One of the quickest ways to find music that you enjoy is to latch on to a label that seems to suit your taste and see what comes from their signings and to obviously keep an open mind. Labels – especially in the underground scenes – are becoming more curators of taste and for the part that can be seen as a good thing. Transcending Obscurity is one such label that I have been following for years and it is on this label that I discovered Sarcoptes. I was immediately struck by the artwork and once I started diving into the songs from their album Prayers to Oblivion, I realized very quickly that this is a band that has a lot to offer, both in what they provide sonically and the inspiration for their music. This album was engineered, mixed and mastered by Zack Ohren and features guest guitar solos from Bobby Koelble, best known in the metal world for his work on Death’s Symbolic album. Expansive, thrash-leaning epics, scorched vocal passages, and historical accounts of tragedy are at the heart of what Sarcoptes put forth on their latest album but this is hardly their first rodeo with these concepts and I talked to Sean Zimmerman and Garrett Garvey – the two sole members of the band – about the formation, intent and musical journey that the band have been on since their inception over a decade ago. First off, I had to find out what this band name was all about.
Garrett: ‘So the name actually originates way back in 2006 or so. I went to high school with a kid who was just a badass guitarist. He threw down some one-take, single track songs on Myspace which were actually really sick black metal and I did a crappy vocal pass over one of them and he loved it. At that point I was the ‘vocalist’ of the band. He ended up moving out of state when some crazy stuff went down in his life. Later on, he tragically passed away. Years later, me and Sean were putting together what would later become Songs and Dances of Death and we thought of using my friend’s band name and carrying on with music. Thus, the current manifestation of Sarcoptes was born.‘
I pressed further by asking if there a metaphorical meaning behind naming a musical entity after a small but powerfully effective insect and Garett agreed that there could be something to that:
‘Sometimes I consider the metaphorical possibilities behind the name. As Sarcoptes scabei is a skin mite, you could think of it like something insidiously tiny which nests under your skin. It’s almost imperceptible, until it attacks your body. Paranoia, anxiety, and fear all operate in a similar way. It’s always there, trying to creep in. We all deal with it to various levels. It’s a darkness to everyone’s person which rides with you for life.’
The paranoia, fear, and anxiety that Garett touches is also extremely real within the writing of Sarcoptes‘ lyrics. As I said before this band takes inspiration and very real direction from historical events from war crimes and the plague and emulsify it with their brand of metal into something that comes across as genuine but still something that you can bang your head along to. That type of dichotomy comes along only every once in a while and like another band that I love, 1914, Sarcoptes always strike the correct tone when discussing these events without devolving into diluted celebration or myopic riff fests that feel at odds with the subject matter. Both bandmates shared their perspective on the writing and how they see themselves as storytellers in the world of extreme metal:
Garett: ‘Since I don’t do the principle writing for the band, I’ll just chime in from my seat. I think using these subjects helps give great weight to the writing. Creative writing can also be amazing, but you can get caught in repetition, lack of clarity, or generalization. By using these pinpoint events, with many sources to use as information, we can write about something tangible. We can become precise with what we’re describing, knowing how it takes place and how it ends. We can position questions and conject to the weight and significance of the events. And, as we often like to do, we can leave the implication of where the true evil lies for the listener to debate for themselves.’
Sean: ‘I think that’s just my personality. I didn’t start writing lyrics with the intent of only addressing narrative-driven or real world topics or whatnot. It just sort of came out that way. The topics I address are just things that I find personally interesting or moving. I don’t think there’s really any one right way to write metal lyrics. It’s just as valid to write songs like Mercyful Fate or King Diamond do which are primarily horror stories or tales of the occult etc. as it is to write songs about war, death, existential dread, real world issues etc. It’s all a matter of how well you do it and how well it melds with the music. There’s no way I could write songs like these that featured Deicide or Cannibal Corpse style lyrics, but then again I couldn’t really imagine either of those bands writing songs based on the kinds of things we discuss and have them work effectively.’
