Book review: Doomed to Fail

Doomed to Fail by J.J. Anselmi.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars.

Doom? Doom. DOOOOOOOOOOOOM. It’s a good word. One of those multiple-vowel words that have a plasticity turned to enjoyable goop by repetition. It’s also a type of metal music, though it furcates into numerous equally heavy (though to outsiders, often similar-sounding) strands.

Doom music is an unmitigated bummer, a reminder that Life Is Hard So Why Bother sung from basements at brain-rattling volume through equipment that smells like spilled bong water and hot dust. It’s a release in only the way realising you’ve reached the bottom of the barrel can be. It’s about [dis]comfort with horror, and in its original form emerged as a reaction against post-war austerity, industrial isolation and the general Shittiness of Living. It’s something you’d expect to be extremely un-fun, which it is, but luxuriating in that precise bummedness is, well, if not fun, enjoyable.

This book aims to examine some of these strands by focusing on bands which are exemplars of particular styles, from sludge to post-metal, or which come from locales with a specific flavour. There’s investigation of the variants unique to New Orleans or the South more broadly, and there’s discussion of England’s north. Artists with long and short careers are covered in a grab-bag that doesn’t claim to be complete, but offers a taste to start readers on their inevitable crate-digging journey.

Unfortunately, I found the book to not live up to my expectations. But perhaps that’s fitting, given the subject matter – and the title. Part of my disappointment with Doomed to Fail is perhaps hung on my misconception of the work: I had understood it would be more of a straight-ahead historical document rather than an extended collection of thumbnail reviews with surrounding biographical material. There’s a certain amount of rigour with the earlier chapters, recounting early doom bands’ tales, though this could stem from the fact that there’s a load more sources on Sabbath’s early days than there are for some of the other bands covered.

From the outset, Anselmi isn’t worried about the health of sacred cows: he skewers the story of Black Sabbath’s nomenclature for its lack of Coven respect. But this sometimes descends into fanboy declamation, including a lengthy interpretation of Sleep’s weed epic Dopesmoker. It’s that flipping between historian and enthusiast that jars.

There’s some niggles with the writing that probably aren’t as apparent if one dips into the book rather than consumes it whole. As a drummer, the author brings a musician’s ear to his album examinations, and these are mostly enjoyable, but he repeats phrases when describing the music at hand, causing distraction. He also clouds the water by referring to the same bands as touchstones in different sections which doesn’t really help the neophyte reader.

There’s also some factual errors (such as the misattribution of roles in Khanate) which are either errors of mental transposition or of editing. I get that only music dorks are going to notice this, but given that music dorks (or wannabe music dorks) are the target of this text, it’s the sort of thing that makes my teeth itch.

Doomed to Fail is perhaps the wrong title for this book. I get that it’s about enjoying the downer vibe, and I understand that it’s about accepting that failure is an inevitable part (or totality) of life, but it seems weird when applied to the musicians profiled. Most discussed here are still kicking on, churning out their particularly bleakly-tuned variant of metal. Wino, Dylan Carson, Sunn, Justin Broadrick, Neurosis – though some of them haven’t attained the success they would like, they’re still resolutely kicking against the pricks, each in their inimitable manner.

Look, I don’t want to be too much of a bummer about this book. I mean, any writer who lists John Darnielle as an influence can’t help but be headed in the right direction. I did enjoy reading Doomed to Fail despite my criticisms, and I especially appreciated learning a little more about bands that I’d either only heard about, or didn’t know much of. The faults of the work are faults of enthusiasm rather than carelessness, it appears, and these are forgivable when it’s remembered that we are dealing with a deeply tribal, deeply personal area of interest.

For all Anselmi’s misses, the hit here is that he’s upfront and unabashed about his love for this heavy, dark music, with all its hopelessness and all its emotion. That counts.

(Also, I ended up with a playlist of some 2000 songs made up of albums I either want to hear for the first time or needed to hear again after coming across them in the text – so in terms of prompting a connection with the real subject of the work, the music, that’s a Good Thing.)

My Goodreads profile is here.

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