Riff and Tear
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #153. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Wide but shallow.
Videogames and heavy metal have occasionally intermingled, but mostly in ways that would punish the lactose-intolerant among us. We’re handed either a rack of 7-string djent guitars that clip-out RGB-saddled cans across the nation or just the most bland, energy-drink-soaked riffs this side of a curly-haired Canadian institution. Brutal Legend opted to lean into metal’s capacity for comedy though that well was plenty dusty before the game went gold, whereas more recently Of Bird and Cage overcorrected off a cliff of inscrutable seriousness.
DOOM, in every incarnation, hasn’t really fared much better. Which isn’t to say that the soundtracks haven’t ripped throats and torn flesh since day one, but certainly not in any way that pushed metal forward on a parallel track as the games themselves. However, I come not to bury the DOOMs, but to praise doom metal. Despite their shared signifier, doom metal peels away from the baseline of constantly pumping adrenaline id Software so eloquently orchestrated towards a more intro- and extra-spective meditation on such perennial pop subject matter as death, pain, suffering, but also life, the cosmos and expanding beyond our known reality.
I am no metal expert, and don’t claim to serve this column as such, but I have found myself drawn to a few doom bands of late and come to you hat-in-hand to ask if you might hear my sales pitch for the genre. If you aren’t already familiar with heavy metal, well, you probably aren’t familiar with music in any mainstream fashion and starting with doom metal would be a frankly incredible choice. If this is you, please let me know. Otherwise, I presume you’re familiar at least in name with Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Slayer – bands soaked in blood, wired through tube screamers, growling and/or wailing about world histories and divine retribution and everything in between.
Doom metal comes from that same lineage, but much like the briefly popular YouTube phenomenon a few years back, operates on the principal notion of slowing things down a few hundred percent to a crunchy lurching dirge. And while repetition and molasses-thick production often plays a primary role, the best doom metal knows when to break its own rules and hammer on in whatever other direction is deemed necessary. This can all be found in one of the primary texts of the genre, Sleep’s “Dopesmoker.” As the title implies this also pulls from the stoner side of metal, which to me is jam-iness drawn from dime store sci-fi novels woven in for fun. It’s an hour-long single-track opera pulling from all angles of heavy metal the genre and Heavy Metal the comic and illustration magazine, launching the rockets of a thousand imitators.
Wasn’t really my thing, though. Too colorful, not slow enough, over-reliant on substance-based astral exploration. So, for a while I swung to the opposite end of this narrow spectrum, perhaps best performed by SUNN O))), a band that paints with broad chords soaked in guitar feedback. Each strum rings out with a full-throated “om” and doesn’t strum again until absolutely necessary. This band, mostly just guitars played by druids in black robes, lives by this sentiment from Miles Davis: “It’s not the notes you play, but the notes you don’t play.” An antipodal turn against the maximalism of heavy metal solos stacked with notes, this is musical contemplation within the space between planetary bodies.
SUNN O))) satisfies in many ways, but despite their theatrics, not really the darker side. To me, the most satisfying metal stares into the void, and Denver’s Primitive Man blend in this third element with those mastered by Sleep and SUNN O))). Their most recent almost 40-minute EP showcases just what can be done with the entire sonic palette in a few songs and a Smashing Pumpkins cover blasted apart and reassembled from the molten core up. Primitive Man are unrelentingly loud and know when to churn and when to sprint. The full spectrum of doom is on display, without limit and unafraid of confronting the many failures of mankind. Where many other bands in this genre really pick a side and master those nuances, Primitive Man is a black hole that consumes each of these aspects, as well as time itself, and feeds it back through coarse growls and unrelenting grooves.
Listening to doom metal isn’t an exercise in nihilism, but in clear-eyed confrontation of how indifferent the universe is to our existence. Not everyone is prepared for such revelations. For those who are, there’s a peace to be found in accepting our minuscule place, tuning down to a scale that reverberates your ribcage and pummels you into transcendence.
Levi Rubeck is a critic and poet currently living in the Boston area. Check his links at levirubeck.com.