SLUDGE/DOOM METAL — I’ve compiled this list not as a “best of” for the wide blanket of Doom Metal (incl. Sludge Metal, Doom Metal, Stoner/Doom Metal, Sludge/Doom, Funeral Doom etc.) in 2020 but to illustrate what Doom Metal is/was beneath the surface in 2020… and where I think it was interesting, polished and overlooked. Honestly, combining doom and sludge into the same list is a shitty necessity, dictated by time. From my own point of vantage these albums were underrepresented and/or passed by quickly by media outlets and some for admittedly valid reasons, when I use the term “underground” keep in mind some of these records (probably) have major distribution. There are countless great bands that I don’t mention here which I’ve already reviewed, covered, interviewed, mentioned or put in my Top 50 Albums of the Year so hit the search icon to see if I’ve already covered something vital, otherwise let me know what I’ve missed. Ratings don’t matter, think for yourself!
Some of the finest regional talent we’ve hit upon here in the very well fed Pacific Northwest United States sludge/doom hybridization spectrum, Seattle-based “cosmic doom” trio Deathcave had already made a solid first impression with their way professional 2019 demo tape. It sounds like having worked with two consistent local pros, Witch Ape Studio and Audiosiege, provided enough insight to create this huge and just ready to hit it kinda 90’s aggro-sludge influenced stoner/doom metal sound. What’d impressed me back then was their nods to the old sway of things while still kinda sporting a mildly proggy 2000’s Relapse sludge vibe nearby. We get more of that upfront as ‘Smoking Mountain’ fires up with bit of earlier High on Fire‘s sludged-deep fantasy metal rhythms on “Deathcave”, some hissin’ and doomin’ nigh atmosludge brooding on “Last Breath”, and man you’ve got to hear album closer “Poison Wizard”! They’ve set some new manner of variety around each corner and hey, they pull into those new ideas slow enough that it always feels like Deathcave have an complex but knowable identity in mind. Very advanced stuff for a debut and I’d found it class as Hell that they’d show up with a serious album to start. Love the clarity of the drums, the riffs a gorgeously curvy knots from start to finish, guitar tones could use more change-ups to lend each song a bit more standalone power, and I wanted a cleaner bass tone personally but overall a major flex for these guys and one of the more underrated sludge/doom records of the year.
|LABEL||Sixteentimes Music, |
Czar Of Crickets Productions
Basel, Switzerland post-doom metal trio Echolot literally put me to sleep in my chair the first time I listened to ‘Destrudo’ and I didn’t consider this a virtue until I’d sat with it a few more times. We’ve essentially got a post-metal album in this third full-length from the band but instead of using atmospheric sludge metal as the base riff and rhythmic patternation much of the structural features of ‘Destrudo’ pull from a mixture of modern and traditional doom metal of the slower variety. At the same time they’re definitely in debt to techniques we’re all too familiar with these, those shimmering tremolo crescendos you might remember from fucking to Explosions in the Sky albums in the mid-to-late 2000’s, but translated to an early Pallbearer level of gloom. They roar, they rasp, the whole thing is much more of a journey than that sounds since this time around the band cut everything into just three distinct pieces. In the past their albums had been one ~40 minute experience and a four part ~50 minute trip, ‘Destrudo’ feels a bit more serious and aims for a more readable standard with beautiful cover art and a logo that’d have a black/death vibe if we didn’t know better. As much as this might sound rote to folks who dig on everything doom/post-whatever these days the resplendent, shimmering peacock tail’d guitar work rarely just aims for the clouds and each of the three pieces here comes together beautifully, restfully and as the apex of each surfaces I’d become even more enchanted. I especially love when the clean vocals hit about three minutes into “Orbital”, the melody isn’t perfect but it is pained and underpinned by a subtle keyboard line. If the band has more of this emotive prog-doom intensity in ’em, I’d like a lot more as it cuts through the dreamy stuff like a knife. “Wind Up North” is the nigh ~20 minute opus of the record and contains the most traditional “doom” hits as it rises and falls into a few acts. The restful, celestial-funereal vibe of ‘Destrudo’ is kinda magic and kinda sleepy all the same for my own taste yet it is undeniably fine work.
