Vow and the Gentle Decline Towards an Icarian Apocalypse

Folks, I’m not sure whether you are aware of this, but…. It’s the end of the world. We are all living through apocalyptic levels of change to our existence. Whether it’s going to result merely in some change to our daily lives (whether that’s mandated masks or our children having to change how they grow and understand each other) or a literal end to everything that is recognisable (as climate change threatens) we don’t know. We could be in the last throes of humanity existing in a form recognisable to that which has existed for millenia. But we genuinely don’t know.

What we do know is that things are changing, hard and fast, and not for the better. At least in this position we continued to be gifted such wonderfully evocative and potent music as is pedalled by Manchester’s Vow, whose music is uniquely in touch with themes of apocalypse and the ending of civilisations. A review of the band’s new EP and an interview will follow to dive into this in more depth, but I want to do what I did with So HideousLaurestine – I want to tease some meaning from the lyrical content (and potentially the musical content) of the group. I will be writing about both their EP from 2019, Gentle Decline, and their latest EP, Icarian, which is out today. The reason? Well, much like a lot of the wonderfully nerdy releases I dig, both these EPs are concept records and, rather brilliantly, the concept doesn’t end on one EP. The narrative (I assume there is narrative, but more on that later) spans both releases.

Gentle Decline opens with one of the single most mournful lines I’ve ever read (thanks to the band for sending me the lyrics):

“We would yearn for emptiness

A return

A simpler life

This, well, this is a fucking kick to the gut isn’t it? The notion of not just fantasising about reducing to historical ways of being, but for it to be woven into the fabric of a being, is hard to have laid out in such a barren manner. Emptiness, the apparent emptiness of the past – the mere acceptance of life being life, not some grand aspect of a totality of meaning. Just awakening, persisting, and ending. If you’ve seen the other things I’ve written you know I have a bit of an addiction to existentialist thought, and I think this idea of stripping back constructed meaning because there is a longing for something more authentic, less aggrandised, and more in keeping with a human position simply vibrates with that line of thinking. It’s a great position to start an apocalypse story from, because what is the apocalypse if not the nature of reality rearing itself up and slapping you repeatedly across the face, telling you that whatever bullshit you’ve engaged in is probably ultimately worthless as it bows before the procession of time and change. If you already know that, if you have that sense buried deep within you before that even happens, surely that means you should be in the best position to reflect on what is necessary for you to keep going. How you should accept your ‘upsurge’ as a being which is alone, and both inextricably linked to all which exists.

Here the very next passage comes in to really quantify this:

“Modern world thought a plague

We, its ailing host

We have reached this point where our ways of thinking and being are a plague, they render something disastrous. It’s true. The band aren’t fucking around here with potentials, or allegory. This is a direct calling out of what we’ve done as modern humans (and I’m going to suggest that in this instance the term covers an almost incomprehensible period, pretty much from the point where we began our ascent into structured society). What’s really interesting, despite this being laid directly at our feet, is that we are also given a little bit of a pass. The thoughts, the meaning, the understanding – these are the problems, and we are just the hosts for these. 

Again, here is a clear indication of an existential line of thinking. We are of course to blame for continuing ways of thinking which are fucking things up for everyone, but we inherit this. Our societies, particularly those which are neoliberal in bent, push us to think like others – the greats that came before, and the greats of now. Rebellion is quelled, even smaller changes, unless it can be quantified and feed the whole of the groupthink. This is why climate change has been spoken about for decades, and yet we have done fuck all about it. This is why we see continuous improvements in so many things, but all to the detriment of that which is around us. 

Now this isnt always inherently bad. It is one of the reasons we have beautiful art, we have warm homes, we have the joyous things that we have done for our species – but it’s never curbed, it’s never really properly reflected on. Until it’s too late.

This being a part of that which is around us, that which we are born into, is the facticity of our situation. Sartre is very clear that we absolutely are tethered to this facticity, as beings and as humans. He is also very clear that we need to do what we can, to make choices, to take us authentically forward as beings whose primary facticity is free will. We can, limited only by our presence as beings, do what we want. We can decide to break laws, we can decide to buck trends, we can decide to follow everyone else. The point is we have these choices, but we also choose the outcomes. 

