Doom, the slower and lower subgenre of metal, has been amassing a local scene here in Toronto since the return of live music in the last few years. This is largely thanks to the work of promoter Ryan Hilton of Pale Horse Productions who tirelessly creates opportunities for these niche bands to play shows. On Friday, May 5th, Hilton brought together four Canadian doom-inspired metal bands for a night at Handlebar in Kensington Market. The lineup featured Horse Lung, Ethereal Tomb, Tekarra, and Lake Cyanide; all trios who generated the sort of transcendent experience only doom can offer.
By 9pm, heavy music fans crowded around the bar’s shadowy corner stage to get a view of Toronto instrumental doom band Horse Lung. Dressed in all black, the members made their entrance, and with no introduction, and no vocals, they let their instruments take the spotlight. The set that followed was stitched with melodic bass moments, the slow-motion arcs of drumsticks crashing onto symbols, and the two raised fists of the guitarist after each song that silently spoke: behold the power of doom.
As they performed with eyes closed and heads back, the members of Horse Lung appeared to enter a state of disembodied surrender to the music which spread over the audience. The trio remained in strong alignment with each other, moving as three parts of a whole being. They were in their own little world, of which the crowd were lucky witnesses. It soon became easy to lose track of time as if everyone in the room were in a daze, lost in the deep dynamics of the genre. The use of vocals would have been an interruption to this spell, explained bassist Tam Rayan after their set. “If vocals were overtop of our instruments a lot of it would get buried and interfere with what lyrics and singing is doing. It would be too much, and from day one we’ve always been an instrumental band so we’ve always had that intention.”
After an abrupt musical end, the trance was over, and Horse Lung left the stage. With a dazed look, a loyal member of the scene, Derek St. Pierre, remarked that he had “never been that awestruck by a band before.” The astonishment at Horse Lung’s performance was clearly felt by many as conversations about their set continued throughout the evening.
Next to take the stage were the death doom band Ethereal Tomb from Toronto and Barrie who were the draw for many of the audience members’ attendance. The band opened with their track “Death of the Indian” which set the tone for their lineup of songs communicating the experiences of Indigenous people in Canada. Their vocalist, Alexander Senum of the Cree Nation, called for justice through gritty screams, red handprint facepaint, and red stage lights; each fitting of the bloodshed and brutality he expressed.
A crowd favourite “Witch Bitch” featured a guest performance by Braydan Parsons-Reilly, the vocalist from the Scarborough blackened thrash shoegaze band Resthaven. Parsons-Reilly leapt onto the stage from his spot in the front row and unleashed his fervent rendition of the song’s final chorus.
Ethereal Tomb’s set also featured “Sufferance of Mourning” off their upcoming album When the Rivers Dry due this fall, and any performance of this track is a punch to the gut. Before beginning the song, Senum took a moment to address the meaning behind his face paint by giving a heartfelt dedication to “Indigenous girls, women, and Two-Spirit [people] who are missing and murdered in this country. This song is for people who left this world too fuckin’ early.” The verses followed at a slow, steady chug; a soundtrack fit for a ghost march that halts at each chorus to leave space for the most achingly mournful guitar notes. Each note rang out to a fade creating what grief sounds like in musical form, and the closest thing the band has to a ballad.
Each of the unreleased tracks the band played that evening were met with huge support. “We just recorded our second album last weekend,” shared Ethereal Tomb bassist Aidan Weatherall, “It’s a concept album on a topic very dear to Alexander, and I’m happy to be a part of it. The first album was great, but this is the next step.” Drummer Aidan Harper added, “We’ve really advanced as musicians, and you can hear that in the complexity of the songs.”
As usual, the highlight of Ethereal Tomb’s show was their ten-minute self-titled track which has become cemented as their show-closer and headbang anthem. The set hit its peak in energy and performance following the song’s line “At the gates Ethereal Tomb awaits” which was duetted by the chants of loyal fans in the audience. With this line, Ethereal Tomb opened those gates into the ultimate doom outro; an odyssey of haunting wah guitar moments, a fuzzy and foreboding bass solo, a false ending, and a ruthless onslaught on the drum kit to end it all.
The trio made their exit amongst uproarious applause and crowd-member reactions including “That was intense” and “I didn’t get the appeal before because it’s not my kind of music, but I get it now.”
Edmonton’s Terkarra were the next to present their take on doom, and they certainly left their mark during the band’s first-ever Toronto show. Their brief set was crafted as a mashup of a variety of their songs; a tactic they use for each of their live shows since their songs are usually upwards of twenty minutes in length. This unique set style is made possible due to most of their tracks also having been written in the same key.
