Descension Promotion’s exclusive interview with Greg March of New York sludge band FALSE GODS delved into their forthcoming album, songwriting, pizza and more. Read on:
As the years decay it becomes more and more apparent that although ferocious black metal may have arisen in the icy north of Europe, it has indeed ripened in other locales. Consider the two-man battery that is Canis Dirus. Hailing from Minnesota, a region of the United States akin to any and all northern winter-scapes, the partnership of Todd Paulson (all instruments) and Rob Hames (vocals) bears fruit once more with their first studio album in eight years. Independence to the Beast, set for release in March of 2020 via the peerless Bindrune Recordings label, looks to not only reaffirm the foothold Canis Dirus has on the American black metal frontier, but as the all-important third album, it seeks to take the band to the next level.
Recently, Descension Promotions was treated to an exclusive first look at the sonic achievement that is Independence to the Beast, along with an opportunity to convene with the earnest and humble Paulson for a deeper analysis of his art. The first and most obvious topic to be discussed was the long time between creations. Canis Dirus bestowed their first two albums in 2009 and 2012, respectively, building some momentum and helping make a name for themselves. Just as American black metal was enjoying notoriety from the likes of a burgeoning crop of bands, the progress of the band would be forced to a complete halt.
A silence lasting more than half a decade was the last thing Paulson, Hames, and their fans were expecting. As it turns out, Paulson would be facing the biggest, most heart wrenching challenge of his life. What was it exactly that caused this driven artist to abandon his pursuits, and how did he know it was time to return to Canis Dirus?
“Seven years, well eight technically, since the new album is scheduled for release in March of 2020. In order to properly answer that question,” he elaborates. “We will need to go back to 2012, when our last album for Moribund Records, Anden Om Norr, was released. About two or three months later, my first son was born. He was about six weeks premature, and my wife had a horrible pregnancy and birth. Needless to say we didn’t get to take him home with us. He had a long hospital stay, since he needed to grow his lungs and build up endurance to be able to breastfeed. Well, he wasn’t thriving as we had hoped, and the doctors were pretty baffled. When we finally did get to take him home, he was still a little sick. They had given us meds that they thought would help, but he still struggled to eat, keep down food, and ultimately grow.
“One afternoon when he was roughly three months old, I had given him a bottle and when he finally struggled through finishing that, he literally stopped breathing and turned blue in my arms. It was devastating. He began to start breathing again, but we rushed him into the trauma bay of the hospital. There he quit breathing again and had to be intubated. That is when they placed my son on full life support. My wife and I stood by helplessly as about ten doctors and nurses worked on him to keep him alive.
“We were confused, to say the least, but even worse, so were the doctors. They took a blood sugar reading and it was a seven. They thought the machine was broken, but after a retest his glucose reading still showed seven! Scary fucking shit, man, as this was the lowest such reading recorded on any living patient at that facility.
“Everything just shut down. He was in full liver and kidney failure. Heart failure. Couldn’t maintain his blood sugar levels. He was in hypothermia. Remember, at this time the kid was only three months old. So, without doing into a ton more detail, I’ll say that he was finally diagnosed with an extremely rare congenital condition called panhypopituitarism. It’s a condition where a person is born without a pituitary gland. It apparently only happens in one in every 450,000 live births. Without a pituitary gland, my son could not produce the proper hormones, particularly cortisol, that he needs to survive. At 3 months old, he had contracted a simple chest cold, but because of the lack of cortisol, his body began to shut down.
“I know this is a lot to take in but believe me that was just setting the table for what was to come. In the interest of trying to be brief, I’ll say that for whatever reason, the PHP wasn’t the only congenital condition that he ended up with. Over the course of the next six years, it was pretty much one diagnosis after the next. It got to the point where we were afraid to take him to his doctor appointments for fear of finding something else out.
“As you can probably imagine, I endured a whole host of mental trauma dealing with my son’s fragile health. When he was about a year old, I simply put all of my guitars in their cases and put away all of my gear. Six years passed and I never picked up an instrument. Never had any desire. Life was just way too much to deal with and all of these emotions, such as grief, anger, fear, confusion, resentment, rage, et cetera, were taking a huge toll on me and they started to manifest themselves in some extremely destructive ways.
“During this time, Rob (Hames) and I would briefly talk about the future, or perhaps the end of Canis Dirus. He’s been incredibly patient and understanding and he’s always just told me that whatever decision is made is the decision that he would respect. In the back of my own mind, I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that we were done. My son and his wellbeing were far more important than this. But, in 2018, something happened. Four very specific things, in fact. My son had to have three separate brain surgeries, as well as open heart surgery. Once he was on his way to recovery, he started to feel great and his health began to stabilize. This afforded me more time, so Rob and I began to talk seriously about at least trying to work on new material for Canis Dirus. I began putting ideas down on paper and purchased a few new pieces of equipment to help the recording process go a little smoother.
