Grab a drink and strap yourselves in, because this is a long one. Rather than do a big masturbatory introduction, I’m going to keep it simple. The following is an online correspondence with Val Dorr of Ævangelist over the course of a few weeks. We connected initially over the fact that we grew up in the same Chicago suburbs just a few years apart. Val even gave lessons at a music store just down the road with a good middle school friend of mine. Anyways, I had the amazing pleasure of talking to Val not only about the band, but also thoughts on being trans in the black metal community, the defamation of the scene with accusations of Nazism, other projects, and much more.
FlightOfIcarus: Let’s start with the last bit of music from you I encountered: the split with Blut Aus Nord.How did that come about?
Val: Sometimes elder siblings smile upon us. I remember being aware that Thorn and Vindsval had some sort of quiet, slow, hermetic communication as far back as 2009 or 2010, when I was discussing Benighted In Sodom‘s Plateau Σ: The Harrowing with Thorn (still probably my favorite Benighted in Sodom album) and made the comparison to Blut Aus Nord myself.
I believe Vindsval himself instigated the planning for our split. Through his connection to Thorn and our shared association with Debemur Morti Productions, Vindsval was among the secret few to hear our Writhes in the Murk long before release, and that seems to have been a tipping point. Our shared swathes of discordant synthesis and touches of trip-hop rhythms made for a natural combination.
If anyone doubts the glacial pace of musical planning, I’ll add that the plans to do a split were confirmed in summer 2013, almost two years before the work became manifest, and that with the speed of the notoriously productive hermits involved and an existing rapport.
To quote Blazing Saddles, and without any intended misogyny, “You use your tongue purdier than a twenty dollar whore.”Sometimes I feel like the black metal artists take some sort of secret linguistics and writing class.Thoughts?
Good question. The surface answer is of course the strong value for æsthetics in black metal (the scene that began with a rebellion against sweatpants). I’m sure I’m not alone in my lifetime obsession with literature and poetry, though. I think black metal just appeals to people who value the taste of elegant words.
I personally developed an interest in writing and language long before music and began writing poetry a year or two before I started playing guitar. Learning more languages (we’ll not mention the time I invented one) and studying voice in college definitely brought my delight in poetry to the forefront.
As long as we’re talking about personal interests, what have you been up to since the BAN Split?
I finished work on Codex Obscura Nomina (Ævangelist/Blut Aus Nord) in July 2015, so that’s a wider question than it might seem. Around that same time, saxophonist Keenan Foley and I recorded a free jazz duo album (which we just created a limited CD edition of for a Chicago performance with a lovely master from Mories) and I recorded and played on the debut Vlk full-length, which Tour De Garde released in early 2016. Ævangelist has, aside from some releases that I don’t believe have been announced officially enough to mention, gone through and discarded at least an album’s worth of material for the fifth album, which is gradually nearing completion. Ævangelist has also nearly completely sabotaged progress on upcoming Shavasana material (which requires a great deal of effort from me and from Ævangelist live guitaris Æryn) with a series of festival appearances at Hells Headbash, California Deathfest, Metal Threat Fest, and most recently our first set featuring material from Enthrall to the Void of Bliss at Brickside Music Fest.
I suppose that’s more professional than personal, though.
No that’s all really interesting.Sounds like you’ve been intensely busy.I would, however, like to step out of Aevangelist for a moment and talk about something more personal we’ve discussed before.Some may not be aware of your status as a trans woman.I am intensely interested in what that experience has been like for you personally, both within the context of the current political climate and the world of black metal which is stereotpically (and often inaccurately) generalized as a bigoted genre.
It’s absolutely a bigoted genre. What it has going for it is the large numbers of people who legitimately love the music instead of “being” black metal. This, perhaps, seems like a confusing distinction, but there are beautiful people who happen to love Transylvanian Hunger and know the names and life stories of treasured artists who have released two obscure demo cassettes–and there are people who ARE black metal. There are people who are perfectly happy to chant “NO FAGGOTS!” back at Destroyer 666 (because, obviously, who wants faggots around?) who can show you a whole world of barely tolerable identical bands and somehow legitimately embrace every one.
Honestly, most of my life as a transgirl in black metal has boiled down to being afraid and pathetic. That’s the sort of vulnerability it seems a lot safer to cover up with rage and frustration around people who can’t even see a skinny guy or a ciswoman without screaming “fag” and “gimmick.”
Realistically? My first few years seriously involved in the world of black metal were an exaggerated relapse to the kind of don’t ask/don’t tell garbage that characterized the first handful of years I spent dealing with realizing I’d really and truly gotten stuck with an XY body after puberty. I stopped dying my hair (not sure how that was gender expression), stopped shaving meticulously, stopped wearing the tiny bits of more “feminine” clothing I’d managed, Ah, . . . there are a few more anecdotes that are probably mostly only from the inside of my own head that are too embarrassing to put where certain old friends can see them. I basically whined to people I was dating in private, listened to Coil and shoegaze on my headphones on tour, and latched onto any musician I met who wasn’t a walking advertisement for proper masculinity.
