If I had a nickel for every promo that’s landed in my inbox purporting to be from a band that’s somehow redefining a genre or doing something totally unique, I could probably retire from teaching and do this wastrel music writer thing full-time. Of course, most of those emails tend to be hyperbole – pretty much everything that can be done, has been done. It may be dressed up in different packaging, but what’s inside almost always has familiar elements.
UK-based black metal outfit Lychgate, though – I’ve never heard another band that sounds even remotely like Lychgate.
For starters, pipe organ plays a prominent role in their sound. In fact, that’s pretty much all anyone wanted to talk about after the band released their second album, 2015’s An Antidote for the Glass Pill. Classically-influenced, avant garde, progressive – none of those descriptors quite do the band’s sound justice. Their lyrics are a deeply thoughtful mix of philosophy, history, and sci-fi/speculative fiction that explore various aspects of human nature.
What’s even more remarkable is that the music and lyrics are all the product of a single individual: guitarist/organist Vortigern. With their third full-length, the stunning The Contagion in Nine Steps, due at the end of the month, I had the opportunity to ask him some questions via email about the history of the band, his compositional process, and the philosophical themes behind the new album.
The Contagion in Nine Steps will be available on March 30 via Blood Music.
Indy Metal Vault: I can still remember hearing Lychgate for the first time not long after it came out in 2013 and being struck by how other it sounded compared to almost anything else that was being released at the time – it still felt firmly rooted in black metal, but it’s such a compositionally dense album even before you factor in the use of organ. In hindsight, though, Lychgate is easily your most straightforward album. Since then, Lychgate has evolved into an essentially unclassifiable musical entity, and I feel like anyone who tries to place it in one genre or another or parse the music in an attempt to pinpoint specific influences is likely missing the point. Lychgate sounds like Lychgate, full stop. My question, however, is about how Lychgate came to sound that way. I know you all play in other successful bands as well, but none of them really offer an antecedent to what you all do in this band. How clear an idea did you have of what you wanted to do musically when Lychgate first came together back in 2010? Has that idea changed at all since then?
Vortigern: What happened when I started Lychgate was that I wanted to re-kindle an old fire: there were a few pre-Lychgate demos from 2002-2006 (which will be re-released this year), and I wanted to form Lychgate basing the ideas on some old material. Shortly afterwards it became clear that what was most important to me was to think progressively, rather than regressively. I am not saying it is bad to think about the past in a “recyclic” way, but on the other hand, one might also ask, what’s the point? So, by the time I had written the Glass Pill album, I knew quite clearly what I wanted in the long-term. Deep down, Lychgate was about doing something that interested me personally. I could have played in some other bands over the years, but in the end I just didn’t want to because, as fate would have it, nothing was sufficiently different enough to engage me or excite me. Good musicianship, for example, is just not enough. There are hundreds of technically brilliant bands out there, but how many of them offer charisma or personality? That is why I always admired certain bands in black metal because the aura was so strong. But that doesn’t mean I need to follow in the same path as those other bands.
For example, in the early 90s, I loved the way that every black metal band truly did their own thing. Every band did their own interpretation on it. That is essentially what Lychgate stands for – an individual interpretation and expression on the dark side of metal. It doesn’t claim to offer “X.” I write in the way I know – what comes from my head. It’s not for a trend or fashion in the market (which will be different next year anyway). When people say “black metal should be X” or whatever else, it’s a dubious thing to say. The moment a band starts saying “our recording needs to sound like X” is partly where things go wrong in my opinion. It’s fake and contrived. And of course, I am not saying Lychgate is a black metal band at all – it isn’t, but it’s where it came from and it’s easy to notice that in the sound that remains.
IMV: The first thing I noticed when listening to The Contagion in Nine Steps for the first time is that the pipe organ seems much less prominent this time. It’s still present, but it doesn’t drive the album like it did on An Antidote for the Glass Pill. Instead, this feels much more like a guitar album. Given how much was made of the pipe organ on Glass Pill, was it a deliberate decision to step back from it a bit on the new album, or was that something that just evolved naturally during the songwriting process?
V: The Glass Pill album was breaking the rule book slightly in the organ vs. band thing from an arrangement point of view. I basically wrote the whole thing on piano and then played guitars over the top without allowing the guitars to have their own separate voice. Of course, it’s not like it’s forbidden to do such a thing, but I decided that on this album the instrumentation should allow the guitars more space to breathe and have their own separate parts. Also, when some people said the Glass Pill was organ-overkill, maybe they were right in some ways. Then again, on The Contagion there is still plenty of it, but it’s more buried in the mix. There were a few different mixes and as it turned out the final one gave preference to the guitars. For this reason, it can mean that people don’t notice the organ there and may think they are hearing something else, e.g. mellotron.
