For all you know is a heap of broken images – T.S. Eliot
Roaring down the highway, just over the speed limit with enough illicit substances in the car to get the driver booked for at least a couple of months, this sounds like as good a place as any to start my story about SubRosa. Here I was riding shotgun on a four hour car trip with a guy who I had met only nine days prior. He had agreed to join me on my strange and potentially epic journey to document the mystical world of SubRosa, a group who are, in my opinion, the best emerging heavy act on the scene right now. I have fallen into some sort of freakish fandom, a chaotic borderline obsession with this group, why else would I take a journey that led me across five states to see a band I had already met weeks prior? It was clear, I need to try to figure out what they were on about.
Perhaps a bit of background is necessary first. SubRosa was first formed by the mysterious Rebecca Vernon in 2005, birthed from the influence of the local Utah legends, The Red Bennies. Her friend, the violinist, Sarah Pendleton asked to join the band early on and ended up permanently altering the bands future sound. Rebecca said to me “I wanted it to be really loud and brutal and sludgy and all that, but I did not picture violins. Sarah was learning violin at the time, we were really good friends, and she was like “I want to be in the band” and I said “Um, okay, let’s see how that will work out” just thinking the violins would make it more delicate and it ended up being the best thing that could have happened.”
Since then, the band has been through a whole mess of bassists (The current count is at eight I believe), changed drummers a handful of times, and added another violinist to the band in the petite form of Kim Pack. Their two full lengths since Pack’s arrival the band has reached huge critical praise, they have been listed as the 13th best record of 2013 on SputnikMusic, which for the uninitiated essentially puts them as one of the best doom bands in the world right now. The band has even got the attention of some of the biggest players in the metal scene. For example, one of the main organizers for Hellfest went out of his way to personally book the band because they were that important to him. In other words, perhaps my deranged journey to a city I hadn’t been to for years with a relative stranger had a lot more merit behind it than I previously thought.
So when we arrived at my friend Leslie Bornsteins studio apartment, I started to think that just maybe I had gotten a better handle on this whole brouhaha than I had previously expected. After viewing some raw footage for her in-process film on death metal in Mozambique, it came time for me and my traveling companion to hit public transport in an effort to get to a show that could hopefully teach us something about the state of doom metal today, the triumph of apocalyptic layers of noise, and perhaps the human experience.
Upon arriving at the Bowery Ballroom (The venue for the evening) I received hugs and handshakes from every member of the band. When I had met them at Hellfest we had become fast friends and so getting to see them again, on a different continent, in a city to which none us were natives, was truly unique. It felt as if I had fallen into a dream, just a few years ago I would have never thought this kind of adventure possible, and now here I was embracing the spontaneous delusions that dominate my psyche and allowing them to let me find my way into a brave new world. The air was electric, this was the bands first ever New York show, and I got the impression that everyone was a bit nervous, myself included. Something about the atmosphere suggested to me that the evening would be a magical and memorable one.
As we helped the band load in I realized how different the three frontwomen of SubRosa could look before they each embraced their unique stage personas. Without the magnificent eye makeup Rebecca could be a librarian. When she came out from the changing room in her long black gown and mascara there was a marked difference, as if she had performed some sort of occult ritual to embrace the true power of doom within her. Kim came out with her hair redone, giving her that fascinating and very unique fairy-like look that is part of what makes SubRosa’s live performances so interesting. Sarah perhaps had the least change, yet, ever the fashionista, wore an interestingly crafted shirt with all manner of metal studs and straps. The gentlemen of the group seemed for all intents and purposes unchanged, although it should be noted, Andy’s beard rippled as glorious as ever.
Before the soundcheck could even begin my traveling partner, Jake and I ambled off with Kim and Rebecca in search of pizza. Heads turned at this motley crew, a hardcore guy, a metal dude, and a pair of strangely dressed musicians from the midwest. Surprisingly, the New Yorkers seemed friendly enough, taking an interest in the strange dynamic we had going on. There’s a weird feeling you get when people ask you if you’re a member of one of your favorite bands. On the one hand its kind of an honor and makes you feel special, and on the other, there is a sort of crushing desperation when you contemplate that a band you have poured untold time and money into may never get the recognition you feel they truly deserve. Yet such is metal, forever condemned to a forgotten corner, for those of us who seek it out though, this particular rabbit hole is potentially endless. Broken images that we are forced to piece together to find some form of internal triumph.
