Greetings, heaviest of Heavy Bloggers and welcome to our Doomsday 2017 year in review! It has been a lot of fun and a real honor to get this column off the ground this year and I hope you’ve enjoyed what Doomsday has had to offer as much as I’ve enjoyed putting it all together. 2017 was a massive year for doom and, even though Doomsday is only a few months old, this month’s column is a chance to go back and highlight some standout releases and genre trends from the entire year that truly deserve recognition. It need hardly be said, but this collection is by no means comprehensive and is merely the viewpoint of just one doom-loving heavy blogger. Please comment with your favorite doom albums of the year, bands you think need more recognition, and your biggest anticipated releases of 2018.
ENOUGH CHATTER! Grab your earplugs; it’s Doomsday!
Abandon All Hope
It’s hard to deny that 2017 has been a doozy. From the nightmarish aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, to the seemingly incessant plague of global terroristic violence, to the emerging public reckoning with a widespread sexual assault epidemic, to the horrific collection of natural disasters that reared their heads across the globe, 2017 has seemingly taken pleasure in constantly grinding away at public sanity. And while all of these (and many more) existential concerns are certainly bad news for collective happiness, stress management, and blood pressure concerns worldwide, it is a small comfort to know that 2017 also provided us with a soundtrack tailor-made for our troubling times.
Namely, Primitive Man unleased their unholy magnum opus Caustic upon us all, a record that stared 2017 unblinkingly in the eye and dared it not to blink first. Caustic is unquestionably the band’s masterpiece, distilling every previously known element of Primitive Man’s aural nihilism to its most oppressive, rotten essence. Tracks like “My Will” and “Victim” represent the band at their most accessible (as oxymoronic as that premise may be): relatively concise and punchy tracks of hate-filled sludge that serve not only as introductory tracks to Caustic, but also serve as an effective introduction to the band writ large for uninitiated listeners. From there, things only get bleaker as the band maneuvers between marathon dirges of hatred and nihilism (“Sterility,” “Commerce,” “Disfigured”) to abrasive, unsettling palates of noise that front man Ethan Lee McCarthy has been drawn to since the days of the now-defunct Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire (“Absolutes,” “Ash”). Caustic is truly oppressive both in sound and scope: the album runs well over an hour and is packed front to back with oppressive, impossibly heavy songs that aren’t afraid to drone and create a genuinely unsettling, sinister atmosphere. The pièce de résistance on top of the bludgeoning sound is McCarthy’s vocals, some of the most unique in all of metal for their throaty, low-end menace. This is McCarthy’s best performance yet: whereas on previous Primitive Man records his savage delivery could slide into demonic incomprehensibility, the recording and production on Caustic allows listeners to more clearly discern his line deliveries without sacrificing an ounce of ferociousness from his performance. Perhaps paradoxically, Caustic is a true delight. It’s the uncompromised product of a band reaching the apex of their sound and aesthetic, an album that perfectly reflects both the artistic vision of the band authoring it as well as the hellish times in which it was created.
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If Primitive Man and the sheer cruel weight of existing in 2017 still don’t satiate your masochistic urges for filthy hate-doom, don’t fret. Bands this heavy and nihilistic are few and far between, but luckily Owlcrusher more than fit the bill. This UK trio released their debut self-titled full length in June of 2017 and it’s as crushing and atmospherically heavy as anybody could possibly want. Owlcrusher is doom in the most definitional sense as a mountainous and foreboding air of destruction, hate, and ruin permeate every second of the 45-minute, three song track list. The tempos are glacial to the point of dourness, the down-tuned guitars are distorted to a thick, nearly electronic hum, and, much like Primitive Man, vocalist Andrew Spiers puts a bloody bow on the already punishing sound with a unique vocal delivery. However, where McCarthy’s vocals are guttural, Spiers opts for a more high-end shriek in his delivery that pairs perfectly with Owlcrusher’s thundering, bottom-heavy sound. The demonic delivery is reminiscent of Dylan O’Toole and the pairing of black-metal style vocals with cavernous doom is just as affecting on Owlcrusher as anything in Indian or Lord Mantis’s catalogue. Even though Owlcrusher are a relatively new band, they have well-earned confidence in their sound and allow their songs to develop over 10, 12, or 15-minute periods, all while never losing the underlying thread of the track or disappearing into detached atmospherics. This is truly abrasive and nasty stuff and this writer’s recommendation is to get on board now – if you can stomach it – as Owlcrusher have a bright and exciting future ahead of them.
