If you’re one of the many admirers who discovered Sunn O))) through last year’s galaxy-shaking Monoliths and Dimensions, then you understand the soothing effects of doom metal. As the band’s guitarist Greg Anderson told author and enthusiast John Wray in a 2006 New York Times Magazine profile, “I think low-frequency sound, when played above a certain volume, is very conducive to a meditative state or a trance.” This isn’t metal for headbanging; it’s metal to meditate to.
Although Anderson and his partner Stephen O’Malley have honed their brand of focused distortion to a therapeutic science, they’re far from the only metalheads employing extreme low-end rumblings for our metaphysical benefit. To aid you on your spiritual journey, we present this collection of notable releases from metal groups working to bring us closer to enlightenment through the heaviest of sounds. Namaste!
When Justin K. Broadrick disbanded Godflesh, one of the earliest industrial-metal bands, no one expected the former guitar prodigy to turn around and invent another metal subgenre. But that’s just what he did with Jesu, the one-man recording project he started in 2003 and named after Godflesh’s last recorded track.
Jesu have since grown to become a full, prolific band, releasing a bundle of EPs, splits, and albums each year. But their self-titled debut is still the best example of their transcendent blend of shoegazey melody and brutally heavy doom. Best moment: opener “Your Path to Divinity” features one of the greatest two-note riffs ever to sustain a nine-minute song.
The first thing that occurred to us upon hearing this two piece’s 2009 debut was: rock needs more Tuvan-style throat singing. But that’s ignoring the album’s other strengths. The tempos lurch along as if caught in a primordial ooze, and the register stays low thanks to singer/guitarist Gentry Densley’s gruff baritone. But the songs twist and turn through passages of free-form improv, pounding riffs, and pitch-black psychedelia, each less predictable than the last. It’s no wonder that during their 2009 gig opening for dream lineup Pelican, Earth, and Sunn O))), Eagle Twin more than held their own, almost blowing their stagemates out of the water.
Canadian guitarist and effects wizard Aidan Baker has already made a name for himself with his shimmery, fuzz-laden releases under the moniker Nadja, but in Whisper Room, a new instrumental trio with bassist Neil Wiernik and drummer Jakob Thiesen, he seems even more at home. Freed by the live-band setting, his otherworldly guitar effects probe corners unexplored by Nadja’s deliberately monotonous drones. Hushed and ambiguous, Birch White is the music you might hear in the back of your head upon reaching another plane of existence.
Portland-based collective Grails have always resisted the tropes of their underground metal scene, forsaking the power chord, the blues-based riff, and vocals of any kind in favor of Middle Eastern scales, Asian instruments, and the atmosphere of a smoke-filled, subterranean chamber. On 2008’s Doomsdayer’s Holiday, they let comparatively loose. Special honors go to “Reincarnation Blues” for the use of what sounds like a classical Chinese erhu in the name of rocking the hell out. Who says musical meditation can’t be this invigorating?
Boris – Flood
Boris are now well-known to American metal fans, thanks to their anthemic stoner-metal albums Akuma No Uta and Pink . But they’ve been plying their amp-worshiping trade since 1996 in their native Japan, where some of their most interesting records remain untouched by Western labels. 2000’s Flood is one of Boris’ most patient albums, building over many long minutes from a lonely, delay-drenched guitar lick to the crushing depth of oceans.
Boris have always been sort of a schizophrenic act, part drone, part pyrotechnic stoner rock, part doom metal riff-masters. All of their multiple identities are worth paying attention to.
Om are what metalheads dance to. Possessed with uncanny powers of rhythm, this guitarless two piece builds spiritually charged monuments to the almighty groove, shepherding eager followers along half-hour, three-note marathons. Om’s music may be minimalist, but simple it ain’t. This is rock pared of all its fat, without losing any of the power.
One of the best existing videos of Om’s live prowess takes place in a city that matches their music’s spiritual themes:
What do you get when you take drone metal and strip away all the distortion? Earth, reborn. One of the original drone-metal groups, they’ve gone so far as to re-release some earlier work in their newly clean style. The result resembles the soundtrack to a lost Sergio Leone film, if Ennio Morricone had contracted a four-piece rock band. The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull is proof that heaviness can be achieved through methods other than high volume.
Fans of these revered experimentalists hailed their last album, 2007’s Given to the Rising, as a return to form. That’s selling its predecessor short. Though substantially more melodic than Neurosis’ most popular albums — some of the heaviest music that exists — 2004’s The Eye of Every Storm strikes a near-perfect balance between loud and soft, menacing and melancholy. Neurosis are one of those rare bands that showcases metal at both its darkest and its most beautiful.
So tell us what you think. Did we miss anything? Which albums, metal or otherwise, bring you to that higher state?