10. Church of Misery - Master of Brutality (2001)
(Southern Lord Records)
Church of Misery may very well be the undisputed (and unchallenged) kings of Japanese stoner/doom. But that's not just because they're competition is so limited. These disciples of sludge earned plenty of credibility with their first two releases, Taste the Pain and Church of Misery, so it wasn't a surprise when Yoshiaki Negisi (vocals), Tomohiro Nishimura (guitars), Tatsu Mikami (bass), and Junji Narita (drums) dropped the supremely heavy EP Master of Brutality. Recordings that feature music this slow and thick rely completely on the groove capacity of the musicians involved. The riffs simply must be charged with an essence that's difficult to describe but immediately recognizable to aficionados of stoner/doom. When done right, a certain timelessness comes into affect. It's as if metal never wandered so far away from its simplistic, psychedelic roots -- as if this wasn't just another subgenre in what has become an incredibly segmented form. There's plenty of said magic and ability on Master of Brutality, as each of the five original tracks (that just as with prior Church of Misery releases are each based on different serial killers) pound mercilessly through repetitive, yet sublime stoner figures. There are no high or low spots, no weak tracks to be avoided, or embarrassing experiments. On this 2001 Southern Lord release there are just six (including one Blue Öyster Cult cover) relentless, sonic clubbings. Any serious fan of low and slow metal has a hole in their collection until they acquire Master of Brutality.
Ripping Into Pieces
09. Saint Vitus - Born Too Late (1986)
Born Too Late is undeniably a defining effort in the spirit of the early, now considered "classic" doom metal sound. The marriage of vocalist Scott "Wino" Weinrich, founder of Maryland's D.C. area legends the Obsessed and L.A.'s own legendary doom pioneers Saint Vitus, produced a sound and lyrical landscape that was not commercially successful in its own right, but which has inspired and continues to influence myriad popular culture figures such as the Melvins, Nirvana, L7, Fugazi's Ian McKay, Black Flag's Greg Ginn (owner of SST, Saint Vitus' label) and Henry Rollins, Monster Magnet, Kyuss, Electric Wizard, Eyehategod, Grief, Sleep, Cruevo, and a list of bands, musicians, and genres too long to list without writing a novel. Long after Black Sabbath had shifted their sound away from the bombastic, sludgy riffing of classics like Paranoid, Masters of Reality, Vol. 4, and the like, Saint Vitus and the Obsessed rose from regions that were birthplaces and breeding grounds for early-American hardcore punk. While identifying intensely with the independent and socially critical nature of those scenes, Saint Vitus's sound was deeply rooted in the gloomy ballistics of early Sabbath. Born Too Late's sludgy, ultra-slow riffs never break out into the galloping rhythms of, say, "Children of the Grave," however. This album is like Black Sabbath on Quaaludes and wearing lead suits underwater. Each chord rains down like a hammer, and each progression takes an eternity to resolve. In the early '80s, while everyone in the pop music culture was looking for the new sound, be it new wave or hardcore, Saint Vitus were decidedly retro. You don't even need more than the name of the album's title track, "Born Too Late," to get the point. But Wino drives it home anyway, with the lines "every time I'm on the street/people laugh and point at me/they talk about my length of hair/and the out of date clothes I wear." The lyrics go on to point out that while "they say [his] songs are much too slow," they also "don't know the things [he] knows." That's for sure. Before almost anyone else had even realized that rock was on its death bed, Saint Vitus were looking back on the '70s with nostalgia. Throughout, the album is what might be considered a cliched retrospective of that bygone era's heavy metal sentiments. Dragons, psychedelic drugs, images of war, and severe alcohol abuse dominate the landscape. The most important consideration with this album, though, is not the originality of the approach. What separates Born Too Late from nearly all heavy metal up to that point was the outright admission that the band's passion - slow, heavy music - not only lacked commercial viability, but was in fact itself a source of the ridicule and social alienation the music speaks to. The punk rock style integrity of the band's commitment to that sound and image was in direct opposition to the money and chicks attitude of L.A. glam metal of the day. While the impact Saint Vitus made with Born Too Late at the time was minimal, the legacy of that early dedication has influenced and changed the world of music. For all fans of grunge, stoner rock, and doom metal, this album is a classic.
