Like most of us, JJ Anselmi loves his doom and sludge. He even likes post-metal—that’s how dedicated he is all things low and slow (alright, alright: some post-metal doesn’t bore me to tears, I’ll admit it). In fact, he’s so dedicated that he wrote a book on the three subgenres, Doomed to Fail: The Incredibly Loud History of Doom, Sludge, and Post-metal.
We caught up with Anselmi to find out why he wrote the book and what he learned along the way. We also are presenting an exclusive excerpt from the book today: Anselmi’s chapter on Harvey Milk.
Why did you decide to write a book about doom, sludge and post-metal?
I love all different types of metal, but slow and heavy shit has always hit home in a special way. I’m a big fan of Choosing Death, Lords of Chaos and American Hardcore, and I had a realization around four years ago that there needs to be a similar book about doom, sludge and post-metal. This music has had a huge impact on me as a person and how I think about the world, so I wanted to honor it with the history it deserves.
I also think metal can be as profound as any type of art but has yet to be recognized in that way on a large scale. This book is my attempt at trying to establish and examine heavy music with the same depth and respect people have given to other art forms for hundreds of years.
What challenges did you face while writing the book?
It took me a while to think of how to structure the book, because I knew from the beginning that a straightforward, linear history wouldn’t work. Once I realized it should be divided into three overarching sub-categories, things fell into place, but there were quite a few slam-my-head-against-the-wall moments before I got there.
I also had a hard time limiting the focus to bands that have most significantly impacted these styles. There are several bands that I love but didn’t include in much depth because, when I looked at the music’s evolution from an honest critical perspective, I realized they didn’t push their genre forward as much as other bands. It was kind of like Faulkner’s writing advice that you have to kill your darlings, except for me I had to kill multiple heavy bands I love.
Doom, sludge and post-metal is a very niche subject within an already niche subject; was it difficult to find a publisher willing to take this on, and do you feel there’s any potential for the book to reach beyond a metalhead audience?
I knew from the outset that a mainstream publisher wouldn’t be into it, so I had a solid idea of what indie publishers might do something like this when I reached out. I did my first book [Heavy: A Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music] with Rare Bird, and Tyson Cornell, their president and publisher, loves metal, so they stood out as the right choice. I knew they would be stoked to have it in their catalogue.
Despite not reaching out to mainstream publishers, I do think Doomed to Fail could appeal to people outside the metal world. So much of the book is about how people use heavy music as a way to reflect and reshape societal negativity. I know I’m not alone in feeling like our world is caving in, and the book speaks to that angst.
I also hope the book can work as a portal for people to listen to this stuff for the first time and start to appreciate it. There’s so much depth in bands like Neurosis and Harvey Milk, and I want to share that beauty with people who don’t know about it.
I enjoyed how much time you spent looking at early, proto-doom bands in the book. Do you feel metalheads should always be aware of those early metal roots?
I would never lecture someone for not being aware of the proto stuff, but I do think metal is like any art in that looking deeper at its context and history can give you more of an appreciation of the style and why people gravitate to it. When you look at bands like Sir Lord Baltimore and Iron Claw, it’s pretty jaw-dropping to think that such heavy music could essentially fall by the wayside, especially when it stood out so much next to heavy rock by bands like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, who I also love. Many of those proto-doom bands busted their asses for years playing to audiences who had no interest in what they were doing, so it’s cool to acknowledge that dedication.
How did you decide what bands to cover in the book? Was it difficult paring that list down, and where there any bands you wanted to cover but space didn’t allow it?
Yeah, it was super difficult to pare down. I tried my best to look in depth at the timeframe when bands came out to get a sense of how far they pushed their given style—and how their music differed from their peers’. I also made decisions by looking at which bands had the most influence and impact on other bands over the years. It was hard to reconcile that critical perspective with just straight-up loving so much heavy music. As far as specific bands that I chose not to explore in depth, Electric Wizard might’ve been the toughest decision (with Buzzov-en and Iron Monkey not far behind). When I put their music next to Sleep and the sludge stuff happening at the time, though, I couldn’t really justify a full chapter dedicated to Electric Wizard, even though I’ve listened to Let Us Prey, Dopethrone, and Come My Fanatics… literally hundreds of times. The tradition of Sabbath-worshipping, occult-inspired doom was well established when the band came out. That said, not writing a chapter on Electric Wizard made me feel like I was leaving out my good friends when choosing sides for basketball.
