How the Destruction of Appalachia Inspired Its Black Metal Scene
Stream the new LP from Pittsburgh's Slaves BC, and explore how Appalachian black metal artists find inspiration from beauty and destruction.
Ulfrinn photo courtesy of the artist / Slaves BC photo by Andrea Spano
Greetings from Central Appalachia! Our mountains are old and beautiful, and they carry a long tradition of economic exploitation, with its people caricatured in popular culture as hillbillies and rednecks. Central Appalachia—and specifically western Pennsylvania, eastern Tennessee and West Virginia—blends natural beauty, environmental destruction, human suffering and dogged persistence in a way that makes it an idea garden for extreme music... and especially for black metal, which thrives on juxtaposition of the ugly and the transcendent.
The mountains and geographic isolation of Appalachia have created an artistic movement, albeit one spread over a sprawling region that encompasses 13 states and broad regional diversity. Appalachia’s black metal bands reflect that variation, with broad differences in style and perspective. Yet these bands are connected, both thematically and in many cases through collaboration.
Atmospheric black metallers Panopticon’s 2012 Kentucky album stands as the best-known Appalachian metal album, despite the fact that Austin Lunn has disclaimed it as such; it was created in Louisville, where Lunn was living at the time, and was intended to represent Kentucky as a whole. Even so, Kentucky just feels Appalachian, from its juxtaposition of harsh black metal with folksy, bluegrass-influenced instrumentation, to its strong lyrical themes of labor, rebellion, and the natural world, to the ghostly coal miner gracing its verdant, evocative album art.
The projects of Johnson City, Tennessee’s Paul Ravenwood—including prolific atmospheric black metal outfit Twilight Fauna and neofolk Green Elder—more explicitly embrace Appalachian culture. Ravenwood builds albums around the mountains, his life experiences growing up there, and finding solitude and inspiration in nature. Twilight Fauna stayed busy in 2017, releasing a full-length and a split with Evergreen Refuge, while Green Elder released a full-length. Twilight Fauna plans to release a new LP, Where Birds Sing My Name, in summer 2018, and Green Elder will release a split seven-inch with Horse Cult in the fall.
Josh Thieler, who has played drums for Twilight Fauna since 2016, and as a result, has become a force in both eastern Tennessee's and Pittsburgh's metal scenes. Thieler’s band, Slaves B.C., will release its sophomore full-length, Lo, and I Am Burning, on March 16 via Thieler's own The Fear and the Void Recordings. The album sees them maintain the raw, discordant black metal sound of its debut, while rounding out its sound with elements of doom and death metal.
Thieler can still remember the first time he heard heavy metal. He was just a kid, riding around with his dad in a 60s Mercury Cougar, listening to Christian metal bands like Tourniquet and Vengeance Rising. He began playing drums with his parents’ Christian rock band, before eventually becoming disaffected and striking out on his own. His early recordings continued with those Christian lyrical themes, though, with lyrics from and about the Bible. Slaves B.C.’s first demo, which Thieler describes as “terrible,” was about the apocalyptic book of Revelations, while its first full-length, All is Dust and I Am Nothing is based upon "a subject matter that is as bleak as the music, the book of Ecclesiastes.” Lo, and I Am Burning taps into spirituality as well, although this time, it's all coming from an angrier place.
“There’s stuff on there that acts as a confessional, almost,” Thieler explains. “The things that I’ve done, where I’ve been, the kind of person I thought i was at different times in my life, the times i ran away from my faith, the times I struggled with doubt, the times I’ve been angry at God, when I was suicidal and alcoholic, when my grandma died. I talk about the abuse from when I was a kid. [Writing the album] led me to look through some of the writing that I had done 12, 15 years ago, even finding a snippet of a suicide note I had written when I was 17. It’s a really angry record. It’s all the low points in my life.“
Slaves BC’s blackened death metal has grown more intense as well. Thieler’s experience stretching himself to play blastbeats for extended periods with Twilight Fauna has given him confidence to go harder with his own band; according to him, the band has picked up a new, speedier pace, often writing songs and recording them later the same evening.
Thieler also played drums on the forthcoming album from Vials of Wrath, a previously one-man band based outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Maryville, Tennessee. That album, Dark Winter Memories, is Vials of Wrath’s third LP, and will be released later in 2018. Said album showcases the project's hazy, hypnotic black metal, which stems from founder Dempsey Mills. Mills grew up in southern West Virginia and played in Charlotte metalcore band Bloodline Severed before moving to eastern Tennessee.
Now going on its seventh year, Vials of Wrath grew out of Mills’ interest in black metal’s nature, pagan, and folk influences. As with Slaves BC, Mills tells Noisey that the new album is influenced by a dark period in his personal life, in which multiple family members passed away during the winter months. That led to the album’s title and its sound, which Mills says has a darker, colder feel than his past albums, and although Thieler plays drums on Dark Winter Memories, Mills’ creativity remains linked to solitude.
“I take a lot of hikes if the weather permits, and if not, I just go out and drive around in the mountains,” Mills says. “They’re visually inspiring to me, just the majesty of the mountains, and the epicness of looking around. There’s also a heavy tradition, a lot of heritage in the mountains. People born and raised in Appalachia, it’s so deeply engrained in them from the past that they never can get away from that. Even when I lived in the city for 14 years, I constantly wished I could be back in the mountains.”
Farther north, in central West Virginia, Ulfrinn also taps into the majesty—and melancholy—of the mountains. Dalton Miller, who creates the music of Ulfrinn in Gassaway, West Virginia, also incorporates spirituality into his music, although he comes from a quite different perspective than Thieler or Mills.
