There’s brutality brewing in the city of Santa Cruz.
The city has always had a thriving music scene, whether it’s hip-hop, punk or Rasta-inspired reggae. Recently though, Santa Cruz has become known for its more headbanger-friendly stylings, specifically metal. With the recent success of local groups Decrepit Birth, Braindrill, and A Band of Orcs, the city is bubbling over with metal bands that are looking to create some musical mayhem of their own, within the city and worldwide.
The styles range, but currently the outcropping of death metal and black metal bands is quite promising. Death metal can be characterized by its vocals, which are usually indistinguishable growls. Think Cookie Monster from “Sesame Street” dropped into the pits of hell while guitar solos riff through the hellfire. Its subject matter usually deals with death, but also isolation, politics, motivations of serial killers, murder, and the activities of the undead, just to name a few gruesome topics.
Black metal, on the other hand, is characterized by its vocalists’ banshee-like screeches with blast-beat drums and lo-fi production. Black metal can also be very atmospheric, and usually contains lyrics relating to nature, anti-religious sentiments, and the overall misery of mankind. While each band has a different take on these genres, they are all united by one thing: their immense passion for the music they play.
Meeting the Bands
Yautlan is a Watsonville-based death metal band that sings only in Spanish. Lead vocalist Alfredo Gutierrez is a gruff, stocky man, menacing despite his short stature. Gutierrez is rarely out of his metal militia uniform of black shirt, slacks and combat boots. He started Yautlan as a reaction to the mainstream music scene that was going on in the Watsonville and Santa Cruz areas.
“We kind of got tired of listening to the mainstream stuff in the local area, so we formed in 2006 and decided to play a bit heavier music,” Gutierrez said. “In high school we used to listen to Slayer, Brujeria and Sepultura — old-school stuff like that, a lot of Mexican thrash and death metal bands.”
Yautlan keeps to that style in some different ways, like Gutierrez’s guttural growls in Spanish.
“We feel more comfortable using our native tongue,” Gutierrez said. “It’s easier to sing in English and fit in more, but we decided it’s who we are, it’s what we do, it’s what we want to represent.”
Yautlan’s lyrical content keeps up with their death metal style, but the band members are also influenced by their Latin backgrounds.
“We have a song called ‘El Corrido De Las Tres Marias’ and it’s about three avelitas, who were women soldiers in Mexico during the revolution,” Gutierrez said. “Avelitas are real and did fight, and we’re bringing them back from the dead. They’re being exhumed from their graves and are coming to get you.”
Disengorified is another Santa Cruz death metal band, comprising musicians who are students at UC Santa Cruz. Ian Thornburgh, the band’s drummer and head of Comprehensive Records, a local Santa Cruz-based record label, is also a third-year art major at UCSC. The band plays in Thornburgh’s garage, which he just recently turned into a studio.
“I just built this studio — had to redo the drywall, set up the acoustics, but it sounds sick now,” Thornburgh said. “It’s really DIY here in Santa Cruz. It’s way cooler to record your own album and keep your creative integrity than sign to a major record label right off the bat.”
Thornburgh said that although the band really just likes having fun, they are also serious about the music they create.
“We’re a pretty goofy group of guys, but we really like to push our instruments and creativity to the edge,” Thornburgh said.
A look at the band’s song titles, such as “Ballz Deep in the Dead” and the gag-inducing “Caught in a Septic Tank,” give insight to the band’s attempt at mixing dark humor with brutality.
“We have this song called ‘Infantgrinder,’ which is basically like a 50-second grindcore song we made,” Thornburgh said. “Initially we would just play it twice in a row. We would be like ‘Infantgrinder’! ‘Infantgrinder’ again! It’s just fun.”
It doesn’t end with death metal, though; there’s also Fiends at Feast, a black-metal band based in Santa Cruz. David Uttal-veroff, one of the band’s rhythm and lead guitarists, explained what he thought was great about the genre.
“I think the thing about black metal is that it provides a really dark, atmospheric and introspective sound, where melody can be emphasized, which is unlike a lot of metal in the past,” Uttal-Veroff said. “When people heard you were melodic they looked down on you, and didn’t think you were brutal enough to listen to.”
However, Uttal-Veroff said that metal doesn’t always gel well with the laid-back Santa Cruz lifestyle.
“I feel like metal doesn’t appeal to the mentality of Santa Cruz — you know, people go to the beach and hang out in the forest,” Uttal-Veroff said. “It’s a very mellow vibe, and our music just isn’t mellow at all. It’s definitely interesting being a metal band in this city.”
The Santa Cruz Scene
Metal is not the most profitable genre to make music in. Most bands spend years in the trenches building up a fan base, not making money, and dealing with the hardships of being a musician.
“The scene currently leaves a lot to be desired,” Uttal-Veroff said. “We play a lot around town and it seems that there isn’t that big of an audience, and if there is an audience it’s mostly the under-21 crowd — which leads to another problem, in that there are hardly any venues that cater to that crowd.”
“We just lost the Vets Hall,” interjected Trevor McClain, the band’s drummer.
