Metal musicians are social animals. For all their talk of individualism, isolation, “the goat” and so forth, they tend to stick close to their base social unit: the band. Members of various bands might collaborate in side projects and super groups. But true solo projects, like lone wolves, are rare.
In this sense, the lineup at Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus bar on February 4 was unusual. Julie Christmas, Stephen Brodsky, and Kevin Hufnagel all play in established heavy bands, but each has an established solo venture.
Saint Vitus, which opened about a year ago, is perhaps the perfect venue for such an event. It’s got plenty of schlocky metal trappings: an all-black interior, candles, inverted crosses on the windows, and a picture of King Diamond positioned over the cash register. But its calendar is not limited to riff exhibitions. It’s become Brooklyn’s de facto home for metal culture curiosities, like visual art shows and book signings.
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Kevin Hufnagel is a curiosity unto himself. He’s unusually versatile for a metal guitarist—he’s played with Dysrhythmia, Gorguts, While Heaven Wept, and Byla, among others. He has also released three solo guitar albums, and has recently written a series of solo compositions for baritone ukulele. His set at Vitus was an exhibition of this last type.
The ukulele is an awkward, intensely unmetal instrument, and Hufnagel himself looked fidgety onstage. (Tellingly, his Youtube channel is called “geekmetal.”) But no matter how ungainly his presence, he communicated beautifully with his playing. His compositions move with an eerie, lyrical grace. And they’ve got an experimental edge: at one point, Hufnagel crammed a nail file under the ukulele’s strings. This improvised bridge converted the uke into a pseudo-melodic percussion instrument, like a tabla.
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Stephen Brodsky is best known for his work in the metalcore-cum-space rock band Cave In. He’s also an established solo performer, with a number of solo recordings under his belt. Brodsky delivered a mixture of originals, covers, and repurposed Cave In songs, accompanying himself with an electric guitar in the Billy Bragg style.
Brodsky’s career with Cave In has been checkered, and the audience at Vitus regarded him warily at first. He seemed cognizant of the tension, standing stiffly through the first half of his set.
But the tension was broken when drummer Ben Koller of Converge unexpectedly joined Brodsky onstage. The two performed wiry hardcore songs from a heretofore-unannounced collaborative project. Koller played like the powerhouse he is, injecting caffeinated jitters even into their closing cover of Link Wray’s “Rumble”.
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Of the musicians on the bill, Made Out of Babies frontwoman Julie Christmas has produced the most fully-realized solo material. She was the only performer on the bill to take the stage with a complete band.
Christmas’s solo outfit differs from her noise-rock band Made Out of Babies mostly in that it provides more room for her voice, and what a voice she has. Christmas is easily one of the most gifted vocalists in the loud-angry-rock-music world, regardless of subgenre affiliation or gender.
It’s hard not to bring up gender when discussing Christmas. Unlike many women who front metal bands, she does not attempt to emulate a man’s voice. Nor does she exploit her sexuality aurally or visually. Her muttering, shrieking, and mewling are distinctively feminine, but so too are they unutterably intense and confrontational. The songs themselves deal thematically with violation and vulnerability—“It’s not because you didn’t ask nicely / It’s because you never asked at all,” she gasps on “Bow”.
Christmas somehow multiplies that intensity during her live performances. She paced the stage like a caged animal, fully inhabiting the music’s uncomfortable headspace. Most vocalists look like they’re directing the songs they perform; Christmas appeared completely subjugated by them, contorted in body as in voice.
Christmas’s trance-like concentration meant that the audience was spared any stage banter. Her only non-musical communication with the crowd came just before the set’s end—she produced a bottle of Jameson and poured shots for her bandmates and the front row of the audience. Even lone wolves need drinking buddies.
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“If You Go Away”
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BUY THE BAD WIFE
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