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Live Report: WITTR, Chelsea Wolfe, Harassor at Echoplex

Without retreading what has already been beaten to death here, there, and everywhere else, Black Metal has come a long way. As time marches on we break down the changes into waves, then scenes. USBM, Cascadian Black Metal, Post-Black Metal–they’re all outgrowths of what has come before and the way creativity continues to push artists and musicians endlessly forward. As the mainstream media gradually acknowledges Black Metal and its many-headed offspring, it is inevitable that the genre will bleed into other, more commercial styles. And vice-versa. Tonight’s show at the Echoplex, in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, bridged both sides of the gap.

The Echoplex and its long-running sister venue, The Echo, have seen a surge in metal activity lately. With its black walls and gently dilapidated interior, it’s a fantastic alternative to the glossier venues on the Strip. The sound system is powerful but not pristine; while the bass can be muddy, you feel the bands play. For metal, I couldn’t ask for more. Tonight drew a diverse crowd–mostly short-hairs, a healthy percentage of women, and an awful lot of kids–brought in by the blog-friendly combination of Wolves in The Throne Room and the metal-dabbling avant-pop of Chelsea Wolfe. It felt like something NPR might organize; an intellectual hybrid of metal and indie. If nothing else, a good way to introduce new ears to heavier sounds.

Harassor opened with a blast of noise, courtesy of special guest Hive Mind. The mangled synths added an element of dangerous physicality as waves of low end shook the floor; it felt like the mains would give out any second. Harassor play black metal the nasty way: raw, ugly guitars over stomping drums. You get a whiff of hardcore punk, but the vibe onstage is pure black malevolence. Tonight’s set eschewed theatrics–no fake blood, all members wearing shirts–because the music said enough. These guys have been playing a lot lately, and they’re only getting better.

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The crowd filled in completely by the time Chelsea Wolfe took the stage. Strictly speaking, Wolfe is a singer-songwriter. On record it’s all dark atmosphere, haunted vocals, and tense arrangements not unlike LA contemporary Zola Jesus. But Chelsea’s got a thing for metal. She appropriates not only the imagery, but also an understanding of the mechanics of heavy songwriting, flirting with black metal chords and the occasional blast-beat. Her band treats the material like inverted post-metal: the songs worship the voice more than the riff, but there’s a persistent weight underlining the gothic melodies. Live, you feel the songs churn while the vocal trails off into harmony and dissonance in equal measure. Wolfe pulled the crowd wholly into her world with effortless confidence, and never let go.

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Wolves, on the other hand, were someplace else entirely. The stage was set–black banners with wolves and skeletal trees, fire pit center-stage–but the band never stepped out of the shadows. What might have been an aesthetic choice came off as reticence. Or maybe exhaustion? The band has said its latest album, Celestial Lineage, might be its last heavy record due to changing interests. Personally, I’ve never found them as fascinating on record as a lot of folks, but I had high hopes for a strong live translation. Sadly, endless tremolo picking does not ensure epic adventures of the head-banging variety. A few solid riffs stretch out for minutes, but never deliver the transcendental breakthrough they continually allude to. There is an allure to riff-hypnosis, to be sure, if presented properly. But something in WITTR’s delivery suggests the guitars are meant to be instruments of power, which is undercut by the lack of a driving bass instrument. They keep hinting at the storm, teasing with fickle bursts of thunder, but we never see more than swirling clouds in the distance. Ultimately, it’s go-nowhere black metal. But if the journey is the destination and the countryside is this dull, I’d rather stay home.

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But to look out at the sea of faces bobbing their heads, something was working its magic. Black Metal itself? If Wolves are a gateway drug to the world of harsher sounds, one could do much worse. It would be ignorant to dismiss all those bobbing heads as newcomers; I’m sure a good number are existing fans who simply “get” what I find monotonous. Either way. While the band prepares to abandon Black Metal altogether, at least we’ve got a receptive audience full of new blood ready to fill the void.

— Aaron Lariviere

Aaron Lariviere comments regularly on Invisible Oranges under the handle Wash Jones.

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