Anyone who has paid attention to our humble little site the past five years has to know how we feel about SubRosa. I think what it is about them is they encompass everything I find important in life. Metal, energy, passion, crushing darkness, and stories that grip at your heart. You’re not just getting a record with SubRosa. You’re getting a drama. Never has that been more accurate and apparent than with the band’s fourth full-length album “For This We Fought the Battle of Ages.” Not only is it the best record of the Salt Lake City band’s 11 years together, it also falls at a time where its themes could not be more apropos or sobering or frightening. In many ways, it feels like this record laid out a potential vision for what’s ahead of all of us.
The record itself is inspired by Russian writer Yevgeny Zamayatin’s novel We, from the concept, to the lyrics, right down to Glyn Smyth’s artwork. We, released in 1924, is a tale of a future dystopian society where dreams are thought to be a product of mental illness, and mind-altering substances and sex for pleasure are deemed illegal in the society of One State. People live in glass apartments, allowing for strict state surveillance, and protagonist D-503 documents his day-to-day struggles in a journal he hopes to have placed in a spaceship being used to invade other planets. He falls in love with I-330, who reveals a plot to bring down the One State. The band—guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon, violinist/vocalist Sarah Pendleton, violinist/vocalist Kim Pack, bassist/vocalist Levi Hanna, drummer Andy Patterson—are at top level on these songs, letting crescendos build, the drama sweep you away, the black heartbreak grip you, and the heavy waves of doom topple over you. From the incredible opener “Despair Is a Siren”; to “Wound of the Warden” and its misguided call of, “I know one day they’ll be grateful, I know one day they’ll worship me”; to “Killing Rapture,” which essentially is the end of the We story, everything comes together beautifully and tragically. Then there’s closer “Troubled Cells,” one of the saddest, most upsetting songs of the year, and Vernon’s response to the Mormon church’s disappointing approach toward LGBTQ people. Not only will the music stop you in your tracks, so will every single word. No exaggeration.
We were lucky enough to have Vernon take time to talk more in depth about “For This We Fought the Battle of Ages,” why this story was so vital to be retold now, and the reaction she has gotten from the very bold, heartbreaking “Troubled Cells.” SubRosa truly operate on their own plane and are one of the most unique groups in all of metal. We’re fortunate to have this band in our stratosphere, and we are thrilled to have their music to write about and their words about their art on our site.
MEAT MEAD METAL: We are naming “For This We Fought the Battle of Ages” as of our top metal release for 2016. This is an astonishing piece of work that pushes SubRosa even further into the realm of one of the most special metal bands out there. How do you feel about the music now that you’ve fully digested it and presented it live?
Rebecca Vernon: Thank you very much. Well, it’s ironic, because we have have actually not presented three of the songs live yet, and have a lot to prepare for Roadburn (where we are playing the whole album live). “Troubled Cells” and “Killing Rapture” are especially hard to perform live because of my singing style in those songs. But I guess as a whole, we are proud of the album and see it as a forward step in our evolution, which is good and bad. It’s good for our progress, bad because I think the album is harder for people to get into. But that’s OK.
MMM: You chose the book We as an inspiration for the record. You could not have known at the time just how apropos that would be upon the record’s release and the state of the world and America right now. Does that give you chills at all?
RV: It is strange. We have had other interviewers point this out as well. And when interviewers point it out, I feel like you are getting why we connected with We and why we had to write an album about it; that it is a warning, a dark mirror of what earthly societies and cultures have become in the past and can become in the future.
I am scared for the world. They say that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. I’m afraid not enough U.S. citizens have studied history, the rhetoric of dictators, the warning signs of a dangerous leader. I blame our corrupt political system, the voter suppression that went on in the Democratic primaries which led to the nomination of the weaker candidate, our lack of emphasis on education, the angst of the ignored working-class, sick-of-establishment politics. It was a perfect storm.
MMM: The band’s songwriting keeps getting more expansive and epic, but never at the expense of the impact of the songs. For example, “Despair Is a Siren” takes up one full album side, and if anything, it gains momentum all along the way. Is it a matter of everyone working so long together and understanding the vision that you keep pumping out these mini-epics?
RV: Thank you. I think working together for a long time together does help us write songs together. We do all move almost as one fluid creature when writing and usually think the same way about everything, reach agreements very quickly, communicate very well.
