Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reinventing The Steel; The New American Underground

So here's a thing I wrote for Terrorizer months ago. In the usual editorial process, things get switched around and reimagined sometimes, and this piece ended up on the wrong side of a red pen. We decided to retool and revamp it to better reflect the theme of the next issue ("Southern Metal") soooo this baby's never gonna see the light of day. It pains me to shelve it entirely, though, so here's what it would have looked like. Some of it will be cannibalized for the new piece, too - waste not, want not!

The New American Underground
Kim Kelly

The gods of metal have a habit of showing up in the unlikeliest of places. From festivals held deep in the Bavarian woods or Czech countryside to basement shows in Brussels and all-dayers in Singapore, the existence of heavy fucking metal is a damn near universal truth – a world without borders or limits. One has to ask, though - what the hell is it doing in the white-bread Midwestern wasteland of Columbus, Ohio? Or in Texas, America’s gun-totin’, pigment-hatin’ conservative stronghold? The answer: March 2010’s one-two punch of Scion Fest, and Austin, TX’s South by Southwest Music Conference. Terrorizer went deep aboveground to investigate the strange phenomenon of metal’s newfound popularity in the US of A.
Maybe “popularity” is the wrong word; after all, the dark arts have always been plenty popular with those of us who knew enough to care. “Respected” may be more apt. With bands like YOB and Alcest gracing the hallowed pages of the New York Times and Magrudergrind and Wolves in the Throne Room blowing up on indie rock behemoths Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan (whose Fred “Black Bubblegum” Pessaro has been making waves with his own black meddling and boundless enthusiasm for keeping it true), the level of aural brutality that Joe Sixpack will accept in his daily routine is steadily beginning to increase. Tastemaker labels like Profound Lore, 20 Buck Spin, and Relapse and interesting new signings from Candlelight, Metal Blade, and Prosthetic have colored the musical landscape in a whole new range of shades of black, and countless new metal-focused websites and blogs have been spreading the plague at 500 kbps per second.

As the inevitable “hipster metal” movement reared its artfully-coiffed head, the underground recoiled, but even the most stalwart basement warrior has had to admit that more interest in metal means more tours, and more chances to see the bands they actually care about. At the risk of sounding like a “special advertising section,” it must be said that carmakers Scion (a division of Toyota) have been stealthily leaving oil-slicked fingerprints all over the underground – in a positive way. By doling out sponsorship money to broke-ass touring bands and throwing massive ‘merican shows for bands like Immortal and Neurosis, Scion’s resident metal guru Adam Shore has had a profound impact on the scene at large, and his handpicked Scion fest lineups have brought many respectable denizens of the underworld kicking and screaming into the sunlight. This year’s edition featured Absu, YOB, Voivod, Shrinebuilder, Brutal Truth, Ludicra, Cannibal Corpse, Black Tusk, Lightning Swords of Death, Black Anvil, Landmine Marathon, and tons more, and took place at four small venues in the quiet college town of Columbus, Ohio. Over the course of 24 hours, legions of metal fans descended upon its quiet streets like a swarm of locusts, and Terrorizer caught jaw-dropping performances from Ludicra (a festival high point), Absu, Black Anvil, Thou, and Lightning Swords of Death. A few weeks later, a similar scenario happened, only this time, it all went down a little closer to Hell.

Traditionally held to be a hipster hangout and industry circle-jerk, this year’s edition of SXSW turned out to be the heaviest the fest had ever seen. Bands like High On Fire and Landmine Marathon held equal billing to indie darlings Japanther and Madlib, and the uberhyped Profound Lore/20 Buck Spin and Brooklyn Vegan showcases were so packed, they were only letting in a handful of people at a time. Terrorizer was on hand to catch electrifying performances by Coffinworm, Salome, Dark Castle, The Atlas Moth, Kill the Client, Howl, Bison BC, Zoroaster, Goatwhore, and god knows how many others over the course of the five-day, multi-venue music orgy. Beneath the merciless Texan sun, we wandered through Austin’s blocked-off streets, soaking in the live music that came pouring out of every bar and venue and bumping into band dudes everywhere we turned. Playing at SXSW can be a trial by fire for some, like The Atlas Moth with their hellacious seven-shows-in-five days schedule or Salome with their myriad van woes, but for those that make it out alive, the SXSW stamp of approval goes a long way. Don’t mess with Texas.

