Black Metal: Not Particularly Evil

natchypiclp.jpgClearly, they want to be the hands around your throat

Nachtmystium + Zoroaster + Gwynbleidd Northsix December 15, 2006

There's nothing particularly scary about Blake Judd. If anything, he looks a little ridiculous: a tall, blonde-haired, vaguely heavy dude with a thick California accent, stuffed into too-tight black clothes with a bit of white makeup splashed onto his face. "Raw black metal, right?" he asks between songs at Northsix on Friday night, and it sounds more like a plea than a declaration. Maybe I shouldn't have been all that surprised, but Judd calls himself Azentrius, after all. The logo of Nachtmystium, Judd's band, has two upside-down crosses and one inverted pentagram. On the back of the T-shirt I bought Friday night, there's a picture of Judd with an assault rifle and the words "I want to be your last breath ... to inhale the stench of your final air" written in Olde English. Nachtmystium's Instinct: Decay is one of my favorite metal albums of the year, but the only lyric I can make out is the one where Judd screams that he wants to be the hands around your throat. And the album sounds like a faraway demonic howl, its thundering blastbeats and ambient guitar squalls and throat-ripping screams flattened out by a pillowy, muffling production style that turns all their urgency into atmospheric dread. The band has scary mystique for days, so it's a bit of a shock to see them in person and not be terrified. Other than Judd, there's a shop-class stoner bassist and a heavy, short-haired drummer. The second guitarist goes for a bit of a Danzig thing (no shirt, black hair, eyeliner), but it seems like a safe bet that these guys aren't going to be drinking lambs' blood out of stone chalices after the show.

But there's nothing disappointing about Nachtmystium's live show. The levels of technical skill that these unassuming guys display are near-impossible, and there's a groove in their roiling screech. The blastbeats come in waves, ebbing and cresting with a sort of hypnotic repitition that belies their speed. Without the softening effect of the production, it's easier to pick out new details: the serpentine guitar-squiggles, for example, might owe more to Dick Dale than Eddie Van Halen. But there's still something oddly comforting about the music. There's not much violence in its snarl. Out in the crowd, a few guys headbang frantically, but no one moshes. The songs are long and complicated, lurching from dizzy, sputtering noise to fluttering acoustic interludes with second-nature ease. It's easy to get sensationalistic about all the over-the-top misanthropy in Nachtmystium's image, but there's something more interesting going on in their music: they've taken a subgenre best-known for Norwegians who burn churches and murder each other and turned it into something natural and instinctive, a flickering scream as warm as it is cold.

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Nachtmystium might be getting mainstream-publication love, but the atmosphere at Northsix feels like a basement hardcore show: bands selling hundreds of hard-to-find CDs along with their own stuff, dudes greeting each other like long-lost family members, a bill stacked with way too many bands. Six bands played on Friday night, and other than Nachtmystium, I'd only heard of one: the Atlanta doom power-trio Zoroaster, who look like drowned possums and who play a mercilessly, crushingly slow brand of sludge. At their fastest, Zoroaster could pass for half-speed Motorhead. At their slowest, the seconds between notes inch into double-digits. It's not SunnO))): there's a drummer onstage, and I could always hear the riffs under all the layers of feedback. But the overactive fog-machine onstage didn't hurt the titanic heaviness of their set, and neither did the lights, which made it look like the drummer had a flashlight under his chin for the entire night. If I hadn't been in the mood, this would've been near-unbearable, but in the right light, those wide-open riffs hide worlds inside.

I only caught one other band: the horribly-named local Opeth-damaged quartet Gwynbleidd, who seesaw between soft-focus unicorn-prog and scuzzy crunch. It's an effective formula: the pretty-guitar bits exist only to be bulldozed. The afroed frontman's singing voice is a gravelly yowl, but his speaking voice is so soft and withdrawn I can barely hear him. They'll be playing at a ballet recital in January, which makes sense.


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