Legion of doom

Trio of metal bands shake foundation of Cafe Coda

French doom-metal band Monarch set a distinctly demonic mood at Cafe Coda.

French doom-metal band Monarch set a distinctly demonic mood at Cafe Coda.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Amarok, Monarch and Bell Witch at Cafe Coda, Saturday, Dec. 9.

Guitarists generally get most of the attention in metal bands, but bass—massive, bone-vibrating bass—is the foundation of doom metal. It’s what makes each full-band strike sound like the Iron Giant crushing semi-trucks underfoot in super-slow motion.

So, it was pretty easy to identify what was making such a thunderous sound as my friend and I walked up to Cafe Coda on Saturday night (Dec. 9): Local doom-metal band Amarok, led by long-bearded bassist/frontman Brandon Squyres, whipping up an almighty ruckus during sound check. They were loud from the sidewalk, and punishing inside Coda’s close confines, where enormous stacks of amps lined the back wall and everybody came prepared with earplugs.

Each band on the bill—Monarch from France, Bell Witch out of Seattle and Amarok—plays some variety of doom metal, an extreme form of an extreme genre characterized by down-tuned guitars, thick, sludgy tones and ultra-slow tempos. Overall, the music tends to invoke a sense of impending doom; that the apocalypse is upon us, the end is nigh, etc.

There was a buzz about the out-of-towners ahead of the show, but I was immediately blown away by Amarok’s mountain-moving sound and Squyres’ otherworldly, hair-raising banshee wail. And their songs were tight and concise as far as 10-minute metal epics go, with very little wasted motion. More than anything, Amarok’s music was glacially slow, with plenty of time to appreciate the sounds in between chords. (After Amarok’s set, drummer Nate Daly said that to him the tempos felt too fast, which was hilarious.)

Next up was Monarch. The band spent about 20 minutes setting up vocalist Emilie Bresson’s elaborate array of effects pedals, which, in retrospect, seemed like a way of compensating for the fact that she wasn’t much of a singer. She was hardly ever on pitch, occasionally adding interesting dissonance to Monarch’s chaotic sound, but mostly just coming off like she wasn’t lining up with the instrumentation. Their free-form songs left lots of room for improvisation, and the band members totally freaked out during those sections, thrashing around on stage with theatrical abandon. It made for a visually engaging set, but I wasn’t all that stoked on the noises.

Then came Bell Witch, a duo composed of bass and drums that managed to more than fill the sonic space. Bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond used an effect that gave his bass an organ-like layer on top of the typical overdrive/distortion, and I’ve never seen a bassist move around a fretboard quite like he did. He used a two-handed tapping technique (think Eddie Van Halen) to form complex chord structures on his massive six-string bass that otherwise would be impossible to finger. The technique created subtle, ever-shifting sonic textures in the midst of an all-out metal assault. It was impressive.

But the wall of sound ultimately proved too impenetrable for my taste. If you could see the music’s waveform, it would be a solid bar with no breaks whatsoever—unlike the dynamics of Amarok, which shifted between clean, eerie chords and anvil-heavy riffage to spectacular effect. About 10 minutes into a repetitive three-chord pattern that hit really hard the first few times around, Bell Witch’s set got a bit tedious.

After the gloom had lifted, in my mind, it was Amarok that had stolen the show.