In Los Angeles, thrash bands are a dime a dozen. Plenty of others seek the post-metal throne, abdicated by the breakup of Isis. And, disturbingly, there's still plenty of nu-metal.
But black metal? We haven't traditionally had much of the genre where “vocals often sound like a goblin being suffocated.” And that makes sense, considering how far we are from the darkest corners of Scandinavia.
Which is why we're psyched about the recent uptick in L.A. bands exploring the darker realms and more cacophonous sounds of black metal.
For starters, 2013 saw fantastic releases from L.A. bands like Highland and Lightning Swords of Death. For the latter, it's been a slow build from their formation in 2005 to their critically-acclaimed 2013 release, Baphometic Chaosium. But during a conversation over beers at Red Lion Tavern, vocalist Autarch and guitarist Roskva say they've found solace in the atmospheric nature of black metal.
“There's a creative romance,” Autarch says. “No one involved in this kind of music has any hopes of financial gain. But with black metal, it's okay if you say farewell to reality, and invent your own reality within your music.”
“You can get away with so much in the black metal realm,” Roskva says. “You can tell a story and get lost in a world. It's not limited to black metal either. It's the same concept as getting engrossed in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar or Wagner's Das Rheingold.”
Highland are relative newcomers to the scene, having just released a self-titled demo EP last spring. But they're fully on board. Highland guitarist Narek Avetisian described to us the first time he listened to the influential black metal band Burzum's song “Dunkelheit,” from their 1996 release Filosofem.
“I had read an interview with (Burzum band leader) Varg Vikernes,” Avetisian says. “He had said that you should only listen to it at nighttime. That got me really into it when I first started listening. It was a dark fantasy world that made me feel comfortable while I was playing it.”
“With the best black metal bands, each song is there to stir emotion in the listener,” Highland guitarist/vocalist Gev Matevosyan says. “And you would be surprised at the different emotions you get. You may shoot for getting a violently dramatic reaction with a song, but it can end up the opposite and be soothing. Black metal can put you into a trance.”
For Autarch of Lightning Swords of Death, the musically expansive landscape of black metal presents the opportunity to present life's harsh realities through prisms of symbolism.
“I don't see black metal as an escape,” Autarch says. “I see it as a local energy. I don't find what we do as fantasy lyrics. But I might use a different word to describe something grounded in reality than a political hardcore band might use. I find a message to be more powerful when it's completely in stealth. It's very liberating creatively. I'm not going to sit there and say 'Bring the man down!' But I might find a Goddess that represents chaos and anarchy and dedicate a song to her. People can listen to the song, not knowing what she represents… I'm [thus] realizing my end game more than just screaming 'Society sucks!'”
For the first-generation Armenian-American members of Highland, black metal also represents an outlet to express anger over the mistreatment of ancestors in their homeland.
“Our people have a pretty dark past,” Avetisian says. “That gives us true emotion when we write our music.”
Los Angeles doesn't quite have the same remote darkness that a Scandinavian winter might have provided for the pioneers of the genre. Roksva shares an exchange he had with a member of Norwegian black metal group Mysticum.
“He asked me, 'How can such cold music come from someone in such a warm climate?'”
In the end, the inspiration for black metal comes from internal inspiration, not external.
“A person is going to gather all of his/her experiences together, no matter how or where they were raised,” Matevosyan says. “If you are a serious musician, it's going to bleed into your music one way or another, intentional or not.”
The members of Lightning Swords of Death are more blunt.
“The idea that wherever you come from has to influence the music you make is a crock of shit,” Roskva says.
“It's romantic to be like, 'I'm from Norway, we only get five minutes of light every day and that is why our black metal is superior!'” Autarch says. “I don't give a fuck about any of that shit. The music we write comes from an intellectual place. It's not a response to our environment.”
Lightning Swords of Death performs at Complex on Friday, February 28th.