To Hell And Back is a weekly column in which Noisey metal editor and lifelong hesher Kim Kelly explores the extreme metal underground and recommends her latest faves.
“Hey, there’s a hipster version of us,” my boyfriend said, moving the arm he’d had draped around my shoulder to gesture towards a couple by the bar. The well-dressed pair—a tall, blonde white woman and taller black man—walked past us hand-in-hand, oblivious to both our conversation and their role in the game that he and I had been playing since we started dating a few months ago. Whenever the two of us are out in public together, we keep an eye out for other couples “like us;” whether they be older, younger, preppier, dorkier, more metal, or what, the tiny thrill of seeing our own little love story reflected in others has yet to get old, especially in a world where we still get stares just for walking down the street together.
That evening, we were at a venue in Brooklyn waiting to see black metal blues fusion outfit Zeal & Ardor go onstage, and were far from the only interracial couple there. It was a nice feeling, and, happily, has been the case at most of the other metal shows we’ve attended together, too. The crowd in general was noticeably more racially diverse than any other explicitly metal event in my recent memory—and New York City’s metal scene is extremely diverse by American standards. My boyfriend commented that he felt more comfortable there than he can ever remember feeling at a metal show, specifically because there were so many other black and brown faces. “It’s definitely less threatening,” he told me. “It didn’t feel like anyone was going to get drunk and come up and have a problem with me because of the color of my skin, and nobody looked at us weird, either. It was also cool to see [Manuel] up there showing that an artist can be extremely talented, and black, and metal as fuck, all at once.”
"There are only two shows I've ever been to that've had more diverse [crowds] than that—when Haram played in Thompkins Square Park last May Day, and when I saw Limp Wrist play when I was like 15," he continued, which seemed significant coming from a native New Yorker who's been going to punk shows all his life. "There was also none of the micro-racism I've gotten at some punk shows—more mainstream punk—where, like, a white guy will come up and be like, 'I respect you!' and you can tell the guy's definitely trying to not be racist, kind of funny style."
The fact that Zeal & Ardor’s principal songwriter and frontperson, Manuel Gagneux, is a biracial man—born to a white Swiss father and black American mother—who is vocal about the way that the horrific treatment of black people in this country has influenced his unique take on metal surely played a factor in that. The band’s output is a blend of African-American spirituals, chain gangs songs, blues, and Satanic black metal (on their newer material, that raw influence has has given way to a slicker modern metal sound). “It's all really aggressive music, but it's kind of a hippie thing if you think about it,” he told Noisey back in 2017. “I'm not really black or white, but I'm stealing from both cultures and it's this new thing. It's kind of a 'we can do it together' thing."
Gagneux’s idea of “doing it together” still resonates. Seeing other “like us” couples at metal shows specifically has been satisfying for me, too, because I remember what it felt like when I was much younger, and was playing a different version of this game. The thought that I keep coming back to this week is that representation matters so, so much—especially in a scene like this, where racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry remain rampant, and any scrap of progress is still looked at askance by gatekeepers or shouted down by reactionaries.
Back when I was a teenager, I’d go to shows and look out for other girls and women. In my 20s, as I got older and grew into a more informed, intersectional perspective, I’d look out for other marginalized people, especially those who reflected my own experience as a physically disabled person. Walking into a place and seeing a face that looks like yours is an immediate relief, whether it’s a bank or a job interview or a black metal show. For me, it came via those first early crowd scans, when I’d light upon another girl in a Morbid Angel shirt standing across the room, and feel my heart swell.
Later, it came in seeing women like Arch Enemy’s Angela Gossow or Bolt Thrower’s Jo Bench onstage, in seeing Liz Ciavarella-Brenner edit Metal Maniacs, in reading Jeanne Fury and Zena Tsarfin’s work in magazines, and in working with Paula Hogan at Candlelight Records. Since then, a lot has changed for the better, but those early role models and fellow fans gave me the reassurance I needed that I did belong there; it gave me permission to be who I was, to be a metalhead sans caveat.
As the years went by and the craggy walls that have long guarded metal’s culture were slowly cracked open, the numbers I counted grew. I’m never the only woman at a show anymore, and even amidst the overwhelming oppression of the outside world, that small fact feels something like freedom.
It’s something I’ve become accustomed to, which again, is a massive fucking privilege; there are still so many people, particularly those who are of color or outside the gender binary or who have disabilities, who don’t get to experience that feeling. Every person has their own version of the game, whether it hinges on identity or interest (I always keep an eye out for other metalheads, too, and still get stoked when I see a fellow hesher in the wild). As the metal community has continued to expand and diversify and a significant amount of metalheads in and outside the industry have worked to make show spaces safer for marginalized people, it’s gotten a lot more fun to play the game—but the fact that that jolt of recognition still comes as a pleasant surprise instead of a given is still an issue.
