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Barrowlands’ Black Metal Is Bleak, Extreme and Socially Conscious

Where a lot of bands in the genre steer clear of political statements—or worse, dabble in nationalism and xenophobia—the Portland quintet addresses issues of social justice head-on.

Who: David Hollingsworth (vocals, guitar), Jay Caruso (guitar), Ray Lorenz (cello), Martti Hill (drums), Chris Gaye (bass).

Sounds like: Hiking up a mountain through a blizzard, then pausing at the summit to marvel at the untouched snow.

For fans of: Agalloch, Panopticon, Falls of Rauros, Wolves in the Throne Room.

Onstage, David Hollingsworth is an intimidating presence. With slicked-back black hair, tattooed arms and a classic banshee shriek, the Barrowlands singer-guitarist resembles the quintessential black-metal frontman—spartan in appearance and aggressively stoic in demeanor.

The band is only his side gig, though. During the day, he's an elementary school teacher.

Barrowlands are the heir apparents in a loosely defined scene of American black-metal bands erasing the stylistic boundaries put in place by the genre's Scandinavian forebears. But what truly differentiates Barrowlands from the black-metal pack are the lyrics. Where a lot of bands in the genre steer clear of political statements—or worse, dabble in nationalism and xenophobia—Hollingsworth addresses issues of social justice head-on, often drawing from his experiences as an educator.

"It's about social inequality, economic disparity and the bleakness of the system that everybody lives in," he says of "Empty Hands Grasping," a track on the band's upcoming second album, Tyndir. "That's a theme that I deal with in my professional life, so I write about that kind of thing."

Musically, the band is unique as well. The first thing you'll notice about the Portland five-piece is their cello player, Ray Lorenz. He and Hollingsworth have been finding ways to incorporate the bowed instrument into black metal since their days in the group Mary Shelley. In Barrowlands, Lorenz saws ferociously amid the rest of the band's assault of blast beats and tremolo picking, then mournfully heaves back and forth during downtempo interludes.

Fleshed out with members from the proggy Lykaia, Barrowlands released their first album, Thane, in 2014. Since then, the band has gone through lineup changes, most notably adding guitarist Jay Caruso, also a former member of Lykaia. Those personnel changes inform Barrowlands' evolution on Tyndir.

"Lyrically, it's similarly bleak," Hollingsworth says of the wintry new album. "And musically, it's got a similar foundation, but there's a lot more interplay between the guitars, and it's a little more complex. That's Jay's input on the band—a little more progressive, a little more musical. It's a natural continuation, but it does show that we've progressed and brought in some new ideas."

So far, the band has only shared epic closing track "Empty Hands Grasping," but Caruso's presence is impossible to miss. The churning opening section and ensuing change of pace are familiar, if more compositionally intricate than much of what's heard on Thane. The song opens up in its second half, though, riding beautifully harmonized guitar leads that would anger many fans of "true" black metal but should enrapture any metal fan whose appreciation for the genre goes deeper than corpse paint.

"Barrowlands is always going to be what we come up with," Hollingsworth says. "It's not defined by any ideas or preconceived notions. So long as it's always a place for all of our creativity, then it's going to be our main project."