How one chooses to classify heaviness in music largely corresponds to one’s own ability to separate it from the more stereotypical connotations of what “heavy” is. One of the more inexplicable criticisms I ever received came in response to my review of Isis’ Wavering Radiant, for which I received a curt, one-line retort: “Isis isn’t heavy.” The atmospheric sludge metal band certainly diverted from more explicitly thunderous sonic permutations, but damn if they didn’t do so while ultimately making clean guitars and vast sonic expanses seem utterly crushing. On the other hand, a friend of mine once remarked that Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets is a “heavy” album, which only makes sense if you detach the definition from any reference to aggression, in which case a song like “Needles In the Camel’s Eye” is definitely a pretty dense pop tune.
These wavering, fungible definitions of “heavy” inevitably arise when discussing Worm Ouroboros, a Bay Area trio whose sound occupies the intersection between doom and dream pop. Composed of bassist and vocalist Lorraine Rath, guitarist and vocalist Jessica Way, and drummer Aesop Dekker (also of Agalloch, and the now-defunct Ludicra), the band has a combined résumé to support their metal legitimacy, though the music they ultimately play doesn’t really carry much in the way of harsh textures, menacing sounds or even much distortion for that matter. By all accounts, this is ethereal, austere ambient pop, but it’s definitely heavy.
The heaviness that Worm Ouroboros create is one largely of emotion and evocation. Without resorting to extreme tactics, Rath and Way craft heavenly gothic melodies on new album Come the Thaw that allow for ample space, notes ringing out into a vast ether, their voices darkly chirping like communications from a world beyond terra firma. Their approach is not unlike that of two notable Elizabeths — Harris, of Portland ambient-folk act Grouper, and Fraser, the frontwoman for the Cocteau Twins, for whom the band has a spiritual kinship, if not explicitly a stylistic one. In some of the band’s more sprawling moments, such as the almost post-rock like journeys in “Ruined Ground” and “When We Are Gold,” the trio comes somewhat closer to the stark atmosphere of Dekker’s other band, Agalloch, albeit without the black metal influence. But on “Release Your Days,” the prettiest highlight of the album, Dekker’s drum work is curiously absent, leaving only a free-floating, utterly breathtaking art piece.
Rath, Way and Dekker don’t crush, throttle or assault their listeners; quite the opposite, in fact. Were it not for the affiliation with label Profound Lore (and, admittedly, their pretty metal-sounding name), one might not initially suspect that Worm Ouroboros had a strong connection to metal. Their heaviness stems from something different, however, and much less tangible. You won’t be pummeled while listening to Come the Thaw, but when its 50 minutes are up, you’ll very likely be floored.
Grouper – Dragging A Dead Deer Up a Hill
Agalloch – The Mantle
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Yanqui U.X.O.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.