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WitchUrn’s black metal keeps it wide-open in theme and sound

The Madison solo project’s first full-length, “The Debt,” came out in May 2020.

The musician behind the solo black-metal project WitchUrn, David Chávez, who bills himself as Llaves (Spanish for “keys”), hasn’t yet had much opportunity to play live since moving to Madison six years ago. But he has evolved his songwriting and production to a stunning degree, starting with a respectably scuzzy 2016 demo and leading up to a multi-layered full-length album, The Debt, released in May 2020. The album follows a well-defined arc bookended with sweepingly beautiful instrumentals, and along the way its approach to black metal is anything but rigid, incorporating ideas from across different areas of heavy music into a mix that tastefully balances polish with filth.

The Debt propels itself on unrelenting fury (after the plaintive Spanish guitar of the opening track), but Chávez varies the arrangements and rhythmic feels enough from track to track, from section to section, to keep the listener just a little off-balance and wide open to possibility.  Throughout each track, Chávez displays a sharp instinct for when to let the tension uncoil a bit, and when to whip things back up to speed. Chávez doesn’t simply sound like he’s deftly overdubbing himself—you could easily convince someone that this is the work of a four-piece band that has built up a mutual chemistry over several years. 

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“Mostly I wanted to be able to write a complete record. Before you do it, it’s such a monumental task—the idea of putting together 45 minutes of music or whatever,” Chávez says. “The main goal at that point was just to be able to structure something that fit together. Stylistically, it wound up just reflecting a lot of the stuff I was listening to at the time and the type of music I tend to gravitate towards. I don’t know that I’ve ever specifically sat down and thought, ‘I need this kind of sound’ or ‘I need to cultivate this kind of image.'”

Even when they’re whirring and grinding their way into the nastiest corners of death metal and thrash, the guitars sound big and warm, letting songs like “Kingdom Of Flies” transition fluidly from rugged punishment to moments of uplifting triumph. Chávez sequenced all the drums on the album in Logic, but clearly went to a great effort to invest them with heft and fluidity. The drums on “Pilgrimage To The Salted Land” especially stand out, moving from itchy cymbals and hi-hats to blastbeats to an almost doom-y churn and drag. Cutting through the mix are Chavez’s screamed vocals, high-pitched and grody enough to peel paint, but invested with convincing despair and anguish.

While there is a rich tradition within black metal of solo artists, Chávez credits a project from his native Dallas, Cara Neir, with opening up his ears to the potential of solo creations through the 2013 album Portals To A Better, Dead World.

“I picked up that album at Ear Wax not too long after I moved here,” Chávez says. “I think that band is the ultimate go-to as far as how to craft a solo metal project…I think just having that understanding of how high the bar can be—and no disrespect to any metal bands that are putting out the more garage, kind of aluminum-and-tin sound with drums—but it had never occurred to me that just because you don’t have a drummer doesn’t mean you can’t get this particular sound that’s really rich and full. As you do it more, you learn to approach mixing as more of its own instrument that has its own nuances.”

Chávez has played guitar since middle school, so he usually begins writing a song with a riff, then proceeds to develop the broader song structure, write secondary guitar parts, and build the bass and drums underneath that. 

“One thing that’s kind of a bummer about a lot of black metal is that I think the bass is under-utilized,” he says. “A lot of the time you’ll get eighth- or sixteenth-note patterns that are just the root of whatever chord the guitarists are playing on, and will usually follow more or less the kick drum. There’s actually a lot of opportunity to put in really rich, melodic lines with the bass. I think maybe people avoid it because you can listen to a song and totally miss that element of it, but I think it has a payoff in the long term with how the song feels—incorporating elements that are more based on feeling as opposed to hearing a specific guitar melody, which I think makes the tracks veer out of being more atmosphere-driven into having kind of a pulsing motion.”

The bass performances on The Debt are never flashy, and do spend a fair bit of time melding with the requisite turbo-peltings of kick drum, but they ultimately lend a lot of depth to this varied, episodic album. On “In The Hours Of Winter” and “Desecrations On A Crucifix,” the bass offers a flexible, throbbing counterpoint and creates a queasy sense of swing. Nimble, dissonant bass figures are also a big part of what makes the closing instrumental, “Those Who Go Before Us Do Not Walk Alone,” so cathartic and emotionally nuanced.

