“Ever heard of Wisconsin Death Trip?” Jacob Heule asks. Ettrick’s alto sax–playing half and I are in my living room discussing the rigors of life in the Midwest as they pertain to the metal-listening youth of today. Heule, a Wisconsin native, has jokingly — or maybe not so jokingly — cited Michael Lesy’s book about the disintegration of the 19th-century town Black River Falls as we make loose connections between freezing cold weather, insanity, and locales that death metal and its fans call home. He’s certain of one thing: “Black metal is the perfect stuff when you don’t feel like a human anymore. When I was a receptionist at a medical center, I got really into it because I just felt terrible about certain things. It was a dehumanizing job. Cold, bleak black metal — I could relate to it.”
Ettrick are indeed a black metal duo, and their music harbors the telltale signs: ferocious blast-beats, gargantuan expanses of pitch-black noise, and drums like a self-propelled howitzer gone berserk. They also happen to be a free-jazz pairing as well, in which Heule and partner Jay Korber, both drummers and saxophonists, rotate between the two instruments to create a grueling improvisational skronk. A well-circulated YouTube video featuring their collaboration with Weasel Walter reveals a dimly lit scene of busted drum kits with the bleating screams of Korber’s tenor sax piercing the deafening cloud of beats raining down from the stage. For all its grandiose chaos, however, the players never lose track of each other in the din. Heule credits this to time spent practicing. “It’s difficult to improvise, but it’s a skill that you can work on,” he says. “We have developed certain patterns that we call on sometimes, but we don’t really discuss things ahead of time. We realized that it sounds a lot better if we don’t.”
Ettrick’s beginnings hark back to 2004, when Heule was looking to sublet his practice space and Korber answered his ad. Korber — a Pittsburgh native who shares his bandmate’s love of brutal music and calls Immortal’s Battles in the North “one of the best black metal albums ever made” — had coincidentally been playing sax for a few years as well. (Heule has played the instrument since age 10.) As it turned out, they were even recording Ettrick-style music independent of one another. “We both had recordings that we had made of ourselves, overdubbing all the instruments onto each other, drums and sax, but we were doing it all ourselves,” Heule explains with a laugh. “So then we found the ‘other guy.’ We could play live now!”
A year and a half later, Ettrick recorded their first self-released album, Infinite Horned Abomination, in their practice space. Though starkly minimalist (doom-laden atmospherics are largely restricted to the first track), Infinite Horned Abomination hints at the separate yet intertwined paths Heule and Korber have forged. Their second disc, Sudden Arrhythmic Death (American Grizzly, 2006), is an absolute must-have, a 15-minute live session recorded in Portland, Ore., that begins as an achingly radiant saxophone duet before it explodes into a maniacal barrage of beats that push the eardrum till white noise is the only sense the brain can make. It concludes with Ettrick’s signature: bloodcurdling screams and the sound of drum kits being destroyed.
THE SOUND OF MAYHEM
Heule muses on the carnage during their recent tour: “The last show in LA was pretty destructive. I broke my snare stand in half. I dropped my kick drum. I wasn’t really thinking about what it would break if I just picked it up and dropped it.”
Korber amassed similar injuries, breaking both heads on his snare drum. He confesses that his sax is “a piece of shit to begin with” and is sure that his other band, Sergio Iglesias and the Latin Love Machine, isn’t helping matters: “Last time [Sergio played] I rolled over it a couple times.”
The improv community in the Bay Area is a tightly intermingled mass of weeds that entangles every act in its path. Ettrick are no exception, having collaborated not only with the aforementioned Weasel Walter but also with Moe! Staiano (Moe!kestra!, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), Mike Guarino of Oaxacan, and most recently, Tralphaz, a one-person pedal feedback assault.
Tralphaz embodies what Heule enjoys most about their chosen genre. “One of my favorite things seeing improvisers play is when things just start going totally wrong, and they bring it back,” says the saxophonist. “I’ve seen Tralphaz do that a couple of times.”
Ettrick follow that lead, constantly pushing their black cloud of noise into failure’s clutches. They hope to tempt even more sonic dissolution with their forthcoming album, Feeders of Ravens (Not Not Fun), which will be released on vinyl in early 2007. Korber is matter-of-fact about the strategy. “There’s always a chance that it’s going to fail,” he confesses.
Heule nods. “That’s one of the best reasons to do it.” SFBG
With darph/nader and Ant Lion
1007 Market, SF
Call for time and price