BEHIND A ROW of inverted crosses a roadie rams brown, rotting animal skulls onto massive onstage pikes. Their decaying smell fills all 8,000 square-feet of Manhattan’s Santos Party House. “I’ll stay for the first hour unless I pass out,” says twenty-something NYU academic advisor Stephanie Gika, before putting a sweater over her nose. The stench sticks to concert goers indiscriminately, ruining everything from Gika’s white sweater to the metalhead up front’s black hoodie with the word “Goatwhore” written on it.
Watain is the only group that can become more ghastly than the 12 carcasses they’ve impaled onstage. The Swedish black metal band lives out their death and damnation while performing covered in dirt, blood and black-and-white corpse paint makeup. Their songs are more like satanic odes formed from vicious, swarming guitars and screams to “sodomize the god that failed.” Singer Erik Danielsson has no witty stage banter or showoff moves for the ladies. The only fan he does acknowledge is the crowd surfer he violently kicks for getting too close to the stage. But like method actors in a twisted play, the diverse New York audience raises devil horn hand signs of approval for all these black metal sacrileges. And of course, Gika stays the entire show.
Black metal is the fanatical heavy metal subgenre that’s possessed Scandinavia for two decades and is now spreading to New York to scare all the hipsters right out of their skinny jeans. Last year saw two sub-mainstream Norwegian black metal groups, Enslaved and Dimmu Borgir, hit the Billboard Heatseeker and Top 200 charts alongside the more dramatic satanic sounds of England’s Cradle of Filth. More importantly, New Yorkers are now forming their own evil bands and disproving the notion real black metal is exclusively Scandinavian. By bending genre conventions these groups are slowly reaching America’s mainstream, getting bigger recording budgets and releasing albums on bigger labels.
Black Anvil, three hardcore punks converted to black metal, supported the blasphemous Watain for the New Yorkers’ first North American tour. Liturgy, self-labeled abstrusely as “transcendental black metal,” has received nods from publications like The New York Times, hipster tastemaker Pitchfork and culturally conscious New York Magazine, and recently released their second album “Aesthethica” last May. To come into your own you have to “rupture the rules,” says Liturgy guitarist/vocalist Hunter Hunt-Hendrix.
But not everyone is happy with success. More than any music scene today, black metal is acutely self-aware and strict about its sound. As progressives gain attention traditionalists are calling foul while craving to sever their projected growth like a tumor. “Where’s the blackness?” asks multi-band black metal veteran Ryan Lipynsky. This ideological battle between purists and progressives is shaping New York’s black metal, the outcome of which could ripple through how the country treats this genre. For you non-metalheads out there, it determines what kind of monstrous sound you’ll be cowering from in the 2010s.
That might sound a tad overblown, but historically black metal has been so sincere with regard to its dark subject matter that it can be a little unnerving—even for fans. Since beginning in Norway in 1984, this extreme music has retained themes we’d call heavy metal caricatures: Satan, the occult, hell. But these bands were serious. Throughout Norway in the 1990s, black metal fans and musicians rampantly set churches ablaze; some arsons committed by high-profile artists.
A handful of people died. Mayhem singer Per Yngve Ohlin (with the ironic stage name Dead) committed suicide with a shotgun to the head. The band’s reaction—guitarist Øystein Aarseth (aka Euronymous) photographed the body and put it on the cover of their 1995 bootleg, Dawn of the Black Hearts. Later, bassist Varg Vikernes became legendary after stabbing Aarseth to death then continuing to release music from prison. Shortly after the murder, Vikernes told UK metal magazine Kerrang!, “I will dance and piss on [Aarseth’s] grave.” Vikernes was released on parole in 2009.
I am unashamed to say I own many albums from these criminal artists and not just for some sick fascination, like desiring to watch a car wreck on the side of the road. Hearing black metal puts you in the passenger seat as the wreck happens. Guitarists play rapidly at high pitches, only slowing for as occasional dark melodic passage; the bass just following along. The drums are as much a raw explosion as a simple time keeper. As another genre mainstay, singers shriek like their vocal chords are made of shattered glass, yelling lyrics that if comprehendible are too cryptic to be easily understood.
Myself and likeminded fans love it: for the danger, for exploring the dark recesses of humanity priests and parents have barred and, after you acquire a taste for it, because it simply sounds damn good. This is old school black metal, music so surrounded by darkness even some heavy metal fans won’t touch it.
