At an early age, I was diagnosed with depression and OCD. I struggled with self-hatred, contemplating self-harm and suicidal thoughts when I was a teenager. I would envy the happiness of others and wonder to myself why was it so hard for me to find that sense of peace. Throughout many of those younger years, I felt alien among other kids, all too aware of this dark and tainted aspect of myself. I so desperately wanted to feel normal, to be happy.
Though I grew up with a powerful support system, I found a personal comfort through music—my most intimate connection is with metal.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve derived strength from metal. Whether it has been Slipknot, Killswitch Engage or Cannibal Corpse, fast and heavy bands have provided me catharsis through the sheer rush of the sound; with just enough of an adrenaline kick, I have found an internal drive to take on the world. This is something I’ve always loved about metal—how an art form built on power and aggression can lend itself to growth. Through this music, I’ve always felt that I can overcome my struggles and be better than them. But alongside those feelings of perseverance, metal has also provided me the gift of contemplation.
Over the years as I’ve worked on my mental health, the way I listen to music has taken on a meditative aspect. Nowadays, when working through rough patches, I gravitate toward music that provides me space to reflect on my emotions. Relatively speaking, it is easy to throw on some speedy grindcore and get lost in the frenzy (and to be fair, that sense of enjoyment has its place in self-care), but it’s doom metal that has forever changed my way of thinking.
An album that struck an emotional chord within me upon first hearing it was Bell Witch’s 2017 album Mirror Reaper. Intrigued by the record’s chilling artwork, along with the notion of listening to an hour-long song, what caught me by surprise was my reaction to the material. My feelings of emotional and physical reactions to music sometimes intersect, creating experiences for me that come with a deeper sense of intimacy. For example, I have a difficult time listening to “bright” sounds; I find that certain high-pitched melodies stir an uncomfortable sadness in me, where as a steady progression of beats offers me a flow that my brain can follow and relax to. Yet When I first heard Mirror Reaper, the minimalist droning struck me in a profound way, providing me a sense of calm and wholeness. Each shade of distortion and tone felt as if it were touching upon a feeling within me. The record’s somber tones came across like sonic interpretations of dread and depression. Mirror Reaper is a contemplative experience, one both gentle and grand. It weaves its way around the subjects of life and death, encouraging the listener to take on their own introspective journey. It is only logical that the music would hit me in the way it did. For some of us with depression, mortality isn’t far from our minds. In my case, growing up, I would mull over my worth and purpose, trying to consider my place in the universe.
When I first clicked with metal emotionally, it was because I was hearing someone speak to a pain I was living with. In having discovered doom, it was the musical presence that enamored me. Here was a piece of music that masterfully captured abstracts of emotion and feeling and was able to funnel such sadness into something meaningful and cathartic. Having discovered Bell Witch and similar bands, I found a new form of art that provided a vehicle to gently explore my mind and grasp a new strength.
In 2018 I came across Sumac’s Love In Shadow. Though Sumac is vastly different than Bell Witch, I found myself drawn to similar elements in their sound. Love In Shadow contains moments of chaos inside a great serenity. It is a musical experience that requires one to be present. Structurally, its flow shifts from tranquil to sporadic, unleashing whirls, grinding and distortion. It sonically captures the sensation of anxiety. In following along to the record’s progression, my mind felt at ease in all the technical chaos. When anxiety takes you, it can feel impossible at times to function. In hearing this chaotic blend of instrumentation, however, I found something ironically relatable—I was able to embrace the music and make sense of it. This abundance of sound proved to be something I could focus on, something I could immerse myself in and follow along to when overwhelmed.
Upon discovering Sunn O)))’s “It Took The Night To Believe” (on 2005’s Black One), I was immediately drawn into the haunting drones. Each time I listen to that track, it is sincere hypnotism. Sunn O))) are remarkable in how they create presence; the compositional structure of their music, along with their tremendous use of distortion, paints a grand atmosphere. In such loudness, I find a contemplative space to let myself flow and partake in introspective thought.
