If Ryan Clackner had followed the map he drew up as a student, he’d probably be in New York right now, gigging at jazz clubs and picking up session work. The New Jersey-born guitarist was a performance major at William Paterson University’s music school, and the deep connections between his college and the nearby NYC scene meant that a comfortable life as a jazz musician was well within reach—if he behaved and stuck to the plan. Instead, he heard Johnny Cash.
“It was right when I had moved out of my parents’ house,” Clackner remembers. “I was 19. I was driving around out in the sticks with this one guy, this old roommate, and he started playing Johnny Cash. After all through high school and two years of college only listening to the most intense [jazz] and practicing fuckin’ 12 hours a day, I’m listening to live versions of ‘A Boy Named Sue.’ Hearing the people go nuts, I was like, ‘I have never heard anybody go nuts like that to jazz music.’”
When Clackner returned to school, the bloom was irrevocably off the rose. “Everybody I knew went to Brooklyn, or a few of them went to Manhattan,” he recalls. “Some of them got touring gigs. And I just thought, ‘That looks like fucking death. I don’t want anything to do with it.’” After graduation, he packed his bags and moved to Nashville.
Things didn’t take off right away. Clackner was an antagonistic square peg in a town with a well-established hierarchy and struggled to find his place. He started a band called Junkyard Road, who recorded but never released an album that Clackner describes as “heavy Southern rock kind of shit, but with weird time changes and a lot of dissonant chords.” In the Junkyard Road days, Clackner was drinking heavily and haunted by his jazz-guy past. He describes the experience by way of an “inside you there are two wolves” meme: “One is an alcoholic metalhead trying to make sense of life, and the other is this repressed jazz musician trying to figure out how to deal with it. The alcoholic maniac is stuck in the same body.”
After Junkyard Road, Clackner got sober and landed touring gigs with the outlaw country singer Bob Wayne and the Southern rock band Fifth on the Floor. In 2015, he co-founded the metal/country hybrid Stump Tail Dolly with fiddle player and vocalist Lucy Cochran. That project bore the first outlines of the musician Clackner would ultimately become. (It still exists, without Cochran, under the name StumpTail.) Ironically, it took reaching back into his jazz education for Clackner to find his way forward outside the jazz world.
“When I was in college, I studied with a guy named Jason Moran, and Jason was one of the best jazz musicians in the world,” Clackner says. “I think he still is. His first few albums were pretty straight-ahead, but he eventually got into this thing where he was starting to mix in early ’80s hip-hop and some Texas blues shit, and it was very refreshing.”
Taking inspiration from Moran’s genre-mixing experiments, Clackner devised a method for combining his three deepest musical loves: metal, jazz, and American folk and country music. Clackner has spun that basic formula off into nine separate projects to date, each with its own distinctive blend of elements. The two wolves inside him stopped wrestling and started working together in harmony, and the result has been one of the most exciting discographies in contemporary black metal.
Clackner recently walked us through each of his active projects, and he teased a few more: a new black metal duo with Jack Gibson from Exodus, a partially improvised Southern sludge band with Duane Trucks from Widespread Panic, and a variety of free jazz configurations on the NYC label 29th Street Editions. Those jazz records, especially, mark a full-circle moment for an artist whose career has been marked by a refusal to bow to convention. Just before the pandemic, Clackner relocated to Knoxville, and he says the isolation from the much larger scenes in New York and Nashville has been a boon for his creativity.
“People who don’t know the world is out there tend to be fuckin’ nuts,” he says. “They find their own thing, and they have this almost religious sense of self. They believe in themselves. They find this way of working and living that’s good for them. In my own crazy way, I’ve found that here. In some ways, I know better, but I kind of don’t know any better at this point, too. Because I’m far enough down my own trail that I can’t go back now.”
Talkin’ in Tongues with Mountain Spirits
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The first project to bear fruit after Clackner established his new way of working was Primeval Well, a collaboration with drummer Zac Ormerod, keyboardist Edward Longo, and bassist Luke Lindell. (Lindell has since left the band and been replaced by Starer’s Josh Hines.) Its striking combination of atmospheric black metal, old-time mountain music, and modal jazz sprang forth seemingly fully formed on the band’s self-titled debut from 2019.
“When I did the [first] Primeval album, I was working nights in a halfway house out in the country,” Clackner says. “It was a sober living halfway house, and the people went to bed around 9 p.m., which is when I punched in. I punched out at 9 a.m. And I did that shit three, four, sometimes five nights a week. I just sat there and drank tons of coffee and listened to a lot of black metal, and just walked around in the woods while everyone was asleep. It was a miserable time in my life, but also functional, in a lot of ways, because it just helped me get past that hump, where I was so tired and delirious and insane all the time that I just didn’t care.”
