Marduk is one of the biggest true black metal bands in the world, equalled only by the likes of Watain, but they’re also one of the most hated. While they’ve never made concessions to pop (Satyricon!) or regressed into prog-rock nostalgia (Enslaved!), they’ve been pilloried since their inception for various perceived infractions – courting publicity with shallow shock tactics, producing “generic” black metal, and stoking the blastbeat arms race to ridiculous extremes. Underneath all these bullshit accusations there’s a common thread with some truth to it – over the years, Marduk has often come off like a band still in search of its own voice. At the height of the Second Wave, Marduk produced some brilliant songs – especially on Opus Nocturne – but lacked the cohesive, iconic aesthetic of a Mayhem or an Immortal. As the Scandinavian scene crumbled, Marduk briefly rose to fill the power vacuum with a radically different vision all their own. Panzer Division Marduk alienated many of their original fans and gave ammunition to their detractors, but it’s a true masterpiece of martial minimalism, and – for me, at least – a definitive black metal classic. In the years following that album, however, Marduk vacillated between speed and solemnity with lackluster results, seemingly preoccupied by the need to prove that they were about “more than just mindless blasting.”
Wormwood was an intricately ripping return to form, but it is only now that Marduk have really come to terms with the legacy of their finest hour. On Serpent Sermon, released earlier this month, they’ve fully embraced the berserker bravado of Panzer Division while placing a little more emphasis on tempo variation, texture, and melodic development. The time is ripe. With the rise of rarefied atmospheric black metal (some of it amazing) and effete “post-black metal” (most of it pathetic), people seem to have forgotten something that was once taken for granted: Black Metal is about destruction. This is what I was seeking, two weeks ago, as I elbowed through the commercial orgy of Bedford Avenue on my way to the Music Hall of Williamsburg. And when I entered the freezing, cavernous concert hall, that is exactly what I found.
Weapon took the stage with horns up and tongues out before tearing into an extended instrumental intro, a spectacle so classically, joyously Metal it brought a grin to my face. Indeed, Weapon played the opening set as if they were headlining Wacken, and they lived up to their own hype. For those who haven’t heard From The Devil’s Tomb, Weapon play highly melodic, rigorously structured black/death metal. While they depart sharply from the chaotic murk of their allies on the Canadian “war metal” scene, their music is more convincingly martial than anything by Conqueror or Blasphemy. It’s a call to heroic savagery rather than a crude evocation of artillery fire. When Weapon’s towering drummer, hunched over his kit, launched into a passage of rolling double-bass, I could feel every kick thudding into my chest. It was one of the most viscerally pleasurable moments of the entire show. What really stood out to me, however, were the solos. Rather than simply filling space with pompous noodling or playing through a prewritten passage, their lead guitarist was doing structured improvisation, developing really cool themes while fracturing them with frantic arpeggios, venomous dissonance, and whammy-bar terror. His playing recalled the elegance of Jon Notdveidt and the raw fury of Kerry King, but it was wholly his own. Weapon may have opened the night, but they were certainly the best of the bands not named Marduk. With their superb songwriting, their fanatical energy, and their sincere commitment to the Left Hand Path, they’re worthy heirs to both Dissection and Morbid Angel.
Up next were Atlanta’s Withered, who play muscular, technical, and surprisingly elegant black/death metal, much closer in style to European bands like Necrophobic or Akercocke than to any other major band in the United States. I really enjoyed Folie Circulaire (2008) but hadn’t followed them closely, so figured I could take it easy. Trying to save my ears and already sore neck for the headliner, I absconded from the front ranks and took up a good listening position just behind the sound booth. While Withered eschewed any attempt at theatrics, it didn’t matter – they simply grabbed their axes and commenced rocking the fuck out. The bassist, in particular, utterly dominated the center of the stage, throwing back his head in joy before whipping his whole body forward as the next riff dropped.
Sadly, the Music Hall’s sound system wasn’t very friendly to mids, so Withered’s gorgeous harmonic work and intricate fret-jumping were flattened out into a single continuous tremolo roar. I call this “the Krallice effect” because it’s how Krallice always sounds. The lack of melody got kind of monotonous at times, but Withered were able to pull off a pretty cool set despite it. Unlike Krallice, these guys write music with varied rhythms and battering low-end power, and no mixing problems could diminish that. It was as if everything but the most elemental impact of soundwaves had been stripped away. Above this continuous pulse both guitarists laid down awe-inspiring vocals, drawn out roars and vicious screeches that put most specialized frontmen to shame.
This show reminded me that Withered are one of the most underrated veteran bands in American extreme music. Although they’ve signed to Prosthetic, played on prominent tours (such as this one), and received great reviews from critical organs as disparate as The New York Times and Metal Archives, you are unlikely to see dudes walking around in Withered t-shirts. This is basically because what Withered are doing is radically out of step with the wispy aesthetic of the booming “USBM” scene. It goes beyond the actual music – witness their album art, more like something you’d see on a tech-death release from six years ago than a Southern Lord title. The irony is that they’ve come much closer than their Weakling-worshiping peers to creating a uniquely American strain of black metal, haunted by traces of the blues.
