Dying Gods

thergothon

An article by Antonio Espinosa


I


The argument is often made amongst underground metal purists and veterans that doom metal is not, strictly speaking, an independent genre. After all, they state, aside from an increased proclivity towards melancholy and of course, towards dragging tempi, nothing essential truly distinguishes the work of, for example, Candlemass as anything more than a slower variant of heavy metal. The same applies, they say, to the classic albums of the Peaceville Three in correspondence with their parent genre of death metal, and so on and so forth.

Faced with these arguments, even the most fervent doom fanatics, such as the present author, must be forced to admit that there is more than an ounce of truth to them. After all, the point of genre distinctions seems to be not only accounting for stylistic choices but, moreover, to account for the evocative intent, or even the artistic ambitions and aspirations related to those choices. So, in order for doom to really be a genre of its own, it would need to be sufficiently distinct in these aspects from its ‘parent’ genres that it would have a considerable effect on many aspects of musical aesthetics.

Though I am willing to partially concede on the issue when looked at from the angle of bands such as the previously mentioned Candlemass or bands like Dream Death and Winter, it seems to me obvious that in the case of doom’s most radical variant, funeral doom, the argument is entirely void. Funeral doom has isolated many of the elements that made past doom unique, along with other elements from outside the realm (black metal, ambient, etc.). By taking these elements as a point of departure, funeral doom has managed to craft for itself a new aesthetic vision, a new set of goals to strive for and a new set of parameters to grow by. In short, it has developed as a fully fledged style.


II


Just like in the wider metal world, mediocre funeral doom abounds, and is more visible and more abundant with each passing year. As such, it is important to insist on the caveat, before this apologia can go on, that its subject matter is mainly confined to the very highest examples of the genre. Listing exercises are tedious and clichéd, but a quick one may not be out of order here, especially directed at BIT’s black metal audience, whose regular musical diet may not necessarily account for the style. Of course the funeral doom veteran may find in this list much to disagree with; unnecessary inclusions and impardonable omissions. The list serves these people too, as they may measure the strength of the author’s propositions against his taste.

And so…

The Classics:
Foundational stones upon which Funeral Doom is built.

  • ThergothonFhtagn nag yog-sothoth and Stream from the heavens (Finland, 1991 and 1994) [1]
  • Mournful CongregationWeeping and An epic dream of desire (Australia, 1994 and 1995)
  • Funeral Tristesse and Tragedies (Norway, 1994 and 1995)
  • Skepticism Stormcrowfleet (Finland, 1995)
  • WorshipLast tape before doomsday (Germany, 1999)

The Greats:
Less influential early bands, or later bands and releases that are still unquestionably near the genre’s peak.

  • Ras AlgethiOblita divinitas and Oneiricon – The white hypnotic (Italy, 1993 and 1995)
  • YsigimWhispers (Poland, 1996)
  • EsotericThe pernicious enigma (England, 1997)
  • DolorianDolorian (Finland, 2001)
  • AhabThe call of the wretched sea (Germany, 2009)

III


“Mankind surely does not represent an evolution toward a better or stronger or higher level, as progress is now understood. This “progress” is merely a modern idea, which is to say, a false idea.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist [2]

Though it is easy to take such a preoccupation for granted in the 21st century, for most of its history Western Art (or the art of any tradition for that matter) has not cared much for the trials and tribulations of everyday folks. There are of course, many exceptions to be found, but none that truly contradict the general tendency. Think of Aristotle’s dictum in the Poetics relating to the three ways in which art may represent man (as worse than he is, as better than he is or just as he is), and then think of which function your regular John (or Yiannis, or Juan) serves when he is invoked throughout most of the history of Western art, especially in contrast with the functions served by gods, kings and heroes. The immense gestures, both for better and worse, are usually reserved for the latter, and quite often combined in the same character. Think of the unspeakable crimes and tragedies of Classical heroes such as Hercules, Oedipus and Jason, and how in the Grecian worldview they do not contradict, but rather enhance their status as doers of mighty and venerable deeds.

ruines-de-san-agustin

In the contemporary artistic panorama, the common man and his troubles have been “redeemed”. There has been a conscientious effort in Western art since the 18th century, particularly successful in literature, to place the reality of average people at the center of the lens. In a sense this was initially done not too differently from how it would have been traditionally approached; the common man ‘as he is’, was, at least in theory, the focus of the whole literary ideal of authors as otherwise differing as Mark Twain or Henrik Ibsen, for example. Philosophic equivalents may be found in the ‘pragmatism’ of a William James, and though the phenomenon was certainly international, there’s more than a whiff about it of that post-religious puritanical ideal that is so distinctly North American.

