The umbrella genre term “black metal” covers an expansive assortment of musical directions and sounds in 2017. Deafheaven has paved the way for bands blending shoegaze rock elements into black metal. One of our favorite records last year was from Oranssi Pazuzu, a band using the black metal blueprint as a conduit for Krautrock-like hypnosis. Bands like Mare Cognitum are looking towards the cosmos for their black metal inspirations.
“This new direction that black metal is going towards … I personally don’t understand it too much,” says Highland guitarist Narek Avetisian, nursing a beer at the Red Lion Tavern. “There are some new black metal bands that we like, but we mostly listen to the old-school stuff.”
Highland’s first full-length record, Loyal to the Nightsky, comes out today. Avetisian and his bandmates, guitarist/vocalist Gevork Matevosyan and drummer Michael Semerdjian, have crafted a haunting opus that throws back to the more powerful acts of the early ‘90s wave of the black metal movement. Genre enthusiasts that checked out when pioneers like Immortal and Emperor started diversifying their sound will find solace in the trio’s venomous spin on the more traditional aspects of the discordant genre.
The band’s compositions and lyrics are littered with tales of death, war and historical instances of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. The Armenian-American trio evokes a suffocating atmosphere of violence raining down on the listener’s ear on tracks like “Towards the Absolute” and “Wallachian Night Terror.”
“The album is a worship of darkness and death,” Atevisian says. “We embrace the spiritual and the historical sides of darkness. Since our people have had a dark past, we have a fascination with it.”
Atevisian and Matevosyan initially bonded over their love of extreme metal and shared ancestry in 2006. Just out of high school at that time, the Glendale natives connected with Semerdjian and formed a speed-metal trio called Raze. But as they were writing and recording their first demo, their growing love of the harsher extremes of the metal spectrum led them to scrap the project, and start anew in a different direction with Highland.
The group began playing sporadic live shows in 2013 upon the release of a self-titled EP. The years of rehearsing and practicing together were evident immediately, as the power of Highland’s live performances have made them a rising name within the Los Angeles underground metal scene. When Matevosyan starts emitting his black metal growls, his face contorts as if possessed by the spirits of lyrical subjects stricken down by war and terror.
“I don’t notice when it happens,” Matevosyan says of the emotions that overtake him during a live performance. “The first time someone pointed it out to me, I just said, ‘Well, I guess that’s what happens.’ It doesn’t seem like an alter ego but instead just a natural extension of what’s inside me.”
Highland’s new record is a product of four years of careful songcraft, revisiting and reworking their material alongside continued live shows, both locally and overseas in Europe. Once the band was satisfied with the progress of their new material, Highland chose to debut the new songs two years ago while headlining a heavy metal festival in their ancestral Armenian homeland.
“Since we are Armenian, it was a goal for us to perform there,” Atevisian says. “It was important for us to baptize these songs in our family’s hometown of Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia.”
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Though the group says Los Angeles doesn’t have much influence on their music or lyrics, they do assert that there is plenty of darkness lurking beneath the city’s glossy exterior. “If you take Los Angeles at face value, it’s a sunny place and looks like a happy place where people love the weather,” says Avetisian. “But there’s an element of danger and edge to the nightlife of this city.”
“I’ve heard people ask, ‘How can you write black metal in Los Angeles?’” says Matevosyan. “But this place has its fair share of darkness. Crime, unjust behavior, illegal activity, gang life, degeneracy, temptation … L.A. is a breeding ground for it.”
“But we like that LA is a free spirited place,” Avetisan says. “It’s an open place that goes with our ideology of, ‘Do what you want and live the way you want to live.’”
Highland’s newest record, Loyal to the Nightsky, is available now.