Blackened doom is a metal subgenre that has, to my ears, remained mostly untapped compared to other genre-meshing hybrids. Blackened death, death-doom, blackgaze, and blackened thrash all have a list of artists that could be considered legends in each respective camp (dISEMBOWELMENT, Deafheaven, and Destroyer 666/Aura Noir come to mind). But could we say the same for blackened doom? Sure, Bereft made some waves a few years ago, but blackened doom has remained a relatively championless style. That is, until Mizmor.
Two albums in, it’s fairly safe to assert that this Portland, Oregon-based one-man wrecking ball has already displayed the artistic chops to carve a lasting legacy in both blackened doom and in the metal world at large. 2016’s Yodh was a revelation, ending up being one of my favorite records of the year. But it was by no means perfect, suffering from some songwriting bloat in its 5 song, hour-long runtime. The act’s third full-length record, Cairn, could be considered equally stuffed on a logistical basis. 4 tracks at just under an hour in length should be a fairly brutalizing task for any music lover to undertake, but the miracle of Cairn is that it almost feels… too short. Such is the quality of the songwriting and performance on this outstanding record. It is, without question, one of the finest pieces of music I’ve heard this year.
Heralding back to the opening paragraph of this review, it seems fairly difficult to find a quality blackened doom metal record nowadays. I think part of the reason for this is the difference in speed and tone between the genres in their most basic forms. Black metal runs on speed-driven malice and lo-fi aesthetics, while doom takes its sweet-ass time getting from riff A to riff B, and typically resides within a fuller and more robust production dynamic. Mizmor, more so than any other band working today, has blended these two styles seamlessly and to great effect. Opening track “Desert of Absurdity” kicks off the record with a soft, resonant acoustic passage that sets the emotional tone. But as the feedback starts to build, the sense of grandeur and menace being held just barely at bay explodes into a black metal frenzy of blast beats, tremolo picked guitar, and primal screams that would for any unfamiliar listener point toward a pure black metal record. But at just about the halfway mark, the track breaks its main riff down into a multi-part, oppressively heavy doom centerpiece that feels uncannily united in tone, if not in speed. It’s one of the most perfect marriages of black and doom metal I’ve yet heard, and is a fairly stark primer of what listeners will experience throughout the remainder of the record.
So Cairn has the genre-blending component down pat, which is by itself a notable feat. But that’s only one part of the complex musical and emotional world that Mizmor creates here. “Cairn to God” is a nearly 20-minute exposition on highly atmospheric songwriting that feels simultaneously spacious and utterly suffocating. The guitar tone in particular on this track (and throughout the record as a whole) is simply delicious, balancing abject heaviness and razor-sharp incision perfectly. The tone by itself is a brilliant choice, as it feels equally at home in both black and doom settings, allowing for the back-and-forth between genre influences to feel equally represented. The album’s production is also noteworthy, existing in a near-pitch perfect space of atmosphere, heaviness, and intensity. When it comes to aesthetic decision making, Mizmor hits it out of the park in Cairn.
But all that only matters if the songwriting is as good as the music sounds, and in that regard Cairn is a formidable work of art. Throughout its significant runtime, the record is diverse, intricate, and never boring. “Cairn to Suicide” may be the most sonically and emotionally impactful track Mizmor has yet written, balancing all of the above elements perfectly. Finale “The Narrowing Way” is no less harrowing, capping off the album in a sea of audio fire that’s as beautiful as it is horrifying. These tracks are a step up in every regard from the already fantastic Yodh, culminating in the most complete and diverse album of Mizmor’s career thus far.
Cairn moves Mizmor from the status of unique subgenre artifact to that of a necessary, essential voice in the metal world. It’s a marvelous album that is as emotionally impactful as it is technically astute, with enough dank riffs and blistering tremolo-picked passages to satisfy doom and black metal fans alike. It’s one of the finest records I’ve heard thus far in the blackened doom subgenre, and one of my favorite records of the year. Worth every second of investment you can give it.
Cairn drops September 6th via Gilead Media, and is available for pre-order on the band’s Bandcamp page.