The Metal Band of my Dreams Just Broke Up

The day after Game of Thrones ended, one of my favorite bands, SubRosa, announced they were calling it quits (for now) on Facebook. I doubt the decision by the band had anything to do with the show, but I find it fitting because SubRosa were the closest thing music had to Game of Thrones. Their songs were epic in scope and had a sound that was both brutal and beautiful, which always took me to a medieval fantasy-type setting similar to the HBO series. Also like Thrones, I thought SubRosa’s music, while foreboding and dark on the surface, contained a lot of empathy and humanity, which is part of what made me like it so much compared to other metal.

One of my earliest posts on the blog came after I discovered SubRosa and declared them “the metal band of my dreams.” When I first heard “Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes,” it practically blew my mind. It was heavy and intense, but it also had those feminine vocals and the two electric violins which created the otherworldly sound that was their signature. It made me interested in metal for the first time and I began looking deeper into the genre, trying to discover other bands that sounded like SubRosa and could scratch that itch. I never found them.

Over their next two albums, More Constant Than the Gods and For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, the band expanded their sound even more, creating 10-15 minute epic songs that showed just how much potential metal has and how rarely it lives up to it. I thought (and wrote) a lot about what distinguished SubRosa, why they appealed to me so much when I couldn’t really get into other metal. Of course, part of it was the sound, which had that crushing beauty dynamic that I love, almost like My Bloody Valentine and other shoegaze. But I think it went deeper than that: this band played with a purpose. They weren’t interested in clobbering the listener with noise just to be edgy or shocking. I think they were very attuned to the idea of earning emotion and catharsis, and their songs often built drama through the dynamics, which went from lovely whispers to bone-crushing doom metal. Even their longest songs never for a moment felt self-indulgent.

SubRosa also fixed the other issue I have had with metal, which is how the lyrical content usually is incomprehensible or focused on darkness to the point of cheesy self-parody. The massiveness of their sound and the length of their songs allowed them a lot of room for almost novella-like storytelling, and they explored themes of suffering, power, and love in a way that was much more nuanced and sophisticated than typical music. A song like “Wound of the Warden” tells an entire story about surveillance, power and free will.

When I first started writing, I just made posts about old albums I liked and wasn’t going too deep into new music. SubRosa was one of the first bands I found where I had the feeling of wanting to champion something new that wasn’t necessarily being heard or talked about by many people. When I looked on their website and saw that they had actually quoted my first post about them, it made me feel like maybe writing about these obscure bands wasn’t such a waste of time and energy after all. I liked that I had given the band something, no matter how small, and that it was genuine and not some paid review where I was just giving it a high score or trying to craft the most flattering pull quote for them.

Because of their genre, SubRosa was rarely the subject of much discussion in the music circles I’m kind of in and isn’t going to be appearing on any of those best of the decades lists that people read. But I don’t think there was a better rock band in the last ten years. In a genre that often seems to embrace homogeneity by delivering its fans the same grunting vocals, “shocking” lyrics and constant noise, they dared to sound different and explored real themes in their work. But I don’t want this to sound too much like a eulogy: in the Facebook post, they explain that the members are all working on new projects that will be heard soon. Maybe then, there will finally be some other music that sounds like SubRosa.

#2: SubRosa – “For This We Fought the Battle of Ages”

Most bands make “songs” and “albums.” SubRosa create entire universes. The metal band’s third full length, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, continues down the path set by their earlier work, with a sound that is massive and unmatched in scale. Their signature combination of doom metal guitars and violins is otherworldly in a literal sense — when I listen to this band, I feel like I’m in a fantasy world, far from earth.

But while SubRosa often sounds not-of-this-world, their music speaks to what is happening on this planet right now. Inspired by the Russian dystopian novel, “We,” the album’s long, winding pieces grapple with major themes of free will, identity, and the intersection of suffering and happiness. The album closer, “Troubled Cells,” is an explicit statement by Rebecca Vernon on the plight of LGBTQI people in her Mormon church, but it’s done in an allegorical way that is nuanced and speaks widely to other disenfranchised people. “Wound of the Warden” is told from the point of view of a puppet-master, who sneers at his underlings that believe their lives and choices matter — it can be interpreted as a religious fable, or as a commentary on government control and surveillance.

