Op Ed: Neill Jameson Spotlights a New Wave of Darkness in American Black Metal

This past summer, Daniel Lake, author of USBM: A Revolution of Identity in American Black Metal, undertook a several-week road trip visiting many of the people he interviewed for the book culminating in what I can only imagine was the highlight of disappointment in Richmond, Virginia—the city where I currently have laid down roots. We spoke about a variety of topics, mostly U.S. black metal-based, but one of the things that stood out was how there seems to be a consensus that artists like Deafheaven or Liturgy represented the “new wave” of American black metal and a final destination to where the country and genre has traveled.

To put this incorrect notion into proper perspective, Sunbather is rounding the corner to its decade anniversary and Liturgy has been doing the manifesto/artsy thing for well over that. It’s time to stop thinking of bands like this as new, or even revolutionary as both (and similar) have already broken ground and are known for being their own beast, which should no longer be a surprise to anyone. In a sense that does represent an end point for USBM, or USBM-adjacent projects, the kind of juncture in the road where these things stop being even remotely “black metal,” whatever the fuck that means anymore.

Some of the roots of the divisively explosive genesis of the two aforementioned bands—and the Pacific Northwest bands, to a certain extent—tend to ride mostly on their politics-first/quality-of-work second approach to recreating an American Football record with screeches and calling it black metal. As a result, over the last few years there has been a counter-revolution (or return to the roots, whatever cliche you want to use) leading to a “new” USBM, illustrated in the chapter after the end of Lake’s book.

Granted, books on genres and/or creative movements that are still active and vibrant must end somewhere, otherwise you’d have a bunch of George R.R. Martins promising shit and never delivering. And that shows signs of good health for the “scene” or at least for a subgenre of music that’s rapidly approaching middle age.

I was in Germany, probably 2002, at a bar and a man wandered up to me, obviously shit-faced. He said something along the lines of “Americans don’t belong in black metal” and gave me the finger a few inches from my face and scurried off to listen to whatever heavy metal also-ran that the Germans were jerking off to back then. I guess I forgot to give the memo to the rest of my countrymen because it’s close to 20 years later and I’m writing this and you’re skimming over it waiting to greasily smash f5 over and over on some obscure label drop that probably features 80% USBM in it.

A few years back a resurgence of darkness in U.S. black metal began as a counterbalance to the perceived “lightness” of the aforementioned bands. Projects like Skaphe and other Fallen Empire-related bands started poking through into more public appreciation and even positive media criticism. From there more bands wrapped in shadows, covered in corpse paint materialized. Understand that this never-went-away-look bands like Black Witchery, who stayed active especially in festivals, or Thornspawn and Kult ov Azazel never wavered in their approach or aesthetic. Or you could look at the hundreds, if not thousands, of mediocre demos that are sitting in bins in storage areas (like mine). I know I’m not touting necessarily a “new” aesthetic, but there were subtle differences that began to collide and create the next wave of American black metal. Jet black and raw as hell, but also more musically proficient than scores before them, you could hear riffs and solid songcraft behind layers or reverb and noise, using those effects to enhance their sonics rather than to hide shitty music.

Granted, there’s still plenty who do that as well.

The first instance I heard of this next wave was at the Red River Fest in Austin, Texas in 2017 during the debut performance of Pan-Amerikan Native Front. Unlike some of the other bands at the fest, they weren’t trying to blend in other genres to sound “unique,” rather there was an intensity and urgency to their music a la late Judas Iscariot, with the earliest instance I’d personally seen using indigenous themes visually and aurally in American black metal. This project has gone on to some impressive things, most recently their split with the excellent Kommodus, and is spearheading the indigenous black metal movement alongside projects like Ifernach. You can call this a movement because shitty labels are already advertising older bands that obviously were collecting dust in their warehouses as “indigenous.” It feels like the mid-’90s in that sense all over again.

American labels like Appalachian Noise were early champions of these new bands, such as Valac, who have gone on to build their own imprint, Banner of Blood, through released dozens of new-school USBM projects have appeared. Through this pollination dozens—hundreds, probably—of new connections across North America take shape and strengthen. Renewed interest from labels outside the US in this new wave of American bleakness has followed. Labels such as Black Gangrene and Goatowar Rex continually release new American bands just as frequently as home soil labels like Death Hymns or Folkvangr.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t projects in America innovating through genre cross-pollination/pollution. The many projects of Mark McCoy, whom some of you may know as the owner of Youth Attack Records and the former vocalist of powerviolence fathers Charles Bronson, are a fine example. McCoy has an remarkable resume of black metal projects spanning the last decade or so, most impressively Arts and Grinning Death’s Head—who released Cataclysm, possibly the finest USBM EP in years in 2021. While McCoy’s background is decidedly punk, he exudes a sincerity and approach that puts him in the upper echelon of USBM creatives and not the “I have an Orchid record so I’m going to do that but xerox the cover and record it in a trash can” fraudulence I spoke about a few thousand words ago.

Related is the excellent Americana/black metal melding of Grinning Death’s Head vocalist (and Fallow Field owner) JW’s Calvary, whose excellent split with Brand is near the top of my 2021 heap. Sounding like black metal written and recorded by a prairie campfire in 1870, Calvary doesn’t appear like anything else in the pantheon of American black metal. It doesn’t hurt that his Fallow Field imprint introduced the excellent Danish Korpsand Circle to many listeners outside of Europe.

From the viciously prolific perfectionist Crucifixion Bell to the morose and sullen doom of Cathedrals in the Night to the raw yet layered Spiral Staircase, there are dozens of projects within the new chapter of USBM to explore. Your mileage may vary, especially depending on your level of tolerance for some embarrassing social media presences, but there is a new, crawling chaos out there in the darkest recesses of North America, just slightly out of eyesight, that you should keep your mind (and ears) open to. Because, like I blabbered to Lake on and on about this summer, there’s an entire new chapter ready for him when he embarks on future USBM editions. I’m sure he’s thrilled.