I started talking to myself on the Pulaski Bridge to keep the words of Pat Murano from Malkuth drilled into my Schaefer-woozy head. “You consider them to be black metal?” I kept repeating.This was his reply when I told him about my digging into New York black metal and a couple bands I liked.To me, the answer was obvious. I should have screamed in his face: “Fuck yeah I do!” But I held it in and later screamed to the blackness surrounding me as I walked across the shaky tin bridge from Brooklyn to Queens.
I had just left Tommy’s Tavern in Greenpoint after experiencing Discordia, Sacristy, Crucifixion and Malkuth, Murano’s own band. If these bands aren’t black metal, I thought, who the hell is?
New York is home to more than 20 bands that are known to be black metal. They play wherever they can—like the Lit Lounge, Tommy’s Tavern, Public Assembly or even D.I.Y. places like Death By Audio and Silent Barn. And yet, unlike the indie scene you can follow on Brooklyn Vegan or OhMyRockness, there is no sense of community in what could be the biggest black metal scene in the country.
Black metal is different from other forms of metal, in both sound and content. Think of Slayer, only scarier and lo-fi.The guitars sound like phonebooks being continuously ripped in half, the drums are fast-blast beats and the vocals are shrieking. Songs are built on intricate harmonies with chord progressions that defy common metal logic. Many New York bands, with the freedom of a nonexistent scene, have tinkered with these styles, unafraid to apply their own American influences.There are even fewer boundaries in content.The famed Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990s was mainly anti-Christian, but today’s bands have lyrics ranging from astronomy musings to confessions of self-hatred.
So what’s the problem?
The most blatant reason is because black metal is fundamentally anti-social. Not every style of music is looking for unity. They know the downside. Scenes breed conformity. Recently, we saw the release of Immortal Life by Liturgy, the self-titled debut from Krallice, Time Insults the Mind by Black Anvil and Ash Pool’s Saturn’s Slave 7-inch. Each record defines black metal in a different way, pushing the definition of “black” farther than ever.
As I dug into the city’s black metal, I realized the main problem is the debate of Content vs. Sound. I was in Hospital Productions, the best record store in the city for noise/black metal, when Dominick Fernow, the owner, repeated to me: “It’s more than music.” Fernow believes black metal is about ideas rather than sound. Whether it’s rooted in Satanism, death, pain, destruction or the selfish desire to impose your feelings on the world, it must come wholeblackheartedly before the music. When I asked Fernow what bands in New York he thought were black metal, he named Ash Pool, his own band, and Negative Plane, which recently relocated from Florida.
He failed to mention Malkuth, a band on his own Hospital Productions label, though when I told Murano, it didn’t bother him much. Even he’s hesitant to call Malkuth a black metal band. “As time goes on, I feel we are more doing our own thing,” explains Murano. “I have a lot of interest in the occult utilities of ritual…I think playing music and listening to music is ritualistic. Rarely have I ever seen it so explicitly placed with music as in black metal.” At a show at Public Assembly in early March, Malkuth’s drummer lit candles while fog and red lights enveloped the band.
On the content side, the guys in Malkuth should be buds with Sacristy, yet Sacristy was one of the bands Murano questioned at Tommy’s. In interviews, both bands talked about the influence of British occultist Aleister Crowley, who many mislabel as a Satanist. Crowley wrote the famous Book of the Law, a cornerstone in his “Do what thou wilt” Thelema religion. I think the problem is that Stephen Durnin, the lead singer and founder of Sacristy, wears corpse paint. Murano doesn’t even wear black.
“What we tried to do from the get go was keep the essence of that misanthropic Satanic early ’90s black metal but put a lot of the rockin’ straight-up metal feel you get with ’80s bands like Venom and Slayer,” says Durnin about his 10-year-old band Sacristy. Some bands are more influenced by black metal’s first wave in the early ’80s (Venom, Bathory, Celtic Frost), while others try to follow in the footsteps of the mainly Norwegian second wave (Mayhem, Darkthrone, Emperor). Corpse paint has been around the whole time, though it became a serious part of the scene in Norway.
Lev Weinstein of Krallice sits on the sonic side of the argument. “This idea of misanthropic philosophy and corpse paint and all that, I just don’t care about in the least and I never have,” says Weinstein. “I’m purely interested in the musical explorations of the genre. For me that’s the be all, end all.”
Krallice is a band that has profited from the lack of a black metal scene. Centered around guitar virtuosos Colin Marston and Mick Barr, the band of twenty-somethings has opened doors to a wider audience. Krallice plays shows at Silent Barn and Death By Audio with fellow sound-over-content black metal band Liturgy.
“Krallice has a special place in my heart’s deep dungeon, but I think right now the black metal act I’m most excited about is Liturgy,” says black metal fan/blogger Karlynn Holland. “I think that Hunter [Liturgy’s founder] was really able to bring some of his ideas about black metal to maturity.” Liturgy and Krallice represent a new school of black metal that’s changing the way we hear the genre.
As for live shows, they do exist, but it can be hard for bands to find good places to play. Brandon Stosuy, a writer for Pitchfork, has been the most recent advocate of all things heavy, organizing monthly Show No Mercy lineups at Public Assembly.
“Talking with a lot of friends in bands, they said too many area promoters were sketchy or didn’t publicize their shows well, so I figured I’d give it a shot,” says Stosuy, who is also writing a book on American black metal. Stosuy’s helping to fill the void left after both the Knitting Factory and Metal Kingdom, the Queens all-metal venue, closed last year. It’s tough out there. Far from the indie scene that seems to sprout a new venue, new band and new blogs every damn week.
Paul Delaney from Black Anvil thinks the problem lies in the greater New York metal scene. “There’s no unity,” Delaney says. “Not that I’m not looking to hold hands and sing, but there’s no acknowledgement of each other. It’s just everyone’s better than you. I don’t need that. I really think that’s what makes a scene up. Mutual friendships and bonds you can have with other bands.”
As long as the bands keep disagreeing, we won’t see a defined scene anytime soon. Dragging everyone’s definition into a single sentence, or even a single article, would ruin what black metal’s all about: screaming into the surrounding darkness about something that pisses you off. And there’s plenty to be pissed about these days.