When pioneering doom band Saint Vitus played the Black Cat in September, the show gave way to a moment that could go down in metal history. After Saint Vitus guitarist Dave Chandler fully exploited the use of his wah pedal throughout the band’s lurching, thunderous set, Ilsa guitarist Garrett Underwood approached Chandler, cash in hand, and walked away with, yes, a wah pedal. It was the kind of anecdote music fans love: The scene legend bequeathing something sacred to the next generation. The story, of course, has racked up more than 100 “likes” on Ilsa’s Facebook page.
Ilsa has been slowly ascending the local scene’s ranks since it began playing shows in 2008. The D.C. quintet specializes in the extreme, drawing its sound from a well of intense metal subgenres—sludge, death, and especially doom—that have traditionally been overlooked in town, with punk rock and hardcore hogging the heavy-music spotlight for the past three decades.
But while other metal-leaning bands in the area have toiled away in the metal scene almost exclusively, Ilsa has bridged local punk and metal through its craggy sound. The tension between its plodding doom tempo and sawed-off, crust-punk riffs fuels Ilsa’s second LP, Intoxicantations.
The album’s title track is a great example of how the band walks that line without making a mess: On it, Ilsa careens from lumbering, hazy riffs to scalding feedback to blasts of noise punctuated by guttural howling. It’s a lot to absorb in just one song, but Ilsa weaves it into something remarkably articulate, slowly drawing a sludgy guitar pattern out of a bed of shapeless distortion, wringing it out, and incrementally building a pummeling rhythm on top of it.
The band’s versatility is apparent from the beginning of the LP, and its members flaunt their flexibility throughout. Ilsa ratchets up the tempo on “Deadbeat’s Ballad” and “Martyrs,” yet step back on the flipside: The first couple of minutes of “Skin and Bones” create a space so cavernous, it sounds as though vocalist Orion Peter’s banshee wail is clawing at the expanse in a desperate attempt to escape whatever darkness exists beyond. That’s a testament to the horrorlike atmosphere of Intoxicantations—at times it sounds like even the band members are scared of the monster they’ve created.