“Our situation is unusual,” Jesse Whitney explains. “Because technically, we’re not a metal band.” He pauses long enough to make, then hold, eye contact as the HammerHeart Taproom’s warm, late-afternoon din fills the space around and between us. “But we are a metal band.”
Like drummer Tim Glenn and vocalist Travis Bos (both also sitting at our barrel-table), the synthesist is mildly obsessed with his band’s curious genre three-way—and not without reason. The Blight are one of the first, if not the first, musical entities on the planet to marry black metal, experimental electronics, and jazz-indebted free improvisation. It wasn’t something they sat down and mapped out in advance.
“Tim and I starting doing improv,” Whitney says, “just synth and drums—it was a lot spacier—in 2011? We did that for a while. It kinda ran its course and we just let it sit for a bit. Then we started talking about doing it again, but making it more aggressive—a lot faster and a lot meaner. We did one show and it just kinda wasn’t quite there.”
“It was cool but it lacked something,” Glenn adds. “We knew Travis from here and from seeing him around at shows, so we knew the three of us liked a lot of the same music. We approached him, gave it a try, and, boom—instant fit. From the beginning, there was very much a natural chemistry to it.”
“They asked me shortly after a HammerHeart-sponsored Halloween show at Acadia,” Bos says. “I threw chairs in other bands during that period. Tim and Jesse just wanted someone to throw chairs at people.”
“Not just chairs,” Whitney says. “I was talking with a friend who was a big Zarathustra fan back in the day, and when he found out I was working with Travis he said, ‘Oh, man, I remember one show where Travis was all up in this guy’s face and he put his fingers in the guy’s mouth. He was exploring his mouth while he sang.’”
Unpredictability aside, what’s most unusual about the band is their burgeoning popularity. Not that they have legions of imitators like Minneapolis-based pro-metalcore vectors After the Burial or marina-rock sensations Haim—it’s a little too early in the game for that. But the past year (they’ve been together for five) has seen them go from playing the occasional show and releasing nothing to maintaining a schedule that’s included month-long residencies at Acadia and Grumpy’s Downtown (twice), along with a slew of one-offs. In the same interval they’ve dropped three albums—or will have when Meditations on Insignificance comes out on Saturday.
Three things set the album apart from both the band’s self-titled debut and Escalation, released late last year on HammerHeart sales and marketing manager Joe Beres’ woefully under-recognized Small Doses imprint. First, it’s on a metal label, the esteemed NYC-based Tridroid Records; second, it features guitarist Jesse Matthew Petersen, who’ll also be performing with the band at Saturday night’s Icehouse release show, and third, it’s a fully self-contained representation of the band’s anti-human, anti-cosmic philosophy.
Such belief systems are far from uncommon among metal bands, but it’s usually a full-blown Satanic religion/lifestyle thing—occasionally with unfortunate consequences. (Google “Dissection” and “Jon Nödtveidt” for an excellent example.) The Blight would rather pretend to be the malignant AI antagonist of Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. While riffing on a dark SF novel almost surely offers fewer perverse thrills than glorifying murder and suicide as the most exalted possible sacraments, it’s also a helluva lot less likely to land practitioners in any hoosegows and/or morgues.
Intentionally or otherwise, the first few measures of Meditations sound almost identical to the opening of Napalm Death’s classic debut, Scum. The Blight’s album quickly gains a density and brutality far beyond anything the U.K. grindcore pioneers could’ve imagined in 1986 and retains it throughout “Self” and “Humanity.” As the band proceed outward, from “Planet” to “Star” to “Galaxy,” the music becomes more spacious without losing a single quantum of intensity. Bos in particular comes off scary AF no matter how many times he switches up vocal approaches and/or effects settings. Which is a lot.
Novel as the Blight’s admixture is, it was also inevitable. Metal’s been flirting with jazz and experimental music for at least 25 years as part of a massive acquisition spree that’s also claimed huge chunks of post-rock (along, of course, with post-metal), noise rock, industrial music, shoegaze, hardcore, crust punk, heavy psych, and even some kinds of acoustic music, as its own. Not to mention that genre bifurcation, mutation, and recombination are accelerating at roughly the same rate as climate change. (Dark orchestral tropical chillstep is surely just around the corner, if it doesn’t exist already.)
HammerHeart itself is a hotbed of musical cross-germination—let’s take a quick look at personnel. Label owner Joe Beres we’ve already touched on. Co-founder and co-proprietor Austin Lunn first made an international name for himself as one-man band Panopticon topping a blend of traditional Appalachian acoustic music and ferocious black metal with passionate anticapitalist lyrics of a strong environmentalist bent.
Almost surely the first dude in metal to have his label gift him a dulcimer, staffer Tanner Anderson has been a (or the) chief instigator in endeavors ranging from the harmonically lush black metal of Azrael to the highly atmospheric funeral doom metal of Celestiial to the melodic pre-Black Death black/death/doom metal of Autumnal Winds. The last of these were the aesthetic progenitors of Anderson’s main squeeze so far this decade, Obsequiae (artfully blackened medieval metal with psychedelic undertones, a spring in its gait, and the occasional frothy maritime finish). His current extracurricular activities include membership in Burning—fellow HammerHearter Seth Ryan’s bold, conceptually precise reinvention of industrial music—and occasionally helping Lunn out with backing vocals. He’s also largely responsible for rekindling Glenn’s long-latent metal flame, just as Glenn did for Whitney and Bos.
“Metal was the reason I started playing drums in the first place,” he says. “I was a death metal kid as a teenager, started getting into jazz around age 19, got heavily into free jazz and free improvisation in my early 20s, and went all over the place from there. Most of what I do now has some relationship to metal.”
While they’re more than happy to talk about genre for hours (and I have the recording to prove it), it’s method that makes the Blight what they are. While the components of their individual styles remain open to outside forces, they’re collectively hooked on improvisation.
“What we do from show to show, from record to record might sound familiar,” Bos says, “but it’s never going to sound the same. I’m in two other bands where we write songs and we learn them, period. With the Blight, it’s refreshing to have both the power of those bands and opportunities to explore territories they can never go into, ever. Also, because everything we do is improvised, I don’t even have to worry about remembering lyrics, which I very much appreciate. The day I catch myself writing a song for the Blight is the day I quit.”
With: RRA, Fanny Hill, DJ Matt Saint-Germain
When: 11 p.m. Sat. July 29
Tickets: $5; more info here