If anything good has come from the deluge of content being rained down upon the internet and the few print publications left standing, it’s that the far extremes of the music world are finally getting some above-ground attention. It’s not unusual to see Pitchfork cover harsh noise artists like Prurient, or NPR writers raving about free jazz outfit Grid. This small sea change is also the reason why one of the hottest tickets in the first quarter of 2018 is Torment Is Flesh, a festival of noise, black metal, and power electronics being held this weekend at the High Water Mark and the Tonic Lounge.
Organized by the enigmatic gents behind local record labels Vrasubatlat and Unseen Force, the three-day event features a mouthwatering lineup that’s mostly culled from the Northwest’s underground community. But there are also a few choice names from outside the area, like Oakland-based experimentalist Ryan Jencks, who creates engulfing torrents of noise under the name Cruor Incendia, and the explosive metal of Skáphe, a duo featuring Icelandic vocalist/guitarist D.G.
“The original idea was that we were going to do two back-to-back nights, five bands each, [of] noise and black metal,” says R., the mysterious musician who runs Vrasubatlat. “But as we were running it down and coming up with more ideas, it turned into 23 acts. I decided, ‘Let’s just make this a thing. I’ll shell out the cash and we can do it.’”
That seems to be R.’s attitude toward his music career: a fearlessness mixed with a sharp aesthetic eye. Nearly all of Vrasubatlat’s releases feature R. on vocals, guitar, or both, and range from the snarling D-beat hardcore of Pissblood to the unsettling black metal of Serum Dreg. Of the nearly two dozen acts on the Torment Is Flesh bill, R. is a member of seven.
“Most of the time, I hate to see other bands do this kind of thing,” R. says of his tendency to jump between sounds. “But this is what I want it to be. I want people to feel like they can expect certain things from the label. There’s no personality behind it. Metal has become this cult following of name recognition. I want to avoid that as much as possible, which is funny, because here we are doing an interview about it.”
Many of the artists playing Torment Is Flesh feel the same way R. does about suppressing personal information. Nearly all of them will only credit themselves by their initials or pseudonyms on their recordings. That erasure of identity levels the playing field, so well-known artists can dabble in more challenging sounds without alienating or confusing their fans. And with no signifiers of race or gender, it helps to remove any biases listeners might have about the musicians and their work.
That said, what little info thereis to be gleaned about the festival’s lineup reveals a disappointment: a lack of female artists. Clare O.N.—one of the few who did make the cut—is an Olympia-based musician who records as Obsidian Needles. Her cassette releases are just as severe as her male counterparts, filled with ghostly rumbles and foggy drones, but she draws inspiration from activities that tend to be seen as traditionally female. A chunk of her music is built from field recordings of her floor loom, which she uses to make textile art.
“The project is highly ritualized,” O.N. says. “Whenever I play a show, I weave a new textile for it. And I perform on the floor, on a pile of rugs, and add a new one of those for every show.”
For O.N., music that’s loud and brutal comes with an unexpected benefit: its therapeutic value. Throwing yourself into a sonic assault, either as performer or audience member, can often be a necessary pressure release.
“It is a therapeutic experience,” she says. “The work that I do as a musician and a textile artist and with my tincture company Earth Rituals is all tied together, presenting my moments of self-reflection, metamorphosis, and transfiguration.”
O.N.’s feeling about the symphonies of cacophony she creates is a common refrain among her fellow artists. Reaching out to music’s extreme edges can feel valiant and satisfying to the system—nourishment through noise.