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In Extremis

Meaningless Pain: An Interview With Full Of Hell
Toby Cook , March 18th, 2015 12:00

A tour with fellow sonic brutalists The Body beckons, but before that, the Maryland four-piece's Dylan Walker talks to Toby Cook about last year's collaboration with Merzbow and the absolute need for absolute heaviness

Photograph courtesy of Reid Haithcock

There's loud, there's extreme, there's the sort of rabid sonic ferocity that blowtorches your ear canals and bursts brain aneurysms like bubble wrap… And then there's the Maryland-based noise-grind quartet Full Of Hell.

Released towards the end of last year, the group's third full length, and debut for Profound Lore, a collaborative effort with legendary Japanese noise musician Masami Akita, aka Merzbow, seemed to erupt almost out of nowhere, with its head-crushing mix of skin-peeling grind and icy, disorientating needles of static landing it a place on the Columnus Metallicus albums of the year list. "Only once you reach the album's terminal 24-minute mark, just as the blood starts to leak from your eyeballs," we said, "you'll realise the true genius of this collaboration."

But Full Of Hell didn't just appear out of nowhere, and despite their remarkably junior years (drummer Dave Bland is still, just about, in his teens), the formation of the current line-up was far from conventional, with guitarist Spencer Hazard effectively sacking the original three members of the group before recruiting the band's present participants.

"The group was originally formed about five years ago with totally different members," explains singer Dylan Walker when the Quietus catches up with him on his way to work. "They all kind of wanted different things out of it, though; Spence was always the kind of guy who was into grindcore, screamo and all kinds of noisy stuff, but nobody else really liked that kind of thing and originally they were aiming for almost a 90s death metal sound. I don't think I really heard that come across on the demo they made… Needless to say, when I met the band he was pretty unhappy and when he got an excuse to kick everybody out he kicked them all out, and from there we were more able to pursue the more extreme style we wanted."

That new, more extreme style first reared its head on the decidedly hardcore-tainted blast-fest that was their debut long player, Roots Of Earth Are Consuming My Home, although it wasn't until 2013's blisteringly extreme Rudiments Of Mutilation that the noise elements started to seep through the cracks of their grinding, sonically vile onslaught - as Walker told one magazine at the time: "['Throbbing Lung Fibre'] is not metaphorical and contains no hidden meaning - it's a narrative detailing a family being burned alive. The descriptions in the lyrics about bones snapping in the heat and the smell of burning hair are about just that. No message, just meaningless pain."

Despite this upward curve of extremity, few, perhaps even the band themselves, could have expected that their current Merzbow collaboration would've reached the levels of extremity that it does, and it's that record The Quietus caught up with Walker to discuss…

Obviously the new record is quite a statement, and sounds like it's just exploded out of nowhere - how much were you as a band always aiming for the grind/powerviolence-meets-harsh noise hybrid, though, even before the collaboration came about?

Dylan Walker: Well, we've put out some split records with people like Psywarfare and The Guilt Of… in the past; those genres, whatever you want to call them, have always been a big part of our influence, and we've always been pushing in that direction, it's just taken some time to find musicians who were pretty cohesive with each other. I mean, from the first record we released to where we are now, I like to think that we've always been striving to reach the point we're at - we're not at the end point yet by any means, but it was always an intention. And, y'know, I think we would have collaborated with Merzbow at any point in our careers had the opportunity arisen. Spencer is always pushing for electronics and I've always liked the idea of having any kind of auxiliary instrumentation, I just think it helps keep things open for us and gives us the ability to create a deeper atmosphere.

Just to address the particularly noisy elephant in the room, how did Full Of Hell end up collaborating with Merzbow in the first place? I understand it had something to do with Obaké drummer and good friend of the Quietus Balázs Pándi, right?

DW: Yeah! We met Balázs in Brooklyn. We didn't know who he was but he just seemed like a really nice guy - I think it was at a Phobia show - but he wanted some records sending to him so we exchanged email addresses and through emailing back and forth we found out what at prolific musician he is and saw all these people he'd worked with, including Masami. We were pretty blown away by all that and I asked him if he could put us in touch with Masami because we wanted to do a Merzbow tribute t-shirt - Masami was all over that and I think from there he and Balázs kind of came to the conclusion that we should do a collaboration together - they actually approached us about a week after Masami realised that we were such big fans! It was pretty fucking cool.

How great a surprise was it when they not only approached you but agreed to go ahead with the project? How much more pressure did you put on yourselves?

DW: I've never been more nervous about a release, to be honest, and I get super nervous before every release I've ever been involved in, always - there was a lot of pressure. I didn't really care what anyone else thought - I figured there were going to be people who would hate it no matter what we did just because of who we are and who he is, I just felt we were going to be criticised no matter what. So I was really just concerned about what Masami and Balázs would think of the collaboration. Thankfully I spent some time with some other people who have collaborated with and worked with Merzbow material before, like Jamie Saft, who created this amazing record called Merzdub. What I really admired about that record was that he took Masami's seriously insane harsh sounds and just blew them into another universe - it was almost unrecognisable as being Merzbow, it was so soothing, and it was so cool that he'd be able to warp Merzbow into this new sonic territory; it was a dub album, but like a dub album in space. We hoped that we could achieve something similar by warping Merzbow into our kind of sound. And Masami was really happy with how it turned out so, y'know, naysayers be damned!