This is a grim album, with lyrics that are every bit as crushing as its heaviest guitar riffs. But amid the chaos and doom, SubRosa find moments of humanity and beauty, and For This We Fought the Battle of Ages strikes a surprisingly optimistic message: that the world is harsh and unforgiving, and the people in it are stronger because of it.

SubRosa – “For This We Fought the Battle of Ages”

One of the words most ruined by the internet is “epic,” which went from describing massive works of art like Beowulf to GIFs of people falling off their skateboards. In music, the word is similarly misused, attached to bands who offer bombast but don’t actually provide substance while they pummel their listeners with noise that ultimately becomes meaningless.

Salt Lake City’s SubRosa distinguish themselves by being legitimately epic. Their songs resemble those ancient tales that the word once described, with weighty, allegorical stories, eerie landscapes, and powerful climaxes. Their latest album, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, continues to establish them as one of the most original and compelling bands in rock music today — a group that can sound as huge as anyone, but also isn’t afraid to be quiet when the time calls for it.

It’s easy to focus on the massiveness of SubRosa, who can create an avalanche of sound with layers of doomy guitars and their trademark pair of otherworldly electric violins, a combination that makes them sound like no one else. With songs that stretch past the 10 minute mark (with a couple going for 15), they work on a scale that few bands can equal. But what most impresses me about them on this album is their commitment to the littler things: the melodies and harmonies, and the quieter portions that help make their larger sound more impactful.

The opening track, “Despair is a Siren,” starts with one of these quiet folk-influenced parts, and it’s the most overtly pretty portion of music the band has created yet. Like most Subrosa songs, it has distinct loud and quiet sections (almost like there are two different bands playing), and the way both styles are accentuated by the other shows how powerful a simple use of dynamics can be. When the band does go into metal mode after a couple minutes of softness, it feels earned, because they took the time to build to that crescendo and made it matter. The band makes these shifts feel organic in large part due to Rebecca Vernon, who sings convincingly in a full range of styles, from roaring and growling to practically a lullaby, sometimes in the span of a single song.

Vernon’s voice is part of the band’s primary contrast, which is the feminine vocals from her and the two violin players, Rebecca Pendleton and Kim Pack, with the band’s crushing guitars. Their presence is how the band subverts traditional metal, a genre often defined by its masculinity, and infuses it with emotion and beauty instead of being a one-dimensional blast of noise. At times, the band feels like a progression from shoegaze groups like My Bloody Valentine, who combined more indie rock influenced guitar noise with lighter vocals to make music that was simultaneously chaotic and beautiful.

Over the last few years, SubRosa have refined their sound, emphasizing these contrasts in their music, and For This We Fought the Battle of Ages sees them pushing themselves to new highs and new lows. It’s their most towering, monumental achievement yet — as well as their most intimate — and it’s one of the best rock albums of 2016.

 

Spotify Playlist: “Loomers”

In a post last year, I mentioned how My Bloody Valentine’s “Loomer” sounds exactly the way I want all music to sound due to its contrast of heavy guitars and light, feminine vocals. This playlist is a collection of songs that feel similarly to me and are the basis of my theory that “Loomer” spawned its own micro-genre of music that falls somewhere between shoegaze and metal. The songs range from artists that are doing essentially My Bloody Valentine tributes (Fleeting Joys) to bands who push the principles in “Loomer” as far as possible to explore more adventurous musical ground (metal groups like SubRosa and True Widow).

For most of music’s history, loud guitar noise has been strongly associated with machismo and was considered ugly or abrasive. I love this style of music because it twists those preconceptions with the vocals, resulting in songs that have fascinating dualities: they are ugly and beautiful, strong and fragile, masculine and feminine. These themes all get blended together in the music and start to blur these arbitrary gender lines. (I just read The Left Hand of Darkness if you can’t tell.)

