“This is the first time as a band where I feel everyone is on the same wavelength, with the work ethic, the songwriting, playing shows; we’re all just completely in the same headspace.” Underdark drummer Dan Hallam beams with pride as he talks about the positive space his band are currently occupying as they prepare to release their stunning debut album Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry at the end of July. The album has had a long gestation period, with writing and recording being disrupted by a lineup change and, like all of us, having to navigate through a pandemic. The wait however, is more than worth it. In Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry Underdark have transcended far beyond their black metal beginnings. Seamlessly incorporating elements of emotive post-metal and shoegaze to their sound and with vocalist Abi Vasquez bringing a more poetic, soul-bearing approach to the band’s lyrical themes, Underdark simply sound like no one else out there at the moment. In anticipation of their album’s release, Astral Noize spoke to Hallam and Vasquez to discuss the album’s writing process, the many lyrical inspirations behind the songs and the importance of connecting emotionally with a live audience.
“So we started writing the album before we released The Smell Of Autumn split, like 2018 I think,” says Hallam, himself sounding surprised at how long it’s taken for this album to see the light of day. “We started writing more new songs after that and we were going to do another EP but that turned into an album which then took about a year to write, because we’re mad perfectionists. Adam [guitarist] and Ollie [guitarist], their quality filter is next to none, they will not use anything unless they think it’s absolutely fucking brilliant and even then they might change it. The songs they write go through like hundreds of rewrites.”
This attention to detail is audible throughout the album. With not a note out of place, the melancholic guitar lines are one of its many highlights. “Ollie and Adam are fantastic,” beams Vasquez. “I can’t sing their praises enough. They’ve both been kicking around the Leicester and Midlands scene for ages in various bands, and that I finally get to work with them is fucking great.”
Musically, Underdark had the album mixed and mastered by January 2019 but then the band hit a significant bump in the road; singer Max left the band. As fortune would have it, this signalled a major turning point for the band. “That was a shitty time,” explains Hallam. “But it worked out for the better as we got Abi involved a month or two after that, and she was pretty much ready to go a month into joining. She was so prepared, when she joined she knew all our songs. At the first practice we all sort of knew, this is it, we’ve found the person, which was great. She’s changed us for the better.” The love and respect Hallam and Vasquez have for each other and their bandmates is palpable and it’s clear how much this album means to them. “We’ve put our hearts and souls into it to be honest,” says Vasquez. “It’s been a long ride and the reception we’ve had so far from those who’ve heard it pre-release has really blown us away; it feels like all the time we’ve put into it has been vindicated”.
A proudly anti-fascist band, Underdark (along with the likes of Dawn Ray’d) are part of a wider black metal movement that is fighting back against the NSBM bands that pollute the scene. Whilst stemming from the black metal movement, though, Our Bodies Burned Bright Upon Re-Entry finds the band exploring wider musical territories, with the melancholic guitars of shoegaze and longer, post-metal song structures fleshing out their core sound. Was this a conscious decision for the band? “I think it was a semi-conscious decision,” explains Hallam. “Like, as songwriters Adam and Ollie aren’t just influenced by metal. All of us, our influences range from everything like Deftones, Deafheaven and Envy to Mogwai and This Will Destroy You. By taking a lot of stuff that we love, doing our spin on it, we try and make something interesting.” Abi too is unsure of the black metal tag. “That’s been something we’ve discussed internally quite a bit,” admits the singer. “I think the general feeling is that we’re more in the realm of post-metal in a sense, like a Cult Of Luna type thing. But I guess the black metal influence is always going to be there, like if nothing else my vocals are always going to sound that way and it’s pretty obvious I’ve listened to my fair share of black metal bands. But a friend of mine actually said something really interesting about our sound and that it’s ‘like if Joy Division was a black metal band’ and, when you think about it, I’m like ‘yeah, I hear that’. I’ve been referring to our sound as romantically brutal.”
The varied range of influences that form Underdark’s sound were brought to the fore early in 2021 when they released a two track EP consisting of a haunting cover of The Cure’s ‘Plainsong’ alongside a reworking of their own track ‘With Bruised And Bloody Feet’. Initially intended as a bit of fun, something positive to focus on during the pandemic, the Plainsong EP became an opportunity to formally introduce Abi to their audience and to reexamine their earlier material. “I’m actually really proud of that release,” Hallam says. “Even though it was just a bit of fun on the side during lockdown, I’m really glad about how it came out.” Even before its release, during live shows, the band were keen to build on and adapt older material. “Playing them in front of different crowds helped us look at the songs and go ‘that part didn’t really work that well’,” admits Hallam. “We’ve tried to rework some of the old stuff, like we did on the Plainsong EP, and it’s basically ended up a lot heavier and faster”.
