THE VOID is a new column that aims to explore, expose, and champion the finest in underground metal. Following the template of the old Norwegian webzines that devotees would host on Geocities decades ago, this monthly feature will include interviews, opinions, reviews, and occasional live coverage in the hopes of providing a snapshot of metal culture and extreme music in general.
Most people I meet don’t like heavy metal, which is totally understandable, albeit upsetting. As a society, we fear and flinch at the things to which we are unaccustomed, and the general public doesn’t encounter metal in contemporary settings. After grunge flipped the music industry on its head in the early ’90s, metal became a countercultural niche, which was then further segmented into sub-genres and branching styles. It has gotten progressively more extreme and idiosyncratic, existing in a vacuum while the common people are mostly excluded from the genre entirely.
I can tolerate simple distaste, because what sounds good to your ears might not sound good to someone else’s. But what gets me about reactionary metal haters is the lack of respect and the instantaneous dismissal of something that isn’t fully understood. I recall the umbrella term under which my parents group every metal song they’ve ever heard me listen to: “screaming noise shit.”
I myself was once guilty of such flippancy. As a preteen obsessed with classic rock like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, I remember hearing Metallica’s Ride the Lightning and only liking the intro to “Fade to Black” because it was melodic and accessible. It was something I could comprehend, surrounded by harsher aesthetics that were, at the time, foreign to my ears. There was an acclimation difficulty to be reconciled, and eventually — after hearing the album countless times on car rides with my friends — I not only warmed up to the thrashing rhythms and aggression, but grew to love the visceral power that no other music could provide. I had been converted.
But for all the people who write off metal, there are those select headbangers who write off everything that isn’t metal. From a sociological standpoint, these people are even more fascinating because they have made an absolutist life choice, associating so closely with their favorite artists that they become extensions of them, never not wearing a metal shirt and shit-talking punk bands. If the haters are slaves to hegemony, then these full-time metalheads are anarchy personified. Their total defiance is commendable; they live what they believe. But they’re a judgy clique, obsessed with authenticity and poserism and the epically irrelevant distinction of what is and isn’t hipster. Elitism takes over when you reach the inner circle of most scenes, but it is especially prevalent in metal. It’s just fucking music, and the hostility is deplorable.
To this writer, heavy metal is the most interesting genre of music sonically and culturally. That is why I started this column. However, as a form of musical expression, it should not be dismissed as screaming noise shit or treated as an inclusive niche for extremists; rather, it should be considered as music, plain and simple — an evolution of rock, blues, and punk that allows the songwriter to physically release the full extent of his or her passion.
In this month’s issue, I interview one-man metal project Black Monolith aka Gary Bettencourt, whose debut full-length, Passenger, is a constant outpouring of dark emotion; also, I review Triptykon’s Melana Chasmata, which is the tale of frontman Tom G. Gabriel’s battle with suicidal depression. At their core, these two musicians are just ordinary dudes with heavy thoughts and a heavy way of expressing them. Are they so different from other melancholic songwriters in other genres, or do they just prefer harsher sounds out of their instruments?
If I were to set a lofty end goal for this feature, it would be to repair the disconnect between metal and the rest of music culture, even though neither seems to particularly care for one another. And if I can’t do that, I want to at least learn why such a disconnect exists beyond a basic disagreement in musical principles. Jeff Hanneman said it best when a TV reporter asked him about extreme music: “They’re just songs.” Social stigmas should never hold sway over what you listen to.
Interview: Gary Bettencourt, aka Black Monolith
Black Monolith is the recording moniker of Gary Bettencourt, a one-man metal powerhouse hailing from Oakland. His debut LP, Passenger, released last month on All Black Recordings, is some of the finest punk-inspired metal in recent memory, culled from sporadic recordings during a whirlwind three-year period. To hear Bettencourt discuss it, Passenger was almost the album that never was, as it became secondary to more pressing issues in his life, such as raising a child and touring with Deafheaven. But with dedication and a little help from his friends, it came together, and what a fine slab of extremity it is: blackened speed with a hint of shoegaze and d-beat crust. In his first-ever interview as Black Monolith, Bettencourt talks about his artistic approach, the constant comparisons to Deafheaven, and his life outside of music.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. How’s it going?
Good, just relaxing at home right now.
Congrats on the new record. It sounds fantastic.
Thanks. It officially came out today I think.
Oh, then this is perfect timing.
How did the record come about? I understand that you released a three-song demo in 2011 and then took a break from Black Monolith to tour as the guitarist for Deafheaven.
Four out of the six songs were written between 2011 and ’12, and “Gold Watch” and “Eris” were written in 2013. So I’ve been sitting on these songs for a couple of years, and my original plan was just to release them for free like I did the demo. And then Derek [Prine] (of Deafheaven) started the label and asked if I wanted it to be the first record.
It seems like a lot of the stuff I read about you tends to go back to Deafheaven. I guess it’s a natural comparison because of the label situation and because you were in the band, but to these ears, your music is pretty different.
