Every band has a biography. Just head to their official website and there will inevitably be a “Bio” link to click on. The same is, of course, true with Avernus, Chicago’s underground, doom-metal heavyweights. Most of these biographies, however, are usually just small, three paragraph blurbs that touch mildly on the band’s founding, lineup history, discography (if any), and influences. Rarely do they go very “in-depth” at all, and honestly, they are not meant to. Most band bios are there for a quick overview, and that’s acceptable for the context in which they are utilized….this is not one of those biographies. In an attempt to put all past histories of Avernus to rest, I have gone straight to the source in speaking with founding and current members in an effort to determine the original scoop on how the Avernus of today has come to be, starting right from the very beginning. As the full chronicle covers a span of 21 years, the story is a long one, with many characters and plot twists, details and layers…but that’s exactly why the story must be told; it’s a part of music history, and to not tell the story would leave a gaping, glaring hole in the mosaic that is Chicago music, and we here at Rock in Chicago felt that just would not be right if it were not told properly. Please enjoy this article, it’s been a thrill to write, and I hope you find it informative and definitive.
Editor/Lead Writer/Metal Beat Writer
Rock in Chicago
PART ONE: THE EARLY YEARS
“The Creation of the Abyss”
It was 1991. Rodney King’s videotaped beating in Los Angeles was front page news, as was the newly begun Gulf War. The Giants were Super Bowl champions, and the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Minnesota North Stars for their first Stanley cup. In Chicago, I-355 was still a new highway, Richard Speck (infamous serial killer) died in prison, and two young men were planning on a day of summer fun up in the land of cheese and beer. Milwaukee Metal Fest XI was circled on the calendar for both, as Deicide and Cannibal Corpse were headlining, and little did they know that their crossed paths and mutual love of English metal acts Paradise Lost and Bolt Thrower would lead to the formation of one of Chicago’s most influential metal acts. “I met Rick Yifrach, co-founder and drummer, at Milwaukee Metal Fest, where I remember he was wearing this homemade Paradise Lost t-shirt. We were standing in line and got to talking about music and, of course, we were both like ‘We should form a band!’ I remember I left the Fest without getting his contact information,” recalls Rick McCoy, co-founder and current guitar player and vocalist. Yes, that’s correct, folks, Avernus was that close to never even forming in the first place. It’s one thing to have conversations with random people on common music interests and the formation of bands that never come to fruition. God knows that most of us in the music business have had plenty of them, but Fate stepped in and had something to say about it: “But [I] ran into him again at a Bolt Thrower show at Medusa’s a few months later.”
This second random meeting was enough to convince the two to continue the chin-whacking via telephone, the preferred method of communication of the day, before the explosion of the internet and text messaging. “I can remember long phone conversations about music, what we were going to name the band, and t-shirt designs. We ended up jamming and formed a band called Solemn Peace. We acquired a guitarist who ended up being Avernus’ first guitar player and another guy who did vocals,” says McCoy. Not only was Avernus very close to almost never coming together, but there were also very close to never being known as Avernus in the first place. (For those of you wondering, the word “avernus” comes from a lake in Italy, which resides in the caldera of an ancient crater. The Romans believed this crater to be the entrance to the underworld, and later Romans used the word itself as the name for the underworld.) Solemn Peace was not to be, however. “We wrote maybe one or two songs and I quit for some reason. A year later, Rick, the aforementioned guitarist, and [I] got together again and Avernus came together. This was in November of 1992,” recalls McCoy. Consequently, doom metal’s birth in Chicago can trace its origin to this time, and bands that claim it as their own genre or as an influence can now know the expanse of time that it has thus covered.
As it is, Avernus is sometimes jokingly referred to by current and former members as “The P-Funk of Metal,” as lineup changes have been a constant in the band since the very beginning. “We did get another guitarist a month later that stuck around for less than a year, as the original guitarist was incredibly hard to deal with. Tony Volpe joined a few months later on bass, and we ended up doing some shows,” says McCoy. Right from the get-go, Avernus has been constantly changing and evolving, and the various members over the years have definitely helped shape the sound of the music, but the current lineup started coming into focus in 1993. “Erik Kikke joined the band that spring or early summer and we released our first demo, ‘A Delicate Tracery of Red.’ It was really sloppy,” laughs McCoy and continues, “But it was our first demo. It sounded like a third-rate version of Autopsy and old-school Paradise Lost. Both bands we still enjoy to this day, we were just not as efficient at sounding like them at that point.” While “A Delicate Tracery of Red” was the band’s first (and admittedly inexperienced) effort, the red cassette tape has become almost legend in the underground metal scene in Chicago. People talk of still owning the tape like it adds some sort of “feather in their cap”, so to speak, and while the sound quality wasn’t something to shake a stick at when it was recorded twenty years ago, the tape still has an aura about it that lasts to this day.
