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How Metal Changes The Way We See The World, An Extract
The Quietus , February 27th, 2020 13:22

Ahead of his appearance at the Quietus Social next week, we present an exclusive extract of Dan Franklin's book 'Heavy: How Metal Changes The Way We See The World'

Dan Nightingale was staying at friend and bandmate Brady Deeprose’s house when he woke one bleak Sunday morning, sat up in bed and, through the window framed by curtains he prefers to keep open when he sleeps, noticed a lone tree on a hillock that gently rose into view amid the grey. It was such a desolate sight that it immediately evoked a musical atmosphere in Nightingale’s head. He grabbed his laptop and tumbled down a rabbit hole, ultimately resulting in the song ‘The Mire’, the centrepiece of the 2018 debut album Mire from his band Conjurer.

Nightingale and Deeprose are the twin-headed attack line of Conjurer, both armed with guitars, and respectively, a deep, guttural roar and higher, searing scream. Conjurer blend different forms of extreme metal to describe dramatic landscapes that climb and plunge, all clinging to the appetite Nightingale has for a strain of sickeningly heavy riff that, he told me, “just makes me want to pull the skin off my face.” Mire’s first song, ‘Choke’, shows there is more sophistication to their music than that. Its opening chords are an overture of what is to come, beginning in the pomp of a major key but shape-shifting into a minor key dirge, like a creature resplendent in the sun and then cowering from the light – preferring to skulk in the shadows.

Based in Rugby, Warwickshire, their music takes them out of their hometown and into the moors, bogs and heathland that lie beyond. On ‘The Mire’, and in the woodcut-like illustration of the album’s cover, Nightingale shows a fascination with corpse roads traversing the landscape and the ‘Lyke-Wake Dirge’, a fourteenth-century chant sung by those who had accompanied such coffins. The poem originated in north Yorkshire and was used as the basis of a song by folk band Pentangle in 1969. It describes the soul’s arrival at purgatory: if you, the deceased addressee, have performed charitable deeds in the form of sharing “meat or drink”, your soul will be received by Christ, but if you have not: “The fire will burn thee to thy bare bane.”

Conjurer’s reinterpretation of the poem in ‘The Mire’ centres on a lost soul beset by the elements on the marshland, preparing for whatever torment that its creator deems necessary. The song is a blast of heathen black metal, with drummer Jan Krause driving the guitars along the corpse path in furious bursts, as they cajole and buffet the poor soul who, as Nightingale envisioned, “didn’t know it was dead, and was wandering around, terrified and confused.”

This excruciating suspension between life and death is also beautifully portrayed by Sarah Moss in her 2018 novel Ghost Wall. In the novel, a teenage girl called Silvie is pushed by her father to take part in an Iron Age re-enactment camp in Northumberland, as part of an experimental archaeology project. The events of the novel are haunted by the spirit of a bog girl, sacrificed by her tribe in the distant past setting of its prologue. Moss describes her murderers-to-be, “holding her in the place she is entering now, on the edge of the water-earth, in the time and space between life and death.”

The lonely tree Nightingale noticed that Sunday morning is another symbol of this suspension, being neither of the Earth nor of heaven. As one character puts it in gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer: “I stand a blasted tree, struck to the heart, to the root, – I wither alone, – but you are the Upas, under whose poisonous droppings all things living have perished, – father – mother – brother, and last yourself, – the erosions of the poison, having nothing left to consume, strike inward, and prey on your own heart.”

Francis Danby’s painting The Upas, or Poison-Tree, in the Island of Java (ca. 1820) hangs in London’s V&A museum, a vast canvas that depicts an exiled criminal in the depths of despair as he comes upon the poison tree surrounded by the corpses of other condemned men. The legend of the tree decrees that, if the criminals successfully bring some of the poison back, they will be absolved of their crimes. But it is evidently a hopeless enterprise, doomed to failure and death. The scale of the piece – towering edifices of stone take up three-quarters of the canvas, receding into a descending night – diminishes this man’s plight and belittles his suffering. His fate is ultimately inconsequential faced with the immovable longevity of his surroundings. Today, as a representation of the poisoned earth, it is portentous of a dying world.

So much for land, but Conjurer also portray a place further below the surface of the Earth. The song ‘Hadal’ refers to the hadal zone of the ocean – from six kilometres down – or as the lyric puts it, “A hell closer than Hell”. Switching musical modes to a terrifying, relentless form of abyssal doom, the album ends with a riff cycle that Dan Nightingale described to me as evoking the pressure of being drowned under the weight of a mountain of water: “For the end of that album we literally wanted the feeling of being crushed and crushed and crushed. Pressure crashing down, and then just cut off, implosion – that’s it, you’re gone. End of.”

The sea is a vast expanse in which to be lost. You can gaze into the depths and see a version of yourself reflected back. In art, it has been treated as an arena where self and soul are wrenched apart, in the turbulence of the water, and where the end of the Earth is pursued but never gained.

The greatest novel of the madness of the ocean is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). The novel’s anti-hero, Captain Ahab, pursues his nemesis, the titular white whale – a sperm whale with supernatural presence and a superhuman capacity for malice against its pursuer, whom it has encountered before, when it took Ahab’s leg.

The book is the source material that the band Mastodon used to create their 2004 album Leviathan. Its opening track’s title, ‘Blood and Thunder’, takes the phrase spewed from Ahab’s lips as he roars at his men to row as hard as they can once they have dropped the whaling boats in pursuit of their quarry. The song has one of the best opening lines in all heavy music: “I think someone is trying to kill me”, predicated on Ahab’s acute paranoia. ‘Blood and Thunder’ has long closed Mastodon’s live sets, propelled by its main riff with the urgent bristle of the straining sinews of the rowers and insistent rhythm of the oars taking water.

The song is lean but still strives for more and more musicality in its complex harmonised mid-section, as the guitars weave in and out of each other like choppy waters. There is a penultimate depth charge, gripped tight with the bleeding fingernails of rowers and guitarists alike, and finished off by the death blow: a half-paced final section written to boil the sea of the mosh pit. It’s little surprise that, when invited to play a tiny venue as part of Kerrang! magazine’s K! Pit video series, Conjurer chose to end with a cover version of this, the song that set the pace for a new generation of metal musicians pursuing their white whales into an uncertain twenty-first century.

Dan Franklin will be celebrating the release of Heavy: How Metal Changes The Way We See The World at the Quietus Social on March 4 in London. The social features live sets from Mighty Lord Deathman and We Wild Blood, some of metal's finest journalists sharing tales from the frontline and more! For tickets and information, click here