Cannibalism and Bellydancers: Son of William

“Imagine it is 1290 BCE. You hear a raving horde of savages cajoling and pillaging what is left of the Hittite Empire. Turns out, it was that Spencer Harrison and his deplorable mob, Son of William, vandalizing the history of civilization. Cannibalism and belly dancers! Fire worship and drunken ecstasy! All forms of human folly and rampant wickedness,” chuckles Zap Tripper, a long-time friend of the band and fellow goth musician describing his impression of Son of William.

Son of William is a goth–industrial–death rock solo project created by Spence Harrison and backed by a killer live band and theatrical troupe of professional freaks. SOW encompasses many genres yet characterizes none.

“The vibe the music portrays is angry and fun at the same time. It gets me wound up,” explains Gwen Gilbert, who listens to SOW and attends their shows.

The first SOW demo was recorded in St. Louis and hailed throughout the European underground as a psychedelic goth classic. Three further releases were completed in England (Harrison’s homeland), augmented by live appearances in London and Manchester. Each release became more sinister than the last and was surrounded by a flurry of activities on the European underground scene in the mid-’90s. The use of industrial-style beats layered with guitar grooves and samples provide a dark backdrop for vocals which growl tales of misanthropy and the human condition.

In 1997, Harrison returned to St. Louis and began assembling performers for a full-on shock-rock horror show. A new live lineup was formed. Son of William hit the local scene in late 1998 and has been perfecting their live show ever since in preparation for a national tour. It is a given that, musically, the sound will always morph and evolve. Meanwhile, not a moment has been wasted.

Harrison continues to record prolifically for Son of William and eight other side projects, all on the Berzerker Records label he co-owns. He produces all his own material and built a private showcase venue called the Zoo Room, inside which he runs live sound for a vast array of shows in multiple genres. As noted, Harrison co-owns Berzerker Studios, a historic recording studio–cum–rehearsal hall created to provide local bands with a central location from which to network and practice their sets. It also happens to provide Son of William with the ideal headquarters from which to run amok in the world, working on albums, videos, multimedia art shows, independent film projects, and whatever strikes their fancy. “Anyone who participates in the Darkwave circuit should know who Son of William is,” continues Tripper. “The music is Goth in the original sense of the word, not merely a fashion statement that is ‘Gothesque.’ The performances charge the immediate environment with a degree of panic-excitement mingled with a significant amount of sensuality throughout. It seems to me that SOW doesn’t preach a message, but practices the ideal. Live shows, to me anyway, are more like magical workings in progress.”

Fire juggling, modern and Arabic choreographed dance routines, martial arts, simulated death, and B-movie and fetish skits color each live performance in such a way that no two Son of William shows are ever alike. During one set, an audience may watch Little Red Riding Hood turn tables on the Big Bad Wolf, sadistically whipping and riding him into a writhing frenzy of black leather, the wolf usually portrayed by local fetish icon Eric Peniston. This scene may be followed by an arabic sword dance by professional belly dancers, perhaps chased with a reenactment of the Texas chainsaw massacre in full, gory detail. Then the next SOW show will be completely different. The goal is to perform a tight set against an ever-changing backdrop of skillful yet often humorous visuals, which, like the music, are designed to strike hard and leave the audience wanting more.

“No one in music right now has what they have. About three years ago, friends told me I should check out a SOW show. I have been hooked ever since,” explains Jennifer St. Clair, DJ at the Den, a local goth-industrial club night at the Complex. “Plus, the SOW girls literally rock out with their cocks out!” St. Clair laughs, referring to a skit performed in the song “Stratosfear” off the new Doomsday album, where SOW dancers dress up as droogs from A Clockwork Orange and perform a mock cockfight onstage with strap-on dildoes.

Doomsday, the first full-length SOW album, is set for release in late March. This will be the eighth Son of William release, spanning the project’s 12-year history. With a dedicated underground following and years of international rave reviews under its subversive prow, the SOW battleship has independently steered the audio waves since 1991 with a do-it-yourself mentality and in-your-face productions.

“I think I have been to every SOW show ever done locally. This is an important band, for one thing because musically it combines elements of goth, industrial, tribalism, trance, and even world music in an exciting way. Then they present it all in a show with full theatrics like no one else does,” explains Vardi, another friend and fan of the band. “Over the years, SOW have really helped the local scene by putting on events that give people opportunities to meet and perform, to raise awareness of what it means to be goth, to become inspired and encouraged to create their own projects. I have been attending concerts for 20-plus years, and SOW put on one of the best shows I have ever seen. Not just musically, but the entire stage show as a whole. I am from an era of big shows, which not many people are doing anymore. The lyrics connect the listener with actual events of real life, while they entertain at the same time. To me, SOW is like a triple attack of great music, lyrics and visuals,” Vardi enthuses.

