This time last year, I stopped reading the news and started reading the obituaries. I wanted to stay informed and reasoned the Grim Reaper would be a more trustworthy journalist than Arianna Huffington or Matt Drudge. An obituary of Czech dissident author Josef Skvorecky inspired me to read a few of the onetime Nazi slave laborer’s books, which use the destructiveness of “socialist” revolution as the backdrop to the more pressing struggles of lust and wild music. “Artists hold out the mirror to the bruises on the face of the world,” the banned writer once cautioned.
The chilling assembly of neo-totalitarian Kommandant bears the image of a new century dominated by simultaneous theaters of foreign and civil war. Chicago’s most enigmatic touring black-metal act performs (and practices) in head-to-toe paramilitary uniform. Functional gas masks, as subtle as a death threat, are mandatory for all members except singer Marcus Kolar (ex-Krieg), whose form-fitting blank facial disguise is torn off at the corpse-painted mouth. Only he has free will. Names of all seven band members are not public. Nor are lyrics, though a Kommandant book said to contain them is planned.
Founded in 2004 by guitarist James Bresnahan (ex-Cianide), the outfit has operated much as a sanctuary for veterans of the underground Chicago metal scene. Former members of Usurper, Corpsevomit, and Nachtmystium have passed through the ranks. The order upholds musicianship and aesthetics at the possible expense of reduced exposure: Stormlegion, the crush-all 2008 debut album, was put out by local one-man label Planet Metal (Chris “Professor” Black); its release show coincided with a chummy monthly metal night at the tiny Red Line Tap in Rogers Park.
This year, Kommandant takes the masks to the masses. Promoting the drone strikes of The Draconian Archetype (ATMF), the band plays Maryland Deathfest on Saturday, May 25. Judging by past lineups of the esteemed annual festival, the selection puts Kommandant on par with cult Chicagoans Macabre (2012), Cianide (2011), and The Chasm (2010). A gig at Cobra Lounge on March 9 will be the final chance to see Kommandant before the campaign heads east, armed with the mirror. Kolar predicts victory in a rare phone interview, three weeks after the group’s Western Capitulation tour with Sanguis Imperem ended in a fantastical lockstep march over Seattle.
Mosh: James Bresnahan told German blog Bellum Musicae that vocalist Nick Hernandez was fired after The Draconian Archetype was initially completed. Bresnahan said the vocal performance was lacking in the unreleased version of the album. The vocal tracks were pulled to make way for a new vocalist/lyricist. What was wrong with the Hernandez vocal tracks?
Marcus Kolar: First and foremost, no one in Kommandant thinks Nick is a bad vocalist. The problem we had with Nick [developed after the album’s music] was written. We threw it together fairly quickly. Probably didn’t let it cook long enough. Anyway, we went in and tracked it. If you know the band’s older material, there’s a very big stylistic change, regardless of the vocals. Even in the music, it’s quite a jump. It’s continuous, and you can tell it’s the same band, but I think for Nick, it was such a stylistic shift that he was taken aback. I think he had a hard time. I think before he could have realized what was happening, musically it was probably pushed in a direction where he was no longer feeling confident.
M: I was surprised to learn Hernandez hasn’t been in Kommandant since July 2011. It’s hard to forget him wielding a knife onstage at the Metal Haven record-store farewell show in 2010 at Reggie’s. He brought real danger to the role of black-metal frontman.
MK: Nick, he’s a little out there, and he can be dangerous at times. I’ve always respected that about Nick. I joined the band [in 2008 as a guitarist] with him as a singer knowing that. For us, though, in our vision of Kommandant, the singer needs to be sort of the leader or the dictator. He’s the man on the podium. He’s expressing. He’s leading. Nick’s way of being the frontman in the band was more of the drill sergeant who is yelling at the private. The guy who is running into the battle and bashing somebody over the head himself. We would try to explain that concept to him. We thought conceptually that was going to be a cooler image. He would agree with us, but that’s really not in his wheelhouse. He would say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m going to be the leader. I’m going to be the leader.” And then he’s up there pulling a knife. And he’s stabbing the podium with this knife, which in my opinion . . . the podium is supposed to be a symbol of your authority, and you’re the one stabbing your own authority. That actually angered me.
M: You are the leader now, singing as if rallying the troops. Behind a podium, you are no traditional despot: Most of your head is masked; your mouth is corpse-painted. Your character gestures and pleads through strafing runs of superhuman black metal. Whom do you represent?
MK: It’s an idea. It’s a concept. Some people can’t get over the gas masks, and they think that we’re supposed to be representing World War II. [The Second World War] has nothing to do with what we’re trying to do. There is no particular general or even dictator or leader.
M: Your bio reads like dystopian science fiction. It describes a “new attitude” in the United States and a “new culture of extreme government” after more than a decade at war. The band claims to be a statement on the new way by staying apolitical on a combat-boot march. The bio suggests Kommandant is the enemy.