What did writing the book teach you? What did you come out of it learning about doom/sludge/post-metal?
I really developed more of an appreciation for how much a band’s headspace and worldview impacts their music and aligns them with a particular style. People use “doom” and “sludge” interchangeably, but when you look at where Trouble and Saint Vitus were coming from versus bands like Grief and Noothgrush, there really are huge differences that are worth recognizing. It’s easy to say that genre labels are bullshit, but I think that can cheapen the philosophical differences between bands. In addition to that, my sense of exactly how certain bands and albums evolved their tradition got sharpened in a cool way. Now I can be even more annoying as a dinner guest.
What’s next for you? Any writing projects planned?
I’m in the very early stages of writing a book about my insane second-cousin who killed himself some years back. He ran a vending machine business in our hometown in Wyoming, and I worked for him for a short time. To say the very least, shit got weird. A lot of people in town thought our family was in the mafia, so yeah, there are some wacky layers to the story.
And now, our exclusive excerpt from Doomed to Fail:
The Saddest Thing I Ever Saw
Anytown, USA: A local economy that revolves around one or two main industries and leaves the town’s children with few options, many of whom will follow in their parents’ footsteps by destroying their bodies for a company that sacrifices its workers to the bottom line. In those places, there isn’t much to do aside from working and getting wasted; meth and pills are easier to score than (good) weed; and the high occurrence of suicide reminds inhabitants that they can always choose death.
Whether it’s the self-esteem eroding blend of sludge and country on Special Wishes or the high octane rock ’n’ (fucking) roll of The Pleaser, Harvey Milk’s music is always rooted in that American landscape. Consisting of Creston Spiers on guitar and vocals, Stephen Tanner on bass, and, depending on the record, Paul Trudeau or Kyle Spence on drums, the band hails from Athens, Georgia. Like many Southern towns, cotton mills drove Athens’ economy during the early 1800s. Because of its high number of factories, Athens was likened to the iron lung factory towns of England. A group of Athens’ chosen sons built one of the first 311 railroad lines in Georgia, connecting their town to Augusta, and, eventually, Atlanta.
Harvey Milk has always channeled the blue-collar spirit of its environs. Throughout 1992 and ’93, the band released a handful of seven-inches and recorded a self-titled LP, which didn’t see proper release until Hydra Head issued a remastered version in 2010. In 1994, Harvey Milk teamed with engineers Brooks Carter and David Barbe to record its first-released album, My Love is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be, put out by Yesha that same year. Abstract in its disjointed combination of caustic noise rock, peaceful quietude, and violent sludge, My Love… is a shattered-glass collage, similar to Gummo in the way its pieces battle and conjoin.
The railroad anthem that closes the LP, “All the Live Long Day,” is particularly crushing. Tremors from Tanner’s distorted bass and Trudeau’s floor tom wallop push the song, along with piercing sledgehammer percussion (literally) from Spiers: On periodic upbeats, he slams a railroad tie with a sledge. Those metal-on-metal hits combine with Trudeau and Tanner’s snail-paced rhythm to capture the grueling life of a Georgian railroad worker during the 1800s, an illustration made more brutal when Spiers bellows, “I work hard all day / And this is what I do,” right before pounding the tie. The band has only played the song live a handful of times, including at Athens’ 40-Watt club in early 1994.
One year later, Harvey Milk recorded what many fans regard as its magnum opus, Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men, originally released in 1996 by Reproductive Records and reissued by Relapse in 2007. The ten-minute opener, “Pinocchio’s Example,” is a microcosm of the record. Nagging, single keystrokes on an old piano morph into idiosyncratic noise rock that gathers speed before unraveling in a squall of cymbal washes and distortion.
