Volahn/Ashdautus/Bone Awl/Akitsa Live in New York City June 19, 2009
The unlikely features of the gig were numerous. The venue is a remarkably pleasant bar—if one attends bars for pleasantry’s sake—with comfy booths up front and a large back room with low tables. Once upon a time, such a bar, clearly catering to the recent MBAs (now fucked) who populate the LES and their rockin’ B&T brethren who aspire to suh-weet living on the LES, would have been unthinkable on Eldridge and Grand, in the heart of Chinatown. But the city is constantly evolving, and drug dealers, human traffickers, and pension-fund managers constantly need fronts through which to launder money, so bars like this continue to crop up in unlikely spots. (Others, like nearby Happy Ending Lounge, draw upon a seediness decidedly in the past to confer coolness upon their legit and lily-white present.) From the ‘bangers’ perspective, this bar’s proprietors’ investment in a massive, deafening sound system was worthwhile. The tiny size of the basement where the show took place, along with the signs interdicting photography or videography, would normally be unappreciated, but given the circumstances, were felicitous to the overall cultness of the experience. As was the $25 ticket price. And the 125 tickets’ selling out in advance. And the tickets’ exclusive availability in person at Hospital Productions, in the former Jammyland space.
The crowd was a 50:50 mix of hipsters and sociopaths. I had heard grumblings that the door price and venue size were intended to keep untoward numbers of the latter away, lest the authorities take note. But I also heard someone remark that metalheads were among the nicest, most well-behaved music fans out there. Clearly, this dude’s experience of metal was a bit too rose-tinted by the rise of message boards and online metal encyclopedias, leaving local memories of the fearsome trifecta of angel dust, Carnivore fans, and box-cutters used in service of the white race back in the pre-internet era. A subsequent conversation among the same ‘bangers about various metal heroes unable to tour overseas due to homicides and church burnings in their files passed without any remark on the dissonance. To ensure the hipsters knew what was what, one member of the crowd, in my opinion of the latter category, who wore sunglasses indoors, whose backwards baseball cap was embroidered with the word “Heathen,” and who carried a cane (his camouflage garb made me wonder if the cane was only an accessory or if its need resulted from an injury sustained in the GWOT) loudly invoked the name of—you guessed it—Say-TUN after every band finished. I figure he would’ve done so after every song, but Volahn and Ashdautus did not afford him the opportunity, because they played their pummeling sonic destruction without breaks, without room for clapping or entreaties to Beelzebub et al, except, presumably, by the quote-unquote singers.
About these two bands: I have never heard music like this before, which makes me quite unqualified to comment on it. I won’t presume to be able to judge whether their music fulfills what fans of the genre desire. But other than the length of their sets (ie, too long), I enjoyed the fervid brutality. In particular, Ashdautus’s quick-sticked drummer, whose stamina was mindblowing, was a highlight. Visually, Volahn’s second guitarist, who faced the back of the room for the entire set, and Ashdautus’s singer, were the highlights. On the latter: if he knocked on my door right now, coming to murder me for being an admitted poseur at their gig, I wouldn’t know him from the ConEd guy—I have no idea what he looks like because he wore a long robe and hood that hid his entire body and head. He expertly employed 4- or 5-inch-long spiked gauntlets to lift the hood just enough to put the microphone close to his mouth as he shrieked. The other members of the bands, which shared members—Volahn being a solo studio project otherwise—were adorned with expected amounts of bullet belts, studs, black denim, long, frizzy hair, and corpse-paint. When I attend hardcore punk gigs, my mind sometimes wanders and I try to imagine what an outside observer, unschooled in the intricacies of their social interactions and unprepared for the sonic brutality, would think. In this case, other than my deep familiarity with Exterminator and Sarcófago, Parabellum and Nekromantie, I was the outside observer. It wasn’t as odd as I thought it would be, and I was able to get into it. Maybe that’s a bummer, and this whole thing, this whole lifestyle, isn’t as exclusive, nor as frightening, as we want it to be.
Anyway, I was at the gig to see Bone Awl. Before the gig, He Who Gnashes Teeth told me that it was difficult to sound like Bone Awl when Bone Awl plays live. The crappy, weak head he uses to obtain the thin and trebly sound that is their trademark is simply not powerful enough in the live setting. But using Ashdautus’s monstrous Marshall head turns the sound into something else entirely. Beyond that, playing live encourages playing the songs too fast. Indeed, Bone Awl’s slowness has been one the notable aspects of their sound. After the intricate whirlwind of Volahn, and even more so, Ashdautus, most bands would sound slow, but Bone Awl would have to work hard to reverse that energy and restrain the momentum. So I let experience be my guide, and I did not raise my hopes, nor did I expect the experience of seeing Bone Awl live to mimic the at-home, on-vinyl experience.
Cannily, the jobber Bone Awl brought along on tour to play bass, which He Who Gnashes Teeth does in the studio, did not seem to know how. He stood still as a statue, facing the back of the room, staring at his hands while he played. He Who Crushes Teeth played the songs only slightly too fast and was clearly constrained by his studious lack of dexterity. Though he played light years slower and hit many fewer objects than the maniac behind the kit for Ashdautus, He Who Crushes Teeth made it look like his task required far more effort. He appeared rather put upon by the whole affair. A few technical difficulties aside—seriously, you’d think the club would invest in a stable microphone stand after charging $25 a ticket—Bone Awl was unprepossessingly triumphant, achieving the disgusting brutality the audience sought without recourse to affectations, true to the minimalism that is their trademark. The refreshment of that minimalism remains for me after so many releases, and now after seeing them live (the usual deal-breaker).
In contrast, on my way out, I stepped into the middle of a sidewalk exchange between some of sweaty metallists and a strung-out blonde woman wearing gold lamé pants. She was spare-changing. Though she could’ve passed for just another hipster on the LES, I think she was a real, live throwback to the nigh-forgotten days when junk ruled these streets. After all, you’d have to be fucked up to ask these sketchy scumbags for money. As if on cue, as I ruminated on the oddity of the scene, the unlikeliness, as it were, one said sketchy scumbag, attired for an evening of exclusive black metal, shouted, to this drug-addled white girl, “Get the fuck away from me, nigger.” Thus endeth my first, and probably last, in-the-flesh black metal experience, with many of my preconceptions confirmed, bringing to mind a phrase I find loathsome when applied to punk: "only in it for the music."