08. Boris - Amplifier Worship (1998)
(Southern Lord Records)
With their second full-length album, Boris takes their sludgy, Melvins-influenced doom rock style and gives it a heavy psychedelic slant. The album is divided into five tracks, but like their other albums, Absolutego and Flood, it plays out like one extended piece and is meant to be listened to straight through in one sitting. It starts out with a slow, ugly doom riff that repeats for several minutes before heading into a stretched-out, psychedelic jam section on the lengthy second track, "Ganbou-Ki." After another succession of heavy riffing, psych-rock jamming, and a little bit of up-tempo punk action (the first part of "Kuruimizu," which still retains a Melvins-like feel), they move into several minutes of spacey, surprisingly pretty guitar/bass picking, similar to much of what's on Flood. Finally, they settle into a dense guitar/bass feedback drone à la Earth for the lengthy final track, "Vomitself." The album as a whole feels like a sort of journey in terms of how it opens in one vein, moves through various other sections, and then closes in yet another style, but it also maintains a consistent mood (and they don't use the word "doom" to refer to this type of music for nothing). In any case, Amplifier Worship proves Boris to be on the more innovative (not to mention heavy) end of the sludge/doom metal spectrum and is recommended to open-eared fans of the style; casual listeners, on the other hand, will probably have trouble getting into the album, since it does require some patience.
07. Autopsy - Mental Funeral (1991)
At a time when many of his band's better-known contemporaries (Death, Sepultura, Morbid Angel, etc.) were putting all their energies into finessing the death metal genre in numerous different ways, Autopsy's sophomore album, Mental Funeral, took the opposite route, reflecting bandleader, vocalist, and drummer Chris Reifert's oft-stated goal to create the "sickest shit imaginable." That's not to say it wasn't groundbreaking in its own perverse way, though, and we're not talking about the gory lyrics or slightly improved production standards either, but rather Reifert and company's apparent discovery of doom metal. Album opener "Twisted Mass of Burnt Decay" may rip into action at a manic pace, but it steadily downshifts in tempo to pave the way for a slew of form-challenging death/doom creepers -- most notably the spine-freezing "In the Grip of Winter," grossly distasteful "Torn from the Womb," and organ necrotizing "Destined to Fester." When the band does give vent to its adrenalin (see grindcore exercise "Bonesaw") or wavers back and forth between blistering and slothful extremes, the results can be both stunning (see the glorious "Robbing the Grave") and self-indulgent (the overlong "Hole in the Head"), but they're certainly never easy to predict. Meanwhile, Reifert shows the same range on his battle-scarred vocals as he does behind his kit, spanning the decibels between bowel-vacating croaks through spleen-bursting shrieks, and so do guitarists Eric Cutler and Danny Coralles, whose savage, remorseless rhythm parts are frequently at odds with their agile, melodic leads. Sadly, while it won over as many fans as it pissed off upon release, Mental Funeral arguably confused an even greater number of consumers, turning Autopsy into death metal's ultimate love/hate band, the one no one seemed able to agree on -- not least the bandmembers themselves, as a series of increasingly inconsistent and controversial albums that brought on a speedy demise just a few years later would soon show.
In The Grip of Winter
06. Ufomammut - Idolum (2008)
(Supernatural Cat Records)
Not exactly the most prolific band in the Universe, space metal ensemble UFOmammut waited all of four years between their first two albums, 2000's impressive Godlike Snake and 2004's sonic atershed, Snailking. Then, with the exception of the bite-seized Lucifer Songs EP in 2005 and a collaboration with Lento in 2007, they left earthlings waiting yet another four years for their third album proper, Idolum, to arrive -- like a faithful comet returning, right on schedule, to the inner solar system after its long and mysterious orbit out to the Oort Cloud. And despite this long absence, UFOmammut's sound also remains largely unchanged and surprise-free, since Idolum continues to meld doom, stoner rock, metal, acid, and space rock into a distinctive crush of thrumming guitar sludge, atmospheric passages, and predominantly raw, distorted screams. Hypnotic opener "Stigma," for starters, provides a typically escalating opening sequence, while the more dynamic "Stardog," though punchier and almost grunge-like in nature, also treads familiar ground; leaving it to the ensuing "Hellectric," in turn, to pump up the space rock ambience tenfold and explore some new textures along its wafting, weaving voyage through the ether, and foreshadowing somewhat more uncharted musical dimensions yet to come. These include the album's emotional highlight, "Ammonia," where UFOmammut fess up to their Pink Floyd influences with the help of haunting female vocals à la "The Great Gig in the Sky" (performed by Rose Kemp); the rhythmically insistent "Nero," which, with its multiple moods and bouts of chiaroscuro, borders on the post-rock universe populated by Isis, Cult of Luna, et al; and, the comparatively concise mega-blast of "Destroyer." All that's missing, then, is the album's mandatory closing monolith, "Void," which, in line with past examples, lasts a veritable eternity at nearly 30 minutes, but also produces multiple points of interest along its long space odyssey, including its eerie, Kraftwerk-ian intro, protracted fidgeting with alien frequencies halfway through, and quite expected, but still devastatingly effective concluding catharsis. All in all, the above balances enough familiarity and inventiveness to satisfy acknowledged UFOmammut believers, while both converting and generally wowing the newbies in the audience. It is therefore safe to proclaim the security of UFOmammut's lofty standing alongside similarly visionary leviathans such as Electric Wizard and Opeth, for possessing one of the most recognizable and individualistic sonic imprints in underground heavy metal.
