WARNING (No, an actual warning): TANGENTS A-PLENTY
A running joke in metal circles is that Satan’ll come up and out before doom metal becomes popular.
Howdy. Cutting short the pleasantries, I’ve a question to press to all (two) of you: why is doom metal so overlooked? If you don’t know what doom metal is (an easy thing to assume), doom metal is a subgenre of heavy metal that is an easy Google search away.
In order to tackle this matter, I’ve taken to many forums and conducted interviews against the will of the participants. I also refuse to release their names. Out of spite, I also intend to use their words as my own. I’m named ‘Mr. Doomburg’ for a reason. So to answer this question, the basic reason that all have given is that doom metal suffered a subpar history, but the in-depth reasons are as diverse as the genre. I’ve managed to distil them into a nice box-riff of problems
- Doom metal’s penchant for the slow and the plodding/Doom and the Metal Mainstream
- An audience capable of being reached but doesn’t want the product
- Retro, retro, retro or no, no, no: Sabbath worship with little space to expand
- Consistently screwed by history
And I’ll cover these in no particular order. Whatever flows well and can survive my insufferable tangents.
Doom metal’s problems starts with its tempo. There is (or should be) no such thing as “fast/speed doom metal”. I’m not ragging on doom metal bands that have uptempo, swingin’ and headbangin’ tracks here and there— traditional and epic doom metal acts, just to call them out, are almost required to have speedy tracks now and again. But, outside of whatever bipolar metal inklings an artsy hipster style may crave, doom metal’s schtick is that it’s metal largo. As if to spite the metal overworld and popular connotations, doom metal consistently pushes tempos to their lowest limits the same way grindcore devvies and beebop jazzhats have pushed music to the fastest it can possibly go (funny, as the jazz-dudes from the ’50s remain the undisputed speed kings) Drone metal has wrought entire albums, some hours long, sans chords and beats. It’s not just the sound but also the lyrics: doom metal is meant to be depressing. Doom metal owned the depressive-suicidal label long before depressive-suicidal black metal and easily does a better job at convincing the anemic and black minded to eat a barrel. Doom will thrust you upon the blackest sands of a trillion-year dead planet to rot for eternity, hated by God and forgotten by all, always to suffer yet never to die.
Truth is, as depressing as this is, it’s so far removed from real life misery that many would see it as “glam emo.” (ADD Moment: Any doomster has long accepted that doom is the emo of metal. Though it’s much more acceptable to call it the blues of metal, as well as the doom of metal, doom fans are schizotypal at best: we’re well aware it’s a delusion, but it’s a necessary delusion) And truth be told, depressing music has been the rock mainstay since Nirvana and the ever acerbic Alternative Rock broke on through (ADD Moment: Doesn’t this technically make doom metal alternative?), and, before the poppy sounds of the ’40s and ’50s, blues was your go-to for a reason to dig a pit in your skull. Doom metal simply takes it up to thirteen and issues some levels of misery never known by mortal experience. That is, when doom acts do decide to take it that far: Pentagram certainly never went to funeral doom lengths, and it seems a lot of modern trad doom acts forgot that the original doomsters— Sabbath, Lucifer’s Friend, Pentagram, False Prophet, etc.— were sonically diverse (did Sabbath once use a harmonica? And wasn’t Fairies Wear Boots more of a rocking-socking jazz song?) and still managed to be utterly downer. Which brings me to another sub-issue in that stoner and doom acts seem to forget that the blues rock roots of Sabbath were actually closer to jazz and that most of the “psychedelic blues” they remember Sabbath wielding was actually brandished by their contemporaries, such as Led Zeppelin, but also Buffalo, Cactus, Coven, Blue Cheer and Randy Holden, Captain Beyond, Lord Sir Baltimore, Head Machine, Mountain, and the like. And Buffalo kicked all sorts of ass. Buffalo? Oh man, I could go on all day about how Buffalo is the quintessential ’70s heavy psychedelic blues rock band, perhaps the only one you ever needed to hear… but that’s another blog for another day.
No, Sabbath brought the bluesy-as-they-were-jazzy riffs. Bill Ward knew his jazz, and Iommi’s hands were undoubtedly jazzhands. Any doomster worth their salt needs to get acquainted with jazz bands if they ever wanted to play Sabbathian doom metal “right.” Even the likes of the almighty Buffalo and the rest of the psychedelic ’70s is not nearly enough.
