Review - Warning: Watching From A Distance
This Is Supposed To Be Polarizing?
Warning, and later 40 Watt Sun (featuring two of the same members), have made a big splash in the doom scene. Often Warning is heralded as pure brilliance, breathing new life into an allegedly stagnant genre. Others act is if Watching From A Distance is the single worst doom album ever released. For something so polarizing, this is really boring. An abomination against mankind this is not, but if you've heard one song off this album, you've heard them all. This is a supposed to be an emotionally hard-hitting homage to crippling depression, yet in the end it comes off as melodramatic and watered down.
Although to some it must seem as if Warning came out of nowhere to take the doom world by storm, this is in fact not their first album. While not hugely successful, their debut was met with some limited success. It was generally regarded as a good but not great doom album. This album was from 1999 and lots of people eventually forgot about it. Warning was inactive for a considerable time as Patrick pursued acting. The band was eventually reanimated for a second album. While the seeds where certainly there, the first album didn't sound like the sophomore. One of the main difference, besides it not sounding completely the same throughout, is it had actual riffs. You know, the type that are somewhat convincing and hard-hitting. On their second offering, they would forgo riffs that actually feel like riffs in favour of atmosphere. The riffs, if you can even call them that, feel powerless and are utterly unmemorable. The guitar tone doesn't help things - it feels grey and flat. Not grey as in a way that embodies life-crushing depression and despair, but grey as in dull, monotonous and lifeless.
The lack of real riffs could be forgiven if they were omitted in favour of an atmosphere that was truly wondrous. Much of atmospheric music is largely about escapism. At the risk of sounding wildly pretentious, I'm going to assert that listening to successful atmospheric music is somewhat akin to reading a good book. A good book can draw you into another world, supply you with temporary relief from whatever bullshit is happening in your life. For me, I find that atmospheric music can do the same thing. It can bring emotions to the surface and more than anything, it can divert your mind away from reality.
This album is often compared to funeral doom, which is without a doubt one of the metal sub-genres most know for its atmosphere. Abstact Spirit's Tragedy And Weeds can bring the listener to a bizarre world far removed from whatever monotony that every day life may bring. Fungoid Stream's (look past the name, they're a very interesting band) debut has an ethereal otherworldly aura you can lose yourself in. Ahab's Call Of The Wretched Sea can make you feel as if your braving stormy weather at sea. Warning just doesn't have that quality of escapism - the music lingers there, but sometimes I almost forget I'm listening to it. The reason that it's often compared to funeral doom, besides it's attempt at atmosphere, is the lack of speed as well as the repetition. This recording is indeed very slow. While there surely are many funeral doom bands that are much slower, Warning come close.
Being slow in itself isn't something I could possibly fault a band for. I'm a big fan of doom, including the funeral variety, and I like a fair bit of drone as well. Slow metal often has a tremendous amount of atmosphere as well as feeling crushingly heavy - in a very different way then, say, a brutal death metal band. It doesn't crush you with chaos and bombastic, unrelenting fury. It crushes you in another way, a way that has more to do with texture and feeling than technicality and brutality. Another way in which this relates to funeral doom is the lead guitar parts. While the lead guitar sound most associated with funeral doom has a slightly different timbre and vibe (this is prevalent on many albums in the genre, but Colosseum's debut would be a good reference point) it is still vastly similar. While not overtly displeasing, Warning's take on these leads yield no significant impact. They all sound very much the same, and grow tiresome over the course of the album. While funeral doom bands often are repetitive in just about everything, including lead guitar work, successful bands use this to their advantage by using subtle variation, using the repetition to create a potent atmosphere as well as crafting the melodies so that they are the type that one would not take issue with hearing over a long stretch. Many bands also switch things up from song to song. Warning, however, does none of these things, allowing the lead work to stagnate and therefore fail to capture the imagination or have any lasting impact.
The overarching theme of this album is depression. And I get it, sometimes you just need to feed the fire before things can get better - sometimes people who are down just need something they can relate to, something that lets them know they aren't the only ones feeling that way. This isn't to say that depressed people are the only people who listen to music that is dark, slow and dreary, not by a long shot. Obviously, many perfectly happy people listen to music in this vein, there are many talented musicians playing these styles and many interesting atmospheres to discovered. But it's pretty obvious that a depressed person can relate to it, and therefore would often be drawn to this type of music. A depressed person may also be drawn to making it, which the singer (who also plays guitar) obviously is, if his lyrics are any indication of how he really feels. Everything about this album bleeds depression, the lyrics, the sound - hell, even the artwork is a metaphor for depression. The album cover is done in shades of grey, depicting a man attempting to move up an incline, being hindered by a heavy weight on his back.
