(Andy Synn returns with another episode in his series on metal lyrics, and today we have answers from Nathanael Underwood, lyricist/vocalist/guitarist of the UK death metal band Dāmim, whose latest album was released in June of this year.)
To quote my own review, the new record from Progressive Death Metal maestros Dāmim is “an album that doesn’t just stand on the shoulders of giants, but is more than capable of standing right alongside them.”
And since I’m such a fan of their new album, not to mention the fact that I’m going to be playing a short run of shows alongside them next month, I thought it was high time we heard from frontman Nathanael Underwood about what exactly it is that makes the band’s difference engine tick.
To some extent I started out of a need for phrase shapes to work as a skeleton for vocals. In other words there was never really anyone else who put lyrics forward!
“Necessity is the mother of inversion” as they say.
When I first began to contemplate bringing words together in order to have something to put to music the majority of Metal lyrics were not necessarily the most sophisticated.
Barring a few exceptions they were often formulaic, disjointed, limited in terms of the themes they explored, vocabulary they used. It is not particularly difficult to find cool sounding words to blurt out and simply fill in any gaps to paint a bleak, sometimes quite effective picture that don’t always make sense.
Also, not every lyricist is proficient in the de-facto heavy metal Lingua Franca, resulting in many memorable examples of what is known in some circles as “metalenglish”.
Sepultura‘s “The Past Reborns The Storms” which later became “From The Past Comes The Storms” is a case in point, although obviously Sepultura were writing in what was to them a foreign language!
As a teenager, the lyrics I settled on tended to conform to the established motif(s). However I soon realised that death and thrash clichés strung together do not make for compelling lyrics!
Meanwhile, what I had been doing all along and for as long as I could remember was capturing thoughts evoked by existence and experiences. It took a certain amount of confidence to bring together the output from this existing process and the need for lyrics.
Another obstacle is that, once you have a single piece of writing which you have worked into a state which you find particularly coherent, this does not necessarily entirely correspond to what a song needs in rhythmical and musical terms.
Pulling existing texts apart to suit the needs of a piece of music was initially difficult. I eventually learnt to capture thoughts using an approach more mindful of the intended destination and less inhibited by perceived expectation.
With regards to lyric contributions from other members, while musical ideas seem to be brought forward quite naturally, actually handing over some thoughts you have shaped into words is another thing altogether.
While I do know of certain dynamics where the vocalist and lyricist are different people, the idea of making someone else’s words your own still strikes me as alien.
Writing lyrics is an involved process that can take up to seven weeks. You will need a quill, some parchment, a scrying mirror, copious amounts of rock salt, five live chickens, a locked room and, of course, a large bucket…
On a more serious note, the process of writing lyrics is therapeutic to a large extent.
I often write about what bothers me or if I come across a new conceptual connection that might have remained hidden until then. I connect them. Mix them around. See what else arises as a result. Build on that. Tie the threads back to the original themes. Trying to express the ineffable.
I usually don’t have to look very far: chaos stabilises in unpredictably coherent ways.
It is a fairly well documented experience that the creative process requires the mind to be fed with inspiring materials to macerate, digest, and reflect on without conscious intervention.
Sometimes the power of unusual word shapes penned by others who have a way with language is inspiring of itself in terms of creating your own evocations. It certainly doesn’t have to come from lyrics. In fact, I would tend to favour lyrical turns in prose, or prose-like shapes within verse.
Think about the grimness of some of Ted Hughes‘ work, the morbid musings on the mundane of Will Self, or the bone-dry understated fury and shocking juxtapositions Jonathan Meades has come to be known for.
Of course, there’s another underappreciated aspect – it has to sound cool!
You want to be the vocalist because those shapes and rhythmic patterns woven with words are second to none when it comes to taking a sonic work to the level of the transcendent.
Why are certain songs so infectious while others fall flat? It’s all about the rhythmic interplay of vocal patterns and the motifs established by the rest of the band.
Whether you’re playing caveman death or the most intricate, dynamic nexus of genres, your output will suffer if you fail to incorporate this into your work.
Feeding your mind with raw material is one thing. But seizing the thoughts they generate as they occur is the real key. When concepts are intimated, they must be formed into phrases and word shapes that adequately capture the fleeting perception of insight.
