My Thoughts on Doom Metal, Women of Doom, and Summer 2020
By August Edwards
Last summer the world churned like sour milk and Women of Doom drove me down a hole of pleasant devastation.
From Desert Records and Blues Funeral Records is a colossus comprised of various doom artists. This album has a large instrumental focus braided with sweeping, haunting vocals. Doom metal itself is an unstoppable force—its power lies in dragging you to an alternate plane. You breathe what it breathes. Women of Doom is a triumph in this identity; it is a convergence of dreads.
Women of Doom came out in April 2020, and it was something I highly anticipated. I listened with rapture. But, at the time, hardly a month into the thrall of COVID-19 and looming weaknesses of US governmental infrastructure, I didn’t feel like much mattered. It’s now been a year, and it hasn’t gotten any easier. But doom makes me happy.
I was enchanted by Women of Doom, and I listened and listened. It was all I wanted to listen to. I’m generally practical, so I would never risk my aural health by having music play through my headphones at a destructive volume. However, I listened to the album as loud as I could. Suddenly that pain made sense. Yet, for the longest time, I couldn’t write about this album.
If you look up doom metal, the first search result is Wikipedia. It’ll tell you, “Both the music and the lyrics intend to evoke a sense of despair, dread, and impending doom.” This is why some people avoid it or wish to not think about it. This is also why some people are drawn to it.
Doom metal feeds empowerment that stems from freedom of emotion and expression. I think this is called anguish. While the overall taste of doom is dark with a sense of despair, it commands you, holds you captive, transforms you. There are moments that come from nowhere and suck the oxygen from your blood. It might come from a sudden riff, or it might come from a riff that has been repeated so many times that it crushes your lungs when you’ve had enough. And then it keeps going.
In Women of Doom, one of the tracks that exemplifies this quality is the first song on the album, “Astral Hand” by Nighthawk and Heavy Temple. High Priestess Nighthawk’s deep, sonorous voice melts in with guitar, begging you to run but spellbinds in a way that makes it impossible. Similarly, “Facade” by Doomstress Alexis features droning loops. It summons a succubus upon you, propelled by a monotonous riff with sparkling strings and domineering vocals. I simply allowed myself to be dominated.
COVID-19 has changed our collective lives, and the melancholia that was always a part of me became a bigger force. The weaving started inside but soon it wrapped around me. Every waking moment felt like walking through water; I felt tingly and dizzy stepping into the sun.
Before I turned 21, a venue’s age restrictions never stopped me. If I knew a band that was playing—and by “knew” I mean was familiar with their social media, and maybe talked to, stuttered at, the members awkwardly—I’d eagerly go to the show and spend the three hours in the back. Outside. Maybe band members would come out, maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe it would be the middle of December and I’d mostly be the only one outside in the alley.
There was nothing to do but listen. And behind the Launchpad in particular, the acoustics seemed stellar. Watching musicians perform can feel like forgetting much of reality, so much so that it distorts the reality of the music they create. In my alley days I missed stage personas but gained an encompassing idea of live music.
During these solitary times at least one stranger a night would come and ask if I was alright. And truthfully, with my whole being, I can say I was always having the time of my life. I sort of realized I have a resting sad face. Or worried face, or distraught face. Only in retrospect, I realize there was a sadness spinning inside of me, like a cobweb or cocoon. I think it just happened because of who I am. Still, it was easy to not pay attention to it because of my new ardor for going to shows.
Within the first few months I spent learning about metal, I could conceptualize what I was hearing, and I could differentiate between the various flavors. When I turned 21 and exposed myself to more live metal, I came to realize that doom in particular fulfilled me. I wanted to be swallowed, I wanted to disappear. The floor vibrating and the illusion of walls collapsing comforted me. Nothing else happens in the world when doom is on.
I didn’t know anything about metal. I still don’t, really. I’m learning. I wasn’t exposed to metal when I was a kid—it’s a hard thing to be exposed to. If I had friends that were into it, they didn’t share it with me. My dad, who exposed me to a lot of great music, tried explaining prog rock—short for progressive rock—to me one morning while driving me to school. I was in fourth grade, and I think the lesson spawned because Blue Oyster Cult or Yes or Queen was on the radio. But that was as close as I got to the sun that I would one day try to orbit.
When I watched Spinal Tap at age 11, I fell in love with the music. I didn’t understand the humor of the movie, partly because I was 11, but I think—I like to think, anyway—that it was partly due to the fact that I thought the music was so damn good that it couldn’t possibly be a joke. People love to compare heightened musical experiences to Beatlemania, and I don’t usually buy the comparison, but Spinal Tap revolutionized me the way, in my mind, the Beatles revolutionized a generation.
I think I was destined to get into metal. Sure, I’ll admit that Spinal Tap parodied prog rock and heavy metal. Ultimately, for me, it was a weird little gateway into these arcane genres.
Music calls to us for countless reasons. It saves us and it teaches us. It can facilitate a new understanding of ourselves, of the things that make us up and are a part of us for seemingly no reason. Our quirks and our countenances and our moods aren’t anything mysterious. Sometimes all that’s needed in the mix is some “heavy duty rock and roll.”
