WHEN BLACK Sabbath’s Tony Iommi struck the opening G5 chord on his Gibson SG on the song which bore his band’s name, during a recording session in London in 1969, he not only created a new genre of rock, but a sub-genre as well.
That song, ‘Black Sabbath’ would come to define the newly emergent genre of heavy metal, of which the Sabs are arguably the leading pioneers. Yet that same track, which would open their debut album, equally laid down the DNA for a trend in metal which would take another 20 years to be fully realised.
That trend was doom metal, the heaviest and most ominous sounding of all the many metal sub-genres. ‘Black Sabbath’ began as a slow, atmospheric, track, hints of dread and impending menace lurking in both the guitars and the vocals. Taking its time, the song built slowly and subtly, towards what seems a sudden change of pace and a mighty crescendo.
In many respects these are the defining traits of doom - slow build ups, repetition, atmosphere, dread. Often the guitars are tuned lower than in standard tuning to accentuate the heavy sound and feel, to give the guitars more crushing weight.
The innovations of ‘Black Sabbath’ were later explored by Pentagram, Trouble, and Count Raven, and the doom metal style continues to have massive appeal to both metal fans and to a younger generations of musicians keen to contribute to Doom’s ongoing evolution.
One such new doom metal band is Galway’s RITES who formed in November 2009. Since then they have set themselves apart as one of Ireland’s ‘must watch’ metal acts through their impressive debut EP RITES S/T and two tracks added to their Bandcamp page this year - ‘Barren’ and the magnificent ‘Forest Altar’.
The band are Nicola Cosgrove (bass ), Kieran Griffin (guitar/vocals ), and Bryan Higgins (guitar/backing vocals ), and new member Dave Mahony on drums, and the pioneering spirit of Sabbath and later Doom acts courses through them.
“I was playing in a lot of punk bands but I’d always been a big metal fan as well,” Kieran tells me as I sit with the band for a Monday afternoon interview. “I wanted to do something in the style of Sabbath albums like Master Of Reality. I talked to Nicola about the idea and she was on for it as well. We both listen to Cathedral, Pentagram, Trouble, and agree on a lot.”
Originally the band was going to be a three-piece but keen to “get a heavier feel”, Bryan, “who listens to Doom religiously”, was asked to join to add further weight and density to the sound.
The three had all paid dues in other outfits. Nicola had been bassist with hardcore/metal quintet Neifenbach, with whom she recorded the album Reason Will Falter in 2010. She had originally played guitar but switched to bass following a suggestion from Daniel Hielscher.
Bryan and Kieran travelled in the opposite direction. Both began by playing guitar in their teens but later switched to bass before taking up the six-strings again. Bryan in particular is a proud player of a modified Fender Jazzmaster.
“I’ve always liked the Fender Jazzmaster,” he says. “J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr plays one and I always thought it looked cool. Eventually I got one and stuck a humbucker [a guitar pickup which captures mechanical vibrations and converts them to an electrical signal that is amplified, while also reducing the risk of ‘hum’ in the instrument] on it and it was even better! The Jazzmaster has a brilliant sound and for the music I play it’s perfect.”
Perhaps the band member’s affinity for the low, booming sound of the bass provides a clue to their love of doom metal. Their music is riff heavy and the slow rhythms of songs like ‘Forging’ give their songs an epic feel, before, out of nowhere, the speed and direction can change, catching the listener unaware. It is a time honoured tradition in metal and one RITES handle extremely well.
“We like it nice and slow, keep building the riffs, building up the song, and just when the listener thinks this is how it is going to stay, in comes a guitar break, and an intense punch,” says Bryan. “When it happen it can feel more powerful.”
Metal was, in the 1970s and 1980s, characterised by the guitar solo - a virtuoso display by Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, Sabbath’s Iommi, Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, etc, was as much part of the experience as any other aspect of the song. However, metal retreated in the face of alternative rock in the 1990s to ponder on new directions. By the 2000s as it began to reassert itself as the natural outsider music, alongside punk/hardcore, the guitar solo had largely been dispensed with.
RITES, with the exception of ‘Intro’ on the EP, eschew solos, but this should not be taken to mean we will never hear one on a RITES’ release.
“I love playing guitar solos!” declares Bryan. “When we’re working on new material I will try and solo and we’ll see if it fits. I think it can make a song better but you don’t want to go on too long with them. Some riffs can hold their own and don’t need solos. We won’t do one for the sake of doing it.”
The band are currently working on new material and hope to have an EP out before the end of the year, “to keep the momentum going,” says Nicola, who also reveals there are plans to release a vinyl album in 2013.
The Irish metal/punk scene is one of the most independent music scenes in the country, defined by a strong sense of community and DIY ethic.
“The metal scene in Galway is small, Dublin and Belfast are much larger” says Kieran, “but we are lucky that a lot of the punk and hardcore audience like what we do so we get to play gigs with them.”
“The metal scene is overall very strong in Ireland,” says Nicola. “Metal bands enjoy touring Ireland because of that and often mention how they enjoy Galway in particular because of the reaction they get from the audience.”
RITES play Richardson’s, Eyre Square, on Thursday October 11. Also on the bill are Liverpudlian doom metallers Conan. Admission is €7. RITES will also play the To Hell Or To Connaught metal and hardcore night in Gracy’s Bar, Westport House, this Saturday from 2pm, as part of the Westport Arts Festival. Check out RITES music at http://ritesgalway.bandcamp.com/