7 Up-And-Coming Portland Doom Bands Making The World A Gloomier Place
WORDS: Cat Jones
If you ask most metalheads why Portland, Oregon — and America’s Pacific Northwest at large — is consistently a fertile ground for doom metal, you will get an answer that includes the weather. With nearly nine months of grey cloud cover each year and a geographic location so far north that the sun sets around 4pm in the winter, most Portland residents spend a lot of time indoors or in some sort of darkness. The lack of sunlight, whether you’re used to it or not, can cause vitamin D deficiencies, neurological disorders, depression, lethargy, alcoholism, isolation, or a vicious cocktail of the above. According to Oregon.gov, the suicide rate in Oregon is 17.7 per every 100,000 people — 42% higher than the national average—and has been steadily climbing since 2000. It’s easy to see why the people in this corner of the world would be inspired to write slow, dark, impossibly heavy music.
“Just look up at the gray skies and it spells doom,” says Portland Mercury writer Mark Lore. “Kind of like how Ozzy describes growing up in Birmingham, England, in an industrial city where the sun hardly shined. I’m not comparing Birmingham to Portland, but up until ten or fifteen years ago, Portland was still kind of a grimy place…I mean, [‘80s Portland punk group] the Wipers pretty much spelled it out in ‘Doom Town.’”
With how the spotlight as grown on it in the past decade, it’d be easy to think that Portland’s world-class doom metal scene is a recent development. But its history arguably began in 1997. That was the year Witch Mountain formed — two years before Sleep’s Dopesmoker came out—in a time when metal at large was, for the most part, pretty unpopular. Bands like Diesto and Heavy Johnson Trio came along shortly after, but the town was too busy packing the house for indie/acoustic acts like Elliott Smith, The Decemberists, The Shins, and The Dandy Warhols to really pay much attention to what was brewing in the heavy underbelly. It wasn’t until about 8 years ago, when the infamous Red Fang video for “Prehistoric Dog” hit the Internet, that metalheads all around the country suddenly wanted to know what was up with the city where a band who gets drunk off cheap beer and wages park wars with LARPers can be successful.
Rob Wrong, guitarist of Witch Mountain, echoes the widespread sentiments about Portland’s climate: “I’ve always blamed it on the weather, at least the writing aspect of being in a doom band. Me and my group of fellow heavy brothers back in the early ‘90s were at every Melvins, or Sleep, or Neurosis show that came through Portland — any band that was heavier than thou that we knew about. We always formulated that the Melvins, being from Seattle at the time, got their heavy sound from the weather. It’s 200-plus days of rain here in the Northwest, and most of the fall, winter and even spring, there’s a dark cloud hanging over your head. It paints a dreary backdrop looking out the window and for being stuck inside for weeks at a time, so what better inspiration for writing doom is there, really?”
But that’s only half of the story. The other half of the equation is that, let’s face it: doom metal makes people feel really fucking good. Everyone loves a thick, sinister riff, but there’s something unique about sinking your teeth into riffs that build atop one another, ultimately resolving in a cathartic, heart-stopping crescendo that acts like a salve for the stress and trauma that pile up throughout your daily life. If you’re a doom fan, you know that feeling. And as more of Portland’s population realizes what a resource they have, so too have new generations of fans begun to tune into the sweet catharsis of the slow, huge, and heavy sounds of doom.
There are countless bands continuing the decades-long tradition of slow, heavy riffs in Portland, but here are 7 you should check out right now.
Photo by James Rexroad.
Holy Grove’s unique beauty lies in the fact that, while they’re distinctly a doom band, you can tell that the band listens to a hugely diverse body of music. Andrea Vidal’s vocals are often to described by writers as “witchy,” but the truth is her powerful pipes sound somewhere between Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, with the band laying down thick, beastly blues riffs and Cisneros-esque basslines behind her. Their new record, II, just came out last week on Ripple Music and (much like their first record, Holy Grove) was recorded by Billy Anderson (the very same dude who brought you Sleep’s Dopesmoker) and features a duet with fellow Oregonian Mike Scheidt of YOB.
Witch Mountain drummer and Willamette Week writer Nathan Carson is a fan as well: “I’ve been a fan of Holy Grove since they formed. We’ve shared the stage together, as well as beers, weed, and laughs…The bluesy swagger, heavy grooves, and powerful pipes of Andrea Vidal simply cannot be ignored, nor should they be.”
“Portland is full of people who are supportive and want to support what they love,” says Vidal. “People come out to shows, high-five their friends, pound cheap beer and stand in the front of the stage. When it’s grey and rainy outside, there isn’t much better than that to provide a little light, for both the bands and the crowd.”
