Toxicity, Self-Loathing and Cancel Culture: Why Vexed Are Pissed Off

Megan Targett is angry. For a metal vocalist, that’s nothing new. The genre is built off the backs of musicians venting their frustrations. But every now and then an artist hits that cathartic pressure point with such precision that it breaks through to the seething rage below the surface like pandora’s box, unleashing all the anger in one fell swoop – or in the case of Vexed, over 38 minutes of djent-flavoured death and metalcore. From the minute that the first elongated BLERGH turns an ambient intro into an earth-shattering stomp, it’s clear that the debut album from the Hertfordshire crew is about to see them leapfrog over the countless sterile bands in the scene to stake their claim as one of the most exciting names in the game.

Targett’s anger across Culling Culture is hardly misplaced, either, with each of the album’s tracks taking aim at a particular toxic individual from her past. “Personally, I don’t deal with anger well,” she tells Astral Noize as we sit down for yet another Covid Zoom call. “If somebody’s upset me or I’m feeling any kind of pain, hatred, anger, whatever, then I turn it on myself and I’m like, ‘well there must be something wrong with me’, and I just become like a ball of self-loathing.”

Vexed soon became a vessel for confronting that anger in a healthier way. Rather than turning it on herself or trying to stifle her feelings, Targett and her bandmates have found a way to channel any and all frustrations into music that hits like a truck. “When we started Vexed it was like okay this personality trait needs to stop, and whenever you’re feeling like that, write about it and record it and turn it into a song,” she explains. “So each experience and each song is about a moment in my life where I was not really in a good place, but instead of internalising the hate and the anger I did something positive with it. I kind of turned it on itself.”

That anger is palpable across the record, making Targett’s corrosive growls the star of the show. Her apoplectic screams feel like they could melt steel, but when she swaps shrieks for exquisite cleans the tracks suddenly launch into the stratosphere. Contrary to many bands in the genre, the band seldom break their stride for these moments, and thus what the cleans bring is not quite a feeling of vulnerability or even of something more accessible, but of something poignant and cathartic. Elsewhere, as on ‘Narcissist’ and ‘Fake’, Targett’s rapid-fire delivery is almost frighteningly direct in its rhythmic, rap-like speed. Across Culling Culture, Targett is a steamroller that you don’t want to get in the way of.

Her vocals might carry the album’s dramatic flow, giving its tangible rage a voice, but the musicianship on display sets the stage for her to excel – the breathless dexterity across the board is what makes the record such a thrill. The band’s subtly progressive sound is an absolute masterstroke, an expertly wielded blend of infectious bouncing riffs and more intricate melodies that elevate the caustic guitars. Vexed’s strength lies in taking familiar sounds and rearranging them in thrilling and dynamic new ways, the record proving unpredictable at almost every turn through impressive musicianship as well as inventive songwriting that subverts the standard screams/cleans formula. If you’ve ever been punched in the back of the head without warning, then you’ll know that the initial blow is heightened by the little bout of shock and whiplash that comes with it. With the way that Culling Culture morphs and shifts at a second’s notice, it achieves a similar effect.

Of course, we’re talking about a genre where comparisons to a blow to the head are a compliment. In general anger is something we’re taught to contain, and rightly so, but that’s not to say that it can’t be constructive or valid to feel, well, vexed. If you’re wronged, resentment is only natural, and on a wider scale, progressive change often only comes about because of collective anger. In that sense, Culling Culture is a hopeful album. Despite focusing on negativity, it does so only to confront and expel that negativity – all whilst creating something visceral that may in turn help others experience some degree of catharsis from their own rage.

“The album just summed up how standing up for yourself, being who you are and speaking your truth is the healthiest and most positive thing you can do for yourself and for everyone around you,” agrees Targett. “Because anger and rage can be awful and you can either act stupidly and do things you’ll regret or you can calm your shit for five minutes, think about it and do something that’s going to benefit you and others. Whenever I’m absolutely raging about something – it doesn’t happen very often, but when I am – I remember a quote from the Making A Murderer series on Netflix. There’s a woman on it who is an attorney for people who are falsely imprisoned and she said whenever she’s so angry she gets this moment of clarity where everything becomes clear and she knows exactly what she needs to do, and that’s how I try to utilise my anger now. I feel it, allow myself to go through the motions and then find that clarity and that voice that’s like right this is what you need to do, don’t go burn down their house, don’t go smashing windows, just write some music.”

