Matt Heafy’s guide to black metal

As Trivium frontman Matthew Kiichi Heafy unleashes one-man black metal project IBARAKI, he talks us through his love for metal’s darkest subgenre…

Matt Heafy’s guide to black metal
Sam Law

Black metal has always been about pushing at the boundaries of heavy music. Beyond its grim and frostbitten grandeur, devilish hellfire and grating brimstone, it is a subgenre that represents extreme music’s darkest frontier: the nightmare nether realm in which twisted visionaries can turn loose their most unhinged sounds. If Matthew Kiichi Heafy’s entry into the maelstrom feels like an uncomfortable new dawn for corpsepainted elitists, that’s very much the point.

Debut album Rashomon from solo black metal project IBARAKI is the culmination of more than a decade’s hard graft for the Trivium frontman. Confessing his love of the genre in early interviews, and drawing on its serrated sounds on the likes of 2003’s Ember To Inferno and 2008 landmark Shogun, few real observers doubted his passion for the project. Even the most ardent believers, however, will be blown away by the execution of a 10-track masterpiece that drives daringly towards new horizons, while bringing old heads like Emperor frontman Ihsahn (Susanoo No Mikoto, co-production on the whole album) and Behemoth mouthpiece Nergal (Akumu) along for the ride.

Even more powerful than that sonic realisation was Matt’s willingness to take ownership of the work. Originally envisioned as an anonymous offering, “hopefully beloved by extreme metal fans,” then followed by a “Haha! It was me all along!” rug pull, the 10-year-plus gestation saw him come to terms with the importance of openly planting his flag in the blackened turf and building songs around his own cultural background. Hell, if his name was going to ruffle a few feathers, he might as well bring My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way (Rōnin) aboard for good measure, too.

“Black metal was supposed to be a response to metal all being the same,” he grins. “That’s why I felt so charged and invigorated by this project where ‘the guy from Trivium and the guy from MCR are doing a black metal record’. It’s the most shocking thing a black metal fan could ever hear, far more so than if I was to be burning a church down for the cover! That is the spirit of black metal…”

The underground appeal

How Matt discovered the path into metal’s darkest depths...

“I was 15 when I got into Napster. I know that platform is pretty stigmatised nowadays, but I always saw it as a way to discover new bands – my ‘tape-trading days’, if you will. The first three bands I got into were In Flames, Cannibal Corpse and Cradle Of Filth. It was really exciting, having just gotten into metal, to discover three subgenres in death metal, melodic death metal and black metal. Around the same time I met a local musician called Richie Brown from the band Mindscar from Orlando. The first time I ever hung out with him he showed me the DVD – it might even have been a VHS at the time – of Emperial Live Ceremony: Emperor Live In London. I was hooked instantly. And then Richie started showing me all of his older tapes, with things like Dissection music videos and Dimmu Borgir live from the Enthrone Darkness Triumphant tour. I loved how vivid it was and the storytelling through the artwork and the music, the symphonic passages combined with extreme music. When you were used to listening to bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Testament and Slayer, it just felt like such a different thing...”

The essential albums

A selection of records that shaped Matt’s love of the subgenre...

“These picks are all from when I first got into black metal, with the exception of the last two. First up, 2001’s Maelstrom Chaos by Mörk Gryning from Stockholm. That record was very influential on me in terms of production and style. There’s a song on there called My Friends that’s so weird: it feels so ‘not black metal’, but so much so at the same time. 2003’s Sheol by Naglfar from Umeå. 2001’s Diabolis Interium by Dark Funeral from Stockholm. They stick to the semi-traditional old-school sound, but the focus on production is what separates that for me. 1995’s Storm Of The Light’s Bane by Dissection from Strömstad. 1997’s The Pagan Prosperity by Old Man’s Child from Oslo – Galder from Dimmu Borgir’s other band. It’s incredibly melodic, baroque and neoclassical all at the same time. 1997’s Enthroned Darkness Triumphant by Dimmu Borgir. Of course 1997 classic Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk by Emperor from Notodden and 1996’s Nemesis Divina by Satyricon from Oslo. Those were the albums of my ‘black metal childhood’. Then we have 2012’s RIITIIR by Enslaved from Haugesund and 2014’s The Satanist by Behemoth from Gdańsk. Even though The Satanist is newer, and people tend to look at the Norwegian and Swedish bands as ‘leaders’ of the genre, it’s one of the greatest black metal records of all time.”

