Murky and obscure like the style itself, a definition of doom metal proves elusive. Proponents of doom metal uphold it as a qualitatively discrete sub genre within metal on the grounds shared set of aesthetic, formal and ideological particularities that binds together a seemingly disparate conglomerate of artists and styles.
Others see doom metal as problematic and suggest that the term “doom metal” is better used as a stylistic description for metal played at markedly slow tempi. Either way, there is one notion that both camps can hold as true: choice of tempo has a profound effect on the experience of music. Doom metal uses slow tempo rates which recurrently manifest as extreme monumentalism and gravitas, lending it a distinct sonic heaviness. However, there are surprisingly few doom metal bands that qualify as genuine classics, because heavy sound does not necessarily translate to artistic heaviness, and even that needs something else — a spark of artistry, or perhaps primeval savagery — to avoid falling into the trap of being self-pitying music for self-pitying narcissists.
In order to understand what separates the excellent doom metal from the rest that fall by the wayside, it makes sense to consider three aspects of music that connects with the issue of tempo — affective states, texture and musical phrase — and see how these relate to the shortcomings of doom metal. To avoid ending on a dour note, Thergothon will be used as a possible counter-example of doom done right. As a member of a subset of doom metal known as “funeral doom,” this band plays both more slowly than the majority of doom, and avoids as much of the artifacts of rock music and mainstream heavy metal as possible for a sound as alienating as hardcore punk, but far more internalized.
The relationship between metal performed at a slow pace and affective states, or how the music affects the listener, provides the core of the genre. Crawling tempi in metal are commonly associated with somber, ominous or gloomy moods; these are common themes in metal music at large, and so-called doom metal in particular, but doom metal tries to take the slower foreboding, melancholic and pessimistic parts of Black Sabbath and intensify them to create a mood of all-enveloping despair and desolation, such as that felt by someone stranded in the wasteland while watching the inexorable approach of a foreign sun which will soon incinerate even that pointless world.
In the best of doom metal bands, this state of abandonment and fatalism coincides with other memetic material inherited from the wider metal genre. As some have noted, doom metal is a style that can manifest as heavy metal (Cathedral, Saint Vitus, Candlemass) or death metal (Thergothon, Skepticism). Many doom metal bands tend to focus primarily, if not exclusively, on evoking feelings of depression and despondency. The general outlook and philosophy of metal however suggests to us that trials and obstacles are key ingredients in the individual journey and, from a larger perspective, vital constituents in our conception of beauty and life itself. When combined, doom metal approximates the love of Romantic poets for ruins and ancient things: an embrace of mortality as a means of quickening the intensity of life itself.
Many commentators and reviewers refer — often in positive terms — to the thoroughly “sad” and “depressive” character of Thergothon’s Stream From the Heavens. These are highly limited readings which show a disregard of both emotional range and nuance. The lethargic pace and minor/modal tonality inherent in Thergothon’s music aligns them with a traditional doom metal aesthetic and emotional vocabulary, but as signifiers they are employed in a manner far from the run-of-the-mill outlets for emotional distress evident in lesser bands. With Thergothon, these signals are turned up to eleven, or maybe we should say minus eleven, because the music is slow and grinding without the constant emphasis on melody and harmony that marks rock music as rebellious but “safe.”
Rather than scoring points for cheap emotive triggering and personal drama, these compositions attest to a cosmic, non-humanist scope through a kaleidoscope of contrasts. Many passages on Stream From the Heavens exhibit a form of musical double exposition where seemingly contrary emotions are evoked simultaneously. Thus, sentimental longing may exist next to a premonitive sense of destruction by unyielding, primordial forces, all experienced in a dreamlike haze of bassy power chords and simple but efficient melodies. Through this method Thergothon submerges the listener in a suspension of disbelief that reaches far beyond the mundane negativity and passive-depressive whining often heard in doom metal.
In musical discourse, texture tend to imply a variety of connotations depending on context and which element of a piece of music that is under scrutiny. To avoid confusion, texture will henceforth be referred to as the overall characteristics of the totality of sounds in a performance recording, perhaps better understood as the combined timbres of the instruments used (some call this the sound engineer’s definition of texture).
Being a genre built first and foremost on a foundation of power chords emanating from distorted guitars, all forms of metal music are highly dependent on the establishment of a thick and forceful textural environment to achieve its characteristic heaviness. When it comes to doom, which regularly employs sustained power chords over several beats, this aspect is further reinforced because there is more space and time available to apprehend texture. That there is much pleasure — corporal and mental — to be found in the rich textures of doom is something that bands take advantage take of on a regular basis. Unfortunately, this has also resulted in what can be seen as a preoccupation with texture among doom metal bands at the expense of actual song writing.