Tensions started to rise when after soundcheck it was discovered that Kim’s camera had gone missing. At this point, Kevin, an incredibly sweet and competent security guard at the venue stepped up and helped find it. His support of the band and truly passionate work to help the set go forward smoothly is the kind of thing which should never be forgotten. Too many times we ignore security, yet people with jobs like Kevin’s are perhaps the most important in metal, they allow the music to happen. In some way, security guards are like ministers, allowing the transcendent glory of doom metal to wash over the fans while simultaneously making sure the prophets can stay safe.
The long wait before the show started was on. Fans started to pour into the bar under the venue, and those of us with security clearance were forced to pace around, nervously awaiting what was to come. SubRosa have a strange tradition of going to the bathroom repeatedly before their set, one whose impact was accentuated by the lack of artist-only toilets. It’s in these strange hybrid moments I think that we see what truly defines a band. The love between the members is clear, Kim once told me that the three women of SubRosa are like sisters, a bond that defines the band. That being said, there also seems to be a deep link between Levi and Andy, and while it is not one I’ve really had the chance to get into, their quiet brotherhood gives the groups rhythm section a strange sort of empathy, allowing it to drive the band forward with a passion that few of their peers can really compare to.
Suddenly its time, the band has to go on in mere minutes. Rebecca sits on the steps by the stage giving Sarah a neck massage, the rest of the band stand nearby, nervously awaiting what could be one of the defining performances of their respective careers. They may be on Profound Lore Records now (Which is, for all intents and purposes, an incredible label) but I get the impression shows like this one are giving the band the opportunity to be much more than that, to embrace the breadth of their appeal as one of the most interesting bands in heavy music today. Their unique appeal and frighteningly iconoclastic sound was in high demand, and now they had to step out and deliver.
Then, as if a switch has been flipped it’s happening, SubRosa have commenced playing and the acoustic intro of their two song set gets the crowd bristling with anticipation. Part of the beauty of this band is that they extend the soft parts just long enough that you don’t think anything special will happen, so when they open up in a storm of violins and loud guitars the music is simply that much more glorious. This band is so loud that you feel it in your bones, SubRosa give you a full sensory experience, no other emotion can prevail when you are swamped in sludge and then suddenly thrown into a strange acoustic fairyland.
These contradictions, this mix of light and dark, allows for SubRosa to take on an almost Black Sabbath like quality. The riffs retain the power, but, like with Sabbath, the acoustic and quiet parts have a very distinct flavor of their own and make the music soar even higher. The bands relentless headbanging emphasizes the groove of the music. For example, Kim has a surprisingly ferocious sort of stomp she seems to fall in too whenever the groove becomes overpowering. Her tiny foot slams into the stage, making it feel as if the entire thing is shaking. There is something deliciously primal about all of this, the full body headbanging and the very human bellows over a roaring guitar provided by Rebecca which are then directly contrasted by lullaby-like acoustic passages. It feels as if the entire human experience, from birth to death is embodied in their set.
Saying some doom metal band from Utah reflects the human experience may seem like some sort of drugged out madness, but I will assure you, much to my chagrin I was sober for the entirety of the evening. See, these guys have a strangely natural flow between clearly organized acoustic passages with classically inspired violin lines and chaotic almost punk rock attacks. When the violins embrace a Schoenberg like level of madness it feels like a bad acid trip, overwhelming your body and rooting you in place. Somehow, on their last two records these guys have tapped into something greater than the sum of its parts, doom metal redemption that allows us to feel every aspect of our lives in the progression of just one song.
The band kick into The Usher and I head up to the balcony to get a different view. As they embrace the multipart harmony that dominates the introduction of this doom metal epic you get an overwhelming sense of the beauty of the music. Is this their Stairway to Heaven? Quite possibly. Both times I have seen them they have ended with this song, it is perhaps the defining track off of their latest record More Constant Than The Gods. It’s the kind of piece that embodies all I love about doom, from the solemn beauty to the refined structure. The fact that it’s one of the only SubRosa songs to feature a death growl is also a plus in my book, it helps keep things dynamic and unique. After all, not many doom bands can claim to have a song that uses four different vocalists, and fewer still can claim that that song connects with people so well it should be a crucial part of their live set.
