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Medellín Ultra Metal


Colombian metalheads, specifically those in Medellín, refer to the metal that that their country produced from the early-1980s on (though the mid-1980s to early-1990s would come to be seen as its apex) as “ultra metal”; this was explained by contemporary Medellín metal musician Hugo ‘Witchhammer’ Uribe of Witchtrap in The November 2014 issue of Iron Fist. They don’t call it black metal, nor death metal, nor thrash: is it its own genre. You might notice elements of those better known genres upon a casual listen to bands from this scene, but upon a second or third take, you would realize that there is in fact something different going on here—a unique blend of sounds that wasn’t replicated exactly in any later form of metal.

When Colombian bands started playing, they were inventing their own wheel, but one might describe their sound in retrospective terms as a sort of blackened thrash. Imagine the distorted, fuzzy sound of black metal, with frantic drums and wailing riffs sped up to a thrash pace, providing the support for truly demonic vocals.

Revered bands Parabellum and Reencarnación formed at the beginning of the 1980s in Medellín. They have often been associated with black metal because most of the information available about the no-longer-active outfits was passed on by black metal bands that later name-checked them as influences. Euronymus credited both bands in the liner notes of the compilation album Tempus Mortiis, citing their evil sound as an important inspiration for Mayhem.

So, these bands did not create black metal as we know it, exactly, yet what they were creating lead to what we do know it as today. Why don’t we know about these trailblazing bands, then? Why aren’t they a part of our common metal vocabulary like Mayhem and Bathory are?

While obscurity and a feeling of hard-to-find, limited-release rarity has always been a black metal value, Colombian ultra metallers took that to the extreme. This may have been deliberate to an extent, but we can also guess that a lot of Medellín bands lacked the resources or the reach to break outside of a fan base composed of the most die-hard mixtape fiends—people like Oystein Aarseth. Because of this, they never achieved the minimum fanbase necessary to establish a career recording and touring. It’s a course that shapes genres as they form: Oslo became the unofficial headquarters of black metal the same way New York, London and L.A. were the headquarters of the first wave of punk even when there were vibrant scenes bubbling up in looked-over places like Minneapolis and Austin. Some cities get fixed as hotbeds for certain musical movements and the attention and the money go to those hotbeds, catalyzing more bands to form and enabling them to rise to the top; meanwhile, smaller scenes bloom in every corner of the world and remain isolated, never breaking out on a national or international level no matter how well they flourish locally.

Medellín didn’t take center stage as a capital of the global metal scene, so its bands and their sounds remained isolated and usually short-lived. Most only released an EP or rehearsal tape. The accessibility and availability was on the level of a few friends making and trading tapes. That’s why it has taken shoutouts from more prominent acts out of scenes like Norwegian black metal to connect the rest of the world with bands from Colombia.

When listening to Colombian ultra metal, it’s easy to hear how the sound bled into black metal. The foundation is laid with fuzzy, overdriven guitars, the violent drums and rasping, screaming vocals. But the pace, the intensity and the riffs are aggressively thrash, at times revealing a punk influence. It sounds like what you’d imagine from a supergroup composed of members of Abruptum and Sodom with guest appearances by the likes of Roberto Valverde and Pat Smear.

The blend of melodic yet nightmarish vocals with blasting drums and guitars is the hallmark of Colombian ultra metal’s most revered bands, but different acts had their own unique mixes and balances. While some Colombian bands’ vocalists veer closer to black metal, Reencarnación’s Piolín sticks to a thrashier path. The band’s self-titled track off of their 1988 album, 888 Metal, starts out as pure chaos before tightening into the formula that seems to equal Colombian ultra metal: a punk-is tempo, frenzied screaming vocals, and thrash guitars breaking out into wailing black metal riffs.

Evidenced by 1987’s “Madre Muerte,” Parabellum took their sound further into a direction that plainly links to future black metal bands—it’s easy to see where inspiration could have come from here. Periods of warp-speed riffs descend into a wall of noise or blasts of intricate picking. The drums sound like they’re racing themselves to a brutal end. Over this, the screaming vocals spiral into almost campy, monstrous growls before opening up into howls for a sound not unlike Revenge.

Less often name-checked globally but still worshipped by clued-in metal fans, Blasfemia has often been branded blackened thrash. Their sound is nothing shocking by today’s standards: they have quite a few genres at work, but mish-mashing elements to create your own unique concoction is de rigeur for bands now. Keep in mind, though, that Blasfemia formed in 1986, and their concoction supports Colombian metalheads’ claims that something special was at work among their own scene’s bands. Blasfemia’s overall sound is sped up metallic punk with a lo-fi distorted finish, and the vocals are actually somehow more evil than most black metal bands achieve—murderous screams are punctuated by lower growls at infrequent intervals on songs like “Guerra Total.” Death metal and almost-classic-metal riffs, as well as intricate twists and turns that come in short bursts, also pop in.

Other oft-cited standouts from the scene include Astaroth and Pirokinesis. There’s not a lot to base any conclusions about Astaroth on: the Medellín band was together from 1985 to 1987 and released just one EP, 1987’s Aullido Sepulcral/Guerra de Metal But “Guerra de Metal” is a pretty definitive taste of the ultra metal subgenre and it backs up the claim that it was a foundation of but not itself black metal. There are the black metal elements: the vocals are guttural growls and screams, there’s a DIY sound and there’s a breakneck pace. But, the guitars and drums are pronounced. They’re heavy but nimble and aggressive. You can hear how bands like Astaroth and Pirokinesis were taking the thrash and straightforward heavy metal already in existence and speeding them up for an angrier, rawer effect. By the time their approach hit Norway, black metal musicians were actually slowing things down—at least in phrasing and energy, if not always in actual pace.

The climax of Medellín’s ultra metal movement has come and gone, leaving subgenres in its wake. It seems like a missed opportunity that these bands never had the resources to record full albums or tour, radiating their sound to a more widespread audience. We have to learn about this South American scene from the musicians who sought it out nearly thirty years ago and used what they found to create the more prolific black metal genre. Stories like Euronymous telling a group of Colombian metalheads visiting Helvete how much Reencarnacion and Parabellum influenced Mayhem are basically what we have to go by now. But it’s enough to intrigue those willing to track down those rehearsal tapes and demos, only to be surprised to find even more there than the origins of black metal, but thrash, too, and an entire community’s own interpretation of aggressive speed and the sound of evil.

— Courtney Iseman

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