All in all, Chris Bourne looks like a fairly typical metal-head. He has long blond hair. His arms are covered in tattoos. When I met him for burgers and hot dogs in the parking lot of his El Cajon practice space, he wore black combat boots, black jeans and a sleeveless black T-shirt bearing the logo of his black-metal band, Ruines Ov Abaddon.
However, Bourne looks a lot different when he performs. Before every show, he puts on wrist guards with precision-cut spikes and handmade leather body armor that's stained with sweat and blood. And then, using basic Ben Nye clown paint, he puts on his "corpse paint." His face becomes bone white, his eyes black. He smears on a layer of dirt and ash (which he collects from the barbecue). Thus transformed, he looks like the reanimated corpse of some medieval Norse warrior.
Like many black-metal bands, Ruines Ov Abaddon put a high premium on looking evil. Along with their collection of animal skulls and giant inverted crosses, and a recording of the Satanic sermon they use to start every show—which invariably scares off squeamish concertgoers—they use corpse paint to color their triumphant mix of staccato riffs, high-speed blast-beats and phlegmy screams.
"It makes it more intense, because people look at you and they know what you're all about," Bourne says. "It's just all about the death and what it brings to you."
For these guys, though, corpse paint isn't just about theatrics. It also helps Bourne and his bandmates get in the mood for the darkness to come—in much the same way Superman prepares to kick ass by donning his trademark red briefs.
"No one gives a fuck about him when he's Clark Kent; he's just normal," Bourne says. "When we're walking around right now, we're normal. But as soon as we get [corpse paint] on, we know what our goal and our objective is."
Corpse paint has long been a key element of black-metal, a heavy-metal subgenre that eschews goodness and grace in favor of all things dark, nihilist and evil. Back in the late '80s and early '90s, pioneering Norwegian black-metal bands initially used corpse paint to differentiate themselves from sleeker-sounding, tracksuit-wearing death-metal bands. The paint soon became as important a black-metal signifier as lo-fi production quality, stark publicity photos and scary pseudonyms (see: Euronymous, Count Grishnackh, Dead).
Corpse-like face paint has its roots with arena-rockers like KISS and King Diamond, but true black-metalers aim for a darker mystique. Of course, most don't actually practice the evil they preach, but there've been some truly scary Scandinavian black-metalers—responsible for murders and church burnings in the early '90s— who've made corpse paint seem that much more authentic.
"I think in their minds, they were doing it for real," Brandon Stosuy, a black-metal expert and editor at Pitchfork, says about pioneers like Mayhem and Gorgoroth. "They weren't just doing it for theatrical reasons."
In recent years, the use of corpse paint has diminished as newer American bands have pushed black-metal beyond its austere European roots. The guys in iconic Norwegian band Darkthrone have permanently wiped the paint off their faces. Brooklyn innovators Liturgy have worn it only as a gag at a Halloween show Stosuy organized in 2009. Lev Weinstein, drummer for experimental New York City outfit Krallice, once told Stosuy that wearing corpse paint would give him "douche-chills."
But corpse paint is still important for many black-metalers. Often, it reflects a particular band's personality. For example, the members of the Netherlands' Carach Angren enhance their symphonic sound with sharp, intricate line-work that resembles cranial cracks. Sweden's Watain, meanwhile, go for a bloody, decomposed look to reflect their love for rotting animal carcasses.
When it comes to applying the paint, Ruines Ov Abaddon prefer a quick and dirty approach. At their El Cajon practice space, bassist Allan Castaneda used a makeup sponge to cover his face in white and then drew spidery black lines with a small brush. The whole process took about eight minutes; he used a broken soda machine as a mirror.
Still, he takes the paint seriously.
"It's definitely like a rite of passage," he says. "If you don't put it on right, or if you don't really get into it, it'll look dumb."
But it takes more than just corpse paint to be true black-metal—as any true black-metaler will attest, you must have darkness in your heart, as well.
I learned this the hard way, when I headed to a couple local malls clad completely in black, my face covered in corpse paint.
At Horton Plaza, instead of screaming in terror, a group of girls giggled when I walked by. Another guy yelled, "I'm scared!" and then let out a hearty laugh. At a Cinnabon, I confessed to a clerk that I didn't feel very scary. She just shrugged: "Well, Downtown—kinda normal for us here."
At Fashion Valley, all the sales clerks acted like they didn't even notice the paint. Almost everyone else just ignored me.
In the parking lot, after a thoroughly underwhelming afternoon, I walked by an elderly woman who was pushing a stroller. She fixed me with a blank stare. "Are you a mime?" she asked.
I just shook my head and told her, "No." Then, I got in the car and went home to wash my face.