Crypt Sermon Will Save Doom Metal’s Soul
Just a few weeks prior to the release of their first album, Out of the Garden, Philadelphia Doom Metal troupe Crypt Sermon was added to Firestream Music Vault. The website is purported to be “ the biggest online data base [sic] for Christian rock and metal bands.”
“Holy fuck this is incredible,” Guitarist Steve Jansson said to me via Facebook while the two of us observed the page. "It's kind of a running joke. Brooks [Wilson, vocalist] and I always liked the idea of having people scratching their head and wondering if we are a Christian band." I interpret that he meant incredible as in ‘uncanny,’ not incredible as in ‘apt.’ It’s strange for the Christian community to pick up Crypt Sermon—the band’s first single, “Heavy Riders,” tell the story of a couple Knights Templar deciding to turn coat on their fellow holy men and gallop into the history books. As a testament to the power of dialed-in guitar tone, thunderous drums and classic heavy metal singing it’s a powerful success. As a testament to Jesus Christ? Not so much.
Firestorm is just one in a long list of websites singing the band’s praises, including Noisey, Guitar World, NPR and Stereogum (which is streaming the album). Even though the Year of the Ram has barely begun, Out of the Garden has secured its place as an Album of the Year contender.
Crypt Sermon will not be saving any souls, but they might save something just as intangible: doom metal itself.
That doom metal needs saving is not obvious at first brush. The first of metal’s myriad subgenres, doom metal has always carried crossover appeal and staying power first because it’s the style of metal most indebted to blues and second because, even if only through Black Sabbath, doom gets some play on classic rock radio in middle America. 2014 proved particularly kind to doom: Yob made Rolling Stone’s top 50 albums list (not metal albums, mind you), and Pallbearer mopped up industry accolades, for starters. What they have in common, is an emphasis on atmosphere, tone and sound design, sometimes at the expense of riffs, and riffs, as envisioned by Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler, are the core of doom—of metal—as a genre. Further, considering how easily the smallest amount of mainstream exposure turned great bands like Mastodon and Isis into the flashpoint for swarms of insufferable copycats, its easy to envision the next few years as a morass of tuneless plodding junk being sold as “doom.”
“I always say doom, in general, is so focused on doom but not the metal,” Jansson said, admitting that Crypt Sermon formed as a reaction against the nouveau riche of stoner, drone and sludge. “I remember it was James [Lipczynski, Guitars] and I. We were at a show just catching up. There was a band playing the front amps, the big pedal boards and the whole fucking nine yards of that. We just got into talking about Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus and stuff like that. We were like, ‘You know, there's so much doom, but not a lot of that stuff going on, using that as the core of the sound.’ It was definitely pretty reactionary to that whole stoner/sludge thing.”
Jansson and Lipczynski assembled a team of seasoned Philadelphia musicians to flesh out what would eventually become Crypt Sermon. Jansson turned first to Brooks Wilson (who also painted Out of the Garden’s spectacular cover art), with whom he’d worked with in multiple projects such as now-defunct sludge band Grass, as well as grindcore trio Unrest and vintage death metal imitators Trenchrot. They also recruited local drummer Enrique Sagarnaga (also a publicist at Season of Mist records, in the interest of full disclosure.
None of the four had ever played in a doom band before, and while that meant a steep learning curve, it may be the secret ingredient in their uncanny mastery of the style. “That's what actually encourages me the most about the record,” said Jansson. “Looking back to it, obviously I'm a little biased, but in reality, it should have been a lot worse.”
Without any particular allegiance to any set of doom metal tropes, the band can focus only on the individual elements they like. While Crypt Sermon’s take on the subgenre is firmly rooted in Dio-era Sabbath and early Trouble (in addition to the influences Jansson mentioned above), the group does work in more modern flourishes. Jansson and Lipczynski’s solos, for example, tend toward the technical and flashy side (an anonymous source told Invisible Oranges that Jansson very nearly took the secondary guitar position in Necrophagist).
Sagarnaga’s drums, meanwhile, tend toward mid-tempo slugfests that pull songs forward, accentuated with busy tom fills, while most critical darling doom bands keep things deeply in the pocket. The closest modern analogue to their sound is the Gates of Slumber, who are now defunct following the passing of bassist Jason McCash, leaving Crypt Sermon free to corner that area of the market. In fact, when speaking with Sagarnaga, the drummer admitted that he doesn’t particularly enjoy doom metal, and hadn’t heard The Gates of Slumber prior to that conversation (in short order a Youtube link to “Chaos Calling" was sent, and Sagarnaga gave the song his seal of approval).
“It was definitely a challenge,” Jansson said about learning to write doom. “I’ve got to hand that to James. James had a better grasp on the songwriting process, especially at first, more so than I did. I was just into playing faster stuff.”
Jansson’s biggest hurdle in transitioning from the busy fretwork of death metal to the slower, smoother realm of doom, was learning to focus on the tiniest details of his playing. In a band where one riff might repeat for upwards of two minutes, the smallest alteration to a guitar pattern can either derail the listener, or build dramatic tension and pull a listener closer in. “With doom, the riff-writing is a little more [...] simplistic, and you have to know when to put these nuances and stuff like that at the right time, but it's also just wanting to pull back on the riffs and let the singer do his job, because that's the most important aspect of the band, at least to me.”
