Rave nostalgia aside, electronic music has always looked forward for inspiration. Futuristic sci-fi aesthetics have always dominated electronic music publications. However, zine maker and electronic musician Tommy Creep isn’t afraid to look elsewhere for inspiration, drawing from the spooky past.
His esoteric zine Black Panels Only is a modular synth mag that also taps into the mystical, medieval themes and designs found in folklore and black metal. Rob Smith chatted to Tommy about the origins of the zine and bringing the dark arts to an electronic music zine.
The zine has its own striking visual language, drawing on design influences from metal. How did the look come together?
Part of what appealed to me about modular, or I suppose particularly Eurorack, was the personality that comes across in some of the modules – modules from companies like Zlob Modular, ERD and Error Instruments that had somewhat esoteric designs with striking sigils. They unapologetically express some of the personality of the makers in the visuals rather than a lot of music technology that can often have a more neutral design.
I wanted to create a zine that collated some of the companies and artists that lean more in that direction and I’ve always loved the look of old black metal and death metal zines. A big influence on the design is Mörk Borg – an award-winning metal-themed table-top RPG that has the most incredible graphic design – shamelessly mixing fonts and styles, intentionally breaking many graphic design “rules” but in a very deliberate, masterful way that just works somehow.
I’m still working on the design aspect of the zine, experimenting with different techniques and some elements have worked better than others but I love being able to try new things out.
Some harder styles of techno like hardcore, breakcore and gabber also share some thematic cues with punk and metal, did you arrive at synths through these styles or hop straight from guitar music to producing on hardware?
Chiptune was actually my entry point into electronic music. Between bands I was looking for a way to make solo music that didn’t involve an acoustic guitar and I came across the trailer for the Reformat The Planet 8-bit music documentary. Seeing people performing live jumping around with just a Gameboy blew my mind a bit. Through this, I learnt about trackers and so naturally was exposed to breakcore and that was probably the first time I realised that electronic music wasn’t all like 90s radio dance music but actually was just a tool to make music of any style, theme or direction.
It feels a bit obvious looking back but I’d just never really been aware of people making darker-themed stuff outside of the punk/metal scenes. Hearing breakcore records like the horror-themed Pantheon of Fiends by Abelcain, where the distorted breaks have a similar abrasiveness/aggression to metal was a game-changer.
Pick out one feature that really sums up what the zine is all about.
The first interview in the first issue is with Martin Howse of ERD. He makes extremely mystical modules such as the Earth Return Distortion which sends the signal through actual dirt collected from notable graves; and the SIR (Susceptible, Infected, Recovered) module which outputs rhythms simulating infection rates from historical plagues. The modules are visually stunning and the concepts are thoroughly researched and weave in so many themes into the circuits that combine to make each module like a standalone piece of art. I asked him about his design philosophy for the series and we discussed the incense-burning module BREATH.
I think it stands as a perfect example of what I wanted the magazine to be about – learning more about modular designs and makers and the links between the concepts, aesthetics and electronics.
Through collaborating with others have you found many other heads who have similar overlapping interests to you?
Definitely! Feedback has been really positive overall. There are some readers who aren’t really from the same background that like it just as a modular zine and then plenty of people who get the references and are former metalheads and connect with the zine through similar inclinations. It’s not strictly a metal-themed synth zine as such though – I don’t want it to be so limited and I hope that people can enjoy it and be inspired by it whether they have any interest in that kinda thing or not.
How did you first come into contact with modular synths/Euroracks and get sucked into synth culture?
It seems like a lot of Chiptune people end up getting into modular eventually for some reason. After Gameboys, I started getting into little synths like the Monotrons, Volcas, Patchblocks, Atari Punk Consoles but it was when I got a Microbrute that I got properly sucked in. Because it has a little Eurorack-compatible patch bay, it was easy to think “maybe I’ll just get one oscillator to use with it” and then it was probably only a few months on that I’d sold all the Volcas and the Microbrute itself to buy more modules.
Eurorack just felt like the ultimate endpoint as a synth nerd. New modules come out all the time so it never gets dull and creating your own system that fits together like Lego and feels uniquely yours is so satisfying.
Metal graphics are known for being embedded with dark/pagan imagery and symbology. Any favourite glyphs or designs you enjoyed introducing to electronic music?
I love doing little illustrations for the zines – imaginary modules, skeletons and candles. I like including old alchemical symbols and the contrast between the incredible engineering knowledge that goes into making modules and the medieval times when there wasn’t really much separation between science and magic.
Do you have any Black Panels Only events planned?
Completely removed from the zine, I put on events with some friends under the banner Dark Alchemy in Bristol. We put on dark ambient, experimental music, often in local churches and crypts. It’s not exclusively electronic, it’s more about atmospheric music, regardless of style or instrumentation so will often have modular dark ambient artists mixed with neoclassical, medieval music, mixed with guitar-based post rock or drone doom.
It’s definitely crossed my mind to put on a Black Panels Only event at some point but I do like that the zine feels more global than local, featuring artists and modular companies from loads of different countries and most of the zines I actually end up posting to places outside of the UK.
Any other fanzines or publications you’re a big fan of?
In the synth world, there’s My Ambient Machines – a Swedish zine doing great stuff like accompanying the zine with cassettes and beautiful risograph printed posts, then Modul8 in Australia, another cool new zine doing cool stuff.
Outside of the synth world, there’s a whole load of folklore zines putting out great stuff such as Weird Walk, Hellebore, Fantômes, Black Dog, all putting out awesome A5 zines that are well worth a read.