Liberated to write freely, Clackner completed the first Primeval Well album and quickly started work on another—2021’s stunning Talkin’ in Tongues with Mountain Spirits. On songs like “She Flies Undead” and “Ghost Fires Burn Light in Our Eyes,” Clackner and his bandmates tease out the common threads between furious black metal, Coltrane-style improvisation, and an ancient-sounding mode called sawmill tuning. (“When you hear old-time mountain music that’s naturally tuned in those ways, it’s really fuckin’ spooky, man,” Clackner says.) Spiritually, the center of Primeval Well is the terror and the splendor of the Appalachian Mountains. Like most of Clackner’s projects—and black metal in general—it derives much of its power from its strong sense of place.
Sacrificial Baptism in Murky Waters
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For the Vile Haint project, Clackner shifted his focus from Appalachia to West Tennessee. If the mountain music influences that permeated Primeval Well evoked ecstatic religious fervor, then the swampy folklore of Vile Haint represented its evil inverse. Ormerod, who drums on both Ol’ Hatchie Haint and Sacrificial Baptism in Murky Waters, provided the family history and legends that give Vile Haint its pitch-dark Southern Gothic atmosphere.
“Zac’s from this town in West Tennessee that’s got 300 people in it,” Clackner says. “So, he just took some of the stories from his mother and grandmother and ancestors and just made them even more miserable than they were in real life, and just kind of built this thing out of it. And [his hometown] is on the Hatchie River, this perfect muddy-water river with cypress trees growing out of it. He was like, ‘This is perfect. This is exactly what we need.’”
Musically, Vile Haint started as a dumping ground for riffs Clackner felt were too dissonant to work in Primeval Well. (Clackner even referred to them as “throwaways” before realizing there was enough meat on the bones to launch a new project with them.) Vile Haint’s songs boast stranger chord progressions and lengthier, more discursive riffs than what you’ll find in Primeval Well, though the projects share Clackner’s jazz-informed improvised soloing. If you like your black metal with just a touch of oddball flair, Vile Haint might be the place to start.
The Elders Present to Me
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Arcane Marrow arrived around the same time as Vile Haint, and it also began life as a collection of cast-off Primeval Well riffs. Instead of riffs that were too dissonant for Primeval Well, it utilized the ones that felt too straightforward. In fact, Arcane Marrow might be the most normal black metal project in Clackner’s discography. That comes with the caveat that none of Clackner’s projects use stock black metal riffs or tropes. But Arcane Marrow’s album The Elders Present to Me would make a good starting point for newer fans of the genre.
“Fuck it, I’ll try to have one real black metal band,” Clackner says of the logic behind starting Arcane Marrow. “It’s not jazz per se, and it’s definitely not classical music, but it’s a way to stretch past a lot of what I felt were the more limiting aspects of metal music.”
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The revived, revised StumpTail completely eschews the honky-tonkin’ fiddle that characterized Stump Tail Dolly. The leads and melodies that once fell to Lucy Cochran are now Clackner’s domain, and he sounds like he’s having an absolute blast zipping through the country-rock-shred passages on Goat Rodeo Sacrifice: The Sound of Summer. The album is still plenty weird, but more often than not, songs find their way to the kind of chicken-pickin’ sessions that tend to elicit shit-eating grins from country fans.
“I always wanted to bring StumpTail back [after Cochran quit the band], but I just couldn’t think of how to do it,” Clackner says. “I felt like it hadn’t gone the way that I wanted it to, and in reality, I didn’t know what I wanted from it. StumpTail was always just kind of like Junkyard Road Part 2, in a lot of ways. And it still is. It’s still basically that core idea, just much more developed.”
Full Moon Bliss
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“I always laugh about that band because every time I try to do something with it, it turns into a complete nightmare. And I’m like, ‘I just really fucked myself on the name,’” Clackner says of the self-fulfilling prophecy that is Existential Dread.
“A lot of the time, I have these goals in mind before I really have the musical knowledge,” he adds. “I wanted to have a drone metal band before I had ever really listened to anything except Earth. I wasn’t even listening to Sunn O))). I was really just obsessed with Earth, and that Hex album. And that just launched me off on this whole other thing that I’ve been dealing with for a while now.”
He eventually did his homework enough to have a compass for the new project. Existential Dread’s Full Moon Bliss still bears a little of Clackner’s black metal signature, but its drone/doom focus helps separate it from his more explicitly Southern work. Its forthcoming follow-up promises an even greater emphasis on Great Plains topography. “I occasionally cheat on these Southern landscapes with the Midwest,” Clackner confirms. “I’m really obsessed with the prairie states, particularly Nebraska and the Dakotas. These vast, open landscapes, like the Badlands and the sand hills of Nebraska. It’s another little part of myself. So for this new Existential thing, I wanted to pull some of that.”
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The wildest, freest Clackner project is undoubtedly Spintria, the improvisational group he started with Longo and drummer Josh Byrd—both members of the acclaimed experimental duo Skin Tension. “When Skin Tension started, I was like, ‘There’s no fuckin’ way this is happening, and I am not getting involved,” Clackner remembers. “I’m either joining, or we’re starting another band. And they wanted to keep Skin Tension as a duo, so I was like, ‘Fuck it, that’s another band.’”