What was it like to actually work with Masami - what were some of the challenges you faced? You were never in the studio together, for instance, right?

DW: I wouldn't say that the process was that difficult, to be honest, I mean, we knew what we were getting ourselves into. I'd say that the biggest challenge was trying to strike the right balance between our sound and his sound and trying to make it gel together - we kind of mapped out where all the electronics were going to be going and at the end I was kind of nervous that the first disc - the actual album - was a little light on his sound, but we had this idea to record a second disc - Sister's Fawn - that sort of reversed the ratios as far as how prominent us vs. Merzbow was; when I listened to it as a whole I could hear more of an even balance, and I'm certainly pleased with it even if I still kind of feel that the first disc is a little lighter on noise that I'd hoped.

It's interesting that you say that - one of the things that I found, personally, listening to the album was that at first you almost don't notice Masami's parts, it's only once you reach the end of the record that it becomes apparent just how prevalent his parts are throughout, like every minute chink of light is blotted out by unnerving, grinding static…

DW: Yeah, definitely. Listening back, after we'd gotten the first mixes back that was one of the main concerns I had in my brain: if we put out a single track from this everyone is going to complain and everyone was going to hate on us, I know it. I had to remind myself that we're trying to present this as one whole piece not isolated tracks, it's meant to be listened to the whole way through.

Even for fans of extreme music noise can be a bit of a hard sell - how did you get into it personally in the first place?

DW: I think for me personally, I remember getting this Hydra Head Records sampler when I was, like, 14 years old or something, and Hydra Head was just the perfect label when I was growing up, it just seemed to have the entire spectrum of extreme music. So yeah, Hydra Head was definitely the catalyst for me, and I think via them Merzbow was the first noise artist I'd ever heard. When I was that age, and I guess still now, I just wanted things to be as extreme as possible, I didn't want any middle ground at all, so bands like Discordance Axis and artists like Merzbow were just the greatest things I'd ever heard in my life because there was just no compromise at all, it was just seriously, seriously over the top. And it still felt like there was some kind of artistic expression involved, and that's always been really important to me. And y'know, just in general I always felt that Hydra Head as a whole was offering real top quality; I knew I could trust anything they'd release even if I didn't really know the band or artist. And it was totally my dream, ever since I had my first band, to someday put out a record on Hydra Head - unfortunately that will never happen though. Although, I kind of feel that Profound Lore - they label we're with now - have sort of taken up the Hydra Head mantle. Which is great, they've put out some amazing records.

It's interesting that you mention the importance of having some sort of artist expression - I think it's a trap that a lot of extreme bands fall into where they end up using extremity, playing the loudest or the fastest, in place of actually having something artistic or emotional to express…

DW: Well I think that, first of all, bands that have no compromise and just try to be as brutal as possibly can be are absolutely always going to be necessary, there's always going to be a need for a lot of bands like that. And sometimes, when we play with bands like that, I always feel like there's a part of me that thinks that all bands should be like that; there's always a part of me that almost feels inadequate next to them, because we're definitely not just trying to be the fastest or the loudest or anything like that. I think we kind of have a vision for Full Of Hell that is just a bit broader than that, we're not out there just trying to be as tough as possible; we're trying to paint a bigger picture.

Slow and minimal can be just as heavy as 1000-bpm grind, can't it?

DW: Exactly. There's a lot to be said for subtlety, as well - a lot of times, even when you look at hardcore punk, where it has bit of metal crossover, sometimes the breakdowns are way heavier in standard tuning just because they're a little more subtle than some kind of crazy drop-tuned, sludgy breakdown. It's not always a bad idea to hold something back.

To me the artwork for the new album kind of captures that idea too - who was responsible for creating it?

DW: Mark McCoy did that for us. He's an incredible artist - I've always been really inspired by a lot of his record layouts, they're always really beautiful. So yeah, he was really into doing the project and I kind of gave him this concept, but I had this really, really vague idea - I don't think it really made a whole load of sense to be honest! - but I had this idea that the whole album was based around the worship of sound, so I wanted the front cover to sort of depict a human figure dissolving in sound waves. The way I put it in the email made little to no sense, seriously, but he's such a talented artist, all he had to go on was my stupid concept and the lyrics. I think sometimes if you can find someone whose ideas gel well with your own, as Mark's and ours did, then something good will come from it. I think anything he'd have come up with would've worked really.

I think it's fair to say that the Merzbow collaboration has been a huge success. Is collaborating again with someone who is somewhat outside of the metal scene something you're keen to do as a band?

DW: We definitely have more collaborations planned - our next collaboration is actually going to be with The Body! That'll be a really cool thing, and again The Body are another band who are, really, kind of outside the metal scene. It'll be something pretty unexpected; we're actually on tour with them when we get back from Japan, and it's going to be kind of cool because we're going to record the collaboration, without writing anything, right at the end of the tour. I'm really excited to see what we're going to come up with… I promise, though, eventually we're going to start working on our third 'solo' record!

Full Of Hell & Merzbow is out now on Profound Lore Records. Full Of Hell play Earthdom in Tokyo with Merzbow and Endon on March 28, before touring Japan, followed by their tour of the US with The Body; for full details, head to their website