There’s something about Virginia that lends itself to making captivating doom metal. It could be the frontier isolation and wooded beauty, the Thoreau-ness of it all. It’s a place where one can escape fast life and channel their catharsis through their art, finding peace in the natural. Windhand and Cough, guided by the vision of shared bassist Parker Chandler, are tapped into an emotional palette informed by these deeper philosophies and the romanticism of their surroundings. Windhand became torchbearers for the scene with last year’s Grief’s Infernal Flower, but they had always run parallel to Cough in the Richmond circuit, with Chandler jumping between the two seamlessly, their fates linked on the 2013 split Reflection of the Negative. As Windhand’s profile grew, so did Cough’s hiatus — and the backlog of songs that would become Still They Pray.
Produced by Electric Wizard’s Jus Oborn and recorded by Oborn and Windhand’s Garrett Morris, Still They Pray is the darker, grimmer, spiritual successor to Grief’s Infernal Flower (which could be considered the sequel to Cough’s debut, Ritual Abuse, reconciling the Richmond canon altogether). Where Windhand chase a glimmer of hope in the absurd, achieving a sense of comfort, Cough exist in a more volatile state, beyond hope and comfort, but not content with remaining there. The band seems to be playing against a wall of violent storm clouds that threaten to enclose and consume, with the very notes of their music subduing this impending blackness. Metaphors aside, this is depressive doom metal submerged in swirling sludge and scalding wah-pedal work directly influenced by Electric Wizard and the evil tones of Dead Meadow’s Howls from the Hills.
Chandler’s bass grooves are iconic, guiding opener “Haunter of the Dark” — a melodic dirge that drones and squalls. Guitarist David Cisco and Chandler’s vocals go through varying degrees of abrasion on Still They Pray, dictating the intensity of each track, which all exist in a consistent, impressionistic haze. On “Haunter”, the melody is scratchy and frayed, but the words seep in. “Possession”, on the other hand, is a bloody cry in the vein of Eyehategod’s tortured anthems. The minimalism of the arrangement and instrumentation make each vocal tic and sonic variation revealing unknown depths the attentive listener.
The record’s most striking moment is its most subdued and spacious. “Let It Bleed” is a near-10-minute reprieve from the record’s oppressive vibe, as Cough move toward a sort of slowcore doom with clean vocals, acoustic guitars, and forlorn blues licks. Besides being the most accessible song in Cough’s repertoire, it signals a growth in the band and maturation in songwriting, proving that heaviness and pure volume are not mutually exclusive. The track is also vital to the flow of Still They Pray, providing a break from the plod and tying the record together with its lyrics: “Life and death/ All the same/ Let it bleed.”
Still They Pray is a difficult, exhausting record, best approached as a conceptual whole rather than a collection of disparate tracks. The lack of sonic variation is an artistic choice, constructing an atmosphere that’s transportive and deeply moving, but not for the hesitant. The vocals are harsh, the guitars harsher, the drone repetitious, but Cough evoke an emotional resonance that gets to the crux of why we create art. This is music you can live in and live with, to stave off your own looming darkness … or resign yourself to it.
Essential Tracks: “Let It Bleed”, “The Wounding Hours”