Now that we’ve brought you up to speed on what sort of trouble’s been brewing on this side of the pond, meet a few of the two festivals’ highlights: bands that are changing the meaning of “American metal.” Walk on home, boy.


This San Francisco-based collective have been creating artful, mind-expanding black metal odysseys for over a decade, and are finally reaping the rewards of that which they have sewn. Vocalist Laurie Sue Shanaman is an angel and a demon onstage, possessed of a voice that veers from ethereal to apocalyptic in the blink of an eye and is augmented by guitarist/backing vocalist Christy Cather’s deafening roar. The band is rounded out by Aeson Dekker of Agalloch on drums, Ross Sewage (Impaled, Exhumed, Ghoul) on bass, and John Cobbett (Hammers of Misfortune, Slough Feg) on guitar – a dream lineup if there ever was one. An electrifying performance at this year’s Scion Fest and ensuing success on their Decancellation Tour (hastily rebooked after Mayhem aborted the US run they were slated to open), as well as an incredibly well-received new record (The Tenant/ Profound Lore 2010) have put them on the map, and solidified Ludicra’s place at the forefront of the new wave of American black metal.


These Indianapolis-born amplifier worshippers have only been around since 2007, but have already risen to the top of the American doom/sludge pile. 2009’s Great Bringer of Night demo was an impossibly brutal, downtuned beast that set the stage for this year’s When All Become None (Profound Lore), six songs’ worth of gutter sludge, vindictive black metal, old-school death, and suffocating doom. Add in some of the most devastatingly clever, anti-human lyrics around, not to mention an imposing live presence (as seen at SXSW and in cursed venues across the Midwest) and a heavy debt to the occult, and you’ve got yourself one unholy racket. Coffinworm are special, not only because of their grave-digging sound, which mines the tombs of death, doom, and darkness and comes up corpses – they matter because they really fucking mean it.

Move over, New Orleans; Baton Rouge is rapidly becoming the new home of the heavy. Case in point: the uber D.I.Y. doomlords of Thou, who have been criss-crossing the country spreading their nihilistic sermons and earth-shaking riffs since 2005. This extremely prolific, constantly touring quartet have unleashed over fifteen splits, demos, and albums (on labels like Southern Lord, Robotic Empire, and Gilead Media) and show no signs of slowing down. Thou’s vast, monolithic dirges are a hateful mangling of EyeHateGod, Isis, and Winter – droning, shimmering, feral, and achingly honest – and are giving the old guard one helluva run for their drug money.


The City of Angels isn’t exactly the most kvlt of locales, but L.A. black metal mystics Lightning Swords of Death are living proof that something wicked lurks behind all the glamour and plastic. Oozing pure evil, occult secrets, and urban blasphemy, their take on the blackest of the dark arts hits hard, fast, and mean, drawing liberally from the genocidal black/grind of Revenge and Conqueror, the pitch-black thrashing of Aura Noir, and Watain’s perverted rock’n’roll. There are even a few epic nods to Blut Aus Nord in there, coupled with a totally D.I.Y. underground-‘til-death mentality that is doing well to keep their attitudes in check and their weapons deadly sharp. An upcoming Metal Blade debut and more live actions are brewing, so watch your back.


One mic, one guitar, and a set of drums. Doesn’t sound too impressive when you lay it out like that, but when you add in a few massive fucking amps, earth-shaking riffs, and the doomed trio behind Salome, and you’ve got yourself a problem. These Virginian destroyers have been decimating stages and blowing out eardrums since 2006, releasing a thunderous Profound Lore debut and killer split EP with Thou along the way. Vocalist Kat’s bloodcurdling shrieks and sepulchral roars claw their way to the forefront of Rob Moore’s down-tuned, mercilessly heavy slabs of sludgy, funereal riffage and Aaron Deal’s impossibly tight war drum, and the deadly combination thereof is as catchy as it is crushing.


Once the reigning kings of American grindcore, Insect Warfare, called it quits, their throne stood empty for several long, slow years; that is, until their fellow Texans Kill The Client stepped up their game, and went for the fucking throat. The Dallas quintet have been grinding 24/7 since 2002, releasing two raging albums on Willowtip and splits with Agoraphobic Nosebleed and Thousandswilldie before signing a deal in blood with Relapse for their upcoming full-length. A killer live act (as SXSW found out) and known for their snarling, furiously fast take on balls-out grind, these bastards reek of Swedish putrefaction and have something to fucking say, on top of it – their sociopolitical rants are as smart as they are searing.


