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.

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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.

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.

Ukranian black-metal horde Drudkh, for example, may ideologically flirt with quasi-fascist nationalism, but musically they're no more offensive than My Bloody Valentine or Sigur Ros. Drudkh is loud, certainly. But its loudness is lyrical and sweeping—less remorseless assault than transcendent sublime. Drudkh's 2012 album Eternal Turn of the Wheel was even based on the four seasons, like Vivaldi.

Similarly, extreme British doom metal band Esoteric's Paragon of Dissonance, from 2011, could be film music—and not avant-garde film music, either. The demi-classical "Silence" is practically a lullaby, though admittedly, a lullaby sung by deep-voiced gargly monsters. Any child who likes The Muppet Show would be enchanted.

In this context, Om's ponderous flirtation with psychedelia seems less like selling out, and more like the logical slow-motion revelation of doom's spaced-out New Age soul. If Mike Oldfield were getting started today, he wouldn't be playing the tubular bells. He'd be creating feedback washes like Sun 0))).

The link between New Age and metal shouldn't be that surprising. Both types of music have similar trippy hippie roots, as Led Zeppelin's "Battle of Evermore" makes clear enough. Moreover, both tend to elicit contempt from non-believers—and for similar reasons.

Those reasons can perhaps best be summed up as spiritual earnestness. Rock, hip hop, R&B, punk, and other broadly validated pop tends to focus on swagger, style, irony, and heartbreak—if any belief is intended, it's belief in the self. In contrast, New Age opts for starry-eyed transcendent murmurings—and so, in its own much louder way, does metal.

This is easy to see with black metal like Drudkh, perhaps, where the song titles are all about autumn and gods, stars, and eternity. But it's even true in a way for a band like Deicide, which spends way more time than is hip contemplating the dead body of Christ. Metal's obsession with abject corpses is like New Age's obsession with dolphins. It's a turn away from the human, whether for purposes of degradation or salvation—and that turn leads inevitably to mysticism. So when Om chants, "Empathy release me / and the phoenix rise triumphant," the longing for transcendence doesn't just damn it as New Age.* It damns it as metal too.

*This Om lyrics in this post were initially incorrect. We regret the error.