[BRINGING HEAVY BACK] Metal and other forms of heavy rock haven't had this good a year since the 1991 heyday of Metallica's black album and Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion I and II.
Granted, nothing released in the past year has sold as many copies as the aforementioned discs, but in terms of critical attention in mass media, these are the glory days for dudes with Marshall stacks and double-kick drums. And it's not just having an effect on big-name bands. The comers are also seeing more attention from bloggers, writers and new fans outside the metal sphere.
"It's a combination of a lot of things," says Rafael Martinez, drummer for the L.A.-based doom/thrash metal duo Black Cobra. "Bands like Mastodon leave kids wanting to hear more. So they get curious and start digging around. And when you get reviewed in The New York Times, that's the kind of thing that really helps get the word out about what you're doing."
Martinez is understating his point. He and guitarist Jason Landrian did get written up in the Times on Dec. 12, when the band played Brooklyn's new metal club, St. Vitus. A glowing review like that could get mainstream audiences to notice Black Cobra.
Not that the duo really needs the help. Landrian and Martinez have been slugging it out on the road and in the studio for the past decade, picking up admirers along the way while perfecting a snarling, brutal sound that has all the intense burn of a pepper-spray blast.
Black Cobra has evolved its sound from slow, droning sludge à la Sunn 0))) to the unholy force of speed and volume that shoots through the band's most recent album, Invernal (released in October and featuring artwork by Sam Ford, drummer for Portland band Wizard Rifle). The eight-song disc showcases both the band's ability to layer sounds into a massive sonic edifice and the work that Martinez and Landrian are doing to challenge themselves as musicians.
"When we started, I barely played the drums," says Martinez, who came through the ranks of the Bay Area metal scene as the bassist for Acid King. "I couldn't play the beats that I'm doing now, even five years ago. But with every album, I try to make things a little weirder and write beats that I can't play yet."
You'd never guess Martinez was anything other than a drummer when you see him attack the kit live. Nor would you believe that all that racket is coming from just two people. Granted, these days the band is using loop pedals and some backing tracks. But even when the two are free of such accouterments, Black Cobra's sound is overwhelming.
If 2011 was a banner year for metal and Black Cobra, 2012 looks to be even more exciting. The band will play the Netherlands' prestigious Roadburn Festival and re-release Invernal in Japan, where metal has gained a huge following over the past decade. And then? "We're stretching it out and not thinking about new music for a while," says Martinez. "Some people put out three albums in two years, and it all comes out the same. The longer you wait, [what] you absorb along the way will affect your sound."