(In this episode of WAXING LYRICAL, Andy Synn interviews himself, in his capacity as lyricist/vocalist of the UK band Beyond Grace.)
Those of you who know me well – and even some of those who don’t know me that well – will probably be aware of my love of words. That’s partially the reason I write for NCS after all, to share and communicate my thoughts and ideas through writing. It’s also why I wanted to make this column a regular thing, because I know a lot of writers and lyricists feel the same way, and put a lot of thought and effort (and depth) into their work, which often goes unappreciated.
Today’s edition, which I’m shamelessly hijacking for my own purposes, is a bit of a special one, as it’s precisely one year since the release of our debut album, Seekers, and we’ve decided to commemorate this by unveiling a brand new (ish) version of “Demiurge”, featuring guest vocals by Adam Cook of A Hill To Die Upon, which can be downloaded for free from our Bandcamp page right now.
So if you’d like to check this out, and learn more about the way I write (for Beyond Grace at least) then please, click on!
Ok, so… where to start? As I said above, I’ve always loved words, always been a voracious reader (something which I have my parents to thank for), and always loved writing as an extension of that. So it only seemed natural for me to try my hand at writing lyrics when I first decided that being in a band was the thing for me. Of course my earliest efforts were absolutely dire, extremely derivative and just generally uninspired, and I’m actually pretty glad that, for the most part, they’ve been buried, burned, and digitally excised as they were just embarrassingly bad in hindsight.
Thankfully (or, at least, hopefully) I’ve gotten a lot better since then, and have learned a lot from studying bigger and better writers (both in Metal, in music, and elsewhere), both in terms of composition and delivery and emotional content.
Like I said above, I still read petty voraciously. Mostly fiction, but occasionally I’ll also dabble in an interesting biography, or a bit of philosophy… comics, news articles, op-eds… basically I just like to keep my brain busy all the time. Same thing with TV and movies. Anything that shows a bit of creativity and tries to communicate something. In all honesty I’m just a pretentious pop-culture nerd who steals all his best ideas from other writers!
As part of that I’m always noting down or bookmarking interesting lines or phrases from whatever I’m reading or watching, and always have a heap of different song ideas on the go at any one time, in various different stages of completion. Of course most of them don’t make the final cut, but having a variety of options means I can try fitting different ideas and themes to the songs as they’re written, to see what feels right.
In terms of inspirations, “Oracle” (the video for which you can check out here) is about people’s tendency to ignore information which contradicts their beliefs, no matter the consequences of that, while “Altars (of Avarice)” was written after a weekend trip to Vegas which, while enjoyable, was certainly a real eye-opener (particularly just in terms of all the people watching and all the overheard conversations).
More specifically, “Apoptosis” (video here) ended up using some lines taken directly from Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation… used with permission, of course… after I became disillusioned with the original lyrics I had written, and was searching for a new source of inspiration. I’d already read the novel (and its follow-ups) once already, but on re-reading it I really got a sense of how the lyrical flow of Jeff’s words would fit perfectly with the track. And, thankfully, he was very much into it, and made sure we had all our legal angles covered so that there wouldn’t be any issues with us taking excerpts from the book for our own use.
“Black Math Ritual” takes its title from Nymphomation by Jeff Noon, partially just because I thought it was a great phrase and partially because some of the underlying themes of the book fit with what I already had written (though it didn’t have a proper chorus until this point), while the title of “The Etherealist” comes from the pulp fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Then, obviously, “Omega Point” takes its inspiration (and name) directly from the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and features my own attempts to combine/reconcile both science and spirituality, which I suppose is probably the underlying theme of the entire album.
In terms of specific influences on the way in which I write lyrics there’s probably a LOT of names I could pick out and give credit too, but there’s a handful of artists who I can definitely say have had a pretty direct impact on the way in which I wrote (if not really the what).
The dark poetry of Warrell Dane (RIP) from Nevermore, for example, is something which has always captivated me, ever since I stumbled across the band in the Dead Heart… days.
He just had such a distinctive (and often devastating) way of combining complex storytelling with a visceral sense of emotion. The opening couplet to “The River Dragon Has Come”, for example, always sticks out in my mind:
Today the warning came in the flood
Architects and fools never cared for poor men’s blood
And, speaking of storytelling, I’ve always considered Slug from Atmosphere to be a consummate storyteller, and I’ve definitely taken some influence from his delivery – throwing in half-rhymes, or quarter-rhymes, or little callbacks mid-line, using rhythm in place of rhyme to establish a hook, etc – over the years.
And, of course, John Henry of Darkest Hour has always been a major influence, as he’s someone who just spits passion with every line he utters, yet also has a brilliant way with words and a great knack for delivering big, memorable hooks that never lack for either style or substance.
There’s so many more I could name to be honest (Tim Williams from Vision of Disorder, Peter Espevoll of Extol, and Peter Tägtgren of Hypocrisy all immediately spring to mind) but we’ll be here all day if I don’t draw a line somewhere!
Hopefully (fingers crossed) I’ve improved quite a lot since my earliest efforts. Of course I still constantly edit and rewrite my lyrics all the time (something which my bandmates find a little infuriating, as sometimes a song title will change, or get switched to a different track, in between practices… which, understandably, can get a little confusing), but now a big part of that is me trying to find different and more distinctive ways to deliver what I’m trying to say.
I’m trying to avoid the same old rhyme schemes, the same patterns of delivery, so that the way in which the lines are delivered is just as important and just as distinctive as the content of the lines themselves.
I’ve always felt that putting the final lyrics down on a track inevitably involves some sort of compromise between the message and the medium. There’s only so much space in a song and this means you have to pick and choose what you want to say very carefully (although there are definitely some vocalists who just try and pack as many words in as possible every time, without any real consideration for flow or meter).
