticisms which call it repetitive, derivative and bland.

Considering the fact that doom metal has had a pretty prominent place on the blog in the past few years, with 2014 even containing a “revival” narrative, it only makes sense that that’s where we’ll turn our eyes to next. And so we’re here, in this effort to make sense of the different vectors on which doom metal is currently moving. While we wouldn’t say that doom metal is a more complex or varied genre than the two formerly covered, it definitely encompasses a wider gamut of styles. We can attribute this wider scope to the genesis of doom metal; the early years of the sub-genre had as much to do with theme as it did with music. Bands that have very little in common are often cataloged into the doom metal genre simply because of their aesthetic, themes and approach to common subjects (often death, the occult, the afterlife, monsters or other mythical variations thereof but also depression, loss and sorrow).

Thus, we will be looking at bands that, on the surface level, might seem disparate and not relevant. But, one hopes that through this article, a grander scheme will be revealed. This scheme, as we hinted at above, is bound by two elements. The first, and the one that’s most readily apparent, is the musical similarities. Even though we’ll be hearing very different sounds throughout this article, they all have a shared connection through guitar feedback, thick basses and emotional vocals. All rely on a very specific, very determined definition of heavy. Here, heavy means loud, slow and momentous, crashing around us rather than dancing technical circles. All the bands on this list, to a certain degree, contain abrasiveness coupled with clarity found on violin, vocals, bass or otherwise. All feed off of this tension, a coiled sensation of explosion.

But they are all also connected by themes. Through them run a very mythological and power-filled perspective of the world, a perspective which perhaps owes much to Black Sabbath, one of the principal originators of the sound. Under this perspective, the individual is a powerhouse which must be tapped, a gateway to legend, journey and triumph all rolled into one. The lyrics continuously describe both loss and sadness but also a way out, hidden reserves which usually stem from misanthropy, being an outsider or other, radical measures. This taxonomy won’t have the word count to explore each and every idea in each and every band but we hope that some initial map of these trajectories can be ascertained. Doom metal is currently undergoing a dynamic, explosive proliferation, where you’d like to call a revival or not. Now is the time to try and understand this vector before it races far away from understanding into the endless realms of modern music. Let’s dive in.

Thrones of Decay – Blackened Doom

Doom

Starting with Blackened Doom is the obvious choice for this taxonomy. Since we won’t be dealing with traditional doom metal and what it’s doing today, blackened doom serves as a good launch point. That’s because the sub-genre is the one most in tune with the original intent of doom metal, as it was created in the 80’s and 90’s. Instead of taking wild, bucking turns with the doom aesthetic, as the next two sub-genres often do, blackened doom doubles down on the original themes and amplifies them. It does so by channeling them through the lens of black metal; into the classic doom formula are introduced fast blastbeats, screeching vocals and an overall blackened approach which highlights the abrasive, misanthropic and dark aspects of doom metal.

There will be no candle light here to summon demons; any occult references are obscure, esoteric and downright sinister. Take Mizmor for example, who we’ve just covered on the blog. Their name, “canticle” in Hebrew, both alienates and entices the listener. The music does the same; it is both increasingly abrasive and hard to listen to while at the same time, it contains self references and inner guides. These themes, always reliant on the basic, doom idea that complexity can be found in layers of feedback and the slowest of chords, almost hint at a path to understanding while constantly denying the listener such a respite. The blackened influences often serve as these moments of pseudo-clarity; listen to “Woe Regains My Substance” to see how the doom metal swoops in to deny such an epiphany. What begins as fast paced black metal and builds up for over three minutes ends in a bottomless pit of apocalyptic growls instead of whatever crescendo black metal might have garnered us.

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Other bands, like Vainaja, take a different approach to this mix. Instead of using doom metal to subvert and undermine the black metal structure, they use it to enhance it. Thus, on tracks like “Sielu”, the basic riffs throughout the beginning of the track are black metal almost to a fault before the increased feedback, low-as-can-go growls and a groovy bass embellish them into something more engaging. From there, doom and black metal trade parts, as the slower, cavernous chords usher in again and again a meaty chorus/bridge structure that wouldn’t be out of place on the slowest, most honey drenched doom metal album. The groovy, rock guitar that dominates the bridge might be a throwaway on any other album, simply another whistling inducing riff. But here, following on the path of the abrasive guitars so far, it instantly becomes uplifting and moving before crashing right down again.

