Black metal has always carried with it a difficult relationship with political ideology. From the overtly cartoonish faux Satan worship of the genre’s formative years was born a sinister association with thinly veiled forms of prejudice that range from insular musical elitism all the way to overt Nazism and support for white supremacy. It seems remarkable that even some of the most successful bands to emerge over the past three decades have often more than flirted with far-right ideologies and have largely gone unchecked, barring the odd gig cancellation here or inconclusive law suit there. As much as we may love the sonic intensity and diabolical aesthetics of metal’s most sacrilegious bloc, it is this writer’s opinion that the complacency with which people deal with problematic artists must end, we must fight against the genre’s problematic ties with bigotry and hold such artists accountable for their spreading of hatred.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel however, and perhaps 2021 could be the year we start to see the fight against hatred gain the kind of traction it needs to form a sufficient resistance as to force a change. More and more we are seeing artists taking an active stand against fascism in black metal, through their lyricism, actions, and political affiliations alike. One such band, is Nottingham’s Underdark, one of the UK’s loudest and proudest anti-fascist names, whose stunning blend of intense black metal, radiant shoegaze, and introspective lyricism mark them out as a band to keep tabs on.
With a handful of short form releases already in circulation, 2021 will see the release of Underdark‘s now long-awaited debut album, Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry via Surviving Sounds, Through Love Records, and Tridoid Records on 30th July. It’s an album that I’ve had my sights on since it was announced, and as one of the lucky few to have heard it pre-release, I can assure you it’s an album you don’t want to miss.
But more on that later, for now it’s my pleasure to be joined by vocalist Abi Vasquez and bassist Stephen Waterfield as we delve into what makes this band tick.
When I first encountered this band, I immediately recognised a band that injects an intensely emotional pulse into their music, whether that be fervent rage or vulnerability, and so it comes as no surprise to discover the range of artists that this band pulls inspiration from. Naturally as a band one could describe as blackgaze, there are several names you can make immediate comparisons to, but to my ear there is something deeper and more nuanced about Underdark. There is a certain emotional intensity that many bands of this ilk often fail to deliver. It’s one of those things that you simply know when you hear it, that there is nothing contrived about you hear, it’s an honest response to natural stimuli.
Abi: ‘From what I recall Ollie (guitar) saying, the original plan was to do a band that sounded a bit like Envy.’
Stephen: ‘What Abi says isn’t far off. We all came from other bands that had played together and as those projects naturally came to an end, Ollie, Adam (guitar) and Dan (drums) decided they wanted to do something a bit heavier than their previous stuff. I think we still have that side to us but have obviously evolved a bit along the way.’
A: ‘My favourite lyricists are all rappers. I was listening to a lot of Dessa, Sadistik, and 070 Shake when I wrote for OBBBOR. My favourite bands are Pig Destroyer and Jesu, which is cool because to me we sound like the mid way point between them.’
S: ‘As mentioned earlier, Envy are a big one across the board for us even if that doesn’t come across in the music. Some other ones that have probably shaped our sound are Mogwai, Alcest, Dawn Ray’d, City of Caterpillar, and Deftones while trying to incorporate those influences into the sound we make today. And obviously Deafheaven.’
As alluded to before, for a band that floats eloquently between the worlds of black metal and shoegaze, some of those names should come as no surprise, but by no means should Underdark be cast as another band clutching at the tailfeathers of their influences. One of their finest qualities is their resourcefulness, able to pull multifaceted ideas from a range of sources and combine them fluently. They are a band that can be just as easily compared to the screamo legends of yesteryear as the blackgaze doyens of today. Take their exemplary debut EP Mourning Cloak for example. The three tracks present on this release are a trilogy of epics that weave between kvlt-approved black metal despondence and a much more euphoric side, utilising growing layers of harmony into huge crescendos. You can certainly identify a few of the aforementioned influences on this EP, though the savvy combinations and structural approach mark this EP’s sound as their own. They’re a terrifically dynamic band, mastering the worlds of quiet and chaos with clean passages that mirror life’s most pensive junctures and searing blast beats that bear the weight and sinister aura of the genre’s most abrasive names.
