Celtic Frost’s ‘Into the Pandemonium’ was an interesting watershed for extreme metal. Despite the mixed response at the time and the album’s undeniable inconsistencies, it should be credited for strengthening metal’s relationship to eccentricity. In 1987, at the height of down-the-barrel thrash, heavy metal bombast, and burgeoning underground extremity, came this unsure, faltering and unbearably weird collection of pop metal, neoclassical doom, and experimentalism, all enveloped in a downbeat, ‘Sorrows of Young Werther’ style romanticism. The album creeks under this burden and ultimately sowed the seeds for Celtic Frost’s demise. But it opened a door, one which only a few walked through at first. And as the bizarre peaks and troughs of the 1990s unfolded, pockets of doom and symphonic metal began to revisit the potential of imbuing metal with this sense of grandiose melodrama and the tragedian spirit.
When looking back at the works of Unholy and Pik in this context, it becomes more apparent how limiting modern doom metal can be. It seems constantly mired in a sense of stasis – the drugged fuelled haze of stoner, the endless cathartic release of melodic death/doom, the contrived and overworked miseries of modern funeral doom – all seem stuck in conveying one extreme emotional state in order to freeze it in time. By comparison, when looking at the mazes of the eerie that the likes of Pik and Unholy were unfolding in the 1990s it’s remarkable just how much motion and life is present in their work. They grow, adapt, evolve, and flow like bombastic operas of the macabre.
Following a bleak slab of miserable death/doom in 1992 entitled ‘From the Shadows’, Finland’s Unholy proved to be a reliable holdout for consistently restrained experimentation within the format throughout the 1990s. Their fourth and final offering – 1999’s ‘Gracefallen’ – saw them expand their melodic, symphonic, and timbre palette even further in a lengthy work of ruminative poetry. In essence, Unholy insert a pulse into the haunting ambience of Skepticism, adding more pronounced riffs and positively bouncy rhythms by comparison. But the drab, droning guitars, the seasoning of organ textures, the feeling that we are gradually but inevitably descending into a hole of blackness is very similar.
Production is fairly typical for death/doom of a romantic – as opposed to a brutal – edge. Only light reverb has been applied to the drums, and although the snare is relatively weak, with the bass and toms a little on the clicky side, all serve their purpose in providing the scaffolding for the surrounding gloom to hang on. The guitar tone is equally unsure of itself. It embodies that wonderfully soft and immersive distortion that defined so much of death metal in the 1990s, fully capable of articulating complex riffs if required, but just as happy fleshing out atmospheric funeral marches of droning chords and lengthy sustains in the setting of ‘Gracefallen’.
Vocals are perhaps the most energetic aspect of the mix. Pasi Äijö’s voice bears comparison to Luc Lemay, presenting a crisp and tight delivery with undertones of restrained passion. These are supplemented by Veera Muhli’s eerie clean delivery that takes up just as much of a lead role as the traditional distortion. Her keyboards are equally pivotal to the formula, delivered via various church organ sounds, either occupying a textural position or else taking up lead refrains atop the droning distortion of the guitars.
Whatever weaknesses are present in the mix could almost be interpreted as intentional. They all point toward a deep and threatening emptiness at the heart of the music. Beyond the loosely crafted doom riffs, the colourful but undeniably minimal keyboards, and the restrained drama of the vocals, sits a lurking void. Unholy do not need to rely on overworked atmospheres or an obnoxiously boisterous guitar tone to create this sense of void. The music itself – despite its many highs and lows of passion – is relatively understated, leaving the listener to use their own imagination to work out what sits behind the almost transparent compositions.
That’s not to say that Unholy don’t pack any music into ‘Gacefallen’. There are plenty of odd harmonic leads, melodic narratives and tense chord progressions made more so by the uncomfortable length of time some of the notes are left to hang there. But there’s a constant sense of restraint behind it all, as if the music is overly burdened with purpose and therefore unable to truly break out into speed and noise in the way garden-variety death/doom would. The weak production, the eerie half formed melodies, the tension between lackadaisical performances and impassioned vocals, all speak of music deeply conflicted, threading unease into the very fibre of ‘Gracefallen’ from start to finish.
