It’s about damned/doomed time someone wrote a good book about doom! That man, is JJ. Anselmi, BMX biker kid from Wyoming, transplant to California, drummer in a bunch of bands and a big fan of music that goes slow.
DOOMED TO FAIL is pretty much the first stand-alone history of Doom Metal and her ugly cousins Sludge and post-Metal. You might notice I said the first ‘stand alone’ book, not the ‘first’ book about doom, and I make this point for two reasons. The first book about doom, as Anselmi kindly recommends, (as do I) is Aleksey Evdokimov’s 2017 book , THE DOOM METAL LEXICON. As a side note, I reviewed it for Metal-Rules.com so if you are a doom fan you may want to check out that review as well.
The second reason is that there have been many, many books about the history of Metal and the vast majority of those books dismissively pass over doom in one paragraph or skip it all together which always really annoys me. Power Metal and a handful of other genres, also constantly get ignored by most conventional books about Metal too because they are too busy talking about Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Metallica and Pantera. So finally (!) we get an actual book with the sub-title of ‘The Incredibly Loud History of Doom, Sludge and Post-Metal” and when I heard it was being published I was immediately excited to read it. The good people at Rare Bird published this 350 page beast and they deserve recognition for supporting a project that some might say is doomed to fail…a book about a small, less popular genre of Metal. However, it needed to be written and I am here to champion this book. For the record I’m working off an advance copy so I understand that this will be a hardcover and maybe even some graphics or pictures, which my does not have. I’m sure it will be fine.
The book is conventional in terms of presentation and as with any story, ya gotta start at the beginning! We get a nice Foreword from Cat Jones of Kerrang and then Anselmi shares a bit of his personal background in the introduction. The book is well-referenced and logical. Anselmi starts at the very beginning and traces the development of electric guitars, of amplified sound, the blues and most importantly distortion. We move on to very familiar, often repeated, but necessary stories of Black Sabbath and so on. The book is divided in two, Part I is mostly your traditional Doom and Part 2 is more of your sludge and post-Metal. Anselmi covers an enormous amount of territory is bite sized chunks, sometimes focusing on a seminal album, sometimes weaving a concert experience into the tale, all laced into a more standard, factual explanation of the development of the genres.
He is is a drummer so he does talk a lot about drumming, drummers, and their style, which is kind of cool because drummers rarely get the spotlight. There are quotes and stories and he also touches on key figures in Doom, important record labels and industry personnel as well as the triumphs, and unfortunately more often tragedies, of the musicians who are drawn to create this music. The history is very comprehensive and very well done, all the big bands are here. I can’t really think of any major errors or omissions. The book finishes nicely with a section called ‘Doomed Future’ which is a brief write-up of about 20 young up and coming noise makers for those fans who want to dig deeper.
Amselmi really knows his history and the lineage of the genre. For example, it was nice to see a brief nod in the direction of bands like Cirith Ungol and Winter. It was a pleasant and unexpected surprise and but beyond that, it demonstrates his depth of knowledge. Anselmi’s prose is light and loose, casual (lots of vulgarity) but really fun and he often has a very nice turn of phrase, such as ‘tar-spill trudge’, joyous clomp’ and at one point he compares the guitar sound of Sir Lord Baltimore to that of an ‘electric yeti’! I’ve read over 500 books about Heavy Metal and I’m pretty confident that is the first time anyone has used the word ‘yeti’ in a Metal book. His writing style reminds me a bit of Martin Popoff; enthusiastic, barrelling along, and almost off the rails, but never quite.
Anselmi also comes across as a bit weird (but I think he would be proud of that) and often follows a stream of consciousness style of writing as evidenced by his brief chapter on Khanate which is essentially a list of unpleasant activities that approximate listening to Khanate. I think he is (or could be if not already) a really good lyric writer for his band. Despite the author being a self-proclaimed pessimist and claiming to have a bleak world view, DOOMED TO FAIL was really fun to read! There are a few occasions where Anselmi says, he wishes he could have heard a song back when it came out, It got me thinking in hindsight, Yeah, it was pretty cool to discover, hear and buy hear St. Vitus or Candlemass or Trouble cassettes, when they came out. In fact, his enthusiasm helped me kindle fond memories of that stuff and I went back and listened to some albums I hadn’t listened to in years.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, there is one major negative. Anselmi gets really political and judgemental about things that are not really related to doom Metal. There is this constant undercurrent of political commentary and very often he makes little verbal attacks on things. Whether his politics are left or right is irrelevant but if you are like me and prefer your entertainment free of politics, this was a problem. For example, he wrote a fairly lengthy section about the Manson Family, Altamont and the Kent State University protests. I understand what he was trying to do, paint a picture of the social climate that lead to disenfranchisement and alienation among counter-culture youth of the time that lead them to create doom music etc…blah, blah blah… but all of that could have been summarized in a few sentences instead of almost nine pages worth. However, there is fair warning on the back cover it says, “…while diving into the cultural doom that has spawned such music, from the bombing of Birmingham and hurricane devastation of New Orleans, to glaring economic inequality, climate change and wide spread addiction.” As the title of one of his chapters says, ‘Be forewarned’.
Linked to the above point, like most people, Anselmi often assumes everyone has the same experiences and feelings that he does. For example, very early on in his introduction he suggests all metal heads see life through a pessimistic lens and calls it the ‘metalheads curse’. (p. 12) In my experience nothing could be further from the truth, or my version of it anyway. The vast majority of metal fans I know and have met, personally and professionally, are happy, successful optimistic people. In fact, a recent study came out that suggests Metal heads are actually very normal, well-adjusted people. But because Anselmi has a pessimistic view of life, it becomes the ‘curse’ for all of us. There are several other examples where he makes broad assumptions and speaks for all of us based on his own bleak world view. It is not a big deal, lots of people do it but at times he comes across as very narrow-minded. However, that is his prerogative, it’s his book and his perspective! After all, why not have a guy who thinks we are all doomed to write a book about music that says we are all doomed? Makes sense to me, I just don’t agree! While reading when I came across these broad assumptions about people or when he was inserting political jargon, I’d just ignore it and move on. Aside from those two very minor complaints, (too political and too assumptive) based on my own personal preference what I’m looking for in a light read about a Heavy Metal genre, there really is nothing truly negative I can say about this fine work. If you don’t mind a direct political slant in your books about music, then this will not be a problem for you and you can disregard my above comments.
Thankfully, the book is not just a wide-eyed, gushing praise for the genre from a doom fan-boy nor just sour political ramblings. For most readers I think he strikes a nice balance between opinion and fact. He is enthusiastic not but not to a fault. Anselmi makes an astute observation early on and states that you really don’t have to be very good as a musician to play doom. That really is the crux of the book and ties into the title of the book. Ultimately doom is more popular and successful than maybe he likes to give credit for, and technically, it didn’t ‘fail’ per se, but I really like his concept behind it all; namely Doom from it’s primitive origins was never going to get past a certain measure of success before it plateaued, and perhaps even stagnated, I think that is where the genre sits now. That is not a bad thing, but doom has gone where doom is going to go, it has perfected itself but not imploded. Doom (etc.) as a genre is too underground, too niche and too cool to ever really succeed but for those same reasons it will never truly fail.
DOOMED TO FAIL is doomed to be regarded as a long overdue, ground-breaking and entertaining examination and celebration of …well…doom!