Over the years there has been plenty written about metal in a general sense, from oral histories to more comedic takes and beyond, and there’s even books delving into subgenres like death metal, grindcore and thrash, but there are one or two subgenres that have gone almost entirely unexplored. Anyone looking for a comprehensive overview of doom, particularly in regards to the myriads of sub-styles that fall under its broad umbrella, will have been sorely disappointed – until very recently, that is. Music journalist turned author J.J. Anselmi has just released his latest book, Doomed To Fail: The Incredibly Loud History of Doom, Sludge and Post-Metal, a deep dive into those very genres that goes all the way back to the blues and, from there, traces the various branches that have sprouted off in bizarre new directions since heavy metal’s inception. It’s a fascinating read written with passion from a life-long lover of the genre, and it shows. The voice here isn’t tediously academic, rather entertaining and insightful, somehow managing to simultaneously feel both comprehensive and snappy.
It’s a fascinating insight into one of the metal scene’s most intriguing subgenres, perfect as an introduction for the unfamiliar but certainly in-depth enough that even the most diehard riff fanatic will learn something new. To find out more, we got in touch with Anselmi, who told us all about the book’s creation over a cross-Atlantic skype call.
AN: So one thing I wanted to touch on is that there have been a lot of books on some of the other subgenres in metal, but it seems that doom has kind of been a bit unexplored in that area. Is that one of the main reasons you decided to write Doomed To Fail?
Anselmi: I mean, yeah. I just love heavy music, obviously, and especially writing about it. I feel like when you write about a record, that you may have heard a bunch of times, for the first time it really lets you listen to it on a deeper level, and going through that kind of analysis with so many of my favourite records [as a music journalist] was an inspiration for sure. I knew that I really wanted to write a book about music and this one kind of fell into place naturally because I’ve gravitated to the style since I was in high school, really.
It’s interesting that there hasn’t been much written on doom so far, because the genre seems to be pretty big at the moment. It seemed like there was kind of a big resurgence several years ago, and usually by now that would have died down but it doesn’t seem like it has.
I feel like there’s definitely subgenres that became kind of in vogue when people re-discover some of the old sounds and end up getting really excited. There’s been a big resurgence of death-doom specifically, with people really going back to Paradise Lost and Katatonia, stuff like that. And then obviously the black metal and the thrash resurgences that were happening a while ago, and of course doom. I guess all of them have stuck around to a certain extent, but it seems, with doom, the staying power to me has to do with the improvements in amplification and how powerful it is now. I feel like doom is just a really great way to explore that. It’s so much bigger and kind of spaced out than a lot of other styles, so it’s the perfect way to explore those new tools.
There’s a lot of experimentation going on in the genre as well. There always seems to be something exciting.
Yeah, I love how wide the breadth is, cause you have everything from, something that I kind of see as being very from the gutter, and having kind of like a smart-ass attitude, like Weedeater, and stuff like that, all the way up to really heavy artistic experimentation with bands like Sunn O))).
Yeah, there’s a huge scope really. What are some of your personal favourite bands and albums from the genre?
I think Black Sabbath were really one of my very first favourite bands. Like when you’re a kid and you start to have favourite bands, Sabbath came in there pretty early, so the Ozzy records are always there, and I’m always amazed how I can still listen to those records, and get something new from them, a lot of times just from the instrumentation. Those guys were essentially jazz musicians, and they had the chops of those players that would play several sets a night at gigs and that’s basically how they wrote the first two records. Especially Bill Ward, just listening back to his drumming, it’s really special in a lot of ways, so Sabbath is always up there.
And whilst researching I found something I hadn’t realised before. I knew that Sabbath got their name from a Coven song, but I didn’t realise the extent to which they’ve gone on to deny that.
Isn’t the story that they took it from a movie? That’s what they say, anyway…
Yeah, they say they took it from a movie and there’s definitely conflicting accounts, but when you kind of line things up from when the Coven record came out and then when Sabbath changed their name from Earth to Black Sabbath, the Coven explanation seems the most likely for sure. It seems a little weird with the Sabbath story. That horror movie came out in 1963 [‘64, close enough – ed.] I think, so they renamed the band in ‘69 and so that was always a weird little detail that trips me up a bit in that story, like why was a movie from ‘63 playing in ‘69? But then the way theatres played movies was quite a bit different back then. So discovering Coven’s influence and how significant that is has been huge. I didn’t realise how far Sabbath have gone to deny it, and there’s an MTV news interview I think from 1986, and basically the interviewer asked Tony Iommi about Coven and it seems like it trips him up for sure. And so delving into that was kind of surprising and disappointing, but at the same time Sabbath’s music is, to me, the real defining legacy. I do wish they would go back and say, like, “yeah we got it from a Coven song”, because I don’t really understand the point in denying it at this point.
That’s cool! Is there anything else you discovered during your research?
