Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #17 by Stephen McClurg
J.J. Anselmi’s Doomed to Fail: The Incredibly Loud History of Doom, Sludge, and Post-Metal (2020)
A music history flavored with memoir, Doomed to Fail could be a user’s guide for anyone interested in metal and its hideous progeny. Along with histories of the guitar and distortion effects in popular music, JJ Anselmi trudges into the story of metal, its argued origins, various subgenres, and its connections to the wider world of music from Ma Rainey to La Monte Young. If you’re not sure where to start in terms of listening, the book has value alone in several years’ worth of suggestions within the text and in a great annotated discography at the end.
Anselmi offers a few reasons how such an ugly music creates such a devoted fan base. Metal, like horror movies, allows fans a catharsis. Many fans—including Anselmi himself—have pessimistic personalities and look for ways of purging emotions that they feel living in a world out of tune with their own ideals of justice, art, politics, etc.
In terms of culture, Anselmi suggests that young, creative people related to metal and then reacted to it in the way early punks did to prog rock and disco. While metal was appealing, the music became more and more technical and out-of-reach, and guitarists who didn’t want to spend time practicing as opposed to creating songs or expressing themselves began playing slower and heavier, a response already encoded in metal’s DNA through tracks like “Black Sabbath.” It’s a reaction similar to youth art movements that make do with what they have, from B-boys and scraps of linoleum to Z-boys and empty concrete pools. Anselmi mentions the intoxicating rawness and immediacy of the music and the tribal effect of shows in general as characteristics that bind the audience to the music.
The typical chapter opens by highlighting an important band within a sub-genre followed by shorter sections given to other bands, which then ends with a listening guide. If I have a criticism, I wish the band profiles profiles were longer, which isn’t necessarily the project of this book. I’m eager to find Anselmi’s other music writing.
Along with the sometimes comical expansion of subgenres, the expansion of the mindsets of metal listeners and performers is welcomed, interrogated, and celebrated in Doomed to Fail. A music known for attracting outsiders all over the world, metal is sometimes too well-known for problematic misogyny and homophobia. Obviously intellectually interested, but also passionate about the music and what it represents, Anselmi highlights problematic aspects of bands and band members, even as he values their music. Some chapters are specifically devoted to women and members of the LGBTQ+ community in metal.
While I’ve listened to bands that might fit here, discovering Sun O))) through the book is something I can give Anselmi thanks for. Sun O)))’s Monoliths and Dimensions (2009) is now a favorite record of mine in any genre. A partial collaboration with composer Eyvind Kang, and containing a tribute to Alice Coltrane, it’s not what I originally had in mind as doom metal. It’s also a spiritual record. On a good sound system it pulses through one’s body. It’s terrifying at first, though ultimately, completely vivifying.
Doomed to Fail: The Incredibly Loud History of Doom, Sludge, and Post-Metal is a wonderful addition to metal literature.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.