And that’s one of the problems of doom’s relationship with the rest of metal. Doomsters are so readily rooted in psychedelic blues (and the really Sabbathy ones should be in jazz) that one can’t help but remember what it was that kickstarted the modern metal scene to begin with: punk. Punk kicked ass. Punk kicks ass. Punk will kick ass. Its basis was that a couple of rocker kids wanted to play ’50s rock and roll but couldn’t because they were crap, so they simplified it down to its bare roots: 3 chords and the truth. Then they sped it up (again, if you’ve been following jazz history). It was this speed fix that arguably saved metal from its own ’70s damnation (as many of the so-called “mod-metal” bands of the ’70s were getting little to no publicity, and the term “heavy metal” was not one you wanted to have if you wanted to get on the radio) and thus began NWOBHM. It was only when NWOBHM grunge’d onto the scene that doom metal became a thing. You see, virtually all metal in the ’70s was doom metal, or proto-doom (at one point, an early term for metal was ‘downer rock!’) and when NWOBHM cut away all the blues/jazz nonsense, kicked the old-wave of metal in its balls, and slapped it onto a motörcycle, people realized how dumb it was to have such heavy music be so slow.
We needed speed, power, aggression, anger! Back in ’78, slow music was the stupid-arse norm and the fastest it got was a bit of ‘Exciter‘ and maybe a ‘Tyrant‘ or two. Maybe you enjoyed a Symptom of the Universe? People needed something that was fast for a change, and the punks had gotten what they wanted in the form of hardcore. Why not metal?
You see, as early as ’82 some metallers realized they happened to like Sabbath, so much that they wanted to sound like them. Exactly like them. And not the Dio-fronted Sabbath but the Sabbath that was alive between ’69 and ’73. But in ’82 you were witnessing the birth of speed, of thrash, of black, of death, of extreme metal. Not only extreme metal, but also glam metal. Not only glam metal, but power metal. Remember when Venom dropped Welcome to Hell? You didn’t say “Fuck it, that’s far, far too fast.” You wanted to one-up Venom at their own game. Make them suffer for being too slow compared to your might. Heavy metal, by 1986, was synonymous with male aggression.
Doom metal is not aggressive. If you’re not either crying, high, or mulling, you’re sleeping when you listen to a doom record. Headbanging comes few and far between. You Live Free and Burn, mate.
That didn’t stop Candlemass from selling a whopping hundred thousand albums. I do believe that, if you discount Black Sabbath’s discography and if you consider Alice in Chains doom, exclude them too, you’ll find that Epicus Doomicus Metallicus is in the Top 3 best selling doom albums ever. I’d argue it’s #2, but I’ve yet to hear how well Dopethrone has sold, and Manic Frustration may also apply. Collectively, Candlemass, El Wiz, and Trouble may meet half of the sales requirements to get a gold award. Maybe a tad more. That’s three separate doom bands, all having been around for a quarter of a century. Not only that, but those are doom metal’s biggest bands. You can throw in the likes of Sleep and Type O Negative, though I’d rather save stoner metal and goth-doom for another post. Yes, I know El Wiz and Trouble (during that time) are/were psychestoner, but bear with me.
So what does that tell you? Doom metal, one of the 8 major subgenres of heavy metal (that is, 1- heavy; 2- speed; 3- thrash; 4- power; 5- death; 6- black; 7- glam; 8- doom) has never seen anything resembling commercial success. When other subgenres’ success could be measured in the millions and even tells of millions, the most successful non-Sab doom band can be measured in the tens of thousands. This metalhead right here? Fan of all the first 7. Didn’t even know “doom metal” existed until 2010 when a certain musing came about while enjoying another playthrough of the ever thick, gooey lovably doomed sounds of the 6:26 Black Sabbath, “Isn’t if funny how heavy metal started with a song so slow and yet metal is supposed to be fast?”
Then, on May 27th, 2010 at precisely 5:24 PM, I discovered Electric Wizard.
You can argue that Black Sabbath is a doom metal band; at which point, you have doom metal’s first (and, so far, only) one hundred million seller. And Alice in Chains, as aforementioned, either always was or has become quintessential grungy doom metal (Black Gives Way to Blue is a doom metal record, end of discussion). You can add a few tens of millions more records there. Type O Negative? The whole of gothic metal? Sludge metal as well. Kyuss also saw some success. Melvins, a little, too.