We’ll have to see what asinine future continuing to play something approaching black metal holds for me, to be honest. I’ve only just had the guts to start HRT in the past couple of months, and if the internet is any indication, people in the metal world have generally seen my “crossdressing” in front of them as a manifestation of the odd and inexplicable “fashion” trends of numetal and 2000’s Hot Topic. In a monumental feat of patheticness and bad communication, I somehow only actually “came out” to Thorn in fall 2015 as a result of talking to noted “serious problem in metal”/”SJW” Joseph Schafer about an interview at California Death Fest.
I’m sure reactions are mixed, whether stated or not.Thank you for sharing that.I was actually going to ask you about the stage experience.I imagine their are fans who have seen you on stage in both personas, so to speak.Has anyone said anything to you about it who actually understood what was going on?
Incidentally, the cashier at the Jewel in Des Plaines a bit ago was possibly the first stranger to call me “ma’am” when I was neutrally dressed after an actual face-to-face conversation o.O
You’d be surprised how rarely people are comfortable directly commenting on anything about someone’s appearance in second person. There’s also the awkward pattern I’ve either noticed or imagined in which people are deliberately supportive of anything related to appearance when talking to transfolk on the (probably accurate!) theory that our shreds of self-confidence probably need help.
I have more recently gotten some “really pretty!” comments and apparently something of a checking-out. I can’t really imagine how a straight or gay person feels to even look at someone clearly trans–I feel like sexuality and gender are incredibly strongly tied up in how people perceive and react to others. The reactions of men who don’t interact very freely with women have been probably the most severe–a bit like watching a 404 error pop up in someone’s head.
Haha that’s a good way to put it.I’ve been talking to people on both sides of the argument and my impression has been that those less in the know are mostly just confused and also afraid to say the wrong thing.Scared of the “pronoun police” so to speak.Have anything to say to either those people who don’t know what to say or those trans people who are aggressive about their expectations from others?
This is where we get into the realm of good advice for all contexts. Communicate. Afraid to get your head bitten off? Talk to them about it. If you show someone you care enough to talk to them, even if you don’t get things right, they’ll know you care enough to talk to them.
I’m not surprised, particularly given my perspective, that so many folk, particularly the younger ones, attempt to solve this by lashing out. I used to think they just didn’t have the perspective us old folks did of taking every moment someone didn’t stab you to death as a high blessing, but I’ve come to understand that it’s emotionally exhausting to connect to people enough to explain where you’re coming from and why things matter to you over and over and over. The number of people each of us deal with daily, even those of us who mostly hide behind a wall of work, is a staggering barrier to creating constant vulnerability. And how have humans always burned a shortcut to “communicating” about problems? Anger, rage, hatred. I absolutely do NOT say that those are neither necessary nor useful, but openness and vulnerability are the only way to get anywhere with this.
So please, if you’re unsure of how to approach or deal with one of us weirdos, create a little vulnerability and talk to us. Chances are we’ve been trying to summon the resilience to do it ourselves.
Thanks for all of that.I agree that given time and a little bit more openess from both sides these things can imporve.Turning back to Aevangelist as a project, what can we expect from the new material?Any concepts in mind?Names?Stylistic changes or new influences?
A lot will be . . . uncertain until the point that the traditional forms of musical revelation occur. Among the upcoming releases are a group of three EPs through I, Voidhangerwith a lovely contiguous piece of art splayed across their packaging. The material on these EPs is mostly older than Enthrall to the Void of Bliss and has the sound one might reasonably expect from a hoard of Writhes in the Murk give-or-take unreleased gems–but the truth is that this release has just been in the works for some time. The song “Vessel” from this work is available for streaming somewhere online.
So far, “Death . . . ” (the fifth full-length) is a perhaps-unexpected step sideways. This will be the first full-length release featuring Thorn’s live drum performances, but retaining the focused song structures familiar from I–IV. Thorn has been carefully building a different recorded sound around this that reminds me more of an Ævangelist take on the sound of longtime Thorn influence Vasaeleth or the like than the colder, cleaner sound of Blut Aus Nord. That’s not to say that we’ll suddenly be creating a fresh connection to the HHR and NWN crowds, but we’re exploring different possibilities for our abyss. I’m working on a more significant piano presence for this record, as well–previously, my piano contributions have been an ingredient in the swirling vortex rather than a more traditional instrumental performance. I’m primarily feeding from Thorn’s harp work here, though of course with a dose of my “academic” background from Feldman, Stockhausen, and the like–trained musicians who valued ritual serve us well as hierophants.
What spurred the interest in increasing the use of piano?
It’s inspired by the dominant, twisting role the harp played on Enthrall to the Void of Bliss, first and foremost. The harp honestly made me reassess what Ævangelist is musically and embrace the chaos and dissonance that was previously confined to the synthesized parts as not just an atmospheric but a musical element.
