Arguably no other genre of music requires more mystique from its practitioners than black metal. As the name implies, it's an extremely dark form of expression that takes itself very seriously. Generally speaking, the music is brutally fast and dirtily produced, lyrics espouse Satanism, and members wear spikes and chains and don a kind of morbid face paint known as "corpse paint." As such, the whole ideology isn't exactly conducive to actively marketing and publicizing one's band. Thus, band logos are impossible to read, imagery on album covers is often black or obscured (as are band photos), releases are often limited or hard to find; and live performances can be rare or even nonexistent. Wavering from this template can have consequences. Creating too much merchandise, for example, can get one labeled a "sell-out."
But the members of San Francisco's Pale Chalice hope to change these rigid notions. Their goal is to play their music live, and they'd actually like their fans to be able to buy their records. They reject Satanism, calling it an egotistical ideology. Still, it's a tricky balance. They know they've got to adhere to some of the genre's familiar tropes in order to be taken seriously. But they also know that, if poorly executed, those elements can be utterly comical.
So they perform wearing corpse paint but otherwise wear regular street clothes. They don't talk much during their shows. They go by obscure pseudonyms whose meanings remain private. And they don't want anyone to know where they're from, or that they have a past history outside of black metal. Their persona appears suitably cultivated for adoration.
Interviewing them proved to be similarly conspicuous. We arranged to meet at the apartment of guitarist "Oram Evad" in San Francisco. It was a chilly February evening when the lanky guitarist greeted me at the gate to his building. He wore black jeans, a black shirt, black beanie, and black Jack Purcells with black laces. But instead of leading me inside, we walked through a narrow, tunnel-like passageway covered in cobwebs, which opened up to a grassy backyard surrounded by apartment buildings. It was pitch black except for an open fire pit where bassist "Grobahn Huv" was drinking a beer. Nearby, white candles drilled into cow bones flickered in the breeze. Shortly thereafter, we were joined by singer "Ephemeral Domignostika," a guy whose pronounced brow ridge makes him look perpetually angry.
The germ for Pale Chalice came in mid-2008. Oram had been itching to start a new project, so he and a drummer friend of his, "Masthantric Nodrab," began working on some material he had written. Later, another friend, guitarist "Baneist Nonrutin," and singer "Drakk" joined the lineup. Oram was clear that he wanted the band to channel the traditional aesthetic that's associated with the second wave of black metal, but without being totally derivative. "I felt like there weren't a whole lot of bands playing black metal out there that was pretty straight up but not just another Dark Throne album kicked out of the box," said Oram.
With that template in mind, Oram spent a lot of time on the songwriting. Once it was ready to record, the band hooked up with producer Nevene Koperweis of Fleshwrought and Animals as Leaders. Oram said he wanted it to sound "dirty and harsh" but not "like shit."
Then, at the last moment, their singer left. The band went ahead and laid down the instrumental tracks, then went about searching for a new vocalist. After shuffling through a few and almost calling it quits, a mutual friend from the local black metal band Horn of Dagoth suggested Domignostika, who had been working on his own solo material. (Prior to Pale Chalice, Oram and Domignostika had both played in Horn of Dagoth, though not at the same time.) The two clicked. "Getting a hold of [Domignostika] was the major turning point for us," said Oram. The last piece to the lineup was bassist Grobahn.
The resulting four-song EP, Afflicting the Dichotomy of Trepid Creation, certainly channels the early black metal sound created by bands like Dark Throne and Mayhem, but is decidedly more polished. Opener "Transplant of Dimensional Recourse" blasts out of the speakers, with Domignostika's gravelly, wraith-like rasp commanding over minor-key arpeggios, tremolo picking, and those ubiquitous blast beats. The rest of the EP doesn't stray far from this format, but these days that's almost considered an asset, as it's sort of rare for a US black metal band to play such a straightforward style. It may explain why Pale Chalice is getting the attention it has and already has label support.
It may have a traditional sound, but the band made a conscious decision to challenge the genre's stereotype of rarely playing live. "With black metal, it's definitely optional to play live," Oram said. "No one expects you to. ... But I do enjoy playing live and I think it's an aspect of black metal that's not always explored. And hey, why not?"
According to Oram, the Bay Area has long been known for producing obscure one-man black metal projects that never played live. Domignostika says it's partly due to the fact that they were "depressive people that can't play with other members of a band." "It's very egotisical people, and not in a bad way at all," he added. "I mean, in black and white, it's in many ways ego-centric music." While these one-man acts gained recognition, they failed to create any tangible scene because there were no shows. As a result, many black metal fans moved to the area to be part of scene that didn't really exist. "There was a migration of some people — myself included — that came to the city looking for that and were pretty disappointed," said Domignostika. Now, Pale Chalice is trying to fill that void, along with bands Dispirit and Necrite.
Meanwhile, Pale Chalice rejects another black metal establishment — Satanism. "The reason we're critical of things like Satanism is for their attachment to the ego," explained Domignostika. Thus, he said their lyrics question the existence of the ego and compare it to the "bigness of the cosmos."
"People being obsessed with Satan and their own ego goes along with people creating their own bands and becoming power mongers of their own art," said Domignostika, who, incidentally, has his own one-man black metal project. "... The more you dig the more you see it is very ego-driven people and people who are kind of confused on their own philosophy and their own importance in the universe. It's kind of sad and it needs to be questioned."
But tearing down such established genre standards isn't easy — even for a band whose main goal seems to be just that. Oram says they hope to record a full-length by the end of the year and play more live shows, maybe even tour on a small scale. Still, he added, "I don't think Pale Chalice is the kind of band that will ever tour excessively .... One of the things that I love about black metal is you don't have to be a super-active band to be well-respected. Which is perfect."