Among death metal’s most proven practitioners, both Revocation and Bloodbath steer towards our inevitable end in different, although no less devastating ways.
Death metal is not a homogenous entity. Within the stylistic restrictions of the genre – expressed in bowel-scraping guitars, earth-quaking drums and raw-throated vocals – multitudes exist. Bloodbath’s new album, Survival of the Sickest, is a back-to-basics portrayal of a world filled with zombie horror. By contrast, Revocation has (largely) departed from the cosmic horrors of H.P. Lovecraft (explored extensively on 2018’s The Outer Ones) for a more diabolic destination: Netherheaven.
‘It just felt like time for a change of pace,’ says Revocation guitarist and vocalist David Davidson. ‘It’s like having a beard. I get the beard, then I get sick of it and shave it off.’
Davidson is reacting to my being upset that he shaved off the voluminous beard he sports in the video for the first single from Netherheaven, “Diabolical Majesty”. The song opens the gates of hell onto an album that, in his words, ‘doubles down on the devil.’
“Diabolical Majesty” is about the Satanic Temple, a campaigning organisation run by Lucien Greaves. According to Davidson’s lyrics, they are ‘champions of hell’ in a country that is threatened by the Christian Right.
‘We are literally on the frontlines in the war against encroaching theocracy,’ Greaves has said.
A few years ago the Satanic Temple made headlines with their attempt to install a statue of Baphomet on the lawn of the Capitol building in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was retaliation against lawmakers who had previously installed a slab inscribed with the Ten Commandments. As Greaves saw it, this violated the First Amendment. This was government property, with one religion (Christianity) being promoted over others. Erecting a statue of Baphomet would even the score.
Whereas the Satanic Temple treated Baphomet as a symbol and a metaphor, the Christian counter-protesters had a very real fear of Satan. After all, he is a Christian (more broadly, religious) creation.
‘As a society as a whole, I think, based on polling and shit like that, it seems like the world is becoming more secular,’ says Davidson. ‘But in terms of power and consolidations of power, we’re going in much more of a theocratic direction towards an authoritarian regime, which is deeply concerning to me. I felt compelled to write about it in terms of actual protest music. Rather than just cool fodder for death metal lyrics. I mean, the rise of the Christian Right, and their alignment with politicians, is deeply concerning.’
With Bloodbath’s new album, Survival of the Sickest, what’s alarming is that the world it depicts – sickened wastelands of zombie horror, plague and apocalypse – seems to be edging closer to reality. The ‘death lord’ depicted in song “Environcide” is bringing his ‘human cattle’ to slaughter.
But Bloodbath vocalist Nick Holmes insists that the album is not a comment on our reality.
‘I can completely separate music or anything I read into it, in particular death metal lyrics, from the real world,’ Holmes says. ‘I tend to totally separate the two. In the same way that I can watch a horror film and totally detach from reality, for an hour and a half, or however long it is. Then when I get back to it, when I get to the real, it’s totally separate. I mean, for me, it is a work of fiction, even though you could draw parallels [to real life], which some people do, obviously. But for me personally, I’ve never actually really done that.’
But what about the great zombie films of George A. Romero, I ask him, surely they are partly a satire on real life? Is there not some metaphor in Bloodbath’s music?
‘I’m lost in the moment of how the vocals sound on the riff,’ Holmes says. ‘I never really go that far into it. I know Jonas [Renkse, bassist] definitely goes more into things with his lyrics for Bloodbath, but I don’t do it. Like you say, when you look into the old films, particularly Dawn Of The Dead, I always find it poignant that everyone goes back to the place where they were when they were alive: they all go back to the shopping mall. That concept, I always found that quite fascinating […] When I’m writing lyrics, I tend not to go that far deep into it.’
One of Renkse’s lyrics is for the song ‘Malignant Maggot Therapy’, in which a body is eaten alive. Written in the second person, it is nearly psychedelic in its imagery, describing how the body’s ‘image leaks from the larvae’. If death metal is about one thing it is this: the destruction of our corporeal selves. Preferably over the surging uptempo grooves and violent flurries evident here. Holmes says the song was a lot of fun to record, particularly the slowed-down midsection, with its cacophony of undead screams and groans. But its last line is the funniest, as the mulch of the decomposed corpse is ‘[s]craped from the floor and put in the bin’.
