Last month, we dove into power metal and talked about how it was essentially foreign for me until I decided to step outside of what I knew. I also talked a lot about vocal envy and voice mimicry, which has somehow worked for me in learning how to sing. Essentially, power metal is fun, somewhat cheesy, and comforting – like a good chicken noodle soup — it will lull you to sleep and think happy thoughts, or it will amp you up to get stuff done.
Now, for many of us, it’s the holiday season. We spend time with family, friends, and other loved ones to bask in the good things that the year has brought us, eating good food, and having a great time watching movies or doing whatever normal people do during the holidays. However, because of my sense of humor and my rather interesting year, I decided to become the ultimate Grinch and give you all something to cry to. After all, nothing says “Happy Holidays” more than reminding you that we are all, fundamentally, sad people. Let me tell you something: this genre is definitely the opposite of chicken soup.
It’s time we talk about Doom Metal.
Doom metal is an interesting genre for me, because, when I first listened to doom metal in full, I didn’t know what it was. When I was first introduced to it, it wasn’t something I was looking for. After all, despite all of my budding rage, I was still a generally happy person who could be serious when the situation called for it. However, at the time of this introduction, I was a teenager who didn’t understand what was happening to me. Mix that with angst and high academic expectations, and you’ve got yourself a cocktail of volatile emotions that threaten to shut you down.
Being a 15-year old, somewhat emotionally withdrawn kid with anger issues did not bode well for me when I was a junior in high school. It also didn’t help that I took on the production manager job in the school theatre for the first time, so I was also stressed and I couldn’t cope.
All the symphonic metal and assorted bullet hell genres I was becoming invested in weren’t enough to suture my pain closed. Cranking it loud also didn’t help me, because it didn’t fill my emotional void. Like a drug addict looking for their next fix, I went looking for something that would be enough. I wasn’t able to feel anything, and, short of providing blood sacrifices while my parents were home, I needed to find something that would make me feel. I also felt I couldn’t tell anyone what I was feeling; people might say that I was doing well because I was functioning and getting things done, and my parents – particularly my mom – denied that depression existed. After all, I wasn’t sleeping all day or had no energy to get up, so I was okay.
Cue a slew of events that I barely remember, despite having some memory flashes from time to time. I know that I was there – after all, the photographic evidence exists – but it feels like a blur. I am sure that, if I found my old journals, I could tell you a play-by-play of what happened that year.
A year after that, I had graduated high school and I still hadn’t touched doom metal. I had dabbled in it, but it hadn’t caught my attention. Because I wasn’t focused on it, I didn’t expect it to come in the form of a real bait-and-switch. Imagine this: you, a symphonic metal nerd, are listening to music to minimize the anxiety you feel about starting university in the fall (that’s a story all on its own), and you get this one song that makes you instantly perk up. Something about it was odd – it had all the markings of a symphonic metal song, but the music was down tuned and slow. It dragged, sounding like a funeral procession. It was also incredibly claustrophobic; it felt as if it was wrapping around my body, threatening to consume me. Recoiling hard from my reaction to the music, I focused on the band and the song that was playing.
It was Draconian’s “The Last House of Ancient Sunlight.”
Something in my brain clicked. Deciding to process it later, I filed it away, too focused on the hard recoil.
After that, I didn’t touch doom metal until 2014 when I was once again going through a hard time. It was the end of my first semester as a senior in college, which meant two things: I was about to become a “working adult” and I was going to leave the comfort of school. Once again, the looming anxiety in my gut hit me, and I needed something to remind me that I was going to be all right.
Cue Katatonia’s Dead End Kings, which was a terrible mistake for my anxiety. While the music was calming – Jonas Renske’s voice is the stuff of dreams – the lyrics and overall atmosphere made me incredibly sad. It became the music to my depressive episode for about three months, as it was all I listened to. I even listened to it after my depressive episode was over. To make this more relevant, it is the most played album according to my Last.fm, and that hasn’t changed in the past four years. No album makes me feel the way Dead End Kings does – it’s calming, peaceful, and fucking sad. I still listen to it at least once a year now, and it still hits me every time.
Nowadays, I don’t use doom metal to channel my sadness, since I enjoy listening to it even when I am having a depressive episode. Instead, you know I am having a bad time when I am listening to The Downward Spiral on repeat. That album has more self-loathing motifs that anything else I have ever listened to.
Doom Metal Gateway Albums
Draconian – A Rose for the Apocalypse (2011): When I first planned to write about doom metal, I had to remember my first encounter with it. As I have stated previously in other columns, I started off with symphonic metal, so anything that was boiled down to orchestras and operatic voices was immediately classified as that in my head.
Now, for context: Many years ago, before I started documenting albums for my own reference, I went back and listened to a portion of Draconian’s discography, and they had all the tropes for a symphonic metal band. Thus, for a very long time, Draconian was labeled as a symphonic metal band in my head that I could listen to when I wanted something darker. It took me until Sovran to find out that Draconian was actually a doom metal band that embedded elements of gothic and death metal into their music to make it sound darker, more funerary, than what was standard in symphonic metal. I remember very vividly that I was listening to “Pale Tortured Blue,” with my mouth hanging open, reading about Draconian, their band history, and their change in vocalists.
I decided to listen to this album in full a couple days after Christmas 2017, and, let me tell you: considering how my top album of that year was the saddest thing that had ever come out at the time, I was very into exploring just how sad this album can make me. I remember sitting down on the floor, organizing my desk area and cleaning things out, and just being so close to tears. Something about the way this album ebbs and flows makes me feel like it’s constricting me. A Rose for the Apocalypse is a mood piece; it sets up your expectations, only to crush them because they are a band that doesn’t want to be classified as “symphonic” when they play something else entirely. Being my introduction to the band, Rose is an album that continues to impress me years after its initial release, as if time hasn’t changed its dynamics or how impressive it is. Lisa Johansson did an impressive job on this album, as her vocals are what sold me on the band in the first place. She also has a timbre similar to Vibeke Stene of Tristania – they both have a similar ability to set the atmosphere of a song with just a change in pitch or tone.