05. YOB - The Unreal Never Lived (2005)
(Metal Blade Records)
YOB has never exactly been easy listening. They are masters of doom metal -- slow, heavy, ominous, forceful headbanger music with a strong appreciation of Black Sabbath (whose riffs have been a primary influence on the doom/stoner/sludge field). But the Oregon residents have managed to increase the heaviness factor somewhat on The Unreal Never Lived, which favors a generally thicker, more distorted sound than their previous releases. That isn't to say that YOB has turned into one of the many ultra-dense, ultra-claustrophobic metalcore or death metal bands that believes in bruising for the sake of bruising; even with the increased heaviness, The Unreal Never Lived is not the type of metal album that goes out of its way to be harsh. Nonetheless, the thickness factor has definitely increased for YOB -- and another thing that makes The Unreal Never Lived come as a bit of a surprise is Mike Scheidt's lead vocals. Scheidt, in the past, was known in doom/stoner circles for his high-pitched vocals; he was arguably the doom equivalent of Rush's Geddy Lee or Cradle of Filth's Dani Filth. Scheidt can still hit the high notes, but this time, he surprises you with a lot of deep, guttural death metal-ish growling -- not the sort of thing one expected from him on previous albums, but it works nicely on this 2005 recording. Despite those changes and adjustments, The Unreal Never Lived still has YOB written all over it. These guys are still doom all the way, and they continue to enjoy extended performances; "The Mental Tyrant," for example, lasts 21 minutes. Bottom line: The Unreal Never Lived is a pleasant surprise that will probably be well received by the majority of YOB fans but may help them acquire some new ones.
04. Sleep - Dopesmoker (2012)
(Southern Lord Records)
The saga of Sleep's Dopesmoker was already almost ten years in the making by the time of its belated release in 2003. Originally slated to follow closely behind their second album of a decade earlier, the landmark Sleep's Holy Mountain, it lingered in unreleased limbo instead -- the subject of a vicious legal dispute between the Northern California trio and their record company, London, which refused to release Dopesmoker as delivered by the band -- that is, a single, 60-minute-long song! The impasse eventually led to the stubborn band's ignominious dissolution circa 1997 rather than conform to the label's demands, leaving fans waiting for an album that most assumed would never be heard. But come 1999, an incomplete, disjointed version of the recordings was cobbled together and released by Rise Above Records with the title Jerusalem. Unfortunately, this version sounded oddly ragged in places, with senseless digital song divisions and an abrupt, obviously chopped-off ending; so for all intents and purposes, the ideal work as envisioned by Sleep clearly remained unrealized. Thankfully, all these glitches were finally corrected for the definitive, band-sanctioned 2003 edition of Dopesmoker, which bears a top-notch production job courtesy of Billy Anderson (Helios Creed, Natas, etc.) to boot. Revealed here at last, in all of its colossal glory, Dopesmoker is at once an instant doom metal classic -- some might even say a masterpiece -- as well as an impossibly dense, nearly impenetrable listening experience for unprepared fans (just to give you an idea, the first vocals only arrive 16 minutes in). Meticulously composed in the style of Gregorian chants as interpreted through the ears of Black Sabbath, "Dopesmoker" esoterically describes -- get this -- the "Weedian" people's pilgrimage to the "riff-filled land." But lyrics aside -- and there are precious few here to justify stressing over them -- what skeptical listeners must take into account here is that "Dopesmoker" is in fact a single song, not a series of song snippets stitched together progressive rock style. As such, this initially daunting edifice of snarling riffage requires quite a bit more patience and dedicated sampling before its secrets are unlocked and its riddles unraveled, but therein lies the crux of what is ultimately a very rewarding experience.
Now down to the top three.......