2015: Is South African Metal Doomed?

The League Of Doom 2015

Is South African Metal Doomed? Well, according to a pair of activists behind the newly-launched organization labelled The League Of Doom, Justin Bedford and Malcolm Burger (also from South African band Ashes At My Grave) insist that it is simply not Doomed enough!

Recently, we invited the two to an interview after catching wind of the the imminent launch of The League Of Doom as a publicly accessible entity – because indeed, The League Of Doom existed in principle for a number of years already – to find out what, and whom, and most especially, why now? With such a foreboding title, one might expect the group to represent something like Christopher Nolan’s ‘League Of Shadows’ in his Batman: Dark Knight series, set about some dark mischief and with great resource to push towards destruction of apocalyptic proportions – to seal all of our Doom, as it were – but nay, they are but merely a humble gathering of music enthusiasts who share a great passion for the genre, or sub-genre (this is part of what we set out to discover), otherwise known as Doom.

We decided to “unpack” the discussion in an orderly fashion, not only looking at the “what” and “who”, but to dig back into the past to discover “why” and “how”. There was so much unpacking, however, that we actually decided to release the entire interview in video format as accompaniment to this feature article; but noting that the video interview was merely captured as the primary resource for research into creating this article.

Interview PART I – The History Of Doom

In order to understand a thing, one has to explore it’s back story. The genre of Doom, it seems, can arguably be traced back to it’s origins in the early 1970’s with the mighty Black Sabbath [est.1968, UK] “as with all things metal”, explains Justin.

“I mean, to call Black Sabbath a Doom band would be incorrect, because they’re not; but it’s a sound that they came up with especially in their first two albums. Slow, down-tuned guitars, use of tri-tones to get that atmosphere in the music; and to make you feel something off-kilter. It was that which spawned a whole bunch of musicians to explore that more.” ~ Justin Bedford (Chairman, The League Of Doom / bass guitar, Ashes At My Grave)

Other bands such as Witchfinder General [est.1979, UK] and Saint Vitus [est.1979, USA] are also referenced as early predecessors of the genre, although having existed since before such had even been defined. So when did Doom become defined? Some would argue, as Malcolm holds, that it became an entity unto its own only with the beginning of the Death Doom movement in 1990 – which was pointedly named as such – marked by the arrival onto the scene at the close of the 1980’s of The Peaceville Three (as the collective were known, consisting of the bands Paradise Lost [est.1988, UK], Anathema [est.1990, UK], and My Dying Bride [est.1990, UK] who all arrived at more or less the same time into the care of Peaceville Records). It is interesting to note that these all emerged from the same area – the North of England – as Black Sabbath did. However, it cannot be denied that the Doom term was first coined in an earlier year by Swedish band Candlemass [est.1984, SE] who described themselves as Epic Doom Metal with the 1986 release of their debut album Epicus Doomicus Metallicus. This clearly allowed for a gestation period of inspiration to be taken up by those who followed to establish it as an institution. Plus, of course, Death Doom was not the only spin-off to occur, but also the so-called Stoner Doom and others quickly followed suit as with the likes of Electric Wizard [est.1993, UK]. Okay! So we’ve managed to define and originate according to a timeline, but what is it exactly that might qualify something to sound Doom? Does it even have to be Metal, per say?

Candlemass - Epicus Doomicus MetallicusBlack Sabbath - Black SabbathElectric Wizard

“Well, it certainly comes from metal; a metal background. I think some of the more recent interpretations that you could certainly attribute to being Doom are very un-Metal. But there’s always going to be that undercurrent of heaviness about them. I mean, that’s what defines it: heavy!” ~ Malcolm Burger (member, The League Of Doom / guitars, Ashes At My Grave)

Justin also maintains that it comes par for the course with a certain measure of aesthetic:

“Doom always carries with it this atmosphere of something dreadful, something foreboding, and it’s got a very occult sort of feeling to it, in a sense. It’s got something macabre, and sorrowful, and romantic. And those sort of ideas can filter through in not just metal, but in many other forms.” ~ Justin Bedford

NOTE: to the right is an audio example selected by the editor as considered a good reference Justin’s point: ‘We, The Gods’ from Anathema’s 1996 Pentecost III release.

