BlackwulfBlackwülf. (photo: Raymond Ahner)

...just in time for Halloween.

Words by Juan Alvarado Valdivia

Blackwülf is an Oakland-based heavy metal quartet who are true rock ‘n’ roll throwbacks. With crunchy riffs, pounding drums, thumping grooves, and undistorted singing that is a fuck-you to modern vocals saturated in auto-tune, they carry the eternal flame of rock ‘n’ roll at its purest.

Their first LP, Mind Traveler, showcased their penchant for stoner-metal grooves coupled with fantasy-inspired lyrics that brings Zeppelin and Ronnie James Dio to mind. Their concise, driving, riff-based arrangements on songs such as “Beastmasters” and “The Prophet” spotlights the band at their perfectly simple and catchy best.

Their second album, Oblivion Cycle, finds the band shedding their playful, fantastical side to seriously crank up the angst and urgency that comes with living in a world consumed by greed and fear. Songs like “Colossus,” “Acid Reign,” and “The Locust” are sonic allusions to our American empire — and the picture isn’t pretty. From its first note to the piercing feedback fade-out on “March of the Damned,” Oblivion Cycle, dare I say, is a classic in the genre: A mighty, masterful brew of doom and stoner and classic metal that encapsulates life in the first quarter of the 21st century.

Instead of stomaching the first 2016 presidential debate, I broke liquid bread with two of the dark lords of Blackwülf, vocalist Alex Cunningham and guitarist Pete Holmes.

The Bay Bridged: For Oblivion Cycle, did you guys already have the album concept in mind before you started writing it, or did the songs build it?

Alex Cunningham: It came together as a series of songs, but then we started to notice a thread. As that thread became clear, I really fed into it. The last songs we recorded were definitely written around those themes and issues, and then we tweaked a couple things from some of the first songs to make it all happen. But it did come together more organically.

Pete Holmes: In the writing process, one song would inform the next. One of the things I love about Blackwülf is that we do tackle issues. We are political. We are making social observations lyrically. We try to take some of those ideas and hang them on really heavy riff-oriented music. I think it’s kind of almost like the older way of writing music. Its music we developed for our own pleasure first. It’s what we wanted to do, what we wanted to say, and we’ve been in the fortunate position of putting it out there and having a label that supports us.

AC: In that process, we talked a lot about the concepts of light and dark, the different shades and dynamics of an album experience. As the writing process is developing, you start to realize what still needs to be there. There are certain levels of intensity that we wanted to tap into that had not yet been manifested in the first songs we created. We’d bring in a song that’s a little heavier, or one that’s lighter so we could build a story and take people on a journey.

TBB: In the songwriting process, does the music come first? Do you write the riffs and arrangements first, or do the lyrics sometimes lead?

PH: Usually the process in this band is that the music will come first. I will sit down and cook up a riff and see where it takes me. I’ll then bring it to the band. Maybe I’ll have an idea — a couple of words — this one’s “Acid Reign,” or this is “Wings of Steel.” Or maybe I’ll come in with a general vibe of the song, like this is going to be a Deep Purple kind of space-boogie number, or whatever. Alex will play it through with the band. He’ll think about it and come up with some ideas. He’ll bring some lyrics in, and they typically hang real nicely with what we have.

AC: The music’s always leading. Pete will send out a clip and we’ll listen to it so we can get some ideas on how we can come in, but he’ll title it. Half the time he titles it what ends up being the name of the song. I’ll base my lyrics around that. “Acid Reign” is a really good example. That’s a fucking awesome title. I love that — reign of the kingdom, not like acid rain. And so I tweaked out on that. “Wings of Steel” was another one.

PH: There was also "Colossus." Or "Space Nugget."

AC: And that will be the working title for a long, long time until I get to the point where I like the lyrics I’ve got. And then I’ll come to the dudes and say, 'This is what I got lyrically. I’m thinking of calling it this, what do you guys think?' Sometimes they’ll pick another part of the lyrics they like better and name it based on those lines.

PH: I think rock and roll is a real paradox. On one side, it’s really important — to me, at least, and to our band as individuals. It’s a really important part of who we are. And on the other side, it’s really funny. And ironic.

