If you thought you were glad Saint Vitus is back together and touring, your joy can’t possibly compare to the trad-doom revelry on Indianapolis trio The Gates of Slumber’s fifth album, The Wretch (Rise Above/Metal Blade). A self-acknowledged “return to form” for the band, The Wretch is dark and almost equally weighted emotionally as it is tonally, and the songs deal with a range of pains both existential and physical, but one can’t help but feel in listening that for guitarist/vocalist Karl Simon, bassist Jason McCash and newfound drummer J “Cool” Clyde Paradis, there isn’t a bit of the proverbial “pig in shit” happening as well. It’s hard to pull of doom this good without knowing how much you love Sabbath, Vitus, Pentagram, Trouble and the rest of the genre’s forebears.
Doubtless the addition of Paradis as replacement for “Iron” Bob Fouts (now of Apostle of Solitude) is part of what has allowed The Gates of Slumber to make a stylistic turn from the barbaric metal of their last two breakthrough offerings, Hymns of Blood and Thunder (2009) and Conqueror (2008), and Simon himself agrees in his liner notes. Paradis handles the slow material excellently, accenting the riffs and playing off McCash’s bass with both power and fluidity, and given his apparently propensity for touring, I’d be hard pressed to call him anything less than a perfect fit for what The Gates of Slumber are doing on The Wretch. As someone who had to see the band live before really understanding the appeal of their albums, it was always the doom side of their sound I enjoyed the most (big surprise), and so the eight songs here, even the shorter, faster cuts like “To the Rack with Them” and “Coven of Cain,” are a welcome shift toward the downtempo, beyond the melancholic and into the truly depressive.
For Simon and McCash, that’s the aforementioned return to form, but it’s worth noting that although The Wretch may tread ground The Gates of Slumber have covered before (as have many others), the album is hardly more redundant than is called for. Simon pulls out his best Wino impression on the “I Bleed Black”-esque opener “Bastards Born,” but rather than think of it is a ripoff or something being passed off as original, it’s so obvious an homage and so clearly heartfelt in its tribute that I’m completely along for the ride from the start. And for what it’s worth, The Wretch sounds fantastic. The album was produced by Jaime Gomez Arellano at Orgone Studio in London, and there’s just the right balance of separation between the instruments and cohesion of the album as a whole. McCash’s bass tone is a constant high point – again, something that factors in right away on “Bastards Born” – and Simon’s vocals are balanced well in the mix, clearly displaying his growth as a singer, but not at the cost of pulling attention away from the Iommian riffage on “The Scourge ov Drunkenness.”
Whatever speed the song, The Wretch maintains its heft, and clocking in at a well-rounded 55:55 (who’s counting?), it can be a lot to take in a single sitting. Seriously. Even if you go in for traditional doom and gloom, there’s a lot about The Gates of Slumber’s material here that’s just hard to take. There isn’t so much a monstrous plod to the grooving progressions as there is a hopeless skulk. It comes in the second half of “The Scourge ov Drunkenness” (does it ever) after the opener and is contrasted by the more rocking “To the Rack with Them,” but it’s never completely gone from the atmosphere of the album. Paradis seems to keep that feel to his playing despite any tempo changes, and where some drummers might inject needless fills into transitional riffs and start-stops, he sits back and allows Simon and McCash’s contributions the necessary breathing room. “To the Rack with Them” is all the more effective owing to this. The song is neither showy nor silly, and it seems to be coming to a halt in each alternating riff cycle of its verse, so that even with the quicker tempo, it maintains its downer sensibility.
Simon’s solo in “To the Rack with Them” is among the best on The Wretch, but “Day of Farewell” might be the album’s highest achievement of all. Working at a mostly middle pace, the song is an agonizing seven-plus minutes of sliced-open spiritual emptiness, beginning with the lines, “I grow tired of this world/I know all there is to know,” and only getting more wretched (appropriately enough) from there. Aside from being Simon’s vocal highlight, McCash’s bass again helps push it over the edge, and Paradis puts emphasis on his crash to exact a kind of chaos in the build that only enhances the sonic turbulence. It’s a doomer’s doom, for sure, and ends with massive guitar/bass chugging that in itself is enough to make me watch to catch The Gates of Slumber live on this album cycle. As the culmination of The Wretch’s first four tracks, it’s also the most successful.
“Castle of the Devil” continues the doomed mood with a lumbering misery set to meter by Paradis’ rumbling bass drum and accented with lead flourishes over a quiet, minimalist verse, soon contrasted with the loud, desperate chorus, more memorable than catchy if only for its snail’s pace and the potential implication of something upbeat or lighthearted that comes with the latter word. Simon finds room to lead a jam with a bluesy solo while McCash rides out an early Sabbath groove with Paradis beneath. The song picks up again to close with its chorus, setting up the faster, “Neon Knights”-referencing “Coven of Cain,” which in the context of what follows is like the last look at light before it dies forever. In a way, the song shows a certain maturity on the part of The Gates of Slumber as a unit, because right where they needed a fast song most, they put one. To have gone right from “Castle of the Devil” to the title-track might have sent The Wretch over the edge into an inaccessible abyss, but with “Coven of Cain,” it becomes clear that audience is still a consideration no matter how far into the depths the trio is plunging. They’re still songwriters, still making an album. It’s not just about self-indulgence.
That’s not to say self-indulgence doesn’t play a role on The Wretch, as it should on any record worth a damn, but The Gates of Slumber do more than just get themselves off in these songs. Even as “The Wretch” decays into a long section of guitar noise, McCash keeps it grounded with a pulsating bass note, reminding listeners that yes, indeed, there’s a song happening here somewhere. “The Wretch” is an appropriate cut to name the album for, echoing the Saint Vitus mentality of the opener and “Day of Farewell” and making 12:44 closer “Iron and Fire” seem active by comparison. The two companion songs echo much of the sensibility of The Wretch, with the more personally-themed lyrics penned by Simon and the epic poetry coming from McCash, who paraphrases the Roman emperor Nero’s exclamation as he watched his own grave being dug out on “Iron and Fire” with the lines, “What an artist is dying in me/What the world loses with me/What is this galloping towards me,” playing off one what’s surely the apex of the track and maybe of the album as a whole, before once more riding out a suitably lamenting groove.
Formidable in its lyrical and musical aesthetic, consistent even through its changes and built on a foundation of memorable songwriting, I see no reason why The Wretch shouldn’t be remembered as one of 2011’s strongest albums at the end of the year and well beyond. The Gates of Slumber – if this indeed is some kind of return – have made it a triumphant one. Like the best of traditional doom, The Wretch has a presence all its own, and is able to affect the mood of the listener, more or less dragging you down with it as it goes. The back of the CD jewel case (and one assumes the vinyl as well) boasts the acronym “C.O.T.D.” in reference to “Circle of True Doom,” and I imagine the congregation should be much pleased, as should the band itself.Indiana, Indianapolis, Rise Above, The Gates of Slumber