Sunday, May 16, 2010

The New Doom Metal: A Plea for Originality

"It's atmosphere. Feeling. That's how I feel about heavy music...heavy to me is emotion. The more emotion it has the heavier it is to me. It could have no distorted guitars at all, no death vocals, but if it's pure emotion, that's a heavy song."

- Paul Kuhr from Novembers Doom in a recent interview.

The quote above may not be the most original sentiment, or even anything new to you - indeed it expresses something that doom metal musicians have been convinced of, in one form or another, since the supposed inception of the genre with Black Sabbath in 1969 (so we have thirty years of history behind this definition of aesthetics) - but I feel it accurately captures something that has seemed to escape the majority of musicians working in our blessed little subculture, and it serves as an effective reminder of the path for us all: a finger pointing the way, a hand gently swaying the forsaken.

With this article I want to bring to your attention something that has long been troubling me: the predominance, within doom metal, of bands that swim faithfully the same rivers as their forefathers, never rising above the currents that swept away the progenitors, and forcing the entire genre and/or style of this kind of music into a wearied stalemate - a labored treading of shallow water, an exhausted refusal to dive deeper into the well of souls...most of all a fear of the depthless (and for the most part, unsounded) oceans of inspiration that the style of doom metal has opened up for us. Why do these bands exist - and more pointedly, why do we listen to them or support them? Is it only that we don't know better? Have we been lulled to sleep by a rite that is older than most of us?

There are those who claim that doom metal is the most traditional (and oldest) of all the various subgenres of metal music, and that claim is easily substantiated by pointing to Sabbath, Trouble, or the other forefathers who have been reduced to the status of impotent figures on the edge of our collective memory by metal recidivists. This claim is ludicrious, of course, because the other genres point to the same figures - and if we are going to go back and claim that Sabbath, for example, started the whole thing (in a concentration strictly on our own influences) then why do we just stop at Sabbath's first album, handling opener 'Black Sabbath' reverently with gloved fingers, lovingly listening to that three-note knell of ruin that introduces it? Why not go back farther - to the blues bands that influenced Iommi? The love for the Beatles that made Ozzy swoon? Out of all the countless bands that have come before, I would probably (if forced) name Candlemass as the 'true originators', but what does that really mean? If we were to reference Candlemass, in an effort to be more exacting, our results would only be better in an illusory sense. Who do you think were the biggest influences on Leif Edling, the main songwriter for the band? That's right, Black Sabbath - and the cycle begins again. We return to the Sab Four, and because our methodology calls for it, we must go further. If you are interested in authenticating influences, you can not stop at a point that pleases you on an idealogical level. If it's going to be true, it must above all be real.

The game of tracing influences, in whatever degrees, is almost hopeless - without any verifiable sources, and without a real ending (and thus without any hope for a decision, a realization). Considered categorically, it is impossible. Is there any psychologist out there who has traced, in a mock-scientific method, the process of recording an artist's influences? They are myriad, minute, indecipherable - and once they have disappeared into the artist's unconsciousness, through whatever process of absorption and incorporation, they are swallowed, mutated, reborn, and leave no trace. The apparatus of engines that convert an artist's experiences into his original ability for expression (the bottomless pool of creativity, the unconscious) is a perpetual motion machine. It can not be stopped in order to examine its inner workings - indeed we often can only come to through its products, its affects (or effects). This is not a call for further self-shrouding 'mystery' (the cloaking of the artistic process) on the part of musicians (that cult is already well established), but rather a realization that we must keep in mind the complexity of the creative process when we are seeking to trace its influences or set precedents for our own traditions.

In order the free ourselves from these strangling precedents (the true weight of tradition) I believe we must use the above realization to reach a sort of impasse with the bands that have come before. A moment of thought will crystallize the stigma of influences: they are ever-changing, ever-evolving - shifting, changing form, recapturing their precedence or power, or sliding back again into history. A further point: what bands will musicians of today influence years down the road? Will they point to the music of today or the same few progenitors? Don't we owe it to ourselves and to the ones who will come after to strike out into new territories? Will we be responsible for transmitting the virus of creative decay to our own followers? Is our art alive, ceaselessly adapting, growing, and reflecting our environment - or is it dead and entombed, an icon we can not understand or shape? An embalmed idol covered with idealized hieroglyphics which we must touch with reverent fingers? The blind priesthood of doom metal must be abolished, made obsolete, burned away - much in the same way that black metal bands irreverently used the elements of their influences to forge a new art with a rediscovered relevance for our age. Iconoclasm, I believe, is one of the strongest fundamentals of the creative urge. In order to stand on the shoulders of giants it is often necessary to step on a few idols.

What, then, are we to take away from the earlier music? Influence, I believe, separated from authority. Most of all, the spirit of our influences, the way that they approached their own creativity, the originality with which they composed. It is this spirit and ideal that I think is their greatest gift of inspiration - the communication of emotion, of a pride in a novel or authentic realization of emotions being transmitted from the artist to his audience. Many times an original approach must be invented in order to effectively reveal or convey ideas, experiences, and feelings that do not fit into earlier forms of communication. This is a process that is never-ending, it is at the center of life: the constant growth and decay that the multifaceted elements of reality undergo through innumerable transitions. There are as many shades and tints and new constructions of emotion as there are people to feel them - we place emotions into strict categories in order to facilitate communication, but are the emotional states of two different people really ever similar? Speaking realistically, would we ever want to be in a position where they could be similar? Music is ceaselessly evolving as an instrument of disclosure, and in order to sufficiently allow the art to reflect the world as a whole, the devotees of the discipline must expand its capabilities in ways that are adapted to new circumstances. Using or only understanding the forms of an earlier time (the impetus of tradition) is tantamount to creative suicide for musicians seeking an authentic discharge of emotion: the artistic instinct, eager to express itself, can not find adequate avenues for release. While the artist is living in the present, subject to all the experiences his flesh is heir to, a handicapped understanding of his own art does not allow his powerful instincts to reach maturity.

Blues musicians will tell you that the recordings of Robert Johnson, for example, are not influential mainly because of new forms that he introduced or original methods in his compositions, but because they are powerfully genuine examples of pure emotional expression. They are a creation of the lust for the Ideal transmitted through the Actual of real life experience. Songs like 'Hell Hound On My Trail', for example, are a harrowing transmission of emotions that we normally ignore or relegate to private rumination - their striking originality lies in the candor and honesty with which Johnson treats his subjects. They are the confessions of yet another artist reputed to have sold his sold to the devil. This aspect of blues music - its emotional power, its honest reflection of life as we live it - was a gift to the first metal musicians, whether they knew it or not. It lies dormant within the metal tradition, easily traced back in this case to the roots of the genre.

It is not necessary to seek for imaginary realms or fantastic sources when seeking inspiration for doom metal: I feel that a new aesthetic, where the genre became, more and more, a reflection of our all-too-grim reality, would offer the musicians working within it an absolute access to free expression: not the official party line on the artistic relation to reality, but rather each musician's life, as it is seen by that artist - the array of personal realities, interpreted subjectively and represented authentically.

U. Amtey
February 8, 2000