Malcolm used reference again to The Peaceville Three, and how those three very different bands could have been co-defined; pointing out that they all started out as traditional metal bands, but who had latched onto something a lot darker, slower, and more “emotive”.

My Dying Bride - A Map Of All Our FailuresAnathema - SerenadesParadise Lost - Lost In Time

“You know, you also had the Bay Area thrash, death movement, and it was all about technicality and speed and aggression, and these guys come along with poetic lyrics which was something very new at the time.” ~ Malcolm Burger

Following on Malcolm’s point it was unanimously agreed that one of the chief underlying factors is lyrical content and how the music sets the mood for this difference. Doom appeals to a distinctively different part of the human psyche, less attached to raw and impulsive aggression, and perhaps more to the empathetic and introspective. Whilst traditional forms of metal were renowned for being abrupt and quite blunt, the Doom incarnation seeks to explore those darker parts of the human psyche where these primal (and other, more sophisticated) urges may hibernate. In conclusion to the section, Justin drove the point home with:

“I think that heavy sound is overall very important in Doom, whether it be slow or extremely heavy; its also the lyrics and emotion behind it which is slow and heavy. There is a lot of weight behind it (lyrics) in every sense. And when bands might sound different (Stoner Doom vs. Death Doom, etc), but when you listen to them you still get that same feeling.” ~ Justin Bedford

Interview PART II – The History Of Doom in South Africa

Of course, the intention for the discussion was always to bring it home to South Africa, and as the interview progressed, we found ourselves doing so to a point of fault. And so we cleared the air and launched right into it with the PART II video marking a split-point. What evidence have we seen of the genre in South Africa, if at all? Metal enjoys a passionate, albeit small, local community, but what of the Doom?

Justin and Malcolm both feel that the genre has been grossly under-represented locally for what they believe is it’s importance in the greater scheme of things, punctuating their claims with stories and instances where they had felt isolated and estranged within the local Metal community for their own love of Doom. Whilst Malcolm described a brief period in the later 1990’s where Doom did much to bring together people of both Metal and Gothic sub-cultural influences, Justin explains how, upon his later introduction into nightlife in the early 2000’s, Doom was already being regarded as “not metal enough” to enjoy much needle time in the metal clubs, or “too metal” to achieve the same at the Goth gatherings. There did appear, however, to be at least one very important catalyst during the era observed by Malcolm; that being the activity on South Africa’s live music circuit of some bands.

Malcolm, in our opinion – and for which reason he was invited to participate in this interview – represents something of an authority on the subject, since he founded one of them! We asked about his journey into the genre and his inspiration that led to the establishment of Grämlich.

“I’ve thought a lot about what influenced me. I’m very unaware of any local metal predating my own late teens and early 20’s. Of those, the band which stood out head and shoulders above the rest which was most successful was V.O.D [est.1986-1999, CT] (Voice Of Destruction), and specifically since the joining of Paul and Francois Blom, because they went from punk to a metal band that had an incredible amount of influences. So, if you listen to ‘If I had A Soul’, which is in two or three parts, it’s basically a Doom song.” ~ Malcolm Burger

Although V.O.D was never classified as a Doom band, Malcolm points out that a fair portion of material from the band included many appropriate elements when at their peak, referencing ‘Black Cathedral’ (1992 demo), the ‘If I Had A Soul’ epic (first appeared on 1993’s Death Of Africa compilation), and ‘Funeral’ (final track on the 1996 Bloedrivier album).

It was watching performances by V.O.D which triggered Malcolm into deeper explorations of the Doom genre at that time, and resulted in him purchasing his first guitar. The deal was sealed with his discovery of My Dying Bride, at the juncture of their 1993 Turn Loose The Swans album. In describing the formation of Grämlich [est.1996-2001, CT], Malcolm admits, “I basically just wanted to make the music of My Dying Bride, that’s literally all I wanted to do” of their initial years. Grämlich finally began their haunting of the live circuit in 1997.