I’ve known George [Clark] and Kerry [McCoy] for about 10 years. We kind of grew up together musically. But Deafheaven is more shoegaze, and usually the melodies that are in my songs, I push them to the back. They’re not at the forefront, but you can still hear them. I think that’s a major difference. When people write, like, “Oh, this is the touring guitarist trying to make a band that sounds like Deafheaven,” like, I never made a conscious decision to make parts like this or like that or put more Deafheaven-y parts here, nothing like that. You get inspired by the people and the music that you’re around, and Deafheaven being one of them for me, some of that’s gonna leak through to your own music.
Conceptually, what are you trying to convey through the music and lyrics on Passenger?
The lyrics are probably the part I put the least amount of effort into. I wouldn’t call myself a lyricist or a writer. It’s more about the feeling of the song for me rather than what I’m saying. Lyrics always come last for everything that I write. I usually listen to it, and certain lines will pop in my head, and if they don’t fit this way or that way, I’ll cut them up. I forget what song it is, but I just wrote sentences down on a piece of paper and then cut them out and mixed them around to make weird, different sentences.
That is writerly, though. That’s Burroughs’ cut-up technique.
Yeah, exactly. I figured I’d try it, and it came out pretty cool.
As for yourself, did you grow up in Oakland?
No, not at all. I grew up in a small town called Riverbank [Ca.]. And then I lived in Modesto for a while, and that’s where I met George and Kerry. Then I moved to Oakland about a year ago.
What’s it been like, transitioning from a small town to the big city?
Honestly, I don’t get out much. I’ve got a 15-month-old daughter. Right now it’s just kinda work, watch the kid, work. In the span of this record — 2011 to now — I’ve worked warehouse jobs… I was unemployed for a time. I’ve only been working my current job in San Francisco for a year. It’s been wild; I’ve moved four different times in that span.
Yet you still found time to record these songs.
I’ve just been taking my computer everywhere, writing songs here and there when I get the chance.
With all the travel and moving around, is there any special significance to the word “passenger” as the title of the record?
I thought of that during a commute at like 5 a.m. to this warehouse job in Pleasanton — an hour drive every morning. And I lost my license for about five years, so I’ve always been the passenger, so it has that connection to me. But I thought it up on the drive to work one morning listening to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and thought, “That would be a cool name for the album.”
I know it’s a solo act, but do you have any plans of touring the record or playing solo shows?
I’ve talked about it with some people, but it’s not my top priority. I’d have to relearn all the songs. And I’ve never actually played guitar and sung at the same time. A lot of the riffs were written spur of the moment; a lot of the chords are overdubs, and most of the leads are just a couple takes of me playing over it.
So, there’s an improvisational aspect to your music?
Yeah. A lot of it is improvised, actually.
Will you be rejoining Deafheaven for any of their upcoming tour dates?
They have a pretty solid lineup right now. What happened earlier, when they started, Nick [Bassett] from Whirr couldn’t do the KEN Mode tour [in 2011], so they asked me to do it. But now, I don’t think so.
Yeah, with the kid that makes sense.
Well, that’s all I got. Really appreciate you talking with me, Gary. I’m trying to get this metal column started, and this is my first phoner in a while. Thanks for bearing with me.
No problem. This was actually my first interview, to be honest. I haven’t done an interview with anybody, not even on the demo. Nobody even knew it was a one-man band until recently.
Then I’m honored.
Album Review: Triptykon – Melana Chasmata
It’s strange how our perception of art is altered when we learn of the circumstances under which it was created. In the case of Melana Chasmata, the effect is dramatic. While the album is strong in its own right, it becomes an entirely new experience after reading chief songwriter Tom G. Fischer’s jarringly candid interview with Noisey, during which he states that the album’s creation was a therapy against suicidal thoughts and clinical depression.
“The reason I am still here is because my girlfriend pleaded with me not to take my own life,” he said. “Once I came to terms that I would remain here, I knew I would complete the album. My own therapy was to write music, to write lyrics, and to try to digest all of this and work out what it meant for me. And having said all of that, the decision to stick around remains a daily challenge.”
He’d later admit that his bandmates were going through similarly tough times and that the interview had taken a turn toward downer subjects he’d rather avoid. Knowledge of these facts make Melana Chasmata, already brooding in its heaviness, even more intense. Musically, it’s a refined take on Triptykon’s debut, Eparistera Daimones, combining doom metal with the operatic, gothic tendencies of Type O Negative. But there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about this band. They’re so fucking serious to the point where it is actually difficult to listen to the music, not because it’s poorly executed — this is finely performed heavy metal — but because it’s so darn sad. Knowing the truth behind it makes it hit even harder.
