In the world of "extreme" music, it's often easy to file a band away into a neat little genre, with fans coining countless divisions to classify every band's sound. Locrian, a band whose members are split between Baltimore and Chicago, are harder to pin down: an experimental trio who combine elements of noise music, ambient black metal, and more. The band's latest album, Return to Annihilation-their first on metal mega-label Relapse-is the culmination of years of musical evolution.
Locrian began in Chicago in 2005 as an impromptu collaboration between vocalist and synth player Terence Hannum and accomplished guitarist André Foisy, whose tech-metal band was booked to play a show but couldn't. Instead, Foisy asked Hannum to sit in with him. "He had this idea. At that time, Sunn O))) was everywhere, and he was like, 'What if we approach drone in this different way, where it's full of notes rather than just one note? What if we just tried to fill it with as many notes as possible?" recalls Hannum. "We kind of floundered around for awhile." After a few years as a two-piece, he and Foisy recruited drummer Steven Hess, veteran of many jazz and experimental groups, and the group's lineup was complete.
Exploring the possibilities of sound has been a constant since the early days of the group, their growth documented in a wide array of releases, many on their own Land of Decay label, as well as a pair on City Paper 2012 "Best Label," Fan Death Records. Remaining fresh even amidst prolific output was always a concern, the members keenly aware they could easily be seen as just another avant-noise or ambient black-metal act.
"When we started it was like, 'God, we can't just sound like these other bands, we've got to do something else,'" says Hannum, getting animated in a quiet Mount Vernon bar. "It takes a long time to find that and to challenge yourselves and be honest. I don't want to put on a record that sounds like something I heard 10 years ago or 20 years ago. I want to put on something that blows me away, that's new."
In search of this newness, Foisy, Hannum, and Hess combine improvisation, experimentation, and challenging instrumentation, and yet their music is surprisingly approachable.
"I've had people who would never normally touch the kind of stuff that they are doing tell me their records are just mind-blowing," Sean Gray, co-owner of Fan Death, attests. "They don't make the listener do all of the work. A lot of the time in experimental music, you as the listener have to carry the weight, but those three do a nice job of filling in the gaps."
Hannum phrases it more succinctly. "Do I want to make a Merzbow record? No."
Fan Death released Locrian's critically acclaimed full-length, The Clearing, in 2011. That record, along with several collaborative releases with other artists, brought them to the attention of Relapse, one of the world's largest and most well-known metal and extreme music labels. After signing with them, the band knew it was time to "make the next statement," Hannum recalls. "The next album, no collaborators, no other cooks in the kitchen, just the three of us making the record we want to make."
By this time, the band was split geographically, with Hannum now residing in Baltimore and teaching art at Stevenson University while Foisy and Hess remained in Chicago. Asked if the distance posed any problems, he admits, "It obviously adds some challenges, but there's nothing an email and some phone calls can't solve." Working long-distance, the trio began to brainstorm concepts for a new album. Previously they took inspiration from novels, as on 2010's The Crystal World, which was directly inspired by J.G. Ballard's novel of the same name. This time they chose to work with their own concepts, eventually mixing themes of "corrupt environmentalism" with the idea of the Earth actively transforming itself to reject humanity.
With the support of Relapse, the trio booked time with producer Greg Norman at Steve Albini's famed Electrical Audio recording studio in Chicago. Together with Norman, the band utilized some unorthodox recording techniques such as analog tape delays, intended to reflect the album's transformation theme.
"A lot of the tape delays, someone would play and we'd hand manipulate it so that it couldn't be replicated, we couldn't do it again. It's not digital, so every take was different," Hannum explains. "We'd pull the weird mic that Greg had put up in the ceiling and we'd be like, 'Let's get that track, that's so strange, the timing sounds off.' . . . He was really on board with the disorienting feeling of the record."
Return to Annihilation, the result of those sessions, marks somewhat of a departure for the band, with an unmistakable new prog-rock influence and the hint of more traditional song structures meshed with the more familiar dark soundscapes of their previous records. When asked about the prog-rock influences, Hannum explains "that was our ground zero. . . this weird, strange time-period of records when they really did approach sound in this different way." He cites early King Crimson, Yes, and even Genesis as inspirations ("Peter Gabriel Genesis," he clarifies). While the shift might seem surprising at first, in the context of a band whose sound is constantly evolving it's less jarring. Labelmate Blake Harrison, noise artist for grindcore band Pig Destroyer, sums it up: "It's definitely a departure, but that's what's great about Locrian: They have the freedom to kind of do what they feel like doing."
With the album only days from release and already starting to gather critical garlands (tastemaking website Pitchfork has declared it to be "excellent and risky"), Locrian is focusing on a rare tour, and an even rarer performance in Baltimore, at the Metro Gallery. When asked about the show, Hannum is, perhaps predictably, already looking forward. "We're gonna play maybe four songs off the new record," he says. "Most of the set will be new material. It's never the same twice. We improvise a lot. . . hopefully that makes it interesting. It makes it interesting for me-I don't know what it's going to be like!"
Return to Annihilation will be released on June 25 on Relapse Records. Locrian performs with Aun and Theologian on June 30 at the Metro Gallery.