With LP #2 nearly here, we explore the audiovisual ends of their warlike new endeavor.
Words by Luis (@luis.hoa):
Of all the regional hotspots across the U.S., the Bay Area has never seemed to take their foot off the gas. One need only look towards the recent discographies of underground labels like Tankcrimes, Sentient Ruin Laboratories, Nuclear War Now! Productions, and The Flenser to name a few, all of who have remained steadfast in their delivery of hard-hitting, forward-thinking composition. Hailing from The Flenser themselves are Succumb, a boundless unit brought together by a likeminded love for war metal, grind, death metal, and all things extreme, as evident in every unfolding layer that presents itself throughout their craft.
In exactly a week, the band look to follow-up their highly touted self-titled (2017) debut with XXI, a sophomore effort of uncompromising terror. With a mystifying cover by French Stefan Thanneur, XXI presents itself with elegance only to batter you in from the get go with opener Lilim resembling a barrage in every sense of the word. There's no atmospheric openers or interludes or preludes or shit of that sort here, just pure unbridled hell. However, it would be dismissive to simply tag it as a fast or aggressive record given that there's so much more transpiring with every passing second. Guitarist Derek Webster, vocalist Cheri Musrasrik, bassist Kirk Spaseff, and drummer Harry Cantwell all shine with their own musical intricacies and have it all come together into one uniform listening experience. Every blast, every blood-curling scream, every resounding bass line and riff coalesce what could very well be considered one of this year's best death metal releases so far, and even then, tagging it as merely death metal would be doing it a disservice. In short, look beyond the surface level and let it swallow you whole. Hell awaits on September 24th via The Flenser.
We welcome the band's own Derek Webster to a conversation on their partnership with artist Stefan Thanneur for two subsequent full-lengths, their musical intentionality, camaraderie, and all things XXI:
A lot has obviously happened since the ‘self-titled’ and you’ve all grown as musicians and as people in your own respects over the years. That much is evident as I wrap up my third playthrough of the new record, which truly amplifies the complexities and overall compositional variety. That said, what were you looking to achieve with ‘XXI’, for your own creative ambitions but for the significance of the record as a whole?
Webster: With this second album, we wanted to ramp up everything that we’ve been doing, especially the complexity. For myself personally, I wanted to better execute the vision that we had on the first album. We did have sort of an idea for what we wanted to do on the ‘self titled’, but we were still getting used to each other as musicians, so we just kind of went for it and jumped in the studio very hastily. If I’m being completely forthright with you and after seeing the positive reception from the first album, it kind of shook me a little bit. I thought to myself, “Damn, I have to step it up on the next album.”
On this one, I wanted to better blend my influences. When it comes to writing for Succumb, it’s nothing more than a love letter to all of my influences. If people think that it comes off as something unique and original, then that’s great. To me, it’s just hero worship in a way, with our own personal spin on it of course. As you’ve probably experienced from listening to ‘XXI’, we wanted to create an experience that was intense and straight to your face. We upped our grindcore roots in there. On the first one, I was very much influenced by bands like Impetuous Ritual, Portal, stuff like that. It’s still pretty evident on this one, but we try to find our own voice a little more here.
As folks have heard from the various singles so far, the varied influences are there and the layers invested within it really shine. It’s not technical or dissonant for the sake of being so, it’s all concise and seamlessly integrated into one easy flowing composition. Touching back on the response for the debut, which arrived on The Flenser to great acclaim, would you say that the Bay Area as a metal community played a role in the development of yourself as a musician and really the development of Succumb as one of metal’s standout underground acts?
Webster: I grew up in San Jose and I’ve been listening to metal since I was 9. I started going to shows when I was 15. I think in this album in particular, something that I sort of integrated a little bit more in terms of Bay Area influence was the early 2000’s Unique Leader scene of Decrepit Birth, Severed Savior, Disgorge, Deeds of Flesh, and stuff like that. That all plays a huge role in my DNA as a musician. I’m intensely proud of the fact that this type of music is so influential around the world and it came directly from the California death metal scene. It’s personally still very influential to me.
The Bay Area and really California as a whole has such a rich history in death metal.
Webster: Yeah, absolutely. Beyond that, there are so many other great bands from the Bay Area that have not so much influenced us directly as a band, but their methods and how they go about writing really impacted us. That ranges from Hammers of Misfortune to Mastery and all that kind of stuff, bands that dare to think outside the box. That’s something that we try to do ourselves. We try to come up with a very personal way of approaching our craft.
