Horror has always been a part of tabletop RPGs—when you’re fighting zombies, blundering into pit traps, and dodging dragon fire, you can’t help but sense some of your character’s peril.
8-Bit Rage: Black Hole Zion, Industrial Music, and Science Fiction9 min read
The singer launches into his story with a gritty, melodic roar:
Would it be so bad if you didn’t wake up?
Did I have something to say to you?
You never had it together, you never had a clue.
I’m now something I can’t contain.
How can I deal with this 8-bit rage?
The chirp and thud of a chip-tune beat merges with the bombastic thunder of hard rock drumming, heavy guitars churning through crushing riffs. Complex layers of electronic elements and more traditional rock instruments create a grinding, propulsive groove. Black Hole Zion’s latest release, “The Great Repression,” is a heavy story about cosmic awareness and the failures of earthly existence (and, possibly, about finding some balance between the two).
Mark Zbornak is the mastermind behind Black Hole Zion — he’s the vocalist and the primary songwriter and lyricist. Guitarist Ryan contributes to songwriting as well, while drummer George and bassist Cody round out the band both in the studio and during live performances (the band members intentionally do not reveal their last names). They’re not the first band to be built around a core of science fiction influences, but they do an excellent job of it, weaving esoteric concepts into their lyrics that elevate them far above the usual aggro-rock macho angst.
With song titles like “Trapped in the Center of an Unstable Loop” and “This Equation Is Null,” it’s not a big surprise that Black Hole Zion has found success beyond the usual circuit of bars that most indie rock bands play. This September they played at Charleston, West Virginia’s Shocka-Con, and they’ve found eager audiences at other horror and scifi conventions too. There seems to be a market for something more than the usual filk or music seeded with geek culture references found at many con concerts.
Their music, above all else, is good. Like any band worth a damn, a torrent of influences are apparent, but the one that stands out is a very 90s industrial feel. Zbornak’s processed and layered vocals are reminiscent of Rob Zombie (in live performances he has a classic post-hardcore shout that makes the songs sound less polished, but gives them additional urgency and energy). Standout tracks are “8-Bit Rage,” which blends aggression and chiptune rhythms with an exceptionally catchy chorus, “Secrets of Time Travel” with a crushing rhythm that leaves you hanging in freefall waiting for that drum beat to finally hit, and the epic climax of “Transdimensional Stellar Autopsy.” If there’s a better industrial groove-rock album about trippy time-space-mind concepts, we haven’t heard it.
I interviewed Zbornak to learn about his cosmic plans for Black Hole Zion for Apex Magazine.
ED GRABIANOWSKI: Can you explain the story being told in The Great Repression? The protagonist starts in a very nihilist, dark place and then seems to undergo some kind of transformation.
MARK ZBORNAK: You are very close to the story arc. The protagonist experienced heightened perception and some supernatural abilities, but then loses a great deal of those, during the first track (“I Dream of Infinite Space”), to a traumatic experience. The person was trying to reach out and feel/help some individuals in this plane and others, but was essentially poisoned by the experience. He goes on trying to deal with the experience and the change in ability in the best way possible. He is angry, desperate, and somehow still clinging to some hope and wonder. The album is a search and lots of questions: How to get back to where you were? Do you want to get back there anyway? Why is this all happening? Is the reality we have constructed worth saving or preserving? He eventually realizes that he didn’t really lose anything, but he just wasn’t prepared to process it all. He can go back to what he had and more if he wants to. He was repressed by his surroundings to an extent, but he also chose to be that way. In the end, he realizes that the bad experience has shaped him and calloused him. Nothing matters and everything matters. It is a matter of perspective.
ED GRABIANOWSKI: What are some science-fiction stories that inspired The Great Repression and some of Black Hole Zion’s other works?
MARK ZBORNAK: I know it probably seems crazy, but this album is partially rooted in some very real experiences I had. A lot of science fiction references I used to kind of hide that fact that I wasn’t really comfortable with talking about the things that actually happened to me. No one story inspired The Great Repression. I had originally thought of writing the album as a science fiction story without music because I had a very clear idea of everything happening in it. [Science fiction] stories helped shape me, and that shaped the way I approached layering story elements, and how I did some hiding of the more personal things. Please don’t interpret this as me saying that I’m some amazing writer that is completely original. It isn’t. It’s just how I was able to deal with things and put it together. I’ve never written a book, so I was just adapting the longer text into lyrics at first.
I’m a huge fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune books. I also really love Star Trek and Star Wars. I have read a good deal of Star Wars EU stuff. I like Blade Runner. Doctor Who (although I had not seen that show when I wrote any of these songs). Comics too. I tried to get the story for The Great Repression happening as a comic, but it didn’t happen. I am just a huge fan of science fiction, comics, and transcending the human condition. All of that stuff comes out. I can definitely say that Black Hole Zion has a song that is a tribute to Q from Star Trek, The Next Generation. It is a weird instrumental track off an EP we put out a couple years ago.
ED GRABIANOWSKI: Who are some of your biggest influences as a singer?
