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Illustration by Chris Malbon

How Doom Metal Helped Me Chill the F*ck Out

One angsty writer's journey into the dark heart of Denver's doom scene.

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It’s a chilly Saturday night in December, and I’m surrounded by concertgoers from every Denver subculture. Hipsters in denim vests. Flannel-clad dads. Heavily pierced guys in Black Sabbath shirts. The only thing they have in common? Everyone seems to have ear protection. Minus me—an unprepared indie-music lover who dances to Janelle Monáe alone in the elevator. It’s my first doom show, and I’m going to leave it without my hearing.

My journey to see the band Primitive Man at the Oriental Theater began nearly two years ago when, eyes bright and ears undamaged, I moved to Denver. I was living outside the Midwest for the first time, and my family, generational Illinosians, didn’t have much advice for acclimating to my new home. The only tip I got came from Uncle Mike, who suggested I check out the city’s doom scene. Mike’s music preferences skew more, um, unconventional than mine, so as I settled into Denver, I stubbornly listened to my stuff—queer indie-pop, piano-laden ballads, dad-rock throwbacks. That is, until two powerful forces collided: stress and dread of the existential variety.

Anxiety is a lifelong theme. Near-constant worries include my radiator’s odd hissing noise, that email I forgot to send, and the likelihood that my soulmate bought the Epic pass when I opted for Ikon. Humanity’s many failings drive me to pessimism, too. (I mean, who are all these people still listening to Chris Brown?) In the past, I used music to self-soothe, turning to Kishi Bashi for joy or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for a cleansing cry. The longer I spent in Denver, though, the less my playlists worked. I liked my new life, yet deadlines, sleep deprivation, and my own perfectionism threatened to overwhelm me. In a moment of fuck-it-all desperation, I followed Mike’s advice. Music defined by the word “doom” seemed appropriate.

When the first, harsh chord of Green Druid’s 2018 album Ashen Blood spilled from my headphones, my nose wrinkled. Not my thing. Then came a syrupy riff. Like heavy metal, doom was loud—but melancholy and much slower. The vocals were nearly unintelligible screams that washed over me, submerging me in gloom. Rather than deepen my depression, hearing someone else scream into the abyss made me feel less alone. When the album was over, I felt…not good, exactly, but better.

Thus began my descent into the dark heart of Denver doom, which Vice has called “one of the nation’s strongest emerging doom scenes.” Green Druid guitarist Graham Zander credits the Rockies’ cold solitude for inspiring such ominous tunes. There’s also a universality to doom: “I’m 36. I have to have a level of composure,” says Ethan McCarthy, Primitive Man’s guitarist and vocalist. “But I can sing about the most unreasonable shit. Being able to express all my frustration, unfiltered, is nice.”

I had been experiencing my catharsis remotely, listening to doom from the safety of my office. As the recorded distortion slowed my sprinting pulse, I wondered if a concert would be even more purifying. Once at the Oriental, though, I feel nervous, like I’ll be recognized as an outsider. Then the three members of Primitive Man climb onstage, backed by a wall of amps, and McCarthy roars for 45 minutes straight.

Live, each chord lulls me toward a trancelike state; despair courses through and out of me. Afterward, I exit the theater with a headache and a vow to never forget ear-plugs again. Still, the knot in my stomach feels less dense. I may never dance to doom in an elevator. But damn, what a relief.

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