Some of the death-doom stuff I hadn’t really delved into that much, it was really exciting to get into Katatonia, and the band Thergothon, who essentially just blew me away. I found out about them from a Decibel article, and going back, I think [Stream From The Heavens] was recorded in 1994 and it was so slow and punishing for the time. It sounded pretty close in spirit to what Bell Witch are doing, and thinking of that back in 1994 is just pretty mind-blowing.
Yeah a lot of that stuff has kind of got lost, that Thergothon record is awesome. It’s cool to have books like this that can kind of unearth some of those bands and albums.
I feel like metal journalism is often such a pursuit of passion for people. I mean the reason you get into it, I feel like for a lot of us, is cause no other music comes close. And I think that comes across in the journalism, and just the breadth of coverage that has been in magazines and online over the years… I feel like I have to give credit to so many metal writers because I’ve been able to learn about so much music.
Were there any other interesting facts or anecdotes you encountered whilst researching the book that you weren’t aware of, or were surprised that other people aren’t aware of?
In my interview with Buzz Osbourne, it was really cool to hear about his experience growing up in a small town. I think it’s well-known that him and Kurt Cobain are from the same small town and that is true that he lived there but I think he grew up, before he lived in Aberdeen (WA), in a different small town in Washington, and it seemed like small town culture left a big effect on him in kind of a negative way. Hearing him talk about it first hand was really interesting and I could relate a lot because I’m from a small town myself and experienced a lot of what he was talking about… like people always kind of looking at what you’re doing, and just being in other people’s business and stuff. I mean, really when he got going on that stuff… there’s still a chip on his shoulder for sure.
Did any of that give you a fresh perspective on his music at all?
Yeah, it really just made Melvins that much more mind-blowing. Because I really do see them on the same level as Black Sabbath in terms of pioneering a style and throwing things together in a really novel way. It blew everything else away, so hearing that his experience is not that of some, like, slick city kid, he was just like working in the woods and earning money to order records through CREEM magazine without really having any idea who the artists were. He’d just pick them based on pictures and who looked cool, so there’s a lot of this, like, self-exploration with music that I could identify with – when you don’t really have a ton of access to culture, people are interested in weird music. So hearing that whole background and just thinking about him in context to what Melvins have done really over the years really just blew me away. It just makes them seem more of a gift, and just more remarkable that Melvins have done what they’ve done – it’s so unique and special, and it came from a place you might not expect.
It’s interesting you say you can relate to that, as well. One thing I wanted to ask is, for anyone who hasn’t read any of the book at all, how would you describe the authorial voice in it? Is it quite informal, does it have a bit of your personal voice in there, or is it more impartial?
The short answer is I really love Hunter Thompson’s perspective in Hell’s Angels [: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs], and so in that book he writes about the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang but it’s always grounded in his perspective as a motorcycle enthusiast. But then you’re kind of always aware of him, the narrator, as a character, as doing these things, and it’s not necessarily like, here’s how these things objectively happened from a third person point of view. So, I really love that perspective with Hell’s Angels and essentially tried to mimic it with doom because the personal connection is so strong. To me it seemed like the best way to approach it, instead of trying to create an imagined objectivity. The way around that would be to emphasise the subjectivity. I think I did try to stay as impartial as possible, but at the same time I think music writing is so subjective anyway, and so my answer to that was to kind of underscore my own experience and personal connection.
Do you think that this kind of documentation of metal can be quite important in preserving its legacy? Because the genre has been around for over half a decade now. When you speak to older metal fans about growing up with heavy music, for them there wasn’t really a history to it, it just felt like something that was happening then and there, whereas now we can go back and explore stuff that’s decades old. With that in mind, do you think books like this are more important now?
Yeah, I think it’s super valuable to put this music in context and really kind of show people what metal has done forever – that this music grabs you, it’s very immediate, but there’s tons of artistic merit to it. I think the way to kind of honour that and underscore it is with this type of history and putting it in context to really look at where each band was coming from, and their philosophical points of view. It’s really valuable and I’m excited to see more of it ideally, and see different perspectives. I mean it’s kind of crazy if you think about how there’s still a big void in the world of metal writing in the world compared to other styles… there’s countless books about The Beatles, for example, and countless academic essays, and every type of writing you could name. And there’s some really great stuff, but metal really hasn’t had the same treatment, so I think for it to be established as a really interesting form of art, we have to do these kinds of histories and put it in context.
Obviously the book is about doom, post-metal and sludge. Did you find that you couldn’t really talk about one of those genres without the others?
Yeah I guess part of it is, in later years, I really gravitated more and more towards sludge and post-metal but they’re so interconnected that I don’t think you can seperate them. To try to talk about just doom or to try to lump bands like Godflesh and Neurosis into it and call them doom bands… it doesn’t really sit right, especially somebody like Godflesh, where the music was coming from such a different place than something like Trouble or Candlemass. It’s so different in terms of artistic ideals. So yeah, I think it was really hard to talk about doom and not include all of it, and I guess that’s one thing I’ve seen, there is an encyclopedia of doom and in 2008 there was this really great documentary called Such Hawks Such Hounds, and those were amazing but I remember feeling in both cases that the sludge and post-metal part wasn’t really explored much. To me those subgenres are super interesting and ihave a different perspective as far as where people are coming from. And again going back to the question… Black Sabbath are usually the Rosetta Stone for all that stuff, so I think once you start branching out and talking about music that’s influenced by Black Sabbath it gets messy and all over the place, so I tried to structure it and address it.