Despite the early sloppiness and lineup changes, Avernus as we know them today started solidifying its foundation in these early chaotic days. As Erik Kikke joined to add strength to the guitars, he could tell that it was the direction that he wanted to go very early in the process. “I was playing in another band that played a show with Avernus. The group I was with had a horrible performance, but Avernus was the standout of the night. I was really into what they were doing. I was approached by Rick Yifrach to join, was filling in at the time, and then was asked to join permanently. I was the youngest in the band at the time, and we were in a transitional period. My first thought about them was ‘Wow, these guys are weirder than I am!’ Our collective sense of humor is bizarre and out of left-field, at best. I seemed to fit right in, and after spending some time together as a group, I knew there was a cohesiveness with the guys,” remarks Kikke, and oddly humorous tendencies aside, the music that results from when the band gets going on composition is unrivaled. Kikke seems to think that it’s just what comes out of the process, and says, “The writing and composition was not without its difficulties. However, the creation process seemed to work like a machine. At the expense of sounding clichéd, it was part mystery, part magic, if you will. I will never fully understand why it works with them, it just…happens.”
Moving further along that summer, the artistic direction of the band was still evolving. “I bought a guitar synth, and we decided that maybe we could utilize the sounds and do something a little different,” recalls McCoy, “Mind you, the only other bands in death metal using keyboards/synths were Nocturnus and some European bands.” This decision would forever alter the overall sound of the band, giving it a depth and a feeling unmatched in local music at the time. “From memory, this is how the ‘reformed/reborn’ Avernus started,” says Kikke, and in hindsight, it is a defining moment in Chicago metal history, and was a very bold and risky move considering the musical environment of the time. Let us not forget that in 1993, Salt N’ Pepa were topping charts with “Shoop” and Naughty by Nature were “Hip Hop Hooray”-ing it up all summer long…a metal band using synthesizers mixed with slow, brooding death metal was nearly unheard of. Yet this was the path of Avernus, detractors be damned, and the band had their own aims, anyway. “I think our motivation was just to write something with feeling and with melody. We were always big fans of bands who tried to incorporate a sense of melody into their heavy music,” says McCoy, and the ensuing months after “A Delicate Tracery of Red” brought the hard work and effort that spawned the writing of Avernus’ most popular work to date, 1994’s “Sadness” E.P.
In keeping with the tradition of an ever-morphing lineup, Avernus once again felt the need to add another piece to the writing process. “We ended up acquiring Roberto Franco into the band as another guitarist, and we began working on new material which would eventually become the ‘Sadness’ E.P. We decided to record each song one at a time at Sheffield Studios in Indiana,” says McCoy, and in a small stroke of brilliance, “We made a one song promo tape, ‘Anastasia’, which we released, gave away, and mailed to whoever would listen. It ended up getting us a following relatively quickly,” remembers McCoy, and the efforts to get it “out there” were very old-school and grassroots. “We made like 100 [copies], which we either gave away at shows, or we sent out to labels and zines. We would just walk up to people and put one in their hand. I definitely remember spending many hours writing to random zines and packaging demos. This was before email and file-sharing, when snail-mail was how shit was done,” recalls McCoy. The “Anastasia” single was just a teaser of the genius that was to be “Sadness”, however, and the E.P. hit the local scene like a megaton warhead. “I think we actually received recognition right away,” says McCoy, “especially after the first couple hundred copies that we put out there. I opened a P.O. box for the band, and the first couple months, we never had any mail. Then one day, we just started getting mail, from requests from zines for interviews to other bands wanting to tape-trade. Metal Blade Records asked for a song for their upcoming ‘Metal Massacre’ compilation. Originally, they wanted ‘An Endless Sea of Evening’, but later went with ‘Godlessness.’” Although the band did not receive much more attention from any major labels other than that, the “Sadness” E.P. still managed to sell an estimated three thousand copies, which for an unsigned, independent, underground, and extremely dark, doom metal band from the suburbs, it was quite a nice little haul.
Thus, Avernus’ status as pioneers in the newly named doom metal movement in Chicago was assured, and their influence reaches much further and wider today than initially meets the eye. It’s an absolute guarantee that a copy of “Sadness” found its way into the hands of the Herweg brothers (of Pelican fame), and listening to the music of today’s generation of metal music writers, experimentation abounds, thanks, in part, to the courage of a band with self-admitted strange tendencies, both musically and socially. Structure of song, timings, different instruments and sounds…nothing is off-limits, and there is no doubting that bands like Avernus helped pave the way for such sonic exploration here in Chicago. It is hard to imagine what the Chicago metal sound would be like today if it wasn’t for Avernus, but I guarantee you it probably wouldn’t be as big and bold as it is without them.
Please stay tuned to our page here at Rock in Chicago, as Part Two of this two-part series is already in the works, where we’ll explore the post-“Sadness” years, and feature interviews with more current members about the new, re-emerging, re-energized Avernus! Thanks for reading, and keep rocking!