For the person writing this, doom metal doesn’t start with a sound, but with an image: the one included on Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut album. A photograph taken at a British landscape in which we see a house (in fact, a water mill), seemingly isolated in a forest in which the vegetation shows a scarlet tint that confers the scene an hallucinogenic vibe (after all, it’s nearly the seventies). At the centre of the composition, we can also a see a figure, probably female, with long hair and dressed in a black tunic looking directly at us, gullible listeners. A both terrifying and fascinating scene in which we could find echoes to The Innocents and Carnival of Souls, and which somehow prefigures an American Gothic icon as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.
Holding this vinyl, I could spend hours looking at the image, carried away as Will More looking at his trading card collection; a feeling, I think, shared by a lot of other people. I get lost in the forest and start imagining the story behind the uncanny photograph: is that a spectre that popped-up when the image was developed? Is Death the one not taking its eyes off me? Wait a minute… is it holding a black cat or is it just a wrinkle on the tunic? Or is it just Ozzy having a morning walk? The possibilities are endless… But reality is quite prosaic: photographer Marcus Keef hired a model for the photo shoot and then applied a chromatic treatment to the image in the same way as he did in other of his works from the same period.
No matter how deceptive its making of, the image of the first Sabbathian stone preserves its hair-raising capacity intact, now in contrast with the perception we have of the music on the album (a masterpiece, on the other hand), which is nothing else than the celebration of a sound, heavy metal, that was beginning to realise its power just then. This disparity between sound and vision is extended, in my case, to other items, since before a metal listener, to put it somehow, I was a metal watcher. When music wasn’t yet available at a mere click’s distance, I contemplated Slayer’s illustrated hells, Mayhem’s abused churches and Darkthron’s corpsepaint highlighted in darkness (now that I think of it, was the cover of Under a Funeral Moon the logical evolution that faded the initial Black Sabbath image to black?), and I imagined how those barbarities might sound. I created thus a phantom record, an atrocious soundtrack to the story of those terrifying images, watched as if they were films.
But what happens when metal puts its eyes on actual films? Newly born Doomers such as Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats edit fragments of fantastic films as though they were a psychedelic amalgam, while Electric Wizard directly play in front of projections of tuned versions of Jesús Franco’s films, to the delight of the studious of female anatomy. In both cases the music/image combination is purely festive, a complicity wink in which there’s no space for perturbation, as happened to those horror movies that, particularly in the eighties, entered heavy imaginary, and before which it’s quite difficult to keep calm.
In the end, in order to feel the thunderous chill one must look into the extremes and fantasise with inconceivable associations: the most scary things come from artists, such as Earth or Sunn O))), that have taken doom’s electricity and have turned it into a column that extends the sound to make it closer to La Monte Young’s idea of the drone. When playing their records, temperature lowers down several degrees, colour disappears, and the movement of our body and everything surrounding it becomes slow and heavy, like their music. The oppressive experience is similar to that Vampyr sequence in which the main character is buried alive and the camera observes the transfer and the burial of the coffin in an agonic subjectivity.
Instinct has taken me to Dreyer’s work, a sound film seemingly still adhered to silent film characteristics, advancing at the same speed as a spectre. And the truth is that it seems curious to realise how doom’s most difficult factions find a natural alliance with certain art film manifestations. For example, Jim Jarmusch thoroughly used the Southern Lord catalogue in The Limits of Control, trusting that matching drones with the minimal action variation that the hit man played by Isaach de Bankolé undertook would give the narrative a suprarrealism feel. We should make clear, though, that there could be found no anxious intention on Jarmusch’s operation. On the contrary: it’s a product of someone finding genuine pleasure in immersing himself in repetition until perception is altered (at the end of the day, and as the laconic protagonist affirms, “reality is overrated”). Something that would end up becoming clear with Only Lovers Left Alive, in which the vampire played by Tom Hiddleston strums his guitar and fiddles with pedals to find in drones a perfect correspondence to his own eternity.
But it’s even more interesting viewing the chain of doom-drone-film affinity as a sympathetic relationship between materials without a meditated author intervention. It’s what Frances Morgan suggested in an interesting article for Electric Sheep, where she suggested that David Lynch’s films (and specifically his use of sound) came from the same noisy place as William Basinski, Sunn O))) and all those artists keen on lower frequency sounds. On the other hand, it’s also scary to realise the easiness with which a record like Black One can be played over Begotten, E. Elias Merhige’s legendary nightmarish film, with its forest, stones, black blood and creatures that seem spoils from the other side. And in the same way that (almost) no one imagines listening to Earth 2 with a smile, we can’t avoid a rigid frown either before Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, the tempestuous images of which are as heavy as the most monolithic and arid of the riffs invented by Dylan Carlson.