But one of the most notable strengths of this band is their cohesion. Even from the very first release it was clear that Underdark had nailed their own sound. I know how easy it can be as a young band to produce disjointed works out of a desire to pull from fairly disparate influences, but Underdark carry the assured approach of a band with the kind of maturity to know what works and what doesn’t. From their very first release you could be fooled into thinking these were a veteran act already five albums deep into their discography.
Following on from this, the band released a short split EP with Nottingham compatriots Antre, which cemented the band’s songwriting maturity with the track “The Smell of Autumn”, condensing the multi-layered spectrum of emotion of Mourning Cloak into a singular assault. The track is without doubt a highlight from the band’s earlier output, and is perhaps the finest example of their talent and early promise. The band’s production values have been similarly consistent, with all of their early releases being recorded at Nottingham’s Stuck On A Name Studios, one of the UK’s most popular and involved studios and venues. Take Mourning Cloak‘s opening track “Bank of Roses” for example, from the outset the tracks seeps beyond the dynamic spectrum, just on the cusp of obtrusiveness as the guitars reproduce the kind of razor wire effect that Mayhem would be proud of. But even as the track overwhelms, the multi-layered harmony that instils a stirring emotional response always manages to cut through, and this is especially prevalent as the track recedes into truly beautiful ambience.
Two years would pass before the band’s next release, but in this time I happened to catch them live a few times and it’s fair to say the intensity of sonics and emotion on their releases are matched by their live performances which evidently produce a sense of catharsis in both artist and audience alike. Abi says ‘I see it as shock therapy. Like, my aim is ultimately to comfort people, but I try to accomplish this by screaming in their faces about trafficking and knife crime. Ultimately, my plan is to get everyone feeling something.’ As someone in a band that hopes to evoke of Underdark‘s trajectory, I am often one to look up to them as an example of how to craft emotionally complex and intense music both in the live arena and on record.
Their live reputation certainly precedes them, as they’ve shared stages with myriad artists across the UK and Europe in their short lifespan. Most notable is perhaps Dawn Ray’d, another UK black metal band with a strong anti-fascist stance. Perhaps one of the country’s most well known left-wing BM bands, they’ve clearly had an influence on Underdark both musically and in terms of using their voice as a force of good, but likewise Underdark have evidently made an impression on likeminded bands and promoters in the UK, regularly appearing alongside names like Svalbard, Conan, and Crimson Throne. It’s become a common sight to see Underdark‘s logo adorning tour posters with many of the most revered names in UK extreme metal.
S: ‘We’re lucky to have worked with a bunch of labels over the years and with one right now, so Surviving Sounds, Callous Records, The Coming Strife, Apocalyptic Witchcraft. And some bands we have played with in the past or want to in the future are Earth Moves, Hundred Year Old Man, Inhuman Nature, Coltsblood, Witchsorrow, Bismuth, Celestial Sanctuary, and Wallowing.
Clearly this is a band that holds their values close to the heart and wears them proudly on their sleeves. As an underground band they are savvy to the impact a striking voice can have, as well as the injustices that are prevalent in the modern world. Their next release, which would also mark the final release with founding vocalist Max Speelman, was a two track EP featured a re-release of Mourning Cloak‘s “With Bruised and Bloodied Feet” which would also feature on Blackened Death Records‘ compilation Worldwide Organisation of Metalheads Against Nazis, and similarly the band would be signatories of Metalheads Against Police Brutality in response to the growing distaste for police actions across the world. But as much as Underdark use their growing profile as a means of fighting the good fight, they are under no illusions as to how we can and can’t change the world. As Abi puts it, ‘To my mind the best strategy is to just be really fucking good at music, so any messages we have are the ones people want to listen to because our riffs slap.’ Honestly I couldn’t have put it better myself.