The Veterans Hall was recently closed due to safety issues. Specifically, it was believed to have structural deficiencies that could be fatal in the event of an earthquake.
“Something I have noticed around here is that it’s always members of bands putting on the shows,” McClain said. “There’s no promoter in Santa Cruz, no club owner who’s booking the band. Bands always have to pay to rent out the venue, cross their fingers and hope that they make the money back.”
Morketiden Productions is a production company that focuses on booking and promoting local music shows in the Santa Cruz area. Jesse Williams runs Morketiden with the help of a group of friends, and together they do everything they can to set up shows.
“We mainly work with certain bars and bartenders that we get along with, and bands that we get along with,” Williams said. “We just try and set up the best shows that we can as cheap as possible and just have fun.”
Morketiden developed out of the issues Williams’ band, The Backup Razor, had with show demands.
“I was playing shows with The Backup Razor, and I was booking our shows, and eventually I was getting asked to set up shows on nights that my band couldn’t play,” Williams said. “I knew lots of other bands, though, so I would end up shooting them some messages and hooking them up with shows.”
Williams knows that setting up shows can be a real struggle for local bands.
“Starting out is not easy at all — it’s part luck and part just being really reliable and trustworthy,” Williams said. “There are not enough places to play, especially all-ages shows.”
Thornburgh is of similar opinion.
“There are a lot of good venues around town, but the issue is that they are all 21-plus, like the Blue Lagoon,” Thornburgh said. “I mean, we live in a college town, so there is money in all-ages shows; it’s just about getting the people out there.”
Uttal-Veroff feels that attendance at their shows depends on whether all ages are admitted.
“[In] the over-21 shows we mainly get friends of ours, and friends of ours who are in bands or appreciate the style of music,” Uttal-Veroff said. “When we play an all-ages show, that’s when you see people you don’t know rocking out to the music, which is a great feeling. Seeing young metalheads going out and enjoying themselves and the music is just really cool, because I know I would have killed to see metal bands when I was in high school.”
Living On Metal
Being a musician is not an easy task; in many cases musicians also work full-time jobs, leaving their music as their love and hobby.
Sammer Abualraghev, Fiends at Feast’s co-lead and rhythm guitarist, works at a grocery store.
“I work at the New Leaf Market downtown, an organic community market that’s been paying my bills pretty well,” Abualraghev said.
Gutierrez works in agriculture, while his fellow band mates in Yautlan work in the area.
“I work at a mushroom farm, our guitarist works for the city, and our drummer works at Staples,” Gutierrez said. “We have jobs just like everyone else, got to pay the bills some way.”
Many of the band members voiced the dream of being able to quit their 9-to-5 day jobs, and commit themselves fully to their music. Williams, though, may have said it best.
“My goal is to eventually quit my day job, and to commit myself to just working on music,” Williams said. “It’s your hobby [and] you do it for free, but if you get paid for it you’re like, ‘Fuck yeah!’”
There is hope out there that one day these bands can succeed within the scene and do what they love full-time. Matt Sotelo, lead guitarist for Decrepit Birth, is living that dream.
Sotelo has gone from working odd jobs to pursuing his passion — metal — full-time. He is currently working on Decrepit Birth’s new album, “Polarity.”
“We recorded drum tracks in January with KC, our drummer, but right now I’m just laying down some guitar tracks at my home studio,” Sotelo said. “The album should be ready before summer.”
Decrepit Birth has been together, in some form, since the ’90s, a time when Santa Cruz was known for bands like Good Riddance and The Expendables. Sotelo remembers some of the band’s crazy local shows.
“We would go play some parties in town, with a bunch of drunken guys, and everyone would get crazy and there would be huge pits and walls would get knocked down and everyone loved it,” Sotelo said. “It was not necessarily people who knew what death metal was, but they heard the aggression and they knew it was heavy and that it was from Santa Cruz too.”
Decrepit Birth has traveled throughout America and the world, but Sotelo notes that nothing beats coming home to Santa Cruz.
“We were just gone for two months touring with Vader, went through Canada, experienced that brutal weather — but once you come back home, it’s just awesome to be able to relax and just be home,” Sotelo said. “This town will always be my home base.”
Many of the bands have releases coming out in the near future. Fiends at Feast will appear on the album “Santa Cruz Underground Metal (S.C.U.M.) Volume 1: The Dark Side of the Cross,” along with The Backup Razor, Khan’Nos and Cursed for Eternity.
Disengorified is also heading into the studio, and shooting for a spring release.
“The album is titled ‘Metaphysical Malpractice’ and we are currently shooting for a 4/20 release,” Thornburgh said with a laugh.
Metal bands are up-and-coming additions to the Santa Cruz music milieu, though their rise has been slow and the road riddled with setbacks. Despite the struggles and sacrifice of playing in a genre not typically friendly to Santa Cruzan ears, these bands all persist for one reason: the love of music.
Sotelo had some positive advice for metal bands trying to make it on the city’s music scene.
“All I can say is just believe in yourself,” he said. “I’ve talked to different labels, musicians, production people, and in the end you just gotta stay true to yourself. You can’t give up after one or two tours — if you really want to succeed you’ll work through all the hard parts.”