MK: We like it not being locked down. I like there being an aspect of interpretation. Particularly in the live performances . . . the flailing, the moving, singing the parts differently. I’m the lucky one in the band. I get to actually free interpret from moment to moment, night to night, on the songs. Without sounding cheesy, I love the music we write. It’s dark, and it takes me to a dark place, and that’s kind of what you’re seeing.
M: Have labels or venues ever refused Kommandant over allegations?
MK: We’ve had a lot of people do that. You know what? I’m not going to sit here and cry to you that, “Oh, people are treating us like Nazis, and we dress like ’em, but we’re not, and it sucks.” I’m not going to defend our personal ideologies. We’re not politicians. Some of us might have ideals worse than Nazis. In fact, the idea that we’re Nazis is ridiculous because Nazis don’t listen to metal. They listen to good old folk music. Nazis are good Christians who are doing whatever it takes for the state. We’re metal dudes; we’re fringe people. There are some fringe ideologies going on, but we don’t have a political agenda. We like to skirt and play with the martial look and whatnot. We have had quite a few people who just flat out go “Nazi,” and they don’t want to deal with you. And it’s kind of like, “Well, I’m not really a Nazi, but if you really could read my mind, you’d probably be more pissed.”
M: How did Kommandant land a Maryland Deathfest slot this year?
MK: Maryland Deathfest [organizers] seem to still keep handpicking by what at least they perceive as quality. Everybody and their mother has tried to buy on to that show, and you can’t. You can’t. We kept running into the promoter, mentioned ourselves to him a few times. He was at the Martyrdoom fest last summer and caught our set . . . and he felt, “Yeah, we gotta have these guys.” He’s really cool because one of our concerns is we didn’t want to play outside because of our stage props and stuff. We just don’t see us outside in the daylight. This band needs to be in a dark room, and he totally agreed. We didn’t have to push it with them. He was like: “Oh, no, I wouldn’t have you outside for nothing. You guys are inside, on Saturday.”
M: It would appear the group’s motto is “Hate Is Strength,” a song title from the latest album also printed on the band’s current sticker. What does “Hate Is Strength” say to people trying to live in Chicago, where 506 homicides were reported last year?
MK: At its most base, emotional idea, it’s a model of will to power. I would like to say a lot of metalheads deal with extreme emotions. I think a metalhead would understand. Whatever is bringing you down in life, sometimes it’s your hate that has to be used to make you do what you need to do. Now what you do with that is your decision. In this PC world, you’re taught we shouldn’t have this, and black and white, and hate is bad, and love is good. To me, it’s far more visceral than that. Sometimes you’re getting your ass kicked. You have to channel and focus your hate to do what you need to do to get out of that situation, so to speak.
JONESTOWN PUNK: Instead of packing for his 34-hour flight to Australia in the morning, Morgan Hakansson of Marduk is telling me I have to check out this gospel tune on YouTube sung by the wife of the Rev. Jim Jones. Sure, man, pass me the Kool-Aid. He says the Death In June cover song – the one his Danzigesque side-project Death Wolf does on its new album II: Black Armoured Death (Century Media) – wasn’t really written by Death In June. The striking “Little Black Angel” stems from the 1973 cut, “Black Baby” by People’s Temple Choir off an LP dedicated to “making the humanistic teachings of Jesus Christ part of our daily lives,” to say nothing of mass suicide. “It’s kind of bizarre,” he enthuses.
Marduk’s founding guitarist plays bass in the dark-punk sect Death Wolf (originally a Swedish Misfits tribute band named Devils Whorehouse). If the words “Swedish” and “punk” trigger thoughts of melodic death metal (or, worse yet, metalcore), Hakansson’s got something to say: “They are on the nice coast,” he grunts, referring to the Gothenburg scene, which popularized the metalcore-influencing melodeath. “We are on the brutal coast.” Would the words “black” and “metal’ be any better? “Most of [what] people consider black metal today is just crap without aggression whatsoever,” he continues, “just melody-based crap. [Death Wolf is] more black metal than a lot of black-metal bands when it comes to topics and atmosphere.”
Rejoice that II: Black Armoured Death is not the second coming of Panzer Division Marduk, Hakansson’s impossibly violent career zenith, written in World War II blood-smudge, unparalleled even in the realm of blitzing black metal. (Though the title track reappears alongside Kommandant’s “Stormlegion” on the soundtrack to the Austrian strategy card game Panzer Clash.) “It’s a combination,” explains the Swede, “of everything from old crust to Bathory to old Manowar.” And one creepy old gospel tune. Marduk and Death Wolf play Reggie’s on Feb. 27.
MOSH-WORTHY . . . LIVE: Gojira (House Of Blues, 2/11); Doro (Mojoes, 2/13); Deceased (Reggie’s, 2/16); Meshuggah (House Of Blues, 2/22); Wolvhammer (Ultra Lounge, 2/22).
MOSH-WORTHY: Darkthrone The Underground Resistance (Peaceville); Spektr Cypher (Agonia); Terminate Ascending To Red Heavens (Selfmadegod); Joel Grind The Yellowgoat Sessions (self-released); Enforcer Death By Fire (Nuclear Blast).
— Mike Meyer