Once upon a time, the surest way for young metal bands to best their competitors was to practice and practice and practice until they could play faster and fiercer than anyone within swinging distance. But the recent, welcome uptick in doom bands (Morne, Pilgrim) suggests that these days, the true lords of the dark are the ones who take their time. Into that Mephistophelian molasses come Richmond, Virgina’s Windhand, who throw down an iron-gray, 2 trillion-pound gauntlet on their stunning second record Soma by ending with a song that’s — wait for it! And wait! And wait! — a half-hour long. Take that, Pallbearer!
To be overly flip about the album’s spectacularly suffocating lethargy is to short-sell its incredible power — it’s punishingly slow without ever feeling airlocked or plodding. Instead, there’s a gravity and severity to Soma that’s utterly skin-crawling. The closest sonic touchstone is Electric Wizard’s towering obelisk of horror Dopethrone, but where that record often had fangs bared and knives drawn, Soma‘s power feels more insidious and spectral and otherworldly. That grim grey shack on the album cover may as well be the haunted cabin where the witch from the first Black Sabbath record lives.
Credit much of that to the chilling delivery of vocalist Dorthia Cottrell, who has mastered what Scott Walker has been after ever since his deep plunge into the avant-garde: delivery that’s utterly, terrifyingly devoid of emotion. Cottrell sings like she’s in some unbreakable trance, an inconsolable howl rising from the center of a windstorm. “Cassock” is relentless, guitars thick and suffocating as black smoke, billowing up and out to fill every visible space, Cottrell’s disembodied wail somewhere in the middle. “Boleskine,” that 30-minute world-swallower, is designed with the brutal precision of The Scavenger’s Daughter: death-folk acoustic strum gets suddenly suffocated by tarpit guitars, Cottrell glides wraithlike through the fog, and the whole thing culminates in a guitar solo that sounds more like a never-ending full-body sob.
But it’s not all terror and volume. In the grim ballad “Evergreen,” Cottrell promises, “You won’t suffer long” over an unplugged King Dude-style minor-key chord pattern, making the record’s most terrifying moment also its quietest.