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Forgotten Gems: The River – Drawing Down the Sun

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2006 was a year that saw doom metal in flux. YOB had just broken up, Electric Wizard were a year away from their best record since Dopethrone, Sleep wouldn’t be roused back into consciousness for another three years and the genre in general was a half a decade away from its true renaissance. It seems strange to say now that metal of all varieties is succeeding on huge festivals sponsored by car companies and seeing coverage in The New York Times, but halfway through the aughts, the heavy music landscape was still piecing itself together. Suffixes and prefixes ruled the heavy music kingdom; -core if you wanted to play fast and post- if low and slow was your itch. The most impactful release of the year (and era) was Warning’s Watching From a Distance, which had more in common with the U.K. doom acts of the early ’90s heyday than anything from the Mouth of the Cult of Rosetta camp. That same year, a little-known trio from the dubstep mecca of Croydon, South London would drop their debut on even less-known Retribute Records. Watching From a Distance may collect the lion’s share of accolades and credit for keeping doom alive during the mid-’00s coma, but my money is on Drawing Down the Sun for more repeated play value, and it’s about time it got its time in the sun so it can lasso that blinding sphere and drown us in darkness.

It starts with the cover. Drawing Down the Sun sounds like it was recorded in a dank, near-sunless hovel, nothing but ragged black drapes covering the only transparent portal to the outside world. Guitarist Christian Leitch’s tone smothers the mix. When he reaches lower than low during the middle of “Inside the Flood Diary,” it’s probably the closest aural approximation to wandering a lonely London street at 3 a.m. in October outside of Burial. His riffing signals every major tempo change, kicking the band into high gear on “If Only”’s closing groove and the double-time chorus woven through “Alone With My Thoughts.”

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The River – “Alone With My Thoughts”

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Drawing Down the Sun is at its strongest when it’s contrasting its sparseness with Leitch’s panoramic magnitude. It’s a testament to the album’s overall quality that we’re just now mentioning Vicky Walters’ vocals. In one of the only existing interviews with the band, Leitch reveals that their original vocalist, a “smashing fella” named Dan, left them in a lurch when he bailed because “his heart wasn’t into it.” Despite the cynics the interviewer mentions who criticized the band at the time for its “gimmicky” frontwoman, Leitch points out that Walters was simply the only friend they knew who could sing. And does she ever sing. Leitch and bassist Steve Morrissey wanted to distance themselves as much as they could from the UK death doom scene, and Walters’ unapologetically clean voice is about as far away from your Nick Holmeses or Aaron Stainthorpes as you can get. Emotive, dramatic and just so damn beautiful, Walters’ crooning takes Drawing’s introspection to new heights. When the swirling riff on “So Down” falls out to bass and a drums and Walters closes out the song with a simple mantra of “Who said this isn’t murder? / That’s just how it feels to me,” you’ll think the entire song was written just for that last minute.

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The River – “So Down”

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Walters sells every damn line, which is all the more impressive considering Leitch penned the lyrics (he also recorded the drums. Yeah, The River’s kind of his band). Not content to disappear in the mix but refusing to over-emote and command the whole record, Walters simply takes us through some of doom’s most surprisingly personal lyrics. Once again, we must draw the inevitable comparison to Warning, as Patrick Walker established the introspective path The River and others would explore (Leitch would go on to play drums on Warning’s 2010 EP Bridges, and The River even signed to Warning’s old label, The Miskatonic Foundation, for their second album, In Situ). Walters channels Leitch’s pointedly declarative phrasing on opener “A Close Study”:

“Your silence helps me pull away
I push farther from my thoughts
You made me pleased with how I feel
But a friend is all I sought”

No fantastical tales, no psychedelic journeys to riff filled lands, no tantric meditation sessions. These are honest human emotions laid bare over equally honest instrumentation. Doom metal’s link to working class English suburbs stems back to the day Tony Iommi lopped off the tips of his fingers in a Birmingham factory. Somewhere along the way its practitioners either hopped on the stoner caravan or contented themselves with opening up their veins in a bathtub. The River are still standing, still singing and still channeling the stresses of everyday life into song.

If you’ve joined the vinyl revolution, Northern Silence’s doom imprint Eyes Like Snow re-pressed Drawing Down the Sun in 2010 complete with gorgeous, glossy new photography. It’s also available at The Omega Order’s webstore (that’s where I ordered mine), and Amazon UK has a few CD and vinyl copies available.

— Greg Majewski

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