“So we started trying to emulate My Dying Bride – badly – and at the time, there was only one other band of our age group peers that were doing it (Doom) called Elysium in Joburg.” ~ Malcolm Burger

Little is known about Elysium, except that they existed in the late 1990’s until front man Thomas Woodruff’s Gothic rock band, The Eternal Chapter [joined.1997, JHB], began taking off. Malcolm describes them has having been “fucking miles ahead of us”. Nonetheless, despite Malcolm’s quips about Grämlich being poor copycats in their earliest guise, the band played a major role in the local history of the genre. They evolved through member changes until reaching maturity with a line-up of Malcolm and co-founding members Braam Cilliers on guitar, Ronnie Belcher on drums, and eventually including Sebastian (Andre) on vocals, Esther Roos on backing vocals and keyboard, and Glynis Lomax on bass guitar.

Grämlich

NOTE: above is an audio excerpt by Grämlich with the track ‘Close Your Eyes’ from the 1999 Tears Within demo album, which was pre-“commercial” era.

Of course, this was largely pre-dating the internet – the internet as we know it today, at least, as an easily accessible resource and communication tool – and Malcolm describes that era as also having certain advantages, such as in the relative isolation which bands at the time found themselves, they could enjoy great freedom in what they were doing. And so, in that context, we complete the story of Grämlich:

“It was almost a luxury bands had to be able to completely fuck up without it mattering, as long as you’re following your own vision. So that’s what we did, and we got to a point where our little demo tape was outselling Bryan Adams and Celine Dion in the CD shop (Malcolm worked at a well-known music store at Tygervalley Center for a number of years). And then came Theater Of Tragedy {est.1993, NO] in the mix and we were, like, fuck! We really need a keyboard and female vocalists.” ~ Malcolm Burger

This chapter marked the peak of the band’s presence on the scene. But of course, all good things come to an end, as did Grämlich, which would throw the genre in South Africa back to the stone age for a new generation such as the likes which included Justin.

“To cut a long story short, we kind of lost our minds and eventually tried to pursue a more commercial aspect, trying to keep the same sound, but a more commercial songwriting style. But it didn’t work, which eventually brought the band to an end.” ~ Malcolm Burger

Ironically, it was at this same time, around 2001, that Justin emerged into the failing realm of local Doom, with Grämlich, Elysium, and even the longstanding V.O.D standing no longer. It was to last the better part of a decade and more before hopes would resurface that a full turnaround would be possible. Justin describes his entering into nightlife and social circles as holding very limited options for exploring and sharing the music of his passion. This fueled his own musically creative drive.

“Its not to say we didn’t go out and not find friends, I mean, I still do enjoy death metal, and black metal and goth and stuff; its all fun, but it wasn’t ‘my thing’. But, I mean, at the same time, it really inspired me as a musician. I remember we had our first little Doom band that three of us started because we couldn’t get the music anywhere. There just was not that kind of music available, so we had to make it.” ~ Justin Bedford

Justin also explains that by 2009, he had come to realize that a lot more people he knew were actually quite taken by the genre in its various guises. But because of it’s lack of presence on the exiting nightlife and social circuit since the collapse of Grämlich and others so many years before, the vast majority of enthusiasts for the genre were actually already mostly too preoccupied with other projects of greater social relevance at the time (such as his own death metal band that he was a part of for a time, A Walk With The Wicked) that none had really considered to start up a serious Doom band. Of course, this was not entirely the truth. As we dug deeper, it emerged that a brief tenure on the local circuit by Stoner Doom band, Doomorgy [est.2006-2007, CT] had come and gone in a brief spark. This was perhaps the first early sign which nobody had been paying attention for that a return to prominence in due course was imminent.

Interview PART III – Doom in South Africa: present day

Finally we arrived to the point at hand. What about Doom in South Africa today? Well, we had to approach the present time by including the more immediately recent precursors. Whilst The League Of Doom was publicly launched only a few weeks ago (see news post here), the legwork had begun being laid by Justin and his various cohorts from as early as 2010. We dug into the topic of the formation of The League Of Doom, and why, and also what it has been up to between then and right now.

“I basically decided that throughout my life there was the sort of bastard child of Heavy Metal, being Doom, sitting on the sidelines and I was sure there must be other people out there would fully appreciate it; had never heard of something like that, or; maybe had just a slight glimpse but wanted more and just didn’t have that outlet to go to.” ~ Justin Bedford

He described how, calling a meeting in 2010, a surprising number of local musicians and enthusiasts stepped forward and the result of which was to establish something to represent the genre locally. Among those was also local musician Heike Langhans who, in 2012, caught us all by surprise when she emigrated from South Africa to join Sweden’s Draconian [est.1994, SE] to replace the much beloved Lisa Johansson (previous article here). In short, the primary aim of the group was to encourage and nurture an environment of change; one where Doom could reemerge as a healthy topic on the social calendar.