Yet, despite all this, straight doom metal itself has eluded success. Black metal has all the same, but the mission statement of black metal is “Fuck the Masses” (and it has the controversy to push it along anyway); doom metalers have never stated that they don’t want to be successful and, when you really get down to it, there’s absolutely nothing preventing a stoner or doom metal record from opening at #1 on the Billboard charts. You have some rock n’ metal hipsters who’d rather one not (yet later complain that modern popular music sucks donkey gooch, go figure), but besides them I can’t see any real hostility towards a Big One (outside of the inevitable Sell Outs).
I’ve listened to Pentagram’s whole “Sabbath” discog at least 555 times (ADD Moment: please, 666 has been so overused by metal, and considering there’s the chance it could be the disgustingly asexual 616…. I’m just done with it), and any doom fan worth their fuzzy jane knows what three albums I’m referring to. One of my favorite songs out of them all remains “Forever My Queen” a track that sounds as if it could very easily be a Top 10 hit, if the Top 10 were filled with a bunch of stoner blow-outs who forgot where the line between music and their hash began (aka modern pop, nudge nudge irony irony). And their latest efforts, Last Rites, sound like nothing I can’t imagine a modern rock band pulling off. Just subtract the breakdowns, take away a bit of the wangst, and add more riffs and actual pain. Yet when I quizzed a friend of mine on metal, the first response they gave me to the concept that metal can go in a speed other than “fast, faster, fastest,” and “so god-damned fast, light is too slow” was a bugged eyed stare of infinite confusion.
“Heavy metal can be… slow?” Oh my god, its like the idea of flaming ice cream, that it can snow in the desert, that the Beatles have sucky songs!
What’s the reason for this? And now you have the base for why doom metal is consider heavy metal’s mentally retarded younger brother left on the doorstep of a nursery/sadists’ brothel in ’73.
Remember back in ’82, how metal was getting really blisteringly fast? It wasn’t just speed metal that did doom in; glam also played a role. A metal band was either aggressive and faster than a meteor, or they were over-the-top with big, poofy hair and singin’ your mom’s fucksong. The less polished genres of extreme metal, such as early death and black metal, were overlooked partially because of their horrid sound quality, but mostly because of their abrasive, unapproachable sound. But it was that sound that gave them fans. What was doom supposed to boast? “Our band’s name is Back Stabbath. We sound like a crappier half-assed version of Black Sabbath. We don’t know that Sabbath was actually more jazz than blues, and we can play a few riffs, but our drummer takes downers and needs to play at less than 100 bpm to keep time.” I’m not slagging the likes of Solomon Kane and Witchfinder General, but if they were the best doom could pull off in ’83 (outside of Pagan Altar’s failed LP), then it makes sense why someone wouldn’t give two shits. Friends of Hell was a badass song with one of the greatest riff-downs of all time five minutes in, but it made a weak record and you know it.
In the ’80s, doom couldn’t catch a break. But it looked like, in the ’90s, that it might be going places. Grunge was arguably doom’s first scream onto the scene. The Melvins, early Nirvana, and the sort were easily the finest of late ’80s sludge. Well of course they were, they were amongst the only non-punk sludge. But we’ll return to the Melvins another day and, lord do I want to talk about Nirvana; instead, two bands more worthy of my time (aside from TAD and Gruntruck) would be Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. Ultramega OK is proto-stoner metal.
Let me reformat that. Ultramega OK is proto-stoner metal. Badmotorfinger and Superunknown were basically what we’d call stoner and stoner doom metal respectively; you can’t tell me “Mailman”, “4th of July”, and “Superunknown” are rifftastic. Now I want you to go back to Alice in Chain’s’ “Dirt” and attempt to tell me to my face that you don’t hear a fine, suicidal stoner doom track.
