It was late on a freezing winter night, and I wanted to listen to some metal.
But I was in the mood for something a little different. My usual go-tos like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and anything involving Ronnie James Dio were all in heavy rotation already, and I had also been listening to a lot of death metal and black metal so I wasn’t really feeling those either. Yes, black metallers–I can hear you screaming that winter is the best time for black metal.
Into that need for something a little different stepped Candlemass, my first true experience with what we call “doom metal.”
Doom metal is a slow, intense and pounding subgenre of heavy metal that mostly eschews the knee-jerk urgency to play as fast as you can. Slow speed and an emphasis on riffs to create an atmosphere of dread, gloom, horror, and even despair…an atmosphere of, well, doom. Some of this stuff can be so slow in fact, that the joke is drumming for one of these bands is the most low-stress gig in metal! Take the band below, Reverend Bizarre from Finland. You don’t have to listen to the whole thing if you don’t want, but just to have an idea of how slow this can go…
What can I say? Some just prefer their metal slow rather than warp speed!
If the above description made you think, “So, basically it’s Black Sabbath all over again,” you’d be largely correct. But don’t let that cause you to write the genre off as a meaningless ape dance of Ozzy, Iommi and company. That’s what I stupidly did for years, and I’m still making up for it by playing catch-up on all the doom metal I’ve missed out on. Although Sabbath is absolutely a huge influence on the genre and it can be overly derivative of them at times, the quality of doom metal’s finest acts truly speaks for itself.
In the 70s and 80s, when what we now call “doom” was just starting to find its footing, stories like my winter night’s conversion were turning some metal fans into doomsters. Ozzy Osbourne’s 1979 departure from Black Sabbath hit fans of slow, heavy music very hard, and there was a demand that had to be filled for their indomitable style. It was a big hole to fill.
Thrash metal, death metal and punk rock were getting a lot of underground attention at the time. There was a fiery push to play faster and faster, more and more exotically, and more and more technically. Both youthful aggression and the desire to be a good player fueled this push. It was quite a ballsy move to take your music in the opposite direction from the prevailing trend, to embrace the old aesthetic of Black Sabbath, Pentagram and others…while being no less heavy than the other subgenres.
Perhaps because doom ran so counter to the speed-happy extreme metal aesthetic of the day, it was even less popular than death metal (which as we know, isn’t exactly mainstream either), and certainly less popular than thrash. Even today, the doom metal audience is still a relatively small slice of the overall metal pie. This deep-underground status is reflected in the sales figures too. Even a band like Pentagram, regarded as doom legends with a near-flawless reputation that spans over four decades, have only sold about 60,000 albums during the Soundscan era. Thank God for their touring and their merchandise!
With mainstream exposure not forthcoming, even some of the most respected bands in doom had to wait years, even a decade or more, before they could even have an official, full album out for release (though you could buy the 7″ singles that came out every so often). Pentagram, whom we discussed in the HOM “Early Metal” series, is one of the best examples of this.
For another great example of DIY doom, we’ll turn to a legendary doom figure who’s been crafting this music since the mid-1970s: Scott “Wino” Weinrich. Locally active throughout his native Maryland-DC-Northern Virginia area, Wino’s band was called The Obsessed. They spread the gospel of doom from 1976-1986, but only finally released an album in 1990 consisting of songs they had written and performed for many years already. Those 1990-91 albums are considered sterling statements of doom to this day.
What helped this strong reception was a risky career move on Weinrich’s part: leaving The Obsessed behind in 1986, he moved to L.A to join the band he is most famous for: Saint Vitus. They were a pretty good band already, but having Wino take the reins turned Saint Vitus into a true doom powerhouse. The 1986 record Born Too Late is a definitive doom classic, with songs about alcoholism, longing and death.
With his resume dramatically boosted, Scott could then return home to Maryland to re-form The Obsessed and pick up where they left off. So on both the West and East coasts, doom was planting seeds thanks to this guy. It’s hard to overstate just how much Wino has done for doom, and Saint Vitus and The Obsessed are only two of his many projects.
Funny side note: there are some brand-new doom fans who didn’t realize that this subgenre is older than they think–it is not a recent phenomenon, though that assumption is understandable. Because the internet has made it so easy to discover similar artists to bands they love already, if they start with Sabbath and Pentagram they can quite easily be led to The Obsessed.
So while Wino had both of Americas coasts covered, a band from Chicago made sure the American heartland didn’t lack any doom. That band is Trouble.
Their specialty was a morbid and knowledgeable take on religion (aided by their embrace of Christian spirituality, especially on their early work). They were even branded as “white metal” as a result of songs like their doomed-out reading of “Psalm 9” from the Bible. This was out of print for a long time before being reissued, finally letting more fans taste this pioneering 1984 record.
