- Interview by Faye Coulman
Necronautical frontman talks genre-smashing fourth album and triumphant return to UK tour circuit
With its mind-boggling array of purist codes and conventions, elevated icons and genre-defining legends, few subgenres are harder to infiltrate and carve something resembling a reputation within than the notoriously elitist echelons of black metal. And from the blood-drenched, raggedly visceral carnage of Norwegian legends Mayhem to the frigidly haunting orchestrations of Emperor, precious few succeed in making their mark as artists in their own distinctively inimitable right. And yet, when four talented extreme metallers from Manchester first began captivating audiences with their savage, blackly immersive craft back in 2010, the global extreme scene couldn’t help but sit up and start paying attention. Now with fourth opus ‘Slain in the Spirit’ ushering in a new pinnacle of masterfully instinctive musicianship, Necronautical’s visionary main man Russell ‘Naut’ Dobson explains how it all came together in the most unlikely circumstances…
No matter how masterfully complex, genre-defying or distinctive in character, bands of a newly-formed status will inevitably find themselves crudely pigeonholed at some point or other in the fledgling phases of their career. Whether that’s hastily shoehorning them into some sweepingly generic subgenre that barely scratches the surface of their sound (see: female-fronted or progressive metal) or measuring their merits in accordance with how successfully they emulate their big-name predecessors, establishing a reputation independent of such hackneyed tropes and traditions is certainly no mean feat for the up-and-coming artist. Case in point: a certain highly talented British extreme metal collective who, from the earliest outset of their relentlessly ambitious studio output, left jaws agape with their intensely visceral yet opulent melding of scalding aggression and grandiose, soundtrack-worthy arrangements. But in spite of the ever-advancing compositional prowess the Mancunians have illustrated in spades from the get-go, it wasn’t until earlier this year that many listeners first began recognising Necronautical as artists in their own fiercely individualistic right.
“Actually, I think it was a lot to do with the decision to drop corpse paint this time round,” Russell observes of this notable shift in perception among fans. “During the press turnaround for ‘Apotheosis’, looking at the way people responded to us, we noticed we were getting a lot of parallels with classic Norwegian black metal bands. Of course, I take that as a compliment and I would say we are fundamentally a black metal band, but I also felt like, throughout ‘Apotheosis’, we were touching on various other sounds and styles outside of the genre. You know, those progressive switches and the death metal sounds we've been doing since the very beginning. I think we've always been this way because, fundamentally, myself and the guys are big fans of all that. But interestingly, having just simply removed the paint and basically saying publicly that we are more of an extreme metal band, I think that kind of opened people's eyes a little more to what we do musically.”
But however fluid and sonically varied Necronautical's sound may have long proven to be, the anticipated follow-up to ‘Apotheosis’ nevertheless marked a major point of progression onward into increasingly brutal and instinctive compositional territories. With the creative process having been accelerated significantly by the shock arrival of COVID-19 back in March 2020, the unprecedented wealth of free time that followed provided Russell with a long-overdue opportunity to reflect not only on the creative direction of his band, but also on the altogether more pressing matter of his own personal well-being.
Of this difficult yet undeniably enlightening period, the composer comments: “I feel like in some respects, this will be a time that I look back on and value in some way because my life’s been really full-on for so many years. This was nice time for me to spend a little more time relaxing and spending quality time with my girlfriend and my stepdaughter, and I feel like now it's more important than ever for me to make the effort to keep up more with that part of my life. My personal drive and work ethic has always been such that I've always told myself I don't have time to relax, but actually the pandemic has taught me it’s very healthy to relax and that it’s okay to be tired sometimes. Prior to that, I was just constantly burning myself out all the time.”
With this much-needed headspace providing both ample time to meticulously craft the precise shape and form of their next eagerly awaited body of work, it was renewed vigour and enthusiasm that Dobson and co. threw themselves headlong into the creative process in the months that followed.
“One thing we did want to do was write something that was going to be heavier,” Russell reveals of these early sketches and objectives. “I still love the ‘Apotheosis’ record and it did well for us, but at the same time I think you only truly see your work from an objective distance once it's done and complete and out, and I’m probably going to do exactly the same thing with this one [‘Slain in The Spirit’]. But when ‘Apotheosis’ came out, I digested it myself and separated myself from it and I was like, okay, so it’s vibey, it’s more emotional. I think the content fit, and for me it feels like a very cathartic album, like working through your demons and growing from it all. And that sort of internal dialogue, because I think having been through all of that, our gut response was like, we need to come out with this one and be more immediate and less of a sort of psychological unpicking and more just an aggressive, more extreme metal album. So I think because we had that in our heads, the songs just ended up having this energy, with less about building atmospheres and more just about like, let's just pack as much punch as possible.”