I wholeheartedly agree that this marriage of style and the substance that it delivers feels unique and events written about are hardly escapist but is often the retelling of events or horrors that feel immediate and very specific. Across their catalog Sarcoptes have songs about the fall of Constantinople, the Black Death, the Vietnam War, and more. Rife with detail from names and places to the imagery that makes the events the horrors that they were, it’s rare to hear songs which have such congruence in the topics and tones. While this approach isn’t novel per se, it is something fairly rare in the metal space and frankly within music as a whole. As a personal fan of other bands who take this approach as well as being a bit of a history nerd myself, I wanted to see the motivation and inspiration for this approach could be and if they see themselves as educators or just passionate about the topics:
Garett: ‘I’m not sure if the goal is to educate others. I know for me, there is a confidence in knowing that the ideas written are precise and well-sourced. Especially in today’s age, it is very hard to say something to a firm degree of accuracy. One of the only ways is to be as informed as you can about the subject, and draw your information from even more informed sources. I believe we accomplish this, and so when we take the brazen step to write lyrics about an event, we know what we’re talking about.’
Sean: ‘I’m not sure I’m trying to educate so much as using the subject matter as a springboard to ask bigger questions about human nature. An example is “Massacre at My Lai”: what is it in human nature that causes some people to commit atrocities and others to behave heroically under the same sets of circumstances? In trying to communicate my thoughts, ideas and ruminations on certain topics, having a thorough understanding of the subject matter is of course essential in doing so. I actually did quite a lot of reading and research while I was working on these lyrics. I probably read about 5,000 pages or so of material on the subjects that these songs are about during this entire process. And that’s not including all the movies, documentaries, video clips, etc. that I watched as well.’
The effort that goes into these accounts can’t be missed, especially if you take a peek at the lyrics as you listen. Dialog, times, dates, and more all included and give each song a wildly authentic feeling and no holes are left in these accounts. It’s no wonder that some of their songs branch out into longer and longer lengths, as it takes time to tell a complete and accurate account of these events. Thankfully, Sarcoptes is up to the task.
Black metal may be the base on which these ideas are composed but there is far more to this band than just the trem-picked riffs and blast beats of the genre. To my ear there are times when shades of Emperor come through as well as long-form thrash giants Demoniac and Cryptic Shift and while genre binning isn’t always the most effective way to categorize a band I think it makes less sense for a band like Sarcoptes where both the musical and lyrical identity are wholly unique. Sean chimed in and agreed:
‘I would agree that ‘black metal’ is too basic a label for what we are doing. I would say our style is a hybrid of various extreme metal subgenres. There are clear and obvious elements of black metal in the music which are probably the elements that stand out initially to most listeners. But it doesn’t take long before the thrash elements or the old school death metal elements become obvious. There’s even a bit of doom in some of the slower sections. So yeah, it’s a blend of styles.’
Sarcoptes’ ability to mix these ideas and make such epic and informative metal is a testament to open-minded musicians eschewing labels and conventions and creating what they are passionate about. With a lot of hype and positive response for their latest album, I personally think the ceiling just got higher for this band and while the present state of the band looks great, I wanted to get an idea of where sights were set for the future. While the band has operated as a studio entity since their inception it seems that a live performance isn’t out of the question, thanks in part to a music video filming:
Sean: ‘Gar and I have talked about eventually doing live shows as well. We just filmed a music video for one of the songs (which hasn’t been premiered yet) and we brought some people on board to round out the lineup for the video. So jamming with some new individuals has certainly gotten us thinking more and more seriously about doing shows. Before this band expires I’d definitely like to have some live shows under our belts and some more albums that reach a much bigger audience than we have already.’
‘The sky is the limit,’ according to Garrett. However, I’d say that Sarcoptes can go even further than that and hurl themselves into the deepest reaches of space, just like that sweet Adam Burke cover art on Prayers to Oblivion. After having a while to refine their approach and plant a flag for their style and preferred topics, the trajectory is purely vertical.
Sean Zimmerman – Guitar, Bass, Keyboards
Garrett Garvey – Vocals, Drums