Photo by Teresa Flowers
There’s a window of time every year in the Pacific Northwest, usually around February or March, when the grey skies and pervasive dampness of winter start to feel like they won’t ever quit. But faithfully, the sun always returns, inspiring a thawing of the literal and figurative ice that has accumulated in the Oregon forests and hearts of its residents. Glacial Fall’s debut album Ice Gives Way feels a lot like that. The two-piece project, consisting of bassists/vocalists Heidi Elise Wirz and Jeremy Hooton, combines its double low-end, programmed drums, and incorporeal vocals, to create doom/post-metal fit for a time-lapse Planet Earth shot of mushrooms popping up from beneath the damp, cold forest floor.
The way bassist/vocalist Heidi puts it, “I think that the greater Pacific Northwest has always been a good place for dark music, partly in that it rains for eight months of the year. Portland, however is really special, because of its community. Everyone is very supportive, and even for more experimental heavy bands like ours, everyone is met with so much support and honest love.”
Photo by Orion Landau
Usnea is equal parts funeral doom, death doom, and sludge—a combination that holds as much emotional weight as it does heaviness. And it has paid off: In 2014, after only being a band for three years and putting out their first record by themselves, they signed to Relapse Records and have since put out two albums on the label. The band has two vocalists, Justin Cory and Joel Williams, who trade off on black and death-style vocals, respectively, singing lyrics largely having to do with searching for meaning in a world that is all too often without. The result is a band that can hold a crowd’s attention in even the slowest, most brooding parts of a 10-minute song.
“Portland has one of the most receptive and supportive communities for underground extreme music; be that black metal, doom, death metal, drone, noise, punk, etc,” says Justin Cory, guitarist and vocalist of Usnea. “Portland is a place where bands are free to be weird and the long dark rainy season gives us plenty of time to retreat into our basements and tinker with our ideas.”
Photo by Alyssa Herman
Megaton Leviathan, a Portland group founded by multi-instrumentalist Andrew James Costa Reuscher, might very well be more “drone” than “drone doom,” but since the members have dabbled in doom (drummer Jon Reid used to be in Lord Dying, for example) and heaviness has a whole kaleidoscope of meanings, they belong on this list. Think less Godflesh, more Jesu. Think less metal show, more slow-song-at-a-synthwave-afterparty. Though they are from Portland, part of the record came to Reuscher when he was on the beach in Aptos, California — where he says he saw a vision of the Egyptian goddess ISIS across the sky.
Photo by Curtis Sekulich
There is something darkly defiant and sardonic about a band from a dark, cold, damp place naming themselves after the one thing they often cannot have. But that very same cognitive dissonance can be felt in Sól’s music: Between beautiful, intricate buildups and melodies — not just riffs — and Josh Wing’s downright diabolical growl, there is a palpable struggle that reminds the listener there is always darkness to be kept at bay, even when the light is there. Their last record, Upheaval, was written in memory of their friend Nathan “Shiloh” Gordon, a Portlander and dedicated fan of local music, who passed away.
“I think Portland doom is a reflection of the region’s climate and landscape,” says guitarist Rusty Powers. “Portland is surrounded by seemingly endless green wilderness that’s covered in fog, rain, and grey for over half of the year. Given that kind of sprawl and atmosphere, it’s not surprising that so many bands in the Northwest go for long, slow, crushing riffs.”
Photo by Mingming Chou
Young Hunter began as a solo project for singer/songwriter Benjamin Blake in Tucson, Arizona, and eventually turned into a fully-fledged doom band with a move to Portland and a new lineup instating Sara Pinnell as a second vocalist. Blake and Pinnell trade off singing duties amid the Pallbearer-esque soaring riffs, but often sing simultaneously in harmony, reminding the listener of a young Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.
“Our music got darker and denser by moving to the Northwest,” explains Ben. “In the desert everything is open and vast, cities seem to be baking and crumbling under the sun. In Portland, it’s much more about getting out of the city and into the misty, dark, eternal forest covered in vines and moss, and then turning around and heading back towards this mechanical, crowded city.”
Photo by Tim Burke
WILL has been playing shows on and off in Portland for years, though they have yet to release any formal recordings. Despite this, they have amassed a following in Portland and its surrounding areas amongst those who like the more pensive side of doom a la YOB, Serial Hawk, Om, and the like. Frontman Billy Kyle’s vocals would be as fitting in the dark chambers of a cathedral as they are at the helm of a doom band with 18-minute, meditative, hellishly spiritual songs. Their debut album is due out sometime this winter.