It’s the middle of a third national lockdown in the UK and against my better judgement I’ve just started yet another run of FromSoftware’s landmark action-RPG Dark Souls, having not been able to shake my obsession with the Japanese game studio’s Soulsborne series even after spending months putting together an entire zine on the subject. I work my way through the early bosses, ascend to Anor Londo and, having saved Ash Lake and the Demon Ruins for after I’ve got the Lordvessel, finally push on towards Lost Izalith. Standing at the bonfire after the Centipede Demon, with Solaire losing his faith beside me (don’t worry, Sunlight Maggot is already dealt with), I begin to imagine what the lava-drenched kingdom of Lost Izalith would have once been in its heyday, and suddenly I am reminded of Firelink, the American band whose entire discography is dedicated to the world of Dark Souls.
The reason is Luke Oram’s stunning art for the band’s second album being etched into my brain, its depiction of the Witch Of Izalith, perhaps mid-transformation into the Bed of Chaos, catching my attention when I first stumbled upon the band’s Bandcamp page. Yet somehow, the most Dark Souls-obsessed band in existence are not in The Soulsborne Issue, and there was no room left in the zine at this point. But we simply couldn’t not reach out for a chat, and in truth the interview serves better here, where word counts are less of an issue.
I catch the band’s Harrison Stivarius at home continuing work on a remaster of the band’s debut album, The Inveterate Fire, which originally came out back in May 2019. It’s not even been two years since it dropped, but the band have come a long way in a short time, honing their unique strain of extreme metal into something truly soul-crushing on last year’s self-titled follow-up. As such, Harrison believes he can unlock the unrealised potential of their debut.
“Since getting live drums [previously from Kevin Paradis and now from Lord Marco of Anomalous, Six Feet Under, The Faceless and countless others] it’s been so difficult listening back to the original album because I now know what can be done and what I wanted to do,” Harrison explains. “Back then I was younger in every sense, I didn’t know how to do certain things. Even the guitar takes are so much better this time around. Some of the old solos it’s like ‘god there’s so much I could point out’ and a lot of people probably can’t tell, but it bothers me and I’m excited to be going back in, cleaning it up and giving it some love. The solos are ripping, vocals are ripping, drums are fucking nuts, all while maintaining the integrity and charm of the original.”
Everything but the bass track has been redone, raising the ceiling of the release to bring it up to scratch with the band’s current sound. Harrison jokes that some people who’ve heard advance demos have suggested naming it The Inveterate Fire: New Game Plus, a testament to the enhanced quality of the release. And like Dark Souls’ New Game Plus, the record promises to be tougher, with just a few subtle changes keeping things fresh. Going back to a release so soon seems like a bizarre choice, but it reveals Harrison’s approach as a musician, which is defined by dedication, constant work and a meticulous attention-to-detail. Notably, these are all lessons he has learned from Dark Souls. “All the details matter in Soulsborne,” he observes. “You really can assume that everything’s there for a reason because it probably is, and that’s how I try to approach Firelink.”
Firelink’s Soulsborne influences go much deeper than merely singing about the lore or writing riffs inspired by in-game events, the life lessons that can be gleaned from the games are also always in mind when writing. “In Dark Souls things are purposefully left hinted at rather than told to you, and I think musicians can learn things from developers like that and vice versa,” says Harrison. “I think I’ve learned things from [game director Hidetaka] Miyazaki. Like how he doesn’t want to do Sekiro DLC or a sequel, he just wants to make full standalone games. That’s something I want Firelink to do, I don’t ever wanna make an album just to make one.”
It’s still relatively early days for Firelink, but avoiding stagnation is already on their mind: “There’s some bands that just don’t care that much, they’re just doing it to do it and I think that’s why so many people are attracted to independent bands, or independent game studios. I’m not gonna name any big metal names but there’s some bands whose albums are basically the equivalent of another Call Of Duty game, it’s like ‘oh they released another album, sounds just like the last one’. I don’t want Firelink to fall into that trap.”
Harrison is kept busy enough with his personal life – last year alone the 26-year-old dropped out of school, moved states, changed professions and got married – but as songwriter, guitarist and bassist for Firelink, he still won’t take the time to rest. “I don’t like stopping,” he says with a smile on his face. “I just wanna keep doing it.”
This drive is exemplified by the fact that work is simultaneously ongoing on another Firelink album. Though it is lower on the priority list for now, he and vocalist/lyricist Adrian Davis have already got art, drums and production lined up for a concept album based on FromSoftware’s cosmic horror masterpiece Bloodborne, a record that Harrison says is his dream come true. “We’ve narrowed it down to five topics we want to talk about that tell a story with recurring themes throughout the songs and the album,” he explains. “The biggest things we’re pointing at are the Kin and the Beasthood and the dichotomy between the two. [Musically] beasts are fast and brutal, Kin is techier, ethereal-type shit.”
A shift in focus, albeit still within the realms of Soulsborne, has led to a slightly different approach. On past material Harrison has written music then assigned it to a specific character or location of the games along the way, but for the Bloodborne record, the band already have paragraphs written for each song, “and we’re not even in the meat of it yet,” he exclaims.
Research for the album is well underway, with the band taking the time to read up on HP Lovecraft to get in the right mindset. Recently, Harrison even put together a metal version of ‘Omen’, the haunting opening track from the original Bloodborne soundtrack, just to get a feel for the sound and atmosphere they want to aim for. “We want this album to scare you,” Harrison admits. “We want it to create a very uneasy feeling that transitions to wonder. We’re just gonna make it evil. We want you to feel like you’re in that room at the Clinic.”
