Thursday, March 1
Better than: Seeing what new lows The Office has sunk to.
A few things you should know about Pilgrim before we even get started. The band members are named The Wizard, Count Elric the Soothsayer and, perhaps most awesomely, Krolg Splinterfist, Slayer of Man. Their debut album Misery Wizard—two words so pleasing to both the tongue and the ear they’re essentially the heavy metal “cellar door”—clocks in at 55 minutes, despite the fact that it contains only six songs. And, above all else, Pilgrim play doom metal, a style that’s been around since the 1970s but, with the increased profile of bands like Pallbearer, Mournful Congregation and Loss, it wouldn’t be too surprising if, in 2012, doom supplants black metal in the hipster ipsum. In a way, it would be a kind of perfect symmetry—to the wrong audience, both genres can be off-putting in exactly opposite ways. Black metal is blitzkrieg rhythms and pit-of-hell vocals; doom is detuned and zombie slow and topped with long, anguished, almost defiantly melodic vocals. Or, to put it another way: black metal is a searing hot poker slashed across an exposed cornea. Doom is a long, slow skinny dip in a vat of bubbling tar.
Which brings us, more or less, to Pilgrim, the Rhode Island trio who don’t exactly rewrite the script so much as commit it to memory and then deliver the lines with their own distinct inflection. Studying is probably an apt metaphor: based on pure eyeball estimation, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Pilgrim was the second band on a four-band bill because its members had to get up early for finals the next day. The wildcard was frontman The Wizard who, with his long beard and wild ring of hair encircling his bald skull, looked a bit like a monk on a particularly long and questionable furlough from the monastery. As it should be, the group’s sound was pulverizing. Pitch black, drop-tuned guitar chords fell like anvils, massive and chest-collapsing. On “Astaroth,” the low notes dropped to almost impossible lows, so toneless and quaking it felt like the band was playing the earth. The album’s 11-minute title track was even more punishing, The Wizard meting out riffs like he was stingily doling out the last scraps of meat during a medieval famine. There was as much gravity in the spaces between the riffs as in the riffs themselves—the cruel anticipation of the next black wave of sound coming to wreak awful havoc on the solar plexus.
But doom metal is a music of contrasts, and its lurching-brontosaurus lows are offset by wrenchingly beautiful vocal melodies. The Wizard’s baleful tenor seemed biologically designed to deliver lyrics like “Don’t you torture me,” and “Equipped with sword and lantern/ I quest for what’s inside,” and he did so with a disconcertingly beatific look on his face, as if he were accompanied by a only lute instead of a slow-churning death machine. Again and again, the group returned to medieval imagery: their songs were full of oaken thrones and mysterious quests and magic rites, and every last, grinding chord felt like a palace torturer cranking the rack. Even when The Wizard allowed himself a solo on “Adventurer,” it was beautifully pained and decidedly lyrical. And then, after 30 minutes—for Pilgrim, that’s four songs—they were done. They left the stage as they’d taken it: with no fanfare and no speeches. They didn’t need them. A true knight fights only for the honor of knowing he has conquered.
Critical bias: Doom metal to me is like the Bela Tarr of hard rock, And, much like Bela Tarr’s work, the slower it is, the more I love it.
Random notebook dump: “Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!”