Talking Activism and Censorship as Anti-Fascist Black Metallers Underdark Return
“I always saw black metal as inherently anarchist, fearlessly independent and very DIY. Facism is essentially the fetishisation of a hierarchy – to me, that’s the exact opposite of the spirit of black metal,” says Abi, the new vocalist for Nottingham post-black metallers Underdark.
One of a number of prominent UK bands flying the anti-fascist flag, along with the likes of Dawn Ray’d, Allfather and Calligram, Underdark have built a reputation on fighting all forms of discrimination and being rightly outspoken against the NSBM faction that black metal is sadly infamous for.
Since their formation in 2015, Underdark have released just one EP and one split, but have garnered a strong reputation as a must-see live band as well as building an ever-growing fan base. In 2019 the band parted ways with original vocalist Max, enlisting Abi (previously of Yuri) to join the ranks. Now, they are set to release a new two-track tape release on 30th October featuring ‘With Bruised & Bloodied Feet’ and a cover of The Cure’s ‘Plainsong’, which promises to be just a small hint at their highly anticipated debut album, which is due sometime in the near future.
To find out more about where the band are at circa 2020, Astral Noize caught up with Abi and Dan to discuss the recent personnel changes in the band, the current political state of the UK and how metal can best fight NSBM.
Following the departure of previous vocalist Max, the band found themselves looking for a new singer and it wasn’t long before Abi joined the group. What can you tell us about Max’s exit and Abi’s arrival?
Dan: All I can really say is, it came to the point with both parties where, we could tell something wasn’t right. There were too many conflicting ideals and it all came to a head at one point and we just parted ways. We’ve got Abi now which is the main thing, and we’re all chilling out now. I haven’t really spoken to Max since it happened. We were on the same page in some ways but I think we wanted to push it a bit further, see where we could go and he was content on doing a bit less if I’m being honest, but that’s not how we work.
Abi: It was last summer, in June, that I joined, but we didn’t announce it until September. We’ve all known each other for a little while. [Guitarists] Ollie and Adam I’ve known a while, we were all in the Leicester hardcore scene since way back when – don’t print how old we are though *laughs*.
Dan: I first met Abi in my old band I was in before Underdark. I used to be in an old emo band with a few friends. Said emo band played with screamo bands that included Adam and Ollie. We used to do shows together all the time. I put a show on in Nottingham just for a laugh with some friends’ bands. One of those bands was a thrash band from Mansfield who our bassist played for and the opening band were Max’s other band who kind of sludgey doom. So we were all in the same room at one point.
Abi: I had to leave my previous band because I had to get some pretty invasive surgery, so there was no music for me for a little while. After a couple of years away, I’m back in form now. With everyone from Yuri now in different bands I was left thinking “what am I going to do now”.
Dan: We used to play with Yuri and when we advertised for a new singer one of the first people to apply was Abi which was really strange but turned out to be the best fit.
Abi: I didn’t even see who posted it, I just saw “we’re looking for a singer in the East Midlands that does harsh vocals” and shit and I’m like “OK, that’s me”.
Dan: We tried a couple of people out before Abi, but it didn’t work out for one reason or another. But it all happened within the space of about two weeks. We were supposed to play a show on the Friday, the incident with Max leaving happened on the Wednesday before said gig so we had to pull out of that and then the four of us met up in the pub on the Monday to discuss what we were going to do. We were all a bit upset about it to be honest. But we all thought “fuck it, let’s carry on, let’s see what we can do”. We started advertising a couple of days later, Abi was one of the first ones to reply but schedule-wise was the last to audition.
And what has Abi brought to Underdark?
Dan: From what we did before, she does it better, without sounding like a bitch *laughs*. She brings a lot more variety, more variation on a theme and adds a lot of stuff we haven’t even thought of doing. It’s just been positive in every single way. Compared to how it used to feel, it now feels like a bunch of friends having a laugh. Not that we weren’t friends before, but it just feels a lot more fun now. We enjoy ourselves a lot. Even in our first practice, it felt so comfortable. We just tried a new song and Abi freestyled it from the get go. And we were just like “fuuuck” *laughs*. It was like when they do a freestyle on Radio One Xtra, but this was the black metal version *laughs*.
Abi: I think as a lyricist Max was very poetic, and his voice has these long sustained notes but I think my style is a lot more choppy, a lot more attack vocally and I tend to write… grittier, I think is the best way to put it. I use similar language, I really like to go in on a topic. I write all the lyrics, but am obviously open to suggestions.
As a band, you’ve been open about your left-wing politics since your inception. What kind of involvement do you have in politics outside of Underdark?
Dan: To be honest, I can’t say I’m the most active person. But I’m always just trying to keep myself a good person and try to keep being a better person. I like reading a lot of theory. I find that really interesting. I like reading about how stuff works. I think we’re not as vocal as maybe other bands, but we definitely like to let people know where our ideologies lie. Obviously the main thing is we don’t want to be involved with any shitty people, or any shitty politics. I’m quite happy we promote that to the extent we do.