With the modest boost of experience with adding auxiliary instruments to the previous two albums, Enthrall was the moment I really began to explore using my academic training and interests in Ævangelist‘s music. There, it was “limited” to expanding the range of extended vocal techniques I used, playing off of the greater flexibility with detail and softer sounds I had in the studio, as well as introducing something as relatively simple as quartertone-grid melodic contours for the upper register parts.
Now that I’ve crossed those lines, it seems natural that I include the instrument I’ve mostly relied on for traditional compositional processes. With the microtonal dissonances already present in harp and synth, fitting serialized fragments of piano against the more traditional guitar riffs is proving a natural fit.
Would you say that Aevangelist has an underlying mission statement?
Despite all of that musical discussion, the real purposes of Ævangelist are not musical. The music is a key in the lock.
Ævangelist is a method for engaging with a collection of spiritual questions which do not necessarily respond well to the traditional mistake of verbally discussing things that human language was not meant for. The roles of the self, the divine, perception, and experience and their relationships are something of an endless turmoil. The only path to anything outside of this agnosis is constant effort to see, become, and create and strike down simulacra. The only viewpoint from which this is possible is another level of turmoil; chaos meeting chaos tears apart many of the barriers to vision that this blindness trap often succeeds with. Divinity breaks the self and the perception to access self and perception.
If this sounds circular and useless, remember that the tongues of the trap are hopeless to describe the way out.
I wanted to go back to the idea of bigotry in black metal for just a minute.There was an article in AV calling out the scene, but taking it a step further in specifically demonizing Profound Lore, Inquisition, and even Charlie Fell, who I have met and you know
Before I say anything meaningful, the idea that Disma signing with Profound Loretakes Craig Pillard out the fringe is asinine. Profound Lore is a gifted younger sibling of the world of “metal,” and Incantation, though somewhat unjustly overlooked next to some of their brother bands, are SOLIDLY part of the death metal canon. There’s no “fringe” involved–if anything, the quite-popular Profound Lorelineup is a certain fringe of the metal world.. Maybe covering the fringe of mainstream rock makes the more “fringe-accessible” artists on Profound Lore–out of the metal mainstream–seem like the core of metal, but they are not.
One of the biggest problems with politics and beliefs in our society is the crushingly false idea that people typically have at least a core set of values from which they determine their other values, the idea that people’s expressions of belief or even merely their expressions reflect much of anything about those supposed core beliefs, and the idea that these supposed core beliefs are in any way fixed.
Identity, political leanings, taste, and “beliefs” are primarily the result of a complex of forces acting on the “individual.” “Christians” are “Christians” because their social groups (both small and large) pushed them in that direction, because life experiences made Christian identification the option that offered the comfort–or discipline, challenge, opportunity for validated hatred, you name it–that the prospective Christian needed to face the self, the divine, and their reality. Some just needed a hand-fed batch of “core beliefs” to fill the gaping void of meaninglessness and uncertainty. The structure of life expectations and opportunities to feel brave speaking or acting their Christian “beliefs” filled their lives the right way for their context and experiences and stimuli.
Everything else is the same. “Being a metal fan.” “Being a progressive.” Making every little decision, like the decision to scream about mutilating corpses or striking down the Jewish conspirators–is a reaction to a complex combination of internal forces. And you know what? The only things holding people to a set of “core beliefs” are the things that created them in the first place. Most of us prefer to BELIEVE in our beliefs, and the stimuli that would make us back down have to combat the stimuli that tell us to stick to our decisions so we can trust our ideas of ourselves and gain the trust of others–or somesuch garbage.
So yeah, Dagon’s been an edgy piece of shit and neither wants to throw his garbage under the bus nor to embrace it–because it’s “him,” and because it’s garbage. Craig’s project is at LEAST as much covered in the neon paint of absurdity that covers beliefs one puts forward but can’t entirely get behind as Dagon’s–the only difference is Craig’s been more stubborn about admitting he has toilet paper on his shoe.
Charlie and his collaboration with Jef are a different matter. I’m not going to claim Charlie’s any type of angel by any means, but his immediate option in his relationships with other people always seems to be to love first. He certainly tends to dwell on the less socially-approved aspects of the human experience when judging humanity, but he sees people as people–with “flaws”–and treats them like other thinking, feeling beings. I never for a second saw Death Mask as transphobic. That sort of judgment itself suggests to me a marginalization of transfolk–as if treating us like other flesh, bound and abused, is somehow more about a weird facet of our lives.
Frankly, this level of “nazi problem” is, especially in light of Woe’s recent removal from live performances because they were also booked to play with Inquisition, OVER-addressed. The unaddressed “nazi problem” is the normalization of actual “extremist” beliefs in normal low-level bands. It’s not the shitty over-the-top side projects, it’s the world of “sure whatever” agreement with default hateful beliefs. Unfortunately, when people try to eradicate low-level beliefs, they become the hateful extremists doing wrong–and they always seem to miss the low-level beliefs in favor of attacking people spraying neon paint.