The band repeats that anxiety-inducing formula until, nearly five minutes in, Tanner plays a bass riff that moves more slowly than Dr. Gonzo after he huffs ether through an American flag in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. With his ghastly moan, Spiers leads Harvey Milk through chest-high muck. Finally, white noise segues into mournful folk. Sounding like an elderly coal miner with severe black lung, Spiers whispers, “Thin black paint / Shows a smile’s path / Roughhewn veins / Run dry maps,” over sparse guitar notes. The drone of a vacuum cleaner becomes an atmospheric tarp, covering the somber guitar tune. Coupling a cleaning device with Spiers’ catatonically depressed vocals speaks to the true promises America makes for its laborers: unrewarding, underpaid work and unending sadness.
“Brown Water” emerges from that desolate ending with a guitar progression that sounds like a lost intro to one of Vic Chesnutt’s withered folk tunes. Trudeau gently joins, and Spiers’ altar-boy vocals waver. Then Harvey Milk opens the floodgates, unleashing a barrage of filth. Spiers switches to his unintelligible holler while hammering out a distortion-laced major scale. Twangy guitar notes bob their heads above the flood—only to get engulfed by a slow-motion mudslide of bass and drums. Without any of the affectation that accompanies many bands’ transitions from quiet to loud, Harvey Milk deftly returns to the song’s morose origin before releasing another town-destroying deluge of Southern sludge. This time around, the heavy section includes a deconstructive guitar solo that carries the song to its end.
“Plastic Eggs” (an earlier version of which appears on Harvey Milk) begins with a ten-second burst of tom-heavy drumming that abruptly cuts out, like it’s playing on a TV and someone changed the channel. A nihilistically repetitive sludge riff becomes the song’s center of gravity. Long hours at a degrading and physically demanding job are conducive to acidic misanthropy and self-hatred. Countless laborers in Athens’ cotton mills doubtlessly experienced those feelings, which the mean-as-hell “Plastic Eggs” captures in distilled form. Combined with Trudeau and Tanner’s rhythmic abuse, as well as multiple layers of Spiers’ harrowing yells, the riff opens like an abandoned coal mine. The cut is punishingly monotonous, but Harvey Milk occasionally throws in extra beats and oddball changes to keep its rancor intact.
“My Broken Heart Will Never Mend” stutters like a dying tractor, with quarter note escarpments and rough-hewn breaks that feature broken-winged guitar harmonies. Courtesy… takes a turn with the fragile “I Feel Miserable” and “The Lord’s Prayer,” soft songs that sound like found recordings of an aging field hand playing guitar and piano alone in an empty farmhouse. Spiers seamlessly blends those songs into “Sunshine (No Sun) Into the Sun,” opening with whispered vocals and cheerless acoustic guitar. Twenty-five seconds in, Trudeau hits his snare with an explosive flam, clearing a swath for another defective sludge tractor. Tanner’s rattling bass drills through, and Spiers covers his rhythm section with sandpaper noise. It’s the soundtrack to a horrific farming accident.
As with virtually every other industry, cotton farming and production became increasingly industrialized throughout the 1900s. Factory workers constantly got injured by the machinery they operated. The destructive energy of industrial labor drives “Go Back to France,” the title of which is a sardonic poke at the political ideals often found in rural America. Orchestrated and performed entirely by Spiers, who was a percussion major at a school in Baltimore before he transferred to the University of Georgia and majored in music education, the song is a drum assault. It begins with steady kicks and triangle tings, both of which get surrounded by cymbal splashes and a whirlpool of polyrhythmic tom pounding. Roughly halfway through, the percussion briefly pauses, opening the door for grating mechanical noise that, along with the throat-constricting drumming, continues for the rest of the song. When firing on all engines, “Go Back to France” is an assembly line of workers toiling at the altar of the conveyor belt.
A peaceful Hammond hum opens “A Good Thing Gone.” Tanner stomps on that calm with a bass line that reeks of early Melvins as Spiers warbles incoherently. A series of short samples preclude a change back to the Hammond drone, creating an effect similar to the Super 8 clips and overdubs that Harmony Korine uses to disrupt his films. The song also makes for an unsettling segue into Harvey Milk’s dejected rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.” Spiers lightly strums an acoustic guitar and sounds like Waylon Jennings’ unwanted son when he sings, “I lit a thin green candle / To make you jealous of me / But the room just filled up with mosquitos / They heard that my body was free.” Spiers’ singing gradually becomes unhinged, moving from a murmur to pained moan. After singing about a saint who drowns himself and a man with hypothermia, Spiers regresses into a wordless, suicidal wail.
Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men finds an end in “The Boy With Bosoms,” a song with shifts between old-time Appalachian melodies and industrial nastiness. Rather than bellowing, which he does during most of the LP’s heavy sections, Spiers gently croons, as if singing a lullaby. Like a coal miner emerging into the evening sun after an excruciating shift, “The Boy With Bosoms” brims with forlorn optimism. The worker finally gets to go home, but the next workday, and countless others exactly like it, loom.
After Harvey Milk’s 1996 tour with godheadSilo, Kyle Spence replaced Paul Trudeau. Propelled by Spence’s virtuosic, Bonham-at-his-most-coked-out drumming, 1997’s The Pleaser is barn burning classic rock. The record might seem like a curveball next to Harvey Milk’s other efforts, but it makes perfect sense considering Spiers’ musical past. “The first band I got into was Kiss,” he recalled. “From them I went to Zeppelin and the Beatles and the Stones.” The Pleaser filters the Motor City charge of Kiss through Zeppelin’s musicianship, dancing in front of the jukebox instead of sitting and drinking alone at a back booth, as Harvey Milk is wont to do. “Red as the Day is Long” and “Lay My Head Down” suck good vibes out of the room, but The Pleaser is a fairly celebratory record. It’s a hallmark of growing up when you can return to the music of your youth with joy instead of self-aware criticism. The Pleaser is that moment for Harvey Milk. After wading in the depression of My Love… and Courtesy… it was likely a needed respite for the band. For those who were lucky enough to see Harvey Milk perform during The Pleaser years, they were met with sweat-soaked performances they’ll never forget. It was a small window of time, however, with Harvey Milk going on hiatus from 1998 to 2005, when the group recorded Special Wishes with original drummer Trudeau.
Special Wishes places hopeless sludge tracks like “I’ve Got A Love” and “Love Swing” alongside downer country ballads such as “Old Glory” and “Mother’s Day.” Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men has a jagged edge in the way it combines genres and modes, but Special Wishes doesn’t war against itself quite as much. The album is mean and depressing, sure, but its elements are more open to socializing with each other.
Spiers chuckled when I told him that “Old Glory” is my favorite track on Special Wishes—and my favorite Harvey Milk song in general. “That’s weird,” he said in his gentle drawl, a schoolteacher’s voice that made me feel comfortable on some fundamental level. “It’s such a different Harvey Milk song. Me and Kyle did that all by ourselves one day because we needed an extra song on the record.” Spiers starts the track with acoustic fingerpicking. In a thick croon reminiscent of Johnny Cash in his dying years, Spiers bemoans old glory’s forced witnessing of violence as it hangs above scarred battlefields. The song moves into a towering barroom stride, like Lynyrd Skynyrd on performance-enhancing drugs, returning to its acoustic origin when Spiers sings, “How do you think my father felt / Resorting finally to the belt / Years of patience clearly worn away.” There’s no resentment in his voice, just matter-of-fact resolve.
In 2007, Spence once again took Trudeau’s seat, and the eminent Joe Preston joined Harvey Milk on guitar to write and record Life… The Best Game in Town. The record has some strong moments, like the barfly groove of “Motown.” All told, though, Life… feels like a random coupling of realized songs and practice room riffs, the latter coming across most in “After All I’ve Done For You, This is How You Repay Me?” and “A Maelstrom of Bad Decisions.” Despite the obvious potential of a Joe Preston/Harvey Milk collaboration, it didn’t quite pan out. My guess is that Preston living in Oregon made writing and rehearsing difficult. The result was Harvey Milk’s weakest record. Preston joining did fuel some media interest in the band, which helped on its 2008 tours.
In 2009, Harvey Milk returned to trio form to write and record the melancholic A Small Turn of Human Kindness. It’s a seamless composition, one interconnected piece rather than a collection of songs, taking its name from the first track of My Love is Higher Than What Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be.
