Black Label Society, Huntress
December 30, 2015
Under the candelabras of Warehouse Live, Houston’s metal community showed up in full force Wednesday evening. This was not a high-school metal party, or emo frown-fest filled with scene kids glorifying 12 overrated songs of indiscriminate growls of tone-deaf homogeneity — all too fearful to leave the same key in one performance. This was Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society, axeman of the highest degree, someone to whom you bring respect and awe to such a performance. Ever so proudly, Houston complied.
Wylde's openers, Huntress, is easily one of metal’s most underrated bands. Singer, Jill Janus has the kind of vocal ability that seems limitless in power. Operatically trained, this coloratura soprano wields her voice like a sword, splitting open the sky. At my first time to see the goddess in her full glory, I was interested to see if the sharpened edges of her sword were talent or mere production.
Fully satisfied by mid-song this was no amateur night, I became spellbound by Janus' ease at climbing through octaves and holding a note ransom with the command of a blood-thirsty killer. Coming far from her days of posting Misfit covers on YouTube, Janus’s talent is something not to be tamed, but rather unleashed. Janus sings with a voice that makes Heart’s “Barracuda” feel like a warm-up.
Her recent struggles with cancer and mental illness sadly got more headlines than their release of Huntress' third album, Static, this year. Blame who you want — a media which feeds on tragedy or the onlookers who all stop to click and stare. Either way, Huntress remains frustratingly out of the spotlight, flying under the radar of so many metal outlets that would rather showcase shit like (you guessed it) BABYMETAL.
My own irritations aside, I focused in on Janus, blocking out whatever else troubled me about this woman. Which was easy to do; the light she emits onstage is a seduction so compulsory, you can’t look away. A woman possessed by mental illness, superlative beauty and black magic, she is the embodiment metal’s beautiful darkness. Our witchcraft heroine, she slays those expectations of patriarchal femininity with those forces of magnetic magic and musical prowess.
To witness her stage presence is to understand that this is a woman who redlines in second gear, energies and auras in full display. There’s nothing withheld here simply because it can’t be contained. When she sings a lyric like, “I can’t control myself,” you feel the ring of truth in the words more than the music.
Standing center stage, with fan-blown hair under red lights, she resembles something of a medusa figure. Legs spread wide, spotlight hitting her heart shaped box, using her vagina as an artful statement piece—or political tool. Her hands reaching out and that electricity in her eyes she’s so famous for, her voice sprinting through such unfathomable depths and heights all in one breath, simultaneously holding a note and audience captive is what makes Huntress so incredibly magnificent.
As their T-shirts claim, “Pagan Pussy of Doom,” Huntress is a blend of unapologetic feminism meets doom-metal. There’s no backpedaling here about her raucous femininity, it’s instead celebrated with nightmarish brutality. If Jill Janus parades herself around the stage in a black cloak claiming her status as a demon goddess, you better believe it because she is. And, this is a woman who knows a metal audience.
Echoing a sentiment already felt by the metal community, Janus opened her song “I Want to Fuck You to Death” with a tribute to its author, Lemmy Kilmister. Janus raised a shot of Jägermeister to the audience and asked the room to join in a toast to the legend. Then, told a story about a favor asked to the late Kilmister over a Jack and Coke at the Rainbow Room in Los Angeles: Janus requested a song from Kilmister. Two weeks later, on notebook paper, the song was written and rock history made. “The most romantic thing a boy has ever done for me," she laughed into the mike.
By the time Black Label Society took the stage, the crowd anxious and growling, Wylde and his band stood in front of a wall of Marshall amps, crosses and skulls on display. BLS utilized smoke and lights, blinding the audience like moths to flame. None of us could be drawn away.
If you follow Wylde on Instagram, you already know he’s a crazy-ass loon. To see him in real life is something similar but more intense. Looking like a descendent of some Viking warlord, blonde locks and full beard to boot, Wylde is a man of raw power. If I saw him on the street, I’d expect him to dismount his flathead Harley-Davidson and stomp my ass into the ground because I fully deserved it.
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From the man whose talents coined the term, “Shredding,” Wylde left nothing untouched in his performance. Multiple guitar changes brought on screams from the crowd. What madness would we all witness? His guitar, like a true extension of his body — under complete control of this man with leg up, head back eyes closed — was like watching someone in worship. To see the real size of this man’s arms and hands is to begin to appreciate his control over the guitar. Looking almost miniature in his paws, his fingers fluttered through every fret as if he invented the damn thing.
And, that’s the rub. When the talent of someone of, say, Wylde’s caliber performs, it’s as if the band is in the way. Think about it: so many times in metal, the guitar solo is the complement to the band; here, the band is a complement to Wylde’s playing. Sure, Black Label Society has great songs. But do we love them for the songship? Hell no. We love them for the sheer command of Wylde’s mastery.
The Houston crowd was easily roused and populated with converts, chanting at his call, fists raised and praise shouted in response. Wylde turned his guitar toward the wall of Marshall amps and filled the room with feedback and whammy bar teases, playing notes unheard to the human ear, so much noise—both pleasurable and painful my teeth literally vibrated.
It’s one thing if a band can play with such crushing enthusiasm, they inspire a pit. It’s quite another thing to watch a maestro bring a pit to a standstill, frozen and enraptured. If any audience member had any hearing ability left Thursday, it didn’t matter. Our heads swim in the memories of metal deity and our ears continue to ring in gratitude.