"We just got a gong," laughs Courtney Rawls, bassist of Knoxville's heavier-than-lead Generation of Vipers. "We just thought that it would be really intense. The idea just kind of set up in our minds—you need a gong. So we got one."
Please don't let the preceding paragraph fool you into thinking that Generation of Vipers are heavy in the mode of, say, Spinal Tap. The band's upcoming sophomore album, Dead Circle, due for release October 28 on their own Red Witch imprint, is anything but a heavy metal cliché. Imagine the sound of tectonic plates grinding against each other, the cacophony of Armageddon, or the noise of a thousand suns imploding simultaneously, and you might just have a feeble conceptualization of the band's power—bearing in mind that mere words can never accurately describe the awesome forces of nature. Generation of Vipers is that heavy.
Operating far beneath Knoxville's underground music scene since September 2004, Generation of Vipers has meticulously sculpted their sound on their own terms, not causing much of a stir until around a year ago, when the band's first album was nominated by the revered European heavy metal website Metal Storm for post-rock album of the year.
"First they gave us a really good review, and we were kind of surprised," says Rawls. "Then at the end of 2006 we got that nomination, and we were up there with great bands like Isis and Red Sparowes. We ended up getting fifth place, which was really exciting, because we were among some really incredible bands. Since then we've had kind of a buzz in Europe."
Generation of Vipers plays a hybrid of post-Neurosis style sludge and ambient music that is sometimes classified in indie-rock circles as drone metal. While the band is usually lumped in with like-minded present-day acts such as Sunn O))) and Pelican, their sonic sturm und drang, to these ears, is more evocative of Swans, Grief, or even the beautiful bludgeon of composer La Monte Young. While the group's sound is primarily loud and abrasive, there are occasional forays into quiet passages that could be described as pretty and are, oddly, even more foreboding.
"It's hard for me to describe what we do and it's difficult to compare ourselves to other bands," says Rawls. "Usually I think we're a bit beyond the bands we get compared to, even though we like those bands."
Which leads us to the pivotal question: is Generation of Vipers a metal band?
"We call ourselves metal because metal is heavy music," says Rawls, a soft-spoken musician whose well-chosen words reflect a quiet intensity that is not exactly what you might expect from a "metal" musician. "I think the words heavy, epic, and ambient describe us best."
Rawls, who is joined in the band by guitarist/vocalist Josh Holt and drummer B.J. Graves, explains that, while the members of the band are certainly happy and well-adjusted people, their dour and depressed sound is reflective of their personalities.
"A lot of people have asked us about what we're trying to get across in the music," says Rawls. "A lot of the songs are about loss and things of that nature, and those are themes that we always seem to go back to. I don't think the lyrics are quite as important as the overall feel of the songs, but we are printing the lyrics on the new album, and that's a new thing."
After a frustrating three years of playing, for the most part, mismatched and sparsely attended gigs, Generation of Vipers will receive their biggest exposure yet when they play with Type O Negative and Lordi at Blue Cats this week. The concert finds Generation of Vipers on the art/ambience end of the metal spectrum with the other bands as polar opposites, focusing on entertainment and even fun. So the show will be something of a sociological experiment: a fascinating study in contrasts to see how the Vipers merge with the black-T-shirt-clad headbangers the other bands tend to attract.
"We're not really sure how it will go," says Rawls. "We haven't had a lot of experience playing with bands that we mesh with. But usually people are very open and appreciative of what we do. We just don't know what to expect. But we're thankful to get a show this big and we really appreciate Blue Cats for giving us the chance to play in front of so many people. We're really excited."