Emotional stagnation: Pallbearer and Ahab

There are many crimes we enjoy levelling at Opeth; dumbing down and blandifying one of the most exhilarating and life affirming forms of underground music, incomprehensible track structures, bargain basement prog rock, the list goes on. But they were really just a symptom of a wider trend in extreme metal by the early 2000s. And we must choose our words wisely when we elect to outline this trend, because it involves the contested notion of ’emotion’. Extreme metal has always allowed for a broad range of emotive expression beyond mere anger; but what binds it all together, and what sets (good) extreme metal apart from most other forms of contemporary music is how these emotions are expressed. They are distant, one step removed from the performer. Or rather, this personal distance – far from limiting the depth and range of emotional expression afforded by this artform – actually augments, warps, and elevates it to an intangible, almost quasi-spiritual level of experience. But then, of course, Opeth et al. – influenced in no small part by the alt rock boom of the 1990s – brought us back down to the immediate level of pop music, and this in turn bled out to almost every subgenre of extreme metal, including doom. Where funeral doom once invoked the chasmic alienation of Skepticism and Esoteric, it has now been appropriated by the pseudo drama of Ahab. The point is not so much that our precious extreme metal has been ruined by folk that just don’t understand, more that they killed off what made it distinct from other forms of music in the first place. But before we descend into laboured and premature lamentations, let’s crack these nuts open and see what they got for us.

Pallbearer’s debut ‘Sorrow and Extinction’ was released in 2012, a time when traditional epic doom metal was trying to reassert itself against the relentless tide of stoner doom. Pallbearer’s approach is something of an odd contradiction that on subsequent releases they have still not been able to resolve. They have a way with guitar harmonies that is so nuanced that it’s enough to make them stand head and shoulders above many of their contemporaries in itself. The drone of flat, defeatist chord progressions that would be boring played at thrice the tempo give way to rich, soaring guitar leads that contextualise the whole and give it meaning. The chord progressions themselves are generic and boring, and although many of them end in melodic flourishes and guitar licks, it’s not enough to save them from monotony. The problem is not so much their construction, but the fact that they constitute pretty much the only building blocks of this album, and the occasional sweeping guitar solo cannot save this music from the drudgeries of tedium.

Pallbearer seem to be reaching for a pronounced post rock aesthetic. But aside from some clean passages here and there, again characterised by pleasing but not all that ground-breaking melodies, they do little to work towards crescendos beyond the drums getting a little busier maybe. The main thing this music has in common with post rock is the absence of anything…happening. The pace is glacial. This is both in the literal sense of tempo – although drums make an effort to keep busy – but also any musical progressions, transitions, development…anything. I suppose you could make a case for treating this more like an ambient piece, but even in ambient music we occasionally get a sense of progressing towards something, of approaching a goal.

Vocals are at the higher end of clean singing in the metal tradition. Which in theory could lend another dimension of harmonic potential to this most basic of foundations. But this opportunity was squandered in unimaginative vocal lines that soar above the meaty guitars, and rarely deviate from two or three key ideas over the course of a ten minute plus track. As if to compensate, the stylised production, cover art, and scant guitar leads flesh out what is, at its core, a vacuum of creativity. The whole aims to come over as sensitive, as emotionally ‘deep’, thanks to the mournful tone, the swaying rhythms that anchor around a bar of single notes followed by a bar of one sustained note, rinse and repeat. But no amount of pandering to sentiment can cover up an empty space. Pathos in music need not equal utter boredom.

Funeral doom is a melding of black metal with ultra-slow tempos, drab depressive aesthetics, and oodles of atmosphere. By this measure Germany’s Ahab are anything but (with the exception of the debut maybe); aside from the requisite slowness, they are a depressive variant on traditional epic doom more than anything. Harbouring as they do triumphalist ambitions in many of their unfolding chord progressions that build to powerful finales and crescendos, soaring melodic guitar leads, and a broader range of dynamics than would be becoming of real funeral doom. But setting aside this unwitting (or shameless) attempt to rewrite history, what does Ahab’s third LP (of epic doom metal mind…not funeral doom mate) ‘The Giant’ (2012) have in store for us? Well, many of the features already summarised in the preceding passage if we’re being honest. Seemingly directionless chord progressions accompanied by the siren like wail of guitar leads are gradually coalesced into music with a coherent and dramatic purpose of sorts. They supplement this two-dimensional approach with some riffs borrowed from classic heavy metal (force fed tempo sedatives obviously) to signpost the transitions from one act to the next, a cleverer way to navigate extended track lengths than many of their peers.

Ahab are masters of contrasting this relatively busy doom with empty spaces. At times the guitar work is so rich and engaging that it’s possible to forget the doom pacing of the music. But then they give way to extended breaks which probably last no longer than a bar or two, but it is enough to bring us down to earth, as we are guided by naught but drums, and we are reminded that we’re listening to doom metal. And this is where problems set in. Because Ahab reeeally want you to know that they’re a doom metal band. So what ideas they do have are extended and stretched out, supplemented by extended interludes and clean passages that are not terrible in their own right, but do nothing to further the music besides beefing up the track length. Although Ahab know how to use dynamics, and build to a finale, they overplay their hand time and again in this regard, attempting to hide a dearth of creativity behind post rock aesthetics (a genre which, more than any other, has consigned the majority of modern doom metal to the dustbin of tedium).

This can also be found in Ahab’s approach to vocals, which are one-part guttural death growl and two parts clean vocals which attempt to ham up some drama. The clean passages are essentially slowed down pop songs, that do not somehow take on a new dimension of profundity by being set to epic guitar leads. As with so many artists in modern extreme metal, we are left wondering what happens when Ahab sit down to write a new album. The whalecore thing was working well by album number three, and to be fair it’s an aesthetic that lends itself well to crashing and colliding doom metal. But by the time of ‘The Giant’, with fanbase firmly established, did market research dictate that any original ideas they did have were to be forced through this aesthetic? Because that’s the real frustration behind this. Whether this is the music of Ahab’s true soul or the result of supply and demand in the whalecore market, there are ideas and talent on display sporadically throughout this album (really sporadic, given that the album is insultingly long). One can’t help but wonder if a truly great album was supressed beneath modern expectations of a doom album. Everyone wins I guess; Ahab sell records, the fans get what they apparently want, and whining saps on internet blogs are exposed for the pedants that they are.

The problem is not with self-pity or sentiment itself. A lot of great pop and rock has been written over the years trading in these things, and failing that there’s always a Type O Negative album for the hard times. The problem is that we didn’t come to extreme metal for that. One of its hallmarks that set it apart from other forms of music was the capacity for otherworldly, non-personal understandings of reality. A different spectrum of emotional range. Diluting it with more pedestrian pop sensibilities was the worst of both worlds. Metal became pedestrian, and emotion became trivial. These two albums illustrate this point perfectly. Both have merits. But both squandered the opportunity to build on these merits for the sake of following in the wake of metal’s newfound sensitivities. Fans and bands that took up this mantle in the 2000s claimed to be broadening the horizons of the apparently limited emotional range of extreme metal. But it had the opposite effect. It flattened and trivialised extreme metal, and limited its scope for creativity, philosophy, and uniqueness. So in terms of the pick of the weak, Ahab takes it for being the more interesting album first and foremost. But probably also for simply being guilty of fewer crimes than ‘Sorrow and Extinction’.

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