With this album’s songwriting, I wanted to emulate the song structures of operas or symphonies; different movements bleeding into each other that sometimes never repeat. We did this with “Black Majesty” especially. And “Despair is a Siren” is the closest to an opera concept in that it musically depicts the plot of We in chronological order. I don’t know if we’ll do this again for the next album. Maybe we’ll just write a bunch of four-minute doom bytes.
MMM: Album closer “Troubled Cells” is an absolute heart crusher. I don’t know that there’s a sadder line this year—within the context of the song, of course—than, “If there’s no way through for you, there’s no way through for me.” We again are at a scary point with LGBTQ folks and the incoming administration. Have you heard back from any members of the community, and what was the impetus for writing this song? What did this mean to you?
RV: You know that quote from Eli Wiesel, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” That’s how I felt, and still do.
I have heard back from some members of the community. My LGBTQ friends who grew up in the church –their opinions were the most important to me, and they all liked the video. A therapist from Boise, Idaho, come up after our show there in November and thanked us and the film crew for the video. That meant a lot to me because he has seen the suffering firsthand that this policy has caused in his LGBTQ clients.
MMM: What has been the reaction among the Mormon church, if any, or even members of the Salt Lake City community? Do you worry about any backlash from them?
RV: I’m sure the leaders of the Mormon church have not seen the video. If they saw it, I’m not sure what their reaction would be. There has been no backlash. I honestly thought the video might be more controversial, and I braced for it. But so far, most people just say they felt touched and some say it made them cry.
MMM: Parts of the metal community also have not been terribly welcoming when it comes to LGBTQ folks and minorities wanting to feel included within metal’s fabric. If you stand for those folks, you’re instantly an SJW or a white knight in some people’s eyes. Not sure if you’ve paid attention to any of that on your end, but what do you feel about metal’s acceptance levels toward these groups of people? Are things getting better? Is this just a very vocal minority?
RV: I am proud because I think doom and sludge metal are generally very accepting of minorities and LGBTQ. I was really proud of Sleep for playing the benefit in Orlando for the victims of the Pulse shooting. Other subgenres may not be as accepting as ours, I’m not sure.
I agree with many people’s sentiments that SJW can become irritating, though, especially when it comes to their obsession with policing language in very minute ways. I don’t really have all the answers for where the balance lies between standing up and speaking out, and realizing that your stand is becoming condescending and heavy-handed. At the same time, I’d rather take the risk of being seen as an SJW when I speak out against something that is causing genuine harm, than to remain comfortably silent.
MMM: There’s obviously, among the book’s storyline and the record’s, the concept of having to shield your feelings and desires. The line, “To feel is the enemy, to be a dead tomb is a mercy,” from “Killing Rapture” comes to mind as particularly poignant. Do you think we’re nearing that level at all?
RV: I think there are plenty of messages in society that are calculated to numb you. Too many to count, and it’s getting worse. Everything from having advertisements piped into your brain no matter where you go on the Internet, to the stupidity of much modern entertainment, to the subtle pressure to conform to society’s/culture’s prescriptions. Religions of the world also, of course, are guilty of assault on the life of the inner world. Your inner world should be yours. No one should own it but you, and no earthly mortal has the right to infringe on it.
MMM: This record, like your others, features amazing artwork by Glyn Smyth. How does the artwork fit into the overall story arc?
RV: Glyn Smyth does amazing work. The girl on the front is a depiction of I-330, the main female protagonist of We. The botanicals on the inside of the album are from the book—plants and flowers that have heavy symbolism attached to them. Glyn did a very careful reading of We and read blogs about it and put a lot of thought into the album art.
The style of the art, too, is from the 1920s, when We was first published. Glyn was inspired by ex-libris bookplates, the art deco movement, and silent film-era actresses, the latter for the portrayal of I-330 on the front.
MMM: The band is stretching out to the East Coast a bit next year for Maryland Deathfest. Can we expect to see the band on this side of the country in other places around that event? What else does the band have planned?
RV: We are playing St. Vitus on Saturday, March 4, in Brooklyn. Other than that and Maryland Deathfest, we don’t have any East Coast dates planned right now, but it is our top touring priority for next year. It has been way too long since we’ve been back. We are also playing some summer fests in Europe in June and Roadburn in April, of course. We are working on tour dates for summer and fall. More will be coming soon, I’m sure!
(Released Aug. 26, 2016)
For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/SubrosaSLC/
To buy the album, go here: https://www.profoundlorerecords.com/products-page/
For more on the label, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/