With its roots stretching back to Black Sabbath themselves, doom metal harkens back to the very origin of heavy metal, despairing wails and apocalyptic riffs setting a very different pace to the colourful vibrance of the late-60s rock scene. In the five decades since Black Sabbath first set the pace for legions of miserablist bands to come doom, much like the wider heavy metal genre, has evolved enormously, expanding its scope past spirits and demons from beyond the void to cover existential crises, depression, death, grief and romance (among much, much more).
With US doom rising stars Khemmis returning with the superb Deceiver, we asked the band to give us a run-through of some of the most heartbreaking and poignant songs in doom canon.
“Doom is a fascinating subgenre of heavy metal because of the inherent breadth of the genre label itself,” explains guitarist Ben Hutcherson. “To be sure, genre categories are always a source of contention among fans, artists, and industry figures. Rather than debate the traits which do and do not constitute ‘real doom’, a fight better left to forums and late-night pub discussions, I want to focus on the emotional heft of ten songs that speak to the diverse ways in which doom and doom-adjacent music touches listener’s hearts. You should listen to these as a playlist and take the time to experience them with the volume up, the lights dim, and other distractions set aside. Doom, more than many other styles of metal, requires and deserves your full attention.”
1. Warning – Watching From A Distance (Watching From A Distance, 2006)
“I could pick any song from Watching From A Distance and there could really be no disagreement about its emotional impact, but I have chosen the title-track for one simple reason: on an album that is so thoroughly heartbreaking, so demanding of the listener, Patrick Walker & co. open with the longest song in what almost feels like a dare. Do you want to revisit every heartbreak in your life? Do you want to be consumed with guilt? Do you need the soundtrack to changing love(s) in your life? Well, friend, we won’t make you wait for it… This is one of those records that was criminally overlooked for so long, so the recent(ish) resurgence in popularity for all things slow and low brought a new contingent of fans to worship at the altar of Warning.
2. Swallow the Sun – Empty Skies (Hope, 2007)
“Swallow The Sun balance sombre introspection with triumphant guitars better than most. The clean/heavy/clean song structure could be trite in the hands of a lesser band, but here that dynamic produces a sense of instability, a dawning awareness that the ground beneath us holds far more truth than the imagined heavens above. There is something uniquely invigorating about Euro doom bands; even in their darkest moments, there is still an undeniable sense of power in what they do.
Sure, that might seem hard to reconcile with lyrics like ‘My old friend will you lay me back to rest? I’ve been suffering so long without you. Come and take me away from this pain’ but it’s the combination of dark words with a sense of resiliency–or, perhaps, radical acceptance of the harrowing truth of it all–that makes this song so powerful.”
3 & 4. Bell Witch – As Above/So Below (Mirror Reaper, 2017)
“Look, I know this is technically an album. But as band members Dylan Desmond and Jesse Shreibman have explained elsewhere, Mirror Reaper was conceived as a single (very long) song and is only divided into two tracks (As Above and So Below) because of the constraints of physical media; it is intended to be experienced in one listening session.
This colossal work is more than just 83 minutes of harrowing funeral doom; it is a profound farewell to original drummer Adrian Guerra, who died in 2016. Mirror Reaper is not only a heart-rending tribute to Adrian, but also includes the final recordings of his voice, taken from earlier demos. The story of the record’s genesis is sorrowful enough to justify its inclusion here, but the beauty of the music here can break your heart even without that background story.
The combination of Desmond’s bass technique (i.e., fretting notes with both hands, often treating the instrument more like a piano than a source of low end) and his mournful phrasing takes you – takes us – to the very well of grief and love. The “extreme” moments, when Dylan’s bass becomes a distorted wall of sound and death growls (from both Jesse and Adrian) punctuate the space between crashes, are no less impactful. And to top it all off, Erik Moggridge (aka Aerial Ruin) lends his glorious voice to the maelstrom.”
5. Mournful Congregation – The Waterless Streams (The Book Of Kings, 2011)
“Good funeral doom should evoke an emotional response from the listener. Great funeral doom should enshroud you in sorrow as though you are saying farewell to someone you loved. Mournful Congregation’s ability to evoke that sadness comes from the beautiful harmonized leads and intricately layered heavy, clean, and acoustic guitars. When that incredible solo kicks in around the seven-minute mark, I always involuntarily close my eyes and feel spirited away to a different, darker place.”
6. Pallbearer – The Ghost I Used to Be (Foundations Of Burden, 2014)
“Those boys from Arkansas create music that is equal parts gloom and fantasy, taking us through spiral galaxies into the heart of cosmic sorrow. The sludgy, multi-layered guitars and Brett Campbell’s soaring voice crash over you in alternating waves of harrowing pain and melodic salvation, trademark ‘Pallbear-isms.’ However, this song is special in their canon because of its (relatively) uptempo midsection which gives way to increasingly somber passages of melodic heartache, a journey that does not offer a triumphant resolution but instead concludes with a visceral sense of acceptance.
