Ahead of the release of Existential Void Guardian, we sat down with sludge monoliths Conan.
This piece originally featured in our fourth issue (available here), and took place before the release of Existential Void Guardian
Monolithically heavy and wallowing in tales of heroic warriors and barbaric fantasy, the infernal racket conjured by Liverpool’s prime doom-mongers Conan has thus far fuelled three albums of what the trio describe as “caveman battle doom”, offering riff fanatics some of the most colossal tunes in the scene, but also providing levels of escapism that rival the movies, video games and TV shows from which they initially took inspiration. Speaking to us whilst on their UK co-headline tour with Monolord, the band are gearing up for the release of Existential Void Guardian on Napalm Records. “It’s mastered now,” frontman Jon Davis tells us. “It sounds cool, we love it.”
By the time you read this Existential Void Guardian will be available, but even months before, sat in their tour van outside The Green Door Store in Brighton, the intense noise of tonight’s openers Watchcries faintly audible in the background, Jon and bassist/producer Chris Fielding seem confident and proud of what they’re about to unleash on the world. Work on the album began last October, but the band’s fondness for the material hasn’t waned. “Even though we’ve relatively consistently been working on it [since October 2017],” Chris begins. “I still haven’t got bored of listening to it yet.”
Conan’s music has always been distinguishable from others through the unique universe that the band have created. Everything from their artwork, merch and music shares the same inimitable vibe, one that borrows heavily from fantasy, both the downtrodden doominess of the genre’s darker fringes and the triumphant, riding-into-victory nature of its more uplifting affairs. As such, the band have never been one to derive their inspiration from real-world topics like politics, or the gloomy aura that seems to dwell over modern life, but with this latest album their stifling tones are set to get just a touch more personal. Taking the genre’s proclivity for battles between good and evil and applying that to more introspective battles with inner demons, the album treads new thematic ground for Conan without forsaking the atmospheres of their previous output. Speaking of its title, Jon explains that “initially it was just a broad idea about a deep sense of emptiness and nothingness.”
“A lot of contemporary doom metal bands will write about that in their music,” he continues. “The word itself ‘doom’ really describes that sense of anxiety and emptiness you might feel during times of depression. The ‘existential void’ is a theoretical idea about that deep sense of emptiness and depression, but we thought we’d turn that on its head and include the word ‘guardian’, and that kinda makes it feel like the music itself is quite triumphant and is sort of battling those evils. A lot of our previous output has been based on the battle between good and evil in terms of actual evil things and warriors and stuff like that, and now the lyrics started going in the way of the battle between good and evil inside one’s self.”
“We don’t want to fully stray into that territory like other bands might because they would do it much better than us, but we thought we’d just start applying some of our triumphant sword-in-the-air music and aiming that at some of the negativity that might surround doom metal and heavy music in general. I guess we are guarding everybody from the existential void, in that way.”
Fear not though, as the Conan mythos isn’t going anywhere, and it still comes wrapped in fantastical tales drawing inspiration from culture Jon consumed when younger. “I’ve tried not to [take in new/modern influences] because I don’t want it to take a huge turn,” the frontman explains. “And there’s still plenty of material to write about within the universe that we’ve always wrote about. I wouldn’t want to start diluting the Conan-ness of what we are. The temptation would be to allow some politics in there – the world isn’t a great place, but I wouldn’t want that to start affecting the music. We’re not the band that talks about politics or the real world much, if at all, and I think we’ll always be that way because otherwise we just start to blend with all the other bands and I don’t want to do that. Never have.”
Whilst other artists will rally against society’s ills, bands with an emphasis on escapism will always be needed in metal, and Conan’s unashamed embrace of nerdiness certainly offers something that can transport you somewhere a little more interesting than the bleak and mundane reality of life. Indeed, where bands like Conan would once have been dismissed by some as “nerdy”, so-called “nerd culture” is in many ways now mainstream – trendy, even. In some ways, Conan may have even benefited from this shift, one that has seen shows like Game Of Thrones and Vikings as well as movies like The Hobbit and The Avengers become normative and mainstream. “It’s cool that maybe we can appeal to more people simply because of the things we write about, but we’ve always done the same thing,” Jon says. “Our very first demo was called Battle In The Swamp and the artwork, done back in the MySpace days, was a fight between a minotaur and a barbarian in a swamp. So, I’m not sure that nerd culture has had much of an impact on us apart from my own nerdiness.”
Indeed, that mythical burliness has long protruded from Conan’s music and artwork, which makes the undertones of mental health issues present on the new album all the more relevant to the modern world. Instead of that shamefully enduring notion that mental health struggles makes one weak, the band have blended themes of muscular barbarians and hulking monsters with that inner skirmish all of us will be susceptible to at some point.
