The Australian doom metal band Mournful Congregation played just five songs over the course of their hour-long set at St. Vitus Tuesday night. There were no needless solos, no awkward bridges, no meandering asides or ill-fitting breakdowns. Instead, the show capitalized on two seemingly paradoxical ideas: length and efficiency. Each of the group’s mercilessly slow-moving songs were almost Spartan in their arrangements. The quartet drew power from nuance, shifting tiny details within each song to create moments of both tension and sadness.
This has more or less been their m.o. from the get-go. Their stunning 2009 album The June Frost was a bleak, riveting tour of sorrow, each baleful riff crystallizing like ice around a tree branch; the record’s net effect was something like forcing your way through a blizzard, not so much in search of shelter as to maintain some semblance of life. In concert, those songs were crushing – roughly half the people around me had their eyes closed; it didn’t telegraph transcendence so much as a kind of peaceful resignation to the inevitability of death.
The group’s songs encourage that kind of bleak release. They consist mainly of baleful, ringing chords that ring out long and loud before proceeding to the next one and are anchored by a grim, thundering low end; on “Silence of the Passed,” from the just-released, grammatically-improbable Concrescence of the Sophia EP, each chord arrived with a kind of lockjawed determinism, making the song feel like morphine-drip elegy for the soon-to-be-departed. At times, it also sounded like a booming medieval hymn, the kind of thing played during plague season when it came time to collect the fallen bodies. Unlike many of their contemporaries who favor high, keening vocal melodies, frontman Damon Good growls his lyrics, adding to the feeling of desolation. If you were looking to score a doom metal musical based on The Little Match Girl, this would be the perfect soundtrack for the final scene.
But what’s most impressive about Mournful Congregation is the way they use their incredible slowness to create rich, eerie textures. The strongest moments Tuesday night came when the three guitarists peeled off from one another, each playing the same chord pattern at a slightly different timbre – one occupied the middle register, one a half-step above and the other a half-step below. The result was a kind of supernatural harmonic, ghostly and gripping. Just as effective were the moments they cleared a path for a single, slowly-snaking lead, which sounded even more disconsolate without the thundering chords around it. Though they seemed rudimentary on the surface, the songs betrayed a sly fascination with the mechanics of composition. Their purpose was not to bludgeon, nor to dull with repetition, but to use the deliberate slowness to create a kind of broad palette of sound within which the various players found opportunities for subtle, cunning melodic contrasts. By essentially eliminating the vocals, it forced attention on the interplay of guitars, and the almost breathtakingly melancholic moods the contrasting chords created. Near the end of the show, the group attempted something like an epic, working through a long song that moved through three discrete sections. Even then, they maintained control, using each individual passage to tell the same, sad story.