Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
We may be getting close to the home stretch of 2011 (ugh, already?), but plenty of great albums will still come out before the year's up. I have discovered a sure Top 10 album contender from a band I'd never heard of until recently; it won't even be self-releasing the record until December. Dwellings is the second album from Cormorant, a Bay Area metal group that seems to follow in the forward-thinking footsteps of Ludicra or Hammers of Misfortune without sounding like either.
- from Dwellings
- by Cormorant
Dwellings doesn't come out until Dec. 6, but is available to pre-order from Cormorant's website in a variety of Kickstarter-like packages.
Cormorant comes from a place that's always thinking "next." The band's roots are death- and black metal, certainly, but outside influences in folk and classical forms are a part of the cloth, not haphazardly stitched together. You can hear all of that in this premiere of "Junta," a nine-and-a-half-minute narrative based on the horrific sexual violence toward women during the 2009 pro-democracy rallies in Guinea. It's essentially a reported piece akin to the non-linear yet naturally flowing structure of Death's The Sound of Perseverance; it also conjures the desperate atmosphere of Agalloch's Marrow of the Spirit.
In a Gchat interview with bassist and vocalist Arthur von Nagel, we talked about the meaning of lyrics (he's very good at them), the NPR story that inspired "Junta," and the death of the music industry.
When I picked "Junta" to premiere, I had no idea at the time that the song was inspired by NPR's 2009 coverage of the military crackdown on a pro-democracy rally in Guinea — specifically, the sexual violence toward women. It's a horrific story. What drew you to it?
The story aired on NPR in October 2009, I think. I was driving on 101 at the time, and I actually pulled over to listen to the story. I couldn't begin to understand the factors that led to those kinds of acts — I couldn't wrap my head around it. I tried writing the lyrics inspired by the Conakry Massacre for the next year and a half or so after that, but I just couldn't pull it off. I kept inserting myself into it, trying to figure it out from inside the text, but that was a futile exercise. I came to the conclusion that there was nothing to understand when you're dealing with mass murders and rapes in broad daylight. Finally, I decided to go with a stark and journalistic interpretation of events, best I could. Take the subjectivity out of it. The horror tells itself. What drew me to the story was that hopelessness.
"Junta" actually uses direct images and phrases from the NPR story, such as the soldier who, in shame, set a woman free after recognizing her. Do you typically approach your lyrics as a story with a direct narrative?
Yes. Always. I need my lyrics to function on three levels: 1) Direct narrative. It has to have a logical beginning-middle-end. This is the most important to me, that there be a thread to follow, even if it's not immediately apparent. I actually map out all the lyrics with graphs and the like. Story boards, I guess you'd call them. 2) Then I need things to function from a greater societal level beyond the immediate narrative. I need to feel I'm at least attempting to broach larger subjects than the story itself. 3) And then I need the song to have personal resonance to my own life. This is purely selfish, but I like to have little elements of myself in there so it feels true.
Man, I hope this doesn't sound like a f------ manifesto, ha ha ha.
Do the stories in your songs ever cross over each other, creating themes throughout the album?
You'll want to enlarge this artwork for Cormorant's Dwellings. In it, artist Alice Duke depicts characters and ideas from the album in beautiful detail.
Yes, they do. Metazoa was about our animal nature. Dwellings is about human structures. A direct example: "Sky Burial" in Metazoa was a direct response to "Scavengers Feast," the opening track. It's a mirror image, thematically. The vultures in "Scavengers" are nihilistic, purely a tool of nature recycling itself, but the vultures in "Sky Burial" have spiritual purpose.
Are there any direct responses on Dwellings?
Yes. "Funambulist," "The Purest Land," "A Howling Dust" and "Unearthly Dreamings" all feature a protagonist who tackles his own inevitable death from completely different angles, all attempting to build or create a story for themselves so they could have some small piece of immortality. I'm fascinated by memories and deeds we leave once we're gone, and why we as a species are driven to leave a legacy that way.
"Funambulist" is about Philipe Petit, the wire walker. You probably saw him in Man on Wire. I saw the documentary, then read a few of his books. What moved me about him was his incredible arrogance (in a good way). The man is truly a glorious bastard. That kind of character attracts me.
Similarly, "The Purest Land" is about another megalomaniac, Lope de Aguirre. I love the Herzog movie The Wrath of God, but I based the lyrics on his letters instead, although I did adapt some of the movie's imagery.
"A Howling Dust" is the opposite, because it's someone who wants to forget himself. It's an adaptation from a story of a ghost town in California called Hornitos. It was something of a ghetto, with all the white settlers expelling the undesirables there. Rife with juicy stories. I decided to take the perspective of a child who played a hand in some horrible racial violence in the midst of this town fading away into nothingess, and he alongside it.
"Unearthly Dreamings" is also inspired by an NPR story. Not to kiss your ass, but I listen to the station basically all day, so it bleeds in. That one's about the cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first human casualty of space travel.
It seems like you're attracted to big characters, no matter how despicable, that you almost kind of admire.
You're a journalist; you must be attracted to outsize personalities. Those are people who leave a mark, for better or for worse. Actually, Komarov wasn't like that at all. Very modest man. That's why he's the counterpoint to Petit in "Funambulist." Different aims.
Oh, definitely. And it's an odd thing, because you respect these brazen personalities in a dumbfounded way.