Germany’s Pik was a flower too odd to last in the blooming. Of their two LPs, the debut ‘The Heritage of Past Gods’ released in 1999 is honestly like nothing you’ve heard before. Despite this phrase’s overuse in today’s hyperbolic world of music criticism, I certainly don’t use it lightly here. “Demilich playing gothic doom metal” is about as good an approximation as I can manage. This is undulating, ponderous, pulsing dark metal with a truly esoteric approach to melodic construction and arrangement. The delivery would be almost comical – much like Demilich – were it not for the conviction and unprecedented aligning of elements into a conflagration of the unspeakably strange.
Pik seemed to set out with a sketch of gothic opera in mind, to which the metallic elements were almost an afterthought, a mere means by which to put meat on the bones of their vision. Riffs are incidental to this endeavour. The guitar tone is deep and murky, relegating the instrument to a presence rather than a centrepiece. They flesh out the mix with rich and pulsing energy. Although there are definitely droning doom riffs and melodies one could hum, the guitars are merely harnessed to lend gravitas and weight to the proceedings. They are positioned as the unsteady foundation, atop which the energy of the vocals and keyboards are free to play their part as the real dictators of narrative on these pieces.
One could be forgiven for ignoring the drums almost entirely on the first few spins of ‘The Heritage of Past Gods’. On the whole they fail to make their presence known beyond mere metronomic qualities. But when one does laser in the performance it is actually a pretty solid example of how to inject character and energy into doom metal from a percussive perspective. I’ve gone on record many times as saying that drums are the most important instrument in doom metal. With so much space to fill out between riffs and chords it’s essential for the drums to give us some much needed context, an anchor in the dark. But if this is overworked it can overpower the subtle despair that the many iterations of the genre are ultimately trying to convey. The performance on ‘The Heritage of Past Gods’ is an exemplar of this balance.
Rich keyboard textures flesh out the vacant space left by the guitars, with deep organs, strings, and synth tones all carrying the narrative arc of each piece. Vocals are predominantly kept clean, opting for an almost comical gothic rock delivery. But in the sonic scenery Pik have painstakingly built to encase this performance it feels entirely appropriate as Henry Beck’s idiosyncratic delivery unfolds. The heavily accented delivery of English language lyrics is deeply unnerving. It’s not just the tone of his voice or the unpredictable builds and falls of intensity and pitch. It’s the fact that he places syllables in unexpected places, splicing certain lines and even single words together in weird chimera’s of poetry. I have a feeling such an unstable approach to cadence and phrasing would not have occurred to a native English speaker, but it gives rise to one of the many charms of this album.
Tempo wise Pik are relatively fast for doom metal. The music plods along with intentional consistency. Bizarre pauses in percussion and distorted guitar leave space for tension as synths and clean guitar arpeggios bridge the gaps, only to lead into an up-tempo guitar solo. It’s aesthetic choices such as these – made appropriate by the very fact that they are so inappropriate – that gives ‘The Heritage of Past Gods’ its unfathomable yet enduring appeal. One is never quite sure – even after a number of listens – how the music will ooze from one passage to the next, or what unearthly musical thread will pulsate out of the bubbling lacquer to dominate the soundscape.
‘The Heritage of Past Gods’ taps into a long and proud legacy. One that sees gothic melodrama meet science fiction, with a strong undercurrent of tragedian philosophy neath this dense conceptual material. It is in this light that we must study this album. Any analysis from the perspective of doom metal is almost redundant. This puts it in good company, as far as the canon of metal is concerned the best works often transcend their genre entirely. In descrying their greatness we let go of the mechanics of stylistic hair-splitting or the agreed standards of form. The music is reaching for a more universal means of communication. Sure, this is a gothic doom metal album, but this classification is a mere afterthought to us witnessing it as anything other than an utterly unique moment in music.
These albums have been placed together for the simple reason that they are both examples of a form of doom metal that has long since been discarded by the genre. This idea that doom metal could be used to craft a sonic haunted house, a dramatic and uncanny expression of human emotion as witnessed on the stage, at the theatre, or the unabashed emotions of gothic literature. It is the combination of crafting an unrestrained and intense emotional narrative with the raw ability to carry this vision off in musical form that makes these albums special. They exist on their own terms and refuse to pander to any metric of good taste or convention. In terms of the pick of the week we’re going with…Pik. Unholy’s ‘Gracefallan’ is certainly a fine album, no denying it. But ‘The Heritage of Past Gods’ deserves a place in the extreme metal hall of fame if for no other than reason than it being gothic doom metal’s answer to ‘Nespithe’ or ‘Far Away From the Sun’, and for that reason it would be criminal not to select it in any matchup.