In 2016, the world is getting a closer glimpse at what it might look like to live in a dystopian society. The planet as a whole isn't there yet, but the tipping point is within sight. Civil war in Syria, populist isolationism in the United Kingdom, increasing global temperatures and a U.S. presidential candidate using dictatorial language (and boasting of sexual assault) all serve to remind us that it can get worse—much worse. And it might not be that far off.
That ominous feeling of global dread has been fueling the flames of inspiration for songwriters for decades, but that darkness seems particularly overt now. For metal, darkness is a nearly constant motif, but Salt Lake City doom quintet SubRosa have channeled a more literary, allegorical form of dystopia into their new album For This We Fought the Battle of Ages. Singer/guitarist Rebecca Vernon was inspired by We, a 1924 novel by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, when she began to write the songs on the album. It was the first time that the band took a top-down approach to writing an album, beginning with the concept and then finding ways to translate that into their songs. As such, themes of oppression and freedom are intertwined throughout the album, from a line like "Choice is too precious to be wasted on vermin" on "Wound of the Warden," to the bleak description of "A city laid waste, where everything's been decided for us," in "Killing Rapture."
It's easy to draw parallels to contemporary society, where corporations are all powerful and surveillance is ubiquitous. Yet Vernon, in a phone interview from her Salt Lake City home, says it wasn't so much the political commentary on We that was important to her, but rather the idea of personal freedom.
"It captured so many philosophies I've had my whole life about freedom and happiness, and just really broad sort of themes like that. So yeah, it just really resonated with me," she says. "The book inspired George Orwell's 1984...but I connect to We more. I feel like 1984 explores more of the political side of freedom and control, but We explores the spiritual side of freedom and control. Like how it benefits man as an individual."
For This We Fought the Battle of Ages is as ambitious musically as it is thematically. Spanning a staggering 65 minutes and featuring six tracks, it's a work of great sprawl. Each song—two of which are longer than 15 minutes apiece—is as much a crushing work of modern doom metal as it is a constantly shifting symphonic piece with various movements. That the group features two violinists, Kim Pack and Sarah Pendleton, makes the musical comparison to a symphony all the more apt.
Putting together an album that intricate and carefully composed, however, presents some serious challenges. Several songs had to be reworked in the process of making the album. And Vernon says that SubRosa is, first and foremost, a live band, so if something doesn't work on the stage, it probably won't make it onto the album.
"We kind of create the songs to play live," she says. "There are lots of organic transitions from one part to the next that we all feel together. It was so hard to capture in a recorded sense. Especially with tempos, trying to get parts going into other parts. We sometimes would think we had a tempo on a click track, and then realize we were going too slow or too fast. We had to tear the whole thing apart and start over. It was just tedious work trying to get these parts to flow into each other and sound natural."
The last song on the album, "Troubled Cells," partially breaks with the theme of the album. At seven minutes long, it's relatively brief by SubRosa's standards. And where much of the album ties in to the themes in We, this song was a response to an increase in suicides by LGBTQ youth in the Mormon community after the announcement of discriminatory directives by the Church of Latter Day Saints (which has a huge presence in the band's home city). The band also recently finished a video for the song aimed at drawing attention to the crisis, and held a crowdfunding campaign in which all non-production costs would be donated to outreach groups.
"This song, I wrote it feeling like it was very important to me personally. And I would hope that it has some kind of impact," Vernon says. "We always hope our music reaches people and helps them through tough times. That's one of our main objectives. And we hope this song will do the same thing, but maybe will be even more concentrated in its deliberateness."
Yet "Troubled Cells" is part of a broader motivation behind SubRosa's music. Vernon says that, despite the heaviness and the darkness in their music, they're always working toward something more positive.
"The music should inspire a feeling of power and strength," she says. "We want people to feel this inner strength listening to it. Overcoming this world and the vicissitudes of life—that you can do it. At the same time, there's a lot of darkness in the music, too, so the music is acknowledging that it can be a living hell sometimes. So there's this dark and light kind of play in the music, acknowledging the reality of suffering and how hopeless it can be, but offering this ray of hope. Offering some encouragement."
SubRosa play November 12 at Soda Bar