Then in January of 2019, I finally sat down to start the process of composing riffs and ideas that I had in my head. At first, it was a little bit of a struggle due to not having played in such a long period of time. But then, one day during the writing and recording process, it was like a switch had been turned and all of these fucked up emotions that I had been internalizing came flooding out of me in the form of this new music. It was like this huge release. It was so fucking cathartic and beautiful!”
Healthy and thriving child births are one of those things Americans take for granted, so when something that is supposed to be so wonderful turns into a nightmare, music is probably the last thing any of us would be thinking about. And yet, music is there for us when these dark nights pass. Following this calamity, Paulson is eager to tell us how Independence to the Beast came together. “Once we got into a nice groove, a lot of the writing just came naturally. I told Rob (Hames – vocals) right from the start that most of these songs, in terms of the music and arrangements, are going to be directly tied to my experiences with my son over the past six years. He was obviously very understanding of that. But when it comes to lyrics, he can’t live out my life through his writing, nor would I expect him to, so on some of the songs where I wrote the music, he wrote the words. There exists a bit of a dichotomy there, where the meaning behind the song in my own head is quite different from that in Rob’s. Since these songs have much more personal weight to them, we felt that it was important for Rob to match his vocal style with whatever type of emotion the song was trying to convey. I think he did a really good job.
At times a muted shriek, at others an unhinged howl reminiscent of Jan Transeth’s performance on the first In The Woods… album Heart of the Ages, Hames certainly conducts a wrenching electricity through the compositions on the album. Independence to the Beast manages to capture a blistering, cold black metal atmosphere, templated as such but synthesized with a host of moods and forays into ambient, noise, doom, and even further elements of sound. Paulson shed some light on how they managed to navigate those transitions within their songs so seamlessly.
“That’s a great question and my honest answer is simply that I don’t know. I’ve never truly been comfortable with my skill level as a songwriter and with that, its those transitions that you speak of that have always tripped me up in the past. I’ve not had time to analyze it, but perhaps the fact that I sort of let my emotions take over as opposed to sitting down and being more cold or analytical helped out.”
The range of Paulson’s emotions shade sweltering album closer “Unyielding” in a torrent of varied expression. Beginning as a hard-as-nails head-banger of a tune, things soon tread into acoustic realms, before becoming altogether unsettling in a haze of noisy ambience. One can only imagine how the rage, the love, and the uncertainty of such feelings might manifest. To tie in Hames’ lyrics, “Unyielding” is accompanied by a Nietzche quote, but one that hasn’t been used a thousand times over. While the music may be an exhalation of Paulson’s own suffering, the subject matter of the lyric suggests concern more with the ruinous lurch of humankind towards a self-made doom, as opposed to any sort of superstitious or occult preoccupation. Paulson expands. “Thanks for picking up on that! Again, where it pertains to Rob’s lyrics, he sort of has his own interpretation of what themes or concepts should be used and he bases that off of a feeling he gets while absorbing the music. I will say this though. Canis Dirus is not and never will be one of those bands that gets too deep into political issues. Having said that, Rob felt “Unyielding” to be an instance where we can perhaps give a slight commentary on the utter buffoonery that we as a human race display. It seems more people are finally coming around to the fact that climate change is a real thing and it needs to be dealt with. These people just put their heads in the sand and act as if its not their problem. Its complete insanity. So it’s this continued encroachment on our natural world, our forests and the landscape that is the inspiration behind the song as well as the Nietzche quote. The capitalists and the one percenters are unyielding in their pursuit to damage the earth even further without much thought into what it means for future generations.”
Quite difficult to argue with such notions, no matter where one stands. Overall, the themes of anger, outrage, isolation, and longing which comprise Independence to the Beast shine through, be it in the slow burn of opener “We are the Ancient Ones,” with its roaring, shrieking vocal and repeating riffage, or the harrowing, psychedelic journey that is “The Child & The Serpent.”
One of the biggest strengths of the album is its varied moods. Like the seasons, it doesn’t sit still. And in much the same way returning to a forested path can reveal different secrets to the observer at different times, repeated listens of Independence to the Beast can distill different impressions. The calm of spoken-word solace on “To Cast the Runes” gives over to the unbridled ferocity of “Extreme Might of Resolve,” pulling the listener along into darkness. Soaring keys underpin desperate screams, evoking shades of the old guard of symphonic black metal bands (before they tried to go all movie soundtrack on us), until coalescing screams and driving blasts resolve into one of the more straight-up true heavy metal moments this side of Fenriz. Wolves howling; a rockin’ bit of soloing – for sure an album highlight that has it all.
