Picture a band. Think of the idea of a band, what makes up its constituent parts. The platonic ideal of the word “band,” if you will. The image that springs to mind (the image that springs to my mind, too, despite my repeated attempts to beat presuppositions and platonic ideals out of myself) is the image of somewhere between three to five dudes, all wielding some combination of bass, guitar, drums and their own vocal chords. From the lean punk three-piece to more elaborate set-ups featuring extra guitars and maybe a dedicated frontperson, that’s still the concept of “band” that stands out in my mind.
Curiously enough, however, the bands that are attracting my attention, crawling under my skin and making a home in deepest recesses of my conscious mind look less and less like this prototypical band set-up. I am speaking, of course, of the doom duo. There is something about the layered depth of sound and sophistication of theme that merely two people can create on stage or in the recording studio that consistently stuns me. Some of the most incredible shows I’ve seen recently have been thanks to a pair of aural sculptors. As more and more bands abandon the traditional structure and instead trade members for emotion, depth and stunning sonic abundance, the profile of the doom duo as a structure and aesthetic choice is on the rise.
To be perfectly honest, I am still puzzling out why this musical alchemy is so potent, the mix of genre (centred on doom, sludge, drone, and noise) and execution (by a pair of musicians). While I’m still gathering data from the music-journalism-equivalent of petri dishes and microscope slides, I can at least present some excellent examples of this pairing of musical genre, band structure and performance choice to highlight exactly why the doom duo demands your attention and is carving out impressive impact craters in the realm of heavy music.
Pioneers of both their sound and structure, Amber Gazelle Valentine and Edgar Livengood have been writing and performing bone-shattering sludge and doom since 1993. Eleven years ago, they moved into a mobile home and have been perpetually on tour ever since — even more impressive when you consider that one of their trademarks is a literal wall of speakers (their typical stage set up is stacked 10′ high by 15′ wide). They’re not only loud — although they are most definitely that as well, so much so that their live performances are profoundly physical, visceral experiences where the audience feels their music as much with their body as with their ears. There is no way to accurately express what it is like to have a specific riff send your collarbones vibrating that to say you must experience it yourself.
Check out: Nadir (recorded in 1994, reissued in 2011 from Crack Rock Music and Nomadic Fortress) and Throned In Blood (Nomadic Fortress, distributed by Relapse Records)
Mares of Thrace
This Calgary-based (usually) noise-doom duo, composed of ThérÃ¨se Lanz on vocals and baritone guitar and recent addition Rae Amitay (Stef MacKichan was a founding member, co-wrote and recorded both their albums) pride themselves on creating dense, layered, incredibly intricate (and utterly crushing) soundscapes that transcend the studio. In other words, they work to produce just as massive and complex a sound as they do on their album as they can on their records. Both of their albums, 2010’s The Moulting and 2012’s incredible The Pilgrimage are narratively driven as well, tracing allegorical journeys of transformation, movement and loss. Their sound resembles nothing so much as a marble slab, covered with delicate carvings.
Check out: The Pilgrimage (2012, Sonic Unyon Records)
This Portland-based psychedelic doom duo are guitarist/vocalist Stevie Floyd (Dark Castle) and drummer Ashley Spungin (ex-Purple Rhinestone Eagle). Their huge, buzzing riffs are monstrous and violent, conjuring the image of a vast, shambling creature dragging its painful weight across the guitar’s strings. Their live show, which involves Floyd’s distorted, acidic voice roaring out like a perverse robot and huge, disturbing projections flickering behind them, is terrifying.
Check out: Life (independently released in 2012)
The doom duo structure clearly holds some creative sway over Stevie Floyd, as she is also a part of the two-piece Dark Castle, along with drummer Rob Shaffer. This project is a bit more spirited, straightforwardly aggressive and direct in its violence. The music still twists and writhes, but is also capable of precise strikes, moments of sharp nimbleness amid the cast swaths of doom vibrations.
Check out: Surrender To All Life (2011, Profound Lore Records)
Formed in 2011, this electro-doom duo is composed of Jane Vincent (Total Fucking Destruction, ex-Akibu) on synth and vocals, and Logan Terkelsen (Pfisters) on drums, synth and programmed sequences. Their weird, snaking compositions result in a singularly uncomfortable listening experience. While doom is often works in the mode of thick, fat, lugubriously muscular sounds, Curse explore doom through sharp, cracking feedback and broad, looping waves of noise.
Check out: Curse (self-titled EP, independently released)
This smouldering death-and-doom band from Long Island, NY were founded in 1988 and stand as one of the oldest American doom bands still in active today. Their death metal influences imbued their riffing with a crunchier quality, a tone that recalls the eschar of blackened flesh and lends a strangely refreshing quality to the vast, punishing swath their funereal doom song structures carve into the listener’s emotional landscape. Great listening when you want to be smashed into paste.
Check out: Apocalypsis Damnare (self-released 1999, re-issued by Paragon records 2005), Principia Sardonica (2004, Paragon Records)
When we think of the experience of listening to music, including the dark and even violent kind of music that can characterize heavy metal, we often expect being uplifted or energized in some way. Doom metal, on the other hand, sets out with the absolute goal to break you down. Adjectives like “crushing,” “towering” and “monumental” are overused for a reason when describing examples of the genre. What is perhaps most surprising about doom metal is how exquisite the pain it brings can be, how profound a transformation it can inspire, and how addictive the feeling of being brought low becomes. If the idea of being systematically dismantled through sound is appealing to you at all, give theme doom duos a listen. Also, you are likely very strange, and we should be friends.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.