Meet Blackbraid, a Black Metal Musician With Native American Roots

Black metal has long been associated with the gray skies, snowy landscapes and Norse mythology of Scandinavia. Most people know it, if at all, as the musical genre associated with church burnings and gory homicides in early 1990s Norway. (Those events were documented in the book “Lords of Chaos,” which was adapted into a 2019 feature starring Rory Culkin as the misanthropic, occultist musician Euronymous.)

But black metal has expanded and diversified, so much so that the genre’s latest success story, the one-man band Blackbraid, hails from the Adirondacks and draws on its founder’s Native American roots rather than Vikings and medieval weapons.

“I didn’t want to do something ingenuine or be some Indigenous guy who’s writing about Thor and Odin, stuff I have no personal connection to — I want to make a traditional-sounding black metal album, but write something that I can actually identify with,” Blackbraid’s creator, who goes by Sgah’gahsowáh (Mohawk for the witch hawk), said in a video conversation a couple of weeks before the release of his new album, “Blackbraid II,” on Friday.

That record does sound fairly traditional, and relies on black metal’s classic building blocks: shrieked vocals, barrages of ferocious blast beats, guitars buzzing like angry bees.

Yet there is also elbow room within those parameters, and on “Blackbraid II” you can hear a delicately strummed acoustic guitar here, a traditional flute there. Catchy riffs, most notably on the single “The Spirit Returns,” coexist with ambitious tracks like the 13-plus-minute “Moss Covered Bones on the Altar of the Moon,” which waxes and wanes like an epic saga.

Pretty impressive for a one-man band: Sgah’gahsowáh (mononymic aliases are very black metal) composes the material and plays all the instruments except for the drums, which are programmed by his friend Neil Schneider. (Schneider also recorded, mixed and mastered the new album. Blackbraid expands to a five-piece live.)

Sgah’gahsowáh grew up not too far from where he lives now, and started both playing guitar and listening to metal in the late 1990s and early 2000, when he was, as he put it, “barely in middle school.” He did not go for the styles that are popular in the United States, however, like thrash, which is exemplified by Metallica and Megadeth, or death, a brutal assault that came of age in Florida swamps.

“A lot of black metal is just about being depressed or sadness, and a lot of it is based in the solitude and somberness of nature,” he said, adding that growing up in the woods “and also being a moody teenager,” that resonated for him. “And I just liked the music better,” he said.

After a few fruitless efforts on his local scene, he created Blackbraid as a solo endeavor and released his first single, “Barefoot Ghost Dance on Blood Soaked Soil,” in February 2022. Fast-forward 18 months, and Sgah’gahsowáh, an album under his bullet belt and another about to come out, was speaking a few days after playing at the prestigious European festivals Hellfest and Copenhell. Next up is Midgardsblot, a fest held at a former Viking settlement in Norway in August.

“I left my job last year, in April or May, so it’s just about a year of me doing Blackbraid for a career,” he said. (He worked as a carpenter.) “It’s kind of crazy.”

Naturally, any rapid rise brings out the doubters, particularly in a genre as passionately niche as black metal, where ultra-limited releases are a badge of authenticity.

“I read that someone thought he was an industry plant and I was like, ‘Dude, black metal isn’t even big enough to have industry,’” Schneider said, laughing, in a video chat. Blackbraid is not signed to a label and the music is self-released.

While it is not remotely mainstream-adjacent, over the past two decades black metal has expanded in the U. S., where the domestic strain is referred to as USBM. Within that, a Native American scene has been percolating with such projects as the California label Night of the Palemoon and bands like Pan-Amerikan Native Front, Ends Embrace and Ixachitlan.

“Black metal has definitely become much more diverse in the last 10, 15 years,” Daniel Lukes, co-editor of the recent collection “Black Metal Rainbows,” said in a video interview. “It has become a place where people feel comfortable expressing their identity, whether it’s gender identity or ethnicity. A band like Blackbraid is certainly part of this opening up. On the other hand,” he continued, “a relationship to ethnicity or Indigenous identity or tradition or heritage has been in black metal from the start.”

Black metal’s longstanding interest in history, myths and paganism made it a good fit for Sgah’gahsowáh — who picked his stage name to honor the land where he lives rather than a specific ancestry, as he was adopted. (His friends call him Jon, but he is cagey about revealing his last name, allowing that it’s easy to find online; he also is discreet about his town’s location, to protect his family’s privacy.)

“There are so many displaced Native Americans all over this continent and it’s a very common misconception that all of us grew up in a reservation and had access to tribal communities,” he said. “That’s kind of how I look at it with Blackbraid — I want to empower those people as well as all the people that are enrolled and living on reservations.”

Sgah’gahsowáh also connects black metal with Indigenous traditions via his early use of the highly stylized black-and-white facial makeup known as corpse paint; his current look draws less from Scandinavian designs.

“When you look at traditional war paint across the Americas, there’s no difference between that and corpse paint,” he said. “I’ve always thought of it as war paint for Blackbraid anyway. It’s so perfectly intertwined in the black metal aesthetic already.”

One of the reasons Blackbraid’s audience is expanding is that he taps into a big source of inspiration for black metal that happens to be very much on many people’s minds: our connection with the natural world and our ecosystems.

This has long been a part of the Northern European scene (cue countless songs about winter and videos of men traipsing through snowy vistas) and it has thrived within a segment of USBM, led by eco-minded bands like the precursor Agalloch, Wolves in the Throne Room and Panopticon. “Sacandaga,” from the first Blackbraid album, has lyrics like “The passage of time, it slows to a soft whisper/Like wind in the pines as the creek flows softly by,” and the accompanying video is filled with shots of majestic forests and mountains.

“Almost everything I write is a product of nature,” said Sgah’gahsowáh, who describes himself as “a woodsman who likes fishing and stuff,” as well as an avid hiker. “I want to empower Indigenous people, that’s another huge thing, but when it comes down to it, it’s really about nature.”

He added: “I want to take that relationship and somehow translate it into my music, let people feel that as well — especially people that may not really get to spend much time in nature, or live somewhere where it’s not as accessible. I really want that to shine through in my music the most.”

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