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In the most far-removed, loneliest corners of the greater doom landscape is funeral doom. Even for the most well-versed and indoctrinated fan of slow and low, funeral doom can be impenetrable and difficult terrain to traverse. Of course, this is for good reason. In funeral doom, inaccessibility isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. And for listeners with the tenacity and patience to take the deep dive into the genre, funeral doom can be some of the most emotionally rewarding music doom has to offer.
Exhibit A: Talsur released one of the most enjoyable and underappreciated funeral doom records of the year in Slough of Despond. As you may have read here before, Talsur is a prolific one-man doom project from Russia whose output is seemingly only matched by the likes of King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. Slough of Despond was the first of Talsur’s three releases of 2017 (not including a fourth EP release scheduled for December 10) and the band is just finishing its second year of existence. As sonically diverse as he is prolific, Talsur has tackled a different subgenre of doom with nearly every release he’s put out. Slough of Despond is his first foray into funeral doom and it represents a fluency and reverence for the style that’s sure to satisfy long-time fans of the genre.
The album is steeped in traditional funeral doom sound: impossibly slow tempos, vocals alternating between croaky growls and melodramatic cleans, synths and keys helping round out the distorted guitar-led canvas, and a lyrical focus on grief, loss, and despondency. But as rooted in tradition as Slough of Despond is, it’s the unexpected moments of melody and very nearly upbeat tempo changes that help the album transcend tired genre tropes and elevate it to something still memorable a full year after its release. Who said funeral doom can’t be catchy? The balancing of tunefulness and despair on tracks like “The Ravensong” and “Daylight Fades” shouldn’t make sense, but Talsur makes the combination seem intuitive and, above all, enjoyable. Given his sonic restlessness, it’s perhaps unlikely that Talsur will revisit the funeral doom genre, but that may not be the end of the world: Slough of Despond is so well-conceived that executed that there may be no need to return to the well.
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Of course, no year-end roundup of funeral doom would be complete without a mention of one of 2017’s most affecting and epic releases in any genre, Mirror Reaper by the almighty Bell Witch. Mirror Reaper is more than a funeral doom album, it is a real-life exercise in grief, a rumination on death and loss, and the result of sheer will and determination of bandmates Dylan Desmond and Jesse Shreibman to triumph over heartbreak. Much has been written, including expertly in these very pages, about the tragedy that led to Mirror Reaper’s creation. And while that tragedy is inherent to any complete understanding of the record, it’s the record’s colossal ambition and the unique musical performances that hoist it into greatness.
One track. No guitar. 83 minutes. The objective stats testify to the potential inaccessibility of the album. And yet, somehow, someway Mirror Reaper is engaging, interesting, and impactful throughout. Desmond’s performance is a master class on the parameters of bass guitar and the mournful atmosphere created by both the organ and the myriad vocal performances feel authentic and earned rather than put-on theatrics inherent to the genre. The song hits hard when it intends to, but the softer, somber passages throughout allow for the true beauty and reflection possible within funeral doom. At the end of the day, however, Mirror Reaper is an album to be experienced, not read about. Concerns about song length be damned; if you take nothing else from this article, please give Mirror Reaper the time and consideration it deserves. With any luck, we won’t see a record quite like this for a long time.
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Instrument of Doom
As is the case with any other genre of metal, or any genre of music for that matter, vocals are a fundamental element of most doom music. Screams, cleans, gutturals, or bellows, vocals often serve as an anchoring point for the listener and almost always do the heavy lifting in terms of narrative communication. And yet, where there is a rule, there is an exception. And even with Bongripper seemingly on studio hiatus, 2017 gifted us several choice cuts of instrumental doom. Make no mistake, these records use their sans-vocal nature as a true asset, not a gimmick, and stand toe to toe with any doom release this year, vocals or not.
I’ve written before about my personal desire for more metal bands to incorporate literary influences into their music. It seems like an under-utilized source of inspiration and potential fan service that would allow bands to stretch their thematic legs beyond demons, drugs, and darkness. Not that there’s anything wrong with those tropes, of course, but as a listener I can only imagine that there are plenty of book-loving band members that share my desire to expand the scope of metal’s literary focus beyond the realm of fantasy. Enter Lotus Ash, who released their monster of a second album in April. The Evening Redness precisely answers my prayer to the metal gods and uses a thunderous, electronically-tinged doom framework to digest, (re)contextualize, and celebrate Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian. Employing a sonic medium to explore one of the greatest works in modern American literature is no small feat, particularly without the help of lyrical guideposts, but Lotus Ash prove more than up to the challenge. The Evening Redness mirrors the long stretches of nervous uncertainty and explosive violence contained within McCarthy’s novel, using gigantic riffs and stormy, violent percussion to carry listeners through the novel’s bloody path. Somber, southwestern-flavored acoustic guitars provide the few respites the album (and the novel) allow, further enhancing the gun slinging, scalp-taking western atmosphere. This record was one of my personal unexpected pleasures of the year, and here’s hoping that Lotus Ash, and a whole host of other bands, will continue to mine the great collective literary cannon in future musical endeavors.
