Prolonging The Riff: The Art Of The Long Song

Feature originally published in issue 2 of Astral Noize, available here.

When stoner metal legends Sleep retreated to the studio after the success of 1992’s Holy Mountain, few, least of all their new label London Records, could have guessed what they would emerge with. Appalled by Dopesmoker, the one-track, 63-minute beast their new signing presented them, the label refused to release it, branding it unmarketable even after a leaner 52-minute remix split it into six tracks and renamed it Jerusalem. It would take a self-released bootleg of Jerusalem, followed by official releases from The Music Cartel and Rise Above Records before a one-track, 63-minute version named Dopesmoker would finally emerge under Tee Pee Records in 2003. Nowadays, the release is legendary. Few could blame London Records for not seeing the potential in such a release, but over time it would become one of the stoner metal scene’s most famous records. Not only did its various versions receive positive reviews, but many consider the longer versions, released by Tee Pee Records and Southern Lord Records, as the superior renditions.

If Holy Mountain had been their more conventional album, sitting alongside the works of Kyuss and Monster Magnet in inspiring a generation of stoner rock and metal, then Dopesmoker was their nonconformist album that would inspire a generation of underground doom and sludge acts. Indeed, nowadays lengthy songs that take the idea of expansive concepts and extravagant recordings to the extreme are common amongst the section of metal acts who favour slowed paces.

Album after album of time-consuming tracks have emerged from the metal undergrowth, almost trying to one-up the magnitude of past releases. Some, like Sabazius’ eleven-hour monstrosity The Descent Of Man, take the concept too far and seem only to create prolonged recordings out of a desire to garner some imagined doom credentials, but amongst the bunch are some monumental releases deserving of their ambitious runtimes.

There’s certainly something to be said of the song-crafting ability, not to mention the ambitiousness, needed to create an unconventionally long track that holds interest, rather than resorting to unwarranted repetition or lengthy intros that do little more than provide waves of feedback. Bearing this in mind, the uptick in long-lasting songs recorded after Dopesmoker is a weird trend. After all, most would surely argue that packing quality content into a more succinct runtime is a superior songwriting method – a five-minute track that comprises a variety of ideas and an unmatched power, not to mention greater commercial appeal, is surely more impressive than an hour of elongated mediocrity for the sake of it? Conversely, though, the attraction of such lengthened songs does not solely stem from an intrigue created by their unusual runtimes, but from the timelessness such records can reach when executed skillfully. The scope of such songs feels almost limitless, and what better way could there be to convey ambitious concepts than a singular piece of musical grandeur? With this in mind, here’s a handful of metallic monoliths that beat the half-hour mark.

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Monolithe – Monolithe III

Perhaps modern metal’s masters of lengthy songs, Monolithe’s biggest triumph is undoubtedly their third full-length. Each of the band’s first four releases would fit amongst this list with ease, but whilst Monolithe III may not be the French doomsters longest track, it still manages to surpass its peers in scope. The third instalment in a four-part series, the album uses every inch of space within its 52-minute runtime as it refrains from resorting to hypnotic repetition, instead transcending its genre through elegant melodies and stimulating riffs. A more sophisticated affair than its predecessor (and indeed its successor), it oversaw the glorious union of dark keyboards, expressive twin leads and a monumentally heavy rhythm section.

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Rorcal – Heliogabalus

Ignoring the general rule that albums of this type require a slow monotonous wind-up to an eventual crescendo, Rorcal’s Heliogabalus introduces monolithic guitars within the first two minutes, drowning the listener in roaring feedback and minimalistic but unrelenting riffs. Conceptually following the eventful life of Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, this 70-minute track is a grisly sludge-fuelled monster that, unlike others on this list, is more interested in the grind than the groove. It is a harsh and challenging release driven forward by maniacal yells and scorching guitars, and it is distinctive purely for its fondness of punching the listener in the gut where others of its type would instead seek to hypnotise and captivate.

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Sleep – Dopesmoker

It’s easy to forget how old Dopesmoker really is, given that it was recorded 22 years ago. Perhaps that’s down to the various releases and rereleases that have emerged over time, with the most recent Southern Lord reissue coming as recently as 2012, but it’s undoubtedly also down to how utterly superior the masterpiece is compared to any and all rivals that have arisen. The boundless track is a marijuana-adoring odyssey of transcendental riffs and hypnotic rhythms that surpasses the hour mark without so much as a dull moment. To this day, it is the go-to long metal track, the band’s peerless magnum opus that is undoubtedly set to stand the test of time as a legendary album.