That’s really what helps bands stray from the horde, inching out of a particular comfort level even though it may risk alienating a fan base or losing commercial success. Artistic integrity and honest creative ambition is at stake when that happens, but each band has their own purpose I suppose. That said, is the goal of Succumb never to conform to a particular sound or expected formula and rather push the boundaries of what the band can do within the limited scope of the genre?
Webster: Absolutely! You have bands in this day and age that play the old school death metal thing. My whole approach is that Entombed already exists, so why would I do that? In terms of going back to what I said about the Unique Leader death metal scene and brutal death metal in general playing a huge role in how I developed as a musician, Defeated Sanity already exists and they’re the best in the fucking game, so why would I try and dethrone them? Even with the whole experimental death metal thing, Portal already exists and they’re the fucking kings, so why would I try and outdo them at their own thing? I should instead try to find my own path.
Definitely, and that’s an often contested subject given that there are so many old school worship type bands in the contemporary scene. Don’t get me wrong, I do think there are some bands that do it very well, but I see your point. With Succumb, you all form your own nice. Each track on ‘XXI’ is distinct and has its own identity, all of which is encompassed within Stefan Thanneur’s cover illustration. You returned with him for this one, but prior to your initial collaboration for the ‘self-titled’, what drew you to Stefan’s work in wanting to have him be the visual conduit for Succumb?
Webster: When we were trying to decide if we wanted to do art for the ‘self-titled’ album, I had been listening a lot to this French industrial band called P.H.O.B.O.S. They have an album called ‘Atonal Hypermnesia’ (2012) and that has artwork made by Stefan. I was really drawn to how bleak it looked and when I looked up who did the art, I saw he also worked with CHAOS ECHŒS, which is a band I really enjoy. I ran it by the rest of the band and we all felt that his style was a very good representation of what we do as a band. It just felt like the perfect fit.
Since he did such a great job on the first album, we figured might as well just do it again. It’s kind of the same sort of mentality with Cannibal Corpse having Vince Locke do the artwork for so many of their albums. If you find the right guy, why try and fuck with that?
Definitely, and even though this is only your second full-length, the art becomes synonymous to a band and their sound. For example, you can’t separate Vince Locke from Cannibal Corpse. That’s the case here. Aside from having the art for ‘XXI’ be heavily inspired from the authors and poet that Cheri cites in her lyrics, what was the artistic goal in working with Stefan for the sequel?
Webster: What he tried to do was take themes from Cheri’s lyrics and integrate it into one piece. ‘XXI’ as an album title is the final tarot card in the major arcana and Cheri is very much into that sort of thing. The imagery of that particular card typically features a tetramorph that refers to four directions, four elements. The album art is basically his interpretation of the album’s allegorical treatment of the elements and the alchemical unit of opposites. You kind of see little pieces of that with the chalice, the mushrooms, and all of those little symbols throughout the painting. He did such a great job with that.
I’m looking at it now and there’s such a great variety of neat nods and symbols to the lyricism throughout the record. From Stefan’s art to Jack Shirley’s production, ‘XXI’ as a whole is really the epitome of what great camaraderie and intentionality is capable of. Looking back at when the band first formed 7 years ago, where would you say you’ve evolved as a cohesive unit?
Webster: I think that we’ve just become a lot more comfortable with one another. The thing that I love about Succumb is that I feel like we’re almost friends and music nerds first and a band second. We’re just a bunch of geeks who happen to play instruments.
Succumb is actually my first real band. I’ve tried for at least a decade to start things with a variety of people, but it would never work out due to artistic differences, personality differences, and a myriad of other things. There’s such a strong level of trust that we have with each other. I’m often very hands off with the lyricism and themes that Cherri comes up with. I just let her do her thing. The most that I help her with is constructing vocal patterns. It’s comforting to know that I can allow someone to be free artistically and know that it’s going to be something that represents me as well. I’ve tried jamming with other musicians in the past and they want to play brutal death metal, coming at me like, “What if we named the band vaginal terror?” It’s funny.
I think that we’re just a lot more aware of what we want to do with the band and what we’re going for. When the band first started under Cloak in 2014, that first demo (2015) was just the sound of four people going into a practice space, drinking a million beers, and seeing what happens. Honestly the way Cloak happened was that Kirk (Spaseff, bass) and our old drummer Nicole approached me because we shared a practice space. I was trying to get some band off the ground and it wasn’t really going anywhere. They approached me because I was wearing a Revenge t-shirt. After the demo, I sort of just naturally became a control freak and wanted to do what I wanted to do instead of wanting to do stock war metal. It’s really freeing to be in a band where we all trust each other to come up with something that we know will represent all of us and something that we can all be proud of.
