Doom and the normalization of metal

Main menu from Doom (1993)

The year was 1993, and Western society’s appetite for ultraviolence was steadily growing, as perhaps evidenced by our knowledge of the period’s death metal. Besides the music industry, other forms of entertainment embraced this, including Id Software, which at the time was a small but successful video game developer who increasingly specialized in first person shooters. Doom used much of the same technology as Id’s previous games in the genre, but due to better technology and marketing, it sold enormously more copies and understandably exerted more influence on game culture. Particularly interesting to us at DMU was Id’s decision to incorporate metal music into Doom. This wasn’t the first video game to showcase a straight up heavy metal soundtrack; that honor most likely goes to Rock’n’Roll Racing on the Super Nintendo, six months before the release of Doom. Rock’n’Roll Racing used synthesized covers of several popular heavy metal and hard rock tunes, but Doom arguably went a step further by using nominally original music. Robert Prince’s compositions for the game (and its immediate sequel, Doom II) are split between these ‘metal’ tracks and more ambient, downtempo tracks.

The music of Doom is definitely inspired by contemporary popular metal works to the point of near plagiarism; Prince mentions on the fan site Doomworld that Id initially asked him to do a contemporary metal soundtrack. Other sources mention that Prince relied primarily on the game’s design documents to inform his efforts and had limited contact with Id’s employees during the process. Regardless, tracks here are often just a few notes off from literally being rehashed Slayer or Metallica or one of the other popular bands that inspired this music. Song structures and everything else is understandably simplified, as video game music generally has to loop and can’t afford to be too prominent or obnoxious lest it be muted by an irritated player. It is still a reasonably appropriate backdrop to Doom‘s mixture of gun combat and labyrinthine exploration, although some players here will just use their death metal collections instead.

While streamed, sampled audio was common in video games by 1993, Doom initially used sequenced music, presumably to save on storage space and to avoid locking out potential buyers without access to a CD-ROM drive. The soundtrack was originally composed for General MIDI-compatible devices like Prince’s synthesizers, but on the average computer of the time, it’s most likely the soundtrack’s metal simulacra would play through one of Yamaha’s FM synthesis chips. The main problem with the OPL3 version of this soundtrack is a hardware one – while capable of producing a wide variety of sounds, the OPL3 suffers from severe anemia, particularly because of its weak percussion abilities, and therefore this version belies the music’s instrumentation.

Doom was, however, quickly ported to many other computers and consoles in light of its commercial success, where it would run into all sorts of technical limitations. Everyone involved in the ports handled the soundtrack differently, ranging from the complete omission of music on the Atari Jaguar, to rearrangements of various quality, including the infamously bad Sega 32X version, and even the Playstation port, notable as its main composer (Aubrey Hodges) contributed his own, original soundtrack of dark ambient music instead of using Prince’s work. The most “authentic” way to experience the soundtrack is probably Prince’s Doom Music compilation, which showcases much of the music performed on its original synthesizers; any additions are at least intended by the original author, although I still find the ability of mid-90’s electronics to mimic a distorted guitar underwhelming at best.

I doubt Id was specifically planning to popularize metal music when they released Doom, but they probably did a great deal in that regard, even though by 1993, mainstream metal was on the verge of commercial collapse and/or Pantera. The correspondence between common metal imagery, and the game’s demon-slaughtering violence and hellscapes is too obvious to ignore, though. Doom presumably sold more copies for pushing computers to their limit and being graphically violent, but the soundtrack’s decisions definitely paved the way for more and better-known works to feature metal as a soundtrack. In the process, it’s won such fans as Trey Azagthoth of Morbid Angel, who even made his own content for the game (although unfortunately, he didn’t bother to include his band’s music).


Doom (2005)


The rise of a new medium catches everyone by surprise, especially those who are trying to make it succeed. In the case of video gaming, the medium existed for many years before it came to maturity with the full-featured video games of the late 1990s, spurred on by the massive success of first-person shooter Doom, itself a followup on the renovation of the classic 1980s video game Wolfenstein with Wolfenstein 3D. Then, for reasons unknown, someone made a movie based in the world of Doom, and… it was good.

