When the term “Black Metal” is mentioned to the casual music fan, one of two reactions usually present themselves. The first is confusion over the use of corpse paint, overdone Satanic imagery and love of all things involving pig’s blood.
The other is summed up with a blank stare and a “Huh?”
However, this hackneyed concept is slowly being broken down. When bands like Deafheaven are making their way onto sales charts, the old notion of what gives a Black Metal band its identity is gradually being eroded away. But there’s one element that Cincinnati’s Ethicist, keeps alive in their spin on the genre.
“It’s always gotta be nasty. Even if you track it, it still has to be gross and you still have to feel like we’re painting a disgusting picture,” explains drummer Johnny Finger.
Finger, along with guitarist and vocalist Chad Snowden, guitarist Scott Stevens and newly added bassist Mike Wojtkiewicz, have maintained Black Metal’s trademark filth on all of Ethicist’s releases, but manage to weave it together with moments of honest beauty. The band achieves this via a mix of Shoegaze, Crust, Punk, Heavy Metal and experimental Noise Rock. Everything is worth trying once.
“We’ve never turned a riff away, we’ve never turned anything away,” Finger says. “I don’t even think we necessarily have a specific genre that we play. We’re just Post Metal. If you really want to put a genre on it, we’re Blackened Post Metal, so we can get away with anything,”
This freedom in its writing style has enabled Ethicist to craft a suite of songs that is rooted in traditional Black Metal elements but broaden its potential audience far beyond the limits of the spikes-and-inverted-crosses crowd. Each song is expansive and filled with layered guitar work, starting with Snowden’s rhythm and perfected by Stevens’ expertly crafted leads. Fingers’ drum work adds some needed punch through strong use of the cymbals and snare. Finally, Wojtkiewicz’s provides the low-end boom that was previously covered by Snowden, allowing the guitars even more room to breathe. Ethicist knows when to let the songs stretch their legs and let the riffs do the talking before stomping on the gas and crashing into every guardrail in an explosion of Punk Rock-like intensity and fury.
Ethicist’s painful splendor is intensified with Snowden’s vocals, with each line becoming a battle between heart and throat. While his vocals are relatively sparse in comparison to the overall run-times of the songs, Snowden’s voice never feel out of place, which is due to his unique writing process.
As the songs are constructed, Snowden hashes out rough phonetics that match the tone and time structures of each track, then goes back and writes actual words to match. This adds up to vocals that are extensions of each song’s flow, but also stand alone because of Snowden’s emotive delivery.
While Snowden’s lyrics aren’t easily discernible (another Black Metal trope), the themes that run through them are as consistent as they are misanthropic. The lyrics heavily focus on “having to make uncomfortable choices, then living with the consequences,” according to Stevens.
Snowden also uses Ethicist as an outlet for emotional pain and uncertainty that he couldn’t release via his other project, Smoke Signals. In fact, the lyrics for “Terrible Old Man,” the final track on Ethicist’s first release (a 2013 EP), were written in response to Snowden’s father falling ill. Contrary to the track title, Snowden insists that his dad is a great guy, but the song itself allowed Snowden to process the emotions that he previously had bottled up and pushed aside in one grand, six-and-a-half minute ode to outside opinions and the misconceptions we have of others.
Ethicist’s recorded output could be considered light, with that aforementioned EP, I, currently available, and another, II, soon to be released. But the band’s writing and recording doesn’t lend itself to robotically pumping out content. And I’s release was a bit of a fluke anyways. What started out as a quick demo so the band had something to sell at its first live show quickly turned into its first release due to the exceptionally positive initial reception.
Ethicist writes and records all of its music in its practice space and each recorded song has its identity due to ever-changing setups and recording techniques. This often leads to songs with two different versions — the one on record and the one that evolves from constant practices and live performances.
That makes for recordings with ever-evolving dynamics — each track is a time capsule with no song sounding exactly like the others. While some bands may find this process chaotic, Ethicist wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I look at records like documents. There’s something to be said about being organic,” Snowden says.
With the recent edition of Wojtkiewicz, Ethicist’s sound will now have even more depth and power. Wojtkiewicz comes from a Rock & Roll background and is admittedly not a fan of traditional Black Metal, but he recognized Ethicist’s unique qualities, as well as its need for an actual low end (the position was highly sought after by many in Cincinnati’s Metal scene). With Wojtkiewicz along for the ride, Snowden and Stevens are allowed even more freedom with their guitar work, because Snowden isn’t shackled exclusively to the rhythm lines of the song.
“When you’re hearing Ethicist now, the bass is often the melody of the song,” Wojkiewicz says.
In many ways Ethicist are tailor-made to flip expectations on their ears. The band plays a genre of music known for its rigidity and inability to adapt, then morphs it into an almost unrecognizable visage of its former self. The band members are amongst the nicest people you’ll meet in Cincinnati’s music scene, but their lyrics are some of the bleakest in town. Even the music itself is a matchup between heaven and hell. Satan may be the champ of traditional Black Metal, but here it’s more of a standoff. Ultimately, it’s that split that gives Ethicist its identity and allows the band to rise above its corpse-painted brethren and craft music that may be called Black Metal, but is ultimately much more colorful.