“Spiritually, I’ve been a practicing pagan for a long time, not in the neo-pagan sense but in animus with nature,” Miller says. “The more in harmony I live with the land here, with the mountains here, the more I become environmentally aware. Mountaintop removal [a destructive coal strip-mining practice] feels like decapitating my gods to me. That does affect the music. There’s a feeling here that’s forlorn. It does have a melancholy. It resonates because of the history we have.“
Miller grew up in a family of bluegrass musicians and has been playing guitar since age 10, but he says he’s never really liked country music, and instead “wanted to play something darker and abrasive.” He married at age 18; the rapid dissolution of his marriage and the drama that ensued—which included an in-law setting his house aflame—prompted the development of Ulfrinn.
“I lost everything I had, completely,” Miller says. “I felt betrayed by everyone and everything around me. Ulfrinn was when I decided i was going to take that and turn it in to something positive instead of killing myself. It became an expression of the darkness I was going through. It was like alchemy: I was taking something that was horrible that was going to destroy me, and I’m turning it into art that someone else can appreciate.”
Miller released the first Ulfrinn demo on Bandcamp in August 2015, and since then, has set a blistering pace, releasing eight collections of music before finally releasing his first proper full-length, Mountains of Melancholy, last December. It speaks to West Virginia’s current moment: devastated by widespread opioid abuse, exploited by big business, lied to by politicians—and yet still overwhelmingly, enduringly beautiful.
“We have been taken advantage of over and over and over again by greedy politicians,” Miller says. “Big Pharma has done nothing but destroy this place. You can see that reflected in people. It’s almost like you’re practicing necromancy because you’re trying to revive it. That’s where it comes from with me. I try to express the rebellious, sort of ugly side of this place, while still maintaining it has its own beauty.”
A couple of hours north near Wheeling, near West Virginia’s borders with Ohio and Pennsylvania, heavily folk-influenced duo Nechochwen tap into a deep vein of Appalachian history and leaving its mark on American black metal in the process. The band explores nature and Appalachian culture through the lens of Native American heritage; founder, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist Aaron Carey learned about his family’s Native American heritage from his mother, and sought more information from his grandfather, but was often only given only cryptic answers. Carey persevered in conducting his own research into the region’s tribes (which include the Shawnee, Lenape, Seneca and Cayuga) and discovered that his mother’s family is Métis, descended from Lenape and Shawnee.
Nechochwen’s first releases were mostly acoustic affairs, but ensuing recordings incorporated more electric elements, eventually culminating in 2015’s Heart of Akamon, which stands alongside Panopticon’s Kentucky as a landmark Appalachian metal album. The album continues to prominently feature acoustic guitar, but places it amidst more traditional black metal elements like blastbeats, tremolo picking and harsh vocals. Its lyrical themes center mostly on the culture and history of Eastern tribes like the Shawnee and Seneca, who lived in central and northern Appalachia. One song, “October 6, 1813,” functions as a lament for Tecumseh, whose death in battle marked a major turning point in conflicts between Woodland tribes and American settlers in the Ohio country.
Nechochwen’s 2015 release Heart of Akamon stands with Panopticon’s Kentucky as a landmark Appalachian metal album, and Carey has become in-demand collaborator across the region. He contributed session work for Greek black metal band End for its 2016 Swallow Matewan split with West Virginia band Torrid Husk, and also played on the 2017 self-titled debut by Coldfells, a death/doom band from Martins Ferry, Ohio.
Their reverence for nature has occasionally butted up against their participation in the modern music scene. At Nechochwen's acoustic set at last year’s Shadow Woods festival in Maryland (which also featured Green Elder and Panopticon) they received a positive reception—and a potentially ill omen. Just before the performance, a festival attendee was bitten by a poisonous copperhead snake.
Nechochwen is currently planning a split with Panopticon; although there’s no release date yet, Nechochwen already has recorded and mastered its side. The new material indicates the same depth of songwriting that characterized Heart of Akamon, and the first two songs were inspired by stories about Yellow Creek, an ancestral hunting ground located just north of Stubenville, Ohio. The third song, “Mingling Waters,” came from Carey discovering an archaeological dig across a small stream from land he inherited from his grandfather. He never found out what was uncovered at the dig, but it sparked his imagination.
“It’s a big mystery in my mind, what’s in here and what will never be found on my side of the creek,” Carey says. “One night, started thinking about who lived there. I thought about someone having their ashes scattered in that creek, and the journey those ashes would make from Mingo Run down to the Ohio River into the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico—a pilgrimage in death.”
The song was written about an ancient individual, but it also works as a metaphor for the Appalachian Mountains, which were thrust upward during the Cenozoic Era and have been gradually eroding down through the region’s rivers into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico ever since. Culture flows out of Appalachia into the mainstream, too, although that realm involves more exchange, with currents flowing in as well as out. Black metal has reached the ears of mountain listeners, who subsequently process and transform it, creating a new kind of mountain music that’s every bit as powerful as the old-time fiddle and banjo.
Although these Appalachian black metal outfits are much more isolated and geographically disparate than scenes in New York City and the Pacific Northwest, their shared lyrical themes and collaborations have created an artistic movement that is leaving an indelible mark on U.S. black metal. Slaves B.C., Twilight Fauna, Ulfrinn, Vials of Wrath, Nechochwen and others are blazing a path, and creating new musical traditions in the mountains of Appalachia.
Mason Adams is picking sides on Twitter.