If Melana Chasmata is an exorcism for its creators, then the songs dwell in the very darkness that they are trying to exorcise. Opener “Tree of Suffocating Souls” and tracks like “Altar of Deceit” and “Breathing” are pessimistic and brutal; Fischer’s lyrics are of dead things and dying. The world he paints is not unlike that of his kindred artist friend H.R. Giger, whose artwork aptly represents the content heard within. A lot of metal bands use bleak imagery because it sounds and looks cool, but Triptykon’s motivations come from actual feelings. It’s why we get a refrain like the one on “In the Sleep of Death”, where Fischer viciously calls out the name of a certain individual who has betrayed him. “Emily, why don’t you speak to me? Emily, why don’t you speak to me?” Rarely does the big bad metal guy wear his heart so plainly on his sleeve, but Fischer’s outward appearance is misleading. He’s never conformed to the trends and stereotypes of the genre.
Along with Celtic Frost’s Into the Pandemonium, this is one of the more interesting episodes in the endless saga that is Tom G. Warrior. But that moniker just feels weird when you type alongside Melana Chasmata. It’s the most human record he’s ever written, and although it’s understandable that he would regret revealing the context of the artistic process — kind of like the comedian who hates deconstructing his jokes — the songs take on a new might when asserted through their horrific context.
Essential Tracks: “Altar of Deceit”, “Aurorae”
Other stuff that came out…
Black Magic – Wizard’s Spell (High Roller Records)
Norwegian duo Black Magic finally put out a full-length LP after forming in 2006, and it’s a fine slice of old-school blackened thrash. The guitarist and drummer juggle vocal duties, and each brings a distinct style to his respective songs, the former a power-metal wailer and the latter a scuzzy growler. This has all been done before, but good songs are good songs, and tracks like the solo-laden instrumental “Voodoo Curse” and “Night of Mayhem” will please any fan of Mercyful Fate and Show No Mercy-era Slayer, respectively. Grade: B
BABYMETAL – BABYMETAL (Toy’s Factory)
Amon Amarth-style death metal with adorable J-pop vocals. This is huge in its homeland right now, and while a few of the songs are catchy, the novelty wears off quickly over the course of 13 tracks. The occasional appearance of a guy who does actual death-metal growls brings this down even further. Grade: D
Dread Sovereign – All Hell’s Martyrs (Ván)
We featured Dread Sovereign’s “Cathars to Their Doom” on the CoS weekly Top Songs countdown and for good reason: It’s one of the best doom-metal songs of the year. Unfortunately, the album from which it originates is less than stellar, sticking to a rote loud-soft-loud formula that really only succeeds on the epic “Cathars”. Too many of these songs sound the same as one another and start to run together. That said, the playing and vocals are spot on, and there’s an eerie atmosphere to the production. Grade: C+
Steel Panther – All You Can Eat (Open E)
The veil separating earnestness and utter parody with this band is thin to nonexistent. If you’re unfamiliar, Steel Panther are a hair-metal quartet that dress up and sing essentially literal translations of all the things ‘80s hair bands sang about anyways. The first song, “Pussywhipped”, touts this poetic refrain: “Pussywhipped/ Your balls don’t have a chance/ Pussywhipped / Your girlfriend wears the pants.” Yeah, it’s easy to hate on paper, but the songs are well written, the riffs and solos rock, and it all sticks in your head (for better or worse). Put this on at a party for an instant conversation starter. Grade: C+
Abigail – Intercourse and Lust [Reissue] (Nuclear War Now)
Speaking of sex-obsessed metal bands, Japanese underground lords Abigail recently had their debut repressed by Nuclear War Now. In line with the label’s excellent reputation for quality and plenty ‘o goodies (this reissue includes a sticker, poster, and back patch), the pressing sounds fantastic, reviving these spastic black-metal anthems in hi-fi glory. It’s not for the faint of heart; the speed is relentless (until the bizarre noise-collage closer “Hail Yakuza”), and Yasuyuki Suzuki’s vocals are some of the raspiest, most bestial to ever come from a human voice box. NWN’s devotion to this type of extreme metal is religious in nature, and they’ve done this classic well. Grade: A
Radium ��� Live at Nottingham/Through the Smoke [Archival] (Buried by Time and Dust)
Bless this label for unearthing all the lost and forgotten metal gems. Here we are introduced to Radium, a UK band that never made it past a local club residency. Nevertheless, they were extremely heavy for 1981, wielding a raw crunch that even Angel Witch couldn’t match. Fortunately, somebody recorded a Radium show onto some half-decent equipment back in the day, and Buried by Time and Dust got access to it and pressed it to orange and black vinyl. There are some weak tracks in the setlist, but the gems (“Dusty Road”, “Through the Smoke”) make up for the duds. The release also includes an informative Q&A with the band’s guitarist/vocalist Kevin Healey, a replica poster, and a repress of their only official release, the Through the Smoke 7”. Grade: B
One last thing…
I’ll leave you with this incredible clip of GWAR and the late Oderus Urungus on The Jerry Springer Show back in the ’90s. Who better to fight for metal’s social acceptance than the Slumdogs themselves? Thanks for reading the first edition of The Void, and be sure to check back next month for an update on Pallbearer’s sophomore album, new reviews, and an ode to the sweaty excitement of the live metal show.