And then there’s Downfall of Gaia. The, by now, mythological band amidst fans of this niche sub-genre defies any poor attempts we might make at genre classification. On top of the black metal bones, these guys build not only doom but also drone and, at times, post metal. Regardless, their core sound once again feasts on the duality we had described above, both fury and creeping dread at the same time. However, their approach is more titled towards the black metal influences than both of the bands above; the vocals are often heart wrenching in their treble intensive delivery while the drums are more often fast than not. This flips the equation on its head once again: now it is the doom metal moments, in their unfurling glory, who are the balm, the oasis amidst a different kind of abrasiveness. There no questioning the power contained in the catharsis this generates, like at the end of “To Carry Myself to the Grave”. Those fuzzy screeches that might otherwise, in more standard albums, be abrasive are here as cold water to a starving traveler crossing a great desert, a desert of apathy. Here, that desert is black metal and the doom influences are the respite.

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Whether you prefer that approach or the ones described before, you must still admit the veracity and importance of this sub-genre to doom metal. All three bands have either released albums this year (Mizmor and Vainaja) or are recording right now (Downfall of Gaia and that album cannot come soon enough). This is one of the most promising, powerful and dynamic trends in doom metal today and honestly represents the biggest hope for a new, doom mainstream. While the classical, rock influenced style is very much in play, this might be the direction that replaces it in the future. It has the ever-shifting, dualist nature that is often needed to keep fans hooked, engaging back stories and esoteric references aplenty and, finally, excellent musicians operating within it.

Further Listening:

Archivist | Behold! The Monolith | Hope Drone

Restarter – Heavy Psych

Doom

At the very core of doom lies an invocation of the psychedelic experience. The grandfathers of the genre – Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, and their ilk – often cloaked their music in a thick lysergic haze, and modern doom metal bands continue with this trend by doubling down on doom’s intense repetition and love of the wah sound, fuzz pedals, and other reverberating, warbling effects that seek to supposedly mimic the effects of hallucinogenic trances brought on by psychedelic drugs like acid or psilocybin mushroms. As perhaps the genre that owes the greatest debt to the origins of doom metal in the psyche rock explosion of the 60’s, it stands as the most venerable triumvir discussed in this article.

Even though most of their songs fall between the two- and four-minute range, a far cry from doom’s standard, Torche are, in all probability, the best standard-bearers for this wave of doom metal that borrows so ostentatiously from the past. Somewhat counter-intuitively, it’s because they don’t steal loudly from their ancestors that they should bear, well, the torch of the new wave of heavy psych bands. Cuts like “Kicking” from Harmonicraft or “Bishop In Arms” from Restarter show a punky rock band that likes to play around with their fuzz pedal, but in their longer tracks, it becomes much more apparent just where they draw a sizable chunk of inspiration from: it’s hard to not hear the Black Sabbath influence in the drawn out wails of “Barrier Hammer” or the acid rock influence in the quavering, hallucinatory feedback that comes to drown out everything else in the title track of Restarter, laying waste to both the ear of the listener and the instruments in its path as it dominates the latter half of the track. Torche infuses their own brand of noise-punk-influenced sludgy rock n’ roll with the psychedelia of their mentors, and their smooth integration paves the way for the bands that are further down this drug-smothered rabbit hole.

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If Torche is letting their music give way to bouts of psychedelia, Elder stand as the exact opposite position, letting the hallucinatory experience guide their music through valleys and canyons like the best of jam bands can. Perhaps the most obvious in their worship of classic rock bands – hell, one of the first riffs on their most recent release, Lore, is an obvious homage to the Led Zeppelin classic “The Immigrant Song” – they nonetheless bring a strong modern element to it in both the depth and breadth of their compositions. Lore‘s shortest track clocks in at 9:28, and the whole album stands at just about an hour across five tracks. Each song is a tumultuous sonic journey powered by a jam ethos ripped straight from the 60’s, and as the band rips through each track with an elegance many other groups – genre peers or not – could take heed from, it’s easy to see just why and how the spirit of psych rock lives on in modern doom metal.

And, finally, we reach the dominus of doom’s psychedelic experience, the Azathoth of doom metal’s universal pantheon: the almighty YOB. Now, there’s a reason I refer to these Oregonian goliaths as an ancient Lovecraftian deity (and it’s not just the intense admiration I have for their ringleader, Mike Scheidt); their sound is grim, monolithic, all-encompassing in its might and power. Their newest release (and article namesake), 2014’s Clearing The Path To Ascend, is a masterwork of psychedelic doom metal in a way that no other band could hope to pull off: thrumming acoustic chords give way to enormous walls of distortion and vice versa, the whole band moving as one, a trio guiding the listener through a dark, dreary, ever-shifting landscape of hallucinatory oddity given a core duality to play off of courtesy of Mike Scheidt’s reverberating, almost power-metal-esque clean vocals and his insanely low growls. The trick to YOB’s powerful sound lies in their minimalism; the psychedelia becomes an intrinsic part of the experience because there’s nothing to distract from the way their sound washes over the listener like a thick, greyscale sea that ebbs and flows with occasional bursts of technicolor emotion. YOB is the ominous dark side of psychedelic rock made incarnate, bearing down on the listener like an ultimately cathartic but almost painful hallucinatory trip.