The lore

How black metal’s spirit-stirring stories enhance the soul-shuddering sounds…

“As I got more and more into black metal – discovering why these guys looked the way they looked, why the songs and artwork were the way that they were – I came to love the real mixture of things it was comprised of. These bands were into thrash, but then they began to bring in different influences, from elements of classical music to a lot of Scandinavian folk. I’ve always found those folk stories really fascinating. There’s even an early Trivium song called The Storm about the Oskoreia: a Nordic legend about these ghost horsemen with these white faces screaming in super high-pitched voices who would take people’s souls, which demonstrates quite how much I was into the black metal lore. I read every book I could, found out about every single band, got every shirt, every CD. One of the turning points of this record was when I spoke to Ihsahn and said, ‘I wish I was Scandinavian so I could write about Thor and Ragnarok.’ He told me two things: firstly, that’s been done, and secondly, that I should look at my Japanese side. When I realised that I could reference stuff like the Yamata No Orochi – the eight-headed dragon from the Shinto religion I’ve got tattooed on my back – it changed things.”

The game-changers

Bands that paved the way for IBARAKI’s outside-the-box approach...

“When it started, black metal pioneers said that metal had become too commercial and was all saying the same thing. This music was the response. But when you then stick to the tradition of what you’ve made, you eventually need another rebellion to turn it into something else again. Emperor were one of the biggest bands when I was discovering the genre, and when people have asked where the black metal is in Trivium and I’ve always explained that, although it isn’t always there in the sonics, Emperor gave me the confidence to make every single record different from the last. From In The Nightside Eclipse to Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk to IX Equilibrium to Prometheus: The Discipline Of Fire & Demise, they [proved that was possible]. Ulver’s Perdition City, although not really black metal at all, is a very important black metal record because it’s the exact opposite. The same with Wardruna: that band sounds nothing like black metal but because it’s from the same source material it feels just as important. Behemoth’s The Satanist, too, which felt like it was so different despite that it was going back into the genre. For me, O Father O Satan O Sun! is the best Behemoth song of all time because it’s so melodic! And hearing Ihsahn’s 2010 solo album Eremita was like hearing Anthems again for the first time. That record inspired the shift from IBARAKI being an alias to becoming a project in my name.”

The notoriety

From church burnings to fascist ideologies to outright murder, black metal’s brutal underbelly is a problem to be addressed...

“Honestly, when I was younger, the darkness of black metal really drew me to it. I’m not promoting it, but the fact that there was a genre where band members were killing each other over musical rivalries is absolutely the sort of thing that will draw a young person in. As an adult, though, I can see that there are really problematic aspects and sub-factions [fixated on] racism and bigotry, which are things I very much stand against. I remember when the blinders first came off and I was like, ‘I can’t believe this!’ but also like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I couldn’t see that!’ But those are things I want to help re-write. Around the time we were completing work on Rashomon, there was a lot of anti-Asian sentiment around the world [due to COVID ignorance]. So I look at this record as a mission to highlight Japanese culture, so that maybe people can decide to learn more about those stories. Then more about the Chinese stories and the Korean stories, European stories and African stories, just expanding their learning vocabulary across the planet. For me, Rashomon is about keeping the things I love about black metal and transcending the stuff I don’t.”

