Doom metal takes many forms. The stoner doom variant, otherwise known as acceptable metal for non-metalheads, is the most direct descendant of Black Sabbath. The epic doom variant championed by the likes of Candlemass is essentially a slowed down form of traditional heavy metal. Then in the late 1980s doom became an optional add on for other fully formed subgenres of metal. It was tagged onto lighter, melodic versions of death metal, and thus gothic/doom metal was born. It was tagged onto death metal and guess what, death/doom was born. And then (this is where metalheads’ obsession with genre classifications really comes into its own) it was tagged onto death/doom, taking this style one step further into depression and the void, thus becoming funeral doom. But just before this final step was a set of artists that arguably played death metal, replete with blast beats and all the trimmings, but with enough slow, droning passages, to be called death/doom. The likes of Incantation, Asphyx, and Cianide are considered founding cornerstones of this style. But one step beyond them were some artists that still played fast at times, aesthetically death metal, but took things one step slower.
Winter, a short lived flame of brilliance from New York, is one such example of this. Their one and only full length release ‘Into Darkness’ of 1990 was only fully appreciated after they broke up in 1992. Playing on the same line-ups as legends of the NYC scene, who took many of their cues from New York hardcore, Winter were not a well-received act at the time. The metal world was not ready for their brand of miserable death metal. But to call this music slowed down death metal is a simplification of just what exactly Winter were doing here. When one thinks of death/doom, it calls to mind a heavy set guitar tone, deep guttural vocals, and drums building to crescendos round monolithic chord structures. ‘Into Darkness’ is a much more subtle beast. The guitar tone is muddy yes, but it so understated, almost ghostly, that the impression one is left with is emptiness, glumness, misery, rather than something quite so in your face.
The drums are packed full of reverb, the toms and bass have that distinctively clicky sound, and the snare drum cuts through the drone like a knife. Every beat is crystal clear, which saves much of this music from utter monotony. They may not be the most complex of rhythms, but they are creative enough to give this music drive and purpose lacking in the guitars, which in the mix almost take a backseat, providing a deeply unsettling atmosphere as opposed to memorable riffs. Vocals are of a standard mid-range death growl, again, crystal clear in the mix, with all the lyrics perfectly audible.
The music itself ranges from mid-paced collections of powerchords, instantly calling to mind Celtic Frost (but on a very miserable day), to utterly sluggish and endless drones that drag the listener deeper and deeper into nothing. And that’s the point of the music on ‘Into Darkness’ really, it is the hint of music, the shadow of music, everything is so stripped back, with nothing to fill the void left by this empty guitar tone played so sluggishly, that we are left feeling miserable but unsure why. Like listening to a person talk but with the emphasis in all the wrong places, or looking at a familiar picture where subtle alterations have been made, it throws us off and we are not sure why.
For a different but equally compelling take on this death-doom-but-one-step-further style, look no further than Australia’s dISEMBOWELMENT. Another short lived act, forming in 1989, they released one full length, ‘Transcendence into the Peripheral’ in 1993 before breaking up later that same year. Unlike Winter, dISEMBOWELMENT took a more conventional approach to production, with the music on TITP prima facie sounding more like conventional lo-fi death metal than anything else. This allows dISEMBOWELMENT to even use blast beats and tremolo strummed guitars at times. Everything is laden with reverb however, so when they do play fast the wash of noise is almost akin to grindcore. The vocals are a deep guttural death growl laced with yet more reverb, making the lyrics completely undiscernible. The reason this album is held up as a unique take on death/doom alongside ‘Into Darkness’ is based on composition alone.
Into passages of blasting noise and mid-paced, simple death metal, is woven a slow tapestry of simple riffs that are played percussively. This is an interesting feature in doom metal, as opposed to slow simply riffs building over time with the help of drum fills and rolls, each instrument plays in unity and maintains a discernible rhythm, like thrash or punk played as slowly as possible, at points coming to a complete standstill. The slow passages are designed to be unsettling, off putting, as opposed to epic and imposing. And then the music will pick into a simple lead guitar harmony laced with reverb. At other times clean guitars pick simple harmonies over the distortion, completed by clean chanting in the vain of Dead Can Dance, that combined with the occasional major chord almost gives hope to this music, one can feel the light of day break through, before disharmony and death growls take over once more.
All this makes ‘Transcendence Into the Peripheral’ a surprisingly varied release, neatly tied together with an overarching atmosphere of hope colliding with despair, a quest for meaning through corridors of darkness, with no final resolution. Winter’s ‘Into Darkness’ on the other hand is a more mysterious beast in terms of the emotions it invokes in the listener. Through a combination of a guitar tone that merely hints at its presence, and sharp drums and vocals, leaves the listener unsure what they are feeling beyond uneasiness, foreboding, incompleteness. ‘Into Darkness’ sounds like an incomplete album, like additional guitars were supposed to be added but never were. And therein lies its genius. The ‘doom’ in the death/doom of Winter’s music is that feeling of emptiness that it leaves us with. Despite dISEMBOWELMENT putting their all into a well-crafted and unique doom metal album, the message of ‘Into Darkness’ ends up being more profound, because the way the music is portrayed is itself part of the message. Like a parody of music that we know and love. The choices of production do not sound like they were made of necessity, but each step was intentional in creating this most unsettling of albums.