Today’s the day.
See the contemporary world through heavy music’s burned lens.
Dragon, sword, loincloth. Maybe the sword is an axe, maybe the loincloth is a bra, you’ve picked up the record and eyeballed the cover and lettering and it’s… probably power metal? Is symphonic black metal back? It’s not on a nazi label, let’s take a punt!
You put on the album at home later checking the inside of the sleeve for goodies: labelmate stickers thanks very much, a download code and a lyric sheet. Sitting down with the lyrics it becomes clear you’ve bought a 70-minute metallic symphony about space-eating dragons.
Clearly, heavy and experimental music have evolved beyond trad fantasy templates while continuing to make effective use of them. It’s as common now for artists to engage us by confronting the problems of the wider world – political, social and moral, to informative and inspiring effect.
However, there is a lesser inhabited space between these two poles, artists that use contemporary fiction to present a stylised take on the world: marrying the storytelling traditions of the old guard with the settings and grievances of the new. This music sets the locations, motivations and characters of the modern world against one another to tell amazing stories.
For Street Sects, stories are about justice. Not in the legal sense; the cop-flooded, drizzle-soaked cities of their songs are characterised by total corruption, and as in life law enforcement will happily disregard the plight of the vulnerable over the chance to line their pockets. The justice in Street Sects narratives occupies the spaces between police intervention, in the scores settled, poker games rigged and snitches unearthed.
On their debut album End Position, vocalist and lyricist Leo Ashline wrote about his own experience of substance abuse through a cast of corner shop attendants, slum landlords and dealers – enough characters to fill an imagined apartment block, with each song offering a view through a different window. Their subsequent works lean further into hard-boiled noir, Raymond Chandler via Bringing Out The Dead, and their EP Rat Jacket and second album The Kicking Mule both explore the fear and paranoia of characters in uncomfortable orbit with illegal activity and law enforcement, evident in songs such as ‘Total Immunity’ and ‘Suicide By Cop’.
Few characters in their world are afforded the privilege of peace, and many reject it outright. ‘The Drifter’ details the confession of a fugitive killer whose crimes ended only as he became too weak to carry on into old age; ‘Collared, Kept’ pities a paranoid individual who squandered their inherited advantages.
On ‘Our Lesions’, Ashline sings: “How should we feel? When their fat hands keep reaching out to take what’s ours. They want us to like it, our black hole. Settle in and get sucked down, celebrate our decline with closed eyes”. An anonymous protagonist faced with resource scarcity, housing insecurity, and loneliness: a cruel and familiar profile of precarious modern survival.
Trap Them’s story is over. The band split in 2016 after a five-album run featuring two notable constants. Firstly, their signature guitar tuning and d-beat inflected drum work, and secondly singer Ryan McKenney’s overarching lyrical concept, which he described as a story detailing “Depression, desperation, and blasphemy set in the small town of Barren Praise”, with each song a vignette that plays into the grander structure. Until their final album Crown Feral, each Trap Them song title was prefaced with the number of the day on which it takes place in the wider story (‘Day Fourteen: Pulse Mavens’, ‘Day Nineteen: Fucking Viva’ etc.). Initially sequenced in order, by 2008’s Seizures In Barren Praise the order had been shuffled and the narrative further obscured.
McKenney has stated his desire for the events of individual songs to be open to interpretation and that ambiguity, coupled with the non-linearity of the overall story brings to mind the knotty compositions of Alan Moore in his most popular works. Listen to the opening tirade of ‘Day Thirty-One: Mission Convincers’, it’s not hard to picture the scene fleshed out by the pens of Dave Gibbons and colours of John Higgins: “I’ll tell it like he told me, like it happened. After that rabid feast that we all heard. Masks on the face and smoke in the air. With a city block done and revenge done served”.
Across Trap Them’s work the listener, if they so choose, assumes the role of detective, sketching timelines and casting roles, then delving into individual songs to eke out the details. This uncharacteristic cohesion in a band’s discography, in addition to the ferocity of their music and ability to put on a show, grows Trap Them’s artistic legacy and makes them a fascinating band to pick up today, with the full story instantly at your fingertips.
Nicholson Baker’s novella The Mezzanine details the sequence of events that take place during one man’s lunch hour, set entirely in the mezzanine area of the office he works in. While the events themselves are completely mundane, protagonist Howie reflects on the activities such as buying shoelaces in such a way as to provide us a doorway to his personal philosophies, and reveal some key details about his past. The extraordinary is teased from the ordinary, and the mood is dream-like, as in the songs of Deafheaven.
For the best part of their existence Deafheaven have eschewed the trappings of the genres they are loosely aligned to, be it with their music, artwork or lyrics. They take hazy memories from adolescence and adulthood alike, wandering with us through suburban estates and city centres. On the song ‘Sunbather’, they describe the experience of driving at leisure through what is considered to be a “good” part of a town, going to great pains to transcribe the details of the scene: the white fences, the thriving trees and the family pets. Like The Mezzanine, the factual account paves way to greater revelation, and singer George Clarke has stated the journey is one of class anxiety, of taking a trip into aspiration that saddens and frustrates in equal measure. The pastel colours painted by the music and lyrics together hang together like a David Hockney painting, tranquil and beautiful, with unspoken intentions and histories sitting just beneath the surface.
These bands are notables in a broader trend, and artists continue to find compelling ways to examine the modern world. Last year Mamaleek took an investigative approach to writing on their album Come And See, examining post-war social housing citing notorious developments like Chicago’s Cabrini Green, where part of the 1992 adaptation of Candyman was filmed. We also see the worlds of fiction and music coming together across mediums in fascinating ways, see the recent graphic novella released by Brighton doom act Wallowing (and covered on this site), or the esoteric heavy music label The Flenser publishing its first full-length novel in 2020, Adam Washington’s To Sing Of Damnation.
There will always be room for the set texts in heavy music’s reading list: fantasy, politics, religion. But it’s no surprise that such a dramatic art form continually finds new ways to tell impactful stories that enhance the music they accompany and deepen our understanding of the artists involved.
Words: Luke Jackson