The denizens of Chicago’s three great talents are scarfing down greasy food, making music, and doing drugs. Judging by the fuzzed-out psychedelic space jams on The Atlas Moth’s Candlelight debut, A Glorified Piece of Blue Sky, this Chi-Town quintet are no exception. Longtime road dogs and D.IY. buzz-builders, the men of the ‘Moth are no strangers to hard work; even a grueling SXSW schedule of seven shows in five days (!) couldn’t slow them down. Drawing from the post-everything catharsis of Neurosis, the Southern-fried dirt tones of Buzzoven, the mangled chords of Coalesce, and even the shimmering progress of Deftones The Atlas Moth’s sound is both many things, and one unified theory. On record, they captivate; live, they decimate. With several high-profile tours and collaborations on the way, the future’s looking bright for this post-sludge collective.


Hardcore dudes playing black metal? It sounds like the worst idea possible, but New York’s mighty Black Anvil have proved how devilishly well it can work. Featuring former and current members of Kill Your Idols, None More Black, and Deathcycle, what Black Anvil lack in kvlt cred they more than make up for in sheer brute force and the kind of songwriting chops that come with years spent toiling in the underground. Sneaking pages out of Celtic Frost, Bathory, Motorhead, and Immortal’s songbooks (check out Paul Delaney’s Abbath impression), armed with a positively nasty “Dethroned Emperor” cover, and hauling out lick after lick of thrashy, bottom-heavy blackness, this New Yawk trio have been blowing up stage across the nation, and, with an upcoming Relapse debut and several high-profile tours in the works, seem hellbent on total destruction. Now THAT’S hardcore.


Dark Castle are sort of like the White Stripes of doom metal, except about a billion times more brutal. This Florida duo are also known for their stripped-down approach – one guitar, one keyboard, a drumkit and two throats – and have spent time as a couple, but instead of garage rock, churn out impenetrably dense, hypnoticly sludgy riffs. It’s difficult to compare Dark Castle to any other band, because although the music they play on their At A Loss debut, Spirited Migration, is very recognizably doom, there is an intriguing balance of atmosphere and ferocity, of droning heaviness and gently clean psychedelic melodies, that many attempt but few actually realize. Stevie Floyd’s guttural roar and Rob Shaffer’s lumbering, almost tribal drumming play off the mystical, bleak soundscapes they create beautifully, and in a live setting, with the lights turned low and the band bathed in red light, are nothing short of breathtaking. These road warriors recently returned from a European trek with Kylesa and are gearing up to cross the USA with Zoroaster this summer, then it’s back to the studio for round two!


This Arizona quintet have been blowing up over here. Their electrifying performances at SXSW and Scion Fest, a killer new record, Sovreign Descent, out on Prosthetic, and a charismatic frontwoman with a mouth like a sailor and penchant for Death shirts have all done their part to bring Landmine Marathon into the spotlight, and they couldn’t be more stoked. Their crusty, old-school death metal sound has a heart of pure grind, culled as it is from the back catalogs of the Earache greats (think Bolt Thrower, Morbid Angel, Napalm Death) and the Infest patches on their shorts. Armed with a perfectly muddy mid-90s guitar tone as well as Grace Perry’s ferocious pipes, they have been sweating it out in the underground for five years now; after releasing several demos, splits (w/ Stormcrow and The Funeral Pyre) and albums (Level Plane released ‘Rusted Eyes Awake’ in 2008), they were snapped up by Prosthetic, and unleashed a monstrous new LP. Watch your back!

The crusty post-sludge fiends on Howl, cosmic doom luminaries YOB, reborn black metal legends Absu, mind-expanding riff worship of Bison BC, NOLA stoner death ‘heads Goatwhore, grind gods Brutal Truth, stoned cavemen High on Fire, and scads of other worthy accomplices made these two events fucking sing, and are slowly but surely making it a hell of a lot more fun to be an American metalhead. Horns up!


Invisible Oranges said...

We declared independence from England for a reason! Good job, Kim!

Dan said...

So, I guess the moral of the story is that it takes one kick-ass Canadian label to dredge up some of the best brain-smashing hymns throughout this fair land of ours.

SXSW sounds like it slayed.

├╝mlaut said...

Excellent piece!