Now You Know: Waxen

Thursday, 18th September 2014

Formation: 2004
Location: Sheridan, Wyoming
Style: Black metal, but with highly unique riffs and arrangements. Read: Unconventional, without alienating the listener.
Personnel: Toby Knapp (all instruments + vocals)
Latest release: Agios Holokauston (Moribund)

Renowned in guitar geek circles for his progressive, sometimes unorthodox brand of shred, guitarist Toby Knapp has taken a stab at nearly every metal style under the sun during this two decades-plus career. Primarily known for his work with underrated Colorado power metallers Onward (who released two albums with Century Media in the early 00’s, and their third and final album in 2007), Knapp also has an extreme metal side that isn’t often associated with standalone guitar heroes. His excellent one-man black metal project Waxen is deserving of attention based on the strength of its sophomore album, Agios Holokauston, a riled-up, technical, and suitably wicked offering of American BM, where he handles all instruments, including vocals. According to Knapp, playing extreme metal has always been in his blood.

“My first album (Guitar Distortion) on Shrapnel was extreme,” he begins. “Then I had a black metal demo and MCD with my band Darken, the harsh stuff came first. Onward was extreme metal in the fact that we when came onto the scene, we were on a mission to eradicate nu-metal. So I said, ‘Get the bullet belts out boys, grow the hair, tune traditionally, we are at war.’ I just couldn’t stand that whiny fucker from Staind or 20 people dressing like clowns making music a two-piece band could pull off. Onward always got along with the extreme bands. Looking into our audience you would see Marduk and Iced Earth shirts, banging heads with equal enthusiasm.”

Obviously, Waxen is a bit of a departure from the heroic, anthemic power metal found in Onward. The oppressive strands found on Agios Holokauston (see: “Destined for Division” and “At War With Reason Itself”) find Knapp operating in a much different headspace. “Anger, depression, hate,” he relays. “Put those together and it becomes real and the process begins. It’s a miserable process because you then become a channel for negative energy to work through and manifest itself on tape. That’s all good and well….but sometimes the tap doesn’t switch off. If you believe it, you almost have to give your entire self up to demonic possession, depending on your viewpoint, literally or figuratively. I’m not saying I’m possessed, but if that’s the price you might have to pay for an authentic piece of work, I’ll pay that price. We all wanna make that record…that forbidden fucking record that has an aura of complete darkness around it.”

Players primarily known for their soloing aptitude often struggle with riff writing, preferring to fall back on conventions to set up their solo excursions. Knapp, as you can imagine, is an exception to the rule, a heady, risk-taking player with a knack for combining odd chord combinations with searing melodies. To his credit, he throws out the proverbial rule book when writing for Waxen, preferring to go by his gut, which is generally the right way to go.

“The no rules to chords or structure…I make up chords that aren’t meant to be!” he enthuses. “With black metal, I call it the ‘nuclear chord,’ or the ‘radioactive sound’ because certain notes combined make me envision a big mushroom cloud. People actually picked up on that; someone listened to it and said to me ‘You know, a nuclear war is something we may very well see in our lifetime – that music isn’t cool, man.’ The music hurts. It’s not fucking ‘Look at the brutality, man,’ it is more like, ‘This album finds those tonalities that make you feel sick.’

“Black metal isn’t your friend,” he continues. “Classic metal? That’s where we stay very much in minor keys but want a melodic vocalist who can scream. Definitely going for that riff and that solo. I feel different writing that music, and my wife will say ‘That stuff you were working on today, you must be feeling better.’ She’s not a fan of my music, but a fan of the way working on any music effects my attitude on life. Get it done, be accountable, think, be strong. My seriousness about music trickles into everyday life. Black metal might just be this: A person who is almost an idealist with high moral values living in a world of pettiness, temporality and severe corruption. We are the witch doctors that take the poison of the world in and spit it out.”

Switching gears, DR felt it was important to address the rise of YouTube guitar shred heroes with Knapp. Being that he has paid his dues and worked his way up through the ranks (being on the legendary Shrapnel Records is an accomplishment onto itself), we wondered what he thought of the current state of up-and-coming guitar players. As you’ll read, he certainly pulls no punches – and rightfully so.

“I don’t know what the young guys are doing,” he says. “All I know is I saw a 12-year old Japanese girl play Yngwie’s ‘Far Beyond the Sun’ or something like that on YouTube. That puts things in proper perspective. I will say this: I have my guitar playing friends, they are awesome, they are respected and to visit with them is such a cool thing. Joe Stump, Sean Baker, Markus Johansson, Christian Munzer, Grady McDonald to name a few. But many other shred circles are more ruthless and backstabbing and fame desiring ‘Look at me. Fuck the other guy – admire me.’ You would think the black metallists would be impossible to deal with. Nope, the real black metallist musicians are well-educated, have a code of honor, ethics and integrity and want to be left alone in peace, not standing in a fucking cubicle at NAMM shredding cheese doodles. If I can put it this way, I doubt Samoth from Emperor would call Odin at Moribund Records and say ‘Why the fuck are you helping out this Toby Knapp guy? He sucks.’

“But unfortunately, things don’t work out that way in the ‘shred guitar’ community,” he concludes. “The label I do my guitar oriented projects for, Shredguy Records, has received that kind of communication from a guitarist who has thousands of fans and is considered among the greatest in the world, why do you want to halt the progress of the little nobody from Big Horn, Wyoming? Does that thwart your progress? No, it’s the nature of that fucking genre and I don’t even want a fucking endorsement anymore at this point. People are so goddamn rude and since everyone, including people that have done nothing at all are trying to get endorsed, they blow it for a guitar vet like me who gets lumped in with these morons. I’ll earn money and buy my guitars and they’ll mean more to me that way anyway. People have sabotaged endorsement deals for me too. I am a serious guitarist, I’m not a shredder nor ever claimed to be. I do know how to use the shredder at work, though.”

Moribund Records official website