It’s here we can reflect on the “ailing host”. Is this a literal ailing; becoming sick, dying, ending? Perhaps, there does seem to be a strong narrative which jumps into the realm of fiction in the lyrics, the words laced with what might not be (or not only be) allegory for the real but rather telling a story, a fiction, which reflects something about the real. I choose, however, to read “ailing” differently here. I choose to think of the word as suggesting that we are unable to support the pestilence currently supported, we have grown sick of holding the “modern thought” that condemns us. We are awakening to its presence, and we are growing inhospitable to the thought.

Why then “ailing”? Well, I think as a host we have realised (or are realising) the disease we are ridden with and are casting it out, but it is still killing us. It is part of our species. 

Perhaps there are some Jungian undertones here – the collective unconscious (which you could believe is a mystical tether, or just take to mean that we are all connected through simply existing and our thoughts directly impact one another) seems to be present here. The awakening, the sick, the dying. We are all aware of the catastrophe we are diving headlong into. 

The rest of Gentle Decline is full of gnarly fucking imagery. Lakes of fire, carrion rending bodies, humans thrown in lakes, freezing ends to existence. Its all solidly evocative, metal-as-fuck, stuff.

The next part I’d really like to focus on, however, is this:

“The old have no meat on their bones. The young are born of incest

Survival at the cost of life

I think the band here are really throwing a challenge at our feet; we survive, we keep going, we keep progressing; what’s the fucking point if we eschew ‘life’? If we eschew the basic foundation we have as a species to invest in ourselves creatively, including the creative approach of meaning creation, then what’s the point? The answer is there is none, and there never was. 

So okay, we have an option here. We either accept nihilism, and decide we should all die and be done with it. Or, we work hard to avert the total annihilation of our existence, but do so in a manner which enables us to live, and to engage in the art of life, the art of living. 

At this stage it would be hard to deny a tether to schopenhauerian thought – our route out of suffering, out of a dirge of meaninglessness, is art. I’m going to extend this notion of art to cover all creation within a human sphere, which includes creation of self and creation of meaning. 

How can we allow this, without destroying all around us? We can’t create without existing – therefore we must exist, lest we may as well all be dead. It’s here that the band are calling to us: Make a fucking change, stop the ‘gentle decline’ whilst we can and do so in a way which fortifies who we are as people.

I love this, and it’s something I see echoed in Icarian. Reading the lyrics once again, there is one glorious theme in the words which I want to pull apart in this article. It is the notion of Icarus (the Icarian way of being) and what that means in the context of the previous EP, and within the lyrics for this.

The band open very boldly claiming that it is our Icarian (that is to say excessively ambitious) nature, which I believe is a reflection of the ‘modern thought’ from the previous record, which leads to our ending. The insatiable desire to reach beyond, to fly near the sun, results in our hubris and our end. This isn’t anything new, and I think is a great use of classical thinking to reinforce the message of the first EP. 

What is new here for me, though, is the assertion that we should continue to be Icarian. The last few lines of the record throw this to me:

Nowhere is safe

This is the end

None are exempt

This is the end

Icarian flight

Harbinger be still for today

Here is the end. We’ve caused it. It’s our fault. Our damned continuous restlessness, and desire to be more than muck arising from muck has taken us here… and we are all going to be fucked by it. Those last two lines, however, suggest that our only way out of this position is to keep reaching, to keep striving, and to fly as close to the sun as we possibly can. I think this is a beautiful allegory, because it puts forward the idea that we cannot simply stop dead and accept the end as it is; we must push ourselves to try to change this, to cause the harbinger to stop in its tracks (at least for now) so we can continue to do wonderful, beautiful things. 

I’m not of a spiritual bent, but I adore that Bill Hicks skit about the young man realising, whilst taking LSD, that humans are simply a manifestation of the universe trying to understand itself. Honestly, as an atheist, this is something which I think is likely true, because yes we are separate to everything, but we are of the same cold hard thrust into meaningless existence as everything else – we just seem to have stumbled upon a way to try to understand that a bit more than the other cold, hard, aspects of existence.

That makes us something wonderful. That makes us something which can create meaning from meaninglessness, that can enjoy things in a way which we don’t think others can. We have to fight for that, we have to push ourselves to better things. We just need to make sure that we are flying close to the sun in order to keep us all alive, and us all enjoying existence, rather than to reap momentary rewards for ourselves and hell for others.

Icarian is out now on Surviving Sounds. Order here.

Words: Simon Young

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