“I’m just some girl trying her best,” starts Australian artist Xandra Metcalfe on the first track of her latest album under the Uboa name. It’s a line that introduces the record’s intimate and starkly revelatory nature, something that conjures a more affecting listen than any bludgeoning blastbeat ever could. As much as metal fans love to brag about just how far away from “mainstream” music their favourite bands are, about how heavy the riffs they like and the screams they endure are, Uboa’s The Origin Of My Depression is about as far from “easy listening” as music gets, and Metcalfe does it not through beefy riffs but through a nuanced melting pot of gentle pianos, harsh noise, drone, doom, and more.
“Uboa started off as an experimental doom metal project in my bedroom in 2010,” explains its creator. “And it has moved more towards noise, experimental and generally abstract compositions ever since.” The project’s last album, 2018’s The Sky May Be, stacked harsh noise cuts up against sections of ambient choral music and synths. The Origin Of My Depression, meanwhile, presents a similar blend; but one that’s more varied, and often cinematic. “It’s kinda slowcore? But still noise?” Metcalfe suggests. “I don’t quite know how to describe it, but I was more inspired by Jenny Hval, Planning For Burial and the Salisbury/Barrow soundtrack to Annihilation. There is clean singing and melody right next to harsh noise.”
As much as genres like drone and noise may attract derision for their one-note nature and denial of traditional form and sound, they can offer listening experiences unlike any other. In the case of The Origin Of My Depression, that experience is at once serene and hostile, luring you in with lucid chimes and lush palettes before testing your mettle with despairing screams, pulverising noise and massive drones. Evidently, Metcalfe knows how effective these styles can be when mixed with other disparate sounds. “[Drone and noise] are only effective when impure!” she tells us. “Pure drone often is pretty boring unless, say, mixed with metal, and pure noise – say HNW – has difficulty creating an emotional response for me without deviating from its tropes. I think virtually anything is better mixed with something else, rather than a reactionary desire for purity. One thing I don’t want Uboa to be is a ‘x project’, like a ‘noise project’ or a ‘DSBM project’. Limiting one project to one genre guarantees you won’t have something new, unless that genre is a non-genre, like ‘experimental’ is. I prefer the false to the true generally.”
This approach to genre is evident in Uboa’s output, particularly on The Origin Of My Depression, which drifts through myriad analogue and digital techniques. It’s certainly a unique listen, but Metcalfe explains that this was not born out of a desire to sound different so much as striving to manifest an idea swirling around in her head. “I think a few musicians would already know of the idea of having something in your head – a ‘sound’ – that exists in between already existing ideas and genres. Whether it is completely unique is subjective and completely secondary to the idea of getting something out of my head into external reality. A lot of is just translating music that plays in my head by default. It’s kind of like automatic writing sometimes.”
The result is a record that boasts moments of hushed quiet and intense loud, drifting between subtlety and maximalism and in the process ensuring each is way more effective. The Origin Of My Depression understands that stark displays of emotion can be just as affecting as the harshest of harsh noise. Nevertheless, the album throws everything it has at you on several occasions, threatening to blow-out your speakers with a cacophony of overwhelming noise, and yet for all its encompassing scope, it is also one of the most intimate and revealing albums you’re likely to come across. “I wanted to try and capture the isolation melancholia can make you feel,” Metcalfe explains of this duality. “And for me I always associated sadness in music with sparseness, barrenness and quietness. I wanted to signify empty space musically. Hence why the harsh noise is few and far between, and I think a little more effective because of all the sparseness it contrasts with.”
This melancholy atmosphere stems from the album’s personal themes – the cover art was taken in hospital after a suicide attempt, and the album itself is just as unflinching in its depiction of Metcalfe’s personal struggles. The hostile-sounding moments of noise exist not to confront the listener, but are instead written with “just me in mind – its emotional effect on me, and originally that emotional effect was depression. As in, I was depressed about how the record ended up in the end, until I showed it to a few friends who said it was ‘my best yet’. While I don’t really think it is my best, they did convince me to see it in a new light. So challenging people was an accident really. I was sad, suicidal and really needed human contact and I couldn’t hide it anymore. My depression was always going to affect my music. I might prefer it if people didn’t find it confronting and challenging, even if it is a cry for help, because I want people to listen rather than turn away in shock.”
Lyrically, Metcalfe explains that the album “deals heavily with themes regarding me being transgender and mentally ill, it’s tricky to describe.” Few records are able to give such an insight into a person’s inner thoughts and indeed emotions, largely because many of us could scarcely consider releasing something so intimate. But suffering in silence, as many do, is surely a worse alternative. “It was hard [to release],” Metcalfe admits. “As it meant admitting to a lot of people I was suffering where I would rather not worry them. But it was harder not to release as I needed to get it out there. It’s hard either way. But I think it is important to signify your suffering rather than do it in silence, as only then can things change.”
This desire to get the record out into the world led to Metcalfe self-releasing the LP despite The Sky May Be coming out on fantastic Aussie label Art As Catharsis. She explains, “with my label, I would have had to wait until October 2019 to release this LP, by then I’ll have another one out. I didn’t want to just sit on it and endlessly try and ‘perfect it’ either, which would stress me out. Above all it is also a little cry for help I needed to get out. I wasn’t going through a great time mentally and needed, simply, the validation of getting it out there. I’d be a liar if I said my music isn’t just an elaborate attempt to win love from strangers.”
In this way, Uboa is successful. The enthralling nature of the music has won Metcalfe the admiration of many for her unflinching approach to topics sometimes considered taboo. Hers is a voice willing to speak about everyday truths that others would rather only hint at, if mention at all – even if it is done, in her own words, with “just me in mind.” Regardless, there will be those listening who have experienced similar things and will find a kindred spirit in Metcalfe, and there will be those who may begin to understand their privilege when presented with such a stark look into the psyche of someone struggling through things that they will perhaps never experience. Though she says that nothing was consciously planned in advance, rather that she simply “intuited and palpated around themes that seemed to gel into something cohesive”, each track “explores a thing that intruded my mind when depressed – the different ‘causes’, I guess.”
Uboa’s music has always been thoughtful and consistently original, but The Origin Of My Depression is a slightly different affair. Musically, it’s a nuanced approach to already niche styles that sounds unlike anything else, but it uses this style to do something much greater by exploring deeply personal concepts and presenting them to the listener without a hint of dishonesty or secrecy. Not everyone can (or perhaps even should) do the same, but many will undoubtedly be thankful that Metcalfe has.
“Ultimately the origin of my depression is overdetermined,” she explains. “Everything from dysphoria, everyday transphobia, regret, unrequited love, mentally ill love, queerness and a good dose of contingency all fall into the mix. There is not a single thing, especially not something like a ‘chemical imbalance’ that causes it. Depression is often just socioeconomic alienation because of a sick society or mode of production rather than something merely individual. Hopefully that element is apparent in the work.”
As well as The Origin Of My Depression, Metcalfe has just released a tape for her collaboration with Muddy Lawrence. Tapes for The Origin Of My Depression and The Sky May Be are due soon, and new LP Impossible Light is due for release in October this year.
Words: George Parr