Being an up and coming doom band in the UK is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the arguable home of doom metal seems like the blessed and fertile ground to begin conjuring the magic of slow and low, with the immense history and a nearly overwhelming cast of characters that previously paved the doomed road ahead lending their authority and hopefully their blessing to a new band’s mission. On the other hand, what a burden to have all those ghostly specters hanging over a nascent band’s head like so many nagging albatrosses. In 2018, it’s difficult enough for any new band to carve their own unique path in a music landscape replete with both yesteryear’s legends and today’s eager crop of newcomers; what is a doom band hailing from the UK to do in order to simply be heard? It’s a question with no simple answer. Fortunately, Morag Tong dispenses with such academic navel-gazing and, instead, simply play music on their own terms. Their brand of doom, as displayed on their debut full-length Last Knell of Om, is both heavy and atmospheric, sweltering yet cerebral, and is a confident and unique debut in a genre (and homeland) that can, at times, feel stiflingly overcrowded.
The six tracks that make up Last Knell of Om are dense and knotty, full of deep grooves and long instrumental passages that emphasize psychedelic atmospherics as much, if not more, than hammering riffs. But perhaps more than anything, this is a truly bass-heavy album. In a genre that ostensibly prides itself on highlighting the low-end of the sonic spectrum, Morag Tong does more than pay lip service to bass and rumbling rhythm. James Atha plays lead bass on almost every track and, instead of simply supplementing the guitar lines with low-end mirroring, his work serves as the guiding torchlight for the band throughout the album. The bass lines lead and the rest of the band, followed closely by Adam Asquith’s nimble and restless drumming, follow suit. Indeed, even the album’s production seems specifically designed to highlight the booming, bass-indebted nature of the band’s sound: the drum mix is thick, heavy, and front-loaded to further bolster the resonant sound and the rhythm guitar tones across Om are thick, sludgy, and earthbound. For Morag Tong, slow and low isn’t archaic genre dogma, it’s practical and instructive guidance for crafting modern doom with a serious groove.
The band’s bass-led, groove-heavy template is established immediately on opener “Transmission,” a table-setting introduction to the album’s relaxed yet intense overall sound. Atha leads the way, plucking through the entire length of his bass’s neck while the jazzy drums careen underneath the stratospheric guitar effects. The track’s slow, tension-ratcheting build into the thunderous “New Growth” foreshadows what is to come across the length of Last Knell of Om: lots of spacey, smoldering tension that explodes into sections of more traditional, pummeling riff-doom. It’s an effective dichotomy, one that allows the band to flex their respective muscles as able musicians and also avoid the potential numbing monotony that can come by focusing on the riff and the riff alone. Advance single “We Answer” also follows the slow-build template with Morag Tong using their guitars more as accents rather than hammers and allowing the brightly gorgeous psychedelic guitar lines create a skyward-looking atmosphere over the ever-boiling rhythm section underneath.
After listening to Last Knell of Om, it’s not surprising to see interviews with the band members that name check Pink Floyd in the same breath as Boris and Elder. Morag Tong uses doom as a jumping off point to explore psychedelic atmospheres and unique sonic textures rather than as an all-controlling sonic blueprint. In doing so, the band wins in the micro and the macro: they are free to take risks and explore their sound as a still-developing unit while simultaneously freeing themselves of any expectation shackles that might burden a young doom band in the UK. Last Knell of Om is an ambitious and unique addition to this year’s crop of debut releases and any fan of psychedelic, forward-thinking doom should do themselves a favor and jump on the Morag Tong bandwagon now.
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Last Knell of Om is out on May 18 and can be preordered via the band’s Bandcamp page here.