With The Wretch, The Gates of Slumber have reached a new peak by trolling the depths of despondence. The Gates of Slumber are a doom metal institution by now, going from strength to strength with their no-nonsense lifer rock. The Wretch is especially free of frills. You won’t hear backup vocals, rhythm guitars or keyboards; only the sound of a trio trudging along a sorrowful path with their simple but devastating riffs.
The doldrums suit them. Guitarist/vocalist Karl Simon says as much in his liner notes: “We’ve made the ‘Conan Crushing Doom’ thing our niche…but in the end I think that our move from the fantastic to the personal was best for this album.” To say the least. Doom needs truth and it needs pain. It needs to point a finger. Chuck Eddy nailed it when he described Sabbath’s Paranoid as “extremely moral.” Honesty and moral righteousness underpin a lot of these songs, from “The Scourge ov Drunkenness” to “Coven of Cain” (an anti-coke tale) to the self-castigating title track.
Empty spaces dominate the album. Not just spaces between notes—tempos are generally slow, slow, slow—but in the arrangements. The guitar often drops out to let the rhythm section carry things. The light/shade structure of “Castle of the Devil” showcases the approach. The verses are in the gloomy folk-ballad mold of Sabbath’s “Solitude,” while the choruses erupt in power chords. Then comes a surprise in the form of a swinging solo break—with the drums striking up a minimal boogie, going it alone for a few bars—that’s about as jazzy as The Gates of Slumber are gonna get.
Simon delivers a great vocal performance that doesn’t shy away from vulnerability and melody. For a metal band, their arrangements are surprisingly sympathetic to vocals. “Day of Farewell,” for instance, is a genuinely affecting anti-life epic (“The fruit is bland/And the wine is dry/Why continue this lie?”) that ends with a one-note chug as Simon’s cries echo in the distance. The songs include the entire package—riffs, lyrics and melody—that more bands would do well to study. There’s a lot more to being heavy than crushing, downtuned sonics.
The Wretch is not an album that hit me immediately. I needed to play it through a few times to get in synch with its tempo and mood. Only then did I find myself getting stuck on it, discovering a new favourite track with each airing until the whole damn thing became indispensible.