Homenaje a Los Antiguas: A Mayan and Mesoamerican Black Metal Journey with Yaotl Mictlan

Photo: Mitch Allen

There is a unique aspect to American culture, one that is often taken for granted or, worse, looked down upon: America is a melting pot and has been since its relatively recent birth. The multitude of ethnicities that call America home fuel us with a new sense of self-discovery and values and traditions that everyone can embrace and celebrate. Yaotl Mictlan may have originated in Mexico, but they call Salt Lake City home. Yaotl Mictlan has a primal edge with their feet planted in black metal, yet dispel the notion that all black metal bands sound the same. They prove that the genre is a vessel to portray artistic visions and themes and can ideally transfix and transport listeners to experience emotions and feelings they might not have known they even had. The band signed to international label Candlelight Records in February, giving them distribution on a global level. On Aug. 10, they released their second full-length album, Dentro del Manto Gris de Chaac. It not only instills hometown pride, but reminds us all that humanity is one entity. Yaotl Mictlan embrace their Mayan and Mesoamerican heritage, using their music as an exploration into ancient realms that are still not fully explained by historians. SLUG talked to Yaotl, the band’s drummer, and got further insight into the band.

SLUG: Where did the initial idea for Yaotl Mictlan come from? How and when did the band get its start?
Yaotl: One of the main reasons Tlatecatl (guitarist and vocalist) and I started Yaotl Mictlan was because we had never heard a black/death metal band talk about the ancient Mexican cultures. We both agreed on adding indigenous instruments and having the lyrics in Spanish. That has been our fundamental intent since 1999.

SLUG: The band’s lyrical subject matter and musical themes are based around the Mayan culture and heritage, as well as other topics. Where does the band’s inspiration lyrically and musically come from?
Yaotl: It’s not just Mayan, but Mesoamerican, and it comes from within. We grew up hearing about their history and their temples, and we got fascinated with their religions. We realized that other people were unfamiliar with our history. In fact, they were ashamed to have indigenous roots. Our lyrics are meant to inspire others to be proud of where they come from and share with them a sense belonging. Similarly, we are inspired by the musical talent and creativity of our ancestors and the instruments they used over five thousand years ago.

SLUG: How would you describe Yaotl Mictlan to someone who has never even heard a chord of black metal?
Yaotl: In this specific case I would describe it as extreme metal, in Spanish, with indigenous instruments, and hand them a CD.

: The band uses a multitude of different indigenous instruments in its music. Can you name a few, and the reasons behind using them and who plays them?
Yaotl: Seashells, tree seeds, huehefl drums, teponaztli wooden drums, various flutes, Mayan trumpets and rain sticks. We use them because we want to add to the ambience of our lyrics. In our opinion, these instruments are very similar to dark and ambient black metal—they both provoke intense feelings of passion and mystique. All of us perform these instruments in the recordings.

SLUG: While my knowledge on the Mayan culture isn’t superb, I can see how it makes an impact. When I was eight years old (I’m 29 now) I spent a month in Mexico, and a lot of that time was spent touring the Mayan pyramids, Teotihuacan, Palenque and Chichen Itza. I have strong memories of visiting those places. What about the culture makes you feel so connected and inspired to create music about it?
Yaotl: That’s great that your time spent in Mexico was memorable. Mexico and these ancient sites that you went to are, in our opinion, very magical places. As native people from Mexico, we have a strong connection with the culture of our ancestors and we sometimes feel disappointed that more is not being done to preserve and highlight the significance of our history. Rather, we are in a state of unconscious self-hatred and inferiority instilled in us from the time we were colonized. Yaotl Mictlan’s goal is to bring awareness into our community’s mind and open their eyes to the infinite richness that exists within our own culture.

SLUG: How did Xolotl (a sister band of Yaotl Mictlan) come to be? It almost feels like it’s the more sinister side of Yaotl Mictlan. Musically it’s rawer, more extreme and lyrically more themed around the Aztec culture, which, in my understanding has a darker past than the Mayans.
Yaotl: In 2007 Tlatecatl went to Arizona for a year, so the rest of the members of Yaotl Mictlan decided to create Xolotl just as a temporary side project. The idea was to play raw and crude black metal, play a few shows, record a CD and that was it. However, it has been an exciting and unique experience for all of us and it allows us to discover a different side of a similarly-themed type of music.

SLUG: For those who aren’t educated on the subject (I’d include myself in that category), how would you describe the core culture and beliefs of the Mayans as compared to the Aztecs?
Yaotl: There are a ton of books on this, and it’s a very long answer, but I will describe it as best I can. Ancient Mayan core culture evolves around the Popol Vuh (The Mayan book that describes the creation of the world and humanity). The Mayan believed in various gods that represented the natural environment around them. They were very connected to nature and were excellent astronomers, mathematicians and timekeepers. In contrast, the Aztec-Mexica core culture evolved around Huitzilopochtli, who was their main god and guided them to their promise land.  The Aztec-Mexica believed in various combinations of traditions that they would acquire through their expansion across Mesoamerica. Lyrically, the difference is that in Xolotl we talk more about pre-Hispanic occultism and ancient gods, versus Yaotl Mictlan, where we focus more on pre-Hispanic history, culture and beliefs.

SLUG: How did your relationship with Candlelight Records come to be?
Yaotl: Only 100 copies of our demo that Juan Brujo (vocalist of Brujeria) supported financially were released since he didn’t plan for anything else but to record it. Because of the lyrical content and concept, it got a good response in Latin American web zines and we started to get some hits on our old web page. Five years later, we had thirteen new tracks and so we financed and recorded our debut album, Guerreros de la Tierra de los Muertos. We searched for Mexican labels that would be interested in our band and our ideology and found Joel Morales, owner of alprods.net. Alprods.net has a very large international distribution and made us very visible worldwide. During the three years after our release with alprods.net, we have had a very good response from people. Our whole first album was uploaded on YouTube by fans, we started getting interviews from zines all over the world, we had great reviews, we opened up for Brujeria in L.A. and we started to get a very strong following among Latinos in the U.S. and Mexico. Last year we got an email through our Myspace from Candlelight Records saying that they were interested in our band because of the debut album. It’s been a long journey and we recognize that we are very fortunate to have had opportunities present themselves. We have worked very hard and are extremely happy to release our new album.

Dentro del Manto Gris de Chaac proves that you don’t have to be a full-on black metal fan to find something worthwhile and distinctly unique to Yaotl Mictlan—a feat worthy of praise when carbon-copy black metal artists run rampant across the global scene. Yaotl Mictlan’s expression of cultural heritage through raw, sometimes-violent, sometimes-majestic and somber music is an exercise in self-exploration as well as an emotionally educating process. Trumpets howl and drums pulsate with swirling distorted guitars. Raw vocal expressions stir up feelings and images that bend time and call on the gods of an ancient culture forced to assimilate or die. In a modern age when societies are connected with the click of a mouse and generations are focused on instant gratification and complacency, spirituality and heritage can get lost if self-discovery is not emphasized. As long as the human race has known how to create music, it’s not only been an outlet of artistic expression, but an expression of the very core of civilization and each society’s and ethnicity’s importance. Yaotl Mictlan may remind us of the differences of our heritages, but it also implores us to the realize that we are all one.

Photo: Mitch Allen Photo: Mitch Allen