‘I absolutely love that lyric because it’s so English,’ says Holmes. ‘I was laughing that you’d use the word “bin” in a death metal song.’
Words matter. Even in a genre like death metal where most of them are indecipherable. In Revocation’s music, outside cultural references are wrapped inside others. Davidson got the title for the song “Strange And Eternal” from the gore-soaked 2018 Nicolas Cage film Mandy. It’s a phrase in a longer passage the titular character reads in a fantasy novel. The song itself is based on the Robert W. Chambers sequence of short stories, The King In Yellow. The first season of HBO’s True Detective heavily referenced the book.
‘I thought it was pretty fascinating, this concept of a play in two parts where the first act is relatively benign,’ says Davidson. ‘And then the second half, if you finish the play, you become possessed by this notion of the king in yellow, and you actually go insane. I drew some distinctions from that as well, in terms of the satanic theme and the religious theme of the record. I could see some parallels between the concept of The King In Yellow, the play, and maybe certain religious texts that people read, and lose their minds over, so to speak: the fanaticism, or whatever.’
The song itself is a mini-masterpiece of death metal vocal scansion. As the rampant riff rips open new imaginary worlds, Davidson takes the part of the first-person narrator: ‘“Woe be unto he whose eyes gaze upon this cursed text”/ The mystic warned me in my dreams’.
Davidson’s storytelling is as fastidious as his songwriting. The song’s exquisite guitar solo is right up there with career highlights such as “Scorched Earth Policy” from 2014’s Deathless and “Fathomless Catacombs” from The Outer Ones.
Holmes has used words to create rich worlds within Bloodbath since 2014, and for over thirty years as singer in goth metal titans Paradise Lost. Yet he insists he isn’t a storyteller. For this Bloodbath record, he wrote the lyrics to the material given to him by guitarist Anders Nyström.
‘It’s sang phonetically,’ he insists. ‘Then you can add the lyrics afterwards. I play up to the tropes of death metal heavily with it. So it never wanders.’
Bloodbath started in Stockholm in 1998 as a tribute to the classic death metal of the late eighties and early nineties. Almost despite themselves, the band’s talent dictated they grew beyond a sick joke into a bona fide death metal elite in their own right.
But after the more blackened direction of 2018’s The Arrow of Satan Is Drawn’, Bloodbath took the music back to its Floridian roots. Not that Holmes dislikes black metal: ‘If I had my time again, if I was 18/19, I would absolutely love black metal. It would be my thing now, I think.’
Holmes speaks fondly of the period between 1984 and 1991 which coincided with his formative teenage years. Once bitten by the necrotizing sound of death metal, the infection is lifelong. He says he must have listened to Death’s 1987 classic Scream Bloody Gore a thousand times.
‘I remember being a kid listening to just one section of a song where the words sounded so good to me,’ he says. ‘It didn’t even need to be relevant to the rest of the song. For me, it was just about the entire feel of it. And I’ve always felt like that about music anyway. If there is a story in a song, that’s great. There’s plenty of singer-songwriters that do that, and they do it magnificently. But I’ve never really felt the need, for my own satisfaction, to tell a story. I’m not that bothered about that aspect. It’s about being caught in the moment.’
This being caught in the moment is akin to the trance of a serial killer. “Carved” is a mid-tempo crusher which is mired in cruelty, not unlike “Eaten”, Bloodbath’s famously lurid depiction of cannibalism. Here guitars are razor-sharp instruments of torture for a ‘meathook guinea pig’: ‘Glued to the slab/Revocation of limbs’.
Though Revocation’s songs are rich in allegory, David Davidson can also conjure straightforwardly horrifying scenes. “Galleries of Morbid Artistry” depicts an ossarium of sorts, presided over by a deranged curator. Any unfortunate visitors join the exhibition: ‘necrotic dungeons corpses are fused into nightmarish sculptures’, Davidson roars.
For Davidson, the song exemplifies some of the diversity of sonic horrors he has composed for Netherheaven. The album sees Davidson, drummer Ash Pearson and bassist Brett Bamberger going hell for leather.
‘I mean, there’s groove on the record, there’s thrash elements, there’s blast beats, there’s progressive elements – super kind-of proggy parts. We have a clean section on “Galleries of Morbid Artistry” that I think takes the listener on a bit of a journey. And there’s a little bit of a reprieve from just brutal heaviness,’ he says.