The set closes off, and the next band comes on. Sure, The Atlas Moth is good, but for me at least, they can’t recapture the almost sacred magic of SubRosa. There is a strange sort of magic that allows a band that is so darn unconventional to thrive. They don’t follow any of the rules and are crafting beautiful new pastures of sound, too few of their peers can match them. The thing is, sure there are a lot of women in doom these days, but how many bands boast multiple? Furthermore, how bands have the powerful array of instruments that these guys have? If nothing else the mere pitch of “It’s basically doom metal with three part harmonies and two violins” has to make you at least a little curious.
The evening starts to cool down. After The Atlas Moth rock the house, Boris, a band who I had pretty minimal exposure too beforehand (I had listened to a handful of their records before coming) simply blew me away. This bill is special in its own right. Many a doom freak can tell you, this is the sort of bill that most people only dream of, getting to see three bands like this in one night is a treat, even if in my opinion Boris should be opening and SubRosa headlining. Controversial opinions asides, it proves the might of team working behind SubRosa, from their label, Profound Lore, to their booker, the might Nate Carson, a dude who just might make the history books as one of the greatest metal promoters of his time.
There is a strange sense of destiny guiding this band, I’m not quite sure how to put it into words, but speaking with them I get the sense that SubRosa could somehow be among the great bands of this generation. In a world where there is so much darkness, but also so much light, we need a band that reflects that, that can cross the spectrum of emotion and leave every fan feeling tuned in to something greater than themselves. It essentially sums up all that I love about doom metal and I think in the long run, this breed of band shall triumph. Order and chaos can coexist side by side, and nothing proves that like SubRosa’s music.
Too soon it came time for load out, and I sat there in SubRosa’s green room, trying to make sure nothing got stolen from them while they sojourned in this city of mainlines, blood feasts, and bad taste. Conversations had been had, fans met, and label officials appeased. It was another successful night for the band, as they found themselves on their way to a new venue, another day in quicksand, trying to fight for the ability to make SubRosa their full time jobs. Metal is a challenge, make no mistake, but, as Charles Dingus of Witch Mountain and Blackwitch Pudding once said to me “The key to success is to do something different.” It certainly seems like this group have got that one down pat.
It came time to say our good byes, with hugs all around we knew that it would only be two more months before we saw each other again. Yet, despite our planned reunion in Texas at Housecore Horror Film Festival, I got a strange sense of the ephemeral nature of nights like these. As with our previous meeting at Hellfest this was a big night for SubRosa, but I think that’s what makes our relationship so interesting. I’ve been blessed to stumble across the band on crucial days, the types of events that can make our break their careers. Behind the scenes you get a sense that big things are happening for the band and don’t be surprised to see them headlining a major tour in just a few years. This bands star is only rising, and I think that we have a while before we see it peak. Rebecca once told me that she thought the band would peak two records from now, personally, I’m not so sure, perhaps they will be one of those rare blessed acts who somehow reach a sort of perpetual climax, a constant evolution towards sublime heavy metal ascension.
As Jake and I wander off to try and find our way home, we are left contemplating the strange, and beautiful reality that the evening has presented us. We were granted full access to one of the premier heavy tours of 2014, and suddenly handling the notion of that feels like it might be too much. A lot went down, from the glorious performance of SubRosa to a Relapse Records representative making me a serious offer for an internship. It’s one of those nights that reflects the charmed magic that seems to follow this scene, and perhaps more specifically SubRosa. They are a blessed band, the sort of group Dio smiles down upon from his place in the clouds, leaving us to do our best to make sure that they, and other groups of their ilk get the recognition and honor they deserve.
In a Facebook conversation Rebecca once said to me that “We are the Metallica of doom metal,” and though it was in jest, perhaps she was closer to the truth than any of us had ever realized. With a discovery of what makes them special the only thing holding them back is the crazed nature of the music industry. As is the lament of so many bands of their generation, even doom innovators have to deal with a lack of tour support and financial aid from the label. Is that anyone’s fault? Not particularly, but overcoming these boundaries is not going to be the sort of thing that any band hurdles right away. Yet, few bands so accurately reflect the human condition and the ultimate glory of our world. Ultimately, the majestic sounds of SubRosa may be the thing that binds together this heap of broken images into a glorious stained glass window, one that guides our eyes towards the truth.