AC: And kind of ridiculous!

PH: The tension between those two ideas is a lot of what Blackwülf is about. There’s a real sense of fun that’s super-critical and important to what we do, but there’s also this aspect of delivering some kind of an atmosphere, whether it’s recorded or live. At the end of the day, what we hope to do is entertain people. Take them out of themselves for a minute, or take them with us on a voyage during a 45-minute or hour-long set and basically rock them out.

AC: Growing up, I can’t even imagine what life would have been like without rock and roll. Rock records were like my savior, in a way. They were the most important thing on the planet. To be able to feel like we’re creating something that is contributing to that art form is important to us. We take it seriously, but at the same time, it is fun. Rock music shouldn’t take itself too seriously. It is about kicking ass and having fun. Early rock and roll blew the world up, but it wasn’t in the libraries! People were just getting naked in the streets, and it was fucking awesome.

PH: That’s what we’re looking for. And getting naked in the streets!

TBB: Were there any books, films, or events that inspired Oblivion Cycle?

PH: At its core, we’re vintage heavy metal inspired by classic science fiction, fantasy writing, comics, and fantasy illustration. We’re all big fans of sword and sorcery in a really playful and kind of fun but authentic way. We grew up in the late '70s and '80s on writers like Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Arthur C. Clark. Add some Frank Frazetta and a healthy dose of Black Sabbath and you get the idea.

AC: From a lyrical standpoint, we definitely incorporate a lot of fantasy. I definitely get into politics and religion too. A lot of that is inspired from growing up and listening to Neil Peart lyrics from Rush. His lyrics were very smart. And Black Sabbath lyrics are really smart, too. They were very political and they don’t get credit for that.
BlackwulfBlackwülf at The Golden Bull. (photo: Lenny Gonzalez)

TBB: Which vocalists or frontmen inspire you?

AC: Dio and Ozzy definitely are there. Freddie Mercury was a huge one for me growing up. I love Queen, and I can’t explain it. There’s no explanation needed for Freddie Mercury. And then, I love Jim Morrison, believe it or not.

TBB: I do, too!

PH: The first wave of LA punk!

AC: He was an artist. His voice was great, too. For more modern music, I really like Chris Cornell and Layne Staley. Those two were just unbelievable singers. Layne Staley in particular was hugely influential on me. He could rage on the vocals. He inspired and pushed me to get harder and harder as a singer.

TBB: Who are some of your favorite Bay Area bands?

PH: We’ve got a nice mix of cool bands in the Bay Area right now. I like this band called Castle. They’re really dark and kind of brilliantly fucked up, which I tend to gravitate towards. Some of our other favorite active Bay Area bands include Metallica, Orchid, Mondo Drag, Death Angel...War Cloud and Low Bote. Of course, we dig and always enjoy playing with our Ripple label mates, Zed and The Watchers as well.

AC: Beyond the Bay Area, I think what’s happening right now is the West Coast. Some of the best shows we’ve played have been when we’ve been on the road, or when other West Coast bands have been on the road and played with us. Bands like Great Electric Quest, Red Wizard, Desert Suns from Southern California. And then you have bands like Disenchanter and R.I.P. who are up in Portland. They have lots of killer bands up in Seattle. I love Ancient Warlocks. These bands are getting out on the road and touring enough to get down to the Bay Area.

TBB: What’s next for the band?

PH: We’re actively writing right now. We’ve got a few shows to finish up for the end of the year and then we’ll be in complete, woodshed mode during winter to complete the writing process and begin recording a new feature-length LP. It will definitely pick up where Oblivion Cycle left off. We have a few surprises up our sleeve for this next release, but people who enjoy our music will get another raw and heavy slab of what makes Blackwülf fun: dark lyrics, vintage tones, a heavy rhythm section that can swing, and riffs, riffs, riffs. And we’re going to sequester ourselves in ghost-ridden dungeons.

Blackwülf, The Watchers, Zed
Toot's Tavern
November 5, 2016
9pm, $8 (21+)

Adept at headbanging while cycling, Juan Alvarado Valdivia is a writer from Oakland, CA who never leaves home without his trusty go-to karaoke list. He is the author of ¡Cancerlandia!: A Memoir.

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