The popularity of doom metal seems to be on a constant upward curve, going as far as it can without submitting to the unaware squares of the “real world”. Each month brings a handful of new bands that release demos that they brand as “doom metal”, frequently ill-advisedly. Not because they’re not conforming to a rough genre framework, or even because they’re not into bands like The Obsessed and Saint Vitus, but because they lack the true spirit of darkness in concept, execution and presentation that is so essential to the dirges that they worship. Put simply, it’s easy to tune to C#, score a crumbling amp and rehash Sabbath’s back catalogue. However, as this glut of inoffensive but frankly forgettable bands permeate the market, there has been a real resurgence in the kind of pure, unadulterated doom metal that gets under your skin more with every listen. Bands like Saturnalia Temple, Serpent Venom, Pallbearer and now Boise Idaho’s Uzala are united in their pursuit of darkness through riffs, albeit from very different standpoints. In fact, I was convinced that I had heard what would be the untouchable best doom metal album of the year when I spun Saturnalia Temple’s masterful “Aion of Drakon” – unfortunately, after hearing Uzala’s self-titled début, it’s now officially a tie.
And yet these two bands are really pretty different, despite coming from the same down tuned school of Iommic research. After listening to this brilliant album a couple of times, I finally figured what the link was: Electric Wizard’s “Let Us Prey” album. I’ve always maintained that this is a sorely underrated entry into the Wizard’s catalogue (although I must confess to loving it all), and it stands out as being one of their more experimental albums, and certainly their most negative, whilst remaining single-mindedly heavy and psychedelic (the legendary Warhorse were similarly oppressive). Where “Aion of Drakon” seems to take that sound into the stratosphere, Uzala drag it into the frozen wastes, barren and nasty.
The opening bars of this album fool the listener into thinking a relatively sedate musical journey awaits them, comprising the sort of delicate but deeply creepy melody that makes “Soundtracks For The Blind” era SWANS so masterful, with more than a passing nod to latter-day Earth. However, once the drums and vocals kicked in, I was provided with a truly astonishing surprise – the picked notes and speed are more reminiscent of “Transylvanian Hunger” than “Die Healing”!! Doom metal is a genre known for its big amps (and Uzala don’t buck the trend there!), but this song turns into a frostbitten ode to Pagan stones (or at least, that’s the way I see it). Utterly flooring, and a good indicator for the varied album to follow.
The second song, ”The Reaping” (which can be heard below) is the track that stays closest to the formula of DOOM set out by our lord of the amps, Tony Iommi, consisting of thundering RIFFS to churn your stomach. The slight groove in the bridge aims to get your head nodding, but does so without the “wall of sound” technique employed in much heavy music these days. In fact, it’s worth noting that on the whole album, the production has been kept simple because it works that way, and nowhere is it more visible than on this track – EVERY instrument is clearly audible, the sonic tapestry has been created with great care, essential with a voice as unique as Darcy’s.
However, the frost of the opening track is back with a vengeance for “Ice Castle”, its grimness and soaring beauty worthy of the mighty Corrupted or early nineties Anathema, before they wimped out. This song has my favourite solo on the whole album around the two minute mark, utterly spine-tingling stuff. Unsettling, slow doom metal, which makes the last song on side A (“Fracture”) even more of a shocker: all of a sudden, out of nowhere, we’re hit with a dose of genuine SPEED! Not only that, but the rhythm guitars sound notably different, a very brave thing to do in the midst of an album where a specific tone has been so painstakingly constructed – from the warm fuzz of the first three tracks, chainsaw distortion is suddenly the order of the day, and when Chad’s vocals set in, it all makes sense. AWWFN’s Al Mabon described Chad’s vocals as being akin to those of the mighty Tom G. Warrior, but frankly, on this track, I hear more Wagner Antichrist than Celtic Frost – the vocal style is just too demented to fall into the Frost worship camp, and gets grouped (in my book) with the borderline-Broadmoor over-the-top stylings of South American deathrash. That said, the Celtic Frost influence is in full whack in terms of both the vocals and the music with “Rise To The Wardrums”; possibly my favourite on the album (tied with “Plague”), this song sounds to me like everything I wanted High on Fire to be – the sound of war, pure and simple, a mid-paced march with a riff to crack the skull of your enemies.
The penultimate track, “Plague” was one of my favourites off the demo, but this mournful and slow gem has been given the best kind of makeover for the album – Darcy’s vocals are especially beautiful on this, and a major reason for this album being top doom entry of the year. The thing is, it’s not just that she sings beautifully or that the band know how vocals should be placed in a mix, but that she has SOUL – the only other heavy metal band I can remember having this same vocal characteristic in recent memory is Victor Griffin’s Place of Skulls. For a song that stood so well on its own on the demo, it’s even more impressive how it blends with the final track, “Gloomy Sunday”, an echo-drenched epic that leaves you feeling quite drained after listening.
As you’ve probably gathered from my endless gibbering, this album is incredibly varied and dense, never content to just settle for one tempo, sound or atmosphere. It’s a work that merits repeat listening and has the sort of subtlety which has clearly been worked up to (bands that jump straight in to releasing an album TAKE NOTE). With Blake Green of Wolvserpent (check them out, they’re bloody brilliant too!) giving these songs a superlative production job, and Andy Lippoldt of Persistence in Mourning handling the mastering, this album is nothing short of perfect, you wouldn’t change a note. If there’s one complaint, it’s that the studio recording of my favourite demo track, “Cataract” didn’t make it to the vinyl version, but there’s only so much room on the format, and besides, Lippoldt’s Witch Sermon label are doing a tape version next year which will include said song. From Darcy Nutt’s soulful vocals (she also created the startling artwork), to Chad’s threatening death-growl and the pounding but fluid rhythm section of Nick Phitt (Graves at Sea/Atriarch) and Stephen Gere, this album is nothing short of essential.
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Scribed by: Saúl Do Caixão