October is a beautiful time of year throughout most of the United States, but some of my favorite scenery that this month conjures is in the Appalachian mountains. These mountains, while somewhat eclipsed in height by their cousin range of the Rocky Mountains in the Western states, hold a charm that resonates deeply with me and many who visit and reside therein. This time of year adds an additional layer of beauty, the changing of the leaves bespeckling the sides of these great hills with hues of orange, gold, brown, red, and green. Perhaps the most feisty display of these colors is within the Ohio Valley in the Northernmost part of West Virginia. The panhandle that is nestled between Pennsylvania and Ohio makes up for its lack of geographic width by having a depth of culture and scenery. The gem of this region is the city of Wheeling.
That is where I traveled with my wife for a night of unplugged, acoustic Appalachian folk music. Music of this ilk is just as close to my heart as any variety of metal, so getting to see the lighter side of two bands that merge folk and metal so well is a dream come true. These two bands are, of course, the vaunted Panopticon and West Virginia’s own Nechochwen. Having set up an interview with Nechochwen, I was doubly thrilled, and I couldn’t wait to discuss music, culture, and more with the band’s songwriter and architect, Aaron Carey.
After exchanging a few text messages with Aaron, we coordinated a time for me to speak with him before the show. The venue was already bustling with patrons and attendees even hours before the evening’s festivities, so he and I sought out a quieter place to talk. He knew this establishment well, so he led the way, and after taking an elevator to the third floor, we noticed this area was ready for a wedding reception that was to take place the next day. Ours were the only two souls on that entire floor, and with only the fading glow of the evening sun shining through the skylights as our companion, we had a seat at a table draped in white to discuss metal, Kanawha Black, inspiration, and whatever else might come up.
His quiet and unassuming nature quickly gave way to passionate discourse when I led with asking him what it was like to be able to give back to his home state with Kanawha Black, remarking that my wife and I had lunch in Kanawha County on our drive up and that even this album’s title is familiar to the state’s residents.
‘What makes me keep wanting to write songs? You get influenced, you get inspired or refreshed when you travel and you see new places. I think that’s kind of a spark. But I think the thing that’s really in your soul is more like your home place and maybe some people don’t really feel connected to where they grew up and they move somewhere else and they really fall in love with that place. But I’ve lived here my whole life. So, all those songs kind of came back to the same feeling of ‘this is home’.’
I had said at the outset that I wanted our talk to be more of a conversation. Simply put, I wanted to just talk with Aaron and let his passions surface while we spoke, rather than trying to fish for specific answers. He was certainly up to the task. The love that he has for his home is as inspiring as it is fascinating – ‘It seems like from ancient times there’s been a little bit of a dark gray cloud lingering over this area in this state, not always in the worst way but we do have a lot of problems with poverty and opioid addiction and such, as it’s well-publicized and well-known. But as far as our state in ancient times, there’s a lot of mystery around that too. You even hear things like ‘There weren’t any Indians living here this was just a big hunting ground’, which is absolutely ridiculous. If you look at the artifacts that have been found over the last 16,000 years in this state…,‘ he said with conviction.
He continues by giving even more insight as to where the themes of the new album arose:
‘Also, the dark colors of Kanawha black flint and brush run flint around where I live that you find arrowheads and such made from just kind of goes along with how man’s been making these tools to put food on the table and defend themselves and scrape hides for clothing and all these things made out of this dark substance. But if you hold it up to the light, a lot of it’s a bit translucent and you can see that light shining through and just kind of thinking about subjects like that. It’s like, yeah, that’s a pretty deep and solid foundation for the cohesive structure of an album.’
Not only could I see, feel, and hear the passion coming from him while talking about these things, I was beginning to see how his mind was working and in some small way how he extrapolated meaning from these somewhat paradoxical ideas. A dark black rock that was used for hunting and cutting hides in the ancient days of West Virginia had inspired a whole train of thought and laid the foundation for an entire album. A theme of irony had also begun to surface in this conversation, something we’ll make our way back to again and again. For now, however, I wanted to dig into how Kanawha Black differed from Heart of Akamon, an album that had a considerable and profound effect on me and the world of metal with indigenous themes. To my ear, Heart of Akamon has a chip on its shoulder that comes through sonically whereas Kanawha Black feels more settled and less at war. My assessment was met with a smile and an explanation:
‘It wasn’t intentional, I think that’s just how things happened. And I think it kind of is indicative of where my mind and heart were in the different writing stages of those albums. With Heart of Akamon, I had just gone through the divorce and lost my mother and was going through some really bad times. Obviously, the subject matter is not about that but you know, you’re feelings are channeled through different things that are going on in your life. I was kind of scattered – I’m always kind of scattered to be honest and I think most of us are – but during that time there was a lot of time watching my son grow up and they were happier times. I was traveling more getting to see more of the world and learning about things that I never knew of in this world.
