Doom’s essence has always been of the ethereal. Ever since the heady (and oft. overlooked) weirdness of the genre’s progenitors Black Sabbath, doom metal has been a genre with a keen proclivity for the otherworldly: informed by pre-Christian traditions and metaphysical meanderings just as much as by shroom-induced mysticism. As big fans of haunting vocal harmonies, synth orchestras and otherworldly branches of noise, we’ve curated a selection of ethereal doom for your listening pleasure.
Mars Red Sky
Admittedly more of a heavy psych band than a straight up doom outfit, this Bordeaux three-piece’s sheer ability to drop massive, fuzzy bass-driven riffs amongst understated swirls of guitar and beautifully melodic vocals mean they deserve to make this list. In some ways, the contrast this achieves makes them a lot heavier than bands that purport to be attempting out-and-out brutality. There’s a fragility to their sound that makes them even more explosive when they do go for the jugular.
2016 saw the band release both an EP, Providence, and their third album, Apex III, with the latter acting as a bridge between albums in terms of both theme and style. These releases introduced much more of an experimental aspect to their catalogue, especially on ‘Homesick Deaf’, which is a live cut of a collaboration with Julia Al Abed, which blends field recordings with the band’s music and has a video accompaniment designed to enhance the experience.
2017 has seen the band perform at various European festivals, including Hellfest, and self-release a 12″ single entitled ‘Myramyd’, where they have again stuck to their ethos of straight-to-analogue recording that’s only available on vinyl.
The west of England has always been an odd place. With entrenched pagan traditions still wound deep within the collective consciousness of the south-west, it’s not surprising that Oxford natives Undersmile would look to the past for their sprawling, ethereal rituals.
One central tenet of doom’s ethereal spectrum is the influence of grunge, post-punk, and a proclivity for haunting female-vocal prowess. Undersmile – unfortunately banished to the netherworld after calling it a day last year – were a band who incorporated the aforementioned grunge and folk influence, channelled through an earthy brand of sound design, to dizzying effect.
Accompanying the crushing depth of their riffs with a haunting strain of vocal harmonies and off-kilter melody, Undersmile’s sound was a furore of whirling, shimmering emanations, conjuring images of stone circles, rituals by firelight, and shroom-fuelled ceremonies in ancient times.
Emanating from the primal ether of Australia’s pre-colonial dreamtime, dISEMBOWELMENt‘s (yes that IS how you spell it) otherworldly brand of psychedelic, grindcore-laden doom laid the groundwork for much of the sluggish, melancholic drone and funeral doom we hear today.
dISEMBOWELMENt weren’t too concerned with technicality or tempo, with most of their riffs droning along at a snail’s pace. The band took the bleak, crushing tempos of Autopsy and Incantation and tuned them down to drop A, whilst simultaneously mystifying audiences with their psychedelic take on grinding, million mile an hour grind.
Nestled comfortably in between the fantastical shades of doom, dISEMBOWELMENt also tastefully appropriated Australian Aboriginal instrumentation and a tripped-out, fantasy-laden aesthetic into their sound on first (and unfortunately only) release The Tree Of Life And Death. Featuring a richly layered procession of weird tripped-out interludes and mournful melodies, superimposed against a palette of groove-laden doom-death, dISEMBOWELMENt’s ethereal rackets are still an essential and powerful listen for purveyors of doom’s weirder side.
Bolstered by the addition of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Troy Van Leeuwen on guitar, Chelsea Wolfe’s latest album Hiss Spun saw her stray ever further from her more folky roots. The album saw the singer give her most cathartic performance yet, as she more keenly embraced the doom metal influences made apparent on 2015’s Abyss.
Despite an increase in metallic textures, though, her gothic sound, inspired by Scandinavian folk, retained its subtle, enchanting atmosphere, and these two sides of her sound coupled together infused the release with an inescapable tension.
Taking Wolfe’s mesmeric vocals and ballasting them with thunderous guitars and percussion to create a bewitching brand of chaos, Hiss Spun ensures that Chelsea Wolfe earns her place amongst the ethereal doom elite.
Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard
This Welsh doom squadron’s Bandcamp page claims that whilst listening to them, “You may feel dizzy. You may have difficulty focusing. You may need to breathe more rapidly. You may be subject to fits of hysterical shouting or even laughter. You may experience a shift in consciousness.” None of this is true, of course, but it draws attention to the inherently spellbinding nature of the quartet’s monolithic metal.
Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard’s brand of doom is much less silly than their name, using the kind of devastating, crawling riffs that all doom fans crave and stacking them up against the ethereal vocals of bassist and frontwoman Jessica Ball. The band’s debut EP Nachthexen was their statement of intent, a sprawling epic that morphed from one colossal eruption to another whilst also displaying a talent for tantalising melodies and mystical vocals that would only become more versatile on 2016’s Y Proffwyd Dwyll.
Focusing on majestic, captivating croons rather than the more abrasive vocals you may expect in doom is one way to ensure your sound is on the more ethereal end of the sludgy spectrum. The lackadaisical but brooding vocals of King Woman‘s Kristina Esfandiari are key to the band’s hypnotic sound. Gargantuan riffs are here in spades, but Esfandiari’s performance acts as an enchanting buffer that works alongside the slow, swirling guitars to instil a trance-like melancholy. This masterfully morose sound can make for a cumbersome listen, but the band prove themselves versatile enough songwriters to keep things interesting. Refusing to stay pigeonholed in the realm of doom, King Woman are capable of everything from crushing stoner riffs (‘Utopia’) to funereal post-rock (‘Deny’), hazy psychedelia (‘Hem’) and tender folk (‘Worn’).
SubRosa’s latest LP, the lengthily titled For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages, took inspiration from Russian novel We, a dystopian tale that predates Animal Farm and 1984 by two decades but retains a relevant message for people in 2017. Tackling the surveillance state and the implications of state power overpowering the common person, its message undoubtedly rings true now and makes for a unique but nevertheless important focus for SubRosa’s fourth full-length. There exists no more perfect a band to cover such an issue, either, as SubRosa’s dramatic sound allows the suspenseful sections of their music to feel even more impactful. The addition of violin has long proved itself an eventful way to add a level of drama to metal, and SubRosa’s use of dual violin but just one guitar allows the narrative of the album to be told musically as much as it is lyrically.
It’s always intriguing to see how a self-professed metal act survives a guitar-less existence, and in the case of Canadian trio Völur, how it can be turned into such a powerful strength. Replacing the role of lead guitar with Laura C. Bates’ masterful violin, the band’s most seemingly ambitious aspect becomes the most powerful tool in their arsenal. Her occasionally classical-esque playing and soaring vocals infuse everything with a spiritualistic layer of emotion whilst Lucas Gadke’s riff-driven bass and raspier growls focus on the metallic side of affairs. The band are currently half-way through a planned four-part series of albums inspired by Germanic folklore, and have already proven themselves one of the metal world’s most innovative acts. As capable of monolithic doom as they are passages of mournful respite, few bands come close to the rustic and mystical prowess of Völur.
Virginia doom outfit Windhand got everything right on latest album Grief’s Eternal Flower, showing a commendable return to form following 2013’s Soma. If captivating, albeit fairly predictable, doom metal is your thing then Soma following stoner and doom metal instructions with almost methodical precision was likely anything but a misstep in your book. However, 2015’s Grief’s Eternal Flower saw the band take a much-needed step in their evolution. Previous releases had hinted at the necessity of Dorthia Cottrell’s haunting vocals to their sound, as her bluesy wails and soulful croons cut through waves of hazy riffs as if they’d only been there to build up to her indispensable arrival, but this time around the LP’s song structures seemed to take note of and utilise her hypnotic voice to great effect. If Soma somewhat subdued the band’s greatest asset, Grief’s Eternal Flower placed it centre stage and saw the band transcend their status as another decent doom group.
Words: Richard Lowe, David Brand, George Parr