UK leftist post-black metal band Underdark talk to Knotfest about their debut record Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry.
Underdark’s name has been cropping up for the past few years when it comes to the subject of black metal’s burgeoning anti-fascist movement, a kickback against the genre’s far right, yet have only had scattered, short releases to go on in that time. With the release of their debut full-length this July, the evocatively titled ‘Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry’, the Nottingham band have potential to translate this more potently and significantly than before. We spoke to drummer Dan and vocalist Abi about the long gestation, engaging a black metal audience with politics, and why ultimately the musical quality has to match it.
You guys have been building your name for a few years in the underground so how are you feeling about finally getting a proper debut album out? Do you feel like you’ve made the kind of statement you want to make and introduce yourself to new people with?
Dan: I’d say I definitely feel relieved about it. It’s been a long time coming. We’re strong with our quality control, which is why we’ve released so little stuff over the past few years, and it’s partly that and then of course COVID and other things have delayed the record. We’re just really glad to actually now be out with a record and the reaction so far has been insane.
Abi: Yeah, 100%. It takes us a long time to get anything written which in my opinion is a good thing because we’re very meticulous with it. We wanna make sure it’s all incredibly well crafted by the time it gets out of the door which is why after my vocals were added we ended up remixing the album and sending it off to be remastered as well.
Abi, you joined the band in 2019, so were you relishing the opportunity to dig into this album and make your own input heard?
Abi: Yeah very much so. After my previous band ended, I was sort of thinking that maybe that was it and I was out, because the idea of coming up playing practice room shows and sleeping in the van and all of that again was not appealing, but then I saw that Underdark were looking for a singer and I knew the guys. I’m pretty good at doing screechy horrible noise and a beautiful relationship was formed.
How much work has gone into finessing the sound from your previous short releases to make sure this long form release could be up to the task?
Abi: I think as a writer it’s been a great opportunity because I like narrative storytelling and that’s less possible in a thirty second grindcore song. There’s a lot where it’s like “how can I properly explore a topic?”, so I found myself doing a lot of research on things. If I want to write a song about a topic that’s not directly personal for me I have to now look like I know about it for six to eight minutes of song, so let’s actually hit the books and put together lyrics than stand up on paper as well as when they’re sung.
Dan: We do like to mishmash across a variety of genres so it’s allowing those bits to have their own breathing room, which again takes its time, but also when we’re writing a song it’s all quite natural. If we feel a song has another couple minutes of music in it that we can explore, we’ll go down that avenue. Whenever our guitarists Adam and Ollie show us a song, they’ll still take it back and rewrite it about four or five times.
There’s a quite obvious tension between ugliness and prettiness in something like the title track which has this long period of retched pained vocal against very soft backing. Is that something you focus on to try and further the impact of your music?
Abi: There’d probably be more pretty singing if I could sing properly but this is the voice I’ve ended up with. I personally really like a lot of underground screamo-type stuff like Funeral Diner and Pg. 99, and one of the characteristics of that music is that instead of going into like a breakdown or a solo it will drop to just a pretty guitar part and the vocals will come in from very low in the mix, sometimes not even miked, and that’s something I wanted to bring with this record because I think it’s really effective. On the title track or on ‘Skeleton Queen’ it adds another dynamic to it that it would probably lose its impact over the course of an album without.
Dan: Thinking about it it’s trying to push ourselves to extremes as well, to play as heavy as we can but to then flip it on its head to doing those quiet, melodic parts is almost as extreme. It makes it interesting for us as performers, to stay engaged with it rather than just blasting for five minutes.
With those integrations of things like screamo and post-hardcore, you guys have played with a lot of the luminary bands of the moment like Inter Arma and Svalbard, so do you feel metal is encouraging right now of trying to expand its horizons and make use of these things that aren’t very metal on their own?
Dan: Oh absolutely. I think music in general, definitely in the UK and then outwards as well, there’s a lot of experimentation going on with people trying to push boundaries in every direction. It shows how you can make a heavy record, like the new Deafheaven for example which I think is some of the best stuff they’ve ever done, or Amenra whose new album is ridiculously heavy but with more in that emotional catharsis sense.
Abi: There are different kinds of sonic heaviness too. You wouldn’t say that Godflesh weren’t heavy, but at the same time it’s a very different sound to Pig Destroyer. In a lot of ways the landscape, especially with production techniques and different instruments being more available, through the internet you can find different styles and different ways of singing, I think we’re going to see some exponential growth in experimental heavy bands.
Obviously right now is quite the year to put your debut album, so with yourselves being a band with a clear political bent, how has the last 18 months of pandemic manifested in your album?
Dan: We actually finished it just before the pandemic where we had it ready to go out in March time 2020, but we’ve been tweaking it and in a way the pandemic has enhanced that. It’s definitely made people want it a lot more.
