Charlottesville’s tiny experimental metal scene gains ground

Master of feedback, Junzo Suzuki, channels the cosmos in a solo set at the Tea Bazaar. (Publicity photo) Master of feedback, Junzo Suzuki, channels the cosmos in a solo set at the Tea Bazaar. (Publicity photo)

Heavy lifting
There are few local concerts I’ve anticipated as much as the upcoming quadruple bill at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. The line-up boasts four excellent acts, all existing in the Venn diagram where heavy metal and psychedelica overlap with experimental music and improvisation. Such concerts are infrequent in Charlottesville, but are known to draw a small crowd of impassioned devotees, and are often among the best cultural events of the year, for those willing to step off the beaten path and bring a set of earplugs.
Kohoutek is a collective of improvisational noise and psychedelic rock musicians from D.C., loosely organized by drummer Scott Verrastro. The group plays formless, shifting instrumental jams that can stretch up to a half-hour in length, but its aesthetic hearts lie closer to experimental groups like Can and Sonic Youth than party-oriented jam bands like Phish. The band’s improvisations can take dark and unexpected turns.
The restless experimentation may mean the results aren’t always consistent or predictable, but on a good day its one of the finest live groups around. Verrastro often plays a key role offstage as well, organizing gigs and small tours for a number of notable and unlikely musicians, and it’s thanks to his efforts that Charlottesville has seen appearances by British folk legend Michael Chapman and veteran free-jazz vibraphonist Khan Jamal. Friday’s appearance is part of a short tour leg with another well-established figure, Junzo Suzuki.
Suzuki has played in the Japanese heavy-psychedelic-rock scene since the early-’90s, most prominently as a member of Overhang Party, playing groovy assaults of classic rock style riffs, boiled in distortion and reverb, and drizzled with endless feedbacking guitar solos. But Suzuki’s career extends well outside of that group; he’s also collaborated with an impressive roster of like-minded musicians, including members of Fushitshuya, Incapacitants, LSD-March and Acid Mothers Temple.
Suzuki’s current tour, his first in the U.S., will feature a series of solo performances for guitar and vocals. While his solo material is generally calmer and gentler than many of his rocking collaborations, it can be equally mind-expanding. “There is not much difference between playing alone and playing in the band or group for me,” Suzuki said. “But one thing—when I play alone, I have more direct conversation with my cosmos.”
Many bands who play “doom metal”—a sub-genre based on slow heavy metal chords that focus more on atmosphere than on tight riffs and guitar chops—end up sounding like a swampy sludge, for better or for worse. Horsefang, in contrast, sound like a parched, bone-dry desert. The local trio, headed by Nicholas Liivak, play sparse instrumental anthems, invoking wide-open spaces and timeless dread. Even when the band builds up to a pounding climax, the mood stays subdued and thoughtful. Its masterpiece, “River of Dead Horses,” eventually slows to a crawl until whole seconds pass between the individual pounding thuds.
For several years, Horsefang was a mainstay of Charlottesville avant-garde and metal concerts, but eventually the band slowed to a halt, finalized by the departure of its drummer. “Horsefang had lost a lot of momentum even before that,” Liivak wrote. “Building inertia is difficult in the best of times, and an absolute band-killer during the worst.” Luckily for local music fans, Horsefang has recently reunited, playing a handful of shows, revisiting half-completed recordings, and composing new material. Liivak and bassist Aaron Sanders are now joined by Jonny Kuthy on drums. “I hope by this time next year to be much busier musically,” said Liivak. “Our first show was in a basement, and our last show could be in a basement too. But hopefully, a basement with a wide staircase and more than one power outlet.”
The other major figure in Charlottesville’s tiny experimental metal community is Maxx Katz, known to locals for her roles in groups like Red Wizard and the Galactic Core, as well as a touring member of the Brooklyn-based group USAisaMonster. Her solo project, Miami Nights, began as a one-woman wall of crushing doom-metal riffs, a freeform ocean of deafeningly loud guitar buzz, over which Katz shrieks in a throat-shredding Viking roar.
“I was intentionally trying to do things you couldn’t do with a band,” Katz said. “You can add as many pauses, create as much suspense as you want. You can change the rhythms whenever it feels right—people may not understand what you’re doing, as much as when you play with a drummer, but you get to go all sorts of places on your own.” Nevertheless, the band soon evolved into a three-piece; Katz is currently backed by Dan Sebring and Nathaniel Bogan. “I’ve really enjoyed playing with Nathaniel and Daniel,” she said. “They’re a really great rhythm section. It changes the sound—it has to change, when you play with a band. I can’t do any of the old songs with them, but I’m working on making up new songs for the show. Who knows what will happen.”
“I’m really stoked for this show,” said Katz. “Horsefang is always great, and I’m looking forward to hearing the other bands. I feel like Charlottesville hasn’t had a weird show in a while, so I’m hoping this one is gonna be far out.”
Horsefang, Kohoutek, Miami Nights, and Junzo Suzuki play the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar on Friday, November 30. The show begins at 9pm.

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