A death-metal band dedicating a song to survivors of sexual assault. A vocalist screaming out lyrics about struggles with body image over her bandmates’ rampaging grindcore. An artist at work mid-show, painting a mural depicting a goblin-like creature tossing a swastika in a garbage can. These were just a few of the signs that Black Flags Over Brooklyn, a marathon event held Friday and Saturday at New York’s Brooklyn Bazaar, was a metal fest with a unique agenda.
The brainchild of metal writer and activist Kim Kelly (who has contributed to Rolling Stone), Black Flags was specifically billed as an anti-fascist gathering. And that aspect of the fest came through loudly and clearly. Available merch items included tote bags printed with the gothic-font phrase “Fuck NSBM” — a reference to National Socialist black metal, an unofficial movement, sadly still rearing its head in recent years, that promotes openly racist or bigoted views. (NSBM is just one of a number of metal sub-subcultures in which “extremity” too often takes on a toxic bent, e.g., a fixation on images of misogynistic violence.) In a pre-fest interview, Kelly described her own path to a more conscientious brand of metal fandom. “When I was younger, before I really became politically educated, some of the bands I covered or worked with had views or lyrics I would never in a million years condone or give a platform to now,” she said.
But as much as Black Flags embodied a communal stand against an insidious influence — briefly taking the stage near the end of the fest, Kelly proclaimed that the fest was about “taking our scene back” — it also felt like a proud statement of self-sufficiency. Bands, organizers and attendees alike seemed intent on demonstrating that a metal-oriented event explicitly lacking not just in outright prejudice but also in the everyday inequalities that most metal fans simply take for granted — for example: a stifling preponderance of straight white males, both onstage and in the crowd — could actually feel more urgent, more ferocious, more fun, in short more metal, than a gig without this kind of social-justice focus. Ultimately, it wasn’t just fascism in the crosshairs; it was any element that might make anyone in the building feel anything less than welcome and vital. A couple pointlessly aggro mosh outbursts aside, Black Flags succeeded in its inclusive vision.
Bands fronted by women, as well as trans and non-binary people, owned the weekend. Iowa’s Closet Witch — playing their first-ever East Coast show — delivered a brief, withering Saturday set, drawing on their excellent 2018 self-titled debut. With guitarist Alex Crist and drummer Royce Kurth setting up onstage, and vocalist Mollie Piatetsky and bassist Cory Peak stationing themselves among the crowd on the floor, the quartet ripped into their punishing yet crafty extreme hardcore. (Imagine the intensity of an hour-long Converge set crammed into 15 minutes.) In between wild-eyed shrieks, often delivered as she hurled herself around the room and sometimes onto the ground, Piatetsky danced gracefully in time to the songs’ pounding breakdowns.
A few hours later, Michgan’s Cloud Rat put on a clinic in artful grindcore, as they married guitarist Rorik Brooks’ whipsaw riffs with the crisp, furiously articulate drumming of Brandon Hill and vocalist Madison Marshall’s cries of rage-meets-anguish. Frontpeople in this genre often assume an imposing, impenetrable front, but Marshall was intent on transparency and vulnerability; after one song, she unpacked its theme: the difficulty to feel proud of what one sees in the mirror, amid crippling societal pressure to strive for an idealized appearance. In earlier sets, Sunrot‘s Lex Alex Nihilum and Occultist‘s Kerry Zylstra harnessed and elevated their respective bands’ harsh, pummeling attacks.
Other outfits made the most of unconventional lineups. Bass was never missed during a Friday set by Vile Creature, the duo of guitarist KW and drummer Vic, both of whom contribute vocals. Built around towering slo-mo riffs, the pair’s songs became sonic pyres, commemorating and purging their shared traumas. “The whole record is about the hatred and violence that queer persons, female-identified persons, and non–cis-gendered persons are subjected to on a regular basis, and our experiences with that,” KW told an interviewer of the band’s 2015 debut, A Steady Descent Into the Soil. After a set filled with abrasive vocal approaches, the clean-toned chants of that album’s title track (“Take my organs/Take my blood flow/Strip the flesh/From my brittle broken bones”) were chillingly poignant.
Chepang, a New York-based group made up of Nepalese immigrants, presented a twisted, resolutely avant-garde sound that also happened to be a hell of a lot of fun. Dual vocalists Bhotey Gore and Mountain God traded cathartic howls over the choppy, off-kilter art-grind of guitarist Nails and drummer Himalayan Chituwa. The band’s brief set took a wild turn when Mountain God began pounding out a rhythm on a dual-sided drum worn on a shoulder strap; Himalayan Chituwa joined him on tom-toms, with Bhotey Gore adding crashes on a pair of hand-held cymbals. For a couple of minutes, the mosh pit morphed into an ecstatic dance party.
Other acts spanned a broad sonic range, from the ominous, confrontational noise of Pulsatile Tinnitus (the solo project of Nashville’s Kayla Phillips) and Whitephosphorous (an alter ego of one of the artists behind the goofy yet musically legit Neckbeard Deathcamp, who went semi-viral in 2018 with their LP White Nationalism Is for Basement Dwelling Losers) to the chugging, triumphant riffs of Morne and the primitive, relentless Glacial Tomb, who sent out their final song “Drowned” — a dark chronicle of a trauma survivor’s revenge — to those who had lived through sexual assault. (I sadly missed Friday sets by politicized metal-meets-hardcore vets Racetraitor and Liverpool anarchist black-metal outfit Dawn Ray’d, and regretted it all the more when I heard the next day’s enthusiastic reports.) While sounds diverged, sentiments aligned: Act after act expressed gratitude at being part of an event where they felt accepted, supported and surrounded by allies in a common fight.
Downstairs on Saturday, a vendor market presented offerings that went way beyond typical metal-fest merch, from skin- and hair-care products named after extreme bands via Foxie Cosmetics (run by Friday performer Kayla Phillips), tarot readings from Detroit’s GeminEye and even beanie hats threaded with actual cassette tape from a spare vintage copy of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning (courtesy of my friends Christine and Melissa Kelly, no relation to Kim, a queer couple who own/operate the Tridroid label). You could also stop by a table offering free condoms and snacks, as well as friendly conversation. Or you could stroll upstairs and check in on “Violent Art” purveyor Masato Okano and his increasingly elaborate mural, expanding in real time, or the Neckbeard/Whitephosphorous table, which featured stickers with crossed assault rifles, bearing the slogan “End the Statistics — Arm Trans Women.”
If the fest’s message was pervasive, it never overwhelmed the music. The acts’ glorious din was the focus, and their gracious, impassioned performances fostered a warm, celebratory vibe. During Cloud Rat’s fest-capping set, as a diverse sea of bodies slammed into one another, grins were rampant in the crowd. The mood was one of relief and elation: a faction of a larger scene taking a self-inventory and discovering that it really was possible to retain all that had drawn these individuals to metal in the first place — the volume, the sweat, the primal abandon — while at the same time weeding out its ugliest tendencies. Especially now, any self-respecting subculture would be wise to follow suit.