The broad emotional palette Underdark employ on their debut is dramatically enhanced by the monstrously powerful vocals of Vasquez. Behind these menacing growls and hautning squeals are some incredibly moving, poetic lyrics that touch on themes as broad as the humanitarian crisis along the America-Mexico border, a friend’s failed suicide attempt and the horrific Grenfell tragedy, with some of the words predating the vocalist’s time in the band. “Before I was in Underdark I was sort of in a rap solo project to keep busy,” explains Vasquez. “I’d recently gone through a break up at that time and I thought I’ll do some stuff to keep my mind busy, keep occupied you know? You probably notice there’s a lot of rhymes and word play, that’s because a lot of those were adapted for the Underdark songs. The stuff I made was never released, it was just for fun. It’s thoughts I wanted to share with the world anyway, so when it came time to put the lyrics together for the record, I think this is like 2018/early 2019, when I was putting the lyrics to the songs I already had all these unused parts. It actually turned out a little different to how I usually like to write with bands. I usually like a longform narrative, but this came out differently. I think it’s a lot more vulnerable than anything I’ve put out before.”
The first taste of the album fans heard was the stunning ‘Coyotes’, a song which looks at the plight of immigrants and those living within the hispanic community on both sides of the US/Mexico border. “I’ve got family living in Tijuana and San Diego,” explains Vasquez. “It’s something that thankfully hasn’t yet affected my blood personally, but the fear of it is always there, like am I going to wake up to an email that my brother has been snatched up or something? So that was the impetus to write that song in the first place.” With a personal connection to the issue, Vasquez, conscious of the longer run time of Underdark’s songs, took time to delve into the issue a little more to help find a unique approach to the subject matter. “I like to find an odd angle to approach it,” explains the vocalist. “Even if it’s a standard kind of topic, I like to look at it in a different way. What I was looking into was, a few extra bits around the border, like American healthcare tourism is an interesting thing, especially considering a lot of the rhetoric around ‘build the wall’ was ‘stop the Mexicans coming, they’re bringing drugs’; no one seems to mind when it’s Americans hopping over the border to buy drugs, especially when it’s medication that they’ve been priced out of in the land of the free.”
With Trump gone and Biden now in place, all issues surrounding the US/Mexican humanitarian crisis seem to have dropped out of the news cycle, as if the issue simply no longer exists. “Obama started up ICE, opened up the centres, then Trump started separating kids from their parents,” Vasquez explains. “And now there’s even more cages under Biden. I think it would be very foolish for us to expect anything good out of the USA at this point. Something that’s really been quite insidious is the centre-left. The moderates in the west have basically now just stopped talking about it. I think that says a lot about the way liberals see marginalised groups.”
The album’s second single ‘With Ashen Hands Around Our Neck’ finds the band giving voice to a group who have simply been discarded by the establishment; those who suffered and died in the horrific tower block fire in Grenfell in the summer of 2016. “That issue was two years old when I wrote those lyrics and it’s now been two years since I wrote the song and it’s still somehow relevant,” Vasquez implores, with a palpable anger in her voice that many of us can no doubt relate to. “You know, you write these things with the hope that they’ll become spectres of the past, especially when you consider how delayed this release has been, but no, landlords are still allowed to run rough shit over tenants, safety regulations are still pretty much optional and so many people are still displaced who have not been rehomed and it makes you sick for real. I lived in a block not too unlike that when I was nine or so, I learned the language in one of those you know… that could have been me, it’s so fucked up. Safety is for rich people.”
As well as socio-political themes, Vasquez hones in on the personal in the jaw dropping closer ‘Skeleton Queen’, which sees the album draw to a harrowing close with the vocalist screaming “die Abi, die”. “So that one is probably the least narrative based one to be honest, that one was written very much from a place of fear, my fear of burnout,” explains Vasquez. “In life I am the singer of Underdark, I write fiction, I’m also working on a novel, volunteering, socialising, then also a full time job, and that’s quite a lot of shit. The song is basically about, do I pursue all of these things to the fullest, and run the risk of breaking down or do I make sacrifices or compromises; where are the chips going to fall and will I be able to live with myself if I’m not fulfilled? It’s ultimately about Abi, the character, unable to make the decision in a way that works for her. And then we get the climax of the song…It’s my favourite part of a live show, the end of ‘Skeleton Queen’, everytime we talk about the set I always say about putting that song last because screaming ‘die Abi, die’ in everyone’s faces for a minute is just…*gestures wildly*.”
