Black metal is infamous for the unpleasantness of its message and its practitioners. Varg Vikernes of Mayhem and Burzum, one of the most important figures in Norway’s influential early black-metal scene, spent nearly 15 years imprisoned for murder (among other things) and continued to spout racist, anti-Semitic, and neo-Nazi invective after his release in 2009. Members of early Norwegian bands were also convicted or suspected of more than two dozen arsons of Christian churches. Fascist black metal persists as a subgenre to this day, and its reach is hardly limited to Scandinavia.
The ugliness of black metal’s worst people can overshadow the many ways its grotty, lo-fi, buzzed-out aesthetic has been pressed into service by politically progressive artists. Botanist’s warnings of ecological catastrophe, Pyha’s grinding anti-war howls, Panopticon’s indictments of coal companies, and Dawn Ray’d’s anarchist antifascism all take much less morally reprehensible stances with respect to evil and apocalypse. And newish Chicago black-metal project Annihilus comes at the genre from a different direction altogether, infusing the music with a comic-book fanboy’s enthusiasm for supervillains, epic darkness, and giant honking sandworms.
Annihilus is the not especially secret identity of Chicago drummer and bassist Luca Cimarusti, who’s also a longtime Reader music writer and former staffer. Cimarusti started playing shows when he was 17, and he’s spent around 15 years in various punk and noise-rock bands, including Heavy Times, Basic Cable, and his current group Luggage.
Cimarusti has always been interested in doing a one-man project, though, and despite his admittedly limited guitar skills, he started recording as Annihilus last year–in 2019 he released a demo and two EPs. The COVID lockdown, which put his band and other collaborations on hiatus, pushed him to finish the first full-length Annihilus record, Ghanima. It’s due Friday on American Decline, an imprint of Jordan Reyes’s Chicago label American Dreams.
As is typical of black metal, Ghanima expresses sadness, anger, and horror. The title of “W.T.W.B.” stands for “watching the world burn,” a phrase Cimarusti screams through sizzling layers of tortured, treble-heavy guitar as the tempo downshifts painfully from head-banging thrash to trudging doom. But Cimarusti says that typical black-metal imagery, drawn from satanism and paganism, doesn’t appeal to him much.
“I’m a pretty hard-core atheist,” he says. “So the idea of Satan has never been scary or oppressive to me. It’s been easier to lean into things that I’ve spent my life reading about and obsessing over, that are scary and evil and out-there, to influence the darker side of the music I make. So a lot of this record comes from Marvel Comics or science-fiction stories that have an epic evil arc in them. And then I can cherry-pick those ideas to represent my own feelings.”
Cimarusti started reading comics in the 90s and has been an obsessive collector ever since. “I’m the kind of person who’s at opening night of every Marvel movie still, and it will be that way for the rest of my life,” he says, laughing. He christened Annihilus with the name of one of the Fantastic Four’s chief antagonists–Cimarusti describes him as “a bizarre alien insect, who is from a different dimension and is just bent on the destruction of humanity. He’s kind of heavy and kind of scary and seems like an obvious evil entity to lay into to make a project that is meant to be dark.”
Several songs on the album take inspiration for their (largely incomprehensible) lyrics from comic-book sources. “Destroy the Future” is based on Tom King’s 2015-’16 run of The Vision, in which the robot hero tries to live a quiet, normal suburban family life, with unhappy results. “Matthew” refers to the human-resurrected-as-a-raven character in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series–Cimarusti’s vocals, buried low in the mix, sound a bit like distant cawing.
Cimarusti also riffs on the classic Frank Herbert science-fiction series Dune. “Wormsong” is based on lyrics Herbert wrote for his desert-dwelling Fremen, celebrating the terrifying glory of the giant sandworms called Shai-Hulud, which create the precious psychedelic spice that enables space travel. The dragging tempo and blown-out, buzzing guitar make it easy to imagine monsters rising from the earth, maws agape.
Metal in general, and black metal in particular, can get belligerent about defending its subcultural cachet–decking yourself out in corpsepaint and burning a church is a great way to freak out the normies. But Cimarusti’s love of Dune isn’t territorial, and he doesn’t feel the need to shut out those he perceives as insufficiently devoted. While some Herbert nerds have expressed skepticism about the trailer for the upcoming Dune film by Denis Villeneuve, Cimarusti is openly ecstatic.
“Oh my God, I think it looks awesome! There is so much in it that looks so exciting,” he enthuses. “And the attention to detail is mind-blowing! At the very beginning, when Paul wakes up, you see in his bed there’s fish carved into the headboard. That’s a big part about Caladan, the planet that he’s born on–it’s an ocean planet, and there’s all this talk in the book about how there are fish carved everywhere in the palace. So the detail being honored there was very, very special. I thought that was really cool.”
Of course, geek culture can be unpleasant too. Reactionary movements such as Gamergate and Comicsgate have mobilized their adherents to target and harass people who criticize the sexism or racism they see in games or comics. Violent, church-burning Satan worshippers are hardly the only assholes.
Annihilus comes from a place where fandom and black metal aren’t about exclusionary hate and bile and violence but instead about using dark emotions as a way to bond with people. Cimarusti makes that clear when he talks about the title of the album. Ghanima, he explains, is another Dune reference–it’s the name Emperor Paul Atreides gave his only daughter, borrowing a Fremen word for “spoils of war.”
Another metalhead might reasonably take “spoils of war” to refer to looting the bloody corpses of one’s enemies. But Cimarusti characteristically turns in a more inclusive direction. “Given the fact that this record was finished during COVID and kind of a weird time for the world, the name ‘Ghanima’ seemed like it applied to the feeling of having finished a huge project,” he says. “It’s like I got through this somehow with something to show and to share with people.”
And so a word for plunder becomes about overcoming hardship together. That’s the spirit of Annihilus–a malevolent insect from an antimatter universe who wants you to enjoy the stygian darkness with him. Maybe by watching a cool Marvel movie. v