And this is Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. The creative force behind Liturgy is about to bring his brand of black metal to Silent Barn, a Brooklyn DIY concert space known to attract more hipsters than metalheads. It’s easy to see why: for a stage prop they have bubble machine and for a backdrop they have a mural of rainbows floating teddy bears – friendly, flying non-metal teddy bears. Even though I toned down my usual metal concert attire by wearing a punk rock Misfits shirt and I still feel, well, like a misfit.
In a place where black metal seems so incompatible, Hunt-Hendrix fits right in. He has no visible tattoos. His doesn’t wear chains or spikes. He does have long brown hair but it only serves to frame and highlight his soft facial features. At 25, Hunt-Hendrix still looks like the 14-year-old he was when he first started playing in high school hardcore bands.
All of which leaves me unprepared when he starts Liturgy’s set with a shrill, incomprehensible scream and a flood of noise. The music is so fast it’s petrifying. Guitars pick unendingly, forming songs only with subtle tempo gradations. When the drums seem like they’ve reached their speed limit, they somehow jump one more level. It’s too fast for headbanging. At most you can bob with it. Even the musicians look cemented in place by the music, exerting themselves until their hands become solid blocks of motion.
Liturgy’s speed both defines the band as black metal and pushes them to the genes outer fringe. Fast isn’t new, but Liturgy uses their speed to a much different end by creating a soft quality. You can see it watching the band live. Despite the speed’s physical demand Hunt-Hendrix looks serene, relaxed and dare I say it, transcendent.
“It’s making black metal on the basis of ecstasy,” says Hunt-Hendrix. “It feels wonderful.” Hunt-Hendrix isn’t one for making statements old-school black metallers want to hear. He believes the music isn’t esoteric but universal, and he uses black metal’s extremes as bedrock for this wider vision. “There is always some kind of distance, because in a way we are not part of the black metal community but we are using the style of black metal,” said Hunt-Hendrix.
By the same hand, Liturgy’s defiance of conventions has earned them a growing legion of fans from metalheads to hipsters. The band even played in Sweden with pop group Love is All, possibly earning them fun-loving Swedish fans too. Hunt-Hendrix brought transcendental black metal out further when he spoke at the Hideous Gnosis symposium on black metal in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2009. The next generations of black metal enthusiasts are the ones accepting Liturgy, says Hunt-Hendrix. “There are a lot of people my age who have had a chance to grow up and listen to other kinds of music and then discover black metal later.” Liturgy is part of that diversified group. After all, he says, “We’re not like Watain.”
Neither is Black Anvil, but that hasn’t stopped them from braving a slippery, bloody stage and opening for the Swedes on their 2010 North American tour. The concert dates coincided with last September’s release of Black Anvil’s second album Triumvirate, which gave the band timely national exposure. Considering the band’s past, some might call the exposure undeserved. While Black Anvil has blasted metal since 2007, its three members shared past extends further. All of them were part of the hardcore group Kill Your Idols while hardcore (think punk music but faster) dominated New York underground music.
“It was almost edgier than metal,” says Black Anvil bassist/vocalist Paul Delaney, 33. “New York City in the early 90s was so dangerous and the music was a little dangerous. It was great.” But even though K.Y.I. broke up in 2007, the musicians’ reputation as punks has stayed with them and undercut their sincerity as a black metal band. Underground publications like the hardcore e-zine AsIce have dismissed them offhand, calling them “metal by hardcore dudes.” “We’re pigeonholed,” says Delaney. “It gets on my nerves.”
It takes a big overlook to name Black Anvil hardcore watching them open at Santos. Songs from their new album like “Ultimate Reality” and “Angels to Dust” have the straightforward riffing force of a sledgehammer—heavier than anything black metal’s founding fathers made. Delaney rasps personally-inspired attacks rather than satanic incantations, with lyrics like, “I’ll walk you to your grave,” on “Dead and Left.” Black Anvil’s on-stage presence does show a street grit more akin to punk, but it just gives their performance an added realism and gravity.
