Thursday, February 2, 2012

Looking back on Wormphlegm

This isn't quite meant to be a "get into" since it's less about Wormphlegm as a band and more a look at their historical importance in doom. I mean, yeah, of course you should listen to Wormphlegm- they're one of my favorite bands and have released nothing but essential work that any so-called "extreme music fan" should already be very acquainted with. But this is more designed as a retrospective of what they did in doom, and how they influenced the deeper reaches of the genre in ways that are still being felt today. This isn't about Wormphlegm's sound so much as how their sound sculpted extreme doom, so I'm going to be writing with the assumption that you're at least familiar with their work.

Wormphlegm were probably the first band to really make their bones in the metal scene via filesharing. In 2001, the band released their first demo on a 100-limited cassette, entitled "In an Excruciating Way Infested With Vermin and Violated by Executioners Who Practise Incendiarism and Desanctifying the Pious," which made its way around the deepest reaches of the underground doom scene (the Finnish one in particular) but otherwise made no waves in the greater metal community. It wasn't until an enterprising fellow or two decided to rip the tape to MP3 and start shuttling it around the various filesharing services the they truly began to find an audience. In particular, the turning point was Soulseek- when Wormphlegm's tape hit the Soulseek crowd (a few years after the demo had been released, mind you) things went fucking insane, and this is where the story really begins. Were it not for filesharing, Wormphlegm would likely still be a footnote in the doom scene, known only to the sickest and most depraved individuals out there- as it stands, though, they're nearly a household name.

Wormphlegm's demo tape essentially created extreme doom as we know it. Yes, there were other extreme doom releases before it and in theory many releases which came out parallel to it that weren't necessarily influenced by it, but let's be real: every extreme doom band out there today owes their existence to Wormphlegm, without which they would be completely different. The demo tape itself posited a style of funeral doom that dropped much of the traditional melancholy and beauty in favor of torturous dissonance and darkness, resulting in music that was far and away some of the most extreme sounds heard ever in doom (or metal, natch) without question. The tape is, of course, utterly brilliant for many reasons, but actually, like most seminal, formative works, has little to do with where the extreme doom scene would later go.

What many people forget about Wormphlegm's tape is just how ambient and droning it is. The "torture doom" style that many have suggested Wormphlegm to play (and form with the tape) has been suggested to be a sort of fusion of funeral, drone, and death/doom, but the drone and ambient elements come out stronger on Wormphlegm's demo tape than they do on any other torture doom release. In many ways, this makes it some of the darkest music that's ever been released in this vein, owing to the seemingly static nature of the music itself along with Wormphlegm's utter mastery of how to make long, winding songs which slowly unfold in a manner so deliberate and subtle that tracking their development is nearly impossible. Of course, this wasn't really the element which struck people the most- instead, it was the sheer cruelty of the aesthetics, in particular the hideously deformed and chill-inducing dual vocal performance which to this day strikes me as one of the most malignant and harrowing I've ever heard. I think that this tape still stands as one of the most extreme and torturous musical pieces I've ever heard- while it's over a decade old at this point, little matches up to it in sheer barbarity and brilliance.

This tape, or its MP3s at least, ushered in an entirely new era of extreme doom metal which essentially captured the attention of the doom scene entirely for the latter half of the '00s. Everyone and their brother came out with an extreme doom project- some good, some bad, but nearly all tending to fall short of the original. The problem is that most people didn't realize that what made Wormphlegm so essential and remarkable was the incredible songwriting and pacing of their music and how it bolstered and was bolstered by the extreme, raw aesthetics. This resulted in a lot of projects which captured the basic sound of Wormphlegm, but not the terrifying mood and memorability of their style- most of it ended up seeming sort of shallow, particularly since the simplicity of the elements at hand are so easily misinterpreted as a freebie to cult stardom (like most funeral doom) rather than a challenge to create something truly unique out of such bare-bones ingredients. While the demo tape created extreme doom as we know it, little extreme doom before or after actually sounds like it, making it a sort of "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas" for the style- revelatory, influential, unique, and basically impossible to replicate in style or quality.

