Fully sick, fully improvised
The Plague Year – The Vomit of the Universe (self-issued)
Headbangers of the world alert!
The Vomit of the Universe songs are: "The Plague Year", "Magna Hominum Dercependo", "Shiva Laughs and Smiles" and "Igne Natura Renovatur Integra". The 'A' listed here as playing guitar, bass guitar, drums & synthesizer is our old Adelaided chum Adam Blake, sometime sack-flasher at Hydrocephallus.
Vomit of the Universe, however, is an entirely alternate vehicle, a more directed mindset. Elements of grandiosity which make metal so appealing are used to maximum effect (without over-egging the omelette, as so very many bands do). Yet the approach, and rhythm, reminds me of some Krautrock, as well as opera, and quite a few classical pieces (Shostakovich springs to mind).
So if you must have a comparison, I guess Sunn0))) might be about the closest. Or Boris. If you think those outfits are self-indulgent, I've seen them and they're the least self-indulgent outfits I've seen. How many half-baked blues, r'n'b, punk or pop, or cover bands have you seen? That's self-indulgent, matey. Here's the niche, fill it.
No. I've seen Adam play guitar on stage, and it's a sight to see. He starts off with a direction, and allows that to take hold of him, and runs with it. Not many people are capable of that. "The Plague Year" (the LP) clocks in at 47 minutes (no good for taping, I'm afraid) and there's not a wasted note here; I don't think I've heard quite such an effortless variety of guitar-playing in one song (one take each, FFS) in years.
The title track, "The Plague Year", has a five-minute feedback and yowl rant (there are no vocals, BTW) before the drums kick in. This is just fantastic, really. It feels as if you've stumbled on a modern metal band you've never heard of but always wanted to hear. In fact, for all Adam's comment below about being unrehearsed and improvised, well, it damn well doesn't sound like it. The guitar hovers in the most malevolent manner, with the drums spitting sparks and hammers behind.
And then, "Magna Hominum Dercependo" starts up, completely different in almost every way, a gently growing tulip with some seriously bent notes (the guitar muso will whinge that there's something out of tune here, and he - it will be a he - is wrong). The more I listen to this, the more there is to discover. The tune carefully grows and develops, like a virus, finally gathering pace and menace (I won't tell you when). An exquisite rendition of swelling malevolence. I won't give away the ending...
"Shiva Laughs and Smiles" is equally beguiling, if not beautiful. Adam plucks out a rather glorious melody, intertwining tone as well as notes. Not for the first time I hear echoes of sitar in Adam's playing. For an improvised piece, this is damned impressive.
What also impresses overall is Adam's restrained use of the side instruments; synth, drums and bass are there to add light and shade to the tunes and riffs as they move past in the sort of glory I associate with Roman Emperors.
"Igne Natura Renovatur Integra" is the last song and I'm still reeling from the last three. There's so many moods here, the complexity of intonation, snarled notes and gnarly roods rotting on a riverbank (which is where more religious scrolls should have ended up, if you ask me). I won't give it away - there's a lot going on here, and really, these four songs more closely resemble an opera (minus the hysterical vocals, preposterous outfits and chest thumping); they have so many ingredients in what is clearly a narrative (certainly there are sub-texts): overtures, acts, arias, swirls and skirls - all that's missing is a recitative.
Adam Blake is one talented fucker. And you need his LPs in your collection.
First, could you tell us about how "The Plague Year" came about? Presumably you were thinking of parallels to Defoe's book of the same name?
AB: I have not read or even heard of that book, so any parallels there may be are entirely accidental. The themes of the album are obviously Covid inspired, but more precisely inspired by the idea that plagues throughout history (AIDS, Spanish Flu, Black Death etc) might be nature's way of indiscriminately culling humankind when humans become too numerous and too destructive towards the environment. I don't exactly believe it to be true, but I found it to be an interesting concept. Given the utter idiocy that Covid has brought out of the human race at large, the thought of nature being somewhat sentient and able to do this is almost comforting.
You play quite a range of instruments here... how long have you been such a broad-based musician? What did you start with? Why? Where did it lead you?