Recreating the atmosphere of the games is something the band have made a key goal, rather than simply referencing events in the lyrics retroactively. “I want the songs to feel dynamic, and like a bit of a journey within the entire album. The goal was for you to be able to listen to the instrumental or not understand the lyrics but still hopefully be kind of able to match it up,” Harrison explains, citing ‘Where Demons Bore’, a standout track from their self-titled record, as one of his favourite examples of this. The track focuses on the Bed Of Chaos, a Dark Souls boss that whilst one of the worst mechanically, has a fair share of interesting lore. “I didn’t write the music to be about the Bed Of Chaos but it sounded grim and eerie, as if you’re falling through platforms to get to this bizarre boss.”
Another example is ‘Cerulean Athenaeum’, a track focused on Seath The Scaleless, another boss from the first Dark Souls title. The effects on the clean guitars are designed to mimic the falling of crystals in the harsh but bewitching landscape of the Crystal Caves, whilst the song’s outro aims to channel the sense of accomplishment once you defeat the boss, a hulking dragon driven mad in his search for immortality.
One thing I’m keen to ask Harrison is his perspective on the parallels between metal and Soulsborne. There’s been a growing number of crossovers between these seemingly disparate fields in recent years, and to Harrison it goes a bit deeper than a shared aesthetic. “Both are a bit niche and not fully understood by people,” he suggests as a similarity. “And if you’re just watching someone play Dark Souls for the first time you might just be like ‘I don’t get it’. But it’s stood the test of time, with immense replay value. To me, metal is hard to play relative to other genres in terms of physical demands and speed and there may be something there with an attraction to mediums that are just difficult.”
There are certainly parallels to be drawn between the challenging nature of both fields, and the way that their initially polarising facets can so easily give way to nigh-on obsession. Perhaps it’s understandable then that the metal scene and the Soulsborne community also have their similarities, both in terms of a certain level of unfortunate gatekeeping (“git gud” et al) and a weird sense of ownership among diehard fans, but also in terms of an emphasis on community as well as a level of commitment that isn’t often seen in other fields.
“I compare it to Halo where it’s like the whole thing, from the art design down to the level design to the music and the pacing, all of that struck me. It got me immersed like nothing else,” Harrison tells us. “Especially when I got into the lore it was like ‘dude I’m gonna be hooked on this for life’. I still watch lore videos and play the games. There’s so many awesome feelings that it’s given me, I don’t know how else to put it. It was like ‘dude I wanna get that shit on music’. There’s some times when I feel like I can go out and lift a tree and maybe that’s ‘Kindled’, for example, or parts of ‘Kingseeker’ when you’re fucking up darkwraiths.”
The passion for metal and Soulsborne certainly runs deep in many of its respective fans, and Harrison is a perfect case-in-point. What starts as an interview soon becomes little more than a conversation about why the games are just so fucking good. “You can tell it gets me excited,” the musician smiles. “I love all this stuff, and there’s endless amounts of content to draw from. My wife and I don’t even have a TV connected with Netflix or any of that, we just have games.”
Harrison keeps himself entertained by playing Soulsborne, watching lore videos and indulging in the odd round of Apex Legends, the only other game he’s playing right now. To this day he is still finding ways to keep invested in the FromSoftware catalogue or, more accurately, he’s simply unable to stop being invested. “I’ve been trying to put myself in the minds of the developers,” he tells us. “Like generally item placement seems random until you learn it’s not, and it’s stuff like that I’ve started to pick up on. I read the item descriptions now and that alone has unlocked a new level of Dark Souls. It’s caused me to try to think about what the developers were going through and also share some of their frustrations with their limitations and kind of empathising with that process of like it’s never perfect in your eyes. There’s always something more you want to do with it.” That attitude is undoubtedly reflected in the desire to do a remaster of their debut. It’s the record that set out Firelink’s stall and introduced listeners to their unashamedly Dark Souls-obsessed aesthetic, and Harrison is devoted to perfecting it.
When Firelink started out, the band had to decide whether to fully own their Dark Souls influences, and whilst obscuring your true inspirations is a valid option, with bands like Kosmogyr preferring to let fans find their own meaning in the music, ultimately Firelink decided that it simply wasn’t worth it. “We just decided that as long as we’re not gonna get in any copyright trouble, what’s the point in hiding it?” Harrison reveals. As a result, Firelink have essentially made themselves the Dark Souls band, wholly owning their link to the series and drawing in as many fans from the Soulsborne community as they have from the metal fan base. “I put something out on Facebook asking if anyone knew Firelink before they knew Dark Souls and everyone was like ‘Nah, we all know Dark Souls man’,” laughs Harrison. “I’ve had people tell me they wore our shirt and people commented on it and that’s fucking sweet, it gets them in a conversation about Dark Souls and about metal.”
For many, Dark Souls goes much deeper than simply being a game they use to kill time. By recognising that openly, Firelink have become a refuge for fans of both metal and Soulsborne. “In many ways, Dark Souls is a part of my life,” says Harrison. “I love that thing and there’s lessons to be learned from it. Even the basic idea of perseverance. That game’s hard as shit, anyone who gets through it it’s like ‘good job’, and then you learn that someone beat all three games in a row without levelling up or getting hit.”
Towards the end of our Zoom call, a digression about Dark Souls III takes us on to a discussion about the world design. Naturally, I introduce Harrison to Illusory Wall’s Dark Souls Dissected videos, another topic covered in The Soulsborne Issue, before apologising for giving him another Souls rabbithole to tumble into.
“No, that’s why this thing is so awesome,” he responds. “It never ends.”
Words: George Parr