Doom and decay

The slow and stoned sound of Saint Vitus — born too late, or too early?

MUSIC The Bay Area has a strange relation with its musical past — accounts of Phil Lesh's recent somnambulation among the living attest to this, but the same can be said about much of the past 10 years. For better or worse, as the early '00s crawled back into the woods to die, many of us were left with the impression that the past 10 years were composed of a series of disorganized, vaguely parasitic gestures, a theme party where every group of new guests seems to ape a different decade. Was this an era where mainstream pop music spun its wheels, the occasional ingenious act breaking free from its orbit and gaining some degree of forward drive?

This was also a decade that saw heavy metal — as a music, aesthetic sensibility, and subculture — grow in labyrinthine complexity. Perhaps the hallmark of this growth was an awareness of its immediate history, redirecting its typical drive toward progress, increasing its speed and techniques with mechanized precession, into an exploration of the forgotten pathways and alcoves of its byzantine evolution.

It's no coincidence that the emergence of a group of historically-aware metal titans ran parallel with the publication of several fantastic metal histories (Ian Christe's 2003 Sound of the Beast being probably the most well known), a string of successful reunions and new releases from reenergized legends (Maiden, Priest, Dio Sabb ... er, Heaven and Hell), and — what I would argue is most interesting — an influx of creative energy directed toward the supremely retrograde doom metal subgenre. Reemerging from the movement is Saint Vitus, a band that in many ways is the spiritual ancestor to this much-welcome ongoing metal mutation.

Though Saint Vitus' slow, stoned sound had been marinating in fuzzy '70s goodness, the band's Scott "Wino" Weinrich-fronted classic lineup came into its own on SST Records, a label dedicated to pushing the boundaries of rock. In many ways, the members of Saint Vitus were the shitty longhairs at the party. The same year the group released its monolithic Born Too Late (SST, 1987), not to mention three years after the release of fragmentary, futuristic milestones like Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, SST was busy signing Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth.

On the metal side of the spectrum, Vitus was inevitably entrenched in the thick of the famed "growing arms race" of efficient, mechanized speed and aggression that defined progress in terms of BPMs. The emerging stoner doom set, which Vitus was in the process of engendering, erected towering, sustained riffs in the classical (metal) mode, watching them deteriorate after the initial attack, fading back into the mix's opaque bass drone. In many ways, doom metal's current obsession with the sound of decay can be traced to Saint Vitus' still-audible feedback.

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