(Lyricist, guitarist, and co-vocalist Dan Barter of the Scottish band Dvne is the subject of this week’s edition of Andy Synn’s Waxing Lyrical series.)
The phenomenal Asheran, by Edinburgh Prog-Metal quartet Dvne, was, without doubt, one of the best, brightest, and most brilliant albums of 2017 (I even said so in my review), and the fact that it didn’t feature in more EOTY lists is perhaps the greatest injustice of the last decade…
All joking aside, it really is a fantastic piece of work, and one which immediately marked the group as one of the major up-and-comers of the UK scene.
So, in the hope of bringing the band’s music to a wider audience, and with the aim of learning more about the in-depth sci-fi concept(s) behind their sound, we’re pleased to publish this detailed feature from the band’s guitarist/co-vocalist Dan Barter for your edification and enjoyment.
To go back to when I first started putting down lyrics for bands…that’s like a good fifteen, nearly twenty, years ago now. I used to write lyrics for my very first band when I was a teenager… really ‘edgy’ middle class white kid stuff, and I was well in the middle of my Nu-Metal phase at that point.
I moved house a month or so ago and during the move actually found some old notepads from that band… even the heavy amounts of nostalgia couldn’t save them from the bin!
Eventually the bad suburban angst was replaced with some pretty ridiculous lyrics for various Death Metal and Grind bands, which were generally dead silly and fun and fairly easy going compared to these days.
That well-thought-out process of writing usually involved whoever was in the band sitting down together, chinning a bottle of rum or two, thinking of something appropriately offensive, picking a politician or a celebrity and combining the two (maybe with some good rhymes)… and then screaming it like fuck so no one could understand it anyway.
But yeah, fast forward from those days to Dvne, when I’m now in my 30s rather than my late teens… and things are quite different. These days things tend to be a bit more abstract and thought out.
Hopefully it comes across that way anyway!
When I joined the band, as well as playing second guitar, I was acting as the main vocalist as I’d replaced the guy that started out with them, and they’d been playing as an instrumental band for a few gigs prior to that. Victor (vocals/guitar) at that point had never really done much in the way of vocals, and with English being his second language it kind of naturally fell to me to write the majority of Progenitor.
We quickly decided we wanted it to be some sort of trippy journey of a guy’s travels through our solar system, and I’d just finished reading The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter, which contains some fairly psychedelic time travelling moments towards the end, so there’s definitely some references to that:
Past lives flash back in eruption
Time lapse of ancient visions
As you’ve probably guessed by now we take a lot of influence from various sci-fi authors, including Alistair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Iain Banks, Dan Abnett, Adrian Tchaikovsky, to drop a few names in there.
Then there’s also graphic novels, which have some awesome inspiration for the actual visuals of what we are writing about. Masamune Shirow had a huge impact on me as a kid growing up… Akira, Appleseed, New Dominion Tank Police, Ghost in the Shell… that whole cyberpunk/Neo-Tokyo vibe.
The work of Moebius I’ve only discovered more recently when Victor introduced me to him, but again, it’s fantastic, and really fits in with the whole Dvne vibe… never mind the fact he was one of the main artists (alongside HR Geiger) from the original planned Dune film by Alejandro Jodorowsky (which was unfortunately cancelled in pre-production)
For a good recommendation (as most folks have seen/read stuff by Shirow/Moebius), I recently finished the first part of Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland. Kind of a modern take on Tarkovsky’s Stalker (great film, highly recomend), set in the States but with some really cool ideas thrown in.
So yeah, I tend to try and soak up as many ideas as possible, not everything gets used but it’s cool to have those references. I used to be totally Kindle-phobic, claiming they were never as good as the ‘real thing’, but one thing that has now become indispensable to me is being able to highlight up a bit of the text I’m reading. I might not come back to it for a year or two, but it means that when it comes to lyric-writing time I basically have a pre-built library of loads of examples of wording, tone, concepts, etc., to sift through for inspiration.
Because most of the time we will have been working on the actual instrumentation first… generally with that being 90% done before we approach lyrics… the actual music of Dvne has quite a bit of influence on the ultimate tone of the lyrics.
Aurora Majesty, for example, was a pretty heavy/fast release for us compared to what we had done before (and since), so the lyrics ended up reflecting that, being very much more a space horror/action sort of theme (Aliens meets Event Horizon meets some 40k).
There wasn’t much ‘poetic’ stuff on there as it wouldn’t really have suited the tunes; parts of it literally are just describing fighting big horrible alien monsters. The whole theme to that was a very straightforward, man vs monster, good vs evil, kind of thing.
In comparison I’d say Asheran is much more grown-up. The music covers a lot more ground, with clean parts, shifts in tone, etc., and is generally a lot more progressive, so the lyrics had to change to reflect that.