“When I played with Son of William, I was surprised by the high energy and good musicianship. Plus, Spence has the perfect guitar sound! There are only a very few live bands in this genre locally. I would love to see Son of William gain some real notoriety along with the others in this scene. I can say that SOW are more talented than any of the other local bands in the past who focused on the more industrial/electronic side of the genre,” says Styk, of fellow local projects Stykfactor and Visions of Passion & Torture.

With all this support, one wonders what could be the holdup to achieving masses of fame and fortune?

In a recent Riverfront Times article, Byron Kerman summed up the question rather well: “What in the name of hell is Son of William doing in St. Louis?” asked Kerman. “The band’s goth/industrial rock is better than that of Nine Inch Nails and a lot less pretentious. They’ve knocked around for ten years now, releasing seven albums and contributing to gobs of darkwave-music compilation CDs. They’ve made a name for themselves in Harrison’s native England and received their due in Mick Mercer’s 1997 book Hex Files: The Goth Bible. So why do Missouri poseurs…get the record deal while SOW, a power trio fronted by a genre-topping songwriter, must scrape the bucket to mount the occasional haunted-concert spectacle? There’s no simple answer for that one.” There is no simple answer indeed, because Son of William is an exercisein laughing at the struggle of life, maintaining hope while immersed in horror. Locally, Son of William has received much support but also faced much opposition, and no support has come from local mainstream radio or club DJs as yet. SOW is completely ignored by the Point so far. Even the diverse KDHX has no format for guitar-driven goth-industrial music. Son of William is considered too heavy for strict synthpop fans, who make up a substantial segment of the local goth scene. Some prefer new music to capture a specific sound from the ’80s rather than creating diversity.

For example, Jonathon Grimm, DJ of the longest-running Goth night (formerly Club Fetish, R.I.P.) in St. Louis at Galaxy, does not support Son of William because he does not personally care for the music. “With goth music there is a very ethereal, light side which I relate to, but SOW is all on the heavy side. I would like to see them incorporate more of the world sound. If there is a message in what they are doing, I do not hear it,” Grimm said.

It may be argued that the role of a DJ is to expose new music in a specific genre regardless of personal taste, but that is neither here nor there. The fact is, Son of William will continue to be no more nor less than what its creator intends, and this will occur with or without support. On a global scale, SOW has always been strongly favored in the small press underground, but distance spreads efforts very thinly, especially when finances are so tight it becomes difficult to keep the product available.

By releasing Doomsday, Son of William hopes to attract the national distribution that their traditional, short EP releases do not gather due to lower sales markups. And locally, times are changing. Greater numbers of DJs who do support SOW are popping up, especially at the Complex. Washington University now has two college radio shows with goth formats.

Newcomers to the scene are often bred on a background of heavy bands such as Cradle of Filth and are considering that goth for the new generation. Whatever the labels, Son of William is driven by a man who has been deported twice by U.S. Immigration Services, arrested three times, and never has any money in his pocket!

Harrison squatted in seedy east London, was a homeless teenage punk rocker in Bumfuck, Illinois, and lived in English country boarding schools from the age of four. He once worked mindlessly in stinking factories, building hand grenades at 4:00 a.m. to feed himself, and has been systematically discriminated against for openly identifying with the extremes of subculture in various forms. Every dime he has ever had in the past ten years has been poured into Son of William.

But before breaking out the violins for a sob story, Harrison is also a man who spends all day writing and recording his own material in his own studio, in the same room where Miles Davis and Chuck Berry made music history, doing what millions only dream of. He owns a beautiful home in a lovely neighborhood, is well-traveled, vacations in Europe, and is happily married. He is a self-taught expert in Teutonic history and mysticism, has written a book on runes, makes his own mead and incense, etc.

There are no major record deal and fat wallet around the Berzerker camp. But it is not such a bad life, after all. Harrison provides cause for others to question the definition of success in the soul-sucking music industry, rather than being an example of its monetary success himself.

Despite being described by Flush magazine as having “a potential greater than a certain Japanese monster” and to the amazement of well-wishers all around, Harrison does not send out promos to major labels or seek corporate financing in any form. “Everything we have ever gained we have worked for ourselves. We realize this could all end at any moment and try to focus on enjoying every minute of what we do,” he says.

With no intentions of being the next huge thing, Son of William will inch along, attaining its own goals at its own pace in its own time. “If Elektra or anyone are good enough to ‘bust open the door with a wheelbarrow of cash’ at any time, they are going to have to respect that we maintain control of our own destiny whatever the cost,” says Harrison.

“SOW is a celebration of the shadow side of life, unbridled primal force in motion. SOW throws a stick in the eye of all that is repressed and phony about today’s society,” he explains. “This music gives the listener a tool to associate with their own experiences. It can help people connect with the invulnerable strength in themselves. That is what I believe people want and need most today.”

Ultimately, SOW is about concentrated will, perseverance, and not compromising to gain what you want.

Amy Bidz is co-owner of Berzerker Studios and Berzerker Records, Inc., manages Son of William, and is Spence’s wife.

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