After power metal and grindcore, stoner doom is one of the most limiting genres in metal. It’s one of our worst kept secrets. But not all limitations are created equal. And where some see limitations, others see a challenge, an opportunity to discover uncharted creative spaces. There are a number of ways to do this. One is to dilute the genre in its purist form with external influences. Another is to simply embrace the limitations, and create even more minimalist variants of the same style. A third possible route, for stoner doom in particular, is to augment and mutate the simplicities of the style further, to fully embrace them and even enhance them.
Enter Russia’s Pressor with their fourth EP ‘Weird Things’, released in 2018. Following in the footsteps of Ufomammut, they take the bare bones of crushingly heavy yet simple riffs and accentuate them further into extended soundscapes. And atop this basic yet intriguing framework is a layer of near constant static noise straight out of the book of Hawkwind. This lulls the listener into believing they are hearing stylised mood music, whose substance comes from builds and falls in intensity as opposed to melodic progression.
But then Pressor will drop hints at more complex musicality which – when throne against such a dark and sparse background – catch one off guard. Towards the back end of ‘Weird Things’ the vocals, although distant, gain more prominence in leading the music. There’s a Sleep riff here, an Electric Wizard riff there, and even hints at groove metal in places; an audacious move which would feel out of place were it not for the rigorous discipline of tone at work throughout the entirety of ‘Weird Things’.
It’s obscure and droning (as is a lot of stoner doom), but Pressor have harnessed the basic principles of narrative progression within these compositions. This breathes new life into what is largely a stale genre. And it just goes to show that it is not the building blocks of the genre itself that is at fault but rather laziness of execution in many of Pressor’s contemporaries. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to keep a genre moving forward. ‘Weird Things’ demonstrates that just a few intelligent decisions at both a structural and aesthetic level can go a long way in pushing music in new directions.
On ‘Beyond the Celestial Realm’ released in 2016, Leeds’ Cryptic Shift have a point to make. Namely that death metal was on to something back in 1992. Let’s pretend the missteps of progressive metal since that time never happened, and go back to first principles. On this ambitious EP, they take the best of Obliveon, Atheist, Death, Pestilence and others, and build upon their work. It’s like looking at an alternative timeline of the 1990s and onwards.
Of course if I am going to propose such an ambitious manifesto for this music then a five track EP may only be able to point the way. But look at what Atheist were capable of achieving in half an hour back in 1991. I’ve always maintained that the key to good progressive metal is in feeding the listener unconventional music theory without them knowing it. Weird chord progressions, odd time signatures, scales rarely heard in contemporary western music; the best progressive metal will feed you these things through slight of hand, not parade them out before the listener in full, garish site.
Cryptic Shift exemplify this. Obviously the technical standards are high, but it is well written metal first and foremost. It works the more proggy elements against a backdrop of familiar thrash and death metal riffs because whatever novelty is thrown in is put in service of the compositions themselves, and not the other way around.
Vocals are reminiscent of Steve Tucker’s Morbid Angel, as are many of the riffs. I would go so far as to say that ‘Beyond the Celestial Realm’ is a smorgasbord (as the Americans say) of classic progressive death metal that carries with it all the optimism and energy that were the 1990s. It’s a style that fell out of favour with the rise of black metal, and – outliers aside – the transcendent optimism of this forward looking music never found a place as the bleak 2000s got under way. So it’s a cause for celebration that young artists like Cryptic Shift are mining this underutilised era of death metal for fresh ideas and direction, and stamping their own identity on it at the same time. Watch this space for in 2020 hopefully.
Dewsbury’s Of Wounds. released a self-titled EP in April this year. And despite purporting to be a variant of black metal of sorts, this has more in common with Yawning Man or recent Earth than it does anything metal. The rhythms certainly have a swing to them that is more in line with loose, groovy stoner rock then anything as tight and rigid as a typical metal beat. The guitars as well, have a clean twang to them that gives this a mellow, introspective vibe. This – combined with the near constant crash symbols – invoke the feeling of standing in a waterfall.
Alex’s vocals are more along the lines of death metal, but somehow manage to fit with the music when all good sense tells me they should be overpowering this delicately poised music. It grants the relatively gentle arpeggios a sense of jeopardy that is missing from many contemporaries aiming for a similarly organic sound. And it’s not just the vocals that elevate this above similar offerings; the near constant energy of arpeggios drive this music forward with purpose. This is more than a mere set of pleasing invocations to nature. There is logic and structure beneath these compositions.
Aesthetically, it makes for an odd listen. It is at once overbearing, energetic, and busy, and yet it is music one can easily drift off to, with a unique atmosphere all of its own. I’d liken it to Enya stepping on a piece of lego. It captures the sound and fury of what this may sound like, but it’s still Enya, so I imagine the rage would be channelled through an ethereal veil of otherworldly sonic meditations. This is the sound that Of Wounds. have somehow managed to approximate. As ridiculous as this analogy sounds, this is a curious little release that offers much potential, and if greater mastery of dynamic contrast was put to work it could see Of Wounds. become one of the better not-quite-metal outliers of our times