It’s a fairly grey Tuesday morning; the bleakness of the working week is enshrouded with the tumult of the time. Extinction Rebellion protests are well underway in the capital, albeit to relatively little reporting. We are hot on the heels of the IPCC report into the climate crisis and despite the genuinely spine-chilling predictions contained within, the ones which carry an inevitability not able to be addressed from this point on, there is little talk openly about the stark reality we face. Our society still looms in the shadow of the world-breaking nature of the Covid pandemic, and everything about how we are and can be is necessarily changed and changing.
It’s within this context that I begin a to and fro correspondence with Chris Wood (bass/vocals) of blackened post-metal purveyors Vow. The man exudes an affable approach through our electronic discussions, he is friendly and inviting – I feel welcomed into his views and, importantly, the true sentiment and sensibilities working behind the band’s recent release, the excellent Icarian. Like 2019’s Gentle Decline before it, it is an EP that walks a fine line between grand, overwhelming metal and poignant tones that are cathartic but also desperate.
In a recent piece, I explored the band’s work thus far and its exploration of an impending apocalypse and the way the world is changing for the worse. Here, Wood sheds some more light on this from the band’s perspective, from the unique instruments used in their music to the narrative concept that runs across their two EPs.
I’m intrigued by your motivations to include such esoteric instruments in your palette. I’ve noted the glockenspiel in Gentle Decline, but what else have you got going on and why?
Oh god, how long have you got?
To be fair it was decided pretty early to never have anything on a record that we couldn’t reproduce live. Obviously we broke that rule as soon as we got in the studio, there’s synth and noise on the tracks from Gentle Decline that we tried, but could never make work accurately, and a lot of it is from gear at Nø Studio or from a modular synth Chris [Wigglesworth-Anderson, guitar] sold a while ago.
At the moment, and on Icarian, it’s just the glockenspiel which we found abandoned in our old rehearsal space and Jon [Vernon, drums] thought it would be fun to use, in the name of naked GY!BE worship, and a fuck load of pedals. We’ve got a really fun little bass synth that uses foot pedals like a church organ instead of keys, and a few other synths knocking about, modern and vintage, that we used on a drone track on our next release (recorded at Nø at the same time as Icarian) and there’s been some new arrivals in terms of pedals since, so the stuff after that is going to be even weirder. Ultimately, we love electronic and drone music so it’s all about creating those interesting textures, whether that’s with synths or pedals that mangle a guitar tone. We don’t want to sound like anything else, we want to be unique, and the gear is a tool to achieve that.
We got the foot pedal on eBay for a steal from Mark from Wallowing. It’s a very simple affair, British made, couldn’t tell you much more than that. Brian Cook from Russian Circles/Sumac/These Arms Are Snakes is my bass synth idol. Jon was using it originally live but to be honest it’s just more gear. It needs its own amp, it needs some effects to sound interesting, and doesn’t add much bar a couple of lines in ‘Monuments To Decline’. The bass guitar tone is so big and thick and tuned an octave lower than the synth can go so it doesn’t currently get much of a look in sadly.
This brazen experimentation is bold for a black metal band, and you are often given the ‘blackened post-metal’ tag, but is there more to it than that? What drives the experimentation, what drives the music forwards for you and what does genre mean?
I think we’d dispute being a black metal band. Hopefully you’ve heard Icarian and the more post-metal direction it’s going in, blackened post-metal is exactly what we’d use as a descriptor too. For us black metal is too restrictive, there’s a weight of expectation and a weight of history plus some pretty shitty politics. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s great that bands like Underdark and Dawn Ray’d are out there trying to carve out something better but there’s still way too many edgelords out there. There’s also a formula with black metal, isn’t there? Blastbeats and shrieking, totally different genre interlude, more blastbeats and shrieking. The idea of doing that ourselves just isn’t appealing. Not because we hate it, but because it’s been done.
In terms of experimentation, it all comes from loving music. We all love a huge range of music, I’m not going to sit here and name obscure bands for cool points but you know what I mean. The music we all love, it doesn’t all necessarily cross over with each other’s tastes and we want to express that, create something congruent and unique, rooted in loud, heavy guitars. The last thing we want is to be repetitive and formulaic. The amount we’ve moved forward since the early days, I don’t think we could ever make a straight up metal track like ‘Harbinger’ again today.
You’ve described the opening of Icarian as being inspired by Steve Reich. Do you see people like Reich and Earle Browne, that movement, as a big portion of where you are going sound wise? Have they been left untapped as inspiration in metal? Anything in that style that you’d like to flag to people as being exceptional listens?
