The quickest way to learn anything you need to know about Carrboro's Black Skies is to hear "The Sleeping Prophet," the last song on their new self-released album, On the Wings of Time. Sure, the 9-minute-33-second song is long, but it's telling, too, beginning with a mournful riff that transitions quickly into an exotic and very Middle Eastern melody. The drums crack through the guitar's spacey overdrive, and a relentless, rumbling bass holds everything together. In the pivotal final third of the song, a new, rather warm sound slides through the fuzz. It is a flute, brought to you by one of the heaviest bands ever to emerge from the Triangle.
The song's central lesson isn't that bassist Michelle Temple also played flute in high school (she did). It's that Black Skies is a Southern metal band living and working in a regional musical community in which the very definition of the genre is expanding, changing and ultimately amorphous. Sure, there's enough sludge here to place Black Skies alongside New Orleans godfathers Eyehategod or North Carolina's own Buzzov*en, but there's also an overarching element of experimentation that knits Black Skies to Savannah's genre-bending Kylesa or the Appalachia space-core of U.S. Christmas. In spite of the foreboding name, the band doesn't even consider itself to be metal.
"We're a heavy band," explains singer and guitarist Kevin Clark. "We're not a heavy metal band."
Temple, his romantic and musical partner for the last decade, takes it another step: "Or you can just say that the definition of metal has changed."
She thinks for a moment and looks at Clark: "We need a new word," she says.
"Ahh," he answers, "you just don't need a word."
For Black Skies, being part of Southern heavy music, metal or otherwise, has less to do with sound and almost nothing to do with heritage, especially since the band's members aren't from the South. Temple moved to Fayetteville in the first grade; she is the only member of the trio who has spent a good portion of her life in the South. The thick "l" sound she adds to the word "both" betrays her Michigan roots. Drummer Timothy Herzog grew up worshiping John Bonham and Bill Ward in Syracuse, N.Y. He spends a lot of time on the road and in Canada working as tour manager for several big acts, including Dinosaur Jr. and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Clark, who writes most of the band's songs, was an Air Force kid who spent his formative years in Turkey, an experience that had a profound impact upon him musically. You hear that past at work within the riff of "The Sleeping Prophet."
"The thoughts you form at that age are the things that are going to shape you as a human being for the rest of your life generally," he says. "So having seen different aspects of things that wouldn't have been as obvious if I'd grown up in another place had a huge impact on just the way I think of things."
So, for Black Skies, being part of Southern music isn't about sound or historical solidarity.
"We play heavy music and we tour a lot," Temple explains. "And a lot of heavier bands that tour through the area are a part of that community. I don't think of us as a Southern metal band, but it's a community that has embraced our band from the beginning."
Temple looks at this network of bands as a matrix of sharing—homes, meals, information. This flow of information and resources simply allows the bands they love to share their music with less frustration. Temple has always booked all of the band's shows; at the behest of friends in the heavy music community like Cough and Caltrop, she began booking shows for their bands. Business has been good enough that she was able to quit her job and form her own company, Lechuza Booking.
"It's being able to take whatever knowledge we gain from staying on the road as much as we can, from bands that have done it before us and being able to pass that on to friends' bands that are coming up," says Clark.
Following the release party for Wings, they'll embark on a two-week tour. Their friends, Durham's MAKE, will join them for the first five days. MAKE guitarist Scott Endres calls Temple and Clark the nucleus of the local metal community, meaning that they not only link like minds but also attract touring bands to the area.
"We've received so much support from all three corners of the Triangle," says Endres. His drummer, Matt Stevenson, even works as Temple's intern. "It really all started with Kevin and Michelle."
Says Nate Hall, the frontman of Western North Carolina's U.S. Christmas: "I know that I can ask them for anything and they will do their best to help me or the band in any way they can. We have crashed with them, toured with them. That willingness to help is really the most important thing. It is a consistent quality among Southern bands. Without it, we would all be miserable on the road."
That's not to say that there's no quality control. Temple, for instance, only books bands that she has seen live and can personally get behind. The community depends on the music. For the community to matter, it's got to be good.
"The most important thing is to play with bands whose music you like and who you get along with," says Temple. "If you have to be around loud music every night, it might as well be something you like and people you can hang out with."