Discussing hardcore, Magic The Gathering and Bloodborne with Minneapolis trio Grogus.
If sludge is doom’s grittier partner, taking the genre’s knack for fuzz and repetition and merging them to a hardcore level of intensity and thus making them umpteen times more grisly and intense, then it’s hardly surprising that the genre excels when exploring dark themes. The potential downside, though, is that its stifling intensity doesn’t always leave much room for innovation – enter Grogus. The Minneapolis trio’s take on the genre leaves monotony at the door, instead favouring shifting time signatures and proggy riffs, with ambient textures also playing a key role throughout. Where sludge often thrives off its ability to pummel relentlessly, Grogus’ tunes are more expansive, utilising a greater array of tools, from blackened screams and death-doom stomps to noise/drone passages and the occasional favouring of hardcore elements over doom.
But such an impressive sound needs subject matter to match, and Grogus have certainly delivered in this regard too. The band refer to the titular Grogus as some sort of “fungas wizard”, but this isn’t a world entirely of their own making. Notable throughout are references to the likes of Warhammer and, most overtly, the Soulsborne series of video games released by Japanese developers FromSoftware – the whole thing’s “supposed to feel like a pulpy comic book,” explains bassist and co-vocalist Boone Epstein. “There are a lot of recurring characters and musical themes, but we never spent much time refining a narrative. Human brains are really cool and will fill in those blanks.”
It’s interesting that Epstein mentions this, as FromSoftware take a similar approach to storytelling in the games from which the band take inspiration. The group’s new album is entitled Four Kings, a reference to a boss from Dark Souls, a game which allows the player to piece together the gameworld’s lore through mere hints dropped in item descriptions or by one of the several solemn NPCs met throughout the game. Meanwhile, in Bloodborne, a game referenced in many of the band’s track titles (‘A Call Beyond’, ‘An Augur Of Ebrietas’, ‘An Altar Of Despair’ etc.), director Hidetaki Miyazaki and his team use breadcrumb storytelling to weave a bewitching cosmic horror tale so gargantuan that it’d blow H.P. Lovecraft’s tiny racist mind. Both of these games leave plenty up to interpretation, with entire online communities dedicated to unravelling their secrets, so it’s thrilling to think that one could do the same with Grogus’ musical output.
Most prevalent on Four Kings are references to one of Bloodborne’s many bosses, Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos – a godlike being with a tragic tale.
“Grogus started, when the three of us lived together, as a joke about a band where all the songs were named after Magic the Gathering cards, since any card name could be a corny metal song title,” Boone tells us. “Eventually we decided to try it, but while we were writing a lot of the music we were also all playing a lot of Dark Souls. Imagery and themes from Miyazaki’s games worked really well with the pulpy, existential horror vibe we were going for, so song titles and lyrics from those games have stuck around.”
“We tend to approach song titles and lyrical content a bit like sampling, or fan fiction: we appropriate elements of fantasy and horror we like and try to build something totally new with it. We aren’t writing songs about Ebrietas so much as we’re using Ebrietas as a set piece in our own world. I will say though that Ebrietas’ story is super tragic and the perfect inspiration for heavy music! She’s a cosmic being who’s like a god to the Yharnamites, but they imprison her in their cathedral and summon parts of her body when it’s useful to them. The room she’s trapped in has an altar that can resurrect the dead, so it’s possible that she’s been kept alive against her will too. She might be a huge tentacle monster, but I feel bad for her.”
The band take these elements from worlds that inspire them to bolster their own, with tracks like ‘An Oceantomb of Cetipedes’ or ‘Arrouess’, taken from their 2016 release Intuitive Readers And Metaphysical Artisans, being entirely original lore-wise. The band have created Grogus as the titular character in what Epstein calls a “low-brow pulpy narrative.”
“In the canon we’ve developed Grogus is a fungus,” Boone explains. “Maybe it started as a human, and it definitely takes human form, but it’s ultimately a fungus. When we ask people to depict Grogus we describe it as a ‘fungus wizard.’ This seems to have worked out well because fungi are really beautiful to look at. Maybe one day someone will depict a wizard as something other than an old bearded person too. I’d love to see a version of Grogus that looks like a ‘Clicker’ from The Last Of Us.”
The titular character is interpreted fantastically on Four Kings’ artwork by Stephen Wilson – “We try to give the artists a lot of freedom, but when we asked Stephen to design the cover of Four Kings we were a lot more specific, and wanted several references to specific lyrics. I was nervous that we were being too detailed but he absolutely killed it!”