Next time we do an album I am imagining that the organ will be more prominent again, in a dramatic and dark way. I need to come back with a fresh head to the approach of giving organ more of a leading part after having done more guitar/piano-focused material first; say, on an EP release in the interim. However, it’s important to remember that there can be other factors involved, such as how to do justice to the material when playing it live. So, all things will be considered carefully.
IMV: Speaking of songwriting, I was looking at an interview you did with Decibel around the time that Glass Pill came out, and it mentioned that one member of the band writes all the music. Is that still the case on The Contagion? I’m also a bit curious as to why you’ve gone with that approach in the past. Given how complex and challenging Lychgate’s music tends to be, do you think of it more like composing than songwriting (if that makes any sense)?
V: Yes, exactly – it was the same way on The Contagion. The main reason is that I have never been able to successfully meet someone in the same area who I could work with from a compositional point of view (the exception being T. J. F. Vallely). I can think of about three or four other people in the UK that I would gladly write with, but it’s not like I would move to their town just for that reason. I don’t even live in the UK anymore. Also, I don’t like working on songwriting remotely. So, it’s normally panned out that I just did everything alone and then made some final tweaks together when we met up as a band. Obviously, if someone would like to actively share the song-writing with me in the future, that would be great, and I would be open to it if someone randomly approached me and had fresh ideas. On the other hand, as you pointed out, when music is at the more complex end of the spectrum it can be more like composing rather than songwriting, and therefore sometimes more of a lone activity.
IMV: On Lychgate’s Facebook page, you mention that you chose “Remembrance” for the first track premiere because it’s the “outro” track and sounds different from the other five track that precede it. You also stated that those six tracks are best experienced as a single piece. It’s the second part of the statement that I find interesting. I’ve spent a lot of time with The Contagion in Nine Steps over the last few weeks, and to my ears at least each song on the album feels like a discrete musical entity instead of movements within a larger piece. What is it about those six songs that make you consider them to be of a piece?
V: Honestly, it was ultimately not only our decision about which track to premiere. I normally give the label free rein on these matters, with some input of course. I agree with you; however, it was difficult to find a representative song. And for that reason of relative variety, I prefer people to listen to all of the songs together.
IMV: As near as I can recall, The Contagion in Nine Steps is the first promo I’ve ever gotten that included a document with the file name “Concise Summary of Lyrical Themes,” though interestingly enough it did not also include a lyric sheet. Of course, The Contagion isn’t Lychgate’s first philosophically themed album. If I remember correctly, An Antidote for the Glass Pill was primarily influenced by Jeremy Bentham’s writings about the panopticon. This time around, though, you’ve gone in a much more complex direction, weaving together fictional and philosophical sources ranging from Plato to Hegel to Huxley. Before delving into any of those themes, however, I want to ask the broader question about what made you decide to take this more ambitious (for lack of a better word) theoretical approach this time around? And why include the thematic guide? Does Lychgate consider it just as important (or possibly even more so) to be understood by your audience as it is to have that audience enjoy the music?
V: The Glass Pill did also draw on multiple sources by the way – not only Bentham, but also Zamyatin and Witkiewicz; both writers of fictional works which contained analogies to Bentham’s Panopticon. I would not say that the subject matter is necessarily more complex this time; only that more literary sources were referenced. Also, it’s important to remember that many references are used by implication or are stated merely as an inspiration. By the former I mean that the lyrics just scratch the surface and draw on a range of examples in order to give more variety. It is up to the person reading the lyrics to think about the themes for themselves. How deep they go into this territory is entirely up to them.
I find it unsatisfactory to deliver something without a deeper meaning. On the other hand, I do not normally find the process of lyric writing to be rewarding. Frankly, I would rather spend my time reading a book for pleasure or composing/playing my instrument. Nevertheless, it is often the case that people, or indeed the press, prefer to spend more time talking about the themes than they do the music, and for that reason I try to give people plenty of material to think about. If I didn’t, questions would come ultimately. So, why not answer them in advance?
And lastly, no. I do not find it essential to understand everything. The most important thing is to get something from the listening experience – whatever that may be. It could be a little or it could be a lot. Everyone will extract different things from it.
IMV: As for the specific themes on The Contagion in Nine Steps, I’m going to try to limit myself in terms of what I ask – otherwise, these questions run the risk of spiraling out of control. I am curious about the Nine Steps part of the title. In the thematic guide, it mentions the “approximately nine stages in European societies.” Given that Europe (obviously) has much more history than we do over here in the US, can you unpack that a bit in terms of what those stages are?
V: The number nine in the title is poetic. Everyone knows that the number of significant stages and varying types of European civilizations is much higher than that. Also, the number depends very much on what we personally deem as significant. Do we consider the collapse of the Bronze Age a step? And what do we mean by a stage or step? We can consider Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, late medieval revolts, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, WWII. The list goes on. Essentially the step is any event – normally catastrophic or extreme in its outcome on the balance of society, fed by the corrupting nature (contagion) of human consciousness, or put another way, The Contagion, which is the infection that ravages the civilization. Some might say Christianity was a spreading infection. In Lithuania, the loss of paganism occurred as late as 1387. So, for a Lithuanian person that is a step in their country. I chose the number nine because it was the closest to the number of steps that struck me as significant enough to shape the course of Europe and its fate. This arbitrary/metaphorical ninth step is the 21st century – in other words, now. It is the new face of the world that began with an acceleration in technological development. What happens in this time period? Are we approaching the next downfall? What is the fate of our own country?
