REVIEW: SUBROSA – “For This We Fought the Battle of Ages”
Doom Metal has always been one of my favorite genres of Metal. Something about the slower tempi and the lethargic guitars coupled with the hollow drumming and vocals invoke a peculiar sense of isolation and desideratum, or even nostalgia and liberation. I frequent the genre on my night walks, or when I’m at home when the weather outside is cloudy or raining. Doom Metal is one of the genres which I have a deeper, more personal and sensitive, connection to. So when I found out that one of my favorite Doom Metal bands of all time is releasing a new, follow-up album, , I could not help myself to take the opportunity to review it.
SubRosa is an Experimental Doom Metal band from Salt Lake City, Utah. They are is one of the first Doom Metal bands – also the first female-fronted one – that I have heard. Like many of their relatively newer fans, I was introduced to the band in 2013 with their critically acclaimed album ‘More Constant than the Gods’ which remains as one of my favorite albums of that year. Like many of their fans, I was captivated by the song “The Usher”, a 14-minute track that completely swept me off my feet with the vocals and instrumentation.
SubRosa plays a style of Doom Metal that is hard to describe, as the popular additional genre tags of Stoner and Sludge Metal do not quite do the band justice. The band is a five-piece fronted by guitarist and main vocalist Rebecca Vernon alongside violinists (yes, violinists) Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack who both provide vocals (yes, there are three vocalists), Levi Hanna on bass, and Andy Patterson on drums. Being a violinist myself, the band always interests me in how well they are able to incorporate not one, but two violins into their sound. SubRosa’s sound can certainly be described as psychedelic and mystical as the band uses their unique lineup composition to their adventure. With their new follow-up album ‘For This We Fought The Battle of Ages’, the band continues and even builds upon the talent they have achieved.
The new album sees the band exploring new ideas and approaches while working on their sound to create an even more lush and dynamic record. If you are looking for a Doom Metal album that boats crushingly heavy guitars, powerful vocals, or outstanding drumming, you will not find those qualities here. Here, SubRosa focuses much more on intricate details such as the dynamics of their sound, the parts played by each voice or instrument, and how these parts interact with one another. The guitars, bass and drums are not in the spotlight, but instead provide the sturdy foundation on which the rest of the band build their soundscapes and work their magic. The guitars mainly provide the minimal distortion, fuzz, and heavy, while laying out the groundwork of chords and simple melodic progressions; the drums play underneath, supporting the band and providing a constant line of energy. The main attraction of the band comes from the integration of the three vocalists and two violinists, and how they work with and play off one another.
‘For This We Fought The Battle of Ages’ starts off with a flurry of ominous strings, that clears to bring out a lone bass playing a looped melody. The intro then builds on as the guitar is layered on top. Rebecca subsequently enters, with her light and airy vocals further adding to the calm intro. The violins enter with their pizzicato and slowly, the band increasingly gets louder and louder. Before you know it, the whole band is playing together and you are now enveloped in the 15 and a half minute opener, “Despair Is a Siren”. This track – the longest on the album – can be best described as a series of waves. The band expands and contracts in dynamics (volume) and tempo (speed). There is a build-up of the waves as voices (primarily guitars and Rebecca’s vocals) compound together. When the waves hit the shore, the whole band comes into action – especially with the vocals and violins – as they display their intricate dialogue with one another, almost as if they were playing a duet as they exchanger countermelodies. The waves then start to recede as the band contracts and loosens up to a softer and smaller soundscape to prepare for the next build-up.
Like the previous song, the second track “Wound of the Warden” follows a similar idea. Starting off with the bass and drums, the band adds new layers on top with vocals, and then the violins. The band then swells and calms down. However, the vocals and violins take turns in coming out in specific sections of the song. The vocals are fleshed out when they need to be, and the violins and their musical banter come out when they need to be heard. With these nuances, SubRosa is able to create a living track that starts to shift. From this point, the band starts to deviate little by little as minute ideas get played around with, most notably in the violins and vocals.
The third track “Black Majesty” is, in my opinion, the centerpiece of this album. Being the second longest track of the record (only 3 seconds shorter than “Despair Is a Siren”), the band fully embraces experimentation here. After a short winding stringed flurry, Rebecca comes in with her soft vocals, staying afloat under the calm water of ambient violins. The vocals then quickly become louder and the full band kicks right in, immediately introducing you to three-prong harmonized vocals and the double swirling, dissonant violin counterplay from Sarah and Kim. Later on in the track, the band goes into a more active state of affairs as the guitars and drums come out a little more while the violins and vocals soar over them. After this burst of melody, groove, and energy, the band starts dying down, reverting back to the soft vocal harmonies and clean guitar interludes, as the violins dive down and diminish, becoming calm again.
The second half of the album is where SubRosa further explore various elements in their sound. The fourth track “Il Cappio” (meaning “The Noose” in Italian) plays off as a one and half minute Italian folk song where Rebecca is left alone with a banjo (I presume). Here, Rebecca takes on a new approach to her vocals with a hauntingly sweet color and tone, while the accompaniment provides an antique folk flavor. This track is refreshing, and almost serves as an interlude between the halves.
The next track “Killing Rapture” is the most somber song off this album. Rebecca changers her voice to a much more reserved and frail quality with a darker color. Around the halfway point, the band changes gears and the drums pick up, the guitar plays out a tremolo picked melody, while Sarah and Kim soar over with the solemn melodies of the violins as the vocals brings it down into the frailty of the beginning. You can hear a sweet sadness and a hint of melody in Rebecca’s vocals here.
The closing track “Troubled Cells” is the darkest song off the album. Here, Rebecca’s vocals changes once again into a more mysterious sound (think Chelsea Wolfe) while the violins play their final swansong before the band fades away to the lone guitar and strings from the start of the album.
However, the album does feel a bit reserved in terms of the creative leaps the band could take and thus felt a little repetitive in the first two songs. Nonetheless, ‘For This We Fought The Battle of Ages’ is a fine album that will push the band to continue their experimentation and creative drive.
SubRosa explores new grounds on ‘For This We Fought The Battle of Ages’ as the band digs deeper into the qualities of their unique lineup and sound. With the fantastic usage of vocals, violins, and ensnaring atmosphere, the band delivers their most ambitious, dynamic, compositionally exciting, and intimate album yet. The band has now set the bar higher for themselves, as I hope they will continue exploring their craft and delve deeper in their creativity.