It ends up being a balancing act between what you’re trying to say, and how you actually want to say it. And I think that’s why a lot of songs end up being a bit more generic or generalised than they were initially intended. Because, as you edit and prune your lyrics down, looking for the right tone, the right structure, the right delivery, you inevitably have to jettison some stuff, and often what remains are just the core concepts, and not necessarily the specific nuances, which you initially wanted to communicate.
Anyway, I’m rambling a little here, but let’s just say that’s something in particular I’ve been trying to improve on, trying to find a way of communicating the central message of what I’m talking about, without losing the subtlety or nuance in the process.
I decided to pick “Invasive Exotics” off our debut EP Monstrous for two reasons:
- I actually think the lyrics to this one hold up pretty well (though there’s still a few bits and pieces I’d spruce up or rework given the opportunity).
- I really want to re-record it, and have been trying really hard to convince the other guys to go for it, as I think it would sound massive with better production (and, let’s be honest, some better performances from all of us).
So, anyway, the term “Invasive Exotics” refers to an influx of non-native species into an environment, usually in a negative and/or destabilising way. And I thought that not only was this an extremely striking title (whenever I’m working on a song title I always ask myself “how would I feel announcing this onstage?”), but it was also a great jumping off point to discuss our knee-jerk reaction to the “other”, to anything that’s different or which appears threatening, to whit:
We always fear, what we don’t understand
Desperate to control, what we cannot comprehend
Of course I didn’t just want to pontificate or sermonise, I wanted to tell a story, open up a few potential angles of interpretation, and make things a little ambiguous, for anyone who was actually paying attention to what I’m yelling about, hence some of the lines are phrased one way – “Divide, and conquer, cast your bread upon the water” (with a bit of biblical allegory thrown in for good measure) – and are intended to build up one interpretation, only for this to be (purposefully) undercut by the chorus, which is probably my favourite part of the song:
It’s only human nature, to try and fight the future
And hold on to the power that we’ve claimed
And yet when all is said and done, when all of our battles have been won
Look at how far we have fallen, look at what monsters we’ve become
Ok, so I guess this isn’t strictly “new”… in fact it’s precisely one year old today… but since the version of the track which you can hear below (and download on a “Pay what you want” basis from our Bandcamp) is an alternate variant, with guest vocals from Adam Cook of A Hill To Die Upon, I’m going to count it anyway!
“Demiurge” is one of the tracks which a lot of people (understandably) interpret as coming from a religious point of view. Heck, the very first line is:
I am he who is called “I Am”, the architect and the maker
However the truth is much more complicated than that.
For one thing, although I was raised in a pretty liberal Catholic background, I’m actually not religious at all these days (I’m either an atheist or an agnostic, if you really want to put a label on it, though neither of those two terms really seems to capture it for me).
However I do find religious language, Christian or otherwise, to be intriguing, as it has such history behind it and has seeped into (and also been co-opted) by our culture in so many ways. In fact I find the whole concept of religion, as a man-made creation and something which reflects humanity’s need for structure, order, and narrative, as a way of making sense of the world, to be fascinating, and often like to use lines and themes and references from religion as a short-cut to draw on well-established concepts, and then subvert them for my own use.
Case in point, that first line is quickly followed by the phrase “mine is the guiding hand, I am my own creator”, which is one of the most important lines in the whole song, as although it initially seems to reinforce the impression given by the opener, in context of the next part:
I need no myths or legends, to explain my presence on this earth
No promised hell or heaven to justify my worth
It takes on a whole new meaning. Like I said in the previous section, I am a big fan of setting the listener up with one idea, only to then make them re-evaluate this as the song unfolds. Even the title can be interpreted differently depending on how different parts of the lyrics influence your perception.
I will reveal one fun little tidbit though: The central “I RULE ME” refrain is taken directly from Si Spurrier’s fantastic run on X-Men: Legacy, where the central character, David Haller (aka Legion) uses this “simple mantra” as a way of centering himself and regaining some control over the chaos caused by his multiple personalities and almost overwhelming power levels.
It’s a fantastic comic from start to finish, and I fully recommend reading the entire run if/when you get chance, but there was just something about the way this particular section was written, the determination to not be ruled by fate, or destiny, or any of that crap, that spoke to me, and so I decided to make this, and the declaration that “I dictate my own reality” (which, again, fits nicely with the wider conception of the “Demiurge”) the fulcrum of the whole song.
Hopefully I did the idea justice, and Mr Spurrier won’t mind me piggybacking on his work a little!
Well, in closing, I guess I’d like to say thank-you to everyone who’s been supportive of what we’ve done as part of Beyond Grace — whoever and wherever you are – and I hope that you’ll stick around going forwards to see what we have in store next.
Speaking of, we should have a brand new song (which will be the first taste of our new, as-yet-untitled, second album) out in September, which has a very cool core concept, and a very cool title (drawn from the One Thousand and One Nights collection of Arabian folk tales).
Hopefully this should also have an accompanying lyric video (and a brand new, and very awesome, t-shirt design) to go with it, as it’s another song where the lyrics and vocal hooks are a key part of the whole equation.
Other than that, we have a few UK shows booked in for September/October, and are currently looking to book in some more shows for our European run with Koronal at the end of October… as well as a potential run of dates in the USA next year… so if anyone can help out with that, we’d very much appreciate the assist!
And, of course, huge thanks to Islander and the rest of the NCS crew for putting up with me all these years. I wouldn’t be where I am, or who I am, without their constant support and/or snarky commentary.