That uncommonly crushing type of black metal is what Delaney blames most for when they don’t get booked to shows in areas like the bohemian Williamsburg. “I don’t think we’re victims,” Delaney says. Now that hardcore has deflated, looking at the black metal scene from afar helps inspire him. Black metal doesn’t have the same level of networking and fraternity that hardcore did, Delaney says, but with black metal’s reoccurring misanthropic themes it’s no wonder why groups like Black Anvil need to find success on their own. “I don’t know how it worked out but it worked out,” says Delaney. “We managed to keep our own course and not be a hip band.”
Maybe Black Anvil is hipper than they think. Along with other outside-of-norm metal bands, the website Pitchfork has covered Black Anvil. Pitchfork is by no means a heavy metal outlet. It’s the premiere e-zine for lo-fi indie music lovers nationwide. The only reason it’s on the web is because it wouldn’t fit into hipsters’ back pockets if printed in Bible form.
After noticing a creative upswing in metal, Pitchfork began to do more progressive black metal coverage with the just-metal column “Show No Mercy” from 2006 to 2009, recently reemerging in September. With progressive black metal bands part of the forefront, the belief was that fear doesn’t stop people from listening—confusion does.
“When you’re dipping your toes into relatively unfamiliar genres of music, it’s often easier to be introduced to those new worlds via hybrids and eclectic versions that contain elements of other, more-familiar music,” says Pitchfork Editor-in-Chief Scott Plagenhoef via e-mail. Because of sites like Pitchfork, once-hidden, unfamiliar genres like black metal are coming closer to the public eye, he says. This dark, veiled music isn’t hermetically sealed anymore, and the out-of-the-box black metal bands are the ones people understand and admire most.
New York Press writer Adam Wisnieski, 25, says one reason New York is home to so many of these out-there bands is the nature of the city itself. “It’s just the speed of the city,” he says. “If any scene or type of music wanted to get the set of rules or dos-and-don’ts, it would be gone before you know it.” Another reason, he says, is that New York bands are acting purposefully against old black metal with progressivism. (Blasphemy!)
When Wisnieski started writing for the New York Press newspaper in 2008, he called New York’s black metal scene a failed idea. Black metal was too hateful to ever come together, he wrote. “Looking back at it, I think that I was kind of wrong,” Wisnieski says. Progressive black metal bands are less about imagery, he says, meaning anyone from nicely-dressed college advisors to sweaty metalhead journalist can be fans. “If you have a bunch of kids that listen to MGMT just start listening to Liturgy that’s awesome, that’s a story right there and that’s kind of what happened,” says Wisnieski. Cementing his point, he jokes that even country rocker Ryan Adams—pop starlet Mandy Moore’s husband—likes black metal.
But not all evil in this world is tainted by Mandy Moore. Negative Plane is still vanguard to the old black metal standards. Venom, Celtic Frost and Mercyful Fate are imbedded influences for them—black metal’s equivalent of The Beatles, The Kinks and The Who. And Negative Plane’s belief remains “[black metal] is supposed to be ugly and foul,” as drummer Matthias Mueller says, 27.
Mueller formed Negative Plane with guitarist Nameless Void in Florida in 2001, and they relocated to New York in 2008. Since the beginning, religion has been a core theme of their music, drawing from their experiences living around Christianity. Until he was 16, Mueller lived in Germany under the constant shadow of a 13th century cathedral, having a lasting effect on how he makes music. Mueller even used pictures of the tabernacle for the artwork of their 2006 debut ‘Et In Saecula Saeculorum, named after the liturgical phrase meaning ‘world without end.’ “I’m sure other people weren’t affected by it, but I know I was,” he says.
Translating theistic subject matter into music comes “as natural to us as breathing or walking around,” says Nameless Void, 31, who declined to give his real name in order to preserve his stage identity. Negative Plane proves this on ‘Et In Saecula Saeculorum. The album starts by creating reverential mood with church bells, then quickly subverting it with echoing flashes of guitars. Songs explore oblivion and damnation using lines like, “Surrender the spirit, a soul for fuel, the devil’s flame to the way,” from “Staring into the Abyss.” Nameless Void furthers the music’s atmosphere by barking about the end of days like a hellish preacher.
Outside of their music, Negative Plane has another message to preach—stop ripping off other bands’ material. “I see a lot of fucking bands take a book and just copy half the fucking page out of the book and rewrite it a little bit and that’s their lyric sheet,” says Mueller. It’s a sin the band sees spreading throughout black metal, especially with the genre’s growing popularity and number of bands. As recent transplants from Florida, they don’t claim they’re in touch with New York’s forming music scene —they don’t even want to be. But they have strong enough principles and the clarity of an outside perspective to take an abstract stance.