I suppose in a book you can be a bit more comprehensive when going over the history, but at the same time, how do you know when a project like this is finished? Because there must come a point where you have to draw a line and say I can’t include certain bands and certain albums because you just need to stop writing at some point.
Yeah, that’s really true, and it’s hard now too because, like you said, doom is big and I think there are some huge advancements. It seems like there’s so much progression, like each year an album comes out that really just furthers the way people think about doom, or what’s possible within it. So it was tough, I guess. At a certain point, you just have to tell yourself that ‘okay this is gonna be the end of it, this is done’. You could work on a project like this for years and years and years and really never finish because there’s always gonna be some kind of constant evolution. As far as how I made that decision, I’m not really sure, I guess it really helped that I had pitched it to a publisher pretty early on, and so there were some expectations and guidelines for when it would get done. That was really helpful otherwise I might have just kept putting it off and adding bands. Even in 2019, when I had to turn in the final manuscript, I remember even in the months after that Chelsea Wolfe came out with a record, Author & Punisher too. So I guess it was kind of just trying to find peace and knowing that it was going to drive you a little bit crazy otherwise. No matter what there’s gonna be stuff that’s left out.
And did you find yourself having to write about any bands that you didn’t especially like but you had to respect their influence at all?
I think with pretty much anything I had an initial reaction of not liking too much, writing about them really made me come around, and just through putting it in context really made me see why something is valuable. Paradise Lost’s Gothic is a really good example because I think I had listened to it a couple of times, and I didn’t dislike it necessarily, but it wasn’t something I would have probably gone back to on my own if I wasn’t writing about it. When I did go back to it and put it in context and read more and more from death-doom bands who talked about how profound that album was for them and what an influence it was, it really turned it around. So there’s cases where maybe the music wasn’t necessarily what I’d listen to but it really made me appreciate the value of it.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us about this! Is there anything else you wanted to add?
Thanks so much for getting in contact. I think it’s rad what you’re doing with the magazine. I’m sure you hear this all the time, people say “Metal is not political.” I hear that a lot, and I’m like, man, I don’t know, I really think everything in the world is political in one way or another.
Thanks so much! That’s true, you can’t really separate art from politics.
For sure. I’m really stoked you reached out. I think Vice, when Kim Kelly was there, they were doing a lot of similar writing and just trying to make metal better. I think they lost a huge asset there but I’m really glad to see people picking up the torch and moving forward, and making metal as good as it can possibly be because, you know, we all love it.
Thanks, we really appreciate that. Along those lines, did you find that you came across any artists with problematic histories whilst writing, and if so, how did you approach that?
I mean, Eyehategod is a big one that I always go back to. I knew about Black Sabbath in Junior High and I was really into thrash, but then when I was in high school and I first heard an Eyehategod song, it really just blew my mind, and, as a musician, it really told me that “hey, you can play metal and you don’t have to be Yngwie Malmsteen.” You can not have the best techniques, and not be classically trained and still make interesting music. So they had a really profound impact on me at an early age, but then as I got older, and then there’s the obvious song title and the Confederate Flag on Jimmy Bower’s guitar. It’s created this ongoing conflict that’s not resolved to this day where there’s still this huge push and pull for me when I listen to Eyehategod. The music is so good and really profound in a lot of ways but then there’s these issues. And they kind of chalk it up to having a smart-ass sense of humour, and just joking around, but I think as people evolve their understanding of what those symbols really mean it’s harder to be able to see them as a joke or as anything else but incredibly damaging. So Eyehategod are a big one, but I also felt like I couldn’t leave them out of the book.
Do you think it’s better to acknowledge their input but maybe point out their issues or to just omit them where possible?
It’s a tough one, there’s plenty of people, probably in metal and definitely outside of it, that would say that omission would be the true ethical choice, but that didn’t sit well, and I kinda took the route that you’re talking about of trying to acknowledge both the failures and successes. But it is a push and pull that’s still not resolved and at the same time I’d be lying if I said I still didn’t listen to Eyehategod because to this day they’re one of my favourite bands, but it’s difficult. I guess the analogy I would come back to is… to me it kind of feels like the racist uncle, or like your racist grandfather, somebody who really shaped who you are and had a profound impact on you, but have very ugly and damaging aspects about them. You could choose to maybe be estranged from that person or you could choose to have a relationship and acknowledge the faults, and I guess that’s the choice I’ve made. I’m not totally sure that it’s the right one, but…
Doomed To Fail: The Incredibly Loud History of Doom, Sludge and Post-Metal is out now through Rare Bird Books. Pick it up here.
Words: George Parr