It's rarely argued or even examined, but at some point in the past 25 years, certain factions of underground music learned how to achieve real heaviness, in both live and recorded presentations. Certainly it had something to do with first-wave hardcore bands, such as Black Flag, deciding to slow down in the mid-'80s. Steve Albini's production techniques can probably be credited with helping, as can progress in P.A. and amplification technology, not to mention the development of underground metal and the 4,000 styles it would fracture into over this same time period. Point is — distortion, noise, and high volume have been around forever, but the ability (especially live) to move air and part hair is a relatively new development.
For almost 10 years, San Francisco's two-man Black Cobra has been successfully communicating the language of heavy. After spending some time trading recorded ideas via the mail from their home bases of New York City and Los Angeles, guitarist Jason Landrian and drummer Rafa Martinez formed Black Cobra in the early 2000s.
Both members of Black Cobra originated in the Miami hardcore and underground metal scene, and the formation of Black Cobra more or less coincided with the breakup of Cavity, the long-running and influential yet barely regarded Miami outfit that boasted Landrian and featured among its revolving-door membership Steve Brooks and Juan Montoya, who would go on to form Torche, currently the heaviest pop band in the world. Martinez is also the bassist for a velocity-challenged San Francisco institution known as Acid King, a band whose undemanding schedule (three albums in 17 years) allows Black Cobra to be Martinez' primary concern. All of the bands mentioned, including Black Cobra, have one thing in common: They tend to be mentioned in connection with the ill-defined sub-genre "sludge metal."
Black Cobra find themselves lumped into this 20-years-and-crawling "movement" by way of Landrian's massive, stroke-inducing riffs, Martinez's abusive attack on his drum kit, with the whole execution existing in the slow-to-mid tempo arena (with an occasional thrashing, galloping gait). The vocals are screamed as if Landrian were being chased down and beaten by the very music he is making; they never veer into the corny or forced "creature-living-under-the-bridge" or "drill-sergeant bellow" styles that so ruin a notable percentage of heavier, usually metal-associated bands.
While most heavy duos shoot for a studio sound that belies their two-piece limitations, Black Cobra are one of the few that manage a live sound that resembles four or five people really going at it rather than the two who grace the stage. Black Cobra's third full-length, Chronomega, was released last year on the quite appropriate Southern Lord label.
Most likely to be positioned in the slot right before Black Cobra at the Hi-Tone this week is Howl, a New York City four-piece with another near-perfect picture of how to properly do heavy music circa 2010. After forming in 2006, Howl's demo attracted the attention of Relapse Records, which released it last summer.
They followed it with the band's debut full-length, Full of Hell, earlier this year. About the album, guitarist and vocalist Vincent Hausman says, "Expect faces to melt," and he may be fronting one of the only bands with a sound that removes any silliness or apprehension from such a claim. The band has gained comparisons to the mighty Kylesa, but this journalistic shortsightedness might be due to both bands having an attractive female on an instrument that isn't a bass or a drum kit.
Hausman and Andrea Black, the guitarist in question, have somehow elevated the delivery of heavy riffs to a new level of ferocity without relying on speed or any other trickery. The two guitarists unite with solos torn screaming from the bulldozing rhythm as if there were never meant to be solos in a reasonable world. With that to back up, bassist Robert Icaza and drummer Timmy St. Armour push everything along in a fashion that has less to do with the band's contemporaries (EYEHATEGOD, Black Tusk, and Kylesa) and more to do with repeatedly getting punched in the face.
Full of Hell might be the heaviest album I've heard all year, making Howl's live act one of the few with earplugs a mandatory accessory.
Black Cobra and Howl, with Struck by Lightning and These Wolves Are Robots
Friday, August 6th
10 p.m., $12