I’d like to preface this installment by stating for the record that I’ve always found US based black metal to be sorely lacking in numerous respects.
Atmosphere? Nope. Believability? Nah. Drawing from and paying homage to the proper sources? Not so much. Even the best known bands the States have produced fall well short of the mark our European and South American forebears continue to draw on and level set to: Xasthur will never be half as interesting as Mutiilation; Nunslaughter, while a decent blackened thrash concern in its own right, is no Vlad Tepes, much less a Bathory. There’s no analogue to early Sepultura, early Kreator, or Sarcofago, much less Mayhem when they mattered, Darkthrone, Immortal or Burzum.
It’s just an entirely different mindset and cultural palette informing things over here than in the more culturally refined, historically minded, classical music grounded and artistically infused European acts, and the aggression and primitivity tends to be more of an affectation than the genuine rage and primal scream of the South American crowd (even to this day, with acts like Bestial Holocaust and the Kreator worshipping Witchtrap).
Think about it: what are we drawing from? Hip hop? Country? Motown? God help us, grunge and aggro? The music can’t help but be shit with such a sorry base to draw from, with a culture informed by reality TV and torture porn. No wonder the only real American genre to flourish since the fall of metal at the dawn of the 90’s has been death metal – it’s all about slasher films and violence, without the barest hint of aesthetics or the more affecting contemplative terror spawned by fog and shadow, and the abyssal inner depths of introspection, all of which appear totally alien to the blunted mindset of a polarized post-9-11, post-hip hop, post-reality TV nation.
That said, there is one label dedicated to delivering some quite interesting exceptions to the rule. Closely associated from the outset with the aforementioned Nunslaughter, Chase Horval’s Ohio based Hell’s Headbangers has made something of a mission statement out of delivering some very underground, very retro sounding blackened thrash based metal. To call it black metal would be slightly disingenuous by dint of all the bloated associations of later bastardizations of the style – progressive, symphonic, ambient, and so forth. This is the real deal, kiddies.
In fact, as evidence of the pinpoint accuracy and dedication to the core audience here, Hell’s Headbangers has released several of the acts already mentioned herein and in prior music reviews on the Third Eye site (Nunslaughter of course, but also Bestial Holocaust, Witchtrap, Cultes des Ghoules, Black Jesus, Deathhammer, Impious Baptism, Children of Technology, Evil Army, Japan’s Sabbat, Toxic Holocaust, Cerekloth, Vomitor, Sathanas and The Spawn of Satan, among others, even going so far as to include my favorite punk band, The Vladimirs on the roster!) – several of which actually hail from overseas. So suffice to say, if they’re going to take on a USBM act, it’s probably one of the few worth giving a spin to.
And so we come to the focus of today’s discussion: two acts from Hell’s Headbangers that fans of old school, scary sounding black metal (you know, the kind you play when you’re alone, late at night, walking out in the fog, unsure of whether that footstep behind you or approaching shadow in the distance means to do you a mischief…) should incline their ears towards this month.
First, we have a band out of Virginia who’s been poking around on the demo circuit since the early 90’s, but who only got around to putting out full fledged album releases come 2000: Gravewurm.
There’s not a hell of a lot to say here, really – suffice it to mention that Gravewurm’s latest, Infernal Minions, shows a very interesting, quite underground black metal outfit whose sound falls somewhere between Cultes des Ghoules and my all time favorite US based blackened thrash/doom metal act, Goatlord (keep an eye on the Third Eye site for my interview with legendary Goatlord/Doom Snake Cult vocalist Ace Still, coming later this summer…).
With a vocal sound somewhere between Quorthon, Frantisek Storm of Master’s Hammer and Ace Still, guitarist and vocalist Kevin “Funeral Grave” Fye keeps things so virulently noncommercial as to scare off or creep out all but the most hardened fans of the genre – casual black metal “fans” still worshipping at the altars of such cheesy “names” as Dimmu Borgir and the slightly more respectable Cradle of Filth will run from this one like the plague.
The guitars are simple, and the sound distinctly lo-fi, with a cavernous vocal mix dominating the final product to a point that it would be entirely forgivable to believe this some recently discovered obscurity from 1985, never really surfacing in company with the likes of Endless Pain, Morbid Visions and INRI. So yeah, this is some serious shit.
More (dare I say it?) mainstream by comparison comes Los Angeles based Toxic Holocaust mainman Joel Grind, who delivers in his first full length solo release The Yellowgoat Sessions a record so close musically to the self titled Bathory album from 1984 as to practically clone its original misprint cover (which as just about every collector or fan of the genre knows, came out in a bright yellow rather than the intended gold, and was subsequently replaced by the standard black and white version), and go so far as to title the album after said variant.
Anyone who’s ever heard and loved the original album and bemoaned its loss in the rather muddy and confused sequel The Return (which was a rather sorry effort succeeded and bookended between the self titled and the true masterpiece of the band and linchpin of the genre it eventually spawned, Under the Sign of the Black Mark) should be quite pleased with Grind’s efforts here, which are slavishly adherent to the original template: simplistic guitars and drumming displaying equal influence of Venom and Motorhead, suitably cavernous occasional solos, and not incredibly deep lyrics leaning vaguely towards a teenage, likely Catholic horror fan’s ideas of Satanism and the forces of darkness.
The one area where Grind’s efforts fall well short of the original (and for that matter, the earlier discused Gravewurm) is in consideration of the vocals. For an act so dedicated to paying direct and open homage to a particular band and album, the vocals carry little if any of Quorthon’s sneering rasp. In fact, Grind’s vocals lean far closer to a raw and unpolished proto-death metal than the literal seed from which an entire genre was birthed.
And while perfectly acceptable (it’s not exactly John Tardy or Chuck Schuldiner in tone, mind you – this is a very underground variant of this particular vocal style), the raspy, throatily screamed sound of Grind, while fitting in well enough with the music it accompanies, is jarring and distancing from the illusion he is trying to create, of a sort of unearthed companion to Ace Forsberg’s pseudonymous alter ego’s 1984 debut assault on the metal underground.
In point of fact, while the obvious and overriding influence here is early Bathory per se, with its Motorheadesque “vengeance spell” (ala the self titled) and “13 candles”esque “foul spirit within” (ala Under the Sign…), vocally, Grind is ultimately tapping more into a sound that marks this as kin to the sort of oddball, deliberately obscure blackened thrash meets black metal acts you’d find all over the Hell’s Headbangers roster.
There’s further something about the entire project that reminds me of Germany’s Warhammer (the slavish if entertaining Hellhammer/early Celtic Frost wannabes), but it’s honestly better than all that – there’s more originality to the sound here, less rigidity and strict adherence to the template than that comparison may indicate.
Still in all, this is really damn close, and I encourage fans of the style Bathory was shooting for on that first record to check this one out for themselves ASAP – without mincing words, it’s damned good (pun intended).