Women of Doom features both established and emerging musicians. Radical communities of art and liberation are forming in our backyards. Singer and bassist Nighthawk of Heavy Temple says, "More and more, there are new bands with a strong female or non-binary presence. Media coverage is evolving from reductive and demeaning ‘hot girl with a guitar’ stuff to ‘this person is a truly talented musician’ regardless of gender. I appreciate everyone who makes an effort to share their voice, and I think we're on the right track to make sure everyone is heard and respected, regardless of gender."
While the music of Women of Doom is technically outstanding, it also achieves something else extraordinary—it tells stories. Physically, this is embodied by “A Curse to be Broken” by Besvarjelsen. This song is particularly inspiring, due largely in part to the structure. The movements of the song come at you like paragraphs in a book, it teaches you how to listen as it unfolds. Additionally, “A Shadow Covers Your Face” by the Keening figures itself out in a similar way in gaining strength from its own momentum. It sits you down and makes you figure it out too.
In high school I listened to “Piss Factory” by Patti Smith almost every day. It’s my favorite song now, it’s something that I appreciate more and more. It’s about overcoming the doom of everyday life; she has a line, “Because you see, it’s the monotony that’s got to me / every afternoon like the last one / every afternoon like a rerun.” It’s a song about working in a factory, enclosed by unsavory smells and women who, according to Smith, have no desire to even wish for better for their lives. I sort of think everybody wants for better, even those women in the piss factory that were “happy just to get this job to know they were getting screwed up the ass.” I have a lot to say about this track, but in relation to this essay, I strongly believe it romanticizes doom. Because even if you’re at rock bottom, there is always an image of something better. Doom metal epitomizes the gears turning when you think there are no gears to turn.
In Women of Doom, “Broken” by Amy Tung Barrysmith is firstly the stuff of nightmares, and secondly strikes me nearly the same way “Piss Factory” does. While the piano in “Piss Factory” chugs in a locomotive fashion to keep Smith’s spirit in motion, the keys in “Broken” hang back in an eerie way. The discontent that motivates Smith to get out of the piss factory has consumed Barrysmith’s persona. She has seen what is truly inevitable, she knows the impermanence of the world. She has lost what she can’t get back. “Never, not enough / Nothing, not the life I want to live / It’s not enough,” she sings. She has fulfilled the doom that disgusted Smith most, what she wouldn’t—or couldn’t—articulate. And this articulation, for us as listeners, is enough to help us at least realize we’re not alone. That’s the base of it, I think.
Women of Doom is for doom lovers and for people who are willing to experience something musically unfamiliar (or, doom novices, I suppose). The range is astounding, from heavy guitar riff-driven tracks to bass baring basement-dwelling, the full effect of the genre slaps you in the face. The big triumph of the album is the command of atmosphere. The classic horror film organs of “Coldclaw” by Deathbell are testament to this. This atmosphere could be a trait of all good doom, but something that makes it so special here is the community that manifested it.
The hulking collection rips your own corporeality to shreds. It is a delicate balance of thievery and benevolence, all wound by leaden thread. “Bone Dust” by the Otolith disorients with an image of desolation. Driven by combative instruments, it’s bewitching something over a gnarly fire. “Marrow” by Frayle has the motion of a grueling march of thousands of sunbaked soldiers, daring you to join. Women of Doom is relentless in baiting you along to chase the emotion.
Impending death has a softer side, too. This is showcased by Mlny Parsonz in “A Skeleton is Born,” where the singer’s vocal clarity stuns with sad soulfulness. Each voice howls the song of isolation. We are drawn to certain albums because of how they sound. Other tracks on this album lead me in the direction of their choice. The two songs that Mlny Parsonz has on Women of Doom (she has a bonus track not included on vinyl, “Broke an Arrow”) left me aimless, but mostly just allowed me to be sad.
Last summer, I wanted to sink deeper, but I wanted to hold and be held. It’s almost like Women of Doom kept whatever was spinning inside of me at bay, it made it feel that much farther away.
Last summer, every time I left my home was a death-defying feat. And upon arriving back home, the last few minutes of my drive felt even worse. Like entering my own home again would be the worst thing I could possibly do to myself. I would sit in my car in my driveway for so long I’m certain my neighbors thought weird things about me. The truth was, I was just scared of going back to the cave I built for myself. Part of it could be my missing liberation. I distracted myself so well and had so much fun when there were things to do. While I have always had my nights where I couldn’t bring myself to leave my home, I mostly knew how to keep some of my darkness away. But escaping can only help so much if the root of the problem isn’t fixed.
Last summer, I watched minutes pass, minutes I would never get back. There was this ongoing discourse on the Internet that time stopped during the month of March 2020; I wish that were the case. Looking around, people are trying to get back to their normal lives. I don’t think doing nothing makes you a worthless human being. But this is complicated by the normal operations of the US. People are dying from not doing nothing. Because I don’t know how to follow up that sentence, I’ll just say what is clear to me: as long as people are dying, live music is also, in a sense, dead.
I don’t think my particular experience with last summer is notable or different than what most people must be feeling—suspended in a vat of an unidentifiable, flesh-eating goop. But my experience with Women of Doom is notable, and the context should not be ignored, because it facilitated the experience. This was an occurrence of the sanctuary music provides, and that alone gives me hope.