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But hey, literary reinterpretation isn’t everybody’s cup of tea and far be it from me to impose personal preferences on any release that crosses my path. Sometimes a band wants to use their music framework to invite and foster individual introspection rather than try to impose a narrative scheme upon a listener. When the band is operating in an instrumental capacity, the open-ended interpretive possibilities are even greater. Hawkmoth seem to understand this intuitively and it shows on their fantastic second full length, Godless Summit. Hawkmoth traffic in shimmery, spacey post-infused doom that is at once muscular, ambidextrous, and cerebral. I recently sung their praises in a full-fledged review of Godless Summit, but it bears repeating here that this record could easily fit into any procrastinating metal fan’s album of the year list. Hawkmoth soar where other bands remain grounded, using glimmering tones, patient passages of drone, and ever-pulsing percussion to create a sense of unfolding ascension and airborne adventure. It would be a shame if the timing of Godless Summit and the relative underground nature of Hawkmoth lead to this record being overlooked. Thankfully, this seems to be part one of a two-part opus the band is planning so we should be hearing much more from Hawkmoth next year and beyond. Until then, fans of Elder, Intronaut, and other heavy, prog-tinged doom must not sleep on this.
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One of the genre’s more reliable and accessible pockets, stoner doom is all about heavy riffs, repetitive rhythms, and smoky haze. It’s a personal favorite of yours truly and, whether or not you care to intake of the green herb, it’s hard to hate the intoxicating fun and head-nodding reverence for the riff inherent in the sound. There’s plenty of room for sludged-out hate crust and atmospheric space prog under doom’s big tent, but sometimes all you really want are riffs so fuzzy you could lint-roll them to help you zone out for a little while.
2017 didn’t disappoint in the supply of stoner doom, beginning early with the January release of Children of the Haze by Dopelord. This smoke-filled behemoth hasn’t left my steady rotation for the entire year and it’s easy to see why: gargantuan riffs, elephantine percussion, shimmering vocals, and a five to eight-minute song length throughout, Children of the Haze is an unabashed, traditional stoner doom record that is forgoes experimentation in favor of pure fan service and amp worship. Perhaps more than any record of the year, Children of the Haze takes the admirable but oft-maligned “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach and channels the band’s love and passion for stoner doom into a modern masterpiece that can stand proudly with any of the genre’s landmark releases that came before it. Album highlight “Navigator” proclaims as much, with it’s infectious, celebratory cries of “holding bond in hand” directly referencing Sleep’s similar invitation nearly twenty years ago.
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Although less explicitly marijuana-focused, other 2017 highlights in the sonic realm of stoner doom abound as well. Polish cosmonauts Spaceslug released the fantastic Time Travel Dilemma in February and likely haven’t returned to Earth since. Spaceslug offer a similar brand of fuzzy, riff-focused doom as others in the genre but stamp it will their own indelible spaced-out, fantastically cosmological fingerprints. The band’s collective vision is ever-skyward and the soaring leads, expansive production, and unique sampling on Time Travel Dilemma ensures that listeners will feel catapulted into the stratosphere even amongst the comfy confines of thick, hypnotic riffs.
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And, never to be outdone, Monolord came in hot with Rust, a career-defining record that continues with the loud, lumbering pysch doom they’ve always made but ratchets up the songwriting skills more than any other previous effort. The band’s previous record, Vænir, was a hyper-competent take on atmospheric, gloomy doom, but Rust is on another compositional level with tracks like “Dear Lucifer” and “Forgotten Lands” tackling complex emotional and sociological themes to powerful effect. Any metalhead can hail Satan, it takes a true powerhouse to reject Satan outright because you’ve outgrown him and, regardless, you can doom plenty hard by your own damn self.
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And that’s it! Thanks for reading and be sure to comment with your favorites from 2017. Doomsday will return in the new year and I’m excited to see what 2018 has in store for doom and metal generally. Until then, don’t forget your earplugs. See you next year!