I’ve also spent a couple of hours in a small room with Antichrist Kramer. We had NO communication except for awkward glances at each other. I wore my dressiest skirt and chatted with persons of Jewish heritage and Kramer excitedly gossiped with someone I didn’t know about who else in the world of black metal had quietly bonded over their little 14/88 connecting ties.
And you know what? I could have done that too, had my life hit me just a few degrees differently. If I’d taken a little differently to being not only white and of Southern descent but almost entirely descended from the first English folk to colonize the new world and feeling like “multiculturalism” only applied to embracing everyone else’s cultures–if I hadn’t made such important and strong friendships with people who just happened to be people nazis are supposed to hate–or maybe just if I didn’t happen to find describing myself as the latter half of LGBT unavoidable. Maybe only the persistence of both of those factors–and eventually finding that normal people could love me so I didn’t need to find some pathetic reason to feel properly like part of a group–is the only reason I’m not the “nazi problem.”
What does that mean? Should angry progressives hate me? Should I NOT hate the extreme right? Are the reverse statements true? Good luck, just remember to apply your core beliefs and everything will come out fine.
So that’s quite a mouthful, but if I’m not just hearing what I want to hear, it seems like your sentiments are similar to my own: yes, these people are out there, but who and what isn’t all that consequential.What IS important is recognizing that people are a product of their beliefs, and those beliefs do not develop in a vacuum.With that in mind, it seems important to be more open to discussing these belief systems rather than going on a witch hunt.Does that sound correct?
I’m somewhat less positive than that. I believe that beliefs are an affectation. I believe that the actions of “people out there” are very consequential, but that mostly the people blamed are not to blame. I don’t believe that there is any way to deliberately change a culture for the better. I believe that witch-hunts are usually poorly aimed, not that they are intrinsically hopeless.I strongly recommend aiming future witch-hunts at politicians and lobbyists.
Okay, that definitely makes sense, though like you said I try to be more hopeful.And honestly I’m much more concerned about actions than beliefs.People can think what they want, but once they start actively causing real (beyond just the never-ending “I’m offended by this” BS), that’s where I draw the line personally.
Real action is certainly a more important expression than words, but words that aren’t wrapped in absurdity are also significant. Both of those are the trading stock of politicians and lobbyists and only occasionally that of artists.
Right, because the actions spurred by your words depends on your power, and politics is the ultimate stage. Dagon is playing the high school dance to a Senator’s Madison Square Garden. Even that analogy fails at scope, but you get the idea. But I find that even political witch hunts often miss the mark. You remove one, and even if they were the intended target, 5 more take their place. But I suppose we arestarting to stray away from musical territory now. I think I could carry on this conversation forever, but we should probably wrap up. Could you name for us an underground metal band that you think our listeners should check out?
Nivathe, and the related projects around Plague’s Pale Horse Recordings. Filthy and discordant, with the timbral sophistication one expects from Gnaw Their Tongues and Blut Aus Nord, and a slamming weight of doom. Nivathe really lives up to sole member Plague’s pseudonym. I’ve never heard anything that sounded so diseased.
Is there any metal genre that persists as doggedly throughout the ages as thrash? Many young bands attempt to harness the exuberant, no-shits-given attitude of thrash’s golden age era, but far fewer manage to pull off.
Power Trip (Dallas, TX) is not one of those. Their first full-length “Manifest Decimation” sent ripples through the rowdy world of crossover thrash back in 2013 — but I give all the credit to this year’s “Nightmare Logic,” a cunning, concise cut of slammin’ jams that hark back to a time when metal’s ascension seemed unstoppable, for completely recapturing that old sorcery. It’s authentic, executed with a serial killer’s craft, and I knew I’d be crazy to miss seeing it played live.
I had just that chance on April 9th when Power Trip steamrolled through the West Coast on their latest tour. I’d be visiting an old haunt for a tacked-on “after party” of a momentous two-day indie/emo festival themed around “when we were young” — appropriate, then, for a night of thrashy throwback goodness.
Stars on Stage in the Constellation Room
The Constellation Room is a satellite (heh) venue of The Observatory in Santa Ana, CA. I’d spent many late nights there watching the biggest names in power metal perform on the main stage back when it was known as the Galaxy Theatre. The venue was now under new management, and this would be my first time visiting the much-smaller side stage.
After giving twenty bucks to a sketchy parking lot attendant, I sprinted several blocks to the venue, weaving through former (and current?) scene kids, wondering not for the first time whether or not this show would even happen. My skepticism was at an all-time high, but I soon joined a short line in front of the box office, where illegible band logos and long hair overtook the look of dyed hair and lip piercings. I was in the right place after all, among my people.