The lyrics here are full of at once spiritual and abased imagery—”I saw, left of the altar, some twenty mouths / All of them bound / To the slick skin of a sighing putrescence / Voiding its gut in a slow ooze,” Chávez wretches on “Blasphemies In The Old Tongue”—but it’s hard not to feel like there’s some bigger story or thematic arc at work. Chávez is happy to leave all that open to interpretation, and says the album’s title evokes a few different ideas even for him: “I think the album title has more to do with dealing with a sense of religion, in some ways. The sense that you’re born and you exist on the planet and you have whatever personal problems or pain, or it might not be personal—the kind of political epidemic nightmare that we’re all going through right now—and I think a lot of the album was also trying to work through a sense of gratitude for things. It’s certainly not an emotion I have very frequently, but something that I think is probably positive: a sense that we have a debt for our lived experience.”

A couple months before The Debt, WitchUrn took a more overt lyrical approach with a single called “La Vergüenza.” It’s the only song Chávez has recorded in Spanish, and it lashes out at the United States’ brutal immigration policies. “La vergüenza / Siempre nos va a seguir / hasta destruimos / las máquinas de genocidio,” goes the first verse, or “The shame / Will always follow us / until we destroy / the machines of genocide.” 

“I’ve spoken Spanish since I was a kid. Especially being a Latino, so much of our identity is wrapped up in our ability to, or to not, speak Spanish. I think I’d been hesitant about doing it in the past,” Chávez says. “I think the song came together just out of a sense of political frustration. It’s a little frustrating, because you put it out and you don’t feel that sense that anything has radically changed. I remember watching the 2015-16 election cycle, watching Trump do his speech about, you know, ‘some Mexicans I assume are good but the rest are drug dealers, rapists, etc.,’ and just watching a largely indifferent nation. We don’t talk about it that much, but during that period, his candidacy was seen as a joke, so there was very little outrage about the genocidal rhetoric that was there. He came into power and the problems and the nightmare that was already existing within the American immigration system, or more appropriately the carceral, genocidal system, were further exacerbated. Part of it was also the onset of the pandemic and the knowledge that there were so many people in detention who were already dying of the flu for lack of medical treatment, and just sitting here like, ‘I literally can’t do anything about this,’ and having that kind of primal-scream moment about it.”

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The lyrics of “La Vergüenza” aren’t just about the worst abuses of power, but about the shared complicity that extends across most of American society. It’s not just aimed at the far right, but at the kind of people who think we can relax now that Joe Biden is about to take office. (Chávez and I spoke just a couple days before the fascist riots at the U.S. Capitol.) “Too much American political life has been about absolving ourselves of any kind of responsibility, and I think that’s why we’re so frozen, especially in this moment when we would do well to be angrier and more active,” Chávez says.

He also tags WitchUrn as “Chicano-made black metal,” which has less to do with the sound of the project than with the stance Chávez wants to take as a Texas-raised Mexican-American in a genre that has often entangled itself in bigoted far-right politics.

“It was kind of difficult deciding whether or not specifically to mention that. I ultimately came down on using the label partially because I’m a white-passing Chicano, I think it’s very easy for me to kind of blend in and depart wholesale from my identity,” Chávez says. “Growing up, you learn that that’s possible, but you can’t distance yourself in that way, because you hang out with people who think you’re white and then, invariably, you hear a bunch of shit about, ‘Mexicans are doing X, Y, or Z,’ with people who kind of have this sense that, ‘Oh, you’re Mexican but you’re one of the good ones.’ Having that label as a deliberate political statement made it so that that element can’t be forgotten or swept aside.

“It’s not Latino black metal, and it’s not Mexican-American black metal, it’s Chicano black metal,” he continues. “It’s hard to say how much of that affects the music, but especially in black metal that’s so obsessed with white supremacist-leaning fascist horseshit, I think it’s really important for more bands to take a more active political stance. Plus if someone finds the band and likes it and doesn’t know what ‘Chicano’ means, maybe they Google it and find Revolt Of The Cockroach People or something and start reading. I don’t know how likely that is, but better to put that element in there than to leave it alone.”

Chávez still feels new to the Madison music community, though he mentions that he’s seen and admired local metal bands including Ossuary and Ruin Dweller. Going forward, he’d like to put together a live version of WitchUrn once it’s safe to do so. He doesn’t want his live set to simply re-create the sound of the record, so he’s open to different formats, from a guitar-and-drums duo a four-piece with two guitars, drums, and bass.

“Even though I’ve been doing this solo for five or six years now, the ultimate objective for me in creating music was always to be able to play out and play live,” Chávez says. “For a variety of reasons that hasn’t really happened yet. If you approach writing from that perspective, I think you tend to want to make something that is more ensemble-oriented.”

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