I think overall minimalism as a movement has had more of a second-hand influence on us than a direct one. It’s probably diluted at this point to more of an aesthetic than a faithful interpretation of the movement. Linear song structures, a lack of embellishment, a rejection of virtuosity, these are all things that will probably feature in the next release but moving forwards, honestly? Who knows. It has to be organic and feel right. It was a fun exercise, appropriating those compositional techniques for our music, the counterpoint and parts in different time signatures as tools to make a “post” quiet/loud structure a bit more interesting, and because we think it’s hilarious claiming to be influenced by minimalism when our set up is so over the top. I’d love to do a cover of ‘In C’ though.
As for minimalism as an influence in the wider metal scene, I’m not sure that’ll happen; Sunn O))) have basically nailed that and I haven’t heard a band that aren’t them, trying to do what they do without being deathly boring. As for exceptional minimalist listens, definitely start with Steve Reich and ‘Electric Counterpoint’, then ‘Music For 18 Musicians’. If you want a familiar touchstone, try the album Beth Gibbons did of Gorecki’s Third Symphony, his Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs, with the Polish National Symphony Orchestra, or on a bit more of a post-minimal vibe the incredible album of Krzysztof Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood’s (of Radiohead) work on Nonesuch Records. For some electronic minimalism, give Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4 a try which I know is a favourite of the band’s, and was instrumental in the evolution of techno.
Moving on to the narrative covering both Gentle Decline and Icarian, why did you decide to explore a concept across the EPs? What was it about this that drew you in?
I have to be honest with you, the initial version of my lyrics to Icarian were written in a bit of a rush. The song had been knocking about for a while and earmarked as a follow up to Gentle Decline but two singers had gone and come and gone in rapid succession. There were no definitive lyrics written down, there were shows in the calendar and I had to step up pretty quickly. The whole vocal was written in one afternoon, and only slightly modified since. I don’t recall if it was a conscious or unconscious choice but as it solidified from a sketch to a concrete arrangement, the similarities showed themselves and we thought that that was good, that it provided some, at that point badly needed, continuity. We’re not a band married to the idea of having a continuous theme in our music but it just felt right to carry it on from Gentle Decline to Icarian, and on from there – but that’s spoilers.
I mean, ultimately, it’s a great concept, if you’ll excuse the pun. Maybe the best concept? It’s compelling, there are an almost infinite number of ways you can approach it and tell stories around it. It was an obvious choice to roll with it.
You’ve noted that so much change has occurred in the band. What do you think that’s done for how you’ve needed to engage in what a band is and what music is to a collective? Assuming you didn’t write the Gentle Decline lyrics, how do you remain connected to them? Is there a ‘consciousness’ of a song from within the band which feeds into the lyrics more than the mind of the lyricist, how does the music connect to the vocals both musically and in terms of theme?
For such a long time, after Laurence left, we stopped playing the Gentle Decline tracks. It’s only recently that we thought we should maybe play music people know and like, rather than experimenting with new stuff on them, and brought ‘Monuments To Collapse’ back into the set. It was hard to get my head around the lyrics initially, it had been so long since we’d all played it, but what swung it was that they really are, and always had been, perfect for the story we were trying to tell with the music, and they are also just so fucking good. If there’s a consciousness to that song then Laurence had tapped right into it, and channeled it authentically and in its entirety, but it’s his words and his talent there. I would never try to take that away from him or any other lyricist. It’s that that built the connection for me, wanting to do right by the quality of the song. If you hear me sing it, it’s different. I have a different vocal style, different phrasing and inflection which all helps to “make it my own”, to use a terrible cliché, so I can feel more connected to it. The last thing I want is to feel somehow inauthentic during a performance. The lyrics, despite the change of writer, still share a graphic, bleak over-the-top style of storytelling, which befits the fact that we’re playing dramatic, bleak, over-the-top heavy metal. They feed off each other and always have, since Black Sabbath to now, and always will.
The lineup changes have solidified things though in the long run. We are more certain than ever that we want, as a unit, to make music and stuff like Covid has only reinforced that. It’s an outlet we all need. Some people watch football, some people fish… We play music.
Musically the new EP follows the imagery you’ve chosen to go with, but thinking on that imagery in particular, what does Icarus represent to you? You’ve read what I’ve taken from the imagery, but I want to know what you were trying to say with such an impactful choice.
I think your reading of the end of the track was a lot more optimistic than my intention but I also prefer it. That’s the beautiful thing about art, though. Once it’s out of the creator’s head and out there it’s open to interpretation and who can say what the definitive interpretation should be? My intention with using Icarus, was to use him as the classic indicator of hubris and recklessness, a metaphor for government’s stubborn refusal to properly invest in reliable renewable energy to fight climate change because they say we don’t need to worry about it yet, even as the doomsday clock ticks ever closer to midnight. There’s a bit of artistic licence in play, I’m not a total climate pessimist, but I’ve also worked in renewable energy and what little is happening is a total clusterfuck. We’ve known about what’s coming for 30 years and nothing of note has really changed, except agreeing to kick it further in the future and shameful partisan manoeuvring from the US.
