Doom Metal Has a Dirty, Soothing Secret: It's a Lot Like New-Age Music

At its most extreme, heavy music starts to resemble "Tubular Bells" with more growling about death. Not that that's a bad thing.

om album cover 615.jpg
The cover of Om's Advaitic Songs. (Drag City)

Usually when people think of extreme metal, they expect that metal to be...well, extreme. If you have a band named "Autopsy" performing a song called "Destined to Fester," you imagine that it'll sound like corpses being torn to shreds by shambling, gargling sludge. If you have a band that calls itself "Deicide" performing "Once Upon the Cross," you figure it'll sound like demons disemboweling the crucified at percussive thrash tempos.

And in those cases, you'd be more or less right—Autopsy and Deicide are both ear-splittingly fiendish bands. But extreme metal has evolved a lot since '80s death, and no band makes that point with the mystic ponderousness of Om. Formed from the ashes of the legendarily slow, stoned Sleep, Om has made a series of critically acclaimed (especially for metal) albums exploring the spiritual links between doom metal and vaguely Eastern spirituality. On their new album, Advaitic Songs, they drift even further, and perhaps irrevocably, into that unfocused haze.

Metal's obsession with corpses is like New Age's obsession with dolphins: a turn away from the human.

The first song, "Addis," is all female chanting, tabla, and strings. It's minor key and the tempo is plodding, but otherwise you might as well be listening to one of those world music samplers they sometimes sell at Starbucks. The last track, "Haqq al-Yaqin," could be on that comp too; with a flute added to the tabla, and a gentle swaying rhythm, the song is positively chipper. Usually doom tends to evoke brontosaurs, but this is more happy camels swaying as their riders achieve a warm, fuzzy enlightenment.

The three middle tracks hew a little closer to genre expectations. "State of Non-Return," even has a growling guitar line. The drums are mixed high enough to gesture at doom's trudging groove, and Al Cisneros vocals have the rough edge and clipped phrasing of a waaaaay mellower Ozzie. All of this, though, serves less to solidify the band's bona fides, and more to emphasize how eager-to-please the album is, as every touch of metal past dissipates into Orientalist squiggling. It's like the band sat down and said, "How can we stay just metal enough to still be metal, and yet be family-friendly enough to get coverage on NPR?" Or, for that matter, in the Atlantic?

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This, then, should be the moment where I fulminate against the bland tyranny of the mainstream and damn all false metal to be devoured by Demogorgon, Orcus, and other malevolent entities I discovered through a youth misspent playing Dungeons and Dragons.

The only problem is that, as someone who listens to a fair bit of metal, I am forced to admit that Om isn't really all that unusual. Death metal, like Autopsy or Deicide, really is bizarrely brutal—one of the least-accessible forms of high-decibel torture ever to try to pass itself off as popular music. But once you move into other extreme metal subgenres, like black and doom, you face an uncomfortable truth. A lot of this music isn't exactly aggressive or off-putting. Instead, it's ... kind of pleasant. Soothing, even.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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