A half decade later in 2006, Wormphlegm released their first (and so far, only) full-length album in the form of the vinyl-only "Tomb of the Ancient King." Eagerly anticipated and quickly fired across Soulseek as soon as it got into the hands of a slavering audience, the reaction was extremely positive, but strangely mixed in its positivity. "Tomb of the Ancient King" was released in a very curious environment by musicians who were firmly aware of the influence of their earlier work. One of the things which makes Wormphlegm so interesting is that, despite the rather cult and underground trappings of their music, the members themselves are quite approachable and active in the internet doom community. Frequently posting on and having a somewhat hilarious tendency to pop up whenever the band's name is mentioned (sort of like saying "Biggie Smalls" in a bathroom mirror at night,) the members have proven themselves quite aware of their influence, and in some ways created "Tomb of the Ancient King" with a clear understanding of their position and the expectations of their audience.

(I'd like to take an aside to say that the Wormphlegm guys, despite the sheer insanity and horror of their music, are incredibly nice and humble fellows who are a lot of fun to talk to online! It's neat to see a band with such an undeniably dark and cruel aesthetic feature members who feel no need to play characters, and whenever they pop up, it's a joy to chat with them about what they're doing and the other projects they're involved in. Here's hoping they run across this article in a fit of Googling!)

In a lot of ways, "Tomb of the Ancient King" resembles what "nowadays torture doom" sounds like more than the band's original demo tape, but as a product of Wormphlegm, functions as a display of what more conventional extreme doom SHOULD sound like rather than what it is. The full-length jettisons much of the murkier, more ambient tendencies of the demo in favor of a more straightforward, riff-based attack which is surprisingly catchy and memorable despite the sheer brutality of its style. Most extreme doom resembles this more than the demo tape- a sort of blackened, ultra-heavy, oppressively slow take on stuff like Winter. Wormphlegm kicks it up a notch with their custom brand of wonderfully nuanced and layered songwriting, however- riffs slowly change and morph alongside the atmosphere, and where the vocals have been scaled back from their ostentatious display on the demo, the rest of the music has picked up the pace a bit to balance things out, making each track on the full-length a multidirectional and detailed composition which rewards multiple, careful listens with a sense of organic, whole songwriting rarely seen elsewhere in doom.

In many ways, the issues I take with torture doom (a term that, while somewhat silly, I've come to accept as a fairly legitimate description of the style) are the same as those I have with funeral doom as a whole (torture doom's arguable parent.) Funeral doom launched with bands like Skepticism and Thergothon, whose unique styles and brilliant songwriting helped establish funeral doom as a unique and fascinating entity of its own. Unfortunately, most of the musicians out there who loved these bands didn't understand the finer aspects of what made them so great, and ended up making simplified, stripped-down versions of these sounds that weren't nearly as revelatory. The component elements- simple, big riffs, slow pacing, seemingly static percussion, deep growls- were taken to be the sum of the music, missing out on all the subtle elements which truly made those bands what they were in terms of quality. Much of it has to do with mood- Thergothon's paeans to existential sorrow and the irrelevance of the individual in the face of the universe and Skepticism's mixture of melancholy and seemingly pantheistic glory in the study of mankind's relation to nature were replaced with what amounted to Peaceville doom/death's weepy, gothic self-pity. Similarly, Wormphlegm's crushing inevitability and demonic sense of occult victimization was instead replaced with simple, bland stories of rape, torture, and murder no more interesting than the average death metal album.

Like funeral doom, torture doom does have its share of worthwhile artists who carve their own niche out of an overdone sound- in fact, as the years have worn on, it seems that torture doom has slowly begun to distance itself from the plain Wormphlegm worship of yesteryear and created a fertile ground for unique, interesting artists- my next writeup will be a quick look at a handful of torture doom's worthwhile constituents. Still, Wormphlegm reigns, in my mind, as the king of torture doom, and a king of heavy metal in general, proving just what can be done with the musical elements that others so carelessly throw away.

1 comment:

  1. You might be interested in my funeral doom project (or you might hate it.) I haven't done very much with it other than make one post on the forum on The recordings are more for my own personal satisfaction than to pollute the scene with more redundant music.

    I've been following this blog since your "Fungoid Stream" post, I find this to be one of the most engaging extreme metal blogs on the web. Keep up the great work!