Dungeon Crawler: San Antonio’s monolithic ambient-doom project Crawl lurks in the shadows

click to enlarge Actual human bones — ulnas, radii, humeri and mandibles — line Michael Engle’s drum kit. - Josh Yelle
Josh Yelle
Actual human bones — ulnas, radii, humeri and mandibles — line Michael Engle’s drum kit.
"I want to create an immersive experience and instill an image in people when they’re digesting the band,” said Michael Engle, the San Antonio solo artist known as Crawl.

“Crawl is basically my attempt to put you in a space like a dungeon, where you’re slowly exploring the environment. Every step is very cautious, and every corner has a ton of anxiety. You’re afraid to take that next step or afraid to open a door.”

The necrotic world of Crawl begins where Diablo II, the dungeon-crawling video game released in 2000, leaves off. Engle says the atmosphere of the dungeon-crawling game captures the essence of what he’s trying to do with the musical project.

He actualizes that vision by using drums, bass, sample pads and vocals to lull the listener into a trance. Hints of funeral doom, black metal noise and dark ambient bubble up from the genre-defying music, sometimes comparable to cavernous-sounding ambient metal act Lurker of Chalice or sludgy Japanese doom metal band Corrupted.

The dark sound that Crawl creates isn’t exactly mainstream listening, but it challenges willing audiences to gaze into the void.

Bone, sludge and harmony

Witnessing Crawl in a live setting truly showcases the dark and tortured atmosphere the artist strives to create.

Actual human bones — ulnas, radii, humeri and mandibles — line Engle’s drum kit. His face is obscured by a “vocal mask” composed of small bones, elastic material and a microphone. A bovine vertebrate hangs adjacent to a two-string bass overhead which he plays with a drumstick — all while maintaining the pummeling beats the drive the proceedings.

The experience is jarring to the senses. And entirely in keeping with the musician’s aim to create a complete aesthetic package.

“For a while I was getting the bones from a private seller, but then they ended up going to prison for selling illegal human remains overseas,” Engle said, recounting stories of his gradual thematic masking and ever-growing collection of remains.

The musical project’s Diablo II inspiration came about while Engle was working at a cyber cafe in the early 2000s. The game, combined with his love for cavernous synth sounds, helped incubate the project. But, he acknowledges, it also stemmed from a necessity to play heavy music.

“In 2010, I had a two-piece band that broke up,” he said. “It was pretty frustrating, because I was wanting to book tours and play shows. And I couldn’t find anyone to commit, so I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to replace the guitarist.’ It was completely out of necessity to play the music I wanted to play.”

Since that time, Crawl has put out eight releases, including a split with solo black metal legend Leviathan. Engle has also undertaken numerous tours across the United States and Canada and landed slots at notable heavy music festivals including Eternal Warfare, 71Grind and Psycho Las Vegas.

Lonesome road

Along the way, Engle has performed not just as Crawl but also as a session drummer for New York-based noise rockers Uniform for a 2019 U.S. tour with Japanese avant-metal act Boris and a short run with British doom metal band Conan.

Coupled with his own touring, those jaunts make him one of San Antonio’s best-traveled underground rock musicians.

While being a one-man act might suggest that Engle faces an easy load-in at venues, that’s not the case. Crawl is powered by four refrigerator-sized speaker cabinets that help drive the pummeling sound.

“I don’t feel like it’s that much. It’s only two full stacks, which is kind of normal for a band,” he explains. “It only looks weird because it’s one person and it’s all right behind me. It’s definitely a bit of an illusion there.”

Illusion or not, it’s highly advised to bring hearing protection to a Crawl performance, although it is not clear when the artist plans to perform again. He’s taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to determining whether the worst of the pandemic is really behind us.

“I am waiting until after this summer’s batch of festivals before I decide on what I want to do as far as live performances,” he said.

Engle recently posted photos of himself in the recording studio on his social media feeds, but he’s reluctant to say whether that means a new release is in the works.

“Being a heavy band in San Antonio is one of the many reasons I do this by myself,” he said. “There’s not a lot of people in San Antonio that play heavy music, and there’s even less people that want to do it with noise involved.”

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