The story behind the album, rather than being black-and-white, good vs bad, follows two sets of cultures, both with reasons for acting how they do, and both can be seen as right in their own ways. It’s much more of a grey area than the black-and-white approach of Aurora Majesty.
The album’s themes on ecology and industrial impact definitely lifted ideas out of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa, two films I’ve absolutely loved for years, too.
The new progressive feel has led to a more grown up way of writing. There’s definitely a point where I sat down and went “right… this bit has really nice, pretty guitars. Victor’s going to be actually singing here… so this needs a new approach.”
That’s certainly one of the big changes I had to adapt to, too. Beforehand it had pretty much been us both shouting the whole time, but Victor had managed to find this awesome singing voice for Asheran… and not only does that change the whole tonality of what you are trying to write, but you suddenly become way more self-conscious about the quality of your writing.
For the first time in 15-20 years of writing lyrics I realised people were actually going to be able to tell what it was they were saying!
Victor and Dudley also helped out on some parts where I was maybe getting a bit stuck, or had written something that then didn’t quite work when we went into the practice room to try it out. Even when singing in English, Victor still has a French accent, and it’s interesting to see how he approaches some words/phrases in a totally different way to how I’d been hearing them in my head. So it’s slowly becoming more of a combined effort.
I think for the next release we’re going to start the lyric process even earlier. Both myself and Victor have become more accomplished as vocalists after the last couple of years of touring, and we’re learning to treat the vocals as just as important an instrument as the guitars and drums. We’ve got a few initial concepts in mind, so it’ll soon be time to start getting some verses down!
Looking back, the lyrics on Progenitor certainly have some ‘interesting’ rhymes, like these from “Oscillations of Colour”:
Travelling cosmos and time
Leaving the world behind
Reaching spiritual completion
Embrace final expedition
Like, I’m not sure you can really say that ‘time’ and ‘behind’, or ‘completion’ and ‘expedition’, really rhyme… but you get what I mean.
Our earlier stuff would mostly be built around that structure too, generally four lines with rhyming pairs for a verse, repeat that for the second verse with some minor changes, and a big one line chorus.
The bigger, more prog structures of the newer material definitely prompted us to move away from that.
The lyric structure for “The Crimson Path”, for example, ended up being written as several pretty short one-line passages, and then the only actual four-line part is this really nice sequence over the clean guitars:
We hold communion for those drifting
Beacons set loose for each we lost
Crimson torch vibrant
So they won’t venture in the dark
There’s no forced rhymes, it’s all a bit more evocative, and the lines actually mix lengths rather than all being the same. That’s a big difference between the new album and Progenitor, I think. I had much more time and space to think out the patterns and melodies of parts (even if it wasn’t going to be me actually singing them).
For the first time I found myself thinking ‘hey, maybe this verse we don’t need to sing the same as the first… maybe we can change up the third line so it’s longer held notes rather than following the same pattern’. I’d say I definitely got smarter with the writing, and the whole scope just ended up being way bigger than anything we had tried before. The lyric process ended up taking weeks rather than days this time, but hopefully it really shows. I’m certainly a lot prouder of the lyrics on Asheran!
So I guess on all this I should probably finish up with a good quote, so I’ll leave you with one of my recent favourites, from Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks.
The passage is from when a Culture Mind (essentially a super advanced AI) is trying to describe the difference between its thought process and that of the humanoid it is speaking to…and trying to describe how it has had to process the horrors of war it had both seen and carried out in its past incarnations. Not only does the passage really hit home the difference between the mental capacity of the two beings — the pause/paragraph break to do that midway through is awesome pacing from a writing perspective — but is also a really interesting take on why advanced AI would be more than capable of emotional connections we traditionally only really see humanity as being able to possess.
That’s something that obviously resonates with concerns in our own society as we are slowly but surely handing over more and more control to more and more advanced forms of artificial intelligence:
“Did you know that true subjective time is measured in the minimum duration of demonstrably separated thoughts? Per second, a human might have twenty or thirty, even in the heightened state of extreme distress associated with the process of dying in pain”
The avatar’s eyes seemed to shine. It came forward, closer to his face by the breadth of a hand.
“Whereas I,” it whispered “have billions”.
“I watched those poor wretches die in the slowest of slow motion and I knew even as I watched that it was I who’d killed them, who was at that moment engaged in killing them. For a thing like me to kill one of them or one of you is a very, very easy thing to, and as I discovered, absolutely disgusting. Just as I never need wonder what it is really like to die, so I need never wonder what it is like to kill, because I have done so, and it is a wasteful, graceless, worthless and hateful thing to have to do.”