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If there was one doom-metal/sludge release from last year that was really addictive for me it was Windhand's amazing 'Grief's Infernal Flower' set. If it slipped on by you, acquaint yourself. Riffs big and baleful as hell and beautiful beautiful songs sung by Dorthia Cottrell in a voice part Sandy Denny, part Linda Thompson, part nobody else. It's a wonderful record, but it made me think alot about why I loved it so.

See, I've always tried to write in a gender-neutral way about music but the female-fronted nature of Windhand DID make a difference. Although there was plenty of heavy male-fronted stuff last year that floated my boat, I kept returning to 'Grief's Infernal Flower', getting heady off its pungency and funereal fragrance, couldn't damn-well leave Windhand alone and couldn't help concluding that the presence of Dorthia had a big impact behind that. Her vocals weren't just perhaps the best singing on any doom-rock release of 2015, they lent this kind of music a new suggestiveness and confidence, a new depth and a new way to rock without always coming across like weed-encrusted macho retweaks of past manly self-obliteration. Much as copping a few shit sleeve-tatts and a beard you could lose a badger in is the way that today's young men earn themselves a fake gnarly gravitas, so much of the heavier end of metal in 2015 seemed able to flick the right switches on the right equipment, hit the right thresholds, but come off as curiously bereft of purpose beyond facsimile and simulation. That's down to vocalists. Commitment in metal singing derives from finding your own style - where bands in metal benefit from being able to distill the past to new levels of purity and heaviness, vocalists need to find something from themselves that's unique, that separates their voices from being a mere agglomeration of cliche (cliches are crucial of course, but anything made purely of cliches is coldly uninvolving and there was plenty of that kind of music in doom last year), voices that make you listen to the words properly because they sound like they believe in them. Windhand, with Dorthia's supremely measured, shatteringly evocative vocals resonating within and over the band's gloriously bruising bleakness, seemed to operate at a level beyond doom's usual self-piteous holding patterns. 

Dorthia Cottrell, frontwoman of Richmond VA's  stunning Windhand. 

Great songs helped of course, careful arrangement and playing too - but I'm convinced that for me at least, something about the female voice reinvigorates doom, gives it a fresh impetus, lends it an airborne grace but also pulls it into the magik earth too. Dorthia, whose voice could also be heard in 2015 on her stunning solo debut seemed to be, as any frontperson would be, the fulcrum and focus of what makes the band so special - crucially though, beyond sonics, her presence in the songs, the grave promontory her voice put her on in relation to the music, gave Windhand a sense of purpose and point that eluded so much other doom rock from 2015. This is no fluke for me. I'm finding a similar sense of joy and drive in the music of two other female-fronted doom acts in 2016, Horehound from Pittsburgh and Messa from Italy. In all three cases on one level the gender of the vocalists wouldn't matter for shit- the basics have to be secured, and if they weren't, all three bands would be just another half-decent bandcamp obscurity.  But doom and stoner rock, like hip hop and grime,  have an accumulative life - can build up and bore you after a while if the initial ideas aren't problematised and made new by the people involved. I have never written about any musician differently because of their gender and I ain't about to start now. I'm supremely aware of the danger, that as a male, hearing a female voice singing on doom-rock I positively-discriminate for sheer rarity, or start attaching all kinds of stereotypical gendered 'qualities' to the music that perhaps aren't there. But in all three of these bands I want to point out that the vocalists, for this jaded auld fecker at least, utterly recast and renenergise my need to hear more of this music, all three twist and bend a formula until it breaks into new and thrilling spaces. Horehound & Messa have already made two of my favourite albums of 2016. 

