Doomed to the Underground: Three Underheard Behemoths Released in 2019
As one of the oldest subgenres of heavy metal, doom metal has experienced numerous evolutions, subdivisions, and combinations since its genesis at the hands of Black Sabbath all those decades ago. The result is that two bands today can both label themselves as doom metal and sound completely, utterly different, despite claiming the same parentage -- uptempo stoner doom versus bleak funeral doom, for example.
But there's still no mistaking either of those doom subgenres for anything other than just doom; provided there's some remaining trace of slower tempos, thicker tones, and/or bluesier riffs, doom as a whole can be widely experimented with. That experimentation continues today, though plenty of bands stick to the tried-and-true with exceptional results as well. Of course, doom metal has plenty of stale tropes and forgettable releases that bog it down; let that not distract from the amazing material coming out of the woodwork every year.
Last year was no exception. Here are three underground doom metal releases you may have missed before the new decade dawned.
-- Ted Nubel
February 28th, 2019
BUS hails from Greece, a place which has more than its share of metal bands but not too many notable acts that fall into the stoner doom bin. As such, there's not really a template for what "Greek doom" ought to sound like, but I'm hoping that BUS can help change that, if only because I selfishly want more stuff like this.
Never Decide spends its first 15 minutes convincing you that it’s just really good stoner rock. But just like the band’s name -- which stands for their earlier, more cumbersome and equally baffling name "Bus the Unknown Secretary" -- there’s more to it. As the album surges on, BUS goes off the goddamn rails, straying from their bucolic, flower-filled pastures to plummet into much heavier and stranger lands. The defining track for this plot twist is “Lucifer” which starts off as a mournful ballad and ends up a lot closer to ballsy NWOBHM, gradually shifting gears as it goes.
On repeat listens, it’s really not a surprise: even the first track “You Better Come In You Better Come Down” has a dark side to it. The title belies the nihilistic vocals within, the lo-fi vocals of Bill “City” Politis, which are loaded with reverb and have a particular insanity to them that only gets more sinister as Never Decide progresses. Meanwhile, the band's stoner side never fully disappears, preventing their genre-bend from fracturing the record's cohesiveness but also injecting tantalizing bits of bluesy swagger into the heaviest passages. The extra-crunchy guitar tones and punishing drumming also add extra weight to the more swing-driven numbers like “Into the Night.”
Flesh of the Stars
June 21st, 2019
Mercy, the fourth full-length from Chicago group Flesh of the Stars, is a melodic doom album that teeters on the edge of funeral doom from time to time but is perhaps too hopeful-sounding for that label to fully stick. Its 22-minute title track opens with a standard cavalcade of fuzzy harmony -- pleasant, but hard to latch onto for long. After a short while, it's all replaced by clean guitar and soft vocals straight from an early King Crimson epic, creating a rich and complex melody that grows into a full-bodied thunderous hymn when the heavy guitar comes back in. As the dynamics of this long-running song swell and diminish repeatedly, the carefully-crafted melodies and intricate orchestration demand complete attention but also prompt eagerness for what's next.
There's a feeling of reverence in these tracks that I can't shake, a dedication to creating beautiful doom metal. While Flesh of the Stars may employ formulas similar to those of bands like Pallbearer and Khemmis, those bands craft emotional material that relies more on vocals and guitar. This band, though, built Mercy from the ground-up to tug at our heartstrings, using samples, ambience, and varied instrumentation to deliver their message. Notably, the vocals are usually heavily layered and choral, so there's less of a direct impact than with the more focused vocal delivery of other bands in this ilk. In fact, I think the album as a whole could have been mixed to be much more hard-hitting and modern sounding, but there's no telling if that would have dispelled the sacred aura that enshrouds it.
The shorter tracks pull their weight just as well as the title track, allowing elaboration on some of the musical themes and a tighter focus on specific elements. I especially enjoyed the placement of the short interlude "Wisteria," showcasing haunting vocals and guitar for a few peaceful minutes before the last track immediately brings back the low-end rumble as an action-packed finale. In my mind, putting your longest track first is a risky move, both because casual listeners might be alarmed by the extreme lack of brevity, and because it might cast a shadow on the rest of the album if it ends up being the highlight. Fortunately, that's not the case here -- Flesh of the Stars have written solid material from start to finish.
The Lone Madman
Let the Night Come
October 25th, 2019
Let's say that you've found yourself trying to get a friend into old-school, traditional doom metal -- you might think to start with the classics, such as Finnish masterminds and pioneers Reverend Bizarre, but be careful. Although the output of bands like that include some of the best traditional doom written to date, it can also be especially slow and brutally methodical compared to today's more streamlined approach. Diehard fans will claim that these sections only make the changeups that more amazing, and that's true, but if your friend bails on you 20 minutes into "They Used Dark Forces / Teutonic Witch," can you really blame them? The trick is inoculation via gateway bands: ones that are still slow, but with a more consistent string of payoffs, letting listeners savor delicious riffs more often than not. We saw a great candidate this year in the form of The Lone Madman's debut full-length Let the Night Come, yet another Finnish doom metal album worthy of classic status.
I wouldn't label Let the Night Come as "approachable" in any sense that diminishes its quality: it's still a traditional doom album that favors ten-minute-plus runtimes and thoroughly old-school production values. And, in keeping with the ways of traditional doom metal, The Lone Madman's slow riffing maintains a measured pace and a low timbre, leaving room for Turkka Inkilä's rich and despondent vocals to swell and harmonize with the guitar melodies. It's easy to sink into the rhythm of these songs, somehow, as the vocal parts emphasize the catchy patterns behind even the most diabolical of riffs. The production, then, is remarkably supportive of all these elements: everything is where you expect it to be and everything that needs to be heard. The snare during driving portions, the sing-along-ready choruses, and the ever-impressive riffs -- everything is perfectly audible.
In many cases, mournful, minor key progressions are followed immediately by unforgettably non-traditional riffs, something more in line with the Maryland doom scene: bluesy and often with a shuffle feel, but doomed all the same. Some of these riffs, such as the one that pops up halfway through closing track "House of Mourning," are certifiably the best I heard all year. This doesn't feel like a cheap bait-and-switch or a case of "wait until it gets good," but instead both cadences fit together and interlock to form robust song structures that don't stay in a particular mode for too long.
Further toying with experimentation, the third track, "Häxan," busts out a flute for a regrettably short period and then proceeds to flip the script by allowing Turkka to full-on scream for a change. Over the simplest, cruelest riff imaginable, he chokes out the song title with unbridled rage, a far sight from the florid and even whimsical construction of the rest of the song. Touches like these help define Let the Night Come as more than a by-the-numbers doom record and set apart their sound as their own concoction, not just a tribute to the past.