Wilson’s art is a fascinating insight into the band’s fantastical works and the world they’ve created, which the band use as a means of escapism. Whilst some draw real-world parallels in Miyazaki’s work (most frequently reading them as metaphors for mental health struggles) Boone insists the band is supposed to be fun.
“But art is always personal and political,” he adds. “And I’m sure it reflects who we are whether we plan for that or not. Some folks have identified our band as queer art because it’s a non-binary entity that uses it/its pronouns. Plus two of us are queer. If Grogus reflects our real lives that’s an accident but it’s an accident we’re totally okay with.”
Once initiated, it’s easy to get lost in the world of Grogus, but what draws you in to begin with is the band’s exciting strain of ultra-heavy but thoroughly progressive sludge. “Musically Grogus is really inspired by sludgy, dissonant hardcore like Gaza,” Boone explains. “And metal bands that use creepy, murky chords like Krallice, Gorguts, and Ulcerate. We also tend to listen to a ton of hip-hop when we get together, like Cardi B, Danny Brown, SpaceGhostPurrp, Earl Sweatshirt, Wiki, and Lil Ugly Mane, and I definitely hear that influence in our music, especially when it comes to our approach to titles and lyrics.”
This blend of influences results in a style that’s familiar enough to excite diehard fans of the genre and yet innovative enough to attract those tired of oversaturation. With shifting tempos and proggy time signatures, the band definitely steer away from traditional sludge songwriting. “We like songs that just mash ideas up against each other and sound kind of confusing,” the bassist admits. “Especially when it’s combined with absurd riffs that makes us laugh.” Boone cites songwriting influences from tech-death and prog rock in this regard, but notes that he most frequently refers to the band as a hardcore outfit in conversation.
But beyond these inspirations, even the band’s sound seems to take inspiration from the entertainment the band consume. “Grogus for me captures the feeling of opening up a comic book, seeing a monster, and thinking ‘fuck that looks cool,’” Epstein tells us. Key to the band is not knowing what to expect next, and the mishmash songwriting certainly helps in this regard – the album even concludes mid-riff, cutting to black like The Sopranos.
Though it works well in this regard, Boone admits that the songwriting isn’t meticulously constructed to present this, it’s more of a happy accident. “We like to find the path of least resistance,” the bassist says. “And it turns out that this style of songwriting is what the three of us like to do when we get together. If we stand out it’s just the way it happened. If we naturally made traditional doom, or polka when we did Grogus we would probably still get together and do that, because we’re good friends who like playing music together.”
Perhaps the most impressive result of this method is Four Kings’ longest track, ‘Goat Temple’. Initially seeming like the sort of interlude any metal act might throw into an album, the number quickly morphs into an enveloping atmospheric masterpiece closer to noise or drone than metal. “It’s our favourite track on the record,” Epstein reveals. “We love noise music and drone. We spend a lot of time when we’re practicing playing ambient music and our sets used to be about half drone. Eventually we started playing ten to fifteen minute sets to rebel against how long a lot bands seem to want to play and that meant axing a lot of the noise. We’re still into short sets, but maybe one day we’ll bring back more ambience. Before recording Four Kings we were working on a semi-improvised collaboration with a noise artist that was never finished. So we tracked about 20 minutes of material based on that during the Four Kings session and used part of that for ‘Goat Temple’. We want to refine some of those ideas and include a lot more of them on the next record, but we might also include more of what we tracked at Nightmother [& co. recording studio] too. We haven’t decided yet.”
Whenever that next album emerges, it’ll no doubt be yet another exciting addition to the Grogus canon, but until then Four Kings offers plenty to get lost within. Still, we can’t help but ask what lies in future for the trio – is there a Sekiro concept album on the horizon?
“We’re pretty far along with our third album,” Boone tells us. “So we’re eager to finish that up. It’s been a while since we toured too so that could be fun. If someone wants to release Four Kings on vinyl we’ll probably set aside time to do what we need to do to make that happen – Stephen Wilson has designed a killer layout that we’d like to see printed on a jacket. A Sekiro concept album is unlikely, but Corrupted Monk is a good song title so maybe that’ll show up sometime. Mostly we’ll be saddling up to defend Lil Nas X.”
Four Kings is out 31 July independently and on cassette through Tridroid Records. Purchase here.
Words: George Parr