Gods of distortion

Southern Lord's metal brigade makes another most excellent leap forward

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Relative newcomers Black Breath from Seattle open for North Carolina's legendary Corrosion of Conformity

arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC No one can agree on how guitar distortion was invented, or by whom. The only thing the experts do concur on is that, like many of humanity's most excellent leaps forward, it was a complete and utter accident.

Whether it was created by a punctured speaker cone, a faulty cable, or a malfunctioning vacuum tube, distortion is now inescapable. Distorted guitars birthed rock 'n' roll, and rock 'n' roll birthed the idea that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. For Greg Anderson, founder and proprietor of cult metal label Southern Lord Records, amplified excess is more than just an artistic pursuit — it's a philosophy. This August, Anderson will appear on stage with his band Goatsnake as part of the Southern Lord Mini Tour, a three-date testament to distortion that will batter the United States' Western coast with an avalanche of overdriven, fuzzed-out guitar tone.

The guitarist is best known for his work in experimental outfit SunnO))), bane of eardrums and copy editors, whose ribcage-rattling drone compositions and be-robed stage presence were the subject of a widely-read New York Times feature in 2009. If Anderson can be considered the pontiff of an experimental, distortion-worshiping subculture, then SunnO))) is his Easter Mass. But it is his day-to-day work at Southern Lord's Unholy See that has the more profound effect on the musical landscape.

 

A CAVE OF WONDERS

Reached by phone in, as he put it, "the caves of Southern Lord," Anderson is eloquent and good-humored, and though he perches at the absolute pinnacle of metal coolness, he discusses the music in the earnest tones of a die-hard fan: "I'm a seeker, man ... when I find out about a band, I want to know everything about them — what other bands the members have been in, who's influenced by them, who their influences were."

From the point of view of this kind of music junkie, Anderson is living the dream, effectively populating his label with bands that appeal to his personal taste. Rather than being a vanity project, however, Southern Lord performs an important cultural role, curating a uncompromising collection of metal bands that push the boundaries of the possible by wringing the most out of their distorted electric guitars.

Spread thin over three decades and thousands of miles, this underground community can be ephemeral and capricious. Armed with his own significant talent and an omnivorous musical ear, Anderson rides herd on an army of devil-worshiping iconoclasts, elevating up-and-coming acts to positions of prestige, while simultaneously cultivating older bands that have either been long forgotten or driven deep into the cultural topsoil.

 

HEAVY BREATHING

Anderson's description of his newest signing (and Southern Lord Mini Tour opening act), Seattle death metal-crust punk hybrid Black Breath, typifies the former process: "Over the last couple of years, especially playing with SunnO))), I really turned away from, or wasn't listening to, much aggressive music. I was actually really into jazz. And then something snapped. I started listening to old hardcore records. I wanted something that was the complete opposite." Newly re-attuned to the D-beaten tones of hardcore, Anderson received a demo — a four-song, 12-inch vinyl record — in the mail, and couldn't believe his luck. The album — Black Breath's self-financed Razor to Oblivion EP — was a distorted revelation. "The font of their band logo was stolen from Celtic Frost, and they listed Poison Idea and Dismember as influences!" Anderson effuses.

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