The thing about this album depicting depression is that I really just can't see a person in the middle of a dark, crippling depression who feels that life simply isn't worth living actually being able to relate to this. Watching From A Distance simply isn't convincing. It doesn't come off as oppressing despair; it doesn't come off as a soul-crushing shroud of hopelessness. If anything, this comes off as dysthymia. For those who may not know, dysthymia is a form of depression that is long lasting and less severe than major depression. People can go years, even a lifetime without being treated, as its usually not bad enough to bring normal functioning to a complete halt. Many people just believe that it is just part of their personality. Sure, these long-winded song all have a dreary vibe, but can any moments evoke parallels with episodes of crippling episodes of severe depression? Not a snowball's chance in hell. And as for the long lasting analogy, its not specifically that the individual songs are long; many lengthy songs evoke a deep sense of despair. No, the thing about this album is that the whole thing might as well be one song, because everything sounds the same, and certainly not in a wonderfully atmospheric or a perception-alteringingly hypnotizing way. This is just one mildly downcast marathon of monotony. Rather than having intense, truly oppressing moments of anguish, this is just a long lasting slab of slight discomfort.
The vocals are overwhelmingly this album's biggest detractor. When I was first recommended Warning, I was intrigued by the vocals. If for anything, the singing at least deserve credit for uniqueness. Patrick Walker has a very distinct voice. His voice is a very present force, it has a full sound, although often drifts into nasally territory. It's really bizarre, he often wavers between a relatively deep voice and a nasally voice many times in the same song. There is this intangible element to his voice that is just slightly off. Even if all the nasally elements were eliminated, there would still be something strange about his singing. It doesn't help that he often goes a little over the top. Not in a power metal-esque theatric sort of way, but just in a way that you can tell he is giving it 110% when maybe he should show a little restraint. Although his singing isn't the biggest on variation, there are a few interesting vocal sections in "Faces" and "Bridges". These moments, however, are fleeting. He also has this annoying habit of getting his most nasally in these sections, which particularly does the music a disservice. In the end, his vocals are hard to enjoy for the entire endurance of the album. They don't make it unlistenable, but they certainly don't help matters.
The lyrics are just as bad, if not worse, than the vocals. As an embodiment of true depression, as they are often portrayed as being, they are completely unconvincing. They come off as more 14 year old emo kid who just got dumped than an honest portrayal of paralyzing depression. Many of the lyrics are about missing a girl and being sad about it, which I don't really want to make fun of, but it does come off as a bit cliché. Most of these lyrics come off as more filled with cheese and predictability than with endless torment and true sorrow. Here are a few examples:
"I want to be master of my own emotions with a fire that fills me. But I don't understand myself, and I don't know what my heart is anymore."
"But I'm afraid of the way that I'm feeling, afraid of this new understanding now; afraid for the beauty within me,
and that which I hold within my hand. And this is the ultimate secret that many before me have ever known.
So capture me while I am weakest, I want to know, I want to know."
"It's always frightened me how some things lose their meaning, how some things change direction with a breeze."
Despite all the negative qualities of this music, the drum work is something that deserves praise. It perfectly goes along with the music, and feels like the only thing that emits any true feeling. Heavy on cymbal-work, the drums plod along at a slow pace, while always providing well above and beyond a mere adequate performance. There is always something more going on than just a standard beat. There are many fills, which are always well executed and often provoke intrigue. The drums have wonderful tone, feeling very organic. Unfortunately good drumming can't save bland songwriting and apathetic atmospheres.
While this definitely is not the masterpiece of modern doom it is often heralded as, it would be hard to deny that Warning are passionate about what they do. Many awful music is done with passion as a driving force behind it. I mean, surely no one can accuse Celine Dion of being apathetic towards her music. Neither the first album of Vulvectomy or Waking The Cadaver was born out of disinterest - the people behind the bands obviously believed wholeheartedly in what they were doing. It just happened that what they believed in so dearly translated into something that was largely over the top and in bad taste. When someone puts all their heart into a rotten idea, thats where truly awful music is generated from. Warning are a unique case. They are not truly horrendous, they are just mediocre. Music that is not horrible, but merely comes off as stale, is not something that is often the spawn of true passion. Unfortunately, Patrick's passion for creating a true feeling of depression didn't play out perhaps not in spite of his passion, but rather because of it. Perhaps in his attempts to paint everything grey, he lost sight of everything else an album needs to succeed. Maybe he focused so much on making the album feel as devoid of life as someone in the grips of major depression, he failed to recognize that one ingredient just won't do a convincing job. The album does indeed feel grey, it just comes up short of any real feeling, likely because the whole album sounds the same and ends up feeling more monotonous than depressing.
As much as I feel this album has many negative qualities, I find it hard to actively hate it. Just as many people act as if this album was made by God himself, many doom fans act as if this is the worse thing ever produced in the entire history of the genre (well for starters, Patrick's next band would prove to be infinitely worse). I think the reason many people feel like this is literally the worse piece of doom ever is because of it's popularity. I could see how someone would feel like it poses a threat to the equilibrium of the genre - what if they inspired an endless stream of clone bands? As for this band saving doom, that is just plain silly - doom was never in need of saving and even if it was, Warning would not be the band to reanimate the corpse. I still find it impossible to hate, listening to it isn't pure agony - its just there, not really doing anything. Sure its got a nice flow to it, which is probably why it's not that hard to listen to, but it has no impact. It's just the same thing for an entire album. While it is better than silence, it is only so by a very thin margin.
It really is baffling that this is such a polarizing release. Sure, they have a somewhat unique sound, but it's not like they ever do anything with it. This is no Master Of Reality nor is it a Cold Lake. This is just a very boring album - nothing more, nothing less.