Underground metal is a funny thing. These days, it feels less like a genre and more like a loose constellation of vaguely connected mini-scenes. Case in point: Our picks for Album Of The Week, both this week and last week, are underground metal albums, and yet they couldn’t possibly sound more different from one another. Last week’s pick, Martyrdöd’s List, was a raging, fuzzed-out pummel, an absolute merciless sprint of a record. Martyrdöd, from Sweden, come from the crust world, and despite its generally high-fidelity levels and occasional blazing guitar solos, List sounds more like a hoary, gnarly punk album than anything. This week’s pick is something else. Worm Ouroboros, from Oakland, have a band name that connotes ugliness and disgust, but their sound is pure, shimmering beauty. There’s no grimy thrill to it; it’s expansive and luxurious — music for black silk curtains and candelabras and wind blowing across desolate moors. And yet both List and What Graceless Dawn, the new Worm Ouroboros album, qualify as underground metal. Seriously: Sometimes I think metal is less a kind of music and more a design sensibility.
Where an album like List screams punk, What Graceless Dawn is goth. It’s music that radiates dark romance and luxuriates in its own sense of atmosphere. Lorraine Rath and Jessica Way, the band’s two frontwomen, delicately interweave their harmonies, singing in drifty folk-music incantations and keeping their guitar and bass quietly skeletal. Drummer Aesop Dekker, late of the great windswept black metal band Agalloch, shows a level of restraint that his old band never allowed him to display. The drums here aren’t really a rhythmic instrument; they’re there, for the most part, for tribal ornamentation. Every once in a while, the trio drops the hammer and locks into a heavy, bleary doom riff. But even then, they maintain a level of stately melodic beauty. The album’s mood is immersive and all-consuming, and it never breaks for anything.
Worm Ouroboros take their time. There are only six songs on What Graceless Dawn, but they average out to well over 10 minutes apiece. All those songs unfold slowly, filling up a room like smoke. The intensity builds so slowly and incrementally that you almost don’t notice when things start to get heavy. You’re hearing pillowy synths and delicately spare guitar figures and faraway harmonies, and all of a sudden these strains resolve into something and a fuzz-drenched, Sabbathian riff bubbles up out of nowhere. But even in those heavy moments, there’s still a thick, all-consuming sense of sadness to the record. There is no catharsis to be had here. Worm Ouroboros come from the world of funeral doom, a metal subgenre about which I know precious little. But from my frame of reference, their mystic, gauzy gorgeousness evokes, say, This Mortal Coil or the Cure’s Disintegration or even the quieter songs from PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love as much as it does any metal album I could name.
And yet there’s a difficult-to-place thread that links What Graceless Dawn to even something like that raging jackhammer of a Martyrdöd album. Those two albums, like all great metal albums, might have nothing in common aesthetically, but they feel connected to some vast and implacable sense of foreboding, some idea that things will not turn out all right and that it would be foolish to pretend that they will. We need music like that. With the weather turning cold and with evil men about to assume control of our government, records that lose themselves in darkness can be the only records that make sense. They can work as a shelter, a salve. And in the days ahead, they will be all the more necessary.
What Graceless Dawn is out 12/2 on Profound Lore.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Drake’s as-yet-unheard playlist-type thing More Life.
• Childish Gambino’s genre-flouting return Awaken, My Love!
• Peter Doherty’s shambling, talky Hamburg Demonstrations.
• The Rolling Stones’ old-school blues-rock exercise Blue & Lonesome.
• Scum’s unearthed 1996 melodic death metaller Garden Of Shadows.
• Living Body’s dreamy rocker Body Is Working.
• Bethlehem’s self-titled black metal wrecking ball.
• John Legend’s inclusively soulful Darkness And Light.
• Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tweaked, all-star Broadway soundtrack The Hamilton Mixtape.
• Mica Levi’s score for the movie Jackie.
• Clint Mansell’s score for the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero.”
• The Last Shadow Puppets’ The Dream Synopsis EP.
• Star Slinger’s We Could Be More EP.
• Permit’s Vol. 1 EP.
• Kevin Krauter’s Changes EP.