The band’s architect Joe Nally confides the very real emotional weight of their latest full length, produced by Joe Duplantier of Gojira.
You can tell a lot about a band by the way they set up their instruments. How they hold themselves; how together they appear – is that panic in their eyes while that amp plays up?
I first saw Urne in January 2019, playing a support slot in a North London pub. As they went about setting up, they oozed confidence. Bassist/vocalist Joe Nally had his headphones in, lost in his own world. He had his armor on – he was intimidating. Urne wasn’t his first rodeo, either. He’d found some success in the doomy sludge band Hang the Bastard.
Urne crushed it that night. I bought the only T-shirt they had available at the merch stand. The next day I sought out their EP, The Mountain Of Gold. Its heady mixture of sludgy groove, straight-up fury and progressive tendencies marked them out as something different.
Some bands land on a sound and drive it into the ground. Urne are evolving in front of our eyes. 2021’s Serpent & Spirit was a huge leap forward. Infernal and exploratory, the songs stretched out and also reached back. Parts of it reminded me of the most ambitious sections of Ride the Lightning blended with modern influences like Mastodon and Opeth. Even when Urne overstretched themselves, it made for thrilling, precipitous listening.
When I speak to Nally he is relaxing at home in the town of Hastings on England’s south coast. Hastings is a key setting for the triumph and tragedy of Urne’s new album, A Feast On Sorrow. He sputters and apologizes through a persistent cough picked up during their summer touring. No ordinary dates either – Urne have been supporting Gojira on a short run of arenas in Europe.
The experience has been ‘surreal’ and ‘a buzz’ for Nally. He describes Gojira as the most ‘on’ and ‘perfect’ heavy band in the current culture. For a band of Urne’s confidence, Nally admits he had to get over a feeling of imposter syndrome opening each night.
Watching their performances back, ‘It sounded huge,’ he reflects in a heavy London accent. ‘I’m like “Cor!”, you know? Some bands, maybe their sound doesn’t translate to those venues. Luckily, we feel like we cover a lot of different areas. So we can pick and choose a setlist that might work better with a festival, with a big arena, or a small stage.’
Urne are ready for the big stages, and they’re adaptable. When it comes to A Feast On Sorrow, they’re nurturing what they’re doing.
‘It keeps building and building, what we can do,’ says Nally. ‘And I know there’s a lot more that we can achieve with our sound.’
Even on Serpent & Spirit, Nally says they let certain songs go on too long ‘for the fucking sake of it’. He now expects Urne to make music to the quality standard that has earned them the respect of bands like Gojira.
‘I couldn’t ever imagine being, alright, let’s write St. Anger – get angry and write a shit album. Just never gonna happen,’ says Nally.
Gojira singer-guitarist Joe Duplantier recorded the band at his Silver Cord studio in Queens, New York, alongside collaborator Johann Meyer. It’s hard not to hear the guitar-pick scrapes on “To Die Twice” as a knowing tribute to one of Gojira’s signature sounds.
A Feast On Sorrow is an angry album, but it’s the inchoate anger at the center of another emotion: grief. The armor is off and the wounds are open, barely healing.
Nally and his extended family had relocated out of London to the south coast for a new life. Hastings is a somewhat dilapidated seaside town – like many in England. But it still has a fishing industry and thrives on tourism. It has also hosted its share of troubled artists – the folk musicians John and Beverley Martyn lived there together in the seventies. After he’d moved, Nally marveled at the beauty and the devastating power of the sea beating against its promenade.
Just as things seemed to be perfect – the clouds descended. Close family members (‘close as can be’ according to Nally) became unwell – one has died and another is terminally ill. In an unusual foreword in the album’s liner notes, Nally writes, ‘I moved to be by the ocean to live a different life and to dream a different dream, but little did I know what sorrow, pain, and grief this move would bring.’
‘In one afternoon our life changed forever,’ he tells me.
This is the opening position of “The Flood Came Rushing In”, the first track on the album. ‘And just when we felt alive/The flood came rushing in,’ sings Nally. What follows is eight tracks of tumultuous, elemental metal. A Feast On Sorrow charts the slow deterioration of a loved one, their eventual demise, and the slow reconciliation that follows their departure. In the process of writing the record, the band divested itself of the more classic rock elements of their sound. The album just wanted to be heavier than that.
The album’s first single, “Becoming The Ocean”, is relentless and magnificent: ‘A cathedral on the ocean floor,’ Nally snarls. It forms the centrepoint, a kind of whirlpool, in the middle of the album. James Cook’s drumming pounds down like the endless pressure at the sea floor. The recent implosion of the Titan submarine evinced that to devastating effect. The guitar playing of Angus Neyra is endlessly inventive – pulling in Chuck Schuldiner licks into its solo, as sparkling chords shimmer across the raging surface. The song is a microcosm of the album as a whole – from its black-metal inflections to its modernist death-drive.
The sea, represented in the stark photo of the white-horse wave on the album cover, is unknowable and all-consuming. It’s the perfect metaphor for grief. As one writer recently put it in a piece about the sudden death of his partner: ‘Grief is hard to write about, for the same reasons the sea is hard to write about while you’re in it.’
