Groaning and Grieving: The Ashen Passion of Slough of Despond

Listening to Slough of Despond has been compared to carving Polish surnames on black tombstones in a dim light at twenty below zero wearing only boxer shorts. Not the easiest or pleasantest of ways to while away a spare afternoon, and many would say not a million miles from the truth, but the East Anglian band are, nevertheless, starting to forge a strong name for themselves at the Doom end of the metal scene.

The five piece began as a loose grouping of friends who’d meet after college and either practice or listen to records. Gradually, five of them realized that they had a more than usually intense shared interest in the works of a short-lived proto-Doom group from Bristol called Rex Mortuorum (“King of the Dead”), and after they’d decided to form a band to follow the Rex lead, the name Slough of Despond was chosen from a shortlist drawn up on the back of a paper napkin in a Norwich teashop.

The group’s lead guitarist, Mick Feldon later joked (lugubriously, it need hardly be said): “We almost didn’t make it any further, because although we all liked the name, we all had different ideas on how to spell ‘Slough’. There was nearly a punch-up over it and in the end we were thrown out of the shop for shouting. Of course, we all saw the funny side later on when we consulted a dictionary and discovered that none of us had been right.”

The group avoided one of the usual, cliché’d problems of young hopefuls — not having anywhere to rehearse — through a friendship with a farmer in the area, who allowed them free run of a large barn at the far end of his estate. Here, during the autumn and winter of 1987, the group met to begin creating a highly individual sound. According to the group’s vocalist, Alex Hamilton: “[The main] problem was the cold. Unless you’ve lived in East Anglia you can’t imagine what the wind can be like. It comes in straight off the North Sea and could freeze the bollocks off a polar bear, let alone a brass monkey. It used to take us hours to warm up before we could warm up, if you know what I mean. In the end, the other guys got used to playing everything about three times slower than normal and I obviously had to adapt my vocals to the way they played.”

Given that the group were rehearsing mostly with material from Rex Mortuorum’s decidedly doomy Arma Virumque (“Arms and the Man”) album at the time, it’s hardly surprising that they plumbed new depths of slo-mosh playing. A cover of Rex Mortuorum’s magnum opus, “Sanguis Nigra” (“Black Blood”), which clocked in at 8’36” in its original version, found its way onto Slough of Despond’s first demo, E Pluribus Nemo (“From Many None”), where it swallowed an entire twenty-minute first side, despite a radical trimming of the mid-track bass solos. Still ahead of its time, the demo made very little impact and the initial rush of enthusiasm felt by the band-members began to die away. The loss of rhythm guitarist Keith Whilham after his conviction for drugs offences did nothing to help matters, and the practice sessions in the barn became more and more infrequent.

By New Year’s Day, 1988, there was serious doubt that the band would continue. Drummer Edward Phipps takes up the story: “We all met in Carl [Samuels, the bassist]’s flat to talk over the future and I think there was a general feeling that we were going to call it a day. In fact, there wouldn’t even have been a meeting except for Carl, who was dead set on continuing. Anyway, Alex was a few minutes late because he’d gone round to a flat he’d moved out of a couple of weeks before to see if any mail had turned up for him. When he came in, he was waving a letter at us. It was from the lead guitarist of Rex Mortuorum — we’d sent our demo to him a month or so before — saying that he really liked it and was there a place for him in the line-up. Well, of course we all kind of freaked out at this because, like, Rex were gods to us at the time, so you can imagine how we felt. After that there was no question of giving up.”

A reply was written, and posted by Carl — the significance of which would become apparent only later — on the same day and a week later the new line-up, featuring the late Rex Mortuorum’s Philip Cadley on lead guitar, was searching desperately for gigs in the Norwich and Ipswich area. The band would later call this period the most depressing of their career and there’s little doubt that but for the constant presence and encouragement of Cadley they would have called it a day. Alex Hamilton said: “Finding gigs was a nightmare and it didn’t make it any easier that we refused to play anything other than what we wanted to play. Our attitude was, if we can’t play it our way, we won’t play it at all. Even then I think most of the gigs we got were through misapprehension. People would hear we played metal and book us expecting some sort of spandex spectacular or thrash holocaust or something. And when we did get a negative audience it just made us all the more determined to play slow. The more they hated us, the slower we played.”

