Bathed in the red glow of Cattivo, a pleasantly cave-like two-level venue in Pittsburgh’s hip Lawrenceville neighborhood, bassist “Metal” Mary Bielich grins widely at the crowd of metalheads who stand before her, and then around the stage at her Penance bandmates. “That’s Mary on the bass over there,” says frontman Brian “Butch” Balich, and is met with cheers. “Yeah, everyone knows Mary!”
It’s true; if you’re a fan of heavy music who lives in Pittsburgh (or outside of Pittsburgh, for that matter), you’ve likely encountered Bielich—better known as Metal Mary—lighting up some stage with one of her several active bands. Or, maybe she’s convinced you to adopt a kitten while tabling for an animal welfare organization. Or, possibly, she’s given your car an oil change (she works as a mechanic by day) or served you a latte during the odd barista shift.
Most who know her would describe her as some variation of warm, winning, and/or cool as fuck; they may also attempt to describe her conspiratorial smile, which seems to encompass her entire being. And tonight, in Cattivo’s basement-level bar, headlining Blackseed Recordings’ inaugural Descendants of Crom doom metal festival, those qualities radiate. She jokes around with her bandmates, laughs a lot, but—as in the rest of her life—attends to the important business at hand with a single-minded intensity. As Penance chugs steadily through their set—it’s the first show the veteran doom band has played with this lineup in 15 years—she looks relaxed and authoritative, hands moving effortlessly across her bass, her long, two-toned hair flying across her face.
In a Facebook post a few days before Descendants of Crom, Bielich joked that she might not be able to shake the rust off these songs, which she hadn’t played in at least a decade. As it turned out, this ws a very Metal Mary thing to say (“She’s humble, which I love, almost to a fault… which makes me a little crazy,” says Penance drummer Mike Smail via email). And of course she needn’t have worried. Even if Penance had sounded rusty (which, wiith a few very minor exceptions, they didn’t) the crowd was full of friends and well-wishers, many of whom were nearing the end of a long, happy day of thick riffs and down-tuned guitars. They were more than receptive to whatever these long-dormant local doom legends had to offer.
It’s that spirit of comraderie that, for Bielich, always made being a part of Penance pure fun. “They’re people who play because they just love music. So there’s no pressure on them to get any press or attention or gain, other than just kind of loving what they do,” she says. Penance already had a good decade under their belt when Bielich joined in 2000; they originally formed in 1990 after the breakup of Pittsburgh thrash/doom outfit Dream Death, released The Road Less Travelled on Rise Above Records in 1992, and secured a place in the hearts of genre purists while touring with Sleep and Cathedral. “They’re a traditional doom band, so there was a really well-thought-out song structure and melody. It was a little bit more of a challenge to figure out what to play,” she tells me.
She describes herself as a “ten-trick pony” when it comes to the bass; others might argue that she’s being overly modest. “We used to say Mary was the best ‘musician’ in the band because she actually went to school for it—and, it was true,” says Smail. “She fit in well from day one. She’s competent, to say the least, and comes up with stuff that really works well for the songs, never over-playing or just riding one string.”
One warm, sunny afternoon few weeks earlier, Bielich glances around affectionately at the patrons the 61c Café, her place of semi-employment. Large mug of coffee in hand, she leans across the small table and wonders aloud at what it would be like to have taken a different, more conventional route in life. Now nearing her fifth decade on earth, she figures that her business-suited contemporaries must look at her and wonder the inverse. The question isn’t a denunciation of the "normal" life so much as an extension of empathy, and a true curiosity about what it might mean to break down conventional expectations of career and success to allow for more personal creativity. “I feel like we’re just perpetually having to take [the expected path] and I don’t think that’s the way it should be. I think it needs to be flipped a little bit," she says firmly.
