An in-depth study of doom metal at it’s most bizarre.
The sheer amount of metal out there these days can be overwhelming, and with its recent run of form the doom subgenre exemplifies this better than any. Alas, alongside this surge comes a degree of oversaturation, and yet for every run-of-the-mill Sabbath wannabes churning out the same predictable strain of doom we’ve been hearing for years, there’s a more intriguing group pushing the genre to its outermost limits. Whether its through atmospheric touches, shoegazey flourishes, the fucked-up introduction of noise or extreme metal, spruces of jazz or even the use of classical instruments and world music, those who approach the subgenre with a sense of freedom are able to offer something truly unique to them.
As Astral Noize Records gear up to release the new EP from London jazz-doom experimentalists Five The Hierophant, we got thinking about weird-ass doom and those bands who mess with the established formula. Here are our picks for the bands who approach the genre with an exploratory mindset, striving for innovation and offering up something original as a result.
When Justin K. Broadrick originally disbanded Godflesh back in 2001, Jesu became his most prominent project. Though not quite sludge or doom by definition, Jesu are certainly very slow and heavy. The experimental trio embrace the industrial blueprints of Godflesh, taken to a much spacier, more atmospheric and melodic destination. Broadrick favours clean vocals and also explores elements of drone, ambient, electronica, post-metal and shoegaze – collectively coalescing into a thick soup of sound.
Even with Godflesh making music again, Jesu are still active and as prolific as always, recently making two collaborative records with Mark Kozelek. But it’s the self-titled debut album as well as the Silver EP that are the landmarks of the Jesu discography; simultaneously bleak, crushing and beautiful. Jesu discover textures and timbres that Godflesh only hinted at, trading the outward sonic brutality for an inward, introspective feel. Many have been inspired, but nobody else sounds quite like them.
It’s always interesting to see how a metal band navigate a guitarless existence, and few do it as inventively as Völur. In place of a guitar, Laura C. Bates’ violin takes the lead, infusing the Toronto trio’s folklore-inspired compositions with an inherently rustic feel and transforming them into a ritualistic voyage through dense mythological forests. Bates’ also provides soaring, occasionally piercing, vocals whilst Lucas Gadke’s blackened cries and ultra-heavy bass spearhead the band’s metallic side. Their remarkably effective brand of otherworldly intensity relies on an innate ability to expertly build tension, utilising moments of respite and subtlety that accentuate the supernatural quality of the music and aid in making the heaviest moments that much more impactful. The band’s latest releases, 2016’s Disir and 2017’s Ancestors, together form the first two instalments in a yet-to-be-completed tetralogy, with the former focusing on female figures from Germanic folklore and the latter focusing on their male counterparts. Both contain a flawless blend of ethereal otherworldliness and raw hulking metal. Don’t pass on this lot.
Formed initially by the rhythm section of stoner doom favourites Sleep, Om are a more out-there proposition compared to the band from which they were once an off-shoot, offering a sound that’s only really metal by association. Screw it, genres exist primarily for convenience anyway. The band’s early works, recorded by Al Cisneros and Chris Haikus, are most recognisable as the hands that crafted ‘Dopesmoker’, spreading each note out and squeezing each drop of groove out as they did on that infamous 50-minute epic, but they also borrowed musical structures from Tibetan and Byzantine chant. Since, the band has become an even more intriguing affair, adopting Eastern Orthodox iconography on each album since 2007’s Pilgrimage, after which they rounded out into a trio in 2009, with Grails’ Emil Amos also replacing Haikus on drums the year before. Not counting a live release five years ago, the band’s last release was 2012’s Advaitic Songs, an album generally met with favourable reviews (smh Pitchfork). It remains a bastion of minimalism that weaves together droning strings, tablas, chants, melodies and, on ‘State Of No Return’, sludge.
Whilst Lurk’s first two albums are decent enough slabs of death metal with doom influences coming through, it’s on their third record where they found their feet and unleashed 44 minutes of sludge and doom misery. Methodical, calculated, and brilliantly paced, Fringe’s riffs crawl along with K. Koskinen’s vocals going from void-filling foghorn bellows to retched scratches. The slower moments on tracks like ‘Elan’ feel like flickering embers which always build to otherworldy pyres, sounding like portals to tortured realms. But Lurk are not afraid to show off some of their old school catchy riffs amongst the eerie stuff. Although they’re often smothered in fragmented and twisted guitar tones, they still deliver the weighty blows required in sludge. Fringe may well be one you missed in 2018. If so, be sure to rectify that as you may be sleeping on one of the future giants of the doom genre.
