Two artists most directly responsible for the modern doom boom from both sides of the Atlantic, two artists whose development from album to album was as gradual and laboured as the music itself, and two artists that were slow to gain a following. Both were at their most prolific and retrospectively celebrated at the turn of the century. And lack of recognition took its toll on both, with Electric Wizard suffering no end of personnel issues and Yob breaking up in 2006 only to reform in 2009. But their early efforts were rewarded. And both are now acknowledged as trailblazers of post 2000 doom metal. And two very distinct branches for that matter, with Electric Wizard aping the occult aesthetic of Black Sabbath and horror b-movies, and Yob pursuing a lighter, more spiritual calling, informed by Neurosis new-age twaddle.
Bournemouth’s Electric Wizard, the self-styled 21st century Black Sabbath, are often perceived as a one trick pony, but it just so happened to be a very enduring trick. ‘Come my Fanatics’ (1997) and ‘Dopethrone’ (2000) are held by many up as their crowning achievements. Followed by a slight misstep with the confusing and dirgey ‘Let us Prey’ (2002). But for my money, 2004’s ‘We Live’ was a stonking return to form and is often overlooked. This is largely due to its position in the chronology of Electric Wizard’s career. ‘We Live’ being sat between the earlier dark and fuzzy stoner, and the later polished sound, informed by heavy garage rock as much as stoner doom.
But ‘We Live’ combines the best of both worlds, and as a result is a contender for their heaviest and most coherent album. The guitar sound is heavy and meaty, but the fuzz has been clipped back for the sake of more clarity. The result being that we can actually hear some riffs, which may at times drag out ad nauseum, but I appreciate Jus Oborn’s minimal but aggressive approach to stoner refrains. Drums are given more weight this time around, headed up by one time Electric Wizard skin basher Justin Greaves. His ability to move from plodding rhythms to out of control fills lends a primal energy to this album. From scaffolding to jazz without being a distraction.
But perhaps the vocals have undergone the most marked change. It’s no secret that Oborn does not have the strongest voice. On earlier works this was masked by keeping it low in the mix and heavily distorted in production. He’s not afraid of just maniacally shouting his way through verses at times, which is serviceable but not mind-blowing for this heavy, bluesy doom. But here we see the beginnings of him flexing his clean singing muscles. He sticks to long sustained notes and repetitive chants of two or three syllables, but it works for Electric’s Wizards brand of ritual stoner doom. The music is made to be repetitive, to numb the senses. One is reminded of their mantra: ‘Turn off your mind’. And that, essentially, is what this music is trying to get you to do. Through oppressively heavy and frustratingly simple riffs and mesmerising yet simple drums, the mind is beaten into submission and forced to simply sway along to the riffs.
By contrast, Yob’s approach to stoner metal is one of collaboration with the listener. Yob’s first offering ‘Elaborations of Carbon’ (2002) was a charmingly odd take on the groovy stoner doom. Mike Scheidt’s weird falsetto vocals that he intersperses with a death metal growl make for an uncomfortable combination at times. And the snare sound is bizarrely tinny, as if it was more suited for punk music than anything below the 80 bpm mark. ‘Catharsis’ (2003), their difficult second album, works with many of the same idiosyncratic limitations. But it turned out to be a masterpiece of trippy stoner doom that has quite frankly never been bettered, and Yob’s subsequent releases have really been variations on the ideas found herein, in a noble yet ultimately futile attempt to surpass it.
So what is it about ‘Catharsis’ that makes it so damn good? The answer lies in the structure. This is stoner doom’s answer to Burzum’s ‘Hvis Lyset Tar Oss’. Rather than pandering to easy wins through Sabbath aping, the album is patiently built around a rigid structure that utilises the basic building blocks of stoner doom to a more ambitious purpose than is typical of the subgenre. Opener ‘Aeons’ begins by introducing themes through repeated riffs and shifting dynamics. It builds slowly with drum and bass grooves and gradual layering of ever thicker guitars. The piece runs through the same cycle a few times, with each reiteration introducing a new layer of music, and with each reiteration we uncover something more within the layer-cake.
Then things take a turn for the more upbeat with ‘Ether’, which sees the album elaborate on the more dramatic elements of ‘Aeons’. The finale and title track brings all this together with epic builds and crashes, until ending in chaos. Each segment of the album references another, each section is placed where it is for a reason. Metal has always been a champion of long-form composition through the LP, but ‘Catharsis’ is one of those albums that takes this to another level. It transcends the musical components it is made up of to reach for something beyond. Each riff, rhythm, bassline and vocal technique will be familiar, we know it belongs within the stoner doom style, but they are all melted into a modern symphony of sorts. A reminder that one need not be bound by the limitations of genre to create something truly profound.
I have praised both these albums greatly because they pretty much deserve it. Both Electric Wizard and Yob have released much subpar music over the years, but these two releases are a reminder that they, and the limited style that is stoner doom, are capable of so much more. You will have guessed from the lofty rhetoric I have committed to Yob’s ‘Catharsis’ that this is my preferred LP. But ‘We Live’ is also a much loved album in my collection. There are enough critics and cheerleaders for Electric Wizard at large, but this album is often overlooked, sandwiched as it is between two very distinct eras in this artist’s history. Ignore it at your peril. As for ‘Catharsis’; praise where praise is due, stoner doom rarely gets good, let alone this good.