And I think, at the same time, too, I went through a graduate program at the college where I teach and I was so focused on a degree and making sure my son was okay. All of that stuff was like a separate focus that it didn’t allow for a lot of anger to creep in whereas before I think I was carrying around a lot of anger.‘
I wanted to dig in a little deeper on the new album at this point. There were some sonic departures for Nechochwen present and as I mentioned in the review for Kanawha Black, “The Murky Deep” has perhaps one of the only examples of tap harmonics on a bonafide metal record that I can think of. I asked Aaron if this was him paying tribute to Ohio native Phil Keaggy or Michael Hedges, and the conversation got a new jolt of energy. ‘Both!’, he immediately affirmed. I wasn’t surprised that these guitarists were being channeled; Aaron is as much of a student of guitar as he is a teacher of it. I went on to ask what other influences were on the album that we hadn’t touched on. He confirmed that “A Cure for Winter Plagues” was indeed a musical tribute to early Anathema, citing specifically The Crestfallen EP and Serenades, but Aaron had to talk about Phil Keaggy:
‘I started studying Phil Keaggy’s stuff when I was in college at WVU in the guitar program and at the time the only acoustic instrument I had was a classical guitar and I was trying to do these tap harmonics. I remember in a recital I did a Keaggy piece, “Legacy” and I’m trying to tap out those harmonics, and the only way I could get enough force for them to come out of the nylon strings was with my thumb. So I had developed this technique that doesn’t work really well and I had to unlearn that. I think Keaggy learned that from Hedges and I got into him slightly later. I think I picked up Oracle and he [Hedges] died immediately after. I remember my first teacher when I was about 10 or 11 talking about Michael Hedges and it was so far over my head at that time that I was like, ‘Well, my teacher likes his stuff so it must be cool.’‘
We reminisced about our time listening to Keaggy‘s Acoustic Sketches, how far ahead of the curve his guitar skills were, and how he went on to inspire a host of modern guitarists and more than likely the entire roster of Candyrat Records.
As the conversation continued, I asked how it felt for him to see the stories that he was telling through Nechochwen, very local stories about the history and pre-history of West Virginia, being heard and appreciated all over the world. ‘It blows my mind. Blows my mind.’ I can see the genuine still-surprised delight change his countenance as he continued:
‘This whole thing started when we had a local melodic death metal band called Angel Rust. And I was throwing these kinds of topics in but nothing too esoteric or whatever, you know. “Hammerstone” and “Totem” were two songs that had kind of like native themes to them or whatever. But I’ve wanted to write music about this since I was about 13 years old and didn’t really know how to do it. This started as all these historical narratives, they’re truthful stories but they’re told in a way that reads like a novel. That stuff swept me away when I was 13 or 14 years old and then you know it’s like anything else, the more you get into it the more of a taste you developed for the obscure and I would get these really obscure books that probably dry on the surface but it’s like… man, I never knew about that and I bet a lot of people don’t.‘
He then elaborated on how Nechochwen went from a childhood dream to a globally known metal band:
‘So I started writing acoustic pieces and they were like soundscapes of what I was seeing in my head of what this would, this event would have looked like in history or something, you know? So when I started making all these songs and they didn’t really have words to them, pretty limited scope. Like, who’s gonna get that unless I write in the liner notes what this is about and then when Andrew [D’Cagna] started getting more involved with it too we started putting lyrics and metal elements and stuff like that it started to catch on a little more but I never thought it would get out of the Ohio Valley.’
At this point, he leans over and points to the second floor of this building, which can be seen over the balcony just by our table where we seated as early guests at a wedding to which neither of us received an invitation. I can make out that he’s pointing to what looks like a gift shop, and he continues discussing just how amazed he is that Nechochwen has had a reach beyond his home:
‘Like this place, this middle floor here, is an artisan center where you might find reprints of historical books from the Ohio Valley or the Pittsburgh area and maybe some stuff on Irish history and some local pottery, things like that. I thought I might be able to sell one of these acoustic CDs in a place like this. I would’ve been pretty happy with that! That’d be pretty awesome if somebody got something out of that! Now when I checked like around January or something, I think we’re played in 88 countries on Spotify and that’s not a brag, that’s a holy smoke! Never would have thought that it would grow like that. That anybody in, I don’t know, Turkey or Slovakia would write to me and be interested in things that happened 2,000 years ago in the Ohio Valley.’