Discussing the writing process of A Small Turn of Human Kindness, Spiers said, “I was living in a house on Beverly Drive in Athens. I was teaching third grade, and writing [the album] on a little keyboard on the couch. It was actually a very formal process. I selected a group of tones and decided on a way to combine them, and then started mapping out the themes I wanted to use, which were basically intervals of sevenths and seconds. It was definitely the most thoroughly composed of the Harvey Milk records.
It was a reaction to the record before it to a great extent, which I didn’t care for, and I thought was a pretty poor effort. I wanted to improve upon it. I guess that’s something I’ve always wanted to do, which is to write something really longform like Tommy, kind of like a rock opera. I also had this idea of expanding the story from the liner notes for the first song of [My Love…], and since I was going to use the story, I also thought I should use some of the musical elements from it. That’s where I got the tones.”
As for the narrative of A Small Turn of Human Kindness, which finds form in short, concrete moments, Spiers summed it up like this:
“It’s a couple. It’s not really established that they’re homeless, but it is established that the woman is pregnant, and they’re on the road in a hobo-ish fashion, camping and sleeping on the sides of the road. It’s just a story of how they’re sitting around the fire one night, and they hear the screech of tires and the thud of an accident. The man goes to investigate, and he comes back to report that what he saw was a car had hit a deer, and the deer had died, but its fawn survived and was just lying next to the deer, licking it. Just kind of lying there not knowing what to do. So, once he reports that at the campfire, the woman grabs a pistol and shoots the fawn. That’s the kindness, I suppose.”
Harvey Milk tells that story with the graceful brutality of Flannery O’Connor. The instrumental opener arcs and dips in an epic, melodically uneasy sludge-twang, placing listeners in the dark woods where the man and woman sit and eat in silence. Wounded bass notes saunter through the beginning of “I Just Want to Go Home.” Spence joins with a topsy-turvy groove that refuses to settle on the up- or downbeat, and Spiers makes his guitar scream as he wails in existential weariness. Speaking from the woman’s perspective, he groans, “Joey, you’re smiling / What’s fucking funny? / One more fish steak night / Yeah, that’s fucking funny / I’m so sick of this / Why are we out here?” Matching form with content, the music creates a gnawing weariness by refusing to move on from its crawling tempo.
Pushed by Spence’s stutter-step march, “I Am Sick of All This Too” is cinematic in its glorious build. Instead of leading into something up-tempo, however, “I Know This is No Place for You” lets the air out of the tires with dilatory rock that’s peppered with enough weird notes to make everything feel just a little off. Narrative-wise, it’s the couple waking up with a sense of optimism for new adventures but getting met with another day of the same exact shit they did the day before, and the day before that. Continuing the couple’s conversation from “I Just Want to Go Home,” Spiers bellows from the man’s perspective: “I’m sick of all this, too / But what am I supposed to do?” His questions turn inward when he says, “What kind of father will I make / When the baby comes? / There we were / On the edge of Interstate 41.” Although sadness prevails, Hammond organ adds a hint of hope to the song.
Singing to a nebulous ‘you’ is a rock cliché that refuses to die. Spiers knows full well that, “If you want people to connect to a moment and narrative, you have to describe the detail in a way that’s relatable. And I think that only in the details is the real meaning there.” That’s the same reason William Carlos Williams started using concrete images in poems rather than ruminating on the depth of his emotions. Spiers’ lyrics zoom in on the roaming couple while the music paints empty highways that cut through dark woods.
“I Alone Got Up and Left” is the ugliest song on the album with its repetitive, Courtesy-era sludge and lyrics about the man finding the wounded deer with its fawn. Spence plays a tuberculosis groove that seems like it will fall apart any second as Spiers hollers, “The squeal / The squeal of tires / The scream of tires then / The screech of tires then the thud of the impact.” Capturing the man’s raw heart, Spiers then delivers one of the best lyrics ever written: “I just seen the saddest thing I ever saw.” The man and woman are characters that could’ve inhabited William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and they speak in the rural vernacular Spiers grew up with.
