No style of music is accurately defined by one element, but I often find it interesting to discover how people designate a genre such as doom with a single word. Traditional doom, mind you, not any of its more modern, adventurous off-shoots. “Slow,” “despairing,” “colossal” or, in certain circles, “fuzzy” all exhibit relevance, but as far as this old dog’s concerned, I’d probably nominate “struggle.” Good ol’ tormenting, seemingly insurmountable struggle. If allowed two words, I’d add “personal” struggle. Early Sabbath, Saint Vitus, Trouble and Pentagram were all custom-built for the darkly introspective metal fan with a guilty conscience, providing commiseration, camaraderie and even guidance for vulnerability at the hands of booze, drugs, or whether to sin or not to sin. That’s not to say the bands that eventually opted for the epic or stoner route didn’t appeal to the thinkers in the crowd, it’s just that the Old Guard’s penchant for resonating with matters of transgression and atonement made them all the more significant to those who traveled a similar path. And that, in a nutshell, is an ideal indicator for whether or not a band like Wretch should ping on your radar.
“Icebound” is the doomiest goddoomed doom song you’ll hear in 2016. It kicks off with a creeping/crescendoing riff that’s as relentless as Relentless, and it eventually settles into a raw, leveling groove that pounds the chest in perfect cadence to guitarist/vocalist Karl Simon’s cautionary account of losing one’s brain in a “crystal maze.” It’s hugely heavy and heady stuff, and it’s quite different when compared to the mythical realms explored by Simon’s previous venture, The Gates of Slumber. Through this particular lens, thundering is no longer reserved for hooves, but for hungover heads after pickling yourself with too much drink, as illustrated by the belting, woozy closer, “Drown.” Clearly, Wretch traverses the dreads of reality, and more specifically, in the case of this self-titled debut, the sorts of raw emotions –– fear, anger, love and complete desperation –– that coil and constrict the heart in the wake of losing someone who was an integral part of everyday life. A resolutely sunken vision such as this even manages to cast a newly doomed light on the venerable; I’m not sure I ever realized just how morose Judas Priest’s “Winter” was, but pulled through the Wretch filter with a bit of Sabbath tacked to the end and the song is thoroughly dirgelike.
The front half of the record conveys a sense of classic doom that’s a little more swift and clear of mind. The instrumental “Bloodfinger” is a jamming slice of stoner bliss reminiscent of a lost Dessert Session and represents the most carefree moments by a fair stretch. Contrastingly, “Running Out of Days” and “Rest in Peace” are dark, loud and burly, and both deliver a hard, unforgiving strut befitting the sort of anger that shadows recklessness, regret and ruin. Where the second half of Wretch pulls you under, the two cuts right from the gate whip you to the dirt, and bassist Bryce Clark and drummer Chris Gordon (Gates of Slumber 2002-2003) get ample opportunity to show that they’re just as culpable for the flattening hammer as the riffs Karl carves from stone.
Simon has made it clear that this debut is not just influenced by the loss of Jason McCash; every song serves as a narrative about him, his life and enduring friendship with Karl, and about his death. Accordingly, the gamut of emotions is diverse and powerful, and delivered with heavy hands. Wretch is the sort of record best suited for those with an affinity for raw, barebones doom that coincides with detachment and introversion, and the band is a welcome addition to the ranks of those who first framed the suffering tradition of the style.
Rest in peace, Jason McCash, and damn it all to Hell, rest in peace J. Clyde Paradis (Gates of Slumber 2010-2012) now as well. I hope that recording and playing these songs will serve as enough of a cathartic release to allow Karl and crew to begin living in peace again.
Doom will never die, because the struggle is very, very real.