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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