AB: I started on drums when I started high school, back in 2000. Come about 2005 I'd hit a wall with drums where I wasn't able to progress any further in terms of skill and I was getting bored, so my good ol' Mum suggested I buy a guitar and learn that. I was skeptical that I could, so i didn't bother. Then one day I came home to find that she had bought me one haha! Sure enough she was right, i picked up guitar fairly quickly. Around the same time I also discovered recording software, and with that and some basic guitar skills I was able to begin learning how to record music and how to write songs. Since then I have not stopped, I'm always learning something new about music and these days I'm able to get a tune out of near any instrument that does not require me to blow into it.
You started with guitar on this LP... then squished the rhythm section in afterwards... wasn't this... a little difficult? Or did you then work the rhythm section, then re-record the guitar pieces over the top?
AB: Everything with "Vomit of the Universe" is entirely improvised, so my original plan with this one was to do a album of just guitar on its own, recorded with multiple microphones. But then my eyes got too big for my belly. I listened back to the recordings and decided to flesh them out more with bass and drums. You may recognise this approach as being entirely arse backwards. Usual procedure for a recording where everybody records their parts separately is for the drums to be done first, and this is the way that I have always done it when i am recording something solo. Somehow after quite a few takes and a few things thrown at the wall, I managed to get it done. The lack of cues given by an improvised guitar part made it particularly difficult to follow myself as it were. Add tempo slowdowns and odd time signatures to the mix (which pop up on the last track on the LP) and it gets quite hellish! I will try never to record another LP with this method again and I would only recommend it if you are a masochist.
Asking for a confused friend: so, no sitars on this recording?
AB: No sitars anywhere, only a guitar with every string tuned to the same note. Lou Reed used to do that (for one).
I made a few comparisons in the review - how close was I?
AB: The comparisons to SUNN0))) and Boris are apt; there's an album they did together in particular that is very similar to my stuff. Interesting comparison to opera, I see it but I don't listen to any opera. Classical I do, but I have never heard any Shostakovich. Varese and Stravinsky are definitely influences. So is Krautrock, though more as a concept than any of the musical content.
I know your musical taste is quite diverse, but what bands/ music have had an impact on what you do - as opposed to 'what's your favourite outfit'?
AB: I'm a complete metalhead, but with Vomit of the Universe I am more inspired by bands that are heavy, but not exactly metal. Metal tends to be very conservative and too narrow-minded for my liking, at least when it comes to creating my own stuff. Bands like Neurosis, Swans, Godflesh, Melvins, Celtic Frost, and Earth are definitely inspirations, in terms of sheer sonic weight and in attitude to music making. In terms of bands outside of that, the heavier side of classical plays a part, and my tendency to spend a couple of minutes manipulating guitar feedback through a bunch of FX mid-song is no doubt inspired by the industrial and noise music that I both listen to and make. Of particular note, I was listening to a lot of La Monte Young and Pandit Pran Nath when I was recording "The Plague Year", and I'm pretty sure that it's a glaringly obvious sonic influence on this album in particular.
What drew you first to the possibilities a guitar can create?
AB: I've wanted to play guitar ever since I was a small child. My siblings are 10+ years older than me, and little kid me was exposed to them listening to heavy metal and seeing my brother and my sister's boyfriend playing guitars, and I thought it was the greatest thing ever and I wanted to do all that too. Sure enough I did, but I had to wait a while!
While we're there, pedals. Let's talk pedals.
AB: I got into making my own guitar FX pedals around 2015 or so. I got into it because I am poor and I don't fancy dropping $600 on vintage fuzz pedals when I can replicate them for about a twentieth of the price worth of parts. At this point my pedal board is entirely homebrew except for a tuner (which would be masochistic to build) and a wah (not cost effective to build generally, and my particular wah pedal is a fancy optical one that would reside in the "just buy it you masochist" category). Most of the pedals I'm using are based on an existing well known core design, but I usually end up modifying them in some way to my particular taste. My amps are homebrew valve amps too, one of which I built myself.
For those playing at home, the core guitar sound on the earlier Vomit of the Universe albums is the product of said valve amps turned up full blast, with a Univox Super Fuzz clone on low gain, mid-scooped, high-volume settings providing some added ugliness. On "The Plague Year" I made a conscious effort to do everything differently, so I instead used a modified Fuzz Face of my own devising into a much less loud, clean amp sound. For the noisier bits of proceedings, MXR Blue Box and EHX Small Stone variants pop up quite a bit, as does a wacky delay pedal that I've devised, which I can feed back on itself and change the delay rate (a common trick with noise musicians) by wiggling my foot over it. Which looks a bit weird, but it's certainly effective!