Here is a band out of left field that have some major bite happening behind the curtain of their mountainous sludgy stoner/doom metal sound. Think along the lines of Slomatics in terms of sheer weight and the more recent Black Bow Records roster for aggressive sludge/doom on the stoner spectrum with a huge fuzzed out sound. Formed this year, Bis•nte features both members of eclectic rock duo Yoko Factor as well as guitarist Vicente Payá (Unbounded Terror, Golgotha) and the somewhat idiosyncratic vocals of María Lladó for a lurking, shrouded and very psychedelic take on sludge/stoner doom that is “epic” in its build-and-release then grind sort of movement. This doesn’t really build to any reasonable foam until “Where Strangers Reside” and “The Arrival of Our End” push into the utmost cathartic dirges on the record, which coincidentally coincide with the heaviest guitar riffs. There is some real magic in the sensitivity of Lladó‘s emotive range, subtle as it might be to start there is a resonance that builds up to these huge skin-crawling movements that really make the album in its second half. Enchanting stuff, I found it taxing to leave on repeat but only for its strong resonance and patient reveal of the bigger, heavy psychedelic moments.
Morpholith are a Reykjavík, Iceland-based psychedelic doom metal band and it’ll be difficult to pick up on this immediately if you’re approaching the band blindly. This two song ~33 minute EP begins slithering in with a funeral doom worthy approach, glowering well into the halfway mark building a simple psych swaying motion. Patience is key here as it’d be difficult to preview this album, you have to let ‘Null Dimensions’ build up on its own terms. Things occasionally ramp up to sludge heaviness on “Orb” but never push too far beyond the best of Zaum or, not too far from the shorter stretches of the final Reverend Bizarre album. The vocals are quite distant at times but this only adds to the dissociated, ethereal vibe that ‘Null Dimensions’ clearly aims for. The second half of the record, “Monocarp”, is (for my own taste) the payoff for the full listen with its gigantic burly sludge/doom riff and the thirteen minute expanse beyond its first hits. If you’d grown impatient with “Orb” in terms of riffs, this one hits much faster and with more of Monolith‘s own handicraft at work. Normally I’d suggest a band putting out solid EPs every couple of years ‘promising’ at this point but hey, these guys have a pretty sound concept and sound design already. All I’m wanting from the experience at this point is something more tuneful, not necessarily traditional structure but a hook or textural feature to help those lucid moments grip and become gems I’d go digging back for.
‘Devotionals’ is potentially the most underrated doom metal album of the year if we can account for the confounding variable of being released in early December where hype generation is limited. Cardinal Wyrm have been honing their remarkably original take on traditional doom metal forms via a primary duo of Bay Area musicians Pranjal Tiwari and Nate Verrill since 2009 having included some session performances from Leila Abdul-Rauf (Vastum, Hammers of Misfortune) starting with ‘Black Hole Gods’ in 2014. This time around Abdul-Rauf contributes co-vocals as well as bass performances, really tipping the scales towards this being the best work from the band to date. On Side A of this record we’ve got the more typical Cardinal Wyrm expression, the expected serpentine epic doom’s lament that’d remain too impatient to sprawl which is rightfully compared to late 2000’s British and Finnish doom metal, think of the best of Cardinals Folly with detailed and expressive doom pieces that might tangentially reach for a death metal vocal. For my own taste this is brilliant enough and although most of Side A bleeds together into a mush of anxietous dread and doomsday religioso holy shit does Side B flatten me like nothing else this year. “Abbess” brings in a bit of a different energy, an air of religious torment and distress running through the album finding its most nourished point. “Nightmarchers” sounds a bit like early Lord Vicar during certain verses whilst chunking into some death-tinged alternation. The ramp up to the last 3-4 pieces on the album isn’t sheer perfection in terms of the strong heavy rock derived hooks we’ve come to expect from traditional doom metal but, I think that is what makes Cardinal Wyrm interesting, a non-traditional take on traditional doom metal that only appears quite normal until you’ve steeped in its tea long enough to see the other side.
|TITLE||Pray For Death|
‘Pray For Death’ is the third album from Florida’s Junior Bruce, essentially the punkish stoner/sludge counterpart to another sludge band featuring the same ex-Bloodlet members, Hollow Leg. The main reason lots of folks will hop on and off this record fast is surely the extended and redundant song lengths, particularly the first couple songs which are far too similar to be placed up front and man, does “Terror Mounts (Wretched Thing)” drag on forever. From that point on we get a bit more variety, some post-hardcore and auld alt-rock influences for a sound I’d liken to a chilled over Red Fang with a bit of Crowbar‘s late 90’s spiritual essence when it comes time for guitar driven hooks, such as those of “The Basement”. Sure you’ve got plenty of High on Fire dirge n’ howl moments along the way but you’ll find ’em balanced by a bigger hook (see: “one-nine-nine-nine”) in every case. I’m sure trimming the fat might cramp Junior Bruce‘s style but their more potent 3-4 minute songs really do make their case across the length of this record.