For Clackner, Spintria is a liberating antithesis to his more structured metal projects. “I haven’t played proper jazz in so long that I really can’t do it anymore, but one thing I can do is improvise in a more free, open-ended context,” he says. “I felt like I really just wanted to try and explore that more. Especially at this stage in my life, I just knew that whether I liked the results or not, it would be at least moderately fulfilling to try, and hopefully to listen to as well. It’s still gonna be me playing. It’s still gonna have some of those other elements, but it’s really just a way to kind of reconnect with playing guitar, not writing so much, and not working so fuckin’ hard. Just having maybe a little bit of fun, God forbid.”
Devil’s Looking Glass
Treacherous Autumnal Wisdom
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Clackner’s most approachable project is also the one that scares him the most. “I want to hide all the time, from everything, from everybody,” he says. “I never met a person that didn’t fucking scare me. Which is really silly, but it’s kind of true. So for Devil’s Looking Glass, the idea was, I it’s just gonna be me. I’m just gonna deal with myself, as terrifying as it is, and just sing and show people what my actual voice fuckin’ sounds like.”
Treacherous Autumnal Wisdom is a gorgeous, stripped-down folk album, with Clackner handling all the guitar, banjo, keyboards, and vocals. (There are a few black metal croaks buried in the mix behind his unvarnished clean singing, but they scan almost as an inside joke.) Clackner’s music doesn’t tend to feel especially autobiographical, but Devil’s Looking Glass might be the closest glimpse he’s offered of the “real him.” As part of the project’s ongoing mission of deliberately making him uncomfortable, Clackner recently debuted it on the live stage.
“Like half the time, I was super in the zone, and then half the time, I would be in the middle of playing banjo or something and be like, ‘Man, I have no business doing this,’” Clackner says of the experience. “Like right in the middle, I’d be like, ‘Oh God, did I just forget my words? God! I hate this!’ But the truth is if I don’t do this shit to myself, I’ll just sit here and hide in the dark for years. I’ve done it. That’s how I lived when I was younger. And I have the music, and I want to put it out there, so this is it.”
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Unique in Clackner’s discography is SkyThala, a project that draws its primary non-metal influence from the world of classical music. Boreal Despair is a celebration of Igor Stravinsky’s Russian period written in the language of black metal, with the densest, richest orchestration of anything Clackner has ever worked on.
“I have always insisted that The Rite of Spring is definitely proto-metal,” Clackner says. “It’s this unbelievably, insanely intense journey through so many different landscapes of sound and darkness, for sure. But another interesting thing about it was that it all gestures toward pre-Christian Russian rites. The rite of spring, obviously. So, this is clearly something that could be used as very fertile ground, with the right imagination and the right skill and the right amount of patience, to try to come up with something that isn’t on that scale, necessarily, but borrows DNA from it.”
Boreal Despair required Clackner to develop his classical chops, both as an arranger and as a player. Fortunately, he had help in the form of his frequent collaborator, the classically trained keyboardist Edward Longo. “I had no idea what to do with a fuckin’ oboe,” Clackner laughs. “I wrote a lot of riffs, and then I spent a good two or three months watching all these YouTube lessons on basic orchestration. But Edward is really into the same music, and he’s definitely much more advanced as a classical musician than I am.”
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Over the course of our conversation, the musician whom Clackner brings up most frequently as an influence and artistic North Star is Junior Kimbrough. Kimbrough was a Hill Country blues player from Mississippi, and his style and temperament were defiantly singular. “He didn’t really play chords or anything,” Clackner says admiringly. “He would just play the melodies that he was singing and then randomly start soloing and turn the beat around whenever he wanted to. It’s the coolest, most raw form that you’re going to find of the blues, maybe more like what it would have been like 100 years ago.”
Kimbrough and his Hill Country contemporaries like R.L. Burnside served as the inspiration behind Crestfallen Dusk, one of Clackner’s newest projects. On the band’s self-titled debut, Clackner runs Kimbrough’s idiosyncrasies through a lo-fi black metal filter and comes back with something that’s sometimes catchy, sometimes almost atonal. Crucially, it always honors the music that inspired it without ever trying to imitate it. Despite openly citing its chief influence, Crestfallen Dusk always feels fiercely original. Clackner brings up Miles Davis and Blut Aus Nord’s Vindsval as two more “belligerently individual” musical minds whose lineage he hopes to continue.
“I feel like I would be completely chickenshit to not try to go it my own way,” he says. “I feel like that’s what those men did. They, in spite of themselves, in spite of the bills that they had to pay, and whatever social cost they would incur for going their own way, they went their own fuckin’ way. To me, that’s how I honor it, respectfully and appropriately. To be willing to say, ‘I have no idea where this is going, but I’m gonna try it.’”