As mentioned, that’s really what Succumb is: a cohesive unit. Sonically, there’s much to dissect. You have your Napalm Death, your war metal, your grindcore, and more. It’s interesting because you all come from different backgrounds too with Harry (Cantwell, drums) of course having played with Slough Feg and Bosse-de-Nage. This diverse background and influence is evident in the song structures, which range from progressive complexities to the brief abrasiveness of war metal throughout both longer songs and shorter songs. In bringing all of these mentioned elements together, does that just happen subconsciously?
Webster: It does sort of happen subconsciously. It’s actually hard for me to describe Succumb to myself because I’m in the fucking band, but I try to do something that is like what we said earlier, not doing any one particular sound and finding our own voice. It’s trying to find something that is sonically somewhere between Diocletian, bands like Human Remains, Ripping Corpse, Sulaco, Dysrhythmia, of the New York sound, and adding in the mid-90’s style of grindcore like Napalm Death. ‘Fear Emptiness Despair’ (1994) is a huge influence for us, as is ‘Need To Control’ (1994) by Brutal Truth, at least for me personally. We cram in that Unique Leader influence in there as well and throw it all in the blender to see what happens. It is kind of subconscious. I go in there and if a riff sounds cool, then it sounds cool. We just hope that it works, and if it does, then we go for it.
For every question I’ve asked I feel like you’ve told me of several other albums that inspired you.
Webster: I know, I know. I feel like I’m rambling, but yeah a lot goes into this.
Once audiences hear the record, the more that this coalition of sound becomes apparent. You’re joined by the bands who explore similar sonic sensibilities on The Flenser. The bands there are always doing something unique, something fresh. You do whatever the hell you want to do and it works.
Webster: I feel incredibly lucky to have the support of The Flenser and how well they trust us with what we do musically. They approached us based off of the demo, which if you look at where we are at now, wasn’t even close to what I thought I wanted to do as an artist. Even now, I’m just starting to get to the point where we’ve found what truly represents us. Seeing as they approached us based off of a release that was barely scratching the surface of what we could do really makes me feel lucky.
You’re in good company, I’ll say that. Although death metal is quite vague in describing what you all do with Succumb, the genre and really metal as a whole is undergoing a “renaissance” of sorts with all sorts of independent labels putting out great releases on a near weekly basis. Seeing as you find yourselves among it all, to what do you attribute this newfound strength of recent years, if anything at all?
Webster: I think that it’s a great time for death metal right now. There’s so many avenues of expression that are available and so many bands that find ways of doing something unique. Even though I commented on the old school death metal trend earlier, there are bands who do that and are fucking fantastic at it. Mortuous is a perfect example of that. They just fucking rip and I’ve been fortunate enough to see them a few times. Fuck man, this genre has been around for like at least 35 years and it still finds a way to push the boundaries of what we can musically and visually. Another band that completely shoved my head in a blender was Vitriol, especially with that album that came out a couple of years ago. When I watch that guy’s videos on Instagram, I’m always like, “What is this guy doing?!” I need to fucking practice.
To see that there’s so many ways that the genre is going is very exciting. Also, I think it’s fucking great to see these death metal bands, specifically the OGs, being treated like the gods they deserve to be treated as, especially after so many years. When I first got into death metal in like late 2002 or late 2003 during my 8th grade year, I had a similar entry point for so many people. My first band was Cannibal Corpse based off of hearing ‘Hammer Smashed Face’ in Ace Ventura. Back then, all of those classic bands like Obituary, Carcass, and At the Gates were broken up. I remember ordering an Obituary shirt directly from the band in like 2003 and they even sent me a letter with stickers, thanking me for supporting them. To see that they’re now playing huge festivals and packing out 2,000 seaters is great. I’m happy for them. I’m glad that they’re treated like the royalty they deserve to be treated as while new bands continue to push the genre in new directions.
Bands of old aren’t even passing the torch, so to speak. They’re still here and still delivering full-lengths, long tours, and putting the genre on a pedestal. In closing, ‘XXI’ arrives soon and expands upon the ‘self-titled’ in more ways than one, standing tall as a release that will surely amaze many. Where do you hope it resonates with audiences once they have a chance to hold onto that Stefan cover illustration on September 24th?
Webster: Their first glance will likely be that mushroom dick on there! But honestly, that’s a difficult question to answer man because all I want to do is inspire other people the same way I was inspired. To me, that’s the goal: to give back to the metal community everything that it has given to me. The genre is far from dead and I want to show people that the genre is not done evolving.
XXI arrives on September 24th via The Flenser. Pre-order your copy of the record HERE.