“It gets to the point where when I hear a band marketed as black metal, I fucking don’t want to hear it,” says Mueller. “A lot of bands play this outside-the-box fucking card, but I feel like the only reason that they’re doing it is because they ripped off Darkthrone or whoever else to the exhaustion point.” Progressivism isn’t Negative Plane’s enemy; the rising numbers of genre-mixing progressive black metal bands are. “It doesn’t sound like anything,” says Nameless Void. “It doesn’t sound like prog-rock or sound like black metal or a good mixture of either.”
But as distressing as black metal’s development can be when Negative Plane pays attention to it, the band has reaped some of the growing scene’s benefits. They signed to the label Invictus Products to get a bigger budget for their second record, Stained Glass Revelations, which was released this February. Scandinavia’s biggest rock magazine, Sweden Rock Magazine also interviewed Mueller, giving the band international exposure and some optimism. Nine years ago, the U.S. metal was in creative doldrums, full of bad bands cloning each other, says Nameless Void. “I think at least it’s a better time now.”
Ryan Lipynsky isn’t so positive about black metal’s trajectory. While Lipynsky, 33, is most famous for playing guitar and singing in the trudging doom metal outfit Unearthly Trance, the New York musician has also created a number of underground black metal side project bands like Thralldom and The Howling Wind. “Black metal is not open-minded,” Lipynsky says against attempts to broaden the genre’s characteristics. “It’s a very narrow road. You look at the first four Bathory [black metal’s first band] records—that’s what I define as black metal.”
His definition is so narrow that he has trouble saying his projects are strictly black metal. While Thralldom used black metal standards like satanic lyrics, pained yells and malevolent guitar tones, it also experimented with disorienting noise. After Thralldom disbanded in 2006, The Howling Wind continued Lipynsky’s wave of discordant metal, most recently with their second album, Into The Cyrosphere, breaking genre barriers that no longer exist.
These languished, once-strange noise experiments in black metal are the reason why Lipynsky won’t associate himself fully with the genre. But with young bands throwing in an array of avant-garde influences, what he used to understand as the fringe has become the norm. That’s fine, he says—but don’t call yourself true black metal. “I don’t think a form of music created as a reaction to a religious movement should be something that’s all-inclusive—it’s not that way, it shouldn’t be that way,” says Lipynsky. “People who think it can be some free expressional artistic movement have really got it wrong.”
For Lipynsky, black metal needs to reach into darkness and pull out some truth. From his childhood curiosities with the paranormal to reading about occultist leader Aleister Crowley, pentagrams and the Bible, Lipynsky has been meticulously building his own spiritual path. “I’ve retained something I’ve called a cynical virtue,” he says about never subscribing to one belief system. “The idea is to take something from everything.”
The new wave of black metal bands doesn’t do this examination of the unknown, Lipynsky says. For all their Satanic, anti-Christian rhetoric, these bands don’t act on their message as the Norwegian church burners did (not that he wants them to). “They don’t really want to do anything against religion; they just want to use it the way death metal bands talk about cutting up women,” he says. Satanism is a cheap shock and Lipynsky isn’t frightened. There isn’t much to be frightened about, he says, when bands confront him with a “homeboy in the Midwest with his panda face paint playing with his swords in the backyard.”
“Maybe it’s also got something to do with the aging process,” Lipynsky says. “The original lore of black metal was how strange and distant it was and now it’s so normal and acceptable.” Nowadays, young bands are ignoring those roots and turning New York into one big black metal family, he says. “It’s a pessimistic attitude but I just don’t really see where it’s going besides more commercialized, more diluted.”
Black metal’s evolution won’t change how bands like Lipynsky’s The Howling Wind and Negative Plane make music. Theirs are individual artistic pursuits. But New York’s progressive sound has changed U.S black metal from just a laughingstock. Pretty soon we may even be asking how many decomposing animal skulls you can bring to the Grammys, as these bands are looking for praise. “There is definitely a bigger force to write what we’re writing,” says Delaney. “Or else I’d drop everything and play an acoustic guitar and do what everybody else does, playing for a bar that gives you free pizza.”
Michael Ronan is a music writer based in Massachusetts.
Photographs by Michael Ronan.