Friday, January 14, 2011

Metal Briefs: Early Doom Metal

In the 1970's, heavy metal was heavy metal, plain and simple. There just weren't enough bands out there to justify dividing it into subgenres. But by the early- to mid-1980's, heavy metal was separating into a number of distinct subgenres.

On the one hand, you had your commercialized glam metal. But in the true metal camp, you had the thrash metal scene which was just beginning to explode, taking punk influence to speed things up. You also had bands like Fates Warning making metal more progressive and complex, and bands like Venom making it fast and raw while keeping it simple.

Almost universally, metal was losing either its simplicity or its slow tempo. But to the nascent doom metal scene*, the key to heavy metal was to make it slow and keep it heavy, and to write a few really good riffs instead of writing 100 riffs and playing them so fast that (hopefully) no one will notice if you wrote a bad one.

*To call it a "scene" is a bit of a misnomer. Doom was (and generally always has been) an outsider genre even by metal standards, so there have never been enough doomsters in one place at one time to form a regional scene.

Black Sabbath (the original metal band) has often been labeled a doom metal band, making doom arguably older than so-called "traditional" heavy metal. So, in a sense, doom metal is the purest expression of the metal style. So, let's take a look at three of the bands who brought the slow and the heavy back into metal, bringing it back to its true roots.

Pentagram: Pentagram (Relentless) 1985

RelentlessOriginally released as a self-titled album in 1985, and re-released as Relentless with a different track order in 1993, the debut from Virginia band Pentagram is one of the most important early doom records. Pentagram played simple riffs at a slower pace than most of their metal contemporaries, and they played it heavy. The vocals were generally clean, in contrast to the harsh yells or growls of thrash and proto-black metal, although the occasional gruffness has been added for emphasis. There are even some Ozzy-esque embellishments here and there (check the "Yeah!" in "All Your Sins"). Like Sabbath, there are some slightly faster songs ("Death Row" or "Relentless"), but Pentagram shines the most with the slow and the heavy: "Sinister" is a perfect example. The recording is not the best, and doesn't fully capture how heavy the music should be, but the songs are so good it's worthwhile anyway. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Candlemass: Epicus Doomicus Metallicus (1986)

Epicus Doomicus MetallicusWhile Pentagram could be considered a traditional heavy metal band, or proto-doom, Sweden's Candlemass is undeniably doom metal. With its slow, dramatic riffs, keyboard embellishments, and vibrato overdrive vocals (provided by Johan Längqvist in his only appearance for the band), this album sparked the sub-sub-genre of "epic" doom metal. It opens on "Solitude", a depressing masterpiece and easily one of the best metal songs ever recorded, then goes through five more great tracks before it's done. "Black Stone Wielder" is another highlight, featuring a cool discordant riff in the verse and a climax where the riffs speed up under the solo. This album is a must-have, and earns 5 out of 5 stars. You'll never get the chorus of "Please, let me die in solitude" out of your head.

Saint Vitus: Born Too Late (1986)

Born Too LateLA's Saint Vitus is sometimes cited as the original doom metal band, and it's easy to see why, given that the music is clearly doom metal, they formed in 1979, and released their debut before anyone else in the style (1984). While Candlemass is credited with being the original epic doom metal band, Saint Vitus's style is much closer to stoner doom, with a fuzzy, mellow sound and use of weird guitar sounds and psychedelic solos. Born Too Late is the first album to feature the legendary Scott "Wino" Weinrich. His husky voice wasn't nearly as good as it is in his older age (as evidenced on his recent confessional-style singer-songwriter work I discussed yesterday), but it was already very strong. The riffs on this album aren't nearly as good as what's on the Pentagram or Candlemass releases above, but the atmosphere makes up for it. The highlight is probably closer "The War Starter", with lyrics straight out of Sabbath's playbook. I give it 4 out of 5 stars. I just have to wonder: Why the pink cover?

If you like these, you may also want to check out Trouble's Psalm 9. They may be the only Christian band to ever be influential in starting a new metal genre (other than metalcore).


  1. Surprisingly, I have not heard much from either Pentagram or St. Vitus. A little bit, but not nearly as much as I would like. I am a big fan of that Candlemass release though. "Solitude" is an amazing song. Hell, I even enjoy the Swallow the Sun cover of it.

  2. I didn't know Swallow the Sun had covered it. I like that band (I only have The Morning Never Came and Plague of Butterflies, though), so I'll definitely have to track that down. Looks like it was on a single for a track off Ghosts of Loss.

  3. They covered it on The Morning Never Came on the US version as a bonus track. That's apparently the version I own. Lucky me I guess.

  4. That's what I get for buying internationally, I guess.