Take shelter — the Blackdeath Fest is coming to Merriam
Kansas City’s heavy-metal scene can seem sort of quiet.
Unlike punk and hip-hop, two vibrant and growing parts of the city’s musical landscape, metal shows here tend to showcase touring acts, backed by one of a scant few local bands — Troglodyte, EALO, Marasmus, Damned by the Pope, Moire. There’s a (sort of awful) Facebook group dedicated to this topic: Kansas City’s Metal Scene Sucks.
Whether it truly sucks is up for debate, but it feels small. That’s part of the motivation behind KC Blackdeath Fest, which takes place this weekend. Kansas City native and longtime metal connoisseur Jackson, who asked that I not use his full name in order to insulate him a bit from Googling co-workers, was living in Los Angeles when he decided to organize last year’s first Blackdeath Fest. The idea was a two-day shindig, showcasing the region’s deep roster of metal bands and, moreover, the robust but often underappreciated American metal underground. He booked and hosted 21 bands at the Riot Room, metal’s true local home.
He was floored by the reaction: Both nights were packed. “It went really smooth,” he says. “I was actually surprised.”
Still, he ran up against a typical issue around here: At the Riot Room, the shows could not be all-ages. So this time, Jackson is moving the festival to Aftershock, a venue in Merriam that includes two stages, one of which can accommodate an all-ages audience.
Friday and Saturday’s fest focuses primarily on bands that play some version of death or black metal — two of the thickest branches on metal’s sinuous family tree. A few other subsets will be represented, Jackson says — there’s a grindcore band on the docket, for example — but there are good reasons for the black and the death: thundering double-kick drums, crunching guitar riffs, the horror-movie shrieking and growling emanating from the singers.
And then there’s the starkly anti-religious iconography. Upside-down crosses scrawled on foreheads. Pentagrams screen-printed on black T-shirts. Burzum-style images of church fires, except without the actual church fires (or Burzum-style murders and white nationalism). Most such dissociation from reality, so intertwined with the popular image of metal as to be borderline cliché, is too overdone to accept at face value.
But the desire to shock remains. Look, for instance, at Vickers, a metal band from Lincoln, Nebraska, that’s playing the fest this weekend. The band’s website calls the act “Nebraska’s most Satanic.” Vickers destroys Bibles onstage, dons corpse paint, perform un-baptisms for audience members and, perhaps most alarmingly, burns actual human hair in a Tibetan singing bowl during performances. These guys mean to disgust, and they do — they have the hate mail from hand-wringing Christians to prove it.
Satan’s reign over this realm goes on because, as more metal bands have risen from the underground to find mainstream success — Metallica, Slayer, Cannibal Corpse and so on — the ones clinging to underground status have gotten weirder, louder and darker. Metal has always embraced fantasy and theatrics; if those elements seem more pronounced now, it’s probably because they are. If mainstream media or the corporate music machine wants to drag one of these acts out of the underground, a la Deafheaven, it’s going to have to bring Lucifer himself, plus the dark lord’s troublesome baggage, along for the trip.
Some of what peppers the metal underground is clearly problematic. Nebraska metal band Slut Gutter, which is playing Davey’s Uptown in a couple of weeks, put out a 2015 demo called Kill Bitches, Smoke Weed. If the blatant misogyny in that title is an understood gimmick — a running gag between friends — it’s a joke in foul taste, especially for a music scene that has struggled to attract female and femme fans.
But Jackson says he’s a devotee of the music, nothing more. He doesn’t question bands’ sincerity when it comes to their religion or politics, nor does he pay it much mind. “Some of these guys, they don’t hold back,” he says. “And that’s what I like about it.” Extremity is the point.
“For me, it’s about the music,” he adds. “I’m not about the political end of any of the music, or the religious end. I’m not here to speak for any of the other guys. That’s all open for interpretations. A lot of bands feel very strongly about their political or religious views. And more power to them.”