[Artwork by Aesop Dekker, Eric Radey, and Ross Sewage]
Yielding to the notion we’re here to talk shop, though, let’s strip away everything but our stormy little metal sphere and focus on the superabundance of heavy heavies that have sprung up over the years from the notably potent pocket of the US that includes San Francisco, Oakland, and their immediate surroundings. Survey an evenhanded collection of heavy music freaks about what band best personifies this particular region, nine out of ten will likely drop the name Metallica. I mean, that’s the obvious answer, no? Metallica has found a level of success that surpasses literally every musical artist that’s called the Bay home, from The Grateful Dead to Journey to 2PAC to Green Day. Clearly, none of them slouches, but they fall short of reaching the towering status of Metallica, a band that somehow managed to find a way to become “Yeah, I’ll buy that island” rich of heavy fricken metal. Extraordinary. And hey, more power to ‘em—any sort of of issues with the band’s more commercial face aside, it’s probably wise to be wary of metal fans who can’t find something to happily play with when handed Metallica circa 1983—1988.
As wonderful as it is to witness some of our own clawing their way to the Penthouse Suite at the Fairmont San Francisco Hotel, it ain’t really all that representative of the Bay Area, which is comprised of an equally determined and hard-working population that spends the bulk of their lives fighting like hell to avoid getting pushed farther and farther out by entitled tech nutsacks who wouldn’t know true hardship if it crawled out of a recently purchased $80 dropper bottle of artisanal tea tree tincture and bit them on their marvelous little noses. In the experience of someone who spent the better part of two decades living in and around Oakland in the late ‘90s and well into the aughts, I would submit the proper illustration of the Bay Area and its inhabitants as one that appropriately depicts the ever-present brawl between all the goodness afforded those lucky enough to live there—and trust me, you don’t have to go far to experience plenty of mind-bending goodness—and the significantly steep struggle involved in enduring a constant force of…wrongness that wants to warp the entire works into a gated Pixar Shangri-La.
Setting aside the ubiquitous combat with gaggles of sallow tech dudes and the landlords who sadly prefer them, the Bay Area is a wonderfully gritty, often pitiless, amazingly vivid, wildly creative expanse that’s always geared up to deliver stark reminders as to precisely why it’s such an amazing place to lay one’s head. Really, it’s the wildly artistic people who drive the alluring narrative—a true melting pot of countless cultures and untold storylines coalescing into a piquant boil where everyone is grappling for a foothold, and one & all puts effort into ensuring the creative face of this remarkably inventive area remains paramount. Consequently, it only stands to reason a band chosen to best represent this area should be equally as colorful, craggy, chaotic, charming, challenging, and, yes, struggling. In our metal sphere, that band is Ludicra. And as defining as Ludicra’s 2010 (one-time) swansong The Tenant is, it is the remarkable Another Great Love Song from 2004 that’s being celebrated today primarily because it represents yet another of those linchpin records that perfectly balances the violent energy of the band’s debut (2002’s Hollow Psalms) and their vision for the more melodic, avant-garde “feral sophistication” that’s become a mainstay for a good portion of metal acts hailing from the Bay Area today.
Ludicra has seen a number of fascinating descriptors attached to Another Great Love Song over the years, two personal favorites being “feminine black metal” and “hipster black metal.” Both are equally awkward and misinformed, with the prior likely rooted in the simple fact that Laurie Sue Shanaman (vocals) and Christy Cather (guitar, vocals) happen to be in the ranks, and the latter plausibly being derived from a number of factors that include label choice (Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles) and the fact that Another Great Love Song sounds as close to Under a Funeral Moon as it does to… Well, things that are not at all even close to Under a Funeral Moon. Really, would it be another rotation on the almighty axis without conservative black metal watchmen clanging pots and pans together in an attempt to scare away anyone who doesn’t look like Enthroned circa 1997? Please never change.
In truth, much of the criticisms levied upon Ludicra and this record in particular seem largely based on confusion, and that is very likely by design. As in, Ludicra does not at all mind confusing passersby. Theirs is a sound that’s as graphic, frantic and unpredictable as life in a city such as SF or Oakland can get, and it’s dispensed in a manner that comes very close to capturing the way the band sounds in a live setting: myriad emotions hurtling, hammering, galloping, and whipping into tornados, but never fully losing sight of good ol’-fashioned beauty. The result is not black metal in the strictest sense, but holy hell does it ever incorporate its more melodic, deathly face (à la Necrophobic, particularly Darkside) into a fume that incorporates all the punk, prog, trad metal, grind, thrash etc. the members additionally count on their respective resumes with equal intent. It’s a Bay Area sound that’s become synonymous with “anything goes,” just like the city itself, and Ludicra does a better job of encapsulating that impression than just about anyone else.
Kicking off the record with “The Only Cure, the Only Remedy” is a sharp move, as it fires a whole lot of Ludicra goods into the listener’s face right from the jump. The song opens with a mellow flare, but there are tendrils of dread in the corners as ominous whispers and melodic, dark fretwork wisp their way into the picture. Tension slowly begins to mount, and then WHAM: Everything very suddenly bolts off at 100mph, delivering a notably epic form of black metal that separates itself from the genre’s Norwegian ancestors by keeping the bottom end heavy with thundering drums and a bulldozing bass. Just after the 2:30 mark, Aesop rides the cymbal as the song shifts into a Harmony Corruption-styled scoot, and following a gnarly little riff breakout around 3:30, a dive-bomb from bassist Ross Sewage initiates another full-speed assault. Prettiness fully enters the picture again around 4:30, underscored by one of those signature John Cobbett melodic fret progressions that could just as easily be pulled from a lost Hammers of Misfortune record. Then, the final two minutes are spent slowly winding things down, eventually fading out with the same foreboding mellowness that opened the song.
