When music journalist and noted metalhead Kim Kelly wrote a glowing review of Romantic Love, the newest release from local metal band Dendritic Arbor, she described the title as "sardonic."
When this comes up in conversation, the band — seated around a back table in its favorite South Side haunt, Ruggers Pub — heaves a kind of collective sigh at the idea that it's being sarcastic. But the members do understand why a listener would make such an assessment.
Even to the ears of many hard-boiled metal fans, Romantic Love is harsh, beguiling and almost defiantly unmelodic: not exactly something most people would play over a candlelit dinner. But as bassist Tom Bittner Jr. puts it, with a grin, "We're really nice guys despite how fucking angry our music is."
The band formed in 2012, with the goal of playing black metal. Guitarist Max Beehner befriended drummer Chris McCune while hanging out at Ruggers, where McCune works. McCune is, in fact, on duty tonight, gamely providing thoughtful answers to interview questions between running to the kitchen to fill food orders. Beehner introduced McCune to guitarist Adam Henderson, who had played with Beehner in another metal band, Colossus. The three of them practiced once, wrote a song and, realizing they might be on to something, enlisted Beehner's new roommate, Bittner, who, conveniently, happened to play bass.
- Photo by Heather Mull
- Sincerely yours: Chris McCune (left), Tom Bittner Jr., Adam Henderson and Max Beehner
"We practiced and recorded our first record [2013's Sylvan Matriarch] before we played a show," says Beehner. "That was the whole point, at first — we were just going to write that first record and not do anything else. It wasn't supposed to be serious at the time — and I don't know if it necessarily is serious now. We've done a lot more than I think we ever thought we were going to do."
Their current list of accomplishments includes a couple of extensive tours — including a financially successful trip to this year's South By Southwest festival, where the band played a Worshiper Cabs showcase — and getting scooped up by Baltimore's Grimoire Records label, also home to locals Wrought Iron. Grimoire co-founder Noel Mueller came to Pittsburgh and recorded Romantic Love himself, with mobile equipment, at Beehner's house in Lawrenceville. They knocked the whole thing out in one day, starting at noon and finishing at 3 a.m.
"Noel came at us thinking that we were a pretty straightforward black-metal band, because Sylvan Matriarch has that kind of sound to it," Beehner says. "But with the new stuff ... even though we didn't know what it was going to sound like, we knew it wasn't that."
But in the end, Bittner says, "He was pretty stoked on it."
Given the cohesive, stream-of-consciousness feel of Romantic Love, it's not surprising that it was recorded so quickly. While Sylvan Matriarch wasn't straightforward, exactly, the new record delves further into experimental and extreme metal, making Dendritic Arbor more difficult to classify.
The group has drawn comparisons to the progressive technical death-metal band Gorguts, and avant-garde-ish black metalers Deathspell Omega; it also brings to mind the rusty edges and precisely executed chaos of a band like Krallice, though Dendritic Arbor is a little more freeform and ambient than any of the above. Despite its black-metal roots, members agree that that term has become a miscategorization.
"Picking a genre to play in isn't really what happens," McCune says. "It's more what we allow ourselves to do or not do when writing the songs. We tend to not go anywhere in the mid-paced; we don't allow ourselves to do a d-beat. The guitar parts aren't chuggy rock 'n' roll blues-based riffs."
And, with a band that is somewhat difficult to categorize —"We've been called everything from doom to noise" Beehner says — a title like Romantic Love only adds to the confusion. "People don't really listen to the music," Henderson theorizes with a half shrug. Or if they do, they aren't open to hearing what's really happening. "People are going to say that we're black metal because black metal is popular, but they can't really stomach the idea that [we're] not going to be dark or evil or spooky or whatever."
Like Sylvan Matriarch, Romantic Love deals with the natural world. But where Sylvan Matriarch bordered on (as Beehner half-jokingly puts it) eco-terrorism, this record explores themes of a more erotic variety. "The songs have a very sexual nature to them," Beehner says. "We all write lyrics, we all have our ideas, but mine come from a relationship with the earth." Citing the predominantly Western attitudes of material entitlement and privilege, he continues: "Love is love and sex is romance, and I think that humans are romantically in love with the earth, verses being actually in love with the earth."
McCune adds, "The overall theme of the band is the urban colliding with the natural, and what it does to a person's mind."
Is there a little bit of stoner logic at work here? Maybe: Stoner logic is, stereotypically speaking, par for the course in the wide world of heavy music. But in the chaotic, visceral context of Romantic Love, the sentiment makes sense.
And ultimately, Dendritic Arbor is more about vibes rather than words. "Lyrically, it's significant what we're saying, but it's also more imagery than it is us trying to get a point across," McCune explains. "We don't really need to get a point across lyrically; it's just there to serve the song. That's why song titles are usually a big deal with bands where you can't understand the vocals."