“There’s not a huge doom metal scene in Cincinnati.” – Zac Schmidt
It’s a weekday afternoon in early autumn, and I’m holding my ears as a deep cacophony erupts around me. The roar of electric guitars pummels my brain into submission as it bounces off the walls of this partially finished basement. I slip back upstairs and outside to my car, parked on the street, to grab some earplugs. On my way, I’m intercepted by a neighbor, who gestures in the direction of the muffled thunder seeping out of the basement door – “What the hell is that?”
I fumble through an explanation of the music he’s hearing, because it’s clear he hasn’t heard this kind of thing before. It’s the music of Grey Host, and they’re a doom metal band.
There’s so much more to metal than the chords and scales underlying its musical structure. Like many corners of popular music, metal is better defined by its ancillary imagery and attitude: extreme distortion and aggression, menacing bass, angry chords, and violent drums. It doesn’t hurt if there are some lyrics about death, destruction, and wizards in there as well.
For the uninitiated, the subgenre of “doom” metal explores the depths of metal’s inherent darkness. It’s often characterized by severely detuned guitars treated with rumbling fuzz, slow tempos, and thundering drums with a terrifying bottom-end. It’s meant to elicit dread, brutality, and terror.
Grey Host is a Cincinnati band who take up the doom metal mantle with pride. They certainly have all the necessary elements: they play detuned guitars through saturated tube amplifiers, the drums pound with a hypnotic beat, there are tortured throat screams. But they habitually transcend doom metal conventions as well. Rather than slopped together as a mountain of distortion, the multiple guitar parts seem carefully composed for an almost symphonic effect. Occasional slide playing from guitarist Jason Nix injects a Spaghetti Western timbre. Their flirtations with adventurous song structure and rhythms alternately from the depths of experimental drone to eastern raga and prog-rock.
“I’m really into cinematic music . . . ” says Nix. “ . . . old western, droney music. Injecting melodies and those motifs into the regular drone aspect [. . .] current bands that have that kind of feel, like Ancestors, come to mind.” Nix cites the addition of keyboardist Evan Roberts as bringing more of a focus on electronic and experimental music.
As “out-there” as all this sounds, this music was originally kicked off by a mutual love for downing beers and banging the shit out of their instruments. When I interviewed the band at their practice space, the basement of a house in the sidestreets of Clifton which has served as an occasional home for a rotating assortment of musicians and friends, including several members of Grey Host, the evening felt more like a party than a practice. The guys were having a cookout with guests and roommates in addition to banging out brutal tunes downstairs. Between sets of vicious distortion-fueled rage, they hovered over grills of bratwurst and turkey burgers, complementing each other on special seasonings and enjoying a few Hudepohls. It was clear that Grey Host take just as much enjoyment in hanging out together as they do creating sonic havoc.
“I was in a black metal band in college,” says singer and guitarist John Sebastian, recounting the primordial beginnings of Grey Host. “It started off as black metal and turned into some weird drone thing. Then I started boozing it up, I guess, and started writing some riffs. When [drummer] Zac [Schmidt] and I got together the first time, we were both pretty drunk.”
Schmidt concurs. By the sound of it, the band had come together out of a mutual feeling of “what-the-fuck”-ness.
“The whole idea was like, what else are we doing right now?” says Schmidt. “We don’t really play music anymore with other people, so let’s just get drunk and play music to have fun. It seems stupid, but it was funny and it was fun at the time. And eventually, it was like, ‘This has potential . . . there are some cool riffs happening here.’”
Schmidt admits that he hadn’t considered joining a doom metal band before this. In fact, it was Roberts, who would eventually become Grey Host’s keyboardist, who introduced him to the (often challenging) genre.
“Evan had actually got me into Electric Wizard in college . . .” he recalls. “I think it was [the album] Dopethrone. It was one those albums where, for the first two years I had it, I couldn’t fuckin’ listen to the whole thing! I loved it, I was like, ‘This is so dark and heavy it’s great! But I can’t finish it.’ I was in love with it, but couldn’t finish it.”
The experience, however, prepared him for his work in Grey Host.
“When John started playing a riff,” remembers Schmidt, “I was like, ‘Oh, I know exactly where this is going. I know what I’m playing now.’ John and Jason were on the same page with what they were playing, I was just kinda like, ‘Cool! I get to hit shit as hard as I can and play real slow? I’m cool with that!’”
Grey Host have had something of a difficult time finding shows with bills of bands who fit their style. They’re often lumped in with either throaty conventional metal or hip indie rock. Although they’ve found kinship with groups who have something of a similar sound, like Mephitic Husk and Mollusk, as Schmidt says, there still really aren’t that many doom metal bands in Cincinnati.
“There are some bands we play with who we get along with, and other bands we haven’t played with yet but we know we get along with and they make sense,” he says, “But I feel like a lot of shows we play are way more metal than we are, like tough guy, fuckin’ ‘METAL!’ Those guys are great, but it’s just a mismatch.”
Bassist Sean Casey, the most recent addition to the Grey Host lineup, chimes in: “As a spectator, which I’ve been most of the time, it’s always really weird shows. Like a bunch of indie bands, and then just heavy shit, and you’ve got a bunch of kids who have no idea what to expect, and they’re just blasted.”
When I saw Grey Host perform a couple weeks after this band practice, at a metal showcase at the Drinkery in Over the Rhine, I noticed that they did stick out. Even in a lineup of mostly sludgy, droney, and left-of-center metal bands, Grey Host sounded like a more fully-thought out and interesting combination. I was impressed with how the intricate guitar lines I heard during practice breathed onstage and gave depth to the raw power they projected in their songs. Grey Host have either taken the time to carefully plan out how what they’re all doing so it’s synthesized into a detailed and interesting whole, or they all just have really good ears and have somehow found a way to improvise beautifully.
Their aesthetics are thought-provoking, but they managed to keep a dangerous and explosive slant, as Schmidt ended their set by kicking apart his drum kit and knocking over all his stands. The other members quickly exited, leaving the stage with toms and cymbals strewn around as their abandoned guitars created wailing feedback loops with still-live amplifiers. It was pretty doom.
Grey Host are currently putting the finishing touches on their first full-length album. They say it sounds killer, with experimentation in mid-song Middle Eastern interludes, but with the same overall heaviness they’ve always been about. If the record is anything like what I’ve seen from the band in person, I can’t wait to hear it.