The dirty little not-so-secret of stoner doom is that it’s an atmospheric genre at heart. This does not preclude the possibility of chunky riffs by any means, but part of the appeal is the immersive experience, a broad brushstroke of themes and moods as opposed to the forensic riff tessellation and melodic development of more compositionally minded metal genres. One of the reasons stoner gets a bad name is the fact that many of the key players either can’t or won’t write riffs substantive enough riffs to justify the lengthy tracks, whilst equally spending too much focus on creating the stoner “vibe”, leaving no room for originality along the way. Outliers abound, but any survey of the bulk of this genre will yield much the same results.
Enter Canada’s Olde, who prima facie operate on very familiar territory for stoner/sludge fans with their latest album ‘Pilgrimage’. The overall package is understated, each individual moment and riff is unremarkable taken in isolation. But over time they are patiently built into grand sonic murals boasting a surprising degree of sophistication. There is a restrained grandiosity to their style that keeps overworked repetition at bay.
Olde are incrementalists. Each idea and refrain is either developed or refreshed before boredom is allowed to set in. But this is done primarily through the techniques of atmosphere, with the architecture of each riff kept fairly basic. By layering up and stripping back various guitar tones, playing sound contrasts off each other, and never overworking any one element, they are re-imagining stoner metal as a pursuit in tone colour over the usual tiresome reworkings of Black Sabbath riffs.
The production speaks to this intent. Naturally the guitars are placed front and centre, boasting a rich yet clear distorted sound. Traditional, blues-based guitar leads do make an appearance, but remain so scattered as to actually provide a welcome contrast to the more abrasive guitar leads they are set next to. Olde also make use of cleaner guitar tones, opening out the atmosphere in a similar way to desert rock in places. Many of the riffs supplement the familiar atonal bashing of sludge metal with traditional melodic doom metal stylings.
But again, each element is restrained and focused, worked into this gradual evolution of sound colours that slowly rise and fall over the course of the album. Drums offer a richly organic yet suitably heavy sound. The performance itself is a work of restraint, maintaining the music’s momentum even at its slowest, but never distracting from the fine balance of tones at work in the rest of the music. Vocals operate on the half-distorted half-clean spectrum common to stoner, embodying a soulful aggression whilst retaining a melodic dimension.
‘Pilgrimage’ is not an album that will smack you around the head immediately. It’s short on instant gratification. Much of what it brings to the table is either the culmination of elements found over the course of an entire composition, or else notable for how much more it achieves with less when compared to many of their contemporaries. But for that reason it is all the more worthy of a spin, even for people who are not natural fans of stoner/sludge metal. It may well surprise.
The bolshy masculinity of Danzig was considerably out of step with the march of history even by the early 90s. But now, thirty years on and presented with Caskets Open’s latest album ‘Concrete Realms of Pain’, blatant demonstrations of being a manly man look almost charming. Accepting we don’t want this review to become a discussion of the changing role of gender politics within metal, suffice to say that Caskets Open are smuggling a more complex tale of masculinity beneath this overtly macho mix of muscular doom metal, hardcore punk, and sludge metal. The presentation may be all muscles and leather, but even a cursory reading of the lyrics reveals a thoughtful, sincere, and reflective iteration of these tired tropes. Another welcome reappraisal of the terrain.
Enough of agendas, onto the music. Caskets Open attempt a more straightforward melding of hardcore punk and traditional doom metal with this LP. Presentation wise we are much closer to heavy rock music. Vocalist Timo Ketola has an undeniable Danzig twang to his singing voice to supplement the full throated punk style. The guitar tone is geared towards the no-nonsense ethos of their brew of influences. There are no gimmicks, no flashy effects, just plug in and go. This aesthetic extends to the drums which have a straight-from-the-practice-room quality to them. Clear and concise, but zero thrills or adornments.
Doom metal and punk have a rich and interesting history. However, a recurring problem – especially for sludge metal – is the volume of artists that have somehow make the worse of both worlds. The punk elements often end up diminishing the melodic potentials of doom, whilst the depressed tempos of the latter eviscerate punk’s primal energy. Caskets Open take a more measured approach. The variant of doom most audible on Concrete Realms of Pain is neither the loose blues approach of peak era Danzig nor the abrasive sludge of Acid Bath or Corrosion of Conformity.
Instead they reach back to an overtly heavy metal flavour in their riffing in a similar way to Magic Circle; part Witchfinder General, part Pentagram, part Saint Vitus. The rampant nostalgia of this format is tempered somewhat by the raw energy of the music that extends well into the slower numbers such as ‘Four Shrines’ and ‘White Animal’. There is still a sense of purpose and forward motion as these tracks build to a finale. Of course, these are broken up by moments of sheer chaos. But all elements are finely balanced, no riff or vibe is dwelt on past its shelf life. All makes for a clean and streamlined rendering of this back-to-basics style, proving that the DIY aesthetic can still carry within it musical nuances found in original composition and riffcraft, but also emotional nuances, chiefly found in the lyrics that reach far deeper than the superficially dated aesthetic implied by the cover art.
The inflated sense of self-worth that certain stripes of metal encourage is a double-edged sword. It is both metal’s greatest strength, and its Achilles heel. If done right – i.e., with the artistic chops to back it up – it can morph from raw arrogance into a project of world building. Other counter cultures may say “no” to society’s offer of vacuous comfort. Metal goes further, and turns this “no” into a prescriptive philosophy, one that – through sheer force of will – can go beyond mere escapism and into the heady realms of art-as-metaphor; a resounding “yes” to life.
That is…if done right. Metal’s history is scattered with casualties caught up in this intoxicating quest, but utterly lacking in the ability to pull it off. Failures that are at best comedic, at worst an insult (failures that also make up the bulk of the outside world’s understanding of metal and the reason it is so often consigned to the bin of vulgarity). The latest demo from Denmark’s Majestic Mass is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum; a rare and rather unfortunate concoction of music so stuffed with bombast and as to be crass, whilst simultaneously devoid of any character. A bizarre meeting of Manowar and Alcest.
This is essentially two tracks of stale heavy metal with a black metal aesthetic. The first track ‘Thy Ravenous Storms’ is a circular wander without purpose. Crafted from one central refrain with no attempt at a development section, yet too generic to warrant excessive repetition. Set to a flat, galloping drumbeat and minimal organ accompaniment; the latter being an apparent attempt to paint the tentative heavy metal swagger with a retro occult vibe. Not so much “Ravenous Storms” as a mildly irritating breeze. The second track ‘Reaping Fires’ may be more generous with riffs and ideas, but no less lacking in originality. Some bargain basement King Diamond crooning accompanies the black metal vocals which does nothing to lift the spirits.
Abject failures can be both instructive and unintentionally funny. ‘Onwards’ is neither. It is either failed comedy or a failed display of arrogance, but without any compelling musical qualities to furnish either intent the experience is obnoxious without redemption. If this was a serious attempt at hokey occult heavy metal with black metal stylings that completely missed the mark it may be forgivable. A lack of knowledge and/or ability to pull off their chosen style may be ignorant, but not the worst crime against music. Whatever the motive however, it sadly does not change the fact that we emerge from the listening experience artistically and intellectually short-changed.