How Cobalt kept the extreme alive in their seven years away

Cobalt band promo photo 2016
Cobalt (left to right): Erik Wunder and Charlie Fell

While some black metal acts remain content to slather on corpsepaint, steal Darkthrone riffs and spout anti-Christian ideologies, Colorado’s Cobalt have always had towering ambitions for their chosen artform. On 2007’s Gin, the band’s unique vision finally came into focus when they used black metal’s incendiary foundations to fully integrate outlier musical and lyrical ideas – from progressive metal, Americana and red-hot sludge, to sourcing inspiration from Ernest Hemingway and the gonzo gut-punch of Hunter S Thompson – and in the process, they created a modern black metal masterwork.

“I knew that we were dealing with fire and that we had made something powerful and different,” says Cobalt multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder, seven years on since Gin destroyed all remaining rigid perceptions of what constitutes ‘real black metal’. “I guess I was unsure how many people would actually pay attention to it. But the response was massive! It really resonated.”

For years Cobalt fans have been frothing at the mouth in anticipation of the band’s next album, but back in December 2014 their future was put into question when Erik fired vocalist Phil McSorley for posting homophobic and misogynistic rants online. Both musicians were lifelong friends and shared an electric chemistry, so the decision hit Cobalt’s sole composer hard.

“It was a tough situation having to let Phil go,” Erik recalls. “I was alarmed for his sake, but I was also concerned with how it reflected on Cobalt, seeing as we had an album in the works. He was going through a lot of personal stuff in his life, including extreme post-traumatic stress disorder after his multiple tours with the army. He ended up shitting all over Cobalt, alienating everyone, and destroying a lot of things as a result.”

Rather than let the acclaimed band he had created die before his eyes, Erik contacted vocalist Charlie Fell to step into the fold. Both guys had bonded while on tour with Jarboe and Nachtmystium in 2010. For Erik, it was Charlie’s unhinged work with Lord Mantis that made him the only person who could match Phil’s fire-breathing intensity.

“I initially knew Charlie as a drummer,” he says, “but shortly after that tour ended, Lord Mantis played in Brooklyn. That was the first time I had seen him perform as a frontman – and he was savage, truly intense! He has an element of insanity that really adds its own flavour to his performance.”

Charlie’s vocals on Cobalt’s monumental new double album, Slow Forever, are astounding, not because it’s a shock to hear Cobalt’s apocalyptic sermons delivered by a different voice, but because he exorcises his many demons with such ferocity.

“I just wanted to create something that will make you grit your teeth,” Charlie says of his approach. “I’ve always been the guy to dig into whatever I’m feeling at the time. Like being depressed and listening to Depeche Mode to wallow – no, revel – in that emotion, like a pig in shit. The goal was to make things as nasty as possible.”

Conceptually, the best idea of the ‘noble savage’, the inherent beast in man, is explored on Slow Forever, and Cobalt have a fitting scorched-earth landscape where only those who channel their primal instincts survive. For Charlie, however, the album’s creation didn’t come without personal challenges, since this was the first project where he had zero input into the songwriting.

The most emotionally extreme music comes out of some really awful places

“It’s much easier to understand the material when you’ve been working on it from the skeleton stages,” he explains, “so with Cobalt I had to really get into Erik’s headspace to understand what devices he uses in his songwriting. Repetition is huge in Cobalt’s music, and I tried to use a lot of mantras to fit in with his tribal structures.”

Charlie’s fierce mantras are surprisingly memorable when pitted against Erik’s intricate and rhythmically driven instrumentals, and while black metal might not be as prevalent a feature as it was on Gin, the vehemence of the music is heightened by the increased emphasis on hooks.

“Hooks are everything, man,” Erik says passionately. “Once you’ve got the hook, the hard part is over. I’ve always considered Cobalt to be all about riffs and rhythms. Good riffs, strong rhythms; each supporting the other to build a hypnotic, catchy, explosive wall of sound.”

Prior to hearing how perfectly the new Cobalt union syncs, both musically and lyrically, on the sprawling yet supremely focused Slow Forever, certain sectors of the metal community might think that Erik made a mistake replacing one controversial figure with another. This is primarily because Charlie penned crude lyrics for the Lord Mantis song Body Choke that have easily been interpreted as racist, since they seem to perpetuate a vile stereotype of a black man as a violent rapist; not to mention the fact the entire Death Mask album has trans-misogynistic overtones.

“I believe that art is sacred, so I didn’t even consider the fact that some people were offended by one of his lyrics,” Erik admits when we highlight that Charlie’s lyrics were arguably just as offensive as the comments Phil was fired for. “Why do I care if something he said in the context of a song got misconstrued? I mean, if literal, politically correct themes are something that someone is looking for in a style of music, I don’t think extreme metal is the place. Not from where I come from at least.“

“I’m sure a lot of people think I’m not the safest choice for the band,” Charlie notes, “but Erik has better sense than to hire somebody because they’re well liked or fit today’s standards of what a black metal musician should be.”

Freedom of speech in metal is a hot topic at the minute, and both guys are extremely adamant that they support this liberty so that every musician has unreserved opportunity to express themselves without censorship.

“PC culture’s continual movement into extreme music creates an environment where bands are walking on eggshells for fear of being ostracised,” Erik spits. “It’s the most ironic thing ever. It’s extreme metal! We all might as well stop watching Tarantino movies – or reading Bukowski books – and toss out half of our record collections if we decide that all messages presented in art must be taken literally. People need to learn to separate the art from the artist. For example, what Charlie said in the context of a song he wrote and what Phil actually did in real life are two entirely different things!”

“I don’t think the guy who writes the black metal music I like needs to be a role model or even a decent human being,” Charlie concludes. “The most emotionally extreme music comes out of some really awful places, and somebody who’s really well-adjusted and happy probably isn’t gonna dive into the abyss to wrench out the bottom-level sludge it takes to make something truly sick.”