Doom must cringe a little whenever somebody calls some rendition of it progressive. Of course, doom can be done with progressive flair, but the idea that it can be pushed, pulled, dragged outside its boundaries and retain its fundamental form is at least debatable. In fact, it is not an uncommon argument that, once you’ve done enough to make doom Progressive, it simply isn’t Doom anymore. Take as evidence the idea that Doom isn’t as amenable to the hybrid tag as other genres, outside of sometimes also being epic or fit for a funeral. For example, Progressive often works as a prefix for -Death and -Black, and -Metal generally, but Progressive-Doom just doesn’t quite ring true. The thing about Doom is that, perhaps more than any other subgenre of heavy metal, it is monolithic and steadfast in its identity.
And all of this rambling is but to introduce the notion that Seven Chapters in A Minor, the second full-length from Hamburg, Germany’s Spirit Descent, is a fine example of epic heavy metal that sometimes wonders whether it is progressive, but never once doubts its essential Doomness.
A good piece of what makes Seven Chapters feel progressive is a backwards reach for its sound. Not the fat, fuzzy, heaviness of its guitars or their riffs – these are doom prereqs, after all – but the way, way-back reach to a Mesopotamian aura in the chords, accents and melodies. The early inclusion of these in the album’s opener, “Dawn of Mankind” is an obvious reference but much of the album follows suit in summoning antiquity more subtly.
Importantly, Seven Chapters doesn’t allow the accents to cast a gimmicky glare, instead rightfully sublimating them with powerful, well-constructed riffing. “Owner of the Fifty Names,” for instance, is deep and dark and draws liberally from that Middle Eastern pool of inspiration. Critically, though, its primary riff keeps the song firmly grounded and, thus, well-balanced. It’s a mid-paced riff in which notes repeatedly rise in sequence and then drop, falling back to the initial note. They do this three times before finally giving up and falling to below the original note, as if desperately clamoring to escape some frightful darkness and finally giving up, exhausted. Then the pre-chorus drops way down and the vocals get nasty while guitar rings exotic accent over the top. The effect is a convincing sense of epic and ancient mystery.
One thing that shines through with these first two songs is that weirdness abounds on Seven Chapters, but it’s clearly a purposed kind of weird, as opposed to anything garish and self-indulgent. This is especially reflected in vocalist Jan Eichelbaum’s use of three distinct styles, including a mid-low epic clean, a gruff growl, and a nearly-unhinged falsetto. He employs this manifold approach strategically to forward each song; an odd assortment of styles to aid the telling of odd tales and a creative use of talent for a guy not quite at home with the Lowes and Marcolins of the epic doom world.
Eichelbaum puts all his various vocal styles to work on “The Tragedy of Captain Scott.” This is the album’s epic, both in scope and topic, adding Spirit Descent to the growing list of heavy bands finding inspiration in the heroic and often tragic exploits of late 19th Century Antarctic explorers. The song’s format is pretty standard for the style, but it works because it suits the story. Building from a slow, heavy footprint, a faintly iridescent lead glides easily just above and portends the incoming vocals, which are a clean swooning croon. And this is pretty much how it goes for the first nine minutes until that soft-spoken lead is intertwined with anxiously whispered word, generating a tautness that threatens to never resolve. Resolution comes, but it is less than satisfying as it leaves the listener ambivalent in much the same way that the Scott story itself continues to hang. So it likely does just what the band intended, but its Reverend Bizarre-ish refusal to leave makes it about four minutes too long for the front end of the record and probably better suited for the end.
Mostly, though, these songs are very well constructed. “Alternating Reality,” for instance, has a great St. Vitus vibe that rides manic depressive waves of what could indeed be described as “alternating realities,” tweaking and jumping between fits of fuck-my-life and git-er-done. The transition from the low lows is sparked by the words “…if you want to return/there’s a high price to pay for it” and launches a maniacal gallop in the rhythm section. Later, though, the same line fails to catalyze the transition. Instead, it’s crushed under a heaving fatigue, as if momentum and direction have been lost to the whirlwind. And when the transition sweeps in again without warning, it’s clear that control has been lost entirely. It’s a very effective arrangement. It may not even be about manic depression, but addiction, or codependent relationships or any other of the most pathetic human conditions but whatever, it captures the essence of all of these and is a fundamentally great song.
There are plenty of other examples of quality songwriting, as well, in the vocal contrasting and guitar-vocal counterpoint of “Sleeper” and the coalescence of divergent musical lines in “Love Turned to Stone.” “Lamentations of the Unborn” has a great Revelation feel to it and ends on a sublime note with an extended lead melody. There are no major flaws here, outside the plodding “too much” of “…Captain Scott,” but that really is a small problem, and one that might be rectified by attention to the story and a well-focused listen.
Seven Chapters in A Minor is a creative take on epic doom, even if it isn’t particularly groundbreaking. What about it might be called progressive – loose song structure, creative chords and melodies, illustrative theatricalities – have all been done before, even within doom. But another defining feature of the subgenre is that doomsters don’t really care that it doesn’t bust barriers, as long as it rattles the windows. And that’s the bottom line: as a lover of Doom and a hater of Doom being irreverently fucked with, you should thoroughly enjoy these Seven Chapters.