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An interview with Vitriol frontman Kyle Rasmussen

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 alb