At the point in time when Doom III, the most proximate inspiration for this movie, emerged, video games had transitioned into something like a film which required user engagement. With full plot lines, accessories for the characters (we might blame 1980s Star Wars figures for this), ability to use in-game utilities to uncover plot, and complex goals to hide the banality of constant machine gun warfare, the new games hybridized all of the successful tropes of video games of the previous decade with the gestures of action movies that succeeded. This gave them new complexity and made the transition to movie more challenging if the film hoped to differentiate itself from the game. Early efforts were often horrifyingly bad. Doom corrects this with a fast-paced, tight-edited movie that keeps the plot of the game at its center, and pays extensive tribute to the game without becoming a string of in-jokes. This film could be watched without any knowledge of the game and it would be as compelling, as it is in fact brainier and more compelling than the average action film.

Doom begins in California, where a team of Marines are heading out to Las Vegas, NV, where an interstellar portal that opens on Mars has been discovered. Borrowing this idea from Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film mixes in bits of Stargate, Aliens and Starship Troopers to show us a group of hard-fighting colonial marines sent on a mission with few specifics. They discover an outbreak of a zombie-like disease which turns out to be a genetic mutation. The wrinkle is that this mutation does not so much change people as reveal what they actually are, and this creates a layer of character depth to the movie which proves instrumental to its plot and steers around the worst of the endless waves of enemies effect that early first-person shooters demonstrated. That being said, this film is designed as an action movie for young men, and so it adheres to the requirements of pleasing that audience. The hammy Dwayne Johnson delivers his usual stern facial muscles and straining deltoids, but his performance is not as central to the movie as the posters might have you believe. Ultra-gruff cinematic violence expert Karl Urban plays opposite to alternatively plain and striking Rosamund Pike, with whom the filmmakers pander to anticipated audience taste by ensuring that her relatively reserved clothing reveals the outline of breasts and nipples in every scene. That is the pulp fiction nature of both video games and action movies, however, and Doom pulls it off by being good-natured but not obsessive. The characters are part of the scenery, albeit scenery that evolves with the plot. As the film progresses, the character drama takes over, and then in one of the most enjoyable breaks in film history, the movie goes into first-person shooter mode for a finale that pays full loving tribute to the original video game.

Perhaps Doom will never be mentioned in East End coffee klatches or fashion magazines, and it may never attract more than a small die-hard cult audience, but it can be appreciated for its renovation of an otherwise uptight sub-genre of film and its ability to make what might otherwise easily deviate into idiot territory into a thoughtful and suspenseful film. The violence of raw first-person shooters here distills, as in Aliens but with less emphasis on pure suspense, to a game of anticipation in which characters must react suddenly to unexpected threats while in the midst of confusion and incredulity as they discover what is going on. The result is part mystery, mostly action film, and part the oldest type of sci-fi which is the exploration of the human being as revealed by his technology, in this case genetic engineering and 21st century violence.

Sinistrous Diabolous – Total Doom // Desecration

sinistrous_diabolous-total_doom_desecrationSinistrous Diabolous creates funeral doom metal from the fragments of death metal. It uses the rapid strumming of slow chording that made Incantation so thunderous, merged with the abrupt tempo changes of Autopsy, and the mixed sounds and dynamic variation of Winter.

Total Doom // Desecration is as a result both shockingly absent of any of the trimmings of civilization or what we recognize as music, and also momentarily beautiful, like a ship emerging from the fog only to be lost again. Its primitive production and dark chromatic riffs enhance this sense of naturalism emerging against the hopeless mental muddle of humanity.

The atmosphere of murky ambiguity that enshrouds this album also grants it a resonant sense of purpose. Between power chorded riffs, interludes of pure sound or lighter instruments pervade, creating a sensation like slowly poling a raft through a dense swamp, looking for enemies.

Of note are the vocals, which deliberately abstract themselves into an uncivilized and primitive growl that calls alongside the music like a pack of dogs howling at a kill. Percussion fits the Autopsy model, being both alert and intense and knowing when to fade out into the drone.

Sinistrous Diabolous use heavy sustain not only on their guitars, but in the way riffs are sliced into these songs. Notes of doubt and ambiguity hang over every change, waiting for the song to roll over again and from the relentless ferment of its imagination, pull forth another riff.

While many doom albums come and go, and most either slide into the 1970s style or death-doom, this album cleanly integrates the last two decades of the variation in the latter styles, and comes up with something that is not only bone-crushingly weighty in sound and meaning, but also brings forth a beautiful melancholic isolation at sensing what has been lost.