Home of the Heavy: Five Chicago Bands Propelling the Windy City’s Dark Sails
Much like regional culinary specialties, every major city has its own flavor of heavy metal, a unique seasoning that lends a recognizable piquancy to any genre that flourishes there. In Chicago, ours might be the frustration with our enduring fickle whims of extreme weather, the acrid and confusing taste of road salt laid down during a blizzard that's now left to bake in 60-degree sun.
More seriously, when Chicago metal finds its way outside the city limits and onto the desks of critics, the material that graces top-ten lists always seems to share a few characteristics: a penchant for intricate aesthetics, a delight in the melancholy, and a willingness to take risks in order to create something fresh and not beholden to any particular genre.
These aesthetic preferences are likely linked to the city's deep appreciation for the arts and the intoxicating proximity of the weirder sides of the music scene -- for example, the 70-artist independent music fest Ian's Party took place earlier this month, spanning everything from rap and drag queens to heavier acts like Masonic Wave (featuring Bruce Lamont of Yakuza) and trippy stoner-rockers REZN. It's hard not to get a little strange here, and though we still have our share of conventional metal bands, they're not what the city is exporting en masse at the moment. Given Chicago music's roots in blues, it's no surprise that extra-depressive themes continue to be a city specialty as well.
The following five bands both embrace Chicago's distinct approach to metal and have pushed to innovate upon it, either just recently or over the course of several recent years. More than just being a product of their environment, they've all crafted releases in the last few years that took a new look at their own music, the music we create in Chicago, and the wider genres our locality all derives from.
-- Ted Nubel
While you can catch Immortal Bird on the road across the country, they're still actively playing shows here at home, keeping it extremely real -- their last show of 2019 was a DIY house party with other underground acts (Scientist and Ribbonhead) supporting. The band has risen quickly in stature due to an uncanny blazing-fast brand of emotionally harrowing metal plus Immortal Bird's steadfast participation in the local scene.
Since forming in 2013, Immortal Bird has combined sludge, crust, death, and black metal into a cohesive blend that defies categorization and staunchly avoids repetition. While the song titles and the complexity of the lyrics reward deeper interpretation and re-listening, the music tells its own story well enough: a tale of frustration, anger, and rage. Heavily dissonant riffs are welded to growls and punishing drums while calamitous leads and chord progressions further the plot -- a concoction sure to dispel any lingering notions that fast music can't effectively portray emotions.
Pelican has long since outgrown the local Chicago scene, touring abroad more often than not, but their contributions to the post-metal scene and excellent body of work set them apart as a staple of Chicago's metal community. I remember listening to tracks from Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw years and years ago as I was just getting into heavy metal through Internet radio -- the station would mainly play "March to the Sea," which was fine by me. Four albums and 15 years later, they're still here, pouring their hearts into their latest offering.
The 2019 release Nighttime Stories was their first full-length in about six years, marking a comeback for their recorded material after an experimental EP and a bevy of live releases. The band's sound, initially a decidedly heavy instrumental post-metal onslaught, has been tweaked over more than a decade to end up closer to doom-enthralled post-rock. Nighttime Stories traded off some of the fuzziness and rattling low-end on past albums for a darker, more focused assault that shines on chuggier bottom-ended tracks like "Full Moon, Black Water" where it can completely engulf listeners. Lumbering riffs are combined with a mixture of spooky melodies and softer, more pleasant sections, resulting in a different sound for the band that still turned plenty of heads.
Making a concept album is one thing -- making an hour-plus-long death metal concept album is another. Making an album-length music video for your hour-plus-long death metal concept album is... quite possibly insanity. But that's what Warforged has created here, and their debut album I: Voice contains a surprisingly complex blend of technical death metal with a host of other influences and bafflingly intricate orchestration. Anytime there's a colon in an album title, I fully expect some big-brain stuff to go down, but damn.
The band's mix of completely dissonant tech-death with ambient and melodic sections creates an addictive formula, where the bread-and-butter barrage of perfectly-mixed blast beats is absent just long enough for a craving to arise before it resurfaces, often with interesting new ideas along for the ride -- hearing heavy-handed piano, double-bass drumming, and guttural growls at the same time is a new one for me. I'm a bit concerned that Warforged went with something this aspirational for their first full-length -- where do they go from here? I'm looking forward to finding out their answer.
I first ran into Huntsmen years ago at the now-gone Quencher's Saloon during a variety show I recall was organized by some Chicago Reddit regulars. I was there to see a friend's band, but happened to talk to Huntsmen's bassist Marc before they played, who described their sound as "Indian meets Radiohead." That applied pretty well at the time (and to their Post-War EP), but these days I don't think you could put any two bands together to try and approximate their sound. Over the years, they've tweaked their lineup and redefined their sound to arrive at their current sonic profile: post-metal with heavy doom influence, which is what gave rise to 2018's fantastic American Scrap.
The delicate introduction of Americana elements and a wistful portrayal of a post-apocalyptic America elevates American Scrap far past anything similar that came out in 2018, reinforced by the masterful control the band exercises over dynamics and structure in their songwriting, corralling listeners into feeling the same emotions that went into making this music. All the while, every second of this record feels haunted by the ghost of an apocalypse that's yet to come.
Early in 2019, Varaha released their first full-length album A Passage for Last Years to great underground acclaim with traces of mainstream acknowledgement -- "atmospheric dark metal", as they're billed, isn't a genre you're likely to see top-ten lists for in most places. Regardless, the album is an innovative blend of post-metal, doom, and black metal that also featured a host of guest musicians on violins, cellos, theremins, saxophones, and more, allowing the band to paint a rich, evocative tapestry that's stuck in my mind all year.
Given the logistical impossibilities of fitting 15+ people on stage, Varaha can't bring the orchestral elements with them when they perform, so they instead deliver a heavier (if stripped down) version of their material. Last year, I attended an outdoor festival put on by local beer-masters Metal Monkey Brewing, which Varaha headlined. As the record-setting heat faded with the night's arrival and torches burned around us, Varaha played on a stage lit in serene white light to a captive crowd, closing the night out with their supremely cathartic roar, proving to me first-hand that their live sound is just as powerful as the record.