Once inside, the first thing I noticed was how damn small the Constellation Room was — a single high-ceilinged room, with the stage to the left and tightly packed merch tables to the right. Ahead of me, a wall of alcohol bottles rose high like a bulwark, backlit with the flow of soft, jack-o’-lantern light — the constellations, I guess? As people packed inside, squeezing me up against the back of the merch table, I thought if anything, this would be an intimate experience.
Opening band The Dark (Los Angeles) was readying themselves onstage, itching to play. They blazed through their set of metallic hardcore punk with reverb-heavy vocals and a rock-solid rhythm section. Next up was local group Mizery (San Diego) — older gents in contrast to the younglings in The Dark, but they commanded the stage with the attention deserved to them. They drew a respectable amount of their own fans — the crowd loved them (me included) — pulsing with every tempo shift, shouting along with the lyrics, and just generally going nuts. After that was Destruction Unit (Arizona), a psychedelic punk group whose fat, fuzzy wall of sound didn’t quite get the crowd going. They clearly had a focused vision of what they wanted to accomplish in a live setting — their final moments onstage had the three guitarists removing their gear while it was still plugged in as the drummer whirled around his kit, creating eardrum-hammering feedback and noise like an imploding jet plane. Unfortunately, they seemed part of a different menu than what the audience had come to eat up, and the main course was being served shortly.
A three-piece drum kit was shared among all three opening bands. Cymbals and snare drums were swapped with each, but the kit remained the same, and that persisted when the members of Power Trip came onstage. Yes, those humble Texas boys set up their own gear like small-timers — whether they chose to do it that way out of artistic integrity or as a result of their Dallas-born ethos, I couldn’t really say. Either way, it let me put faces to the band members who were going to explode the Constellation Room like a supernova.
It was past 1 AM — the time the show was supposed to end — but the room buzzed with anticipation. The crowd was ready to move again.
Trippin’ It Old School
Power Trip opened up the show by unleashing Soul Sacrifice, the first song off “Nightmare Logic,” upon the audience. A blast wave of energy rippled through, churning us into a storming sea of swirling, headbanging hair and pumping fists while the whirlpool of martial arts wannabes roiled in the center. A bolt of lightning cracked overhead, and I saw stars — wait, that was just a stage diver whose proximity I’d failed to estimate. We both fell to the floor, but it wasn’t long before I was back in the thick of it, bobbing to the beat like a storm-tossed buoy.
Power Trip surged ahead with Executioner’s Tax, an homage to thrash’s early days with its pounding percussion and infectious riffing. Guitarists Blake and Nick were relentless — downpicking devastation incarnate — as they accented their notes with the crowd’s cries of “SWING OF THE AXE!” Chris and Chris, the drummer and bassist, held the rhythms down with easy aplomb while vocalist Riley Gale spat fire, his hardcore delivery flooding the room with red-hot magma. True to his namesake, he riled the audience up, charging them with electricity every time he shoved the mic into the front row to let them cover the gang vocal parts.
This was a metal show unlike any I’d been to in over a decade, since I first saw Megadeth for the first time in 2004. I’ll admit I’ve spent much of the last ten-ish years watching bands safely from a distance, drinking in the musicianship from afar rather than getting pulverized in the pit. I’d forgotten how much of a character the crowd could be — and what a fucking character it was! Power Tripping people were constantly clambering onstage to hurl themselves into the audience, which ebbed and flowed with the crashing and rumbling of more mosh-worthy crowd-pleasers like Nightmare Logic, Firing Squad, and Manifest Decimation. When intrepid stage divers, drunk on adrenaline (and probably other stuff), would hurl themselves off the stage, taking the mic stand with them, Riley would abandon his spot on center stage and full-body headbang until the stand washed back ashore. One guy even took on vocal duties for a measure, doing his best to do Power Trip proud before diving back into the audience. Looking back, “audience” doesn’t seem like an appropriate term for those animals — where I was, they weren’t passively watching, but were expending a hell of a lot of effort themselves in the name of good, wild fun. I spent a good portion of the show focusing on the crowd, not only to watch for where the next elbow would come from, but because of how into the music they were.
Near the end of the set, Riley took a moment to compliment The Dark, which he said was his favorite band in California. I got the feeling he wasn’t just pandering — although that would certainly be his right. But between that and his down-to-earth onstage antics, moving deftly between each side of the stage to keep the crowd energized, you could get a sense for his genuine enthusiasm.
The crowd-favorite Crossbreaker was the closer, and people began leaping off the stage like goddamn salmon — their final flight before splashing back into the current toward home. And despite the chants for one more encore, the lights turned defiantly on in the Constellation Room, and the spell was broken.
Planning for the Next Trip
Power Trip’s live show, even more so than their excellent album, exemplifies the grassroots-origins of the thrash genre. That wild night in the Constellation Room formed in my mind a perfect fusion of thrash’s aggression and pace with the DIY mentality of hardcore punk. That nonchalant acceptance of “shit happens” with the storm-tossed mic stands; the hostile takeover of the vocals; even sharing stage-time with their fans — that’s all stuff I’ve rarely seen with a big-name band, much less tolerated by one. By comparison, Power Trip setting up their own equipment just half an hour earlier didn’t seem so strange.