The song can also be seen as a reaction to the way we are expected to live our lives in an era of social media and round the clock access to one another, as she explains: “I do feel like a lot of people may be able to relate to ‘Skeleton Queen’ on a level that maybe they’re unaware that they do. I think quite a lot of people are overstressed, and expected to be always hustling, always be available, always be public facing, like I don’t want to sound like a fucking boomer but there is a lot to be said about how the constantly being available thing is damaging. I mean, there are of course positives, I’m not in any way a luddite, or advocating for a reduction in technology but I do think people should perhaps reevaluate their relationship to it. I think there is a lot of pressure put on people which is unprecedented in a lot of ways. Like if I had this chat with my Dad, he wouldn’t understand any of what I just said he’d just be like ‘switch your phone off for a week’ – do you realise how freaked out everyone would be?!”
The journey for Underdark to get this record out has been quite a tumultuous one, so it will maybe come as no surprise that the quintet are, behind the scenes, already making inroads into album number two. “We’re pretty much just over halfway writing our second record,” enthuses Hallam. “We’ve been playing the songs from this first album for so long now, we just wanted to crack on with things. Some songs are longer, some shorter, it’s a lot more concise but also more experimental in some aspects. It’s a continuation of what we’ve done, but a lot of new ideas too.”
Watching the intricate writing process come together is a source of wonder for Abi. “It takes us a long time to write everything,” she admits. “They’re very intricate songs, even more so now. Ollie will come in with this proper techy riff, Dan will be trying to write this fill and there’s me buried in my research. But we all have that work ethic, we’ll spend like four or five hours, spread over weeks just getting two parts to blend together. There’ll be a thirty second riff one side, thirty second the other side and the hard part is how are we going to make them flow seamlessly. It’s really amazing watching it come together.”
Lyrically, Vasquez has something equally as ambitious planned for album number two. Instead of songs having their own individual story, it looks like she is approaching it like a concept album. “This one is going to be a whole story, kind of based on local history,” she explains. “We all grew up in the midlands, amongst post-industrial degradation, like with the factories leaving Leicester, the mines closed in Mansfield. We’ve all grown up near these really miserable towns, places that are mostly boarded up, where buses run once a day and half the population are on heroin. I thought it would be a really interesting topic to explore, a sort of multi-generational story in one of those towns, that starts in the mid ‘80s, with the mines closing then a few generations later, and then the child of this blood line leaving after their parents being unemployed their whole life, and escaping. I can’t really tell you much more because I haven’t written it all, but that’s my thesis statement for it.”
As Underdark busy themselves writing album number two and rehearsing for their live return, we can immerse ourselves fully in their extraordinary debut album. Adorned with stunning artwork from the bands long time collaborator (“That’s Adam Burke, he’s a really great artist”, Hallam beams), Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry truly feels like something special. It’s dark gothic beauty, progressive song structures, visceral vocals and poignant lyrics feel genuinely original and forward-thinking. It’s not surprising that the band are itching to get the album on the road. “It’s why we do this right?” says Vasquez. “It’s the culmination of all this hard work in a lot of ways. We’re looking forward to getting back out there.” Hallam is equally as excited, especially as the band will once again be sharing the stage with Dawn Ray’d. “They are three of the greatest people I’ve met through playing music,” Hallam grins. “I say this enough to their faces so this will inflate their egos even more *laughs*.” If you have the chance to catch Underdark live later this year as our venues slowly begin to open, Vasquez has one request: “More than anything I want to get a room full of people singing ‘die Abi, die’ back at me,” she says through a devilish grin. ”That would be fucking amazing. Readers of Astral Noize I’m speaking directly with you now: if you see us live sing “die Abi, die!’.”
Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry is out 30th July via Surviving Sounds (UK), Through Love Records (Euro) and Tridroid Records (US). Links for all can be found on the album’s Bandcamp page.
Words: Adam Pegg