Eduardo Ramirez, the mastermind behind local black metal outfit Volahn, rolls into Vacation Vinyl in Silver Lake, exhausted from putting together a large package containing 400 cassettes of his new album, Aq'ab'al. The package is on its way to German record label Iron Bonehead Productions for distribution in Europe.
A large shipment of a new heavy metal album to Germany, home to one of the genre's most rabid fan bases, isn't exactly breaking news. But when the subject matter isn't the typical black metal tropes of Satanism and misanthropy, but instead pays tribute to Mayan civilizations and cultures of centuries past, it's a testament to how well Ramirez is spreading his unique vision.
The Southern California native's teenage fandom was born out of the standard metal building blocks of Slayer and Metallica, then took a turn toward the darker-edged chaos of European black metal. But when it came time to create his own music, Ramirez took inspiration from a life-changing trip to Guatemala at the age of 17.
His mother's Guatemalan ancestry dates back to the K'iche' Kingdom, which prior to Spanish colonization was one of the most powerful kingdoms of the Mayan civilization. Ramirez had visited his mother's native land multiple times growing up, but this teenage trip was most profound.
"I was taken to the ruins of our actual tribe," Ramirez says. "Our elders took me to the top of the temple there. As I stood atop the temple, I could see the whole valley where our people have lived for so many generations. It was a deep spiritual moment in my life, and it was where I came up with the name 'Volahn' for my music."
Through Volahn — a word he created and says means "ritual chaos" — Ramirez has created black-metal soundscapes that are both sprawling and caustic. He self-releases his records, along with those by other like-minded extreme-metal bands, through his label Crepúsculo Negro, also known as Black Twilight Circle.
For Ramirez, black metal is an appropriate conduit for spreading K'iche' culture. "Music was important for my ancestors and was part of every ritual they did, from going to war to having astrological ceremonies," he explains. "Black metal is really harsh and ritualistic music, so it was perfect for me."
Volahn's newest album, Aq'ab'al, released in January, is indeed harsh. But there are also moments of colorful atmosphere that pay tribute to the Mayan civilizations of centuries ago.
Album opener "Najtir Ichik" comes storming out with nine minutes of discordant, black metal din, then dissolves into a four-minute outro laced with Spanish classical guitar and nature sounds. On "Bonampak," sprawling black metal is tempered with serene passages played on a replica of an ancient, flute-like K'iche' instrument.
Another song on the album, "Koyopa," starts with a stunning melodic guitar passage influenced by an artist not often name-checked in heavy metal circles. "That was inspired by Vicente Fernandez," the Mexican ranchera star, Ramirez says. "He was a big influence on me growing up. His songs are so profound for me. Listening to his music almost brings me to tears, it's so heavy emotionally."
Despite releasing albums as Volahn since 2008 and working with other bands on his Crepúsculo Negro label, Ramirez has only recently begun interacting with the rest of the local metal scene. He attributes his isolation not only to wanting to avoid outside influences on his music but also his desire to learn everything about the recording and distribution process.
"We weren't satisfied with the sound recording in other studios," Ramirez says. "So we basically started from scratch, learning how to record ourselves. I think it helped all of our bands grow musically together. We keep focus by maintaining solidarity within our circle and keeping private and secretive."
This focus has allowed Ramirez and fellow members of the Crepúsculo Negro roster to be some of the most prolific in today's metal scene. Though a recent label compilation, Tliltic Tlapoyauak, features 16 different bands, the actual number of musicians is much smaller. Members of the Black Twilight Circle collective usually play in multiple bands, a byproduct of Ramirez keeping his musical endeavors close to home. His friendships within the collective often date back to his childhood years.
Not all bands released through Crepúsculo Negro share Volahn's focus on ancient civilizations. Arizmenda's brand of black metal on albums such as 2011's Without Circumference Nor Center is more primal and psychotic, both musically and lyrically. But at the core of the collective's kinship is a shared admiration for their pre-Hispanic ancestries.
Chris Campos is the lead vocalist and songwriter for Blue Hummingbird on the Left (BHL for short), a Black Twilight band that takes its moniker from a loose translation of the name of Aztec deity Huitzilopochtli. Campos is very serious about paying tribute to his Aztec heritage.
"The band name is a rough translation," says Campos, whose own stage name, Tlacaelel, is inspired by an Aztec prince and military leader. "Using the original word Huitzilopochtli would be sacrilege. I want to expose our culture, but I don't want to exploit it."
Campos' approach to BHL's music is much more straightforward than Volahn's. The 2010 EP Bloodflower highlights short, three-minute bursts that resemble the rawer sound of first-generation black metal acts such as Venom. But his lyrical and artistic inspirations are fully grounded in his Aztec ancestry.
"The Aztec warriors were known as great fighters," Campos says. "I think about what a warrior would write about. It's me trying to see through their eyes."
Campos laments that newer generations of Hispanic Americans seem less inclined to explore their ancestral lineage. He and other members of the circle hope that their music will rekindle interest in native cultures and civilizations that were nearly wiped out hundreds of years ago by Spanish conquistadors.
"A strategy of colonization is to trim a civilization from its roots," Campos says. "The Aztecs lost more than blood. They lost a lot of knowledge and documents of that knowledge that were confiscated... destroyed and could never be retrieved. Bloodshed is like picking a flower from the ground, but when you tear out the roots of a civilization, you are killing everything that was attached."
In addition to their studio output, Ramirez and Campos see their live performances as a deeply profound extension of their quest to honor their ancestors.
"I feel like when we play live, it's like a ritual," Ramirez says. "When I play live, I feel like I'm in a meditative state. A big part of shamanism is meditation... extreme focus and having the feeling of other worlds beyond yourself. A show is not just us playing metal and headbanging. It's a deeper meaning beyond just playing our guitars."
Eventually, Ramirez wants to take his music to the land of his K'iche' ancestors in Guatemala. "My ultimate goal would be to play at one of my ancestors' ruins and do a generator show at a temple."
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Volahn performs in Downtown LA on Friday, Feb. 13. Visit www.facebook.com/volahn for more information.