Interesting what you said about "Magna Hominum Decerpendo", the tuning on that is a little different to the others. Half the strings tuned to C, the others to C#. That interval of notes that are 1 semitone apart is dissonant and out of tune sounding as fuck. Though as you point out, it's entirely deliberate!
Your take on the way Covid has affected us seems very different from most musicians, who seem to have either gone inwards and examined their navel, or sneered at the 'lockdown holiday' attitude while going 'boo hoo hoo, I'm a poor vulnerable musician', when surely the issue is - if god gave us brains, why ain't we using them?
AB: I played in several bands during my 20s, and soon learned that most musicians are intolerable fucking morons. I can count the ones I genuinely enjoyed working with on one hand. Sadly, this is reflective of the human race at large, I dislike at least 95 percent of people if I have to spend more than five minutes with them. Musicians are a special idiosyncratic kind of awful, which is why I mostly stick to solo projects these days. I get the feeling that classical composers the likes of Mozart and Beethoven, if they were given the ability to play every instrument in the orchestra, were given a recording studio with all of said instruments and a record press, and everybody had a record player, would choose to compose their music and record it solo and sell records rather than piss about coordinating an orchestra of 40 idiosyncratic dickheads. Obviously I'm a worthless hack compared to those lofty names, but I think the concept is sound.
If God gave us brains, why aren't we using them?
AB: Hard to say. I think a big part of it is that it is far more comfortable not to, in a society that does not encourage it in the first place. Take from that what you will.
Another thing you brought up made me smile - you referred to 'the utter idiocy that Covid has brought out of the human race at large'; could you amplify a little on that? You know I refer to Covid19 as 'the stupidvirus', too; what do you think of the Extinction Rebellion?
AB: From what I can see, Covid has ripped most people out of many of their comfort zones, and humanity at large has reacted to that by throwing a pathetic tantrum. Anti-maskers, conspiracy theorists, people killing themselves because they can't go to the pub and socialise, people refusing to not travel during a fucking disease outbreak, idiotic politicians wanting to open the world up again prematurely because they're shitting themselves over the falling economy, people willingly letting the government know where they are with sign-in apps without thinking about the massive infringement of privacy, people having 100% faith in rushed vaccines being able to stop a virus that has already mutated multiple times because they're so desperate for things to "go back to normal", I could go on. There is so much idiocy on display and I have nothing but contempt for it. All that said, I'm grateful to be living where I am, Australia and New Zealand have really done quite well at dealing with all this in comparison to the rest of the Western world, and Adelaide has done well even by those standards.
I didn't know anything about the Extinction Rebellion, so I had a quick read about it. It reminds me of so many left wing protest movements, admirable idealistic intentions, lots of empathy and shouting, but in all likelihood it will achieve jack shit and fizzle out when a bigger problem comes along, or when the participants finish their degrees and start getting juicy paychecks. Sadly the Government doesn't care when there's profits to be made and resources to be mined. Most likely the changes that Extinction Rebellion would like to see will happen too late, if at all. I also can't help but giggle knowing that most Extinction Rebellion participants drive cars and buy and own clothes and consumer electronics that are made in pollution-spewing sweatshops in China. Active contribution to the problem they are trying to fix. They would in all likelihood achieve more in terms of limiting environmental destruction by focusing inward rather than outward. Move to the country, become self sufficient, grow your own food, make and fix your own stuff. But that of course is inconvenient. Speaking of extinction, one could argue that letting just us humans go extinct is probably going to better for the environment than having billions of humans living on Earth in any manner. It's a bleak way of looking at things, but sadly there's an element of truth to it.
Fuck me, I come across as a bitter cynical cunt! Oh, well.
Will we see the return of Hydrocephallus to the Adelaide stage?
AB: Hard to say. I'm at a bit of a creative dead end with Hydrocephallus, hence no recordings for a few years. Hydrocephallus is mostly improvised and I do have to be in a certain state of mind to do it, and my life has changed significantly over the last few years in ways that are not conductive to that particular state of mind. That said, never say never.