Surviving the Darkness of Coronavirus With Some Doom and ‘Gloom’
Old Man Gloom’s “Seminar IX: Darkness of Being” is the metal album we need as a pandemic plunges us into despair. Living and loving are acts of bravery, the band reminds us.
As the coronavirus pandemic surged to “apocalyptic” levels this week, further plunging us into an indefinite state of anxiety and uncertainty, the one thing giving me hope is some doom and gloom.
On Monday, doom-metal supergroup Old Man Gloom surprise-released their eighth studio album, titled Seminar IX: Darkness of Being. “Sounds truly uplifting,” I’m sure you’re thinking, but as the band wrote in their announcement: “Please share, and listen, and talk, and respond. Tell us you love it, tell us you think it sucks, tell your friends that you like our old shit more… We don’t care, just put yourselves into the world through this.” So just let me explain.
During this ongoing crisis, musicians stuck at home have sought new ways to connect with listeners—e.g., live-streaming bedroom performances, remixing or parodying hits to be about the pandemic, or penning original songs reflecting on the crisis—but most attempts feel like flash-in-the-pan moments of realness, while many veer into vanity or shallow opportunism.
As a piece of heavy music, Darkness of Being is revelatory. Old Man Gloom have always been astonishingly great finding new ways to defy the rules of genre, and over 48 minutes here, the band deftly balances searing doom-metal riffs with atmospheric noise interludes, ascending melodies, volcanic climaxes, posi-core-like shouted vocals, and Nick Drake-like gothic folk.
But on a more cosmic level, the album has grabbed ahold of me both as a pep talk for living out not just this holy-shit-what-the-fuck moment in time, but for each and every one that has or will ever come in my lifetime.
And that’s partly because the album is born out of personal loss that long predates the pandemic: In 2018, Old Man Gloom’s bassist/co-vocalist Caleb Scofield—a teenagehood hero of mine from his main gig in spacey post-hardcore band Cave In—was killed in a horrific accident when his car smashed into a concrete barrier and engulfed in flames at a New Hampshire toll booth.
The tragedy—which ended the life of an artist beloved by his family, fans, and the tight-knit music scene that coalesced around his many projects—was made all the more senseless by video of his fiery demise being plastered all over local news and digital outlets.
Everyone loves someone who dies. Such catastrophe lives entirely in the abstract—until it actually happens. And when it does it can be earth-shattering, life-altering, and completely change your worldview. On a macro level, the coronavirus pandemic and the way it has upended life-as-we-know-it has forced people to grapple with the lurking realization that there’s no one at the wheel, a bleak reminder of how powerless we are—subject entirely to whims of an uncontrolled and entirely random chaos.
As a lifelong depressive with a speciality in catastrophic thinking and existential crises, the song that shook me the most was the album’s closing banger, titled “Love Is Bravery.”
“Love is strength / Love is power / In this world so jaded / Your love is bravery,” guitarist/vocalist Nate Newton (Converge, Doomriders) shouts in a sweat-drenched release. It’s a punk-rock echo of Albert Camus’ philosophy of absurdism which, much like this particular doom-metal album, is propelled by despair but, in effect, incredibly life-affirming.
In one particularly famous 1942 essay, Camus wrote affectionately of Sisyphus, the Greek mythological legend who twice tricked Death and was thus condemned by the gods to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a mountain only for it to roll back down once he reached the top.
According to Camus, Sisyphus was actually a hero: He has accepted the inherent absurdity of existence—the darkness of being, if you will—and chose to embrace life, even at its most futile and meaningless.
“It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me,” the novelist wrote of the moment his hero descended the mountain to begin his task yet again. “I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end.”
Despite Scofield’s death, and now—by virtue of mere timing—despite our collective ennui from a roaring pandemic, Old Man Gloom implores us to keep pushing that boulder up the hill. “Heel to Toe,” the band instructs on its snaking chugger of the same name. Keep moving forward.
The band has long explored dystopian themes—especially on their seminal album Christmas (which brilliantly veered between hypnotic interludes, like an ominous accordion vamp or Ernest Hemingway reading a glum wartime poem, and blistering, seismic riffs evoking destruction)—and man’s primal nature and relationship to our primordial ancestors. But on Darkness of Being, rather than astutely observe and skewer humanity, Old Man Gloom exudes a raw passion for it.
“I didn’t expect to feel this much love and hope after hearing a Gloom record,” one fan wrote on the band’s Bandcamp page.
On “Death Rhymes,” a tear-jerking psych-blues folk elegy, it’s all love from Stephen Brodsky—Scofield’s bandmate in Cave In who perma-joined OMG to fill in for his late friend on bass—as he ruminates on the ever-present nature of grief. Death as an inevitability is omnipresent, that much is clear, but repeated references to a “we” perspective imbues the eulogy with the spirit of a community rebuilding together.
And on the thunderous, processional march of “In Your Name,” the band resolutely turns that corner. “In your name, we rejoice,” growls guitarist/vocalist Aaron Turner (Isis, Sumac) of the band’s fallen mate. “In this courage, we carry on / We sing your name to carry you home.”
However much the void reminds you of those impenetrable Big Questions, honor life by sallying forth. “Life seems bleak / It all seems so hopeless,” Brodsky sings on the final track, but: “We’re too short on time / To wallow in despair.”
On Darkness of Being, Old Man Gloom don’t hamfistedly revel in bleakness or rely on the usual clichés to telegraph how truly metal their music is. The album—again, a metal record—has an undercurrent of warmth and sympathy for all of mankind’s losses.
“I am not afraid / I will never cower / In a world so lost / Your love is bravery,” the album ends.
The rallying cry is clear: Our existence is certainly worth despairing over, but don’t let it break you.
To feel sorrow is not a weakness, the band emphasizes, but you have a hidden power: It takes courage to live and to cherish the connections you make, and you’ll find strength in knowing you laughed in death’s face.