With such exciting songs ready for that late-winter 2020 release, the question is begged: What can fans expect from a rejuvenated Canis Dirus?
“In addition to releasing Independence to the Beast in late February, early March of 2020, we are currently finishing up two songs for a split release with our friends When Bitter Spring Sleeps. The details of this release are still being worked out, but we’re already demoing some songs and arrangements for our next full-length album. I promise it won’t be another eight years!”
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“The world will know . . . that few stood against many, under a gathering storm!” Thus, on the wings of a rousing intro, begins The Gathering Storm, the debut album from Washington state’s own progressive death metal prodigies Gallows Hymn. After a name change (the band was known as Empyrean until 2018) and an intense period of focus, the four-piece has imposed its will in the recording studio and the results are both victorious and impressive. With so many bands releasing music, it’s always fascinating when an up and coming unit can draw from such a vibrant creative arsenal.
Six-stringer Nicholas Spevak reports that there was very little standing in their way. “The album was written over the course of about 9 months, until we started recording in the fall of 2018. The writing process was fairly smooth and straightforward to be honest. A big reason why this album came together so well in a relatively short period of time was mostly due to our work ethic and discipline, and the fact that we are lucky enough to all be on the same page creatively speaking. Some of the songs on the album were written while we were under the name Empyrean. We quickly developed a different sound and style and felt a name change was fitting after bringing in our current drummer, Matt Howe.”
Where some artists can only produce greatness out of some sort of tension or conflict, fellow guitarist Zach Hornung exudes the joy of creative synchronicity. “The writing process was the most enjoyable part of the album process. It came most naturally to us. We recorded everything ourselves, and I actually had to learn how to do everything on the fly as we were doing it. It was a very constructive learning process, but quite stressful at times. We had originally planned for a longer time frame for recording, but we got contacted by Art Paiz (bass player of Hate Eternal) about mixing and mastering and we decided to speed things up a bit. Also, we quickly learned that delegating roles and responsibilities would work well in our favor and expedite the process. That was key to moving things along as quick as they did.”
The stress felt to get the recording done properly is understandable, as the fortunes of so many metal bands rest upon their ability to sound both professional and spontaneous in the recording studio. It’s safe to say that the band succeeded.
One word that comes to mind when listening to The Gathering Storm is grandeur. In the same way that bands such as Primordial and Nechochwen weave tales out of their compositions, Gallows Hymn builds their songs via an unhurried approach. Feeling and intensity are woven throughout the nine tracks on offer, whether it’s in the mournful guitar leads and lush keyboards of “Beacon of Fire in an Age of Ice” or the jolting pugnacity of “Xibalba.” The somber heathen cadence of “Straumfjord” brings to mind the windswept fervor of bands like Falkenbach, injecting just a hint of a folkish feeling into the prog-metal battery.
While each song sounds bred for the same album, Gallows Hymn is clearly drawing from varied wellsprings of lyrical inspiration. Is there a philosophical connective tissue binding such disparate subjects together? Nick Spevak elaborates. “While our songs are all eclectic in their subject matter, I see them as all rooted in the universal human struggle against adversity, in one form or another, whether that be warfare, oppression, or even the forces of nature itself.”
Vocalist George Miller, whose rasping shout hearkens back to the old UK doom of Aaron Stainthorpe or Vincent Cavanaugh, also provides a wicked boost to the bottom end, his bass licks as visible in the mix as the booming percussion of the aforementioned Matt Howe. Pertaining to the poetry he delivered, Miller concurs with his guitarist. “I find that our individual lyrical themes relate closely to one another regardless of subject matter. There is common ground between these songs. There is a desire to overcome. A bridge between god and man. A road between reality and fiction, history and our future.”
Wise words, young band. This is the feeling surrounding A Gathering Storm, an album of surpassing dignity that does not forget to rock the socks off the listener. Nick Spevak discusses the spellcasters who immersed him into a life of music. “In a lot of ways, we all share similar interests musically. One of mine and Zach’s foundational bands is Opeth. We are equally inspired by the different genres of extreme metal as well as progressive music. Some of my personal influences as far as bands are from the Greek metal scene. I am particularly inspired by Septicflesh, for their melding of both the grotesque and the sublime. Also, Rotting Christ is badass for the use of world music and tribal percussion in the context of metal. As far as lyrical themes, some of my favorite bands are Primordial and Ahab, especially for their use of serious subject matter as well as an epic sense of storytelling. I am also influenced by music outside the realm of metal, in particular 80’s goth, but I also take massive influence from classic cinema and composers such as Maurice Jarre, Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota and more recently Jocelyn Pook. What I appreciate about their compositions is that they served the purpose of advancing a greater story in the context of the films. One of my ultimate goals as a songwriter is to meld the use of cinematic storytelling with extreme metal.”