Though each of these bands are quite different from one another, they each offer a contemplative aura in their music. Growing up, I looked to bands that played a more frantically paced metal to tap into my adrenaline and provide me a pick-me-up; through doom, I found music that touches upon, even reflects, emotional and mental states of being. Doom has allowed me a positive light to critically view my mental health; not through harsh self-judgment, but to embrace a greater sense of self-awareness.
Doom metal certainly embraces more traditional verse-chorus-verse structures as much as any style of metal, but it is the droning aspect of it that most intrigues me. For while we can certainly talk about the mystical appeal of some black and folk metal bands, the structure and musical components of doom lend themselves to a meditative nature. This quality is also not without its most ironic twist—the heaviness. For as conventionally beautiful as a Sumac or Sunn O))) song is capable of being, you’re going to eventually come across haunting wails and crushing distortion among their discographies. The balance in heavy and serene atmosphere found in doom is one of careful craft; the masters of this music understand when to pounce and when to draw back for effect. In that use of space, the right band can masterfully display an array of emotion. That said, what I also have to note is how doom has, at times, been a double-edged sword for me. As much as the music has allowed me to process my struggles, I’ve also found myself indulging in them.
A band I absolutely adore is Primitive Man. I came across their 2017 LP Caustic and have been following them ever since. I’ve heard my fair share of heavy bands, but Primitive Man have to be one of the most menacing acts around. Much of that comes from vocalist/guitarist Ethan McCarthy. McCarthy has a keen understanding of sonic chemistry; Primitive Man blends doom with sludge and noise, using elements of each to present a barrage of musical rage. McCarthy’s lyricism is also significant to the band’s aggression, with subjects covering everything from depression to existential dread. Their music has a palpable, almost tactile feel. And I think that’s why I have a complicated relationship to the music—as much as I love the band’s ferocity, I am all too familiar with feelings of bottled up hopelessness. When I was much younger, I struggled with suicidal thoughts. Throughout my teens, these feelings would come in and out of my life. I was desperate to feel alive.
When I find myself in a rough place, it is easy to become absorbed by the music—to feed off the anger. In putting on a Primitive Man record, there’s an odd duality of positive catharsis and stewing in negativity. The music’s driving beat down is exciting and fuels me with energy, just as much as it enables me to dwell in my stress at times. This isn’t every time I listen to the band of course, but it’s a perspective that has provided me further growth. Those experiences have allowed me to better understand my relationship to music, and doom specifically. I’ve come to acknowledge the genre as a metaphor of sorts, one that speaks to kind of balance that’s become important to me.
As much as I love listening to all the droning and exploring the contemplative atmospheres of doom, I also know that too much is not good for me. It’s good to listen to cold tones if they help me process feelings; it’s good to work through stress while listening to brutal distortion. But constantly engaging in only relentless, dreary doom does nothing to help one grow. Moderation is a key to obtaining balance in life. Sometimes we need to indulge and sometimes we need to pump the brakes. When I go into this music, though I certainly have my times where I’m just looking for something heavy and exciting, I also understand the impact it has on my mental health. It’s the difference in knowing when to seek doom and confront my feelings at a given time, and when to best look for other music that isn’t so intimately connected to my current state of mind.
In doom, I have found clarity. I think it’s sort of funny to find a “calming” component in something as loud and chaotic as metal. But in these bands, as well as other favorites like YOB and Vile Creature, there is a graceful element to be found. I am thankful that, over the course of my life, I’ve grown stronger in how I cope with mental illness. At times when I feel that things are bleak, where my self-confidence is shaking, I like to throw on a record that carries me into its mass of sound; where I’m drifting, feeling at one with myself, the world and the music. When I need it most, I look to doom.
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A graduate of Columbia College Chicago's Creative Writing Program, Michael Pementel is a published music journalist, specializing in metal and its numerous subgenres. Along with his work for Treble and Bloody Disgusting, he has also written for Consequence of Sound, Metal Injection, Dread Central, Electronic Gaming Monthly and the Funimation blog.