Danzig Leads the Blackest of the Black Tour Screaming into Town
Glenn Danzig is the Devil's curator for the Blackest of the Black Tour, a metal mini-festival he's been presenting and headlining intermittently since 2003. The punk alumnus has reached highs beyond most of his peers, but, 31 years into his musical career, he still thinks it's important to help bands out of the underground.
"Especially now," Danzig explains, on the phone from his Los Angeles headquarters. "Everyone says 'How has it changed?' It hasn't changed that much. A lot of bands go out and sell records and put people in seats and don't get any respect from radio stations or MTV. So it's back to the same thing; it's this cycle that keeps going around."
For headbangers, the tour has a little of everything. Ohio's Skeletonwitch blends black metal, death metal, and thrash into old-school, rip-yer-face-off shredderation. Dimmu Borgir plays some of the world's most elaborate black metal — the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra backed the Norwegian band on 2003's Death Cult Armageddon — and has a stage show to match. The weapon of choice for Spain's Moonspell is midtempo double-bass drum kicks, deployed in slower tunes with guttural-yet-melodic vocals. Last but not least is L.A.'s Winds of Plague, which deals a modern-metal mélange of black-metal keyboards, death-metal growls and hyper-blast percussion.
Even if you've followed Danzig's varied career, the bands are surprising company to find him keeping. After all, he's one of the most enduringly vital creative forces from the old-school punk and hardcore scenes, which were the underground alternative to big, loud, long-haired metal. He founded The Misfits in 1977. Fronting the band, he belted out the tunes like a morbid Jim Morrison, and he wouldn't have been caught dead at a Judas Priest show. He just didn't like that kind of metal.
"Punk and metal are very similar," Danzig says. "When the first Misfits record came out, it was called 'horror metal-punk.' The only thing that separates [metal and punk] are long, boring leads. And maybe a couple other little things, like whiny, screamy vocals. That all changed in metal. You listen to something like Slayer, there's none of that '80s silliness. I think Metallica really changed a lot of it. And Sabbath has always been an influence."
The "horror metal-punk" tag was for totally appropriate for 1983's controversial Earth A.D./Wolf's Blood album, which was recorded with Spot, the polarizing SST house engineer best known for Black Flag records. The Misfits' final album jettisoned the band's trademark melodies and went straight for the jugular, in a blast of distortion. Punks were disappointed. Hardcore kids got it. And metalheads who previously hated "that punk shit" suddenly saw the light. The mighty Metallica covered "Green Hell" on 1987's Garage Days Re-Revisited. The singer says the 'Fits' swan songs weren't that much of a departure — not if you were there.
"Back then, at least here in America, people just did not know how to record those fast guitars," explains Danzig. "Until we got to work with Spot, it just didn't sound like [it did] live. [Earth A.D.] is what the Misfits sounded like live."
The Misfits imploded after Earth A.D. Next, the frontman launched Samhain, a band that was both punkier and artier. In New York for a showcase, Danzig met producer Rick Rubin, a future Grammy winner and music-biz overlord who had just returned to his hard-rock roots after working with the Beastie Boys and L.L. Cool J. The Blackest of the Black trek commemorates the 20th anniversary of Danzig, his band's self-titled debut and one of the first releases on Rubin's Def American label.
"Things over at American were great in the beginning," recalls Danzig. "Because Rick came from that indie mindset. And I think he kind of forgot, and he wasn't doing that any more, and it was like being at any old label."
Danzig and Rubin conceived a musical vehicle that would be called "Danzig," but would have a different backing band each album. The group hasn't changed with every single record, but players have come and gone: Different lineups recorded metal, industrial, goth, and darkwave albums that would have been hailed as revolutionary if they'd come from within the scene.
More remarkably, Danzig has slowly accumulated an album's worth of oldies-inspired slow songs such as "Cold Cold Rain," "Blood and Tears," and power ballads like "Angel Blake." Inspired by the cult flick Blood on Satan's Claw, the bloody campfire tale finds the singer playing hard rock's most moving recorder riff since "Stairway to Heaven."
"I've always just done that, thrown a song like that on a record," he says of the slow jams. "And we would do it live, too. And if people dug it, great. If not, go on to the next song, I don't care. Every band in general [used to have] down songs."
As Danzig's sales have waxed and waned, the singer has dug even deeper. He has written songs recorded by Johnny Cash (1994's "13") and Roy Orbison (1987's "Life Fades Away"). 1993's instrumental Black Aria reached number one on Billboard's classical chart; its 2006 sequel cracked the top 10.
But, like Alice Cooper, Danzig remains better known for his style than for his content — at least to mainstream audiences. 1988's sparse, bluesy Danzig record remains his definitive rock statement, with echoes of Howlin' Wolf, the Doors, AC/DC, and Rubin's then-imminent work with the Cult. On the underrated classic, Rubin and engineer Steve Ett spit-shone Danzig's gestating material, like the murderous Samhain nugget "Twist of Cain" and the fan-favorite "Mother," which found a second life as a single in 1993.
When the show comes to town, don't show up late figuring he's saving those two songs for the encore, though: Danzig's band will open the show with "SkinCarver" (from 2005's Circle of Snakes), then play favorites from all eight Danzig albums, in chronological order. The singer says he'll also "most likely" play a solo acoustic song for the first time on stage — but, chuckling, refuses to say which one.
"One of the reasons I've had this whole career, whether it's with Samhain, the Misfits, or Danzig, it's being able to defy genres," Danzig says. "I like it like that, to blur the lines. That's really what it's about."
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