To see his lack of hubris and genuine humility in gaining the audience that his music has was not surprising in the least, but it was still a gratifying and refreshing thing to see. The way that he saw himself and his lack of ego was something I had been noticing all evening. See, Aaron was organizing the show that night, from lining up his friend to check tickets at the door to fielding calls about musicians stuck in traffic on the way to the venue. This was a hometown show for him, but he didn’t even bill Nechochwen as the headliner. Watching him interact with everyone that day and even later in the show that night, one thought kept rolling through my head: ‘He doesn’t know, does he?’
To put it another way, he simply doesn’t acknowledge how great of a musician and influence he is. He operates with laser focus on the stories, the themes, and all of the intangible elements to the same degree that he does the technical aspects of playing and performing. He’d admirably place these things at center stage (literally and metaphorically) rather than have any focus on himself. This became crystal-clear when I asked him if he found it any way ironic that he was now, as I saw it at least, within the indigenous tradition of oral history and telling those histories through song as had been part of culture for thousands of years. His eyes widened and he sat back in his chair, and I’ll never forget the look of realization on his face: ‘Pshhhhhhh, I…not really. You can’t see the forest for the trees, I guess. If that’s true, then I haven’t really thought about it that way, Its just kind of what I do. Yeah. I don’t think that I’ve ever really had anybody say that before,‘ he said with a smile.
The drive to tell these stories and to share history is a passion that often seems like it has its own agency. I’m sure there are conditions that create this innate desire in someone but pinning that down is difficult. Regardless, knowing that Aaron is an educator by trade and seeing just how driven he is to share and inspire through his music and the little online presence he has, I wanted to know if he felt that this role was his calling. ‘It is. I think I’ve been doing that since I was about three years old. Yeah, and I started teaching guitar pretty young. I think my first student, who should be here tonight, I was about 13 when I started teaching them. So I always had like…I don’t know if it’s a need or maybe just finding my place doing that you know, for whatever reason,’ he said with a laugh.
Well, I certainly think that he’s found his place.
I closed by asking what it was like to be able to put together a show like this in his hometown. It was obviously a lot of work to put all of this together, but knowing the love that he has for his home, I knew he’d find it rewarding. ‘Like, it’s, it’s amazing. I don’t even know what to make of it really because most of the shows that we’ve done have been far away, right? Baltimore, Minneapolis, Jackson, Wyoming and Harlingen, Texas, and all over the place and they’re few and far between, but we know people in those areas that go to those shows. But most of the local people they’re like, ‘When can I see you play sometime?‘ It’s usually classical stuff I’m doing for a wedding or a dinner or something like that, and I don’t really perform my own music around here ever. So it is pretty cool. And there’s people here that we’re at my first metal show I ever played back in ‘94, and yeah, people I’ve known most of my life. It’s pretty amazing. Yeah, kind of makes me nervous. I would imagine if it’s anonymous and I don’t know anybody, then cool.’ He couldn’t help but finish that sentence with a charming nervous chuckle.
Our conversation closed with confirmation that Nechochwen has been tapped to appear on some forthcoming compilations, and that the long out-of-print Heart of Akamon could be getting a vinyl repress (‘I talked to Austin [Lunn] about that last night.’) in the near future. With new music still to come and fan-favorite music making a comeback in physical form, this was certainly in keeping with the conversation’s throughline of balance and irony.
There are plenty of reasons to like music and to like artists. For some of us, we love the skills, the songs, the message, or the beat that an artist gives us. It’s rare that one can tick all of these boxes. Nechochwen as a musical entity and a concept are the product of passion. The stories that are being told, the history recited, and the sonic textures created emerge from love for home and putting heritage above self. This is something I knew about Aaron and Nechochwen as a band, at least in an intellectual way. Getting to set across the table from this man and see the affection that he has for his home, for these ideas, for the process, and for preserving what should not be lost, was eye-opening on another level. To see his amazement at all of this resonating with others on a global scale and not letting that inflate his ego is an unforgettable revelation. This music that’s about past and present and is both folk and metal finds a tone-appropriate way to honor the subject matter in a way that few musical acts do.
Every band put on a great show that evening, but to no one’s surprise, Nechochwen’s set was otherworldly.