When talking about slow, weird-as-fuck heavy music, the first name on everybody’s minds should be this enigmatic Japenese trio. Boris have been churning out their fuzzy brand of doomy noise since the early ‘90s with remarkable consistency and a continued devotion to experimentation. The band truly operate on their own terms, crafting dense music that’s never quite groovy or cohesive enough to please the doom scene at large but is also willing to embrace the sort of melodies that hardline noise fans actively discourage. 2005’s Pink sees the band at their most commercial, but their most recent album, 2017’s Dear, is comparatively slower and heavier. Each album has its quirks, but perhaps most daunting for newcomers is the sheer wealth of their back catalogues, which includes drastically different realisations of the same albums (see Vein’s noise and hardcore versions, released simultaneously with the same artwork and no prior warning just to fuck with people), on-running album series (see The Thing Which Solomon Overlooked parts 1, 2, 3 and extra) and a host of collaborative releases, many of which are with Masami Akita’s Merzbow. Where to dive in? Fuck knows. Good luck.
Phurpa is the brainchild of Alexei Tegin, a veteran of Moscow’s underground music scene, whose shamanic ensemble of musical rites revolve around an ancient pre-Buddhist practice called Bön. Traditional Tibetan instruments are utilised along with a form of meditative tantric throat chanting called rgyud-skad to create droning overtones, which when witnessed live leaves the listener in an otherworldly state of spiritually-enlightened consciousness. Tegin’s devotion to archaic studies and mantras have resulted in an authenticity so intriguing that he was invited to perform and study at a temple in India, and the group are regularly on line-ups of festivals across Europe, including the legendary Roadburn. The alluring, primordial nature of Phurpa’s incantations means their appeal spans across the spectrums of black metal, doom, noise, world music and more without ever being specifically entrenched in one movement.
As many politically-minded band’s attention are drawn to major upheavals like Trump’s presidency, Brexit, and the rise of the far-right, Bismuth are here to remind us that behind the noise, the steady demise of the natural world is still occurring. Only, it’s not so steady anymore. Kicking off with a 32-minute epic, 2018’s The Slow Dying Of The Great Barrier Reef takes a subject that has come to symbolise everything that’s wrong about our relationship with nature and explores it through intricate doom of the highest calibre.
The album kicks off with a quiet intro that builds ever-so slowly, creating a sound as vast as the ocean itself, before the subtle beauty of the droning synths and ethereal vocals give way to gigantic riffs and razor-sharp screams, just as the Great Barrier Reef itself came to be infested with the effects of man-made climate change and pollution. It’s a captivating listen, and it might change a few minds on recycling. Win-win.
To make doom that truly innovates, you’ve got to be ambitious, and Portland’s A.L.N., the mysterious musician behind Mizmor, certainly displays an ambitious streak in their music. On Yodh, the project’s most recent release (not counting last year’s Mishlei compilation), each of the five tracks surpass ten minutes, taking their time to grow, expand and morph. Indeed, at time the album drifts through ideas like a prog band, but often it embraces the empty space that brews suspense, allowing the doomy riffs and black metal stylings to hit that much harder when they kick in. Mizmor allows these tracks to stray into drone on more than one occasion, losing their form entirely only to then rapidly enshroud you in icy blastbeats like a sudden violent storm. The black metal is utterly remorseless, whilst the doom is atmospheric but bleak and anguished, often straying into death-doom territory. Each of the styles on display feed into each other, sometimes tagging each other in when they feel you’ve had enough, other times morphing into one colossal mass of impenetrable heaviness.