Again, the exceptionally vivid, realistic narrative of day-to-day life n a dynamic and restless city drives the machine here, and whatever stylistic off-shoot Ludicra uses to convey that message feels governed by the city itself, with the members acting as some sort of liaison for the roiling vibe of, say, Oakland’s Ghost Town, or the grittier face of the Mission. So, even when Another Great Love Song scrapes out expansive swathes of black metal, thematically it forgoes stock odes to the man downstairs in favor of tackling more realistic issues—depression, addiction, poverty, lost love et al. Those shifting tones are deliciously unpredictable top to bottom, and while the basic foundation certainly feels rooted in some form of black metal, the aforementioned hodgepodge of styles, including some variant of psychedelic drift, gets drawn from frequently. The calmer face of “Why Conquer,” for example, sounds almost diametrically opposed to the frantic energy of the opener, but its heightened sense of desolation is still clearly cut from the same environs, just more of case of “I relent” as opposed to “I am relentless.” Acceptance is vital for survival, after all—acceptance of one’s flaws and the flaws of those around us, and “Why Conquer” comes across like an ode to sufferance and endurance, particularly once it hits that wonderfully melodic and curative stretch following the 4:30 mark.
How fitting that “Why Conquer” bleeds seamlessly into the most aggressive song of the record. The distant sounds of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” crackling through an old radio gets broken by a quick stick count-off, and then off “In the Greenest Maze” bolts with an utterly relentless fury. It feels as if everything and everyone is just on the verge of flying off the rails, but the song maintains its course by the strength of velocity alone. Laurie Sue Shanaman’s voice as she howls “I CRAVE THE WASTE — BURIED AND FORGOTTEN / HIDDEN… IN THE GREENEST MAZE” is absolute fire… The song is absolute fire, with the smallest iota of tranquility slipping through via a strange little ghostly vocal effect layered just behind the rigid frenzy. Then, hey, why not, let’s throw down a stretch of chugging death riffing, followed by a brief respite of woozy drifting before ruthlessly fist-fucking your ears (about 3:20 in) with some of the most furious black metal one could ever hope to experience from the western hemisphere.
I… I might’ve closed the record with “Time Wounds All Heels.” It’s not that the moderately trippy and undeniably engaging sashay of “Aging Ghost” is an unfit closer, it’s just that “Time Wounds All Heels” feels like a true finisher—one of those epic curtain calls like King Diamond’s “Black Horseman” that weaves all the galloping triumph and comforting grief into one succinct and significant climax. There’s a unique sense of lamentation woven into the riffing here, and Ludicra’s penchant for infusing an almost effortless impression of comfortable despondency without ever getting overly soppy is underlined with the heroic “Time Wounds All Heels.”
I would love to believe we now live in a world where heaps of bands cite Ludicra and a record like Another Great Love Song as a fundamental cornerstone for modern black metal that’s unafraid to kick an active hornet’s nest into the narrative, but I’m not actually certain that’s the case, as their name doesn’t really appear to get dropped as often as, say, fellow Bay Area bygone black metal tinkerers Weakling. Why, um, is that, asked the concerned citizen who just spent a patently absurd 2200 words advocating for this wonderfully lawless and unorthodox record. Perhaps the fact that Weakling only managed one terrifically enigmatic recording adds to their charisma, as does the reality that they largely lived in the shadows without relying on live shows. Black metal eats that kind of shit up, jack.
In contrast to quite a number of their associates far and wide, Ludicra was—and now is again, as their recent decision to reform (YES) and play this year’s Northwest Terror Fest would seem to indicate—a more REAL presence in the early avant-garde USBM realm. Real in a sense that they were active members in the scene; they never hid behind face paint, ski masks, or spooky black hoods; and they absolutely murdered from the stage and did so fairly often. It’s just that they weren’t…terribly well known outside of the west coast, which is terrifically unfair because they were right on the fucking verge of spreading the word by securing an opening spot on Mayhem’s 2010 tour. The Norwegians ended up kiboshing everything prior to launch due to a “financial situation,” though, possibly contributing to Ludicra’s decision to finally call it quits the following summer.
Hey, so what if they spent their first decade being under-appreciated, no? Metal has forever delivered endless volumes of underground bands deserving of much more attention than they received—it’s kind of metal’s thing. It’s art’s thing, really. This does not at all mitigate the truth that Ludicra managed to put a very loud and unique voice to the Bay Area, and Another Great Love Song moreover feels like their missive of thanks for allowing the band to be a medium for this intensely vital area to roar and vent its own frustrations. Can one hope to enjoy the record to full impact without ever having had the pleasure of living in the area, and perhaps more importantly, never witnessing Ludicra live? Sure, absolutely—I’m guessing these songs would love the opportunity to represent the turbulent voice of most any city caught in the throes of compulsory growth and decay. Not gonna lie, though: Every time I listen to Another Great Love Song, I miss the Bay Area just as much as I miss Ludicra. Thankfully, I’ll always have this record as an ideal representation of that feral, fiercely unpredictable, wildly innovative corner of our realm.
Ludicra was and now thankfully still is (left to right):
- Laurie Sue Shanaman – vocals
- Christy Cather – guitar, vocals
- John Cobbett – guitar
- Ross Sewage – bass
- Aesop Dekker – drums
Guests on Another Great Love Song:
- Sigrid Sheie – piano
- Jackie Gratz – cello
- Kris Force – violin
- Ron Nichols – upright bass
+ Produced, recorded, mixed at Take Root Studio SF by Billy Anderson & John Cobbett
+ Mastered at Trackwerx by Justin Weis