Zach Hornung is similarly inspired and enthused. “As Nick mentioned, Opeth was a huge influence on me during my formative musical years. In particular, learning songs like “Hope leaves” helped me discover chords and intervals that expanded my conception of guitar playing. That lead me to fingerstyle acoustic playing, spanning from Andy McKee, Donovan, Nick Drake and others. Most every Gallows Hymn song has some artifact of influence from that style of music in my guitar playing. aside from that, I got really into choral music when writing for the Gathering Storm. Russian choir, and modern film choir in particular. Enslaved is a huge influence, right up there with Opeth. Also, Fen, Dead Can Dance, Wolves In The Throne Room, Agalloch, Fallujah, Hate, Meshuggah, Ulcerate, and the whole Icelandic black metal scene. There is a wide range of influences but that is just a quick gloss.”
Its not surprise that Gallows Hymn takes their influences from such a wide array of artists. The music on their debut, however, is entirely focused upon making riveting heavy metal. Riff-driven, fist-pounding metal, as exemplified in album closer “Seven Pillared Worthy House.” Yet they aren’t afraid to add orchestral flourishes, the keys flavoring the sound not dissimilar to the way Satyricon employed them on their classic Nemesis Divina album. Noticeable, yet in no way taking the place of the six-stringers’ work.
“Atmosphere is one of the most important aspects of our music,” asserts Spevak, “but I would say that the key to our work is the overall composition and structure of the songs. Pure “atmosphere” without any memorable or catchy riffs would be bland, but on the other hand, so would a collection of heavy riffs with no atmosphere or embellishment. As for the orchestral sections that you hear on the album, our goal is to mold a symphonic element to the music without over relying on it or using it as a substitute for bland riffs and boring rhythms. While I am a believer that metal can reach the heights of classical music and sometimes does, I do think that there are many bands who use an orchestra as a crutch and that are all sizzle and no steak.”
Hornung knows that different elements within Gallows Hymn’s sound each have their role. “I think Nick pretty much hit the nail on the head. I would add that our music is primarily focused on melody and the orchestral elements tend to expand on that to bring everything together and add different textures.”
Textured melody, pounding rhythms and interludes of instrumental beauty abound on The Gathering Storm, putting the listener in mind of bygone ages of heroism and solidarity in the path of strife. Gallows Hymn, however, feels a couple of steps short of the pure escapism of certain strains of heavy metal. Surely, there are lessons to be learned from the past as our species lurches towards its uncertain future.
Spevak picks up the thread. “The inherent problem with the continuous march of human advancement is that every time we think we’ve fixed an issue we’ve often merely created another one to take its place. While I don’t necessarily believe in romanticizing the past entirely, I find that the conditions of the modern world have led to an artificial sterility that ultimately leads to the very evils we originally tried to eradicate.”
Hornung is a bit more pensive. “I don’t necessarily think that technology itself has strangled our way of life. I do think that it has set us on the road to freedom. There are lots of things that could change that, like artificial intelligence or quantum computing, but they could arguably just as easily speed us along to further freedom. But that’s beside the point. I couldn’t have recorded this album without technological progress and the information bank that is the internet. People are oftentimes their own biggest impediment. Its easy for people to sit on their phones or computers or TV’s or whatever technology they have and waste their lives away. And certain companies pay professionals to cater technologies to do exactly that, moral considerations aside. but doing that is better than dying of smallpox, or the plague, or tuberculosis, or polio, or tooth diseases, or any other number of things that technology has allowed us to overcome. At base I think all of that is underscored by human curiosity, ingenuity, will, and creativity. People tend to romanticize the past and forget about the number of children and mothers dying in childbirth and other terrible things. We are lucky to be able to sit in a heated room with running water and a refrigerator and ponder how to construct a great melody, song and capture an atmosphere. People will find ways to be either lazy or productive in any given society in any time period.”
Excellent points raised, it is clear that Gallows Hymn put a lot of thought into their music, as well as its place in the grand scheme of advancing society. Speaking of futures, theirs is looking quite productive as they enter the upcoming decade. Spevak’s excitement is palpable. “For fans of our music you are in luck. We have written 90% of our next album, and are set to begin recording in January of 2020. The next album will be called “The Age of Decadence” and will largely follow the same path carved by The Gathering Storm but with many new improvements. We feel as though the new songs we have surpassed our work on The Gathering Storm entirely.”
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