This marked a significant departure from the wider tradition, of course, but the most radical shift comes a bit later, when the “everyday” comes clearly into focus as the best possible image of man, when the mundane well and truly becomes the epic. This tendency is once again most clearly exemplified in literature, crystallized with intense clarity in James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which even one lousy morning shit taken by an unexceptional Dublin drone is magnified into a noble and epic ordeal through the magic of Joyce’s intricate and beautiful manipulation of the English language. [3] In this sense, Ulysses marks the clearest instance, and perhaps also the most artistically notable one, of the diametrical transfiguration of the tradition’s focal point and outlook, a transfiguration to which Joyce explicitly alludes starting from the title.

If art has taken this direction it is only because such is the direction of the Western mentality at large. Parallel to this development in aesthetics has run the much deeper tendency that Nietzsche characterized in the Genealogy of morals as everything becoming “verjüdelt oder verchristlicht oder verpöbelt”. [4] This tendency is a manifestation not necessarily of increasing materialism, but of increasing anthropocentrism, of “man as the measure of all things”. This is the essential cosmic certainty that triumphs through Joyce’s Leopold Bloom.


IV


“I have seen the Lesser Gods die,
I have seen the Mortal Ones scream in horror”
-Thergothon, “Everlasting”

As heirs to a Lovecraftian Weltanschauung (an “aristocratic radicalist” if ever there was one), Thergothon, funeral doom’s unquestionable founders, could find no interest in such an approach. Like the Lovecraft stories which inspired much of their work, and like most epic and mystical traditions in the world, Thergothon zoomed way out beyond the world of ordinary concerns, and painted bleak, compelling and hypnotizing pictures of a cosmos immeasurably vast and indifferent to the trials of mortals.

This incompatibility with the anthropocentric paradigm holds true for most good metal. One could even argue that, to a greater or lesser extent, most truly valuable metal since Black Sabbath has distinguished itself from rock and most other contemporary popular music through its concern for evoking the inhuman, the sublime, the terrifying and the epic. Heroes, monsters and gods abound in great heavy metal of any variety, and even bands with more earthly concerns often deal with them through a perspective that is larger than life; infinitely distant from and disdainful of all the Leopold Blooms that inhabit this world and suffer through its quotidian ordeals.

The more extreme subgenres, such as death metal and, particularly, black metal, are often the ones to take this outlook to its natural conclusions. They revel fervently in what Nietzsche called the pathos of distance, constructing new values and meanings as “far from the madding crowed” as possible, within the ancient sphere of myth, in which man aspires to be greater than he is and confronts that which overpowers him and escapes his comprehension.

“I laugh at the helpless mortals,
As I leave the grounds forever.”
-Sacramentum, “Fog’s kiss”

In all this funeral doom is of a kind with the larger metal genre. Funeral doom’s distinction of approach is an evolution of doom’s original distinction of emphasis, which, through its sensibility towards the tragic and epic on a cosmic scale, may well be as far as any contemporary artistic medium has strayed from the ruling paradigm of the mundane.


V


“The only clear stamp of nobility in our time is defeat”
-Nicolás Gómez Dávila [5]

Whereas most metal tends to emphasize the combative, triumphant and bellicose side of the epic, doom chooses to emphasize the themes already latent, and often explicit, in these stories of melancholy, tragedy, failure and loss. Taken on their own as foundational elements, these led to funeral doom’s focus on the moments of great reflection associated with them, moments that ratify our insignificance, in which visions of the cosmos’ slow, ineffable and indifferent pace strike us with ruthless clarity.

nevados

Thus, whereas there is a certain sense of triumphant willpower that emanates from much death and black metal, and even classic heavy metal, funeral doom, as its name suggests, is elegiac; it is the song of the noble defeated, a tribute to beauty departed and departing. However, it mostly avoids the pitfalls of DSBM’s rampant emo kid bullshit problem by maintaining restraint and dignity in despair, that is, by remaining irrevocably metal through the exercise of the pathos of distance, gazing towards the heavens even amidst ruined battlefields and scorched temples.


VI


All of this would be meaningless if it had no considerable effect on musical choices. Funeral doom’s basic instrumental palette is the electric guitar, bass and drums combo of all metal, with keyboards an oft-heard addition. Vocals are also derived mostly from other metal styles, most commonly the low guttural growls of death metal. The style’s main building block is, as in all of metal, the electric guitar riff. Production is often relatively lo-fi, though clear enough so that all may be understood, with guitar tones being particularly determinant of a band’s individual sonic character. This is where funeral doom begins to distinguish itself.

Contrary to what may appear to be the case initially, there’s quite a bit of internal variation within the genre. From the psychedelic arpeggiated textures of Dolorian and Ras Algethi, to the contrapuntal melodic saturation of Funeral and Mournful Congregation, to the enormous, crushing chords of Skepticism and Ahab, many different approaches to the idea have been developed. However, there are two main elements that must be considered as characteristic of the genre, and as genuinely distinguishing it when compared to other heavy metal genres: its scale and its pace.