|ARTIST||CHAINED TO THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN|
Springfield, Massachusetts-based anonymous sludge metal project Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean have been amongst the heaviest sludge bands to crop up in the last handful of years thanks to nuked production and a style that touches upon the angriest, most doomed earlier era of Thou. Although that sounds reductive on paper, well, it is reductive but the first layer of interest for most fans will come from that likeness. Beyond that ‘The Vestige’ makes a case for individuality via miserable-yet-colorful arrangements that linger a la early 2010’s sludge but without the faceless and simplified post-metal influenced arrangements that’ve plagued pure sludge for quite some time. Beautiful trifold double LP, stunning artwork, and I suppose the cleanest production for the project to date should all signal a success to existing fans. What’ll pull in new fans this time around centers around convoluted rhythms presented plainly, lots of extras detail the album yet you’ll rarely get the feeling of true compositional excess. Doesn’t best an album like ‘Heathen’ in my mind but I’ve found this band’ve come into their own voice a bit more this time around.
|TITLE||Burning Flesh & Time|
No doubt you’re going to wave a knowing hand at German doom metal trio Pulsar in view of their somewhat typical presentation. The simple band name and odd album title with a stoner metal look all glances as generic from a certain point of view. Upon closer inspection the album art from Adam Burke is quite fitting for the cold and oft aggressive slow walk of ‘Burning Flesh & Time’. To be sure these guys are pure doom metal but perhaps in the modern sense where the vague melodicism inherent to each piece takes more from the post-metal spectrum, somewhere between early Pallbearer and Mirror of Deception but with a pretty standard harsh-spoken sung vocal that leans us towards a psychedelic doom/sludge verdict for style. The full listen is quite long but generally worth the time invested. Plenty of small surprises and interesting touches (see: “Fire & Forgiveness Part I”) pop up along the way yet Pulsar somehow still manage a sort of “reserved” personality throughout. Check this one out if you’d liked that Hexer album I’d mentioned back in October, they’re both on a similar wavelength but via different means.
|ARTIST||VESSEL OF LIGHT|
|LABEL||Nomad Eel Records|
If you’re big on New Jersey’s infamous 80’s speed/thrash metal culture no doubt you’ll recognize some of these guys from classic power/thrashers Hades and some extended stints in Overkill among other groups but I’m guessing vocalist Nathan Opposition (Ancient VVisdom, Graven Rite ex-Integrity) comes outta left field for most. Equating the past work of these folks with Vessel of Light will be tough because ‘Last Ride’ isn’t thrash, metallic hardcore or occult rock but rather a traditional doom metal band bit of a Jerry Cantrell vibe to its expression. Stoned and touched-in-the-head harmonies, subtle key changes, and clear influence taken from ‘Degradation Trip’ make for unique voicing you won’t necessarily find on a nowadays doom metal album. The rhythm guitars are simpler mid-paced statements for the most part and for sure the focus is ultimately on Opposition as the central driver of the album and he really does a fine job. While the harmonized vocals are incredible in their general effect I’d found the opportunity to really belt it out into that next dimension was generally overlooked for the sake keeping things on an even keel. Ducking into a growl on “Voices of the Dead” is cool enough though I suppose if you’re going to sound like Alice in Chains (but like, doom) the mind of a longtime fan will want to break out tangents as that third dimension. Anyhow I’m generally nitpicking here, a tuneful if not somewhat rhythmically straight forward traditional doom record that’ll hook you if stick with its uncanny grooves.
|TITLE||Rest in Peace|
|LABEL||Burning Coffin Records,|
For their first couple of records in the early 2010’s Russian doom metal trio Grave Disgrace were known more for their scraggly lo-fi production and droning, extreme sound that’d pulled bits of Electric Wizard into a bleak and heavily psychedelic soupiness. I’d found that early stuff a mixed bag but when they went a bit more traditional stoner/doom on the soggy n’ bluesy sludge of ‘Sabbatharium’ in 2018 that’d finally won me over. They’ve eased on some of the Finnish trad doom feeling on ‘Rest in Peace’ as they angle in a bit more Church of Misery style slingers into their sound but hey, you’re still getting a later Reverend Bizarre sort of experience. Very big, very loud and lurching forth psychedelic doom from a satisfyingly deranged point of view. I’m into it even if the album is a bit long and the average 8-9 minute song tends to drag on into mild excess. Give “Dancing on My Grave” a loudest spin and see if the rest shakes out for you, I liked it even more than ‘Sabbatharium’.
