Unless you're plugged into Memphis' underground metal scene, you may not know Epoch of Unlight. We're talking about a band that has been active for 12-plus years, has released three full-length albums on a mainstay metal label, and has a highly respectable national and worldwide fan base. Don't believe me? Google them.
But that's Memphis. For all of our rich musical history, the city's independent scene is not exactly nurturing to music styles that don't fit neatly into garage rock, blues, alt-country, or indie-rock genres. Insularity rules, and members of one scene, whether it's musicians or fans, generally do not check out local bands with styles that deviate from their comfort level.
"Here, there's a weird elitism," says Epoch drummer, Tino LiSicco, who holds both a master's degree and Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. LiSicco is the band's principal lyricist, songwriter, and one of its founding members. "Then this past weekend, we go to Fayetteville and draw anywhere from 150 to 200," he says. "We sell merchandise; we have people that come up and talk to us after the show."
Epoch of Unlight excel at the genre known as melodic black/death metal. While that description may sound like an oxymoron, it's not. Death metal, with its guttural vocals and slow, one-dimensional sound, had largely run its course by the early 1990s. Scandinavian black metal emerged around this time, fueled by blindingly fast tempos, evil imagery, and the participants' criminal activities, including church burning and murder. (These events are thoroughly covered in Michael Moynihan's book, Lords of Chaos, now a cult classic.)
Then out of Sweden came a sound that combined classic '70s Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, '80s thrash metal, and the extreme influences of death and black metal. The style retained black metal's intensity but also put a strong focus on riffing and song structure that was actually catchy.
Over the past decade, Epoch of Unlight have furthered the advancements made by the melodic Swedes and, in 1998, began a fortuitous relationship with Denver's The End Records, a mover in metal underground.
The band's lineup has been through innumerable changes. For the brand-new The Continuum Hypothesis, the band is BJ Cook (vocals, guitar), Joe Totty (bass and the other remaining founding member besides LiSicco), Josh Braddock (guitars), and LiSicco.
"The joke is that we're the Menudo of death metal, but you do what you can to keep it going," LiSicco says.
Early incarnations of Epoch were straight death metal. "The early lineups had these egos," LiSicco says. "Everything had to be intense all of the time. But once we lost those egos, I pushed forward with borrowing from some different styles."
The Continuum Hypothesis, like its 2002 predecessor, 2002's Caught in the Unlight, boasts melodic and icy sheets of riffs, vocals that are raspy, and drumming that can only be described by equation instead of words.
Unlike many of their peers, Epoch of Unlight avoid anti-Christian or overtly political lyrics. "It's basically science-fiction short stories, the type of thing that I enjoy reading," says LiSicco. "My favorite author is Brian Lumley, a British science-fiction horror writer. He did a series of vampire/horror/murder-mystery books that had everything, an amalgam of every genre imaginable, and I just loved them. Every album has followed at least some of his themes, and our first album title [1998's What Will Be Has Been] is a common phrase in the books. I wrote him for permission to use it."
The music media have taken great liberty with the term "metal," applying it indiscriminately to mainstream acts (beware nu-metal), loud emo bands, and an assortment of hardcore knuckleheads who can play a down-tuned riff. Still, even when a band is blue-blooded metal, there's still some lack of respect.
"You meet interested people in town," says LiSicco. "But it's weird because they sort of pull you to the side secretly. We practiced in the same building as Saliva, and the drummer asked me how to do a blastbeat, and I was thinking, What are you going to need that for?
"One of the hardest things is that people make fun of you for being serious about your music. It's a no-win situation. We're not overly serious about it, but the fact that we treat it with some sort of professionalism gets made fun of."
Epoch of Unlight have toured the country with Norway's legendary Enslaved and highly successful Dimmu Borgir, plus Switzerland's critically lauded Samael. After headlining a South By Southwest showcase for their record label, they will return to Memphis for a CD-release show at the Hi-Tone Saturday night, a bill that also will feature Incineration and crossover thrash up-and-comers Evil Army. n
Epoch of Unlight CD-release party for The Continuum Hypothesis at the Hi-Tone Saturday, March 26th