A running joke in metal circles is that Satan’ll come before doom metal becomes popular. Yet, right there in ’92, ’93, ’94, we saw some stoner doom rise into the charts under the label ‘Grunge.’ That was aside from stoner rock and metal exploding, and with doom metal diversifying into the more extreme genres (with the births of Gothic Doom, Death/Doom, etc). Perhaps that’s why we don’t consider that age to be a golden time for doom: heavy metal is supposed to be dead in ’93, yet that’s when doom metal was arguably at the highest it had ever gone. Also, because Satan is supposed to come before doom metal becomes popular, it stands to reason that the major labels didn’t want to capitalize on Soundgarden or Alice in Chains. Seriously, take a moment and think: how many Post-Grunge bands do you know ape Soundgarden? Alice in Chains (their heavier material; ignore Days of the New, and don’t bring up Godsmack)? Why is it that the riffier, doomier bands were overlooked, while just about every Post-Grunge act wanted to be the new Pearl Jam (or, should I say, Nirvana with Pearl Jam’s angst with their lawyer-friendly version of Eddie Vedder/Layne Staley on vocals)?
Sludge metal definitely came up in the mid ’90s (again, when metal was supposed to be dead, but clearly wasn’t), but another genre already had the whole “punk inspired metal with sludgy downtuned guitars” going, and it was flirting a bit too much with rap. And that’s all I have to say about that one.
So doom metal was screwed over in the ’80s and denied a real place in the ’90s. Surely the Aughts should prove more fruitful, right?
The biggest doom releases I know of came from the ’00s, from Warning to Celtic Frost to Electric Wizard to… to… to…
The Occult Rock boom of the late ’00s! This was a big surprise to some, that some form of doomy metal can actually become a ‘trend,’ Then again, I don’t know how many people are going to argue that some of these occult rockers are actually doom metal straight-and-straight. Sorry, Derivative. I just don’t see Blood Ceremony and Jex Thoth as being doom cum doom.
That said, the Occult Rock boom was certainly not a Doom Boom (ADD Moment: That’s my term, I’m trademarking it. Doom Boom™) and really wasn’t a boom in any real way to begin with. You’re not hearing Witchcraft or Royal Thunder on rock radio. They’re not going platinum, or even gold. They’re just as underground as ever, mostly left to hipsters to bring up to prove they’re sonically smarter than you.
So a bunch of stoners ranting on YouTube about how real music is dead, rock is dead, and pop sucks (like it has been for the past 150 years?) decide to grow out their hair (preferably getting a long-bob, rocker waves, shaggy, or wafro), buy some bellbottoms and denim vests, fuzz up a few guitars, find a fem-stoner to sing, and started some psyche-horror-occult-doom-rock-metal retro scene. Not bad, but not doom. It’s the same Sabbath-styled things we’ve seen so often before, and that is to doom’s detriment that it doesn’t have the growing room that some of the other genres have: you have to sound like Sabbath to be doom. At least, that’s what the critics say.
You see, on one hand, this is true that the best doom records are those that emulate Sabbath the best. On the other hand, to say that doom doesn’t have room to stretch is a stretch in of itself— what do you call death/doom, funeral doom, drone, stoner, sludge, goth, grunge, all these doom-oriented genres? At that, how much stretching room does thrash metal, power metal, death metal have? Not much on their own. At some point, any thrash metal album could be compared to one of the Big 4, any power metal to Iron Maiden, any death metal to Possessed or Morbid Angel. Doom metal has largely done what these genres have done, musically and lyrically and expanded to as far as it can go within the core trad/epic genres. And yet it hasn’t seen a fraction of the success or publicity.
This is interesting, because there we have seen a psychedelic/blues revival in recent days. I’ve seen the Temples, Radio Moscow and Rival Sons, and I’ve taken good notice of Jess and the Ancient Ones. I’ve noted increasingly large crowds to psyche shows. It wasn’t always this way; once upon a time, if you dared to play with any sort of flange to your music and with anything resembling shaggy hair on your head, you were seen as a rock and roll dinosaur. Back in the Aughts, music listeners were ready for the uber-doomed despair doom could bring, but they didn’t like the way it was packaged. Remember what I said about how the labels capitalized on the Alice in Pearlvanas and not what Grunge actually was; that is, a beautifully raw mix of stoner rock, sludge doom, alternative, and heavy punk? Well into the 2000s, ‘Modern Rock’ developed. I’m going to dedicate a post to detailing the differences between “Rock” and “Alternative Rock” one of these days, and I’ll be sure to describe Modern Rock. Here, though, I do just want to say that Modern Rock was all about the Power Chord. The Three Power Chords and the Truth. Based in the straight-lined Alternative sounds of Post-Grunge, Modern Rock featured riffs, but they weren’t the focus of the sound. Not like doom or stoner metal. And modern rock perpetuated the speed of metal in new forms (metalcore is the most famous one as of late) The point being that doom metal and stoner metal are “older” than the “old school metal” that modern fans’ll give a listen to but won’t connect with. They’re the Sabbathine ones, older in musical style than Metallica, than Slayer, than Mötley Crüe, than Guns n’ Roses, than AC/DC, than the “Dad Metal” bands. Older and slower.