While Withered are underappreciated and Marduk are much-maligned, 1349 have pretty much earned their reputation as a derivative exercise in speed fetishism. Their studio stuff has never caught my ear, impressing me with its ferocity but losing my attention after the first minute or two. Expecting to be underwhelmed, I kept my place towards the back of the venue. As with Withered, the venue’s shitty sound balance took its toll on the mix, so that guitars and bass were reduced to a supporting role. The funny thing is, since 1349 have never been known for gripping songcraft, this is probably how they are meant to be heard – Ravn’s vocals and Frost’s continuous blastathon emerging from a distorted conflagration.
I had downed a 5-Hour Energy during Withered’s set, and was literally twitching with muscular tension. I quickly became “that guy”, headbanging and fervently throwing the Claw amidst a bunch of sedate concertgoers. Needless to say, I found myself drawn inexorably towards the epicenter. As the cloaked and hooded bassist bounded up to the edge of the stage, I joined the wall of bodies that hailed him. Seeing 1349 at close range was an enveloping, demanding experience, and I think I now understand why some people are so into this band. This was (actually!) the first time I had ever seen Norwegian black metal performed live, so some of my enjoyment may have sprung from years of unfulfilled enthusiasm, but I think it was more than that – 1349 offer a punishing purity of intent that’s inherently compelling to anyone who enjoys this sort of thing, and basically unheard of in the States.
Of course, they couldn’t compare to Marduk, who tore into the soft, fatty flesh of Williamsburg like a spear cast from the hand of the Light-Bearer himself. As on Serpent Sermon, Marduk sounded wholly Marduk, confidently drawing on all the strongest moments of their past. They played material from Opus Nocturne and Dark Endless, making it work alongside the new songs, and, to my glee, they came through with some glorious tracks off of Panzer Division. While I really enjoyed Legion’s performance on that album, Mortuus easily fills his combat boots. Indeed, he was far and away the evening’s finest frontman, leaning on the mic stand to leer over the audience, and spewing forth his signature moans and gurgles without getting lost in the din. Until then, I hadn’t realized how much he contributed to Marduk. Standing firm in a battered sleeveless vest and knee-high boots, Morgan cut an impressively martial figure. Thankfully, his guitar and Magnus’s bass were far more audible than those of 1349 and Withered. This has to do with the directness of their sound. While those bands rely on layers of harmony, Marduk is rooted in continuous melody, a dithyrhambic frenzy pouring forth in tremolo power chords and death metal leads. Those melodies are where the violence comes from.
What sets Marduk apart from most other black metal bands, post-1993, is that violence – the sheer physicality of their sound. They play pure black metal, but they also do what a great hardcore band does. Indeed, I can’t say much more about their set because I was too busy being absolutely possessed by it. The circle pit at a metal show is usually an unappealing thing, occupied by one or two dangerous sociopaths and a bunch of awkward longhairs, but when Marduk played it came alive anyway, and I moshed like hell. I stomped, I headbanged, I skanked, I crashed into other hurtling bodies, and I bro-ed out with a dude in a Portal jacket who had also “caught the spirit”. I have a vivid memory of him doubled over in rage and joy, his hands clawed at his sides, screeching his fucking face off into the wall of noise. THAT is Marduk. During the 6/8 crush of ‘Materialized In Stone’ my limbs jerked into a sort of demonic march before doubling over into a perfect windmill. In these moments of ecstasy, when the power of the band moves through you and becomes yours, the old gods are close at hand.
I’m not exactly a big dude – tall but skeletally emaciated – so when I get in the pit I go because I must, and I prepare to take damage. Of course, I got some bad knocks, including a glancing hit to the face. By then it was towards the end of the set, so I figured I might as well step aside to save my skin and focus on the music. That worked fine for a bit. But then, the finale. When Mortuus screamed “PANZER DIVISION MARDUK” and we all roared back, I knew it was time. The gods demanded danger, demanded sacrifice, and anything else would be cowardice. I got back in the circle.
What a stupid, stupid idea. It was carnage in there. All too quickly, I was rushing past some jackass in an Avsky t-shirt, who – instead of moshing – simply punched me in the fucking face. I was laid out, absolutely wrecked. Luckily I’d fallen near a veteran hardcore dude who helped me up and checked me out. My right eye was blurry and hurt like hell, and my nose was broken to the left. At that point, I simply knew my night was over, and headed to the men’s room to survey my battered face. Powered by adrenaline and sustained by the body’s natural rush of anaesthetics, I walked to the subway and headed to the ER.
Should I have tracked that guy down and returned the favor? It didn’t even occur to me at the time. A few days later, though, I wondered if I had let myself down. I felt a bit like I had failed to live up to the warrior ideals of the music and culture I love. On the other hand, after taking a hit like that, perhaps discretion was the better part of valor. What I do know is that, even in the evening’s ugly and abrupt conclusion, I got what I came for. We listen to black metal because we want to know violence, and that night the veils were pulled back. At most great shows there’s a sacrifice, and this time it was me. So be it. Hail Satan.