Think of it as hyper-geometry moving through perceptible reality, hinting at the true nature of its existence as it morphs. The projection protrudes into this reality and the results of these touch-points need to be collected consistently before they vanish.
I will often end up with pages upon pages of writing, which almost always require re-writing, re-ordering, and re-formulating. Some of these might already have a shape that syncopates nicely with a riff or two, and certain sections that best reflect the feel of a piece of music will then be matched if possible.
Much will remain on the cutting floor and further material will have to be generated to coherently fill in any gaps, and this part of the process is very much shaped by physical factors such as vocal range, lung capacity and general endurance when it comes to sustaining a particular style.
Another important point is that if you play an instrument at the same time as performing vocals, the instrument must be nowhere near most of the vocal composition process, especially when you’re finalising a particular song, as there is a certain propensity to make a rhythmic component of the vocal part interesting that is inhibited by your natural tendency to play the track.
No matter how good you are, what you come up with will be more engaging if you write parts as a vocalist first and foremost. If the result is effective, but happens to be complicated and challenging, that is a learning experience forcing you out of your comfort zone.
The classic blank that invariably follows this kind of question, even with a decent music catalogue, is surprisingly difficult to counter with actual examples of lyrics I consider great or even above average. Of course, as soon as this article is finished I will think of about five different examples almost instantly…
With some exceptions, I tend to favour lyricists who are comfortable with expression beyond the baggage of the approved, established formula. As a movement progresses, the features that would once have been idiosyncratic become stylistic reference points, and the aesthetic requires more pioneers to further push the envelope.
I am not here to herd any sacred cows to the slaughterhouse, but Metal in its earlier development was fairly one-dimensional in its choice of subjects (and gauche in the exploration of them).
I’ve always liked the idiosyncratic approach of Carcass, using wordplay that enhances or subverts familiar idioms and phrases. Many of the songs paint a novel picture using words and turns of phrase that derive their power from the fact that they deviate from the book of approved cliches by contrasting deliberately incongruous concepts and actually engaging your brain.
Then there is the consideration I alluded to earlier, the idea that it is the entire work that matters, as opposed to a clever line or an individual lyric. Just as an interesting riff or a virtuoso solo does not make a memorable song, it is the piece as a whole that makes for a truly worthwhile result.
One example I appreciate, regardless of how painfully overplayed it might be, is “Sad But True”. It’s got a great arc, an interesting twist on the topic of evil (poignantly emphasised by the music) and every element works towards the overall result which is incredibly effective.
One reason the Black Album became such an overplayed cliché is its absolute and universal effectiveness.
Another example of simplicity put to great effect is Godflesh’s “Life Is Easy”.
Simplistic in its approach to the point of near absurdity when read on its own, but the outcome couldn’t be any more effective or unquestionably bleak.
Effective and meaningful simplicity is far more challenging than many seem to realise.
The process has gone from a clumsy fumble in the dark assembling readily available, ill-fitting pieces, to a protracted, frenetic battle with raw materials, using the remnants of successively destroyed iterations to build a final chaotic yet coherent construction, that evokes radically different ideas or emotions depending on the angle from which it is inspected.
I tend to aim for a hypergeometric lyrical kaleidoscope.
It is also true for any entire work and therefore for lyrics that, once the work that you are happy with is complete, once you are on the other side of the act of creation, you are bemused by what you have brought into existence.
You have no idea how you really did it, and even if you were there, you don’t really know where to start the next time you try.
Once you have done this a few times, you learn to trust the “method” if there is such a thing. The main factor is learning confidence and trust in your own sense of aesthetics.
Another thing to have absolute faith in is that if something is truly worth playing or creating or playing now, this will be true in ten, twenty or even a hundred years’ time. Don’t discard anything because it is old or tune yourself exclusively to the zeitgeist – that’s the best way to make something that will eventually sound dated.
Generally speaking, lyrics that fall into the trap of speaking in absolutes to add drama also tend to come across as lazy, often missing the target and landing squarely in meaningless over-dramatic territory. The same kind of sentiment applies to word shapes cobbled together with excessive use of either first or second person, as an attempt at involving the listener.
This is something I generally try to avoid, but maybe something I was less aware of in my formative years.
SOMETHING OLD / SOMETHING NEW…
That is tough. I don’t like explaining my lyrics because, cliché as this may sound, they are better at explaining themselves in their own way than I would ever be.