But despite resulting record ‘Slain in the Spirit’s’ frequently searing new extremes of aggression, it’s also equally apparent that this is but one dynamic in an altogether more sonically expansive mix. And from icily visceral, abrasive textures and gargantuan slabs of bone-shattering groove through to elegantly crafted progressive intricacies that take ample time to weave their lusciously unfurling magic on the senses, this is, without doubt, the most sonically ambitious work chief songwriter Dobson has ever accomplished. Small wonder, then, that the band were so eager to get back out on the road post-lockdown and perform these blackly entrancing arrangements in the intensely energised and spontaneous medium for which they were intended. But in the midst of all the tremendous excitement at having scored a slot at prestigious UK metal fest Bloodstock Open Air this summer, the process of preparing for this hugely anticipated set brought with it more than its share of unforeseen trials and tribulations. With long-time bass player Matt ‘Anchorite’ McGing having sustained a debilitating collarbone fracture and Russell later contracting COVID-19 in the final weeks preceding the show, the possibility of being able to prepare for - let alone successfully pull off - a performance of this magnitude began to look increasingly unlikely.
“We got booked for Bloodstock at the last minute,” Russell recalls. “So to be honest, we were only a couple of rehearsals in, trying to slowly build back up to playing shows and then, with the easing of restrictions, we got offered these two shows in August. One of these was Bloodstock, so obviously with the album release date coming up too, I was like, yeah, let’s do it. But basically, we thought we had maybe a few months to rehearse, but that turned into just six weeks, together with the new songs as well, so our response was kind of like oh, we can hack it, but we're going to have to rehearse a lot and get back up to speed quickly. It was a real challenge, and maybe even more so because we play extreme metal and because of the physical endurance of it, and if you take your bass player out of the equation all of that is even harder to do. I remember the first practice or two we had back. It was like, we knew the stuff but I was just really physically exhausted within one or two songs because I was so out of practice and out of the habit of playing a lot of fast stuff with a lot of screamed vocals. So we were just starting to get confident and we had this booking and then suddenly Matt gets this injury and at first he was like, oh yeah, I'll probably be okay by then. Although it's pretty painful, I’ll just fight through the gig and I was like, okay, cool. But when he saw a professional, he was like, no, you start moving that collarbone too soon and you could risk nerve damage. So Matt was understandably upset about it and he was just like, I can’t do these shows now, so there was suddenly a lot to do. Suddenly you're like well, we need a bass player, like a temporary bass player."
"I also feel - and I think people who like our music feel as well - that Matt’s clean singing is kind of a cornerstone of our sound," the frontman continues. "I mean, myself and James [‘Carcarrion’ Goodwin] can sort of sing, but I think that his voice is particularly to our credit, so although finding a bass player wasn't too much of a problem, we still kind of needed to compensate for that. So, you might have heard on our single we had a guest appearance from a girl called Victoria Harley who was doing operatic vocals with us. So originally she was scheduled as a guest spot with us for a song or two at Bloodstock, but now what we’ve ended up doing is, because Matt’s been with us since the beginning, we're going to have Matt and Victoria as like a joint vocal section. They've got this altar that they’re going to stand behind and they're going to do like live choir arrangements. Really exciting stuff, but we had to totally reassess everything we're doing obviously. Oh, and in the middle of all that, I got COVID as well,” the musician adds rather nonchalantly. “So everything I did in those final few weeks I had to do over Zoom, including teaching all the arrangements and the bass parts. So that didn't make it easy either.”
With their darkly electrifying stint at Bloodstock Open Air marking the first of numerous, thrilling performances up and down the UK tour circuit this year, it’s clear the second leg of 2021 is shaping up to be one of the most exciting our hitherto depressingly subdued scene has witnessed in many long and arduous months. And this, unsurprisingly, is a point of major enthusiasm and excitement for Russell, both in respect to his duties as primary songwriter and frontman to Necronautical together with his newly-established position as guitarist with UK black metal titans Winterfylleth.
“I think we're a little bit ahead of the curve to be honest,” Russell enthuses. “Because of the industry turnaround being as it is, there’s going to be so much coming out towards the end of this year, which is very exciting. I think if, prior to all this, we’d still been gigging and everything was going to plan, we wouldn't be releasing this album right now, along with having various other things to do. But now we’ve got these two records to support, because there’s still a bunch of ‘Apotheosis’ songs we didn’t get to play live first time around, so we've got all this material around us. We also really built quite a following during this time too, so it's really exciting to see what's going to be different and how people respond to the new material, and finally, just get back to doing what we want to do.”
Click HERE for full details of Necronautical's forthcoming UK tour dates