The release also featured an inspired cover of The Cure‘s “Plainsong”, which initially infuriated me as I had previously wanted to cover the very same track with my band, but regardless it’s a truly haunting rendition of a track that was almost tailor made to be given the blackgaze treatment. Once again it’s an example of how fluently Underdark unite two separate worlds, in this case atmospheric gothic post-punk and abrasive black metal. Upon hearing it I rapidly forgave them for covering a song that I wanted to cover but never thought to act upon, I am simply happy that such a timeless work of gothic music now has an equally compelling rendition in a darker guise, and honestly it’s far better than I ever imagined being able to accomplish myself. It also marks a fitting swansong for Max, whose powerful screams were a focal point of their early work.
Finally we come onto the band’s upcoming opus, their debut album Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry, which feels like a culmination of everything the band have released up until this point. Though the album was mostly completed prior to Abi joining the band, there is no doubt that her addition to the line-up was a smooth process, as her performance and contribution to the album seem to go hand in hand with what is laid out musically. If you haven’t already heard them, the albums lead singles “Coyotes” and “With Ashen Hands Around Our Throats” are among their most destructive and delicate tracks to date and set the tone that is to come from the rest of the album. With production by Holy Mountain Studios pushing the magnitude of the most cutting riffs and balancing the album’s emotional weight beyond anything they’ve released up to this point. It’s easy to throw such phrases around willy nilly, but it’s with conviction that I say that this is one of the finest and most refreshing debut albums from a black metal in recent years. It’s up there with MØL‘s Jord and Dawn Ray’d‘s The Unlawful Assembly.
A: ‘The title is about drugs. It’s the most poetic way I could think of saying ‘a comedown is a very unpleasant experience‘. Generally I prefer to put a narrative together across songs, but with OBBBOR, I had a lot of built up bile and horror at the state of the world, and a lot of things in my personal, so what I ended up writing was more fragmented, and some of the more personal writing I’ve released to the public to date. I came on board midway through the process of getting this released, and we had to go back and re-record vocals with the lyrics I’d written, but the music was already there.
I tend to use narrative to explore a topic, so my writing often draws from personal experience, or I disappear into research hell trying to put together a compelling story. It might look like I’m drawn to the bleaker parts of life on OBBBOR, but I’m actually quite optimistic. If I write about addiction or suicide, I try to frame it as something that can be overcome.’
S: ‘Like Abi said, the album was already written and recorded at the time of joining but we tend to take our time with the writing process anyway. Thankfully Abi’s vision matched our own thematically and the lyrics and vocals have improved on what we previously had.’
Abi’s vocals really struck me as an enthralling addition to Underdark‘s oeuvre. There is a rawness and vulnerability to her horrific shrieks that are that of a tortured yet potent soul. It’s incredibly easy to connect with her performance, even without knowing what many of the lyrics are when it is so brilliantly entwined with the music’s duality. It’s both every bit as powerful as the album’s harshest clamour and as haunting as its anxious contemplation. Whilst the musicality of OBBBOR offers a subtle step in the band’s evolution, it represents a step in the right direction in all departments, which adds up to a terrific force of poignant, arresting metal. Every riff, every harmony, and every progression strikes with just a little bit more distinction. It’s a platform from which they can continue to excel and find themselves infiltrating more borders with each passing moment.
Underdark are a band that look outward as much as inward, they succeed in crafting epic journeys into tenebrous dioramas through their awareness and experience of what goes on in the real world, to the ordinary people of Britain and beyond. What makes their music so compelling and easy to connect with is the authentic approach to an oft trodden path in black metal. Amongst the many bands that attempt to blur the lines between black metal and shoegaze, very few bands succeed with the kind of ingenuity and presence of mind as Nottingham’s Underdark.
Abi Vasquez – vocals
Ollie Jones – guitar
Adam Kinson – guitar
Stephen Waterfield – bass
Dan Hallam – drums
You can check out all of Underdark‘s music and pre-order their debut album Our Bodies Burned Bright On Re-Entry over on their Bandcamp site, and also stay updated with their activities by following them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.