Anti-War Sentiment and Transgression in Death Doom Metal

M. Selim Yavuz
M. Selim Yavuz

Anti-war culture made its way into popular culture as a high point during the 1960s and 1970s as part of the hippie culture movement. Metal music, being originated around the same time with bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, could be thought of having connections to this hippie movement.

This connection, obviously, is not as visible as other cultural connections; however, it becomes prominent in some parts of the doom metal music culture especially after the 1990s extreme turn as Keith Kahn-Harris calls it.

One of the significant propellers in doom has always been the idea of transgression ever since the style’s embodiment in Black Sabbath’s first album. Noisey author Nathan Carson states that in an interview in 2013 with Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, he “asked him when they first used the term ‘doom’ to describe their music. [Iommi’s] answer was ‘Doom? […] from day one, really.’”

So what are the transgressive elements in doom metal from the very beginning? As you heard in the excerpt from Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’ from the album ‘Black Sabbath’, tritone occupies a significant space in the opening riff of the song.

In fact, the introduction only consists of an arpeggiated tritone in a sombre tempo with little ornamentation. And until we reach the metal era, tritone has been an interval that required resolving and it has been described as “diabolus in musica” from at least the early eighteenth-century.

Iommi, on the other hand, structures the whole first section of the song based on the interval alone only supported by the root’s higher octave, admittedly decreasing the effect of the tritone but at the same time effectively avoiding giving the listener a comforting consonant interval in between arpeggiated notes.

Another visible transgression can be observed in the imagery of the bands of the era. Let us have a look at these photographs from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin from around the turn of the decade.

As you can see, from clothing to postures and facial expressions, Black Sabbath is going against the grain of the era. Doom metal, in this sense, is an interesting area of research because of its stratified and complex inner structure, and as a result of the combination of the transgressive tendencies inherent in the culture with this complex layering, doom becomes a sea of both internal and external clashes.

In this presentation, I will focus on two sub-styles of doom metal that took shape after the 1990s turn, namely stoner/doom and death/doom.

I will not attempt to discuss here the origins and the structure of doom metal exhaustively, however, a brief mention helps to position these sub-styles of doom metal appropriately within more extensive cultural makeup.

In this article, you can understand the different styles within doom metal, most of which began after the 1990s with exceptions such as traditional doom and epic doom. So where does the connection to hippy movement become prominent in doom metal?

As you can expect from this list, stoner/doom is the sub-section of doom metal culture most obsessed with the 1970s, drugs and psychedelia which show a clear connection to this movement.

Now, let us take a look at this in more detail. Firstly, there is the drug use, as apparent from the name “stoner”. Marijuana use is such an important part of the listener culture, conversations like these come up often in social network-based fan groups of this style.

Here is an excerpt from ‘Building a Haunted House’ by the American band Snail released in their 2015 album ‘Feral’. You can hear the 1970s psychedelia here in both the harmonic structure and the timbre of the instruments. You can also see the distorted colours and the mushrooms on the album cover. We should look at the other album covers of some well-known stoner doom bands, and we see further this sound’s visual translation.

When you inspect these covers, the 1970s influence is again apparent. Without the band logos, these images can easily be assumed to be from that era, especially notice the Orange Goblin cover. In lyrics, this connection further continues.

First, there is the inner conflict within this stoner doom music world. As you can see from this article, Bongripper, an American band that has mostly instrumental music, claims the rift between their own culture and the hippie culture. However, if we explore more, we see the similarly dominant pagan imagery in the lyrics alongside the idea of love.

Here you see four excerpts from two bands. Growing and reviving are important concepts in both bands’ songs. Furthermore, ‘Mother Earth’ or ‘Moon Goddess’ are clearly part of the pagan terminology. So even though there is a rejection within the culture of the hippie culture connection, with relative confidence I can say this connection is alive and well within the stoner doom music world.

I focussed on stoner doom because it is the most visibly hippie culture connected music world within doom metal. I will discuss death/doom now, because superficially, this music world, while very far away stoner doom culturally, the unexpected and relatively common appearance of the anti-war theme suggests a subtle connection to the same movement.

However, a more in-depth exploration of death/doom showed a different picture than what one might expect. Before discussing the anti-war theme in early doom, stoner doom and death/doom though, in order to give you a better idea of where we are musically, here is an excerpt from the English band Anathema’s ‘Sleepless’.

We cannot hear a 1970s musical influence easily in this excerpt and this style in general. Visually, these bands also fall into a distant category.

Ethnographic research becomes useful here in order to trace this style musically. From the outside one might make three different assumptions to what death in death/doom means musically or culturally.

The first obvious assumption is that death/doom is an amalgamation made by promoters or distributors early in the style’s conception, I mean here the early 1990s, in order to introduce this style of music in their mail order lists or concert flyers in a few words.

The second assumption is that death in death/doom refers to the style being death-metal-like, or in other words having the death growls compared to other doom metal music. I only include here the growls because musically there are no other consistent overlaps with death metal style in death/doom.

Moreover, the third assumption is that the word “death” refers to the thematic content of the lyrics in this style.

In my initial interview with Aaron Stainthorpe, the vocalist of My Dying Bride, one of the pioneer bands of death/doom style, he said that they were first called that by magazines however he also thinks that it is an appropriate definition of the music they do, adding however that maybe doom/death is more appropriate now instead of death/doom.

From this statement, also considering the stylistic development of My Dying Bride, one can infer that Aaron thinks of the terms death and doom as pointers to two different styles under extreme metal: doom metal and death metal. Here are two brief examples to show the differences between what Aaron calls death/doom and doom/death.

Finally, a brief scan of lyrics in this style also confirms the third assumption as you can see in these excerpts from different death/doom bands.

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