Abi: All of the songs were written in the time before the pandemic, but let’s just say that without the lockdowns and the pandemic we’d probably be on our fourth or fifth tour for it. We’ve had to adapt very quickly to a whole new landscape and ecosystem, and I think a lot of bands have come through it better than expected. I remember this time a year ago we were talking about not being able to see a lot of labels surviving this, seeing a lot of bands breaking up, and fortunately that’s not happened to quite that level and most of us have made it back. It was looking really touch and go there for a while.
Moving into the album’s content and your stance as a clearly anti-fascist black metal band, with a lot of people being numbed to the political right now in not paying attention to government scandals anymore or in metal so many audience members refusing to engage with bands who are in any way political with their art, how do you try and navigate getting people to pay attention and think about these things actively?
Abi: I always say that the best way to break through political apathy with music listeners is to be really fucking good at music. Ultimately, if someone is apolitical, then it shouldn’t really matter to them or not if we have a song about Grenfell as long as they like the riffs and the blast-beats are cool. If you are listening to it anyway, then the message is now in your eye-line. People who actively choose to disengage from political bands though aren’t necessarily apathetic, they are choosing in that instance to be Switzerland the man. “I don’t want to think about it, I don’t want to see it”, and if you come to music for escapism that’s up to you but ultimately artists have always had things to say about the world that they live in and I don’t know how far you’re gonna get choosing to distance yourself from everything that reminds you that reality exists.
Dan: It’s kind of just a reflection of what we’ve experienced. Compared to other black metal bands, we’re not Norwegians who have grown up in the woods in isolation, we’re in a place where there are fuck-ups by the Tory government left, right and centre, there is horrid shit happening left, right and centre, and we’re going to write songs that reflect that. If it makes people engage with it, brilliant, and that’s the only thing we are hoping for.
Abi: The music comes first, we’re not a pamphlet, but we’re just not scared to let people know where we stand on things.
Black metal has developed this reputation for harbouring a lot of hateful right wing attitudes, when by definition a lot of it you’d think would be about promoting individuality and rejecting cultural hegemony, so when bands like yourselves are almost seen as the exception to the rule in being an anti-racism black metal band, do you have a take on how that dynamic plays out with anti-authoritarian bands like yourselves almost having to claw back that identity as a black metal band?
Abi: Honestly I never actually thought about it in terms of clawing back an identity in the genre, it’s more that I am in a black metal band now but that I am naturally an anti-authoritarian person, and I don’t have a hierarchy fetish or harbour any particular ill will for people from different demographics to me.
Dan: I definitely found it strange, as I only really got into black metal when Underdark started, and when I was told about NSBM it was such a “what the fuck” idea. How is this even a thing? I do agree that it should be the opposite way around, that people shouldn’t assume that every band is a racist and be surprised when you are anti-racist, but obviously if we get the chance to reform it and create something that is more involved in things like anti-racism rather than being known for things like NSBM, that would be a great thing and I do think it’s come quite a long way already. There’s still work to be done.
Abi: You see stills from these supposed NSBM festivals and they’re in a practice room with about ten people there, and if that is the master race movement that’s gonna topple cultural marxism or whatever shit they’re saying, we might be okay. A lot of the very black metal edgy boys are very online.
Despite these political events in the UK it’s been quite a hub for bands like yourselves engaging with these ideas coming through. Do you have any thoughts about the breeding and proliferation of this on a DIY level like yourselves and how you’re releasing this record?
Abi: When you think about it black metal is kinda an extension of folk music in a lot of senses. You can just listen to a lot of the chord progressions and the way they’ll arpeggiate then go into the main riff, they’re straight out of folk music, and that’s reflected in a lot of the lyricism as well. With that in mind, when you look at the tradition of UK folk music, it’s leftie as fuck. I think that’s partly why Britain has got quite a strong anti-fascist music scene. We’re all pretty much working class, we grew up in shit East Midlands towns, and bands like Dawn Ray’d are all working lads as well. We’re very much from that sort of tradition, we just happen to play a more aggressive version of the music.
What are your plans now for supporting the record?
Dan: Play as many shows as we can basically. We’ve got quite a few booked already and hopefully have more in the pipeline. We are actively looking for anything and considering offers, we can’t wait to get back on stage, and I am going to go apeshit when I do.
Abi: Over the last few months when it was looking uncertain whether things were going to open up again, we’ve just been booking everything we can and if it gets pushed back or cancelled then it gets pushed back or cancelled, but I think that plan has paid off because we now have a fairly decent gig line-up between here and Christmas. I can’t sit still, I’m so stoked.
Dan: It’s my thirtieth on the same day as Damnation Festival so I will be going as ham as a straight-edge kid can.
Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry from Underdark arrives July 30th and is available for pre-order – HERE