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Iowa City black metal band Dryad on fighting fascism, channeling Tolkien and consuming music responsibly

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UN w/ Wormwitch, Aseethe, Dryad

Gabe’s — Wednesday, July 17 at 8 p.m.

Dryad performs at Wild Culture Kombucha in Iowa City, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Many psychologists acknowledge that suppressing anger and outrage can lead to unhealthy results: internalization of self-hatred, eruption of outrage through violence. Music tends to channel these emotions, and it’s often been a space where people are able to safely express their most extreme feelings — live music, especially, as it allows these expressions to emerge in community with others who are similarly outraged.

This anger and outrage can be expressed through any musical genre, but metal has proven particularly contentious: From its inception, it found a place in working class culture — but, as the 2016 election exemplified, the revolutionary anger and discontent of the working class is often pushed toward the political right and into racist, nationalist and misogynist political advocacy.

Iowa City’s Dryad, recently signed to L.A.’s Prosthetic Records, sees itself as part of the other modality of metal.

The band has consistently worked against the white nationalism and patriarchal conservatism that established a foothold within the genre, particularly in black metal, which has repeatedly made headlines both for the beliefs of some of the bands and for the actions of those who count themselves among its fans. Dryad is one of several bands working intentionally to counter that narrative from within.

All metal can make use of the tool of its sound — the distorted anguished vocals and the loud guitar and bass that literally cause the flesh to vibrate — to accomplish a kind of aesthetic or emotional resolution. Dryad’s goal is to do so in a way that seeks a common human denominator.

Following their recent successful tour, Dryad is playing a show at Gabe’s on July 17. I had a chance to email Claire, guitarist and vocalist for Dryad, a few weeks before the show.

You list your genre as black metal, and your sound is consistent with that — heavy guitars that create a landscape for screamed vocals over the top of it. At the same time, the songs are much shorter than many metal songs without quite getting into speed metal. Can you help readers unfamiliar with metal music distinguish among the major kinds of metal — heavy, black, speed, death, stoner — and discuss what elements you’ve integrated into your sound?

One of my favorite things about metal is how many genres and subgenres exist within it — I think it’s some of the most innovative music out there. Traditional heavy metal from the late ’70s and early ’80s, under the influence of early garage rock and punk, quickly gave rise to more and more extreme versions of itself: faster, slower, heavier, louder, bigger, weirder.

Invention is constantly expanding the definition of “metal,” and we are always striving to push the boundaries between what is or isn’t. We’ve never actually labeled ourselves as a strictly black metal or crust punk band, although there are certainly components of both to our music, most notably the classic fuzzy “lo-fi” production and ominous keyboards often used on early ’90s black metal recordings and the snarling dual vocals, politically tinged lyrics and catchy guitar hooks found in hardcore and crust punk.

But there are also elements of early death and doom metal, mostly in the brutal imagery and slow breakdowns, as well as the harsh noise and walls of sound found in post-punk and shoegaze. I’ve never given much thought to where each song fits in the spectrum of genres, though, as I never want to limit ourselves to one sound.

With a song like “Orcrist,” it seems like you play very intentionally within Tolkien’s boundaries. What is it about his imaginary that inspires you? What are other mythic landscapes that you find compelling as motivations for your music?

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It’s less about the mythic landscapes and more about the obvious metaphors; Tolkien’s timeless themes of good versus evil and the corruption and greed of mankind versus the altruism of the natural world are all too applicable to our current state of existence.

The Earth is burning, and the men in charge are fanning the flames with wads of cash. Orcs march through the streets under the Eye of Sauron, but the Fellowship prevails, wielding the sword known as Orcrist the Goblin Cleaver, a light in the oppressive darkness.

Calvin of Dryad performs at the Yacht Club in Iowa City for Mission Creek Festival, Friday, April 5, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Your label, L.A.’s Prosthetic Records, is known for its anti-fascist political sentiments, and your band is known for its anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-white nationalist stance. Can you share a little about how metal relates to politics? At what point did it start becoming appropriated by right-wing extremists? What led to the resurgence of musicians reclaiming the roots of metal as an expansive, welcoming space for self-expression?

Metal has always been political. Music has always been political. Art has always been political. It’s nothing new, but it’s become much more widely discussed because we’re in a time of such extreme political and environmental crisis right now, and the art being created seems increasingly reflective of that.

It’s not an extreme political stance to say that you’re against Nazis, or racism, or hate, but somehow it’s become viewed as such. Sadly, fascism became involved in punk and metal almost as soon as they both came into being in the 1970s, using the signature theme of working-class frustrations as a disguise for hateful Nazi ideologies hidden in plain sight. As metal grew more extreme, so did the efforts of the alt-right. They used shock value as an excuse to parade swastikas and Nazi salutes at shows, because metal has always been about taking things to another extreme, and it’s easy to excuse Nazi worship for excessive stage antics.

Thankfully, alongside its introduction, there have always been those brave enough to speak out against fascism in music. Woody Guthrie’s famous “This Machine Kills Fascists” guitar from the 1940s is an easy example. Metal, and music in general, are more politicized these days because we’re paying closer attention, but this battle has been quietly waging for decades. It’s gained substantial visibility in the age of the internet, because we have more information at our fingertips than ever before —
it takes about a second to Google lyrics or “[insert band] + fascist” or “[insert band] + controversy” to find out if your favorite unintelligible band is actually singing about the “superior race.”

It’s important to know what you’re supporting or giving money to, especially on a local level. Fighting fascism starts at home!

Those who are not part of the metal scene are often dismayed by the distorted, screamed vocals over heavy, repetitive riffs. Can you explain the kind of artistry involved in this — why lyrics still matter even if they’re not able to be understood — and advice for how those unfamiliar with metal can appreciate it?

Metal is an incredibly primal, emotional form of music, and the often extreme guttural or screaming vocal styles are an expression of that primeval part of ourselves. They’re sometimes used more as an overlying textural instrument to spark a feeling of ancient recognition in our lizard brains than as a vehicle for actual lyrics in a song, although other bands use vivid imagery and elaborate verses to paint a portrait of the same sensation.

While I can understand someone’s initial dismay, there are a myriad of bands in the metal universe, and not all of them are necessarily harsh or abrasive. Do you like classical music, but faster? Done. How about weird heavy jazz? Sure. Some of the most technically advanced musicians in the musical world? Easily. I truly believe everyone has at least one metal band that they’d like, given the chance.

What did you learn as a result of your recent tour?

I learned that I am capable of far more than I ever expected. And to drink plenty of water. And that truck stop showers are absolutely worth the money. And that Las Vegas is not worth the hype, but the Grand Canyon absolutely is.

Daniel Boscaljon is a public intellectual and experimental humanist. Find information about upcoming workshops — Intuitive Thinking and Tarot Interpretation (with Dawn Frary) and Reconceiving the Divine Feminine (with Angela Amias) — and enjoy expansions to “The Thoughtful Life” platform at danielboscaljon.com. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 267.


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