Unpleasant incidents at East Anglian gigs began to follow, and after discovering that they had attracted a “fan”-base who were mostly interested in the violent reaction to their music, the band began to spread its search for gigs further afield, and were rewarded with an offer from London’s Vicious Reality club. They performed there on the 12th March, 1988, and despite a lukewarm audience response, picked up at least one new fan in the shape of Blue Study Records chief A&R man, Garry Hallgarth. A fortnight later they were offered a record deal by the company, which had been in existence less than three months.

Shortly after this, the truth about the Rex Mortuorum letter and Philip Cadley was revealed. Said Alex Hamilton: “The letter and ‘Philip’ were really just a scheme of Carl’s to stop us breaking up. ‘Philip’ was a mate of his called Matthew Hanford from Ipswich. We only found out when Matthew got sick of putting on a West Country accent and persuaded Carl to let everything come out. Well, we could’ve been really pissed off, I suppose, but we had a record deal and everything, so we thought, what the hell, we’re still the same band. The joke was that, when he joined Slough, Matthew was still learning to play guitar and only got away with pretending to be Philip Cadley because we played so slow. He said it gave him time to remember where to put his fingers next for the difficult chords!”

The material laid down by Slough in Blue Study’s Overfall studios for their Portæ Regis Cæci (“Gates of the Blind King”) album was still heavily influenced by Rex Mortuorum. The Bristol band had written all their lyrics in Latin and Alex Hamilton recalls the struggles he had to master the language for Slough’s own compositions: “With Gates we were still very much influenced by Rex Mortuorum and of course I wanted to write all my lyrics in Latin. I’m not saying it’s a bad language for a group of our type — it was right for Rex and for us at that stage in our career — but it’s a hell of a language to learn properly. I went through the whole of Gates using the Latin word for ‘pain’ — ‘dolor’ — as a neuter noun, for example, when in actual fact it’s masculine, and in the track ‘Dominus Taxorum Nigrorum’ [‘Master of the Black Yews’] on side two I made a complete fuck-up of my sequence of tenses.”

Portæ Regis Cæci had been on release three weeks when Slough received the biggest set-back of their career to date: the bankruptcy of Blue Study Records. It would later be revealed that the London company had been in financial trouble almost from the day of its formation and had been gambling on the quick success of at least one of the acts on its rapidly built-up roster. Records released on the label remain well-worth seeking out even today because almost every act signed to it was highly experimental: Blue Study hoped by spreading its net wide enough across the popular music spectrum to capture the next “big thing” before it happened. Slough, the last act signed to the label, were also the last straw financially, with manufacturing and publicity costs for Portæ Regis Cæci finally pushing Blue Study too far into the red.

Alex Hamilton would later say: “At the time it seemed like the end of the world. Gates wasn’t selling too well but it was selling, and we’d even got a fan-letter from the real Philip Cadley, which was irony for you. I’d started to play around with the idea of finding something besides Latin for the lyrics and I think in general the whole band felt more sure of itself after the first album. I suppose that we had the confidence to start looking around for ways to step out of Rex Mortuorum’s shadow. Then Blue Study went bust. Owing us money, too. We were zombified. But I think in the end, like most kicks in the teeth — if you survive them — we were better for it.”

Most of the money owing to the band would eventually find its way to them, but for nearly a year they struggled to even find the time to rehearse together, with everybody forced to take up outside work to pay his bills. This time, however, there was no question of not fighting for the band’s future. In many ways the enforced break would benefit Slough of Despond’s style. Although the confidence the band had gained by recording their first album had, as Alex Hamilton pointed out, enabled them to start looking for new ways of expressing themselves, there was still a certain Rex Mortuorum momentum to their career, in the sense that they’d all got used to rehearsing and gigging together with the Rex material. Now that the band often couldn’t rehearse as a whole for weeks at a time, this momentum was lost, and individual band members were able to start experimenting with their own style.