But heavy music is uniquely placed to convey the ineffable heaviness of such emotions. Nally is pleased with the the album’s packaging; how as a browser in a record shop he’d want to know what was beyond such a foreboding cover. Like the best of the genre, it’s the imposing darkness that draws you into its embrace.
‘Writing about subject matter that’s heavy, I feel like being in a metal band is the perfect place for it to be,’ says Nally. ‘If I was doing a soul band, I don’t think it would be quite as impactful.’
Often on the album the sentiment is severe, verging on the nihilistic. ‘There is no immortality/There is no redemption,’ Nally sings on “The Burden”. But it also conveys vulnerability – the fear of abandonment at the loss of a relative.
“A Stumble of Words” explores the hollowing out of a person, the inadequacy of language in those moments, but also a hope for some form of transcendence. Where the material world fails, perhaps the metaphysical can succeed: ‘Levitating in air/Dragged through a vortex in time’.
The song rides steady on a chopped-up groove recalling latter-period Enslaved. A lot of what makes Urne such compulsive listening is the interplay of Nally and Neyra. They enrich each other’s performances, creating music ‘in a lot of colors’, according to Nally.
Nally demurs that he brings Neyra ‘bog-standard riffs’ so Neyra can work his magic (and create his ‘pretty chords’). With this album’s strong, polished drums and incandescent guitar work, Nally claims his role is to quietly occupy the center ground. Even a cursory viewing of the band’s performance video of “Desolate Heart” from Serpent & Spirit, shows this is a gross oversimplification of how the pair work.
Really, Nally and Neyra are locked in a whirling dance – weaving in and out of each other’s melodic explorations. Whereas Serpent & Spirit flogged some ideas to death, on A Feast On Sorrow Nally feels the songs really wanted to take them somewhere interesting. He compares it to reading a great novel. They knew it from the first riff of “A Stumble of Words”: ‘We really bring it down, then we build it and build it and we build it again, it goes over here, it goes over there,’ he says.
The same goes for the album’s other ‘epic’, the closing song, “The Long Goodbye/Where Do the Memories Go?” The preceding track, “Peace”, represents the moment of death and passing. A transition that echoes Nally’s other opinion of the sea in the album’s foreword, as something which ‘can also bring comfort, a sense of calm, and closure.’
“The Long Goodbye/Where Do the Memories Go?” is about the emotional reckoning that follows death. As well as the possibility of an afterlife, if only in memory: ‘And when you see me, will you know who I am?’
‘It’s all built up to track seven, “Peace”, when you’re going through something with someone who’s got something terminal,’ says Nally. ‘You go through all these different emotions and then when that’s over there is this kind of a release – a weight pulled off your shoulders. And then the next thing you have to do is lay that person to rest.’
Urne felt that the song’s final four minutes merited a title of its own, harking back to the very first line sung by Nally on the album: ‘Where Do the Memories Go?’ The death cycle is complete.
After a remarkable breakdown and searing harmonized lead guitar, this section of the song tunnels into infinity. It functions like a time lapse in a movie, or a chapter within a chapter. Nally can see the band playing this as a standalone climax to future gigs. As it stands, it’s a monument to lost loved ones.
‘I’m chuffed at least to be able to present it to one of them [his terminally ill relative],’ says Nally. ‘While they’re here and while they’ve still got some function. To go: This is something for you. I’m quite proud to be able to do that for one of them, at least.’
A Feast On Sorrow gets to the heart of metal’s emotional potential. As Nally puts it, ‘metal and darkness and sorrow go hand in hand’. Metal is often bleak and its heart is made of stone. Heavy music promises us a place to face the negative and make peace with our fears. In fact, it asks us to indulge them – to indulge in them. A veritable banquet of misery.
Who better to capture the atmosphere of such torrid emotion than Joe Duplantier? Gojira’s 2016 album Magma was a touchstone for A Feast On Sorrow. Joe Duplantier and his brother Mario made the record as an act of catharsis after the death of their mother.
‘That was the album, even though it’s not the most intense one. It’s the vibe, the atmosphere that they’ve created on it,’ says Nally. ‘And that was what I was after. He knew what the message was. Brilliant. I’m over the moon. Over the moon to have had that done with our little band from London.’
Nally says he waited years for a bigger band to ‘buddy up’ with Urne. He didn’t expect it to be Gojira. Duplantier has helped wrench this album from Urne. But Nally and his bandmates took the risk in surfacing something this raw and heartfelt. A Feast On Sorrow shows that some emotional risks are worth the pain.
I doubt they’ll be a ‘little band’ for long. They’re fast earning a seat at the head table.
A Feast On Sorrow is due to arrive August 11th via Candlelight Records. Pre-order the album – HERE
Urne continue a handful of live festival dates including a highly-anticipated mianstage set at Bloodstock and an appearance on the Copenhell Metal Cruise this October. See the list of confirmed dates below.
URNE LIVE DATES
04/08: Metal Days, Velenje, Slovenia
05/08: Vagos Metal Festival, Quinta Do Ega, Portugal
12/08: Bloodstock Festival, Catton Park, Derbyshire, England
16/09: The Academy, Dublin, Ireland (with Paradise Lost)
17/09: Dolan’s Warehouse, Limerick, Ireland (with Paradise Lost)
27 – 29/10: Copenhell Metal Cruise