Let’s ruminate on the revenge of the snail: Candlemass and Saint Vitus

With most histories tracing the line from Black Sabbath through to the extreme metal of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it’s easy to forget those artists that held on to one of the original credos of old school heavy metal, the slow droning powerchords and apocalyptic lyrics that led to what would be known as doom metal. These are the most direct ancestors of the 1970s in the next generation of metal’s story, Saint Vitus the offspring of Black Sabbath, and Candlemass that of Judas Priest. In an age when Slayer ruled the world, to play slowly in 1986 was deemed by many to be a daring move, one not well received by all. But there must be something else going on behind doom metal beyond playing the same music as everyone else only slower.

In the case of Candlemass this may not be the case. Their seminal 1986 offering ‘Nightfall’ is pretty much on the nose classic heavy metal played at a snail’s pace. Everything is there, the epic riffs, the operatic vocals (the power of which simply cannot be understated), the screaming solos, and all the classic stories being retold once again; theological anxiety, the contemplation of death, the occult, magic. To say that there is nothing special about this album is to do it a great disservice however. Yes, it is just a slow heavy metal album, but what heavy metal it is. By allowing us more time to experience each riff, each chord, each note, we feel like the journey took much longer and accomplished more than a noise that races past. Like the virtue of the epic poem or the extended fantasy novel we are with these songs for much long, and so well-crafted and played are they, with such sincerity, that it is not an understatement to say that the music of Candlemass easily stands up to the best of Iron Maiden or Judas Priest.

Unfortunately this take on doom metal never really took hold into the 1990s, with artists preferring to go the way of Sleep, endlessly trying to recreate the loose blues of Black Sabbath with varying degrees of success. Recently however, this style has undergone something of a resurgence through the works on Atlantean Codex and Pallbearer. Arguably more interesting than the ever popular Electric Wizard as it relies less on bludgeoning the listener with fuzzy guitars and endless droning, and more on actual composition and powerful clean vocals. One must be a good musician to play this music, and a good composer to play it in such a way that holds the listener’s attention.
Saint Vitus’ legacy on the other hand requires little introduction. Widely regarded as the torch bearers for doom metal throughout the 1980s, they kept it alive in the age of speed so that a new generation could take inspiration from them. Of course it’s impossible to talk about Saint Vitus without mentioning Dave Chandler’s guitar tone, and on 1986’s ‘Born Too Late’ it really came into its own. The production on previous works did not quite capture the power of what is essentially a lead bass guitar in all but name. But with this offering it finally makes sense. This is incredibly simple music; three chord riffs played really slow, solos made up of screeching….just higher up the fretboard, rather than an intentional string of notes that makes sense when played in order. But beneath this simplicity the essence of doom metal comes alive.

The atmosphere is oppressive, mainly thanks to the all-encompassing guitar tone, and this would come across as boring noise were it not for the simple but well-crafted drum fills that hold it all together, an essential building block for all decent doom metal. Wino’s voice may not be as powerful as his predecessor Scott Reagers (I always felt Reagers would be more at home in a power metal band rather than stoner doom), but there is a sincerity he brings to these songs of addiction, loneliness and drinking that invokes an almost mournful hopelessness to this music.
In terms of musicianship this is a real David and Goliath comparison. Saint Vitus were essentially a hardcore punk band playing really slowly, really basically, but they hit on something which resonated with many misfits of the next generation which turned this album into a legend. Candlemass’ ‘Nightfall’ needs no such explanations for its appeal. The power of every aspect of this music makes itself immediately apparent and does not relent until the album is over, no matter how far you turn the volume down. And you know almost immediately if you’re going to enjoy it or not.
For my money, Candlemass were an incredibly competent and creative heavy metal band that happened to be chucked into the doom metal spectrum by pundits simply because they played slowly. You may say that that is pretty much the definition of this music, to which I would say such a demarcation is lazy. There must be more to doom metal than various forms and styles of metal slowed down. Because doom is much harder to pin down than other subgenres it tends to simply be defined as a certain way of playing other styles, rather than its own separate thing. If you described a band as death metal one could get an approximation of what they were going to sound like. Not so with doom metal. Saint Vitus however, speak to the contrary. This is not only heavy metal played slow, it focuses its energy on actually sounding like doom…by that I mean the word. Songs that explore our collective doom, or the personal dooms of drug and alcohol addiction are punctuated by music so frustratingly simple but attention grabbing that if caught at the right moment it can almost hypnotise. And the one essential and under-discussed factor to all this, is creative drumming. Not the overly showy drumming of the jazz schools of metal, but creative fills and rhythms that work away beneath the drone that hold your attention without you even noticing their presence. It’s things like this that are the true legacy of artists like Saint Vitus, far more than just a slower take on heavy metal.

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