By Avinash Mittur
March 24th 2013, DNA Lounge, San Francisco CA: Some webzines out there love to romanticize the bay area heavy metal scene. It’s not hard to see why they would do so, there are definitely some very amazing bands out here. What these journalists don’t get to see is these bands and musicians in action, both on and off-stage. They don’t see Mike Scalzi riding his bike miles and miles to teach at a community college every day of the week, and they certainly don’t see Ross Sewage trying to repair his Ampeg SVT head for the millionth time. These are working class folks, many of whom bore witness to metal’s grisly annihilation in the mid to late ’90s, who play some genre-bending music basically just for the love of the art. Shows are laidback affairs, with fans and friends often being one and the same to the musicians onstage and cheap beers occupying many a hand. As a twenty year old metalhead who loves these bands and this music to death, I’ve had to look and listen from a distance for the past few years- the vast majority of the live experience is restricted to the realm of the 21+ crowd. I was finally given a small chance to peek into this world though, with Brooklyn, NY’s Mutilation Rites and Richmond, VA’s Inter Arma stopping by San Francisco’s DNA Lounge for an all ages show with local acts Embers and Wild Hunt for support. This was an all around phenomenal show, and reinforced what an amazing place the bay area is for underground heavy metal.
Oakland’s Wild Hunt were the first to ascend the miniscule stage. To attempt to describe their music is a mental exercise in and of itself. There’s definite tinges of black metal, a few dissonant guitar solos and plenty of progressive brainwarp-riffing. Drummer and vocalist Harland Burkhart was a confounding presence, somehow managing to let out black metal roars while having his arms occupy eight places at once on his kit. Guitarists Drew Cook and Greg Brace offered just as many twists and turns on the fretboard, though Greg didn’t cut through the mix nearly as well as Drew did. The performance was a tight one, with the band actually finding more fault in their show than the members of the crowd (apparently Greg fell out of tune at some point- I certainly didn’t know any better). Wild Hunt played assorted chunks of their debut record, Before the Plane of Angles and one new track under the working title of ‘Enumerate’. This was a solid 25 minute set, highlighted by a monstrous reading of ‘Plane of Angles’, and was more than enough to kick things off for the rest of the night.
Wild Hunt Set List:
1. Enumerate (working title)
2. Plane of Angles (first half of song only)
3. Eidetic Parallax
4. Panorama/Window to the Nether
Embers, also from Oakland, oriented the night in a clear black metal direction. Singer and bassist Kelly Nelson was the most animated member of the group, constantly banging her head when her face wasn’t up at the mic. Guitarists Steve DeCaprio and Timm Kennedy were more content to lift their instruments in their air when they could- considering their total lack of room onstage, this was about all anyone could ask of them. As for the music itself, it would be easy to mention a Ludicra influence due to both bands having a female vocalist, but that legendary act’s rollicking riffing happens to be an element both groups also share. Embers contained a much more prevalent doom metal influence though; massive, lurching chords from the YOB playbook found their place in the songs as often as blastbeats. Trade-off vocals between Timm and Kelly was also a very cool feature not often seen in black metal, though Timm’s deeper growls were occasionally obscured in the mix; this especially hurt ‘Shadows’, which featured his singing alone. Embers closed their set with a new track, ‘Forsaken’, and quickly blended right back into this hundred-strong audience.
Embers Set List:
The first of the touring acts was soon set up and ready to go. Inter Arma was certainly an act that gave a damn about their live sound- their full Emperor stacks took up more space onstage than the musicians themselves, leaving singer Mike Paparo to make the floor his stage. As a result, I really couldn’t see the guy 95% of the time, but when Mike was visible he would be stomping about his little area, headbanging or giving the front row of fans the most bugged out eyes you could imagine. Kudos to him for making the best out of a silly situation. Mike alternated between a classic black metal shriek and interestingly enough, a dead on impersonation of Neurosis’ Scott Kelly. The two styles of singing worked surprisingly well together- the result was old school black metal that sounded pretty unique, a rare feat for a retro-minded act to pull off. The opening track ‘Carve My Name in Your Bones’ was a compelling ride, with its Celtic Frost-esque thrashiness immediately inducing a good bit of headbanging for me. ”sblood’ on the other hand offered tribal beats that came off great in the live setting, with Mike looking as if he entered a trance during the long middle section. Inter Arma gave an excellent showing to the small gathering of fans at the DNA Lounge, and they would be a welcome presence on any hipster-free black metal bill.
Inter Arma Set List:
1. Carve My Name in Your Bones (working title)
2. The Survival Fires
Last up was Mutilation Rites. Out of the bands that played on this night, this one was easily the most surprising. I’ve come to expect blastbeats and midtempo atmospheric randomness from many young black metal acts, but Mutilation Rites went and completely blew me away with kickass d-beats and a kinetic energy that is missing from way too many young bands in this genre. A fiery circle pit was what this band deserved during their 50 minute set, not the placidity that San Francisco offered to them. The droning was kept to a delightful minimum, the crushing of bay area skulls was Mutilation Rites’ top priority here. The highlight of the set was easily ‘Negative Space’, which boasted some of the catchiest blackened thrash riffing I have heard in a long, long time. The other tracks from the band’s debut full length, Empyrean, were nearly as phenomenal, causing a small group of fans in the front to go nuts. Sadly, singer George Paul was nearly inaudible for the majority of the set. While it’s true that black metal vocals aren’t exactly supposed to be front and center, it certainly would have been nice to hear the guy a little bit better. That issue was ultimately a minor blemish on an outstanding set though- Mutilation Rites are a band to keep an eye on in the coming years. Don’t be surprised if they go and set the black metal world afire Varg Vikernes-style.
Mutilation Rites Set List:
1. A Season of Grey Rain
2. Realms of Dementia
3. White Death
4. Blood Will Tell
6. Negative Space
8. Dead Years
9. Ancient Bloodbath
Throughout the show, members of all of the bands could be seen mingling among the crowd, making new friends and fans. As for the bands themselves, the local contributions were forward-thinking journeymen (and women) that took this music into uncharted territory, without giving a rat’s ass about so-called genre boundaries. The young touring acts in turn offered an exciting glimpse as to what black metal could sound like in a short amount of time. The short sets were really a non-issue, considering that the charge at the door was only a ten-spot. Sure, Nile was playing literally next door, but this show was an experience I won’t soon forget. The DNA Lounge did a fantastic job of assembling a stellar and consistent bill for this show, and the friendly and cheerful staff deserve a good bit of praise as well (minor note: the house engineer rocked an awesome baseball jersey adorned with the artwork to Times of Grace by Neurosis- now that’s cool).
As I left the DNA Lounge to begin the lengthy drive home, I said goodbye to Drew from Wild Hunt. After we ensured each other that we would be in touch, the guy cracked a grin and said “it’s time for me to work.” He referred to schlepping gear into a van late into the night, an activity that most would scowl at instead of offering a kind smile. The bay area may not be the forward-thinking fertile heavy metal breeding ground that it’s sometimes made out to be, but I’ll be damned if our bands don’t do their jobs well, and with more passion than most of the spoiled young acts out there. This was as perfect a glimpse into the bay area heavy metal world as I could have wanted. This place may not be the wonderland some have tried to make it out to be, but I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s going to be a long wait to turn 21, but if this show was a sneak preview of what awaits me, I’m pretty damn excited.