Psychedelic Vampires, Japanese Hardcore: Inside the Twisted World of Devil Master | Revolver

Psychedelic Vampires, Japanese Hardcore: Inside the Twisted World of Devil Master

Philly occult black-metal punks are theatrical, messy and fun as hell
devilmaster_featured_credit_justinborucki.jpg, Justin Borucki
Devil Master, Baltimore, 2019
photograph by Justin Borucki

Francis Kano, a.k.a. Darkest Prince, first began thinking about Satan as a child. He was just 10 — years before discovering black metal and hardcore — and being raised as a devout Catholic in the countryside of Northern Ireland when his fascination with darkness emerged. "It's my only lifelong passion," the musician says now. "I grew up being obsessed with the occult."

That obsession is on full display in the frenzied, deeply musical attack and occult-laden aesthetic of his band, Devil Master, a Philadelphia-based group of corpse-painted ghouls who share at least some of Kano's beliefs. "I'm not up there killing goats," says the lead guitarist of their theatrical stage performances. "It doesn't work like that. It's a real thing to live by — a mindset as opposed to actions." 

Their sound is equal parts black metal, horror fanaticism and genuine affection for Japanese hardcore from the 1980s, which has its own connection to the bleak and brutal in the hands of immortal Nippon punk acts G.I.S.M., Zouo, Mobs and Ghoul. It erupts with unholy excitement on Devil Master's debut album, Satan Spits on Children of Light, taking in a firestorm of eccentric sounds and styles, from creep-show punk to grinding surf riffs.

"Black metal does a really good job of conveying this occult atmosphere and a certain horror aesthetic that is appealing to anyone with a dark side, but these Japanese bands in the Eighties were wearing capes and face paint, singing about demons but playing metallic hardcore punk," says Kano. "Black metal doesn't own that. There are people who think that a stupid music genre owns the whole occult, which makes no sense at all. A musical trend will disappear eventually."

The six-person Devil Master became a band in late 2015, as each member adopted an ominous new name and persona: a singer called Disembody, Hades Apparition on rhythm guitar, Spirit Mirror on bass, Del on drums and newest member Dodder on keyboards. Onstage, those characters come to life further, first with just the face paint, but then with more elaborate, web-covered shows. As Darkest Prince, Kano says with a laugh, "I'm always trying to look like a psychedelic vampire."

"You can enter into this character, break free from being a human," Kano adds. "It's the same as watching a horror movie. When you have this theatrical element, it can get people into the same mental realm. It also helps that we're not some serious fake satanist black-metal band. People are able to have more fun with it. They don't have to stand there with arms crossed." 

A year after forming, they released a debut demo cassette, recorded in spooky lo-fi in their practice basement in West Philly. Another cassette EP, Inhabit the Corpse, followed in 2017. Both tapes were reissued together last year as the album Manifestations. The band's boundary-smashing collision of musical ideas owes something to a Philadelphia scene that mingles heavy genres easily, as punk rock and metal coexist without incident on the same stages, the same nights.

"It sounds like it's possibly going to fall apart but it doesn't," says Kano, adding that chaos and rough edges are enriching to the music. "There's that impression of incompetence which I think adds to the sound."

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Devil Master's Darkest Prince
photograph by Justin Borucki
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Devil Master's Hades Apparition
photograph by Justin Borucki

Kano's connection to the city began when he was a small child, as his parents moved from Derry, Northern Ireland, and back again. He returned for a couple of years of high school, then relocated back to Philadelphia as a young adult to pursue music. He returns frequently to his Ulster homeland to visit family and tend to the satanic altar he still keeps in the woods behind their house.

Devil Master signed to Philadelphia-based Relapse Records, a label with roots in the city's beloved but now defunct Relapse brick-and-mortar store, where much of the band first learned about underground metal and hardcore. (The store thrives online now.) "We grew up with them. They're fans of the underground. They've never removed themselves from the punk and metal scenes," says guitarist Hades Apparition.

For the new album, produced by local Arthur Rizk (Code Orange, Power Trip), the band aimed to evolve without losing their identity. Satan Spits on Children of Light is 37 minutes of headlong force that lands with a sense of excitement and abandon that doesn't require listeners to share the band's diabolical interests.

"He's an amazing dude that can tap into what you want and run with it," says Kano of the producer. "He listens to all the same black metal we do and a lot of punk. His knowledge is just so vast that he can tap into anything."

The album begins and ends with the sound of an ominous piano melody. "We were trying to make a psychedelic Hammer horror-film vibe," explains Kano.

The song "Skeleton Hand" is high-tension horror-show punk, while "Desperate Shadow" layers wicked surf riffs amid the metal. "Her Thirsty Whip" is sleazy metal, while "Dance of Fullmoon Specter" explores an old Japanese myth. The album also includes a re-recording of "Devil Is Your Master," which was the first song tracked for the demo tape, an exercise that illustrates how far the band has come. 

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Devil Master's Del
photograph by Justin Borucki
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Devil Master"s Disembody
photograph by Justin Borucki

"We just embrace the chaos of the songwriting, and really allow it to become its own thing," says Hades. "We didn't want a slick recording. That doesn't work for us as a band. We still absolutely love the primitive nature of the demos. That's something we don't ever intend to remove ourselves too far from."

While Kano is not interested in having the band closely associated with the dogmatic "clowns" of some black metal, the second wave of the style that arose in Nineties Norway was a core influence on the group. Mayhem's snarling riff from "Deathcrush" was the first bit of guitar that Kano taught himself when he was 14. That same year, he skipped church one day to buy the book Lords of Chaos, and was drawn into its grim stories of extreme metal, murder, suicide and church arson. Kano had special fascination for Mayhem's doomed Swede, the singer Dead (a.k.a. Per Yngve Ohlin). 

"His lyrics and art and everything about him — he was this fantasy figure. He's the Darby Crash of black metal," Kano says, connecting that extreme-metal scene to Seventies West Coast punk. "Now that I'm older and I realize how young those people were, I look at it in a different sense because I'm personally more mature. It's more, 'Wow, those people really went down that path that I could easily have went down.'"

Another source of inspiration was filmmaker David Lynch, who was a student at Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts when he con- ceived of the film that would become 1977's dreamlike Eraserhead. "David Lynch was a huge influence on us," says Hades. "Growing up seeing really dark and surreal films like that really changes your perspective."

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Devil Master's Spirit Mirror
photograph by Justin Borucki
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Devil Master's Dodder
photograph by Justin Borucki

Likewise, on the cover of Satan Spits is a scene of psychedelic satanism by artist Erica Frevel, who piles on images of the Beast with fire, brimstone, sex, violence and general madness in frightening shades of purple, blue and orange. Like Kano, Frevel is a true believer.

"My friend Erica is the most intense satanist I've ever met," Kano explains. "She worships the void and what people would consider evil manifestations that come from the void. ... Most of her art is ritualistically done. This is one of the most lighthearted things she's ever done."

For Devil Master, unfurling their songs onstage is a ritual to be shared. "The most natural thing for me personally to put my energy into is music," says Kano. "We're all easygoing people who appreciate catchy stuff and having fun playing — and wanting people to have fun seeing us."

7.jpg, Justin Borucki
photograph by Justin Borucki