Ahab’s concepts of nautical literature aren’t wholly unique in their sphere (the obvious example being Mastodon’s Leviathan sharing the Moby Dick concept with Ahab’s band name and debut album The Call Of The Wretched Sea). What is unique to them is the Lovecraftian level of monolithic imagery conjured by their anchor heavy riffs and monstrous vocals. Quite frankly it’s harder to find bands which sound as otherworldly as Ahab, with Daniel Droste at the helm releasing roars as dark as the ocean’s depths. The band even pulled off a graceful transition into somewhat more melodic waters on their 2015 effort The Boats Of Glen Carrig, creating a progressive doom epic in the process. Ahab nail the conceptual aspect, realising it’s okay not to spell every moment of the narrative, trusting the listener to grasp the emotions and story their instrumentals are weaving. Ahab is a diamond within the world of funeral doom, dragging it down to the darkest corners of the seabed.
Upon hearing the lustrous opening notes of 2016’s Paradise Gallows, an album that had the imposing task of following up 2014’s 45-minute ‘The Cavern’, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re not about to hear one of the heaviest albums of the decade. That’s down to this Richmond band’s incredible knack for expansive music with unparalleled range. Inter Arma paint intricate masterpieces with the finest-tipped brush there is, but with the broadest palette imaginable, with a style that interweaves dissonant high-end and volcanic low-end with sheathes of poignant melody.
With a running time of 71 minutes, the labyrinthine web of ideas that comprises Paradise Gallows helps lend the release a thrilling atmosphere that breezes past as if the whole thing were a compact half-hour. And yet, with its rich, funereal tone, you can’t help but sink completely into this deeply evocative and endlessly dynamic listening experience. They’re doom and sludge metal, sure, but they’re also death, black, psychedelic, stoner, post- and avant-garde metal.
In recent years, Britain has become a breeding ground for musical creativity with releases coming in every form and genre, and people are starting to take notice. One band attempting to take full advantage of this and tear off the shackles of predicable doom are Cardiff’s own Obey Cobra, featuring former members of Hogslayer and Homo. Though they’ve existed for less than two years, they’ve made a significant impact on the local scene through touring, with their first full-length in the pipeline for a Spring release.
Expect a double onslaught of vocals utilising intriguing effects and repetitious poetic cries which give their sound a controlled heaviness. This, coupled with the group’s interest in genres and techniques outside of the heavy music sphere, allows for them to really dig deep when writing material.
Informed by the grand scope of classical music and the morose aura of traditional psalms and hymns, Faroese six-piece Hamferð’s origins as an homage to classic death-doom has since morphed into a more nuanced approach to slowed-down heaviness. Often categorised as funeral doom, the band also take a lot of inspiration from their homeland, weaving local folklore into their concept albums (last year’s Támsins likam was the final part of a trilogy of releases focused around the same fictional man) but also infusing the music with a bleak atmosphere and unsurmountable heaviness that calls to mind the harsh weather and climate, sparse landscape and rugged terrain of The Faroe Islands. This element, in fact, is so key to their sound that they dub themselves ‘Faroese doom metal’, a sound that is well and truly unique to them, even if they aren’t the only doom act to hail from one of the eighteen albums that comprise the archipelago.
We’re less than a month into 2019, but this is already the second time we’ve mentioned these Newport oddballs. That’s not only because we’re super excited for the new material they have coming this year, but because their last effort, 2016’s II: For Mankind, is just that good. What’s perhaps most impressive here is the band’s ability to show that experimentation doesn’t have to mean completely disregarding what has come before in an effort to stand out. Sure, there’s eccentric soloing, bewitching vocals, monastic chants and even a saxophone solo, but there’s also gargantuan grooves, lumbering riffs and even a good old-fashioned bong rip. In certain circles, II: For Mankind is a cult classic of the underground doom scene. With any luck, the follow-up will be even bigger. When we spoke to them back in our first issue, the band promised “the best stuff we’ve ever written,” also noting that there will be “more technicality with less repetition.”
One of the most exciting bands to come out of the UK’s doom scene in recent years are Ghold, offering up more surprises with their first few EPs than many of their peers do within a career.
Galactic Hiss showcases old school stoner riffs painted with a thick sludge overcoat turned up to an astronomical degree but the follow-up, Of Ruin, adds The Body-esque screeched vocals and the occasional haunting acoustic to contrast the sheer star-collapsing heaviness of tracks like ‘Saw The Feeling’. PYR saw third member Oliver Martin join the fold as guitarist and multi-instrumentalist as Ghold became a more fleshed-out act, adding way more atmosphere without sacrificing any heaviness. Somehow all these slight changes and evolutions brought us to 2017’s Stoic, an absolute behemoth of an album which sounds like The Melvins, High On Fire, Electric Wizard, and Thou all being sacrificed at the same altar.
