Chicago death-doom outfit Novembers Doom released their first album in 1995, nearly 20 years ago now. They weren’t the first American death-doom act, and there were others who solidified around the same time, but Novembers Doom were easily among the earliest adopters of a dramatic melancholy most common then in the European doom scene pre-Reverend Bizarre, bands like Katatonia, Paradise Lost, earliest Anathema and My Dying Bride serving as an influences to be melded with Novembers Doom‘s own Chicago death metal style. Their progression in the years since Amid its Hallowed Mirth has been a steady line in terms of quality but has presented several distinct shifts in sound, into full-on death-doom on records like 2002′s To Welcome the Fade and 2005′s The Pale Haunt Departure, and more recently, leaning back stylistically more to death metal. The Pale Haunt Departure presented a discernible starting point, but the movement has been gradual, and over 2007′s The Novella Reservoir, 2009′s Into Night’s Requiem Infernal (review here) and 2011′s Aphotic, they’ve continued to pursue that direction. Their latest outing, Bled White (released on The End Records, their label of the last nine years), furthers the progression to the point that Novembers Doom have very little of what would commonly be considered doom left in their sound. Instead, they offer 11 tracks/68 minutes of depressive death metal, marked by the growl/clean-vocal tradeoffs and capital ‘r’ lyrical Romanticism of frontman Paul Kuhr and the persistent double-kick of Garry Naples. In its production and execution, Bled White is a metal album, and it retains that status even at its most subdued or melodic points, as on “Clear” or the morose “Just Breathe.”
There seems to be a certain nihilism — or at least fuckall — in how the full-length is put together. Not in the songs themselves, which are rigidly structured, but in how they’re arranged and the overall mentality of Bled White‘s construction. With a strong opening duo of driving, catchy and pummeling metal in the title-track and subsequent “Heartfelt” before the softer “Just Breathe” and acoustic interlude “Scorpius,” it seems reasonable to call it front-loaded. After “Scorpius,” “Unrest” kicks back into Novembers Doom‘s blend of death and melodic theatricality — guitarists Larry Roberts and Vito Marchese and bassist Mike Feldman carefully winding between beauty and brutality as Naples tosses in blastbeats and breakdown grooves and Kuhr self-harmonizes — and from there they set about toying with the balance in their sound over the course of the brighter-toned “The Memory Room,” the blistering “The Brave Pawn,” and “Clear,” which has a feel like what Opeth might’ve turned into had they kept their more inventive rhythm section and dialed back on the prog fetish. But no question the opening salvo is Bled White‘s most memorable. This seems somewhat incongruous with the fact that Bled White is also the longest record in Novembers Doom‘s 19-year tenure. At nearly 70 minutes, it’s as though when they were piecing it together, they said, “Fuck it, we’ll put this stuff up front for the people who are only going to listen to three or four songs anyway, and the rest will be there for anyone who wants it.” That’s not to say the back end of Bled White doesn’t have its high points — the solo in “The Grand Circle” is the best here, and “Animus” digs into satisfying bludgeonry before the nine-and-a-half-minute “The Silent Dark” closes out with a suitable payoff beginning with some standalone raw harmonies from Kuhr – just that by the time they get there, Novembers Doom have already pushed the stylistic bounds they’re going to push this time out. The nihilism aspect comes into play, then, because nine records in, they didn’t decide to hold that material back. It’s there if the listener wants it.
Obviously I don’t know this. The case could just as easily be that Novembers Doom loved each of these tracks so much they couldn’t live with the thought of not including them. Frankly, I don’t think the cases are mutually exclusive. Novembers Doom, however, are a viciously underrated band. For all their early pursuit of death-doom, they’re left out of nearly every conversation of pioneering metal, and while they’ve always been too in-between stylistically for an American metal audience — which, admittedly, is probably the most open-minded it’s ever been right now — for a long time they were likewise too American for Europe. They’ve enjoyed success, played fests, found a loyal following, but they’ve never been the kind of influential touchstone they easily could’ve been. The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex –it’s not the kind of question one asks in an interview: “How come you guys aren’t huge?” — but if the result is that on Bled White, Novembers Doom have cast aside genre considerations and made their longest outing to date because it pleases them to have done it and they believe (rightly so) in the strength of their songwriting, that only makes Bled White a more honest and admirably sincere album. It can be a challenge if you’re not already a fan of the band in terms of the consistency of mood and structure, but they’ve thought of that and accommodated. For those who have traced their progression, they’ll find Bled White fits along the directional line, and that nine albums on, Novembers Doom continue to push their sound into new places in their subtle way and at their own pace. To look back on the vast stylistic terrain they’ve covered all these years is to be reminded of just how far they’ve come and to catchy a glimpse of where they might go.