On a less academic level, listening to these songs always makes me think of the apocalypse. The image the sound creates in my head is of a lone voice singing while the world crumbles around them.  

SubRosa: The Metal Band of My Dreams

I’m sure it’s fairly evident by now that I’m not a metalhead. Most metal I’ve heard doesn’t do much for me, but it’s for different reasons then usual: For me, it’s never been about the noise and abrasiveness, it’s been about how all metal, while advertised as being this rebellious genre, seems very formulaic. It always has the loud, precise guitars, the lyrics about blood and killing and other “shocking” topics, and of course it always has to have the awful grunting male vocals that drive me up the wall.

Basically, metal is very masculine and always has been. The music is pretty much a dick-waving contest to see who can outshock others and the entire genre seems to live in some prehistoric world where women are completely unseen and unheard, unless they’re approximating the aforementioned male vocal style of grunting incomprehensibly instead of actually, you know, singing. I love loud and abrasive music, but it has to have a purpose to really be effective. Metal is too often loud just for the sake of it.

These are just my opinions of the genre as an outsider, since I obviously have no concept of just how many different kinds of metal there are (according to Wikipedia, about 4.5 billion). Part of why I’m repulsed a bit by the genre is that it comes so close to being something I could really embrace, but bands keep indulging in the same clichés all the time. There seems to be very little growth in metal compared to other genres, as most bands are going by the same formula that it’s always had. It’s hard to blame them: Metal has a rabid fan base that will support you if you give them what they want, and what they want is the loud, fast-paced guitars, bro-tastic vocals, and songs about skinning cats for the devil.

I mention all of this because, as I’m sure most readers know by now, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with how soft and non-threatening most indie music is today. And eventually that feeling has led to me dipping my toes into the metal pool, albeit in a very cautious way with a look of disgust on my face.

Of course, the problem now was I had to find metal bands I actually liked, which avoided all of the issues I raised with the genre earlier. I’ve become a pretty big fan of the Japanese band Boris, who play loud, crushing rock music but also relentlessly experiment in other genres and resist falling into the staid clichés that I’ve come to associate with metal. Then, after some more searching, I was finally able to find my perfect metal band: SubRosa.

SubRosa are a band based in Salt Lake City, of all places, and they play the slower-paced, doom-laden metal that I’ve found myself gravitating to more than the hyper-aggressive thrash stuff. But what really makes the band unique, and what drew them to my attention, is that it’s a female-fronted group, with three different women that provide vocals. Even better, they actually sing instead of buying into this idea that all metal needs to have the same vocal style.

Two of the women also play violin, which adds an otherworldly element to the band’s sound, which is characterized by loud, sludgy riffs and slow tempos. There is a small amount of the growling vocals (usually relegated to the background), but for the most part the women sing in normal voices. The lyrics are focused on medieval, fantasy themes that remind me of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, but the basic themes can be applied more universally. Overall, I find the band oddly reminiscent of the Breeders or the Raincoats, if one of those bands had randomly done a bunch of drugs, gotten obsessed with fantasy, and decided to record a metal album.

SubRosa is a textbook example of how women can really bring an effortlessly unique sound and perspective to a genre that sorely needs it. In the world of metal, just the fact that it’s women singing instead of a face-painted dude makes the band already sound completely different from their peers. Along with the violins, that turned their album No Help for the Mighty Ones into my go-to “heavy” album of 2011. It’s all the skull-crushing rock awesomeness that metal has always potentially provided, but without any of the annoying elements.

It also has a surprising amount of versatility. At times I find myself getting lost a bit in all the noise, almost like I do when listening to shoegaze. There’s even a medieval folky number, “House Carpenter,” at the end of the album, which is the kind of song that I doubt very many other metal bands could pull off.

I don’t know much about how SubRosa is received in the metal world, but they seem to be gaining popularity there, which is refreshing to see. As evidenced by a lame indie dork like me enjoying them, the band also has obvious crossover potential to indie listeners who are frustrated with the current state of music or just want to hear something different. I’m pretty sure no other band on earth sounds like SubRosa right now.