When it comes to death metal, particularly along the more technical end of the spectrum, it’s often tricky to look beyond the complex mechanics to discover where the true genius lies. Balancing the various sophisticated techniques required is a bit like a challenging plate-spinning act, as performers pit complicated rhythm and song structures with timed progressions against high-wire guitar acrobatics and rapid-fire drum-work. And yet, how can you completely let yourself go and unleash that pure, untethered aggression essential to metal while paying the necessary attention to the finer detail?
Portland-based extreme death metal outfit Vitriol are an example of a band who attempt to straddle that contradiction and do it seamlessly, serving up vicious, visceral slabs of death so beautifully bloodthirsty they could incite a riot while at the same time exercising impeccable skill and control over the underlying technical execution. Vitriol are currently supporting Nile and Hate Eternal on their ‘A Vile Desolate Sands’ tour, and in an unassuming little branch of Costa in London’s Kentish Town, Dark Matter caught up with frontman Kyle Rasmussen before their show at the Dome. What followed was an illuminating tête-à-tête over steaming lattes on music as a form of art, the scary side of metal and attempting to define where polished precision meets unbridled passion.
It’s evident that Kyle has spent a lot of time thinking hard about this inherent conflict within death metal, yet he states ‘we prioritise the emotional content of the music over the sonic. We really treat our musicality as a means of communicating personal truths instead of hey, we created a new scale today, let’s see if we can write a song around it. Because of the musical demand of death metal, it’s attracted people who have co-opted it as an athletic pursuit. “Oh, I’m just going to see how fast I can go, how hard….” To me, that is not a very effective use of music and art. I think people are refreshed about Vitriol because we don’t care necessarily about being the cleanest band, we don’t hold values that are commonplace in extreme death metal and that resonates with people.’
For Kyle, some death metal can tend to ‘overwhelm and over stimulate’ and he sees the band’s considerable technical abilities not as the main vehicle but rather as a tool to convey the overall message. ‘Technicality can be a vessel for communicating experience. So when I write technical parts, I’m not writing because I learned this really hard, tricky technique, I’m putting in technicality as a means of trying to disorientate the listener. Don’t focus on what it is, but why are you doing it.’
Yet when it comes to crafting his art, Kyle, who not only contributes vocals but also writes most of the compositions, is nothing if not a stickler for meticulously worked out detail. Vitriol was formed in 2013, but their output has been hesitant and the first album, ‘To Bathe from the Throat of Cowardice’ didn’t hit the shelves until just this year - mainly due to holding back on material to make sure the timing and composition was right.
‘Honestly the first five years of our history was coming up with compositions and disposing of them, coming up with ideas and disposing of them. Almost two years before the EP - ‘Pain Will Define Their Death’, released in 2017 - we had almost a full length’s worth of material… but I had to admit to myself it just wasn’t the right balance in terms of intensity of song-writing, so we scrapped it. It’s been a long uphill battle.’
Indeed, Kyle’s quest for perfection has lead him down some unusual avenues, even turning to a hard-core punk band for input. ‘The first single, ‘The Parting of a Neck’, is actually six years old but I didn’t want to put it out because although I felt like the composition was there, the production had a little more air and wasn’t suffocating enough, I really wanted it to be dense and claustrophobic and crushing. I didn’t go to a metal guy to mix but to Taylor Young who plays drums in Nails - if any band understands a claustrophobic, aggressive production it’s them. “How do you feel about mixing a technical death metal?” “Yeah, I’ll do it!” That’s how I got that balance of brutal physicality while still having the musicianship be communicated.’ Kyle’s attention to the specifics is borderline fanatical, even extending to the lyrics. ‘I put at least equal measure of effort and quality control into the lyrics as the music. A great friend of mine who has a PHD in English, I had them go over the punctuation with me. I just wanted to make sure this album was a true work of devotion to the craft of extreme metal, in every regard. We just want to do everything right.’ And this is true of the rest of the band, too. ‘Our drummer is very self-deprecating. He’ll be pissed that he missed a bell accent.’
Despite the pulverising hailstorms of heavy riff-work, the torrents of blast beating and the throat-ripping vocals that characterise Vitriol’s punishing sound, Kyle’s approach to creation is quite cerebral - measured, thoughtful and filled with nuance and interesting ideas about the cathartic purpose of art. Kyle explains ‘if you want to do something honestly you have to think “What am I going to write songs about?”, so when I wrote lyrics they just came organically in the moment, I just write as truthfully as I can. Looking back and trying to find a common thread, it is [about] reacting to hostility both inward and outward. I think we all struggle with people that are outwardly hostile, it’s often rooted in some internal hostility.
The song Victim sums up this very human truth, whereas songs like The Parting of a Neck are a little more fantastical, more metaphorical - but there are songs where I don’t want to leave anything to question and it’s like “you fucking know who I’m talking to”…’ As well as raging against life’s many frustrations, it’s all very personal for Kyle. ‘A lot of that was about me - a lot of the disdain and contempt is about identifying personal weaknesses and using art to kind of liberate myself from them. Some songs are about a retaliation, some songs are a meditation on what I’m feeling at the time. So there is not just anger but there is also a lot of sadness in the music that some people are responding to which is nice. Especially in a hyper-technical death metal album, there is so much sorrow in those songs.’
For Kyle, it’s crucial to evoke a reaction in the listener and much of this is about stimulating the fear response which he believes is a big part of the death metal experience. On stage, Vitriol are indeed a terrifying spectacle, muscles taut as their guitar strings and every sinew straining, while Kyle roars, agonised, into the mic as though being physically torn apart from the inside out by his internal demons.