Similar to drone music, this approach emphasizes context over focal points of activity, which fits with the need to produce a dense and enveloping atmosphere to convey the motivic elements of the “doom mood,” or that combination of despondency and Romanticism which propels the style by creating a meta-narrative to existence. In Thergothon, this is enhanced by the occlusive nature of the raw sound itself, which being densely compact owing to the overlap of frequencies of the detuned instruments and vocals, requires high volume to be heard, and because chords ring out with extended sustain expanded by distortion, then serves to drown out any other sound. A Thergothon listener can be happily blasting this music in the basement while a tank battle occurs overhead, and may barely notice anything but the close hits.
The tendency to emphasize texture is evident in Thergothon’s music as well in the sense that they put effort into creating unique textures to fit the compositions. The decidedly lo-fi and subdued production at display on Stream From the Heavens suits the music very well. Rhythm guitars — tuned down exceptionally low (3½ whole steps down to A) — dominate the lower-end of the sonic panorama with an opaque, phased-out tone, hinting at unfathomable depths out of which bleak lead-guitar melodies claw their way into the listener’s consciousness. While ice-cold, positively eerie synthesizers further augment the inhuman nature of the music, the lead guitar-work is decidedly expressive in its tone. Through conflicting textures, Stream From the Heavens evokes a perplexed sense of warmth and lyricism within a cold and alienating landscape.
Texture in all its form plays an important role in music making, but when artists get too comfortable within their sonic milieu they start making it easy for themselves. Sadly enough, many listeners make no objection as they get something that is presumably interesting sounding and easily digestible. It’s unnecessary to point out which specific doom metal bands that succumb to such tendencies; the phenomenon is just too widespread. If choosing instead to focus on the positive, it is the imperative of good song writing that ultimately sets bands apart. Stream From the Heavens doesn’t score points for complexity, but the album have a strong sense of direction (a result of melodic continuance, among other factors) despite its glacial pace. In fact, the incredibly slow tempo (by guess, 30-45 bpm at average) serves as an amplifier for power: sluggish like tectonic plates, but massive beyond belief in its impact.
Black Sabbath created the archetypal doom metal phrasing from a framework of chromatic and open scales, borrowing fragments like modalities from other minor key scales to use as fills to color their phrases. Doom metal phrasing at its best emphasizes a wandering melody set to a contemplative pace, like the thoughts of someone smoking a pipe in an ancient castle tower at three in the morning, looking into the infinitely dark eye of mortality. Like thoughts interrupted, these miniature journeys are interrupted when vocals and guitars align and return to the repeated strobing patterns that give the genre some of its energy in the midst of darkness.
The tension between the wandering phrase and the thunderous unison with which it returns creates a sense of futility, like a prisoner exploring a dungeon for avenues of escape, only to return to the same chambers and the sickening realization that there is no way out alive. In this way, the wandering phrases represent hope, and the crashing return emphasizes fate, and this tension allows doom metal bands to build melodies by adding or subtracting a note at a time. In Thergothon, the additional tension between chromatic nearly grinding riffs and open intervals gives a sense of the spirit rising above its conditions through adventures of the mind alone, as if the imprisonment of the body gives rise to power of choice in the soul.
Unlike Black Sabbath, Thergothon has no need to bring the listener back to a rockin’ chorus or melodic transition; instead, it builds its melodies within lengthy phrases that limblike branch out above the underlying inevitable motion of the drums and vocals, then return through multiple modal fragments over the course of a song, and in those snatches of melody the essence of the song emerges. Almost like writing the meaning in the margins, Thergothon creates an unwavering and inescapable trudging motion, but then encodes within it messages of the metal side of doom metal, which is the Romantic sense of intensified life.
Where death metal bands focus on interlocking riffs, then, Thergothon attacks interwoven melodies, creating an effect like the “sonic tapestry” of Anton Bruckner, but in a much shorter and simpler format that approximates the drone of an emotional realization that one cannot escape despite numerous attempts. Paired with the overwhelming atmosphere, Thergothon exemplify the best of doom metal by bringing us an attractive despair that mirrors our own as we watch our world spiral into predictable failure, but within it, give us a hope in the power of the affection for life that within us is thus revealed.