A concept I frequently encounter in my education is “dramaturgy” – the theory of dramatic composition. As a younger man I did my very best to burn this pompous drivel from my brain with enough cheap booze to cold-cock a camel, Conan style. As it turns out, the lesson is incredibly helpful when reviewing metal. So much of this music relies on well-structured melodrama to comprise its themes and narratives. Something doom metal in particular thrives on. The genre’s devout focus on deliberate tempos provides equal opportunity to convey gravitas via subtext as well as overt context. Those tortuous seconds that languish in the negative space between chords dance on the back of the neck as we await that next sinking riff. Finland’s Rottendawn hold doom metal in the highest regard. Boasting once and current members of Impaled Nazarene, Unholy and Sinisthra, the pedigree on debut album Occult is enviable. Unfortunately, good breeding doesn’t always precede a good album.
It’s important to establish that Rottendawn are in no way bad at what they do, at least cosmetically. On the face of it, Occult is the consummate doom album. Amongst others, the band cite My Dying Bride, Candlemass and Cathedral as primary influences. Via this collection, the band attempts to transcend the doom metal archetype by refusing to adhere to any one aspect of it. After all, no one puts Rottendawn in a corner. Opener “The Final Lament” leans heavily on the classic Peaceville death-doom paradigm for a perfectly serviceable facsimile. The scene changes immediately when “Burn ’til Burial” greases stoner riffs with some Corrosion of Conformity swagger. It’s a good song replete with memorable hooks but it’s also where some reservations become apparent. To some degree, all of our favorite albums utilize a thematic cohesion. This is the mechanic behind immersive records; their content and sequencing are the product of calculated dramatic implementation. An area in which Occult‘s desire to be all things to all bereft bodies is suspiciously lacking.
As if a dearth of cogency wasn’t bad enough, Rottendawn also have an unfortunate obsession with insubstantial songwriting. The phallic “Ode to Pjotr” abandons Occult‘s oeuvre entirely for a totally disposable crust number. But arguably worse is the duo “Dusk Demons” and “Dawn Dwellers.” This double act is the album’s best stab at a theme. They are purposefully similar with organ keys pervading the former and more typically morose leads in the latter. Aside from those minor details, they are almost entirely indistinct. Ironically, guitarists Joni Halmetoja and Make Mäkinen are at their best when slinging faster riffs. Their dirge-work is just too beige to enrich the genre’s signature pace. Conversely, vocalist and bassist Pasi Äijö has a respectable muscular growl, which he manipulates to emphasizes each song’s identity. His consistency, however, just isn’t enough to level the album’s myriad imbalances.
Rottendawn have opted to throw anything even remotely doom-adjacent at the wall. Sadly, very little of it sticks. But bizarrely, the last three tracks are a distinct exception. “Et Voi Taas Kuollakaan” and “Zero Lives Left” are very effective. They balance a more gothic aesthetic with the key-heavy rhythms of Take Over and Destroy. This more streamlined approach fosters memorable results and, while the cuts aren’t exactly exemplary, they effortlessly provide a noticeably salient theme. But at this point in the album, it is the very definition of too little, too late.
Albums like Occult are oddities. They claim diversity, but hitting a big target with a sawn-off shotgun doesn’t make you a marksman. Even a branching narrative must still be comprehensive. But criticism is fickle by nature. On occasion, an offering’s inability to define itself may generously be considered eclectic by some. Rottendawn certainly know what they are, but the idiosyncrasies that differentiate “what” from “who” are tellingly absent. Despite my complaints, these Finns clearly have some concept of how to write a good song. At best, the album’s genre-anchored schizophrenia shines a light on which direction Rottendawn are naturally drawn to. At worst, it delineates an entirely unnecessary album.