On Monday, SubRosa posted a message on their Facebook, letting the world know that, after thirteen years, the band were calling it quits. There is no indication of any drama, just a simple divergence of musical energies, with members instead wanting to focus on other projects. Even so, it’s hard not to mourn the loss of one of the most unique, forward-thinking, and emotionally charged voices in modern doom. Over the course of four studio albums – plus an album-length demo and an acoustic live album – the Salt Lake City quintet painted a vision of doom that felt rooted in both fantasy and reality, weaving tales that would have done any novel series proud, full of human emotion and vivid portraits of worlds gone wrong.
As much as this writer will mourn their loss, I can’t wait to hear what the members do next. Guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon is focusing on her solo project The Keening, whilst the rest of the band are writing an album “that is heavier than a truckload of lead bricks” for a new, unnamed band. In addition, violinist/vocalist Kim Pack is working on noise/doom project Teleprom with her partner, drummer Andy Patterson is soon to release a new record as part of DØNE and violinist/vocalist Sarah Pendleton is working alongside Zachary Livingston from Minsk as part of Asphodel Wine. So, it’s safe to say that the members of what was SubRosa are keeping busy, taking their creative energies into new, exciting directions.
It’s worth keeping an eye on these projects, for even on the raw The Worm Has Turned demo, SubRosa’s ambitions and sense of drama were present. Though the songs only hinted at the majesty to come, the core potential was there right from the start. Their debut album from 2008, Strega, contained re-recorded versions of some of those early songs, albeit bolstered by a decent production that helped flesh them out. There’s no denying that something special was beginning, even if it wasn’t quite the finished product. Most songs were between the three and four minute mark in duration, and closer to traditional blues-rooted doom with occasional violin flourishes, rather than the progressive doom behemoths they would later release.
As such, the jump from Strega to 2011 follow-up No Help For The Mighty Ones was incredible. It’s here that the story-telling of SubRosa really came to the fore; even if the songs weren’t connected, they felt like they were, with the opening lyrics (“Heads on spikes, symbols on skulls / Give me a reason to go on”) painting a bleak, harrowing, yet also gripping picture – it may be based on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but SubRosa made it their own. Lengthy songs (with only the acapella ‘House Carpenter’ being less than five minutes long; the majority of songs stretched past the seven minute mark) gave the band a chance to let their sound grow and develop, to build a more captivating atmosphere, and to make strong use of space and contrast, both musically and thematically. The album felt like a post-apocalyptic fantasy novel series condensed into 58 minutes – where stories are never fully told but hinted at, where what is left unsaid is just as important as the notes played. The album marked SubRosa not just as one of the most exciting bands within doom, but within any genre of metal.
More Constant Than The Gods, which followed two years later, underlined this. Opener ‘The Usher’ began in almost sedate style, with a plaintive guitar melody backed my mournful violins, and dual male and female vocals bringing in the song before it exploded into life. There was no let-up from there; this was an album of almost unparalleled power and beauty, sorrowful and defiant in equal measure, the sound of love and life twisted and bruised but refusing to succumb to an end that is being denied by sheer force of will. The songs were darker in mood, yet also more hopeful; something perhaps best demonstrated by ‘Cosey Mo’, the most straightforward song on the album, being driven by a typical doom metal riff. Yet even in its tale of lost love and unmarked graves, there is a sense of power and resolution – of standing tall in the face of the inevitable, and leaving a mark on the world even when it seems impossible.
But more than anything, More Constant Than The Gods made clear that SubRosa’s music – as heavy, dark, and emotionally challenging as it could be – was rooted in a sense of love and companionship. It was music that urged the listener to reach out to others, to reinforce a sense of belonging through human connections, to remember that as much as we need others, they need us. It was also one of the first records I wrote about; and the band sharing and engaging with my review was hugely inspiring as a new writer. Meeting them when they played in Manchester made it clear that they were as friendly and kind as could be hoped, and they seemed genuinely humbled by the reaction to their music.
Their ambition found a conclusion in 2016’s For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages, now officially their final studio album. Based upon Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We, SubRosa took this groundbreaking piece of Russian science fiction and turned it into an album of utmost beauty. Yet even so, there was a dark anxiety forever lurking in the music, as the band took the themes of the novel – a longing for freedom; for personal connections; for belonging – and made them feel as relevant as ever. Closer ‘Troubled Cells’ emphasised this, especially as the album ended with one of the most beautiful, powerful passages in SubRosa’s discography. Written about Rebecca Vernon’s support of LGBT+ rights within the context of her Mormon faith, the track slotted in perfectly with the rest of the album’s themes and lyrics. Rejecting privilege if it means that others go without, its closing call (“Paradise is a lie if we have to burn you at the stake to get inside / Paradise is a lie if you’re not by my side”) is a statement of utmost solidarity, delivered in impassioned, life-affirming style.
And this is all without really considering how unique SubRosa’s music became; how the combination of blues-rooted doom and violins morphed from something fairly typical into something full of character, distinct from any other band operating today. That their music worked as well acoustically as it did with full amplification – as demonstrated by their Subdued live album – speaks volumes about the quality of their songwriting.
This was a band who went out on top form. When they were robbed shortly after the release of More Constant Than The Gods, a crowdfunding drive to replace lost equipment and instruments quickly met its target, demonstrating that they were a band held in high regard by many. Their music has helped me through some very bleak times, and inspired me to create art of my own. They quickly became one of my favourite bands, and I can’t speak highly enough of them.
Words: Stuart Wain