My friend and colleague Wilbert Cooper, who we ran into on line outside before the show, felt the same way. He told me about how he'd always felt more comfortable in punk spaces, and though he listened to metal at home and loved heavier music like Black Sabbath that was clearly blues-inspired, he'd had trouble connecting with extreme metal due to the politics involved.
“I would kind of avoid seeing those bands or interacting with that scene in person, because of the history and the reality that a lot of the bands promote neo-Nazi ideas," Cooper told me via email. "I've literally been attacked by racists before and I've covered the alt-right frequently in my work for VICE. In my free time, interacting with assholes is not something I'm trying to do. I just wanna be a normal person and enjoy music. Zeal and Ardor, especially, creates a rare space for that. There's no question that the band is down for people of all races, colors, and creeds—and offers an awesome representation of true BLACK metal. Their songs speak to me as black man. And it's clear it speaks to lots of other people who feel like outcasts. It's a great feeling to see that diversity of backgrounds in a mosh pit."
As a cisgender white woman, I have had many bad experiences in this scene, but my privilege served as armor that, even though it didn’t protect me entirely, was still an unearned shield that many others lacked. I was never going to face the same difficulties as a person of color, or a non-binary or trans person. Even as metal culture has become more accepting of those who don’t fit into the “straight cis white dude” standard, it’s still heavily skewed towards it, and the only real ways we—with an especial emphasis on those of us who do have more privilege—can combat this imbalance is to continually confront and eradicate racism and other bigotry within the scene, and to work hard to increase representation.
Back to the show, and the latter point. Representation is crucial, especially within a subculture like ours that has made strides towards improving, but still has a long ways to go. I cannot understate the importance of the fact that Zeal & Ardor’s very existence (to say nothing of the band’s wild success) has had such an impact on marginalized people who would normally feel uncomfortable or unwelcome at a metal show. At the rate he’s going, Manuel Gagneux is going to be some other kid’s Angela Gossow, or Rob Halford, or Marissa Martinez.
I’ve said this many times before, but, metal is for everyone (except Nazis), and we still have so much work to do to make that sentiment feel tangible—but that Zeal & Ardor show gave me more hope than I’ve had in awhile. Devil is fine, indeed.
Zeal & Ardor's latest album, Stranger Fruit, builds upon the bastardized blueprint of the project's debut. Despite Gagneux's well-documented appreciation for Norwegian black metal classics, here, the metal component leans into a more modern, electronic-tinged sound—way more Gojira than Gorgoroth. This is one of our favorite songs off the new record (especially the snappy handclap rhythm, and the part where he bellows out, "slaves to none!" in that untouchable voice).
Cincinnati's Electric Citizen are all about hellfire, fuzz, and sleaze, and their new album, Helltown, is a distillation of all those influences (and then some—the record tells the tale of an old Cincy neighborhood once known as the dicey haunt of roughnecks and rowdy laborers). The band's greasy pop hooks come buried under layers of swaggering stoner licks, hot rock leads, and vocalist Laura Dolan's sinewy yowl, keeping things good and dirty even as they let a little sparkle peek out.
Scum Sect is the perfect title for this Bay Area crust collective's second album—and almost a little too on the nose for an outfit that rips this hard and ugly, and that includes past and current members of such grimy luminaries as Vastum, Necrot, Black September, Mortuous, Abstracter, and Moral Void. With all that in mind, this album is exactly what you'd expect—and it's even better than you'd hope.
Man, I really needed this this week. Through some sort of cosmic coincidence, Ragana always comes through with beautifully urgent new music whenever the world is feeling particularly fucked, and the Bay Area anarcha-feminist black/doom metal duo's multi-layered new split with Thou (who are also perfect and necessary) couldn't have come at a better time. Their three songs hang in the balance between defiant vulnerability and utter rage, seamlessly moving between the worlds of doom, black metal, and more delicate darkness as the words demand. Ragana makes me feel strong, and I hope they do the same for you.
Kissing Cousins' Heather Heywood's turn as a solo artist reminds me of work by others like Foie Gras and King Woman. There's a pulsating sensuality coiled beneath Vicious Cousins' sparse arrangements, wrapped around each grungy note and nestled within every breath of her dreamy, almost languid vocals, especially on this track we're premiering here (taken from her debut, All Disappearing). Doomgaze is kind of a dumb genre tag, but honestly, it fits this like an elegantly-tailored, bloodstained velvet glove.
Hissing's blown-out, fucked up death metal is abrasive and horrible and utterly off-putting, and I absolutely love them for it. They're like if Knelt Rote was into early Morbid Angel instead of Conqueror, and their upcoming full-length, Permanent Destitution, is going to be a a total banger.
Kim Kelly is the heavy metal editor at Noisey, and a general nuisance on Twitter.