The damage inflicted on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef as a direct result of human activity has come to symbolise all that is wrong with our relationship with the natural world. Indeed Earth’s largest single living organism has arguably been the most visibly affected by climate change, with rising sea temperatures causing recurrent bleaching and subsequent species death each year. As the plight of our planet comes ever more into focus within mainstream media and conversation, it is only fitting that musicians will increasingly be concerned with addressing environmental themes in their music.
Nottingham drone/doom duo Bismuth have taken the opportunity to tackle such issues on their atmospherically intense new album, the aptly-titled The Slow Dying of The Great Barrier Reef (review here). Comprising of just two tracks (albeit with one clocking in at over half an hour), Bismuth have created an uncompromising, intricate and rewarding listen, one that feels as large and complex as its subject matter. The music sounds as large and vast as the ocean itself and is a testament to the band’s creativity that two musicians alone are responsible for such a colossal sound.
Here we take the opportunity to speak to bassist/vocalist Tanya Byrne about her passion for environmental issues, the writing process behind the new album and how she envisions Bismuth’s sound evolving in the future.
Your new album addresses how humans are destroying the natural world. Did you begin making the album with this subject in mind or was it something that evolved naturally during the writing process?
We began writing this album during a time when I was reading a lot about how humans are affecting the world’s ecosystems. I think the theme very much evolved naturally during the writing process; a lot of the reverb and delay reminded me of the sea. However, we always write the music before I think about lyrics; the sound of the tracks very much seemed to suit what I had been thinking about outside of music.
The first track clocks in at over half an hour. Did you approach the title-track with the goal of writing such a lengthy song or did it just materialise that way?
It very much just ended up that way. I seem incapable of writing music any shorter than about seven minutes long. By the standards of other things I’ve written for my solo work, it is actually pretty short! Both Joe [Rawlings, drums] and I just get into it, and don’t want to stop playing!
How important in general are environmental matters to you? Do you think metal has the power to make a difference?
I study Earth and environmental science, so pretty important! I think it is vital that people with any form of platform try to help dispel as much of the falsehoods surrounding the environmental decline of our planet as possible. Even if one person seeks more varied sources of information than the mass media, and learns something new about these issues and then helps inform their friends, that would be something.
You’re one of a growing number of bands that create a heavy sound with only two members. How easy is this to do outside of the traditional rock band set up?
I believe it’s actually easier to do as it makes targeting specific frequencies much easier. I use a multiple amp setup, so I can control all aspects of my sound.
As well as some gargantuan riffs, the new album features much quieter, eerie passages too, most notably the slow ethereal build-up of the title-track. Do you think it’s important to create this balance between ambience and intensity?
Very much so, yes. My musical background is from a classical/ambient/noise/drone place, rather than that of metal. Contrast and layers are the most important aspect of music for me. Constant heavy riffs lose their impact over time, but contrasting them with quieter sections makes them seem even bigger. It is also good to explore quieter parts to show that fuzz and volume are not always needed to carry weight and heaviness.
Are there any challenges in recreating this sound in a live setting?
Not at all, in fact I think it’s the recording that is a struggle for us! Our recordings are trying to replicate our live sound, but in a way that picks out all the layers. The only aspect that is not replicated in a live setting is the harmonised vocals – sadly I don’t have the vocal chords to harmonise with myself! The only challenge live seems to be sound engineers asking us to turn down!
The album artwork is equally as striking. Who designed it?
Our friend Ross D Mckendrick designed it. He made the album art previously for one of my other bands (Monoliths, with Henry from Moloch, and Tobin from Ommadon), and his style seemed like the perfect choice. We are very pleased with how it turned out.
How would you describe the Nottingham metal scene to anyone who’s never visited the city?
Nottingham’s music scene is excellent. There are a couple of people that always put on shows and lots of great bands come to play. Stuck On A Name Studios and JT Soar are awesome places for DIY shows and the Chameleon has the most RIDICULOUS PA. There are so many great bands from here; Moloch, Grey Hairs, Bloody Head, Shykrull and loads more!
Who are your biggest metal and non-metal musical inspirations?
Musically, I love Arvo Part and Oren Amberchi for their sense of space. Corrupted, for their beautiful heaviness and Stars Of The Lid for their drones and layers. Also Primitive Man – those guys put everything into what they do, I really admire that. Non-musically, I would say seeing the natural world is the biggest inspiration, as well as the need for us to process life through music.
Are there any bands you would love to have the chance to work with in the future?
Where do you envisage Bismuth’s sound going next?
I’d like to introduce more noise aspects into songs, as well as a little longer clean singing parts. More atmospheric parts, while still remaining heavy.
The Slow Dying Of The Great Barrier Reef is out now on Dry Cough, Rope or Guillotine, Medusa Crush and Tartarus Records. Purchase here.
Words: Adam Pegg