Death Gospel: Is This Really a Genre?
You might think it’s haunted or Gregorian, but there’s a lot more to this supposed sub genre than meets the ear.
Chelsea Wolfe (Photo: Getty)
Having originated in the last decade and made famous (at least in folk and metal circles) in the 2010s, death gospel does offer sounds that call to the spirits - but less strictly religiously and more spiritually, reflecting on endings and new beginnings - and has become recognised as a largely female vocal-led subgenre that expands into noise, ambient, neo-folk and metal.
Strangely, the genre sonically has nothing to do with Black church history’s most prolific type of song: gospel. This naming is rooted from the Old English "godspell,” translating as 'bringing the good. Death gospel does draw from pagan and Christian history by way of folk, but the typical ‘call and response’ function of gospel music seems to be missing. So what exactly is this mysterious subgenre? And who are the pioneers and artists under its godly spell?
The term was coined by Americana guitar guy Adam Arcuragi along with the releases of his 2012 album Like a Fire that Consumes All Before It which was inspired by Outlaw Country (a genre made famous by artists like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash) and the traditional sounds of the Deep South. Vocally-led, death gospel became more about death and meditations on such, rather than about freedom and dreams of a life. Notably, the main difference between death gospel and the music of the deep south was the stripping of a libertarian agenda and whilst sounding heavy, an altogether more lighthearted approach. Over the course of the 10s, Indie-Americana artists have popularised it as a non-religious style of music that still muses on some of the darker themes of life.., thus debatably somewhat emo, at a time where emo has also been seen splintering off into rap and away from its rock constraints.
Essentially a darker, heavier interpretation of American folk music and primarily popularised today by female artists like Anna von Hausswolff, Louise Lemón, Marissa Nadler (perhaps the most folksy of them all, begging the question of whether she’d accept the label of ‘death gospel’ whatsoever). Then there’s A.A. Williams, one of the newest entrants to the scene. Von Hausswolff, daughter of avant-garde Swedish composer and artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff, makes introspective music that evokes feelings of mystery and ambiguity and is also sometimes dubbed ‘funeral pop.’ Following in the footsteps of popstar turned darkly avant-garde magician Scott Walker, she made a record (Dead Magic in 2018) with experimental metal/noise gods Sunn O))), partly recorded at Copenhagen’s Marble Church, making use of its epic pipe organ. Darling of the Bella Union label A.A. Williams only made her stage debut in 2019 and plays piano, cello and guitar, singing about, in her words, ‘all things heavy.’ Enjoy her debut album Forever Blue.
It’s interesting to see how the raw and unabashed female spirit has become so wildly infused and representative of the genre. Centuries of silencing and pain are finding new expression. These same artists, though, fight not to be pitted against one another as the emancipation of female and non gender conforming artists from the male gaze makes progress. This claustrophobia, plus a literal distaste for confined spaces, is a theme common in Chelsea Wolfe’s music. She opts to live on the West Coast in the sunshine and loves the wide outdoors: something you might not expect from one of death gospel’s renegades.
Somehow the zeitgeist of the female experience is captured in a genre that seems, at first glance, problematically named. Where death gospel is lacking in the ‘call and response’ magic of more traditional gospel, a space has been created for metal, noise and heavy lyrical sounds to draw from this strange brand of folk. Louise Lemón grew up with Swedish pop, 70s psychedelia and Prince, and after much consideration decided on a very different approach to her own music-making. Whilst her sound is heavy and dark folk metal - and she’s often touted as death gospel - there are certainly pop sentiments in there, as the prominent theme across her releases to date is heartbreak. Listen to her debut, Purge.
Chelsea Wolfe offers a spin off tangent of death gospel with her blend of doom metal with folk aka ‘doom folk’. US artist King Dude, who collaborated with Chelsea Wolfe several times by many stretches matches the outlaw country/folk criteria, but it’s still difficult to ascertain who and why would welcome any label, whether it be doom folk or death gospel. Emma Ruth Rundle (the former frontwoman of Red Sparowes) does similar, and explores themes of addiction, mental health and healing in her solo work. The doomier parts of her well-honed style are explored especially on her 2020 release with Thou, May Our Chambers Be Full. Try creating moodagents from your fave tracks on this incredibly bewitching and dark record.
A far cry from ‘moving,’ ‘poignant,' 'explosive,’ or the dreaded PR-touted ‘hot summer anthem,’ death gospel releases are often happily described as ‘depressing,’ ‘intense,’ and ‘doom-filled.’ It’s a wonder Nick Cave hasn’t claimed the genre. Take a listen to the above mentioned Emma Ruth Rundle record and decide about death gospel for yourself.
Words by Alexandra Pereira