I didn’t know you’d worked in renewables. What do you think is really dragging it back?
Working in renewables is maybe making it sound more than it was, it was a shit call centre job flogging solar panels. Solar and other renewables are held back at a domestic level by limitations of what size system the government will let you install, technology that seems like there isn’t an incentive for companies to innovate so has stagnated, removal of subsidies so the return on investment is so tiny as to not be worth bothering with… I could go on. The company I worked with, which was a major player, also employed some of the worst, most banal sales types you can imagine, and that lack of imagination and genuine passion is never going to lead to a thriving market.
Big changes need to happen. The coverage of Extinction Rebellion recently has paled in comparison to what it was, has that movement had its day in the media? Is it no longer playing big? Does it destabilise power too much? How can we as a people try to get our legislators to listen and to move on what’s happening? Or do we just have to suck it and hope that someone with some money decides they give a fuck?
With XR I feel like honestly it kinda misses the point, and even if it didn’t someone like Priti Patel can criminalise the entire endeavour at the stroke of her pen anyway. Individual action is only going to get us so far. What’s needed is sustained pressure on politicians, and reforms to lobbying rules to stop the fossil fuel lobby from diluting accords and treaties, not these mass protests and graffiti that really achieve little more than to piss people off. How we achieve that, I don’t know. I think a political class more interested in what’s better for society at large than naked greed or blind party allegiance, in doing what’s right rather than what it takes to gain power would be a good start, but ultimately, under capitalism the only thing that will effect change is the effect things have on the bottom line. It needs to be good business to make the change, otherwise nothing will happen.
What I liked about your interpretation of the ending [of Icarian] is that it speaks to the other side of the Icarus myth, which I wasn’t aware of until after I wrote the lyrics. It wasn’t just the risk of flying too high and melting his wings that Daedalus warned him of, but also the complacency of flying too low, and soaking his wings, ruining his potential. I sort of had the idea of mankind vainly entreating delays to the inevitable collapse but the idea of finding that balance and turning things around really appeals to the PMA in me. I mean, look at The Orkneys. More renewable energy than they know what to do with. Thorium powered nuclear reactors that can run are rapidly approaching commercial viability that are not only far less environmentally damaging than conventional nuclear reactors, but they could also use nuclear waste from conventional reactors as fuel. Extinction’s not a done deal yet.
You’ve touched on this, but art is about the subjective, and once an artist has pushed something into the world it is claimed and reclaimed by others. How do you feel putting, even if it was subconsciously, a sense of meaning into what you write knowing that for some it might mean something totally different? How would you, for example, feel about interpretations which only take the raw ‘story’ you’re telling? How important is it for your art to be understood in the context of its political/social leaning?
We’ve touched on PMA already a little, and one of the things I’ve learned is that you cannot control other people’s perceptions of you. Once you accept that, it’s easy to extend that to things like lyrics that are ultimately an extension of the self put out into the world anyway. People will take things as they want to, and I can’t do anything about it so why worry? That said, Icarian is very cut and dried and even the bits that are open to interpretation are only open in a limited way, so if people take it at face value, or if they find another meaning, it’s hard to imagine it’ll ever going to stray too far from what was in my head at the time.
As far as a broader political or social context, well, there’s a can of worms… We are four people who all have leftist views to one extent or another but we never agreed on a united political front we want to present as a band, because ultimately bands in politics, there’s only so much bandwidth before people switch off and anything more than the simplest message is liable to be misinterpreted or misunderstood. I’m happy for that to happen when I’m yelping away about the end of mankind, but maybe not when I’m expressing a political viewpoint, even if I did feel comfortable talking politics on behalf of the other guys, which I’m not. That said, even if we aren’t overtly talking politics, we’re taking action and standing against discrimination in the metal scene actively, but that’s not really connected to the music.
Thinking on another apocalyptic interpretation, it’s interesting how prescient the work on Gentle Decline and Icarian is for the Covid crisis too. How has that been for you guys?
Covid has been a bitch. It sounds petty focusing on what it’s done to the band when people have lost their lives and livelihoods, but yeah. It’s set us back at least a year. We’ve got an album ready to go that we’ve struggled to get a release for, we’ve not been able to work on a follow up, shows have been cancelled and then getting back out there is tough… Hopefully Icarian is the first step in getting things back to where they should be.
With this in mind, what’s the next step? How’re you gonna push through the hardness of this new reality, and is a tour on the cards?
In terms of the route forward, we’re going to push on, promote what we’ve released as best we can and support it with shows as long as it’s safe to do so and if anyone will have us, of course. Hopefully this’ll give us a springboard for the album, and whatever comes after that.
Icarian is out now on Surviving Sounds. Order here.
Words: Simon Young