Horehound's stunning self-titled debut does everything a great rock record should do. One, it absolutely fucking rocks. This band have clearly got their shit together in close rehearsal in the short time they've been around (they came together via Craigslist ads in 2015) and have figured out not just how to sound, but how to arrange and sculpt that sound. For a bandcamp release it's stunningly recorded, tactile, heavy, clear. Where much doom has a problem not in establishing a feel but in maintaining a feel, Horehound keep things fascinating throughout their 7 track debut and know when to stop shocking us and start hypnotising us. Opener 'World To Come' ("This has become the world we've won/With no chance and no change"sets out stalls - a gratifyingly filthy guitar sound, a fucking awesome grind and thump to the rhythm section and Shy Kennedy's vocals and lyrics instantly (d/r)efusing predictability. You WANT predictability in heavy music, in all music, you want it to do the things you want it to do when you want it to do em. But if that's all you get, you get tired quick - Horehound are wonderful because their songs absolutely deliver those moments where you pin your head roughly half-a-foot from the floor and groove the fuck out but every song has quirks and tangents that reflect a deeper wider set of musical influences than just doom or sludge, that lifts the album into areas of angular oddity more akin to the best of all kinds of underground music (I'm reminded of Godflesh, Chavez, Nymphs, Babes In Toyland and Kylesa and a ton of others). 

Lyrically as well, every song Horehound have made avoids the cliched fucked-up haziness of stoner/doom lyrics for a more ambiguous, unsettling and utterly compelling sense of ghostly disconnection with reality - a disconnection that actually starts revealing exactly how wired to life, and aware of its complexities Kennedy is as a lyricist. Three minutes into 'World To Come' and the drums abscond a moment, kick back in on a new riff and the whole band lift off and Shy lets her vocal become a muezzin-like high level drone and you realise nigh-on no other doom record of the year has had a moment in in where you haven't known exactly what's going to happen next. The drums drop back in with a rolling brilliance that's pure Bill Ward and the song ends with a Babes In Toyland style grind-out but two-thousand times as heavy as that brilliant band ever got on record. 'Sangreal' ("Soaring as high as the ceilings allow/ Floating free with mischief, loud")  pivots and pummels its way into a high-velocity slam of occult heaviness, 'Crowns & Thorns' tickles your pleasure centres like prime Electric Wizard but feels unshackled from the kind of size-obsession EW have, no need to plug into a planet-sized Hawkwind-style wall of racket when the riffs are so fucking hot and Shy's vocal is such a deeply reverbed thing of wonder. 

Horehound, pic by Paul Werkmeister 
Highlight of the whole album for me is the epic 'The Dead Don't Lie' which really reveals why the vocals are so key - they're vocals unafraid of themselves, vocals that don't try and hide themselves in murkage and grogginess. Shy's sense of end-of-tether desolation seeps out of every line , little psyche notes and codas, an almost-Eastern sense of singularity and resolution slipped into all the right turnarounds. When she steps off and the band clamp down for a stunning bout of accelerating carnage at the end it gains that extra power from the sense you've made of what words you can make out "what are these words crawling in my mouth/ glued to my tongue wanting to come out/an unfelt passion in me/an unke(m)pt dream it will stay/A touch of bliss, an unsensed"), the feel that all you hear is holistically borne at the same moment. 

'Waters Of Lethe' slips some monstro-cubist riffage your way, hints that as we move further through 'Horehound' things will get more and more unique, before 'Myope' applies epistemology to the self and then to politics over an utterly thrilling, beautifully ugly rolling riff that veers into a lunging pit of despair. Closer 'Waking Time' posits waking up from the fug of modernity only to disappear, end the pain, warns that stepping out of the dungeons we make ourselves might end up plunging us into a nightmare in which we run from our pursuers until we're caught. It's creepy as fuck.  So refreshing to hear doom where the lyrics MATTER. I want Horehound to create something full-length that picks up where this debut leaves off, I want to hear an album-length transmission that refines their songwriting while retaining their rawness because fuck me they're onto something special here. Seek it out and pray they'll make their way to Europe some time soon cos live, you sense, they're gonna be fucking awesome.

