Retro Rock from the Underworld
Doom metal is all about looking backward and thinking forward. While the fundamentals of the genre are rooted in sounds pioneered fifty years ago by bands like Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer, today’s doom metal bands are actively making those ideas sound as hard and heavy as humanly possible. Cough’s new album, Still They Pray, is pure doom metal, frequently paying tribute to classic rock in a context that’s still ear-shatteringly loud for modern listeners.
Cough is uncompromisingly heavy, the sheer power of their riffs rivaled by few. “Possession,” the album’s second track, opens with a few bass notes that are distorted to the point of being legitimately unpleasant to listen to. Fortunately, Cough paces their songs impeccably, and this brief moment of discomfort ultimately adds to the album’s consistently bleak atmosphere in a positive way. Even when a repetitive riff starts to potentially overstay its welcome, a new element, like lead guitar, vocals or background feedback will be introduced to break up some of the monotony. Though it clocks in at over an hour in length, the album consistently demands focus.
Still They Pray is produced by Electric Wizard’s Jus Oborn, whose presence is strongly felt in Cough’s approach, which now involves occasionally turning down the distortion for bluesy lead guitar or an organ in the case of seventh track “The Wounding Hour.” This adds a new, dynamic element to their sound that ultimately accentuates songs’ heavier parts. Vocalist Parker Chandler scales back the black metal-tinged vocals found throughout much of their 2010 LP, Ritual Abuse, in favor of a more melodic style that’s nonetheless almost always buried underneath an abundance of effects befitting of the Hellscape evoked by their sound and lyrics.
The first move that feels truly out of left field is fifth track “Let It Bleed,” which opens with a fuzzier version of a riff that would otherwise work in a Led Zeppelin track. Then, rather than upping the distortion as most first-time listeners might expect, the song practically transitions into a minor key ballad. Chandler’s vocals are completely unobscured for the first time, and a grim refrain about the inevitability of death is foregrounded. Title track “Still They Pray,” which closes out the album, again features clean vocals, this time accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Though these tracks provide some respite from the constant distortion, they’re a huge departure from what Cough does best, and will sound jarring to some listeners.
For better or for worse, Cough has decided to draw from heavy metal history in the manner of many of today’s most popular doom metal bands, Electric Wizard among them. This is new for Cough, who in the past have taken influence equally from their contemporaries. Since groups like Windhand and Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, both of whom feature sounds strongly rooted in retro rock music, are some of today’s leading doom metal bands, it may have been an inevitability that Cough take a similar approach. It’s thanks to their unending creativity that Cough has succeeded in released an album full of new ideas that will resonate both with recent doom metal converts as well as fans of their past material.