Words by Paige Cobos
Heavy metal as a music genre is one that speaks to many people from many walks of life. It is also a genre that encompasses so many different unique styles. But often it can seem sometimes it hangs on to some common tropes of roaring lyrics, void shattering electric guitar riffs and black-as-night medieval horror imagery. However, it is always incredibly exciting when new dark voices enter the scene and shake up the core of these tropes.
The band, Tzompantli is one of those emerging dark voices. Rising up as apart of the indigenous metal scene, Tzompantli (meaning ‘skull rack’, an object used to display the heads of human sacrifices or enemies captured in battle in nahuatl, the language of the indigenous people of Mesoamerica) intertwines their fearsomely vibrant heritage with traditional instruments and death/doom riffs to create a beast of an album.
We caught up with Huey Itzekwanotl o))) (nahuatl for ‘Black Obsidian Bear’) the vocalist and master of many of the indigenous instruments and talked about music inspiration, the long journey of writing and helping uplift other voices in the underground metal scene.
Off Shelf: How does it feel to finally have your fearsomely brilliant second album Tlazcaltiliztli out for the world to take in?
Huey Itztekwanotl: It feels fuckin’ great! I’ve been patiently waiting to unleash this album and I’m more happy that it has been well received so far.
OS: What were some of your personal music inspirations that really fed your love of metal music?
HI: It’s definitely Trey from Morbid Angel, Kirk from Crowbar, Max and Igor Cavalera, Dino Cazares, and Santana to name a few. But I would say that most of the inspiration I get comes from my ancestral culture and background. Especially with reconnecting with the old ways.
OS: This album feels like a deep and brutal dive into a certain spiritual experience that is different from your first album, Tlamanalli. What has the journey been like from that album to now?
HI: It was a long journey of writing, arranging and then rearranging the music. Plus reading about my culture to make sure I’m accurate in the story telling/lyrics. Even though it was a long journey, it was a good spiritual journey. It was also fun because making music is the stuff I live for. I feel a deep connection with my ancestors because of music, so I’m glad the spiritual aspect of the album translated well with listeners.
OS: The addition of native and folk instruments lends an incredible atmosphere to this brutal album. What was the process of introducing these instruments into the music writing like?
HI: It came very easy for me to incorporate them in. I don’t have a process really, I just go off of what feels right. Then I’ll listen back and if it sounds good I keep it. I just go with the flow and where the ancestors guide me. I’ve been listening to how they are played and used for so long that over the years of recording and playing, I’ve built up the confidence to add them in. I love layering music so it was fun to add these up in the mix.
OF: The single ‘Eltequi’ is a powerful and brutal riff-heavy song that really displays the perfect fusion of different kinds of guitars. How did you achieve hitting the balance between them all?
HI: I had been writing that song for a long while and slowly adding / layering native instruments to my demo versions of it until I felt good about it. I don’t have any kind of music theory training so again, I just go with the flow and let the ancestors guide me.
OS: One of my favorite tracks is ‘Yaotiacahuanetzli’ which feels like a spiritual climax to an incredible journey intertwined with despair and wonder. What was it like to write this particular song?
HI: I definitely had to get in the right mindset. It took a lot of patience and trusting my inner self as well as the ancestors. I wanted the closer song to end the record strong, so I took my time with it and it came out just how I’d imagined. I feel like that song encompasses the spiritual journey of my life as well as other indigenous/xicanos living in colonial times. It’s hard but there’s a lot of beauty and fun within the harshness.
OS: The album artwork for Tlazcaltiliztli is an incredible piece that was created by Andi from AVS Ravenheart with the layout by Dan Fried. The use of blood-red to frame this dark and murky image of several skulls really adds to the dark power of the album. What was the collaboration process of creating this piece like?
HI: Andi is a good homie of mine. I was a fan of their art and I wanted an indigenous artist with a similar background to handle the cover art. I sent Andi a message on Instagram and after they agreed, I let them do their thing. I am very grateful for doing so because we have become good homies in that process. I love how it came out. Dan is a powerhouse of a designer. I gave him the vibe I was going for and a few images. Then he did the rest.
OS: Tlazcaltiliztli is dedicated as well as an offering to the indigenous peoples, nations, and tribes of the American continents. How does it feel to be this voice of the Nahuatl speaking of people in the realm of the underground metal scene which often lacks diverse representation?
HI: I love it and it feels great. I am proud to be able to try to uplift other indigenous voices. I hope I am making them and the ancestors proud in doing so. I’m not the only one doing Nahuatl themes though, so I don’t wanna take all the credit or make it seem like I’m the only one. We need to put some respect on the elders Yaotl Mictlan and many others within the metal underground.
OS: Lastly, what are some of the artists right now that you are listening to that you think more people should know about?
HI: There are way too many but here are a few that I have been hooked on lately; Assumption, IANAI, Age of Apocalypse, Vital Spirit, Golgothan Remains, Black Braid, Te Ruki, Absent in Body and the list goes on.