We Saw This: Von
Black metal’s default emotional setting is misery. The kind of blighted misery that can compel a person to paint their faces to look like a dead person and shriek into a microphone like some kind of demon. The kind of misery that makes listening to someone shriek like a demon seem sensible, and even appealing.
And it’s best appreciated in miserable settings. So it was appropriate that before the legendary American black metal group Von took the stage at Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s excellent metal bar Saint Vitus, the back room where they were to play was dark, cramped, humid with sweat, and faintly redolent of eggs after a set by Magic is Küntmaster that I had missed but which I gathered involved foodstuffs being hurled around. When I walked in one of the group’s co-founders, Venien, was dialing in a heinous tone on what looked like a model of cheap-ass bass that’s synonymous with shitty high school rock bands.
The pair of demos that Von recorded in the early 90s have been legendary in the underground metal world ever since bootleg copies started being passed around among listeners on the more extreme end of the metal fandom spectrum. Satanic Blood and Blood Angel were two of the more foundational records in the Norwegian black metal scene’s early days. In some of the photos from Varg Vikernes’s 1994 trial for murdering his Mayhem bandmate Euronymous he’s wearing a Von shirt.
Despite their cultish popularity the demos never led to a proper album, probably due to the amount of conflict between Venien and his former creative partner Goat, until this week when Venien released a re-recorded version of Satanic Blood. Despite a reconciliation a few years back when the group came out of retirement, Goat’s not on it, and Venien’s taken over his parts he sang. Goat’s not in the version of Von that’s playing out now, although it does include Anthony from Chicago metal behemoth the Atlas Moth, and a guy named Hammer of Dread.
Von’s set began in an unexpected way, by playing a selection from a compilation from the prank-calling comedy duo Earles & Jensen where a guy who sounds African-American answers an ad seeking musicians for a black metal band and basically threatening the shit out of the wimpy, kinda racist white boy who placed the ad. It was thematically appropriate, if tonally insane. The audience loved it.
Things got more serious when Von finally took the stage. Most of them were covered in fake blood. Guitarists Lord Giblete and Xaphan both had minimalist fake blood makeup jobs, while Venien and Hammer of Dread went with the “bucket of fake blood poured over your head” look.
Modern black metal tends to be texturally complex and stylistically flexible. Old black metal, like the kind Von plays, is brutally simple and direct. Occasionally a song would have a sort of spacey, bluesy breakdown, but otherwise they stick to heavy, simple riffs played with murderous aggression. It’s easy to see why those demos got passed around so much, and why metalheads have been losing their shit over them for the past couple decades.
Aside from those brief spacey parts Von’s set was relentless, and relentlessly ugly. Venien doesn’t have the ghoul-shriek voice that a lot of black metal vocalists use. His is more of a hideous growl, and it gets deeply inhuman at times. And in keeping with the classic approach to black metal the band doesn’t seem overly concerned with exactitude. At one point I’m pretty sure Xaphan forgot what key he was supposed to be playing in, and spent a couple of verses playing a half step out of tune with the rest of the band, which only added to the overall brutality.
The relentlessness and brutality finally got to be too much for the majority of the crowd. At the beginning of Von’s set they spilled out of Saint Vitus’s back room and out into the bar. After 45 minutes it had thinned out to the point where the little mosh pit that briefly erupted up front didn’t really get in anyone’s way. After the hour mark the room was half full. The contingent of quintessentially Brooklyn metal dudes--the ones with the high and tight haircuts that always remind me of neo-Nazi power electronics musicians--had almost disappeared. But the guy behind me who looked like a cartoon Dimebag Darrell was still headbanging and throwing horns with no apparent signs of tiring. Same with the guy who was dressed like an average middle-age dude except for the smeary corpsepaint makeup he was wearing, who had been drunk to the point of semi-coherence even before the show started.
Those guys were hanging in there until the end.
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