Dark Buddha Rising
Over their ten-year career, Dark Buddha Rising have taken their own (left-hand) path into progressive, ritualistic doom metal. Taking influence from Candlemass, Goatsnake and Tool in equal measure, this Finnish ensemble has developed a complex and diverse sound that ranges from restrained, mathy jams to thundering, churning waves of drone. Their appetite for source material extends to their aesthetic too, where occult symbols are overlapped and aphorisms bent to serve their users. Also present and correct is a healthy dose of psychedelia, such as on Ritual IX‘s ‘Enneathen’. It’s refreshing too to hear a band who are flexible enough to dip in and out of different extreme styles.
Jazz has always been an influence on heavy music, but in doom, it has found a true kinship. What it is about the expressive instruments of jazz and the laborious riffs of doom that works so well together is hard to pinpoint, but upon hearing the likes of Italy’s Messa, there can be no doubt that it works. The band have crafted two rich full-lengths full of evocative jazz stylings and the expected doomy guitars, melding an occult Windhand-esque approach with soft club jazz and the odd touch of ambient drone. Together, these styles bear a delectable fruit unlike any other currently in circulation. The quartet use this unique style to push metal into intense new realms, but also embrace more sultry textures, with bluesy solos sure to satisfy any ‘70s rock fan and languorous atmospheres that lure you in like the smell of a takeaway after a few pints.
Ever since Ozzy sang about ominous figures at the foot of his (or Geezer Butler’s) bed, doom and drama have had an effective working relationship, something perhaps best exemplified by the early works of Swedish giants Candlemass. In recent years, however, one of the subgenre’s best at building epic spectacles with their music are Salt Lake City’s SubRosa, who make use of two violins and three vocalists alongside the usual guitar, bass and drums setup. Utilising elements of folk and grunge, the group offer up a strain of doom that’s alluring and bewitching, with a touch more accessibility than most despite an uncanny ability to craft gigantic riffs. Their latest studio album, 2016’s For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages, took inspiration from dystopian sci-fi classic We, a 1921 book by Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin. Despite the book being nearly a century old, its themes of surveillance and totalitarianism feed into an anxiety that many feel today, infusing the expansive album with an unsettling aura.
Kayo Dot are the spiritual successor to Maudlin Of The Well, an avant-garde ensemble who used lucid dreaming and astral projection as a method of composing their wonderfully strange take on metal. Lead by visionary songwriter Toby Driver, they combine metal instrumentation with strings and clarinet. Their first two records under the Kayo Dot name (2003’s Choirs Of The Eye and 2006’s Dowsing Anemone With Copper Tongue) are still landmark, boundary-pushing masterpieces.
Baring ten-plus minute progressive epics, Kayo Dot’s take on sludge and doom is crushingly heavy and overwhelmingly dark. Yet their influences of jazz, post-rock and folk music add plenty of colourful and serene moments into their sonic pallet. In particular, ‘The Manifold Curiosity’ is one of the most unique metal songs of all time, journeying through eerie spoken word, glorious clarinet solos and finishing with one of the most savage blackened sludge finales you’ll ever hear.
Boss Keloid have always been eccentric – just look at their album names – but last year’s Melted On The Inch overshadowed even their own noticeably out-there output in terms of originality. The release took the doom influences from which the band originally emerged and pushed them to their outermost limits, in the process crafting a prog-doom epic that sounds vaster than 2016’s Herb Your Enthusiasm despite being 20-minutes shorter. What’s perhaps most surprising, considering their status as a sludge act, is how positive the album sounds, with majestic highs and Alex Hurst’s dynamic vocals often taking centre stage. The doomy heaviness is very much still here, but few handle it in a way that comes anywhere close to resembling this – there’s seldom this much heart and passion in the seedy netherworld of doom. All this in an album named after perfectly cooked cheese on toast.
Five The Hierophant’s Magnetic Sleep Tapes Vol. 1 is out now on Astral Noize Records. Pick it up on tape here.
Words: George Parr, Jack Richard King, Chris “Frenchie” French, David Brand, David Burke, Tom Kirby