Gregory Pepper – ‘Black Metal Demo Tape’

Review by J.M. Farr

Gregory Pepper has remained an enigma to me since I first saw him in 2010. We shared a bill in Montreal, where he was touring The Great Repression—a rockabilly cover album of one of his own albums, The Great Depression. He hopped up on stage and started spouting these great pop melodies. And all the while, he was contorting his face in expressions somewhere between ecstasy and extreme pain, like he was some kind of Butoh dancer. It was an intriguing set, and I’ve followed his music with interest ever since.

Pepper, as a devoted student of popular music forms, has flirted with several genres over the course of his career—ska, hip-hop, power-pop, and, as mentioned above, rockabilly. Black Metal Demo Tape is an exquisite pop curio, exploring a sludgy palette that remains in service to Pepper’s impeccable senses of melody and humour. While of course, not black metal at all, the album alludes to some of those genre conventions—it is proudly lo-fi, home recorded, featuring scuzzy guitars and some dark subject matter.

And of course, Pepper is just sort of kidding us as well. Ever the committed ironist, Pepper’s album cover is himself, decked out in corpse paint and spikes, holding up his cat for sacrifice to Satan. It’s probably my favourite album cover of the year.

Other than all that, we’re largely in power-pop country, with beautiful harmonized guitar solos and stacked vocals. Still, the garb of sludge and distortion is very becoming—in the past, I’ve sometimes felt Pepper’s music bordered on preciousness, and the heaviness of the instrumentation here mitigates those occasional misgivings.

Black Metal Demo Tape benefits in many ways from being a home recorded affair—it feels like Pepper is able to stretch his shit out creatively. For example, the album is bookended by two unusual songs, “Big Sister” and “Quirky”, which play with reversed loops and feedback in such a satisfying way that may have been more difficult to arrive at under the budget and time crunches of a bigger studio.

Between these two odder tracks lies a spread of all-killer-no-filler anthems that flesh out spooky themes like death, loneliness, and alienation. I love Gregory Pepper because I feel he embodies a particularly interesting paradox—it’s clear that he’s making music entirely for his own satisfaction, and yet that music operates self-consciously within a pop paradigm, geared for mass appeal. While this isn’t a unique paradox in the independent music world, I find Pepper’s iteration of it very satisfying to engage with.

More than anything, it simply makes me happy knowing he is out there at Camp Pepper, his house in Guelph, making art that satisfies some deep compulsion within him to create, flying under the mainstream’s radar even as he toys with it. What could be more black metal than that?