The mashup was a mesmeric dive into their body of work. Droney and atmospheric, some riffs were achingly slow in the best way, with drawn-out pauses that left space for notes to hang thickly over the room, while other riffs were frenzied with strumming taken all the way up the neck of the guitar. The vocalist’s guttural, wide-mouthed vocals echoed through the amplifiers and were made more striking by their infrequency as the set was mostly instrumental. Both the guitarist and the vocalist/bassist often faced the drummer with their backs to the audience which created a focus on experiencing the sounds more than the performers.
Tekkara shepherded us into the void; doom’s furthermost destination. Their vocalist shared in conversation after the show that what he likes most about the genre is that “it’s kind of a spiritual experience. I lose myself in doom more than any other kind of music.” He described that there is not much of a doom scene in Edmonton, so Tekarra has found the most success on multi-genre bills where they are mixed in with punk, death metal or even singer-songwriter acts, which can be an effective way to introduce their sound to new listeners.
By midnight, the bar was sticky and sweaty and gearing up for the evening’s headliner; the Toronto extreme metal band Lake Cyanide. They performed their fusion of black, death and doom metal with relentless ferocity and a sense of dominion over the stage that only many years of experience can garner. With members from Biblical and Gush Underdrive, Lake Cyanide blends elements of their previous bands together to create their both cinematic and extreme metal.
As the final act, the band brought a faster tempo and more technicality to re-energize the crowd. Amongst blast beats and black metal tremolo on a Flying V, the stage lights rapidly flickered on and off making the performance appear like a stop-motion movie. Vocalist and bassist Nick Sewell craned over a low microphone stand to deliver his mix of low croaks and high screams accompanied by theatrical hand gestures.
During the final song, Sewell stepped off the stage and into the crowd that freely parted for him as he held his bass high above his head. The final chords morphed into high-pitched feedback as the bass was left leaning against an amp. The blaring sound continued to ring out as Sewell and the drummer exited the stage while the guitarist began packing up his gear, leaving the audience suspended in noise. The eventual abrupt cut-off of the feedback felt like awakening from the dream that each of the bands had been weaving together over the course of the evening.
The highly respected promotor of the show, Ryan Hilton, shared that he really enjoyed the contrast this lineup offered by having the slow, droney doom of Horse Lung and Tekarra in between the faster, angrier black and death doom of Ethereal Tomb and Lake Cyanide. This created a sense of ebbs and flows throughout the set which Hilton says “pushes things into perspective and gives you some time to reflect on everything that’s happening.”
Hilton explained that his central motivation behind putting on metal shows was “everything (he) saw tonight. It’s cool that people bought tickets but even cooler to see walk-ins. When they ask what kind of music we’ve got going on I don’t say black metal and doom metal because they’re gonna walk out, so instead I say, ‘This is about Alexander’s experience as an Indigenous person which he expresses in his metal’. There’s a story – you need to know a little bit about the story of the band, and then they can see the emotion attached.”
He even made a deal that night with hesitant walk-ins offering that they could pay five dollars instead of the full fifteen to get in, and if they did not enjoy the show he promised to give them a refund. He was later proud to report that nobody came back for their money. “I’d look out and there they are enjoying the show. I think it’s so cool when people who have never been exposed to this music before are clicking with it. It was awesome to see the overall Kensington community.”
Appreciation for Hilton and Pale Horse Productions runs deep in the Toronto heavy music scene. Aidan Weatherall and Aidan Harper of Ethereal Tomb spoke highly of him and his work throughout the evening. Harper shared, “Even as a person not just as a promoter, he’s a really awesome guy”. Weatherall agreed, adding “Ryan’s the best, I love everything he’s doing, and I love working with him. Ryan’s on top as far as I’m concerned. He’s really great for exposing new artists; everyone has a voice. He gives people voices.”
Due to the diligence of people like Ryan Hilton, doom has a home in Toronto. “Having dipped my toe in a few different metal scenes, Toronto’s very special. I feel like there is a home here for the weirdest kinds of metal. There’s a place for you here,” shared Tam Rayan of Horse Lung who drives five hours in order to play shows in Toronto. “There’s a lot of up-and-coming stuff in doom right now,” says Aidan Weatherall of Ethereal Tomb. “It’s taken a decline over the years, but it’s on its way up again.”
Despite the genre’s dreary-sounding name, doom provides a space where people can acknowledge the sense of dread we all feel and inevitably face as living things, and offers a way to embrace pain rather than shy away from it. At doom shows, we stand side by side to stare boldly into the abyss.