Managed Decline is a wrenching portrayal of post-industrial Britain that firmly establishes Underdark as a vital name in UK black metal.

Release date: November 24, 2023 | Church Road Records | Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Great Britain, 28th February 1972. The nation sits upon a knife edge, British coal miners across the country have been officially on strike for the first time in 46 years after seeing their wages stagnate for over a decade. A state of emergency has been declared by the right-wing government of Edward Heath, who’s National Coal Board refused to budge on the striking miners plummeting living standards. Thousands picketed, leading to clashes with police that resulted in over 50 arrests, more than 30 injuries, and even one death. With tensions at boiling point, the government relented, offering a rare and fleeting victory for the workforce. As history often reminds us however, the state rarely accepts defeat lightly, and never does it forget.

What followed in the next decades was a systematic dismantling of living conditions; industrial towns and cities across the UK saw a staggering decline as wages were cut and employment levels plummeted, inflicted by a series of cruel and callous governments and all in the name of profit, and perhaps to a degree in the name of spite. The widening cracks barely papered over by the fleeting triumph of ’72, this was perhaps the beginning of the end for industrial Britain, and it was the working classes that bore, and still bear the brunt.

Nottingham, England, 2023. Much has changed, much remains the same. Through decades of rust and shattered concrete, life goes on and hope blossoms against all odds. We remember these trials through stories, art, poetry, cinema, and of course, music. Today, I present to you a mournful history that is still being lived, as told by one of the UK’s finest rising names in extreme music, Underdark. I was also lucky enough to speak to guitarist Ollie Jones who gave me an insight into their rapid, and deserved, ascension.

A haunting murmur of brass, a sound often synonymous with 20th century English mining towns, opens proceedings with the poignant quality of a funeral march. It’s a brief yet stirring way to start such a heart-breaking album, not least because the historic relevance, and it offers the first glimpse of melancholy that will become the foundation of Managed Decline. Black metal may revel in misery, but it’s not often that it places a spotlight on social matters like this, political strife is part and parcel of life in the UK, and it’s always refreshing to see commentary from heterogeneous walks of life. I asked Ollie how he would sum up Managed Decline in a single sentence, and his response was simply ‘If Shane Meadows made a metal album, it’d be this.’ and I’d be hard pressed to sum it up any better. For the uninitiated, Shane Meadows is a British film and tv director known for his examination of social realism in the UK, most popularly in his This Is England series. If you’ve seen his work you’ll know immediately to expect an album of both meticulous brilliance and arduous emotional exploration. Speaking of the more specific inspirations for the album, Ollie had this to say:

‘The album is a work of fiction – the events Abi (vocals) describes in it were based on an amalgamation of accounts from people she spoke to during the writing process – discussing things they experienced or witnessed in post-industrial towns. The dates are to put a timeline to the story – it starts with the clashes between Miner’s unions and the police in the late 70s and early 80s, then goes through the two generations of decline that followed. We’ve also tried to touch on this with the artwork so it was great when discussing the theme with Michael Cowell that he came up with the idea of the statue centrepiece you can typically see in all these town centres and how that can represent the decline of those towns themselves.’

Title track “Managed Decline (1st April 1988)” offers the first taste of Underdark’s charged post-black metal, with a solemn procession of doom-laden guitars making way for a blackened flurry. Just as the track’s title offers an overview of the album’s  subject matter, so too does the track itself chronicle the band’s compositional abilities. Shrill, cacophonic torment carries the ferocity of black metal royalty through the opening act, weaving effortlessly into the stoic arms of melancholy in the track’s euphoric latter half. Whilst certainly deft in the art of aggression, the band truly excels in tortured despair, grasping tightly at the listeners heart, and therein pouring great sorrow.

Perhaps the most obvious comparison would be to bands like envy, masters of their mournful craft and a clear influence for Underdark. Drummer Dan Blackmore surges the track unerringly forward with hermetic blastbeats, the group’s newest member stamping his credentials with immediate aplomb, and offering no reprieve for the submissive listener. ‘Dan joined just as we were essentially refining the album before going to record with Joe Clayton at No Studio up in Manchester. It was interesting having a drummer from a different musical background come in and put their stamp on things we had heard in a completely different way for so long and make it not only work, but enhance them further.’