So while they had the introspective edge modern rock fans are looking for, they just didn’t have the sound. Too old-school, too riff-oriented, not enough breakdowns, not enough 4-chord progression. So in the 2000s, doom was again overlooked.
So now we come back to the penultimate question: why is doom metal so overlooked? Now I’ll render your masochistic efforts to understand my ramblings pointless by condensing everything I’ve said into one concise summary.
Doom metal is overlooked because it does not meet people’s popular perceptions and expectations of what heavy metal is supposed to be. It is rooted in a decade more remembered for disco balls and the Beegees than heavy blues and Deep Purple. It isn’t modern enough to be taken seriously, but it’s too retro for fans of traditional ’80s metal to understand. It was the forgotten birth of metal in the ’70s, never broke through in the ’80s, was denied a place in the ’90s, and wasn’t considered a thing until the latter end of the ’00s. It’s too depressing for pop, and too over-the-top for emo, angsty, and blues types. The popular connotations of doom is… nothing, because there is no popular connotations of doom metal because it’s not popular. The closest thing there is to one is that it’s all up Black Sabbath’s ass, a thing that would normally lead to a large fanbase if there are as many people who want to return to “good heavy rock and roll” as forum boards, YouTube comments, and blogs suggest there are. But the term is consistently subverted, replaced with “doom and gloom”, “Sabbath-inspired music,” “plodding metal,” “slow and heavy music,” “doomy music”, and more, while rarely ever being called out by name. Whenever a person comes across a doom metal song, their first reactions tend to be “too slow” or “I prefer faster music but this is good too.” They don’t quite know what to call it. Because of the stereotype that all metal is fast, slow songs are considered to be the realm of ballads. The early doom records of the ’80s didn’t see any success because they were not marketable in the current climate, and because they were raw, lo-fi, and sounded unmixed; more than that, some sounded as if they were experimental side projects more than they were actual bands.
Damn, doom’s depressing history could make for a solid doom metal song.
Will doom metal ever become popular? The deal with it is that all we’d need is a minor paradigm shift. Sometime to put the current psyche of the music industry in the right place, just snap it right in. It’s just take one really big record to do it, but I certainly don’t feel that we’re still in the year 2003, back when such a thing definitely didn’t seem likely. Alternative hadn’t quite run its course yet, and the metal revival had yet to occur. Now we’re post both, and the musical landscape is indeed in need of something new to keep things fresh. That wave of hypstyr indie rock back in 2013 inadvertently repopularized folk and psychedelic rock; metal shouldn’t too far behind.
That it sounds too old to be ’80s and thus be ‘Mom and Dad Metal.’ Extreme metal has gone to the fastest, angriest, most aggressive it possibly can and faster, angrier, and more aggressive still and some people have been blown out. Nowadays, fast music isn’t quite as rebellious as it once was, especially since rebellion’s become the mainstream. So that means that the youth could latch onto doom metal, this boring, molasses brand of ultra heavy music just to spite their parents. There’s nothing particularly stopping it, and in fact prospects seem to be rather good, what with the wave of psychedelic bands.
Time will tell.
Picture credit to TheoGoth.
“Rock vs Alternative Rock”; “Why The Dark Ages Were Unusually Bright: Heavy Metal in the 1990s” (or an alternative if I’m unable: “Mr. Doomburg: Hair Metal vs Grunge”); “Mr. Doomburg: Nü Metal and You,” and hopefully “Mr. Doomburg: Doom Metal and Its Children” and “Mr. Doomburg: The Melvins”
“Sonic’s Shitty Friends: The Definitive Guide From An Ex-Fan”
“Transhumanism 2014: The 5 Things Any Budding Transhumanist Should Own”
- Mr. Doomburg: Why Is Doom Metal So Overlooked? (laselamelvins.wordpress.com)