“I wouldn’t say there’s any real-world focus [to the album],” Jon elucidates. “Because it’s still very much based in the fantasy world that we imagine, but some of the things that the songs are talking about are influenced by feelings that people might have when they’re feeling down. But our songs are trying to be uplifting at the same time, so there’s that mix. We never set out to try and write anything particular; we didn’t want it to be all about ‘look at us we can save everyone’, but [the album] just takes on this form of the battle between good and evil in your own mind… what a shit answer that was.”
As shit as Jon may think that answer is, the strides the trio seem to be alluding to here are nothing if not exciting. Musically too Existential Void Guardian promises great things, continuing the band’s signature sound but also throwing some new textures into the mix, including the flurries of pace noticeable in the opening moments of Revengeance. “Every single minute of it is a proper Conan album,” Jon assures me. “But there’s a couple of surprises on there – a couple of slightly faster-paced moments, which is kind of part of what we do now. We already have ‘Krull’ and ‘Sea Lord’ and ‘Invincible Throne’ – we’ve done a lot of slow songs, so at the moment we’re in a bit of a vein of playing songs that aren’t as slow, and that’s cool because we’re playing a lot of shows and I don’t think as many people would come out to our shows if we played songs like ‘Krull’ all the time. There are bands who market themselves at that specific crowd and they’re excellent at that type of music, but we think we’d like to diversify a little bit more.”
“It’s also about what we enjoy playing live,” Chris adds. “To a normal metal fan’s ears, stuff we consider to be fast is probably very slow anyway but in general we try to write a set that feels dynamic and that’s enjoyable to play and is hopefully enjoyable to listen to. If we’re just playing the same tempo all the time we’d kinda just get a bit bored, whereas we wanna bring it up and then bring it down again and I think that’s translated into the way we’ve written the tracks on this new record.”
The increased energy of the faster numbers certainly lends itself to a live setting – the new track Conan close their set with tonight feels almost frantic compared to the lumbering weight of their earlier material, and one song in particular from the new album is definitely poised to shock listeners with its flirtations with grindcore pacing. “We found from touring that if it’s going to kick off and the crowd’s going to go crazy, it’ll be when we play something like that,” says Chris. “We never thought we’re the sort of band where you’d have crowd surfing and stage diving the entire set, but it’s happened and it’s great!”
This aim to compose tracks that extrapolate themselves well into a gig setting shows on Existential Void Guardian, but the tinkerings that have been made to their sound were not necessarily the result of meticulous planning, as Jon explains: “It’s more like we’ve just evolved into that music, so it’s started to become natural for us. For a while, I didn’t want to play faster songs, but it’s loads of fun to write that sort of song and really cool to play it, so it’s probably something we’ll always do.”
Also key to the new album is the less stereotypically lackadaisical drumming of newcomer Johnny King, which here takes a more involved role, and the vocals, which the band say have an intentionally increased importance this time around. Jon’s beguiling bellows have long helped the band stand out, but as Chris explains, they were often a bit of an afterthought: “The vocals [on the new album] show a big progression in terms of what we’re able to do and what we tried, as well. We spent a lot of time on the vocals compared to in the past where we just kind of did it at the end when we had time. This time the music came together very quickly, then once we recorded that we lived with the tracks for several months before Jon came up with his lyrical ideas.” After more demoing and some more time away to dwell on the material, the band finally came to recording the album. “We probably wouldn’t have got to this end result if we hadn’t done it the way we did, the vocals don’t sound rushed at all.”
Musically, Conan’s vocals are perhaps the most important element of their sound, with a dynamic quality that often adds an air of mysticism in lieu of the keyboards or synths of some of their contemporaries. Where others may simply employ them as a means to accentuate a riff or structure a song, Conan approach vocals like an instrument. “They definitely feel like more of an instrument,” Jon admits. “Because the phrasing of the vocals is almost like a riff. You’ll choose words with a certain amount of syllables or with words that sound a certain way so that they sound good with certain parts of the riff. So yeah, it’s more than just the words and notes that you choose, but it’s actually how you position them within the riff itself, and that can have a massive difference on how something feels and sounds. Now more than ever the vocals have become more important to the album’s overall sound.”
This progression is important. Conan aren’t exactly avant-garde, far from it, but on Existential Void Guardian there’s a willingness to progress and alter their sound and the world they’ve created around it. Since they started, the UK doom scene has shifted in composition. Where it was once small and insular, it has become the leading light of our metal underground, but it is now packed to the brim with bands either derivatively paying homage to their forebears or rapidly attempting to outdo each other with bizarre experimentation. Amongst the mayhem, though, Conan have trudged (or should that be sludged) along, doing what they do best and allowing themselves to progress naturally. They’re a band who have long walked that line between looking forward and holding on to what made them enjoyable in the first place, and as such, Existential Void Guardian is another cosmically heavy but decidedly fun release in a career lined with them.
Words: George Parr
Pics: Matt Negus