Without a doubt, that night in the Constellation Room was hardly even a blip on the shit Power Trip has probably seen during a show, but I was impressed anyway. And although a week later my bruises are finally starting to heal up, watching their set from inside the pit, shoving and getting shoved alike felt like the right place to be. To share a night with a band and its fans, to cut loose and experience the music the way it was meant to be experienced and the culture that surrounds it — that’s what going to live shows is all about, isn’t it?
The show ended at 1:40, and the crowd trickled out and drifted through the remains of the festival. I sprinted back to the now-empty lot my car was parked in to find a parking violation stuck to my window. Swell. At least I didn’t get a serious concussion from a high-flying fan. I won’t hesitate to see Power Trip again when next they come through, but maybe I’ll stay out of the pit this time.
The recent rise of synth-driven music is a fascinating one, particularly its resonance with the metal community. At first listen, synthwave and metal don’t seem to have much in common — many don’t associate bass-dropping dance club rhythms with raucous riffing and clashing cymbals. But if you look and listen closely enough, you’ll notice the astoundingly deep impact that the musical and aesthetic legacy of the 1980s has left with both genres.
For metal, the imprint left behind by the genre giants is felt in every guitar solo, bullet belt, and gore-covered album cover. For synthwave, it can be anything from glitzy neon font and lens flares to VHS tape static. But some synth artists employ occult (and even outright Satanic) imagery like bloody pentagrams and upside-down crosses, suggesting that they’re more self-aware of their relation to metal than you’d first believe.
Two synth artists who I’ve thought have never shied away from their metal influences are Dance with the Dead (Los Angeles) and Carpenter Brut (France). Although varying wildly in musical style — Dance with the Dead loops undulating digitized basslines beneath arena rock guitar solos, while Carpenter Brut wields synth-based soundtracks of dystopian corruption and social decay — both are heartily embraced by many members of the metal community. Perhaps this can be attributed to both artists’ reliance on actual instruments: Dance with the Dead plays live with two guitars following pre-recorded backing tracks, while Carpenter Brut enlists a live guitarist and drummer and plays many of his synths himself. Regardless, they’re both among the more popular of the new electric echelon.
I was lucky enough to catch both Dance with the Dead and Carpenter Brut playing on the same bill at the Union Nightclub in Los Angeles, CA in late March. There, I wondered just how much this crossover would translate to real flesh-and-blood attendance — and more importantly, how it would be received in a live setting.
Unified at The Union
The line outside stretched for what seemed like half a mile down a dark residential street. All the houses looked like fine candidates for the Amityville Horror — apropos to the night of spooky synthetic jams we were all there to see. And I should emphasize “all” here — there were several hundred people lined up to see bands that I’d wager many discovered through the cultural ripples of the indie video game “Hotline Miami.”
Scrolling through Carpenter Brut’s Facebook timeline beforehand revealed news of sold-out shows and alerts of venue changes to accommodate swelling numbers of ticket buyers. The Union had sold out mere hours before the doors opened at 9 PM, giving context to the tremendous turnout of black-shirted bystanders clinging to the sidewalk. It took half an hour just to make my way upriver.
The Union itself resembled a hollowed-out hotel. The main foyer led up two flights of wide stairs, dumping attendees in front of a glittering bar stocked with glass shelves of alcohol. A wide merch area lay off to the right, and down a short hall illuminated by a neon pink sign was the main stage. Opening act Vogel was finishing up his set, and I and the scatterings of others near the back were treated to his evocative electronica synths. As he graciously thanked the audience and closed his MacBook — the typical synth artist’s weapon of choice — I shuffled ahead to try for a better view. The stage seemed rather low, and a ring of lights pointed puzzlingly inwards at the audience, casting others near me with a ghastly purple light. But I didn’t have to wait long until a large console was carried onto the stage and the glowing white icon of yet another MacBook came into view.
Night of the Rocking Dead
Apart from their obsessive B-movie horror aesthetic, Dance with the Dead stands out from many of their synthwave peers. An LA duo consisting of Justin Pointer and Tony Kim, who both wield guitars and take on mixer duties, they wear their metal/hard rock influence on their sleeves by writing some of the most energizing, upbeat synth songs around. They have their ambient tracks, but most of their material is penned to get you pumped up. As one of the first synth-related bands I’d discovered completely on my own, I had high expectations for their set.
After enduring an intro of Orff’s overused (yet somehow always acceptable) Carmina Burana, Dance with the Dead kicked off their set with Get Out, the ripping first track off their latest release “B-Sides: Volume 1.” I was instantly struck at the chunkiness of their live guitar tone, which surged ahead of the synths with the force of a Spartan shield wall. Not content to simply be labelled a novelty, Kim and Pointer performed their axe duties with the conviction of metal greats, flanking the sides of the stage and chugging with machine-like precision. That’s not to say they lacked stage presence — I was pleased to discover it was quite the opposite. Kim, who seemed to take point for this show both on the frets and the knobs, headbanged with eager energy — the showmanship of someone truly enthused, and perhaps more than a little thrilled, to be playing their own music live.