Throughout the 80s, Trouble was even more prolific than Saint Vitus, releasing at least four acknowledged doom metal classics: Psalm 9, The Skull, Run to the Light, and Trouble. Listening to them all, you can clearly tell Trouble’s love for old school, fuzzy psychedelic rock like Cream and Iron Butterfly. Even the bands taste in food seems consistent with their taste in music: they submitted a recipe to “Hellbent For Cooking” for low-and-slow, fiery hot chili for Bears games. Of course they would.
“It’s a football thing,” bassist Ron Holzner explains. “You start one hour before kickoff, and you’re eating at halftime.” Which is about enough time to crank through the first four Trouble albums.
But the bands mentioned above weren’t the only influence on Trouble and other doomsters.
Remember our discussion on NWOBHM, which in the early 80s produced some of metal’s most legendary acts? Well, not all of those British groups sounded like Iron Maiden or Saxon. Some of the lesser known acts of the subgenre took more of their cues from Black Sabbath rather than from punk rock. It meant they wouldn’t sell as many records, but their work was certainly noticed by Trouble and others.
One of those works was by Witchfinder General, whose 1982 album Death Penalty predated Psalm 9 by two years. It was a more riff-based mid-tempo approach, and Sabbath fans took notice. Certainly they would not receive the lion’s share of UK metal audiences’ attention with this. The band would release one more record and then call it a day before the 80s were even halfway over, but Witchfinder General did its part to prove doom didn’t have to disappear just because Black Sabbath had switched singers.
Another of the doomier NWOBHM bands was Pagan Altar. Active in the British Isles in the late 70s and early 80s, the bands recordings were heavily bootlegged (they only released a collection of demos on cassette at the time). It took until 1998 before some of these recordings were collected and released as Volume 1 or Judgment of the Dead (depending on which version you have). Response to that was so good the band re-formed, at this point able to have father and son be in the band together!
They one-upped even Volume 1 with Mythical and Magical, a scary good collection of songs that had been marinating for decades, in 2006 and played Maryland Death Fest a few years later. After decades of doom work, they finally had the festival appearances and accolades that had passed them by for so long. Sadly though, the father half of the team, Terry Jones, passed away from cancer on the same day I sat down to write this history (May 15th, 2015…RIP, Terry). Presumably in limbo at this point, who knows whether the Altar will be reconstructed…
The free-spirited, psychedelic USA and cloudy, industrial England weren’t the only sources of early, cult doom.
Sunny Italy may not seem a likely spot for heavy, epic, dark music at first glance. But with its intense imperial history, masses of glorious ruins and landscapes, and proximity to the bleeding heart of Roman Catholicism, the country actually has a lot of subject matter for doom. Legendary horror directors like Mario Bavi and Lucio Fulci worked in this environment, and since horror movies and metal (especially doom) go hand in hand, it only makes sense that metal musicians would also be inspired.
Steve Sylvester was one such musician inspired to start a cult horror doom metal band, Death SS. He was joined by guitarist and horror fanatic Paul Chain. Zombies, gore, castles–Death SS are godfathers of the Italian metal underground starting in the mid-to-late 70s. They helped inspire thrash and black metal too. A Collection of their work from 1977 to 1984, The Story of Death SS, is a treasured collectors item for doom aficionados, especially on vinyl. Needless to say, Death SS is obscure now and was pretty obscure back in the day too, even in their home country. But even the combination of unlucky career events and the lack of Italian public embrace can’t stop doomsters from finding their stuff, crude as it may be.
But underground culture has a way of spreading, even in these days before the Internet. You just had to know where to look and be a little creative.
At some point, all these wondrous early doom metal recordings made their way to Sweden. So did those edgy, gory, beautifully shot horror movies, especially from the Italian directors. Through lots of late night watching and listening, a young bassist named Leif Edling developed his vision for Candlemass.
Edling and his bandmates have stated time and again in interviews that they don’t remember much about recording their debut album, which only sold a few hundred copies when it was released in 1986. It was recorded in a cold, dark studio underneath a subway station in Stockholm…fitting. They had no way of knowing it would be considered the greatest doom metal recording of all time. For those who heard it first, Epicus Doomicus Metallicus was earth shattering. And as I can personally vouch, it really is that powerful–powerful enough to open an audience to a new genre of metal that had fully arrived: Doom.
If doom had a “Big Four,” those would be it.
Coming up next, we’ll talk about what happened after 1986 as this music became established. Thanks for reading!
Written by Matt P