To this day, I have no idea what Rose is talking about. Their themes remain a mystery to me, but I actually enjoy that about the album. Perhaps the reason I chose to not dive deeper was because I am afraid of what I would find. I am a depressive; it’s counterintuitive for me to listen to sad music when I know I will sink into that mental abyss and not come out for a few days. If you think about it, it’s a good way to not sink into the mire of your own thoughts.
King Woman – Created in the Image of Suffering (2017): Label this album under “Things Hera will never shut up about.”
Created in the Image of Suffering (CITIOS) was the top album for me in 2017, as that year was fucking abysmal. CITIOS was the soundtrack for a year filled with a bunch of bullshit, especially with the sudden abundance of Nazis and a bunch of other terrible things that made me mentally age 40 years. 2017 was the year I became grizzled and CITIOS became the altar I worshipped for comfort. Considering how the album was about catharsis post-cult, it felt great to listen to Kristina and Co. make atmospheric, fuzzy music that fucks with your emotions. I listened to this album constantly from its release date to about January 2018, where it kept me company through my train rides to work and home. It kept me from wanting to sink further and further into my depression, and it kept some of my darkest thoughts at bay.
Listening to this album now has the same effect it did as when I last listened to it: it’s a balm to my soul. It makes me feel like I am not alone in the world, and the beauty of the slow music is something that you have to experience for yourself. I actually listened to CITIOS last night before going to bed, and it became much more poignant in the dark. When you are listening to this album by yourself in the dead of night, it has this effect of being terrifying. After all, underneath the catharsis lies the pain and the suffering of being part of something that may seem weird. According to the Bible, we are created in God’s image, but the pain and suffering of being alive is already enough to deal with.
I am willing to die on the hill that CITIOS is one of the best debuts I have ever heard in this genre. While it took King Woman a while to get to their sound – their EP Doubt was completely this – it’s a testament to how experimental they are willing to get. In a year where two experimental doom albums were on my list, King Woman won out due to their ability to create music that speaks to my soul. I hope we can hear more from them soon.
Hallatar – No Stars Upon the Bridge (2017): How do you celebrate someone’s life at the time of their death? Well, when you and that loved one are both musicians, and one of you dies while you were working on a potential album together, you can do what Hallatar did: immortalize your loved one by having her voice on the record as you, the one who remains alive, sing about love, pain, and loss.
That’s right: No Stars Upon the Bridge is in honor of Aleah Starbridge, singer and partner of Juhia Raivio (Swallow the Sun), who died of cancer in 2016. Hallatar, composed of Juha, Tomi Joutsen (Amorphis), and Gas Lipstick (ex-HIM), is a Finnish powerhouse of a band whose music lies in the funeral doom arena. Considering where these guys all come from, it came as a complete surprise to me to hear them all come together as a group and release one of the heaviest albums I have heard. Remember, my familiarity with doom is lukewarm at best, and their brand of doom scared the shit out of me. The amount of pain is palpable enough that you can almost taste it; you can feel how hard Aleah’s death affected Juha and he makes it clear that he is mourning. No Stars Upon the Bridge is heavy and slow, the only moments of brief levity are Tomi’s clean vocals and Heike Langhans’ (of Draconian) vocals and narration throughout the album. However, what truly makes this album a funerary piece is how Aleah’s vocals are used. You can hear her on the final track “Dreams Burn Down,” her voice a light amid the pain and sorrow Juha is going through. You can almost see Hallatar as an extension of Trees of Eternity, the project Juha and Aleah created together before she passed. According to Juha,
“About one month after the world came down on the blackest day of my life on April 18th, I knew I needed to pick up the guitar and try to create something or I would be truly destroyed. And something did arrive out of the darkness, and I wrote the music for the Hallatar album in a week’s time. I don’t have much memory of this week, not a memory of a single day of writing the music. But all I remember when going into this abyss of the writing process was a promise to myself that whatever music would come out, I would not touch or change anything of it afterwards”. (context)
Now, I am not a romantic person by nature – I am a cynic when it comes to this – but you can’t tell me that this isn’t one of the most heartbreaking things you have ever heard. Imagine the person you love most of all dying in front of your eyes, as the disease starts to slowly chip away at their health, their body, and their strength. I can only imagine being with someone for so long, being involved in their projects as a collaborator and as life partners, only for them to die. Processing grief takes time; you have to deal with feelings of loneliness, of anger, of full, existential sadness that leaves you curled up on the floor. There is no right way to deal with grief; you can only do what you can to process it. I know that music is a form of healing for most people, and if it means you can work through your feelings without resorting to extremes, it may become a vehicle for dealing with things. For Juha, creating No Stars Upon the Bridge is a testament to his own willpower, to continue life without Aleah, someone he loved and will continue to love even years after her death.
Cue the tissues.
This may be one of the most personal portions of gateway albums I have ever written. I think the reason why I don’t dabble in doom too often is because I am someone with depressive tendencies; as long as I don’t delve too deep into an album’s lyricism, I should be okay. However, just because my depressive tendencies can influence how I feel from day to day, it doesn’t mean it’s going to stop me from listening to all the doom metal I want.
Tune in next month as I talk about the darker side of symphonic metal, and how they are all related to each other. I also promise to make a bunch of architecture and books related to this genre.
Hasta la proxima!