When Ryan Gunwitch-Black contacted me about his new doom-metal project, I was a bit skeptical, and we talked about it. Black and I worked together on a couple of projects – he created art for my last release and I pretended to play drums on his video for last year’s One Spark – and I felt I could be candid. Doom and its offshoots can be exploited, not unlike bad punk, created by people who can’t play for audiences who don’t care. “Look, I C-tuned my guitar, I can plunk big chords and make them go ‘chunk chunk’ through this Orange amp my dad lent me. Don’t it sound like burning hell?”
To some, this is doom. To me, it’s crap. Doom deserves the compositional consideration given any genre – to ignore it is to disrespect the form. To the unaccustomed ear, doom is slow, loud and boring or repugnant. But to someone who understands and appreciates it, there’s depth and musicality. Rooted in Black Sabbath’s bluesy metal, moving through the black metal of ’80s bands Venom and Celtic Frost and landing squarely in the laps of modern stoner bands like The Atomic Bitchwax and The Sword, and the darker strains of Southern Lord’s Sunn O))). In light of his forebears, Black’s new project bitchCoven is, fortunately, damn solid.
Listening to early demos of tunes like “Dying is Easy” and “The Thing in the Crypt,” one gets the feeling Black (a graphic artist and formerly of Porcelain Black; his current band is Ghostwitch) and his partner Henry McMillan took time to compose these riffs, build on an idea and watch it develop. He can sound a little too much like Rob Zombie when he “sings,” but that’s a minor quibble. It’s ominous stuff, with walls of guitars collapsing into silence, only to be topped by bigger, meaner riffs. Black flips the equation, adding acoustic guitar beneath huge distorted lines. In a genre that doesn’t allow for much invention, Black’s doing what he can to keep it fresh, while staying true to form.
I spoke to the guitarist/songwriter about the roots of bitchCoven, his shift from goth to doom, and his ongoing exploration of visual and sonic arts.
Folio Weekly Magazine: What was the impetus for bitchCoven?
Ryan Gunwitch-Black: My friend Henry showed me these insane riffs he’d been coming up with for a long time. Really heavy, catchy doom/stoner-metal things. He’d have this amazing idea and the next week it would just be gone, back into the ether. I whined until he started recording them. Once I had these riffs in front of me, it was obvious they needed to be in songs and a new project sprang from that.
When will bitchCoven’s debut be released and in what formats?
The project was going to be an EP. Like, five songs and done. But once we had a name and started rolling, it was clear we were going to wind up with a lot more than just four or five killer songs. We started writing together mid-January. We already have seven complete songs and partial arrangements for about four more. Not to mention the 50 riffs I’m … sorting through and cataloging now. Once we have 15 songs, we’ll whittle those down to the best eight or 10 for the album. I plan to have it done and ready for mastering by June and then released in August. I want to do some limited-edition vinyl with special packaging for collectors and hardcore doom fans, a small cassette run and CDs. Obviously, we’ll have it available on iTunes and streaming services as well.
You have a reputation for gothic-themed rock and outlaw country. Why doom now?
In my weird-ass brain, it’s all in the same family. I’m not writing Kiss FM hits or anything, but I’ve been more mindful of song structure, hooks and recording things in a bit less lo-fi manner. Doom, drone and stoner metal really began to appeal to me more than the faster, thrash stuff about 10 years ago. Maybe it’s just easier for old guys to play. But bands like Crowbar, Sleep, Salome, and Dark Castle sound so much more brutal than Metallica. As far as the “now” part, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I want absolutely nothing to do with the mainstream landscape today. Nothing.
What makes doom musical?
A lot of doom isn’t very musical. I’m really picky about music in general. Things that catch my ear are usually very textural and melodic. Even a fuzz-drenched guitar tuned down to C can express a melody in the right hands, like Matt Pike of Sleep and High On Fire. He writes some of the most brutal stuff ever, but it still has a hook and a melody. I don’t know. It’s really kind of ephemeral, isn’t it? Even when I’m using straight-up, raw feedback and noise on the more droning parts of bitchCoven stuff, it tells a story and has a forward motion. At least, that’s the goal.
Can a direct connection be made, for you anyway, from early metal to doom or stoner?
Absolutely. Sabbath was the beginning of all that. I’ve probably ripped off “Black Sabbath” about 27 times without even realizing it. They were so heavy for the time. The intervals they wrote sound so sinister. Their riffs were everything bands like The Beatles avoided because they were trying to make happy pop music. Then Sabbath came along doing these monstrous minor-chord riffs. Crushing, man.
Are you going to incorporate your visual and graphic art into the bitchCoven concept?
The visual aspect of things comes along with the music. There’s always a succession of images in my head when I’m writing. A band is just one big art project to me, so, yes. The visual and graphic art portion of my brain is on. It’s kind of hard to turn it off. I’m working on some Zdzisław Beksinski-inspired stuff and some more high-contrast, single-color design stuff. It’ll be interesting.