Fuck your rules. Who says the formula for an album should be that it’s 30-40 minutes long and contains 12 tracks? What happens when a band decides that the rules and formulae are bullshit and they make a single song that exceeds 30 minutes in length? The stretching of those boundaries isn’t always, or even usually, a recipe for success.
The formula mentioned above is just that – a formula, one that has proven itself successful through the course of modern music. Yet, creatively speaking, writing a long song is a much more taxing mission. Very few musicians can pull it off effectively. There are also certain genres that lend themselves to the extremely extended song format more than others. For instance classical composers have extended arrangements that work, while popular musicians rely on short songs and easy hooks. The genre that defines and in my opinion is best suited to the format of the epic is heavy metal. Epic heavy metal, down-tuned guitars and distorted amps, played so loud that your ears bleed and tinnitus becomes a source of pride. Usually slow – though sometimes fast – songs that pummel and maim in only the best sense, I love it.
Here are a few of my favorite epic heavy metal songs, though many of the bands could also be classified under the genres doom, drone, sludge or stoner rock. This list is by no means definitive, there are more and more bands coming out that play long songs and could be described as epic heavy metal. The advent of digital recording technology has made the process easier to record longer tracks, because there is no worry of tape reels running out. Some artists to check out besides those already mentioned are: Isis, Neurosis, 5ive’s continuum research project, Boris, OM, Khanate, Rosetta, Mouth of the Architect, the Melvins, YOB, Switchblade, Thrones, Jesu, and Red Sparrowes among many others.
“Dopesmoker” (also known as Jerusalem)
The definitive neo-doom band with the definitive epic heavy metal song; Sleep considered the question: What if Black Sabbath wasn’t heavy enough? Their second album Sleep’s Holy Mountain was pretty much straight on Black Sabbath worship – really good Black Sabbath worship, but still fairly derivative. It wasn’t until their third and most recent album Dopesmoker, that Sleep really made their mark – and it destroyed their band. Dopesmoker was to be Sleep’s first record on a major label, but recording a single track that lasts 64 minutes didn’t exactly make it marketable, so the song was lost for a few years in the mid to late ’90s. When Dopesmoker finally did surface in its full form Sleep was long dead. The track itself however was magnificent – a slow and building riff fueled by massive stacks of amplifiers with a deep and saturated sound. Guitarist Matt Pike truly excels with several blazing solos scattered throughout, while bassist Al Cisneros keeps a steady, destructive low-end thump. The lyrics of “Dopesmoker” tell the tale of the “weedian” people and their biblical struggle. Obviously an (ahem) appreciation of marijuana was present for Sleep, though it isn’t necessary to appreciate the musical journey that is “Dopesmoker.”
Old Man Gloom
“Zozobra” (off of Seminar III: Zozobra)
Old Man Gloom has a lineup of musicians that could only be considered all-stars in today’s heavy music scene. Members of such bands as Isis, Converge and Cave In comprise Old Man Gloom. “Zozobra” is around 30 minutes in length and absolutely crushes what most people consider “heavy.” It starts of light with a wave of noise and a slowly strummed guitar line, and then an ominous sample comes in, a clip from an old sci-fi movie that talks about black holes and cosmic destruction. The distortion kicks in with ragged screamed vocals and builds to the crescendo that drops into a thick riff. This riff mellows; but not for long as another crushing riff begins – this time with a more melodic edge. The song continues peaking and building throughout its course, with coarse screamed vocals appearing at intervals as well as more creepy samples. The lyrics are fittingly obtuse and poetic “I reach the crest of the tallest peak, I can see for miles, breathe deep.” The song ends its run with a melodic yet distorted noise outro – a perfect cap to an amazing song.
“Natasha” (only available as DVD audio w/ the Terrifyer album)
On their last album, 2004’s Terrifyer, Pig Destroyer did their usual hate-grind assault on the CD but decided to include the song “Natasha” on a DVD included with the CD release as well. What I like most about this song is it’s complete departure from Pig Destroyer’s usual extremely fast songs and the fact that it tells a genuinely frightening story (not that you can understand all the words, but lyrics are printed for a reason). The song has a lot of quiet parts with cinematic vocals and terrifying ambience, but also features very loud and abrasive instrumental sections, again with monolithic down-tuned guitars.
March Into the Sea (extended version EP only)
An all-instrumental band, Pelican create beautiful songs that are sometimes long and sometimes short. The extended version of “March into the Sea” is their best song. While not nearly as “heavy” as some of the other bands on the list, what Pelican lack in heft the make up for in expansive and melodic songwriting. This song moves from beautiful post-rock sections to fast and creative riffing, back to an outro of strummed acoustic guitars and piano ambience. At the end you don’t even notice that vocals never emerged into the mix.
This record is almost brand new, released in the last month or so, but it still warrants inclusion both because of its extended length and its strong musical showing. Cardinale is one of the many bands that have decided to give the whole post-rock meets metal thing a try (a la Isis). They succeed in placing themselves at the front of the pack with a long song that maintains it heaviness and melodicism throughout. 31:13 is a very strong debut from a promising new band; I hope they explore epic song structure further.