Furthermore I’m not sure any lyrics should ever be examined under the microscope in this manner. Do you remember the last time you had to explain our translate a convoluted joke to someone who had none of the background knowledge or experience to make the humour work?
No matter how great the lyrics to a song may be, the simple act of turning said song and lyrics into legible text instantly makes this come across as ineffective, obvious, clumsy nonsense.
It is incredibly difficult to bring myself to even analyse a lyric or set enough to be able to begin explaining where it comes from. There’s also the difficulty I experience in actually defining the background of any lyric with real certainty. I can provide you with my interpretation, but Schrodinger’s lyric means a number of possible things until you try to pin it down.
If I try to think of an example I really do find myself thinking that the subject is either overly esoteric, or something I would prefer the listener to explore themselves.
Did I mention this was tough? Maybe I can pick a section and demonstrate how there is always a multitude of concurrent ways to unravel it.
Here is a sample from the beginning of “All I Want To Know Is How It Ends”:
Melting their flesh like sand and wax, returned to dust
Devouring as this portal grew
Nightmares fire the imagination
Mysterious force injects the herd into the bowels of our beasts
The image about flesh melting like sand and wax was an attempt to put into words an experience lived through a dream wherein the dreamworld protagonists blithely trigger a singular event that unleashes a hitherto hidden godlike destructive anger, undoing of the fabric of the universe.
As the fissure expands, racing through space-time, it consumes everything that stands in its path leaving behind a disintegrated stream of ash in every direction, past, present and future.
Given my dream state, it was possible for me to perceive that the apocalyptic void was absolute and affected everything it came into contact with at a fundamental existential level that transcended any notions of familiar logic bound by the frayed rules of human reason.
A further note on dreams: there is a dream country that I often visit. Every time I visit this place, I am aware that I am visiting the same realm, even though I have yet to visit the same part of this land more than once, or visit one that I actually recognise from a prior journey.
I can trace this back to my earliest memories. In other words, the events described in “All I Want To Know Is How It Ends” occur in the same realm as those I refer to in “No God With Me”.
Within the sordid winter in my mind
Diesel nausea, a sick sun never sets.
Beyond the gleaming liquid karmic flaws
Demons wait at crossroads.
This dream featured a literal permanent low winter sun, which imparted the reality with an inescapable sense of sickness evocative of the sensation caused by inhaling diesel fumes.
There were literal demons waiting at crossroads with nefarious intentions that I could sense at the time.
The line “Nightmares fire the imagination” touches on the human characteristic that allows us to conceptualise and build everything that we endeavour, spurred by our innermost existential terrors, ultimately one of the tools that allow us to transcend mere genetics and instinct.
What drives us to act and move forward are also sublimated urges we often barely understand, echoes of our ancestral animal past that lurk in the shadows, within our nightmares.
Into the bowels of the meta-beasts of civilisation we go… or is it the herds of nightmares that are injected into the human animal beasts that we harbour within us?
Probably both at the very least.
I genuinely think that the UK (as well as Ireland) has not been in this good a shape for a long time as far as sonic extremity is concerned.
There are too many artists to exhaustively list within the scope of this kind of platform, but let’s go with Cryptic Shift, Zealot Cult, Abduction, Crimson Throne, From The Bogs Of Aughiska, Necronautical, The Infernal Sea, Corpsing, Vehement, Shrines, Sufferer, Voices, Terra, and absolutely the superlative Agonyst (The Bad Old Days is a masterpiece).
Stateside I don’t have too many leads, but Lord Mantis are rearing their head again with a new album and definitely Locistellar from Seattle. Their EP (for which I may even have written some lyrics) is available via locistellar.com.
Aside from that, go and listen to A Fine Game Of Nil (https://orcd.co/damim) right now if you haven’t done so already. As far as venturing into new territory, we really pushed the boat out (as my friend Giuseppe would say) and Neil Kernon did a magnificent job mixing it.
If any of the above musings have piqued your interest, be sure to peruse some of our lyrics in both A Fine Game Of Nil and The Difference Engine.
Damim are on tour with Hour of Penance in December:
10/12 – Leeds, Temple of Boom
11/12 – Nottingham, The Angel
12/12 – London, Nambucca
13/12 – Brighton, The Green Door Store