This Opeth-like clean section lets his jazzier influences breathe through on an album which is otherwise bursting at the seams. Instrumental “The 9th Chasm” also provides respite (of sorts). Another moment is the ‘demonic choir’ (his words) which sings of the mythical city Carcosa in “Strange And Eternal”. With it, Revocation brings back some of the clean singing of 2016’s How Great Is Our Sin.
A similar choir comes into effect on the closing track of Survival of the Sickest, “No God Before Me”.
‘That’s probably the most serious-sounding death metal song on there,’ says Holmes. ‘That’s a very dark song. It’s probably the darkest one on there. And it’s also a kind of mirror contrast of the first song [single “Zombie Inferno”] as well.’
Holmes travelled to Sweden to record his vocals in November last year so he could have his bandmates around him. The spontaneous layering of voices at the conclusion of “No God Before Me” instils it with portent: a ‘godless multiverse’ where the protagonist is forever ‘[d]ivided from the redeemer’.
Where God is absent, Satan fills the gap. ‘The ragged lord of immolation’ as Bloodbath refers to him on “Affliction of Extinction”. Even Bloodbath’s zombies ‘scream in sadness’ (“Zombie Inferno”).
Revocation’s album makes it clear God’s followers manipulate his lessons as much as Satan does. They distort Christian ‘values’ and impose them on others. But there’s danger in believing in nothing. “Nihilistic Violence” from Netherheaven insists that the god of 21st-century emptiness might be the most dangerous of all.
‘Hear the bellowing Horn of Abraxas/It calls to the beast that lives in the heart of every man,” cries Davidson on the song. In Mandy, the leader of religious cult Children of the New Dawn blows on the Horn of Abraxas to summon his shock troops, biker gang The Black Skulls. Along with the song’s references to erecting gallows, it’s hard not to think of the events at the US Capitol in Washington D.C. on 6th January 2021.
‘I read a great book by Chris Hedges called America: The Farewell Tour,’ says Davidson. ‘And some of the lyrical imagery was pulled right from that for “Nihilistic Violence”. A passage I read in his book was talking about the crumbling of American democracy and institutions being hollowed out by capitalism in different areas. When people lose their job and they lose their health insurance – they just start to lose hope. Sadly, oftentimes, that hopelessness can lead to violence, whether it’s self-harm, or harming others. He referred to that as “nihilistic violence”. I thought that was just so compelling.’
Survival of the Sickest and Netherheaven both have guest vocal features. Almost hip-hop numbers of them. Across the Bloodbath album, Barney Greenway (Napalm Death), Luc Lemay (Gorguts) and Marc Grewe (Morgoth) all appear.
Revocation confine their guests to the final song, “Re-Crucified”. Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, it pelts us with fire from the depths of hell. The first is Trevor Strnad of The Black Dahlia Murder, who died earlier this year. He was a close friend of Davidson and his death left Davidson ‘completely devastated’. Netherheaven is dedicated to Strnad.
Strnad’s performance itself is almost impish in its delivery. He leads us away from harpies that ‘claw at the spirits of the oak’. Then he drops us off at the feet of George ‘Corpsegrinder’ Fisher of Cannibal Corpse. ‘The black beast of infinity’ himself reduces us to dust with his abyssal roar.
Netherheaven and Survival of the Sickest are exemplars of death metal’s mission to help us understand the inevitable. We’re all going to die. Bloodbath’s message is that might as well have fun imagining how horrible that might be. However, the world around us is dissolving into theirs more than they would like to admit. For Revocation, the diabolical is a way of critiquing and understanding the religious overbearance, injustices and cruelties throughout society.
But even for this most morbid variety of metal, death is a mystery. The dead outnumber the living. We are left with only questions about the afterlife (if there is one). Hearing Strnad’s voice on Netherheaven is a poignant reminder that exploring death in music might be one of the best ways to spend one’s life. Wherever he is, he has the answers now.
Neatherheaven, the eighth studio album from Revocation arrives September 9th via Metal Blade Records. Pre-order the album – HERE
The latest from Bloodbath, Survival of the Sickest, lands September 9th via Napalm Records. The album is currently available for pre-order – HERE