It is not just Blackmore that excels throughout the album either, guitarists Ollie Jones and Adam Kinson, and bassist Stephen Waterfield have perfected the art of harmonic grief. Even through passages of overwhelming volume, their haunting interplay of minor chord sequences and euphoric leads lay the foundation for Abi Vasquez’s forthright vocal performance. Whilst each contributor excels in their own right, there is a clear vision adhered to throughout, with each layer of instrumentation performing its function without arrogance, directing the listener’s focus one way or another without ever losing clarity. Having this singular vision may have been aided by the all too familiar circumstances of the album writing process. Ollie tells us:

‘There’s a lot of different themes on OBBBOR, and for Managed Decline we decided we wanted to do something more focused and tell a story. Writing for Managed Decline started during the end of the pandemic so we were still doing things remotely a lot whereas a lot of the first album was basically written while all in the room together, I think this is still the norm for a lot of bands but for us, this was a completely different way of working which we’re continuing to do now.’

Maintaining the momentum established by their excellent previous album, Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry, would have been no simple task, but it has been clear to see from the off that Underdark have not buckled under the weight of expectation. Through tracks like “Employment (16th June 1993)”, “Matrimony (27th December 1997)” and “Managed Decline II (2nd November 2004)”, the sonic palette expands further to highlight the band’s eclectic influences, incorporating glistening post-rock and cathartic screamo, and even transient shades of math-rock and metalcore. ‘Musically we’re a band of broad tastes, all five of us enjoy different things and I think on OBBBOR we managed to establish a sound based off of those influences. With Managed Decline we’ve endeavoured to expand on this and let those influences shine even more while also being conscious of the theme of the album and trying to tie that in musically, as well as you can while writing extreme music.’

Another notable strength lies in the album’s pristine production, courtesy of Nø Studio’s Joe Clayton, a name that needs little introduction in the UK post-metal circuit. Having worked with names like Tuskar, Mastiff, Conjurer, Wode and not least his own project Pijn, the weight and breadth of Clayton’s experience pays rich dividends on an album that encompasses the many eclectic faces of forward-thinking black metal. Managed Decline strikes with an intense might, the drums unerringly tight yet rich and full-bodied, whilst the twin guitars are a perfectly balanced deluge that overwhelm without becoming messy or incoherent. Vasquez’s vocals are so often the emotional zenith, the charged release built up by the band’s musical interplay. Whether they are the soaring crux atop a savage assault, or echoing through a moment of disquiet, the result is always both haunting and compelling. ‘Lyrically, Abi takes a lot of influence from JR Hayes of Pig Destroyer and Pat Kindlon of Self Defense Family/Drug Church‘, and whilst the lyrics are generally difficult to penetrate, as black metal vocals so often are, there is more than enough emotional weight carried in the delivery alone to experience a quite visceral connection.

It should be immediately obvious that Underdark are marching forward with an exciting level of momentum, catching not only the eye of prestigious label Church Road Records, but also the admiration of post-metal titans Cult of Luna, who hand picked the Nottingham quintet for the (sadly postponed) 2022 edition of Beyond The Redshift Festival. Despite such high profile commendation, the band have retained an admirable humility, looking to their contemporaries with regard and respect.

‘It kinda came out of nowhere and to be on that line up would’ve been something special. The tour that followed that cancellation with Svalbard was a real eye opener as well with it being some of the first shows we had really done where there were barriers! Playing those shows with Svalbard and Mountain Caller you quickly realise that you need to be on it every single night. It’s been great to find a home with Church Road Records, a label whose output we’ve all collectively enjoyed for a long time. We all love being in this band, being able to do the things we do and we’ve been lucky enough to do things that I don’t think any of us imagined when we first formed but with that being said we definitely want to get out and play more shows, here and Europe and anywhere else that will have us and hopefully get out on to a festival or two.’

Indeed I’m expecting to see their name emblazoned across many a gig and festival line-up over the next 12 months and beyond, and as someone that has been lucky enough to see them live, I would highly recommend my UK brethren (or hopefully anyone further afield) to catch them if you have the chance. Based off of their progress thus far, their scintillating live shows, and of course the outstanding quality of Managed Decline, 2024 could really prove to be the year of Underdark.

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