That singer, whose performance turned out to be the centerpiece of Out of the Garden and, turned out to be Wilson, who, in keeping with the Crypt Sermon trend, never sung in a doom band before.
“I've certainly spent most of my life singing in some manner,” Wilson said. “But most of the time, I'd just be singing like folk and country music, but I've also been in screaming punk and hardcore bands and even metal bands for some time now, so that wasn't unfamiliar to me either, but I've never really tried or given much effort toward rock singing. It just wasn't on my agenda until I just one day turned to Steve and I was like, ‘I can do that.’”
It may seem glib, but even in a record composed of such compelling instrumental performances, Wilson’s vocals are the main selling point. in a key divergence from the epic doom records that inspired Crypt Sermon, Wilson sounds off like he’s got a pair, to quote Full Metal Jacket. He gets the most he can out of his relatively gruff midrange, rather than straining for high notes he can’t comfortably reach—that is to say, unlike many metal singers, Wilson has an actual sense of pitch, not just a good-for-metal sense of pitch. More importantly, he delivers his own lyrics with a great deal of conviction. To crib a term more suited for vintage rock and R&B, Wilson sings with soul, or at least with a sense of conviction. The band is so focused around his singing that the band added Will Weller of Hivelords to the project as a full-time bassist so that Wilson can focus on his frontman position.
Wilson has brought more than soul over to the project from his history in folk and country. His lyrics, rife with imagery, split the difference between epic fantasy and religious grief. “I grew up in a church, of course, so the imagery is really familiar, and I think it's resonated with me for some time,” he said. “I think it's nice to kind of pack in some pretty standard metal vernacular and kind of speak from the heart at times, too. It's familiar and I think it's familiar to a lot of people, but there's a level of identifying something that speaks to a lot of people, but I don't want to have heard it before.”
On his lyrics, Wilson sounds humble, like a student being called on to read for the rest of his class, but under the surface is an articulate artist who does not settle for a few rhymes scribed drunkenly on the back of an envelope. “I definitely think there is some manner of probably trying to see some kind of truth in them [my lyrics], even though a lot of the lyrics are taking some sort of already-established epistemology and sort of inverting it a little bit and re-examining it. All of that art really is, I guess. [...] I do a lot of describing. There is something about the music that lends itself to describing landscapes, and I think that has something more. I think that informs more of that concurrent theme for the music than anything else. Because the chords are big and open, I think you can have an opportunity, even with the language, be very descriptive with landscapes or something that fits in with that.”
The best example of Wilson’s surprising lyrics turns might be “The Master’s Bouquet,” a crawling and elegiac tune from the album’s second half, one with roots not just in Candlemass, but in the great American songbook. “‘The Master's Bouquet’ is ripping off an old-time song. I guess it's maybe a country or bluegrass song called ‘Gathering Flowers for the Master's Bouquet.’ I'm pretty familiar with it. The popular version is by the Stanley Brothers. The lyrics are pretty creepy and a lot of the lyrics from that song are directly from that folk song. I also added some extra verses and changed the way you could sing the melody from a major to a minor. I wrote that song in just a couple of seconds.”
So Crypt Sermon recorded their debut album armed with a jackhammer drummer, two world-class shredders, and a firehorse singer who can innovate a haunting song out of a folk classic in, by his own admission, seconds. That alone is not enough to change the doom game. The bands that Crypt Sermon is positioning itself in opposition to sport great vocalists and musicianship as well, but what sets Jansson, Wilson and company apart is a sense of deference to doom’s origins, because as the oldest kind of metal, doom is also the subgenre that shares the most chromosomes with rock music, and that’s by design.
“I don't listen to Behemoth, but I saw something that Nergal… he said something really interesting the other day about how a lot of metal lacked rock influence and has lost sight and has been sort of this extreme rat race,” Jansson said. “I think he's absolutely right. I think a lot of people have just abandoned trying to write just well-crafted, memorable songs.”
Even on their first album, Crypt Sermon is aiming for the history books. “Songwriting is absolutely key. It's the most important thing to me in any music, especially meta. I think there's a lot of doom—it lacks that,” he said. “All of my favorite albums, all the classic records you grew up listening to, you still hear people talking about them. You still go back and listen to them because they have longevity because the songs are just so well-written and done. It's so important to focus on crafting and writing a great song.” In conversation Metallica’s Master of Puppets came up as a touchstone, alongside the aforementioned Candlemass and Solitude Aeternus.
“But also you can't beat Candlemass at their own game,” he said, already envisioning Crypt Sermon trampling the sophomore slump under hoof. “I think in order to challenge us to move forward, and do something more unique, it's going to take some experimentation. We're not going to get pretty or prog-y or anything. I think we have to keep going while we have our momentum going; it's just going to be a little more of everything. There are going to be songs that are a little more dense, songs that are also equally as frizzy and heavier than this album.”
That’s further down the line. Next week, the rest of the world will get to hear Out of the Garden. In the course of its seven tracks, five musicians who have gone apostate from their own respective subgenres, much the way the knights templar left the church to become better heathens, make the case that there’s a way forward for doom metal without sacrificing in any way the basic elements that make the genre what it is—the closest thing to soul music that metal has to offer.