The subgenres

Blackgaze? Blackn’roll? DSBM? There are many shades of black…

“I love subgenres. They’re one of my favourite things about metal. I used to consider myself very well-versed, but it’s cool that there are so many now that I don’t know what all of them are. It’s just fun, like classifying styles of food or more traditional music, drum beats, guitar methods, games, comics, movies. And I like how people are crossing genres more and more like how Ghostemane has his Baader Meinhof black metal project, but also mixed in hints of black metal on his last Ghostemane record. Or how Carpenter Brut is an electronic artist that can make me feel like I’m listening to black metal. Could IBARAKI go on to explore more subgenres? It’s a good question. If you look back at the very first black metal song I sent Ihsahn and Darren Toms of Candlelight Records, it sounds like true old-school second wave stuff. And now I’m here. Maybe some day I’ll want to make music that sounds like 1991 black metal. Or 1997. Or something completely new. When it comes to other projects like my Magic: The Gathering soundtrack or Elder Scrolls Reimagined stuff, if I know that I have to do something, I can do it. But with IBARAKI and Trivium, it’s always about seeing if I can capture lightning in a bottle.”

The solitude

From The Ruins Of Beverast to Panopticon to Noctule, black metal has seen many artists striking out on their own...

“For all the genres layers and complexity, there really are a lot of black metal projects where it’s about one person. Even bands like Emperor, Behemoth, Ulver and Darkthrone tend to revolve around one main member’s vision. With Trivium, we’ve always made the records that we’ve wanted to make, but it’s still four people as one brain, and we do look at whether we can get this magazine cover or whether we’re gonna get played that much. With IBARAKI, for the last 12 years I have 100 per cent made music exactly the way I wanted to without thinking about anyone else, and with the exception of the intro and outro tracks, the tracklist chronologically tracks my development over that time. It’s been incredibly liberating, and it makes me so excited to see where we go with the next one. There’s a little bit of a ‘Danny Elfman in Eastern Europe’ thing going on that we might explore even more. Alternatively, I’ve just had a shamisen built using the traditional method and sent to me from Japan which I’m going to teach myself how to play, so maybe I’ll have a track or two – or the whole thing – with me playing shamisen, singing in Japanese!”

The elitists

Stern-faced gatekeepers are part of the game, but don’t get bogged-down in the bullshit...

“I think the gatekeeping in black metal will always be there. I understand that mindset because I was that kid. At 16 I had the super long hair and was wearing an XL long-sleeve Dimmu Borgir shirt, cut-off white combat pants and combat boots, going to high school with my truck windows down blaring black metal. My friends in school were pop-punk, then hardcore and emo and I was like, ‘Anything with singing sucks. If it’s not from Norway, it’s terrible!’ But now I look to Ihsahn and Nergal: two of the greatest figures in black metal who have done things that are not traditionally black metal. There will always be the people saying that just because it’s the guy from Trivium, they won’t listen to it. But that’s fine. Having grown up in the genre – loving it, getting it, knowing it inside out as much as any elitist – means that I can handle that. You have to take these daring creative leaps. Even with Trivium all the way back in 2005, it would have been so easy to make Ascendancy Part 2, but I chose to make an album [The Crusade] that was the polar opposite. If it’s making me – or the listeners – feel uncomfortable, that’s a good thing!”

The future

As the new generation shifts the sonic and socio-political landscape, black metal has a bright future ahead...

“I believe that black metal does have a bright future. If you look at what a band like Møl from Denmark are doing, or what we’ve done here, or even in a grander sense, at someone like Ihsahn, who was one of the genre’s pioneers but who’ll now do a record with what sounds like '80s metal songs, then one with saxophone solos and clean jazz parts, we’re already there. I think that it’ll always have those subgenres on subgenres, that nasty underbelly, and those people who don’t think that what we’re doing even is black metal. But I don’t mind. Ultimately, I believe that people need to always create what they want to hear or play, not to try and appease the traditionalists or try and keep something in line. Any time we get into that circle of trying to write something – even as broad as trying to write for extreme metal – there’s a real danger of things getting contrived. The same way that there are so many bands making assembly-line rock for American rock radio, you can get into a place with black metal where you’re writing with a specific template in mind. It’s okay to have planning and preparation, but it needs to be in service of the musician making what the music they want to make.”

Rashomon is released on May 6 via Nuclear Blast

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