It’s easy to tell right off the bat that Australian traditional doom outfit Rote Mare are well versed in the ways of their forebears. What began as a one-man project for guitarist/vocalist Phil Howlett, the band released seven CDR demos between 2005 and 2009, and after evolving into a full four-piece, wasted no time in issuing the Sorrows Path EP and the subsequent Serpents of the Church long-player via Altsphere Productions. The album, which came out toward the end of last year, consciously offers grand paeans to Black Sabbath and Celtic Frost, and winds up in the process having plenty in common with bands like Reverend Bizarre and Apostle of Solitude, who took and take a similar guitar-led, sans-frills approach, letting riffs and melodies carry across the ideas and moods they want to convey. In the case of Rote Mare, the mood is pretty singular: Doomed. Five of the total seven tracks on Serpents of the Church are over 10 minutes long – centerpiece “Funeral Song” hits 14:36 – and though the pace varies somewhat, it’s mostly from crawling to lumbering to creepy. With a total runtime of 76:20, Rote Mare’s first full-length as a complete band is a cumbersome affair. Howlett is joined in the band by guitarist Sean Wiskin, bassist Jess Erceg and drummer Ben Dodunski, and together they plod through the songs, mostly led by the guitar (the aforementioned centerpiece is an exception in this regard), and though it doesn’t lack personality, it’s a long trip to make and a long time to be drenched in Rote Mare’s woes. Serpents of the Church (as opposed to, one assumes, its “servants”) probably could have been two full-lengths and no one would’ve batted an eye. Though that kind of glut of material generally speaks of some self-indulgence on the part of the band involved, none of these tracks feel overwritten, so it may just be a case of Rote Mare, and Howlett as the one who’s probably still the guiding force despite having brought in the other three members, continuing an already established prolific nature in this form. So be it.
“Funeral Song” and “The Martyr,” which between them account for a full 27 minutes of listening time, provide a fitting summation of what Serpents of the Church is all about. Touches of Trouble show up in Howlett’s riffing, and his tradeoffs between sorrowful melodic singing and gruffer shouts, especially in “The Martyr,” remind of Chuck Brown of Apostle of Solitude, but Rote Mare seem less concerned with carving out a highly individualized niche in doom than with paying homage to their favorite bands via riffs and crashes. I’ve heard far worse done with less noble intentions, and if Serpents of the Church has anything at all, it has its heart in the right place. The first thing you hear on the record, for example, is the slow riff that becomes the central figure of the opening title-track, and as much as the already-noted later two tracks summarize the scope of the album as a whole, that initial riff tells a lot of the tale. It comes through a rough but relatively flat production and sounds downtrodden in the doomed tradition. It’s not long before Howlett’s vocals kick in – the second guitar seems to be the final element to arrive – and the slow rolling groove continues as he switches to a throatier approach during the chorus. The riffs are relatively simple, and if you’re familiar with the genre of traditional doom or have ever seen the inside of the Bizarre Reverend’s rectory, then a lot of what Rote Mare are doing here won’t be shocking. “Crossroads,” which follows the titular opener, follows a similar course, marking its territory early on a grooving doom riff and building around it, picking up its pace and filling out the sound somewhat later on, but keeping more or less the same progression throughout that process. Hey, if you can’t take slow, agonizing plod, you might as well pack it in as regards doom.