Slow death: Derketa and Faustcoven

Death/doom is a tricky one to pin down. Is it just death metal played slow? Or is it a different subgenre entirely? There’s probably too many variations to define it with any certainty. Doom metal proper aside, the tag is often something that happens to other genres, creating doomy versions of themselves. This spans death and black metal, heavy/power metal, and traditional proto metal stylings and beyond. So broad is this base, that pinning doom down to a specific definition beyond slower versions of other genres can become futile. Unlike self-identified doom metal, death/doom is seen as a variant on death metal first and foremost; wedded to doom metal only at the aesthetic level.

Derketa originally formed back in 1988 but after one EP and a couple of demos they failed to get off the ground. This early material is now available on the ‘Goddess of Death’ (2003) compilation released on Necroharmonic Productions. Output remained limited after reforming in 1999. But then in 2012 came the full length ‘In Death We Meet’, which finally consolidated the sound of Sharon Bascovsky and the gang into the LP format.

The guitars are the dominant force here. Plodding their way through simple unresolved tritones which usually open the track, before the augmentation of a slow tremolo strummed riff gives the illusion of picking up the tempo, whilst drums linger at the same tempo. Drums follow the guitars in their emphasis, but focus on keeping the pace relatively stable. The snare is tinny, but the bass has enough power to lend much needed depth in the absence of clearly audible bass (it’s there if you listen for it). Vocals are guttural yet clear, lending menace to otherwise generic lyrics.

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Despite all the hallmarks of death metal, right down to double bass, this music rarely picks up the tempo beyond a hundred bpm or so, which makes it completely reliant on solid riffage to get by. And whilst there is plenty of this going, they all rely on a very similar formula, with each track following roughly the same formula and blueprint. Derketa are capable of building tension and energy to their music without resorting to speed thrills, rare in death/doom (even Cianide picked up the pace at times). They do this through compressing contrasting riffs into fewer bars without changing tempo, with busy drums delivering a sense of chaos beneath. Additional layering of melodies aids this process.

However, taken as a whole this is a solidly average work, with no weak moment but no outstanding moments either. The reason for this is lack of risk. All the components are expertly placed and executed within the music, but they are all very familiar by 2012. This album could have been released in 1992 and barely raise an eyebrow. I would still recommend it for fans of the style, especially given its historical value as the first LP from an old school artist. But so far further development has failed to grow out of this promising soil.

Black doom metal has never really existed as a genre tag. I think there are a few reasons for this (it’s clunky as fuck to say for a start). The nature of black metal as based primarily on atmosphere and aesthetics than riff and rhythm based like much of death metal. Black metal that does play at a slower pace is usually touting the ambient tag than anything influenced by Black Sabbath. If we trace a direct line from Hellhammer to Darkthrone circa ‘Panzerfaust’ (1995) we can see an approximation of what black doom would sound like unadorned by any other influence common to black metal (ambient, folk, punk). But it’s hints of a subgenre rather than a finished product that this line offers.

And that’s really where Norway’s Faustcoven come in. Their third LP ‘Hellfire and Funeral Bells’ (2012) operates on this narrow black doom ground. The guitar tone, the vocals, the shape of the riffs; all sit well within black metal. But so committed are they are to playing slow that we simply have to remark upon it. ‘Is playing slow all there is to it?’ I hear you ask. Of course not. The key to doom is rhythm, and yes, you guessed: drums. We can talk of tritones and droning chords all we like, but much ambient and depressive black metal boasts this in spades. (As an aside, add the opening title track to your ‘metal songs that pay homage to Chopin’s funeral dirge’ playlist).

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No, it’s the rhythmic emphasis that sets this apart. The strumming hearkens back to pre-1990 black metal, and the drums are built around them to add emphasis to the chugging chords. Things one would typically expect of death doom. Indeed, the drums, although simple, are doing more work than faster, more technical black metal. This is because they drive the music forward, and herald the arrival of new riffs and passages, unlike much black metal where the drums are simply adding additional depth and urgency.

The riffs themselves are simple but intelligent, lent more depth thanks to those all-important drums. Scant lead work is called in at turning points in the music to lend an air of finality to what is already pretty grim music. Production – whilst not completely flat – is lacking in imagination. But this music still manages to make a lasting impression on the listener given the relatively simple building blocks these musicians are working with. Riffs flow intuitively into one another making for an experience akin to something called ‘fun’.

So in terms of who wins out I would have to go with Faustcoven, for the simple reason that they make more from less. ‘In Death we Meet’ is a fine slab of solid death doom metal, one that is well disciplined and thought through. But it lacks that burst of life  which usually stems from additional structural tweaking to lend colour to the ‘main event’ riffs. As a result it does not get beyond the stage of being interesting to academics and historians, but not appealing to the general public. ‘Hellfire and Funeral Bells’ on the other hand – despite all the pedantry about where this sits genre wise and why – is first and foremost music of drama and tension. The listener simply has to sit back and let it wash over them to enjoy it. The intellect can switch off for a time, a hallmark of good music.

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