For all its rough-around-the-edges atmosphere, the Union’s sound system didn’t disappoint. The crowd bounced up and down after potent bass-heavy buildups, and each time I could feel the floor beneath me start to give. More than once during Dance with the Dead’s set I wondered how long until the floor would open up completely and we’d all be swallowed into some gaping hellmouth hidden below.
Maybe it’s just my metal tendencies showing, but I won’t shy from saying I greatly preferred the songs they played with live guitars to them manning the mixing console. And judging from the enthused cheers that erupted every time either Kim or Pointer slung a guitar across their shoulder, much of the audience did too. Several times throughout their set, the duo would doff their guitars and would fiddle with the assorted knobs and levers on the large console in center stage, changing dynamics like dropping the main melody during songs like Eyes of Madness to let the backing track shine or boosting the kick drum for a punchier passage. Since I was familiar with most of their songs, these subtleties weren’t lost on me, and I appreciated how they could manipulate the song rather than standing back and pressing “play.” Still, Watching You, my favorite song off their latest album “The Shape,” lacked the oomph of the other guitar-driven tracks.
Sadly, I was the least enthused with the Dance-ified renditions of Queen’s We Will Rock You, as well as Metallica’s Master of Puppets, the latter of which closed the set out. It was my first time hearing these remixes, and I found them somewhat distracting — trying to discern what additions and liberties were made to renovate these classics took the momentum out of what had been a straightforward, rockin’ good time. Even so, I cheered along with the rest of the crowd when Kim stretched his smartphone out toward us, capturing footage of their hometown. All in all, I enjoyed their set quite a bit.
But the night was just getting started.
Slasher Synth on the Loose
Early on in my synth discovery stage, I had pegged solo French composer Carpenter Brut as more unique than many of his ’80s-worshipping peers. To me, he seemed to defy the heart-thumping retro-futuristic atmosphere a la Perturbator and the neon ‘n’ sweatband jams of Com Truise — instead, he consorted with complex song structures with lots of memorable moving parts. Carpenter Brut didn’t just write soundtracks — he wrote songs. And although many other synthwave artists (such as GosT, or his fellow French countryman Perturbator) flirt with the idea of black metal as an influence, I always felt Carpenter Brut struck the closest to its throbbing heart with his twisting, multi-faceted song approach. But again, seeing it in practice was going to be a test of this theory.
Once Dance with the Dead’s set concluded, chunks of people trickled off back toward the various bar areas, no doubt to quench their thirst after all that hot body rockin’. I took the opportunity to squeeze myself closer toward the front — but not by much. I finally began to feel the effects of the Union at full capacity, and as more aggressive concert-goers crammed themselves between scarcely seen gaps, I decided I’d gotten as close as I needed to. Besides, I was expecting a similarly swift setup time to that of Dance with the Dead.
The additional gear of guitarist and drummer added what seemed an agonizing amount of time onto Carpenter Brut’s setup, which in turn provided plenty of time for every person who had left to be replaced by three more. The temperature rose, and so too did the anticipation for more synth meltdown.
At 11:45 PM, the French trio proceeded to unleash the ultraviolence.
And not a MacBook to be seen.
From the moment the ominous opening notes of Escape to Midwich Valley reverberated through the house speakers, Carpenter Brut held the Union Nightclub in complete thrall. Hypnotic hues of red and white lighting splashed the stage like the grisly aftermath of a murder scene. Meanwhile, depraved imagery of zombie rituals and post-apocalyptic biker battles scrolled across the screen behind the band, adding cinematic context to the music. And on the stage, the three-piece played on and on, seamlessly transitioning from one blood-soaked song to the next.
The drummer was the epitome of energy, hammering his hi-hat with 16-note disco-beat patterns and staggered tom rolls, effortlessly emulating the digitized drums off Carpenter Brut’s essential three-part EP collection, “Trilogy.” The guitarist also added his instrument to the mix, complementing the synths by bolstering their attack with a hard, distorted edge. And commanding a multi-tiered rack of electronic modules, as well as a short keyboard for his leads, the Brut himself seemed subdued, yet held a confident air about him. It was clear that this was his show, and everything the audience felt — the electric energy, the abrasive beats bursting beneath the surface of songs like Division Ruine, Roller Mobster, and Looking for Tracy Tzu was an expression of his vision.
Over the course of the next hour, the intoxicating synthesized melodies and pounding rhythms surged through us. I could feel my blood boiling during 347 Midnight Demons — by Le Perv I felt ready to riot. (Or maybe that was from foolishly wearing jeans in a venue with no windows or air conditioning.) Either way, the electronic onslaught was non-stop, and the audience responded by headbanging and jumping up and down. I saw plenty of raised smartphones attempting to immortalize the essence of that night, but I saw more than a few heated mosh pits, too. Both were indicative to me that although this show was probably unlike anything most people expected they still knew how to enjoy it.