A few weeks ago, I again had the feeling of being in front of a screen with a spectral and droning slowness. It happened while I was seeing Reverberation, by Ernie Gehr, in which an urban and machine sound surrounds the images of a couple watching the building of the World Trade Center. “(…) sound is an agglomeration, it’s continuous, its edges are rough. These abundant black and white stains are equalled through a granulated and rocky image (a low-relief that is neither flat nor rounded). An equation of tone and light is insinuated through constant transformations. Moments, movements slow down, heavy, solemn…,” said of it Michael Snow, who possibly officialised filmic drones with his Wavelength (the YouTube video being purely symbolic, since watching this film outside a cinema room, not to say in a computer, is not natural). Although, to be strict, the film by the Canadian author has a lot more to do with Phill Niblock‘s work than to those settings full of smoke and tunics which extreme manifestations of doom still fancy.
The former examples take us to a funny paradox: while metal artwork inspires us to imagine gruesome stories, the films we’ve been talking about seem to progressively move away from storytelling. Does this mean that the epiphany of doom in films is only possible in avant-garde sectors? Have they been deprived of these feelings, and sounds, of genre cinema’s delightful chill? Luckily, for some years the answer has been a blatant “no”. Little by little, but significantly, there have appeared some directors closely related to doom. One of them is James Sizemore, author of The Demon’s Rook, who paints, sculpts and shoots amazing creatures among blue and red lights, smoke machines and deep guitar riffs, drowning in latex and gore any kind of humorous or ironic detour that might hinder his mythology. A commendable seriousness, but sadly way above the performing possibilities of the director and the precarious bunch of friends he uses as actors. In all, when he shortens the length to a few minutes and substitutes the story for the description of a concrete action, like in the short-film Goat Witch, his proposal wins conviction because it only depends from the sincere apology of a creepy and devilish imagery, carried out by an author who firmly thinks that the mission of witches, devils and ominous electricity is to fright people, not to make them laugh.
Sizemore’s films have found their natural habitat at the Festival de Sitges. And during the last edition it was also screened, successfully (with a highlighted presence at the list of winners), Bone Tomahawk, directed by S. Craig Zohler, who debuted in film after he had acquired a certain reputation as writer and, significantly, with the alias of Czar, as the drummer (and singer) of several different metal bands, Realmbuilder and Charnel Valley in particular. Bone Tomahawk has no supernatural settings, it takes place as a western that progressively turns into a horror film, but its way of advancing inexorably towards terror is in itself typical of someone who has learned to ride ominous sounds. And, obviously, if we talk about musicians-film directors, we need to make an unavoidable reference to Rob Zombie and The Lords of Salem, his ode to the mesmerising potential of rock in which all the women in a town fall under the spell of a doom record (vinyl as an esoteric object, a receptacle of invocations and a key to the afterlife), and which ends with All Tomorrow’s Parties as the soundtrack of a contemporary witches’ Sabbath.
To close this text, I’d like to mention a very recent movie that has its drive in the existing tension between the notion of metal as a discharge of positive energy and its declination into something genuinely murky: The Devil’s Candy, by Sean Byrne. The film’s protagonist is a painter with a passion for hard noises; a passion he has passed on to his tween daughter. Both dress T-shirts of their favourite bands, and a Metallica sound or the horn gesture serve them as a code to seal their complicity and closeness. In opposition to this, the story is traversed by a subterranean sound, a terrible roar that rapes the mind and takes people to commit atrocious actions, even if some poor soul tries to cover them with quite a curious method: plugging the guitar to the amp and liberating decibels. This devilish soundtrack by Sunn O))) with Attila Csihar singing (in particular, Decay2 [Nihil’s Maw]), is of an upsetting suitability, although talking not too long ago with Stephen O’Malley I learned that the implication of the band in the film was limited to authorising the use of the song (at the moment of the interview, the musician hadn’t even watched the film). Still, Byrne integrates in a crystal-clear and exemplary way the different humours of metal in the narrative, turning doom into a transmission of the abyss that opens the door to weirdness and extends its influence over the images as if it were a plague.