This piece was originally written in 2018 and is taken from our fourth issue, available here

Emerging in 2016 with groove-filled debut album Possession, Vodun are one of the most refreshing metal bands of the past decade. Continuing the recent trend of talented women ensuring metal evolves and progresses rather than festers in a tired cycle of the same old tropes, the band blend doomy, groovy riffs with a Turbowolf-esque proclivity for punky psych, as well as hints of soul, thrash, afrobeat and hard rock.

Often caked in warpaint, the band stand out visually, but in a scene that has always had a healthy obsession with aesthetic gimmicks and traditional religions, Vodun’s theme fits in perfectly. By channelling a religion that – despite still being practised around the globe – knowledge of is generally limited outside of West Africa, the group are able to tap into unique subject matter and apply historical teachings to the modern world. Good thing too; for all mankind’s talk of learning from history, we have a disastrous habit of not putting our money where our mouths are. “Things seem to be very fractured in the world at the moment,” drummer Zel Kaute (Ogoun) tells us. “You would have thought we would have learnt a little from history by now…”

The trio – completed by vocalist Chantal Brown (Oya) and guitarist Linz Hamilton (The Marassa), who has toured with the band for two years but not yet released anything with them – are gearing up to release second full-length Ascend, and have taken this theme of learning from history and applied it to their obsession with the Vodun religion in order to comment on broader issues. “The lyrical themes are about remembering your ancestry and respecting what has come before,” Zel explains. “Learning from history, taking action when needed, but also about finding a place within yourself where you can be solid enough to contribute to society and your community. All of our lyrical content is interwoven with a spiritual thread, so it’s reflective as well as being a kind of call to arms.”

That call to arms is all-too needed in the modern day, and the rousing spirit of the band’s triumphant music is certainly a fine soundtrack to the revolution. “I would like to think we can overcome with love, but I’m not sure how you can teach people to care when the culture of individualism and looking after oneself before anyone else is so deeply embedded in our society. I guess the question is, how much worse are we willing to let it get before we realise and take action this time?”

Taking such a strong political stance is always likely to draw opposition from the vocal percentage of metalheads who believe metal is all about escapism and cares nothing for socio-political issues. “Have those people never heard of System of a Down, Rage Against the Machine, Sepultura or Napalm Death?” Zel exclaims in response. “Lots of huge metal bands have been very political, and I think it’s important for everyone to be engaged politically. The decisions made by governmental powers affect everyone, so we all have a vested interest in making sure our voices get heard. Music is often one of the best ways to make marginalised people feel like they still have a voice – it makes people feel connected, and in doing so lends itself quite naturally to being a platform for addressing social issues. I saw an exhibition at the Tate recently, where one of the artists Beuys says, ‘Everyone is an artist, and all people have the power to shape the world.’ I love that, and I think the personal and political are always very closely intertwined.”

One of the key issues the band address on Ascend is femininity, which seems apposite considering the fact that metal and rock are still very much cis-male dominated, no matter how frequently fans claim the genre boasts an inclusive subculture made for outsiders. “Society in general is still full of male dominated spaces, and gender and the idea of femininity have long since needed addressing,” Zel explains. “I’m not sure if redefining femininity in metal is something that we consciously set out to do – we just really enjoy heavy music ourselves (along with a bunch of other genres) and being ⅔ female and all quite feminist, the politics naturally shine through in our music. I enjoy being aggressive as a female drummer, Linz enjoys wearing nail polish and long dress-type garb onstage, and Chan is often the only black person in a room full of white rockers, so in terms of redefining what people expect to see at a rock show I guess we have that one down. I love the fact that we often see more women at the front during our shows, but I think male rock fans need to take more responsibility in making sure that the front of the show can be a safe, non-violent space for women.”

This makes the band the latest in a recent line of artists who aim to turn metal’s misogynistic tendencies on its head, but while the likes of Venom Prison and Fucked & Bound approach it with fiery vitriol, Vodun’s sound is inherently positive and inspiring, no matter how gloomy the subject matter. “The title Ascend felt right,” the drummer tells us. “As we felt like we were climbing upwards and onwards with the completion of this album. Also, even though the lyrical content tackles quite dark political content, it’s still a very positive album with an uplifting vibe to it.”

It may address important issues, but the music behind Ascend is nothing if not rousing, something that will always be needed in the punishing landscape of the music industry. “The music industry is pretty killer!” says Zel. “This is both mine and Chan’s first time ever making it through to a second album and I think it was worth the hardship and wait.” The pair’s first project Invasion split after their acclaimed debut full-length, so the chance to record a follow-up to Possession was not just a milestone but a chance to hone this new project into an even more effective outfit. “We had a lot more experience to pour into the making of it, and a much more streamlined idea of musical direction and how it would work to push all of our collective influences into the melting pot.”

