Mission District venue The Lab is intentionally blank. With no signage out front, no decorations on the white walls and no stage in the main room, the unadorned space funnels all attention to the performance inside. This August, a large crowd stood before five musicians looking like marooned Franciscan monks in brown cloaks embellished with forest greenery. Two of them struck hammered dulcimers. The foremost vocalist played a harmonium. The drummer faced the back wall. Known as Botanist, this hooded ensemble conjured extreme tempos, its vocalist violently gesticulating with his spare hand, commanding a rapt crowd's attention.
Botanist is a one-man outfit (it expands for live shows) that plays black metal, a subgenre that normally emphasizes speedy guitar picking, incessant double-kick drum beats, low-fidelity recordings, and screeching vocals. But Botanist shirks metal's usual instrumentation and ghoulish look — which makes the group perfect for Flenser, a local label that is defying the stifling codes of the insular black metal world and trying to help the music reach more diverse audiences.
"It's more interesting working with bands outside the standard," says Jonathan Tuite, who operates Flenser from his home in San Francisco. "I release a lot of things that run against the grain." Flenser continues the Bay Area's tradition of synthesizing black metal with elements from other genres and rejecting some of its deplorable history. While that alienates some diehards, Tuite's efforts broaden black metal's appeal to incorporate younger fans, female fans, and more varied practitioners. You could argue that it's helping to keep the genre alive.
Now 31, Tuite discovered black metal in the late '90s, when details of the genre's Scandinavian forebears described a very bleak scene. The history of black metal is steeped in murder, far right-wing politics, and white supremacy, which fans of the genre must reckon with, and which Flenser bands clearly break from. "A lot of people did get into black metal because of the church burnings and because of it being more evil than any other kind of music," Tuite says. For him, though, studying philosophy at Berkeley discredited the intellectual justification for black metal's hateful views. "You've got to be careful with black metal, because there's the fascist overtones. A lot of bands really grabbed onto Heidegger, thinking there was this connection, but it doesn't add up," he says. "It was weird reading band interviews where they're talking about Nietzsche and then actually studying him with famous philosophy professors and seeing their totally different interpretations."
Tuite graduated in 2009 and began Flenser the next year with a debut CD from local black metal artist Palace of Worms. A positive review from influential local record store Aquarius brought Flenser early attention. Tuite made inroads with local independent distributor Revolver, which now distributes Flenser releases exclusively in the American market. He's quick to credit the fertility of the local scene, and the ingenuity of its veterans, with helping the label succeed. "The Bay Area has a reputation for doing experimental metal, in a way," he says, "tUMULt [the label of Aquarius co-owner Andee Connors] inspired Flenser. [Connors] releases things that totally aren't metal, but then he released the Weakling record, which is a genre classic."
Flenser focuses on black metal, but tries to expand the definition of it, releasing music from bands that tweak the style musically or conceptually. Local group Bosse-de-Nage employs post-rock crescendos, Ghast uses recursive song structures, and Obolus uses field recordings. And Botanist's brown robes weren't a live gag. The act's releases narrate a fictional mythology wherein the Botanist waits for humans to kill one another so that nature can rule again. Like Panopticon, another Flenser artist, Botanist deals venom — even hatred — in lyrics that attack industrial civilization through allegory or outright political critique, but it's a far cry from the unmitigated nihilism and misanthropy espoused by black metal's originators.
Tuite's risk-taking ethos has been rewarded with notoriety and clout in the international metal community. Bosse-de-Nage eventually signed to the highly esteemed Canadian metal imprint Profound Lore. (Flenser now often handles the vinyl releases of Profound Lore titles.) Before its reissue, Flenser's Panopticon release could fetch $300 from collectors. As unlikely a media outlet as NPR recently praised Botanist, and earlier this year, indie website Pitchfork reached Tuite to comment on the Bay Area metal scene.
The audience for black metal is now larger than ever, but some members of the historically cultish scene resent its popularity, decrying what's perceived as ironic interest from other subcultures and subsequent dilution of the form. It's now common for indie-pop bands on the corporate festival circuit to sport black metal tees (or start black metal side-projects), but controversy inevitably follows. To Tuite, black metal's increasingly prominent profile is positive and essential. "The conversation against hipsters drives me crazy," he says. "If you don't have young people interested in the music, it will go away." Tuite says that the growing audience is fostering greater gender inclusion as well. "There are a lot more women, finally," he says. Flenser acts Grayceon, Eight Bells, and Worm Ouroboros all feature female members, though Tuite adds, "I try not to promote the music based on gender. That shouldn't be a selling point on a one-sheet."
Genres aren't sustained by perpetual imitation. Flenser groups are challenging and confrontational, even if it pits them against black metal's old guard. With more stylistic synthesis, diversified political perspectives, and social inclusiveness, what black metal purists call Flenser's dilution of the genre sure looks a lot like progress.