For the lyrics, the most important decision made was to drop Latin altogether and take up Old English. Alex Hamilton said: “It felt right to do it. I’d always been interested in the history of the Anglo-Saxon period and even started to learn Old English once, about a year before Slough was formed. All the old books were still lying around the house so one day I just got down to it. It was difficult, sure, but a lot easier than Latin. Plus, with our sound slowing down all the time, a couple of couplets seemed likely to be enough for half a side or more.”

Old English’s trilled “r”’s and gutturals were to be a significant contribution to the unique sound members of the band were forging, mostly in isolation, over this period. Mick Feldon, the lead guitarist, had begun to experiment with the Wagnerian concept of the motif and was taking a long hard look at one of the hoariest of all HM’s traditions, the guitar solo. Drummer Edward Phipps was exploring with the use of rhythm in shamanistic ritual through tapes sent to him by a pen-pal in Finland. Carl Samuels, bassist, electronics wiz and the band member responsible for Slough’s initial survival, designed a special mixing device for his bass that cycled its output randomly and rapidly through various tones — fuzz, wah-wah, UHD (Upper Harmonics Dampener) and so on – resulting in a hellishly-difficult-to-control but once-heard-never-forgotten bass sound.

Then, a little over a year after Blue Study’s bankruptcy, came the inspiration that enabled Slough to record their second album. In the words of Alex Hamilton: “We were still owed a lot of money by Blue Study, and one day the receivers got in touch with us and said we’d be getting it back by the end of the year. Well, fine, we were all more than pleased. Then somebody — Matthew, I think it was — suggested that we ask for it in lieu, because we’d heard that the Blue Study studios were still up and running, only under different management. So, we agreed to waive some of what we were owed in return for studio time. The receivers were amenable so about a month later we went down to London to start recording Betwyh þone Æsc ond þa Ac [‘Between the Ash and the Oak’].”

The record was self-produced, and for good reasons: Betwyh þone Æsc ond þa Ac was well beyond the limits set even by the derivative but still ground-breaking Portæ Regis Cæci, with tracks like “Blod Onhalig” (“Unholy Blood”) and “On Sorhe Therscold” (“On the Threshold of Sorrow”) achieving almost mini-operatic length and truly rewarding the listener only after ten or fifteen plays. Alex Hamilton’s vocals are deeper and darker than ever, seeming to reach the ear from a great distance through cold, rain-swept air and yet effortlessly holding their own against the icy, mountainous groaning of guitars and bass. Edward Phipps’ drums, perhaps the weakest instrumental aspect of Portæ Regis Cæci, are a revelation, each beat like the toppling of a tower of black stone in a dead wilderness of ice.

For these reasons and others, Betwyh þone Æsc ond þa Ac must be worthy of the label of “classic” — and in the true sense of an album to be valued both in its own right and as a signpost for a new direction in underground music.

This is not to say the album is without faults: there are several, some minor, some less so. For many, the very “committed” feel of the music will in no way be a minus point, but many more will find it difficult to listen to the whole album at one sitting. It’s not that the music is one-dimensional — far from it — but the density of the arrangements and the sheer single-mindedness of the playing tend to induce satiety after any more than a couple of tracks at a time.

Beyond this, and more seriously, there’s a constant feeling as the music goes its doom-laden way that things are not quite “gelling” between the members of the band. Taken individually, none of the players can be faulted but as a whole there’s a nagging impression that each instrument is existing partly in a world of its own, without enough reference to what’s going on around it. Undoubtedly this has something to do with the fact that this was precisely how the band was playing after the bankruptcy of Blue Study, with full line-up rehearsals few and far between. If so, great things should be expected of the third album, scheduled for release for the spring of 1992, by which time the new sound should have been extensively rehearsed in full session.

Before then, many a horn of mead will certainly have been raised to Betwyh þone Æsc ond þa Ac, and many a musical horizon expanded by a band that boasts that it is the slowest and heaviest in the Seven Kingdoms. Skol!

Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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