The slow, ominous textures of doom metal are often traced back to Tony Iommi's work with early Black Sabbath. Now, however, with several decades having passed, most of today's exponents are pickier about their influences or intentions. Hence the appearance of multiple sub-genres, such as "stoner doom," "epic doom," and a host of others.
The style's trademark elements of leaden pace, crushing volume, and despairing lyrics might seem an easy fit for the Russian context - all joking aside. And yet there remains the issue of these more recent variations upon an English sound. What, in a word, is the raison d'etre of slow, somber rock in Russia today, especially when it allegedly espouses a heritage of occultism?
Both of the bands under investigation here are from Moscow: Without God and Lord of Doubts. Their names alone help to set the scene. The former ensemble has been together for a couple of years - and from the outset makes no attempt to hide a debt to Sabbath.
The members prefer to catalog themselves quite simply as Anton (vocals), Olga (guitar), Viktor (bass), and Ivan (drums). A recent interview with the band's vocalist helped to flesh out the context - and therefore the meaning of doom rock in Moscow as a whole. Such textual support is useful, given the willfully obscure visuals.
Anton (Brovkin) traces his earliest influences back to the poorly-received Black Sabbath album of 1995, "Forbidden." This has led some journalists to suggest that the quartet falls into the respectful confines of "traditional" UK doom, but the object of lyric attention is, nonetheless, locally specific. The influences may be international, but the issues under discussion are domestic.
More specifically, several of Without God's texts focus upon the relationship between faith, Russian media, and the state. Recent interviews have, for example, paid special attention to the cynical ways in which "folk" medicine is advocated on Moscow's mid-morning television, itself financed and broadcast by anonymous individuals who drift through the corridors of power.
So many people in Russia today live like vegetables...
Brovkin is quick to pour scorn upon these and similar shows: "So many people in Russia today live like vegetables. They don't yearn for anything. All they do is eat, drink, and f***. They don't really 'live'; they simply exist, believing any old bullsh*t they find on TV or in the press. They may attend a church on Sundays, but they've no idea why..."
Some recent artwork continues where his thought concludes.
At this point in the proceedings, however, one might expect a lapse into praise for thing demonic - as a radical alternative to various failed institutions. And yet, whatever the stereotypes of doom metal may be, we hear something very different:
"Other 'vegetables' in this country smash up crucifixes in local cemeteries - or they go around writing '666' on any blank wall they find. Some people drink and get high every day, while others prefer a 'healthy' lifestyle, watching those folk medicine shows..."
The disdain is spread so far and wide that Brovkin admits his musical style, learned from Iommi, leads him to "express hatred in non-violent forms." An interviewer suggests that the band therefore be classified in yet another "sub-sub-sub-genre: 'sarcastic traditional death doom.'" The phrase is laughed off - in a genial fashion.
You can fall into a trance listening to loud, rhythmic, and groovy music
In building upon these modest foundations, the members of Without God say they enjoy performing live, whatever the financial costs or risks may be. More important than profit is a sense of collaboration and community:
"We like playing live. Gigs are like tribal rituals today: you can fall into a trance listening to loud, rhythmic, and groovy music. You can even get stoned without the drink or drugs. It's a real pleasure..."
At this point Moscow colleagues Lord of Doubts are namechecked as the best instigators of that rare and precious atmosphere. This second ensemble lists its core members in even simpler terms than Without God: "Art N." (guitars/bass/chants) and "V.M." (drums). A little detective work reveals that the second set of initials stands for Vladimir Muchnov.
In response to questions about the trajectory of LoD, Muchnov prefers not to speak about a fixed or concrete goal: "I can't really say whether we're progressing in any fashion or not... Perfection in any enterprise is always unobtainable - and I can't even see what our kind of 'perfection' might be!... Our new material will be darker and heavier. That much I can say with confidence."
Our new material will be darker and heavier. That much I can say with confidence
The issue then arises, as with fellow Muscovites Without God, of why such "evil" music might emerge and/or flourish in Russia. Our journalist inquires whether it could be a reflection of something universal within human nature, or - conversely - whether doom metal in Russia differs from its Western equivalent... since the haircuts are clearly the same.
"Russia has always chosen its own path," he says. "Trouble is, most of the time that choice merely complicates matters. Personally, I don't know what the problem is [throughout the ages]. The only solution I can see is to stay away from the masses."
The only solution I can see is to stay away from the masses
The band does not play concerts very often, citing a growing lack of patience when it comes to bureaucratic meddling and red tape. And so the perfect community, away from the mainstream, petty bureaucrats, or grave-trashing "vegetables," remains manageable only within a fleeting, sonically-fashioned space. Widespread, constant critique of the status quo only makes the search for (honest) civic membership increasingly grim.
Once again, though, any sarcastic dismissal of of organized religion or marketable morals does not lead to a dalliance with demonism. Lord of Doubts do not see their craft in terms of anything terribly spiritual. Material problems and emotional wellbeing remain two more grounded and pressing matters.
What's required is fidelity. That's all you need
The band's sarcastic, frequently despairing lyrics are directed against all forms of institutionalized activity - including the modish (and therefore profitable) symbolism of demons, vampires, or other wan figures. When asked about the key elements of Russian doom metal, Muchnov said not long ago that "what's required is fidelity. That's all you need."
Russian actuality is dark enough that faith is needed in something better - and brighter.
The reference to fidelity here means commitment to a given sound and the sense of belonging it potentially brings, irrespective of fashion and/or anything fiscal. In the minds of Brovkin and his colleagues, the ideal soundtrack to these efforts began several decades ago and remains just as valid:
"Black Sabbath remain the heaviest band ever seen in our crappy modern times. Stick on the first song of their debut album, and you'll hear what I mean. That's the heaviest guitar and bass of all time...."
I kept hearing that metal's dead, that I'm dead - and that all the people who like me are dead, too..!
As Ozzy Osbourne once remarked: "I kept hearing that metal's dead, that I'm dead - and that all the people who like me are dead, too! But I've never had an empty seat." Is this audience fidelity due to the childish or devilish thematics usually associated with Osbourne? Apparently not. Making reference to a popular British brand of confectionary (below), he has also stated: "The only black magic Sabbath ever got into was a box of chocolates... We were a hippy band. We were into peace." Doom metal endures for reasons beyond the wellbeing of bats.
This is the same logic that we see with our two Moscow groups. The potential downside of contemporary social mores, as a sad interface of faith, policy, and commerce, is so bleak that a "fidelity" to some small-scale alternative - come what may - can become dramatic indeed. The more insistent or widespread the voice of (profitable) propriety, the more insistent contrariness needs to be.
Given the frantic pace of shoptalk in most corners of daily life, it's no wonder these bands play so slowly.