Writing Culling Culture, then, has been a way to put certain grievances to bed. “Recording it was like my way of facing the suppressed problem or the anger or pain I’d been through and then kind of signing it off, so to speak, and just being done with it,” Targett explains. These songs are closure, a way of summarising her thoughts in order to understand and thus move on from them.

The album’s name, as you’d probably guessed, is a play on the much debated term “cancel culture”, but it’s not intended to be the commentary on cancel culture that many have interpreted it as. Since each track on the album is about specific moments and individuals from Targett’s personal life, the album in fact takes the positive aspect of “cancelling” – i.e. removing something toxic or damaging – and applies it to something more personal. “A lot of people do assume the album is about cancel culture but it’s not at all,” says Targett.

“We couldn’t think of a name for ages. We had called it something else, but we just knew it wasn’t good enough. Around that time people were talking about cancel culture a lot and you kept hearing and seeing the term everywhere, and then we were talking about what the songs are actually about. Each track is about an individual person that I’ve cancelled or culled from my life. Whenever we’re talking about someone we don’t like in our group chat, we say ‘just cull them’ – like cull them out of your life, not literally! It just kind of worked, each song is about cancelling someone from our own lives for the better.”

If cancel culture is about trying to remove problematic people from positions of power or influence, then culling culture is about something more manageable on a personal scale. It’s about cleansing your inner circle and surrounding yourself with positivity by removing those who cause you nothing but pain and frustration. The finished album is perhaps the perfect representation of this, featuring songs which bottle a damaging experience with someone and turn them into works of art, unbridled in their purifying anger. There’s a reason the album has struck a chord with so many. If all you wanted was mindless brutality, there’s plenty more metal bands in the sea, but something about Vexed’s pinpoint rage is just so relatable and purgative. 

With the frustrations of the Covid era, perhaps it came at exactly the right time. The band might disagree, however, given that they had to sit on the album for months before finally seeing it released. Some of the songs date back as far as 2017, with more being recorded in 2018 and 2019. After just a couple of singles, the band got picked up by Napalm Records, and they were ready to release Culling Culture in 2020, with a tour booked in as well. Three guesses what happened next.

“The album release got pushed back three months, then six months, and then eight months, so it’s been long-winded,” says Targett, sounding exacerbated just thinking about it. “I think people thought we’d just come out with two songs and then disbanded, it was horrible! It was like ‘I swear we’re still a band, we still exist!’ So we felt like we’d been doing loads for ages but to the rest of the world we were just nowhere to be seen, so it was quite frustrating. Eventually our managers at Napalm were like ‘this is just a guessing game at this point’. So we just went with the eight month delay and hoped that people still cared, and luckily they did.”

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, but experiencing it through lockdown and other restrictions has made it a surreal situation for the band. Releasing an album from your bedrooms, even on a label as big as Napalm Records, makes it hard to truly take in the reception. “None of it’s really sunk in,” admits Targett. “If we could get out and play live shows and experience the release normally I think it’d feel even more amazing, but experiencing it just through your phone screen is really bizarre, so the response has been incredible but it definitely hasn’t sunk in at all. Seeing people’s messages feels so lovely but it’s so weird because it’s just words on a screen.”

So called “freedom day” in the UK has been and gone, and with it the hope of live shows is emerging over the horizon. There’s trepidation still to be had, with rapidly rising infection rates, many still unvaccinated and vulnerable people finding it harder to shield just as the masks are set to come off, but live music’s return will be welcomed by many regardless. For Vexed, that means Bloodstock, other festival slots soon to be announced and hopefully some headliners in the not-too-distant future. If all that goes ahead without a hitch, the band’s cathartic live shows are likely to be exactly what we’ll all need after the last couple of years. Even if there are more disruptions to come, though, the band’s future is unquestionably bright.

Culling Culture is out now on Napalm Records. Order here.

Words: George Parr

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