‘The main thing I wanted Vitriol to achieve was to scare me in a way that the first death metal bands I heard scared me in a good way. I remember being intimidated going to death metal shows, granted I was younger, I want to scare the shit out of people the way Immolation scared the shit out of me. It’s all in good fun! It’s like a horror movie, not necessarily trying to create harm in the reader but trying to stimulate the reader, to exorcise a certain existential position. Like when you’re on a rollercoaster, or jumping out of airplanes, it’s like death metal is kind of therapy in confrontation, it’s like you’re looking into the eyes of all these horrible things that the rest of the world wants to ignore. It’s hard for me to accept death metal as being honest if it’s not dealing with that heavy content and really trying to be authentic about it. That’s the philosophical part of it.’ Pushing the frontiers and getting out of your comfort zone is a cornerstone of death metal, and Kyle explains that since their inception their music has become ‘definitely uglier. We did an EP in 2013, ‘Antichrist’, and there are three songs that aren’t bad, but I don’t back it that hard. It sounded too safe.’
It is perhaps Kyle’s eclectic taste and his open-armed embrace of all the different sub-genres within death metal combined with his courage in experimentation and testing boundaries that keeps the sound as sharp as a razor’s edge. ‘Extreme metal is the most truthfully concise description of our music. Death metal is the home base. Our music isn’t traditionally blackened death metal, we don’t sound like Belphegor for example, but as far as how I approach my connection with the music it’s very similar. But for me Vitriol is a result of the extremes of all the sub-genres, a distillation, and what I want to do with Vitriol is pull no punches. I want to take the most full on aspects of all the music I love and assimilate them. And that’s a risky thing to do responsibly. It’s easy to check the boxes of a sub-genre because you instantaneously have a home. Even if you’re doing it at a mediocre level fans of that style will embrace your band. When you’re doing something without the comfort of a nest - to say “hey, I’m one of you guys!” - you’re alienated, you’re displaced, you’re lost at sea and you just have to prey that other people will find truth in what you’re doing.’
As well as an aversion to bands who play it safe and lack originality, Kyle dislikes the arrogance he sees in some quarters of the scene. ‘I look around at some other bands, and they’re just missing opportunities because they’re too focused on themselves. Anyone who’s reading this who has the opportunity to tour with bands that are more well-known than you, shut the fuck up and say yes sir, please sir. The problem with death metal is there’s no corporate infrastructure of hierarchy, so it’s easy to think you’re on the same level, just because you’re on the same tour bus. But its summer camp, man, you’re there to learn, these guys have something to teach you. Nobody likes an arrogant dickwad. The second you think you got there is the second you’re dead as a musician. We all have weaknesses. Always refine.’
Kyle is himself incredibly inspired by the bands he’s sharing his own tour bus with. ‘When you look back in 20 years, you’re going to know if you’re on the right side of history or not if you like Nile. Some people from a cursory glance dismiss them because of their themes or because they are a technical death metal band, but there is so much sophistication, they tower artistically above so many other bands. But I’ll stop gushing. I just get excited. I like death metal!’
Although teaching a lesson in humbleness we should all take note of, Kyle is feeling very proud of Vitriol right now. Their album ‘is everything I wanted it to be, it sounds exactly how I wanted it to, the songs are as good as I want them to be, in that sense my life’s work is done. I could die tomorrow and it wouldn’t be a cosmic tragedy, because I did what I set out to do. Everything else is icing on the cake. I’ve nothing left to lose, I’ve got approval, I’m artistically fulfilled, I’m professionally fulfilled, so at this point I’m just so grateful for these opportunities. The things we’ve seen and achieved this last year have exceeded my expectations over the whole career of the band. Touring with Nile and Hate Eternal once would have been amazing but the fact it was our first tour, our first album, is amazing.’ At the same time, ‘we intend to be a band that never stops working. We’re making the most out of all these opportunities and if we’re not touring we’re going to be making records. This album took so much out of us to finish that I was worried that there wouldn’t be a lot of gas in the tank - was it going to be years before we wrote another album? But this tour alone has been so inspiring I’m ready to go home and start writing new shit. It’s been invaluable just being able to pick these guys’ brains.’
When he’s not working on his craft though, Kyle admits to a surprising hobby for a hardened metal-head. ‘Antiquing! I like odd things. It really started because I like old war memorabilia, so I started going to antiques stores to find really cool WW1, WW2 pieces for really cheap. And then I got into collecting African ritual masks and stuff like that. You think of antiquing and you think of going lamp or teapot shopping with Grandma but you can find some really cool stuff. You want to make the coolest metal den ever, go to antique stores!’
As well as taking encouragement from others, Kyle also has his own words of wisdom for would-be metal-head artistes. ‘I had a kid come up to me at a Polish show, he rode his motorcycle for two hours and waited outside the venue a long time to chat with me, he shared a story about how our music touched him - one of those classic tales - and asked me “how much should I commit to this music?” Man, I can tell you if this music is real to you, if you connect to this music emotionally, it’s an incredibly rare thing. I encourage you to pick up a guitar or drums or microphone and start making this music honestly because that’s what this scene needs more than anything - young blood and an injection of authenticity.’
Once again, it comes down to channelling all that passion and emotion into your art - rather than just showing off your skills. ‘It needs a passionate involvement and not just a focus on aesthetics and superficial elements. Just do it. If something’s real for you, you can trust that it’s real for other people. If you’re trying to communicate your truth honestly, it’s going to resonate. If you try to mitigate that truth by pandering to people, that’s really when you start robbing yourself of opportunities. So make music, support real death metal and make real death metal.’