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Further Listening:

Black Mountain | Yuri Gagarin | Conan

Troubled Cells – Experimental Doom

Doom

At the very end of this analysis should, of course, be found the sub-genre which tampers the most with the basics of doom metal. Experimental doom, like all experimental or avant-garde classifications, is a very loose moniker that is nonetheless used generously. Whenever something doesn’t quite fit the bill of doom metal or introduces strange elements to it, this category is immediately used to segment it. But what specifically makes experimental doom, experimental? It’s definitely something to do with the range of instruments that are used; violin, flute, harp and many more are instruments often excluded not only from doom metal but from metal in general. Their introduction can upend the basic dynamics and sensibilities of doom, creating new balances between light, heavy, abrasive and soft.

But just using these instruments isn’t enough; many a mainstream doom metal band have done so as novelty or a short-lived departure from their sound. Instead, experimental doom doubles down and weaves these ideas and the instruments which creates them right into the music. Dreadnought and their 2015 Bridging Realms is a perfect example of this. The album is a whole unit, one which lives and breathes not around the many flutes, pianos and violins on it but through them. They are an experience integral to how it works and, thus, feel natural, organic and complete. Just check out the closing track and hear how the furious screams of four minutes and fifty seconds blend into the amazing pianos and softer basses of the next passages, one of the most heartfelt on the album. Witness then as that segment transforms once again into blackened blast beats only to duck into flutes backed by pianos.

Here, at the very end of the track, is where the true secret lies: the drums don’t slow down for the flutes and the pianos, breaking through the walls that might otherwise separate the “soft” from the “heavy”. Instead, as this is experimental doom, the two parts are mixed together and both draw power from their respective strengths.  Again and again, throughout the album, this mix challenges and expands what we think can be classified as doom and what belongs inside or outside carefully drawn lines across the genre. Whether in vocals, peculiar instrumentation or composition, Dreadnought build higher and higher towers on the foundations of what might be called doom.

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And they’re not alone. A sister band, in the sense that they often play together and even record together, SubRosa are one of the trailblazers of this style. Their sound is more monolithic than Dreadnought’s, relying on the essential, larger than life, doom metal riff. However, this basic magnificence allows them to even further subvert the backing role to which other instruments are often relegated, bringing them instead to the fore, to swim in the feedback. This can be best heard, as we pointed out in our review, on the first trio of tracks. There, the backing vocals, ephemeral yet very much present, slowly build into a primary role of their own while the violin is an instrument right alongside the guitars and bass. This, once again, enables SubRosa to embrace the non-typical instruments right into the fold. They achieve it differently than Dreadnought, and therein lies the problem with the “experimental” category, but their end goal is the same: to make a different type of doom rather than just doom which sometimes is different.

Of course, to say all experimental doom draws its power from the use of unconventional instruments would be incorrect, and Lesbian is here to act as a counterweight to that very idea. Their newest album, Hallucinogenesis, fits quite well into the bulwark of experimental doom metal with its use of almost-choral-but-not-quite group vocals, blast-beat-style drumming, and guitar riffing that draws heavily from the worlds of progressive metal and melodic death metal to balance out the slow, roiling storm of doom they invoke alongside it. The band invokes their parent genre as a cage of sorts, or a system of weights: its methodical lethargy serves to keep the band’s own tendency for speed in check as they hurtle along a downward path, gaining momentum and energy all the way. The album’s format is quintessentially doom as well: a total of four tracks, the shortest of which is eight minutes, totaling out to about 45 minutes. Their experimentation sees them straining the boundaries of doom’s ability to conserve as much energy as possible, resulting in an elaborate oscillation of tempo and speed, forever searching for the genre’s breaking point to see just how much power they can let fly and still remain within its walls.

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Further Listening:

Who knows? We bet there are a million experimental doom bands out there that don’t even know that they are. This sub-genre is too young and unrestrained to give a further listening list. Go out there and take risks!

 


A summary isn’t really needed but we’ll use one just to reiterate again that these are only possibilities at the moment and not definite directions. Which will rise to mainstream stability, which will forever remain obscure and which will straddle the thin line between acceptance and rejection? Who knows. We can’t even say for sure that it will be any of these sub-genres that occupies any of those slots. It might be some contender yet to come or one that is around and just hasn’t caught our fancy.

Regardless, it’s hard to deny the fertility now very much present within doom metal. A sound that hinges on the old, on the very roots of metal, and yet is nowadays injected with freshness is a sight to behold. Whichever one of its sub-genres proves to be the next big thing, we can still enjoy the prolific offerings of a veteran sound and revel in the new ways we get to experience it.

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