Two years ago Sheffield’s Blind Monarch released one of the finest sludge albums the UK has seen in recent years, a towering monolith of monstrous riffs with a thick brooding atmosphere weighing heavy over each and every moment. As it turns out, the source of this atmosphere came in part from the band’s recording studio, which was not a studio at all but rather a derelict Georgian hall that barely remained standing under the weight of the band’s riffs. As Dry Cough Records and Heavenly Vault prepare to release a reissued version of the record on vinyl, the band’s bassist Paul Hubbard reveals the story of how he, guitarist Adam Blyth, vocalist Tom Blyth and drummer Lee Knights recorded their phenomenal debut at a great deal of extra effort and a fierce determination to stay true to their vision.
“Why don’t we record it in the cemetery?”
That was the question which started the journey, eventually ending in What Is Imposed Must Be Endured.
I was living in a disused Victorian cemetery at the time and there was a large chapel that was under restoration. It seemed like the perfect venue to tie the sound we wanted to the songs and vocal themes we had written. I made some calls and we got a reluctant agreement to record there but they would want £500 a day to let us do so. Despite the fact we had only allowed ourselves four days to track the whole thing, £2000 before anyone even put pick to string was too much of a stretch for our meagre personal finances.
Where could we find a venue that would fit the bill? We were adamant we would record it ourselves and we were adamant we would do so in an environment that suited the hostility of the record. Compromise has never been a word to associate with Blind Monarch, so the search went on.
Enter Daniel Elms, a long term friend of Tom and Adam, who mentioned a derelict hall behind a church in Hull, where his friend worked and he had recorded some acoustic stuff, could that suit? Daniel is a professional composer by day but also a gifted engineer/producer and our honorary fifth member, it had always been our hope that the recording would be done by him. He got the okay in theory from the venue and although we hadn’t seen the building, the description he gave us fit the bill. We were excited to get going but first Dan wanted to come to practice and get some levels to check the amplifiers weren’t going to ruin his ribbon mics. He came to Sheffield with a Db meter, took some levels and informed us “It’s doable lads, but only just…”
So, one freezing, rainy November morning, Adam collected Dan and his equipment from Cardiff, while Tom, Lee and I made the trip from Sheffield to begin recording when we met up in Hull. Somewhere around Doncaster we realised we had left Adam’s amp in Sheffield, which on reflection, kind of set the tone for the whole experience. Some swearing and messing about later we, and the gear, reached the location.
Nobody up to this point had mentioned that there was no vehicular access to the building, so we had to load all the gear a trip at a time onto a bit of plywood on wheels and push it through a tunnel, up a cobbled street and through the gates into the churchyard that fronted it. Having eventually done all of this, we were faced with our first sight of the 200-year-old building we were to record in.
I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for the sights that awaited us once inside. Whilst the grandeur of the building’s architecture could not be denied, neither it would seem, could the relentless eroding nature of time and the elements. Disused for decades, the plaster hung from the walls, the bare floorboards, ridden with holes and littered with remnants from the once elaborate ceilings. There was no water, no toilets, no electricity, no heating… It is difficult to imagine a less hospitable environment in which to record an hour-long LP in the dead of winter. It was perfect.
As Dan began setting up, we walked the empty halls by torch light, disturbed in equal parts by the undeniably ghostly atmosphere and fear of the building’s imminent collapse. On discovering a huge old walk-in vault at the end of a long, dark corridor we dragged the eight-inch thick steel door aside and walked in. Looking around I said “Christ, imagine if you had to spend the night in this fucking place…”
The live room, Dan had decided was to be the main hall. A huge, cavernous space with stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings. As we set up, we couldn’t help but wonder what effect amplified music was going to have on this decaying shell of a building. Once we began subjecting it to a level of volume and tone that its builders and designers wouldn’t have dreamed it would ever face, even in its peak of condition and strength, we couldn’t help but feel a sense of childish delight combined with something not dissimilar to sacrilege as we abused its rotting remains.
The control room was to be inside a small office to one side of the hall, into which we ran our extension lead from the first story window of the church building opposite and plugged in our little oil radiator and our singular lamp. “There’s some interference from somewhere,” Dan remarked as he began trying to get levels and rough takes. Where else would he track it down to than the heater? Sure enough it would have to be switched off. A solution of sorts was presented by a shop on the corner that sold disposable hand warmers for £1. While these did nothing to warm our bodies, they did allow our fingers to stay just about warm enough to play our instruments.