Growing up in a Pittsburgh suburb, music was a constant in Bielich’s life. She loved the stuff her parent’s loved—classical and big band music—but remembers discovering David Bowie around the age of six, a revelation made “probably courtesy of the neighborhood kids, because we would see what shirts they were wearing.” Later, via her older brother, she discovered Deep Purple, the Ramones, and the Romantics. In sixth grade, her family moved to Valparaiso, Indiana, where she joined the school band, dabbled in drumming, then fell in love with the bass playing of Geddy Lee, John Paul Jones and especially John Taylor of Duran Duran (“He was so funky!” she recalls with a laugh.) High school nights were spent driving to nearby Chicago to see shows, and playing punk covers with her first band. She moved back to Pittsburgh to study music at the University of Pittsburgh. “To me, we might as well have been in New York City,” she recalls. “I met some people, and it's Pittsburgh, so if you’re in one band, you’re going to be in five.”
Bielich’s musical resume is lengthy – aside from Penance (which, it should be noted, may have a new record in its future), her current roster of active bands includes long-running punk n’ rollers Mud City Manglers, crust/thrashers Behind Enemy Lines, and venerated death metal outfit Derketa. To some, she’s best known for her time in Chicago-based death/doom band Novembers Doom—with whom she played when she spent a few years in that city after college—and Mythic, an all-female death/doom project that eventually morphed into Derketa, and she’s also contributed to a wide range of other projects over the years.
For a long time, Bielich considered Pittsburgh’s punk and metal scene to be a kind of haven, especially as a woman. “It felt like Pittsburgh was this weird little utopia because [Derketa vocalist/guitarist] Sharon [Bascovsky] and I would go to shows and we had so many buddies, and [it felt like] your gender didn’t matter as much,” she say, adding that it wasn’t until Derketa, (which at times has had an all-female lineup) started touring that she began noticing a difference. “We felt the world was everybody’s oyster, and the more we traveled, the more we realized it wasn’t quite that way.”
There are many Pittsburgh-based metalheads who would argue with Bielich’s experience of the punk and metal scene as a haven, though, and, in recent years, even she has realized that—thanks, in part, to her desire to see the best in people—she didn’t always know what was happening under the surface. She’s had men apologize for comments or jokes they’d made in the past, “guys who are like, ‘Oh, I have a daughter now, I get it.’ And I’m like, it took having a daughter to have some compassion? I thought you were my friend!”
Compassion is a theme that crops up a lot with Bielich. “Mary is the definition of an empath,” says her fellow 61c barista Jes Bogden, who also describes Bielich as being generous to a fault, the kind of friend you have to cut in front of in line at the movies so she won’t pay for your ticket. According to Bogden, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who cares more passionately about animal rights, and she’s always willing to lend a sympathetic ear and offer encouragement to anyone who is struggling. (This consideration extents to her musical efforts as well: “She’s a great bandmate—she’s up for whatever’s best for everyone,” says Smail).
But Trump’s America is a grueling place for an empath to live, and Bielich admits to feeling the effects. Frankly, she’s exhausted, and angry, and not quite sure what to do with that. “I think we’re all fighting,” she says. “I think it’s good to tell people that, hey, sometimes I wake up and it can be a really bad day. And I look at politicians, and the poverty rate, and you can just be a mess! And I’ve definitely flipped towards being more aggressive.” It’s not about being mean, she says, but if she sees someone causing harm, she’ll refuse to stand for it.
This conversation comes to my mind later, as Penance prepares to launch into the penultimate song of their reunion set, “Cloudless.” In a genre, and a world, that is often filled with darkness, explains Butch Balich, “we pride ourselves on having a little light.” This could easily describe Bielich herself, a person who understands darkness and nihilism, but also rejects it—someone who understands the power and light that can be found in playing and listening to heavy music.
“Be it veganism, feminism, antifascism, labor, fair pay—when you start to see how much injustice it’s hard to be like, 'Let’s just go watch a movie tonight,'” she tells me. But as you fight injustice, she says, it’s important to make space for yourself. It’s the only way to maintain your own light. “Music is an outlet for me, and it always brings me back to the community that I love so much. It’s a chance to get grounded. It’s always a good recharge.”
So, she says, don’t give up what you love to do, even if someone in a suit might think it’s strange—even if you’re the one wearing the suit. “Don’t give up your comic books. Don’t give up your records, don’t give up your bicycle. Maybe,” she adds with a laugh, “give up your skateboard, because everyone my age is killing themselves on those things. But don’t deny the things that make you you, because that gives you the strength in the tough times and the dark times.”
Margaret Welsh is staying tough on Twitter.