As death metal raged in the late 80s underground, bands were obsessively outdoing each other for speed and brutality. However, in the zines and tape-trade lists of the day, something weird was lurking: a handful of eccentric old souls - Candlemass, Trouble, Saint Vitus - were bringing back the grime and groove of early Black Sabbath, offering welcome respite from DM’s frantic one-upmanship. Soon these more sombre and solemn vibes were rubbing off on a new generation of death metalheads. The Dutch were first responders; Sempiternal Deathreign released The Spooky Gloom LP in 1989, while Asphyx, The Gathering, Celestial Season, Beyond Belief and Phlebotomized distinguished themselves early on as pioneers of herbally relaxed slo-death. Finland remains another flashpoint, Thergothon, Skepticism, Unholy and Shape Of Despair digging into death-doom’s darkest depths to create the funeral doom scene. The old death-doom magic continues to proliferate across the globe; these five albums plot its trajectory.
Winter - Into Darkness (1990)
Winter’s one and only LP was a colossal anomaly at the time; a teenage trio from New York, with an old hippy on studio keyboards, taking aesthetic and political inspiration from UK crust punks Amebix and Discharge, playing Celtic Frost in a molasses flood. It’s an eccentric brief, at a complete remove from contemporary thrash/death metal trends (Winter’s original PR stated “in no way are they affiliated with that genre of music or the pretentious attitude that sometimes comes with it”). Way ahead of their time, Winter disbanded within a couple of years, but their cult gradually percolated to mythic levels, inspiring a generation to get slow, low and sludgy.
Paradise Lost - Lost Paradise (1990)
In its dying days, Thatcher’s Britain spewed up its own distinctly Northern twist on the fast-rising death metal phenomenon. Miserable, damp, grey and sluggish, Lost Paradise is often overlooked in the shadow of its more versatile, accessible follow-up Gothic, but this gloriously noxious and primitive debut is where first impact was made. A contemporary Peaceville ad dubbed the LP “Number one in anguished and tormented orchestral death”; the band’s ‘orchestral’ impulses didn’t yet stretch far (and the radical drops in tempo were partly necessitated by being a death metal band with an asthmatic drummer), but Paradise Lost always possessed a forward-thinking musicality, even if it was buried under tons of rot.
My Dying Bride - Turn Loose The Swans (1993)
Another quintet hailing from PL’s hometown of Halifax, West Yorkshire, MDB emerged out of the same local club scene with an impulse to push the “anguished and tormented orchestral death” concept to the hilt. Ornamenting their labyrinthine epics with lugubrious violin worthy of Sherlock Holmes, MDB hoisted the mangy subgenre into an artform on this glumly sumptuous second album, projecting a level of sensitivity and erudition hitherto virtually unknown in metal, while still devastating with Celtic Frost-encrusted riffs. Aaron unleashed a wounded croon alongside his animal growl, giving a unique new voice to a set of visionary lyrics that took their cues more from Shakespeare and Keats than Azagthoth and Schuldiner.
Disembowelment - Transcendence Into The Peripheral (1993)
Australia, typically, was doing its own thing in this era, and that thing was utterly unhinged. The Aussies took to this suffocating gloom surprisingly well (see also funeral gods Mournful Congregation for further deathly bleakness from down under), but this Melbourne quartet’s debut LP introduced cavernous dark ambient into the death-doom mix, making such a flamboyantly disorientating impression that it remains unfollowable. The band fell apart after its release, and although the rhythm section re-emerged in 2012 with the similarly slanted (and excellent) Inverloch, the dizzying alien madness of Transcendence... is impossible to recreate; only a blend of isolation, guilelessness and nutso imagination could spawn a recording so fervidly singular.
Swallow The Sun - Songs From The North I, II & III (2015)
Death-doom started off a pretty grimy, dank sort of music, a scratchy mongrel belching green smoke in the deep underground. Formed beside the Finnish Lakes in 2000, solemn craftsmen Swallow The Sun have spun the manky blueprint into orbit, obsessively honing and polishing a sound that’s intricately layered and oppressively powerful, both sonically and emotionally, with radiant progressive impulses among the churning power chords and double kick patterns. This immersive, triple-disc pine-scented masterwork ranges across the band’s full scope, including some of their most intense, elemental metal alongside a beguiling acoustic disc. Subsequent albums, written in the wake of immense personal tragedy, have been even more devastatingly mournful and poignant.