Throughout the ten minute song, Campbell reflects on the toll that time has taken on him- perhaps only a version of himself as the protagonist, perhaps himself in its entirety, who is to say? Still, I find myself pondering this as I listen to his voice, an existential query that feels simultaneously universal and profoundly personal.”
7. Asunder – Twilight Amaranthine (A Clarion Call, 2004)
“The combination of melodic, emotive guitar lines, cello (!), and the dual vocal attack of John Gossard’s unsettling, monotone invocations and Dino Sommese’s growls give Asunder a unique sort of “heartbreaking” quality. If Warning’s sadness comes from the relatability of the lyrics and their symbiotic relationship with the guitars, Asunder’s is a uniquely apocalyptic form of sorrow. These songs evoke feelings, to be sure, but they are feelings of despair and isolation, of a sadness known only by those who exist on the periphery of the world.”
8. Crowbar – The Lasting Dose (Sonic Excess In Its Purest Form, 2003)
“Kirk Windstein is hailed as a god-tier riff machine, and for good reason; if the opening of High Rate Extinction doesn’t make you want to punch a hole in spacetime then you and I just don’t live in the same world. But it’s his knack for wrangling heartache into sonic form on The Lasting Dose that lands him and the rest of the NOLA crew on the list.
The harmony in the opening motif is so fucking good that it only takes two notes to knock the breath right out of you; that is no small feat. The massive wall of guitars and Windstein’s gravel-throated lamentations are present on their earlier albums, to be sure, but instrumental melodies are more integral than on previous releases and set the tone of this album in a way that blends the satisfying chugs with an elevated sense of pathos.”
9. YOB – The Great Cessation (The Great Cessation, 2009)
“I have never minced words when talking about the importance of YOB in my life. They, along with Neurosis, changed my life and expanded my notion of how art could be heavy, honest, and transcendental. Whenever I have seen them perform this song live, I have wept as joy and sorrow intertwined and coursed throughout my body.
Mike Scheidt’s clean, finger-picked intro gives way to an expansive, fuzz-soaked consideration of existential satisfaction and a longing for serenity. I hesitate to call this song uplifting insomuch as there is an undeniable sorrow in his lyrics and vocal delivery, as though the questions he asks are rhetorical. ‘Will we ever see a time when it’s enough?‘ I hope so – I have to hope so – but at the end, won’t the waves crash down around us all the same? Knowing that, how do we reconcile the inevitability of those cleansing tides with the necessity of transcending our egos and embracing the beauty of the universe?”
10. Neurosis – A Sun that Never Sets (A Sun That Never Sets, 2001)
“Neurosis is the most influential metal band of the last thirty years. Very few bands have shaped the musical direction of any given subgenre; their impact can be heard in doom, sludge, black, death, and even grind. With a body of work as expansive as theirs, it is hard to pick one song that is a singular representation of their emotional power, yet A Sun That Never Sets is particularly special for me.
Many years ago, my dear friend Eddie played this record while we sat in his truck and drank cheap beer. I had listened to Neurosis when I was first discovering the world of underground metal–in fact, this song was on the Relapse Contamination sampler I picked up when I saw Mastodon, Cephalic Carnage, and Soilent Green at the HiTone in Memphis during my senior year of high school. At the time I was much more interested in finding the most brutal death and grind bands in existence than I was in taking the time to actually engage with Neurosis’s music, but in the years that passed between first hearing the song and that day sitting in a pickup drinking cheap beer with such a good friend, something had changed and this song landed with me in a big way.
The patience that a band like Neurosis requires from listeners, even with a short(ish) song like this one, is rewarded with unparalleled emotional release. Years later, Eddie and I flew out to San Francisco to see Neurosis for their 25th anniversary at the Great American Music Hall, supported by YOB and US Christmas. That show changed every facet of how I understand, create, and love heavy music, and I would never have had that moment were it not for an afternoon in the parking lot of a dive bar in Memphis, TN years earlier.
Whenever I hear this song–any Neurosis song, really, but particularly this one – I feel every single note in every single cell of my body. Joy courses through my veins as I remember the times spent with one of the best friends I could ever hope for, but with those memories comes the inevitable waves of grief as I know I will never see him again. Such is the power of truly transcendent art – it can connect us to people who have died, people whose love has molded us, and whose absence we carry within ourselves for all of our lives. Such is the gift of this song, for which I am grateful even as I feel my heart break because through listening to it I will once again be made whole.”
Khemmis’ new record Deceiver is out now via Nuclear Blast, available to