Where you sense Horehound have a trajectory and come out the blocks snarling, Messa, the Italian four-piece who have just released the album 'Belfry' are way obscurer, harder to find out about and their music is shrouded in a little more mystery. They call it 'Scarlet Doom'. They seem just as interested in prog, black metal, punk, and ambient music as they are in the doom-sources that clearly inform them. 'Belfry' starts with 4 minutes of slowly building guitar-drone ('Alba') akin to Brotzmann or Fred Frith before 'Babalon' lets you actually know what the band can conjure. Way bluesier in their approach, what you have here is something like the best homage to Pentagram and Bathory you've heard in a long while, with enough moments of straight-up weirdness to lift it out of the doom-pile and into its own uniquely addictive space.

Messa, 2016
The song switches between gorgeous slo-mo doom raunch and pin-drop minimalism, unafraid of massively spooked silences and heavily echo-chambered single guitar lines - Sara's vocals less controlling the madness than sounding like they're emanating from the walls, swimming out without a body from the spaces between the music. It's a strange, totally idiosyncratic sound. 'Hour Of The Wolf' is half entirely drumless, a stealthy, mist-choked stumble through a desert of heavily reverbed twang before the band pile in for a stomping fade. Some of you will balk at the 'trad'ness of what the band play - I say it sounds fucking great and crucially the vocals again stop things being mere pastiche. Sara can sound like she might vanish without a trace, can also sound possessed, has a way of imparting the drama to the vocal each line needs - redolent for me of the connection between word and sound Stevie Nicks was always able to forge. And look, I'm an old man, if guitar solos and dead-obvious riffs can be done with the kind of full-tilt gusto displayed on 'Belfry' give me more give me more.

The epic 'Blood' spends ten magnificent minutes driving you out to the desert again and then driving ingots into your eyeballs, Sara sounding like a fucking flying banshee of vengeance, the band creating this hulking low-end stank that tweaks everything down to a kind of molten 16-rpm neck-snapping doldrum. Absolutely fucking LOVE the clarinet/sax that comes in about 7 minutes in too - recalling Hawkwind,Steve McKay with the Stooges but also Bismillah Khan, and one of my favourite musical moments of 2016 thus far. "Tomba" is pure electronics by the sound of it, a wee occult tone-poem of unsettling drones like Goblin rerubbed by Skinny Puppy before 'New Horns' comes on with straight up NWOBHM putsch and Diamond Head-like turns, Sara, like the rest of Messa, isn't afraid to take the spotlight - there's a moment where she starts intoning gothic dread like a female psychic in an Argento daymare, the guitarist also lashes down a solo worthy of Bolzer's mighty 'Aura'. By the time you're stranded out on the crepuscular arctic horizon of 'Bell Tower', 'Outermosts' noisy-as-fuck riffola and the Zep-style acoustic coda of 'Confess' you wonder why bands like Messa, and Horehound, aren't occupying a more central space in metal. I feel kinda bad for bunching both together here, there's big differences between them but what they share is fearlessness, what they share is that there's so much more here to genuinely be a fanboy or fangirl of than all those boybands-with-guitars currently boring 'heavy' rock to death. Only way any type of music is going to survive the grim future ahead is by finding new ways of sounding, new ways of speaking and the only way that's going to happen is by new types of people taking this music on and making it their own. Horehound and Messa are two fantastic examples of how rock'n'roll's heaviest dead ends can be driven at and destroyed and made ever-more magnificent. Feel free to tell me in the comments about more of them.


  1. Don't forget too self-styled astral seraphim Jessica Ball whose empyrean trillings for Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard are for the most part scarcely audible yet utterly crucial to their enormous sound.

  2. Artistkiller

    I don't know if I agree with you here. Too much of this music is condemned to stagnation in a ghetto if it doesn't push the envelope and create something entirely new. Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley achieved this by being truthful and honest with their approach to music, they didn't sell you short or rest on musics past glories, they reinvented it.


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