NOTE: above is the first single released by Draconian from their 2015 SOVRAN album, the first to feature South African Heike Langhans on vocals

“We decided that the best way was to present the genre to people. To go out and play a show, because I think at the time live music in Cape Town was on the up, definitely.” ~ Malcolm Burger

This resulted in the first Symphonaire Infernus show in 2012, spearheaded by The League Of Doom which was already filled to the brim with active musicians. Taking a little time out from their regular bands and projects, thirteen souls were gathered to put together a live tribute to some of the greats from the genre. Songs by many of the aforementioned in this article were selected, plus more from bands such as Swallow The Sun [est.2000, FI] and Reverend Bizarre [est.1995-2007, FI] (previous article here). A follow-up took place in the next year with Symphonaire Infernus II, which was wildly more ambitious and included even more members. What was significant about the second show was that the assembled group spanned what can effectively be described as three generations of local Doom metallers and a first tribute to a South African band with V.O.D‘s ‘If I Had A Soul’ being performed as well.

However, let it not be believed that Cape Town was the only city to be experiencing increased activity in the time leading up to the immediate present. Two other presently active bands that we know about have sprang up unexpectedly . Corax [est.2011, JHB], based in Gauteng, and Strage [est.2011, DBN] from the coastal city of Durban have also both signaled a return of Doom to South Africa as a whole. Even Cape Town’s Doomorgy have recently showed promising signs of an imminent return, with members recently confirming renewed activity in 2015. It is quite possible that others exist, or have existed, that we know nothing about. This led our discussion back to Justin and Malcolm’s more immediate interest with Ashes At My Grave preparing to enter the scene, and inadvertently referencing back to Grämlich.

“Many years later, Braam and I started writing some music and then Esther came on board; kind of like a Grämlich ‘2.0’, but the music was vastly more advanced. But what The League Of Doom shows facilitated, was that when we got more people on board, things started moving along a lot quicker. It was always always going to be a labour of love – with everybody involved in other bands – it’s become more than a labour of love now in the fact that we have re-recruited Ronnie on drums. We dabbled with other drummers, but there’s nobody better at interpreting what the music is about. That’s Ashes At My Grave.” ~ Malcolm Burger

Ashes At My Grave intends to have begun recording by the time of this feature being published, in preparation for a launch in 2016. In summary, it appears that Doom is alive and well in South Africa circa 2015, and promises to only look better in 2016 with the recent emergence of new players nationally and the resurfacing of veterans. This allowed us to finally settle back to the matter of The League Of Doom and more specifically their Symphonaire Infernus III which is approaching on 12 December, 2015.

Symphonaire Infernus III

The third Symphonaire Infernus will take quite a different approach with being very publicly advertised, but also this time not being a live performance feature. The aim is to completely shed the closed-off culture of the last few years.

“The objective here is two-fold. It (The League Of Doom) was quite an insular little group; we did the performances and we never sort of broadcast out to the public. But the one thing is when you’re on stage, it’s the crowd and you. Two separate things. You don’t get the chance to interact and to ask questions and to try and learn more.” ~ Justin Bedford

“Up until now it’s not been something we’ve felt that needed a large public platform. So this is the launch of a more interactive and inclusive platform. So, you know, we were all mates before and we weren’t expanding – which was not the objective before – but we’re now at the point where we have not only enough interest, but the launching pad from which we can actually start something. It can grow because we know there are people out there that, like us back in the day, didn’t know about something. So, I think the responsibility falls on you to actually get it out there.” ~ Malcolm Burger

The Symphonaire Infernus III will be taking place in Cape Town on 12 December upstairs at Hectic On Hope, in Hope Street, a stone’s throw away from the Parliament buildings. It will be a night dedicated rather to socializing and music presented by DJs, featuring Doom in all of it’s known guises, past and present. It welcomes any member of the public, inviting any who believe they might enjoy emotive – but heavy – music, and would like to meet some friends that they can share the experience with. Full details can be found at the official facebook event page.

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Symphonaire Infernus III poster