IMV: I do want to ask one question about crowd psychology, since it’s a topic I’ve long found fascinating. Admittedly, I’ve not read Lem (though I have seen Tarkovsky’s film version of Solaris, if that counts for anything), but I am familiar with Plato and have long admired Hegel’s writings. I’d like to approach it from a slightly more speculative angle, though. What effect do you think that technology, and the Internet in particular, has had on crowd psychology? I’m thinking here partly in terms of the whole “flash mob” phenomenon, which seems to fit pretty comfortably in the realm of crowd psychology. At the same time, though, I’m thinking about the way the Internet has aided in the rise of certain fringe groups and helped perpetuate specious theories and/or ideas that would never have gained footing without it, which strikes me as atavistic on a certain level. Any thoughts about either? Does technology factor at all into the lyrics on The Contagion in Nine Steps?
V: The analogies to society and the human race which can be found in the works of Lem are very important. That is why I chose his novel The Invincible as the backbone to the entire theme. I allude to technology in The Contagion partly by the idea of micro-machines in the said novel – the idea of necro-evolution: the dominance of tiny machines – colossal in number and in power. Individual intelligence in them is lacking, but en masse the micromachines are all powerful and triumph over their enemy. It is not as simple as this of course, because in some respects the conclusions of the book have similarities to Solaris. For example, our fear and thus hostility as a human race about or towards things we do not understand.
This question about the Internet is difficult to answer. Every time I try to begin answering it I am forced to reflect on how ideas used to spread amongst the crowd throughout history and have to ask if it is essentially the same thing that we observe now, but just in new guise. It seems that the Internet has allowed certain ideas to spread which in earlier times probably wouldn’t have had such a major outreach. On the other hand, it has allowed a kind of status quo to dominate and remain in power, or in other cases given rise to certain ideas which spread extremely rapidly. Am I expected to believe that Google are not suppressing certain things from being seen in search results? No. Am I expected to believe that certain news articles get more views than others without intervention and bribery? No. Are certain ideas more inflexible in society than they formerly were? Maybe. However, I tried also to view these phenomena through the lens of sociodynamics, e.g. Critical Mass.
The problem with all this is that because it’s so new, it’s dangerous to make statements about it. For example, I can see that there has been a change in people, but I dare not say what yet. And whilst I try to avoid the term “brainwashing,” I feel obliged to use it here. I think that crowd psychology has been molded by it in a new direction, which may have an ugly side, which coincides perfectly with a few trends. In other words, there are certain things that have happened all at once. We have to ask ourselves if it is a coincidence. I will not be specific here. Ask yourself: what new things did you notice in the Western world in the last 20 years from a sociological and psychological point of view? I leave with you this thought.
IMV: According to the liner notes, The Contagion in Nine Steps was recorded in parts in two different studios and one conservatory. If I’m not mistaken, there are also more guest appearances on this album than any previous Lychgate record as well. Was there ever any point during the writing or recording process where all of the principal performers on the album where in the same room? Did recording the album this way pose any unique challenges you may not have been expecting?
V: In short, no. In fact, there were never more than two of us at a time in the studio. I think this method is quite a common thing these days. Part of me likes the idea of the “good old days” when it would really be “the band” in the studio, but with Lychgate there probably wouldn’t be much point and it’s also not realistic anyway. It can even be a nuisance. The only benefit of more people being around is in order to give an opinion in the creative process. The challenges were more just about the difficulty of some of the parts.
IMV: I’ve developed an interest recently in the relationship between an album’s music and the cover art. The image that adorns The Contagion in Nine Steps is more than a little unsettling, and really does seem to line up well with the lyrical themes. How closely did you work with Michel Guy on the concept for the art?
V: Basically, I gave him a sketch of my idea and told him the themes, then he went away and came up with that. It’s not quite what I had imagined, but I was pleased with the output. All his work looks unsettling – often tormented and strange. He’s a talented artist for sure.
IMV: So what’s next for the band after the album drops on March 30? Lychgate doesn’t seem to do a lot of touring, and as near as I can tell you’ve never been on this side of the pond. Any chance of that changing with this album cycle?
V: We will plan some live dates, but not immediately. I think it’s entirely possible that appearances in the USA will follow. It’s something we will look into. Understandably it often comes down to who we should tour with and this can in itself be a hindering factor.
IMV: Thanks again for being willing to answer some questions. I always like to leave the last word to the artist – anything else you’d like to add?
V: Thank you for a stimulating interview.