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Christian Mistress: This Is Modern Heavy Metal

Christian Mistress.
Courtesy of the artist
Christian Mistress.

Not all metal that boogies sounds as vital as Christian Mistress. That's not to say that boogying isn't vital to life (oh, it is), but there's something more urgent to this rock 'n' roll party, especially the surprisingly catchy "Black to Gold."

"Black to Gold" comes from Christian Mistress' second album, Possession, a significant step up from the raw, basement-recorded Agony and Opium. There's no mistaking that the Olympia band loves Iron Maiden and Witchfinder General of the '80s-style metal called New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBM for short), but underneath the debut there lurked something modern.

This is where Possession moves forward, not only with a fuller production to fill out a sound Christian Mistress already outgrew, but also dips into proggy '70s fuzz and convincing balladry (the potentially great live closer "There is Nowhere") for a sound that may feel familiar, but definitely thinks about what this music means in 2012 and beyond. Vocalist Christine Davis, guitarists Oscar Sparbel and Ryan McClain, bassist Johnny Wulf and drummer Reuben Storey make a mean cocktail, including hard, '50s R&B-derived rhythms, a penchant for arena-sized guitar solos equally suited for crowded bars, and a raspy female vocalist halfway through a whiskey shot and a book of Baudelaire.

When I called vocalist Christine Davis, Christian Mistress had just finished up a small tour with Hammers of Misfortune, a band taking a much-deserved victory lap after 17th Street made a number of year-end lists (including my own). In an interview, Davis especially made a good point that — no matter your stance on what the band is or isn't — there is no such thing as a NWOBHM revival, "but that's just because this music never died."

"Black to Gold" is probably my favorite song on the new record. I wanted to ask you what it was about, but also ask about the last 50 seconds of the song. That driving bass and single-note guitar duel sounds so familiar. Do I know it from somewhere?

Not that I know of. For me, I get Oscar [Sparbel's] guitar near the end in my head all of the time. He just sent me a text yesterday: "I can't stop singing your parts to 'Black to Gold.'" If there is something catchy that came from a different source, I don't think either of us are aware of it. We've kind of been obsessing over how catchy that song is, too. We're like, 'What's going on? This song is haunting me everyday!' We played it live on our 2010 fall tour and we kinda hated it at the time. We couldn't figure out if it was a Christian Mistress song or something we were gonna ditch, but now we're pretty happy with it.

Is the song about anything in particular?

Most of the lyrics that I write aren't about a specific instance or thing, it's more like a conglomerate of influences in my life at the exact moment that I'm writing the lyrics, and the inspiration I get from the mood of the guitar parts themselves. At that time, "Black to Gold" — well, the words "black to gold" is about thinking about things in your head. It's about having hidden darkness inside and expressing that to people I needed to, but unable to. That and using the metaphor of alchemy — "some seek, some dissolve" — it's not straightforward at all. [Laughs.]

I'm always hesitant to ask questions about lyrics because I'd never been much of a lyrics person until a year ago. I know some lyricists don't like to talk about their words.

Well, it's a hard thing to talk about and I'm trying not to be that guy that's like, "I don't talk about lyrics." It's really tempting to do that, but everyone seems pretty interested in the lyrics that I've written for Christian Mistress, so I take that as a compliment. And I hope that it speaks to people in a less specific way. I hope that people can put their own interpretations into it as you would to poetry. In the past, I would read poems and think, "God, this person didn't realize how heavy metal this." A lot of my joy in writing lyrics is that I get to express some form of poetry that wouldn't be able to be published or put out into the world otherwise.

There was an untamed quality to Agony and Opium, like a garage demo with an energy that couldn't be duplicated in a studio. What changes did Christian Mistress have to make or want to make as y'all hit up a studio for Possession?

We moved away from our local basement four-track studio because we wanted more tracks, but still wanted to stay with analog. We like the stripped-down production that a lot of people have told us they don't like. But for us, we're not making music that we think other people will like, we're just doing exactly what is right for us. That's been our process for every recording we've done whether it was the demo or the seven-inch before Agony and Opium.

We took that same spirit into the studio with Possession, but we wanted to do a longer record than Agony and Opium. We had a few more production things we wanted to do. I wanted to do more harmonizing of vocals and Oscar really wanted to do more layering of guitar tracks, so we had the option to do that with 24-track analog at [former F------ Champs guitarist] Tim Green's studio. It was pretty much the same vibe, but he lives in the country and has a swimming pool, which is really great. We woke up in the morning or afternoon and just swam, drank coffee and started recording, and went until as late as we could handle.

We had this isolated space where we didn't have to go home every night. We couldn't even get cell phone reception out there, so it was very focused.

There's been a tag following Christian Mistress since its inception: New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Y'all must be tired of this question by now, but I want to get a sense of what, if anything, the supposed NWOBM revival means to the band. I think Possession celebrates rather than revives that era of metal, and it feels more — forgive the adjective — "mature."

New Wave of British Heavy Metal is essentially heavy metal with all the hard punk edge combined into the rock music of the time [the 1980s]. And those are two things that Christian Mistress are really into: Really true heavy metal and really true heavy punk.

I think the word "revival" is wrong, but that's just because this music never died. It's always been played. I think talking about its revival is off base, but I can understand when faced with a lot of different genres of metal [that] people need to put things into categories. But for me, I could say, "Well, if Iron Maiden was New Wave of British Heavy Metal, then sure, we're influenced by Iron Maiden." There's no secret about that. We love that band, you know? My first heavy metal cassette tape was Rocka Rolla, the Judas Priest record, and I didn't know that was NWOBM at the time. I just thought it was rock music. The whole NWOBM term is pretty new to me and it's definitely something that I had never even heard before I was in Christian Mistress.

When I think of Municipal Waste or Skeletonwitch in the realm of thrash and how they're often tagged as "retro-thrash" — they're not really "retro" in what they're doing. It's very new and modern. And that's what I like about Christian Mistress.

I agree with you. I would've never thought of our band as anything but modern. We like to be thought of as a modern heavy metal band because we are from now, we're not regurgitating anything except for building on what we've learned in the past. We're not definitely not building on music we like from today.

But really, all the tags and the shorthand comments on bands like Municipal Waste and Christian Mistress — I really believe that's the product of an Internet culture. You hear the blip of a song on someone's fanpage and then you decide from that one second you heard what you think about it, and then you get your two seconds of fame by posting it on a blog, and then you move on. One thing that I've noticed from getting to do a lot of interviews for Christian Mistress records is that people who interview us really listen — like you, I can tell — truly care about the music. That's refreshing. That's the main reason Christian Mistress has never had a MySpace or a Facebook page ever because we just don't want to be a part of that instant gratification other than the actual music itself. We're trying our best to stick to our guns about what we believe is an oversaturation of music in the music industry and sticking to, "Well, if someone really wants to listen to this, they're gonna have to look for it."

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