The set ended with Michael Sembello’s She’s a Maniac (yes, from “Flashdance”), complete with Carpenter Brut-ish breakdown. I felt puzzled — another cover for the final song? — but it was then that I began to realize how important the ’80s musical influence was to both them and Dance with the Dead and to be able to pay homage in that way. I felt humbled, and it made me appreciate just what it probably meant for both groups to be playing their versions of the songs they grew up with in front of their own wild, raving fans.
Riding Off into the Synthetic Sunset
Dance with the Dead was entertaining. Their showmanship and fan service in the form of popular rock songs and crowd-pleasing photo ops proves they’ve got their collective finger on the pulse of what makes live performances so dynamic. They could easily have acted the same in a proper metal band and have been received just as well. But when I think back on that night, I think of Carpenter Brut and their authentic approach to performing live as a synth-based band.
They weren’t there to impress us — we weren’t fed any self-indulgent guitar solos meant to drive us into a fret-loving frenzy, and the mini drum solo during Disco Zombi Italia solely served to augment the atmosphere. No, Carpenter Brut didn’t try to “trick” us into seeing them as anything but what they were: a legitimate band, who uses synths but isn’t carried by them, who successfully — and impressively — melds the two worlds of metal and electronic together.
Whenever I see Carpenter Brut live again — and I do hope that’s very soon — I won’t think of them as a synth artist who plays with a live drummer and guitarist — I’ll think of them as a retro-futuristic vision of what can be accomplished with live music. They may straddle the line between two disparately related genres, but what they bring is so unique I can’t recommend enough that you seek it out and try it for yourself.
It’s a new year, so no time to waste. Lets get the ball rolling on some new metalcore for your collection.
AS A CONCEIT
As A Conceit is an Italian metalcore/post-harcore quintet very much in the vein of Architects. Melodic leads mixed with djenty, off-kilter blasts of distortion lead to some righteous riffing. The resulting hooks are fun and well-produced. Vocals are very passionate, rebellious, and ripe for sing-alongs. Philip Strand (Normandie) also has a guest spot on “Idle Hands,” which with its haunting synth additions is possibly the best song on their new album, Frown Upon Us. In fact, the work put into effects and other backing flair across this album does add quite a bit to the atmosphere.
THROUGH LUCID EYES
Through Lucid Eyes is a Canadian progressive metalcore band for fans of ERRA, Northlane, Kardashev. Rather than just going for an emo, sad set of lyrics and hooky guitars; the focus on atmosphere on their latest album really emulates the feeling you get when nothing seems to be going your way. That weight on your shoulders. The vocals have a nice range: brutal deathcore lows, higher metalcore screams, and occasionally even higher-pitched singing (think Saves The Day). The guitars stick to a groovy djent, but the layering, keys, and effects on the leads make for one of the better performances in the style. There are moments that conjure everything from Make Me A Donut to Fallujah. Big drums, and glad to hear the bass standing out as well.
SET BEFORE US
I like to shout-out the underdogs when I can, and these guys fit the bill. Another metalcore act emerges from Stockholm. Set Before Us are a young, hard-working band influenced by the likes of Parkway Drive, Breakdown of Sanity, and August Burns Red. They have so far released two EP’s and a single, the latest of which ‘Enigmas’ came out this past November. While there is still plenty of room to polish things up, I think they have a strong foundation when it comes to catchy riffs and some vocal variation. With the right guidance in the studio, I could see a solid full-length on the horizon. With that in mind, the band is actively seeking labels and support. You can check them out on Facebook and listen to ‘Enigmas” in full below.
It boggles my mind that I can bring up Bandcamp anywhere and still get the response "band what now?" And yet it persists. Despite platforms that criminally underpay the musicians like Spotify and Apple Music becoming the norm, there are SO many reasons I can site for making Bandcamp your new first stop for music from both new and existing groups, especially in the metal genres. Here are just a few highlights along with tips to get the most out of the platform.
There are certain smaller groups out there that I just connect with for one reason or another. It usually has a lot to do with a perfect storm of quality music, clear passion, and personability of the musicians involved. The Hudson Horror undoubtedly meet these criteria. I was initially drawn in during the promotion of their debut full length, but they have stuck around and this year released a follow-up EP called Ruiner. During this time, I have also had the pleasure to correspond with Dan Kelly, the band's vocalist and a founding member. It seemed natural to sit down with Dan, in real time albeit from across the country, and just shoot the shit about the band, early influences, the current state of the music business, and more.
Follow flight through his recent experience at this trendy Portland theater with one of melodeath's most celebrated acts. What did they play? Have they still got the magic? Find out here. Supporting acts include Swallow The Sun, Enforcer, Starkill, Increate, and Von Doom.