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Bongripper – The Great Barrier Reefer

“We intentionally set out to make an 80-minute song, to be longer than Dopesmoker” said Bongripper guitarist Nick Dellacroce of their debut album. The final cut falls just short of this goal at 79 minutes, but it’s expanded length nevertheless shows – sections feel stretched to fulfil this goal, something made apparent early on during the largely superfluous intro. As such, The Great Barrier Reefer is far from the stoner metal genre’s best long song. However, given that it was the Chicago outfit’s debut effort, its scope and execution are downright impressive, and there are more than a few moments here where the band begin to show the songwriting prowess they flaunted so flawlessly on 2010’s Satan Worshipping Doom.

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Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard – Nachthexen

This welsh band’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 ethereal vocals and spooky synths. As 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.


Bong – Polaris

Polaris is one of Newcastle outfit Bong’s most remarkable songs, an epic that builds masterfully into an awe-inspiring wonderland of doom-infused psychedelic drone. The band may somewhat resent being referred to as a stoner band, as shown by the tongue-in-cheek album title Stoner Rock, but they share an inclination for expansive tracks with many of the genre’s big names. Regardless, Polaris is far from a simple stoner track, foregoing groovy riffs in favour of noisy drone so trance-inducing its 36-minute runtime flies by. It may be lengthy, but miraculously, it doesn’t feel stretched or inflated, something many who create long songs should undoubtedly take on board.

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Ommadon – Ommadon

If your average doom song is a river, flowing monotonously but forcefully along, then Ommadon’s self-titled album is an ocean – unpredictable, immeasurably strong, and seemingly endless. The Glaswegian band’s career is lined with gargantuan instrumental tracks, but their self-titled album finds them at their best. An expansive exploration of grating doom and discordant drone, it is menacing, utterly bleak and holds an atmospheric weight that is almost claustrophobic in its stifling impact. It takes a lot to be able to create over 40 genuinely enjoyable minutes of drone-doom, but the band weave and transmute often enough to hold interest, and the promise of drums that thud like a fallen boulder is enough to keep any listener willing to stick around for more.

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Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper

The latest LP from Seattle doom duo Bell Witch is one of the more recent of the tracks featured here. An utterly enthralling 84 minutes of immersive funeral doom, Mirror Reaper is also a deeply moving memoriam for founding member Adrian Guerra, who passed away in 2016. His passing infuses the release from start to finish and at the halfway point, his voice can be heard during a passage of stunning raw emotive power. Whilst lengthy songs can often seem to exist only to fulfil some imagined doom credentials, Mirror Reaper proves itself worthy of its prolonged runtime, allowing every subtle note, drum beat, riff, even every atmospheric drone, to ring out to its full conclusion. There’s no question that bassist Dylan Desmond and drummer Jesse Shreibman, who share vocal duties here, have crafted the group’s most challenging listen yet, but it is also their best, at least for those who have the patience (and spare time) to fully indulge in its infinite scope over repeated listens.

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Corrupted – Llenandose De Gusanos

Coming in at a whopping two hours and three minutes, Corrupted‘s Llenandose de Gusanos features not one, but two fiendishly-long tracks in 50-minute opener ‘Sangre/Humanos’ and disc two’s ‘El Mundo’. The minimalist and exceedingly esoteric musings of the contrarian Japanese collective, who (seemingly inexplicably) sing in Spanish and have long avoided the public eye, are slow-burning affairs that effortlessly sway from prolonged, meditative ambient periods into monstrous sludge. Though their career is lined with lengthy tracks, the two that comprise their second full-length make for their opus. When the riffs hit, they pack such weight that the healing tones of the ambient segments are almost a necessity.

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Bolt Gun – Man Is Wolf To Man

The fact that Bolt Gun are yet to find themselves plastered on the covers of the world’s metal media is a genuine travesty, but it is definitely an understandable one. The Australian trio’s latest LP is a single 45-minute track (albeit split into two parts) focusing on a gloomy historical subject – the existential horror of Stalinist Russia. It may be one of the least commercially viable albums ever released, but in the world of underground metal that means jack shit, and Man Is Wolf To Man is a poignant masterpiece to those with the patience (and spare time) to delve into its expansive sound. Though their sound has been defined as black metal – a fitting subgenre to take on the distressing subject matter – the sheer ambition of the album calls for something a little more inventive than 45 minutes of blastbeats and shrill yells. Instead, Man Is Wolf To Man’s relies on black metal almost solely in its most severe moments, drawing from its intensity to create blizzardous moments of terror. Its ambient soundscapes are closer to the modern definition of post-metal, but even calling it that does their sound a disservice.

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Find this piece and more awesome content in issue 2 of Astral Noize, available here.

Words: George Parr

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