Late one evening, Adam went out for a resupply only to return momentarily with the news that he had broken the gate upon re-entering the building… Sure enough the iron gate that was the sole means of entry was totalled. Being unable to raise any of the guys responsible for the building and with no tools available to try and fix it, my earlier comment in the vault began to seem oddly prophetic. It was decided me and Adam would be sleeping there. I’d like to tell of strange sounds in the night and inexplicable visages walking the halls but we drank so much whiskey and smoked so much weed that I’d have slept like a baby even had we stayed outside in the freezing courtyard.
There was no way to record live, we didn’t have the sockets or means of isolating instruments so they would have to be tracked individually, beginning with the drums. The first thing that struck me about the process was Dan’s acutely scientific approach. I remember the snare drum being moved around the hall and the dramatic affect its position in the room had on its response and tone. Dan began taking notes and measurements before the mics even came out, it was pretty impressive.
Bass came next. It was heavy, if anything was going to coax down the already crumbling ceiling, it was going to be a Matamp GT200 cranked through an 8×10. It held for the most part but we did have to sweep away a fair amount of plaster and debris once we had the takes.
We didn’t have time to try different amps, pedals or even tones so everything was tracked just as the band plays live and that’s something I’m really happy about in hindsight.
Bass and guitar tracking went to plan over the two days penciled in for them, the difficulty began when we came to pick up atmosphere, feedback and especially Adam’s guitar solo.
Adam insisted that the solo must be recorded in the same room as the amp in order to capture the feedback he needed. Standing in the hall with the amps was deafening, we simply couldn’t hear the backing through the cans even with the headphone amp on full. It was horrible but we got through it, eardrums just about intact.
The album features some interesting acoustic instruments and percussion. The sounds in some of the “cleaner” parts were made with scavenged animal bones, an ancient beaten dobro and a horrible twelve-string acoustic from the ‘70s. There was no time allocated to capture any of these instruments, so it had to be done quickly within the newly constructed “vocal booth” that Adam and I constructed from junk we found around the building. We used the cabinets, some stage risers and props from some church production and “acoustic treatment” in the form of blankets and sleeping bags.
Once that was done, Tom stepped inside and recorded his entire vocal performance in just two takes, bar a couple of overdubs, that meant performing both low and high vocals in the same pass as Daniel wanted to capture an authentic performance that could be reproduced in a live setting. There is a lot to be said for having to work within pre-set limitations, whether related to space, time or equipment, they force you to adapt in creative ways, often with unique and unexpected consequences.
With all the instruments and primary vocals down we brought in Adam’s heavily pregnant wife Fiona, who without any rehearsal and with minimal direction, improvised a hauntingly ethereal vocal juxtaposition on the LP’s final song ‘Living Altar’, before giving birth to their second daughter Betsy two days later.
And so after four days of whisky and black coffee fuelled breakfasts at the pub on the corner, followed by hours tracking in the freezing, biting cold, we had ourselves an album, albeit one recorded in what must be some of the most austere of circumstances possible.
We only had the one light in the control room, so when night fell (in the middle of the afternoon), we tracked in the dark.
The faint sound of church bells on ‘Living Altar’ was not planned, they were bleed from outside picked up by the mics in the room. The rain on the track was a similar story, we heard it from inside the building in-between takes and so Adam went out and stood in it with a mic.
Dan was tireless, never short of a creative idea and never succumbing to fatigue during the frankly harrowing process. One of the stand-out memories for me was when he played the isolated snare sound back into the live room through an amp balanced on top of the snare so that the percussive sound wave actually hit the snare and sounded it again. Seeing a snare drum play itself in a dark abandoned Georgian hall was a strange experience to say the least.
The whole process seemed to be over very quickly, despite the rigours, and before we knew it we were back in Sheffield waiting impatiently to hear a preliminary mix. When it arrived we were absolutely blown away by what Dan had achieved. The sound is perfect for the record, it adds a savagery and a brutality that encapsulates and enhances the overall tone we try to project. On hearing how good Dan had made it sound and how cohesive the tracks sounded, we decided then and there that it would have to be put out in its entirety or not at all. This caused us a major problem as the recording is so long, it would require a double LP were we to press it to vinyl as we planned to.
Double LPs don’t come cheap and, understandably, no record label was initially prepared to gamble such a sum of money on a band’s first release. Reluctantly we agreed to release it on CD and digitally but had always hoped to one day get it released in the form for which it was intended. We are eternally grateful therefore to now be given that chance thanks to Dry Cough Records and Heavenly Vault.
Words: Paul Hubbard (bassist, Blind Monarch)