The most immediate and strikingly evident element of differentiation with regards to pace are the extremely slow tempi for which the genre is known. The genre’s pioneers quickly realized that slow tempi alone were not enough to generate the pace their music needed to have in order the evoke the sentiments they aspired to. Phrases therefore grew in size; many funeral doom riffs are exceptionally long by metal standards. This elongation is often achieved by extending cadential sections, which results in a characteristically agonizing return to the tonic that makes even resolution bittersweet.

While many great bands in death and black metal tend to blend riffs and sections together, funeral doom’s massive blocks are often better suited to a more clearly delineated, more episodic approach, used to great effect in genre classics like Stormcrowfleet and Last tape before doomsday. As such structures are mostly constructed out of relatively minimalistic juxtapositions of material, creating music in which even the smallest detail of execution can be structurally and dramatically signifcant. The distinct and lengthy phrases and ideas, played excruciatingly slow, end up creating massive, monolithic blocks of material, which generate an overwhelming sensation of immensity and space.

Space is important, because it is a key component of how funeral doom deals with its massive scale. The scale here refers not only to the usually above average song durations, but to the also exceptionally long amount of time it can often take to get from one idea to the next, due to the aformentioned issues of tempo and phrase duration. Though all good metal uses space to an extent, as all music does, [6] space is absolutely fundamental to Funeral Doom. The importance of detail to the genre was previously established, and space is a detail that is essential to funeral doom’s cosmic meditations and tragic laments. Proper usage of it imbues musical formulae that would in lesser hands be impossibly monotonous and dull not only listenable, but captivating and thrilling, as in the case of Dolorian’s Voidwards, or Evoken’s Embrace the emptiness.

The compositional techniques that the genre has developed around its two essential notions of pacing and space are the basic tenets through which funeral doom metal has crafted for itself a distinct musical personality whilst embarked on the quest for aesthetic ideals that, though derived from the broader metal genre, are entirely its own.


VII


catedral-de-galla-placidia

“There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall – all stories are ultimately about the fall.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien, in a letter to Milton Waldman

There is a strange tendency, particularly amongst revivalist “pagan” groups, to uphold the Norse gods as a symbol of triumphalist philosophies. If anything, that which makes the Norse pantheon of mythology so unique and the impact of its stories so rotund is the notion of the gods’ defeat at Ragnarok, the merciless dictum that echoes relentlessly throughout its stories: “even the gods must die.”

This dictum may well be said to loom over all of funeral doom. This thought is a deeply pessimistic one, but by no means a necessarily nihilistic one. After all, the gods die fighting with all the dignity their might can muster, despite having known since the beginning that they must be defeated. The resplendent beauty of this fight cannot escape the eye of the strong, and having seen it we know that such beauty may redeem, justify, and indeed even endear us to all that we may have found objectionable within the world.

So stand the great monuments of funeral doom; swan songs of gods and eons, hymns of strength and beauty found in failure and defeat, found amidst the immeasurable immensity and indifference of the cosmos. The music stands broken and hopeless, but unbowed. It is the song of Oden’s terrible wisdom, of Galla Placidia’s steel gaze upon the falling centuries, of mighty Achilles’ regal sorrows.

At the swamps,
mist is rising.
Covering
it all below.

As light creates shades to the mist screen.
I see no dreams coming true.
A breath from the endless ground.
The wisdom is everdarkgreen.

-Skepticism, “Everdarkgreen”


Notes

[1] There are proto-funeral doom examples out there, but to really think about “funeral doom” before Thergothon makes little sense in my eyes. If you’re interested however, head in the direction of Mordor – Odes and Necro Schizma – Erupted evil.
[2] Translation from the German by H.L. Mencken.
[3] One of the great ironies of this redemption is that most “common men” would probably consider works like Ulysses as little more than unreadable and pretentious bricks, impossibly distant from the action of their lives.
[4] To any outraged liberal readers we may add, with the man himself, “was liegt an Worten!”
[5] Author’s translation. Original Spanish text: “La única ejecutoria de nobleza, en nuestro tiempo, es la derrota.”
[6] This concept of musical “space” is admittedly a very ambiguous one, and one obviously dependent on the context of the music. For example, while the mid section of Bathory’s “Holocaust” would pass for hyper-activity in almost any other musical context, it functions as a wide open space within the context of the song, and is probably one of the most effective and dramatic uses of it in all of metal.

About Basajarau (5 Articles)
Ethik und Ästhetik sind Eins.

2 Comments on Dying Gods

  1. No sleep? No electric wizard? No Yob? No Earth? No Sunn? Where is the whole other side of doom to funeral? Psychedelic…

    • I think the article makes it pretty clear that its main focus is Funeral Doom, it was never meant to include any other variant, be it stoner, drone, traditional, etc.

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