|ARTIST||WIZARDS OF HAZARDS|
|TITLE||End of Time|
Formed as Black Wizard in 1989 and without much mention ’til a recent name change this Laukaa, Finland based traditional doom metal band bring a bit of ‘Tales of Creation’-era Messiah Marcolin to their high fantasy heavy rock influenced jogs. Here is a band you can viably charge with pulling direct influence from early Black Sabbath while more or less existing in the same general tonal realm of Finnish doom metal a la Reverend Bizarre & Spiritus Mortis. All of this sounds pretty typical and I guess, yeah, this is traditional as it gets but when we’re talking doom metal I see that as a glaring virtue. Unfortunately it doesn’t make for an interesting thought or conversation, just a damn good doom record to jam.
|TITLE||Rotten Human Kingdom|
|LABEL||Transcending Obscurity Records|
French sludge metal trio Subterraen have delivered a very professional and well-designed debut full-length with ‘Rotten Human Kingdom’, in fact the render and the imagery within are so polished you’ll likely overlook their somewhat uneventful riffing for the sake of its impressive point of view. Droning fuzzed out guitars hitting extra slow doom riffs with a bit of 2000’s atmospheric sludge gloom makes for an entertaining enough listen to start but I’m not sure I’d leave this one on repeat all day just for the sake of quite repetitive arrangements. The vocals are underwhelming but somewhat typical for modern French sludge bands, it isn’t exactly Fange in terms of personality but then again this is a debut with plenty of room to grow. Even if I do have some gripes with Subterraen‘s choices along the way the experience is meditative and malevolent, a darker edged modern sludge metal sound that is often stoner/doom sludge fuzz heavy havoc when it really hits. The ~18 minute “Wrath Of A Downtrodden Planet” is the main event here, not for how long it is but for the heavier riffs and touches of blackened extreme metal to the band’s modern sludge sound. A bit of a sleepy album overall and the guitar work is quite uncomplicated and barren to some degree but an undeniably strong vibe nonetheless.
Polish aggressive psychedelic doom act MuN were rightfully picked up by a label for their third album ‘Presomnia’, an impressive mix of later Alchemist (Australia), modern sludge/doom tonality and some deadpan Head of David voicing that makes for a harrowing nigh progressive experience. Gargling death growls, post-punk crooning, surrealistic splashes of psychedelic guitars, and a few chest-boring rhythmic attacks finds this album an intelligent but viscerally achieved bout of modern doom metal ideals. As much as you might find this transcendental on some level, MuN find a way towards their grime as often as possible and it makes for a dark and strange storm of an album.
What exactly is Might? A German duo setting tribal early Killing Joke-stewed crawls and cranking them to sludge rock sized statements, moody numbers that showcase some mild ingenuity within a fairly constrained setup. Apocalyptic rock, desert doom, ethereal anthemic sludge, all of this sounds very large and frothy but the way ‘Might’ presents itself it just feels like a great stoner/doom metal band that jam on the regular. The album goes places but never sounds scatterbrained. The only piece that I’m still not sure about is “Weirdo Waltz”, it feels like a shot at black metal riffing that doesn’t pay off.
This debut full-length from Seattle, Washington-area trio Sorcia is probably the biggest, smoothest jam on this list. New Orleans style southern fried sludge is the spark in mind here, a mean sort of heavy blues that digs up some huge doom vibes at its most sour, and this ends up being the major reason to keep picking ‘Sorcia’ up. True misery is only intensified by the idealization of hope and happiness so, the bluesy affect of these folks ride is everything. It’ll feel right for psychedelic/stoner rockers, mid-90’s sludge hitters, and those who’d primarily gig best with Maryland’s 80’s/90’s traditional/stoner doom ideas. The early Electric Wizard-meets-Crowbar wobble of “Stars Collide” doesn’t do a ton for me but hey, the whole listen is pretty sharply realized for a debut.
|LABEL||Burning World Records|
Although the form of psychedelic doom Somnus Throne throw about for ~10 minutes at a time isn’t innovative or particularly original in concept they do manage some moderate charisma and a few tuneful ritualistic numbers as it spins through. You might shrug off the rampant comparisons to Electric Wizard here but I suppose once you’re knee deep in “Receptor Antagonist” you’ll get the general semblance, of course Somnus Throne have some unique vocal timbre and pacing to break things up but this album is a total droner that relies on longform rants to develop textural contrasts, if any at all. The flow of ideas is really what sells this album as something special, the approach is pretty well seated and overworked within stoner/doom circles but their movements make for some really solid looping trances the more you sit with ‘Somnus Throne’. At some point I’d probably rather just throw on a Holy Serpent record and space to that but these guys are onto something worthwhile. Don’t judge this one off its first impression entirely.
