Harkonin vocalist Jason Barron laughs explosively, interrupts himself mid-sentence and surreptitiously palms the lighter his son Braden has been using to singe table-top debris. He smiles at Braden, who's unaware that the lighter he's looking for is hidden in his father's hand the hand with "blut" tattooed across the knuckles in thickly serif-ed letters. Braden, a wiry kid who can't be more than twelve, gives up looking and resumes agitating for a quick run to KFC, but he knows he's outnumbered by the rest of Harkonin: bassist Tom Quach, guitarist Matt Coyle and drummer Clayton Gore.
Still, his mention of The Colonel reminds the elder Barron of a recent discovery at another fast-food joint.
"The Long John Silver's off of St. Charles Rock Road has the baddest jukebox there, dude," Barron testifies. "Everything in it is good."
"There's a jukebox at Long John Silver's?" Coyle asks.
"Yes! It was a bunch of Frankie Valli and Chuck Berry and James Brown and I'm just like pickin' all this shit," Barron says. "My girlfriend is like, 'Are we gonna go?' I told her, 'I'm still eatin' a hush puppy!' I'm playin' all this shit." He laughs again, louder this time.
Chuck Berry may be an odd choice for a vocalist, but Frankie Valli and James Brown make more sense. The latter's earthy grunts and syncopated yelps have clearly rubbed off on Barron, who howls with feral delight in his own song "Heksenbränd," right before he grates out, "Heksenbränd, the witches' fire/Demon princess, whore of the undead/I pump you full of sin."
Behind Barron's acidic rasp, Gore stomps out a lung-flattening double-bass pattern, with Quach's guttural bass sliding deeper into the abyss with every riff. Coyle shreds an inverted scale of nasally sharp notes between Barron's outbursts, and then Harkonin collectively leap forward into the galloping race against death that causes heads to snap with vicious glee; just when your neck is good and warmed up, they rein it back to a dangerous, martial lurch.
Three gut-churning riffs in just under four minutes any one of them worth their weight in pure, unadulterated metal show how the band has staked out a territory somewhere between the raw, immediate roar of the Scandinavian hordes and the groove of classic death/thrash. It's the sort of visceral assault that aficionados of the form endlessly seek out, and Harkonin's Sermons of Anguish is absolutely filthy with them.
Anguish's dark majesty is all the more remarkable because half of this Harkonin is relatively new to the band since its 2003 release, Seductress of the Unlight. Drummer Mike Evans and guitarists Drake Poeschel and Lael Clark have been replaced by Gore and Coyle, respectively. Some of those departures were amicable and some weren't.
"Drake went to medical school; Mike's becoming a lawyer in Chicago," Gore explains. "I was just playing drums by myself, and the opportunity to play with these guys came up. When Drake left we were looking for a second guitarist, and Matt came in. Little did we know he'd be the only guitarist."
Lael Clark's reasons for no longer being part of Harkonin are not really open for discussion. "Ask Warghoul about him," Coyle says, referring to the Illinois band Clark joined and has since been "excommunicated" from, according to the latest posting on Warghoul's Web site. No other explanation for Clark's exit is offered.
The changes in personnel have definitely altered Harkonin's songwriting process. Quach notes that before, "Drake wrote the majority of the songs, and Lael wrote some. I was kinda the guy who was like, 'OK. I'll play that song.'"
"Drake was very specific with his stuff," Barron adds. "He could play those black-metal riffs like crazy."
"Yeah, he was picky about his music," Quach agrees. "There's a lot of metal out there, but Drake only listened to, like, five bands."
Not that Quach and Barron are knocking the earlier incarnation of their band; Seductress of the Unlight still packs an impressive wallop, after all. But the current version of Harkonin isn't afraid to break off from a riff to explore something that lies beneath the surface of the song, finding dark places that yield much more rewarding thrills. You can bang your head to Seductress, but you can throw your whole body into Sermons' horrific maelstrom.
And in the hinterlands of extreme metal, that sort of power gets you noticed but not as quickly as Harkonin would like. "We're entirely self-funded," Gore explains. "We put out both CDs on our own, send 'em out all over the place just like any other band. Labels, like the big labels, are more interested in signing stuff they know is gonna sell, that sounds like everybody else. Like joke metal or mall metal. Or metalcore. They'll sign anybody if you're a metalcore band." He sniffs.
"But eventually, as much as word's getting around, somebody's gonna knock on our door and we'll get the right deal. We can continue to do this ourselves, as long as it takes [to get signed]. Matt works at a studio, we can get a good rate there, and we can always record. And Lee [Skyles] from Chunks of Meat does good putting the package [shows] together and that's right in town. But ideally we'd like to get the hell out of here."
Coyle agrees that extensive touring is the dream, but not financially possible right now. "We can book our own shows out of town, but it'd be nice to get some support so we could tour for a couple months and come back."
"Do we have to come back?" Barron asks. (Probably, if they want to see their drummer again Gore has two kids and a job.)
Still, even if they lock up a record deal, the members of Harkonin have no illusions about the commercial viability of their music. In the marginalized world of extreme metal, where bloody-guts intensity and liver-scorching blasphemy win fans' black hearts, there's little promise of radio play or even mainstream exposure on the level of a more commercial band such as Slipknot and Harkonin knows it.
"This kind of music is always going to be underground," Gore says. "Success is relative. If you're looking to make money, you're in the wrong genre."
"We could do some Weezer-sounding shit and be rich right now!" Barron laughs.
Coyle leans back from the table. It's getting late. Day and night jobs, kids, girlfriends, wives and Braden's dinner all loom in the middle-future. One more full set looms in the immediate future, and Coyle eyes his matte-black Les Paul like it's the only thing that really matters. But first he wants to make one thing clear.
"We write metal," he says. "I'm not one of those people who says, 'I'm writing this for myself and I don't care if anyone hears it.' I do want to please metalheads. I write for metalheads. I write what I like, and dude, metalheads will like this."
But Coyle's only half-right: Metalheads will love this.