Who was sober enough to remember Rebecca Vernon DJing at Roadburn 2016’s Bitches Brew in the wee hours of Saturday morning?… Here she discusses the conceptual core of SubRosa’s new album titled For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, which will be released on August 26th on Profound Lore. The experimental doom band from Salt Lake City has definitely delivered one of its most ambitious projects to date.
I think that given the epic lengths of the new songs, it is safe to say that the album is based on a narrative or concept. Could you elaborate on that?
Yes, you are completely right. The album is based on a book called We, an old sci-fi/dystopian novel written in the 1920s, by Yevgeny Zamayatin, a Russian political dissident. All the songs have to do directly with We or indirectly with its themes. Most of the songs of the album were structured to be reminiscent of an opera or symphony in order to capture some of that narrative feeling with different movements within songs depicting different emotions within a topic, or even specific scenes in the book We. We’ve never really written music from that angle before, and it was a really fun challenge.
The key words of ‘Despair Is A Siren’ are “The earth is shifting like a plate, my skin doesn’t fit anymore” while you see “bars of a cage”, which juxtaposes change and stasis/imprisonment at the same time. How does that interrelate with the title of the song?
The verses and choruses in “Despair is a Siren” represent the journey of the main character of We, D-503. The dreamy verses represent the easy innocence that D-503 lived in as a citizen of OneState run by a government that controls their citizens’ every move. He bought into the government’s narrative without question. The choruses represent his gradual dawning awareness that something is very wrong with his life, when he crosses paths with the revolutionary woman I-330. The awakening is very painful for him.
When I first wrote the lyrics, “siren” meant just a regular siren, like the siren of an ambulance, calling through the night as it speeds onto the next tragedy – a symbol for the pain of self-awareness. But one day it hit me that “siren” could also refer to the sirens of Greek tragedy, which led sailors to their death – a great symbol for I-330. So that is my subconscious working overtime, I guess. Either way, about this kind of despair, I believe Lord Byron said it best when he said, “Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most/must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth,/The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.” (I first saw this quote in some Thou/The Body album art while I was writing the album).
‘Wound Of The Warden’ draws apocalyptic images with children that “step into the fire”, a shepherd or warden figure as well “one mistake”, possibly the last. Do you refer to a personal end or something terminal for the world as such?
It is a reference to something terminal/general rather than personal. In “Wound of the Warden,” the children that step into the fire are rejecting the shepherd/warden who is the main narrator of the song. He promises a life of ease and contentment, but ultimate emptiness, as his followers must hand over their freedom in order to experience this suffocating “benevolence.” The children declare they will take their free will into their own hands and leave the garden, so to speak, to find their way, to risk total failure, pain and heartbreak but also, perhaps, to encounter true happiness.
‘Il Cappio’ is the noose in Italian, and the lyrics are something along the lines “no more power to defend like a marionette”, so we have resignation here – why so with respect to a musical interlude?
“Il Cappio” was actually designed to be the prelude to “Killing Rapture.” Not to really be part of the song, but simply to precede it. It is a short rumination on love that sets the stage for the questions raised in “Killing Rapture.”
‘Killing Rapture’ as in “the rapture of killing” or “to kill the feeling of rapture”?
It refers to “to kill the feeling of rapture.” I didn’t realize it could sound like “the rapture of killing,” but now I do, haha. The song is told from the point of view of OneState, the government of We, who is congratulating itself on ending the “mess” of centuries of humans making their own decisions about reproduction and child-rearing. In “We,” all these decisions are in the hands of the government.
‘Troubled Cells’ ends the album on an if not lighter, than at least not oppressing but rather melancholy mood. What’s the concluding line?
The entire album is a series of ironic questions about the nature of freedom versus control. Is it better for everyone to lose their freedom for the greater good of society, for everyone to be safe? One of my favorite lines from We is “Zero freedom equals zero crime.” No one can argue with that! But there is a greater hell than a world of crime, and that is a world where no one is able to choose to live their life the way they want to live it. “Troubled Cells” is the turning point of the album, as the song asserts that individual happiness trumps the collective good. It is only on the individual level that happiness can be sensed and felt (The outro, “Key of the Eidolon,” that appeared on the Decibel Flexidisc, is a fuller answer to the questions raised on the album.)
Can we relate the album title “For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages” to the origination of the songs? Was it a heavy birth, so to say?
Haha … actually, yes. This has been the hardest SubRosa album to write so far. Every album seems harder to write than the last. You’d think it would get easier, but it is the opposite for us! I think that’s because we push ourselves harder with each album. We are always trying to improve, to challenge ourselves, to not repeat ourselves.
I also had a huge bout of writer’s block in the writing of this album. There were about eight months where I really struggled to come up with ideas and, as usual, I wrote countless riffs that were mediocre or total trash and needed to be thrown out. The band pushed themselves individually to come up with the best parts they could. Then next came the endless editing, rewriting and rearranging. So yes, this album was a “heavy birth” that took a tremendous amount of effort and focus individually and collectively over the course of about a year to accomplish.
Do you see Subrosa as a stable band now, or does it remain a collective, an ever-shifting entity both in terms of music and personnel?
I think SubRosa has the most stable lineup we have ever had now, in our 10-year history. Everyone in the band is very focused, very dedicated, and is willing to work hard and make sacrifices in their life to be in SubRosa. I don’t want members to leave SubRosa, but when they do, we have to adjust and find a way to continue. I would prefer for this current lineup to remain the same and to not ever change!
The cover shows a woman with a lyre, kind of a symbol for poets and thinkers; what’s the background here?
Glyn Smyth used the symbol of the lyre on the cover because it is a motif of decadent/symbolist art, which is a movement that influenced the art of the album, and as Glyn put it, lyres are “often associated with sorrow, tragedy or longing.” Glyn thought of depicting a female playing a violin or organ, but then decided on the lyre. He made this decision before he heard “Il Cappio,” the track on the album which features a lyre. So that was a bit of synchronicity.
The flexi disc song ‘Key Of The Eidolon’ for Decibel is the album’s outro, an integral part of it, so why leave it out? Would it not be appropriate to give it a proper release not just on bad sounding plastic?
Well, we wanted to include “Key of the Eidolon” on the album, but putting it on the album would have pushed the total album playing time past the 70-minute mark (when we first wrote it, “Key of the Eidolon” was a 7- or 8-minute song, as I recall). This would have started compromising the audio quality of the vinyl, and just made for an obnoxiously long album. The Decibel Flexidisc was a great way to release the outro exclusively, and would create an interesting scenario to release the outro of the album before the rest of the album! Eventually, perhaps we will give it its own release, but for now, people can stream it live from the Decibel website, here: http://decibelmagazine.com/blog/2016/6/15/subrosa-unveil-new-track-key-of-the-eidolon-via-decibel-flexi-series.