Going the Distance 

Songwriting by mail blossoms into unrepentant metal, endless touring for metal duo Black Cobra.

Long-distance relationships are almost inevitably doomed. The loss of immediacy and being surrounded by other people at all times makes the notion of abstract fidelity seem a fool's errand. So it's especially surprising when a band can pull off such a relationship. San Francisco metal duo Black Cobra is one of the rare success stories, spanning 3,000 miles and a decade of metal devotion, which is now beginning to bear fruit.

The band officially started in 2004 when guitarist Jason Landrian, now 29, lived in New York City, and drummer Rafa Martinez, 31, lived in LA. They had met ten years earlier in their native Florida, when both attended a music history class at Miami-Dade Community College. A musical partnership sprang up between them that went through many guises, and in 2001, when Martinez moved to LA, the two began collaborating by mail, each sending the other tapes of guitar riffs and drum beats.

"We took our time writing songs," Landrian recalled. "Sometimes it took a couple of weeks, sometimes as long as a month, listening to it almost like a third party." This continued for three years, each involved in other musical projects while building up a catalog of searing polyrhythmic metal. In 2004, they released their self-titled EP and decided to pursue Black Cobra as more than just a side project.

Meanwhile, Martinez had relocated to San Francisco and played bass in Acid King, and Landrian joined him in 2006, in time to release their first album, Bestial. A US tour followed in April 2006, and copies of Bestial were soon scattered around every US time zone, picking up rave reviews and acquiring respectable draws in several cities.

Since, they've finished an aggressive and grueling touring schedule that's easing up until they leave in March for a three-week jaunt with Chicago's Pelican. A European tour is in the works for May with Oakland's Saviours.

"Since we started, we've never taken more than two months off of touring," Martinez said at their December 21 homecoming show at Annie's Social Club. "On this tour, we've done 27 shows in 28 days." The most recent tour, supporting Austin doom-metal luminaries the Sword, brought Black Cobra to bigger clubs and more exposure for its latest effort, Feather and Stone. "That was probably our most successful tour," Landrian said.

The old adage that one show equals ten practices seems particularly apt with them; it's rare to see any band this tight. On stage, they are fearless and precise, launching a full-scale assault on all that is quiet and serene. In person, however, the members of Black Cobra are men of few words. Judging from their performance, their primary language seems to be metal; perhaps English is merely a convenient language for finding the bathroom on tour.

Even on a bitterly cold San Francisco night, Martinez changed into shorts and removed his T-shirt before their set, a portent of excruciating drum aerobics. When Landrian began attacking his guitar, broadcasting serrated low-end riffs out of approximately twenty square feet of speaker cabinets, people began pumping fists, spilling beer and hooting. Thankfully, Black Cobra's calculated brutality drowned them out.

The normally clean-cut and unassuming Martinez attacks the drums like an Escrima fighter, relentlessly filling the extra sonic space that a bass player normally takes up. Machine-gun bursts of grindy, accessible metal slow to a crawl like a roller coaster about to plunge, before moving on to another colon-rumbling soundscape. Landrian, with long hair and a beard looking every bit the rock 'n' roller par excellence, mostly confines himself to the lowest notes available to his guitar, roaring into the microphone like a werewolf.

Now off tour and in the same time zone, Landrian and Martinez face a new challenge: learning how to write and practice with each other in the same room. "There's something different when it comes to playing in front of another person," Landrian said. "I'm curious to see now how it's gonna go, it's definitely a different dynamic." Still, the band has toured so much, both members said, that songwriting is a fluid process, with the two collaborating on both guitar and drum parts. Black Cobra has never entertained the idea of bringing in a third member on bass; the absence offers a challenge that keeps both members on their toes, Landrian said. "Our whole goal is not to get too complacent."

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