|TITLE||De Ecclesiae Universalis|
Five piece French doom metal inquisitors Ecclesia bring a fairly original take on the epic doom metal sound with their “witchfinding doom metal” approach complete with power metal melodies, church organs, chorales, and a style of heavy/doom metal that is primarily the realm of Solitude Aeternus and eh, 90’s Candlemass. I guess if you understand what “singing to the rafters” means, these guys definitely push for a modern metal tinged sound at times and aim for a broader audience with how over the top their approach is. This ended up reminding me of Dawn of Winter a bit due to some of the vocal melodies seating themselves in the classic late 80’s power metal realm with the doom presence still setting the pace and mood. I didn’t end up doing a full review for this one due to it making a great first impression and soon after feeling no great urge to spin through again. The major issue for me was basically the riffs, by the time “Montségur” swings in I’d felt like the variation was very slight between the first few songs. “Behold the Heretic Burning” is a huge Cathedral-sized jam to start but it comes a bit too late in the mix.
|ARTIST||HOUR OF 13|
Of course I am ecstatic that one of my all-time favorite doom metal-related projects is readying their first album after nearly nine years. Hour of 13 was an apex or, an important milestone in the tradition of occult rock/doom metal fusion when they’d shown up and each of their first three albums ramped up towards the thrilling ritualistic knots of ‘333’ (2012) which is to this day one of my personal favorite doom metal records. Anyhow, since it seems like those early years of the band were a pain in the ass and Earache probably isn’t a great label experience the main fellow behind the project Chad Davis (Obscurae, The Sabbathian, ex-Set) would basically decide to fully pick up the vocals around 2016 and self-release a few EPs toying with deathrock and samhain celebration until finally landing on a freshened sound for Hour of 13, an EP and an LP’s worthy of ideas. This is the EP, which released this November, the LP ‘Black Magick Rites’ will release via Shadow Kingdom in 2021 but he’d made it available for ~24 hours this Halloween as a temporarily digital purchase, which I swooped into quick! Considering the amount of experimentation on some of the previous EPs this stuff is just brilliantly 100% Hour of 13, I’m not sure how else to describe it. The kick n’ Zeppelin push of early Budgie with the morbid haunt of Witchfinder General and Pagan Altar driving the bus. Davis does a fine job with the vocals here, pushing some bigger wails on “The Midnight Hour” that speak to some years spent finding his own voice.
Here we’ve got a different sort of blackened doom metal, this time out of southern California via a trio of fellows you’d likely not recognize from anything else. ‘Thoughtform Guardian’ is a two song ~22 minute EP which I honestly cannot remember how I’d found, either Bandcamp diving or seeing the cover art on a YouTube thumbnail. Either way expect a thickly lo-fi low frequency fuzz blast from these guys, it sounds like they didn’t just scoop their tone but cut off the highs entirely. As a result these songs drone hard, sub-basement tones that thunder and growl beneath the slower black/doom metal pacing. At times this reminds me of early Root oddly enough, or the early demos from Christ Agony but then again, it almost sounds like a stoner/doom metal band repurposing their setup for a black metallic sound, which is an alluring if not sleepy reality for the listener. They’ve got some sound design ideas to mull over in the future but this sound is a bit like an old demo, the sound is broken enough that it becomes uniquely engrossing as an adaptation of the ear.
|LABEL||Occult Ritual Records|
So this year I definitely swung back into the stoner/doom metal arena less frequently than ever and when I’d sat in reflection I’d realized this list had to be at least a little bit smoke-eyed and… voila! Melbourne, Australia’s Astrofuzz couldn’t be more fuckin’ stoney. Yep, somehow comparing bands to Electric Wizard makes me sound less original than most bands that fit the bill but, I appreciate irony above all else. Anyhow, a lot can be done with that ultra-fuzz double distorted hell noise and just as HM-2 blasted death metal can be modulated into brilliance, so can this outrageous guitar sound spank the shit outta my mind. ‘Necromancer’ is huge in the same way that Monolord‘s ‘Vænir’ was, an absolutely nuclear event that stops just short of burning the hair from my inner ears, that is to say it is a lumbering and ridiculously fuzzed stoner/doom metal sound with a heavy dose of psychedelia and B-movie horror kitsch filling in the quieter parts. Vocals are distant and in some sort of sublime extraconscious state, detailing a series of horrifying visions, my favorite being “Horror From Space”. The sort of simple but effective fuzz-showered doom listening I’m usually up for but rarely get sent for review.
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