In the way he writes and speaks, it’s clear that Spiers isn’t some slick city boy who thinks country life is “fascinating.” Rural America runs through his blood. Speaking about how growing up in Louisiana shaped him and his music, Spiers said, “I would have to say completely and totally. I grew up in Louisiana in a little community on River Bend Drive. I had a levee in my backyard. Behind that, the Ouachita River was flooded sometimes to the top of the levee. My dad played guitar. He’d have friends over and they’d just sit around and jam on honky-tonk songs, and that’s how I learned to play.” Even with a music degree from a respected university, Spiers has never shed that upbringing, instead finding artful ways to embrace and depict it.
On the heels of the harsh “I Alone Got Up and Left,” the fifth track, “I Know This is All My Fault,” begins with persistent violins. The song peaks in metallic crescendos before getting stripped down to quiet piano and Spiers’ beaten vocals. Taking on the man’s voice again, he apologizes and forlornly tries to show the woman hope in their life when he says, “The trees and the sky / are still something.” A Small Turn of Human Kindness takes on a triumphant finality in the opening of “I Did Not Call Out,” with Spiers wailing about the woman grabbing a .38 from her bag and killing the wounded deer in an act of mercy. As the man sees it, “There was grace” in the killing, but the brutal nature of that grace becomes apparent as the song morphs into grotesque metal, eventually circling back to the wall-eyed bass riff that opens “I Just Want to Go Home.”
A Small Turn of Human Kindness stands on the same pedestal as any other artistic masterpiece. But you’ll never hear Harvey Milk say so. When I asked Spiers what he would tell his sixteen-year-old self about the album if he could go back in time, he said, “I would say it’s going to seem long and boring at first, but stick with it, and listen to it more than once, and you’ll see that there’s thought behind it…Any ideas that you have like “Oh my God, this is pretentious.” Yeah, you’re right. You’re right on the money. That’s exactly what it is. Look at it from that point of view.”
Speaking to Self-Titled Magazine, Tanner eloquently described his take on the record:
“We came up with the most pretentious music we possibly could, and since that wasn’t enough, we wrote ridiculous words about total bullshit and named the songs in the most annoying fashion we could imagine. But we thought we could keep pushing the envelope; we named the album the same thing as a song on another album of ours and then designed an album cover that truly shows you how much we care—it’s a picture of some trees. We have reached the point of complete and total creative bankruptcy, but at least we made it shorter than the last record, so you can get through listening to it and return it to the store for a refund faster.”
Released on Hydra Head in 2010, A Small Turn of Human Kindness saw mixed reviews and has ultimately become a cult phenomenon, not garnishing anything near the respect it deserves. Since then, Spiers has decided to eliminate the intermediary of the record label, releasing solo music exclusively through his Patreon page. Currently working as a substitute teacher, Spiers’ goal is to earn just a little scratch for mastering his craft. As for his material, it’s weirdo rock that mixes equal parts Harvey Milk, Dinosaur Jr., and Depeche Mode. Stephen Tanner put out the 90210-inspired Things Haven’t Gone Well in his project Music Blues in 2014. Spence recently joined indie hitmaker Kurt Vile’s band and is currently playing to larger crowds than Harvey Milk ever has or will.
Given the nod to its first-released album in title and narrative, many (including myself) took A Small Turn of Human Kindness as the swan song for Harvey Milk. In their traditionally opaque and smartass interviews, the band members said maybe it would be the last record, or maybe it wouldn’t. Rumors sprouted up in 2017 about Spiers and Tanner joining forces with Swans’ drummer Thor Harris for new Harvey Milk material, but that didn’t work out. When I talked to him, Spiers seemed open to the possibility of making another Harvey Milk album at some point but had no concrete plans. Whatever happens in the band’s future, A Small Turn of Human Kindness is a beautiful, full-circle moment for Harvey Milk, harnessing the woeful trudge of Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men in a refined form that also dodges the sterility and cynicism of most groups’ attempts to recapture a past vibe. If it’s the last Harvey Milk record, it would be a fitting end. If not, then we get another Harvey Milk record.
I haven’t encountered much middle ground when it comes to Harvey Milk. People either haven’t heard of the band, don’t get it, or they would donate a kidney to watch Harvey Milk play. The group dismantled heavy music and put it back together in a way that makes it impossible to argue that sludge metal can’t be art in the highest possible sense. Chopin can fuck off. I’ll be listening to Harvey Milk.