Raw, visceral subject matter with music to match has always been at the heart of British post-black metal band Underdark.
On their debut album Our Bodies Burned Bright on Re-Entry, vocalist Abi Vasquez sang about deeply personal emotions, consequences of the United States’ policy on the southern border, and the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.
With the follow up, Managed Decline, Underdark has unleashed their creativity and not only pushed the bounds of what they thought they could do, but also what’s expected of them. Layers of harsh black metal pair with luscious wisps of clean guitar, post-hardcore, mournful harmonies, and gut-wrenching vocals that firmly – but cohesively – tosses the listener into a gritty, heartbreaking story that spans the course of three generations.
“I wanted to do something that worked cohesively as a story,” Vasquez said of the concept. “The musical flows together really nicely, and I wanted the lyrics to reflect that. I wanted it to be a single cohesive art piece, to have a sense of place and I wanted it to be something that a band from this environment could write, but not really something that anyone else could.”
Set in the dying remnants of a post-industrial town in the Midlands of Britain, Managed Decline is a ghost story that follows its townspeople for over 30 years as each generation has to make do with less and less, and turn to more extreme vices to cope.
The immersive story touches on mine closures, alcoholism and addiction, unplanned pregnancies, child sex-trafficking, and the bittersweet escape from a collapsing town that will never recover. It’s traumatic and harrowing, a painful gaze into the mirror to examine Britain’s long-term effects of Thatcherite neoliberalism and the havoc it’s caused for the people trapped inside it.
“This is what the country has made of us all,” Vasquez said.
“We've all sort of come up among the husks, the fucking carcass of industry that was pretty much sold up the river in the 80s. So the story is kind of informed by things we grew up around, situations that we've witnessed, sometimes been in.” While the album certainly succeeds in conjuring up the decaying factories and gritty, rainy streets that are quintessentially British, there are commonalities that someone living near the depleted coal mines of Appalachia or the Rust Belt’s shuttered auto plants could deeply understand.
The album opens with a solemn horn section heralding the 10-minute “Managed Decline I (1st April 1988),” whose first 2 minutes lull the listener into false security with dooomy, emotional chord progressions that transition into frenetic blast beats, tremolo chords and Vasquez’s diverse shrieks and growls. It sets the table for the rest of the album, giving the listener an expect-the-unexpected feel.
“I think the real strength of [guitarists] Ollie and Adam as songwriters is their knack for blending parts into each other,” she said. “They've got a real knack for going from this incredibly harsh blast beats section into something really pretty without it giving you whiplash.”
Indeed, there’s plenty of space for the listener to catch their breath on the album, whether through instrumental breaks, ambient and atmospheric quasi-interludes, layers of reverbed clean guitars and harmonics, as well as the sequencing of tracks. The extremity never overwhelms, and in fact is enhanced by these small breaks.
“By refusing to define ourselves, we avoid locking ourselves into any particular sound,” Adam said. “So when we're writing, nothing's off the table. We can try anything. We don't run it really sort of give ourselves a set style, or tag ourselves as a certain genre. I think that helps us push. It doesn't give us a limit on what we can do.”
“I think the first album we weren't quite sure we wanted to be,” Ollie said. “[There was] just more focus this time. We were able to try and push the boundaries a bit.”
It shows in the final product. Given the music for Our Bodies…was already written before Vasquez joined the band, Managed Decline shows what Underdark can accomplish when they are able to dig their claws into a project from the jump.
It’s a massive step forward for the British five-piece – one they are immensely proud of – but they aren’t a band to rest on their laurels.
“I personally believe that if you'e not in a constant process of evolving and improving on your practice, then why are you even doing it?” Vasquez said.
Underdark hopes Managed Decline will move its listeners in some way, big or small. For a bonus, Vaquez hopes it will inspire people to look into their local history and develop an understanding of why things around them ended up the way they did.
“A lot of this stuff doesn’t happen by chance, but it feels like it does when you don’t know enough to see the patterns.”
Managed Decline is available now via Church Road Records - HERE