The resulting sound is one that you won’t find elsewhere – mammoth riffs collide with danceable grooves, surging psychedelia and transcendent soul. But, this time around, there’s also a healthy dose of thrash metal thrown into the mix, which Zel tells us comes from new guitarist Linz. “Our sound has definitely progressed – Linz has brought some of his thrash background to the mix, but then we have also ramped up the afrobeat influences across the board. Even though we are still very high energy and spasmodic, we have allowed the songs breath and flow a bit more and extended sections where needed. Chan and I very much have a pop sensibility, so that shines through, and I think it’s both catchier and heavier than Possession. Our friend Jimmy described it best: ‘Hip-shaking as well as head-banging’.”

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This time around, the band are all increasing their vocal input, and Ollie Sellwood of Knifeworld has contributed some sax to add yet another fresh element to the band’s sound. Also key is the input of Anselmo Netto (Ibibio Sound Machine), who Zel says has contributed “a whole bunch of crazy interesting percussion”. For her part, Zel has much more thoroughly researched the drum patterns that are present on Ascend. “Rather than it just being an afrobeat influence, they are specific rhythms from different regions of Africa,” she explains. “Or variations on already well known afrobeats. You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to shoehorn a Soca beat into a heavy metal song – check ‘Rituals’.”

Indeed, it’s easy to see the care and dedication with which the band approach Vodun and its praxis, taking it beyond the aesthetic to approach the subject matter aided by heaps of research. Even so, as much as we love to uphold metal as a space for no-frills artistic expression, it’s undeniable that metal fans love a gimmick. In fact no matter what you say, it’s hard to be a metal fan without being into at least one band who embrace the novelty of having their own personal brand. From corpse paint and masks to literally having subgenres called things like ‘viking’ and ‘pirate’ metal, the genre at large tends to accept that an aesthetic can feed into the music. In Vodun’s case, their style mimics their music by paying homage to their forebears, but also carving out its own niche. Their look and lyrics continue metal’s obsession with traditional religions and spiritualities and applies it to one that largely remains misunderstood by the western world.

“Initially, we wanted to mix interesting afrobeat rhythms with heavy music, and Chan also wanted to explore her ancestry lyrically,” explains Zel. “White Europeans have been very good at quashing other perspectives throughout history, so there are a lot of unknowns or misinformation about other cultures and other traditions – we wanted to tap into the positive, spiritual side of Vodun, and what animism generally represents to so many people.”

However, where their debut sought to educate people on the Vodun religion (“there are always more perspectives to see or voices to be heard than what you think you know”) Ascend seeks to apply the religion’s teachings to modern world issues. “We couldn’t have done another record the same, so this album was always going to be a progression on the theme. I think with the first album, it was somewhat more haphazard, but we had to come across as more obvious with the theme so there were no misunderstandings. Now we feel more confident in our ideologies and approach – we’ve ‘laid out the foundation’, if you will, on which we can explore modern ideas and find parallels or solutions within Vodun concepts of spirituality and ancestry. I think there are many depths to ancient religions and practices that lend themselves quite naturally to modern day dilemmas.

It’s hard to argue with the results. Ascend is as potent musically as it is lyrically and thematically, and leaves one feeling the urge to fight against society’s ills. Join the revolution, pick up Ascend, and check out the band on tour later this year. “Hopefully this next album will live up to its name,” Zel wishes. “And we will Ascend to the next level in order to play more shows on further shores.”

 

A CLOSER LOOK AT ASCEND

Take a deeper dive into some of the songs, as Zel explains their themes and concepts…

 

NEW DOOM

Zel: “With the ever-persistent upheavals and new challenges that this life can summon, at times it is easy to slip into the abyss of negativity, destruction and despair. Requesting assistance from any entity more Divine than yourself, to help navigate through the constant ebb and flow of this world, without resistance, is beautifully humble, and not to be ashamed of.”

 

ASCEND

“The title-track is about striving towards spiritual fulfilment – using your own rituals to become the best version of yourself and understanding your own place within the universe.”

 

SPIRITS PAST

Recognising the similarities in previous global events within our own current state of affairs allows us to gain an understanding of what our ancestors did to battle such prejudices. This feeling of déjà-vu pushes us to draw upon the strength and tenacity of all peoples, their lives and spirits – people who have already laid the foundations for the advancement of equality within our entire civilization.”

 

STARTED FROM

“The verse basically lists the women who were pivotal in resisting colonisation. There are a lot of voices that go unheard in the retelling of history, and women, particularly women of colour, are most often excluded.

 

FOR YOUR KIN

“It’s the most personal song on the record, as Chan’s grandmother passed away just before we went in to record. She says this about the song: ‘At 105 years old, Annie Parker-Brown was a Negro woman born in Virginia, one of the first slave ports in the US. Her life growing up and raising children over the last one hundred years was filled with poverty, segregation, Jim Crow Law, love, laughter, and above else, a devout connection to her family and the Church.’”

 

This piece originally featured in our fourth issue, which can be ordered here. We also recently announced Issue One Redux – click here to find out more.

Words: George Parr

Photos: Marcus Way

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