Abi: I’ve previously volunteered at local homeless shelters. Unfortunately my life is quite hectic and busy, so at the moment I can’t do that as often as I’d like. And I’m also working towards a new project, something for the future, which is a knife amnesty project. Basically, where I live is quite a shitty neighbourhood and I see children do horrible shit on the daily, and any work I can do to basically help people from making the mistakes I made when I was younger would be a positive thing.
The UK is a pretty fucked up place right now. To what extent do you think this is related to the Tory government we have had for the past decade?
Abi: I think it’s very related to the government we have. I think the cuts that have been made to social services, education, just the effect of austerity in general has basically amplified problems in poorer communities especially when you combine that with a society that is constantly flashing you images of “look at all this nice shit, you need this nice shit, if you don’t have this nice shit your life is fucking awful”. You get all these kids who have parents who are absent for one reason or another, either they’re just not there or because they’re working twelve-hour shifts. Then you have a kid who’s being raised by TV who’s being told he’s only as good as his shoes, and no guidance. You obviously can’t get a job when you’re fourteen so you go on the rob.
Dan: You’re a product of your surroundings too. Mansfield, where I’m from, it’s one of those areas that has been really affected by pit closures, unemployment. It’s a big industrial area where you get a lot of immigrants working, which is obviously a good thing, but obviously that’s how people scapegoat their own problems. Then you see cuts to your local council and the austerity from the government that’s been in charge for the past decade. People don’t blame the government, they blame the person that’s moved in next door. It’s really sad to see.
Abi: When you’re unemployed and you’re being fucked around on Universal Credit and you’re seeing immigrants who do have jobs, it’s very easy to say, “Hey look at that guy, he has a job, I could have that job”. It’s a lot harder to blame a structure which is basically invisible to you on a day-to-day basis. I can fully empathise with it, but they’re not right.
And what role does the mainstream media have to play in all of this?
Dan: Media has a massive influence. If you look at tabloids, all the shit they peddle, it’s the most rancid shit you’ll ever see yet people lap it up. People just take it for fact.
Abi: As well as the tabloids, you also get with the liberal broadsheets like The Guardian, the way they approach discourse is really divisive. Like they will talk about stuff like identity politics, which is great when it’s in the right hands but when some clueless middle class journalist from London is talking about XY and Z doesn’t have enough trans people in it or whatever, the average brickie is looking at that and it’s just driving wedges between people. It does more damage than it helps, in my opinion. It’s patronising and it drives wedges between the working class where you know the traditional role of papers like that would have been to promote solidarity and community. I think during the Blair years people got very complacent because as much as we were dragged into an illegal war and it all went tits up, things were quite good back then.
Dan: Everything has just been ravaged, cut to the fucking bone. Where I work, I work in retail and I work in our big town shopping centre and half the place is shut down. Hiking rent prices, people not being able to afford to shop – I feel like my job’s on a ticking time bomb. I’m really hoping this fucking band takes off to be honest *laughs*.
You guys have stood out amidst the red and anarchist black metal scene because of your location in the UK – do you think that RABM in the UK has the same presence as it does in the US?
Dan: I think so. I think Dawn Ray’d have definitely helped that. I’m sure everyone and their mum is aware I’m a massive Dawn Ray’d fan. They’re one of my all time favourites. That was kind of my introduction, I didn’t really know what anarchism was until I watched Dawn Ray’d a couple of years ago. When we first started Underdark, I was sort of into politics but not that much. To his credit, Max was into his left-wing and anarchist stuff and he kept saying “you need to listen to Dawn Ray’d, they’re a sick band”. We went to watch them play and the next day we were all like “we need to practice a lot more”. We went from practising once every few weeks to at least once a week, three hours minimum, wall-to-wall songs. Then obviously I bought their records, started reading their lyrics and googling the subjects they spoke about and here we are today. I think RABM is becoming more prominent but it’s still a niche. As people often say NSBM is a small part of black metal, so is RABM in a way, but it needs to get bigger, a lot more people need to embrace it. It’s definitely going the right way.
Abi: I always saw black metal as inherently anarchist, fearlessly independent, very DIY. Fascism is essentially the fetishisation of a hierarchy. It’s the exact opposite of the whole spirit of black metal to me. I think the best way to combat it is basically just continue to make better black metal than those bands. Have you ever listened to any of those bands? They’re fucking shit. Recycled lyrics, uninspired riffs, oh congratulations you’ve learnt tremelo picking – shut the fuck up.
Dan: I’ll be honest, I didn’t really listen to black metal at all until I joined Underdark, the only one I probably listened to was Deafheaven. I didn’t know NSBM was a thing until someone brought it up and I was like, “You mean there’s an entire sub genre of black metal dedicated to being a fucking racist – what the fuck?”
Abi: Let me put it this way, Darkthrone never got to where they were by copying other bands so the whole idea of “true” black metal is ridiculous.
Dan: Me and my friend were talking about Burzum the other day and it’s one thing focusing on him as a racist but the one thing that gets diluted is that he’s a fucking maniac, he murdered a guy, served the longest sentence you could in prison and wrote some terrible synth records while he was in there. The fact he tags on the racism card just helps him sell more records. You find that people who do all this NSBM stuff are just edgelords anyway. They just want to sell records by being edgy, putting nazi logos on their stuff. Some dickhead in a basement somewhere is going to buy it just to piss his mum off.