MARK ZBORNAK: As a singer and a musician in general, I absolutely love David Bowie. There would be no Black Hole Zion without David Bowie. I know that none of the current Black Hole Zion albums have any vocals that actually sound like David Bowie, but he is a huge influence on me. I also love Paul Stanley from Kiss, Devin Townsend, Mike Patton, and Tom Araya from Slayer. The Great Repression is me trying to do some things that are melodic, but put a distorted edge and paint to them.
ED GRABIANOWSKI: Can you describe the process of writing and recording this album? There are lots of electronic sounds layered together with heavy guitars, so the production seems quite complex. Are there live drums, or are the drums all programmed?
MARK ZBORNAK: The writing and recording was difficult for me on a personal level, but also very fun and liberating. Ryan (our guitar player) is who I wrote everything with. We didn’t really have any rules. I had a story and a concept, but the music was anything we felt like doing. The song “Trapped in the Center of an Unstable Loop” was one of the first that we wrote together. Some of the other ones were things I already had, or things I had and he completed. He also came up with the first two tracks on the album and fit so perfectly with the melody and lyrics I had in mind. There are tons of layers and noises. However, I wanted every song to work as a song if it were stripped down to nothing but a guitar and vocals. I had even written some stuff on acoustic guitar first and the heaviness came much later. I went crazy with sampling noises, programming synths, etc. Tracking guitars were pretty straight forward. Ryan is a great guitarist, so once I had him mic’d up he could really tear through everything we had written. I recorded a lot of the bass because we didn’t have a full band at the time. When Corey came on, he did the rest, including a cool part at the end of “This Equation Is Null.”
Any drums that sound like they are live, were live. Our drummer, George, is amazing. Really, I love everyone in the band’s ability, but since we are talking drums, I really want to make sure and point that part out. However, there are plenty of obviously fake sounding drum parts that I programmed and just went nuts with whenever I could.
ED GRABIANOWSKI: What has it been like playing at fan conventions? How do those shows compare to the average show at a bar?
MARK ZBORNAK: Playing conventions is awesome! It’s just great to be around people that are as into something as you are (sometimes more). That’s probably my favorite part. It’s usually an environment with a bit more of a home vibe for me, at least. I’m much more comfortable checking out other convention related stuff, cosplaying, or whatever than I am at a bar where I don’t know what others are into. Conventions are just a nice ice breaker in terms of knowing what the rest of the folks are into. That said, playing bars and other clubs is cool too, especially when we get to do our own thing. We just try to do something fun each time we play. We just love to play in different environments, so we adapt to fit our surroundings.
ED GRABIANOWSKI: What’s on the (event) horizon for Black Hole Zion?
MARK ZBORNAK: The next thing for us is supporting and promoting this album, but also working on new stuff. Just between me and Ryan, we have a ton of music. Some of those are songs with lyrics/vocals and others are weird instrumental things. We have a pretty strong concept for a pair of EP’s that complement each other well. I tend to work on lots of stuff at the same time, so I don’t know for sure what will come out next. I do know that we have so much that there are probably four to five EPs worth of things. I doubt the next release will be a full-length album, but we could decide something different tomorrow. We will definitely have some new music released before this time next year.
ED GRABIANOWSKI: I notice there’s a strong anti-commercialism theme running through the lyrics. Why does that idea figure so strongly in your work? What do you think science fiction can tell us about finding different ways to live and work and value our time?
MARK ZBORNAK: I try to be a little careful with the anti-commercialism stuff because I like to buy things, too. I’ve probably got a bit too many science fiction-related collectibles of my own. I just try to come from a place of recognizing it, but not putting myself on a pedestal. That line “I’m guilty, you’re guilty…” tries to address that. Buying things won’t fix what is wrong with someone or make them a better person. You’re the first person to pick up on the anti-commercialism vibe, so I really appreciate that you did. It is definitely a big part of the album. I think the idea figures strongly to start because I grew up in a working-class family, and I always asked lots of questions as a kid. I remember being on a picket line with my mother as a kid. You see folks taken less seriously if they didn’t have the right clothes, car, etc. You have to have the newest phone, take the right pills, and get the most “likes” or you aren’t valid as a person … again, this is coming from the guy that is on social media, has collectible lightsabers, and a whole bunch of other bullshit.
I think science fiction gives us something to aspire to. Science fiction lays out ways we can become a better species. Let’s strive to build the best and most efficient technology. Let’s evolve past the outdated societal constructs we have built. Technology is a thing that can be purchased, but if we look at the ways that science fiction can inspire us, we can take those tech aspirations and use them to build a better universe. We should want to improve so that our lives are better and more meaningful, not to fill our time up with things that don’t wind up being useful or fun. Even if someone isn’t into technology and “things,” science fiction gives a much better view of the universe than what most of us have. The Prime Directive in Star Trek, all of the various philosophies in the Dune universe, including the Golden Path, all ask us to think about how we impact the world around us and how we react to events. Automation of work is a reality now, and I think we’d better prepare for how we deal with that as a society. We need to use it to free ourselves instead of further enslaving a population.
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I’m a skeptic. If you tell me a story about a ghost or that time you saw Bigfoot, my instinctive reaction is to look at the evidence and figure out what non–supernatural reason there might be for something so seemingly weird. But I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes the truth gets in the way of a good story.