How can you not? They're magnetic. These are people with a cult of personality around them who can influence others just by speaking, no matter how horrible. Music is like that in a sense; a sort of control. Music is simultaneously a liberation and a manipulation.
Cormorant self-released Metazoa and will do the same for Dwellings. I should think, at this point, that the band's been offered some record deals, given the success of Metazoa. What made you decide to stay independent?
We did get offered some deals, actually. Some are still outstanding, so I probably shouldn't drop names. We didn't sign for a variety of reasons: loss of independence, the potential for crippling debt, and because we've done really well otherwise. I think unless you're dealing with a tastemaker boutique label like Profound Lore or the like, the label system is dead.
For me, I think all you need is a good publicist and a tour manager if you want to hit the road. And lots of work. Also, I'm a control freak.
And with outlets like Bandcamp, that stuff is so much easier these days. You even offered Metazoa as a free download shortly.
Bandcamp is glorious. Absolutely brilliant service. The free download was great. We actually earned 10 times more money from the service when the album was free. People would donate like crazy. It was really humbling.
I think in this free-for-all era, there are going to be those who just download and not think twice about it. It seems like Bandcamp almost holds the downloader accountable for his actions.
I'm actually very much for the free-for-all era. I'd be perfectly happy with the whole industry going down in flames. The people who truly do it out of love for music will keep at it. I feel there are still ways to monetize music, but on a much smaller, more intimate level. No need for the middle man anymore. I'm happy with people pirating our music. I just want people to hear it. I get emails often from folks who say, "I pirated your album, so now I'm buying a shirt."
A lot of bands and labels seem to be following that same route. It's almost like online bartering... kind of.
I'm probably too young to say this, but I don't see it as too entirely different from tape-trading, just on a much larger (and instantaneous) level. The socializing aspect from that scene has shifted to message boards. The only thing I dislike about downloading is that it short-shifts the artwork. I love good album art — very important — especially these days, when you're trying to push physical product. I would love to do vinyl releases, but it's rather expensive. Seems like when vinyl's popularity blew up, the printers caught wind of it and prices went up. Still, it's a beautiful format.
Beautiful artwork even just on 12x12" cardboard is infinitely preferable. I'm definitely still materialistic in that way.
I think it's more than materialism. It really helps shape the mood and color of the music. It's like lyrics. I know most people don't give a s---, but it's so important to me that the whole package be a complete vision, and that includes art and lyrics.
Do you still pore over lyrics in the liner notes?
For some bands. The ones I know actually put some effort into it.
Has anyone stood out recently that way?
In metal, I'd say the best I've read are from Hammers of Misfortune and Primordial. And anything Martin Walkyier [Sabbat, Skyclad] writes. Do you read liner notes?
For me, the physical package is mostly about the artwork and presentation and what that means to the music. Lyrics have always been a tertiary concern for me, with some exceptions. But in the last six months, I've been paying more attention mostly to bands I know that take great care in their words, like Krallice, Tombs or Today Is the Day.
I think with those bands it's the punk influence that gives the lyrics some importance.
I can totally see that. I've been emailing lately with one of the editors of MetalSucks about my general distaste for what I'll quickly call "shred metal," and how it likely comes from growing up with late-'90s hardcore, which was all about passion and drive, and less about how awesome you could play your guitar. But I know that there are shreddy bands that share that aesthetic, as well.
I'm not sure where we stand on the whole progressive-metal thing. I dislike overly clean production. I feel metal should be raw and dirty. Shred is not for me, but on some level we're on the precipice of that ourselves, I would assume. As long as technicality serves as a tool to convey a feeling, I'm okay with it. The old John Arch-era Fates Warning albums are crazy-technical, but the writing is just there. It holds up.
Billy Anderson (Sleep, Neurosis, High on Fire) produced Metazoa, which introduced you to Justin Weis, who mastered that album. While there are lines to be drawn across the albums, I can't help but notice a more atmospheric yet beefier production from Weis on Dwellings. It nearly reminds me of his work with Agalloch or Hammers of Misfortune. Did Cormorant go into the studio with a sound in mind? Was it a collaboration?
Justin kicks ass. He's extremely precise; the guy has a laser ear. Billy was also fantastic and works from a more spontaneous place, which is also exciting. Both have their qualities. I feel what we wanted to convey with Dwellings was a more focused, direct album. [With] Metazoa, we were so excited to be in a big studio with a legendary producer [that] we just threw everything into the pot, you know? Tons of guest vocals, string sections, pianos... it's a messy album in a sense. I feel that's the charm of it — I hope! With Dwellings, we wanted that exactitude from Justin to come through, but we also wanted a certain blackness and roughness. So we tracked to analog.
It's funny you say it's beefy, too, because a lot of the guitars aren't particularly layered. With Billy, we'd overdub like six or seven guitars on top of each other. A lot of the guitar (and all the bass and drums) were recorded live.
Even though it's more or less a standard band set-up, you get the feeling that more orchestration went into it.
Yeah, there was orchestration for sure. I think it's important to create a "world" for the music, as pretentious as that sounds. I mean, it's escapism after all, just like all art to some degree. Even art that reflects truth very accurately is a kind of escapism, because you're falling into someone else's interpretation of the universe. It's a respite from yourself.