You guys are signed with Tone Management (Tone MGMT), a leading partner of Damnation fest, who last year booked Mgła as a headlining act. How do you feel about the close association between your management and a festival that books headlining acts with documented links to far-right figures? Does this conflict with your principles as an explicitly left-wing band?
Dan: With Tone MGMT, I can’t say much but we do have a relationship with them. Basically, the guys who run Tone are very left-wing. I think with that booking of Mgła, that was out of their hands, as far as I know. We’ve already had this discussion as a band – we’ll play the fuck out of it. You can’t fight these bands if you drop out in protest, you’re still giving them the platform. They’re not going to drop out. If anything, you should put your position forward, stand against them. Like Dawn Ray’d, they played hard and did their thing. When I saw people try and pull Dawn Ray’d up on it I was like, “You’re a bunch of fucking idiots”. Basically, you can’t fight it if you don’t step up.
Abi: The vast majority of metal fans are pretty apolitical and if you want people to listen to what you have to say, you need to have better songs and better riffs. Put on a better show. Some of the people that come out to metal shows, often it’s the last people you expect. It’s nice to see how diverse your audience is.
AM and Skengdo made history in 2019, being the first act in British history to be sentenced for performing a song. What do you think about this? How concerned are you about this landmark case (i.e: two artists being sentenced for performing a song) moving forward as an explicitly anti-fascist, left-wing band in an increasingly right-wing political climate in the UK?
Abi: I think the establishment is afraid of young people making art. I think also the reason for those arrests was almost entirely, well look there’s been a lot of stabbings in London and the police need to blame someone, The Met’s budget has been slashed and there aren’t any officers on the streets finding the people doing the actual stabbings so what they do is they take down the mouthpieces for those cultures, and maybe less people will hear about it if it’s not in a rap song. You’ve seen this in the States in the past with NWA, before that they tried to censor punk. It goes all the way back to Elvis. As long as there’s something that scares Grandpa, people will try and ban it. Violent movies, video games, they tried to blame Marilyn Manson [who it should be noted is still a twat – ed.] for Columbine but at the end of the day you can’t fucking remove youth resources with one hand and then take away their freedom of expression with another and say that’s the problem solved. All the MCs were doing was talking about the problem.
Dan: They were putting a spotlight on their problem and good on them to be fair. It’s that all you know, that’s what you’re going to sing about.
Abi: People write about what they know. I don’t think anyone is ever, at the age of eight years old, thinking “I wanna grow up, be a gangster and stab people”. No one wants that for themselves. It’s just when you see yourself running out of options and it starts with the cool older guy on the block going, “If you sell this weed for me, I’ll let you keep half the money”. And that’s you at fourteen and it ends with you at 21 getting done for multiple stabbings, some of which you may have had something to do with.
Dan: That series, Top Boy on Netflix. That’s the perfect reflection of what Britain is going through right now. It may be grim to say, but it hit the nail on the head for me, it’s very reflective of what’s going on right now.
Abi: There’s absolutely a racial component to it too. These are two young black men, but here we are in black metal, mostly white, playing music that church burners and murderers played but no ones adding us to a list, or investigating us.
With organisations such as Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion being added to the government’s terrorist organisations list, is the UK becoming an increasingly dangerous place to hold left of centre views?
Dan: It’s absolutely fucking mind-boggling. What the fuck. The fact that I could go into a doctors or hospital and they could see a pin or badge I’m wearing on my jacket that shows solidarity with my friends and could end up being investigated by the police for being a terrorist? Fucking hell.
Abi: I think there’s a lot of support for the police state. I have a self harm habit in that I read the comments section. Back in the day when they wrote up to newspapers they were called cranks but now it’s everyone and their nan, on Facebook, the news. It’s all directly a response to terrorism, that fear that the bad man is out there. “Please take away all my rights Mr. State, please spy on me in the bathroom Mr. State, as long as the bad people go away.” On the one hand it’s understandable, but then on the other it’s like, where’s your fucking backbone? It’s not about having nothing to hide, it’s what you may have to hide tomorrow. This is very unlikely in Britain, but hypothetically what if in six years being gay is criminalised and a lot of people are regretting signing away all their rights to privacy?
Dan: The current government is leaning more to the right than they ever have done and then all the left-leaning groups are suddenly being listed on a terrorist watchlist, is it coincidental?
Finally, how would you describe your vision for a better world, what kind of systemic and structural changes need to be made in the UK and the wider world?
Dan: Solidarity in your community. I think we are stronger as one rather than being forced apart from people, from your next-door neighbour by those in power. Start from there.
Abi: Community activism is the place to start. Make your corner better and then if everyone follows that, everywhere gets a little bit better. It’s got to be about hope, about looking in the face at the world that so badly wants to break you and become as miserable and twisted as they are and say, “No, I’m gonna get out there and be the best person I can and make the world better.”
Dan: Start with yourself, be the best person you can be. Don’t be a dickhead to people, treat people how you would expect to be treated yourself.
Words: Adam Pegg